Punch Lines: Ernie Bushmiller’s Mac the Manager

In 1924, when Ernie Bushmiller was 19, he began producing Mac the Manager for the sports page of the New York Evening Graphic. The strip was ostensibly about the misadventures of a hustling boxing promoter, but it also functioned more generally as a canvas for Bushmiller’s cast of ne’er-do-wells, con men and simpletons, the archetypes he would use frequently throughout his career.

Most Bushmiller biographies detail his first job in journalism, when he was hired as a copyboy in 1919, at 14 years of age, at the New York World. The World was a respected paper in Joseph Pulitzer’s stable and represented an impressive induction into the ink-stained fraternity. Few Bushmiller biographies, however, mention his brief stint at the Evening Graphic. It’s not likely that Bushmiller would have been eager to discuss the paper, since it was a trailblazer for sensationalistic journalism whose influences are still felt today.

The Evening Graphic, part of an especially boisterous period of American journalism, was published by Bernarr Macfadden, a publishing baron with eccentric ideas about diet, health and sex. (Macfadden—nicknamed “Body Love” Macfadden by Time—became wealthy from publishing magazines including True Story, Photoplay and Physical Culture.) In 1924, he launched the Evening Graphic and began emphasizing the lurid elements that earned the paper its nickname, the “Evening Pornographic.” Macfadden thought that sex and sensationalism were the argot of the common man, so he ladled them on without restraint. The paper’s most enduring contribution to tabloid journalism was the “composograph,”in which celebrities’ faces were superimposed on the bodies of models photographed in compromising positions.

The Evening Graphic front page reproduced here was typical, portraying the spirit of the recently deceased Rudolph Valentino meeting the spirit of the deceased Enrico Caruso. Despite its emphasis on the sensational and the fabricated, the Evening Graphic employed talented writers. For five years beginning in 1924, Walter Winchell wrote “On Broadway,” a heady stew of showbiz news, old jokes, gossip and slang. Maverick film director Sam Fuller began his career at the paper as a crime reporter and political cartoonist. Ed Sullivan was a sports writer there from 1927 to 1929.

While Macfadden expected his paper’s reportage to titillate, his dictates apparently didn’t extend to the comics. Bushmiller’s Mac the Manager was solidly mainstream; the youthful cartoonist seemed to be born with his trademark style, and his sense of composition and gag writing certainly didn’t evince a teenager behind the byline. (He had clearly learned from the older cartoonists he befriended while at the World, whose staff included Milt Gross and H.T. Webster.) Although Mac’s milieu was pugilism, the humor is gentle (with the arguable exception of the September 19 strip, which, while offensive today, was mainstream humor in 1924).

Despite a healthy circulation, the Evening Graphic persistently operated in the red; advertisers wouldn’t put their money into this paper whose journalistic ethos was feisty but lacking in scruples. The paper folded in 1932 and cost Macfadden millions of dollars. By that time, Bushmiller had been producing Fritzi Ritz for seven years for United Feature Syndicate, his dalliance at the Evening Graphic having been a brief one. Bushmiller, of course, won worldwide fame as the creator of Nancy, with Mac the Manager a forgotten footnote of his remarkable career. Hogan’s Alley is pleased to present these strips to a modern audience and thanks the tireless Jeffrey Lindenblatt for his diligence in recovering them from undeserved obscurity. —Tom Heintjes

(Click on the thumbnails below to see larger images.)

This feature was originally published in Hogan’s Alley #10 (cover at right). To order a copy, which contains this feature and much more, click here.

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