10 Things You Might Not Know About Little Orphan Annie

Tribune Media Services
Tribune Media Services

From 1924 to 2010, cartoonist Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie comic strip presented the adventures of a plucky young girl with empty pupils who fell in and out of trouble at home and abroad while endearing herself to her adopted family. You’ve probably seen one of the many stage or screen musicals based on the strip, but you may not know some of the details behind Annie’s tenure in newspapers. Check out some facts about her origin, concerns over the strip’s violence, and which president pushed "Daddy" Warbucks into an early grave. (You can also check out our list of facts on the 1982 Annie feature film here.)

1. IT WAS ORIGINALLY LITTLE ORPHAN OTTO.

Harold Gray was originally a hired pencil, owning and operating an art studio in Chicago following his service in World War I. After Gray began assisting cartoonist Sidney Smith on a strip titled The Grumps, Gray decided he might like to try his hand creating his own. Believing a character who had no allegiance to family or society would free them up for adventures, he decided to make his protagonist an orphan. Originally a young boy named Otto, Gray decided to switch genders when he realized that of the 43 strips running at the time, only three featured women in prominent roles. Little Orphan Otto became Little Orphan Annie, entering syndication in 1924.

2. ANNIE WAS A FIGURE OF FEMALE EMPOWERMENT.

In stark contrast to the portrayal of women in popular culture of the time, Annie was no damsel in distress. Though she found a guardian in rich industrialist Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks, her tendency to get caught up in criminal schemes or political intrigue meant she was often in physical danger. But Annie was resourceful and wily, and usually able to extricate herself from those situations without needing to be rescued. Annie, wrote historian Elizabeth Maurer, was “neither ladylike nor cute ... she was the antithesis of Shirley Temple ... While she frequently ends up in dicey situations, she usually saves herself.” 

3. SHE PIONEERED MARKETING TO KIDS.

Tie-in merchandising and marketing to children is commonplace today, but the template for it may have been laid down by Annie’s first foray into multimedia. In 1930, the Little Orphan Annie radio program debuted, bringing with it a unique strategy of marrying entertainment with corporate messaging. The show was sponsored by Ovaltine and written by its advertising executives, who concocted several ways to get listeners to pick up the chocolate drink mix. Box tops could be mailed in and redeemed for Annie decoder rings and shake cups, the equivalent of an Avengers Big Gulp today.

4. HAROLD GRAY USED THE COMIC STRIP TO DELIVER POLITICAL PROPAGANDA.

A staunch conservative, Gray often used the powerful platform he had as a widely distributed cartoonist to comment on the politics of the day. Opposed to government interference in private financial affairs, in 1936 he ran a series of strips in which "Daddy" Warbucks is harassed by “political racketeers” and denounces virtually anyone holding public office. Newspaper editors were not pleased, claiming Gray was being too subversive for the funny pages. West Virginia's Huntington Herald-Dispatch pulled the strip and replaced it with a banner that read: “Deleted! For violation of reader trust!” The syndicate soon circulated word that Gray would be starting a new story, one free of any political subtext.

5. SOMETIMES THE STRIP GOT TOO VIOLENT FOR NEWSPAPERS.

One might not normally associate Little Orphan Annie with controversial content, but the carrot-topped crime-solver sometimes found herself pushing the envelope a little too far. For a 1956 story in which Annie runs afoul of a vicious street gang, papers including the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and the Ohio State Journal suspended the strip for depictions of muggings, knives, and other unsavory content. Annie returned to their pages only after her dalliances with juvenile delinquents had come to an end.

6. THE STRIP GOT SUPERNATURAL.

In the 1930s, Gray attempted to make Annie’s adventures slightly more escapist for readers mired in the Depression. When Annie would get into scrapes, sometimes accomplices like the eight-foot-tall Punjab would appear, throwing a magic blanket over crooks and teleporting them into unknown planes of existence. Annie later met Mr. Am, a bearded sage who could apparently enter other dimensions and bring the dead back to life.  

7. SHE MADE A DIFFERENCE DURING WORLD WAR II.

Annie’s efforts in wartime weren’t limited to the comics pages. While she sunk a German submarine and foiled spy rings, kids longing to become one of her “Junior Commandos” made their mark in the real world by collecting scrap for the government. Even something as simple as kitchen fat could be repurposed to make glycerin, which had applications in both medicine and explosives. Gray was apparently so pleased with his character’s influence that he asked for extra gasoline coupons during the fuel ration. The local board turned down his request.

8. "DADDY" WARBUCKS DIED BECAUSE GRAY HATED FDR.

Gray could never stay away from his thinly-veiled political commentary for long. A stubborn opponent to president Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” the cartoonist was astonished to learn FDR was aiming for a fourth presidential term in 1944. By way of protest, Gray had Annie’s benefactor, “Daddy” Warbucks, die of a mysterious illness—one some readers suspected was death by way of being a capitalist hero. But when FDR himself passed away in 1945, Warbucks miraculously recovered after Gray revised his fate to being in a coma. The character said that “the climate here has changed since I went away,” a clear reference to new leadership in the Oval Office.

9. THE BROADWAY MUSICAL GAVE IT NEW LIFE.

After Gray died in 1968, Little Orphan Annie was passed to a series of successors, including former assistant Tex Blaisdell and cartoonist David Lettick. But their efforts proved unpopular, and Annie originals left the comics pages in 1974: Reruns of Gray's work took up residence on newspaper pages. When the 1977 Broadway adaptation became a smash hit, interest in the strip was revived. Artist Leonard Starr took over the strip in 1979, restoring it to much of its former popularity. Starr retired in 2000.

10. THE STRIP ENDED ON A CLIFFHANGER.

Contemporary times were not kind to Annie, who was appearing in less than 20 newspapers in 2010, when Tribune Media Services announced the strip's cancellation. Readers were left with a cliffhanger ending, with Annie captured by a war criminal dubbed the Butcher of the Balkans. The story was resolved in 2014, when Dick Tracy—another Tribune strip—continued "Daddy" Warbucks’s search for his missing adoptee. The trench-coated detective found her alive and well. She continues to appear sporadically in the Tracy strip, still devoid of any pupils.

This Graphic Novel Scratch-Off Chart Lets You Track Your Comic Reading List

Pop Chart Lab
Pop Chart Lab

With so many comic books being adapted into some of the most popular movies and television shows in Hollywood right now, you might find yourself wanting to go back to their roots on the page. But reading through the world’s most celebrated graphic novels isn’t so simple. There are so many different genres, publishers, and styles to choose from, making it overwhelming to find a proper starting point. This new scratch-off poster from the folks at Pop Chart Lab solves that problem by turning that daunting reading list into a colorful piece of home decor.

The chart features illustrated icons from dozens of different graphic novels from all around the world. Though you’ll recognize familiar sights like the bat signal from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Spider Jerusalem from Transmetropolitan, they’ll be colored in a drab grey. Once you gently scratch off that monochrome outer layer, though, you’ll reveal a vibrant new image underneath.

The idea is to scratch off each title as you read through the list to turn the chart into colorful wall art that shows off your progress. And don’t worry, there’s no filler on this chart. Standards like Watchmen, Maus, and A Contract With God share space with recent hits, including the Civil Rights Movement title March, the spellbinding sci-fi world of Saga, and the coming-of-age tale This One Summer.

Pop Chart Lab's Essential Graphic Novels Scratch-Off Chart
Pop Chart Lab

It’s also perfect for fans looking to expand beyond superhero titles, as you’ll only find a handful of men in tights here, with the highlights being Marvels, Batman: Year One, and Batman: The Killing Joke. The rest is made up of samurai epics (Usagi Yojimbo), fantasy classics (Sandman), memoirs (Fun Home), and crime comics (Stray Bullets).

The chart is 12 inches by 16 inches and costs $25 over on the Pop Chart Lab website. Once you pre-order, the pieces will start shipping on August 21.

Pop Chart Lab's Essential Graphic Novels Scratch-Off Chart
Pop Chart Lab

5 Bizarre Comic-Con News Stories from Years Past

Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC
Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC

At its best, San Diego Comic-Con is a friendly place where like-minded people can celebrate their pop culture obsessions, and each other. And no one can make fun of you, no matter how lazy your cosplaying might be. You might think that at its worst, it’s just a series of long lines of costumed fans and small stores crammed into a convention center. But sometimes, throwing together 100,000-plus people from around the world in what feels like a carnival-type atmosphere where anything goes can have less than stellar results. Here are some highlights from past Comic-Con-tastrophes.

1. MAN IN HARRY POTTER T-SHIRT STABS ANOTHER MAN IN THE FACE—WITH A PEN

In 2010, two men waiting for a Comic-Con screening of the Seth Rogen alien comedy Paul got into a very adult argument about whether one of them was sitting too close to the other. Unable to come to a satisfactory conclusion with words, one man stabbed the other in the face with a pen. According to CNN, the attacker was led away wearing handcuffs and a Harry Potter T-shirt. In the aftermath, some Comic-Con attendees dealt with the attack in an oddly fitting way: They cosplayed as the victim, with pens protruding from bloody eye sockets.

2. MEMORABILIA THIEVES INVADE NEW YORK

Since its founding in 2006, New York Comic Con has attracted a few sticky-fingered attendees. In 2010, a man stole several rare comics from vendor Matt Nelson, co-founder of Texas’s Worldwide Comics. Just one of those, Whiz Comics No. 1, was worth $11,000, according to the New York Post. A few years later, in 2014, someone stole a $2000 “Dunny” action figure, which artist Jon-Paul Kaiser had painted during the event for Clutter magazine. And those are just the incidents that involved police; lower-scale cases of toys and comics disappearing from booths are an increasingly frustrating epidemic, according to some. “Comic Con theft is an issue we all sort of ignore,” collector Tracy Isenhour wrote on the blog of his company, Needless Essentials, in 2015. “I am here to tell you no more. It’s time for this garbage to stop."

3. CATWOMAN SAVES THE DAY


John Sciulli/Getty Images for Xbox

Adrianne Curry, winner of the first cycle of America’s Next Top Model, has made a career of chasing viral fame. Ironically, it was at Comic-Con in 2014 that Curry did something truly worthy of attention—though there wasn’t a camera in sight. Dressed as Catwoman, she was posing with fans alongside her friend Alicia Marie, who was dressed as Tigra. According to a Facebook post Marie wrote at the time, a fan tried to shove his hands into her bikini bottoms. She screamed, the man ran off, and Curry jumped to action. She “literally took off after dude WITH her Catwoman whip and chased him down, beat his a**,” Marie wrote. “Punched him across the face with the butt of her whip—he had zombie blood on his face—got on her costume.”

4. MAN POSES AS FUGITIVE-SEEKING INVESTIGATOR TO GET INTO VIP ROOM

The lines at Comic-Con are legendary, so one Utah man came up with a novel way to try and skip them altogether. In 2015, Jonathon M. Wall tried to get into Salt Lake Comic Con’s exclusive VIP enclave (normally a $10,000 ticket) by claiming he was an agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, and needed to get into the VIP room “to catch a fugitive,” according to The San Diego Union Tribune. Not only does that story not even come close to making sense, it also adds up to impersonating a federal agent, a crime to which Wall pleaded guilty in April of 2016 and which carried a sentence of up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Just a few months later, prosecutors announced that they were planning to reduce his crime from a felony to a misdemeanor.

5. MAN WALKS 645 MILES TO COMIC-CON, DRESSED AS A STORMTROOPER, TO HONOR HIS LATE WIFE


Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Disney

In 2015, Kevin Doyle walked 645 miles along the California coast to honor his late wife, Eileen. Doyle had met Eileen relatively late in life, when he was in his 50s, and they bonded over their shared love of Star Wars (he even proposed to her while dressed as Darth Vader). However, she died of cancer barely a year after they were married. Adrift and lonely, Doyle decided to honor her memory and their love of Star Wars by walking to Comic-Con—from San Francisco. “I feel like I’m so much better in the healing process than if I’d stayed home,” he told The San Diego Union Tribune.

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