Little Joe and Utah. Artist: Bob Leffingwell.


Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: Chicago Tribune Syndicate
First Appeared: 1933
Creator: Edwin Leffingwell
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Little Joe, by cartoonist Ed Leffingwell, looked a lot like Little Orphan Annie, but set out west. It read a lot like …

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Annie, too, featuring hair-raising action alternating with near-mawkish sentiment and occasional low humor. And it was distributed by Annie's Chicago Tribune Syndicate, too. The resemblance isn't a coincidence. Leffingwell was a cousin of Annie's creator, Harold Gray, and started out in comics as Gray's assistant. What's more, Gray probably supplied some of the early scripts, and may even have helped out with the art.

When Leffingwell struck out on his own with Little Joe, which began on Sunday, October 1, 1933, there were no other truly successful westerns in comics, just a few like Bronc Peeler, White Boy and Broncho Bill. When the strip ended, in 1972, there were few westerns remaining, except farces like Tumbleweeds and Redeye, faltering comic books like Kid Colt and The Rawhide Kid, and Rick O'Shay, which lasted only a few more years. Joe may not have been the most famous western character to come out of comics (that would probably be Red Ryder), but at 39 years, he had the longest continuous run.

Joe Oak was 13 years old, tho he looked younger, especially at first. He was an only child and his father had been murdered, leaving him and Mom to run the Oak Ranch by themselves. They were assisted by a white-moustached man named Utah, who had been a gunslinger in his youth. Utah was their foreman and, when times were rough, only employee. He assumed the paternal role when it came to teaching Joe proper behavior for a man, and the survival skills he'd need to become one. Other than that, the strip was populated by outlaws, corrupt businessmen and politicians, Indians both good and bad, and similar staples of the genre. Later on, an old friend of Utah's, a charming rogue known only as "Ze General", joined the cast. Aside from helping the protagonists out of jams and occasionally (when opportunity permitted) cheating them, Ze General spent several years starring in the Sunday page's topper.

Ed Leffingwell suffered a very untimely death in 1936. The series was taken over by his brother Robert, who had earlier succeeded him as Gray's assistant. Bob Leffingwell continued on both Little Orphan Annie and Little Joe as long as both strips lasted. Gray's influence remained with Joe until the early 1950s, when it started looking less like Annie. As the years went by, the exciting stories it had originally been famous for were de-emphasized, in favor of mild continuity linking a series of oneshot gags.

There never was a daily strip. Nor were there media spin-offs such as movies and radio shows. He did appear in the back pages of Dell's Popular Comics and Super Comics (no relation), and in the very first issue of Dell's second Four Color Comics series (1942). In 1953, St. John Publishing (which was licensing the Terrytoons characters at the time) brought out a single issue of a Little Joe comic book, but it was about a modern kid character along the lines of Dennis the Menace. The real Little Joe never became a regularly-published comic book star.

But the solid, often gripping stories of Little Joe's early days have lasting appeal, as indicated by the fact that a CD-ROM reprinting early adventures was published as recently as 2002. Comics' longest-running western may not be prominent in the public consciousness, but it isn't in danger of being completely forgotten.


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