« The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself. » — Bertrand Russell
Irv Phillips‘ (1904-2000) Mr. Mum was a comic strip that ran between 1958 and 1974 (at which point both author and alter ego took their well-earned retirement), attaining a quite considerable level of popularity, thanks its appearance in over 180 newspapers in 22 countries or so. The pantomime approach certainly helped sell it abroad. The titular character is a bystander, an eternal witness to… everything and especially anything.
In an interview published in Cartoonist Profiles no. 4 (Fall, 1969; Jud Hurd, editor), we learn that Phillips « ... has been an actor, a violinist, a Hollywood script writer, the Humor Editor of ‘Esquire’ magazine, a playwright, as well as a very successful syndicated cartoonist. » He goes on to reveal that « I didn’t draw until I became Humor Editor of Esquire Magazine in my thirties. I used to make little rough sketches to try to illustrate gags that I had written for the various Esquire cartoonists. I would take these sketches in to Dave Smart, the founder and publisher of Esquire, and together we would make the choices as to which cartoonist would handle one idea best, which man would be best suited to another idea, etc. It seems that these little sketches sort of intrigued Dave for a while and finally he said, ‘Why don’t you try to draw?’ »
While Phillips’ style is deceptively rudimentary (but still distinctive), it’s evident that his years as a gag man taught him the fundamentals: economy, clarity and substance. Here are a few samples drawn from a variety of sources:
The Mum aficionado will seek sustenance wherever he can find it, but it helps that in this century, a pair of easy-to-find, affordable print-on-demand collections have seen the light of day. They are Classic Mr. Mum Volume 1 (2010, iUniverse) and The Strange World of Mr. Mum (2011, Empty-Grave Publishing).
One unexpected hurdle that stands in the way of a Mr. Mum revival is that an overwhelming number of Phillips’ originals repose in one man’s private collection. Not to put too fine a point on it, painter Andrew Massullo, though evidently a man of discernment, is hogging all the Mr. Mum original art. In a profile that appears in the San Francisco Chronicle’s website, SFGate, he reveals the appeal and the breadth of his collection:
Mr. Mum Cartoon Collection
by Irving Phillips
How many: 1,385 –
« It’s like potato chips, you can’t just have one. »
Why? The deadpan humor and the beautiful drawing.
« They remind me of my childhood. »
From? From his estate and eBay.
Any more? « No, I have all I want. »
Ah, that’s probably why I managed to snag one for myself. Let’s hope Andrew, if someone should make the request, will be open to the idea of a definitive Mr. Mum collection. I heartily concur with Mr. Massullo’s verdict on the addictive power of the strip. It vividly brings to mind the québécois adage « Le plaisir croît avec l’usage. » The deeper one delves into Mr. Mum’s oddly comforting universe, the more one appreciates the depth of his brilliance. For a start, scope out this fine selection of strips on Ger Apeldoorn’s ever-excellent blog The Fabulous Fifties. And while you’re at it, sneak a peek at my Christmas-themed ode to this loveable bystander.