REVIEWS

The Bungle Family

STK637486-1I want to point out a few things about The Bungle Family, which, while comprised of comic strips from 1930, is my favorite book of 2014. I’m going to do this bullet point style.

-Harry Tuthill is now mostly known for being advocated by Art Spiegelman, Bill Blackbeard, and less successfully, yours truly. Besides Blackbeard’s anthologies, a now-rare 1977 volume, and Art Out of Time, the work has been unavailable to contemporary readers. The Bungle Family ran for almost three decades, from  1919 to 1945, and Tuthill was, in the 1920s and ’30s, a hugely successful cartoonist. The strip is about George and Jo Bungle’s family and immediate surroundings (this changed a lot in the 1940s to include kind of awesome action and SF elements, but that’s another thing). George is always striving, complaining, commenting, and arguing. His life is one constant bout of annoyance with his family, his friends, and his town. The present book collects one year of the strip, and more than one excellent story. Its leads off with our hero, George Bungle, deciding to “claim” a relative in a distant man named Bungle who is a “Hot-Dog King” out West. His machinations to get a piece of the fortune drives the first story of the book.

Like a lot of strips of this time, The Bungle Family needs to be read in story-sized chunks so that you can absorb the pace and the plot as Tuthill published it. It’s only through repetition that you find the rhythm of the characters and dialogue. That is, you can’t really dip in, which is what makes the one-strip-per-page format Library of American Comics Essentials format so successful — it demands engagement in each installment and doesn’t allow you to slide over any strips, as you so easily can when they’re stacked on a page.

-The Bungle Family is a model for how to move along a plot through dialogue. Tuthill has an ear for dialogue and situations akin today to Larry David or Louis C.K. This is very much the comedy of bad manners and humiliation — of showing the worst of ourselves while still somehow maintaining characters that you empathize with and even root for. George Bungle is a craven opportunist, but I like him.

-Amazingly the whole strip takes place in an apartment and occasionally a street.
What Tuthill gets out of these settings is extraordinary. Look at this four panel strip: The intense hatching signifying the darkness, and four different views of a bedroom discussion. Granted, this was the job of the comic strip artist: keep it interesting and move it along. But I love how the dialogue kicks along but the visuals never slip — The back and forth is made literal.

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-The incidental characters in these strips are often so distinctive that they can seize an entire sequence. Tuthill is often described as a sub-par draftsman. He’s not a realist but he has a kind of calligraphic line and an attention to detail that is exacting but casual, and it’s never better show than in his drawings of these one-off characters.

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Look at the “tall man” in the foreground of the fourth panel: That nose and the swoop of the pipe — and of course the jacket, complete with texture. The guy looks like no one else in the strip — he’s not a “type” but feels observed and lived in. This is also well-played in the strip below.

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Four panels, four different sets of couples, each in different fashions, each a thin-lined grotesque of a character. I love Tuthill’s thin lines — they ask not to be liked, but they describe and delineate without fail. There’s no ornament. Clothes are simple accumulations of lines and pattern repetitions. Jo Bungle is not decked out, but she’s always wearing a carefully delineated patterned dress. Tuthill never stinted on these, which gives us a glimpse into the fashion of the day. All of the characters are normal looking, verging on ugly. Tuthill made no concessions to soft, friendly cartooning — his line is sharp, jagged, and ruthless. From his perch in the midwest, Tuthill observed the America he knew.

The Bungle Family deserves an audience — it is perhaps the most contemporary of the classic comic strips, with timing and dialogue situations that are oddly current in today’s comedy culture. It’s a great and funny and nasty and, in its way, beautiful piece of work.

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2 Responses to The Bungle Family

  1. Paul Tumey says:

    Thoughtful and entertainingly put insights about a fascinating strip that help get at why it’s worth reading today. I also love the incidental background characters on THE BUNGLE FAMILY — those tiny men and their big wives always crack me up. Thanks for this, Dan!

  2. Dan Nadel says:

    I should have mentioned that the very gracious Paul Tumey contributed an excellent introduction to the book, which goes into some detail about Tuthill’s circumstances and working process. Tuthill, maybe because he was in St. Louis, where I went to college (and so I can picture the landscape) or maybe because of how strange the strip became in the 1940s, combined with his reported wealth and attempts at self-syndication, fascinates me. Kind of amazing to build a mini-empire on such misanthropy in a medium not generally hospitable to it.

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