August 17, 2015

Strange As it Seems!

Mary Shelley’s own story of having first imagined Frankenstein as a waking dream became a pop culture anecdote, endlessly repeated. Here, in a cartoon panel from March 1950, a generic Mary tosses around in a Forties hairdo and negligee, dreaming up the plot “for the amusement of friends”.

Created by writer and artist John Hix, the Strange as It Seems newspaper feature launched in 1928 to immediate success and a syndicated career that would span 42 years. The strip’s popularity triggered a series of movie shorts from Universal and Columbia, eventually packaged for television, and a long-running radio series with episodes reissued on records. The features were recycled in book collections and comic books.  

Obviously inspired by Robert Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Hix quickly staked out his own territory, favoring mild curiosities and oddball facts while Ripley’s strip skewed sensationalistic and downright weird. The difference in tone would serve Hix when, in 1935, the Pacific International Exposition in San Diego invited him to replace Ripley’s exhibit of '34, judged “too gruesome”. Again, in ’39, the New York World’s Fair picked Hix over Ripley for its exhibition of curiosities. Ripley countered by setting up his Odditorium on land just outside the Fair’s jurisdiction.

John Hix succumbed to a heart attack on D-Day — dare I say "strange as it seems" —, June 6, 1944, a few days short of his 37th birthday. Through the coming years, the strip would be passed on to a long line of family members. John’s brother, Ernest, picked up as researcher and writer, relying on artists Dick Kirby and Doug Heyes, and ran the feature until his own sudden demise, in a 1948 plane crash. Ernest’s wife, Elsie Huber Hix, continued on with artist George Jahns until she retired in 1963. Her son, Ernest Jr. and his wife Phyllis ran the strip with art by Jahns until the feature folded in 1972. John Hix’s grandnephew, Jeff, is currently curator of the Hix archives.

The Mary Shelley panel was from Elsie’s tenure, with perfunctory art by Jahns. The ‘waking dream’ anecdote had first been used by John Hix back in 1936, on radio episode #195, as “How ‘Frankenstein’ was inspired by a nightmare”.

A detailed history of Hix’s Strange as It Seems, on Digital Deli.
A 1937 Strange as It Seems short from Columbia about Revolutionary War hero, the Marquis de Lafayette.
A video history of John Hix on the Strange as It Seems YouTube channel, run by Jeff Hix. 

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