When the Bungles Mixed It Up with Their Neighbors on the Battlegrounds of Sunken Heights
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.