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 Bill (William) Holman  (1903 - 1987)

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Lived/Active: New York/Illinois/Indiana      Known for: cartoonist, illustrator

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Ad Code: 4
Bill Holman
from Auction House Records.
Smokey Stover comic strip
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Cartoonist Bill Holman was one of the few artists to maintain the broad slapstick tradition into modern times. For nearly 40 years he produced a stream of madcap gags about a group of firemen in Smokey Stover.

He was born in Nappanee, Indiana and once described himself as "always inclined to humor and acting silly." Although he never finished high school, he took the Landon correspondence course in cartooning while still in his hometown. When his family moved to Chicago, in 1919, he took night courses at the Academy of Fine Arts. In 1920, he got a job as copy boy at the Chicago Tribune for $6 a week and had the chance to work around such cartoonists as Harold Gray (later to create Little Orphan Annie), Carl Ed (who did Harold Teen), E.C. Segar (creator of Popeye), Frank King (of Gasoline Alley), and Sidney Smith (of The Gumps).

Intimidated by the size of the Tribune, Holman moved to Cleveland in 1922. He accepted a job with Newspaper Enterprise Associates, which syndicated his first strip, Billville Birds, a daily animal feature. He roomed for a while with Chic Young, who was later to produce Blondie, and shared an office with cartoonists Gene Ahern of Our Boarding House, Jim Williams of Out Our Way, Edgar Martin of Boots and Her Buddies, and Merrill Blosser of Freckles and Her Friends.

Holman spent three years with NEA. In 1923, he went to New York where he produced a children's strip called G. Whizz Jr. for the Herald Tribune. He began to free-lance such magazines as Redbook, Colliers, Saturday Evening Post, Life, and Judge in the United States, and others in England. Frequent settings for his cartoons were firehouses. There was no particular reason except that, as he explained it, he thought firemen were funny -- "running around in red wagons with sirens and bells."

In 1934, he learned that the Daily News was looking for a Sunday strip, and that its publisher Joseph Patterson specifically wanted a fireman character. With a big file of fireman gags already to his credit, and thinking it was " a good gimmick to hang things on," Holman submitted a page and Patterson signed him up. On March 10, 1935 Smokey Stover made its first appearance.

Popular cartoonist Gaar Williams died a month later, and Holman added most of his papers to his already growing list. Soon the zany wordplay of Smokey became a national fad, and "Foo" clubs, named for the nonsense- syllable wit with which Holman randomly studded his panels, sprang up all over America. The broad buffoonery of the gags, drawn in a style no less goofy, struck a note of antic silliness that had all but disappeared from American comics. Holman sustained it well into modern times, and continued Smokey Stover, along with a daily panel called Nuts and Jolts, until he retired in 1973. For a time, he also did a bottom tier called Spooky, about the firehouse cat, which was later absorbed into the main strip.

Bill Holman was president of the National Cartoonists Society from 1961 to 1963. A congenial man who enjoyed practical jokes, he has been described by his colleagues as "a naturally funny guy." He willingly gave chalk talks to entertain army camps and drew booklets for local fire-safety campaigns. If his visual and verbal clowning seemed dated at the end, it remained one of the last sources of robust burlesque humor in the comics pages.

(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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