Mal (short for Malcolm) Eaton (1902-1974) was a New York-based cartoonist who was the artistic second cousin (three times removed) from the great T.S. Sullivant. While Eaton did not have the anthropomorphic chops of Sullivant, he did share a sense of wonderful stop animation-like figure movement, as well as that lively, scratchy pen line that both artists employed.
Eaton was not a cartoonist of great renown. His most well-known newspaper feature was Peter Piltdown, which took place during the civilization of the Ice Age people, more commonly referred to as cavemen. The strip featured the main character Peter, Inna-Minnie, and my personal favorite Pookie, who dressed in a plaid one-piece nightshirt, possibly in a nod to Richard Outcault’s Yellow Kid. Eaton’s feature was likely trying to take advantage of V.T. Hamlin’s popular cave dweller, Alley Oop, which was first published in December 1932. Peter Piltdown was published two and half years later in August 1935, and was syndicated by the New York Tribune, not known for syndicating a powerhouse line-up of comic strips. It appears that the strip was distributed by Miller Services, a small outfit in Canada. Unlike the NEA Syndicate, which distributed Alley Oop and was one of the top syndicates in the country, Miller Services was one of the lesser lights in the comics distribution field, which no doubt hurt the distribution of strips like Eaton’s. Alley Oop was a daily and Sunday feature, which allowed Hamlin to take advantage of some wonderfully inventive and long storylines, unlike Peter Piltdown, which was a Sunday page-only feature, relying on stand-alone, self-contained gags in each Sunday page. It’s difficult to build up a continuity in a strip when most of the pages consist of characters playing tricks on one another, or characters trying not to be eaten by some of the wildlife they live among.
Peter Piltdown ran from August 4, 1935, to December 15, 1946. The comic strip hung on for a couple more years under the title Pookie but ran only as a filler strip when space was available in the newspapers. After his career in the newspaper funnies, Eaton resurrected his strip under a new title: Rocky Stoneaxe. This new incarnation of the strip ran in the Boys’ Life comics section, joining Dik Browne’s Tracy Twins and Percy Fitzhugh’s Pee Wee Harris. Rocky Stoneaxe ran in the pages of Boys’ Life from the early 1950s into the 1970s, a longer tenure than its newspaper counterpart.
While Peter Piltdown never made it into the upper echelon of comic strips, Eaton sported a stylistic approach different from most other cartoonist working in the funnies at the time. He would employ a bouncy contour line, often using the pattern of Pookie’s nightshirt to create volume. But then would come this wonderful scratchiness, adding both weight and texture to the drawing. There would sometimes be a bit of scratchy ink shading on the characters, but when Eaton went all-in with the scratchy, textural drawing, some panels would have the feel of a woodcut crossed with an etching. The drawings had a beautiful physicality to them.
Besides the scratchy drawing technique, Eaton knew how to make figures move. He understood how to capture a comic pose at the apex of its action, much like Sullivant. He simply drew funny.
In the end, Mal Eaton created a charming, often beautifully drawn feature in that bigfoot comic strip approach beloved for so many decades. Combine that wonderful approach to drawing with Eaton’s quirky characters, and you wind up with something very sweet.
But enough with the chatter. Let’s take a look at some images.
Pookie was the main character who always seemed to get into trouble with animals. In this Sunday page from August 22, 1943, you can see Eaton’s wonderfully animated and expressive drawing.
In the third panel, Pookie is pretty well centered in the frame, but Eaton is able to convey a great deal of movement with the slight forward momentum of Pookie’s body, along with contrast created from background to foreground.
In panels 6 and 7, Eaton plays around with the diagonal of the composition, with animals running and flying from the left and from the right. Along with that is Eaton’s wonderful pen line and the simple-but-effective figure movement.
In the lower tier, panels 14 to 16, the camera doesn’t change, but Pookie’s figure movement creates the action, as a lobster and bird go for his prodigious ears. That last panel is a nice example of that scratchy pen work I referred to above.
In this Peter Piltdown Sunday page from July 6, 1946, the last year of the strip, Pookie wanders mindlessly from one dangerous escapade through another, unaware of the danger that might have befallen him. It’s a lovely wordless example, until we get to the punchline in the last panel.
Eaton begins the set-up of the narrative, as Pookie walks across what appears to be steppingstones.
Then he just misses getting crunched by a rhino and an elephant. The angles in these two panels are pretty typical of what Eaton did so well, changing the diagonals from one to the next. You’ll notice that Eaton rarely moves the camera up and down but plays with the angles on one main horizontal line.
A lovely use of open space, as we see the large cat about to catch his unaware prey.
The November 22, 1942 Peter Piltdown Sunday page has some of the nicest figure movement and pen work that I’ve seen in the strip.
When Pookie gets pecked by the turkey in this panel, the body language that Eaton drew conveys so much wonderful expression. It’s a simple but effective pose. The apex of the action.
These two panels just make me laugh. As Pookie brings the axe down, his feet fly up in the air and his facial expression is terrific. The turkey’s head jumps back, which adds to the action. Then you get that Eaton Angle, as it will become known throughout the land. The turkey takes off after Pookie, whose feet still haven’t hit the ground yet!
A few more sweet examples of full Sunday pages.
This is the earliest original art example I’ve run across, as well as one of the few color examples. It features Peter and Inna-Minnie throughout.
Mal Eaton will likely remain a footnote in the annals of comic strip history, but to paraphrase Little Miss Muffet, when he was good, Eaton was very, very good. In the end, his artwork brings a smile to my face, which is a job well done on his part.
Until next time, yers in ink-slinging goodness.