Vincent Trout Hamlin was born on May 10, 1900 in Perry, Iowa to parents Erma and Dr. Frederick Clarence Hamlin, a dentist. He began drawing at an early age and published his first cartoons in 1916. Lying about his age, he enlisted in the army at 17 to fight in WWI and was shipped to France as part of the Sixth Army's Motor Transport Group. When the war ended, he returned to the United States determined to become a syndicated comic artist, having met a newspaper man in the army who convinced him of his abilities. He spent a number of years in all sorts of employment, trying to get his start. 1933 was his big break, when the Newspaper Enterprise Association purchased Alley Oop for syndication. Hamlin continued work on the strip until his retirement in 1973, when Dave Graue, formerly Hamlin's assistant, took over full responsibility. Graue retired in 2001 and the strip was passed on to Jack and Carole Bender, who continue to draw and write the strip today.
The high school yearbook of Dorothy Hamlin, nee Stapleton, from 1920 contains some early illustrations and comics by V.T. Hamlin, aka "Snic." Hamlin once said he "always drew because [he] couldn't help it." At the age of eleven, he first drew the character that later became Alley Oop, and he published his first cartoons in the Perry Daily Chief four years later.
In 1920, Hamlin attended the University of Missouri, as a student interested in the journalism program. He quickly discovered traditional college education was not what he wanted. While he only stayed one semester, Columbia and the University made a lasting impression on him. MU may be the origin of the name "Moo," the land from which Alley Oop hails.
After Hamlin left MU, he returned to Iowa, enrolling briefly at Drake University. This did not last either, though, as he preferred his newspaper work to that of a student. In late 1921, he saw an advertisement for a correspondence course in newspaper art in Cartoons Magazine, and decided to enroll. This drawing is probably an assignment Hamlin did for this course, as he notes on the back. The correspondence school recommended him for a job with a Fort Worth oil publication, The Texas Grubstaker.
Hamlin held many different jobs during his first three decades. He worked mostly in journalism, as a photographer and illustrator, but also worked as a sign painter, an animator, window dresser, card writer, movie projectionist, and semi-professional boxer, among others. As his account book shows, the 1920s were pretty lean times for Hamlin. His entire income for 1922 was $910.
Hamlin married Dorothy, his high school sweetheart, on December 24th, 1926. Ooola, Alley's lady friend, was modeled after her. Like Ooola and Alley, Dorothy and V.T. travelled together, and she played a crucial role in many of the big events in his life.
One of Hamlin's motivations for seeking work as a syndicated cartoonist was a regular income to support a growing family. His daughter Teddy was born in 1927, and his son Jon in 1936.
Hamlin was introduced to film and photography in his early teens, which helped him find work later on in a number of newspaper art departments. In 1928 he was hired as a photographer for the Houston Press. Hamlin took this photograph while covering the Democratic National Convention in Houston, where he met Herbert Walker, the future general manager of the NEA syndicate.
Hamlin's first regular, paying work as a cartoonist was in the mid-1920s for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. There he drew The Hired Hand of WBAP, a radio promotion, and The Panther Kitten, a daily sports comic chronicling the fate of the Texas baseball league's Fort Worth Panthers (now known as the "Cats"). Note both characters' resemblances to Oop. Hamlin cites these as a couple of early versions of the caveman.
Flip and Flap was another early strip of Hamlin's, featuring a pretty flapper girl and her boyfriend. It was a brief experiment that was never picked up, but these drwaings show what may be the origins of Ooola's beauty and Alley Oop's oddly-shaped legs.
V.T. Hamlin was a restless spirit who enjoyed travel, and spent many of the earlier decades of his life moving around the United States. This address book kept by his wife Dorothy contains a list of their addresses from the day of their wedding in 1926 through 1967, including residences in Florida, Texas, Iowa, Oregon, California, and Arizona. Working as a syndicated cartoonist allowed Hamlin the financial and geographical freedom to roam the country.
Alley Oop's first adventure was a retelling of the fable of Androcles and the Lion, in which Androcles removes a thorn from the lion's paw. Wandering in the jungle, Oop encounters a dinosaur caught in some underbrush. He frees him, they fight, then become inseparable friends. Hamlin called Dinny his "cartoonosaurus," as he drew him combining parts of various different dinosaurs, such as the camarasaurus, diplodocus, and stegosaurus.
Alley Oop was an outlet for Hamlin's passion for natural history. The early Sunday strips contained an informational panel entitled "Dinny's Family Album," which showcased a different species of dinosaur or other prehistoric animal each week. Hamlin used this textbook in his research for the feature.
Hamlin's interest in geology and paleontology was sparked while working as a photographer and artist for different oil companies in Texas, where fossils were an essential part of the business. He was almost entirely self-taught in these areas, from reading books checked out of the library. Hamlin's passion for natural history led him to study human history as well.
Hamlin's strip for October 28, 1934 features the Tyrannosaurus in "Dinny's Family Album." In the early days of the comic strip, it was not uncommon to devote an entire page to one Sunday strip, giving the artist much more room for creativity and detail.
The VT Hamlin Collection contains a number of pieces of original artwork for the strips. This particular strip is from the Pegasus story advertised in the 1964 NEA Syndicate brochure shown in this exhibit.
By 1938, Hamlin was getting frustrated with the limitations of a strip set solely in the small world of Moo. His wife, Dorothy, was the one who came up with the idea to incorporate a time machine into the strip. While Hamlin had to convince the syndicate to let him take this very dramatic turn, he won them over after a week of negotiations. The Twentieth century first made its appearance in Hamlin's strip on Sunday, April 9, 1939, when Alley and Ooola were transported out of the Stone Age and into the laboratory of Dr. Wonmug.
The time machine opened up the whole of human history for Hamlin to explore, and his characters soon encountered important historic and literary figures, such as Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Napoleon, Shakespeare, and Caesar.
The NEA syndicate sent promotional materials such as this one to newspapers that didn't carry the strip. Advertising a new plotline, such as this mythological story, they would offer an easy starting point for the newspaper to pick up the strip, giving their readers an introduction to the characters and situation. The interview with Hamlin is particularly poignant as it demonstrates his knowledge of the subject and unique sense of humor.
Hamlin loved the outdoors, and spent as much time outside as he could, fishing, boating, or even just drawing. This photo of him working at his drawing board surrounded by cacti is from his residence in Tucson, Arizona in 1937.
In addition to coming up with the idea of introducing a time machine into the story, Dorothy helped with the strip by preparing color roughs for the Sunday pages towards the end of Hamlin's involvement. His eyesight had been deteriorating for years, and he was nearly blind by the time of his retirement.
Dave Graue and V.T. Hamlin working together shortly before Hamlin's retirement.
These photos of Jack and Carole Bender are from a 1997 visit to the University of Missouri. Jack was a guest speaker in a cartooning class taught by Professor Frank Stack, and the Benders visited Margaret Howell, then Head of Special Collections. Jack Bender is a graduate of the MU Journalism School, where he received his Master's degree in 1962.