By Rick Marschall
It is the hardest thing in the world these days, especially for a writer and former political cartoonist like me, not to spot an association or make a reference to the turbulent events in the news these days. Even when I thank the mailman I want to voice my opinions on current headlines; if I sign a receipt I want to add a comment and a caricature or two.
So. I will randomly address, here, random cartoon-related items of random moments of my Crowded Life in the comics world. “Associations”… because everyday lately logic is losing its association with… Whoops. Keep your hands on the wheel.
In the rare-book and collectibles games, “associations” are when an item has two interesting, often unexpected, and usually significant aspects. An “association copy” of a biography, for instance, might have the author’s inscription to the subject. I will share a few serendipitous “finds” I happened upon as a collector or as a friend of cartoonists. Fun surprises.
The first “association” is obvious – one famous cartoonist’s letter to another famous cartoonist. What increases its interest is the content, complaining about the comics business of the day, and the increasing headaches of producing a strip. By the contents we can see that Harold Gray (Little Orphan Annie) and Al Capp (Li’l Abner) already have exchanged notes of mutual admiration – a surprise to cartoon historians, because at the time Gray was probably the most right-wing of strip cartoonists; and Al Capp – then – was an iconic left-winger. But, Leapin’ Lizards, in 1952 they were brothers under the skin.
Then we’ll have a couple lessons in browsing second-hand book shops and used-book sales: what not to do, mostly. As a bibliomaniac, when I have the time – and even when I really don’t – I try to take extra time to look at books that barely interest me or would be a duplicate; or presents itself as a downgrade from a book back home. For instance, years ago at a neighborhood book sale I saw a copy of Howard Pyle’s Robin Hood. I had a copy, another first edition (it was a best-seller so is relatively easy to find), and in better condition, in my library. But… worth a look. Yes, it was. There was a bookplate, hand-drawn, by a previous owner: Norman Rockwell. The 30-second browse was a good investment. Especially at a neighborhood sale, where the bookplate went inexplicably unnoticed.
At a top-drawer New York City bookstore, in its rare-book room, I found a terrific copy of Chats et Autres Betes (Cats and Other Beasts), a deluxe, thick, heavy volume of drawings, paintings, studies, and lithographs of cats by the incomparable Theodise-Alexandre Steinlen. Steinlen during La Belle Epoque was known for cartoons, posters, social protest, calendar art… and cat drawings, maybe his favorite preoccupation and ultimately perhaps his great legacy. The volume is printed on heavy laid paper; its prints tipped in and covered with tissue guards – number 174 of a limitation of 500. It was heavy in more ways than one. When I arrived home I felt like I found a bargain. Not on the free endpaper but on a front interior page was the name and two addresses in her script of the previous owner… Edwina.
Edwina Dumm was the wonderful creator of the classic boy-and-his-dog strip, Cap Stubbs and Tippie. Edwina was a good friend, delightful hostess to my children whenever we visited her; and in fact years earlier she had shown me that very book, and said how special it was to her. As Tippie advanced through the years, the strip eventually co-starred Jaspurr, a… cat! And Edwina researched when she could, where she could.
Finally, I can remember this next little event like it was yesterday. I was in high school (so, it was not yesterday!) and went to a book sale on the lawn of a Methodist church in Englewood NJ. Already I had a homing instinct for these things. By the way, this is not a mystery, but places I have lived, or lived near, if they are “toney” towns – Greenwich, Westport, Bryn Mawr, Evanston, La Jolla, Abington – you are more apt to find better books, first editions, autographs, notable former owners’ tags, and association copies.
Anyway, on that afternoon in Englewood an attractive, decorative spine caught my eye. Very Art Nouveau. Nice binding. Hey, the author – and illustrator! – was Rose O’Neill. I then knew of her only as creator of the cute Kewpie dolls. Of course, and as shown by this book, she also was a writer and illustrator (often steamy romances), a poet, a sculptor (often erotic subjects), and an active and successful entrepreneur. The revival of Nemo Magazine will have a major profile and portfolio of her work, followed, I hope, by a major book.
It is obvious that I was happy enough with this “find,” but on the free front endpaper was a (beautiful, typically elegant) inscription by Rose… to the “dear” McManuses. A note inside confirmed that it was to Mr and Mrs George McManus, despite her misspelling of the Bringing Up Father cartoonist’s name. Maybe that’s why it was priced at only a quarter.
It sounds like I might be as happy with bargains as the “associations.” Not so, but they don’t hurt. I associate with bargains too.