Charles M. Schultz of Peanuts fame once famously remarked “Cartooning will destroy you; It will break your heart.” Jack Kirby also once remarked: “Comics will break your heart.” Have you ever heard of Percy Crosby?
Just in case you haven’t: he’s one of the former “break your heart” stories. A specific phylum of that particular kingdom: the “comics will break your mind, too” story.
It's 1923 and Percy Crosby is a cartoonist for Life Magazine; he introduces a new cartoon character-- a little 9-year old boy cartoon character named Skippy. Skippy seems to work for audiences; from what I can tell, the way Crosby draws doesn't hurt-- he has this loose but appealing gestural style that's easy to like.
And then, success: the Skippy newspaper strip is lured away from Life Magazine and distributed by Kings Feature Syndicates starting in 1926 (that is to say: by William Randolph Heart, later immortalized in Citizen Kane for his predilection of nicknaming his mistress’s vagina “Rosebud”) ; the first of the Skippy movies comes out in 1931. The director Norman Taurog wins his first Oscar thanks to Skippy: the Motion Picture; go to 1600 Vine Street in Hollywood, California today and you can find his name on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Skippy fights the mob. In real life. Time Magazine of February 16, 1931 notes how Percy Crosby uses the proceeds from Skippy to war with Al Capone; here's a short excerpt of the full-page ad Crosby took out in the New York World newspaper attacking Al Capone and prohibition: “I say to my fellow members of the American Legion that you cannot salute your flag with a clear conscience until Al Capone is knocked off the throne erected by the Anti-Saloon League. I ... refuse to pay homage to this Chicago monarch. He has neither money enough nor enough lead to make me change my mind.”
Movies, radio, toys, comic books, comic strips, merchandise-- Skippy is everywhere. Skippy's a mascot of the Brooklyn Navy Yard; Charles Lindbergh is supposedly a fan. Skippy gets translated into over 14 different languages. In 1932, Skippy is allegedly valued at more than $3 million dollars.
Let me repeat that: In 1932.
It goes badly.
Percy Crosby takes one look at Franklin Delano Roosevelt with his New Deal and WPA and Social Security, and decides that FDR’s red. Crosby's anti-commie; Crosby starts using the vast Skippy empire to begin self-publishing titles calling FDR a commie, with titles like Three Cheers for the Red, Red and Red; Crosby starts making enemies-- FDR, J.Edgar Hoover, and-- oooh, bad idea-- the IRS. The IRS audits him twice. Crosby gets divorced by his wife, who takes custody of Crosby’s four children; Crosby never sees them again. Crosby's legal troubles get worse; he fights with his partners. Crosby drinks too much.
And throughout, he keeps having a persistent copyright and trademark problem with this tiny company called Rosefield Packing Co., who kept using the name "Skippy" on their products. Well, wait: not just the name Skippy; other things, too. Like Skippy’s bucket of red paint-- even Crosby's lettering supposedly. Crosby gets sucked into a neverending legal battle.
And then, it’s 1945, and Hearst has canceled Skippy (which has supposedly become depressing and morose as Crosby’s troubles continued to wear him down). And then it’s 1946, and the IRS freeze all of his assets, while Crosby fights with his attorneys. And then it’s 1948, and Crosby is allegedly slashing his wrists and stabbing himself in the chest at his New York apartment. And then it’s 1949, and he’s being declared mentally ill and incompetent by the New York courts. And then it’s 1964, and he passes away—having spent the previous 18 years in an insane asylum. Drawing on cheap paper, storing his drawings “locked in a trunk with keys kept on a shoestring around his neck to protect his work from theft and vandalism.”
Crosby has reason to be afraid of theft; with him in an asylum, no one’s around to fight his legal battles anymore. Including the copyright/trademark fight with that tiny company, Rosefield Packing Co. (Who, supposedly, years later, investigation will reveal had ties with the IRS personnel auditing Crosby).
By 1954, Rosefield Packing Co. has made $22 million dollars, and are about to make millions upon millions upon millions more.
From Skippy Peanut Butter.
Which is how Skippy is remembered today. Hidden in plain sight; everywhere but forgotten; all around us, but we just stare at it blankly, not knowing what it means, never guessing what was so damn “Skippy” about peanut butter anyway, never even wondering why it’s called that.
Comics history is in the aisles of every grocery store you’ve ever been in. Comics history has been there your whole life. Comics will break your heart. Specifically, comics will break your heart—by clogging it with peanut butter.
You can find out more about Skippy at the Skippy website. You can also read about the never-ending legal battle between Crosby and the owners of Skippy Peanut Butter at that website; Crosby's daughter has fought it for more than three decades. You might also enjoy the Filboid Studge blog entry on the topic as it includes examples of Crosby's work (which I would say is quite nice). Of course, Don Markstein's Toonopedia is an invaluable resource. And there's a book out there supposedly-- Jerry Robinson's Skippy and Percy Crosby. More art here as well. My apologies to those of you who already know the story or if I got any details wrong.
Good luck with the Zuda Contracts!