« Join the army and see the next world. » — Dylan Thomas
A couple of eternities ago, in Shel Silverstein: Without Borders, we profiled you-know-who and showcased the travel cartoons he produced for Hugh Hefner and Playboy Magazine. Now, we reach back even earlier, to his first stirrings as a professional cartoonist… and a lifelong rover. As it would turn out, Shel truly was a free spirit.
Lisa Rogak writes, in her A Boy Named Shel (2007, St. Martin’s Press):
Once he arrived in Tokyo, Shel was assigned to the Pacific Stars and Stripes to past up stories and photo features for the paper. When his work was done — which he performed as quickly as possible — he turned his attention to drawing cartoons using the material that was right in front of him: the military. Shel roamed the streets of Shinbashi, a neighborhood that GIs frequented that once served as the end of the line of Japan’s first railroad. He spent hours each day wandering the streets taking note of the activities of his fellow soldiers, which would invariably end up in one of his cartoons.
He initially did it for his own amusement, through within a few weeks, the paper began to print his work. After spending six months juggling newspaper paste-up with cartooning, he convinced his editors to take him off layout duties and allow him to wander the Far East and send back reports in the form of one-panel cartoons. They agreed.
Evidently, Mrs. Silverstein’s boy was a most charming and persuasive fellow. He would soon pull the same stunt on Hugh Hefner… but none can claim, in either case, that he failed to deliver on his lofty promises!
Even with his freedom, Shel had a hard time dealing with the restraints of army protocol. Corky Alexander, the late editor of the English language Tokyo Weekender, first met Shel at Stars and Stripes. “He was an army corporal and was perhaps the worst soldier in the history of armed might, down through the ages,” he said.
“His technique followed a simple pattern. First he thought of an object — say, his first sergeant. He’d concentrate until he would come up with 20 or 30 gags on the one subject. Out of it came situations peopled by his long-nosed characters, his little men, his giants, the animals and the strange creatures for which he has a special affection.“
His favorite overall targets were the officers. “They even made zebras off-limits to me because they had stripes,” Shel said.
In his foreword to Take Ten, Shel’s good buddy and PS&S colleague Bob Sweeney recounts:
In a letter to the home office, Bob Brown of the S&S Seoul Bureau wrote:
“He stays up all night chewing pencils, drawing cartoons and writing ideas on little scraps of paper he never finds again. In the first twenty minutes he was here he had our little office more cluttered than the convention hall in his native Chicago.”
“But,” added Brown, “he knows the people he draws. He’s lived through the same experiences and heard the same lines.“
Here then are the simplicities as well as the subtleties — the obvious and the obtuse — the wonderful conglomerate of a man who loves to write, to draw, to create — and best of all — who loves to laugh.