« To prevent enabling oppression, we demand that black people be twice as good. To prevent verifying stereotypes, we pledge to never eat a slice a watermelon in front of white people.* » — Ta-Nehisi Coates
On a scorching day last week, we were at home digging into a particularly tasty watermelon.
As neither of us grew up in the U.S. of A., the simple act of eating juicy pastèque has not been tainted, as it has for many, by racism and stereotypes. We’ve been allowed to appreciate the watermelon for itself, as a healthy, refreshing, tasty treat. A lightbulb came on as I recalled a relevant sequence in one of Spain Rodriguez‘s ‘Fred Toote’ stories, set in the 1950’s Buffalo of his youth — and so here it is:
And that’s not all: a few days later, a friend’s news feed presented me with a most insightful, eye-opening *and* heartbreaking tweet:
Pickaninny. A black child. Thus, from a book that was being sold in 1987 in order to raise money for the state of California’s observance of the bicentennial of the United States Constitution. ” If the pickaninnies ran naked it was generally from choice, and when the white boys had to put on shoes and go away to school they were likely to envy the freedom of their colored playmates” (Fred Albert Shannon, essay on slavery, 1934, in The Making of America, W. Clean Skousen, ed., 1985).
Pickaninny arose among slaves in the West Indies, where it was recorded as early as 1653. The original users based the term either on the Portuguese pequenino, little child, or its Spanish equivalent. They employed the term affectionately, of course, and, on the evidence of Captain Frederick Marryat, who was a sensitive recorder of language, applied it to little children generally, regardless of color, e.g. “And den, Mass Easy, you marry wife – hab pickaninny — lib like gentleman” (Mr. Midshipman Easy, 1836).
But no white person can get away with this today. The essential informality of the word makes it seem too condescending, too offensive, to most modern sensibilities. The California Bicentennial Commission, in fact, halted the sale of The Making of America, and issued a formal apology for having authorized it in the first place, after this use of pickaninny was called to their attention (along with other matters, the text also concluding that “slave owners were the worst victims of the system [of slavery].”
« Goodbye—if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags, please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia. » — Ambrose Bierce, writing to his niece in the fall of 1913.
There’s a profusion of biographical material out there on the topic of Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (June 24, 1842- ??), but here’s a capsule version to get the preliminaries out of the way:
« Ambrose Bierce was an angry young man who got angrier as he grew older. His strong talent was directed always by bitterness and despair. His wonderful stories were weird, cynical, shocking. His life was restless, his temper outrageous, and his death violent. »
Bearce belongs to a select club of larger-than-life American literary figures (among which we might also encounter Messrs. Poe, Twain, Lovecraft, Hemingway, and perhaps Vonnegut), whose life and work inspired, and continues to inspire, countless adaptations in all media, imitations and parodies, appropriations. You know the drill: works by, works about, works starring the author as protagonist.
In addition to the expected adaptations of varying quality, Bierce’s own nebulous ending inspired both fiction (Gerald Kersh‘s 1957 short story ‘The Oxoxoco Bottle‘, in which the narrator discovers a manuscript, in Bierce’s hand, that recounts the extraordinary events that followed his disappearance) and speculative non-fiction, by which I mean Jake Silverstein‘s fascinating 2002 essay, The Devil and Ambrose Bierce: Well Met in Marfa, which you can read here).
Since there’s so much to take in, I’ll fall back on my usual coping strategy, keeping my focus narrow to avoid (further) losing it. We’re going to explore my two favourite editions of a defining Bierce work, The Devil’s Dictionary, first published in 1906 as The Cynic’s Word Book.
Then in 1979 came along a most handsome edition (Thomas Y. Crowell, Publishers) boasting a wealth of illustrations by Egyptian-born force of nature Jean-Claude Suarès (1942-2013).
For the sake of comparison, here’s Mr. Low’s rendition of same:
Happy 180th anniversary, Mr. Bierce, wherever you may roam!
« Bicycles are pieces of art. You get that combination of kinetic engineering, but then, besides the welds, the paint jobs, the kind of the sculpture of it all is quite beautiful. Bikes have such great lines, and all different styles. » — Robin Williams
I’ve been cycling a lot more of late. I’d been using my bike less frequently in recent years, unnerved by the increasingly frantic (and distracted, not a good combo) vehicular traffic of the city. But with my wife taking an interest in the activity, I found myself with a reason to get back in the saddle. This spring, we found a newly opened bike shop, earthy, grimy and unpretentious, where we got our bikes expertly tuned up.
I’ve always loathed those cliquish hipster joints that, in addition to selling overpriced junk, also seem responsible for the ubiquity of those middle-aged, over-equipped, spandex-clad Sunday cyclists, who feel it their sacred duty to pass you, whatever the pace, weather or road conditions, looking for all the world like overstuffed sausages in their lycra casings. The sporting analogue, if you will, of the rich kid who ‘needs’ the most expensive guitar in the shop… never mind that he can’t play a note.
You hopefully will indulge me in this little exercise in nostalgia. I miss the days when our bikes got us around, granted us greater autonomy and kept us in shape. This lifestyle took a backseat in the 1980s, when the BMX craze began to overstate the extreme and the competitive facets of the sport. Now, it’s all ultimate sport this and boot-camp fitness that. Ah, whatever happened to plain old utilitarian fun?
Through much of the 1960s, Bendix (the corporation, not Bill!) commissioned a long-running series of custom ads featuring the Riverdale Gang, illustrated by resident Archie artist Harry Lucey.
As the 1960s drew to a close, another series of custom comics ads appeared — just under the wire. They spotlight the creations of the famous ‘King of the Kustomizers’, George “Barris” Salapatas (1925-2015), very much in demand thanks to his recent triumph with the Batman tv show’s Batmobile.
I switched to my backup, a hybrid bike I bought in 1987. It’s still running beautifully. In terms of value for money, a well-maintained bicycle is pretty unbeatable.
I leave you with a song, whence comes the title of this article. It’s from a lesser-known but excellent Donovan album, Open Road, from 1970.
After some of the time-consuming epics we’ve been running lately, I’d been looking for a short piece to help me catch my breath; as it happens, I’d been saving a special piece for this day and occasion.
I’ve always much admired any well-done bit of scientific popularization, and given people’s abysmal ignorance, and even worse, their utter lack of curiosity on the subject of trees (among others!), this one stands out as increasingly timely and poignant. Just yesterday, I stumbled upon an alarming article from Smithsonian Magazine pointing out that the hard lessons of the Dust Bowl were either not learned or simply forgotten. So it goes…
Woodman, spare that tree! Touch not a single bough! In youth it sheltered me, And I’ll protect it now. ‘twas my forefather’s hand That placed it near his cot; There, woodman, let it stand, Thy axe shall harm it not!
That old familiar tree, Whose glory and renown Are spread o’er land and sea, And wouldst thou hew it down? Woodman, forbear thy stroke! Cut not its earthbound ties; 0 spare that aged oak, Now towering to the skies!
When but an idle boy I sought its grateful shade; In all their gushing joy Here too my sisters played. My mother kissed me here; My father pressed my hand. . . But let that old oak stand!
My heartstrings round thee cling Close as thy bark, old friend; Here shall the wild bird sing, And still thy branches bend. Old tree! the storm still brave; And, woodman, leave the spot . . . While I’ve a hand to save, Thy axe shall harm it not.
Given my appetite for recipes and the cookbooks they’re published in, it was just a matter of time before I stumbled across the hybrid genre of cooking memoir in comic book form. Needless to say, these two art forms have been friends for a long time: comics have been highlighting food in different ways for probably as long as comics have existed. As for cookbooks, it used to be common practice to include illustrations (maybe even cartoons in the margins!), not the lavishly printed photographs we are used to today, alongside the recipes. A treasured 1930s Soviet cookbook inherited from my grandparents, falling apart but no less charming for it, features little cartoons on every other page, similar to how the drawings of Robert Gring once adorned the pages of Assimil language guides (see co-admin RG’s Robert Gring’s Wits-Sharpening Fun).
But I believe that endeavours to specifically write a whole graphic novel/cooking memoir (replete with recipes!) is a fairly recent phenomenon. I’m not talking about stuff like Stan Lee Presents the Mighty Marvel Superheroes’ Cookbook (1977, complete with recipes for ‘He-Man Pancakes’ and ‘Thor’s Cabbage Rolls’), but a thoughtful examination of food functioning as connective tissue between generations and memories. It also helps when the recipes are actually appetizing.
I’m actually not fond of cookbooks that delve into family anecdotes, as that type of narrative tends to get bogged down in saccharine sentiment that obscures the bigger picture, as the narrator collapses into dreamy sighs about how genuine cooking used to be (as compared to the sterile, hurried modern approach, presumably). The visually-oriented nature of comics seems much better suited to emphasise that telling-stories aspect, besides which drawing ingredients and techniques over and over again must get tiresome rather fast, which tilts the stories-to-recipes ratio firmly in favour of the former. Here are some excerpts from books in my library, each taking a slightly different focus on the subject.
An excellent example of memoir-cum-comic-cum-cookbook is Lucy Kingsley‘s joyous Relish: My Life in the Kitchen (2013), probably my favourite example of this subgenre. Its colourful, cartoony style is the perfect backdrop for Kingsley’s pilgrimage through memories – and as the daughter of a professional chef with a penchant towards nature and an aesthete dedicated to fancy gourmet food, she has a great variety of cuisine-related reminiscences to share.
Cook Korean! (2018) by Robin Ha draws strong connections between Ha’s Korean roots and her gradually evolving relationship with her mother. Mothers, as they tend to be the first source of a newborn’s food and the child’s main guide to new flavours, crop up a lot in these recollections, but here the emphasis is more on reconnecting with one’s ancestry through traditional food. I bought this book for the recipes, but I was touched by Ha’s obvious enthusiasm and desire to make this cookbook a fun, easy-going romp through not only a lot of Korean staples, but also people’s attitudes towards them.
Dirt Candy (2012) by Amanda Cohen and Ryan Dunlavey chronicles the hard life of the chef/owner of a NYC restaurant. While I am not quite on board with Cohen’s claim that vegetables are boring unless they’re treated in very specific and fancy ways, her clear frustration at the reputation of vegetarian (I’m sorry, ‘vegetable‘) cuisine is educational and entertaining, as she spends a chunk of the cookbook discussing the evolution the Americans’ tortuous relationship with vegetables and ‘healthy’ food.
I have not tried any Dirt Candy recipes yet, as most of them require a multitude of bowls and techniques, not to mention the sort of time investment I currently reserve for other projects. The culmination of that approach is Cohen’s recipe for onion soup, which demands two days of preparation and would have also required the sacrifice of your first-born, if this hadn’t been a vegetarian (sorry, vegetable…) cookbook.
Carol Lay‘s The Big Skinny: How I Changed My Fattitude (2013) recounts her tortured relationship with food and how she finally was able to come to grips with her weight. It’s not that easy to laugh at yourself, and Lay successfully pulls it off, which makes this memoir instantly endearing whether one swears by counting calories or is convinced that it’s the sort of madness psychiatrists make a living on.
P.S. I couldn’t write a post about comics and food without mentioning Ben Katchor, a WOT favourite. He has many beautiful perambulations into the territory of food, but one might mention The Dairy Restaurant for starters.
« In Hawaii they say, “aloha.” That’s a nice one, It means both “hello” and “good-bye”, which just goes to show, if you spend enough time in the sun you don’t know whether you’re coming or going. » — George Carlin
By and large, the notorious 1990s trend of autobiographical (at times navel-gazing) comics was undermined by its practitioners’ dearth of meaningful life experience and insight. Obviously, there’s been plenty of notable exceptions, before and since: on the insight front, for one, Canadian David Collier is an undervalued master of the documentary form.
As for life experience, puissant Dennis P. Eichhorn (1945-2015) put all the pasty, effete cartoonists to shame with his spectacularly turbulent, bold-type life. A gifted writer and storyteller, well-versed in the comics medium, he galvanised the creativity of his many collaborators, a broad yet aptly-selected crew of graphic practitioners, many of whom he’d met in the course of his lengthy writing and editorial stint with Seattle’s fabled The Rocket weekly.
I initially assumed I’d run into trouble in settling on the one story to showcase, but nope… right away, I knew just the ticket… a ticket to the Big Island.
p.s. It would be easy to assume that āhole is just a fancy way of saying ‘asshole’, but it isn’t *necessarily* so; to wit:
āholen. An endemic fish (Kuhlia sandvicensis) found in both fresh and salt water. The mature stage is āhole, the young stage āholehole. Because of the meaning of hole, to strip away, this fish was used for magic, as to chase away evil spirits and for love magic. It was also called a “sea pig” (puaʻa kai) and used ceremonially as a substitute for pig. Foreigners were sometimes called āhole because of the light skin of the fish. He āhole ka iʻa, hole ke aloha, āhole is the fish, love is restless [of āhole fish used in love magic]. [ source ]
« Dreams surround our desires with ugliness and dread. » — Mason Cooley
As everyone knows, the early fifties were a more innocent and wholesome era, when the average bobbysoxer would swoon away the nights with fantasies of dishy teen idol Rondo Hatton. I mean, just look at her blissful expression!
Surprisingly, the cover scene does, for once, occur within!
« I have argued flying saucers with lots of people. I was interested in possible. They do not appreciate that the problem is not to demonstrate whether it’s possible or not but whether it’s going on or not. » — Richard P. Feynman
You can follow the rising pitch with the publishing frequency of Gold Key’s UFO Flying Saucers: after its premiere issue hits the stands in 1968, two full years elapsed until the second, then another two until the third… and again to the fourth. It’s fair to presume that the title had been intended as a one-shot, and that encouraging sales led the way to a regular, if sparse schedule. Then the pace picked up after issue four (Nov. 1974), and so ten issues appeared in the span of just over three years. There was a brief hiatus, a retitling to UFO & Outer Space and a further dozen issues saw print, two of them reprints. By late 1979, the series sputtered to a halt.
They may not have been to everyone’s taste, but Gold Key comics provided their audience with a soothing respite and change of pace from Marvel’s endless manic brutality and insipid crossovers. Even amidst the GK line, UFO Flying Saucers stood out. It did a stellar job of covering the flying saucer craze of the Cold War years, thanks to a sober, documentary-style narrative tone and strong artwork, led by Frank Bolle, who fit the template to a T. The tone was surprisingly even-handed (far more so than most modern media; j’accuse, History Channel!) They even tossed a scrumptious pinch of skepticism into the mix now and again, and it’s this delicacy that we’ll be sampling.
The modern skeptical* movement was spearheaded by the 1952 publication of mathematician and science writer Martin Gardner‘s fascinating In the Name of Science (thereafter better known as Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science), answering the need for an organised response to a (still) rising tide of irrationality, superstition and scientific illiteracy. When UFO Flying Saucers introduced its series featuring The Hoaxmaster, the skeptics’ flagship publication, The Skeptical Inquirer, was still a couple of years away from being launched. That auspicious occasion came in the fall of 1976, under its original title of The Zetetic: Journal of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.
Sadly, The Hoaxmaster series bears no writing credit. The only writer ever credited in the title is Western Publications staffer Patricia Fortunato, a former story editor of The Golden Magazine. If that’s your work, Pat, take a bow!
In comparison, artist identification is a cinch: the steady hand of Frank Bolle, who left us just last year, at the most venerable age of 95, is instantly recognizable. Artistically active right to the wire, he drew the final leg (1999-2015) of soap opera comic strip Apartment 3-G‘s 54-year-run. Over the course of his singularly long career, he worked for just about every comics publisher… and then some! His reliable proficiency at providing just the right tone to illuminate that delicate borderline between science fact and science fiction made him the ideal choice to adapt John Christopher‘s early young adult post-apocalyptic The Tripods trilogy (The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead,and The Pool of Fire), serialised in Boys’ Life magazine in the 1980s. Check it out here!
Well, that’s roughly half of the Hoaxmaster strips. If you’d like to see the rest, let us know… I can probably time it with the next edition of World Contact Day. To sign off on a musical note, here’s its catchy, Canadian-made anthem. Remember, “we are your friends“.
*as opposed to ‘denialism’, of course. It’s a crucial distinction: know the difference!
« A kid one time fell asleep chewing Bubble Yum, and he woke up with his mouth full of spider eggs. » — Some nameless rumour-monger
The other day, a neighbour was asking me whether it was a safe for his Golden Retriever puppy to eat the worms it was digging up (I was impressed), the guy presuming that said worms were quite filthy and rife with germs. I replied that no, it’s probably all the rooting through the trash and gobbling up whatever it finds that’s giving the pup gastric distress. Worms, in fact, are considered a delicacy in many a culture, including some European ones. Not that I’ve indulged: just like The Kinks’ Apeman, I’m a strict vegetarian.
This brought to mind those 1970s rumours of earthworms serving as filler in McDonald’s burgers (never mind that worms are a far costlier ingredient than is beef). Which led in turn to the equally-outlandish notion that the secret of Bubble Yum’s softness (introduced in 1975 by Life Savers, it was the first soft bubble gum ever concocted) lay in its containing spider eggs. Again, steady procurement would have proved quite a daunting challenge.
But the bubble was about to burst (or at least deflate somewhat), as reported by The New York Times (March 29, 1977):
The Great Spider Egg Mystery remains unsolved but it may yet have several happy endings. The mystery concerns Bubble Yum, a popular new bubble gum that has, in a year, overtaken such symbols of earlier childhoods as Dubble Bubble and Bazooka. A few weeks ago came toil and trouble: the unexplained spread of lurid rumors among children in the New York area that, gasp!, Bubble Yum contained spider eggs (or, according to haughtier youthful accounts, caused cancer). Stores which had up to then been unable to stock enough to meet demand suddenly saw sales plummet. Last week, the manufacturer, Life Savers, Inc., took out full‐page ads in 30 area newspapers to combat the rumors.
This is not the first time the bubble gum business has been beset by evil rumor. When Jimmy Carter was a boy, youngsters in Sumter County, Georgia, were scared off by reports that bubble gum was made with snake oil —until they were reassured by an ad in the Americus Times‐Recorder. Nor is bubble gum normally regarded as the stuff of moral lessons. Its history, since it was invented by Walter Diemer in 1928, is marked by such milestones as packaging it with baseball cards (1933) or making it squeakless (1953).
But there is something more significant, and appealing, in the open way in which Life Savers has chosen to deal with its problem. We hope the spider egg rumors are expunged as successfully now as the snake oil rumors were then. And there will be a happier ending still if the subject is properly understood to be not bubble gum but canard. No consumer is too young to learn the malign effects of rumor or to understand that there will always be someone, not always in youthful innocence, eager to raise the cry—whether about Communists in government, environment, energy or bubble gum—of “spider eggs.”
Susan M. Smith wrote, in her 1989 thesis, Consumer Rumors and Corporate Communications:
Whether the rumor is isolated or widespread, the company must select media that reach the rumor’s community of interest, and particularly, its influential leaders. The importance of this is shown by what happened after a rumor episode in New York City for the Life Saver’s Company. The company conducted an all-out attack to combat a rumor in 1977 that the company’s innovative, new soft chewing gum. Bubble Yum, contained spider eggs. It sought publicity, inserted full-page newspaper ads, and sent letters with a copy of the ad to the city’s PTA groups, school principals, and retail outlets.
The campaign successfully stopped the rumor, but Bubble Yum’s New York sales did not recover for many years. It turns out that even though the company had blanketed the city with its rumor denial, it never spoke directly to product users, the school-age children, to bolster confidence in the product. The selection of inappropriate media makes the refutation message miss the rumour’s public allowing the rumor to continue to spread or delaying recovery from the rumor.
But I suppose all this controversy merely seems quaint now, what with all today’s heavy weaponizing of misinformation. Besides, the bubblegum market has been rather moribund in the past few decades, since apparently Nobody Likes to Chew Gum Anymore.
For a bit of sugar high nostalgia, I’ll leave you with a pair of vintage Bubble Yum ads: 1976’s brand introduction, featuring The Flavor Fiend;
« Moonshiners put more time, energy, thought, and love into their cars than any racer ever will. Lose on the track, and you go home. Lose with a load of whiskey, and you go to jail. » — Junior Johnson
Lee Marrs (b. 1945) is not your typical « underground » cartoonist, though to be fair — what would a typical undergrounder be? The movement’s whole raison d’être was ‘vive la différence‘, wouldn’t you say?
Hers is not a prolific career, perhaps, but look at the gloriously idiosyncratic path she followed: newspaper comic strip assistant (Hi & Lois, Prince Valiant, Little Orphan Annie…), underground (Wimmen’s Comix, Pudge, Girl Blimp, The Compleat Fart and Other Body Emissions), and mainstream cartoonist — well, even better: she was a regular contributor to DC’s justly-fabled (but yet to be reprinted, ahem) Plop!; she appeared in Marvel’s Mad knock-off Crazy; she even scripted, in the early 90s, a Viking Prince (yes, Kanigher and Kubert’s 1955 creation) epic, illustrated by Bo Hampton, and even a bit of Batman (‘Stalking‘, with Eddy Newell, in 1998). But that’s merely scratching the surface: here’s a more comprehensive rundown of her captivating journey.
And I’m delighted to report that the scintillating Ms. Marrs is still active today, her verve and talent undimmed and undiluted. By all means, check out her website for the undeniable evidence!