In Association with

Little Orphan Annie: The War Years, 1939-1945
Heroism on the Home Front

by Susan Houston

Reprinted with the Author's Permission

From the collection of Richard Olson

In 1924, a comic strip artist named Harold Gray created a new comic strip for Captain Patterson's New York Daily News. It was called Little Orphan Otto, and was one of the better ideas he had come up with. Patterson thought it looked like a good concept: the little orphan, not tied to any one location but free to roam from place to place and through various adventures without the hampering presence of a family. But, he counseled Gray: "He looks like a pansy. Put skirts on the kid." (Marschall 166) Gray complied, and changed the name from "Otto" to "Annie." Thus Little Orphan Annie was brought into the world on August 5, 1924 and continued successfully until Gray's death in 1968. For 44 years, readers followed Annie through a myriad of adventures that could be as simple as staying at a farm to outwitting Nazi infiltrators. Annie stayed perpetually twelve years old, endowed with the wisdom of the ages and the innocence of eternal childhood.

Harold Gray, Annie's creator, had very definite political views on society, government, and human nature. He was ultra-conservative, and had no compunction about airing his views and philosophies in Annie's adventures. He made quite a few enemies in doing so, but the enduring popularity of Annie indicates that there was an essential spark in the character of Annie that spoke to American society, whatever Gray's politics might have been. Annie was, and always shall be, one of the quintessential American heroes: a seemingly weak little girl, who had the ability to endure hardship and uncertainty with hope and hard work and strength of character. The fact that Little Orphan Annie was able to run successfully from 1924 until Gray's death in 1968, and then have a remarkably successful revival in reruns and in musical form is more proof that she is a part of American heroic mythology of the 20th century.

To understand better the importance of a character like Annie, it is a good idea to break down the format of her presentation to the bare bones:

The comic strip is composed of certain irreducible elements: a succession of panels (in contrast to the single panel cartoon); a story that is told (not a vignette illustration); a written language enclosed in dialogue "balloons" and placed within the image frame, serving somehow a visual as well as narrative function; presentation through mass media; and a distinctive new vocabulary. (Marschall 9)

This seems rather static, but when you consider how comic strip artists of the early 1900s transcended this definition and went beyond to create an intensely American cultural mythology that grew on a daily basis, out of an allowance of three to four small squares, then the development of the American comic strip becomes all the more wonderful and miraculous.

Although comic strips were developed with children in mind, "funnies" were usually drawn for adults. (Marschall 13) As early as the American Revolution, the adult nature of cartoons can be seen. Benjamin Franklin's cartoon of the severed snake with its motto, "Join or Die" is worth remembering when we consider the role that cartoons can play in a society that may be at war. Franklin was exhorting the colonies to hold together, and typically through the 19th century, cartoons were political and extremely partisan in nature. (Marschall 12) Even as comic strips changed and developed after the turn of the century, their power to comment on politics and even war remained strong, a power Gray was able to capitalize on.

Little Orphan Annie came into the rapidly developing Comic Strip scene at an opportune moment. The audience was interested, the medium of the newspaper was willing, and Gray was able. However, his abilities as a storyteller and artist were not so readily apparent in the beginning. His style has been described as stilted, bland, and visually dull. But in retrospect, critics have described Gray as the comic expressionist-his art has a mood of "overall, and overwhelming, tension," with "deliberate figures and frozen backgrounds." (Marschall 173) One of the biggest points of conflict between critics and fans has been the oval, open eyes of Gray's characters. Richard Marschall contends:

...Gray infused the circlets with subtle expression and made much of little...the famous eyes were symbols of the bleak space they observed and in which Gray placed his characters in a spirit of foredoom... (168)

It is rather depressing to consider that Gray felt that Annie's world was so perilous and so very dark. Nevertheless, in reading Annie's adventures, where situations are grim and Annie's circumstances grimmer, there is a wonderfully encouraging sense that somehow she will get through it, through her own willpower, hard work, and the kindness of strangers. Indeed, the kindness of strangers is a constant element in Annie's adventures: she arrives in a small town/big city and is without resources/money/strength/ friends, and inevitably, some kind people take her in and make her a part of their home.

August 31, 1932

This incessant charity in some measure overcomes the starkness of Gray's artistic style, and creates a comic strip with both tension and gentleness. Little Orphan Annie is essentially a melodrama.

As Annie developed, Gray's art cleaned up and his style coalesced, and "gone were the stories of the 1920s in which Annie befriended baby bears and miniature elephants and briefly became a movie star; in the 1930s she met smugglers, avaricious plutocrats, and venal labor agitators." (Marschall 168). Gray had become a story teller of the first order in comic strips. But his change in style was with America. The Great Depression had come, and he used Annie to air his views on life, responsibility, government, and human nature. Gray belonged to the old school of American philosophy, which included the Protestant work ethic and "mind-your-own-business." (Marschall 168) He believed that with a fair chance, anyone could pull himself up by his own bootstraps, and Annie was expected to do so on the average of 2-3 times a year.

Why was Annie alone and forced to take care of herself so very often? "Daddy" Warbucks, her semi-adoptive parent (I say semi, because he never did adopt her - she would no longer be a "Little Orphan" if he had), although a caring and concerned guardian, had business dealings and various battles to fight all over the world. To his credit, he usually tried to leave her in the care of a good school or personal friends, but inevitably, Annie fell into danger and had to go out on the road.

July 2, 1937

It was her very vulnerability in these situations that made her efforts to make a place for herself in some community all the more interesting and heroic.

Take for example, one of her adventures in the early 1930s. On route to a boarding school while "Daddy" is away, Annie finds that the school is really a reformatory, (unbeknownst to "Daddy") and escapes from the woman in charge of her. She and her dog Sandy journey for a few weeks, hiding in woods and sleeping under trees until she feels safe from capture. She picks as her new home a small town called Cosmic City, and after going from house to house looking for work or board, is invited in by Mr. and Mrs. Futile, the poorest family in town. She sets in to work with a cheerful will, helping do housework, going to school and catching up on missed lessons, getting a job as a newspaper delivery girl, and starting a small newspaper and novelty store (which she turns over to Mr. Futile, who cannot find work).

November 16, 1932

She essentially manages to improve the financial situation of the Futiles, restore their self-respect, rescue a small boy from drowning, and thwart the evil intents of the town rich man, Phineas Pinchpenny. Annie was to follow this model of building up herself and those close to her for many more adventures; a pattern that never palls.

As World War II approached, Little Orphan Annie began to enter a more international stage. In 1938 and 39, Annie began to deal with smugglers and spies and other threatening characters whose vague plans for world domination were uneasily similar to those of Hitler. Gray was not alone in his preparation for war - other cartoonists began taking definite stands as well. As the war began in 1941, cartoonists began to make their own contributions to the war effort, by bolstering G. I. confidence and strengthening morale on the home front. (Couperie 83) Series like Terry and the Pirates, Dick Tracy, and Joe Palooka all entered the war - Terry stopped fighting Far Eastern villains and started flying fighter planes, Joe Palooka also went to war, and Dick Tracy rooted out spy rings in the U. S.

In Little Orphan Annie, "Daddy", Punjab, and the Asp return in May of 1942 from some remote locale where they have been fighting for the Allies. "Daddy" has become a 3-star lieutenant general, although as Annie notices, he is not in an U. S. uniform. "Daddy" explains: "Oh--well, you see, Annie, I got in a little ahead of schedule--after all, we're all out to lick the same gang.":

May 4, 1942

We never are told exactly where he has been, or who he has been fighting with, but in his typical style, "Daddy", with the voice of Gray, has used his power for good-as far as he is concerned, "If he uses his power only for good, why look too closely into the matter?" (Little Orphan Annie March 8, 1941)

This strain of enlightened despotism flows throughout all of Little Orphan Annie, and is one of the disquieting aspects of the comic strip. Punjab and the Asp have to be frequently reprimanded (but not too harshly) for removing Warbucks' enemies from the scene. They are totally devoted to Warbucks and Annie, and are very good at ferreting out villains, but their lack of reliance on the justice system and the police adds to the tension of the strip. Having established this aspect of Warbucks' character, it is easy to see why he would enter the war before America!

Less than two weeks later Warbucks sets off again to "do his part" - his own way," and Annie stays behind in the household of Dr. Zee. But Gray had no intention of leaving her idle as the war surrounded them: "Don't they re'lize we can't win this thing till we all get in there an' pitch? Even we kids!"

May 16, 1942

Her first mission is dramatic enough for any child on the home front longing for a real adventure. She and her friend Panda find a hidden U-boat in a nearby cove, and manage to drag a floating mine to dash against the hull and blow it up. But perhaps realizing that U-boats did not usually lie in coves around the U. S. coastline, Gray launched Annie into the Junior Commandos, her greatest endeavor for the war effort.

Some of the children around town wonder why Annie and her friend Loretta never take time to play with them anymore, assuming that they are just odd. But Annie responds to their teasing:

Loretta an' I have somethin' lots more important than playin', we're doin' war work. It's our war, just as much-or maybe more-than anybody else's. We're givin' all we can to help those who are givin' ever'thing for us! (Smith 48-49)

June 15, 1942

And the Junior Commandos were launched: their purpose, to aid the war effort. "Scrap collection--carin' for war workers' kids--savin' fats--anti-noise patrols--sellin' war stamps an' bonds--runnin' errands--doin' odd jobs--all to raise money to buy more bonds..." (Little Orphan Annie January 6, 1943) Nothing was too big to tackle, no task too menial or exhausting.

Gray intended for JCs to be very serious and "starched"-"`Colonel' Annie as she came to call herself-kept a ledger with the name of every person in town written in it," (Smith 49) and by each name a mark was made. If they gave metal, they got a blue star; if they hired a JC, a red star; and if they did not even try to do anything, they were doomed to a yellow star.

June 23, 1942

Then fiction became reality, and the JCs were put into practice in real life-within a month of its comic strip introduction in June of 1942, the Junior Commandos were "one of the most successful domestic operations of the war." (Smith 49) By the fall of that year, there were "close to 20,000 JCs enrolled and filed under localities throughout Metropolitan Boston" alone! (Smith 50)

The idea for the JCs had gone into practice in the real world, but back on the comics page, Annie's work was not done. Unable to stay long in any place, Annie is invited to a huge Spanish castle in a town called Riverside by a friend of Warbucks, so that she might see her "Daddy" again when he got leave. What she does not know is that the castle has been taken over by Nazi spies who are using the huge underwater cave under the castle to hide U-boats! Annie settles in happily, waiting for her "Daddy" to arrive, but begins to notice that all is not as it should be in the castle. But as she keeps her ears and eyes open, and her mouth shut (one of Gray's favorite virtues), she revitalizes the JC group that had grown lax in Riverside. She becomes their "Colonel" and drills them back into shape.

January 28, 1943

This proved to be a great help, for in snooping around the castle, Annie finds hidden passageways and discovers that the real owner of the castle and his staff are imprisoned in the long-forgotten torture chambers. She and her JC companions formulate a plan to release the prisoners and overthrow the Nazi spies. With great cunning and ingenuity, she and her friends capture most of the spies and release Malcolm Mitt, the owner of the castle and the bearer of the most amazing set of whiskers ever seen on a comics page. The JCs fade into the background, and the adults go to work, luring the hidden U-boats into the caverns, removing their crews, and sending the boats out again to explode in open water. This particular adventure went on for 7 months, from January 4 to July 31, 1943.

In later adventures and new locales, even in the midst of danger, Annie kept in touch with her JCs. She was famous as their founder, and would step in at a moment's notice and whip them into shape. They were to be ready for anything. Within a week of their initial inception, Annie had commandeered a woodshed for a headquarters and taken to organizing and giving orders quite naturally, a talent she learned from her "Daddy". A qualified leader and a tireless worker, Annie made the greatest sacrifices of anyone in her troop for the war effort. In the town of Gooneyville, Annie starts a JC group, but when she realizes that each JC is doing the work of three people, goes out to actively recruit the children who live on the other side of the tracks in Limbo Lake. Their scorn is daunting, but when she knocks down a bully, they instantly respect her and get into the war effort full time.

September 3, 1943

September 4, 1943

But eventually Annie left the thriving JCs behind and went on to new tasks - it is during this time that Gray's own political ideology became even more evident, and he lost a great deal of the popularity he gained in the formation of the JCs. Taking potshots at what he perceived as government corruption, (Smith 51) Gray had a run-in with his local ration board, which would not allow him the gas coupons he required to go out driving around to look for new material for Annie. He took this as a slight, and in Annie's adventures in Gooneyville he created a Local Ration Board headed up by "Fred Flask" who had a double standard, driving his three cars around town.

August 16, 1943

Public outrage at this whining on Gray's part was almost immediate, and Gray dropped the sequence. But other aspects of American government that Gray did not like, such as FDR, were alluded to more subtly.

In 1944, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was reelected to his 4th term, and Gray could hardly bear it. In desperation, he decided that his alter ego, "Daddy" Warbucks, could not live in this poisonous Rooseveltean era. Warbucks returns from another one of his mysterious missions, but it is evident that all is not well with him, and Annie begins to worry. But Warbucks is not afraid of dying - he speaks confidently about going into death: "No one is ever in a hurry to make the final journey. But I'm as ready as I'll ever be...I've lived my life according to my time and my generation... probably it's time for me to go!"

August 17, 1944

This veiled reference to his discontent with the present administration is stretched over several weeks - Mrs. Hold, who cares for him at the end admits to Annie: "Ahem...yes, that fever can be pretty bad stuff, you know..." (see Little Orphan Annie August 4, 1944) and "Some kinds of weather are worse than others for his fever..." (see Little Orphan Annie August 12, 1944). Warbucks died on August 20, 1944. But then FDR died, and Gray set to literally dancing on his grave by resurrecting Warbucks with malicious comments on how the climate had changed. (Smith, 63)

August 28, 1945

Eventually the war came to an end, and Annie and "Daddy" went on to other adventures, although after outwitting Nazi spies and working for the war effort, Annie's later adventures seem to lack some of the vitality and excitement of the war years. Annie continued on her way, making a difference in the lives of the people around her, thwarting evil intent, and helping the underdog. However Annie was not, as has been so incorrectly portrayed in the musical Annie, a boundless optimist. She knew what she could expect from people, both good and bad. Educated by her experiences and her "Daddy," Annie was too wise to ever rest on her laurels. She continued working to improve wherever she went.

In March of 1943, Coronet magazine pronounced Annie "more of a heroine than Joan of Arc, more tragic and appealing than Helen of Troy, and far more real than the current glamour girl to 50,000 people of assorted sizes and shapes and of all ages." (Smith 50) Coronet declared that Little Orphan Annie had gone from being a "comic strip" to a "cosmic strip". (Smith 51) It was her vulnerability, combined with her practical/hopeful philosophy that made her as appealing as she was to the American public. She was the model American: resourceful, clever, generous, self-sufficient and ambitious. She had a shield of invulnerability, partially due to the medium in which she was presented (Gray would hardly kill her off) but also due to her unfailing energy and basic belief in her own abilities and talents to take care of herself that made her stronger than most adults.

Annie was a child, yet it was believable that she could develop and organize an enormous organization of children to aid in the war effort on the home front. She was only twelve years old, but it was conceivable that she could uncover a nest of Nazi spies and outwit them. She was a little girl with no parents, no last name, and no protection from the cruel world, yet she had the ability to bring out the best in the people around her, cross class barriers, and create lasting friendships within every society she passed through. Like Odysseus or Aeneas, she was sentenced to wander eternally, (Marschall 177) but we are made the richer for it.

March 28, 1936


Couperie, Pierre et al. A History of the Comic Strip. New York: Crown Publishers, 1968.

Gray, Harold. Arf! The Life and Hard Times of Little Orphan Annie, 1935-1945. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1970.

Marschall, Richard. America's Great Comic Strip Artists. New York: Abbeville Press, 1989.

Smith, Bruce. The History of Little Orphan Annie. New York: Ballantine Books, 1982.

Main Page