Lang Syne Both Old and New

Posted by on December 23rd, 2010 at 12:01 AM

’Tis the season for chestnuts by the fire. In song and custom, chestnuts by the fire are roasted. But we’ve convened this meeting not to roast anything or anyone but to warm ourselves before the freshly kindled flame of fond recollections.  For these chestnuts, old and not-so-old, are the stuff of anyule memory, and all of those are the best kind. Or they should be.

For as long as anyone can remember, the Newspaper Enterprise Association has served up a special three-week holiday comic strip to subscribers to the NEA package. In the December 1981 issue of Cartoonist PROfiles, Ernest L. “East” Lynn was among several NEA officials who were surveyed for comment on the Yuletide custom. Lynn was dean of comic art at NEA from 1924 to 1964, and he said the Christmas Strip had started before his time. And that would make this year’s offering at least the 86th return engagement. But Lynn was probably wrong.

NEA publicity last year claimed 1937 as the inaugural year, but in Allan Holtz’s Stripper’s Guide (and a few other places to which he resorted), 1936 is cited as the first year. That year, NEA circulated Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” as interpreted by cartoonist George (The Comic Zoo) Scarbo. Lynn’s recollection was, then, somewhat off.

Others have told me since that what Lynn was probably remembering as having started “before his time” was the “X-number of Shopping Days Until Christmas” feature, a cartooned count-down designed for newspapers to run in otherwise negligible corners of their front pages during December. (Incidentally, Holtz’s Stripper’s Guide, a comprehensive painstakingly researched project that lists every newspaper strip ever published in this country — and gives dates and cartoonists’ names — is due out in book form sometime next year from the University of Michigan; watch for it under its new title, American Newspaper Comics: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide.)

The Christmas Strip is usually produced by NEA cartoonists who ladle out this cup of seasonal cheer in their so-called spare time while also doing their own features. Walter Scott, whose regular gig was The Little People, probably brewed more Christmas Strips than anyone else: his byline was on the feature through the 1950s and well into the next decade. And he also produced the first original material for the NEA Christmas Strip, Sailor Sally and Meany Mo, in 1937. Mad cartoonist Wally Wood is one of the rare outsiders to produce the strip: In 1967, his offering was entitled Bucky’s Christmas Caper and was, typically, mulled in space ships seasoned with the SF gadgetry the cartoonist doted on.

In recent years, NEA cartoonists recruited for the assignment have used the characters from their regular strips to moonlight in the Christmas outing, among them: Bill Schorr (The Grizzwells), Jimmy Johnson (Arlo and Janis) and Greg Evans (Luann), to name a few. Last year, it was Dan Thompson’s turn, and he has drafted his mock-adventure strip hero, Rip Haywire — “soldier of fortune, contemporary action hero, and big lug” — to appear in a Christmas Epic entitled “Rip Haywire: Away in the Danger.”

Making its debut earlier in the year, Rip Haywire is “a throwback to a bygone era of adventure comics, but with a very modern spin that gives it a look and attitude unlike anything else in papers today,” according to NEA publicity. “It’s a fast-paced, globe-trotting combo platter of danger, dysfunctional romance, and comedy (often at the expense of our noble hero).” (For more, see comics.com/rip_haywire/.)

The 17-strip Christmas series begins with Rip telling his cowardly pet pooch TNT that he wants to buy his ex-girlfriend/adventure sidekick/erstwhile villainess foe, Cobra, a gold bracelet. The NEA press release takes if from there: “While out for a Christmas Eve stroll, Rip and TNT run into an old, white-bearded man who asks Rip to deliver a parcel for him. Inside a nearby house, Rip and TNT find a bomb, a desperate man, and the beginning of a riveting holiday caper. Our heroes rescue the man’s family from a sinister organization, but with all the commotion, Rip is unable to get Cobra’s gift … or is he?”

The series began Dec. 7 and ran Monday through Saturday, ending on Christmas Day.


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This year’s Christmas Strip is by Jef Mallett and features characters from Frazz, Mallett’s strip about an elementary school janitor (the eponymous Frazz) and the kids he informally counsels and the assorted faculty of the school. Dubbed “A Mall and the Right Visitor,” the story has Mrs. Olsen, a usually somewhat cantankerous and portly personage, taking a job as a mall Santa in order to earn enough money to take a vacation in Las Vegas, a not very Christmasy motive. You can find the whole story unfolded day by day at comics.com, the NEA website. Here are a couple installments.

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The anyule strip is provided to NEA’s 600 clients and is also available for individual sales.

And Now, for Some Christmases Past. Herewith, at your eye’s elbow, we revisit a few moments culled from NEA’s files by way of decking the halls at your house with festive images of Christmases past. Some of these may be old chestnuts indeed; but we are all the fonder of them for their vintage.

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2 Responses to “Lang Syne Both Old and New”

  1. D.D.Degg says:

    Take a close look at this year’s (as opposed to the original 2003 run of) “A Mall and the Right Vistor” – for the first time since 1937 (I don’t think Scarbo’s 1936 effort carried the NEA copyright) the NEA Christmas Strip doesn’t carry an NEA notice. It is distributed by UFS, as NEA disappeared from the newspaper funny pages in January of 2010.

  2. R.C. Harvey says:

    Yeh, well—I missed that, the disappearance of NEA, I mean. I knew that United Media embraced both NEA and United Feature Syndicate, but I didn’t realize that NEA was being phased out altogether. So thanks for the up-date.
    I knew the Frazz Christmas strip had run before, too; but didn’t know the year. So thanques again.