Friday, November 27, 2015

Hiding in the Crypt

Here in 2015--on the brink of 2016--we are living in the age of the graphic novel.   Talented artists and storytellers are churning out waves of graphic works for every age, sensibility, interest and purpose.

And it is fantastic.

But before graphic novels?

"Comic books" you say?

Okay.  Comic books.

And twinkling there with his pen-wielding comrades at the beginning of the comic book--the serialized story told in pictures and carefully shaped words in bubbles--is George L. Carlson.

I stumbled on George Carlson's talents accidentally (as I stumble upon everything in this blog).

I was in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in one of many used bookstores my friend and I were scouring for treasures.

And there it was.

"Fun For Juniors" by George Carlson
It called to me instantly with the artistic style of my early childhood towards the end of the 1960's when we were sitting at a cultural and social  crossroads marked by war, protest and a growing divide between cultures and generations that I find myself wondering if we ever truly bridged.

Sigh.  But back to George.

This particular treasure had all the earmarks of a book carried around, perused, penciled, then set aside only to be discovered again.  The red cloth cover showed the typical stains and blotches of age, and I imagined a long-ago child perhaps spilling his or her glass of milk on it, or grabbing it with fingers still greasy from lunch.

Inside many of the puzzles had been done by that long-ago child.  Their carefully formed letters and ability to follow the twists and turns of mazes and labyrinths made me guess he or she was maybe 8 or 9 years old.  Some of the letters had the tell-tale loops and tilts of a child just learning cursive.

I was delighted.

But more than this, I fell in love with the whimsical beauty of this book.  George Carlson was clearly a lover of riddles and puns, and this single book was fraught with them.

Later in the book is more serious fare--a game of questions that included no fewer than 189 questions (and answers in the back) covering science, history and American popular culture and current events (from the time).   In this section the pictures and accompanying text were carefully crafted in  bright, eye-grabbing colors.

Who was this artist, this George Carlson?

I had to know.

It didn't take me long before I found a two part series on "The Comics Journal" website ( written by Paul Tumy about none other than George Carlson!

Mr. Tumy was clearly  infinitely more enamored with George Carlson than I was.  His two part series about George (I'll call him "George", but very respectfully) included countless brilliant photos of a wide (and hard to find) range of George's works, from his earliest published magazine work in 1913  to his well-known cover of "Gone With the Wind" and continuing work on joke and riddle books for children. (2, 3)

Clearly the range and scope of George's work is breathtaking.  I closely examined each of the many photographs of George's work that  Mr. Tumy included in his articles.    Yes, George's art was a product of his time--the people he drew were predominantly white, interspersed with anthropomorphic animals.  He did illustrate a range of children's story books and non-fiction books about Native Americans which I would be very interested in exploring if I could get my greedy hands on them. One of these is, in fact,  considered one of  the first graphic novels,  entitled "Red Men" with author Jimmy Thompson.  According to Mr. Tumy, "Red Men"   tells tales of Native American pre-European life--a disturbing and unfortunate title for a book that I would consider reading as a glimpse into how Native American life was interpreted in the past. (4)   So overall, the most part, no, George's work was not especially diverse.

However what I seized upon was the man himself.

According to Mr. Tumy, there just isn't much known about George outside of what can be gleaned from his work.

He had never been interviewed. Moreover, according to Mr. Tumy, there was, and is only one known photograph of him.

 Mr Tumy guessed that this photograph may have been taken around 1939, just after he had completed the "Gone With the Wind" book jacket. (3)

So now I had a face to go with the art.   But to be honest, this photograph only created more questions.   To look at George's art, I would've expected someone a bit more flamboyant, if not in dress then in facial expression.

Yet there he sits, staring at the camera with a perplexing expression of nervousness bordering on dread.  A regular fellow in a tie, white pressed shirt and dark pants.

A regular fellow with a storm of creativity raging behind his calm eyes.

Or so I am projecting upon him, I confess.

Which leads me to my other discoveries about George L. Carlson.

Mr. Tumy points out that one reason George's work has not been more well-known is that he never really attached himself to one big publisher.  He self-promoted everything he published.

In fact, George did not start out as a comic book illustrator and writer--he started out creating illustrations for children's books, magazines and commercial art. (3)  He was 55 years old before even stepping a toe into doing comic book work! (3)

All of this, I must tell you, rings very close to home for me.  Perhaps I even see a bit of myself in George--rather shy, typing away at my stories, timidly submitting them sans agent only to receive polite rejections--with a certain measure of relief I must confess.   After all, writing alone is a comfortable known.   Putting my writing out into the world is a frightening thing, albeit my goal.

And if George can jump into a whole new creative realm at the age of 55, then there might still be some wiggle room for me.  

Which brings me back to the book in my hands--a beautifully, hilariously illustrated and crafted book of puzzles, riddles and jokes for children--1 in a set of 8 as it turns out. (2,3)

I like to think George won't be entirely forgotten and I'll tell you why.

In 1940, Oglethorpe University's president Dr. Thornwell Jacobs came up with an idea to seal in a crypt beneath his Atlanta, Georgia university a time capsule of sorts. (3)   In this time capsule Dr. Jacobs wanted to compile a museum-like display of human civilization up to that point covering science, art and history. (3)

The "Crypt of Civilization" as it was called, is to be opened in the year 8113 AD, the point at which the same number of years would have elapsed from 1940 to the future as had elapsed from the dawn of civilization to 1940.  (3)

Dr. Jacobs chose one artist to illustrate panels that would be displayed prominently on the walls of the Crypt to provide instructions and information for whoever opens the crypt. (3)

That artist was George L. Carlson.

So while the world may have forgotten George, in 6000 years perhaps he will be rediscovered.

A rather comforting thought for those of us who wheedle away our time secretly creating.

***Update 11/28/2015***

The day after I posted this blog entry, the Mental Floss website posted a write up about the "Crypt of Civilization".   Probably coincidence. Definitely coincidence.  However I will fantasize for awhile that someone over at Mental Floss (my favorite magazine and website ever) stumbled across my blog, this blog, and got just a teeny bit inspired.  

To learn more about the "Crypt of Civilization" check out

1. "Fun For Juniors".  George Carlson.  The Platt & Munk Co. Inc. Publishers.  New York.1937.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Lost in a Cultural Labyrinth

"HOW Indian Sign Talk in Pictures" by Iron Eyes Cody
Not long ago a friend and I stumbled upon Kazoo Books, in Kalamazoo Michigan.

Kazoo Books is a book store carrying new and used books.  It is delightfully placed in a former house, and fills the space from the "choose what you want and we'll make you a good deal" clearance books in the attic to the maze-like floor to ceiling  selections in the basement and on every floor in between.

It was in the basement that I stumbled upon a 1952 booklet entitled "How:  Indian Sign Talk in Pictures", written by Iron Eyes Cody and illustrated by famed western artist Clarence Ellsworth (1).

 I grew up watching Iron Eyes Cody on TV.  He was in countless western movies and was the famed "Crying Indian" in the 1970's PSA (Public Service Announcement) commercials.

In the 1970's he was  put forth as an icon of the conservation movement as well as a spokesperson for Native American culture.

 At the time I had no reason to doubt that he was exactly who he said he was.

As I grew older, however, I found Iron Eyes Cody was a bit of an enigma.   For example, this book describes him as being from the Cherokee tribe, born in Texas.

A website dedicated to him describes him as being from the Cree-Cherokee tribes, born on April  3rd, 1904 in Oklahoma (6).

Meanwhile, a New York Times biography of him claims he was born  on April 14th, 1904 in Oklahoma (2)

Later investigations detailed on countless websites, however, point to some deeper truths/mistruths about Iron Eyes.

"Iron Eyes Cody" was actually born in Louisiana as  Espera de Corti, the son of Italian immigrants from Sicily (3,4).   According to Snopes, Espera's father changed his last name from "de Corti"to "Corti",  and then after his death his sons further altered their name  to "Cody".   At this point Espera began identifying as Native American (3).

It is here that  ethics and the truth become muddled.  While it seems Iron Eyes was certainly not Native American from birth, he dedicated his adult life to learning about Native American life,  living as Native American and championing Native American causes and culture (2).  

I dithered back and forth about buying this booklet.  Finally my friend bought  it for me.  As I held it and paged through it, I felt a strange mixture of indignation and confusion as well as a certain amount of twisted nostalgia from a childhood spent having Iron Eyes Cody  being one of the primary television and movie depictions of Native Americans available to me that seemed to be portrayed in anything resembling a positive light.

My feelings about Iron Eyes Cody are further confused by the fact that my knowledge of my own Native American ancestry was blurred--I spent my  childhood not knowing I was part Yurok (a Northern California tribe). My teenage years were spent feeling too nervous to ask the hard questions and my adulthood  has been filled with regret now that the very people I want most to talk to are long gone.

So who was Iron Eyes Cody?  An Italian-American flim-flam man, pretending to be Native American for the sake of success?  Or was he a man so moved by the real story of the characters he depicted  that he did all he could to be as Native American as possible by supporting Native American causes and educating others?

I don't know.  This booklet does contain what could be seen as viable information about Native American Sign Language--a now endangered language that was used by the Plains tribes (7).

The question  I ask myself is if there is a similar viability in the story of the man who wrote it.

How should we understand and remember Iron Eyes Cody?

I have not yet decided.

However, from his obituary in the LA Times newspaper, it would seem his family made sure he died  the person he tried so hard to become--not Espera de Corti, but Iron Eyes Cody.   As the LA Times staff writer of his obituary noted at the beginning of Iron Eyes' obituary:

"Iron Eyes Cody, the veteran Native American actor and humanitarian whose Hollywood career stretched back to the earliest big-screen westerns but who achieved perhaps his greatest success in a famous anti-pollution ad on the small screen, died Monday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 94." (5)

*All photos property of Christina Moorehead, sourced from "How: Indian Sign Talk in Pictures". Iron Eyes Cody. Homer H. Boelter Lithography. Hollywood, CA. 1952.