Sunday, March 11, 2012

Doff and Don


It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good.
Some character says that in an issue of Superman I read as a kid. The story line did not involve a windy day so I knew it was an old saying, but the meaning escaped me.

I was around ten at the time. Superman did not seem to me to be written for kids. I saw it as a window into an adult world where people said mysterious things and did things I didn't totally grasp.

For example the title character would repeatedly doff his civilian clothes to go do something super and then eventually don them again. These were words I did not know before.

The Oxford English Dictionary says of doff:
Etymology: Coalesced form of do off  [...]  In ordinary colloquial use in north of England (not in Scotl.). Elsewhere, since 16th cent., a literary word with an archaic flavour. Ray noted it as a northern provincialism; Johnson, as ‘in all its senses obsolete, and scarcely used except by rustics’. In 19th cent., from the time of Scott, very frequent in literary use.
And of don:
Etymology: contracted < do on [...] After 1650 retained in popular use only in northern dialect; as a literary archaism it has become very frequent in 19th cent. [...] The opposite of DOFF.
The literary use alluded to appears from the citations to be mostly adventure stories set in olden times. Ripping yarns. This suggests what the writers of Superman grew up on.

Make that one particular writer. I didn't know at the time that most of the stories I was reading were by the creator of Superman, Jerry Siegel. I didn't know because DC didn't run credits back then, and even if they had done, I wouldn't have known who Jerry Siegel was. DC had dropped him in 1947 when he sued for ownership of the character, but somehow he was allowed back in 1959 and worked for several years, right around when I was reading. He revitalized the sagging popularity of the Superman book with tricks like stories running a full issue, "imaginary" stories outside the canonical storyline, and new forms of kryptonite. As someone said (in a book I can't find so I can't quote it directly), he acted as if he owned the character and wasn't afraid to introduce new things.

Jerry's scripts always tended to the verbose. I realize now they also tended to the archaic. I'm not sure Jerry actually read Walter Scott, although why not? People still did in those days. But I bet the archaisms also appeared in the flowery heightened language of the dime novels that preceded comic books.

Then there's presently. This word appeared, followed by dots, in the yellow narrator box at the top of a panel in which the story shifts to a different scene. In case you didn't notice from the artwork, or couldn't just figure it out, you were thrown this obscure clue. It was another word I had never heard before. It was many years before I realized it means "soon" rather than "now". At any rate it seems to be just a case of Jerry Siegel being verbose. It was his style.
It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good.
I think it means that a circumstance bad for one person is usually good for somebody somewhere. I'd have to see the story again to see what Jerry thought it meant.

You should see "Federal Men". One good story from 1936 is on the blog Four Color Shadows, from which I have taken the two panels above. Joe Shuster art of course. The "Federal Men" series pre-dates the first appearance of Superman in print in 1938 although Siegel and Shuster had created him in 1934 for possible newspaper syndication. There are more panels from episodes of "Federal Men" scattered through the related blog Days of Adventure, which covers Adventure Comics from its beginning. Yes, "Federal Men" ran in Adventure Comics, the book later published by DC.

It brings up an interesting point about "Superman". The usual story— such as the Wikipedia page— has Siegel and Shuster trying to break in to the business for years before finally getting it published. Sometimes writers admit the pair did a few other comics in the meantime.

But a review of Adventure Comics from 1935 to 1937 on the Days of Adventure blog (see the earliest entries and work forward) will show plenty of comics by Siegel and Shuster as they tried out different heroes. "Federal Men" is a standout not only in retrospect but in its own time. It was the only series in Adventure Comics to have its own fan club, the Junior Federal Men. It was their finest hour to date.

When the editor wanted to start a second book, Action Comics, it's no wonder he was interested in Siegel and Shuster's Superman character. They weren't newcomers. They were known for quality work that attracted readers. That's why Superman appears on the cover.

Then followed the desperate deadline scramble, as usually told, where the pair cut up Shuster's artboards for the projected newspaper strip, dropping some of the panels and adding dialog or narration as needed, to create comic book pages. The cover of Action Comics number 1 was from an even older Shuster drawing, and has Superman with a different simpler logo on his chest. Days of Adventure reveals that Action Comics was first advertised a month too early in its sister book, as if despite the haste it just wasn't ready when planned.

I'd love to find for you the earliest use of doff and don in the Siegel oeuvre, but I'll have to leave it to someone else. I didn't see it in available panels of "Federal Men". I just can't do it all.


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