Friday, December 11, 2015

Marge—She Was a Real Lulu

The cover of a Marge's Little Lulu comic book.

The funny papers were mostly a stag club.  There had always been a handful of exceptions—Grace Drayton (Grace Gebbie), creator of early wide-eyed apple cheeked kid strips and the Campbell Soup Kids; Rose O’Neil of the Kewpies and later a Greenwich Village bohemian feminist; and Ethel Hays and Gladys Parker who did flapper strips in the Roaring Twenties.  Later Dale Messick would become a sort of super star herself with Brenda Starr Reporter.  That would open the door just enough for Cathy Guisewite to chronicle a new generation of angst filled single working women,  Lynn Johnston to bring new realism and poignancy to the domestic family strip, and for a yet new generation elbowing their way into an increasingly competitive newspaper market.
One woman had early roots in the ‘20’s, created an  iconic character in the ‘30’s and craftily oversaw the development of the character as lucrative brand even after she stopped doing most of the drawing herself.  Yet the woman who signed her work simply as Marge and whose creation would spawn the Friends of Lulu, an organization that promotes women in comics, was the opposite of the flashy, self-promoting Messick.
Marjorie Henderson Buell was shy and reclusive.  Using only her nick name helped mask her identity.  When her creation, Little Lulu became one of the most popular strips in the country spawning comic books, commercial endorsement deals, and animated cartoons for theatrical release and television, she shunned requests for interviews and tried to avoid having her photograph published.  She had a largely conventional marriage and raised three children in middle class suburban normalcy.  Despite the fact that spunky Lulu was famous for trying to break down the doors of the boys-only club house, it is unclear if Buell ever considered herself a feminist. 
Marjorie Lyman Henderson was born on December 11, 1904 in Philadelphia.  He protective mother kept her and her two sisters at home, overseeing tutoring until she was 11 years old.  Her mother also kept her in 19th Century sausage curls long after they had gone out of fashion.  All three girls were instructed in art and showed real talent. 
At age 16 she had her first cartoon published locally in the Philadelphia Public Ledger.  She was soon successfully peddling single panel cartoons to humor magazines like Judge and Life as well as general interest  publications like Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post .  By the late ‘20’s she was signing these contributions simply as Marge.
A major break came when her mentor Ruth Plumly Thompson, who had taken over as author of the Oz books following the death of L. Frank Baum, asked Henderson to illustrate her book, King Kojo and some of her magazine short stories.
The Boyfriend became her first syndicated newspaper strip. It featured a teenage girl protagonist and was seen by some as female answer to the popular Harold Teen strip.  The feature was only marginally successful and ran only in 1925 and ’26.  Meanwhile another comic with a female lead, the single panel Dashing Dot found a home in magazines.

The first Little Lulu mute single panel comic in the Saturday Evening Post in 1935.

In 1934 the Saturday Evening Post asked her to create a replacement for Carl Anderson’s Henry which was going into syndication as a daily newspaper strip.  Henry was mute single panel about the misadventures of a boy about 9 years old.  The Post wanted another child character.  Marge gave them a girl.  In a rare interview she later explained, “a girl could get away with more fresh stunts that in a boy would seem boorish.”
Little Lulu began its weekly installments in the Post in the February 23, 1935 issue.  Lulu was hardly recognizable from her late form except for the sausage ling curls from Marge’s own childhood.  Like Henry, it was mute early in its run.
Eventually Lulu did speak—quite sassily—she also developed a supporting cast, most importantly a chubby pal Joe who would later be renamed Tubby.
Just as the popularity of Little Lulu was taking off, Marge married Clarence Addison Buell, a wealthy Bell Telephone executive.  The two took up residence in the upscale Philadelphia suburb of Malvern.  The couple agreed that Clarence would turn down job promotions that would require that they move.  Marge would work mostly from home and limit her activity so that she could devote time to her husband and two sons, Larry born in 1939 and Fred born in 1942.  

A rare photo of Marjorie Henderson Buell with her oldest son, Larry.

That agreement limited continuing outside work as an illustrator or initiating new projects.  But Marge, a shrewd businesswoman, turned her attention to marketing Lulu and maximizing revenues from her.  She insisted on maintaining the copyright for Little Lulu in her own name instead of signing it over the Curtis Publishing, owners of the Post as was common.  That gave her complete control over the character.
In 1939 she licensed a Little Lulu doll made by the Knickerbocker Toy Company.  Not only did these become a hot item in department store toy departments, but the Post and Ladies Home Journal gave tens of thousands away as a premium for taking out two year subscriptions.

A copy of a lobby card poster for the Little Lulu cartoon shorts of the 1940's.  The title of the most recent release would be printed in the lower white box.

Beginning in 1943 Famous Studios produced 28 animated theatrical shorts for Paramount Studios that entertained audiences until 1947 when Buell demanded a more lucrative deal.  Paramount replaced her with a red-headed clone Little Audrey.
In 1944 Buell sighed a deal for Lulu to become the mascot of Kleenex brand tissues.  She appeared in print ads, on billboards, in store displays, her voice was heard on the radio, and eventually she showed up on Television on programs like the Perry Como Show which was sponsored by the tissues.  From 1952 to 1965 the Lulu even appeared in an elaborate animated billboard in Times Square in New York designed by Artkraft Strauss.  The ad campaign was a success and made Kleenex the dominant brand of tissue in America, so widely used that its name became generic.  It also made Buell a very wealthy woman.

An early version of the changing animated electric billboard featuring Lulu for Kleenex in Times Square for thirteen years.

Beginning during World War II, the first print ads were properly patriotic.  The company bragged in the press that, “the little curly-haired girl in red spends her time reminding Americans to conserve to support the war effort.”  Despite this patriotic twist the Saturday Evening Post was unhappy to see its most popular cartoon feature used in product endorsements, but since Buell retained the copyright there was nothing the magazine could do to stop it.  Pressure brought on Buell led to strained relations.  The Post published its last Little Lulu panel in its December 30, 1944 issue.
Buell retired from personally illustrating Little Lulu thereafter, except for the lucrative Kleenex campaign.  But she maintained tight control over design and content of subsequent projects.  And there were many of them as Buell turned her attention to aggressively marketing her prize character.
First was entering the burgeoning comic book industry.  Buell signed a deal with Western Publishing in 1947 which made Lulu the lead story in 10 issues of the Dell Four Color comic book and then began a long run in her own magazine under the name Marge’s Little Lulu.  The comic was written and illustrated by John Stanley under Buell’s loose direction.  The comic continued under the Dell, Gold Key, and Whitman labels until Western Publishing exited the comic book business in 1984 with issue #268.  Tubby got his own comic that also ran for several years.  In addition there were numerous special editions, giants, book compellations, and eventually reprints.  Artist Irving Trip and others took over for Stanley after he retired.
The comic book kept Lulu in the public eye and Buell aggressively marketed products featuring her including greeting cards, balloons, toys, bean bags, towels, and children’s apparel.
In 1950 the Chicago Tribune–New York News Syndicate began syndicated a daily four-panel strip and a Sunday color strip.  It was marketed as a competitor to Ernie Bushmiller’s quirky and popular Nancy.  Buell took a more hands on approach to the strip in the early days than she did with the comic book.  She wrote some of the scripts and even produced some roughs.  Woody Kimbrell was the initial artist followed by Roger Armstrong in 1964 and Ed Nofziger from 1966 until the strip was canceled in 1969. 
Buell resisted pleas by the artists and even her two sons to introduce Black and other minority characters like other popular kid strips, notably Peanuts had done.  She was at heart deeply conservative and conventional and her own suburban experience had been virtually completely free of any regular contact with minorities except as maids and servants. 
After the end of the daily strip and given the changing tastes of the country, Buell retired in 1971 and finally sold her rights to Lulu to Western Publishing. 
After the death of her husband she lived in Ohio near or with her son Larry.  She died on May 30, 1993 at the age of 88 of lymphoma in Elyria, Ohio. 
Larry became a professor of American Literature at Harvard, and her son Fred a professor of English at Queens College.
Lulu comics and comic books have been translated and reprinted in dozens of languages around the world.  In addition to most major European languages she has appeared in Arabic, Catalan, Chinese, Japanese, Hebrew, Indonesian, Korean, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, and Vietnamese.
Lulu lived on in various guises even after the comic books stopped publication.   There were two half hour live action ABC Weekend Specials in the early ‘70’s.  Japan’s Nippon Productions produced two seasons of Little Lulu and Her Little Friends which ran in ABC’s Saturday morning cartoon block in 1975 and ’76.  Canada’s CINAR produced a new series for HBO, The Little Lulu Show from 1995 to ’99 with Tracy Ulman voicing Lulu in the first season.  These shows are still in reruns on Canadian TV.

The odd Brazilian spin-off with Lulu and her friends as teens. 

Perhaps the oddest appearance was Luluzinha Teen e sua Turma (Little Lulu Teen and her Gang) a Brazilian comic book in the Japanese manga style that portrayed Lulu and her friends as teenagers.  The series ran for 65 issues between 2005 and earlier this year.
In 2006, Buell’s family donated the Marge Papers to Harvard’s Schlesinger Library including a collection of fan mail, comic books, scrapbooks, original art, and a complete set of the newspaper strips.
But perhaps the most Marge’s most significant legacy was the Friends of Lulu founded by Trina Robbins and other women artists and figures in the world of comic books and comic strips in 1994 at a comics convention.  In 1997 the first annual Lulu conference and Lulu Awards were held in California.  The organization also sponsors an amateur press association that fosters the fanzines where many women get their start in the comics industry, and has published a number of books including How to Get Girls (Into Your Store), a guide for comics shop owners on how to make their stores more female-friendly; Broad Appeal, an anthology of comics by women artists; and The Girls' Guide to Guys’ Stuff featuring over 50 female cartoonists.
Unfortunately the Friends of Lulu ran afoul of IRS regulations for non-profits and had its tax-exempt status revoked leading to the organization being formally dissolved in 2011.  Former members and supporter still gather at comics conventions, especially Comic-Con International in San Diego where they present a play based on a script from a Little Lulu comic book every year.

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