Screwball Sunday: A Publishing War on Main Street — Gus Mager Caught in the Crossfire

Main Street by Gus Mager – July 22, 1923

Why did Gus Mager create a syndicated Sunday comic page that looks so much like George McManus’s Bringing Up Father?

Although no record has been found of Gus Mager stating that Main Street was ever meant to emulate—and at times lampoon—the flagship strip of King Features Syndicate, the resemblance between the strips is striking.

The example of Main Street provided in today’s Screwball Sunday is particularly telling with conspicuously similar Art Nouveau and Art Deco stylings to those seen in Bringing Up Father. In addition, there is a fascinating detail in the top banner art. The wealthy couple sitting in the chauffer-driven deluxe car (with four spare tires) certainly bear a marked resemblance to Jiggs and Maggie.

But if Main Street, which only lasted from October 1922 to October 1923, is arguably a lift of Bringing Up Father, the reason for its existence is less clear. One thought is that perhaps Mager was caught in the crossfire between the two largest comic strip syndicates of the time and his dear friend and fellow cartoonist, Rudolph Dirks.

Main Street was syndicated by the Press Publishing Company, which was owned by Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. King Features Syndicate, owned by William Randolph Hearst, launched Bringing Up Father in March of 1913. Months before, Rudolph Dirks, who had been producing The Katzenjammer Kids for Hearst since 1897, left his employer to go work for Pulitzer’s World.

Some sources state the cause of the disagreement between Dirks and his employer originated when Hearst would not grant Dirks time off. Considering that Dirks’ older brother Gus—a cartoonist who also worked for Hearst (among others)—had committed suicide ten years earlier, it is possible there were some issues with stress from overwork and a lingering tension. In any case, a legal battle ensued over who owned the characters, leaving much animosity in its wake. For the World, Dirks created a new version of The Katzenjammer Kids which came to be known by the similar-sounding title of The Captain and the Kids while Hearst continued the Katzies with Harold Knerr at the drawing board until 1949.

Mager had bonded with Dirks, a fellow German-American, while they worked together in the Hearst art room. Mager may have even ghosted some of the Katzenjammer art. When Dirks abandoned Hearst for Pulitzer in late 1912, Mager followed suit, and created a version of his Sherlocko strip, calling it Hawkshaw the Detective. Remaining close to Dirks through the years, Mager penned and unsigned topper version of his Hawkshaw the Detective in 1931 which ran above Dirks’s Captain and the Kids for about 15 years.

The newspaper wars between Hearst and Pulitzer are legend, as are the stories of each outfit luring talent away from one paper and to the other (sometimes back and forth). Given this, and the difficulties of Dirks with Hearst, the existence of a satirical copycat strip based on Hearst’s biggest comic strip of the time is certainly intriguing.

As a lampoon strip, Main Street is unsuccessful. Mager could not keep his charming and singular style out of the art and quickly reduced the intricate Art Deco and Art Nouveau patterns and forms necessary to copy McManus’s strop to light touches. As a screwball humor strip, however, Main Street is a delight. Playing with the idea of class and status in American society, Mager moved his setting from McManus’s New York to a much smaller town. The result is richer characters and highly inventive comic situations. Mager expanded the cast fromone couple to an entire burg, creating a highly amusing farce that feels more like a screwball comic strip adaptation of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio than Bringing Up Father.

In today’s example, we see a group of couples on an outing at an exposition, or perhaps a county fair. Mager’s rendering of the roller coaster comes as the energetic climax of the strip, followed by a last panel with all the finality of a plop take in which the flirtatious older men are clobbered by their wives. A richly detailed, humorous strip with something to say about society, the ambitious and sadly short-lived Main Street will hopefully attract more visitors in the years to come.

Two Main Street Sunday pages and other Gus Mager rarities can be found in LOAC’s Screwball! The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny.

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