Syd Hoff

Cartoonist and author of 'Danny and the Dinosaur'
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The Independent Online

Nowadays you can't move in the nursery for dinosaurs; before 1958 they were extinct. Our present dinosaur age was kick-started by Syd Hoff's storybook Danny and the Dinosaur, the adventures of a boy and a dinosaur that comes to life in a museum.

Syd Hoff, cartoonist, children's writer and illustrator: born New York 4 September 1912; married Dora Berman (died 1994; one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died Miami Beach, Florida 12 May 2004.

Nowadays you can't move in the nursery for dinosaurs; before 1958 they were extinct. Our present dinosaur age was kick-started by Syd Hoff's storybook Danny and the Dinosaur, the adventures of a boy and a dinosaur that comes to life in a museum.

Hoff's work is so familiar and undemanding that today it is hard to think of him as an innovator, yet 10 million sales of Danny in a dozen languages, over almost half a century, testify not only to the quality of his creation, but to the fact that he got there first.

Though children's books were a bonanza for Hoff, they were not his first calling. He wrote the first in middle age as an attempt to distract his daughter Susan from therapy for a hip disorder. Danny's success led him to write some 60 more, including Sammy the Seal (1959) and Grizzwold (1963, about a bear that people assume is a human in a costume), proving in his later years that age need not impede an appreciation of childishness.

The warmth, humour and lucidity that attracted children to his work had already been appreciated by a generation of adults in his cartoons for The New Yorker, Esquire and Saturday Evening Post. Hoff's cartoons captured moments of everyday absurdity: often the gag was slight, the emphasis being the celebration of a common human trait, such as the nosiness of the woman pressing her ear against the neighbour's wall, saying to her ostensibly indifferent husband, "Boy, have they got your number!"

Hoff's subjects were based on the Jewish residents of the Bronx, New York, where he was born in 1912 and grew up. He started drawing at the age of four. One day his high school was visited by the popular cartoonist Milt Gross, who looked over his shoulder and said loudly, "Kid, some day you'll be a great cartoonist!"

As a child he thought he would become a serious artist, but dropped the "serious" part while studying fine art at the National Academy of Design. Already, at 16, he had sold his first cartoon and before he was 21 he had started a daily syndicated comic strip called "Tuffy", which appeared in more than 800 newspapers for 10 years.

In 1930 The New Yorker took the first of many Hoff cartoons and in 1939 put him on the staff. He was fortunate to arrive at the magazine during its golden age, when cartoonists experimented with new, streamlined forms and eschewed conventional painterly representations with long-winded captions.

Hoff's thick, sure line, plump characters and pithy captions have some of the boldness of the work of his senior Peter Arno, and closely resemble the early work of his contemporaries William Steig and Charles Addams. But Hoff shunned their later pizzazz in favour of homeliness and clarity. "The best humour," he said, "has to do with events that people can identify as having happened to them."

Despite his production of children's books, he continued to draw for The New Yorker until 1975. He drew another syndicated cartoon, "Laugh It Off", between 1958 and 1977. He starred in a 1950s television series, Tales of Hoff. He produced several joke compilations, and wrote a dozen books about cartoon drawing and two works of fiction, Gentleman Jim and the Great John L (1977) and Boss Tweed and the Man Who Drew Him (1978).

In later life, Hoff returned the help given him by Gross by appearing in schools to encourage children to draw.

Martin Plimmer

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