Archive for October, 2019

Barnaby, Vol. 4: 1948-1949

Barnaby, vol. 4: 1948-1949 [not final cover]

Where is the fourth volume of Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby (co-edited by yours truly and Eric Reynolds)? Wasn’t it supposed to be out a year or two ago? What happened?

In 2017, I submitted my Afterword and notes, Trina Robbins gave us her Foreword, and Jared Gardner contributed his Introduction. We hoped the book would be out in 2018, but delays at Fantagraphics pushed the publication date forward to 2019 and now I am told that… Fall 2020 is the release date. So, mark your calendars!

Crockett Johnson, Barnaby, 26 May 1948

The above strip — shown in its unrestored form, but which, like all of the strips, has been restored to pristine condition for the published volume — directly refers to the politics of 1948 and 1949. But such strips are more rare in this volume. Why? Well, here’s a sneak peak at my Afterword — specifically, its opening paragraph —

        What do you do when the political culture shifts, exchanging hope for fear, abandoning evidence to embrace innuendo? Crockett Johnson faced this question when, in September of 1947, he returned to writing Barnaby. He and his characters inhabited a different landscape than they had at the end of 1945 — when Johnson gave up his role as the strip’s sole creator and, for twenty months, served primarily in an advisory capacity. As Anti-Communism replaced the Popular Front, his support for progressive causes now marked him not as a patriot, but as a person of interest.  In 1948 and 1949, his comic strip is less directly confrontational, and — though there are moments of specific, acerbic satire — typically gestures towards this new culture of paranoia indirectly, such as when O’Malley observes (in August of 1949), “Barnaby, your Fairy Godfather sometimes wonders about people. How they can believe in Sea-Serpents is beyond me.” After all, there’s “not one shred of scientific evidence to prove that Sea-Serpents exist.” Or, in November of that same year, O’Malley says, “I’ll never understand, m’boy, how intelligent people like your parents can make these broad generalizations about Pixies. Or people—  There are good Pixies and bad Pixies. Just as there are good people and bad people.”  Pixies are not Communists, and Sea-Serpents are not Progressives. (Johnson was affiliated with the Progressive Party in the 1940s and the Communist Party in the 1930s.) But it’s notable that O’Malley presents both as examples of poor reasoning, or of assuming that each individual embodies all characteristics of an entire group. The illogic has real-world parallels, even if the metaphor lacks a specific real-world referent. During 1948 and especially 1949, Barnaby moves towards expressing its politics mostly (though not exclusively) through metaphor. This choice is notable because these years provided what might otherwise have been irresistible targets for Johnson’s satire.

In addition to my Afterword, you also get some draft material and other art by Crockett Johnson, the Foreword by Trina Robbins, Introduction by Jared Gardner, and notes by me! For example…

Crockett Johnson, Barnaby, 17 & 18 1949

We can enjoy the above strips without knowing the specific “SOCIALIZED MEDICINE” reference, but if any readers are curious they can turn to the back of the book for my note:

SOCIALIZED MEDICINE (18 Jan.).  Johnson was a strong advocate for national health care. In support of the Wagner-Murray-Dingell Bill (which appeared in several versions between 1943 and 1946), he even illustrated For the People’s Health (1946) — the Physicians Forum’s pamphlet advocating for passage of the bill. That effort failed. President Truman’s surprising election in 1948, which included restoring the Democratic Party’s control of Congress, seemed to augur well for the creation of a National Health Insurance System. As would later be the case in America’s most recent debates on the subject (2009-2010s), opponents caricatured socialized medicine as a dangerous government takeover of health care that would deprive doctors of freedom and limit patients’ choices of physician.  The month prior to this strip’s appearance, the American Medical Association retained a publicity firm to continue its campaign to (in the words of its general manager) “alert the American people to the danger of a politically controlled, compulsory health system” (“Medical Association Moves Against Socialized Medicine”).  Johnson here refers to political cartoons that caricatured socialized medicine as a dragon.

That’s the news, posted on the 113th anniversary of Crockett Johnson’s birth. So, find the nine kinds of pie you like best, cut yourselves some slices, and let’s wish Barnaby’s (and Harold’s) creator a very happy birthday!


Crockett Johnson birthday posts from previous years

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Ruth Krauss, Sergio Ruzzier, and… the Beatles?

For the first time in 32 years, there is a new book by Ruth Krauss!  Roar Like a Dandelion, with art from Sergio Ruzzier, was published on the first of the month.  Krauss began writing the book in around 1960, just after she began to focus more on writing poetry or poem-plays and less on writing children’s books. The poetic ear she had once turned to children’s speech, she now turned towards the broader world. One result was avant-garde poetry and poem-plays, and another was… this book!


For more on how the book came to be, check out the latest episode of Jennifer Laughran’s Literaticast podcast! (I, Sergio Ruzzier, and Harper editor Nancy Inteli are all guests on this episode. Here’s the iTunes link — show will appear on Apple Podcasts site later today.)


But wait. How do the Beatles enter into this?

Moments after we finished recording the podcast, I realized something.  The book’s working title — Running Jumping ABC — is likely an allusion to Richard Lester’s 11-minute absurdist film, Running Jumping & Standing Still (1959, starring Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan).

I suspect Krauss is alluding to Running Jumping & Standing Still for many reasons, one of which is that another working title — The Running Jumping Shouting ABC — includes a third term, and thus more closely parallels the three items in Lester’s film title. More importantly, Krauss’s poem-plays and poems explore comparably absurdist juxtapositions. At least some of the avant-garde writers and artists she was hanging out with from 1959 (when she became a poetry student of Kenneth Koch‘s) on would have known Lester’s film. I’m thinking here of New York school poets Koch and Frank O’Hara, Fluxus pioneers Dick Higgins and George Brecht, filmmakers Willard Maas and Marie Menken,* and choreographer-artist Remy Charlip. She might also have encountered the film on her own: Running Jumping & Standing Still gained sufficient acclaim to receive an Academy Award nomination that year (it did not win).

And this is where the Beatles come in.  They so admired Running Jumping & Standing Still that they asked its director to direct their A Hard Day’s Night (1964) — which he did, and which, in turn, popularized Lester’s visual grammar. (Ever seen an episode of The Monkees?)

Whether or not Roar Like a Dandelion and Hard Day’s Night share a common ancestor, both works have a slightly surrealist sense of humor — curious juxtapositions and nonsensical improvisations that produce the smiles (or laughs).  When Krauss writes, “Jump like a raindrop,” I think of Ringo jumping in A Hard Day’s Night.  Or “Butt like a billy-goat,” to which Ruzzier has added a tiny billy goat head-butting a much larger rhino — head-butting the rhino in the butt, of course. The visual pun puts me in mind of the many linguistic (and a few visual) puns in A Hard Day’s Night.

So, that’s the heretofore unexplored connection between Ruth Krauss, Sergio Ruzzier, and the Beatles.** In the spirit of the mashups in Krauss’s The Cantilever Rainbow and in the (mostly) Lennon compositions “I Am the Walrus” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Revolution No. 9” (which takes this idea to its extreme), here’s a little Krauss-Lennon-Ruzzier-McCartney mashup I’ve made for you:

Crow like a rooster, make the sun come up.

And of course Henry the Horse dances the waltz!

Eat all the locks off the doors.

Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain where rocking-horse people eat marshmallow pies.

Go like a road.

Help yourself to a bit of what is all around you.***

And check out Roar Like a Dandelion. It’s classic Krauss with a Ruzzier twist!


* Willard Maas (1906-1971) and Marie Mencken (1909-1970) inspired the characters of George and Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962).

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)** Or it’s one connection. If we wanted to pursue this further, we might note that Krauss was also one degree of separation from John Lennon. She and her husband Crockett Johnson were friends with cartoonist Mischa Richter and his son Daniel Richter. Dan lived and worked with Lennon and Yoko Ono from 1969 to 1973. For that matter, Krauss and Ono both hung out with the Fluxus group — though Ono was an active group member (inasmuch as Fluxus had “members”) and slightly earlier than Krauss. So, I cannot verify that they ever met. Nor can I verify that Krauss and Andy Warhol (who was also a friend of Lennon’s) ever met, though they have more potential points of intersection. Both Krauss and Warhol attended the parties given by Willard Maas and Marie Menken — parties that were, as I note in my biography of Krauss and Johnson, a who’s who of the culturally influential. Warhol also published four of Krauss’s poems in Instransit: The Andy Warhol Gerard Malanga Monster issue (1968), which featured work by Lou Reed, John Cale, Nico, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara (who had died two years earlier), Allen Ginsberg, Phil Ochs, John Hollander, James Merrill, May Swenson, Charles Bukowski, and Warhol himself. An intriguing connection, I think! Make of it what you will.

*** Sources for C, E, G: Roar Like a Dandelion. Source for D: “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” Source for F: “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Source for H: “Martha, My Dear.”

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Trump is a liar. Tell children the truth. (Public Books)

Anne Villeneuve, illus. from Dear Donald Trump (2018)

Public Books (logo)Over on Public Books today, my essay “Trump is a liar. Tell children the truth” recommends some good books for educating young people about “President” Trump, and brings in a few examples of the type of books that ought to be avoided — indeed, that a conscientious publisher would have never published in the first place.  (Also: given the pace of news these days, I should add that I turned in the piece back in August….)

I had more to say than Public Books could use. Here are the most important bits that got cut, woven together with a few additional reflections.

“Rich Rump”: Trump’s first appearance in a children’s book

Arthur Yorinks and Richard Egielski, Christmas in July (1991)

Public Books didn’t publish the image (above) from Arthur Yorinks and Richard Egielski’s Christmas in July (1991) — a whimsical picture book featuring Rich Rump, a thinly disguised version of Donald Trump. As I say in the essay, the earliest children’s books in which he appears “depicted the basic truths of the man: selfish, vain, heartless, dishonest.” After he became “President,” children’s literature strove for a more “balanced” approach. However, the “both sides” approach to representing Trump — in children’s books or any media — is a very dangerous lie.

Destroying the boundary between truth and falsehood disorients us

It’s become something of a cliché to quote Hannah Arendt, but we should keep quoting her until more people heed her warnings. So: “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.”[1]

This quotation comes up a lot these days. But I also think not enough people are paying attention to this fact. Because Trump’s prolific lies damage the psyche — both individually and collectively.

Every 36 hours, Trump lies more than Obama did in eight years

As of August 12, 2019, Trump had made over 12,000 false and misleading claims during his presidency, averaging over thirteen lies per day. In contrast, Barack Obama made eighteen false or misleading statements during his eight-year presidency. Every 36 hours, Trump lies more than Obama did in eight years.[2]

Trump “children’s books” for adults

There are some fun satirical works in the guise of children’s books — one of which, Michael Ian Black and Marc Rosenthal’s A Child’s First Book of Trump (2106), also works as a story for children. Black’s ersatz Seussian verse and Rosenthal’s sketches represent Trump as part unreformed Grinch and part Sylvester McMonkey McBean (the salesman who profits from the Sneetches’ prejudice). As in all allegorical children’s picture books about Trump, he is a negative example.

P. Shauers, Donald and the Golden Crayon

Since they are adult satires delivered via the medium of the picture book, too much of the humor in Ann TelnaesTrump’s ABC, Erich Origen and Gan Golan’s Goodnight Trump, P. Shauers’ Donald and the Golden Crayon (all 2018) and Faye Kanouse and Amy Zhing’s new If You Give a Pig the White House (2019) may go over the heads of children under ten, but all remind us that the humor in allegorical Trump picture books is a vital part of their truth-telling. And anyone over that age — such as most people reading this post, I imagine — might find the books’ dark humor restorative. (If you want recommendations, my favorite three of these picturebooks-for-adults are Trump’s ABC, Donald and the Golden Crayon, and Goodnight Trump.)

Slice through the fog of lies

One of the surprises of writing this piece was that the work actually proved restorative and clarifying. Facing the prospect of writing this (for the Children’s Literature Association Conference, in June), I dreaded reading lots of children’s books about the evil orange bloviator. But reading them — all of the good ones, but especially Martha Brockenbrough’s Unpresidented — helped me awaken from the nightmare in which we are living. It helped me slice through the fog of lies. It reminded me once again that this is not normal.

This is not normal

To any who may find my truth-telling advice too partisan, I would cite historian Dave Renton’s point that “one cannot be balanced when writing about fascism, there is nothing positive to be said of it.”[3] And yes, Trump lacks sufficient belief in the state to be a fascist in the traditional sense; he is more an authoritarian kleptocrat who uses fascist tactics. But my point is this: if identifying evil as evil is now a partisan behavior, then children’s books and publishers must take a side.

This position challenges the “marketplace of ideas” approach we learn in school — the liberal idea that, to quote Mark Bray, “the key to combatting ‘extremism’ is to trust in the allegedly meritocratic essence of the public sphere: If all are allowed their say, then the good ideas will float to the top while the bad sink to the bottom, like live-action Reddit.”[4] But, historically, the public sphere has not triumphed over totalitarian movements. And some topics — such as people’s humanity — should not be subject to debate.

That our shared humanity is now subject to debate shows how Trump’s poisonous ideas have become normalized.  Remember when, in the early days of the regime, people used to say “This is not normal”? Even as Trump’s behavior grows stranger and more dangerous, we hear this far less often.

Only the truth can liberate the lie-entangled mind

Motivating this essay — though absent even from its draft versions — is postwar Germany’s need to reeducate children raised under the lies of the Third Reich. For the past few years, America’s children have been growing up in a country whose leader is a kleptocratic white-supremacist sociopath — a man who not only brags about sexual assault, but who appointed sexual-assault-hobbyist “Blackout Brett” Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. They’ve been living in a world where this sort of behavior gets normalized — where a pathological liar’s lies get treated as if, perhaps this time, they may have some truth value, and so on tonight’s program, we invite an expert and a con artist to debate the cloak of lies in which the Trump administration has swathed the day’s cruelty.

Enough! Trump is and has always been a liar. Draw on this irrefutable basic fact of the man’s character when you report on, write children’s books about, or say anything at all about Trump. Call out his lies. Tell the truth. As Michael Chabon recently wrote in a different context, “Truth lives. It can be found. And there is no encounter more powerful than the encounter between the slashing, momentary blade of truth and a lie-entangled mind.”[5]

In sum: Children’s books can be that blade of truth.


Thanks…

For the Public Books article, thanks to Nina Christensen for introducing me to Dumme Donald bygger en mur i børnehaven (Stupid Donald Builds a Wall in Nursery School), and for translating the title. Thanks to Elina Druker for translating the book’s original Swedish title. Thanks to Jules Danielson for introducing me to The Wall and to both Jules and Betsy Bird for confirming that Christmas in July is the first children’s book to feature Mr. Trump.


Related posts:


[1] Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” Between Past and Future (London: Penguin Books, 1993), 252-3.

[2] Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo, and Meg Kelly, “President Trump has made 12,019 false or misleading claims over 928 days,” Washington Post , 12 Aug. 2019.

[3] Dave Renton, Fascism: Theory and Practice (Pluto Press, 1999), 18.

[4] Mark Bray, ANTIFA: The Anti-Fascist Handbook (Melville House, 2017), 146.

[5] Michael Chabon, “What’s the Point?” The Paris Review, 23 Sept. 2019.

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