“[Reg Smythe] is the most popular English humorist with Americans since Charles Dickens.” -
- Al Capp, creator of Li’l Abner, Saturday Evening Post, March/April 1973.
“If Reg was born in America, he would be a legend.”
Ken Layson, former Mirror cartoon editor.
“Oh Andy Capp, you wife-beating drunk. Heh heh heh.”
Homer Simpson, Marge vs The Monorail, January 14, 1993.
Reg Smythe was the greatest British newspaper strip cartoonist of the 20th Century – and second only to Peanuts’ Charles Schulz on a global scale. So why don’t we treat him that way?
Smythe invented Andy Capp for the Daily Mirror in 1957, personally writing, drawing, inking and lettering every line of the 15,000 Andy cartoons he produced over the following 40 years. When he died in 1998, the strip was syndicated to 1,700 newspapers – 1,000 in America alone – translated into 14 languages and read by a combined audience of 250 million people in 52 countries round the world. (1)
Andy’s adventures have inspired a West End musical still revived today, a UK television series starring James Bolam in the title role and a 1973 book using Andy’s antics to interpret the Gospels. His face has been used to sell not only the crisps, canned beer and homebrew kits you’d expect, but also cookbooks, boxer shorts, Royal Doulton figurines, phonecards, disposable cameras and babies’ bibs.
He’s known as Tuffa Viktor in Sweden, Charlie Kappl in Austria and and Willi Wacker in Germany, where FC Nuremberg fans have made him their mascot. In every nation, readers greet him as one of their own, as a 1960s editorial in Istanbul’s Hareket Gazetesi was quick to recognise. “Andy is as much Turkish as he is English,” the editor wrote. “And he is probably Greek, Italian and Polish too.” (2)
Smythe’s successors at the Mirror have published over 4,000 new Andy Capp strips of their own since 1998, continue to enjoy a global syndication of over 1,500 titles and are currently discussing plans for an animated series on British TV. Just a few months ago, in March 2012, Andy became an unlikely spokesman for the British Government’s Change4Life campaign, which sponsored a month’s worth of strips showing his attempts to reform.
Andy’s fans have remained fiercely loyal to the character since Smythe’s death, as Paul Baker, the editor of Pennsylvania’s Lebanon Daily News, found when he accidentally omitted one of the new team’s strips from his paper’s March 1, 2010 edition. The result was a flood of what he called “profanity-laced attacks” from readers threatening never to buy the paper again.
“Who knew a comic strip could mean so much to so many?” Baker asked as the calls subsided. “Particularly this comic strip, set in a foreign milieu and celebrating the life of a character who’s not very likeable?” (3)
Fifty-five years after that 1957 debut, then, Andy is still as unrepentantly alive as ever. That’s a remarkable achievement for any newspaper strip, but all the more so for one that’s not been able to rely on the cute children and animals of a Peanuts or a Garfield for any part of its success.
Andy in his day has been a wife-beater, an habitual drunk, a 40-a-day smoker, a long-term welfare scrounger, a gambler, a cheat, a bully and a liar. That severely limits his appeal as a subject for heart-warming Christmas TV specials, children’s birthday cards or corporate branding campaigns, and yet the strip has still found its way to the very top tier of global success.
Along the way, Smythe proved himself a far more subtle, innovative and stylish cartoonist than he’s generally given credit for. His peers have always recognised this, however, and by 1974, Smythe had won the highest awards his profession could offer on both sides of the Atlantic. Whether you look at the statistics that chart his success or the sheer skill and consistency of the strips he produced, all his British competitors are left in the dust. Even on the global stage, his equals can be counted on one hand. (4)
Some strips today, it is true, syndicate to more newspapers than even Andy at his peak. Garfield, Peanuts and Blondie all claim over 2,000 titles worldwide, and Hagar The Horrible is close behind with 1,900. Of these strips, though, neither Hagar nor Garfield can boast anything like Andy’s longevity, Hagar having so far racked up only 39 years and Garfield just 34. If we restrict the field to strips drawn by their original creator, Hagar drops still further out of contention, as Dik Browne died and was replaced by his son after only 16 years on the strip. (5-8)
That leaves just Peanuts and Blondie, and here I must admit the statistics have Andy beat. Chic Young began Blondie in 1930, writing and drawing the strip right up to his death in 1973, when his son Dean took over. That gives Chic a 43-year tenure, edging out Smythe’s 41, and Blondie a total lifespan to date of 82 years against Andy’s 55. The 47 countries where Blondie runs and 35 languages it’s been translated into are equally impressive. Personally, I think you’d find it hard to argue that Young’s work is anything like as elegant or as funny as Smythe’s, but you certainly can’t deny his success.
For me, then, the real comparison is between Andy Capp and Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. Peanuts ended with Schulz’s death in 2000, by which time he’d produced close to 18,000 Peanuts strips over a fifty-year span, but has continued in reruns ever since. (9)
Schulz, like Smythe, wrote and drew every line of his strip personally, and continued doing so for over four decades without ever letting the standard drop. Both men struck out in bravely original directions with their chosen strips, Schulz by reflecting 1950s America’s growing obsession with psycho-analysis, and Smythe by offering a brutal kitchen-sink realism many years before British film or television plucked up the courage to do so.
Peanuts beats Andy on any measure you care to take, whether that be creator’s tenure, syndication reach, total readership, merchandising income, international sales or adaptions in other media. But the truly remarkable thing is that Smythe holds his place in that league at all. Even without the cuddly firepower of Snoopy, Woodstock and the rest to exploit in the mass market, he took Andy to the very top of this hugely-competitive tree, and maintained his place there alongside Schulz for over 40 years. Achieving that level of success with a foreign strip in the vast American market makes him even more remarkable.
And so – I repeat – why don’t we treat him that way?
Schulz fans can buy Fantagraphics’ beautifully-designed Complete Peanuts hardbacks – currently 17 books into their full 25-volume set – which reprint every single one of the strips chronologically, in crisp perfection, complete with an index to help you find your favourites and affectionate introductions by the likes of Jonathan Franzen and Whoopi Goldberg.
Andy’s fans must scrabble around on the internet for second-hand copies of Smythe’s 62 paperback collections, all of which are now out of print. There’s no guarantee any volume will present its strips in proper chronological order, and they contain no supporting information whatsoever. The books appear in four different formats, are consistently numbered for less than half the run, and – as I can testify - getting harder to find every day. About half the strips published in Andy’s first 25 years don’t appear in the collections anyway. (10)
It’s the same story wherever you look. Schulz had a brand new biography published in 2007 (his second), while the only substantial source on Smythe’s life remains a relatively brief essay in Les Lilley’s 1990 collection The World of Andy Capp – also out-of-print, by the way.
Schulz was born and raised in the twin city of Minneapolis/St Paul, where he has a collection of Peanuts statues mounted in a public park, an ice hockey arena named after him and – until 2006 – a full-scale Snoopy theme park at the Mall of America. The only structure honouring Smythe in his native Hartlepool is a 2007 statue of Andy on the Headland, which looks nothing like him and took the council nearly a decade of timid mithering to organise.
No-one expects Smythe’s memory to be honoured with quite the same degree of razzamatazz the Americans give Schulz – that’s simply not the way we do things in this country – but he certainly deserves more recognition than he gets right now. I hope this essay will go some way towards demonstrating what a truly great cartoonist he was, and how unjust it would be to dismiss his strip as a mere relic.
Let’s start with Homer Simpson’s charge that Andy is no more than a “wife-beating drunk”, and consider the single most objectionable cartoon Reg Smythe ever drew.
Flo’s sitting on the living room floor in housedress and pinny, her frowning expression flushed with anger. The table next to her has been tipped over, throwing a cup and saucer to the ground and breaking the saucer into six pieces. A nearby picture has been knocked askance by whatever force landed Flo and the table where they now are.
Andy stands over her with one hand thrust casually into his trouser pocket and the other leaning against the wall. He’s looking Flo straight in the eye, and the smile on his open mouth suggests he thinks this is all pretty funny. “Look at it this way, honey,” he says. “I’m a man of few pleasures and one of them ‘appens to be knockin’ yer about.”
That cartoon appeared in the Daily Mirror on August 20, 1957, just two weeks after the first Andy Capp of them all. Andy was then a single-panel cartoon, appearing only in the paper’s North-of-England edition, and would not get national publication until the following April. Seeing the drawing today, you can’t help but gasp at the casual cruelty it portrays, yet it was thought so uncontroversial at the time that the Mirror chose it to open Andy’s very first collection.
Lawrence Goldsmith is one of the three-strong team chronicling Andy’s adventures today. “It’s an absolutely hideous cartoon,” he told me when I raised this particular gag. “But it was perfectly acceptable at the time.” (11)
“Some of my early Andy ideas were very naïve,” Smythe admitted when discussing this cartoon with the journalist Les Lilley in 1990. “Good God! It seems horrible now!” In another interview, he adds: “That was a dreadful cartoon, and it was terribly naïve of me to have done it. He was too savage, a proper bully.” (12)
We may be shocked by such jokes today, but readers of the 1950s took them in their stride. Sean Garnett, Goldsmith’s writing partner on the strip, first read Andy as a child, but revisited many of the early collections when he and Goldsmith took over in 2011.