SKIPPYOriginal medium: Magazine cartoons
Appearing in: Life magazine
First Appeared: 1923
Creator: Percy L. Crosby
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Once, the name "Skippy" was associated in the public consciousness with an extremely popular comic strip about a little boy and his small town adventures. Comics historian and critic Coulton Waugh (whose cartooning credentials included having taken over Dickie Dare from Milton Caniff) said it "was no routine, ordinarily good job". It's no exaggeration to call it the Peanuts of its time. Now, the name only refers to a brand of peanut butter. There's a connection between the two,
and the story behind it appears even more sordid than what's been going on between Disney and the licensor of Winnie the Pooh.
Cartoonist Percy L. Crosby (who had less spectacular success with a comic titled Always Belittlin') had been a regular contributor to Life magazine for years when, in its March 15, 1923 issue, he launched Skippy as a full-page comics feature. Sometimes with break-neck action and sometimes with pensive reflectivity, Skippy developed into a strong and unique individual, and yet the kind of boy everyone knew one or two of. His parents dressed him like Buster Brown, but the extremely messy way he wore his fancy duds made it clear he was all boy. His popularity was such that he sometimes appeared on the magazine's cover.
He quickly branched out into newspaper syndication, first by a very minor outfit called Johnson Features Inc. and then, starting in 1926, by the huge and powerful King Features Syndicate. By 1929, his adventures had been reprinted in book form by two different publishers. Also in the 1920s, Crosby wrote prose books about Skippy, profusely illustrated with his own cartoons, including Dear Sooky, consisting of Skippy's letters to his best friend.
Skippy's first movie, simply titled Skippy, was released by Paramount Pictures on April 25, 1931. Child star Jackie Cooper (who much, much later played Perry White to Christopher Reeve's Superman) performed the title role, and got an Oscar nomination, vanishingly rare for his age group, for the effort. It was so well received, the follow-up, Sooky, came out only ten months later.
Skippy was also the first character to star in his own comic book, at least if the term is confined to the modern style, in the format pioneered by Max Gaines's Famous Funnies. After appearing in the promotional first issue of that publication, Skippy was deemed the single character most likely to sell a product. Skippy's Own Book Of Comics, published in 1934, was given away to no less than half a million buyers of Phillip's Toothpaste.
Skippy's radio show also started in 1934. And then there were the dolls (one of which appeared on a U.S. postage stamp as recently as 1997), sheet music, trading cards, board games, commemorative plates, and all sorts of product endorsements — so many endorsements, Crosby had to hire a firm of lawyers to keep track of them and make sure nobody was simply appropriating the name and getting a free ride.
Skippy was one of the stars of Dell's Popular Comics, along with Moon Mullins, Dick Tracy and Little Joe, starting with its February, 1936 first issue. A couple of years later, he helped launch All-American Publications by appearing in early issues of All-American Comics, along with Reg'lar Fellers, Toonerville Folks and Scribbly the Boy Cartoonist. He appeared in a few Big Little Books, including one based on the movie.
Much of the critical praise heaped on Crosby centered on the dynamic qualities of his drawing. Even when sitting still, Skippy appeared dynamic. Partly, this was achieved by the fact that Crosby drew in a semi-impressionistic style, and very quickly. It was as though the speedy movement of the artist's hand was transferred to the picture. Another effect of that speed was giving Crosby time to do more than just Skippy. Among his other activities were books detailing his political opinions, many self-published because regular publishers in this land of press freedom were afraid to put their names on them. Such radicalisms as pointing out similarities between the policies of President Roosevelt and those of the hated Communists, and suggesting FBI director J. Edgar Hoover might be exceeding his legal authority, may be cheered in some circles — but in others, they're regarded as evidence of insanity.
In 1933, Rosefield Packing Co. Ltd., a California food packager, gave itself one of those "free rides" on the Skippy name, by using it for a new brand of peanut butter. It even went so far as to use a board fence with hand-painted lettering, a motif very familiar to Crosby's readers, as its logo, and to attempt to trademark the name for itself. Crosby's lawyers filed suit, and prevailed in court in 1934. Even as the decision was handed down, the Internal Revenue Service was launching what turned out to be a ruinous investigation of Crosby for alleged tax evasion. The apparent reason for targeting him had to do with his "unsavory" views (politically motivated IRS investigations are nothing new), but many years later, investigation turned up business ties between the IRS personnel involved and Rosefield's lawyer.
The investigation went on and on, only getting worse as the years went by — which may, better than the supposed "insanity", explain why Crosby's increasingly strident views on how the country was being run came to dominate the Skippy feature, leading to a decline in popularity. By 1939, the stress on him and his family had reached a point where his wife left him, taking their four young children, whom he never saw again. In 1940, he spent time in a hospital for stress-related conditions. In 1945, King Features canceled the strip. (The last one appeared on December 8 of that year — Crosby's 54th birthday.) In 1946, the IRS froze his assets.
Meanwhile, Rosefield was ignoring the court decision and continuing to manufacture Skippy Peanut Butter for distribution in areas where Crosby wasn't likely to catch them, relying on his very insistent distractions to keep him from looking too hard. He didn't find out about it until 1944. Unable to pay for legal representation, he failed to stop them, but didn't admit defeat. His persistence was characterized as more evidence he was insane — as was the fact that he felt "hounded and harassed", like a "hunted man", to use his own expressions. He was convinced his phone was tapped and his mail was being read, which, when the IRS is after you, seem like safe assumptions.
A suicide attempt on December 16, 1948, was given as the reason for commiting him to a mental institution — but the weapons he was said to have used on himself were never seen. Less than a week after he was out of the way, Rosefield, in the absence of objection, was granted a trademark on the name "Skippy". Again, investigation many years later revealed connections between Rosefield and at least one of the people signing the commitment papers.
In 1954, Rosefield sold the Skippy brand name to Corn Products Corporation (since renamed Best Foods Inc.) for $7.5 million. Percy L. Crosby died in 1964 without having regained his freedom or his reputation. And as a cartoon character, Skippy is scarcely remembered.