At the Top for Downright Humor

Posted on: Friday, August 25, 2017 at 9:30:00 am At the Top for Downright Humor

This original sketch of the cartoon character Abe Martin was presented to the Anderson Public Library in August 1926 by Kin Hubbard of Indianapolis whose cartoons appeared in the now defunct Indianapolis News between 1901 and 1930. Hubbard was a cartoonist and humorist whose works became nationally known during the early 20th century, and his best-known character was Abe Martin, a sardonic hick hailing from Brown County, Indiana.

Frank McKinney Hubbard was born on September 1, 1868, in Bellefontaine, Ohio, the son of a newspaper editor and city postmaster. An indifferent student, he quit school by adolescence. His father gave him jobs as a newspaper typesetter and a post office clerk, but Hubbard desired the theatrical life. He worked as a silhouette artist in the South and then briefly studied at the Jefferson School of Art in Detroit. However, he always returned to Bellefontaine to accept odd jobs.

In 1891, Hubbard shared his drawings with a friend in Indianapolis, who encouraged him to apply for a job at the Indianapolis News. Hubbard was hired as a police reporter and drew sketches of police stories, fires, and other events while disparaging his work for lack of composition, light and shade, and perspective. Nevertheless, his eye-hand coordination, observation skills, visual sense, and steel-trap mind worked to his advantage. But after a new managing editor desired in-depth artistry, Hubbard quit and returned to Bellefontaine. Next he worked as a mule skinner in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and as an amusement park gatekeeper in Cincinnati, Ohio. Eventually, he found newspaper work again as a sketch artist for the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune and then for the Mansfield (Ohio) News.

In 1899, Hubbard landed a job as a sketch artist at the Indianapolis Sun and spent two years honing his artistic skills. In 1901, the Indianapolis News rehired Hubbard; he remained there for 29 years, coming into his own as both a cartoonist and a humorist and creating the characters and locale for which he became nationally famous.

While caricaturing state legislators during the 1904 presidential campaign, Hubbard created the character that was to become his bread and butter. The common folk greeting the candidates’ trains impressed Hubbard, who sketched cartoons of them with humorous comments as dialogue. With editorial permission, Hubbard created from this Abe Martin, a shambling, bewhiskered, pipe-toting yokel given to making acerbic remarks on current events while speaking in the Hoosier dialect. In 1904, Abe Martin debuted in the Indianapolis News in a cartoon of him viewing a poster of a dance hall girl and commenting: “If I thought that blamed troupe done everything it has pictures fer, I’d stay over this evening and go home on the interubin.” The cartoon was instantly popular and Abe Martin by Kin Hubbard became a regular Indianapolis News feature.

During the campaign, Hubbard was impressed by the village of Nashville in Brown County, Indiana. Deciding that a commoner like Abe Martin fit the rugged hills and woods of this out-of-the-way region, Hubbard made the authentic county of Brown and fictitious town of Bloom Center Abe’s home. Then he created other characters who resided in Bloom Center and who made satiric comments about life in general just like their neighbor Abe. Perhaps the best-known residents were the Moots, a farming clan depicted in the sketch above.

The growing popularity of Abe Martin was multiplied by the publication of Abe Martin of Brown County, Indiana, a compilation of Abe’s and his neighbors’ observations, and endorsement by poet James Whitcomb Riley, who told Hubbard, “You’ve found yourself. You’ve got a great character in Abe and there is no end to his possibilities.” Hubbard’s fame went national in 1910 with playwright George Ade’s article praising Abe Martin and Hubbard in American Magazine; soon Abe Martin was syndicated in the newspapers of some 200 cities nationwide.

Despite his success, Hubbard was uncomfortable with fame. He declined offers to portray Abe Martin in public himself, as well as offers to adapt his characters to radio and film. Additionally, he refused job offers from other newspapers. Hubbard was so modest that he found any notion that he was a “genius” repugnant.

Hubbard died suddenly of a heart attack on December 26, 1930, at his home in Indianapolis at the age of 62. His longtime friend Will Rogers paid him tribute: “Why, Kin Hubbard was at the top for downright humor. He’d forgotten more humor than all the rest of ‘em probably will ever know.”

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