Maggie’s World 081: Disappointment Inspiration
Oh, no! We were counting on …
And then things happened, and what we were counting on was no longer there. We’d made plans, and now they wouldn’t work—even when we thought we’d been taking every possibility into account.
It’s happened before, it’s happening now, and it will happen again.
Sometimes, though, it helps to keep in mind that the results of a disappointment can include benefits we turn out to treasure for themselves.
Without discounting the nightmares so many are experiencing now, let’s travel in Mr. Peabody’s WABAC Machine.
OK, we can make it classic.
In 1978, James Burke created, wrote, and narrated a BBC series called Connections, with each of its 10 episodes focused on how things we take for granted came to be. The fourth installment, “Faith in Numbers,” included the history of the way the Black Death in the 1300s led to printing with moveable type and increased literacy in general. Oh—and, eventually, brought us computer programming.
All of which is to say that, when we can somehow get beyond the horrors of a disaster, the resultant world can offer fresh opportunities.
In Less Devastating Terms …
In the 1800s, literacy had reached the point at which reading was so accepted as entertainment that it was sometimes frowned upon as a waste of time. (I once bought a Charles Howard “Vinegar Valentine” that showed a seated woman reading a “Sensational Story” paper, while she ignored her children fighting, her kerosene lamp burning badly, and her dog clearly planning mischief. The caption was “Don’t read sensational story papers. They do you no good, and make you neglect your family and house.” Reading for entertainment, it clearly showed, meant ignoring necessities while wasting time on trash. But time, literacy, and the printing press had made reading popular.
Newspaper publishers brought readers important news (and “sensational stories”), yes—but, when comics brought even more readers, newspapers added more comics. And even more profits were earned, when some of those comics were reprinted in stand-alone format.
Hey, what about comics magazines? Could those become their own format for even more profits?
Not everybody approved of that sort of entertainment. That woman reading “Sensational Story” had been scorned. Maybe comics should be discarded.
And then emerged, in the course of the grim challenge of sending troops overseas during World War II, comics to go along: cheap, disposable entertainment that could provide respite and then be thrown away.
And marketing spread the characters and stories via movies and radio and other magazines and more comic strips.
A case in point is Walt Kelly’s career. (Full disclosure: I owe my career in comics to Kelly’s work. Heck, I began by learning to read using his comic books.) When he moved from Disney to the East Coast, he worked on a variety of freelance projects, among them a number of comics for Dell Editor Oskar Lebeck. Among those was Animal Comics #1, launching the feature that introduced Pogo Possum in 1942. Kelly produced a variety of licensed and original material for Dell, but (as was the case with countless comic books in the 1940s), Animal Comics eventually folded.
So Kelly had a cast of characters, a growing audience of fans, and that was that. Disappointing.
But he soon developed a new format for those characters. He was able to adapt that comic-book feature into a new version, when he became art director of The New York Star newspaper in 1948.
But then the newspaper folded with no warning to its staffers. (Kelly had actually prepared a second daily strip to launch the next week.) Disappointing.
But he was able to market to a syndicate the work that he’d done. That took his strip and its characters to national distribution, book reprints, and a lifetime career.
Will Eisner had a syndicated newspaper feature that wasn’t making it. Disappointing. How could he make a living? As The Spirit was failing in the early 1950s, he’d developed a monthly magazine for the Army in which comic art illustrated preventive maintenance information via PS, The Preventive Maintenance Monthly, which he started in June 1951. Years later, Eisner was even able to return to the comics format for other new projects aimed at adults.
Comic books packed the newsstands with publications supplied via a number of distributors—but public pressures of the 1950s drove anti-comics fervor, including comic book burnings. Industry publishers developed an alliance that displayed the seal of a Code that identified comics’ contents as “safe” for young readers. But that meant that comic books aimed at older readers had to modify their content—and the EC line of more sophisticated anthologies found challenges it couldn’t meet. Disappointing. The company would have to fold. Or would it? Harvey Kurtzman, Bill Gaines, and Al Feldstein ended up with a successful magazine that took itself well into the 21st century.
With the Code an established requirement for newsstand display, many comic books weren’t selling well. Disappointing. But what if super-heroics could be adapted and characters revamped for a new generation? Could creators develop something for 1950s youngsters? Hmm. Let’s try a Showcase to see what sells to those kids!
What about the challenges for readers who discovered (as readers in the 1800s had done) that reading pop culture entertainment was rewarding in itself but that finding favorites was a challenge, depending on which newsstand carried which comics? Maybe they liked Fantastic Four, but the employee filling the racks didn’t bother to shelve that month’s Marvels. Disappointing. And publishers had to deal with printing multiple copies to sell one, refunding money for unsold issues. Disappointing. Enter Phil Seuling, negotiating in 1977 to provide a guaranteed sell-through for a guaranteed supply to serve a growing audience. And the direct market comics shops provided a destination for that audience.
Which Is to Say …
2020 has been a time of crushing disappointments.
Everyone made plans for the year.
Everyone had to adapt those plans.
Looking back on the development of his strip, Walt Kelly wrote in 1959, “There’s not much doubt in any of our minds that no complete idea springs fully formed from our brow.” He continued, “The germ of the idea grows very slowly into something recognizable. It all may start with the mere desire to have an idea in the first place.”
With so many wonderful people facing crushing disappointments today, it’s time to note that many of them are coming up with ideas that will grow into future wonders.
Hang in there.
Maggie’s World by Maggie Thompson appears the first Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!