©2014 By Bob Litton
A couple of days after publishing my last post, it dawned on me that I had left out three other creative exercises — and these truly juvenilia. I am not sure it is sensible of me to publish them here, where they can be broadcast worldwide, since they are as puerile as they are. However, some basic elements in my nature have goaded me into doing so: (1) I wanted to preserve them as long as possible from becoming any more deteriorated than the browning, crumbling pages reveal; (2) there are a few notable saving graces in them (which I will point toward as I go along); and (3) I am shamelessly vain (hence the title of my blog).
But first, I should provide some back story for each.
The other day, I heard part of an interview on our local NPR station in which a male interviewer and a female child psychologist were discussing “rambunctiousness” (aka “horseplay”) among preteens. The psychologist claimed that a certain level of violent activity was part of normal development and should not be immediately tamped down, as many parents are inclined to do. At the time I was listening, I was driving from my apartment to a café and thus caught only a middle portion of the dialogue, so I did not hear the upshot to the discussion: What level of violent behavior is healthy? I tried to locate that interview on the Internet later but was unsuccessful.
The psychologist’s comments dredged up memories of my own childhood, especially of my fondness for “shoot’em ups” (i.e., B-westerns) and Erroll Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. I also recalled the days when our school’s music teacher allowed us to pick the songs we wanted to sing in our song book: I always wanted to sing martial songs such as the “Caisson Song” or “The Marines’ Hymn”. Then there were the radio shows: Mother and I were fans of “Gangbusters”, possibly the most violent program on the air during the 1940’s.
Such a dose of violent entertainment appears to have affected my artistic endeavors then, as I will demonstrate with these six faded pages of an unfinished comic book I started sometime during my seventh and eighth years. Please pardon the egocentrism reflected in the main character’s name. I will point out some salient — I boldly assert saving — elements later. Note that you can enlarge any panel — or even any small portion of a panel — by clicking on the desired area. A little “⊕” magnifier will appear which you can use to focus on a smaller area and click again for further enlargement. Neat, heh?:
Now, folks, this is an unfinished work of art, kind of like one of Michelangelo’s sculptures. By some people it would be called a “cliffhanger”. But let’s look at some of its artistic features. On the first page, note the detailed dash board in the bank robbers’ car (2nd panel). Then observe the pencil and note paper stuck behind the driver’s seat, and the handkerchiefs neatly folded and tucked into the bank robbers’ coat pockets (3rd panel). Then contrast the doubting question from one of the crooks to his boss (5th panel) “Do you think they can do the job clean, boss?” with the action inside “…take that and that…bang, bang, bang!” (6th panel) Genuine “Gangbusters” material!!!
(By the way, these fellows’ hats are supposed to be fedoras, not panamas!)
On page 2, we see one robber with a small bag of money (which we can identify as such because it has a “$” printed on it), still shooting, only this time in the direction of his partner (panel 2). Next we have some more exciting “bang, bang” and even a police car siren: while at one point (panel 3) the cops are gaining on the robbers, in the next our hero (that would be me) is suggesting to the police chief that they turn around because “you’ll never catch them” (panels 3 and 4). Panel 6 is a masterpiece of what we artists call perspective: a bird’s eye view of the police car doing a U-turn while the robbers continue on.
On page 3, we are treated to a nice closeup of the police chief, whose profile bears a striking resemblance to Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy. Now that’s odd! You would think Detective Litton would look more like Tracy. At the bank, we see Litton examining the dead teller’s body, while the chief and two other officers, dressed in 19th century vintage uniforms, stand by. Next, after a cursory search of the teller’s pockets, Litton surreptitiously picks up a cigarette stub (panel 3). And, “meanwhile”, the robbers make it to their hideout in a car that needs a brake job (panel 5). Notice how the house is fully equipped with an air-conditioner, a broken window pane, and even a liquor bottle lying on the roof. Note also (panel 6) how the cigarette-smoking robbers, playing poker, have knobby noses, indicating they have been in more than a few fist fights. (My brother Elbert had previously taught me that you can always discern a felonious character by his knobby nose.)
On page 4, we see Litton confessing to the chief, who now has a name, “Pat”, that he has been withholding evidence…at least for a little while. He tells Pat about the cigarette (which he pronounces “cirgrate”) and suggests they have it examined for fingerprints, and then tells the chief he would like to work the case solo (panel 3)…but he doesn’t explain why. However, Pat is extremely accommodating and only adds one proviso: bring in the killer. The lab scene (panel 6) is interesting for its vials and tubes, especially the one on the top shelf. Nice detail for a seven or eight-year-old!
On page 5, we discover that this department’s forensics expert is more punctual than many of our modern day fellows; he has not only found a fingerprint but has also identified the smoker (panel 1). But now the chief is having second thoughts about Litton, brave soul though he be, facing odds too superior in going against “Big John” by himself. In panel 3, we glimpse Litton going out the door, his head six times as large as his hand and his hat twice as large as his head. (Litton has always had a problem with a big head!) Then he does a quick about face and tells the chief to send backup to 3234 River Bank Street if he isn’t back by 6 o’clock. One wonders where he got this particular address. In panel 5, we have another terrific perspective shot when a taxi responds to Litton’s whistle. A bit of comedy is offered us when Litton gives the taxi driver the address and then tells him ahead of time to “keep the change”.
On page 6, we discover that an elderly couple, including a man with a cane, live at that address, not Big John. Not to worry! Big John, the old man informs us, lives in “the next house down” (panel 2). After walking a few yards from one house to another, Litton complains, “Boy, are my feet hurting.” He classifies the next house as one of the species “hideout” (panel 3). And then he notices a car — the getaway car! — parked near a building that looks more like a church (panel 4). But Big John spots Litton through the broken window…uh, oh! (panel 5). Litton is ready for action with a drawn six-shooter (panel 6), but, as he opens the door and starts the syllable “Rea…?” (Explanation: He was trying to say “Reach!”) he is conked on the head by one of the robbers. Meanwile, as it approaches 6 o’clock, Police Chief Pat Whatever declares it’s time to go assist Litton (final panel). Note the book case with several volumes (Chief is a voracious reader!) and the gun rack with three shotguns in a row. Nice details, n’cest-pas?
Well, I hate to leave you in suspense, folks. You might come back next week for another exciting episode, but I wouldn’t count on it. I honestly don’t know why I did not finish that comic book, but I would surmise that it was because I couldn’t figure out how to save Litton.
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Now for exhibit Number 2: My experience as a song-writer.
Actually, although I liked to sing songs in music class, always volunteering to sing some cowboy songs (like the theme from High Noon), I was usually embarrassed when the teacher summoned us up to the piano, one by one, to test our tones against the piano keys’ tones. I gathered very early that I “couldn’t carry a tune in a basket”, but that didn’t stop me from volunteering on “talent show” days. That is what renders the following anecdote ironical.
In 1950, when I was ten years old and in the fifth grade, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s then conductor, Walter Hendl, joined with the Dallas Independent School District to sponsor a song-writing contest. If my memory is accurate, the DSO held a “youth concert” every year, especially during Hendl’s tenure there (1949-1958). I cannot recall if 1950 was the only year the DSO and DISD held a song-writing contest, but it is the only one I recall. The teacher, in announcing the event to us, said we were limited to five subjects, of which I can remember for certain only three: school, play, and sleep. I believe the other two might have been our nation and work, but I’m not sure. For some forgotten reason, I decided to give it a try; so later, in art class, when I was supposed to be drawing pictures with my Crayolas on manila paper, I spent the time writing a poem which I titled “In my Sleep”. And, supposing that the more colorful the rendering the better my chances, I used different colors for the letters. I gave it to the music teacher the next day, and she very sensibly transposed it to a type-written page. A few weeks later, the teacher informed me that my poem had made it to the “finals”; and soon afterwards she told me it was the winner.
The second part of the contest was to compose music for the lyrics. As you probably have already guessed, this was my weak point. Nonetheless, the teacher worked patiently with me, coaxing a tune out of me, which she transcribed to a sheet of music paper and sent in to the contest judges. I was not surprised on being told weeks later that an elementary school class in Oak Cliff, a suburb of Dallas, had won the musical composition portion of the competition.
My own music, the teacher informed me, had been adjudged “too jazzy”. I thought that was odd, not that I had been bested, but that my tune had been deemed “jazzy”. I didn’t much care for it either, but “jazzy”? It was too lively in the latter half, certainly, for it was supposed to be a song lauding pleasant dreams, but not “jazzy”. Part of the problem was that I had aimed to match the music to the individual lines; and, after the eighth line, the lyrics were pretty martial type stuff, as you can discern here:
In My Sleep
When the clouds have hurried by
And the evening moon is nigh
To my bed I fairly fly
And there I sleepy lie.
Castles of dreams will come into sight,
Lands of wonder every night.
To the many lands I go,
To bold deeds long ago.
Dreams of battles and marching soldiers,
Story books and picture folders;
Dreams of cowboys and painted Indians,
Pirates and sailors and Mounted Canadians.
I never fuss; I never weep
When I must go to bed and sleep.
The last two lines — nicely composed iambic tetrameters — retreat from the marching tone and even close the rough sonnet with a couplet on “good behavior”.
As an adult, looking over that sheet music, which I kept with me until a year ago, I thought, These are a boy’s day dreams, not suitable subject matter for a restful night! However, it was the music, not the lyrics, that eventually moved me to destroy the composition. The first eight lines and the last two I still find commendable when considering that I was only ten years old at the time. Over the years, I asked a few friends to attempt playing the song on their pianos; they couldn’t get very far. I wondered how my fifth grade teacher had managed any better.
On the day of the “youth concert”, a young girl from the Oak Cliff school and I waited in one of the stage wings until Maestro Hendl summoned us to front center stage to take our bows. Then the orchestra played the music, and the auditorium full of school children sang. I liked the music that Oak Cliff class had fitted to my words. I suspected that the whole class, or at least several youths in it, had done the actual composing; and that the girl beside me was simply representing the class; but perhaps she indeed was the sole composer. It was a nice moment for both of us. That was the only reward we got for our creative efforts: standing there on stage as a whole auditorium full of Dallas children sang our song.
A couple of years ago, I tried to obtain the Oak Cliff class’ music from the archives of the DSO and the DISD, but both places professed not to have any record of it. Odd!
* * * * * *
And last, there was the animation film I made when I was 15 or 16 years old. Again, some back story.
In the mid-fifties, Walt Disney produced two documentaries that aroused ambition in me to be a nature photographer. One was The Living Desert (1953) and the other was The Vanishing Prairie (1954).
I must have talked about those two films a lot, because my mother gave me an 8mm movie camera for Christmas. I wasted several rolls of film photographing various dogs, but I also did some of creditable “scenes” of a couple of friends and me creating our own B-western…with special effects: an arrow being aimed in one shot and sticking in a log (behind which one boy was shooting his BB gun) in another shot; and of smoke (i.e., flour) exiting the barrel of the Red Ryder air rifle.
A more ambitious project, however — perhaps too ambitious — was my drawing, on about twelve sheets of paper, a tennis player swatting his serve. The scene, as shot, lasts only a very few seconds; you have to have a quick eye to perceive it was even on the screen. However, in 2010, an artist friend of mine copied it with his camera phone and, after playing it three times at normal speed, reproduced it in slow motion once and posted it on YouTube:
My mother had kept, for many years, the several rolls of film I had made with the camera; and I had practically forgotten about them, when I received a boxful from my sister-in-law back in 2010. I was disappointed that the film of the “cowboys and Indians” was not included, but I was pleasantly surprised by how well I had done with the tennis animation. The frames are a bit jerky, all right, but the player’s body proportions are amazingly well-maintained. Also, the changing position of the man’s legs is convincingly consonant with what one might expect it to be. Frankly, I am surprised I had enough patience to draw all those frames.
To all of you who stuck it through to the end of this lengthy post, I thank you, thank you very much!
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