Mr. Jack attempting a conquest. Artist: Jimmy Swinnerton.


Medium: Newspaper comics
Published in: the Hearst papers
First Appeared: 1898 or a little later
Creator: Jimmy Swinnerton
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Comics can encompass any genre of story, from love (e.g. Young Romance) to war (e.g. Sgt. Rock), but two — superheroes and funny animals — are particularly characteristic of the medium. But comics aren't considered to have invented those genres. The first goes back to Gilgamesh …

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… and his contemporaries, wielders of extraordinary powers and doers of extraordinary deeds. The second goes back to Aesop (no relation) — in some ways, at least.

In traditional animal stories, the animals are just animals. They often talk, but they don't have hands. They usually don't walk upright and only occasionally wear clothes. Illustrations accompanying the Uncle Remus stories, for example, do show the characters dressed in the same style as humans of the community where the stories were told — but before Disney got hold of them, it was a mystery how they managed to wriggle into those outfits with nothing better than animal paws for manipulating things.

The first fully-realized funny animal — hands, upright stance, almost completely human below the neck — was probably Mr. Jack, by Jimmy Swinnerton, the pioneering cartoonist who also created Mount Ararat, Canyon Kiddies, and many of the styles and conventions of the comics form itself.

Mr. Jack indirectly grew out of what may, depending on your definition, have been the first ongoing comics in newspapers, the "Little Bears" that Swinnerton drew for The San Francisco Examiner. When he moved across country to The New York Journal (1896), publisher William Randolph Hearst had him switch to tigers, the symbol of Tammany Hall (bestowed on that powerful New York institution decades earlier by Thomas Nast, who also gave the Democrats their donkey and the Republicans their elephant). "Little Tigers" started appearing frequently in the Journal. They didn't have a regular slot, but turned up in a variety of contexts.

(Some comics histories have erroneously conflated the two sets of animals, placing "Little Bears & Tigers" back at the Examiner. Actually, Swinnerton also drew small children for that paper, and his cartoons were often referred to as "Little Bears and Tykes".)

By about 1898, individual personalities were starting to emerge from the crowd of tigers. On November 1, 1903, one in particular — Mr. Jack, a dapper but rather swinish gentleman — became the star of a Sunday page. Mr. Jack was married, but didn't let that interfere with his philandering ways. He was constantly on the prowl, looking to sidle in close to any good-looking female in the vicinity, with the sole exception of "Wifey" (as he addressed Mrs. Jack). Apparently, the notion that funny animals (or comics in general) are strictly for kids hadn't yet become dogma to the general public.

In fact, ever since the days of Ally Sloper, genteel parents tended to think comics weren't for kids at all. Mr. Jack, who set a very poor example for youngsters, was a particular target of protest. After 1904, he was consigned to the sports section, where he-men could enjoy his tomcatting around but women and children would run across him less often. Jack's appearances, too, were less frequent, as Swinnerton concentrated on his most popular (and personal favorite) feature, Little Jimmy.

The Escapades of Mr. Jack, a daily strip, appeared sporadically for a decade or so, but it isn't very well documented. Sources say it ran between 1912 and 1919, but there exist episodes that clearly take place during Prohibition, which didn't go into effect until 1920. (Mr. Jack's repertoire had expanded to include taking a nip under the very noses of police officers, whenever he could get away with it.) In 1926, he was toned down to become the topper to Little Jimmy's page.

That gig lasted until 1935, and Mr. Jack hasn't been seen since. But by then, Old Doc Yak, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and any number of others had arrived, and the funny animal genre was firmly established.


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Text ©2005-09 Donald D. Markstein. Art is in the public domain. This image has been modified. Modified version © Donald D. Markstein.