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.

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Early Polly: Inventing the Sitcom

Cliff Sterrett’s Polly and Her Pals (1912-58) was along with George McManus’ Newlyweds and Bringing Up Father and George Herriman’s Family Upstairs one of the pioneers of a situation comedy genre that would eventually define radio and TV. There were progenitors, to be sure, like vaudevillian skits and theatrical parlor room comedy. But it was in the comics pages of the first two decades of the last century that the major tropes and situations of the genre developed. The kooky neighbors, generation gaps, spousal miscommunication and jealousy, and especially the aggrieved and diminished father figure – all took root here and were developed by Sterrett, Herriman and McManus, among others.

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“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.

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Moon Mullins On the Margins

He was a “banjo-eyed” former boxer whose life’s work seemed to be avoiding a life of work. Frank Willard’s Moon Mullins (b. 1923, Chicago Tribune syndicate) was a boarding house situation comedy, where Moon and his little brother Kayo schemed, loafed and tussled with a like-minded cast. But what distinguishes Moon Mullins in my mind is the authenticity, affection and artistic talent Willard brought to a strip that tugged against the middle class fantasies of 20s American culture. While much of the comics page moved towards gentler domestic comedy in the 1920s (The Gumps, Bringing Up Father, Gasoline Alley, Polly and Her Pals, et. al.) Moon’s world was an alternative America that was relentlessly mean, self-interested, devotedly unproductive.

Moon Mullins’ visual signature blended caricature nicely grounded in physical detail. He assisted Billy DeBeck, whose Barney Google was another strip about socially marginal characters, but he had a more naturalistic style. The run down neighborhoods and well-worn rooms of Moon’s world come through in cross-hatched corner, splashes of broken wall plaster, the stray broken fence slat. His characters are weightier, individualized and expressive of inner qualities. Moon’s wry, laconic approach to life lives in his usual posture, relaxed, disinterested.

The gangly, bespectacled boardinghouse owner Emmy Schmaltz is as tightly wrapped as her ever-present bun. Her figure recalls Segar’s depiction of Olive Oyl but without irony. The absence of sex-appeal is genuine, even if her hunger for a man throughout the 1920s drives her own scheming comedy.

The sloppily stout Uncle Willie and his equally massive wife Mamie are models of domestic disharmony, usually resulting in Willie taking a kitchen implement to the head and being tossed from the house.

Willard had a deft sense of comic strip cadence, with a great ability to advance an episode yet tell a complete story in just three or four daily frames. In the sequence above, part of a 1931 road trip to Florida, Emmy is trying to get Lord Plushbottom’s attention. The usual sit-com tropes ensue: miscommunication, misapprehension, confusion. Premise, activation and gag all take place within three panels.

Willard had a special talent for slapstick timing, usually on display in the Sunday gag strips. Like the best slapstick silents, he used careful panel editing and cadence to capture the flow of unintended cause and effect. The strip above is a good example of how tired tropes feel fresh and funny mainly from the way Willard times his action and layers into them the sit-com notes of misapprehension. Or, in the strip below, Willard blends some of the dark scheming of his characters, Emmy’s creepy faked suicide plot, with a beautifully rendered birdshot-to-the-ass scene – from weirdly dark to classically comic in three panels.

It was Willard’s great comic sense that gave him license to portray an unsentimental vision of marginalized America in ways that were uncommon to the hapless but good-hearted domesticity across the rest of the comics page let alone the idealizations of American life in the rest of popular culture. More on this in the next post.

Sherlocko the Monk (Part 1): The Great Mystery of the Everyday

The running gag in Gus Mager’s 1911-1912 small wonder Sherlocko the Monk is that this send-up of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective rarely uncovers a crime. Mager’s parody sleuth usually unravels “mysteries” around a henpecked husband’s scheme to avoid his wife, an absent-minded fop forgetting where he left the missing object, a neurotic too scared to show up for work. The mystery is really around character and behavior more than around misdeeds. And this is why Sherlocko the Monk is such a satisfying but under-appreciated relic of the first decades of the American comic. Sherlocko pulled together into a coherent narrative whole, themes and narrative conceits that had been germinating in a more haphazard way across many artists and strips since 1895. Sherlocko is the apotheosis of early comics’ preoccupation with social and character types, traits and obsessions. he took that trope and developed it into coherent theater. And along the way Sherlocko maps out where the comic strip had been by 1911 and where it was headed as an American popular art. 

The great deductive mind does indeed exercise itself, usually in the middle two panels of the 6 panel sequence by using physical evidence to rule out Watso’s grandiose suspicions of murder, kidnapping or grand larceny. But in the end the crime is simply tied to characters expressing their character. Bonehead is being stupid, Forget absent-minded, Henpecko fearful of his wife, Nervo being audacious. The solution to the “mystery” is character itself – the revelation of someone being who they are. 

Which is to say that Sherlock gets it appeal from putting a grand design around the discovery of the mundane and expected. That is its one-note joke but it is also what makes the strip such a nexus of trends in the form. Sherlocko the Monk embodies the focus of the comic strip on the everyday, the intimate, the idiosyncratic, the local. It helps us map the direction the comic strip would take as an American art form of the familiar and near at hand, the little observations, annoyances, character tics. It is the strain of American comics that gives us “They’ll Do It Every Time,” the gentle observational humor of Clare Briggs’ many one-panel series like “Real Folks at Home” or “There’s One In Every Office” or Family Circle. As photography replaced illustration in the 20th Century American newspaper, cartooning was consigned to polar realms – political and domestic. The newspaper comics page became the flip side of the editorial page political cartoons. One page caricatured the official public life of the nation, the other focused on the local, the intimate, the caricaturing of social interaction, domestic politics, personality types – an art of everyday-ness.