Happy Hooligan. Artist: Frederick Burr Opper.


Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: King Features
First Appeared: 1900
Creator: Frederick Burr Opper
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Even before the turn of the 20th century, comics were decried by social critics. The antics of The Katzenjammer Kids, The Yellow Kid and their ilk were seen as crude, violent, and very low-class. When …

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… Frederick Burr Opper, perhaps America's most highly-regarded cartoonist and illustrator, joined the cartooning staff of the Hearst papers in 1899, he lent an air of respectability to what was seen by many as a product of the slums.

How ironic, then, that one of Opper's most prominent contributions to the comics form was Happy Hooligan, whose Sunday page debuted on March 11, 1900.

Happy Hooligan was a good-hearted hobo, covered in rags, with a tin can for a hat, who usually wore a broad smile despite his lot in life. His cheerful demeanor was only temporarily dimmed by the repeated, often outrageous ill consequences visited upon him for his attempted good deeds. He was a victim of his position in Society, always misunderstood by his alleged "betters", who judged his actions according to his ragged exterior — but this was only part of his misfortune. He also had uncommonly bad luck, so that mayhem would result no matter what his intentions. Happy's optimistic outlook stood in contrast to that of his brother, Gloomy Gus — whose name, by the way, is still used as a slang term for a sourpuss. The third Hooligan brother was Montmorency, a would-be aristocrat despite the fact that his material fortune stood at the same level as that of the other two.

Newspaper comics were more loosely organized then, than they later became. During its early years, Happy Hooligan didn't appear every Sunday — sometimes Opper's other strips, such as Alphonse & Gaston (about a pair of excessively polite Frenchmen, and another Opper creation still referred to, generations after its last appearance) or And Her Name Was Maud (about a farmer's relationship with his mule) turned up in their stead; or, more often, the cartoonist would do two or more pages. It depended on how the ideas flowed. Opper also produced daily strips for the Hearst papers, and Happy Hooligan often starred in them.

Things eventually settled into a steady routine, with Happy as the main character of a regularly-appearing daily strip and Sunday page by Opper. It was very popular, and frequently collected in book form. Happy married his girlfriend, Suzanne, on June 18, 1916, and their son wore a smaller tin can on his head. The strip continued until 1932, when the artist's eyesight failed him. Opper was one of the few newspaper cartoonists who didn't use an assistant; so, with nobody in line to succeed him, his strip ended on August 14 of that year. He died in 1937.

Happy Hooligan made it into movies twice. The first was a series six of live-action comedy shorts, produced by Edison Manufacturing, which ran from 1900-02 and may be the very first adaptation of American comics into film (Ally Sloper was filmed in 1898, but he was British). These were directed by J. Stuart Blackton, who also played the title role. Blackton is remembered not just as an actor/director, but also as the publisher of America's first movie fanzine and as the producer of The Enchanted Drawing, America's first animated movie. The second was a series of several dozen animated shorts, which were produced by at least three different studios, from 1916-21.

The Happy Hooligan strip is not well known to the public today, but it influenced quite a few later cartoonists. Rube Goldberg's Boob McNutt was at least partly derivative of the character — as, for that matter, was Charlie Chaplin's character, "The Little Tramp". The over-the-top punishments that befell Happy were echoed a generation later in Al Capp's Li'l Abner, and later yet in the Carl Barks version of Donald Duck. And during the Gerald Ford administration, Jules Feiffer usually depicted Ford as Happy Hooligan — right down to the tin can on top of his head.


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Text ©2000-07 Donald D. Markstein. Art: Happy Hooligan is in the public domain. This image has been modified. Modified version © Donald D. Markstein.