By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service

Aug. 18, 2009 -- Occasionally I recommend a book without pictures, and such is the case with Brian Cronin’s Was Superman a Spy? And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed! (Plume, $14).

Cronin began writing an online column in 2005 exploring the myths and legends surrounding comic books. I’ve been reading it off and on, because as a newspaperman I can say his research and sourcing are generally excellent. I don’t recall attributing anything to Cronin myself for any columns, but it’s inevitable – because he’s good.

And so is this book, which is a sort of general comics history with the various myths and legends he’s refuted or affirmed online woven in. I’ll stop teasing, and just give you a few:

* Was DC’s Black Lightning originally conceived as a white man? (Yes. He turned into an African-American at night called The Black Bomber – but, fortunately, the idea was scrapped.)

* Who created Spider-Man? (Stan Lee and Jack Kirby have both taken credit, and have both given credit to Steve Ditko. Cronin lets you make the call.)

* Was the Human Torch excluded from the 1978 “Fantastic Four” cartoon series because the producers were worried that children would set themselves on fire? (No. At the time, the Torch was in development for a solo series by another company and the rights were tied up.)

* Did Elvis Presley base his onstage look on Captain Marvel Jr.? (Yes. The King was a big fan.)

* Was Superman a spy? (Of course not. But the Nazi propaganda machine took exception to some of his stories during World War II.)

And on it goes, through the colorful history of our funnybook friends. This book is probably not for everybody, but I think for fans of pop culture or social history it’s invaluable. And if you’re a comics fan – well, what are you waiting for? Buy it, already! (And visit Cronin’s “Comics Should Be Good” column at Comic Book Resources.)

Speaking of comics fans, I can also recommend to them Bringing Up Father ($24.95), part of NBM’s “Forever Nuts” series reprinting classic comic strips from the early 20th century.

Bringing Up Father was a much-copied strip, not only for its simple and engaging premise, but for creator George McManus’s beautiful art.

The strip is the story of Jiggs, an unskilled Irish laborer who has somehow come into a great deal of money (how is never explained). Despite the wealth, he remains a simple soul at heart who enjoys the company of his rowdy construction-worker friends, drinking copious amounts of beer and playing poker. His wife Maggie, however, is a social climber, determined to stake a place in “society.” Needless to say, Jiggs is quite the embarrassment, and his disinterest in taking on airs continually sabotages Maggie’s ambitions. (The occasionally seen son, and the inexplicably realistically-drawn daughter, are also dismayed by Dad’s blue-collar behavior.)

This simple class-warfare gag is played over and over in variation after variation, with most strips ending with a baffled Jiggs being pelted with crockery by an angry Maggie.

But the strip’s primary attraction (at least for me) is McManus’s clean-line art style. It’s both functional and beautiful, clearly telling a story while simultaneously being simply pretty to look at. Especially given McManus’s fondness for rococo and art deco, so prevalent in the early part of the last century. And the fashions in which he dresses Maggie and her daughter are fascinating in their complexity.

A great many artists tried to lift McManus’s style, and those efforts can be seen all over the early comic strips. Note, for example, the many characters without pupils in their eyes. I don’t know if McManus pioneered this look, but if not he was certainly an early adopter.

Reading all these strips (from 1913 and 1914) at a sitting can be a bit repetitive, though – McManus had a working formula and he stuck doggedly to it. That’s one reason I emphasize this book primarily for comics fans. But art and culture historians would also benefit from a look-see, and overall it’s simply an education on the things that made us laugh 100 years ago.

This is the third “Forever Nuts” collection I’m aware of, the other two being Happy Hooligan and Mutt & Jeff. I’m eager to support these collections of rarely reprinted comic strips, which are meticulously restored by NBM and should be in every library in America. They’re certainly in mine!

Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at capncomics@aol.com.

Views: 251

Comment by The Baron on August 20, 2009 at 4:21pm
As I recall, I believe Jiggs and Maggie were said to have won their money in some kind of Sweepstakes.
Comment by The Baron on August 20, 2009 at 4:23pm
Toonopedia says it was the Irish Sweepstakes, which would make sense.
Comment by The Baron on August 20, 2009 at 4:46pm
Actually, "Bringing Up Father" was carried in one of the local papers when I was akid (this would've been the late 60's into the 70's), dunno who was drawing it, McManus would've been several years gone by then. I remember there was a character introduced - I think he was meant to be Maggie's nephew - who was a real "older person's notion of what a hippie was like". What's funny is that the character's name was initially "Tripper", but after awhile he fairly ostentatiously changed his name to "Groover". At the time I was nonplused by it, now I realize that somebody must've decided that "Tripper" was too much of a "drug" reference for a family strip.
Comment by Commander Benson on August 20, 2009 at 4:46pm
I heartily second Cap's recommendation of Was Superman a Spy? And Other Comic Book Legends.

I've always been a fan of those who do the research to decry (or uphold, if justified) commonly held [mis]conceptions. (The Urban Legend References Page is another favourite site.) I discovered Brian Cronin's "Comic Book Legends Revealed" column a few years ago and I was positively impressed at how much research and effort he put into the various myths and bromides that have cropped up over the years about our little hobby. In fact, I made reference to it in my first "But I Always Thought . . . ." entry in my Deck Log. That's why my "But I Always Thought . . . ." articles deal only with misconceptions within the fictional conceit of the characters. I don't have the resources to investigate the myths surrounding the people behind the comics; Cronin does, and he puts forth a much better effort than I could.

For those familiar with his column, you might be a bit reluctant to purchase the book---figuring, as I did initially, that it is simply a regurgitation of items he had already covered in his column, and why pay for something you can read for free, right? But, while there is some occasional duplication of material from his column, Cronin wisely wrote the book as a narrative of comics history, instead of using the "question: answer" format of his column. That makes for pleasant reading and it puts the facts in context to what was going on in the industry at the time. Even if you follow Cronin's column, you'll get things out of the book that aren't in his site.

In all fairness, I have to state that I did spot two minor errors in fact in Cronin's book, both coïncidentally on the same page (page 22, if you want to root them out yourself). Now, ordinarily, finding two mistakes in an "authoritative reference" would give me pause in trusting any other information within. But since writing my own column, I've learnt a thing or two.

The two mistakes I found, given Cronin's diligence in his work, fall under the heading of "writers' gremlins". What I mean is the writer actually knows the correct info, he means to type the correct info, but for some peculiar trick of the brain neurons, his fingers type something else. This has happened to me---with luck I catch it in time, but all too often I don't---and when I read it later, I scratch my head and why in the hell I wrote that when I know it's incorrect, when I know the right info. It's happened to Cap and to anyone else who writes for vocation or avocation. It's obvious to me that this is what happened to Mr. Cronin in this case, and I don't hold it against him.

(He also inadvertantly undercut me by including a fact I intended to put in a planned Marvel-oriented "But I Always Thought . . . ." entry, but that's the way it goes sometimes.)

That said, Cap's advice is on the mark: buy it!

Speaking of comics-related myths, Cap's discussion of "Bringing Up Father" led me to an interesting discovery. Cap mentioned that the source of Maggie and Jiggs' newfound wealth was never stated. However, I remember other sources, such as Don Markstein's "Toonopedia" stating that Jiggs's fortune came when he won the Irish Sweepstakes.

While Markstein's information can usually be counted upon to be accurate, I wanted to dig up a second source of information to corroborate and, in doing so, found out an interesting fact. "Bringing Up Father" debuted in 1913, but the Irish Sweepstakes (more properly, the Irish Hospitals' Sweepstakes) wasn't founded until 1930.

A little more research cleared up that discrepancy. For years, fans of the strip enquired as to how Jiggs---clearly a working-class fellow---accumulated such a fortune, and creator George McManus was stuck for an answer---until the creation of the Irish Sweepstakes. Time always being a malliable thing in comic strips and comic books, McManus was able to establish at that point that Jiggs had been a lucky Sweepstakes ticket holder.

There you have it. Revisions and retroactive continuity were not just things of the modern era.
Comment by The Baron on August 20, 2009 at 4:50pm
Interesting, Commander, I did not know that. I remeber the Irish Sweepstakes getting mentioned alot in various fictional milieux when I was a kid, I think it even got a shout-out in an episode of Gilligan's Island.
Comment by Figserello on August 21, 2009 at 12:53am
It was illegal to gamble on the Irish Sweepstakes in America or the UK for decades. So the tickets had to be smuggled in and out.

It's thought that the old IRA gun-running networks from the early 1920s were used for this. According to wiki, many millions of stubs were destroyed by US customs on the way back to Ireland.

Just thought I'd share...
Comment by ClarkKent_DC on August 21, 2009 at 9:59am
The Baron wrote:
Actually, "Bringing Up Father" was carried in one of the local papers when I was akid (this would've been the late 60's into the 70's), dunno who was drawing it, McManus would've been several years gone by then. I remember there was a character introduced - I think he was meant to be Maggie's nephew - who was a real "older person's notion of what a hippie was like". What's funny is that the character's name was initially "Tripper", but after awhile he fairly ostentatiously changed his name to "Groover". At the time I was nonplused by it, now I realize that somebody must've decided that "Tripper" was too much of a "drug" reference for a family strip.

I remember Bringing Up Father from the local paper when I was a kid, too, and I remember "Groover" -- he kind of resembled Shaggy from Scooby-Doo, except he always wore sandals, the better to convey his hippie-dippieness. I don't remember the artist, either, except it certainly wouldn't have been George McManus. It wasn't until years later that I saw the work he did on the strip, and I was blown away.
Comment by Captain Comics on August 21, 2009 at 10:35am
My line about Jigg's wealth came from the foreword from R. C. Harvey. Here's what he said:

"In the strip, McManus never explained how Jiggs gained his wealth.

"In most histories and newspaper accounts over the years, it was said that Jiggs, who had worked as a simple laborer, got rich by winning the Irish Sweepstakes. But not according to McManus, who, in 1920, related Jigg's 'autobiography' to a newspaper reporter, to wit: Jiggs was born in Ireland. He came to this country expecting to find gold on the streets of New York, but found bricks and cobblestones instead. He became a hod-carrier. Romance came into his life when he met Maggie, a waitress at a small cafe, who put heaping dishes of corned beef and cabbage before him. They were married,k and Jiggs became thrifty. Instead of carrying bricks, he bought and sold them on commission. Then he manufactured them. Street brawls in the old days in New York provided a great market for Jiggs' bricks, which were harder than ordinary bricks. He grew rich. (In another telling, Jiggs grew rich selling bricks to Ignatz in George Harriman's strip, Krazy Kat.) ...

"Zeke Zekley, McManus' assistant since the mid-1930s, regaled me with another story about the origin of Jiggs' wealth. McManus told him the story, partly in jest. It went like this: When Jiggs was working as a hod-carrier, his employuer was another Irishman named Ryan. Ryan like Jiggs. He liked him so much that he gave Jiggs a dime every time he, Ryan, made a thousand dollars. Ryan got very, very rich,. And so did Jiggs.

"Whatever its source, the family fortune was rather suddenly acquired ..."

So, apparently, it was never said in the strip itself how Jiggs got rich. Outside the strip, explanations vary. But the 1920 one has my vote, for what that's worth. At least it has the virtue of detail, and of coming from McManus' mouth.
Comment by Commander Benson on August 21, 2009 at 10:48am
"So, apparently, it was never said in the strip itself how Jiggs got rich. Outside the strip, explanations vary. But the 1920 one has my vote, for what that's worth. At least it has the virtue of detail, and of coming from McManus' mouth."

And it has the virtue of being a better authoritative source than what I found. Works for me.

Much obliged, Cap.
Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on September 1, 2009 at 11:26am
I generally buy every classic comic strip reprint collection that comes down the pike (or up it, for that matter), but two I recently skipped (for reasons I cannot explain) are Bringing Up Father and Mutt & Jeff. ( I guess I missed seeing Happy Hooligan, nor did I know the three were part of the same “Forever Nuts” series.) In the most recent Previews catalog, however, I saw a collection of the later (circa 1940) collection of Maggie & Jiggs’ trip across America. That appeals to me (as does any comic strip which featured situations that captured the imaginations of readers across America) and has caused me to give this collection of earlier srips a second look.

I think you’ve just convinced me to buy it. Thanks!

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