Team Berenstain – Part 3

Adapted and excerpted from Mike Berenstain’s Child’s Play: Cartoon Art of Stan and Jan Berenstain, published by Abrams in 2008.

At the same time Stan and Jan were laboring over their larger cartoons, they continued to produce a flood of regulation-size gag cartoons chiefly, now, for Collier’s.  They began to focus their efforts on a tomboyish, wise-cracking little girl they thought of, simply, as “Sister”―a cartoon everyone could connect with.

People sometimes ask, suspiciously, where the idea of naming the Berenstain Bears by their family roles, “Papa,” “Mama,” “Brother,” and “Sister,” came from.  They seem to assume it has some subversive ideological import relating to their origin in the turbulent 1960s.  But the truth of the matter is that came out of the innocent world of 1940s American family magazines―a world where kids were generically dubbed “Butch” or “Skip” or “Sis”―just another average all-American kid.  The humor of the Sister cartoons could be sweetly cute and charming.  But it could also verge into the slightly edgy and subversive.

My ears are killing me!
Sister; Collier’s
; March 1951

 

We were going to make you something real nice but there were too many hard words.
Sister; Colliers
; 1949-1952.

Stan and Jan’s ever-rising professional profile drew the attention of an editor at Macmillan.  Since they were so good at creating cartoons about kids, he wondered, why not try their hands at a book on the subject, as well?  Dr. Spock’s Baby Book was, of course, the Bible of child-rearing in the early Fifties and seemed a natural target for a disrespectful spoof. Thus the Berenstains’ Baby Book was born, soon to be followed by a sequel, Baby Makes Four, and several other childrearing-themed books.

Much of the humor of these books centered on straightforward satire of the “by-the-book” and “he’s-just-acting-out” school of parenthood.  Stan and Jan were particularly adept at mimicking the pompously professional jargon of the early self-help tomes.

“Back to the sea!!!” shouted the brave puppet.
Berenstains’ Baby Book
; 1951.

 

… Thiamin, Thinness, Three month colic, Throat infections’ … there it is! “Thumb sucking!”
Baby Makes Four
; 1957.

Sister, the on-going panel cartoon they had produced for Collier’s, was the nucleus of the project.  It was popular―a book collection was published in 1952―and many of the gags had already taken on a sequential form similar to that of a comic strip.  Why not, schemed Stan and Jan, extend this successful magazine cartoon into a daily newspaper comic?

So, the intrepid couple set to work.  The Register and Tribune Syndicate picked up the new strip for 1953 and 1954.  The strip version of Sister highlighted the tomboyish, mischievous aspect of the character who was, in some ways, a female sibling of Dennis the Menace.

Sister, Daily Strip

Sister, Daily Strip

In the Sister Sunday features, Stan and Jan were able to loosen up with some elaborate and ambitious comic art.  They were also able to explore more complex subject matter and follow up on their baby book successes by offering a little parenting advice.

Though similar in some ways to Dennis, Sister did not resemble the Menace in the extent of its newspaper distribution.  The plain fact was that, in spite of all their efforts, it was not paying off.  After about seven hundred drawings, Stan and Jan decided the newspaper business was not for them.  They fled, sweat-soaked and ink-stained, not much richer but a little wiser, back into the welcoming arms of Collier’s, who happily, reintroduced their work in the original format they had pioneered: full-page feature cartoons.

Don’t miss Part 1 and Part 2 of Team Berenstain.

Stay tuned for Team Berenstain – Part 4

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Team Berenstain – Part 2

In  Down a Sunny Dirt Road: an Autobiography, Random House, 2002, Stan and Jan Berenstain describe an early professional breakthrough.

“Shortly before the turnaround in our magazine cartoon fortunes, we took a job teaching a Saturday morning children’s art class at Settlement School, a well-known institution in South Philadelphia.  Working with kids, age five to eleven, was more like herding cats than teaching.”

“But teaching that class took us back.  It reminded us of ourselves when we were kids.  We began drawing upon our own childhood experiences for cartoon ideas.  Kid jokes became our strongest suit.”

“Our cartoons were so small in print, though―about four by three inches.  Not only that, they appeared in the back of the book and were limited to black-and-white.  Why couldn’t cartoons be big-space features and appear in the front of the book?  And color would be fun.  With the headlong optimism of youth, we began noodling around with a whole new kind of cartoon.  It would be about our new specialty: kids.  It would occupy a full page and be in full color.  It would show at least a hundred members of the skinned-knee set engaged in every kind of activity known to the schoolyard: kids running, jumping, fighting, wrestling; little girls with holes in their socks strutting past little boys, who were stopping off all the outlets in the bubbler fountain except one, which arced like a geyser onto other little girls swinging on railings.  It would be a mad, multitudinous moppet mob scene, the apotheosis of childhood, a modern counterpart of Brueghel’s Children’s Games.”

“We worked it up and sent it off to Gurney Williams, Collier’s cartoon editor, who snapped it up and published it under the title Recess―in front of the book and in full color.”

Recess: the Berenstains’ first full-page, full-color cartoon in Collier’s, 1948. It recalls the many forms of play and mischief they participated in during their days in Philadelphia-area elementary schools and contains no fewer than 209 (count ‘em) figures, all but eight of them depicting children at play.

Moreover, Williams wanted more.  He urged them to create a sequel, immediately.  This became Freeze ― a winter version of children at play: skating, hockey, sledding, skiing, snowball fights―you name it, it’s in there.

Freeze, Collier’s, December 1948.

Freeze was followed by Gymnasium, which was followed by Saturday Matinee.  For many it summed up a whole era of popular culture and one that was soon to disappear―the world of that afternoon-long, multilayered entertainment extravaganza, the Saturday matinee.  Stan and Jan again produced a crowd scene of tots on the rampage.  They drop things off the balcony, they take good aim with pea-shooters and squirt guns, they blow bubbles, climb on seat backs, play the kazoo, drip ice cream and, in the left foreground engage in something resembling major combat.

There are a few oases of peace in the theater, as well.  One with a personal connection is the little boy in the front row, right, standing on his seat calmly sucking a lollipop while observing the chaos around him.  This is a portrait of their son, Leo, who had just turned one.

Saturday Matinee, Collier’s, March 12, 1949.

Stan and Jan continue …

“We could hardly believe it when Collier’s ran our Saturday Matinee as a cover.  The response was remarkable.  Saturday Matinee struck a chord deep in the hearts of everyone who had ever tormented ushers, whistled through candy boxes, and dropped water bombs from the balcony.  Thousands of letters poured into Collier’s editorial offices in New York, paeans of praise were read into the Congressional Record, Newsweek came to interview us in our ramshackle apartment over the Woodland Army and Navy Store.”

“We were twenty-four.  We had gone from being a couple of struggling cartoonists too dumb to come in out of the rain―or at least too dumb to realize that toothpaste and burnt-lamb-chops were what magazines wanted―to being cover artists for one of the world’s leading magazines.”

Over the next two years, Stan and Jan produced ten Collier’s covers and one more interior full page. One of them, Art Museum, was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of a world exhibition of cartoon art.

The scene and collection depicted in Art Museum is an amalgam of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, two of Stan and Jan’s favorite places. The scene approximates the grand hall of the Philadelphia Museum with its large Calder mobile. The Lachaise sculpture is in the Met collection, as are other depicted works. Velázquez’s Court Jester with Glass of Wine is in neither collection, nor is the portrait of Gurney Williams, Collier’s humor editor, which they incorporated into the painting.

If you missed Part 1 of Team Berenstain, you can read it here.

Part 3 is now available.