Keeping a Straight Face

Posted by on February 23rd, 2010 at 6:53 AM

Due, doubtless, to his persistently conservative stance, we imagine Harold Gray an eminence as somber and as colorless as his name. His much touted conservatism probably arose because of the narrative demands of his comic strip: little orphan Annie could scarcely survive in the grim Depression-plagued world outside the orphanage if she weren’t pretty self-reliant, and self-reliance in the days of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was not a highly valued personal commodity. Annie’s adoptive father, “Daddy” Warbucks was another version of the same Gray credo: a millionaire, yes, but he made his pile through personal diligence and canny business practices, manufacturing munitions during World War I (“war” “bucks,” right?). And Gray took considerable pains to advertise Warbucks’ virtues—here, for instance, in a brace of postcard-like panels the origins and provenance I don’t know but they serve Gray’s propaganda quite well.

Gray was so opposed to Roosevelt that he killed off Warbucks in 1944, saying the strip’s self-made millionaire couldn’t live in FDR’s welfare world. A few months after Roosevelt died in 1945, Gray brought Warbucks back from the grave. Warbucks explained his reappearance to Annie by saying that “the climate here has changed since I went away.”

That’s pretty funny in itself, when you think about it. And other glimmers of comedy lurked in the Little Orphan Annie canon, like this 1942 Sunday strip, f’instance, a grand finale gawfaw. (What color there is here, I supplied myself with a marker; sloppy work, I ween, but mine own. Click to enlarge.)

Gray used the same gag in another of his postcards and he wasn’t above seeing humor in his heroine’s eyes.

Funny guy, that Harold Gray, but you wouldn’t expect it. And unexpected humor is the best kind of comedy.

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