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 William Morgan De Beck  (1890 - 1942)

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Lived/Active: New York/Illinois      Known for: cartoonist, caricaturist

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Ad Code: 4
William Morgan De Beck
from Auction House Records.
Barney and friends pose for
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Billy DeBeck was a noted cartoonist as well as a writer. He created some of the most memorable comic strip characters of the 1920s and 1930s, including Barney Google, Bunky, Snuffy Smith, and the racehorse Spark Plug.

William Morgan DeBeck was born and raised in Chicago, where he studied at the citys Academy of Fine Arts. Among his fellow students were Frank Willard, Ralph B. Fuller, and Frank King. It is thought that DeBeck originally planned to work as a comic artist only until he had earned enough to finance a fine arts career.

Beginning in 1910, he drew for several midwestern newspapers, including the Youngstown Telegram, the Pittsburgh Gazette-Times, and the Chicago Herald, turning out political cartoons, sports cartoons, and comic strips. According to Editor & Publisher, DeBeck was fired from his Pittsburgh job in 1914. Thereafter "he drew his first comic page and took it to New York, but was cold-shouldered everywhere. Unable to make any money at cartooning, he produced a correspondence course at $1 a copy, and sold thousands of the lessons throughout the country before the market was exhausted."

In 1916, he got a job with the Chicago Herald and began doing a panel called Married Life. The following year, William Randolph Hearst tried to hire him away to work for his Chicago Examiner. DeBeck declined. Shortly thereafter, Hearst bought the Herald and merged it with the Examiner. Historians of journalism debate as to whether or not Hearst did that just to get DeBeck to work for him. King Features eventually syndicated Married Life, which had changed into a strip. It lasted until 1919 when DeBeck switched to the initially similar Barney Google.

DeBeck gradually changed Barney Google from a strip about domestic life to a strip about sporting life. He accomplished that by introducing the winning nag Spark Plug in July 1922. From this point, he turned away from the simple daily gag format preferring comedy continuity. Barney and his horse were national favorites for several years in the 1920s, leading to considerable merchandising and income, to be shared by King Features and DeBeck. In 1927, in the topper to the Sunday page, DeBeck created Bunky, the philosophical, bulb-nosed waif who was Little Orphan Annie and Candide rolled into one. Finally, in 1934, came the shiftless hillbilly Snuffy Smith, who eventually became so popular he nudged the googly-eyed Barney out of his strip.

During the 1920s, DeBeck was involved with a panel called Bughouse Fables, which was originally credited to Barney Google. Drawn by DeBeck, and then by Paul Fung, its humor never came near equaling that of the strip.

DeBeck is regarded by many as a first-rate cartoonist and storyteller. He was skilled at all the things his cartoon school ads had claimed: figure drawing, expression, characterization, layout, staging, and perspective. Although he had help over the years from such assistants as Paul Fung and Fred Lasswell much of what appeared in the strip was usually his. But his other activities, including travels around the United Sates and in Europe, and his addiction to golf and bridge, took him away from his drawing board. Deadlines were missed and there were conflicts with editors. (One King Features editor is said to have hauled DeBeck off to a hotel in Atlantic City, taken his pants, and locked him up until a week of new strips was written.)

He did very well as a comic strip artist. By the early 1930s, his income, estimated by Fortune, was $1200 a week. In 1935, another magazine mentioned that Barney Google "has netted him more than several Rembrandts might bring. He winters in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he has a big house." He also kept a home in Great Neck, Long Island, and a studio apartment on Park Avenue in Manhattan.

DeBeck died of cancer at the age of 52. His characters have continued to appear in the funnies, in comic books, and in television cartoons.

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

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