OTTO PIRKOLA – Harvey Comics Logo Designer

From CASPER THE FRIENDLY GHOST #27, Dec 1954, Harvey Comics. This and all Harvey images © Harvey Comics.

Harvey Comics was founded in New York City in 1941 by Alfred Harvey, and he was joined soon after by his brothers Robert and Leon. They specialized in licensed radio and newspaper strip characters such as The Green Hornet, Joe Palooka, Blondie and Dick Tracy. In 1952, they licensed cartoon characters from Famous Studios, a unit of Paramount Pictures, including popular favorite Casper the Friendly Ghost. Harvey bought rights to the Paramount characters in 1958, and produced some new cartoons and lots of comics about them. They also created their own characters in the same vein like Richie Rich. Their art director and logo designer in those years was Otto Pirkola. In this article I’ll look at some of the logos I believe he designed, there were many more.

Otto Pirkola, 1955, by Stan Harfenist, courtesy of Shaun Clancy

Otto E. Pirkola was born March 13, 1908 on Long Island, New York to Finnish parents. He graduated from Freeport High School in 1927, where he was the art editor of the school newspaper. He pursued an art career and worked on movie posters for RKO Radio Pictures in the 1930s. In World War Two he served in the U.S. Coast Guard, and after that he was back in New York working for magazine publishers. In an interview with Ken Selig (who worked with Pirkola at Harvey) by Jim Amash published in Alter Ego #89 (Oct 2009, TwoMorrows), Selig remembered:

Otto Pirkola, whom [Harvey] hired as the art director, was a master of logos. Otto was largely responsible for the logo look of Harvey Comics. Otto came aboard about 1949 from McFadden Publications. Otto was an unsung hero at Harvey, because I always considered the comic book as a poster. He gave the comic books a posterish look with his logos, and that’s the first thing you saw. You didn’t see the body of the cover when you looked at the usual newsstand or candy store where you bought your comics. You saw the logo first, so it had to stand out. Otto had a very friendly nature. It was just Otto and myself when I started [in 1954]. I got a job as a board man, and a board man’s job was to make corrections.

From BABE RUTH SPORTS COMICS #1, April 1949

This is the earliest Harvey logo I think might have been designed by Otto, based on similarities to some of his later ones. The logo seems like type at first glance, but a closer look shows variations between each pair of the same letters. The rest of the cover lettering is type. Pirkola’s logo has just enough subtle curves and gentle bounce to add energy and appeal to the subject. If Otto designed the cover as well, having Babe Ruth’s head at top left echoes what he would later do with the cartoon character books. The Harvey Comics symbol or bullet at upper right predates Pirkola.

From SAD SACK COMICS #1, Sept 1949

Harvey tried many kinds of comics, but their main focus in the 1940s was licensed newspaper strip titles. At times they used existing strip logos, but this one looks like a new logo based on the bouncy block letters of the strip. The letters are well made, and the double outline is perfectly done to allow for a second color. We see a character head at upper left again, clearly something Otto thought was important. Pirkola was not a comics letterer, so the balloon was probably lettered by someone else.

From BLONDIE COMICS MONTHLY #16, March 1950

Another excellent logo loosely based on the staggered block letters of the strip logo. Again, the letters and outlines are well proportioned and appealing. No character head, but the title would gain one in 1951. Pirkola’s covers tended to be visual gags without word balloons, and captions were often type.

From DAGWOOD COMICS #1, Sept 1950

Chic Young’s name is larger on this title, perhaps contractually, so DAGWOOD is smaller, but still well-designed, and his head is at top left. Much has been made of that idea as used by Marvel in the 1960s (instigated by artist Steve Ditko on THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #2), but Pirkola was there first.

From FAMILY FUNNIES #1, Oct 1950

Here lots of character heads form a frame around the central image. Even young kids who couldn’t read would recognize some of them. The logo is again well-crafted, I like the arc and lower case of FUNNIES. That word was once interchangeable with the word comics, but lost popularity over time.

From FLASH GORDON #1, Oct 1950

The FLASH GORDON logo on this comic is not like any of the ones on the Alex Raymond comic strip, but the curve and angle of the bold block letters add movement and interest. Ken Selig said in his interview that the Harvey brothers had class and the respect of newspaper people, like those at King Features. That was why so many newspaper strips were licensed to them.

Other genres at Harvey, 1951-53

Harvey, like most comics publishers in the 1950s, tried all kinds of comics, including war, romance, and horror, as seen above. The logo styles are quite different from what we’ve seen before, and from each other. The war logo imitates what Artie Simek was doing at Marvel, the romance logo is handsome mixed case script, and the horror logo again follows the lead of Simek. It seems likely Otto Pirkola designed them, though I don’t see any style elements that point to him. Perhaps he was just a good mimic when he needed to be. The caption lettering on all three is probably by Joe Rosen, the main story letterer for Harvey at the time, and it’s interesting to note that there’s no Harvey bullet on that horror cover, as if the company was a bit ashamed of it, or didn’t want kids to associate that kind of comic with their other books. A few years later, Harvey put out a few comics from Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, and later still, Joe Simon was a Harvey editor on a small line of action/adventure books, and Joe did the logos for those.

From LITTLE AUDREY #25, Aug 1952

In 1952, the Paramount cartoon characters began getting their own titles at Harvey. St. John had been publishing them, but lost the license, and Harvey continued the numbering from the St. John issues on several titles like this one, hoping to keep readers. I think this is where Otto Pirkola found his true calling, his cover designs and logos for the animation books are all excellent, much better than the St. John versions. The contrast between LITTLE and AUDREY is well done, the script top line is excellent, and we already see Otto using a character figure at upper left to identify and help sell the series. I think only Dell’s cartoon character logos were as good as Pirkola’s.

From HARVEY COMICS HITS #60, Sept 1952

This title was used for all kinds of one-shots or tryouts, in this issue the Paramount characters first appeared, with Herman and Katnip featured, and head shots of Baby Huey and Buzzy the Crow. Also inside were Little Audrey and Casper, among others. Otto’s logo is excellent, and it was used twice, here and on issue 62, the last of the series, before becoming a new title with issue #3.

From HARVEY COMICS HITS #61, Oct 1952

For this issue, Otto designed one of his best logos for Casper, and it’s quite different (and better) than the titles of the cartoons. I think it was a brilliant decision to go with sturdy mixed-case block letters that have just a few ghostly stroke-end elements rather than doing the whole thing that way. It helps carry the idea of a FRIENDLY ghost by not to make it too scary. The thin drop shadow adds weight and depth, and the pale blue color shading, matching the ones on the character, cement the connection. No character figure in the logo this time, but that would come soon.

From CASPER THE FRIENDLY GHOST #7, Dec 1952

With this issue, Casper moved into his own title, and the cover artist is already messing with the logo by putting a ghost character partly inside it. The logo reads fine anyway, and the idea that Casper would be frightened by a skeleton is amusing. The cover artist for many of these early cartoon covers is not known, but Warren Kremer was already a busy cover artist at Harvey, and any of these could be his work.

From CASPER THE FRIENDLY GHOST #12, Sept 1953

With this issue, Pirkola adds a much larger and more obvious Harvey logo at top left, and a character figure below it. This would be the plan going forward, and those elements helped identify the company and brand for readers. The barely readable tagline inside the H below HARVEY is FAMOUS NAME COMICS. Perhaps it was hype at this point, but the company was onto a good thing, and it would soon be true as readers bought the animated titles in droves.

From LITTLE DOT #1, Sept 1953

The first of Harvey’s own animation-style characters to receive a series was Little Dot. She had been a backup feature in other comics since 1949, and was now a perfect companion to the Paramount titles, and even more profitable, since there was no licensing fee to pay. It’s clever and interesting that Otto chose to use stripes in her logo rather than dots, making for effective contrast and an appealing style. The new Harvey symbol and character head are in place.

From FUNNY 3-D #1, Dec 1953

3-D comics were a fad at this time, and Harvey got into it briefly, and not successfully, with a few one-shots such as this. I like Pirkola’s logo and cover design.

From PARAMOUNT ANIMATED COMICS #7, Feb 1954

With this issue, Baby Huey became the star of this series, and later in his own. The Pirkola logo and trade dress work fine, I would have put BABY closer to Huey and closer to Paramount. Someone did an open sound effect that should have been a different color, but it was missed by the separators.

From CASPER THE FRIENDLY GHOST #27, Dec 1954

With this issue, Pirkola introduces a stamp-like frame for the character corner image, month, and issue number. It lines up with a black box now framing the Harvey symbol, and the words inside the H are simplified to just HARVEY COMICS. This is the style used going forward on all the animation-based comics, and I think it works well. Marvel would copy the basic idea in the 1960s.

From PAT SULLIVAN’S FELIX THE CAT #62, Aug 1955

Felix the Cat was created in 1919, one of the earliest animated cartoon characters. His cartoons were distributed under the Paramount banner, but there’s no Paramount tagline on his Harvey comic. He may have come to Harvey as part of the Paramount deal. The comic continued numbering from a series by Toby, which in turn had continued one from Dell. Pat Sullivan owned the studio that created the character, but the cat’s creation was later attributed to Otto Mesmer. Pirkola’s logo is delightfully large and appealing, a solid color rather than outlined. We’re now in the era of the Comics Code Authority, and their seal of approval was welcome on these Harvey cartoon comics, I’m sure.

From LITTLE LOTTA #1, Nov 1955

Little Lotta was another Harvey creation, first appearing as a backup in LITTLE DOT comics, and often with her. She’s about as close to a cartoon superhero as the company got, she not only had a super-appetite, but super-strength, employing both to comic effect. I doubt a character making fun of weight problems would work today, but then it was considered okay. Otto’s logo is again a solid color, something he began to do more often, and the mixed case letters are predictably fat. I don’t know why the T’s are slightly slanted, but it does add variety and perhaps a bit of humor.

From SPOOKY #1, Nov 1955

For readers who found Casper too soft and babyish, his cousin Spooky might have been more appealing. He first appeared in CASPER THE FRIENDLY GHOST #10 (June 1953), predating a few cartoon appearances, so he was created by Harvey. Following the Casper style, they added freckles, a derby hat, and a Brooklyn accent. I love the hat and eyes in Pirkola’s logo, and also his charming serif top line. The solid letter logos worked great on these simple covers where they didn’t have to run over any art.

From BABY HUEY, THE BABY GIANT #1, Sept 1956

When Baby Huey got his own title, it was again solid letters with a small tagline to the right. The H of HUEY is close to the Harvey H, but the angled lower right leg makes it different. The longer bottom leg of the E fills the gap next to the Y perfectly.

From FELIX’S NEPHEWS INKY AND DINKY #1, Sept 1957

The Harvey cartoon-style comics sold well, and nearly all of them had spinoff titles, some had dozens, all with logos by Otto Pirkola, at least through the 1960s. I’m only going to show a few favorites. I like his block-serif lower case letters in this logo, but I’m not sure he needed character heads, since they were already in the stamp at upper left. The ones in the logo do identify which kitten is which, alike except for hat color.

From HOT STUFF, THE LITTLE DEVIL #1, Oct 1957

My second favorite Pirkola logo is this one, for a Harvey character created by Warren Kremer. I think the flaming, slanted block letters are just the right combination of cute and dangerous, like the character. Ken Selig reported in his interview that the character was shown to him and Otto Pirkola to get their reactions, as they were churchgoers, and they both liked it.

From HARVEY HITS #3, Nov 1957

HARVEY HITS was another title for tryouts and one-shots, and the third issue is the first one cover-featuring Richie Rich, another Warren Kremer creation who would become Harvey’s most popular and best-selling character. He first appeared in LITTLE DOT #1 in 1953, but didn’t get his own series until 1960. By the mid 1960s, he was appearing in dozens of spinoffs, and later in a cartoon show. The block serif logo is wide but not tall to leave room for the main logo, but it works well, and Richie’s tagline in wide but thin serif letters is already present. Kremer’s idea, originally sparked by the TV show “The Millionaire,” was appealing to kids, just like Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge, because they could dream about having all that money. Unlike Uncle Scrooge, Richie was always kind and generous.

From HARVEY HITS #7, March 1958

Wendy first appeared in CASPER THE FRIENDLY GHOST #20 (May 1954), and had a tryout run in this title before getting her own. Created by artist Steve Muffati, like Casper, she’s the opposite of what her nature would suggest. Otto Pirkola’s logo has extra angles and bounce to add interest, and the heavy outline breaks his previous pattern of solid logos.

From THE FRIENDLY GHOST, CASPER #1, Aug 1958

Perhaps because these Paramount characters were purchased by Harvey around this time, Casper was launched in a new title that rearranged the name, but was otherwise about the same. This cover shows the mutual attraction between he and Wendy.

From WENDY, THE GOOD LITTLE WITCH #1, Aug 1960

The Funday Funnies in the top line was a cartoon anthology featuring existing Paramount cartoons and new ones of Harvey’s own characters like Wendy. To indicate that, Otto Pirkola created a new Harvey mascot above the H logo, a jack-in-the-box, and both the shape around the H and around Wendy’s character symbol are TV-screen shaped, as is the box in the cover art. The show was later syndicated as “Casper and Company.”

From RICHIE RICH #1, Nov 1960

Finally getting his own title, Richie Rich was soon the most popular Harvey character, and he also appeared in over 50 spinoff series. Pirkola’s new logo is clever, using diamonds to punctuate the I’s, and the slab-serif mixed-case letters have appealing bounce signaling that, despite his money, Richie was a fun character. I have to admit I never read a Richie story, but he appealed to lots of readers. Pirkola was kept busy over the next decade with logos for all the spinoffs.

From NIGHTMARE AND CASPER #1, Aug 1963

This is a spinoff I like, and shown for the new trade dress by Pirkola with the TV-shaped character boxes running down the left side. This kind of anticipates what DC Comics would do with many of their annuals. Nightmare’s logo is a nice variation on Casper’s.

From STUMBO TINYTOWN #1, Aug 1963

Begun as a backup character in HOT STUFF, Stumbo was a good-natured giant loved by his tiny neighbors, again the opposite of what one might expect. Another Warren Kremer creation. Stumbo’s logo has cracks to add interest, and a large figure by Kremer leaning on it.

I could go on with many more spinoffs, but I think what I’ve shown carries the message that Pirkola was a fine logo and cover designer who helped Harvey’s newsstand appeal with his talent. Otto retired from Harvey around 1970, succeeded by Ken Selig, and for a while lived in Finland, then relocated to Palm Beach, Florida, where he died on November 22, 1992. Long-time Harvey artist Ernie Colón said of him:

Otto was one of the nicest people I ever met. He was also a real craftsman in everything he did. I remember his lettering and design work for Harvey had a clean, fresh approach.

Like many early creators in comics, readers didn’t know his name, but they enjoyed and appreciated the work of Otto Pirkola.

Thanks to Alex Jay for research help. Lots more about Pirkola is on his blog HERE.

Continue to next article. Back to The Art and History of Lettering Comics.

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