On the Road with Happy Hooligan

A biography of Fredrick Burr Opper and his
tin-can hatted Irish tramp

There were three major comic strip creators to grace the pages of the newspapers before the turn of the century: Richard F. Outcault, the first to employ a narrative sequence of pictures in The Yellow Kid, Rudolph Dirks, an innovator who established many of comics' most common devices with The Katzenjammer Kids, and Fredrick Burr Opper, who in many respects was the greatest cartoonist of his generation. With the dawning of the 21st century close at hand, it's only fitting to take a brief look at the creator of Happy Hooligan.

Opper, who would also create Alphonse and Gaston and Her Name Was Maud, was born on January 27, 1857 in Madison, Ohio. Caring little for formal education and well aware of his own artistic talents, the future cartoon star dropped out of school at the tender age of fourteen and took up work as a "printer's devil" for a local paper, the Madison Gazette. After a year there he decided he had learned enough about type setting to seek similar work in New York City.

As he later recounted in a biography, "My self-esteem was not so great as to rate myself a full-fledged artist. My idea was to obtain a position as a compositor in New York, to draw between times, and gradually to land myself where my hopes all centered."

Unfortunately, the budding young artist discovered that in order to be a compositor, he would have to undergo a three-year apprenticeship program. Unwilling to hold back, he obtained a job making advertisements and window display cards for a local store, spending every moment of his spare time sending rough sketch ideas to various publications of the time. After eight or ten months, Opper had built up enough paying clients at magazines like Puck, Wild Oats, and Harper's Bizarre to become a full-time freelancer.

In 1877, Opper joined Frank Leslie's Magazine as a staff artist, and three years later, left for Puck, where he created political cartoons that lambasted the Big Trusts, crime, and foreign intervention. His cartoons had a enough clout to gain Opper the position of the magazine's starring political cartoonist, a position he would hold for the next twenty years, until he was hired away by the competitive William Randolph Hearst in 1899.

Assigned to do weekly humor cartoons, Opper soon invented an enduring symbol of the political cartoon, the Common Man, or, as he would be later known as, "John Q. Public."

Opper also drew other cartoons at the Hearst works and in 1900 began producing the cartoon strip for which he is most famous, Happy Hooligan. The classic Irish tramp with a tin can as a hat made his debut in Heart's Sunday comics sections in San Francisco and New York on March 26, initially called The Doings of Happy Hooligan, the first of several running titles that the strip would appear under in its thirty two year history.

The strip wasn't an immediate success. As Opper recalled in a 1922 interview, "He dragged frightfully at first. I thought at one time we would have to drop him." But the strip began getting noticed and the embraced by the comics-reading public -- the unlucky tramp's popularity soared. Happy's optimism always remained firm despite a daily dose of bad luck. It was if fate was punishing Happy, who was always trying to help others, his good deed never going unpunished.

Aside from his lead character, Opper's best innovation in the strip was the continual use of word balloons, an innovation some credit him with creating.

Soon a half page, the strip was expanded to full page, perhaps to make room for an expanded cast of characters: Happy was joined, first by a long-lost brother, Gloomy Gus (a morose character whose luck was the reverse of his jolly sibling), and then by another brother (a monocled tramp complete with spats and British upper-crust mannerisms), Montemorency.

Although Opper's humorous strips were mainly limited to Sundays (his dailies usually concentrated on politics), the artist found time to work on other comics strips like Her Name Was Maud (the doings of a cantankerous mule) and Down on the Farm (Happy's more rural adventures with another character, Mr. Dubb).

Aside from Happy Hooligan, though, his most successful strip was Alphonse and Gaston, a comically polite duo of Frenchmen ("After you, my dear Alphonse!") introduced to newsprint on July 13, 1902.

Noted for their 19th century style of clothing and highly exaggerated good manners, the two traveled around the world, often getting brutally abused as a result of their compulsive attention to social proprieties. Although they were briefly revived in newspaper advertisements in the 1940s, Opper lost interest in his two French dandies and they were relegated to Happy Hooligan,making fewer appearances until they completely faded from the scene in the 1930s.

By the end of the 1920s, Opper's fame, competence, and comparative maturity (he was now in his seventies) gained him recognition as the Dean Emeritus of American comic strip artists, enabling him to become the first president of the Cartoonists Club that started in that period. (Due to political in-fighting in the club, he was also the last president of the group, which split into as many fragments as there were members!)

By 1932 Opper was forced to drop his political cartoons and comic strip work because of failing eyesight. Over the next five years he managed to do an occasional bit of special cartooning now and then from his retirement estate in New Rochelle, where he died, at age eighty in 1937.

--Steve Stiles