Edited by Jeffrey Lindenblatt
Foreword by Bill Blackbeard
Introduction by R.C. Harvey
Annotations and Restorations by Allan Holtz
NBM, 2009, 11 x 8 hardcover, 192 pages, $24.95
First things first: as you can see in the credits above, I’m not a completely impartial reviewer when it comes to this book.
Bringing Up Father is probably my favorite comic strip of all time, so when NBM decided to reprint the first two years of the strip I was delighted to be a part of it. There was, as most of you know, a prior reprint effort of some of this material. In the 1970s, as part of their Classic American Comic Strips series, Hyperion did a Bringing Up Father book that covered some of this same ground. But there were three problems with it; the reproduction in the book was just awful (the material was printed just as it came off the old dilapidated tearsheets, warts and all), the strips were printed so small that McManus’ chicken-scratchy sloppy lettering was sometimes illegible, and quite a few strips were missing and others misplaced in the strip’s continuity.
The first problem was solved in this book with the application of over 300 hours of restoration work by yours truly. Some reviewers have commented that some amazing pristine source must have been found to get the strips looking so great. That’s a comment I cherish because it speaks well of my work, but the assumption is incorrect. All but about a half-dozen of the strips reprinted are from browned, flaky, often badly-printed and misprinted newspaper tearsheets. The remaining few were — ugh — from microfilm, a REALLY big challenge of restoration.
The size problem was improved by printing the strips about 15% larger than in the Hyperion book. While I would have liked larger, it’s amazing what an improvement this small increase has made. The strips are all quite legible now (in part because I restored the lettering as well as the art).
The problem of missing and out of sequence strips was solved by using Bringing Up Father‘s home paper, the New York American, as our benchmark. Hyperion worked off of Bill Blackbeard’s collection, which was a mix-up of San Francisco and other papers. That led to pretty major omissions and continuity mix-ups. The strips in the new book are all in sequence, not a single one missing, and each is dated based on its original appearance in its home paper.
Besides doing the restorations, NBM allowed me to do something that I think should be a standard feature in all classic strip reprint books. I wrote annotations for many of the strip episodes explaining the references which are likely to be opaque to today’s readers. And it’s not dry history lessons — I talk about such things as pop songs of the day, the curious origin of collapsible tophats, the allure of French postcards, and so on. The idea is to bring these strips and their very dated cultural references back to life for the modern reader, and if the reviews I’ve read are any indication it has worked quite well.
By the way, I wrote so many annotations that NBM couldn’t fit them all into the book! You’ll find a link to an expanded version of the annotations on NBM’s website. The good news is that my annotations were cut back so that the book had room to print the BUF strips all the way to the end of 1914 (Hyperion’s stops in July 1914) so you get in total over 100 strips never before reprinted.
Of course the real question is whether the strip is entertaining. While we all enjoy McManus’ work in the ‘classic’ period of the 1930s and 40s, his work in 1913-14 is rougher around the edges. His amazing clean lines are already there, though, and his humor is fully developed (after all, he was already a veteran stripper at this point). What I find particularly interesting is the contrast between the 1913-14 Jiggs personality and its later counterpart. The 1940s Jiggs, despite his protests to the contrary, is a subdued, domesticated homebody. The early Jiggs is a rough-and-tumble troglodyte, a gambler, a womanizer, a fighter, either drunk or trying his best to get to that state. In short, he’s a more entertaining character in his raw state than once Maggie had a score or so years to wear him down. By the 1940s Jiggs had grown into a bit of a sarcastic old sourpuss, while in 1913 he is unadulterated, full of life and revelling in his own crudity. I re-read the BUF strips of 1939-40 shortly after working on this book. I can honestly say that if it were not for the transcendent art of the later strip I’d choose the material of the 1910s over the later stuff hands-down.