June 19, 1978: Garfield Debuts

On this day in 1978, “Garfield” debuted in 41 newspapers across the U.S. Today, this comic strip about an acerbic fat cat, his loser owner and the dumbest dog on the planet is syndicated in more then 2,500 newspapers and journals worldwide.

Garfield © Paws, Inc. All rights reserved
Garfield © Paws, Inc. All rights reserved

On this day in 1978,  “Garfield” debuted in 41 newspapers across the U.S.  Today, this comic strip about an acerbic fat cat, his loser owner and the dumbest dog on the planet is syndicated in more then 2,500 newspapers and journals worldwide.

Creator Jim Davis originally shopped the comic strip around with the story centering on Garfield’s owner, Jon Arbuckle. Several newspapers declined this version but loved the nonverbal communication between Jon and his cat and suggested that Davis make the pet the focus of the strip. Davis reworked the comic strip and United Feature Strip picked up “Garfield.” In August of 1978, Odie debuted and the rest is history.

You would have to be living under a rock not to be familiar with Garfield. In addition to his daily strip, he has been the subject of two feature films, numerous cartoons and more than 50 books. For me, his most essential stories are still found in “Garfield at Large: His First Book,” an anthology of the first comics strips. That is Garfield at his edgiest, when the humor was fresh and somewhat geared towards adults. Even his early look (pictured above) seems more abrasive.

Final Note: While it may sound harsh calling Jon Arbuckle a loser, the website Garfield Minus Garfield removes Garfield from the comic strips so the reader can “journey deep into the mind of an isolated young everyman as he fights a losing battle against loneliness and depression in a quiet American suburb.” It’s quite sad.

June 7, 1965: Mick Foley Born

On this day in 1965, Mick Foley was born in Bloomington, Indiana. He would go on to be the first self-made professional wrestler in history and author of one of the greatest sports autobiographies.

Mick FoleyOn this day in 1965, Mick Foley was born in Bloomington, Indiana. He would go on to be the first self-made professional wrestler in history and author of one of the greatest sports autobiographies.

The overwhelming majority of wrestlers are physical freaks and/or ‘roid ragers and/or amazing athletes. Foley is none of these. He is just a decent-sized individual with boatloads of creativity, an amazing ability to sustain punishment and an aficionado’s passion for his business.

Foley started in 1983 and worked tirelessly, performing in numerous wrestling circuits. Throughout his career, he wrestled for World Championship Wrestling, Extreme Championship Wrestling, Smoky Mountain Wrestling and the International Wrestling Association of Japan, perhaps the world’s most violent circuit. However, Foley will be best remembered for his work in World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), where played his characters of Mankind, Dude Love and Cactus Jack. His “Hell in a Cell” match with The Undertaker in 1998’s King of the Ring (video below) is one of the greatest matches of all time and cemented his legacy. In April of 2013, Foley was inducted in the WWE Hall of Fame.

But his greatest contribution to wrestling is his 1999 book, Have a Nice Day: A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks, arguably one of the best sports autobiographies ever written. Foley recounts moments of human will that go against all common sense and the dirty business of wrestling with a gusto that tells you that he wasn’t born to do anything but wrestle… and write.

Foley retired from ring in 2000 and his appearances in wrestling since then have been mostly non-match roles. He has also remained busy as a writer of fiction, non-fiction and children’s books, a color commentator and occasional actor.

April 25, 1939: Batman Debuts

On this day in 1939, Batman debuted in issue #27 of Detective Comics. The creation of artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, Batman had his own comic book by the spring of 1940 and has arguably remained the most popular comic book hero since then.

Detective Comics #27On this day in 1939, Batman debuted in issue #27 of Detective Comics. The creation of artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, Batman had his own comic book by the spring of 1940 and has arguably remained the most popular comic book hero since then.

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have probably heard the story of Batman. After witnessing his parents murder as boy, billionaire Bruce Wayne uses his ample resources and skills to fight crime in Gotham City as the masked vigilante, Batman. Through the years, he has faced off against famous villains like the Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler and Scarecrow.

Since his debut, the tone and feel of Batman has evolved. Through the late 1930s and 40s, the comics were much darker with a hard-boiled feel, with multiple murders often occurring in one issue.

In response to the level of violence in early comic books, the Comics Magazine Association of America introduced the Comics Code Authority in the 1950s to allow publishers to self-regulate the content of their issues. The Batman issues that came out in the 1950s and 60s had a much more light-hearted, campy feel, much like the Adam West “Batman” television series of that decade as well.

By the 70s, movies and television were pushing the envelope and the code was updated in 1971 to allow comics to do so as well. The Batman comic books went back to their darker tone and the hero’s internal struggle became more of a focal point.

Nevertheless, the evolution of the Batman is a testament to the popularity and solidness of the character.  I can think of no other character that could go from being portrayed as a campy buffoon by Adam West to a tortured soul by Christian Bale and keep its fans.

Since his debut, Batman has had starring roles in more than 60 comic books, most notably his own and Detective Comics (prior to his debut, it was a hard-boiled detective series). He has also been the subject of 11 movies, a television series, 42 animated series or features, 28 video games and one radio series. Unless you are obsessed, it would be impossible to keep up with all of these, but here are a few items worth checking out.

  • Batman Chronicles, Vol. 1: This anthology contains Detective Comics issues #27-37 and Batman #1, showing how the character came to be.
  • Batman, The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Vol. 2: A great walk-through of the Batman saga through more than a dozen issues spanning 60 years.
  • Batman – The Movie (1966): While Adam West seems out of place as Batman in this day and age, this movie captures the era of light-hearted silliness and is still fun to watch today.
  • Batman: The Dark Knight Returns: In this series by Frank Miller of “Sin City” fame, an aging Batman comes out of retirement to save Gotham City in what may be the greatest Batman story ever told.
  • Batman: The Killing Joke: The wonderful graphic novel by Alan Moore, creator of “Watchmen,” tells what may be the most disturbing Batman tale ever and explores the sanity of The Joker, Batman and Commissioner Gordon.
  • A Death in the Family: In this shocking four part series about the Joker’s murder of the Jason Todd Robin, the series showed that it was not afraid to eliminate one of its main characters. Other comic book franchises are not so brave.
  • Batman (1989): Director Tim Burton’s take on the Dark Knight was part gothic, part camp and one of the biggest event movies of the 1980s.
  • Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995): One of the most visually stunning animated series ever appealed to Batman fans from all decades.
  • The Dark Knight Trilogy: Never before has a movie series reinvigorated a comic book character in a manner that energized the loyal fan base and added a legion of new fans.
  • Batman: Arkham Asylum: Of all the video games where Batman has been featured, this revolutionary one for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 is the best and considered by many video game fans to be a masterpiece.

April 24, 1800: Library of Congress Founded

On this day in 1800, President John Adams approved the appropriation of $5,000 for the purchase of “such books as may be necessary for the use of congress.” Today, the Library of Congress is the oldest federal cultural institution and the world’s largest library.

Library of Congress - Jefferson BuildingOn this day in 1800, President John Adams approved the appropriation of $5,000 for the purchase of “such books as may be necessary for the use of congress.” Today, the Library of Congress is the oldest federal cultural institution and the world’s largest library.

The Library was first housed in the U.S. Capitol, but was destroyed when British troops burnt the building in 1814. Retired President Thomas Jefferson offered his vast personal library as a replacement, writing, “I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”

The Congress accepted Jefferson’s offer and began accumulating works from all areas in the spirit of the former president’s acquiring of knowledge. In 1897, the Library moved into its massive, current home (pictured above), which is appropriately named the Jefferson Building.

The Library’s stated mission is “to support the Congress in fulfilling its constitutional duties and to further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.” It has millions of books, recordings, maps and manuscripts in its possession to carry out these duties, and if you are in Washington, D.C., and have some time, you can go into the Library and access most of these works.

For those wanting to learn more about the Library, it compiled a more in-depth summary for its bicentennial, which can be found at http://www.loc.gov/loc/legacy/.

April 14, 1828: Noah Webster Copyrights First Comprehensive Dictionary

On this day in 1828, Noah Webster published “An American Dictionary of the English Language” at the age of 70. The revolutionary work was the precursor to the modern-day Merriam-Webster dictionaries.

Noah WebsterOn this day in 1828, Noah Webster published “An American Dictionary of the English Language” at the age of 70. The revolutionary work was the precursor to the modern-day Merriam-Webster dictionaries.

The cousin of Senator Daniel Webster, Noah Webster was already a very accomplished, having been a prolific author and teacher. The development of the dictionary was more of a passion project for him. It was good that this issue touched his heart because dictionaries were nonexistent in the U.S. before then. The only counterpart was Englishman Samuel Johnson’s “A Dictionary of the English Language,” which had nearly 43,000 words.

Webster’s dictionary, a follow-up to a much smaller effort in 1806, contained a then-record 70,000 words. Although considered a treasure today, it only sold 2,500 companies, and he had to go into severe debt to print a second edition in 1840.

Webster died in 1843. Following his death, George and Charles Merriam secured the publishing rights to the 1840 edition. They greatly expanded on the original work of Webster and today Merriam-Webster is the gold standard for dictionaries.

February 21, 1925: The New Yorker Publishes First Issue

On this day in 1925, The New Yorker published its first issue. Founded by editor Harold Ross and his wife, Janet Grant, a New York Times reporter, as a sophisticated humor magazine, it has evolved into one of the most preeminent cultural and literary publications in the U.S. today.

First Issue of The New YorkerOn this day in 1925, The New Yorker published its first issue. Founded by editor Harold Ross and his wife, Janet Grant, a New York Times reporter, as a sophisticated humor magazine, it has evolved into one of the most preeminent cultural and literary publications in the U.S. today.

While the magazine is considered to be the paragon of fine writing, reading it is also considered to be a calling card for elitism. It’s a fine line the publication will always walk and, in some ways, seems to have accepted. The famous Seinfeld episode where Elaine calls out the editor for not understanding the cartoons is one example.

All that being said, the writing is often amazing. Some would call it sprawling, but more often than not, it is sweeping. One doesn’t always have the time to read these 2,500-plus word articles, but the journey is usually worth it.

Still, the small-town southerner in me can’t help but feel like a jackass any time I refer someone to a New Yorker piece, so I’m pushing through my discomfort and suggesting these few articles anyway.

 

February 20, 2005: Hunter S. Thompson Dies

On this day in 2005, Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide at the age of 67, with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The iconic author had been dealing with several health problems.

Hunter S. ThompsonOn this day in 2005, Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide at the age of 67, with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  The iconic author had been dealing with several health problems.

Thompson invented the style of “Gonzo” journalism, which involves the writer inserting himself into the story and covering it from that perspective. Countless magazine and online writers have adopted the style. When done well, the style is captivating. When it is done poorly, it is self-indulgent drivel.

With Thompson, the writing was usually great and chemicals and mayhem were generally involved.  His most famous quote was, “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”

In 2007, I heard his widow, Anita Thompson, speak about her book, “The Gonzo Way: A Celebration of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.” She said her two main reasons for the book and the tour were to show his warmer side and to tell aspiring writers that doing lines of cocaine and drinking a bottle of Wild Turkey will not make you write like Hunter Thompson.

But it did work for him. From “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” to his final columns for ESPN.com’s Page 2, he presented a view of America that was appalling, captivating and often true.

On August 20, 2005, Thompson’s funeral was held at his compound in Woody Creek, Colorado. Per his wishes, Thompson’s ashes were blown out of a giant cannon.

Those who want to learn more about Thompson’s life should check out the documentary, “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson,” which was made by Academy Award winner Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” “Taxi to the Dark Side”).

February 15, 2009: Washington Post Prints Last Book World

Washington Post Book WorldOn this day in 2009, The Washington Post printed its last stand-alone edition of “Book World,” it’s weekly collection of book reviews and essays on literature.

It seemed a bit strange when I opened the next Sunday’s Washington Post and was unable to find the Book World section. I hoped that the editors had simply decided to place it in the Saturday Post’s special package, which includes the comics, TV guide, Washington Post Magazine, and coupons. Instead, I found that The Post had placed its book reviews in the last four pages of the Sunday Outlook section.

According to the Associated Press, the Post’s merging of its book review and editorial section was a permanent move to compensate for fourth quarter losses off 77 percent in 2008. The AP also reported that the paper had three rounds of buyouts and eliminated its “Sunday Source” section during that period.

While newspapers were hit hard with the emergence of online media and the financial crisis of 2008, Washington’s situation was not as dire as others. And the paper still has a great online section of book reviews.  Still, to see one of the most prestigious newspapers being forced to eliminate one of its more popular sections was simply a shame.

February 1, 1974: The Punisher Debuts

Marvel Comics published issue #129 of The Amazing Spiderman, featuring the debut of The Punisher, aka Frank Castle. The ex-Vietnam veteran who became a one-man killing machine after witnessing his family’s murder by mobsters has been the centerpiece of numerous comic book series and three God-awful movies.

The Amazing Spiderman #129

Marvel Comics published issue #129 of The Amazing Spiderman, featuring the debut of The Punisher, aka Frank Castle. The ex-Vietnam veteran who became a one-man killing machine after witnessing his family’s murder by mobsters has been the centerpiece of numerous comic book series and three God-awful movies.

No comic book character has carried such morbid intrigue among fans as The Punisher. It’s not because he’s the most interesting or complex nor do his storylines really vary from issue-to-issue; basically villains are committing heinous acts somewhere in the world (usually in New York City) and The Punisher finds them and kills them.

The reason he stands out is because, for years, he was the only mainstream superhero willing to get blood on his hands. His remorseless gunning down of the wicked appeals to the visceral part of us in the same manner of ‘70s grindhouse pictures. It is why he and Blade are the only superhero whose movies are rated R (I don’t count “The Watchmen) and has been a natural fit for Marvel’s adult MAX series.

The MAX series graphically depicts The Punisher killing, cussing and fornicating outside of holy matrimony, a far cry from Spiderman #129 (although it was very edgy in its time as well). In between, he has not evolved, but below are a few issues that you can read with no knowledge of the character and understand why his popularity has not waned.

January 31, 1923: Norman Mailer Born

On this day in 1923, Norman Kingsley Mailer was born in Long Branch, New Jersey. He was relevant in the American literary scene longer than almost any other writer in history and is proof of how much one can be forgiven for if he writes true sentences.

Norman MailerOn this day in 1923, Norman Kingsley Mailer was born in Long Branch, New Jersey. He was relevant in the American literary scene longer than almost any other writer in history and is proof of how much one can be forgiven for if he writes true sentences.

Mailer burst on to the scene in 1948 with The Naked and the Dead, his greatest critical and commercial success. A prolific writer, he wrote more than 30 books, which included novels, biographies and works of nonfiction, and essays, scripts, plays and poems. Twice he won the Pulitzer Prize for literature for The Armies of the Night (1968) and The Executioner’s Song (1979).

His articles for Esquire helped usher in the “New Journalism” movement of the second half of the 20th Century, bringing personal reflection to issues already covered by the mainstream media. His debut, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” which chronicled the 1960 Democratic Convention provides a glimpse of President Kennedy that still remains fascinating 50 years later. The Fight, his account of the “Rumble in the Jungle” between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman remains the only book on the event still in publication today.

Yet he also stabbed Adeles Morales, his then-wife (number two of six), with a pen knife in 1960 after a night of heavy drinking. She did not press charges and they divorced two years later. In 1981, Mailer successfully lobbied for the parole of Jack Henry Abbott, who was serving a lengthy sentence in Utah for forgery and killing a fellow inmate, because he saw literary talent in the letters Abbott began writing him in 1977. A few weeks after his release, Abbott stabbed a waiter to death in a New York restaurant.

Few people could remain relevant on a national level after such transgressions. However, artists are often able to do so is if their work continues to speak to us. Despite his infuriating behavior and provocative statements, Mailer continued to write with unbridled honesty (whether you agreed with it or not) until his death in 2007. This is why his work will live on and his poor life choices will be footnotes in accounts of his life.