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Decades before Will Elder decorated the pages of Mad with his “chicken fat,” Bill Holman was cramming the panels of his daily newspaper strip Smokey Stover to bursting with some of the most oddball, screwball and downright loopy drawings ever seen on the newspaper page. Even in a medium that welcomes masters like George Herriman and Milt Gross, Smokey Stover is a nonsensical delight.
According to various online resources and Maurice Horn’s 100 Years of American Newspaper Comics, William Holman was born in Crawfordsville, Indiana in 1903. As an adult he moved to New York City, where he submitted cartoons to various magazines and worked at the Herald Tribune. In 1935 he began Smokey Stover for the Chicago Tribune Syndication.
Smokey is a small-town firefighter, rarely ever seen without his banged-up fireman’s hat, though one rarely ever sees him actually fighting any fires. Most of his time is spent attempting to help his wife or his boss, the fire chief, deal with some problem or just generally getting into trouble. Usually there’s some sort of ridiculous invention involved and you can be certain the final punchline will result in hats flying off heads, feet plopping out of the panel.
Holman enjoyed playing with the English language and Smokey often spouts weird sayings like “you look as broken up as a gravel driveway.” He also had a weakness for puns. Lots and lots of puns. If the characters weren’t uttering them (Smokey baking a cake: “Crumb to me my melancholy baby”), they were strewn about the walls and backgrounds. A picture of a guy in armor watching a lady sing. Cutline: “A knight at the opera.” A man rests on a bumpy folding bed. Underneath him reads, “The unkindest cot of all.” You get the picture.
Indeed, Holman clearly had a problem with white space and filled every inch of the panel with odd gags or just nonsense images. Smokey might have various doo-dads hanging off his hat or cigar without any explanation offered. Ladies in the street might wear birds on their heads just because. The fire chief would frequently sit in a chair that was shaped like a human hand, because why not? Nonsense ruled Smokey’s world, a barely controlled chaos that seemed to threaten to spill out of the panels and infect some other, more sedate strip if one wasn’t careful.
Beyond puns and visual oddities, Holman also loved inventing nonsense words, and Smokey was full of them. Several of them, like “foo” and “notary sojac” actually made it into the American lexicon. And yes, WWII pilots came up with the term “foo fighters” for unidentified flying objects from the strip.
Holman wasn’t the most talented artist on the comics page — his figures could come off as stiff and awkward occasionally — but he was one of the zaniest, and even more than a half-century later, his sheer glee at drawing funny pictures remains delightful and irrepressible. That even a basic “best of” collection hasn’t appeared yet in this golden age of reprints seems like some sort of foo-ish injustice to me.