The inspirationally gigantic Complete Little Orphan Annie, Volume 1 is sitting on our bedside table, and Noel and I have both made it through the first three story arcs, digesting them in marathon edge-of-our-seats sessions spanning several months of the strip at a time. Although it's hardly as gentle or character-driven (not to mention as gag-filled and fantastical) as my beloved Gasoline Alley, it shares a remarkably clear and unpretentious style.
What's amazing about these artifacts from eighty years ago is how easy it is to get caught up in Annie's drama. Annie is a boondocks saint, an orphan who is alternately misunderstood and exploited by adults, a hard-case street urchin who prefers to stick up for everyone else rather than herself. And yet her story, so melodramatic in outline (snooty rich lady hates kids but flaunts her "charity" work with Annie; middle-class shopkeeper takes Annie in to help in her shop six days a week and returns her to the "home" on Sundays to save feeding her; beleaguered farmers love her like a daughter but are on the verge of losing her along with their land), is presented almost documentary-style. Drawn at the height of the silent film era, almost none of the close-ups, exaggerations, and flowery tropes of the cinema make it into Harold Gray's panels.
There's a ethical treatise in Gray's worldview. Good-hearted people can be found in any class -- working, middle, even war profiteers. The pure of heart can recognize each other intuitively, but if they are inexperienced in the ways of the world, they tend to believe the best of all the louts and mercenaries and criminals and scam artists that surround them, clinging to their illusions until they've been fleeced. What's needed are street-smart individuals with hearts of gold, who have no problem socking the baddies in the jaw and giving a hand to the poor unfortunates who need it most. Annie does her part at ground level, but she's at the mercy of an adult society that sees her as a problem and not an asset. Daddy Warbucks is much more powerful, with his money and his willingness to brawl with lowlifes who don't understand reason -- but he's at the mercy of the business world that gives him the money. He's always disappearing for months at a time to attend to overseas munitions interests, during which Annie tries to hang on to three squares and stay ahead of the dogcatcher.
The parts of society that wouldn't become visible in most media until the Great Depression -- debt-riddled landowners, tramps and hobos, homeless waifs -- are already at the center of Gray's strips in the mid-1920's. It's a fascinating sociological artifact. But more than that, it's a cracking story with frequently lyrical writing and effortless emotional pull. I can't wait to dive back in.