Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Life and Legend (and Art) of Wallace Wood

On a day in 1956, while Mom did her grocery shopping, I passed the time waiting for her by looking at the paperback book rack. I found The Mad Reader paperback. It was one of those moments I can say changed my life. I was already a comic book fan, but this tipped me over into the world of Mad, satire, Harvey Kurtzman and his retinue of fabulous cartoonists: Will (then called Bill) Elder, Jack Davis, and Wallace Wood. “Superduperman” and this Wood splash panel in particular, was what did it for me.

Wood’s short and unhappy life was in sharp contrast to all of the joy he brought to his fans. He died in 1981, yet the cult of Wood refuses to die. I believe everything Wood ever drew professionally, or even as a kid, has been reprinted somewhere. What was meant as a throwaway medium, the comic book, has been elevated to the status of art, and has value as a collectible. Wood is one of those artists high on the collector’s want list.

The Life and Legend of Wallace Wood, published by Fantagraphics, reprints in a deluxe format a lot of the highlights of Wood’s career, as well as tell the story of an obsessed artist. It is enlightening, but also sad. Wood destroyed himself by overwork, cigarettes and alcohol. In the end suicide by gun brought the end to his torment.

I prefer to think of Wood in the way that I saw him when I was a youngster reading Mad paperback books and then Mad magazine, as a somewhat mystical figure who came up with drawings that fascinated and delighted and inspired me. As far as I knew Wood did not even put pen and ink to paper, but drawings came in a ray from his forehead and transferred themselves to my brain via the printed page.

In the late fifties and early sixties Wood’s work reached a form of glossy perfection that is still a wonder to me. He did illustrations for science fiction magazines (Galaxy, primarily), and his work in Mad went from pen-and-ink line illustrations to an ink wash technique that gave his figures a modeled effect on the page.

These examples of his Mad work are from issues number 44, 45, and 49, all from 1959.

Copyright © 1959, 2017 E.C. Publications, Inc.

This illustration was done for Galaxy magazine, cover dated December, 1958.

Copyright © 1958 Galaxy Publishing, Inc.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The unpleasant surprise

Have you tried looking up friends from your past on Facebook? Maybe old girlfriends or boyfriends? Recently I wrote down a list of names I could remember from high school (Class of '65), and from my two years in the Army (November 1966 to November 1968). I had no success whatsoever finding anyone. It could mean that the people I am looking for are uninterested in social media, or worse, that they are incapacitated, or even deceased.

Warren was one of the guys I tried to find on Facebook. No luck.

We were friends for only a few months, 1967 into 1968. Warren was a guitarist; he bought a guitar near where we were stationed in Germany. We sat in Warren's room where he would play old songs and I would sing along. That seems pathetic, but if we didn’t have passes to go to town we were stuck on base and had to entertain ourselves. As you can see from the only photo I have of Warren he rocked a pompadour hairstyle. I don’t remember what songs we tried to sing, but they were probably along the lines of Chuck Berry or Buddy Holly.

When I didn’t find Warren on Facebook I went to Google, and that is when I found him. That was the unpleasant surprise. Warren was not only deceased, but he had died on July 29, 1968, just a couple of months after he got out of the Army. That seems unfair to me. A guy spends two years away from home and family, and then lives only a couple of months after returning to civilian life.

Warren was a motorcycle guy. My first thought on seeing that Warren was dead at age 21 was that he wrapped his motorcycle around a tree. But there was no information on cause of death.

Something else I remember about Warren is that he was always broke. He was usually tapped out five days after payday. He borrowed from me quite often, but he always paid me back. This little blog posting is a poor remembrance, because it has been so many years, but in some ways it is my payback to Warren for those nights smoking, joking, laughing, singing along while he played the guitar. It made the barracks almost livable.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

The Trump victory: Shock and “awww, sh!t!”

”We won in a landslide!”

It’s been a month now since the presidential election. Are you over it yet? I guess I am, although it was a shocker to my family and friends. On election day my next door neighbor was in Italy with her daughter. She said they couldn’t sleep all night after they heard the news. That seems like a fairly typical reaction; certainly the reaction of my wife and me.

Why did so many vote for Trump? Not forgetting that as I write this about 2.7 million more votes were cast for Hillary Clinton than Trump, yet the election results hinged on Trump’s wins in three states. In the popular vote he lost, in the Electoral College he won. Such is the American system, as screwy as it seems to everyone. Except the winner, of course. Trump has recently been touring, in what looks like a victory lap to thank his voters. He said to one crowd, “We won in a landslide, folks!”  — an untruth so brazen only the most loyal of his followers would believe it.

Early in the campaign it seemed obvious to most of us that reasonable people wouldn’t fall for a huckster, and we expected his fans to fall away once these truths were revealed: he doesn’t pay taxes; he stiffs building contractors; he uses bankruptcy as a business tactic; he treats women horribly. The stories went on and on. In the end it didn’t matter. His fans liked him and what he said, and ignored stories to the contrary.

A piece of commentary in the Sunday, December 4, 2016 Salt Lake Tribune, gave what I thought was a good reason why people voted for Trump.* Kristy Money, a psychologist specializing in relationship counseling, faith journeys and women’s mental health, wrote about “confirmation bias,” which is seeing only what we want to see.

Apparently Trump fans’ confirmation bias was enough that they looked past all of his worst traits to see what they wanted to see.

Yet how was it they were able to accept Trump’s outrageous conduct? You would think that religious types on the right who supported him would have been put off by stories of his immoral behavior, but another paragraph in the Kristy Money commentary explained to me how his true believers could accept a man with Trump’s character flaws: “Decades of social science research attest to how the human mind resists deliberate attempts by others to change our opinions and beliefs. In fact, there is a corollary phenomenon to confirmation bias, known as the Backfire Effect: Simply put, when someone with deeply held beliefs is presented with a counter-argument, their beliefs are strengthened rather than weakened. So there’s a very practical reason to stop trying to convince others: it has the opposite effect.” [Emphasis mine.]

So there you go. The Backfire Effect in action!

*I cherry-picked Ms Money’s commentary for psychological insight to use for my own purposes.Her article was actually about giving support to people who leave the Mormon church. You can read her original op-ed here.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Fifty years

Fifty years is a long time. Five decades. Break it down: in months fifty years is 600 months; in weeks it is 2600 weeks; in days (give or take, depending on Leap Year), it is an astounding 18,250 days!

Fifty years ago today, November 30, 1966, I entered the U.S. Army as a Private E-1. It wasn’t voluntary; I was drafted.

I had my pre-induction physical in July of that year, and five months later was finally sucked into the system. During the time between the two events I lived in denial. I thought I would get some sort of last-minute reprieve, but the closer November 30 came the more I came to the acceptance that there would be no divine intervention. I was indeed doomed to two years of active duty in the U.S. Army.

There were some benefits; after I was released in November, 1968, I went home and  a month later got married. I was able to use my GI Bill money for schooling. Two years ago when I went to Home Depot to buy a washer and dryer the saleslady asked, “Are you a veteran?” I said I was. She said, "Good, I can give you a discount.” I don’t remember how much the discount was, but if my two years active duty could save me a few bucks decades later, well then, that’s fine with me.

On Veteran’s Day 2016 I got a free entree from Mimi’s Restaurant. They didn’t even ask to see proof I was a veteran.

I had my share of nightmares the first few years after my discharge. In dreams I would be drafted again and I would be loudly cursing and telling officers and sergeants to stick it up their asses, I wasn’t going to go! Brave talk, but just a dream. In my waking life I wasn’t going anywhere near the Army, and they wouldn’t want me, anyway. It took me me a few years for the dreams to end.

I have written before in this blog that I have a near-irrational fear of being accused of something I didn’t do, and going to jail or prison for it. That paranoia may have grown from my experience of being drafted. The Army wasn’t exactly like jail: there were no iron bars, but there were other similarities, especially in the first two months. All activities were regulated, even being marched to the mess hall for our meals. We were not allowed to have any clothes other than our uniforms, so if we went over the hill we could be easily spotted and rounded up.

Hmmm. That is something to think about! But being regulated en masse goes back to kindergarten, when we obeyed the teacher’s orders. Sit down, be quiet, reading time, exercise time. We have all been through it.

Still, there was a feeling when I got the last day of my active duty Army “service,” I did have a sense of an iron gate creaking open, and being able to walk out into freedom.

It sounds like a contradiction, but now that it is long over and done, I am proud to be considered a veteran. I don’t necessarily feel like a “true” veteran, like the guys who faced an enemy. I spent most of my Army career at a typewriter in Germany doing a clerk job, but my Honorable Discharge, in a frame on my wall, says I am a veteran. No matter how I feel about my service it is more than some people who have held the office of President of the United States. I have one up on men like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and now Donald Trump. Commander in chief is much more grand than Private E-1, as I became when I entered the Army fifty years ago today, but I went through something none of those men went through, and so, yes, I am proud of that.

(For my 40th anniversary recollection of my first day,18, 250 — give or take — days ago, which I remember distinctly, unlike yesterday, which is a blur, go to “Draft Day”, posted November 30, 2006.)