For the past year or so I’ve tried to keep politics and current events out of this blog as much as possible. It seems that nearly any conversation in modern day America has the potential to become highly politicized (and thus highly divisive) at the drop of a hat. I’ve previously blogged about my self-imposed rule to not draw parallels and analogies between the past and the present day when I worked as a historian for the Maryland Park Service, due mainly to the insane ramblings of a (then) popular TV “personality”; I learned early on that any “then and now” historical analogies on my part bore a high potential of igniting a supercharged dogfight between politically opposed museum visitors (one such “debate” between two parties of visitors became so heated that I almost had to call the park police). I’ve since come to consider that TV commentator a personal “life enemy” because of how difficult my job became due in large measure to his historical half-truths, distortions, and outright fabrications.

However, there are times when I just can’t sidestep the parallels. In today’s post I need to just bite the bullet, draw the analogies, and let the chips fall where they may.

It would be redundant (and silly) of me to try to write a capsule description of the Great Depression of the 1930’s; in fact, the present worldwide economic state provides us all with a taste of what the people of that time experienced. Historians today debate minutiae such as “When did the Depression officially begin?” (writers like David M. Kennedy dispute the idea that the 1929 Wall Street crash was the catalyst), but the effects were wide reaching, especially after the Depression deepened in 1932 and 1933. The exact end of the Depression is also a matter of debate; most historians view it as a blurred segue into World War II. The rationing of war materials after America’s entry in the war makes exact pinpointing difficult (pointless, really).

It’s interesting to note that America’s unemployment rate was about 25% during the worst of the Depression, in an era when most households had a single provider (the idea of women working outside the home didn’t seem to catch on until the war years; my mother was a “Rosie the Riveter” during WWII and considered it to be one of the proudest achievements of her life). Although there are actually more people unemployed in the U.S. right now than during the worst of the Depression, the “misery level” today isn’t quite as severe because of the number of households which still have one or more employed members.

Many unemployed men of the 1930’s hit the road in search of work, hitching rides on railroad trains (then the nation’s main transportation network in the pre-Interstate highway days) to move from town to town. Hoboes were not specific to the time; Jack London wrote about “road life” and the hobo experience in his book The Road which was published in 1907 (and which, by the way, is a great read and in the public domain, so there’s no excuse for you to not go download a copy from Google Books). But because of the sheer number of migratory unemployed men during the Depression, we tend today to think of the hobo as a 1930’s phenomenon. It’s almost ingrained into our culture, thanks in no small measure to 1970’s films such as the excellent Emperor of the North, which starred Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, a young Keith Carradine, and a small army of great character actors you’ll be sure to recognize. It was considered insanely violent at the time, but seems a bit tame forty years after its release. I own the DVD and it’s a guilty pleasure of mine; I toss it in the drive to watch it again about once a year.

Of course we’ve not seen a recurrence of “hobo culture” today, despite the horrendous economic climate; it’s easily explained by the rise of multi-income households (as mentioned above) and the fact that the railroads have themselves hit hard times over the past couple of generations. In our “microwave” culture of instant gratification, receiving a product by next week isn’t nearly soon enough, and despite the fact that it’s far cheaper and smarter to ship goods by rail, it’s not rapid enough to suit most people; trucks and planes have by and large replaced trains as the preferred modes of shipping.

During the Depression, there was a level of public perception that hoboes were ne’er-do-wells who didn’t want to work, instead preferring the “free and easy” lifestyle. After Herman Cain’s ill-informed and ill-considered remarks within the last year that unemployed people are “lazy”, I’ve come to think that the 1930’s public perception of hoboes as freeloaders may have been spread at the time with a political motivation. Investigating and proving that idea would make a good college thesis, I think, assuming that it’s not already been done.

Comic books of the time also took the approach that the migratory unemployed were freeloaders. I’ve read a few stories in which railroad hoboes were at best looked down upon by a story’s main characters or, at worst, were the actual villains of the tales. Bear in mind that comics were written and drawn primarily by men who lived in an urban environment, typically in a major metropolis, and tended to be insulated from the heartland of America (much as the current NY/LA-based media is insulated and ignorant today). Then, as now, people of middle America were generally portrayed as uneducated goobers, and a broke, unemployed middle American was either a crook or else a freeloader to be played up for laughs.

Once in a while, though, a writer would manage to break the stereotyped mold and produce a story or character of some lasting merit, which brings us to today’s tale…

I’ve been unable to discover who wrote or drew the stories of Driftwood Davey, the hobo with a heart of gold, but whoever he/they were, it turned out to be some fine work. I’ve found five appearances of Driftwood, all in Blue Circle Comics. The stories occasionally lapse into stereotype (Driftwood has an aversion to money, but not to work, as we’ll see shortly) and are intended primarily as comedic features. But these tales have a lot of heart and they’re a complete 180-degree turnabout from the usual “lazy freeloader” or “evil bum” portrayals from other period comics. Although today’s featured story was published in 1944, well into the war years, it nicely summarizes aspects of the 1930’s Depression experience (such as the migratory unemployed, work in exchange for food and lodging, the plight of the elderly in a pre-Social Security world, property foreclosures) in a neat six-page package. Pay particular attention to Driftwood Davey’s actions and motivations throughout this tale and you’ll likely come to see (as I do) this story as a real gem. Comic book heroes don’t always need to wear masks or capes.

As usual, click on a page to enlarge it (right-clicking and opening it in a new tab will save you some time). Once again, thanks to the Digital Comic Museum for the page scans.

Blue Circle Comics #1, June 1944

Blue Circle Comics #1, June 1944

Blue Circle Comics #1, June 1944

Blue Circle Comics #1, June 1944

Blue Circle Comics #1, June 1944

Blue Circle Comics #1, June 1944

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2012, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.