A Sweet, Refreshing Slice of Watermelon

« 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:

Bargain Dave tells it like it is! The Son of Hercules first appeared in Blab! no. 12 (Autumn 2001, Fantagraphics), but the ideal place to find it is in Cruisin’ With the Hound: the Life and Times of Fred Tooté (2012, Fantagraphics), which collects the whole (motor)cycle. I’ve previously featured another tale of Spain’s youthful exploits, Treasured Stories: «Tex’s Bad Dream or ‘The Egg Lady’s Revenge’» (1988).

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:

« It seems almost silly to say that watermelons have been racialized, but that is exactly what happened in this culture. » Here’s the full article, a fascinating summary of the issue from Dr. David Pilgrim of Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, written in response to the rather hostile comment of “Judging from the pictures on your website, you seem to be saying to me that black people don’t like watermelons? Sometimes you liberals make me shake my head.
« Boys Stealing Watermelons Bank. Made by Kyser & Rex of Philadelphia, PA. circa 1894. When a lever is pressed and the coin deposited, a dog runs out to keep the boys from their prize. »
A piece in graphite on manila by James Ellsworth “Worth” Brehm (b. 1883 – d. 1928) illustrating one of Booth Tarkington‘s ‘Penrod’ novels, circa the 1910s. Seems like any and all scamps — of all races — would raid the watermelon patch, given half a chance.
An ice cream advertising sign, circa 1922. If you’ll bear with me, here’s a longish, must-read quote from the indispensable Wicked Words by Hugh Rawson (1989, Crown Publishers, New York):

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].”

One Sheet poster from Donald’s Garden (RKO, 1942), written by Ralph Wright and directed by Dick Lundy. « During WWII, Americans were expected to help their country in the war effort by participating in “Victory Gardens.” This was a measure to conserve produce domestically so food could be shipped to the troops overseas. » Watch it here!
This is Krazy Krow no. 2 (Fall 1945, Timely). Racist stereotype or not? It’s not always the case, as R.C. Harvey soberly argues in an excellent article on Walt Kelly‘s Pogo, Sometimes a Watermelon Is Just a Watermelon. Here’s a sample: Harvey — « This is ultimately a failure to understand what the watermelon stereotype actually entails. Surely you realize that there’s nothing intrinsically degrading in liking to eat watermelon. Watermelon was one of the props in a general stereotype of the African American as filled with infantile enthusiasm, easily distracted and reduced to paroxysms of delight at the rattling of dice, the smell of fried chicken, or the sight of a watermelon. This is not what’s happening in Kelly’s story at all. But then, Andrae hardly seems to have an idea of his own on this subject at all. Rather, he has a grab bag of received notions, incompletely understood and haphazardly applied. Watermelon equals racism, that is all you know and all you need to know. »
A slice of Mal Eaton’s delightful Rocky Stoneaxe ( Peter Piltdown); undated, but since it bears the Stoneaxe name, it’s post-1953 and saw print in the pages of Boy’s Life Magazine. Eaton’s a local favourite, and my co-admin ds has twice written about his signature creation. First came Mal Eaton’s Peter Piltdown, then Tentacle Tuesday Masters: Mal Eaton — Peter Piltdown Goes Fishing!
And now for something more progressive: called ‘the most successful Jewish ad campaign of all time’ (*explicitly* Jewish would be my caveat), the truly classic Levy’s rye bread campaign was launched in 1961 and lasted into the 1970s, spawning along the way countless imitations, parodies and ripostes, including, circa 1967, the You Don’t Have to be Negro to Love Watermelon seen here front and centre. Keen readers surely will have spotted the unmistakable deadpan mug of the rightly legendary Buster Keaton, bottom left.
According to a New York Times article, « Malcolm X liked the poster featuring the black child so much that he had himself photographed alongside it. »
Given the right writer, I’ve always enjoyed the Dilton-Moose pairing more than the Moose-Midge combo. The boy genius and the dunce are genuine friends, while Midge only serves as a vehicle for Moose’s jealousy and as a way to land Reggie in traction. This one appeared in Archie’s Joke Book Magazine no. 46 (May 1960, Archie). Writer unknown, art by Joe Edwards (1921-2207).
A page from Little Audrey and Melvin no. 4 (November 1962, Harvey); kudos to Melvin — I can’t even get a proper boomerang to return to me, let alone a piece of rind used in its stead.
I suppose your stomach acids would have done the trick just as well, Lotta. A page from Little Lotta no. 65 (May 1966, Harvey).
A special watermelon sequence by the Lieber Bros, Stan & Larry, with inks by Mike Esposito (moonlighting as Mikey DeMeo); this is from The Parents of Peter Parker!, published in The Amazing Spider-Man Special no. 5 (Nov. 1968, Marvel).
And finally, a collaboration between prankster and cultural scholar Sam Henderson and late-in-life eccentric poet Ernest Noyes Brookings; it appeared in Duplex Planet Illustrated no. 7 (March 1994, Fantagraphics), edited by David Greenberger. And if you’ve enjoyed the visual version, try the 1991 musical adaptation by Maestro Subgum & The Whole!

-RG

*He’s not even slightly exaggerating: the heinous stereotype just won’t die.

Tentacle Tuesday: Dark Tendril of Contagion

« Morticoccus is overpoweringly large and sinister! In this new world he can live — only if he destroys all other life around him — kingdoms and empires would crumble to dust at his deadly touch! Morticoccus waits in his prison — he waits to get out — and breed!! »

I apologize, but according to co-admin RG (whose sense of humour is apparently more morbid than mine) this is Contagion Week on Who’s Out There? Well, I suppose tentacled microbes and germs are as good a topic as any right now…

Our first foray into germs is This Beachhead Earth, scripted by Roy Thomas, penciled by Neal Adams and inked by Tom Palmer, published in The Avengers no. 93 (November 1971). The Vision collapses, the Avengers send Ant-Man into his body to figure out what’s amiss. I made an earnest attempt at following the plot, but the bad dialogue made my head hurt. Did you know that the scream of an ant « is like the wailing of a forsaken child »?  The story includes gems like « frankly, my dear, I don’t give an hydroelectric dam» and « therein lies the only true superiority of the educated man — that he analyzes — dissects — probes — reconstructs ». Oh, the glorious mix of bad puns and pompous lines!

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You can read this « paltry prologue to the most portentous Avengers saga of all! », the work of a fellow who’s just a little too fond of calembours and his thesaurus, here.

Continuing on a grand scale – this time, it’s the grandest scale there is! – we pay a visit to the aforementioned Morticoccus (sinister a’plenty, you shall surely agree), arguably the most fatal disease known to mankind, or at least the deadliest to spring from Jack Kirby‘s fertile mind (ouch) . As for me, I really like the giant, lethal bats.

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Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth no. 10 (October 1973). Killer Germ! is written and pencilled by Jack Kirby, and inked by Mike Royer, with whom co-admin RG has conducted an interview. 

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Our third medical study is a little case of fungoid infection that even boasts a name. M’Nagalah had a rather complicated birth. Created by British horror writer Ramsey Campbell for his cycle of H.P. Lovecraft pastiches (to be more precise, the creature first appeared in the short story The Inhabitant in the Lake in 1964), it was soon adopted by DC Comics, after doubtlessly being bowled over by its puppy eyes while visiting a no-kill shelter of the Great Old Ones. It was first borrowed for Swamp Thing no. 8 (1974) and afterwards used as per the Russian idiom “a plug for every barrel“. Just look at this mess.

Challengers of the Unknown no. 82 (August-September 1977), scripted by Gerry Conway, pencilled by Michael Netzer, and inked by Joe Rubinstein, starts off with a just mild (if disgusting) contamination…

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That fast progresses to the old “unspeakable, indescribable horror” (yawn).

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Swamp Thing gets dragged in, and professor Mark Haley blooms prettily in the beginning of Challengers of the Unknown no. 82 (October-November 1977), also scripted by Gerry Conway, but this time pencilled by Keith Giffen and inked by John Celardo

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It is soon explained that this is actually some Elder God trying, as usual, to take over the planet, blah blah blah.

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Wishing everyone health and bon courage in these trying times, especially to our poor American friends who seem to be caught in the middle of the virus vortex… And a last strip to end on a more positive note:

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Calvin & Hobbes strip from February 7, 1993. May our worst encounter with microbes be of the digestive variety!

Oh, all right, one more:

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Page from The Incredible Shrinking Tightwad, published in Uncle Scrooge no. 359 (November 2006). Story by Don Rosa, of course!

∞ ds

Hallowe’en Countdown III, Day 7

« Phooey on trick or treaters! This year I’M going to have all the fun — play the tricks and eat the candy myself! » — foolish words from Donald

Whoa, lots of action for poor Unca Donald this Hallowe’en, some of it possibly malevolent. Best hand out the treats and be generous, to be on the safe side.

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This lovely painting entitled Halloween in Duckburg was created in 1973 by the incomparable Carl Barks, aka The Good Duck Man. It’s based on his cover for Walt Disney’s Donald Duck no. 26 (Dell Comics, Nov. 1952), which in turn was based upon the Disney cartoon short Trick or Treat.

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Watch it here… while you still can.

As a bonus, here’s a nice Donald mask (not that Donald… right colour, but too scary) for your trick or treating purposes, from the same issue’s back cover.

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– RG

The Unassuming Brilliance of William Van Horn

« Sepulveda Von Lovely looks much better in a handlebar, if I do say so myself! » — ‘Bumps’ (2004)

Since the 1980s, when it came to carrying the torch of Good Duck Man supreme Carl Barks, there have been three clear contenders, namely Daan Jippes, Don Rosa and William Van Horn. All three are outstanding talents, and honestly, no single being can take the place of Barks. In the end, Van Horn is my pick, because he’s the most complete package*, possessing his own lively, economical style in both writing and drawing (and that includes his expressive lettering, a perennially underrated art form). His work is just a pure joy to read, while Jippes is arguably too close to the model and Rosa’s stories sometimes feel like continuity-saddled homework. Van Horn is a natural.

On the occasion of Mr. Van Horn’s eightieth birthday (he was born on February 15, 1939, and is thankfully still with us), here’s a modest Van Horn comics sampler, opening with his first comics series after decades of work in animation and children’s books, Nervous Rex, and continuing into his work for Danish Disney comics packager Egmont**.

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From Don Markstein’s Toonpedia: « Cartoonist William Van Horne created the series, which lasted ten bimonthly issues (September, 1985 through March, 1987). Like Russell Myers, creator of Broom Hilda, he used a style clearly inspired by George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, without being a slavish imitation. Van Horn, who had made his living for decades in commercial art and children’s book illustration, had earlier come to the attention of the comics community with a couple of minor series in Critters, a funny animal anthology published by Fantagraphics Books. »

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Here’s the opening of a twelve-pager, Just a Humble, Bumbling Duck, published in Walt Disney’s Donald Duck Adventures no. 13 (June, 1991). Written, drawn and lettered by Van Horn and coloured by Susan Daigle-Leach. Read the issue right here.

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Donald Duck Adventures no. 2 (July 1990, Disney), illustrating Van Horn’s “Rootin’, Tootin’ Duck”. Read it here. You can tell when a soul’s worked in animation. Nary a hint of stiffness.

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Donald Duck Adventures no. 18 (Nov. 1991, Disney), illustrating Van Horn’s “That Ol’ Soft Soap”. read it here.

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Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories no. 616 (Sept. 1997, Gladstone), featuring Van Horn’s “Catch of the Day”. Read it here.

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Uncle Scrooge no. 322 (Oct. 2003, Gemstone), illustrating Van Horn’s “The Utter Limits”. Read the issue here.

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Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories no. 655 (Apr. 2005, Gemstone), featuring Van Horn’s “Full Circle”. Read it here.

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Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories no. 680 (May 2007, Gemstone), featuring Van Horn’s “In a Minor Key”. Read it here.

A most joyous 80th anniversary to you, Mr. Van Horn! Fittingly, I leave the last word to our humble birthday boy: « Let’s create our own classics if we can… but heaven help us if we think we’re doing that. We should follow Barks’ lead and regard these stories as something to pay the rent and buy the pot roast. »

– RG

*it’s pronounced Pah-kawje

**speaking of Egmont, this sobering note from Van Horn, from a brief interview conducted by John Iatrou in 2010: « Disney comic books in North America have been virtually a dead issue (no pun intended) for over a decade, possibly two. Sales here hover around 4000 copies a month! This on a continent of over 350 million people! Egmont has never tried to publish here. They thought about it years ago and decided it wasn’t worth the effort. » So there you have it. Van Horn and Don Rosa have been producing their ducks for the European market, to be then reprinted, with piddling print runs, in North America. Nul n’est prophète en son pays… On the other hand, if you’ll forgive me for saying so, most European Disney comics are utter garbage, and have been for decades. If you like endless arrays of Donald as a superhero, Donald as Michael Jackson or Indiana Jones, Rappin’ Donald… you’ll be in hog heaven. “Opera Mundi crap“, we used to call it.