“Vot der dumboozle? Mit dose kids, society iss nix!” While nowhere near as popular today as once upon a time, Hans, Fritz, and their grumpy, seafaring stepdad are still known and loved by many. Not a bad showing for comics characters who are 110 years old... or should that be 142?
The roots of the Katzenjammer Kids date back to 1865, when German satirist Wilhelm Busch published Max und Moritz, a bestselling children’s book that was also a comic strip prototype. Seven tales of Max and Moritz, two troublemaking boys, were told in panel-like pictures with rhymed narrative underneath. Max and Moritz played naughty pranks on hapless local schlubs, among them Uncle Fritz and Widow Bolte. After Max’s and Moritz’s seventh trick, they originally met an unfortunate demise. But one got the feeling that they lived on in spirit, and, witnessing the 1880s merchandising success of early comics characters such as the Brownies and Ally Sloper, Busch began licensing Max and Moritz products.
Busch’s success did not go unnoticed in North America, where in 1897 newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst asked German-born cartoonist Rudolph Dirks to create a Max and Moritz-inspired comic strip for him. At the very start, the Katzenjammer Kids was not a meticulous swipe. The first strip featured just one troublemaking boy; the second three. And in both cases, the boys resembled Max and Moritz less than they resembled other Busch characters, Paul and Peter (from the unrelated Busch picture story Plisch und Plum). With the third strip, however, Hans and Fritz Katzenjammer numbered a Max and Moritz-like two; and over time, they also began to look more like Max and Moritz than was previously the case.
Were the Katzenjammer Kids actually supposed to be Busch’s characters? The Katzies’ Mama initially looked a lot like Widow Bolte, and their Papa like Uncle Fritz. And in German-language Hearst newspapers, archivist Alfredo Castelli finds that Hans and Fritz (Katzenjammer) were actually named Max and Moritz for years running. This suggests that Hearst must have licensed the characters from Busch; if only because the notoriously litigious Busch would otherwise have taken legal action, as he did against far lower-profile imitators of the era.
Eventually, however, Hans and Fritz reached success irrespective of Busch. The early 1900s found the Katzies at a high point. Dirks phased the weak-willed Papa out of the strip, bringing in "Der Captain," the family’s fat, short-tempered sailor friend, as a boarder and substitute male authority figure. After enough time passed, the Captain began to be treated as Mama’s common-law husband. By then, "Der Inspector" was also a fixture at the household: a long-bearded, indigent truant officer who came, presumably for the boys, and simply stayed.
Hans, Fritz, and the gang were so popular that other cartoonists began to imitate them, often blatantly; “Dem Boys,” by an artist known only as Karls, had equivalents to all the Katzenjammer leads, differing only in their names. Harold Knerr’s better-looking “Fineheimer Twins” boasted one more degree of difference: the characters dressed differently.
Dirks took imitation as the sincerest form of flattery. Chuffed with his success, he took a hiatus from his strip against Hearst’s will. To his shock, Hearst hired Knerr to keep drawing it in Dirks’ absence. Ensuing legal proceedings established that both Hearst and Dirks owned the rights to the characters, while Hearst alone owned the rights to the name. Dirks came back from a long vacation and launched a new Katzenjammer strip, “The Captain and the Kids” (initially “Hans und Fritz”). Meanwhile, Knerr’s version of the original “Katzenjammer Kids” kept right on going, and under Hy Eisman, continues to this day.
The 1920s found both strips settling into what became the Katzenjammers’ permanent milieu. The family’s new location was a jungle island off the coast of Africa, inhabited mostly by Tarzan-style African natives. Speaking in normal English and acting as the Katzenjammers’ significantly smarter friends, protectors, and poker partners, King Bombo and his people became an early example of attempted progressivism. Other smarter characters also joined the Katzies: pirate captain John Silver, arrogant tutor Miss Twiddle, and Twiddle’s two young pupils, mild-mannered Lena and pesky Rollo.
While both Katzenjammer comics were usually Sunday-only strips, mention must be made of a Dirks daily spin-off, written and drawn by Bernard Dibble for several years in the 1930s. Its unusually satirical tales marked a high point in the characters’ history, with an extra high point perhaps reached in Bombo’s electoral battle with a pygmy king for control of the island.
The Katzies made it into other media over time. In the early 1900s, several off-Broadway musicals hit the stage, leading to rare spinoff merchandise that’s highly valued today. The first crude animated cartoons came out in the 1910s. A mid-1930s attempt to include Knerr’s version of the characters in a Betty Boop short was announced, but didn’t materialize; in 1938, MGM initiated a moderately successful 15-cartoon series based on Dirks’ strip. These Captain and the Kids shorts were most notable for their hilarious depiction of John Silver. In relatively modern times, the 1970s Filmation cartoon Archie’s TV Funnies (later Fabulous Funnies) featured new Dirks-inspired shorts. “I’m der Captain,” the bearded salt would announce in the title sequence, “und funny adventures are on their vay!”
For more than 110 years it has now been so, dod-gast it!