Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Hunting for Cowboys and Indians—The Story Behind the Photos

About a year ago, at an indoor “yard sale” on a college campus in Worcester, MA., I bought these three photo postcards for very little money. (Can’t remember how much, but it was less than $20.)  They were: a sepia photo with the words “ancient Sioux Squaw” marked on the negative, a man dressed as a cowboy holding two snakes over the words “Rattlesnake Joe—Souvenir of the Fair”,  and a photograph of a white-haired man wearing a white shirt , vest and jacket, with no identification at all, but I guessed he was Native American and probably of importance, to be dressed in European style.

(Let me say up front that I understand the name “Indian” is offensive to Native Americans, because it’s not accurate, and even more offensive is the derogatory term “Squaw” for female Native Americans.   But I often have to use such words when researching antique photos in my collection, because they were used to identify 19th century photos, since the terms were in common use at that time.)

I usually don’t collect postcards for several reasons:  I’m more interested in photos taken in the nineteenth century (the earliest photographs) and photos on postcards didn’t appear until the beginning of the twentieth century:  1903.  Also, postcard collectors number in the millions—it’s the third largest collectible hobby in the U.S.—and at ephemera auctions they buy boxes of hundreds of old postcards, which are worth pennies each.  I have no expertise in postcards and little patience for sorting through them, but I do know that authentic vintage photos concerning Native Americans and scenes of the Old West are always of greater value than most.  (By the way, if you find yourself in possession of a daguerreotype or any antique photograph of gold miners in California --or maybe an original image of Jesse James’ dead body, you can probably sell it to finance your retirement.)

Thus began my hunt to determine the identity and value of the three individuals in my “Western” postcards.  (As any collector will tell you, this is the fun part:  trying to track down the story behind your latest acquisition, hoping to find a nugget of gold amid all the pebbles and stones.)  Starting with the white-haired gent, I typed “Indian Chief” into Google.  (How did I live before the internet?  My life through high school, college and graduate school was one long trek from one library to another.). As soon as I clicked on Google Images, I said, “Bingo!  This is Geronimo!”

I had heard of Geronimo, of course, but never knew the fascinating story of his life.  Will try to sketch the highpoints. Geronimo was born June 1829. Became prominent leader and medicine man from Apache tribe.  1850 to 1886 joined fellows to carry out raids and resistance against U.S and Mexican military in Mexico and New Mexico. His fellow Apaches thought he had supernatural gifts, including foreknowledge. He had nine wives, the first one named Alope.  They had three children.  She and the children and Geronimo’s mother were all killed in a raid by Mexican soldiers in 1858.

In 1886, Geronimo surrendered to Lt Charles B. Gatewood, an Apache-speaking West Point graduate who had earned his respect.  He was a prisoner of War in Fort Bowie, Arizona, then exiled to Florida.  In his old age, Geronimo became a celebrity and appeared at World’s Fairs, including the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, where he sold souvenirs and photographs of himself and even buttons off his coat—sewing on new buttons overnight!  He died at the Fort Sill Hospital in 1909, at the age of 80, still a prisoner of war.

Convinced that my guy was Geronimo, I set the photos and research aside and recently came back to them, to write this blog post.  But in browsing, I came upon a photo of Sitting Bull and said, “Uh oh! He looks a lot like my Geronimo!”   Sitting Bull, a Lakota leader born about 1831, led his people during years of resistance to United States government policies.  Like Geronimo, he was believed by his people to have precognition—after he had a vision of his tribe achieving a great victory against Custer’s troops at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876 (also known as Custer’s Last Stand.)  Here's Sitting Bull below.

Sitting Bull evaded capture by U.S. soldiers until 1881 when he and his band surrendered to U.S. Forces.  After that he worked as a performer with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, becoming, like Geronimo, famous and feared.

But did I have Geronimo or Sitting Bull?  (That's  three photos of Geronimo above.) I turned into my Nancy Drew Girl Detective persona and started raking the internet for photos of both men with white hair in their old age.  But it didn’t work. I couldn’t find an elderly, white-haired Sitting Bull.  Then I had a moment of illumination, went to the computer, and learned that Sitting Bull was shot to death by an Indian Agency policeman who was trying to arrest him on Dec. 15, 1890.  Sitting Bull was only 58 or 59—so he died before his braids turned white!

Then I began to study with a strong magnifying glass my photo of the white-haired gent. Looking very closely, I saw he had what seemed to be two large warts just below his left eye.  A clue!  So I went back to internet photos of Geronimo as he aged, and quickly learned that he had warts all right—a very prominent one, but it was on the fullest part of his right cheek.  It’s visible in many photos taken as he aged, including the wonderful portrait of him below, taken by Edward Curtis in 1905. Geronimo died at the age of 79. After he was thrown from his horse while riding home, and lay in the cold all night, he died of pneumonia on February 17, 1909, as a prisoner of the United States at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

So at this point in my detective story, I can’t claim a verified Geronimo Real Photo Post Card, which, according to the Price Guide of Stefano Neis would be worth $50 to$125.  (Check it out at ). But I’m not giving up yet!

In my next blog post I’ll tell you what I discovered about my two other Western characters, as well as explaining how to tell when a postcard is a valuable  Real Photo Post Card (RPPC) or a nearly worthless printed postcard. And what you can learn from the blank back of a vintage postcard.  Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

“Watchmen” and The Smiley Face: The Superhero Goes Bad

         (Last Sunday HBO premiered its new series based on “Watchmen”, the 1980’s 12-issue DC comic book series which has been called “a masterwork” and “the greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced.”  That inspired me to publish this excerpt from my (unpublished as yet) book—"The Saga of Smiley”-- about the history of the Smiley Face symbol, created in 1963 by Worcester, MA artist, Harvey Ball.)  

          With the appearance of Watchmen, a12-issue series of comic books published by DC Comics from September 1986 to October 1987, Smiley had metamorphosed 180 degrees from happy innocence (early 1960’s) to stoned euphoria (1970’s and Acid) to complete evil.  Here is how Jon Savage of The Guardian described the bloodstained Smiley that became the symbol of the series, appearing on the first and last page of the comics and, later, on the cover of the graphic novel: “Watchmen used the Smiley as a visual metaphor for a narrative that examines guilt, failure, megalomania and compromise with a corrupt power structure,” Savage wrote.  “All is not well beneath the idealized superhero surface, as the novel spirals into an existential crisis of betrayal, mass extinction, the transience of human existence.”


        This is a heavy, deep critique and Watchmen, created by writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons and colorist John Higgins, is a whole lot weightier—and, some would argue, more culturally significant—than your average comic book.  It revolutionized the comic book medium and the popular perception of super heroes.  When the series was gathered into a trade paperback in 1987, bookstores and public libraries began setting aside special sections for graphic novels. 

         Time Magazine praised it as “a superlative feat of imagination, combining sci-fi, political satire, knowing evocations of comics past and bold reworkings of current graphic format into a dystopian mystery story.” Watchmen was the only graphic novel to appear on Time magazine’s 2005 “All-Time 100 Greatest Novels” list.  Entertainment Weekly called it, “A masterwork representing the apex of artistry”, and Damon Lindelof, a creator of the TV series Lost, [and the new HBO Watchmen series!]  described it as, “The greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced.” 

          Watchmen is set in an alternate reality which resembles the contemporary world of the 1980’s, but many things have gone wrong; for instance, the U.S. won the War in Viet Nam, thanks to the assistance of some of the six costumed superheroes who make up the eponymous Watchmen.  As a result, Richard Nixon has been re-elected for a total of five terms. And Russia, jealous of the superior powers the Watchmen give the U.S., is threatening to launch a nuclear war against America.

         Over the years since they were first organized to maintain law and order, the superheroes have become cynical and tired and increasingly unpopular among the police and the public, so that in 1977 a law was passed to outlaw costumed superheroes except those who are working for the government.  As the story unfolds, most of the heroes have turned in their costumes and retired, but two of them are still employed by the government:  Dr. Manhattan, who is blue-skinned and all-powerful and capable of teleporting himself and anyone else anywhere, including to Mars, and the Comedian, (kneeling above) who always wears a Smiley button and who is described by Richard Reynolds in Super Heroes as: “ruthless, cynical and nihilistic, and yet capable of deeper insights than the others into the role of the costumed hero.”  Also still active, but as a rogue superhero outside the law, is Rorschach. No one knows what Rorschach looks like, because he always wears a white mask with constantly changing ink-blots moving over it.

          Just before the beginning of the comic series, the Comedian has been murdered.  (In the film version you get to see it happen, when a masked figure all in black slashes him, then tosses him through the glass window-wall of his apartment many, many stories above the street.  His yellow Smiley button gets close-ups as it becomes tinged with the Comedian's blood and then clinks down on the pavement near his shattered body.)  Soon Rorschach, the rogue superhero, arrives to pick up the button and begin investigating the murder of the Comedian, all the while keeping a journal of what he discovers and going around to warn his old superhero companions that their lives might be in danger.

          Writer Alan Moore picked the Smiley Face as the symbol for the Watchmen for a number of reasons. He cited satirical author William S. Burroughs as one of his main influences, saying he liked his use of “repeated symbols that would become laden with meaning.” The blood-stained Smiley face did just that.                    

The artist Dave Gibbons, in drawing the Watchmen panels, often added symbols himself that Moore would not notice immediately.  Gibbons created the Smiley face badge worn by the Comedian in order to lighten the overall design, and added the splash of blood.  He later said that he and Moore came to regard the blood-stained Smiley as “a symbol for the whole series” and he pointed out its resemblance to the Doomsday Clock ticking up to midnight—another prominent symbol in the story. 

          At the end of Watchmen we learn that one of the retired superheroes has killed the Comedian and stage-managed the exile of Dr. Manhattan to Mars as part of a plan to save humanity from an impending atomic war between the United States and the Soviet Union.  He intends to fake an alien invasion in New York City, killing half the city’s people, in hopes of uniting Russia and the U.S. against this perceived common enemy.  And although the others try to stop him, in his hideaway in Antarctica, it’s too late; the death and destruction have already been unleashed on New York.  The Doomsday clock has struck 12.

          Literary analysts have called Watchmen “Moore’s obituary for the concept of heroes in general and superheroes in particular.”  Moore himself said in 1986 that he was writing Watchmen to be “not anti-Americanism [but] anti-Reaganism”.  He added he was “consciously trying to do something that would make people feel uneasy.”

          Plans to make a film of Watchmen went through many different hands and scripts and studios and potential directors. In 1986 producers Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver acquired the film rights for 20th Century Fox.  Alan Moore was asked to write a script, but he declined. After spending more than 20 years in development hell, passing through a multitude of scriptwriters, directors, studios and producers, Watchmen was finally released on March 6, 2009 in both conventional and IMAX theaters.  Watchmen grossed $55 million on the opening weekend.  It grossed over $185 million at the worldwide box office (and had a budget of $130 million).

     Smiley had been the cover, the symbol and the star in “the book that changed an industry and challenged a medium,” as it says on the back of the Watchmen graphic novel.   Inevitably Smiley’s worldwide fame and his ability to symbolize everything from innocence to drugged euphoria to rabid consumerism to dystopia brought him a flock of roles in film and television.  Even though he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for Watchmen, everyone in the entertainment business wanted a piece of him.  So Smiley went Hollywood big time.