Trouble with Comics, Guest Reviewer Month - Tom Spurgeon on The Early Morning Milk Train

Guest Reviewer Month - Tom Spurgeon on The Early Morning Milk Train

I don’t want to talk up Tom Spurgeon too much, for a couple reasons: 1) It’s pretty self-evident by this point how good he is at what he does, and 2) I don’t think he really likes people talking about how good he is at what he does. His humility is part of his charm, and his economy is part of his charm, and his wide knowledge of comics is part of his charm, and his way of a subtle but devastating one liner that destroys his target and yet still leaves him looking affable is part of his charm. Oh, well, I guess I went ahead and talked him up. I’ll just close and say another part of his charm, for me, are the judiciously distributed—he might say unpacked—bits about how he has related to his father through comics, which is something I would like to have had. There is some of that here, within the body of an examination of work that may have escaped the notice of most of us if not for Tom’s efforts.—Christopher Allen

The Early Morning Milk Train: The Cream of Emett Railway Drawings
Rowland Emett
John Murray, London, (UK Edition) 1976.

By Tom Spurgeon

Rowland Emett (1906-1990) was best known as a kinetic sculptor. He created Rube Goldberg- (or, if you prefer, Heath Robinson-) type machines that actually worked – just as long as someone paid to have them built. A string of corporate and festival sponsors eventually did just that. Starting in 1951, Emett’s devices were put on display in high-profile venues like the Festival of Britain, the movie Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang (he supplied the inventions of Caractacus Potts), the Smithsonian and the Ontario Science Centre, not to mention places of pride in various business headquarters. They sported ridiculous names like “The Forget-Me-Not Computer,” “The Aqua Horological Tintinnabulator” and the frankly awesome-sounding “The Featherstone-Kite Openwork Basketweave Mark Two Gentleman’s Flying Machine.” Their sensual unlikelihood and awkwardness satirized the asserted, streamlined perfection of modern invention. They giggled at technology’s remove from human hands, and left whoopee cushions upon which the self-proclaimed empire-builders might sit. Emmet’s machines are almost without exception deeply whimsical in a way that shames that word’s application elsewhere. It’s a better world for their having been brought into existence.

Before he was a maker of things, Rowland Emett was a creator of cartoons. He was a highly successful cartoonist, as a matter of fact, one of the more popular artists working in Punch during the late 1930s (he first published in the magazine in 1939) and through the 1940s. A marriage in 1941 proved beneficial to his ambitions: the former Mary Evans became his manager as well as his wife. They built a concurrent book career for the cartoonist in the traditional manner, Emett illustrating a few volumes during the war from prose authors and then moving onto solo showcases as his star at Punch continued to rise. His publisher was Faber & Faber, as respectable a house as any going. 

To a great extent, Emett owed the majority of his transition from cartoonist to “dream machine” maker to profiles and assignments from the magazines Life and Sports Illustrated. It’s hard to imagine with the diarrheic explosion of media opportunities today, but an artist’s appearance in certain high-profile publications at mid-20th Century could drive interest and commissions for years on end. Not only was Emett capable of remarkable, inventive creation, he looked the part, like a genial wizard from a live-action Saturday Morning network television show, youthful and spry and friendly-faced. As more of his models and machines leapt from concept to physical existence, Emett’s cartoon work faded from both magazine and book publication. There was a brief revival of Emmet interest in the 1970s, collecting many of the old Punch watercolors and drawings. Only one book in that run had both a UK edition and one in the U.S.: The Early Morning Milk Train, released in 1976 overseas and 1977 in North America.

It’s difficult to recognize some seventy years later just how important the train remained in the imagination of everyday people up until the 20th century’s mid-point. From the late 19th Century on, the train was for many folks the mightiest machine with which they had daily interaction. They were commonplace leviathans. In Emett’s England, the railway was the major connection between rural and urban communities in a culture that took more slowly to cars than North America. Trains were the past and the future. 

Emmet can’t get enough of the torpedo-shaped bull in the china shop that is the standard railway transport among the rickety fences and queer mustachioed gentlemen and wobbly-looking tracks that are rural tracks and station. He crashes his trains through these lines and into private space. He builds them into impossibly unwieldy things that have to ride the think track lines as gracefully as any sidecar. He subjects them to local custom and kindnesses that thwarts their power. In some of the most beautiful cartoons collected here, Emett starts with the twin lines that make up a railroad track and sees the parallel markings splashed throughout the countryside: a train that might go up a tree, or have to be held onto narrow tracks through the human act of leaning in the other direction, or that totters across a gossamer thin bridge, an idea of a train rather than its reality, the gentle intrusion of man into nature.

Those more fanciful strips obsessed with line are the one in which you can see early signs of Emett’s genius with rickety, working construction. He turns cars on their sides, adds ornate elements where none are necessary, suggests a greater sway and fragility than any train might bear. Yet there are also multiple variations at work here that didn’t become three-dimensional at a later date. There are several well-presented jokes about the lunatic lengths to which railroads were desperate to add luxury to train service, visually-driven jokes about boy scouts getting to a train via a quickly-assembled rope bridge or a train suggesting music to a few back yard composers; one even uncovers a few gags about fare hikes. It’s also surprising how much Emett shifts between media: several flatly painted pieces bereft of color in this volume, more traditional pen and ink work with a variety of line thicknesses and black space moving the eye from place to face, and the wonderful spider web-like lines of Emett’s more famous tableaux.

The construction is second place to the quality of the imagination displayed, but reading a bunch of Emett at once confirms he was an odd cat in terms of the way he approached the page. The eyes are almost always slammed to the bottom of an Emett page like an angry yank used to close a blind. From there, a typical Emett allows the reader to float left to right as the line of the cars might lead, or even up and into any smoke the train creates. One wonderful trick he employs is to depict the trains and their surrounding countryside with the same line consistency. This in itself seems a satirical point about the intrusiveness of the iron horse – many of the trains look like they could be punched off of their tracks if you put your shoulder into it – but it also allows the eye to wander into any number of chicken-fat style pleasures the rest of the drawing may hold, or to capture any atmospherics specific to a single drawing that Emett intends.

The Early Morning Milk Train was the only comics-related publication in my late father’s collection of books that I had never heard of or seen before coming across it packing his belongings for a final time. My dad was a train kid, working at the local station during the summer for quarters and receiving a pre-Social Security number that were given out to railroad employees a couple of years before everyone else got their nine digits. He pressed for a political appointment at the very early AMTRAK, our family’s road not taken. Dad would read old timetables in the bathtub the way I read Gerry Conway JLAs. For him it was likely enough to see trains over and over and over again, the idea of the train shorn of most of its mass, progressing here and there across Emett’s made-up countryside at the behest of their ridiculous porters and engineers. It’s difficult to imagine someone relating so wholly to a piece of outmoded expression like the train as fully as my father did, and as fully as he likely treated this book. Then again, I’m that way about cartoons.

Tom Spurgeon maintains the essential, Eisner-nominated blog, The Comics Reporter, prior to which he wrote for and edited The Comics Journal and co-authored the definitive biography of Stan Lee.

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