Part two of a two-part look at cartoonist Jimmie Frise's life and work.
(Click here to read part one in this two-part series.)
“He proved with his life that life itself can be quite as irrational as the world of cartoons,” Greg Clark wrote of his friend and collaborator Jimmie Frise in a 1965 anthology of the artist’s most famous comic strip, Birdseye Center. “You can become a famous cartoonist without having any art training whatever. You can acquire an immense personal popularity by being the most self-effacing individual in the world. You can be a smashing success in a highly competitive field by cheerfully letting everybody else in the race get ahead of you and trotting along at your own sweet pace.”
Having matured as an artist at the Toronto Star, doing photo touch-ups and spot illustrations after returning from the First World War—as seen in part one—Frise would help build the Star Weekly into a magazine with national readership on the way to becoming a celebrity and the most important cartoonist of his age.
In 1911, J. Herbert Cranston, who’d been a reporter in the small town of Galt, was hired as editor of the recently founded Star Weekly. Because the first editor had failed to find an audience for the fledgling publication as a high-minded review of arts and opinion, Cranston leaned towards popular tastes.
“My instructions from [Star publisher Joseph E.] Atkinson were to produce a weekly paper which would be welcomed in any Canadian home,” Cranston recalled in his autobiography, Ink On My Fingers (Ryerson Press, 1953), “and which would provide a medium for young Canadian writers in addition to publishing material from those who had already made a name for themselves.”
In addition to emphasizing lighter, more entertaining fare, short-fiction, and the abundant use of photographs, Cranston added comic strips to the Star Weekly as early as 1913. With the most popular strips already syndicated in the competition, the Star Weekly initially had to make do with second tier comics like Brick Bodkin’s Pa, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, and The Terrors of the Tiny Tads.
But as the Star Weekly‘s circulation steadily increased from around 20,000 in 1913 to over 122,000 by the summer of 1920, more memorable (but also more expensive) syndicated strips like Bringing up Father and Mutt and Jeff were added.
Looking at W.E. Hill’s half-page, black-and-white strip from the Chicago Tribune, Among Us Mortals, which was also carried in the Star Weekly, Cranston thought that Frise could produce a similar comic of equal quality with a distinctly Canadian slant.
“When I spoke to him about it,” Cranston recalled, “with characteristic modesty he declared it impossible. He said he never could keep it up week after week. But after some urging he agreed to try.”
The hesitant cartoonist started Life’s Little Comedies in 1919, at first replicating Hill’s observational character studies to show everyday scenes in Toronto. Readers were delighted with it, Cranston noted, “but still Frise wasn’t convinced. …Moreover Jim never believed that his work was really good. He would have gladly given it up at any time. He thought we were just being kind.”
Life’s Little Comedies evolved by 1923. Influenced by John T. McCutcheon’s slice-of-life depictions of the fictional midwestern town of Bird Center for the Chicago Tribune—as noted by reader Warren Bernard—Frise turned to a more rural setting in his work, creating Birdseye Center.
“It’s any Canadian village,” was Frise’s common response when pressed about his fictional village’s true identity. “It’s any Canadian village with a hotel, a gasoline station, a barber shop, and a town pump.”
The comic was an escape from the modern age, harkening back to a disappearing rural lifestyle with nostalgic affection in an era when Canada was rapidly urbanizing. The pressures of the real world—the Great Depression or dirt roads being overtaken by superhighways—never clouded life in Birdseye Center. “Birdseye Center has not changed,”‘ Frise once said. “It’s time that’s changed.”
Although the misadventures of country folk (as well as their schemes to get the better of city slickers up for a day of hunting or fishing) were the sources of the comic’s humour, the cartoonist was never mean-spirited. Ridicule would have been beyond the bounds of his genial personality. “His staunchest admirers,” Frise’s obituary in the Star (June 14, 1948) confirmed, “were the country folk who found his gentle caricatures a welcome change from the usual city lampooning of the ruralite.”
Many readers were just like Frise: farm kids transplanted to the metropolis without ever really becoming urbanites. Although for nearly 40 years Frise enjoyed the vices of the city, lounging in billiard halls and gambling on racehorses through an assortment of bookies, Cranston noted, “Jimmy [sic] belonged as much to his native Port Perry as he did the day he left the shores of Lake Scugog.”
“To walk down the street with him meant a dozen halts in a city block while he paused and gaped like a country boy,” Clark wrote of Frise. “Skyscrapers left him cold. Miracles of technology he failed to see. It was the little human being muddling along in the midst who held his immensely alert attention and interest. If the latest masterpiece of the automotive industry came floating down the main street, it was the little guy leaping out of its path who caught Jim’s eye, not the masterpiece.”
He brought this eye for human nature to his work on Birdseye Center, creating an eccentric cast of characters: Pigskin Peters, sporting a bowler and striped shirt; Old Archie, whose pet moose Foghorn wreaked havoc; Ruby Doolittle, and her rotund (and lazy) husband Eli.
Frise’s Birdseye tales were influenced by his childhood around Lake Scugog. But he also drew upon real-life experiences of friends and colleagues. Several cartoons, depicting off-ice shenanigans at village hockey games, grew from Star sports editor Lou Marsh’s comical experiences as a hockey referee at small-town rinks across the province, where he’d be in for trouble if the home team lost.
The Star Weekly comics section kept growing—stretching to 12 pages by 1931—and included many of the most popular syndicated strips of the day like Toots and Casper, Moon Mullins, Gasoline Alley, Barney Google, and Little Orphan Annie. Yet, in 1926, when the Star Weekly conducted a reader poll, it was Birdseye Center that was selected as the favourite comic strip. It hadn’t even been one of the options on the ballot, but a write-in candidate.
At his drawing board, Frise worked at an unhurried pace, procrastinating for much of the week, as frantic editors checked his progress. “Often he would sit and stare for hours at his drawing board,” Cranston remembered. “But the ideas would not come. Or he would make a start and, after some hours of work, tear up what he had done. He was his own keenest critic and not easily satisfied.”
On the other hand, he was also rarely alone in his office. Ad agency execs and small-town newspaper editors were as likely to stop by, according to Clark, as racetrack touts, pool sharks, and vagrants. Frise always found time to stop and converse no matter the visitor’s background. “It is my bet,” Clark added, “that 90 per cent of Frise’s work was done to the accompaniment of idle conversation.”
As a result of the chit-chat, there was always a last-minute rush to meet publication deadlines. He often worked late into the night, then delivered his finished artwork with no time to spare on press day.
Fed up with this weekly bustle, editorial director H.C. Hindmarsh ranted to publisher Joseph E. Atkinson that Frise’s tardiness was costing overtime hours for an army of engraving department foremen, pressmen, and delivery truck drivers. He demanded that Atkinson put his foot down. The tirade over, the publisher calmly replied: “Harry, The Star Weekly does not go to press without Mr. Frise.”
When Frise received his original artwork back from the engraving department, he’d casually stuff it into a cupboard. As the cupboard overflowed, Frise happily gave originals away to any visitor who asked.
“He was oblivious to the possible long-term earning power of his drawings,” Cranston assessed. Some friends speculated that Frise could have made a fortune in the United States, reaping rewards enjoyed by other major syndicated comic strips, like a radio series, comic books, or a film adaptation. But, as Cranston explained, Frise “was a happy Canadian, and he wanted his children to grow up that way.” Nevertheless, he did well enough that his family owned a a home in the well-heeled neighbourhood of Baby Point.
Birdseye Center‘s broad appeal resulted in merchandise like jigsaw puzzles, product endorsements, and the licensing of a themed campground and holiday park on Lake Scugog. Well after Frise’s death, several dozen of his strips were collected into Birdseye Center by Frise (McClelland and Stewart, 1965)—which remains the only major anthology of Frise’s work. Later still, the strip was adapted into a stage musical, called Birdseye Center, written and staged by Port Perry’s Borealians Community Theatre in 1984.
Throughout his career, Frise produced artwork for other purposes. He occasionally contributed single panel editorial cartoons—bringing his inimitable eye to the happenings in the city council chamber—as well as for other publications like The Coupler, the TTC’s in-house magazine. And he was contracted to provide commercial artwork for companies like Supertest, and advertisements for CCM.
In addition to entertaining live audiences with demonstrations at the CNE and blackboard talks around the province, Frise regularly donated artwork for various charities to auction off. During the Second World War, Frise and fellow cartoonist W. Blackwood Law designed Hitler and Mussolini props for the public to target with thrown pots and pans in a drive to collect scrap metal for the war effort.
But Frise’s most important work outside Birdseye was his collaboration with Greg Clark. Their Greg-and-Jim series of stories recounted the pair’s real-life misadventures around town and on their regular hunting and fishing expeditions to cottage country. With folksy humour, Clark merged truth and fiction, embellishing for comedic effect. A fish and hook caught in a woollen sweater sitting on the bottom of a boat, for example, turned into a fish leaping from the water to pull the sweater right off Clark’s back.
“We’ve done all kinds of foolish things,” Frise told The Star upon the release of an anthology of their tales. “We’ve fried eggs on the city hall steps. We caulked my house and flooded the parlor with cement. I once let Greg persuade me to get a steam shovel to do my spring digging and ruined my garden. Perhaps this book is our most foolish adventure.” Always, the pair was the butt of their own jokes.
Each week’s story was accompanied by a full-colour illustration by Frise, exaggerating the partners’ physical features and favoured mode of dress. Like leading comedy duos, Frise was tall and lanky while Clark was short and stocky. “He has taken inches from my stature and added inches to my waist,” Clark once complained. “He has made me into an animated dumpling.” In contrast, Cranston felt Frise “looked more like Greg than Greg does himself.” Indeed, based on these illustrations, Clark and Frise were instantly recognizable celebrities on the street.
Then, at the height of their fame, Clark and Frise quit the Toronto Star. Like other high profile writers—Gordon Sinclair and Matthew Halton among them—Clark and Frise tired of working under Hindmarsh who Clark had once dubbed “the most unpleasant man I ever knew.” Although these artists had helped build the Star Weekly from its early years into a national publication with a readership of one million or more by the mid-1940s, Hindmarsh resented the personal fame of the paper’s bylined personalities and wanted to cut them down to size.
Clark also held a grudge against Hindmarsh for how he and his family had been treated when, with Clark acting as an overseas correspondent during the Second World War, an emergency struck his family. He felt betrayed by the organization to which he’d shown so much loyalty. Frise had his own set of grievances—particularly the way the Star had mistreated long-time employees and forced several retirements.
The two talked it over in 1946 and agreed to leave at the first opportunity. “They felt they had no future security with the Star Weekly,” Cranston, who had himself been forced out of the editor’s desk by Hindmarsh over a decade earlier, assessed.
Recalling an offer received years before, Clark contacted John McConnell, the publisher of the Montreal Standard (later known as the Weekend Magazine) another weekly that trailed far behind the Star Weekly in readership.
Meeting the Standard‘s management in Montreal in late 1946, Clark and Frise were offered roughly the same wages they were making in Toronto—a salary of $125 per week with an additional $50 for expenses. But, as Ross Harkness writes in J.E. Atkinson of the Star (University of Toronto Press, 1963), McConnell offered something the Star would never have allowed. The Standard would arrange for the syndication of Birdseye Center in American papers and would share in the syndication income.
The duo tendered their resignations on Christmas Eve. “Aren’t you going to give us a chance to bid?” the editor asked. “Mr. Hindmarsh,” Frise responded, “you have nothing to bid with.”
Unfortunately, the Star retained the copyright to the Birdseye Center title and Frise had to reinvent it as Juniper Junction. It was also now a full-colour comic strip, which had long been an ambition of Frise’s. The first Greg-and-Jim story for their new employer appeared in the February 8, 1947, issue. Once again the presence of Clark and Frise began to spur broad circulation growth for the struggling publication.
Within a year and a half, however, Frise was dead. He had a heart attack, at the age of 57, in his Toronto home on June 13, 1948. Hearing the news, Clark telephoned Cranston: “A great gentleman has passed on.” Cranston agreed. He was buried at Toronto’s Prospect Cemetery.
For a while, Clark continued writing tales similar to the Greg-and-Jim stories, replacing Frise with a series of folksy characters modelled on friends and acquaintances. Duncan Macpherson, then a college student, was contracted as a freelancer to provide accompanying artwork, albeit in an entirely different style from Frise. Clark eventually moved on to writing on other topics.
Doug Wright, an English-born artist who’d served with the Royal Canadian Air Force during the war, was hired for the difficult task of taking over Frise’s Juniper Junction. Quickly, the cartoon’s focus became the local garage, emblematic of Wright’s love of cars, as artist Seth explains in Todd Hignite’s In the Studio: Visits with Contemporary Cartoonists (Yale University Press, 2007). The modern age crept into Frise’s tiny rural village. This signalled, radio host Stuart McLean suggests, a broader shift in setting for Canadian comic strips towards the suburbs—as seen in Wright’s long-running Nipper and even Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse.
As a cartoonist, Frise’s influence stretched far. And Clark, perhaps his closest friend, provides an apt summation of his personal character:
He was an original, unbendable, bemused, rapt, lovable guy in love with the gentleness and decency of life amid all the storm and rage. Doing what comes naturally was all he ever did, and it gave a whole generation of thirty years smiles and laughter and never a soul hurt in all that time.
Additional sources consulted: Carlos Baker, Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969); John Bell, Invaders from the North (Dundurn, 2006); William Burrill, Hemingway: The Toronto Years (Doubleday Canada Limited, 1994); Jock Carroll, The Life and Times of Greg Clark (Doubleday Canada Limited, 1981); J.H. Cranston, Ink On My Fingers (Ryerson Press, 1953); Mike Filey, Toronto Sketches 7 (Dundurn, 2003); Jimmie Frise, Birdseye Center by Frise (McClelland and Stewart, 1965); The First Great War As Seen By Jimmy Frise (Think Ink, 1972); Ross Harkness, J.E. Atkinson of the Star (University of Toronto Press, 1963); and articles from the Toronto Star (May 5 & 6, 1921; April 29 and August 26, 1930; April 1, August 28, September 8, 11 & 12 and December 7, 1931; July 23 and August 26, 1932; November 14, 1933; December 16 & 18, 1935; March 5 and May 30, 1936; November 6, 1937; September 6, 1941; May 1, 1946; December 23, 1948; February 3 &4 and June 18, 1977; November 24, 1979; October 16, 1984; May 18, 1992; May 6, 1993; December 28, 1995; November 5, 2002; May 24, 2009), Globe and Mail (January 15, 1947; May 1, 1957; June 12, 1975; October 8, 1981; May 21, 1984), and Vancouver Sun (June 6, 2009).