In the DBTI (Days Before the Internet), original comic and cartoon art collectors would receive paper catalogs via snail-mail, in the DBTI known simply as mail. These catalogs might be set sales from folks like Bruce Bergstrom, Jerry Muller, or Stu Reisbord, in which you could purchase artwork directly at a set price. Of course, the availability of items often depended upon where you lived and how early you received your catalog. Jerry lived in California and if you were an east coast customer, the chances were better than average that you would miss out on the good stuff. Bruce and Stu were on the east coast, so I guess things evened out. There were also early auction catalogs from some of the major auction houses dipping their toes into the fledgling market. During the 1980s, you could still find Krazy Kat Sunday pages for several hundred dollars, Jack Kirby pages might be around $100.00, but things were starting to slowly heat up. There were also some dealers starting to hold their own auctions, such as Russ Cochran and Howard Lowery. Catalogs would arrive, collectors would go through them and strategize, figuring out how high they might go on certain lots. On the day of the auction, you would call in and check on the status of lots, topping the current high bid if it was something you wanted. Sometimes there would be many calls into the evening. As is always the case with auctions, you won some and you lost some.
In the late 1980s or early 1990s, one got away from me. Howard Lowery auctioned off a lot containing 18 sketch pages by the great Billy DeBeck, creator of Barney Google. There wasn’t much background about the pieces in the description and not all of them were pictured. The artwork pictured was printed in black and white, but still, I really liked what I saw. The drawings looked like they could be character studies for a storyline or simply sketches that DeBeck drew for his own amusement. They showed DeBeck’s process, which is something I always find myself drawn to. I was smitten with the pieces, but not enough to win them, winding up as the under-bidder for the lot. And then the drawings disappeared. I didn’t see them for nearly 20 years, until they resurfaced in 2007. This time they were offered to me as a direct sale, and I did not miss out on this second chance.
The sketch pages are lovely, showing DeBeck’s visual thinking out loud as he develops characters, discovering their forms and attributes. They also convey DeBeck’s facility at capturing figural attitude in a gestural drawing with few means. There are a couple of pieces that are reminiscent of Honoré Daumier’s work, the French printmaker, caricaturist, painter and sculptor. Many others appear to be strongly influenced by Phil May’s work. May was a ground-breaking 19th century British cartoonist most well known for his Gutter-Snipes cartoons featuring street waifs. In his all-too-short life, May became a bridge between the more realistic illustrators and the less-is-more cartoonists that would follow. He relied on a strong, gestural contour line supported by flat linear tones and shading. These are qualities that you can often find in DeBeck’s own Barney Google. DeBeck was a fan of May’s work, as was Harry Hershfield, who owned one of May’s original sketchbooks. In fact, DeBeck was such an admirer of May’s work that he had his young assistant, Fred Lasswell, copy both May’s and Charles Dana Gibson’s work to better understand two vastly types of great pen work.
Then there are those DeBeck characters, a mix of Damon Runyon-inspired lowbrow and highbrow types that you might find throughout New York City, from blind pigs to the opera. DeBeck reveled in these types of characters, filling Barney Google with them until an Appalachian moonshiner named Snuffy Smith elbowed Barney out of the spotlight, taking advantage of the hillbilly craze in the mid-1930s.
I can only hazard educated guesses as to when these sketches were made. All the pieces were drawn on the stationary of Beau-Belle Products, Inc., a New York City cosmetics and novelties company. The company was located at 11 West 42nd street. Up until 1930 or so, there was a Hotel Continental in New York, located at Broadway and 41st street, about three blocks from Beau-Belle Products, on the other side of Bryant Park. The hotel was destroyed by fire around 1930. In the 1920s, DeBeck had an apartment in New York on Park Avenue, as well as a house in St. Petersburg, Florida. Given that information, the mid-to-late 1920s seems to be a fair timeframe for the drawings. It’s quite possible that DeBeck spent time in the lobby of the Hotel Continental while in the city, looking for different characters to inhabit Barney Google, or maybe he had an entirely different project in mind. Taken in total, the characters seem like they were ripe for a Broadway production, written by Damon Runyon, right on 42nd street, around the corner from the Hotel Continental.
Let me close with a couple of miscellaneous DeBeck drawings, unrelated to the sketch pages above:
Many thanks for tuning into another blog post. I hope you enjoyed it!
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.