Tuesday, November 12, 2019

ELMO: An American Experiment by Cecil Jensen (and Frank M. Young)

Ready to get your CRAZY on? Welcome to the wacky world of Elmo.

Comic strip historian Frank M. Young has painstakingly restored this short-lived and long-forgotten strip, sharing the madness with current and future generations of screwballs. Yeah, that’s a mouthful, but there’s so much going in on this strip, it’s hard to describe in short sentences.

Cecil Jensen’s Elmo, which debuted in the funny papers in November 1946, appears to have been directly inspired by Al Capp’s Little Abner. Like Abner, Elmo is a cheerful idiot, but unlike Abner—he has no excuse. Elmo is no hillbilly, he’s just naturally stupid. And while Abner does occasionally experience sadness, worry, anger and regret, Elmo remains relentlessly upbeat—even as he falls victim to some of the most venal behavior in the history of comic strips. He thinks the best of everyone, and his sole desire is to make them happy.

Just about everyone in Elmo’s world—with the exception of his wannabe girlfriend Emmaline (and later Little Debbie, of whom I will speak anon)—is  unabashedly out for themselves, usually at Elmo’s expense.

Through the first months of his adventures, he’s disrespected, insulted, swindled, tricked, robbed, exploited, kidnapped, framed, imprisoned, swatted with a blackjack and chased by a polar bear. The only time he’s seriously concerned is when a starving man seriously considers eating him.

Through it all, Elmo’s stupidity knows no bounds. When a stranger tells him he has to commit suicide, he jumps off a bridge. In one sequence, he’s hypnotized into believing he’s a skunk, and moves in with real skunks at the zoo. At another point he believes he’s been beheaded.

For a humor strip, there’s an amazing amount of violence. Elmo’s boss hands him a pistol and tells him to shoot himself in the head. Another guy tries to squirt acid in his face, and suffers that fate himself. And it’s all for laughs.

To keep things even more interesting, Jensen populates the strip with a string of sultry females (yeah, one of them is even named "Sultry"), some of whom might have stepped from the panels of Little Abner. All of them are enamored of Elmo, while he remains blissfully immune to their charms.

Six months into the strip, another female is introduced as an incidental character—and finally proves Elmo’s undoing. Over the next year Little Debbie, a precocious little girl whom readers found all-too adorable, becomes a fixture in the strip, and eventually shoves Elmo out. A second volume is promised, focusing on Elmo’s limited appearances in the long-running “Little Debbie” strip.

Frank Young’s Introduction provides an in-depth study of creator Cecil Jensen’s life and career, zeroing in on the history of Elmo and Little Debbie. As Mr. Young points out, Jensen made no serious attempt at social or political satire. The Elmo strip is simply people behaving badly, and bouncing it off Elmo’s indestructible optimism. Reading the strip, I was reminded of the screwball comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s—and of the characters bedeviling Popeye in E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theater. So I was not surprised to see Mr. Young draw parallels to both.

Why such a wild, crazy—and often dark—strip as Elmo was ever welcomed into the newspapers remains a mystery.  But I’m glad it was. As Young says, “The early months of Elmo feel like the first recordings of Elvis Presley: raw, awkward but possessed of an undeniable magic.” But, he adds, “Unlike Elvis, Elmo heralded nothing.” Comic strip humor in general moved into a kinder, gentler phase, and there’s been nothing quite like it since. But—thanks to Frank Young—we have a chance to experience it now.

Elmo, An American Experiment is available HERE


Anonymous said...

The creator's name is Cecil Jensen—not Carl.

Evan Lewis said...

Oops. I plead brainfart.

Otis Criblecoblis said...

Wow, what a wild strip! I am utterly astonished that it appeared in newspapers of the time. That's quite a revelation, especially considering that the popular music of that period was so very anodyne.

And Sultry looks a great deal like Gail Patrick.