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Comic Review: Frederick Burr Opper’s Happy Hooligan Edited by Jeffrey Lindenblatt

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The hapless lead of Frederick Burr Opper's classic newspaper strip, "Happy Hooligan," is a clownish figure: dressed in patched-up beggar's clothing, a soup can impossibly perched on his large melon head, he's the first great comic strip sad sack. Created in 1900, Opper's "Hooligan" was a popular feature in Hearst papers until the strip's demise in the thirties, though the figure has occasionally cameo-ed in later artists' works. Jules Feiffer, during the Ford Administration, drew the then-president in Hooligan garb right down to the soup can on his bald noggin.

Issued as a part of NBM's "Forever Nuts" series of classic screwball strip collections, Happy Hooligan features a selection of Sunday strips circa 1902-13. Unlike the series' Bringing Up Father collection, the book doesn't contain a complete year-plus run — perhaps because the strip's greater age (the first "Hooligan"s predate "Father" by a decade) makes it more difficult to complete. Opper's early strips were restricted to Sundays, so the entries here are in full or two-color form, depending on the source newspaper.

The Sunday strips — at least in the period repped here — held to a fairly rigid formula. Our hero Happy is a goodhearted stumblebum whose intentions are regularly misread by the world around him. Attempting to help a city official place a wreath on a statue of George Washington, for instance, he tips the statue onto one of Opper's oversized coppers, who responds by clubbing him on the head and flattening his undislodged tin can chapeau. "The city ain't safe while you're loose," the officer states as the fuming official threatens to have our unlucky hero jailed.

Happy's tramp appearance and low-class status contribute to his role as a steady scapegoat, though, to be sure, his clumsiness and clownish air of obliviousness also work in his disfavor. If there's a large rock on the ground, he'll stumble over it; if he's given a shovel or a board, you known he'll turn around without checking to see if there's anyone in the vicinity he might whack on the head. Part of the fun of many of Opper's entries resides in trying to anticipate in the first half of the two-tiered strip just how our hero is gonna get in trouble. "I can see big bunches of trouble coming," brother hobo Gloomy Gus says at one point, and the pessimistic sibling's predictions usually prove spot on.

Opper's protagonist, then, proves a precursor to such misunderstood movie comic underdogs as Chaplin's Tramp, Laurel & Hardy, and The Three Stooges. (Our man even speaks in an NYC accent reminiscent of the Howard/Fine team.) As the series progressed, Opper added two siblings to the cast: the aforementioned Gus and an improbable British brother named Montmorency. The latter was as frequently misjudged and mishandled as Happy, though the shiftless Gus usually came out on top for ironic contrast. When the trio take a trip to England, Opper milks weeks of comedy from their unsuccessful attempts to see the King of England. In one particularly screwy Sunday, all three enter the palace, asking a royal guardsman to see the king, and are attacked by a gorilla who's been hiding behind a life-sized portrait of Richard III. Who knew that Buckingham Palace used 'em as bouncers?

Also part of the strip were three nephews who often served as a comic chorus ("Uncle Happy's hoited!" they chant on more than once occasion) and an unlikely love interest named Suzanne. Happy would later marry this statuesque beauty, but at this point in the series, we see him unsuccessfully trying to win over a disapproving guardian — and squashing one of Suzanne's hats during a disastrous picnic.

Still, the bulk of the cartoons here have little to do with romance and more to do with our hobo hero's ill-fated attempts at being a Samaritan or (occasionally) holding down a job. The stinging joke imbedded in the series — as it often is in slapstick of this ilk — is the ease with which the authorities jump to the worst possible conclusions about Happy's mishaps. During the trio's tramp through Europe, for instance, the Swiss police even accuse Happy and Montmorency of "trying to steal a mountain," Opper taking the authoritarian tendency to exaggerate their culprit's misdeeds to a comically outlandish level.

As a pioneering cartoonist, the prolific Opper is frequently credited with establishing many of the conventions of comics storytelling (he was, for example, the first cartoonist to consistently utilize word balloons, though he didn't invent them). His art is energetic and goofily expressive, while his precise handling of the mechanics of slapstick would later prove a major influence on cartoonists like Rube Goldberg. NBM's scans of these old, old strips are clean and crisp – with the exception of a poorly cropped offering from 1912 — and the "Forever Nuts" book does this rarely seen comic strip proud. It's a good read, not just for students of early comic art, but for lovers of an enjoyably rough-hewn, low-brow American brand of humor.

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.