Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Comic Strips - Baron Bean and The Gumps

Baron Bean is the first volume in a new series of affordable compilations of early comic strips from the Library of American Comics. These daily strips were originally published in 1916, about a ne'er do well layabout with a fake European title. Apparently those were all the rage in America in the early 20th century. Frankly, the book was a bit of a slog. After the first ten or so strips you get the idea; the Baron is hungry and can't afford lunch. Also, cultural references and some of the things people found funny were apparently different 100 years ago. Some strips just left me scratching my head, not getting the joke. I'm not sure if the gag was dumb, I am, or someone from that era would find it hilarious. There is some humor to be found, and reading the compilation was like looking into a time machine. But I can't wholeheartedly recommend the book except perhaps for curiosity value. However, the presentation, graphics and production values of the book (and subsequent volumes) are exquisite. And the unique, one-strip-per-page design is a great way to read these comics.

The Gumps is the second volume in the series and is much, much better. It's from 1928-29, when the strip had already been running for 10 years. The storyline is one that changed newspaper comics, "The Saga of Mary Gold." Strip creator Syd Smith was experimenting with sequential storytelling and continuity, some of the first in comics. Andy and Minerva Gump are just normal folks in the suburbs. The book begins when their neighbors the Golds move in next door. The families become fast friends, and the youngest Gold daughter, Mary, is soon romanced by two beaus, an inventor and a banker. The banker ends up framing the inventor for a large cash theft, then moves in and gets the girl while the good boyfriend goes to jail.

Apparently this caused a national uproar in the late '20s. Smith was talented at stringing out the daily dose of drama, something new to comic strips. Will the inventor get out of jail? Will the real criminal get his? Will the lovebirds be reunited? Letters rolled into the syndicate by the hundreds of thousands. On the national stage, politicians, business leaders and movie stars begged Smith to resolve his storyline and give the villain his comeuppance. Eventually all is made right, but the storyline ends on a tragic, unexpected note. This drove audiences insane in 1929, when they weren't used to such somber drama in the funnies.

Witty and funny with a great story and sense of dramatic tension, The Gumps is still fresh after 80 years. More like this, please.


  1. You gotta tell us the tragic note. Please. Don't leave me hanging.

  2. Ha! That leads to a great question ... how long are spoilers relevant? I don't want to spoil the story for anyone who wants to seek it out, but ... 80 years? Then again, I'm still pissed that some told me Rosebud was a sled. Next time we get together I'll tell you in person, promise!