Mr. Mum gazes from sidewalk at one of the sights in his strange world. Artist: Irving Phillips.


Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: King Features Syndicate
First Appeared: 1958
Creator: Irving Phillips
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Charles Addams, creator of The Addams Family, was the sort of cartoonist whose work wasn't intended to get belly laughs — his greatness lay in his ability to jar the reader with odd juxtapositions of disparate elements. Gary Larsen, creator of The Far Side, has the same sort of talent, an ability to challenge the reader's perception of reality. Between them was Irving Phillips, creator …

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… of The Strange World of Mr. Mum, which started as a daily newspaper panel from The Hall Syndicate (The Ryatts, Dennis the Menace) on Monday, May 5, 1958.

Mr. Mum was well named — he kept mum at all times, and so did everyone else in his strange world. Like Louie and Ferd'nand, Mr. Mum, in all of the several forms it took, was a pantomime, relying entirely on Phillips's ability to convey the strangeness of the character's world in pictures.

Mr. Mum, described in promotional material as a "bystander on life's outer limits," was strictly an observer in his strange world. He didn't have any particular job, tho it's assumed he made a living one way or another. He had no particular first name, tho it's assumed the people he associated with called him something or other — but for that matter, he had no regular associates, i.e., supporting characters, either. He was often accompanied by a dog, but the dog had no particular name. The only way we know he was Mr. Mum at all is, it was in the title of the comic.

What he did do was wander around and gaze silently at things like a lion sweeping out his cage, using his tail as a brrom; a clown coming home after a hard day at the circus, whose dog brings him huge slippers to match his big feet; two robbers holding guns on each other; and that sort of stuff. The Strange World of Mr. Mum was less about Mr. Mum than his world.

Irving Phillips was a Hollywood writer before he took up cartooning, credited with several films, including Seven Days Ashore (1944) and Delightfully Dangerous (1945). He also wrote an occasional episode of early TV shows like Meet Mr. McNulty (1955) and The Ruggles (1949). His comics credits include Scruffy, which was syndicated from 1945-51.

Somewhere along the way, the series changed from a panel to a regular, multi-panel daily comic. A Sunday version was added in 1961. It also switched syndicates, from Hall to Field Enterprises (Steve Canyon, Crock). After several mergers and acquisitions, both syndicates' comics are now handled by King Features Syndicate (Krazy Kat, Zippy the Pinhead), tho that happened long after Mr. Mum's time.

Being a pantomime, Mr. Mum was not subject to language barriers, so it could be enjoyed all over the world. It appeared in 22 different countries. Still, even at its peak, it was only in 180 papers. Tho this is quite a respectable circulation — respectable enough to have resulted in several book collections in the 1960s — it's not much compared to a pantomime's worldwide potential. Many successful comics have gotten along with less, tho its offbeat style of humor seems to have appealed more to a King Aroo or Barnaby-sized audience than to the throngs who flock to Blondie or Zits.

But it took a unique talent to reach that audience, so when Phillips retired in 1974, Mr. Mum retired with him. In later years, Phillips made several paintings from the ideas he'd drawn for the comic, but he no longer produced them on a daily basis. He died in 2000, 95 years of age.


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Text ©2010 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Irving Phillips estate.