Desmond, Rosamond and Claude. Artist: Harry Hershfield.


Medium: Newspaper comics
Appearing in: The New York Journal
First Appeared: 1910
Creator: Harry Hershfield
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From The Yellow Claw to Pinky & the Brain, there have been a lot of cartoon series that …

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… starred villains. Cartoonist Harry Hershfield may have created the first. His Desperate Desmond debuted in William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal on March 10, 1910.

You could tell at a glance that Desmond was a villain. He wore a black tuxedo with tails, black top hat and black handlebar moustache, and was seldom seen without a smouldering cigarette dangling from his sneering lips. He looked exactly like the villains who had entertained audiences in music hall melodramas of the 18th and 19th centuries, and in silent movie serials of the early 20th. There was even another much like him in comics — Rudolph Ruddigore Rassendale, who had been a regular in C.W. Kahles's Hairbreadth Harry (which also parodied those old melodramas) for the previous three years. Desmond's strip was probably a response to Harry's, tho of course, Rudy wasn't the star.

Desmond's villainy usually manifest itself in attempts to abduct or otherwise harm the beautiful Rosamond, in defiance of her heroic protector, Claude Eclaire. There weren't any other continuing characters and the three the series did have were pure stereotypes, but the action was often clever and amusing.

Their cycle of danger and rescue was carried on not just in the newspapers (Desmond appeared in many of the Hearst papers, even before the company launched King Features Syndicate), but also on the big screen. An early movie production company named Nestor released a biweekly series of comedy shorts about Desmond, starting November 11, 1911 with Desperate Desmond Almost Succeeds and ending February 3, 1912 with Desperate Desmond at the Cannon's Mouth. Rosamond was played by Betsy Keller, but the names of the actors doing Desmond and Claude seem not to have survived. Stills from the movies were colorized and marketed as postcards. Also, Vaudeville comedian Fred Duprez did a Desperate Desmond skit which was recorded and sold nationwide as 78-rpm records.

The strip came to an end on June 13, 1912, but Desmond continued. He became the main villain in Hershfield's Dauntless Durham of the U.S.A., also a send-up of those old melodramas. It was Durham, by the way, who later encountered a cannibal chief named Gomgatz, whose style of speech inspired Hershfield's longest-lasting and most famous strip, Abie the Agent. The Durham strip ended on January 13, 1914, and that was the end of Desmond.

Almost, that is. He seems to survive as a faint cultural memory, not as strongly as, say, Tales from the Crypt, and far more weakly than Keeping Up with the Joneses, but he's still there. In amateur films, high school stage productions and many similar venues, when those ancient melodramas are parodied, Desperate Desmond is often the name of the villain.


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Text ©2004-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art: Desperate Desmond is in the public domain. This image has been modified. Modified version © Donald D. Markstein.