Thursday, January 5, 2012

Book Review: BRINGING UP FATHER: FROM SEA TO SHINING SEA by George McManus (IDW Publishing, 2009)

This particular release in the LIBRARY OF AMERICAN COMICS series slipped by me when it got into circulation a few years back. I finally got the book from my local store at a drastically reduced price.

BRINGING UP FATHER is well-known to comic-strip fanciers as a long-lived (1913 to 2000) and stylishly designed gag strip about the portly little nouveau riche Irishman Jiggs, trying manfully to maintain contacts with what the 1913 readership would call his "crowd" and the 2000 readership would term his "posse," all the while dodging the persistent efforts of his would-be socialite wife, Maggie, to force him to accept a place in high society. The ethnic angle and slightly antique sensibilities of the basic plot (which creator George McManus apparently cadged from a turn-of-the-century play called The Rising Generation) date the strip to a considerable extent. What comics fans treasure about BUF is McManus' "clear line" art style (which had a profound impact on TINTIN creator Herge, among others) and ingenious use of Art Deco details that gave a unique look to his backgrounds and decor. Later in his career, McManus would add a considerable amount of whimsy to this artistry, staging gags in background paintings, having characters play with the panel borders, etc. In the 1939-1940 time period covered in this volume, however, the artist was still playing it relatively straight, the occasional abstract background aside.

FROM SEA TO SHINING SEA collects BUF's arguably most famous version of a continuity. To call it a strict continuity is a stretch, since it's primarily a string of gags attached to a common theme, like Christmas tree lights on a cord. The theme, however, is first-rate, with McManus sending Jiggs, Maggie, their lovely and somewhat haughty daughter Nora, and Nora's new husband Lord Worthnotten on a madcap cross-country trip. This was an ideal opportunity for McManus, a natural showman and self-promoter, to drum up additional attention for the popular strip, as various American cities clamored for the honor of being included on the itinerary. The trek included not one, but two trips to Washington, DC, where Jiggs, in his time-honored manner of making high-ranking friends simply by "being himself" (just imagine, Jiggs got there several decades before such a sentiment became de rigueur on too many animated TV shows to count!), got to enjoy a friendly visit with FDR and to share his preferred repast of corned beef and cabbage with well-padded Vice President John Nance Garner. The storyline spanned both the daily and Sunday versions of the strip, and McManus let himself go in several memorable Sunday splash panels, depicting the control room and a panoramic view of Hoover/Boulder Dam, Times Square, Independence Hall, and numerous other vistas. Most of the gags, to be honest, are pretty elementary, with a lot of "isn't he stupid" laughs being had at the expense of the genial, but hopelessly out-of-his-elegant-element, Lord Worthnotten. But, in truth, this is pretty much the way the rotund McManus "rolled" at all times: frosted-cake artwork, meat-and-potatoes (or corned-beef-and-cabbage) subject matter.

The volume ramps up to the cross-country trip with a bundle of 1939 Sunday pages (under the generic title of "Love and Marriage") and a series of '39 dailies that feature, among other things, visits from (1) Maggie's narcoleptic brother, who is always seen from the back in a prone position, and (2) Jiggs and Maggie's dimwitted son Sonny, his wife, and the couple's new baby, whom the readers are encouraged to name in a contest ballyhooed by the Jiggses themselves. I'm glad that these additional materials were included; they allow those unfamiliar with BUF to become comfortable with McManus' style and approach before reaching the "main event." Essays by Bruce Canwell and Brian Walker do a fine job of sketching out McManus' career, the important contributions of McManus' longtime assistant Zeke Zekley (whom King Features Syndicate inexplicably passed over as successor to McManus following the latter's death in 1954), and the origins of the BUF concept.

I must confess to still being puzzled by one thing about BUF. I was always under the impression that Jiggs became rich by winning the Irish Sweepstakes, yet, in Walker's essay, McManus is quoted as claiming that Jiggs earned his fortune by parlaying his early career as a hod-carrier into that of a wealthy "brick manufacturer and salesman." Since Jiggs is frequently seen working at an office in the strip, the latter explanation seems to be more plausible. I still do see the "got rich quick" version in descriptions of the strip, however (e.g. the entry in Wikipedia). This issue is not a trivial one. If Jiggs really did travel the Scrooge McDuck road to wealth, as opposed to the Tommy Blurf one, then Maggie's relentless hectoring of her hubby would seem several thousand times more ungrateful, since it was precisely his hard work that gave her such a comfortable lifestyle. It would also make more sense for Jiggs to feel so strongly about being allowed to hang out with "the boys at Dinty Moore's" if wealth had suddenly been thrust upon him, leaving him no time to adjust. Did McManus selectively edit the story of Jiggs' rise as time went on? It certainly wouldn't be the first time that a comic character's backstory was tweaked during a strip's run. If future BUF volumes follow -- and I certainly hope that they do -- then perhaps the disparity between these two "origin stories" can be discussed in more depth.


Joe Torcivia said...


My only impressions of BUF come from reading it briefly in the New York Journal American, in the early ‘60s. Back when I’d read pretty much ANY comic that came my way, because relatively little did.

I have no recollections of great wealth for Jiggs and Maggie in those strips. Upper middle class, to be sure… with Maggie as a bit of a social climber, and Jiggs perfectly content to “not climb” and remain as he was. The husband, of course, wanting and scheming to do (relatively harmless) things his wife wouldn’t approve of

It didn’t strike me as particularly memorable, as this was a pretty common situation for domestic comedies of the ‘50s thru mid-‘60s. By this time, I’d seen quite a bit of it on THE HONEYMOONERS and THE FLINTSTONES.

Maybe, over the course of the strip, it will be revealed that Jiggs LOST his fortune (like Glomgold at the end of the dreadful “Scrooge’s Quest”) and got it back via the sweepstakes route! Stranger things have certainly happened in comic fiction.

To this day, the only thing that makes Jiggs stand out to me was that I actually had a Jiggs PVC figure as a small child. Yes, really!


Chris Barat said...


Funny you should mention Jiggs losing his fortune... The 1939 daily strips reprinted in the early part of the collection start with Jiggs having just "recovered" his fortune! There is no indication as to how this happened, or how he lost it in the first place. I wonder if this happened more than once during the life of the strip.