Monday, June 20, 2011
Arn Saba's Musical: A Retrospective Reading
by Dave Kiersh
(originally published on Indy Magazine website- 2005)
Arn Saba's Neil the Horse is a comic book steeped in nostalgia for the past. Featuring character designs highly influenced by classic funny animal cartoons and covers resembling 1930's art deco designs, the series appears an anomaly. Saba's premise was something both old and new: the musical comedy. Saba had a vaudevillian approach, changing the format of his comics several times within each issue. This variety act included the comic strip, comic book stories, illustrated stories, originally composed sheet music, crossword puzzles, and more. It appeared like a modern version of early twentieth century hardbound children's annuals that employed such a variety of techniques rarely seen in comics. This was combined by the playful interaction of letter columns, paper dolls and fashion as seen in the likes of Katy Keene comics. The series, which ran 15 issues from 1983-1988, was published by Denis Sim (Aardvark-Vanaheim/ Renegade Press). Sometimes the material was less than awe-inspiring, particularly the comic strips reprinted from as far back as 1975. At its best, the material was inspiring. Saba's "Fred Astaire Tribute" (issues 11 and 13) showed the cartoonist at the top of his form.
During the 1980's, even the independent comics industry was swamped with hard-edged and often violent material that dominated the mainstream. Neil the Horse, on the other hand, was a light-hearted, fun, romp made up of curvy, bouncing figures. It was akin to only a few other new titles being published, including Scott McCloud's Zot, Wendy Pini's Elfquest and Eastman and Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. All of these black and white comics were attempting to try something fresh while still offering appeal to an audience of both children and adults. Unlike these comics, Neil shared few of the superhero, fantasy, or action influences. Instead, Saba drew upon the other popular staples of comicdom: Walt Disney and Archie comics. His stories and approach, however, were so different that Neil the Horse could never be confused with Carl Barks' Gladstone reprints and the Dan DeCarlo girls appearing on the newsstand around the same time. Saba's combination of 80's pop culture with jazzy animals and dolls recalled a past gone by and created a unique statement. Most distinct is that the choreographed placement of his characters was arranged to a musical score, composed by the cartoonist. The lyrics played the dual role of dialogue and narration just as in a stage musical. This was truly a convention unique in the sequential medium to Arn's oeuvre.
The stars of Neil the Horse include Mam'Selle Poupee (French for doll), Soapy the Cat and of course Neil. All of Saba's characters lack emotional depth, although surprisingly this is not a drawback to his work. It is precisely their one-sidedness that allows their creator to manipulate them so that the focus is placed upon their interactions and movement. Of all the characters, Poupee is the most complex and interesting. Her body is jointed like a Barbie figurine. With the red circles on her cheeks, curly hair and alarmingly large bust and thin waistline, she appears to be a cross between Raggedy-Anne and Dolly Parton. She speaks with a broken French accent and seems unaware of her sexuality. The more developed comics stories involving the three characters show that Soapy and Neil's adventures primarily revolve around the problems faced by Poupee. Neil is a happy go-lucky horse with a predilection for bananas. Soapy is a tough, sometimes grumpy cigar smoking cat whose purpose is to balance out this comedic ensemble.
While Poupee initially appears to be the stereotypical naive blonde, her introspection is later hinted at through Saba's song lyrics, not through dialogue. It is interesting to note that Saba does not make use of thought bubbles. In viewing his comics like a performance or an animated cartoon, he prefers music to portray what the characters are feeling. His lyrics usually show that Poupee, who appears self-assured and loves to dress up, is also yearning for the love of a man. While she finds joy in the companionship of her male animal friends Neil and Soapy, she will remain simply a "living doll" until she realizes the companionship of a significant other. Arn's songs are both lyrical and humorous, yet some have an underlying sadness expressing an unsatisfied yearning.
One cannot help identify this yearning with the knowledge that not long after Saba's disappearance from the comics scene, he underwent a gender transformation. Perhaps his need to realize his female identity is represented through what initially appear to be one-sided characters. Certainly, in his comics we see Arn taking pleasure in dancing beside his heroes. These heroes include Carl Barks, who Arn claims to have "influenced and enriched [his] life more than any other person". Both Neil and Soupy can be seen as descendents of this Disney (or Fleischer) style as well as the many dog-like background characters that come directly out of Barks' duck work. Even more significantly, Poupee is enabled through the comics to dance side by side with Arn's hero, Fred Astaire.
While existing as a fantasy with nostalgic style, the stories and style within Neil the Horse also pay tribute to the present (the 1980's). Poupee wears headbands and works out ala Olivia Newton-John. Neil gets down and breakdances in urban city streets to the accompaniment of a boom box. In "Video Wars" (issues 4-7), the gang comes in contact with characters that inhabit an arcade game. Additionally, Arn pays tribute to his assistants Barb Rausch and Dave Roman frequently. He even published a photo of Roman and the various players in the radio/musical version of the comic. However, Arn excludes himself from depictions of the present. No images (cartoon or photos) of Arn appear in any of the issues. The letters addressed to his comic are all answered in character (by Poupee, Neil or Soapy) rather than by "the creator." The reader only hears Arn speak as himself in later issues when he writes long essay on Fred Astaire (#11) and discusses his pitch to make Neil an animated TV series (#15).
In his Fred Astaire tribute, Arn acknowledges that Fred may not have hinted at his true personality in his work. Responding to a quote from Astaire in which he describes himself as an annoying perfectionist, Arn replies, "This is probably true. But it is the essential part of the Fred Astaire who inspires us to do well... Fred Astaire sets a standard to which we can aspire." Saba set these standards for himself, both as a cartoonist and as a composer. Quoting Bob Thomas, he also writes, regarding Astaire's public persona, that, "Beneath it all were his native shyness, his eagerness to succeed and please". Following the essay in issue #11, Arn has a comic that portrays a lonely Poupee daydreaming of dancing with an Astaire-like man. Once this fantasy subsides, Poupee attempts to write some music but ultimately lies down in desperation. It is only through a phone call (from this same man) that her sadness is relieved. The final comic in the issue shows Poupee with the typical Astaire coat tails and walking stick dancing on an abandoned stage. Through his art, Arn becomes this puppet of a woman entertaining the reader with her movements, reflecting and building upon the greatness of a legendary entertainer. It is through Arn's abstract shyness to reveal himself that the reader becomes drawn in and amused. The man is there even though we do not see his face.
Saba's technique of narrating his otherwise silent comic with music further emphasizes confusion with regards to gender. In "I Was Waiting For You" from #13, the lyrics alternate between Poupee and Astaire. Because of the lack of word bubbles, it initially is unclear as to who is singing the male or female parts, as both characters are most often portrayed with their mouth open. Their joy, as expressed through the lyrics and dance, is in being together. The sanctity of this union is threatened only by the promise of marriage that poses a threat. Poupee and Astaire look the most foreboding, as depicted by Arn, when they are staring at a domestic household filled with children. At the conclusion of the song, when they are singing in unison, it is revealed that they are performing to an audience. For this act, they take a bow. Somehow, it is through the merging of both genders that Saba is willing to find acceptance and take compliments from his fans. His union, while glorious, is far from traditional with Astaire an aging man and Poupee a wooden doll. This sets Neil the Horse apart from traditional comics for children.
The final story is issue #13, "Night Suite," the last story Arn completed for the series (the following two issues consist of reprints). In it, a melancholy Poupee seeks solace in the nightlife. This Poupee is different than earlier versions. Her eyes no longer swirl around unfocused, googly-like. She has taken on a stronger, more realistic presence in that she is able to look directly at men (rather than just animals, faeries, etc.) It is almost as if this hollow doll has begun to be inhabited by another presence. Even her face, once round, has taken on a longer, more solemn and perhaps masculine presence. While dancing in a nightclub, Poupee is enraptured by a young man as the lyrics narrate, "There is nothing more demented/ than two people lying side by side/ Hearing music in each other's sighs;/ But this is how heaven was invented/ By two ordinary fools/ With ordinary dreams/ letting their fortunes entwine." As the music continues, it becomes apparent through the images that Poupee and the man spend the night together. The following day, however, as the sun rises, Poupee is left feeling empty and sad once again. As she walks down the street, she becomes small and hardly noticeable in her sweater and scarf. It was only in the nightlife (and in her sex life) that her movement and body could be freely revealed to interact with others. During the day, there is only the ordinary drudgery, and even Neil and Soapy appear disgruntled by the arrival of the sun.
Perhaps the series came to an end because it was becoming too personal for Arn to draw. The suggestion within the comic itself is that Arn was trying to create a more commercial venue for his characters through the television medium. The proposed animated series, however, appeared to rely more on the funny animal characters and had toned down Poupee's sexuality. While it did not come to fruition, if it did, the personality of its creator most likely would've been stifled. Like the musical comedies of the screen, Neil the Horse has become a sentimental relic. One could only speculate whether or not Saba's transexuality and desire to transform into a woman fostered his exit from the comics scene. It is rumored that before becoming Mrs. Katherine Collins, Arn completed a short, graphic novel featuring his characters. Nearly 15 years later, this story has yet to see print. Perhaps one day it will resurface and amaze us all. I, for one, miss Mam'Selle Poupee, Neil, Soapy and their creator's unique, timeless vision.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Skitzy: an afterword
The stage is set in San Diego. A pigeon is nested in the letter B of an electric light sign on top of a tall building, a theater. The bird leaves its nest, flying above the city. Below, in the playhouse, a spotlight shines on a young man, age 21, trumpet in hand. An artist, who since the age of five, has been making theatrical skits with his brother and the neighborhood kids in Chula Vista. It is time to leave the nest and find brighter lights. As he raises the trumpet to his lips, the auditorium is filled with the liveliest depression era jazz. These are rough times, the late 1920's, and the stock market is set to crash. Still, the talented and the restless shall prevail.
Don Freeman is a survivor. He makes it across the country on his musical talents. When he arrives in New York, he is set on becoming an artist. He loves this city, because it is the energy of the street life and the theater that empowers his work. By night, his trumpet is his meal ticket. By day, his career is living; capturing life. He is out on the street with a sketchpad documenting what a photographer cannot. His pictures capture an energetic realism through the eyes of a cartoonist.
A cartoonist? It is easy to say this in retrospect, when Dr. Seuss and Jan and Stan Berenstain are household names. Though in a time when picture books were not necessarily cartoony, Don's work defies such labels. We can call him a classically trained artist as well as an illustrator and humorist. His work remains independent, for it is both serious and cheerful. When one night he loses his trumpet on the subway, he comes to realize his focus. He will make a living with his drawings.
If his life were a picture book, it would begin with a ringmaster's whip and a cheer from the crowd. Above all, Don was an entertainer. His work reflects an optimistic spirit with a grand theatrical sentiment. Like the title of his autobiography, Come One, Come All; it is a life worthy of many optimistic introductions and enthusiastic afterwords. For it is a show worthy of revivals. This is definitely not the first time his work has been celebrated after his passing. In 1980, The Day Is Waiting was published featuring a strung together story from the many unpublished sketches and watercolors Don made while preparing his stories for children. And more recently, the 40th anniversary of his most beloved book, Corduroy, featured an afterward with Don's preliminaries and letters to his editor.
Skitzy is a book created around the time Don was embarking on his third career as a creator of books for children. Published in 1955, it ties together Don's humorous storytelling skills with his keen observations of street life as documented in his self-published magazine Newsstand. At this time, Don had been a New Yorker for nearly 25 years. Quick at sketching from life, Don also had the patience to transfer these pencil drawings on stones and plates. A master lithographer with an outstanding sense of color design, Freeman literally created thousands of prints throughout his early years in New York. Newsstand was a chance for him to collect and distribute work. While he painted as well, Don had a stronger interest in art that was reproducible. In this sense, he could sell and distribute the work himself, without the constraints and pretensions of a gallery.
While Newsstand documented life on the streets of New York City, the public was more familiar with another aspect of Don's work: the theater. As a regular contributor to both the New York Times and the Herald Tribune drama page, Don's theatrical drawings, as wide as the stage, stretched across three columns of text. In these drawings, the drab and often somber attire of the poor were replaced with beautiful showgirls, spectacular costumes and fantastic backdrops. The strength of these theatrical drawings was not only Freeman's ability at depicting the players, but also the depth of the stage itself. His pictures often gave the viewer something they couldn't get even if they attended the show; a backstage perspective.
Don attended the theater, drew the theater, and the books he created have the suspense and old-time presentation of this insider's world. The first of these books that truly created the stage setting which would make Freeman's work unique was Pet of the Met from 1953. The story takes place on a set of a concert at the Metropolitan Opera House. In it, the focus is on the goings about backstage, although we also get glimpses of the concert itself and the audience's reaction. In a sense, this book would later be reworked into the even more effective Norman the Doorman (1959) the second of his books to make use of wide, stage-like pages and a backstage perspective. Freeman often revisited both this theme and format throughout his career. Most notably was Hattie, the Backstage Bat (1970). This book, while not as well known as the others, is an amazingly perceptive parable of an outsider's view on the joys of the theatrical life.
In terms of style, Don did not follow trends. His drawings always remained loose and without borders. Sometimes he worked in watercolors, and other times in charcoal or scratchboard. While his work was often whimsical, the settings were usually realistic. He pushed the limits of children's books by being one of the first artists to create effective African-American characters and stories where humor was as important as a moral. In 1954, he created Beady Bear in a bold, black and white scratchboard style. The style and theme in this book share many similarities to the book that would become Corduroy. Corduroy's success is in part due to the combination of the Beady Bear style with Freeman’s more theatrical settings. Where Beady Bear differs is that the story features a journey out—a toy bear learns from a book that there is a world outside of the boy's house in which he lives. He sets out to find a cave and make new discoveries.
This journey out, away from the staged set, must have been on Don's mind at the time. As his focus became more on children's books and less on the theatrical world, his characters too, began to escape. In Mike's House (1954), a book illustrated by Freeman, a young boy loses his way en route to the library and discovers a new adult world of policemen and waitresses. Similarly in Mop Top (1955), a boy embarks on a journey out about town to get a haircut only to have some strange encounters with his neighbors before returning home. An even greater escape fantasy, however, comes from this very book, a much more personal story of Don's.
While Skitzy is by no means a children's story, it shares the sophistication and diligent execution of the above-mentioned works. Where it lacks in finished style and color, it makes up for in the spontaneity and confidence of its execution. It also differs from the picture books, in that rather than relying on text, it’s a mostly wordless story. In order to compensate for the lack of descriptive text, Freeman uses more pictures. This deliberately gives the book less of a staged look and imbues it with more action than any of Freeman’s works before or after. In fact, many of the sequences in Skitzy have an almost animated style, which is quite different than his picture books.
Ten years earlier, Freeman had illustrated James Thurber's The White Deer. Similar to Thurber's most famous work, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Skitzy represents in a humorous manner, perspectives of a working class man's fantasies. Like Thurber's The Unicorn In The Garden, which was made into an animated cartoon in 1953, there is an emphasis on psychology and the tension between man and wife. Both works are unique attempts from the time period at bringing mature themes in a cartoon format to an adult audience.
While not necessarily autobiographical, it would not be incorrect to view this as one of Don's most personal pieces. Unlike Thurber's Unicorn In the Garden (which originally appeared in The New Yorker), Skitzy never really had an audience. It was a piece that Don published himself several years after he had wrapped up his work on Newsstand. If the character is to represent Don, the author of Skitzy is a separate persona than the children's book author. Here is an artist who has gone out on his own, created a questionable artwork that might not have an audience, and decided to sell it himself. It is a bold, brave work. Perhaps it was ahead of its time.
If this is Don's New York success story, the work still remains humble. His 1971 children's book, Penguins of All People, also features a fantastical journey to New York. In this case, the father Penguin seeks success as an ambassador from Antarctica at the United Nations. When the penguin takes the stage, he amuses the crowd with his nervous antics. It is then that the simplest of intentions seems to be an answer to all of the world's problems - laughter . When the father returns home, he realizes that his son, whom he had originally ignored, provided him with this solution from the beginning. Therefore, in Don's more realistic journey out and return home, it is no coincidence that he continued to explore these themes in children's books. His picture books, while hugely successful, still remain personal and honest. Probably the best evidence of this is that his son Roy, shares the namesake of his other most well remembered creation, Corduroy.
Since Don Freeman's death in 1978, several of his unpublished books have been given a new life through posthumous printings including Gregory's Shadow and Earl the Squirrel. Even if you are familiar with all of Don's 32 picture books, Skitzy still has plenty of surprises to offer. I am thrilled that after more than fifty years this work is now being rediscovered by a new audience. There's even a happy ending. Don wouldn't have had it any other way.
Back when cartoonists were celebrities, Syd Hoff was a star. Before television, that special brand of humor known as the gag cartoon had a unique place in the hearts of Americans who read such magazines as Esquire, The New Yorker, Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s and College Humor. Artists such as Peter Arno, John Held Jr., and Charles Addams were some of its champions. Today, Syd Hoff is most well known for his amazing output of well over 100 books for children, many of which still remain in print today. Yet even before his first children’s book was published, Hoff was a familiar name to many. Similar to other cartoonists turned children’s authors of the time like Dr. Seuss or Stan and Jan Berenstain, Hoff was a cartoonist who retained his recognizable style throughout his career. But his beginnings as a gag cartoonist and comic-strip artist, while they might not be as well remembered, are more than worth noting. In looking back at Hoff’s early work we can see how he came to bring a gag cartoonist’s sensibility to the world of easy reader children’s books.
Hoff’s bulbous nosed adults and sprouty kids portrayed New York tenement life with humor. Back in the 1930’s, cartoonists had niches. John Held Jr. was famous for his flappers. Peter Arno for his women. What made Syd Hoff’s bold line worth remembering were his characters based on the New York Jews with whom he grew up. The cast that he created from the 1930’s through the 1950’s reappear in some of his work for children but it is the adults who are more prevalent in his early work. An older married couple, quite possibly based on Hoff’s own parents, were reoccurring characters in his gag cartoons. The husband of the older married couple is often portrayed with a walrus like moustache, balding, and wearing an undershirt. The wife is often a large, overbearing, unattractive woman with a double chin. Even when drawn in a variety of different circumstances, these round, potato-nosed Bronx apartment dwellers are unique to Hoff. The fact that he created many of these early cartoons while living at home with his parents in NY, lend an ear to their authenticity.
In a typical watercolor embellished cartoon from the late 1930’s, the husband lies back in his easy chair looking through his window into the adjacent apartment. He is watching the drama from across the way as a man, not unlike himself, is being berated by his wife. As his own wife comes home and enters through the door, he scolds her with this remark, “The drama of life is under our noses, but you have to rush to the movies”. The apartment is bare and the general tone of unhappiness, although presented with humor, is characteristic of the depression years. In this particular cartoon, the act of looking through a tenement window and commenting on the scene as entertainment is not too far off from Hoff’s approach to his own cartooning.
Hoff was born in 1912, the second child to Benjamin, a cigar-smoking salesman, and his wife, Mary. He had a brother and sister, but Hoff was the only artist in the family. In his autobiography he recalls having an early affinity towards cartoons, copying newspaper comics like Harry Hierschfield’s “Abie Kabibble”. At an early age, his drawings were proudly hammered up onto the apartment wall, a scene in which Hoff replicates in his 1972 book My Aunt Rosie. Finding early encouragement from cartoonist Milt Gross who visited Hoff’s High School by ways of a school assembly, Hoff was bound to become a cartoonist. From the beginning, he turned miserable situations into funny ideas and distinguished himself by way of drawing. Dropping out of high school, Hoff enrolled in the National Academy of Design, an art school located in Harlem, at the age of 16. Unsure of his own future as a fine artist and feeling off put by the snobby attitude of his bohemian classmates, Hoff worked occasionally as an usher at a Loew’s movie house. It was there that he began drawing caricatures of the actors. Not long after this, he got lucky selling cartoons to the New Yorker. Soon, they would be asking for more of his “Bronx types”.
Hoff’s simple style is instantly recognizable. Between 1941, and 1977 his illustrations appeared in hundreds of magazines and newspapers. Some of the most popular magazines of the time including The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire and The New Yorker frequently featured cartoons by Hoff. His first comic strip, Tuffy, appeared in more than 800 papers worldwide for ten years. A daily one-panel cartoon, Laugh It Off, was syndicated by Kings Features in 1958 and ran for nearly twenty years. Not only was he prolific, but he was quite the personality as well. In the early days of television, he had his own show on CBS. “Tales from Hoff” (1947) featured the cartoonist doing live drawings and telling stories that accompanied them as they were created. Because the stories were appropriate for children, this storytelling knack in a quick, easy to understand format, was a predecessor to his work for children.
While Hoff’s caricatures of immigrant adults portrayed the desperation of the depression years, the lighter side of poverty throughout the 1930’s and 40’s was best reflected in Hoff’s cartoons when he drew children. If the adults represent his own parents, the children were closer to Hoff’s own experiences and sentiments. Amusingly, Hoff often portrays his children as a lot wiser than their parents, more conniving and certainly more street smart. In one such cartoon, a disturbed child rushed into his father’s bathroom with a newspaper. He says, “Say pop, do you realize the average child spends approximately fifteen dollars a year on candy?” The father looks stupefied. In another typical cartoon from this period, two young boys on the street dressed up as cowboys are holding a smoking gun. A middle aged woman stands beside her husband on the ground, presumably dead. The woman looks surprised as the boys say, “Now will you stop saying how cute we are and pass over your dough.” Both of these cartoons show the typical drive that propelled youngsters during this time; to make money by your wits and not necessarily by your education.
A bit more carefree was Hoff’s younger set. Hoff drew unmarried young adults as tall beanpole like characters that also differed from his married adults because of their perkier noses. The cartoons which featured these types often dealt with dating and relationships. What may come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with this aspect of Hoff’s work is that the humor of these gags often bordered on the sexual. This is something that Hoff left behind as he ventured towards his children’s book career. Filled with 1950’s workplace humor, these particular cartoons maintain a certain charm. An example of this is a gag in which a woman leaves the President of her company’s office and remarks to the secretary “I think I’ve been promoted.” In the cartoon we notice that her dress has been tussled with, leaving her brassiere exposed. This humor of sexual advances would not be PC today but it is common form in Hoff’s cartoons from this period. Cartoons dealing with young lovers, nurses and secretaries.
An amusing phenomenon of the late 1940’s and 1950’s that was a leftover from the war was the large amount of cartoons that sexualized the female nurse. Hoff contributed largely to this genre and even had a book that collected such cartoons entitled From Bed to Nurse (1963). As Hoff’s bald man with a moustache reclines in his bed, having his temperature taken, he stares in admiration at the young nurse’s cleavage as she bends over to remove the thermometer. Another man lay comfortably back in his bed with hands behind his head as the nurse talks on the telephone. He demands to change his night nurse. Tonight, he wants a blonde! Another even shows the man in bed with a nurse and an older, uglier nurse appearing angry as the young nurse says innocently, “He said his feet were cold!” Still, even with this suggested risqué nature of these cartoons, the drawings remain simple, bold and innocent; not quite Playboy material.
Hoff’s two newspaper cartoons were less adult in nature. These included the comic strip Tuffy and a one panel cartoon entitled Laugh It Off. Tuffy was an awkward, gawky looking child with a giant bowtie and rubbery legs that often spring backwards out of the panel. She was the child of Hoff’s tenement dwelling adults. Her adventures included vignettes where she wandered around the city, getting into antics, mostly trouble, with her friends. Again, the humor revolved around the poverty of the characters. For example, in one strip, Tuffy remarks to a boy “Why don’t you wash your face Tommy?” He replies, “Why should I?” Tuffy’s cheeky response shows wisdom beyond her years. “I suppose you’re smart in a way. With real estate prices the way they are, your face is your fortune.” Not exactly ground breaking stuff but Tuffy proved that Hoff certainly had a way of showing the language of tenement kids, often portraying them as smarter than their parents. Tuffy’s adventures were reprinted in comic book format in 1950 by Standard comics. The tagline reads: Tuffy, America’s Funniest Little Girl. On the cover of issue #8, Tuffy is shown going on strike holding her picket sign that reads “Unfair, Daddy won’t raise my allowance.” The stunned father looks up from his newspaper, surprised to notice that this indeed is his daughter. While Tuffy is charming and comparable in many ways to Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy or Marge’s Little Lulu it in some way lacks the depth of Hoff’s single page cartoons.
With Hoff’s simple artwork, the small panels utilized in the comic strip seem a bit too confined for his inner city world. With the larger panels in the magazine cartoons such characters were given more room to breathe, as there was more attention given to space. But the stage was set in order for Hoff to become one of the most beloved American children’s book authors of all time. When he would later take his storytelling ability and combine it with the composition of his early gag cartoons, he helped create a storytelling format for kids that has become commonplace today. Like fellow cartoonists Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and Stan and Jane Berenstain, Hoff’s children’s books were revolutionary in that they brought whimsical cartooning to the format of easy reader books. In a sense, Hoff’s early books such as Danny and the Dinosaur or Herschel the Hero are gag cartoon comic books. It’s as if he is transplanting the gag cartoon format, making it sequential. These children’s books were different because each page could almost stand alone as a gag.
Hoff’s one panel newspaper strip, Laugh It off, often employed animals as devices for humor. One of Hoff’s most endearing books, Sammy the Seal (1959) continues in this direction. The pages in this book, if removed form the story are very similar to Hoff’s one panel cartoons. For example, on page 62, the caption underneath the picture reads “Sammy was in a hurry to get back to the zoo, he had so much to tell the other seals.” In the picture, Sammy is riding in the back of a taxi cab. While Hoff’s work for children is still acclaimed and read by kids today as many of the titles remain in print, it is interesting to go back and view his nearly forgotten work in order to see how this evolution took place. Many of the Laugh It Off strips were reprinted in Hoff’s excellent how-to book on cartooning, The Young Cartoonist (1983). Seeing these strips alongside his children’s book work, they appear almost like exerted pages from an unpublished children’s book. In 1985, Hoff revived Laugh It Off, with his book Syd Hoff’s Animal Jokes, a collection of individual gag cartoons aimed at children.
Hoff had over a hundred cartoon and children’s books published and it would be overwhelming to analyze all of these. One outstanding example where a definite transition seems to become apparent is Hoff’s book Out of Gas from 1954, which precedes his classic picture book Danny and the Dinosaur by 5 years. The book is interesting because while it is not essentially sequential storytelling, the book has a beginning and end and details the lives of a cast of characters; a family of four. It is not a children’s book but rather a collection of gag cartoons intended for adults. Still, very much like his children’s books there is one picture per page with a written caption below. Unlike Hoff’s earlier cartoon collections such as Oops, Wrong Party or Feeling No Pain, this collection shows the same cast of characters throughout. Again, there is the balding father with a moustache, the overweight double-chinned mother and their two intelligent children. Each page maintains its own joke but at the same time, it tells the story of this family’s cross country journey. In doing so, he transplants a semblance of a narrative, the cross county journey, by use of large gag cartoon panels without borders.
In addition to having sold millions of copies of his children’s books including his most famous book, Danny and the Dinosaur (named after his brother), Syd Hoff was equally proud of his writing talents. He wrote several short stories for Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen magazine, as well as a novel, Irving and Me (1967). Like his cartoons, Syd Hoff had a great sense of humor. He believed that anyone could draw and continued making books until late in his life. These later books have a more mature style, Hoff’s line being thinner and more ragged, giving it a sort of mistakenly dashed off look. However, as Hoff’s stories became more complex such as in Scarface Al and His Uncle Sam (a children’s book based on the life of Al Capone), the difficulty came in simplifying the story into a language children could immediately understand. Hoff’s love for drawing and storytelling extended outside of making books. He was a frequent visitor to schools and libraries and even taught drawing classes above cruise ships. I’m hard pressed to find another cartoonist who has done so much or who had such a fun time doing it. His children’s books will continue to be read because they present a cartoonist at top form who was experienced at turning depression into laughter.
The enigma of Mark Kalesniko is the variety of traditional influences he draws upon in order to create an original work. As an animator with Disney credits, he tells his story with a reliance on action and quick dialogue rather than heavy-handed narration. As in manga, his stories may stretch across countless pages. Unlike American superhero comics, they do not rely on dynamism and the dramatic angles of action, but instead upon the relationship between people and the sometimes overwhelming environment in which they reside. The multitude of panels-per-page and long bodies are in some ways reminiscent of the French cartoonist Guido Crepax. Yet the simply designed characters bring to mind the iconographic representations of figures in Genji Monogatari-based Japanese folding screens. This, combined with a love for the delicate nudes of decorative artists such as Erte and the more expressive lines of Egon Schiele's early landscapes, may make Kalesniko's work sound confusing. It is just the opposite. His comics are a pleasure to explore; fast-paced and accessible to the reader with an underlying complexity of themes.
Kalesniko's debut work, S.O.S. (Fantagraphics, 1992), creates a near-wordless story that may have more in common with modern dance than anything ever created in American comics. The few words used, in themselves are inconsequential, for they too are presented through action: the process of writing. The central character, Chloe, is a beautiful, Asian woman. Stranded at sea, she initially sends out an S.O.S. to her family. While starving, she is confronted with a shark that ensues in a battle for survival. Taking joy in her body and the freedom of her independence at sea, Chloe is able to assert herself. It is her femininity that enables her to take on the shark, eventually devouring it, and proving her the stronger for survival. Upon realizing the power of her self-sufficiency, Chloe decides to break ties with her family by rejecting her initial cry for help.
All of the themes presented in this initial work, are expanded upon in Kalesniko's fourth book, published ten years later. Mail Order Bride also concerns itself with a young, Asian woman. In this case however, instead of isolated at sea, Kyung, the protagonist, is brought into the fictional town of Bandini, Canada. Readers of Kalesniko's work will recognize this town as the setting of Alex and Why Did Pete Duel Kill Himself? (Fantagraphics, 1997), his two previous graphic novels. A factory town, Bandini is overshadowed by the towering smelter. It becomes unclear as to how much of this town is based on reality. In Alex, Kalesniko's story appears autobiographical with the hilly landscape, low bridges and apartments (with stairway walkups) of Bandini presented as eerie photographs on the back covers of this serialized comic book's run. Whatever the case, Kalesniko has presented the town as a place of artistic sparks, yet ultimately burnt-out dreams and desperation.
In Alex, the protagonist returns to his hometown of Bandini after a stint working as an animator in California. Alex, a white male, tries to come to terms with his artistic desires through alcoholism and an attempt to reconcile his unhappy childhood. His only personal connections in the town are through his old high school friend Jerome and his high school art teacher. Both characters showed promise in the past but are now pathetic in adulthood. In some ways, the town is blamed for stifling their growth. Jerome is the cowardly man/boy who lives with his mother. The art teacher is reduced to alcoholism. With his obsessions over a high school crush named Lori Chen (again an Asian woman), Alex risks self-destruction.
In revisiting Bandini in Mail Order Bride, Kalesniko creates a situation in which both of his character types are at odds. Monty Wheeler, reminiscent of Jerome in Alex, is a cowardly Caucasian man who never left Bandini. His moderate business success is overshadowed by his compulsion for collecting. Instead of realizing failure, Monty refuses to change. His ability to possess objects (toys, dolls, magazines) is carried over into a fetish for a traditional, obedient Asian woman. While Monty is far from being an admirable character, the reader may in some ways sympathize with him. He is, after all, lonely and still a virgin while nearing age 40. Also, the reader (of a graphic novel), who most likely will not have a bias towards comic collecting, may even relate to some of Monty's obsessions.
Kyung, lost at sea like Chloe, abandons the traditions of Korea in order to find a new life in Canada. Her battle though, begins with Monty, who threatens her freedom like a shark. Nevertheless, it is Kyung who proves to be indomitable. Eventually, she refuses to wear the traditional dress when Monty has sex with her. She finds a new means of expression in herself: her nudity and posing for artists within the community. This arts community at the university center provides an outlet to Monty's world turned inward. She finds refugees like herself in American hippies who fled from (ironically) the Vietnam War. It is within this community that she witnesses a performance dance piece that acts as a metaphor for feminism, for freedom and ultimately the struggle for self amongst oppression.
When Kyung confronts Monty to challenge her Asian traditions and discover who she is, he dons a Kabuki mask. Again, toying with Eastern traditions, Kalesniko allows the mask to in some ways show more expression than Kyung's face. While Monty looks ridiculous in the nude with an Asian guise, Kyung's face, while angry, shows little emotion. Instead, it is Kyung's body and actions that will represent her true spirit. Ironically, it is the joker mask that Monty finally puts on that is truly representative of his character. The mask represents more than what his face shows. That is his pathetic, discomforting sadness.
It is also interesting to note the second Asian woman who becomes a prominent character in Mail Order Bride. Eve Wong differs from Kyung in that she was born in America. Her aggressive actions and passion for art provide the impetus for Kyong to leave Monty. However, just as Kyung is about to make her complete transformation, she is disappointed by Eve. Eve's decision to get married shows that even a strong American woman can fall prey to the notion of domesticity. Her decision shocks Kyung.
Kyung's body makes a transition through various perceptions. The insult of Monty is that he views Kyung only as a symbol for what she represents to him. In doing so, her status as a mail order bride is not elevated from the pornography he continues to look at, as long as she is obedient. Ironically, when Kyung chooses an outlet for expression as a nude model, Monty is unable to tell the difference between these photographs and the ones in his magazines. Kalesniko uses separate rendering techniques to draw distinctions between the crude and the erotic. Finally, the abstract world of Monty's toys becomes dark symbols, representing something far more menacing than childhood innocence. Still, it is Kyung who remains beautiful with her hopes of movement; the potential for development and escape. Tall Kyung, in the end, stands erect, shoulders tall, femininity intact. She is not a stereotype. Yet, like in Alex, Bandini has done its damage. Both books end with their characters' hands crossed in front of their wastes. The damage is of the worst kind, both private and sexual.
In Kalesniko's world, art and passion prevail. The individual, in the process of creation is left damaged by an unflinching world. His characters, whether lonely or seeking freedom, are in some ways left powerless by their surroundings. Escape, if it is to be found, is within oneself. This beauty comes from the motion of abandonment; the pride and uninhibited movement of a nude body through space. As Kalesniko quotes on the first page, "Your body is the bridge between the Earth and the Stars"
Kyung packs up the artful nude photographs of herself and places them on a shelf to collect dust. Kalesniko seems to encourage the reader to go back to the beginning. Through his work, we can take the pictures out of the closet. It is with re-readings that this stack of images will become animated. We can watch Kyung dance once again.