L-r: Joe, unidentified horse, Asbestos. Artist: Ken Kling.

JOE AND ASBESTOS

Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: Bell Syndicate
First Appeared: 1924
Creator: Ken Kling
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Blondie appears in more than 2,000 newspapers. So does Hagar the Horrible. Comics that appear in over 1,000 include B.C., Beetle Bailey, Zits and, even in reruns, Peanuts. Those are …

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… the stratospheric giants, but a comic can be a success at less than 100. Fewer than 50 is getting marginal. But here's a strip that appeared in less than a dozen newspapers, and yet earned a tidy profit for its syndicate and an excellent living for its creator.

The secret? Instead of paying a nominal fee for exclusive rights in their locality, the few papers that carried Joe & Asbestos paid its distributor, Bell Syndicate (Miss Fury, Sad Sack), a fortune for exclusivity over a wide region. That's because out-of-town people would buy whatever paper carried it, thinking it gave reliable racing tips.

In reality, cartoonist Ken Kling didn't know a thing about racing when he launched the strip in 1924. In fact, he'd never even been to the track before 1925, when his former boss, Bud Fisher (he'd spent three years as Fisher's assistant on Mutt & Jeff) talked him into betting on a hot tip. Kling put hundreds on win, place and show bets, and lost every penny when the horse came in fourth.

Rather than succumb to despair, he got gags out of it. His title character, Joe Quince (Asbestos came afterward), took up an interest in racing. Each day, he'd bet his bankroll, each day he'd lose, and each day he'd have to come up with a new bankroll. It was a good formula — not only had Mutt & Jeff used it in the past, A Piker Clerk, the first reliable daily, had used it in the more distant past. The trouble, if you want to call it that, was, the real world counterpart of Joe's horse won. That's how Kling's reputation for picking winners started.

Asbestos, a stable hand, joined the cast early on. He was a stereotyped black man in a menial position, just like Moon Mullins's Mushmouth and Billy Batson's Steamboat. Unlike them, he was sharing the title with Joe before the end of his first year.

A year or so later, Kling figured he'd gotten all the mileage he could out of the schtick, so he dropped Joe & Asbestos in favor of a completely unrelated strip titled Windy Riley (no relation). But his reputation as a tipster dogged him. Readers even thought he was sneaking secret messages into his comics, so those in the know could bet on the right horses. An example given by Martin Sheridan in his 1944 book, Comics and their Creators, was that if someone spotted "7-5" in an obscure corner of the artwork, he'd go for a horse with seven letters in its name, running in the fifth race — when in reality the perfectly obvious meaning was that the strip was published on July 5.

In 1931, Kling gave in to public demand and dropped Windy in favor of reviving Joe & Asbestos. After 1932, Bell Syndicate stopped promoting it, no-doubt because the whole country was covered by its ten exclusive contracts. Since much of our information about the longevity of old comics comes from syndicate ads in Editor & Publisher magazine, it would be easy to conclude that's the year it folded. Actually, it continued for decades.

Both Sheridan's book and that of comics historian Coulton Waugh, which came out in 1947, mention it as a going concern. (By the way, Waugh relates the same anecdote about secret messages, but gives a different date.) Sheridan even reprints a strip showing Asbestos in a World War II uniform. In 1946, Kling traded on his reputation to publish a book on how to predict winners — and if he wasn't really able to do so, what the heck, neither was anybody else.

As the years passed, Joe Palooka's Smokey (no relation), Don Winslow's Catfish and the other black stereotypes all fell by the wayside. But Asbestos never did, nor was he toned down very much. Apparently, Kling had no incentive to make any changes. The people who followed his strip (which usually ran in the sports pages rather than with the rest of the comics) didn't care, and the people who cared didn't notice.

Ken Kling died on May 3, 1970, and Joe & Asbestos ended. It had a loyal readership, but a specialized one. In the comics community, as well as the world at large, it's scarcely remembered.

— DDM

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Text ©2005-09 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Bell Syndicate.