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Arf! The Life and Times of Little Orphan Annie by Harold Gray

Arf! The Life and Times of Little Orphan Annie, 1935-1945 by Harold Gray. Arlington House, 1970. Hardcover, unpaginated (huge), 9″ x 12″, out-of-print.

Perhaps, like me, when you hear “Little Orphan Annie” you think of an obnoxious little red-headed girl belting out “Tomorrow” at the top of her over-acting lungs. This book changed that for me. Well, it started with the Annie strips in the Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics. I’d never read the strip before but the art caught my eye. I read through the strips in that book and was hooked. It wasn’t what I expected (I don’t what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this). A little research directed me to this volume, Arf! The Life and Times of Little Orphan Annie 1935-1945, an out-of-print volume collecting a large part of the daily strips from that ten year period spanning the Depression and World War II. I don’t remember now what I paid for the book, but it was cheaper than it would have been as a new hardcover of this size (it’s 1.5″ thick, the thickest comic I own other than L’Association’s 2000 page Comix 2000). It’s worth twice the price (or more).

The strip started in 1925, ten years before this volume opens, but it only takes a few pages to catch up. Annie is an orphan, who’s brave, self-reliant, and kind. Her constant companion is her dog Sandy (who in Gray’s art looks like some kind of lynx/monster with a ceaseless grin). She lives with Oliver “Daddy” (always in quotes) Warbucks, a extremely wealthy capitalist businessman, who talks a lot of libertarian philosophy (but in a down home kind of way) about hard work and spreading the wealth around (in the first sequence his new factory is successful so he raises the pay of all his workers and gives them better benefits, instead of taking it all himself). Oddly, Warbucks never seems to have a home; he is always on the go or staying with someone else.

The stories follow a predictable but oddly never dull cycle: “Daddy” goes away, often on a business journey, though later the war intervenes, as well as kidnappings, and other troubles; Annie–no matter where “Daddy” leaves her–ends up embroiled in trouble or is left to fend for herself; “Daddy” returns–often in time to save the day; “Daddy” and Annie solve the current situation, perhaps get into more trouble, often while vacationing; and then “Daddy” goes away again. This sequence happens quite a few times over the course of this book, always with some slight variation. In this way Gray offers a constantly shifting set of characters (the only other consistently reoccurring characters in what I read were Warbucks’ mysterious companions “Punjab” and “The Asp”) and settings (from small towns and farms to big cities to islands to castles).

One of Gray’s most impressive skills is in pacing his strips. His storylines continue for months at a time. He alternately lets the story build for weeks with strips that follow one day to the next (in story time) or lets loose with a sequence of quick strips that follow one moment after another. The changing pace of the strip is well suited to the daily serial strip, and it helps explain, I think, the long lasting popularity of the strip (which Gray worked on until his death in 1968). The slower strips provide a daily life element to the strip as Annie goes about her day working (she’s a hard worker), going to school (always quick to learn despite the gaps in her formal schooling), talking with friends (mostly adults, often with criminal and/or mysterious pasts), and other such things. The faster paced strips provide the action and adventure. In this way, Gray straddled two genres of strips more so than any other I’m aware of.

The stories involve wealth and poverty, farming and factories, cities and towns, murders and thefts, spies and gangsters, Nazis and terrorists, castles and farmhouses, boats and planes. There are always a few good people trying to live their lives and do what is right and a few bad people out for themselves, trying to gain wealth or power. Gray mixes in a few fantastical elements, like Warbucks’ friend Punjab, an Asian giant in a turban who can make people disappear.

Harold Gray is well-known as very conservative in his politics and this comes out quite clearly in the strip. The virtue of hard work and the ability of anyone to make it big if they just work hard enough is brought up numerous times. Other themes he returns to include: the gullibility of the public, gossip, the willingness of people to help each other out because they are “good folks”, and often the need to break the law for the right reasons. Warbucks serves as a model of the caring billionaire who’s always helping others out while following his rather strict code. I find the politics often distasteful, but it doesn’t take away from the success of the comic.

Gray’s art is cruder than most strips. He’s no Caniff or Raymond. Nor is he a Schulz or Segar. Gray’s characters are kind of stiff. We mostly see them from the waist up, rarely see feet. The action is all done with a very non-active drawing style. When he does illustrate some kind of activity (Annie punching a bully see below) it tends to look out of sorts, almost locked in place. His backgrounds are simple, often geometric lines or, for the outdoors, various kinds of scribbles. It is amazing what he does with scribbles. Softer horizontal scribbles are water, harsher vertical scribbles are grass or weeds. He uses cross-hatching rather frequently for shading or as a background at the tops of panels (giving the panel a darker more ominous setting, which fits the frequent underground settings and dangerous goings-on).

The more I look at the art, the more I appreciate it. It’s deceptive at first glance, rough and stiff, yet, it so smoothly conveys all that needs to be conveyed both plot-wise and emotionally.

For the majority of the book, every single daily strip consists of four identically sized panels. By 1943 the panel sizes start to vary a bit, wider panels, thinner panels, still usually four, though occasionally five. By 1945 the strips all have three panels. It seems that across this time period the proportions of the strip changed. It’s not immediately obvious in this reproduction (they keep the size as consistent as possible) but the later four panel strips have much taller panels than the earlier ones (which are more square).

Gray has a lot of “talking head” sequences. When Chester Brown, influenced by Gray, did these in Louis Riel, he used a repetitive panel layout, varying the drawings only slightly as the characters inclined a head or moved a hand. Gray rarely even sticks with the same point of view in his sequences. A four panel sequence involving Annie and “Daddy” talking will be shown from four different points of view or distances. While Gray probably did this to make things more interesting (I think the use of repeated panels is often considered “cheating” or boring) it often adds little to the sequences.

There is a minimalist aspect to Gray’s work. He shows us what we need to see and very little more. If he’s showing us two characters talking, then we see two characters talking and the barest of information that we need to establish their environment. On the other hand, if Annie’s out in a boat, then we see Annie in a boat from a certain distance. Gray rarely backs away, so to speak, from his characters, and almost never takes the focus away from them. It’s always about the people, and more often than not we see those people, front and center, torso, head, and arms.

In the end, I spent weeks reading this book, I couldn’t stop. I devoured page after page, week after week, and yet it never seemed to end. And then, finally, on Dec 25, 1945 it just stops, leaving Annie and her most recent “aunt” and “uncle” prisoner on an island. I could be worried for her, but I know “Daddy” will come back to save her.

The collection itself is most impressive, particularly considering it does not come out of the more recent attempts to package old strips in top notch, cleaned up, editions. My biggest criticism of this book is that it doesn’t include the Sunday strips which were part of the continuity. Each Monday strip feels like a jump in time where we only get a verbal recap (by narrator or one of the characters) of some momentous event that occurred on Sunday. The big events all seem to happen in those strips and it is disappointing to miss them. The book also has large gaps in the daily continuity (obviously, ten years of dailies would be a huge book) which, while necessary, are often annoying, as they break the sequence. Annie is suddenly in some other local (in one case you turn the page and she is suddenly unconscious and floating on a piece of wood in a lake!. Other than that, the book is great. The strips are almost all cleanly reproduced and the size is large enough.

Fantagraphics published a few one-year volumes of the strip for the early-thirties that are more easily available (and contain the Sundays) but this is certainly the biggest collection of Annie strips you’ll find.