The Thin Black Line: Jay Irving and His Cartoon Cops
Rob Stolzer surveys the life and art of Jay Irving, the cartoonist who brought law and order to the comics page.
A bigfoot flatfoot sounds like an oxymoron, but in Jay Irving’s comic strip world, the two elements coexisted in perfect harmony. Irving loved cops and made a career of portraying them with gentle humor, vibrant color and a lush dry brush. But the sweet nature of his comic strip and magazine cartoon work belied a more complicated man. Irving was at the top of the magazine game in the 1930s and ’40s, drew two wonderful Sunday newspaper strips and coproduced two early television game shows, yet his successes were never enough. Jay Irving’s glass remained only partly filled, while for his characters, the Collier’s Cops, Willie Doodle, and Pottsy, there was never anything less than full-blown, childlike optimism.
Jay Irving started out in life named Irving Joel Rafsky. He was born in the Bronx into a family of policemen, on October 3, 1900. Irving’s grandfather Max, his father Abraham, and his three uncles, Charles, Irving and Samuel, were all New York City cops. Abraham Rafsky was the first Jewish lieutenant in the New York Police Department, later retiring into the insurance business. Uncle Sam did not remain on the police force for long, eventually going into the meat business and changing his name to an Irish-sounding Sam Shannon. Uncle Charlie Rafsky was nothing like the amiable characters that inhabited Jay Irving’s comic strips and cartoons. According toIrving’s son, the author Clifford Irving, Charlie Rafsky was famous as a strike-breaker. “We had a photograph in the apartment of Charlie on a horse, with his baton raised, about to bring it down on the neck of some striking guy,” Irving said. “Charlie was a tough bird.”
Jay Irving himself has been described as something of a tough bird, which may have been a by-product of growing up surrounded by a family of policemen. Fellow cartoonist Mel Casson lived nearby Irving in the 1940s and 1950s, on the upper west side ofNew York City, and spent many days working side by side in Irving’s apartment studio. Casson, when describing Irving, said, “He was a very confrontational guy. He had the personality of a cop about to give you a traffic ticket, and a marine drill sergeant. He scared people. He’d come right at you. But he was really—when you got to know him—a very nice guy and a lot of fun.”
The young Irv Rafsky loved being around the police, but in terms of a possible career move, his father said, “Enough is enough!” He didn’t want any more cops in the family. The Rafskys wanted their eldest child to go into a respectable field; “…a doctor, or a big shot businessman,” Irving wrote in the 1965 National Cartoonists Society album. Instead, Rafsky enrolled at Columbia University to study journalism. He attended Columbiafor one semester, withdrawing from school in February 1921. Rafsky then worked as a “sub-cub” reporter for the New York Globe, later drifting into covering sports. But Irving Rafsky’s passion did not lie in the field of journalism. Above all else, he wanted to be a cartoonist.
Rafsky had no formal art training, though his mother came from family of artists. He started drawing in high school and dreamed of cartooning, but this was a dream that he felt would lead to ridicule, so he followed his father into the insurance business at New York Life. While working for New York Life, the younger Rafsky began drawing cartoons to submit for publication but signed his work as “Jay Irving.” Clifford Irving said about his father, “I think he felt two things: He felt that he didn’t want the family to know, and he also felt there was a certain level of anti-Semitism in the cartoon business.” Irvingcontinued, “My father kept it secret from the family. He drew under his name Jay Irving, which was extrapolated from his name. Then, when he became successful, he confessed and changed his name legally. I was about five years old when he changed his name. I started school as Cliff Rafsky. I don’t recall the exact year, but my birth certificate is Rafsky, as was my kindergarten report card.”
Irving Rafsky, aka Jay Irving, may have kept his burgeoning cartoon career a secret from most of the Rafsky family, but his immediate family was certainly aware of it, and they must have known that it was a viable career choice. On the 1920 New York census, 19-year-old Irving Rafsky’s trade is listed as “Cartoonist,” working in the field of “Animated Cartoons.” On the same census, his father is listed as an agent for an insurance company. A year and a half later, Irving would have his first comic strip, Bozo Blimp. In Irving’s own words, Bozo Blimp was “not too hot.” The Premier Syndicate must have thought the sports-based strip would have a chance to succeed, as they took out a half-page ad touting the new feature in the July 1921 issue of Circulation magazine. The strip was meant to appeal to sports fans, and the ad refers to the character as a “Boob” numerous times, perhaps a syndicate attempt to borrow from the popularity of Rube Goldberg’s Boob McNutt, which had been in print since 1915. It does not appear that Bozo Blimp ran for very long, if at all, as no published examples of the strip have been discovered.
By 1930, Irving found himself in the advertising business, listed on the 1930 census as a manager. The details of his advertising work are lost to us today, but there is no doubt that his experiences would serve him well in the future. By this time, Irvingwas also married. He and Dorothy Prago, the daughter of restaurateur Willie Prago, were secretly engaged; then secretly married. Their son Clifford was born to them in November 1930. In 1931, Irving began an association with King Features Syndicate that lasted a few years. He drew a week of Embarrassing Moments, a cartoon panel most associated with Krazy Kat’s George Herriman. In addition, Irving drew sporadic Bughouse Fables panels, the feature created by Billy DeBeck of Barney Google fame. Bughouse Fables was drawn by many King Features cartoonists over the years, often for just days at a time. WhileIrving was getting a taste of the professional cartoonist’s life, the success that Clifford Irving referred to earlier was just around the corner for his father. And what a success it was.
In 1932, Irving began a 13-year association with Collier’s, drawing weekly cartoons and contributing full-color covers. His contract with Collier’s called for 104 panel cartoons and four covers annually. This was the big time, which Irving referred to as his “happiest time.” According to Mel Casson, Irving had an unusual relationship with Collier’s. Casson stated, “His relationship with Collier’s was unlike any cartoonist; unlike any of us mere mortals. Whereas we had to bring our roughs around each week, to show them to Gurney Williams, who was then the cartoon editor, Jay would come in and walk right into the art director’s office. Now, the art director at Collier’s was William Chestnut, and he was big stuff in those days. He bought or didn’t buy your illustrations, cartoons or anything. Jay’s relationship with him was something. Gurney Williams despised him because, say, if Williams had, say, 15 spots for cartoons, Jay would walk into Chestnut’s office and Chestnut would say, ‘Oh, this is fun. Let’s buy these three’ or something. So the cartoon editor saw that three of his spots were taken, and it was because of Jay. It’s an interesting thing. He did a lot of covers. He crossed the line from being a mere cartoonist for Collier’s and became a star.”
(To view the images below, click on the thumbnails.)
Being a star at Collier’s also meant traveling for the magazine. Irving did three publicity tours for the magazine, twice to California and once to Hawaii. The Irvings packed their car and drove out to California in 1936, where they lived in Beverly Hills. Irving set up his drawing board and sent work back to Collier’s in New York. He and his family then sailed to Hawaii on the Lurlene. They took a suite at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel for two months, where Irving continued his publicity tour for the magazine and kept up with his cartoons. The Irvings returned to New York but would again travel to California on Collier’s behalf in 1939.
These were heady days for Jay Irving, who, in addition to his Collier’s work, was drawing for other publications, including Esquire and the American. Irving was also able to draw on his advertising background and did quite a bit of cartoon work in the field, including a major account for Kessler’s whiskey, for which he created the characters Mr. Hi and Mr. Hatt. Irving seemingly had the Midas touch.
In terms of his artwork, Irving was hitting his stride. The watercolor covers that he did for Collier’s were filled with vibrant color and handled with the flair of an accomplished painter. His figure work—even in a bigfoot vein—demonstrated a real knowledge of the locomotion of the human figure. His rounded, overweight cops moved with the grace of a dancer across the picture plane. Irving took classes at National Academy of Design, as well as the famed Art Students League. It’s possible that his knowledge of figure drawing grew from instruction from the likes of George Bridgman.
While Irving’s color work was eye-catching and splashy, it was his black-and-white work that was strongest. He drew with a calligraphic contour line, one that appears to have been drawn with a brush. In actuality, Irving drew with a 170 pen nib and a heavy hand. According to Mel Casson, “He worked on a rough watercolor paper. He had about a dozen pens and pen points all ready to go. He had in his forefinger—at one point he had an accident—a big chunk that was taken out. And so, when he held the pen and he drew the line, it jerked. And that’s how he got that little irregular line.” Bill Gallo, the famed sports cartoonist and writer for the New York Daily News, was a colleague of Irving’s in the ’50s and ’60s, when Pottsy was syndicated by the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate. He recalled something that Bill Holman once said in reference toIrving’s drawing style. “He draws so loose,” Holman told him. “I think he draws with a broom.”
(To view the Pottsy roughs below, click on the thumbnails.)
Irving’s style was not typical of bigfoot cartooning. Classic bigfoot strips, such as Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff, employed a flatter line. While there were periods of the strip—depending upon the assistant du jour—where the line was more expressive, by and large, the bigfoot strip relied more heavily on the sight gag than on the liveliness of the line work. Irving’s work was different. Here was an artist using the props of a bigfoot strip, but incorporating an element of style more closely aligned to pulp illustrations or certain adventure comic strips: the dry brush. Jay Irving loved to lay in his blacks. It helped him, in Mel Casson’s words, “to sell the gag,” which was one ofIrving’s great strengths. The use of heavy black areas, in combination with the thick and thin line work, created contrasts that helped the reader’s eyes travel across the cartoons. But rather than simply fill in dark areas with solid blacks, Irving used the roughness of the watercolor paper to feather edges of the dark masses, giving greater weight to his figures, an approach in contrast to some of the black-and-white pulp magazine illustrators, who employed this technique in all aspects of the illustration. The pulp magazines did not pay very much per drawing, and when time was of the essence, the brushed ink line, which absorbed readily into the fibers of the paper, dried more quickly than the pen line, which sat atop the paper’s surface. In Irving’s case, the use of the dry brush was not done to save time, as it would have been much easier to simply fill in the dark areas flatly with the brush. His use of the dry brush added a graphic element to the cartoons, in addition to the substance it gave to the figures.
(To view the images below, click on the thumbnails.)
Cartooning was Irving’s professional life, but it did not necessarily intersect with his personal life. While he mingled with his cartoonist colleagues in the hallowed halls of the NCS, Irving had few true friends in the field. Outside of Mel Casson, who he saw with regularity, his cartoon life and home life remained fairly separate from one another. Instead, he continued to surround himself with cops. Clifford Irving recalled, “He loved cops. Cops visited the apartment all the time. I would come home from school, and I’d say two or three times a week there was a cop there, either in uniform or in plainclothes. I walked in sometimes, and there would be a shaggy-looking guy, sitting in my father’s office; hair down to his shoulders and dirty clothes. He was a narc. My father loved these guys. They would come up and visit him. And they took him out on patrol with them in the neighborhood.”
While Irving surrounded himself with cops, he also physically surrounded himself with the tools of their trade, or as he referred to it, “policiana.” Irving had one of the largest private collections of police memorabilia in the country and was an honorary historian for the police department. The walls of the apartment were covered with framed police badges. There were also canes, guns that Irving referred to as “police guns” and an extensive collection of presentation clubs; nightsticks with knobs that were elaborately carved out of ivory. These were given to officers on very special occasions, such as retirement from the force. “Bit by bit,” recalled Clifford Irving, “our entire apartment was converted into a museum.” The moment that a young Clifford Irving left home, his room became an extension of his father’s collection. The only room that was off limits was the master bedroom. Irving’s wife absolutely forbade anything having to do with the police encroaching upon their bedroom.
(To view the images below, click on the thumbnails.)