Friday, June 10, 2016

Oka Okay

Tuesday Comic Strip Day.

In one of teh Facebook groups I frequent we talked about a complete comic page that was offered to weekly newspapers. Running between 1951 and the late seventies, I think, it had an ever changing line-up. I have already shown one of the strips offered there, Brad Anderson's Grandpa's Boy. Some of the other were plain boring, but here is another good one, which seems to have been produced primarily in the fifties although it was offered to the end, possibly with reruns of leftovers. The ever reliable Alan Holtz has already paid attention to it on his Stripper's Guide page, where he wrote this:

The Al Smith Service was a small syndicate that produced material for weekly papers. Smith, better known for his many years of work on Mutt & Jeff, ran the company as a sideline. He got into the syndicate business in 1951 and managed to keep it going after practically all the other weekly syndicates had long ago bit the dust.

Syndicates that produced material for weekly newspapers were never a particularly lucrative business. Small papers paid small rates, often under $10 per week for a whole menu of features. Worse yet, the weeklies had a well-deserved reputation for not even paying those small bills, so syndicate owners were just as busy in collections as producing material.

Al Smith offered an entire weekly page of material, including upwards of a half-dozen comic strips. At rates of $5-10 per client you can imagine how even with a large subscriber base the contributors were paid a pittance. Smith, however, managed to put together a stable of excellent cartoonists that made the offerings of other weekly services look pretty dismal.

One of those fine features was Deems by Tom Okamoto, a Japanese-American cartoonist who went by the name Tom Oka on this strip. Okamoto was an animator with Disney before World War II, then was put into a relocation camp for the duration.

Deems was a charter member of Al Smith's syndicated weekly page in 1951 (and after all these years I'm still trying to determine the exact start date of the offering). Deems was such a standout that Smith also tried to sell it as a daily, something he very rarely tried. The daily offering went on until 1955, but I've only found one paper that ran it daily, the Pasadena Independent, and then apparently only for a short stretch in 1952.

Deems was a part of the Al Smith weekly offering until 1980, a run of thirty years. Quite a few of Smith's strips were in re-runs by the 1970s, and I don't know if Okamoto's strip was one of those. However, if Okamoto did actually produce the strip for daily frequency from 1951-55, the backlog for the weekly would have been enough to keep it going with new material even if Okamoto never put pen to Bristol board again after that year.

In the samples I show here, the character was at times an American Indian, other times not (or not noticably). Or was he just a 'normal' kid, playing indian? Anyway, the style is very lively and makes you wonder whatever happened to Mr. Oka after the war.

Later Alex Jay (maybe the best online researcher comic artist I know) submitted this profile to The Stripper's Guide:

Sadayuki Thomas Okamoto was born in Kent, Washington on March 15, 1916. His Japanese name is from the record, Japanese Americans Relocated During World War II. The birthplace was on a 1918 passport application, although the birth year was recorded as 1915. His birthdate is from Washington Births, 1907-1919. According to the application, he lived in Hiroshima-ken, Japan since September 28, 1916. He, his mother, older brother and sister arrived in Seattle, Washington on March 16, 1918, as recorded on a passenger ship list. All records are from

Okamoto has not been found in the 1920 U.S. Federal Census. His name was recorded on a passenger ship list. From Yokohama, Japan, he arrived in Seattle on November 14, 1927. He has not been found in the 1930 census, and the date of his move to Los Angeles, California is not known. Editor & Publisher, December 24, 1955, said, "...After one year at Sacramento Junior College, he attended Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, following with a job as staff artist in the Walt Disney studio." Asian American Art, 1850-1970 (2008) said: "The growing industry of Hollywood provided employment to many Japanese American artists—behind the camera or at the animation table….Chris Ishii, Tom Okamoto, Tyrus Wong, Milton Quon, Wah Ming Chang, James Tanaka, Robert Kuwahara, and Gyo Fujikawa all worked for Disney at some point in the pre-World War II period…"

In late May 1941, a strike was called against Disney. Drawing the Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions from Bosko to Bart Simpson (2006), said, "A local newspaper article of the time noted that all four of the Nisei artists went out on strike: Chris Ishii, Tom Okamoto, Masao Kawaguchi, and James Tanaka." Apparently, the quartet found work elsewhere when the Disney strike ended.

On December 7, 1941, the bombing of Pearl Harbor had a devastating effect on the Japanese Americans on the West Coast. Tens of thousands of them were relocated in camps. Okamoto found himself at the Santa Anita Assembly Center in Santa Anita, California in April 1942. The assembly center was a racetrack. Here, he was reunited with Chris Ishii and, no doubt, met Bob Kuwahara. A newsletter was created, the Santa Anita Pacemaker. The July 16, 1942 issue had an article about Okamoto:

Artist Paints 'Last Look,' Lonely Church Scene

Tom Okamoto, one of the outstanding artists in the Center, who teaches art classes daily from 1 to 5 p.m. in the Grandstand, said, "There are two kinds of art. One is to please other people. The other is to express the way you really feel. I think the latter is much deeper and satisfying."

As an example of this, after Okamoto was evacuated to Santa Anita from the westside in Los Angeles, he painted a picture called "Last Look."

In the background of the picture stands the tower of the Japanese M.E. church at 35th and Normandie. The picture has an air of desolateness and loneliness about it.

"I wanted to show the loneliness of the scene. Just before we piled into the buses, I walked around and took one good 'last look,' at this place. In spite of all the traffic and people milling about there was a desolation of spirit. I wanted to express it on canvas."

Okamoto believes that in teaching the students the fundamentals of art, the students should be encouraged to choose objects that are the most familiar to them or closest to them—something they know and understand.

"A teacher," said Okamoto, "should find out the background of his students in order to bring out their hidden talents and capabilities."

The Pacemaker also published Ishii's panel cartoon, Li'l Neebo. Soon, Ishii and Okamoto were transferred to the Granada Internment Camp in Amache, Colorado. Sonoma State University's North Bay Digital Collections has a photo of Ishii and the description says: "…Chris created a cartoon character names "Lil Nerbo" [sic] or little Nisei boy. The cartoon strip he created quickly became a favorite with evacuees. When Chris left Amache, the comic strip was continued by Tom Okamoto, another Disney animator, and later by Jack Ito."

According to Editor & Publisher, "…In 1943, he [Okamoto] served in the Army as a master sergeant in military intelligence…" He was stationed at the Military Intelligence Service Language School, located at Fort Snelling in St. Paul, Minnesota. While he was there, Okamoto designed an emblem for the school. Editor & Publisher also said: "…when he was discharged in 1947, he went to Art Center School in Los Angeles until 1951."

This snippet was found in Scene, The International East-West Magazine, Volume 3, 1951: "Tom Okamoto, California cartoonist, gets fresh ideas for his syndicated cartoon strip by watching his two sons, Deems and Eric, in the living room of the Okamotos' new home in El Monte, Calif. Mrs. Okamoto looks on." Named after his oldest son, Deems began sometime in 1951. In late 1955, his strip, Little Brave, was named the top winner in United Feature Syndicate's $10,000 Talent Comics Contest. The Sunday Herald (Connecticut), February 12, 1956, announced the winners, too. He used the pseudonym Tom Mako on his strip. Okamoto passed away November 20, 1978, in Contra Costa, California, according to the California Death Index at


The Art of Bob Chambers said...

Wow, really fascinating! Comics drawn by former Disney staff always have a unique look. Maybe some of these are the "Little Brave" strip offered as "Deems". Yes, I wonder what happened to him after the war, he obviously didn't pay the rent with this strip, as great as it looks.

rnigma said...

The Al Smith Features strips were a cut above the offerings of H.T. Elmo's Lincoln Features, which had a 1930s look and feel (especially in the strips drawn by Elmo himself).