All Photographs and Copy are Coryright MEL BIRNKRANT
Some of the imagery is Copyright The Walt Disney Company
THE MEL BIRNKRANT COLLECTION
A Guided Tour of
When I began my Journey in Search of Comic Character Imagery in “The Land of Before My Time Began” I had no idea where I was going. I was sailing into uncharted waters. And then, I came across a Map! It was in the form of a curious volume, a sort of book for children, written in rhyme, with adult sophistication. Between its colorful covers, were almost all the old time Comic Characters. It was, in fact, a kind of a compendium of all the folks who used to live in the pages of the Funny Papers, and ,when it was written, in 1926, still did. Yes, All The Funny Folks were there. That was, in fact, its title, “All The Funny Folks”. Each character, although, vastly different in styling and appearance, was beautifully realized with all its individual visual Characteristics and idiosyncrasies intact. And, at the same time, they were harmonious and unified, because they were all drawn by one man. His name was Louis Biedermann.
From what I have managed to surmise, based on the scant mention one can find of Biedermann on the internet, he was a full time artist on the staff of Pulitzer’s “World”. One spectacular example of his work appears on line, several times. Unfortunately, the image is always small. Apparently, when this fantastic vision of the New York City of the future appeared, it was spread across two full pages of the paper. It shows Louis Biedermann to be a man of soaring vision, and boundless imagination. Entering the world of Comic Characters might have been a step down for him. On the other hand, his realistic renderings of real locations are reminiscent of the days before cameras were invented, when artists had a practical purpose, before the time of “self-expression.” That purpose, then, was to make visible that which there were no cameras to record.
That’s sort of what he did in All the Funny Folks, made visible a mythical world, in which all the vastly divergent Comic Characters live together, comfortably. Louis Biedermann was an artist, not a cartoonist. He brought an artist’s eye to the task of illustrating a book, in which all the funny folks participate. I could believe it was an assignment handed to him by his publisher. For King Features Syndicate had a vested interest in promoting its stable of Comic Characters.
Having learned illustration in the days when art was prepared “camera ready”, it’s mind boggling for me to appreciate the awesomeness of how this book was made. The art was entirely done in black and white and all the colors were later stripped in mechanically, Thus, the colors were not mixed with paint, or even seen. They had to be calculated using various percentages of dotted screens.
Biedermann brings the race to life, over several chapters, using every cinematic device he can muster. And, incredibly, the race turns out to be exciting, with grandiose scenes, like this one that one can study repeatedly, for the audience is a virtual Who’s Who in the World of Comic Characters.
and stunning, vignettes, like these, that magnify minute details of the action.
So, you might be asking what all this has to do with collecting. It would appear that when Biedermann drew All the Funny Folks, in 1926, he carved himself a niche, producing annual Calendars for King Features Syndicate. These are incredibly rare, today. And only two years have been discovered to date. I have the only known example of the 1928 Calendar. But before we look at that, and the Calendar he did in 1926, here is another calendar that is similar, dating from two years earlier, not done by him.
Clearly, this is King Features’ annual calendar, imprinted with the name of a hardware store. It would appear to be a clever way of paying for the cost of printing an elaborate calendar each year, and giving it away free. Simply sell it for use by other business, as well, and imprint their name. So, I am convinced that this is actually the King Features Calendar for 1924, as it looked before Louis Biedermann created All the Funny Folks, and God knows how many Comic Calendars in the years that followed. Like the Biedermann variation of this format that is to come four years later, there is a series of comic strips, below, to be torn off, one a week, to show the dates. Only one is missing, here. The first one that remains is for the week of January 6,1924. The art at the top features assorted vignettes of King Features stable of characters, unimaginatively displayed.
The first Biedermann Calendar I obtained was the one for 1928. The format is the same as the one above. Even the green paper border is the same. The thing that is spectacular about this is the large elaborate scene that features all the Funny Folks, as only Biedermann can handle them, and a wheel that turns to reveal scenes of Comic Characters, traveling around the World. The full color art is badly faded, but the secret scenes on the rotating wheel, inside, are bright. This rarity has always been one of my favorite things. I got it from Ted Hake in 1970.
Years later, I got another Biedermann Calendar from Ted, as well. This one is for 1926. So, it doesn’t require Sherlock Holmes to deduce that there were more. Obviously, there was a new one every year up to the early 1930s. This 1926 Calendar is one of two examples known. It consists of four sheets, each with an incredibly complex scene of all the Comic Characters, doing various activities in Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring. I have eliminated the large area below that shows the dates for three months each, for the sake of saving space.
I believe, just these two spectacular Calendars, alone, due to their rarity and visual virtuosity merit a page on this wed site. But it gets better!
Several years ago, auctioneer, Rick Opfer, turned up five panels of badly damaged original Biedermann art. It was, obviously, created for a King Features Calendar that no one, I know, has ever seen. They were mind blowing! At least, they blew mine, due to, among other things, their size. They are enormous, 30" X 40"! And done in pen and ink with breathtaking virtuosity.
One can surmise, that the calendar, for which they were intended, was to have had 12 pages, each depicting the Comic Characters in a different country, as they traveled around the World. They were expensive in the auction, but I got the four I wanted. I let the other go, as it was a scene in China and Happy Hooligan was the only known Comic Character featured, the rest were crowds of anonymous Chinese. I bid over the phone, and got these!
At some point they were in a flood. There is a water line across the bottom of each. Perhaps the other seven scenes were destroyed. It is certainly tantalizing, speculating what countries they might have been. In all of these, Biedermann displays his exuberance and ability for drawing scenery and architecture, beautifully. Then he populates the scenes with Comic Characters.
We can date the year that these were done, quite accurately, as 1930. In January of that year, King Features licensed Mickey Mouse. And each of these four scenes includes the newly arrived Mickey. We see him racing through the streets of a European city, with Felix. It is clear that Louis has not quite firmed up his take on Mickey; check out those giant ears! The city pictured might be Copenhagen, Brussels, or maybe Amsterdam. Alas, there here is no way of telling, without the calendar at hand. How I would love to see it!
The second depicts what is, no doubt, a familiar landmark, alas, not one familiar to me. At some point, I was convinced that this was Cape Town South Africa. You might notice that Bonzo is also in the scene, and some Grace Drayton characters, from Dolly Dimples and Pussycat Princess. One ponderous issue, a minor detail, or perhaps indication that this art was never used, is the fact that the black area of Mickey's head has never been completely inked in.
This appears to be Mexico, judging from the local costumes. There is an obviously known Building, high on a hill, rendered in Biedermann’s best illustrative style. The situation is exciting. A giant Parrot? is making off with Hans and Fritz who have been tied up. The Captain and Mama Katzenjammer pursue them in a plane, wielding a grappling hook. Down below, Felix is in a panic. What’s going on here is something that will never be explained.
Last, is an event in Argentina. A group of dancers perform for an audience of Comic Characters, as only Biedermann can render them. Mickey is all ears, while Bonzo appears to have had one drink too many.
I drove to PA to pick these up. Rick brought then to one of Noel’s auctions for me. Once they were framed, there was only one place to hang them, and that is on the chimney in the big room. Alas, I have to remove them in the winter when I light the potbellied stove. But, on special occasions, I hang them up again, just for the evening. In the warm months of spring and summer they stay up full time, and bask in the glow of an orange light bulb. It seems like that chimney, the only place in the house that was still empty, was waiting for them to arrive.
I sometimes sit, for hours, gazing at these, while contemplating Biedermann and the King Features Comic Calendar. It is a reverie that I enjoy. I like to speculate about them. I know, for certain, others existed, as I have collected the scant evidence. What would the missing ones be like? What were the other countries on the World Tour that these four panels of art depict? When I got them they were on the brink of disintegrating, sort of like the Dead Sea Scrolls. I deacidified the paper before I framed them, hoping that will save them. Will I ever see the others? Or were they destroyed? Surely there are more calendars out there. The missing years; how many were there? Any day, one could appear, as I sit here, waiting for Biedermann.
For all of you who have not ever seen the dust jacket, this is what the end flaps say:
STEP RIGHT THIS WAY > Ladee-ee-s and gen’lemen! on the inside, The Greatest Show on Earth.
A gigantic gathering of all the famous stars of all the famous funnies. You know them - you have seen
them - you have laughed at them, each and all, but never before have you had the chance to see them all
together in one Brobdingnagian, Tremendous, Huge, Marvelous, Comic Circus. See the great race for
love and honor between Maud and Sparky, between Jiggs and Google! See all the Immortals of the
“Funnies” as they live at home, in the Land of Fun. Greatest Show on Earth, On the Inside, first time
gathered together anywhere. Performance now going on. STEP RIGHT THIS WAY! >
In every artistic line there are STARS. One by one, here or there, they step out of mediocrity, past
competitors, and the light of genius blazes upon them. Now and then, some bold and adventurous
impresario gathers together a number of such stars and creates unusual interest with an “All-Star” cast.
Between the covers of this book have been assembled, for the first time, ALL THE STARS of all the Star
Comic Pages amusingly dramatized in verse and prose into a plot in which they mingle, love, live, match
wits, in the mythical realm of comedy, the Land of Fun. You know them all. You love them all. Here they
The more I studied this unusual book, the more incredible it began to look. It had everything, everything my time at Pratt, studying illustration, prepared me to appreciate. The realization that this tour de force of illustrative excellence was created in 1926, was amazing to me. Each page radiated visual virtuosity. There were vignettes of powerful simplicity, and complex crowd scenes of mind boggling complexity, and the final pages presented all the leading luminaries of the Sunday Funnies in one enormous wedding party that continues beyond the borders of the book, itself, to extend over many pages. I actually managed to obtain several copies for the express purpose of joining all these final pages together to form one long panorama. I never did. Even though, I had enough spare books to do it, I couldn’t bring myself to cut them up. By the way, the story was written by Jack Lait, and illustrated by Louis Biedermann. Both their names are nearly impossible to find. They are printed in small pale type, and hidden on a page with the copyrights.
When Biedermann lent his artists eye to Comic Characters, extraordinary things took place. The highlight of the story is a race, a contest between Jiggs, riding Maud the mule, and Barney Google, riding Sparkplug. Reference is made to the very windup toy we’ll see, a little later on.