The American Comic Art
of George McManus
It is true that the national news newspapers like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today do not carry them, but most American daily and Sunday newspapers contain comics. Since the turn of the century when Americans first encountered newspaper comics, readers have delighted in the daily adventures of their favorite characters.
Comics are basically of two types: strips and panels. As the name implies, a strip is a series of panels in which a story or narrative is developed. Daily strips normally have three or four small panels; Sunday strips often run to six slightly larger panels. The multi-panel strip allows the cartoonist to develop both the characters and the humorous situation in which they are placed. Strips today are both smaller, in dimension, and shorter than they used to be. During the postcard age, Sunday strips often ran to 12 panels.
A panel is a single frame, such as in today’s popular comics The Far Side, Family Circus, Ziggy, or Heathcliff. Because the cartoonist cannot develop a comic story in a single picture, the comic art of the panel lies primarily in what is said, either by the characters or as a caption. Many panels depend on a joke, a pun, or an absurdly funny or clever remark.
Because postcards are small, they lend themselves to pane rather than strip humor. For example, although comic characters such as Garfield and Cathy appear on postcards, those cards do not reproduce or imitate the strips. More typically the character is portrayed in a humorous position to which is added a simple greeting line like “happy birth day,” “missing you,” “why don’t you write?” The traditional strip art, where the humor is developed through a story or situation, is rarely shown on a postcard. The two most significant modern comic narrative strips, Doonesbury and Bloom County are not, to my knowledge, represented on any postcard.
Panel art does however reproduce nicely on postcards. Panel comics by cartoonists such as Ken Brown or Gary Larson (The Far Side) are well represented on postcards, although the types of humor they represent do not appeal to everyone.
Perhaps because of this essential difference between strip and panel art, the great tradition of American comic art is not represented as thoroughly on postcards as we might imagine. The great comic strip characters are confine to single panels, limiting their comic potential. So even though classic American comic strip characters are reproduced on postcards — such as those produced as Sunday supplements for the Hearst newspapers — the cards are rarely as funny (or as complex) as the strips from which the characters were taken.
Still, the American comic art tradition is a rich and fascinating one and one that reveals a unique set of American concerns and values. One of the comic artists was George McManus who created Bringing Up Father, which is one of the great narrative strips that dominated the “funnies” for nearly three generations.
George McManus, the son of Irish immigrants George and Katherine Kenrick McManus, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1882, ‘83, or ‘84 (he claimed that no family records survived to date his birth). His father managed the Grand Opera House in St. Louis. George’s newspaper career began while he was still in high school when he was hired as an errand boy in the art department of the St. Louis Republic.
Newspapers at the turn of the century relied on artists’ sketches rather than photographs and McManus quickly established his artistic skills. He worked as well as a fashion illustrator for the newspaper, an interest that survived in his well-dressed comic strip women. His first strip, done in 1900, was Alma and Oliver, an effort that McManus later denounced.
Thanks to a $3,000 payoff at the races in 1904, McManus was able to travel to New York City to look for work. He was hired by the art department of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World where he worked as both a news illustrator and a cartoon artist. He produced several short-lived strips including Panhandle Pete, Snoozer, The Merry Marcelene, Ready Money Ladies, Spare Ribs and Gravy, and Let George Do It. His first cartoon success was The Newlyweds and Their Baby — the baby being, of course, Snookums.
In 1912 William Randolph Hearst, owner of the New York American and the King Feature Syndicate, hired McManus away from Pulitzer’s paper. For his new employer, McManus created his most famous and successful strip, Bringing Up Father. Two other McManus strips appeared in the Sunday comics, Rosie’s Beau and its successor Snookums, featuring the exploits of America’s most popular baby.
Bringing Up Father …
became a daily feature in 1913. It was based in part upon a play, The Rising Generation, McManus had seen at the opera house his father managed. In the play, a short, red-haired Irishman longs to escape from his recent good fortune and his socially ambitious family by playing poker with his old friends.
In the comic strip, Jiggs, a former hod carrier, has suddenly and inexplicably risen to wealth and high society. Although Jiggs is hardly enthusiastic about his good fortune, his wife Maggie loves her new wealth and position. Jiggs wears the clothes of the wealthy (top hat, tails, and spats), but steals off whenever possible to Dinty Moore’s tavern for corned beef, cabbage, cards, and beer with his old friends, only to be chased out by his rolling-pin wielding wife.
The chinless social-climbing Maggie is always beautifully dressed, a reflection of McManus’s early days as a fashion illustrator. Their stunning daughter Nora, Maggie’s dumb brother Mallethead, and their little dog Fifi round out Maggie’s and Jigg’s world.
At the height of its popularity, Bringing Up Father was translated into 27 languages and appeared in over 750 newspapers. Not everywhere did Jiggs long for his corned beef and cabbage, for example, in England, it was tripe and onions; in Japan, rice and fish; and in Mexico, tortillas and tamales.
Like some other hugely successful comic strips, Bringing Up Father spawned an entire industry. McManus himself took to the vaudeville stage to draw Maggie and Jiggs for appreciative audiences. At least 11 books of the cartoons were published between 1919 and 1927, as well as an assortment of Maggie and Jiggs collectibles, including plates, ashtrays, fans, playing cards, buttons, jewelry, and even clothes. Touring companies, as many as half a dozen at a time, brought the Bringing Up Father adventures to local stages across America for a decade. One production, a musical comedy in two acts and five scenes, opened in New York City in 1925.
Predictably, the strip formed the basis for a forgettable series of films produced by Barney Gerard including Bringing Up Father (1936), Jiggs and Maggie in Society (1947), Jiggs and Maggie in Court (1948), Jiggs and Maggie in Jackpot Jitters (1949), and Jiggs and Maggie Out West (1950).
By the 1950s McManus estimated that the strip and its licensed spinoffs had grossed $12 million. New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia presided over the 25th anniversary of the strip at a corned beef and cabbage party at City Hall. In 1945, a thousand fans of the strip attended a banquet at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York and President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed McManus “a national institution … [who] has made the world a more genial place to live in.”
Jiggs was often seen as an autobiographical creation, in fact, there was a remarkable physical resemblance. Both were short, heavy-set men with similar facial characteristics and they both loved cigars. McManus noted, however, “I am not Jiggs. Maggie is not my wife. I have no daughter.” Actually, McManus’s wife, Florence Bergere, served as the model not for Maggie, but for their beautiful daughter Nora. The couple had no children.
McManus died of hepatitis on October 22, 1954, in Santa Monica, California, at the age of 70. He had been ill for a number of years and toward the end of his life the strip was drawn by a series of assistants. He is buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City.
McManus’s comic art is found on nine known postcards, all of which are quite spectacular. The earliest is a pro-labor union issue featuring Baby Snookums from the strip The Newlyweds. This divided-back, color card poses a series of questions. Snookums’ bathtub carries the union label of the Allied Printing Trades Council of New York City and the seal of the IPEU — the International Photo-Engravers Union (“a mark of perfection on photo-engravings”). Presumably the card, like the New York World in which the comic character appeared, was printed by Union printers and issued to promote their work. In the upper-right hand corner of the card is the phrase “Compliments of the N.Y. World.” Pulitzer, owner of the World, was a labor supporter and apparently either printed the card or allowed the copyrighted figure to be used. It is also possible that the card supports union printing of postcards since the card, like the comics, is an example of American union printing. Either way, it is a stunning and classic American card.
Jiggs also appears on two advertising postcards for New York City hotels. The more common is a vertical card for the Lexington Hotel, Lexington Avenue at 48th Street. A monocled man sitting in a chair remarks, “By Jove, I like the Lexington Hotel because it is just like home!” and Jiggs replies, “By Golly, I like it because it isn’t a bit like home.” The colorful artwork, signed by McManus “to my friend, J. Leslie Kincaid [president of the hotel], is dated 1930 in the lower right-hand corner. The Lexington is still in business as a Marriott Hotel.
The second and rarer card, pictured above, is also an advertising issue for the Hotel McAlpin, Broadway at 34th. Once the largest hotel in the city, the McAlpin was converted in the 1970s into apartments and then condominiums. Gone are the days when a double room was $4 and a steak dinner in the restaurant was $2.50