Book Review: LOAC Essentials Vol. 5: The Bungle Family 1930 by Harry J. Tuthill: Marvelously Subtle Satire Circa 1930

The Bungle Family provides an incredible opportunity to step back in time with a man who knew the con inside and out.
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Art Spiegelman calls Harry J. Tuthill’s The Bungle Family comic strip, “One of the darkest visions of American life this side of Nathanael West.” That may be true, but with the new Library of American Comics Essentials Vol. 5: The Bungle Family 1930, there is much more than simply a dark vision. The daily strips from that year provide a cultural historical record of the moment unlike any other. As writer Paul Tumey points out in his Introduction, Tuthill knew the con inside and out.  It is an incredible experience to step back in time with The Bungle Family.

Tuthill’s formative experience was as a barker for a medicine show. Born in 1885, he left home at 15 to sell various wares in the Midwest. This led to a stint with a carnival, and eventually to a traveling medicine show. In 1907 he began chasing his dream, and enrolled in art school. By 1930, his The Bungle Family was one of the most popular strips in the nation.

Unlike more enduring strips of the era such as Blondie or Popeye, there were no films made of The Bungle Family to keep it in the public eye over the years. Perhaps most significantly, there was nobody but Tuthill himself who could do it. The Bungle Family is Tuthill’s, and Tuthill’s alone. Consequently, when he retired the Family, they were all but forgotten. So it is quite a treat to see just how timeless Tuthill’s satirical look at the American middle class remains. The book actually begins in late December 1929, with the storyline that would extend in to 1930, that of Pontoon Bungle: “Hot Dog King.”

Day in and day out during the Pontoon Bungle story, we see why The Bungle Family is still revered in certain quarters. To briefly summarize the background, Mr. and Mrs. Bungle are low-level professionals who live in a modest walkup, and are constantly trying to improve their station. They are the type of people who think using a salad fork makes them sophisticated, but cannot figure out which one is actually the salad fork.

When George Bungle reads a newspaper article about a certain “Hot Dog King” by the name of Pontoon Bungle, who is giving away millions of dollars to his employees, he decides that they must be related. And so he begins his quest to get his share of the hot-dog riches.

Another reason that The Bungle Family remains such a unique treasure is the daring manner of Tuthill, especially at his peak. These strips are not your typical three panels of setup, and fourth panel punch line. The Bungle’s pretentions and delusions of grandeur are the punch line, and they are spread throughout each panel in a marvelously subtle way.

I have been impressed with every Library of American Comics title I have read, but The Bungle Family is truly something special. I took a chance based on the good name of the LOAC and The Bungle Family paid off in ways I never imagined possible. It proves yet again that great art never dies.

The Library of American Comics' The Bungle Family 1930 by Harry J. Tuthill is an indescribably essential view of America at the time, by a master of the craft.

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