Topper, Turnabout, TCM, and ... Thorne Smith

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"Mom," I said when I was 10 or thereabouts, "what's 'ribald' mean?" Because I had just pulled from the bookcase a Pocket Book edition of Topper - and the cover told me it was "a ribald adventure" by Thorne Smith. However she explained it (and I don't recall: ah, the challenges of parenthood), I read the book and was delighted - and went in pursuit of other novels by Smith. We had a few: Topper Takes a Trip, Turnabout, The Stray Lamb, and Rain in the Doorway, as I recall. Eventually, thanks to perseverance and used book stores, I added to the collection: The Glorious Pool, The Bishop's Jaegers, Did She Fall?, The Passionate Witch, Skin and Bones, and The Night Life of the Gods. They were deliciously "naughty" (and I didn't understand all the implications of all the "naughtiness," I think it only fair to point out here), and at some point I even made a list of how many times I'd read each one so's not to favor one over another in the course of many re-readings. Two of the novels (The Bishop's Jaegers and Did She Fall?) were not fantasies. Each of the rest had a supernatural gimmick. Topper involved ghosts. The Stray Lamb involved being turned into animals. The Night Life of the Gods featured an invention that turned people to stone and brought statues to life. And so on.

So when Glen Weldon on National Public Radio's Pop Culture Happy Hour discussed the upcoming film The Change-Up, he went on to suggest that "body-swapping comedies" were a genre and rattled off references to a number of films in that genre without even going back to Disney's two versions of Freaky Friday. And that discussion suddenly reminded me of Turnabout - and made me wonder whether Smith had, indeed, created a genre in 1931 (with a sort of subgenre in The Stray Lamb in 1929 - with who knows how many resultant Disney projects in that grouping). I think Smith did - and that, in turn, led me to grab a copy of Topper again to revisit his fiction to see whether I liked his writing as much now as I had decades ago. I did. At random from the set-up of Topper:

Mr. Topper and his neighbors were quietly proud of his street, and had born their assessments as a tolerant father bears the extras of an extravagant son at college. One could bring one's friends from the city to this street and let it speak for itself, which one seldom did. Sewerage, real estate and the cost of building were subjects far too fascinating to be left to the imagination, so the visitors from the city heard all about these things, and were not amused.

At any rate, my guess is that few today have read many of Smith's works - and the film adaptations some of them achieved hardly conveyed all that could have been translated from his novels. But, on the trail of the Turnabout genre, I discovered that January is apparently Turner Classic Movies' month to celebrate Thorne Smith movies (or, as Peter Sanderson commented, maybe it's just that TCM is paying tribute to Hal Roach). In any case, I've had that channel tuned so as to watch (January 23) I Married a Witch (based, albeit with changed ending, on The Passionate Witch), (January 25) Topper, and (January 26) Turnabout, Topper Takes a Trip, and Topper Returns. And, with Turnabout, I may be watching the beginning of a genre.


Comics Fans before Comics Fandom

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

In the midst of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the beginning of what we call "comics fandom," a few folks now and then will announce (as if it were uncharted territory) that some people collected comics (and even published fanzines with comics commentaries) prior to 1961. (Most often cited are the E.C. fanzines of the 1950s.) The reason we're celebrating 50 years is that 1961 marked the start of a fandom that didn't go away; earlier endeavors did not grow and build into a long-term, ongoing community of hobbyists. But, especially among science-fiction fans (with a tradition of amateur self-publication), there were certainly people who shared their fondness for comics. A case in point was The Cricket, and I turned up a copy of the first issue (June 1949) recently.

The Cricket, self-described as "A periodical of culture and reefinement" with the epigraph "You plays cricket, drinks tea, and lifs the pinky when you holds the cup" (a Walt Kelly quote from Animal Comics), was a fanzine published by my mom and dad and edited by Betsy Curtis (aka Mom) "at their editorial offices, mimeograph salon, studio, dishwashing and ironing parlors, nursery and residence." Circulation of the mimeographed newsletter (judging from the published list of recipients) was 36, only 4 copies of which went to relatives. In the midst of book, magazine, and music recommendations is the following essay by Mom. (I shall not italicize it or put it in quotes; suffice to say the rest of this post is by her.):

Best Sellers

So many friends have asked me in grim or pathetic tones, "Do you approve of comic books?" that I feel I must make some public statement which I can hand out to such gals and run for cover while they are reading it. The question, of course, makes about as much sense as "Do you approve of books?" but it is hard to say this without being thought impertinent or irrelevant by the questioners.

Comic books are naturally appealing. Pictures, like stage drama, are more interesting than mere print. The rapid action of most of the plots and the excitement of adventure hold a child's attention in comics as they do in western movies. Passages of slow moving description are not necessary when the action is presented in pictures.

Many objections to comic books have to do with their subject matter. It is certainly not surprising that the children of avid whodunit readers should like detective comics and that children who are offered few fairy tales should satisfy their craving for fantasy with Superman and the Green Lantern (whose doings are in their way more moral than "Big Claus and Little Claus" and most of the contents of the Red, Violet, and Blue Fairy Books. And comics are cheaper than "good" fantasy - the Oz books are still retailing at $2. I wish I could afford to supply Judy [my nickname in 1949] with books which she would enjoy more (and there are plenty) than comics.

Some mothers object that their children bury themselves in comics and no longer spend time in active "fantasy play" with their friends. Cops and robbers are supposed to have given way to afternoons in the corners of the sofa with piles of comics. Comics are also supposed to have replaced "real literature" in the lives of our young. I can see no reason why there should not be a "real literature" in comic form. It is slow in taking shape, but the work of such artists as [Morris] Gollub, [Dan] Noonan, and Kelly give promise that comics can be good reading for children. Certainly these stories have been acted out by children - I've seen and heard it.

Comic art is a young art. When better comics are printed, kids will read them. I have considerable faith in the taste of children - they like good fiction better than bad; but as long as they are offered only mediocre, bad, and worse, in a form that is more appealing and cheaper than good stories, they will continue to read mediocre, etc.

I don't know how to get good comics on the market any more than I know how to encourage the writing and publishing of other good books for children - but I am hopeful that artists and publishers will come across in time for our grandchildren to have lots of fun at a very moderate cost.


The largest number of periodicals in our household seems, in spite of culture and reefinement, to be made up of comic books. Most of our collection are really intended to be comic - that is, funny. Most of them are published by the Dell Publishing Company and portray the doings of urban children (Little Lulu, Henry) or urban animal child-substitutes (Walter Lantz, Merrie Melodies, Walt Disney, Tom and Jerry, etc.) The cream of the crop were, in the recent past, Our Gang, Raggedy Ann, and Fairy Tale Parade (still Dell) with the excellent drawing, interesting stories and amusing dialogue of Walt Kelly, Dan Noonan, and Morris Gollub; but these three gentlemen seem to be deserting the comic book business and two of the publications are no longer in existence. The least painful comics still on the market other than the ones I have just mentioned seem to be the Disney ones. I should recommend a recent special, still on the stands in Canton - "Donald Duck in the Treasure of the Andes" [Dell Four Color #223, actually "Lost in the Andes" by Carl Barks] - as the best of the recent dime publications for the four-to-eight year old. We do seem to have accumulated a number of Superboy, Wonder Woman, and Bat Man opera, but these do not hold the attention of our six-year-old for more than five or six readings. Even Raggedy Ann can beat that.


Ode to an iPad

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I love my pad.
No, not my home.
And my dear dad
Had no such tome.
My pad's an "i."
It goes with me
Where'er I go.
The apps I buy
All let me see
What's there to know.

Hot diggity! Let's trot out the reference material to see whether I followed the form correctly. Or - no - let's skip it. In any case, I've found my iPad (purchased in late October) a constant boon and problem-solver - rather than the "toy" many have called it. Those who already have iPads will find the following natter redundant - though I hope that some among them may have suggestions to resolve the few annoyances I've accumulated. In any case, among the uses: Given that I often end up in a variety of unfamiliar locations, a ready (readable) variety of maps have let me travel with increased confidence. (Also, given the fun of travel, it's been downright necessary at times to determine potential weather problems - so the forecasts and radar from the free Weather Channel app have been a boon.) Given that I enjoy having an entertaining book with me at all times, I do. Given that I often need a calendar, I have it. Given that I seem to need to refer to iMDb virtually daily, I can. Given that there's ongoing discussion of comic books available for download, I've downloaded a few so that I can know what the heck people are talking about. Given that I like to keep tabs on my email, I can do that - and follow Twitter, too.

I've paid for almost no apps. The books I've loaded so far (and they're far more readable on the iPad than on the Kindle, which I used to use) have been free. (I'm now reading James Branch Cabell's Jurgen, though to do so I have to saddle up a lot more vocabulary than I've been used to using recently. And that was fun, too. In any case, that novel was free, as were several books by Saki, Mark Twain, Jerome K. Jerome, and P.G. Wodehouse.) Note: I have paid for Office2 HD and Star Walk - the first, for work; the second, for fun.

And so far, at least, the iPad holds a charge long enough to last between my opportunities to charge it.

Annoyances: It's not easy to use for professional writing or editing. It lacks direction arrows on the three on-screen keyboards. It lacks a cents sign on the ditto. It lacks a USB port (which, I suspect, is deliberate). It lacks a quick copy-paste function (maybe the "copy" function will pop up, as my finger lingers over a word; maybe it won't; in any case, it takes far longer to copy-paste than the simple clicks on even my tiny, cheap notebook computer). That's about it for gripes. [Looking for a solution, by the way, I've studied the Brookstone iPad holder with its built-in keyboard (complete with direction arrows) but am not about to plunk down $100 for what looks as if it would let me touch-type except that it seems not to have been designed by anyone who actually touch-types. (Hint: Touch-typists need a shift key on both sides of the keyboard. Check it out, Brookstone. And watch out, keyboard-lovers, if you've only been able to judge from small online images of the holder.)]

What are your favorite apps? I'm still experimenting with "Flipboard," following the recommendation of #PCHH's Glen Weldon. How about you?


Pop Culture Happy Hour #PCHH Follow-Up: Gifts

Monday, January 10, 2011

In the first of National Public Radio's "Pop Culture Happy Hour" podcasts of 2011, there was something of a catch-up on gifts from the end of 2010. Listeners may have yearned for (to pretend to coin a phrase) outward and visible signs of inward and emotional delights. There was, for example, a question regarding the success of Stephen's gift of an arcade-size game of Frogger, ostensibly for his kids. Here for all to see is a photo of that success (and, fear not, all three had a chance to play). (You may also be canny enough to see that, while Frogger was A Main Attraction, other games were included in the device.)

I also had the opportunity to capture an image of the reaction of "Monkey See" blogger Linda Holmes to another gift. Let me put on the record here and now The Tale of the Sampler: Several months ago, an annoyed comment was posted regarding something or other on "Monkey See": "This is beneath NPR's dignity." I wrote to Linda that that was the sort of remark that cried out to be immortalized via a cross-stitched sampler. She responded that, if such a thing were to be created, she would be pleased to hang it. So I asked a craft-skilled friend - Kim Frankenhoff, wife of Comics Buyer's Guide Editor Brent Frankenhoff - whether she could provide such a sampler. She tackled the project with a will, coming up with a variety of fabrics, sizes, threads, font choices, and the like. We plotted it out together, she did all the work (including her own design of the fleur-de-lis ornaments), and I took the completed project to a wonderful local shop where the folks know how to frame such things. I must say that, judging from Linda's reaction, the project was unexpected. I love it when things work out!


Viewing Audio: Pop Culture Happy Hour #PCHH

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Trey Graham, Mike Katzif, Glen Weldon, Linda Holmes

Stephen Thompson, Trey Graham

Have you followed National Public Radio's Pop Culture Happy Hour weekly podcast? It began in midsummer and continues weekly with (so far) only a one-week break (on December 31). All the shows so far are available for download, and my view is that it's fun to start with the first and savor your way through to the most recent episode, not only because there are occasional references to earlier podcasts in the course of things but also because there's something not to be missed in every show. The event is usually recorded on Monday or Tuesday and then polished to a fare-the-well for the Friday posting. Usual featured folks are "Monkey See" Editor Linda Holmes, Digital Media Editor and Producer Trey Graham, freelance commentator on comics and books Glen Weldon, and NPR Music Editor Stephen Thompson. (The podcast is produced by Mike Katzif.) It should astonish no one that I would listen compulsively due to son Stephen's presence in any case, but even on the one episode without him the show rewarded listening (and by "rewarded," I mean it was packed with insights and laughs enough to lead me to listen to it repeatedly).

In any case, it was a treat to sit in on (and actually provide a brief interlude for) the podcast that was made available for Christmas Eve listening. And I thought it might entertain some to see what I saw in what was, of course, an audio-only event. I have more photos, should folks want to view them - especially considering the fact that the Fancy NPR Microphones block some of the view in one of these photos. (It was only as I prepared to post this that I discovered I hadn't managed to get all the commentators in one shot. So it goes.)

What you hear in the podcast is pretty much what was said, with only occasional pauses to restart a comment that needed restarting. They could do this in front of a live audience. Hey, wait. Come to think of it, they did!


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