Guess which canonical ORPHAN ANNIE regular debuts in this volume, which features strips from the period February 1935-September 1936? Hint: It isn't the funny-looking, white-bearded guy in the red bullseye. The massive, magic-mongering, vaguely sinister Punjab represents Harold Gray's first serious foray into the world of fantasy, and, as such, he presents some immediate continuity problems. For example, soon after Punjab meets Annie for the first time, he gives her a special whistle that she can use to summon him whenever she needs help. All well and good, but there's no clear indication that the whistle is a one-shot gimmick of the type featured in this classic cartoon, nor is there any apparent radial limit to the "penumbra" of the whistle's effectiveness. Why couldn't Annie use the device to call for Punjab in any and all circumstances? It seems to me that this actually undercuts one of the sources of Annie's appeal, namely, her self-reliance. In several adventures later in the book -- Annie's sojourn in Hollywood, her alliance with the elderly shoe repairman Jack Boot in the town of Butternut -- Annie could certainly have used the whistle, but she did not. It will be interesting to see whether the whistle ever appears again.
Punjab plays a tangential, but creepily decisive, role in this volume's most famous continuity, the "Eonite" story. In his introductory essay, Jeet Heer correctly notes that the idea of the perpetually cackling ("He! He! He!") inventor Eli Eon creating a substance with a seemingly infinite number of useful properties is every bit as much of a flight of fancy as a nine-foot-tall Indian mystic. Eon is a less interesting character than other oddball comic-strip inventors of the era, such as Floyd Gottfredson's Dr. Einmug, but his existence is strictly a means to several ends. Gray uses the fight over "Eonite" to lay bare the distinction between "good" capitalists ("Daddy" Warbucks, who wants to help Eon develop his idea for the good of America) and "bad" capitalists (the ruthless J. Gordon Slugg, who hires loudmouthed, business-bashing politicians and "Bolshie" rabble-rousers to portray Warbucks as a public enemy) and to illustrate, in lurid detail, his loathing of unions and the "class warfare" rhetoric frequently used by proponents of the New Deal. It was this storyline that prompted THE NEW REPUBLIC to famously brand Gray as a purveyor of "Fascism in the Funnies." This was definitely a case of overegging the critical pudding, yet I'm not surprised that the overwhelmingly sincere manner in which Gray staged this morality play led some to believe that he must have had some sinister "hidden agenda." The story is alarmingly modern in some ways, too. In portraying Slugg as a power-mad rich man who is willing to exploit dupes from both sides of the political spectrum to achieve his ends -- as opposed to simply running as profitable a business as possible -- was Gray somehow intuiting the future existence of a figure like George Soros?
The lengthy story "Annie in Hollywood," with its gleeful send-up of the Shirley Temple phenomenon, gives Gray ample opportunity to hop onto one of his other favorite hobbyhorses and bash hypocrisy. Tootsie Snoots, the "adorable" Temple placeholder for whom Annie doubles, is a spoiled brat with litigious, "enabling" parents, not unlike the nasty Darla Dimple in Cats Don't Dance (1997). The plucky Annie refuses to accept the status quo and eventually wangles a part as a blacked-up "native princess" who becomes an overnight (albeit anonymous) sensation. You might think that the blackface routine would be offensive, but it actually isn't; it simply looks as if Annie has a really, really, really nice tan. Annie takes time from her rise to sort-of-stardom to play inadvertent matchmaker for her mentor and ally, the struggling actress Janey Spangles, and risk-taking producer George Gamble. No politics here, just good, clean satire and another test of Annie's seemingly boundless optimism.
The lengthy "Jack Boot" storyline takes its cue from several continuities earlier in the 1930s, throwing Annie together with a kindly caretaker with more of a "past" than seems apparent on the surface. The "mystery" element of this story is expertly planned and executed, and Gray has a high old time taking pot shots at the two-faced townsfolk who swing back and forth in their opinions of Boot with comical suddenness. For the ability to lure readers back for more day after day, Gray's work of this period has rarely been equaled.