McManus’s One Joke, Deftly Told

Comic disharmony between Jiggs and Maggie over their social climb was the central joke of George McManus’s Bringing Up Father for over four decades. For all of McManus’s fine sense of humor, he banged that one note across four panels six days a week and a full page every Sunday. To be sure, he layered in nuances of class and generational conflict. Jiggs was a hod carrier who struck it rich, never adjusted to his own ascent, and clashed with wife Maggie and daughter’s ambitions to join the social elite. The dynamic was rich with potential and embodied the experience of millions of American emigrees moving into the modern middle class. But many of the daily strips tediously replayed Jiggs’s sneaking out to his former watering hole Dinty Moore’s, embarrassing his family with etiquette transgressions or ducking Maggie’s thrown dishes. These were conventions that American newspaper readers enjoyed hearing for a handful of panels and 30 seconds a day over its 87-year run. McManus, however, was especially adept at maintaining reader interest in the familiar with his mastery of visual style, panel sequencing and timing.

The strip above from Feb. 2, 1928 is a good example of McManus executing the old joke in fresh ways. That first panel, with Jiggs characterizing the happy newlywed as a “freak,” could stand alone as a one panel wry gag. McManus was especially good at packing several punch lines into a single daily. Over years and years of daily encounters, readers come to know the sensibilities of their favorite comic characters so well that a simple snide retort recalls a history of suffering. Indeed, McManus illustrates in each frame the comic contrast between this righteous, prideful romantic young modern and the slouching, marriage-weary Jiggs. The banter across the four panels creates an engaging verbal ping pong call and response between self-satisfied youth and beaten, knowing experience. Through posture and gesture McManus aligns the newlywed’s romance with a preening, effete steadfastness. Jiggs, in contrast, is that wonderfully plodding, leaning mass of disbelief.

And it is that gorgeous McManus visual signature that always keeps a Bringing Up Father daily interesting. Somewhere between Art Nouveau and Deco, his thin, uncannily even line loves peerless curves and ruler-straight parallels and squares for shading effect. It is at once otherworldly but somehow human, a big foot style executed with geometric precision. And the artist was endlessly inventive and varied in using his panel structure to offer different perspectives and angles one the unfolding scene. He was masterful at using sillhouette panels to yank us into a different view of the characters and their banter. And he frequently livened up his interior scenes with wall paintings that he animated with scenes that shifted from panel to panel. McManus’s visual signature channeled the look and feel of opulent, machine-age modernity, but he deployed that style ironically, to depict his characters’ discomfort and ill-fit with that modern world…and ambivalence with their own ambitions.

The popularity of Bringing Up Father’s very modern American story made it one of the most reprinted comics of its day. The strip above is taken from the 14th volume in Cupples & Leon’s regular reprints of the title. In his forward to this volume,McManus kids his publisher about the 4,000,000 copies sold of the previous 13 books. “They’ve got Rolls-Royce cars and they eat caviare and terrapin whenever they feel like it. I, the poor author of all this junk, have to stick to corned beef and cabbage.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s