The thoroughly engaging and visually captivating The Heart of Juliet Jones is an underrated gem of 1950s comic strip photo-realism and romantic adventure. Its admirable run began in 1953 (through 1999), under the artful pen of Stan Drake and the scripting of Elliott Caplin. The first week of the strip is added below, and it illustrates the melodrama of the this soapiest of soap operas.
The basic setup involves the Jones family – a widowed father “Pop Jones,” his 30-something unmarried daughter Juliet and teen wild-child other daughter Evie. Sibling rivalry and the tension between responsible Juliet and adventurous man-obsessed Evie form the basic dynamic. I am working from details in the excellent reprints of the early strips by Classic Comics Press (2008). The first volume has introductions by Leonard Starr (of Mary Perkins fame) and Armando Mendez.
I don’t know who this Ferd. C Long was, nor how long the engaging “How You Felt” strip ran. But it captured me instantly as a great example of early cartoon experiments that explored some of the unique qualities of the new medium. The great team at Barnacle Press, who nobly harvest every scrap of early comic strips they can, gathered these. Like many strips of the day, it took up a simple single conceit – in this case using visual exaggeration to capture a feeling. The result is a fantastic surrealism that communicates in a singular way a range of small and common responses to the world.
One of Pogo Possum’s best swamp buddies, Robert Yarrington, my friend and father-in-law, passed this weekend. Bob had been reading Walt Kelly’s masterpiece in all its comic book and strip forms from the time “Pogo and Albert” first appeared in Dell comics years before that small world was revived and expanded as the Pogo strip in 1948. He amassed a small library of the familiar old Pogo reprints over the years that he bequeathed to me when his grew unable to enjoy them, and we both worked through the recent Fantagraphics complete reprint together. Bob’s steel trap memory for the books and comic strips he read even decades ago always left me aghast and humbled. I barely recall characters and endings I read last week let alone when I was 20. One of my joys over the last decade has been bringing Bob new reprints of Pogo, Little Orphan Annie, Prince Valiant (one of his particular faves) and some of the pulps he loved like Erle Stanley Garner’s A.A. Fair series. His eyes widened as his memory kicked in and I knew he was about to recite some piece of minutiae from a strip or potboiler he had read six decades ago. It was a treat to see someone who lived and relished pop culture so deeply. Comics helped him learn to read, and he repaid the favor with lifetime devotion to the medium.
Bob’s Pogo collection remains enshrined on its own shelf in the Panels and Prose Library.
Here are just a few Pogo passages to remember Bob I think he would like.
Bob’s liberal politics were well-aligned with Kelly’s regular bouts with right-wing excess. Pogo’s most famous poke at the right was his brilliant send-up of Joe McCarthy’s thuggishness in 1953. This sequence from May, 1953 is especially timeless. Swap in a more recent faux populist, proto-fascist and you have a strip that’s as relevant today as it was 69 years ago.
Bob was especially fond of the Pogo songbook and Kelly’s artfully fractured versions of familiar standards. The joke at the core of “Deck Us All With Boston Charlie” is that none of us remembers the full lyrics to Christmas Carols. Kelly’s crew, however, have trouble remembering their own wrong version of the song. And so in Okefenokee Swamp, during every year’s run-up to Christmas, Kelly comes at the same joke in different ways.
Bob had excellent taste in comics. He was thrilled that Fantagraphics was reprinting one of his youthful favorites, Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby. Starting in 1942, this wild tale of a boy, Barnaby, and his cagey, cigar-smoking, scallawag Fairy Godfather Mr. O’Malley is a singular American classic Bob pushed me to appreciate. I didn’t warm to it immediately but have come to appreciate this wry take on parenting, childhood and modern American life.
In his last days with us, and after he could enjoy the stream of volumes we sent him from the Library, he did enjoy the company of our English Setter Nicky, who is a bit of a cartoon himself.
One of the singular comic strip launches must be the artful transition from Sidney Smith’s relatively short-lived (1912-1917) Old Doc Yak to one of the great runs of inter-war family strips, The Gumps (1917-1959). Doc Yak was a goat and centerpiece of an early sitcom daily. Smith ended the Yak run to start his Gumps series by literally evicting his hard-luck goat from the premises. In the early days of 1917, Yak’s landlord threatens to toss his deadbeat tenant unless he pays up. Failing to raise the back rent, Yak takes a powder, leaving the landlord with a taunting note (never likes the place anyway) and an empty property. In the final panel of Feb. 10, 1917, the landlord announces that new tenants will be moving into the property and the strip on Monday.
And on that following Monday, indeed, the eerily jawless Andy Gump and the Gump clan are introduced. The strip was quite literally vacated by one character and occupied by a new one. in fact, in the closing day of the Yak series Smith tells the reader “Doc has but one day left to raise the rent or be thrown off this page.”
Andy Gump himself would go on to become one of the most recognizable and seminal sitcom dads in the early decades of century. The besieged and aggrieved comic father figure had been foreshadowed already in the Dingbat Family, Bringing Up Father and Smith’s own Old Doc Yak. But Andy helped crystallize and propel the sitcom formula. Overconfident of his knowledge, skills and savvy, Andy was the kind of oafish but ineffectual blowhard that would become the bedrock of radio and TV family comedy for, well, forever. His patient wife Min is understood as the quiet “brains of the family” as well as its heart. Life of Riley, The Honeymooners, The Jeffersons (and pick any 2000s famcom) rode the same formula. Which is to say that America has been laughing about the middle and working class father figure pretty much since they were invented. But the formula really seems to have taken shape in the comic strips of the 10s and 20s.
I am forever impressed by the resilience of George McManus’s (1884-1954) imagination across so many decades. He began examining modern American married life with his wildly popular The Newlyweds (later Their Only Child), which was the first family strip and arguably a pioneer of the situation comedy formula. The Newlyweds were the first helicopter parents, doting over and overindulging their Baby Snookums. With the introduction of Bringing Up Father in 1914, he pulled together not only perennial family dynamics (war of the sexes and the generations) but also America’s peculiar anxieties around class. The former hod-toting laborer Jiggs strikes it rich and reluctantly goes upscale and uptown. His wife Maggie and family aspire to social acceptance among the rich, while Jiggs misses boozing with pals at Dinty’s. Let the class-conscious comedy commence.
But as I get my daily doses of classic 1947-era Bringing Up Father from my Comics Kingdom subscription I am amazed at McManus’s relentless sense of play and imagination with themes he had flogged since 1914. How many times did Maggie thwart Jiggs’s nocturnal escape attempt? And yet he doesn’t seem to be phoning it in even three decades in. That breathtaking third panel finds yet another way to tell the same joke, made funny and chilling by the indirect way he reveals Maggie and that McManus precision of pen. Not to mention, McManus finds endless ways to animate those background picture frames, perhaps keeping himself entertained as he adds depth to the strip experience. Just amazing.