The image on the cover to George McManus's Bringing Up Father (NBM) is a familiar one to readers of the long-running newspaper comic strip. In it, our title hero is being conked on the head by a rolling pin, an image that cartoonist used to cap many a gag in his forty years drawing the popular strip. Yet in the new hardcover collection covering the strip' first two years from 1913-14, the reader will look long and hard for any well-aimed kitchen utensils. Though hero Jiggs gets bruised and battered more than once, it's more from his predilection for getting into Popeye-styled fracases than any domestic disputes.
The story of an amiable working class mug and his ambitious wife—who suddenly find themselves catapulted into the moneyed class—"Bringing Up Father" captures an America in the throes of class and social assimilation. Hero Jiggs (sometimes spelled "Giggs" in these early strips) and his wife Maggie come from Irish-American stock, and while the latter wants to cast off all trace of that humble background, Jiggs continues to embrace it. While Maggie attempts to pull her reluctant husband up through the more rarefied upper crust, Jiggs defiantly sneaks out for a bucket of beer and a plate of corn beef and cabbage with his cronies, half of who appear to be named "Dinty."
This conflict, between honest proletarian living and bourgeois aspiration, is what fuels the strip, but no consideration of McManus's creation is complete without considering the sexual division in it, too. Though we're shown that Jiggs and Maggie have two adult children in the strip's entry, fact is that son Ethelbert (note the feminized name) rarely appears in the strip. Instead, it's Maggie and her incongruously lovely daughter Nora (called "Katy" in the early strip) who gang up on dad, pushing him to behave "appropriately." In this, they're doomed to fail, of course: Jiggs is too satisfied as himself to want to follow the fickle fashions of the nouveau riche. He yam what he yam.
Thus, a lot of the entries in the strip's first two years follow the same basic formula: Maggie, anticipating the appearance of a group of stuffed shirts, tells Jiggs that he must be on his best behavior; Jiggs—whether innocently or passively aggressively—foils this request by doing something innocuously "offensive" like appearing in front of company in his undershirt, smoking a pipe or getting caught carrying a bucket of beer into the house. Maggie reacts with a "horrors!" (she's not yet at the rolling pin throwing stage in their marriage, remember), while all the rest of the stuffed shirts look suitably dismayed. Repetitious, yes, though it should be noted that McManus wasn't yet producing these strips on a daily basis, rather alternating them with several other ongoing features, so they might not have appeared as redundant to the regular newspaper reader.
Still, when McManus takes Jiggs, Maggie and daughter (no trace of the invisible son) on an extended trip to Europe, we're grateful for the change in scenery and the amusing Innocents Abroad storyline. Just as intriguingly, when the threesome return to the states, McManus devotes a series of gag strips to the growing news of war in Europe. Though Jiggs tries to avoid getting caught up in the news, he's unable to do so. In this, he could stand in for much of 1914 America.
If "Bringing Up Father" has its formulaic elements, they were well overcome by McManus's art, with its elegant line work, and sharp sense of contemporary fashion and furnishings. One of the early comic strip era's most accomplished comics draftsmen, McManus captures his era with wit and assuredness. The strips are a joy to look at (especially the Europe entries) even if you don't bother reading the word balloons.
Bringing Up Father is the third in a series of early comic strip collections being released by NBM as the "Forever Nuts" (first two in the series: Early Years of Mutt & Jeff and Happy Hooligan). The reproduction is strong, though I spotted one strip where part of the hand lettering had to be replaced by mechanically produced letters, while the art is crisp. McManus's beautifully spotted blacks are particularly well-served: when Jiggs goes out in his suit coat, it needs to be richly black.
As an aid to those readers who may not catch the strip's occasional era-specific references, the book includes an appendix of annotations by comic historian Allan Holtz. The asterisks aiming the reader to these annotations could be more immediately accessible to the reader, but this is a small grouse. I found myself going through the appendix after I finished my first reading of the book and looking back to the references they explicate. In many cases, these notes were necessary—I knew from The Untouchables about the practice of bringing beer home in a bucket—but they did occasionally illuminate a gag, as when Jiggs busts up what he thinks is a collapsible top hat.
As a prime example of early American strip work, "Bringing Up Father" is not a comic for those who might be bothered by its sexist parameters and occasional ethnic caricatures. (Though they're not in a lot of strips, the occasional big-lipped darkie servant does appear in the first two years.) McManus himself was of Irish-American descent, so his take on his beer-swilling lug of a hero was anything but critical. If anything, Jiggs' fight to stay his illiterate, fun-loving self has a comic nobility to it—one that McManus fruitfully and successfully mined for decades.