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.”

The Timid Soul Toys With Fascism

This 1937 vision of fascism’s psychological appeal to feelings of personal disempowerment is eerily relevant to the current ethos. H.T. Webster’s Casper Milquetoast (The Timid Soul) responds to newspaper images of Italy’s Benito Mussolini and Germany’s Adolph Hitler with his own fantasy of assertiveness. Webster is perceptive enough to understand in this strip how the personal and political entwine around identity. And through Casper he renders it as a will to power that is at once frightening but also silly and sad.

But more than the prescience and enduring relevance of Webster’s 1937 strip, this sequence is a great example of the special powers of the cartoon arts. They can show, not just tell, bring greater depth and impact to an insight through sequential illustration than we would get from the description of language alone. He shows us panel by panel the process of Casper responding to imagery and internalizing it into self-reflection – literally, in front of a mirror – mimicking the despot’s power. And then he twists it into satire: the fantasy of power congratulating itself by terrorizing an unsuspecting cat. Psychologists and political scientists no doubt have filled reams of analysis about how fascism appeals to popular feelings of alienation and disempowerment. But somehow Webster brings it to life in a unique and impactful way here.

The beloved H.T. Webster (1885-1952) drew a range of political and slice of life cartoons across the 20s and 30s. Generally he was known for gentle satires of middle class life and nostalgic takes on bygone boyhood. His most famous contribution to the daily funnies (and American language) was The Timid Soul, which focused on the beleaguered and unassertive Casper Milquetoast who struggled with his own timidity in the face of an increasingly brash, intrusive America. In fact, Casper’s name entered into the language as the familiar descriptor of bland and weak. Casper’s attempts to break out of his own wimpy response to the world is the source of The Timid Soul’s light comedy.

Can This Villain Destroy Dick Tracy?

Foreshadowing some of the more colorful arch-villains in the 40s and beyond, Dick Tracy’s early 1933 encounter with Stooge Viller was a standout as Chester Gould developed his style and focus. Stooge is imported to the city by a broken crime ring to discredit the now-famous gangbuster Dick Tracy. He is a master pickpocket and a bit of an effete dandy. He successfully frames Tracy and even causes Tess Trueheart to fall out with the love of her life.

Here we get our introduction to Stooge.

Stooge plants counterfeit bills on Tracy, who eventually is confronted and accused.

Our hero feels the world collapsing around him and descends into the bane of masculine mythos – self-doubt.

By 1933, Chester Gould ‘s overall style is gelling around those signature thick lines and dense bodies, those wonderful masses of black. But he is also experimenting with evocative design ideas. Here Dick’s emotional nadir, Tess Trueheart’s rejection, is depicted as a full-on silhouette strip.

And adding insult to male ego injury, Stooge moves in on the disillusioned Tess. In the strip’s early years especially, Gould deployed a range of female stereotyping on poor Tess. Often flighty or naive, she was a gender foil for the dripping masculinity of Dick Tracy. As we covered in an earlier post, neither Gould nor his avatar Tracy were progressive feminists by any means.

While Gould’s style and design sense evolved mightily throughout the 30s, and his imagination just got zanier, one thing never evolved – his reliance on unlikely plot contrivances. Viller’s scheme and Tracy’s innocence are revealed to Tess when she finds a draft of Stooge’s wire to Eastern gangsters that conveniently narrates his entire plot against her estranged boyfriend.

When Tess ends up getting shot in the course of her misadventure with Stooge, we have to wonder if this is Gould himself expressing some resentment towards her loss of faith in Dick. The panel in which she declares herself a fool is a wonderful composition that frames her frail, swooning, naive femininity against the burly expanse of the Chief’s grimace, perhaps voicing Gould’s own disappointment in her.

When Dick and Tess do finally reunite and reconcile, Gould exercises what would become a signature move for him, a radical juxtaposition of mood and action from one panel to the next. Gould had a talent for using the panel structure to jar the reader, to interrupt a mood in one panel with a surprising twist in the next. In this case a romantic interlude is upset by the capture Stooge inexplicably trying to slit his own throat.

It goes without saying that in a strip focused mainly on dramatizing the masculine prowess of his hero Chester Gould showed no understanding or sympathy for his female characters. Not surprisingly, he is equally inept even at drawing human intimacy. Tess and Dick’s kiss has all of the romance and finesse of a fender bender.

And yet we wee in the Stooge Viller episode Gould clearly expanding his palette and moving towards more stylized approach to depicting character and capturing mood and emotion especially through shadows and literally dimming the lights on scenes that try to dramatize deeper emotion.

Stooge Viller would be among a small handful of Tracy villains to recur over many years. He proves to be a deft nemesis in the detective’s early years. He is a clever schemer who seems smarter than the glorified thugs of the earliest strips. At Stooge’s hands, Tracy is put out to the physical and psychological wilderness. Stooge not only frames Tracy as a counterfeiter and gets this beloved cop drummed from the force, but he steals Tess’s affections. Tracy’s career, reputation and girl are taken from him all at once, a true trifecta of masculine humiliation. 

The hero of pulp adventure seemed compelled to enshrine masculinity by having it beaten down. In order to triumph, heroes must be bound, trapped, tortured, emasculated or simply ruined by villainy before emerging from humiliation to assert their power. This eccentric opera of masculinity in pop fiction has always led to weird homo-erotic depictions of S&M, bondage, dominatrix encounters, subjugation, and banishment of all sorts. The classic heroes of myth had to suffer taxing encounters with nature and monsters to complete their quest or rescue the land. But the peculiarly American style of pulp heroism often required male humiliation of some sort in order for our hero to assert the righteousness of his masculine power.

Twin Earths: Matriarchy Meets Patriarchy…In 1952

Most media, cultural and certainly women’s studies historians have long understood that the post-WWII era represented a twisted nadir for the representations of women in American popular culture. During wartime, women famously took on more prominent, responsible and even strenuous roles in the workforce than ever before. And once the war ended and the male troops returned, these same women upon whom the home front depended were explicitly urged by ever quarter of American society to surrender these gains for the sake of passing these jobs back to the traditional male breadwinners. There was nothing subtle to this process either. Many women were badgered back into domesticity, often accused of “stealing” livelihoods from returning veterans. Other aspects of popular culture like the the rise of the femme fatale trope in noir and crime fiction, the ditzy blonde bombshell, the irrational, imbalanced feminine figure in thriller genre – all helped undermine the legitimacy of women taking more powerful roles in the post-war “man’s world.”

This context makes the premise of the Twin Earths sci-fi strip all the more curious and fascinating. Running from the middle of 1952 to 1963 in dailies and 1953-1958 in a separate storyline in Sundays. When the overlooked strip is remembered at all, it is for some prescient gadgetry that anticipated later everyday tech. To be sure, the writing by comic book illustrator and editor Oskar Lebeck and drawn by comics veteran Al McWilliams was often leaden and unexciting. But Twin Earths was home to some genuinely intriguing and thoughtful futurism that echoed literary science fiction. And as I make my way through the strip’s early years, it is the basic premise of Twin Earths’ divergent social organizations that is most striking. The twin Earth (Terra) is a female-dominated society where a diminishing population of males is retained mainly as idle breeders. The Terran spy Vala infiltrates our earth to ensure this male-dominated planet is not developing its technology towards destructive ends. She pairs up with FBI agent Gary Verth to avoid Communist spies and assassins from her own host planet. The banter between the two, especially Vala’s accusations of masculine aggression (an early take on male “toxicity”?) is a remarkable standout at a cultural moment when most popular culture sought to diffuse, defeat and mock women aspiring to power.

Gray Goes Dark: Survival of the Fightingest

By 1937, Harold Gray seemed to have fallen into an especially foul mood. It was several years into his nemesis F.D.R.’s “New Deal,” which Gray felt represented everything he and his “Little Orphan Annie” disdained: social uplift, misguided do-gooders, institutional authority. From the start, Gray was never shy about voicing his populist perspectives and what he saw as core agrarian values of self-reliance, individualism, and deep suspicion of government bureaucracy of all sorts. His chief scholar, Jeet Heer, has done a much better job than I can here outlining Gray’s vein of Populism and how it ran much deeper than knee-jerk reactionary conservatism. And I have argued in these posts how Gray’s cultural politics were grounded in familiar mid-western traditions and a tension between 19th Century values of “character” and 20th Century notions of “personality. But it is clear that in response to FDR and the popularity of the New Deal Gray got more radical and vocal about his views. And perhaps not coincidentally, the strip grew even darker in the later 1930s.

As Here argues in the introduction of the 7th volume of the Library of American Comics reprint series, Annie was always a gritty, street-smart tale, but Gray usually kept physical violence off-panel. Yet, as the strip approached its creative height in 1936-38, that violence started moving into frame. Heer argues that Gray likely was responding to world conflicts, a greater personal sense of mortality as well as competition from more action-oriented strips that dominated the 1930s. I think Gray may also just have been growing angrier and more resentful towards a culture from which he felt ever more alienated. Gray’s moral vision was always as as simple and plainspoken as his drawing style – venal villainy countered by saccharine sentimentality. But it is clear, Gray was getting darker and seeing the world in starker ways by 1936. In fact the lead-up to one of the most jarring bits of in-panel violence in Little Orphan Annie begins with a remarkable Sunday strip on Oct. 8, 1936 that maps the modern world as a perennial “jungle” of predators and good-hearted strivers. As Annie’s newfound friend and flower-seller Ginger, reflects, “But the rules are still jungle – the survival of the fightingest.”

In the coming weeks, Gray uses Ginger as his populist mouthpiece. Annie had always been a chatty strip to begin with, but in these months the moral bromides, punditry and snide asides crowded most panels. Gray clearly had a lot to get off of his chest…about the corruption of politicians and lawyers and their collusion with thugs…about the mixed motives of “uplifters”…about the productivity and generosity of earned wealth…the moral hazard of handouts and unearned wealth. Gray was not a simplistic or sentimental reactionary. He had relatively progressive racial views. And as he outlined through Ginger in these months, his sense of individualism was a principled rejection of the sociological generalizations he saw driving a lot of reformist uplift and welfare. His populist sociology rejects environment as determinative of behavior.

No one ever accused Harold Gray of subtlety. Annie was as much folk punditry as it was an adventure. But he was artful, albeit dogged, in creating opportunities for his avatars to voice another homily. A street fight triggers bromides on rising out of the “hard kindergarten” of the streets. Passersby making an offhanded comment on these city kids not getting a chance in life set up Ginger’s counter-argument about the dangers of unearned advantage. Meeting an old friend lets her reflect on the morality and generosity of earned wealth. And all of this in just three strips.

Gray’s wordiness can divert us from his considerable and evocative graphic skills. He visualizes his principles and arguments that are as clear and un-subtle as his ideology. The street scenes in the Oct. 26 strip above illustrate the teeming diversity, the danger, raw violence of the city as well as the individuality of the humanity he sees there. That third panel depicting the “rushing tide of life” expresses at once a suffocating crowdedness and individuation.

Gray’s visual voice was singular and somehow it succeeded in establishing his mixed view of humanity, society and the cosmos. His laudable human figures were usually solid, husky and well-planted. Annie herself has tree trunk legs that look and feel organically rooted in much the way his friend Chester Gould like to plant Dick Tracy in the frame. It is the visual embodiment of self-reliance and resilience. The infamous hollow eyes of Gray’s cast underscore how little he and many other daily cartoonists relied less on facial expression and more on words, composition and action in a frame to express feeling. Much like Frank King and Gasoline Alley, Annie visualized the plain spoken style of its creator.

While they were very different artists, to be sure, Gould, King and Gray had visual voices that helped define the worlds we were in for those three or four daily frames. That to me is one of the comic strips’ singular aesthetic qualities, to establish diverse and distinct fictional worlds through these signature styles. For Gray it took the shape of bulky, pillowy figures that lived in a 2D world of little forced perspective or even movement. Gray’s characteristic hatch work helped communicate a grimness to his worldview – the persistence of shadows. Arguably, he did not have the stylistic talent or range of many peers. King had a great sense of panel pacing and rhythm, a feel for place and landscapes, he used relentlessly. Gould leaned heavily on his penchant for muscular action, grotesque violence, forced perspective and those vast planes of inky blacks.

Gray flexed his style sparingly. But he was capable of great visual power. In the run up to the tragic violent death of flower lade Ginger, we get this gorgeous showcase of crosshatched planes, light-source, and cross-cut pace that feels like German Expressionist film.

The local gang of hoods target Ginger because she refuses to pay into their protection racket. Her graphic murder that comes days after the foreboding strip above is a rare instance of a Gray panel exploding in explicit violence.

It is probably best that Gray depicted violence so sparingly. He wasn’t very good at it. But this moment is of a piece with the months of the strip’s immersion in the modern city and its many musings on the modern “jungle.” And it embodied the emotional energy, perhaps even the anger and pessimism that seemed to drive what many comics historians regard as his creative peak in the storylines and characters in the last half of the 1930s.