Saturday, May 5, 2012

Some Early Influences

Last Fall, when I was wrapping up the comics course, a student asked me what the first comics I ever read were. I hemmed and hawed for a minute and said I'd have to give a three-part answer. First, I remembered reading the occasional Archie or Richie Rich comic book when my brothers and I were kids, though I have no idea where they came from; we never had superhero comics to read, that I recall. Second, I remembered loving Milt Gross's He Done Her Wrong (in the 1963 Dell paperback edition); I taught He Done Her Wrong in that class, so the students knew just what I meant. Third, I recalled how thoroughly my brothers and I had read the old Mad Magazine paperback reprints my dad had kept from when he'd bought them in the early 1960s: we read those books over and over, until they were probably entirely worn out.

For those of you who don't know He Done Her Wrong, it's a brilliant 1930 (almost) wordless comic (and comics) novel, telling the tale of a Great Northern woodsman, his flapper girlfriend, and the slimy, mustachioed villain who aims to break them up. The woodsman chases the villain and the girl to New York City, various adventures and misadventures are had by all, but ultimately the hero gets the girl, is discovered to be the heir of a lumber magnate, and the villain's most dastardly plan is stopped by the timely intervention of a friendly moose. It's brilliant and hilarious and it deserves to be better known.

But I assume everyone knows about Mad Magazine. The 50s Mads that we read were reprinted in The Bedside Mad, Mad in Orbit, and Son of Mad (and there must have been a fourth volume we had, I think). These old Mad stories have, in the meantime, become recognized as classic, influential comics, fueling virtually the entire Underground comix movement of the 1960s and 70s, and cited as a formative influence by major figures like Art Spiegelman, among others. 

When I look at them now, and remember the Wacky Packages stickers I used to collect in the early 70s, I am not at all surprised to remember that Spiegelman worked on those Wacky Packages: much of the silliness and the anti-commercial, anti-Madison Avenue aesthetic of the Wacky Packages comes straight from those old Mad Magazines

Over the years, I've picked up my own copies of these books, and I glanced through them recently and could hardly believe just how much of them had remained—somewhere—in the back of my brain. 

Any number of lines, I am sure would easily count as 'kernel stories' among me and my brothers: “Bumble—fumbled” and “Plastic Sam” and “Billows, not Pillows!” 

 This last phrase, from the Mad comics version of Longfellow's “The Wreck of the Hesperus” echoes in my memory as much as certain lines of the poem (“Last night the moon had a golden ring, And tonight no moon we see” says Peg-leg Popeye to the captain). 

 And I have to confess—I know this poem only from this version, and I really can't imagine it without the Mad panels, which make the tragic, sentimental story into a comic romp, complete with an amazing formal passage without drawings at all: comics without pictures, a perfect counterpoint to Gross's wordless novel. 

Thirty-five years ago, when I was reading these books for the first, and second, and umpteenth time, I had no idea what sort of impact they would have on me, even though I know that then I didn't get all the jokes. But having recently written extensively on the necessity of seeing as well as reading, I can't help thinking that it was the dense joke-packed illustrations of these old comics that trained me early to look closely at what I was reading.

It is often said that collectors are driven by the powerful force of nostalgia, and I usually don't think that's at all what's behind my kind of collecting. But I have an affection for these books, and even for “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” that can't be explained in any other way.

1 comment:

--S. said...

I'll have to check out He Done Her Wrong -- that sounds like a lot of fun. In fact, I'd be interested in seeing your entire syllabus...and that's absolutely not a metaphor for anything else.