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George Luks:

A Comics Pioneer

George Luks c.1910

George Luks (1866-1933) has been the subject of numerous exhibitions and essays as an acclaimed member of “the Eight” or “Ashcan school” of American realist artists working in New York and Philadelphia around the turn of the 20th century. His other graphic works, however, for books, newspapers and magazines have remained largely sidelined by the art world, in a similar way that certain lofty critics have ignored the Sunday Funnies by Lyonel Feininger, focussing only on his later Bauhaus career.

Luks has not fared a great deal better at the hands of most comics historians, who have tended to celebrate Richard F. Outcault as the more important originator of The Yellow Kid and marginalise the contributions of Luks, his successor, who continued with his own version of Hogan’s Alley, after Outcault was lured from Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World to William Randolph Hearst’s more lucrative New York Journal.

It is not uncommon for the output of comic strip creators who take on another’s major oeuvre to be minimised, from Leslie Turner on Captain Easy or George Wunder on Terry And The Pirates. For example, Bill Blackbeard’s collection of R.F. Outcault’s The Yellow Kid reprints only two examples of Luks’ version, while Brian Walker’s The Comics Before 1945, presents only one. Newspaper strip cartoonist Coulton Waugh in his pioneering 1947 history The Comics gives some due credit to Luks’ “exceedingly capable imitation of Outcault’s mannerisms”, but asserts that he “...never quite arrived at the true, low-down vulgarity of Outcault”. Moreover, while Waugh acknowledges Luks’  importance in the fine arts, he comments that, “As a cartoonist, Luks had a short career….”

The Victoria Jubilee Celebration In Hogan’s Alley:
Queen Liz Reviews The Parade And The Kid Is Knighted.
Click image to enlarge.

In Life On The Press: The Popular Art & Illustration of George Benjamin Luks, Robert L. Gambone corrects this misconception and raises Luks’ reputation, not only on The Yellow Kid from October 1886 but as a significant, engaged, socially-aware illustrator, cartoonist and reporter across more than forty years. Gambone devotes a forty-seven-page chapter and thirteen reproductions to Luks’ five months of Hogan’s Alley episodes and provides some fascinating close readings of these and many more which are sadly not illustrated. His analyses reveal the many topical references and subtexts which drove Luks’ politics and concerns for New York City’s underclasses.

It is unfortunate that this book’s small format and black-and-white printing preclude showing these highly detailed half- and full-page cartoons, teeming with streetwise characters and dense with lettering, signage and commentaries, at a larger size and in their glorious original colours. It is also a shame that most are marred by thin lines, perhaps due to microfilm or poor reproduction sources. The two colour examples posted here come from crumbling originals in my collection dated 20 June 1897, which were kindly scanned by Guy Lawley and Andy Konky Kru.

Uncle Remus’s Decoy Chicken “Mose” In Full Action In The Barnyard.
Click image to enlarge.

Gambone contrasts the two simultaneously published versions of The Yellow Kid, hailing the fresh characters which Luks introduced, such as his sidekick Baldy Sours and the cheeky little twins Alex and George, reminiscent of Snitch and Snatch in Dudley Watkins’ Lord Snooty and His Pals. He also asserts that Luks was often both a bolder lampooner of New York society and a greater sympathizer with the chaotic, spontaneous slum kids he was portraying than Outcault.

Despite his empathy, Luks’ portrayals of racial stereotypes are problematic and Gambone critiques especially the caricatured African Americans in his own later creation between 1897-98, Mose the Trained Chicken. Underlining the endemic racism of the period, Gambone puts these prejudices into context, notably revealing the struggling teenage artist’s tours performing as a blackface vaudeville act.

Luks did not abandon illustration once painting brought him success and Gambone goes into equal depth into his work on The Verdict, Vanity Fair and New Yorker. He is also frank about Luks’ lifestyle, from his European trips to study paintings by the masters to his addiction to drink and his tragic death in a drunken brawl. Gambone finally gives us a fully-rounded portrait of both the artist and the man.

Posted: January 30, 2011

A version of this article first appeared in The Journal Of Graphic Novels & Comics #2 in 2010. With thanks to Guy Lawley and Andy Konky Kru for the scans.


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Featured Books

Life On The Press:
The Popular Art & Illustration Of
George Benjamin Luks

by Robert L. Gambone
(University Press of Mississippi, 2009)

R.F. Outcault’s
The Yellow Kid

by Bill Blackbeard
(Kitchen Sink Press, 1995)

The Comics Before 1945
by Brian Walker
(Abrams, 2004)