By Bud Counihan (Blackthorne Publishing/Comic Strip Preserves)
ISBNs: 0-932629-33-4, 0-932629-47-4 and 0-932629-69-5
Betty Boop is one of the most famous and long-lived fictional media icons on the planet. She’s also probably the one who has generated the least amount of narrative creative material – as opposed to simply merchandise – per year since debuting.
The ultimate passion paragon was created at the Fleischer Cartoon Studios either by Max Fleischer himself or cartoonist/animator Grim Natwick – depending on whoever you’ve just read – premiering in the monochrome animated short movie feature Dizzy Dishes. This was the sixth “Talkartoon” release from the studio, screening for the first time on August 9th 1930.
A deliberately racy sex-symbol from the start, Betty was based on silent movie star Clara Bow. The “the It-Girl” (as in “she’s got…”) was originally anthropomorphised into a sexy French Poodle; voiced in those pioneering days of “the talkies” by a succession of actresses including Margie Hines, Kate Wright, Ann Rothschild and Mae Questel who all mimicked Bow’s soft and seductive (no, really!) Brooklyn accent.
Betty evolved into a fully – if wickedly distorted – human girl by 1932’s Any Rags and, having co-opted and monopolised the remaining Talkartoons, graduated to the Screen Songs featurettes before winning her own animated cartoon series, to reign as “The Queen of the Animated Screen” until the end of the decade.
A Jazz Age flapper in the Depression Era, the delectable Miss Boop was probably the first sex-charged teen-rebel of the 20th Century, yet remained winningly innocent and knowledgably chaste throughout her career. Thus, she became astoundingly, incredibly popular – although her ingenue appeal diminished appreciably when the censorious Hayes Production Code cleaned up all the smut and fun coming out of Hollywood in 1934 – even though the Fleisher Studio was New York born and bred…
Saucy singer Helen Kane, who had performed in a sexy “Bow-esque” Brooklyn accent throughout the 1920s and was billed as “The Boop-Oop-A-Doop Girl” famously sued for “deliberate caricature” in 1932. Although she ultimately failed in her suit, even Betty couldn’t withstand a prolonged assault by the National Legion of Decency and the Hayes Code myrmidons.
With all innuendo removed, salacious movements restricted and drawn in much longer skirts, Betty gained a boyfriend and family whilst the scripting consciously targeted a younger audience. Her last animated cartoon stories were released in 1939.
The one advantage to Betty’s screen neutering and new wholesome image was that she suddenly became eligible for inclusion on the Funnies pages of family newspapers, romping amidst the likes of Popeye and Mickey Mouse. In 1934 King Features Syndicate launched a daily and Sunday newspaper strip drawn by Bud Counihan, a veteran ink-slinger who had created the Little Napoleon strip in the 1920s before becoming Chic Young’s assistant on Blondie.
The Betty Boop comic strip never really caught on and was cancelled early in 1937, but that relatively short run still leaves us with these three rather charming and wistfully engaging volumes, collected and edited by comics aficionado and historian Shel Dorf as part of Blackthorne’s low-budget 1980s reprint program, alongside other hard-to-find classics such as Tales of the Green Berets and Star Hawks, and one possibly never to be collected again elsewhere, more’s the pity…
There was a brief flurry of renewed Betty activity during the 1980s, leading to a couple of TV specials, a comic-book from First Comics Betty Boop’s Big Break (1990) and another newspaper strip Betty Boop and Felix by Brian Walker (son of Beetle Bailey and Hi & Lois creator Mort Walker).
That one she shared with fellow King Features nostalgia alumnus Felix the Cat and it ran from 1984-1988, but that’s still a pretty meagre complete canon for a lady of Betty’s fame, longevity and pedigree.
As stated, the collected strips in these Blackthorne editions feature the freshly-sanitised, family-oriented heroine of the later 1930s, but for devotees of the era and comics fans in general the strip still retains a unique and abiding screwball charm. Counihan’s Betty is still oddly, innocently coquettish: a saucy thing with too-short skirts and skimpy apparel (some of the outfits – especially bathing costumes – would raise eyebrows even now), and although the bald innuendo that made her a star is absent, these snappy exploits of a street-wise young thing trying to “make it” as a Hollywood starlet are plenty racy enough when viewed through the knowing and sexually adroit eyes of 21st century readers…
Book 1 of this cheap ‘n’ cheerful black-and-white series opens with an extended sequence of gag-a-day instalments that combine to form an epic comedy-of-errors as Betty’s lawyers do litigious battle with movie directors and producers. Their aim is to arrive at the perfect contract for all parties – clearly a war that rages to this day in Tinseltown – whilst labouring under the cost restrictions of what was still, after all, The Great Depression.
The full-page Sunday strips are presented in a separate section, but even with twice the panel-count the material was still broadly slapstick, cunning wordplay, single joke stories. However, one of these does introduce the first of an extended cast, Betty’s streetwise baby brother Bubby: a certified cinematic rapscallion to act as a chaotic foil to the star’s affably sweet, knowingly dim complacency.
There’s a succession of romantic leading men (usually called “Van” something-or-other) but none stick around for long as Betty builds her career, and eventually the scenario changes to a western setting as cast and crew begin making Cowboy Pictures, leading to many weeks’ worth of “Injun Jokes”, but ones working delightfully counter to old and unpleasant stereotypes, before the first volume concludes with the introduction of fearsome lower-class virago Aunt Tillie; chaperone, bouncer and sometime comedy movie extra…
Book 2 (Adventures of a Hollywood Star) continues in the same vein with lawyers, entourage and extras providing the bulk of the humour with Betty increasingly becoming the Straight Man in her own strip except in a recurring gag about losing weight to honour her contract (which stipulates she cannot be filmed weighing more than 100 pounds!)
Geez! Her head alone has got to weigh at least… sorry, I know… just a comic, …
Like many modern stars, Betty had a dual career and there’s a lot of recording industry and song jokes before the Native Americans return to steal the show some more.
Book 3 carries on in what is now a clear and unflinching formula, but with Bubby, Aunt Tillie and her diminutive new beau Hunky Dory increasingly edging Betty out of the spotlight and even occasionally off the page entirely…
By no means a major effort of “the Golden Age of Comics Strips”, Counihan’s Betty Boop (like most licensed syndicated features the strip was “signed” by the copyright holder, in this case Max Fleischer) is still a hugely effective, engaging and entertaining work, splendidly executed and well worthy of a comprehensive and complete compilation, especially in an era where female role models of any vintage remain a scarce resource.
With the huge merchandising empire built around the effervescent little cartoon gamin, waif and houri (everything from apparel to wallpaper, clocks and blankets), surely it isn’t too much to expect a proper home for all the wicked little japes, jests and junkets of her sojourn in sequential art?
Additionally, the second and third books also offer a selection of Paper Doll Bettys with outfits to cut out and colour, designed by Barb Rausch (Neil the Horse, Katy Keene, Barbie, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast among many others) a traditional “added-value” feature of the earliest comic strips that still finds irresistible resonance with much of today’s audience. Just remember, now we can make copies without cutting up those precious originals…
© 1986, 1987 King Features Syndicate. All rights reserved.