Thursday, April 11, 2013
Book Review: LIBRARY OF AMERICAN COMICS ESSENTIALS, VOLUME 2: THE GUMPS "THE SAGA OF MARY GOLD" by Sidney Smith (IDW/Library of American Comics, 2013)
I passed on the first ESSENTIALS collection but wasn't going to miss this opportunity to peruse a healthy chunk of THE GUMPS. Sidney Smith's peculiar mixture of domestic slapstick, adventure, melodrama, and subpar artwork held a remarkable fascination for millions of Americans during the 1920's and 1930's. One could seriously argue that, in this one strip, Smith anticipated the popularity of soap operas (crafting narratives that strung the reader along for months at a time, an inch or two at a time), the development of radio and TV situation comedies and such modern-day satirical "family" cartoons as The Simpsons, King of the Hill, and Family Guy, and the whole notion of the "mysterious rich uncle" (Andy Gump's billionaire Uncle Bim) that would culminate in Carl Barks' creation of Scrooge McDuck. As is the case with most pioneers, what Smith actually did with this bubbling thematic stewpot was frequently crude and amateurish, but one must give him full credit for "getting there first." He was also ahead of his time insofar as marketing his characters, ginning up publicity, and living the "cartoonist's high life" were concerned.
One fairly sizable reprint volume was released in the mid- 1970s, but all reports are that it was pretty casually thrown together, basically just an effort to cash in on the then-fashionable Jazz Age nostalgia craze. Smith's most famous GUMPS continuity, the story of the greedy Widow Zander's attempt to entrap the credulous Uncle Bim in an unwanted marriage, has been reprinted in dribs and drabs in various places. Now comes IDW with a high-quality (though, as noted previously, physically awkward) presentation of Smith's second best-known continuity, the one in which he literally shocked the country by letting a much-loved character die. "The Saga of Mary Gold" is so fiendishly well orchestrated that even a modern reader who occasionally shakes his or her head over Smith's shameless use of melodramatic tropes will come to understand why a press report labeled Smith "The Most Unpopular Human in the World" for actually daring to do the deed. (Of course, this "unpopular" creator saw the popularity of his strip skyrocket during this period, so he was laughing all the way to the bank, no doubt driving there in one of the fast cars that he liked to buy.)
"Mary Gold" plays out over a period of one year (April 1928-May 1929) and takes its sweet time getting up to speed, as Andy Gump and his wife Min meet and get to know the Golds, their new next-door neighbors, and their charming and lovely daughter Mary. In the interim, chinless Andy gets plenty of time to opinionate about anything and everything, and, in this extremely wordy strip, that's like giving Homer Simpson the keys to the doughnut shop. In a sense, it's rather unfair to compare Andy to characters like Homer and Peter Griffin; next to them, he's practically a MENSA member. A better analogy might be a long-winded Hank Hill who doesn't just tell you "That ain't right!" but goes into excruciating detail as to exactly why it "ain't right" and/or how it can be put right. In between well-packed word balloons, a plot finally begins to coalesce, as poor-but-honest inventor Tom Carr and rich-but-venal banker Henry Ausstinn compete for Mary Gold's hand. When some money that Andy had intended to invest in one of Carr's creations goes missing, suspicion falls on Tom, and he becomes a wanted fugitive, while Ausstinn moves in to take advantage of the situation. The balance of the tale is vintage soap-opera material, complete with a dramatic court trial and an equally dramatic revelation at the moment when wedding vows are to be exchanged. But then comes the kicker... which, as Jared Gardner notes in his Introduction, opened up entirely new vistas for the comic strip as a whole. Just one year after the end of "Mary Gold," for example, Chester Gould would launch DICK TRACY and kill off a character within the first week of the strip's existence.
While Smith's storytelling style is familiar to those who are well-versed in pop culture, I must admit that he occasionally does things that leave me baffled. Take the curious case of "The Eagle," for instance. This mysterious figure is introduced during Tom Carr's exile and makes sidebar appearances in literally every strip for a full month, with Smith breathlessly telling us where he is, where he's going, etc. It soon becomes clear that "The Eagle" is some sort of bounty hunter looking for Carr, which would suggest that he's going to play a role in Carr's ultimate capture and return for trial, right? Er... not so much. The way in which Smith writes "The Eagle" out of the story (assuming that you can say that this perpetually tangential figure was "in" the story in the first place!) quite literally made me sit up and say, "What the f---?!" Then, too, Andy and Min's son Chester abruptly appears in the story about midway through (around Christmastime), hangs around for a while, and then just as suddenly vanishes. Was he away at boarding school, or something? Or did Smith suddenly remember that he was part of the Gump family too, and then just as suddenly forget? I get the distinct impression that Smith's creative approach was rather... casual. Either that, or he simply liked pulling his audience's chain. In any event, the formula worked, at least up until Smith's death in a car crash in 1935. I'm glad that I finally got a chance to see it in action... and I certainly wouldn't mind other GUMPS continuities showing up in future ESSENTIALS volumes.