Comic strip icon Snuffy Smith and the man who draws him, John Rose, have something important in common.
We don’t mean that Rose has a giant nose, wears yellow elbow patches, spends his time running from the local sheriff, or has a predilection for “corn squeezin’s” — Snuffy’s term for moonshine.
But they do both hail from the Appalachian mountains. Rose is a Covington native who lives near Harrisonburg. Snuffy — well, it may not be clear exactly where Hootin’ Holler can be found, but it’s definitely a mountain town.
The comic strip “Barney Google and Snuffy Smith” began in 1919, 44 years before Rose was born. He took it over in 2001 after the previous artist, Fred Lasswell, passed away. He’s been bringing the inhabitants of Hootin’ Holler to life ever since.
Rose had wanted to be a cartoonist since he was a child. A 1986 graduate of James Madison University, he landed his first newspaper job in 1988, drawing editorial cartoons for Byrd Newspapers of Virginia. In 1991, he added to his list of weekly duties a children’s activity page, Kids’ Home Newspaper, which features a doggy mascot known simply as Pup. He’s also written and drawn some of the comic book adventures of that perpetual teenage carrot-top, Archie.
He’s continued all that even as he’s come up with daily jokes and gags for Snuffy, his wife Loweezy, son Tater, nephew Jughaid, mutt Ol’ Bullet and all the other potato-nosed inhabitants of Hootin’ Holler.
King Features Syndicate released a new collection of his Snuffy strips last year, “The Bodacious Best of Snuffy Smith.”
Rose says he’s felt connected to Roanoke since he was a kid, which is part of what inspired his image of a giant Snuffy snoozing at the Mill Mountain Star. “Roanoke was always the big city we’d go to for groceries, the movies, and shopping malls,” he wrote in an email. He still stops in frequently, he wrote — for example, he and his wife, Karen, caught comedian ventriloquist Jeff Dunham’s most recent Roanoke Civic Center performance.
Rose answered a number of questions from us, including one that might be most pertinent to newer readers of the strip: Who the heck is Barney Google?
Was “Snuffy Smith” a favorite strip of yours growing up?
Absolutely! One set of my grandparents also lived in Covington. At a young age, I remember spreading out the pages of the Covington Virginian newspaper on their living room floor and reading “Snuffy,” along with all the other comic strips on the page. I read all the strips and while I may not have always gotten the gags, I really studied the art in each one, too. My grandparents’ house was also a short distance from the public library. I would walk to the library and read and re-read all the “How to Draw Cartoons” books.
How did you become the artist for “Snuffy Smith”?
I have been a member of The National Cartoonist Society (a professional cartoonists organization) for many years. In 1998, I was talking to a fellow cartoonist at our group’s annual meeting and he mentioned that he had been working as an assistant on the “Blondie” comic strip. I didn’t realize that some comic strip cartoonists used assistants so I decided I might try this as a way to earn additional income. The first comic strip I thought of was “Snuffy Smith.”
I drew a sample “Snuffy” Sunday comic strip and sent it along with examples of my other work to Fred Lasswell, who created the strip for 60-plus years. A few weeks later, to my surprise, the phone rang and it was Fred! He said he got the samples I sent him and he really liked the way I drew big noses. That led to him hiring me to be his inking assistant.
I worked for him for three and a half years. He was a wonderful teacher, mentor and friend. I learned so much from him. When Fred passed away in 2001, King Features offered me the opportunity to be the cartoonist.
Is there a character in the strip that’s a favorite for you to draw?
Snuffy is definitely my favorite, but Jughaid is fun, too. Truthfully, I am blessed to work with a bodaciously wonderful set of characters. I enjoy them all!
Who is Barney Google and does he ever appear in the strip?
The comic strip was created by Billy DeBeck in 1919 and was titled “Take Barney Google, F’rnstance.” Barney was the main character and after a few years he was joined by his horse, Spark Plug. They were hugely popular, even inspiring the hit song, “Barney Google (with the Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes).” In 1934, Barney visited the Appalachian Mountains and met Snuffy Smith.
DeBeck died in 1942 and his assistant, Fred Lasswell, took over the strip. Snuffy began to eclipse Barney in popularity and Lasswell phased Barney out, often only having him appear once a year or so. Under Lasswell, his last appearance was in 1997. I proposed to my editor at King Features that we bring Barney back for a weeklong visit in 2012 and he thought it was a great idea. So we had Barney and Spark Plug visit and the response was so wonderful that we’ve had them do at least two different weeklong visits each year since
How do you handle updating Snuffy for the 21st century?
In my mind, Hootin’ Holler is its own fictional little rural community, but it is in current time. In other words, the characters comment on current events in a very broad sense. For example, I’ve done lots of strips on the recession, on elections, on the NSA or high milk prices. Snuffy and Lukey read the Hootin’ Holler Gazette, the Parson has the only television and the Doctor has the only car!
Has anyone ever complained to you about the use of hillbilly stereotypes in “Snuffy Smith”? If someone did, what would you say to them?
I think most people realize it’s a comic strip and it’s meant to be funny. Plus, with the popularity of the strip and TV shows like “Duck Dynasty” and “Moonshiners” and comedians like Jeff Foxworthy and Larry The Cable Guy, I think being a hillbilly is pretty hip and popular. It’s just proof that being a hillbilly is something to celebrate!
You have to come up with a new joke a day (at least). How do you do that?
To get ideas, I doodle, I read the news, I listen, I stare off into space and think. I think listening is key — sometimes what someone in the restaurant booth near you says can translate into a great cartoon. I guess I am always thinking of ideas in the back of my mind.
Can you provide an example of an overheard comment that turned into a comic strip?
It happens fairly often. Once I overheard some folks talking about the comic strip “Beetle Bailey” and that they heard it was going to be 60 years old in September of that year. After hearing that, I thought it might be fun to have Beetle visit Hootin’ Holler. I wondered if Snuffy would give him a birthday party? Beetle is just as lazy as Snuffy so I thought that would make a fun gag.
I went back home to my drawing table and drew a 3-panel strip where Snuffy and Beetle walk up on one another in Hootin’ Holler and Snuffy says, “If it ain’t my ol’ pal, Beetle Bailey!! Happy birfday, yo’re 60 years old today!!” Then in the second panel Snuffy says, “We need to bake you a cake, buy you presents, decorate an’ throw you a party!!” In the third panel, they sit down to rest by a stump and both say, “Never mind … that sounds like too much work!!”
I always enjoy drawing other cartoon characters in my work, so that made it even more fun. “Beetle Bailey” cartoonist Mort Walker [who also created “Hi and Lois”] saw the strip and loved it. Mort got in touch with me and requested the original. That was a great honor for me because Mort was always one of my cartooning heroes. Mort even sent me one of his original, signed comic strips in return. What a nice guy!
You can learn more about Rose at snuffysmithcomics.com. The Roanoke Times offers “Barney Google and Snuffy Smith,” “Beetle Bailey” and many other bonus strips online at http://www.roanoke.com/arts_and_entertainment/comics/.