Big Chief Wahoo, from Famous Funnies #48 (Eastern Color Printing, 1938)

Elmer Woggon, sometimes shortened as "Wog", is best remembered for two newspaper comics, 'Skylark' (1929) and 'Big Chief Wahoo' (1936-2004, beter known under its revamped title 'Steve Roper and Mike Nomad'). Woggon is an interesting case of an artist whose contributions to comics history were both significant as well as minimal, to say the least. His 'Skylark' was one of the first aviation comics, yet failed because he lacked enough knowledge about the subject. 'Big Chief Wahoo' was more popular and thus guaranteed more longevity, but he had little to do with its overall success. In less than a decade the entire series was gradually taken away from him and changed almost unrecognizably in both artwork, plot, characters and even title. Under its new name, 'Steve Roper and Mike Nomad', it became one of the classic newspaper comics and far outlived the original comedic antics of Chief Wahoo. Last but not least Woggon is also the man who motivated Allen Saunders to become a comics writer. Yet by doing so Woggon practically sealed the end to his own comics career, as Saunders' scripts for 'Big Chief Wahoo' eventually became more vital to the franchise than Woggon's artwork ever was. The comic was taken over by ghost illustrators, while he was reduced to being a letterer and research artist of his own creation.

Elmer Woggon was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1898, as the son of a baker. In 1917, when the United States got involved in the First World War, Woggon was drafted. Back in civilian life he worked as a stock clerk and multigrapher, while studying art through the Landon and Federal School cartoon correspondence course. He was such a good student that he was featured twice in the school's official advertisements, both in 1919 as well as 1921. His graphic career started off at the Toledo Blade, where he debuted as a cartoonist in 1918 and worked his way up to being an art editor. On 8 October 1928 Woggon created a comic strip about an aviator with writer Eddie Stinson: 'Skylark' (1928-1929). Unfortunately he had never been in an airplane before and thus the series disappeared without much fanfare. It is sometimes claimed that 'Skylark' was the first aviation comic in history, but that honour should go to Glenn Chaffin and Hal Forrest's 'Tailspin Tommy' (1928), which appeared in print almost five months earlier, on 21 May.

Big Chief Wahoo by Bill Woggon

In 1936 Woggon finally hit commercial success with a subject he was far more passionate and knowledgeable about: Native American culture. Ever since he was a child he was fascinated by the murals of Indians his uncle painted on his father's shop walls. Thus it seemed only logical to him to create a gag comic about a Native American chief. Woggon asked his friend Allen Saunders to become his scriptwriter, even though Saunders actually worked for a rival newspaper, The News-Bee. Luckily for him it was already facing bankruptcy by then and thus he easily accepted. Initially the series was to be called 'The Great Gusto', after its central character: J. Mortimer Gusto. But the editors saw more potential in his Native American sidekick: Big Chief Wahoo. As such the feature was named after him instead and debuted on 23 November 1936, syndicated by Publishers-Hall. The editors' prediction proved a correct gamble. Wahoo easily became the series' break-out character. As a Native American millionnaire who spoke in broken English and added the suffix "-um" to a lot of his verbs and nouns readers instantly liked him. The series was even accompanied by a topper, 'Indian Slango', where Wahoo's peculiar language was explained to readers. While a stereotypical "Indian" in many ways, Wahoo was still quite a wise and intelligent character. Considering the fact that most western movies at the time still used Native Americans as "wild savages" Wahoo could be considered fair for its day. And anyway, he was still more colourful and popular than Gusto, who was just a copy of American film comedian W.C. Fields, down to his look and misanthropic persona. Yet, according to Saunders, Fields actually felt flattered about Gusto. Coincidentally or not, one of Fields' later films, 'My Little Chickadee' (1940), features a Native American sidekick...


Big Chief Wahoo (7 March 1937)

At the time 'Big Chief Wahoo' was popular enough to spawn merchandising products like paper dolls, colouring books and chewing gum. The original episodes were gag-based, yet still followed a continuous plotline. Woggon thought up many goofy characters, like Ammonia the horse, Oscar the Octopus and Mooseface. Most were dropped later as Saunders gradually changed the tone into more serious drama. Once again Woggon found himself too artistically limited to carry on his creation. His more comedic-looking drawing style just didn't match these realistic narratives anymore. In the late 1930s, he passed the artwork on to his younger brother Bill Woggon, after which several other ghost artists took turns in illustrating the series: Marvin Bradley, Don Dean, Pete Hoffman, Wayne Boring and from 1954 on William Overgard. This lead to a highly inconsistent graphic look, as each artist just drew everything in his own style, rather than try matching the previous artist's work. In 1940 a new character was introduced, the white journalist Steve Roper. His heroic antics eventually shifted away attention from the few original cast members 'Big Chief Wahoo' still had left, namely Chief Wahoo and Gusto. In 1944 the series was retitled 'Chief Wahoo and Steve Roper', followed by 'Steve Roper and Wahoo' in 1946. By 1947 even Wahoo and Gusto were removed and the series simply became 'Steve Roper' (retitled one final time in 1969 as 'Steve Roper and Mike Nomad'). Woggon remained closely involved with 'Steve Roper' - occasionally lettering and researching stories - until 1954. He retired afterwards and lived to receive an Inkpot Award for his entire career in 1978. He died that same year in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

'Steve Roper' outlived its original creator by more than half a century. William Overgard drew every episode from 1954 until 1985 and introduced new characters like Kit Karson and Mike Nomad. After that date Fran Matera took over. Allen Saunders retired as scriptwriter in 1979, passing the pen on to his son John Saunders, who was regularly aided by ghost writers Keith Brenner, J.S. Earls and Geoffrey Brenneman. On 26 December 2004, after 68 years uninterrupted syndication and one single continuous storyline, 'Steve Roper and Mike Nomad' came to an end. By that time it had almost nothing to do with the funny characters Woggon put on paper almost six decades before.

All of Woggon's brothers had graphic careers and worked for the newspaper The Blade. Bill Woggon later also became famous for his comic strip 'Katy Keene'. John Woggon worked as an advertising artist, while Glenn Woggon was part of the paper's art department.

Elmer Woggon

Ink Slinger profile at the Stripper's Guide

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