Bruce Canwell interview: IDW’s Bringing Up Father

Bringing Up Father cover

Bringing Up Father cover

Bruce Canwell is the Associate Editor of The Library of American Comics, who bring you such books as Complete Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, the Complete Little Orphan Annie, and the upcoming Rip Kirby HC and Bloom County Complete Library all published through IDW. This month they begin the Family Circus Library and offer the first volume of Bringing Up Father. Westfield’s Roger Ash recently contacted Canwell to learn more about Bringing Up Father,  a classic strip that may be unfamiliar to many modern readers.

Westfield: Bringing Up Father is a classic comic strip, but it’s not widely known today. What can you tell us about the strip?

Bruce Canwell: Who’s your favorite fictional squabbling married couple – Homer and Marge Simpson? Al and Peg Bundy? Ralph and Alice Kramden? There are plenty to choose from, but no matter which couple you pick, they trace their roots back to Jiggs and Maggie, the stars of Bringing Up Father. They’re pop culture’s original battling lovebirds.

What makes Maggie and Jiggs unique is that they were childhood sweethearts who grew up, got married, and were perfectly happy while they were struggling to make ends meet. Trouble started brewing after Jiggs struck it rich – Maggie wants her family to start hob-nobbing with the beautiful people, you see, but Jiggs just wants to have a beer with his old working-class pals. When the culture clash meets the battle of the sexes, you know sparks are gonna fly!

With his new son-in-law, Jiggs enjoys some of the — ahem — sights in Salem, Oregon.

With his new son-in-law, Jiggs enjoys some of the — ahem — sights in Salem, Oregon.

Aside from the genuinely funny antics in the Jiggs household, Bringing Up Father features the amazing Art Deco-flavored illustrations of artist George McManus and his assistant, Emil “Zeke” Zekley. Just as Jiggs and Maggie precede Homer and Marge, McManus precedes modern artists like George Perez, Todd McFarlane, and Arthur Adams, guys who are noted for the amount of linework and detail they add to their pages. The design and composition in Bringing Up Father is often simply beautiful, with McManus adding intricate patterns to clothing, furniture, street scenes, and objets d’art, bringing a unique texture to Jiggs’s world. Our first Bringing Up Father book is titled From Sea To Shining Sea, and we’re printing it oversize, with all the Sunday comics in full color, to allow readers to fully appreciate the wonderful McManus/Zekley art.

So, let’s see – classic domestic comedy, excellent artwork, funny and endearing characters, what else should I mention… oh, yeah – pretty girls! Jiggs likes to admire ’em and McManus likes to draw ’em. There are plenty of pretty girls in Bringing Up Father, too.

Westfield: What can you tell us about what happens in this first volume?

Canwell: This book is a departure for The Library of American Comics. Since we launched in 2007, Dean Mullaney (LOAC’s creative director and guiding light) and I have focused on doing complete runs – we’ve released all of Milton Caniff’s Terry And The Pirates, all of Scorchy Smith by Noel Sickles, and we’re currently in the midst of publishing the complete Little Orphan Annie and Dick Tracy . With Bringing Up Father, we’ve decided to produce a book of material from the middle of a strip’s run, cutting a slice of the “best of” pie for our readers.

From Sea To Shinging Sea presents all the strips from 1939, plus the 1940 strips through July 7th of that year. In addition to all the classic Bringing Up Father gags and bits of business, these strips introduce us to Maggie and Jiggs’s grandson (and re-introduce us to their son, who is the prototypical mooch) and Maggie’s brother, Danny. Then comes the main event: Jiggs and Maggie’s daughter, Nora, marries an English nobleman, and what better way to show America to their new son-in-law than by taking a transcontinental tour? Jiggs and Maggie treat the newlyweds to a journey from one coast to the other and back again, with McManus serving up laughs literally from sea to shining sea.

On the Washington, D.C. leg of their journey, Jiggs pays a visit to the President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself

On the Washington, D.C. leg of their journey, Jiggs pays a visit to the President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself

This is a run of comics that collectors have prized for years, first because so many of the episodes are flat-out funny, and second because McManus and Zekley knocked themselves out capturing the look and feel of so many different American cities and towns. McManus often said the December 31, 1939 Sunday page, which is jam-packed with detail, took over two weeks to complete. Spending two weeks on a page is practically unheard of in the newspaper business!

Bringing Up Father Sunday strip (Jan. 7, 1940)

Bringing Up Father Sunday strip (Jan. 7, 1940)

Westfield: How many books are you planning in the series?

Canwell: It sounds cliche, but we’ll produce as many volumes as folks will buy. Dean Mullaney and I are very enthusiastic about From Sea To Shining Sea, and if we can get readers excited, too, we’ll be back in 2010 with a follow-up volume, we’ll do a third if the second one sells, and so on down the line. We’re already talking about what we’d like to do in a second volume. Bringing Up Father was the first real international comic strip blockbuster; it was translated into nineteen different languages during its heyday. So we could print the sequence when Jiggs and Maggie sail to London on a passenger liner to see the royal family – or the story of their trip to Japan – or the hijinx that begin when Jiggs goes to Hollywood – or any of a dozen or more really terrific continuities!

Westfield: Are there any extras in this first volume?

Canwell: Roger, at The Library of American Comics, we’re all about the extras!

This McManus-drawn illustration of Jiggs at the holiday table is a small example of the merchandising spawned by Bringing Up Father

This McManus-drawn illustration of Jiggs at the holiday table is a small example of the merchandising spawned by Bringing Up Father

Brian Walker has written a detailed biography of George McManus for From Sea To Shining Sea. Brian wrote the comprehensive books The Comics Before 1945 and The Comics After 1945, and we’re happy that he’s also writing the essays for our complete reprinting of Alex Raymond’s seminal Rip Kirby. I’m backing up Brian’s McManus bio with an article that looks at how Bringing Up Father influenced the world around it, and how in turn the trends and events of the day influenced the strip. You know, there has always been a bit of mystery surrounding the exact year of McManus’s birth – the artist himself was always rather coy about the date. Through the years, many articles about Bringing Up Father have been content to say something like, “George McManus was born around 1884.” We’ve dug deep and uncovered the actual birth records for the city of St. Louis and have proven McManus was born January 23, 1882. And while McManus had no children and has no known descendants, as part of my research I spoke with relatives of the late Zeke Zekley, and with comics historian Chris Jenson, who had interviewed Zekley about his two decades of work breathing life into Jiggs and Maggie.

From Sea To Shining Sea is the only modern-day Bringing Up Father release authorized by King Features, which owns the rights to Jiggs and company, so in addition to Brian’s and my text, we’ll be showcasing rare artwork and photographs, plus a look at an array of Bringing Up Father special products. For decades, Jiggs and Maggie drove a merchandising bonanza, and we’ll be showing readers everything from Bringing Up Father cinema lobby cards to a Jiggs cereal ring – lots and lots of neat stuff.

See? I wasn’t joking when I said we’re enthusiastic about this book!

Westfield: Is there anything you can tell us about what’s on the way from the Library of American Comics?

Canwell: In addition to From Sea To Shining Sea, Westfield’s IDW listings already contain our major new releases for 2009: the first volumes of Rip Kirby, Bloom County, and The Family Circus. We have other spiffy new projects on tap for 2010, and here are three of them that I hope readers will be on the lookout for:

King Aroo cover

King Aroo cover

Scheduled for January, we’re bringing Jack Kent’s delightful King Aroo back into print for the first time in almost 60 years. “What’s a King Aroo,” you ask? Only the funniest, cleverest, most playful and imaginative comic strip you’ve never heard of, that’s what! King Aroo deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with such fanciful, beloved strips as Pogo, Krazy Kat, and Barnaby – like Bullwinkle & Rocky, King Aroo is great fun for all ages. Some very popular talents are lobbying to write introductions for these books (the one-and-only Sergio Aragones is on tap for the first volume), and we’re working closely with Jack Kent’s family to provide the most in-depth look ever at artist Jack Kent, his mythic land of Myopia, and my favorite monarch, the one and only King Aroo!

A few months after King Aroo appears, we’ll present our very first Blondie volume as part of the celebration of the Bumsteads’ 80th anniversary. This is Dagwood and Blondie as you’ve never seen them! We’re taking you back to the way it all began, when Dagwood – the son of a wealthy railroad magnate – fell in love with middle-class, scatterbrained Blondie Boopadoop. The very snooty Bumstead family takes a dim view of Blondie, and Dagwood almost loses her several times, thanks to family interference. Finally, to prove his love, Dagwood goes on a hunger strike! This storyline put Blondie on the path to becoming one of America’s all-time favorite comics, and I had a real blast this summer when I read it for the first time. Readers who can’t imagine anything new under the sun for Blondie should definitely check this out.

Almost exactly a year from now, we’re presenting Genius, Isolated: The Life & Art Of Alex Toth. Dean Mullaney and I are writing this together – Dean knew Alex, and back in the days of Eclipse Comics, he reprinted Toth’s much-beloved Zorro comics from the late 1950s/early ’60s. Most folks know about Toth from his work for Hanna-Barbera, where he created the look of Space Ghost, The Herculoids, and many other Saturday morning heroes. We’re working with Alex’s estate, as well as his many friends and fans, to create an in-depth biography that will be accompanied by plenty of rare images, plus a section that will reprint several complete Toth stories. Big companies are being very generous in allowing us to reprint Alex’s stories from their backlist, while individual collectors are giving us total access to their many Tothian treasures. Our goal is to make Genius, Isolated a fitting bookend to our 2008 Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles (currently nominated for two Harvey Awards). Since Toth was the biggest Sickles fan ever, we like to think Alex would approve of that goal!

I grew up on comics, so it’s a real thrill to see my words in Library of American Comics releases on sale in comic shops and bookstores, but I’m doubly pleased to see our books displayed next to other fine titles like Prince Valiant, The Heart of Juliet Jones, Walt & Skeezix, Buck Rogers, and Popeye, as well as the Marvel Masterworks and DC Archives. This really is the golden age of comics reprints, isn’t it?


Bringing Up Father: From Sea to Shining Sea


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