Val the Ventriloquist by Frank Crane
'Val the Ventriloquist'.

Frank Crane was an early 20th-century U.S. newspaper cartoonist. He is best known for his gag comics 'Willie Westinghouse Edison Smith, the Boy Inventor' (1900-1907, 1908-1914), 'Muggsy' (1901-1915) and 'Val the Ventriloquist' (1906-1908). He furthermore continued Joseph Lemon's 'Professor Bughouse'.  

Early life and career
Crane was born in 1857 in Rahway, New Jersey as the son of a cabinet maker. According to a report in The New York Times, published on 27 October 1917, Crane was a cousin of Stephen Crane, the famous writer known for 'The Red Badge of Courage' (1895) and 'The Open Boat' (1898). Frank Crane was active as a lithographic artist around 1880. He graduated from the New York Academy of Design and became a cartoonist/art editor with The New York World and subsequently the Philadelphia Press, alongside well known illustrators like F. R. Gruger, Everett Shinn, James Preston and William J. Glackens.

Professor Bughouse by Frank Crane
'Professor Bughouse' (5 March 1905).

Willie Westinghouse Edison Smith, The Boy Inventor
All of Crane's comics ran during the first two decades of the 20th century. His longest-running comic strip was 'Willie Westinghouse Edison Smith, the Boy Inventor' (1900-1907, 1908-1914) which debuted on 27 May 1900. The gag comic revolves around a boy genius, obviously named after the electrical energy pioneers Thomas Alva Edison and George Westinghouse. Each episode Willie invents a crafty new gadget, which he tells about in a letter addressed to his friend Tommy. However, the inventions usually go spectacularly wrong or have unforeseen side effects. 'Willie Westinghouse' was originally a text comic, with the text appearing underneath the images. As balloon comics rose in popularity Crane eventually added speech balloons. The comic originally ran in The New York Herald, until Crane left the paper on 20 July 1902. From 2 November of that same year on, 'Willie Westinghouse' ran in The Philadelphia North American until 25 August 1907. After a year-long hiatus 'Willie' returned to the paper's pages and ran until its eventual cancellation on 29 November 1914. Allan Holtz of the website Stripper's Guide discovered that reprints of the series also appeared in World Color Printing between 4 July 1915 until somewhere in 1918. One book collection was published in 1906 by Frederick Stokes. 

While most of Crane's comics tend to be somewhat formulaic, 'Willie Westinghouse' is actually the most interesting because of the great care he took in making believable prototypes of Willie's inventions. In the first or second panel of each episode he usually added a blueprint of how Willie's invention is constructed and how to operate it. Many of these inventions seem plausible enough to be built in reality. In the mid 1910s Crane also illustrated the column 'Uncle Ed's Contraptions' in The Ottawa Citizen, where the so-called "Uncle Ed" explained children how to built certain toys. In some ways Frank Crane can be considered a precursor to similar cartoonists who enjoyed drawing wacky inventions in specific details, like Rube Goldberg

Crane's second longest-running series was 'Muggsy' (1901-1915), which debuted on 1 December 1901 in The New York Herald, until it was transferred to The Philadelphia North American in 1902. The comic features a young, cigar-smoking street hoodlum. He always plays pranks on people or tries to trick them in some other way. Invariably he is spotted by a meddlesome police officer who instantly arrests him, but then it turns out that Muggsy unintentionally helped his victim. Either by avoiding an accident or a more heinous crime by another criminal. The policeman is then forced to let Muggsy go again, while the scoundrel even receives a reward for his "good deed". 'Muggsy' continued until 4 July 1915. 

Tom and his Little Brother Jerry
For World Color Printing, Crane created 'Tom and his Little Brother Jerry' (1904). The gag comic revolved around two kid brothers, Tom and Jerry. Tom was the oldest and usually tried to get his younger brother into trouble. Invariably he gets a taste of his own medicine, while Jerry just stands by, too naïve to understand what is really going on. The series lasted from 8 May to 6 November 1904. Decades later two unrelated animated series named 'Tom & Jerry' went into production, namely the nowadays obscure 'Tom and Jerry' (1931-1933) by Martin Van Beuren and Hanna-Barbera's 'Tom and Jerry' (1940-1958). It seems unlikely that they were inspired by Crane's comic strip, but the trivia is still worth mentioning. 

Professor Bughouse
At the Boston Herald Crane took over Joseph A. Lemon's gag comic 'Professor Bughouse' (originally launched by Lemon in 1904) between 1 January and 5 March 1905, which featured the wacky antics of an absent-minded professor. 

Philly Peno and Koko
Another short-lived comic was 'Philly Peno and Koko', which appeared in the Philadelphia North American between 18 February and 27 May 1906. The gag comic features a young seemingly mute Filipino boy, Philly Peno, and his talking pet monkey Koko. Most episodes feature them in exotic settings, like the jungle, while Philly Peno looks more like a stereotypical Chinese boy than a Filipino. On his website Stripper's Guide Allan Holtz reviewed the series fittingly: "What we have is a mischievous kid and his pet monkey doing some pretty standard turns on the jungle theme, a favorite genre in the early days of newspaper strips. Other than some interesting panel design the strip has nothing at all to recommend it."

Val the Ventriloquist
Between 26 August 1906 and 30 August 1908 Crane's comic strip 'Val the Ventriloquist' ran in The Boston Herald. The gag comic stars a young boy whose gift for ventriloquism frequently fools his environment. He usually hides somewhere and says things that his victims attribute to the wrong person. Or he gives a voice to an animal, plant or object, causing bewilderment or panic among other people. The gags typically lead to confusion and occasional fights. The concept was similar to Ed Payne's 'Billy the Boy Artist' (1899-1955), in which a boy's talent for painting also tricks other people. 

Final years and death
Frank Crane spent his final years in New Rochelle, New York, where he passed away in October 1917 at age 60.

Muggsy, by Frank Crane (1904)
'Muggsy' (1904).

Frank Crane on the Stripper's Guide

Series and books by Frank Crane in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:


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