THE NEBBSMedium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: The Bell Syndicate
First Appeared: 1923
Creator: Sol Hess
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When something strikes the public fancy, like The Gumps, by cartoonist Sidney Smith, did in 1917, it's only natural that imitators start popping up. Indeed, comics like Toots & Casper and
The Bungle Family debuted as early as the following year — but then, domestic comedy is a perennial favorite in all media, so it's hard to say for sure that those were direct responses. Not so with The Nebbs, practically as close a copy as The Squadron Supreme was of The Justice League of America.
Sol Hess, the writer who created The Nebbs, was a friend of Sidney Smith, and had contributed gags to Smith's strip from the beginning. When he saw how well The Gumps was doing, he decided he'd rather apply his writing ability to something of his own. He created a family a lot like Smith's, hired artist W.A. "Wally" Carlson (who also had a Gumps connection — his Carlson Studios had animated them) to draw the family for him, and sold it to The Bell Syndicate (Tailspin Tommy, Miss Cairo Jones). It debuted in the spring of 1923 — at least one usually-reliable source says May 22, but that's unlikely because it was a Tuesday.
Even the name was Gumps-like. "Gump" was a word Tribune Syndicate chief Joseph M. Patterson used for a member of the Unwashed Masses. The name Nebb was short for "nebbish", a Yiddish word for the sort of person who doesn't stand out in any way. Dad Rudy (no relation) wasn't a loser type, but he did think more highly of himself than an objective observer would be likely to do. Mom Fanny was a typical domestic type, the family power center but in a low-key way. Young Son Junior was a lot like Chester Gump, but he did have an occasional fabulous adventure, such as joining a circus and touring with them for months. Teenage Daughter Betsy, a typical young woman of the flapper era, was the only one who didn't have an analog in the other strip.
Despite its similarity to an established property, The Nebbs caught on, and appeared in about 500 papers. In fact, it was in most of the Hearst papers, despite being distributed by a rival of Hearst's King Features Syndicate, because William Randolph Hearst himself liked it. But it never reached the stellar heights of The Gumps. There were a few Big Little Books in the 1930s, a short-lived radio show in the mid-'40s, and not much else in the way of merchandising or media spin-offs.
The Nebbs came to a very unusual end — it merged with another strip, from another syndicate. Hess died in 1941, and the writing was taken over by his daughter, named Betsy just like the Nebb girl. About the same time, she and her husband, Stanley Baer, started a strip called The Toodle Family, for a minor syndicate run by The Chicago Sun (Betsy & Me). A few years later, the Baers decided the two families were related, and sent the Toodle kids to visit their Nebb cousins. Shortly afterward, the Nebbs moved to the Toodles' neighborhood. In 1947, The Nebbs was dropped, and the characters continued only in supporting roles.
They gradually faded in prominence. In 1961, The Toodle Family ended, and the Nebbs were never seen again.