Saturday, May 08, 2021

On The Sunny Side

Saturday Leftover Day. 

Tom Sims was a comic strip writer who is known for little else than his stint as a writer on The Thimble Theater, the strip that was known for introducing Popeye and which was featuring only Popeye when Sims took it over from originator Elzie Segar on his death in 1938. Sims produced the strip until 1959, when Bud Sagendorf took over. For most of his years on the strip, Sims worked with artist Bela Zaboli. For the later years cartoonist Ralph Stein took over from Zaboli (though never credited). Although some stuff about Sims is known, no other writing job is ever mentioned.

But there was another one, and he did it for almost as long as popeye (12 instead of 21 years). At the  time he started working on Popeye, Sims was already writing a daily panel about a group of black people (or 'negroes', as they were called then) all living on Sunflower Street (which was also the name of the panel). The artist on this panel was Tom Little - who has his own Wikipedia page, from which we learn he was a political cartoonist for the Nashville Tennessean from 1934, even winning a Pullizer Prize for political cartooning in 1957. On that page we also find a starting and end date for Sunflower Street.

"Beginning in 1934, Little collaborated with Tom Sims (writer of Popeye) on a single panel comic strip for King Features called Sunflower Street, depicting the lives of rural African-Americans. Though well-intentioned, the strip was cancelled in 1949 for fear that the strip would be viewed as condescending and draw racially based complaints."

Looking at samples from this panel strip, I concur with the observations of whoever wrote that entry. The strip was well inentioned and didn't try to employ the racial stereotypes for crude humor, but instead tried to portrait the inhabitants of the street as simple rural characters. But it did so using language and imigary from the Jim Crow era, which by the end of the forties had started to be seen as not done. Around the same time Will Eisner dropped his black sidekick character Ebony White for The Spirit as well for similar reasons. Which makes Sunflower Street a very interesting panel to look at, as it shows how even well intentioned artists and writers could get it wrong. Neither Sims nor Little were black themselves and I have no indication of their political leaning, but they do seem to present some sort of base-line for the median state of popular culture. Rather than dropping this sort of thing fro our view, I think it is important to look at it and learn from it what you will. I would love to see an academic study of this strip, placed in cotext and with as much insight as possible. As far as I can see, most (if not all) of the panels can be found in the Plain Dealer micro-fiche files at,which is where I got my samples.

One thing the Wikipedia researcher got wrong. Sunflower Street did not end in 1949, but was discontinued by King Features in early 1950, as the last news item at the end of these samples shows. I will try and change that at Wikipedia.

Here are the first announements from late 1934. It seems the panel itself actually started in 1935.
And here are the last few panels.


princeminski said...

This is wonderful! Thank you so much for posting these...there are enough to get a real sense of the characters. They remind me—the children, anyway—of Krazy Kat. The dialect is definitely Amos’n’Andy, but the intent of the strip is clearly benign. I’m very happy to be introduced to it.

Marcus said...

Sims had quite a resume, which included eight years as Continuity Writer/Editor on Amos & Andy, a year ghosting “Blondie” and 18 yrs writing the column “Ohatchee USA.”

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Thanks, Marcus. An interesting connection!