Still published today, issues of America’s Saturday Evening Post are an absolute joy to read for anyone interested in illustration and great storytelling, some of those working on it in the past more famous than others, including Norman Rockwell. Some contributors, however, despite obvious talent, seem to have left barely the smallest of footprints, and one of them appears to be cartoonist John Rosol. Which is odd, because you would have thought that in the age of the feline-obsessed Internet, his “Cat o’ Five Tails” strip would earn him more attention; and his work may be known to anyone whoever opened a packet of Bazooka Joe gum.
In the 1930s the Post featured numerous cartoons, including Marjorie Buell’s brilliant one panel comic, “Little Lulu”, which ran from 1935 to 1944.
Running alongside it, however, was another series of cartoons with its own set of characters – five black cats, which made its debut in 1934, the creation of Philadelphia-based artist John Rosol, collectively known as “Cat o’ Five Tails”.
“I can find very little about artist John Rosol, but his ‘Cat o’ Five Tails’ is utterly charming, and often laugh-out-loud funny,” enthused American author and archivist Van Reid recently. “I was very lucky to find a copy of his one book (as far as I can tell), from 1944.”
Well, needless to say, having seen examples of Rosol’s wonderfully quirky strip, I had to do a bit of digging, but Van seems to be right. Initially, searches were dominated by copies of the Cat o’Five Tails collection, published in 1934 by the David McKay Company on offer around the web; but it wasn’t long before plenty of information turned up, particularly thanks to the diligent researches of Allan Holtz and Alex Jay, over on the indispensable web site, The Stripper’s Guide.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as John Rosolowicz on 14th June 1911, John Rosol, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, attended Gratz High School, and upon graduation received a four-year scholarship to the School of Industrial Art. He took College Humor’s second contest award in 1930, some of his earliest cartoons featuring in the New York-based Ukrainian Weekly, a profile published by that paper in 1933 noting he was also contributing to the Saturday Evening Post, The Country Gentlemen, Literary Digest, and other publications. The “other publications” included Globe magazine, King Fisher, and Slapstick, published by Harold Hersey.
According to his cousin, Kathleen Battaglia, commenting on his passing in 1995, he used the name “John Rosol” because it was a better fit alongside his published work.
“Cat o’ Five Tails” was inspired by the cartoonist’s own cat, Tommy a stray who strolled into Mr. Rosol’s Philadelphia studio and calmly seated himself on the drawing board. According to background information in the 1944 collection, Rosol got Tommy’s idea immediately and went to work. In exchange for small steaks, liver, cream and catnip (no wonder he was a fat cat!) Tommy consented to stay for a while and be Caterer Rosol’s idea man…
“When he finally took his leave – destination unknown – he had trained Mr. Rosol so well that not even an expert can tell where Tommy left off and John began…P.S. Mr. Rosol hopes if this little books happens to come under the eye of Tommy, he will drop into the studio and turn off the light which is always burning for him.”
Rosol was also the creator of two other syndicated strips, “The Cat and the Kid” (8 March 1939 – 17th February 1941), created for the Saturday Evening Post, which had very limited distribution, and “Here and There” (1941), the latter also featuring black cat/s, too. In the style of earlier comics these are large single panel tableaus, with a different strip (about the cat) running occasionally up one side. Original art for this strip is held by Syracuse University, as part of its General Cartoon Collection.
In addition to his comics which were syndicated to numerous papers across the country, and his work for the Saturday Evening Post, Rosol also worked for Bazooka bubblegum. He published a children’s book, The Cat’s Meow, a book he apparently was working on up until his death, aged 85, still living in Philadelphia.
He joined the staff of Philadelphia’s Evening Ledger in 1939, his appointment reported by Svoboda (Ukrainian Life), and his Cat o’ Five Tails was published in 1944. His most circulated work was the cartoons of Bazooka Joe and friends, wrapped around the world-famous gum. His last project was for a book on safety, for the Philadelphia Transit Company, title unknown.
Rosol passed away on 29th June 1995, in Philadelphia, his death reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer on 3rd July 1995.
(My thanks to Van Reid for sending me down this rabbit hole)
• A subscription to the Saturday Evening Post costs just $15 a year and gives full access to an archive of some 200 years of the paper, first published in 1821
• The Ukrainian Weekly was founded in 1933 to serve the Ukrainian American community and to function as a vehicle for communication of that community’s concerns to the general public in the United States. It is the official English-language publication of the Ukrainian National Association. The website includes an archive of editions spanning 1933 – 2014