Tuesday, February 26, 2008


No one bothers to think too much about Little Orphan Annie anymore. Decades ago, Harold Gray's classic comic strip was analyzed, categorized and interred in the domain of the archivists and historians.

Yet, judged by today's artistic standards, LOA is fresher, more powerful, and visually stronger than many of the latest graphic novels and underground comix. Gray's epic saga of America during the Depression, World War II and the cold war is downright fashionable:

1. Today, slick artistic skill isn't valued as much as a distinctive personal voice. Gray's art was about as distinctive and personal as you can get. He drew human beings that looked like tree trunks (and what's with those eyeballs??) His art appeared freakish compared with other strips of his day, yet today it seems perfectly at home next to the art of R. Crumb or even Gary Larson's Far Side:

2. Today's readers adore Frank Miller's noir style, with his dark view of human nature and his anti-establishment rhetoric. Gray used similar ingredients (minus the garter belts) to make equally gritty, noir pictures. Note how beautifully Gray depicts Death at the door:

I love the hoodlums in this depression-era train yard:

And here is Gray's equivalent of Sin City, circa 1944:

3. Today's readers favor stories by opinionated writer/artists who spin out personally meaningful sagas. Gray probably invested more of his personal philosophy in his strip than any other comic artist of the 20th century. An endearing combination of Ayn Rand, John Bunyan and Charles Dickens, Gray hardly let a week go by without sermonizing about the virtues of self-reliance or the hypocrisy of society.

He also never stopped banging the drum for his own crackpot version of anti-communism:

Some readers complained bitterly about his politics but Gray would not be deterred. Al Capp, creator of Li'l Abner, recalls that Gray took him aside when Capp was just getting started:

I know your stuff, Capp. You're going to be around a long time. Take my advice and buy a house in the country. Build a wall around it. And get ready to protect yourself. The way things are going, people who earn their living someday are going to have to fight off the bums.
No matter where he is categorized, I will always view Gray as an extremely talented and insightful artist. In the following panel, I love how the word balloons curl around the corner, how the cluster of eavesdropping hoodlums form a parabola, and how two random alley cats occupy center stage:

Another typical Gray panel: a surrealistic discussion between an eight foot mystic and a war profiteer, while (a rather freakish looking) Annie listens:

Gray's work may seem crude at first, but it has many nice and subtle touches. Note how Gray conveys the spinelessness of the two lackeys in the following panel:

Little Orphan Annie is an epic American achievement by a vivid storyteller and a genuine eccentric. It might be a good choice for a modern reader of graphic novels looking to upgrade to something better.

After Gray died in 1968, the strip was continued (sometimes under the name Annie ) by a series of different artists (including the great Leonard Starr) but talent can only go so far to compensate for natural born weirdness.


Austin Kleon said...

Have you seen Chester Brown's

It's HEAVILY influenced by Harold Gray.

Stephen Worth said...

Thanks for this overview. A donor recently contributed a decades long run of Little Orphan Annie strips to the ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive, but I haven't gotten a chance to dig into them yet. This post makes me excited about what I'm going to discover.

David Apatoff said...

A. Kleon, no I haven't seen Louis Riel but if it is influenced by Gray, I will make a point of tracking it down. Thanks!

Stephen, I didn't realize that ASIFA maintained an archive of comic strips. Obviously I should go to your site and read more carefully.

Stephen Worth said...

The Animation Archive isn't an archive OF animation... it's a resource FOR animators. We're building a database of digitized images, biographical information and filmographic data that will be syndicated to museums, libraries and universities around the world.

Currently, the database contains over 3,000 animated films and almost 30,000 high resolution images. The images cover the entire spectrum of illustration and cartooning from John Bauer and Gustaf Tenggren to Cliff Sterrett and Milt Gross to Milton Caniff and Alex Toth to Boris Artzybasheff and Arthur Szyk to Virgil Partch and Basil Wolverton. We also have a wealth of info on great animators like Grim Natwick and Bill Tytla and art instructional material by the Landon School, W. S. Evans, Gene Byrnes, Willi Pogany and the Famous Artists School.

Artists and cartoonists are lending us their personal research libraries for digitization and the collection is growing faster than the volunteers can keep up with it. If you click on illustration or comics in the masthead of the site, you'll find an index of just a few of the things in our collection. Make sure you have a few hours to spend browsing! There's a lot of amazing stuff. But the things on the web are just a tiny fraction of the archive itself.

See ya

Christian Trabue said...

What an interesting blog. I am going to use it as a reference for my business in the future. Thanks so much for putting your expertise out there.

william wray said...

Can you tell me what would be the best book with the highest quality repo that would have work for the period of the gangsters and the cats in the Alley? Between your influence, Chester Brown and Art Spegilman, I'm going to crack and buy a book.

David Apatoff said...

Thanks so much, Christian! I appreciate hearing from you. Good luck with your business!

David Apatoff said...

Bill, any time I have helped to persuade someone to read a book, I feel that my mission has been accomplished.

The gangsters and the cats are from a June 12, 1960 Sunday page. Repo quality is always an issue with Gray; these are all scanned from originals (except one) because I wanted people to see the true quality of Gray's drawing (which often doesn't come across in compilations).

The Fantagraphics reprint series was pretty good, but sadly stopped as of 1935. The book, "Arf-- The Life and Hard Times of Little Orphan Annie" is a great book, but only contains selected stories from 1935-1945. And if you own the Smithsonian book of newspaper comics, it has some truly choice stories from some prime periods.

I don't think the 1950s / 1960s era has ever been reprinted, although I've heard rumors that someone is going to try to reprint the whole strip. Do any readers out there have better information?

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post and presenting the pictures and strips. I have to admit it took me back. Born in 1942, my sis and I just had to read Little Orphan Annie regularly. I realize more now why. The drawing is wonderful. The mystery was compelling too. Wonder if Harold Gray had an influence on my career choice. I ended up with a degree in drawing and painting. Sylvia

wentworth said...

Nice post - thanks. The issue i have with Gray, as with Capp, Gould and their contemporaries, isn't their art but their propaganda. They are so clearly part of the establishment, critical to be digested by middle america, to support big business. subtle propaganda of the youth, but not in the way EC comics was portrayed as subversive but rather establishment conformist. I wish Gray had done more stuff - the indie stuff you cite is indie because, as you say, of personal statements, but it is individualized (Crumb, etc). I think your reference to Gray's personal statements may be a bit off - as he was firmly establishment. Don't know if this was because of who he was (like Capp) or because it paid the bills to do so - but he didn't seem interested in the world beyond what the establishment.

Unknown said...

your observations are point on and the article is ls a great viewpoint of Harold Grays influence through LOA. He was my Dads Uncle and my father sat underneath his desk as he drew the strips when he was there visiting! great stories!! thanks for the blog!
Julie Leffingwell edwards