Archive for January, 2013

Shrdlu, Minsky, Burke & Hare

When you look at Chris Ware’s post-Newtown New Yorker cover, the looks on the parents’ faces call to mind the previous month’s massacre in Connecticut. But 10 years from now, readers (I hope) will see just a scene of children entering a school as their parents watch intently. In creating the notes for Volume 2 of Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby, I’m facing this challenge as I work to help contemporary readers follow the political satire.

Johnson’s comic strip was a fantasy, and you can enjoy it without knowing the contemporary scene of 1944 to 1945.  But I’m one of those people who wants to know. In reading Fantagraphics’ beautiful Krazy Kat series, I was always a little disappointed when one of Herriman’s obscurities lacked an explanation in the book’s “Ignatz Debaffler Page.”  So, for Fantagraphics’ equally beautiful Barnaby series (the first volume of which should be available in March), I’m catering to the reader ­— like me — who wants to turn to the back of the book, and find an explanatory note.

In addition to being topical, Barnaby was also wide-ranging in its allusions. Johnson’s characters offer wry commentary on American politics in the 1940s, but also reflect his interests in mathematics, mystery novels, and popular culture. There are many referents that might be obscure even to his readers in 1944 and 1945.  On 28 September 1945, the lettering on a con-artist swami’s door reads “SWAMI ESYAYOUISIJA.”  I spent some time staring at this before realizing that the swami’s surname is “YES” in four languages: Pig Latin (ESYAY), French (OUI), Spanish (SÍ), and German (JA).

ShrdluEarlier that same month, Barnaby introduces a printer’s devil named “Shrdlu.”  He’s a friend of Barnaby’s fairy godfather, Mr. O’Malley. Why Shrdlu? A linotype machine arranged the letters in order of how frequently they were used. In English, that order is ETAOIN SHRDLU. On the machine, the first column (reading downward) was ETAOIN, and the second was SHRDLU. Thus, as the OED explains, “ETAOIN SHRDLU” are “The letters set by running a finger down the first two vertical banks of keys on the left of the keyboard of a Linotype machine, used as a temporary marking slug but sometimes printed by mistake; any badly blundered sequence of type.” So, Shrdlu is the ideal name for a newspaper employee who, as he explains on 4 September, is “responsible for all omissions, typographical errors, pied lines, switched captions and misspelled names.”

etaoin shrdlu from Linotype: The Film on Vimeo.

On 28 March 1944, O’Malley says he’s a devotee of Minsky’s brand of humor. Who? He’s referring to the comics employed by the Minsky Brothers, who were more famous for their risqué burlesque shows. Johnson’s also making an in-joke: one Minsky comedian, Jimmy Savo, provided some inspiration for the character of Mr. O’Malley.

O'Malley phones Burke & HareNear the beginning of his career as a Wall Street financier, Barnaby’s fairy godfather decides to phone a brokerage firm. So, he checks the phone book, and says “This firm’s name has a familiar ring to it. ‘Burke & Hare.’” The name may be familiar, but it’s not the kind of familiarity one associates with a reputable firm. It recalls the infamous Burke and Hare Murders of 1828. Over the course of 10 months in Edinburgh, Scotland, William Burke (1792-1829) and William Hare (1792-?) murdered 16 people, and sold the corpses to Dr. Robert Knox, who needed cadavers for his anatomy lectures.

Even though you don’t require these notes to enjoy the strip, a thorough editor (that’s me!) provides them… for the few readers who (like me!) want to know.

Barnaby Volume 2: 1944-1945 should be out in early 2014, and Barnaby Volume 1: 1942-1943 is due in March. I expect to receive an advance copy in the next week or two.

Note: All Barnaby images are from the Del Rey paperbacks (1985-1986). For the Fantagraphics books, expect higher-quality images and paper.

Barnaby, Volume 1

Coming in March, from Fantagraphics: Barnaby Volume 1: 1942-1943, co-edited by Philip Nel and Eric Reynolds. Design by Daniel Clowes. Introduction by Chris Ware. Essays by Jeet Heer and Dorothy Parker. Biographical Afterword and Notes by Philip Nel. You can pre-order it now.

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Antonio Frasconi (1919-2013)

Frasconi

Antonio Frasconi, woodcut artist and children’s-book illustrator, died on January 9th at the age of 93. I heard about it this morning, but I’ve yet to find a full obituary (apart from this brief notice by Joey of Purchase College). So, I’m writing a few words.

He was born in Buenos Aires, to Franco Frasconi (a chef) and the former Armida Carbonia (a restaurateur), both of whom had emigrated from Italy during World War I.  Young Antonio grew up in Montevideo, where, by age 12, he had become a printmaker’s apprentice and, by his teens, was seeing his satirical cartoons appear in local newspapers.

In the 1940s, he began working in woodcuts, producing work which won him a scholarship from the Art Students League in New York.  To study there, he emigrated to the United States in 1945.  By 1948, he had his first exhibit — at the Weyhe Gallery, also in New York.

But the reason I know about him are his beautiful illustrations for children’s books. He married fellow artist Leona Pierce in 1951, and the birth of their first son, Pablo, in 1952, inspired him to create work for young people. As Frasconi noted in a 1994 Horn Book interview, “the happiness he brought, both as an inspiration and as an audience for my work, made me think in terms of using my work as part of his education.”  Frasconi observed that, with his accented English, his own reading to Pablo was different than his wife’s reading to Pablo. He went to the library, looking for bilingual books, and, finding none, decided to create his own.

The result was the groundbreaking and beautiful See and Say: A Picturebook in Four Languages (Harcourt, 1955). It presents a series of objects, each named in in English (printed in black), in Italian (blue), French (red), and Spanish (green).  Illustrated in bright woodcut prints, the book is a great “first words” book for young children, and language education for any age. Though not the first children’s book Frasconi illustrated, it was the first one he both wrote and illustrated, and I highly recommend it. Used copies are not too hard to find, but this book (attention, New York Review Children’s Collection!) really ought to be brought back into print.

Antonio Frasconi, from See and Say (1955)

Antonio Frasconi, from See and Say (1955)

The images above come from The Ward-o-Matic‘s post on See and Say.  Visit the site to see more.

Back in 2000, I spoke with Mr. Frasconi because he was a very close friend of Crockett Johnson. Both men leaned left, had artistic influences that extended beyond children’s books, and held each other’s work in high regard. Indeed, Antonio’s political leanings inspired him to move — along with his family (Leona, Pablo, and Miguel) — to Village Creek, a planned integrated community that is directly adjacent to Rowayton, Connecticut, where Johnson and his wife Ruth Krauss lived.  That was in 1957.  The family met Johnson and Krauss soon after moving there, and quickly became friends.

photo of Antonio FrasconiThere were regular spaghetti dinners at Ruth and Dave’s house (Crockett Johnson’s real first name was “Dave,” and friends called him “Dave”).  Antonio illustrated Ruth’s The Cantilever Rainbow (1965), her greatest avant-garde children’s book.  When the Berkeley Free Speech Movement (1964-1965) got television coverage, Dave phoned Antonio so that he could come over and see it (at that time the Frasconis didn’t have a TV). So, the family went over and watched the protests. When Dave started serious painting, the Frasconis were among the first people he showed them to. As Miguel Frasconi recalled, Dave was “so excited,” as he explained to Antonio “the geometric properties of these pictures — like he had discovered something totally new.” At the time, Miguel thought: “this is an adult, and he’s as excited as a little kid.”

While my own brief acquaintance (one interview, really) with Antonio Frasconi and his family derived from work on my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (2012), Frasconi’s work is well worth getting to know in its own right.  He illustrated and designed over 100 books, including collections of poetry by Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, and Pablo Neruda. He created Los Desparecidos (The Disappeared, 1984), a powerful collection of woodcuts that tells the story of those tortured, imprisoned, or killed under the Uruguayan dictatorship.  He created art for children’s books.  He was a great teacher, artist, and humanitarian.

Thanks for sharing your recollections with me.  And rest in peace, Mr. Frasconi.

Works Consulted:

“Antonio Frasconi.” The Annex Galleries. <http://www.annexgalleries.com/artists/biography/739/Frasconi/Antonio>

“Antonio Frasconi.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Jan. 2013.

 “Antonio Frasconi (Uruguay).” North Dakota Museum of Art. <http://www.ndmoa.com/Exhibitions/PastEx/Disappeared/Frasconi/index.html>

Goldenberg, Carol. “An interview with Antonio Frasconi.” The Horn Book Magazine Nov.-Dec. 1994: 693+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Jan. 2013.

Nel, Philip. Telephone interview with Antonio Frasconi. 12 Oct. 2000.

—.  Telephone interview with Miguel Frasconi. 2 Dec. 2007.

—.  Telephone interview with Pablo Frasconi. 28 Nov. 2007.

Sources for images: Facebook post from Miguel FrasconiWard-o-Matic blog post on See and Say, and “Artist and Professor Antonio Frasconi, 1919-2013” (at Jane Public Thinking).

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Well, at least she published a sort-of correction

dunce cap by Emily KelleyAs you probably already know, Forbes‘ Susan Adams contributed to the professors-don’t-really-work myth in naming “University Professor” the “Least Stressful Job of 2013” (Forbes, 3 Jan. 2013).  After learning that this is utter nonsense, Ms. Adams did at least have the decency to publish an “addendum,” in which she acknowledges that the survey on which she was reporting “didn’t measure things like hours worked and the stresses that come from trying to get papers published in a competitive environment or writing grants to fund research.”

That’s a start. But I want to refute this “oh, professors have it easy” myth once and for all.

I realize that’s a tall order.  The myth persists in popular culture, aided — in America, at least — by a public that views knowledge with suspicion.  So, I can document how many hours I work (as I did, here and here).  Others can do this sort of thing, too.  We can also speak up when we see alleged journalists spreading this nonsense.  But how much effect are we having?  And while we cannot spend our careers putting out the flames of ignorance each time they ignite, if we don’t do this… the fire spreads.

So, for instance, I’m ostensibly “on vacation” right now (because I’m not teaching), but it took me a few days to respond to this because I was in Boston, attending the Modern Language Association convention and at Harvard gathering materials for my next book.  In the days before the Spring 2013 term begins, I need to finish assembling an American Studies Association proposal, get my syllabi together, get my course packs together, revise an essay and send it out, write an abstract for a summer conference (abstract is due Jan. 15th), send an abstract for a conference at which I’m giving a talk (this is due today), do some Routledge editing (I edit Children’s Literature and Culture series), get plane tickets for the two invited talks I’m giving in March, write at least one of two grants, start working on the Afterword and Notes for Barnaby Vol. 2, and… that’s all I can remember right now.  But I’m sure there are items I’m forgetting.

While I doubt that this brief response will have any discernable effect on the general public’s level of knowledge about what professors do, responding seemed better than letting ignorance go unchecked. If there’s a better way to educate the public about academic labor, I’m open to suggestions.

Related content (on this blog):

Image source: Emily Kelley’s Dunce Cap.

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