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 Harold Lincoln Gray  (1894 - 1968)

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Lived/Active: Illinois/California      Known for: comic strip cartoonist

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Ad Code: 3
Harold Gray
from Auction House Records.
Annie stays at a house full
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The creator of Little Orphan Annie, Harold Gray is regarded as the first strip cartoonist to use the medium as a vehicle for political philosophy.  Gray's gift for narrative and characterization kept the strip popular at a much broader level during its lone history, and established it as a part of American folk culture that has outlasted its author.

Harold Lincoln Gray was born in the rural town of Kankakee, Illinois, about 50 miles south of Chicago.  His family can be traced back to the 17th century in the new world.  He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering from Purdue in 1917, and that same year took a job with the art department of the Chicago Tribune.  In 1920, he became an assistant to Sydney Smith, assisting with The Gumps, while offering the Tribune a series of ideas for strips of his own.  After four years of continued rejection, he struck the right chord.  Joseph Medill Patterson, who was looking for a new child strip, was significantly impressed with Gray's proposed Little Orphan Otto.  He agreed to accept it, after submitting its protagonist to a sex change, and on August 5, 1924, the winsome Little Orphan Annie made her first appearance in the New York Daily News.

Beginning as a heart-tugging tale of a spunky girl's tribulations, Little Orphan Annie soon assumed a clear social and political slant, providing Gray with a forum for his strongly conservative opinions.  His vehement, laissez-faire views so offended one liberal paper that an episode was rejected, leading the syndicate to drop the strips from circulation.  Gray would learn to subordinate his message to his always-engrossing stories, but he never completely gave up his propagandizing posture.  The strip was often controversial.

Gray devoted the rest of his life to his blank-eyed heroine.  However, he found time to produce a humorous feature, Private Lives, which recounted the personal histories of various domestic objects.  In 1931 and 1932, he created a spin off from Annie, an ancillary strip called Maw Green, in which that ironic Irishwoman from the parent feature delivered tart observations on life and society.  Maw Green remained a four-panel companion to Little Orphan Annie until Gray's death.

Gray generally worked alone, never employing ghosts, although he used assistants to do his lettering and backgrounds.  One of them, his cousin Edwin Leffingwell, developed his own Sunday strip, Little Joe, in 1933.  Gray is generally credited with contributing to both the authorship and the drawing of this Western adventure version of Little Orphan Annie.  This was especially the case from 1936, when Ed died and the strip passed into the hands of his brother, Robert.  Gray appears to have left Little Joe entirely to Bob Leffingwell sometime in the late 1950s, when its art lost its similarity to that of Little Orphan Annie.

Grays art has little pretension to visual elegance, although it had a powerful, primitive look and a certain dramatic simplicity. "I'm no artist," Gray observed near the end of his life. "I've never gone to any art school, but I know what I want and do the best I can.  Bob [Leffingwell] does the dirty work."  Nevertheless, his rudimentary style has had its defenders: Coulton Waugh argued that Gray's trademark use of empty ovals for his characters eyes led the reader to supply the expressions for himself, and thus the meanings are "clearer and more forceful than if the eye details were completely drawn."

In any case, it was not his visual style that sustained Gray in a career that was to earn him more than five million dollars.  Rather, it was his inspired creation of a heroine whom he described as "tougher than hell, with a heart of gold, and a fast left, who can take care of herself because she has to".  Long after Gray's fulminations against gasoline rationing, income taxes, the welfare state, and Roosevelts New Deal have become obscure episodes needing footnotes, his engaging little survivor will remain a vital figure in American folklore.

(Information on the biography above is based on writings from the book, The Encyclopedia of American Comics, edited by Ron Goulard.)

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