Apparently, last week was International Book Week. This is not sponsored by an organization or store, just an internet meme, streamlined by whomever decided to post such a thing on Facebook and watch it roam about like Ninja Turtle devotees at local comic cons. You know the drill: “Grab the closest book to you, turn to page 52, post the 5th sentence as your status.” According to the rules, you weren’t allowed to mention the title. I find that a little perplexing, considering it then becomes impossible to know what the person was reading, thus keeping others from sharing whatever title you were enjoying at the moment.
Perhaps even better, there’s a book out called Read This! Handpicked Favorites from America’s Indie Bookstores, edited by Micawber’s owner Hans Weyandt. Inside are some of the best books that “fly under the radar” but “off bookstore shelves”, that is, off independent bookstore shelves, thanks to the efforts of concerned booksellers.
I humbly like to think of my own book in that company, though God knows the only way The End of Baseball will fly off shelves is thanks to hurricanes, earthquakes or windowpane acid. But both of these “events” have made me examine my favorite titles, the books I would haul with me to a desert island, you know if I were on a sinking ship that happened to hold my entire book collection.
Two of those titles would most certainly be Don Marquis’ the lives & times of archy and mehitabel and Will Eisner’s Spirit Archives (which is kind of cheating since there’s over twenty volumes. So sue me.)
And so it was that on Saturday, with Janice and I taking in four different sales in St. Paul, in beautiful neighborhoods just off Summit Avenue, I found an autographed copy of a Don Marquis archy title, and, at a warehouse sale in Golden Valley, rare gun safety posters illustrated by Mr. Eisner. In the interest of attempting to keep this column family friendly, all I can say is this: Holy. Freaking. Freak.
Janice and I usually don’t swing over to the Minneapolis annex of St. Paul, but considering there were not one, not two, but four sales within a couple miles of each other, all just off Summit Avenue, we decided to make a go of it and traipse across the river. Saturday was brilliant–the leaves were just beginning to turn color and drop to the ground, spiraling through the air, and there was a nice, crisp edge to the air. I’m usually only mildly impressed by Summit Avenue–thanks, but I’d rather ride through neighborhoods whose homes are not the sleeping places of the grossly rich. But in the fall, Summit Avenue does have a stately, this-could-be-a-university setting.
Our first stop was a fairly clean bungalow on Portland Avenue, the home of a collector of paper goods. There were a lot of old, antique-y books, including a bizarre little tome called How to Title Home Movies (“by George W. Cushman, Associate Editor of HOME MOVIES, Hollywood’s Magazine for the Amateur”.) What gives? Well, it’s not just coming up with a snappy title that will attract, uh, members of your family and your friends to your home movie, there’s also work to be done in terms of the technical aspects to titling, like type size, fades, etc. “The amateur cannot treat his title making lightly,” Mr. Cushman reminds us. Indeed.
But it was here that I found the first of my happy discoveries–Bud Fisher’s Mutt & Jeff, Book 7 (left.) This old thing was thankfully spared the mildew you sometimes find at the disheveled homes of paper collectors, but there it was, a bargain at twenty-five bucks.
Mutt & Jeff is considered by some to be the first daily comic strip (as opposed to Sundays only, as the Katzenjammers were in those early days.) Started in 1907, it’s the riotous story (such as it is) of two pals who endure their bachelorhood together, trying out various schemes to make money or pull a fast one over on the other. It’s freaking hilarous. There’s violence in the form of getting beaned with bricks, swift kicks to the behind, or socks to the eye, and wit in the form of groaners and puns. I love Mutt & Jeff.
For whatever reason, there’s really only one collection of Mutt & Jeff out there, and it’s fair-to-middling. This copy has many jokes dedicated to rationing from the first big war, so the thing’s ancient. In fact, in Bud Fisher’s hilarious introduction, he mentions that paper is at a premium: “Considering the high cost of paper it is almost a crime to write a preface to a book containing a flock of junk such as this.” It’s copyrighted 1920, well after World War I came to an end, but maybe there was still rationing.
This was a nice sale, with lots nifty things to look at, like this dramatic war bonds poster (right.) The person in question (Ramsey County property tax records don’t include names, unfortunately) had piles of postcards, war bond sheets, books and books and books, most of which were not worth considering. I did come away with a grab bag of postcards, over a hundred for five bucks, including one from the Taft Memorial in Washington, D.C. Did you know there was a Taft Memorial? I sure didn’t.
From there, it was off to St. Clair Avenue, to the home of another antiques collector. The prevailing theme of these last two sales was that the items in question were clearly not stuff the owners accumulated in their day-today lives. By that I mean I don’t believe that the guy whose house we visited on Portland owned that Mutt & Jeff book as a kid, or that his parents or grandparents once owned it. Both of these sales were comprised of items they’d amassed as antique dealers.
This sale was one where Janice and I simply looked around, marveling at all the expensive stuff. Dolls and toys and jewelry, all priced way beyond our means (including a $2,500 ring that looked great on Janice.) You had more inexpensive items, such as the collection of Alf Landon for President buttons.
But as I was combing through the old books, I found a nice copy of Don Marquis’ archys life of mehitabel. Honestly, I probably would have bought the thing outright, simply because it was cool. But this one turned out to be very special indeed.
With all good wishes from the writer,
Holy cats I was excited. For those of you not in the know, Marquis was a columnist for a few New York City newspapers around the turn of the last century, most notably The Evening Sun, and was highly regarded by writers such as Liebling and E. B. White. But he really hit a chord with his creation of archy, a cockroach who was once a “free verse poet” in lives past, and in this life, when the newsroom has emptied, leaps on Marquis’ typewriter to tell various stories of existence in the lower echelons of New York. In order to type, he must throw all his weight on each key, and can’t use the shift–there you have the inspiration for e. e. cummings.
One of his favorite subjects was mehitabel the cat, a free-wheeling feline who danced and pretended she was a queen in another life. I love these little stories because of their honesty, and the melancholy that ribbons through them. They address solitude and suicide, drinking and discombobulation, and are always a joy. In fact, this blog’s name is a tribute to archy, and the illustration on the masthead is from an advertisement for the column. (In later years, the books were illustrated by George Herriman, of Krazy Kat fame.)
I paid a lot for it (by my cheap standards), $40, and if I could get a ton of money for the thing, maybe I’d sell it. But for now I’m content to see Mr. Marquis’ scribble, in fountain pen ink, and read some of the poems, which I hadn’t taken off the shelf in a few years.
Needless to say, I would have been very content to settle on my Mutt & Jeff and Don Marquis this weekend. After hitting the other two sales in St. Paul, which had nothing we were interested in (or a long line even at 12:30), we ventured west, to Minneapolis and then Golden Valley, to a warehouse sale that is usually a bum steer.
Not this time. The Minneapolis sale was bunk, but the warehouse sale! Though the rest of the room was filled with junk, there, in the case where the valuables are kept, were a series of old Minnesota Conservation Department posters for gun safety. Honestly, I walked right by these, only moderately interested in gun anything. Then, on my second go-round, I looked closer. Half the posters were illustrated by the great Will Eisner.
Eisner is one of the all-time greats in the comics community, who would be regarded well if he’d only made the amazing Spirit comics, probably the only superhero I can stomach outside of Plastic Man. Eisner wrote three textbooks considered essential to the craft of comic book creation, and is considered the father of the graphic novel, having written what is considered the first one, A Contract With God. (NOTE: This claim is certainly disputed at times, and I don’t take a stance one way or the other. Nor, I might add, do I actually like Contract very much. The Spirit is more my bag.)
I took two of the six that were in the case, since they were a bit pricey at $35. I also managed to convince this lunkheaded man who claimed he found a first edition Huckleberry Finn at an estate sale that Eisner was the real deal–he’d never heard of him nor of The Spirit, but this nut had one in his hand already, and my chattering got him to take one more.
“Shooting is Fun… for those who are CAREFUL.” What a weird pair of posters. The WATCH THAT MUZZLE one at the top is my favorite, with its poor game warden rightfully freaking out because Cap’t Goof is swinging his rifle over his shoulder. This has all the great energy from a Will Eisner piece–the dope trying to make his point to the loudmouth, the warden backed against a tree and trying to flatten himself, as if that would help him avoid a rifle slug in the face.
Eisner understood vulnerability, and his characters, even the Spirit, are often seen in various moments when their guard is down, staring off into space, or, in the case of poster two (“Is That Gun Loaded?” upper right), simply lost in the act of chowing on some beans. This scene is fraught with tension, and not only because we worry about the faceless sap who might step on a gun and blow his face off, but that the bean eater would undoubtedly be devastated by the fact that he was complicit in his buddy’s death. Amazing.
It is rare, indeed, for me to return home, head spinning with an overabundance of icons from my favorite artists. Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of autographs, and God knows I have enough posters hanging around my office, but there’s a certain, well, magic in Don Marquis’ signature, in these crazy Eisner prints, in their bright colors and on heavy posterboard. Perhaps they’re good fortune smiling on me as I am starting a new novel. Both are pretty rare–you can’t find the posters for sale anywhere on the ‘net, nor have I seen a Marquis signed first edition of archys life of mehitabel. If I can sell one of the posters and recoup my money for both, I’d be elated. Then again, I’m elated now. And I’ve got plenty of good reading ahead of me.