Listen to Reason


FDR with an Orphan Annie look-alike.


I’ve been writing the introductions for a series series of volumes reprinting Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie, a comic strip which in the 1930s pioneered a form of right-wing populism which later (in the era of Nixon, Reagan and Bush) became politically pervasive in the United States. Brian Doherty of Reason magazine has just written a very gratifying review of the series. I was particularly happy with this passage on the politics of Annie:

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 killedoff 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.

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