Home Books Book Reviews Review: POLLY AND HER PALS
Written by Scott Katz   
Thursday, 27 January 2011 08:58

Polly_Pals_cvr-resizeWhen we interviewed Bruce Canwell, the Associate Editor of the hardcover book series The Library of American Comics back in October, we described the work of the organization as a "rescue mission" because they toiled diligently to recover lost and forgotten comic strips, digitally restore the artwork where necessary, and present them to today's audience – many of whom had never seen the classic strips except perhaps as an array of random samples.

Never has the term "rescue mission" been more appropriately applied than to the latest volume to come from the Library of American Comics: Polly and Her Pals volume 1 by cartoonist Cliff Sterrett (180 pp, $75, available now). Polly is a strip that was popular in its day, but is all but unheard of to today's audience. Polly and Her Pals was created by cartoonist Cliff Sterrett for the William Randolph Hearst chain of newspapers and first appeared as a daily on December 4, 1912 under the title Positive Polly, and a Sunday version followed a year later on December 28, 1913.

The strip originally focused on the comedic adventures of Polly Perkins, who, as we see in the very first Sunday strip, is never at a loss for a gentleman caller. As a character, Polly could be considered a proto-flapper whose slangy speech, dress, and attitude anticipated the approaching Jazz Age and the new social freedoms for society, and particularly women, that it ushered in. However, as the strip matured and fully came into its own, Polly's father, Sam "Paw" Perkins, emerged as the true star of the strip. Paw's domestic misadventures, and the strips eventual incorporation of expressionistic and cubist elements into the artwork delighted audiences for decades. Of course, Polly was still on hand, as were her "Pals" – simply an alliterative way to refer to her parents and her growing cast of extended family that were added to the strip.

...a not-to-be-wasted opportunity to see one of the early comedic masters develop into one of the true giants of popular art.

With but a brief sabbatical in 1925, Sterrett drew all of the Polly Sunday strips from their inception in 1913 until its demise on June 15,1958, representing an almost unbroken 46-year body of work. However, although Polly had a devoted fan following, it never became the merchandising bonanza that other comic strips of the era did, and so it never seeped into the larger American pop culture landscape that other strips, such as Chic Young's Blondie – also originally a strip chronicling the adventures of a flirty flapper-type protagonist – did.

However, among cartoonists and illustrators, Cliff Sterrett's work has become justly admired and even revered. Sterrett was one of the comic strip pioneers who thought outside the box – in this case, the restrictive oblong format of the Sunday newspaper – and brought new potential and expanded the graphic vocabulary of what a newspaper comic strip could convey visually. Sterrett's influence and bold experimentation stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Winsor McKay (Little Nemo in Slumberland) and George Herriman (Krazy Kat), but contribute something new.


(click on images to enlarge)
polly-181124-resize Polly270612-resize

POLLY AND HER PALS, November 24, 1918

[Photo Credit: Library of American Comics]

POLLY AND HER PALS, June 12, 1927

[Photo Credit: Library of American Comics]


The team at the Library of American Comics has done its usual outstanding job in assembling this book. Luckily, they were able to gather together crystal clear syndicate proofs to use as their starting point. Strips that are 85 to 100 years old look brand new. The thick, matte paper stock allows each strip to be read without overhead lighting creating a glare on the pages. Best of all, the Sunday pages are presented pretty much at their original size as the book measures an enormous 16 inches high with the strips taking up more than 13 inches of the page size. What with the bright white paper and today's advanced coloring techniques, this is undoubtedly the best the strips have ever looked. For any collector of classic comic strip material, this represents a great opportunity to own the early years of the strip in a pristine archival format. Supplementing the strips themselves is an invaluable front section of in-depth background material in the form of an essay of no less than 8,000 words by comic strip historian, Jeet Heer. Included in this section, beyond a wealth of biographical material, are vintage newspaper ads promoting Cliff Sterrett and Polly, and samples of early strips by Sterrett including For This Have We Daughters, which is to Polly and Her Pals what Li'l Folks is to Charles Schulz's Peanuts.

The strips included in the book span the years from 1913 to 1927. However, the book doesn't really start its chronological reprinting until the strip dated Sunday, November 30, 1924. The book includes all the Sterrett strips from then until the close of the year 1927, but skipping his sabbatical period of April 19 to November 15, 1925 when his strip was done by ghost artists. However, a few representative samples of this 7-month period are included. And for those who are familiar with Polly and are wondering – yes, each page does contain the topper strips that ran above Polly starting with Dot and Dash (originally called Damon and Pythias) beginning on February 21, 1926. A preview of the next planned volume in the series shows that it will contain the Sundays from the period 1928 to 1930 along with the topper, Sweethearts and Wives (later renamed Belles and Wedding Bells).

Why does this book truly begin in earnest from the post-sabbatical period of late-1925 rather than as a complete chronological reprinting from day one as many of the other series in the Library have done? The answer is simply that, while the early strips are not without merit and are quite enjoyable forays into domestic situation comedy that Sterrett all but pioneered alongside fellow cartoonist, George McManus (Bringing Up Father, also available from the Library of American Comics), Polly and Her Pals did not truly become the strip that audiences loved and critics lauded until he returned from sabbatical with a new outlook and a bold new art style, the beginnings of which can be seen in this first volume. It has yet to be uncovered exactly why this sabbatical led to such a dramatic change in Sterrett's approach to his cartooning, but with his return, slowly but surely, came the abstract art style for which he became justly famous. Gone were the faithful representations of reality and in its place stood a world of slightly-out-of-whack architecture and matter-of-fact surrealism. Doorways looked like arches; windows seemingly hung in midair on a wall of black (as shown on the cover shot above); Entrances to rooms could easily be a large hole in the floor; floor tiles were a shape unknown to geometry, and the ground itself always seemed to slope upward as if it were a knoll. Then, too, light and shadow are played with to create additional mood and effect. Sterrett's self-imposed vacation seemed to begin the process whereby he would come into his full powers as a cartoonist. It's as if Steve Ditko's Dark Dimension or Bob Clampett's Wackyland were the source material for the architectural blueprints of this cracked mirror take on small town Americana – but remember, Sterrett did it first.

Reading Polly and Her Pals gives one the same thrill that an archeologist must feel as he or she dusts off an antiquity: the thrill of discovery – the sense of origin – the knowledge that one is witnessing the birth of new artistic techniques rather than the tenth generation knockoffs of those techniques. Seeing the strips presented sequentially gives the reader further understanding as we can chart the progression of Sterrett's emerging new sensibilities and watch him experiment, discard, and refine the elements of the style that would become so identified with the artist and with Polly and Her Pals. By following the progression of each week's strip, one can experience a vicarious charge out of imagining that one is witnessing Sterrett's own mind open up bit by bit as he began to understand the full depths of his own talent and the possibilities that existed on that blank sheet of paper. Perhaps most thrilling is the knowledge that, in 1925, Sterrett was injecting elements of cubism and surrealism alongside and concurrent with those movements in the larger art world, championed by such artists as Picasso and, later, Salvador Dalí, when the movement was still so fresh and full of unexplored possibilities rather than as an ain't-I-clever throwback to another era's art form studied in art history class.

Oh, and as an added bonus? The characters are engaging; the situations are relatable, and these strips are just damned funny. Sterrett was a master humorist whether it be through situations, dialogue, or most famously, through pantomime – as many of the best and most famous strips contain no dialogue.  There's no tradeoff between style and substance here.

Polly and Her Pals volume 1 is the first book in the new "Champagne Format" of the Library of American Comics, and is a not-to-be-wasted opportunity to see one of the early comedic masters develop into one of the true giants of popular art.


For further information about the Library of American Comics, visit their website at www.libraryofamericancomics.com and listen to our interview with Bruce Canwell, Associate Editor for the Library right here.






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