He was born before the dawn of history and lived amidst creatures that perished millions of years before man's early ancestors first descended from the trees. He fought for Napoleon, founded the land of Egypt, fought owlhoots in the Old West, and journeyed to the moon. He is, in the words of songster Dave Van Ronk, "The king of the jungle jive." I refer, of course, to one of newsprints' most original creations, V.T. Hamlin's Alley Oop.
Alley's story really begins in 1933, but V.T. Hamlin's began thirty three years earlier when he was born in Perry, Iowa. Vincent started drawing at an early age, selling his first drawings at age 16, a year before enlisting in the army to help fight "the war that would end all wars." When recovering from a poison gas attack in France, Hamlin discovered his talent for cartooning while illustrating the letters of his fellow soldiers. After his discharge in 1919, Hamlin finished his high school education and then went on to college. His collegiate experience would only last a year, due to a quarrel with an art teacher. "Then the teacher took out my drawing and she stood up with it before the class and announced: 'Now here'sa man with a wonderful talent and he wants to waste it on being a cartoonist!'"
What a waste! Hamlin was never a man to suffer fools lightly and gave his teacher a fiery piece of his mind. A mutual parting of the ways resulted and Hamlin left college for a succession of newspaper jobs, as photographer, journalist, and disreputable cartoonist. In 1923 he produced his first strip, The Hired Hand.
In 1926 he married his childhood sweetheart, Dorothy Stapleton, and moved to Texas, taking a job as a staff artist for Ft. Worth's Star-Telegram. Hamilton drew a second strip, The Panther Kitten, while at the Star, but the job only lasted a year. It was the Prohibition era and Hamlin and a friend were discovered using the paper's engraving equipment to make counterfeit labels for bootleg whiskey bottles.
Hamlin moved on to doing art for an oil industry publication and one day, while wandering through the desolate landscape of the oil fields, began musing about the dinosaurs who had once roamed through the very same territory. Hamlin also acquired a lifelong interest in paleontology through conversations with geologist acquaintances.
The Hamlins struggled on through a variety of Vincent's jobs. Employers had the disagreeable habit of going out of business after a few months. In 1930, back in Iowa, Hamlin worked up a year's worth of continuity on a strip proposal, The Mighty Oop, but became dissatisfied with the results and dropped the project. He tried again a year later, under a new title, Alley Oop; the strip was picked up by a small syndicate which ran the strip for two years until, true to Hamlin's luck, the syndicate collapsed. But Hamlin's fortunes were finally about to take a better turn.
Bigger syndicates had spotted Oop and, thanks to an enterprising syndicate employee, Hamlin was tracked down and signed up with NEA (National Enterprise Association). The first daily strip of the new Alley Oop saw print on August 7, 1933. It was an immediate success, and began its Sunday run on September 9, 1934.
Alley Oop started life in the imaginary prehistoric nation of Moo. Hamlin's character was a good-natured but hot-tempered roughneck who engaged in a series of Stone Age exploits with his faithful stegosaurus, Dinny. Other citizens of Moo included Alley's sensual girl friend Oola (who had quite a temper herself), his poetry-spouting pal Foozy, grumpy King Gus, his wife, the stern Queen Umpateeble, and the treacherous old fraud, the Grand Wizer.
Hamlin and his readers had fun with Alley's Moovian friends, whose characters were firmly established and flesh out by their creator. Stories were told in a blend of slapstick humor and fast-paced adventure, all rendered in Hamlin's unique style of bold figure work and exquisite penmanship.
After six years Hamlin began to feel confined by the narrow borders of Moo. In 1939 Dorothy suggested adding time-travel to the strip, and the rest is history --and plenty of it! Oop brawled his way through every historical epoch that Hamlin could cover, after being transmitted to the future by Dr. Wonmug's time machine. Alley fought in the Trojan War, battled with 18th century pirates, met Richard the Lion Hearted, and even enjoyed a stint as a southern gentleman and riverboat gambler. The drastic change in the direction of the strip paid off in spades and Alley Oop rose to even greater popularity.
Small wonder. Hamlin was a masterful storyteller, both visually and as a writer. Alley was cantankerous and rowdy, at times a fool and at other times a hero. His new 20th century companions were an interesting lot as well. Dr. Elbert Wonmug, the time machine's inventor, was a dead-ringer for the Grand Wizer, a man he despised (it was obvious that the bad-tempered scientist was descended from the wily witch doctor). Although frail, Wonmug was capable of bouncing a wrench off Alley's thick skull during arguments.
Wonmug's colleague, Professor Oscar Boom, was the most complex character in Hamlin's stable, a man capable of friendship and betrayal, as well as cowardice and bravery. Boom, perhaps modeled on Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger (The Lost World), was a cynical realist and opportunist, adding a contrasting counterbalance to Alley's innocent simplicity. The two friends/enemies would share many a time-traveling adventure together, usually at each other's throats.
Hamlin also drew a great looking time machine, a convincing stainless steel contraption of mid-century technology, a mass of circuit breakers and transistor tubes. Hamlin's artwork continued to improve, reaching a peak in the forties. It was a major draw (pun intended) of the strip, keeping the action moving from panel to panel, scenes rendered in a delicate crosshatching that added a sense of depth to each panel.
In the 1950s Hamlin became an enthusiastic race car driver. The new hobby resulted in his breaking both wrists in 1957 when his car flipped over. Fortunately he had hired an assistant, who the artist had met through his daughter in 1950, David Graue. With Graue's help Alley's adventures that year were to continue in the Old West, and then on to a second trip to the moon. (As for Hamlin, he switched to fishing, but still continued to race until his 63rd year.)
In the sixties Hamlin's eyesight problems, which had started years earlier, began to deteriorate at a quicker pace. Beginning in 1966 Dave Graue began co-signing the strip, and by 1967 had taken over a lot more of the art chores on the dailies. In 1969 Hamlin began coaching his assistant on writing the strip, and, in 1970, wrote his last daily continuity, a sequence about car racing.
In 1973 Hamlin retired, having written his last Sunday page on January 1. For forty years he had shared his life with Alley and his friends, creating a memorable blend of history, humor, and fantasy. Retiring to Florida, Hamlin spent the last twenty years of his life caring for his ailing wife, writing his autobiography, The Man Who Walked With Dinosaurs, a fishing memoir, Four Rivers, and a novel, The Devil's Daughter. He died in 1993.
Dave Graue later worked as writer
for the strip, with Jack Bender (who had assisted MAD artist Don
Martin) handling the artwork, until a car accident took his life on December
10, 2001. But thanks to Bender and his wife Carol, Alley Oop continues
his journey through the past, present, and future.