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It Was 120 Years Ago Today

An informal poll of cartoonists taken in the early 1930s named Frederick Burr Opper the funniest man who ever worked for the American press.

That is how The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum began their biography of F. Opper. It was backed up with over 50 years of hilarious cartoons, from the late 19th Century humor weeklies through the Hearst newspapers during the first third of the 20th Century. From his Alphonse and Gaston comic strip to his Willie and His Papa editorial cartoons.

On March 11, 1900 Opper introduced to America what is probably his most famous creation:
Happy Hooligan.

Don Markstein describes the character:

Happy Hooligan was a good-hearted hobo, covered in rags, with a tin can for a hat, who usually wore a broad smile despite his lot in life. His cheerful demeanor was only temporarily dimmed by the repeated, often outrageous ill consequences visited upon him for his attempted good deeds. He was a victim of his position in Society, always misunderstood by his alleged “betters”, who judged his actions according to his ragged exterior — but this was only part of his misfortune. He also had uncommonly bad luck, so that mayhem would result no matter what his intentions.

above: the first Happy Hooligan
below: the second Happy Hooligan (March 18, 1900)

Before Spring of 1900 was over Happy Hooligan would start using speech balloons and continue using them on a regular basis.  Though word balloons had appeared in earlier comic strips, Eike Exner makes a strong case that Opper and his fellow Hearst cartoonist Rudolph Dirks (The Katzenjammer Kids) popularized the audio/visual component of the modern comic strip:

Perhaps the strongest evidence against the Yellow Kid as having started the (audiovisual) comic strip form is the general absence of audiovisual strips until 1900, when Rudolph Dirks’s Katzenjammer Kids and Frederick Burr Opper’s Happy Hooligan began to regularly show their characters talking to each other [emphasis added].

Happy Hooligan would continue to appear, off and on – mixed with other Opper Sunday comics, until failing eyesight would drastically curtail Opper’s output in 1932.

After a couple of years, 1902 Opper would introduce Happy’s brother. Opper’s overly polite Alphonse and Gaston entered the American language, but few these days remember or use the term. Happy’s brother, however, is still commonly used as a part of American vernacular.

Opening image is from Yesterday’s Papers where more background is found.

Those first strips are grabbed from I Love Comics Archives where samples from 1900 – 1932 can be read.


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