The octopodes among us

It is not normally my practice to blog from work (see “mortgage payments”), but having discovered historian Rob MacDougall’s Old is the New New via his link to Jeet’s own post on Homer Simpson and Irish stereotypes, I was immediately entranced by both his buoyant writing style and his remarkably eclectic range of historico-cultural interests — so I felt compelled to drop what I was doing and tell you about it. Go check out his site, and for your first mind-expanding sally, read his post Angels and Octopodes.

What are you still doing here? Go!

Mickey Mouse, Homophobe

Mickey Mouse: guilty of a hate crime?

Brent Bozell is one of those right-wingers who has made a career of being indignant at every hour of the day, always on the lookout for an excuse to whine and complain. One of the things that upsets him is that some comic books feature openly gay characters. “The world of comic books has sure changed a lot since we were young,” Bozell wrote in a 2006 column. “Who would have predicted, 10 years ago, that the comics would become a red-light neighborhood where sexually perverted superheroes would be packaged to elicit from children fascination and sympathy?”

Like most professional moralists, Bozell has no real sense of history: he’s a traditionalist with no grounding in the past. If Bozell knew anything about earlier times, he would realize that gays have been portrayed in comics for decades, not just in comic books but even in comic strips that ran in family newspapers.

What could be more wholesome than Mickey Mouse, the big-eared emblem of the Disney empire? Yet a Mickey Mouse comic strip from January 22, 1931 shows the little rodent meeting a big cat who displays all the markers stereotypically given to gay characters during that period: a lisp, a limp handshake, and a general effeminacy of manner (in this case, batting eyelashes). Revealing himself to be not just homophobic but a violent gay-basher, Mickey attacks the big cat.

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The Optimism of Annie

Benjamen Walker interviewed me for his radio programme Too Much Information. He got me to talk about a favorite topic, Little Orphan Annie. You can listen to the show here.  He also interviews the great social critic Barbara Ehrenreich. As you’ll hear if you give the show some time, Benjamen is an unusually acute and well-informed interlocutor.

From Irish Simian to Homer Simpson

An Irish Simian, drawn by Fredrick Opper for Puck, February 15, 1882

Like radioactive material, an ethnic stereotype can possess a lengthy half-life, lingering on long after the period of its most deadly potency. We’ve already seen  how the minstrel/blackface image lives on in the guise of Mickey Mouse and other cartoon creations. Something similar has happened to the Victorian stereotype of the simian Irish, which now has mysteriously morphed into the relatively benign form of Homer Simpson, the All-American lovable loser.

My thoughts on this have been inspired by a reading of a new collection of George McManus’ classic comic strip Bringing Up Father, created in 1913. NBM has released a collection of the first two years of the McManus strip.

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Talking about Crumb & God

Crumb's version of Abraham and Isaac


Crumb’s The Book of Genesis Illustrated is one of the most exciting books of the year. I reviewed the volume for Bookforum, which can be found here. On the Inkstuds radio program, I engaged in an extended conversation on the book with Paul Stanwood, an English professor at the University of British Columbia. You can listen to our talk here.


I was greatful for the radio talk, because it allowed me to bring up issues that I had to skimp in the review, in particular Crumb’s use of ethnicity (unlike many other visual represenations of these stories, the characters actually look Middle Eastern), the fact that Crumb is working in the tradition of the grotesque rather than the heroic, and the merits of the translation Crumb relied on. Continue reading

Where the Wild Things Came From

Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are
Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are


The recently-released movie adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things are has been quite a hit. One happy result of the success of the movie is that many people are returning to the original book. A surprisingly cogent essay on Sendak was written in 1980 by Hilton Kramer, before his descent into terminal crankiness. Kramer reviewed Selma Lanes book The Art of Maurice Sendak. Kramer’s review can be found in his book The Revenge of the Philistines.

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Super Poems

The Human Torch burning bright
The Human Torch burning bright

In a plot line inspired by Robert Frost’s poem Road Not Taken, fictional character Archie Andrews has already proposed to Veronica and will propose to Betty next month.  I wonder what it would be like if other comics were inspired by poems…(imagine dreamy music and blurry vision.)

On His Blindness—John Milton

Spiderman is blind, worries about his moral value as a superhero, comes to a new appreciation for spidey sense.

The Imperfect Enjoyment –Lord Rochester

Calvin and Susie finally do it, it doesn’t go well.  Probably because they’re in first grade.

The Waste Land—T.S. Eliot

The Green Lantern considers a stranger’s childhood in Austria, plays game of chess HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME into the fire Power Ring Jesus Buddah Shakespeare your mom HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME and we shall play a game of chess The Giant Puppet.

An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot—Alexander Pope

Superman laments his status as the number one superhero because it means lots of annoying hero-wannabes are all up in his grill for advice.

The Lady’s Dressing Room—Jonathan Swift

While visiting Professor Xavier at his Westchester mansion, Angel accidentally walks in on Marvel Girl while she’s changing. He finds out just how many pairs of spanx are required to get her into the green body suit.

Hollow Men—T.S. Eliot

Anthony Stark quits being Iron Man for a while, goes back to his company, but he’s just middle management.  It’s not as fun as being a super hero and driving a sweet Audi.  His alcoholism is less charming and more necessary

All those cat poems—T.S. Eliot

Batman loses his brooding, grumbley side.  Becomes jolly, whimsical, roly-poly.

The Shield of Achilles—W.H. Auden

Steve Rogers becomes Captain America, except World War II actually really terrible.

Tiger—William Blake

The Human Torch is in the forests of the night.

A List in Response To A News: Take My Cats, Please. Seriously. I’m Going to Freak Out.


What’s that you say?  A cat lady on the Upper West Side?  How weird.

My Cats or My Future Baby?

  1. Barf on the floor
  2. Poop on the floor
  3. Pee on the floor
  4. Has a brain larger than a handful of grapes
  5. Sleep on my mom’s nice chairs so that I keep getting up with what Best Friend Lindsey calls a “diaper of cat hair”
  6. Not have such judgey-looking eyes
  7. Grow up to be a functioning creature capable of actual conversation and feelings
  8. Scream and claw at my locked bedroom door at 6am so that I will get up and feed them cat food
  9. Purr loudly like some kind of 4th grade nerd while I’m trying to research how Kim Kardashian lost so much weight
  10. Be cute and not annoying
  11. Not freak out when I want to dress it in a cute outfit
  12. Not be covered in hair
  13. Not cover everything I own in hair, causing drafts from opening and closing doors to blow cat-hair tumbleweeds across the floor
  14. Not be crouched on my bedroom floor glancing awkwardly from me to the pile of vomit under its chin
  15. Be worthy of my love
  16. Not barf into the box of old newspapers that I was about to put out with the recycling
  17. Not make me want to drown it
  18. Not chase its friend down the hallway, leap onto my computer desk knocking over my tea, run over my keyboard typing weird garbage into my email to my boss, then barf on the floor
  19. Love me back

Future baby: 4, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19

My Cats: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 9

The plausible deniability of M.I.A.

Daughter of a Tamil revolutionary, witness to civil war, refugee, pioneer of “global ghetto funk”, outspoken creator of a politically-charged debut album and of an even more creative follow-up album that she recorded in locations around the world after being denied a visa to work in the U.S. — a rebel’s badge of honour if there ever was one — to many, M.I.A. is nothing less than the street-slanged spokesperson of the twenty-first century Global South.

Yet Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam is also the woman who flew to Los Angeles in February to perform at the Grammy Awards (heavily pregnant, she gave birth to a son a couple of days later) and who is engaged to Benjamin Bronfman, son of Warner Music CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr. (previously the man responsible for — to be diplomatic — misplacing his family’s Seagram liquor empire) — and who will soon become, in tying this particular knot, a part of the establishment. She’s no Che Guevara.

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Felix the Cat & Blackface

Felix, a happy-go-lucky trickster. Is he presidential material?
Felix, a happy-go-lucky trickster. Is he presidential material?

Snorting has greeted Niall Ferguson’s new column, which begins like this:

President Barack Obama reminds me of Felix the Cat. One of the best-loved cartoon characters of the 1920s, Felix was not only black. He was also very, very lucky.

But aside from derision, Ferguson’s comments deserve some analysis. There is a reason why Ferguson, when he looks upon a cartoon character from the 1920s, lets his mind free-associate in the direction of black people. As many cultural historians have pointed out, the classic American animated cartoons emerged from the same milieu that produced blackface performances (like the Amos and Andy show) and minstrel music. Many of the great early animated characters — Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse, Bosko — had more than a touch of blackface and the minstrel show to them.

Felix the cat is a feckless, happy-go-lucky trickster. Culturally, he’s the missing link between Br’er Rabbit and Bugs Bunny: admirable in some ways but lacking in the “white” qualities of respectability and responsibility. It’s interesting that Ferguson managed to pick out such a potent, meaning-rich cultural symbol of blackness. It was probably subconscious on his part but still very revealing.

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