Murdered Over Comics?

I’m really not sure what to make of this article I found in the December 21, 1903 issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune. There was a bit of a moral panic about comic supplements in the end of that decade, but I haven’t found much this early to explain what was going on here.

Is this just an example of the bloody tastes of the yellow press? This story is certainly gruesome, but what other anxieties or concerns about urban life did it touch upon? Murders happen every day in a big city. It’s the ones that touch on broader concerns that grab media attention.

Trigger Warning: this article contains some pretty graphic discussion of domestic violence and murder. Despite the date, this is not an April Fools’ Day post. 


KILLS WIFE AND SELF

Fred Pflugradt Also Attempts to Shoot Baby 8 Days Old.

TROUBLE DUE TO A PAPER

Neighbor Beats at Door While Husband Commits Crimes.

A quarrel over the possession of the comic supplement of a Sunday newspaper led yesterday morning to the murder of Mrs. Elizabeth Pflugradt by her husband, Frederick Pflugradt, who afterward committed suicide by shooting. The husband also attempted to slay their only child, a boy 8 days old, whom he had torn from the mother’s arms.

The tragedy occurred in the rooms of the couple above their hardware store at 7039 Halsted street, and while the husband was committing his double crime a neighbor was beating frantically upon the locked door of the bedroom In which the wife was lying, while a sister of Mrs. Pflugradt was running in search of a policeman.

Both Want Comic Section.

The paper was delivered at 8:30 o’clock and Miss Kate Cloudy, the sister who was attending the woman, took it to Mrs. Pflugradt. who was clasping the child In her arms. Mrs. Pflugradt kept only the comic section and asked that the rest be taken to her husband. The man entered the room a few minutes later. Holding the baby toward her husband, Mrs. Pflugradt said:

“Fred, you have not kissed our baby this morning.”

Ignoring her words, the man replied gruffly:

“Give me the ‘funny part’ of that paper.”

Miss Cloudy begged that the mother be allowed to keep it. The mother made the same request, and the baby, frightened by angry words, joined the quarrel by crying. The Infant angered Pflugradt, who ordered his sister-in-law to leave the room.

Begins to Beat His Wife.

Locking the door when Miss Cloudy had gone, the young husband snatched away the paper and then threw it on the floor.

“I’ll teach you to oppose me,” he was heard to say. Then came a cry of pain and the sound of a descending strap wielded by the husband. The mother, her babe torn from her arms, was dragged from the bed and beaten. Her cries of pain alarmed Mrs. Mary Blake, who lived next door.

While Mrs. Blake stood in the sitting room, helpless, Miss Cloudy ran to Sixty-ninth street to find a policeman. What happened before her return is told by Mrs. Blake, as follows:

“For five minutes I pounded on the door. Then I ran to the window to get aid from passersby, but none appeared. I returned to my post near the bedroom, and suddenly heard Mrs. Pflugradt cry:

“‘O, Fred, what are you doing? Think of our child! Would you kill Its mother?'”

Neighbor Hears Pistol Shots.

The answer was a pistol snot, A cry followed and then all was still, except for the crying of the baby. Then came another shot, and a third. The husband fell to the floor.

“At that moment a policeman came. He burst open the door. Kate fell fainting. Beside the bed lay the body of her sister. Close by was that of the husband. Mrs. Pflugradt had been shot through the heart and the man had placed the pistol In his mouth. •

“The baby had been thrown to the foot of the bed, and an inch above its head was a bullet hole in the wall.”

Pflugradt was 28 years old and his wife was two years younger. They were married two years ago and bought the hardware store a year ago. Mrs. Pflugradt acted as clerk In the store daily during the absence of her husband, who was a machinist and generally was working outside. They parted a year ago, but soon effected a reconciliation.


ETA:
Hat tip to Erin Bush for telling me about the Homicide in Chicago, 1870-1930 database. The curious can find the events described above confirmed at that source, though few additional details are given.

Murdered Over Comics?

I’m really not sure what to make of this article I found in the December 21, 1903 issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune. There was a bit of a moral panic about comic supplements in the end of that decade, but I haven’t found much this early to explain what was going on here.

Is this just an example of the bloody tastes of the yellow press? This story is certainly gruesome, but what other anxieties or concerns about urban life did it touch upon? Murders happen every day in a big city. It’s the ones that touch on broader concerns that grab media attention.

Trigger Warning: this article contains some pretty graphic discussion of domestic violence and murder. Despite the date, this is not an April Fools’ Day post. 


KILLS WIFE AND SELF

Fred Pflugradt Also Attempts to Shoot Baby 8 Days Old.

TROUBLE DUE TO A PAPER

Neighbor Beats at Door While Husband Commits Crimes.

A quarrel over the possession of the comic supplement of a Sunday newspaper led yesterday morning to the murder of Mrs. Elizabeth Pflugradt by her husband, Frederick Pflugradt, who afterward committed suicide by shooting. The husband also attempted to slay their only child, a boy 8 days old, whom he had torn from the mother’s arms.

The tragedy occurred in the rooms of the couple above their hardware store at 7039 Halsted street, and while the husband was committing his double crime a neighbor was beating frantically upon the locked door of the bedroom In which the wife was lying, while a sister of Mrs. Pflugradt was running in search of a policeman.

Both Want Comic Section.

The paper was delivered at 8:30 o’clock and Miss Kate Cloudy, the sister who was attending the woman, took it to Mrs. Pflugradt. who was clasping the child In her arms. Mrs. Pflugradt kept only the comic section and asked that the rest be taken to her husband. The man entered the room a few minutes later. Holding the baby toward her husband, Mrs. Pflugradt said:

“Fred, you have not kissed our baby this morning.”

Ignoring her words, the man replied gruffly:

“Give me the ‘funny part’ of that paper.”

Miss Cloudy begged that the mother be allowed to keep it. The mother made the same request, and the baby, frightened by angry words, joined the quarrel by crying. The Infant angered Pflugradt, who ordered his sister-in-law to leave the room.

Begins to Beat His Wife.

Locking the door when Miss Cloudy had gone, the young husband snatched away the paper and then threw it on the floor.

“I’ll teach you to oppose me,” he was heard to say. Then came a cry of pain and the sound of a descending strap wielded by the husband. The mother, her babe torn from her arms, was dragged from the bed and beaten. Her cries of pain alarmed Mrs. Mary Blake, who lived next door.

While Mrs. Blake stood in the sitting room, helpless, Miss Cloudy ran to Sixty-ninth street to find a policeman. What happened before her return is told by Mrs. Blake, as follows:

“For five minutes I pounded on the door. Then I ran to the window to get aid from passersby, but none appeared. I returned to my post near the bedroom, and suddenly heard Mrs. Pflugradt cry:

“‘O, Fred, what are you doing? Think of our child! Would you kill Its mother?'”

Neighbor Hears Pistol Shots.

The answer was a pistol snot, A cry followed and then all was still, except for the crying of the baby. Then came another shot, and a third. The husband fell to the floor.

“At that moment a policeman came. He burst open the door. Kate fell fainting. Beside the bed lay the body of her sister. Close by was that of the husband. Mrs. Pflugradt had been shot through the heart and the man had placed the pistol In his mouth. •

“The baby had been thrown to the foot of the bed, and an inch above its head was a bullet hole in the wall.”

Pflugradt was 28 years old and his wife was two years younger. They were married two years ago and bought the hardware store a year ago. Mrs. Pflugradt acted as clerk In the store daily during the absence of her husband, who was a machinist and generally was working outside. They parted a year ago, but soon effected a reconciliation.


ETA:
Hat tip to Erin Bush for telling me about the Homicide in Chicago, 1870-1930 database. The curious can find the events described above confirmed at that source, though few additional details are given.

Review: Allan Holtz, American Newspaper Comics: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide

Cover of Holt's "American Newspaper Comics"At $120 on Amazon, Allen Holtz’s 2012 American Newspaper Comics: Am Encyclopedic Reference Guide may well be the most expensive new book I’ve ever purchased. As someone who is working on a dissertation on early newspaper comics, however, it’s an invaluable resource, and worth every penny.

The book is the first of its kind: a well-researched guide to the publishing history of virtually every recurring comic strip or panel to have a run in a general-audience American newspaper, published with the imprimatur of a respected university press. This is no small task, however, and the book has the heft you might imagine: it’s over six hundred 8.5×11″ pages of pure text– that’s right, there are no illustrations. The price of reproducing images would have been prohibitive both in terms of the book’s size (it’s already a bit heavy to carry around) and its price. Instead, over three thousand example illustrations are packaged in a PDF on a CD-Rom that comes with the book.

While six-hundred-plus pages of pure text is not what one might expect from most books on comics, it works well: this is a reference book, straight up, with very little interpretation or editorializing. One doesn’t so much “read” this book, as one uses it. Illustrations, while they would certainly given the book visual appeal, would have only been distracting. It’s best to think of this volume as a database in print form. And thinking of it as such, this book is a pleasure to use.

Let’s say you were interested in finding information about “Musical Mose,” an early, short-lived strip that lampooned the notion of racial “passing” by “Krazy Kat” cartoonist George Herriman– himself a man of African-American decent who was passing, in certain circles, as white. Looking it up alphabetically, it’s on page 281, which takes you from “The Muggles” to “Mutt and Jeff.” Holtz’s approach is minimalist, but highly informative:

4409 • Musical Mose. Sunday strip. Running dates: Feb 16-Feb 23 1902. Creator: George Herriman. Syndicate: New York World. Notes: An earlier untitled strip featuring the same character, but named Sam, appeared on 1/19/1902. Sources: Ken Barker in StripScene #12 except 1/19/02 info from Cole Johnson.

George Herriman's "Musical Mose" was a strip about a black musician who constantly found himself, despite deft musicianship, unable to ingratiate himself to the ethnic immigrant audiences he played to. Herriman was himself of African-American decent.
George Herriman’s “Musical Mose” was a strip about a black musician who constantly found himself, despite deft musicianship, unable to ingratiate himself to the ethnic immigrant audiences he played to. Herriman is believed to himself  have been of African-American decent, and to have “passed” as white.

While we don’t get an exploration of the themes of the strip or how it reflects on Herriman’s own life story, we do get a lot of good data: given that it was a Sunday strip, we know that there are only three known episodes of “Musical Mose,” and have the dates to find them.

We know that the strip was by George Herriman, who fans of old comic strips would immediately associate with “Krazy Kat,” and possibly “The Dingbat Family,” a domestic comedy that “Krazy Kat” began as topper gags to. However, upon flipping to the (somewhat awkwardly titled) “Index of Credits,” the user will find thirty-eight different Herriman titles that can be found in the book, from the wonderfully titled “Major Ozone’s Fresh Air Crusade” to “Mutt and Jeff,” which we learn, flipping back to the entry for that strip, Italian comics historian Alberto Becattini asserts Herriman provided some ghost work and assists on.

Finally, by going to the invaluable “Index of Syndicates,” we can find other strips that ran in Pulitzer’s New York World, and by looking at those, we can find what strips were contemporary with “Mose.” Moving back and forth while exploring various cartoonists’ works, getting a feeling for various features syndicates’ preferred types of strips, etc., an interested researcher can definitely get lost in this book.

Holtz has established his knowledge of the field in his blog, Stripper’s Guide, for years, and the book has special characters next to any strip discussed in the blog, as well as one for strips represented in the illustration CD-ROM. His blog becomes a very valuable supporting resource, with more details about the topics of strips, biographies of cartoonists, and the like. I find myself using this book with my Nexus 7 tablet next to it, as I’m constantly wanting to see what else I can find. (The future of books isn’t e-books, it’s reading with a divice in the other hand…)


While it’s superbly well-researched and a pleasure to use, it is not without problems. Putting all the illustrations on a CD-ROM works well, but putting them all in a single PDF with no labels or metadata makes using the CD-Rom unnecessarily difficult. Holtz’s choosing to only include comics from general audience newspapers makes sense on one hand, as small trade papers and other marginal newspapers are not as well-documented or well-preserved, and had lower readership.

Mr Block was an anarcho-syndicalist IWW strip, where the eponymous main character represented the "block-headedness" of politically moderate AFL and CIO workers. Strips like these reached out to workers while making specific cultural claims about what was "common sense."
Mr Block was an anarcho-syndicalist IWW strip, where the eponymous main character represented the “block-headedness” of politically moderate AFL and CIO workers. Strips like these reached out to workers while making specific cultural claims about what was “common sense.”

However, the use of comic strips was an important way for more marginal presses like foreign langage newspapers and labor papers to try to integrate themselves into the mainstream. While the Spokane Industrial Worker wasn’t necessarily a mainstream paper, it was doing something specific by including the Mr. Block cartoons, and the book feels the poorer for their absence. (And one could argue that the Joe Hill song by the same name points to the strips cultural relevance, even if it was a limited-audience relevance.)

My biggest critique of the book isn’t so much a problem with the Holtz’s book itself as the inherent limitations of books generally. Books have some great qualities: they have long shelf lives, they’re not dependent on changing technical specifications, they can work with only ambient solar power (in other words, you can stand by a window and read), and they’re just generally extremely stable. And this is all good– indeed, I’m quite glad that this research was published in book form, as the research in it will be useful for scholars for years. However, this is all ongoing research. There are people– the author included– still constantly scouring old newspapers and microfilm for new finds.

Holtz has been working online for years now, and he is very open to the post-publication peer review that the internet does so well. In fact, at the end of the book’s conclusion, he includes his email address and mailing address, in case readers should have corrections, comments, feedback. And this trait makes me trust Holtz as a researcher. But unless this volume goes into multiple revised volumes over the years, oversights are going to be permanent.

Here’s one example that also points to the shortcomings of a physical book: Holtz was alerted to at least one more Musical Mose strip last year, clearly after the book had gone into editorial review but (I believe) before it was published. While on the internet an author can share this discovery with their audience and the record is improved, there’s no post-publication corrections for a physical book.

Is this a glaring inaccuracy in the book? No. It’s a single oversight, a single strip missed. There will inevitably be problems like this in any reference book so exhaustive. But it’s not nothing, either. This is a very early strip, thematically very important to some key biographical questions about the author– and George Herriman is one of the most universally artistically acclaimed newspaper comic artists in history. If Holtz’s blog ever goes down, some key information might be lost.

Again, I’m glad that this information was published as a book. I grew up reading comics collections and comics history reference guides at my local public library– that was one of the things that got me so interested in studying history. Libraries and comics researchers should definitely purchase this volume– no book is ever perfect, but this one is amazingly well-done. However, having said that, I can’t help but hope that the University of Michigan Press will see its way to producing a second, electronic volume of this book, one that could be periodically updated and available to research libraries and other institutions for a one-time fee or an affordable subscription rate. More scans of strips could be made available, especially early work that’s in the public domain. Holtz’s “Strippers Guide” columns could be linked within, as well as other bloggers or writers that he and the editorial staff might feel could contribute.

This is possibly the best reference book on comics history I have ever encountered, but an online comics reference database could do so many things that the book cannot.

Review: Allan Holtz, American Newspaper Comics: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide

Cover of Holt's "American Newspaper Comics"At $120 on Amazon, Allen Holtz’s 2012 American Newspaper Comics: Am Encyclopedic Reference Guide may well be the most expensive new book I’ve ever purchased. As someone who is working on a dissertation on early newspaper comics, however, it’s an invaluable resource, and worth every penny.

The book is the first of its kind: a well-researched guide to the publishing history of virtually every recurring comic strip or panel to have a run in a general-audience American newspaper, published with the imprimatur of a respected university press. This is no small task, however, and the book has the heft you might imagine: it’s over six hundred 8.5×11″ pages of pure text– that’s right, there are no illustrations. The price of reproducing images would have been prohibitive both in terms of the book’s size (it’s already a bit heavy to carry around) and its price. Instead, over three thousand example illustrations are packaged in a PDF on a CD-Rom that comes with the book.

While six-hundred-plus pages of pure text is not what one might expect from most books on comics, it works well: this is a reference book, straight up, with very little interpretation or editorializing. One doesn’t so much “read” this book, as one uses it. Illustrations, while they would certainly given the book visual appeal, would have only been distracting. It’s best to think of this volume as a database in print form. And thinking of it as such, this book is a pleasure to use.

Let’s say you were interested in finding information about “Musical Mose,” an early, short-lived strip that lampooned the notion of racial “passing” by “Krazy Kat” cartoonist George Herriman– himself a man of African-American decent who was passing, in certain circles, as white. Looking it up alphabetically, it’s on page 281, which takes you from “The Muggles” to “Mutt and Jeff.” Holtz’s approach is minimalist, but highly informative:

4409 • Musical Mose. Sunday strip. Running dates: Feb 16-Feb 23 1902. Creator: George Herriman. Syndicate: New York World. Notes: An earlier untitled strip featuring the same character, but named Sam, appeared on 1/19/1902. Sources: Ken Barker in StripScene #12 except 1/19/02 info from Cole Johnson.

George Herriman's "Musical Mose" was a strip about a black musician who constantly found himself, despite deft musicianship, unable to ingratiate himself to the ethnic immigrant audiences he played to. Herriman was himself of African-American decent.
George Herriman’s “Musical Mose” was a strip about a black musician who constantly found himself, despite deft musicianship, unable to ingratiate himself to the ethnic immigrant audiences he played to. Herriman is believed to himself  have been of African-American decent, and to have “passed” as white.

While we don’t get an exploration of the themes of the strip or how it reflects on Herriman’s own life story, we do get a lot of good data: given that it was a Sunday strip, we know that there are only three known episodes of “Musical Mose,” and have the dates to find them.

We know that the strip was by George Herriman, who fans of old comic strips would immediately associate with “Krazy Kat,” and possibly “The Dingbat Family,” a domestic comedy that “Krazy Kat” began as topper gags to. However, upon flipping to the (somewhat awkwardly titled) “Index of Credits,” the user will find thirty-eight different Herriman titles that can be found in the book, from the wonderfully titled “Major Ozone’s Fresh Air Crusade” to “Mutt and Jeff,” which we learn, flipping back to the entry for that strip, Italian comics historian Alberto Becattini asserts Herriman provided some ghost work and assists on.

Finally, by going to the invaluable “Index of Syndicates,” we can find other strips that ran in Pulitzer’s New York World, and by looking at those, we can find what strips were contemporary with “Mose.” Moving back and forth while exploring various cartoonists’ works, getting a feeling for various features syndicates’ preferred types of strips, etc., an interested researcher can definitely get lost in this book.

Holtz has established his knowledge of the field in his blog, Stripper’s Guide, for years, and the book has special characters next to any strip discussed in the blog, as well as one for strips represented in the illustration CD-ROM. His blog becomes a very valuable supporting resource, with more details about the topics of strips, biographies of cartoonists, and the like. I find myself using this book with my Nexus 7 tablet next to it, as I’m constantly wanting to see what else I can find. (The future of books isn’t e-books, it’s reading with a divice in the other hand…)


While it’s superbly well-researched and a pleasure to use, it is not without problems. Putting all the illustrations on a CD-ROM works well, but putting them all in a single PDF with no labels or metadata makes using the CD-Rom unnecessarily difficult. Holtz’s choosing to only include comics from general audience newspapers makes sense on one hand, as small trade papers and other marginal newspapers are not as well-documented or well-preserved, and had lower readership.

Mr Block was an anarcho-syndicalist IWW strip, where the eponymous main character represented the "block-headedness" of politically moderate AFL and CIO workers. Strips like these reached out to workers while making specific cultural claims about what was "common sense."
Mr Block was an anarcho-syndicalist IWW strip, where the eponymous main character represented the “block-headedness” of politically moderate AFL and CIO workers. Strips like these reached out to workers while making specific cultural claims about what was “common sense.”

However, the use of comic strips was an important way for more marginal presses like foreign langage newspapers and labor papers to try to integrate themselves into the mainstream. While the Spokane Industrial Worker wasn’t necessarily a mainstream paper, it was doing something specific by including the Mr. Block cartoons, and the book feels the poorer for their absence. (And one could argue that the Joe Hill song by the same name points to the strips cultural relevance, even if it was a limited-audience relevance.)

My biggest critique of the book isn’t so much a problem with the Holtz’s book itself as the inherent limitations of books generally. Books have some great qualities: they have long shelf lives, they’re not dependent on changing technical specifications, they can work with only ambient solar power (in other words, you can stand by a window and read), and they’re just generally extremely stable. And this is all good– indeed, I’m quite glad that this research was published in book form, as the research in it will be useful for scholars for years. However, this is all ongoing research. There are people– the author included– still constantly scouring old newspapers and microfilm for new finds.

Holtz has been working online for years now, and he is very open to the post-publication peer review that the internet does so well. In fact, at the end of the book’s conclusion, he includes his email address and mailing address, in case readers should have corrections, comments, feedback. And this trait makes me trust Holtz as a researcher. But unless this volume goes into multiple revised volumes over the years, oversights are going to be permanent.

Here’s one example that also points to the shortcomings of a physical book: Holtz was alerted to at least one more Musical Mose strip last year, clearly after the book had gone into editorial review but (I believe) before it was published. While on the internet an author can share this discovery with their audience and the record is improved, there’s no post-publication corrections for a physical book.

Is this a glaring inaccuracy in the book? No. It’s a single oversight, a single strip missed. There will inevitably be problems like this in any reference book so exhaustive. But it’s not nothing, either. This is a very early strip, thematically very important to some key biographical questions about the author– and George Herriman is one of the most universally artistically acclaimed newspaper comic artists in history. If Holtz’s blog ever goes down, some key information might be lost.

Again, I’m glad that this information was published as a book. I grew up reading comics collections and comics history reference guides at my local public library– that was one of the things that got me so interested in studying history. Libraries and comics researchers should definitely purchase this volume– no book is ever perfect, but this one is amazingly well-done. However, having said that, I can’t help but hope that the University of Michigan Press will see its way to producing a second, electronic volume of this book, one that could be periodically updated and available to research libraries and other institutions for a one-time fee or an affordable subscription rate. More scans of strips could be made available, especially early work that’s in the public domain. Holtz’s “Strippers Guide” columns could be linked within, as well as other bloggers or writers that he and the editorial staff might feel could contribute.

This is possibly the best reference book on comics history I have ever encountered, but an online comics reference database could do so many things that the book cannot.

Tom De Haven, Funny Papers, p. 139

A man and a woman were arguing loudly as Walter skated past Violin Park, and glancing at them, he thought, Big noses on the two of them—his hat’s too small. And he could almost hear Georgie asking him, But how are their noses different, Walter? What kind of hat is it? Look, Walter, look. It was ever so difficult, though, for Walter to do that, to look with such scrutiny. A face or a building, a crowd or a streetcar, a decorated Christmas tree, whatever it was that he happened to see, Walter would remark only its most striking features; the finer points of a thing hardly ever made an impression on him. He would see a man’s bald dome and heavy chest, never the man’s cuff links—unless they were diamond and sparkled. His father, the eye specialist, probably would’ve called it a form of myopia, but Walter, as as he’d already told Georgie, called it vision and deemed it a gift. He saw things simplified.

–Tom De Haven, Funny Papers, p. 139

 

La Guardia Reads the Sunday Funnies


Tomorrow marks the birthday of Fiorello La Guardia, 99th mayor of New York City.

In the opening monologue of his 1958 play Comic Strip, George Panetta turns almost immediately to one of the most powerful cultural memories of New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia:

Now, I was a kid in the days of Fiorello LaGuardia– remember him, LaGuardia? The Little Flower? Maybe he’s one of the reasons I grew up. He loved all us kids in New York City, used to read the comic strips to us on Sundays– worried and looked after us all the time.

On June 30, 1945, New York’s newspaper delivery drivers began a strike that would last 17 days, refusing to distribute any paper in the city except for the leftist (and highly pro-labor) PM… a paper that might be best remembered by comics lovers for publishing the wartime political cartoons of Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel.

For those who don’t mind reading between the lines, there’s an excellent contemporary account of the strike from the newspaper publishers’ perspective that can be found in the Prelinger Archives collection at The Internet Archive. Obviously very biased, but an interesting account of how a city dealt with a major media shutdown.

On July 1, La Guardia was scheduled for his regular Sunday broadcast of Talk to the People, a weekly radio show he held on WNYC. At one point in the show, he encouraged his listeners to gather their children around the radio, and commenced to reading that day’s “Dick Tracy” comic from the Sunday Daily News. With obvious relish, the mayor described the action in the panels, impersonated the voices of various characters, and reminded listeners of the plot that had led up to that moment. At the end of each strip, he would explicate the moral of that week’s adventure to his young listeners.

(In the above clip from the next week, the moral is described in no uncertain terms: “Say children, what does it all mean? It means that dirty money never brings any luck! No, dirty money always brings sorrow and sadness and misery and disgrace.”)

He also promised that he would read the Sunday comics on the air every Sunday as long as the strike continued, and that someone from WNYC would read the dailies every day. The next Sunday, when he came in to broadcast, there were camera crews there to record his reading. The story took on a life nationally. And it became one of the things La Guardia was best remembered for.


Such a move by a major politician today would smack of a paternalism and pandering that would make cynical observers tear him apart. But in 1945, La Guardia reading the comics over the radio really seems to have been seen fondly by a great number of people.

Part of this was likely La Guardia’s personality– he possessed a gentleness, kindness, and an air of genuine benevolence that was a huge change from the last multiple-term mayor in New York, the slick and corrupt “Beau James” Walker. He was a genuine uniter, running in opposition to machine party politics, and seemed to many to have the commonwheal of the city in mind.

He didn’t lash out against the strikers or against the newspapers– he just expressed a concern that the children shouldn’t have to go without their comics just because of “a squabble among grown-ups.”


I genuinely do believe that La Guardia thought that this might just be a nice thing to do– I don’t believe it was necessarily a cynical or calculated move. But I do think that there is one part of this story that needs to be read with a skeptical eye.

I don’t think he was doing this simply “for the children.” I think that reading the comics was targeted at adults as well.

By all accounts, La Guardia read and enjoyed the comics himself. Born in New York in 1882, he was a member of the first generation to grow up with comics in the newspaper. (Although he was old enough to be working by the time comics started appearing in New York papers, in his early teens.)

While the reputation of comics as a medium for children had fully developed by midcentury, adults actively read and discussed the events in the daily comics page. Based on research conducted around the same time, sociologist and media theorist Leo Bogart argued that newspaper comics were important to working-class urban readers because they provided noncontroversial (but still debatable) subjects of conversation in situations of urban semi-anonymity. You might not want to talk to the guy on the bar stool next to you about religion or politics, but you could debate Dick Tracy with him.

By reading the comics, he was actually not just providing entertainment for the children of his constituents. La Guardia was finding a way to insert himself into the everyday street-corner conversations of millions of New Yorkers. I would argue that this, just as much as appealing to the children, was key to why this was such a defining moment for the memory of La Guardia’s career. He had understood the social function of comics to its adult readers, and had joined in that discussion. It’s the mark of a true populist– to actually understand what’s important to people, even the stuff they wouldn’t normally admit to.


Interestingly, while this event has faded somewhat from the public memory, and more people know La Guardia as an airport than as a politician, the recording of La Guardia reading the comics has taken on a strange and wonderful second life: the “what does it all mean?” that can be found at approximately 1:27 in the video above has become one of the most widely-used and best-known non-musical samples in hip-hop.

La Guardia Reads the Sunday Funnies


Tomorrow marks the birthday of Fiorello La Guardia, 99th mayor of New York City.

In the opening monologue of his 1958 play Comic Strip, George Panetta turns almost immediately to one of the most powerful cultural memories of New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia:

Now, I was a kid in the days of Fiorello LaGuardia– remember him, LaGuardia? The Little Flower? Maybe he’s one of the reasons I grew up. He loved all us kids in New York City, used to read the comic strips to us on Sundays– worried and looked after us all the time.

On June 30, 1945, New York’s newspaper delivery drivers began a strike that would last 17 days, refusing to distribute any paper in the city except for the leftist (and highly pro-labor) PM… a paper that might be best remembered by comics lovers for publishing the wartime political cartoons of Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel.

For those who don’t mind reading between the lines, there’s an excellent contemporary account of the strike from the newspaper publishers’ perspective that can be found in the Prelinger Archives collection at The Internet Archive. Obviously very biased, but an interesting account of how a city dealt with a major media shutdown.

On July 1, La Guardia was scheduled for his regular Sunday broadcast of Talk to the People, a weekly radio show he held on WNYC. At one point in the show, he encouraged his listeners to gather their children around the radio, and commenced to reading that day’s “Dick Tracy” comic from the Sunday Daily News. With obvious relish, the mayor described the action in the panels, impersonated the voices of various characters, and reminded listeners of the plot that had led up to that moment. At the end of each strip, he would explicate the moral of that week’s adventure to his young listeners.

(In the above clip from the next week, the moral is described in no uncertain terms: “Say children, what does it all mean? It means that dirty money never brings any luck! No, dirty money always brings sorrow and sadness and misery and disgrace.”)

He also promised that he would read the Sunday comics on the air every Sunday as long as the strike continued, and that someone from WNYC would read the dailies every day. The next Sunday, when he came in to broadcast, there were camera crews there to record his reading. The story took on a life nationally. And it became one of the things La Guardia was best remembered for.


Such a move by a major politician today would smack of a paternalism and pandering that would make cynical observers tear him apart. But in 1945, La Guardia reading the comics over the radio really seems to have been seen fondly by a great number of people.

Part of this was likely La Guardia’s personality– he possessed a gentleness, kindness, and an air of genuine benevolence that was a huge change from the last multiple-term mayor in New York, the slick and corrupt “Beau James” Walker. He was a genuine uniter, running in opposition to machine party politics, and seemed to many to have the commonwheal of the city in mind.

He didn’t lash out against the strikers or against the newspapers– he just expressed a concern that the children shouldn’t have to go without their comics just because of “a squabble among grown-ups.”


I genuinely do believe that La Guardia thought that this might just be a nice thing to do– I don’t believe it was necessarily a cynical or calculated move. But I do think that there is one part of this story that needs to be read with a skeptical eye.

I don’t think he was doing this simply “for the children.” I think that reading the comics was targeted at adults as well.

By all accounts, La Guardia read and enjoyed the comics himself. Born in New York in 1882, he was a member of the first generation to grow up with comics in the newspaper. (Although he was old enough to be working by the time comics started appearing in New York papers, in his early teens.)

While the reputation of comics as a medium for children had fully developed by midcentury, adults actively read and discussed the events in the daily comics page. Based on research conducted around the same time, sociologist and media theorist Leo Bogart argued that newspaper comics were important to working-class urban readers because they provided noncontroversial (but still debatable) subjects of conversation in situations of urban semi-anonymity. You might not want to talk to the guy on the bar stool next to you about religion or politics, but you could debate Dick Tracy with him.

By reading the comics, he was actually not just providing entertainment for the children of his constituents. La Guardia was finding a way to insert himself into the everyday street-corner conversations of millions of New Yorkers. I would argue that this, just as much as appealing to the children, was key to why this was such a defining moment for the memory of La Guardia’s career. He had understood the social function of comics to its adult readers, and had joined in that discussion. It’s the mark of a true populist– to actually understand what’s important to people, even the stuff they wouldn’t normally admit to.


Interestingly, while this event has faded somewhat from the public memory, and more people know La Guardia as an airport than as a politician, the recording of La Guardia reading the comics has taken on a strange and wonderful second life: the “what does it all mean?” that can be found at approximately 1:27 in the video above has become one of the most widely-used and best-known non-musical samples in hip-hop.

Another Example of Crowdsourcing Memory…

In a recent blog post, I talked about using the internet as a tool to “crowdsource memory.” A day or two later, I came across a perfect example of what I was trying to express, and it made me want to refine the notion a bit.

“Crowdsourcing,” for any reader lucky enough to not be thouroughly immersed in the world of New Media buzzwords, is something we all instinctively understand these days as web users: it’s aggregating the “wisdom of crowds,” using the knowledge of many and putting it into one centralized repository. It’s why Amazon has more reviews of a given book than anywhere else, and why Wikipedia has an entry on everything.

Anyone who keeps up at all with Digital History can name a few projects that attempt to crowdsource Historical Memory. CHNM’s September 11 Digital Archive or the Mozilla Digital Memory Bank are two great examples, projects that seek not to create consensus about Historical Memory, but to serve as repositories, places where those who have witnessed history can contribute their memories, their voices, to the historical record in a way that might serve to enrich the scholarship of future historians.

Which is a great and admirable mission. But while they are very different in impact and gravity, both 9/11 and Mozilla’s rising from the ashes of the browser wars as a viable Open Source alternative to Internet Explorer are Big Events, events that warrant the time, money, and effort that building an online database represents.

But one of the really great things about the internet is its ability, in its near-infinite expandability, to meet niche demands, to offer up a space for any topic under the sun. There’s no topic too obscure to find a home in some far corner of the World Wide Web.

This means that the internet presents an opportunity for groups of loosely affiliated people to navigate common memories. We can crowdsource the details of even small, personal memories.

I came across a really great example of this phenomenon when the multi-talented cartoonist Dave Sherrill recently posted a comic strip that loosely recreated the plot of a fondly– but vaguely– remembered children’s book from his youth in a LiveJournal community that helps people find the titles of half-remembered books.

Within a couple hours, a community member had recognized the description and pointed Sherrill in the right direction. The book was Grandpas Ghost Stories by Jim Flora.

The book seems to be out of print, but there is an animated version of the story on YouTube:

Sherrill’s description of the book seems to be decent but spotty. The comic is awesome, but I doubt Sherrill would have found the title if he had simply went to Google, or even to a children’s librarian, with the vague description he was able to produce from memory. But given the ability to access a large enough aggregate of people with disparate memories, he was able to quickly (if you don’t count the time taken to draw or color the comic) find someone else who was able to help fill in the gaps in his own personal childhood memory.

With the very deeply personal way we connect with our favorite books as children, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a small revelation to Dave, something that set him off even further into other memories he had not accessed in years.

Without having to even exchange introductions and niceties, Sherrill was able to harness the collective memory of a group of people in order to supplement and enhance his own, personal memories. That’s something you’d very seldom get from old-tech systems like the reference section of a library or calling friends to see if anyone happened to recall it. It’s certainly more efficient, and less place-dependent.

* * *

To anyone who enjoyed Dave’s comic, I would encourage you to click through to his LiveJournal account– I’m a big fan of his art. And check out his band, 100 Damned Guns, as well– they’re one of the rockin’est roots-country bands out there today.

Another Example of Crowdsourcing Memory…

In a recent blog post, I talked about using the internet as a tool to “crowdsource memory.” A day or two later, I came across a perfect example of what I was trying to express, and it made me want to refine the notion a bit.

“Crowdsourcing,” for any reader lucky enough to not be thouroughly immersed in the world of New Media buzzwords, is something we all instinctively understand these days as web users: it’s aggregating the “wisdom of crowds,” using the knowledge of many and putting it into one centralized repository. It’s why Amazon has more reviews of a given book than anywhere else, and why Wikipedia has an entry on everything.

Anyone who keeps up at all with Digital History can name a few projects that attempt to crowdsource Historical Memory. CHNM’s September 11 Digital Archive or the Mozilla Digital Memory Bank are two great examples, projects that seek not to create consensus about Historical Memory, but to serve as repositories, places where those who have witnessed history can contribute their memories, their voices, to the historical record in a way that might serve to enrich the scholarship of future historians.

Which is a great and admirable mission. But while they are very different in impact and gravity, both 9/11 and Mozilla’s rising from the ashes of the browser wars as a viable Open Source alternative to Internet Explorer are Big Events, events that warrant the time, money, and effort that building an online database represents.

But one of the really great things about the internet is its ability, in its near-infinite expandability, to meet niche demands, to offer up a space for any topic under the sun. There’s no topic too obscure to find a home in some far corner of the World Wide Web.

This means that the internet presents an opportunity for groups of loosely affiliated people to navigate common memories. We can crowdsource the details of even small, personal memories.

I came across a really great example of this phenomenon when the multi-talented cartoonist Dave Sherrill recently posted a comic strip that loosely recreated the plot of a fondly– but vaguely– remembered children’s book from his youth in a LiveJournal community that helps people find the titles of half-remembered books.

Within a couple hours, a community member had recognized the description and pointed Sherrill in the right direction. The book was Grandpas Ghost Stories by Jim Flora.

The book seems to be out of print, but there is an animated version of the story on YouTube:

Sherrill’s description of the book seems to be decent but spotty. The comic is awesome, but I doubt Sherrill would have found the title if he had simply went to Google, or even to a children’s librarian, with the vague description he was able to produce from memory. But given the ability to access a large enough aggregate of people with disparate memories, he was able to quickly (if you don’t count the time taken to draw or color the comic) find someone else who was able to help fill in the gaps in his own personal childhood memory.

With the very deeply personal way we connect with our favorite books as children, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a small revelation to Dave, something that set him off even further into other memories he had not accessed in years.

Without having to even exchange introductions and niceties, Sherrill was able to harness the collective memory of a group of people in order to supplement and enhance his own, personal memories. That’s something you’d very seldom get from old-tech systems like the reference section of a library or calling friends to see if anyone happened to recall it. It’s certainly more efficient, and less place-dependent.

* * *

To anyone who enjoyed Dave’s comic, I would encourage you to click through to his LiveJournal account– I’m a big fan of his art. And check out his band, 100 Damned Guns, as well– they’re one of the rockin’est roots-country bands out there today.

Continuity is a Double-Edged Sword…

I was actually looking for information on the scuff-up-cum-verbal-slapfight between Tim O’Reilly and John C. Dvorak today when I stumbled upon this post by Brett McLaughlin on O’Reilly Radar. And as a person with both a personal and professional interest in comic books, I have to say:

Yes. The fans love continuity. But continuity is also one of the things that’s killing the comic book market.

It’s interesting to me that they’re illustrating the beauty of continuity with a bunch of Chris Claremont comics, too. Claremont is an enjoyable comics read, and a pioneer of the modern superhero comic in a lot of ways, but at the same time, having the same writer on X-Men for over fifteen years also made those mutant books a nightmare for new readers. To say nothing of the irony that Claremont is now writing an out-of-continuity title, X-Men Forever, that essentially goes on the premise that anything that happened at Marvel Comics after Claremont’s departure in 1991 never happened.

When I started reading comics in the early 1980s, the average comics reader was my age– someone under twenty years old. The problem is, today, the average (non-manga) comics reader is still someone my age.

The ridiculous continuity shifting crossovers that started with (the brilliant and enjoyable) Crisis on Infinite Earths have become a biannual event at both Marvel and DC. Strict adherence to principles of cannon and continuity have produced the need to constantly housekeep through crossovers with little actual narrative pay-off, which are just confusing to newcomers.

The comics industry decided to stick with continuity coming out of the beginning of the silver age. That’s longer than I’ve been alive, by a good bit. A ten year old with a small allowance is going to find catching up on almost fifty years of Spider-Man continuity a daunting task, if not downright impossible. Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited might make this concept at least possible for your average new reader, but it’s still nearly fifty years of comics. (Not to mention that there’s been several ongoing Spider-Man titles at any given moment since almost the beginning, to say nothing of the crossovers…) You’re not going to try to understand what was cannon and what wasn’t since they suddenly undid Peter Parker’s twenty or so years of marriage. You’re not going to get current, and you’re just going to spend the money on a Naruto OVA, or whatever the kids are into these days.

What the comics industry ought to be doing is learning from what Horror and Sci-Fi movie franchises have been doing for the last few years– reboots. If you want to bring new audience into the fold, the best way to do it is to start over from time to time, to let new members on board with a new continuity, in a way that will still be enjoyable for the majority of your previous fanbase. The way you got that fanbase is with a certain seminal story or set of stories. They won’t mind seeing it retold with a new slant and higher production values. And newcomers won’t be scared away by the need to catch up on all the continuity to enjoy the story.

DC does this slightly better than Marvel. With their two flagship characters, Batman and Superman, we get these stories on a regular basis, we get stories that are in continuity along with stories that are out of continuity, and every time the characters jump into a new medium or new title, there’s an opportunity for a partial or complete reboot. And these characters remain strong as brands, even when their comics are experiencing bad runs. Because– in part– there are so many opportunities for new audiences to get onboard with these characters, without having to make a running start.

Reboots and retellings need to force their way to primacy rather than giant mega-crossovers. Whenever you have a new creative team on a title, why should the editors shackle them into years and years of continuity for the book, if that’s not the best thing for the characters, the title, or the artists? Becoming more casual about cannon and continuity is the only way that Marvel and DC are going to have a shot at attracting readers who don’t already shave.

I know that this is a lot more aimed at the comics industry than McLaughlin’s article. He was talking about technical/instructional publishing. But if you were in that industry, why would you endorse mirroring one of the key mistakes of the only portion of the publishing industry that seems bound and determined to fail before the newspaper industry?

It strikes me as a patently bad idea.

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