Madge’s Magic: A Look at a Forgotten Graphic Masterpiece
Jenny E. Robb and Richard D. Olson examine Madge, the Magician’s Daughter by the little-known W.O. Wilson.
In 1906 and 1907, W.O. Wilson drew Madge, the Magician’s Daughter for the North American Co. The strip appeared regularly as the front page of the San Francisco Call Sunday comics section. It was an exciting strip that combined the two leading characteristics of successful newspaper comics of that period: one or more children who often seemed to get into trouble and some elements of surrealism. Further, given Wilson’s artistic abilities and storylines, it is no surprise that Madge was very popular.
What is surprising, however, is that today the artist, the strip and even the newspaper have become all but anonymous. W. O. Wilson is the invisible man. Almost no biographical information about him has survived, not even his first name. His earliest work seems to be a full-page cartoon on the automobile in the April 6, 1899, issue of the New York Herald. He had other one-shot comics and then drew The Richleigh Family from May 1 to Oct. 23, 1904. Next he created The Wish Twins and Aladdin’s Lamp, which was published from Oct. 30, 1904 to Jan. 5, 1908. The very next week, Wilson started a strip titled Ba Ba, which only lasted until July 26 of that year. Madge, the Magician’s Daughter overlapped the Wish Twins and was published from at least Sept. 2, 1906 to Aug. 25, 1907.
When Wilson stopped drawing newspaper comic strips, he did not abandon cartooning altogether. He contributed single-panel cartoons and illustrations to the thriving magazine market, including Harper’s Weekly, Puck, Life and Judge. His work continued to appear in weekly magazines until at least 1918. The tag “suggested by A.Crawford” or “+a.c.” frequently followed Wilson’s distinctive signature in his magazine cartoons. Arthur Crawford provided gags and ideas to numerous artists in the early twentieth century and acted as an agent by submitting portfolios of cartoons to various magazine editors. He committed suicide after suffering a nervous breakdown in 1922.
Many of Wilson’s Judge cartoons were reprinted by the Leslie-Judge Co. in an anthology series called Caricature: Wit and Humor of a Nation in Picture, Song and Story. In addition to his magazine and newspaper work, Wilson illustrated a book written by Marian A. Hilton called The Garden of Girls: A Story, published by the Tandy-Thomas Co. in 1909.
Madge, the Magician’s Daughter is now an unknown comic even though it was the front-page headliner of a major newspaper’s comic section. The pages reprinted here show an attractive young girl who has difficulties when she tries unsuccessfully to impress her friends by doing magic tricks that she has watched her father perform. As we looked at these pages, we could not help but think of Mickey Mouse in his role as the sorcerer’s apprentice. Wilson’s strip appeared 30 years before the Disney version, which was based on the traditional German fairy tale interpreted as a poem by Goethe in 1779. Perhaps Goethe’s poem also inspired Wilson when he created the comic strip’s central device.
The best-known fantasy strips published at that time, such as Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland and Lyonel Feininger’s Kin-der-Kids and Wee Willie Winkie’s World, starred boys, but Wilson made his child protagonist a girl and cast her in stories featuring dinosaurs, dragons, mermaids, pirates and Indians—the adventures usually associated with boys. The only similar example featuring a girl was The Naps of Polly Sleepyhead by Peter Newell, but after nine months Newell dropped the fantasy element and transformed it into a strip about children playing pranks. Also, unlike Polly, Wilson incorporated innovative panel formatting that added to the strip’s distinctiveness. Only two of the pages in the sample reprinted here use the same physical layout, although others use the same conceptual schema. For example, the pages with the chameleon, mermaids, dragon and sea monster each use a dynamic center panel to catch the eye, even though the shape varies from a rectangle to a circle to a diamond.
The San Francisco Call no longer exists. According to Faulkinbury, who has traced the history of many California newspapers, it started as the Morning Call in December 1856 and was renamed the San Francisco Call in March 1895. It merged with the Evening Post in December 1913 and became the San Francisco Call and Post until August 1929. At that time it merged with the San Francisco Bulletin and became the Call-Bulletin until August 1959.
Finally, Wilson’s work was distributed by the North American Co., which has also disappeared and should not be confused with the North America Syndicate (formerly called the News America Syndicate), acquired by King Features in 1987.