The second volume in IDW Publishing’s ongoing reprint of the comic strip Little Orphan Annie ends in a familiar place: Just after the 1929 stock market crash, a small-town bank goes under because of wild gambles made with other people’s money.
As America moved into the 1930s, the travails of the plucky, indomitable orphan girl had eerie resonance and relevance. While not a particularly funny funny, Annie can be read as a bitter comedy in which implacable fate batters one poor girl with more trouble than any reasonable providence could deem possible. The strip’s stock moment is Annie’s recurring reunion with adoptive father Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks, who is always leaving her in some situation where his constant attention is required, but then getting scuttled in the Far East, sucked away in some complex and impenetrable business shenanigan, or left for dead under implausible pulp-magazine circumstances. Annie is then left to hit the streets again. She’s the kind of girl who gets to run away and join the circus (yay!), then become a trapeze apprentice and break her back (boo!). Spoiler: She gets better.
The strip, launched in 1924, quickly became a huge success and a pop culture landmark. It was also one of the few popular voices raised in opposition to the New Deal.
The treacly 1977 Broadway musical Annie and the film adaptation that followed five years later glorified a lovable Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Annie creator Harold Gray (1894–1968) would have been appalled. “I…have despised Roosevelt and his socialist, or creeping communist, policies since 1932, and said so in my stuff,” Gray once wrote.
Gray got his start in comics as an assistant to Sidney Smith, who drew the then huge, now forgotten strip The Gumps (from whom Gray lifted one of his most distinctive and most mocked stylistic tics, the pupilless eye). He soon surpassed his mentor, earning readers of every sort, highbrow and low, from all over the nation. Fans who wrote him letters ranged from Henry Ford to a young John Updike. Gray’s cartooning featured solid and meticulous draftsmanship, combined with the gritty feel of a real, dirty, raucous, scary world, a style that can be clearly detected in the works of such later underground cartoonists as Robert Crumb, Bill Griffith (who draws Zippy the Pinhead), and Chester Brown.
Comics historian Jeet Heer, in one of his smart and useful introductions to these Annie volumes, points out Gray’s most obvious literary progenitor in creating serialized, twisting, alternately sentimental and horrific tales of orphans: Charles Dickens. But as Heer notes, Annie had something over many Dickens children: “Her goodness is not passive but active.” When competitors try to drive her from the corner where she sells newspapers, she doesn’t just cry “woe-is-me”; she smacks ’em with a horseshoe.
The strip sneered at organized and impersonal charity. But to survive, Annie counts not only on her own grit but on the direct kindness of strangers, at the same time having to avoid the depredations of the professional do-gooder. The comic’s early days hold a winningly libertarian disdain for the uplifters and professional licensing and child labor laws that stymie Annie’s attempts to support herself and others who fall under her care.
Heer once characterized Gray’s philosophy as a sort of “two-fisted conservatism.” These first two volumes of the series, both of them pre–New Deal, are individualistic, but the anti-government mood is generally quietly suggestive, not obtrusive. The subtle politics are highly individualistic, promoting the virtues of the hard-working common man. The strip was suffused with Midwestern values (hard work and cheerfulness) and prejudices (pro-fisherman, anti-beard) and a very populist sense that it was who you were inside, not money or station, that mattered, and that “just plain folk—and plenty of ’em” were best.
In the 1930s, as the New Deal proceeded and Gray became increasingly appalled, his opposition became more apparent. He never named the president, but it was obvious where he stood. One stunning 1935 sequence told the tragedy of a man who invented Eonite, a wonder substance that could provide a cheap eternal building material, “ten times stronger than steel,” that had the potential to “replace all known woods or metals.” He is, alas, murdered by an angry mob whipped up by a union demagogue, and Eonite dies with him. Ayn Rand fans will hear echoes of that tale in both The Fountainhead’s Ellsworth Toohey and Atlas Shrugged’s Rearden Metal.
In the most vivid moment of FDR baiting, in August 1944, Gray killed off Warbucks (again) with the moneybags moaning, “Some have called me ‘dirty capitalist.’ But I’ve merely used the imagination…and energy that…providence gave me…times have changed…I guess it’s time to go.” A year later, with FDR now himself dead, Gray revealed that Warbucks’ death had been faked. The returning character slyly noted, “Somehow I feel that the climate here has changed since I went away.” Had Gray, or his Warbucks, imagined the particular tomorrow that the sun is shining down on today, he’d have to come up with a dozen new innovatively absurd ways to kill off the hard-driving but fair-dealing plutocrat.
Heer has characterized Annie as “combin[ing] the mass appeal of The Simpsons with the conservative politics of Rush Limbaugh.” It’s hard to imagine a cultural item in strong spiritual opposition to the age of Obama being that successful now. More likely it would be adopted as a beloved totem for one side of a culture war.
That’s a shame. More important than Annie’s politics were Gray’s lively and vibrant storytelling skills, his vivid characters, and his celebration of the timeless virtues of optimism, love, and pluck. Read hundreds of pages in a row, and Annie’s lack of guile and offense starts to seem disingenuous; her strip-ending bromides about “folks” delivered to her dog Sandy curdle. But read it how it was meant to be read—a day at a time—and the strip comes alive. Not because of its sadly contemporary relevance, but above and beyond it.
Senior Editor Brian Doherty is the author of This Is Burning Man (BenBella), Radicals for Capitalism (PublicAffairs), and Gun Control on Trial (Cato).