I would guess that most already know who Annie is. For the benefit a few of the younger readers who may not be familiar with her, she is the protagonist of the Little Orphan Annie comic strip. Annie is a young orphan girl who left the orphanage to become the ward of the incredibly rich Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks. She then battled dangerous criminals around the world with the help of Daddy Warbucks and his bodyguards, Punjab and the Asp. Her courage, common sense, and integrity made her one of the most popular fictional characters of the 20th century.
Little Orphan Annie was not in the local newspaper when I was growing up, so it was not one of the comics I read frequently as a child. I read it a few times in out-of-town newspapers, but because Annie’s adventures continued over many issues of the paper, I was never able to follow a complete story. Millions of people did follow Little Orphan Annie from its inception in 1924 until Harold Gray’s death in 1968, and it became one of the most popular comic strips in the world. The strip was continued by other artists until 2010. It has inspired movies and a popular musical. What made Little Orphan Annie loved by so many?
Many believe that the choice of a female protagonist for the strip helped its popularity. Harold Gray stated that he chose a young girl of about eleven years old as his protagonist because there were many more boys than girls in the comics at that time, especially in the adventure strips. A girl would make his strip different and stand out. He modeled the character with frizzy red hair and a red dress after a street urchin he once met. The name Annie is derived from the poem Little Orphant Annie by James Whitcomb Riley. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Gray initially planned the strip about a boy called Little Orphan Otto. He changed the character to a girl at the request of the Chicago Tribune Syndicate, which published the strip.
Regardless of whose idea it was to make the strip about a girl, it was a huge success. A girl in the lead role caught the readers’ attention in the 1920s. Feminism was becoming mainstream, but female heros were still relatively rare. Annie’s blank eyes, and the eyes of other characters, also grabbed the reader. I don’t know why Gray decided to draw eyes without pupils, but the vacant orbs drew the viewer into the strip.
In addition to the fact that a girl heroine was unusual, I believe that a girl who is being mistreated, or who is in a dangerous situation, arouses more sympathy than a boy in similar circumstances. It is in our genes that we should feel this way. For a population to survive and reproduce, it is necessary to have sperm cells, egg cells, and wombs. Sperm and eggs are abundant, but wombs are not. Anybody who has a womb, therefore, is more important for the survival of the population than those who do not have wombs (by the reckoning of evolutionary theory). It may be sexist and unfair, but nevertheless true that evolution has hardwired our nervous systems to be more alarmed by a damsel in distress than by a male in a similar plight.
Another advantage of a girl as the heroine is that it may have been easier for children, both boys and girls, to identify with a character whose ability to fight was no greater than an ordinary child. It is socially acceptable for Annie to be an ordinary little girl, relying on Punjab or Asp to provide the muscle when confronted by tough adult male criminals. A boy would be expected to fight for himself. If he beat the bad guy it would be unrealistic and children would have a harder time identifying with him. If he relied on others to fight for him he would be perceived as a wimp.
Note that Punjab and the Asp are both people of color; Punjab from India and the Asp from an unnamed country in East Asia. I believe Gray made these characters non-white to make them exotic, rather than for diversity. Regardless of his reasons, Harold Gray was ahead of his time by including racial diversity in his comic. This is noticeable in the following strip from 1942. Annie had organized a “Junior Commando” unit to help with the war effort on the home front. The strip inspired real children to imitate Annie’s work by forming real Junior Commando organizations. At that time the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was not part of the Army. It became the Women’s Army Corps, part of the Army, the following year. Black soldiers were not integrated into the same units as whites until after the war. Annie’s unit had boys and girls in the same unit, and she even made an African-American boy a sergeant with authority over white members of the unit! At the time this was quite radical, and the strip aroused some controversy.
Don’t think this means that Gray was the kind of person who would be considered “woke” today. He was the opposite; a rugged individualist who despised government programs, socialism, labor unions, the New Deal, and President Roosevelt. The characters in Little Orphan Annie echo Gray’s personal and political philosophy. Note that in the first strip in this post, the Asp even disdains the role of government in enforcing the law and punishing criminals. Asp, like Annie, Daddy Warbucks, and Harold Gray himself, would rather do it himself than depend on the government. Daddy Warbucks died of despair in 1944 because Franklin Roosevelt was reelected. In 1945 his death was changed to a coma. He recovered and was back in the strip.
Little Orphan Annie was adapted as a movie in 1932, 1938, 1982, 1999, and 2014. It was a Broadway musical in 1977. Little Orphan Annie is also featured in many children’s books and toys. Annie has appeared in the Dick Tracy comic strip after Little Orphan Annie was discontinued. The following illustrations are a Little Orphan Annie strip from 1970, drawn by Tex Blaisdell, and Aileen Quinn as Annie in the 1982 movie.
It’s worth mentioning that in the Broadway show, Warbucks is a friend of President Roosevelt. In one scene he visits the White House and brings Annie along.