Smokey and Chief Cash U. Nutt in The Foomobile. Artist: Bill Holman.


Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: Chicago Tribune Syndicate
First Appeared: 1935
Creator: Bill Holman
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When you talk about screwball humor in American comics, the one strip that's bound to come up is Bill Holman's Smokey Stover. There were screwball comics before it — various …

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… creations of Milt Gross and Rube Goldberg, for example — and screwball comics after — such as The Pie-face Prince of Pretzelburg. But Smokey Stover kept it up way longer than any of them. The Chicago Tribune-New York Daily News Syndicate started distributing it on March 10, 1935, and it continued unabated for decades after the heyday of screwball comedy.

Smokey (short for "Smokestack") (no relation, by the way) was a fireman (but not that kind). His boss was Chief Cash U. Nutt. His wife's name was Cookie (no relation) and they had a son named Earl. Smokey drove around in a two-wheeled firetruck known (to readers, at least) as The Foomobile. The word "foo" also turned up on signs, lists, menus, and the lips of various characters at random but frequent intervals. Holman claimed to have found it written on the bottom of a Chinese figurine. Other phrases that turned up similarly were "Notary Sojac" and "1506 Nix Nix". Don't ask what they mean.

"Foo", by the way, was picked up from this strip and used in several animated cartoons, notably some that Bob Clampett directed for Warner Bros. It may have influenced the formation of the World War II slang expression "fubar" (a relative of "snafu"). The expression "foo fighter", a term used by UFO enthusiasts, is traced to Smokey Stover, who often called himself a foo fighter when anyone else would have said "firefighter". Computer hackers also use "foo" as an all-purpose noun — also, probably from having seen it in this strip.

(Contrary to popular belief, however, Smokey Stover is not the source of the phrase "Nov shmoz ka pop?" That came from Gene Ahern's The Squirrel Cage, topper to Room & Board.)

Smokey Stover was the product of a unique mind, and didn't translate well into other media. But there were a couple of Big Little Books from Whitman in the 1940s, a couple of comic books from Dell in the 1950s, and a couple of TV cartoons, back segments in a show headlined by Archie, in the 1970s. The latter were very minor even as back segments go — Smokey rotated with Broom Hilda, Moon Mullins, Alley Oop and other comic strip personalities.

The fact that it was the product of a unique mind is also why the strip ended in 1973 — that's when Bill Holman retired. At that point, there was no use trying to continue it. The only person who could ever do it was no longer available. Holman died in 1987.

Smokey Stover is no more, and we won't see anything quite like it ever again. But it will always be remembered, whenever the topic of screwball humor in American comics is discussed.


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Text ©2001-09 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Chicago Tribune Syndicate.