Bringing Up Father: From Sea to Shining Sea

Posted by on April 27th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

IDW; 280 10×11-inch pp.; $49.99; B&W and Color; Hardcover

Exquisite. Elegant. Both content and package. I’m looking at IDW’s Bringing Up Father: From Sea to Shining Sea, “Maggie and Jiggs in the Famous Cross-Country Tour of 1939-40.” The book itself, in common with other IDW tomes, is a superb instance of the book-maker’s craft and artistry, including, even, the symbolic piece de resistance, a sewn-in ribbon book mark. The introductory materials — essays by Brian Walker and Bruce Canwell, associate editor of the IDW series —  are happily laden with information and delightful visual extras: photograph stills from the Bringing Up Father movies in the late 1940s; the Sunday strip for Sept. 1, 1940 in which Jiggs visits his creator, George McManus; a great self-caricature of McManus’ long-time assistant Zeke Zekley; a “Prologue” of McManus’ celebrated “Remember When” strips in which Jiggs reminisces about his and Maggie’s childhoods.

Walker’s essay, as is typical of his work, is packed with information: every sentence jammed with facts. He settles the elusive question of McManus’ birth date by consulting the Register of Birth records in St. Louis, where McManus was born on Jan. 23, 1882. And he puts this legendary Jiggs and Maggie tour in historical context by pointing out that other comic-strip cartoonists had taken their characters on extensive travels. The Yellow Kid and Happy Hooligan, for instance, and Mutt and Jeff. And when the strip made its debut in Ireland in Dublin’s Freeman’s Journal, “a joyful song was heard in the music halls,” Walker says, and quotes the song:

Oh Paddy, dear, an’ did you hear
The news that’s goin’ roun’
That Jiggs and Mag and Dinty, too
Are comin’ to our town.

Delightful. Cranwell’s effort is a somewhat breezier treatment but no less informative. Relying quite a bit on the 3-part Collier’s article in 1952 and on Cecil Jenson’s 2003 interview with Zekley, Cranwell provides glimpses of life in the McManus-Zekley studio. The book performs a long-overdue service to historical truth and accuracy: In the bibliographic indicia, it credits the artwork equally to both McManus and Zekley. Zekley’s assistance on the strip undoubtedly permitted and fostered the elaborate detail that distinguished (in every sense of the term) the strip’s drawings. And Zeke’s mimicry of McManus’ manner was flawless: By the end of the 1930s, neither Zekley nor McManus could tell with perfect confidence who had drawn what in the strip. That King Features froze Zeke out after McManus died and gave the strip to someone else far less able is one of the crimes in syndication history.

The best part of the wholly excellent IDW book is the strips, their exquisite reproduction. And the strips from this period, 1939-40, without question display the McManus-Zekley artistic panache that made Bringing Up Father visually a strip without peer. In the book’s Preface, IDW’s editorial and creative director Dean Mullaney explains that they deliberately chose to skip the strip’s early years in order to present the very best of Bringing Up Father: “In this volume is a stand-alone, chronological sequence that is generally considered the pinnacle of the strip. Jiggs and Maggie’s trek across the continent is often ranked on all-time Top Ten lists by comic-strip historians, and it is my personal favorite from George McManus’s storied career. After 25 years of working on the strip, McManus is at the height of his talents — the gags are mature and brilliant, while the art shows McManus and his assistant Zeke Zekley at their most confident and detailed.”

The work of drawing the tour was prodigious — representing local landmarks and historic vistas with sufficient accuracy to convince readers, particularly those in the places being depicted, of the authenticity of the tour. McManus had been summoned into the Hearst Presence to consult about having Jiggs’ daughter get married to an Englishman who’d wandered into the strip. They decided to acquaint the Englishman with the United States by taking him on a tour of the country in the strip. It was a great publicity stunt because they deliberately stopped in all the major cities where papers carried the strip. Zeke did extensive research, finding distinctive landmarks in every city that could be depicted in the strip. One of the storied sites was Times Square in New York — rendered on a Sunday page that demanded the inclusion of hundreds of telling visual details.

“It was a huge panoramic scene,” Zeke remembered. “Broadway north of 42nd Street. And it took forever to complete. We’d work on it a little at a time, doing bits and pieces on it for several weeks, referring all time to photographs. Well, when we sent that one in, we thought we’d hear something. And the only thing we heard was that the Claridge Hotel had been torn down—” he laughed “—and I’d put it in. I didn’t identify it as the Claridge, but people wrote in to say the Claridge Hotel had been torn down. That was the only thing we heard.”

The IDW volume is not the only reprinting of McManus’ famed strip. The first year of Bringing Up Father was reprinted in a volume of that title by Hyperion Press in 1977, with a useful Introduction by Bill Blackbeard. A more valuable historical tome in NBM’s Classic Screwball Strips series, George McManus’s Bringing Up Father (2009), reprints the first two crucial years, with a Foreword by Blackbeard and an Introduction by Yrs Trly, plus copious explanatory footnotes by Allan Holtz — altogether, an excellent glimpse of comic-strip history. A sampling of Sunday pages in color can be found in Jiggs Is Back (1986), and a representative selection from the entire run of the strip (albeit with an emphasis on the vintage years of the 1930s and 1940s) is contained, albeit badly reproduced, in Bringing Up Father by George MacManus (1973; edited by Herb Galewitz). Of the lot, however, the IDW volume at hand is the best.

As a look at a few samples culled from the IDW book will demonstrate, McManus’ strip has no equal in the felicity of its rendering. The line of unvarying thickness is nearly lifeless, but every panel of the strip is vibrant with visual life — endless details in background and foreground, contrasting solid black shapes, the filigree of furnishings and equipage, patterns and textures and intricate designs. And the crowd scenes — mobs, teeming multitudes, every face and shape unique, none repeated, seemingly, ever. The McManus-Zekley oeuvre of this period is a ringing declaration of the art of  comics — the art of drawing for a narrative purpose but also the sheer visual mastery on display. Winsor McCay approached this standard with Little Nemo, but not even McCay would match the endless invention manifest in the pictorial orchestrations of Bringing Up Father, day after day, Sunday after Sunday. Unique. We do not see anything like this again in comic-strip history; and we have only hints, intimations, of this sort of excellence before in McCay. Do not miss it.

All images by George McManus.

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2 Responses to “Bringing Up Father: From Sea to Shining Sea

  1. bcanwell says:

    Hi, Mr. Harvey —

    Thanks for the glowing review of BRINGING UP FATHER: FROM SEA TO SHINING SEA. Just for the record:

    [A] While Brian and I certainly did use the three-part COLLIER’S series on McManus as part of our research, my piece is built as much or more on literally scores of newspaper articles and public records, as well as interviews with Zeke Zekley’s relatives and Zekley fan Chris Jenson, who had invaluable insights to share.

    [B] To avoid any confusion, my last name is spelled C-A-N-W-E-L-L (no “R”).

    Again, many thanks for your kind words —

    — Bruce Canwell