"Who's that little chatterbox?/The one with pretty audborn locks?/Cute little she/It's Little Orphan Annie."
Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie hit newsprint on August 24 1924. For the entirety of her run under Gray's pen she would provide laughter and tears, thrills, romance and suspense for millions of her fans throughout the world. She would also provoke the ire and rancor of various liberals and civil libertarians and would sometimes be dropped from papers for a few days as the result of outraged political sensibilities. Yet such vituperation had little impact on the strip's popular success and Gray's eternally youthful orphan would pluckily soldier on with her philosophy that life's a battle worth fighting, and that victory belonged to the brave and stouthearted alone.
Harold Lincoln Gray was born on January
20 1894 on his parents' farm in Kankee, Illinois. As a small boy he sold
cartoons to farm journals and the local paper. After graduating from school
with an engineering degree he'd never use, Gray moved into newspaper work,
trying out as a cub reporter and then switching to the art department where
he worked doing decorations, paste-up work, and airbrush touchups on photographs
for $ 15. a week.. After a short stint in the army as a bayonet instructor,
he took up freelancing, eventually landing a job with Sydney Smith, cartoonist
for The Gumps in 1920
"It was the finest training an apprentice cartoonist could dream of," Gray commented later in life. After picking up the basics, Gray felt confidant enough to submit sample strips of his own to "Captain" Joseph Medill Patterson, the cousin of Herald Tribune publisher "Colonel" Robert McCormick. One strip in particular caught Patterson's fancy: "The Little Orphan Andy." Patterson advised the young cartoonist to "put skirts on the kid," and "Andy" was history.
Little Orphan Annie started with a great formula: Annie was young (about eight years old), a girl, and an orphan. Vulnerable and yet armored against all the problems that people from "ordinary" life face by her extraordinary grit and determination. As Gray once said, "She was not a 'comic.' She didn't attempt to panic the public every day or send millions into hysterics with her wit. Life to her was deadly serious. She had to be hard to survive, and she meant to survive."
Where Annie survived the most was on the road. She was a wanderer, rootless and on an unending journey. The plot device enabled Gray to spin out a wide range of stories, set in locales that varied from farm house to small town to city, and from squalid tenement ghettoes to the homes of the rich and famous. It enabled her to meet wide strata of people from all walks of life along the way, and allowed Gray to employ his talents at characterization to the fullest. The story of the epic journey, from Ulysses to Huckleberry Finn, has long been a favorite one and Gray made good use of it.
Helping Annie along the way was an innumerable cast of characters. Chief among them was a plutocrat named Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks. Warbucks was the orphan's mentor, friend, and foster-father for the entirety of the strip's run, and a figure that really set some peoples' teeth on edge as the very symbol of the arch-capitalist. Warbucks was, after all, a multimillionaire who built his fortune on munitions sales, presumably during the First World War. "Daddy" was also often given to summing up a situation with monologues on the state of life and human nature. It may have annoyed the left in the twenties, but for Annie's fans Oliver was preaching self-evident truths of the need for human dignity, square-dealing, and individual freedom. It seems odd that there were those who accused Gray of idolizing plutocracy; Warbucks was practically the only rich capitalist in the strip who was portrayed in a favorable light; most of his peers were depicted as hypocrites, cheats, and fools. As for his friends, many were proletariats: shopkeepers, farm people, factory workers, and small entrepreneurs.
Other regulars in the strip were a departure from the "average folk" Gray liked to write about. They were Oliver Warbuck's trusted lieutenants, Punjab, a seven-foot Sikh possessing magical powers, and The Asp, a Burmese assassin. An even greater exception to Gray's preference for everyday people was Mr. Am, a pixie-like Santa Claus type who also possessed mysterious powers and who claimed to be immortal (it was hinted that Am had seen civilizations fall before Eden).
But Annie's most constant companion was the very common Sandy, a genial mutt of indeterminate age and breed. Not only was Sandy brave and loyal, but he also provided an excellent sounding board for Annie's solitary musings on daily events.
Little Orphan Annie had been popular from the very beginning, so much so that by 1926 Cupples & Leon were reprinting strip in a series of hard covers. But by the 1930s the Depression struck Americans hard; many were out of work and just about everybody were hard pressed to make ends meet. Gray couldn't have seen it coming when he started the strip in the Roaring Twenties, but the grim times were a perfect setting for Orphan Annie's adventures. Soon the cartoonist was working with more down to earth plots for his character, moving away from some of his more fanciful stories of the twenties (when Annie had briefly been a movie star) and into the more realistic world of flophouses and lives of quiet desperation. Gray gave full vent to his views on the Protestant work ethic and life's responsibilities during this period, but also increased his attacks on the Idle Rich, as well as his "sermons" on the need for charity. However you view his politics (which seem much more moderate in comparison with today's Far Right), Gray knew how to tell a story.
As Gray honed his considerable skills of narrative, pacing, and characterization, his strip flourished, jumping in circulation to hundreds of papers. The increased popularity resulted in dozens of items of merchandise (my own mother owned a Little Orphan Annie mug and brush and comb set), like Ovaltine mugs, radio serials, dolls, and toys, and made Gray a rich man.
Harold Gray's art style has often been criticized as crude, stiff, and simplistic. Al Capp once remarked that Gray's drawings had "all the vitality of Easter Island statues." My own feeling is that while Gray certainly lacked the ability to capture fluid anatomy, he more than made up for that with a strong graphic sense of design, as well as his skill at establishing mood through the use of light and shadows. Gray employed assistants, like his cousin Joseph Leffingwell, but continued to do the bulk of the art for the rest of his life.
That life ended in 1968. He had intended for the strip to die with him, and had even planned a death of Daddy Warbucks sequence to coincide with his own. Unfortunately his syndicate had other ideas and gave the strip to Phillip (Tex) Blaisedell. The strip floundered along with a variety of lesser artists, dropping in circulation. In 1977 the Broadway musical "Annie" became a hit, reviving the strip's fortunes somewhat. In 1979 Leonard (On Stage) Starr assumed control of Gray's creation, and, perhaps inspired by the musical inspired by the strip, dropped the "Little Orphan," renaming it simply "Annie." Annie is still on the road, the perpetual waif is currently scripted by Jay Maeder, with art work handled by Al Kupperberg.