With September 25th as National Comic Book Day, it’s an appropriate time to delve into the captivating legacy of cartoonist Will Gould.
Gould was born in 1911 in the Bronx borough of New York City. His father owned a haberdashery store and entertained his sons by drawing on wrapping paper when business was slow. Young Will himself took up drawing while sick with scarlet fever at the age of six. He was a reluctant student who whiled away his school days sketching and playing hooky. Gould soon dropped out of high school at the age of fourteen and got a job as an office boy for an advertising agency. Eventually he found employment at The New York Herald. It was there that he got his first glimpse of a cartoonist at work.
By 1929 Gould was working as the sports artist for the Bronx Home News. He covered high school and college sports, many baseball games and boxing. In the first year covering boxing he saw more than two thousand bouts.
Gould prided himself on being a student of human nature, studying colorful characters from show business, sports, politics, and the underworld. It was some of this accumulated knowledge that he put to good use in his 1920s comic strips Felix O’Fan and Asparagus Tipps. Gould’s Felix O’Fan character had one ambition – to devise plots to get past the gate keepers at ball parks and boxing matches.
Asparagus Tipps, on the other hand, was a comic strip character who placed bets on racehorses. Readers who followed the strip were soon placing their own bets at the racetrack on the same horses Asparagus Tipps chose. New York bookies were not pleased.
When Gould wasn’t drawing cartoons, he tried his hand at songwriting and composing. By 1930, Gould made the decision to leave New York for California, where he did some freelance work as a cartoonist. In 1934, King Features Syndicate approached Gould about doing a detective comic strip to compete with Dick Tracy. Gould came up with Red Barry.
Red Barry’s appearance was a composite picture of all the sports stars Gould had drawn over his career. Gould described Red Barry as a clean-cut former football player, undercover detective, and friend of the law. For storylines and style, Gould took inspiration from a favorite detective novelist, Dashiell Hammett and from his boyhood friend, Dan Campion, who was the chief of New York City’s bunco and racketeering squad.
Gould’s view on the necessary ingredients for a successful comic strip were “a likeable drawing style, likeable characters and a sense of humor that needn’t depend on old jokes.” Of Red Barry, he said, “To attract readers young and old I mixed corn, satire, sophistication … and the violence necessary to call Red Barry a detective strip.”
Critics said he was years ahead of his time, with his bold pen slashes, black brush designs and vivid, athletic drawings. Early proofs of Red Barry were sent to newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst for his review. Hearst returned the proofs, having written on the top, “I will not tolerate such violence in my newspapers.” Gould was undeterred. In Red Barry, Gould’s trademark style evoked a mood of imminent violence and impending danger. He wasn’t afraid to draw criminals with guns blazing. One of his most controversial strips even featured a death row electric chair scene.
The first Red Barry comic strip was based on a real incident involving New York mobster Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll. Coll gunned down two innocent children while shooting at rival gangsters on New York’s Lower East Side. To critics of the violence, Gould argued that his comic strips were reflective of the actual violence during the era. Real life bad guys like Al Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly provided Gould with another source of inspiration.
Red Barry appeared daily in hundreds of newspapers. It was remarkably popular at the time – in a newspaper contest to crown the best comic, Red Barry came third, only losing out to Popeye and Mickey Mouse.
Red Barry was also well received in Italy and South America, where the strip and character were renamed Bob Star. Fan mail poured in. Over time Gould introduced other regular characters to the comic strip, including a young sidekick to Red Barry named Ouchy Mugouchy and Ouchy’s friends who comprised the “Terrific Three”. The colors in the strip became markedly brighter and Red Barry himself sometimes disappeared from the storyline altogether.
As the years passed, Gould found keeping up production of a daily comic strip a challenge – he was perpetually behind deadline and often worked on story ideas through the night with his assistant Walter Frehm at his favorite Beverly Hills café. By 1938, Gould and King Features Syndicate were at odds over copyrights to Red Barry. Gould abruptly stopped drawing the strip and turned his attention to writing Hollywood scripts instead. The last Red Barry comic strip appeared in a Sunday paper in 1939.
During World War II, Gould served as an Army corporal stationed at the Fort MacArthur reception center in San Pedro, California. Among his duties were editor and cartoonist for the camp’s newspaper, the Fort MacArthur Bulletin.
In the 1950s, Gould’s screenwriting credits include episodes of the popular television show Lassie. Many of his days were spent indulging his passion for golf. For a time in the 1960s and 70s, Gould worked as an editor and cartoonist for the Writers Guild of America newsletter. His cartoon “The Schnoox” poked fun at the challenges Hollywood writers faced. Gould had limited success as a screenwriter, so he had ample personal experience to draw from. His ballpoint pen drawings for “The Schnoox” harken back to his work in the 1920s.
In his later years, Gould dabbled in writing screenplays and was embroiled in a series of lawsuits. He died in California in 1984.
For those interested in learning more about the man behind Felix O’Fan, Asparagus Tipps and Red Barry, the Will Gould papers are available at the American Heritage Center.
Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.