Sad Sack gets self-referential. Artist: George Baker.


Original Medium: Magazine cartoons
Published in: Life magazine
First Appeared: 1941
Creator: George Baker
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Like many young men in 1940s America, cartoonist George Baker, an experienced Disney man, found himself a member of the U.S. Army. And like most, he …

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… didn't much care for it. His frustration with Army life found expression in a series of drawings he made for his own amusement, about an unlucky, unhappy draftee's response to his new situation. He entered one of them in a contest, and won. The cartoon was published in Life magazine in 1941, and that's how Sad Sack first saw print.

When the U.S. entered World War II, Baker, unlike most soldiers, stayed in America, assigned to work on the Army's new Yank magazine (which also published early work by Bil Keane, creator of The Family Circus, and where Dave Breger was soon to give the world the term "G.I. Joe"). The magazine's editor, Major Hartzell Spence, had seen Baker's drawing in Life, and made Sad Sack a regular feature. Despite occasional grumbling from officers, the strip was very popular among the rank and file, and achieved favorable notice in the civilian press as well. There was even a short-lived radio show, in which Mel Blanc, voice of Bugs, Daffy and so many others, played Sack.

Sad Sack's name is a shortened form of a scatological phrase denoting a pathetic loser, one of many popular slang expressions in the then-all-male Army which, at the time, were not considered proper language for mixed company. And that's not the only risqué factor in the early Sack — in addition to the usual kitchen duty and unjust treatment by superiors, Sack watched sexual hygiene films, consorted with loose women, and did any number of other "improper", yet very soldier-like things. But sexual suggestiveness was common among cartoon characters seen only by military men during World War II, such as Private Snafu and Miss Lace.

Toward the end of the war, Simon & Schuster began reprinting Sad Sack in book form, and that's when its popularity began to soar. On May 5, 1946, The Bell Syndicate (Miss Fury, Mutt & Jeff) began distributing the strip to regular newspapers. Like most World War II soldiers, Sack had become a civilian. He didn't work very well in that role, but the strip lasted until 1958. A movie version was released in 1957, with Sack back in the Army and Jerry Lewis in the title role, but it was in comic books that the character found his most lasting success.

The character had been picked up by Harvey Comics, with a first issue cover date of September, 1949. It was part of a trend at Harvey, to emphasize licensed characters — by 1950, they were also publishing comic book versions of Joe Palooka, Dick Tracy and Blondie; and a few years later they licensed the Famous Studios animated characters. Later on, they bought the Sad Sack cast of characters from Baker, and built an entire line around them.

Baker's style of humor didn't work as well for comic books, whose main audience was younger than he'd been accustomed to, and looking for less raunchy reading matter. Even returning Sack to the Army in 1952 didn't help much. In 1953, Harvey brought in Fred Rhoads, a former assistant on Fred Lasswell's Snuffy Smith, Mort Walker's Beetle Bailey and Ray Gotto's Ozark Ike, to handle the book, although Baker continued to do covers until his death in 1975.

Rhoads took Sad Sack to new heights of popularity, and introduced dozens of supporting characters — General Rockjaw, Muttsy the GI Pooch (no relation), Little Sad Sack, Sadie Sack (Sack's sister), and many more. Quite a few of them held down titles of their own during the 1950s and '60s, and still more were given try-outs in Harvey Hits (the publisher's answer to DC's Showcase) — in fact, at least half of that comic's 1960s issues featured Sad Sack spin-offs. Altogether, Sad Sack probably had more ancillary titles than any other Harvey character except Richie Rich.

Rhoads left Harvey in 1977 in a dispute over pay rates and unkept promises, and the Sad Sack line went into decline — as did Harvey Comics in general. By the 1980s, Sack was appearing in just one title; and even that, like all Harveys, was published only sporadically during the '80s and '90s.

When the Harvey characters were sold, Sad Sack was one of only two the Harvey family retained ownership of (the other being The Black Cat). So, while Harvey's oddball kid characters, such as Little Lotta and Wendy the Good Little Witch, appear from time to time in an obscure newsstand magazine and can be viewed at the company's Web site, keeping them at least marginally in the public eye, Sad Sack has pretty much dropped out of sight.


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