Book Reviews: Cartoon County by Cullen Murphy


Author: Cullen Murphy
Title: Cartoon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe
Publication Info: New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.
Previously Read By the Same Author: Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage (with William Rathje)
Summary/Review:

Cartoon County is a memoir/biography/history by Cullen Murphy of the comic strip cartoonists and illustrators who lived and worked in Fairfield County, Connecticut in the post-World War II era. The book focuses on his father, John Cullen Murphy, who illustrated the comic strip Big Ben Bolt and took over Prince Valiant from its creator Hal Foster in the 1970s.

I feel destined to read this book, primarily because I grew up loving newspaper comics and fascinated by their history (although these days I exclusively read the comics’ mockery blog, Comics Curmudgeon). I also grew up in Fairfield County myself, and as a kid was proud that Beetle Bailey cartoonist Mort Walker lived there. My father took us to the Museum of Cartoon Art in a castle-like house that Walker opened in nearby Port Chester, NY.  The author of this book was even of the most famous alumni of my high school – along with Broadway actor David Carroll, baseball player Tim Teufel, and publicist Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy – and a customized panel of Prince Valiant graced our school’s trophy case.

Murphy writes about growing up in a community of comics illustrators of the “Connecticut School” where his father and the other fathers he knew did not join the crowds of men in gray flannel suit taking the commuter rail to New York City.  Many of these men (and for the most part, the comics was a man’s trade) came of age during World War II where they used their artistic talents in their military service.  After the war, Connecticut was an affordable place where they could get homes with studio space near the publishing houses of New York (it’s alarming to think that Fairfield County was ever affordable!). These cartoonists include Mort Walker, Jerry Dumas, Stan Drake, Dik Browne, Ernie Bushmiller, Milton Caniff, and Crockett Johnson, among many others.  The School included daily comic strip cartoonists, New Yorker cartoonists, editorial cartoonists, and magazine illustrators.

The book covers a lot of territory.  First, it’s a personal memoir of Murphy’s father, who had the practice of using a Polaroid camera to photograph himself (and any family members or friends in the vicinity) in various poses to use as models for his illustrations. Starting in the 1970s, Murphy would work with his father as the writer of Prince Valiant.

Second, it’s a broader history of the Connecticut School cartoonists who were his father’s friends and colleagues. Murphy details their experiences in WWII, settling in Connecticut after the war, and the interplay between their comics.  Events like Look Day at the New Yorker (the one day each week when cartoonists gathered in New York to show their gags to the magazine’s editors) and National Cartoonists Society brought together cartoonists for business with a heavy side of socialization. The men came together for parties and games of golf (which seems to be the origin of the all-too-many golf gags in newspaper comics) as well.

Finally, the book is a tribute to newspaper comics as a unique American art form of the 20th century.  Murphy has some interesting observations on the cartoonists.  While his father was a strong Republican, most of the cartoonists were politically liberal and lived lives of noncomformity for their time. Sentaro Este Kefauver conducted a congressional investigation of the comics industry in which Pogo creator Walt Kelly declared that being a “screwball” was a badge of honor for cartoonists. The comics were innovative for time, and I learned about a short-lived strip of the 1960s called Sam’s Strip (predecessor to Sam & Silo), which Jerry Dumas created as post-modern, metatextual experiment that left comics readers scratching their heads. And yet newspaper comics on the whole tended to be conservative, and as the generation of cartoonists died (many passing on the legacy strips to their children and grandchildren) and newspapers themselves went into decline, comics failed to adapt to the new reality. Murphy mourns the past but still sees hope in the underappreciated work of graphic novels.

This books is richly illustrated with comics panels, original works of art, and photographs.  It’s a great way to dip one’s toe into a time and place when kids gleefully anticipated the Sunday papers wrapped in the full-color comics section.  It tells the story of the men who brought this joy and some of the behind the scenes secrets of their craft.

Recommended books:

  • Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman by Patrick McDonnell
  • Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist by Chuck Jones
  • The Mad World of William M. Gaines by Frank Jacobs

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Second Amendment: A Biography by Michael Waldman


Author: Michael Waldman
TitleThe Second Amendment: A Biography
Narrator: John Glouchevitch
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

The Second Amendment: A Biography is a thorough history of “the right to bear arms” in America from colonial period to today.  Bearing arms has always been seen necessary for hunting and self-defense, but in Colonial America the greatest purpose of gun ownership was the duty of serving in a citizen militia for mutual defense.  The idea of militias was highly regarded in the culture of the time since its membership included the most prominent members of the community whereas the regular army drew from the dregs of society. There was a fear of standing armies being a temptation for tyrannical rulers, so the civilian militia was seen as the ideal.

When the Constitution was sent to the states to be ratified, many opponents complained that it did not include a bill of rights and submitted over 100 suggestions for inclusion in a list of rights.  The Framers of the Constitution for the most part didn’t consider a Bill of Rights necessary since they were already encoded in most state constitutions, and by the time the first Congress met the push for a Bill of Rights had faded away.  Ironically, James Madison was among the leaders who didn’t see a necessity for a federal Bill of Rights, but as his constituents were particularly adamant about the issue, he took it upon himself to whittle down and combine the many suggestions into the Bill of Rights we know today.

Waldman takes the time to discuss how this process of revision, combinations, and debate lead to the awkwardly worded Second Amendment that we know today.  He also cites records of the drafting to show that the concerns underlying the Second Amendment were related to individual gun ownership and self-defense as many activists insist today. Waldman examines the quotes the Second Amendment activists use from leaders like Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry and shows that they are used out of context or are irrelevant to the Second Amendment.

The idea and practice of the militia evolved over time with the Civil War prompting a major growth in a federal military.  By World War I, the United States had the standing army many early Americans feared, and militias had all but evaporated.  Even within these changing times, courts still interpreted the Second Amendment as a communal rather than individual right. When the Franklin Roosevelt administration introduced bans on machine guns and sawed-off shotguns, event the president of the National Rifle Association wrote in support of sensible gun regulations.

The great societal upheavals of the 1960s – especially expanded civil rights for Black Americans and urban riots – lead to a backlash among conservative white people who began emphasizing the right to firearms for individual defense. At a NRA convention in Cincinnati in 1977, the more conservative members revolted against leadership and moved the organization to be the activist gun rights lobbying organization we’re familiar with today.

At the same time, judicial appointees from the Nixon and Reagan (and later the Bushes) made the courts more conservative in their interpretations of the Second Amendment.  Waldman focuses particularly on Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and his idea of following the original intent of the Framers. Waldman demonstrates that original intent is actually a reactionary and activist position. Over Scalia’s long career on the Supreme Court, he went to being an outlier on the idea of Constitutional originalism to being in a judiciary where such interpretations were widespread.  Which leads to the landmark case of District of Columbia v. Heller where the Supreme Court affirmed for the first time that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms.

Waldman’s book is very detailed and provides a lot of interesting context for a thorny topic.  Regardless of where you stand on the issue, I expect this book will show you that there are a lot of things about the Second Amendment that are not what you thought.  This is a good book to read as we continue to grapple with the issues that come at the conflict of individual rights and communal responsibilities.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

TV Review: The Imagineering Story (2019)


Title: The Imagineering Story
Release Date: 2019
Writer: Mark Catalena
Director: Leslie Iwerks
Production Company:  ABC Studios | Iwerks & Co.
Summary/Review:

This documentary focuses on the history of the people behind the Walt Disney theme parks.  Walt Disney Imagineering – originally WED Enterprises – was founded in 1952 as Walt Disney’s engineering division tasked with designing Disneyland.  This is an in-house production, so naturally there’s a promotional element to the series that toots Disney’s own horn.  But I am impressed that the show does acknowledge mistakes and setbacks in Imagineering history.

The director, Leslie Iwerks, is a third generation Disney employee.  Her grandfather Ub Iwerks worked with Walt in the early days and co-created Mickey Mouse while her father Don Iwerks was a technician and executive from the 1950s to 1980s.  Highlights of the series include interviews with prominent figures – both archival and for the show – such as Bob Gurr, Herb Ryman, X Atencio, Harriet Burns, Harper Goff, Marty Sklar, David Snyder, Blaine Gibson, Tom K. Morris, Kevin Rafferty, Peggie Fariss, Glenn Barker, and Katie Olson, Tony Baxter, Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, Eddie Sotto, Tim Delaney, Joe Rohde, Ali Rubenstein, and Kevin Rafferty.  Most of those names are men, but the series makes an admirable effort to acknowledge the role of women in Imagineering.  A powerful moment comes in an interview with Imagineer Kim Irvine when she talks about her mother Leota Toombs, an Imagineering designer who became famous as the model for Madame Leota in the Haunted Mansion.  Irvine talks about still being able to hear her mother’s voice every time she visits the attraction.

I felt that there was a lot of innovation and creativity in the early days of WED Enterprises that the years covered in the first two episodes could easily have been stretched out into three (or more) episodes.  That being said, the early Imagineers have appeared in many other “behind the scenes” programs about Disney Parks, so it is good that the newer generations are getting a lot of attention in this series.

Dan Heaton at the Tomorrow Society website has written comprehensive summaries and reviews of each episode that I’ve linked below and I recommended reading them should you be more interested in the topic.  Here are my short summaries of each episode:

  1. The Happiest Place on Earth” – (1952-1966) The creation and expansion of Disneyland during Walt Disney’s lifetime and Imagineering’s work at the 1964 World’s Fair.
  2. What Would Walt Do?” – (1967-1983) After Walt’s death, Roy Disney oversees the opening of the Walt Disney World resort in Florida, and Imagineers create EPCOT as a theme park rather than a city. Simultaneous with EPCOT, the first international park is open in Tokyo. The success of these big projects is overshadowed by the lack of future plans and mass layoffs.
  3. The Midas Touch” – (1984-1994) Michael Eisner and Frank Wells takeover as leaders of Disney and shake up the parks with attractions tied to hipper franchises unrelated to Disney, and open the Disney-MGM Studios.  The episode ends with the initial financial failure of Euro Disneyland and Well’s death in a helicopter crash.
  4. Hit or Miss” – (1995-2004) The Disney company attempts unprecedented expansion but the failure of Euro Disneyland also leads to cost-cutting and a decline in quality.  Successes include the Disney Cruise Line, Animal Kingdom, and Tokyo DisneySea, while Disney’s California, Walt Disney Studios Park and Hong Kong Disneyland are serious disappointments.
  5. A Carousel of Progress” – (2004-2016) Bob Iger takes over leadership of Disney.  Projects include rebuilding California Adventure with a Cars Land expansion, and improving the undersized parks in Paris and Hong Kong.  Imagineers also provide controversial overlays to fan favorites like Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, and it’s a small world.
  6. “To Infinity and Beyond” -Building a new, culturally-appropriate Magic Kingdom in Shanghai takes up the first half of this episode.  The rest focuses on new, fully-immersive experiences in the American parks: Mission Breakout, Pandora, and Galaxy’s Edge.

46


46 years ago yesterday, President Richard Nixon delivered what became known as his “I am not a crook” speech.  This went down as a key moment in the downfall of his presidency, and Nixon would resign less than 9 months later.

There are a couple of things that fascinates me about this historical event.  One, it took place at Walt Disney World, specifically the Contemporary Resort where the monorail passes through, which strikes me as a strange place for a president to deny his crimes.  Two, on a more personal level, I was born the next day so the headlines of the newspapers on the day I was born were all about the “I am not a crook” speech.

Here’s a couple of examples from New York Newsday and the New York Times:

 

After looking back to a highly-relevant past, I also look towards the future.  I have high hopes for 46 in more ways than one.

As always, happy birthday to my November 18th fam: Mickey Mouse, Steven Moffat, David Ortiz, and Chloë Sevigny!

Related Posts:

Podcasts of the Week Ending November 16


99% Invisible :: Ubiquitous Icons

The story behind three symbols that have become mainstays: the Peace Symbol, the Smiley Face, and the Power Icon on electronic devices.  Note: Forrest Gump was not involved.

Best of the Left :: Why We Cannot Have Nice Things (How Racism Hurts Everyone, Including White People)

This collection of stories from progressive news outlets takes “a look at some of the ways that conservative policies, willed into existence almost exclusively by white people, measurably hurt people and shorten life expectancies, including those who most fervently support the self-destructive policies.”

Throughline :: The Siege of Mecca

The purpose of Throughline is to trace the history that shapes current events, but The Siege of Mecca of November 20, 1979 is something I’d never heard about before at all, and think it’s an important event to have knowledge of.

Radio Boston :: 60 Years Ago, A Folk Revival Began At Passim In Cambridge

Passim, the tiny folk club in Cambridge’s Harvard Square, was an important place for me in my 20s & 30s when I attended a lot of shows and even volunteered there quite a bit.  There’s a lot of great history in this interview.


Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Podcasts of the Week Ending November 9


Twenty Thousand Hertz  :: Baby Shark

The long history of the ubiquitous children’s song that became an unexpected hit this year.

Lost at the Smithsonian :: Archie Bunker’s Chair

Norman Lear’s groundbreaking show All in the Family depicted the real divisions within American family.  The famed overstuffed armchair remains on display at the Smithsonian as recognition of the show’s place in history. By the way, I’ve never before noticed how much Donald Trump’s vocal intonations resemble Archie Bunker’s.

Throughline :: No Friends But the Mountains

A history of the Kurds, a people without a nation.

Wedway Radio :: The Evolution of Disney Lands

Breaking down how Disney parks have created lands that evolved from a loose collection of attractions around a theme to fully immersive experiences.


Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Book Review: Fault Lines by Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer


Author: Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer
Title: Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974
Publication Info: New York : W.W. Norton & Company, [2019]
Summary/Review:

I was born near the end of 1973, so this book is essentially the history of America during my lifetime.  The authors are professors at Princeton University who built the book out of course on recent American history.  I’m not familiar with Zelizer, but Kruse has established himself as a leading public historian by sharing facts and debunking myths on Twitter. The central thesis is that the polarized politics of the United States began in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal (which disillusioned Americans faith in government, something that is ironically exploited by Nixon’s own party) as well as the revolutions of civil rights, gender, and sexuality and their conservative counter-revolutions.

The book is a thorough history of the past 45 years, and I had a lot of “oh yeah, I remember that!” moments.  I have two criticisms of the book in general. One, is that it reads like a laundry list of events with very little analysis.  Two, it is a top-down approach focusing on the actions of Presidents and Congresses as opposed to the greater societal actions.  I understand it would be a much thicker book if these things were included, but the instances in the book that offer analysis and history of the people are much richer than the book overall.

That being said, this is an excellent summary of how we got to where we are in the United States.  Every living American has lived at least partly in the period of time covered here and would benefit from reading about our recent history.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson


Author: Steven Johnson
Title: The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–And How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World
Narrator: Alan Sklar
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info: [United States] : Tantor Media, Inc., 2006
Summary/Review:

This book explores the ideas of urbanism, epidemiology, and social networks through the lens of the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak in the Soho district of London.  Dr. John Snow, with the help of Reverend Henry Whitehead, created a map of where people infected with cholera lived and drew their water to trace the infection to a water pump on Broad Street.  That Snow and Whitehead knew the neighborhood and its people well proved advantageous in creating the connections needed to document the spread of disease. Snow also had to fight an uphill battle against the prevailing scientific belief that diseases like cholera were spread through the air, known as the miasma theory.

Johnson details how the evolutionary response to putrefaction and vile odors made such beliefs plausible, but practices such as “cleaning up” the city by deliberately washing waste into the water inadvertently caused infections to increase.  Johnson also depicts the urban environment as a unique battleground for humans and microorganisms.  All in all this is a fascinating account of an historic account, with broader implications for how we live today and into the future.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Camille Claudel (1988)


Title: Camille Claudel
Release Date: December 7, 1988
Director: Bruno Nuytten
Production Company:  Gaumont
Summary/Review:

This French biopic tells the story of Camille Claudel, an innovative sculptor active from the 1880s to early 1900s.  In her lifetime, her art was overshadowed by her romance with Auguste Rodin. The film stars the stunning Isabelle Adjani as Claudel, a young woman with a passion for art that infuriates her mother.  Yet, her father dotes on her, and her brother Paul (Laurent Grévill), who would gain fame as a poet and diplomat, also offers her support.

Gérard Depardieu, at the peak of imperial period as France’s most celebrated actor, plays Rodin. Appropriately, Depardieu plays Rodin as the celebrity, overseeing large-scale commissions like “The Gates of Hell” with teams of apprentices working in factory-like settings.  It’s implied that Rodin has a creative block that prevents him from making his own work and finds inspiration in Claudel. Although their romance is depicted as a consensual romance, the film strongly indicates that women artists were expected to make themselves available for sex if they wished to get ahead.

Eventually, Claudel sours on Rodin, because she feels she’s not getting enough credit for her contributions, and because he refuses to break off his long-time relationship with Rose Beuret for a a monogamous relationship with her.  Claudel attempts to make her own way as an artist, but struggles against discrimination against women and abandonment by patrons and family.  Eventually she ends up living in a derelict workshop inhabited by multiple cats, paranoid that Rodin is orchestrating her demise.  The film concludes as she’s determined to be mentally ill and Paul has her committed to a psychiatric hospital where she will live out her life.

I don’t know enough about Camille Claudel’s life to judge the historical accuracy of this movie, but I sense that it is a melodramatic interpretation of a more complex story.  Nevertheless, the acting of Adjani and Depardieu and others makes it an excellent character study.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Never Caught by Erica Armstrong Dunbar


Author: Erica Armstrong Dunbar
Title: Never caught : the Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge
Narrator: Robin Miles
Publication Info: [New York] : Simon & Schuster Audio, [2017]
Summary/Review:

Ona Judge was a woman born into slavery around 1773 at Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia.  Mount Vernon is, of course, famous as the home of George Washington, soon to be commander of the Continental Army and later the first President of the United States.  Ona would become lady’s maid to Martha’s Washington in her mid-teens, and in that role would travel with the Washington to the new United States’ capital in New York City, and then to Philadelphia when the capital shifted there in 1790.

Living in Philadelphia provided Judge with new opportunities, including free time while Mrs. Washington was entertaining, and even the opportunity to attend the theatre.  More importantly she became acquainted with Philadelphia’s growing free Black community and abolitionists. Judge’s legal status was in question due to Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act which provided that slaves brought into the state by new residents from out of state would be eligible for emancipation after six months.  It was an open question of whether this law applied to the President, but nevertheless, the Washingtons arranged to rotate their slave staff back to Mount Vernon every six months.

In 1796, Washington announced he would not run for reelection and Martha Washington informed judge she would be given as a wedding gift to her granddaughter Elizabeth Parke Custis Law.  Faced an uncertain future Judge made the decision to run away.  Abolitionists put Judge on a ship to Portsmouth, NH where she attempted to make a new life for herself as a free person.  Washington had a local customs officer, and later his nephew, attempt to capture Judge but in both cases the growing abolition sentiment meant that she couldn’t be captured without drawing unwanted publicity to Washington.

Washington freed many of his slaves in his will when he died in 1799.  Judge, however, was legally considered still a slave of Martha Washington, and even after Martha’s death in 1802, Judge’s ownership status reverted to the Custis estate.  Judge lived until 1848, enjoying her freedom, but always a fugitive.  Despite freedom, her life was still full of struggle.  She married a free black sailor, Jack Staines, in 1797, but he died in 1803, and Ona Judge Staines would also outlive her three children.

Ona Judge Staines’ story is drawn from interviews she gave to abolitionist newspapers in the 1840s.  But as with many stories of enslaved African Americans, Dunbar has to piece together the history from sources of the white masters, such as the papers of the Washingtons and runaway slave ads.  It’s a compelling narrative, and one that focuses on the often overlooked nature of 18th-century slavery (compared with the 19th-slavery), the emergence of abolitionism, and popular conception of someone like Washington who represents liberty to so many Americans, but held Ona Judge and many others in perpetual bondage.

Recommended books:

  • Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African America, 1650-1800.
    by Leland Ferguson
  • The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia by Mechal Sobel
  • North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 by Leon F. Litwack
  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
  • Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston

Rating: ***1/2