Henry: Not Black Like Me

Who knew that the mute Henry was one of comics’ early integrationists? William H. Foster knew, and he discusses the strip’s trailblazing inclusiveness

One classic comic strip has always been a favorite of mine. It has also been a favorite of people over the world for a number of years, even though the main character wasn’t real handsome and never used dialogue balloons (only when he was turned into a comic book by Dell, did he suddenly find the power of speech). It’s Henry, the strip starring the bald, silent, adventurous white boy created in 1932 by late-blooming cartoonist Carl Anderson.

I started enjoying the strip in the 1960s every day in the Philadelphia Bulletin. By that time, the strip was more than 30 years old, and very few images of Black people (like me) appeared in the strip—or in other strips, for that matter.

And for what it’s worth, I don’t remember it mattering much to me that Henry didn’t look like me. I liked him anyway, for reasons that had little to do with racial identity. I could see through to his genuine “kid-ness.” Even though he never spoke, and some could see him as funny-looking, he had enough redeeming characteristics that I often wished he was my real friend. He was clever, daring and often successful with whatever scheme he was concocting. He wasn’t bad, just mischievous. He was curious, and never seemed to carry a grudge against anybody. And he was always looking to have fun. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with that guy? Or wouldn’t want to be him?

Yet in my scholarly search for images of Black people in comics, I later discovered that in its earlier manifestations, Anderson often had Black people in Henry while, intriguingly, avoiding the negative racial stereotypes that were quite common in syndicated comic strips of the same period (the 1930s through the 1950s). In Henry, they weren’t portrayed as lazy, shiftless or cowardly. He didn’t have them show up as witch doctors or cannibals. In short, he didn’t seem to see them as only comic foils or approach them in a mean-spirited way at all. How unusual!

Could it be possible that this man who was born only weeks after President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address was somehow able to lift his comic creations above the commonplace roles meted out by his peers and still create universal humor? Was Anderson an early unsung crusader embroiled in the struggle for racial equality? As a popular cartoonist, was he determined to create atypical, nonslanderous images of Black people while faced with threats of losing his syndication for offending newspaper readers across the (then) still legally segregated United States?

To answer these questions, I decide to take a closer look at Anderson’s life to gain some perspective into his decidedly unique comic relationship with Black people.

Born in Madison, Wis., on Feb. 14, 1865, Anderson was the son of Andrew and Johanna Anderson, Norwegian immigrants. The family was large; Andrew and Johanna eventually had seven children, of whom Carl was one of the middle children.

The family moved often, first to Janesville, Wis., and then to Beatrice, Neb., where 10-year-old Carl became a carpenter’s apprentice. Three years later, the family moved to Des Moines. Carl dropped out of school when he was 15 and worked in his father’s planing mill. He soon moved away from home and traveled around the country, first to Omaha, then to San Francisco and then to Seattle. He stayed in Seattle until 1889, leaving after a fire swept through the city.

In his travels, Anderson worked in various planing mills, honing his talents as a cabinet maker. For the rest of his life, he would practice woodworking as a hobby. By 25 he had patented a folding desk, and his future as a craftsman seemed assured. But just as he was patenting his new invention, Anderson found a new love: cartooning. He saw a correspondence course pamphlet on the subject and decided to move to Philadelphia to enroll in the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art (now the Philadelphia College of Art) to receive instruction in illustration.

In 1894 Anderson went to work at the Philadelphia Times, at $12 a week, as a fashion illustrator. From there he went to the Pittsburgh Comet to work as an art director, but the Comet folded a few months later, and Anderson was thrown out of work. He tried his hand at freelancing, contributing cartoons to various magazines including Judge, Life, Collier’s, and The Saturday Evening Post. In the late 1890s, Anderson moved to New York, where he stayed with his older brother Isaac (who later became a book reviewer for the New York Times).

Anderson joined the staff of the New York Herald. From there he went to William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, where he drew Raffles and Bunny. Arthur Brisbane spotted Anderson there and hired him to draw a Sunday page, The Filipino and the Chick, for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. Accounts of this period of Anderson’s life differ, and Anderson himself admitted that he “went back and forth so many times that I can’t remember how many.” Simply put, Anderson was part of the staff raids of the period’s newspaper wars.

In 1903, Anderson began drawing Herr Spiegelberger for the McClure Syndicate. Unfortunately, the strip folded. Anderson tried more strips, among them Main Street for the New York Daily News. Then that paper folded, and Anderson was once again forced to freelance.

In 1932, hurt by the Depression, Anderson moved back to Madison, where his father and his second wife had moved. Anderson lived with his three sisters and took care of his ailing father. He continued to freelance and began teaching a course on cartooning at the Madison Vocational School (today the Madison Area Technical College). Anderson eventually decided to go back to cabinet making and to draw cartoons as a sideline.

But in a true story worthy of the corniest Hollywood rags-to-riches musical, Anderson created Henry, the comic strip that would eventually win him more than 40 million daily readers.

One night, in the spring of 1932, Anderson’s students at the Madison Vocational School crowded around a classroom drawing board and watched as the cartoonist drew a sway-backed, pot-bellied horse. Two boys stood beneath the horse, one holding the other against the horse’s stomach, to warm his bald head. The caption: “Does your head feel warmer now, Henry?”

Anderson sent the cartoon to the Saturday Evening Post, which bought it for $50. More Henry panels followed, and the cartoon became a regular feature of the magazine. It grew so popular that Henry dolls were manufactured. The feature drew the attention of the German Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, which asked to reprint Henry. Anderson granted them permission, and William Randolph Hearst, traveling in Germany in 1934, spotted it there. He wired his syndicate chief, Joseph V. Connolly, to sign Anderson. Connolly was in Chicago at the time and made the trip to Madison, where he met with Anderson for only a half-hour between trains. The 70-year-old cartoonist finally hit the big time and signed with King Features Syndicate. The first daily Henry strip appeared on Dec. 17, 1934. Anderson had no illusions about his age and his ability to keep up with the pace of producing a daily strip and hired one of his students, Don Trachte, to assist him.

One month after the first strip appeared, the Pictorial Review ran a survey that named Henry as the twelfth most popular comic strip in the country, tied with Gasoline Alley. By early February, nine publishers were asking Anderson for reprint rights to his _Saturday Evening Post_ panels.

Trachte has said the strip probably helped improve the mood of the country during the Depression. “I think the pantomime strips have a resurgence every so many decades,” Trachte said in a 1987 interview. “The idea [behind Henry] was it was fantasy, to get people’s minds off the Depression, I think. Carl Anderson often said that, for some freak reason, in the worst economic times he’d have his best luck. He’d been through a lot of economic cycles.”

Henry as a character may have been different in presentation, but the bald boy’s uncomfortably similar appearance to the Yellow Kid came up often. “That’s accidental,” Trachte said. “Carl Anderson was very sensitive about it, because so many people remembered the Yellow Kid. I think, because Carl Anderson was a friend of most of those old-timers at the turn of the century, that he was absorbing things around him . . . just as Charles Schulz did with Peanuts and Charlie Brown,” another famous bald character. Henry fans were fascinated by the strip. Ignoring the fantastic elements of the strip, they tried to nail down the character’s vague nature. To his fans, Anderson replied that Henry was a platinum blond whose hair had been shaved off. He was not mute; he simply chose not to speak.

Eventually, Henry appeared in more than 360 papers around the world, and at the time of Anderson’s death in 1948 the strip earned his estate $1,500 a week. He even appeared on a postage stamp in Turkey.

Another valuable artistic assistant on Henry was John J. Liney, a cartoonist at the Philadelphia Evening Ledger. He began selling gags to Anderson and by the end of 1936 was contributing a dozen Henry ideas a week for $50, regardless of how many of the ideas Anderson and Trachte used. Anderson and Liney first met in 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Anderson immediately returned to Madison to find that Trachte was anxious to enlist in the military. Liney, 10 years older than Trachte, stepped in to fill the breach and helped Anderson with the strip during the war. When Trachte returned, he took over the Sunday page, while Liney continued to draw the dailies and the Henry comic books.

During the war, Anderson relied heavily on Liney’s talents. By 1942, the aging cartoonist’s arthritis has grown so bad that he did no drawing at all on Henry. In 1947, he moved out of the family home into a nearby hotel, where he lived until his death at noon on Nov. 4, 1948. Anderson never married and had no children, unless you count his one-dimensional one. (Interestingly, on the rare occasions when Henry’s father appeared in the strip, he looked suspiciously like Anderson.)

The strip had very few characters: Henry’s girlfriend Henrietta, a little fat guy, the bully Butch and a dog, plus occasional walk-ons, present only for one gag. Henry’s main interests were Henrietta, ice cream, candy and occasionally running a sidewalk stand. Though he was mute, minor characters sometimes talked, and convenient signs and labels were provided. But Henry was not expressionless, as some historians have written, for his eyebrows and body gestures cued the reader to his emotions.

To Jack Tippit, who later drew the strip, Henry was essentially a “poor soul who was lovable, good and honest but was deep down a sad person since he was not allowed to smile.” In his book Comic Art in America, historian Stephen Becker characterized him as a winner. “His integrity, rarely corrupted by greedy motives, triumph[ed] over the forces of darkness and illogic.” Whatever else he may have been, the pot-bellied, peanut-headed character was able to stroll down the street with his hands in his pockets for six decades, imperturbable and tenacious.

So what conclusions can be drawn from this scrutiny of Anderson’s Henry and the Black characters who interacted with him? Perhaps the answer is very simple: Maybe Anderson didn’t use overt racial stereotypes in his strip because he didn’t want them to stifle him. Maybe he thought that his most important task was to give his readers funny, imaginative vignettes about all kinds of kids, even Black ones. Perhaps for him, the preservation of simple human dignity was a worthy enough cause to champion.

Standing up for others may not seem like a particularly courageous act, but by its very nature it does make an individual stand out and, in this case, in a positive way. Maybe, even though it is almost impossible to really know what another person was thinking at the time, this was the case with Mr. Anderson. If these examples of his work with Henry are any indication, I feel safe making that assumption. It is the superior individual who rises about the commonplace; in this case, the everyday assumptions we hold about people “not like us.” Perhaps for some people, the presentation of people simply as people is enough of a worthy cause.

Then perhaps my examination of Anderson’s extraordinary work confirms what I suspected all along: Whether Henry looks like me or not, thanks to the inclusive efforts of his creator, I can still relate to him, and he can still be my friend.

William Foster has written extensively on the changing images of blacks in comics, including the book Looking for a Face Like Mine. Contact him at wfoster@nvcc.commnet.edu with any inquiries or responses. Information will be shared with Hogan’s Alley readers.

(To view the images below, click on the thumbnails.)

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