Within archival sketches that survive from the early years when Walter Lantz was at the helm of the Universal Cartoon Department, there is the intriguing prospect of wondering who exactly drew any particular gag. Fortunately, because of Lantz’s policy of offering a small bonus for material that was subsequently used in a film, there was an incentive for animators to put their names on their work for the obvious reason of collecting on their efforts and ensuring no dispute.
In one gag submitted by Cal Howard, so confirmed because his name’s on it, he even wrote “Yes it’s original” to boost its stock upon review. However, most surviving sketches are unsigned, so this gives the ones with signatures quite a bit of weight in regard to historical verification. Eighty years after these enjoyable gags were first scribbled, I now care less if it’s original than if I can discern who drew it.
And within the company of early 1930s Universal animators, the big fish is undoubtedly Tex Avery, the masterful innovator of midcentury cartoon humor. Anything that he drew as a young man in his twenties has the patina of being a stepping stone to his eventual greatness, a formative look at what was gurgling under the hood. It was while working on the Lantz-produced Oswalds that he developed his sensibility for the absurd and outrageous.
So, here is a Rosetta Stone of sorts: a gag sketch that shows a little mouse spitting in a pot. It has a rough cursive caption describing it as a “mouse carrying books—running gag thru picture—spits in cuspidor.” It may not seem the stuff of comedy legend, but the deadpan approach of a repeated interruption is surely Avery-esque. Fortunately I don’t think this requires conjecture to make that leap because this is a gag attributed to “TEX” on the paper itself, thereby making a very strong case to count this as his work.
I mention this as a Rosetta Stone because if we accept this as the work of Avery, then we can use its clues to extend our claims on attributing other unsigned gags to him. We can use the telltale visual indicators from either the drawing or his penmanship. Below, for instance, is one gag that I think passes the Avery ‘cuspidor’ test. The cursive has some distinct similarities to the other caption. Also, compare the print writing of “TEX” and “STOP.” It seems a match.
So, here is the little gift of the diligent cartoon researcher: I think I have unearthed a heretofore unknown Tex Avery drawing, plucked from over eighty years of obscurity. It is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit walking aimlessly through a desolate Southwestern landscape à la Krazy Kat. With a cattle skull popped over his head, Oswald cannot see the cactus’ traffic warning. The caption reads, “Falls on Head +or butts Heavy out window.”
One probable reason this is unsigned is that it does not appear to be a formal gag submission. This seems more like a case of scribble-thinking or an idea loosely taking shape at the tip of Avery’s pencil. More than likely this is Tex creatively searching for the comic structure of a cartoon short or some extended sequence within it. We see a vulture on this page too, and we’re also left to wonder who gets butted out of a window?
Years ago when I interviewed Ed Benedict, who was a colleague of Avery on those Oswald cartoons, he said, “A gag was Tex’s forte of thought.” He also told me that Tex was constantly scribbling his newly inspired ideas on sheets of paper that he would then indiscriminately stockpile by pushing these sheets to the back of his desk. There were lots them, a crumpled stack of his comic daydreams.
And the Universal animator who most shared Tex’s love of provocation was Cal Howard, who—a bit shorter in stature and more slight-of-frame—might have seemed like an Avery sidekick. These two men were a prankster duo who prowled for victims, offering daily hijinks in the midst of the work at Universal. They were both gag-initiators. They punked their colleagues and they were in equal measure considered among the best gag contributors to the Oswald cartoons.
If ever there were a show to be made about this moment in industry, something in line with AMC’s Mad Men, then perhaps Gag Men might be an apt title for the full commitment that we know guys like Tex and Cal gave to this “forte of thought,” the unchecked fervor to always be making a joke, no matter the consequence (yes, Tex actually lost his eye for his art).
All these years later, it makes for some terrific moments of discovery. For example, I’m a fan of this little comic gem, below, from Cal Howard. A guy (really, a cigar-chomping pig) with a striped suit lies down on a freshly painted bench. Then, voilà, a checker-pattern suit! Perhaps the man who grew to become legendary had in Cal Howard both a creative rival and a willing partner-in-crime at a time when it had a lasting impact on his career trajectory. For Tex Avery, the paint was still fresh.