Nervy Nat by James Montgomery Flagg
'Nervy Nat'.

James Montgomery Flagg was an early 20th-century American artist, painter and illustrator. He is most famous for his propaganda posters during the First World War, of which 'Uncle Sam Wants You' (1917) has become the most iconic. Flagg was additionally active as a comic artist. His longest-running gag series was 'Nervy Nat' (1903-1909), a text comic about a cunning tramp. He later made the weekly one-panel cartoon series 'Us' (1936-1937) and, between 1944 and 1945, adapted popular novels into newspaper text comics. 

Early life and career
James Montgomery Flagg was born in 1877 in Pelham Manor, New York. He started his professional career as an illustrator at the age of twelve, when he sold his first work to the prestigious St. Nicholas Magazine. Soon he worked for the big humor magazines of that time, Life and Judge. Between 1894 and 1898 Flagg studied at the Arts Students League and in 1898 went to Europe to study painting in London and Paris. In 1900 he returned to the United States, where he became a productive and ambitious artist, working for all the outstanding publications of his time. Flagg made numerous illustrations and was known for his illustrated limericks. The magazine Judge featured his gouache paintings of pretty girls, stylistically comparable to Charles Dana Gibson's art. His drawings were syndicated to newspapers by Harper & Bros, under the feature title 'James Montgomery Flagg's Sketches' (1913-1915). In 1909 Charles Scribner's Sons published a collection of Flagg's large drawings for Harper's Weekly under the title 'City People'. 

A Momentary Qualm, by James Montgomery Flagg
'A Momentary Qualm' (Life magazine, 13 April 1922).

Nervy Nat
In 1903 Flagg created his first comic strip, 'Nervy Nat' (1903-1909), for Judge. The series stars Nat, a sneaky moustached beggar who often runs in with the law. The feature was obviously inspired by the success of Frederick Burr Opper's innocent tramp character 'Happy Hooligan'. Contrary to most U.S. comics at the time, who already adapted the balloon format, 'Nervy Nat' was still a text comic, with the text written underneath the images. Nat was drawn with a bulbous nose and wears a high hat and tailcoat. He is also a gifted juggler. Because of these characteristic traits, author Tim Treswell suggested in his book 'Tramp in America' (2004), that Nervy Nat might've taken inspiration from Hollywood comedian W.C. Fields. In the 1900s Fields hadn't gone to Hollywood yet, but already enjoyed some fame as a vaudeville comedian. While there are physical similarities between Fields and Nervy Nat, there is also one major difference: Nervy Nat has a moustache, while Fields never wore one. There is also no proof whether Flagg was familiar with Fields at the time. If Treswell's theory would be true it would make Flagg the first comic artist to feature a caricature of W.C. Fields in his comics, long before artists like Morris, Jon Woodward, Gleever, Ronald J. Fields, Fred Fredericks, Frank Smith and Jim Smart would do the same.

At the time 'Nervy Nat' was popular enough to be adapted into various Broadway revues. In 1904 Edwin S. Porter also directed two comedy films with the character, 'Nervy Nat' (1904) and 'Nervy Nat Kisses the Bride' (1904), produced by American Mutoscope and Biograph. In 1907 the International Film Manufacturing Company produced another slapstick comedy, 'Nervy Nat' (1907). In the United Kingdom, where 'Nervy Nat' was unknown, these pictures received a different title, replacing Nervy Nat's name with a tramp comic strip character English audiences would be more familiar with: 'Weary Willie', by Tom Browne. In 1916 Nervy Nat additionally appeared in an animated short directed by Pat Sullivan, who'd later become famous as co-creator of 'Felix the Cat'.

In 1907 Flagg joined another magazine, Life, while Arthur Lewis continued 'Nervy Nat' in Judge until 5 September 1909. In 1909 Flagg drew the series again for a few irregular episodes. Allan Holtz, of the website Stripper's Guide, identified the episodes of 2 May, 16-23 May, 30 May- 6 June, 13 June-4 July and 11 July-5 September 1909 as being drawn by Flagg instead of Lewis. 


'The Adventures of Kitty Cobb' (Toronto Star Weekly, 13 April 1912).

'Kitty Cobb' and 'Dorothy Perkins' picture serials 
Between February and September 1912 Flagg drew a picture serial, 'The Adventures of Kitty Cobb', which appeared in major US Sunday newspapers through Harper & Bros/Press Publishing. It told the adventures of a pretty girl and her struggles in the big city. The work is historically interesting because it gives a good impression of the treatment of women in the early 20th century. Although Flagg was progressive in his portrayal of a young and ambitious working girl, it remains a product of its time. Kitty causes mayhem wherever she goes. She is portrayed as a clumsy woman, unsuitable to do "hard and difficult work". Her good looks always bring out the worst male behaviour. Many male characters are either distracted by her, don't take her seriously or try to seduce her. At the time, 'Kitty Cobb' was nevertheless very popular. Advertisers rushed in to tie their products to Kitty's storyline in the papers. In 1912 'Kitty Cobb' was collected in book format by George H. Doran.

In 1913 Flagg created another picture serial about a young woman, 'A Girl You Know', better known as 'Dorothy Perkins' (1913-1914). The series starred a middle class girl, Dorothy Perkins, who is spoiled by an over-indulgent mother. In 1932 Flagg showed off his talent for drawing voluptuous women again in the seminal pin-up book 'Virgins in Cellophane' (1932), a collaboration with Bett Hooper.

Uncle Sam, by James Montgomery Flagg

I Want You For U.S. Army
In 1917 the United States entered the First World War. In order to recruit new soldiers, Flagg was asked to design a propaganda poster. The British army was already in battle since 1914 and had used a striking image for their recruitment posters. Alfred Leete had designed British Minister of War Horatio Kitchener pointing at the viewer, while the tagline read: '... Wants You. Join Your Country's Army! God Save the King.' Flagg borrowed the same idea, but instead used the national U.S. symbol Uncle Sam. He based Sam's face on his own and just added a beard and some wrinkles. The tagline was very direct: 'I want YOU for U.S. Army! Nearest Recruiting Station.' Flagg's poster became just as iconic as Leete's version, if not more so. On Leete's poster the use of Kitchener unavoidably dated the image, particularly when the politician died in combat in 1916. Flagg's version, on the other hand, was timeless. When the Second World War broke out three decades later, his poster was therefore easily re-used. 'I Want You for U.S. Army' remains one of the most iconic military propaganda posters of all time and has often been referenced and parodied. Among other examples, with Norman Mingo's Mad Magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman.

Cass Timberlane, novel by Sinclair Lewis (Petit Journal, 18/11/1945)
'Cass Timberlane', novel by Sinclair Lewis (French-Canadian version from Le Petit Journal, 18 november 1945).

Book illustrations
Flagg also illustrated books like William J. Locke's 'Simon the Jester' (1910), Ralph Henry Barbour's 'An Orchard Princess' (1905) and P.G. Wodehouse's 'Brinkley Manor: A Novel About Jeeves' (1934). 

Later life and career
Flagg returned to the comic strip format on a couple of occasions in his later career. He had a weekly panel called 'Us', which was distributed to newspapers by the Ledger Syndicate between 6 December 1936 and 10 July 1937. In 1944 and 1945 he illustrated text comic adaptations of novels like Gene Fowler's 'Goodnight Sweet Prince', Sinclair Lewis' 'Cass Timberlane' and Elizabeth Janeway's 'Daisy Kenyon' for the Book-of-the-Month feature by King Features Syndicate.

Daisy Kenyon by Monty Flagg
'Daisy Kenyon', novel by Elisabeth Janeway (Book-of-the-Month Club).

Final years and death
Monty Flagg, as he was also known, led a bohemian life. He was founding member of the infamous Dutch Treat Club in 1906, a loose association of creative types, and became its president in 1913. In 1946 Flagg published his autobiography, 'Roses and Buckshot' (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1946). The book gained infamy since the artist is quite outspoken about his profession and certain colleagues. In one chapter he reflects on cartoonists with the following words: "I am fond of cartoonists. They are a very intelligent race of men, except that they have a curious complex. They all think they can draw. They are quite sincere in this delusion, even to the point of calling their offices "studios". And they have models: which is very nice... In America, next to baseball, comics or funnies have become the most popular of our obsessions. I am looked upon as a leper because I dislike both of these things. I can hardly wait on Sunday mornings to get the papers so that I can take the funnies and stuff them in the scrap basket. Naturally there is something wrong with me - 130,000,000 people can't be that wrong. Maybe." Flagg wasn't very fond of his friend Rube Goldberg's talent either, though his comments may have been tongue in cheek: "I never called Rube a poor draftsman - on the contrary, I told Rube he was no draftsman at all." On the other hand Flagg did express admiration for Ham Fisher.

James Montgomery Flagg died in 1960 in New York, at the age of 82. He was an influence on Morris Weiss and Frank Godwin.


James Montgomery Flagg in 1941.

Series and books by James Montgomery Flagg you can order today:

X

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