Smokey Stover is a comic strip that seems ripe for rediscovering, especially during the recent surge of high quality reprints that have appeared over the past few years. If “Polly and Her Pals,” an even more obscure strip, gets the deluxe treatment, Smokey Stover can’t be far behind, and I do remember hearing rumblings that there is a set of reprints in the works. Perhaps Paul Tumey knows.
And speaking of Paul Tumey, here’s an example Smokey Stover strip that he recently posted on his excellent screwball comics blog. Go check out his blog for some old screwball comics, a genre of the medium which has all but disappeared.
I don’t know a whole lot about Smokey Stover and have only seen a small number of examples, but the strip, written and drawn by Bill Holman, takes place at a firehouse. Smokey Stover is the main character and the chief and Sparks the dog figure prominently as well.
The beauty of Smokey Stover is that it works on different levels. There’s the dialogue, independent of the drawing – in this case, what is unquestionably a pretty lame joke on paper, with the exception of the goofiness of the “refledging the flodgehoister” comment. What is a flodgehoister? How do you refledge it? Who cares? If you have to wonder, the strip isn’t for you.
The next level of course is the characters, and there’s some supreme zaniness going on here. We have the Smokey Stover who has a bucket of “toolz” he wears on his head. Sparks has a glove on his tail that can mysteriously wield an ax. And also every action has to be exaggerated for comic effect – Jumping out of shoes, hat flying off, and my favorite, Smokey’s ears and teeth getting knocked off when he slaps his head. Not to mention that other screwball strip convention – the setting constantly changes. In one panel the chief is standing, only to be sitting in the next panel. At the end, a desk mysteriously appears. People hold objects in one panel only to be holding something else in the next.
But the real innovation is all the “chicken fat” in the background – a term Will Elder invents for all the gags that fill up the background in his MAD work, and clearly Holman was one of his inspirations. Most of them have very little to do with what’s going on in the strip and are visual non-sequitirs. There’s the “love ladder” with…thumbs? Big Toes? The nuts and bolts that follow Sparky as he trots down the street. The smoking jacket. The picture falling and hitting the guy’s head in the picture below. I have read this strip a number of times and am convinced that there are other hidden gags that I’ve somehow missed.
It’s fair to assume that Smokey Stover could not exist as a strip today. For one thing, this type of humor doesn’t play well – people like more straightforward humor and Stover requires a little bit more work than something like “Baby Blues” or “Zits.” Also, the cramped size of today’s strips makes the visual gags all but impossible to include, and they are a vital part to the Smokey Stover experience. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that a collection of strips will appear one of these days.