I really enjoyed Neal Thompson's A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley. I tend to like biographies of cartoonists, but this one, like Robert L. Ripley himself, stands out. It's a fabulous 20th century American Dream about a buck-toothed outcast from Santa Rosa, California who became a world-famous cartoonist, and much more . . .
He was also a writer, a traveler, and an undocumented anthropologist who really knew how to cherchez le weird and present it in bite-sized packages, first as newspaper cartoons, then in books, on radios, in film, and on television.
He wasn't afraid to leap into what these days we call new media. Remember, when he started drawing Believe It or Not!, the newspaper comic section was something new.
And it turned out that weird sells.
Ripley was in some ways a successor to P.T. Barnum, though rather than the Art of Humbug, Ripley always presented his oddities as the truth and challenged the public to prove him wrong. He even questioned well-known “facts” – explaining that, for instance, Buffalo Bill never shot a single buffalo (they were all North American bison).
In a lot of ways, he was ahead of his time. His personal, informal approach to journalism foreshadowed the gonzo style of Hunter S. Thompson, travel writers like Tahir Shah and David Hatcher Childress, and mondo documentaries. His lifestyle was a like a preview of Hugh Hefner's Playboy Philosophy. When he drifted into political commentary, he was an early version of Rush Limbaugh.
By today's standards, he had some racist and sexist attitudes. But he did love Asian women, and China. He also celebrated other cultures, and introduced them to the American public, though some may object to the sideshow style.
But he loved the oddities he exploited, always feeling a bit odd himself.
He managed to “create a brand” – to use a trendy term – that went on after his death, and is still going strong.
I must admit, he was an influence on me. My wife and I live in a house full of masks and strange artifacts. We go on road trips, and always cherchez le weird.
Now, if I could just find a way to package and sell it . . .
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