Bringing Up Father from 5/5/1940, panel 3. Drawn by George McManus.
Mostly this column looks at a certain strain of comics art, that being illustrative work that stretches out an appendage here and a tentacle there into cartoon. What's usually missing from that art style's approach, wonderful though it may be, is the willingness and occasion to dig into the pure cartoonist's top task -- namely constructing a good individual shorthand. Getting from depicting the contents of a panel to cartooning them is merely the first leg of the challenge, because after that the conscientious artist is left to ponder what makes their simplified distortions of the world as we see it any different (let alone better!) from the next joe's. We've got exactly as many solutions to the problem as we have great cartoonists, because once you wave goodbye to the neighborhood of the real, everything is measured in how uniquely you see things. The great shorthands share precious little with what came before, and usually see rafts of copyists after the fact. There's Kirby's electric Aztec zigzagging, Herriman's vast landscapes and jitterbug pen line, Tezuka's future-Disney finery, Crumb's thin-lined cute grotesques... you get the idea. The point is, George McManus' shorthand stands with all of the above.
Actually, in terms of utter distortion of the world as we know it, McManus probably beats out all of the above, Herriman included. Show a page of Bringing Up Father to an alien and I can't imagine it would have any idea that Jiggs' top-hatted teddy bear face is supposed to code as human. Hell, I myself have trouble with that sometimes. But in his strange piling up of circles and arches McManus hits the grace notes in between so many great moments in art, comic or otherwise. It's got all the effusive, sugar-spun delicacy of Art Nouveau, but a great deal of rounded, slicing Deco sheerness as well. Winsor McCay's precise, orchestral compositions go hand in hand with the galumphing bigfoot of Frank King or Bud Fisher's Mutt and Jeff. The claustrophobic styrofoam vaudeville of Chic Young's Blondie is here, but no less than the dynamite roar of Roy Crane's Captain Easy. McManus' style is like a clearing point for pre-WWII popular art idioms -- he takes a little of everything, planes away all but the flattest shapes, the most simplified forms, and regurgitates it out onto the page in a panic of high-impact coloring. It's a total mess, to be sure, but the most elegant mess around, flawlessly smooth drawings rioting their way through themselves, slamdancing each other out of the frame for room to breathe.
The panel above is typical of McManus, who like Crane and Herriman would often anchor his Sunday pages with one big picture that really killed it. However, where Crane's centerpiece shots roped the rest of the page in with considered compositions, and Herriman's with endless, open planes of color, McManus goes grand mal epileptic seizure. The panel borders stretch out as wide as they possibly can, but still have no hope of accommodating the level of robustly cartooned detail involved, which is so great that any other panels involved have no choice but to orbit around it like the moons of Jupiter. This one is unique, though, (and in my opinion quite superior) for its restrained use of word balloons, which usually saw as much use in these kinds of panels as, say, the color yellow. But here McManus shows and doesn't tell, leaving the boatload of bathing beauties to speak more eloquently than words could (though Jiggs, as always, offers some earthy commentary).
Without Bringing Up Father's yesteryear-mangy dialogue strewn over everything, the human form according to one of its more severely idiosyncratic artists takes precedence, with the beach gals forming a kind of decorative strip across the middle of the panel -- all Technicolor-Nouveau bathing suits, giant flower-petal hats, ET/china doll faces, hourglass silhouettes. It's almost impossible to separate the individual forms from one another without doing some serious work, but that tangle of lipstick and willowy limbs is the whole point, after all. Style meets content on a beach full of eye candy, McManus letting his readers' senses feast on line, shape, color, while his characters feast on the lure of the flesh. As the abstractions grow wilder -- everything looks made of either part of a circle or the angle of a strict, straight line -- it all gets so much more real somehow, the simplicity of everything giving it a herky-jerky, high-speed life of its own. There's more: the Herge contours of the guard rails, the classical-art-on-crank composition, and god, those pre-computer graphics buildings in the background! But the fact of it is that there's so much more, enough to spend paragraphs and not be half-finished. It's a blur of energy that hides meticulous construction, it's a Rube Goldberg analysis of every tiny little detail of a scene we all know -- it's comics. You should probably just look at it now.