Mary brings a friend home. Artist: R.M. Brinkerhoff.

LITTLE MARY MIXUP

Original Medium: Newspaper comics
Appearing in: The New York World
First Appeared: 1917
Creator: R.M. Brinkerhoff
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From Little Iodine to Rainbow Brite, little girl stars litter the history of the cartoon medium. What may have been the first of them, Little Mary Mixup, owed her …

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… existence, in part at least, to the fact that cartoonist Robert Moore Brinkerhoff, in his mid-30s when he created her, had no little girls of his own.

Invited in 1917 to create a comic for The New York World (the paper that later debuted Keeping up with the Joneses and Caspar Milquetoast), Brinkerhoff, a newspaper illustrator who had never before contemplated doing comics, surveyed the scene and found a niche that wasn't filled — and that would also provide a sort of daughter substitute for him. Little Mary Mixup is what he came up with. Before long, she was being distributed nationwide by United Feature Syndicate, whose best-known stars are Nancy, Li'l Abner and Charlie Brown.

Mary was everything a man could want in a daughter, with that combination of naiveté, imagination and a fresh point of view that surprises and delights grown-ups. Plus, she aged at a more relaxed pace than a real-life daughter would, so it was possible for him to enjoy her childhood longer. In fact, in all the decades the strip ran, Mary never got out of her teens. But she was old enough during World War II, approximately a quarter-century after her introduction, to have an adventure or two fighting Nazis.

By that time, the daily strip had long since evolved from the gag-a-day style to long, melodramatic continuity in the manner that had become so popular in such strips as Little Orphan Annie and The Adventures of Patsy. The Sunday page (for which Brinkerhoff also did a topper called All in the Family) still featured stand-alone funny stuff, often involving Mary's younger brother, Snooker.

Mary didn't break out into movies and radio shows, but she was featured in a couple of Big Little Books. Also, she got into comic books with the first issue of Comics on Parade (April, 1938), alongside several other United Feature stars including Fritzi Ritz and Ella Cinders. The syndicate also devoted a couple of issues of Single Series, which featured one of its comics in each issue, to Mary. Later, United reprinted a few of her adventures in Tip Top Comics. By the early 1940s, the sojourn into comic books was over, and Mary was confined to her newspaper series.

Little Mary Mixup was never one of the top sellers, appearing in about 100 papers at its peak — most of which covered small towns. Nonetheless, it hung on until 1956, when Brinkerhoff retired. He died two years later.

— DDM

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Text ©2005 Donald D. Markstein. Art © United Feature Syndicate.