Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Adventures in the 700 Section

Since Hatcher posted his “Game Changers,” the things that sparked and fed his fandom, I thought I’d talk about mine. I’ve written before about the things that shaped me into the pop culture sinkhole I am today, but I pretty much glossed over what may have been the most important: the Public Library in Torrance, CA.

Unlike Greg, I do not have fond memories of the Scholastic Book Fairs; I remember attending them (you pretty much had to), but I don’t remember ever actually buying any books at any of them. That wasn’t something we did. My parents were not at all indulgent; we were usually broke (five kids, stay-at-home mom, unreliable dad), my parents did not spend money frivolously on useless folderol like books. They were already more than a little bothered by my incessant reading and drawing anyway.

If I wanted to buy something at the school book fair, it would have had to be with my own money, of which I had none. We didn’t get allowances, and I wasn’t a very entrepreneurial kid. My brothers were far more adventurous, outgoing and gregarious than I was, so they could pick up odd jobs, sweeping the parking lot at the corner store or helping a neighbor with their yard or whatever, but I was too afraid to talk to anyone, especially adults. In the summer, I would make money by collecting Coke bottles on the beach and cashing them in at the store (which was a thing you could do then), but then I knew I had to spend it as quickly as possible. If I didn’t, either my brothers would steal it or my mom would “borrow” it and then “forget” to pay it back, and God help you if you asked for it. So while Greg remembers the Book Fairs as this awesome thing that exposed him to awesome stuff, I remember them as this event I went to because I pretty much had to, where I walked around and looked at stuff I couldn’t have.

After my parents divorced when I was 11 and we moved a couple of times, suddenly the public library was close enough to be accessible, and I quickly discovered it was the only place in town where neither my older brother nor his goon friends could harass me. In seventh and the first half of eighth grade, I went to the library after school at least two or three days a week, and often on weekends as well, usually staying until closing.

While I was in 8th grade, a new pinball arcade opened up in the Del Amo Fashion Plaza, and I spent a lot more time loitering there than at the library, and then in high school I spent my sophomore year either at play rehearsal or at my friend Steve’s house swapping comics. (Steve later became Quentin Tarantino’s roommate and the inspiration for the Eric Stoltz character in Pulp Fiction, as well as the real-life source for Mr. Orange’s story about ending up in a bathroom with a kilo of dope, four police officers, and a drug-sniffing dog, in Reservoir Dogs, but that’s another story.)

At any rate, from about age 12 to 15, almost all of my pop culture itches were scratched at the Torrance Public Library. Where Greg steeped himself in genre fiction, I was all about the nonfiction; the people, the history, the methods. We were both trying to escape, but while Greg was escaping into fictional worlds, I was trying to escape into a different real world, becoming a different person, and I knew that the tools to do that would be found almost entirely in the 700 section

The 700 section of the Dewey Decimal system is “The Arts,” and first thing I discovered was the “how to draw” books. The Torrance library had a great selection of instructional books, including a few by Andrew Loomis

'Figure Drawing for All It's Worth' by Andrew Loomis

…at least one (Dynamic Figure Drawing) by Burne Hogarth, and several others. After I brought home that Loomis Book (along with Drawing the Head and Hands), my mom decided I was a nasty little pervert who wanted to draw “dirty pictures,” so I never brought home life drawing books after that, and studiously avoided showing anyone any of my drawings of people, especially of women, for several years afterward. (When I started college and took a life drawing class, I had to hide those drawings from her too.) Naturally, my attempts to draw male superheroes led my brothers to conclude I must be gay, but, to their credit, they didn’t make an issue of it, except to occasionally ask awkward questions to try to validate their conclusions. It seemed best to stick to the more cartoony drawing books from then on.

Not far from the art instruction books were the books about art history, a surprising number of which were books about cartooning and comics…

'A Smithsonian Book of Comic Book Comics'

A Smithsonian Book of Comic Book Comics…

'The Groaning Board' by Chas Addams

…several books of collected cartoons by Charles Addams…

'Tarzan of the Apes' adapted by Burne Hogarth

….a hardcover of Burne Hogarth’s retelling of Tarzan of the Apes in comic form…

…and the book that was my first real “game changer”…

'All in Color for a Dime' edited by Dick Lupoff & Don Thompson

All in Color for a Dime.

For me, this was THE source for information about the “Golden Age of Comics.” Up to this point, all I knew about comics was what I found on the spinner racks at 7-11, Thrifty Drug, and Holiday Liquors. Dick Lupoff & Don Thompson and their contributing writers took the top of my head off and turned me into a lifelong fan of the Big Red Cheese and other then-obscure characters. I just recently acquired a hardback copy of my very own. I previously had a paperback edition, but it didn’t have the glorious full-color cover gallery section.

Another great find was The MAD World of William M. Gaines, another game-changer. I had discovered MAD a couple of years earlier on a summer vacation when my uncle Dickie brought home a copy of issue #167 for me, but this book revealed to me that not only were those lunatic writers and artists actual people, they were mostly actual lunatics, prone to practical jokes and little acts of rebellion against normalcy. These were my people. The stories of the legendary MAD trips alone are worth the price of the book. I later picked up the paperback edition at a used book store and discovered that it was also lacking the extensive color section of cartoons and photos from the magazine’s history. Eventually I’ll cough up the money for a copy of the full hardback version.

'The MAD World of William M. Gaines' by Frank Jacobs

Over the next several months, I worked my way through the books on painting, photography, and music (mostly skipping over that section, as I was convinced in fourth grade that I am decidedly not musical; I was told by the teacher to lip-sync during the practice of “This Land is Your Land” for the year-end school performance), to the performing arts section.

The game changers here were…

'Stage Makeup' by Herman Buchman

Stage Makeup by Herman Buchman, which had a brief chapter on what he called “3D makeup, in other words, prosthetic appliances, as used in film and TV. This led me to artists like Bud Westmore, William Tuttle, Stan Winston, John Chambers, and eventually Rick Baker…

'The Great Radio Heroes' by Jim Harmon

The Great Radio Heroes, and…

'The Great Movie Serials' by Jim Harmon & Don Glut

The Great Movie Serials, as well as a bunch of random books about directors, actors, film critics, and stage magicians. One memorable example is This Was Burlesque

'This Was Burlesque' by Ann Corio

…the autobiography of ecdysiast (stripper) Ann Corio. Aside from her memories of the likes of Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand, and Lily St. Cyr, she included a lot of stories about the great comedians who made the transition from Burlesque to Vaudeville to radio and eventually to TV, like Milton Berle, Phil Silvers, and a whole lot of other guys I’d never heard of before.

I also found a book on stage dialect and learned to do a “Noo Yawk” accent (the classic deze-dem-and-doze patois favored by movie gangsters), and a stereotypical Catskills comedian accent, as rendered by comics like Jackie Mason, Shecky Greene, Myron Katz, (the library also had a pretty good collection of comedy LPs) and others. In a short time, I was a 42-year-old Borscht Belt comic trapped in the body of a 12-year-old.

Another game changer was Dunninger’s Secrets

'Dunninger's Secrets'

…a great big book by famed magician-mentalist Dunninger, in which he plowed the field later farmed by James Randi, exposing frauds and charlatans who purported to be psychic. He was the first person to offer a $10,000 reward to anyone who could perform an act of telekinesis or telepathy that he couldn’t replicate through trickery. Most of his ire was focused on famous TV psychics of his era, like “the Amazing Criswell” and others now long forgotten. Of course, Dunninger didn’t really reveal many of his secrets in the book, but he did give pretty good hints about the techniques frauds use to to fake psychic powers, a combination of sleight of hand, manipulation, and undercover assistants giving coded signals. He was the guy who began the process of installing my now finely-tuned bullshit-detector.

There were also a great many other books I waded through, books about photography, various arts and crafts, profiles of noted film directors like Alfred Hitchcock, and Pauline Kael’s collection of film reviews, I Lost it at the movies. Somehow I never really made it over to the fiction section.

Around the same time, while haunting the B. Dalton bookstore at the mall, I found two other books that proved educational: The Unfashionable Human Body

'The Unfashionable Human Body' by Bernard Rudofsky

…a lavishly-illustrated compendium of all the many tortures people have subjected themselves to in the name of fashion, up to and including mutilation, and Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes

'The Great Comic Book Heroes' by Jules Feiffer

…a terrific book that added to the store of knowledge I’d collected, because his book didn’t just reproduce the covers of Golden Age Comics; his book consisted mostly of reprinted comics pages and entire stories. This was my introduction to The Spirit, a character I’d later rediscover in the reprints published by Warren.

Today I find myself far more knowledgeable about pop culture and entertainment of the 1930s and ’40s than of the time I actually lived through. And I owe it all to that 700 section on the second floor of the Torrance Public Library. I’m sure your local library has a similar section with a collection of books waiting to show you forgotten wonders untold. Why not pop in?


  1. Edo Bosnar

    This is really interesting. Personally, my path was more similar to Greg’s, i.e., I was all about finding good fiction. And I made ample use of libraries, whether the pretty dinky one in my elementary school, the much better one in the nearest larger town (Woodburn, OR) and then finally the huge (to me, anyway) public library in Salem. However – even though I later learned to navigate the Dewey decimal system – I never associated specific sections by their call number. When I was little in particular, I just almost instinctively learned where the books I wanted were located without even looking at the numbers.
    Anyway, my more serious ventures into reading non-fiction for pleasure occurred in my later teens and eventually led me to major in history in college.

    By the way, I can totally relate to the bottle (and aluminum can) income stream. I used to fish them out of the roadside ditches, and my parents let take in any bottles and cans from our household. In Oregon it was 10 cents per bottle and 5 cent per can, so after handing in a trash bag full of them I could buy a pretty decent amount of comic books.

  2. I loved both the Jim Harmon books. Like a lot of books back then, I embraced them as a guide to things I’d never get to see/hear; now, of course, it’s just a matter of time and money.
    For me the public library was primarily a source of Oz books, Perry Mason books and John Creasey’s Z5 novels. And Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Y/A fantasies.

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    I came from a town of about 700; we didn’t have a public library, beyond the school’s; however, a bookmobile came out once a week, from Decatur, IL and it was like stepping into a wonderland. There, I first found the delights of Dr Seuss, Robert McCall, Kate Burton, babar, Madeline and Curious George. I moved upwards, in both fiction and non-fiction. It was on one trip that I found the first volume of the Nostalgia Press reprint of the Alex Raymond Flash Gordon strips. I asked for it again, later, but it disappeared from the system (likely stolen); but, they turned up a couple of comic-related books and one of those did end up opening my eyes to worlds beyond Superman and Batman. That was Maurice Horn’s World Encyclopedia of Comics, which was filled with entries not only for American comic strips and comic books; but, also, the entire world! It was there I discovered the Golden Age greats, like the MLJ heroes, Blackhawk, the THUNDER agents, and a it of background on the heroes I knew from DC and Marvel. But, of the stuff I didn’t know: Mafalda, Lone Wolf & Cub, Astroboy, Ashita No Joe, the UK Dennis the Menace, Modesty Blaise, Lt Blueberry, Michel Valiant, Tangy et Laverdure, Capitan Trueno, Cuto, Tintin, Asterix, Lucky Luke, Valentina (yep, even adult stuff in there, including some Corben breasts), Diabolik, Kriminal, Spirou & Fantasio and so many, many more. I was introduced to Jean Giraud, Osamu Tezuka, Goseki Kojima, Jim Holdaway, Herge, Rene Goscinny, Druillet, Quino, Hugo Pratt, Breccia, Esteban Maroto, Frank Hampson, and many others. I was introduced to classic newspaper strips that I never saw and the people who created them. Worlds upon worlds.

    My college library (Univ of Illinois, one of the TOP 3 collegiate libraries in the country) had stuf like Barks duck collections, the Nostalgia Press Flash Gordons and two volumes of Prince Valiant. They had All in Color for a Dime and the sequel, the Comic Book Book. They also had a copy of Fred Schodt’s Manga! Manga!, the first real survey of Japanese comics, in English. I actually got to lay my eyes on Wertham’s book (couldn’t check it out). For a 20th Century American History class, I had to do a 10-pg research paper on a subject of my choosing, but relating it to the history and events of the period. I chose comic books, since they originated in the century and the changes in content reflected the culture of that decade. The library gave me a ton of great source material and I aced the paper.

    I got the Feiffer book at a used book store, near campus and later got the Smithsonian one, plus the comic strip volume they did. Got both Lupoff & Thompson books at used bookstores, as well as Jerry Robinson’s history of comics, Ron Goulart’s books, the Mike Benson comic histories, Will Jacobs & Gerard Jones book of the Silver & Bronze Age and several others.

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