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Opinion In Market: Looking at history through a comic book

In Market: Looking at history through a comic book

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Robert Francis
Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

Last week I wrote about Memorial Day and took a look at some serious Fort Worth history involving the training of pilots for World War I.

I wrote about the fact that one of the pilots who was a trainer here, Vernon Castle, was famous in his own right as part of a husband-and-wife team of ballroom dancers and Broadway stars. He died at a field in Benbrook. My tie with that was that my father – Billy Vernon Francis – was named after him as his mother, my grandmother, had seen Vernon and Irene on tour and used Vernon’s name for my father’s middle name. It must have made an impact on my grandmother as she named her oldest child, my aunt, Irene.

That bit of Fort Worth history was interesting and it was nice to have a family tie. This story doesn’t, except for the fact that I found the starting off point of this research in one of those boxes of family memories that sit around gathering dust.

This box I opened held a comic book. Most of the comic books I found were mine – decaying Superman, Batman, Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories, Dennis the Menace, etc. This one was a little odd: Little Iodine. It didn’t ring a bell as anything I would have read. Turns out it’s from 1954, so I assume it was my sister’s.

I had never heard of Little Iodine and – hoping of course it was worth millions – I did a bit of research.

It’s not worth millions – maybe a few bucks in its decaying state. But Little Iodine has an interesting history. The comic book is published by Dell, but it was originally a Sunday comic strip, created by Jimmy Hatlo, the spin-off of his other strip They’ll Do It Every Time. I remembered that strip, which chronicled the absurdities of life and often featured the Tremblechin family. Little Iodine was the daughter of the family. I’m not sure if Iodine was a real name or a nickname, but I’ve never known anyone with that moniker. Iodine was popular enough that she graduated to her own strip and has been compared to an early Dennis the Menace. She was written to be very bratty kid and looks to be about 5 or 6. It’s hard to tell, particularly since on the cover of the comic book I have she appears to be driving a car.

Apparently, many of the early strips ended with Iodine receiving a spanking, so I don’t think we’ll be seeing a revival anytime soon. Still she had staying power. The King Features strip ran from 1943 to 1985, long after spanking disappeared from the comic toolkit.

In her heyday though, Iodine was a big spanking hit. So big that, in 1946, Comet Productions, a company set up by Mary Pickford, her husband and a Columbia executive, decided to make a film of Little Iodine called, creatively enough, Little Iodine. The film starred Hobart Cavanaugh as the father, Irene Ryan (Granny on Beverly Hillbillies) and Jo Ann Marlowe as the titular character. Apparently in the film, Iodine thinks her mother is having an affair and Iodine’s shenanigans cause all sorts of trouble. Hilarity ensues.

I say “apparently” because the film is lost. Why, you may ask? That may be the most interesting part of this story.

The film was set for release around the end of October 1946. But it was postponed for reasons we can’t imagine today unless those anti-vaxers have their way. It was postponed due to an epidemic of polio. Kids weren’t going to gather together and eat popcorn and drink soda pop during the outbreak. Even when it was finally released it had lost its mojo. The 56-minute film went back in Comet Productions’ vaults. According to a comic and film website, Mary Pickford was pretty fastidious about maintaining her films, but didn’t have much interest in the ones primarily produced by her husband, former star and big band leader, Buddy Rogers. Little Iodine was one of Buddy’s efforts and Mary couldn’t have cared less.

I couldn’t find any statistics on the outbreak of polio in 1946, but in the epidemic of 1949, 2,720 deaths from the disease occurred in the United States. This was serious stuff.

That polio outbreak of 1946 was impactful for several reasons. That was also the year President Harry Truman declared polio a threat to the United States.

“The fight against infantile paralysis cannot be a local war,” Truman declared in a speech broadcast from the White House. “It must be nationwide. It must be total war in every city, town and village throughout the land. For only with a united front can we ever hope to win any war.” He said those words, we should remember, shortly after America had just won a long, brutal war.

Truman’s call led to an all-out effort and, eventually, the development of Dr. Jonas Salk’s vaccine in the 1950s.

Little Iodine? Kind of forgotten, but, man, the history I learned from that little brat.

Robert Francis is editor of the Fort Worth Business Press.

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