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

Frank Crane was an early 20th-century U.S. newspaper cartoonist and art editor. He is best known for his Sunday gag comics for the New York Herald, most notably '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 background
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 A. Crane, the famous writer known for 'The Red Badge of Courage' (1895) and 'The Open Boat' (1898). The Crane family was well-known in New Jersey for founding the town of Cranford in 1871, while also inspiring its name. Frank Crane was active as a lithographic artist around 1880.

Art editor
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, where known illustrators like F. R. Gruger, Everett Shinn, James Preston and William J. Glackens were part of his team. He later returned to New York, where he contributed to The New York Tribune, became Sunday art editor of The New York Herald, and did jobs for the art departments of The New York Times and The Boston Herald. Throughout his career, Crane made several Sunday comics features on his own, but he also notably served as an editor for the several syndicates he worked for. Crane was noted for giving opportunities to female cartoonists like Katharine P. Rice and Mary A. Hays. Hays even named her strip 'Kate and Carl the Cranford Kids' (1911-1913) in his honor.

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 17 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 Stripper's Guide blog discovered that reprints of the series also appeared in the Sunday sections distributed to newspapers by 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 Dick's Contraptions for Boys' (September-October 1915) in The Ottawa Citizen, where the so-called "Uncle Dick" 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

Muggsy
Crane's second longest-running series was 'Muggsy' (1901-1915), which debuted on 1 December 1901 in The Philadelphia North American, until it was transferred to The New York Herald in May 1902, until the North American Syndicate picked it up again in October 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. The strip was also published under titles like 'Uncle Enos' and 'Uncle Ezra', and appeared in reruns in the World Color Printing Sunday sections between 1917 and 1920.


'Jerry gives the horse a bath, incuring thereby Papa's wrath' (25 September 1904)

Tom and his Little Brother Jerry
For the Sunday sections distributed by World Color Printing from St. Louis, 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 feature 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 by Frank Crane
'Professor Bughouse' (5 March 1905).

Professor Bughouse
While at the Boston Herald, Crane took over gag comic 'Professor Bughouse' (originally created as a short-lived feature in 1904 by Joseph A. Lemon) between 1 January and 5 March 1905, which featured the wacky antics of an absent-minded professor. A cartoonist called Anderson also drew a feature called 'Magic Pictures and Cut-Outs by Prof. Bughouse' for the McClure Syndicate in 1905.

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 the Stripper's Guide blog, 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."


'Philly Peno and Koko' (11 March 1906)

Val the Ventriloquist
Between 26 August 1906 and 30 August 1908 Crane's comic strip 'Val the Ventriloquist' ran in The Boston Herald (and was also syndicated through the W.E. Haskell syndicate). 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. 

Paw Tommyrot
One of Crane's later creations was 'Paw Tommyrot', whose antics were distributed through the North American Syndicate between 11 October 1914 and 4 July 1915. Paw was an annoying know-it-all, who always meddles in with other people's activities and specializations. All his pompous attempts to show how things "should be done" of course end in disaster. 'Paw Tommyrot' was back in circulation with reruns in the 1919-1920 period through the World Color Printing.

Other comics for the New York Herald
Throughout the years, Frank Crane worked on a host of other, mainly short-lived Sunday features. For the New York Herald, he additionally created 'Muddled Menagerie' (23 July - 7 October 1905) and 'Miss Meddle' (21 April - 5 May 1912). His last known creation was 'Squire Blossom', a.k.a. 'The Gentle Vagabond', about an elderly man who still behaves like a boy.

Final years and death
Frank Crane spent his final years in New Rochelle, New York, where he passed away in his home on 26 October 1917 at age 60. He had been ill since January that year.

Ink Slinger profile on the Stripper's Guide

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

X

If you want to help us continue and improve our ever- expanding database, we would appreciate your donation through Paypal.