Producing Comic Images

A reporter from the Baltimore Sun, speaking with me the other day about Boomer-era toys, bemoaned the fact that Silly Putty no longer does what it once did.

You can still ball up and bounce a piece of Silly Putty. That part still works. But you have you tried picking up comic images out of the evening newspaper?

That used to be one of the tricks you always did: pressing the oily clay onto the newsprint, then peeling it off and admiring the backward image in the clay.

Then you could stretch the clay to distort the images – which was hilarious fun, of course, for us easily entertained Boomer kids.

Silly Putty was, in a sense, a kind of printing toy, in that it did let us “produce” images of our favorite comic characters.

I pressed the stuff onto Alley Oop or Dick Tracy characters, and then gazed upon what I had done with the happiness available only to the child.

It was a way of making comic-book characters our own.

Providing kids with toys that gave them some way to make daily comics their own was a long-standing tradition by the late 1940s, when Silly Putty first appeared. Children were fascinated by comics pages and they would do anything possible to get involved in some sort of hands-on way with those comic characters. Long before the advent of Kenner’s Give-A-Show projectors, kids used postcard projectors to project the images of cartoon characters on playroom walls.

at17.jpgOne of the best sorts of these toys, though, was the printing set that gave kids the means of producing their own newspaper-type comic strips, using familiar figures. While several companies made them, the most popular were the ones made by an outfit out of Chicago, named Superior.

The “Favorite Funnies Printing Set” boasted of featuring “familiar favorites from the newspapers” – all from the Famous Artists Syndicate, which did have some of the top daily strips of the time: “Orphan Annie,” “Dick Tracy,” “Smitty,” and “Winnie Winkle.”

While Superior was producing printing sets both before and after World War II, there happens to be an easy way to distinguish the two. Up through the war, the company was The Superior Type Co., located at 1800 Larchmont, Chicago.

By around 1947-48, the company changed its name to The Superior Marking Equipment Co.

As it happens, the box for “Favorite Funnies Printing Set” says only “Superior Set No. 4085” – which is not so helpful. The thin box of crayons inside is marked simply, “Crayons for Superior Stamp Set.”

Something else appears on the side of the box, however: “By SMECo.”

“Favorite Funnies” was among Superior’s products both before and after the name change. That little notation, however, clinches it as a toy from the late ’40s, or later.

The printing set contains 14 rubber stamps depicting the characters seen on the box, and the stamp pad. All are in typical poses, with Punjab being the largest, looking imposing next to the others: his stamp is 2-1/2 inches by 1 inch. The smallest stamp, being only 3/4″ by 1″, shows a running dog I believe to be Smitty’s. Annie’s dog shares her same stamp-block.

Of the 14, the single non-figural stamp has lettering on it: “Famous Funnies.” When you designed your own comic strip, you always had the title ready at hand.

As mentioned, the printing set also includes crayons, for transforming the black-and-white images of your daily-style funnies into Sunday-style color funnies.

For some reason, the funny pages have less impact on the kids of today than they used to. TV and animated kids’ films and computer games have taken away their power. Chances are that, if you offered a kid a stamp-set featuring the comic characters of today, it would not become a favorite toy.

So maybe it is fitting, turning back to Silly Putty, that it no longer picks up the images of your Sunday comics.

One thing I told the reporter from the Sun, by the way, was that Silly Putty had not really changed. Press a ball of it upon an image from a page of comics, and it will still pick up the image.

Only if you use an old comic page, though – one from before our new era of soybean inks. The old Putty is still a fine way of reproducing comic images – but only if we’re willing to take our treasured comic books out of their wrappers for our trip down memory lane.