I take it to be a matter generally admitted by all who have tried on the mask of comic journalism, that it is no velvet one, but rather suggestive than otherwise of that iron visor behind which a certain mysterious character in history was compelled, for so many years, to put the best face he could upon circumstances. Great assiduity is a thing almost incompatible with humorous writing. The strain of always trying to be witty and epigrammatic on the surface, without losing grasp for a moment of the weightier considerations involved, is one against which few minds could contend successfully for long continuous periods; and hence the desultory mode of working so generally characteristic of writers who make a specialty of this kind of literature. Contributors to comic papers may be divided into two classes, — the brilliant ones, and the reliable ones; and it is very rare to find in one person a combination of the characteristics belonging to these respectively. Of all the writers with whom I have travelled, from time to time, along the highways and by-ways of comic literature, I have known but two or three really sparkling ones whose aid could be relied upon, to a certainty, for any given day or week. The electric sparks thrown out by some of them, when in full glow, seemed to fall back upon them in ashes, and smother their too sudden fires. A thorough Bohemian, for the most part, is the very brilliant contributor, — a bird difficult to catch and not always available when caught, seeing that, in nine cases out of ten, his habits are no more under his control than his moods. And herein lies one of the chief impediments to making a real success of a comic periodical. The reliable contributor, whose principal value lies in his punctuality, is usually what may be termed an even writer, seldom rising to the pitch of brilliancy, nor often sinking below the level of respectable burlesque; so that, however valuable he may be as a stand-by, he is unequal, at his very best, to establishing an unmistakable prestige for the paper that takes him for better or for worse, whichever of the two it may be. Were it only possible to treat these two types of contributors as the juggler does a couple of rabbits, — roll them both into one, and then divide them by dozens, — the thing would be complete. Then might the editor of the comic paper not always remind one of the famous “down-town” merchant described in the advertising columns of the serious journals as the hero of “many sleepless nights,” and the expectant watcher of the times might reasonably hope for the coming of a successful American “Punch,” — a thing so long in petto that it ought to be very good when it comes at last.
It has been frequently suggested, that the most feasible plan for the permanent establishment of a comic paper would be to engage all the world as leading contributor to it, and, if possible, all the worlds wife and interesting family as well. There is a certain fascinating massiveness in this idea, it must be admitted; but, — as the writer of one of a bushel of old letters now before me says, in reference to a prolix conundrum offered by him, — “Will it wash?” To this I reply, without hesitation that it will not. There is no doubt that useful suggestions are sometimes forwarded to editors of comics from the outside world, but experience compels me to state that the hints for squibs, caricatures, and articles generally, whether political or social in their bearing, thus tendered, are, in the great majority of cases, utterly worthless and impracticable. I have somewhere read or heard of a story told by the late John Leech, who used to be occasionally favored with such hints from anonymous sources, and who once had a communication from a person desirous to map out his idea for a scorching political cartoon. The leading object in the picture was to be a railway train coming along at a smashing pace, freighted with certain political characters, and the artist was to draw another train rushing from the opposite direction, but (now mark you this well) not yet in sight! I will venture to assert that every person who has essayed the task of editing a comic paper has been pelted, from all quarters of the country, with scores, nay, hundreds, of suggestions equally impracticable with the above. Among the curiosities of this branch of literature which I received in other times and retained for future reference, many are of a strictly esoteric and personal character. “A Borderer”—particular selvage of civilization to which he belongs not decipherable on postmark—writes to say that it would be a good thing to extinguish the post-master of his place, and, to further the abolition of that unhappy provincial, he encloses ten cents, with a copy of verses in which impeachment for having “robbed a trunk” is felicitously set to music by means of rhyme with the disagreeable epithet “skunk.” Another person, apparently writing from a place of detention for adults of weak intellects, forwards a number of anagrams, — one upon the name of Florence Nightingale, and another upon that of General Lafayette. The same writer suggests a host of distinguished persons upon whose names the editor would do well to immolate himself anagrammatically. Kossuth figures among these, as likewise does a local citizen whose name is given as Pericles W. Beazley, and who, according to the suggester, is a personage so filling to the eyes of the world that a favorable twist upon his name would at least double the circulation of the paper in which it might appear. A poetical contributor favors the editor with a parody upon Hood’s “Song of the Shirt,” feelingly wrought out with a view of influencing the market-value of a particular sewing-machine, the name of the patentee of which is ingeniously stitched into the wonderful stuff. This troubadour modestly states that he does not look for any pecuniary recompense for his contribution, but he requests that it may be printed with his name to it, in full, and that twenty-four copies of the paper containing it may be forwarded to his address. Another bard sends in a little poem not devoid of merit, although by no means adapted for the requirements of a comic paper. It has an old, familiar air about it, and consultation with sage pundits reveals the fact that it originally appeared in a volume of poems published by a lady about seventy years ago. To secure copyright upon it, as well as to display his acquirements as a linguist, the sender has put the refrain of the song—English in the original—into the French tongue. Wholesale piracy of this kind is very commonly resorted to by persons aspiring to be contributors. Ideas for social caricatures come in, copied, almost literally, from pictures to be found in old volumes of “Punch” and other humorous periodicals, so that it is necessary for the editor to be pretty thoroughly acquainted with what has been done in that branch of literature during past years. I can point out, in volumes that now lie upon my table, sundry scraps—sometimes of prose, but oftener of verse—which were frauds upon the editor, being slight variations of productions that had long previously appeared elsewhere as the work of writers more or less known to fame. One of our correspondents is apparently a well-brought-up young man, who disdains the idea of saying the thing that is not. He sends a packet containing fifteen “poems” in manuscript, all of which, he virtuously avows, have already appeared in the columns of the “Granite Playmate,” or a paper exulting in some such name. He has rewritten them, he says, and thinks they would make a great hit if published with illustrative wood-cuts by the artist who does the grotesque head-pieces “with such charming fancy.” Then there is the lady correspondent from the fashionable watering-places, who begins her letter coaxingly with “Dear Sir, — You who are supposed to know everything,” & c., & c., and encloses a diagram for an elaborate caricature of a flirtation going on between the married Major A—— and the Misses B—— and C——, who are scandalizing the chaste bathers on the beach with their “goings-on.” To secure attention, her ladyship also sends carte-de-visite likenesses of the obnoxious parties, with a request that the artist will be very true to them. A common and very terrible type of the aspiring contributor is the one who forwards by express a great roll of manuscript written upon law paper, which, on being opened, conveys the impression of a five-act tragedy, but proves to be nothing worse than a serial tale of village life, couched in the kind of disrupted English usually attributed to Pennsylvanian Dutchmen. Collateral to this person is the lady who sends in a batch of anecdotes about the negroes on her husband’s plantation, all the funny bits of which have circulated for a quarter of a century among the artists in “burnt cork.” But it would occupy more space than I may appropriate for this article, to dilate upon the variety of distant correspondents who seem to fancy that the fate of the comic paper addressed is absolutely dependent upon the acceptance of their contributions.