Jun 24, 2015

Beefcake and bonding in "Bringing Up Father"

When I was a kid, all of the good comic strips -- Peanuts, the Wizard of Id, Doonesbury -- were  in the Moline Dispatch.  In Rock Island, all we got were bargain-basement knockoffs and doddering relics last popular before the invention of radio: Out Our Way, Our Boarding-house with Major Hoople, Barney Google and Snuffy Smith.  They were unfunny, incomprehensible, and downright disturbing.  And the most disturbing of the lot was Bringing Up Father by George McManus, which got its start in 1913!

It starred Jiggs, no first name, an elderly, pudgy person, and his wife Maggie.  They both had pug-dog noses and scary, pupil-less eyes and used dashes instead of periods to end their sentences  -- see how bizarre that looks -- it's just wrong --

They had a daughter, drawn as a 1920s glamour girl, who didn't have a name -- her parents called her "Daughter."

Other male characters were drawn as beady-eyed scarecrows, and the women were all glamour girls.

Jiggs and Maggie were noveau-riche. Jiggs longed to return to the old neighborhood, to have working-class corned beef and cabbage at Dinty Moore's diner.  But Maggie doted on her newfound status.  She kept going to teas, receptions, operas, and dinners with people whose names were horrible puns.

When Jiggs got out of line, Maggie unlashed a torrent of abuse, calling him an "insect" and a "worm," and assaulting him with pots and pans and a rolling pin from the kitchen.

Obviously a critique of the myth of the heterosexual nuclear family as most evolved, most stable, most normal of all family types.

For some crazy reason, toy producers in the 1920s thought that kids loved the stories about Jiggs trying to sneak out of the house to drink with Dinty Moore. They produced toys of all types, including dolls, cutouts, and Big Little Books.

There were dozens of movie adaptions and comedy shorts, beginning in 1915.  In 1928, Daughter (named Ellen) got a boyfriend played by Grant Withers (top photo). The last film appearance of Maggie and Jiggs was in the The Man Who Hated Laughter, a 1972 installment of the Saturday Superstar Movie, based on yet another ludicrous belief that the ancient strip attracted child readers. 

By the 1960s, the writers were throwing in contemporary references -- or at least references that were only about 10 years out of date, like this beatnik from 1968.

Anachronisms that merely added to the discomfort.

Recently I bought From Sea to Shining Sea, a compendium of strips from 1939-1940 written primarily by McManus's assistant, Zeke Zekley.  It featured a continuity in which Daughter marries a British nobleman, Lord Worthnotting.  The family celebrates by taking them an extended cross-country honeymoon.

Wherever they visit, Maggie and Daughter go shopping, leaving Jiggs and Lord Worthnotting to go skiing, hiking, camping, and sightseeing on their own.

Before the continuity is over (and Lord Worthnotting vanishes from the strip), the two have buddy-bonded so extensively that one could almost mistake them for the newlywed couple.

Apparently Zeke Zekley knew something that McManus didn't.

When McManus died in 1954, Zekley was in line to take over the strip, but the syndicate gave the job to Vernon Green instead, who returned to the nuclear-family-foibles.

Zekley went on to draw his own strips, including those used in The Tab Hunter Show (1960-1961), with the gay beefcake actor playing a horny "bachelor cartoonist."

He died in 2005.

See also: The ABC Saturday Superstar Movie

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