Monday, February 14, 2011

Lake County Profiles: Frederick Burr Opper - Sunday Comics Innovator

One of Lake County's native sons was Frederick Burr Opper.  Born in 1857 to Austrian-American immigrants in Madison, Ohio, his artistic career would span six decades.  At the time of his death in 1937, Frederick was regarded as one of the pioneers of American newspaper comic strips.  Magazines and newspapers had for many years used cartoons to make fun of political parties, to explain policies, to defend issues, and to expose wrongs.  New was the idea of a series of pictures to tell an amusing story and to depict a colorful character.  The creator of this new genre of media illustration was Frederick Burr Opper.

Despite showing early skill with a pencil, Frederick dropped out of school at the age of 14 and became a printer's apprentice at the local Madison Gazette.  Two years later, he moved to NYC where he worked and honed his drawing skills as a pupil of illustrator Frank Beard.  A brief time as a student at Cooper Union followed.  1876 marked the start of Opper's noted comics career.  His first cartoon was published in 'Wild Oats'.  More cartoons and illustrations followed in Scribner's monthly and St. Nicholas Magazine.  By 1880, Opper was hired to draw for Puck by publishers Joseph Keppler and Adolph Schwarzmann.  In 1899, he accepted an offer by William Randolph Hearst and fame soon followed.  As a cartoonist for the New York Journal, he introduced Happy Hooligan in 1900.  It was the first comic strip of its day.  Happy was a tramp with a little tin can hat.  For the next 32 years, Happy cavorted through one absurd situation after another.  Other characters with individuality soon followed.  Maud, the mule became popular.  Alphonse and Gaston became energetic and ongoing rivals in humorous comic strip plots and children's books.  This led Opper to offer comic supplements to the newspapers.  These creations became the forerunner to the Sunday "funnies."

Opper expanded his career when he consented to become an illustrator for Mark Twain, Edgar Wilson Nye, and Finley Peter Dunne.  Opper entered the children's author market with his own contributions.  He also became a featured political cartoonist for the Chicago Examiner, San Francisco Examiner and Los Angeles Examiner.  Although his satirizing of Cleveland industrialist Mark Hanna and Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt were extremely well known, it was the character Mr. Common Man that stands the test of time.  Mr. Common Man is today known as the famous character John Q. Public.

Whether it is tomorrow morning or next Sunday morning, each of us will once again seek out our newspaper's most enduring inheritance - our favorite comic strip.  Thank you Frederick Burr Opper. You are just another hidden gem in the annals of Lake County's History.

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