Comics, Maypoles, and Book Banning

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March 12, 2022 by libroshombre

Carl Sagan is certainly missed; apart from his glowing cosmological credentials and general brilliance, he was insightful while maintaining his humor and sense of wonder, and he had a marvelous way with words to express it all.  Here’s his observation about a subject close to my old heart: books.  “What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

To Carl and me, audio recordings, e-books, streaming novels, and other digital files, aren’t the same as printed books.  Reading writing on screens engages the scanning parts of our brains and inhibits the deep comprehensive reading parts.  It’s a scientific fact that reading long passages on a screen is significantly slower to do and much harder to comprehend.  That’s why there’s still a market for many types of printed college textbooks versus digital.  Electronic books have a lot of worth, but I find it much more satisfying to read something thoroughly engaging in print form, even comic books.  That’s how I recently encountered Fred Laswell (creator of Snuffy Smith comic strip), Thomas Morton (founder of a freewheeling utopian town next door to the Puritans at Plymouth, Mass in the early 1600s), and Lu Sun (“the father of modern Chinese literature).

Laswell’s professional cartooning career began at age 16 as the Tampa Daily Times sports cartoonist where his work was noticed by Barney Google comic strip creator Billy DeBeck, who regularly golfed in Tampa in the winter.  DeBeck (a city boy through and through) hired Laswell (who grew up on a chicken farm) as his assistant in 1933, to help move the strip’s action from Barney Google’s urban racetracks to rural Appalachia where Google’s cousin (and Laswell’s brainchild) Snuffy Smith lived.  DeBeck died in 1942, and Laswell took over the strip until his death in 2001.  However, his creativity was not limited to pen and ink.  He was one of the first cartoonists to email his strips to his publishing syndicate and to create a digital archive of his art.  Laswell invented his own computer-generated lettering to duplicate his handwriting for his strips, and he created a bilingual laserdisc and developed Braille comics while inventing the first Braille comic book, “This Is Charlie.”  On the side, he was also a member of the American Society of Agricultural Engineers and patented a citrus fruit harvester.

Chinese literary icon Lu Xun (pen name of Zhou Shuren) wasn’t a cartoonist, but he liked comic books.  In fact he coined the name of Chinese comics: “Lian; huan hua,” which means. serial comic strips.  Now these palm-sized paperbacks are known as “lianhuanhua,” but they began in 1916 when Shanghai newspapers began printing them to attract middle and lower class readers.  They were usually based upon Chinese operas and literary classics, which sparked Lu Xun’s appreciation for their realism and earthiness.  That changed when Mao Zedong came along.  It was while Mao was working as a librarian in the 1920s that he helped found the Chinese Communist Party, and while Lu Xun was a “leftist” and led the League of Left-Wing Writers in Shanghai, he considered the communists too extreme and never joined.  By his death in 1936, he’d contributed significantly to nearly every form of written expression: books, essays, poems, translations, literary criticism, etc.  After his passing Mao called Lu “the literary saint of modern China,” but, according to Wikipedia, soon Mao was using Lu’s “legacy to promote his own political goals.  In 1942 he quoted Lu out of context to tell his audience to be ‘a willing ox’ like Lu Xun was,” but he also told writers and artists who, like Lu Xun, “believed in freedom of expression that, because Communist areas were already liberated, they need not be like Lu Xun” in that respect.  By 1949 all of Lu’s close followers had been “purged,” and “Mao admitted that had Lu survived until the 1950s, he would ‘either have gone silent or to prison.”  The Chinese communists adopted the lianhuanhua format which proved effective in to promoting their propaganda and rules.

Closer to home Thomas Morton (1579-1647) ran into the same trouble.  Morton was an English writer, lawyer, and social reformer who admired Native Americans and disparaged the Puritans’ treatment of them.  Morton first went to Massachusetts on a three-month exploratory trip in 1622, and returned in 1624 in a Crown-sponsored trading venture with his partner, one Captain Wollaston, and 30 young, indentured men.  They traded guns for the natives to use against other tribes for furs and food and soon founded an agrarian colony called Mount Wollaston (now Quincy, Mass.). 

In 1626, when Morton learned that Wollaston was selling indentured men into slavery in Virginia, he organized the remaining servants to expel Wollaston (who fled to Virginia) and changed their community’s name to Merrymount.  The next spring Morton and crew celebrated with an 80-foot maypole and invited their native neighbors to attend, both of which outraged the Puritans at nearby Plymouth.  The following May Day celebration in 1628 turned ugly when Captain Miles Standish and his Plymouth militia attacked, and arrested Morton.  Since he was well-connected with King James I, instead of executing him, they merely marooned him on a desolate island to starve.  Somehow Morton made it back to England and promptly sued the Puritan-run Massachusetts Bay Company, who ran the Plymouth colony.  In 1635 he won and the company lost its royal charter, and two years later he published “New English Canaan,” a three-volume critique on Puritan atrocities and the comparatively noble nature of the Native peoples. 

“New English Canaan” was immediately banned in Massachusetts by the Puritans, making it probably the first banned book in North America, but hardly the last.  A coordinated nation-wide effort to ban scads of books is underway, particularly in Anchorage, where the public library administration is actively pulling books about race and sexual orientation for “review” by the non-librarian their mayor appointed to run their library.  School libraries everywhere are being hit especially hard, ever since the newly-elected Virginia governor made a point of that in his election campaign and it was embraced by political extremists.  In many of these incidents the basic rules for reconsidering titles is being ignored.  Normally challenged books are reviewed by committees composed of librarians, school administrators and teachers, and parents, but that process is being short-circuited, and school administrators are simply removing the books without any input.

That’s why last week’s Alaska Library Association state conference featured programs on how to counter this onslaught against intellectual freedom, for this undemocratic action, and undereducated, uninformed students, are a threat to us all.  Fortunately, librarians are tougher and braver than most ignoramuses suspect.  For proof look no farther than the Ukrainian Library Association, who recently cancelled their annual conference and posted this message: “we will reschedule just as soon as we have finished vanquishing our invaders.”

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