" . . . you've got to stand up for the imaginative world, the imaginative element in the human personality, because I think that's constantly threatened . . . People do have imagination and sensibilities, and I think that does need constant exposition." -- John Read

"To disseminate my subjective thoughts and ideas, I stealthily hide them in a cloak of entertaining storytelling, since the depth of my thinking, shallow at best, might be challenged by erudite experts." -- Curt Siodmak

Friday, May 8, 2015

‘Stories by the World’s Favorite Authors’: Me and Classics Illustrated

Panel from "20,000 Leagues Under the Seas," CI #47 -- art by Henry C. Kiefer; adaptor unknown.
137 comic books changed my life.

I’m not talking about superheroes, though no one felt more sympathetic than 8-year-old me to the emotional turmoil involved with being Captain America or Iron Man. I drank deeply of the Doom Patrol, the Flash, and Batman, too – I was a pagan to my schismatic fellow comic-book readers, a worshipper of both DC and Marvel. It was the apex of the Silver Age, and I was up to my eyebrows in it. (This achieved mostly loitering at the rack in the dime store, as there weren’t many dimes to be had in those days.)

The war comics were big for me as well – Sgt. Rock, the Haunted Tank, Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos, Enemy Ace, the Unknown Soldier. With Vietnam on the TV every night at dinner time, in the kitchen where our parents smoked while they ate, the 1960s created a generation of children who could relate to being a tank gunner outmanned by menacing forces.

I was also lucky enough to find and start mainlining the DC “House of Mystery” horror anthology comic right at the beginning of the tenure of editor Joe Orlando. His innovative and truly scary efforts began to reverse the long ban on horror subjects and other “objectionable” subject matter, leading to the destruction of the repressive Comics Code of 1954, the liberation of the medium and its eventual mainstream American explosion in the mid-‘80s.

We could digest about any kind of sequential graphic narrative publication, including the dorky Archies our well-meaning grandparents would slip us on vacation. Even worse, we might have to smile and thank a dimwit relative for giving us some Disney crap, or the mélange of TV- and film-related titles that came out of the tangled fortunes of ‘60s comics giants Dell, Western, Gold Key, and Whitman. But we had to draw a line somewhere – and that was at the terrifyingly unfunny Fawcett and Harvey funny-animal comics.

What laid the groundwork for my keen appreciation of all of the above – what in fact taught me how to tell a story – was a line of comics that sat yellowing in dusty cardboard volumes in my grandparents’ basement, waiting for me to crack them open. When I did, it became impossible to get me away from them.

A page from "A Connecticut Yankess in King Arthur's Court," CI #24 -- art by Jack Hearne; adaptation by Ruth A. Roche and Tom Scott.

In 1941, publisher Albert Kanter had the brilliant idea of adapting great works of literature for comic books -- Classic Comics/Classics Illustrated. Years later, he succinctly outlined his philosophy:

“The taste for good literature and fine art must be cultivated in a child slowly. He must be made to understand it before he can like it. . . . a pictorial rendering of the great stories of the world which can be easily understood and therefore more readily liked would tend to cultivate that interest. He will more eagerly read them in the original form because he will already have a mind’s eye picture of what the author was trying to portray in words.”

The above quote was mined from William B. Jones, Jr.’s magisterial “Classics Illustrated: A Cultural History.” I read the first edition a few years ago, and this expansion and revision is virtually a new book. I marvel at Jones’s relentless research, far-ranging contacts with former artist, editors, and writers in the series, illuminating anecdotes from fellow aficionados and collectors – and the most meticulous and comprehensive indexes I have seen in any work. This kind of scholarship requires great focus and great patience, and conscientious scholarship like this is rare. Bravo, Mr. Jones!

Classics Illustrated: A Cultural History (Second edition)
William B. Jones, Jr.
McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers
Jefferson, NC and London
Thanks to Jones, we now have a coherent sense of what drove Kanter, how the series developed, and what killed it. While entirely successful for decades, it was always too low-brow for the scholarly and too pretentious for the unworldly, too childish for the morbid and too adult for the censorious. It ran glancingly foul of Fredric Wertham’s anti-comics witch hunt, and never subscribed to the rigid, neutering, self-regulating Comics Code Authority. The final issue, number 169, the already hopelessly out-of-step “Negro Americans: The Early Years” in 1969.

My grandfather collected them for my dad, who was 7, when the series began with Malcom Kildale’s rendering of Dumas’s “The Three Musketeers.” Here were D’Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis, Athos! Here the evil Richelieu and M’Lady! Intrigue, danger, swordfights, chases; friendship, honor, honesty, bravery.

I sped through them in order – “Ivanhoe,” “The Count of Monte Cristo” (the last issue to bear the spine banner “COMPLETE * ENTERTAINING * EDUCATIONAL”), Louis Zansky’s marvelous “Moby Dick,” Lillian Chesney’s wispy, intricate “Arabian Nights.” The list of artists who drew for Classics Illustrated is not short, due at least to the horrible page rates Kanter paid. The ranks include the names of future comics greats such as Dik Browne ("Hagar the Horrible"), Angelo Torres (MAD Magazine), Harvey Kurtzman ("Frontline Combat," MAD, Little Annie Fanny) the aforementioned Joe Orlando, and even Jack Kirby, who created more superheroes at Marvel and DC than anyone else.

The significantly numbered 13th issue, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” widely regarded as the first full-length horror comic in history, came out in August 1943, at a time when Allied victories were just starting to take shape. Arnold Hicks’s graphic graphics are still a little unsettling.

The first horror comic -- published 1943.

Page from "Dr. Jeykll and Mr. Hyde," CI #13 -- art by Arnold Hicks; adaptation by Evelyn Goodman.
A lot of Classics Illustrated are of two genres – the 19th century canon of Dead White Guys in literature, and what were then termed “boy’s books.” There was lots of Verne, Stevenson, Fenimore Cooper, Conan Doyle, Wells, and Kipling, even two books of animal collector Frank Buck. The adventures of knights, pirates, soldiers, cowboys, explorers, rebels, and fortune-hunters filled my eyes.

However, here are some gems in the series – Dickens, Shakespeare, Homer, Bronte. Nordoff and Hall’s Bounty trilogy, played out in Classics Illustrated pages, pushed me into a lifetime of interest in that historical tragedy. August Froelich’s rendering of “Black Beauty” was immensely moving. Would I have picked up “Cyrano de Bergerac” or “The Iliad” without the secret reading of the comics under the covers, late at night? Maybe not.

Each issue was crammed with little features as well. The back of the book had a one-page author’s bio, along with articles about “Pioneers of Science,” dog heroes, the stories of great operas, illustrated history outlines, famous poems, and more. A “Who am I?” literary-character quiz marked the inside cover. (“The Call of the Wild” featured the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, recently adopted by the UN, in its entirety.) I could read a dozen a day, over and over, for summers on end.

Not that each and every issue was a grabber. I could barely get through “Silas Marner” and “The Lady of the Lake,” I remember. Some of the drawing was just repellent to me – the more spidery work of Henry C. Kiefer and the sweaty messes of Rudy Palais weirded me out – I much preferred the cool simplicity of Alex Blum’s or Norman Model’s lines.

Panel from "Treasure Island," CI #64 -- art by Alex A. Blum; adapter unknown. Blum's clean lines and strong compositions are very effective.
The idea of matching a unique artist to a title was not a consideration at the time. As Classics Illustrated moved ahead, its production and editorial styles became streamlined and uniform, leading to a house style epitomized by the strong, spare drawing of Blum, Kiefer, and Lou Cameron. Meanwhile, TV started taking up children’s time. A welcome development was the increase in affordable juvenile editions of the books summarized; readers were going to the source. The series petered out.

Did they succeed in Kanter’s high-minded mission? First, of course excessively lengthy or complex novels, or ones with interiority, wouldn’t work; there are no Tolstoys, no Austens in the list of Classics Illustrated titles. An extroverted title, an adventure, fantasy, or epic, worked much better. Even then, all these texts required condensation, abridgement, the elimination of subordinate plot lines and characters, further simplifying them. (In CI’s “David Copperfield,” the climatic, stormy fate of Steerforth and Ham Peggoty, though featured on the cover art, is completely missing inside.) Then breakdowns into panels, the storyboarding at the heart of the process.

"Kidnapped," CI #46 -- art by Robert H. Webb; adaptation by John O'Rourke. Cinematic blocking.
With all these filters in place, it’s a wonder many of these titles aren’t as good as they are. That many issues are dialogue-heavy, crammed with stiff figures whose faces often resemble each other, is true. Signs of haste are evident here and there. Inaccurate proportions and perspectives, bad color registry, and other technical issues can be found. 

The usual cultural norms of the time are in place – women are passive unless they are evil, or Joan of Arc. The heavy hand of Western colonialism is on many pages – the simultaneous attraction to and repulsion from “alien” cultures, and the impulse to assimilate or destroy it, is here. Non-Caucasians are not articulate, thick of feature, and well in need of the white man’s aid if anything constructive is to be done. The “house style” becomes deadening aesthetically, manufactured-feeling. Plot points play out in rigid six-to-eight-panel-per-page style.

After 1969, the rights to the series changed hands several times, well-documented of course in Jones’s book. Of the several attempts to revive the franchise, the most successful and the most adventurous was the Berkley/First Publishing line of 27 editions of 1990-1991. By now, the concept of auteurism in graphic storytelling had hit, and Berkley matched distinctive artists to titles they could illustrate with freedom, giving each issue a wildly different feel. Gahan Wilson led off the series with his rendering of Poe’s “The Raven and Other Poems.” Among others, Rick Geary and Kyle Baker contributed, creating a unique gallery of illustrative achievement.

"The Fall of the House of Usher," Berkley CI #14 (pub. 1990) -- art by Jay Geldhof; adaptation by P. Craig Russell.
Now, of course, the idea of adapting great literature into graphic novels is business as usual. A new series created and edited by Tom Pomplun, Graphic Classics, has been turning out elegant and engaging titles since 2002 for ages 12 and up. Rick Kick’s amazing three-volume collection The Graphic Canon (2012-2014) takes the concept and pushes it into the realm of bold, alternate, underground sensibilities – finally, visual styles as subversive as the texts they illustrate, which range from Gilgamesh to “Blood Meridian.” The field is wide open.

We wound up with every issue of Classics Illustrated up to 137, Marryat’s “The Little Savage.” (Gives me 32 more to run down and enjoy!)  Published in March, 1957, it would have come to my grandparents’ house about six months before my dad married my mom. I still have them; all my kids have been through them. However, to them the storytelling and presentation are as hopelessly out-of-date as my grandfather’s Tom Swift books, or Dad’s “Dave Dawson of the R.A.F.,” or Mom’s Trixie Beldens. The world in general moved on a long time ago. As Jones points out, “Nostalgia is a seductive yet sterile trap.”

Page from "Moby Dick," CI#3 -- art by Louis Zansky; adaptation by Zansky.
Did it do him any good, growing up with these comics? I don’t know. He was a credit sales supervisor, but he was conversant with culture as well. For me, they went off like bombs inside my head. I know that every issue sparked my imagination and spurred my haphazard and eccentric education in a hundred ways. Hiding out in my grandparents’ cool basement on a hot summer day with these piled around me in a magic circle, a colorful abundance, was a saving grace. 

Even with its highly selective palette of stories, Classics Illustrated presented a universe of stories, a clutch of standard plotlines, and a raft of character archetypes, all the essential building blocks of storytelling. Each comic was a colorful little instruction manual on how to get from Point A to Point B in a narrative, quickly and efficiently. And despite pretensions to meaning and cultural significance, these were simply a great universe of stories with which to stock my imagination. In those panels were excitement, and feeling, and thought, and meaning. They doomed me to become a storyteller as well.

It’s said that a developing child can learn any language if he or she has the template, the concept of language to begin with. All the stories I have read and written, all the films, the art, the larger culture, bears traces of the classics I was seduced into reading. Jones terms the Classics Illustrated goal to have been “ . . .to make the realms of the literary and historical imagination accessible and immediate.” Mission accomplished.


Robert C. Burns's controversial first cover for "Twenty Years After."
Page from "Black Beauty," CI#60 -- art by August Froelich; adaptor unknown.

Page from "The Tell-tale Heart" from "The Gold Bug and Other Stories," CI#84 -- art by Jim Wilcox; adaptor unknown. An extremely stylized approach that looks far more modern than much CI of the time.

"Cyrano de Bergerac," CI#79 -- art by Alex Blum; adaptation by Kenneth W. Fitch. Particularly complex stories often used an opening-page character gallery with some explanatory material to set the scene.
Panel from "The Downfall," CI#126 -- art by Lou Cameron; adaptor unknown.

Page from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," CI#49 -- art by Alex Blum; adaptor unknown.

CI "Study Guide" edition reprint of "Lord Jim" from 1997 (art by George Evans, adaptor unknown) -- smaller format and a switch from newsprint to glossy paper gave the original art a much more solid and colorful look. "Study guide" editions attempted to add more analytical information and related essays in the back of each edition. 

"Lorna Doone," CI#32 -- art by Matt Baker; adaptation by Ruth A. Roche. Baker was one of the first African American illustrators to work in the American comics industry.

Panels from "A Study in Scarlet" from "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," CI#33 -- art by Zansky; adaptor unknown. Zansky's loose, flowing lines and strong inking made his titles a compelling read.

Page from "The Time Machine," CI#133 -- art by Lou Cameron; adaptation by Lorenz Graham.

Panels from "Toilers of the Sea," CI#56 -- art by August Froelich; adaptation by Harry G. Miller (Harry Glickman).

Page from "Mysterious Island," CI#34 -- art  by Robert H. Webb and David Heames; adaptation by Manning Stokes.

"The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," CI#50 -- art by Aldo Rubano; adaptation by Harry G. Miller (Harry Glickman).

Two pages from Lou Cameron's outstanding "War of the Worlds," CI#124 -- adapted by Miller (Glickman).

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Trickster Tales: "Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World"

Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World
Kembrew McLeod
New York University Press
New York, London


Nobody likes a smartass.

Pranks are often thought of as a low form of humor, ranged down there with puns and practical jokes. However, Kembrew McLeod’s comprehensive and thought-provoking history of pranking ranks it much more highly. Pranking runs through modern history like a fault line of sardonic disorder, and McLeod demonstrates admirably the great, society-changing effects some of it has caused, as well as the damage and destruction that other examples have wrought.

McLeod’s wide net takes in all activities designed to make fools of society at large. He marks his start at the point where broader, faster forms of communication – pamphlets, almanacs, and proto-newspapers – lent themselves to the pointed attack, the spoof, and the literary hotfoot. The gamut begins with Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” and wends its way to today through a variety of forms and frames, motivated by everything from sheer criminal intent to the most idealistic attempts to remake society.

A short list of topics and characters covered should in itself propel the curious into its satisfying pages: Benjamin Franklin, P.T. Barnum, the anti-Spiritualism movement, yellow journalism, the Merry Pranksters and the Chicago 8, “Paul is dead”, Andy Kaufman, and today’s hackers and groups like Anonymous. All relate to the intent of invoking a cathartic rethinking of a culture’s shared assumptions, waking it from its addled distractions.

While it seems that the primary motivation of a prankster is to crack a joke, McLeod makes it very clear that, by and large, society rarely gets it (and if it does, it tries to tear the perpetrator to shreds). Indeed, many of the fonts of crazy conspiracy theories – documents pretending to pertain to the Rosicrucians, Illuminati, Freemasons, the “Inner Circle” – were written as humor, satire, parody, all unfortunately taken at face value and run with by those that are inclined to paranoia. Even more disturbing are his accounts of the life-and-career-ruining “rumor panics,” such as the satanic-messages-in-rock-songs and the repressed-memory-child-abuse cases of more recent decades. In McLeod’s universe, the human mind doesn’t need much tinder to spark an outbreak of fear, hate, and ugly behavior.

McLeod is the perfect person to tackle the topic, as he himself has participated and/or perpetrated some mind games of his own. Most notably, he made Michelle Bachmann feel uncomfortable in the guise of a gay robot – which makes him A-Number-One in my book. He is able to expertly dissect not only the mechanics and thrust of the pranks, but analyze the repercussions and the effectiveness of the actions as well, providing a micro- as well as macro-focus.

It’s an examination, not a celebration. The moral ambiguities of pranking are in full view here. Still, there’s a sense here that the author sees pranking at its best as a creative kind of non-violent civil disobedience, justified in the face of a domineering state that brainwashes its inhabitants with propaganda of the kind pioneered by Edward Bernays, which can be construed as a kind of pranking itself. McLeod quotes media critic Stuart Ewen, who “characterizes Bernays’s ideal model of communication as merely a hallucination of democracy: ‘A highly educated class of opinion-molding tacticians is continuously at work, analyzing the social terrain and adjusting the mental scenery from which the public mind, with its limited intellect, derives its opinions.’”

Given this imbalance of power, “Pranking” can be read as a testament to the possibilities of the intelligent and humorous revolutionary. As a study, it soars right up into my bookcase alongside other critical studies of this subject such as Alex Boese’s “Museum of Hoaxes,” H. Allen Smith’s “The Compleat Practical Joker,” and Mackay’s “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.” 

Monday, March 30, 2015

'The Almost Nearly Perfect People': Bustin' on my Scandinavian homies

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia
By Michael Booth
New York

Now I know why we left the old country.

Michael Booth’s new survey of the Nordic lands is a feisty, funny, trip that enlightens as it entertains.

The English travel and food writer has a long-standing connection to Denmark through his wife, and the book originated in his chagrin at Denmark’s consistent rating as the world’s happiest, most progressive society. “They don’t look that happy to me,” he thought, and what results is Booth’s frank and acerbic levering up of the great assumptions about these cultures’ superiority to take a peek at what squirms about in the shadows beneath them.

As he travels through Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Sweden, Booth does an admirable job of blending reportage, anecdote, and historical contextualization to present a balanced sketch of each society. This is a tricky business – Booth plumbs the national stereotypes for validity, and confronts his own ingrained generalizations, revealing a much bumpier, more complex reality.

Not that this is an expose or stab job. Booth is keen to remind the reader that in a world where poverty, conflict, disease, and injustice are par for the course, the problems of the highly developed, affluent North are relatively minor. Additionally, he espouses the virtues that makes these societies work – “trustworthiness, accountability, openness, a strong civil society, long-termism, individual self-control.” However, those of Scandinavian heritage raised with an intimidating sense of where they came from will find this study a big fat relief -- as some of these stereotypes are all too grounded in fact.

For instance, it seems that Danes are not the most happy, they are simply the best at pretending that everything is just fine. The Norwegians come off as not-too-bright, right-wing tribalists rendered effete by their vast oil revenues. Iceland? Vikings led astray into modern financial incoherence by their piratical tendencies. Finland is portrayed as composed of tough, taciturn binge-drinkers. And Sweden, the economic leader of them all, is a stultifyingly conformist culture, the ultimate nanny state, with an enormous immigrant problem.

In fact, the problems of multiculturalism crop up again and again in “Almost.” These host cultures are incredibly homogenous, not just culturally but genetically. The need for workers willing to do the mundane tasks that keep things running falls more and more to refugees, and inclusive philosophies are being tested now up North, with intermittent success. Enforcing tolerance and avoiding racial stratification is the new challenge.

The overall sense that Booth leaves the reader with is that, like a typical American suburb, Scandinavia is a nice place to be from. The traits I thought were my family’s alone are more broadly based. The aversion to conflict, the lack of emotionality, the stiff politesse, the smugness, the non-specific gloominess, the nagging sense of personal unimportance, the shyness, the yearning for universal approval, and wielding relentless, lethal niceness as a weapon all are found among the people Booth meets on his way.

Booth quotes journalist Niels Lillelund --“In Denmark we do not raise the inventive, the hardworking, the ones with initiative, the successful or the outstanding, we create hopelessness, helplessness and the sacred, ordinary mediocrity,” and The Economist – “Scandinavia is a great place in which to be born . . . but only if you are average. . . . if you are extraordinary, if you have big dreams, great visions, or are just a bit different, you will be crushed, if you do not emigrate first.” Why leave heaven? Well, if for you it's hell.

The idea that these “perfect” societies tend to iron out or exclude the unique, eccentric, and enterprising individual makes me understand why my dissatisfied, grumpy, free-thinking ancestors got the hell out of there. Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling” has more than a dollop of truth in it. Of course, Booth's observations have stirred debate, as they should. "Almost" is great look below the surface.