Sunday, February 16, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Frank Bellew – Research, 1859 

Memories Speak Volumes, and Vice Versa.

By Rick Marschall.

I think it is plausible that sensors, or synapses, or microscopic engineers in the brain do work that we will never understand. How and why we dream, often in complicated scenarios, I will never understand. There are a lot of things I do not understand, but I think science will never solve this one.

The brain is a muscle, I have heard, and that became apparent to me about a decade ago when I wrote three books, two of them with elaborate research and footnotes; three very long magazine articles; my weekly blog; and much else I eventually computed at about 400,000 words for the year, all while being caregiver for my wife. The “brain is a muscle” theory was brought home when I was fairly insensate for a couple months afterward. (You can save your electrons if you are tempted to write in with questions like “How could you tell?” because I was the first to address that…!)

But like dreams, there is another question whose answer seems obvious, yet still ultimately elusive. It is confirmed uncountable times in our lives – how do smells trigger memories, even visual images, in our minds? I know that olfactory nerves from our sneezers connect to the brain, sure; that’s how we know something caught fire in the kitchen. But how is it that… well, here is one example:

As a young cartoon fan, I first discovered Puck Magazine, individual issues, when I was in second grade. My father visited Book Store Row in Manhattan on many weekends, and I invariably accompanied him. That neighborhood, now more a memory than anything else, was several blocks south of Union Square Park, its epicenter roughly 14th Street and Fourth Avenue. There were even maps of the approximately 125 used-bookstores clustered in the area.

A store called “Memory Shop,” whose owner was the perpetually knowledgeable but slightly dazed Marc Nadel (I think the spellings are correct), was a sort of heaven-on-earth to this young fan. Its specialty was what we would call today “popular culture” – movies, comics, cartoon books, Broadway memorabilia. It was at the top of rickety stairs in a nondescript building – now probably a parking garage – opening to a large room messily overflowing with cases and boxes and piles of… everything from sheet music to bound volumes. Marc had a gargantuan movie poster of Rudolph Valentino in Son of the Sheik, too large for any wall. So it was tacked to the ceiling, covering almost all of it, kind of a pop-culture worshiper’s Sistine Chapel.

One bookcase had several volumes of Puck Magazine from the 1880s. Magic to me. Gigantic they seemed to a fifth grader. I was already hooked on vintage comics and cartoons from books my dad had, like Coulton Waugh’s The Comics. And I was already devoted to F. Opper, still my favorite cartoonist. Years before Happy Hooligan, he drew political and gag cartoons for Puck. The 1889 volume was my first purchase at The Memory Shop.

Marc held the rest until income from my paper route enabled me to buy the next and next volumes at the heady price of $25 each. I have never maintained much of a savings account since then, proving the adage that “the child is father to the man.”

Those summer nights, when I acquired that bound volume, are as fresh to me as yesterday. I had already purchased loose issues of Puck, Judge, and Life along Book Store Row, but there was something impressive about an oversized volume, hundreds of pages of vintage cartoons, many colored in lithographed glory, terrific artwork by unknown names who eventually became closer friends of mine than schoolmates.

But those olfactory nerves! The paper in that volume was quality, not pulp. They were not fragile nor yellowing nor slowly degrading. Yet they gave off an aroma – a fragrance I would call it – that was distinctive. And today, about 60 years later, when I pull that 1889 volume off the shelf, and I smell that certain aroma anew… it is not new. Not only do I recognize it, but I have a mental image of myself at 10, sitting on the sofa in the enclosed porch my father had built that year. A portable TV was on, but I ignore it as I discover and rediscover those pages of Puck and my new friends Opper and Keppler and C J Taylor and Ehrhart and Dalrymple and Syd B Griffin.

Since then I have appreciated bound volumes more than individual issues of newspapers and magazines, and I am like the old fellow in an old cartoon. I believe it was drawn in 1859 or 1860 by Frank Bellew, one of the real pioneers of his craft. He was probably the most prolific cartoonist of his day. “Probably” is not in play – his signature, often enclosed in a little triangle, shows up in countless journals, from the famed Harper’s Weekly to obscure almanacs.

This is one, likely by him but oddly unsigned. I discovered this about the time when I scored that volume of Puck. Except for the bald head and wizened features, that devotee was me. Joined at the hip to an old bound volume; reading it at every moment; executing a bibliomaniac’s calisthenics to read it. Discovering things on every page. And savoring the sort of perfume that only collectors of Yesterday’s Paper can perceive and love.

– 30 –

No comments:

Post a Comment