Ophelia's most famous surviving image, the cover of her sheet music. Artist: Clare Dwiggins.

OPHELIA’S SLATE

Medium: Newspaper comics
Appearing in: New York World
First Appeared: 1909
Creator: Clare V. Dwiggins
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Clare Victor Dwiggins, who signed his work "Dwig", is a virtually forgotten cartoonist today, but he was well known during his lifetime (1874-1958). His career in newspaper cartooning began right about the time the comics were becoming a prominent feature in that medium, during the late 1890s — his earliest experience as a paid artist was working for an …

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… architect, but he started his newspaper career at The St. Louis Dispatch in 1897. Ophelia Bumps, who first appeared in 1909, was far from his first comics star, but she was his first to achieve fame.

Ophelia was a goofy-looking kid, but it wasn't so much her crossed eyes, silly facial expressions or flamboyantly messy style of dress that got readers' attention, as it was her habit of communicating mostly through the written, rather than spoken word. Like comics' first superstar, The Yellow Kid, she kept her mouth shut but got her thoughts across in written form. With the Kid, it was through writing on the yellow nightshirt he always wore. Ophelia carried a small slate, and commented on the action around her by writing aphorisms on it in chalk, for the readers to see.

Ophelia & Her Slate started in 1909 in the Sunday edition of The New York World, run by Joseph Pulitzer, whose rivalry with William Randolph Hearst during the previous decade had played such a large role in getting the comics industry started. Other well-known comics that started in that paper include Keeping up with the Joneses. Hawkshaw the Detective and Caspar Milquetoast. The exact date of her beginning isn't recorded, but one major item of its impact is. The following year, ragtime composer James Scott devoted a tune to her, and its popularity helped reinforce Ophelia's own.

That particular incarnation of Ophelia lasted only until 1911, but she was back in 1913 as a supporting character to her mother, in Mrs. Bumps Boarding House. This one was offered through The McClure Syndicate (King Aroo, Superman). But that, too, was short-lived. She was revived again, in the daily Ophelia's Slate, also from McClure, in 1929.

But Dwiggins also got some use from the Ophelia character in his long-running School Days, probably his best-known comic. There, she was part of a large cast of small-town youngsters in the American midwest, which had begun by starring Mark Twain's characters from Tom Sawyer. Several of Dwig's kid characters turned up there.

Today, there seems to be a kind of hazy cultural memory of Ophelia Bumps — not as strong as that of Desperate Desmond or Tales from the Crypt, but she hasn't been entirely forgotten even tho practically nobody remembers her comics. Not only do specialists in American popular music recall Scott's Ophelia Rag — she's also the namesake of many clattery vehicles that don't give a very smooth ride, from family cars to World War II aircraft. Which may not be world-spanning fame, but an obscure comics star has to take immortality where she can get it.

— DDM

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Text ©2007 Donald D. Markstein. Art © McClure Newspaper Syndicate.