Riddles of Engagement: Narrative Play in the Children's Media and Comic Art of George Carlson
In the earliest and most celebrated appreciation of George Carlson's comic book art, Harlan Ellison christens him "a cartoonist of the absurd," a cross between Walt Disney and Luigi Pirandello, whose work stands alongside that of Winsor McCay, Rube Goldberg, George Herriman, or Gary Larson (Ellison 241). The few critics who discuss Carlson offer no end of associations and influences – from Hieronymus Bosch and Lewis Carroll to Washington Irving and Andrew Wyeth, from Lautréamont and Dali to Kafka and Beckett, from Johnny Gruelle and Dr. Seuss to Monty Python and Matt Groening. Taken all together, Carlson's magpie palimpsest of 18th fairy tales, 19th illustration, and 20th-century cartooning appears as expansive as it is inscrutable.
Carlson's distinctive reputation arises from two landmark comic-book serials he produced in the mid-1940s. His fanciful Pretzelburg stories featured the misadventures of the Pie-face Prince Dimwitty, Princess Panatella Murphy, Old King Hokum, the Green Witch, John Dough the Baker, and Sir Razzo Razzhberri. Carlson's other comic book vehicle, the madcap revisionist "jingle jangle" fairy tales, ran alongside Dimwitty's quirky exploits in nearly every issue of Famous Funnies' Jingle Jangle Comics. These always eclectic and often bizarre stories boast titles like "The Very Royal Lion and the Sun-burnt Cheesecake," "the Rocketeering Doodlebug and his self-winding Horsefly," or "the musical Whifflesnort and the red hot music roll." Harlan Ellison likens the profundity of these idiosyncratic treats to that of cotton candy, calling them "very sweet, very good for you, and totally unclassifiable – dissolving whenever you try to grasp" them (Ellison 243). Yet, it's the slick, soluble quality of Carlson's creations that makes them not only special, but downright inimitable. Both series focus not on plot or character, but on a succession of relentlessly random contextual slippages, puns, mis-associations, exaggerations, and literalisms that mischievously appropriate, debunk, and dishevel the conventional usage of visual and rhetorical signs, symbols, metaphors, and euphemisms. In short, Carlson's comics are "dissolving" or beguiling puzzles that erupt into weird and wondrous evocations of the surreality that churns beneath the surfaces of established lingual rules and codes.
Despite Ellison's warnings against critical inquiry into Carlson's manic world, many would-be witticists have dared to grapple with his peculiar themes. Most are satisfied to merely concoct their own colorful estimations of his distinctive style. In fact, critics delight in describing the idiosyncratic material that Carlson applied to the 42 issues of Jingle Jangle Comics between 1942 and 1949. For example, Ron Goulart's many capsule appreciations of Carlson generally refer to him as an "eccentric" and "funny" artist who united comics with fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and swash-buckling adventure stories to produce a "highly individual type of nonsense" rooted in "burlesque, fantasy, and wordplay" (Goulart Encyclopedia 73). Pat Calhoun's 2003 tribute dubs Carlson the "Madcap master poet of the improbable" of comics whose Jingle Jangle Comics constitute "a richly textured confection of supremely surreal silliness" (Calhoun 32). In a similar vein, Franklin Rosemont's underappreciated 1979 survey of "Surrealism in the Comics" finds Carlson "one of the most eccentric artists in or out of comics" whose "outlandishly original" stories give "the impression of having emanated from another planet" (Rosemont 69). Dirk Deppey of The Comics Journal simply crowns Carslon "an exemplar of the Golden Age of Children's book illustrators" who "cheerfully threw reality out the window, only to replace it with a crazy quilt of delightful surreal props and setpieces" (Deppey 136). Lastly, Martin Williams' introduction to Carlson's segment of the esteemed Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics recognizes a "wonderful silliness and follow-your-nose whimsy" that likens Carlson to America's great tall tale-spinners (Williams 127). All this consideration assures George Leonard Carlson an appropriately skewed slot in the pantheon of comic-book virtuosos and children's illustrators who produced – as one blogger has labeled them – "the most creative and truly comic contributions to the comic-book medium, ever!" (Vadeboncoeur).
Yet, the actual history behind Carlson's wry fusion of juvenile whimsy and adult anxiety remains obscure and uncertain. Despite thirty years of involvement with magazine and book illustration, game and puzzle design, and the comics and cartooning industry, Carlson's relatively short-lived Jingle Jangle Comics series remains his best known project. Like most of Carlson's superlative inventions, the "Jingle Jangle Tales" and Pie-face Prince stories were never popular favorites, and were only recovered decades after their release as neglected, iconoclastic landmarks of comic-book history. Celebrated as a proto-psychedelic "Comic of the Absurd" by Harlan Ellison in the back of the now seminal collection of pioneering essays in comic-book studies, All in Color for a Dime, the relatively unknown Carlson and his forgotten Pie-face protagonist suddenly shared the critical stage with Siegel and Schuster's Superman, Parker and Beck's Captain Marvel, and E.C. Segar's Popeye. As Ellison later described it in a 1990 follow-up essay, Carlson's singular experiments with the comic book form were "swept away with the silt and persiflage of a world whose attention is constantly being diverted to wrest the buck from its grasp" (Ellison "Roses" 3). In fact, a number of capable creators and charming characters "dwindled into the realm of the forgotten" with the cancellation of Jingle Jangle Comics (Ellison "Roses" 3). Alongside less celebrated but suitably frisky features like Dave Tendlar's talking bird serial "Chauncy Chirp and Johnny Jay," Larz Bourne's Popeye-like "Aunty Spry," and Woody Gelman's "Hortense the Lovable Brat," Carlson produced one parodic nursery rhyme or "Jingle Jangle Tale" and one installment of his zany "Pie-face Prince of Pretzelburg" series in almost every issue. Only numbers 2 through 4, 8, 17 and 18 contain no new Dimwitty episode, but every issue contains one Jingle Jangle Tale or Carlson-designed puzzle. It's also assumed that Carlson originally developed the concept as an anthology series for younger readers and probably edited the title himself. According to Ron Goulart, Carlson convinced Famous Funnies editor Steve Douglas to run the book as a bi-monthly companion to more prominent compilation titles (Goulart "Poet Laureate" 24).
The extent of Carlson's actual involvement with the series and with comics in general also remains uncertain. In fact, the oddball maestro seems to exhibit less interest in Jingle Jangle Comics over time. He produced only the first six covers, and halfway through a series that he himself supposedly conceived, Carlson stopped signing his stories, suggesting the possible collusion of ghost artists. Later episodes of both "Jingle Jangle tales" and "the Pie-face Prince" are also more carefully plotted with less visual punning and manic free association, perhaps pointing to the increasing involvement of other writers and editors besides Carlson. Some evidence in the George Carlson estate, currently in private ownership, also supports the possibility of unnamed collaborators. Carlson's roughs for all his Jingle Jangle work include "typed synopses illustrated with little colored drawings" which may have been used as style guides for assistants (Goulart e-mail). Although this theory requires further inquiry, Carlson was also no stranger to ghost work. He served for years as one of many uncredited artists alongside Burr Inwood and Tack Knight on Gene Byrne's syndicated feature Reg'lar Fellas. Yet, regardless of how many episodes Carlson actually drew or what quotient of the stories were wholly his own, every "Pie-face Prince" and "Jingle Jangle" installment exhibits Carlson's signature emphasis on arcane references and anarchic events, pointing towards his consistent involvement with the series at some level.
Carlson also inspired the fanciful ingenuity of young children and, in the tradition of his forerunner and influence Lewis Carroll, he was closely connected to children's leisure activities and the discourse surrounding art instruction. Carlson produced at least five distinctive guides to illustration, cartooning, and caricature beginning with an obscure volume entitled Cartoon Comics and How to Draw Them, but his expanded guide, the 1933 Draw Comics! Here's How provides an especially rich and rigorous series of lessons, exercises, and examples concerning every aspect of career cartooning. The text covers strategies for enhancing the fluidity of moving figures, applying spatterwork tints, and pacing sequential narratives for newspaper strips, comic book stories, caricatures, and advertising contracts. The book has recently returned to print in a Dover thrift edition entitled Learn to Draw Comics, but the obviously grassroots quality of the original version retains a certain Carlson-inspired enthusiasm for cartooning's unique fusion of fun, thought, and skill. In it, Carlson counsels the aspiring cartoonist, "Aim first for quality, as speed develops with experience. Patience, practice, and perseverance, together with a spirit of happiness in one's work are bound to bring the rich rewards that a world of opportunity offers" (Carlson 1). This "spirit of happiness" mirrors the whimsical homages to confusion and silliness that define Carlson's Jingle Jangle stories, but it also reflects the physical challenges and mental rigor that define the pleasure of learning to draw. To that end, Carlson's third cartoon textbook, I Can Draw, offers eight separate units compromising exercises for extremely young artists concerning the construction of basic shapes, simple objects, cartoon caricatures, and backgrounds. Carlson authored at least two other young people's guides to cartooning in the late 1930s, including Points on Cartooning and How to Draw Funny Pictures for the HobbyCraft series published by Treasure Chest, further illustrating his amusingly practical hands-on approach to children's drawing.
Most of Carlson's comic art projects – from his many primers on drawing and cartooning to the Jingle Jangle Comics series itself – invoke the forms and traditions of children's literature, fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and related juvenile pastimes with unique flair. A short critical biography explains just how fervently Carlson fused the visual culture of childhood with the expanding art forms of comics and comic-books.
To add perhaps the only analogy left to make with this particular cartoonist, many aspects of George Carlson's life have remained as mysterious as Shakespeare's. Goulart, Barrier, and Vadeboncoueur all scrape together pieces of his biography, agreeing he was born in 1887 and died in 1962. A longtime Connecticut resident, his earliest work as an illustrator has been thought to date to the mid-1910s. Recent research has revealed that Carlson himself was a tireless and inventive commercial artist and a happy, unassuming family man. He commuted to New York City from his home studios in Fairfield, Connecticut, where he lived most of his adult life with his wife, Gertrude Jorth Carlson, who ran a greeting card store in Southport, and their two daughters June and Alice. From all available evidence, Carlson's Connecticut lifestyle seems as peacefully mundane and sedately conventional as his creations were frenzied and fantastic. He and his family were regular attendees at the Baptist Temple of Bridgeport, and Carlson served as historian of the George Anderson post of the American Legion. Carlson also plied his trade to support numerous community services including art contests and fundraisers connected with the Bridgeport Chamber of Commerce. Around this time, he even contributed a comprehensive illustrated "history of communications" to the "Crypt of Civilization" time capsule project at Oglethorpe University that was projected to remain sealed until 8113 A.D.! After Carlson's death on Sept. 26, 1962, several obituaries and family reminiscences described the comics virtuoso as a "very modest" and "quiet man" who sold his creations to various publishers and firms "outright" with "unpushy" professionalism. At the same time, The Bridgeport Telegram reported that Carlson had grown up the son of a Swedish immigrant mother who came to the U.S. from England, and worked for much of her life as a servant for Ulysses S. Grant. Before 1900, Carlson himself lived in New York City working in a variety of factories and shops while he studied art at Dan McCarthy's National School of Caricature, the National Academy of Design, and Art Students League of New York.
From his first published newspaper cartoon in 1903 through his busy career as an illustrator in the 1910s and 20s, Carlson worked as a free-lance riddle writer, spot artist, game designer, and puzzle maker for numerous periodicals including St. Nicholas, Youth's Companion, Judge, Scribner's Magazine, Child Life, Famous Funnies, and Jingle Jangle Comics (Gardner Peter 5-6). He also served as the editor of the puzzle feature "Our Puzzle Pack" in The Girl Scouts' American Girl magazine for twelve years between 1924 and 1936.
His painted plates for Blanche Elizabeth Wade's 1917 The Magic Stone: Rainbow Fairy Stories were thought to represent his first successful contact for a complete book, but his recently discovered 1916 illustrations for Mary Dickerson Donahey's Prince Without a Country and his 1917 renderings for Chandler A. Oakes' charming anthropomorphic canine fantasy Tobytown push our catalogue of Carlson's early works one year further back into the past.
After these early contracts, Carlson illustrated a steady stream of editions including works by leading children's authors including Gene Stone, Johanna Spyri, J.L Sherard, Mary Patterson, and Mark Twain (Gardner John Martin's Book 153).
For the most part, Carlson's early book illustration favors light and lyrical but nostalgic and traditional interpretations of fairy tales and chivalric pageantry. His youthful interest in shining knights, shimmering fairies, and epic quests would later lend echoes of Old World charm to the scrappy "Jingle Jangle" hybrids set in what one critic compares to a "middle-European pocket kingdom...lost in an alien landscape" (Markstein). Throughout the 1910s, Carlson's illustrations evoke the fine art traditions established by the most sophisticated and celebrated 19th-century children's artists. By mid-decade, however, he had thoroughly embraced two different genres: cartooning and puzzle design.
Carlson's early cartoon and puzzle work exhibits a wide range of styles, interests, and influences for a relatively unknown commercial artist specializing in children's illustration. Early on, Carlson uses cartooning, caricature, and sequential design as a form of ornament or decoration. His vibrant caricatures of fairytale folk, sweetfaced youths, sunkissed villages, and ethereal women all draw heavily on the languid Romantic traditions of the Pre-Raphaelites, as well as later artists like Arthur Rackham and Randolph Caldecott. At the same time, he appears well versed in more Modernist Deco styles that employ heavy silhouette, flatly colored solid shapes, and bold figure-ground contrasts.
Beginning in 1913, Carlson produced an incredibly vast and quirky body of illustrated work for the innovative children's monthly, John Martin's Book, which "in its time was the most entertaining magazine published in this country for boys and girls aged five to eight" (Gardner Peter 1). Collaborating with his friend and editor, the incredibly named Morgan von Roorbach Shepard, the two worked to develop material that would serve "the imaginative needs of very young children" under the lyrical pseudonyms John Martin and Gookel (Gardner Peter 1). As Martin Gardner observes, "Gookel" Carlson became "the most important artist" associated with John Martin's Book for which he produced "more than fifty covers" and "almost all of the magazine's puzzles, activities, jokes, riddles, and an enormous variety of 'gimmick' pages of a sort never before attempted in a child's magazine" (Gardner Peter 6). Besides cover illustrations on subjects as diverse as tall ships, medieval castles, biplanes, holiday scenes, and optical illusions, Carlson's many feature assignments include a serial "History of Railroads," a long-running series of nonsense cartoons based on puns entitled "Did You Ever?" which clearly predict the wacky conflations of Jingle Jangle Comics, and a fascinating group of Deco two-color illustrated stories that also embrace Modernist and Expressionist print-making that he probably encountered as a student at the New York Academy of Design.
During his tenure on John Martin's Book, Carlson also became a virtuoso designer whose experiments with the shapes and forms of books and periodicals still rival many contemporary innovators. His lyrical end-pages for John Martin's hard cover annuals deftly merge 19th Century fairies and elves with Art Deco backgrounds. His graphic experiments with John Martin's specials like The Happy Hands Book, The Book Plate Book, The In and Out Up and Down Door Book, and the Tell Me a Story series also produced an impressive series of unique games, activities, and projects rooted in the juvenile appreciation of a book's physical interactive qualities. As Martin Gardner reminisces, "there were pictures with captions that could be read by holding the pages to a mirror. There were instructions for folding origami animals and for making ink-blot pictures and for simple cardboard or wooden toys. There were connect-the-dots, rebuses, anagrams, ciphers, puns, crossword puzzles, [and] science experiments" (Gardner "John Martin's Book" 154). In short, Carlson's ingenuity as an artist was hardly limited to piquant illustration or clever word games – his designs and creations encouraged children to play with and learn from every discrete element of the texts he created. Carlson's covers, end-papers, creased pages, mazes, puzzles, cut-outs, and even bindings could become sources of imaginative fun and amusement.
With John Martin's Book, Carlson also took his first steps towards notoriety as the creator of the still-enchanting character, Peter Puzzlemaker. As Carlson's first enduring success in both character and puzzle design, his Peter Puzzlemaker games reveal an astonishing mastery of imagetic and prosaic codes and systems. Without equal in American children's riddles, they clearly build on the fanciful nonsense worlds of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, and L. Frank Baum – all authors that Carlson had previously illustrated within early editions of John Martin's Book. Designed as single page or gatefold cartoon activities, each Peter Puzzlemaker installment features "a short bespectacled Peter, dressed in the garb of a pilgrim" who presents "a simple, entertaining word or mathematical problem" (Gardner Returns v). Puzzlemaker's baffling devices are legion; ranging from word games and rebuses to geometrical puzzles and intertextual word-image "mix-ups."
Carlson's subject matter also varies tremendously but most pages focus on rural outdoor themes, anthropomorphic animals, nursery rhymes, holidays, and jovial tradesmen like bakers, glazers, shopkeepers, engineers, and sailors. Many examples reveal Carlson's knack for generating a remarkable variety of graphic activities – all rooted in a distinctive blending of text and image sequences.
In most cases, Puzzlemaker, who probably resembles Carlson himself, invites young readers to solve a problem rooted in unusual or expected similarities between certain pictures, concepts, letters, or phrases. Humorous or exciting scenarios like train travel or afternoon tea create an over-all theme that relates to the amusing challenge. In a sense, the puzzles suggest that the blurry boundaries between language and life are rife with curtailed humor and subsumed irony. This effusive world of silly congruencies and strange associations clearly anticipates the chaotic waves of puns and homonyms that would later energize Pretzelburg and Jinglejangleland. Due to their layered, often ticklish solutions, Carlson's puzzles soon became John Martin's "most popular feature" and eventually inspired a partial hardcover compilation in 1922 as well as a series of stand-alone puzzle posters.
John Martin's Book, the magazine and its subsequent series of best-of hardback annuals called Big Books, folded in February 1933. Soon afterwards, Carlson devised a series of eight short paperback Fun-Time activity books for Platt and Munk Publishing; titles included Fun-Time Puzzles, Mazes, Stunts, Drawing, Riddles, Games, Tricks, and Questions with an omnibus, Fun for Juniors, following in 1939. Filled with similar cross-words, anagrams, acrostics, memory games, and nonsense puzzles, these cheap volumes add lively color to the same activities Carlson had rehearsed with Peter Puzzlemaker. Most of the Fun-time games replace Peter with anthropomorphic woodland animals, industrious elves, and laughing children, but once again Carlson's backgrounds and settings are predominantly rural with a new emphasis on occasional charismatic little folk like elves, pixies, and gremlins clearly reminiscent of Palmer Cox's Brownies.
At the same time, Carlson's Fun-Time work also expands on an apparent interest in contemporary marvels of science, engineering, aviation, and transportation which had initially peppered his earlier output for John Martin's Book. Few historians bother to consider the interactive Platt and Munk texts as influences on Carlson's celebrated comic art, but they clearly exhibit ample evidence of his growing pre-occupation with the inductive qualities of nonsense narrative and his continued manipulation of fairy tale material, as well as a mounting fascination with contemporary machines.
Carlson's Fun-time books also testify to his developing status as a 20th-century American Lewis Carroll. Carlson models many of his works on Carroll's mixture of riddles, games, and childhood fantasies. Characters from Carroll's Wonderland and Looking Glass House romp frequently through Carlson's cartoons, riddles, and songs. One gimmick page from John Martin's Book includes a game involving Peter Puzzlemaker's conversation with Wonderland's caterpillar and another game in which Carlson's piquant pilgrim sits down to solve a word riddle with the Carpenter who usually shares his stage with Carroll's walrus.
In both cases, Carlson deftly revises John Tenniel's original illustrations to seamlessly insinuate his own signature character – as if Carlson himself seeks to both salute and challenge Carroll's nonsensical illustrations by forcing them to confront new American counterparts. Carlson also references other seminal children's works. Mother Goose and her friends are common themes in Carlson's Peter Puzzlemaker activities and the Platt and Munk games.
In one Fun-time book, Carlson even alludes to both Carroll and Mother Goose in prose riddles and a maze game that clearly borrows from Tenniel's interpretations of Humpty Dumpty. Carlson's life-long anxiety of influence surrounding Lewis Carroll apparently outlasted John Martin's Book, the Fun-Time series, and Jingle Jangle Comics. In Carlson's failed post-Jingle Jangle fusion of comics and games, Puzzle Fun Comics, he makes his competitive association with Carroll even more explicit with the half-Pie-face, half-Alice hybrid comic, "Alec in Fumbleland, " a broad and zany lampoon of Wonderland complete with a frantic rabbit, itinerant playing-card Queen, and a full-on Carlson-esque dose of sneezing powder.
If Carlson fashioned himself as the American Lewis Carroll or a contemporary Father Goose, he also developed his own mode of edifying nonsense. Unlike the algebraic substitutions and satiric reversals that characterize the Alice books, Carlson focuses primarily on the fun and liberating acts of drawing, writing, and reading. In fact, by the mid-1930s, Carlson had become an established master of cartoon puzzles and visual games. Besides his short activity books, he also authored several low-cost treasuries of meticulously illustrated amusements and diversions including 1,001 Riddles for Children, Picture Crossword Puzzles, Jokes and Riddles, and Little Folks Puzzles.
Throughout the 1930s, Carlson was committed to producing interactive children's media that promoted creative problem-solving through extended engagement with challenging verbal and visual exercises. The ebullient spirit of these lively texts would eventually endow Jingle Jangle Comics with its inherently manic yet intuitive spirit.
For example, this rebus from Fun-Time Puzzles allows readers to toy with the accidental messages that arise out of juxtaposed words and images.
As we extrapolate from the sounds, shapes, and meanings of objects, letters, or words, we create new unusual linkages that lend humorous or ironic tones to otherwise mundane or pedantic signs and contexts. The resulting unconventional or nonsensical slippage is a common feature of many children's classics, especially the works of Lewis Carroll. Yet, Carlson's union of verbal-visual teasers with the intersubjective frameworks of comic art would create an even more enticing and spontaneous type of reader engagement. Before exploring the irregular rhythms of Jingle Jangleland, however, our critical study of Carlson deserves one final detour.
In the late 1930s, Carlson also produced his two most famous, non-comic-book projects. First, he created his superior illustrations for Howard Garis' Uncle Wiggily stories, also for Platt and Munk, which still remain among the most loved in the medium.
Ron Goulart astutely suggests that the paradoxical signature codas of Garis' short rabbit tales may denote some affinity with the unnatural laws of Carlson's Pretzelburg (Goulart Encyclopedia 81). More importantly, however, in late 1938 Carlson produced his heavily-scrutinized book jacket for the first hardcover edition of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. The jacket represents a fusion of both nostalgic romanticism and urbane Modernism. Figuring heavy broadside type against a background of oh-so-Deco gradient tones, the design becomes intriguingly old-fashioned yet ironically streamlined. The heavy black text presents a strong but ultimately laconic memorial to the mythic pre-Civil War South. The accompanying finial drawing, dwarfed by the monumental title, includes a threeway conversation between a gallant Confederate officer, an elegant aristocrat, and a decorous gentlewoman in full plumage.
Behind them rise the cornices of Tara, delicately sheathed in flowering trees designed as a darker counterpoint to the billowing clouds beyond. The silhouettes of other scrupulously quaffed belles stand off to the right behind the threesome probably meant to describe Scarlett O'Hara and her two suitors, Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes. Taken as a whole, Carlson's jacket design for Mitchell's epic panegyric to the Old South may comprise his coldest, most harrowing accomplishment; a miniscule yet languid sketch of an idealized agrarian past surrounded or choked by unmistakably bold signs of contemporary modernity.
As often as this uncharacteristically blockish and staid text gets mentioned alongside Carlson's more dynamic material, it's a wonder that no one has thought to interpret his "jingle jangle world" as a fractured, schizophrenic corruption of Mitchell's melancholy plantation atmosphere. One critic quips that Carlson "apparently wasn't besieged with requests for dust jackets of antebellum, bellum or even postbellum sagas," and instead moved from the "sublime to the ridiculous" with Jingle Jangle Comics, but there is some evidence to the contrary (Vadeboncoeur).
First, Carlson's Uncle Wiggily drawings are, in fact, a loving homage to a woodland society rife with moments of ragged charm and sympathetic community. Although their settings are not distinctly Southern, Haris' stories all point to a certain down-home domesticity and small town tranquility where candy stripe barber's poles and apple dumplings have significant cultural power. A lifelong New Englander, Carlson worked and thrived happily in Connecticut, but much of his incessantly rural iconography embraces themes of rustic innocence and playful trickery often associated with the American South. In fact, one Peter Puzzlemaker story problem entitled "the Entertainer and his trained animals" seems to reference the stereotypical imagery of a showboat performer moving up and down the Mississippi. Yet, there is further evidence of Carlson's deliberate use of old fashioned Americana as well as regional Southern themes.
In 1940, Treasure Chest publications, who focused primary on jaunty compilations of children's novelty songs and tutorial sheet music, released a special advertising premium for SweetHeart Toilet Soap, a 65-page compendium of The Songs of Stephen Foster "newly arranged for solo and group singing" in order to preserve, as one note explains, "the original beauty of melody and musical color of this beloved American composer" (SweetHeart Soap 2-3). Carlson contributes his own distinctive color to the project; an exceptionally lush and realistic wrap-around cover depicting a 19th-century Southern pastoral complete with steamboat, log cabin, banjo-strumming Uncle Tom, and cooing aristocratic lovers strolling through a cypress grove.
Carlson's previous work for Treasure Chest seems more akin to his preferred genre, such as the collection of illustrated nursery rhymes, More Songs and Games for Children, which includes several examples of the intertextual fluidity that would define his Jingle Jangle Comics two years later, including yet another light homage to Lewis Carroll's Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee. Perhaps the massive success of Mitchell's novel made Carlson the de facto artist of the moment for homespun depictions of the American South?
In any case, the "unparalleled contemporary fables" that fizzle and splash throughout Carlson's comic book world owe their rustic origins to his previous familiarity with idyllic visions of agrarian America (Ellison 242). Like the moral order of Walt Disney's bucolic pastorals or the allegorical potency of Walt Kelly's Oke Fenoke, Carlson's Jingle Jangle world enjoys an almost eternally bucolic summer of endlessly grassy fields, winding country roads, a wise-cracking sun, and an infinite chorus of talking birds, smiling trees, singing flowers, and well-dressed houses. Carlson's Peter Puzzlemaker series, Uncle Wiggily drawings, Platt and Munk collections – and certainly his focus on 19th-century Southern projects in the late 1930s – all point towards a continued fascination with an idealized but frenzied rusticism rooted firmly in a past that, by the early 1940s, was slipping quickly and chaotically into oblivion.
The majority of Carlson's "Jingle Jangle Tales" and nearly all his "Pie-face Prince" stories obsess over the contemporary shift from pre-industrial village life towards more annoyingly mechanized claptrap. To this end, Carlson fills his comic book stories with rattling jalopies, psychotic handcars, magical railroads, wind-up radios, malfunctioning steam shovels, and antique bed-warming pans. Most of these stubborn inventions frustrate or attack their users to supply Pretzelburg with its requisite parade of sudden explosions, ferocious bangs, and jarring clatter. As an older cartoonist with strong ties to two centuries, Carlson evinces an ambivalent fascination with the explosive potential of oil, coal, and steam-powered machinery. In his Jingle Jangle world – whose very name recalls the sounds of spurs and sleigh bells – steam-flavored buns, self-heating Yule logs, jolly trolley cars, bilge-belching steamboats, "parsley plated puff-engines," talking tea kettles, smoking cameras, superduper wind-up radiophones, royal steam whistles, self-polishing stoves, motorized hot air balloons, and orphaned hand irons all run on fanciful forms of pre-electric power. At the same time, Carlson's work across so many genres clearly expresses his awe for contemporary marvels of engineering like air travel, steamships, and transcontinental railways. At one point, Carlson even designed a lavish children's give-away for the Cunard White Star Line entitled "the Queen Mary – A Book of Comparisons." From trains to steamships, Carlson loved to visualize adventurous travel and wild motion. In fact, Prince Dimwitty and his supporting cast never seem to stop traveling and they chase, bicker, endanger, and continually rescue each other from nonsensical threats like "red hot promises," "inky black snow-men," and Carlson's signature gimmick – explosive schmaltz oil. The concept of schmaltz with its undertones of excessive, unabashed silliness often typifies Carlson's view of the foibles and pretensions of the world at large.
Carlson's whimsical characters and their inventions aren't the only sources of nonsensical satire in Jingle Jangle Comics. His riotous stories thrive on a predominantly ornery, contentious narrative voice that continually throws perplexing absurdities at both protagonists and readers alike. Drawing on his experience as a puzzlemaker, Carlson creates an inherently anarchic world of sudden shocks, confusing twists, and surprise encounters that surpasses Oz, Wonderland, and even Hogwarts in its use of colorful paradox and outlandish exaggeration. In just one Jingle Jangle episode, footprints are heard throughout the night, tents appear full of emptiness, day breaks into small change, and characters weep in seven different sizes.
On top of these ludicrous curiosities, literal puns and subtle word plays also pop up as frequently as Carlson's ubiquitous smiling flowers, grinning trees, and laughing houses.
Carlson floods every story with graphic entendres that combine sight gags, figurative language, and verbal clues in a swarm of doubled and triple-corrupted meanings. In all his stories, the plot is nearly absent – a mere formality to pull the reader through a gauntlet of allusions, riddles, and reversals. For example, when battling a trio of identical red witches, Prince Dimwitty ponders in homonymic wonder, "which witch is which?" Unexpected doublings in another story create a taxi-cabbage which announces when it will "leaf." Literal treatment of common idioms leads to Pretzelburg's tobacco-puffing smoking cars. Subtle manipulation of common usage allows Dimwitty to notice that "morning has yawned" and another character to leave his "carve" scratched into an office door. Blatant punning is also common; one frustrated music student laments "I'll be flat" and another avuncular hero advises his cohort not to take any wooden "shekels."
One recurring motif appears particularly odd. Carlson repeatedly defiles the noble lion with scrupulous glee. From story to story, he relentlessly forces the titular king of the jungle into uncomfortably absurdist roles including a town lion, side lions, 40-yard lions, and finish lions. In the course of any issue of Jingle Jangle Comics, Carlson lambastes the lordly feline with a plethora of weird and compromising roles, perhaps as a sly self-mockery that refers to his early success with a 1924 John Martin's collection of Aesop's Fables.
In a similar vein, he clearly kept Peter Puzzlemaker and the John Martin's Book days in mind during the production of many Jingle Jangle and Pie-face episodes. Evidence of similar puzzle designs and even a few self-referential parodies frequently arise out of Pretzelburg's ever-shifting landscape.
Big cats and self-mockery aren't Carlson's only interests, however. In some of his more inspired moments of paradoxical metaphor a "clock's hands get laid off due to dull times" (Jingle Jangle Comics #11) a domestic knickknack reads "Ho-Hum Sweet Home," and an umbrella stand full of exotic birds is marked for use by "parrotsols Only" (Jingle Jangle Comics #6). One moment of particularly astute lingual fission takes place when Dimwitty is tricked by one of the Green Witches' bad spells. A serpentine series of alphabetical ribbons surrounds the young hero, but the spell is so poor that it cannot make out any complete correct words and the Prince soon frees himself from the pile of haplessly confused vowels and consonants.
These moments of foregrounded cognitive fancy initiate a doubly chaotic form of self-conscious engagement. Most readers are well-versed in the experiential process of interpreting comics, although its precise theoretical explanation provokes considerable debate. Whether you prefer R.C. Harvey's essentially codependent blending of words and pictures, Scott McCloud's continuous gutter-driven use of subjective closure, Erving Goffman's rim-balanced framework of successive experiences, Thierry Groensteen's systemic schema, or Phillipe Marion's psychically graphiated enunciation of style and story, our "comics" experience hinges on a reader's progressive self-propelled inferences about space, plot, and timing. Yet, Carlson's comic book works hail a reader's abilities in the same ways that his puzzles test our intuitive mettle. His actual linear plots and his page layouts are mere fobs – the shell-like borders that contain his teaming enigmas. Our usual progress through the comic story and its design matters less than our contemplation and appreciation of the sudden confounding conceits that arise sporadically, without warning. His anagrams, puns, and word corruptions rarely relate to the larger story in any revealing or consistent way. Instead, they spark confusion and curiosity, retarding our usually swift progress from panel to panel in order to draw more attention to the fascinating nodes of meaning that lie within and between them. Like crosswords or riddles, we logically backtrack and second-guess ourselves in Carlson's tricky switchbacks, becoming as cognitively entangled in his contradictions, absurdities, and mysteries as his actual characters. Unlike Dimwitty, Panatella, or the sun-burnt Cheesecake, however, we toil over the surprising overlaps of image-text puns like "footmen," suggestive literalisms like the "40-yard lion," or allusive interpolations like one sidebar reference to "Moc Jiller's Joke Book." As we fight to finish the game, complete the riddle, or catch the allusion, we are urged to read more deeply into Carlson's idiomatic worldview and refine our own analytic abilities.
From the 1910s to the 1950s, George Leonard Carlson forged fanciful texts to amuse and inspire young readers, but his interweaving of adult concerns with language, myth, fantasy, and irony led to intensely evocative, stylistically daring, and unfairly neglected games, puzzles, and comics that Prince Dimwitty himself salutes as an "awful lot of awful fun." As this slim and limited survey suggests, every phase of Carlson's work as an illustrator, designer, cartoonist, and riddle-poet teams with rare intelligence and wild energy. From the Peter Puzzlemaker games to Pretzelburg and beyond, Carlson's contributions to American visual media and children's culture are just beginning to receive their proper due.
Special thanks to R.C. Harvey, Martin Gardner, Gary Groth, and Ron Goulart for their encouragement and support of my ongoing research into George Carlson. Thanks also to the University of Florida Baldwin Library for their help combing UF's exemplary collection of children's literature. Thanks also to Cathlena Martin, Charles Hatfield, and all those involved with ImageText and the UF Conference on Comics and Childhood, and to all my colleagues at Peninsula College, WA for their generous travel and research support.
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