Kickin’ it at the Small Press Expo 2012 (Part 3 of 3)

They all kind of look alike, and their noses are too pert.

The most interesting thing that came out of my experience at SPX this year was at the panel titled Mark Newgarden Presents: Cartoonists and Comics On Camera.  The animated works were typical of the time with lots of random singing, characters dancing/bouncing inexplicably and humor that people laughed at because they felt they were supposed to.  This dated humor is dated.  Although one of them, an animated short about an ugly woman trying to find a man, had a political joke (something about William Jennings Bryan‘s chances of being elected.)  It turns out that such topical humor really really doesn’t age well.  More interesting were the live action short films that really showed off the attitudes of the time and some remarkably modern comedic sensibilities.

First was a retrospective on comic strips (from the 1940’s or so) and their creators. I learned about some interesting strips that I’d never heard of but would like to track down collections of, including Gasoline Alley and Joe Palooka. Other featured works were classics like Buck Rogers and Dick Tracey.  One amusing aspect of these older works was the matter-of-fact acceptance of racial stereotyping, from the Sambo-like depiction of black characters to the description of the villains in a military-based comic as “the meanest Japs” (and I think that film predated America’s entrance into WWII!)

The most eye-opening experience however was a short film titled “Silly Night,” starring Jefferson Machamer (produced by the hilariously misnamed “Educational Pictures.”) This 1937 piece would have been right at home with the random, pothead humor of today’s Adult Swim lineup.  Let’s try to summarize this piece:

  1. Machamer is woken up by his black butler (who has a pompadour?) by pressing various hidden buttons on a … cartoonish family crest? posted over the bed.
  2. Machamer sketches a pretty girl jump roping.  This is then followed by a minute of watching a women–dressed like the girl he sketched–jump roping … ON HER TOES!  That must’ve hurt.  Also, she apparently wasn’t wearing a bra (woo hoo!)
  3. Machamamer then sketches a pretty girl surrounded by juggling clubs.  This cut to a young woman surrounded by juggling clubs to kicks them away and dances for a minute.  Okay?
  4. Finally getting out of bed, Machamer and his butler walk out into his ballroom? where he’s surrounded by dozens of gorgeous women in dresses (of course.)  Some of them are playing poker and one asks the butler if her hand is any good, and he makes a remark about a lot of black spades.  That might have been racist; I don’t know.  Machamer tell the ladies he wants them to draw a mural of him and one of the ladies eating a hotdog “romantically.”
  5. The women draw the mural and then he has them line up so he can judge which is prettiest.  There’s some typical slapstick (he says one woman is a “knockout” and then she suddenly has boxing gloves on and punches him.)  
  6. A winner is picked and they go off on a date.  Do they take a car? No, they get into a rickshaw pulled by the butler (although there’s a joke about Machamer needing to borrow some cash from him.)
  7. They get to a restaurant.  Some random couple happens by and the girl says it’s her boyfriend’s birthday and asks Machamer to draw a sketch of him.  Machamer agrees and draws a less-than-flattering sketch of the young man.  The woman admires it for a moment, recognizes that her boyfriend isn’t handsome, and then dumps him immediately.
  8. At some point another random couple started dancing.
  9. A taxi driver started singing the song Puff Your Blues Away (that could soooo be a pothead anthem.)
  10. Machamer got arrested for causing trouble (I forgot how.)  In his jail cell, he drew an open window on the wall and hid under the bed.  When a cop saw the empty room and open window he busted in and ran into the wall, knocking himself out.  Machamer then escaped through the open door.
Did that make any sense to you? No?  I can tell you that the room was full of people dumbfounded by what they’d witnessed.  It was an incredibly enjoyable, random, bit of comedic history.  I wish it was available on video somewhere; this guy’s work was way ahead of its time (or maybe just oddly in-tune with modern sensibilities.)  
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