When the Bungles Mixed It Up with Their Neighbors on the Battlegrounds of Sunken Heights
BILL BLACKBEARD examines The Bungle Family, the Great Domestic Epic of the Newspaper Strips
Note: Throughout the article, click on the art to enlarge.
The Bungle Family comic strip never made it as a Big Little Book. Or as a Feature Book or as a comic book. It was reprinted just once at the start of the ’20s in the Cupples & Leon format under its initial title of 1914, Home Sweet Home. And its Sunday pages appeared briefly in one or two reprint comic books of the ’30s, with their dialogue balloons severely cut to accommodate the wee eyes of kiddie readers (as if Harry J. Tuthill's saga of a brutally bickering married couple ever attracted such).
As a work of narrative comic art, The Bungle Family effectively went unseen over its quarter-century span except on the daily and Sunday comic pages of American newspapers, with no shelvable record or cinematic adaptation of any kind. Yet the strip appeared in hundreds of papers with virtually no drops from its early years through the ’40s, when Tuthill closed it down to almost universal protests from readers and editors, yielding to their entreaties once for a revival run of a few years, then retiring it firmly in 1945 for good. (For two more decades, Tuthill lived quietly as the wealthy squire of tiny Ferguson, Mo., relishing his days away from drawing-board demands, never knowing the attention that still unborn comic-strip fandom would have brought him from the ’60s on—and perhaps not caring.)
The reason George and Jo Bungle and their grown daughter, Peggy, ebullient apartment house residents of the Sunken Heights suburb of New York City, failed to get between book covers, as virtually all prominent newspaper comic-strip characters did between 1900 and 1950, is that their strip departed radically from the format and content of most other comics page vehicles of their time. Where the majority of strips rejoiced in eye-gripping visual action and settings and featured graphically striking heroes or clowns, largely blunt and brief in their discourse, Tuthill's simply sketched characters appeared only in their apartment house setting for days on end, all but engulfed for much of their static strip existence in 14- and 15-line dialogue balloons, emerging only at some briefly climactic point in the dullest possible urban locales, often in a surprising slapstick turn, but one quickly abandoned for a return to the delightfully funny and acerbic dialogue that was the real mainstay of the strip.
Put simply, The Bungle Family was a prose dialogue feature, akin more to the witty texts of the Renaissance dramatists of England than anything then current on the American scene. Talk and lots of it was the keynote of the Tuthill epic, with art serving as little more than an eye directive to the characters speaking or a sketchy background to indicate a rare change of scene. Obviously there was nothing here that would work in the Big Little Book format (with its total evisceration of balloon gab throughout) and its reliance on colorful panel action to persuade kids to read the text pages to find out wothehell was going on. The Bungle Family was about as wholly an adult comic strip as the field has ever known, eagerly devoured every day by a good deal more literate audience than the newspaper strip has had since the departure of Pogo. Since the purchasers of comic-strip reprint books in the ’30s were virtually all kids or slumming adults looking for simple-minded kicks (reflecting exactly what was actually printed), it is small wonder Tuthill's uniquely grown-up work remained anchored to the comic pages, where adult eyes engaged in the universal newspaper reading of the time would find it—and wholly relish it.
The permanent dramatis personae of the Bungles strip were not large. George and Jo anchored the action for the first dozen years of the daily and Sunday pages, with their grown daughter Peggy slipping in and out of the continuity as the story line permitted. Successive narratives introduced nefarious neighbors who wrought often weird and bizarre havoc to the nebulous tranquility of the Bungle roost, crack-brained entrepreneurs who would fade into the newsprint as they were replaced by fresh scoundrels and obsessed fools. Only the resourceful con man, J. Hartford Oakdale, who regarded the gullible and admiring George as a pivotal functionary in the dapper swindler's self-enriching schemes, stalked the Sunken Heights scene in recurrent appearances over the years. (Tuthill's own admiration for his slick creation's criminal dexterity led him more than once to pursue an engaging story line with Oakdale far away from the Bungle scene—once as far as Brazil—but always with ultimate domestic disaster for George and Jo.) It all read like a deft, daft soap opera set in Purgatory with no time out for good intentions, and new mad pitfalls with every arrival of a fresh set of neighbors.
From 1919 until the early ’30s, The Bungle Family dealt soberly enough with human foes and fools anchored by the brick and cement of Sunken Heights in the functional here and now, right along with marginally similar family strips such as Mr and Mrs and The Gumps. But in 1934 the strip suddenly dipped a toe into the wild side of fantasy and time travel, found it exhilaratingly congenial and plunged in feet first for the next 10 years. The narrative potentials for the strip seemed to have been a revelation to Tuthill (who may simply have discovered the great fun of the science fiction and fantasy then rollicking behind the wonderfully lurid covers of a number of newsstand pulp magazines), and the appeal of augmenting the grotesque humans in his extant strip with bizarre creatures out of time and space took hold of his fancy from then on.
Reader response to this move into the fantastic was not at all favorable. From an impressive newspaper readership of more than 200 papers in the early ’30s, The Bungle Family's circulation dropped to about 70 papers in the ’40s. Tuthill tried to balance things out by developing fantasy themes in the daily strip and holding to the family bickering element the public seemed to prefer in the Sunday page, but to no apparent avail. Still, Tuthill held on to most of his top-circulation dailies, where feature editors and a sophisticated readership continued to relish the strip, so that real income loss was minimized. However, the switch to a smaller daily strip size that affected many strips in the late ’30s, coupled with a frequent chop of the Sundays to half-page format, crippled Tuthill's reliance on marathon gabfests for developing his comic narratives and maintaining a sharp focus on character interplay. His balloon content was cut by half or more, resulting in his turning to less subtle and complex story lines and an emphasis on swifter story movement and punchier comic payoffs, which characterized the strip until its close in 1945. It remained, however, gorgeously funny to the end.
In the story and episode selections here, emphasis has been placed on the late ’30s and the ’40s material in order to provide easily readable examples; a year's worth of the earlier daily strip, rich in verbose and hilarious character exchanges through cloudbanks of jam-packed dialogue balloons can be read in a decent size in the 1977 Hyperion Press volume, The Bungle Family. Equally wordy Sunday pages gambol through two black-and-white enclaves in the 1977 Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, while the daily story that heralded Tuthill's initial venture into science fiction via time travel is readably on tap in The Comic Strip Century of 1998. (These titles can be found in many major libraries where they have not been ripped off.)
Harry J. Tuthill was born to a jester's happy role in Chicago in 1886, pursuing his juvenile turn to funny pitchurs into a couple of early jobs as a political cartoonist and thence to a few experimental daily comic strips, which led to the 1919 introduction of Home Sweet Home. Initially a broadly slapstick family lark (with no hint of what the artist would soon be doing with comic dialogue en extenso), the new strip tickled enough public palates to gain publication in a now-scarce softcover. Shortly afterward the strip developed the "highbrow" element of characterization in comic depth through dialogue, which kept it securely on the comic page and out of the funnybook purview for good. And, unhappily, it is likely to remain accessible now only on newspaper microfilm (or by visit to the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art, where a complete clipped file resides), since the strip is just as much graphic poison to the general comic strip buff as it ever was, with any reprint collection being an invitation to economic suicide. (But what a great way for some mad publisher to go out!)
This article was originally published in Hogan's Alley #13 (cover at right). To order a copy of issue #13 for only $7 postpaid, see our orders page.