Dave Barry Reads Archy and Mehitabel

Dave Barry Second in a video series. Scroll down for a link to the video.

Archy the cockroach was the embodiment of reincarnation — he had been a poet in a past life, after all, and spent his insect days tapping out verse on a typewriter. So it’s entirely within reason to speculate who might be the reincarnation today of Don Marquis.

My vote would be for Dave Barry. Like Marquis, Barry was one of the most celebrated newspaper columnists of his era, using humor to shine a spotlight on the human condition. He wrote weekly columns in The Miami Herald from 1983 to 2005 that were devastatingly funny, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1988 for “his consistently effective use of humor as a device for presenting fresh insights into serious concerns.” Like Marquis, he has continued writing humor to great effect after leaving the grind of newspaper journalism, with 37 books to his name at last count.

The New York Times has called Barry “the funniest man in America.” The novelist Stephen King put it another way, declaring, “While reading Dave Barry’s ‘Big Trouble’ (Putnam, 1999), I laughed so loud I fell out of a chair. Luckily, there’s a rug, so I didn’t hurt myself.” On a personal level, one of Barry’s column’s from 1985 reduces this writer to disabling fits of laughter even today, after dozens of readings. It is titled “Ask Mr. Manners” and attempts to prepare a young parent for all the horrifying atrocities in store when hosting a birthday party for a preschool child. Popular themes for a young boy’s party, according to Barry, include action figures such as He-Man, G.I. Joe, The A-Team and the always-popular “Testosterone Bob’s Hurt Patrol.”  

When he was asked to recite a few lines from “archy and mehitabel,” Barry chose an excerpt from one of the funniest distillations of humor ever put onto paper: “certain maxims of archy.” His video is short and sweet. It is the second in a series of self-made videos on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Archy and Mehitabel’s first appearance in print, on March 29, 1916 — a yearlong celebration called archyFest.

Thank you, Dave Barry!

Here is his video: 

These videos were conceived by John Batteiger, creator of DonMarquis.com, and edited by Brandon Cuicchi. We are asking a variety of public figures to take a video of themselves reading a selection from one of Marquis’s “archy” books, using a cellphone camera or other simple video recorder. Our goal: “One take, no big production, all for fun.” We plan to present a new video every week (or so) through the end of 2016. If you or someone you know would be interested in recording a video, please contact Batteiger by email at johnbatt (at) me.com.

Next week: Calvin Trillin!

Neil Gaiman Reads Archy and Mehitabel

Neil Gaiman First in a video series. Scroll down for a link to the video.

Novelist and comic-book writer Neil Gaiman counts Don Marquis’s “archy and mehitabel” among his favorite books. One of his top five, in fact. 

Gaiman has mentioned Marquis in several interviews over the years, and he included Marquis in a rambling and fabulous statement of beliefs in his blockbuster 2001 novel, “American Gods,” in which one of the main characters, Samantha Black Crow, declares, in part: “I believe that the greatest poets of the last century were Edith Sitwell and Don Marquis, that jade is dried dragon sperm, and that thousands of years ago in a former life I was a one-armed Siberian shaman.”

Gaiman first read “archy and mehitabel” many years ago, and it continues to fascinate him. In a 2011 Australian radio broadcast, he included it in a discussion of his five most favorite books.

“Don Marquis was an American humorist and occasional poet and newspaper journalist, and he created Archy and Mehitabel,” Gaiman said on The Book Show, aired by ABC Radio National. “Archy was a free-verse poet who, for the crime of being a free-verse poet, was condemned to be a cockroach forevermore, in every future life, and he is a cockroach who writes poems by climbing on a typewriter and jumping head-first onto the keys. And Mehitabel is an alley cat who claims to have once been Cleopatra, and Don Marquis wrote these beautiful, funny, strange, mocking, glorious little poems about Archy and Mehitabel.”

Gaiman has won numerous international awards for his fantasy writing, including Carnegie and Newberry medals, so who better to lead off a video series featuring the wit and wisdom of a world-weary cockroach and a dissolute alley cat?

A few months ago, Gaiman was one of several writers, entertainers and other public figures asked to recite a few lines from one of the Archy and Mehitabel compilations (there are six) for a series of short, homemade videos on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Archy and Mehitabel’s first appearance in print, on March 29, 1916 — part of a yearlong celebration called archyFest. Gaiman responded to the call immediately and enthusiastically, and the video below is the result.

Given the choice to read any of more that 300 published sketches and poems, Gaiman chose an obscure but brilliant sketch, “quote buns by great men quote,” from the 1927 book that started it all, “archy and mehitabel.” He explains:

I don’t know if this is my favorite of the Archy and Mehitabel poems. I do know that I fell in love with it before I actually understood what it meant. When I was a boy at school, a ‘bun’ was a large, doughy bread roll with raisins in it that you’d be given at four o’clock at school, and it was many, many years before I discovered that a bun was also 1920s slang — for a hangover. 

Here is the video:

These videos were conceived by John Batteiger, creator of DonMarquis.com, and edited by Brandon Cuicchi. We are asking a variety of public figures to take a video of themselves reading a selection from one of Marquis’s “archy” books, using a cellphone camera or other simple video recorder. Our goal: “One take, no big production, all for fun.” We plan to present a new video every week (or so) through the end of 2016. If you or someone you know would be interested in recording a video, please contact Batteiger by email at johnbatt (at) me.com.

And thanks to Neil Gaiman for his gracious help and support!

Next week: Dave Barry!

A Stunning Dust Jacket by George Herriman

Dust jacket for "archys life of mehitabel"Some of the very best commercial artists of the early 20th century were called in to draw distinctive dust jackets and illustrations for Don Marquis’s books. E.W. Kemble, who illustrated Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and many of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus books, also did the cover and inside artwork for Don’s first book, “Danny’s Own Story,” in 1912. Tony Sarg did the cover and inside art for “Prefaces” and “Noah an’ Jonah an’ Cap’n John Smith,” and John Held Jr. did a cover for “The Old Soak” as well as illustrations for several of Don’s feature pieces in The Sun. 

But none compares with the brilliant, iconic drawings for Don’s three Archy books by George Herriman. The creator of the quirky, beloved Krazy Kat comic strip produced 93 illustrations plus dust jackets for “archy and mehitabel,” “archys life of mehitabel” and “archy does his part.” Herriman’s cartoons are an integral part of the books, and we imagine that Archy and Mehitabel look exactly as Herriman drew them., 

Among the three Herriman dust jackets, one stands head and shoulders above the others. The cover for “archys life of mehitabel” is a riot of color and characters that only could have come from the creator of Krazy Kat. In fact, except for Mehitabel herself, none of the characters on the dust jacket are in the book at all; they’re straight out of Krazy Kat’s Coconino County. (Archy, for that matter is nowhere to be seen.)

Few people today have ever seen the dust jacket for “archys life of mehitabel.” The last hardback edition appeared in 1938, and as a rare-books catalog might note, it is “extremely scarce in jacket.”

Click on the photo above to open an enlarged image of George Herriman’s masterpiece. And enjoy.

*  *  *

The back story: Herriman’s covers were not the first to appear on two of the three Archy books. The first edition of “archy and mehitabel” appeared in 1927 with a stunning, minimalist cover by an artist identified only as “J.W.” It was replaced, for one printing only, with 20 thumbnail-size Herriman cartoons in 1930, before a full-size Herriman illustration was put on the cover, also in 1930. It shows Mehitabel in a garbage can, eating a sardine, while Archy types furiously on a small typewriter. This dust jacket  appeared from 1930 to 1943 before it was replaced with another Herriman drawing.

The first-edition cover of “archys life of mehitabel,” in 1933, had a drawing of Mehitabel by the artist “Jay.” It was replaced later that year by the cover above. The final book in the trilogy, “archy does his part,” in 1935, was the only one to have an Herriman drawing on the cover from the first edition through the last (the fourth printing, in 1936). It shows Mehitabel peering through a brick wall at Archy, clearly both at home in Coconino County.

Photos of all the covers will be coming soon.

Three Archy books

Photos From ‘archy and mehitabel’ (1954)

Here are publicity photos of Eddie Bracken and the inimitable Carol Channing taken during the studio recording of “archy and mehitabel: a back-alley opera,” a 1954 concept album by writer Joe Darion and composer George Kleisinger.

Photo from "archy and mehitabel" 1954 recording Photo from "archy and mehitabel" 1954 recording Photo from "archy and mehitabel" 1954 recording
Photo from "archy and mehitabel" 1954 recording Photo from "archy and mehitabel" 1954 recording Photo from "archy and mehitabel" 1954 recording

Darion and Kleinsinger produced the album (Columbia ML 4963) and staged a one-night performance at New York’s Town Hall theater in December 1954 to draw attention to their new work, but it took another two-plus years before the renamed “Shinbone Alley” finally premiered on Broadway as a full-cast musical production. The Broadway show had been partly rewritten by an up-and-coming comic talent, Mel Brooks, and starred Bracken and Eartha Kitt. (Channing was pregnant when the show was being cast.) “Shinbone Alley” ran for only 49 performances, but several songs remained in Kitt’s repertoire for the rest of her life.

"archy and mehitabel: a back-alley opera"Channing and Bracken were reunited as lead vocal talents in the 1971 animated movie “Shinbone Alley.” Visit my Archy & Mehitabel page for more on the production’s enduring appeal, and click on the images above to see larger versions. The photos come from the Masterworks Broadway website, part of Sony Music Entertainment, which also has a link to buy a digital copy of the album from Amazon.com and Apple’s iTunes.