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F.B. Opper’s ‘Erbie and ‘Is Playmates

Frederick Burr Opper (1857–1937) is widely considered to be one of the pioneers of the American newspaper comic strip, with multiple strips done during his three-decade association with William Randolph Hearst. Happy Hooligan is undoubtedly Opper’s most well-known creation, but he also created Alphonse and Gaston and Her Name is Maude, along with likely hundreds of political and editorial cartoons. Opper was also a longtime contributor to PUCK magazine. Additionally, Opper illustrated a number of books, including one for Mark Twain. 

In 1932, the Democratic National Committee issued a 16-page booklet of anti-Hoover cartoons by Opper.  The 1932 presidential elected pitted a beleaguered Herbert Hoover against Franklin D. Roosevelt, the popular governor of New York.  Roosevelt was not the shoe-in favorite for the nomination, but when Hearst shifted support to Roosevelt, that helped to win him the nomination.  It also makes more sense that a Hearst cartoonist is throwing his weight behind Roosevelt in these cartoons. 

If you read the cartoons and the accompanying text, you’ll see how playful Opper could be in his writing.  The characters change as time goes on, with Prohibition becoming less of an issue, and Europe’s (Ropy’s) obligation increasing.  Happy Hooligan himself even makes an appearance, as his “…keen, analytical mind grasps the situation with almost uncanny accuracy.  You’d be surprised.”

The late work by Opper is my favorite of his.  In Opper’s early magazine cartoons, he showed a wonderful facility with the pen, but didn’t really stand out compared to all the other great pen & ink artists of the period.  As time went on, Opper’s line and figures became blockier and clunkier.  There is something about the weight of those forms that simply appeals to me. Gone is the decoration.  What is left is the bare-bones guts of the forms.  Like George Herriman’s late work and Philip Guston’s wonderful figure work, there is an often-disconcerting honesty in the work.  That work sings to me. 

The publication that I scanned these pages from used a cheap acid-filled paper, so the paper is rather toned.  I have cleaned the images up in the scans for readability but tried to maintain the weight of the lines and marks.

I hope you enjoy these rare images.  Take care.

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.

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