'Billy the Boy Artist', featuring Professor O. Howe Wise (The Boston Globe, 15 October 1922).

Ed Payne was an American cartoonist who had a long association with the Boston Globe. Working for the paper since the late 1890s, Payne created several comics features for the color Sunday supplement. Most notably 'Billy the Boy Artist' (1899-1955), which he wrote and drew for a staggering 56 years, allegedly without any assistance. This makes him one of the all-time record holders for longest-running comics series by one individual. His second best known comic strip was 'Professor O. Howe Wise and Professor I.B. Schmart' (1902-1911). At the time both comics were adapted into theatrical plays. 

Moxie Man
Edward F. Payne was born in 1870 in Woodstock, Vermont, as the oldest of three sons. His father owned a harness shop. He attended local schools, but dropped out at age 15 to become a self-taught artist. His first job was retouching photographs at a crayon portrait factory in Potsdam, New York. Payne  studied art in New York City, but settled in Boston when his money ran out. For 25 years he was employed by the Forbes Lithograph Company as a commercial artist and man-of-ideas. His best-known creation was the 'Moxie Man', who served as the mascot of Moxie, the first mass-produced soft drink in the United States. Payne's invention appeared for many years on the brand's labels, until 2010, when it was finally deemed too old-fashioned.


'Billy the Boy Artist' (Boston Globe, 6 July 1913).

Billy the Boy Artist
In addition to his daytime job, Payne began submitting pen-and-ink drawings to the Boston Globe. When the paper launched a Sunday color supplement, he was assigned to develop a comic strip with a recurring character. In the artist's obituary on 8 January 1955, the Boston Globe wrote that editor James Morgan "wanted a comic about a normal boy, not too grotesque or low comedy, with very little slang or low comedy talk". Payne's signature comic strip, 'Billy the Boy Artist', was launched on 5 November 1899 and remained a regular feature for five-and-a-half decades.

The strip stars a resourceful kid, Billy, who lives with his Aunt Abby and Uncle Cy in the Vermont countryside. Billy is an amazing realistic painter, though he uses his talent mostly to trick others. With his can of paint he constantly makes lifelike trompe l'oeil drawings, which his environment mistakes for being real. For instance, the prankster manages to safeguard his spot at the main table during Thanksgiving dinner by painting a guard dog, which scares all other guests away. In other gags he does the opposite: paint a Thanksgiving turkey, which his uncle and his friends try to eat. Billy also paints people, animals, objects and scenery on trees, walls, fences and windows. Invariably people run away, crash into it or waste time trying to interact with the picture. His favorite victims are his parents, teachers, uncle Cy, aunt Abby and pretty sister Maud, who is courted by Lord Chumpley and the handsome lifeguard Rex. On a few occasions Billy actually saves the day. In one episode his girlfriend Patsy is chased by a bull because she wears a red dress (based on the urban legend that bulls attack anything that's red, while in reality they don't). Billy manages to save her by painting her dress green.

Throughout its long run, the comic evolved with the developments of newspaper comics during the first half of the 20th century. While the earliest strips had captions with occasional speech balloons, the captions were eventually dropped. The drawing style and Maud's dresses were gradually modernized too, changing with the fashions of the time. 'Billy the Boy Artist' was also widely imitated and plagiarized. Frank Crane's 'Val the Ventriloquist' (1906-1908) in The Boston Herald, for instance, also featured a gifted boy fooling others, though by being a magnificent ventriloquist. Hans Horina's 'Mr. Foxy the Artist' (1906-1907) in the Chicago Tribune even topped Billy's abilities: Foxy's paintings were so lifelike that they actually came alive! Legendary animator Tex Avery also came up with a clever variation of the 'realistic painting' gag. In many of his cartoons the villain paints a tunnel on a rock, but the hero (usually Droopy) just drives through it, as if it was real. When the villain tries it for himself, he crashes into it. This gag has become a cliché in classic animation and was frequently victim of plagiarism in Looney Tunes (especially Chuck Jones' 'Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner') and Hanna-Barbera cartoons (especially by Dick Dastardley in 'Wacky Races'). 


Thanksgiving prank of 23 November 1919.

Other comics
In addition to Billy, Ed Payne created several other Sunday comics for the Globe. The longest-running of these was 'Professor O. Howe Wise and Professor I.B. Schmart', which appeared from 27 April 1902 until 1 January 1911. Professor O. Howe Wise never went anywhere without his book on "What To Do", while his colleague I.B. Schmart always carried his book on "What Not To Do". The professors regularly appeared in the 'Billy' strip as well. Shorter-lived creations were 'Hiram Bluejay' (6-20 April 1902), 'Down On The Farm' (a.k.a. 'The Colt Family', 3 May 1903 - 18 Sep 1904), 'Percy Gusher' (11-18 December 1904) 'Mister Hurry-Up the Minute Man' (8 January - 23 April 1905) and the 'Professor O. Howe Wise' spin-off 'Jingles, Poet of the Pike' (28 July 1907 - 24 October 1909). According to newspaper comics expert Allan Holtz, Payne was most likely also the artist behind 'Windy' (17 September 1933 - November/December 1934), which was credited to a certain "Rube Franklin".

Adaptations and related products
In March 1910 Payne first brought his characters from 'Billy' and 'Professor O. Howe Wise' to the stage of Boston's Grand Opera House, with comedian Frankie Grace as Billy and James Thatcher taking care of the production. The show was performed throughout New England for two years. By February 1914 the "musical farce" was performed by the Newtowne Club of Cambridge, Massachusetts. 'Billy the Boy Artist' was furthermore syndicated to other newspapers, and he also appeared in a paint book for youngsters. Billy's pranks were first collected by the C.M. Clark publishing company under the title 'Billy the Boy Artist's Book of Funny Pictures' (1910).


Announcement for the stage show by the Newtowne Club of Cambridge (Boston Globe, 8 February 1914).

Dickens expert
In addition to his artistic career, Edward Payne was a local authority on Charles Dickens (although Payne himself preferred to be called an enthusiast). He shared his keen interest in the classic British writer with Charles H. Taylor, his publisher at Forbes. Taylor had covered Dickens' visits to Boston in his days as a reporter. Payne took it to himself to carefully investigate Dickens activities in his hometown in the periods 1842 and 1867-1868, and still had the opportunity to interview live witnesses. He chronicled the results of his years-long research in the standard work 'Dickens Days in Boston' (1928), which received praise from all over the world. This first book was followed by 'The Romance of Charles Dickens and Maria Beadnell' (1929) and 'The Charity of Charles Dickens' (1929), the latter in collaboration with H.H. Harper. For thirty years, Payne served as the President of the Boston Branch of the Dickens Fellowship, and became a local institution with his holiday-time presentations of 'A Christmas Carol' in slides in the Boston Public Library. Payne also served as technical advisor for the Hollywood adaptation of Dickens' 'David Copperfield' (1935). Despite Payne's advice to use a bald Wilkins Micawber, the character was eventually played by W.C. Fields, who was a huge Dickens fan himself. 

Ed Payne furthermore wrote articles about children's book author Louisa May Alcott (most famous for her novel 'Little Women') as well as Boston's historical district Beacon Hill.

Death and legacy
Edward F. Payne continued to draw 'Billy the Boy Artist' until far after his retirement age. In fact: the comic ended when the artist died on 7 January 1955, at age 84. And even then there were still enough pages in stock to cover publication until 6 March. Reporting about Payne's passing on 8 January 1955, the Boston Globe wrote that (at that time) 'Billy' was the oldest comic strip in the USA still drawn by its originator. Despite its run of 56 years and being one of the nation's oldest color strips, 'Billy the Boy Artist' has nowadays faded into obscurity. Other early Sunday comics, such as Rudolph Dirks' 'Katzenjammer Kids', Frederick Burr Opper's 'Happy Hooligan' and Richard Outcault's 'Buster Brown', have overshadowed Payne's legacy. 

Longevity record
According to legend, Edward Payne never worked with assistants, making 'Billy the Boy Artist' for many years the longest continuous comic strip in existence drawn by one single artist. But since his work has faded into obscurity he is seldom recognized for this feat. Its obscurity is illustrated by the fact that Flemish artist Marc Sleen managed to officially set the record in the 'Guinness Book of Records' with "only" 45 years of 'Nero' (1947-1992). Although it must be said that 'Nero' ran on a daily basis. Other creators who gave their comics an impressive longevity, some even setting new records, were Charles M. Schulz ('Peanuts', 49 years, solo on the daily comic), Frank Dickens ('Bristow', 51 years, solo), Fred Lasswell ('Barney Google', 59 years, with assistants), Jim Russell ('The Potts', 62 years, solo) and Russell Johnson ('Mr. Oswald', 62 years, also solo but a monthly comic).


'Billy the Boy Artist' (1940).

Series and books by Ed Payne in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:

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