If you're confused about the spelling, this is it. Artist: Gene Ahern.


Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: King Features Syndicate
First Appeared: 1936
Creator: Gene Ahern
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In comic strips, as in every other form of mass entertainment, success breeds imitation. In responding to the success of cartoonist Gene Ahern's Our Boarding House, which was syndicated …

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… by Newspaper Enterprise Association (Alley Oop, Wash Tubbs), King Features Syndicate (Little Annie Rooney, Secret Agent X-9) outdid most trend followers — it hired Ahern himself to write and draw it. Ahern's Room & Board started in 1936 — and with it, the topper to its Sunday page, The Squirrel Cage.

Before becoming well known for Our Boarding House, Ahern had been a practioner of screwball comedy, a genre that was popular throughout American entertainment of the time. Its most famous example in comics was Smokey Stover, in which cartoonist Bill Holman let his imagination run loose, creating a world and a set of characters that had little to do with reality. In The Squirrel Cage, Ahern returned to the more anarchic brand of humor, recreating the atmosphere of his earlier strips, such as Crazy Quilt and The Nut Bros.

The protagonist of The Squirrel Cage (which was first seen on Sunday, June 21, 1936) was a little hitchhiker referred to only as "The Little Hitchhiker". He had a long, white beard, wore an enormous tam on his head, and covered his body with a black smock or overcoat (the beard got in the way of knowing for sure). Cartoonist R. Crumb has acknowledged him as an influence in the design of Mr. Natural. The only other non-incidental character was the unnamed man who lived across the street from where he was often seen hitchhiking.

The little hitchhiker would get into strange little adventures by standing beside the road, his thumb out, uttering phrases in some incomprehensible language, a few of which were translated but most not. The most frequent of them, "Nov shmoz ka pop?" (never translated), etched itself into the American consciousness to the point where, to this very day, many people still wonder how that silly thing ever got into their heads.

The paper shortages of World War II put an end to the use of toppers. But the image of the little hitchhiker was still seen in Ahern's work until 1953, when he retired and Room & Board ended. He died in 1960.

The Squirrel Cage is a rare instance of a topper that's better remembered than the main attraction. It owes its survival in memory to the enigmatic phrase that most people can't quite place.


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Text ©2005-07 Donald D. Markstein. Art © King Features.