It was my pleasure to connect with the Thaddeus Stevens Society and its president, Ross Hetrick. As a freelance writer and illustrator, I end up meeting a number of interesting people and learning a lot about so many subjects. In a visual thinker role, I can facilitate in clearing away the clutter, help organize thoughts, and make sure goals connect with results. That brings us to today’s infographic, a concise look at one of America’s lesser known heroes. Thaddeus Stevens was arguably the most important member of Congress during the American Civil War. His passionate and unrelenting work in support of civil rights helped lead the way to the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 14th, 15th and 16th Amendments to the American Constitution, all working to ensure the rights of Black Americans after the war.
Teddy. written by Laurence Luckinbill. illustrated by Eryck Tait. Dead Reckoning. 176 pp. 2021. $24.95
Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) is ranked among the top U.S. presidents. Reasons for this include decisiveness, activism, and leadership. For even a casual observer, many people will easily recognize the hearty Teddy cheerful command: “Bully!” For me, as a precocious kid interested in history and politics, I instantly gravitated to the Roosevelts, and the two iconic presidents, FDR and TR. Only a handful presidents become so ingrained in the public mind to be known by their initials! FDR, even today, cannot be ignored, given his fundamental influence in steering the country through the Great Depression; introducing such landmark programs as Social Security and the Securities and Exchange Commission; and, of course, being a world leader in determining the outcome of World War II. FDR aimed to follow his cousin TR’s lead. Theodore Roosevelt did not preside over a war or an economic collapse but, nonetheless, TR was a most consequential president. TR’s presidency (1901-1909) was about grand progressive accomplishments like creating the Food and Drug Administration and the National Forest and Park Service. With that said, with Presidents Day upon us, it is a pleasure to share with you this recent graphic biography of Teddy Roosevelt.
Page excerpt from Teddy
This graphic novel originates from the author’s one-man stage show, Teddy Tonight. Laurence Luckinbill is a stage actor and writer known for his one-man shows of Teddy Roosevelt, as well as Ernest Hemingway, Clarence Darrow and Lyndon Johnson. Luckinbill’s script for this book adapts his stage show in words while Eryck Tait further condenses with his artwork. By anyone’s standards, this is a remarkable book, and while this is quite suitable for high school students, it can certainly be enjoyed by fans of history, theater and graphic novels in general. From the examples on view here, you can see that Eryck Tait has done an admirable job of following Luckinbill’s script. It’s a highly economical and functional style, clear and crisp. You don’t need any additional flourishes for a book like this. You are better served to stay concise and practical.
Page excerpt from Teddy
Given that this is coming from a one-man show, we have TR addressing a theater. He is now a former president there to review his life and times and comment on the news of the day. It is July of 1918, Woodrow Wilson is in the White House, and World War I is still raging. TR has received word that his son Quentin’s plane has been shot down in a dogfight over France. Ask any playwright or dedicated theater-goer and they will tell you that there are no limits to what can be done on the stage. It is as limitless as one’s imagination. Ask any cartoonist or comics fan and they will tell you that there are no limits to what can be done in a graphic novel. So, given that this book is a byproduct of the theater and of comics, you say can you’re getting the best of both worlds. Comics, by its very nature, is a creature of concise language, so you get a steady roll out of time and place, which is most fitting for a book focusing on history. And you also get the nicely composed scenes needed to tell a personal story as this is as much biography as history.
Page excerpt from Teddy
Teddy Roosevelt, creator of the modern American presidency and the bully pulpit, is a source of endless fascination. No one book will tell the whole story and that only seems right for such a larger-than-life character as TR. Theodore Roosevelt himself wrote nearly 50 books, from lengthy accounts on The Naval War of 1812, published in 1882; to four volumes on The Winning of the West, published in 1896; to his final book, Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children, published in 1919. So, how about a “picture book,” as he might have called it, about his life and times, based on a stage production, published in 2021? Well, Teddy would probably find that very agreeable and give it a hearty, “Bully!”
Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 landmark Supreme Court decision, is known by many as essentially banning school segregation. The intent was to ban it altogether since it was ruled as unconstitutional. But first, there was resistance to overcome right from the very start. Today, we can look back at this process in many ways. One such path to understanding is legislation that secures the very places where history was made, the sites involved in the 1954 court case. It was not only a high school in Topeka, Kansas. The Brown v. Board case involved six different schools. In partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, these sites are now part of the National Park Service thanks to legislation sponsored by Rep. James Clyburn and Sen. Chris Coons.
George E.C. Hayes, left, Thurgood Marshall, center, and James M. Nabrit, the lawyers who led the fight before the U.S. Supreme Court for abolition of segregation in public schools, descend the court steps in Washington, D.C., on May 17, 1954. The Supreme Court ruled that segregation is unconstitutional. (AP Photo)
Today, September 17, U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) held a virtual press conference to announce their new legislation to honor and commemorate the historic sites that contributed to the 1954 landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
The purpose of this legislation is to expand the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, to include historic sites in South Carolina and designate National Park Service (NPS) Affiliated Areas in other states. It would recognize the importance of the additional sites that catalyzed litigation in Delaware, South Carolina, Kansas, Virginia and Washington, DC, and expand the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas. The legislation was crafted in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The sites involved are in Farmville, VA; Summerton, SC; Hockessin, DE; Claymont, DE; Wilmington, DE; and Washington, DC. This new legislation makes these schools part of the National Park Service and brings them to the forefront as teaching and learning sites. It dramatically increases the visibility of these sites. 50,000 people each year plan their vacations including National Parks. The legislation also secures curriculum for teachers as well as stabilization and preservation of these sites.
illustration by Henry Chamberlain
Altogether, this is a great opportunity for understanding and learning from history. This definitely opens a window to education and inclusion. As Rep. Clyburn pointed out, only 2 percent of Black Americans visit National Parks. Why is that? Is it because, historically, African Americans have not been fully included? As Sen Coons pointed out, it is only when you can see yourself as part of the discussion that you will feel compelled to join.
Dig deeper and you discover so many facts. One of the sad backlashes to desegregation was that it became more difficult for Blacks to qualify to become teachers. Pushing back on that, as Rep. Clyburn mentioned, are such initiatives as a program advocating for Black teachers, Call Me Mister. As you look closer, you find the road blocks, for every step forward, two steps back. Another such sad case sprouts directly from Brown v. Board. In reaction to the Supreme Court decision, Virginia closed down its schools. It wasn’t until 1959 that schools in Virginia reopened and began to desegregate–and not until the early ’70s that the state completely accepted desegregation.
This new legislation follows in the spirit and values of the National Trust for Historic Preservation to rely upon “the power of places to teach.” For more information on the work being done at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, visit right here.
There’s a moment in my graphic novel, Alice in New York, when my alter ego character questions how such an absurd statue could stand in America’s melting pot. At the time the story was set, in 1989, such statues were not only allowed to exist but were meant to be revered, although no one could say exactly why. Anyway, that now infamous statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback with an African tribesman on one side and a Native American chief on the other is on its way out. I’d never noticed this but the darn thing only dated back to 1940. As anyone who knows their history can attest, Teddy Roosevelt was a good guy. He was a man of his time but he was also progressive in both word and deed. Look him up and you’ll find that he’s the real deal. But that statue showcases Teddy in the wrong light to put it mildly. The idea behind it has to do with Teddy being an avid explorer, not an enslaver. It would have fit into the less than woke 1940s. But Theodore Roosevelt, the actual human being, would have absolutely understood that this statue was a problem and it was time for it to go. Here is an excerpt from a wonderful opinion piece in The Washington Post:
As president, however, Roosevelt preached tolerance and encouraged equality. He famously broke bread with Booker T. Washington — the first president to dine with an African American in the White House. He cleaned up the Interior Department, ensured federal jobs for minorities and reconciled many land disputes with Native Americans. He promoted a brand of American nationalism that guaranteed civil liberties for all, regardless of personal identities.
From Alice in New York
In a statement, Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “The American Museum of Natural History has asked to remove the Theodore Roosevelt statue because it explicitly depicts Black and Indigenous people as subjugated and racially inferior. The City supports the Museum’s request. It is the right decision and the right time to remove this problematic statue.” Okay, but now there’s the matter of an even more problematic statue and it’s a doozy. Mayor de Blasio, are you ready to take down the landmark statue of Christopher Columbus, the centerpiece to New York’s famed Columbus Circle?
From Alice in New York
In a statement released yesterday, Decolonize This Place said it welcomed the decision to remove the statue but noted that two of its demands to the city and the museum still remain unanswered: renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day and “transforming the museum’s racist exhibition spaces,” in addition to repatriating humans remains and sacred objects, and “taking on the work of reparations.” Yes, the fact remains that, if you take a tour of the exhibits inside the Museum of Natural History, you’ll find even more stark examples of racial insensitivity. And, again, any group asking to rename Columbus Day can definitely get behind a campaign to tear down Columbus Circle! A petition has started on change.org asking for the renaming of the circle and the removal of the statue “from public view,” but recent comments from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo suggest that neither the statue, nor the name of the circle, is going anywhere. Lastly, let me add that I appreciate and am sensitive to the problems with Columbus Circle and state as much in my recent illustrated novel, Max in America.
Panel excerpt from “A Smile of Fortune,” by Joseph Conrad, in Men at Sea
Here are some amazing titles from Dead Reckoning: The Night Witches by Garth Ennis and Russ Braun; Men at Sea by Riff Reb; and Katusha by Wayne Vansant. I am still catching up since being away in New York. So, here we go, we will jump right in. Our first title pairs up two great talents and features a young Russian woman deep in the Nazi fight; our second title is a very compelling collection of comics adaptions of poetic stories about life and work at sea; and our last title brings us back full circle with another brave young Soviet female fighting Nazis. Dead Reckoning is the new comics imprint from the Naval Institute Press and these three titles are only part of the exciting new lineup of books.
Men at Sea by Riff Reb
Men at Sea is one of the most striking collections of short works in comics I’ve seen in some time. Eight short works, including “A Smile of Fortune,” by Joseph Conrad, are adapted into comics by Riff Reb. This is a virtual treasure trove for those who love art, literature, and history. Each tale is interspersed by seven double-page spreads dedicated to extracts from illustrated classics.
The Night Witches by Garth Ennis and Russ Braun
The Night Witches is a very impressive book. The story’s main character is Lieutenant Anna Kharkova, once a naive teenager, who grows into a hardened combat WW II veteran for the Soviet air force. The glory and the pain of war are brought to life by the legendary team of Garth Ennis and Russ Braun.
Katusha, written and drawn by Wayne Vansant
Katusha, written and drawn by Wayne Vansant, is quite an ambitious work and a truly immersive page-turner. This is the story of Katusha, a young Ukrainian girl who goes on to fight in the major battles between the Soviets and their Nazi invaders. Follow her story and you gain great insight into one of the greatest conflicts in military history. Vansant puts the reader in the driver’s seat for this riveting narrative.
All Quiet on the Western Front by Wayne Vansant
Let’s add one more: a graphic novel adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front by Wayne Vansant. Along with Katusha, this is another remarkable book by one of the leading creators of historical and military graphic novels. This masterful comics adaptation makes for the ideal companion to the novel.
Dead Reckoning, the new comics imprint from the Naval Institute Press, is a welcome addition to the ever-growing world of comics publishers. The quality and dedication is clearly demonstrated in this comics imprint with a bright future. For more details, and how to purchase, go right here.
King Trump Confronts American Presidents. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.
If someone could use an employee manual, it would certainly be the current occupant to the highest post in the land. Jeremi Suri’s new book guides us through what has become of the American presidency, from its development to its inevitable decline. If Donald Trump were to read it, “The Impossible Presidency” would provide much food for thought.
Suri’s prose has an inviting conversational tone that lifts the reader up. His main argument is that, after a long period of expansion, the job is now collapsing in upon itself. For the first part of the book, we read about the presidents who transformed the office: Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, and the two Roosevelts. The second part of the book follows the fall: JFK and LBJ; Reagan; Clinton and Obama. FDR was the last president to fundamentally remake the job and save the country, and the world, in the process. No one else is going to top that. Furthermore, the job has become so complex that no one person, according to Suri, can ever hope to juggle all the responsibility. Spoiler alert: Suri advocates for a two-person job with a president and a prime minister. Of course, we’ve already established a partnership between president and vice-president since Carter. But that may not be enough.
It is Donald Trump who so neatly underscores Suri’s thesis about the decline of the job that he cannot help but cast a long shadow over the whole book. Suri uses contemporary politico lingo currently associated with Trump. Suri describes past presidents as responding to their “base” and “doubling down” on important issues. More to the point, Suri provides numerous highly relevant examples of how presidents have appealed to the male white voter. This is a fact that each president has wrestled with from the very beginning.
THE IMPOSSIBLE PRESIDENCY by Jeremi Suri
In a work full of evocative and highly informative passages, what Suri does with FDR stands out. Suri weaves a series of recollections by Saul Bellow as a Depression era youth who is galvanized by the reassurances of FDR, the man on the radio, with the funny posh accent, that everyone intently listened to. In the case of FDR, his word was as good as gold. When FDR ordered an increase in the money supply, he answered any criticism over its legitimacy by stating, “How do I know that’s any good? The fact that I think it is, makes it good.” As Suri points out, that kind of common sense meant everything to a struggling boy like Saul Bellow. It was real words backed up by real action.
In a very accessible and compelling style, Suri guides the reader in distinguishing the most consequential American presidents. In this excerpt, you get a taste of Suri’s writing as he compares Lincoln to FDR:
“If Lincoln was the nineteenth-century president, Roosevelt was the twentieth-century American leader.
Lincoln’s presidency anticipated Roosevelt’s. The latter had to contend with the collapse of the American (and world) economy, but they both spent much of their presidencies at war. In retrospect, Roosevelt’s ability to respond creatively to the Great Depression and echo Lincoln’s war performance is truly exceptional. No other president faced the same range of existential challenges. As a consequence, no other president had so many opportunities to change the basic structure of American society, and vast sections of the modern world. Roosevelt turned the darkest of times into the brightest of new hopes. He was not only the first welfare president, but, by 1944, the first global president, influencing more parts of the world than any previous American executive. He pioneered the New Deal and then globalized its reach.”
No less heroic is the way that JFK navigated the Cuban Missile Crisis. In sharp contrast to FDR’s time, Suri points out, the job of president had become so compartmentalized that, even at the height of the crisis, JFK was hamstrung with a schedule crammed with activities of little to no real significance. The office had taken on such a life of its own that it was assumed the president would simply pick how his advisors wanted to strike at Cuba not whether to discuss other options. Of course, we know JFK found another option. But, in the case of Vietnam, the system forced his hand. For LBJ, it was more of the same: another president distracted as well as compelled to great action.
Suri states that gradual and incremental progress is the new template fashioned by Clinton and Obama. But, Suri goes on to say, a sense for bold action must not be lost. For Clinton, it was not responding to the genocide in Rwanda. For Obama, it was not responding to ISIS as the threat emerged. In both cases, each president was conscious of the risk of overextending and held back when they should have acted. As for Trump, Suri seems to see him as more of a warning that we’ve hit rock bottom and now we must plan for what lies ahead. This is an essential book for putting our current state of affairs into proper historical context.
How Much More of King Trump? Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.
The focus of this book is to show how the modern American presidency has evolved into a colossal apparatus. In turn, the role of a modern American president has become virtually unmanageable, too demanding for just one person. Or has it–or is that the crucial problem? To be sure, it is a problem but solving it won’t resolve other government dysfunction. Suri does not delve into what his proposed solution would gain. A team of president and prime minister, as he suggests, would still be at the mercy of a corrupt and compromised Congress. But one step at a time. A post-Trump America, in and of itself, will be a step in the right direction. More and more Americans, even loyal Trump supporters, are coming to see that something is fundamentally wrong with our current chief executive, his election, his entire administration. One American president who Suri does not cover is President Jimmy Carter. Here is a president who valued integrity and did quite a lot of good while in office. Look it up and you’ll see. This book is just the type that inspires you to keep looking up in more ways than one.
“The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office” is a 368-page hardcover published by Basic Books. You can order this book from Amazon by clicking the image below:
There’s a ragged and raw quality to Octavia Butler’s novel, “Kindred,” first published in 1979, about a young African American woman who time travels to America during slavery. It’s odd. It’s compelling. And it demands to be read all the way to the end. As I say, it’s ragged and raw, and by that I mean it’s a rough journey in what transpires and in the telling. As a time travel tale alone, it’s bumpy at best. The time travel element abruptly kicks in and, just as abruptly, the characters involved accept the situation. The narrative itself is episodic and there is little in the form of subtlety. What can be said of the novel transfers over to the just released graphic novel adaptation published by Abrams ComicArts: this is raw, sometimes ugly, but always compelling and a must-read.
panel excerpt: a time traveller’s satchel
Octavia Butler rips the scab off a nightmarish era in America, a wound so deep that it remains healing to this day. You could say that what Butler aspires to do is give a full sense of what it means when we talk about slavey in America. There are a number of approaches you can take. If you go down the ragged and raw path, you may end up with something that is deemed bold by some and deemed heavy-handed by others. The end result could be somewhere in between. Butler chose to damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead, with this novel that finds Dana, an African American woman from 1976 Los Angeles, repeatedly and relentlessly subjected to various torture and humiliation as she finds herself regularly being transported back to America during slavery. The story begins in Maryland in 1815 and subsequently follows the progress of slaver-holder Rufus Weylin, from boy to manhood.
page excerpt: dark journey
First and foremost, this is a book to be celebrated. While it is a tough story to tell, it is brimming with truths to be told. Sure, no need to sugarcoat anything. There are no sensibilities here to protect. That said, while a graphic novel, this is a book with a decidedly mature theme running throughout with disturbing content. What it requires is a adult to check it out first and then decide how to proceed. Without a doubt, this is an important teaching tool but best left to high school and above.
page excerpt: slave/master
As for the overall presentation of this graphic novel, it has taken an audacious approach of its own. Whether intentionally or not, it carries its own distinctive ragged and raw vibe. The drawing throughout is far from elegant, quite the opposite. In fact, it often has a rushed quality about it and I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing. I sense that it’s something of a style choice. This is a harsh and dark story and so it is depicted as such. In the end, this is a truly unusual and intriguing work.
“Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation” is a 240-page, full-color, hardcover available as of January 10th. It is based upon the novel by Octavia Estelle Butler, adapted by Damian Duffy, artwork by John Jennings. For more information and how to purchase, visit Abrams ComicArts.
As a momentous year comes to a close, we look, inevitably, to the future. However, in order to help us on our way, we must also look to the past. If 2016 was the year of Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, then sixty years ago was the year of the Montgomery bus boycott, the Suez Crisis, and, most significantly, the Hungarian Revolution. A vivid and highly accessible account of the year is provided by Simon Hall in his book, “1956: The World in Revolt,” recently published in the U.S. by Pegasus Books.
“1956: The World in Revolt” by Simon Hall
Hall’s book is very readable with a novel’s narrative flow. The interconnections Hall makes are quite impressive as he makes a case for brewing unrest across the globe in the pivotal year of 1956. The seeds of unrest are sown everywhere none the least of which is among the youth. Today, you hear the classic, “Rock Around the Clock,” by Bill Haley and the Comets, and it might come across as a soothing lullaby. Well, relatively speaking. In fact, there’s an undeniable power to it. And, in 1956, it had the power of a cultural sonic boom. There were teenagers dancing in the streets after viewing the rock ‘n’ roll movie featuring Bill Haley and his band. And, around the globe, the status quo was being confronted at all levels. Enough to give those in power plenty of pause.
Hall tackles 1956 in fairly chronological order. We begin with a young and untested Martin Luther King Jr. as he must confront the firebombing on his own home, with his wife and children still inside. Remarkably, no one was hurt from the blast. And thanks to King’s moving address to the crowds gathered, the rest of that cold January night remained calm.
Among the leading news stories that year, the focus was on Egypt, the Suez Canal Crisis, and Egypt’s charismatic leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser.
The greatest undermining of Soviet expansion after World War II was the Hungarian Revolution.
And the end of 1956 would see one more significant sign of things to come: Fidel Castro and his band of revolutionaries proceeded upon their shaky but steadfast push against the Batista regime.
Simon Hall’s book is the first definitive account of the year 1956. Hall’s account presents 1956 as far more than an eventful year but as a source of much significant change that was still ahead. From Poland to South Africa, the call for freedom was loud and clear. Around the world the responses came from world leaders: Eisenhower in the US. Khrushchev in the USSR. Anthony Eden in what was left of the crumbling British Empire. The nationalization of the Suez Canal by Nasser spurred an Israeli-British-French attack that nearly brought in the Soviets–an attack that would ultimately fail. Hall captures it all in a riveting narrative always mindful of those not in power who were brave enough to shout the loudest.
“1956: The World in Revolt” is a 509-page hardcover, published by Pegasus Books. For more information, and how to purchase, visit Pegasus Books right here.
“Pocahontas: Princess of the New World” by Loïc Locatelli-Kournwsky
Here is a story that will greatly resonate with anyone struggling with issues of Otherness. There is so much to love about the graphic novel, “Pocahontas: Princess of the New World.” If you are looking for a powerful and accessible way to talk about race and tolerance, here is a compelling new addition to that discussion. Depicted in a direct and straightforward manner, here is the story of Pocahontas and John Smith as you’ve never seen it before. This is truly a unique gift for young and older readers alike. Originally published in French by Sarbacane in 2014, this spirited and quite informative graphic novel by Loïc Locatelli-Kournwsky is now available in an English translation by Pegasus Books.
Truth is stranger than fiction. Loïc Locatelli-Kournwsky plays with that concept by mining closer to the known facts, at least much closer than a Disney animated feature could. Pocahontas was around eleven years-old in 1607 when she was supposed to have famously saved Jamestown settler John Smith from being executed by the Powhatans. The rest is a bit of history and myth. This graphic novel interpretation has Pocahontas in the role of vigilant defender and protector of John Smith and the English colonists. Originally named, Matoaka, there is some dispute as to how and why she became known as “Pocahontas.” Some versions of the story say the name meant “playful one.” But in this version, the Powhatans feel betrayed and the nickname is supposed to simply mean, “shameless whore.”
Matoaka, later to be known as Pocahontas, would be baptized by the English as, Rebecca. The Biblical reference suggested a healer to two separate cultures. That myth would blossom in the 19th century as she was portrayed as an emblem of the potential of Native Americans to be assimilated into European society. Keeping close to the facts gives way to some poetic speculation as Locatelli-Kournwsky explores the inner world of his celebrated main character. In a number of key scenes, we see that the the clash of cultures is quite overwhelming for Pocahontas. Even once married to John Rolfe and dressed in the best fashion, English society around her does not really embrace her. She is forever seen as part of the wilderness and best suited to remain there. The die is cast, for better or worse, once Pocahontas, always Pocahontas.
Readers will be pleasantly surprised to read a more enlightened account of such a celebrated figure in history. Locatelli-Kournwsky’s artwork is just the right mix of lightness and precision. And the new English translation by Sandra Smith provides a smooth and accessible path to this most engaging story.
“Pocahontas: Princess of the New World” is a 128-page hardcover, published by Pegasus Books and available as of September 6, 2016. Visit Pegasus Books right here.
Once a toy has become an artifact of childhood, it has reached a very special place. For the purposes of this exhibit, a look at American toys spanning three decades, the focus is upon the joy and comfort these toys provided. The context is both simple and complex as viewers are invited to study the various exhibits from their own personal point of view. Did you have a happy childhood? If not, maybe a toy helped you along the way? Sectioned off into three decades worth of childhoods, there is plenty to recollect and reassess.
Contemplating Toys and Childhood
“Toys from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s” is enjoying its West Coast premiere on display at MOHAI here in Seattle. Originating from the Minnesota History Center, this exhibit asks you to revisit many toys that, by today’s standards, would not be deemed suitable for children on many grounds, including common sense safety! Lawn darts, anyone?? Yep, we don’t see lawn darts sold in today’s toy market. They’re basically sharp steel projectiles. They’re not going to cut it, or rather, they ARE going to cut it! But, you see, lawn darts have a home here–on display only. Lawn darts are not subject to recall within the bounds of this exhibit. They are here to conjure up good lawn dart memories, for those who have them. And they’re also here as a subject for discussion. As much as this exhibit is a trip down memory lane, it also invites viewers to draw their own conclusions.
The Game of Cootie, originally launched in 1949
What are your thoughts on Barbie dolls or toy guns? You’ll find them here ready for your marvel or scrutiny. The point is that you’ll find all sorts of toys, whether or not they pass today’s safety or societal tests. The overwhelming nature of childhood memory takes over. Countless kids loved their toys and now we have the nostalgia for yesteryear and contemporary perspective to guide us. You’ll find a lot of kids attracted to the exhibits. You’ll see lots of families with their toddlers, too young to appreciate any nuances but ready to grab at anything not secured. And then there are the adults who grew up in these respective decades. For them, especially, the exhibit features living room re-creations for each decade on view. For these viewers, the couch is right there to sit and go back in time with, alone or perhaps to share with younger family members.
1960s Living Room Re-creation at MOHAI Toys exhibit
Toys are certainly not easy to pin down. Toys resist being dismissed even if the originals are stored away or thrown away. Toys come at you from every direction. At a certain age, they define your leisure, your means of escape. They can become your world, your identity. They’re based upon all you think you know about the world whether from books, movies, television, just about anything. What does a choice in a toy say about a child? What does a toy say about the adult who chose it for the child? The adult who created it? The manufacturer that produced it? The country that embraced it?
Atomic Disintegrator repeating cap pistol, introduced by Hubley in 1954
Alpha-1 Ballistic Missile, introduced by Amsco Industries in 1958
One of the best examples of how toys can make a difference is the American reaction to the Soviet’s being the first in space in 1957 with the Sputnik satellite. That little object in space caused shockwaves in the United States. Toy makers would definitively enter the Space Age and Space Race. Hubley’s 1954 Atomic Disintegrator, right out of science fiction, was all well and good. But now was the time to step up a focus on science and technology. Amsco Industries responded in 1958 with the Alpha-1 Ballistic Missile, “designed by missile engineers, tested in Cape Canaveral.” And, as the display makes clear, kids ate it up! There’s this priceless quote from the exhibit:
“How did I get interested in science and make it my life’s work? Kids in the late ’50s and ’60s could get toys that complemented that interest. My friends and I loved my Alpha-1 Ballistic Missile: Mix up some baking soda and vinegar, put it into the missile, put it on the launch pad, and pull the string. That baby could really fly.”
–Mike Smith, b. 1952, meteorologist
It was fun, as a discerning adult, to wander back and forth between the three living room areas: the wonder and innocence in the 1950s; the keen interest in science and exploration in the 1960s; and a full circle escape to wonder and innocence in the 1970s. It seemed like, after having landed on the moon, and the rise of the Vietnam War, Americans were ready to refocus. Instead of looking to actual stars, Americans were ready to go see the new blockbuster hit, “Star Wars,” entertainment with its roots in 1930s pulp fiction. They were also ready to buy all the Star Wars toys.
Hey, that’s Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon!
I have fond memories of the ’70s as a kid. And I recall seeing “Star Wars” in 1977, at age 14, at our local movie theater at the mall. It would not have occurred to me to buy all the Star Wars figures, let alone a toy replica of the Millennium Falcon. But it was really nice to see the whole Star Wars set on display here at MOHAI. Any kid would have been thrilled to have owned them back then. But I’m sure that I owned a couple of figures. And I know that I went to see “Star Wars” more than once, despite the very long lines. I didn’t question any of it back then, although I was certainly old enough to do so. I was more than happy to accept it just as fun. I didn’t think about profit motives or the future of franchises or the American spirit. This brand new thing called “Star Wars” left you with a good feeling inside. And that’s the best thing any toy can offer.
TOYS at MOHAI!
“Toys from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s” is on display at MOHAI through September 25th. For more details, visit MOHAI right here.