Snuffy Smith, by Fred Lasswell 1951

Fred Lasswell was an American newspaper comics artist, most famous for continuing Billy DeBeck's 'Barney Google' after the original creator's death in 1942. He drew the series for nearly 59 years until his own passing in 2001, making him one of the longest-running artists working on one and the same comic strip. Lasswell is credited with the development of the hillbilly character Snuffy Smith, who eventually overtook the comic strip as its main character. He also created several side characters. Lasswell also had a self-created comic strip, 'Sgt. Hashmark' (1944-1945), but eventually 'Barney Google and Snuffy Smith' became his full-time occupation.

Early life
Fred Lasswell as born in 1916 in Kennett, Missouri. He was the son of a movie theater owner and farmer, who moved to Gainesville, Florida, in 1918, where he bought a huge chicken farm. The family lived a very rural life, close to nature. Their house had no electricity, running water, nor any modern suppliances. By 1926 the Lasswells moved to Tampa, Florida. In third grade Lasswell published his first comic strip, 'Baseball Hits', in his high school newspaper. He was only 16 years old when his cartoons appeared in a professional newspaper: the Tampa Daily Times. He also provided artwork to the McCarthy Ad Agency.


'Barney Google and Snuffy Smith' (9 May 1943)

Assistant to Billy DeBeck
Around this time he designed a poster for the Tampa Chamber of Commerce Jamboree, which was noticed in 1933 by Billy DeBeck, creator of the popular newspaper comic 'Barney Google'. He contacted Lasswell and hired the 17-year old as his assistant. Originally the young intern was mostly committed to lettering, but when he heard that his boss planned to change the setting of the comic strip to the U.S. South he became an important creative advisor. As a self-confirmed "hayseed" the Missouri-born Lasswell was more familiar with the customs and culture of the Deep South than Chicago-born DeBeck. He joined him on his travels to Virginia and Kentucky, where they made landscape sketches and wrote down everything they could find out about local folklore and language. Their research helped 'Barney Google' become a far more accurate depiction of the U.S. South than most other comedy based on hillbilly stereotypes. Since then the comic strip has made this region its permanent setting.

While working for DeBeck, Lasswell also developed a new character, Snuffy Smith, who debuted on 17 November 1934 and quickly upstaged Barney Google and his horse Spark Plug as the most popular characters of the series. The trigger-happy old-timer was an instant hit with readers. So much in fact that the series changed its title to 'Barney Google and Snuffy Smith'. Lasswell also designed Snuffy's wife Lowizie (later renamed Loweezey), their baby Tater and nephew Jughead (also nicknamed "Jughaid" by the others).

World War II
DeBeck was so fond of Lasswell that he motivated him to study at the Art Students League, follow lessons by accomplished illustrators and sketch more frequently. When the USA got involved in World War II Lasswell served as flight radio operator in North Africa for the Pan American Airways. He also  designed posters and manuals. Later in the war, he went to Washington, D.C. to join the Marines. He became the house illustrator and cartoonist for the Marines magazine Leatherneck, for which he also created the comic strip 'Sgt. Hashmark' (1944-1945). But by then he already had an important dayjob, drawing 'Barney Google and Snuffy Smith' fulltime, which he had to fulfill in his evenings.

Continuing 'Barney Google and Snuffy Smith'
In 1942 DeBeck passed away from cancer. His other assistant Joe Musial - in charge of the Sunday pages - already continued the dailies of 'Barney Google and Snuffy Smith' for him. Despite the fact that Lasswell was overseas, fulfilling his military duties, he was appointed by King Features as the series logical successor. Lasswell quickly returned home, and initially worked together with Musial to continue the series, until from 8 March 1943 on, Lasswell took it over completely. At this point 'Barney Google and Snuffy Smith' was seriously threatened with cancellation. The editors at King Features Syndicate adviced him to make some necessary changes and modernisations. In 1945 Lasswell brought in readers' participation by having Barney and Snuffy organize a bug race and let people send in suggestions on how to name their insects? Once again the campaign worked. Readers sent in many letters and some even real bugs by mail(!), helping to revive interest in the comic strip. By the mid-1950s the longer narratives from the past made room for a return to its original gag-a-day comic origins. The slang spoken by the hillbilly characters was watered down so readers could better understand the dialogues. The familiar catchphrases, however, stayed and Lasswell also added a few new ones. The focus shifted more and more to Snuffy until by 1954 Barney left the series and didn't reappear for years on end, despite some brief guest spots. Despite the fact that Barney was no longer in the series the title always remained 'Barney Google and Snuffy Smith' for recognition value, which has confused quite some readers over the decades.

Lasswell reshaped the series more to his own hand. New side characters appeared, such as Elviney Barlow, Parson Tuttle, Ol'Dock Pritchert, Tiger Lil the nightclub dancer, Sadie the Bearded Lady, sculptor Plaster from Paris and Tieless Ty Tyler, the Tie Tycoon. The comic strip also saw an increase in child characters to make everything more family friendly. Snuffy became less prone to shoot at everything that moves and by the 1990s he even gave up his habit of drinking moonshine liquor. Thanks to these changes 'Barney Google and Snuffy Smith' regained its popularity and got syndicated to more than 900 newspapers worldwide again.

Assistance
During his long tenure on the strip Lasswell was aided by assistants like Wendolyn Bocardo, Nate Butler, Beau Break, Ping Chen (1990s), Bob Donovan (1957-1987), Tom Moore, Ray Osrin (1950s), Fred Rhoads (1946-1953), John R. Rose (1998-2001), Ralph Smith (1990s), Bobby Swain (1980s), and Bob Weber Sr. (gag writer, 1960s).

Snuffy Smith, by Fred Lasswell
'Barney Google and Snuffy Smith' (5 March 1967).

Educational projects
From the late 1970s on Lasswell spent a lot of time developing educational books, games and videos ('Draw and Color Your Very Own Cartoonys with Uncle Fred') to help teachers learn children the alphabet, fruits and vegetables and environmental awareness. The comics veteran set up the "Learning and Laughter" charitable foundation which still develops programs for nutrition, recreation, arts education and advocacy for kids.

Inventions and technical developments
The artist was also quite a technical wizard. During the 1940s he developed a comic book in braille and in 1958 he invented a successful citrus fruit harvester, which he patented in 1962. Despite his old age, Lasswell was quick to adapt to the computer age in the 1990s. He invented his own computer-generated comic strip lettering, created a digital image archive of his work listed by subject(!) and was among the first veteran cartoonists to mail their work to syndicates. Even at the time of his death Lasswell had developed a series of animated adaptations of his comics for Internet users.


Fred Lasswell's interactive website, which went online in the late 1990s.

Recognition
In 1963 Fred Lasswell won both the Humor Comic Strip Award, awarded by the National Cartoonists Society, and the Reuben Award. He is thus far the only cartoonist to have won the Elzie Segar Award twice, in 1984 and 1994. In 2000 the University of South Florida awarded him a Doctor of Humane Letters Degree for Lifetime Experience, Achievement and Dedication to the Greater Good.

Personal life and death
Since 1964 Lasswell was married to Shirley Slesinger Lasswell (1923-2007), who was previously married to radio, TV and film producer Stephen Slesinger (1901-1953), who was also the writer behind the comic strips 'Red Ryder' (drawn by Fred Harman) and 'King of the Royal Mounted' (subsequently drawn by Allen Dean, Charles Flanders and Jim Gary). She also gained fame in 1961 for sueing the Walt Disney Company over royalties involving A.A. Milne and E.B. Shepard's 'Winnie the Pooh', as her first husband was credited with creating the image of Winnie in his red T-shirt. She lost her case.

In 2001, when Lasswell passed away from heart failure at age 84, his assistant John R. Rose took over 'Barney Google', which he still does as of 2019. Drawing 'Barney Google' for 59 years on end Lasswell was, together with Marc Sleen (45 years on end), Charles M. Schulz (49 years on end, worked alone on the daily comic, but used assistants for spin-off books) and Frank Dickens (51 years on end) one of the longest-running cartoonists working on and and the same series. In terms of longevity Lasswell is only surpassed by Jim Russell and Russ Johnson (both 62 years on end), though it should also be mentioned that all these cartoonists worked alone most of the time, while Lasswell did have assistants.

That the artist was still very much active at the time of his passing was confirmed to Lambiek in an e-mail by Pati Slesinger, dated 12 November 2010: "In fact, on the day he died he was twelve weeks ahead on his strips; he finished his last video for kids and schools; he called his patent lawyer with a new invention for animating comics on the internet; he spent the evening remembering wonderful time; he went to bed in a high spirited mood and passed away in his sleep. A gentle death for a wonderful, genuine man who spent his life making millions of people laugh every day. He was the cartoonists' cartoonist and his colleagues honored him many times with every industry award, some of which they awarded him twice. He left us with a Charitable Foundation for "Learning and Laughter," which, since 2001 has worked on programs for nutrition, recreation, arts education and advocacy for kids and is working on developing some of his brilliant ideas for teacher learning aids."

Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, 1968 by Fred Lasswell
'Barney Google and Snuffy Smith' (5 July 1980).

www.unclefred.com

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