Wednesday, December 21, 2005
  Wallace Wood: Against the Grain, part one
Against the Grain

© 2005 Bhob

Comfortable Patience—
Talkin’ about a Hobbyman
Who draws cartoons for a livin’,
Bangin’ in tacks carefully
For King Features Syndicate
Has got him by the balls
And Hammerthongs
And central Goonyak
Worp Ward

—Jack Kerouac
Mexico City Blues (1959)

A curious fact, perhaps, that two of this century’s prominent and influential science fiction visionaries, who both layered naturalistic minutiae into their chronicles of future history, also lived within identical time spans—1927-28 to 1981-82. Wallace Allan Wood was born in Menahga, Minnesota, on June 17, 1927, and Philip Kindred Dick arrived in Chicago 18 months later (December 16, 1928). Dick’s death (March 2, 1982) came only four months after Wood’s (November 2, 1981). The two intersected in mid-life when Dick wrote about EC comics (in his 1957 novel Puttering About in a Small Land) and Wood illustrated Dick’s “War Game” (Galaxy, December 1959).

One wrote words. The other drew pictures. Yet both experienced Depression childhoods, moving about from one place to another during the years the newly born science fiction, aviation, and adventure strips brought dreams to the doorstep. The colorful panels were windows flung open on imaginative vistas, and the countless hours Wood and Dick spent alone as children, absorbed in the Sunday funnies, catapulted both youngsters into creative lives. As adults during the Fifties, both initially attracted attention and founded their respective careers as science fictioneers by delineating their future visions and explorations of other worlds with realistic detail — expanding, twisting and amplifying chimerical reveries nurtured in the magic and mysteries of the Thirties’ comic strips.

After Tim Tyler’s Luck (1928), Tailspin Tommy (1928), Buck Rogers (1929), Tarzan (1929), and Scorchy Smith (1930), the comics wave surged in 1933 with Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, the adventures for kids in Milton Caniff’s Dickie Dare, the science fiction of Brick Bradford, the aerial exploits of Smilin’ Jack and the prehistoric land of Moo in Alley Oop. The following year the wave crested with the magic of Mandrake, Will Gould’s vigorous Red Barry detective strip, Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates and the illustrative techniques of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon. Dick later had a clear memory of himself at age six listening to “cowboy music” on the radio. “That and the funny papers,” he recalled, “were my whole world.” It was Wally Wood’s world too, a fact that immediately becomes evident when leafing through the pile of drawings he created between 1933 and 1943. “I discovered cartoons when I was six years old, and I drew them,” he told Shel Dorf in 1980. At different points during his professional career, Wood worked briefly on almost all of the strips he had loved the most in his youth — Flash Gordon, Terry and the Pirates, Prince Valiant and The Spirit.

As a child, Wood took this funny paper template and reworked it into imagery alternately funny, fantastic, surreal, violent, or stylistically experimental. Some of his childhood drawings were done in pencil. Others were executed with a fountain pen without initial penciling. Vehicles, weapons, little people, creatures, costumed characters, panels, pages — meticulously rendered in finished outline drawings, complete with all details, yet minus any sign of preliminary construction sketching. His hand moved across the paper in an automatic response, capturing and freezing the picture parade in his mind’s eye. Shortly after he began drawing, he awoke one morning and oneiromantically foresaw his future as an illustrator. “I had a dream, when I was about six, that I found a magic pencil. It could draw just like Alex Raymond. You know, I’ve been looking for that pencil ever since.”

In 1952, when young comic book readers saw the word “Wood” carved into logs strewn about the forest floors of distant planets, they wondered about this man with the magic pencil. The answer came with the “Artist of the Issue” page (Weird Science 12) when EC readers were informed, “This rather distinguished (in a youthful way!), extremely modest, diffident, self-effacing, soft-spoken and retiring master craftsman of the comic technique” had “an ancestry of Finnish, Scotch-Irish and five other nationalities... At one time or another, he has lived in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York. He has worked as pinboy, busboy, usher, dental lab assistant, printing plant apprentice, factory worker, lumberjack, stevedore and truckloader.”

“I was born in Minnesota,” he told Dorf, “but I grew up in Wisconsin and Michigan.” He was named after his uncle, a musician who also drew. “My uncle Wallace was an artist, but he was just a natural.” His mother Alma Lalli Wood, a schoolteacher who wrote songs and stories, paid close attention to the daily blossoming of her son’s art skills. Gathering up the loose pages as he completed them, she became, in a sense, his first publisher — by stitching the pages together on her sewing machine. The art Wood created as a child still exists today, but these drawings, loose and undated, can never be assembled into any correct chronological order. Several of the sewn books, however, were later labeled with the month and year they were drawn, making it possible to see Wood’s transition from simple cartoons to sequential pages of cartoon adventure stories. In assembling such books, Wood and his mother fashioned a prototype of the commercial comic book about to be born in New York City. Wood was not unaware of this, as revealed by a note he scribbled years later to himself, claiming credit for the invention of comic books.

Alma Wood’s schoolteacher instincts and interest in creative pursuits were important in giving him free rein to explore his fantasies on paper, but his farmer-lumberjack father, Max Glenn Wood, attempted to discourage his son’s art interests as the family continually packed up to relocate near different logging camps. The young Wally Wood was caught in the middle, pulled in different directions by his parents; these divergent attitudes within the Wood family were described by Jim Steranko (Prevue, May 1982): “Wood’s brother, Glenn, who was a year and ten months older, was very much his father’s son in terms of size and strength. Young Wally, however, was small for his age, thin, not physically inclined to outdoor activity. Instead, he preferred to copy comic characters from the funny papers, a pastime his father disapproved of as weak and unmanly... In other ways, father and son were too much alike; both had strong egos, took criticism poorly, were self-centered and tenaciously stubborn — traits that resulted in serious conflicts and family bitterness. Against his father’s wishes but with his mother’s support, Wood continued to refine his artistic talents... Through his creative efforts, Wood began to compensate for his size and his father’s acute disappointment in him. The continuous upheavals caused by frequent family moves put additional pressures on Wood to prove himself with each new set of peers (though Glenn usually took care of the fistfights).”

The memories of Glenn Max Wood, an engineer with Pratt and Whitney since 1954, offer insight into the creative atmosphere in which he and his brother grew up: “I have an uncle, Wally, who is one of those fellows that would have been a super engineer if he had been college educated. He never went beyond the fifth grade, but what he achieved in his life was amazing. He was a man with talent in all directions—in painting, in music — and he was just a whiz in so many ways. It’s inspiring to know such a person. He never married; he was a bachelor all of his life. He was the last person that was on grandfather’s homestead. It was deeded to a neighbor, so my grandfather’s homestead is no longer a part of the family. There was homesteading in the whole area. My mother really did have a lot of talent; she stood out in her family as an achiever. My mother was the only one that went on to college, training as a teacher. It was what they call a ‘normal’ school, which was college summer training to get her credits to become a certified grammar school teacher. It wasn’t formal college as we think of today, but it was the avenue that many young women went through in those days—high school, two or three years of normal school, and they got their certificate and began to teach. She had several years in which she was a full-time teacher. She was married when she was 29, and my father was five years younger. It was a rather interesting romance: my mother was a great horsewoman; she and her sister had western broncos, and they would go on long trips together. She met my father in North Dakota on one of her 200-mile journeys away from home. So she had quite a spirit of adventure in her own right. Dad was kind of a young guy who was footloose, without many connections at that point; he was used to logging, he was a farmer — kind of a jack-of-all-trades. Little bit like his father, Grandpa Wood. In fact, he had been all the way to the West Coast and back in a covered wagon with the family; they were really covering the territory.”

Although Alma Wood was unsuccessful in marketing her stories, she had better luck with her song, “Sweet Gentle Rain,” which was performed locally. “She made some attempts to sell some of these manuscripts,” said Glenn Wood. “They were never accepted, but she did write some short stories and things. My mother didn’t have a musical background; she liked to sing and all that. She did write one song, and she sent it to some place in Chicago, one of those ads she saw in some magazine: ‘For $50 we’ll put your words to music.’ I’m not even sure how she got the money, but she had some composer put music to the words. I don’t know where it was ever played except for the local scene. I remember one time my uncle Wally and his band, the Tune Twisters, played it. It wasn’t bad. Uncle Wally learned the accordion through correspondence from Chicago, and he was very good. He had a band of about ten guys. He was running himself into the ground, playing weddings and all kinds of engagements. They were on the road a lot. For a number of years he played on the local radio station in Wadena, the county seat 20 miles south of Menahga.”

The farm trade center of Wadena, which had 2,916 residents by 1950, has now grown to a population of 3,992. With the Finnish community of New York Mills (pop. 972) 13 miles west and Menahga to the north, Wadena is one of several northern Minnesota towns settled between 1870 and 1880 in a central area encircled by hundreds of lakes. Travel about 50 miles south of Wadena on Highway 29, and you arrive at the “birthplace of America,” so-called because, in 1898, a pioneer farmer uncovered the much-disputed 250-pound Kensington Rune Stone, possibly a hoax or possibly left by the 1355-64 expedition of Paul Knutson; the runic inscription tells of Norse explorers, their 14-day journey from the sea and their encampment in the area during 1362, 130 years before Columbus. A statue of Paul Bunyan towers 50 feet high in Brainerd (pop. 11,489), 50 miles east of Wadena. Today this area is cited as the legendary logger’s “home,” even though Bunyan, more fakelore than folklore, was largely the creation of advertising man William B. Laughead, author-illustrator of fanciful Bunyan tales for promotional booklets printed by Minnesota’s Red River Lumber Company between 1914 and 1930. The true heroes in the oral folklore of Minnesota lumbermen were the Swedish prankster Ola Varmlanning and the fabled Finn Otto Walta (1875-1959), who dined on raw bear meat and once ripped an 800-pound rail out of the Duluth, Winnipeg and Pacific Railroad track, carried it three miles to his homestead and used it to pry up stumps. Walta lived in northern Minnesota’s St. Louis County, and so did the young man who brought poetry to rock, changing the course of American popular music; Bob Dylan was born in Hibbing the year Wally Wood entered high school. What Dylan and Wood shared in common was a fascination with the mournful sound and sincere, gritty emotion in the fatalistic songs of Alabama’s Hank Williams.

Just north of Menahga, between the Paul Bunyan State Forest and the White Earth Indian Reservation, is the source of the Mississippi River, near Lake Itasca. And where Highway 87 runs smackdab into U.S. Route 71 at Spirit Lake, that’s where you’ll find Menahga. It’s not visible on some maps because it only has a population today of 1,220. “That’s the area with all of our relatives on my mother’s side,” said Glenn Wood in 1985. “Most of them — aunts, uncles — have passed on now. My mother was part of a ten-member family. When I was 12 years old, and this was in pretty depressed times, my dad went into logging. He wasn’t a logger in Minnesota; he was a farmer. Menahga is not a logging town. When my grandfather, Jacob Lalli, was there in 1880, it was very big woods and pine forests with much logging, but by the time we came on the scene, it was a farming community, and it’s still that way today.” Jacob Lalli’s house was a one-story log cabin, which was eventually converted into a two-story frame house, equipped with a home power plant before the arrival of rural electrification. The house was situated on an 80-acre farm eight miles out of Menahga, and the Woods, who lived three miles away in their own residence, spent much time in the Lalli household.

When the nighttime snows drifted over the tiny town and banked against the farmhouses, the two Wood brothers were usually so immersed in their drawings they hardly noticed. “Wally and I were doing little comic strip things at quite an early age. This was in my grandfather’s house where I was born. I would do some of the lettering, and he would do all the fine work. I never developed much talent or interest in it, but I remember working the long winter evenings. We made our own little projector with cardboard boxes, an opaque-type projector, and we could put different comics on this surface, project them on the wall and carry out our own little shows. Not with very good definition, but it was one you could have fun with. We had an interesting interaction that way. Wally was really preparing for his life’s work, and I was just sort of tagging along — not with the same interest he had. It was a combined effort; we would write the words, and then we’d carry on like kids do. I don’t say that anything in terms of talent showed up; that was Wally’s side of it. I can still sketch, and as a mechanical engineer, I use this to some advantage, but I never had any of the flair for cartooning that Wally had. His imagination was more developed than mine. He was a natural.”

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I'm very pleased to have found your site. Jacob was my grandfather, Jon's brother. I googled Jacob to find out more of the Lalli family history. I have only been to Menagha a couple of times as a kid for funerals, but plan on making a trip there soon. Kedoks for the info.
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is the editor of Against the Grain: Mad Artist Wallace Wood (2003), reviewed by Paul Gravett.

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