You may have already seen Arthur C. Gackley’s Bad Little Children’s Books (Abrams Image), an engaging collection of risqué (and manqué) children’s book covers that he has been creating since America was enthralled by Jazz Age hijinx and flappers riotously flapped. Gackley was born in 1923 and, he says, began his career in 1926 (don’t worry, I did the math twice). He created hundreds of books that any self-respecting religious zealot would damn to hell without a moment’s hesitation. But I am grateful that he has come out of the shadows for this brief interview, which illuminates the inspirations and influences that have contributed to his recent revival.
You’ve been designing covers for kids and kids-related books for some time. How long exactly? And how did you get your first break?
It has always been an uphill struggle for me, but now that I’m going downhill, things are getting a little easier. I began designing around 1926, which was incredibly difficult given that the X-acto knife hadn’t even been invented yet.
It seems clear that you studied in a wide variety of methods. Who was your model or mentor? And did you achieve what you wanted from him or her?
It’s true, I’ve always been open to any method—except the rhythm method, which Mrs. Gackley and I found difficult to adhere to, especially when we’d been drinking. In the 1930s I mentored under Sid Dinkhammer, who was head of print production at Dell Comics. He was the first guy who began setting comic book classified ads in 2-point rather than 3-point type as a way to increase profits and child farsightedness, which I thought was a little hinky given the fact that Sid’s brother was an optometrist.
With books, a lot of people get involved. How much interference was there in terms of the depictions in your imagery?
There were always arguments. Editors would push, I’d push back, molten Linotype lead would be hurled, gun-play was not uncommon. Even back then editors would look over my shoulder, always insisting that I use, say, a less-offensive word in a book title. If I wanted to use “dwarf,” they’d force me to use the more genteel “midget.” They were “PC” even before the term was coined.
I notice a few derivations. Do you consider yourself a derivative artist?
“Derivative”? No. I would out and out steal. I always found deadlines not only stressful, but highly conducive to cheap thievery.
On a personal note, and I don’t mean to pry, but do you like children?
Have you ever in the history of literary commerce EVER seen a 4-year-old going into a bookstore and laying down their hard-earned allowance to purchase a children’s book? Of course not, they have “better” things to waste their money on—jawbreakers, egg creams, salt water taffy. The truth is that it’s ADULTS who purchase kid books. No, I do NOT like children.
Is there, let’s say, a line in the sand between what is appropriate and, shall we call it, what is inappropriate for kids in books?
That’s the nice thing about sand; any line drawn in it can be easily trampled. You should see me as a line trampler on the children’s literary beach of life—though you probably don’t want to see me in my bathing suit.
Was there any part of your artistic life that made you happy or unhappy?
I admit it, huffing spray-mount in my youth certainly made me happy. That said, the fact that today I only have one lung, that makes me rather unhappy.
Now that your work is enjoying a revival, do you feel fulfilled?
Can I get back to you after I’ve looked at my first book royalty report?
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