Napoleon and Uncle Elby, in a typical dispute. Artist: Clifford McBride.

NAPOLEON AND UNCLE ELBY

Original Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: McNaught Syndicate
First Appeared: 1932
Creator: Clifford McBride
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Considering how popular and long-lived Fred Bassett, Tippie, Marmaduke and other canine comic stars have been, it's surprising there haven't been more of them over the years. Napoleon, created …

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… by cartoonist Clifford McBride and rendered largely in pantomime, was a mainstay of the comic pages for more than a quarter of a century.

Napoleon was a big, clumsy, ungainly dog, most likely an approximation of an Irish wolfhound. As dogs go, he had a remarkably broad facial range, able to convey surprise, dismay, haughty disdain, grudging satisfaction and much more, as recognizable to readers as the expressions of any human character, and yet completely dog-like in every panel. Napoleon's alleged "master", Uncle Elby, was no more able to impose his will on the dog than was Si Keeler, on Maud the Mule. The difference was that Maud acted out of pure orneriness, whereas Napoleon was just playful, headstrong, and not overly concerned about any damage he might cause.

Uncle Elby wasn't quite what you'd call elderly, but getting pretty close. He was overweight and kind of fussy, just the sort of guy who would be most disconcerted by the antics of a dog like Napoleon — whom he clearly loved, no matter how hard it was to deal with the beast, or how upset he became as a result of those antics. Other than Napoleon, Uncle Elby lived alone, but his young nephew, Willie, was also part of the cast.

Elby actually preceded Napoleon in print. McBride's prior syndicated work, most of which bore his own name (e.g., McBride's Cartoon (1927), Clifford McBride's Pantomime Comic (1932), etc.) didn't have regular stars; but Elby, who was based on McBride's own uncle, Henry Elba Eastman, would turn up in them with increasing frequency. After a while, Elby's big, bumptious pooch began turning up with him.

On June 6, 1932, McBride launched Napoleon as a daily strip, with a very minor syndicate. It was soon picked up by McNaught (Mickey Finn, Heathcliff). A Sunday page was added the following year; and starting in '34, Uncle Elby shared the title. A notable sequence, highly sought by collectors, came very early on, in 1933-34, when a seafaring friend, Singapore Sam, narrated an extended fantasy to Willie, about Jumping Jack Island and its strange inhabitants. Other than that, there was very little day-to-day or week-to-week continuity.

The strip was a success, with several hardcover reprint books published within a few years. There was also a Big Little Book. It was reprinted in early issues of Famous Funnies; and the same publisher, Eastern Color Printing, produced Napoleon & Uncle Elby as a oneshot comic book in 1942. Dell Comics, too, published a Napoleon oneshot in 1953, as part of its catch-all Four Color Comics series. During the mid-1940s, Napoleon was used in print advertising for Red Heart Dog Food. Bob Clampett (Bugs, Daffy), a friend of McBride's, made puppets of the characters shortly after leaving Warner Bros., but rights to do a TV show based on them proved hard to nail down. Still, the techniques he developed in making Napoleon's face suitably expressive came in handy for Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent.

McBride died in 1950, but his former assistant, Roger Armstrong (Ella Cinders, Scamp), continued the strip. Under Armstrong, it ran until 1961.

— DDM

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Text ©2006-07 Donald D. Markstein. Art © McNaught Syndicate.