LaVerne Harding’s alter-ego might just be the girl she drew to life in the early 1930s, the heroine and star of the newspaper comic strip, Cynical Susie. As the strip kept building in momentum—from a single-panel to a daily multi-panel to finally even a color Sunday—its cartoonist nonetheless gave up the trappings of her rising status in the papers to be solely an animator for producer Walter Lantz at Universal Pictures.
Harding was the first woman to achieve this role in a Hollywood studio, but she took the milestone in stride and diligently kept at her double-life for some time, animating Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and other Universal characters even while she was meeting her growing obligations to the newspaper syndicate.
To this end, Harding must have worked nights and weekends, sacrificing any semblance of a social life to keep both careers in play. For a while, she maintained the demands of both, and her male peers must have looked at her with a certain degree of respect, since it was a common aspiration for animators then to want to be cartoonists. She may have worked on a desk at Universal no different than theirs, but when they unfolded the morning paper it was her name they saw in ink.
Cynical Susie. By Becky Sharp and LaVerne Harding. Sharp was the writer and Harding designed and drew the strip, giving Susie a quality that may have resonated with a generation of post-Flapper women who were tilting their lances at the modern world. Even by today’s standards, the character seems appealing and relatable.
In her debut four-panel strip (above), we see Susie’s moxie and emotional range: “Peepul everywhere, this is introducing ‘Cynical Susie’. When she is gay, she looks this way. Like people everywhere, she has a tear in her life. Like all of us, hopeful. Sometimes mad like a hornet. Other times lovelorn,” which Harding illustrates with Susie standing in the rain next to a poster of her Silver Screen heartthrob.
The big takeaway of reading any sample strips among her comics today is that there is not a single moment in which Susie seems cynical. Instead, she is unflagging, resilient, resourceful, and cheerful to a fault, though sometimes bashful. When life delivers lemons, Susie builds a lemonade stand. She gets things done and she does it in a way that makes perfect sense by her fix-it view of the world.
The strip excels in slice-of-life ephemera, showing Susie reacting to unusual things and events with the aplomb of a twentieth century woman. Then, in the last panel, we laugh at her oddball ingenuity. When she hears a football team yelling, “8-13-27-5-Shift!” she runs down on to the field—right into the huddle of players—and she hands them an Adding Machine.
The Times Syndicate sent out promotional materials to newspapers around the country in its attempt to increase the new strip’s placements. Interestingly, here is ad copy of how Cynical Susie was described:
“Susie is a throwback to the days when comic strips were comics, not illustrated stories. Susie has no story to tell. She just goes blithely on her way, taking the daily bumps, trials, laughs and petty annoyances as they come. Susie doesn’t know what an inhibition is. She’ll tackle anything (well, almost anything) once; and every adventure means a laugh. You can follow her one day, or every day, and get the same laugh. There isn’t an iota of continuity to her trouble.”
Indeed, her plight was never serialized, continued, explored. She was a Seinfeld routine: a comic strip about nothing. But there was a kind of proto-feminism in her indomitable spirit, like someone who might casually stand on the shoulders of suffragettes and blurt out, “Peepul, why can’t a girl be the candidate?” However, we would never see her build on any attainment, not even an “iota” of it, since she had “no story to tell.”
That was the theme that any number of newspaper editors were being pitched in this syndicate mailer, but something more may have been bubbling under the surface. For all her foibles and earnestness, when Susie furrows her brow in thought and her flowery hat dips lower on her head, she evokes the impression of a girl with an evolving view of her place in the world. She never ran to get a guy to do something; she did it herself.
With all that fixing she could perform, generally unsolicited, she was showing off her budding leadership and resolve. She could be sad, but she was hopeful. Harding was often referred to as quiet, but like Susie there was surely a lot of nuance beneath her persona as a reliable studio facilitator.
In 1939, the L.A. Times columnist Read Kendall wrote, “Once Walt Disney said that women did not make good animators for the screen. But one of Walter Lantz’s best animators is La Verne Harding, whom he took out of an art school.” By 1939, she had been an animator for five years, but this opinion of women from Walt, among others, remained unchanged despite her prominent counter-example.
Is it any wonder she often used just the masculine short version of her name, Verne. She became an extremely valuable animator to Lantz, continuing to work for him for decades, and she was loyal to him for the fairness he always showed. When World War II changed the landscape of Hollywood animation, Lantz unexpectedly had a key staff person he wouldn’t lose to the draft, though she did also contribute to military films made at the studio like The Enemy Bacteria.
Harding soldiered on as an exception to the rule, an anomaly among the enduring boy’s club of animators, even during the wartime labor shortages that otherwise spurred the ‘Rosie the Riveter’ phenomenon. Wouldn’t that make a girl like Susie even a little bit cynical?
In later years, when asked about sexism, Harding would usually redirect the answer to indicate her own positive experiences in the industry, while admitting she was aware there were limited opportunities for women when she started. At Universal, she had gotten a shot at her dream and she stuck with it. For her, it was a wonderful and satisfying career.
There is no denying that she was among a vanguard of women who began to challenge the workplace norms of the early twentieth century. Harding made no waves and she defied no one. Yet, by putting pencil to paper every day, garnering respect and admiration, she helped erode a fallacy.
It was unlikely that she would have ever labeled herself a feminist—she wouldn’t have wanted the credit or the acclaim for helping to pave the way for other talented women—but just like her own creation, the ever-diligent Susie, she could not help but try to fix a problem in her own way.