The Art of the Funnies: An Aesthetic History

By Robert C. Harvey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
The Captain and the Comics How a Noncartoonist Shaped the Medium

If circulation is what makes a newspaper great (and that is surely one of the measures of greatness in newspapering), then Joseph Medill Patterson knew more about how to achieve greatness than any other man of his time: in circulation battles in both Chicago and New York, he soundly defeated the champion of the previous generation, William Randolph Hearst. Like Hearst, Patterson recognized the importance of comics in selling newspapers. One of his first acts upon assuming control of the Sunday Chicago Tribune in 1910 had been to add to the Sunday funnies his favorite strip, Rudolph Dirks Hans and Fritz. (Retitled The Captain and the Kids in the national fit of anti-German feeling during World War I, the strip was Dirks's reincarnation of his famed Katzenjammer Kids.) But Patterson was otherwise much different than Hearst when it came to publishing comic strips. Hearst purchased established or proven talent; Patterson developed talent. Hearst's success as a press lord had rested almost entirely upon the size of his bankroll (which derived more from inherited mining interests than from the newspapers he published); Patterson's was founded upon his uncanny understanding of what appealed to the ordinary citizen.

Patterson had been born to wealth and influence, but he gained his extraordinary insight into human nature through the variegated experiences of a youth that only his wealthy peers might say was misspent. He had learned disdain for members of his class at Groton, a tony school for the scions of the rich and famous where his classmates had sneered at his midwestern accent. Henceforth, he had no use for snobs, young or old. And disdain fostered a reformer's spirit. Moreover, he acquired by the experience a dread of ostentation that lasted throughout his life.

He entered Yale in 1897, interrupting his tenure there for a year to serve an apprenticeship in the family calling. But his baptism in journalism was not performed at the family font: when he went to cover the Boxer Rebellion in imperial China in the summer of 1900, he went as an aide to a reporter for Hearst Chicago American. In China he doubtless witnessed the last flaunting of old-style imperialism, the final flourish of traditional, premechanized military campaigning, as the multinational force wound its way from Tientsin to besieged Peking under a rainbow of fluttering guidons. A wondrous sight--the mounted and trudging might of historic colonialism in full martial panoply.

After his adventure in the Orient, Patterson returned to Yale, graduated in 1901, and joined his father's Tribune as a reporter. But he found the work dull and left in order to throw himself into local politics, campaigning for municipal reform in Chicago. His performance eventually earned him a

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