Comics Studies: Tad Dorgan and the American Experience

City Life, panel excerpt, by Tad Dorgan, circa 1921.

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

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.”

Judge Rummy comic strip, by Tad Dorgan, (November 11, 1920).

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.

Judge Rummy, panel 1.

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

Judge Rummy, panel 2.

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.

Judge Rummy, panel 3.

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.

Judge Rummy, panel 4.

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.

10 Comments

Filed under Comics, Humor, Newspapers

10 responses to “Comics Studies: Tad Dorgan and the American Experience

  1. I was glad to see, and read, a bit more from comic strip history. As a lifelong cartoonist myself, I’ve spent a bit of time looking into comic strip history, and really appreciate learning a bit more!

    • Thanks for your comment, Jerry! You are always welcome here. Early 20th century comic strips share something with silent movies as both were tremendously popular in their time and today, for the most part, seem so obscure and remote. Some are better than others, of course, running the gamut from so-so to timeless masterpieces.

  2. I never get tired of reading or seeing cartoonists’ work from a bygone era. It’s true art.

    • Hey, Tom, thanks for you comment and I welcome future visits from you. Well, with Tad Dorgan, I will have more to say. I’m just scratching the surface. I appreciate that he was very talented and excited about what to do with his unique set of skills. Imagine, back then, having that skill set and managing to be at the right time and the right place! It all came together for Tad Dorgan. In his case, I think it’s safe to say that he leaned heavier towards his writing ability and developed that to the highest level he could take it. That said, at the end of the day, his comics would fall well within being called art.

  3. Fascinating, Henry. I wasn’t aware of Tad Dorgan. Is he working at around the same time as George Herriman? The lettering and stars (in the City Life panel) are similar to GH…

    • Hey Martin, yes, indeed, Tad Dorgan was not only a contemporary of George Herriman but they were friends. The whole look and feel of Dorgan’s work, the offbeat humor, all of it is from that same scene shared with Herriman. There’s even a well-known cartoon featuring Dorgan and Herriman boxing each other.

  4. That first one makes me think of like Wimpy decking somebody for refusing to let him pay on Tuesday for a cheeseburger today …

  5. Wow, cool read. My dad got me started on the old Dick Tracy comics, Tarzan, Popeye, Little Nemo ect. This comic had a familiar feel even though I don’t remember reading it. 🤠🔥

    • I really appreciate your comments and you are definitely welcome to return! I’ve been getting some very interesting comments both inside and outside the Comics Grinder sphere as of late and this runs in cycles.

      Well, you are so right to focus on the curious figure of Tad Dorgan and the mysterious world he comes from! Such a strange and foreign land it seems to a contemporary reader.

      It is highly doubtful that you would have had easy access to the work of Tad Dorgan in your youth. A hundred some years ago, which isn’t very long ago in the big picture, Dorgan was a creature of the media of his time and there was little to no unique regard for preservation of his output. Dorgan pursued his talents in writing and drawing as they fit into the demands of the newspaper empires. Comics were relied upon to add some sparkle and highlight the key information in the news of the day. Comics often appeared on the front page and were an integral part in providing front page news. Dorgan was as much a sports writer as a comic strip cartoonist. So, amid all this frenetic activity, collecting all these bits and pieces of ephemera into anything we would think of today as digests or collected volumes was not a top priority. That, of course, would change but only so much would be saved and curated and turned into mass media books.

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