The Spies Report
October 17, 2022 posted by Kamden Spies

Ralph Heimdahl: A Collection for the Ages

Ralph Heimdahl drawing on St. Cloud Campus

The Bugs Bunny newspaper strip has always fascinated me. The strip lasted for almost fifty years, with each artist putting their own spin on it. Just as the Dell Comics are very different from their animated personalities, so are the characters in the strip. I always like to jokingly refer to the comic book and comic strip universes (which were also both very different from each other) as Earth 2 and Earth 3 Looney Tunes.

A Bugs Bunny daily from 1950

The Bugs Bunny newspaper strip was started as a Sunday page by artist Chase Craig. Craig would continue to play a major part in the Looney Tunes comics well after leaving the strip as the editor of Dell and Gold Key Comics. The strip began on January 10, 1943. Five weeks after starting the strip, though, Chase went into the service and was replaced by Roger Armstrong. Ralph Heimdahl began drawing the Sundays on October 5, 1947. Heimdahl was the first artist on the daily strip which began on November 3rd, 1948. He would be drawing the strip until 1978. Both the daily and Sunday ended in December 1990.

St. Cloud Magazine

The work of Heimdahl (as well as Craig and Armstrong) is remarkable. While some might criticize the changes made, such as giving Sylvester a British accent, I’ve found his work charming, wonderful, and witty. While I could call it a guilty pleasure, I don’t feel guilty at all for loving Heimdahl’s work. St. Cloud State University in Minnesota just received a massive collection of Heimdahl’s original work. Over 5,000 works were donated to the collection. Talking with archivist Tom Steman, I am in awe of all of his hard work and efforts to preserve this material. Ralph Heimdahl and his writing partners are almost forgotten today. I think their work should be remembered by all of you. Other material from Heimdahl’s life is owned by the Billy Ireland Museum and Library, the gold standard for all archives preserving comic art.

Heimdahl did other things that are also in the St. Cloud State collection. His personal film collection, personal newspaper strip collection, and other things are in the archives at St. Cloud State. Besides his work on Bugs Bunny, Ralph Heimdahl was also the creator of the British version of the Yogi Bear strip. He also did various artwork for Western Publishing on storybooks and comic book covers. Both unpublished and published strips that Heimdahl did are also in the collection, including his Minnie Soo and Haha strip, Herky the Horse, and Yippy the Yukon Pilot.

Currently, I am a senior at the University of Alabama at Birmingham majoring in an IDM in film history and Journalism. After graduation, I am going to get my master’s degree in library and information sciences with a focus on archiving. The work of archivists has always fascinated me. Many universities, museums, and organizations have preserved the history of comic art. Without their hard work and loving care, so much original comic, cartoon, and animation art would have been disregarded and improperly cared for. For my capstone paper, I am writing about the history of the preservation of cartoon art through the work of museums, archives, cartoonists, and publishers to preserve the legacy of cartoonists for future generations of researchers and aficionados like all of us reading and writing for Cartoon Research. Thanks again to all the folks who have helped me so far, including so many staffers at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum and Library, curators at The Cartoon Art Museum (both in London and San Francisco), Brian Walker, Ron Ferdinand, Rob Stolzer, Karen Green at Columbia University, Birmingham Southern College, the pioneer of all of this Lucy Caswell, folks at the Charles Schulz Museum, and Linda Jones Clough. For the others that I might be missing, that’s because this was written before scheduling with you! The paper will be complete in December of this year.

A Bugs strip in the St. Cloud collection

Ralph Heimdahl began his work on the Bugs Bunny newspaper strip in 1947 on the Sunday pages. A year later, he took charge in drawing the very first daily strips. Ralph Heimdahl graduated from St. Cloud State University in 1930 when it was a teacher’s college. Initially wanting to teach art, he was soon invited to attend Disney’s animation school, where he would eventually work. Heimdahl was offered the job for the Bugs Bunny strip in 1947, which he would draw for over 30 years. He was the first artist on the daily comic strip too which started in 1948. The main cast of characters on the strip were Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, Petunia Pig, and Sylvester.

Heimdahl, pictured with contest winners, “…was always good with children”, said his daughter Martha Slavin.

Thanks to Heimdahl’s daughter Martha Slavin and university archivist Tom Steman, Heimdahl’s work is now properly honored in St. Cloud University Archives. It’s about time that such a terrific gets the respect and honor he deserves. According to Steman, most of the artwork donated are underdrawings. These were rough sketches used after collaborating with his writing partners, Jack Taylor and Al Stoffel. Many original strips and storybook art are also in the St. Cloud State collection. Most of the original strips are housed at Billy Ireland in Ohio State University (again, the gold standard for all cartoon preservation). We are lucky both museums care so much for this and all the material housed in their collections.

Heimdahl and Stoffel truly were icons. In 1976, R. Terrance Roskin interviewed them both…

Here it is…

Heimdahl, Stoffel: Batty about Bugs

By: R. Terrance Roskin

Heroes are made and cast aside with rapidity in our high speed world. Few individuals are able to command our passing fancy more than a few years. This is a story about an indomitable American and two men who know him intimately.

The eternal American hero? Brooklyn’s own Bugs Bunny, a limber hare who celebrated his 34th year in the public eye this Easter. He is not to be confused with the Easter Bunny, also born on Easter. The Easter Bunny hops around dropping colored eggs on people: Bugs strolls around dropping one-liners.

To know Bugs is to know his comic strip creators, artist Ralph Heimdahl and writer Al Stoffel.

They’ve been with him for more than 28 rabbit years. Neither man particularly expected any association with Bugs, much less life-time careers.

Says Stoffel: “Away back thar in 1947, after I’d been a freelance writer, hotel publicity man, newspaper reporter, and a lieutenant in the Navy, I turned up as a handy man in the editorial department of Western Publishing Co. which had an agreement with Warner Brothers and Newspaper Enterprise Association to produce a Bugs Bunny Sunday page. One day somebody gave me a pat on the back and told me I was going to write the Bugs Bunny Sunday page. My Norwegian friend (Ralph Heimdahl) and I have been at it ever since.

Q: What led to your work on Bugs Bunny?

Heimdahl: I had been teaching for seven years in Minnesota. Six years in a school for the deaf. When I read about a national competition that Walt Disney was holding to find artists to work for him in California. I drew up some Mickey Mouses and some Donald Ducks and sent them in. I was accepted along with eleven other guys in 1937 and we went through the Disney training.

There was a big strike and I wound up on a farm in Vermont. While on the farm I created a comic strip called Minnie Sue and Little Haha which I finally sold to an outfit in New York after my return to California. It wasn’t really successful, but it was a nice little Indian story.

St. Cloud Unversity original art showcase

Q: Are you Fellows and Bugs Bunny alike at all?

Stoffel: I guess my sense of humor sort of meshes with Bugs’. He’s brash and a bit cynical at times—which I’m sure my wife would agree fits my personality at times.

Heimdahl: Bugs and I are quite opposite. I have small ears and have never been able to wiggle my nose. We both like carrots though. I could eat carrots three times a day.

Q: Apparently your partnership is working— you’ve been at it together for nearly ’30 years.

Stoffel: Being together this long—and still being good friends— has gotta mean something. Ralph can take a gag and make it visually hilarious. We’ve been together for so long that our brains sort of work in unison. I can picture how he’ll draw a gag when I’m writing it. In my estimation, Ralph Heimdahl is one of the finest comic artists around.

Q: There is a growing interest in Bugs Bunny, partially fostered by the new film Bugs Bunny Superstar. What do you think of the film?

Stoffel: I haven’t seen the film, but I’ve been told that one critic gave it a three and a half carrot rating. Although it seems that I’ve seen several hundred Bugs Bunny cartoons over the years, that work is quite different from ours. The animated cartoons depend mostly on action, sound, and voice characterizations for their impact. In the strip, we have to try and translate these characteristics into cartoons which don’t move and the printed word which has no sound. It ain’t easy, but the people who count—especially the funny page fans—seem to think that what Ralph and I are doing is OK.

Q: Any reflections on your careers with Bugs?

Heimdahl: Drawing a comic strip is a great thing and it’s a great career. I’d like to have had my own strip all these years but being able to do Bugs is a good second best.

Stoffel: Looking back, I think I’m most proudest of my development of Sylvester. I think of him as a combination of Wimpy and W.C. Fields with the seat out of his pants. I’ve invented a lot of other characters, mainly as pegs to hang gags on, but none of them have ever become as important as Bugs, Elmer, Sylvester, Porky, and Petunia who originated in the animated cartoons. Bugs has been around for a long time, and I want him to be around as long as I can dredge up a belly laugh or two and Ralph can draw’em. There’s just one more thing I’d like to leave you with if I may ask a question now.

Q: Yes?

Stoffel: Ehhhh, what’s up doc?

Thanks to: St. Cloud State University and Tom Steman

7 Comments

  • Great post today. I’d buy a book or series of books of the BB comic strips. Our local paper carried the daily for a long time. I loved reading it every day.

  • The Bugs Bunny comic strip didn’t appear in either of the newspapers my family used to get, so I only saw it when we were away on vacation. I recall that the final panel often showed Bugs with those little sweat droplets radiating from his head to signify embarrassment. (I know there’s a proper technical term for those droplets, but I can’t remember offhand what it is.) That Bugs was so easily and consistently embarrassed seemed out of character to me. Be that as it may, today I was highly amused to see Bugs’s head emitting beads of sweat even when it was caught under the hood of Petunia’s car!

    But hey, credit where it’s due. Back in the day, Freleng, Jones, and McKimson were each making three or four Bugs Bunny cartoons in a year, while Stoffel and Heimdahl were turning out strips by the hundreds.

    I share your admiration for archivists, a worthy profession that’s too often unappreciated. I’m reminded of Herman Melville’s comment on the sub-sub-librarians who compiled the list of epigrams at the beginning of Moby Dick: “For how much the more pains ye take to please the world, by so much the more shall ye forever go thankless!” They deserve better.

  • I teach at SCSU, and Heimdahl’s work is on display in the student union. Also, I’m on the University Archive Committee there, and it discussed how to promote Heimdahl’s collection at SCSU’s library.

  • I have this distant memory of these, particularly of Sylvester being kind of a mooching hobo character, and I think about it sometimes in a restaurant as I consider the satisfaction of eating free crackers and ketchup as a meal! This feels also to be a precursor to the recent “sitcom-like” Looney Tunes series they did, with somewhat different takes and uses of the characters. You never saw Bugs interact with Sylvester or Porky before, so it was good to see someone finding the potential in that!

  • Really cool, Kamden! I always need more inspiration! Comic strips are a dead art; I envy you all for having it with the best cartoon character.

  • I recall the daily strip running in the San Jose Mercury back in childhood days, but not the Sunday. I noticed Sylvester’s accent and easily imagined it fitted into his cartoon voice.

    Maybe not an all-time classic, but always attractively drawn and the gags were amusing, more character based than boffo slapstick. I recall one where Bugs invites himself to dinner with the Pigs, to Petunia’s annoyance. “Bugs, you have unmitigated gall!” “So that’s what this is. Needs salt.” (Porky blocks Petunia from hitting Bugs with a platter)

    Don’t remember Daffy or Yosemite Sam ever showing up — the creators’ choice or did the studio have them tied up elsewhere?

  • The Bugs Bunny strip was featured in the LONG BRANCH DAILY RECORD {Long Branch, New Jersey} for over 25 years {until the paper ceased publication in October 1975}, because they published a LOT of strips NEA distributed over the years {Alley Oop, Priscilla’s Pop, The Born Loser, Eek & Meek, Buz Sawyer, et. al.}. However, for some reason during the 1960’s, the RECORD credited Bugs’ strip to “Walt Disney”.

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