Written and drawn by Clifford McBride, the newspaper comic strip NAPOLEON grew out of earlier McBride strips. He introduced a character named UNCLE ELBY in two strips in the late 20s and early 30s and gave Elby a dog named Napoleon. The dog became quite popular with readers and got his own strip in 1932 and his own larger color Sunday strip in 1933. As Don Markstein of Toonopedia writes, “Napoleon was a big, clumsy, ungainly dog, most likely an approximation of an Irish wolfhound. As dogs go, he had a remarkably broad facial range, able to convey surprise, dismay, haughty disdain, grudging satisfaction and much more, as recognizable to readers as the expressions of any human character, and yet completely dog-like in every panel.” His would-be master, Uncle Elby, was a stocky older man, one who was enthusiastic (he was always coming up with projects around the house for Napoleon to spoil and wanting to go camping or boating or on other vacations that Napoleon would disrupt) but somewhat bumbling. If you could imagine a more laid-back Oliver Hardy but played by Wilford Brimley, that’s how I see the Elby character.
Napoleon became quite a comics phenomenon and was featured as a commercial mascot for Red Heart Dog Food in the 1940’s (see ad), with the strip continuing on past McBride’s 1951 death until 1961! That’s a 29-year run (longer if you count his “supporting appearances” before he had his own strip), quite impressive in the comics world.
Dogs often come to resemble their owners--or is it that the owners often come to resemble their dogs? In other situations, a give-and-take dynamic is created between dog and owner, where each plays a role, much like a married couple or people who are forced to work together for years. I won’t say that the dogs in comics and popular entertainment are smarter than their human keepers; let’s just say that they are not as easily taken in, they have a better BS-detector, and they tend to enjoy life more. They are also good at exposing the arbitrary and inconsistent aspects of human culture. Many times Napoleon gets in trouble by making some totally logical extension of one human behavior into another realm and acts accordingly.
Generally the first 40-50% of the strip involves setting up the situation, and then Napoleon steps in and tries to help or tries to have some fun since he sees his master having fun. Elby’s plans get disrupted, Napoleon does not understand what the trouble is or why there is a problem, and things fall apart.
That’s pretty much the formula, but it’s a winning formula, and when you have a winning comedy formula, you can bring it to many different life situations, and people will still enjoy it--the familiarity is comforting (and comfortable), while they enjoy seeing characters they like in new situations. That’s what kept Napoleon on top for such a long time. Remember, people did not seek out and buy a Napoleon comic book--Napoleon was there for their enjoyment in the Sunday newspaper they already bought and paid for. They would have bought the paper anyway had he NOT been in it (oh, maybe a few super-fans would have cancelled their subscriptions if he’d been dropped, but not many), so his pleasant comedy situations were like the free chips and salsa with your meal here in San Antonio--not what you came in for, necessarily, but an extra that puts a smile on your face.
There is very little dialogue in the strips--sometimes Uncle Elby will announce what they are doing, sometimes he will talk to another human character, but most often, it’s clear what the situation is and no dialogue is used. Napoleon has a VERY expressive face, and like the great human comedians, he is a master of mugging and exasperated eye movements and quizzical glances.
Golden Age Reprints offers a few different year-long collections of Napoleon. I chose this 1937 one because the strip had already been running for five years at this point, and I assumed it would be in its prime by then...and it certainly was.
Fred Basset is mining a similar vein on today’s newspaper comics page, but like society in general, he is more cerebral and ironic than his 1930’s counterpart. I like Fred Basset, but Napoleon is to the 1930’s what comedians such as, say, Andy Clyde or Harry Langdon were to that same Depression era. People who enjoy 1930’s comedy shorts and who are dog-lovers would probably be glad to discover Napoleon comic strips.
The only flaw with this collection is that the Sunday comics were done in color, but this book is reproduced in black and white to save money (comic reprint books in color usually cost about three times as much as those in black and white). That’s unfortunate, but the humor and the subtle artwork--which truly captures the facial expressions and body language of both Uncle Elby and Napoleon--come through just fine in black and white, and I don’t think I would have paid three times as much for this just to get the color reproduction. Should you not want to buy this book, there are a number of free 1937 strips available online--a little Googling of the strip’s name and the artist’s name and “1937 Sundays” should bring some your way.
The affectionate and often comic relationship between dog and human is timeless, so the humor here is timeless too. Check it out!