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George McManus and Irish America

By Charles Fanning


In his Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), Michael Chabon evokes the cultural apogee during the Great Depression of the newspaper comic strip, “then in the full flower of its since faded glory, read by presidents and Pullman porters, a proud American cousin, in indigenous vitality and grace, of baseball and jazz.”1 A piece on “The Funny Papers” in Fortune in April 1933 declared that “between 70 and 75 per cent of the readers of any newspaper follow its comic sections regularly,” and estimated that “U. S. Funny Paper, Inc. (and we shall see that it is very Inc.) grosses about $6,000,000 a year.” Hearst-owned King Features was the largest syndicate, and the three biggest earners were Sidney Smith (The Gumps), Bud Fisher (Mutt and Jeff), and George McManus (Bringing Up Father).2

By this point, George McManus had been hard at his trade for some thirty years, and his famous strip Bringing Up Father, featuring the nouveau riche Irish-American couple, Maggie and Jiggs, had been appearing for twenty. From the outset, the Hearst papers ran the strip above the fold on the front page of their colored Sunday comics sections. As the comics wrapped the rest of the paper, this was arguably the most powerful spot in American popular culture, and Bringing Up Father stayed there for forty-one years. In his prime, McManus had 100 million readers in 750 newspapers published in seventy-one countries and twenty-eight languages. Spin-off ventures included yearly collections in book form, radio programs, touring stage shows (as many as seven on the road at one time), animated cartoons, and eleven movies. (McManus played his own main character in four of the films.) In a 1952 interview for Collier’s, McManus says that “more than forty concerns have manufactured such things as dishes, ash trays, soaps, playing cards, perfume bottles, jewelry, canes, fans, masks and articles of clothing with Jiggs or Maggie or [their daughter] Nora stamped on them.” Moreover, he estimated that he had made $12 million on the strip and been praised by the prime ministers of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and by U. S. Presidents Hoover and FDR. The latter said he was “a national institution.” McManus was especially proud of an encounter with Ireland’s Oliver St. John Gogarty, who declared to him, “George, you’re a genius.” McManus also pointed out that he worked eight hours a day, seven days a week to create Bringing Up Father, and he marveled that “all I’ve had for capital is a retired hod carrier who has a fondness for corned beef and cabbage and for being himself. And a drawing board.”3

George McManus had been born in St. Louis, Missouri, on January 23, 1884, to Irish immigrant parents, Katherine Kenrick McManus from County Limerick and George McManus from Mullingar, County Westmeath, who was himself the son of an Irish captain in the British army, killed in the African wars.4 George McManus, Senior, was manager of the Grand Opera House in St. Louis, and young George grew up steeped in theater, music hall and vaudeville traditions. McManus has said that “I began to draw primarily because my father, whom I idolized, liked to sketch and I imitated him.” Along with his brothers Charles and Leo, George attended St. Louis public schools. One story has it that McManus was sent home from high school for drawing caricatures in class, and his father responded by getting him a job running errands in the art department of a local newspaper, the St. Louis Republic. He was fourteen years old, and within a year he had sketched his way into a staff position, covering train wrecks, trial scenes, murders, suicides, and hangings. He recalled that “the whole Republic staff had standing orders to report to work every rainy Sunday—local Germans, suffering from beery hang-overs, usually picked gloomy, rainy Sunday mornings to commit suicide. I sketched dozens of them.” McManus claimed “a national record” for having sketched “120 hangings in the courtyard of the St. Louis jail.”5

By 1902, McManus was drawing The Sunday Republic Poster Girl, a half-page cartoon of a fashionably dressed young woman—surely the prototype of Jiggs’s daughter Nora and the cohort of beauties that always anger Maggie when Jiggs ogles them. He was also producing a full-blown Sunday strip, Alma and Oliver, featuring two dimwitted toffs who have misadventures with women and a lot of trouble from their pet dog and parrot, both of whom speak and are smarter than their masters. It’s silly stuff, but already beautifully drawn with complex action scenes. While at the Republic, McManus had a second job working for Adolphus Busch, founder of the beer dynasty. For $25 a week, all he had to do was visit St. Louis saloons and order Budweiser to promote the product. “It was,” he recalled, “a scheme worthy of Jiggs’s own ingenuity.”6

After six years at the Republic, McManus won $3,000 on a thirty-to-one horse and took off for New York City to find a career in newspaper cartooning. It was 1903 and he was nineteen. He pounded the streets for six months before being hired just before Christmas by Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World as a comic artist. There he created his first syndicated strip, The Newlyweds and Their Baby. Somewhat predictive of Bringing Up Father, this strip featured a naive, solicitous wife, and her hapless, bumbling husband, suffering the trauma of change—marriage and parenthood here, newfound wealth for Maggie and Jiggs. Their talking parrot provided ironic, running commentary and stirred up trouble. This strip was both a popular and a critical success. In December 1908, the highbrow journal Current Literature reported on increasing protests against the Sunday comic supplements as “debasing the morals of the children” with their vulgarity, tawdriness, and condoning of violence and deceit. And yet, McManus was singled out as “represent[ing] in the New York World a reaction from the purely physical catastrophe as the point of a Sunday supplement series. He summoned the ‘Newly Weds’ from the depths of his consciousness with results so happy that the art he excels in seems one of the humanities.”7

In fact, The Newlyweds was but one of an amazing array of strips that McManus produced in the seven years that he worked for Pulitzer. In his history of Comic Art in America, Stephen Becker declares that despite the universal admiration for Bringing Up Father, McManus has been “vastly underestimated,” for “his achievements before 1915 were in themselves spectacular, and would alone have assured him of a place in the first rank.” “There are weeks, in 1905 and 1906,” says Becker, “when McManus seems almost to have turned out the whole [Sunday comics] section [of the New York World] himself.”8 McManus recalled that “I must have outlined fully forty other comic strips before I tackled ‘Bringing Up Father.’ I never dreamed that it would be any better than those that had gone before. I only hoped it would. And it was.”9 The ones that saw print before Bringing Up Father included, besides The NewlywedsSnoozerThe Ready Money LadiesSpare Ribs and GravyLet George Do It (which brought a phrase into the American language), He Just Happened to Be There (featuring the slapstick adventures of an African-American character), Cheerful Charlie (a stoic American Indian who cannot be made to laugh), and Panhandle Pete, a lively continuity strip with story-lines extending over several weeks.

Pete is a resourceful hobo who, with two accomplices and a bellicose goat, has a number of adventures all over the world. He beats Admiral Peary to the North Pole (bringing the pole back to advertise a barber shop); he performs Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Romeo and Juliet on the vaudeville stage; he swindles his way through New York City, England, Monte Carlo, France, Spain, and St. Petersburg, Russia; and he lays claim to a cannibal kingdom in Africa. Pete makes several balloon ascensions which allow McManus to create some impressive perspective drawings. There were also occasional cross-over strips—another innovation—in which, for example, Panhandle Pete visits the Newlyweds. These strips were so popular that four of them—The NewlywedsLet George Do ItReady Money Ladies, and Panhandle Pete—were turned into silent films.

George McManus was part of the first generation of newspaper comic artists, the inventors of the genre. McManus had a clear sense of his place in this wider history. He says in the Collier’s interview that, “when I arrived in New York in 1903, the comics as we know them were only seven years old. This date is admittedly arbitrary; actually the comics are nearly as old as man himself.” He cites tablets from ancient Egypt, Babylon, and Ninevah “depicting humorous sequences in the lives of Pharaohs, kings, queens,” and seventeenth-century East Indian batik fabrics “on which appeared rows of figures in the true comic strip tradition.” McManus pinpoints the birth of the modern comic strip as the day when “the New York World first published a strip by R. F. Outcault, which became known as the Yellow Kid. It was a cartoon grotesquerie of low-down, earthy humor with tremendous popular appeal. Outcault had a penetrating and even cruel wit.” McManus also credits the contributions of his other fellow comic-strip pioneers: Rudolph Dirks (The Katzenjammer Kids), Winsor McCay (Little Nemo), Carl B. Schultze (Foxy Grandpa), and Fred Opper (Happy Hooligan).10

McManus’s sense of comics’ history bears out the fact that Irish-American urban settings and themes played a key role at the outset of the genre. Indeed, Outcault’s pioneering strip featured a bald, buck-toothed New York street urchin in a yellow night shirt named Mickey Dugan. Moreover, the character of the “Yellow Kid” first appeared in a one-panel Outcault cartoon in Truth magazine on June 2, 1894, which also happens to strike the keynote from which McManus’s Bringing Up Father will expand—the connection between home place and the ladder of social status. In this panel, “Little Rosilia McGraw” stands holding a bald, night-shirted small boy by the hand at the corner of Hogan’s Alley and Ryan’s Arcade. She is speaking to a bunch of kids on the sidewalk just around the corner: “No; we won’t come and play with youz, Delia Costigan. Our rejuced means may temporarily necessitate our residin’ in a rear tenement, but we’re jist as exclusive as when we lived on the first floor front and papa had charge of the pound in the Department of Canine Captivity!”

Figure 1: Outcault’s “Little Rosilia McGraw” in Truth magazine June 2, 1894

Outcault was hired on to Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World the following year, and the Yellow Kid became a staple of the Sunday edition. In 1896, he was lured away to William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, where his strip continued under the heading McFadden’s Row of Flats. When Pulitzer countered by hiring Ashcan painter George Luks to draw a competing strip, Hogan’s Alley, the term “yellow journalism” was born. The profitability of identifiably ethnic comic strips demonstrated by this battle led to Hearst’s hiring of Rudolf Dirks, whose German-themed Katzenjammer Kids debuted in late 1897, and Frederick B. Opper, whose Happy Hooligan, an Irish roughneck with a tin-can hat, came on the scene in March 1900, followed in 1901 by Opper’s Frenchmen, Alphonse and Gaston, whose paralyzed obsequiousness also brought a phrase into the language.11 There were many lesser known ethnic strips as well. Suffice to say, the way was clearly paved for George McManus to contribute.


One early McManus strip stands out for both innovative artistry and Irish themes. Nibsy the Newsboy in Funny Fairyland ran on Sundays between May 20 and July 22, 1906, in Pulitzer’s New York World and its affiliates. Here the daydreams of a wised-up newsie turn the New York streets into a magical realm. Nibsy is a visually splendid homage to the imagination, evidence early on of the creative genius of George McManus. This remarkable strip has affinities with Winsor McKay’s much better known Little Nemo in Slumberland, which preceded it by seven months, first running in James Gordon Bennett’s Sunday New York Herald on October 15, 1905. McKay’s work is justly renowned for its spectacular forays into the dream life of an American boy. Rick Marschall suggests that McKay’s distorted, hall-of-mirror perspectives, ornate backgrounds, and monstrous, phantasmagorical figures may have inspired McManus to do likewise aesthetically.12 Yet McManus’s strip is also an innovative, class-based critique of its predecessor. The setting of Little Nemo is the boy’s comfortable middle-class bedroom, complete with a solicitous mother who wants him to get his sleep. Nibsy advances the premise that a working-class street kid on his own can also dream—and with an attitude!

The Nibsy strips contain many references to Irish-American working-class and underclass culture. McManus sprinkles New York City locations throughout the strips. These include Coney Island and the Giants’ baseball field, and Nibsy’s down-at-heels home neighborhood of the Lower East Side and environs is indicated by references to Broadway, Cherry Street, and Mulberry Park. In McManus’s comic strip, Nibsy himself represents lower-class, street-wise New York Irishness. He’s a red-head with an orange shirt (sometimes red) and green pants, high boots and a caubeen hat. He’s smoking a cigarette, a sure sign of precocious maturity, and he speaks with the wised-up dese-and-dose dialect of the streets.

Figure 2: Nibsy the Newsboy in Funny Fairyland, June 10, 1906

A common thread in the Nibsy strips is satiric critique of stock situations and attitudes associated with “Fairyland.” First, there is constant play on the word “fairy,” which was already established as a contemptuous slang term for a homosexual.13 Second, there is the obvious disjunction between Nibsy’s daily life as a newsboy on the streets of New York and his adventures in “Funny Fairyland.” Thanks to journalists such as Jacob Riis—How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York had appeared in 1890—McManus and his audience knew well what a newsie’s life was really like.14 It’s a double irony that Nibsy the street kid is the one who brings the magic into Fairyland. Each strip opens with a summons by a retainer to solve a problem plaguing the fairy king. However, Nibsy’s solutions always create problems of their own, and thus the strip subverts the hackneyed formula of Irish fairy folk intervening to solve earthly problems so that humans can live happily ever after. Nibsy’s “dream fest,” as his girlfriend Mollie McGirk dubs it, includes familiar urban lower-class themes transmuted to “the fairy realms”: the availability of money and food, street life where peddlers sell apples, dogs, cats, and rabbits, an exploding population with babies everywhere, strife among different ethnic groups, and the dangers posed by heedless crowds, automobiles, and building construction.

McManus created only eight Nibsy strips, but they constitute an early high point in the art of the comics. The strip is visually gorgeous. McManus opens each week’s contribution with a panoramic introductory panel, over half a page wide, that sets the tone for the story that follows. This is followed in most cases by a panel on a New York street where a fairy disguised as an ordinary New Yorker tells Nibsy that he’s wanted in Fairyland. Then he is off. Nibsy wears a jacket of solid black, already established as a McManus trademark device to focus attention. The castles and interiors in Fairyland are wonderfully ornate, and the New York streets are contrastingly stark. Both feature challenging perspectives with real depth. Most striking of all, the overall color scheme of each strip is a coherent whole, organized around a set of subtle variations of a single mood-creating color.


In 1912, McManus was lured by the success of The Newlyweds from Pulitzer’s stable to the rival syndicate of William Randolph Hearst, and it was there, in the New York American on January 2, 1913, that the first strip with the characters Maggie and Jiggs appeared. In it, Jiggs spoils Maggie’s attempt to introduce their children into society by appearing before the fashionable “Miss Loosechange” with his shoes in his hand, complaining that “I can’t wear these shoes. My corn hurts.” When Miss Loosechange faints and Maggie is angered and embarrassed, Jiggs asks “What’s a matter wid youse?”

Thus, the formulaic pattern of Bringing Up Father was established for all time: the immigrant/ethnic dream of success is fulfilled but undercut, as the wife Maggie embraces the new plenitude while the husband Jiggs refuses to change his old ways. The series began as a black-and-white strip two or three days a week for the Hearst syndicate, and the first colored Sunday comic appeared a few years later, on April 14, 1918. McManus admitted that “there’s no such name as Jiggs, incidentally; I just made it up. Jiggs, indeed, is neither a first nor a last name and I don’t know which its present owner prefers it to be.”15 McManus never explains how Jiggs struck it rich, but we do know that he started out as a laborer and that Maggie worked in a laundry. We also know that they were childhood sweethearts in Brooklyn.

In the beginning, Jiggs’s family has two children. The marriageable daughter, named Nora early on, becomes a constant in the strip, and Maggie begins introducing her to wealthy and/or titled prospective husbands immediately. The son, mostly called “Sonny,” comes and goes over the years. A college-educated slacker, he is always hitting up his parents for money. (On May 17, 1939, McManus broke the strip’s fourth wall to announce a contest to name Sonny’s new baby. The winning entry combined Jiggs and Maggie into “Jiggie,” but he and his parents soon disappeared from the strip, never to be mentioned again.)

In his first incarnation, Jiggs evokes the complete Irish-American stereotype: he wears a caubeen hat, smokes a clay pipe, sports chin whiskers, and drinks his beer from a bucket. He also uses dese-and-dose dialect and urban ethnic slang, referring to the beer bucket as “the growler.” Through the early months and years of the strip, McManus jettisoned most of these markers, as he explains in Collier’s:

Jiggs used to smoke a clay pipe and wear a red undershirt, as did his prototype, Billy Barry, in the play The Rising Generation, almost 60 years ago. People don’t use such things now, so Jiggs smokes cigars and wears a recognizable undershirt. He used to have a little chin beard, like the stage Irishman of long ago, and a tuft of hair growing well forward on his pate after the fashion of comics of the era—but these, too, have been sloughed off. They’d be silly today.16

McManus’s reference to Billy Barry’s play suggests the influence of having grown up around his father’s St. Louis theater. His longtime assistant, Zeke Zekley, recalled that “George could almost recite entire routines from old vaudeville acts, because he went back a long way. …And having known people from the Ziegfield days—and so many top stars—he had loads of nostalgic stories to tell.”17 Elsewhere in Collier’s, McManus recalls the importance of that play, The Rising Generation, as he remembered having seen it in 1895. A popular feature of the play was an ad-libbed poker game for real stakes on stage. If Billy Barry lost, his language got very colorful, much to the delight of the audience:

In the play, the participants in the poker game were all old cronies of the little Irishman. They had known him before he got rich and moved to Fifth Avenue. But his socially ambitious wife and daughter were ashamed of his uninhibited naturalness and they could not abide his old pals. Therefore, he had to sneak off to the poker game, which was in the back room of a saloon run by another old friend in the district from which the Irisher came.

“The recollection of this play lingered with me long afterward,” McManus continues, and he identifies it as the inspiration for Bringing Up Father.18

In fact, McManus’s memory is a bit flawed. Billed in St. Louis in October 1895 as “the most genuinely humorous and legitimate Irish-American comedy ever written, illustrating every day life in New York City with its phases of wit and humor, pathos and philosophy,” The Rising Generation chronicles the progress of one Martin McShane from “acqueduct [sic] employee” to “acqueduct Contractor and State Senator.” In the prologue, it’s 1885 and McShane is living in a shanty on Upper Fifth Avenue in Harlem. His wife having died, he is raising his fourteen-year-old son Tommy, “one of the Rising Generation” (as the theater program says), with the housekeeping help of his (McShane’s) sister Johanna, who provides the foil. The play proper takes place ten and then twelve years later—that is, in the present and near future. Now wealthy, McShane has built a mansion on the site of his shanty and has retained part of the old building as his “Den.” This clever staging is, thus, a constant reminder of McShane’s humble beginnings—it’s a concrete, visual statement of the rags-to-riches theme. Tommy McShane is now a lawyer, and in love with Elsie Connolly, “as good as gold, age 22,” who also grew up in the neighborhood and appears as a child in the prologue. The play contains scenes at Herald Square, Battery Park (in view of the Statue of Liberty), and McShane’s Den, where the poker game takes place.

The plots of productions like this were rough and ready. They weren’t fully formed plays so much as collections of songs, dances, and situational and character sketches, strung together loosely. Known as “specialties,” their number and variety featured in the advertising of performances. In The Rising Generation, the song and dance numbers include “Only One Girl in the World for Me,” “Sun Shine of Paradise Alley,” “The Custom in Ireland,” and “The Darlings of Society.” The final scene is the christening party of Tommy and Elsie’s child, and the entire company brings down the curtain with “We’ve Presents for the Baby.”19

The words and music of one song from the play have survived—”The Men Who Come Over from Ireland” by J. J. O’Grady. Happily, it’s a number that summarizes the play’s main theme. In the first stanza, “The men who come over from Ireland” are “not very wealthy” when they arrive, “But soon of America’s wealth they’ve a share, / Then they work like a horse ’till they’re in with the Mayor.” In succeeding stanzas, the fully acclimated Irishmen outsmart and punish Italian and German immigrants (labeled “dagos” and “Dutchmen”) who pick fights with them. The final stanza places the song in late 1895 at the time of the squabble between the U. S. and England about the boundary of Venezuela. If Uncle Sam needs help here, the lyric declares, “why just let him call, / On the men who come over from Ireland.”20

McManus may have conflated The Rising Generation with other plays seen in his youth, because Billy Barry’s star turn was a relatively late addition to a long established rags-to-riches (and sometimes back to rags) plot convention of Irish-American drama. The archetype is the extremely popular series of plays about the Mulligan family of New York City by Edward Harrigan which were produced in the 1870s and 1880s by Harrigan and his partner Tony Hart. Here the satiric target was Cordelia Mulligan’s campaign for lace-curtain status against her reluctant husband Dan, highlights of which include the acquisition of a piano for the parlor, an ill-fated move from “Mulligan’s Alley” to a mansion on Madison Avenue, and a triumphal return visit to Ireland.21

Harrigan came through St. Louis often, both with Tony Hart in the Mulligan plays and on tour alone in Waddy Googin and Old Lavendar after his partner’s untimely death at age thirty-six in 1891. Billy Barry had also been making similar vehicles his stock in trade for a long time. As early as 1882 in St. Louis, he had starred along with Hugh Fay in Irish Aristocracy at Muldoon’s Picnic, a collection of songs and gags that pits Fay as a pretentious parvenu, Mulcahy, against Barry as a bibulous comic figure, Muldoon. There were many more such plays on the American stage all through the 1890s. In Mrs. B. O’Shaughnessy, Wash Lady (1899) by Edith Ellis Baker, the title character is a widow who changes her station by way of inheriting $50,000. Her family’s move from an alley in “Shantytown” to an uptown mansion sets up a typical barrage of jokes and gags. But Mrs. O’Shaughnessy remains an unflappable realist, hard-headed and unpretentious, more of a Jiggs than a Maggie. Monahan’s Legacy by John A. Wilson (undated, but performed around 1900) traces the rise to alderman of a legatee whose new wealth is threatened by swindlers who pass themselves off as visiting royalty.22 In Bringing Up Father, Maggie is similarly duped quite often, and her daughter Nora eventually marries a real, though penniless, British aristocrat, Lord Worthnotten.

Along with Ned Harrigan and Billy Barry, young George McManus was exposed to the full gamut of theatrical headliners abroad in the 1890s. His father’s theater hosted them all: the Irish composer/performers Chauncey Olcott, Joseph Murphy, and Joseph K. Emmet in their “Irish comedy-dramas”; Katie Emmet in The Waifs of New York; and James O’Neill as the Count of Monte Christo, the role that both made his fortune and ruined him as an actor. “The Divine” Sarah Bernhardt came through in La ToscaCleopatra, and Jeanne d’Arc. George also had access to opera, as his father had been the first theater manager to talk the Metropolitan Opera into touring outside New York, and to Shakespeare, from the likes of Edwin Booth and Thomas W. Keene, whose company put up Richard IIIMacBethThe Merchant of VeniceOthello, and Hamlet, with Richelieu and The Fool’s Revenge thrown in for good measure—all in one week. There was minstrelsy as well. Callender’s Consolidated Colored Minstrels appeared often at the Grand Opera House, in productions that featured “The Brass Band Rehearsal,” “The Dancing Zouaves,” and “The Steamboat Landing on the Grand Old Mississippi.”23

Thanks to recent republication, the first two years of Bringing Up Father can now be read whole and sequentially.24 References to the urban theatrical world in which McManus had grown up abound in the early strips. Jiggs listens reluctantly to a concert singer (February 17, 1913), annoys Maggie by bringing a beer to the opera (February 26, 1913), interrupts a melodrama to punch the villain (March 22, 1913), and skips out on a chance to see Sarah Bernhardt—he goes to a burlesque show instead (September 16, 1913). Elsewhere in the strip, several counts (and no counts) come courting Nora, and there is much plotting by Jiggs to drink beer from the growler, which he lowers on a rope from the second floor of the house more than once. Of course, Maggie is regularly scandalized by Jiggs’s drinking, card-playing (including the Irish game of “45”), and interest in pretty women. She is especially annoyed when servants and musicians that she has hired turn out to be old friends of her husband.

The highlight of the first two years comes when McManus sends Jiggs and Maggie on a European tour—it won’t be their last; they will go again in 1921—which takes up eight months, beginning in late October 1913. A good way to add variety to a strip, this was a common device in the early comics: the “Yellow Kid” toured Europe in 1897, Opper’s “Alphonse and Gaston” visited the Arctic in 1903, and his “Happy Hooligan” went to London in 1904, and McManus’s own “Panhandle Pete” went to the North Pole in 1905 and Europe in 1906.25 Maggie and Jiggs visit eight countries: France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Russia, England, and Scotland. Reminders of home, welcomed by Jiggs and deplored by Maggie, occur all along the way. He runs into saloon keeper Dinty Moore in a Paris café, cruises up the Rhine on a barge with Bricktop Dugan, and calls on the Kaiser wearing a New York Giants baseball uniform. The two New Yorkers sail back home on the Olympic, the sister ship of the Titanic, arriving in the strip of June 26, 1914, two days before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.


Not on this or on any other of their world tours do Maggie and Jiggs set foot in Ireland. Nor does Bringing Up Father ever mention St. Patrick’s Day—much less celebrate it on March 17. Nor, to my knowledge, do the words “Ireland” or “Irish” appear anywhere in the strip.26 Similarly, Catholicism is never mentioned in Bringing Up Father. This is more easily understood, perhaps, because religion isn’t often comic strip material. However, there are religious references in the first year of the strip that suggest conscious avoidance by McManus. Twice “the minister”—not the priest—calls to solicit funds for a temperance crusade (February 14 and March 4, 1913). Both times Jiggs gives scandal by appearing with an empty beer bucket he wants filled. Much later on, there’s a Sunday strip (Aug. 27, 1933) in which Jiggs recalls how frightened Maggie was as a child the first time she had her picture taken. She’s wearing what has to be her white First Communion dress, but that also goes unsaid.

These seemingly counter-intuitive omissions demonstrate just how well George McManus understood the challenges inherent in his position as the first Irish American to create a hugely popular Irish-American comic strip. First of all, the Irish had been fair game for caricature throughout mainstream American culture ever since the influx of immigrants fleeing the Great Famine of the late 1840s transformed the face and character of city life. As a means of combating the perceived threat to the white-Protestant-dominated status quo, negative stereotyping of the Irish—and other immigrant groups as well—was endemic in American literature, journalism, and drama throughout the latter decades of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. With roots in eighteenth century England, the “stage Irishman,” as bibulous and belligerent as ever, was a familiar figure on the American music-hall stage. Cartoons depicting Irish men and women as leering, ape-like figures, swinging shillelaghs and swigging from bottles, appeared in popular magazines such as Harper’s WeeklyPuck, and Life. These were penned by respected artists including E. W. Kemble, Joseph Keppler, Frederick Opper, and Thomas Nast.27 Not surprisingly, caricatured Irishness became a feature in the earliest newspaper comic strips as well. Examples were present in the Yellow Kid strips by Outcault and Luks, in the comics chronicles of politics and sports by Thomas A. “TAD” Dorgan, and in Opper’s Happy Hooligan, which was running in the St. Louis Republic when McManus was starting out there. Of course, the treatment in cartoons and comics of Germans, Italians, Jews, Chinese, African Americans, and others was similarly rife with stereotype. These visual renderings had descended directly from the broad ethnic caricatures that were a staple in vaudeville, music-hall, and minstrel productions.28

Figure 3: “Mutual: Both are glad there are bars between them.” Judge (New York, 1891)

The years around 1900 also marked the consolidation of an Irish-American middle class. As the product of three generations of hard work and sacrifice, this new bourgeoisie was extremely sensitive about perceived threats to its status.29 These audiences had great natural and vested interest in what they must have seen as portraits of themselves by a vernacular artist such as George McManus. Evidence of the sensitivity of the Irish-American bourgeoisie was not far to seek in those years. Complaints in the press and protests in theaters about the “Stage Irishman” accompanied productions of Irish plays all through the later nineteenth century—from Dion Boucicault to Harrigan and Hart. The United Irish-American Societies of New York were proud of their record of defending Irish America. In 1900, they had driven The Irish Servant Girl, a farce by the Russell Brothers, from Proctor’s Pleasure Palace. In 1903, they had closed down E. W. Townsend’s McFadden’s Row of Flats, a musical review about an election dispute between Irish and Jewish New Yorkers.

And then, shortly before George McManus invented Maggie and Jiggs, Ireland’s Abbey Theatre players came to New York for their first American tour, which lasted from September 1911 to March 1912. Their production of John M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World opened on Broadway to a hail of over-ripe vegetables on November 27, 1911. Ten people were arrested and 100 ejected from the audience. The Playboy had been treated similarly when it opened in Dublin in 1907, and during the 1911-12 tour protests also accompanied performances in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago.30 Indeed, it is hard to blame these Irish and Irish-American newly middle-class audiences for failing to embrace the portraits of Christy Mahon, an accidental hero via patricide, the priest-ridden and cowardly Shaun Keough, the bold harridan Pegeen Mike, and her ineffectual, drunken father Michael James. At this point in the social history of these cultures, the distinction between justifiable satire and mocking stereotype was too subtle to mitigate the response.

The lesson of these protests was not lost on George McManus, the son of a theater manager. It was clear that broad satire at the expense of the Irish could cause trouble, and McManus must have known that creating Maggie and Jiggs constituted a calculated risk—especially when Bringing Up Father became madly popular. By January 1914, the strip was going so well that McManus discontinued all the other daily strips he had started for Hearst, and the initial collection in book form, published by Cupples and Leon (New York) in 1915, sold an amazing 1.5 million copies in twenty-four editions. The fine line that McManus walked in the strip’s early years is a measure of his genius. Not to name the Irish—or other immigrant groups, for the most part—in his strip was crucial to this delicate negotiation.31

In the Collier’s piece McManus’s understanding of the challenges of balancing character with caricature is clear. Jiggs began as “a burly, hod-carrying type of shanty Irishman,” undeniably

harsher, cruder, in his early manifestations. Almost always he appeared, when at home, in his sock feet and without a shirt. He rarely does that now, because neither does anyone else. And Jiggs must be a recognizable human type, even though his actions are fantastically exaggerated. Jiggs, as he was originally, almost certainly would shock readers of comic pages in this second half of the twentieth century, even though he may have been hilariously funny 40 years ago.

Moreover, her creator judges that Maggie may have changed even more. When the strip began in 1913, she was “grotesque, as primitive as were the comics and the drawing in those days; nowadays such a caricature would be almost repulsive.” Her character has evolved as well. Having started out as simply “the wife of a hod carrier who had suddenly struck it rich,” a brash young woman thoroughly familiar with “a saloon’s family entrance and the ‘growler’,” Maggie has become “more subtle in looks and more refined in her attitudes, however fundamental her reaction to Jiggs’s misdemeanors.” “Well-groomed and chic,” she is comfortable at society dinners and tony night clubs. She used to throw rolling pins at Jiggs; now she throws vases.32

McManus’s avoidance of explicit mention of Ireland and the Irish also springs from the ground notes of realism, good-heartedness, and universality in Bringing Up Father. Everyone knows the characters are Irish Americans, so, realistically, they wouldn’t be going around labeling one another. Nor would name-calling or identification of unattractive traits as “Irish” be plausible from within the ethnic community itself. Not even Maggie, who wants to forget the family’s shared ethnic past, would presume to such behavior. Furthermore, McManus augments the generalizing power of the strip by avoiding the specific ethnic identification.

In Collier’s his analysis of Bringing Up Father is astute and illuminating. He sees his characters as “burlesques of basic human characteristics.… On a low comedy plane, Jiggs and Maggie represent what James Thurber with more sophistication has satirized as the ‘War between Men and Women.'” Maggie conveys “woman’s outrage at man’s seeming insensitivity and disregard for what she considers proper and dignified living.” Jiggs “represents man’s eternal struggle to be himself in this modern world. Always he strives against what he considers feminine domination and a womanly desire to mold him into an ideal image. His resistance is constant, but so are his respect and tolerance, so he usually fights back obliquely.” As their creator understands it, the key to the success and longevity of this constantly quarreling couple is that “Jiggs and Maggie are, obviously, in love.” Their fights are neither vicious nor permanently damaging. “They assert themselves, and because they do, because they quarrel and rid themselves of their emotional pressures, they remain happy and married.” “Not,” McManus continues, “that you ever should look for real psychological or social significance in the strip. Bringing Up Father is still burlesque, and people read it because they think it is funny. I also suspect that they believe it applies to everybody but themselves.”33

Twenty years earlier, McManus had articulated the same vision in saying that, “[a] successful comic series must have characters that are something more than funny drawings. As the series builds up followers, the characters begin to take on real life. They become so real that the constant readers see something of themselves reflected in them, and who would like to see himself reflected as slapping his wife’s face in public or coming home full of tanglefoot?”34 On this point of what to leave out of a comic strip, McManus amplifies by using a single, sufficient criterion:

I rarely show people kissing. It isn’t funny—and Father is supposed to be that, certainly; what’s more, people seem to object to it. I never refer to death either. Tombstones never are shown, nor criminal acts, and I avoid real violence. There is never any real injury shown in the strip. If somebody gets kicked, you don’t see the kick, but rather the scene just after it. Even Maggie’s burlesque attacks on Jiggs follow these rules. Jiggs is almost always shown after the storm—not during it.”35

George McManus’s interviews and commentary give the impression of a good and decent man. The facts of his marriage add a dimension of sadness to what was by any measure a spectacular professional success. Florence Bergere had been a showgirl in a musical comedy based on McManus’s Panhandle Pete strip, and they married in New York in December 1908. McManus often said that she was the model for Jiggs and Maggie’s lovely daughter Nora. In the late 1920s, Florence contracted a never-specified illness and became a semi-invalid, and the couple moved to southern California in 1931 for her health. McManus built and staffed a house for his wife in Santa Monica, and took up separate residence in the Sunset Towers Hotel in Hollywood, not far from his Beverly Hills studio. They had no children and he predeceased her.

In concluding the Collier’s series, McManus summed up the “fine life” that he and Jiggs have shared, musing that this “world of lights and laughter” may well “seem careless, even irresponsible” to many. And yet, “Jiggs and I have moved happily in its provinces.”

I am not a widely lettered man. My reading has been casual, but I happen to remember a quotation from Marcus Aurelius that impressed itself upon me. It goes like this: “Love thy art, poor as it may be, which thou hast learned, and be content with it, thyself neither the tyrant nor the slave of any man.” Jiggs and I wouldn’t put it quite like that but we would mean the same thing.36


Right from the start with Nibsy the Newsboy and other early strips, George McManus was a remarkable draftsman, unsurpassed in his ability to create panoramic central panels that were complex yet controlled, featuring detailed background tableaux and vividly individualized foreground figures. Stephen Becker says that “his style was, by 1905, fully formed.… His line was already clean and sure; his backgrounds were open and uncluttered; he had begun to use the patch of black as a focal point. The facial expressions were beautifully simple: using the angle of the mouth and the level of the eyebrows, McManus ran his creations through a rainbow of emotions, and he carried the technique to its ultimate with Jiggs.”37

Zeke Zekley, his assistant after 1935, also sheds light on McManus’s art:

As far as the drawing was concerned, I think that everybody in those days who wanted to be a cartoonist liked filling empty space with cross-hatching or shading without any real meaning. And from George I learned that black and a simple white line was very effective. I think he must have been influenced at one time by the Japanese who place a high value on clean lines and solid blacks. I know he was influenced by Charles Dana Gibson in handling girls’ hairstyles.”38

In the Collier’s interviews, McManus clarifies his own aesthetic principles and development. Technically, he asserts that, “I like to do my own drawing, and in ink,” and that “my colors are delicate because my drawing is delicate. Some people have been good enough to say that my sense of line and form is remarkable, although I never have worked in oils, pastels or watercolors. I am simply a cartoonist and I doubt if I would be able to execute an oil painting. (Or maybe “execute” is what I would do to it.)” McManus has seen that, “The older I get the more fastidious I try to be in my drawing. So the simpler I become. Altogether, I think I do better because of it.”39

Certainly, the earlier strips evince the sheer joy of the artist setting challenges for himself. McManus admits to having pushed the boundaries of the comics—literally—as far back as the strip, Ready Money Ladies, for which one day in 1904, “there were a couple of figures I wanted to get into a picture frame hanging on a wall, but for balance and design the frame couldn’t be large enough to accommodate them. So I simply drew them outside the frame as well as inside. I’ve been doing that sort of thing ever since, and it’s become a sort of trade-mark of the strip.” This is the origin of what Brian Walker sees as the “increasing visual playfulness” and “surreal lightheartedness” of Bringing Up Father in later years: “A fisherman casts his line beyond both his picture frame and the panel border—a discreetly-framed bathing beauty drops her cake of soap—flyers and catchers do acrobatic mid-air somersaults between one picture frame and another—a miniature kegler tosses his bowling ball in one panel, only to be upended by the loose ball and flying pins that come sailing in from panel-left while his back is turned.”40

McManus also recalls that “as recently as 10 years ago [in the early 1940s] I had more than 20 characters in a party scene at Dinty Moore’s, but it was such an exhausting piece of work that I’ve never tried anything like it since.” And he remembers that, “because of my passion for detail in backgrounds, I once spent two weeks on one picture. This was a New Year’s Day in the late thirties and I had Jiggs looking north in New York’s Times Square, with the Square faithfully pictured in every detail. But no more.” Novelist William Kennedy cites this feat as evidence that “compared to what today passes for cartooning, Jiggs qualifies as a kind of War and Peace of the Golden Age of the funny papers.”41

Figure 4: Bringing Up Father, December 31, 1939

During these peak years, McManus was as likely to create prodigiously packed yet balanced renderings in daily strips as on Sundays. For example, in early 1937 he produced a number of daily panels of surpassing generosity of spirit. One large family has to count up their children every night—there are seventeen of them (Jan. 5, 1937); for a fishing excursion of “the boys” from the neighborhood, the boat holds more than forty people (Jan. 30, 1937); a “good old picnic when nearly all the neighbors would show up” features at least thirty-five men, women, and children (Feb. 11, 1937); and the crowd at a circus parade numbers more than forty (Feb. 18, 1937).

Brian Walker notes McManus’s mastery of the “style Moderne” (known more recently as “Art Deco”) from the late 1920s on. In Bringing Up Father, the furniture, backgrounds, and people’s clothes feature “sleekness and streamlining,” along with “bright, bold color work in concert with symmetrical lines and geometric shapes (chevrons and ziggurats were especially popular recurring elements in the movement’s heyday).” Walker points out that “the decorative glamour and elegance of Art Deco” helped sustain McManus’s popularity.42


George McManus’s artistic prime and primal ethnicity both occurred in the decade of the 1930s. The profligate, generous complexity and color of two major sequences that he created in those years are a direct answer to the privations and disappointments of the Great Depression. These gorgeous comic strips would have been especially welcome to Irish-American readers, many of whom had lost jobs and middle-class status during the tough times. The high point for ethnicity was the group of “Remember When” strips beginning in February 1933 in which Jiggs looks back to his and Maggie’s youth in Irish working-class Brooklyn. The aesthetic high point was the sequence of strips running from September 1939 to August 1940 that chronicles the family’s Grand Tour of the United States.

Early in 1933, partly as a sympathetic response to the Depression, McManus began drawing strips that featured recollections by Jiggs, and to a much lesser extent by Maggie, of the old days in their Brooklyn neighborhood before they got rich. His most explicitly ethnic creations, these strips were McManus’s homage to the vanished world of nineteenth-century Irish America. In the first one (Sunday, February 5), Jiggs is laughing over an old photo album with hand-scripted captions that chronicle family history. The impressive realistic detail will be a hallmark of the series. The earliest dated photograph is “Maggie with mama and papa at Coney Island—June 9, 1888.” Then there is “Picture taken in front of house on Dill Street near the Gas house” with young children “Maggie and Larry at play” along with family dog Rover, “The best ratter in town.” Behind them, Maggie’s mother sits on the stoop of a run-down shanty. There’s a washtub on the roof covering a hole. We see a photo of six-year-old Maggie in pigtails, “Taken in the alley” and dated July 6, 1894, followed by a 1903 picture of Maggie “taken in front of Washentear Laundry where she worked.”

Figure 5: Bringing Up Father, February 5, 1933

Jiggs enters the scene in a shot dated Sunday, May 1, 1907, which shows the pair out courting in a horse and buggy “loaned by our grocer,” and two years later we see them “at the Ash-wagon drivers’ picnic” on April 7, 1909. The climax of this complex strip is their wedding picture, dated January 3, 1911, and labeled “Jiggs leads Maggie to the preacher. That ended his leadership.” The latest dated picture (August 6, 1913) shows “Our daughter Nora on way to Casey’s brick-yard with daddy’s dinner.”

For the Sunday-comics audience in the Depression era, this was a most welcome riff on the good—and not so good—old days. Throughout the rest of 1933 and on through the decade, McManus created variations on the themes struck here. Jiggs informs Maggie that “I remember when your folks arrived from the old country,” and we see Maggie’s parents, weighted down with children and baggage, gazing out at the Statue of Liberty. The mother asks the father to “Count the kids again an’ see if they’re all here,” and one child announces, “I’m gonna be a policeman” (August 27, 1933). McManus illustrated many more of the early employment options for the Irish all through the “Remember When” strips. We learn that Maggie’s father found work as a pick-and-shovel laborer—Jiggs recalls that as kids, he and Maggie would bring his lunch to him and “we’d sit down an’ watch him work. I think he invented slow motion” (May 14, 1933). Her cousin Joe “wuz captain of a canal boat” and “he’d let you on board if you washed his clothes” (August 27, 1933); her brother Danny “got a job as engineer an’ we all waited at the station to see him bring the train in” (December 31, 1933); and her uncle Reddy drove a hansom cab (February 9, 1936). We also learn that Jiggs got his first raise “workin’ in Finnigan’s brick yard” (April 30, 1933), and that “we envied the brick-top Dugan kids because their brother wuz a lamp-post lighter” (August 27, 1933).

With his Depression audience in mind, McManus included several recollections of just how poor some of the Irish had been at the turn of the century. Jiggs recalls throwing rocks at passing trains so that the engineers would retaliate with lumps of coal, which other children would then pick up and take home for the family stove (May 14, 1933). In the same strip, he makes a point about relative wealth by declaring that “when the rich Mehaffey kids wuz sick, they had a real doctor call at their house.”

Figure 6: Bringing Up Father, May 14, 1933

Jiggs also recollects the hardships of winter in his neighborhood’s cold-water flats, where the wash basin froze over and people stuck their feet in the oven to get warm, and after a blizzard you’d have to pour hot water on the kitchen door to get out of the house (December 31, 1933, January 28, 1937). He says that Maggie’s mother “used to save all th’ old papers an’ give them to your kid brother to sell on dark corners at night as extras” (August 16, 1936).

In some of these panels, pathos eclipses humor, but McManus redresses the balance—after all, this was the comics—by chronicling the Irish-American community’s cost-effective leisure activities. As kids, Jiggs recalls, “I’d meet you on the way to the store an’ I’d carry your basket an’ let you carry the bucket” of beer for his father (April 30, 1933). “Stuck up Dinny Dugan” rides “his high wheel bicycle” through the Brooklyn streets (April 30, 1933), and Olga O’Shay puts on airs of her own by wearing “them bicycle bloomers” (May 14, 1933). All the kids watch baseball games through knotholes or perched on telephone poles (May 14, 1933; February 9, 1936), and the whole neighborhood goes to the beach in the summertime. Jiggs proposes to Maggie on the boat to Coney Island, and she and her brother “Scratch” are nearly arrested there for wearing “immodest bathin’ suits” (April 30, May 14, 1933). Finally, there’s plenty of fun at Sunday dinner, which Jiggs recalls as a raucous free-for-all, “when the family would git together an’ fight” (August 27, 1933).

Music, dancing, and theater are major threads throughout the “Remember When” strips. Jiggs reminds Maggie that “the old gang would git together at your house on Saturday night an’ sing all the old tunes—they wuz known as ‘the Alley-Cats Quartette'” (April 30, 1933). As a child, Maggie used to dance on the sidewalk “to the good old tune of ‘Two Little Girls in Blue'” (April 30, 1933), and sing the classic music-hall song “Down Went McGinty” while hanging out the clothes (August 27, 1933). Music dominates one complex Sunday strip (August 10, 1941) in which eleven panels, all of different shapes and sizes, illustrate Maggie’s assertion that “how marvelous it is that all my relations are all talented in the world of music”; to which Jiggs replies, “Yes—it is marvelous that you think so” (August 10, 1941). His memories constitute serious revisionism, as with one of Maggie’s brothers who “always wanted to play the piano—now he’s living in a piano box,” and another whose dream of “open[ing] at the Metropolitan” has turned into a job “opening and calling cabs there.”

Inspired by his own upbringing around St. Louis theaters, McManus has Jiggs recall several trips to local music halls in the old days. He reminds Maggie that “your sister cried when she went to see that melodrama, ‘Hearts Apart—or Where Is the Ace?’ Her beau cried too—for his money back” (August 16, 1936). And he marvels at “how many lodge meetings were scheduled for that night” when a burlesque show, “The Gaiety Girls,” came to “the Opera House” (February 8, 1942). Elsewhere, a single panel succinctly evokes “the good old days of vaudeville.” A small man and a large woman with a big feathered hat are doing a turn on stage, and the caption brings the memory back into community context: “Tommy an’ his sister did a dancing act. He used to swing her around in the air. By the way—where is he buried?” (April 26, 1942).

Figure 7: Bringing Up Father, April 26, 1942

In the strips set in the present, Jiggs is always sneaking out to Dinty Moore’s for an hour or two of solace with his old pals. Naturally, saloons figure large in his memories as well. “Gilamphy’s Place” was the barroom where Maggie’s grandfather “loved to spend his time and your brother Jim’s salary. He lived to be eighty and never used glasses. He drank out of the bottle.” At “Rooney’s Place,” a quartet used to sing “Sweet Rosie O’Grady,” “until the boss in the boiler factory next door complained about the noise” (February 9, 1936).

This particular Sunday strip is a good example of McManus’s skill at composition. In Rooney’s saloon, patches of bright yellow mark out three groups of men—singers, card players, and leaners on the bar. Around this central scene are three panels, also with yellow highlights, and full of children: some watch a ballgame from a telephone pole, some are having their Saturday night bath (“I don’t need a bath—I had one last week”), and some are walking with their mother “to the jail to visit their father. In later years the kids didn’t have to go. They were all in jail with him.” This dense but controlled cluster of four panels is McManus’s judicious visual commentary on the saloon as occasional refuge from the demands of family life.

Figure 8: Bringing Up Father, February 9, 1936

One great Sunday strip (February 23, 1936) illustrates the gap between nostalgia and reality among the American Irish regarding the old days. Jiggs hires a genealogist, “Professor Will Tracem,” who promises “not [to] leave a brick unturned” in exploring the family’s ancestry. Maggie declares, “I just know there is a knight on my side of the family,” but she collapses with a screech when confronted with the actual heirlooms, complete with labels, discovered by the “professor.” These include a laborer’s pick (“The pick of the family 1860”); a hod for carrying bricks (“Uncle Jerry’s brief case 1874”); a pile of bricks (“Granda Dinny’s calling cards”); a wheelbarrow (“Cousin Larry’s family roadster 1880”); a set of tongs for ice blocks (“Uncle Paddy’s first social connection”); a rolling pin (“Auntie Bridget’s coaxer”); a metal bucket with handle (“Timothy’s dinner pail also used for beer”); and a nondescript small box with a startling label that dramatically darkens the tone of the piece: “Box made by Mickey before he was hanged.”43

Figure 9: Bringing Up Father, February 23, 1936

The forty-one-year run of Bringing Up Father ended two months after George McManus’s death from hepatitis at age seventy in Santa Monica, California, on October 22, 1954.44 Fittingly, McManus’s final Sunday strip was in the retrospective mode. Appearing on December 19, 1954, it shows Maggie and Jiggs looking through one last photo album. Maggie opens the strip declaring, “Jiggs, I just love to look through this old album,” to which her husband replies, “So do I—it brings back fond memories.” All the pictures are on the light side. There is a boy who “fell for” Maggie’s sister, “but fortunately a clothesline broke his fall”; a cousin who had the first automobile in the neighborhood who “wouldn’t give any of the neighbors a ride! But they soon got revenge—nobody would give him a push!”; and a sleeping uncle with his feet in the stove who “invented the ‘hotfoot’—but it was strictly by accident!” In terms of theme and content, it is the social realism of Bringing Up Father that makes the strip so important. The essence of this is the collision of Irish-American working-class and bourgeois values, embodied in the on-going battles between Jiggs and Maggie. As William Kennedy has said: “Jiggs spoke for his look-alikes in their ascendancy out of poverty into the sweet-smelling region of money. It was the specifics of these contrasting worlds that made the story of Maggie and Jiggs valuable originally and keeps it valuable today as peerless social history.”45

McManus also contributed mightily to the development of the comic strip as an American art form. What comics historian Bill Blackbeard has called “the graphic glory of McManus’s work” was at its height in the 1939-40 sequence where the whole family goes on an extended tour of the United States prompted by daughter Nora’s marriage to the English aristocrat, Lord Worthnotten.46 McManus recalled this venture as his “weirdest on record.” When the transcontinental trip was announced, requests that the characters visit specific towns poured into the offices of King Features. “Since it was excellent promotion, I acceded to the demands. The result was that Jiggs and Maggie and Nora went from New York to California via practically every state in the Union and through the Dominion of Canada as well. And each stop had to be shown accurately, lest the strip offend somebody. That was probably the toughest job of my career.”47

The series began in the daily strip for September 4, 1939, and continued both daily and Sunday through July 7, 1940. McManus met the challenge of geographical inclusiveness mostly in the daily strips, which featured stops in fifty-odd cities and towns, from Akron and Amarillo to Tulsa and Lake Tahoe. The family visits Washington, D. C., twice in the dailies (in January and March 1940), and Jiggs meets FDR, Vice President Garner, and J. Edgar Hoover. But it was the Sunday strips that allowed full rein to McManus’s gift for composing prodigiously complex and colorful panels. In addition to New Year’s Eve in Times Square, highlights included panoramic views of Boulder Dam, the Grand Canyon, and Niagara Falls, and richly detailed renderings of Philadelphia’s Independence Square, the Capitol Mall in Washington, Old Ironsides in Boston harbor, and downtown Pittsburgh as seen from the steel skeleton of a rising skyscraper.48

The family attends a dinner party in Chicago in the Sunday strip for April 21, 1940, at the mansion of “Mr. and Mrs. Philip Atmeals.” On the way in, Maggie says that “their cuisine is noted in social circles all over the country,” to which Jiggs replies, “I never met her cousin, but yer cousin ‘Bimmy’ is known all over the country.” The lovingly rendered central panel features the packed dinner table in a room with elaborate style Moderne decor. The chandelier, columns, and banister also suggest the Chicago tradition of lush, organic ornamentation pioneered by Irish-American architect Louis Sullivan.

Figure 10: Bringing Up Father, April 21, 1940

On January 7, 1940, the entourage returned to their old neighborhood in Brooklyn. Most of the strip consists of four large panels, each a beauty. In the first, the family looks across the East River at the complicated skyline of Manhattan, a pink jumble of buildings and docks at water level and a soaring symphony of blue skyscrapers above. In the second, they are on their old street and Jiggs gets a barrage of greetings from friends who hang from windows and fences amid a flurry of flapping laundry. (Maggie responds, “Let’s get out of here—I told you not to come down in the slums.”) Next, the family is on a street looking for a cab. Behind them is the Brooklyn Bridge in striking black silhouette. Lord Worthnotten has a trenchant comment: “I rather liked that congested lane—they all seemed so happy.” In the last panel, another sort of perspective comes when Maggie’s former co-workers lean out the window of the Rippin Laundry. One asks, “How does it feel to live on th’ other side of the railroad tracks—now?” and another remarks, “We miss you—and we missed a lot of shirts when you left.” Predictably, Jiggs’s response is no help at all: “They are not all friends of yours, Maggie—some of them are relatives.”

Figure 11: Bringing Up Father, January 7, 1940

One of the greatest Bringing Up Father strips is a tour-de-force combining thematic social realism and ebullient complexity of design. In the opening panel at the top left, Maggie, Jiggs, and Nora are at table in their elegant dining room, surrounded by three hovering servants, each holding a silver platter. Jiggs is preparing to flee (“I have a director’s meetin’ today. I’m late now, me darlin'”), while Maggie protests that “It’s so lovely here at home. I cannot understand why you want to go out.” The rest of the strip is one marvelously complicated panel depicting a Brooklyn street scene. Jiggs and a policeman are in the foreground. The former says “It’s grand to see th’ old neighborhood ag’in,” and the latter replies, “Yes, but it has changed. It’s quiet now.” Belying the cop’s statement, the panorama surrounding them contains eighty-one people (at least), eight dogs, three cats, two birds, and a duck. There are fence-sitters, hangers, and walkers. There’s a roof-top card game and several fights brewing, both human and animal. There is wash being hung, shopping being done, newspapers being read, windows and front stoops being sat at. There is plenty of music in the air—including a man practicing his tuba, a boy playing a guitar while seated on a ladder, and a girl belting out “Only a bird in a gilded cage” on the piano. There are kids playing ring-around-a-rosie, flying a kite, exploring Jiggs’s automobile, riding in a home-made cart, and swinging from lamp post and telephone pole. Thirty-three different people speak, and McManus includes bits of conversation from both the sunshine and the shadow of urban working-class life: “Git a dime’s worth and tell Dugan not so much foam.… Hello, Mrs. Katzenrats. When did your husband git out of jail? … Sammy, don’t move. Let the auto drive around you.… How’d you pay yer rent this month?—I sold th’ kitchen door.… Is it true yer husband is thinkin’ about goin’ to work?—Who said he could think?” Two of the dogs also speak. Both of them say “Arf.” This strip appeared at dead center in the Depression, on Sunday, November 15, 1936. A welcome message to McManus’s audience is the clear contrast between the stiff and sterile uptown mansion (even the chairs look unsit-able) and the bustling, vibrant Brooklyn street corner.

Figure 12: Bringing Up Father, November 15, 1936

With all this activity, the composition of the strip is masterfully controlled. The foreground focus is Jiggs’s black suit and bright red vest, and dashes of the red run through and integrate the central panel. The lower left echoes the upper right through horizontal blocks of yellow (a fence and a building facade) and patches of light blue (Jiggs’s automobile and the sky). A progression of verticals organizes the whole: the corners of buildings, a lamppost, a telephone pole, a stack of twelve hats balanced on one man’s head, and background skyscrapers. The whole piece is a fully realized genre scene like something out of Brueghal, rendered with the intense detail and organizing pattern of a carpet-page from the Book of Kells, and delivered to America’s front stoop on a Sunday morning.


[1] Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (New York: Random House, 2000), p. 75. In addition to the books cited in this essay, other collections of McManus’s Bringing Up Father comic strips are: Bill Blackbeard, ed., George McManus, Bringing Up Father, The Hyperion Library of Classic American Comic Strips (Westport, CT: Hyperion, 1977) and Herb Galewitz, ed. Bringing Up Father: Starring Maggie and Jiggs (New York: Scribner’s, 1973).

[2] “The Funny Papers,” Fortune VII: 4 (April 1933): 45, 48. My thanks to Ed Brunner for this reference and many others that have helped me along the way.

[3] George McManus with Henry La Cossett, “Jiggs and I,” Collier’s 129 (January 19, 1952): 10, 11, 66. McManus with La Cossett, “Take Corned Beef and Cabbage,” Collier’s 129 (January 26, 1952): 69. Spread over three issues, the Collier’s interview is the best single source for understanding McManus.

[4] McManus with La Cossett, “Take Corned Beef and Cabbage,” Collier’s 129 (January 26, 1952): 68.

[5] McManus with La Cossett, “But Jiggs and Maggie Are in Love,” Collier’s 129 (February 2, 1952): 39. “Jiggs: the 25th Birthday of a Corned-Beef-and Cabbage Craze,” Newsweek VI: 20 (November 16, 1935): 29.

[6] McManus with La Cossett, “Take Corned Beef and Cabbage,” 68.

[7] “Sounding the Doom of the ‘Comics’,” Current Literature 45 (Dec. 1908): 632.

[8] Stephen Becker, Comic Art in America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959), p. 42.

[9] “Comics—and Their Creators,” The Literary Digest 117 (March 24, 1934): 13.

[10] McManus with LaCossett, “Take Corned Beef and Cabbage,” 67.

[11] Brian Walker, The Comics Before 1945 (New York: Abrams, 2004), pp. 6-45.

[12] Rick Marschall, “George McManus’s Pioneer Work of Fantasy: Nibsy the Newsboy,” Classic Comics Library 9 (Oct. 1984): 21. The issue reproduces the entire run of eight Nibsy strips.

[13] An 1895 article in the American Journal of Psychology describes “‘The Fairies’ of New York”: “The avocations which inverts follow are frequently feminine in their nature. They are fond of the actor’s life, and particularly that of the comedian requiring the dressing in female attire, and the singing in imitation of a female voice, in which they often excel.” J. E. Lighter, ed. Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Volume I, A-G (New York: Random House, 1994), p. 718.

[14] Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives, Studies among the Tenements of New York (1890; rpt. ed. Sam Bass Warner, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), pp. 40-49, 207-41.

[15] McManus with La Cossett, “Jiggs and I,” 66.

[16] McManus with La Cossett, “But Jiggs,” 31.

[17] “Bringing Up Father by Geo McManus,” Cartoonist Profiles 44 (Dec. 1979): 18.

[18] McManus with La Cossett, “Jiggs and I,” 67.

[19] “William Barry in The Rising Generation, Week Commencing Sunday, October 20, 1895.” Grand Opera House Programme, Missouri Historical Society Library (St. Louis), Theater Programs Collection, Box 20.

[20] “The Men Who Come Over from Ireland,” New York: Spaulding & Gray, 1896. Bodleian Library, Oxford, England. My thanks to Michael Griffin for tracking this down for me.

[21] The published plays begin with The Mulligan Guard Picnic (1878) and end with Cordelia’s Aspirations (1883). A convenient source of this material is Edward Harrigan’s novel, The Mulligans (New York: Dillingham, 1901), which is a compilation of incidents from the plays. See also William H. A. Williams, “Green Again: Irish-American Lace-Curtain Satire,” New Hibernia Review 6:2 (Summer 2002): 9-24.

[22] These forgotten plays are analyzed in Patricia L. Ireland, Blarney Streets: The Staging of Ireland and Irish America by the Chicago Manuscript Company, unpublished dissertation, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, 1998. Texts are in the Sherman Theater Collection at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

[23] Grand Opera House Programmes, Missouri Historical Society Library (St. Louis), Theater Programs Collection, Boxes 20, 64, 65. “Jiggs: the 25th Birthday,” Newsweek VI (20): 29.

[24] Jeffrey Lindenblatt, ed., George McManus’s Bringing Up Father, Forever Nuts Classic Screwball Strips (New York: Nantier, Beall, Minoustchine, 2009).

[25] Brian Walker, “Being an Artist Is Like Laying Bricks,” in Bringing Up Father: From Sea to Shining Sea: Maggie & Jiggs in The Famous Cross-Country Tour of 1939-40 (San Diego: IDW Publishing, 2009), p. 12.

[26] In The Newlyweds and Their Baby for Sunday, May 21, 1905, the troublesome parrot shouts “Down wid de Irish” out the window, bringing a gang of pick-and-shovel laborers who beat up “Mr. Newlywed.” I haven’t seen all the early strips by any means, but this is the one and only explicit mention of Irishness that I have found there—or anywhere else in McManus’s oeuvre.

[27] See John J. Appel, “From Shanties to Lace Curtains: the Irish Image in Puck, 1876-1910,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 13 (Oct. 1971): 365-75; and L. Perry Curtis, Jr., Apes and Angels: The Irishman in Victorian Caricature (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1971).

[28] Brian Walker, The Comics Before 1945, pp. 36-44.

[29] See Charles Fanning, The Irish Voice in America: 250 Years of Irish-American Fiction, Second edition (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000), Chapter Five, “Respectability and Realism,” pp. 153-97; and the essays in Timothy J. Meagher, ed. From Paddy to Studs: Irish-American Communities in the Turn of the Century Era, 1880-1920 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986).

[30] John P. Harrington, The Irish Play on the New York Stage, 1874-1966 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997), pp. 55-74.

[31] R. C. Harvey, “Father Was More Than Just Another Nut Case,” in Jeffrey Lindenblatt, ed., George McManus’s Bringing Up Father, p. 10; McManus with La Cossett, “Jiggs and I,” 10; “Comics—and Their Creators,” The Literary Digest, 13.

[32] McManus with La Cossett, “But Jiggs,” 31, 39. In a very useful essay, Kerry Soper places Bringing Up Father in the competing contexts of ethnic humor and the challenges of assimilation and social mobility among ethnic groups in turn of the century America. To summarize McManus’s mediating genius, Soper praises “the fluid nature of a character like Jiggs who could help a variety of reading audiences to negotiate playfully cultural pressures and anxieties by wearing the mask of ethnic caricature lightly and alternately acting as scapegoat, sympathetic everyman, romantic ethnic other, wise fool, and subversive trickster.” “Performing ‘Jiggs’: Irish Caricature and Comedic Ambivalence toward Assimilation and the American Dream in George McManus’s Bringing Up Father,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 4: 2 (2005): 213.

[33] McManus with La Cossett, “But Jiggs,” 31.

[34] “McManus Points Road to Comic Art Success,” King Features Special Newspaper Supplement 20th Anniversary of Bringing Up Father, 1932: 4.

[35] McManus with La Cossett, “But Jiggs,” 39. Corroborating here is the list of “cartoonists’ taboos” in the 1933 piece for Fortune on “The Funny Papers”: “You cannot show a character taking a drink”—McManus disobeys this one regularly—”and of course you cannot show a character drunk.” While a wife may assault her husband, “you cannot show the Husband character inflicting reprisals on the Wife.” There’s no profanity allowed—” dashes, exclamation marks, and stars” must fill in here. And “the humor must be drawn from racial traits and not directed at them.” This last is crucial to McManus’s success. “The Funny Papers,” Fortune VII: 4 (April 1933): 92.

[36] McManus with La Cossett, “But Jiggs,” 41; “Is a Real Newlywed Now,” New York Times, December 24, 1908. Brian Walker, “Being an Artist Is Like Laying Bricks,” p. 12; R. C. Harvey, “Father Was More Than Just Another Nut Case,” p. 14; A Third of a Century with George McManus, Illustrated program of a dinner at the Hotel Waldorf Astoria on November 29, 1945. Bob Callahan kindly provided a copy of this rare item.

[37] Becker, Comic Art in America, p. 45.

[38] “Bringing Up Father,” Cartoonist Profiles, 17. The attraction to Japanese art was mutual. Beginning in January 1923, Bringing Up Father was the first comic strip to be serialized in Japan. With rice and fish substituting for corned beef and cabbage, Jiggs and Maggie appeared in the Asahi Graphic Weekly beside Shōchan’s Adventure, the first indigenous Japanese strip. Shunsuke Tsurumi, “Edo Period in Contemporary Popular Culture,” Modern Asian Studies 18: 4 (1984): 750.

[39] McManus with La Cossett, “But Jiggs,” 41.

[40] McManus with La Cossett, “But Jiggs,” 39; Brian Walker, “Being an Artist,” p. 20.

[41] McManus with La Cossett, “But Jiggs,” 39; William Kennedy, “Introduction,” Jiggs Is Back, Library of Irish American Literature and Culture, volume 1 (Berkeley, California: Celtic Book Company, 1986), p. 7. This wonderful collection of the very best of Bringing Up Father is one of the many pioneering gifts to Irish-American scholarship of its publisher, Bob Callahan.

[42] Brian Walker, “Being an Artist,” pp. 18-19.

[43] The theme of this strip is well glossed by John V. Kelleher’s memorably grim definition of “the Irish contribution to America”: “What they really mean is that from the 1840s on, floods of Irish immigrants gave the country what it had not had before, a huge fund of poor, unskilled, cheap, almost infinitely exploitable labor, and that this labor force was expended, with a callousness now hard to comprehend, in building the railroads and dams and mills, in digging the canals, in any crude, backbreaking job. The contribution was real enough, but it would be difficult to distinguish it from the drafthorse contribution to America, and it was rewarded with about as many thanks.” John V. Kelleher, “Irishness in America,” in Charles Fanning, ed., Selected Writings of John V. Kelleher on Ireland and Irish America (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002), p. 151.

[44] “George McManus Is Dead at 70.” New York Times, October 22, 1954, p. 15.

[45] Kennedy, Jiggs Is Back, p. 7.

[46] Bill Blackbeard, “Reading the Riot Act,” Jiggs Is Back, p. 14.

[47] McManus with La Cossett, “But Jiggs,” 39. The entire series of strips, daily and Sunday, is reprinted in Bringing Up Father: From Sea to Shining Sea: Maggie & Jiggs in The Famous Cross-Country Tour of 1939-40 (San Diego: IDW Publishing, 2009).

[48] The dates of the Sunday strips mentioned here are as follows: Boulder Dam (December 3, 1939), the Grand Canyon (December 17, 1939), Niagara Falls (January 28, 1940), Philadelphia (February 25, 1940), Washington (March 17, 1940), Boston (March 31, 1940), Pittsburgh (April 28, 1940).

Works Cited

Appel, John J. “From Shanties to Lace Curtains: the Irish Image in Puck, 1876-1910,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 13 (Oct. 1971): 365-75.

Becker, Stephen. Comic Art in America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959.

Blackbeard, Bill. Reading the Riot Act. Jiggs Is Back. By George McManus. Berkeley, California: Celtic Book Company, 1986. 14.

“Bringing Up Father by George McManus,” Interview with Zeke Zekley. Cartoonist Profiles 44 (Dec. 1979). 14-23.

Chabon, Michael. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. New York: Random House, 2000.

“Comics—and Their Creators,” The Literary Digest 117 (March 24, 1934): 13.

Curtis, L. Perry Jr. Apes and Angels: The Irishman in Victorian Caricature. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1971.

Fanning, Charles. The Irish Voice in America: 250 Years of Irish-American Fiction. Second edition. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000.

“The Funny Papers,” Fortune VII: 4 (April 1933): 44-49, 92+.

“George McManus Is Dead at 70.” New York Times, October 22, 1954. 15.

Grand Opera House Programmes, Missouri Historical Society Library (St. Louis), Theater Programs Collection, Boxes 20, 64, 65.

Harrigan, Edward. The Mulligans. New York: Dillingham, 1901.

Harrington, John P. The Irish Play on the New York Stage, 1874-1966. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997.

Harvey, R. C. “Father Was More Than Just Another Nut Case.” George McManus’s Bringing Up Father. Ed. Jeffrey Lindenblatt. New York: Nantier, Beall, Minoustchine, 2009. 7-15.

Ireland., Patricia L. Blarney Streets: The Staging of Ireland and Irish America. Unpublished Dissertation. Carbondale: Chicago Manuscript Company, 1998.

“Is a Real Newlywed Now,” New York Times, December 24, 1908.

“Jiggs: the 25th Birthday of a Corned-Beef-and Cabbage Craze.” Newsweek VI: 20 (November 16, 1935): 29.

Kelleher, John V. “Irishness in America.” Selected Writings of John V. Kelleher on Ireland and Irish America Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002.

Kennedy, William. Introduction. Jiggs Is Back Library of Irish American Literature and Culture, volume 1. Berkeley, California: Celtic Book Company, 1986.

Lighter, J. E., ed. Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Volume I, A-G. New York: Random House, 1994.

Marschall, Rick. “George McManus’s Pioneer Work of Fantasy: Nibsy the Newsboy,” NEMO, The Classic Comics Library no. 9 (Oct. 1984): 21-37.

“McManus Points Road to Comic Art Success,” King Features Special Newspaper Supplement 20th Anniversary of Bringing Up Father, 1932: 4.

McManus, George and Henry La Cossett. “But Jiggs and Maggie Are in Love.” Collier’s 129 (February 2, 1952): pp. 30-31, 39+.

—. “Jiggs and I,” Collier’s 129 (January 19, 1952): 9-11, 66+.

—. “Take Corned Beef and Cabbage,” Collier’s 129 (January 26, 1952): 24-25, 67+.

Meagher, Timothy J., ed. From Paddy to Studs: Irish-American Communities in the Turn of the Century Era, 1880-1920. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.

McManus, George and Zeke Zekley. Bringing Up Father: From Sea to Shining Sea: Maggie & Jiggs in The Famous Cross-Country Tour of 1939-40. San Diego: IDW Publishing, 2009.

Lindenblatt, Jeffrey ed. George McManus’s Bringing Up Father, Forever Nuts Classic Screwball Strips. New York: Nantier, Beall, Minoustchine, 2009.

“The Men Who Come Over from Ireland,” Bodleian Library, Oxford, England. New York: Spaulding & Gray, 1896.

“Sounding the Doom of the ‘Comics’,” Current Literature 45 (Dec. 1908): 630-33.

Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives, Studies among the Tenements of New York 1890 rpt. ed. Sam Bass Warner. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Soper, Kerry. “Performing ‘Jiggs’: Irish Caricature and Comedic Ambivalence toward Assimilation and the American Dream in George McManus’s Bringing Up Father,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 4: 2 (2005): 173-213.

Tsurumi, Shunsuke. “Edo Period in Contemporary Popular Culture,” Modern Asian Studies 18: 4 (1984): 747-55.

Walker, Brian. “Being an Artist Is Like Laying Bricks.” Bringing Up Father: From Sea to Shining Sea: Maggie & Jiggs in The Famous Cross-Country Tour of 1939-40. By George McManus and Zeke Zekley. San Diego: IDW Publishing, 2009. 9-16.

Walker, Brian. The Comics Before 1945. New York: Abrams, 2004.

“William Barry in The Rising Generation, Week Commencing Sunday, October 20, 1895.” Grand Opera House Programme, Missouri Historical Society Library (St. Louis), Theater Programs Collection, Box 20.

Williams, William H. A. “Green Again: Irish-American Lace-Curtain Satire,” New Hibernia Review 6:2 (Summer 2002): 9-24.

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