The Cartoonists by Susanna McLeod                        [email protected]

   

Bud Fisher, Creator of "Mutt & Jeff"

January 31, 2012

   

A man of artistic skill with a wide streak of humour, Bud Fisher created the long-running "Mutt and Jeff" comic strip. Fisher was also a wise businessman. One of the first cartoonists to copyright and control his work, Fisher earned a fortune with his popular comic strip. Sadly, his last years were bleak.

On April 3, 1884, Harry Conway "Bud" Fisher was born in Chicago, Illinois. Well-educated for the time, Fisher attended grade schools and then briefly was a student at the University of Chicago. Leaving university before completing the first term, Fisher moved to California for a job at the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper.

"Like most early cartoonists, he was assigned to the sports department, where for a few years he did layouts and sports. cartoons," said RC Harvey in The Encyclopedia of American Comics from 1897 to the Present, edited by Ron Goulart. (Promised Land Productions, New York 1990.)

While at the Chronicle, Fisher devised his own cartoon called "A. Mutt." Starring a tall, slender man - Augustus Mutt - the character was an avid race-horse bettor and a schemer, looking for a quick fortune. The comic strip debuted in the San Francisco Chronicle on November 15, 1907. "Though Mutt usually lost," said Harvey, "readers of the strip initially took his tips seriously."

Cartoonists often did not own their creations; that property was placed in the hands of the newspaper or syndicate. In an unusual move, Bud Fisher copyrighted his creation.

Bud Fisher at His Drawing Desk  
Cartoonist Bud Fisher, date and photographer unknown

The strip veered to new directions in March of the next year with the addition of the short, stout, and mustachioed Jeff. Mutt met Jeff on a visit to an insane asylum, for some reason taking the inmate home with him. Much humour ensued. The comic strip was renamed "Mutt and Jeff" in 1915. Full of humour and life, the stars and secondary characters played well off each other, with interesting plot lines and reader-captivating stories.

"Mutt & Jeff" Comic Book #27, ten-cents

Fisher needed to wield his copyright like a shield for protection more than once. "He first took legal action after only a few months of A Mutt's inception," said the Smithsonian Institute Libraries' "Artist Biography, Harry Conway, (Bud) Fisher (1884-1954)". Fisher had switched to newspaper magnate Randolph Hearst's Examiner, but the Chronicle kept producing Fisher's cartoon under another cartoonist. On being sued, the Chronicle dropped the strip from its pages in June 1908.

Switching newspapers again a few years later, Fisher moved his strip to John Wheeler's Bell Syndicate. This time, it was Hearst attempting to hold on to the popular feature, assigning cartoonist Ed Mack to the job. The cartoonist sued. The syndicate lost. His copyright held strong, and Fisher became the most famous, highest-paid cartoonist of the era.

By 1913, Fisher was earning a hefty and rare $1,000 a week with Bell Syndicate. Appearing daily in newspapers, in 1916 "Mutt and Jeff" was translated into an animated series of over 300 shorts lasting 11 years. Gaining wealth and status, Fisher enjoyed the high life with the purchase of race-horses and Rolls Royces, the attention of beautiful women and a place in society. It was a pleasure other cartoonists and newspapermen were only able to see in their dreams. But Fisher didn't quite fit. He was "cocky, scrappy, hard-drinking, carousing denizen of city room and saloon," and said Harvey, "antagonistic and belligerent."

"Mutt & Jeff" Comic Book #27, by Bud Fisher, publlished by DC Comics

 

As Fisher's fame and wealth grew, he did less cartooning. Ed Mack was hired as his assistant - Fisher knew Mack could do the strip after seeing his version of "Mutt and Jeff" in Hearst's papers. (Mack also had his own strip, "Sime the Simp.") Fisher left much of the work to his substitute while he buffed up his social image. Ed Mack died in 1932 and Fisher hired Al Smith as his new assistant.

Taking on almost all of the "Mutt and Jeff" duties, Al Smith ghosted the comic without any of the credit or much help from the creator. The young cartoonist saw Mutt and Jeff through leaps of growth into comic books; making appearances in other comic books, "Mutt and Jeff" debuted in its own comic book under DC Comics in 1939. DC Comics published "Mutt and Jeff: until 1958 when Dell took over operations. The comic book continued for six more years, one of those years under Dell and five more years with Harvey Comics.

"Mutt and Jeff," Appleton Daily Post newspaper, August 1918

Living in his Park Avenue, New York City apartment, Bud Fisher became somewhat reclusive, avoiding his newspaper colleagues and not working on his comic strip. "Toward the end he seldom left his bedroom, where he slept on a bare mattress and pillows without cases," stated RC Harvey. The famous cartoonist did not open his mail, the apartment "hallways lined with stacks of unopened envelopes from his bank."

On September 7, 1954, Harry Conway Bud Fisher died in New York. "Mutt and Jeff" did not close with the end of its creator though. Under the experienced hands of Al Smith, the comic strip continued daily publication until ill health came upon the cartoonist in 1980. Smith was finally able to sign his name to his work on the death of Fisher. George Breisacher took the reins and gave the strip a refreshed and updated artistic style, but the comic strip's time was drawing to a close. "Mutt and Jeff" gave their final bow in 1982.

   

Along with proving a cartoonist could hold on to copyright of his work and earn an astounding income, Bud Fisher is as well credited (partially) for the funny pages format style readers are accustomed to yet today. (The format originated with cartoonist Clare Briggs an "A Piker Clerk," but that comic was short-lived.)

Still familiar today, "Mutt and Jeff" celebrated over 75 years of comic strip fame, thanks to the business sense and humour of comics creator Bud Fisher and... some great ghost cartoonists..

Bud Fisher's "Mutt & Jeff"    
© Susanna McLeod 2012
TheCartoonists.ca