Feb. 15, 2004

Severe Aunts

by James Doyle

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Poem: "Severe Aunts," by James Doyle, from Einstein Considers A Sand Dune (Steel Toe Books).

Severe Aunts

I grew up ringed
by great-aunts
in whalebone barrettes,
grey eyes,
and doily cuffs.

They quizzed me:
"Will you be ready
when the time comes
to move from knickers
to long pants?"

They always wondered
if my mother
from the tenements
was right for my father,
their nephew.

Their beds were never
unmade. I imagined
stained glass sheets
under the comforters.
Rosaries under pillows.

They gave me nickels
for reciting Longfellow.
When we said grace
before their dinners,
everyone had to kneel.

They died in a row,
one after the other.
The funeral flowers
from one were still
fresh enough for the next.

Their graves and monuments
are in a circle.
I want to be buried
in the middle. They'll keep
out the wind, snow.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of comic book artist and writer Art Spiegelman, born in Stockholm, Sweden (1948). The son of two Holocaust survivors, he moved with his family to New York City when he was three years old. Both of his parents suffered from depression and often woke up in the middle of the night screaming, but for years Spiegelman had no idea that this was out of the ordinary.

He fell in love with Mad magazine when he was ten years old, and started drawing comics. By the time he was fourteen, he was selling cartoons to the Long Island Post. He later got a job with the Topps chewing gum company, designing comics that came with different brands of gum. His parents were deeply disappointed that he didn’t want to become a dentist.

His mother's depression had been growing worse throughout his adolescence. When he was twenty years old, she committed suicide, and didn't leave a note. Spiegelman dealt with her death by moving to San Francisco. Then, four years after his mother's death, he wrote a comic strip about her suicide called "Prisoner on the Hell Planet" (1972). It was his first autobiographical cartoon, and it was tremendously liberating. Around the same time, he was asked to contribute to an anthology of animal cartoons. He suddenly got the idea for a comic strip about the Holocaust in which all the Jews would be drawn as mice and all the Nazis drawn as cats. He said, "Almost as soon as it hit me, I began to recognize the obvious historical antecedents--how Nazis and spoken of Jews as ‘vermin,’ and plotted their ‘extermination.’"

The comic strips were collected and published in two volumes: Maus: A Survivors Tale, My Father Bleeds History (1986) and Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began (1991). In those books, Spiegelman tells his father's story of surviving Auschwitz as well as his own story of getting to know his father. Both books were extremely successful, and in 1992 Spiegelman became one of the first cartoonists to receive a Pulitzer Prize for his work.

It's the birthday of cartoonist and creator of The Simpsons, Matt Groening, born in Portland, Oregon (1954). He hated grade school, because his teachers were always confiscating his notebook drawings and tearing them up. He began keeping a diary when he was in fifth grade, vowing that he would never forget the injustice he suffered.

He drew cartoons for his high school newspaper and once ran for class president as a joke. In his campaign, he said he was the founding member of "Teenagers for Decency." He was shocked when he got elected. He tried, unsuccessfully, to rewrite the school's constitution to make himself absolute dictator.

Groening decided to move to Los Angels after college to try to make it as a writer. He lived in a neighborhood full of drug dealers and thieves, and got a job ghostwriting the memoirs of an 88-year-old filmmaker. After that, he worked at a convalescent home, a waste treatment plant, and a graveyard. He started writing a comic strip based on his daily troubles called “Life in Hell.” The main character was a miserable rabbit named Binky. He made the comics into booklets and mailed them off to everyone he knew. He started to sell the booklets in record stores, and the Los Angeles Reader eventually began to run the strip. Within a few years "Life in Hell" was syndicated in weekly newspapers across the country. Groening said, "I had no idea I was going to make cartooning a career. I was doing it merely to assuage my profound sense of self-pity at being stuck in this scummy little apartment in Hollywood."

When a TV producer asked Groening to created a TV show, Groening decided to invent a cartoon family that would be the exact opposite of all the fictional families that had ever been on American television. He named the parents after his own parents, Homer and Marge, and he named the two sisters after his own sisters, Lisa and Maggie. He chose the name Bart for the only son because it was an anagram of the word "brat."

The Simpsons has gone on to become the most popular and longest running sitcom in America. Groening no longer writes for the show, but he gave it its basic premise, which is that authority figures are generally mean and stupid. He said, "Teachers, principals, clergymen, politicians—for the Simpsons, they're all goofballs, and I think that's a great message for kids."

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