Endings & McManus Notebook
by Jeet Heer
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
This is the end
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:
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Labels: George McManus