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 the Comic Nodders were “officially” introduced, one way that they were merchandised was as a complete introductory set, in a plain red box. There were no graphics on the cover, and just the character’s names were neatly printed, inside, beneath each figure, which was held in place by one continuous length of thread. There had been a few odd figures leading up to these, but this was the formal beginning of the Comic Nodders as a fully realized vehicle for bringing the Comic Characters out of the pages of the Funny Paper, and into the Real World, in three dimensional form. Entire families of Comic Character Nodders grew from here. 1928 was the year.
This is that initial introductory set of 12, just as it was, 85 years ago. The figures have never been removed from their allotted places. The thread is all original. Is that not some kind of Miracle? This photograph, which looks as real, as if, the object, itself, was here before your eyes, is presented actual size!
This Incredible series of bisque masterpieces are currently known as “Nodders”. That is, most likely, a misnomer. I don’t believe they were intended to nod at all. Their heads, which, for the most part, are separate, and held in place by a thin elastic cord that begins with a knot on top, then travels through a hole in their head, down their neck and out through another hole in their rear end, where a second knot is tied, were intended to be posed, not nod. Oh, how many times have I guided an elastic cord along that route in my lifetime. This enabled their heads to pose. It is amazing how effective and expressive this simple touch of pose-ability can be, Unfortunately, over time, the elastic loosens up, and, sooner or later, the heads begin to nod.
Seeing that these figures were created in the late 1920s , by the time they came to the attention of a growing number of collectors in the early 70s, there was lots of nodding going on. And antique dealers, as well as collectors, began to call these delightful figures “Nodders”. Real Nodders, of course, were a different matter. They had springs, or counter weights, and were intended to nod. Comic “Nodders” were Not!
I’ve thought about Comic Nodders a lot! They exemplify some of the joys and disillusionment of collecting, because they are not open ended. There comes a point when one can get them all. On the way are days of fun and wanting, “needing” to complete the set. And then when that goal is reached ... Its over! There’s no place left to go. The getting is the fun; the owning is, largely, a liability.
Having voiced that observation, I’ll get back on track, and talk about that incredible series of mini monuments, now known as Comic Nodders. The sculpting here is simply fabulous! And clearly, with the possible exception of the very first ones, they are the work of just one artist. What a Guy! What an Eye! This is what I’ve theorized, perhaps a better word is fantasized: The sculptor, most likely, lived in Germany. He didn’t necessarily know who many, if any, of these American Comic Characters were. Therefore, his vision was not clouded by personal knowledge or feelings about any of them. He was handed a newspaper and simply asked to sculpt what he saw, with Total Objectivity!
I cannot say enough about how wonderful these are, but I’ll try. They hit the perfect note of simplicity and keen observation. Here is the essence of each character, not the superficial details, but the core elements, the body language, the posture, the attitude, the personality and, above all, the shape.
Nodders are grouped in families, Some of these family groups are small; Orphan Annie was an orphan, after all. She had her Daddy, and her doggie, Sandy, and that was about it. The other characters in the strip did not amount to a hill of beans, and so, they are not here. On the other hand, huge gregarious families like like the Gumps, Moon Mullins, and Gasoline Alley went on forever, because they were so rich in characters and popularity. In every case, the sculptor has captured the essential look and feeling of each one. The contrast between them is unerring. And at the same time, the contrast between each member of a family, and the other family members is refreshingly objective.
Look at Uncle Walt, for instance. He is delightfully rotund; his abstract shape is almost round, standing next to Auntie Blossom, the contrast is extreme. The two shapes play off, against each other, and, at the same time, go together, like the symbol of the 1939 World’s Fair The Tryon, and Perosphere. To see these figures all in line is a study is sharp contrasts. The abstract shapes of their various silhouettes reveal a level of objective observation that is amazing. I love the selflessness of this man’s work. It’s not about him. It’s about the characters! And this lack of personal expression unifies and diversifies the line. And that is his identity, his total objectivity.
Next, is an adorable set of Hans and Fritz, the Katzenjammer Kids. If I don’t put them here, then where? And then, a Nodder pair, the Tennis Ball Man and the Golf Ball Man by John Hassall. He created an amazing series of images with either balls or eggs for moveable heads. I have some fabulous large examples, elsewhere. And then there are the midsized Mutt and Jeff, just a little too big to truly fit in.
There were some previews to the coming of the Nodders. One was a series of four bisques that were advertised and sold together as a group, even though, they did not quite go together. The 1927 Sears catalogue, a year before the Nodders appeared, sold these as a set. The four figures were Snowflake, by the illusive Oscar Hitt, more about him later, Bonzo, Buttercup, who wasToots and Casper’s baby. He had a moveable head. A piece of black elastic thread that held his head in place, became his single strand of hair. And, last, was Mickey McGuire of the Toonerville folks, with a weed made of brown elastic in his mouth. The following year, Buttercup’s moving head feature was applied to Nodders.
The first figures in the pre-1928 Comic Nodder series did not have moveable heads . They did have a tendency to display an involvement in observing something. Jiggs and Maggie, for instance, and Dinty Moore as well, seem intent at looking at something off to one side. It is interesting to see what just the turning of a head can do to contribute to an impression that a figure is thinking, involved in something, and alive. The turned heads of these early figures might have had an influence of why the series that followed had poseable heads. A figure, staring blankly forward, can look trance-like, and catatonic. A figure involved, with its head turned to one side, looks more alive.
Happy Hooligan was the transition. He was the first figure, clearly in the earliest sculptor’s style, (chunky with bulbous noses) to have a moveable head. He was also the last figure in that early style. I believe the rest of the nodders were sculpted by someone else. Notice there are a pair of Mutt and Jeff here, as well. They are, clearly, part of this first set, and in that style.
In the heyday of collecting these, Happy Hooligan became the Rosetta stone of Nodders, the key to all heads being moveable in the future, the missing link. And he was known to sell, when he could be found at all, at a premium price. Oh, those were the days! The collectors, who I used to know, who were impassioned by the quest for Nodders, are all gone now. Some have completed their sets. Others have simply given up, and moved on to other things. Still others, have Nodded off for the last time.
Here is “Our Gang”, as it was in the days before Spanky, Alfalfa and Buckwheat. These were added to the Nodder series in 1930. They are the only figures that are not officially Comic Characters. Starting on the left are, Pete the Dog, Wheezer, Jackie Cooper, Chubby Chaney, Mary Ann Jackson and Farina. Eunice gave me this set for Christmas, in1967.
Next is the “Nebbs” family, by Sol Hess, beginning with Junior Nebb, who proved to be one of the rarest Nodders, and the most difficult to find. He was the one missing the longest from most collections. Then come Rudy and Fanny Nebb, followed by Ambrose Potts, De Long Jones, and Max.
“The Gumps” by Sidney Smith is the one of the three largest Nodder families. First is the Widow Zander, then Uncle Bim, Andy Gump, his wife, Min, and their son, Chester Gump, followed by Tilda, Ching Chow, and last of all, the Old Timer.
“Winnie Winkle” by Martin Branner, begins with Mr. Bibb, then Patsy, followed by Winnie, herself, looking very glamorous, and her brother Perry Winkle. Last of all, are Pa and Ma Winkle.
“Moon Mullins” by Frank Willard is one of the largest Nodder families. Starting on the left with Lord Plushbottom, then, Emmy, Mushmouth, Kayo, and Moon, followed by Aunt Mamie, Uncle Willie, and Little Egypt.
“Harold Teen” by Carl Ed comes next. The characters are Grandpa Teen, Lilacs, Josie, Lillums, Harold, and Pop Jenks. Josie was one of those who was really hard to get.
The largest Nodder family was that of Gasoline Alley, by Frank King. Rachael. Skeezix and Uncle Walt were part of the initial introductory set. They were joined by Aunty Blossom, Corky, Avery, Mr. Wicker, Bill, and Doc.
Here is Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie, along with her dog, Sandy, and Daddy Warbucks. Here, too, are Walter Berndt’s “Smitty” and his brother, Herbie, along with the boss, Mr. Baily and Scraps, his dog. Smitty seems to be the only inconsistently proportioned figure in the entire Nodder set. His head is so disproportionately large! Yet, his body is consistent with the look and feel of the other Nodders.
Last of all are “Just Kids” by Ad Carter. The Characters are, Mush, Marjory, Fatso, Nicodemus. and Pat Finnegan.
This is essentially the entire set. There are a few slight variations, that various collectors have discovered. Skeezix, for instance, comes in two versions, one with his hands behind his back, and another with his hands behind his back, holding an apple. From the front, they are the same. Variations like that do not interest me, and thus they are not something I pursued.
Displaying these was always a problem. Doing them justice here is a problem too. After experimenting with showing them oversized, I changed my mind and made them actual size. What I can’t convey is the impression they give, all in a straight line. But, as I already took photos, trying to do that, I’ll post the entire lineup in three sections, and see what that looks like.
Well that’s not too bad. The lights, although only 4 watts each, really are too bright. Last of all, this is how the showcase appears, in context to The Wall, itself, ... a blazing streak of white!
Now, let’s look at all the Nodders. They are displayed in one long line, starting with some that I included, who might be pushing the envelope a little. Even though, some had moveable heads, and some did not, they might, or might not, have been part of the category. Once we get moving along, we will get to Family groups.
When I built “The Wall” I already had them all, all the known Nodders, and I could count and calculate to give each figure just enough space, and devise one long showcase to hold them all. The lighting’s lousy. Sorry about that; it’s the best the space would allow. Years ago, when I contemplated a book, I planned to photograph each family of nodders, standing on a floor and background that would be an actual page from the strip they appeared in. I had all the matching comic pages , and still do. There simply isn’t time for all that, now.
Beginning with some that are off the screen, above, because I couldn’t squeeze the camera in, is Santa Claus. He has a moveable head. Then Little Annie Rooney. Her arms move. She comes in several sizes, all the way up to a full sized doll, created by Joseph Kallus. The strangest thought just occurred to me. Could Kallus have done the Comic Nodders? I know he sculpted the bisque Kewpies. If he did, that would explain a lot. Next is the conundrum of Mutt and Jeff. They came in three sizes, the smallest are below. They are too tiny to truly be part of the Nodder set. All had moving heads, and all were in the style of Nodders. In the next photo we will see the medium sized set. They are just a little bit too big to comfortably be in scale with the rest of the Nodder families. Here, as well, are Barney and Sparkplug. They don’t belong here, but I just love this figurine, so here they are.