Sunday, June 15, 2008


In the earliest days of comic strips, all kinds of strange personalities gravitated to the new field. Perhaps none was stranger than Jimmy Swinnerton (1875-1974).

Swinnerton ran away from home at age 14, traveling with a minstrel show as far as San Francisco. There he found work drawing borders around photographs for a local newspaper. Swinnerton's greatest talent seemed to be entertaining employees with impersonations of the newspaper's owner, William Randolph Hearst. One day, Hearst caught Swinnerton and was so amused that he took Swinnerton under his wing. The two became life long friends.

Swinnerton's supervisor scolded him not to get "too original" with his rectangles, but Hearst recognized that there was a better use for Swinnerton's talents. With Hearst's patient sponsorship, Swinnerton tried one project after another. By age 20, Swinnerton had developed into a successful newspaper staff artist: a lying, womanizing, gambling drunk who dressed in flashy clothes and hung around with prize fighters.

Swinnerton was the perfect petrie dish for the invention of the modern comic strip. He experimented with several, including Sam and his Laugh, Professor Nix, Little Katy and her Uncle, Mount Ararat, Mr. Batch, Mr. Jack, Little Jimmy, Canyon Kiddies, The Daydreams of Danny Dawes, and Rocky Mason, Government Marshall. Many of these experiments quickly died, but some of them caught on.

By age 27, Swinnerton was living a life of dissolution in New York. An alcoholic with tuberculosis, Swinnerton had suffered several hemorrhages and doctors gave him barely a month to live. He returned to California under close medical care. There he purchased his tombstone with the epitaph "blue pencilled." Next he walked into a bar where he found a drunken man weeping loudly. Swinnerton paid the man to follow him around, weeping over Swinnerton's imminent death. Everything was in place for Swinnerton's funeral, but then he switched to a diet of raw eggs and miraculously recovered. He lived another 72 years, and for the rest of his life always tipped his hat when he saw a chicken, out of gratitude.

It is unclear exactly when Swinnerton married the first of his many wives. He was caught in a scandal with a wealthy San Francisco heiress. The couple claimed that they had been secretly married someplace else but skeptical newspapers noted there was "no record of a marriage license." The heiress soon abandoned Swinnerton for Japan, while he quelled his sorrow in three other official marriages, along with semi-marriages and quasi-marriages in different locations. The combined alimony from his disorderly love life kept him on the brink of poverty. For much of his life, Swinnerton shuttled between lavish parties at Hearst's mansion, San Simeon, and dodging bill collectors.

As the comic strip industry grew up around Swinnerton, he found kindred spirits. The young Walt Disney used to come to his birthday parties. Swinnerton took George Herriman (creator of Krazy Kat), Rudolph Dirks (creator of the Katzenjammer Kids), and the painter Maynard Dixon on a safari through the Arizona desert to see the Hopi Tribe of Indians do their annual snake dance. Can you imagine the conversation around that campfire at night? The group traveled by horseback through the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley (which later played a significant role in Krazy Kat.) It was on this trip that Swinnerton gave Dixon a half interest in the Arizona desert.

With the passage of time, the roads of comic land became paved. Syndicates became well oiled machines with standard printed contracts. Colleges taught classes in how to write graphic novels and The Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art trained the comic strip artists of the future. But at the formative stages of comic strips, it was oddballs such as Swinnerton-- colorful people who had a hard time fitting into conventional jobs-- who started the medium rolling.


Anonymous said...

Really nice article on Swinnerton! Thanks!

I've posted a whole lot of other Swinnerton art here, if you're interested:


Best wishes,

Steven Stwalley

António Araújo said...

I love these deranged, morally questionable, beautiful losers. :)

Thanks for this great post.

Andreas Schuster said...

yes, thanks alot for posting.
swinnerton is new to me and ill be looking for more about him after work.

steven stwalleys site seems nice

Mark said...

Ah, what a different time it was. What I can't figure out was how'd he beat TB. He wouldn't be the first historical figure to live past the life expectancy that some doctor handed out,'Doc'Holiday comes to mind.

Anyway great post David, I like finding out about these cartoonists from days gone by.

Anonymous said...

Maxfield Parrish also survived TB to live into his 90s

Stephen Worth said...

Your article inspired me to post some examples of Swinnerton too...


David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Steve-- I really enjoyed the crumbling paper section of your blog; thanks for preserving such great material.

Omwo-- once again, a great way to characterize the phenomenon!

andreas, I agree with you on both counts.

David Apatoff said...

Mark-- yup, those were some wide open spaces back then.

Anonymous, I didn't know that about Parrish.

David Apatoff said...

Steve (second Steve), I never cease to be amazed at the scope of the material you have archived. I'm glad your organization is out there preserving this work.

Jack Ruttan said...

I'm kind of amazed at how those early "primitive" strips blow the doors off the stuff we have today!

Anonymous said...

Does anyone have information about Swinnerton's landscape art? I'm particularly interested in a work called "Blossom Smoke Tree" but I'm not finding much about that aspect of his art. Any leads would be greatly appreciated!


yourenglishteachermary said...

How did you get your pictures to be such high quality?

Mine look like this: