Saturday, January 31, 2015


Oh, to have a time machine and be able to visit 19th Century Europe! I'd wander the streets, trying to keep a low profile, buying bread, cheese and wine when needed, maybe availing myself of horse-drawn cabs if I could afford it.

Since in the present we're surrounded by skyscrapers, we imagine 19th Century buildings as being being low to the ground, but the evidence of old etchings and photography is that a large number of city structures were actually pretty tall. 

Even before elevators people liked to build'em big. That's odd because tall buildings had to be climbed, step by laborious step.

Castle motiffs were common. There must be a reason for that. 

 Like castles some buildings had plain, sheer walls with few windows close to ground level. That's also odd. This was an era when rooms were dark and often lit by slow burning twigs because candles were so expensive. You'd think people would have welcomed any chance to bring sunlight in. 

Balconies were high, I used to think in order to discourage burglars. Now I'm not so sure. No doubt they were high because rooms had high ceilings in those days. But does that make sense? Heat rises, so high ceilings would have made rooms cooler in the Summer, but also colder in the Winter. It's as if people had a choice and deliberately chose comfort in the Summer over warmth in the Winter. That's odd, don't you think?

Also, lower ceilings would have enabled builders to put a greater density of people into a given space. Why such high ceilings, and therefore high buildings, when space in the city was probably at a premium?

 The only thing I can think of that explains all these biases is that people wanted to live in buildings that resembled castles and cathedrals, even if doing so was inconvenient. Huzinga said that medievals were exceptionally imaginative and sentimental people. Maybe 19th Century people were the same way. Maybe this was the common man's way of living like mythic Lords and Ladies.

Of course not all buildings were the way I described them. Pictures of the period were full of imaginative variations of Roman public buildings. Were many of these actually built? I doubt it, but what do I know?

Thursday, January 29, 2015


Gee, I like this guy's work. Tim Biskup, I mean. In my opinion he's one of the best painters out there now. 

What I see in Tim's work is an intelligent, civilized mind that delights in fun. Seeing a picture like this (above) reminds me how lucky I am to have five senses. It makes me think of the world as a gourmet feast served up because somebody out there likes us.  

That dripping, green paint is a happy counterpoint to what's underneath.

For me a skull (above) represents mortality and intelligence. To see it covered with painterly color like this celebrates the emotional side of intellect. Since it's a skull it also underlines the tragic nature of our short life span, but offers the consolation of "Think of what you saw. Think of what you experienced. Wasn't it great?"

Haw! It occurs to me that artists usually disavow artsy fartsy explanations like this. 

Here's a photo of Biskup's studio. I love to see artists' workspaces.

 Here's (above) the man himself. Is that April March's music in the background?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Here's (above) Fredrick Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent, the book that provoked censorship of the comics and ended what a lot of fans consider a golden age of newsstand comics. I love those comics myself but I have to admit that Wertham had a point.

If you're a parent you don't want your kids to read comics with stories like this (above).  

   There used to be lots of crime comics and the most popular of all was Lev Gleason's Crime Does Not Pay. I like to think the edge that title had was its two artist/writer/editors, Bob Wood and Charles Biro. They favored a more cartoony style than the other crime comics, and Wood really did seem to understand the criminal mind.

I thought you might like to see samples of the work of some of the CDNP artists. We'll start with Rudy Palais (above and below) who drew the most gruesome stories. 

Here (above) Palais shows a woman kissing a man to death.

And here (above) he has a man kill a baby. 'Pretty gruesome stuff!

This one's (above) by Dick Briefer who also did the Frankenstein comics. I can't believe a story like this ever appeared in mass market comics.

Hmmm...I've seen this artist's work (above) before but I don't know his name. I'm guessing that the editors had had a hand in the continuity here and Bob Wood's knack for injecting humor into horror is evident.  

Now you can understand why Wertham thought crime comics had gone too far. They really had. Censorship was inevitable.  

Here's (above) one of my favorite CDNP artists, Bob Q. Siege. His anatomy is either very bad or very good, I can't figure out which. For a year he shared an apartment with Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder. I think I can see the influence. 

Last but not least is Charles Biro (that's his work, above) who was an artist as well as an editor.  He drew a lot of the covers. He wasn't an exceptional draughtsman but he knew what to draw and sometimes that can be almost as useful as knowing how to draw...well, sort of. Can you count the perspective cheats in this picture?

Bob Wood and Charles Biro were friends as well as co-workers. They shared hobbies: drinking and gambling. . . hobbies that were to prove fatal for Wood. 

Wood had a good feel for crime...maybe too good a feel. He psyched himself into the criminal mentality so effectively that he actually murdered somebody in real life.

That's all I have to say about that comic but I'll take the opportunity to speculate about the excessive censorship that followed the excessive media that brought it about. My guess...and it's only a guess, with no facts to back it that the mob had a hand in magazine distribution and paniced at the spotlight Wertham was throwing on that trade. 

 According to this guess the mob helped to push through unnecessarily stringent censorship, the heavy-handed kind that was inflicted on Barks later stories for Western Publishing. That kind of thing crippled magazine creativity for decades to come. Once again, that's pure speculation and I could be wrong. 

Friday, January 23, 2015


I can't resist starting this post about Horace Walpole with an illustration (above) from a vampire story. Walpole liked scary images so I think he would have approved. Anyway, Walpole was one of the most influential storytellers ever to work in the English language. He's credited with inventing the British Gothic novel and, since that morphed into horror, romance and crime and detective fiction, you could make a case that he was the father of British genre novels in general.

The mansion he built, Strawberry Hill (above), illustrates most of this post and is regarded as the first example of Gothic Revival architecture. I like the house but it takes a while to get used to. Apparently Walpole tried hard to create something gloomy and scary but he was temperamentally so good-natured that he was always modifying his intent when it came to the details. The result was a kind of Disneyland version of Gothic.

Maybe this (above) is closer to the way Strawberry Hill appeared in Walpole's time in the mid 18th Century. The whitewash was probably added in recent times to increase it's appeal as a spot to host weddings.

He ran low on funds while building so he had to cut corners. Look at the ceiling (above). It's painted on. Not only that but exterior battlements were often made of cardboard. It's funny to think that Ann Radcliff's creepy 1790 thriller "Mysteries of Udolpho" was inspired by such a cheerful house.

Cheerful (above). This room is positively cheerful. It's beautiful but I don't think any self-respecting ghost would haunt something like this.

Walpole's excesses touched off a kind of arms race among his imitators. Here's (above) a print from 1814 showing novelist William Beckford's house. The gallery was 350 feet long and the tower over 285 feet high. In the fireplaces 60 fires were always kept burning, except in the hottest weather. Yikes!

I think the tower collapsed sometime in the future but, since Gothic fans liked ruins, that wouldn't have prevented tourists from visiting.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


In this post Theory Corner considers the question of nature versus nurture. Are we shaped by genetics or by culture and experience? I don't know the answer but I can relate a story I heard that might be helpful.

It begins with twins born in a peaceful little cottage, nestled in the hills. 

Both girls were cute as a button and nice to a fault. They attended Church regularly and did well in school.

On weekends they cooked brownies together. Everything went fine until one day....

...puberty struck.

Gladiola hardly noticed. She just drank a glass of milk and went on with her life.

Mildred, on the other hand, developed a disdain for milk and discovered that she preferred other drinks. Her parents didn't know what to do.

Under the influence of raging hormones Mildred became less and less interested in brownies.

One day she up and ran off to New York. She just packed up and left, without so much as a note left behind.

She never made it, though. The car she was in crashed and she was taken in by hillbillies.

Fortunately for her, the man who found her was the King of the Hillbillies. He treated her like mountain royalty but unfortunately he was fatally kicked by a mule and Mildred found herself on her own.

Without a way to make a living Mildred drifted from relationship to relationship.

Finally she made it to New York but she had no money and no friends there. Life was hard.

Years passed. One day her Dad was browsing the lurid paperback stand in his local pharmacy and he found a book about, of all things, his daughter. That's when the family finally learned what happened to her.  Later a friend of hers mailed them Mildred's pasties. That's all they had to remember her by.

So that's the story. Gladiola continued to drink milk and prospered. I guess I haven't resolved the nature vs. nurture question. Maybe no one ever will. If there's a lesson to be learned here it might be about the generative power of giving, eternally delicious...milk.

BTW: Thanks to the anonymous person who who grafted the two women together on the title card.

Saturday, January 17, 2015


Above, a kilometer high cliff on Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The largest boulders at the cliff bottom are about 20 meters wide. The photo was taken a few weeks ago by the Rosetta orbiter.

Here's an interesting photo (above). It's a composite picture of our galaxy's core taken by Hubble and the Spitzer X-ray telescope. The white splotch on the lower right is a star cluster surrounding Sagittarius A, the super massive black hole at the galactic center.

In case the wide photo showing the Sagittarius A cluster is obscured by my sidebar, here's (above) an unencumbered enlargement. There's a nearby cluster on the upper left, which is puzzling. How did it escape being ripped apart by Sag. A? And what are those rake marks on the upper right?

Here's (above) an old friend, the M16 star nursery taken by Hubble. You probably saw the 20 year old photo which is considered by many to have been Hubble's greatest achievement. This latest picture benefits from a wider field and a higher res.

Above, a nebula so close that it can be seen as a small fuzzy patch with the naked eye: The Great Nebula in Orion.  It's the same nebula that contains the famous horse head, though I don't see it here. The image is a false color infrared composite taken by the Earth orbiting WISE observatory. Infrared allows us to see through dense clouds that previously obscured what we wanted to see. Boy, we sure got our money's worth with these orbiting telescopes!