Born in Crawfordsville, Indiana, Bill Holman (1903–1987) moved to Chicago, where he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts while working as an office boy in the Chicago Tribune art department. Relocating to New York City, where he worked as a New York Herald Tribune staff artist, Holman submitted freelance cartoons to magazines, (including Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, Life, Judge and Everybody's Weekly.) He began Smokey Stover as a Sunday strip for the Chicago Tribune Syndicate on March 10, 1935. The daily strip began three years later on November 14, 1938.
The title Smokey Stover derived from Holman's observation of an old smoking stove. Although no clear connection has ever been asserted, Holman's title and character name also could have been a nod toward the ubiquitous stationary engine manufactured by the Stover manufacturing and engine company of Freeport, Illinois. Between 1895 and 1942, it made over 270,000 engines for use on America's farms. Such stationary engines were imprecise machines which often produced substantial exhaust smoke when fueled with kerosene, a common fuel used before catalytic cracking of petroleum became more common in the 1930s.
The goofy situations in Holman's comic strip usually feature Smokey (short for "Smokestack") Stover, the "foolish foo (fire)fighter", often riding in his impossible, two-wheeled “Foomobile” (a single-axle fire engine which resembles a modern Segway with seats, or an independent sidecar), his wife Cookie, his son Earl, his cross-eyed boss Chief Cash U. Nutt, the Chief's wife Hazel Nutt and the firehouse Dalmatian mascot, Sparky (sometimes referred to as Sparks). Smokey has an array of nutty relatives who are also featured occasionally, with names like "Uncle Potbelly Stover", "Rusty Stover" and "Cousin Cole Stover".
Smokey wears bright red (or yellow) rubber boots and a clownish striped "helmet" (always worn back-to-front), which he sometimes ties to his nose with string, in lieu of a chinstrap. His trademark helmet also features a prominent hole in its hinged brim, which he occasionally uses as an ashtray for his lit cigar. Although most of the sequences in the strip (and the occasional comic book) center on Smokey's escapades with the Chief, the loose "plots" and situations are mainly a framework to display an endless parade of off-the-wall verbal and visual humor.
The chaotic panels of Smokey Stover regularly include wild sight gags, mirthful mishaps, absurd vehicles and bizarre household items—including oddly-shaped furniture, clocks, vases, headwear, cigarette holders and telephones. Crazy framed pictures which change completely from panel to panel—or break the fourth wall, with subjects literally jumping out of the frames—add to the overall weirdness. A madcap, "anything for a laugh" atmosphere pervades the strip, which also abounds in nonsensical dialogue, non-sequiturs and pervasive, almost nonstop puns. Smokey's ears frequently (and literally) "pop" off his head at the outrageousness of the incessant punning.
The puns and "silly pictures on the wall with various items hanging clear out of the frames" was the feature that provoked the most reader mail, according to contemporary articles and interviews with Holman. The cartoonist often visited the syndicate office to pick up the puns which readers suggested for the walls. He called these items "wallnuts". (Example: A picture of a fish opening a door is labeled "Calling cod".) What did Holman think of all the puns? "They're so stupid," he sighs. "I can't help it if people like 'em. Come to think of it, I love 'em, too!"
Holman's continuing inventiveness managed to keep Smokey Stover going for nearly 40 years, continuing unabated for decades after the heyday of screwball comic strips had ended. Holman often reached moments of surreality that did for comics what Tex Avery's wild cartoons did in animation. A typical gag:Smokey Stover:
"The wood in this roof is awfully old—this one-inch bit is drilling one-foot holes!"
"Just use a half-inch bit—that way it'll only make six-inch holes!"
Odd bits of philosophy and a running gag involving ubiquitous signs with strange, incongruous nonsense words and phrases—such as "foo", "notary sojac", "scram gravy ain't wavey" and "1506 nix nix"—were commonly featured in Smokey Stover. They appeared arbitrarily and often, in no particular place for no particular reason, and some became catchphrases. Holman defined "notary sojac" as Gaelic for "Merry Christmas" (Nodlaig Sodhach), and "1506 nix nix" was reportedly a private joke that included the hotel room number of Holman's friend, cartoonist Al Posen. However, his most frequent nonsense word by far was "foo". Holman peppered his work with foo labels and puns. The term spread in popular culture during the 1930s and found usage in 1938–39 Warner Brothers cartoons, most notably by director Bob Clampett, including Porky in Wackyland.
Smokey "often called himself a foo fighter when anyone else would have said firefighter", according to comics historian Don Markstein. "The word foo also turned up on signs, lists, menus, and the lips of various characters at random but frequent intervals." Foo may have been inspired by the French word for fire, feu (Smokey's catch phrase was "where there's foo, there's fire"), but Holman never gave a straight answer as to the origin. Holman states that he used the word due to having seen it on bottom of a jade Chinese figurine in Chinatown, San Francisco, meaning "good luck". This is presumably as a transliteration of the fu character (fú, 福), which is a common character for fortune, and figurines of the trio of eponymous male "star gods" Fú, Lù, Shòu are common in Chinese communities. See Etymology of "foobar" for further discussion.
During World War II, images of Smokey Stover and Spooky were painted as nose art on several American bomber aircraft. The term "foo" was borrowed directly from Smokey Stover by a radar operator in the U.S. 415th Night Fighter Squadron, Donald J. Meiers, who it is agreed by most 415th members gave the "foo fighters" their name. The phrase foo fighter, also taken from Holman's strip, was used by Allied aircraft pilots in World War II to describe various unidentified flying objects or mysterious aerial phenomena seen in the skies over both the European and Pacific Theaters of Operations. Though foo fighter initially described a type of UFO reported and named by the 415th Squadron, the term was also commonly used to mean any UFO sighting from that period.
Foo Fighters is also the name of a rock band, first heard in 1995. Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl hoped to keep his anonymity and release recordings under the title "Foo Fighters", taken from the World War II term for UFOs and indirectly from Holman's strip.
Holman launched an accompanying topper strip called Spooky one month later (April 7, 1935), to run with Smokey Stover on Sundays. With a perpetually bandaged tail, the peculiar black cat Spooky lives with his owner Fenwick Flooky, who does embroidery while characteristically wearing a fez and sitting barefoot in a rocking chair. Holman used the pseudonym "Scat H." to sign the strip.
Spooky, who makes frequent cameo appearances in Smokey Stover, also regularly turns up in the background of Holman's daily gag panel feature, Nuts and Jolts. Syndicated for three decades, Nuts and Jolts was a stand-alone panel cartoon featuring an ever-changing cast of everyday people doing silly things.
There were several Smokey Stover comic books published by Dell Comics Four Color. The first in this series, No. 7 (1942), displayed an unusual front cover of a full seven-panel sequence, a rarity in comic book covers. The next in the Dell series, No. 35 (1944), was followed by No. 64 (February 1945), No. 229 (May 1949), No. 730 (October 1956) and No. 827 (August 1957). (Cartoonist Hy Eisman has said he drew the Smokey Stover content in Four Color No. 730.) In 1953–54, Holman produced two public services giveaway comic books on fire safety, both published by the National Fire Protection Association.Smokey Stover: Firefighter of Foo (1937) Whitman Publishing
Smokey Stover and the Fire Chief of Foo (Penny Book, 1938) Whitman
Smokey Stover: The Foo Fighter (Big Little Book #1421, 1938) Whitman
Smokey Stover: The False Alarm Fireman (Better Little Book #1413, 1941) Whitman
Smokey Stover: The Foolish Foo Fighter (Better Little Book #1481, 1945) Whitman
Bill Holman's Smokey Stover: Book 1 (1985) Blackthorne Publishing (a trade paperback of black & white reprints with an introduction by Harvey Kurtzman)
Screwball Comics: The First Nemo Annual (1985) Fantagraphics (an anthology of vintage comics also featuring Rube Goldberg, Milt Gross and Dr. Seuss)
Smokey Stover and Spooky the Cat: The Collected Sundays (2012) Hermes Press ISBN 1-61345-011-7
A novelty song based on Smokey Stover—"What This Country Needs Is Foo", with words and "FOOsic" by Mack Kay—was recorded by Eddie DeLange and His Orchestra on Bluebird Records in 1939. Holman illustrated the cover for the sheet music, released by Joe Davis, Inc. Music Publishers.
In 1941, Bill Holman gave his blessing to The Order of Smokey Stover, a social club created by the Redmond Volunteer Firefighters Association in Redmond, Oregon.
In 1953, Pittsfield, Massachusetts firefighters William J. Knight and Walter J. Pictrowski designed and built a three-wheeled version of Smokey Stover's Foo Mobile. With permission and suggestions from Holman, the vehicle was adorned with familiar paraphernalia, such as a rubber-handled ax, a fire call box, a fire gong, crank handle and steam-generating radiator cap (a fire nozzle with the slogan "Sea-Oh-Too!"). The Foo Car has been in and out of service over the years and has been restored twice, brought back for appearances at Berkshire area parades, musters and charity events. It is currently garaged.
In 1971, Smokey Stover was a featured segment on Filmation's Archie's TV Funnies, the only animated form of this comic. Smokey Stover became one of several rotating segments on the Saturday morning cartoon series. Other comic strip character features in the rotation included Broom-Hilda, Dick Tracy, The Captain and the Kids, Alley Oop, Nancy and Sluggo and Moon Mullins. It was repeated in 1978, without Archie, under the title The Fabulous Funnies.
Smokey Stover is referenced in "Jumbeliah", an unreleased song Bruce Springsteen wrote in his early career: "Built like Marilyn Monroe, and she walks just like Smokey Stover."
In the 1980s, a line of smoke alarms were marketed under the Smokey Stover brand name, with the packages featuring his likeness.
Pete Schlatter of Francesville, Indiana constructed a workable single-axle, two-wheel Foomobile by hiding four support wheels inside the two wheels.
In 2001, Dark Horse Comics issued a limited edition figure of Smokey Stover in a colorful collector tin, as part of their line of Classic Comic Characters—designated as statue No. 21.