Sunday, February 13, 2011

The 1905 Comic Fan

(Sometimes a mystery begins with a small clue. This is one.

I'd like to thank Rod Beck, Allan Holtz, Frank Motler, Dave Reeder and Jeff Howard-Lindsey for their kind contributions.
--Ken Quattro)

San Francisco, California
July 1, 1905

The letter likely arrived with the rest of the mail.

As Harry picked up the envelope, he probably smiled at the hand-drawn caricature of him that the sender had inked on the upper left corner. Tearing it open, he read past his pen-name to the salutation.

     My dear sir: I've been trying to collect a few originals & have written to you in the hope that you can spare me one of you many drawings to add to my little store. I've drawings from ZIM, Harrison Fisher, Gordon Grant, Albert Levering, Culver, Tad, Swinnerton, Frank Opper, Bronstrup, H. King, Everett Shinn, E.J. Cross, Maynard Dixon, R.L. Goldberg, J.H. Smith, Will Grefe, Ransom and letters and etc. from a few others--as I'm very much interested in art and I think you do very good newspaper work. I have a very nice drawing from Haig Patigian which he gave me at his old studio."

At this point of the letter, perhaps Harry paused. The breathless recitation of names was impressive, as was the list itself. The letter continued.

     I admire also the stand you and The Bulletin have taken against the "grafters". My father has done all he could to purify politics in his district and sent Wyman and Steffens to jail."

This last line may have caused Harry to glance at the name at the bottom of letter. You can picture him as he nodded at the familiar last name. Fremont Older, editor of the BULLETIN, had made cleaning up city hall his personal crusade and the letter writer's father was a prominent ally.

     "Please if you can spare me anything I shall be deeply grateful to you and I assure you it will be a most welcome addition to my collection.
     Hoping to hear from you soon and wishing you all success--
     Believe me
     Very Respectfully yours,
     Edgar S. Wheelan"

Immediately below the closing was an inked drawing of a small boy accompanied by a curiously apologetic note.

     "P.S. Enclosed is a very poor proof of a drawing I did for our school book Down South--the original is pretty good for me.
     This is absolutely "ROTTEN" if you'll excuse my language--I was in a great hurry but I shouldn't have done anything."

It was obvious that the artist of the sketch was young and quite insecure about his work. It's not known exactly how or if Harry responded to this missive, but it's hard to imagine he didn't respond with a drawing of his own. After all, courtesy demanded it, and furthermore, it wouldn't hurt to show kindness to the son of a prestigious family.

Fairfax Henry Wheelan cast a long shadow. A native San Franciscan, he was Harvard educated, vice-president of Southern Pacific Milling Company, head of several charitable organizations and as his son alluded, a leader against the political corruption that was prevalent in the city. In the wake of the devastating earthquake of April 18, 1906, Fairfax was one of the Committee of Fifty that led the city's relief efforts. And oh, yes,--he was a former classmate and close friend of President Theodore Roosevelt.

The distaff side of the Wheelan family was no less impressive. Albertine Randall Wheelan, in fact, was even better known than her husband. Her fame as an illustrator of children's books, calendars and magazines had made her name recognizable far beyond the Bay area and put her son Edgar in an advantageous position to pursue his art collecting. In a display of evidential marital bliss, she even illustrated her husband's few literary efforts for ST. NICHOLAS MAGAZINE.

Pansies for Thoughts
by Fairfax and Albertine Wheelan
ST. NICHOLAS MAGAZINE, pg 353 (March 1888)

In this case, the apple didn't fall far from the maternal tree. In 1905, Edgar was 17-years old and an aspiring artist as well as art lover. Still a few years away from beginning his own career as a cartoonist.

Harry--actually his given name was Henry--was eight years older than Edgar and had a more common upbringing. He was the son of French immigrants, Louis and Louise, who settled in San Rafael, a picturesque Marin County community north of the Golden Gate narrows from San Francisco.

an 1884 drawing depicting San Rafael

Louis was a tailor and a respected town leader, but he didn't have the Wheelan's wealth or connections. Youngest son Harry attended the Mark Hopkins Art Institute while making a living as an illustrator for the SAN FRANCISCO BULLETIN.

The Bay area was a spawning ground of artistic talent that included Jimmy Swinnerton, "Tad" Dorgan, Rube Goldberg and Herb Roth, the latter two being friends of Harry's future wife, Donna.

Undated note from Herb Roth to Adonias "Donna" Fulton
Roth's note mentions "R.L.G."--his high school pal "Rube" Goldberg, one of their art teachers at Polytechnic High School, Rose Murdock, and noted sculptor, Haig Patigian.

Within a year of Edgar's letter to him, Harry had moved over to the competing SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE where, he would later claim, he worked with a young sports cartoonist named Bud Fisher, who had just begun work on his new daily strip featuring a "Mr. A. Mutt" ("Jeff" would come a bit later).

[image retrieved from Heritage Auction Galleries site]

The strip made its CHRONICLE debut on November 15, 1907, but by December, Fisher took a better offer from William Randolph Hearst's SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER.

"A. Mutt Starts in to Play the Races" (1907)

While there is no proof that Harry assisted Fisher (though he most certainly had assistants), nor followed him to the EXAMINER, it is apparent that when Fisher made the move to New York and Hearst's NEW YORK AMERICAN in 1909, so did Harry.

Edgar, too, had moved on. After graduating in 1911 from Cornell University, he too took a job at the SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER as a sports cartoonist. While they may not have crossed paths while still in San Francisco, when Wheelan relocated to New York to work at Hearst's NEW YORK AMERICAN in 1915, he found Harry working there as well.

During his tenure at the AMERICAN, Harry also freelanced for various publications such as THE OUTING MAGAZINE and JUDGE. While he never quite broke into the ranks of the upper echelon illustrators, Harry had established a solid career and reputation.

THE OUTING MAGAZINE, pg. 674 (Sept. 1910)
illustration detail

In 1920, the commercial art firm of Louis C. Pedlar, Inc. announced Harry's hiring in PRINTER'S INK magazine. Touting "...his wide experience as a black and white artist, and a colorist of infinite imagination," their ad went on to proclaim that he was, "also a specialist in animal and Western subjects which gives his prowess an added value and wider scope."*

Still, Harry didn't equal the success of his younger admirer. In 1917, Edgar had come upon the novel idea of comic strip continuity. His "Midget Movies" strip was premised on the concept that it followed the episodic film offerings of an acting troupe. Wheelan even drew sprocket holes and used movie techniques such as scene fades to strengthen the film format.

"Midget Movies" (1917)
[image courtesy of Allan Holtz's Stripper's Guide blog]

The strip (eventually dubbed "Minute Movies" when he left Hearst's employ) was a hit. This success subsequently spurred a number of imitations (including its successor for Hearst, Elzie Segar's "Thimble Theater") and, not to mention, established a fundamental comic strip device.

Ed Wheelan newspaper photo (Nov. 21, 1931)

By late 1936, "Minute Movies" successful run had ended. Early in 1937, Wheelan collaborated with Bill Walsh on a new circus themed strip entitled "Big Top". Not long after, Wheelan found another venue for the strip. There was now a burgeoning market for strip reprints to fill the pages of newsstand comic books.

The first issue of Everett "Busy" Arnold's FEATURE FUNNIES (cover dated October, 1937) contained "Big Top" reprints among its other offerings.

"Big Top" page
FEATURE FUNNIES #16 (Jan. 1939)

While the strip suffered when five dailies were reduced to fit on one comic book page, the experience still led Wheelan (and the George Matthew Adams Service syndicate) to offer "Minute Movies" in the comic book format. Unlike most other reprints, however, "Minute Movies" was published in a sideways oblong booklet entitled LITTLE GIANT MOVIE FUNNIES (Aug. 1938) from Centaur Publications. When the strip was revived in the All-American Publications', MOVIE COMICS #1 (April 1939), it was the beginning of a decade-long publishing relationship.


Unlike other name cartoonists, Wheelan embraced the comic book medium. As a particular favorite of All-American's young editor Sheldon Mayer, he created several new backup features, including Fat and Slat. This Mutt and Jeff-like duo proved popular enough that they were featured in ED WHEELAN'S JOKE BOOK (Dec. 1944).

Ed Wheelan photo from inside front cover
[image courtesy of Jeff Howard-Lindsey]

When Max Gaines sold All-American to DC in 1944, the Flat and Slat strip was one of the few properties that carried over when he formed Educational Comics (EC) Publications. The duo became a reliable staple of Gaines new comic line, appearing in such titles as HAPPY HOULIHANS and MOON GIRL as well as their own short-lived, four issue series beginning in 1947.

"Fat and Slat" original art
from MOON GIRL #4 (Summer 1948)
[image retrieved from Heritage Auction Galleries site]

Meanwhile, by the late 1930s, Harry likely saw his prospects dwindling. The jobs available for an aging illustrator were limited, particularly during the throes of the Great Depression. So like others in his predicament, he looked to the lowest end of the publishing industry for employment. Comic books would at least provide a paycheck.

He first found work through Funnies, Inc., Lloyd Jacquet's comic shop, illustrating such pedestrian fare as the biography of General George Marshall in TRUE COMICS #4 (Sept. 1941).

"U.S. Army Chief General George C. Marshall" splash page from TRUE COMICS #4 (Sept. 1941)

It probably took some effort for him to adapt his illustrative style to this new medium. But he did, and as odd as his work appeared at times, it apparently had its fans. At least, one fan.

Over at All-American, Gaines was trying to get a new character in print. As the story goes, his editor Mayer and the writer were involved in a debate over who was to draw the feature. Harry, for some unknown reason, was the writer's choice.

"I found an artist," the writer would claim in a 1943 AMERICAN SCHOLAR article, " old-time cartoonist who worked with Bud Fisher on the San Francisco Chronicle and who knows what life is all about..."**. Mayer protested that his style was too archaic. "The selection," Mayer said,"...was not my idea. It was one of the compromises I made."***. In this instance, the writer prevailed over the editor.

Now, it would be presumptuous to claim it as a fact, but was Wheelan's presence at All-American and Mayer's affection for him, a factor in Harry getting the job?

     "Dear Dr. Marston," wrote Harry, "I slapped these two out in a hurry. The eagle is tough to handle - when in perspective or in profile, he doesn't show up clearly -- the shoes look like a stenographer's. I think the idea might be incorporated as a sort of Roman contraption.

Wonder Woman model sheet (1941)

Harry simply signed this sketch to his future collaborator as "Peter", eschewing his full name, Harry George Peter. The rest, as it's said, was history. Wonder Woman not only became a hit, she became an icon.

At 61-years old, H.G. Peter had become a success. In April, 1942, he opened his own studio at 130 W. 42nd Street (although Marston's widow claimed years later that Peter was just an employee of Marston Art Studios****), employed several other artists and continued drawing Wonder Woman up until his death in 1958.

[left to right] William Moulton Marston, Harry G. Peter,
Sheldon Mayer and Max Gaines (1942)
[photo attributed to Alice Marble, as printed in

For his part, Ed Wheelan continued producing a number of features, including the "Foney Fairy Tales" back-up strip that ran in WONDER WOMAN and her sister publications, COMICS CAVALCADE and SENSATION COMICS. With his marriage in June, 1947 and Max Gaines tragic death soon after, Wheelan left comics and spent the final years of his life painting pictures of clowns.

But there was one more comic creation of his worth mentioning, perhaps the most telling Wheelan creation of all. It was "Comics McCormick", which premiered in TERRIFIC COMICS #2 (March 1944), and carried the subtitle, "The World's #1 Comic Book Fan".

Comics McCormick
TERRIFIC COMICS #2 (March 1944)

Despite a sporadic publishing history as the feature bounced from Et-Es-Go, to All-American, to EC, "Comics McCormick" charmingly depicted a young boy's love of comics; an affection Wheelan understood well.

One of the character's last appearances was also one that contained a a nod and a wink to his youthful idol, Harry G. Peter. In FLAT AND SLAT #2 (1947), "McCormick" encountered Marvel Maid, who bore a resemblance to a certain Amazonian princess.

Comics McCormick
FAT AND SLAT #2 (Fall 1947)


I was admittedly a bit coy in not showing up front the letter that sparked this post. The original resides in my personal collection and it's my pleasure to share it with you.


* PRINTER'S INK, Feb. 26, 1920, pg. 161.
** THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR, vol. 13, pg. 43 (1943).
*** Les Daniels, WONDER WOMAN: THE COMPLETE HISTORY, pg. 24 (2004).
**** According to Roy Thomas in the article "Two Touches of Venus", When Jerry Bails mentioned Peter to Dr. Marston's widow in 1970," her response, wrote Thomas, was,"Re Harry Peter--think you must be referring to the Marston Art Studios located in the building on the southeast corner of Madison and 43rd in N.Y.C. Bill personally handled every aspect of production up to the point of sending to the printer. Harry Peter worked there, plus several young commercial artists who drifted in and out." [THE ALTER EGO COLLECTION, vol. 1, pg. 62]

However, an April 15, 1942, NEW YORK TIMES article notes an office rental at 130 W. 42nd by "Harry G. Peter, cartoonist," and no mention of Marston Art Studios. Furthermore, Peter's WWII draft registration card gives the same address with his notation that he was self-employed.

There is far more to the lives and careers of both H. G. Peter and Ed Wheelan than can be covered in this post. I highly recommend that readers scurry on over to the always informative, always excellent blog of Allan Holtz, the Stripper's Guide, for his recent post about Ed Wheelan and all things comic strip.