If you’re under 90, you’ve probably never heard of Happy Hooligan.
But his brother Gloomy Gus and his friends Alphonse and Gaston (“After you, my dear Alphonse”) may ring a bell. Opper’s bumbling hero may have faded from popular memory, but his side characters seem to be with us to stay.
Happy Hooligan is a hobo who is so poor he wears a tin can for a hat. Nonetheless, he is always ready to help anyone he sees, by chasing after a runaway hat, apprehending a suspected thief, or carrying a bulky object. Unfortunately, his attempts to help always end in disaster, and if Happy puts a large object over his shoulder in the second panel, he will surely turn and whack someone in the head with it by the fourth. Most of the strips end in Happy being beaten with nightsticks or dragged off to jail by the police, always in a humorous way, of course.
Opper worked this simple formula for decades, but he mixed it up a lot. Happy has a large family, including the aforementioned Gloomy Gus, his rich-guy hobo brother Montmorency (who speaks with a British accent), and three nephews who adore him. He travels to Europe (after numerous failed attempts), visits a duke, joins the circus, and falls in love. Yet almost every strip has the same progression: Happy tries to help; Happy whacks someone on the head; Happy is hauled off to jail.
Because of this repetition, this book is better dipped into than read cover to cover. Still, there is a lot to enjoy: Opper’s characters are lively, his drawing style is interesting, and the strips provide a glimpse into another era. (It should be noted that the era includes some portrayals of black and Italian characters that may strike the modern reader as offensive, although they are not malicious.) Happy himself is a likeable character, kind to children and animals and always willing to try something new. Opper also likes to break things up with side conversations, which are often quite funny.
This horizontal-format book includes 90 strips, most of them six panels long, dating from 1906 to 1913. They look old, not just because they are stylized but because of the image quality; although the strips are quite readable, some are marred with stains or folds. The strips were taken from actual newspapers, not the original art; according to a note in the back, most came from a private collection of newspapers that was rescued from the trash by a collector. Other pundits, notably author Nicholson Baker, have cautioned that the advent of microfilm has led libraries to discard their paper copies of newspapers, which means that many comic strips from this golden age will be lost forever. From that point of view, the NBM edition is an important document. The introduction, by Allan Holtz, gives biographical information on Opper and puts his work into its historical context. While there are a few bloopers in the introduction and one strip is incorrectly cropped, this is a very nice, well-designed package and an excellent setting for these lively comics of a bygone era.
Reviewed by Brigid Alverson on November 1, 2008
Frederick Burr Opper's Happy Hooligan