Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Comic Writing of Harry J. Tuthill in The Bungle Family

Let's be honest: Harry J. Tuthill's Bungle Family comics are extremely wordy. This can be  daunting. It takes some work to read all those words. If you try to read his comics the way you might read a modern comic strip, you won't enjoy them. However, if you can get on Tuthill's wavelength, he will take you to some great places.

Harry Tuthill's writing during the peak years of The Bungle Family in the 1920s and 1930s, is, for my money, is some of the best to be found in American comics. His satirical vision of America is subversive and deliciously dark. The dialogue could stand on its own, or easily be translated into a screenplay.

It was no real surprise to me to discover, while researching my introduction to a Bungle Family Tuthill had  a stint writing for radio. I dug up little-known information about how Tuthill was hired by Proctor and Gamble to write a daytime radio serial based on The Bungle Family. Sponsored by a soap company, the show was called The Puddle Family. Before he diluted his own career as a successful radio writer by, according to some, demanding too much money, Tuthill -- it could be said -- wrote one of the very first soap operas.

The cast of THE PUDDLE FAMILY, a 15-minute, five-day-a-week radio serial that originated  from the WLW studio in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1931-1932.  (courtesy of Proctor and Gamble)

Much like characters from a typical soap-opera, the people in Harry J. Tuthill's misanthropic screwball masterpiece, The Bungle Family (1918-1945), hear only their own voices. Husbands and wives talk at, not to, each other. Friends and neighbors appear to be having a chat, but they are only covering up their own uncharitable thoughts, which they have just barely enough awareness to know are socially unacceptable. People pass by in the background, muttering to themselves. No one sees the other -- everyone is lost in themselves. This is screwball comedy writing on a whole 'nother level, folks. Once you immerse yourself in it, it's quite funny. This darkly comic vision transforms simple events into a comic opera, such as the visit of friends at George and Josie Bungle's home, sweet home.

Recently, a year of Bungle Family dailies was published in the IDW Library of American Comics Essentials series. The book, The Bungle Family 1930, was edited by Dean Mullaney and features an introduction by me (Paul C. Tumey) that reveals the curious story of Harry J. Tuthill.

While the dailies of the comic strip presented serial stories that went on for weeks and months, the Sundays were self-contained. At their best, these pages were the comic strip equivalent of a half-hour sitcom, filled with richly funny dialogue. In fact, Tuthill's sardonic writing anticipates the currently popular "comedy of discomfort" we see in acclaimed TV comedies like The Office and Parks and Recreation. Tuthill, who lived his life as a sort of outsider, had no compunctions about skewering the American dream. His depiction of lower middle class life in 1920s and 1930s America is nasty, mean, and hilarious because it's true.

The Bungle Family from October 3, 1926. From the collection of Paul Tumey.

In this Sunday page, from 1926, we see a particularly potent example of the comic writing of Harry J. Tuthill. Note how he sets up the scene in the opening "credits" in the top banner, which presents the original name of the series (various papers shifted from 'Home, Sweet Home" to "The Bungle Family" at different times in the mid-1920s). Some friends are visiting George and Josie. The comedy in this page works on different levels. There's the good-hearted naivte of George and Josie as they mistake the behavior of their acid-tongued friends for kindness, This is especially interesting, because at other times, it's George and Josie who are grousing and ill-tempered.

Then there's the litany of petty complaints issued forth from the mouths of the "friends." They find fault in everything related to the Bungles. Notice the structure Tuthill sets up. Most of the complaining occurs in the second panel of the top three tiers. This creates a rhythm, and also a solid column of comic complaints that sits like the central supporting pillar of the entire page. It's no accident the second panel in the fourth, and final, tier features the oblivious George and Josie -- as a comic coda.

The artwork is, as usual, a thing of wonder. Tuthill's grubby, scratchy style perfectly conveys the coarseness of his characters, who desperately adorn themselves in tacky patterns.

The strip of characters at the bottom of the page is not Tuthill's work -- it is by someone with little ability or talent.

Note also the strip begins with two people in the background, rushing into each other's arms, exclaiming, "Mom!" and "Pop!" One of the many delights of The Bungle Family is that interesting things happen in the background. Check out also the man in the background of panel one, tier three -- petulantly pouting to himself.

In 1998, American Heritage magazine put out a special issue where they asked various people to list over- and underrated works in certain categories. Art Spiegelman was tasked with handling the comic strip category. For "overrated," he chose Dilbert. His choice for most underrated comic strip of the twentieth century? The Bungle Family.

- Paul Tumey

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Toothful Espisode of W.R. Bradford's John Dubbalong (1911)

Yesterday, I had a tooth pulled. I confess, I was quite brave. I went in with nary a protest, and uttered only two groans at the procedure's most intense moments. Yes, friends, my bravery was eclipsed only by the year of avoidance I invested before so courageously arranging myself into the dentist's chair. To celebrate both my hour of bravery and my year of cowardice, I share in this post with you an episode of the daily comic strip John Dubbalong, by screwball master W.R. Bradford.

Walter Bradford worked in newspaper comics for roughly the first quarter of the twentieth century, passing away in June of 1925 at age 53. His thousands of forgotten comics display a remarkable flair for screwball comedy, embracing anarchy, obsession, and insanity. In many ways, his stuff is as "out there" as Milt Gross, and in some ways a great deal screwier. His drawing style is, at first look, rather crude, but it is actually part of a now-forgotten school of comics that George Beckenbaugh (who worked under the name "Percy Winterbottom") in which the crudeness of the drawing is part of the joke.

W.R. Bradford in a 1918 "selfie" - a staged scene called "The Fire,"
which he posed in and took with an automatic timer.
Even though Allan Holtz's excellent resource, American Newspaper Comics: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide lists 33 comic strips by W.R. Bradford, John Dubbalong is not one of them. As near as I can tell, the strip ran 1-2 times a week from 1911 to 1914. The episodes were very dense, with lots happening in them. At another post, I'll share more of this rich comic strip.

JINGLING JOHNSON by W.R. Bradford (August 29, 1909)

For now, here's a small bite of John Dubbalong. Note the unusually dense story composition, with five scenes in 10 panels (eleven if you count the panel-within-a-panel). The last scene shows dental instruments madly dancing and singing an original song. Bradford was fond of writing silly verse, and built one of his most popular strips, Jingling Johnson around it (Johnson was a self-caricature of Bradford). Mysteriously, we are told the song is sung by a "quartette" of dental tools, but only three are shown -- either a sign of the haste with which the strip was composed, or another joke.

JOHN DUBBALONG by W.R. Bradford (November 11, 1911)
How about that 8th panel, with the Winsor McCay style distortion?

Given Bradford's status as an early master of screwball comics, and the subject matter of this particular example, it would not be inaccurate to say that this posting may qualify as a true "roots" of screwball comics entry -- although it might coax further groans to do so.

- Paul Tumey

P.S.: If you haven't already, be sure to find the accompanying Facebook group to the blog, The Masters of Screwball Comics, and send me a request to join. Lots of cool screwball comics and other neat stuff posted there every day that never makes it to this blog!

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Blowing Rainbows: Paul Bunyan in Gene Ahern's The Squirrel Cage

Gene Ahern's masterpiece, The Squirrel Cage, had several interesting phases throughout its approximate 15-year run from 1937-1952.

From 1942 to 1944, Ahern shifted from his wacky inventors (Ches and Wal Nut, who lost their names when the emigrated from the NEA-owned topper, The Nut Brothers to the Hearst-owned Squirrel Cage) and the little hitch-hiker ("nov shmoz ka pop") to detailing the daily life of Paul Bunyan, who was alive and well in a contemporary comic strip version of small town America. Or, perhaps the character is merely a giant who thinks he is -- or is pretending to be -- Paul Bunyan. 

A late example of the inventors/hitch-hiker phase of THE SQUIRREL CAGE, from March 16, 1941 
The Squirrel Cage is devoid of its signature character, the little hitch-hiker during the Paul Bunyan years, which are filled with Ahern's witty explorations of his imaginary world. In this lyrical episode, from January 3, 1943, we see Bunyan's mysterious super-human powers extend past great strength and massive consumption and labors, as the tall tales depict, when he blows a rainbow.

January 3, 1943 -- from the collection of Carl Linich

From his earliest years, Ahern's work embraced goofy imaginary worlds. With his Paul Bunyan strips, Ahern created a more subtle vision of a screwball world, which relegated wacky Smokey Stover style visual puns for poetic imagery that straddled states of consciousness. At times, The Squirrel Cage seeks to subvert the laws of reality and values of mainstream society in a veiled, symbolic way, as if in a dream. In these strips, we see Ahern developing elements of his Foozland phase, which comes next. The shadow, anxiously disconnected from it's owner, is a prime example of a device that later turns up in Foozland.

Ahern also refined his visual storytelling technique, as we can see in the episode originally published April 11, 1943 (or in the case of this example, in the Saturday edition and therefore on April 10). 
April 11, 1943
Four of the seven panels in the strip are wordless, and funnier because of this.The paucity of words in general in The Squirrel Cage stands in stark contrast to the strip it topped, Room and Board, which features several extremely verbose characters and draws its humor as much from the comic dialogue as from the visual doings. Compare, for example the windy April 11, 1943 Room and Board that ran below the near-wordless  "windmill" episode of the same date.
April 11, 1943
It is worth noting that Ahern  greatly streamlined the torrents of dialogue in Room and Board by 1943, particularly in the Sunday episodes. Compared to earlier strips, and to the cloud banks of dialogue found in his Our Boarding House Sundays , the 1943 epistles of Judge Puffle seem taciturn.

January 26, 1930
The singular Paul Bunyan series (and, as we see above, even certain episodes of Our Boarding House) offers a sly re-imagining and sarcastic commentary on many things, including superhero comics. Paul Bunyan is super-strong and can even fly, covering great distances in a short period of time.The character even has, like a certain dislocated citizen of the planet Krypton, super-vision, as seen in the March 14, 1943 episode, when Bunyan drills a hole through a board simply by "looking sharply at it." This is a far more sophisticated and absrud lampoon of comic book superheroes, which were at a peak of popularity in 1943, than the typical treatment one sees -- and as such, it connects the superhero archetype to the American tall tale in a way that is unique in comics.
March 14, 1943
News! Thanks to Art Spiegelman, The Squirrel Cage will see mainstream circulation for the first time in approximately 65 years. An upcoming issue of Art Forum will include a marvelous 8-page annotated gallery of comics that Art Spiegelman has been reading and pondering. Among these comics are works by Basil Wolverton, Matt Fox, Chester Gould, and our very own Gene Ahern. I was able to able to supply the scan of the Squirrel Cage strip used in the article, and Art Spiegelman kindly included the URL of this blogsite in the caption. 

That is All,
Screwball Paul

All text copyright 2014 Paul Tumey. This article may be re-posted and excerpted if acknowledgement is provided and a rainbow is blown in my direction.