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Trouble with Comics

Guest Reviewer Month - Chris Mautner on Bringing Up Father: From Sea to Shining Sea

Bringing Up Father: From Sea to Shining Sea, the Cross-Country Tour of 1939-40

By George McManus 

IDW Publishing $49.99

George McManus’ Bringing Up Father is a wonderland of Art Deco goodness. The venerable comic strip, as sampled in this hefty new book from IDW, is all clean, sleek, thin lines meeting at perpendicular angles. You could put your eye out on the lapel of Jiggs’ coat. The colors in the Sunday strips pop out in vibrant yellows, blues and oranges. It always feels elegant and precise, even when its chronicling the haphazard adventures of some big-nosed fop. I don’t know if Herge and the rest of the Claire Ligne crowd were serious McManus devotees, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if they were. 

The book, subtitled “From Sea to Shining Sea, the Cross-Country Tour of 1939-40,” takes a rather interesting tack on the current clamor to reprint every memorable comic strip from the past, whether it holds up to modern eyes or not. Rather than attempt a complete, multi-volume collection—which would take up scads of books since the strip ran for decades, and would be a tricky sale since it isn’t as fondly remembered as Peanuts or Prince Valiant—IDW opted instead to collect one of their most famous “runs” instead, a period in which the “Father” in question, the venerable, newly minted, nouveau riche Irishman Jiggs and his wife Maggie take their daughter and new son-in-law on a tour of the continental U.S. 

This sort of thing happened a lot in the comic strips of that period. A lot of strips and syndicates found it a good marketing gimmick as local papers eagerly pledged to promote their strip for the chance to even get a mention of their city in the occasional word balloon. Even Winsor McCay had Little Nemo circumnavigating the globe in the hopes of winning newspaper attention back in the early days. 

One wonders, though, why McManus and company went to all that trouble, as a number of the strips simply have Jiggs or Maggie saying “Well, here we are in Cleveland” from their hotel room, without any attempt to drawn the particular skyline of that city. No doubt a good deal  of that was done in an attempt to save time and energy (the introduction notes what an exhausting project this was for McManus) but it happens with such alarming frequency that the reader can’t help but feel a bit cheated? What would a McManus-drawn Jefferson City street scene look like anyhow? 

No, the funniest and best strips in the collection are located in the first half of the book. These also play apon the more traditional set-up—in spite of his new wealth, Jiggs wants to keep eating corned beef and cabbage and kicking back beer with the boys at the nearby saloon, and Maggie will have none of it. McManus also gets good mileage out of a number of other scenarios that play upon issues of class and family though. A couple weeks of strips involving Maggie’s wastrel brother—who is so lazy that we never see more than his reclining back—are especially amusing. McManus’ strip is best when dealing with the vagaries of upper middle class life—pushy shopkeepers, annoying house guests, and of course, angry wives. 

And while we’re on the subject, there’s no way to put this nicely: Maggie is a monster. A shrewish, vain, howling social climber of a woman, who when not heaping verbal or physical abuse on her husband, is inadvertently making herself look as foolish as possible. Many of the jokes, for example, rely upon how utterly clueless she is about her utter lack of talent, or that her family is nothing but a bunch of crooks and layabouts. Indeed, a constant running gag involves her exclaiming how her sibling or cousin is the greatest thing since sliced bread only to discover that they’re in jail or have stolen the silverware.

The amazing thing about the strip is that Jiggs seems to genuinely care for Maggie. While he might cast an eye towards a pretty girl, he doesn’t chase after other women, at least not in this volume, and he frequently attempts to mollify her and do right by her. It’s perplexing since she doesn’t seem to think very much of him. What’s more, her ire doesn’t seem to come from the fact that he’s leaving her alone at nights so much as that he’s hanging out with the former lower classes she now rejects (Her love of the opera doesn’t come from any genuine appreciation but an understanding that that’s the sort of thing you’re supposed to enjoy when you’re wealthy.). In short, she doesn’t deserve him. 

The book comes with two very nice essays—one by Brian Walker on the history of the strip and the significance of this particular run, and another by Bruce Canwell that provides some useful information on McManus’ assistant during this period, Zeke Zekley. It’s rare that assistants like Zekely get any time in the sun so it’s nice to see some attention paid to his contribution. 

Bringing Up Father may not be a strong enough strip to deserve the full, multi-volume treatment—the gags rely heavily on a familiar routine and the occasional rote punchline, and the inherent sexism in Maggie’s depiction will no doubt prove distasteful to some modern readers. But it’s a gorgeous and lively enough strip to warrant a lavish publication such as IDW has done, and I hope it can find another stellar “run” to follow up with sometime soon. 

Chris Mautner is a regular contributor to Robot6 and TCJ.