Ooh, I like this one!
I’m going to limit this to cartoonists whose careers were mostly over (for one reason or another) by 1940, as of course there were plenty of great cartoonists who straddled both sides of that divide for decades, even if all or most of their best work fell before the cutoff. Apologies to Gluyas Williams, Milt Gross, Peter Arno, Frank King, Otto Soglow, Billy DeBeck, Cliff Sterrett, Russell Patterson, George Grosz, J. Carlos, etc. etc. etc.
(Spoiler alert: I’ll be talking (eventually) about all but one of these in my 50 Favorite Cartoonists series. See if you can guess which one!)
E. C. Segar’s scribbly working-class grotesquerie — R. Crumb famously said that you could smell the boiled cabbage in his interiors — is one way of paring cartooning down to its essentials. His ruthlessly repetitive staging and lumpen character designs, dashed off in a barely-serviceable flurry of crabbed strokes, are the American 30s in malapropped miniature.
Ralph Barton is one of the most remarkable stories in twentieth century cartooning; a highly-paid — and high-living — dandy who was among the most notable celebrities in New York during the 1920s, who ran in the kind of circles that enabled his wife to desert him for Eugene O’Neill and who killed himself rather than face debilitating alcoholism and penury in the Depression. The biography shouldn’t overshadow the drawing, however, which is simply tremendous: the smartest possible combination of clear-line Jazz Age cartooning with the polydimensionality of the Cubists. He drew bitter meaning out of what would, on the surface, be insouciance, and I tend to think of him in parallel with the early Aldous Huxley — specifically, his bristlingly intellectual take on the characteristic Wodehouse plot.
Ethel Hays is so little-known that it’s positively criminal (although conditions are improving, compared to when I first searched for information on her ca. 2003). Perhaps the single most characteristic Jazz Age cartoonist, her newspaper cartoons about flappers were far more decorative and far less satirical than the men who delineated the age in magazines (like, say, Ralph Barton). Her humor was observational rather than confrontational, but her technique was rhapsodic.
Clare Briggs practically invented the Midwestern school of newspaper cartooning in the 1910s. Unlike the rough-and-ready strivers of the competitive New York scene, in whose work catastrophic violence was so common a recurring motif that George Herriman made a decades-long absurdist fable out of the stereotype, Briggs drew gentle, winsome strips about the minor humiliations and triumphs of rambunctious children and mild-mannered adults. The style would reach an apotheosis in the ruminative Gasoline Alley, but Briggs was there first, and his vision of an Edenic rural childhood from which all Americans have fallen was fundamental to a certain kind of twentieth-century nostalgia.
The work of Segar and Briggs are available in recent editions: Fantagraphics recently finished reprinting all of Segar’s Popeye-starring Thimble Theatre, and Drawn & Quarterly reprinted Briggs’ 1913 Oh Skin-nay! volume a few years back. Neither Barton or Hays have had any kind of serious retrospective of their work even considered, as far as I can tell. (There are a few measly samples in a Barton biography from the 80s, but that’s it.) If I ran a publishing house… well, I’d probably run it into the ground. But I’d get some invaluable books out first.