Brian Walker called Harold Gray “The Master Storyteller of the Comics.” Whether or not you agree with that assessment of the controversial cartoonist, there is no denying that his creation, Little Orphan Annie, is firmly ingrained in American pop culture. That makes Harold Gray an important part of comics history.
Gray was born June 20, 1894, on a farm near Kankakee, Illinois. As a boy, he sold front-page cartoons to the Lafayette (Indiana) Journal. He put himself through Purdue University with construction jobs. After graduating, he became a $15-per-week cub reporter and then an art department handyman at the Chicago Tribune, where he worked before and after serving in World War I.
In 1920, Sidney Smith hired Gray as his assistant on “The Gumps.” During his time on that feature, Gray began to dream of having a strip of his own. He sketched characters and imagined situations for them. Ideas were followed by rejections from the boss, Captain Joseph Patterson.
Then, one day, Gray showed the captain a drawing of a small male orphan that he called Little Orphan Otto. Patterson said, “The kid looks like a pansy to me. Put a skirt on him and we’ll call it ‘Little Orphan Annie.’” Gray modeled his now-female protagonist after silent-film star Mary Pickford and then worked with Patterson on the initial storyline.
On August 5, 1924, “Little Orphan Annie” went out to meet the world. A December ad summarized it as “the comic strip Cinderella, the great child story of the ages—the story of the little girl who accepts the frowns of fortune with fortitude and the smiles of fortune with grace and kindliness.”
The first strip had plucky little Annie, in an orphanage run by the nasty Miss Asthma, slug a boy who was teasing her. Two months later, she met wealthy munitions manufacturer “Daddy” Warbucks, who became her on again-off again benefactor. In January ’25, she adopted a startlingly intelligent canine named Sandy. These events set up the main cast of the series.
The strip gained a devoted following among newspaper readers. On October 27, 1925, the Tribune omitted “Annie” from the comics pages. Outraged fans flooded the paper with calls, letters, and telegrams. The paper ran a front-page apology the next day.
In the 30s, the strip switched from predictable melodramas to adventure yarns full of danger, intrigue, and fantasy. Most of the time, Annie had to get herself out of whatever dangers she encountered, with only the help of faithful Sandy. The dangers ranged from urban gang warfare to rural murder plots, and Annie’s presence was always the deciding factor in favor of courage and virtue. Gray once described Annie as “tougher than hell, with a heart of gold and a fast left, who can take care of herself because she has to.”
Critics called the strip’s style “primitive,” “awkward,” and “mediocre.” Gray admitted his artistic skills were limited. But Brian Walker praised Gray’s artistic strengths. “Gray made effective use of cross-hatching, and his liberally applied blacks and background shading provided an ominous sense of foreboding. At times, Annie’s famous empty eyes could be remarkably expressive; in other situations, readers saw the world through her vacant stare.”
Gray was often criticized for the politically conservative diatribes that he put in the mouths of his characters. He unabashedly promoted his own beliefs: he hated pretension, intolerance, abuse of power, censorship, and governmental intervention. He railed against FDR’s New Deal and the labor unions. He praised farmers, shopkeepers, and factory workers. He championed self-reliance.
When “Li’l Abner” creator Al Capp met him in the 30s, Gray said, “Take my advice and buy a house in the country. Build a wall around it. And get ready to protect yourself. The way things are going, people who earn their living someday are going to have to fight off the bums.”
To keep himself from getting in an artistic rut, Gray annually traveled 40,000 miles around the country, keeping his ear to the ground. However, in later years, he seemed out of step with the times, but he stuck to his beliefs until the end, which came on May 9, 1968.
Al Capp once praised Gray as “a sharper observer of American trends, a truer prophet of America’s future than Walter Lippmann. He created characters that have endured longer than Upton Sinclair’s. He drew better pictures, in his seventies, than Picasso did.”
ARF! The Life and Hard Times of Little Orphan Annie, by Harold Gray, Arlington House, New York, 1970
The Art of the Funnies, by Robert C. Harvey, University Press of Mississippi, 1994
Comic Art in America, by Stephen Becker, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1959
The Comics, by Brian Walker, Abrams, New York, 2002
The Great American Comic Strip, by Judith O’Sullivan, Bulfinch Press, Boston, 1990