Comics from the Golden Age (roughly 1938 through the early 1950’s) often didn’t follow established conventions for the simple reason that there weren’t any as yet; aside from the “panel, picture, word balloon” format which had been inherited from the popular “funny pages” in newspapers (in fact the earliest newsstand comic books were just repackaging of newspaper strips), comic books writers and artists were inventing the form by trial and error as they went along. These creators often worked for “studios” (contrary to what the word “studio” implies, these were often dingy and crowded affairs) which produced features for large publishing houses that didn’t want to hire their own writers and artists.

One of the earliest studios was run by Harry Chesler, a guy who had the reputation of paying abominable page rates to his staffers (he is often referred to in reminiscences as “Harry Chiseler”) while simultaneously being lauded as an employer who would give a break to anyone who showed some talent and promise. Chesler also allowed creators in his employ to exercise free imaginative reign which, coupled with the lack of convention in the comic book format, resulted in some wild ideas being presented to readers.

When Chesler began publishing his own comic books on the eve of America’s entry into World War Two he used his own studio staffers to produce the content. Among Chesler’s earliest titles were Yankee Comics, Dynamic Comics, and Scoop Comics, all of which hit the newsstand racks in the late summer and autumn of 1941. The pages of Scoop Comics provide us with the subject of this blog post (as well as the next two): a very strange character named Mother Hubbard.

I’d love to start by saying “we’re all familiar with the nursery rhyme character of Old Mother Hubbard”, but that’s unfortunately not the case anymore. Traditional nursery rhymes seem to have lost their place in the modern world; few of the young people with whom I work understand any references to them. So it would be well to present the first verse of the rhyme to make sure that we’re all on the same proverbial page:

Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard,
To give her poor dog a bone;
When she came there,
The cupboard was bare,
And so the poor dog had none.

As the poem’s numerous verses progressed, Mother Hubbard left her home to buy the dog something to eat; upon her return she found the dog acting in peculiar and very human ways, such as sitting in a chair, smoking a pipe, reading a newspaper, dancing, and doing numerous other tricks, all of which positively delighted the old woman. It’s anyone’s guess how the name of a beloved nursery rhyme character came to be the appellation of a comic book witch, but that’s exactly what happened in the pages of Harry Chesler’s Scoop Comics.

The typical magic-based comic hero in the Golden Age wore a tuxedo and top hat, based on the look of Lee Falk’s classic Mandrake the Magician newspaper comic strip, which debuted in 1934 and influenced comics for years afterward. Superman shared the pages of Action Comics #1 with Zatara the Master Magician (a Mandrake clone), and Zatara was a regular feature for over a hundred issues of Action. Other publishers followed the trend with less popular features starring magicians dressed in evening clothes. But Mother Hubbard is notable for breaking the mold, not only by portraying a stereotypical gruesome witch but one which was a heroic protagonist.

Mother Hubbard owes far more to Shakespeare than to Lee Falk. If the image of a witch mixing foul ingredients in a cauldron didn’t originate with the Bard, he certainly made it a famous literary trope with his sorcerous “weird sisters” characterized in the play MacBeth: “Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble” is one of the most famous lines in English literature. By the early 20th century the image of a witch as an evil, aged crone riding a broomstick was pretty firmly entrenched as a cultural meme (Veronica Lake’s sexy Jennifer in the movie I Married a Witch was still a year off in the future at the time Scoop Comics #1 was released), so it was a big leap of faith for Chesler to present a witch as a hero using her powers for good purposes.

It’s hard to say what impact (if any) Mother Hubbard made on the readership. She lasted just three issues, one issue less than the parent title lasted (after a three year hiatus a fourth issue of Scoop, numbered for some reason as Issue 8, was published in 1945). Sharp-eyed readers of the Keltner Index will note that Mother Hubbard made appearances in six comic books, but the latter three were reprints of the original three appearances from Scoop Comics; reusing old material after an interval of years is a Chesler trademark.

In time for Halloween here’s the first appearance of Mother Hubbard, one of the more offbeat Golden Age characters (and given the plethora of strange ideas presented in comics of the period, that’s saying something!). For a larger view of the pages, right-click a page image and open it in a new tab.

Scoop Comics #1, November 1941

Scoop Comics #1, November 1941

Scoop Comics #1, November 1941

Scoop Comics #1, November 1941

Scoop Comics #1, November 1941

Scoop Comics #1, November 1941

Page scans courtesy of The Digital Comic Museum.

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2015, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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