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Review: ‘Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours’ by Alex Nall

“Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours” by Alex Nall

Comics is uniquely suited for any form of biography and to quite a fascinating degree. I’ve said that before and, to prove my point, I have all sorts of new things I can say about this theme in regards to Alex Nall‘s graphic novella, “Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours.” This is a look at the life and times of Fred Rogers (1928-2003), the host of the landmark PBS children’s program, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Intertwined in this biography is a look at Nall’s own life as a grade school art teacher. As often is the case, the comics creator has created a mashup of bio and auto-bio. It’s a natural occurance among cartoonists to include themselves into the narrative. When done right, the results can feel like a smooth dreamy story.

A mashup of bio and autobio.

Nall’s artwork has a primitive child-like quality about it. He depicts himsself with a cumbersome bulbous pink nose. It is all hand-drawn, down to the lettering and color washes. This is a style that falls right in line with a lot of alt-comics: keep it simple; keep it slapdash. In this case, that look fits in. Nall evokes the frenetic energy of children: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Kids, the little angels we’d wish them to be, usually are far from saints. Time and again, Nall shares with the reader the reality of the daily grind of interacting with these wee people. Ah, big segue: Nall comes to find inspiration in his nightly revisits on his laptop to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” This triggers an exploration by Nall thus leading to confronting more than he bargained for.

A young and feisty Fred Rogers.

First, some words on Fred Rogers and his monumental achievement. Keep in mind, the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” program ran from 1968 to 2001. There was nothing like it before and there will probably never be anything like it again. This is a show that speaks to kids on their own terms — and in a distinctive format that defies duplication. The viewership is mostly meant for 2 to 5 year-olds, but it appeals to any age. Fred Rogers became sort of a surrogate parent for countless children, spanning generations, simply by being there with kind and gentle entertainment mixed in with thoughtful observation and guidance. Everyone seems to fondly remember Fred Rogers and have a favorable opinion of him. You may have seen footage of a young and feisty Rogers testifying before Congress in support of PBS funding. Rogers was able to melt the heart of at least one tough and jaded senator.

Nall highlights a particular aspect in his story and provides an excellent example of how one element can affect the balance of the whole. Comics, with their panels and unique narrative structure, are inherently tricky balancing acts. You can include a scene in one panel and the ripple effect is under way. Refer back to it and the overriding subject behind it, and you’ve underscored it, boosted its significance. Return to the subject again, and the whole story points back to it, in a way, as if in service to that one aspect. These sort of shifts in focus happen all the time in big prose works. For example, a book on current events will have its most newsworthy items plucked for greater scrutiny by all the news outlets.

The Washing of Feet.

Nall makes a strategic choice to focus upon the relationship between Mister Rogers and Police Officer Clemmons. The scenes are from the point of view of Francois Clemmons. Rogers hired Clemmons to play the role of a police officer on the show. This was the late 1960s and police brutality was a hot news topic. In one particular panel, we see what looks like Mister Rogers washing the feet of Officer Clemmons. The unique nature of comics allows the reader to linger on a panel. The panel is already a highlighted moment, suspended in time, radiating beyond its borders. The actual moment that occurred on the show was held together by a very different medium. In the course of that scene with Clemmons, he and Rogers are indeed enjoying a moment of peace and quiet. As they are about to complete the scene, they both begin to get their feet out of the water. For a split second, Rogers takes a towel and passes it over Clemmons’s feet. It occurred so fast as to be subliminal. Certainly, it was packed with Christian symbolism.

Francois Clemmons speaks out.

That moment, both subliminal and highly symbolic, is what Nall sort of plucked and focused upon to keep the reader wondering. It is unusual. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. Sure, it is benign. You could see it as ideal too. But it is also unusual. It was Rogers’s way of gently and kindly getting a message across, specifically of racial tolerance but transcendent as well. A moment of kindness. Done. We move on. However, Nall has tapped into something that he pursues further and which he would be hard pressed to avoid. His research consisted of four articles and two books. It is really the one book, 2015’s “Peaceful Neighbor,” by Michael Long, that is at the crux of this. In the book, Francois Clemmons claims that he was told by Rogers that, while Rogers supported Clemmons coming out as gay, the program was not ready for an openly gay character. If he came out, he would have to be let go. To further complicate matters, Clemmons claims that Rogers advised him to marry a woman and Clemmons did just that. Considering the era, Clemmons would certainly not be alone among closeted gays. Even today, there is no openly gay character on a children’s program.

Overall, Nall has done a good job in conveying some compelling facts. He is not bringing to light anything that was not already covered in “Peaceful Neighbor” but he has presented these facts in a different format and reached a number of new readers. Nall’s book is an achievement in the sense that any book of this kind put together by one individual is a small miracle in itself. So, yes, of course, I wholeheartedly congratulate Nall. It would be very interesting to chat with him on what parts of his book are style choices and what parts are simply the result of his current skill set. Personally, I am a strong believer in cartoonists perpetually pushing themselves to make the smoothest and most readable content.

I look forward to what Nall does next as he considers his next project. Nall has demonstrated that he’s not afraid to tackle as ambitious a project as the life and times of Fred Rogers. And, as I say, he has a good grasp of how the comics medium works. It can be a deceptively simple affair but, in fact, it has quite a built-in complexity. Once the process is set in motion, just like any other creative endeavor, it takes on a life of its own.

“Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours” is the latest installment of Nall’s “Teaching Comics” series. Visit him right here.

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Filed under Alex Nall, Alt-Comics, Alternative Comics, Comics, Independent Comics, Indie, Mister Rogers, PBS

Review: THE GREAT AMERICAN DREAM MACHINE

Great-American-Dream-Machine

There is much to discover in the offbeat television program, “The Great American Dream Machine,” now collected for the first time on DVD by S’More Entertainment. It first aired on PBS for two seasons from 1971-1972. And it remains unusual even today in its honest and idiosyncratic approach. It has been labeled as a “political satire” but it was more than that as it held true to a Sixties idealism. Here you find extended pieces that simply celebrated a people power ethos: interviews with average Americans on the topic of the American Dream; an urban artist who creates art from manhole covers; or a decidedly unplugged segment hanging out with the popular daredevil of the era, Evel Knievel.

Amanda Ambrose

Amanda Ambrose

The best way to view this collection is to skip around the way you would if you happened to stumble upon a curious item in your attic or thrift store, or think of it this way: this program is like surfing the internet if it existed back in the Sixties. Here is a veritable cornucopia of content. In one respect, it recalls the ambitious installations created by Charles and Ray Eames overflowing with information. What makes this program notable is how well it holds up today and that is because it was carefully curated, not just controlled chaos.

Host Marshall Efron

Host Marshall Efron

I would not necessarily watch it from the very first episode onward. In fact, the first episode is a bit clunky as the program was still finding its feet. I think it may have been leaning towards being a show for teens and, later on, it became more of a show for teens on up. It was a trailblazer for the mashup of news and entertainment we know today but without the glitz and sensationalism. And, with its people power energy, it foresaw YouTube and citizen journalism. What it did so well was evoke a feeling of flipping through a magazine or exploring randomly. One program would run the gamut from a segment on a marriage between four people living in a Volkswagen van to children interviewing another child playing the role of God to a tour of the program host’s tiny cluttered apartment. With great panache, Marshall Efron assures us that he created his home from a plastic kit that only costs $4.95.

Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel

Among recurring segments, there was journalist Studs Terkel moderating a gathering of average citizens discussing current events. The discussion would begin with a somewhat uncertain tone but would steadily gain ground. A construction worker, who seemed all full of hot air, would emerge as more insightful than given credit for. His insistence that he, and his working class and middle class neighbors, should not bear the burden of paying for federal social programs is initially met with scorn by Terkel. But the guy’s argument remains measured. Why don’t those at a much higher level of income pay their fair share? he asks. To that, Terkel nods in agreement.

A marriage between four people living in a Volkswagen van

A marriage between four people living in a Volkswagen van

Much in the same spirit as the magazine Adbusters, here was a program that could be a bit didactic, yet clever, with its social commentary. There’s one segment led by journalist Nicholas von Hoffman that takes aim at advertising commonly found in medical journals and stitches them together into a soap opera. It’s pretty easy given all the seduction used to sell everything from anti-depressants to laxatives. That segment segues to a dramatic piece with Linda Lavin and Rob Leibman. They create their satirical ode to romance which includes reciting advice on love from a teen magazine.

Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier

What will ultimately strike the viewer is a spirited vision and sincerity. Just listen to the stirring words of Ron Dellums, who had just been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. In a montage segment of interviews, his eloquent advocacy for racial harmony remains relevant today. And then there is a segment with Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte on the set of “Buck and the Preacher,” a Western with a focus on the black experience. Poitier speaks to black history and how it is part of a bigger picture, that of human history. And he speaks to moving beyond dreams, and nightmares. With determination, and against excruciating odds, an African American would someday become President of the United States.

"Up is Down" animated short

“Up is Down” animated short

“The Great American Dream Machine” wholeheartedly embraced the counterculture just as a new golden era of television was on the horizon. It was to be a heady time for offbeat humor spiked with social commentary. This would include, to varying degrees, such programs as Tom Snyder’s “Tomorrow” and Martin Mull’s “Fernwood 2 Night.” It is a legacy that was to be carried on by such programs as “The Daily Show,” “This American Life,” and “Saturday Night Live.”

THE GREAT AMERICAN DREAM MACHINE is a 4 DVD set brought to you by S’More Entertainment and available at Amazon.

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Filed under Counterculture, Entertainment, pop culture, Television

Review: SUPERHEROES: A NEVER-ENDING BATTLE on PBS

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Superman, Fleischer Studios, 1941-1942

Superman, Fleischer Studios, 1941-1942

“When you strip everything away, what you’re looking at is a stranger in a strange land who doesn’t want to be isolated from the world,” says comic book writer Mark Waid, in summing up what a superhero is all about in a remarkable PBS series, “Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle.” Viewers will be able to watch all three episodes in one feature length presentation tonight, 8pm/7pm Central. Go to PBS for more details here. And, don’t forget, there are super treats after the show: you can purchase the DVD or Blu-ray, with plenty of bonus features, and you can purchase a gorgeous hardcover book companion with a treasure trove of additional material (review here).

Superhero comics are always up for a good fight, especially when it comes to survival of the fittest. As this comprehensive documentary makes clear, it didn’t take long before such early creations as Superman and Batman gained popularity. Once on top, it’s hard to see yourself anywhere else. And so the race was on to stay on top. However, comics aren’t a simple product that you can easily manipulate for maximum profit, or else that wasn’t exactly the plan. For example, when Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, a couple of lonely and poverty-stricken teenagers in Cleveland, created Superman in 1934, they weren’t thinking about demographics. No, they were thinking about heroics in the very best sense of the word. It is that kind of spirit that has made its way through this rather complex world of superhero comics. Yes, it is a business but it is also married to art. Sometimes it’s a happy marriage and sometimes not so much.

The thrust of this documentary, its inevitable center of gravity, spins around this odd mixture of commerce and creativity. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just sell funny books at a handsome profit and keep everyone happy? A win-win, right? But there are no clear-cut win-wins in life. As we progress from the early golden age, we get a greater sense of the challenges that lay ahead for superhero comics. In this documentary, the timeline is split into three: “Truth, Justice, and the American Way (1938-1958),” “Great Power, Great Responsibility (1959-1977),” and “A Hero Can Be Anyone (1978-Present).” This is tidy way of making sense of the evolution of the industry for general audiences. It loosely follows the comic book eras that collectors and fans acknowledge, based on the dominant artists, writers, and trends of the times: Golden (1938-1950), Silver (1956-1970), Bronze (1970-1985), and Modern (1986-Present). Given all the potential detours, this documentary sets a clear path. It tends to be upbeat but it is also honest. Creators are key to getting a product out to market but creators aren’t always appreciated or compensated accordingly.

"Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D." by Jim Steranko, 1968

“Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” by Jim Steranko, Marvel Comics, 1968

A very good example of a creator forced to fight for his rights is Jim Steranko. There are plenty of others like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. For the purposes of this documentary, Steranko has been enlisted to represent the A-Team. Steranko proves an eloquent soul with killer chops as an artist and visionary. At just the time when the Pop Art movement was recontextualizing superhero comics, Steranko was using those very same artistic techniques to create groundbreaking comics that undoubtedly rose to the level of art. Without a stitch of dialogue, or captions, he created panel after panel of comics narrative. However, when it came time for payment, Marvel Comics wanted to hold back payment related to writing for any pages without actual text. Steranko had to resort to a macho man confrontation. Marvel Comics chose to pay in full. Ah, the giddy ’60s, a time when you could still threaten to use your fists to settle a dispute and get what you rightly deserved.

"Green Lantern/Green Arrow," by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams, DC Comics, 1971

“Green Lantern/Green Arrow,” by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, DC Comics, 1971

While all of us that follow comics are more than a little familiar with how superhero comics have shifted to a more mature audience, despite its apparent roots as entertainment for kids, what this documentary helps put into perspective are the factors that led to that shift. To the credit of Marvel Comics and DC Comics, commerce and creativity can and do meet in interesting ways. One shining example is at a point in the culture when drug use had reached alarming levels. Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, at DC Comics, were keen to do a story that spoke to the dangers of drug use. But, at the time, the Comics Authority, a holdover from another era that still policed comics, did not allow any mention of drugs. Stan Lee, at Marvel Comics, also wanted to tackle the topic–and he did in a landmark Spider-Man story. It was a game changer and bust the doors open wide. No more Comics Authority. A new relevance for comics. In time, this new freedom would lead to further experimentation, and bring forth another player into the business, Image Comics.

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It is to the credit of filmmaker Michael Kantor for tuning in as well as he did to his subject. You can think of this documentary as on par with a Ken Burns documentary. In other words, it’s a stellar job that digs deep and rewards the viewer with greater insight. Be sure to tune in tonight, same Bat time, same Bat channel, on your local PBS station. Go to PBS for more details here.

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Filed under Comics, DC Comics, Documentaries, Image Comics, Marvel Comics, PBS, Superheroes

Review: SUPERHEROES! by Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor, published by Crown Archetype; in connection with ‘Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle’ on PBS

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“Superheroes! Capes, Cowls, and the Creation of Comic Book Culture” is a 304 page full color hardcover, published by Crown Archetype, with a lot to say about comic books. As has always been my experience, a companion book to a PBS series is worth getting. This book is attached to the upcoming feature-length documentary on PBS, “Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle,” originally slated to air on three separate nights, now scheduled to air all on October 15, 2013. It’s a smart choice since viewers, much like readers, appreciate it when they can dive into a subject all in one go.

The story of the comic book superhero industry lends itself well to being observed in an uninterrupted panorama. At 75-years-old, this is still a young industry and what is happening today can’t help but remain a story in flux. You might think that, after 75 years, things have settled down. But you would be wrong. That is a relatively short blip of time, ask any historian. Furthermore, this is an industry inextricably linked to far more than commerce, far more than it ever bargained for.

Spider-Man-Steve-Ditko-Superheroes-2013

But say what you will, superhero comics remain embedded in the culture. And there are artists within the industry who continue to push the superhero comic forward. Along the way, we get work that is transcendent and rises to the level of art. Just considering all the examples can make your head spin. There is a reason your head might spin. Superhero comics have tapped into something as deep as any literature or art and resonate on a primal level. So, who truly owns today’s superheroes? People from all walks of life will lay claim to that. Cobbled together from the old salty pulp magazines and Sunday funnies, superhero comics have always run into conflict with their varied audiences. Kids and comics are a natural combination. But so are adults and comics.

What you will find in this book is a treasure trove beyond any extras on your DVD or Blu-ray. With the book, there is an even greater opportunity to fill in the gaps and extend discourse in well-thought-out words. For instance, while few would quibble on the quality and significance of “Watchmen” and “The Dark Night Returns,” two landmark works in superhero comics, it is fascinating to get this quote in the book by Len Wein, co-creator of DC Comics’ Swamp Thing and Marvel Comics’ Wolverine:

‘Watchmen’ and ‘The Dark Night Returns’ were both very violent books. They were meant to be exceptions to the rule. They weren’t intended to be a blueprint for the industry to follow, they were intended to be something to show you here’s what could have happened–let’s not go do that. But they were hugely successful and so everybody started to do those books.

If anyone knows what he’s talking about, it would be Len Wein. What he is saying is that those two works had a purpose and served a purpose. If a marketing plan just calls for more of the same, it is already dead in the water. It may sell but readers will sniff it out and may not come back for yet more of the same product now four, five, ten times removed from the original.

What Laurence Maslon, a co-writer on the PBS documentary, and Michael Kantor, the filmmmaker, keep coming back to in both the film and in this book, is that superhero comics, by their very nature, will always be engaged in a never-ending battle in more ways than one: a battle to refine their purpose and remain relevant. And, in one way or another, even if the customer/fan may not fully realize it, they will have the final say, maybe not now but someday.

Readers will find this book to be exceptionally comprehensive and quite relevant. While the book was created prior to the uproar over the DC Comics decision not to allow Batwoman/Kate Kane to marry her girlfriend, Maggie Sawyer, the writers for this book were clearly sensitive to the significance of such a storyline and provide a fresh example of the never-ending battle.

Superheroes-Maslon-Kantor-PBS-Batwoman-Marriage

“Superheroes! Capes, Cowls, and the Creation of Comic Book Culture” is available as of October 1, 2013, and is published by Crown Archetype, a division of Random House, which you can visit here. And don’t miss this very special PBS documentary, “Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle,” and you can learn more about that here.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Comics, DC Comics, Marvel Comics, PBS, Superheroes