Wednesday, April 10, 2013

BOOK REVIEW! THE GUMPS (the saga of Mary Gold) by Sidney Smith (IDW/The Library of American Comics, 2013)

You may not realize it now, but back when the Tom Carr/Mary Gold storyline was running in an ever-growing host of newspapers nationwide, THE GUMPS were perhaps one of if not thee biggest comic strips appearing on the printed page. No foolin', it was as popular as LI'L ABNER and PEANUTS were during their respective heights back in the days before the funny page, along with newspapers in general, became outclassed and outmoded in a new and less appealing age. It's kinda funny noting that such a famous strip (so much that more'n a few Tijuana Bibles featured the Gump fambly in risque situations, a sign of a strip's all-over popularity if you ask me!) is all but forgotten today because if it weren't for Jay Lynch swiping head Gump Andy as the model for his own Nard of NARD 'N PAT fame I don't think anybody'd even  know who Andy Gump was! And come to think of it does anybody even remember Nard this far down the line either?

But throughout the twenties and well into the thirties (at least before creator Sidney Smith was killed in an automobile accident and the guy who did DONDI took it over), THE GUMPS was definitely uber-popular funny paper reading. This was undoubtedly so because Smith really tapped into the early-twentieth century mid-Amerigan swing of things with his down-to-earth 'n quite lovable characters who seemed just about as real as any early-twentieth century bred Amerigan types who are now about as long gone as your own relatives who used to exemplify the same close knit love 'n concern. The Gumps in fact were a real family that Smith met and thusly put to ink, headed up by the former Andy Wheat (who legally changed his name to Gump during the strip's success), a man who had the misfortune of losing his lower jaw after an infected tooth ran rampant making me wonder if his own story didn't inspire P.J. O'Rourke to write a piece for THE NATIONAL LAMPOON BOOK OF COMICAL FUNNIES (scroll down, as they say) regarding "real life" names in the news who inspired such famed strips as DICK TRACY, HENRY, POPEYE and LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE. Wife Min was a nice, sweet lady (and pretty sexy looking with her twenties 'do), the kind you never see today with the tattoo, body piercing and fat roll anti-femininity trend overtaking womanhood while son Chester didn't seem to hang around much probably because he was getting into his own adventures in the Sunday topper strip. Infant Goliath was a weirditie though, a baby with no special character or power who looks more or less like a prototype for Ziggy a good fortysome years later.

But whaddeva, Smith sure had the funny-reading unwashed by the fanablas with this serio-comical strip, one which was picking up papers by the score especially during the Mary Gold installments that comic strip snobs consider the height of the strip's 1917-1959 run. In typical pre-World War II fashion, long before glitz and high-falutinness captured the attentions of people with very little, throngs were following the adventures of comic strips such as THE GUMPS and living vicariously through these characters so much to the point where many would write in offering their own sage advice to Mary, or tell Smith to deal some much needed justice regarding Tom Carr's own sad predicament which I guess was bugging more than a few who just couldn't take the downright tension this strip was dealing out with such masochistic aplomb.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. THE SAGA OF MARY GOLD for the most part was a GUMPS tale that ran from May 1 1928 until May 3rd of the following year. Collected it reads like a graphic novel even if the first few months are "introductory" (showing the Gold family settling in next door the Gumps) but when the saga gets rolling with the introduction of local inventor/goodguy Tom Carr things begin to mesh to the point where you can see just why people would be living day-to-day for the next installment just like they would for a serial at the local theatre. I mean I'm surprised that people weren't going  nutzoid waiting for the next day's paper to appear the way Smith builds up the momentum playing his audience for every emotional tug, romantic yearn and plot twist he could stand to muster up!

Without giving too much away here's the deal...Carr's an amateur inventor who just happens to fancy the young and winsome Mary Gold. Seems that Henry Ausstinn, the playboy son of a local banker and up-'n-comer all over the place kinda guy, also has eyeballs for Gold's precious juices. Anyhoo Carr's big brainstorm invention is a perpetual motion machine (makes me wonder if Ayn Whatzername didn't swipe this plot device when she wrote ATLAS SHRUGGED) which promises to bring in not only millions but Gold herself, and not surprisingly the once-skeptical Andy is impressed enough to back the inventor with a hefty $10,000.

Seeing Carr as competition to get outta the way asap, Ausstinn first accuses Carr of stealing the perpetual motion idea then, after getting a well-deserved whomping from Carr and seething with revenge, overhears the combination to the safe where Andy and Carr are stashing away the money and attempts to swipe it if only to get Carr into deep doody. Of course there are other circumstances not-so-extenuating, like Carr's no-account brother on the run from the Mob who, after discovering Ausstinn swiping the money out of the safe knocks the scoundrel out and stashes the stash, but it all rolls on like a snowball getting bigger 'n bigger from there. Carr, after making himself scarce for a few months, is put on trial and not surprisingly there's even more dastardly deeding on the part of the played-as-a-grade-A-prick-to-the-hilt Ausstinn to the point where you'd think that mobs of people would be on the loose attacking men who even looked remotely like him, sort of in the same way various film heavies would occasionally get punched out by avid viewers who were having a hard time separating fact 'n fantasy.

And it's a pretty enveloping twist and turn from there even with the comic asides (I guess Smith hadda break the tension somehow!) up until the bitter end which, while it won't make you wanna cry or even get a lump in your throat, is enough to make you remember the power that the comic page once had back when Dick Tracy'd leave bad guys laying in a pool of their own blood or Al Capp would spoof the latest atrocity in the annals of Amerigan living with a particularly biting satirical edge. Read this all the way through and, in between marveling at the fine pen artwork and lack of continuity (I guess Smith was hoping that people wouldn't remember certain occurrences from months back which make no sense once certain important plot twists happen), get yourself a hefty does of good ol' days entertainment done up in such a melodramatic way that I'm sure even D. W. Griffith himself wished he coulda worked this into one of his features!

(Two questions do remain though...the first being what was the purpose of "The Eagle," the Wild West bounty hunter who was on the search for Tom Carr only to accidentally kill himself while cleaning his pistol in the January 7 1929 strip [a plot device which is mentioned almost as a casual aside]? After months of this shadowy figure being on the periphery of the story being shown on the trail of Carr and at times having entire strips devoted to him, he's suddenly out of the picture ne'er to be heard from or mentioned again! And after such a grand build up too. I get the idea that Smith originally had The Eagle written into the story then, after coming up with an even better plot device, decided to drop him like a bird turd but like I said continuity wasn't exactly something that could be relied upon in this strip! And while I'm at it, and this part deserves a SPOILER ALERT so if you actually wanna dish out the moolah to enjoy this saga nice 'n fresh-like stop reading here, bad guy Ausstinn actually escapes punishment for his vile deeds after he breaks out of his jail cell and, as far as I know, is never caught! Maybe he did get his just cagas in a later story, but here he pretty much becomes beyond the reach of the long arm of the law even though his name is lower'n Anastasia Pantsios' titties. Guess that mighta been another loose end the Smith forgot to tie up, though given how Smith built the guy up to be the heel of the year you think Ausstinn would have met a particularly nice 'n grisly end now, wouldn't ya?)

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