Some comics go down in history as masterful examples of the craft and are beloved by multiple generations. Others end up at the landfill. In this series, I’ll be looking back on some forgotten series to better understand what kind of comics our ancestral nerds were reading in the days of rotary phones and record players.
Today’s subject: Winnie Winkle!
Comic books probably wouldn’t exist without comic strips. Not only did daily newspaper strips popularize telling stories through little square pictures, they also provided the content for most early comic books: before comic book publishers started springing for original material, they would simply reprint daily strips.
Even after original content came to dominate comic books, you could still find reprints. Like Winnie Winkle.
Winnie Winkle the comic book was published by Dell Comics for seven issues from 1948 to 1949. Dell is best known for producing licensed comics, so their reprinting Winnie Winkle is perfectly on-brand. Winnie Winkle the comic strip was created by Martin Branner, with considerable assistance and inspiration from his wife, Edith Fabbrini.
The strip’s subtitle, The Breadwinner, tells you everything you need to know: Winnie is perpetually in need of cash, and she seeks it out by pursuing a diverse range of jobs before, during, and after her marriage to beau Will Wright. In these reprints alone, we see her work as a babysitter, a dressmaker, a ballroom dancer, a vaudevillian (the Branners started out as vaudevillians, which explains a lot), a dance instructor, an aspiring actor, a secretary, and even a con artist (more on that in a bit).
Winnie Winkle ran for a very long time — 1920 to 1996 — and even inspired several silent films and a board game.
Before Winnie could earn her own title, she had to prove herself in Four Color #94. Four Color was where Dell dumped all the properties that A) weren’t popular enough to warrant their own series, or B) Dell wanted to test out before committing to a full series. Winnie must have passed the test, as she did get her own, if short-lived, title at Dell.
It’s very obvious that these were originally strips. Quite often, the characters will change topic of conversation and clothing within a single row, marking where one strip ended and another began. I got used to it, but some nicer formatting would have been appreciated.
A lot of the humor is what I’d classify as typical: you’ve got the intrusive mother-in-law, and misogynistic Will trying to stop Winnie from running her own home-based business (even though he’s too much of a wimp to ask his boss for a much-needed raise).
On the other hand, the strip could be progressive, in a way. Winnie is very independent, and certainly more reliable than her husband or her shiftless father. When Winnie and Will go into show biz, they use the stage name Will and Winnie Winkle — they use her name, not Will’s. Will raises no objection at all.
Sometimes, things got more serious. In the Four Color issue, Will starts betting on horses and has to hide his massive winnings from Winnie, who disapproves of gambling. It’s all fun and games until he apparently gets addicted to betting and Winnie dumps him (for all of ten minutes, but still). He later went missing during World War II, leaving Winnie pregnant and presumably widowed — one of several times he would up and vanish.
In other words, it’s more of a soap opera than a Peanuts or Family Circus type of strip. However, each issue is bookended by the more lighthearted adventures of Winnie’s kid cousin/adopted brother, Perry. (Yes, Perry Winkle. And her dad’s name is Rip.)
Issues 5–7 are a bit of a mess. Issue 5 has the couple arriving in Hollywood, but Issue 6 reprints strips from when they are still on the road, trying to earn money by tricking rich people into thinking Will is a French count so they will pay more for dancing lessons. Issue 7 skips ahead several years to the Will-is-dead era, where Winnie and her twins have moved back in with her parents. Naturally, no reference is made to the previous strips, so we never find out what happened to end the Winkles’ Hollywood career. (From information I found online, I believe Will enlisted in the Army and Winnie became pregnant.)
Speaking of messes, I don’t know why I keep being surprised by this, but the comic’s treatment of immigrants and minorities is less than exemplary. The Winkles’ Greek business manager, Nick Dymopolus, is drawn in a more cartoony style than everyone else and frequently mispronounces or confuses words, for which the others sometimes mock him.
(The Winkles’ other friend, Toby, is also an immigrant, but he’s British, so he’s afforded a dignity that is not granted to Nick and his imperfect English.)
Since the strip was still ongoing when Dell reprinted these, there can be no neat ending: we leave Winnie as she is about to return to work after an extended summer vacation at Snobs Point, where her boss lent her his house.
Aside from the fact that Dell bungled the printing order, I enjoyed this series well enough. Is it laugh-out-loud funny? No, though there are a few good gags, like the bit when they’re driving a trailer to Hollywood and the trailer comes unhitched halfway up a mountain.
Still, it’s an interesting look back at one of the first “working girl” comics — a genre that would later take off as other companies published strips, like Dixie Dugan, and comic books, like Millie the Model, featuring young female protagonists in the workplace. Winnie Winkle may not have the name recognition of other long-running strips, but any time you see or read the story of a single woman trying to make a buck while making the audience laugh, she is there in spirit.