LOAC Essentials 2: The Gumps
“. . . a volume of touching sincerity . . .”
In the first 30 years of the 20th century, in that small window of prosperity that was propped open by optimistic dreams and highly suspect numbers, right before the crash of ’29, the newly emerging art form we now know as comic strips held center stage in the American mindset.
Every day millions of readers from crowded cities to sparsely populated rural areas bought newspapers looking for the latest jokes and stories from characters they had quickly grown to love over the last few decades. Radio had yet to make its mark on the public mindset and movies were only starting to come into their own. Most Americans drew their entertainment from newspapers and magazines. Ours was a society that read.
Of all the greats that appeared in newsprint at this time, from The Katzenjammer Kids to Moon Mullins, Mutt and Jeff, and dozens of other great now forgotten characters, none held sway over the public’s heart more than The Gumps.
The strip was so incredibly popular that when it debuted in 1917 The Gumps quickly propelled the Chicago Tribune from third place to first in Chicago’s newspaper wars.
The story of Andy Gump and his family was featured in nickelodeons and on the big screens of brand new movie houses in both animation and live action shorts. Compilations of storylines could be found in bookstores across the country. Merchandising related to the characters set records for a comic-related property.
The Gumps were BIG.
Today it is a different story. This hugely popular and very influential strip is all but forgotten a handful of historians and fans. Despite its innovations in storytelling, its previous popularity, and its wonderful art, The Gumps has disappeared from public consciousness.
The Library of American Comics Essentials Volume 2: The Gumps, The Saga of Mary Gold goes miles toward reminding us why the strip found profound acceptance by the American reader of the time. It also reestablishes the importance of artist and writer Sidney Smith’s storytelling innovations.
Mr. Smith (and his editor Joseph Patterson) created the first popular comic strip featuring a series of long, continuing storylines that wove in and out of everyday narrative. Gasoline Alley was doing something similar, but nowhere as developed and detailed as The Gumps. There was also one very important evolution in the comic art form.
[SPOILER ALERT:] The Saga of Mary Gold contained the first ever death of a major character in comics. This established a new side to comic reading, one that devastated hundreds of thousands of readers. It was a decision so new, so unexpected after so many months of buildup that the syndicate was deluged with letters and telegrams on an unheard of scale.
Even with advance notice of the outcome of the story line, as editor Dean Mullaney states in the preface, “…the story is so compelling that, with foreknowledge or not, the reading experience will be undiminished.” And he is more than right. The final outcome is so moving that even after a third go round, the story still moves me.
What separated The Gumps from so many other strips of the day was Mr. Smith’s stunning ability to weave ideas, jokes, personal observations, political asides, and deeply revealing details about each of us as humans into a long-form narrative—a narrative that often appears open ended but unexpectedly comes together at just the right moment.
Centered on a burgeoning middle class family, The Gumps reflected the idea that every citizen could move up in the world even if he was—like most Americans at the time—still a bit of a yokel.
There are conventions inside The Gumps that would go on to become staples of radio and television. Some feel that The Gumps actually created the modern sitcom.
As a father Andy Gump is verbose and opinionated, but firm in his belief that an American can make it on his own. He is wary of consumerism and skeptical of all politics.
The wife overspends on clothes. The kids are funnier than they should be. There is the smart-aleck maid, and multiple plot lines that work seamlessly off of each other. Mr. Smith used short recaps to bring readers up to speed in case they missed a few weeks, the paper precursor to clip shows that highlight the best of a TV show during an off week.
What holds The Saga of Mary Gold together more than anything is the inevitable march toward the end. As the reader begins to realize where Mr. Smith is taking us the anticipation builds to the point where you almost want to cry “NO!” out loud. The author/illustrator bobs and dives around the issue until resolution quietly begins to reveal itself.
For one of the first time in American consciousness a nation shared a sense of loss and still emerged hopeful about the future. While many took issue with Mr. Smith’s decision, readership actually increased after The Saga of Mary Gold.
Another revolutionary aspect to The Gumps was the deliberate construction of the strip to encourage longer storylines. The way Mr. Smith worked with his editor, and vice versa, to build the strip was a serendipitous and respectful union of management and art that is often heralded as the perfect environment for artistic expression and ultimate success—but is rarely realized in real life.
The reproduction of the art is flawless. Despite the slightly odd feel of the art, a style that reflects the standards of the times, you are still propelled forward by the way Mr. Smith tells his story.
LOAC Essentials 2: The Gumps is a volume of touching sincerity that reinforces the best of what it meant to be an American in times of turmoil. At the heart of it all is the quiet message that, whether we care to admit it or not, we are all united in the life we choose to live.