by Andy Wolverton
The Bungle Family – Harry J. Tuthill (IDW Publishing)
IDW began its Library of American Essentials (LOAC) series in 2012, with each volume reprinting a year’s worth of early daily newspaper comic strips deemed culturally significant, influential, and unique. Previous titles include George Herriman’s Baron Bean, Sidney Smith’s The Gumps, Cliff Sterrett’s Polly and Her Pals, and V.T. Hamlin’s Alley Oop (previously reviewed here). The fifth, and newest, book in the series, Harry J. Tuthill’s The Bungle Family, is now available .
While several other publishers have been reprinting newspaper comic strips for decades, IDW has gone a different route with their LOAC series, printing one daily strip per page in an 11.5” x 4.25” hardcover format. IDW also publishes a wide variety of newspaper strip reprints such as Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates, Steve Canyon, Little Orphan Annie, Rip Kirby, and many others in a larger format (normally 8.5” x 11”), usually with three daily strips per page. The LOAC series, while considerably smaller, costs about half the price of the larger volumes, providing readers a less expensive way to sample some older, lesser-known strips. (More on the format in a moment.)
Although the Bungle Family’s adventures originally began in 1919 with a newspaper strip called Home, Sweet Home, this LOAC volume gives readers a year’s worth of strips from 1930, the same year that saw the Federal Reserve cut interest rates and the first U.S. bank failures. The Great Depression still blackened the country, but the Bungle Family helped people find a way to laugh in the midst of those dark days. George and Josie Bungle are a lower-middle class couple who might remind you of your next-door neighbors today. George’s get-rich-quick schemes are frequently the source of marital conflict resulting in fights that last for days, weeks, or even months’ worth of strips.
In one of the early story arcs in this collection, George learns of a billionaire named Pontoon Bungle, king of a hotdog empire who has no known family. Determined to prove that he’s a long-lost relative, George concocts a plan to connect himself to Pontoon and his fortune. But George didn’t count on his own relatives coming out of the woodwork to make similar claims. In another arc, George moves his family to a new apartment where he discovers a dagger hidden in a closet. Inside the dagger, George finds what looks like a treasure map. You can guess the hijinks that develop from such a premise. Or can you?
Whether it’s a dispute about the worth of their daughter Peggy’s suitors, mistreatment by neighbors, slights by family members, or just plain bad luck, the Bungles constantly argue with each other. I can’t help but think that shows like The Honeymooners, All in the Family, and Married…with Children owe a lot to the Bungle Family in one way or another. The Bungles aren’t the type of people you’d want to know in real life, but they’re undeniably funny.
Reading the collection in 2014 presents a few challenges to modern readers, even those who may be avid comic-strip fans. The Bungle Family seems very text-heavy and dialogue-driven, often with very little physical action. Part of that is due to the fact that we are used to modern newspaper strips containing relatively few words and sentences per panel. Lots of text typically means less space per panel for illustrations. But Tuthill is more interested in who these characters are and what they do as expressed through their words and thoughts. Tuthill also takes his time in setting up his jokes, giving us fuller insight into the family dynamics (and hijinks) going on here. Yet sometimes the jokes get stretched out for a very long time. One running joke involving the illness of a minor character lasts for nearly two weeks. Maybe readers were more patient back then, savoring the nuances of the Bungle family’s shenanigans in ways that could teach us a thing or two about slowing down our own reading habits in the 21st century.
Art Spiegelman called The Bungle Family “one of the most underrated comic strips of the 20th Century.” As a satirical look at American middle-class life, it’s hard to beat these strips. Creator Tuthill — who once worked a traveling medicine show — knew a thing or two about human nature in general and family conflict in particular. As Paul Tumey states in the book’s introduction, “The Bungle Family is a genuinely funny work of integrity about people who lack it.”
I mentioned the format earlier. The printed oblong books are rather awkward to read and hold, and I wonder about issues such as the durability of the binding and shelf storage. I certainly hope this series will be around for a long time, but wonder if the format might change. I suppose time (and sales) will tell.