Tuesday, March 11, 2008
News of Yore: Carl Sandburg on Cartoons
Writing, talking and singing about America and freedom—these are the component parts of the spirit of seventy-nine-year-old Carl Sandburg. Across guitars, between sips of Old Bushmill's and snatches of songs, Sandburg and I discussed cartoons one night last Spring. It was easy to draw him out; several relaxing pre-prandial drinks had already produced a glow; our songs were beginning to sound good even to us; and our guitars were so embraced as to become parts of us. It was a good time to talk. The questions came easy. Sandburg's answers came easier.
The cartoon is a form of expression which can survive only in an atmosphere of freedom. It is therefore a subject upon which Mr. Sandburg can speak most eloquently. 'There are going to be cartoons as long as there are human issues ... I like to talk about cartoons; all my life I've been talking about cartoons.
"I like the word 'cartoon.' If I were dying and had a choice of words like 'painting,' 'etching,' or 'cartoon,' I would choose to die with the word 'cartoon' in the air."
Though he has views on cartoons and cartoonists, Sandburg has never become the addict one sees in the railroad car or the subway, who gives a cursory glance at the front page and then turns eagerly to the comics. "There are many things in life that I'd like to have as part of my life, but they take time. Why do these people turn anxiously to the comics? I've asked them. They say 'Well, I've got the habit.' "... But addict or no, Sandburg's judgment of the comics is canny.
Two weeks before the annual Cartoonists'Award of 1956 (which went to Charles Schuhz's "Peanuts") Sandburg happened to mention to me that there was one cartoon that he actually looked for in any paper where he happened to be, and that was "Peanuts." When reminded of his prophetic preference and informed of the Society's subsequent affirmation of his judgment, Sandburg went on to say: "Yes, there's something about 'Peanuts' that reminds me of "Krazy Kat." I used to read "Krazy Kat" regularly and I had it in mind years ago that I'd like to look in on Herriman sometime, to see what kind of man he was . . . but then I thought, Hell, he can't tell me any more than what it says there in his work."
What of other cartoon forms — editorial, panel, continuity strips? "I'm sure that across most of my life," he said, "I've looked more at the editorial cartoons in newspapers ... McCutcheon— forty years a cartoonist—forty years of integrity! Of later years I've missed very few of Fitzpatrick or Herblock— and of course, I've. seen hundreds of those of my friend C. D. Batchelor, whose bust of Joseph Medill Patterson stands in the lobby of the Daily News Building—a superb piece of representational plastic art." Some editorial cartoons that stand out in Sandburg's mind: "The unforgettable cartoon of the Titanic going down—all but the tip showing above the icy waters of the North Atlantic — bearing the word: 'Unsinkable.' Then there were cartoons of Nast's Tammany Tiger and T. R.'s Rough Rider hat. Speaking of hats, nowadays you don't see the square hat made of newsprint to symbolize Labor, that sturdy figure of a man with a terrific 5 o'clock shadow."
The symbols employed by the editorial cartoonist stay with Sandburg. "I've always liked cartoons where there's a huge hand that has under it a lot of crawling, slithering creatures that have been caught in some dragnet; but I think I've lived long enough to have grown tired of those New Year's Day cartoons in which the New Year is a baby ... I don't know what to do about it, but I still resent it. And as for Father Time with his scythe—that is also a rather hackneyed symbol. The old figure of Mars which cartoonists have enjoyed drawing for generations to represent War must now, in an age of the atom and the hydrogen bombs, be gone for all time. The man of war now is that silly, ridiculous little figure—the man with the brief case, specs and bald head—the professor.
"Then there's the anxious looking little fellow, who, in cartoons, represents The People, or John Q. Public or The Consumer; sometimes he gets mad and raises Hell. He has a majesty and a terror about him. He is the author of revolutions. If I had time, I would make a collection of cartoonists' representations of him. I did a book, "The People, Yes," that shows this fellow as very meek, humble, helpless, and I mention the times when he's terrific, overwhelming ... when he's both the irresistible force and the irremovable object!"
Years ago, when Sandburg was a young newspaperman in Chicago, one of his constant singing, drinking and storytelling companions was the biographer, the late Lloyd Lewis. The phenomenal new field of the comic strip fascinated Sandburg and Lewis. They were impressed by the vast audience created by the comics and the big money that could be made from them; and they spoke often of doing a comic together but it never progressed beyond the talking stage. Ideas, they found, were not so easy to come by, and there was no time, for both were wrapped up in other dreams.
Can a great author, a producer of words as pictures, produce ideas for a depicter of words? Suppose he were your editor, Mr. Staff Cartoonist, would you fly to your drawing board, eager to draw up these ideas that Sandburg thinks worthy of publication? "Jimmy Hoffa," Sandburg submits, "Strutting, swaggering . . . all of a sudden, for the first time in his life, he finds his feet in a mess of banana peels labeled 'Senate Rackets Investigating Committee'—and down he goes!" Or another, a verbal cartoon which Lincoln liked to tell: "It might go as one of those pantomime series," Sandburg suggests. "Two gentlemen who fought themselves out of their overcoats into each other's."
I asked Sandburg about the continuity strip—what does he think of it as a cartoon form? Is he a follower of any particular one or more? "Not one of them has ever stopped me," he answered. "I suppose for the same reason that I've never followed any radio soap opera for more than two or three days, mainly because of the story. Those wordy balloons atop the strip discourage any at-
tempt I might like to make to even start reading one. My eyes would have to struggle too much."
Panels sometimes engage Sandburg's interest. The ones that stand out in his mind are those which appeared in the old "Life," "Puck," and "Judge." He was a great admirer of Charles Dana Gibson. "A great social satirist." A special favorite of his was one which appeared in "Life" when Sandburg was barely 14 years old. "It showed a lady arrayed in fashion and splendor," he recollects, "reaching the street and heading for her carriage. She's saluted by a ragged bum - a tattered outcast, holding out his hand for any funds she might choose to deposit in it; and she remembers that it was the annual charity ball she'd just left - and so, without helping him to any funds, she gaily drops a few words: "Why, I've been dancing for you all night!'"
I told Sandburg that the cartoonists now had a society - that, in fact, it was eleven years old, and had grown from a mere handful to 375 members, as of recent count. He was glad to hear that we had joined together. "I like to see people who do the same work in some kind of an organization or society. You should have fellowship, discuss your craft, see each other's faces . . ." Then
his eyes twinkled and I knew that a typical Sandburg serio-comic whimsy was on the way... "When I was a boy in Galesburg, Illinois, I swept out a large real estate office and emptied the spittoons. If, at that time, there'd been an Amalgamated Spittoon Cleaners of North America, I would have joined it if only to look upon the faces, occasionally, of other spittoon cleaners."
Labels: News of Yore