A Penny for Your Thoughts: A Look at Harry Haenigsen's "Penny"
One of the archetypal teenager comic strips during the heyday of sock hops and malt shops, Penny was a reflection of its times and a graphic tour de force. ED BLACK examines the life and career of the strip’s creator, Harry Haenigsen.
Comic strips starring teenagers have long been a staple of the comics page. Using history as a guide, the teens gave rise to the comics teens: Carl Ed created Seventeen in 1919 and rechristened it Harold Teen, which was syndicated until 1959. (For those keeping count, that’s a 40-year adolescence.) In 1915, Merrill Blosser created Freckles, who started out as a preteen but became a teenager in the mid-1920s and remained that age until the strip’s end in 1972. Ever since, teenagers have made the comics page their hangout, from Hilda Terry’s Teena to Archie and the Riverdale High gang on up through today’s cohort, including Jeremy Duncan in Zits and Luann DeGroot in Luann. While many creators consciously set out to create vehicles that targeted the teen strip reader, one such strip was born as a result of an offhand remark, but one that paid off handsomely for its creator, Harry William Haenigsen: Penny, which ran from June 20, 1943, until 1970.
Born in Manhattan on July 14, 1900, the young Haenigsen divided his spare time between his two passions: cartooning and electronics. In high school in New Jersey (the family moved to Pompton Lakes when he was small), young Harry got a part-time job drawing cartoons for the newspaper in Butler, N.J. One assignment had him trailing a local politician during a visit to a sewage treatment plant, and Harry sketched the official’s tumble into a vat of waste. His published drawing resulted in a lawsuit against the paper and named Haenigsen as a defendant.
As his high school career wound down, Haenigsen was leaning toward pursuing his other interest, electrical engineering, but a visit to the New York World changed that. Haenigsen went to the World offices to visit a cartoonist he had long admired, Thornton Fisher, the paper’s sports cartoonist. Fisher evidently saw promise in the young man’s work and offered him a proposition: If Haenigsen would attend the Art Students League in New York, Fisher would see that he got a job in the World’s cartooning bullpen. Haenigsen accepted the offer.
After Haenigsen’s studies at the art school, and instruction through the legendary Eugene “ZIM” Zimmerman’s cartooning correspondence course, he visited Fisher to complete their deal. Unfortunately, there were no bullpen positions available then, so Haenigsen took a job at J.R. Bray’s pioneering animation studio in 1918. Shortly afterwards, a _World_ bullpen position opened up, and in 1919 Haenigsen filled it. Apart from myriad art assignments (including courtroom sketch artist at the trial of Bruno Hauptmann, who was executed for kidnapping and killing Charles Lindbergh’s baby), Haenigsen found time to create his own strip in 1922, Simeon Batts. He also sold freelance cartoons to Collier’s, Life, The New Yorker, Photoplay and even a rival newspaper, the New York Evening Mail.
In 1925, Haenigsen married Bobby, who had worked under the stage name Jeanette Kerr. She was a singer and dancer who had performed with luminaries including George M. Cohan and John Philip Sousa. In 1937, they moved to Lumberville, Pa., in rural Bucks County, and in 1939 they moved to Lambertville, N.J. He kept his hand in the syndication game, and created a daily and Sunday strip, Our Bill, syndicated by the New York Herald-Tribune Syndicate beginning on March 6, 1939. At an office social function, Haenigsen was approached by Helen Reid, the wife of Ogden Reid, the Herald-Tribune’s managing editor. She suggested that Haenigsen create a strip starring a teenage girl. Afterward, Haenigsen began preparing some material, and the strip made its debut on June 29, 1943, and began building a healthy client list. Haenigsen enlisted Howard Boughner, a staff cartoonist at the Newspaper Enterprise Association and assistant on strips including Dumb Dora and Wash Tubbs, to help write gags.
Penny Pringle (full name: Penelope Mildred Pringle) was a member of a prototypical family seen in any entertainment genre: She lived with her parents, Roger and Mae, and her sister, Ellen. As depicted by Haenigsen, Penny was always moving, twisting, turning, reaching, or contorting in some manner. Haenigsen said he felt the impression of her movement drew the reader’s eye to the strip and made it interesting to read.
His work on Penny prompted Haenigsen to become an observer of young people’s fashions and language, and he kept current with trends and slang. He would sometimes visit a Lambertville malt shop. On October 6, 1946, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an article about Haenigsen, accompanied by a photo of him hosting a party for around 20 teenagers. In the photo, he sits on a stone wall and observes them as they talk and dance. The article said, “Many adults who follow Penny in the Inquirer undoubtedly have wondered how Harry Haenigsen keeps up to date and true to life with the latest bobby sox circles. A weekend visit to his farm in New Hope would end their bafflement—he holds open house for their neighborhood youngsters and because he laughs with them instead of at them, and enjoys being with then, they flock to his house. The only rule laid down by him and Mrs. Haenigsen is that they give notice of their coming so sufficient hot dogs, hamburgers and cokes may be on hand.” Another photo with the article shows Haenigsen as he sketches his daughter, Jeanne, as she lies on the floor while on the phone, in what the paper termed a “Penny pose.”
Although Haenigsen had the obligations of the daily and Sunday Penny and Our Bill strips, he found the time to indulge other creative endeavors, becoming the director of the Bucks County Playhouse and the Playhouse Inn in New Hope, Pa. He helped found the National Cartoonists Society in 1946 and the Famous Artists School cartooning course, along with fellow cartoonists Rube Goldberg, Milton Caniff, Al Capp, Virgil Partch, Whitney Darrow Jr. and others. Each of the top cartoonists wrote an essay about his specialty (Milton Caniff on adventure strips, Al Capp about humor strips, Willard Mullin on sports cartoons, Rube Goldberg on editorial cartoons, etc.). Haenigsen wrote about family strips. He described the process and materials he used for Penny: His dailies measured 4.5 inches by 17 inches and were drawn on three-ply Bristol board. He inked with a Gillott 290 and lettered with a Gillott 170. He filled in solid black areas with red sable brushes and used a razor blade to scratch mistakes out directly on the Bristol board.
“First I pencil the captions, just to find out roughly how much space they will occupy and how much space will be left for drawing. The wording of the captions is probably not as it will finally appear. I think about and usually change the balloons as I work on each panel.”
In his essay, he also revealed that he drew the last panel first. “It’s the strip’s climax and the attitudes and actions of the characters are usually easy to determine,” he wrote. “I then regard the rest of the strip as build-up to the last picture. This build-up should move along as quickly as clarity will permit.” He wrote that he then moved on to the first panel, which he said performs several functions: “it should tell the who, what, why, when and where; so in the first panel I usually identify the characters by name and tell who they are. I also try to show by their attitudes and expressions what the mood of the strip will be, what it will be about. I show, too, by their costumes and the panel’s background where the action is taking place. The second and third panels are drawn in whatever order seems best at the time.”
Haenigsen used his essay to demonstrate his flair for depicting character movement and action. He showed Penny sitting stiffly on a sofa, then proceeds through a series of rough drawings to show Penny reclining on the sofa, her arms outstretched, one leg over the arm of the sofa with a shoe dangling from her foot. “Work on the hands of your characters,” he said. “Nothing gives as much action to quiet poses as animated hands.” But he also counseled students not to get carried away: “The amount of action you use should depend on the type of strip you draw,” he wrote. “People at home seldom swing from the chandeliers—too much action can spoil all feeling of reality. In fact, complete absence of action sometimes is the proper action to get the greatest effect out of an idea.” Between his cartooning, correspondence teaching and theater work, Haenigsen was able to satisfy his wide-ranging creative impulses, and he had the resources to indulge himself. One such indulgence was the purchase of a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL “gullwing” coupe—one of just 1,400 produced between 1954 and 1957—that had belonged to Clark Gable. Haenigsen sold the car in the early 1970s to Charles Wood, often referred to as “the father of the theme park.”
May 29, 1968, began like any other day. The Haenigsens were making a routine trip to Trenton to mail a batch of strips to the syndicate. When their car entered the intersection of River Road and Route 532 in Upper Makefield Township a little after 4 p.m., they were broadsided by two 21-year-old female college students who had been apartment hunting and failed to observe the stop sign. The Haenigsens were thrown from their car, and all four were taken to the nearby hospital. The students were treated and released, and Harry Haenigsen was treated for cuts, bruises and a concussion. Bobby Haenigsen never regained consciousness and died the next day. She was 66 and had been married to Harry for 43 years.
Heartbroken, Haenigsen was unable to return to the drawing board that had helped build their lives together. His bosses at the syndicate sympathized, but they also had a product to deliver and deadlines to meet, so they gave the strip to Bill Hoest, who was assisting on the strip and who would go on to greater fame as the creator of strips including The Lockhorns, Howard Huge, Agatha Crumm and What a Guy. But at the time he inherited Penny, he was grateful for the work. “He did all of the work on the strip,” Hoest’s widow, Bunny, recently recalled. “He was paid $400 a month. Bill did the strip for about a year and a half. It was like graduate school for comic strips.” She said he never signed his own name to Penny: “He never took credit,” she said. “It was always signed ‘Haenigsen.’ ”
As Hoest’s cartooning workload grew, he relinquished Penny, and the strip began carrying the byline of Larry Flannery, the syndicate apparently deciding that the strip no longer required its original creator’s name. But time had caught up with Penny, and the strip was discontinued altogether in October 1970. (Our Bill had been canceled in 1966.) Malt shops and sock hops were cultural relics, and Penny no longer had a place on the comics page.
Times also changed for Haenigsen, who remarried in 1977 to Ellen A. Hall. He continued pursuing his non-cartooning interests, acting as the director of the first Lambertville Shad Festival in 1981, the same year he published a shad cookbook. (In 1966, Haenigsen had contributed a recipe to The Cartoonist Cookbook.) He never took up cartooning again and died on May 29, 1991, at Warminster General Hospital in Warminster, Pa.