Typical Toonerville sight. Artist: Fontaine Fox.


Original Medium: Newspaper comics
Published in: Chicago Post
First Appeared: 1908
Creator: Fontaine Fox
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In 1908, the Sunday comics were full of kid strips — Dirks's Katzenjammer Kids, Swinnerton's Little Jimmy,

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… two separate tracks of Buster Brown … But the dailies were practically devoid of that genre, only John T. McCutcheon of The Chicago Tribune working it regularly. Then, as now, editors tended to shy away from unproven concepts, so editorial cartoonist Fontaine Fox's suggestion of a daily panel about the antics of children was at first greeted with skepticism — especially since he proposed to do it on McCutcheon's own turf.

But he talked managing editor Leigh Reilly of The Chicago Post into running his panel anyway, and it eventually grew to become an American institution — so much a part of our culture that in 1995, four decades after its demise, it was included in the "Comic Strip Classics" series of U.S. postage stamps.

By the time Fox's feature received its permanent name — Toonerville Folks — it had shed its exclusive focus on the younger cast members, and was being done in the style of a repertory company. The daily look at Toonerville (situated on the frontier between city and farms) could fall on any of a dozen or more characters — The Terrible-Tempered Mr. Bang, The Powerful Katrinka, Little Woo-Woo Wortle (who has never been spanked), Aunt Eppie Hogg (fattest woman in three counties), etc.

By far, the most prominent of Toonerville's denizens was The Skipper, possibly the most hair-raising driver in all toondom. What he drove, The Toonerville Trolley (which meets all the trains), was perhaps toondom's most hair-raising conveyance — Gordo's "La Cometa Halley" being a very distant second. Man and machine, they were so large a part of the Toonerville scene that many papers titled the feature Toonerville Trolley. The trolley was based on a real-life one Fox had ridiculed in editorial cartoons back in his home town, Louisville, KY, and The Skipper on a grizzled old trolley driver Fox met in Pelham, NY, when visiting cartoonist Charles Voight (Betty). When, in the early 1940s, that Pelham, NY trolley was replaced by a bus, the event drew national attention because of its Toonerville connection.

Five years after Fox started the feature, it was picked up by The Wheeler Syndicate and distributed coast to coast. After a couple of switches over several years, it wound up syndicated by McNaught Syndicate, which also did The Bungle Family, Mickey Finn, Joe Palooka and others. A Sunday page was added in 1918. By the 1930s, it was appearing in about 300 papers.

Unlike most strips published through the 1930s and '40s, Toonerville never made it into Big Little Books or comic books (except some reprints in the back pages of early issues of DC's All-American Comics). But it did spark a series of silent-era short comedies. There, the focus was on Mickey (Himself) McGuire, the town bully, played by Mickey Rooney. Also, the Van Beuren animation company (which had no memorable characters of its own unless you count Tom & Jerry, no relation, but did license a few big-name toons such as Felix the Cat and The Little King) made three Toonerville Trolley cartoons in 1936. These were directed by Burt Gillett, who had earlier done Three Little Pigs for Disney.

The art style of Toonerville Folks was just short of unique in comics — not just because of Fontaine Fox's ability to convey clear, detailed meaning with just a few squiggly lines, but for its point of view. The characters of that strip were usually seen from a bit above their own eye level; thus, the reader always seemed to be looking down on them, as if from lofty omniscience. As well as that technique worked for Fox, one would think a lot of others would have adopted it — but only a few subsequent cartoonists did. Dudley Fisher (Right Around Home) used that point of view, but only on Sunday, where it was necessary to show multiple actions in his one huge panel, and sometimes not even then. That sense of floating detachment is one of the things that make Fox's art identifiable at a glance.

Fontaine Fox retired in 1955, and nobody took over his panel — in fact, it's unlikely anyone ever could, really. And so, Toonerville Folks ended on February 9 of that year. Since then, it's been the subject of enough comic strip retrospectives, scholarly treatises, reprints, etc., to have remained part of America's cultural background. Fontaine Fox's name may not be known to most people, but the image of the Toonerville Trolley, commanded by The Skipper, is still a familiar one to many Americans, old and young.


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Text ©2001-07 Donald D. Markstein. Art: Toonerville Folks is in the public domain. This image has been modified. Modified version © Donald D. Markstein.