Endings & McManus Notebook


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

George McManus' Nisby the Newsboy, a Little Nemo parody

This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend, the end
Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
I’ll never look into your eyes…again

— Jim Morrison (beloved bard of teenagers everywhere)

I’ve been thinking a lot about endings lately, for reasons that cannot be elaborated on at this time. The end of Borders. The end of Comic Relief. The end of collective bargaining. The possible end of the world through ecological catastrophe. Our libraries (themselves an endangered institution) are filled with books that prophesize the end of something or other, the end of ideology, the end of history, the end of art, the end of nature. There’s even a book out there called The End of Everything.

Philosophy offers some consolation. Every ending is also a beginning. As Darwin himself recognized, without death there would be no evolution (immortal species would have no need to change and adapt). Life is water, not stone. Metamorphosis and adaptation are the essence of existence. So even as familiar institutions and forms die, they will be reborn in some form or other.

In this twilight moment, I thought it might be useful to go back to the beginning of newspaper comics (also a form on the verge of extinction). Over the last few days, thanks to the good offices of Jonathan Barli and the Rosebud Archives, I’ve been reading the comics George McManus did for the New York World in 1905 and 1906. A few notes:

Panhandle Pete: an elegant tramp

Elegantly Grotesque. In a nutshell phrase McManus’ art was elegantly grotesque. His people often look like gargoyles or escapees from a particularly scuzzy carnival but McManus’ linework is always precise and sharp: everything is demarcated with a startling clarity. In a very real sense McManus was the forefather of Herge, Joost Swarte, Charles Burns and the whole tradition of the imposingly and impossibly exact clear line.

Beauty and the Beasts. Most of McManus’ characters have vaguely simian features but he makes an exception for beautiful young women, who all look like extras from Charles Dana Gibson’s glamour illustrations. In his early domestic strip The Newlyweds, the husband is a chinless monstrosity while the wife is idealized dream girl. This stylistic mishmash of juxtaposing realistically illustrated women with grotesque men and older women actually became a tradition. It was carried on by Sterrett in Polly and Her Pals (where Polly is always glamorously bland while everyone else is comically squat and bug-eyed). As Art Spiegelman once noted, “Polly seems to exist as a mere 2-D walk-on, shown only in left or right profile with a baby-doll pout and a quick-change high-fashion wardrobe.” This way of drawing glamorous cartoon women, as 2-D walk-ons, was McManus legacy, for better or worse.

McManus' The Newlyweds -- June 18, 1905. Beauty and the Beast.

Another example of the contrast between beauty and the grotesque.

Polly and Her Pals, 1924. Strerrett learns from McManus.

The placement of word balloons. Here’s an odd thing about McManus: his word balloons are done very clearly, unlike his contemporary McCay. But often they seem out of sequence, as if McManus didn’t understand that English readers read from left to right. Two examples.

Panhandle Pete. Are the word balloons correctly sequenced?

From Panhandle Pete, January 1, 1905.

Panhandle Pete: “T’anks! It’s a good scheme.”

Man: “I have resolved to turn over a new leaf this year and help the needy.”

Again, the word baloons are awkwardly sequenced. Lovely bricks, though.

From Panhandle Pete on Jan. 15, 1905.

Panhandle Pete: “T’anks, Lady! If ye wants any more shoestring, lemme know.”

Lady: “here is a dollar to reward you. I don’t know know what I should have done without your help.”

In both cases the second word balloon should have been placed either to the left of the first one or somehow been shown to be prior to the first one. This is an elementary fact of comics that any novice cartoonist in 2011 knows, but McManus wasn’t aware of it. This tendency exists in a few other pioneering cartoonists but McManus really suffers from it. Part of the issue is that McManus was visualizing the comic strip panel as a stage (probably a vaudeville stage). So he wanted to keep the characters in roughly the same spot from panel to panel, whether that makes sense for the dialogue or not.

Bricks. In a recent interview, Gerhard said:Church and State page 282. Booba’s at the desk writing and there’s all these horrible bricks in the background. [Laughter.] But again, I was learning on the job. I remember saying to Dave at this point, ‘I’m drawing individual bricks. What I have to draw is a wall.’ Learn how to draw a wall instead of a bunch of bricks.

McManus drew lovely walls. Gerhard and others should study them.

Gays in the comics. In his great Little Nemo spoof Nisby the Newsboy in Funny Fairyland, the lead character meets a roughneck fairy in ballet-gear who says, “I am a real fairy.” Is it too much to see a gay reference here.

A real fairy? Notice the bricks.

Race. McManus’ tendency towards exaggeration and grotesquery went into overkill when he drew African-Americans and Africans. In a 1906 sequence where Panhandle Pete goes to Africa, the apes and native Africans are virtual indistinguishable. As Bill Blackbeard noted, “McManus’ native blacks probably represent the extreme of comic page racism: he represents them as being hatched from eggs!” Interestingly, the other simian-ized race is McManus’ own ethnic group: Irish Americans are constantly shown to be not-very-developed primates, something I’ve written about before. So perhaps McManus’ racism was tinged with some degree of self-hatred. Certainly there is something going on with his tendency to caricature himself in his own work, and to turn himself into a living caricature. In photos we have of him, McManus is the spitting image of his most famous creation, the Irish-American lout Jiggs.

Panhandle Pete in Africa meets an ape.











McManus' Africans. Note the resemblance to the ape in the panel shown above.












Ranking McManus. All in all, McManus for me is a third rank newspaper cartoonist. That sounds more extreme than it is. Let me explain. In the first rank are a handful of unquestionable geniuses: McCay, Herriman, King, Schulz, a few others. In the second rank are the great storytellers who told great yarns and whose characters were memorable: Harold Gray, Chester Gould, Roy Crane and other such figures. In the third rank are the very talented visual artists who have great technical skills but whose characters never really come to full life: Hal Foster, Alex Raymond, George McManus. Visually, McManus is hugely important. Among early cartoonists, he’s the only one who come close to having the sheer draughtsmanship and architectural imagination of McCay. But there was something just a little bit lacking in McManus’ writing. His characters are hilarious to look at but his stories are always contrived, his jokes forced. Humor always comes from some bright idea of the cartoonist rather than any organic propensity of his characters. His drawings were much better than Segars, but Popeye, Wimpy and Olive Oyl remain alive in our minds in a way that nothing McManus ever did does.

Reprints. McManus’ Bringing Up Father work has been recently reprinted here and here.


12 Responses to “Endings & McManus Notebook”
  1. Kevin Moore says:

    It’s a shame about the African stereotyping, which few cartoonists had the sense to avoid back then. In fact, I can’t think of anyone. Maybe Herriman. Anyway, the greater shame is the racism. The much lesser shame: that is one awesome looking ape. As character design, I admire it. I just wish it was not visually linked to his portrayal of Africans.

    I should add that there are cartoonists alive and practicing today who seem to think portraying people of African descent as apes is still kosher. At least there were a raft of them following Obama’s inauguration. And I’m not counting the Tea Party signs.

  2. Jeet Heer says:

    Yeah, McManus had a great sense of character design, one of his strongest suits as a cartoonist.

  3. patrick ford says:

    Jeet, You mean you invade the comment threads at Big Hollywood all the time to try and turn every thread into a pointless exercise in stamina?

    Jeet has included a very interesting letter to Roy Crane in the first volume of the Fantagraphics Buz Sawyer volume where Crane is advised by syndicate editor Ward Greene
    to show greater care in the way he depicts blacks using the commonly accepted caricature of the era.
    George Herriman who was part balck used the even more outrageous cartoon shorthand of the early 1900’s when depicting blacks that McManus used, and McCay’s images may have been the most offensive of all.
    The best send-up on racist black caricature which has ever been done is Robert Crumb’s satiric Anglefood McSpade character.
    Jack Kirby was asked why he’d created the Black Panther and said, “It was because I was ashamed, I realized I hadn’t created any black heroes.”
    There after Kirby created a large number of characters, making a very obvious effort to populate his comics with black heroes. I’d be very surprised if any comic book creator has created more black heroes than Kirby. He also made great use of the Falcon character in the 70’s Captain America stories.

  4. Rob Clough says:

    I agree with you on McManus–both in the excellence of his line and the tedium of his jokes, especially in the early years. I do think he got funnier in later years with Bringing Up Father, but the early reprints are punishing in the way he recycled jokes, day-in and day-out. It’s the modern equivalent of a hacky comedian or trite sitcom, aimed at a lowest-common-denominator audience. It doesn’t necessarily make him a racist, but it does make him someone who frequently relied on cheap humor.

    Where do you rank Opper in the pantheon? I’m tempted to say first rank, given his long pre-strip career at places like Puck and then the startling work he did on Happy Hooligan. While one could argue that it was also a lowest-common-denominator strip, the intricacy of his plots and the solidity of his character archetypes raised it a level above hackery in my view. He was also a direct influence on Milt Gross, who was a direct influence on Elder & Kurtzman–and you know where that leads.

  5. Jeet Heer says:

    @rob clough. I think Opper was 1) much funnier than McManus and 2) perhaps even more important I think Opper understood the language of comics earlier than others (including McCay and McManus). Fairly early on Opper figured out how to get a a comic flowing from panel to panel. Opper was a crucial figure, very underrated.

  6. patrick ford says:

    It’s been reported:
    “An informal poll of cartoonists taken in the early 1930s named Frederick Burr Opper the funniest man who ever worked for the American press.”

  7. Rob Clough says:

    What amazes me about Opper is that he was a first-rank cartoonist who completely switched gears at around the age of 40 to develop Happy Hooligan. I’m not sure I can think of a modern equivalent; maybe David Mazzuchelli? Mazzuchelli was younger when he switched from mainstream comics to alt-comics and didn’t have nearly the same level of influence as Opper, though.

  8. Briany Najar says:

    Happy Hooligan had those 3 “nephews” that would share an utterance, as in:
    “How did youse-”
    “-get so-”
    “-wet, uncle Happy?”
    This motif was continued in Donald Duck and, even later, in Fat Freddy’s Cat.
    I wonder where it came from, was Opper the originator?

    And, just to keep one foot on-topic, McManus’ fellas look a lot like H Hooligan, don’t they?

  9. Jeet Heer says:

    Yeah, McManus’ Panhandle Pete was clearly influenced by Happy Hooligan. And Donald’s nephews but Happy Hooligan’s nephews. It’s hard for us to appreciate the impact Opper had — he’s sort of been left behind in the mists of time.

  10. Robert Boyd says:

    It may be that Opper is not as well-regarded as he should be because his comic strip was so repetitive. I have NBM’s Happy Hooligan book, and I have to say it was a chore to read.

    I think Jeet is ultimately correct in saying that the top rank of cartonists created characters who were alive and memorable, who went beyond having a character trait or two that distinguished them. This is once of McManus’s failings, I think. (That said, I revere his art and his strip design.)

  11. Rob Clough says:

    I realize the Opper NBM book wasn’t complete, but I was actually impressed by the way Opper subtly altered the premise and make-up of his strip over the years. It seemed far less repetitive than McManus, even with a far more limited premise. Opper of course also brought the phrase “Gloomy Gus” into the lexicon, a term that far outlived the lifespan of the strip.-

    • patrick ford says:

      I’ve got a good sized run of early 30’s Hooligan and think it’s pure pleasure to read.
      Variations on a theme work very well for me, and were common in comics.
      It’s actually an excellent test for the creativity of an artist; just look at Herriman.

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