Review by Ian Keogh
Over the course of reading biographies of the men who forged the United States in the 18th century, Peter Bagge was constantly amused by their contrary and eccentric personalities, their feuds and their sometimes misguided beliefs. That amusement led to strips titled Founding Fathers Funnies included in his own titles and submitted to anthologies, all collected here along with new material.
For most of us, status as former presidents, presence on banknotes or names vaguely recalled from school history classes institutes a gravitas considerably removed from the day to lives of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and others, where egos, power lust and petty rivalries clash. By compressing events, Bagge generates farcical comedy to the point where it’s possible to begin casting the strips with stars from the Carry On films. Sid James as the contrary Thomas Paine fits the bill nicely.
Bagge makes no concessions, and anyone without a basic knowledge of early US history and the people involved is going to have a difficult time figuring out who the different people are and their purpose despite explanations in the back. Then again, is anyone without such knowledge going to be picking up a graphic novel titled Founding Fathers Funnies? As is the case with most of Bagge’s work, there’s a considerable density to his compression of ideas, both visual and verbal, so although this seems a slim graphic novel it’s no quick read. He’s very intuitive about getting to the point and it’s instructive to see what he can fit into a single panel.
Despite the comedy, these strips are packed with home truths. We don’t imagine historical figures having to scrape a living, yet Paul Revere was never short of a ploy to con money from people, resorting to primitive dentistry in times of hardship, John Paul Jones was a chancing pirate, and in one of the funniest sequences Ben Franklin peddles almanacs. Bagge gets most mileage from the arrogant Alexander Hamilton, the strips created before Hamilton became the focal point of an immensely successful musical. It’s doubtful his stage presence equates to his portrayal by Bagge, not quite as able to start a fight in an empty room, but opinionated and sooner or later despised by every man he dealt with, although strangely popular with women. He was nakedly ambitious, petty and forthright to the point of alienating people, but Bagge’s admiration for his foresight and better qualities – he tried to ban slavery – is noted in the brief explanatory essays.
For all the skill and humour, the appeal won’t be general. There has to be some feeling for the people lampooned for the comedy to bite, and despite the background notes we don’t come to know the subjects beyond their caricatures. Just approaching Founding Fathers Funnies as a project by a brilliantly funny cartoonist isn’t going to be enough this time.