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.

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The Relentless George McManus

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.