Monday, August 9, 2010


"Too much caffeine, Tom?" That's the line I remember from the Robert Young Sanka commercials in the '80s. I'm not a coffee drinker, so I never understood the appeal of a decaffeinated coffee like Sanka. Coffee has long been a part of American life, particularly as a way to start the morning. Anybody can make it at home with their Mr. Coffee. At restaurants for breakfast, it's assumed you'll want a cup. Most employers provide it for free. Was it that coffee was so woven into our societal fabric that the alternative was a coffee-like drink?

Competing with Sanka was Postum, a coffee substitute made from wheat, and the first product of cereal magnate C.W. Post. As one ad read - "Children brought up on Postum are free from the evil effects of caffeine - the habit-forming drug - in coffee and tea." In the 1930s, the Johnstone and Cushing ad agency created an ad campaign for Postum built around a villainous character named "Mr. Coffee Nerves" in a comic strip format. Each ad involved someone acting like a jerk, egged on by Mr. Coffee Nerves. Those around the jerk suggested the jerky behavior was due to caffeine. Once they switch to Postum, everyone likes them again and their problem is resolved.
In 1936, the agency turned to cartoonists Noel Sickles and Milton Caniff to do their weekly ads, which appeared in the Sunday comics section. The impetus for the deal is not clear(i.e., how were they approached, did one get it and ask the other's help, or was it a package deal). They shared a studio in New York, with their drawing tables facing each other. Caniff had just started his second year of 'Terry & the Pirates'. Sickles was midway through his brief but legendary run on 'Scorchy Smith'. The ads were signed under a joint pseudonym - Paul Arthur - a combination of Sickles' and Caniff's middle names.

As studio mates, the influence they had on each other cannot be understated. Even though each helped the other out from time to time, the 'Mr. Coffee Nerves' strips were thought to be a rare collaboration. The remembrances of who did what on the ads diverge. Comics historian Ron Goulart wrote that Sickles "drew everything except the villain" and that Caniff drew the ghostly Coffee Nerves "and handled the inking."1 Fellow historian and collector Rick Marschall corroborates Goulart's account, citing his videotaped interview with Caniff in which the artist revealed "all was Sickles in the 'Coffee Nerves' ads except Caniff's comic villain himself."2 Since both accounts are from the same book, it's possible that Goulart's source is Marschall's interview.
R.C. Harvey's Caniff biography has a different account. Harvey cites his interview with Sickles in which the artist related that "Milt and I didn't collaborate on them at all. Rather, he and I did them on alternate weeks."3 So, who really did what? With both men being interviewed around 40 years after doing the job, it's no wonder the recollections diverge. With their art styles so similar at the time, Harvey feels it's not possible to tell who did what. Personally, I'm curious as to who has the originals. The Cartoon Research Library database lists a file with clippings, but not the original drawings. Did Johnstone and Cushing keep them? If so, they disbanded in 1962 and it's unclear what happened to their files.

Volume two of 'The Complete Color Terry & the Pirates by Milton Caniff' reprinted all of the 'Mr. Coffee Nerves' strips. The three examples below are from that book. Sadly, this book was the last of a planned 16-volume set. It wouldn't be until the Library of American Comics six-volume set of the last decade that we would see all of Caniff's Sunday 'Terry' strips in color. Paul Arthur surfaced briefly in 1977, trying unsuccessfully to sell a Bruce Lee comic strip written by Caniff with art by Sickles.4

1Marschall, Rick, ed., 'The Complete Color Terry & the Pirates by Milton Caniff, Volume II - 1935-1936', 1990, Remco Worldservice Books, Abington, MA, p.9
2Ibid. p.20
3Harvey, R.C., 'Meanwhile...:A Biography of Milton Caniff, Creator of Terry & the Pirates and Steve Canyon', 2007, Fantagraphics Books, Seattle, p.276
4Mullaney, Dean, ed., 'Scorchy Smith & the Art of Noel Sickles', 2008, IDW Publishing, San Diego, p.131

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