Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Jimmy Hatlo's Idiosyncratic Inferno: He Did It Every Time

(Jimmy Hatlo proving that where there's smoke there's fire....Hellfire!)

Squeaking perverse sexual inuendo past McCarthy-era comic strip censorship boards was not a feat the average commercial cartoonist could successfully tackle in America during the 1950s. Unless, of course, the artist's name was Jimmy Hatlo. In 1953, and again throughout most of 1958, a supplemental panel accompanying Hatlo's hugely successful They'll Do It Every Time, appeared weekly in major U.S. newspaper publications. The cartoon subtext, entitled Hatlo's Inferno, depicted the future torments of souls sent to Hell for committing "sins".

Individual Inferno panels featured depraved depictions of punishments for such criminals as an annoying viewer rapidly changing the channels on a television set, or an unmindful train conductor blocking traffic by driving his train back and forth at a raiload crossing. The mortal no-no's were met with oft-bizarre and sadistic consequences, such as the channel changer, chained to a construction crane, being slowly dipped in and out of a vat of oil. To save himself from being eventually smothered he had to try to switch off a big screen TV as it flicked from channel to channel. In the foreground, a large, brutish, orange devil announced to a Hades Sightseeing Tour of human visitors (Dante's cartoon counterparts) that the victim would not succeed as the "off" switch was just beyond his reach. Of course the sinner is clad only in skimpy white boxers (after all, it is supposed to be Hell). But lest you think that nudity was never "shown", it was sometimes implied (always with a devil or an object standing in just the right position to cover the subject's unmentionables). The train conductor met an even more dastardly demise. With one arm and leg chained to the back of a conductor's train car and the other arm and leg chained to another conductor's train car, the hapless, boxer-clad sinner screamed in pain as the cars began to pull away in opposite directions. Jaunty red devil conductors in each car looked back at the victim and smiled evilly as they pulled a rope which allowed the train whistles to blow.

The most amazing thing was that this feature ran on SUNDAY, the day of Judeo-Christian worship. The idea was that somehow these panels were humorous and they tied in with the concept of spiritual punishment in the afterlife for indiscretions during mortal existence. At the height of its success in the late '50s, the series was named "Best Panel" by The National Cartoonist's Society.

James Cecil Hatlo was born in September, 1898, in Providence, Rhode Island, under the sometimes prudish astrological sign of Virgo. But Jimmy Hatlo was anything but a prude. On February 5, 1929 Hatlo, a sports cartoonist, first introduced the comic strip They'll Do It Every Time, a tribute to the peevish paradoxes and pratfalls inflected on everyday innocents by the boorish crackpots of society. The strip, which first appeared in the San Francisco Bulletin, was distributed nationally in 1936 by King Features Syndicate and still runs today, forty-two years after Hatlo's death.

(They'll Do It Every Time panels were created from suggestions sent it by readers; often they were accompanied with a cartoon figure of the artist giving a "tip of the Hatlo hat")

In the mid-1940s, owing to its immense popularity, They'll Do It Every Time became part of the mutoscope card series. Sold from vending machines for around two cents apiece, mutoscope cards were the forerunners of risque playing cards. Generally the subject matter focused upon naively suggestive cheesecake drawings of young women. The cards, printed on heavy illustration board, have endured through the decades and are oft-sought items on venues such as E-BAY. Hatlo's mutoscopes are among the most lasting and prized examples of the line.

Not without an affinity for straight humor, Hatlo took one of his recurring They'll Do It Every Time characters, Henry Tremblechin, and created an ongoing strip. What evolved was a wildly popular character named Little Iodine, Tremblechin's ever-mischievous daughter. The Little Iodine strip became so sought after that it evolved into a self-titled comic book a la Archie and Dick Tracy. In 1946, a Little Iodine feature film, directed by Reginald Le Borg, and starring Jo Anne Marlowe as Little Iodine, was released. In the movie, Little Iodine, the original Problem Child, tries to break up her parents' marriage, and put the axe to another young couples' romance. In the end she has a change of heart but not before wreaking total havoc. Interestingly enough, actress Irene Ryan, who would go on to fame as "Granny Clampett" in the Beverly Hillbillies TV series, portrayed Little Iodine's mother.

(Little Iodine at the doubt playing off-key...)

The year 1955 saw Hatlo's Inferno expand beyond its Sunday supplement size as an entire Avon paperback edition containing many of the earlier panels. The cover, extremely suggestive for a mainstream 1950s cartoon, depicted a naked nurse being chased through Hell by a pack of lusty, naked, syringe-wielding red devils. The needles, positioned near the devils' crotches, were aimed at the nurse's bare buttocks (which along with her breasts, were delicately covered by the steam).

(Nancy Nurse about to be nailed by naughty nogoodnik denizens of the inferno)

The inferno panels, which included sexual suggestiveness, nudity, near-nudity, brutal murders, maiming, and basic maleficence of all kinds, managed to appear under the guise of hokey humor and raunchy retribution. The series ended in 1958 when Hatlo decided to abruptly discontinue Hatlo's Inferno. Hatlo died on December 3, 1963, in San Francisco, and They'll Do It Every Time, the less sadistic but just as vengeful ode to payback for obnoxious individuals, continues its run helmed by artist Al Scaduto who took the strip over from Hatlo's successor, Bob Dunn.

The 4400: Sober Sci-Fi Sans Spielberg Sophism

(People who inexplicably vanished over a sixty year spanse during the 20th Century, emerge un-aged from an orb of light which lands on Mt. Rainier)

When Joseph Force Crater, a respected U.S. court judge, disappeared without a trace on August 6, 1930, and became one of history's most famous missing persons, no one theorized that space beings were the culprits. It was concluded that syndicated crime figures had provided Crater with a new pair of cement shoes and had taken him for a swim. Having gone missing some seventeen years before the noted 1947 UFO sightings of pilot Kenneth Arnold near Mt. Rainier, Washington, the American public had not yet developed sufficient awareness of the possibility of extraterrestrials visiting earth to connect Judge Crater with the conspiracy theory lore associated with alien abduction.

Crater undoubtedly descended the ramp from film director Steven Spielberg's mother ship when it landed at Devil's Tower, Wyoming, in 1977. In an unabashedly sanitary nod to other-worldly benevolence, the aliens of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind are forgiven their intrusion upon the lives of myriad, unsuspecting humans, via intimations of unexplained altruism. Besides, they had really cool space crafts, and the little, asexual beings' tall, spidery leader, who looked to be a warm, kindly sort would never resort to the forced impregnation of human women or even the slaughter of South Park cattle. And Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), an Indiana telephone lineman who became "sunburned" and telepathic after his first UFO sighting, got to be the chief guest aboard the mother ship, presumably learning secrets that even the world's scientific leaders were not invited in on.

The USA Network television series The 4400, follows the thread of speculation surrounding mysterious disappearances straight to the core energy of the mother ship, wasting no time thumbing its nose at Spielberg's smarmy pretenses. A quixotic meteor is on a calamitous crash course with earth. As military intervention inexorably fails (in the form of avenging missiles), earth's leaders passively wait out imminent annihilation. The writers, Ira Steven Behr, Rene' Echevarria, and director Scott Peters, obviously versed in ufology history, place the point of impact at Mt. Rainier in the state of Washington. But instead of an apocalyptic explosion, a psychedelic ball of light, emitting an intense flash of energy, descends. Instead of childlike, doe-eyed space aliens, 4400 humans, missing over an individually varying 60-year spanse, emerge from the orb intact, unaged, and without memory of where they have been. The tone is somber, non-celebratory, and rife with passive hints of suppressed trauma.

Contemporary society, rendered paranoid by the New McCarthyist era of terrorism, does not welcome the returnees with open arms. Agents Tom Baldwin (Joel Gretsch), and Diana Skouris (Jacqueline McKenzie) from the Department of Homeland Security, are deployed to interrogate and socially reintegrate the returnees. Baldwin, the Fox Mulder of the 21st Century, linked personally to the event through his nephew Shawn, a returnee, and his son Kyle, who has been in a 3-year coma since being repelled and left behind by the light, is intent on answers. Skouris, a sober but not humorless nor unattractive scientist, pragmatically sets out to unravel the mystery. Early suggestions of attraction between the two emerge after Baldwin's collapsing marriage is revealed.

The most enigmatic returnee is eight-year-old Maia Rutledge (Conchita Campbell), an unnervingly intuitive child taken while picking flowers in the 1946 California woods. Maia, whose family long since died, is placed with idealistic foster parents, but soon returns to government custody after a series of accurate predictions frighten the couple. Philosophically resigned to her sense of displacement, Maia exudes an air of knowing, suggesting she may remember where she went and what she did in the twinkling that encompassed 48 earth years. And unlike child actress Dakota Fanning's turn as the hybrid alien/human child Allison Clarke in the 2002 Spielberg-produced TV mini-series Taken, Campbell's unaffected characterization of Maia never exceeds the bounds of believability.

Orson Bailey (actor Michael Moriarity, familiar as a regular on TV's Law & Order), a successful lawyer who disappeared in 1979, returns to find his beloved wife Elizabeth (Sheila Paterson) a dying Alzheimer's patient. As his anger and rage escalate, Bailey finds himself possessed with horrifying telekinetic powers which he cannot control.

Richard Tyler (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), a black soldier involved with a white woman vanishes in 1951 during his stint in the Korean War. Tyler comes back to find himself inextricably emotionally linked to his courtesan's granddaughter, Lily Moore (Laura Allen), also an abductee. Moore, perhaps the most plaintive returnee, is rejected by her husband, who has remarried and who refuses to tell their 12-year-old daughter of her existence.

The deepest strengths of The 4400 lie in its discplined narrative arc and the emotional substance of its characters. Without the ongoing mythology surrounding the question of what the returnees endured while missing, the storyline would itself vanish into another, very predictable dimension. Hence no convenient little humanoids landing in the streets and back alleys of Seattle (where most of the returnees, who instinctively remain near where they reemerged, choose to stay).

Although The X-Files spin seems staged and distracts from the humanist coil of The 4400, the collective plight of the returnees, played out in the lives of key characters, is compelling enough to override the unnecessary science fiction artifice. Just as in "real life", the government, ever the watchdogs and militant do-gooders, is the most boorish element in what is otherwise thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking fare.

(the 4400 wander The Mall of America...)