A Picture Is Worth …?

A Picture Is Worth …?

Recently a friend sent me some cartoons inked by H.T. Webster, whose signature character, Caspar Milquetoast, embodied many of the characteristics I have described as my own. They’re great (the cartoons, not the characteristics), and I’ll hunt down some of his other work, particularly Life’s Darkest Moments, a lighthearted romp through the indignities that give our untroubled lives some savor. I’m grateful to have met Webster at a distance of almost a century, and will add him to the curious band of cartoonists and illustrators who, for better or for worse, in childhood molded the strange confabulation of personalities which is your author.

I spent a great deal of time alone as a child. How that came to be is a matter for another day and, probably, another platform. For a variety of reasons, then, I sat in some quiet corner reading anything that sat nearby. The usual collection of books, and stacks of newspapers, magazines, comic books, and comic strips. Comics, cartoons and cartoonists zig and zag all over the cultural map, some self-consciously world aware, some chuckling along with mindless vapidity. The mainstream, Sunday comics I met in the 1950’s were more than odd enough.

Let’s start with FERD’NAND, a cartoon character drawn by a Dutch artist. FERD’NAND was vaguely European, apparently mute, a silent man-child like Charlie Chaplin meeting ordinary circumstances with mildly unexpected consequences.

See? He sat on his glasses! 

I didn’t roar with laughter, but I got it. 

Snuffy Smiff, however …

This was in “The Funny Papers” …  so, apparently funny? Great Granny’s Bussle! I could decode some of what was going on. Two Appalachian men (Clem and Rufe) know each other. That was about it. Over the years I came to understand that uneducated poor people were apparently considered funny. I could also visit Dogpatch where L’il Abner was immune to Daisy Mae’s short skirt and open blouse and folks also bludgeoned language. 

I missed a lot of semi-heavy handed satirical action in Dogpatch, but a primitive political sensibility seeped in as I happily read Walt Kelly’s Pogo. Set in a southern swamp with some of the curious language used by less educated creatures, Pogo, an opossum, was thoughtful and insightful; his best friend, Albert the alligator, was considerably less intelligent and almost insufferably self-centered.. Miz Mam’selle Hepzibah, a skunk, longed for Pogo as Miss Piggy was to long for Kermit. The swamp’s bard was a mud turtle, Churchy LaFemme, whose lyrics once heard could never be forgotten. No holiday is complete, for example without this stirring modern carol:

Deck us all with Boston Charlie

Walla Walla Wash, n’ Kalamazoo

Nora’s freezing on the trolley

Swaller dollar cauliflower alleygaroo

It was Walt Kelly who gave Pogo the phrase that remains the most concise assessment of the modern age:

One of my most treasured possessions is the campaign button touting Pogo for President in 1956.”I Go Pogo!” I also have a Nelson Rockefeller, George McGovern, and Ross Perot campaign button, but can’t find my Elvis Christmas cookie tin.

I am now the age my grandparents were when I landed on them for weeks or months at a time. I think I’m fairly spry and reasonably competent; I’d love to have my granddaughter stay, and I’m pretty sure I’d stock the house with books, toys, and games she might enjoy. My grandmother was a classical pianist who had gone deaf and whose literary interests were impenetrable, but maybe closest to a spiritualist conviction that spirits continue to evolve after death, and by evolve, she meant creep from graveyards to overtake the living. My grandfather was less deaf, nervous, more than kind, but perpetually hunched in what seemed a state of permanent dyspepsia. My only clear memory of him is the sound of his urgent stifled belching and the ring of dried Maalox around his mouth.

They took the New Haven Register, so my comic needs were met. They did read, or had read; there were books in the house. Most were as arcane as my grandmother’s poetry, but three oddities had somehow remained on the shelf: Is Sex Necessary? Or, Why You Feel The Way You Do by E.B. White and James Thurber, The Peter Arno Pocketbook, and We Buy Old Gold, a collection of cartoons by George Price. I knew E.B. White as the author of Stuart Little and James Thurber was a local celebrity and much admired in our house. Thurber’s illustrations were fanciful at best and terrifying taken out of context. Here’s one I found in the empty hours in a silent house:

James Thurber was a cartoonist whose drawings were barely representational but oddly evocative. This exceedingly simple drawing has lomg been a model of understated comic genius. So many questions unanswered.

At the age of seven, everything I knew about sex I’d found in Peter Arno’s cartoons in The New Yorker. I knew Arno’s work was sophisticated because several of our family friends had pasted his work in their guest bathrooms – always a sign of approbation in our circle. I have come to admire Arno’s wry wit, and it has been suggested that his cartoons “saved” the New Yorker in 1926 -1927 when his work appeared 63 times plunked in the middle of lengthy prose pieces.

He was particularly fond of drawing showgirls in various states of undress but stopped short of putting children in a nudist colony as Thurber had. 

This one was one of the few I could understand even as a lad untutored in the ways of showgirls.

I’ve saved George Price for last, in part because his sense of humor was absurd and touchingly humane. We Buy Old Gold is chock full of evocative cartoons, but as an extensive stay with grandparents came about as roads throughout the state were flooded and my hometown largely washed away, this one remains a poignant reminder of the pleasure Price brought in some lonely moments. I found the book in a “Take This For Free” basket outside a book barn in Maine and drag it out at least once a year to remember how grateful I am for humor.

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