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: 609

Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on January 7, 2010 at 10:19am
I bought IDW's "Trip Across America" collection yesterday and took the opportunity to pick up the NBM collection of the earlier material as well. [Since I posted below on 9/1, I bought NBM's Mutt & Jeff collection at Half Price Books (for less than half price), too!]

I haven't started reading it yet, but the collection of the 1939-40 material is (as expected) much more polished than the 1913-1914 stuff and is as beautifully produced as other IDW comic strip collections, with dailies in black and white and Sundays in color.
Comment by ClarkKent_DC on January 7, 2010 at 10:57am
* 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.)

One of my lifelong regrets is finding out who created "The Black Bomber." That's something I wish I still didn't know.
Comment by Luke Blanchard on January 7, 2010 at 11:04am
I've seen it argued that Herge was probably influenced by McManus. In the latter part of his career McManus was assisted on the strip by Zeke Zekley.

NBM's website has some previews here but I don't think they show the art of the strip at its best.
Comment by Luke Blanchard on January 7, 2010 at 11:48am
I stumbled upon a quote here from Jerry Bails to the effect that Kanigher didn't have perspective on the quality of his ideas.
Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on May 14, 2010 at 5:30pm
I finally got around to reading the “Bringing Up Father” collection in NBM’s Forever Nuts series (which I bought in January in anticipation of reading Maggie & Jiggs’ “Trip Across America” collection which I also bought in January, which I will get to as soon as I finish reading the first volume in the new series of L’il Abner reprints… I promise!). Although you review of NBM’s collection was generally positive, Cap, I think I am a little more enthusiastic about the collection itself than you are. You mentioned R.C. Harvey’s introduction in a later post, and the foreword is written by Bill Blackbeard, but what I find absolutely fascinating and indispensable are the annotations by Allen Holtz.

Not every strip is annotated, but those which are are designated with an asterisk referring the reader to the copious endnotes which further explain references to customs, fashions, etc. which may be lost on the modern reader. For example, I’ve often ordered a “growler” of beer with my meal, but I never knew where the term originated. In the days before package liquor, patrons would buy beer on tap and transport it home in a variety of containers. According to Holtz, “‘Growler’ was a slang term for the bucket in which beer was transported home from a bar. The origin of the term seems to be based on the lidded variety of these pails. As the beer purchaser walked home and the beer sloshed around in the pail, cardon dioxide would build up and escape at the lid. Supposedly this made a growling sound and thus the pail got its name.”

I’ll tell you something else about this collection: reading it sure makes me thirsty!
Comment by Emerkeith Davyjack on March 11, 2012 at 7:09pm

...BUF/J&M was still a pretty big strip in my youth and still ( as did Andy Capp ) featured the domestic violence joke situations that would be taboo for a source of humor in any mainstream strip to-day.........

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