" . . . 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

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Killing Germans

'Where Eagles Dare' -- a righteous bloodbath
They always made me play the Nazi.

There was one thing all the boys in our neighborhood was keen on in the 1960s – World War II. Our martial ardor was stoked by the flood of film and television of the time replaying the war for us. We all tuned in to “Combat!,” “Twelve O’clock High,” and “The Rat Patrol.” These took their cue from the popularity of the popular war films of the time – “Battle of the Bulge,” “The Guns of Navarone,” “The Longest Day,” “The Dirty Dozen.”

It wasn’t the propagandistic stuff made during the war, although we could catch plenty of that on late-night TV. It was the propaganda of the generation after. Already the Western, which dominated 1950s media, was collapsing in popularity. It was time to culturally process the war through mass media.

Each crop of surviving soldiers takes decades to work through and integrate these experiences, and some never do. Men who had fought the war were middle-aged fathers by now; the horrors they perpetrated and endured were repackaged into entertainments, made largely bloodless, noble, and above all necessary. Above all, these films featured scads and loads of bucket-helmeted, gray-uniformed Jerries getting slaughtered in every way imaginable.

This was our male paradigm. The warrior, reluctant to kill but grimly determined to defeat the enemy, ready to sacrifice his own life if need be. The G. I. Joe doll, Sgt. Rock, "Star Spangled War." The same archetype adored by the fanatics, the suicide bombers, the mass murderers. No cause is unrighteous in its own eyes. A fart has no nose.


As the youngest and scrawniest of my gang, and gifted quite inadvertently with a Teutonic surname, I was volunteered to play the bad guy, over and over again. I learned a few things – it is much more fun to play the villain, for instance. But by and large it got old quick. I was tired of dying a thousand different ways and coming home covered with the dust I’d bit all afternoon.

Oddly enough, the great-grandparent with the German name had adopted it on arrival in the U.S. – we should rightly be named, like most good Danes, Andersen. I’m not sure if this ever caused trouble for my Dad’s side of the family, but I do know that my mother’s father, a good solid 100-percent Kraut, knocked the umlaut off his moniker when the war broke out, rendering its pronunciation a bit more un-German. He also volunteered for the U.S. Army cavalry, and made it all the way to New York before peace broke out in November 1918.


Evidently, anti-German sentiment during World War I was pronounced. I first ran into mention of it in Steinbeck’s remembrances – the neighbors looked askance at his family until the war was over. Groucho Marx as a young vaudeville comic had been playing a German-stereotype character, already euphemized to “Dutch comic.” The night the Lusitania was sunk in 1915, he changed his act.

“If I had come out as a German comic, they would have killed me,” he recalls on his 1972 concert album “An Evening with Groucho.” He changed his makeup “and now I was a Jew comic,” he continues. “I had never been a Jew comic before!”

The threat was real. 4,000 German sympathizers were imprisoned in the U.S. from 1917 through 1918. The Red Cross wouldn’t accept volunteers with German surnames. Business names and street signs were changed; they stopped teaching German in many schools. Sauerkraut became liberty cabbage, dachshunds became liberty pups. German books were banned or burned. A few men were killed by angry mobs.

Sound familiar?

Each rolling wave of immigrants to America has had to run the gauntlet of prejudice. The Irish, the Germans, the Polish, the Italians, the Mexicans, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Russians. Suspected, disliked, stereotyped, and acted against. Now anyone vaguely Middle Eastern is tagged as a Muslim and a violent one at that. A bit harder to hide a complexion than a last name.

Of course, the Nazis were the perfect enemy. Evil personified. No problem killing them and anyone associated with them. Our polar opposite, we thought. 

The lines of prejudice were redrawn after World War II. The Germans, formerly one solid ethnic unit to despise, was now split in half. Democratic Germans were good, Communist Germans were evil. The Red Menace was harder to typify, differentiate, personify. The Cold War was fought by identical men on each side, all wearing gray flannel suits, indistinguishable.

But . . . we still had memories of the perfect enemy, the Nazis. Being seemingly perfectly inhuman, it was easy and guilt-free to kick their asses in copious amounts in our fantasy lives. 1968’s “Where Eagles Dare” held the record for decades for most German soldiers killed – here’s a funny video tallying the count:


Steven Spielberg, that not-so-obscure filmmaker of my generation, has related a fondness for this preposterous film. I wonder sometimes if we all got desensitized to body counts in this manner. It certainly seems like Spielberg follows in the wake of 1960’s World War II films when he created the violent extravaganzas of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Temple of Doom.” Spielberg’s action films often mimic video games, with stage after stage of peril to be run through and their inexhaustible supply of baddies to be wasted. After Spielberg, the Matrix movies, Tarentino lately, and many other franchises and standalone film sagas filled with mass, righteous killings.

So what’s the appeal? John Cleese has the most succinct explanation of what shadow projection is:


 Sound familiar? In a year when our shadow selves seemed to leap into the light, brandishing weapons and killing innocent strangers in the name of slaying dragons, I hope we can learn that these arbitrary distinctions shouldn’t endanger us, that the misperceptions of others won’t get us killed, that our superficial characteristics don’t mark us for a beatdown or worse.

When you come right down to it, most of our identity is based on a set of imaginary constructs. Why should we let one set of illusions prompt us to destroy lives that operate on a different set?

We shouldn’t have to blend in or hide. That’s why we came here in the first place. Remember?


Monday, November 16, 2015

Story of a song: 'My Melancholy Baby'

It was the first torch song. It’s only heard in old movies or TV shows these days. The scene is usually a smoky barroom, at the ass-end of the evening. It’s that peculiar time of night when the soused, haunted by their past, call for this maudlin ballad and begin to sob. It’s a running joke in the 1954 film version of A Star is Born, as poor Judy Garland is harassed with, “Sing ‘Melancholy Baby’!”


This drunkard’s tearjerker took only a little longer than 40 years to become a cliché. It’s one of the one-hit wonders in the Great American Songbook, and the only one to be written in Denver, Colorado. Its 1912 birth in my hometown spurred this investigation. A couple of pretty tales have been spun around this song, but the real story of “My Melancholy Baby” is filled with false starts, warring claims to authorship, a scrambling for royalties, and litigation. Failure is an orphan, success has a hundred fathers.

OK, cute stories first.

One: William Frawley is best remembered for playing Fred Mertz on the “I Love Lucy” TV show, but he started as a song-and-dance man. On the May 3, 1965, episode of the TV game show “I’ve Got a Secret,” he revealed that he was the first to sing “My Melancholy Baby,” at the Mozart Café at 1647 Curtis Street. The noted journalists Gene Fowler and Damon Runyon were there.

Two: The composer Ernie Burnett served in France in World War I, was wounded and lost his memory. In the hospital, he heard someone singing “My Melancholy Baby,” recognized it, remembered who he was, and made a full recovery.

I’m unable to confirm or deny the truth of the second story, but the first story is disputed by almost everyone.

Ernie Burnett
Composer Ernie Burnett (originally Ernesto Bernaditto from Cincinnati) and his then-wife Maybelle Watson, who was the song’s first lyricist, filed for copyright on the song, then called “Melancholy,” on October 31, 1911. Despite their efforts, they couldn’t interest anyone in it. (In those days, songwriters carried their songs from one publisher to another, auditioning them.) Finally, Denver club owner and music publisher Theron C. Bennett bought the tune, but tossed the words. He set an employee, George Norton, to write a new set of lyrics. This jerry-rigged song became an enormous hit.

“Come, sweetheart mine, don’t sit and pine
Tell of the cares that make you feel so blue
What have I done, answer me, hon
Have I ever said an unkind word to you

My love is true, and just for you
I’d do almost anything at any time
Dear, when you sigh, or when you cry
Something seems to grip this very heart of mine

Come to me my melancholy baby
Cuddle up and don’t be blue
All your fears are foolish fancies, maybe
You know, dear, that I’m in love with you

Every cloud must have a silver lining
Wait until the sun shines through
Smile, my honey dear, while I kiss away each tear
Or else I shall be melancholy too”

Why was it written? To whom? Burnett told a story abut waiting for a woman (presumably his wife) for eight hours at the train station; Norton spins a tale about being sweet on a Denver waitress. Despite the desire to getting nailed being the wellspring of most romantic tunes, neither of these anecdotes is likely. "My Melancholy Baby" is an inspired piece of hackwork.

When the sheet music was published, it bore a dedication to “Miss Maybelle Watson of Berkeley, California.” Burnett and Watson were divorced by that time; perhaps the publisher sought to assuage Watson’s ego and prevent her from suing for a piece of the royalties, even though her lyrics were replaced by Norton’s.


 So who sang it first? Bennett, the original publisher, claims he gave the debut performance of it at his club, the Dutch Mill at 811 16th Street, in 1912 -- not Frawley. Two original copies of the sheet music feature two different artists pasted into the cameo center of the cover – “That Singer,” Jack O’Leary, and “winsome June Le Vey.” At this point, the song was still titled “Melancholy.” It was changed to “My Melancholy Baby” in 1914, and a year later Bennett folded, selling the song to Joe Morris Music Company in New York. Burnett claims he convinced Sophie Tucker to sing it, which began its rise to popularity.

The person who arguable made this song a hit was Walter van Brunt, whose 1915 recording may contain some of Watson’s original lyrics, pushed down into the song to make a second introductory set of lines. This set of words is omitted in nearly every recording of it:

“Birds in the trees, whispering breeze
Should not fail to lull you into peaceful dreams
So tell me why, sadly you sigh
Sitting at the window where the pale moon beams

You shouldn’t grieve, try and believe,
Life is always sunshine when the heart beats true
Be of good cheer, smile through your tears,
When you’re sad it makes me feel the same as you”


Gene Austin scored with it again in 1927, and England’s Al Bowlly in 1935. 


Tommy Lyman, a cabaret performer, made “My Melancholy Baby” his theme song during the 1920s, playing and singing it late at night and referring to it as his “torch song,” a reference to the old phrase “carrying a torch for someone,” an unrequited love. Perhaps it’s this specific pathos Lyman imbued it with that gave it its cliché effect on the inebriated.

It started showing up in films – The Roaring Twenties (1939), Birth of the Blues (1941), Johnny Eager (1942), Follow the Band (1943), Minstrel Man (1944). In the 1945 film noir Scarlet Street, director Fritz Lang and composer Hans Salter work the tune into the score and as source music in the film itself, as a theme to which the main characters disintegrate.

In Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), it’s the song that always seduces Marilyn Monroe’s character, especially when essayed on tenor sax. Forty-eight years after its birth, “My Melancholy Baby” ends its effective cultural life as a dick joke.

In the end, Bennett and Burnett reaped the royalties, after legal action against Joe Morris; Norton’s son had to litigate for years to get compensation for his father, who had signed away his rights to Bennett for $20 a week, back in the day. Watson got nothing. Frawley got the credit, and the song may have brought back its composer from the dead. Who knows? If you stick your nose down into the warf and woof of history, it's hard to see more than a tangle of contradictions, unresolvable, unprovable, lost in the past.

In the end, we still have a great song.



SOURCES

Denver’s Old Theater Row
Forrest Hall Johnson
Gem
1970

The Tin Pan Alley Song Encyclopedia
Thomas S. Hischak
Greenwood Press
2002

American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900-1950
Alec Wilder
Oxford University Press
1972

Tin Pan Alley: An Encyclopedia of the Golden Age of American Song
David A. Jasen
Routledge
2003

A Century of American Popular Music
David A. Jasen
Routledge
2013

Piano Stylings of the Great Standards, Volume 2
Edward Shanapy
Alfred Music
2003

Cladrite Radio: Snapshot in Prose: Ernest Burnett

Mark Steyn: Song of the Week #202, Oct. 24, 2011

“My Melancholy Baby” entry, Chris Tyle at jazzstandards.com


Friday, November 6, 2015

‘Making a Peg Board Game’

Because I am in the bathroom, I am of course reading “The Pocket Daring Book for Girls.” Opening it randomly, I come across the instructions for “Making a Peg Board Game,” and I break out into a cold sweat.

I have never been handy. I have recaulked the bathtub 12 times in the last eight years; a professional is coming Tuesday. My skills are inversely proportional to the complexity of the task involved.

My grandfather was a masterful craftsman and gardener. His workroom was well-stocked and organized. He built his own Ping-Pong table, for chrissake, and it’s still standing. Unfortunately, I take after his son, my dad. I am a complete mechanical idiot. (It’s an anomaly – my offspring and other relatives can function pretty well in reality.)

Oh, I tried to reform. We had Boy Scout handbooks, and books on craftsmanship and woodcraft for boys. I don’t really know what girls did back in those days – hemstitching, playing the spinet, and waiting for inevitable impregnation? I used up a lot of wood, and nails, and saw blades, creating a lot of Cubist-looking sailing vessels that were promptly lost down Ralston Creek. But following instructions?

With apologies to authors Buchanan and Peskowitz, whose book is actually a godsend for young women who, quite rightly, know that DIY fun and adventure is no longer the province of boys only –

“Perfect for car trips and rainy days, this ancient logic game is surprisingly easy to make, but difficult to master.”

If you have seen this triangular brain teaser before, you know the gist of it. 15 holes, 14 golf tees. Jump the tees over each other until only one is left. Or you’re dumb. Twenty minutes with one of these and I am ready for a conniption fit. These litter the tables at Cracker Barrels nationwide. I have found golf tees in my food there.

In fact, I didn’t realize the playing pieces were golf tees until I played golf for the first and last time. “Hey,” I said, “why are you putting your golf ball on that triangular game board piece?”

In the car, the pieces keep getting lost and resurface stuck to, or into, your heinie. Now that we have roaming data plans, the only way this game is going to be used in the car is if you’re in a dead wifi spot, or to batter a hitchhiker to death with. Rainy days, same thing – I prefer to kill hitchhikers on rainy days, anyway. It’s more romantic.

“Needed: one flat board 6” x 6” (at least one inch thick is a good size). Any shape is fine; it doesn’t have to be triangular.”

Oh, lord, I see a glimmer of light! I had the saw out and was just thinking about how, when I cut in any direction save the grain, the saw shudders, rocks, bolts, and the blade silently and swiftly takes off extra pounds in seconds. Whew.

I now have a random chunk of wood. Next:

“14 fluted dowel pins, 5/16” x 1 1/2”. Available at any hardware store.”

Oh, really, smartass? Have you been to my local hardware store lately? It’s not the place where everyone has matching aprons. It’s run by Bob, a non-recovering alcoholic with memory problems. There are no “departments,” or “signs,” or “aisles.” This makes every quest for a specific part a kind of stream-of-consciousness spelunking expedition. Fluted dowel pins? Fluted dowel pins. They sound expensive.

“Ruler” Wow. Now . . . you’d think, since my children have to buy a new ruler each every September, as they can’t of course hang on to them (are they helicoptered with glee out the bus windows on the way back from the last day of school?), that we – would – have – a – RULER in this house! All right. All right. Breathe. I have a 3” x 5” card, I’ll fake it.

“Power drill, with a 5/16” bit.” You really don’t know anything about me, do you? Sigh.

“Make a dot at the top of the board for your starting point.” What is the top? Are there guidelines on what constitutes the top of a chunk of wood? Is it my call? These profound metaphysical questions can often crowd out the task at hand, leaving me contemplating silently until it gets dark outside and I am brought in.

“Lightly draw one diagonal line and then another, marking your triangle on the wood.” AHA! So they want you to make a triangle anyway! I get it. Clever. They totally styled me by not making me use a power saw.

“In addition to the top dot, mark four dots down one side of the triangle, four along the other side, and three dots along the bottom.”

Yeah, yap, I’m doing it. This might work!

“Draw dots for the middle holes, too. Use your ruler so everything lines up.” Meh.

“Drill a ½” hole right where you have drawn each dot.”




Oh, the hell with it. Say, would you call 911, please? I need to go lie down. 

Tune in next time, when I go to the Burn Ward after making fudge.

Friday, October 2, 2015

On Interpretation: Zappa Plays Zappa

Dweezil Zappa and ensemble at the Boulder Theater last night. No, I didn't get any closer. I could hear just fine where I was.
How many recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are there? Thousands. Why? Haven’t they gotten it right yet?

When Dweezil Zappa hit the stage with his cover of his father Frank’s 1975 One Size Fits All album (the 10th and last official Mothers of Invention product – Zappa went solo after) at the Boulder Theater last night, it was standing room only – with a fairly large contingent of people my age and older, grandparent-y-looking freaks in disguise. When the house lights went down, a Trinity Site-size- and –shaped mushroom cloud of dope smoke ascended, rolling and roiling, breaking in silent tsunami against the lofty Art Deco ceiling.

It got loud fast. We stayed well back on the left, but got to observe all kinds of aisle action – security going after the blatant smokers, trippers waving their fingers in our faces. It got hot.

Zappa was an affable, laid-back host, a gentle curator who slayed it, playing the seemingly unlearnable solos his father composed and played. He was backed by an amazing quintet – Kurt Morgan on bass, Chris Norton on keyboards, Joe Travers on drums, Ben Thomas on trumpet, trombone, harmonica, guitar, and what else comes to hand; and the ball of fire Scheila Gonzales, who worked the keyboards, and flute, and sax, ripping out an amazing horn solo on a cover of “The Grand Wazoo” later in the evening.

Ben Thomas handled the lead vocals, too. (The vocal mix got blown out, and was pretty incomprehensible. I had to go back to the lyrics sheet later to refamiliarize myself.) It seemed odd that Dweezil would relegate this duty – but maybe not. It must be odd to play your dad’s albums for screaming crowds.

Or not. This definitely wasn’t the kind of note-for-note replication that bands such as Dark Star Orchestra perform. And is that what we want? The Eagles reportedly strove to make every concert “sound like the record.” Dweezil and Company kept substantially to the songs, but opened them out as well, developed them, extended them through their own experience and understanding.

And maybe that’s the best way to keep this music alive. Like Mercer Ellington and Sue Mingus, Dweezil Zappa has a mountain of material to work with – Zappa released 62 albums in his lifetime, sometimes five a year – a confounding mix of juvenile comedy, rock, soul, jazz, orchestral, R & B (who doesn’t love Cruisin’ with Ruben and the Jets?), collage, experimental pieces, all jammed together in an ever-exploding matrix of Weird.

Dweezil gets that and makes it work for him, demonstrating that the work has a much longer half-life than most people think it does. Frank Zappa was a notorious perfectionist, but even music as challenging and idiosyncratic as his will only survive if people take it, play it, and by playing change it. As the Borges story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” story illustrated, even the most rigorous attempt to recreate a creative experience is doomed and blessed to be something new and different.


We accrete cultural layers everywhere we go. We track our past, our mind, our style in with us, always, like mud on our shoes. Even when playing the unplayable, or bringing the unreproducible back to life, we are keeping it alive, and adding a little of our DNA to it as well. It’s Dweezil Zappa’s unique privilege to point out some gems to us and put new luster on them.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Stuff and nonsense: the holy illumination of potrzebie

Harvey Kurtzman unglued my reality.

The great cartoonist and key first editor of Mad Magazine introduced one simple little word into the magazine in May 1954, one that made absolutely no sense. It resonated, and Kurtzman’s brilliant successor as Mad editor, Al Feldstein, kept the gag running.

When we were kids we made a daily pilgrimage after school to the Duckwall’s five-and-dime store a third of a mile from our house, hoping to find a new Captain America comic book, or another gruesome, Joe Orlando-edited House of Mystery, or the new issue of Mad Magazine. Somewhere down the line, in one gloriously silly, juvenile number or other, my reading eyes skidded to a halt at the word “potrzebie.”

Here’s the buildup: there are many faultlines in my thinking. All early childhood memories are intense and fragmented, but mine seem particularly adrift, though, contextless and overwhelmingly associated with a sheer, staggering, fearful thrill of perceiving color, taste, smell, sound, and all, extending even to synesthesia. I couldn’t distance myself, everything was too loud, far too real. I could barely stand the sheer vividnesss of other people.

We all need context, a structure of perception that underlies judgement and choice. Fortunately, I had a world of books to comfort me. Here were super-real experiences that could be controlled, set at arms’ length, put down and pondered.

Another ready-made reality filter was the dull, Caucasian Christianity I inherited unquestioningly. Edged with shadows of Scandinavian gloom, girded with the magical power of repression, my Midwest Lutheranism contained a unified conception of the cosmos on every level, neatly anchored by profoundly powerful and somewhat grumpy allfather. Even after I lost faith, that context slotted me into reality, gave me a standpoint to work from. I found a way to contain my terror of being randomly buffeted about by my senses and the thoughts and feelings they stirred.

By the mid-‘70s, though, we had all given up on church. I was still working my way through the local library, quite literally. (I nailed the children’s’ library in about a year and a half. My mother had to sign off on me checking out insane armloads from the adult side after that.) By now I was thoroughly aware of the nature of the universe and my place in it. It just wasn’t especially thrilling. I could function, and did, grayly, senses turned down.

Then I hit “potrzebie.” It wasn’t even being used as a punchline! Like many a mental hotfoot, it was slipped in casually. No matter how anxious I was to make sense of it, I couldn’t. I wasn’t sure of much, but I did know my vocabulary words. This was not among them. Our house dictionaries, and those of the local library, provided not a clue. I am sure I had read “Jabberwocky” by that time, but somehow the concept of the non-sequitir still escaped me. Now it hit me between the eyes like a ballpeen hammer, a one-word, Borscht Belt Zen koan that exploded my mind.

I short-circuited. I laughed hysterically. Here was a gratuitous, fabricated formation of letters, could mean anything, could mean nothing, thrown onto the page without let or hinder, heedless of the laws of usage. It not only ignored the needs of the reader, it mocked them.

[Backstory: “Potrzebie” is a Polish word meaning “a need.” Harvey Kurtzman ran across it in a list of instructions in multiple languages that came with a bottle of aspirin. He cut it out, copied it, and started pasting it into the backgrounds of random Mad stories. It caught on, along with other classic Mad neologisms as furshlugginer, veeblefetzer, ecch, blecch, hoohah, fladdap, and shtoink. A satiric Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures persists in those pages to this day.]

And it invited you to mock along. It denied meaning. My tiny little mind didn’t know this yet, but Kurtzman was dipping into the same well of absurdity as the Surrealists. The waves of Eurosilliness ran through Lear, Carroll, Jarry, Joyce, and Ionesco, and quickly migrated into lower-brow artists such as Benchley, Perelman, Spike Milligan, Ernie Kovacs, Bob and Ray, and of course Mad.

“Potrzebie” gave me the power to step outside the dull, orderly system of consensual reality. Meanings were arbitrary, and, at base, silly and funny. And all my mental constructs went from stone to Jell-O. I was connected to unmediated experience again, without the terror of being overwhelmed by it. Life was laughable, was enjoyable. And I started creating. I didn’t know it, but I was doomed to a life of comedy.

This newly provisional reality could be tested for validity with the Sword of Potrzebie. Any given person, organization, creed, plan, system, was permeable, subject to the erosion of humorous query, skepticism, mockery, lampoon, and parody. The simple addition of the tiny word “potrzebie” into any magnificent but false landscape would explode it, set it aflame, bring it crashing down.

Not that this approach doesn’t have its dangers. Humor strips away superfluities. Like many young comics, I couldn’t tell the difference between myself and my act. I single-mindedly tore everything apart, including people, looking for material. To deny the meaning of everything is an untenable place from which to live – I tried it and it didn’t work.

I stopped staying up ‘til 3 in the morning at smoky bars telling dick jokes. I found a God I could live with, and writing. I have a family that puts up with me. My friends are the best in the world – they are funny, and don’t take too much seriously, but are absolutely solid, reliable, and honest, unencumbered by the phoney-baloney bullshit that passes for workaday relationships in this dodgy world, among the normatives, the control group.


I have very little money and a wheelbarrow-full of peace of mind. I owe it all to potrzebie.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Review: ‘American Cornball’ entertaining trip through comedy history




American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny
Christopher Miller
2013
HarperCollins
New York

By BRAD WEISMANN 

Did you ever wonder why being stuck on a desert island is supposed to be so damn funny? Or for that matter, why falling safes, rolling pins, snoring, pie fights, hoboes, alley cats, and big butts are an enduring part of America’s comedy DNA? And -- do you want to know what those enormous sweat drops that fly from nervous cartoon characters are called?

Christopher Miller’s mother lode of old-school memes, tropes, symbols, routines and topics is here to help. American Cornball combs through the 20th Century’s postcards, ephemera, vaudeville sketches, radio shows, comics, cartoons, and books to assemble a definitive roster of stuff that used to crack us up.

A joke’s half-life is usually dramatically short. Topical humor is by definition fleeting. Any comedian will tell you that comic style changes over decades. Even a successful one whose work is grounded in general human observation such as Jerry Seinfeld finds he’s not connecting with a younger generation these days. The comics our parents loved we saw as hacks, and our children will feel the same. (If Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison had lived, would they have wound up playing the South Florida condo circuit?) American Cornball reminds us ars longa, comoedia brevis.

Miller’s voracious, if not masochistic, research, grounds an A-to-Z survey that concentrates on American culture from the birth of the comic strip in 1895 to the 1960s, when the idea of a large, homogenous common culture that shared a toolkit of common laughter-generating topics sputtered and died. These primeval gags lurked everywhere in the old days. Miller bravely tracks down their origins and then offers interpretation and analysis, throwing in citation, context, and a timeline as well. (For instance, he carefully breaks down the variegated comic possibilities posed by the three classic home-invasion figures: the plumber, the iceman, and the door-to-door salesman. Who knew?)

Miller’s peculiar genius here is to pare down these examinations to brisk, entertaining passages. His crisp wit sustains us throughout, and he constantly stuffs his entries with tangents of information that make the reader not want to miss any stray nugget of information. The casual reader can enjoy dipping in here and there; the diligent (OK obsessive) reader will absorb many insights Miller deduces from the no-longer-quite-so-hilarious evidence in front of him.

He doesn’t shy away from the plethora of racist, violent and misogynist humor that played so large a role in the comedy of the time and that we now longer officially find acceptable. Long-gone ethnic caricatures of blacks, Jews, “Polacks,” Italians, and “Irishmen” have already been joined by women-driver jokes and may soon also see jokes about homosexuals join them in retirement. Miller neither despises political correctness nor endorses old-school tastelessness; like the best scholars he puts it all out there, tells us what he thinks, and leaves the rest up to us.

And dammit, it’s just funny. By the way, those huge cartoon sweat drops are termed plewds. There’s a lot more where that came from, but you have to conquer this entertaining tome of nerdy brilliance to find out.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

'Our carnal stings' -- thoughts on Colorado Shakespeare Festival's 'Othello'

Geoffrey Kent as Iago and Peter Macon as Othello in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of "Othello." [Photo by Jennifer Koskinen/Courtesy Colorado Shakespeare Festival]
 We were forced to read “Othello” in high school. Despite this, it’s one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. Scrape away the preconceptions, and memories of bad productions seen, and there’s a great river of vital stuff surging through it – race, sex, politics, loyalty, truth, possession, pride, and trust. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s production works due to its strong central performance and a no-nonsense directorial approach by Lisa Wolpe that focuses on telling the story clearly rather than trying to score points for cleverness. It's an excellent introduction to this key work.

“Othello” is often thought to be a play out of balance, one in which its manipulative villain Iago dominates, reducing the title character to a pawn. But, done properly, the play is not misnamed. The web of circumstantial evidence Iago weaves to make Othello think his new, young wife Desdemona is cheating on him is insubstantial. Why doesn’t Othello sweep it away?

Precisely because Othello is an experienced warrior, a commander. Bluff, emotional, and open-hearted, his martial virtues are his undoing in a civilian society where ambiguity, innuendo, politicking, and deceit dominate. Played properly, as it is here, Iago merely triggers the explosion of a magnificent hero.

Peter Macon brings previous experience to the role as Othello, along with a presence that commands attention and a deep, resonant voice. Many times Othello has been played with an overdose of gravitas, but Macon gives the audience at the outset an exuberant, playful, charismatic, three-dimensional man, which makes his mental collapse and fragmentation all the more moving and fascinating to watch as the night progresses.

Adept at battle, Othello’s lost in love, or what he considers love to be. In the end, it seems to be only a reflection of his self-regard, and the perceived loss of it makes it necessary for him to slay the object of his affections. Macon’s Othello is incapable of plucking suspicion from his mind, and seems like someone who might have wound in the same dismal ending even without Iago’s goading.

Othello is adrift in a culture of sexual paranoia. Women are defined by their chastity; men are defined by ability to overcome that chastity. A woman not completely innocent or faithful is a worthless whore; a man whose woman is unfaithful is no man at all. (So things haven’t changed that much in 400 years.) To sleep with another man’s women is to shame and gain power over him.

Iago, long-time aide to Othello, thinks that Othello has cuckolded him – that and Othello’s preferment of another as his lieutenant spurs his stream of lies that lead to murder. The actor playing Iago has to be careful. The role has been played by and large as either transparently evil or, worse, incredibly bitchy. Exceptional interpreters of the role such as Ian McKellen and Frank Finlay work against the stereotype, underplaying so deftly that we are hoodwinked by the character’s feigned honesty as well, even though we know better.

Geoffrey Kent takes the latter course quite successfully as Iago. Kent has a very sunny disposition as an actor that helps him sell his manipulations, and a deference that really lets Macon take the lead in many scenes, which works well.

Desdemona is another frustratingly difficult role. As written, she’s cloyingly sweet and altruistic, so much so that sometimes at the end of a production her death comes as quite refreshing turn of events. The role has largely been played that way, sometimes branching into a standard variation in which she is just so damn sexy, so naturally attractive and sensual, that it seems inevitable that she will die for it.

Laura Baranik’s Desdemona seems in the beginning like a spoiled and oblivious young thing, and the chemistry between her and Macon was not substantial on opening night. But, as the evening progresses and Desdemona is ever more wronged, Baranik works the anger, shame, frustration, and hurt of the character well, giving us a woman struggling to understand her doom.

More notes – good old CSF regular Sam Gregory is here as Desdemona’s father Brabantio, and is a kick in the pants to watch. Often Brabantio is played as a quivering, ineffective dodderer, but Gregory is vital and vindictive as the deceived parent. Kudos to Rodney Lizcano, too, for getting the most out of the role of comic-relief Roderigo, Iago’s ally and dupe. Vanessa Morosco is a fine Emilia, Iago’s wife, one of the most outspoken, honest, and observant female characters in Shakespeare. She speaks truth to power and suffers the consequences.

Caitlin Ayer’s versatile, symmetrical set (it doubles as CSF’s “Much Ado About Nothing”’s) lets the traffic flow smoothly, essential in a long work like this – the show dragged a bit on opening night, but it can only get tighter. And Hugh Hanson’s costumes are splendid.

Quibbles? I love Anne Sandoe, but replacing the Doge of Venice with a Duchess really doesn’t fly. Plus, I miss the crazy, emblematic melted-Hershey’s-kiss-shaped hat a doge usually wears! Why do I know this? Why is it even important? I don't know. I don’t get out much.


“Othello” continues at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 8. For tickets and information, please visit coloradoshakes.org.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

'Drew Friedman's Heroes of the Comics' tells American pop-culture history in portraits




Drew Friedman’s Heroes of the Comics

Drew Friedman
2014
Fantagraphics Books, Inc.
Seattle

Drew Friedman has always disturbed the hell out of me. His photorealist-seeming grotesques, studies of minor and marginal celebrities in dark and turgid circumstances, were for me like a flamethrower blast from a terrifying alternate universe – one that lurked beneath our all-too-thin floorboards. In mags like Heavy Metal, MAD, National Lampoon, and RAW he fought for – and won away – my attention from such trifles as big-breasted space maidens.

His new book is a gallery of 83 American comic-book greats that combines the virtues of a portrait gallery and a collection of life stories. These individual portraits in words and pictures, when read together, form an entertaining and neatly comprehensible history of the comics in America.

In rough chronological order, Friedman takes us from Maxwell Gaines, the visionary but short-lived progenitor of EC, through list of the usual Golden and Silver Age suspects such as Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Eisner and the lot. But he also lavishes attention on the obscure but well-deserved – Mac Raboy, Gardner Fox, Ramona Fraden – all names for the enthusiast to scribble down and add to his or her research list. (Hell, he even throws in Frederic Wertham, whose infamous “Seduction of the Innocent” witch hunt against comics in the 1950s killed a lot of publications and careers).

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman. From Friedman's 'Heroes of the Comics.'
Friedman had the enormous good fortune to have a father (writer Bruce Jay Friedman) who kept him awash in comics through his childhood, and who knew seemingly everyone in the New York comics scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Friedman’s child’s-eye glimpse of the mechanics and business of the industry gives him unparalleled insights – and some great anecdotes – about this lost world, all to be found in his entertaining introduction.

Fantagraphics’ respect for the image gives Friedman’s work a large format, printed on high-quality paper stock. The artists, writers, and publishers are shown in humble situ – posed at drawing desks, cradling cigarettes, in photo-based illustrations. As Friedman puts it, these pictures are “ . . . neither idealized nor romanticized, but depicting the years of dedication etched into their faces.”

This book succeeds as a reference work, an aesthetic object in itself, and a good time – a trifecta that all good non-fiction storytellers would do well to shoot for. “Drew Friedman’s Heroes of the Comics” is an essential tool for understanding how comics became what they are.





Friday, June 5, 2015

Born to laugh at tornadoes: a personal history

[Photo by Harald Richter/NOAA Photo Library]
By BRAD WEISMANN

On May 22, 1962, I was a one-and-a-half-year-old playing on the front porch of our house in Cedar Rapids, Iowa when the tornado hit. It boiled up so quickly, my mother said, the warning sirens never went off. As she ran from the back of the house to snatch me up, she watched through the windows on that side of the house as the unattached garage next to us wrenched out of the ground and leaped into the air.

I was watching it, too, tracking it as it sailed over our house and dropped neatly onto the house next to us, causing considerable damage.

According to Mom, I was laughing.

What’s so funny about tornadoes? Nothing and everything. Someday I mean to ask Don and/or Dave Was why they named their 1983 pop album “Born to Laugh at Tornadoes” (check it out, it’s weirdly brilliant)(1), but of course the title resonates with me. The first seven years of my life, my family and I lived, voluntarily mind you, smack-dab in the middle of the Midwest, in the crosshairs of Tornado Alley.

Now, of things in life that are inherently funny, violently rotating columns of air that destroy life and property are not high up on the list. Culturally, it doesn’t seem like we’ve ever really integrated this phenomenon into our collective psyche. In our books and movies, tornadoes serve as plot points, agents of drastic change. In the era of digital effects, they serve as ends in themselves – spectacles of termination, the putative death-wishes that we seem so fond of in our disaster films.

My pump was primed. The first time we watched “The Wizard of Oz” in its then yearly showing on network TV, the twister made its appearance and I was done for the night, bawling and blubbering. Even on our crude little black-and-white model, it looked uncannily like the real thing. (It’s amazing what they could do with a 35-foot-long muslin stocking.) With lots of emotional support in place I made it through the next annual screening – but never without a twinge of dread.

“Oz” didn’t give me nightmares – my dreams were regularly interrupted by sirens every summer. Almost worse were the sudden interruptions on the TV or radio – the high-pitched C-note tone, the slow crawl of information, the scratchy-voiced cut-in of some Weather Service guy’s voice, flatland accent burring the r’s, outlining the danger area. We were well-rehearsed in emergency measures. Many comics have made hay out of the fact that the warnings usually include these little nuggets of info: “Seek a low-lying area such as a ditch,” and immediately after, “Beware of flash flooding.” Hmmmmm.

We spent all summer every summer on Grandpa Ralph’s immense (to us) Missouri Valley farm, which sat splendidly on the highest point of the ridge overlooking Underwood, Iowa, from the west. The passage of decades’ worth of tornadic activity had led to indifference from the old folks, who were as unperturbed by rushing, thundering storms as we were sent to furthest extent of frantic.

My other set of grandparents, across the river in Nebraska, were much the same. I remember standing with them at their kitchen window at night, them sipping coffee and eating cake while watching the honey locust rive in twain from a lightning bolt. “Whew, that was close,” my grandma murmured casually, lighting another Pall Mall.

(During one tornado, my dad insisted it wasn’t that bad and drove us home 20 miles from his parents’ house, madness in itself. They secretly tailed us in their car all the way back, “to make sure we got home OK,” then went home again – all while the storm howled around them. We were too dumb to live, too tough to die.)

There were many exciting tornado stories, which we pleaded for from grandparents, uncles, and aunts. We also learned a slew of exciting and entertaining misconceptions. We learned that if you shut all the doors and windows of your house before the twister hits, it will, due to the sudden drop in air pressure surrounding the dwelling, explode! COOL! Not true. That a tornado will drive a straw through a telephone pole. A pretty thought, but unsubstantiated by a rigorous scientific study. Cows turned inside out? The mind boggles.

Now, a couple of these old wives’ tales have some truth in them. First, I don’t care what they say, I’ve never met a twister that didn’t like a trailer park. They are referred to at our house as tornado magnets.

Second, the green sky before a tornado. I’ve seen it. You’d think that an atmosphere full of debris would be gray or brown. I guess, though, that the sheer mass of torn-up vegetable matter suspended in the wind torrents gives the air a greenish cast. On one afternoon before a dash to the basement, I watched the slow drift of grass and twigs past a window. The dim cloud-filtered light gave sunlight with no shadow, a green teeming like a neglected aquarium illuminated from within.

The closest call is a bit harder to pin down, sometime in the late 1960s, late, late at night on the farm. The usual  array of warnings hadn’t deterred us from hitting in hay in our usual beds.

Something kept blowing the door open, I remember. Over and over again. Then it blew open and stayed there, the doorknob punching through the plaster. My mom was up, moving swiftly, grabbing first myself and my younger sister off of the couch we shared.

“Go,” she said. A calm voice, but one that riveted my attention with its absolute earnestness. We moved through the living room, met halfway across the kitchen my her mother, similarly bent. All four of us sped for the screen porch, the access to the basement.

I looked out. It was the dead of night. All the power was out. No lights, no stars. But I saw something out there, something close, something moving, something darker than the darkness. I heard it moan – just like the rumble of a train across a trestle, I thought while being half-dragged across the floor in my pajamas. It took such a long, long time to cross that kitchen floor.

We made it to the cellar door – exactly like the “Oz” one, flat with a ringbolt set into it. We heaved it up, fastened the heavy slab of wood, and padded down the concrete stairs into the musty depths. A pile of coal in the corner. The ancient washtub. This and that, dusty. We settled down on a pile of blankets. “Sleep,” said our mother. We slept.

In the morning, we surveyed the damage. Here an immense tree had been uprooted, then lifted in the air and thrust down inextricably between two other giants. Wagons, implements, scattered around the landscape. Shingles like fallen leaves on the grass. Huge rents and furrows in the yard, branches stabbed into the hillside.

We couldn’t see the town, which sat in the valley below us. We sat in the kitchen nook and waited for the light to come up. Finally, we could see. It looked like the town had made it.

No wonder strong winds unsettle me, and I follow severe weather with the avidity of a religious acolyte. I have been caught in various storms since then – an uneasy night at a motel in Ogallala, and a whopper of a storm in the middle of Texas in 1994, undoubtedly made more frightening by my friend and I’s brilliant decision to split a tab of acid to keep us awake on the non-stop drive from New Orleans to Denver.

In 1967, my family moved to Denver, a climatological refuge. Rare floods, no earthquakes, fires only in the foothills, and snow that melts almost as soon as it falls.

Except recently. Climate change means much more rain than I can recall in 45 years; and tornadoes pop up closer to the mountains every year. The insulation from severe weather is rubbing thin here.

I won’t be happy to clamber down into my crawl space if one plows through my neighborhood, but I am grateful for the previous exposure. It calms me down. It doesn’t hurt that I can tweet and post my obsessional life away during a storm, alerting all and sundry. You’re welcome.

And I’ve grown more indifferent as well, just like my ancestors. Still alive after all these years, I’m not so impressed with a faceful of disaster. Tornadoes are just as unfortunate and random as many of the other calamities we deal with and, sometimes, the best thing to do is hunker down and wait for them to blow over. And laugh defiantly.


1. One of those albums that wound up getting engraved on my brain, such as the original cast album of "Jesus Christ Superstar," 10cc's "The Original Soundtrack," "Another Monty Python Record," and "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway," that I can recite/sing/chant word-for-word with other fanatics at parties until I go on for so long that it gets rather embarrassing and we have to leave.


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.
2011
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.

A GALLERY OF COVERS, PAGES, AND PANELS:

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).