“Papa Love Mama?”: The Quiet Desperation of Mr. and Mrs.

Clare Briggs’ contemplation of marital tension, Mr. and Mrs. (1919-1963) has always fascinated me both because of the harsh tenor of the strip itself and its source. When comics historians bother to remember Briggs (1874-1930) it is as quaint master of the nostalgic slice-of-life panels of small town childhood (The Days of Real Sport, When a Feller Needs a Friend, Aint’ It a Grand and Glorious Feeling). He is also credited with pioneering the format of the daily strip with recurring characters in A. Piker Clerk (1904) at Chicago’s American. But to contemporary newspaper readers in the 1910s and 1920s, he was among the best known, best-paid, and beloved of American cartoonists. His premature death in 1930 prompted both a single volume retrospective and a formidable seven-volume collection of his many strips.

Clare Briggs was more than a heartwarming sentimentalist, however. His Real Folks at Home strip was a remarkably insightful and counter-cultural tribute to the dignity of work and the innate creativity of otherwise invisible laborers. But in Mr. and Mrs. we see Briggs with a sharper edge. Joe and Violet Green are a married couple at odds with each other, with the world and even with marriage itself. Joe and Vi are habitual bickerers, and this is not novel to the domestic strip. Maggie is forever throwing dishes and rolling pins at Jiggs. George and Peg Bungle pick at each other and the neighbors with piercing jibes. Marital tension and the war of the sexes is the fodder of the family sit-com genre that originated in the American comic strip. But Briggs’ Green in Mr. and Mrs. are different and more bitter. McManus’s Maggie and Jiggs are obvious burlesques. Tuthill’s The Bungles represent a more nuanced and oddly loving vision of marriage. Joe and Vi are more piercing, genuinely disgruntled. And Briggs brings a dark humor to the simmering resentments that simmer within their hearts. The 1922 Sunday below is among the wittiest. At her desk, Vi keeps asking Joe for spelling help on a series of ominous words: MURDER, SUICIDE, POISON, DIVORCE.

In some cases, Mr. and Mrs. simply register the stereotypical bickering and light observational humor around modern couples. The strip below having George go through prolonged slapstick of delivering Vi’s oversized hat box, resembles most domestic strips in topic. But George’s mockery of Vi strikes me as unusually withering and unsympathetic but typical for this strip.

There is a weird darkness to this strip even in its most anodyne moments. The strip below begins with Joe contemplating suicide but pulled out of his depression by Vi sharing another woman’s compliment about him. And curiously, Vi doesn’t reinforce or confirm the compliment but simply relays a third party’s comment.

There is a persistent tone of dislocation between this Mr. and Mrs. that Briggs rarely tries to bridge with any momentary shows of affection or underlying connection. Joe and Vi don’t even seem to like one another. And Briggs seems to underscore this with a common trop of the strip, their son Roscoe frequently appearing in the final panel asking, “Papa love Mama?” It was the plaintive cry of the strip itself, seeming to pose the question about the Greens and perhaps more than a few married readers.

The underlying resentment that fuels the conflicts is apparent in the hair triggers both seem to be on. The smallest slight or mistake quickly escalates into the kind of ad hominum assaults every marriage counselor recognizes as the tip of the emotional iceberg.

Perhaps I am making too much of the odd tone I find in Briggs’ Mr. and Mrs. There may be some underlying affection between these two, and it is yet another take on classic sitcom domestic dynamics. As most histories recall, the American comic strip of the late 1910s and 20s turned middle class and domestic. Part of this move was market-driven. As newspapers sought to expand their markets outside of city origins, editors hoped to appeal to the smaller cities and towns with cartoon characters that looked and sounded more like them. But the transformation of the comic strip also embodied a larger suburbanization of America itself, an emerging middle class of consumers. And so we get Bringing Up Father, The Nebbs, Keeping up with the Joneses and The Bungle Family. In many ways the comic strip was more brutally honest about married life than just about any other popular art form of the day. The post-WWI “return to normalcy” saw a celebration of sedate, abundant middle-class life, increasingly suburban and fueled by managerial careers. Advertising, magazines, film and radio were the great celebrants of consumer capitalism, flooding the cultural zone with idealized images of materially rich domestic bliss – a better life through stuff. The family-based situation comedy that had its roots on comics pages, was a curious counterpoint to much of this cultural messaging. Its comedy presumed domestic conflict and disharmony. The ongoing tension between the Jiggs, Bungles and Nebbs seemed to suggest that modern men and women were being squeezed into roles and ideals that didn’t really fit But each of these strips applied their own kind of sentimental salve upon these combative relationships. Not so with Briggs’ Mr. and Mrs. These two seemed closest to Henry David Thoreau’s dreary diagnosis that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation… . A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.”

Mr. and Mrs. was a seven day strip, but I have only seen Sundays, like the scans here taken from a 1922 reprint. I cannot say how the Greens behaved towards one another on a daily basis. But if anyone can point me to examples of the dailies I would love to expand this cursory view of the strip.

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