Friday, May 23, 2014

Above Our Poor Power to Add or Detract

 Charleston, S.C., circa 1903

At a cemetery somewhere in Charleston, several young women examine the graves of Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War, which had been over for quite some time, almost 40 years, when this picture was taken. By then every former rebel state was back in the Union, and Woodrow Wilson, who spent his childhood in Confederate Virginia, was a mere decade away from assuming the presidency. Yet as you can see from the above photo, the war was far from forgotten. At least not by these three women. The one kneeling on the left may be crying, but it's hard to tell. Indeed, maybe I shouldn't have used the word young to describe these three. The one on the right looks a bit older. Taller, anyway. Possibly she's the mother of the two on the left.

Now, I find the cause that the men buried in this cemetery gave their lives for to be morally repugnant. The Confederacy was about nothing more than the perpetuation of slavery. States rights, you say? I'm sorry but human rights trump states rights. Yet I don't begrudge the three women visiting, possibly grieving, over this place. All the men buried here had either wives, fiances, children, parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, friends, and possibly more than friends that they dare not talk about. The three women look too young to have been wives. The one on the left could have been a daughter. Or they could have been complete strangers. The number of Confederate dead is said to have been around 258,000. The loss of so many young men may have still resonated 40 years later.

The Confederate soldiers for the most part weren't slaveholders. Indeed, poor whites may have been at something of a disadvantage in the Old South. How does one find a decent job when the blacks are doing all the work (albeit unwillingly) for free? So, then, why did so many poor whites fight and die to preserve slavery? They probably thought they were fighting for some other reason, like the aforementioned states rights. The politicians and the plantation owners propping them up told--warned!--all those poor whites that the damn Yankees wanted to come in and change their whole way of life. Given their destitution, you'd think they'd welcome such a change. But the damned that you know is better than the damned that you don't. The term wouldn't come into vogue until the 21st century, but these poor whites may have seen the Union army as an "existential threat."

Speaking of that Union army, though I find them to be on the acceptable side of the conflict, all the soldiers didn't necessarily find slavery to be morally repugnant. Historians will tell that Northerners were in fact divided about the issue. And even the ones against it were divided as whether to end it immediately (by force, I guess) or just keep it confined to the South, a kind of 19th century version of containment. Though he personally found slavery to be morally repugnant, Abraham Lincoln initially favored the latter. When he finally did issue the Emancipation Proclamation, it was as a tactical move, hoping that it would deprive the South of any international support it may have gotten by driving home the message the war was indeed about slavery (even if he previously had claimed it wasn't.)

So, if the Union soldiers weren't all fighting to end slavery, what else could have been motivating them? Well, the South was rebelling. That was treason. And they had attacked Fort Sumter, a artificial island run by the U.S. Army in Charleston Harbor, the same Charleston as in the above photo, though that was taken inland. In a way, you could say that the North was acting in self-defense. For different reasons you could say that about the South, too. Two sides fighting in self-defense. What a war.

It's also quite possible that the soldiers in the North and the South  had no idea what they were fighting for or had any strong feelings about it. That's more common than you might think, as wars are fought on the ground by people unaware of how history will categorize them, pigeonhole them, at some future date. But if the soldiers had no strong feelings about it, why were they even there? Well, they could have gotten in trouble if they weren't. Both the North and the South had a draft (I myself probably would enlist in a war fought over bubble gum if I thought jail was the only alternative.) 

Beyond that, however, I think the soldiers on both sides figured their respective leaders had their reasons. Good reasons, or they wouldn't have let such a terrible thing happen in the first place, right? We Americans like to bitch about government, yet nevertheless are quite willing to suspend our judgement, our skepticism, to give our politicians the benefit of a doubt, in matters of war and peace. We need to believe that they know what they're doing. If they don't, then that in itself could constitute an existential threat.

At any rate, until someone can convince me otherwise, I think the North was on the right side of that particular conflict, even if at the time everybody from Lincoln on down didn't always seem so sure themselves. 

What about the various other wars the United States has gotten itself into? Were they worth it?

World War II. Worth it. Though it wasn't the precise reason the United States got involved, and the G.I.s doing the fighting didn't know about it until very late in the game, all it takes is a few minutes of film shot at Dachau to convince me of the rightness of that cause.

The Revolutionary War. True, King George III wasn't exactly Adolf Hitler, and modern-day Britain is more alike the United States than it is different (I'm told they even speak the same language as us) I still have to think it was worth it. Chalk it up to my dislike of royalty. The whole concept of royalty. I strongly feel that Arthur person should have run for office instead of pulling some stupid sword out of a stone. It also irks me when my fellow Americans show too much interest in royal affairs. Especially royal weddings. The fascination people here in the States showed for the nuptials of Charles and Diane, and then, a generation X later, William and Kate, makes me wonder if Benedict Arnold shouldn't replace George Washington on the dollar bill.

Besides, it's kind of hard to be against the Revolutionary War when I was born and raised in the very nation-state that resulted from it. To not give the Continental Congress the benefit of a doubt might yet invite another existential threat.

(A while back, I read about people who refuse to fill out 1040 tax forms on the grounds that the United States is an illegal country and that they're in fact citizens of Great Britain. If that's true, I think the U.K. equivalent of the IRS should get after them. They owe them some money.)

How about the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, World War I, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq I and II, and Afghanistan? Look, I don't want to start any arguments here, especially not with those of you who seem to believe there's an invisible ray emanating from the U.S. Constitution that magically prevents our leaders from ever going to war unless it's absolutely necessary. Can we at least agree that the soldiers and sailors fighting those wars assumed some good would come out of them, whether it actually did or not?

This Memorial Day weekend, let's once again remember all those who gave their lives to ensure that the rest of us remain free.

But let's also remember those who gave their lives for less exalted reasons. Who gave their lives for no good reason at all.

If you think about it, they may have made an even bigger sacrifice.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

This Day in History

On May 18, 1969, Apollo 10 was launched. The crew consisted of astronauts Eugene Cernan, John Young, and the commander of the mission, Thomas Stafford.

A dry run for the more momentous Apollo 11--the one with Neil Armstrong--launched a few months later, it did all the same things, but minus a lunar landing. OK, that's one helluva minus. Let's see if I can get some addition going here

Stafford, Cernan, and Young were the second crew to orbit the moon. That's the command module above. So who got close enough to photographed it?

Either Cernan or Young, who flew the odd-looking contraption above, the Lunar Module.

The Lunar Module eventually came within 8.4 nautical miles (that's 15.6 km for all my foreign readers out there) of the moon.

Somewhere along the way somebody snapped a picture of an "Earthrise". It wasn't the first such picture, as an earlier (and more iconic) photo was taken on Apollo 8 in December, 1968.

In fact, Apollo 10 seemed destined to be the least iconic of all the 1960s space flights. Second moon orbit, second Earthrise, a lunar lander that never actually landed. Yet it was necessary. So how to make it more interesting, more entertaining, to the taxpaying public footing the bill? NASA turned to a pop culture phenomenon bigger than even the space program itself.

That's the Command Module on the left, the Lunar Module on the right.

Though the two modules were named after Charlie Brown and Snoopy, the comic strip characters were never "official" mascots for Apollo 10. However, if after looking at the above pictures you thought otherwise, you're forgiven.

If you were at a NASA visitors center 45 years later and thought otherwise, you're forgiven.

Let's briefly return to 1969.

As the astronauts walk down a brightly lit hallway, a young NASA secretary holds out a stuffed Snoopy for them to pet.

The petting threatened to turn heavy.

I know that one fellow's behavior might seem a bit boorish (or worse), but, remember, it was the 1960s. As Tom Wolfe and others have pointed out, the astronauts of that era tended to be on the horny side. 

Perhaps with some encouragement.

Friday, May 9, 2014

In Memoriam: Al Feldstein 1925-2014


Artist. Illustrator. Writer. Editor.

"When Mad came about, it was the reaffirmation of those feelings in print. We were saying, 'Kids, Madison Avenue is lying to you. Your parents are lying to you. The President is lying to you.'"

Young Al Feldstein went to New York City's High School of Art and Music--what today would be called a magnet school--in the late '30s and early '40s. Students attending the school around the same time include Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, and Al Jaffee, all of whom will be mentioned later on.

Future Miss America Bess Myerson also went to the High School of Art and Music (she played the piano) around that same time. Her name will NOT be mentioned later on. I just find it interesting that she walked the same hallways, ate in the same cafeteria, and possibly sat in same classrooms with the likes of Feldstein, Kurtzman, Elder, and Jaffee. I wonder if any of them ever asked her out on a date. I wonder if she told them she had to wash her hair that night. Such a rejection could be one possible reason they all ended up writing and drawing for Mad magazine.

 Before and after service in World War II, Feldstein worked for the Igar and Eisner comic shop. This was the earliest artwork I could find from Feldstein, and he only did the inks, the actual pencils done by a fellow by the name of Henry Karl Kieffer. It dates from 1946.

A year or so later, Feldstein  was working for a publisher by the name of Victor Fox, who reportedly stiffed him for the above drawing. Feldstein was also a writer by this time, and most likely came up with whatever story or stories found inside the covers. Junior looks like it might have been an Archie knockoff, but I don't know that Betty or Veronica ever, um, protruded as much. At the time, Fox was the grindhouse of comics, but, fear not, good citizens, Feldstein would not work for such a disreputable employer for long.

OK, good citizens, NOW is the time for fear.

 Feldstein quickly moved up the ladder at EC Comics. By the early 1950s, he was an editor as well as a writer and artist. That's him on the right. To the left is his boss, William M. Gaines, who changed the "E" in his late father's company from "Educational' to "Entertaining". And, boy, were they, even if you did feel like taking a shower afterwards.

 A typical government denial, though one easier to refute than most.

Even the aliens aren't sure what the hell is going on.

Feldstein wasn't afraid to add a dollop of social significance to his stories. At first glance it might seem rather redundant to use a hydrogen bomb to "end" an atomic war. But it would have made good semantic sense to 1950s audiences, especially when you consider that an atomic bomb is used as a FUSE for a hydrogen bomb. Such nuances matter little these days. It's all weapons of mass destruction (even some things that aren't nuclear.)

Looks like Feldstein and Gaines may have spread themselves a little thin with their alien invasion stories. Feldstein spread himself thin in other ways as well, not even having the time to draw himself. Joe Orlando did this particular piece of art.

There MAY have been an anti-drug story in this one.

Note Feldstein's signature in the picture's upper-right hand corner. EC was one of the few comic book publishers that let their artists sign their own drawings.

Um...You ARE looking at the signature in the upper-right hand corner, aren't you?

The cure is sometimes worse than the malady.

See those three folks on the left? Feldstein felt his horror stories required emcees. 

The Crypt-Keeper was the most famous of these emcees. He was drawn by a lot of different artists (most notably Jack Davis) along the way, getting more and more gruesomer as he went along.

Bill Gaines chats with his new employee.

By the 1990s, the Crypt-Keeper was on TV schmoozing with Whoopie Goldberg.

Feldstein's latter-day rendering of the character.

What can happen when you wash with hot water.

Always exercise caution when playing with handcuffs. 

Note Ray Bradbury's name. Adaptations of his stories appeared regularly in EC comics. But don't worry, squeamish reader, Bradbury didn't write the gory tale that appears on the above cover. Instead, his had something to do with dismemberment.

 Al Feldstein wasn't the only artist/writer/editor working at EC in the early 1950s. Harvey Kurtzman was responsible for the company's war comics when Gaines suggested he try his hand at humor, resulting in...

The success of which inspired other comic book companies to copy the format.

Including Mad's own publisher. Yet another title for Feldstein to write, draw, and edit.

Al and Bill at the end of another story. I believe Feldstein did draw this one.

The fallen world that Feldstein and Gaines forged with the able and sometimes maniacal assistance of such pencillers and artists of sequential Grand Guignol as Jack Davis, Graham Ingels, Johnny Craig, Bernie Krigstein, Wally Wood, and colorist Marie Severin (who somehow could turn even a sunny afternoon in May into an apocalyptic nightmare), was one populated by, or littered with, imbecilic oafs, smarmy businessmen, gold-digging trollops, loathsome Lotharios, blowzy Gypsies, debauched pensioners, gruff janitors, desperate file clerks, shyster lawyers, quack doctors, hirsute slumlords, withered morgue attendants, drooling delivery boys, chain smoking scrubber women, and vengeful  milquetoasts, all lying to, cheating, and stealing from each other, more often than not as a mere warm-up to cold-blooded murder, only to have Fate step in, though what was stepping in was not some Heavenly Father adjudicating due process but rather a grinning martinet from Hell taking sadistic pleasure in spaying mindless retribution on the unjust and just-too-stupid alike, and leaving behind a scorched landscape of spilt blood, gaping cadavers, dead leaves, crumbling headstones, and cross-hatchings. Plenty of cross-hatchings. After all, it's a comic book.

As it so happened, not everybody found the above in the best of taste.

Especially not this guy, Dr. Fredric Wertham, a well-meaning but party-pooping psychiatrist who thought comic books were harming the one audience that appreciated them the most: teenagers.

A best-seller was born. 

Congress got into the act.

Censorship reared its well-coiffed head.

Now, the code, a hurried creation of the comic book industry itself, wasn't legally binding. So Bill Gaines chose not to carry the seal of approval on any of his publications. So distributors chose not to put EC comics on any of their racks, pushing the company to the brink of bankruptcy. Scores of titles were canceled. Harvey Kurtzman, meanwhile, had been bugging Gaines for quite some time about transforming Mad from a comic book into a magazine. Though Kurtzman's reasons for wanting this had little to do with Dr. Wertham, it suddenly made a great deal of sense to Gaines. Magazines, after all, carried no such code.

EC Comics, itself renamed Mad, was prosperous once more. This prosperity did not go unnoticed by Kurtzman, who felt he was largely responsible for it. He marched in Gaines office and demanded 51% ownership of the magazine. Gaines refused, and Kurtzman was out the door. A new editor was now needed.

Al Feldstein, whom Gaines had laid off months earlier, got the gig.

Several sources lists the above as the first Feldstein-edited Mad, though most of it may have been put together by Kurtzman before he left.

 The very next issue is when it really became Feldstein's own.

Last August I wrote an essay about Harvey Kurtzman titled Humility in a Jugular Vein, in which I devoted a paragraph to Al Feldstein. I reprint it here:

This post is about Harvey Kurtzman, not Mad, but I think it's important to note what happened to that magazine after he left. Gaines tapped Al Feldstein to take over. Like Kurtzman, Feldstein had started out as an artist at EC, and was quickly promoted to editor-writer, of the notorious horror line in his case. Once you got past the severed limbs, gouged eyes, moss-covered skeletons, and blood-soaked meat cleavers, these were really just tounge-in-cheek stories with gag endings (sometimes literally so.) Feldstein, then, wasn't a bad choice to head a humor magazine, and in fact had already done the EC in-house knockoff Panic. I recently came across an interview in which Feldstein expressed bitterness about his inability to get out out from Kurtzman's shadow, that his long stewardship of Mad (1956-1985) wasn't sufficiently appreciated. Feldstein's Mad just happens to be the one I grew up with. His lengthy tenure saw the emergence of such talented artists as Don Martin, Sergio Arogines, Sergio Arogines, Antonio Prohías ("Spy vs Spy"), Mort Drucker, Dave Berg, Paul Coker, George Woodbridge, Norman Mingo, Jack Rickard, and Bob Clarke. On the writing side there was Larry Siegel, Dick De Bartolo, Stan Hart, Tom Koch, Arnie Kogen, Lou Silverstone, and, perhaps the most celebrated, song parodist Frank Jacobs, all accomplished humorists. Finally (at the suggestion of associate editor Nick Meglin) Alfred E. Neuman was promoted to the front cover, and immediately (and ironically, given the thrust of the magazine's satire) became a pop culture icon. All this on Al Feldstein's watch. So, yeah, I'd say he has some reason to be bitter. Unfortunately, he lets this bitterness get the best of him in that interview. Indeed, it almost reads as a parody of bitterness. Apparently Feldstein feels that not only should he get credit for Mad's great success after Kurtzman's departure, but also for what happened while he was still there. In fact, he's responsible for Kurtzman's ascension in the first place. Feldstein claims to have gotten him the job at EC, the war comics, Mad, and, finally, to have made the suggestion that he satirizes established comic book characters rather than mere genres. Sorry, Al, but I just don't buy it. People did keep on buying Mad, however, proving it could survive without Kurtzman at the helm.

I know I was a bit hard on Feldstein last August, but keep in mind that I basically agree that he's been underappreciated. I wouldn't be doing this lengthy obituary (still a bit more to go, folks) if I thought otherwise.

Will Elder came to Feldstein's defense in a May 2003 issue of The Comics Journal. Elder was one Mad's original artists and arguably its most influential, his characteristic use of "eye pops", or background gags, widely copied. When Kurtzman left Mad, Elder left right along with him, which at least for a while didn't seem like the wisest decision as it led to a few lean years. In an interview, TCJ publisher Gary Groth was asking Elder about those lean years when Feldstein's name came up:

GROTH: In the ’50s, when you were looking for work, you were knocking on doors and you were working for Cracked and Pageant and so forth, did you consider calling up Gaines and going back to Mad?
ELDER: I got a call from Al Feldstein. Al offered me all kinds of things — to sleep with his wife…
GROTH: Which I assume you did.
ELDER: Yeah, I didn’t mean it, Al, wherever you are. He would laugh. That’s the kind of guy he is. I like Al. I think he’s a very bright guy. He deserves more credit than he’s getting. Just because he took over institutions, people hate the people who take over the institution. They don’t realize that if it wasn’t for them, the institution wouldn’t be around! That’s what happened to Mad magazine. There’s 50 years of it. Don’t forget that for a moment. That guy kept it alive. As much as I thought Harvey was tremendous, one of the best, Al shouldn’t be pointed out as an interloper. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Not a bad tribute to Feldstein from a guy who didn't owe him anything.

However, I'm not sure what Mrs. Feldstein would make of it.

In the paragraph from my Harvey Kurtzman post, I mentioned a few artists Feldstein hired. I'm going to show you some examples of their work, instantly recognizable to anyone who's read Mad between 1956 and 1984.

Don Martin.

Sergio Arogines

 Antonio Prohías

Mort Drucker

Dave Berg

Paul Coker

 Al Jaffee worked briefly for Mad during the Kurtzman era, so I can't count him as a Feldstein hire. Upon his return in the early '60s (after first following Kurtzman into some failed ventures) Jaffee came up with one of the magazine's best-known features, the Mad Fold-In. It was editor Feldstein who gave the go-ahead, so he at least gets credit for that.

 When Feldstein took over in 1956, Mad had a circulation that's estimated to have been somewhere between 325,000 and 750,000. By the early '70s, it had climbed to and peaked at 2,850,000, a number not in dispute, perhaps an indication that Feldstein also hired a good bookkeeper along the way.

Feldstein retired from Mad in 1985, not on the best of terms with Bill Gaines, who, among other things, immediately rehired Harvey Kurtzman (though as an artist, not an editor.) As I indicated before, many have seen Feldstein as one who merely hitched rides in limos owned by others.

Al Feldstein's standing in the world of comics has gradually improved over the years, and I expect it to improve even more so in the future. In 2003, he was inducted into the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame held at the famed San Diego Comic-Con International. In 2011 The Horror Writers of America bestowed upon Feldstein the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement. Past winners include Stephen King, Anne Rice, Joyce Carol Oates, Ray Bradbury, and Peter Straub, putting him in very good company indeed.

Odd thing about that horror award. Feldstein certainly deserved it. Though I've focused more on his art in this piece, it was as the chief writer of the EC horror line that he won such an honor. Once you got beyond all the monsters and mayhem, these comic books contained cleverly written stories with twist, as well as twisted, endings. Yet in none of the on-line bios or obituaries I've read, have any said that Feldstein was a fan of horror growing up. Or science-fiction. For that matter, none have said he had a burning desire to be a humorist. He excelled in all those genres, because Bill Gaines paid him to excel in all those genres. I suspect Feldstein saw himself, professionally, as a working stiff. Harvey Kurtzman saw himself, professionally, as something more than that (at least in the beginning.) That difference between the two men I think accounts for some of the enmity comic art enthusiasts have toward Feldstein.

That's not to say that, on a whole different level, Feldstein didn't think of himself as an artist. Only that like other comic book professionals of his era, art was something you did in your spare time--or when you retired. Upon his own retirement, Feldstein did indeed devote himself to art. He moved out West, and began painting landscapes, wildlife, and the occasional human being. A sampling:

Three Young Lion Kings

Bryce Canyon Skeletons

Cheyenne Sioux Woman at Rest

Early Frost on the Merced 

Watering Place 

 Feldstein's paintings hang in numerous galleries in the Northwest. He's participated in many regional contests and has won several awards. In late 1980s he placed two paintings in Top 100 of the Arts for the Parks competition sponsored by the National Park Service. A decade later, he placed another painting in the Top 100. Around the same time, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of the Arts degree by Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana. More of Feldstein's work can be seen here.

So Al Feldstein got to do something that gave him much satisfaction, and even received some recognition for it. Good for him. It's not everybody that can say that.

But art for art's sake is not how I want to end this thing.

 It may not be wildlife, but it sure is WILD.