In the earliest days of comic strips, all kinds of strange personalities gravitated to the new field. Perhaps none was stranger than Jimmy Swinnerton (1875-1974).

Swinnerton ran away from home at age 14, traveling with a minstrel show as far as San Francisco. There he found work drawing borders around photographs for a local newspaper. Swinnerton's greatest talent seemed to be entertaining employees with impersonations of the newspaper's owner, William Randolph Hearst. One day, Hearst caught Swinnerton and was so amused that he took Swinnerton under his wing. The two became life long friends.

Swinnerton's supervisor scolded him not to get "too original" with his rectangles, but Hearst recognized that there was a better use for Swinnerton's talents. With Hearst's patient sponsorship, Swinnerton tried one project after another. By age 20, Swinnerton had developed into a successful newspaper staff artist: a lying, womanizing, gambling drunk who dressed in flashy clothes and hung around with prize fighters.

Swinnerton was the perfect petrie dish for the invention of the modern comic strip. He experimented with several, including Sam and his Laugh, Professor Nix, Little Katy and her Uncle, Mount Ararat, Mr. Batch, Mr. Jack, Little Jimmy, Canyon Kiddies, The Daydreams of Danny Dawes, and Rocky Mason, Government Marshall. Many of these experiments quickly died, but some of them caught on.

By age 27, Swinnerton was living a life of dissolution in New York. An alcoholic with tuberculosis, Swinnerton had suffered several hemorrhages and doctors gave him barely a month to live. He returned to California under close medical care. There he purchased his tombstone with the epitaph "blue pencilled." Next he walked into a bar where he found a drunken man weeping loudly. Swinnerton paid the man to follow him around, weeping over Swinnerton's imminent death. Everything was in place for Swinnerton's funeral, but then he switched to a diet of raw eggs and miraculously recovered. He lived another 72 years, and for the rest of his life always tipped his hat when he saw a chicken, out of gratitude.

It is unclear exactly when Swinnerton married the first of his many wives. He was caught in a scandal with a wealthy San Francisco heiress. The couple claimed that they had been secretly married someplace else but skeptical newspapers noted there was "no record of a marriage license." The heiress soon abandoned Swinnerton for Japan, while he quelled his sorrow in three other official marriages, along with semi-marriages and quasi-marriages in different locations. The combined alimony from his disorderly love life kept him on the brink of poverty. For much of his life, Swinnerton shuttled between lavish parties at Hearst's mansion, San Simeon, and dodging bill collectors.

As the comic strip industry grew up around Swinnerton, he found kindred spirits. The young Walt Disney used to come to his birthday parties. Swinnerton took George Herriman (creator of Krazy Kat), Rudolph Dirks (creator of the Katzenjammer Kids), and the painter Maynard Dixon on a safari through the Arizona desert to see the Hopi Tribe of Indians do their annual snake dance. Can you imagine the conversation around that campfire at night? The group traveled by horseback through the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley (which later played a significant role in Krazy Kat.) It was on this trip that Swinnerton gave Dixon a half interest in the Arizona desert.

With the passage of time, the roads of comic land became paved. Syndicates became well oiled machines with standard printed contracts. Colleges taught classes in how to write graphic novels and The Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art trained the comic strip artists of the future. But at the formative stages of comic strips, it was oddballs such as Swinnerton-- colorful people who had a hard time fitting into conventional jobs-- who started the medium rolling.

Popular posts from this blog