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

Editor’s Note: Today we present part two of Kevin Cooley’s two-part examination of turn of the 20th century cartoonist, George O. Frink and his groundbreaking work on Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye and Circus Solly. You can read part one here.

Two panels from George Frink’s experiments in comics as film (1910)

In the first part of my essay on George O. Frink, a pioneer of queer cartoons in early 20th century newspapers, we reviewed the overwhelming evidence that indicates Frink created the lesbian-led Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye and the shockingly queer contents of that 1905 comic strip.

There is only so much we can understand, however, about Frink’s work without knowing what remains of the story of the cartoonist himself. What I have learned of George O. Frink’s life paints an incomplete picture, but a provocative one. By examining his life, we will not only be able to track its many intersections with his cartooning—but also understand how Frink’s exploration of queer life through cartooning subtly shaped the tropes and styles of comics and animation from then until the present moment.

George Frink was born in Marion County, Indiana in 1874. We have only educated inferences with which to construct an image of young George’s childhood. His older brother, Samuel Frink, followed in the footsteps of their father, Erastus, and worked as an engineer for a time, as Erastus’s father had before him—if there was any expectation that George was expected to do the same, he simply did not. Growing up where he did, young George would have likely encountered circus shows in or from the “Circus Capital of the World,” Peru, Indiana. Here, he would’ve seen any of the acrobatic feats that dominate what would become his flagship strip, Circus Solly. Young George was visiting the circus, and he was paying meticulous attention to his surroundings. For example, the elephants in all of his comic strips (signed and unsigned in the Chicago Daily News and Chicago Tribune) sport the consistent and unique feature of small internal tearing in the ears—an actual symptom of atrophy experienced by poorly kept elephants. They also consistently sport small protective caps over the tusks: a detail that rarely appears in other cartoonists’ drawings of elephants of the era. A circus at the turn of the 20th century would be one of the few places in life where a young, Midwestern boy could’ve encountered non-normative performances of gender. Bearded ladies, performers in drag, and queer men and women who had been turned out by their biological families were free to construct a new one on the carnival road. George Ade, a Chicago humorist who was both a closeted gay man and a colleague of Frink’s, affords an image of what a boy George’s age may have encountered in his children’s book, Circus Day (1903). When Ade’s boy pal protagonists escape to the circus for the day, they marvel at its many wonders and decide that “when they grew up, they would be circus clowns, even if they had to run away from home.”

Cartoon elephants by (from left to right), George MacManus, Rube Goldberg, a strip signed by Frink, and Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye. Notice the details of torn ears and tusk caps on Frink’s pachyderms.

His Own Personal Circus

If young George’s visits to the circus did shape his long-term goals and/or personality, it seems unlikely this was the life his father intended for him. George’s father, Erastus, and his older brother and grandfather, both called Samuel, were engineers, and filed patents for inventions such as a till-lock alarm and stagecoach breaks controlled entirely by air pressure. Erastus, it seems, was a locally famous figure. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, Erastus Otis Frink was also a patent solicitor and lawyer, taking out various ads for new clients. He is described as the “well-known patent solicitor and mechanician” in an article by Dr. Richard J. Gatling, the man who designed the Gatling gun, which Erastus constructed for Gatling based on his pattern. Erastus’ career as an engineer offers insights into George Frink’s work and the sharp turns his paper comics often take toward uninhibited motion and animation. Erastus Frink published Patent Nuts Cracked, a kind of 1878 version of “Patents for Dummies,” whose advertisements shed light on his own drawing ability. One ad reads “I supply drawings for inventors” and “I never employ other people for this purpose.” Whatever drawing skills Erastus may have passed onto George are noted in the technical efficiency of the machinery in Frink’s cartooning. The July 10th, 1904 The Career of Cholly Cashcaller strip even sees Erastus’ patented technology making an appearance as a gag. As Cholly stands before a group of connected sprinklers, he excitedly exclaims “now, by means of the compressed air tap, I shall be able to show my customers how all these devices work,” and, inevitably, sprays his customer (a look-alike of Sophie) from head-to-toe. Where Erastus may have seen an opportunity for technological growth or a chance to lock down intellectual property, George saw a chance for a vaudevillian knee-slapper.

Cholly Cashcaller as a “counter jumper,” a turn -of-the-century term applied to men who worked as clerks. (1/15/1905, The Chicago Tribune)

His father’s patented technology is not all Frink experimented with, he also experimented with marriage. In August 1893, at the age of 21, Frink married Bertha May Hiers, who was 19. They would be divorced within two years’ time, as indicated by a lawsuit filed by Hiers for support against Frink and his employer as a cartoonist for the Indianapolis News in 1895. Currently, there is no definitive evidence for the reasons behind the divorce—but the many cartoon fictions Frink made that neatly paralleled his own life, make it not so difficult to imagine why it might have happened. Other potential reasons are suggested by his career choices. The Indianapolis City Directory specifies that Frink worked as a clerk at an unspecified location in 1891 and as a clerk at the Progress Clothing Company in 1892. At the time, male clerks (especially those working in clothing and fashion industries) were treated to the homophobically-charged nickname “counter jumpers.” Queer historians of the Midwest like Jim Elledge (especially in his 2018 book The Boys of Fairytown) have verified how being a “counter jumper”—which he defines as “a derogatory term for male salespeople because they held jobs that were typically associated with women”—was code for a queer man (64). So-called “counter jumpers” were transgressing the literal boundary between the female-coded space of the clerk and the space of the consumer—a rebellious act whose consequences for traditional gender roles were not lost on the larger public.

Frink’s cartooning provides wild insight into his counter-jumping days with his cartoon doppelgänger Cholly Cashcaller, a thinly-veiled younger Frink who can’t ever seem to do right by the fussy, high-society women who are his customers and their impatient husbands. The final comics strip from February 26th, 1905 sees poor Cholly blowing himself up in a storehouse full of fireworks—a gag that Frink would reuse, twice, (format and visuals alike) in his (signed) Tommy Town and Ratty & Algy strips in a few months’ time. The visceral image of an explosion waiting to happen was perhaps the most appropriate visual with which a cartoonist might explore the presumed fate of a queer man at the turn of the 20th century. It was a fate that Cholly shared with the dandy “Dippy Dude” twosome Wobbie and Weggie, a thinly-veiled parody of a gay couple with faux-European affectations created by a cartoonist who only signed the strip “Lester.” The “dippy dudes” said their last “bah-jove!” after they blew themselves up on February 24th, 1906. That one of Wobbie and Weggie’s many catchphrases was “blow me!” certainly compels the curious mind to inference-making. Fittingly, the even more scandalous life of the queer women of Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye was marked out in the cartoons by a series of nearly weekly explosions.

Frink appears to use the same layout for the same gag three times—once unsigned in Cholly Cashcaller, and twice signed in Tommy Town and Ratty & Algy. (Left: 7/2/1905, Chicago Tribune. Right: 2/26/1905, Seattle Post-Intelligencer) [Click to Enlarge]

An explosion makes for a very malleable metaphor—and could denote cultural changes just as much as it could violence. In his mid-twenties, Frink seems to have been devoted entirely to not only his own art, but a blossoming Chicagoan and Midwestern cartooning and fine arts culture. Beginning on February 6th, 1899, Frink organized an exhibition at the Lieber Art Gallery in Indianapolis, and participated in a similar showing at an exhibition at a local high school in April of that same year. His exhibition was made up of his own private collection of mixed newspaper art from the Chicago Tribune and Record alongside fine art. Frink himself contributed several sketches of the 30th Anniversary of the Chicago Peace Jubilee in late 1898. Shortly afterwards, he would join the staff of the Chicago Daily News, perhaps helped along by connections in this exhibition circuit. A rare autobiographical comic strip of Frink’s tells the story of Frink buttering up a newspaper editor with the help of a streetwise friend so that he might accept Frink’s cartoons—a slightly more humorous, but still possible, origin story for his employment at the Daily News. While there, he would create the Circus Solly comic strip, among many others. He became a cartoonist of nearly unprecedented productivity from about 1900-1913, with sporadic (and faltering) reappearances in 1915.

Defying the Somatotype

Frink’s personal life was not always as lighthearted or playful as his Daily News cartoons. Born the year following the death of his older sister Hattie May Frink (1866 – 1873), tragedy cast a shadow over his life from the get-go, and it would remain a permanent fixture. At the height of Frink’s career as a cartoonist, his brother, Samuel would die after an accident while working on the Alton Railroad in Chicago. As of the 1910 census, Samuel Frink’s widow, Josephine, and their young daughter, Leota “Lesta” Frink, were now living with George, along with George’s mother, Charlotte “Lotta” Frink. His cartooning, it seems, was putting food on the table for the family of his deceased brother. Josephine moved out with Leota upon Leota’s marriage to Walter Palis, the biological father of both her children—apparently Frink was not one to abide by any biblical tradition of marrying the deceased brother’s widow.

In his only known autobiographical strip, Frink employs a streetwise friend to butter up a newspaper editor. (5/17/1901, Chicago Daily News)

Disappearing and reappearing from work at sporadic intervals, and going almost entirely off the grid from 1920 onward, early comics historians speculate that Frink was an alcoholic. His disappearance from the papers was so rapid and severe that he was erroneously assumed to have died in 1913 until cartoon historian Alex Jay uncovered his death certificate in 2012, establishing his year of death as 1932. George Frink’s institutionalization at the Elgin State Hospital most likely occurred in 1924, the year of his mother’s death. The 1930 census lists him as a resident of the hospital, and his death certificate makes it clear he died there on November 17th, 1932. What Frink may have endured at Elgin will be the subject of my writing elsewhere. But that Frink’s institutionalization occurred at the same time and place as the early experiments of crackpot eugenicist W.H. Sheldon— who, in books like The Varieties of Temperament makes frequent references to the chiseled jaws and noodly limbs of comic strips from The Chicago Tribune in defining his “somatotypes”—makes it likely Frink would’ve been a target of special interest for Sheldon’s misdeeds. It is hard to imagine the end of his life was a happy one.

Despite being incomplete, Frink’s biography is an empowering, provocative, and depressing story all at once. For years, I have dreamt of getting a call about a box in some distant relative’s attic filled to the brim with letters, diaries, artwork, and the priceless details of his everyday life. That day will likely never arrive. J.C. Leyendecker—Frink’s contemporary, the queer advertisement illustrator who was a Chicago Art Institute Alumnus—was born and active during the same years as Frink, and he had his lover burn any letters illuminating the details of his personal life. There is no reason to think Frink would not do the same—or, for that matter, that anyone would think to preserve the papers of a penniless man in an asylum, whether or not he were queer. Frink’s world was, sadly, designed to make people like him disappear. It largely did its job in that matter.

The most extensive records of the life he left behind, however, were his comics themselves. And while Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye, out of all of Frink’s work, provides the most obvious and visually powerful cartooning of queer life in the first years of the 1900s, the rest of Frink’s comics offer their own stunning insights into the life and art of a cartoonist furiously drawing queer worlds into being on the funny pages.

Frink turns a harness used for swimming lessons into a joke that both acknowledges female sexual desire, and acknowledges men as objects of sexual desire. (9/2/1903, Chicago Daily News) [Click to Enlarge]

The very premises of many of Frink’s daily strips were eyebrow raising. In a September 2nd, 1903 one-off called “No Use for Him,” Frink offers a rare glimpse of male-gazing eroticization of the male body in a shockingly suggestive strip for the time. In it, a handsome man (with a hat like Frink’s) applies for a job as a swim instructor at the public pool. He is callously turned down by the pool’s middle-aged proprietor, who tells him “No, I don’t want any good-looking swimming teachers. The girls would be too long learning!” In the pool that occupies the background, an unflatteringly-drawn man holds a woman’s body to the surface of the water with a leather harness in a position decidedly reminiscent of bondage play. Shocked at the sexual implications thrust upon him by the pool manager, the applicant is so stunned that his hat pops off his head.

By obstructing the woman’s (presumed) desires, Frink makes the source of the cartoon’s comic tension a topic with very little precedent in a 1903 funnies section: deferred desire for bondage play with the male body. The joke only lands, after all, if the reader understands the handsome man’s body as the site of sexualization and erotic desire, and if the reader identifies with the potential for the woman to be erotically attracted to the handsome man. The 1903 reader is placed in a delicate position where they are asked to acknowledge and validate 1) the woman potentially desiring bondage play with the handsome man in a time when women having sexual desires was unthinkable, 2) the proprietor immediately reading the male applicant as a sexually desirable object, and 3) the proprietor’s paradoxical ability to not only understand, but voice, a woman’s lewd desires for power play, just as he tries to curtail that same feminine and male-directed sexual desire. The cartoon, then, assumes (or perhaps even interpolates) a reader who desires the male body.

Certainly, the cartoon has a built-in failsafe to avoid raising too many eyebrows. The mitigating presence of the woman allows the (male) proprietor to somewhat safely admit that he sees the handsome man as an object of sexual desire—all without directly acknowledging the existence or possibility of same-sex desire. But it is not the woman, but the male proprietor of the pool, who is the one who has introduced sexual desire into the scenario (for all we know, she is simply trying to learn how to swim). By pinning sexual desire for the handsome man onto the woman, the proprietor seemingly distances himself from the appearance of homosexuality. And yet, he also compromises his own performance of heterosexuality by so imaginatively ascribing such specific fetishistic desires to the woman. After all, the proprietor’s forwardness about the handsome man’s aptitude for bondage play seems to have shocked the handsome man as much as the proprietor’s sudden suggestion of the woman’s sexuality.

We cannot draw definitive conclusions about Frink’s life from an ostensibly fictional one-off cartoon. But if Frink really did happen to see such a suggestive harness used in a real swimming lesson that inspired this cartoon (just as women’s access to swimming lessons was becoming an issue of public note), it seems telling to me that the resulting punchline was not “those men sure are lucky,” but “those women must really like that!”

Mr. Spanker is called a “loafer,” an insult used for morally dubious characters often associated with homosexual relatioins, for entering a women’s convention. (5/15/1909, Chicago Daily News) [Click to Enlarge]

Frink’s regular strips often relied on similarly sexualized scenarios that played with power and masculinity. Sammy Spankem features a boy that comics historian Allan Holtz aptly describes as a “nancy-boy type kid” who in each strip tattles to his father (yet another dead-ringer for Frink’s self-caricature) about a problem, only for the father to find out he misunderstood the situation altogether. The May 15, 1909 strip makes a shockingly direct allusion to homosexuality. After young Sammy complains to his father that he “isn’t allowed upstairs” in a building, Mr. Spankem barges into a dressmaker’s conference full of women who scream “Loafer!” at him and sic the cops on the apparent gender transgressor. The term “loafer” means, according to Richard H. Thorton’s An American Glossary: Being an Attempt to Illustrate Certain Americanisms upon Historical Principles (1912), being a kind of roguish layabout who “troubles himself about other men’s business” and who “is a lounger about places of…amusements” (547). While used to describe a range of deviant behaviors, the term often encapsulated sexual activity that fell outside the bounds of accepted heterosexual practice. The 1915 International Record of Medical Practice, for example, claims the “habitual young corner loafer with all day on his hands soon becomes as depraved as his older and more hardened associates,” and makes it plain that the source of this depravity is “the practice of sodomy” and “other forms of irregular intercourse.” By wandering unknowingly into a space reserved for women, Mr. Spankem has transgressed an important boundary of gendered space, and has been labeled according to his transgression by the straight world around him.

Every strip ends with Mr. Spankem living up to this name and ritually walloping the boy on the rear end. This strip ends no differently: but, if Mr. Spankem’s goal was to save face about his sexuality with this act, he most certainly does not succeed. Each one of the “nancy boy’s” failures to communicate with his father and the adults around him about what he sees and experiences results in a physical beating for the boy. Spanking between powerful and wimpy male figures occurs time and again in Frink’s work, and the familial relations between the spanker and the spanked certainly would have deflected concerned parties from cancelling the strip. One illustration for Peck’s Bad Boy and the Circus sees a mischievous youngster peeking on with glee from behind a very suggestive oak pole placed between his legs as a large carnival worker “slats” [spanks] his feminized and infantilized Pa “as though he were a child.”

The Circus was the kind of place where these things could happen without scrutiny—and Frink never quite exhausted the limits of what carnivalesque play could do to give a vision and a shape to otherwise unthinkable queer relationships. By melding together the cartoonish, carnivalesque, and carnal in Circus Solly, Frink saturated the kinesthetic acrobatics at the heart of cartooning with queer desire. In doing so, he envisioned the animation of the static cartoon as a way to put acts of queer desire in motion.

Chasing Him

Circus Solly also foreshadows the emergence of the animated chase scene with the gag-filled adventures of its eponymous protagonist (called “Slim Jim” in later strips to avoid copyright issues). A homeless ex-acrobat, Solly is constantly and inexplicably pursued by a group of proto-Elmer Fudd plainclothes thugs with a shaky claim to being policemen. The strip was syndicated in rural areas throughout the Midwest from 1901 until 1932 (by two other cartoonists after 1915). This is the same time and place when and where many of the hotshots of industrial animation (like Friz Freleng and Walt Disney) were born, raised, and sharpening their understandings of cartooning on the whetstone of the newspaper comics. Solly’s crimes that inspired the never-ending chase are never clearly or consistently specified—the Grassville Force seems compelled to chase Solly simply because it is their role in a cyclical game of pursuit that is designed to last forever. The only goal of the endless chase—like Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd to follow—is to provide pleasure for those who watch it unfold.

Like a prototype of Bugs Bunny, Circus Solly dresses in drag to escape his pursuers. (October 16th, 1910, The Democrat Chronicle) [Click to See Full Strip]

Circus Solly shares many of the everyday problems that Lucy and Sophie do. For one thing, the entire world seems to be out to get him, and he seems to be a constant interruption to that world. Like Lucy and Sophie, his inability to peacefully co-exist with societal authorities is tied up in his gender transgressions. Solly’s chases with the Grassville Force not only foreshadow the chase antics of Warner Bros chase cartoons, they also establish Bugs Bunny’s weaponized drag disguises. On October 16th, 1910, Solly disguises himself as the matron of a house who, more than anything, wants the charitable Grassville Force to chase a tramp out of her chicken coop (where, of course, he has laid a trap for them). Drag performances like these were a staple of the comic strip. In fact, on September 17th, 1916 during Raymond Crawford Ewer’s tenure on the strip, the results of a request for fan write-ins about how to catch Solly (who is “Slim Jim” by this point) had two hundred children write in to suggest the police dress in drag to get the job done—and only a handful opt for the much more immediate option of just shooting him.  Child readers, it would seem, had come to not only anticipate, but actively demand, drag performances and gendered antics in their zany chase cartoons—a feature that would become a staple of the genre in the legendary Looney Tunes to come.

Both Circus Solly and Lucy and Sophie navigate their worlds with the silent knowledge that their unspoken and unspeakable lifestyles are deviant, disruptive, and unwanted. Solly, however, is resilient against a world that inexplicably hates him. The wandering clown seems to take a certain joy in his disruptions: zany chases give him the occasion to don elaborate disguises, build convoluted traps, and soar to freedom with aeronautical acrobatics. Lucy and Sophie are not quite as lucky. The women are ultimately captured, institutionalized, and seem to have been dreading that day with a cruel foreknowledge their entire lives. Solly is uncatchable—we are as little worried his thuggish pursuers will catch him as we might be that Elmer Fudd will capture, kill, and eat Bugs Bunny.

The only pursuer who is ever able to give Solly even a little bit of trouble is his estranged wife. Solly’s acrobatic shenanigans are the only thing standing in between him and a traditional domestic life of raising three children with his wife. Frink introduces the burly washerwoman “Mrs. Solly” in a September 22nd, 1905, strip in which the shiftless rascal is shocked to discover he is the father of a “long-deserted family” when he makes a rare trip to Mrs. Solly to ask for money. The commanding washerwoman, however, has had enough of Solly’s wandering, shouting: “now after all these years I’ve got yer!” Mrs. Solly berates her husband—his wandering ways are fundamentally incompatible with their marriage—and manages to trap him at home. On the 25th, when the Grassville Force attempts to extract Solly from his domestic imprisonment, Solly voluntarily surrenders, preferring jail to life with his wife. Nevertheless, the Force’s attempt fails.

By pretending to be a moving picture show, Solly not only prefigures animation: he uses it as a vehicle of escape from his wife. (10/3/1905, Chicago Daily News)

Solly spends several more strips trying to escape—Mrs. Solly bans him from leaving their house, monitors him with her three children as sentinels, and finds a use for his acrobatic stunts in doing housework (like the “fluttering fairy” in the September 29th strip). When Solly finally makes his escape, it’s by disappearing into a “moving picture,” tricking his family into thinking their living room window has been placed next to a moving picture screen. Solly’s disappearing silhouette on the “moving picture screen” of a window is identical to his silhouette on an illustrated poster next to the window for one of his old acrobat shows. It is only by fading away from the more “realistic” world of straight marriage, into the world of the dynamic image, that Frink’s cartoon doppelgänger is able to return to the endless play or pursuit between men that makes up his daily routine.

Mrs. Solly sets out in hot pursuit of Solly on October 6th and she interrupts Solly and the Force’s play routine when she hog-ties her unfaithful husband and carries him back home. But it’s all for naught—just as Mrs. Solly worries she must “awe him into subjection somehow,” the trickster is already crammed into a precariously phallic stove pipe chimney for a disguise and bolting away. On October 17th, 1905—just two days after the incarceration of Lucy and Sophie over at the Tribune, and their seemingly abrupt cancellation—Solly is back with his boys and up to the usual tomfoolery. The deviant acrobat’s escape into the world of the image—a carnivalesque world where his unorthodox lifestyle is quite at home—is complete.

Something happened at the Chicago Tribune in October of 1905 that put a quick end to Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye, and interfered with Frink’s relationship with that newspaper. At the same moment that one of Frink’s queer comics seems to have collapsed under the unbearable threat of public scrutiny, another comic in a safer venue asserted itself as queer in the boldest way that it could.

In spite of everything, and for at least one moment: Frink drew and dreamed of a future.

Bugs and Solly Say Hello

At the moment of his escape from Mrs. Solly, the hobo acrobat asks his domineering wife to imagine the window that overlooks the horizon he is about to disappear into is a movie screen. Film—or, more specifically, cartoon film—is the means and mechanism of Solly’s escape. Animation was the horizon that Frink gazed out at so that he might envision a queerer future.

But much of the established wisdom on comics and animation would have us believe that this transition was not yet possible. In his 1982 book Before Mickey: The Animated Film, 1898–1928, Donald Crafton attempts to situate animation outside the study of comic strips, and to do so, he argues that “there was no attempt to adapt comic strips in animated drawing form until the surprisingly late date of 1911,” referring to Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo animation (43). Acknowledging that “by then, the technical knowledge had existed for at least half a decade,” Crafton asks, “Why were there no earlier efforts?” and offers something like an answer in his claim that “the early producers were just not all that interested in comic strip graphics” (ibid). Sure, producers may have functioned as gatekeepers with their power to greenlight cartoonists who wanted to animate their comic strips—but that does not mean they had a monopoly on efforts to adapt comics into animated film. For much of Frink’s work perfectly fits the bill of what Crafton describes as a group of undocumented “tinkerers” who were likely working toward animation. As Crafton speculates: “It is likely that many tinkerers had some vague feeling that such a process was possible and may even have made some crude experiments.”

But Frink’s strips were at times literally ready to be animated. His 1910 strip The Picture Show places its cartooned figures, in spite of its papered medium, under the restrictions of silent film. In doing so, it imitates the animated film industry that was only just beginning to institutionalize itself. Like storyboards, these comic strips told one-off stories in gradually unfolding motion, capturing twelve-equally sized moments from a progressing chaotic action. These strips are titled as numbered films and in “Film No. 2 – What ‘Really’ Happens On a Fishing Trip,”—a tall, spindly man who looks very much like Circus Solly (and, by extension, Frink) goes on a fishing trip, but doesn’t get around to much fishing. Instead, he buys beer, plays cards, and smokes with a group of men. He then spends an oddly silent moment alone in the dark with his fishing pole before turning in for the night. He is barefoot as he cradles the fishing pole, wearing a somewhat comically oversized jacket for pajamas, and his clothes from the previous panel are hung up on the wall. He never gets around to any real fishing—a store-bought fish is enough to please his wife, and she is none the wiser.

A man tells his wife a whopper of a “big fish” story, after an provocatively ambiguous end to a night with the boys. (1910, The Democrat Chronicle)

The question that the title teases— What ‘Really’ Happens On a Fishing Trip?—is never quite answered but it is gestured toward. What, exactly, happened between that moment where the would-be fisherman drank and played cards with his friends, and when he sits alone in the dark, now barefoot, fiddling with his pole? Because Frink is, seemingly, offering us the truth behind the big fish story in this strip, the quotation marks around “really” don’t add up unless this tell-all comic strip, too, is a not-quite-the-whole truth and is still concealing something else: something that, most likely, occurs between the drunken card table and the twin-size bed fit for only one grown man. The Picture Show may have been a sandbox for Frink to experiment with bringing cartooned pictures into motion, and it may also have been a kind of resume booster and test case to show potential benefactors what such a series of animated pictures might look like. At the very least, it displays Frink’s understanding of the interplay between animated film and comics, even as (and, perhaps, because) both of those categories were still taking form, and it catalogs his desire to play within and muddy those boundaries. Given the formal and thematic progression from Frink’s cartooning to Warner Bros. animation, it is difficult to imagine that the cartoonists of “Termite Terrace,” whose work so resembles Frink’s, were not familiar with the strip and other acts that it inspired. Don Markstein claims on the “Silm Jim and the Force” page of Toonopedia, that “director Chuck Jones wasn’t the first toon practitioner to eschew such niceties as motive, resolution, etc., and ‘cut to the chase” and that “Frink was doing exactly that in the newspaper comics.”

Legendary Looney Tunes director Friz Freleng was ten years old when his fellow Missourian, “Circus Solly” Hoffman—named after his physics-defying catches that resembled the popular comic strip character—retired from baseball in 1916. Circus Solly, it would seem, had established a place, for a moment, in an area-specific node of central-Midwestern culture. It is hard to imagine that Kansas City, MO native Friz Freleng was unaware of both the cartoon and the ballplayer. Freleng’s training was grounded in Midwestern newspaper cartooning, where Circus Solly/Slim Jim strips were published into the 1930s. He claims in Friz on Film that his initial training had little to do with animation, as “the only animated cartoon I knew or saw was Terrytoons…and I think once in a while I saw Fleischer…how they got it on film, I had no idea, I just knew somebody would draw it.”

And as for baseball, one of Freleng’s best-known films, was the classic physics-defying “Baseball Bugs,” in which, not unlike the ballplayer “Circus Solly” and the character he is named after, Bugs Bunny performs a series of impossibly acrobatic and physics-defying stunts to single-handedly outbat a group of thuggish players. We could, skeptically, theorize all of this as coincidence. But we would then have to accept that Freleng simply happened to pioneer a nearly identical genre of animated chase scenes to Frink’s, in spite of their geographical, temporal, and thematic overlap. These other connective points between the development of gendered and queer play in animation and the work of George Frink will be the focus of my future work.

Having to live with his wife is the only thing that could make Circus Solly surrender to the Grassville Force. (9/25/1905, Chicago Daily News)

But some things cannot wait for the future. I do not want to let the conversation around queer voices in early comics to end with this research. I want it to explode forward. Lucy and Sophie (and the silent and absent queer characters they inevitably stand in for) deserve the chance to speak—to say goodbye, hello, or anything else they care to. I am excited about the momentum that restorative archival practices could bring to the way we think about media and queer identity in a world where the stakes are not abstract or exclusively academic. Being stolen away to a sanitarium is one of a group of template endings to a queer life still too tragically possible over one-hundred years later in an era of conversion therapy, medically forced gender performance, and hate crimes. Lucy and Sophie, knowing what future likely awaited them, had no choice but to say goodbye—ultimately, for what seemed to be forever. Their elongated partings are pessimistic in their own way in that they do not and cannot resist the imperative to say goodbye—but they are a bitter resistance all the same. Lucy and Sophie’s farewells are a testament that, yes, their separation may be inevitable, but they won’t make it easy on their oppressors.

Circus Solly, Bugs Bunny, and the host of contemporary animated cartoons that improved and built on their performances, however, have gradually allowed queer cartoon characters to say a proudly greet the world. If we more clearly articulate (and research) the lineage between the cartoons of now and then, Bugs, Solly, and the queer-coded characters that followed them can still lead a rescue mission for those queer cartoons locked away in the past. The brown-cloaked kidnappers can be duped with dynamite, anvils, and bonks from stolen billy clubs. The bars have gaps just wide enough for two grown women to slip through, given the right rubbery constitution and acrobatic coaching. It took a great deal of time, ink, and labor, but now, Lucy and Sophie can finally say a very animated hello to a future of cartooning that is more like them than they ever could have imagined. And, by extension, they may finally say hello to each other.

There are a whole hell of a lot more crumbling daily newspapers to comb through, however. And Frink’s pictures can’t have been the only queer ones in the funnies. It is time to search for anyone else who might want to say “hello!”

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 Move Away Podcast, a horror audio drama set during the early days of quarantine.

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