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Sally Forth 40th Anniversary Special: The Sad, True Story of “Sidney and the Hat”

Posted in Uncategorized by cesco7 on January 8, 2022

The history of newspaper comics is often written by its most famous or notable works—Blondie, Popeye, that one week when Billy, age 7, actually did write The Family Circus only for all the characters to just scream “PENIS!” repeatedly.

Then there are those comics whose story is defined more by their prolonged absence. Comics that fell out of favor or were fallen by cancellation either do to changing mores, readers growing weary of seven decades of Depression-era humor about eating the neighbor’s cat, or simply because unless you are currently being educated in certain states’ public school systems you don’t quite take to such years-old comic catchphrases as “Gravity is an ethnic conspiracy.”

But historians of any subject matter will tell you that the real story is always told in the margins and spaces between the shared words, in the voices lost or silenced. And so when it comes to the commentary of comics, that inevitably leads us to the sad, short print life of Sidney and the Hat, a strip that ran for six non-consecutive weeks in 1949 and of which there are no extant examples of save for a few torn scraps of paper in which all of the characters eyes have been X-ed out and someone has scrawled “I am the blood awakening.”

As was often the case in the first half of the 20th century when it came to publishing, the tale of Sidney and the Hat begins with the long-standing feud between The New York Journal-American and New York World, two newspapers that bitterly fought for the hearts and minds of readers in one of the largest markets in which the church said it was permissible for people to read. (The fact that this rivalry was still going on in 1949, a full 18 years after the New York World had ceased publication, only goes to stress just how contentious business practices can be.) And as hard as it may be to imagine today, the harshest of these tabloid tussles were waged in the papers’ comics sections, at one point resulting in both newspapers publishing their own version of the then immensely popular strip The Yellow Kid, which ultimately gave birth to the still-popular saying “What the fuck’s with all these kids?”

And so it was in 1948 that William Randolph Hearst’s The New York Journal-American had scored an immediate hit with their new comic Betty Bakes, about a housewife who regularly conversed with that brand-new, must-have kitchen appliance, the stand mixer. Each strip would begin with a dessert recipe—“For the gals!”—and end with Betty telling the mixer she wished her husband would be struck dead by a streetcar. Twice. In fact, Betty Bakes was such a sensation that New York World—which, again, had folded in 1931—demanded their own version, also featuring a character chatting up some hot new tech of the day. But none of the resulting strips—Annette and the Aerosol Spray CanZelda Loves Her Z3 Fully Automatic Digital Computer“I Am Become Death, The Destroyer of Worlds” Atomix Comix—could quite capture the zeitgeist the way Betty had. And then came Sy Symon…

For someone with over 700 different comic strips to his name, almost nothing is known about cartoonist/writer/debt deflector Sy Symon. Some comics historians say that’s because over 99% of his strips were never published in papers but rather on self-printed leaflets that were then shoved under windshield wipers or—prior to the popularity of the automobile—in horses’ mouths. They are also quick to point out that such a volume of work—including the strips STOP LOOKING AT ME!, This is Where You End and I Begin, and Fat-Bottomed Chickens— would indicate that “Sy Symon” was actually the collective pseudonym for several ghostwriters, such as The Hardy Boys “Franklin W. Dixon” or “Stephen King.”

Dissenting comics chronologists, however, believe that Mr. Symon was indeed a single person and the absence of biographical details is due to a highly reclusive lifestyle in which he refused to be photographed or captured by reflective surfaces. These historians also note that while we know quite little about the man himself, there is a New York City 11th-story walk-up studio apartment rental lease agreement signed by a “Sy Symon” (co-signed by “There Is No Other”) and that the apartment was ultimately condemned because every single wall was covered with artistic renderings described as “Henry Darger meets Ziggy.”

Certain industry circles further this “reclusive” theory by noting the connection between Sy Symon and noted camera-shy author Thomas Pynchon, though this is based entirely on the fact that Mr. Symon is believed to have published a daily comic strip based on Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which was done completely without the author’s consent and focused entirely on only a single detail from the book’s sprawling narrative—instant erections via V-2 missile strikes. Of course, if the supposed timeline of Sy Symon’s’ work is to be accepted, this very strip would have put the cartoonist’s age at around 132, which some say is quite possible given that on the back of every one of Mr. Symon’s strip leaflets was an ad for “Curative Elixir of the Extension of Cognitive Corporeal Form” that included a P.O. box and the slogan “EAT POTATOES, GOD DAMNIT!”

Legend has it that in the spring of 1949, New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer (who had died in 1911) approached Mr. Symon in Central Park, having become interested in the man’s work after an autopsy revealed his horse had been choked to death by several forcibly-shoved copies of the cartoonist’s strip Solitude Is One Too Many. Others say it was in fact Mr. Symon who approached the publisher, yelling “Those are MY birds!” Both legends end with an agreement being hammered out only on the condition that—unlike the strip Betty Bakes— Mr. Symon’s protagonist would be male, since he firmly believed women to be a myth.

And so began the brief, infrequent run of Sidney and the Hat, which ultimately differed in many other ways from the very strip that inspired its creation. While Betty’s stand mixer would actually talk back, Sidney’s hat dialogue was entirely the figment of Sidney’s imagination, heard only by him, often at such great volume that Sidney would regularly cover his own ears. While Betty and her stand mixer would happily come to an agreement that her husband must die, Sidney would have loud, belligerent, self-assaultive arguments, with passers-by only able to hear Syd’s side of the fight as he repeatedly punched his own head. And while Betty and her stand mixer would always end each strip with a shared laugh and a recipe for, say, croquembouche (whose many steps necessitated a full Sunday comic), Sidney and his hat would quietly stare off into the distance, wondering if today was the day the sun shattered against the unforgiving sharp edge of the horizon. (All of these strip attributes, though not corroborated by any surviving comics, is known to us by the many angry responses to editorial comments a “Sy Symon, Private Artist/Public Scourge” would leave on Joseph Pulitzer’s tombstone.)

And then one day—not with a bang but with, according to many neighboring tenants, ear-piercing screams and the repeated shattering of the only plate in Sy Symon’s apartment—the story of Sidney and the Hat came to an end. Until today, that is, as the character makes his grand re-entrance into the popular consciousness in the one strip that will ensure four to six people say “Oh” or “Is Sally Forth’s anniversary storyline going to end the same way as Blondie’s 75th anniversary did, in mass Seppuku?”

Long may Sidney do whatever it is he does.

7 Responses

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  1. Carl Pietrantonio said, on January 8, 2022 at 11:20 am

    THIS IS MAJESTIC! An epic title worthy of the famous (fictional ) author Henry James!

    I beg you, good sir, PLEASE keep Sidney in the strip! Ok, I hear you, the panels are small and Jim gots enough work. But maybe as a recurring character? Like Halloween Kid? Or Sally’s dearest friend ever, um, the redhead she used to work with. I forget her name, too.

    For the sake of Historic Character Revival, if for no other reason! Please, SIDNEY MUST STAY!

    • cesco7 said, on January 8, 2022 at 11:21 am

      Hahaha! If you like Sid (and his Hat) keep reading this month! And thank you!

      • Carl Pietrantonio said, on January 8, 2022 at 11:30 am

        I read EVERY day, Ces… for years and years now. Someday, by Odin’s left thumb, there must be Collected Editions! This strip is just too dang good!

        Please?

  2. MopMan said, on January 8, 2022 at 11:46 am

    What the **** did I just read?

  3. Dan Cluley said, on January 9, 2022 at 2:51 am

    I have no words… Possibly because the author of this marvelous essay used them all up. Bravo sir! 🙂

  4. LBD "Nytetrayn" said, on January 9, 2022 at 3:00 am

    Brilliance. Utter brilliance.

    I look forward to the further adventures of Sidney and his Hat within Sally Forth, much like I look forward to the further adventures of Little Orphan Annie in the Dick Tracy comic strip, because that’s how everything works now.

  5. Tom Harrington said, on January 9, 2022 at 11:05 pm

    My god that was fantastic


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