Everybody's Friend: Remembering Stan Lee and Dan DeCarlo's "My Friend Irma"
You’re not familiar with Irma Peterson? In the ’50s, she was Queen of All Media. Andrew Pepoy examines her comic strip incarnation
(Note: This article first appeared in Hogan's Alley #16.)
In the early 1950s, “My Friend Irma” was everywhere, blaring from radios, causing lines at movie theatres, flickering on early televisions and shining brightly on the newsstands as an Atlas comic book written by Stan Lee and drawn by Dan DeCarlo. “Irma” seemed to conquer each new media she tried. Who was “Irma,” you ask? “My Friend Irma” started out as a 1947 summer-replacement radio show but soon became a hit in its own right. Irma Peterson was the dumb-but-sexy blonde with a heart of gold. She caused all sorts of trouble for those around her, especially her roommate, Jane, who narrated Irma’s hijinx. Irma was played by Marie Wilson, who had made a specialty of playing innocent-but-dumb blondes since the mid-’30s. Wilson, whose wide-eyed face and well-endowed figure barely seemed to age over the years, had started out as a Warner Bros. starlet starring alongside James Cagney, Pat O’Brien and others. She also had a featured role in Satan Met Lady, a later adaptation of The Maltese Falcon, but her career hadn’t fared well for a time. Spotted performing live in Earl Carroll’s Vanities and cast as Irma, Wilson was soon back in the big time as Irma. The radio show, which ran until 1954, spun off a My Friend Irma movie (1949)—which also launched the screen careers of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis—and its sequel, My Friend Irma Goes West (1950).
(To view the images, click on the thumbnails.)
The year 1950 also saw the start of the successful five-year, 48-issue run of Atlas Comics’ My Friend Irma comic book, every issue done by the team of Lee and DeCarlo. DeCarlo, one of the undisputed masters of comics cheesecake, was the perfect artist to draw the innocently sexy Irma. Then in 1952, while continuing on radio, Irma moved to television for a two-and-a-half year run, memorable among other aspects for Wilson’s ample and well-displayed endowments, which were a real wake-up call (at least for this author) that there was something alluring about girls.
So, what’s missing from this history of success upon success? The one place Irma tried to conquer but failed was the newspaper comics page. In 1950, Mirror Enterprises Syndicate launched a My Friend Irma daily strip, written and drawn by Jack Seidel (see below). Who? Obviously not destined for bigger and better things in the comics world, Seidel proved unable to write a joke and, worst of all for a character like Irma—so personified in the public’s eye by the curvaceous Marie Wilson—couldn’t draw a pretty, much less sexy, girl. After two years the syndicate made the wise move of bringing in Stan Lee and Dan DeCarlo from the hit Irma comic book. Lee’s jokes were snappy and much more in the tone of the character, and DeCarlo’s art was, as always, fantastic cheesecake. Unfortunately, it was a case of the right idea done too late, and it was too late to save the strip, Lee and DeCarlo’s run lasting about a year.
(Below are examples of Seidel's work on Irma. To view the images, click on the thumbnails.)
While the My Friend Irma comic books are pretty easy to find, though getting tougher and pricier, the newspaper strip has remained pretty much unseen, even among DeCarlo’s biggest fans. I was lucky enough to stumble across a one-month run of dailies a few years back, and these strips are the only ones I or other DeCarlo fans I know had ever seen.
The strip couldn’t have been in many papers in its later days, but perhaps more survive. And was there a Sunday Irma? A friend of mine asked Lee himself recently, and he couldn’t even remember having done the strip version. I asked DeCarlo before he died in 2001, and he couldn’t remember if a Sunday version had been syndicated or not. If any Hogan’s Alley readers have further information or material, please contact us.
Despite the unanswered questions, here is a truly rare strip by two of comics’ greats—a glimpse of a now largely forgotten pop culture phenomenon.—Andrew Pepoy
Andrew Pepoy has drawn the Little Orphan Annie newspaper strip and currently works on comic books including Jack of Fables for DC Comics and Futurama for Bongo Comics. His website is pepoy.com.
Note: For those interested in more about Marie Wilson, the author recommends Charles Tranberg’s Not So Dumb: The Life and Career of Marie Wilson by Charles Tranberg, published in 2007 by Bear Manor Media. For more on My Friend Irma, many of the radio shows survive and can be found through various old-time radio show dealers such as www.otrcat.com. The television series, being done live, is almost entirely lost, and only three episodes are known to have survived as kinescopes, though a short bit with the Irma cast can be found on “Stars in the Air,” a 1952 special celebrating the opening of Television City in Hollywood and available at www.otrdvd.com. The two movies, conveniently, were recently release as a double-feature DVD by Paramount.
Bonus: What About Willie?
Stan Lee and Dan DeCarlo also collaborated on the Willie Lumpkin newspaper strip, which began and ended in 1960. (Willie later gained comics immortality a few years later when Lee reincarnated him as the Fantastic Four's affable mailman.) We are pleased to present a sampling of this little-seen strip (click the thumbnails to see enlargements).