Harold Gray Unbuttoned
by Jeet Heer
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Before you go any further, please take a look at the ongoing auction in support of this blog….
As Jog noted, there is a new Little Orphan Annie volume out this week: the fifth in the “Library of American Comics” series edited by Dean Mullaney. The volume covers the years 1933 to early 1935. As usual, I’ve foisted one of my longish introductions on the book. In writing my introduction I was immeasurably helped by Jeff Kersten, a scholar who is doing research on Chester Gould. Jeff provided me with a series of letter that Harold Gray wrote to Chester Gould in 1933. In these letters Gray complains at length about the policies of the Tribune-News Syndicate, especially that of publisher Joseph Patterson and Vice-President Arthur Crawford, who Gray thought were “chiselling” their staff cartoonists out of royalties from spin-offs. Gray also gossips a bit about their other cartoonists in the Tribune-News Syndicate such as Sydney Smith. These letters give us an unprecedented look into the business side of the comic book industry, and both Jeff and I will be mining them for future research.
I strongly encourage anyone interested in the history of comics to pick up the books in the Annie and Dick Tracy series. As an appetizer, I’ve decided to share an excerpt from the first letter Gray wrote to Gould with some annotations:
Harold Gray to Chester Gould, May 23, 1933:
Dear Chester; —
Your letter written Sunday arrived just now and I am delighted to hear from you. Also I am considerably embarrassed, for I have meant to write you long before this and now you’ve beaten me to it. Time and time again in following your strip I have sworn to drop you a line to tell you how sincerely much I like it and how dam glad I am to see you going over with such a solid success. It’s a whale of a strip in every way, and it has tickled me a lot watch you avoid many of the pitfalls many wise guys predicted for you in the handling of the strip and in the handling of yourself.
Naturally Al has talked to you and your case a lot. [Al is Alfred M. Loewenthal, who ran the Famous Artists Syndicate which handled the merchandising of Little Orphan Annie, Dick Tracy, and other Tribune-News strips.] I guess there is no point in trying to sell Al to you, for you have found that he is as white as they make them; much whiter than 99 out of 991/2 in fact. Al is one bird who will not chisel, no matter how much he could gain and how safe it might be for him. If he has a fault it is that he is too loyal and above-board. I’d go the route for Al, and I wouldn’t for more than two or three other men I know.
Now I could talk on the subject of Crawford for a month without telling one decent thing about the rat and without telling one thing but what I know to be the truth. [Crawford, a.k.a. Artie, is Arthur W. Crawford, Vice-President of the Tribune-News Syndicate.] Probably Al has told you some of my troubles with Artie in the past. It’s a long and tiresome story. Some time I’d like to go over with you, though by then you’ll probably have a few similar experiences to chronicle. But here is the main point, as I am concerned. Though I have had him on the spot at times in the past I have gained what I was after and then let up and never pressed for his dismissal for several reasons. Al was always afraid we’d get a worse guy. There was sense in that. And we knew Artie and what to expect and could always keep him in line, more or less, especially just after a jam in which he’d come off second best. Then too personally I always felt tolerant, and after whittling him down to proper size he was so contrite I’d usually make peace. Never in all our rows did I ever call him a name or did I ever avoid his company. We kept up the semblance of great friendship. You know. We might have our mis-understandings and all that, but personally we were the best of friends. Horsefeathers, of course, but that was the pose we had both assumed.
Well, I have now avoided Artie. Here is the reason. After this last attempt of his I am done, and if I see the lousy bastard I am going to have an awful job to refrain from telling him something that will tear his cover off….
[Later in the letter Gray talks about the difficulty of getting the Tribune-News cartoonists to form a common front against their employer].
Now I have hesitated from starting a stink on a lot of minor matters for several years, for after some of the stinks I [illegible] in the syndicate and rows I had with Patterson over the syndicate, I was well on the way to being called a trouble-maker. I have never tried to get another artist to try and go along with me into trouble. But Crawford has insinuated plenty and would be delighted to discredit me by showing I was a trouble-maker. Berndt is o.k. here and will stick to Al. Mike Branner is for Al [Loewenthal] all the way, but he chatters too much and loses his temper too easily, and I don’t dare talk to him much on such matters. [Sidney] Smith as you know is all for Smith and if flattered can be talked into anything and out again. Willard is a small edition of Smith in some ways…. [Carl] Ed means well, but won’t take a chance of trouble. So when all is said and done, this whole racket is sort of a matter of every man for himself. Any one would be an idiot to try to organize the artists. They are as jealous as a bunch of whores.
[The cartoonists Gray mentions here are: Walter Berndt (creator of Smitty) Mike Branner (Winnie Winkle), Sidney Smith (The Gumps), Frank Willard (Moon Mullins) and Carl Ed (Harold Teen).]