PERCY: COMICS' FIRST ROBOT
Percy, the "mechanism man," entered the world on October 1, 1911, always smiling, serene, silent, eager-to please, and thereby doomed to wreak havoc on everyone nearby. His inventor was a 35-year-old veteran comic artist, Harry Cornell "H. C." Greening. Greening, we know thanks to the research of comic strip historians like Allan Holtz, Paul Tumey, John Adcock, and Alex Jay, was born in Titusville, PA, on May 30, 1876, getting a job on the New York Herald as a cartoonist when he was a mere twenty, staying with them for most of his career. He published in most of the major comic magazines, illustrated books, and put out a huge number of comic strips. The Herald syndicated many of his those strips to newspapers around the country, although he worked with other, sometimes superior, distributors as well. The strips' names evoke another era: Joco and Jack, The Wishbone Man, Uncle George Washington Bings, The Woo Woo Bird, Prince Errant, and Majah Moovie.
Percy appeared every Sunday, a huge splash filling a page with color in the days when almost all print works were limited to black and white. Newspapers then took up space of their own, printed in what was called broadsheet size, approximately 15" x 24". Percy is as formulaic as a Punch and Judy show; it has one joke, endlessly repeated, as expected as the squirt of seltzer in the baggy-pants comic's vaudeville routine. Greening laid it out for readers, whole and immutable, in the very first strip, reprinted above, nine large panels plus a title banner. In this first panel we meet the inventor, a caricature of the Germanic egghead who is brilliant but has no common sense. Never named, but obviously an academic (called Professor in a few later strips), he speaks in the broad dialect that convulsed audiences in the pre-WWI era. (In the early days of the Marx Brothers' act, Groucho appeared as a German dialect comic to brother Harpo's mute, havoc-wreaking fool.) "My inventioning is completioned, a mechanism man," he exclaims. "No more strikings! No more servants example!" With modern simplicity Percy can be instructed to perform a task merely by punching one of the buttons on his back. That's right: Percy was pre-programmed with an astounding variety of apps. So simple that anyone could set him in motion, even by accidently pushing the wrong button, which happens with astounding frequency.
Percy begins in fine form and never veers from his programming, no matter that he wreaks his havoc starting in panel six and reduces the world around him to flinders by panel nine. The end. Place Percy in a different situation and repeat, 67 times. Don't scoff. The formula worked then and it works now. Comics were never meant to be read en masse, remember. A familiar joke delivered with reliable artistry at the end of a hard week remains a ratings-grabber whether in a Sunday comics section or a sitcom. Kids (of all ages) delight in repetition and Percy was merely an oddly adult strip in a medium sustained by kiddy fare. Percy's debut in the Washington Sunday Star, where I found a complete archive of strips, is next to comics titled The Terror of Tiny Tads, Mr. Twee Deedle, and Uncle Mun. Greening is deliciously adult, satirical, and subversive by comparison and incomparably better as a draughtsman. (Percy paints a house and everything else on March 3, 1912, a wonderful use of a full palette that probably resembles a used palette on the original page, with a knowing self-referential wink of an ending. Here's a rare color panel that gives a hint of what a delight a full-sized, full-color page must have been.)
Even the tiny gags in the banner, different each time but always a sly extra comment on the week's situation, showed a master's touch.
People noticed. "He is a good worker only he ain't got brains!" the Professor says in the last panel of that first strip. It didn't take long to come up with a better ending. By the third strip, October, 15, 1911, Greening shortened the line into cant more appropriate for both the snazzy slang of the day and the Professor's dialectically mangled English. "Brains he has nix!" Not only would every strip thereafter end with that line, but two months later, on December 10, 1911, the phrase got incorporated into the strip's title.
And became a national catchword apparently instantaneously. The Paper Maker's Journal, published in Albany, NY, got in a reference to Percy as early as their February 1912 issue from their Ryegate correspondent:
Once we possessed a mighty baseball team,
Some say it was killed by kickers;
Next season we hope to see the rooters stream
On to the field to cheer the stickers.
You've probably heard of the Ryegate Band,
Its music fills the air;
But George C., with fiddle in hand,
Has them all beat when he plays Robin Adair.
The Woodmen are a mighty clan,
Chock full of slippery tricks,
Something like "Percy, the mechanical man,"
But brains they have nix.
The June 1912 issue of the Michigan State Medical Journal reprinted a speech given before the Muskegon-Oceana County Medical Society on March 22, 1912, by Lucy N. Eames, M.D. Dr. Eames spoke on "Clearer Diagnosis and Simpler Treatment," manifestly pressing issues at the time. While lamenting the tendency to self-diagnose serious diseases as "just a little kidney trouble," she says:
Reason, after all, is the most cogent aid to diagnosis. To weigh the worth of each sign and symptom and bit of evidence to formulate a clear idea of the morbid process going on, even though we do not name it, take[s] grey matter, and also we sometimes think of ourselves as "Poor Percy! Brains he has nix!"
Dr. Eames was Pathologist at the Hackley Hospital, a gleamingly modern institution in Muskegon, MI, a bustling small city of 25,000, one of two women on a staff of about 30, the other being Dr. Lunette I. Powers, Head of the Gynecological Dept. (If I were to write a comic book my first move would be to steal the name Lunette Powers for my superhero.) The Journal also noted that they were welcoming women doctors to attend a banquet for them as part of a medical conference to be held in Muskegon in July. Dr. Eames must have been an fascinating person; she certainly had an interesting sense of humor. Using a comic strip reference in a serious talk was dangerous territory for the sententious profession; expecting it to be recognized shows the power and ubiquity of comic pages in 1912.
A little later, the July 1914 issue of the Leather Workers' Journal threw in a random admonition for worker safety, based on Percy's propensity for leaving the scene in shambles:
Another thing, for God's sake, don't mix up matters here by trying to do things on your own hook. For in some things it seems you are like the mechanical man Percy - "Brains you have nix." Enough said.
Of course Percy is guilty of the opposite: always obeying what the instructions say, rather than varying from them when they are contrary to what the instructor meant. The subversion of the strip lies in Percy's perfection as servile yet effortlessly efficient, undoubtedly instantly understandable to workers of the day as a parody and critique of Taylorism. That ism was comprised of the preachings of the efficiency expert Frederic Lewis Taylor, who told industries to find the one best way of doing a job and thereupon force workers to adhere to it without question and at the highest possible speed. Taylorism was hated by workers in all trades, and his brand of extremism is discredited in this era of worker input and continual improvement even on once supposedly mindless tasks like assembly lines. Taylorism was the bane of the working-class readers of comics. His adherents served beautifully as symbols of righteous pomposity that comics characters were invented to knock down a peg, continually. Percy himself embodied Taylorism at its worst. The best workers were those who understood context and adapted behaviors circumstances changed, not unthinking robots. The Professor, as human as the rest of us, notably always blames Percy for the damage, never himself.
Nobody else is quite as kind, with bankists, bakists, sailists, warrists, storekeepists, waitists, actists, farmists, policers, and poeters all turning with fury upon the Professor after Percy wrecks their lives and livelihoods. Nobody suffers as much or burns with such comic rage as his "olt collech" chum, Professor Vogner, introduced on November 5, 1911. Vogner is the necessary companion, the foil who can accompany the Professor out into the world past the shops of Broadway or visit him inside his home, broadening the range of comic possibilities. Over the next year, Percy’s more-than-human strength and stamina reveals his superiority at ice skating, sledding, archery, curling, golf, fishing, bowling, baseball, tennis, and leapfrog. His inhuman competence destroys them one and all.
That joke wasn't new in 1911. Greening probably thought of it as an old cliché, ripe for variations on the theme. He had even used it before, to start off the Joco and Jack strip, for which he drew this single piece on July 10, 1904. In this instance, Joco, a monkey, is given one of Dr. Thomas's Famous Energy Tablets. He proceeds to exurberantly wreak the entire office, always smiling. Greening must have always remembered the possibilties, for this is Percy in all but name.
Use of the gag involving robots probably begins in 1893. With a story later repurposed for his book Novel Notes, British humorist Jerome J. Jerome presented an automaton created as a tireless dancing partner, whose inventor forgets the off switch. That ends in horror and doom, but M. L. Campbell’s “The Automatic Maid-of-All Work. A Possible Tale of the Near Future” (Canadian Magazine, July 1893) plays her maid for laughs, the dishware flying as she tirelessly destroys the kitchen. Elizabeth W. Bellamy, in “Ely's Automatic Housemaid” (The Black Cat, December 1899) repeats the joke. Frankenstein's monster functioned as a symbol at either extreme; any and all attempts to mimic humanity had to be portrayed as devil's bargains.
Except on stage, when sheer novelty has usually been sufficient. Mechanical marvels had long been a staple of vaudeville, like the All-Automatic Minstrels. Percy's immediate impact is again revealed by an article in the Pittsburgh Press for January 14, 1912 which boasted that:
John P. Harris has arranged for a great novelty for the Harris Theater for this week. It is called Caanda Humanus, but the Manchester Brothers, who own the novelty, call it "Percy." Percy is a mechanical man, seven feet in height, electrically operated, responds to push buttons in his back which resemble the ordinary doorbell button, walks, runs, rides a bicycle, writes on a blackboard and does numerous other things. He is taken apart in view of the audience and put back together again.
The novelty, properly called Gaanda Humanus, had been a smash back in 1906 with the identical act, touring the country for a year. Bringing it out of mothballs in 1912 as "Percy" could have no purpose but to cash in on the latest hot fad.
That same January a totally different act also stole Greening's creation for their benefit, in Galveston.
"Percy, the mechanical man," was well executed by Roy Bowman, who dressed in a brilliant uniform and painted in gaudy Christmas doll colors, was piloted about the stage in a series of stiff-legged and stiff-armed movements by H. J. Schutje, who acted the part of the "professor."
Percy soon became an all-purpose metaphor. In October 1912, the Lebanon Daily News editorialized:
So we go from one triumph to another. Nitrogen direct from the air, made up into edible tablets is the next reform on the table. ... Our children may live to see "Percy," the mechanical man doing the work that in less advanced days was done by creatures of flesh and blood.
And the inevitable joke became manifest in 1913, when the Cherokee Republican said:
This new Oklahoma legislature seems to be very much like Percy, the mechanical man of the Sunday colored supplements. - "Brains it has nix."
The slideshow below contains all 67 Percy strips in chronological order. This is the first time they've ever been fully collected. More on Percy's later lives below the slideshow.
Percy ended on January 13, 1913. The next Sunday the Star ran Winsor McCay's classic Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend in its spot. Greening went on to other cartoon work in a long career. He died in 1949.
He couldn't completely let go of Percy, though. The mechanism man had as many lives as a cat and more names, as in this otherwise inexplicable reference in the September 22, 1930 Time magazine:
Intermittently from 1915 to 1920 a robot called Mike, then Fritz von Blitz the Kaiser's Hoodoo, then Percy the Mechanical Man, performed prodigies of senseless versatility in the U. S. funny-papers (New York Herald et al). Cartoonist Harry Cornel Greening equipped his creature with a row of buttons down the back which, when pushed, set Percy to his tasks. Only trouble—and chief source of comedy—was that, being brainless as well as tireless, Percy would keep on doing whatever he started until someone pushed another of his buttons. Thus, stoking a warship, when he had stoked away all the coal, he shoveled into the powder magazine, blew up everything but his indestructible self. Robert Tyre Jones Jr. likes being called "Robot, the Mechanical Man of Golf," better than a lot of other names to which sportswriters, their superlatives utterly exhausted, have had resort. Before and since his appearance in the golfing firmament in 1916 (one year after Percy), he has had no peer but Percy, and making oneself a mechanically perfect golfer—when one is equipped with temper, indolence, misgivings and other frailties to which robots are heir—is as satisfactory, when accomplished, as it is difficult.
The strip started in 1911, not 1915, but the Time writer clearly meant our Percy and our Greening, even if his middle name was missing a final "l". (Did they not have any factcheckers? And this was their cover story!) Who's Mike? The comics history files show no strip named Mike starring a robot, but Greening hid Percy in plain sight: in another of his strips.
That would be Majah Moovie, which ran from 1915 to 1916. The Majah, dialect for Major, was a wealthy eccentric who had extremely modern tastes: he wanted to record every moment of his days for his "living moving diary." His faithful servant, 'awkins, after a two-panel setup, ran the camera for the inevitable disaster that would strike over the course of 13 panels, allowing 'awkins to make a sardonic comment in the sixteenth and final panel.
Can Percy be far behind when a disaster is called for? Apparently not. Greening brings him back in the August 15, 1915 strip, instantly recognizable but now named Mike. "Brains 'e 'as nix." 'awkins concludes.
Greening used Mike seven more times for the short-lived strip. I found these in the Boston Globe and the quality isn't quite as good as those for the original strip. However, I give you the never-before-collected adventures of Mike-the-Mechanical-Man.
Percy's third life came in 1916 when Greening made a now-lost cartoon, Percy: Brains He Has Nix (also titled Percy The Mechanical Man) for J. R. Bray Studios. John Randolph Bray was himself a pioneer animator. His production company pumped out nearly 100 cartoons in 1916. Most of his output is gone and I've been able to find no description of what the Percy cartoon was like. We do finally get a name for the Inventor: "Herr Professor Doodlepoodle, N. U. T., famed in both hemispheres — and New Jersey."
Two years later Percy returned to the New York Herald. Germans were now the enemy after the U.S. joined the Allies in WWI. Sauerkraut was, more or less facetiously, renamed as Liberty Cabbage and German-accent vaudeville comics hurriedly announced that their unchanged accents were really Dutch or home-grown Jewish. An amiable German professor was a no-go, but pompousness lurked in new guises, always ripe for a takedown. Greening returned with German-dialect caricatures of the enemy, who had their dignity fatally ruptured by the mechanical man Fritz von Blitz the Kaiser's Hoodoo. Fritz is a rounder Percy. Nothing else changes and the one-joke scheme of the strip is eternal. Allan Holtz found one example of the new strip, from November 24, 1918, reprinted below with his permission. (As was the Joco and Jack strip, both from his Stripper's Guide blog.)
That version started August 18, 1918 and petered out on February 23, 1919 with peace making the joke even more pointless than it was. Greening brought back the strip simply as Percy on March 2, 1919. At some point that year he moved his creation into show business, renaming the strip yet again as Percy in Stageland, which lasted until March 28, 1920.
Ron Goulart described it in The Funnies: 100 Years of American Comic Strips:
In 1919 Greening added temporary wings to Percy, turning him into a sort of airplane, and the robot entered the Great-Race-'Round the-World. The prize was one million dollars, and Percy's pilot was real-life, World War I ace Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker. Later in the year, the title was changed to Percy in Stageland, and the trouble-prone robot began fouling up in a show-business setting. Real life personalities showed up here, too. Enrico Caruso did a turn on November 16, 1919, and also contributed four caricatures of Greening.
That seems to be Caruso sneakily providing Percy's voice in the panel.
Goulart called Percy the "first robot to star in a Sunday page of his own." Certainly he was the first robot to be this recognizably modern, and no earlier comics about robots are known.
I found a few examples of the 1920 strip after Fritz was booted out. The New York Herald is hard to find so additional Fritzes and its possible re-re-namings as various forms of Percy await discovery in some unknown archive or as collectors bring their holdings online.
Time's recitation of Percyisms seems to be the last major mention of him before comics archivists started digging around in old newspapers. (A New York Times reviewer in 1935 sneaks in a snide comments about the Faulkners and Caldwells, "whose characters begin to take on some of the aspects of Percy, the Mechanical Man.") Note that in 1930, “robot” was the term in common usage, all-but-replacing “mechanical man” for automatons such as Percy. Its last major appearance might be in Isaac Asimov’s robot stories, where the company that manufactured them was known as U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, although he never gave a hint of what the difference might be, if any. Under any of his names, Percy is an instantly recognizable comedic archetype, as modern and as ancient as a Model T. Comic strip readers in the second decade of the last century would have understood the adage “To err is human, but it takes a computer to really screw things up” as an inevitable part of the Future rushing in to everyday life. For the decade of the teens, until Karel Čapek's play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) appeared to universal acclaim, Percy the Mechanical Man was the symbol for robots in America.
So phenomenally popular was he that any real-world attempt to construct a mechanical man was called a Percy or even Fritz von Blitz. That's worth a separate story because it's part of fifty year history of automata. Read all about it in The Walking Mechanical Men.