Blog on Ice : Aspects of Art, by Byron Marshall
THE AUTOMAT of the FUTURE
When I was very young, perhaps before the age of reason at which I began to draw in church and read books about dinosaurs and ducks, I went with my folks on a trip, at the conclusion of the great war, to New York City. At such an early age, it was a place of wonder. Among the wonders was the smell of the carpets in the hotel corridors, people walking the streets at night; the congress of taxi-cabs, restlessly shuffling about at evening. And the two toppers. Times Square, animated, jumping, pointing, leaping; and the automat.
The automat had little windows; there were no hands inside these little windows; and yet food appeared: pies, sandwiches.
We returned south to Georgia, and there I discovered from a comic book what I needed to put it all into perspective. It was a Dell comic book and it told a story about Mickey Mouse, in which Mickey Mouse went into the future. I immediately realized that this explained everything. I too had been in the future. Mickey, with his confident strut, had gone there – so had I.
I followed up on this insight. My folks bought a home projector. On the kitchen floor I would set up the projector and it would sit there, humming to itself and with the faint burnt smell from its hot light filling the room. Projected against the cabinet door were scenes of familiar trees from Saturday Westerns, scenes of Abbott and Costello fighting with oysters – and Terrytoon cartoon figures. I observed how animated images worked. Skaters circled and crows flew. Soon I would go to theaters and observe how images could take life. I watched Bambi run from a forest fire, even as children rescued from burning Europe also watched, and were terrified at the resemblance of Bambi’s forest to the life they had left behind.
All over Europe Mickey had led a charmed life. Now I observed the future in Mickey’s walk.
It’s not what you call it, it’s what is going on.
A remarkably electric and exciting “ZAP” was one of the earliest sounds I associate with my childhood – that, is, the years following that bleak, blank period when all I recall is the occasional sound of taxi cabs in the streets and the chants of marching soldiers from tiny records, “songs of the services”, every American child’s inheritance of the second great war of the 20th century. There were more to come.
There was one other odd sound, an echo of the great war: the rumbling of the furnace: a strange, panting huff-and-puff that did not presage goodness. Going to check on it, my father carried me along for entertainment. As he tinkered with it, it blew up – the stopped up pipes vented with a purpose. No harm was done: he stepped back into the hall, still carrying me, both of us now as black as the night outside. In a still – and very furiously – segregated, racist south, our status was now completely changed. We would have to change occupations (I had none as of yet, at age two), habitation, parentage. We had gone into the closet to check the furnace in a Caucasian way: the script was now altered. We left the house as my mother watched us in surprise.
The sound of the furnace echoed the war; the new sound was bright and different. It was a sound that belonged with the comic books I now read. At age five I could now read, thanks to comic books; I was almost literate enough for “The Lively Little Rabbit.”
This sound was a sharp and prolonged, cluttery, clanging ZAP, right from the pages of a comic book, and it escalated across the ceiling of my father’s five and ten. This was the sound of the pneumatic box that was shot by a clerk in one of the sales stations in the store, and carried money along wires above us, near the ceiling, and into the mezzanine office that surveyed the high-ceiling store. There the clerical employees, known as “the girls”, could make change and send it back along the same path, with the accuracy of an ant or a bee going to the source.
These flying devices zipped and zapped above the shoppers nearly continuously, and were part of the remarkable magic of a five and ten cents store, as well as most department stores. They were far more effective than the internet, and harder to hack.
THE FUTURE WORLD (1)
There were other exciting “zaps” at that time.
Not just buses but also trollies were still at work in downtown. Their poles set off sparks and a version of the Zap that was satisfying to a child. They were very Toonerville, part of the world of the daily funnies – you recognized their ancestor in the funnies, along with strange hair and occupations.
A variant of the Zap took place in the small white castles, where a very flat square of soft meat slapped onto a grill with a squishy variant of the Zap.
Through parts of town a billy goat cart carried heavenly food: the wheels of the cart, burdened by the food and the salesman, squeaked with a near variant of the Zap.
And then there were the pit bar-b-q locations, outdoors, surrounded by benches and flies.
The bar-b-q pits existed at choice locations here and there across the town, with a rich smoke carried down the alleys and streets, and providing the southeastern bar-b-q that is nothing like the tame tomatoey products masquerading under that name in the benighted majority of the country. Southeastern bar-b-q is what the Greek Gods wished they had to eat (and maybe they did); and they wished for cola instead of mead. And the bar-b-q was served with cold slaw on a hot dog bun; and that was that. And located near the piles of meat headed for the pit were the devices, attached to a pole or a tree, luring away the cloud of flies. These murderous machines zapped bugs. The electric sound of their fanaticism went off constantly. Here was another “zap” of my childhood.
And it meant that when I lifted up a comic and decided to attempt to read it, I knew immediately what “zap” was…….
THE FUTURE WORLD (2)
Of course, there were other machines and attractive sounds of my father’s Kress store. In the cold basement were the enormous machines, compactors and bailers, that squeezed flat the endless stacks of cardboard boxes in which product was delivered, and strapped it up to be hauled off. This machine was very alarming.
More pleasant were the majority of sounds of the sales floor: the small birds, for sale (the small turtles delivered once a year were silent, except for their tiny soft claws scraping on the bowl as they attempted to escape); the pop music being played, the popcorn machine erupting in popcorn, the hawker selling knives or yoyo’s, each of which you could handily toss around your feet and legs; the lazy echo of the air conditioning fan from above the traveling change. In the mezzanine for a privileged visitor, such as myself, the manager’s son, greeted with delight by the hard working ladies, there was the machine that swirled changed and chunneled it into appropriate coin slots; the waxy wheels of the office chairs; the distant sound of the customers down below.
I would soon discover a new purpose in the office chairs, clearly a case of creative design: they slid and pivoted like the astronauts of the future, evading gravity as they floated around their space ship, hanging above the stars. This I discovered from a film, and then from the comics – a preview of the future; and spent hours gliding about the office floor, bouncing off the tables, saying “shhush” in imitation of an air canister, and delighting the admiring smiles of the office personnel.
The entire future world was like a thousand ways of saying “Zap.”
THE COMIC WORLD
The comic book formed a natural part of the child’s world. It was, logically enough, everywhere, as inevitable as air and hot dogs. As natural as your pet poodle and your cat and the lizard at the top of the window.
The comic was on the bed, in the living room, on the red wood table in the backyard, and in the tree house – a flat raft of wood in a mimosa tree. The comics were on the breakfast table. Occasionally comics somehow found themselves on the “good” table in the dining room, and in the backseat of the Chevy.
But most of all the comic was on the side door screened-in porch, in great stacks and piles wherever you might want them. It was more security than a blanket. It was where you might sit down, so that a comic was immediately at hand. It was a whole universe sliding like quick sand into drifts and stacks, expanding and contracting almost like some think the universe does, like oceans or red hills of sawdust, wherever you walked.
The comics I read had their covers cut off.
Not the entire cover, just the top part, with the name, and information that identified it to the bureaucracies somewhere far away. When a comic was not sold, my father was required to send it back. But not the entire comic, since that would run up the cost. Just the top of the front cover was cut off. And the rest of the comic he brought home in the Chevrolet. For his son.
AN ART FORM
As I mentioned, comic books were brought to my house by my father, from the dime store he managed. Unsold comics had the top of the front cover cut off (this was returned for a refund); the rest of the comic was perfectly good, and he brought it home.
Because the Kress store mainly carried “comics for small kids”, this meant that these were the comics that appeared. This meant that mostly I had “Dell” (later, “Gold Key”.)
Dell comics included the Disney titles. We vaguely understood – there were a lot of Disney titles, and so he had to work very hard – supposedly Mr. Disney spent every evening hard at work in his small crowded office high up in a tower; presumably he was assisted by elves. It sounded like a great way of life. I very soon wanted to be a comic book artist, with my own castle and tower and sets of owls and elves.
Also my father brought home Warner Brothers comics, and some others.
As a result I early began reading Animal Comics, and fairy tale collections, and Tarzan and Roy Rodgers (he ate a hundred pancakes every day) and Our Gang stories – and the Ducks. As the whole world was to come to know, Walt Disney Comics and Stories (the fabled wdcs), with Mickey as the back story, a variety of characters in the middle, and highlighted by the stories of the Duck, were the pinnacle: Donald and his nephews, and his heart-throb Daisy, and the incredibly lucky Gladstone, and Grandma Duck, and in due course, Uncle Scrooge. This, along with some successors, and the associated animated movies, were for many of us the true art form of the 20th century.
THE NATURAL COMPLETENESS of the WORLD
When as young kids we lived in a world that also brought us imagination and humor in the form of the Comic Book, we didn’t worry over this miracle. It was as natural as legends and stories and the Lone Ranger and Jack Benny and Sky King on the radio.
We didn’t wonder who created these.
In the case of the Duck comics, we didn’t know that these were the creation of one excellent artist, the incomparable and uncredited Carl Barks, or in the case of Albert and Pogo, the early efforts of Walt Kelly. We just read the stories.
As with all comics, they combined art and story: also art and vision, in fact, and art and humor. It was all there. It was excellent art, with spacious vistas, diagonals that organized the eye-sight, with energy and spectacle, with accuracy and short cuts, with big city scrapes and steam shovels and small town detail. Art with narratives, stories, imagination. We breathed in lessons: just as there were quick lessons on the Way of Things in even the opening page of the first Mowgli story (that words don’t always mean what they say, that flattery can be suspect, and that some people show good sense.)
We read comic stories which introduced us to blustering small town egos (he was an owl), of neighbor battling neighbor over the fruit tree that straddled their boundary line, of a vainglorious uncle, insanely rich, and an irresponsible cousin, insanely lucky; of our nature as kids, sensible and foolish, and of Donald, our protector and guardian, who could seldom hold down his job through the end of the story. We were Ducks, and Ducks had Duck Luck, and one learned how to accept that. And occasionally the luck turned up.
The Comic Book combined old stories and a sense of the present, a notion of commonsense and community – and presented a world in which image and story, visual reality and imagination, simply are equally there. This is a natural unity. The Comic presented a form of art which demonstrated the natural completeness of the world.
Many things happen, and many things change. If a certain part of the world seems like it might have resembled Eden, the obvious next thought is that you have to leave Paradise in order to see the rest of the world. The Tree didn’t instantly bring you knowledge; the consequence of the tree takes you where you can learn things.
So we set out from a land where kids went swimming in the early spring into a land of perpetual snow, a land which turned dark at 4 in the afternoon – before you could even get home from school, in your shivering school bus.
Youngstown, Ohio at that time was a steel town; now, thanks to the wisdom of economists, there are less jobs and those out of work (not the economists) should appreciate the wisdom of economists. When we arrived there from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the sky was as red as Mars. I tended to think it was Mars. I roamed around wearing a gas mask.
But one day the Youngstown Vindicator brought me relief. The Pogo characters I knew from the Dell comics were now going to appear as a newspaper strip. I soon learned to draw, at least a little, like Walt Kelly.
A few years later, when I moved to New York, one of the great features I discovered in the Empire City was that on Saturday evening you could buy the Sunday Post, and in its tabloid pages was an entire tabloid Sunday comics feature, led off by the Sunday Pogo, in full color. Kelly also provided little cartoon features all over the Post of that era.
And at roughly the same time, one early evening walking past the comics stand in the local supermarket, I saw – that comic cover. It was the visionary cover of the new King of Comics, the satirical equivalent of television’s Show of Shows. There it was, the first cover of MAD, by Harvey Kurtzman.
During college I obeyed politely the injunction against the comic book, but the first day out of purgatory, I went to the newspaper stand, and returned to my favorites. In time, we even found out that Carl Barks had been the artist of the good Ducks.