In the second blog on “Le Nain Jaune” I made a short mention of Henry Harland and the Yellow Books. Harland was the literary editor of the series , Max Beerbohm the artistic editor and with him I will start this text.
In October 1896 Beerbohm’s story “The Happy Hypocrite” was published in number eleven of the series of Yellow Books. Lord George has fallen in love with the young actress Jenny, a yellow dwarf named Cupid caused this by shooting an arrow in his breast. Lord George boldly proposes marriage to Jenny, but she says that she will only marry a man with the face of a saint and a saintly character. In order to make her change her mind George calls in the service of a mask-maker a Mr. Aeneas. Wearing the mask Lord George shows himself to Jenny. Beerbohm offers some motives to play down the cheating by attaching the love for art and beauty to the mask, the result of wearing it changes not only the looks but also the character. The two marry and live blissfully in a little cottage. One day a former lover of George shows up and pulls his mask down in a jealous rage and to his own astonishment the mask has done its work and his face has changed permanently ( 1)
Cupid, the Yellow Dwarf by Max Beerbohm and on the right 'The Yellow Kid' by Richard Felton Outcault.
The Yellow Kid ( 1896-1898) created by Richard F. Outcault was one of the first comic newspaper characters. At first the Kid was just one of a group of street kids from the New York slums. He wore a blue nightgown of one of his sisters for lack of other clothing. One day Charles Saalburg, who was in charge of the colour prints, got the bright idea of colourizing the gown yellow. This was still experimental at the time, since yellow ink didn't dry properly. But the effect was; it increased the visibility of the boy with the buckteeth and protruding ears. For Outcault The Yellow Kid represented not an individual, but a type he had noticed during his wanderings through New York’s streets . The kids do mischief, joyfully engage in slapstick and speak a phonetic language. Which had a huge appeal to the largely new immigrant population of New York. Outcault developed the speech balloon as a container for this language and also wrote it on the Yellow Kid’s gown. Another first was The Yellow Kid's tendency to reference recent news events. Political cartoonists had done this as early as the late 18th century, but in comics this was still a novelty.
Despite his popularity The Yellow Kid fell victim to politics in 1889. In the run up to the Spanish- American War newspapers like William Randolp Hearst’s ‘The New York Journal’ were responsible for creating an atmosphere aiming for war. An effect of the mood created against anything Spanish was also an antipathy against the colours of the Spanish Flag, yellow and red. In this atmosphere the yellow gown made the Kid vulnerable and contributed to Outcault’s losing interest in his creation ( 2)
´The Big Type War of the Yellow Kids´ caricature by Leon Barret published in Vim Magazine 1889. (3)
Joseph Pullitzer of ´The New York World´ and William Randolph Hearst of ´The New York Journal´ , (newspapers that featured the Yellow Kid cartoons ) build a block tower and bicker about who’s war it is. Their stories swayed US public opinion to believe that the Cuban people were being severely persecuted by the Spanish, and that the only way for them to gain their independence was through American intervention. Hearst and Pulitzer made their stories credible by self-assertion and providing false names, dates, and locations of skirmishes and atrocities committed by the Spanish. The papers also claimed that their facts could be substantiated by the government. More than 100 years of neo-conservative influencing of public opinion and government policy, what has changed over the years?
A curious monkey
Hans Reyersbach was born in Hamburg in 1898 and met Margarete Waldstein (born 1906) at a party for the 16th birthday of Margarethe’s sister. Hans was already living in Brasil when the two met again in 1935 after she had left Germany to escape from the nazis. They decided to get married and travel to Paris for a honeymoon that would last almost 4 years. While in Paris, Hans's animal drawings came to the attention of a French publisher, who commissioned him to write a children's book. The result was ‘Cecily G. and the Nine Monkeys’. One of its characters, an adorably impish monkey named Fifi, was such a success that the couple considered writing a book focused entirely on it. With the advance of the German army the Reys , being Jews, decided to flee Paris in 1940. In a lot of texts about this episode I come upon sentences like ´Hans assembled two bicycles´ or a reference to ‘self-made bicycles´, so I also got curious. How did he turn two bicycles into one and how did it look? In the end I found this image from a film made about the couple’s adventures (5)
A tandem! Is it possible they considered resting in turn and keep going forward? Would the one resting have found stability against the other? Would they have continued cycling during the night? Riding the tandem, with only their winter coats and four picture books strapped to the racks, the couple travelled to the south of France. In Bayonne they were issued life-saving visas signed by the Brazilian Vice-Consul. They were able to cross the Spanish border, travelled by train to Lisbon and from there they went to Brazil and straight on to New York. Where in 1941 the first Curious George story was published. (4)
( 6) Curious George rides a bike. And The man with the Yellow hat
In the stories Curious George has a steady companion , the man controlling and educating him is called “The man with the Yellow Hat”. This man catches George in Africa ( “One day George saw a man, he had on a yellow large straw hat. The man saw George too. “What a nice little monkey”, he thought. “I would like to take him home with me”. He put his hat on the ground, and, of course, George was curious. He came down from the tree to look at the large yellow hat”.) and takes George with him to America wherethe little monkey, curious as he is, constantly gets into trouble . The first Curious George story is a big success from the start and a whole series of new stories follow. They keep being reprinted and adapted to new times, animation series, movies and television films are made. (The first television adaption was aired in 1980 and I’m inclined to think Mike Kelley may have seen it and based his Mr Banaman on the character of the Man with the Yellow Hat. I will go into that in a new text.) As an illustration of the ongoing popularity of Curious George and the Man with the Yellow Hat: two photographs of Halloween costumes ( 7)
Driving off on a bicycle.
The story of the Rey’s escape made me think of a book that had made a big impression on me when I read it in my adolescent years. The book’s title is ‘the Russkoffs’ and it is written by Francois Cavanna. In my recollection the main character decided, in the same June days of 1940, to take his bike and leave Paris, fleeing from the advancing German army. The idea to just get on to your bike, skip school and drive away ,towards the horizon, stays with me, even after 40 years since I read the book. I wanted to refresh my memory so I bought a second hand copy, started reading and found out that my memory and interpretation had created an alternative story.
François , just 16years old, is the son of Italian immigrants. He is fed up with school, and wants to get a job. His father is a bricklayer and like all immigrants of the first generation he wants his son to have a more comfortable life. François starts working in one of the post offices of Paris and is only engaged for a short time when the war starts . The director of the post office calls for an emergency meeting during which he informs the employees; “The Krauts are already in Meaux. You will go home straightaway to fetch your stuff, take only the most necessary. In three hours time there will be a bus which will take you south. These are orders of the government. Those who refuse will face huge penalties.” The director continues;” I’m unable to accompany you , I’ve received orders to stay and confront what’s coming.” “A hero, well almost, he shouldn’t have worn those slippers during working hours. But he’s got tender feet”, Cavanna remarks cynically. Of course the bus doesn’t show up. The director tells his employees; “those of you who have bicycles will have to use these. The rest of you best take the train, if you can still catch it, if not you should try going on foot. The regrouping will be in Bordeaux, at the central postoffice. Try to stay together as best you can”. And so François mounts his bicycle and he’s off, adding one more body to a chaotic exodus. Eventually he notices he’s been overtaken by the German army and returns home after a couple of weeks.
The real subject of ‘the Russkoffs’ starts right on the first page of the book, the chapter is called “Slave Market.” François has been drafted to work as a forced labourer in Germany. He is working on a metal press that makes parts for grenades. The book describes his experience of three years prison camp, hunger, survival and mass dying, the encounter with his love and soulmate the Ukranian Maria and the nearing collapse of Germany. And the slow return back to France, losing Maria along the way, during a short absence of François she is rounded up by the Russian army and he is unable to find her. The book is dedicated to ‘Maria Jossifovna Tatartsjenko, wherever she may be’. The last lines of the book read ; “Once, I don’t know how I will go there. To the Ukraine, to Charkov. I will find her. In the meantime I will study the Russian language. And I started working again, one has to live, dying is no option”. ( 8)
The formative war experience turned Cavanna into a person with a big distrust for power, someone who has learned to look behind the scenes, someone who defuses all rhetoric . After the war he starts drawing comics for the newspaper ‘Le Déporté du travail’, a paper founded by the Association of Forced Labourers. He continues drawing for satirical magazines like Zéro and La Presse Aux Oeufs D’Or ( The Press with the Golden Eggs). Here he gets to know Georges Bernier. Together with him he starts the satirical magazine Hara-Kiri in 1960 and its successor Charlie Hebdo in 1970.
Cover of the Russkoffs. And a special Père-Lachaise edition of Charlie Hebdo, 5/02/2014, devoted to François Cavanna 1923-2014.
2. R. F. OUTCAULT'S THE YELLOW KID A Centennial Celebration of the Kid Who Started the Comics. Introduction by Bill Blackbeard, Kitchen Sink Press.
3. Totally beside the point but very funny; on the original Vim Magazine I cannot find anything but for those who like well muscled appealing men in minuscule bathing trunks this is a very nice search term.
6. Original drawing for one of seven Curious George stories with a dedication by H. A. Rey to ‘Nancy,who was too old for this book when it was first published, but who is now the right age, with love, from her ancient friend’. https://natedsanders.com/curious_george_first_edition__signed_by_h_a__rey_w-lot42430.aspx
7. Nowadays the stories of Curious George are being read in a critical way. There are a host of blogs questioning educational aspects of the behaviour of the Man with the Yellow Hat, aspects of western colonialism, and capitalist appropriation to name a few.
8. De Russkoffs, Francois Cavanna, 1980 Uitgeverij Lotus Antwerpen, translated by myself, in absence of an English translation