The Bungles Are Us

Misanthropic and petty, scheming and nagging, reviled by their neighbors and barely tolerable to themselves, The Bungle Family was the quintessential domestic comic strip of the 1920s. Critical historians like Bill Blackbeard, Rick Marshall and Art Spiegelman have singled out Harry J. Tuthill’s masterpiece as an especially dark and pointed critique of the modern petit bourgeoisie. But George, Jo and Peg Bungle were really the penultimate satirical family of 20s strips. George was no more a man on the make, looking for that get-rich-quick invention or financial scheme, than Barney Google, A. Mutt or even Andy Gump. His wife Jo was no less socially self-conscious and ambitious, nor more of a nag, than Jigg’s Maggie. And Jo wasn’t even in the habit of throwing things. Nor was the Bungle family dysfunction any worse than the in-fighting at Moon Mullin’s boardinghouse.

But The Bungle Family took these otherwise light satirical tropes into much richer, more literary and insightful directions. Moreover, The Bungle Family really wasn’t played for laughs. There was something unusually serious and insightful going on here. The Bungles were urban apartment-dwellers, a world Tuthill depicted as tightly packed families preoccupied by sniping, resentful one-upsmanship, posturing and rationalization. The strip was famously wordy. Much of the “action” is comprised of brimming dialogue balloons, usually George and Jo trading thoughts to themselves and to each other. But this is dialogue of a different sort from any other comic strip. It is dense with meandering interpretation, changing directions of thought and sentiment and the dynamics of couples reinforcing their own specific reality. The two dailies below are a prime example. George and Jo have successfully driven away two visiting relatives with deliberate rudeness, only to discover they were wealthy. When the Bungles aren’t being outright misanthropic and contemptuous of all outsiders, they are hopelessly acquisitive and looking for that main chance.

But it is the texture and nuance of Bungle-speak that stands out as a unique vision of the insularity of the modern family. As Paul Tumey points out in his excellent post on the strip, the Bungles don’t talk to each other so much as at one another. It is often hard to tell what they are saying to themselves or to the other, let alone whether George or Jo are listening.. They are at once contemptuous and self-congratulatory, and this is where Tuthill locates his wry humor. “We gave them the air but we did it in a nice high-toned way,” George concludes.

It is not just that George and Jo are petty, picking on every foible and slight they perceive in neighbors, friends or co-workers. The strip is a dissection of pettiness itself. They lie in bed at night endlessly reviewing the small-mindedness, nosey, gossipy, self-consciousness of neighbors, projecting all of those qualities on those fellow tenants and proudly denying any of those qualities in themselves – even as they practice them. The Bungles is a protracted deep dive into middle American small-mindedness convincing itself of its high-mindedness.

Which is not to say that George, Jo and Peg are any more or less venal than anyone else in Bungle world. Almost all of the other neighbors and couples in the strip have a similar insular dynamic. And over time, through reams and reams of dialogue, we come to appreciate the complexity of Tuthill’s vision. We actually come to like the Bungles, if not admire them. Tuthill depicts the family as a unique unit where people truly know one another well, for good or ill. George, Jo and Peg anticipate one another’s thoughts. In one protracted storyline, Peg is being courted by the phony lothario Oakdale, who once jilted the girl at the altar and has returned for a second pass. the mother-daughter banter is touching, as Jo applauds how her daughter has grown to see through Oakdale’s bravado. In an especially rich daily, Peg makes a late night visit to Jo’s bedside, and she circles the bed as they converse with that special intimacy of late-night exchanges between mother and daughter. It is the kind of domestic scene that we simply don’t get in many other strips of the day, and yet it is the kind of everyday moment that the medium’s unique dynamic of image and prose can capture beautifully.

Conversation is the heart of The Bungle Family, and despite their pettiness, Tuthill’s Bungles are often insightful, their banter dense with observation, witty similes, attempts to probe one another’s thoughts and feelings. Tuthill does not depict his characters as merely venal. In their own insular way, George, Jo and Peg are striving towards understanding, even if it results in comic posturing. He is trying to capture the way Americans think out loud, try to make sense of themselves and others.

In the two strips below, father and daughter are discussing the return of Hartford Oakdale, the man who jilted Peg years before. Much of this storyline from 1930 involves social pretense and the Bungles having to uncover a range of frauds. The first strip is especially interesting because it shows the relative pliability of George, who is otherwise known for his bombast and tendency to beat up neighbors. Part of Tuthill’s ongoing joke about George is that this sniping, combative dervish of a man is at heart weak-willed and indecisive.

This second exchange with Peggy is a good example of the psychological insight Tuthill often projects into the Bungles. Peg shows remarkable insight and self-reflection when she says, “I’ve often thought – lately anyhow – that the interest I once had in Hartford might have started with sympathy caused by mother’s continual misunderstanding of him.” This is part of the dense ambiguity of Bungle-world. Tuthill has not created an eccentric burlesque of American family life. He clearly intends his readers not merely to deride the Bungles as low-life fops but to see themselves in them.

Over time it becomes clear that Tuthill has genuine affection for his Bungles, asa they do for each other. In the final panel of the 1930 daily below, Jo reflects on her marriage to George, admitting she was decided by his bravado but “has never really been sorry.”

Tuthill came by a kind of naturalistic vision of the American urban family honestly, in much the same way Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser or Stephen Crane did. Like them he experienced the underside of a rapidly changing America and the people who were settling on the margin. Tuthill was a journeyman who worked and traveled America, often working menial jobs, even working a traveling medicine show for a while. He wasn’t imagining the Bungles. They likely were projections of his real experience. It is his familiarity with the rougher banter of an urban lower middle class, and the ways in which affection and connection are communicated here that gives Tuthill’s Bungles its unique richness. They often lived in an area dubbed “Sunken Heights,” which embodied so succinctly the tension among marginal social circumstances, ambition, self-consciousness, acquisitiveness and the search for dignity Tuthill was trying to capture in this long-winded epic.

More than any comic strip artist or novelist of the day I can recall, Tuthill explores the ambivalence of American class consciousness, the tension between democratic principles and acquisitive ambition. In Jo and Peg’s trip to a pricey resort deliberately to hob nob with the wealthy they profess to abhor snobs.

The Bungles are hardly alone in their gossipy competitiveness and petty envy. Tuthill occasionally shifts his lens to the surrounding apartments to build context for his urban lower middle-class world. In the daily below, the neighbors are responding top news that the youngest Bungle is engaged to a famous tycoon. Tuthill’s talent is for communicating so much in a few lines – the mother distracted from the well-being of her children by the pursuit of gossip – the office-worker sniffing at the dumbness of a manager – Jo’s “friends” anticipating the Bungles becoming even more condescending as a result of the marriage. These are the moments when Tuthill’s vision of modern America is not so much dark as wry and preoccupied with the low-level boil of every day anger and resentment that lay beneath civility.

At his best, Tuthill used his voluminous speech balloon to show us something about the nature of family conversation itself. The exchange below is a great set piece in which George and Jo are talking past each other about the return of Hartford Oakdale – George hearing for the suitor’s attention and Jo reflecting on her contempt for the same man. It is a wonderful portrait in word and picture of a married couple occupying two separate frames of mind, neither even touching each other.

Weird circumstances visited the Bungles throughout the strip’s run, and Tuthill crafted intricate storylines that evolved from one to another. But more often than not, the family found themselves butting up against the prospect of wealth. In this 1928 sequence, George and Jo congratulate themselves for getting rid of visiting relatives, only to find that they alienated rich relations. The whiplash shift from self-congratulatory misanthropy to regret and recrimination is a classic Tuthill move. But it initiates a half year run in which a depressed, bed-ridden George is over-hypnotized by a fake Swami, loses his memory and wanders off to a new city where he is mistaken by a rich codger for a lost relative. Under another name, George administers the man’s philanthropy and eventually inherits the wealth himself. All is lost, however, when an enterprising psychologist on a train ride reverses George’s apparent trance, sending him back home poor and befuddled.

Subsequent critics have celebrated The Bungles as a kind of dark satire, a kind of counter-cultural punch, to the American middle-class of the day. I don’t think that quite gets at what Tuthill was doing. In the introduction to a Hyperion Press 1977 reprint of a year of strips, Bill Blackbeard come closest by recognizing The Bungles’ similarity to other domestic strips like Bringing Up Father or The Nebbs. But what distinguished Tuthill’s world “from its nominal fellows was its total lack of the stops-out sentimentality that disfigured much of The Gumps and The Nebbs… .” I agree. But by jettisoning sentiment Tuthill lets in complexity, nuance, ambiguity. This is to say, he lets in genuine literary depth. In many ways, The Bungle Family should be seen in the larger context of the literary “revolt against the village” in Sinclair Lewis (Main Street, Babbit), Sherwood Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio), Edgar Lee Masters (Spoon River Anthology) and Ring Lardner (The Love Nest, You Know Me, Al). These writers famously rebelled against the romanticization of domestic family and small town life by highlighting the petty hypocrisies and envy that preoccupied the American folk. Like these writers, Tuthill does not shy away from the smallness he sees in the modern mind. But I think even Tuthill’s champions miss the real affection and deeper understanding the artist had for his characters. This is a great example of the comic strip form, its every day, short form cadence, doing cultural work that was not available to other “higher” literary forms. The format allowed Tuthill to come at the modern American family from so many angles, to examine nuances and ambiguities of modern thought and sentiment that forces us to wonder: are The Bungles low-minded and petty…or are they just us?

Aside from short runs in comics anthologies, The Bungle Family has not enjoyed the full reprint it deserves. The wonderful Hyperion Press series of early comics volumes included one for the 1928 dailies, edited by Bill Blackbeard. Alas that edition is available now only at a prohibitive collectors’ price. The more accessible reprint in the recent Library of American Comics collection of 1930 strips in its Essentials series. The book has an excellent critical intro and Tuthill bio by Paul Tummy.

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