Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Summer 2009

Taral is Fan GoH at this year’s worldcon! How did his ascent to such greatness begin? Read on …

Artistic Influence

Taral Wayne

It all began with Stanley Ford, the genius behind Bash Brannigan.

Now and then I’m asked who were the major influences on my art. I bring out the usual names – Carl Barks, Walt Kelly, Goscinny & Uderzo, Hergé, Eisner, Low and so on. Those are the sort of models an artist is supposed to have, if not actually Rembrandt or Van Gogh. If I look at the matter honestly, the greatest influence on my subsequent career was rather more likely to have been Stanley Ford.

Let me explain.

One of my favourite film stars is Jack Lemmon, who appeared in many comedies of the 1960s that still bring a big smile to my face. The Odd Couple. Mr. Roberts. Good Neighbor Sam. The Apartment. And maybe best of all, How to Murder Your Wife.

Lemmon plays bachelor Stanley Ford, a successful newspaper cartoonist. “Bash Brannigan – Secret Agent” is the adventures of spy-detective Brannigan, who is part 007 and part Peter Gunn. The curious thing is that before each day’s strip is drawn, the artist and his man-servant Charles (Terry Thomas) act out the events in real life. Stanley dresses up like Bash, chases hired actors around the docks and warehouses of the East Side, and finally stages a climactic fight scene. Charles captures every movement photographically. The developed photos are used as source material for the strip. Nothing that happens in “Bash Brannigan” can’t be done, boasts Stanley Ford, because the artist himself has done it all.

Unexpectedly, Stanley’s blissful bachelor life is about to come to an abrupt end.

One of his single friends is getting married. The stag party resembles a funeral or execution a lot more than a celebration, however. Only at the last minute, when the doomed man announces that the wedding is off, does the party turn into a wild, drunken revel. Just when everyone is joyfully blotto, a bikini-clad vision rises like Venus from the half-shell out of the traditional cake. For the cartoonist, it’s love at first sight. His buddy’s reprieve is a life sentence for Stanley. He wakes up next morning married, with no memory of just how the disaster happened; just that it has.

The girl is Italian and doesn’t speak a word of English. Curiously, Mrs. Ford is never given any name other than Mrs. Ford. She is Every Newly Wed. The lack of communication skills proves to be little disadvantage to her, however. She quickly takes over Stanley’s life. Although he realizes he is a captive of love, he grows more and more disenchanted with the changes marriage brings to his routine. Worse, his man-servant, a committed mysogynist, walks out on him. Worse still, his domestication is reflected in the comic strip. From super spy/sleuth, Bash evolves into a newly married and bumbling husband. The new strip is even more popular than before.

It isn’t long before discomfort with his new lifestyle turns to visible dismay. Belatedly, he realizes how he has mirrored his marriage in the strip. “Bash Brannigan, Secret Agent” has mutated into “The Brannigans – the Hilarious Adventures of America’s Favorite Hen-Pecked Boob”. Dismay turns to disgust. Stanley decides to take back his life, and in a bold move restore Bash to his rightful life of adventure and manly independence.

Stanley seeks out Charles and convinces him to participate in a new caper. Armed with telescopic lens, goofballs, a store dummy, and “the most powerful single remote control device created by the Western World”, the pair set out to pre-create Bash’s next adventure. The murder of his wife! Her “body”, the manikin, is secretly interred in a construction site where the “gloppetta-gloppetta” machine buries it in uncountable tons of wet concrete.

Stanley had no intention of anything but acting out his resentments in the newspaper, of course. Unfortunately, his wife sees the completed strips while he’s asleep. Shocked that he felt that way, she quietly leaves. Next thing Stanley knows, the police are at his door and he’s charged with murdering her, just as Bash did in the strip. The strip is in fact submitted as evidence of the crime!

At first, Stanley’s trial goes very badly for him. His lawyer is incompetent, dominated by his own wife, and cannot put up a respectable defense for Stanley without withering under her disapproving glare. Even the man-servant, Charles, now believes he participated unknowingly in a real killing! Desperate, facing conviction for homicide, Stanley grows creative. (He is an artist after all.) First, he fires his attorney, then requests to defend himself.

I really don’t know what to say,” answers the judge.

How about, this is most irregular, but you may proceed,” says Stanley.

This is most irregular, but you may proceed.”

Stanley then calls the hen-pecked counsel to the stand as his witness. The next ten minutes are among the funniest, most politically incorrect, matrimony-hating moments in film history. Stanley reminds the witness, as well as every married man in the jury, what his unmarried life had been like. He then draws a black spot on the witness stand, and instructs the lawyer to imagine it was a button. This button, if pushed, would cause his wife Edna to vanish – painlessly, permanently, just as though she had never even existed – so that he could in actuality go back to his former bachelor life. Buy that sail boat. Stay late at the club. Grow that mustache if he wants. No one would ever know. Before the ten minutes are up, the witness enthusiastically stabs the button, shouting “You won’t even feel it Edna!” Unbidden, the entire male jury leaps to its feet and cries “Not guilty!” The judge himself cheers.

The irony is that Stanley hadn’t murdered his wife, of course. But to be found innocent, he had awakened the wife-killer in every man who sat in judgment of him, and convinced his own lawyer to commit the ethical equivalent of the murder Stanley stood accused of.

Hollywood believes in happy endings though, as well as tying up loose ends. The wife returns, and Stanley has never been happier than the moment he sees her again, just as he saw her on the first morning – naked, gorgeously blonde, and laying asleep on his rumpled bed. (Like in Goldfinger but minus the gold paint.)

Charles makes for the door again, satchels in hand. For a brief day he thought he was rid of the woman, but found he was wrong. Before he can reach the stairs down, however, he comes face to face with a woman. She is mature, good looking, blonde, and bears a definite resemblance to … yep, Mrs. Ford has brought her mother back from Italy. With an apologetic look, Charles ushers her into his own room, and closes the door on the watching audience. The misogynist has had a change of heart …

 

 

So that explains everything about the influence of Stanley Ford on me as an artist, doesn’t it. It doesn’t?

Hit Fast Reverse on the remote, and we’ll go back to the beginning of the movie.

How to Murder Your Wife starts with the voice of Terry Thomas, who reveals himself as Mr. Ford’s “man”. “This is Mr. Ford’s townhouse”, he says, somewhere in a fashionable part of mid-Manhattan. The camera pans down the façade of a four story Queen Anne, and out of an elegant white paneled door emerges Charles to pick up the paper. He beckons us into the house, and with a cut to the inside he begins a tour. There is a long climb up the oval stairwell to the second floor, and there we view Mr. Ford’s spacious living room, his lavish walk-in shower, the rooftop terrace (overlooking construction and the gloppetta-gloppetta machine), and, finally, Mr. Ford himself, whose quarters are on the third floor.

Woken at the tender hour of ten-thirty, and showered, Mr. Ford is served a frugal breakfast. He then takes to the streets. The garage opens and out drives a powder blue, 1964 Lincoln convertible – a classic then as now. He’s dressed in sport suit, black turtle-neck sweater, and fashionable narrow brim hat (the type with the little feather in the band). Charles drives of course. In the back is a large, sinister looking camera mounted on a rifle stock. The Lincoln pulls up to a café and picks up a pair of dangerous looking desperadoes – a mustachioed Turk, and a Russian in tall fur cap. To the docks then, where begins a protracted gun chase. Charles follows with his camera, catching every moment of the action on film. At last the adventure comes to an end aboard a tramp steamer, where Stanley Ford (in the guise of Bash Brannigan) guns down both international criminals, rescues the dancing girl, and retrieves the missing microfilm from a diamond in her navel!

Next stop is The Club. It’s an exclusive institution, that no woman has set foot in for 123 years. It has a lounge bar, sitting rooms, a gym, sauna, and its own Olympic size pool. Doubtless, the cost of membership is more than mere mortals such as you or I make in a year. Finally, after a bracing swim and a robust massage, it’s home again.

That night is the bachelor party that changes everything. Miss Galaxy rises from her cake, and she is every bit as gorgeous in that busty, long legged style as any Bardot or Lollobrigida. He awakes at the start of a new day… fatally married, as you already know.

Of course, it isn’t all play for Stanley Ford. Between laps at the club, capers in the streets of Manhattan, and exquisite meals prepared for him by Charles, Stanley works. He spends most of what seems like perhaps two whole hours by himself in the fabulous fourth story loft, his studio, drawing “Bash Brannigan.” Thirty-seven year old Stanley Ford is not just any cartoonist, but is nationally syndicated in 463 major newspapers, with 80,000,000 readers in American cities from Bangor, Maine to Honolulu. When he wants a change in the strip, he phones the syndicate and names the time and place for a meeting with the heads of all departments. He informs them of another change in the direction of the strip.

When Bash murders his wife, it touches off speculation nation-wide – will Dagwood do away with Blondie? Will L’il Abner do in Daisy-Mae? The public wonders what next.

In Stanley Ford we see the cartoonist in a light no man could resist. The world is his oyster. His lifestyle is elegant, privileged, masculine, liberated, wanting for nothing. He has a fashionable townhouse whose value on the Manhattan real estate market can’t today be much less than two or three million dollars. He drives a car that simultaneously manages to be both extravagant and dignified. He belongs to a magnificent gentleman’s club. He holds suave cocktail parties on his personal terrace, with live jazz. The walls of his home are tastefully covered with fine art. He has a live-in butler, cook, friend and confidant in one man-servant. He runs the streets playing make-believe cops and robbers. He beds all the beautiful girls he wants every night. He is famous. He is happy.

Oh, how I wanted to be Stanley Ford! Twelve-year-old-Taral lay in front of the TV on Saturday mornings, copying earnestly from Mad Magazine, DC comics, and Hot Rod Cartoons. I naively imagined the artists from these fine periodicals also lived the lifestyle of Stanley Ford. Someday I knew I would too, if only I practiced, practiced, practiced.

I did practice, practice, practice. I practiced every day for more than twenty years before I made my first professional sale. Thirty years before my first comic book was published. More than forty years later I’m still not syndicated in 463 papers across the nation, however. Wealth and fame still elude me. I don’t own a car, I live in a small, rent controlled apartment with a cat rather than a man-servant, and if you don’t mind I’ll not go into the details of an absent love-life. What went wrong?

Do you suppose that Will Elder didn’t live in a four story Manhattan townhouse, or that Alex Toth drove a six year old, common Chev instead of a Rolls? Did Carl Barks not bed starlets and fashion models nightly? Could Gahan Wilson not order his editors and publishing execs around like errand boys? What about the guy who actually drew the Bash Brannigan strips seen in the movie? His name was Mel Keefer, if you must know, and he was a veteran of many years in syndicated newspaper strips. Ever hear of him? Do you imagine he plays gunfighter or police detective or whatever else he pleases, before sitting down to his two hours of work a day? No, the world is not the oyster of cartoonists, not even those who are successful by the standards of the genre.

Typically a cartoonist works six days a week, worries constantly about deadlines, and is never sure of his next assignment. Far from dictating terms, cartoonists generally live in fear of their editors’ voices. It almost always means bad news – changes to be made, extra work to be done, another paper dropping the feature, or a story rejected. Editors never call up to tell you what a grand job you’re doing. That would take five minutes and cost a nickel.

There are exceptions to this rule. Al Capp, for instance, probably could call up his editor to give orders, and was rich enough by most people’s standards. Frank Frazetta went on from working for Capp to become a household name himself, and likely every bit as independent and well heeled. Charles Shultz on the other hand, a multi-millionaire, worried until the day he died that his strips in umpteen hundred daily papers, his TV specials, his dozens of paperback collections, and scores of other media tie-ins would be cancelled overnight, and that he’d end in poverty. More typical are cartoonists like Will Elder, who retired in moderate comfort. Or Wally Wood, who did live more or less in poverty, and took his own life.

No, the world is not the oyster of cartoonists. I was grossly misled. Lamentably, it was How to Murder Your Wife that put that idea in my empty young head, and started me on the long path that has brought me no wealth, little present renown, and no likelihood of posterity. What if I had never seen this comedy, this tempter of burgeoning artists? What if I had stopped doodling hot rods and space ships, and had applied myself to school instead? Gotten summer jobs to save up for college? Maybe I should have screwed up the courage to date girls? Would I be a comfortable, well-adjusted tax accountant today? An associate producer for PBS? A senior civil servant perhaps? Whatever I turned out to be, no doubt I’d be daydreaming in free moments about the romantic life I’d given up, and I’d wonder what if I’d gone on to be a cartoonist instead?

In my mind that elegant townhouse is rightfully mine, and – though she throws up hair balls from time to time and claws the blankets – I wake up every morning next to a gorgeous female, sleeping in the nude. In a moment Charles will inform me that breakfast will be ready in five minutes. And don’t forget, he will say, I’m meeting Stanley Ford at the club later today.

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