More thoughts about visualizing America in the 1930s. . . The history of the Great Depression and New Deal, and especially popular knowledge of the era, has been shaped by remnants of its popular visual media that continue to filter down to the present-from extravagant Busby Berkeley movie musicals and gripping social-drama movies, to the documentary photography coordinated by the Farm Security Administration, to the ubiquitous murals covering post office walls across the country. Thirties print illustrations and comic strips have made less of a lasting impression (with the exception, thanks to its musical embodiment, of the preternaturally optimist “Little Orphan Annie”). Despite some good recent scholarship (such as Helen Langa’s 2004 Radical Art: Printmaking and the Left in 1930s New York, and despite their popularity in the period, illustrations and comic strips don’t get enough attention, which is unfortunate because their iconography powerfully evokes many of the aspirations and beliefs that percolated through U.S. society and culture during the Great Depression; they also demonstrate how some of the more famous 1930s illustrators/cartoonists in the era managed to straddle what later became an unbridgeable line dividing mainstream media and radical political publications. William Gropper, for example, was able to move across that porous border: his rotund, top-hatted capitalists were familiar sights in the frothily fashionable Condé Nast monthly Vanity Fair as well as in the pages of the Communist Party’s Daily Worker (albeit bearing somewhat different emphases).
The Daily Worker is, itself, a surprisingly untapped resource for studying and teaching the Great Depression, especially in light of its visual opulence and, for a time, its enthusiastic engagement with the sort of features common in standard newspapers. In the hands of editor and veteran journalist Clarence Hathaway, the Communist Party’s newspaper emerged in late 1935 out of a more reclusive, sectarian period to embrace the Popular Front, the broad range of cultural activities that in general supported the efforts of the New Deal. The refurbished Daily Worker quickly attracted readers beyond the party faithful with the style and substance of a provocative radical tabloid. In keeping with the new party vision of Communism as “twentieth-century Americanism,” Hathaway expanded the paper’s coverage of news in the United States-and particularly in New York-introducing entertainment features and arts criticism, a popular sports page, daily political cartoons, and especially its crop of comic strips.
The Daily Worker comic strips are particularly interesting because they departed from the paper’s more common iconography, favored in the party’s political tracts, posters, and leaflets, of stylized muscular male workers. During the late thirties, the comic strips were gathered on their own page, including such humor and adventure serials as: “Barnacle and the Fink,” “Buttons,” “Point of Information” (mimicking the popular strip syndicated in William Randolph Hearst’s many newspapers, “Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not”), “Muffy the Monk,” “Tex Travis,” “Sir Hokus Pokus,” and the tantalizingly titled “Molly McGuire” (which played off of the name of a secret group of Irish miners that violently resisted the Reading Railroad’s control of the eastern Pennsylvania anthracite coal region during the 1870s). Most of these strips didn’t have much of a shelf-life, with the notable exception of one feature that was found on the newspaper’s daily sports page: “Little Lefty.” That strip was the Daily Worker’s radical answer to Harold Gray’s notoriously conservative, anti-New Deal “Little Orphan Annie”-not to mention a none too subtle rip-off of the Hal Roach “Our Gang” (aka “Little Rascals”) short comedy films that were part of most Depression-era kids’ Saturday matinee movie fare. Drawn by Maurice Del Bourgo, who also produced early issues of Classics Illustrated comic books, “Little Lefty” started in 1934 and ran, with a few interruptions, until 1943, chronicling the adventures of its spunky hero and his gang of progressive urban adolescents. The plots often involved significant radical causes, especially from 1936 to 1939 when the stories focused on support for the Republican government in Spain under attack by a military uprising abetted by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. During that time, Lefty headed the “Junior Friends of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion,” distributing membership buttons to the strip’s young readers, and mustering sympathy for the plight of Spanish children and contributions for the American volunteers fighting on the side of the Spanish government. For more on “Little Lefty,” see Allan Holtz’s April 18, 2006 post in his always enlightening Stripper’s Guide blog.