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Texas History

Comics Caveman

From the bountiful oil fields around Iraan emerged Alley Oop, the legendary funny-pages fossil

Inspiration is strange. Sometimes it comes in a dream. Sometimes we stumble onto it matter-of-factly in our daily routines. And sometimes it hits us over the head like a club.

The club that struck V.T. Hamlin had a caveman named Alley Oop on the other end of it. Hamlin created the funny-pages fixture more than 80 years ago while working in the oil fields near the West Texas town of Iraan (pronounced Ira-Ann).

Born May 10, 1900, in Perry, Iowa, Hamlin had an early proclivity for drawing and was publishing cartoons in his hometown newspaper by his early teens. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, he lied about his age, enlisted and was shipped to France. He was hospitalized twice and passed the time by scribbling cartoons that drew the attention of his fellow infirmed. He even illustrated some of their letters home. Hamlin was discharged from the military in 1919 and returned to high school in Iowa.

In 1920, Hamlin enrolled at the University of Missouri, but after an art professor ridiculed his interest in cartooning, he left after one semester. Over the next two years, Hamlin dabbled at college, worked as a newspaper reporter and did a considerable bit of train-hopping though the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest. He then returned to Iowa and completed a correspondence course in newspaper art.

That helped land him a job in 1922 in the art department of The Texas Grubstaker, a Fort Worth oil publication. Later that year, he became the chief cartoonist and head of the Grubstaker’s art department.

Hamlin joined the Fort Worth Star-Telegram the following year and created two short-lived comic strips, “The Hired Hand of WBAP,” a radio promotion, and “Panther Kitten,” a baseball cartoon devoted to coverage of the Fort Worth Panthers, the local Texas League squad.

Hamlin returned to Iowa in 1926 and married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy Stapleton. When he and Dorothy returned to Fort Worth, Hamlin began providing illustrations for Texas Oil World and traveled through West Texas surveying oil fields.

Hamlin worked as a photographer at the 1928 Democratic Convention in Houston and then returned to pencil and paper to record the rolling topography of the Yates Oil Field near Iraan. He was struck by the seemingly endless number of fossils in the area and began to contemplate the lives of the ancient creatures that must have roamed the region.

The 1925 silent screen adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World” had been a box-office smash, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ wild and wildly popular, fictional Tarzan—often with a faithful chimpanzee named Cheetah at his side—was encountering dinosaurs and lost primitives in every new edition of the ape-man’s series. As Hamlin surveyed the landscape around Iraan, the hulking, loin-clothed caveman he first called Oop the Mighty materialized in his mind, accompanied by his own faithful sidekick, a dinosaur named Dinny.

After a couple of fits and starts, the comic strip “Alley Oop” (with Alley carrying a stone axe instead of a club) debuted in newspapers on December 5, 1932, and was syndicated in 1933. Hamlin’s Texas caveman became a staple of the funny pages. At its peak circulation, the comic appeared in 800 newspapers, making Alley Oop a household name and presaging later Stone Age fare such as the comic strip “B.C.” and “The Flintstones” TV show.

Though Hamlin retired from drawing and writing “Alley Oop” in 1972 and passed away June 14, 1993, the comic strip endures with new writers, still running in newspapers around the world. And the town of Iraan still recognizes Alley Oop as its patron primitive.

In 1965, Hamlin returned to Iraan when the town proclaimed May 8 Alley Oop Day and dedicated the Alley Oop Museum and Fantasy Land Park. A 20-foot tall bust of Alley and a 65-foot long, 80,000-pound statue of Dinny still adorn the park today, and old and new fans of the prehistoric pair still swing through Iraan to pay homage.

E.R. Bills is a writer from Aledo.