Look, I will be the first to admit that it might seem a bit morbid to invest too much time on cartoonists from a bygone era. For serious cartoonists, sure, it can be part of learning the craft. But is it really just nerdy excess? Well, no. The case can definitely be made that there are some very interesting stories to tell from the heyday of the comic strip, which reigned for much of the first half of the last century. These cartoonists have long since become ghosts and yet still attract interest. You can rest a lot of that interest on the lanky frame of Tad Dorgan, considered for a time to be a bona fide American celebrity cartoonist a hundred years ago.
Tad Dorgan (April 29, 1877 – May 2, 1929) is not a household name anymore but devoted specialized fans still exist and for good reason. The key is his quirky humor and his unusual use of language. He invented slang that we still use today and take for granted. For example, we might call someone a “dumbbell.” We still know what a “hard-boiled” crime novel is. Even the youngest amongst us might slip into ancient slang and say, “For crying out loud!” And, if you’re feeling stylish, you may observe some guy’s swagger as the posing by a “drugstore cowboy.”
Let’s take a closer look at a sample from Tad Dorgan’s comic strip, Judge Rummy (1910-1922), considered his most famous work in comics.
In the above first panel, we have two urban animal characters, apparently humanoid dogs in suits and hats. This is outside a courthouse. Of course, right next to sports and the crime beat, court proceedings have always been a reliable source for news and spectacle. One character is a friend to our main character, Judge Rummy. They speak in slang. There is some spare background drawing. Their attention is focused on some trouble up ahead. The judge thinks someone is about to “do the Dutch,” slang for committing suicide
Quick transition to the trouble, now in full view. More liberal use of slang or creative use of language. The judge’s one-word reaction: “Insipid!!” This new character seems to be in distress and might be on the verge of killing himself with poison but it’s none too clear if he’s really in danger.
In this magical state, anything is possible so the reader quickly accepts the narrative. The man in distress is just one quick step from becoming comic relief. He’s actually worried about having just gotten married.
Finally, all bets are off, and whatever absurd and surreal resolution is fair game. The man in distress begins to contemplate how easily he can slip from marriage to divorce. The judge and his friend do the classic sight gag: flip and down to the ground, feet firmly up in the air. Their collective response makes as much sense as anything else and actually has a very modern tone: “That wins the carving set,” referring to some typical media campaign in a newspaper or on the radio. Overall, the drawings are charming if not especially remarkable. This piece is clearly meant to be a quick read and appreciated for satisfying the public’s sense of humor of that era. Basically, a good day at the office for Dorgan. With the passage of time, the whole thing takes on an added eerie layer of beauty not necessarily ever intended by the cartoonist. Based upon my own lifelong experience as a cartoonist, my conclusion is that this piece was seen as a job strategically well done: good composition and pacing; funny and clever exchange between characters; the artwork serves its purpose. Tad Dorgan was most interested in being a humorist with his writing ending up being of prime importance. It’s a common situation for cartoonist-writers and it absolutely happens to this very day. With that in mind, Tad Dorgan’s quirky humor takes on a lot more relevance. While our inclination is to lump Dorgan in with musty old newspapers already on a steady path to extinction, his efficient use of art in the service of his sly humor can be seen as utterly cutting-edge! Just ask Matt Groening or Lynda Barry.