May 14, 2013
It’s one of the most recognizable book covers in the history of American literature: two sad female eyes and bright red lips adrift in the deep blue of a night sky, hovering ominously above a skyline that glows like a carnival. Evocative of sorrow and excess, this haunting image has become so inextricably linked to The Great Gatsby that it still adorns the cover of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece 88 years after its debut. This iconic work of art was created by Spanish artist Francis Cugat.
Little is known about Cugat –also known as Francisco Coradal-Cougat– and the Gatsby cover, for which he was paid the princely sum of $100, was the only one he ever designed. In a 1991 essay discussing the connections between the book and its cover, publishing scion Charles Scribner III, who revived the cover after a 40 year absence for his classic edition of the book in 1979, charted the development of the work from its original conception to the final gouache painting of the detached gaze. Scribner notes that its origin is somewhat unusual in that the cover art was designed before the manuscript was finished, resulting in a sort of collaboration between the artist and writer that may have yielded one of the more prominent literary symbols in American literature.
In a letter to editor Max Perkins, Fitzgerald, whose manuscript was late, requested that the art be held for him. “For Christ’s sake don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me,” Fitzgerald wrote, “I’ve written it into the book.” It’s not clear exactly what Fitzgerald meant by this, but it is generally believed that that Cugat’s haunting image was realized in the form of the recurring billboard for oculist Dr. T.J. Eckleburg that watches over one of the climactic moments of Fitzgerald’s work:
“The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic — their irises are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.”
Of course, there are several obvious differences between the final cover art and the bespectacled billboard, but if this is the connection, then the floating, faceless eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg serve as testament to the talent of each artist, as well as to the value of such collaborations. But the familiar cover art may not, in fact, have been what captured Fitzgerald’s imagination. Rather, it’s possible that he saw a much different, early cover sketch by Cugat, several of which were only discovered in 1990:
Because the manuscript was not complete, it’s likely that Cugat based his design on a conversation with Perkins about Fitzgerald’s working text, then titled Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires, and a description of one of the books settings – a “valley of ashes” where “About half way between West Egg and New York the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land.” In one of these early design proposals, the valley of ashes is presided over by several small faceless eyes and lips floating like clouds. It seems likely that this early draft inspired Fitzgerald to create his own eyes above the desolate landscape in the form of the Eckleburg billboard. As Cugat’s design developed, he focused more on those floating eyes that seem to have enthralled Fitzgerald. The landscape became more abstract and the country road way was abandoned in favor of a cityscape that recalls the glowing lights of Times Square and Coney Island.
Although it seems likely that the billboard really is the manifestation of Cugat’s eyes, without any definitive proof it remains something of an open question. Scribner cites another theory for “those who still find the derivation troublesome” – that the cover image was actually integrated into the text as Nick Carraway’s vision of Daisy as the “girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs….”
With a big Hollywood movie now in theaters, some recent printings of the book have abandoned the classic cover in favor of one that ties in more closely with the film. So high school students working their way through the summer reading list this year will be hard pressed to find a copy without Leondardo DiCaprio standing front and center among the movie’s beautiful cast and art deco ornamentation. While the new cover is controversial among readers and retailers, Scribner himself enjoys it. In a recent letter to The New York Times, he wrote, ”I confess to liking the Leonardo DiCaprio cover, too (the new movie tie-in). I would not be ashamed to be seen reading it on the subway, but then I’m a Gemini.”
Although there have been many covers since its first publication in 1925, today, none are more suited to The Great Gatsby than the celestial eyes of Francis Cugat, so perfectly do the image and text seem align. Perhaps its appropriate that the true meaning of the celestial eyes remain somewhat mysterious. After all, if I remember my own summer reading of The Great Gatsby, the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg ultimately serve as a reminder that signs are devoid of any meaning save that which we give them.
April 17, 2013
Painters, sculptors and musicians have long since found inspiration in the complex movement of thirty-two pieces across a chessboard. We previously looked at examples from Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and others. But writers too have found inspiration in the 64 square battlefield. Perhaps none moreso than Charles Lutwidge Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll aka the writer of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Whereas in the first story, Alice encountered a kingdom of playing cards after falling down the rabbit hole, in the sequel, she stepped through a mirror to find an entirely new wonderland populated by anthropomorphic red and white chessmen.
It makes sense that the two dominant symbols of the story are the mirror and the chess board—after all, the pieces on a board at the start of play are a reflection of one another. But chess wasn’t just a recurring motif or symbol in Carroll’s story, it was, in fact, the basis for the novel’s structure. The story was designed around a game of chess. This is made explicit from the very beginning of the book, when the reader is confronted with a chess problem and the following note: “White Pawn (Alice) to play, and win in eleven moves.”
This opening salvo perplexed readers more than the frumious language of “Jabberwocky.” Although the problem is a sort of funhouse mirror distortion of the novel (or vice versa), with eleven moves roughly corresponding to the book’s twelve chapters, Carroll’s notation displays a flagrant disregard for the basic rules of chess. At best, it was viewed as a careless game, even with the explanatory Dramatis Personae included with early versions of the text that equated every character with a corresponding piece. In response to concerns and criticisms, Carroll included a preface to the 1896 edition of Through the Looking Glass, addressing the opening chess problem:
As the chess-problem…has puzzled some of my readers, it may be well to explain that it is correctly worked out, so far as the moves are concerned. The alternation of Red and White is perhaps not so strictly observed as it might be, and the “castling” of the three Queens is merely a way of saying that they entered the palace; but the “check” of the White King at move 6, the capture of the Red Knight at move 7, and the final “checkmate” of the Red King, will be found, by anyone who will take the trouble to set the pieces and play the moves as directed, to be strictly in accordance to the laws of the game.
So while Carroll admits taking some liberties with the game, the logic is, in his view at least, sound. Furthermore, although many of the moves listed in the introductory problem make no sense if taken on their own, when they are considered in the context of the story, a strange logic emerges, a logic based not on the rules of chess, but on Carroll’s narrative. For example, as Martin Gardner points out in an analysis of Carroll’s game in The Annotated Alice, “At two points the White Queen passes up a chance to checkmate and on another occasion she flees from the Red Knight when she could shave captured him. Both oversights, however, are in keeping with her absent-mindedness.” By Gardner’s theory then, the mistakes are designed into the story. The White Queen, who famously believed in “six impossible things before breakfast,” also experiences time in reverse, which, from the perspective of a game piece, would surely result in unpredictable movement and a curious perception of the board.
Another example of narrative’s influence on the opening problem can be seen when the Red Queen puts the White King in check at move 8, but the condition is neither included in the game’s notation nor addressed in the story. However, this too can be explained by considering the rules of both. According to the rules of chess, when a player is put in check, it must be announced. Otherwise, the check can be ignored. Gardner cites an article by artist Ivor Davies, who rationalizes the antagonistic Red Queen’s behavior with evidence from the story itself, noting that the silence was “entirely logical because, at the moment of her arrival at King one, she said to Alice. ‘Speak when you’re spoken to!’ Since no one had spoken to her she would have been breaking her own rule had she said ‘check.’”
There are myriad other connections between Carroll’s story and his introductory chess problem, and perhaps even more interpretations and analyses of said chess problem. But in all the scholarship surrounding Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, it’s clear that the story cannot be isolated as a either chess treatise or a children’s story. It’s both. The novel’s structure is determined according to a prescribed series of chess moves; the actions and behaviors of its characters are largely dictated by the limitations and characteristics of their corresponding pieces. But this interdependence means that the pieces are themselves influenced by character traits established in the story. The narrative abides by the logic of the game and the game abides by the logic of the narrative. Lewis Carrroll’s story is quite literally a game-changer.
March 29, 2013
In the G.I. Joe sequel opening this weekend, the original “Joe” is played by the over 50-year-old Bruce Willis – the other All-American Hero. In reality, the nearly 50-year-old G.I. Joe was an 11 1/2-inch-tall plastic action figure produced by former pencil makers the Hassenfeld Brothers, who the world would eventually come to know simply as “Hasbro.” In the late 1930s the Hassenfeld Brother –Henry, Hilal, Herman– expanded their textile and school supply business to include toys. The move proved lucrative and by 1960, they had become one of America’s largest toy companies (largely thanks to the success of Mr. Potato Head). But Hasbro’s biggest hit came in 1964 with the release of G.I. Joe, the world’s first action figure.
The original, prototype figure was invented by Don Levine, Vice President and Director of Marketing and Development at Hasbro. Levine was fascinated with the “razor-razor blade” model that made Mattel’s Barbie such a success and was determined to create a similar toy for boys. Today, we might call it the “printer-print cartridge” model; the idea being that the initial toy/razor/printer is just a means to get consumers to purchase additional accessories. While walking by an art store one day, Levine noticed a wooden artists mannequin in a window display and was struck with an epiphany:
Suddenly it occurred to me that we could create something truly magnificent if there was a way to produce figures that moved and posed any which way the human body did. Tin and plastic soldiers have been favorites of children as long as there have been toys; it seemed to me that this fully articulated man could be a giant step forward. From that point on, it was a matter of conveying this vision to my staff at Hasbro.
When the figure hit the market in 1964 it was a runaway success. Within two years, G.I. Joe accounted for almost 66 percent of Hasbro’s profits. The key characteristic driving its popularity was the 19 points of articulation and high-quality assembly. According to the Hassenfeld Brothers’ patent, it was their aim to create a “toy figure or doll having movable joints that closely simulate the movable portions of the human anatomy.” That was probably the first and last time the figure was ever referred to as a doll. The company strictly prohibited the term and refused to sell their action figure to any retailer that used it. The patented designs also placed a premium on safety, durability and cost-effective manufacturing. It was important, for example, that no metal springs were used in the assembly and that different heads could be used on the same figure – thereby creating product variability while keep manufacturing costs low.
Hasbro simultaneously produced four figures to represent the four branches of America’s armed forces: Rocky the Movable Fighting Man represented the Army, Skip for the Navy, Ace Fighter Pilot was obviously a proud member of the Air Force, and Rocky, apparently serving double duty, was also a Marine. Each figure came with basic fatigues, boots, cap and dog tag, while the packaging enticed children with images of other uniforms and accessories. The “G.I Joe” moniker was created to encompass the entire brand. The name “G.I. Joe” was inspired by a 1945 film about film about war correspondent Ernie Pyle, titled The Story of G.I. JOE. The name was perfect, Levine remembers, “because ‘Government Issue Joe’ was a real everyman title.”
Of course, with the popularity of Hasbro’s action figure came man imitators. The fact that the human figure can’t be trademarked or copyrighted posed a problem for a company hoping to have the exclusive rights to a popular toy. Luckily for Hasbro, fate intervened and early production errors gave the first G.I. Joes a facial scar and an inverted thumbnail. These design flaws became the signifying marks of the true Hasbro G.I. Joe and helped Hasbro pursue cases of infringement.
But G.I. has long been a metric of culture. And as tensions escalated in Vietnam, public opinion turned against all things military in nature, G.I. Joe was discharged for a time in the late 1960s
When the toy was relaunched in the ’70′s near the end of American involvement in Vietnam, it had a macho new beard and an intimidating “Kung-fu grip” – both were developed after the original All American Hero completed years of training at secret temple hidden deep in the Himalayas. Actually, the toys were redesigned and renamed to be less militaristic and more adventure-oriented – “adventurer” replaced the solider, “aquanaut” replaced the naval officer, etc. Despite the changes, their re-enlistment may have been too soon, because Hasbro ended its production on its G.I. Joe line in 1978.
In the 1980s, the U.S. political climate changed and as military toys gained in popularity, the G.I. Joe line was relaunched with dramatically redesigned actions figures that now stood only 3 3/4 inches tall. The new size that was inspired by the success of recent Star Wars figures, but may also have reflected the continued effects of the OPEC oil embargo of the 1970s, which raised the prices of plastic. Whereas the original Joes were generic representations of the American military, these later versions were highly specialized antiterrorist commandos complete with their own exotic code names, elaborate back stories, and unique personalities, which were created with the help of Marvel Comics. And for the first time, G.I. Joe was also given a specific enemy to fight: the international terrorist organization COBRA. Along with the new figures, a cartoon series was launched in 1983 as part of a savvy marketing campaign. The cartoon was made possible thanks to government deregulation during the administration of President Reagan that resulted in new rules for children’s television programming. “G.I. Joe: An All American Hero” was one of the first cartoons to benefit from these new rules, which permitted the FCC to air violent war cartoons featuring toy products as the main characters. The strategy worked. The National Coalition on Television Violence reported a 350% increase in the sale of war toys between 1982-1985 – no doubt largely due to the cross-platform success of G.I. Joe.
Levine has said that “G.I. Joe is a universal archetype of good.” It is also a metric of American culture. During the Civil Rights Movement, a heroic African-American Joe was introduced. As the space program gained momentum, an astronaut was introduced. And of course, in the 1980s when flamboyant terrorist organizations started cloning ancient world leaders and building mindless android soldiers, those were introduced as well.
In some form or another, G.I. Joe figures have been on shelves since the 1982 relaunch. When asked about its enduring quality, Levine suggested that G.I. Joes are “a very empowering toy for kids. A child has a character that is his or hers to direct through whatever adventure happens to come up on that particular day. The child…is able to explore all manner of heroic and exciting possibilities, whether it be as a deep sea dive, astronaut, or jet pilot. That kind of make-believe is something every generation thrives on.” Levin’s opinions on the importance of “make believe” have a lot of merit, but something was lost as the G.I. Joes became more and more specific in the 1980s and children were increasingly being told how to play. High profile movies may further limit the possibilities of play, but their popularity ensures that G.I. Joe will continue to fight or freedom wherever there’s trouble.
“Questions for Discussion with Don Levine, The Father of G.I. Joe,” Headquarters Quarterly; “Hasbro, Inc. History,” Funding Universe; Encyclopedia of Play in Today’s Society, ed. Rodney P. Carlisle (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2009); Dan Fletcher, “A Secret History of G.I. Joe,” Time(August 7, 2009); Roger Chapman, Culture Wars: An Encyclopedia of Issues, Viewpoints, and Voices (M.E. Sharpe, 2010); Google Patents
March 13, 2013
In the 1994 Robert Zemeckis film, Forrest Gump stumbles into the history books as he runs across the country.
At one point, he meets a poor T-shirt salesman who, Gump recalls, “wanted to put my face on a T-shirt but he couldn’t draw that well and he didn’t have a camera.” As luck would have it, a truck drives by and splashes Gump’s face with mud. He wipes his face on a yellow T-shirt and hands it back to the down-on-his-luck entrepreneur, telling him to “have a nice day.” The imprint of Gump’s face left a perfect, abstract smiling face on the bright yellow t-shirt. And thus, an icon was born.
As you probably expect, that was not how the iconic smiley face was created. There was no cross-country runner or struggling t-shirt salesman, there was no truck or mud puddle. There was, however, a graphic designer, some devious salesmen, and an ambitious newspaper man – all add up to a surprisingly complex history for such a simple graphic.
It’s largely accepted that the original version of the familiar smiley face was first created 50 years ago in Worcester, Massachusetts by the late Harvey Ross Ball, an American graphic artist and ad man. Ball came up with the image in 1963 when he was commissioned to create a graphic to raise morale among the employees of an insurance company after a series of difficult mergers and acquisitions. Ball finished the design in less than 10 minutes and was paid $45 for his work. The State Mutual Life Assurance Company (now Allmerica Financial Corporation) made posters, buttons, and signs adorned with the jaundiced grin in the attempt to get their employees to smile more. It’s uncertain whether or not the new logo boosted morale, but the smiling face was an immediate hit and the company produced thousands of buttons. The image proliferated and was of course endlessly imitated but according to Bill Wallace, Executive Director of the Worcester Historical Museum, the authentic Harvey Ball-designed smiley face could always be identified by its distinguishing features: the eyes are narrow ovals, one larger than the other, and the mouth is not a perfect arc but “almost like a Mona Lisa Mouth.”
Neither Ball nor State Mutual tried to trademark or copyright the design. Although it seems clear that Ball has the strongest claim to the second most iconic smile in history, there’s much more to the story.
In the early 1970s, brothers Bernard and Murray Spain, owners of two Hallmark card shops in Philadelphia, came across the image in a button shop, noticed that it was incredibly popular, and simply appropriated it. They knew that Harvey Ball came up with the design in the 1960s but after adding the the slogan “Have a Happy Day” to the smile, the Brothers Spain were able to copyright the revised mark in 1971, and immediately began producing their own novelty items. By the end of the year they had sold more than 50 million buttons and countless other products, turning a profit while attempting to help return a nation’s optimism during the Vietnam War (or provide soldiers with ironic ornament for their helmets). Despite their acknowledgment of Harvey’s design, the brothers publicly took credit for icon in 1971 when they appeared on the television show “What’s My Line.”
In Europe, there is another claimant to the smiley. In 1972 French journalist Franklin Loufrani became the first person to register the mark for commercial use when he started using it to highlight the rare instances of good news in the newspaper France Soir. Subsequently, he trademarked the smile, dubbed simply “Smiley,” in over 100 countries and launched the Smiley Company by selling smiley T-shirt transfers.
In 1996, Loufrani’s son Nicolas took over the family business and transformed it into an empire. He formalized the mark with a style guide and further distributed it through global licensing agreements including, perhaps most notably, some of the earliest graphic emoticons. Today, the Smiley Company makes more than $130 million a year and is one of the top 100 licensing companies of the world. The company has taken a simple graphic gesture and transformed it into an enormous business as well as a corporate ideology that places a premium on “positivity.” As for the American origin of the smiley, Nicolas Loufrani is skeptical of Harvey’s claim on the design even though, as evident in the above image, his father’s original newspaper icon is almost identical to Ball’s mark, idiosyncrasies and all. Loufrani argues that the design of the smiley is so basic it can’t be credited to anyone. On his company’s website, they prove this idea by showing what they claim to be the world’s first smiley face, a stone carving found in a French cave that dates to 2500 BC, as well as a smiley face graphic used for promotion by a New York radio station in 1960.
Copyright and trademark issues are complicated, and despite their views toward Ball’s design, when the Smiley Company attempted to trademark the image in the United States in 1997, they became embroiled in a legal battle with Walmart, which started using the smiley face as a corporate logo in 1996 and tried to claim ownership of it (because of course they did.) The law suit lasted 10 years and cost both companies millions of dollars. It was settled out of court in 2007 but its terms remain undisclosed.
In 2001, Charlie Ball tried to reclaim the optimistic legacy of his father’s creation from unbridled commercialization by starting the World Smile Foundation, which donates money to grass-roots charitable efforts that otherwise receive little attention or funding.
The simple yellow smiley face created in 1963 (probably) has led to tens of thousands of variations and has appeared on everything from pillows and posters to perfume and pop art. Its meaning has changed with social and cultural values: from the optimistic message of a 1960s insurance company, to commercialized logo, to an ironic fashion statement, to a symbol of rave culture imprinted on ecstasy pills, to a wordless expression of emotions in text messages. In the groundbreaking comic Watchmen, a blood-stained smiley face motif serves as something of a critique of American politics in a dystopian world featuring depressed and traumatized superheroes. Perhaps Watchman artist Dave Gibbons best explains the mystique of the smiley: “It’s just a yellow field with three marks on it. It couldn’t be more simple. And so to that degree, it’s empty. It’s ready for meaning. If you put it in a nursery setting…It fits in well. If you take it and put it on a riot policeman’s gas mask, then it becomes something completely different.”
“Smiley’s People,” BBC Radio, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01bh91h; Smiley Company, http://www.smileycompany.com/shop/; Thomas Crampton, “Smiley Face is Serious to Company,” The New York Times (July 5, 2006); “Harvey Ball,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvey_Ball
January 25, 2013
While researching our recent article about the Seal of the President of the United States, I came across a few couple myths about the National Emblem that required a little more investigation.
First up, the idea that Benjamin Franklin, in his infinite wisdom and wit, wanted the National Bird to be the turkey. According to the United States Diplomacy Center, this myth is completely false (though I’ll dive into the murkier parts of that myth in a moment). The center points to the fact that Franklin’s proposal for the Great Seal was devoid of birds completely and suggest that the idea was propagated, in part, by a 1962 illustration for the cover of the New Yorker by artist Anatole Kovarsky, who imagined what the Great Seal of the United States might look like if the turkey did become our national emblem (above image). However, while it’s hard to imagine that overstuffed, flightless bird on our currency and on the President’s lectern instead of on our dinner table, there is actually a bit of truth to this rumor.
The Franklin Institute, addressing what I’m sure is their favorite question about one of the most complex and interesting men to ever live in this country, excerpts a letter from Franklin to his daughter, in which he does in fact question the choice of the eagle, commenting that the selected design looks more like a turkey. Franklin then expounds on the respectability and morality of each bird, which really seems like such a Ben Franklin thing to do:
“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
With all this injustice, he is never in good case but like those among men who live by sharping & robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our country…
“I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
The second myth I wanted to address is tied to the alterations President Truman made to the Presidential Seal. It’s sometimes said that the eagle on the Presidential Seal changes during times of war to face the arrows instead of the olive branch. This one is unquestionably false, although somewhat understandable. From 1916 to 1945 the eagle did indeed face the arrows –a version that can still be seen on the Resolute Desk– but this was changed when President Truman issued Executive Order 9646, modifying the seal so that the eagle faced the olive branch – a gesture symbolic of the post-war nation’s dedication to peace. While the changes to the seal, which always occurred around times of war, may explain the origin of the myth, its propoagation is owed largely to popular culture. According to snopes.com, in both an episode of “The West Wing” and the Dan Brown novel Deception Point, the myth is incorrectly stated as fact. But perhaps the final word should come from Winston Churchill, a Franklinesque wit himself. When Truman showed him the changes that were made to seal, Churchill suggested that the eagle’s head should just be on a swivel.