10 April, 2009

Jimmy Swinnerton

James Guilford Swinnerton was an American cartoonist and artist. His nickname was Jimmy. He signed some of his early cartoons Swin, and one ephemeral comic strip Guilford.

He was born in Eureka, California, the son of Judge J. W. Swinnerton. He entered the San Francisco School of Design at age 14, and there studied under Emil Carlsen. In 1892 he became a staff cartoonist for Hearst's San Francisco Examiner. One of his first assignments was to produce a weekly cartoon for the children's section of the paper. The title of this series was successively California Bears, The Little Bears, and Little Bears and Tykes. Some critics have called the bears series the first comic strip, preceding The Yellow Kid by three years. This assertion is debatable, depending on the definition of comic strip, but Swinnerton was certainly drawing multi-panel stories with speech balloons by 1900.

In 1896 he moved to New York by invitation to produce comic strips for the Journal American, another Hearst paper. He drew a few more Little Bears for the paper, followed by some strips with a Noah's Ark setting, referred to as Mount Ararat. He hit upon a durable theme with a series of strips featuring anthropomorphic tigers, which soon took the title Mr. Jack. Mr. Jack, as the character developed, was an inveterate philanderer, to his wife's distress. Some of his misdeeds were considered unsuitable for juvenile readers. The strip had its last appearance in the Sunday color supplement in 1904. In a later revival (1912-1919) it appeared in the editorial pages. Meanwhile, Swinnerton continued to fill his Sunday space with a new character, a scatterbrained boy named Jimmy. He drew Jimmy in various formats, eventually under the title Little Jimmy, until 1958 (with a hiatus from 1941 to 1945). A peculiarity of Swinnerton's comic strips is that speeches appear in quotes within the speech balloons.

Around 1905, a doctor told Swinnerton that he was suffering from tuberculosis and had two weeks to live. Determined to defeat the prognosis, Swinnerton hopped on a train to Arizona, recovered, and stayed there. He alternated between residences in Arizona and California for most of his life.

The spectacular Arizona desertscape began to influence Swinnerton's artistic output. From 1922 to 1941, he produced a series of picture stories titled Canyon Kiddies for Good Housekeeping magazine (a Hearst publication). The Canyon Kiddies stories usually consisted of several lush color illustrations with captions in verse. In 1940, he painted fifty backgrounds for Warner Brothers for a Chuck Jones cartoon featuring the Canyon Kiddies, titled Mighty Hunters. He also painted desert scenes as a fine artist from about 1920 to 1965. His canvases are still in demand.

A natural arch in Monument Valley was named Swinnerton Arch in his honor.

Swinnerton died in Palm Springs at the age of 98.

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