Editor’s Note: Milton Knight returns to Cartoon Research today to shed light on one of his favorite comic book series and its artist creator, Dan Gordon – an animator who deserves more credit than he’s gotten, for his significant contributions to the art. Milton himself is one of leading historians of classic “funny animal” comics and I hope this post will lead to others which will enlighten us about other unsung comic book artists of the 1940s and 50s. Milton Knight is also one of the great artists of the current day – to enjoy more of Milton’s thoughts, his comic art and his paintings, I urge you to visit his blog, The World Of Knight, and his art site, miltonknight.net. – Jerry Beck
Fred Iger, business manager of the American Comics Group, had no idea what I was talking about when I brought up the term “funny animal” comics.
When they were going strong, “funny animal” comics were called “animation” comics within the industry. They were created to directly compete with WALT DISNEY’S COMICS AND STORIES and the LOONEY TUNES magazine. Without these books blazing the trail, the genre would never have materialized. Yes, it was pure opportunism. But some worthy art was created. It is quite possible that the genre declined in the 1950s because television came into the home to “bring the movies to you”, to quote a Timely/Marvel promotion. (And now, the home video market has made it just about superfluous.)With subtle titles such as HA HA, GIGGLE, GOOFY and BARNYARD, the comics were a relatively painless avenue for animators at the New York and California studios to moonlight. Dan Gordon, just bouncing from a directorial position at Paramount’s Famous Studios, was one of the first to get involved. Revered as a skilled draftsman by the New York studios, Gordon’s style was muscular and robust, with a mobile “camera eye” and heavily inked; “noir” in comparison with the lighter touch most other artists employed. His style of humor was sardonic to the point of being severe, having already emerged in Famous cartoons such as the Popeye Happy Birthdaze, which makes suicide a running joke. His was a unique presence: a “kiddie” cartoonist who readily addressed the fact that ours is not an ideal world.
Gordon’s comics for ACG, including SUPERKATT, COOKIE, PUSS ‘N’ BOOTS and BLUNDERBUNNY, were written in partnership with Richard E. Hughes, editor, and a brilliant comics writer in his own right, later creator of Herbie, The Fat Fury.
Without a stable of established film characters to draw from, most of the early magazines were patchwork quilts of one-shot strips destined to be forgotten by readers and history. Gordon began in the spectrum of ACG and Pines magazines drawing starless strips such as “Fish a’la Brooklyn” and “Gregory, the Rogue”. It wasn’t until the ninth issue of GIGGLE (June 1944) that SUPERKATT was born.Who… or what was this weird presence swaddled in Baby Huey bonnet and diapers which obscured that he was even a cat? SUPERMOUSE had already turned out to be a popular commodity in COO COO Comics, and in imitation of Fawcett’s HOPPY THE MARVEL BUNNY, Timely/Marvel had added SUPER RABBIT to its roster. Plus, of course, the early version of Mighty Mouse (originally called SUPER MOUSE) was lighting up the cinema screen. The name Superkatt suggests another beast with the same gimmick, but Gordon (who had directed some of the Famous Studios’ SUPERMAN cartoons) indulged his quirky mind. The hero was a mere house cat (called only “dat katt” by the housekeeper) who ineptly strove to imitate the superbeings of the comic books. In his tale of origin, rats and birds duped him into believing he had powers of strength and flight, thus distracting him from his pursuits. It wasn’t long before the origin was forgotten, and the Katt was “Super” by virtue of being a sanctimonious, self-proclaimed “force for good” – similar to the dreaded Gabby, know-it-all protagonist of Fleischer’s Gulliver’s Travels, in which Gordon had a hand.
All the characters were painted in broad and sometimes offensive strokes. Presiding over Superkatt’s mysteriously truncated “family” was Petunia Washington, a “colored” maid of the most stereotypical type. The series began with her as a broom-wielding monster, ugly and threatening even by comic art standards. The reason I feel I can cut Gordon some slack here is that, in the later forties – parallel to “Ebony White” in Will Eisner’s The Spirit – some efforts were made to soften the character, making her less offputting but still clown-like in appearance, capable of compassion, and even the rare romantic interest.
Completing the household picture was Junior, a “mean widdle kid” who cruelly targeted “de katt” with his dynamite and popguns. This pretty much sums up his function.Superkatt’s biggest booster was Humphrey, a “dumb dawg” with a golden heart who firmly believed in the katt’s superior powers, and kowtowed accordingly as his hero battled various terrorists of the back alleys, with Evil-Eye the Rat leading a pack of derby-hatted, cigar smoking miscreants with names like Grogan, Itchy, Hoiman and Oiving.
Approaching the subject today, long after the flush of pre-adolescence, I wish I could tell you I feel the stories were classics through and through. The mostly featherweight plottings were hooks on which Gordon hung his eye-catching drawings and pungent humor. Like the Warner cartoons, Gordon’s tales, with their rich characterizations and snappy, believable dialogue, had much in common with radio humor, and Gordon comes close to being the Fred Allen of comic books.
SUPERKATT was at its best when thumbing its nose at ordeals familiar to children: dread of school, familial turmoil, overbearing authority. In a memorable story, the Mayor outlaws bubble gum (a post-war craze), to the extent of imprisoning children, until Superkatt challenges his iron hand (“Wait! I revoke the law! Turn all the kiddies free!”). In Christmas stories, Superkatt suspected Santa Claus of being a superforce for evil, picturing him as a mad scientist or a warmonger caressing an A-bomb. The comic clearly went in directions that no Dell comic ever would. (click-to-enlarge selected pages embed below to view some of Gordon’s work).
A popular feature in GIGGLE, Superkatt enjoyed a good, long run, ending in the early 1950s. Dan Gordon’s art became rougher and more functional as time passed, but the strip’s humor actually continued to sharpen. Toward the end, ACG artists Lynn Karp and Ken Hultgren occasionally filled in. Fred Iger recalled that Gordon left the comic book arena in the early 1950s, and when Superkatt left GIGGLE, his star position was supplanted by longtime regular Spencer Spook, no doubt in convenient competition with a new comics phenomenon, Casper the Friendly Ghost.
Superkatt had little impact outside the magazine. There was no licensing, save for a depressing screen ‘adaptation’ from Screen Gems, Leave Us Chase It (May 1947). Strangely, the credits make no mention of GIGGLE comics or American Comics Group. (see embed below).
Today, the character of Superkatt is remembered by very few… but remembered very fondly.
Included below are links to three stories from the series’ peak year, 1948. We thank the source of our links and illustrations, Comic Book +, a splendid site with scans of every type of comic. Enjoy!