The new Ripley’s Believe It or Not!: Daily Cartoons 1929-1930 from the Library of American Comics is a fond look back at the first years of the iconic cartoon series. As Ted Adams notes in his Foreward, it may be hard for a younger audience to understand the appeal of Ripley. With the answer to nearly every question available on their smartphones, the allure of the arcane facts Ripley specialized in may not impress them. But for those of us born before 1980 or so, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! holds a special charm.
As always, the Library of American Comics has done a marvelous job. The book contains the original cartoons in chronological order, plus an informative essay by Bruce Canwell about Ripley titled “Robert Ripley: A Life Writ Large.” His full name was LeRoy Robert Ripley, and his signature series was created out of a happy accident.
Ripley began his career as an illustrator on the sports page, and while working in this capacity, he began collecting odd pieces of trivia that he first used as a feature titled “Champs and Chumps,” in 1918. He reprised the idea in 1919 under the title “Believe It or Not,” (minus the exclamation point), although it took a few years to become a national obsession.
In browsing through the book, it is easy to see why Believe It or Not! became so popular, as Ripley’s bits are timeless. Opening the book to a random page reveals such intriguing items as “A Month Without a Moon!” (February 1866), “You Actually Work Only Three Weeks a Year,” and “The Mississippi River Flows Uphill!”
In browsing these pages, there is another thing that becomes clear. Ripley was a very skilled illustrator. It may be a minor point, especially coupled to such striking text as “Minnie the Mighty Midget was only 33 inches tall but weighed 310 pounds,” but he had real talent.
Although these cartoons were published some 85 years ago, the signature Ripley style that I came to know as a kid was already firmly established. I have read a few LOAC books over the years, and somehow the original cartoons and comic strips have an uncanny ability to evoke a world that existed long before my time. It is different with Believe It or Not! though. These cartoons and factoids remain as fascinating as ever.
Although someone could Google the answer to these questions in an instant, who would think to ask them in the first place? Here is just one of hundreds of examples: Did you know that a raw tomato is a fruit, but a cooked tomato is a vegetable? Neither did I. Does it matter? Not really, but it sure is fun to find out. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! is filled with things like this, and for those of us who were once hooked on Ripley, this book is a real treat.