Monday, June 27, 2011

Kin Platt and Me

(written in 2006)
You can find
a new, more mature entry about Kin Platt HERE. In the meantime I dug up this piece from 5 years ago.

In the long, confusing process of transitioning over to adulthood, I thought I might find an answer in a book. I liked picking out the old tattered YA paperbacks from the library. Like the ones that hadn’t been checked out in years. Especially the ones from the 70’s. Because I hated anything in reference to the now, anything that was trying too hard to be cool. But after a while, I began to get sick of all the neatly wrapped up happy endings and epiphanies. I wanted a good story that told it like it was. Bad things happening. Kids feeling confused; fucked-up. Unhappy endings. And I wanted more violence, explosions and sex; the types of things I looked for in movies for entertainment. But it couldn’t be artsy. It had to be straightforward in order to speak to me. Short, punchy, fast-paced sentences that built up with a rhythm and ended with a POW. I was a teenage train wreck ready to explode. But I didn’t. Instead, I discovered Kin Platt.


The first one I picked up was The Terrible Love Life of Dudley Cornflower, sort of a teenage sex comedy gone wild with a sex-obsessed high-school virgin. Finally something I could relate to. Not necessarily the dorkiness of the actual character and his inability to get it on with girls, but the whirlwind environment that he existed in. This world was like my imagination run amok; a nightmarish sex fantasy without sugar-coated romance. Instead, there was this need to be a part of the world and the sick perversity that comes with not fitting in. Sure, there were tons of books ala Judy Blume about a young girl’s adolescent sexual awakening. But this is the first one that was for boys. A book with enough guts to speak of the twisted unspoken desires of youth.

So I was addicted. And I became an expert user of libraries. Collecting cards from all the nearby counties. Because the amount of books Kin wrote seemed to be endless. But they were disappearing quick. Being withdrawn and discarded through library sales for 25cents a pop. I became a collector. In my own way, I wanted to preserve Kin’s genius. What he said to me. The fact that he was speaking to me through his books. That what he was saying was dead on.


Each of the books I read by him was better than the last. Flames Going Out, about a psychologically disturbed girl that falls in love with the drug-addicted son of her psychiatrist. Headman, about a gang member who tries to go straight but ends up being killed with a corkscrew. The Doomsday Gang, a comedy about a bunch of good-for-nothing kids who blow up a high school for laughs. Hey, Dummy, about a 12-year-old’s fascination with a retarded boy and his eventual decision to chose to become like him. The Boy Who Could Make Himself Disappear, about a kid with cruddy parents who loses himself in the crowds of New York City. Every book was a gem.

I felt so misunderstood and confused that I wanted to prowl the night with a baseball bat and smash things. I was nineteen and uncertain about my future. Friends I had in the past had moved on, out of my life. I felt alone and a little crazy. Because I knew who I was and who I wanted to be. An artist, I thought. But an even bigger concern was to get out of my parents house, to make it on my own. And I didn’t know how to do both of these things at the same time. I didn’t know how to be practical. I knew how to be lonely…laughing at how pathetic that was.


I decided to call Kin. It wasn’t hard to find his number. I was in NY, he was in CA. We were far away but with a phone, a connection would be instant. I didn’t know what I was going to say. Anything I said would be insignificant. Kin Platt was my hero. He had already achieved all I had ever dreamed of. I just wanted to say Thank You. Thank you Kin, for not compromising and for telling it like it was. I just wanted him to know that I heard what he was saying. That I appreciated it.
So it was me on the phone with a man nearly 70 years my elder. But even in old age, his voice was strong and confident. Still, there was modesty there and he seemed surprised and even a bit grateful that I had called. I got his address and we decided that we’d be penpals. Was it possible that he could be lonely too?

I sent him some of my crude little comics along with a letter. After they were sent off, I began to feel lousy about this. What did I have to offer him? Not too much. Still, he wrote me back promptly and encouraged me to continue. And he was critical, but in a constructive way. He told me that I needed to lighten up, to be funnier. He said I needed to think more and research issues that bothered me. He made a list of possible suggestions filled with such items as: child abuse, drug addiction, molestation, stds and other not so pleasant subjects. It was inspiring and I didn’t want to disappoint. I tried writing another letter in response. I wanted it to be something of value. Like I took his advice and did something with it.I ran away from home. My parents loved me but I ran and hid in the bowling alley. I took the train far away to where I could breath. And I walked around by the beach until I caught my breath, until I calmed down. What was I going to do? Drop out of college. Would I ever have a girlfriend? These became overwhelming concerns. I wanted to write back to Kin. I wanted to say something funny, to be witty, to make him laugh or to send him some great idea for a novel. Instead, I had nothing but my own, pitiful worries. The letter got postponed.
In the meantime, I learned about different aspects of Kin’s career. He wrote other types of books too. These included adventure stories and easy readers for children and mystery, action and sex novels for adults. I found out his pseudonyms and the list grew as did my bookshelves filled with his novels. The output was amazing; sometimes four books a year throughout the 1970’s. But since I was alive, there was nearly nothing. Just a short children’s book here and there. They were fun to read too, but not nearly as cutting edge.What amazed me the most was that Kin didn’t start writing novels until the was in his 50’s. Prior to that, he had a successful career as a cartoonist. He wrote thousands of scripts for Marvel and DC comics, many of which he drew himself. He created such classic characters as SuperMouse. He had a syndicated comic strip entitled Mr. And Mrs. He worked in animation for Disney, Hal Seeger and Hanna-Barbera. He wrote gags for comedians, did theatrical caricatures and had an act where he billed himself the “fastest artist in the west”. And that’s not all. He also dabbled in painting and sculpting. With this knowledge I began to see Kin’s name everywhere I went. Watching the Jetsons or Top Cat late at night on cable, I began to notice his name in the credits. It was unbelievable. The guy was a true renaissance man, a genius, but no one even seemed to know who he was.

I read up a little on his life and discovered that he had run away from home at a young age. He had never even graduated from high-school. But while he was my age, in his teens during the depression, he began his professional career as an artist and writer. How did he do it? I was really blown away by all of his achievements.

As many books, comics and cartoons of Kin’s that I was able to collect, I still knew that there had to be more stuff out there. A guy as great as Kin just doesn’t call it quits. Maybe in the 1980’s-90’s, editors just became more conservative and couldn’t imagine an audience for his books. This may have been partly true.

A few years later, when I moved to Boston, I was no longer a frantic mess. Things in my life had calmed down. I had let go of some of my grand ambitions. Instead, I had the more important things. A lovely girlfriend and a job I enjoyed. But still, I felt Kin’s presence over me. I carried his books like my most prized positions. At night, I would dream about the characters he had created as if they were real. My dearest friends that I had never met.
My research into Kin’s life continued to be a hobby of mine and the subject for many college essays. By coincidence, I happened to stumble across the catalog for the Howard Gottlieb’s Research Center at Boston University. This is where Platt had donated all of his manuscripts. I quickly made an appointment to view the collection. While I was ecstatic to finally have the chance to read all of his unpublished works, I was also sad to discover some other news. Kin Platt was no longer alive. My long delayed letter would never be mailed.



At the Research center I found more than just stacks of dusty boxes. There were over twenty unpublished works and many of these fit the niche of those that initially attracted me to his work. Stories about gangs, molestation, kids with serious problems. A few of the books were downright disturbing in their frankness. Others though, were more light-hearted adventure stories. I even discovered some other sides of Kin’s writing that included humor books, historical fiction and ideas for picture books. Some personal notes and hundred of letters from fans, revealed to me how seriously Kin took his work and how much of an impact it had on those who read it. All of his books were researched and he had stacks of files filled with newspaper clippings and sketches of what would become published books.



Still, for me, there were some gaps; missing pieces to Kin’s life. I wanted to know more about his personal life. I wanted to know what his relationships with women were like and what sort of involvement he had with his family. I also wanted to know, for better or for worse, whether or not he had died alone.

I contacted and met his son. Chris, who had a more personal interest than I did in his father’s work was able to share some of this with me. Some of the information that surprised me, but probably shouldn’t have, is that Kin did die alone. After learning that he was ill, he took one of the many guns that he had lying around his apartment and shot himself in the head. Chris was one of the few people still in contact with his father when he died. He told me how disappointed he was that Kin had shut-off communication with his best friend, cartoonist Vince Fago, when he learned that Vince had cancer. To him, admitting death was like admitting defeat. Kin wasn’t always the most caring person towards others. He was determined, but he could also be stubborn and was reluctant to ask others for help. I told Chris about an unpublished humorous instructional book entitled “How To Be A Worse Person Than You Already Are”. He was familiar with the book but told me that he didn’t think it was funny at all. When I asked why, Chris said, it wasn’t funny because “It was true. Kin had done everyone of those things to make himself less likeable”. When I asked Chris why so little of his father’s artwork existed, he replied, “My mother hated him so much that she destroyed it all after they divorced”.


The more I talked to Chris, the more I got the idea that he thought his father wasn’t any sort of hero, like I had made him out to be. He was fast to admit that he was a lousy father and that he hated women. This startled me a bit because of his kindness when I had contacted him and his unique way of showing sensitivity to youth (both male and female) in his stories. I also discovered that the novels that Chris admired were ones that I liked, but not the ones I held in the highest esteem. As we began to talk more about his father’s work, I discovered that we both got completely different things out of it. It had spoken to us in different ways.

Whether or not Kin Platt was as much of a great personality in real life as he was in his books is something I’ll never find out for sure. Still, I think there was probably something there in the middle between the perspective of a son and a fan. Either way, Kin Platt lived a full life and a one worth remembering. For me, he represents an uncompromising rebelliousness. His books, especially those powerful ones written for young adults have a sense of wild abandon matched with a seriousness for his characters who are trapped in uncomfortable situations. To me, they are not just unique because of their unhappy endings. They are special because of the daring honesty that I, the reader, have found comfort in.
If there are certain things I don’t know about Kin Platt, there are also things he didn’t want the world to know. Like the characters in his books, he was born into a situation that he wanted no part of and did whatever he could to become his own, unique person. Born Milton Platkin, the son of a cantor, Platt quickly rejected his Jewish upbringing and ironically named his only son Christopher. He didn’t live by any religion or other sets of ideals that would offer easy solutions. A child of the depression, he lived by his wits and gave his all to do what he dreamed of and survive at the same time.

This story doesn’t have a happy ending with fame or fortune. Nevertheless, Kin Platt did more than alright by me. As an adult, I feel pretty good about that.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Marcia by John Steptoe 1976


I always enjoyed John Steptoe's beautifully illustrated picture books for their realistic slice of life portraits of inner city kids. I had no idea that he also wrote a young adult novel until I came across this one at the library. This very short novel (less than 80 pages), written in the voice of a 14 year old black girl, is as authentic as it gets. It is written in a beautiful, but very particular dialect and illustrated with portraits of the characters involved. The story concerns Marcia and her family and friends which mostly revolves around the decision of whether or not to have sex with her boyfriend. Steptoe is far from being preachy and the reader is left with a story full of dignity and pride. This is just the sort of daring book that was an excellent product of it's time...and so rare to find something similar or comparable this decade.

Some other things I'm reading lately:

A Girl Called Al and I Know You Al. By Constance C. Greene and illustrated by Byron Barton.
The first two in a series of books about Al and her best friend. Two sassy twelve year olds make friends with the superintendent of their apartment building. Al's parents are divorced, she longs to meet her father. The kids get their period and are curious about sex and marriage. It's all done with a great sens of humor. Lots of charm and lighthearted realism in these. The illustrations by Byron Barton fit the mood exactly.

Tight Times by Barbara Shook Hazen and Trina Schart Hyman is an incredible picture book about growing up poor and sticking it out with your family in rough times.

The Chalk Box Kid by Clyde Robert Bulla is another one of those sensitive realistic stories for young readers that resonates with messages about art, getting bullied, and struggling through tough times.