Blog

George Clark’s WWII Neighbors

I’ve written about George Clark’s wonderful artwork previously, in my long-defunct Inkmunk blog.  Clark remains one of the great cartoonists of the mid-20th century.  He also remains a woefully underrated great cartoonist.  There are a host of reasons why an artist falls into the underrated category.  In short, Clark’s two main daily features, Side Glances (1928-1939) and The Neighbors (1939-1974), did not have reoccurring characters, which can result in less of a connection with the audience who never has a chance to develop an ongoing relationship with any specific characters.  We’ve seen a similar situation with TAD Dorgan’s Indoor Sports and Outdoor Sports panels, as well as many of Clare Briggs’, J.R. Williams’, and H.T. Webster’s panel cartoons.  Webster is an especially good example, as his Timid Soul, Casper Milquetoast, remains one of the great characters in comic strip history, recognizable by folks from all walks of life, while most lay people could not name any other work of his.  There is a connection with Casper that is not found with an unnamed character in a wonderful bridge cartoon.  Now Clark did have a ten-year run with his Sunday page-only feature of reoccurring characters, The Ripples, but while that was a wonderful and beautifully drawn strip admired by a relatively small group of fans, it did not have the reach of his daily panels.  There were only 52 of those Sunday page strips a year, versus 300 plus daily panels per year.  We will visit with The Ripples in a later blog post.

Before I ramble on any further, let me offer up some basic biographical information about Clark.  George Rife Clark (1902-1978) started cartooning professionally at the ripe old age of 16, and within five years became a staff artist for the Cleveland Press. In 1928, Clark created the single-panel feature Side Glances for the NEA Syndicate in Cleveland. He continued working on the panel for 11 years, until William Galbraith Crawford took over in 1939. NEA was a notoriously cheap syndicate to work for, so Clark signed a more lucrative contract with the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate. The Neighbors, Clark’s new feature, first appeared on April 24, 1939.  Clark continued on the panel cartoon until June 1, 1974, when Bob Bugg took over the feature, continuing until its demise in 1976. 

I consider the prime period of Clark’s work to be from the mid-to-late 1930s into the early 1950s.  During that period there were few cartoonists who were Clark’s figural equal.  Wielding a brush and oftentimes a lithographic crayon, Clark made figures move with seeming ease, as if their joints had a squirt of 10W-40 in them.  He also excelled at creating a figural attitude in his characters, with a slight torque of the waist or lean of the back.  He simply knew how to make figures move with nuance and in a naturalistic fashion, doing so with a lush economy of line.

Though Clark’s prime was in that 15 or so year period, the sweet spot for me was his work done during WWII, from roughly 1941 to 1946.  While Bill Mauldin was masterfully documenting life on the front lines in the Mediterranean Theater, with black humor featuring “dogfaces” Willie and Joe in Up Front, George Clark was manning the home front, documenting middle-class life at home during the war.  Clark’s work appeared in the funnies section of the newspaper, but he rarely ever went in for the big knee-slapping guffaw.  His cartoons tended to focus on small observations, trials, tribulations, and victories.  Clark was at his best when he mixed his gentle observational humor with poignancy.  In the mid-1930s, the American Spectator magazine observed that, “Clark, creator of Side Glances, deserves unqualified recognition for a penetrating picture of our middle class.”  Stephen Becker, in his seminal book, Comic Art in America, noted that “He has never attempted to induce the belly laugh. He feels that a gently humorous reminder of something that has probably happened to his reader will suffice.”  Those are some of the connections that the reading public felt with Clark’s work.  It was not an association driven by a particular recognizable character, but an association recognizable through life experiences.  Especially during WWII, when so many citizens’ lives were impacted by the war.

In this example of The Neighbors, from October 6, 1941, a mother rushes home through the front door to her expectant family.  Her husband exclaims, “Seven o’clock and no dinner started!  What good is all of your club’s national defense work going to do if you undermine the nation’s health this way?”  There are a few things to note about this cartoon, beyond the husband’s unfair, harsh assessment.  Check out the figures.  They are all in different postures, from the woman rushing in the door, about to take her hat off her head, to her husband’s bent knees and back as he rises from the chair. The kids too play a part in this drama, with that figural attitude I mentioned earlier.  Then there is the drawing.  The composition is reminiscent of something Hank Ketcham would do in Dennis the Menace, framing and anchoring the scene with furniture, in this case the comfy chair that the husband is rising out of.  You’ll also notice the line work and tone.  There is relatively little line work that makes up this drawing, just a few to designate the forms and space.  What Clark does beautifully is to use the tones on the figures and chair to move the viewers’ eyes from the front of the scene to the back of the scene, traveling through the white space of the room spaces.  The diagonals of the floorboards and stairway all bring additional movement to the drawing.  Beautiful stuff.

While Clark focused his cartoons on the home front during the war, he would sometimes depict soldiers as a way of connecting them to home, often with a sweet and sad poignancy as seen in this panel from September 18, 1944. The scene takes place in a train station, with a solider holding a child, stating: “Thanks lady, for letting me hold him. My boy is about his age, and this gives me an idea of what he’s like.” Clark has conveyed a powerful concept in this piece, one that many soldiers and civilians could relate to. He has not done so in an overwrought fashion, but with that light touch of his, as seen in the drawing as well. You’ll notice that this piece is much more reliant on the brush drawing than the previous image. The brush line is calligraphic in nature, dancing along the forms with wonderful variations in line weight and speed. Once again, there is that figural attitude I mentioned earlier. The soldier holding the child is doing so in a believable fashion, with his back arched slightly to accommodate the weight shift. Secondary is the other soldier looking on, with his hand on his hip, with that foreshortening pose that all beginning figure drawing students hate. Clark made the complicated look easy. Even the woman’s head, cocked ever-so-slightly, adds volumes of nuance to the scene.

Continuing with the theme of soldiers-being-pictured-related-to-the-home-front is this panel from January 20, 1945.  With wonderfully lush thick and thin brush lines, Clark shows the father in the process of putting his scarf on, a simple enough gesture that shows the viewers exactly what he is in the process of doing: getting ready to go out.  As he’s doing so, the man says, “Sure wish I could stay home during Sonny’s furlough!  But no soldier’s going to see me absent from a war job!”  We tend to refer to the text in a comic strip panel as a gag-line, but there is nothing resembling a gag here.  It’s a poignant reflection of the sacrifices folks made during wartime, handled in a warm and deft fashion.  Clark again composes and delineates the space masterfully, using the man’s lunch pail to anchor the lower left corner, giving a starting point to the diagonal line going right to his son’s sleeping head.  The slight touches of litho crayon aren’t used as much for weight in the scene, as they are for a sense of warmth and comfort.  It’s a homey scene that Clark has created.

I’ve started off by showing the more poignant The Neighbors panels, to show how well Clark handled themes that tugged at the heartstrings, but he was also a fine humorist, as attested to in this panel from November 27, 1944.  While the man is lighting a cigarette, walking to his car, his wife calls after him, “You’d better find time to buy those war bonds today!  What are you waiting for – some movie star to kiss you?”  Funny wartime stuff, beautifully drawn.  You’ll note the absence of the litho crayon in this panel, as Clark relied only on his trusty brush and ink to develop the drawing.  Like in a couple of the other pieces, you can see how Clark anchored the bottom left corner of the composition with the stack of firewood. 

George Clark was not above aiming for the adorableness factor in his work.  His fine figure work could be seen in his depiction of adults, teenagers, and small children.  In this May 17, 1944 panel, three children are at the park, with two of them in play uniforms.  The little boy dressed as a sailor asks the boy with the lollipop, “Why aren’t YOU in uniform?”  The drawing is really quite sweet, as is the body language of these little human beings.  While the action takes place in the foreground of this space, Clark’s gestural background, with the people on the park benches with baby carriages, is also handled wonderfully.

One of my favorite things that Clark did during the war was to use the device of letters to and from home as a way of conveying his observations on the home front.  In these first two panels from 1943, the soldiers are reading letters from home as a reminder of life on the home front.  The pilot, who was likely in the AAF, reads a letter from his parents in this panel dated January 16, 1943.  He says, “The folks are trying to make the old town seem pretty exciting in their letters.  Guess they’re afraid I won’t be eager to come back after this is all over.”  The expressions on the two men’s faces convey real joy, and the body language, especially the pilot’s, is terrific.  The slight curve of the back leading into the baggy curves of the uniform pants is wonderful.  Clark has done a nice job of mixing up the line work in this piece, with both ink and litho crayon. 

In this second panel from 1943, dated December 30, two soldiers likely in the Pacific Theater are kibitzing about a letter that one of the men has received from home.  One soldier is washing his uniform in a small body of water, while the other soldier says, “The folks are still having the same old trouble.  Can’t get anyone to do the laundry.”  The ironic humor in this one is clear.  The structure of the drawing is similar to the previous panel, with the two figures right up in the foreground, with brief elements behind them.  The standing figure is beautifully handled, with that thick brush contour line, supported by the litho crayon tones. 

The last panel dealing with mail call takes place on the home front.  Dated February 29, 1944, a letter carrier brings a letter to a young woman from her boyfriend or husband who is clearly serving in the military.  The mailman says, “Now you take this over to Jim’s mother as soon as you read it.  There wasn’t any letter for her this trip!”  While maybe a bit of a buttinski, the letter carrier’s heart is in the right place.  The drawing in this panel is simply beautiful, with the two diagonals in the foreground helping to create some nice depth of space.  The figures, with the heavier black contour lines, are handled organically, with that wonderful body language of Clark’s.  You can get sense of the weather simply with the small touch of the young woman keeping her coat closed at the collar.  That shows an artist who pays attention to nuance and small details.  Finally, I do want to mention that main tree and the house behind it.  Clark packed a ton of information into this panel, but managed to keep everything clear, both in terms of line weight and tone.

I understand that talk is cheap, so let us allow George Clark to do most of his own talking from here on out:

“I wish I had the ration points you’ve used for cheese to fatten up those mice!”

Lovely flowing lines create both active figure drawing and depth of space. 

“Just to be patriotic I’m carrying these groceries home unwrapped. I thought if I’d cut through the back alley I wouldn’t meet everybody I know!”

The judicious use of litho crayon helps create a focus on the main figure, with the rest of the drawing done with that lovely, organic brush line of Clark’s.

“Everybody’s looking at Bobby’s picture. Wouldn’t they be surprised to know his parents are standing here!”

More lovely figure drawing, done with that supple brush line of Clark’s.  And just check out the man reading the newspaper in the middle-ground on the right side.  In so few strokes, Clark presents all of the information that you need.  It’s a near-perfect bit of drawing.

Let me finish up with a couple of poignant examples of Clark’s WWII work.  These are pieces that relate to folks in the town who have relatives serving in the armed forces during the war.  They are not the strongest examples drawing-wise, but when combined with the dialogue, it’s hard to not feel a lump in your throat if you could put yourself back in that time period.  In the first panel, from September 29, 1944, a couple is considering cashing in their war bonds at the bank.  The woman, with her hand nearly in her open purse, appears to be ready to pull out the bonds, to which the man says, “Hey, I can’t tell Mr. Perkins we want to cash in those war bonds.  He’s got two boys out in the Pacific that aren’t thinking the war’s about over!”  This is a powerful example of the home front tying into the war front, and the human cost involved.

My last example is among the sparsest, drawing-wise.  In this panel from January 27, 1945, an older barber is cutting the hair of a young boy, with a man fixing his tie at the right.  The composition is a fairly dull one, with all of the elements arranged in a horizontal line, providing little depth of space.  The man’s figure on the right is beautifully drawn, and once again, Clark knows how to hit the gestural nuance of a small action, like the fixing of a tie.  But it’s the dialogue that makes this piece work so beautifully.  The barber says, “Jimmy and I are sort of like buddies.  His dad and my son are in the same battalion.”  Simple and to the point, and what a point it is.  In one small panel, Clark shows us what is at stake, and how many generations could be impacted by what’s at stake.  He also shows the beautiful humanity of people during wartime. 

George Clark’s WWII cartoons are not exactly reportage cartoons, but they certainly could be based on real life reportage work.  In the end, they present a mirror of American middle class society during WWII, related to the newspaper-reading public with a beautiful ink brush line, rich lithographic crayon tones, and keen observations.

Rob Stolzer

Rob Stolzer has been collecting original comic strip and cartoon artwork for over 40 years. He has written numerous articles for Hogan's Alley, the CFA-APA and other journals. Stolzer teaches art at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where he teaches Drawing, Figure Drawing, Graphic Narration, Illustration, and Painting.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: