|Launch date||March 10, 1935|
|Syndicate(s)||New York News-Chicago Tribune Syndicate|
|Publisher(s)||Whitman, Blackthorne Publishing, Fantagraphics|
Smokey Stover is an American comic strip written and drawn by cartoonist Bill Holman from March 10, 1935 until he retired in 1972 and distributed through the Chicago Tribune. It features the misadventures of the titular fireman and had the longest run of any comic strip in the "screwball comics" genre.
Holman was born in Crawfordsville, Indiana and moved to Chicago, where he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts while working as an office boy in the Chicago Tribune art department. He relocated to New York City where he worked as a staff artist at the New York Herald Tribune and submitted freelance cartoons to magazines, including Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, Life, Judge, and Everybody's Weekly. He began Smokey Stover as a Sunday comic strip for the Chicago Tribune Syndicate on March 10, 1935. The daily comic strip began on November 14, 1938.
The panels of Smokey Stover regularly include sight gags, mishaps, absurd vehicles, and bizarre household items, including oddly shaped furniture, clocks, vases, headwear, cigarette holders, and telephones. Framed pictures on the walls change completely from panel to panel or feature the subjects literally jumping out of the frames. The strip also abounds in nonsensical dialogue, non-sequiturs, and puns.
The puns and "silly pictures on the wall with various items hanging clear out of the frames" was the feature that provoked the most reader mail, according to articles and interviews with Holman. The cartoonist often visited the syndicate office to pick up the puns which readers suggested for the walls. He called these items "wallnuts". For example, a picture of a fish opening a door is labeled "calling cod".
The comic strip featured signs with strange nonsense words and phrases, such as "foo", "notary sojac", "scram gravy ain't wavey", and "1506 nix nix", and some became catchphrases. Holman defined "notary sojac" as Gaelic for "Merry Christmas" (Nodlaig Sodhach), and "1506 nix nix" was reportedly a private joke that included the hotel room number of cartoonist Al Posen, Holman's friend. His most frequent nonsense word was "foo", and Holman peppered his work with foo labels and puns. The term spread in popular culture during the 1930s and found use in 1938-39 Warner Brothers cartoons, most notably by director Bob Clampett, including Porky in Wackyland. Harvey Kurtzman claimed that the comic influenced him to use nonsense words and fill the corner panels of MAD Magazine with "nonsensical details".
Smokey "often called himself a foo fighter when anyone else would have said firefighter", according to comics historian Don Markstein. "The word foo also turned up on signs, lists, menus, and the lips of various characters at random but frequent intervals." Foo may have been inspired by the French word feu meaning "fire", as Smokey's catch phrase was "where there's foo, there's fire", but Holman never gave a straight answer as to the origin. Holman states that he used the word due to having seen it on the bottom of a jade Chinese figurine in Chinatown, San Francisco, meaning "good luck". This is presumably a transliteration of the fu character (fú, ?), which is a common character for fortune, and figurines are common in Chinese communities featuring the "star god" Fú, Lù, Shòu.
During World War II, images of Smokey Stover and Spooky were painted as nose art on several American bomber aircraft. The term "foo" was borrowed directly from Smokey Stover by a radar operator in the U.S. 415th Night Fighter Squadron, Donald J. Meiers, who it is agreed by most 415th members gave the "foo fighters" their name. The phrase foo fighter, also taken from Holman's strip, was used by Allied aircraft pilots in World War II to describe various unidentified flying objects or mysterious aerial phenomena seen in the skies over both the European and Pacific Theaters of Operations. Though foo fighter initially described a type of UFO reported and named by the 415th Squadron, the term was also commonly used to mean any UFO sighting from that period.
Foo Fighters is also the name of a rock band, first heard in 1995. Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl hoped to keep his anonymity and release recordings under the title "Foo Fighters", taken from the World War II term for UFOs and indirectly from Holman's strip.
Holman launched an accompanying topper strip called Spooky one month later (April 7, 1935), to run with Smokey Stover on Sundays. With a perpetually bandaged tail, the peculiar black cat Spooky lives with his owner Fenwick Flooky, who does embroidery while characteristically wearing a fez and sitting barefoot in a rocking chair. Holman used the pseudonym "Scat H." to sign the strip. The topper ran until the strip ended in 1972.
Spooky, who makes frequent cameo appearances in Smokey Stover, also regularly turns up in the background of Holman's daily gag panel feature, Nuts and Jolts. Syndicated for more than three decades from July 8, 1935 to 1970, Nuts and Jolts was a stand-alone panel cartoon featuring an ever-changing cast of everyday people doing silly things.
There were several Smokey Stover comic books published by Dell Comics Four Color. The first in this series, No. 7 (1942), displayed an unusual front cover of a full seven-panel sequence, a rarity in comic book covers. The next in the Dell series, No. 35 (1944), was followed by No. 64 (February 1945), No. 229 (May 1949), No. 730 (October 1956) and No. 827 (August 1957). (Cartoonist Hy Eisman has said he drew the Smokey Stover content in Four Color No. 730.) In 1953-54, Holman produced two public services giveaway comic books on fire safety, both published by the National Fire Protection Association.