Monday, December 19, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #19: Andy Warner

Andy Warner isn't shy about calling out his influences. In the case of Warner's clever, frequently funny book Brief Histories Of Everyday Objects, it's Larry Gonick's smart-ass The Cartoon History of the Universe. There are a number of differences, however. The most obvious is the visual approach. Gonick described historical events using a cartoony, exaggerated style that was somewhere between Robert Crumb and Milt Gross. Warner uses a steady, detailed naturalism that has a great deal of clarity thanks to his steady use of a thick line weight, a sparse use of spotting blacks, eschewing hatching and cross-hatching and a strategic use of grayscaling. Unlike Gonick, whose drawings are purposefully funny, even when drawing serious events, Warner draws humor from his writing. He might then exaggerate his drawings to emphasize a joke or a running gag, but the humor there is mostly that something absurd is happening in an otherwise normal scene. The humor is always conceptual.

For the purposes of this book, that approach works just fine. Unlike Gonick, who took on sweeping historical events and reduced them to vignettes, Warner examines a number of common inventions and tells the reader not just how they were made, but the social and historical context in which they arose. In other words, he makes small events big. Limiting himself to four pages per invention, Warner created a formula that makes each entry a perfect length for a quick read. As such, the book can be read straight through or an entry at a time, and Warner has rewards for each reader. For the reader who finishes the book in a single sitting, Warner provides a number of callback gags that accrue throughout the book. One of them is a running list of unfortunate inventors who didn't patent their work and had it stolen out from under them. Another is a character exhortation not to cheat at whatever games were being invented at the time ("I'll bash your head in!"). Then there's the general oddness with regard to Norway and inventions. The strips are still quite intelligible if you're reading out of order or over a long period of time, but they slyly play into one of Warner's themes in the way that exploitation is something that repeats itself.

Warner usually draws political cartoons in the form of comics journalism, and they are rarely about cheerful subjects. As such, it was a little jarring to see him crack wise for a book's worth of interesting trivia subjects. That said, he often turned that sense of humor on racism, sexism, and the exploitation of workers with regard to a number of inventions. For example, there's "Shampoo", which was the story of Sarah Breedlove, who was born just a couple of years after the abolition of slavery. Warner drew on the many tragedies in her life and racism that she encountered as she eventually became the first self-made female millionaire in American history. Warner relates a story of her being asked to pay a higher price at a movie theater because of her race, and she responded by building a huge entertainment complex that catered to African-Americans.

A number of the entries related stories where someone forced into a menial job found better and safer ways to do it. In "Shoes", for example, Afro-Dutch machinist/engineer wound up having to work as an apprentice shoemaker in Philadelphia in the 1870s because of the color of his skin. Shoes were still a luxury item that were made by hand, and he literally gave up his life to find a way of automating the lasting process of shoe construction (attaching the top to the sole), which was the last barrier to mass production and affordability. Years of neglecting his health led to him dying young, just after he finished his invention. Other stories discussed how certain inventions that benefited women (as described in "Sports Bras") had to be invented by women because men had no interest in doing so.

There are stories about inventors selling their patents for a pittance to companies that went on to make millions from their products. While there's a focus on how many of the inventions made life better, the ordinary quality of the most of the inventions allowed Warner to focus on topics like market forces. For some of the women and people of color, it was only their ability to generate money through the marketplace through their sheer ingenuity that lifted them out of poverty and put them on more equal ground. A large number of those inventors tended to put their money back into their community and fight for social causes. Other inventors had to grapple with their inventions being used to put people out of work; Walter Hunt invented the sewing machine but did not patent it once he realized its potential repercussions, but Elias Howe had no such compunctions. Lizzie Magie invented "The Landlord's Game" as a way of demonstrating the negative impact that land monopolies had on rent; it was later twisted around and sold as Monopoly in a way that celebrated monopolies! Warner's humorous approach to all of this is frequently grim and sardonic, as characters break the fourth wall and essentially say "What did you expect?".

While Warner's aim is to educate and inform, he makes sure to pack each four-page story with jokes. Essentially, there's a joke in nearly every other panel, and he jams each page with anywhere between four to eight panels. Another aim of the book is to get the reader to think about how much we take for granted in modern society and to consider what everyday life was like before and after particular inventions. While some inventions, like the paper clip, have a fairly small but relatively positive impact on everyday life, other goods have far darker legacies. Tea is the most prominent example and is an object lesson regarding trade imbalances. When tea made its way from China to England, the English took to it like no one else. The demand for tea was insatiable, so much so that England started to suffer from a perilous trade imbalance, because the Chinese had no interest in any products the English had. They wanted to be paid in silver, which soon put the country in trouble. So the English introduced opium to China and soon got the country hooked. This eventually led to a war, which China lost, leaving that empire a shell of itself for many years and wound up having enormous repercussions down the line. While this is an extreme example, it was one of many ways of Warner getting the audience to consider the consequences that the grinding gears of trade can have, both on everyday life and on history itself. That he is able to do this with a nod, a wink and a grin is what makes this such a satisfying and enjoyable read.

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