"Going my way?" "Have room for one more?" "Do you need a lift?" Just what is it that the Little Hitchhiker is saying in that mysterious language? I like to think it might be the third option... because, although it may seem like our bearded sage of screwball is looking for transportation, it's he himself who transports us to a world of wackiness and surreal situations.
On June 21, 1936, cartoonist Gene Ahern launched his new feature, "Room & Board," along with its topper strip, "The Squirrel Cage." Ahern had been working for the NEA newspaper syndicate for over 20 years, and his strip, "Our Boarding House," had become a smash sensation. It was so popular that competing syndicate King Features decided to lure Ahern away with an offer of doubled salary. Ahern accepted the offer - but there was a problem: even though it was Ahern's creation, "Our Boarding House" and its superstar character, self-inflated windbag Major Hoople, were still owned by NEA. As a result, Ahern had to create something "new" for King Features. Of course, King would have taken "Our Boarding House" if they could, but since that was not an option, they instead asked Ahern to create a "similar" strip. What he came up with was more than similar; it was practically indistinguishable. The only real difference was that "Room & Board" featured Judge Puffle, who, just like Major Hoople, ran a boarding house with his wife. Meanwhile, back at NEA, "Our Boarding House" continued with Major Hoople, now written & drawn by new staff.
During his tenure at NEA, Ahern had drawn a Sunday "topper" strip (above the main feature) for "Our Boarding House" called "The Nut Bros." It was usually a collection of visual and verbal gags with no real storyline perpetuated from panel to panel - almost like vaudeville. When Ahern moved to King Features and created "Room & Board," his new topper was "The Squirrel Cage." This was initially, like the main feature, an almost indistinguishable doppelganger for its NEA counterpart. But this would soon change. Over the course of the first few months of "The Squirrel Cage," Ahern included cameo appearances of a funny little man, sometimes hitchhiking. And then, on December 27, 1936, Ahern's masterpiece of verbal surrealism was first uttered: "Nov Shmoz Ka-Pop?" The Little Hitchhiker was born.
I chanced across a batch of Sunday pages several years back and snatched them up. I was completely delighted with their degree of screwball wackiness. I maintained a moderate level of fascination, buying Sundays here and there, wherever I was able to track them down. Then I found some strips from the mid-late 1940s and my obsession bloomed. I had discovered part of the Foozland continuity, some of which I intend to share here. To sum up what I've been able to learn: around 1943 the main character in "The Squirrel Cage," The Little Hitchhiker, is replaced by a new character: Paul Bunyan. The focus of the strip becomes Bunyan's superhuman abilities, like being able to lift an anvil by inhaling, and lifting felled trees with the shadow of his mighty arm. This lasts for awhile, but then something happens (and this is part of the continuity I don't have!) Paul Bunyan finds himself transported to the surreal realm of Foozland, where he's mysteriously shrunken to gnome-size, with pot-belly to boot. For several years Ahern keeps the focus in Foozland, "... where wide-awake dreams happen."
I'm a fan of Krazy Kat, McCay's Rarebit Fiend, Polly & Her Pals, and other strips that delved into the surreal. These Squirrel Cage strips don't simply delve; some of them are pure surrealism, the likes of which I've never seen anywhere else on the comics page. I've decided that they must be brought back to the world, so I'm now trying to amass a complete run of "The Squirrel Cage." This is no small project, since the strip ran from 1936 - 1953, but I'm searching everywhere I can, and I'm determined. Once I have a complete run, I intend to assemble a retrospective anthology for publication. For this reason, I am also searching for other Ahern work, and especially searching for any of Ahern's surviving family. If anyone has any strips, original artwork, photos, letters, contact information for Ahern's faily, or any other pertinent information, please let me know! In the meantime, I'll get to posting some strips from various periods.