Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Maurice Sendak's Gracious Farewell

Max prepares to depart.
Maurice Sendak designed this opera production of
Where the Wild Things Are for the Glyndebourne Festival Opera.

Several weeks ago, I added a Maurice Sendak quote to the right column of this blog: 

“There’s something I’m finding out as I’m aging—that I am in love with the world.”

I hope I can say something similar when I’m 83.  More than anything, I want to continue falling ever more deeply in love with the world.

The quote comes from an interview that Terry Gross conducted with the beloved children’s author and illustrator on Fresh Air, a popular National Public Radio program.  Almost more an intimate talk with a friend than a standard interview, Sendak openly acknowledged his failing health and advancing age, taking the opportunity to say goodbye to his host with an eloquence that is deeply moving.

Unable to come to the studio, Sendak spoke from his home, mentioning in passing that even walking has become difficult.  He’s confined in space, looking out the window at the trees—but he even finds joy in this.

“And I look right now, as we speak together, out my window in my studio and I see my trees and my beautiful, beautiful maples that are hundreds of years old.  They're beautiful.  And you see I can see how beautiful they are.  I can take time to see how beautiful they are.

“It is a blessing to get old.”

But side-by-side with the blessing is the overwhelming melancholy of loss.  It’s his King Lear interview, as he strives to express the fragility, irrationality, and comedy of life.  The knowledge of death informs the interview.  He wears his vulnerability bravely.

While I respect Sendak’s atheism, his last words of the interview sound like a blessing—a benediction from the heart:

“I wish you all good things.  Live your life, live your life, live your life.”

This is my 200th entry on 21 Essays.  I hope to keep it going for at least thirty more years, until I’m turning 83 and considering a series on the beautiful maples outside my window.

If you haven’t heard it, enjoy the interview!  And have tissues handy.  Here’s a link to the full 18-minute interview at the NPR site (click on “Listen to the story.”).

And here’s a sweet tribute to the interview by Christoph Niemann, creatively illustrating the last five minutes of the interview:

© 2013 Lee Price

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Supreme Duck Artistry of Carl Barks

Guest contributor:  Waldemar Hepstein is an artist for No Comprendo Press, a publisher of alternative comics.  Hepstein’s work has appeared in the magazine Fidus and is collected in albums such as 'Snork.’

Carl Barks: Tortured Artist, Master Comedian

Carl Barks at the 1982
San Diego Comic Con.
Photo by Alan Light.
Source:  Wikimedia Commons
For golden age comic book buffs, Carl Barks (1901-2000) is the legendary “Good Duck Artist,” a moniker that took hold long before his name became publicly known.  In 1950, when the publishers briefly took him off his regular spot at Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories because they wanted him to concentrate on the longer stories, readers complained and demanded that the anonymous “good artist” be re-installed to do his monthly 10-page Donald Duck lead-in story.

Barks, who wrote and illustrated comic book stories about the Disney ducks from 1942 to 1966, agreed with critics that his most creative period was around 1950.  As is sometimes the case with artists, inspiration seemed to be especially strong in a period of great personal stress and turmoil.  This was the time when Barks was struggling in a rapidly deteriorating relationship with an alcoholic wife.  He once stated that he could feel his creative juices flowing as the whiskey bottles hurled at him by his wife flew by his head.

From Walt Disney's Comics and Stories, November 1951:
The Terror of the Beagle Boys by Carl Barks.

It was during the period of their divorce that Barks created some of his most beloved stories and famous characters:  Gladstone Gander, the Beagle Boys, and Gyro Gearloose.  The circulation of Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories also peaked at this time, exceeding three million, making it the all-time best-selling comic book title in the United States.  Let’s take a closer look at one of Barks’ classic short stories, The Terror of the Beagle Boys, from the November 1951 issue (#134) which introduced the Beagle Boys.

It’s an atypical story in some ways, being much slighter on plot than Barks’ other stories from the period and unexpectedly veering into sheer surrealism.  Almost entirely a two-duck act, it brings to the fore Barks’ mastery in “directing” his character comedians:  Both Donald and Uncle Scrooge turn in Oscar-worthy performances in this one.

The story opens in Scrooge’s main office in his famed money bin (incidentally, making its premiere appearance in this story).  Donald is employed by Scrooge as a professional worrier, required to walk around the office moaning and wailing and tearing his hair.  However, neither of them can recall what they were supposed to worry about until an ancient messenger boy (addressed by old Scrooge as “Sonny”) delivers a message from the police that the fearsome Beagle gang are on the loose.

A hilarious sequence follows in which the two ducks—over several pages—struggle to keep awake as they guard the money bin with an old cannon and try to think up ways to foil the crooks.  Barks must have enjoyed drawing scenes like these;  several other stories also center on drowsy ducks required to stay awake for prolonged periods.  Finally Donald hits upon the idea of rigging a Rube Goldberg-inspired contraption to the cannon so it will set itself off when the door is opened.

The audacious finale has Scrooge accidentally setting off the mechanism, whereupon the cannon ball flies through several buildings before hitting a mattress factory, where it bounces off the mattresses, now taking the exact same course in reverse.  Finally it cracks open the walls of Scrooge’s money bin, unleashing an avalanche of cash into the street where the Beagle Boys happily scoop it up.

None of the other Disney comic book artists ever rivaled Barks’ remarkable ability to make his characters live and breathe, or matched the elegant timing he exhibited in telling his stories.  Part of the reason may be Barks’ previous experience in the Disney animation department.  As part of the original Duck team in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he had worked not only as gag writer and co-scenarist, but for all intents and purposes he served as co-director of some of the very best Donald Duck cartoons, including such titles as Good Scouts, Donald’s Snow Fight and Timber.

In addition, Barks received a very rare measure of respect from his publisher. Respectful of his special talent, they largely trusted him to script and draw his stories with a minimum of editorial interference—a set-up that would be almost unthinkable today, especially with Disney.

Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge: "Only a
Poor Old Man"
 by Carl Barks,
Vol. 12 in the Fantagraphics series.
Along with his fanciful adventures set in faraway places, Barks, who by many accounts could be quite caustic and cynical, took delight in smuggling in quite a bit of social satire.  It’s not as surprising as it may seem at first that Carl Barks and Robert Crumb, the most famous of the new wave of “underground” cartoonists, were in fact mutual admirers.

A new books series from Fantagraphics recaptures the world of Carl Barks, a fitting place to start for any of you lucky devils who are just discovering the supreme duck artistry of Carl Barks.

Waldemar Hepstein

Friday, August 2, 2013

On "Revenge" by Taha Muhammad Ali

Taha Muhammad Ali.
A couple of years ago, I introduced my son Terry to one of my favorite poems, “Revenge” by Taha Muhammad Ali (translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin).  This winter, Terry wrote an excellent essay on the poem for one of his college classes and I asked him if I could share it here:

Guest contributor:  Terry Price

Taha Muhammad Ali (1931-2011) wrote the poem “Revenge” in an unrhymed form mostly consisting of short lines, punching hard with each word.  The tone and structure of the poem’s opening constitute a psychological trick, leading the reader to expect a very different outcome than the ultimate one.  There is an undercurrent of anger through much of the poem, certainly. However, the tricky pathway leads instead to a discussion on the nature of violence that is challenging and unexpectedly deep.

The poem begins by stating that sometimes the speaker wishes he could retaliate against the one who harmed his family by striking back in violence—by either killing his foe or being killed by him in the attempt.  He suggests that either result would bring some sort of peace, leading the reader to expect a poem about the need for catharsis through redemptive violence, a central myth of our time.  Yet even his opening line, though it contains only four words, opens the potential for a different approach through a deliberate mid-line pause.

But in the second stanza the poem takes an unexpected turn.  This subtle maneuver by Ali creates a new pathway to the end, where the full meaning and power of the power of the poem finally becomes clear.  Ali begins to dismantle the line of thought that the first stanza may have tricked us into accepting, an approach to life built around the angry depersonalization of others.  In the second stanza, Ali grants the possibility that maybe the one he hates is also loved.

This admission triggers a long list, beginning with the parents who would be harmed by the death of their son.  Then it widens out to include siblings, a spouse, children, and even friends.  The poem increasingly restricts our ability to dehumanize, as the speaker recognizes that his foe also possesses the ability to love and form meaningful relationships.

Ali’s final stanza offers a parting twist.  He breaks off from his contemplative widening of the net to describe what he would do under a very different circumstance—if his foe had no other meaningful connections.  He takes the opportunity to mirror previous parts of the poem, offering a short list that negates all the people previously imagined, stating them now as non-existences.

And he reaches a conclusion that is an unexpected subversion of how society usually views the nature of revenge.  The speaker decides that violence could not add any more suffering to the life of one so cut off from others.  As the act of killing would only ease the pain of loneliness, the speaker’s inaction is justified.  He declines to offer the escape of death to a man living without love.  While the desire for revenge still exists, his revenge is to let the man live.  This movement ingeniously reaffirms the validity of the passionate anger of the first verse while not forgetting the humanity that the poem’s speaker shares with his foe.

Enjoy “Revenge”…
Read “Revenge” at Common Ground News Service

© 2013 Lee Price