The Thin Black Line: Jay Irving and His Cartoon Cops
Rob Stolzer surveys the life and art of Jay Irving, the cartoonist who brought law and order to the comics page.
A bigfoot flatfoot sounds like an oxymoron, but in Jay Irving’s comic strip world, the two elements coexisted in perfect harmony. Irving loved cops and made a career of portraying them with gentle humor, vibrant color and a lush dry brush. But the sweet nature of his comic strip and magazine cartoon work belied a more complicated man. Irving was at the top of the magazine game in the 1930s and '40s, drew two wonderful Sunday newspaper strips and coproduced two early television game shows, yet his successes were never enough. Jay Irving’s glass remained only partly filled, while for his characters, the Collier’s Cops, Willie Doodle, and Pottsy, there was never anything less than full-blown, childlike optimism.
Jay Irving started out in life named Irving Joel Rafsky. He was born in the Bronx into a family of policemen, on October 3, 1900. Irving’s grandfather Max, his father Abraham, and his three uncles, Charles, Irving and Samuel, were all New York City cops. Abraham Rafsky was the first Jewish lieutenant in the New York Police Department, later retiring into the insurance business. Uncle Sam did not remain on the police force for long, eventually going into the meat business and changing his name to an Irish-sounding Sam Shannon. Uncle Charlie Rafsky was nothing like the amiable characters that inhabited Jay Irving’s comic strips and cartoons. According to Irving’s son, the author Clifford Irving, Charlie Rafsky was famous as a strike-breaker. “We had a photograph in the apartment of Charlie on a horse, with his baton raised, about to bring it down on the neck of some striking guy,” Irving said. “Charlie was a tough bird.”
Jay Irving himself has been described as something of a tough bird, which may have been a by-product of growing up surrounded by a family of policemen. Fellow cartoonist Mel Casson lived nearby Irving in the 1940s and 1950s, on the upper west side ofNew York City, and spent many days working side by side in Irving’s apartment studio. Casson, when describing Irving, said, “He was a very confrontational guy. He had the personality of a cop about to give you a traffic ticket, and a marine drill sergeant. He scared people. He’d come right at you. But he was really—when you got to know him—a very nice guy and a lot of fun.”
The young Irv Rafsky loved being around the police, but in terms of a possible career move, his father said, “Enough is enough!” He didn’t want any more cops in the family. The Rafskys wanted their eldest child to go into a respectable field; “…a doctor, or a big shot businessman,” Irving wrote in the 1965 National Cartoonists Society album. Instead, Rafsky enrolled at Columbia University to study journalism. He attended Columbiafor one semester, withdrawing from school in February 1921. Rafsky then worked as a “sub-cub” reporter for the New York Globe, later drifting into covering sports. But Irving Rafsky’s passion did not lie in the field of journalism. Above all else, he wanted to be a cartoonist.
Rafsky had no formal art training, though his mother came from family of artists. He started drawing in high school and dreamed of cartooning, but this was a dream that he felt would lead to ridicule, so he followed his father into the insurance business at New York Life. While working for New York Life, the younger Rafsky began drawing cartoons to submit for publication but signed his work as “Jay Irving.” Clifford Irving said about his father, “I think he felt two things: He felt that he didn’t want the family to know, and he also felt there was a certain level of anti-Semitism in the cartoon business.” Irvingcontinued, “My father kept it secret from the family. He drew under his name Jay Irving, which was extrapolated from his name. Then, when he became successful, he confessed and changed his name legally. I was about five years old when he changed his name. I started school as Cliff Rafsky. I don’t recall the exact year, but my birth certificate is Rafsky, as was my kindergarten report card.”
Irving Rafsky, aka Jay Irving, may have kept his burgeoning cartoon career a secret from most of the Rafsky family, but his immediate family was certainly aware of it, and they must have known that it was a viable career choice. On the 1920 New York census, 19-year-old Irving Rafsky’s trade is listed as “Cartoonist,” working in the field of “Animated Cartoons.” On the same census, his father is listed as an agent for an insurance company. A year and a half later, Irving would have his first comic strip, Bozo Blimp. In Irving’s own words, Bozo Blimp was “not too hot.” The Premier Syndicate must have thought the sports-based strip would have a chance to succeed, as they took out a half-page ad touting the new feature in the July 1921 issue of Circulation magazine. The strip was meant to appeal to sports fans, and the ad refers to the character as a “Boob” numerous times, perhaps a syndicate attempt to borrow from the popularity of Rube Goldberg’s Boob McNutt, which had been in print since 1915. It does not appear that Bozo Blimp ran for very long, if at all, as no published examples of the strip have been discovered.
By 1930, Irving found himself in the advertising business, listed on the 1930 census as a manager. The details of his advertising work are lost to us today, but there is no doubt that his experiences would serve him well in the future. By this time, Irvingwas also married. He and Dorothy Prago, the daughter of restaurateur Willie Prago, were secretly engaged; then secretly married. Their son Clifford was born to them in November 1930. In 1931, Irving began an association with King Features Syndicate that lasted a few years. He drew a week of Embarrassing Moments, a cartoon panel most associated with Krazy Kat’s George Herriman. In addition, Irving drew sporadic Bughouse Fables panels, the feature created by Billy DeBeck of Barney Google fame. Bughouse Fables was drawn by many King Features cartoonists over the years, often for just days at a time. WhileIrving was getting a taste of the professional cartoonist’s life, the success that Clifford Irving referred to earlier was just around the corner for his father. And what a success it was.
In 1932, Irving began a 13-year association with Collier’s, drawing weekly cartoons and contributing full-color covers. His contract with Collier’s called for 104 panel cartoons and four covers annually. This was the big time, which Irving referred to as his “happiest time.” According to Mel Casson, Irving had an unusual relationship with Collier’s. Casson stated, “His relationship with Collier’s was unlike any cartoonist; unlike any of us mere mortals. Whereas we had to bring our roughs around each week, to show them to Gurney Williams, who was then the cartoon editor, Jay would come in and walk right into the art director’s office. Now, the art director at Collier’s was William Chestnut, and he was big stuff in those days. He bought or didn’t buy your illustrations, cartoons or anything. Jay’s relationship with him was something. Gurney Williams despised him because, say, if Williams had, say, 15 spots for cartoons, Jay would walk into Chestnut’s office and Chestnut would say, ‘Oh, this is fun. Let’s buy these three’ or something. So the cartoon editor saw that three of his spots were taken, and it was because of Jay. It’s an interesting thing. He did a lot of covers. He crossed the line from being a mere cartoonist for Collier’s and became a star.”
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Being a star at Collier’s also meant traveling for the magazine. Irving did three publicity tours for the magazine, twice to California and once to Hawaii. The Irvings packed their car and drove out to California in 1936, where they lived in Beverly Hills. Irving set up his drawing board and sent work back to Collier’s in New York. He and his family then sailed to Hawaii on the Lurlene. They took a suite at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel for two months, where Irving continued his publicity tour for the magazine and kept up with his cartoons. The Irvings returned to New York but would again travel to California on Collier’s behalf in 1939.
These were heady days for Jay Irving, who, in addition to his Collier’s work, was drawing for other publications, including Esquire and the American. Irving was also able to draw on his advertising background and did quite a bit of cartoon work in the field, including a major account for Kessler’s whiskey, for which he created the characters Mr. Hi and Mr. Hatt. Irving seemingly had the Midas touch.
In terms of his artwork, Irving was hitting his stride. The watercolor covers that he did for Collier’s were filled with vibrant color and handled with the flair of an accomplished painter. His figure work—even in a bigfoot vein—demonstrated a real knowledge of the locomotion of the human figure. His rounded, overweight cops moved with the grace of a dancer across the picture plane. Irving took classes at National Academy of Design, as well as the famed Art Students League. It’s possible that his knowledge of figure drawing grew from instruction from the likes of George Bridgman.
While Irving’s color work was eye-catching and splashy, it was his black-and-white work that was strongest. He drew with a calligraphic contour line, one that appears to have been drawn with a brush. In actuality, Irving drew with a 170 pen nib and a heavy hand. According to Mel Casson, “He worked on a rough watercolor paper. He had about a dozen pens and pen points all ready to go. He had in his forefinger—at one point he had an accident—a big chunk that was taken out. And so, when he held the pen and he drew the line, it jerked. And that’s how he got that little irregular line.” Bill Gallo, the famed sports cartoonist and writer for the New York Daily News, was a colleague of Irving’s in the ’50s and ’60s, when Pottsy was syndicated by the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate. He recalled something that Bill Holman once said in reference toIrving’s drawing style. “He draws so loose,” Holman told him. “I think he draws with a broom.”
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Irving’s style was not typical of bigfoot cartooning. Classic bigfoot strips, such as Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff, employed a flatter line. While there were periods of the strip—depending upon the assistant du jour—where the line was more expressive, by and large, the bigfoot strip relied more heavily on the sight gag than on the liveliness of the line work. Irving’s work was different. Here was an artist using the props of a bigfoot strip, but incorporating an element of style more closely aligned to pulp illustrations or certain adventure comic strips: the dry brush. Jay Irving loved to lay in his blacks. It helped him, in Mel Casson’s words, “to sell the gag,” which was one ofIrving’s great strengths. The use of heavy black areas, in combination with the thick and thin line work, created contrasts that helped the reader’s eyes travel across the cartoons. But rather than simply fill in dark areas with solid blacks, Irving used the roughness of the watercolor paper to feather edges of the dark masses, giving greater weight to his figures, an approach in contrast to some of the black-and-white pulp magazine illustrators, who employed this technique in all aspects of the illustration. The pulp magazines did not pay very much per drawing, and when time was of the essence, the brushed ink line, which absorbed readily into the fibers of the paper, dried more quickly than the pen line, which sat atop the paper’s surface. In Irving’s case, the use of the dry brush was not done to save time, as it would have been much easier to simply fill in the dark areas flatly with the brush. His use of the dry brush added a graphic element to the cartoons, in addition to the substance it gave to the figures.
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Cartooning was Irving’s professional life, but it did not necessarily intersect with his personal life. While he mingled with his cartoonist colleagues in the hallowed halls of the NCS, Irving had few true friends in the field. Outside of Mel Casson, who he saw with regularity, his cartoon life and home life remained fairly separate from one another. Instead, he continued to surround himself with cops. Clifford Irving recalled, “He loved cops. Cops visited the apartment all the time. I would come home from school, and I’d say two or three times a week there was a cop there, either in uniform or in plainclothes. I walked in sometimes, and there would be a shaggy-looking guy, sitting in my father’s office; hair down to his shoulders and dirty clothes. He was a narc. My father loved these guys. They would come up and visit him. And they took him out on patrol with them in the neighborhood.”
While Irving surrounded himself with cops, he also physically surrounded himself with the tools of their trade, or as he referred to it, “policiana.” Irving had one of the largest private collections of police memorabilia in the country and was an honorary historian for the police department. The walls of the apartment were covered with framed police badges. There were also canes, guns that Irving referred to as “police guns” and an extensive collection of presentation clubs; nightsticks with knobs that were elaborately carved out of ivory. These were given to officers on very special occasions, such as retirement from the force. “Bit by bit,” recalled Clifford Irving, “our entire apartment was converted into a museum.” The moment that a young Clifford Irving left home, his room became an extension of his father’s collection. The only room that was off limits was the master bedroom. Irving’s wife absolutely forbade anything having to do with the police encroaching upon their bedroom.
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Irving acquired the police memorabilia in a couple of different ways. Sometimes he and Dorothy would drive through New England and New York with friends, scouring antique shops. Other times, in the spirit of a driven collector, he would acquire items from the family of a recently deceased officer. “When a cop died that my father knew,” Clifford Irving said recently, “because somebody would always call and say, ‘Oh, Charlie O’Brien died up at the 16th precinct,’ my father would be onto that widow as soon as it was humanely possible, to see what she had of Charlie’s that she was willing to sell or give. He found a lot of stuff that way.”
Jay Irving never did serve on the police force in any formal sense, though he may have yearned to. He did attempt to serve in the armed forces on two occasions, but neither of the experiences worked out. Irving joined the Marines during World War I, in 1917, but lied about his age to enlist. Abraham Rafsky went down to Parris Island, S.C., and brought his underage son back home to New York. During World War II, Irving became a correspondent of sorts for Collier’s and once again traveled down to Parris Island. He was doing publicity work for the Marines when he was struck down by a serious case of malaria. Dorothy Irving had to bring her husband back to New York this time, where his recuperation from the illness took a number of weeks.
Collier’s magazine reached the apex of its readership in 1944, with well over two million readers. The postwar years, however, were unkind to Collier’s, and the magazine’s readership began to decline. By the end of 1956, the once-strong magazine ceased publication. In the mid-1940s, Irving’s long association with Collier’s came to an end. While still doing cartoon work for other magazines, as well as advertising cartoons, losing Collier’s was a huge blow. Irving decided to take another stab at newspaper comic strips, and on May 19, 1946, Willie Doodle was introduced to New Yorkers in the pages of the New York Herald Tribune. The Sunday-only feature continued the vein of humor that Irving mined in the pages of Collier’s. Willie was his typical good-natured, bulbous-nosed, overweight cop; a friend to all, without an ounce of malice in his body. Irving was able to play across three tiers of the comic strip, using the space of the multiple panels to his narrative advantage. And play he did. There were occasional flights of fancy and wonderfully conceived sight gags. Irving even had his 17-year-old son Cliff visit with Willie in the Sunday page appearing on June 15, 1947. Irving himself made a brief appearance in the same strip. Willie Doodle was a sweetly drawn and written comic strip, but the audience of New York City alone was not enough to sustain it, especially with so many comic strips in so many newspapers vying for the attention of readers. Willie Doodle’s run came to an end after two years, in 1948.
Soon after Willie Doodle’s demise, Jay Irving and Mel Casson began working on a new idea. Television game shows began in the early 1940s and had gained great popularity by the end of the decade. Pantomime Quiz won television’s first Emmy Award as its most popular show. Irving and Casson, looking to cash in on the popularity of such shows, created Draw Me a Laugh in 1949. As Casson recounted, “Television was in its—not in its infancy by a long shot—but it was in the stages when it was trying to find out what was going to be on the air. So they bought a lot of stuff, and they put it on, and would keep it on for four weeks, or six weeks. If you got to 13 weeks, you think you were gonna be in heaven. But they’d cancel just the same, until they found the level. We had made contact with ABC, and we worked out of ABC. Draw Me a Laugh was very simple. It was like Can You Top This? The listener would send in a drawing or a written description of a gag. It was given to us, and we had to top it. We were given about 20 seconds; something really quick. Actually, at this point, we had pre-planned it in advance, to give the guys a chance to think. You know, if you have three or four guys drawing, one’s gonna be done in two seconds; the next guy’s gonna take three hours. You had to keep it moving. We didn’t pay the other cartoonists. One of the big watch companies gave us expensive watches. We gave them a watch, and all that sort of thing. Walter Hurley was the emcee of the show. The show was doing pretty well. It went on for 13 weeks, and they canceled it for some other thing. The money we got—it was very little—we plowed right back into the show.”
Irving and Casson were “bitten by the television bug,” as Casson put it. They saw that this was going to be a big thing in the future, and they wanted to be a part of it. So they took all of the money that they earned from Draw Me a Laugh, plus some of their own savings, and produced You Be the Judge, a show that was a precursor for the contemporary courtroom TV show. Irving and Casson worked with an attorney, the brother of actor Paul Lukas, in coming up with legal situations that would be determined by a panel of celebrity judges. Arlene Francis was the emcee of the program, which, like Draw Me a Laugh, lasted 13 weeks. While the show lasted the full 13-week slot, the two cartoonists did not make out well financially. According to Clifford Irving, “it was a flop. They borrowed more money to keep it going, and that failure, I would say, ruined my father’s life financially; and embittered him. So that while he continued being a cartoonist after that … I think the great enthusiasm that he had was diminished.”
Irving never stopped cartooning, even during his brief foray into television. In all likelihood, he could not afford to stop cartooning. Irving continued doing magazine and advertising cartoons, but his star had diminished after his run with Collier’s. In May 1955, Irving began work on his last comic strip, Pottsy, which was syndicated by the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate.
The title character’s name was derived from New York City police history. From 1889 until 1898,New York City police officers wore square badges that resembled the metal playing pieces of a popular Brooklyn variety of hopscotch called Potsy. The potsy was a piece of metal cut from a tin can, which was folded, then flattened with the heel. It was folded and flattened again until square in shape. The potsy would be tossed into the playing area, where it would be kicked from one square to the next. Because of the resemblance to the police badges, police of that era were nicknamed Potsies, a term they thought disparaging. The police lobbied to have the shape of the badge changed, and it became the shield that remains in use today. Irvingmade use of the shield design himself, signing his name within an NYPD shield on the Sunday page, with badge numbers below his signature that referred to the strip’s date.
Pottsy was essentially Willie Doodle in a new format. Irving now had only a third of a page to deal with, which sometimes had to be reformatted to a half-page tabloid size. But Pottsy had the same sweet, innocent demeanor as Willie, as well as the same Rubenesque figure. Irving’s drawing style maintained the expressive stops and starts of the line work, combined with the lush dry brush shading found in Willie Doodle. The artist yearned to add a daily strip component to the Sunday-only feature, but the syndicate was never convinced that it could be successful. Irving submitted daily strip roughs for Pottsy, but the format was never approved. Pottsy proved to be moderately successful, though the flavor of the strip was distinctly New York City, which meant that its appeal across the country was limited. The success of Pottsy would never be equal to Irving’s success at Collier’s.
Irving’s love of cartooning extended to the history of the field. He had an extensive collection of books and prints related to comic strips and cartooning and was very knowledgeable about the early practitioners of the American comic strip. In 1962, Irvingwas approached by an Italian publisher who was looking to publish a comprehensive book on the world history of the comic arts. The publisher, Aldo Garzanti Editore, wanted Irvingto write a 70-page chapter on the history of American comic strips. He was interested but wary. In a letter to Toni Mendez, Irving’s agent, he questioned the intent of the publisher, who extolled the virtues of Stephen Becker’s book Comic Art in America. Irving was not a fan of Becker’s book, and wrote, “I don’t think too much of Becker’s book in that he went to great lengths to extol the glory of the contemporaries, to the exclusion or at best, the sluffing off of such brilliants as Herriman, Hoban, McGurk, Counihan, Edgren, Ketten and those of the turn-of-the-century school.” Irving also felt slighted by the lack of material in Becker’s book dealing with magazine cartoonists. “Perhaps I am angry too at no mention of Ed Graham and Birch and Connacher and Joe Morgan and Frank Owen and many more of the pioneer Magazine cartoonists,”Irving wrote. “How about Jay Irving and the Collier’s Cops series? The only actual comic cartoon to make the cover in full color, of a National Weekly. Not just flash once, but many times a year, by contract.”Irving was clearly grinding an axe of recognition that had bothered him for years.
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But Irving was also interested in delving deeper into the history of American cartooning and continued, “Going back a bit to the Eighties, the story of Thomas Nast and his famous cartoon about Tammany which inadvertantly [sic] brought about Boss Tweed’s arrest in a little village in Spainis thrilling.”Irving goes on to describe in full detail the capture of Boss Tweed. He also knew that he had comic strip history at his fingertips and wanted to take advantage of it. “[T]he stuff that dreams are made of comes out of the whole cloth of reminiscence and recollection—and I am sure enough can be gleaned from the Greats who are still with us, to make for not only an interesting book, but too, a delighting and quotable font.” Irving continued, “Interviewing Gene Byrnes, Rudolph Dirks, Clare Dwiggins, Cliff Sterrett, Harry Hershfield should uncover a wealth of beautiful material, and presented properly limned, it should be extremely rewarding.”
The publisher and Irving corresponded through 1962, with Irving trying to convince Aldo Garzanti Editore to include more of the great cartoonists from days gone by. He discussed the artists that he could visit, and the historical information that he could pull together. Irving was appalled at the two-month deadline he was given for the project but vowed to push forward. He was advanced $400 for his section of the book, with the balance of $600 to be paid upon completion. Editor & Publisher wrote about Irving’s involvement with the upcoming book, titled International History of the Comic Strips, in the October 27, 1962, issue. According to the brief article, his workload for the book had apparently swelled from 70 to 140 pages. Unfortunately, for unknown reasons, the project was shelved, and the book never saw print. Irving’s manuscript for the book has never been located, but his letters offer a rare glimpse of his insights into the history of the cartoon field.
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Jay Irving continued working on Pottsy until his death on June 5, 1970. He was 69 years old when he suffered a fatal heart attack. Pottsy died with his creator. Irving was born into a family of cops and spent his entire career creating his own precinct filled with pen-and-ink and watercolor cops. He reached the heights of the cartoon field, becoming a star for a national magazine, and felt its lows when equal success eluded him subsequently. But Jay Irving’s work was always filled with humor, innocence and beautiful drawing. And cops. There were always cops.
The author thanks the late, great Mel Casson, Bill Gallo, Clifford Irving, and the Ohio State University for their time and assistance. This article would not have been possible without their help.