The Nebbs: The Social Realism of a Mid-List Sitcom

The Nebbs (1923-1947), written by Sol Hess and drawn by W. A. Carlson started as an unabashed knock-off of the more familiar domestic comedy strip, The Gumps. And yet the strip was quite popular in its day, appearing in over 500 newspapers and spawning a radio version. And to its credit, The Nebbs developed its own charms and developed distinct sitcom conceits, if only in a minor key.

Hess wrote gags for Sidney Smith’s The Gumps and well understood the conventions of emerging situation comedy. And while in name and domestic situation, The Nebbs clearly mimicked some aspects of The Gumps, Hess’s variations were notable. Rudy Nebb is less bombastic than Andy Gump. And the thrust of the strip is more wordy and introspective. It seemed to have as much in common with the internal monologues of Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie and the slice of life motif of Frank King’s Gasoline Alley. Most of the available samples of The Nebbs focus on the Sunday standalone gag strips. For a richer sense of the continuity of Hess and Carlson’s world, I have to rely on a contemporaneous 1928 Cupples and Leon reprint. Alas, the selection in this volume focuses outside of the the Nebbs themselves and on the wealthy cousin Ambrose and his dual failure at launching a local hotel and courting the spinster Sylvia.

In a 1929 interview Hess was clear that he followed a slice-of-life focus on the minutiae of everyday interactions.“It it is just the things that they do that are little glimpses into real life.” But if we put The Nebs into that larger context of 1920s culture and other strips like Gasoline Alley, Moon Mullins, Mr. and Mrs., The Gumps, and The Bungle Family, it is really part of.a larger comic strip project of exploring the personal politics of family, both nuclear and extended, in a post-WWI era of rapid external change and especially urbanization. Whether set in city, suburbia or rural small town, the domestic strips spoke to the resilience of small and deeply enmeshed family and self-defined communities. In the sequence reprinted in this volume, the courtship of cousin “Amby” and Sylvia is a touching portrait of the public nature of personal lives. These are two insecure middle-aged characters whose misconceptions about themselves and each other play out both intimately and socially. Hess moves us into both of their heads as they dance around each other, missing and misinterpreting romantic cues, never settling onto the same page with one another. And it ends in heartbreak for both, a missed opportunity for two hearts to meet. In much the same way Frank King depict’s Walt’s approach/avoidance of Mrs. Blossom in Gasoline Alley, Hess takes an extended deep dive into the equivocations and self-deceptions of a man in love in a way that the daily cadence of comic strip is uniquely able to handle. In this sense, the 20s strips echoed some of the concerns of contemporary American social realists like Booth Tarkington (Magnificent Ambersons), Sinclair Lewis (Main Street, Babbitt) and early F. Scott Fitzgerald (This Side of Paradise) in trying to depict the modern consciousness as conflicted and unsure in the modern world.

But in The Nebbs, that internal turmoil is juxtaposed with the external judgments and kibitzing of an enmeshed community of family, friends and neighbors. These onlookers are at once sympathetic and supportive, pitiless and mocking. Hess’s take on the insularity of the small town is distinct from King’s tightly knit Gasoline Alley. He gives his characters sharper tongues and more strident opinions on everyone else’s business. While not as jaded as Tuthill’s view of American social life in The Bungle Family, Hess is less sentimental about the familiarity of the small town, its pros and cons, than King. As Sylvia’s antagonist, the housemaid Mrs. Gruntly tells her sharply in one exchange, this is a place where “everybody knows everybody else and nobody can fool anybody.” Gruntly targets Sylvia’s primping to attract a man with her own class resentment or competitiveness. Meanwhile, Amby is subject to the mockery of Rudy Nebbs and a hotel clerk, who chortle over the rich cousin’s awkward courting.

Dramatizing and visualizing the tension between public and private, the juxtaposition of internal monologue and social exchanges, is a particular feature of the comic strip. And in Hess and Carlson’s hands it produces a singular kind of social realism. I find the ultimate loneliness of Amby and Sylvia in the midst of this enmeshed community all the more poignant and even existential. The Nebbs certainly is not alone in this. Most domestic strips of the era move us in and out of individual character consciousness, shifting from social exchanges to individual characters responding, resisting, or resenting the social input from a previous panel. This is a special kind of narrative omniscience, built on daily cadence, the juxtaposition of thought and speech bubbles, the shifting of settings between panels.

It seems to me that as a cultural voice, the comic strip is most interesting not when it “reflects” or reinforces the culture around it or even when it echos other “higher” art forms. Pop culture historians tend to take one of these two paths in legitimizing serious scrutiny of mass art. Cultural historians like to “contextualize” popular art, but this usually means viewing the work through a pre-existing ideological framework (gender, class, race, etc.) that rarely respects or surfaces the individual qualities of the art itself. One academic critic of the early comic strip boasted of having read every day of King’s Gasoline Alley and yet only saw in it all of the ways in which it glamorized the rise of consumer culture. Likewise, other critics try to ennoble their study of the comic by showing its likeness to traditionally higher forms of art. The celebration of Winsor McCay’s surrealism, George Herriman’s metaphysics, Frank King’s absorption of avant-garde art styles are among the most common approaches. I don’t mean to dismiss any of these approaches as unimportant. I think they can be interesting and valid. But I have always suspected that we tend to follow these lines of criticism in pop culture out of a lingering embarrassment with the subject itself and a need to graft a love of the comic strip onto a more intellectually respectable critical approach or art form. And I am not sure that either critical path has yet to capture the role the comic strip played in modern American culture or 20th century readers’ passionate embrace of the form. I am more inclined to pursue the uniqueness of the form and understand how it gave Americans a very different lens on their own lives and the changing modern world around them. Elsewhere, for instance, I have argued that the earliest newspaper artists were depicting urban environments, their sheer speed, anonymity and scale in ways that few other forms captured. Likewise, I think this simple sequence from The Nebbs illustrates how the conventions of the domestic comic strip visualized a tension between personal and social lives, self and society, that spoke to the complexities of modern American experience that was singular in American art and clearly invaluable to readers. How the comic strip added something unique to the cultural conversation seems to me the real question at hand.

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