The View from On High: Dudley Fisher’s “Right Around Home”
In Right Around Home, readers enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of a fictional all-American neighborhood, an innovative narrative point of view that distinguished the Sunday strip and introduced another character into the dailies. Jonathan Barli profiles Dudley Fisher and his strip readers happily looked down on.
(Originally published in Hogan’s Alley #18)
One can well imagine that angels sprouted their wings in the minds of men to view earthly affairs from a height that even those in a bell-tower could not attain. Centuries later, Dudley Fisher, serving as aerial photographer in World War I and afforded the technological equivalent of wings, was able to witness the world below from the newly crafted perch of a rapidly changing century.
Born in Columbus, Ohio in 1890, Dudley T. Fisher did not intend to stray far from his family’s turf when he entered Ohio State University in 1910 to pursue a career as an architect. Inspired by the mechanical, electrical and civil engineers, professors and school teachers of his formative years, Fisher’s personal blueprints were altered by the complications and discouragements of going to school during the day while holding down a job in a pool hall at night. Visiting friends at the offices of The Columbus Dispatch during his sophomore year, he took a job there when he learned of an opening; although he had done artwork for school publications and loved to draw, Fisher, who had no formal art education, jumped at the chance to become a layout artist. He intended to return to school after the midyear break, but he quickly warmed to his work in the newspaper art department and remained on staff after school resumed.
Likewise, after the war, Fisher returned to the Dispatch art department in 1919 and began a feature, Jolly Jingles, whose style owed far more to the influence of his mentor at the Dispatch, the legendary editorial cartoonist Billy Ireland, than it did the elevated views of his service in the air force. The weekly Jolly Jingles, as its name implies, incorporated rhyming verse; an aspect that eventually grew tiresome for Fisher. For a little more than a year, starting on May 29, 1927, he employed a bird’s-eye view perspective in a regular but short-lived Sunday feature, aptly named Skylarks. Although it occasionally strayed away from home, literally, Skylarks was primarily a locally focused feature to which the cartoonist returned intermittently through the years. On a December day in 1937, after composing Jolly Jingles for more than a decade, Fisher, tired of creating new rhymes (and, perhaps, recalling his aerial days), “rested his rhyme-weary head on his drawing board and dreamed of what Christmas would be like on his grandmother’s farm if he had a grandmother and she had lived on a farm,” as subsequent syndicate promotion told it. “That week, he omitted the jingle and drew the dream.” The new page took the editors by surprise but was popular with readers, and Right Around Home was born.
The large, single-panel feature, which debuted on January 16, 1938, was likely, for the 47-year-old Fisher, a mixture of imagination and a remembrance of things past. Right Around Home was never overtly nostalgic, but invariably had—and still has—that rare ability to evoke feelings of nostalgia from readers not of the time or setting. The era that it depicts, however, is distinct, especially compared with our own self-centered times. In contrast to the me, my and mine culture of today—with its grasping delineations of what is mine and what is yours—the most common possessive pronoun used in Right Around Home is our.
For example, when Fisher drew newly married local sweethearts, they are referred to as “Our Bride and Groom.” The neighborhood is one large family to which the reader feels they belong. And it is worth pointing out that the Home of Fisher’s title refers not to any single residence but instead to a neighborhood; a community. Dudley Fisher’s new creation was not an anomaly of its time; its inclusiveness and sense of mutual destiny shared the same Midwestern sensibility that infused J.R. Williams’ similarly themed (though more nostalgic) Out Our Way and characterized the cartoons of other luminaries like John T. McCutcheon, Frank King, Clare Briggs and Gaar Williams.
The drawing style of Right Around Home evolved from a variation of Ireland’s into one that would influence future generations of cartoonists. The compositions of the strip were concerned with surveying the ground, not with breaking ground. Large, single-panel cartoons went back to the early days of newspaper comics: the Yellow Kid, Jimmy Swinnerton’s Mount Ararat and crowded genre scenes by Walt McDougall, to name a few. In magazine cartoons, Johnny Gruelle’s Yapp’s Crossing, futurist crowd scenes by Harry Grant Dart, the occasional outdoor celebration depicted by Zim and innumerable cartoons by Harrison Cady regularly positioned the reader in a lofty observer’s perch. Dudley Fisher’s command of perspective was preceded by Little Nemo, and Frank King had already used bird’s-eye views in his Gasoline Alley Sunday pages. But whereas King created quiet maps of time by installing “windows” over a single scene, Fisher’s single panel was a loud thunderclap of fervid activity and overlapping conversations.
Just as Gasoline Alley, week after week, depicted the passage of time, so too did Right Around Home, making note of seasonal changes throughout each year, announcing “Signs of Spring” and “Autumn Leaves,” and marking Halloween, “Thanksgiving at Grandma’s” and “Christmas shopping.” Right Around Home’s thematic concerns are rarely concerning: whether it’s neighborhood picnics, screening home movies, going sledding, waffle parties, gathering around a radio mystery or automobile problems like tire blowouts and fender-benders, everyone in the neighborhood is there; even if they are dragged out by a spouse.
While the feature began granting prominence to no one character or conversation (one merely read the page from top to bottom), Myrtle quickly emerged as the most popular character, even earning a solo act in a daily strip that began on May 26, 1941 and ran until May 1, 1965. The daughter of Susie and Freddie, she is an energetic tomboy who gets into trouble hanging off ledges, climbing trees, standing on chairs, and slugging boys. Myrtle’s dog, Bingo—named in a write-in contest in 1939—is constantly by her side; subjected to the whims of her imagination: brushing his teeth, pouring syrup into his mouth or camouflaging him as a leopard when housepainters arrive at Arnold Smalt’s. One Sunday, playing baseball in the streets, Myrtle yells to her father who is pitching, “Tried to bean me, didn’t you dad? Well how do you like them apples?” as she hits a ball that breaks a streetlamp. Not far behind Myrtle in any typical Sunday page is Sampson, a red-headed boy with a lisp who seems just short of realizing that he and Myrtle are sweet on each other.
King Features Syndicate quickly spotted the strip and put it into nationwide syndication. Its popularity was easy to understand. It was well drawn, warmly obliged the reader to enter its world, with all its details and a populous cast, and seemed larger than life as one of the last full-page cartoons of the Sunday funnies. A few years into the strip and with readers’ growing familiarity with Fisher’s extended fictional family—their own Sunday-page neighbors, after all—the cartoonist began to focus his lens more closely on the preoccupations of our neighborhood: one Sunday page sees Slug off to college at the train station, and the succeeding weeks include a separate panel at the bottom of the page keeping readers, like anxious parents, posted on his progress as he tries to make the football team. Years later, Myrtle’s parents get into a marital spat. Freddie, packing his bags, threatens never to return…but everyone helps them patch things up. New neighbors move in, babies are born, tonsils are removed, the carnival comes to town and the crowd goes fishing: a perfectly average life for wonderfully average people. It’s the kind of small town, complete with gossipy neighbors, where everybody knows each other’s business; where everyone shows up when Myrtle has the mumps, and the neighborhood boys try to cheer her up outside the window while she instructs Bingo to act sad to elicit sympathy.
As the size of newspaper comics decreased, starting during World War II and continuing through the years, so too did the visual scope of Fisher’s page continue to narrow. First reduced to a Sunday half-page, it eventually became a claustrophobic third-page. In the process, many of the unique aspects of Right Around Home—from the innovative perspectives to the vivid characterizations—were stifled.
Fisher drew Right Around Home until his death in 1951, after which his assistant, Bob Vittur, managed the strip with assistance from King Features’ bullpen stalwart Stan Randal until its end on May 2, 1965. During its height, Right Around Home achieved a perfect blend of wholesome, energetic fun and masterful compositions. It remains an endearing snapshot of a moment in time, modestly asserting no superiority to preceding or subsequent times; a warm, Midwestern affirmation of humanity. In the funny pages, at least, Dudley Fisher proved that you can go home again.
(To view the following strips, click the thumbnails. On the full-page Sunday strips, click the resulting image again to see a further enlarged image.)