5/2/15

Review: Robert Moses - The Master Builder of New York City by Christin and Balez

I recently read Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City written by Pierre Christin with art by Olivier Balez.

The story is how Moses, the son of a Jewish-German family of the Haute-Bourgeoisie (money) who was always an outcast in the WASP Ivy-league schools, struggled to make something that mattered. He meets Mrs. Belle Moskowitz, a social activist, who introduces him to Alfred E Smith, governor of New York state.  Moses brings his zeal for building the future to the administration, and learns from Moskowitz how to lobby and politic to get the projects accomplished.

Through his vision, he builds public beaches, parks, swimming pools and airports for New York City, and the surrounding areas.  Part of his vision, however, includes demolishing the tenements of NYC and replacing them with modern apartment housing. He also plans wide highways and freeways to connect all these modern projects. This vision for growth, replacing the old with a newer better version sets up a conflict that is ultimately his downfall.

The book does an excellent job of setting the tone and history for the different eras. Moses's career ran from the 30s to the 60s, and the art is consistent, but clearly represents the styles of each time.  During his lifetime Moses met and worked with many famous men. His public works took place during five mayors of New York, six state governors, and seven presidents, all represented in the book. There's even an interesting scene with Guy Lombardo, apparently a close friend of Moses.

The one caveat is there's not enough dialogue. I'd like to see more scenes set at a personal level. Still, this may have been a choice by Christin, since Moses seemed to work on a grand scale.

The book's final section casts an interesting light on Moses' accomplishments.  His plans to bulldoze SoHo and Washington Square and replace it with a Lower Manhattan Expressway seems shocking in hindsight, but city administrators found it acceptable. It was only due to grassroots opposition, spearheaded by activist Jane Jacobs, that the project was cancelled.  Moses, the original activist visionary, was blocked by a new era's vision for livable cities.

Bottom line: great art, interesting and well-structure biography on the man known as the "master builder" of mid-20th century New York City and surroundings.

3/21/15

A surprise in the letters from Batman #235

Whenever I'm reading old comics I check the Letters to the Editor to see if there's someone I'd recognize. Surprise, in Batman #235 (1972) there are two future comics creators: Bob Rozakis (misspelled in the comic) started working for DC in 1975 as the Answer Man, and Dave Sims began Cerebus in 1977.



3/16/15

Mary Jane and Sniffles in Noteville

Here's my favorite "Mary Jane and Sniffles" story, the one that I started to mention at dinner.  Mary Jane is listening to the radio, but her mother reminds her that it's nap time.  When the girl shuts off the radio, the notes rebel and run away.  As Sniffles reminds here "We've got to get those notes back in your radio or it won't ever play music again."  They discover Noteville, where Mary Jane is tried and sentenced for interrupting the music. It seems like a very odd moral to me.

This story originally ran in Four Color #474 "Mary Jane and Sniffles," but the copy I have is from a giveaway from the Bob White Theatre in Portland, Oregon.  Here's the cover:

Here's the full story. Click on a page to see the larger image.









Is the Comic "Mary Jane & Sniffles" About Drugs?

The other day at dinner I was reminded of a Mary Jane and Sniffles story and started to talk about it when my wife interrupted:

"Mary Jane and Sniffles? That's so obviously marijuana and cocaine. C'mon, it's about drugs, isn't it?"

Well, that's a good question.

If you don't remember, "Mary Jane and Sniffles" stories were found in Looney Toons and Merrie Melodies comics of the 40's and 50's.  Mary Jane is a human girl who has a mouse friend named Sniffles.  When Sniffles wanted to go on an adventure he'd ask Mary Jane to accompany him, and she would make herself small. They would then travel into the miniature world of the forest animals and bugs, or a story book, or some fantasyland where they could solve a crisis. The adventure usually ended with Mary Jane's mother waking her after the crisis was averted.  Sometimes when Mary Jane woke from her adventure she was dazed as if it were a daydream, but often there was some concrete evidence of the episode.

Mary Jane's exact technique for getting small varied.  Originally she sprinkled herself with magic sand, saying "Magic sand, magic sand, make me small at my command!" or sometimes "Oh, magic sand upon me fall, and make me very, very small!"

In 1949, the words became:
"First I shut my eyes real tight,
and then I wish with all my might,
Magic words of Poof, Poof, Piffles,
Make me just as small as Sniffles!"




The magic was external to Mary Jane, since one time when Mary Jane was already asleep, Sniffles took it upon himself to make her small.
"Oh, magic words of Poof Poof Piffles,
Please grant my wish, for I am Sniffles,
Make Mary Jane as small as me,
So Alphabet Land we both can see."

















OK, thinking about it, I have to admit there could be some covert drug references there. Maybe I'm influenced by Steve Martin's exhortation to "get small!" which obviously came much later.  Or,  was Mr. Martin was unintentionally recalling Mary Jane?

But looking more closely, there are other possible drug references. Magic sand is conceptually cocaine.

Additionally, Sniffles is on record as having a drinking problem. In his debut, the 1939 short Naughty But Mice, Sniffles has a cold and is searching for a remedy. He eventually stumbles upon an alcoholic cold medicine, drinks it, and becomes intoxicated. 


Even in the 50's Sniffles still liked drinking, as seen by his preference for the punch as this party.

The stories seem feature a lot of mushrooms.  For example, on this cover they are having "tea" under a giant mushroom

Consider too, whether the story is real or hallucinated. When Mary Jane returns from being small she's sometimes groggy or confused, like she has been asleep, or daydreaming.  One time Mary Jane and Sniffles battle some graham cracker animals. When she wakes up it seems obviously a daydream.  Another time Mary Jane awakes and we see her mother on one side of the panel, and Sniffles hiding in the other corner, so they must exist in the same reality.







Although the comic was for kids, kids were not writing & drawing the stories. Chuck Jones, famed director of many Bugs Bunny cartoons, created the idea of Sniffles for the Warner Bros. cartoons in 1939.  Sniffles was designed by Charles Thorson, who also designed Bugs Bunny.  Did either of them want to subvert the youth of America with hidden drug messages?

Probably not. Sniffles faded from cartoons, and didn't seem to get popular until he met Mary Jane in the comics in 1941.  So, Sniffles was named before he met Mary Jane, although it could be that someone in the comics decided to pair them up as a joke.

Many of the post-1951 "Mary Jane and Sniffles" stories were drawn by Al Hubbard, but he's not the Al Hubbard known as the Johnny Appleseed of LSD.  Allan Hubbard had a long career as an animator at Disney, artist on Looney Toons, and then later an artist for Walt Disney's Comics & Stories.   Hubbard's style reminds me of Walt Kelly's. Compare the beetles in the Mary Jane story with Kelly's little Weevil child.

Al Hubbard
Walt Kelly



Hubbard gave Mary Jane has a certain je ne sais quoi, almost an adult allure at times. Take for example her "hep" lingo when talking about be-boppers, or the way she posed and talked.



But Hubbard seemed to avoid the drug references.  For example, whether due to his writing, or from complaints, Hubbard dropped the magic sand, leaving just the words, which Mary Jane would pronounce with her fingers crossed.

To discover the real answer, we have to look at who paired up Sniffles with Mary Jane, and that is the editor/writer Chase Craig. Craig was later known for editing "Magnus, Robot Fighter" at Gold Key. When he started working on the Merrie Melodies comics, he added a lot of backup Warner Brothers characters to the comics for filler. His newlywed bride's name was Mary Jane Green, so he used her name as the inspiration for Sniffles's companion Mary Jane.

So, the answer is No. It's not about drugs, it's about a young comics writer and his post-WWII newlywed bride -- a sweet love story after all.

Although... consider a retcon reboot? A story about Mary Jane as an adult, and the troubling memories she has about her childhood...?

3/14/15

Fort Mentality (Part 3)


Since the beginning of the 21st century, with the omnipresent Internet, the virtual world has become much more explored, perhaps to the abandonment of the physical world. So, it’s interesting to see comics today that touch on this theme of a fort, a secret physical place which plays a pivotal role in the psyche of a group of friends. Two examples are Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys and The Bunker written by Joshua Hale Fialkov and illustrated by Joe Infurnari.



20th Century Boys starts in Japan the summer before Expo ’70.  A group of kids, Kenji, Otcho, Yoshitsune and Maruo, build a fort in an abandoned field and call it their secret base. They read manga, ogle porn, and share secrets and aspirations. Otcho draws a logo for their group, and together they create a comic called The Book of Prophecy where in the future Earth is threatened by plagues, bombings and giant robots controlled by an evil mastermind.  Together, with summer ending and high school looming, the kids wonder about the future. This theme is echoed in both their Book of Prophecy, and their thoughts as they visit the World’s Fair Expo '70 and marvel at the exhibits and rides. The future seems to hold so much promise that they agree if the world is ever threatened they will work together to save it.


The story skips forward to 1999, the turn of the new millennium.  Kenji’s dream of becoming a rock musician has died and he works at a convenience store, occasionally playing guitar, but mostly working and taking care of his baby niece Kanna.  The other kids have had various success in life, one is a lawyer, another a scientist, another is missing.  They are brought together when one of the friends ostensibly commits suicide, although Kenji has doubts. The suicide makes them aware of a mysterious cult figure called "Friend" who is using their childhood logo for his organization.  More than that, events that they described in The Book of Prophecy are actually occurring, and the group believes that Friend is one of their former schoolmates.  On New Years Eve, Friend orchestrates an attack on Tokyo spearheaded by a giant robot, and Kenji and his friends are the only ones who can fight him.



The narrative oscillates in time, between 1970, 2000 and 2015. This gives Urasawa an epic canvas to paint his story, exploring Japanese pop culture of the 70's as well as events that formed the now middle-aged men. The 22-volume story is so packed with pop culture references that the publisher includes footnotes at the end of each book. Like Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, the title itself a reference, in this case a T. Rex song. Other mentions include food, wrestling stars, songs, world events, such as the 1969 moon landing, and the kinds of fads that might last for only a couple months, but stick in a kid’s imagination for the rest of his or her life.  I imagine that Urasawa, as a kid, made a fort in a field, much like the kids in his story, and that stuck with him until he could expend it in this epic comic.

The Bunker has a theme similar to 20th Century Boys, but begins on a dark note. Friends Daniel, Natasha, Heidi, Grady and Billy have place that special to them.  On the eve of graduating from college, they return to that spot to bury a time capsule but instead discover an underground bomb shelter, a bunker – something they didn’t know was there. It contains artifacts that appear to be from the future, and letters from their future selves explaining how they will change the world, possibly bringing about the end of civilization.



Unlike Urasawa’s story, The Bunker starts in the present and moves into the future.  Instead of the metaphorical time travel of flashbacks, the story appears to involve actual time travel.  Like 20th Century Boys the story jumps in time, but it’s much more abrupt, sometimes jumping multiple times per page.  Since it’s about the future, there’s not much nostalgia woven into the story. Like Urasawa, Fialkov explores the bonds of friendship, but not by creating a shared past.  Instead he chooses to begin with immediate conflict. The shocking news in the letters begins an argument that results in Natasha, who has been seeing Daniel, to run off and have sex with Grady. Meanwhile Heidi has to confront the reality that she was molested as a child, which puts a damper on her sex life with Daniel.

Since The Bunker is just beginning with volumes 1 and 2, there seem to be many juicy possible routes for Fialkov’s tale. One of the characters says “apparently there’s going to be a zombie apocalypse…” In volume 1 we learn that one of the group of friends becomes the President of the US and another may be the cause of the apocalypse. And anyone who hears the title is probably reminded of Hitler's F├╝hrerbunker.  This is fertile ground, and it seems to be ready to produce a story of power-struggles, world-shaking science fiction, and possibly an allegory for our post-9/11 isolationist country.


Out of the two comics, I prefer 20th Century Boys.  In The BunkerInfurnari's art is deliberately sketchy, as if it’s still in flux.  In 20th Century Boys the fort is the thing that originally brought them together, and the thing that keeps them together.  Their pact, shared history, and their secret origin all orbit around the sun of the fort that the kids built in a grassy field on a hot summer day.  Urusawa seems to use this as both the instigation and the heart of the story. Without the fort, these 20th century boys would be adrift, without a place of their own. Whereas 20th Century mixes anticipation and anxiety of the future, The Bunker seems much more dystopian.  The discovery of the bunker is what starts to drive them apart, and may ultimately lead to an apocalypse.  This fortification built to protect people becomes the path to destruction.  Does this say something about the shift in our culture in only the past decade?  Have events like 9/11 changed the world such that optimism is no longer an option?

As mentioned, the Internet is so pervasive that kids today spend more time in the virtual world than IRL. Now, when kids build forts they are in a virtual world of Minecraft, and their “domain” is literally a server domain address.  In some ways, I envy them.  The creations are much more impressive, and have a structure that works so much better than having to deal with things like boards, nails, saws and drills.  A couple of kids can get together and construct an amazing world, literally a place of their own.  Is this the next generation’s way of inspiring others to build a fort, a domain, a place of one’s own, over which they have complete control?

What gives me the most optimism is that these are shared forts. Rather than the divisive world of The Bunker, the virtual worlds of Minecraft lean toward a shared world, like 20th Century Boys. Hopefully the 21st century boys and girls will learn, in this way, to play and work and live together.  

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of Fort Mentality here.

3/13/15

Fort Mentality (Part 2)

I think back to all the forts I had as a kid.  When I was six or seven my dad nailed a platform into the fork of an apple tree and hammered some two-by-fours on the trunk for a ladder. I added plywood walls and a shelf for comic books and it was the perfect tree house. Many summers my sisters and I made forts out of clearings under bushes, bringing in some small chairs and peanut butter sandwiches to make a living space. On rainy days a blanket draped over the dining room table made for a luxurious hideout, furnished with the cushions off the couch. Even the most simple structure: tying together high grass to form a tepee to sit in, brought a secret joy at having a place of one’s own.

My neighbor Tod had a fort for a while, a wooden handmade camper top removed from his step-dad’s pickup truck and deposited in the empty yard next door.  It was painted pink and was only slightly better than Tubby’s clubhouse in Little Lulu.  His dogs, Dobermans, had a tendency to use the camper as a landmark when they were doing their business, which made for a stinky fort.

But the best fort of all was inspired by superhero headquarters, as well as by the Monkees and a short-lived Saturday morning TV show called The Kids From Caper.  The house where I grew up was on the edge of the town. Across the highway began the suburbs, but on my side of the road were mostly commercial buildings, a few spare houses, and empty fields.  Next to our house were two vacant lots.  Our immediate neighbors used to have a small house that felt like setting for a Dorothea Lange photo, but it was struck by lightning one rainy night and burned to the ground. Beyond that was an abandoned house with a plethora of detritus out back.  The yard held a rusted tractor from the 30’s, a couple discarded lawnmowers, threadbare car tires, miscellaneous derelict building supplies including a pile of asbestos tiles, and a structure that used to be a combination chicken coop and horse stable.

In the logic of childhood, since no one appeared to own the property we assumed it was available for exploration.  I spent hours digging up odd bits of machinery and equipment from the yard.  The wire chicken cages were intriguing, large enough for a chicken, but too small to climb in.  It was my neighbor Tod who got the idea of using the asbestos tiles as throwing stars, with a satisfying result when they shattered on impact with the side of the house.  I imagine that Tod got bored and left after the stack was gone, but I continued to explore the barn. I discovered that by standing on the wall of the stall I could pull myself through a hole in the ceiling into the empty hayloft. It was the perfect spot for a hideout, second only to a secret cave in a hidden mountain.

Pretty soon I had the place spiffed up.  The upstairs was my hideout. I swept out decades worth of dust, and replaced the hole with a trapdoor made from cut floorboards and a couple spare hinges.  The roof was mostly complete, but a decayed bit of tarpaper and shingles provided an opportunity to mount a home-made periscope crafted from plastic tubing and some mirrors. It gave a 180 degree view of the neighbor’s burned down house and yard – a perfect spot for spying on any intruding evil villains, or my sisters if they showed up.

I hauled up some chairs and used hammer and nails to make shelves for comics, the Hardy Boys Detective Handbook, and a Boy Scout first aid kit. I made my own version of a the Baxter Building’s communication by bringing in some Realistic brand walkie-talkies and a crystal radio built from a kit.  To complete the crime lab I put together a fingerprint kit: an ink pad, some typewriter paper, a makeup brush and some baby powder. The best feature, in my opinion at the time, was the burglar alarm. Purchased from Radio Shack, I adapted it to mount on the trapdoor so it would go off whenever the door was opened. I rigged up some fishing line to enable the alarm whenever I left the fort.

I don’t remember how long I had the fort, probably only a couple months. I do remember more than once bringing friends to it where we’d share a tin of sardines on Saltine crackers, or maybe some peanut butter sandwiches.  It was my middle-school creation of a super-hero team’s headquarters: crime lab, communications center, security system, secret passageways, and, if you count the tractors, even some vehicles.  My team wasn’t so much of a team as a series of guest-stars, but it was still fun.  Most importantly, it fulfilled my need for a headquarters, a base. It was a place of my own, my fortress of solitude, my cave, my domain over which I had control.

Click here to read the exciting conclusion

Click here to read Fort Mentality - Part 1



Fort Mentality (Part 1)

I recently read Jonathan Lethem’s “Fortress of Solitude,” a novel that combines autobiographical elements of his life with an exploration of the gentrification of the Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn.  Of course, the title refers to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, the only place where the hero could truly be himself.  Lethem explores the time and place, 1970s Brooklyn, with such autistic intensity that I feel I know it as well as Superman’s Fortress, but it also reminded me of my own childhood goal to “build a fort.”


Perhaps kids have always built forts. Maybe for boys it was a way to play house without acknowledging it’s playing house.  During World War II the fort was a bunker, a place to fight the Nazis and Japs.  In the 50s, with a glut of Westerns on TV, the fort became a cavalry outpost or a cowboy hideout.  As the US space program took off, kids imagined space stations and interstellar vessels.  Any hidey-hole could become the conn of the Enterprise. The only requirement for a fort was a place that kids could call their own, protected from intruders.

The silver age comics of the 60s had many templates for kids to use in play.  Aside from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, the other most famous secret hideout is the Batcave.  I can’t count how many times I pored over four-color schematics of the Batman’s headquarters rendered in Ben-Day newsprint.

The Batcave was a natural formation under Wayne Manor, but Batman collected all the essential ingredients to success: a crime lab, computers, an underground garage with Bat-vehicles, and a trophy room with memorabilia from past cases, including a giant penny and a T-Rex.  But more importantly, the Batcave had secret passageways for entering, and security that included booby traps and alarms. No villains could enter without suffering harm and alerting the Batman.

The first mention of the Batcave in comics was in a daily strip as early as 1943, so it’s no surprise that when the Fortress of Solitude was introduced in a 1958 story in Action Comics by Jerry Coleman and Wayne Boring it closely followed the Bat-template for a super sanctum. Carved into the polar ice, only Superman’s strength can heft the key used to gain entry.  Primarily a place to retreat from the world and think, the Fortress of Solitude also eventually housed a lab for researching an antidote to Kryptonite, a place for recuperating after battles, and a collection of artifacts honoring Krypton, including the shrunken city of Kandor.  Superman also keeps a manly diary, a book with steel plated pages which he writes on using his super-strength finger.

At DC, aside from Superman and Batman, super-hero teams had the monopoly on secret headquarters. Before the Justice League of America moved to their geosynchronous satellite (orbiting at 22,300 miles above the Earth) their headquarters were in a secret cave near Happy Harbor, Rhode Island.  The Challengers of the Unknown occupied Challenger Mountain, hidden deep in the Colorado Rockies.  In the 30th century, the Legion of Super-Heroes had a clubhouse paid for by eccentric millionaire R.J. Brande.

Similarly, the super-hero teams at Marvel comics staked out their own territory.  The cut-away view of the Baxter Building from Fantastic Four Annual #3 shows “New York’s most famous skyscraper tower…headquarters of the most colorful super-hero combo the civilized world has ever known.” One-upping the Batcave, it has multiple labs, several hangars for vehicles including one for the Pogo Plane, and even a home theater labeled as a “projection room.”

Less exciting, but no less plush is the Avengers Mansion, originally Tony Stark’s personal mansion but donated to the team as a place to crash, sometimes literally.  Even the junior heroes get in on the action. Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters is the public name for the X-Men’s home base.  Although it has been shown in the movies, the most alluring part of their school was the Danger Room.  Before it became sentient, it was described as "a huge unfurnished chamber which houses countless hidden perils!" This allowed for the artist of the month to draw pretty much whatever he wanted in terms of danger.

Of all the heroes who had secret hideouts, it’s perhaps ironic that the youngest hero of the 60’s, Spider-Man, the one who most needed a place of his own, didn’t have one. This link, from the 70’s, emphasizes this need.

But there was one for fort me that was the best... (continued on next page following)

3/8/15

When the X-Men Met Frankenstein

X-Men #40  (1968) has perhaps one of the best examples of an intergalactic facepalm.

The X-Men meet Frankenstein's monster, which turns out not to be a living monster, but an android built by an alien race on a wandering planetoid 150 years prior.

These ancient astronauts figured that a grotesque monster would be the perfect way to test the humans of Earth. "If he is received with understanding by them -- we will then establish personal contact."

Of course, what really happened is that Mary Shelley spotted this android near Lac Leman in Geneva Switzerland, wrote her story, and inspired a dozen Universal movies, including Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein.  Does that count as understanding? I'd have to say it's a resounding "Yes!" so where are those tropical aliens?  We'll come back to that in a moment.


For some reason Frankenstein's monster was popular in the early 60's, possibly because he represented a tragic hero to the counter-culture.  Hammer Films revived the monster (sans neck bolts) in a series of films starting in 1957, spawning an interest in Gothic horror.  On a lighter note, both The Addams Family and The Munsters appeared on TV in 1964.


Frankenstein's monster was also appearing in other comics.  DC had Frankenstein's monster appear in Superman No. 143 (February 1961), in a story entitled "Bizarro Meets Frankenstein!"  When I was a kid, DC's later Bob Hope comics with Super-Hip were totally confusing.  These comics mashed together movie monsters, super-heroes, and Bob Hope in a near stream-of-consciousness plot that didn't always make sense, but looked like fun.



It is surprising that both DC and Marvel got away with presenting Frankenstein's monster with the green skin, flat head and neck bolts.  Although Mary Shelley's version was written in 1810, long enough to be out of any copyright, the description in the book is not the same as in the movie.  Universal's representation of Frankenstein's monster is unique enough that they have tried to enforce their rights to the look of their movie monster.  That's one reason why the monster has a different look in the Hammer films.

According to a recent report from a book publisher, Universal is clamping down on any monster that has all of the following elements:

  • Green Skin
  • Flat Top Head
  • Scar on Forehead
  • Bolts on the Neck
  • Protruding Forehead


So, did Earth receive Frankenstein's monster with understanding? Did the mutant X-Men succeed in representing the human race. Short answer: the X-Men meet the monster, battle it out, and obliterate him. Only at the conclusion does Professor X unearth the secret.  As Cyke bemoans at one point "If only we could somehow have reasoned with him...".  Sorry Earth, but Mary Shelley did a better job.

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