Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Some things to keep in mind if you see Annie on New Year's Day

There's a lot of history here.

Most of the regulars probably know, I've got a great fondness for comics and their history, whether we're talking panel, strip, book or animated. The adventure strips of the Thirties are are particular favorites. In an age when graphic novels win Pulitzers and superhero movies break a billion at the box office, it can be difficult to remember that in the Golden Age, newspapers were where the action was. With the qualified exception of Will Eisner (whose groundbreaking title the Spirit was a newspaper supplement), the comic book artists of the late Thirties and Forties were mainly imitating people like Alex Raymond, Roy Crane and Milton Caniff.

At their best, these men created bodies of work that stand up remarkably well to this day both in terms of art and narrative. I have no trouble killing lots of hours with Terry and thePirates or captain easy. Little orphan Annie is more problematic. Annie was a beautifully drawn and inventively written strip, butit is difficult to read more than a few strips without being reminded that politically Gray was a Proto-Randian and personally was something of a creep.

Here's an example from Brian Cronin.
[Harold] Gray felt that this travel was integral to the strip (in fact, speaking of the first legend, years after the fact, Gray tried to give his own origin of how he came up with Little Orphan Annie, and it involved him talking to a young orphan girl – it is a dubious story at best [Cronin pointed out earlier that the original title was little Orphan Otto and that the gender change was suggested by his publisher -- MP]). Well, during World War II, gas was rationed. Gray was already no fan of the federal government (as he viewed Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the enemy to basically all of his ideals of self-reliance for the American people), but when he requested and was denied extra gas ration coupons to effect his travel, he was furious. It was an Office of Price Administration clerk named Flack who turned Gray down, determining that Gray’s cartoons were not vital to the war effort.

Gray, a great supporter of the war (Annie formed a group called the Junior Commandos to help the rationing effort in the United States and it soon grew from the strip into a reality) and he was outraged that what he felt were his great patriotic efforts were being unrecognized. Gray asked for a hearing and he received one, but Flack’s decision stood.

Gray then took to his strip by starting a series of strips where he would berate a “fictional” character named “Fred Flask.”

Editorials piled in denouncing Gray and a couple of papers even dropped the strip. Flack threatened to sue over libel. Gray never apologized, but he did drop the series of strips.
Just to put things in context, unnecessary travel was considered a big deal at the time.

But the Flask strips are far from being Annie's low point.
In a series of strips in 1944, upon Roosevelt receiving the nomination for his historic FOURTH term as President, Gray began a series of strips where Warbucks was slowly dying of a mysterious disease. The disease, clearly, was that of the country itself. The current generation was killing the hero of capitalism, Warbucks…

Gray dragged the death out for some time, with many strips similar to the above.

However, as you all know, Roosevelt died early in 1945. Well, what do you know, Warbucks turned out to have faked his death!!

And then, Gray went even further by explaining how happy Warbucks was about a certain change in the “climate.”

I first came across these strips when I picked up a large collection of Annie strips at a library sale. I knew Gray was conservative (start with the lovable war profiteer...), but I had no idea how intense the feelings were or how open he was about them. I remember reading these and thinking "he didn't just say that, did he?"

In retrospect, it shouldn't have been that surprising. Gray hated a lot of people, particularly those he considered "do-gooders" and that hatred was never far from the surface of the strip. Given the changes the films made to his creation (included an appearance by FDR in the 1982 version, I'm pretty sure that Gray would have added the people behind those movies to his enemies list.

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