Thursday, May 31, 2012

“The Mysterious Card”

The definition of a shaggy dog story* is one of escalating events that build the reader’s expectation for a pay-off at the end, and then doesn’t deliver. It's a deliberate way of telling a story, usually told as a joke. “The Mysterious Card,” by Cleveland Moffett, published in Black Cat magazine in 1896 and scanned from a 1969 reprint, is not a joke but is still a shaggy dog story. It was popular because sometimes people are happy to be fooled by the unexpected, even if the unexpected is shaggy.

From the anthology, Great Untold Stories of Fantasy and Horror**, 1969, edited by Alden Norton and Sam Moskowitz. (Note: Moskowitz's introduction to the story is garbled due to some production error that slipped by the proofreader.)

Copyright © 1969 Alden H. Norton

*There’s disagreement as to what the original shaggy dog story was, but one of the stories vying for original went something like this. (My version is told without all the build-up of the original.) An American sees an advertisement in a local newspaper. A rich man in London is offering a reward for his lost shaggy dog. The man goes out looking, finds a shaggy dog, and has a series of adventures getting it across the American continent, on a ship to England, then from the port to the rich man's home. The butler opens the door. “Sir,” says the American, “I have found your shaggy dog.”

The butler sniffs as he closes the door in the American's face, “My master's dog is shaggy, but not that shaggy.”

**The title is misleading and hyperbolic. The stories aren’t exactly great, nor are they untold. They are fantasy and horror, though, or in the case of “The Mysterious Card,” unclassifiable as either genre...just...shaggy.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Tom Lea with the U.S. Marines on Peleliu

I'm a couple of days late with my Memorial Day posting. I think we should remember our dead every day, not just on the last weekend of May.

It's hard to forget what people went through in World War II when looking at the dynamic paintings of artist Tom Lea. During his time as a combat artist he painted images that sear themselves in our minds. These dramatic paintings were done to show the carnage of the fight for the island of Peleliu in September, 1944. A painting comes from the soul of an artist. Maybe that's why there were combat artists, to show us the soul of war.

The uniforms change, but the effects of war don't. Recently I read that 45% of our current veterans apply for some sort of disability.Lea's painting of a marine with the "thousand-yard stare" reminds us that no one who fought in any war punched a time clock at the end and went home without having their lives changed.

Lea went on to a successful career in art. I have some of the books he illustrated, including my favorite, Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver by J. Frank Dobie. Lea died in 2001 at age 93. There's more information on him at the Tom Lea Institute web site.

This article is from the June 11, 1945 issue of Life.

Copyright © 1945, 2012, Time-Life.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Jesus by the numbers

Lord help me, I'm addicted. I'm a collector.

I'm not rich. I'm a collector on a budget. Friday Sally and I visited a couple of thrift stores and I walked away with an armload of used paperback books, average cost about 75¢ per book. I don't need 'em, don't always even want 'em, but when I see books with these kinds of covers I must have 'em. The collector sickness comes out in me, and I feel the familiar tug of the compulsion, that damned addiction.


I like horror stories. I like ghost stories. I like anthologies. For some reason I can't get enough copies of W. W. Jacobs' classic, "The Monkey's Paw." Here's yet another book containing that story. How many copies of that story do I now have? Who cares? I'm a collector, not a counter.

I love English paperbacks when I can find them. I've never been able to actually read a book by Edgar Wallace, a popular author of the 1920s (he died in 1932), but I had to have this Pan Book from the UK. What a fantastic cover:

But books aren't always enough. I must also have funky things that move me. For instance, incredibly tacky paint-by-number artwork, like this 16" x 20" Jesus. Sally and I found this in a consignment shop yesterday and I walked around the store thinking about it before making myself the owner. I knew if I didn't get it I'd be kicking myself all night. Compulsion won out.

I'm not religious, but crappy pictures of Jesus make me a hallelujah-shouter. What can I say about paint-by-numbers except god bless the wannabe artists who sit down at those numbered canvases and make their own art with little paintpots and cheap brushes. Older paint-by-numbers are sought after collectibles, like black velvet paintings. They are crass, kitsch, and they are wonderful.

Here's a brief history of paint-by-number: American History "Every Man a Rembrandt"

The collecting addiction is hard to get over, but then, I've never really tried. I just feed the addiction by acquisition. To continue with my addictive behavior I have to make room for all of these items. I've felt many times I couldn't squeeze one more thing into our small suburban tract home, but I always do.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Droodles man and other seductions

The other day I showed a photographic comic strip called a fumetti, starring humorist Roger Price. In the early '50s Price created the hugely popular Droodles. There was even a television show based on them. I found an article in a 1960 issue of Good Housekeeping by Price on the subject of Droodles.

I've been going through old magazines for a family friend. She had several boxes of them in her garage, kept by her mother. She'd like me to sell them on eBay for her and we'll split whatever money they earn. I'm reluctant to get involved with eBay again. I wasted enough of my life on the eBay merry-go-round, but for a favor, I guess I'll help out, and may even make a few bucks. But before I sell the magazines I'm going through them carefully, making scans of things I like. I've been surprised what I've found in women's magazines.

The Maidenform Bra ad is from a 1957 issue of Good Housekeeping. It's fairly stunning. That campaign ("I dreamed I (fill in the blank) in my Maidenform Bra") was really famous at the time. My initial impression of the ad is that her bra is glowing as some sort of fog lamp.

Good Housekeeping used some cartoons and cartoonists of the day, but they didn't have Chas Addams. It didn't stop them from publishing a half-page piece on him, also in 1957. I like the images created in my head reading about his old house, and driving to it in his Mercedes-Benz.

When I see the name Alex Ross I think of a contemporary artist who does paintings about comic characters like Superman and Batman.

There was apparently an earlier artist named Alex Ross, who did this spectacular illustration for the November, 1957 issue of Good Housekeeping. It's another thing I like about these old magazines—illustrations for stories by the top artists of the day.

Finally, in 2008 I had a posting about subliminal sex in advertising.

When I looked at this ad from a 1960 issue of Good Housekeeping I was startled to see that it looked like a joke picture of a woman simulating a urinating man. She's holding the phallic nozzle close to her crotch, then there's the water in a stream of which any man would be proud. Am I just seeing things or was this photo carefully composed to remind the reader of this act? If you were the author of the book Subliminal Seduction you'd say it's no accident.

Monday, May 21, 2012

“In the event of something 'appening to me...”

Robin Gibb died May 20 after a battle with cancer. Cancer brings down the rich and poor, large and small. It is an equal opportunity assassin.

Memories of Robin Gibb go back to before I knew who he was, just that there was a group called the Bee Gees. I sat in the snack bar of the PX in Monteith Barracks, Fürth, Germany, on Sunday mornings in 1967. I'd have breakfast and read the Stars and Stripes newspaper. There was a jukebox in the corner and someone was always plugging in dimes, playing the hits of the day. One day I heard "To Love Somebody," and wrote my brother about the song. He was back in the States and he had his ear to the car radio, always picking up on what was new.

In a reply he wrote that he liked the Bee Gees' song, "New York Mining Disaster-1941." It was on the PX jukebox and I heard Robin's vibrato loud and clear. I liked their music, but turned against the Bee Gees during the constant airplay of their disco period hits. They redeemed themselves to me later on. They came back on stage with their incredible catalog of hits, not just for dancing, but also for listening and appreciating. That vibrato was a lot of the Bee Gees sound. I don't believe the Bee Gees performed after Robin's twin, Maurice, died a few years ago. I remember rumblings of some problems between brothers Barry and Robin, but didn't pay much attention. I hope whatever the problem, that it was resolved before Robin died.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

What's in a name? Depends on the year.

When my son was born in 1977 I wanted a name that was solid and unmistakably male, popular, and easy to spell. So I chose David. (Sally's brother's name is David, so that also counted toward my decision.)

When I worked for a large school district at the first of every school year I walked down the halls of  elementary schools and on cork boards outside the kindergarten or first grade classes the teachers would post the kids' names. I could see what the most popular names were five or six years previously. Now I go online and look them up. They give us a pretty good idea of what's hot right now. People haven't a lot of imagination. If not naming the kid after a family member, they pick a name from a movie, pop or television star.

According to a web site with popular names, "David" was number four in 1977, right behind Michael, Jason and Christopher, and just ahead of James, Robert and John.

(I'm speaking strictly of American lists of popular names.)

Of those names, only two are still in the top forty thirty-five years later. James comes in at number 13, and Michael at number 15. Why in the world would great names like David, Jason, Christopher, Robert or even John (arguably the most common name in the English language) have fallen off the list? I have no answer for that, except that names go through fads and phases. This year we have Mason, Liam, Ethan, Noah, and Jacob as the top five, none of which were even on the list in 1977.

Going back to the year I was born, 1947, James, Robert, John, William were the top four, joined by number 5, Richard. Richard had dropped to number 20 in 1977, and is off the top 40 list for 2012.

David may have dropped off the list, but he's still my number one son!

Sally (also not on the top 40 for 2012...or 1977 or even 1947) and I wonder sometimes what happens to names. The girl names we grew up with were Linda, Patricia, Barbara, Sandra, Carol, Nancy...if you look down the list of top 100 names for 1947 the names are virtually all gone from today's lists. When our generation had our children our kids got the popular names of that era, and when they started having their own babies they went to their own popular names list.

There isn't one girl's name on the 2012 top 40 list except for Elizabeth that appears on the top 100 from 1947. Linda was the most popular girl name for the decade of the 1940s, having replaced Mary, which had ruled unchallenged as most popular girl's name for at least the first forty years of the century.

In 1977, when we Baby Boomers were still in our late twenties and early thirties and still having children, names we chose for girls at that time were names like Jennifer, Melissa, Amy, Jessica and Heather. Elizabeth, bless her, is in the top 20 of that list, coming in at number 13. It's the only girl's name to be on all three of my lists.

Flashing forward from the year of my son's birth to the birth years of his girls, 2006 and 2007, he named his older daughter Isabella, which hadn't appeared on a list of the top 1,000 girl's names before it came back in popularity, and has hovered at or near number one ever since. His younger girl, Gabriela, has missed the cut for top 40 in 2012.

David said he got the name from actress Isabella Rossellini, but there's really no telling why a name grows legs and takes off. In the case of Isabella some have speculated it's because of the Twilight series of books, where Isabella is the name of the main character.

I miss those names I grew up with. I miss Steve, Mike, Bill, Rick, Kenny or Scott. Who'd have ever thought that Steve would drop off the list of popular boy names? Or Bill? Incredible. I miss names like Patty, Peggy, Margie, Linda, Kathy...and have pleasant associations with all those names. Yes, I understand it's because of my familiarity with them, having grown up with them.

There is a tendency—wrong-headed, I think—to use variant spellings on names to make a child unique. Spelling a familiar name differently may not work in the way the parent intended, especially if the person having that name goes through life having to spell it for everyone. Naming your child something unusual or difficult to pronounce may cause a hiring manager to put their résumé to the side. It's sad but true that prejudice, even prejudice caused by nothing more than a name, may affect a child's future.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Happy birthday, Pete Townshend

Pete Townshend is 67 today.

Two classic songs performed live with the original members of The Who, 1974:

Happy birthday, Pete!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Gloria Steinem's 1961 photo-funnies

Famous writer and feminist, Gloria Steinem, wrote this satiric photo-funny (or "fumetti") for Harvey Kurtzman's Help! magazine, issue number 12, in 1961. At the time she was an editorial assistant at the magazine. Like most of Kurtzman's creations, Help! wasn't around long (twenty-six issues over five years), but amongst fans of his is a highly desirable collectible. Steinem wasn't around that long, either, only lasting a short time on staff. She had a talent for satire and wrote for the early '60s television show That Was the Week That Was. In 1972 she co-founded Ms magazine.

"Fumetti," (plural, the singular is "fumetto") as they called their photo-funnies at Help!, is named after Italian comics. The word fumetto means "little puffs of smoke," a reference to the speech balloons. In American usage it refers only to comics made from photographs, but in the Italian it means all comics. In this particular strip, a funny and contemporary look at the beat culture and its relation to police, Roger Price stars as "Peerless Fosdick." Price, a humorist and writer who created the popular Mad-Libs and Droodles series' books, was an admirer of Kurtzman and Kurtzman's work on Mad.

Kurtzman and Price are deceased, but Steinem is still working and writing at age 78.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

...and The Band played on

The Band. Just writing their name conjures up images from years ago, the pictures in my mind when I heard songs for the first time, "The Weight," and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."

In this article, published originally in the August 8, 1970 issue of Look magazine, Rick Danko says he wrote "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" for Levon Helm, because Levon felt so strongly about the subject matter. I've heard a lot of versions of this song, but this version he did in the documentary, The Last Waltz, is one of my favorites.

The story of Robbie Robertson being forced to go on stage with a 103º temperature and stomach cramps because their manager wouldn't let them cancel the show, is part of the price an artist pays for stardom.

Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm are now deceased.


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin

 I approached the movie, The Adventures of Tintin, with a lot of interest. I've read the Tintin books, translated into English. I first encountered Tintin when I found a copy of the Golden Press edition of Explorers On the Moon on a bookstore remainder table in 1969, right after the Apollo 11 moon landing. I find the books fun, with good stories and clear line art that has a lot of appeal to me. Over the years I bought all that became available. The fact that Tintin originated in Belgium and had a history going back to the 1920s I didn't know until later. Apparently Steven Spielberg also became a fan at some point. He's been planning a Tintin movie since the 1980s.

The movie, despite the English accents (and Scottish burr for Captain Haddock) is set in Belgium. According to Cinefex magazine, the decision was made to place The Adventures Of Tintin in 1949. Careful attention was paid to the period and its look, but there is also some artistic license used. Tintin's sports car, a TR3, is an anachronism, but done with full knowledge that it's anachronistic. It just felt like the right car for Tintin.

The character of Tintin is played by Jeremy Bell, and Haddock by Andy Serkis. Serkis is making a career out of being an animated character, also portraying Gollum and King Kong. Snowy, Tintin's dog, is played in part by a wire frame, a stuffed dog and the animator's skill. Snowy is based in part on living terriers, but unlike the humans, remains a cartoon.

Motion capture animation is improving considerably. Look at films made just a few years ago and you can see how much better the technology has become. One of the problems with motion capture was with the eyes, but unlike the flat look of older films, in The Adventures of Tintin the eyes are totally alive.

I was also fascinated in the Cinefex article to read about problems with Tintin's hair. A program called Barbershop was used to create realistic looking hair, but work on Tintin's actual hairstyle was a complicated business. Anyone familiar with the cartoon Tintin knows he's shown with a tuft of hair in front, and except for some ginger color, no real indication of a style. What looks simple in an animated movie usually takes a lot of forethought. The viewer takes it for granted but it is a triumph of the animator's art.

There are small touches that are inside jokes for the knowledgeable. The newspaper Tintin is holding in this frame while talking with clownish detectives Thompson and Thomson is named after the Belgian magazine that first published Tintin cartoon strip serials.

The movie is based in part on three of the books, The Crab With the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn, and Red Rackham's Treasure. But the Tintin books have a lot of exposition, people talking and explaining the story. The movie, catering to today's short attention spans and expectation of adrenaline-driven visuals, is full of wild action, even slapstick. I got lost in the Cinefex article trying to understand the technology and cameras used to create those visuals, but understand they were first used on James Cameron's Avatar, a benchmark in motion capture. A difference in the two films is that Avatar mixed the animation in with live actors, and The Adventures of Tintin is wholly animated. Before reading the article I had guessed the film was a mixture of both live backgrounds and animation, especially in the scenes set on the water, but once again, it's all animation, so skillfully done it looks real.

Filmmakers face fan expectations when recreating a world familiar to readers of a certain literary character or franchise, such as the Tintin series. I understand what they had to do to make a movie look more realistic, and that's remove the cartoon from the characters while still exaggerating them, with unusual noses, for instance. Fans of Tintin love the look of the artwork. The books are designed for young readers, after all. The movie is designed to appeal to a broad range of viewers, most of whom, I'd guess, had never seen the Tintin books.

The filmmakers had to come to some accommodation between the needs of the movie and the needs of the fans, and for me at least they meet in the middle. My wife and I loved the action sequences, more so for the action than the technical facts of the animation. Once I got used to seeing the cartoon characters in a more human form I let myself go and joined in the story. I'm not dogmatic about it, and I was especially happy that early on the filmmakers decided they weren't going to do what was done with the movie version of Dick Tracy, use live actors with appliances stuck to their faces.

According to reviews I've read, some fans of the original can't accept this movie version, but I think it succeeded in bridging the gap between a cartoon and reality by using modern techniques of motion capture animation at its most amazing. I'll probably watch The Adventures of Tintin again to look for things I missed the first time around.

Copyright © 2012 The New Yorker