Nervy Nat by James Montgomery Flagg
Nervy Nat

James Montgomery Flagg was an American artist, painter and illustrator, most famous for his propaganda posters during the First World War, of which 'Uncle Sam Wants You' (1917) has become the most iconic. But he was also active as a comics artist, of which 'Nervy Nat' (1903-1907) is his best known work.

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 went to Europe in 1898 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. He made numerous illustrations and was known for his illustrated limericks. Judge featured his gouache paintings of pretty girls, much in the style of Charles Dana Gibson. His drawings were furthermore syndicated to newspapers by Harper & Bros under the feature title 'James Montgomery Flagg's Sketches' (1913-1915).

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

In 1903 Flagg created his first comic strip, 'Nervy Nat' (1903-1907) for Judge. It revolved around Nat, a sneaky beggar who constantly runs in with the law. The comic was obviously inspired by the success of Frederick Burr Opper's innocent tramp character 'Happy Hooligan', though a text comic rather than a balloon comic. This is a notable difference, as most U.S. comics at the time were already adapting the balloon format and text comics started to get rare. In his book 'Tramp in America' (2004), Tim Tresswell suggested that the bulbous-nosed tramp Nervy Nat might have been inspired by the vaudeville act of comedian W.C. Fields who wasn't a film star yet, but did already enjoy some national fame. Nat shared the same physionomy as Fields, also wore a high hat and was a gifted juggler too. If true, then Flagg would be the first comics 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. In 1907 Flagg left Judge to join Life. 'Nervy Nat' was then continued by Arthur Lewis, though Flagg made a brief return in 1909 at irregular intervals. The comic strip was adapted into various Broadway revues. In 1916 the character appeared in an animated short directed by Pat Sullivan, who'd later become famous as co-creator of 'Felix the Cat'.


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

A collection of his large drawings for Harper's Weekly was published under the title 'City People' by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1909. Flagg furthermore 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). Between February and September 1912 his picture serial 'The Adventures of Kitty Cobb' appeared in major US Sunday newspapers through Harper & Bros/Press Publishing. It told the adventures of a pretty girl and her struggles to make a new life for herself in the big city. The work is historically interesting because it gives a good impression of the treatment of women in that time period. Although the artist was rather progressive in his portrayal of a young and ambitious working girl, it remains a product of its time. Kitty causes mayhem wherever she goes, and stereotypically constantly triggers the worst male behavior. The feature was so popular with readers that advertisers rushed to tie their products to Kitty's story. The story was collected in book format by George H. Doran in the same year. In the next year, Flagg created another picture serial, which revolved around the many flaws of a middle class girl called Dorothy Perkins, who was spoiled by an over-indulgent mother ('A Girl You Know', 1913-1914). The artist showed off his talent for drawing voluptuous women once again in the seminal pin-up book 'Virgins in Cellophane' (1932), a collaboration with Bett Hooper.

Uncle Sam, by James Montgomery Flagg

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 1917 the United States entered the First World War. In order to recruit new soldiers Flagg was asked to design a propaganda poster. Inspired by Alfred Leete's 'Lord Kitchener Wants You' poster, Flagg came up with using the same idea but with the national symbol Uncle Sam pointing at the audience and saying: "I want YOU for U.S. Army!" Flagg based Sam's face on his own and just added a beard and some wrinkles. The poster became just as iconic as the Kitchener one, if not more so, since the use of fictional character Uncle Sam rather than a real-life general like Kitchener gave the image a more timeless quality. By the time the next world war rolled along in 1941 Flagg's poster would be re-used again. 'I Want You For U.S. Army' remains Flagg's most famous work. It has been referenced and parodied numerous times, including 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, 18/11/1945)

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)

He wrote his autobiography, 'Roses and Buckshot' in 1946. In one of the chapters Flagg reflected on cartoonists in rather bitter terms: "(...) 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: "I never called Rube a poor draftsman - on the contrary, I told Rube he was no draftsman at all." One of the few cartoonists he respected was Ham Fisher.

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


James Montgomery Flagg in 1941

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