Comic Book Character: Harold Gray (from The Batmom July 2012)

At the pace of a highly distractible snail, I’m making my way through the excellent, simple-and-smart "Comic Books 101." Comic book die-hards probably know all the history therein, beginning with America’s first comic strip, “Hogan's Alley” (AKA "The Yellow Kid," 1895), but I didn’t, and I’m enjoying the lesson.

Much of the information contained is also available on the Internet, though not in such a well-written and succinct format, and I assume with varying degrees of accuracy. So buy the book or surf the web (using this phrase makes me sound like a hip septuagenarian); not covering the well-traveled terrain here.

What I will spend my words and writing sprints exploring are some of the real-life characters who have pushed this crazy art-literature hybrid forward. I’m using a “five things” format (which I totally ripped off from Dribbble's "Timeouts") and I’m honing in on those folks who are as quirky as their famous creations.

Mickey Dugan, star of “The Yellow Kid,” defines quirky, with his bald little head, big-toothed grin, giant yellow nightshirt, and fondness for squalid alley-ways. I failed to find much quirky about his creator, R.F. Outcault, and so I turned to the first wave of adventure comics.

Many of these strips debuted in the years between the World Wars, whetting American appetites for a new sort of action-packed pop culture snack and paving the way for comic books and superheroes. The trailblazing crew included “Dick Tracy” (Chester Gould, 1931), “Terry and the Pirates” (Milton Caniff, 1934) and blank-eyed, red-headed “Little Orphan Annie.”

My daughter and I saw “Annie,” the musical based on the strip, last weekend. She seemed delighted by the orphans chorus-lining their way around the stage, though failed to grasp an iota of the plot. Me, I cried. When the littlest orphan called for her mother in her sleep. When Annie sang “Maybe.” Every time Sandy appeared.

(I cry at the sight of dogs as a general rule, and more so when the dog in question is a veteran stage star named Mike rescued by his trainer from a neglectful family, and whose aging muttsy legs quiver to the extent that Sandy’s signature trot slows to a determined plod.)

I did not cry when I read about Harold Gray, plucky Annie’s creator. He seems a bit of a nutter. Were he alive today, he’d be less likely drawing comics, and more likely hosting a talk show on right-wing radio.


1. Gray Waved a Bayonet. Everyone starts somewhere. Gray started at Purdue in the engineering department and in ditches digging to pay his way. He then worked for a newspaper and, during WWI, taught young soldiers how to bayonet enemies before joining the art department at the Chicago Tribune. Nothing in his previous history suggests either an aptitude for wielding bayonets or penning highly successful comic strips about perky little girls. Unlikely trajectories always inspire.

2. Gray Wanted A Boy. Really, Gray wanted his own comic strip. He served as assistant on a crazy-popular strip called “The Gumps” and spent four years pitching his own comic concepts to his boss’ boss, Joseph Medill Patterson. The publisher finally bit, giving the okay to Gray’s “Little Orphan Otto” strip. One caveat: Otto become Annie, a name likely inspired in part by James Whitcomb Riley's 19th century favorite, "Little Orphant Annie.”

The carrot-topped orphan debuted in 1924, in her creator’s words, “tougher than hell, with a heart of gold and a fast left, who can take care of herself because she has to.” Annie escaped the miserable orphanage and evil Miss Asthma when Oliver Warbucks’ wife Mrs. adopted her. She adventured her way around the country for the next 86 years, starring not only in the strip but also a radio show, several movies, the aforementioned musical, and on a stamp. Gray died a multi-millionaire.

3. Gray Used Annie to His Own Political Ends. Annie exemplified Gray's staunchly conservative views, which included strong opposition to income taxes, social workers, unions, welfare and FDR. Right off the bat, his proselytizing offended several newspapers to the extent they axed Annie. He pulled back, but never stopped.

4. Grey Used Annie to Exact Revenge. Gray traveled extensively doing research for Annie, who was forever becoming separated from Daddy W and schlepping around the country with Sandy. During WWII, Gray applied for an exemption from the gas rationing imposed on the citizenry. After the Office of Price Administration (OPA) denied the request, Gray introduced a hypocritical OPA official, Fred Flack, who denied the masses their gasses while himself using enough fuel to power his three cars. Whereupon the OPA chided Gray. Whereupon numerous papers dropped Annie.Whereupon Gray disappeared Flask.

5. Gray Raised Daddy Warbucks from the Dead. And Killed Him Again. And Raised Him from the Dead. Again. Gray introduced Punjab, the Asp, and Mr. Am to the strip in the 1930s, when he grew fascinated by mysticism. All three men possessed magical powers. When the Asp and Daddy Warbucks were killed by ne’er-do-wells, Am resurrected them.

Warbucks died again in the mid-1940s, his death coinciding with FDR’s real-world nomination for a fourth term. When FDR died in 1945, Warbucks reappeared, announcing his “death” a fake-out, paving the way for multiple soap opera characters to follow.

For more on Harold Gray and Little Orphan Annie, check out my sources:

Cronin, B. (2011). Comic Book Legends Revealed #331Comic Book Resources.

Heer, J. (2002). Dear Orphan Annie: Why cartoon characters get all the best mailBoston Globe.

McLeod, S. (2010). Harold Gray, original creator of "Little Orphan Annie," The Cartoonists.

Maeder, J. (2010). [Interview with Liane Hansen]. Little Orphan Annie says goodbyeNPR.

Neigher, H. (1955). Who's side is Warbucks on? Annie's creator stirs up ad men. [Bridgeport, Conn.] Sunday Herald.