George O. Frink: A Pioneer in Queer Cartooning (part one)

Editor’s Note: I am very excited to present the first of a two-part guest post by Dr. Kevin Cooley, presenting original research on a fairly obscure cartoonist that has an important legacy to consider in terms of queer themes in comics. I was honored that Dr. Cooley offered to present this material on The Middle Spaces.

Lucy and Sophie interrupt a baseball game. from Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye, Chicago Daily Tribune – May 14th, 1905

Bluff City Cemetery’s 186th plot has vanished. If you were to go looking for it in those quiet, burial grounds in Elgin Illinois, about an hour West of Chicago, you would find yourself puzzled, like I did. The plot should have been nestled on a hill between the “Butterfly Garden,” a small meadow grown up to our shoulders in brush, and a stretch of snow-specked woods of Bluff Spring fen, which marks the cemetery’s border. But while the friendly and helpful cemetery staff were able to direct me and my friend and colleague, Alyssa Dewees, to the site where the grave of Chicago Daily News cartoonist George O. Frink was supposed to be (Section 9, Plot 186, Space 46) it seemed there was no grave to be found.

We had spent twenty-some minutes of a sunny winter afternoon combing through weathered, gravestones in this old corner of the cemetery, but to no avail. I was prepared for the possibility that Frink, who vanished from public life sometime in the 1920s and died at the Elgin Mental Health Hospital in 1932, was buried in an unmarked grave. What struck us as odd, however, was that none of the seventy-eight other occupants of plot 186 were anywhere to be found either.

The truth came together gradually: first, as Alyssa noticed that each of Frink’s supposed neighbors-in-burial was buried without a spouse, and then, as the cemetery attendant (whose investment seemed to grow more personal and less obligatory as the search went on) measured his map of Section 9’s plot against the closest-documented graves we were able to locate. The truth became apparent as the attendant drew one straight line on the map with his finger: George Frink was not buried by the Butterfly Garden; he was buried underneath it.

Beneath the Butterfly Garden

The author and colleague at the Bluff City Cemetery’s “Butterfly Garden” in search of George Frink’s grave. Photos by Author. [Click to Enlarge]

A real cartoonist—a man who could have become a symbol for something larger than himself, but wasn’t yet one—died, and was buried underneath a grown-in meadow. His story was obscure enough to fly under the radar of the cemetery’s meticulous archivists, as well as the histories of comics studies and Elgin authorities. He was once a 19-year-old husband, and not long after, he was a 21-year old divorcee fighting a legal battle with his ex-wife. He orchestrated exhibits of Chicagoan fine artists alongside the queer bohemians of the cult-like “Whitechapel Club.” He served as a caretaker for years, providing for his mother, sister-in-law, and niece upon his brother’s death in the same asylum where he himself would one day die. He was a cartoonist who established the rules of what we know today as Bugs Bunny/Wile E. Coyote-style chase cartoons: from drag getups and impossible acrobatics to dopey pursuers and their whacky contraptions.

What stands out most about Frink, though, are the taboos his work unflinchingly illustrated. The findings I will present in this two-part essay overwhelmingly indicate that he was the cartooning pioneer who created Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye, an unprecedented 1905 comic strip about two lesbian women who were eventually carted off to an asylum. It is always irresponsible, of course, to pretend to be able to speak with supreme certainty about the daily goings-on in one specific, crowded, and chaotic cartoonist bullpen from almost 120 years ago. Cartoonists drank, disappeared, collaborated, and signed strips with everything from in-jokes to pen names to pictures of flowerpots (as Frink often did). To make matters more complicated, the cultural reputation of comic strips through most of the 20th century and the ephemeral materials they were printed on have, among other factors, rendered the history of the comic strip forever an incomplete one. And yet, the sheer amount and gravity of the coincidences that life would require for Frink to have been anything other than the strip’s creator would be as cartoonishly absurd and as ridiculously unlikely as one of his carnivalesque comic strips.

The exhaustive archival findings I have amassed should allow any reader to share my confidence here. But there is another more generative task at hand, however, than shrinking the minuscule chance Frink was not one specific strip’s creator to an infinitesimal chance—a task that may actually, for once, lead to just as many answers as it does questions. Frink’s work allows us the opportunity to consider how queer sexuality could envision and animate itself in a time, place, and artistic medium where it was often shrouded in silence or made the target of ridicule. Whether Frink is a queer cartoonist in the sense that he is a queer man making cartoons, a man making queer cartoons, or both, it is hard not to read his life as an emblematic example of the struggles of queer art to remain visible and alive in an era where a queer life was an unthinkable one. One way or another, the perceived deviancy of this artist who dreamt and drew up homeless acrobats alongside lovestruck lesbians brought him to an asylum, and ultimately, to an unmarked grave in the back of a cemetery in Elgin, IL.

I have been investigating George O. Frink since I came across the shocking lesbian love story that is Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye years ago in a sheaf of crumbling, coffee-brown newspapers tucked away for reference by cartoonists-in-training at the Sequential Artists Workshop in Gainesville, FL. With generous funding from the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum’s 2020 Lucy Shelton Caswell Research Award, I have been lucky enough to have the chance and the resources to pursue the story of Frink’s life doggedly. His story is one so powerful, hopeful, sad, and perplexing that it has compelled me to pour countless hours into familial detective work, archival research, asylum visits, and 1895-1910 comic strip binges, and it has demanded I investigate topics as strange and varied as sex in hobo camps to hydrotherapy in early asylums. All of this digging has been decidedly worth it to provide a powerful example that queer cartooning has a deep history that began well before most of our history textbooks admit, and that, knowingly or not, the queer cartoons of today still draw on. In recent years, thinkpiece after thinkpiece has declared or implied that we live in a golden age of queer cartooning—a time that has moved beyond a dark past where graphic display of queer love was impossible. In many ways, they’re right: LGBT+ characters and love are more present than they have ever been in our cartoons, on paper and screens alike. But queer cartooning is almost as old as the artform itself, and the comics of George Frink show that the queer cartoon boom of today is rooted in a winding but traceable lineage that may have begun in the first days of newspaper cartooning.

I had hoped to pursue just a few more leads before I announced what I’ve discovered in researching Frink and his comics. I’ve been trying to assemble the funds to hire a lawyer to petition for access to some of Frink’s records on scholarly grounds. I was a graduate student during the bulk of the time I performed this research, and, on a graduate student’s non-salary, this proved difficult. But the contemporary conversation on Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye has begun to gain steam in recent years, and it needs to take these findings into account to avoid misunderstanding or omitting this comic strip’s queer momentum.

What People Are Saying…

Lara Saguisag’s excellent Constructing Childhood and Citizenship in Progressive-Era Comics (2018) provides a comprehensive look into the construction of the child as a developing American citizen in early comic strips, and it touches on Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye along the way. Saguisag rightly claims that Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye “imagines that intense, intimate female relationships can thwart national progress and development” (151). However, outside of a general assumption that early comics are bound to dated politics as a rule, we have no cause to assume that the strip is a cautionary tale preaching against this interruption to national progress, and not an incendiary one giving the interruption a voice. Frink’s larger body of work and its queer politics (or even a more sustained reading of Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye) make it difficult to accept Saguisag’s subsequent claim that the strip is “overtly claiming that women who interfere with male pursuits are in effect impeding the nation’s economic growth” (ibid.)

The only known photo of George O. Frink, circa 1900s – Chicago Daily News.

Other voices in the conversation around Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye have blended uncritical dismissal of Frink with attempts to distance the strip from queer relations. Last year, Barnacle Press tweeted a thread suggesting that one R.J. Campbell was the creator of Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye. On the lack of a signature for the strip, the writer of this Twitter thread ventured what seems to be a gut impression that gradually morphs into a definitive conclusion. On the matter of the strip‘s anonymous authorship, they write: “I don’t think it’s ‘cos of the outré subject matter pushing any envelope,” and “rather, I think he was assigned to create comics by the paper and didn’t feel that it was his calling. He [Campbell] wanted to be a serious illustrator and artist.”

I share the passion that inspired the folks at Barnacle Press to attempt to solve this great mystery of the early comics pages, and I appreciate their attempt to do so. Barnacle’s digitized collections of complete runs of old comic strips have been incredibly helpful to me over the years as I’ve combed through hundred-plus-year-old comics—in other words, strips that you can’t exactly pick up at your local comic shop these days! I understand why one might be tempted to think R.J. Campbell was a good candidate without knowing Frink’s story: there are certainly some moments in the volume Barnacle Press links to where the artwork is reminiscent of Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye. I am not quite sure, however, that their observations in a Twitter thread about artistic style add up to a definitive attribution to Campbell, and I am unsettled by the decision to present this guesswork as definitive fact on their authoritative website. Many visitors to the site will inevitably assume this attribution has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.

What unsettles me more than anyone’s hasty assumptions about authorship, though, is the readiness with which many participants in the fledgling conversation around Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye assume that the strip could not possibly have been performing any kind of queer theorizing. It is not as if there is no precedent, after all, for early cartoonists to have complicated relationships with their social status in relation to their belonging to minority groups. Early newspaper cartoonist George Herriman (of Krazy Kat fame), for example, took the secret of his black ancestry to his grave and dabbled in meticulous cartoon theorizing of racial issues by working within the racial tropes of cartooning. In this pessimistic formulation where a queer reading is automatically foreclosed, Lucy and Sophie must, somehow inevitably, be either an unambiguous punching down at women and queer people, or a banal, meaningless, residual accident of momentary controversy in some (presumably straight) cartoonist’s career trajectory. It is pivotal that comics scholars and fans consider Frink’s role in creating Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye for reasons that go far beyond the overwhelming likelihood of its truth. Frink’s work in Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye is of value beyond estimate to both the study and the formation of queer cartooning. His seemingly forgotten work has, as I will demonstrate, exerted a ghostly influence over cartooning to come for over a century, and its traces can still be found in the gendered play of 20th century and contemporary animation.

The real story of this strange comic strip is a much weirder and wilder tale than any of us could’ve imagined. It is time to discover what lies beneath the Butterfly Garden.

The Comics’ First Lesbian Lovers

The anonymous 1905 comic strip Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye features two women whose prolonged farewells never fail to gum up the works of the straight world around them. Lucy and Sophie—whose names match with the great comic strip tradition of on-the-nose punning in their allusions to “Lesbos” and “Sappho”—almost always punctuated their strips with long embraces and heavy kisses on the lips.

Lucy and Sophie share a scandalizing kiss on the steps of a church in this shocking April 23, 1905 strip.

At times, onlookers (including their husbands!) dip into undisguised disgust at the queer pairing. Lucy and Sophie’s romantic goodbyes inevitably draw all kinds of trouble, for they are as oblivious to simple things around them like waiters carrying heavy trays and businessmen waiting for the bus as they are to impending dooms like dynamite, falling safes, drawbridges moving beneath them, and cyclones. Onlookers frequently stare agape when the women kiss, offering various exclamations of surprise and scorn. Sometimes, their disgust is stated plainly. The April 23, 1905 strip sees Lucy and Sophie kissing on the lips at the top of a church stairwell. “Nice thing for a church!” a top-hatted man exclaims as another declares “Where’s the janitor!,” as if they were a mess to clean up. Sophie, unbothered, strolls into church as the hateful crowd looks on quizzically.

Their adventures in the Sunday comic supplement were, in many ways, an exercise in the freedom to stroll where one pleases. At the time of Lucy and Sophie’s publication, the Sunday supplement was a blast of color in a life where colorful visuals were a scarce treat. They were a visual feast fit for the single day of the week devoid of labor and meant to be consumed meticulously and mindfully, but leisurely, by readers of all ages. Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye mirrored this escapist tendency of the comics back onto its titular characters: Sunday is also the day of escape for Lucy and Sophie, who are free from their domestic, married engagements—and free to engage with one another about town.

As such, it is only fitting that their goodbyes are prolonged. The end of the goodbye, like the end of the comic strip, means a return to that more restricted world with all of its intertwined commercial and heteronormative obligations. Lucy and Sophie’s time is inevitably cut off by something, dragging them back to a humdrum married life. “DEAR the nerve!” declares a matronly woman at the kissing women in a strip from June 18, 1905. She is walking with a male companion (possibly an impressionable son who she wants to shield from such ribaldry, but more likely a husband). The two women move in to kiss on the lips, unaware that the approaching man is moving in between them, primed to intercept both of their kisses. Lucy and Sophie, however, are largely unconcerned with the woman’s gawking and protesting. Even a (seemingly sentient?) horse’s startled reaction to their passionate kiss hidden away in a cornfield (in a strip dating from July 23, 1905)  doesn’t bother Lucy and Sophie. It may, however, leave readers feeling quite like the horse, who is tantalized at Lucy’s saying “Wait—I want to tell you something,” before Sophie quiets her with a kiss. Whatever she would have said is something we readers never get to hear and which makes the horse frustratedly lament “Well-SAY IT!”

The only distraction that can puncture the infinitely reciprocal doting of the two women is the presence of onlooking men, who are always coded as a threat. The strip from July 9th, 1905 sees a hot air balloon attendant cutting in on their kiss with a heckling “got one fer me girls?,” but him they can largely ignore. Other attention is less easy to push past. The strip from August 27th, 1905 sees Sophie nervously justifying her departure with the unpunctuated declaration “Look at those men Lucy I’m going back goodbye.” Lucy makes a similar move: “There’s a man watching us…I’m going, goodbye.” They have good reason to be concerned. At the turn of the 20th century, the “Boston Marriage,” a charged relationship between women often viewed by the straight world as innocent and playful, was enjoying less favor in the public eye. Frink’s contemporaries, the “Red Rose Girl” illustrators, were four queer women who lived and worked together, and they would ultimately be split up by these public pressures. Lucy and Sophie often experience these pressures as threats of physical violence. After Lucy inadvertently sprays a man with a garden hose in the September 17th strip (during an intimate goodbye session, as always), the man declares “those women ought to be killed.” The very next week, Sophie pays mankind the insult back, “Good bye Lucy I’d like to kill that man,” she says, slipping in a casual death threat toward the waiter who interrupted their adieus.

Lucy and Sophie’s fears are not in vain. One of these threats is ultimately carried out, and it cannot be dodged, ignored, or avoided. In the strip’s final installment on October 15th, 1905, the lovers are carted off by sinister mustachioed men in brown trenchcoats. “Say we got two crazy ones send the wagon,” says one. The women are wrestled into separate streetcars and held apart as they say their final goodbye. A young man in typical newsboy hat, papers and bell tucked under his arm, says “Gee dats der finish.” The next week, all of Frink’s strips in the Chicago Tribune—which had been running strong from 1904-1905—were nowhere to be found. Not to fear, though—over in the Chicago Daily News, the very same week of Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye’s cancellation, George Frink’s most successful comic strip character (and the most obvious of his cartoon doppelgängers), the acrobat Circus Solly, left his wife, who had imprisoned him in a loveless marriage.

The final Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye strip from October 15, 1905 in which the protagonists prophetically suffer a similar fate to what their creator would: institutionalization.

Like the life stories of many queer men of the day, who were forced into a labyrinth of closets by the taboos their very existence challenged, Frink’s story is one that can only be understood through various layers of intermingled history and “cover stories.” The person “George O. Frink” is, after all, constituted by the real man and cartoonist who split from his wife, behind the story of the cartoon acrobat who split from his wife, behind the lovestruck lesbians torn from one another by the world. But, to tell that story, we need to first clarify not only how all of its pieces are attached to Frink but how the fascinating story of Frink’s life informed his groundbreaking comics.

Coded Signatures 

“Cholly Pynehede,” like a beta-version of The Career of Cholly Cashcaller, also fails in his efforts to be of service. May 4, 1901 [Click to Enlarge]

In the May 4th, 1901 edition of the Chicago Daily News, George O. Frink signed his full last name to a prototype version of The Career of Cholly Cashcaller. The official The Career of Cholly Cashcaller strip would debut a few years later (in a 1904-1905 run in the Chicago Tribune), and it bears the same coded and hidden signature as Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye. Furthermore, this coded signature—an ambiguous character that sometimes looks like a “C,” and other times like a “G”—also appears on each and every illustration of Peck’s Bad Boy with the Circus­—a volume Frink signed and illustrated. Occasionally, Frink even reused his gags in the Tribune and the Daily News (in both concept and graphic layout) for strips that appeared in the other newspaper. Based on these findings—and without a functioning time machine on our hands—it seems impractical to remember George O. Frink as anything less than the (or, at very least, a) creator of Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye, which very well may be the comics pages’ first lesbian-led comic strip. Frink, by accident or not, left enough evidence for meticulous research and comparison to identify him as the creator of the captivating and controversial strip.

Frink’s May 4th, 1901 strip in the Chicago Daily News features a “Cholly Pynhedde.” Like many of Frink’s characters, Cholly Pynhedde appears with the same visual personae as both Cholly Cashcaller and Frink himself (which are essentially one and the same). Both cartoon men are tall and lanky with a large protruding nose, have tufts of hair creeping up in a curl down the neck, adhere to the period-typical dapper suits and hats, and are prone to checkered patterns and striped hats (like Frink’s, which he always wore at a jaunty angle, even in his caricature of himself). Like Cashcaller, this “Cholly” is also a dolt who, in spite of his best efforts, can’t seem to do right by the women he encounters with his elaborate fixes to small problems.

Frink’s earliest days at the Chicago Daily News often saw him workshopping different one-off characters that would eventually become the stars of his regular strips. Just three months before the strip that would become Cholly Cashcaller, Frink created “Tumbler Tompkins,” a shiftless hobo who uses his skills as an ex-circus clown acrobat to steal pies from windowsills and wreak havoc across town (as in this example strip from February 7, 1901). The strip would eventually transform into Circus Solly, Frink’s most famous and successful strip. In both prototype one-offs, Frink’s character designs and name choices alike would move away from the rough-and-tumble and toward the free-flowing and breezy: as Tumbler Tompkins became “Circus Solly” (as in this October 13, 1905 strip) and Pynhedde became the more alliterative “Cholly Cashcaller,” Frink’s style shifted toward cleaner designs and more noodly limbs.

Frink’s shifting and multivalent drawing style, for that matter, has been one of the principal confounding factors in pinpointing him as the creator of Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye. Caitlin McGurk, an associate curator at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library, notes in her groundbreaking 2018 article on early lesbian comic strip characters that “when compared in particular to Frink’s Ratty & Algy and Mister Makinbrake, it seems likely that Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye was created by the same hand most notably in the lettering style and design of the female characters” (341). One glance at these comics, and McGurk’s reading checks out. And yet, the style of the women in Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye (who are drawn elegantly, like only slightly cartoonish Charles Dana Gibson girls) and the style of secondary male characters in that comic (who are cartoonishly unremarkable and undefined, not totally unlike the goofballs of Circus Solly) could be written off by the skeptical as common cartoon archetypes of the era. Indeed, the folks at Barnacle Press make a similar point when they suggest Frink’s style (which is actually Frink’s best-known style) does not match the style of Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye. Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye appears, after all, unsigned in the pages of The Chicago Tribune; not Frink’s more frequent employer, The Chicago Daily News. Furthermore, its use of perspective and dips into surrealism are complex enough to resemble the work of Winsor McCay, W.O. Wilson, or Gustave Verbeek. All of these factors are not quite contradictory to Frink’s drawing style for the Daily News, but not quite the same style as his simple comic drawings in that paper either.

Like Tumbler Tompkins, Mrs. Clubberly Clubber demonstrates the diversity of Frink’s hand—and its ability to draw the elegant women of Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye. April 16, 1905 – Chicago Tribune. [Click to Enlarge]

Fortunately, Frink composed strips for the Chicago Daily Tribune that shed light on the matter of style. Frink’s signatures appear in the Tribune alongside Circus Solly just as they do alongside new strips created specifically for the Tribune. One of these, the April 16, 1905 one-off “Mrs. Clubbery Clubber” sees Frink drawing sophisticated upper-class women in the exact style as Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye (squashed-hands and all) with his definitive signature appearing alongside it. It is located on the same page as that week’s identically-styled Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye, which is still unsigned. It would appear Frink was trying out a style more like Winsor McCay’s ornate, Art nouveau, surrealism for his Tribune originals. This would make sense, given their demographics. Undoubtedly, Frink would have appealed more to the Tribune’s wealthier readers with stories of eager store clerks and upper-class women drawn in a cleaner style, and to the working-class readers of the Daily News with the chaotic antics of grifters and hobo acrobats drawn in a much more frenzied style.

Mrs. Clubberly Clubber fit neatly into the Tribune mold for Frink. Her husband, Mr. Clubberly Clubber, was a sort of stock goofball character of the day, who often appeared in text-only humorous snippets in the lighter parts of the newspaper. Here, Frink makes an original contribution by adding the rube’s wife into the mix and imagining the tension that must define their marriage (time and again, marriages in Frink’s work seem to follow the example of his own as they crumble). In its original position on the page, immediately underneath Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye, the conclusion that these two strips are by the same creator seems inescapable.

Frink’s having explicitly signed this original comic strip, however, also suggests he was (or, at least, saw himself as being in) no legal or financial jeopardy by creating and publishing new comic strips with the Tribune at the same time as the Daily News (where Circus Solly also appeared). So we can cross “potential disputes with bosses related to job security” off the list of motivations for Frink not ever signing Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye more explicitly. Why, then, was the anonymous Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye printed without its creator’s full signature?

The Career of Cholly Cashcaller was replaced by Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye (the former ending the week before the latter began), and it is also obviously by the same hand. It offers an identical balance of meticulously constructed backgrounds in perspective, with identical handwriting, and identical use of semi-cartoonish men and more elegant female figures drawn in six panels. The strip introduces the same template as its successor in which an oblivious character inadvertently obstructs the everyday goings-on of the commercial world around him, as “Cholly Cashcaller” (again, a dead-ringer for Frink) tries and fails at various low-status jobs. Contrary to some assessments of the strip so far, Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye was not entirely unsigned, though was done so only incredibly subtly—and this signature is shared by both The Career of Cholly Cashcaller and other works indisputably created by George O. Frink. In the first-ever release of Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye, a prominent letter that might be read as a “C” or as a “G” appears in the bottom-right corner of the strip.

Signature Comparison The creator of The Career of Cholly Cashcaller and Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye left a small, ambiguous character that at times resembles a “C,” and other times resembles a “G” throughout their strip.

An Ambiguous Character

The ambiguity between Frink’s “Cs” and “Gs” has ample historical precedent: animation historian Don Markstein semi-mistakenly reported that Frink’s name was “Charles Frink.” The “Cholly” of Cholly Cashcaller was a common nickname for “Charlie” at the time, and because the character was an obvious stand-in for Frink himself (in factors that go beyond appearance), the name “Charlie” seems to have been attached to Frink in varying ways over the years. Frink’s name was listed as “C. Frink” in George Peck’s Bad Boy with the Circus (which is indisputably recorded as being illustrated by George Frink). Apparently, whatever signature of Frink’s the typesetter was working off either simply named Frink as “Charles,” or contained “C” and “G” characters as ambiguous as those across the Cholly Cashcaller comics. The whiplash between “C” and “G” is most evidently attached to Frink in this volume: the initials on the drawing “Pa Was Suspended in the Air” appear to be a “C,” while the drawing “She Kicked Pa’s Hat Off” contains a figure much more like a G—and so on.

Is there any significance or story behind this confusing muddle of Cs, Gs, and unclear signatures? The ambiguity is, perhaps, the point here—and not an obstacle on the way to the point—as it allowed Frink to both sign and not sign these potentially controversial comic strips. In both Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye and The Career of Cholly Cashcaller, there may be a loose relationship with the intensity of the strip’s queerness and Frink’s willingness to place his ambiguous signature on it. As Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye begins to heat up, and Lucy and Sophie’s controversial kisses become less obscured by large hats and depicted more blatantly, the C/G attribution disappears altogether. The only daring exception to the anonymous creation of this comic strip—the second and last time the C/G signature appears in Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye—comes during Lucy and Sophie’s April 23, 1905 scandalous kiss on the church steps, as if its creator simply had to acknowledge his role in this particular intervention. Cholly Cashcaller, however, with its decidedly more symbolic engagement with queer life, is signed frequently with the same ambiguous “C/G,” occasionally veering completely into the territory of one letter or another. For example: the August 7, 1904 strip (whose thrice-repeated mistaken-identity fashion dummy bit is essentially re-used in the second-to-last strip of Lucy and Sophie), features the C-leaning character, while the strip from the 21st of that same month leans into its “G” serifs more clearly. The same consistently ambiguous signature that appears across both Tribune strips and Peck’s Bad Boy with the Circus is surprisingly consistent in its ambiguity and use.

In Peck’s Bad Boy Goes to the Circus, George Frink is attributed as “C. Frink” because of the consistent ambiguity between his Cs and Gs.

The ambiguity of George Frink’s signature is, ironically then, what makes it decipherable almost 120 years after its publication. Who is this cartoonist who left only the smallest breadcrumb trail behind to identify himself as the creator of the world’s first lesbian-led comic strip—the strip that would end his career at The Chicago Daily Tribune, but guarantee his permanent relevance in the history of cartooning? In part two of this essay (arriving next week), we will stitch together a narrative of Frink’s life from archival finds, public records, picture books, patents, lawsuits, city directories, official documents, newspaper ads, pseudo-scientific reports of eugenics experiments, and, of course, comic strips. With a more complete roadmap of this pioneer of queer cartooning’s life, we can ascend to a better vantage point with a better view of the full scope of Frink’s work.

Kevin Cooley is a Professor of Liberal Arts at the Ringling College of Art and Design, where he teaches courses on animation history, comics, and visual culture. He specializes in the study of queer animation. Cooley earned his PhD from the University of Florida, where he managed ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies, and he has served as a special editor of Synoptique’s special issue on queer animation. His research earned the 2020 Lucy Shelton Caswell Research Award from the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library at Ohio State University, which funded this project. His work on comics and animation has appeared in Modernism/modernity, Inks, Mechademia Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, and elsewhere. Cooley also produces the Move Away Podcast, a horror audio drama set during the early days of quarantine.

3 thoughts on “George O. Frink: A Pioneer in Queer Cartooning (part one)

  1. Pingback: George O. Frink: A Pioneer in Queer Cartooning (part two) | The Middle Spaces

  2. Pingback: Research Spotlight: Kevin Cooley | Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum Blog

  3. Pingback: Analysis Highlight: Kevin Cooley | Billy Eire Cartoon Library & Museum Weblog – Art Wire

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