Crime, Corruption, Copyright, and a Kids’ Comic: Skippy


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Before Peanuts, there was Skippy. And Always Belittlin’. And The Clancy Kids. And a wealth of other illustrations by Percy Crosby, one of America’s most talented comic strip artists. Born in Brooklyn in 1891, Crosby’s illustrious career began when he was in his teens, at a Socialist newspaper where fellow workers called him “Comrade Crosby.” It ended in 1964 when he died, isolated and destitute, in an insane asylum. He had been committed 16 years earlier when he was diagnosed, possibly wrongly, as paranoid schizophrenic and delusional.

Back in May, I was taken aback to see an Imprint header that read “Skippy is Dead, R.I.P.” It turned out to be Steve Heller’s obit for the Oscar-nominated actor Jackie Cooper. But for me, “Skippy” will always signify the comic strip. With renderings as lively and exuberant as its colorful yet believable cast of characters, it’s a classic of its kind. And because of that, Skippy will never die.

The headline also jolted Crosby’s daughter, Joan Crosby Tibbetts, and she posted a comment on the piece’s potentially confusing title. Subsequently, Joan and I struck up a conversation, which led to the following conversation.

As  you might guess by the title, “Skippy vs. the Mob” is a new book that reprints three months of continuity about a Mafia-style gangster. It also includes reproductions of Crosby’s original art boards, along with a variety of other strips and illustrations. The book is subtitled “the Fight for Vesey Street… and the American Soul.” Joan’s introductory essay, “Skippy: Reclaiming A Stolen Legacy,” deals not only with the unscrupulousness of Al Capone, but also with the actions of a certain peanut butter company. So naturally, we talked about that as well.

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Michael Dooley: What comic strips has your father’s work inspired?

Joan Crosby Tibbetts: Of all the kid strips, Skippy profoundly influenced Peanuts, as it’s often been noted. Even Snoopy, Charles Schulz’s rendition of Skippy’s dog. Themes used were baseball, especially, and football, ice hockey and ice skating. Philosophical discussions about God and life. The lemonade stand. The fence and wall backgrounds seen in early Peanuts strips.

With Dennis the Menace, it was the mischief element, and the repartee between kids and adults. Also, Hank Ketcham’s ink swirl on Dennis’s face has been noted by many to be like Skippy’s.

It’s obvious that Bud Blake studied Skippy closely for Tiger. Punkinhead, Tiger’s kid brother, wore an elongated necktie like Mortimer, a Skippy character. And the strip had similar themes, especially the kids’ carts plummeting down steep hills as they spoke.

The cart was one of my father’s most frequent devices. It launched a license for Skippy wagons and so forth. And Skippy pedal cars became the idea that launched the popular soap box derbies. Bill Watterson was asked in an interview if Skippy influenced Calvin and Hobbes, but he said no. This is very surprising, as many see the connection.

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What was the genesis of the Skippy vs. the mob storyline?

During the Great Depression my father became alarmed about the effects of Prohibition that spawned a crime wave. Citizens and small businesses were terrorized while police and politicians took little action. Many were under mobster Al Capone’s control. In 1930, my father did a Skippy daily strip satire of Capone, exposing the underworld’s Wall Street ties and election rigging.

Skippy wanted his friends to help save their home town values from Capone, who he called “Spumone,” buying elections with free booze, bribes and voter intimidation. The satire shows Skippy enlisting his friends’ help as the “Revolkalutionists” in fighting the “Jacketeers.” This continuity strip ended after Election Day, and preceded the trial and imprisonment of Capone for tax evasion.
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Do you see similarities between those times and today?

I see many similarities to what’s been happening today, with the entrenched corruption on Wall Street, its casino culture and bankster schemes that my father warned about. Then, it was racketeers with their protection schemes.

That was also when the U.S. was the world’s largest creditor nation, yet awash in illegal liquor. Today, it’s much worse, as we are a large debtor nation, beholden to China and other countries. The rackets are controlled by billionaire hedge fund operators and mortgage scams that have crippled the economy at taxpayer expense. And all the while Congress plays lapdog to its rich donors and turns a blind eye to social justice and laws designed to give a safety net to the little guys on the street.
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What were your father’s political beliefs when he was young?

Like Mark Twain and other literary colleagues, his political views were that of a progressive. His great concern was distrust of the growing power of large corporations in partnership with government and their Wall Street allies that were engaged in what we now call the “Walmart-ization” of small town America. His beliefs were often reflected in the Skippy strip.
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And how did his early experiences affect his world view?

It appears from his writings and memoirs of childhood that he was greatly influenced by his father and grandparents. They immigrated to America during the Irish potato famine, speaking only Gaelic. But they recalled their distrust of the British monarchy and its trappings. With that, and with the hostility to the Irish that he witnessed during the early 20th century, he became an observer.

As a courtroom artist during the Tammany era, my father saw rank corruption and deplored its effect. He feared the wide influence of organized criminal power in law and politics was destroying American values and community spirit.

When he became famous,  he was invited to parties as a celebrity among the “bluebloods” of Oyster Bay at their mansions. But he never fit in with the establishment elites. He was viewed somewhat as a Bohemian artist, whose political cartoons stepped on powerful toes.
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He also became an ardent anti-communist during the 1930s, with the growing unrest in Europe and Hitler’s rise to power.

My father’s early experiences at the New York Call, a Socialist newspaper, left an impression on his later political views. He was fired without pay when he was poor, while having seen the publisher feasting on a steak dinner.

He voted Democrat and supported Roosevelt in 1932. His anti-communist rants began when he believed that Communists had infiltrated Government, and that FDR had close ties to Stalin, with the threat of war brewing. He also believed it was FDR who initiated an IRS tax complaint against him and Skippy, Inc. Being viewed as a “tax dodger” and an “economic royalist” added to his anger.
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Could you summarize your father’s dispute with Skippy peanut butter over the trademark and the label’s copyright infringement?

My father and his character licensing corporation, Skippy, Inc., owned many federal Skippy trademarks for ice cream, candy, bread, toys, dolls, books, film rights, and so on. But in 1933, the Rosefield Packing Company, then bankrupt, attempted to register Skippy peanut butter in U.S. Patent Office as its federal trademark. Skippy, Inc. sued and won, but Rosefield continued to expand its business, over my father’s protests.

He was suing Rosefield again in 1948 when he was committed to a mental hospital, without due process, following a suicide attempt. He died there, impoverished, 16 years later, while Rosefield became rich.

I was appointed by the court to settle the estate, unaware that Rosefield had sold the stolen name to Best Foods in 1955, now Unilever. Years of litigation ensued, and the David vs. Goliath battle for redress continues to this day.

In 1966 Best Foods gave testimony to the FDA that “Skippy was originally named after the cartoon character who was painting a fence.” Also, at a trial in 1980 Charles Schulz testified that he was always confused by the peanut butter label, and assumed that my father had given permission.

I’ve posted details and documents on Skippy.com. I also cover the events in my essay for the “Skippy vs. the Mob” book.
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In that essay, you mention that your father continued to draw even after he’d been institutionalized.

It was heartbreaking to see the cheap paper and art supplies he was reduced to using, with hospital adhesive tape to edit or alter his writings and art.

If you’re ever in D.C., request permission to see his fragile artwork that I donated to Smithsonian Archive of American Art. His watercolor and ink portrayals of mental patients are incredible. Reminiscent of Daumier.
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Is the book currently available?

It sold out, but I’m negotiating with another publisher right now.
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Here’s an Imprint feature of related interest, which includes a photo of Percy Crosby.

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10 COMMENTS

  1. Since Percy was my grandfather (my mother, Patricia, was his daughter from his first marriage), there is no doubt where my sympathies lie. Joan has done an incredible job, not only in promoting and protecting her father’s artistic legacy but also in leading the fight for justice in his name. There were crooks in 1933 and there are still crooks in 2011. Theft is theft. God bless Joan in her continuing fight and the best of Irish luck to her!         

  2. Pingback: A Comic Strip, Crime, and Peanut Butter « Shrine of Dreams

  3. I’m pleased that James posted the Skippy peanut butter jar promoting the “Peanuts gang” and “Snoopy”.  This promo was while Skippy, Inc. and I were faced with court’s contempt order in 1999-2000, threatened with jail and a $500 per day fine if I disobeyed the gag order and continued to tell others that the food Goliath stole Skippy’s trade name and was passing itself off as the exclusive owner-licensor of the Skippy character name.  The big victory came when we appealed and the appeals court in 2000 reversed, holding that the case raised “serious First Amendment issues”. and set a legal precedent in cyberlaw.  That decision put Bestfoods in a real bind, knowing that I had tipped off the Justice Department about its Skippy racket, and an investigation might ensue.  At that time, Bestfoods was suing the U.S. (since 1994), at taxpayer expense, trying to prevent government from requring that SKIPPY labels show its peanut butter was “a product of Canada”.  They lost the case, and Skippy’s website story remained available for worldwide visitors to read, to the infringer Bestfoods’ chagrin.
    Instead of settling with Skippy and the Crosby estate, Bestfoods then sold the stolen name to Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch behemoth, along with other brand names, for $24.3 billion, with Goldman Sachs as its underwriter and financial advisor. Skippy, Inc. then sued to cancel the fraudulent trademark, and once again the $50 billion  Goliath ambushed our lawyer and convinced the court to dismiss case.  Our lawyer, appalled at the brazen fraud on the court, sued Unilever and the lawyers for an injunction and sanctions, and the defendants retaliated by getting case dismissed again, this time with a $42,000 sanctions order against Skippy and our lawyer.  During this litigation (2001-05), Unilever paid the Schulz estate and Peanuts syndicate two more times to promote the Peanuts characters on its SKIPPY label.
    My efforts to get copy of this bogus licensing deal from the syndicate were futile, which claimed the license to Unilever license was “privileged”, refusing to heed my warnings of fraud.  What was infuriating was that the SKIPPY and Peanuts sweepstakes prizes were aimed at young kids, to brainwash them to believe that Unilever is an ethical corporation, interested in kids’ health, education and to “eat more Skippy.”  This cannibalism of the famous character name and persona that Percy Crosby created, only galvanized Skippy heirs to post more animated messages on Skippy’s website,  to expose Unilever’s fraudulent marketing.
    When Unilever persisted in saturating the market with Skippy peanut butter ads and coupons, then had the gall to renew the stolen SKIPPY trademark in 2008 over our protests, that’s when I lowered the boom and licensed the publication of “SKIPPY vs. the Mob”.  In short order, the publisher ceased publication, refused to print more copies despite pending orders, whereby the contract was terminated for breach.  I leave it to the court of public opinion to decide whether the Unilever Goliath and its law department played a role in the book’s censorship.  It may be that this corporate Goliath that built its Skippy racket empire, without ever paying Percy Crosby one cent, realized that the Skippy comic strip satire of Al Capone might raise questions about their claim to “own” the SKIPPY name since 1933.  I’d like to believe that my father got the last word in levelling the playing field for the little guy.  The big boys on Wall St. have no sense of humor.

  4. Thanks for the link, James.
    During my conversation with Joan she also mentioned that “Best Foods/Unilever paid the Schulz estate big bucks to promote its peanut butter with labels showing the ‘Peanuts gang.’ Skippy fans were appalled that the company refused to pay us a cent, but instead kept suing to deplete my finances.”

  5. Your comment’s appreciated, James.  If consumers had known what was really being added to make Rosefield’s “Skippy” peanut butter creamy, there would have been more complaints to the Food & Drug Administration years ago.  Our research into Rosefield’s bogus patents was stunning and disturbing evidence of product adulteration under the stolen Skippy trade name that was concealed from the FDA’s “peanut butter wars” that lasted 11 years (1959-70), at huge taxpayer expense, of course.  Some FDA officials did an heroic job to fight for the standard of 90% peanut content, but today some of the “Skippy” brands show only 60% peanut content, using deceit and political influence to wheedle FDA acceptance.  Consumer health is not the brand name maker’s interest, but the bottom line for profit that the powerful edible oil cartel seeks.