Polly and Her Pals 1933

Polly and Her Pals 1933 reprints that year’s worth of the daily comic strip often described as surreal. Without the Sundays, you won’t see cartoonist Cliff Sterrett’s most imaginative layouts, but the characters and situations are still funny, if not as artistically accomplished in the smaller space.

It’s in the Library of American Comics Essentials format, which means the book is short and wide, the shape of a comic strip, with each day’s entry getting a full page. The series editor, Dean Mullaney, explains in his Preface that they wanted to attempt to reproduce the experience of reading one day at a time. There’s also a text piece by Bruce Canwell about the Maine artists’ colony where Sterrett moved in the 1920s.

The paper stock is soft newsprint, which while evocative, unfortunately feels dangerous. Since the pages are so long, I worried that I’d accidentally tear one while trying to turn it. It’s a big change from the previous oversized IDW volume reprinting the earlier Sunday Polly and Her Pals pages.

The strips follow an interesting pattern, with one topic played in various humorous ways for two weeks’ time. Although titled after Polly, a flapper, the real star is her Paw, goofy older guy who kvetches about most everything in modern life. We start with Polly getting an aquarium, so there’s a fortnight of fish jokes. There’s a fresh air campaign, a mind-reading yogi (who turns the annoying little girl Angel invisible), a temporarily adopted dog, and Polly’s cousin Del being wooed. Paw gets frustrated when the house is painted, and he tries to convince Maw to let him buy a new car. One of my favorites was when the women started wearing pants, which drove Paw batty while they called him old-fashioned.

There’s an astonishing vitality to the characters, with these strips just as fun to read now as they must have been 80 years ago. The cartooning is impressive in how exaggerated and yet how readable the actions are. Sterrett even manages to draw an invisible girl and make her presence visible through absence. I also found it fun to see how daily life took place back then, and how many of the family’s squabbles are timeless.

It would have been helpful to have had a cast sheet included in the book’s opening. Although most of the characters, part of Polly’s family, either have their roles made clear through reading or the specifics don’t really matter, I’m still not sure exactly how they’re all related or what their names are. They’re mostly women, cousins and such, except for a nephew.

There is an even larger caveat, something you should know before buying the book that LoAC didn’t make customers aware of. As with so much other popular culture from that time period, the racial stereotypes are atrocious. The family’s black housekeeper, Liza, is drawn as a gollywog, with frizzy hair and clownishly huge lips. There’s also an Asian houseboy, Neewah.

It gets worse. Much of the second half of the book consists of the family buying and moving to a farm. When Paw complains about chickens being too expensive to buy, the “colored man” Cocoa starts stealing them. No one else realizes it at first, though, because they all think he’s too lazy and ignorant. This is a horrible storyline, and one most readers today will be disgusted by. I wish there had been a note to the effect of apologizing for this, or at least noting that the attitudes are historical but wrong.

The last storyline, a holiday-themed series where all the characters are turned into dolls by Santa Claus to remind them of the fun of Christmas, is the weirdest in the book. (That’s the source of the cover images.) It’s a terrific note to end on and a real demonstration of Sterrett’s skill, keeping the characterizations in more restrictive visuals. I hope for future years of Polly and Her Pals, since I’d love to read more with these characters and Sterrett’s humor.

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