Sunday, August 16, 2009

Treasure Troves: Bringing Up Father and Happy Hooligan

Rob reviews the NBM "Forever Nuts" series reprints of two classic comic strip series from early in the 20th century: BRINGING UP FATHER, by George McManus; and HAPPY HOOLIGAN, by Frederick Opper.

If this decade is the golden age of comics reprints, it's only fitting that NBM (one of the oldest alt-comics publishers) should launch a series of reprints from the golden age of comic strips. With their Forever Nuts series, NBM is collecting "classic screwball strips", comics that would have a profound and lasting influence on the history of American comedy and pop culture in general. Frederick B. Opper's HAPPY HOOLIGAN was one of the earliest popular comic strips, evolving past 19th ideas of cartooning and creating formal ideas that would quickly become conventions. George McManus' BRINGING UP FATHER, which debuted a decade later, was one of the first modern strips, making a different sort of draftsmanship popular, one that would be the standard for comedic strips for fifty years. The design of both books is simple and unfussy in trying to present the strips in a fairly large format. BRINGING UP FATHER puts two strips on a page, whereas the Sunday-only HAPPY HOOLIGAN has one six-paneled strip per page. BRINGING UP FATHER also has a handy notes section, contextualizing the fashion, news and pop culture references that McManus threw into his strip.

The approaches NBM used for these comics was quite different in the collections. For BRINGING UP FATHER, they reprinted the first two years of the strip in their entirety. On the other hand, NBM printed a sampling of strips from 1902-1913 for HAPPY HOOLIGAN. From a historical standpoint, it's interesting to see the way that McManus slowly honed his craft, refining his storytelling and line over time. From a reader's standpoint, it made this collection a tough read on occasion. In part, that's because the strip had a simple premise that McManus did variations on over and over again: Jiggs was a common laborer who somehow struck it rich, but never wanted to abandon his old friends, food or drinking habits. His wife Maggie and daughter Nora, on the other hand, were inveterate social climbers who were constantly embarassed by his behavior. Jiggs inadvertently behaving badly spurred virtually every gag in the series; in later years, McManus would punch up the strip considerably by having Maggie react violently, throwing plates & rolling pins at him.

In later years, McManus would find ways to add a lot more variety to his settings and set-ups, making something funny happen or get stated in every panel rather than relying on his predictable punchlines. In the early years, McManus frequently recycled gags with little variation. There were also obviously days when deadlines for other strips led to some lazy storytelling decisions: no backgrounds, smudged & hurried lettering, awkward character placement, etc. Still, he could afford the occasional stumble due to the sturdiness of his class-clash premise and his masterful character design. Newspaper comic strips were aimed at the common working man, and so it was no surprise to see a strip mocking the mincing excesses of the upper classes become a huge hit.

When McManus took Jiggs' family on a European vacation, he opened up a new world of possibilities of gags and embarassing situations for him. The language barrier experienced in various countries fueled any number of gags, as did jokes like Jiggs being confused by the canals of Venice, repelled by lederhosen in Germany and baffled by the food in France. McManus was also able to build jokes around boat and train travel, often stretching them out for weeks. It was obvious that this nearly year-long trip abroad reinvigorated him as an artist, because some of his most beautiful and complex drawings came during this portion of the book. When McManus took the time to construct a fully-realized environment for Jiggs to bounce off of, that's when the strip really started to shine.

As the strip went on, McManus became more and more comfortable with his hero, varying his poses and gestures for the greatest comedic impact. The squatness of his character, with his gut thrusting forward and a slight stoop in his back as a result, made him funny-looking to begin with. It also gave the strip a certain propulsive quality, as a Jiggs who always looked like he was tipping forward was funny to watch move from panel to panel, drawing the reader's eye. McManus was a dutiful observer of popular trends in any number of areas, but most especially fashion. His women (including Maggie), were always adorned with the latest styles, giving his strip a certain verisimilitude to the readers of its time even as McManus was mocking fashion. Still, it wasn't until Maggie became a more worthy opponent for Jiggs that the strip truly became great. This volume was about laying out how the artist of one of the longest-running strips of all time got his start and providing a complete document of this process. At some point, I think it would be beneficial for readers to see a single greatest-hits volume of McManus' work, with material drawn from across a few decades.

This was roughly the approach used for HAPPY HOOLIGAN: a smattering of strips across time. As a reader, this approach really worked. Opper very quickly got a reader up to speed on what was happening and what might be coming up next in a story, and the variations on the strip's simple theme that were featured in this volume were quite clever. Simply put, Happy Hooligan was a hobo (wearing an iconic tomato can on his head) who tried to helpfully butt into other people's problems, only to make things much worse and draw punishment from everyone around him (especially the police). He was accompanied by his yellow-clad brother, Gloomy Gus, who first predicted doom and then usually made a point of somehow managing to profit from his brother's woes. Over this decade's worth of strips, Opper introduced their British brother Montmorency (who talked like a duke but dressed like a hobo), their three nephews who were more clones than brothers (and who obviously influenced Donald Duck's nephews), and characters from other Opper strips like Alphonse and Gaston (the ridiculously polite Frenchmen).

The difference between the two books is as much where the cartoonists themselves stood at that point in their careers. McManus was in his late 20s, coming into his own with his first big hit. This volume recorded his growing pains as he tried to keep his concept fresh and found him not always succeeding. On the other hand, Opper was 40 when he created Happy Hooligan and had been an enormously successful, popular and influential cartoonist for twenty years. He was one of the stalwarts of the legendary humor magazine Puck, where he worked in a finely detailed style after his cartooning idol, Thomas Nast. This was a cartoonist at the height of his powers who then embarked on a second act for his career as a newspaper comic strip pioneer. Indeed, Opper deliberately dumbed down his style to appeal to a wider audience, both in terms of the complexity of his line and his subject matter.

Even dumbed down, Opper proved repeatedly that he was a master. There's a fluidity in his strips that was often absent in the more illustrative early strips of the era. The panel-to-panel transitions, the way he drew action and violence, the way he layered gag on top of gag and the way he gave the reader something to look at in every panel was a direct progenitor of both classic animation and artists like Milt Gross, Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder and Al Jaffee (for starters). Opper's characters had a touch of the grotesque in their design, with googly eyes, odd postures, and crazily colored clothes. This collection also had the advantage of jumping forward in time and cutting some of the repetitiveness of the premise, as Opper kept adding characters and doing different variations on his theme. One of the funniest was Opper taking months to get his characters on a boat to Europe; they were prevented week after week from even getting on the boat--and it was a big event when they did.

It must be noted that neither strip was really meant to be read in collected form, and some of the repetitiveness of the strips was intentional to bring new readers up to speed quickly. As such, I wouldn't recommend reading either one of these volumes straight through. A week's worth of strips at a time is what I would recommend a day in order to keep the reading experience fresh. That said, Opper was more skilled at taking a simple premise and finding endless ways to come up with creative variations, like a blues guitarist working with three chords and still springing forth with memorable creations. For the casual fan of comics history, I might wait for future volumes of BRINGING UP FATHER to see McManus at his best, but every fan of gag cartooning in particular needs to read HAPPY HOOLIGAN.

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