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Concerning Sol Hess, Unsung Pioneer of the Continuity Comic Strip: New Findings from America’s Historical Newspapers

John Adcock

creator of Yesterday’s Papers

The Gumps, a comic strip drawn by Sidney Smith and “watched daily by millions,” is generally credited as being the first continuity strip in which the characters’ situations continued from day to day. There had been continuity in strips before The Gumps began in 1917, particularly in the work of Harry Hershfield (“Desperate Desmond”) and Charles W. Kahles (“Hairbreadth Harry”), but it was The Gumps’ influence that led to the avalanche of soap and adventure comic strips appearing in the 1930s and after. The actual creation of The Gumps is not entirely certain. Sidney Smith, who signed the strips, claimed credit in various newspaper columns, although he gave credit to Captain Joseph Medill Patterson, head of the Chicago Tribune News syndicate, for creating the title. A third name must be added to that creator’s list, a Chicago watch salesman, jeweler and gag-man named Sol Hess.

Smith’s story, which he told newspapers in 1922, was that he grew tired of the grind of supplying daily gags for Old Doc Yak, a comic strip about a talking goat. “My mind settled on a comic strip that would tell a part of a regular story…out of that idea grew Andy and his family.” The Gumps characters included Andy Gump, his wife Min (short for Minerva), son Chester, rich Uncle Bim, and the maid Tilda. Smith outlined the story for the Tribune people, it was approved, and the name was suggested by Captain Patterson. Smith never mentioned Sol Hess, or any other ghostwriter for that matter. The Gumps story, which introduced continuity to the comic strip fraternity, began January 22, 1921, when Andy’s millionaire Uncle Bim met for the first time the conniving Widow Zander, thus frustrating Andy’s hopes of a windfall inheritance. The writer during this period (approx. 1917-1923), and author of the Widow Zander episodes that made Sidney Smith’s fortune, was Sol Hess.

On June 9, 1923, an advertisement puffing The Nebbs, a new continuity strip by Sol Hess, “at present almost unknown to the general public,” featured a photograph of “The Creator of The Nebbs” and added “This is the man who created and made world-famous ‘The Gumps.’ As the “idea man” of The Chicago Tribune he invented The Gumps and wrote most of the serial ideas and texts for that chief comic feature of The Tribune.” This news was underscored by another statement referring to The Gumps: “Because Mr. Hess is now to do in his own name the work that has become famous under Other Names.” The Nebbs was simply The Gumps with a different style of drawing and new characters. Andy, Minerva, and Chester Gump were replaced by Rudolph, Fanny, Junior, and daughter Betsy Nebb.

Sol Hess was born on October 14, 1872, in Somonauk, Illinois, and moved to Chicago when he was fifteen. Hess was working for a Chicago jewel-and-watch company when he became involved with comic strips as an unpaid gag-man. In 1915 Hess became acquainted with newspaper cartoonists and columnists in a saloon called Stillson’s, across from the Chicago Tribune office. Meeting cartoonists over lunch counters, he began gag-writing for the big names of the cartooning world, among them Clare Briggs (“When a Feller Needs a Friend”), Frank King (“Gasoline Alley”), and Sidney Smith (“Old Doc Yak”). Also in the group were Ring Lardner, J. P. McEvoy and Hugh Fullerton. A Clare Briggs cartoon from July 20, 1915, showed two men arguing about watches. After one man says he wouldn’t take $200 for his watch, the other replies “Why you old fool—I can go right up to Sol Hess and get you a dozen for that price.”

The Gumps began February 12, 1917, as a replacement for Sidney Smith’s popular gag-strip Old Doc Yak. Hess was widely known to be the “ghost” in charge of writing the continuity. “Hess supplied the words and the cartoonist drew the pictures.” By all accounts Hess was content to work incognito, and—incredibly enough—received “no dough” for the five or six years he wrote the comic strip that made Sidney Smith the “most popular cartoonist in America.” Now Smith entered into a new contract with the Chicago Tribune which guaranteed him $5000 per week and a brand new Rolls Royce automobile. John Neville Wheeler, head of the Bell Syndicate, wrote that “…of course, the artist gave this plenty of publicity where the acoustics were good and anyone could collect a lot of listeners if he bought the drinks.” Feeling charitable, or perhaps guilty, Smith offered to pay Hess $200 or $250 per week (accounts of the exact offer are at odds) which mortally offended the writer, who by then considered himself an equal partner in the work.

Newspaper syndicator Wheeler was alerted to the situation and immediately met with Sol Hess at Broadway’s Claridge Hotel where a deal was struck for a new comic strip with a guaranteed $800 per week. The Nebbs was launched May 21, 1923, drawn by Wallace Carlson. Wheeler recalled that the strip “proved to be a big success and very profitable all around” until Hess, who suffered declining health for a number of years, died in a Chicago hotel on December 31, 1941.

Allen Saunders, writer of the comic strips Big Chief Wahoo, Dan Dunn, Mary Worth, Rex Morgan, M.D., Kerry Drake, Steve Roper, and Mike Nomad, wrote in 1945 that “when Hess died…he had lived to see the continuity trend make a complete misnomer of the term ‘comic’ strip. One by one, joke-a-day comic strip artists deserted their gag files and began wrinkling their brows over treatises on plot, suspense and characterization.” He also noted of continuity writers that “fewer than forty of these unique craftsmen are given credit by name on the strips whose destiny they guide.” Sol Hess is still a ghost to this day, a non-entity whose contributions to comic art is largely unrecognized. Yet his influence was incalculable. You can see the results of his influence in Little Orphan Annie, Little Annie Rooney, Mary Worth, and Steve Canyon. Sol Hess was a trail-blazing pioneer who deserves much more than to be forever regarded as a minor footnote in comic strip history.

John Adcock (Canada, 1950) — the son of a father who was “the most eccentric fellow who ever lived” — has the habit of taking nasty bugs and bees outside to freedom instead of squashing them with a shoe. A former illustrator, he is now the world’s greatest analyst and fact finder of pulps, fanzines and penny dreadfuls, with Victorian periodicals and illustration as his pet subjects. He writes and publishes extensively about all these online at Yesterday’s Papers.

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