On the road again: Annie and Sandy. Artist: Harold Gray.


Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: Chicago Tribune Syndicate
First Appeared: 1925
Creator: Harold Gray
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In 1924, Harold Gray, Sidney Smith's assistant on The Gumps, approached Smith's editor, Captain Joseph Medill Patterson of The Chicago Tribune Syndicate, with an idea for …

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… a new strip. Patterson, whose successes already included Moon Mullins, Gasoline Alley and many others, suggested only one change — put a skirt on him. "Little Orphan Otto" became a girl, and a classic was born. The strip debuted on August 5 of that year.

Little Orphan Annie was not an original name — it was the approximate title of an 1885 poem by James Whitcomb Riley and a photo that has hung in a Philadelphia gallery since 1909, among other things. Nor was the idea of a self-reliant kid, alone against the world, a new one. Gray's art style was stiff and primitive, and his characterizations unsubtle in the extreme. He has been accused, by almost everyone commenting on his work, of injecting a great deal of his very conservative political point of view into the strip. About the only thing he had going for him was an amazing ability to grab the reader's interest, drag him into the story, and make him come back the next day for another installment. But that's all a master storyteller — and Gray was a master — needs.

The story formula was simple — rags to riches and back again, with a healthy dollop of homespun philosophy made up of grit, cheer, self-reliance, and good ol' pluck. The strip opened in an orphanage right out of Dickens, but within two months, Annie met Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks, the self-made millionaire who introduced her to a life of ease and comfort. She and Daddy were soon separated, and Annie had to make her own way in the world, her only companion a large, nondescript dog named Sandy. Daddy came back into her life, but was soon gone again, in a cycle that Gray repeated over and over until his death in 1968. Whatever her station, Annie's spirit was unquenchable as she buckled down and did whatever it was that needed to be done, foiling any number of thugs, politicians, and other crooks along the way.

Annie had more than her share of imitators, the most successful being King Features' Little Annie Rooney. Also, Gray's strongly stylized method of telling stories has made him the subject of many parodies. Among the most prominent are a sequence in Walt Kelly's Pogo titled "Li'l Arf & Nonnie," and Little Annie Fanny, by Mad magazine creator Harvey Kurtzman and major early Mad artist Will Elder.

Annie became a radio star in 1930, and remained on the air for 13 years. In 1932, she was the subject of her first movie, from RKO; and the second, from Paramount Pictures, followed six years later. Along with Dick Tracy, Terry & the Pirates and other Tribune Syndicate stars, she appeared in Dell's Super Comics (no relation) from 1938-49; and scattered issues of her own Dell comic appeared from 1937-48. She was honored by appearing on a U.S. postage stamp in 1995, as were Blondie, Bringing Up Father, Rube Goldberg's inventions, and several other "Comic Strip Classics" .

In 1977, she became the subject of a Broadway musical, titled Annie, which ran over 2,000 performances before it closed in 1983. In '82, that stage production formed the basis of her third movie. The play is still revived from time to time, most recently in a 1999 episode of the Walt Disney TV show. It even had a sequel, Annie 2: Miss Hannigan's Revenge, which opened on Broadway in 1990.

After Gray's death, several cartoonists tried to fill his shoes, but only he was capable of dishing up that peculiar mix of schmaltz and simple pragmatism without lapsing into self-parody. In 1974, the syndicate gave up, and simply started re-running old strips by Gray. Following her success on Broadway, however, the strip was revived, retooled and retitled. Under the name Annie, it was for two decades written and drawn by Leonard Starr, whose earlier strip, Mary Perkins On Stage, folded in 1979, just before he began his long run as Gray's successor. Starr drew an older Annie than Gray had (Gray's was perpetually 11 years old); and while making an attempt to capture something of Gray's style, did not do the strip as a slavish imitator of its creator. Starr retired in February, 2000. In June of that year, the new writer/artist team, Jay Maeder and Andrew Pepoy, gave Annie a complete makeover, maing her look almost like a denizen of the modern world.

After three quarters of a century, Little Orphan Annie seems a permanent fixture on the American scene — proving that whatever she looks like, there'll always a place for grit, cheer, self-reliance, and good ol' pluck.


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Text ©2000-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Tribune Media Services.