Showing posts with label Where I was born was in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge.. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Where I was born was in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge.. Show all posts


"Where I was born was in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge," Smith said, in an accent that never left the city. "We lived in a tenement that had no bathroom or toilet or heat. It had a wood stove in the kitchen, which was the only place where it was warm. New York in the winter can get like the Arctic. One small apartment supported not only his immediate family but sundry relatives, and baths came once a week, every Saturday, by the wood stove. We would hang up sheets, and that's where you took your bath." A devout Catholic most of his life, Smith received his early education under the strict regimen of a church school. He used to play Irish jigs on the piano, "and you'd get a ruler laid across your fingers for disrupting the halls." The Great Depression had arrived, but George Smith found his calling early. He attended art schools funded by Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration and in the late '30s took classes at Brooklyn's prestigious Pratt Institute three nights a week. He began selling one-panel cartoons as a teenager and continued to peddle his work from one editorial office to another. There was a lot of discouragement then. I went every Wednesday (the day editors looked at material) and kept going and going and going and never sold anything." Then one day, two magazines accepted his work, a welcome change in routine. "I started selling then pretty regularly. "I used to sell to the Harvard Lampoon at $2 a cartoon." Collier's was the first big magazine he appeared in, and shortly before he entered the Army, he discovered the secret New York offices of the Saturday Evening Post. "They wouldn't ever see me, and I just barged in one day." The Post accepted his work, which he signed as Pvt. George Smith. By that time, he had already met Virginia, who worked as a secretary for New York brokerage and accounting firms. "The first time I saw him, he was doodling with his drawings," she said. Smith managed to stay within the art field even in the Army and found himself stationed in New Jersey doing posters and diagrams. Nevertheless, the Army and George Smith were never meant for each other.
"It was very shocking for me. I don't really believe in signs, or rules and regulations. I had a really comfortable job, but I couldn't adhere to the rules. I used to not show up, and I got confined to camp. I didn't stay confined. One morning, I wasn't drunk, but I was disheveled, and a whole car full of higher-ranking officers came by -- majors, captains -- and they found me to be quite shocking. Eventually, they decided I must be a soldier and backed up about 50 yards, asking me why I didn't salute. I held up my hand, and there were doughnuts on my fingers and confectionery powder all over my uniform ... shortly after that, I found myself in Fort Ord, California, and then in the South Pacific, in a unit primarily composed of Southerners who had never seen a pair of shoes until they were drafted. Smith still didn't pay much attention to the rules ("Where else can they send you?") and drew cartoons for the Army's morale department. He stayed there for the duration of the war, mostly in New Guinea. He returned to a different New York. "The competition when I came back was just murderous. I was gone for so long... it used to be that you could walk into an editor's office and just sit down and chat and show him your work. But after Hirohito's forces had been put in their place, you couldn't get near the office. It was like storming the Bastille." Before the comic strip ever started, the Smith family itself was well underway, and Smith sold two precursors to his future work, "Don't Worry, Honey" and "Momma's Sick." Both detailed the plight of a father caring for a bunch of kids while their mother was in the Maternity ward.
"The Smith Family" comic strip started in 1950, when the real family numbered two adults and five kids (there would later be six more, all daughters but one). The Boston Globe first picked up the strip, followed by the Detroit News, the Philadelphia News, and others. Family comic strips are popular today, but the "Smith Family" was an innovation at the time. "It was a good idea to have an actual family with two really real parents doing scenes from the family," Smith said. "You have a bunch of kids and there are a lot of funny things going on. We had tons of mail from people identifying with us." Such family trials were "a really honest-to-goodness American disaster." Unfortunately, the strip didn't catch on fast enough. A small syndicate distributed the "Smith Family" at the time (Universal Press only recently acquired it), and before many more papers picked it up, the larger syndicates of the day began to notice its growing popularity. "They realized there was a big market there," Smith said. Other family strips popped up under powerful sponsorship, and the "Smith Family" found itself pushed aside in its own field. By this time, the Smiths had moved from New York, first going to Staten Island suburb and later out to the country north of town.
"I couldn't endure New York. After three years in the woods... you can't imagine what the subway was like." Then, too, their growing family needed more room than the city could offer. (Later moves would take them first to California, then to Portland), and finally, in the early 70s, to White Salmon.
"That was what interested me," Smith said. "Just getting away from the whole thing. The rat race just didn't agree with me. Smith expressed his own awareness of wrongs he saw in American society. He quotes such respected authors as Erich Fromm, a psychoanalyst who suggests that modern society leads its members to acquire a destructive aggression alien to their genetic heritage.
"He (Fromm) concludes that the whole of America is schizoid, paranoid. It's borne out; all the evidence is there... With each passing day, the gap grows between the adult and the 'dreaming innocence' of the child. If a child is lucky enough to have a dreaming innocence, and fewer and fewer are... there's no hope for kids but to grow up and join the rat race.
"As you move along, you have a progressive disease that is induced by the cultural matrix, a destruction of the human personality. This was an old thing in New York City.
"You would have to scream out when you see this whole destructive operation. Whatever the art form, even the lowliest comic strip - this is truly the function of art.
Smith is a sponsor of EVANG, a Berkeley California group dedicated to the elimination of corporal punishment in public schools.
The group's title stands for "End Violence Against the Next Generation, Inc."
Smith has little liking for the public schools. "When a kid shows talent it gets crushed. The poet is pulled back from the window watching the clouds drift by... I think the educational system is best described as a mouse race, a preparation for the rat race. "Teachers may start the day dedicated, but by the end of the day, they become homicidal maniacs. It's like an analogy for the whole culture." These views and others (such as the "Dirty Is Beautiful Society," espoused by Georgie in the strip, and an argument against the automobile (which earned cancellation from a Detroit newspaper) have not gone down well in the comic strip world.
A big wave of cancellations came in the late 70s, and the strip itself nearly ended. Smith has toned down his criticism. "I'm not going to do that anymore. I've been beating the air. You know we do have to eat occasionally." His work appears in textbooks now, and most of the "Smith Family" fan mail comes from educators intrigued by his work. He's not in comics to get rich: "If you want to make money, you have to think of the people who elected Ronald Reagan." He's still tempted to do a strip on Reaganomics; however, Georgie still makes an occasional plea for Dirty Is Beautiful, right before he gets sent to the bathtub. George Smith, the cartoon character, still gets up in the morning mean and ugly. "He doesn't want to get up. The kids are afraid of him. It's always material for the comic. People identify with it. It's moving from the mouse race to the rat race, from educational sedation to the dry martini, until the martini won't keep him quiet anymore... the underlying thing is that it's really not funny.
"It's pretty terrible."

Dan Spatz
The Columbian
Vancouver,  Washington · Monday, December 28, 1981