Leapin' Lizards! The 11-year-old orphan who inspired two movies, a radio program, and a hit musical is back where she started -- in the funny pages. Little Orphan Annie has returned with the same cast of characters -- Sandy her dog, Daddy Warbucks her protector, and Punjab the enormous bodyguard -- created in 1924 by Harold Gray. The differences are the contemporary story line and a new cartoonist, Leonard Starr, who began drawing the familiar blank-eyed characters last December.
Sitting in the comfortable living room of his white colonial-style house in Westport, Starr said his greatest challenge was to "capture the soul" of the strip while making it interesting to a contemporary audience.
"Little Orphan Annie was basically a morality play with three essential elements," he explained. "It's Dickensian in that you have the poor little orphan overcoming her misfortunes, it's got a political strain and a strong sense of fantasy."
Harold Gray managed to combine the three so expertly for more than 50 years that when he died in 1968, Annie was nearly orphaned permanently. The Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate, which owns the rights to the strip, tried unsuccessfully for several years to have other cartoonists pick up where Gray left off. Discouraged, they dropped the strip altogether for a few years and then began running reruns until Starr made a bid for it last December.
"It was a real challenge," said Starr, who for 12 years chronicled the trials and tribulations of actress Mary Perkins in the comic strip "On Stage." "One of the first things we had to decide was how to describe the character of Annie. The syndicate came up with 'virtuous,' but I don't exactly agree. To me, she's closer to 'indomitable.'"
Warbucks, he said, was easier. "He's the most macho man in the comics today. Despite his button nose and bald head -- he's really Clint Eastwood." Starr did, however, change Warbuck's character subtly to make him more palatable for today's readers. Gray's Warbucks was, as his name implied, a munitions tycoon, a self-made man who was an expression of Gray's conservative political beliefs. In the first adventure of the new series drawn by Starr, a more civic-minded Daddy had just invented the "Lazrus Process," which was guaranteed to free the United States from its dependence on foreign oil.
Gray was probably the first cartoonist to break the unwritten law that forbid cartoonists from injecting politics into a strip; Annie took on distinctly conservative overtones during the depression years, revealing Gray's antipathy to gas rationing, income tax, labor, communism, left-wingers, and welfare. "A publisher once told me," Gray is reported to have said, "that Annie should be on the editorial page. I told him some of the funniest stuff I ever read was in the editorials, so why not put them in the comic pages?"
The political strain, as Starr calls it, continues in the new strip, but its subjects are more likely to be the energy crunch, inflation, and political corruption. In the first adventure involving the stolen formula of the Warbucks "Lazrus Process," an evil Arab, Bahd-Simel, is the primary antagonist. But there are veiled references as well to US oil companies that might not want such a process to succeed.
In the current story, Annie finds herself caught up in corruption on Capitol Hill. Was the plot inspired by Abscam? "Not at all," Starr replied. "If you deal with political corruption at any particular time, you have a good chance of being timely. In the '70s, 25 congressmen were either indicted, convicted, or brought up on other charges."
As far as divulging his own political preferences, Starr is noncommital. He has worked for both parties and remembers the Eisenhower era as "the best eight years of my life. Maybe what we need is another do-nothing president -- someone who'll just stay out on the golf course."
Where the strip is concerned, Starr said, "The big thing to avoid, which I think Harold Gray did, is being partisan to one particular point of view. What I try to do is to voice the complaints of the people around me."
Gray, who coincidentally also lived in the arty community of Westport, used to drive across the country several times a year to his second home in La Jolla, Calif. He took his time on these trips, stopping and talking to people along the way and listening to their gripes about the government. Sooner or later those complaints made the funny pages in one form or another.
Politics have pervaded the strip since it began, but a comic strip is still in the child's province and Starr, like Gray, knows the value of fantasy in keeping young readers interested. Both have provided simple, straightforward plots, exotic locations, and colorful characters, such as the enormous, sword-wielding Punjab. At the end of the first adventure, Daddy Warbucks has found Annie and is about to take her away when the evil Bahd-Simel's men attack. Warbucks is shot. Punjab comes to the rescue, breaks a few heads, then pulls out his magic cape and whisks Warbucks away to the land of the Magi -- a deus ex machina device Gray introduced many years ago.
"I thought it was a good way to play it. The children like it and it doesn't destroy the narration," Starr said.
Once he had captured the flavor of the original story line, drawing the strip came fairly easily to Starr, who is considered one of the finest draftsmen in the business. "On Stage," which he dropped when he took on Annie, was a realistically drawn strip. Without much effort, he was able to draw the figures for Annie by adding cartoon characteristics to otherwise realistic figures. Since Annie's physical appearance changed considerably over the decades that she was drawn by Gray, Starr chose to copy the Annie from the 1930s.
"She looked the prettiest then, she had the most animation and the most charm ," he said. "Figures change virtually every five years without the artist knowing it. Harold Gray's Annie of the Thirties was definitely the most attractive. Later on, he sort of elongated her, her hair got sort of weird looking and at the time he died she was really a bit grotesque."
The logo from the '30s -- just plain "Annie" -- was used for the current musical as well as the new comic strip.
Can Annie, who was first penned in the 1920s, make it in the '80s? Right now the strip is enjoying spin-off success from the musical -- more than 200 papers subscribe to the strip -- and a successful new movie version, currently in the works, could inspire even greater readership.
"Ultimately, the strip will stand or fall on what I do with it," said Starr. "I'm sort of in the position of a movie star's offspring -- I've got my foot in the door but sooner or later I'll have to make it on my own."