Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Thanx And A Tip O' The Hat to Jimmy Hatlo

  Cartoonist Jimmy Hatlo’s prolific output spanned over four decades. He is known mostly for “There Oughta Be A Law,” a single panel syndicated strip which ran from 1929 until his death in 1963. His densely drawn imagery and highly nuanced writing thrived at the generous scale at which newspaper comics were then printed. Reading Hatlo is also a fascinating study to the forgotten American social conventions, fads and fashions. 
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  His subject matter covered a breadth of topics unparalleled in the field (okay, maybe Ripley ran a close second but he wasn’t funny) because he solicited ideas from his millions of readers. It now seems quaint that the names and actual addresses of contributors were printed with each strip. That was before the era of financial institutions and/or sociopaths benefiting from knowledge of one’s personal information. Readers from every walk of life shared their unique insights about the foibles of humanity via the concrete details of those trades and disciplines in which they were steeped. He must have had quite a “morgue”. Before easy Internet fingertip access to any image, most professional cartoonists had filing cabinets full of photos and illustrations that could be summoned whenever the need arose. Any foreign object vital to conveying a gag idea would become uniquely Hatlo-ized, as if he effortlessly conjured it up with a few deft strokes. His pristine and often bold ink lines bring his subject matter to life with a directness and clarity.
   As anyone who has attempted to draw a crowd scene in which specific details and objects need to be crystal-clear, can attest, this is not so easy to do! While the laws of perspective are generally obeyed, Hatlo is just as engaged in the two-dimensional arrangement of people and objects situated in specific landscapes or interiors. There is so much visual information to be conveyed—along with tightly packed word balloons—the overall composition is a  daunting juggling act. But Hatlo always magically manages to pull this off. Background characters are not given short shrift as most cartoonists, even good ones, do. His drawing is so great we don’t think about it.
  The masterfully lettered dialog balloons range in content from pithy to  hilarious. They are mostly corollaries of the main punchline, though sometimes they’re superior. This lush verbiage could hold its own with cinematic script writing. But Hatlo had no pretensions to making higher art. He was a champion of the common man’s art form. Hatlo was an advocate for the underdog, always sympathizing with workers over their bosses and wives over husbands (with the occasional exception) and those who suffered at the expense of others’ pretensions or just plain bad luck. I have no doubt that you could score one of his old volumes for a song on Amazon. Any serious cartoonist needs to have a little Hatlo on his or her shelf. I was amazed to discover he also had a running script called "The Hatlo Inferno." Google the title and you'll find a modern version available. You may also remember the character Little Iodine. Once part of his stable of stock characters, she jumped out to her own showcase. No Shirley Temple, she, but smart as a whip.
  There was an imitation of Hatlo’s “There Oughta Be A Law,” which ran in the Chicago Tribune called, “They’ll Do It Every Time,” by Al Fagaly and Harry Shorten. I am delighted that they attributed a cartoon to Yours Truly when I was 13, though it was not the one I sent in. Over “Thanks to Justin Green of Highland Park, Ill.” was a strip about a guy who never took the newspaper that was on top of the pile (“Thaddeus Bop wouldn’t dream of taking the one that’s on top!) May father was finally delighted by something that I had supposedly done, and mimeographed copies were sent to all the relatives and business contacts. It seems fitting that my cartooning career began with a lie. For almost 40 years, the common perception of me which I can’t seem to shake is that I'm "The Underground Cartoonist Justin Green who produced ‘Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary.’” The work I’m doing now is my best work and Catholic Guilt is just one jar on my spice rack. It is such an irony that anything signed by me from the early ‘70s fetches roughly ten times the amount that my far more accomplished work does today. Only Hatlo could do justice to this inequity. “Justin Green turns the color of his name when he sees stuff he did as a kid fetching big bucks, while in his Golden Years he has to paint signs to stay afloat.” Yeah, that would make a great Hatlo panel.