Comic strip characters have often attained lives of their own as their popularity grew beyond the confines of a newspaper.

Dagwood and his sandwiches, Charlie Brown and Lucy with a football, Linus and his blanket, Beetle Bailey’s Camp Swampy, all entered popular culture as icons of appetite, frustration, anxiety or Catch-22s, respectively. Two of the first and most successful of these icons were the comic strip characters Mutt and Jeff. Their slapstick antics entertained readers for 75 years.

The creator of “Mutt and Jeff” was Harold Conway “Bud” Fisher. He was born in 1885 in Chicago. Son of a local merchant, he attended Chicago public schools before going to the University of Chicago for three years.

He decided he wanted to be a prize fighter. In 1905, he packed his bags and went west to San Francisco to seek his fortune. According to his obituary, he managed to last for one fight in which he was knocked out. He changed direction and painted comic signs and window displays before landing a job as a sketch artist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

As a sketch artist, he illustrated sports stories, did layouts and sports cartoons. Sports cartoons were single frame affairs centered on sporting news of the day. There was no continuity of characters or subject matter, except for famous sportsmen who regularly made the news.

Fisher had plenty of ego. When told his art was cut from six columns to five, he ripped up his work, told his boss he was finished and promptly quit. Told he couldn’t quit without two weeks notice, he said fine, gave notice and then showed up for work for two weeks and did nothing other than talk sports with the reporters and artists. The last Saturday night he was given two tickets to a boxing match and an apology, and he was back to work. One of his co-workers at the time was Rube Goldberg, later famous for his improbable chain-reaction machines, who remembered Fisher as unflappable.

A. Mutt debuts

For some time, Fisher played with a recurring character who was always looking to win big betting on horse races and just as often falling flat. Augustus Mutt was the tall, bedraggled gambler. Fisher came up with the idea to make him the lead character in a daily strip. When he pitched the idea to his editor, it was at first rejected because no one had done that before and the editor was sure sports readers only read downward and would not read a horizontal comic strip. Fisher was persistent and his strip debuted on Nov. 15, 1907, as “A. Mutt.”

A. Mutt was a hit with readers. He took the unusual step for the time to copyright his characters. Within a month Fisher’s work was bought up by the rival San Francisco Examiner owned by William Randolph Hearst. He continued to develop the comic and in about six months, Mutt met a little guy named Jeff (after the prize fighter James Jeffries) in an insane asylum. At first, the focus was on how to win big, but with Jeff on board the strip turned into fantastic schemes that failed spectacularly.

Part of the failure was usually one or both of them getting beat up, falling from buildings, kicked by animals, walking under a falling safe or into open manholes among other pratfalls. Not to be ignored was Mutt’s wife, Dorothy, who alternately liked or hated Jeff. Her weapon of choice was her ubiquitous rolling pin, which she wielded equally upon the duo. As the Hearst chain carried the strip nationwide, Fisher received push back that the strip was too violent and a bad influence on children. Much as before, he ignored the flap and kept on drawing the strip the way he wanted.

Mutt and Jeff make the big time

Six years later Fisher left Hearst for the Wheeler Syndicate. He contracted for “a guaranteed $1,000 a week plus a percentage (80% of the gross!) of syndicate sales.” Hearst ran a rival strip so similar that Fisher got a restraining order that succeeded because of his copyright. He used that win to market “Mutt and Jeff” into a series of Broadway productions and silent cartoon shorts in 1911. Toys and cards became more marketing tools. Over the next 20 years he was the highest paid cartoonist in America.

“Mutt and Jeff” first opened on Broadway in 1911. The diminutive Jerry Sullivan portrayed Jeff in several of the plays. What began as “Mutt and Jeff,” became “Mutt and Jeff Go to Mexico,” Panama, Havana and other exotic places. A troupe of singers and dancers filled out the performance with songs composed for each show. The show appeared at the New Joplin Theatre in late November 1913 along with a matinee for children. The News Herald gave it a rave review.

Nestor Studio signed an agreement to make silent cartoons before Fisher started his own production company and took over production. Eventually he produced over 300 cartoons. A classic cartoon poking fun at how much money Fisher made was “Mutt and Jeff On Strike” in 1920, which interspersed live action of Fisher with Mutt and Jeff. (A link to a recovered and restored copy is on the web version.)

When World War I began, Fisher trained as a soldier but learned the U.S. Army would not allow him to draw his strip while enlisted. Instead, he enlisted in the Canadian Army, went to London and worked as a censor while still drawing his strip. Mutt and Jeff went to the front as well, though well behind the trenches. Collections of the strips were sold during World War I.

It was during this time that the News Herald signed up for the strip as a daily and full-page Sunday feature. The daily strip began on Aug. 9, 1918 and on Sunday, Aug. 11, the News Herald carried the strip in various forms until Feb. 29, 1932. Appropriately, that last strip was of Jeff on the run from Mrs. Mutt who had decided for his own good that he must marry her niece Clara, who was her carbon copy.

Fisher’s personal life during this time saw two disastrous marriages even as he was becoming a millionaire. He loved thoroughbred racehorses and raised them on a farm in Lexington, Kentucky. One filly, Nellie Morse, won the Preakness Stakes in 1924. And, Mr. Mutt placed second in the Belmont Stakes the same year.

Life as a millionaire didn’t allow much time for the daily grind of drawing the strip. He contracted out the labor to several artists. The final and enduring artist was Al Smith. He started drawing the strip in 1932 under Fisher’s supervision. Often considered a better artist than Fisher, Smith drew the strip though without any credit. In the 1930s comic books became yet another branch of Fisher’s enterprises. The business marched on as Smith drew the strip and Fisher collected the income.

Fisher died of cancer in 1954. Smith took charge of the strip under his own name. He continued drawing until 1980. The strip’s last two years were drawn by George Breisacher.

Over 75 years, Mutt and Jeff had become comedic icons. They were a template for movie and TV duos as Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, David Spade and Chris Farley, among others. Despite having been gone from the pages of newspapers for 40 years, Stephen Becker, a historian of comic art, noted “Mutt and Jeff are of course a part of the American mythology.”

Bill Caldwell is the retired librarian at The Joplin Globe. If you have a question you’d like him to research, send an email to wcaldwell@joplinglobe.com or leave a message at 417-627-7261.

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