The scattered obituaries of young Gus Dirks, the 21 year old cartoonist and kid brother of the far more well-known Rudolph Dirks (creator of The Katzenjammer Kids), are as sad as they are confusing for the cartoonist who signed his name with a flower.
One, from the Providence News begins: “Gus Dirks, the “bug artist,” killed himself late yesterday afternoon because the task of laughing and making others laugh just to keep away his own tears overcame him.”
Others refer vaguely to a life plagued by an unnamed illness, and many, like the one below conclude that he took his own life out of frustration over his comics work not being taken seriously enough. This is certainly a complaint that rings true for many cartoonists today, but speaks volumes to the time period when coming from a nationally syndicated 21 year old cartoonist.
Despite his potential reasons for committing suicide in 1902, what is more than evident is that Gus Dirks was a brilliant talent at an incredibly young age. Although many sources confuse the story (most commonly by switching their ages), it seems that Gus followed his older brother Rudolph from Chicago to New York City to pursue a life in comics, where he shared a studio with artists Charles Sarka and John Tarrant at 232 West Fourteenth St.
As Rudolph Dirks enjoyed much success working on Katzenjammer Kids beginning in the mid 1890s, the teenage Gus Dirks received attention from publications like Judge and Life. We are lucky to have a few of Gus’ originals in our collection, including the one below from Life.
His work consistently focused around the life of bugs and other small animals, receiving enough popularity that he was approached by Hearst to create a regular Bugville feature for the Sunday color supplement.
Unfortunately, other than his potentially-embellished reasons for suicide, not much information is known about Gus Dirks. Considering the quality of work he was putting out even as a teenager, had he outlived his frustrations, it’s more than likely that he would be venerated now just as much as his older brother.
Below, an early Bugville original from our International Museum of Cartoon Art Collection. Although hard to see in the image, Dirks had only penciled in the words here. His handwriting looks astoundingly child-like (and littered with spelling errors) in comparison to the advanced adeptness of his art- a juxtaposition of his age and talent that further attests to the tragedy of his young death.