Lyonel Feininger is best known as a painter and a founder of the famous Bauhaus school of art and architecture; however, he was also a pioneer of the comic strip. Although he is not as well-known for his work in comics, his strips play an important role in the history of comic art. While comic strips were still in their infancy and before a standard format had been established, Feininger was already pushing the limits with his experimental designs and with his themes of rebellion and anarchy in The Kin-der-Kids.
Feininger was born in New York City on July 17, 1871 to professional musicians. While his parents went on tour, Feininger was left alone to develop his imagination and creativity. When he was sixteen, he left the country to study at the Leipzig Music Conservatory, but ultimately enrolled in the Hamburg School of Art due to his interest in drawing. Feininger moved to Berlin in 1888 to attend the art academy and sold his first cartoon in 1889.
Feiningerís early influences range from Wilhelm Busch, creator of picture stories, to American cartoonists, such as Eugene Zimmerman and Arthur Burdett Frost. He became a regular contributor to Ulk, the Sunday supplement of Berliner Tageblatt and his illustrations were published in Harperís Young People and St. Nicholas. According to sources, Feininger often became frustrated with editors because he felt they dictated his work.
In February of 1906, James Keeley, editor of The Chicago Tribune traveled to Germany to procure the services of the most popular humor artists. Keeley was interested in generating a revolution in comics. At the time, one fourth of Chicagoís population was of German descent and many of them were familiar with the artists that Keeley sought. Feininger met Keeley in Berlin and agreed to produce two comic strips for 24,000 marks ($6,000). Keeley also chose Germans Hans Horina, Karl Pommerhanz, and Lothar Meggendorfer to produce strips for his Sunday comic supplement in The Chicago Tribune.
Feiningerís first strip, The Kin-der-Kids, was designed to compete with Rudolph Dirksís The Katzenjammer Kids. The Kin-der-Kids ran for nine months, beginning on April 29, 1906 with a self-portrait of Feininger dangling his characters like marionettes. The comic centered around Auntie Jim-Jam, with her trusty castor oil, and Cousin Gussie chasing after the Kids: Daniel Webster and his dachshund Sherlock Bones, Pie-Mouth, and Strenuous Teddy. The Kids traveled around the world in the family bathtub, propelled by Little Japansky, the clockwork waterbaby. Each strip finds the Kids encountering new characters, such as Mysterious Pete, and narrowly escaping Auntie Jim-Jam. The Kin-der-Kids ended abruptly in mid-sequence on November 18, 1906. There are conflicting arguments surrounding the reasons for the termination of the strip. One argument points to contract disputes, while another blames the format of the comic for a drop in circulation.
Feininger produced another strip for The Tribune, titled Wee Willie Winkieís World, which was named after the nursery rhyme. Wee Willie Winkieís World first appeared during the midst of The Kin-der-Kids in August 19, 1906. The concept of Wee Willie Winkieís World was similar to Winsor McCayís Little Nemo in Slumberland. The comic centered on a wandering boy who brings elements in nature to life through his imagination. This strip was also short-lived, with its last appearance on January 20, 1907.
Although Feiningerís strips ran for less than a year, the artistry he applied to them is important to the study of comics today. Feiningerís comics borrow elements from Art Nouveau and Japanese prints. He also utilized speech balloons, framing techniques, and continuity in his work. Later in life, Feiningerís reputation was established as a painter, watercolorist, and a founder of the Bauhaus. Feiningerís work in comics may comprise only a small body of work, but as Art Spiegelman notes in The New York Times Book Review, it has ďachieved a breathtaking formal grace unsurpassed in the history of the medium.Ē