Held by some as being second only to Krazy Kat's George Herriman as a graphic innovator of the comics page, Cliff Sterrett began life on December 12, 1883. Invariably most cartoonists can remember childhood years of continuous drawing, and young Sterrett was no exception. By eighteen, having decided on a career in art, he left a home in Minnesota to head to New York where he engaged in an intense series of studies at one of the leading art schools, the Chase School of Art.
Sterrett graduated in two years and landed his first job at The New York Herald, hired to handle the standard bullpen art tasks of paste-up, news illustrations, decorative photo borders, and sketches of local celebrities. At twenty he was a professional commercial artist, but what Sterrett really wanted more than that was to realize his dream to be a cartoonist.
That dream wouldn't come to fruition until eight dull years had passed. It must've been frustrating, especially since one of his fellow bullpen artists at the Herald was none other than Windsor McCay, creator of Little Nemo. Finally, after switching newspaper jobs a number of times --and still drawing sketches of local celebrities-- Sterrett was to realize his dream in a big way at the Herald's sister publication, The New York Telegram. In 1911 Sterett was called upon to write and draw not just one daily comic strip, but four!
Sterrett's first strip was called Ventriloquial Vag. It was followed by When A Man's Married, Before and After,and For This We Have Daughters?, drawing them all for simultaneous publication on a six day a week basis. The latter strip was about a heavily courted college girl and her rather staid parents and was the most popular of the four, developing a following throughout the country.
William Randolf Hearst, ever on the alert for new cartooning talent, hired Sterrett away in 1912 to draw a strip with a similar theme, Positive Polly. The strip, like For This We Have Daughters?, featured mother, father, family cat, and the desirable daughter Polly. After six weeks the initial title was changed and Polly and Her Pals began its print run on January 13, 1913. (The Hearst Sunday page version of the strip was originally called Here, Gentlemen, is Polly!, running through several other title changes before settling for Polly and Her Pals in 1925.)
Although the strip was originally centered around the popular 1920s theme of a college beauty and her scatter-brained suitors, that gag situation would've worn the strip's welcome thin had it not been for Polly's family: Sam (Paw) and Suzie (Maw) Perkins, as well as a wide cast of characters residing at the Perkins' residence. There was the family inscrutable butler Neewah, Paw's good-for-nothing nephew Asher, a malicious little brat named Angel, Cousin Carrie (Angel's doting mother), and Paw's constant shadow and companion, a very strange cat named Kitty.
As the strip evolved, Polly and her boyfriends became just one gag theme among many. Paw became the strip's real star, pushing his way onto center stage with his bemused antics, domestic disputes, and clashes with his dim-witted nephew, pushy sister-in-law, and the ever-bratty Angel. Maw was strong willed and supplied the common sense in the household, especially when Paw was on a rampage. As a counter-balance to Paw's mishaps she added a humor of her own to the strip.
In the 1920s, Sterrett's syndicate made it a policy to add a second tier of panels on the Sunday page, a second "top strip" on the upper third of the page. Sterrett's new strip was at first called Damon and Pythias, after the inseparable two friends of Greek legend, changed later to Dot and Dash. The six- panel strip featured the pantomime adventures of two chubby little dogs. Pantomime was often used in Polly as well, giving the strip a unique flavor that set it apart from more boisterous efforts.
Pantomime wasn't the only unique aspect of Sterrett's work. Polly and Her Pals featured sets reminiscent of the German expressionist film The Cabinet of Doctor Calagari. Gradually the landscapes and interiors in the strip took on a surreal, almost cubistic look. It was a highly decorative graphic style that was only rivaled by the strange shifting desert landscapes of Coconino in Krazy Kat. Trees (usually potted) were every color in the rainbow and were often decorated with stripes and bullseye patterns. Houses bore designs no decorator could've followed through on in real life, and staircases followed a perspective known only to Salvador Dali. At times the strip's graphics combined elements of cubism, surrealism, and even dadism, all beautifully colored on the Sunday pages.
Fine artists could appreciate all that, but with the strip's visual strangeness it's a wonder that Polly and her Pals maintained its popularity with the general public. Not so surprising, though, in light of the basic fact that Sterrett constructed genuinely funny continuities.
In 1930 Dot and Dash were replaced by another top-tier strip of Sterrett's, Belles and Wedding Belles,a humorously pessimistic view of marriage. (Dot and Dash were later brought back for the last two decades of the artist's Sunday pages.) Sterrett's own married life seems to have been a happy one since he was one of the few Hearst cartoonists who preferred to draw at home rather than work at the office.
In the 1920s he and his family moved to Maine, where one of the family pastimes was the study and practice of music on many different instruments (his son Paul went on to become a composer known for his ability to play fourteen different musical instruments).
In the late 1930s the artist began to experience difficulties with rheumatism and was forced to hire other artists to assist with the strip, removing his name from his creation when he did so. Paul Fung (whose son drew the Blondie comic book for many years) took over the dailies, while Vernon Greene (who later drew Bringing Up Father) did a masterful job helping on the Sunday page. Sterrett also found time to establish an art colony in Ogunquit, Maine, where he spent considerable time with cartoonist friends like Rudy Dirks (Katzenjammer Kids), entertaining colony guests with impromptu musical ensembles. Although hampered by illness, he continued to draw Polly until his final retirement in 1958. In 1948, following the death of his wife, Sterrett went to live with his sister-in-law until his own death on December 28, 1964.
Cliff Sterrett was never a super star in the comics field (there were no Pollycartoons, souvenir mugs, or other forms of merchandise), but his strip continued to be followed through the forty six years of its run, and, at its peak, outdid Krazy Kat in its circulation. In masterfully utilizing unconventional graphics, Sterrett set out on his own path and achieved a unique and memorable style that can be imitated but never equaled.