"Mit Dose Kids, Society Is Nix!"

Der Bad Boys Of Comics

I remember Harvey Kurtzman's MAD #20 satire, "The Katchandhammer Kids!" --"Two charming boys who, for years, have been making mischief on such a scale that they've made their home a shambles and laid waste to the land." In Bill Elder's splash panel Hans and Fritz stand amid a devastated landscape littered with ruined homes, smashed vehicles of every kind, with a wrecked wheel chair and baby carriage at their feet. The boys are smiling....

While the actual Katzenjammer Kids weren't really quite that bad, they came pretty close at times!

Their "father," Rudolph Dirks, was born in Germany in 1877. At age seven Dirks moved with his family to the United States and by age seventeen Rudy had begun selling cartoons to Judge and Life magazines. In 1897 he was hired by the Hearst paper, The New York Journal. At that time, the paper's editor, Rudolf Block, was looking for a strip that could rival R. F. Outcault's The Yellow Kid . It happened that Block was familiar with the humorous German picture-book story Max und Moritz and, in Dirk's words, "asked me to draw a strip emulating the work of Wilhelm Busch, whose drawings of children had been popular for more than 40 years. I submitted a number of sketches from which emerged the two kids which editor Block christened the Katzenjammer Kids." The first true comic strip was born.

The Kids premiered on December 12, 1897 in the Sunday supplement edition of the Journal. It was obvious that the two hellions were German, from their pidgin German accents to the title "Katzenjammer," literally "the howling of cats," is German slang for hangover. Their national origin may have been a ploy of Block's to attract more readers since a significant proportion of the urban population at that time were recent German-American immigrants.

In later years of the strip, many readers thought that the benign Mama Katzenjammer was a widow. Actually, in the beginning the boys had a papa, and even a grandfather, who were usually portrayed as just bemused bystanders observing Hans and Fritz's pranks. Dirks wisely phased them out, replacing them with a more memorable character in 1902, Der Captain.

The new arrival, Mama's boarder, was a rotund and fiery-tempered ex-sailor, a perfect target for the ingenious mayhem of the two brothers. In 1905 the Captain gained a sidekick (and fellow target) with Der Inspector, who worked as a truant officer. The two friends would share their misery and outrage, conspiring to exact their revenge on their juvenile tormentors, and, like the kids, often played hooky from Mama's chores.

And then there are the boys themselves, happy savages rebelling against the adult world. They weren't exactly mean, just born with an obsessive genius for practical jokes, as well as a gift for things mechanical; in their hands any household appliance could be jury-rigged for the latest prank. Through it all Mama looked benignly on, convinced that her "liddle anchels" couldn't possibly be guilty, assigning the blame instead to the hapless Captain and Inspector.

In the early days of the strip the Katzenjammer gang often took cruises to various spots around the globe, providing Hans and Fritz with new locales and victims for their tricks. Eventually they settled down on an Eden-like island off the coast of East Africa. The serene surroundings made for a good contrast for Hans and Fritz's diabolical hijinx. Dirks, like other cartoonists of the day, resorted to the standard Al Jolson racial stereotypes when depicting the island's inhabitants, but it's worth mentioning that "Der Kink," the Captain's pinochle partner, was educated at Oxford and was generally the brightest member of Dirks' cast of hapless characters.

Dirks was one of comics greatest innovators, credited with inventing many of the comic strips most common devices. He was the first to use word balloons and also invented the visual language of cartoonists; motion lines, stars of pain, sweat beads, and footprints that indicated changes of motion. He was also an accomplished painter and engraving artist, as well as a cofounder of an artists' colony in Maine. His fine art interests were to cause the cartoonist problems. In 1912 Dirks took a painting sabbatical to Europe. It sparked a falling-out with Block and Hearst, who took the strip away from him.

After an extended legal battle, Dirks was granted the names and likenesses of his characters, while Hearst retained the name of the strip. Subsequently, Dirks' "Hans and Fritz" (later changed to "The Captain and the Kids") appeared in the Pulitizer papers, while The Katzenjammer Kids, written and drawn by Harold Knerr, were Hearst's.

Suddenly, in 1914, there were two virtually identical comic strips (not counting three imitations) that were appearing in rival syndicates. Just in the United States, that is; France had its own version, Pim, Pam, Poum, Britain had The Terrible Twins, Norway had Knoll og Tott, and Portegal, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, and even Israel have had their version of the delinquent duo. Never in the history of the field has one strip spawned so many other versions.

Due to anti-German sentiments during the First World War, Knerr changed the title of the Hearst strip to The Shenanigan Kids, and Hans and Fritz became Mike and Aleck. It was implied that the family was Dutch. After the war fever had cooled down in 1919, the boys reverted to being Katzenjammers again.

Harold Knerr was a good choice to pen the Hearst-owned strip, managing to maintain the same high quality and humor that Dirks had achieved. Knerr had ample practice; in the ten years prior to his stewardship of the Kids, he had worked on a strip called The Flenheimer Kids, which by, er, sheer coincidence featured two hellraising twins, a Germanic Mama, and a peg-legged sea captain. In 1936 Knerr introduced some new characters of his own into the strip; the spoiled brat Rollo Rhubarb, arch-enemy of Hans and Fritz, his priggish teacher Miss Twiddle, and her niece, the object of the boys' affections, Lena. The new additions were great characters and provided fresh ammunition for new mischief.

Knerr never married. It seems his only passions were flying private airplanes (while Dirks was a balloonist) and the comic strip. For 36 years he carried on with the same zany pace and high level humor as the original strip. In 1949 he died of a heart ailment and the Hearst strip was passed on to a succession of others; Doc Winner, Joe Musial, Mike Senich, and Angelo deCesare.

As for Rudy Dirks, between 1932 and 1937 he retired from "those damned kids," leaving them in the hands of  Bernard Dibble. Returning to the strip in 1940, he continued on with the strip for another eighteen years before turning it over to his son and assistant, John. In 1979 United Feature Syndicate abruptly decided to end The Captain and the Kids.

Naturally popular brats like Hans and Fritz were not overlooked by the infant comic book industry. The two Dirks' Kids made their comic book debut in 1938 in the first issue of Single Series Comics (shown at left), and continued on being reprinted in Tip Top Comics (1936-1961), Sparkler Comics (1941-1955), and Comics on Parade (1942-1955). Knerr's Katzenjammer family were not neglected either, appearing in various David McKay Publications like Ace Comics (1937-1949), Feature Comics (1937-1948), and their own title The Katzenjammer Kids (McKay/Harvey Comics), which enjoyed a 27 issue run and included a 3-D issue before  expiring (like all too many comics) in 1954.

Today The Katzenjammer Kids continue on, ably written and drawn by Hy Eisman since 1986. Created just two years after The Yellow Kid, The Katzenjammer Kids, which will celebrate its 108th birthday as of December 2005, is the only current strip to span the entire history of the comic-strip medium, from the 19th to the 21st century. What is it about those damned Kids??

--Steve Stiles