Forever Nuts: Happy Hooligan

By Frederick Burr Opper (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-542-9 (HB)

Frederick Burr Opper was one of the first true giants of comic strips: a hugely imaginative, highly skilled, immensely well-regarded illustrator and political cartoonist who moved into the burgeoning field of newspaper cartooning just as that medium was born. His pictorial creations (even more so, his dialogue) have enriched western culture and the English language ever since.

Born in 1857 the son of Austrian immigrants, Opper grew up in Madison, Ohio, and aged 14 joined the Madison Gazette as a printer’s apprentice. Two years later he was in New York. Always drawing, he worked briefly in a store whilst studying at Cooper Union independent school before obtaining a position as student, and eventually assistant to illustration colossus Frank Beard. Opper sold his first cartoon to Wild Oats in 1876, swiftly following up with further sales to Phunny Phellow, Scribbner’s Monthly, Harper’s Weekly, The Century, St. Nicholas Magazine and Frank Leslie’s Weekly, before joining prestigious premier periodical Puck in 1880. Opper drew everything from spot illustrations, gags, political cartoons and many of the new, full-colour, Chromolithographic covers. He was also a book illustrator of major renown, an incisive humourist, poet and creator of children’s books.

Clearly forward-looking and perspicacious, he first dipped his toe in the burgeoning arena of newspaper strips with an abortive short-lived feature for the staid New York Herald in 1897, but after making few inroads he returned to magazine illustration.

Undeterred by failure and after 18 lucrative, influential and solid, steady years, Opper was finally lured away by William Randolph Hearst, joining his growing stable of bold comics pioneers in 1899. Starting on the New York Journal‘s Sunday Color Supplement, he devised a wealth of different features beginning with Happy Hooligan which debuted on 11th March 1900. Although not a regular feature at first – many cartoon strippers of the fledgling art form were given great leeway to experiment with a variety of ideas in those early days – before too long his efforts became simply too popular to miss and Opper settled into a stable tenure lasting until 1932 when failing eyesight led to his retirement and the tramp’s demise. Opper passed away at the end of August 1937.

The grand master never used assistants, but his imagination and unsurpassed creativity made Hooligan – and his other creations – household favourites around the world, appealing equally to Presidents and public alike. His next strip – Mister Henry Peck (1901) – was followed by the highly popular Alphonse and Gaston (1901-1904), Our Antediluvian Ancestors (1903-1904) and the astoundingly madcap Mule strip And Her Name was Maud which began in 1904. Maud continued intermittently for decades and, on May 23rd 1926, became the regular “topper” to Happy Hooligan, running above the strip until both concluded with the artist’s well-earned retirement on October 14th 1932.

Other strips included The Red Rig-a-Jigs (1906), Adolf from Hamburg (1906), King Jake (1907-1908), His Name is Ebenezer/His Name is Smith (1908), Ship Ahoy! (1908), Howsan Lott (1909-1914), Is Boggs Cheerful? He Is! (1908), Scuse Me, Mr. Johnson (1909), The Swift Work of Count DeGink (1916) and perennial trier The Dubb Family/Down on the Farm (1918-1919, 1921-1923, 1925-1927), but none had the appeal or phenomenal staying power of Happy or Maud and had perforce to be abandoned.

Happy Hooligan is an affable, well-meaning but painfully bumbling tramp who wears an old tin-can for a hat. Always ready and eager to assist and wishing nobody ill, this gentle vagrant is constantly made the inadvertent tool and plaything of far more fortunate folk who should know better, or cops a little too fond of the truncheon and nightstick, and – in general – a harsh, unforgiving cosmos of ill-fortune. It’s a strip brimming with invention, pathos, social commentary, delightful wordplay and broad, reckless slapstick. Many source cite Happy as having a profound influence on Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp in both content and tone…

This classy hardback (sadly still not available yet in any digital form I can find) presents a selection of strips from 1902-1913 in varying forms of colour (2, 3 & full colour depending presumably on budgets of the local papers these rare survivors were culled from). The tome is compiled and edited by Jeffrey Lindenblatt with a fascinating introduction and biography from Allan Holtz who, with collector Cole Johnson, provided the majority of strips herein.

These range from June 8th 1902 to September 7th 1913 and although by no means complete or comprehensive afford a tantalizing glimpse at this iconic, influential and groundbreaking feature. Many of the reprints come from the highly productive and hilarious “Grand Tour” years of 1904 and 1905 (see also Happy Hooligan 1904-1905), and follow the sedentary sad-sack around the States and, after many abortive, knockabout attempts, across the sea to England and then on to the unsuspecting continents of Europe and Africa before returning to America in 1906.

With brothers Montmorency and Gloomy Gus, plus a burgeoning family of nephews and hangers-on, this too-slim tome ends with some of the optimistic poltroon’s foredoomed attempts to woo Suzanne, the patient and amazingly egalitarian daughter of the Duke of Cabaret.  As always, these hysterical, rowdy escapades are often exacerbated by occasional visits from the ultra-polite Alphonse and Gaston, Opper’s legendary French gentlemen of extreme etiquette elitism…

Crossovers were not Opper’s only innovation. Happy Hooligan is considered the first American strip to depend on word balloons rather than supplemental text, and the humble, heartwarming hobo was the first strip character to jump to the Silver Screen in 6 movie shorts from 1900-1902. He was also probably the first mass-market merchandising comics star…

Sadly, Opper and his creations become less well-known with each passing year, but the quality of the work can never fail to amuse and inspire. Hopefully one day soon. superb graphic appetisers such as this will lead to further, more comprehensive collections (in print or electronically – I ain’t fussy), and as this book also contains a healthy selection of Opper’s other works from the early Wild Oats and Puck to the aforementioned genteel Gallic gadabouts and the mulish Maud, perhaps we can also look forward to compendia of his other seminal sketches and comedy classics…
Published in 2009 by NBM. No © invoked.