Friday, November 27, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Find the Winning Candidate.

– Joseph Keppler Self-Portrait 

Rick Marschall.

When I was in second grade, my father took me into lower Manhattan on many Saturdays. We had a usual agenda: coffee and nut and spice importers working out of warehouses on Chambers Street, where the World Trade Center later stood, and didn’t. The Record Hunter, uptown, where he would search for then-exotic European LPs of Baroque music. The main destination was Book Store Row, streets south of Union Square where approximately 125 used-book stores lived – cavernous, with balconies and bare light bulbs; or virtual closets off the sidewalks, so small and narrow that they only sold short-story collections, not novels. (No, but they were difficult to navigate if other bibliophiles  were there.)

I was barely able to read, but my love affair with books, even the aroma of old paper, began on those Saturdays. Most of those shops are gone now, and I have read where even the seven-miles-of-books Strand has been squeezed by the pandemic and Mayor di Blasio’s choleric view of the economy.

A counterpart of Schulte’s, and Biblo and Tannen, and Dauber and Pine, and other used-book stores of New York’s yesteryear, I discovered in Paris. No surprise – the legendary Shakespeare and Company. It was not the actual physical location of Sylvia Beach’s 1920s hangout of James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway, but I think some of the dust was from that era.

My pied-a-terre in Paris, when not staying with friends, is the centuries-old, tilted, somewhat aromatic, Hotel Esmeralda. It is on the Seine but requires guests in certain rooms (like no. 16, remember) to, appropriately, lean out the window and twist left in order to see the magnificent Notre Dame. (Why “appropriately”? The Hunchback’s love interest was Esmeralda, as you all know). But other rooms, if they have windows, look out upon the back of the hotel, enclosed on four sides and dreary. But one of the other sides is the back of Shakespeare and Company! Of course I knew I would have to call the Esmeralda, even with creaky, winding stairs and one lone breakfast table, my home – a great neighborhood.

(I would have put down roots at the Esmeralda anyway, as two great cartooning friends – Hugo Pratt and Nicole Lambert – recommended the place. A call from Hugo to Nestor would always somehow open up a room when otherwise booked.)

What a tangent. Forgive me. A Crowded Life in Tangents, I’m afraid.

I was talking about Book Store Row and my kidhood. Early discoveries of my own, encouraged but not initiated by my father, were old copies and volumes of Puck magazine. I have previously written here of “meeting” Keppler, Opper, Zim, Gillam, Glackens, and so many great talents. I also became acquainted with the great text humorists of the day, like Bill Nye.

Because Puck was also a political magazine, I perforce became familiar with the issues and politicos of the day; the arcane debates; as well as social manners and mores through panel cartoons and the great ads.

Here, pertinence: on my first discovery of a stack of 1880s Pucks, dad let me buy one – an 1882 issue with an Opper center spread, for a dollar. But another double-page cartoon in an 1880 issue caught my eye, and has remained a relic of fascination.

It was by Joseph Keppler, the talented founder of Puck, and appeared after the 1880 presidential election. The journal was a weekly, but deadline exigencies prevented the creation of cartoon that could address the campaign’s winner when the campaign was won (usually, of course).

What Keppler did – and I discovered when I assembled a complete run of Puck – was indulge a peculiar talent he had. He had an affinity for hiding faces in drawings. As much a puzzle-maker as a political cartoonist at times, Keppler was to construct such cartoons several times through the years. A realistic drawing, two realistic women representing the parties, a realistic landscape. It was arboreal dell, with a grandmother’s paisley shawl running through it.

The realism made it all the more challenging to embed portraits and caricatures of a dozen politicians. But there they are… if you can find them! Tree branches, rock formations, tangled bushes, all reveal the shapes of the candidates Garfield and Hancock; running-mates, senators, mayors, and crooks.

Why? To reveal the winning candidate, without revealing the winning candidate. Readers of Puck that week engaged themselves in checking lists and holding the magazine at all angles.

I became, through that cartoon, an even greater admirer of Joseph Keppler than I ever would have been, if that were possible.

I was reminded of that summer afternoon on Book Store Row, as an eight-year-old enthusiast; falling in love with Puck and Keppler and vintage cartoons and American history and politics all at once. And awestruck by the technical proficiency of a forgotten master.

... and of presidential campaigns too close to call.

It is bizarre that today, and in the hanging chads in Florida of recent memory, our elections are more difficult to resolve; that computers present challenges rather than facile solutions; that technology has become our enemy (or the friend of cheaters).

Whenever you read this, the United States might have a 46th president. Or maybe not. Another reason that I hold “progress’ to be a faithless, teasing chimera.

Plus which, in those early days, the aroma of Yesterday’s Papers was akin to perfume. Take that to the Electoral College.



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