Dear Orphan Annie:
Why cartoon characters get all the best mail

By Jeet Heer,
Boston Globe Ideas (September 15, 2002).

In 1948, a 15-year-old boy in Pennsylvania named John Updike wrote a fan letter to Harold Gray, the creator of "Little Orphan Annie." Describing "Annie" as "my favorite comic strip," Updike went on to astutely celebrate its many virtues. "Your draughtmanship is beyond reproach. The drawing is simple and clear, but extremely effective . . . . The facial features, the big, blunt-fingered hands, the way you handle light and shadows are all excellently done."

When reminded of this forgotten scrap of literary history, which I unearthed recently in the Special Collections at Boston University (subsequently renamed the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center), Updike was slightly embarrassed at his youthful enthusiasm. "My goodness, what a gabby 15-year-old I was, shamelessly courting the venerable Harold Gray," he observed.

But Updike was hardly the only besotted fan compelled to declare his affections for Annie and her creator in writing. Although the strip is usually associated these days with a rather sappy musical, his letter recalls the era when it flourished as a widely-read — and hotly controversial — comic strip. During its heyday under Gray, who drew the strip until his death in 1968, "Little Orphan Annie" combined the mass appeal of The Simpsons with the conservative politics of Rush Limbaugh. While Republican politicians as varied as Clare Boothe Luce and Jesse Helms publicly praised Orphan Annie for embodying rock-ribbed American values, liberal publications such as The New Republic denounced her attacks on the welfare state and celebration of capitalism as "fascism in the funnies."

Yet, as Updike's letter makes clear, Gray's bare-knuckled politics were only one dimension of Orphan Annie's appeal. Although some readers enjoyed the strip's political message, many more were attracted by the trenchant, diagrammatic clarity of Gray's art and storytelling. All told, the carrot topped waif received as many as 300 letters a week. Reading through the 4,000-odd letters ranging from 1937 to 1968 preserved in 100-odd boxes in BU's Harold Gray collection, you quickly discover that the comics were once the liveliest pages in a newspaper; they occupied a spot where politics and aesthetics formed an unexpected alliance.

On the surface, "Little Orphan Annie" seems like the essence of wholesomeness. After all, it described the adventures of a feisty little girl in a red dress and her dog, Sandy. Yet from the beginning the strip's storylines were governed by an overriding political allegory. In the first installments, Annie is shown as a poor, hard-working orphan who is mistreated by liberal reformers who claim to want to help her, most notably the cruel Mrs. Asthma, who runs the orphanage.

In her struggle to survive, Annie has to guard against social workers, demagogic politicians, and other false friends until she is rescued by her adopted father "Daddy" Warbucks, a two-fisted businessman who, as his name indicates, made his fortune selling armaments. In the world of Gray's comic strip, capitalism is a girl's best friend.

Born in 1894 in Kankakee, Ill., Gray was shaped politically by his hardscrabble rural background. As Bruce Smith noted in his intelligent "History of Little Orphan Annie" (1982), "Gray was a man who had plowed fields with a team of horses at the age of nine, and worked his way through college digging ditches. That kind of gritty determination had brought him great success and a lot of money." After graduating from Purdue University in 1917 and serving in World War I, Gray worked as a freelance newspaper cartoonist until he sold his "Little Orphan Annie" concept to the New York Daily News in 1924.

A staunch believer in the virtues of unfettered free enterprise, Gray was happy to use his strip to attack those he regarded as leading the country down the road to communism. As he wrote to a politically sympathetic reader in 1952, "I . . . have despised Roosevelt and his socialist, or creeping communist, policies since 1932, and said so in my stuff, so far as I was allowed to do so. I despise Truman's efforts to carry on the socialization and eventual communizing of this country. I hate professional do-gooders with other people's money."

The "do-gooders" that Gray hated were constantly mocked as cynical agitators, snide bohemian intellectuals, pointy-headed college professors, sadistic social workers, officious government bureaucrats and corrupt union leaders ? a full panoply of anti-New Deal stereotypes. One particularly memorable villain in the strip was a callous child welfare official named Mrs. Bleating-Hart, who intones pious liberal sentiments while plotting to kill Annie's beloved dog.

If liberals criticized the ideology of Annie, conservatives recognized Gray as one of their own. In 1970, Arlington House, the publishing arm of the Conservative Book Club, published a 700-page volume detailing the adventures of "America's most widely read conservative . . . LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE." National Review ran ads for the book and more than once commended the "frankly conservative" message found in Gray's strip.

Gray's career coincided with the heyday of serial storytelling; appropriately, he wrapped his political message in suspenseful installments that drew audiences into a world of intrigue and danger. Many letters of concern over the safety of Annie and Sandy testify to Gray's ability to keep readers interested. "Dear Little Orphan Annie," one charming letter reads. "Just a little note to warn you. In the last picture of the Sunday paper three men are watching you from behind a tree. So be careful."

Another reader, writing in 1933, was so urgently concerned for Annie's safety that he sent a telegram: "PLEASE DO ALL YOU CAN TO HELP ANNIE FIND SANDY. STOP. WE ARE ALL INTERESTED. HENRY FORD."

In his letter to Gray, the young John Updike praised the melodramatic clarity of the comic strip. "Your villains are completely black and Annie and crew are practically perfect, which is as it should be. To me there is nothing more annoying in a strip than to be in the dark as to who is the hero and who the villain," Updike wrote. "One of my happiest moments was spent in gloating over some hideous child (I forgot his name) who had been annoying Annie [and] toppled into the wet cement of a dam being constructed."

Updike's friend and fellow writer Cynthia Ozick, whose short stories and idiosyncratic essays frequently grace The New Yorker, wasn't as big a fan of Gray's spirited moppet. As she recalls, Ozick found Orphan Annie's "hollow eyes" to be "spooky." However, she did admire another comic strip, Milton Caniff's "Terry and the Pirates." In 1944, while a student at Hunter College High School, the 14-year-old Ozick wrote to Caniff, asking him questions for an article for the school newspaper before bursting into bubbling praise. "Of course, this ought to be strictly a business letter but I cannot help but make it appear more than a little 'fan-ish' too!" Ozick wrote. "I'm a Caniff admirer, worshiper, starer-at, gazer-upon, etc. Even in the middle of the early morning subway rush, it always happens that the gentleman nearest to me is devouring 'Terry' . . . and so am I, over his shoulder! In fact, I read and reread it a dozen times a day, more and more enthusiastically!" (Ozick's letter can be found in the Milton Caniff collection at the Cartoon Research Library of Ohio State University.)

Like Updike, Ozick is now somewhat embarrassed by her youthful ardor. "I'm slightly suspicious of my motives in writing that letter," Ozick says. "A lot of the ideas for our school newspaper were generated in weekly meetings, so perhaps I was carrying out an assignment."

As budding writers, Updike and Ozick seem to have read their favorite comic strips for lessons in the fashioning of narratives. However, most of the letters sent to Gray dealt with more mundane matters: Why don't your characters have eyeballs? Why does Annie always wear the same red dress? Why doesn't Annie grow older? As one fan wrote, "I have been reading Orphan Annie in the St. Louis Globe Democrat for a number of years, and it seems to me that children grow up, meaning that Orphan Annie should be a young lady by now. I think it would be more interesting to the readers, but instead you always have her the same. I hope I am not being too bold in this suggestion. I think it would be fun to see Annie fall in love with some nice boy and have her problems just as real people do in life, by that I mean have a few quarrels with her boy friend, and make up again, etc."

Gray also received many letters asking for his autograph or some original art.

While such nonpolitical fan mail makes up most of the material in the Gray archive, more ideologically-charged letters make up nearly a third. (By contrast, Caniff received almost no political letters from readers of "Terry and the Pirates," even though his strip also dealt with such real-world topics as American isolationism. Perhaps because Caniff was a moderate liberal who supported American intervention in Asia, his politics did not provoke much response in the New Deal era.)

Gray's political messages were perhaps most direct during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. When FDR ran on the slogan of the "New Deal," Gray had Warbucks promise his workers "a square deal" - good working conditions that made unions superfluous. In 1944, when Roosevelt ran for an unprecedented fourth term, Warbucks declared that America no longer had room for rugged individuals, and then suddenly died of a mysterious ailment. When Roosevelt himself died the following year, Warbucks promptly came back to life, chortling over the fact that "the climate here has changed."

Given his blunt political messages, Gray naturally received letters from people who didn't care for Annie but liked his attacks on Roosevelt. One reader wrote: "May I congratulate you on your recent Orphan Annie series. We who take our funnies along with the rest of the news have had New Deal propaganda forced down our throats time innumerable . . . . However, much as I have disliked Orphan Annie in the past (I have always disliked anyone who was too perfect to make a mistake), this puts her high on my 'must read' list."

Many leading right-wingers were enthusiastic "Orphan Annie" readers. In 1943, the congresswoman, socialite, and playwright Clare Boothe Luce praised Gray's attacks on Roosevelt. Nearly two decades later Jesse Helms, then working as a radio broadcaster, praised Orphan Annie for defying "gangsters" and "Communists" and "standing up for the things she believed to be right, the principles that Daddy Warbucks had taught her."

There were also letters from people who liked Annie but couldn't stand Gray's politics. One reader wrote, "For many years I have been a follower and admirer of Little Orphan Annie but recently your thinly disguised Anti-administration or Republican party propaganda . . . is getting pretty hard to stomach. You should know that Roosevelt has been the greatest friend ever to the wholesome people Annie has mostly associated with if not rich [people like] Warbucks."

One of the readers who enjoyed "Little Orphan Annie" despite its politics was the young Pete Hamill, who devoured the strip in the then-Republican New York Daily News, even though his family preferred more progressive newspapers. In 1949, the 14-year-old Hamill wrote Gray, saying that "Little Orphan Annie still is without a doubt the best strip in Brooklyn, New York, and the U.S. The dialogue and plot are tops and your original style of drawing is inimitable."

Now a liberal columnist for the Daily News, Hamill still has fond memories of Orphan Annie. "Harold Gray did not respond," Hamill notes. "I suspect that he was overwhelmed with mail in those days, some of it attacking his right-wing politics, but also because he was doing such marvelous work. The Gray style was amazingly powerful. All those mysterious angular figures, the arches and tunnels, the deep solid blacks. There was nothing like that before Gray and there's been nothing like it since."

Gray rarely responded personally to Annie's fan mail. Like many cartoonists of his era, he made up a standardized card to send to fans. Updike recalls getting an image of Annie with a personal comment written in a talk balloon.

Art has a way of surviving the controversies that surround it. Today, many of the political battles that Little Orphan Annie fought are remembered only in the history books, but she and her fellow comic-strip characters continue to linger in the cultural consciousness as a sensuous aesthetic memory.

"I can't remember the moment when I fell in love with cartoons, I was so young," Updike recalls. "I still have a Donald Duck book, on oilclothy paper in big-print format, and remember a smaller, cardboard-covered book based on the animated cartoon 'Three Little Pigs.' It was the intense stylization of those images, with their finely-brushed outlines and their rounded and buttony furniture, and their faces so curiously amalgamated of human and animal elements, that drew me in, into a world where I, child though I was, loomed as a king, and where my parents and other grown-ups were strangers."

Before he became a writer, Updike was an aspiring cartoonist, and he still remembers with pride earning five dollars from a dairyman's journal for "a cartoon of a milk truck with a running cow instead of a greyhound on it." As an undergraduate at Harvard in the early 1950s Updike did many cartoons for the campus humor magazine, The Harvard Lampoon. Although these youthful drawings displayed a certain charm, Updike quickly decided that his forte was in prose, not illustration.

"One can continue to cartoon, in a way, with words," Updike notes. "For whatever crispness and animation my writing has I give some credit to the cartoonist manqué."