Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Syd Hoff

Back when cartoonists were celebrities, Syd Hoff was a star. Before television, that special brand of humor known as the gag cartoon had a unique place in the hearts of Americans who read such magazines as Esquire, The New Yorker, Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s and College Humor. Artists such as Peter Arno, John Held Jr., and Charles Addams were some of its champions. Today, Syd Hoff is most well known for his amazing output of well over 100 books for children, many of which still remain in print today. Yet even before his first children’s book was published, Hoff was a familiar name to many. Similar to other cartoonists turned children’s authors of the time like Dr. Seuss or Stan and Jan Berenstain, Hoff was a cartoonist who retained his recognizable style throughout his career. But his beginnings as a gag cartoonist and comic-strip artist, while they might not be as well remembered, are more than worth noting. In looking back at Hoff’s early work we can see how he came to bring a gag cartoonist’s sensibility to the world of easy reader children’s books.

Hoff’s bulbous nosed adults and sprouty kids portrayed New York tenement life with humor. Back in the 1930’s, cartoonists had niches. John Held Jr. was famous for his flappers. Peter Arno for his women. What made Syd Hoff’s bold line worth remembering were his characters based on the New York Jews with whom he grew up. The cast that he created from the 1930’s through the 1950’s reappear in some of his work for children but it is the adults who are more prevalent in his early work. An older married couple, quite possibly based on Hoff’s own parents, were reoccurring characters in his gag cartoons. The husband of the older married couple is often portrayed with a walrus like moustache, balding, and wearing an undershirt. The wife is often a large, overbearing, unattractive woman with a double chin. Even when drawn in a variety of different circumstances, these round, potato-nosed Bronx apartment dwellers are unique to Hoff. The fact that he created many of these early cartoons while living at home with his parents in NY, lend an ear to their authenticity.

In a typical watercolor embellished cartoon from the late 1930’s, the husband lies back in his easy chair looking through his window into the adjacent apartment. He is watching the drama from across the way as a man, not unlike himself, is being berated by his wife. As his own wife comes home and enters through the door, he scolds her with this remark, “The drama of life is under our noses, but you have to rush to the movies”. The apartment is bare and the general tone of unhappiness, although presented with humor, is characteristic of the depression years. In this particular cartoon, the act of looking through a tenement window and commenting on the scene as entertainment is not too far off from Hoff’s approach to his own cartooning.

Hoff was born in 1912, the second child to Benjamin, a cigar-smoking salesman, and his wife, Mary. He had a brother and sister, but Hoff was the only artist in the family. In his autobiography he recalls having an early affinity towards cartoons, copying newspaper comics like Harry Hierschfield’s “Abie Kabibble”. At an early age, his drawings were proudly hammered up onto the apartment wall, a scene in which Hoff replicates in his 1972 book My Aunt Rosie. Finding early encouragement from cartoonist Milt Gross who visited Hoff’s High School by ways of a school assembly, Hoff was bound to become a cartoonist. From the beginning, he turned miserable situations into funny ideas and distinguished himself by way of drawing. Dropping out of high school, Hoff enrolled in the National Academy of Design, an art school located in Harlem, at the age of 16. Unsure of his own future as a fine artist and feeling off put by the snobby attitude of his bohemian classmates, Hoff worked occasionally as an usher at a Loew’s movie house. It was there that he began drawing caricatures of the actors. Not long after this, he got lucky selling cartoons to the New Yorker. Soon, they would be asking for more of his “Bronx types”.

Hoff’s simple style is instantly recognizable. Between 1941, and 1977 his illustrations appeared in hundreds of magazines and newspapers. Some of the most popular magazines of the time including The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire and The New Yorker frequently featured cartoons by Hoff. His first comic strip, Tuffy, appeared in more than 800 papers worldwide for ten years. A daily one-panel cartoon, Laugh It Off, was syndicated by Kings Features in 1958 and ran for nearly twenty years. Not only was he prolific, but he was quite the personality as well. In the early days of television, he had his own show on CBS. “Tales from Hoff” (1947) featured the cartoonist doing live drawings and telling stories that accompanied them as they were created. Because the stories were appropriate for children, this storytelling knack in a quick, easy to understand format, was a predecessor to his work for children.

While Hoff’s caricatures of immigrant adults portrayed the desperation of the depression years, the lighter side of poverty throughout the 1930’s and 40’s was best reflected in Hoff’s cartoons when he drew children. If the adults represent his own parents, the children were closer to Hoff’s own experiences and sentiments. Amusingly, Hoff often portrays his children as a lot wiser than their parents, more conniving and certainly more street smart. In one such cartoon, a disturbed child rushed into his father’s bathroom with a newspaper. He says, “Say pop, do you realize the average child spends approximately fifteen dollars a year on candy?” The father looks stupefied. In another typical cartoon from this period, two young boys on the street dressed up as cowboys are holding a smoking gun. A middle aged woman stands beside her husband on the ground, presumably dead. The woman looks surprised as the boys say, “Now will you stop saying how cute we are and pass over your dough.” Both of these cartoons show the typical drive that propelled youngsters during this time; to make money by your wits and not necessarily by your education.

A bit more carefree was Hoff’s younger set. Hoff drew unmarried young adults as tall beanpole like characters that also differed from his married adults because of their perkier noses. The cartoons which featured these types often dealt with dating and relationships. What may come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with this aspect of Hoff’s work is that the humor of these gags often bordered on the sexual. This is something that Hoff left behind as he ventured towards his children’s book career. Filled with 1950’s workplace humor, these particular cartoons maintain a certain charm. An example of this is a gag in which a woman leaves the President of her company’s office and remarks to the secretary “I think I’ve been promoted.” In the cartoon we notice that her dress has been tussled with, leaving her brassiere exposed. This humor of sexual advances would not be PC today but it is common form in Hoff’s cartoons from this period. Cartoons dealing with young lovers, nurses and secretaries.

An amusing phenomenon of the late 1940’s and 1950’s that was a leftover from the war was the large amount of cartoons that sexualized the female nurse. Hoff contributed largely to this genre and even had a book that collected such cartoons entitled From Bed to Nurse (1963). As Hoff’s bald man with a moustache reclines in his bed, having his temperature taken, he stares in admiration at the young nurse’s cleavage as she bends over to remove the thermometer. Another man lay comfortably back in his bed with hands behind his head as the nurse talks on the telephone. He demands to change his night nurse. Tonight, he wants a blonde! Another even shows the man in bed with a nurse and an older, uglier nurse appearing angry as the young nurse says innocently, “He said his feet were cold!” Still, even with this suggested risqué nature of these cartoons, the drawings remain simple, bold and innocent; not quite Playboy material.

Hoff’s two newspaper cartoons were less adult in nature. These included the comic strip Tuffy and a one panel cartoon entitled Laugh It Off. Tuffy was an awkward, gawky looking child with a giant bowtie and rubbery legs that often spring backwards out of the panel. She was the child of Hoff’s tenement dwelling adults. Her adventures included vignettes where she wandered around the city, getting into antics, mostly trouble, with her friends. Again, the humor revolved around the poverty of the characters. For example, in one strip, Tuffy remarks to a boy “Why don’t you wash your face Tommy?” He replies, “Why should I?” Tuffy’s cheeky response shows wisdom beyond her years. “I suppose you’re smart in a way. With real estate prices the way they are, your face is your fortune.” Not exactly ground breaking stuff but Tuffy proved that Hoff certainly had a way of showing the language of tenement kids, often portraying them as smarter than their parents. Tuffy’s adventures were reprinted in comic book format in 1950 by Standard comics. The tagline reads: Tuffy, America’s Funniest Little Girl. On the cover of issue #8, Tuffy is shown going on strike holding her picket sign that reads “Unfair, Daddy won’t raise my allowance.” The stunned father looks up from his newspaper, surprised to notice that this indeed is his daughter. While Tuffy is charming and comparable in many ways to Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy or Marge’s Little Lulu it in some way lacks the depth of Hoff’s single page cartoons.

With Hoff’s simple artwork, the small panels utilized in the comic strip seem a bit too confined for his inner city world. With the larger panels in the magazine cartoons such characters were given more room to breathe, as there was more attention given to space. But the stage was set in order for Hoff to become one of the most beloved American children’s book authors of all time. When he would later take his storytelling ability and combine it with the composition of his early gag cartoons, he helped create a storytelling format for kids that has become commonplace today. Like fellow cartoonists Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and Stan and Jane Berenstain, Hoff’s children’s books were revolutionary in that they brought whimsical cartooning to the format of easy reader books. In a sense, Hoff’s early books such as Danny and the Dinosaur or Herschel the Hero are gag cartoon comic books. It’s as if he is transplanting the gag cartoon format, making it sequential. These children’s books were different because each page could almost stand alone as a gag.

Hoff’s one panel newspaper strip, Laugh It off, often employed animals as devices for humor. One of Hoff’s most endearing books, Sammy the Seal (1959) continues in this direction. The pages in this book, if removed form the story are very similar to Hoff’s one panel cartoons. For example, on page 62, the caption underneath the picture reads “Sammy was in a hurry to get back to the zoo, he had so much to tell the other seals.” In the picture, Sammy is riding in the back of a taxi cab. While Hoff’s work for children is still acclaimed and read by kids today as many of the titles remain in print, it is interesting to go back and view his nearly forgotten work in order to see how this evolution took place. Many of the Laugh It Off strips were reprinted in Hoff’s excellent how-to book on cartooning, The Young Cartoonist (1983). Seeing these strips alongside his children’s book work, they appear almost like exerted pages from an unpublished children’s book. In 1985, Hoff revived Laugh It Off, with his book Syd Hoff’s Animal Jokes, a collection of individual gag cartoons aimed at children.

Hoff had over a hundred cartoon and children’s books published and it would be overwhelming to analyze all of these. One outstanding example where a definite transition seems to become apparent is Hoff’s book Out of Gas from 1954, which precedes his classic picture book Danny and the Dinosaur by 5 years. The book is interesting because while it is not essentially sequential storytelling, the book has a beginning and end and details the lives of a cast of characters; a family of four. It is not a children’s book but rather a collection of gag cartoons intended for adults. Still, very much like his children’s books there is one picture per page with a written caption below. Unlike Hoff’s earlier cartoon collections such as Oops, Wrong Party or Feeling No Pain, this collection shows the same cast of characters throughout. Again, there is the balding father with a moustache, the overweight double-chinned mother and their two intelligent children. Each page maintains its own joke but at the same time, it tells the story of this family’s cross country journey. In doing so, he transplants a semblance of a narrative, the cross county journey, by use of large gag cartoon panels without borders.

In addition to having sold millions of copies of his children’s books including his most famous book, Danny and the Dinosaur (named after his brother), Syd Hoff was equally proud of his writing talents. He wrote several short stories for Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen magazine, as well as a novel, Irving and Me (1967). Like his cartoons, Syd Hoff had a great sense of humor. He believed that anyone could draw and continued making books until late in his life. These later books have a more mature style, Hoff’s line being thinner and more ragged, giving it a sort of mistakenly dashed off look. However, as Hoff’s stories became more complex such as in Scarface Al and His Uncle Sam (a children’s book based on the life of Al Capone), the difficulty came in simplifying the story into a language children could immediately understand. Hoff’s love for drawing and storytelling extended outside of making books. He was a frequent visitor to schools and libraries and even taught drawing classes above cruise ships. I’m hard pressed to find another cartoonist who has done so much or who had such a fun time doing it. His children’s books will continue to be read because they present a cartoonist at top form who was experienced at turning depression into laughter.

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