Bugville by Gus Dirks

Although his tragic life was short, the early 20th-century German-American artist Gus Dirks can be considered a pioneer of U.S. comics. He is best remembered for his comics about anthropomorphic insects, which satirized human society. His comic strip 'Bugville' (1900-1902) proved to be quite influential, as many newspaper cartoonists and funny animal cartoonists imitated his idea. Sadly enough Dirks committed suicide at age 23. 

Early life and career
Gustav Dirks was born in 1879 in Heide, Germany. His father was the sculptor Johannes Heinrich Dirks, and his older brother Rudolph Dirks, the creator of the legendary 'Katzenjammer Kids'. In May 1884 the Dirks brothers arrived in New York with their mother. Father Dirks had travelled ahead a half year earlier. The family settled in the state of Illinois, not far from Chicago. Both brothers cherished the German humor weeklies the family brought along, such as Münchener Bilderbogen and Fliegende Blätter. Especially the work of Wilhelm Busch and Karl Pommerhanz formed a great inspiration for their own artistic careers, which started in the family magazine The Cricket in 1895. In 1897, Gus joined his brother in New York City, who had been there since the previous year. There, they began making drawings for humor weeklies like Judge, Life and Puck.

Gus Dirks specialized in anthropomorphic insect cartoons in the tradition of the animal cartoons by Harrison Cady, Albert Blashfield, T.S. Sullivant and Walt Kuhn. Dirks' cartoons not just presented the funny activities of bugs, but also a satirical look at human behavior. His drawings were often accompanied by verses written by fellow Judge contributor R.K. Munkittrick. In 1898 Dirks published a collection of his bug cartoons under the title 'Bugville Life'. Within a few years he was approached by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst to create a newspaper comic series about insects. It ran between 4 November 1900 until 9 March 1902 under various titles. Originally it was named 'Bugville Life', but for copyright reasons this eventually changed to 'The Latest News From Bugville' (or 'Latest News from Bugtown'). Over time the title was often shortened to the snappier 'Bugville'. 

'Bugville' showed how various insects live together in their own village. A running gag is provided by a newsboy trying to sell the latest copy of 'Snail News', which - since he is a snail - is always instantly dated by the time he arrives in the village. One such headline, for instance, is: 'Washington has crossed the Delaware!'. 

From Judge, by Gus Dirks 1900

Other comics
Dirks had a short-lived feature called 'The Evening Journal's Topical Turnovers' in the New York Evening Journal (28 October - 5 November 1898), which was followed by 'In Nature's Fun Shop' in Joseph Pulitzer's New York World (27 May - 24 June 1900) and 'Education of Simple Sam by His Big Brother' (27 May - 8 July 1900). In his final years, Gus also assisted his brother Rudolph Dirks on his famous 'Katzenjammer Kids' strip, which had started in 1897.

In the night between 10 and 11 June 1902, Gus Dirks committed suicide. He was approximately 23 years old. The reasons for his suicide were not clear. Some papers mentioned an unnamed illness, others stated that "the task of laughing and making others laugh just to keep away his own tears overcame him", while the New York Evening World concluded that he was frustrated that his comics weren't taken seriously enough. The latter paper further wrote about his working methods in his obituary on 12 June 1902:

"He worked whenever he felt that he should. He would sit in an easy chair for hours drawing the tiny creatures and when tired would fall asleep. When he awoke he would finish the work he was at. He loved an irregular life, sleeping, eating, drinking when he felt that he wanted to. He frequently worked all night and slept half the day. He had no excesses and had no patience with those that had. Gus Dirks's bug pictures made him, supported him and perhaps killed him."

Bugville Life

Legacy and influence
After Dirks' death Paul Bransom continued 'Bugville' until 1912. He also drew a similar comic strip 'Bugtown Budget' for the Boston Traveler in 1909. In fact, many cartoonists created comics about insects in the early 20th century: Morton Thayer ('Bugville' for the NEA Syndicate, 1905), Percy Crosby ('Bugville' for the New York World, 1912-1914), Leon Searl ('Bugs Will Be Bugs', 'Bugville Closeups' and 'The Bugville Newsreel' for the New York American, 1917) and Claude Shafer ('Doodlebugs' in the Cincinatti Post, 1920s). In 1932, the concept was also picked up by the Walt Disney Studios for their Sunday comic page 'Silly Symphonies'. They introduced 'Bucky Bug' (made by Al Taliaferro and Earl Duvall). The same year they made one animated short about Bucky Bug, 'Bugs in Love', but the character enjoyed a far longer run as a comic strip hero. In fact, 'Bucky Bug' comics are still syndicated by Disney comic magazines all over the world today.

Gus Dirks in 1901.

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