By TOM SOTER
It started out as a joke.
At first, “The Warthog” – about a talking warthog with a slice of pizza on his back – didn’t seem like anything special. Creator Tom Sinclair got the idea in 1970 after reading a Gold Key Tarzan comic book that at one point featured a herd of warthogs. “I was fascinated by them,” Siny recalled in 2015. “Something about their odd appearance appealed to me. The image kept bubbling in my mind.”
The result was a tale called, simply, “The Warthog.” It was very short and written in a fairy-tale style, and it did have some of the elements of the later stories. “The most intelligent warthog on Earth stalked through the town of Midville,” it began, “his scarlet pince-nez placed deftly on the bridge of his nose. He wore a red dressing gown (for red was his favorite color) and red-and-white striped shorts. On his back, tied about his neck by a short cord, was a slice of pizza wrapped in wax paper and placed in a paper bag.”
It is a striking opening. Unlike the other stories, however, it is told in the third person, and the narrator presents the Warthog (later referred to by his friends as “the Wart”) as an odd creature, who wore a dressing gown and shorts (Corky Miller, the artist for the series, usually left these items out). He is also vaguely menacing (note that he “stalked” through the town of Midville).
Siny probably meant “The Warthog” to be a one-joke wonder. The Warthog would be dramatically different when he reappeared again a few months later in “The Return of the Warthog.” As Sinclair recalled recently: “At the time, I was just getting into the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and I had the idea of making the Warthog into a kind of Holmesian character, where he would also be his own Watson, narrating his adventures in Victorian-style prose.”
The Warthog is wonderfully endearing, as he sits in a Holmes-like bathrobe in a little cottage by a lake, recounting his adventures in a style sounding more 1870s than 1970s. (Some examples of dialogue from the later tales: “What ho, fellows!” “Right you are, Mr. Wart!” and the Doyle-esque sentence construction – how often did Sinclair have his character say, “said I” rather than “I said”?) These were the little touches that helped define the Warthog and which I believe contributed to his popularity. There was also the series’ dry humor, poking fun at Frank and Joe Hardy – the gung-ho, intrepid Hardy Boys in the famous children’s stories by Franklin W. Dixon – whose names he appropriated for the Warthog’s two young friends, but who acted less like the Hardys and more like a pair of Dr. Watsons to the Warthog’s Sherlock Holmes.
But it wasn’t all period language and name games. The stories are successful because they are well-written, fast-paced, and imaginative fantasies, clearly inspired in tone by Conan Doyle and in content by the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs (the template is ERB’s Venus series, which, like most of the Wart’s adventures, is actually one long, interconnected story). It’s hard to believe Sinclair was only fourteen when he started writing these tales.
This new book, Memoirs of a Wandering Warthog, is the long-awaited and much-needed return of the real Warthog. Let me explain. In 1985, Sinclair interested a small publishing house, Albert Whitman & Company, in Niles, Illinois, in publishing all the Warthog tales in a volume called Tales of a Wandering Warthog. But, although it was a thrill to see the Wart professionally printed, there was something slightly different about our hero: it wasn’t simply that Joe and Frank had become Adam and Troy (small publishing houses certainly worry about lawsuits more than fourteen-year-old writers), or that the romance between the Warthog and his beloved Irene had become platonic – she was now his housekeeper (small publishing houses certainly worry about the propriety of inter-species romances more than fourteen-year-old writers). It was the tone itself that had changed. Whitman’s editors had flattened the writing out, and much of the charm of the original tales – such as the Victorian style of speaking – had been eliminated. Gone, in fact, is much of the idiosyncratic charm of the original stories.
But why dwell on past transgressions? As the Wart (and Dr. Watson before him), would put it: suffice it to say that Sinclair was never happy with the Whitman version of his creation’s adventures. So now, say I, put on your red dressing gown (for red is our hero’s favorite color), adjust your pince-nez, sit back, and savor the wonderful adventures of the most intelligent warthog on Earth.