Billy DeBeck

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Billy DeBeck
Photograph of Billy DeBeck drawing a picture of Barney Google and Spark Plug
Billy DeBeck with Barney Google and Spark Plug
Born William Morgan DeBeck
(1890-04-16)April 16, 1890
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Died November 11, 1942(1942-11-11) (aged 52)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Nationality American
Area(s) Cartoonist
Notable works
Barney Google
Notable collaborations
Paul Fung, Fred Lasswell

William Morgan DeBeck (April 15, 1890 – November 11, 1942), better known as Billy DeBeck, was an American cartoonist. He is most famous as the creator of the comic strip Barney Google (later retitled Barney Google and Snuffy Smith). The strip was especially popular in the 1920s and 1930s, and featured a number of well-known characters, including the title character, Bunky, Snuffy Smith and Spark Plug the race horse. Spark Plug was a merchandising phenomenon, and has been called the Snoopy of the 1920s.

DeBeck drew with a scratchy line, and his characters had giant feet and bulbous noses—what is traditionally called a "big-foot" style. His strips often reflected his love of sports. The first awards of the National Cartoonists Society, beginning in 1946, were the Billy DeBeck Memorial Awards (or the Barney Awards).

Personal history[edit]

DeBeck was born and grew up on the south side of Chicago, where his father, Louis DeBeck, was a former newspaperman employed by the Swift Company. His father was French, and the name DeBeck evolved from DeBecque. His Irish-Welsh mother, Jessie Lee Morgan, had lived on a farm and was a former schoolteacher.[1]

Early career[edit]

DeBeck attended Hyde Park High School, after which he went to the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. During this time, he sold cartoons to finance himself,[1] starting in 1908 at the Chicago Daily News.[2] Though he had intended to become a painter in the Flemish tradition, he gave it up after he landed a cartooning job with the weekly paper Show World in 1910. His cartoons showed the influence of John T. McCutcheon and Clare Briggs, whom he had admired in his youth, although he had the skill to draw in the more fastidiously cross-hatched style of a Charles Dana Gibson,[1] and had sold drawings as originals that he had copied from Gibson.[3]

Photograph of Billy DeBeck with Jack Dempsey
Sports fan DeBeck with boxing heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey in 1919.

He soon left Show World for better opportunities at Youngstown Telegram in Ohio as a political cartoonist, then again at the Pittsburgh Gazette-Time[3] in late August 1912, and later again he began doing cartoons for the New York City magazines Life and Judge. While in Pittsburgh, he went to a Hearst newspaper in New York and showed comic strip samples to Arthur Brisbane, who rejected the work. DeBeck later admitted, "They were terrible. I had been doing political cartoons for the Pittsburgh Gazette, and the comics were new to me".[2] He returned to Youngstown and married Marian Louise Shields there in 1914. Some time later they divorced, remarried in 1921, and eventually divorced again.[4] In May 1915, he and a partner, Carter, launched a newspaper syndicate and correspondence cartooning course. When that did not pan out, DeBeck returned to Chicago and joined the Chicago Herald in December 1915. He worked on a strip called Finn an' Haddie for the Adams Newspaper Service on the side. On 9 December, immediately after starting at the Herald, he began a strip called Married Life that so caught the attention of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst that legend says he bought the Herald (merging it with the Chicago Examiner) in order to get his hands on DeBeck,[1] who had refused to join the Hearst empire after the Examiner raised his monthly salary from $35 to $200.[4] He created a number of other features, especially for the sports section, while his antics made him something of a local celebrity.[1]

Barney Google[edit]

Barney Google comic strip featuring the first appearance of the racehorse Spark Plug
DeBeck introduced the popular race horse Spark Plug on July 17, 1922.

On July 17, 1919, DeBeck created a new comic strip on the sports page in the same vein as Married Life. Take Barney Google, For Instance differed in that it was about a henpecked, sports-obsessed husband and his travails defying the opposition of his wife.[1] He was interested in non-fictional sports stories, such as the current heavyweight championship between Jess Willard and Jack Dempsey.[4] The title was soon shortened to Barney Google, but the strip was not terribly popular until DeBeck had Google acquire a race horse named Spark Plug (or "Sparky"[5]) in a strip dated July 17, 1922. The dilapidated, blanket-covered horse was a huge hit with readers, a marketing and merchandising phenomenon that has been called the Snoopy of the 1920s—toys, balloons and games were among the popular items adorned with Sparky's image.[5] When DeBeck introduced the horse, he also introduced a little-used technique into the strip—continuity. Barney Google went from being a gag-a-day strip to one in which both humor and suspense kept readers coming back every day, as Google desperately tried to get his horse to win a race. The sequence in which Spark Plug was introduced into the strip was republished in the October 1922 issue of Comic Monthly, what is likely the earliest newsstand comics periodical. Barney had been as tall as his wife when the strip began, but by the early 1920s, DeBeck had made him quite short.[1]

Book cover
Billy DeBeck used Barney Google as a byline on the earliest Bughouse Fables panels.

DeBeck kept readers on the edge of their seats with his uncertain suspense—sometimes Spark Plug actually won a race. In 1923, Billy Rose penned a smash pop hit called Barney Google with the catchy refrain: "Barney Google, with the goo-goo-gooly eyes". While DeBeck initially resisted, Hearst demanded a pretty girl be introduced into the strip. DeBeck brought in Sweet Mama, which initially created a stir, with papers dropping the strip, but after the phrase swept the nation, the strip's popularity only increased. Over the years, DeBeck was credited with introducing more neologisms and catchphrases, such as "heebie-jeebies", "horsefeathers", "hotsy totsy", "osky wow wow", "bughouse fables",[1] "balls of fire" and "time's a-wastin'".[6]

DeBeck had included a topper called Bughouse Fables (signed "Barney Google"[7]) with his main strip since 1921, though he soon handed off to assistant Paul Fung.[4] On May 16, 1926, he replaced Bughouse Fables with Parlor, Bedroom & Sink Starring Bunky, a strip that was popular enough on its own to survive until 1948.[8]

According to later Barney Google and Snuffy Smith scripter Brian Walker, DeBeck had become "one of the highest-paid cartoonists in America" at this point.[9] In the early 1920s, DeBeck moved to Riverside Drive in New York City, and in 1927 he would remarry to Mary Louise Dunne. He and his new wife spent the next two years in Europe, after which they settled down again in New York.[4] DeBeck's active lifestyle sometimes caused him to miss deadlines. He enjoyed traveling, deep sea fishing, golf and playing bridge.[6] As a golfer since 1916, DeBeck spent time on courses with such notables as Harold Lloyd, Walter Huston, Rube Goldberg, Fontaine Fox, Clarence Budington Kelland and bridge authority P. Hal Sims. He was also acquainted with such celebrities as Babe Ruth, Lowell Thomas and Damon Runyon.[6] His best friend was the cartoonist Frank Willard, who also attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.[2]

Snuffy Smith[edit]

In the spring of 1934, DeBeck hired 17-year-old Fred Lasswell as an assistant after seeing his work on a poster. He wanted a letterer for Barney Google, and Lasswell's lettering impressed him. Lasswell started by doing chores for DeBeck, as well as taking on lettering and other duties on the strip. DeBeck undertook educating Lasswell in cartooning, having him attend schools, copy the works of masters like Gibson and May, and copy line-for-line the artwork from DeBeck's own comics. Lasswell moved in with the DeBecks, and would tag along with them wherever they moved. He would take over his mentor's strip after his death and continue it into the 21st century.[10]

DeBeck gained a growing interest into the culture of Appalachia in the 1930s and amassed a library on the subject that he would later donate to Virginia Commonwealth University. The character Snuffy Smith grew from his talking with and sketching the Appalachian hillbilly locals. Just as the strip's circulation was starting to flag,[1] Snuffy was introduced in a storyline in which Barney had inherited an estate in the mountains of North Carolina.[11] After dodging the ornery hillbilly's bullets, the two became fast friends. The strip would eventually be renamed Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, and Snuffy would take over from Barney Google as the central character.[6] Lasswell, with his own country roots, provided much of the inspriration for Snuffy and his Appalachian environment. Especially, he provided a source for the locals' dialect.[1]

Later life and death[edit]

DeBeck had a studio apartment on Park Avenue in New York, and homes in Great Neck, Long Island and St. Petersburg, Florida.[6] In the early 1940s, he developed cancer, and found it increasingly difficult to work. Sensing the end was near, he made a special trip to see Marian Shields.[9] His last signed daily strip appeared 4 July 1942, and his last Sunday the following 2 August. With Lasswell contributing to the war effort, the strip was continued by assistant Joe Musial.[12] On 11 November 1942, DeBeck died at the age of 52 in New York City, with his wife at his bedside.[6] He had no children.[1] Barney Google was continued by Musial until Lasswell took it on full-time in 1945.[6] Eventually Barney faded from the strip, and the title shrank to Snuffy Smith.[11]

In 1943, Mary DeBeck donated to the Ringling School of Art all of her late husband's art supplies, including drawing tables, reams of drawing paper, hundreds of colored pencils, lamps, drawing boards, inks, drawing pens, artist smocks, etching plates and an etching press.[13] Mary remarried, and she died 14 February 1953, aboard a National Airlines DC-6 which went down in the Gulf of Mexico during a thunderstorm on a flight from Tampa, Florida to New Orleans.[14]

Style[edit]

Early DeBeck comic strip
Married Life an early hit for DeBeck, landed him in the Hearst empire.

DeBeck's art style falls in the "big-foot" tradition of American comic strips such as The Katzenjammer Kids, Hägar the Horrible and Robert Crumb. He had a scratchy line, and drew characters with bulbous noses and giant feet. Though he often procrastinated, he could work fast and make it just in time for his deadlines.[1]

Legacy[edit]

DeBeck's main strip, in the hands of Fred Lasswell, continued long after its creator's death. In 1989, the strip was still running in 900 newspapers in 21 countries,[5] and it continues to this day in different hands since Lasswell's 2001 death. Charles M. Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip, is famously nicknamed "Sparky" after DeBeck's racehorse character,[15] and DeBeck's drawing style has been an influence on such cartoonists as Robert Crumb[16] and Bobby London.[17]

The Barney Google Sunday page for September 18, 1938 was placed in the time capsule at the 1939 World's Fair.[18]

Billy DeBeck Memorial Award[edit]

The National Cartoonists Society's annual award was originally named the Billy DeBeck Memorial Award. Created by Mary DeBeck Bergman in 1946, these were known as the Barney Awards. She also made the annual presentation of engraved silver cigarette cases, with DeBeck's characters etched on the cover, to the winners (Milton Caniff, Al Capp, Chic Young, Alex Raymond, Roy Crane, Walt Kelly, Hank Ketcham and Mort Walker). In 1954, after her death, the DeBeck Award was renamed the Reuben Award (after Rube Goldberg's first name), and all of the prior winners were given Reuben statuettes.[19]

List of comic strips[edit]

References[edit]

Works cited[edit]

Sarasota Herald-Tribune staff (1943-05-30). "Widow of Barney Google Artist Donates Equipment to Ringling Art School". Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Retrieved 2012-02-27. 
St. Petersburg Times staff (1953-02-15). "Friends Call For News Of Mary Bergman, Pay Tribute To Her Unselfish Service". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 2012-02-27. 
New York Times Magazine (1996). "1939 Westinghouse Time Capsule Complete List Contents". New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 2012-02-28. 
Beech, Keyes (1935-01-18). "Beech Combings". St. Petersburg Evening Independent. Retrieved 2012-02-27. 
Davison Reynolds, Moira (2003). Comic Strip Artists in American Newspapers, 1945–1980. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-1551-9. 
Estren, Mark James (1993). A History of Underground Comics. Ronin Publishing. ISBN 978-0-914171-64-5. 
Grandinetti, Fred (2004). Popeye: An Illustrated Cultural History. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-1605-9. 
Hartzell, Scott Taylor (2000-11-22). "Cartoonist had more fame than most have 'ever seed'". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 2012-05-08. 
Harvey, R. C. (2012-02-23). "Barney Google and Snuffy Smith: Billy DeBeck, Fred Lasswell, and John Rose". The Comics Journal (Fantagraphics Books). Retrieved 2012-02-28. 
Harvey, R. C.. "The History of the NCS". National Cartoonists Society. Retrieved 2012-02-27. 
Heer, Jeet (2010-02-10). "Crumb's Visual Sources: Research Note 2". Comics Comics. Retrieved 2012-02-28. 
Markstein, Don. "Barney Google". Don Markstein's Toonopedia. Archived from the original on July 11, 2012. Retrieved 2012-02-27. 
Markstein, Don. "Bunky". Don Markstein's Toonopedia. Archived from the original on April 13, 2012. Retrieved 2012-02-27. 
Szondy, David H. "Capsule Contents". Retrieved 2012-02-28. 
Waugh, Coulton (1947). The Comics. Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-87805-499-2. 

External links[edit]