Saturday, April 3, 2010

Bud Fisher - Millionaire, Playboy, Cartoonist

Born April 3, 1885, Harry Conway "Bud" Fisher would be 125 years old today!

Bud Fisher is credited with doing the first continuity in comics and being the artist of the first truly daily comic strip. He's also one of the (if not the first) millionaire cartoonist in the newspaper field.

His strip "Mutt & Jeff" began in 1907. A wonderfully written and fleshed out strip with topical and edgy humor which far outlived any life it began with, the last strip appeared in 1982, 28 years after Bud Fisher passed away.

Remembered as being one of the first great strips, it was acknowledged as such back in the day as well, as exampled in this cartoon from around 1913 promoting the comic features in the Hearst stable...Mutt is seen offering up the toast to some other famous comic characters.

And right on into present day when Mutt and Jeff were part of the classic comic strip characters the US Postal Service slapped on stamps.

The strip began in 1907, Bud Fisher had been doing spot cartoons for the San Francisco Chronicle and kept pressing the editor to publish more of his work. The editor of course kept turning him down, it's always been a pissing contest, no matter where you go. Then one day he introduced a secondary character into a strip he was doing about horse racing, Augustus Mutt was born.

A. Mutt could be seen handicapping a horse race that was being run that very day, and the next day seen counting his winnings or (better for comedy purposes) mourning his losses. Suddenly Fisher's strip was in need of daily exposure...the Chronicles readership demanded it. The daily comic strip was born, and daily continuity with it.

Fisher knew well though that the betting on the horses angle wouldn't take him very far. William Randolph Hearst had gotten word of a competing newspaper winning the circulation race with the race track comic strip had come courting. This would mean a large raise in pay for Fisher and national distribution and the jokes about local San Francisco horse races wouldn't have much appeal across the rest of the country. So he had Mutt give up gambling just before he jumped the Chronicles ship and went with Hearst.

You'll note in the above strip (the last for the Chronicle) he did something else very sly. Just as this last strip was turned in, he went down from the editors office to the engraving room, and just as the engraver was about to etch the printing plate, Fisher asked to have it back to make a correction. The correction can be seen in the lower right hand corner. Fisher added a copyright under his own name to the strip.

This would complicate The Chronicle's attempt to keep the "A. Mutt" strip going under other artist after Fisher left and Hearst's lawyers made sure of that. Later as Fisher began to make more and more money and wanted to take leaves of absences from the strip and eventually even leave Hearst, it garnered him more clout there too. So said the Supreme Court, before whom matters of the strips ownership finally came.

As the strip went away from race track betting, Mutt found himself in all manner of locales and situations. In 1908 he was committed to an insane asylum. That's right, these were different times folks, insanity and gambling addiction were still funny. This was pre-Oprah after all.

In the asylum he met a slew of demented characters, one of which thought he was recently retired boxing champion Jim Jeffreys (that's him in the second to last panel below) and so Mutt's partner Jeff was born.

More and more distractions from the vaudeville stage and his own playboying ways afforded by his new salary drew Bud away from the strip...but who can blame him, really.

The strip was also merchandised, to the point of almost ridiculousness, with trinkets of all manner bearing the Mutt and Jeff likenesses, and though Fisher walked away a few times to indulge himself, the strip really was good when he was at it.
Here's a few of the strips from the 1910's for you to enjoy.

You'll note the relationship between Mutt and Jeff was very much like the one Abbott and Costello developed for themselves 30 years later. Mutt the conniving "see-what-he-can-get" con man and Jeff the innocent who causes as much trouble for himself as he does Mutt. But their loyalty to each other runs deep.

As a closing touch, here are a couple of Mutt and Jeff in animated form from the 1920's. Ever the self promoter, Fisher claimed to draw every frame of these silent cartoons himself, and in reality not only was that impossible, but he was probably never even involved with most of them at all. Except to collect the money.

One report says that between 1916 and 1926, no fewer than 277 Mutt and Jeff animated shorts were made.

Yes, they're dated...but I have a real penchant for silent film and the animation of that period as well. Enjoy:

That's just plain good stuff!

Thanks Bud! Without the continuity you added to the comics, I wouldn't enjoy them even one tenth as made a lot of things possible, and I for one am glad you got filthy stinkin' rich doing it!

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