Sunday, August 25, 2013

What Is Art? - A Milt Gross Count Screwloose From 1931 Frames The Question

When you ask yourself questions like "what is art," you are probably setting out on the path that leads to the fruitcake factory. Enuff books and articles have been published on this subject to fill several buildings -- and it would appear that we humans are no closer to an answer we can all agree on than we are to finding a use for screen doors on submarines.

Are comics art? I think so -- some comics, at least. The funny thing is that many comics creators (and I'm talking sequential narratives, here) appear to have been aware that their fellow humans regarded their hard work as innately inferior to the stuff that wound up on the walls in galleries. For many -- even today -- reading comics isn't actually reading -- and comics are associated with illiteracy and simple-mindedness. When someone wants to say something is shallow, they say it's "a comic book treatment." These commentators are only betraying their own ignorance -- for comics are an art form that combines words and image into a highly effective language that may be easy to grasp, but is anything but simple to create.

Many comics creators over the decades have used society's disapproval as grist for their mill. Here's a Rube Goldberg cartoon, circa 1915, in which he suggests the best way to view the new abstract and surreal art appearing in galleries and museums.

Rube Goldberg on modern art - circa 1915
(Photograph of original art)

Milt Gross -- who in many ways is the direct artistic and screwball descendant of Goldberg -- also made sport of the idea of art many times. In a 1931 Count Screwloose Sunday page, Milt Gross dissects for us the mechanics behind the social value of art. In this case, a bum who attempts to get a drink in a bar by reciting a poem receives the comic blow of a pool table on the head. When the same bearded bohemian beggar appears at a society ball clad in his hospital sheet, the wealthy party-goers celebrate his "art." The entire absurd -- but all too true -- situation is witnessed by Count Screwloose:

Count Screwloose by Milt Gross - February 22, 1931
The poem the beggar-poet recites is a very popular poem written in the 1830s entitled Abou Ben Adhem. The author, (James Henry) Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) was an English poet, essayist, and critic -- and a contemporary of Shelly's. His poem -- a depiction of a Muslim written by a Christian that expresses, in the opinions of some, basic Jewish values was a popular hit. Here's the entire text:

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:—
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
"What writest thou?"—The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, "The names of those who love the Lord."
"And is mine one?" said Abou. "Nay, not so,"
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still; and said, "I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men."

The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blest,
And lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest.

Gross' inclusion of Hunt's poem, a chestnut by the 1930s, carries an ironic comment on the actions of his characters in the strip -- neither the pool hall ruffians not the society folks actually show any love at all for the beggar himself. Of course, as Sigmund Freud observed, nothing is less funny than analyses of jokes -- so I'll stop here and encourage my readers to simply dig those great, loose drawings in the strip above.

As to the issue of cartoons, art, and such -- I offer this from the great cartoonist Art Young (1866-1943):

"Some day painting will be glorified cartooning... The painter-cartoonist of the future will be an apostle of big ideas... That he will be an artist of pigment and form is, of course, important; but to be a thinking man of vision, helpfulness and courage, will be more important." (from On My Way by Art Young, 1928)

Artfully Yours,
Screwball Paul

Thursday, August 15, 2013

"I Seen Yo' Ad In Dep Paper" - SAM and His Laugh (1905-06): Joyously Subversive

One of my favorite screwball artists is James "Jimmy" Swinnerton (1875-1974). 

Born in Eureka, California. In 1892, Swinnerton began his career as a staff cartoonist for Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner, where he produced a popular weekly cartoon, The Little Bears (1893-1897). He moved to New York in 1896 to work for Hearst’s Journal-American, where he created Mount Ararat (1901-1904), Mister Jack (1903-1906), and his longest-running strip, Little Jimmy (1904-1958). In 1906,
James Swinnerton contemplates
his self-portrait in 1930
Swinnerton was diagnosed with a fatal case of tuberculosis. His friend and publisher, William Randolph Hearst, sent him to Colton, California, where he recovered and fell in love with the American desert. He became a noted landscape painter and died in Palm Springs, at the age of 98.

The nuttiest of Swinnerton’s early comics is Sam and His Laugh (1905-1906) an infectious series featuring a job-seeking black man who gleefully laughs at the hypocrisy and pomp of society.  While Sam is drawn in the typical black man stereotype common in early 20th century pop culture, it’s clear that Swinnerton sides with him as an instinctive hero of disruption who tears down the walls of social order with a bellylaugh – exactly what humor comics are all about.  

What follows are a few examples of this remarkable strip which art spiegelman has observed works like a laughing record-- 78s  popular in the early 20th century that contained nothing but the sound of someone laughing. It was impossible not to listen to these records without succumbing to laughter. Similarly, it is well nigh impossible to read Swinnerton's SAM comics without smiling.

In this strip, Sam starts out with his customary statement: "I seen yo' ad in dep paper." He finds much joy and amusement in the unintentional truism embedded in a stuffy church hymn.

SAM by Jimmy Swinnerton - 1905
(from the collection of Paul Tumey)

Sam tries his hand as a waiter. Maybe if he was in a diner, he could keep a straight face, but the pretension of the fancy French menu does him in...

The above comic came from the one and only book collection of Sam strips, a hardcover, 48-page color book published in 1906 by the Hearst outfit (one of several collections they published of their popular comics):

Here is the waiter SAM strip from above, as it was published in the newspaper on March 12, 1905:
Sam  by James Swinnerton - March 12, 1905
In this next strip, Sam loses it over a mis-matched couple's adoration, overheard on a subway train. The man in this strip looks a lot like a Milt Gross character:

SAM by Swinnerton - May 21, 1905

In another train strip, Swinnerton pulls out all the stops and shows us Sam's wife and children -- all of whom share his keen sense of absurdity:

SAM by Swinnerton - November 19, 1905
(from the collection of Paul Tumey)
Though forgotten today, Sam was popular in his time. He gloriously adorned the cover of a 1905 sheet music folio:

You can listen to a 1905 recording of this remarkable song, "There's A Dark man Coming With A Bundle" here:

I'll leave you with one last SAM, which features a portrait of Swinnerton's colleague, cartoonist Rudolph Dirks, who created the hit comic "The Katzenjammer Kids." Note in the last panel that Dirks signed the strip with Swinnerton -- indicating this strip was a "jam."

I am pleased to note that the astounding new book, Society Is Nix: Gleeful Anarchy at the Dawn of the American Comic Strip 1895-1915 includes a SAM strip (the very first one!), as well as several other incredible color comics pages by Swinnerton (including more jam pages!). These are all printed in their HUGE original size. You can learn more about this book, which includes over 150 stunning comics, great essays (I wrote one), and lots more here.

Paul Tumey