Four-Colour Words returns from a Toronto International Film Festival–induced hiatus — if you can, catch up with Face and Trash Humpers, both of them brassy, unabashed image-making of the first rank — to examine a few important comics that have resurfaced lately. Newspaper pages have shrunk and pamphlets have retrenched to the point of insignificance during the years since these works were published. With slim-to-no chance of them reappearing in their original contexts, these comics have instead been scanned, compiled and stitched into book spines. What does it mean for them to revive now? In what new contexts do readers experience these strips thanks to this moment in publishing history? Read on, and we’ll discover the answers together.
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Bringing Up Father by George McManus (NBM Publishing)
Missouri-born cartoonist George McManus created his comic strip Bringing Up Father in 1912 and drew it until his death over forty years later. Like many early strips, its premise is uncomplicated: Maggie and Jiggs are new money; she scrabbles to gain higher ground in society, while he prefers the company of reg’lar fellers and the common comforts of their old life. The comic’s iconic images involve Jiggs, a grinning oaf in dickey and spats, sneaking away for a drink by some ingenious method, followed by Maggie, a horse-faced harridan, discovering his relapses and laying into him with a rolling pin or racks of fine china.
Reading through hundreds of these strips at once — some dashed off, many of them repetitive — reminds us that McManus was among the first cartoonists to confront the rigours of the newspaper schedule. In much the same way that Griffith and Sennett and Feuillade had to iron out efficient methods of telling stories in feature and serial films, he and his cohort (Bud Fisher, Sidney Smith) had to normalize a comics “language” that spoke intelligibly to a wide readership.
NBM’s reprint, which compiles the dailies from Bringing Up Father’s first two years — a bygone time when Maggie hurled more insults than objects — is one of three books in the publisher’s series Forever Nuts: Classic Screwball Strips. I haven’t read the others, but imagine they afford the same pleasures. First there’s the novelty of seeing old comedic “takes” played without the scare quotes: hats pop off heads in surprise, stars burst forth from banged-up brows, and exasperated folks flop flat on their backs. Next we sense the rhythms of daily life in a bygone era. Bringing Up Father reveals what the upwardly mobile wore, how they drank beer (warm, out of buckets), and how World War I affected the pattern of their daily lives.
McManus would go on to become one of his field’s finest draughtsmen, his linework so accomplished that framed pictures in the background of certain scenes acted out on their own. His early penmanship was spidery and pliable, although the presence and stillness that he imparted to figures in space was a constant throughout his career. The strips seen here are almost a century old, but still look as clean and crisp and classy as a fresh hundred-dollar bill — and seem just as ready to do hard (but happy) duty at the corner tavern.
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Melvin Monster Volume One by John Stanley (Drawn and Quarterly)
Like many big mid-century cartoonists — Kirby, Barks, Kurtzman — John Stanley’s comic books were so quintessentially comic booky that it’s strange to imagine them, and slightly odd to encounter them, in any other format. Melvin Monster Volume One, the first in a series of texts devoted to Stanley’s late career, compiles a mere three issues from his short run on the title, preserving the quick and compact experience of the original comics. (The next volume in the series, collecting some of Stanley’s work with Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy, has just arrived on stands.) Drawn and Quarterly’s repackaging also nudges the material into the more traditional territory of children’s picture books, where Stanley’s sensibilities seem perfectly at home.
As with some of Stanley’s other humour comics, Melvin Monster indulges in the sort of light-hearted fright-mongering that kids adore. The stories in this collection describe a rotund, green-skinned misfit who is terrible at being a monster. Melvin wants to go to school, hates playing with his pet alligator, and dares to call his elders “kind-looking,” much to the chagrin of his Mummy and Baddy. He fits in no better in the land of “human beans,” where his nicest qualities only throw humankind’s monstrous behaviour into ugly relief. All the while, Stanley relates Melvin’s adventures in his instantly identifiable fashion, filling them with misunderstandings, silly running jokes, and quick reversals of fortune scored with cries of “Yow!”
From Stanley’s career-defining work with the licenced Little Lulu character to “Jigger,” an odd little contribution to the new, eye-opening TOON Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics, the cartoonist’s tales move along with such pleasing economy that it sometimes seems less likely his stories were ever consciously created than that they already just existed somehow. Melvin Monster, one of the few titles to which he provided both art and script, urges us to reconsider his capability with images too.
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The Complete Jack Survives by Jerry Moriarty (Buenaventura Press)
This slim, almost inexhaustible book expands upon an earlier collection of strips that mainly ran in Raw magazine in the early 1980s. In palimpsests of muted and monochromatic strokes, or bursts of uncomplicated colour, Moriarty plays with surface and depth, with solid forms and what lies beneath them, in a way that replicates the realities of everyday life. His titular everyman exists, alternately passive and resistant, in the face of the mundane, impersonal malevolence that visits us all. Jack’s TV gets poor reception, cars knock over his trash, he wakes from a nap with “both arms asleep”: we’ve been there.
As much as we identify with Jack, we might admire him even more. He confronts tests and mysteries and hardships with no bitterness or resentment; there’s only a brief frisson of chagrin, followed by something resembling grace. “Jack is the better me,” Moriarty writes in one of his terse, revealing notes. “Jack is an average man wanting to be average.” (In reality, Jack has much of the artist’s father in him, which accounts for how fiercely personal this work can feel. A couple of canvases picturing Moriarty and Jack regarding each other, reprinted in the final pages here, are plain haunting.) Jack Survives is most lifelike not in its outward qualities, in how accurately it mimics what we see, but rather in Moriarty’s ability to convey the fleeting, hazy impressions that float beneath our perceptions. With its shadows of repeated actions and too-familiar locales haunted by memories of past visits, there’s so much to read into Jack Survives because Moriarty has painted all of our lives in there, somewhere behind that scribble or beneath that cloudy mass of ink.
Jack survives, sure enough — usually outfitted in fedora and tie, always looking vaguely like someone we either know or used to know — although it’s an open question whether his persistence reveals a triumph over struggle or the simple marking of time.
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