Publisher: IDW, The Library of American Comics
There’s something really special about the newspaper strips of the early 20th century, back when even the crappiest comic in the page had a lavish, detailed quality to it. Even when the jokes were lame, you could never fault the artist for spending less than 15 minutes on a single panel (we can’t really say the same today). Alan Moore once pointed out that you can still find the most innovative narrative techniques in these early comics, simply because the authors hadn’t quite figured out what they could and couldn’t do with the medium. Likewise, I think a lot of these newspaper artists simply didn’t know they could get away with anything less than the best art in the world.
Bringing Up Father is pretty far from a crappy comic with lame jokes, by the way — despite what you might remember if you were unlucky enough to catch the strip’s later years. Created in 1913 by George McManus, the strip follows Jiggs, a humble Irish immigrant in America who turns rich overnight and refuses to stop hanging out with his working class pals or change his personality in the least (despite suddenly adopting the obligatory “rich person” top hat and cane). His wife Maggie, on the other hand, becomes obsessed with “bringing up” Jiggs and herself to a higher social status — even though she’s the one with all the embarrassing relatives (mostly criminals). 99 percent of the jokes come from the constant struggle between Maggie and Jiggs, with the sea of secondary characters conformed by her posh friends and his foul ones rarely making more than a single appearance each.
The jokes rely heavily in slapstick humor which means they’re often predictable, but Jiggs easily makes up for that with his idiosyncratic dialogue. It’s the art what really makes this stuff transcendental. As a comic writer, McManus was a pretty funny guy. As a comic artist, he was one of the all time greats: the only way I can describe his style is as a combination of the whimsical and impossibly agile characters of E.C. Segar and the flawless yet dream-like architecture of Winsor McCay. His expressive use of shadows was decades ahead of time.
Bringing Up Father: From Sea to Shining Sea collects what experts consider the highest point in the strip’s 87-year run, the 1939-1940 period. The book gets its name from the longest continuous story collected within: Jiggs and Maggie’s tour across America, which took place between September ’39 and July ’40 and became a national sensation. There’s a pretty interesting article about the logistics of the trip and its cultural impact included in the book. However, what the publicity material doesn’t mention is that the book also includes every other strip published in 1939, meaning that we get a generous dose of daily gags unrelated to the main story.
In my opinion the jokes in the earlier part of the book are a lot more consistent than in the second half, since they don’t have to be at the service of an ongoing “traveling across America” plot. My favorite section of the book is the month-long plot revolving around the sleeping body of Maggie’s good-for-nothing brother showing up in unlikely places, with the increasingly exasperated Jiggs doing everything possible to kick him out of the house. Honestly, it’s the same joke over and over, but the surreal way it escalates over the weeks is often hilarious.
As I said, the jokes on the second half of the book feel a little more stifled by all that traveling — but on the other hand, the changing landscape provides the greatest visuals in the whole book. It’s a fair trade, I think.
The book’s introduction makes sure to give plenty of credit to McManus’ assistant Zeke Zekley, who came along in 1935 to help out with the strip’s background art. At the beginning of From Sea to Shining Sea, Zekley has been working with McManus for four years now and is starting to gain more confidence: we see the first examples of Zekley’s humorous contributions in the manner of sometimes bizarre little background jokes, like a recurrent character who comes up to attractive women and tells them they “look just like Margie” (nobody knows if he’s talking about Jiggs’ Maggie, or some other Margaret, or if he’s just a dangerous maniac).
Eventually, Zekley’s additions became more surreal, evolving into a running gag where the paintings on the walls would come alive and mess with the characters without anyone noticing or acknowledging them. My only complaint is that this book doesn’t include any of those strips — though they did make sure to print a metafictional joke from September 1940 where Jiggs pays a courtesy visit to McManus’ studio as he’s drawing the latest strip.
Finally, the restoration/preservation job in this book is amazing. Having seen some pretty banged up Krazy Kats from the same period, I think these strips look like they were made yesterday. The images in this article don’t really do the book justice (mainly because I stole then from Google) — you’ll have to see it for yourself.