Whenever I travel with my family to DeKalb, Illinois, where my in-laws live, I visit Charles Sigwart's Classic Books, and buy an obscure cartoon book.
Sigwart's appearance is striking. He's got wavy gray hair, a thick white beard, glasses with impossibly thick lenses, and a right hand that's missing a few fingertips. His left hand is missing altogether, replaced by a metal hook. I Googled Sigwart's name, and discovered that before his recent retirement, he was a professor of Computer Science at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, the school where my mother-in-law used to teach. (I also found an interesting article about Sigwart and his wife Gretchen, both of whom were involved in Project Survival, an environmentally-themed event that was a dress rehearsal for the first Earth Day in 1970.) When I'm at Classic Books, however, Sigwart and I never talk about personal stuff; rather, Sigwart is always in motion, bouncing around the very small shop, talking with customers (including my kids and me) about the books we're interested in and the books he has for sale. He proudly points out that about one-third of his stock turns over every year.
Classic Books is tiny, a converted two-car garage with the left bay jammed with Sigwart's desk and cash register, and floor-to-floor shelves of history and fiction books. In the right bay, the books are grouped into cardboard sleeves lined up on metal shelving and labeled by topic. There's also a tall, disorganized pile of books in the center of the room. Sigwart knows his store well and easily finds what we're looking for; during our last visit, my daughter Mercer was hungry for Babysitter Club books, and Sigwart quickly unearthed about two dozen Club volumes, priced at 50 cents each. Mercer bought ten of them, and immediately asked me when our next trip to DeKalb would be. "Maybe Christmas," I said.
For sad reasons, our family's been making frequent trips to DeKalb recently, and we've been in Sigwart's shop three times in the last year. Here's an annotated list of the strange cartoon books I've bought during these visits.
12/22/09: Father-in-law an invalid due to advancing prostate cancer. Reg Manning's What Kinda Cactus Izzat? (First edition 1941--though mine is the thirty-ninth printing, from 1997).
This is a joyous compendium of facts about various species of Arizona cacti and plant life. Manning, an artist for many years for the Arizona Republic newspaper before his death in 1986, and a Pulitzer Prize winner for editorial cartooning, combines funny, informative prose with drawings in a vibrant, brushy, bigfoot style:
I love the "cut away" Saguaro diagram above; I love local color; I love cartoon glimpses into worlds I know nothing about (pace Russell Johnson). Izzat is published by "Reganson Cartoon Books," which reads like Manning's son publishing his father's work, although Manning's What is Arizona Really Like?, a guide to "every corner of the Grand Canyon state," appears to be out of print. Typing "Reg Manning" into eBay, however, yields a long list of postcards and other books--and I fear I may become an obsessive Manning collector.
7/7/10: Father-in-law unable to speak, in severe pain. Kari's Kakara Kirja (1959).
One of my odder discoveries at Sigwart's shop was a medium-sized box full of Finnish cartoon books. I know nothing about Finnish comics, so I picked a random book--Kari's Kakara Kirja (Kid Book)--that turned out to be a collection of nearly wordless gags featuring babies and children. Kari masterfully captures realistic vignettes and body language, as in this sequential study of a climbing toddler:
The caption accompanying these pictures, "Valtterin Ensimmainen Yritys," means something like "the first attempt" in English. According to this online biography, Kari Suomalainen (1920-1998) was a prominent Finnish cartoonist best known for his forty-year run as an editorial cartoonist for Finland's largest newspaper (Helsingen Sanomat) and for his outspoken conservatism. Kakara Kirja is completely apolitical, though I did find a newspaper clipping of a Kari editorial cartoon tucked inside the book:
Does "USA Pois Vietnamista" mean "USA out of Vietnam"? Who is President Maa Tarvitsee? What's the joke? I might have to read a modern history of Finland to figure all this out.
10/30/10: Father-in-law dead, family in De Kalb for memorial service. Ronald Searle's Zoodiac (1977).
This is a playful, slight book by a master caricaturist. Not counting front- and end-papers, Searle draws two silly pictures for each sign of the Zodiac, with the first a pen-ink-watercolor portrait of the sign's avatar (Pisces the fish, say) getting into solo trouble. I'm Taurus the Bull (my birthday is May 6th, shared with Sigmund Freud, Orson Welles and, sigh, Bob Seger), and Searle's first picture shows folks like me, Freud and Welles spoiling for a fight with a harmless butterfly:
The second picture depicts the sign interacting--often romantically and quixotically--with another creature: Taurus sits on a divan, aggressively leaning towards a female bull who is simultaneously pushing him away and shyly smiling, flattered by his attentions. My favorite illustrations, though, might hint at some playful discord in Searle's life. Searle dedicates Zoodiac to his "own personal Virgo," and his drawings represent Virgo as a snout-nosed neat-freak compulsively ironing the grass and cleaning the kitchen:
Note the cat and man covered in white sheets, moved and then forgotten by Virgo as decisively as the furniture. Is Searle's "own personal Virgo" his wife Monica, and is he the compliant stiff on the table? The last picture in Zoodiac is of Virgo sweeping up the artist's mess, which is perhaps a tribute to one of Monica's roles in the Searle household...?
I'm ashamed to say that I don't know much about Searle's career and art, and it's time for me to read his St. Trinian's books--naughty Catholic schoolgirls and Addamsesque humor sounds like a lively mix to me.
Sigwart's Classic Books is a balm that my younger self could never have understood. In my twenties, I somewhat delusionally defined myself as a punk-rock hardass with a visceral mistrust of plain-spoken, honestly expressed emotion: laughing was always preferable to crying, and the more dense and modernist the text, the better. Over the past 15 years or so, however, I've learned to appreciate more sentimental artists (Lynda Barry and Douglas Sirk, among others), and the birth of my children has decisively knocked me off my Brechtian pedestal. The world is a beautiful and horrible place, I feel the beauty and horror more than ever, and when the horror threatens to overwhelm me--when I think about the pain of a man slowly dying of prostate cancer--I need to escape into books, comics, culture. When we visited DeKalb in July, my father-in-law was so sick that he gave his Kindle to my son, which I almost couldn't bear: I saw that in giving up reading, he was giving up his life. But I'll keep visiting Classic Books, and other bookstores like it, until it's my own turn to die.
From What Kinda Cactus Izzat?