From Hogan’s Alley #22: The Unsinkable Betty Brown
Women in comic strips began joining the labor force in the early 20th century, reflecting actual demographic changes in U.S. society. Secretaries, receptionists and nannies began pulling paychecks on the comics page, and 1940 saw Brenda Starr kick off her reporting career. Though these jobs required a range of skills, they didn’t require a college degree. But beginning in 1934, one woman in comics held a job that required a degree: Betty Brown, the pharmacist in the comic strip Betty Brown, Ph.G.
Betty Brown, Ph.G. appeared in Drug Topics, a tabloid circulated nationally to the pharmacy trade. Drug Topics began publication in 1886, and in the 1930s its publisher (the Topics Publishing Company) boosted its frequency from bimonthly to weekly and expanded its cartoon content. For the most part, these cartoons were by accomplished cartoonists such as Ed Graham (Life) and Don Herold (The New Yorker). Ralph Fuller (not the Ralph Fuller who created Oaky Doaks) created It’s a Fact, a full-page Believe It or Not-style collection of medicinal oddities that often served as a showcase for depicting comely women of antiquity in various stages of undress. Drug Topics also ran contributed cartoon panels from pharmacists who sought the thrill of being a published cartoonist, complete with credit identifying the name and location of their drugstore.
The expanded cartoon fare began with the first weekly issue of Drug Topics on January 8, 1934. One of the cartoons was a conventional comic strip titled Bob Steele, Ph.G. (A person who earned a Ph.G., a designation no longer used, at a minimum had graduated from pharmacy school; some states awarded the designation after also completing a defined period of work in the pharmacy trade.) Bob Steele, Ph.G. was created by Grant Powers (1899–1978), a Marine who served in both world wars and who drew cartoons for Stars and Stripes, among other publications. (Gunnery Sergeant Grant Powers was also the official combat artist for the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb detonations in 1946.)
Powers’ protagonist, Bob Steele, was perhaps a competent pharmacist, but once he was thrust unexpectedly into the position of running the entire store, he was shown to be a hopelessly inept businessman. (Powers regularly showed Bob gleaning useful information from Drug Topics, which he presumably intended to please his publisher, but his ability to operate a drugstore never improved as a result of reading the tabloid.) His staff consisted of Happy Thompson, the staff soda jerk, and Vichy Jones, the clerk (about whom, more later).
By summer 1934, change came to Bob Steele, Ph. G. Beginning with the July 23 strip, Zack Mosley began producing the strip. (Drug Topics made no mention of the creative change.) Mosley made no attempt to smooth the transition from Powers’ frenetic pen line to his own polished style. Immediately in place were Mosley’s slick, detailed renderings and his exquisite lettering (also a stark change from Powers’ cruder calligraphy). But the bigger change came the next week, on July 30, when Mosley introduced a “fancy goods saleslady” who we soon learn is a pharmacy school graduate named Betty Brown. On August 13, a family medical emergency forced Bob Steele to leave town and hand the business over to Betty (paralleling the events that gave Bob ownership of the pharmacy). In the next week’s strip, Betty’s unplanned corporate takeover became complete as the strip was retitled Betty Brown, Ph.G., the title it would retain for the remainder of its run into 1948.
Apart from the obvious narrative, stylistic and titular changes, Mosley further altered the strip. He introduced Abner Kutter, a ruthless, diabolical antagonist who was a rival pharmacist. Unable to abide a competitor—especially a female—Kutter would pursue any means to destroy Betty’s business. Mosley also introduced a strain of melodramatic continuity that ran through the strip for the rest of its run, crafting extended plotlines and introducing numerous recurring characters.
Betty soon proved herself a formidable business owner, unlike her predecessor Bob Steele. Despite the forces arrayed against her (often engineered by Kutter), she always emerged professionally triumphant. Not so with her romantic life, however. Betty was forever unlucky in love, as one potential suitor after another moved through the strip, having tried and failed to win Betty’s heart. Her broken romances usually led her to redouble her commitment to running her pharmacy.
For pharmacies (like all businesses), the period that saw Betty’s debut was an eventful one. The Depression was in full force, and Drug Topics advocated for issues that it felt would benefit its pharmacist audience. For example, it backed what were known as fair trade laws. These laws grew out of the New Deal’s National Recovery Administration, under which manufacturers could establish minimum prices for their products. “Fair trade” was a rallying cry for the U.S. drugstore industry in the 1930s, almost single-handedly ignited by California pharmacist Edna Gleason, who became known as the “mother of fair trade” for her battles against chain stores and “pineboards,” the discount outlets that sold overstocked brands at discount prices. The fair trade movement she spearheaded applied price controls to brand-name medicines and toiletries. In supporting the movement, Drug Topics dutifully reported as state after state implemented fair trade legislation. Such laws, the publisher believed, would prevent pharmacists from undercutting each other and would allow more of their numbers to remain viable. Thus, when Abner Kutter sought to reduce his prices in 1934 in an illegal effort to attract business away from Betty Brown, one of Betty’s employees informed the authorities, foiling Kutter’s plot and landing him in hot water.
In October 1933—less than a year before he began producing Betty Brown—Mosley had launched his own nationally syndicated Sunday-only comic strip, On the Wing (soon retitled Smilin’ Jack). In June 1936, Smilin’ Jack—by then a bona fide hit—graduated to daily status. Mosley’s syndicate, the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate, didn’t want their new star signing his name to outside work. So although the syndicate didn’t force him to relinquish Betty Brown, it did make him stop putting his name on it, so for the rest of its run it carried the pseudonymous byline “Cliff Terrell.” In a 1979 letter to Strip Scene magazine, Mosley—who had worked as a soda jerk in a pharmacy as a young man in Oklahoma—reminisced about Betty Brown (mistakenly recalling it as a monthly strip). In part, he wrote, “In June 1936, I started a ‘Smilin’ Jack’ daily along with the Sunday. The work load was too much. I hired my art school pal Boody Rogers to be my assistant. Also my new contract with the CTNYNS did not permit me to do outside work using ‘Zack Mosley,’ so I used my middle name, Terrell, and where th’ hell I got Cliff, I don’t know.”
Although the syndicate required a byline change, it didn’t mandate a stylistic change, so with the September 21, 1936, strip, “Cliff Terrell” began producing Betty Brown, and that pseudonym was on every subsequent Betty Brown strip. Mosley’s syndicate bosses apparently didn’t mind their new star producing work that looked like Smilin’ Jack as long as his name wasn’t on it.
Gordon “Boody” Rogers—like Mosley, born in the Oklahoma Territory in the early years of the 20th century before it became a state—had been assisting his friend on Smilin’ Jack. But as Mosley began focusing on the increasingly successful Smilin’ Jack, Boody’s role on Betty Brown grew and his fingerprints became more apparent. Where Mosley’s stories hewed closely to soapy, traditional melodrama, Rogers’ propensity for bigfoot galoots and physical comedy began to assert itself. (Rogers even introduced a hillbilly family, complete with a matriarch gumming a corncob pipe, in a 1939 sequence.) Under Rogers’ stewardship, Betty began transforming into a voluptuous Rogers Woman (a look that reached its apotheosis in his 1950s Ozarks-set comic book Babe). Her fashion sense evolved, her hemline billowed operatically, and her coiffure became more elaborate. Despite such cosmetic changes, Rogers remained aware of who was reading the strip: subscribing pharmacists. She continued to battle supply shortages, price wars and the persistent machinations of Abner Kutter.
But Mosley was not the only creator with another project beckoning for his time and attention. Like every cartoonist’s assistant, Rogers yearned for a strip of his own. In April 1940, he achieved his goal with the debut of the superhero parody Sparky Watts, a daily newspaper strip syndicated by the Frank Jay Markey Syndicate that ran for only a couple of years and then migrated to comic books. (Rogers put a near-doppelganger of Sparky Watts into Betty Brown when he introduced fellow pharmacist—and recurring romantic interest—R.X. Mix in October 1939. Like Sparky, Mix sported a wavy blond coif parted in the middle and wore round eyeglasses.)
We can reasonably infer that Mosley and Rogers’ obligations to their daily strips began taking a toll on Betty Brown. From its debut as Bob Steele in 1934, Betty Brown had been a fixture in nearly every weekly issue of Drug Topics (and almost always at the top of the page). But by the middle of 1938, it began skipping issues. Only three Betty Brown strips ran in the entire first half of 1942 (although Rogers drew an occasional advertisement for a consumer product). [RUN SMITH BROS AD] It’s likely, then, that few Drug Topics readers were shocked when on September 21, 1942, the original run of Betty Brown came to an end. This final strip’s gag was built on her clerk’s hatred of Japanese beetles at a time when the United States was at war with Japan. It was a fittingly patriotic coda: Boody Rogers had enlisted for a stint in the army.
Speaking of Betty’s longtime clerk, no appreciation of Betty Brown is complete without a discussion of Ragtime Jones, one of the two supporting characters introduced by Grant Powers in the Bob Steele era. (The other one was soda jerk Happy Thompson, who was used sparingly by Mosley and written out altogether by Rogers.) Originally named Vichy Jones (and renamed Ragtime by Mosley on September 17, 1934), he was always Betty’s unswervingly loyal friend, close confidant, fierce defender and ardent supporter. He was also, however, an unfortunate example of the type of African American character that was for years a comedic staple of popular entertainment, one whose appearance and speech offend modern eyes. (For the purposes of this article, we tried to select continuities that keep his presence to a minimum.) Much like other ethnic caricatures of its era (such as Ebony White in Will Eisner’s The Spirit), Ragtime possessed all the traits you would want in a friend and colleague—he was smart, resourceful, loyal and trustworthy—but there’s no question that he is a regrettable symbol of a less enlightened era.
Following his stint in the military, Rogers returned to civilian life following World War II—and so did Betty Brown. The strip returned to the pages of Drug Topics with the August 5, 1946, issue. (By this time, Drug Topics had adopted a biweekly frequency, halving the strip’s workload from the weekly years.) The editors even ran a brief note about the strip’s return, though they persisted with the “Cliff Terrell” fiction. (Despite having worked on the strip in some capacity since 1934, Rogers never got to sign his name to it. He did sneak his name in, though, so Betty’s drugstore—whose locale was never specified—was once near the office of Boody Rogers Real Estate.) Betty explained to a prospective employer that she had been serving in the Women’s Army Corps, so she was job hunting—for work as a pharmacist, naturally.
The strip’s final arc grew out of a case of misread romantic intentions on the part of a spurned suitor and his subsequent desire to drive Betty out of business. But in the final Betty Brown strip on March 15, 1948, Betty joined forces with Dot, a department store owner who wanted to add a pharmacy to her store. These female entrepreneurs concluded the saga of Betty Brown, Ph.G. on a forward-thinking note at a time when women were becoming increasingly integral to the workforce.
Is it fair to say that Betty Brown, Ph.G. helped shatter the glass ceiling, showing other cartoonists that female comics characters could compete in business on the same footing as men while also entertaining readers? Given her forum—a single tabloid aimed at a single profession—her profile and influence were limited, and degreed female professionals remained a rare breed in comics. But the strip is a fascinating look at how an industry’s most pressing concerns were treated, and it’s an opportunity to experience a largely overlooked chapter in the careers of Zack Mosley and Boody Rogers, outstanding cartoonists working at the peak of their powers.
Editor’s note: Sample two complete Betty Brown continuities also printed in Hogan’s Alley #22 in our Web Extras.