Know Thy History: Polly and Her Pals
The Roaring Twenties saw the rise of the free-spirited, liberated young woman known as a “flapper.” They wore short skirts, bobbed their hair, and listened to jazz. Though this was seen by some gray hairs as being very offensive in their day, I have to say that being known for listening to jazz seems kinda classy these days. Wait… does this mean that, fifty to seventy years hence, our modern day hellions will be known for their fantastic forward-thinking taste in Ke$ha?
Time will tell whether a future Gershwin will adapt “Blah Blah Blah” into a celebrated orchestral rhapsody. In the 1920’s flappers captured the public imagination, as sexy young ladies from every era are wont to do. They even managed to inspire an entire genre of comics centered around young, independent women. The comic that started it all was Cliff Sterrett’s Polly and Her Pals, It began in 1912 as Positive Polly, but eventually the name changed after the focus included her “pals” … which were, actually, her family. (Poor Polly… a child of the Suffragette movement, yet still being controlled by her folks.)
After Polly, there was a boom of flapper comics that featured ladies in skimpy outfits doing some pretty racy things for the 1920’s. They had colorful names like Boots, Fritzi Ritz, Dumb Dora, Jane (OK, maybe that one’s not so colorful), and Blondie.
Yes. That Blondie.
But there was more going for Polly and Her Pals than simply featuring the first pretty face. You see… it had style to spare.
I will give you a quote from Eisner Hall of Famer Al Capp (Li’l Abner) in 1978:
Now, Sterrett—that’s the guy who was the greatest. To think that a whole generation has grown up worshipping Picasso when the guy who did it far better was Sterrett! Far better than Picasso—and Herriman. I love Herriman—he has his own special place. But I love Sterrett—he belongs someplace else…
Wait, wait, WAIT.
Better than George Herriman, the guy who created Krazy Kat?
And … Hold on… you’re saying that Sterrett actually out-Picasso’ed Picasso?!?!?!
To be honest, I think that Capp was hyperbolizin’ there, perhaps giving props to a fellow who had been unjustly forgotten by the cartooning world at large. Still, you can see the influence: checkerboard textures on the clothing that suggest two-dimensions on a three-dimensional drawing, the odd key-hole style of the doors, and the way the buildings don’t exactly conform to prevailing vanishing point disciplines.
From what I gleaned from the touring Picasso exhibit that blew into town a couple of months ago, Picasso defined cubism as seeing all sides to his subject at the same time. Polly and Her Pals doesn’t go quite that far, sticking only to the superficials, such as Picasso’s love for straight lines and mere suggestions towards reality rather than literal translations. Only Sterrett used these techniques for the sake of comedy.
Characters are depicted in very simple shapes that look like watermelons or stacked cubes. More emphasis is placed on body language and facial expressoins. Joints jut out at exaggerated angles, which, at the same time, exaggerates reactions and emotions. Pipe smoke resembles tiny floating rocks, suggesting something more solid than vapor.
Polly and other attractive females are often drawn in profile only, while her “pals” get a more 3/4th’s treatment. It’s like she and other flappers are statuesque Egyptian hieroglyphics, and they’re living in an alien, cartoony world populated rubbery, lumpy people.
Yet, somehow, the two styles work together. It was the Jazz Age, after all. In the same way the sharp notes of trumpets and saxophones pierced the melodies of the music world, the art and cartooning world followed suit with harsh, bold lines that nevertheless flowed harmoniously when viewed in the context of the entire composition (or the comic strip, in Polly and Her Pals‘ case).
In a way, it would make sense that Polly would eventually be given less to do in her own strip. The comic was becoming more and more about sight gags, and pretty young ladies, who have to look ethereally fabulous full time, just aren’t drawn for that. It would be the more goofily-drawn, bald, bug-eyed Paw Perkins who would be hot-shotted into the starring role. Perhaps it was a matter of convenience: a male cartoonist like Cliff Sterrett would eventually run out of things to say about young women, and he’d eventually have to steer the comic in a direction he was far more comfortable with.
Of course, it’s also because the trend of flapper comics was destined to die out anyway. Blondie survived because she was transformed from a free-wheeling young woman into a domestic goddess. Fritzi Ritz still survives, but her early days of dating a different dork every week are long behind her; she’s now just a background character in a comic usurped by her young niece, the button-eyed Nancy. The rest are long gone and mostly forgotten.
Eventually, Polly and Her Pals succumbed in 1958. Sterrett had developed arthritis in the 1930’s, which forced him to outsource the daily strips to a couple of assistants while he worked on the Sunday strips. Like many other high-concept comics, Polly and Her Pals never caught on with general audiences … though it has been loved by many professional cartoonists, such as the aforementioned Al Capp and Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer.
Also, it gave me the excuse to put together this macro featuring Paw Perkins and Kitty:
(Yeah, real mature, El Santo.)