THE DINGBAT FAMILY (aka THE FAMILY UPSTAIRS)Medium: Newspaper comics
Appearing in: The Hearst papers
First Appeared: 1910
Creator: George Herriman
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Back in the very early years of the comics industry, it was common for cartoonists to work on a lengthy succession of short-lived features, letting their fancies run free. If they grew
tired of a character, they'd simply drop it, and work on something else instead. George Herriman, for example, did Major Ozone's Fresh Air Crusade, Acrobatic Archie, Professor Otto & His Auto, Gooseberry Sprigg, Baron Mooch and many others before settling down. In fact, his first continuing character, Musical Mose, lasted all of three episodes in 1902, before Herriman lost interest in him and moved on. When, on June 20, 1910, he tried his hand at domestic comedy, with The Dingbat Family, it was just another in a long list of character sets he'd experimented with. But this one had lasting effects
The man of the household was E. Pluribus Dingbat, a short, irascible guy who worked as a clerk in an office of some undefined sort. Mrs. Dingbat, large and imposing, was named Minnie. They had a son named Cicero, a daughter named Imogene, a baby without any particular name, and a pet cat. They all lived together in The Sooptareen Arms, a typical New York aparment house. There wasn't much evidence of a great deal of love among them, but they managed to get by. Their adventures ran daily in the Hearst papers.
The word "dingbat" was, and remains, commonly used in the printing and publishing industry, to denote a typographic ornament — something that comes out of a typesetting machine, not part of the text, that serves to break up the "gray space" and make the page look better. Its origin was onomatopoeic — "ding, bat" was the sound a Linotype machine made in producing one. Herriman was probably the first to use it to describe a certain type of person, i.e., one about as smart, with about as much personality, as a small lump of unliving lead. A prominent reference work says the name was chosen because the comic was small, and used as filler, just like (the work quasi-correctly claims) a regular dingbat. This is obviously false, except in the sense that all comics functioned as dingbats (they didn't have a separate page then). The Dingbat Family was exactly the same size as Herriman's earlier series, i.e., the standard size (at the time) of a daily comic strip.
In fact, the strip was a little too large to accommodate Herriman's drawings. To fill up what he called the "waste space" at the bottom, he ran a secondary story underneath the main action, about the family cat's relationship with a mouse that shared their apartment, and that led to its lasting effect. By 1913, the cat and mouse were divorced from the family, and moved out into a strip of their own — Krazy Kat, the one that Herriman is primarily remembered for today.
Other than that, at first The Dingbat Family was just an ordinary domestic comedy, of the type later typified by Toots & Casper, The Nebbs, and eventually Blondie. But very early in its tenure, the family that lived on the floor above became the Dingbats' nemesis. The Family Upstairs was never seen, except in its effects. Water would pour into the Dingbat apartment when the other family watered its window box plants. Plaster from the ceiling would clobber Dingbats when the family caroused. Their son would blacken Cicero's eye. E. Pluribus, in particular, became obsessed with avenging himself on them — or at least, catching a look at them. He hired detectives, thugs, hypnotists and many others to accomplish his ends. Once, he even hired Desperate Desmond, the star of another cartoonist's comic.
In fact, on August 10, just a month and a half into its run, the name of The Dingbat Family was changed to The Family Upstairs, making it perhaps the first comic strip in which the title characters never appeared. (A later, better-known example of this was Keeping Up with the Joneses.) This situation continued until November 15, 1911, when the building they lived in was demolished to make room for a department store. The Dingbats and their nemeses went their separate ways, and the the title reverted to The Dingbat Family.
As an ordinary comics family, along the lines of The Bungle Family, The Gumps etc., the Dingbats continued until January 4, 1916. After that, their strip was replaced on Herriman's schedule with Baron Bean. Ten years later, a movie was released, titled The Family Upstairs. But this concerned an entirely different family upstairs, and an entirely different family for them to be upstairs from.
The Dingbats and their adversaries had apparently been forgotten — but back on the comics pages, the stars they spawned, Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse, were still on the rise.