Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

Little Ideological Annie

How a cartoon gamine midwifed the graphic novel—and the modern conservative movement.

Ben Schwartz


In the 1982 movie Annie, billion-aire munitions industrialist Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks arrives in Washington to meet the Roosevelts, whose calls he usually refuses to take. They want his help organizing the New Deal, which he thinks a preposterous scheme with no hope of success. But Warbucks goes for the sake of his ward, Annie—it’s her first chance to see the White House. A musical being a musical, all it takes to melt his heart is Annie’s singing of “Tomorrow,” that anthem of stagestruck preteen girls everywhere, with Franklin and Eleanor.

FDR was certainly on the mind of Little Orphan Annie’s creator, cartoonist Harold Gray, during the 1924–68 run of the strip. He despised FDR and let his comic’s estimated thirty million daily readers know it. Liberals attacked Gray, not only for his views but also for expressing any serious opinion in the comics, a pivotal moment in moving “the funnies” onto more mature ground. In a nice bit of election-year timing, IDW debuts its multivolume Complete Little Orphan Annie, with Will Tomorrow Ever Come? ($40), which covers 1924 to 1927. (Volume 2, The Darkest Hour Is Just Before the Dawn, arrives in October.) This maiden volume gives us a chance to reappraise Gray, one of the most controversial cartoonists of his generation—and, via his career, American conservatism. For as modern conservatism struggles to define itself—if the Bush era’s big-spending, government-empowering, internationally crusading GOP can be called conservative—Gray’s strip about a little orphan girl in a cold, cruel world is the story of where that movement, and modern graphic literature, began.

Harold Lincoln Gray was born January 20, 1894, on his parents’ farm in Kankakee, Illinois, and grew up idolizing his namesake, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. He worked on the farm until he entered Purdue, and dug ditches to pay the bills. Graduating in 1917, he taught bayoneting in World War I and returned to Illinois to seek work in his chosen field, cartooning. In 1920, he landed a job assisting the Chicago Tribune’s star cartoonist, Sidney Smith. It put Gray on the front lines of a comics revolution. The funnies, at thirty years old, trafficked in comedy and fantasy, with talking animals, wisecracking goofs, and junior sociopaths like the Katzenjammer Kids. With Smith’s family comedy, The Gumps, the Tribune pioneered book-length story lines (serialized daily), cliffhangers, and realistic characterization. Like postwar movies, which were expanding from shorts to features, the medium’s novelty had worn off, and fans wanted something more.

Thus, in 1924, Gray offered Little Orphan Annie as a radical departure—a serious, often bleak drama. Annie suffers in Miss Asthma’s orphanage, beaten and hired out as labor. When the social-climbing Mrs. Warbucks adopts her, it’s to impress Society with her charitable nature. But seven weeks in, Daddy Warbucks appears and is smitten by Annie’s pluck. As his name indicates, he’s a war profiteer, dealing in arms, mercenaries (“my wrecking crew”), big-money political fixes, and wreaking vengeance on enemies with his own bare hands—a comic-strip complement to There Will Be Blood’s ruthless tycoon, Daniel Plainview.

Gray’s is an indifferent America. He has Annie shuttling from Miss Asthma’s like a plow mule, fleeing (or ditched by) her nasty “guardians,” causing the Warbucks’s separation, and being held hostage by a murderous hobo who uses her for sympathy when panhandling. After she gets locked in a freight car to starve and freeze, bandits beat and shotgun her. Her optimism, often parodied as na´vetÚ, is a lonely light in what comics critic Donald Phelps rightly calls “an epic whose tone is almost doom-laden beyond articulation.” By 1926, Gray and Smith’s popularity allowed for an innovative mass-market series of hardcover reprints. Today, we would call them graphic novels.

Jeet Heer, in volume 1’s extensive biographical piece, sees Gray as a progressive Republican, celebrating individualism, grit, and racial, ethnic, and religious diversity. He loathed con men, hypocrites, and snobs, especially those posing as moral reformers. “I hate professional do-gooders with other people’s money,” he once wrote. In 1932, the Depression brought to power one of the world’s great professional do-gooders, FDR. Roosevelt’s aggressive new liberalism transformed Gray into the new breed of Republican: a pro-business, small-government tax cutter. Feeling that the New Deal destroyed rugged individualism with its programs designed to uplift, Gray spoke out. He never named FDR in Annie. But in 1934, when prosecutor Phil O. Bluster jailed Warbucks on phony tax charges, readers knew why. Inspired by fugitive Chicago millionaire Samuel Insull, then in Europe evading the IRS, Gray torched the New Dealers he saw as hounding businessmen for their success.

One liberal, the New Republic’s Richard Neuberger (later a Democratic senator from Oregon), shot back. Deriding Warbucks’s soliloquy (“Is this the answer to ambition?”) as “Hooverism in the funnies,” he dismissed Gray as a pawn of the Tribune. Neuberger especially deplored Gray’s politicking to millions of children, “the voters of the next generation.” While the Trib urged Gray to write for adults (“Kids don’t buy papers”), they valued Annie more as a merchandising cash cow than for Gray’s politics and feared losing readers.

Gray followed his pro-millionaire saga with a remarkably full-throated antiunion story line. In it, Annie befriends a homeless scientist, Eli Eon, inventor of Eonite, a cheap, easy-to-produce, indestructible material. Warbucks envisions it ending the Depression. Millions will work to mass-produce it, creating materials for housing that millions more will build. A corrupt union, led by John L. Lewis look-alike Claude Claptrap and liberal, long-haired journalist Horatio Hack, demands Warbucks give Eonite “to the pee-pul” or they’ll strike. Their workers burn down Warbucks’s factory (he hadn’t gotten around to building it out of Eonite yet), killing Eon. The secret of Eonite, and to ending the Depression, dies with him.

Gray ran this as FDR signed the Wagner Act on July 5, 1935, giving unions the right to organize and represent workers. In August, Gray’s union rioted. In September, the New Republic denounced Annie as “fascism in the funnies.” In Huntington, West Virginia, Lewis’s coal-mining power base, the Herald-Dispatch dropped Annie as “alarmingly vindictive propaganda.” The Tribune quickly ordered Gray to “stop editorializing.” Gray was no fascist. He hated big government, right or left. Ten months before Pearl Harbor, he undercut the isolationist Tribune. Warbucks, an antifascist sympathizer, escapes from a foreign concentration camp and returns home, eager to arm America. Predictably, the right protested, also demanding Gray keep his politics out of the funnies. Gray felt muzzled by such dictates, but he and the other Trib cartoonists who followed Sidney Smith’s realist style had made a mark. In 1939, the New Republic’s Heywood Broun wrote, condescendingly: “These strips, whether we like it or not, constitute the proletarian novels of America. They are scanned by millions. To those who cannot read the long words of literature the comic strip is extremely valuable. To those who cannot read any they are indispensable.”

Responding to a 1943 fan letter from his congresswoman, Republican Clare Boothe Luce, Gray predicted the success of socially engaged comics like Li’l Abner, Pogo, Doonesbury, Maus, and Persepolis, writing: “There is a tremendous opening in such a venture for the one who breaks ground and first enters that forbidden field. I’d like to be that guy. A strip that is properly handled has tremendous power. . . . A properly handled political strip would go like a prairie fire and be even hotter. . . . Please give my regards to our RULER when you see him.”

Gray’s right-wing devotees included Luce, Ronald Reagan, Jesse Helms, Henry Ford, and the editors of National Review, but the scope of his work is too great to label him simply a political cartoonist. He sought to capture whole communities, not just issues. Millions admired him as a storyteller, including John Updike (who wrote Gray fan mail as a teen), Cynthia Ozick, Pete Hamill, Gloria Vanderbilt, and cartoonists Robert Crumb and Chester Brown, who have adopted elements of Gray’s style as their own.

Will Tomorrow Ever Come? concludes with a classic Gray plotline, as Annie uncovers a gang of bank robbers—masterminded by a community activist and local banker, Mr. Mack. Eventually, Warbucks saves Annie, but Gray doesn’t end on their embrace. Warbucks realizes the case against Mack won’t hold up on a kid’s testimony, no matter what Annie suffered. A gang of murdering thieves will go free. It’s here that Warbucks gives Annie a cynical look at what runs the world. For once, she’s not smiling. “Leapin’ lizards! It doesn’t seem right,” she says. “‘Daddy’ told that senator to use his pull to get Mack and his gang punished—yuh’d think you wouldn’t have to use pull to convict birds as guilty as those guys. . . . In story books th’ law always punishes th’ crooks without anybody helpin’—I guess most story books must be the bunk—”

Gray died in 1968, but tomorrow finally came. Doonesbury won a 1975 Pulitzer for political satire (a first for a strip), Annie the musical premiered, and Will Eisner collected three short stories as A Contract with God in 1978, reintroducing readers to the “graphic novel.” Finally, Reagan’s 1980 election meant conservatism had won voters over from their New Deal allegiance—sold on Reagan’s smiling optimism, just the way Annie did it.

Ben Schwartz is a screenwriter and journalist living in Los Angeles. The Lost Laugh, his history of American humor between the world wars, will be published by Fantagraphics.

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