Nat Gertler on the Story Behind the Real Green Book

Posted on November 30, 2018 at 3:34 pm

Nat Gertler’s About Comics is the publisher of the reprinted Green Book, the travel guide that inspired the title of one of the year’s best movies. It listed hotels, restaurants, and other businesses that welcomed Black tourists before the 1964 Civil Rights Act required public accommodations to be open to everyone. In the movie, Black musician Don Shirley was restricted to modest-to-shabby Green Book-listed businesses while his white driver stayed with the other members of the trio at whites-only hotels. In an interview, Gertler explained the history of the Green Book and how the reprint became one of his most popular publications.

How did the Green Book get started and who published it originally?

Victor Hugo Green started the annual series in 1936. He was a mailman, delivering the mail in Hackensack, New Jersey but living in Harlem. The first year’s book just covered the New York area, but the demand for a national book was quickly apparent.

How did people buy it? Bookstores or through the mail?

The Green Book was available through the mail, and some Black organizations made it available to their members. And some of the locations listed in the book got copies to distribute — after all, if you were staying at one hotel that accepted Black customers, odds are you were going to do some traveling and need to stay somewhere else. Some years’ editions had cover versions with places for those hotels to stamp their names and addresses. But perhaps the most interesting source was gas stations — specifically Standard Oil stations (that was Esso then, Exxon now.) Unlike other major gas chains, Standard Oil allowed African Americans to own station franchises. In the 1949 Green Book — that’s one of the eight editions that I’ve reprinted so far — there’s even an article by Standard Oil’s special representative to what was then called the “Negro market.”

Who vetted the hotels and restaurants? Were most of them black-owned?

The Guide tries to make clear that the listings aren’t endorsements — a normal listing isn’t mean to guarantee the quality of an establishment, that it just indicates that they were willing to take travelers of color…. although at times they created the implication that businesses that went beyond the simple listing and bought an ad were, of course, particularly good places to stay. Some businesses submitted themselves for listings, some were submitted by customers, but one particularly good source were African American postal workers, just like Green himself. After all, mailmen travel the neighborhood, they know what’s going on.

How does a business with a name like “About Comics” end up publishing something so non-comic as the Green Book?

About Comics is a small company… just one guy, that’s me. If you hear me saying “we,” that’s the corporate “we,” much like the royal “we.” And most of what I’ve published over the years have been comics or at least comics-related, but I’ve got no boss I have to convince when I want to try publishing something else. A lot of what I did is simply driven by my curiosity; when I get to wondering about something, trying to publish it is my way of doing research.

Maybe about three years ago, I read a couple articles about the Negro Motorist Green Book, and it immediately caught my curiosity. It linked to some things that my stepmother had told me. My stepmother, Poco, is half Black, half Cherokee, and when she was in high school she’d be going to one of her athletic competitions, but the bus would leave all of her teammates, all white girls, at one of the hotels in town and then have to drive Poco out to someplace beyond the city limits where she could stay. The sweetest woman you can imagine — I didn’t know her as a teen, of course, for all I know she was a hellion back then, but that’s neither here nor there, that’s not what she was being judged on. Still, to know she was treated like that.

So I was curious about the Green Book, decided to get one for myself so I could experience it… and then found that they were collectors items, museum pieces really. Museums were paying tens of thousands for one. That wasn’t in my budget, at least not just to satisfy my curiosity. But hey, why not see if I could republish it? If there was enough demand for the original editions to send the price that high, maybe I could sell a couple hundred copies of a facsimile edition and make it worth the time I put into reprinting it… and if not, hey, at least I’d have satisfied my own curiosity. And, lucky for me, it turned out that I was not the only one curious about it.

What surprised you about what it included?

I kind of expected it to be a book filled with anger, with screeds against discrimination and with warnings about the horrible things that might happen to you in certain places… but what I found was a very practical document. Just listings of places that were willing to take you as a customer, and maybe some articles, travelogues or other travel advice. And in a way, that was even scarier, even more horrible, because the practicality of it all just lets you know how damnably rote this all was. Green didn’t need to explain to the reader what the problem was, his readers knew what problem was being addressed. And he didn’t need to warn against going certain places, just let you know where you could go… and the sparseness of locations at time told a story. The first volume I reprinted — the 1940 edition, still my best seller — for the entire state of New Mexico, there’s only one entry, just one place to stay. And it’s listed as a “tourist home”, and what that meant was that this wasn’t a hotel, this was just some Black family that was willing to put you up for the night on your trip, kind of the AirBNB of its day. Now, this might not have been the only actual relevant business in New Mexico, the Green Book was still growing and learning about the places that were out there… but if it wasn’t listed in the Green Book, how were you going to find it?

When did you get started in publishing? What have been your most popular titles?

This year is About Comics’ 20th anniversary. At the moment, the 1940 Negro Motorist Green Book actually is our biggest seller — it sells well through Amazon, and we sell a lot of copies to museum gift shops. In terms of comics material, our best sellers have been our books of the stuff that Charles M. Schulz did besides Peanuts, like the book we have out collecting his other newspaper series, It’s Only a Game, which he did for newspapers in the late 1950s. But we’ve also had really strong sales on things we do aimed at aspiring comics creators. Panel One, a collection of comic book scripts by big comic book names like Neil Gaiman and Kurt Busiek, and even filmmaker Kevin Smith, has been perennially strong. and our Blank Comic Book Panelbook series, which is literally just books filled with empty triangles for kids to draw comics in, has done surprisingly well.

What’s coming next?

Copyright About Comics 2018

 

You know how I said that publishing is often my form of research? Well, about a year ago I discovered the odd world of 1950s Catholic cartoon books. These are books mostly of single panel gag cartoons about nuns, and there were dozens of them, some selling in the hundreds of thousands of copies. It’s this subculture that I haven’t really seen anyone try to cover. Anyway, I launched a line on April Fools Day, trying to get everyone to believe that I was only kidding about suddenly publishing a pile of nun cartoon books, when in reality, I was! By the end of the year, I’ll have published two dozen books of these cartoons. The one I’m laying out now is monk and nun cartoons drawn by an actual monk. If folks are interested, I suggest that they follow @dailynun1 on Instagram or Twitter — they’ll get a different nun cartoon in their feed every day, plus they’ll see announcements when I have new volumes out.

And after that? We’ll see what catches my eye.

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Books Interview

Happy Hannukah 2018/5779: All of a Kind Family Hannukah

Posted on November 30, 2018 at 8:00 am

Copyright Schwartz & Wade 2018

One of my favorite book series for kids is Sidney Taylor’s All of a Kind Family, the story of a big, loving Jewish immigrant family around the turn of the last century. Based on Taylor’s own family, the title comes from the five sisters who were “all of a kind” until a brother arrived.

Copyright Schwartz & Wade 2018

And now Emily Jenkins continues the series with All of a Kind Family Hannukah, with inviting illustrations by Caldecott Award winner Paul Zelinsky.  It’s a delight for any family.

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Books Holidays

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle

Posted on November 29, 2018 at 5:25 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action violence including bloody images, and some thematic elements
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril from animals and human hunter, characters injured and killed, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 30, 2018
Copyright Netflix 2018

“Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” is not the “Bear Necessities” Disney version of Rudyard Kipling’s story about the boy raised by wolves and befriended by a cuddly bear and an elegant panther. This is more like Tennyson’s vision of nature as red in tooth and claw. Andy Serkis, master of the art of motion capture acting, has directed this much darker version of the story, with simultaneous release this week in theaters and on Netflix. The motion capture performances are striking. Parents need to know, however, although this is the story of a young boy befriended by talking animals, this is not for young children or for the faint of heart of any age.

Serkis brought along some of his “Hobbit” co-stars, and the movie opens with an introduction from Kaa the snake, voiced by Cate Blanchett telling us that the jungle traditions are being challenged, presumably from the incursion of humans. When a couple are killed by the tiger Shere Kahn (Benedict Cumberbatch), a baby is abandoned. The death of the parents is off-camera, discreetly shown by an overturned, single shoe. But the baby is smeared with blood. Like Harry Potter, he is the Boy Who Lived, and he is special.

A wolf pack wants to adopt the boy they call Mowgli, and that means a meeting of the council of animals. It is agreed that he can stay and we will learn that is only in part because it is in the nature of the wolf mother to feel tenderness toward a helpless baby of any species. While some of the animals fear that keeping Mowgli will bring man into the jungle looking for him, others think that he will help keep them safe from humans. And all of them know that Shere Kahn will be back for Mowgli, and that it will take the full force of the pack to keep him safe.

Mowgli grows up (Rohan Chan), very much at home in the jungle, though painfully aware that he does not have the natural abilities of his wolf brothers. They are being coached by Baloo the bear (Serkis) to pass a racing test to qualify them to become full members of the pack. Mowgli cannot keep up with them if he races on all fours, as they do.

The motion capture work is excellent, as expected from Serkis and the images and camera work are striking, worth seeing on a big screen. But the storyline never fully escapes its colonialist origins. There’s a reason we refer to “the law of the jungle” and no simple way to make that into a workable metaphor about the human world. Think of “The Lion King,” for example (with a live-action version coming next year). It’s fine to sing about the circle of life if you’re at the top of the food chain. Bagheera the panther (Christian Bale) explains to Mowgli that animals who kill must look their prey in the eye as they are dying “so that the soul does not depart alone.” Not much comfort to the departing soul. Mowgli finds appropriate ambivalence in the human world, where the native community has brought in a white hunter (Matthew Rhys) who is kind to Mowgli but will never appreciate the animals like the boy who lived with them. Like the boy himself, the movie is not able to resolve its conflicting dualities.

Parents should know that this film includes animal and human peril and violence, with characters injured and killed, some disturbing and graphic images, guns, fire, animal attacks, sad death of parents (off-screen), drinking and drunkenness.

Family discussion: How are the wolves different from the other animals? What kinds of tests do humans try to pass? Do you agree with Mowgli’s choice about where to live?

If you like this, try: Disney’s animated and live-action “Jungle Book” movies

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Action/Adventure Based on a book movie review Movies Movies Remake Stories About Kids Talking animals VOD and Streaming

Turkeys Away! Jen Chaney Pays Tribute to WKRP’s Classic Thanksgiving Episode

Posted on November 22, 2018 at 12:00 pm

My friend and fellow critic Jen Chaney has a marvelous tribute to what she says is the greatest Thanksgiving episode of series television, “WKRP’s” “Turkeys Away!”  She even has the details of the real-life radio station promotions that inspired it.

It is a delightful essay about a television classic.

Crucially, we never actually see a helicopter or any turkeys hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement. The entire picture of this scene is painted through Les’s words and tone, which escalate quickly from calm and newsman-like to absolutely panic-stricken. This is necessary for obvious reasons: It would have been problematic from an animal-rights perspective (not to mention prohibitively expensive) for a network sitcom to stage this scene. But it works better without us witnessing what happens. As we would if we were listening to Les on the actual radio, we are guided through this story primarily by Sanders’s vocal expression, a wonderfully appropriate touch for a show about a group of people attempting to assert the relevancy of radio.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Happy Thanksgiving!

Posted on November 22, 2018 at 7:00 am

My favorite Thanksgiving movie is “What’s Cooking?”

And everyone should listen to Arlo Guthrie’s classic “Alice’s Restaurant,” which tells the story of one Thanksgiving that led to an arrest for…garbage.

Have a peaceful and grateful Thanksgiving, everyone!

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