Sunday, March 11, 2007

Grade A Milquetoast

H. T. Webster was a cartoonist who was very popular in his day, earning a rare--for a cartoonist--Time Magazine cover in November, 1945. Sadly, he's nearly forgotten now.Well, forgotten except for us people who think that cartoonists are very special people with very special talent. Webster had that. He created daily panels with titles like "How To Torture Your Husband," or "How to Torture Your Wife." He also created "The Thrill That Comes Once In A Lifetime" and "Boyhood Ambitions." He's the only cartoonist I know who mined the subject of card playing with "Poker Portraits" and "Bridge Portraits." Webster's most famous panel was "The Timid Soul," which introduced the world to Caspar Milquetoast, entering a name into the English language synonymous with the unmanly men who are easily frightened or lack self-confidence. It had origins that went further back, with the word milksop, meaning much the same thing.

When I was a kid I used to hear that a lot from my mom as she'd exhort me into some activity: "Don't be like Caspar Milquetoast." My grandmother used the name a lot, too, but she pronounced it "Milkytoast," which was her way of trying to make sense of the variant spelling of milk.

When Webster died in 1952 his creations lasted a while longer until his assistant also died. At that point a book, The Best of H. T. Webster, was published. It must've sold in high numbers because it isn't an uncommon book to find. I found a first edition for $2.00 in a thrift store, and I've found several copies in used book stores.

It also isn't too surprising that Webster, despite his popularity for 40 years in the first half of the century, isn't known now. Styles change, but Webster's didn't. When he died he was still drawing in the same style as cartoonists of the World War I and 1920's era. He had a vibrant pen line, done with a flexible nib, and it appears his panels are loosely penciled to give them a very spontaneous look. Nowadays panels and comic strips have shrunk in size until it isn't even necessary to draw well. As a matter of fact, it's a plus to look like a cartoonist can't draw. Witness Scott Adams' Dilbert. Webster drew very well, but in his day panels had the room to show off great drawing.

I could go out on a limb and say that 99% of the cartoonists published today will be unread and unheard of 50 years from now. That goes for Scott Adams, Gary Larson, and Dan Piraro. They have each created niches for themselves with fans, but their work seems too much tied to their own times and like Webster's and many others of his generation it will fade into obscurity. About the only cartoonist who won't is Charles Schulz. He's been dead for seven years now and his work is as popular as ever. The syndicate need only run about the last 25 years of his output (out of the 50 he did the strip) and they can run that forever, picking up new fans along the way. But Schulz was the exception. Webster is admired by fans of cartooning but unknown by today's general public. Schulz is admired by fans of cartooning and the general public and the "Peanuts" franchise will still be around in 50 years.

Here are two panels of Webster's "Timid Soul" I really like, which seem to capture the exact thing about Caspar Milquetoast that made him so popular in his day. Click on pictures for full-size images.
The second panel, Caspar in the rain, is partially repeated above so you can see Webster's excellent but speedy pen line. His vision of a rainy day is perfectly captured with just a few simple pen-and-ink techniques.Today a person like Caspar would be known as a doormat, but I prefer the name Milquetoast. It just has that special quality to it that perfectly captures what I want to say when I use it.

Ciao for now.

1 comment:

Yvonneable said...

Just found your post today, March 20, 2008--a little late for a response--but wanted to tell you that I enjoyed it very much. Two good photos of Caspar Milquetoast!

Just a little before my time (born in 1935) but still a name I've heard.