VINCENT T. HAMLIN was one of the United States' greatest newspaper strip cartoonists and creator of 'Alley Oop', the time-travelling caveman. Although the strip seems never to have been syndicated in England (where the name 'Alley Oop' conjures up the Eastern accents of ITMA's sly salesman - 'I go, I coom back]'), Hamlin's hairy hero and his glamorous partner Oola will be familiar to all who were brought up on the coloured Sunday supplements and reprint comic-books of the 1930s and 1940s.
Hamlin was born in Perry, Iowa, in 1900, the son of a dentist. As a boy he showed an aptitude for drawing, and when he was 11 his mother took him to visit one of his heroes, 'Ding' Darling, a leading political cartoonist of the day. He received less encouragement from school, where he took his revenge on his teachers by drawing caricatures of them to make his playmates laugh. At 13 he took a spare-time job in the local cinema as an assistant projectionist, where he first encountered the curiosity of actual time reversal by running the film reels backwards. This intrigued him, and years later he developed the idea into a time-machine, which became a basic gimmick to his comic strip.
Hamlin's first professional cartoons were published in his local newspaper, the Daily Chief, when he was 16. Unfortunately, being an active youth, he played American football for his high school and in a rough game broke his drawing hand. A year later the US entered the Great War and, a few weeks before his 17th birthday, Hamlin enlisted in the Army. His professional friend 'Ding' Darling wrote him a letter of congratulations. He served in France as a truck driver, and whilst hospitalised with influenza met the newspaperman Paul Bessey, who encouraged him in his cartooning. Fifteen years later Bessey would be instrumental in obtaining national syndication for Hamlin's 'Alley Oop'.
After his discharge in 1919, Hamlin returned to Perry High School for a year, then attended the University of Missouri in Columbia. Here he studied English, history and art, but a dispute with his art teacher over cartooning brought about his resignation.
Hamlin's career was some time in settling down: another year at Drake University while working as a night reporter for the Des Moines Leader; a period as assistant to 'Ding' Darling which led to an argument and the sack; a month as an animator with Pyramid Films (1923); the publication of his first strip, 'The Hired Hand', in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Meanwhile his father accidentally shot Vincent in the foot, and he broke his hand again after turning semi-pro boxer. He worked in the oil-fields making maps, as a sports photographer, failed a screen test for films, did window-dressing, reported on a revolution in Mexico, and finally, after three airplane crashes, was put in charge of the Art Department of the Des Moines Register. Here in 1930, he began to develop a daily strip called 'Oop the Mighty'.
After a false start with a minor syndicate of 40 newspapers, Hamlin was helped by Phil Bessey to find acceptance at Newspaper Enterprises Association, known as the NEA Syndicate. 'Alley Oop' started his official adventures on 7 August 1933, first as a daily, then as a full-page Sunday colour feature. Alley, ugly, hirsute, and somewhat simian, was also anachronistic as far as his dialogue went: 'By Gadfrey]'; 'Migosh]'; 'Holy cow]'; and 'Haw] Who sez ol' Oop's lost his stinger]' You could tell at a glance he was a tough nut: his forearms and calves bulged as bulbous as Popeye's. He also rode through the prehistoric jungles on the back of a dinosaur called Dinny. Alley's gal, as pretty as Oop was ugly, was Oola, and he lived a life of club-swinging adventure in the Kingdom of Moo. This prehistoric paradise was technically ruled by King Guzzle and his nagging wife, Queen Umpateedle, but the power behind the stone throne was Grand Vizier Foozy.
In 1939, six years on in the saga, Hamlin gave his cartoon a new turn by introducing a 20th-century inventor, Doc Wonmug, and his time-machine. A twist of the wrist and Oop could find himself one day fighting the Crusades, another in Olde Egypt with the tempting Cleopatra. Although the strip was not published in the UK, it undoubtedly inspired the Knockout Comic in 1939 to introduce Stonehenge Kit the Ancient Brit, a comedy strip serial with similar prehistoric protagonists: Kit, King Kongo the Helpless, Glam the Gal Pal, and Whizzy the Wicked Wizard. (I was one of several cartoonists to continue these Anglicised caveman capers.)
Hamlin retired from his strip in 1971, whereupon it was taken over by his assistant, Dave Graue. A somewhat shy, retiring man despite the daredevil adventures of his youth, Vince Hamlin is on record as saying, 'A gracious God gave me the tools I use. I strive to be worthy of his gift.'
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