Snuffy Smith and his mule, Aunt Sukey. Snuffy is the one on top. Artist: Fred Lasswell.


Original Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: King Features Syndicate
First Appeared: 1934
Creators: Billy DeBeck and Fred Lasswell
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Cartoonist Billy DeBeck is the official creator of Snuffy Smith, who started out as a bit player in DeBeck's King Features strip, Barney Google. But DeBeck's …

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… assistant and successor, Fred Lasswell, was there at the beginning, helping to shape the character; and it's Lasswell who is most responsible for Snuffy's development.

In the early-to-mid 1930s, hillbillies were becoming popular in American entertainment. In comic strips, Joe Palooka did an extended sequence about a mountain man named Big Leviticus in 1933; and in '34 the author of that sequence, Al Capp, started his most famous work, Li'l Abner. And Billy DeBeck was heavily researching Appalachian culture.

It's the level of research that leads comics scholars to believe DeBeck wasn't just putting his character into yet another exotic situation when he sent Barney to a sparsely-populated hill country community named Hootin' Holler in February, 1934, but planned a permanent change of focus for the strip. What is certain is that it did lead to a permanent change in focus.

Snuffy Smith, one of Hootin' Holler's more ornery and sawed-off residents, was introduced on November 17, 1934. One of his first acts was to take a shot at Barney. Within a few weeks, however, he and Barney were pals, and not too long after that, he'd become co-star of the strip. By the late 1930s, the name of of the strip had become Barney Google & Snuffy Smith. In 1954, Barney left the hill country but the strip's focus stayed, and Snuffy was its sole star, with his wife, Louise ("Weezy") as his main supporting character. Today, Barney's name is still part of the strip's official title, but Barney himself is seldom seen.

Fred Lasswell, then 17 years old, was working as DeBeck's letterer when Barney originally took to the hills. A self-described "hayseed" himself, his point of view undoubtedly had influence on Snuffy's creation. But his real effect began in 1942, when DeBeck unexpectedly died. Lasswell, then working as a radio operator at an airfield in East Africa, was called in to replace him.

At that point, the strip, tho wildly popular in the 1920s, was losing so many papers, it was in danger of cancellation. Lasswell's instruction was to imitate DeBeck's style for a few weeks, then gradually shift to something more modern, with more of a mass appeal. He did, and in the process made Snuffy Smith completely his own.

Snuffy's propensity to shoot at those who displease him was toned down, as was the thickness of the various characters' hillbilly accents — while keeping many of DeBeck's pet phrases (e.g., "shif'less skonk" and "tetched in the haid"), he made their speech more accessible to mainstream Americans even while adding "Snuffyisms" of his own. Kids were more emphasized than before, making it more of a family strip. Other characters, such as Sheriff Tate and Elviney, were introduced. In the 1950s, Lasswell followed the trend of phasing out long storylines in favor of the gag-a-day format.

The strategy worked. The strip's decline reversed. Within a few years it was in 500 papers. Today, it's in over 900.

Snuffy appeared in comic books, issued sporadically from the 1930s to the '70s from five different publishers (David McKay, Dell, Toby Press, Gold Key and Charlton, in that order). As in the newspaper comics, he shared the spotlight with Barney Google, but Google became less prominent as time wore on. During World War II, he starred two live-action comedy shorts, with Bud Duncan (who had earlier played Casper Hawkins) in the title role. In 1962, he was the star of a few cartoons from Famous Studios, part of their Beetle Bailey & Friends TV series. There, his voice was done by Paul Frees (Dinky Duck, Ludwig von Drake).

In 1963, Fred Lasswell won the National Cartoonists' Society's prestigious Reuben Award for his work on the strip; and that same year, he won the Society's plaque for Best Humor Strip. In 1984, the same Society gave him its Elzie Segar Award (named after the creator of Popeye) for outstanding contributions to his profession.

Fred Lasswell continued to write and draw the adventures of Snuffy Smith for the rest of his life. He died on March 4, 2001. John Rose, who had been his assistant for several years, then took over the strip. So far, Rose has been making it look as much as possible like it did during Lasswell's long run. It's a good bet he'll continue doing so — and that Barney Google will be seen rarely if ever during his tenure.


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