Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Enigmatic Ferdinand Flipper

Within Dartmouth College's Library Digital Collections is a piece listed as the first comic book written in the U.S., The Fortunes of Ferdinand Flipper.  An interesting piece, quite funny, and a nice look into the past.  I sat down to write a short blog post about the piece and compare it to other similar pieces within the library digital collections.  Simple.

I start from the top, planning to gather some information about each piece.  Title page.  The Fortunes of Ferdinand Flipper.  I flip the page.  "New York: Published at the Brother Jonathan Office."  No author listed.  I have authors for the other two pieces, and think it would be nice
to complete the set.  I'll have to track this mysterious author down.
Little do I realize the momentous task I'm about to undertake

I do a preliminary Google search of Brother Jonathan.  First result, a
Wikipedia article.  I see an illustration of a man with striped pants,
stove top hat, and overcoat.  The article reads "The national
personification and emblem of New England."  From his garb, I can
see that he's clearly the inspiration for Uncle Sam.  Interesting, but
not what I'm looking for.  Farther down it reads, "...widely
popularized by the weekly newspaper Brother Jonathan and the
widely popular humor magazine Yankee Notions."

I follow the link to the article on the Brother Jonathan paper.  "Brother Jonathan was a weekly publication operated by Benjamin Day from 1842-1862, and was the first weekly publication in the United States."  I read on.  Day founded the first penny newspaper in the U.S., The New York Sun, but sold it to his brother-in-law in 1838.  Day and partner James Wilson acquired Brother Jonathan sometime after this and began publishing the paper name in 1842.  The paper eventually reached a circulation as high as sixty to seventy thousand.  Impressive, especially for the time.  Perhaps Day is the mystery author I've been looking for.  I click the Benjamin Day link.

Day was born in Springfield, Mass. in 1810.  Started his career at the Springfield Republican.  Credited with founding sensationalism and bringing the London Plan of paper distribution to the U.S.  You know the cliché of a kid with a cap and suspenders yelling "Read all about it!" on the street
corner?  That's the London Plan.  Publishers sold papers to these industrious young men in bulk, who would then sell them on their own for profit.  Anyway, it seems that Day stayed on the managerial side of things and wasn't an illustrator himself.  No luck.  Maybe the mystery "author" is an illustrator who worked for the paper.  I decided to head the the source.

I know that The Fortunes of Ferdinand Flipper was published some time in the 1850s.  This should help narrow down my search.  I search for digital copies of The Brother Jonathan magazine.

I begin my search at Dartmouth's own library website.  I type Brother Jonathan into the search box.  First result, Brother Jonathan by Weld, H. Hastings; Neal John; etc. Book, 1842.  That could be it.  I click the link.  Imprint New York: [Wilson & Co.], 1842-1843. Frequency: Weekly.  This looks like the right place.

I see that digital versions of the paper are available.  I follow the link to a ProQuest page which contains a number of pdfs of sections from the paper.  Oddly, only volumes from 1842 and 1843 are present.  Even though these volumes were published at least seven years before Ferdinand Flipper, it's still possible that they could provide some helpful information.  Alas, despite a lengthy search, I can find no trace of illustrators credited.

It appears that Day and Wilson populated their magazine with plagiarized material, mostly from European authors and illustrators.  The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck, also included in our digital collection, was one such piece.  You can read a blog post on the piece here.  So was Ferdinand Flipper created in the U.S. or was it stolen from outside this country?

I search for mentions of plagiarism in early comics.  I find a thread on a comic book collectors forum in which people discuss early comics.  Most of the discussion revolves around an attempt to define comic books as compared to other early illustrated works.  It's interesting, although not particularly relevant to my search.  However, some length down the forum I find a post which references an exchange from American Notes and Queries 1941 amongst a number of cultural historians.  Within the post author W.H.P. lists the date of publication for The Fortunes of Ferdinand Flipper as 1858.  I now have a specific year.  If I can find a copy of Brother Jonathan from 1858 I might be able to find some clue.

I begin to pour through the library records searching for any copies of Brother Jonathan from after 1843.  I try Harvard and Stanford digital archives.  No luck.  I try libraries in New York, where Brother Jonathan was published.  NYU, Columbia.  Still nothing.

I head to New York's census website to see if I can track down employees of the Brother Jonathan paper.  The website is confusing.  I give up immediately.

It seems that nobody knows who wrote The Fortunes of Ferdinand Flipper.  But I can't give up.  Now it's personal.  To be continued?

Addendum: I had planned to spend some time hunting down the mystery author.  But alas, during a brief return to the book Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Topffer, by David Kunzle I see a small section on The Fortunes of Ferdinand Flipper that I had missed during my original perusal of that source.
Kunzle writes of Ferdinand Flipper, "The whole thing is cobbled together from a miscellany of woodcuts, mostly French, whose chance availability determines the narrative, such as it is, rather as in the parlor game "Consequences."

So there you have it.  There is no single creator of The Fortunes of Ferdinand Flipper.  It is the offspring of many minds and craftsmen, and the rascal newspaperman, Benjamin Day, who robbed them of their intellectual property.  So it goes.

Written by Kevin Warstadt

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