The Katzenjammer Kids

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The Katzenjammer Kids

The mischievous brothers Hans and Fritz Katzenjammer were invented by German-born cartoonist Rudolph Dirks in 1897. Along with the Yellow Kid, Happy Hooligan, and Little Nemo, they became pioneering stars of the American newspaper funny paper sections that burgeoned in the early 1900s. The Kids, along with their Mama, the Captain, and the Inspector, are also among the very few comics characters ever to have two separate and independent pages devoted to their activities.

The Kids—Fritz was the blond one and Hans the dark-haired brother in the original cartoons—made their debut in William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal on Sunday, December 12, 1897. Dirks was twenty when he was asked by his editor to come up with a feature in the vein of the fiendish youths Max and Moritz, created some three decades earlier in Germany by Wilhelm Busch. Much more than imitations, the Brothers Katzenjammer developed distinct personalities of their own. They were brilliant strategists, impressive orators, clever conversationalists, and experts at creating explosions, setting traps, and persuading assorted animals, especially elephants and wildcats, to participate in their schemes. They were dedicated to attacking conformity, pomposity, adult authority, and the traditional values held by society. Combining the best qualities of con men, burglars, guerrilla warriors, and jesters, they elevated prankery to a fine art. The lads, along with the other central characters, spoke in a sort of vaudeville Dutch dialect that was rich with such words as "dollink," "dumbkopf" and "dod-gasted."

Dirks broke with William Randolph Hearst in 1913 and, after protracted legal battles, took his characters to Joseph Pulitzer's rival New York World in 1914. The final court decision, however, basically affirmed that both Hearst and Dirks had the rights to the characters. In Hearst papers across the country The Katzenjammer Kids again appeared, while in those newspapers using World features the page was eventually called The Captain and the Kids. The new artist employed by Hearst to draw its strip was Harold H. Knerr, a talented cartoonist from Philadelphia who'd inked a Katzenjammer imitation titled The Fineheimer Twins for several years. Though he never explained why, Knerr switched the names of the boys, making Hans the fair-haired one and Fritz the darker one in his pages.

Both versions began setting the Katzenjammer Kids and the other characters in less urban, even exotic locales. The boys and their Mama, along with their star boarders, the Captain and the Inspector, began taking trips to all parts of the world. By the middle 1920s Dirks had his crew residing on a tropical island that was ruled over by black royalty. Although the Knerr and Dirks versions were supposed to be completely independent of one another, Knerr soon had his crew settling down on one of the Squee-Jee Islands. Knerr's island had similar rulers, but he added some new characters of his own in the persons of a spinster school teacher named Miss Twiddle and her two pupils, little blonde Lena and the curly-haired and hypocritical Rollo Rhubarb, who equaled the Kids in slyness and plotting. By adding Lena to the mix, Knerr was able to expand the range of Hans and Fritz's activities, and both of them suffered through spells of courting the girl.

By the late 1930s, both versions were being reprinted in competing comic books. For several years in that decade, the United Feature Syndicate, which had taken over the feature when the World folded, offered a daily The Captain and the Kids strip. Wacky in the Marx Brothers mode, this mock adventure strip was written and drawn by Bernard Dibble, a former Dirks assistant and ghost. Dirks continued to sign his page, but in the middle 1940s turned the drawing over to his son John. The senior Dirks died in 1968 and United stopped its version in 1979. Knerr died in 1949 and the Katzenjammers continued under such artists as Doc Winner, Joe Musial, and Hy Eisman, who was still drawing them in the 1990s.

—Ron Goulart

Further Reading:

Goulart, Ron, editor. The Encyclopedia of American Comics. New York, Facts On File, 1990.

Marschall, Richard. America's Great Comic Strip Artists. New York, Abbeville Press, 1989.