Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Kin Platt: An Introduction
Kin Platt was the mad genius of young adult books and probably the most controversial writer for this audience in the 1970's. From 1968 to 1980 he tackled many topics that had previously been taboo subject matter for children's books. Nothing was off limits for Platt and he managed to create fictional books on the topics of adolescent male sexuality, the effects of divorce and parental neglect, schizophrenia, drug addiction, gang violence and poverty. The books had an edginess missing from today's market and represented a time when publishers were willing to take bigger risks. Throughout the 1980's he continued to explore these themes, but the market and the editors were changing. The field of "young adult" books was becoming more conservative. Just as Platt was on a roll, pushing the boundaries, the doors were closed in on him. His last great works, discovered in an archive at Boston University, show Platt at his edgiest. Unfortunately, they remain unpublished to this day.
To understand Platt's books is to know Platt's history as a caricaturist. In his stories for Young Adults, caricature sets the stage, setting apart a Kin Platt book apart from the many other teenage dilemma novels of the 1970's that had a realistic or psychological bent. As one reviewer stated, "Platt takes the extreme, end of the line cases as his starting point, eschewing comfortable, typical, and familiar protagonists and situations for his fiction." His book, Headman (1975), reads almost like a satire of Frank Bonham's 1965 novel Durango Street. And Platt's book Flames Going Out (1980), that concerns a schizophrenic adolescent, feels like a cartoonish version of the National Bestseller I Never Promised You a Rose Garden from 1964. Platt's talent as a writer was in presenting true-to-life disturbing situations through the eyes of a humorist.
Platt was an uncompromising artist who no doubt suffered for his work.
In his own words, he has stated, "I would like to see less genteel supervised attitudes towards books for children and more imaginative approaches welcomed...Publishers have always been afraid of the type of books I wanted to do....I didn't want to keep doing ordinary books. I always felt that I had to stay ahead of everybody else, in my own mind at least...I don't write to make money; I write because the story has to be told."
Telling stories was Platt's forte, but only one of his many talents. And even though many of his works never saw the light of day, his output is one that would make any writer blush. An astonishing number of his titles saw print and included over 50 books.
In Kin Platt's autobiography from 1993, written when he was 81 years old, he states that anyone who wants to be an artist must learn the art of survival. Kin was no stranger to hard times. In his own words, "I've done my stint sleeping on bare floors and in railway stations for want of a room, gone hungry and walked many miles for lack of nickel or transport, sat with beggars more used to the life, and carried my own dreams. But in the end, at times, I did compromise, to eat and live and provide and survive, and the shame and loss of pride has never left me. What I had was the will but not the courage to starve to death." Kin Platt had something to be proud about, for he lived an amazing and rewarding life and accomplished more than most dream of. He lived by his own rules. In 2003, at the age of 91, he died by his own hand.
Platt was the son of a cantor and born Milton Platkin in December 1911 in New York City. Rebelling against his Jewish upbringing, Platt ran away from home at age 7. Pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable from the very beginning, Platt had a difficult childhood. To entertain himself he drew funny pictures. The artists he adored included the cartoonist George McManus as well as the caricaturist and illustrator Ralph Barton. The influence of both these artists can be seen in his drawings. As a kid, he was a voracious reader, claiming to have read up to 5 books a day. He mostly enjoyed the pulps which included western, sports and adventure stories. In High School , he imagined himself to be a writer as well as a cartoonist and later on in life, both these dreams would be achieved.At age 19, Platt graduated High School just as the Great Depression had begun. Looking back at some of the pre-code Hollywood pictures of the early 1930's, you can see where Kin's distinct humor comes from. For example, there is a sort of reckless dark humor than runs amok in film's such as Skyscraper Souls (1932) that is not so far from Kin's sensibility. Kin never went to college. Instead, he began his career at a New York advertising agency as a delivery boy. Ever resourceful, he was soon selling cartoon ads to the company. He lived cheaply sleeping on a floor and managing food at 25 cents a week. Soon he started selling theatrical caricatures to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, The World-Telegram and Sun. He got so entranced by the theater that he forgot to sketch while there and instead began making drawings from memory only. One of the cover drawings he did for the Eagle, in the style of Ralph Barton, became one of the first anti-Hitler cartoons in American newspapers. From there, he started drawing cartoons for ad campaigns, including the characters Pepsi and Pete for Pepsi Cola. Pepsi and Pete can still be seen in vintage Pepsi advertising including a giant reproduction sign that is now displayed outside of the New York New York Casino in Las Vegas.Working in advertising provided his first major financial success and led to him inheriting the art chores for Mr. and Mrs., a comic strip that ran in the New York Herald Tribune. He even did some cartoons of Bob Hope before he gained fame in Hollywood. Also, early on, Kin developed a lifelong friendship with cartoonist Vince Fago. The two would eventually share studio space. Their partnership would be as good a model for Chabon's Kavalier and Clay as that of Simon and Kirby.
In the mid 1930's, Platt began writing radio scripts. In 1936, at the age of 24, the ambitious young man headed west to seek his fortune in the then burgeoning Hollywood. He drove across the country and was almost immediately hired to write comedy scripts. Some of the legendary talents he wrote for included George Burns and Mary Martin. The former, he was a great admirer of, and the latter was a dear friend for over 50 years. In fact, he used to babysitter Martin's daughter as well as Larry Hagman, who would later become famous for playing JR on the TV show Dallas. This would be the most glamorous time in Platt's life. In California he was taking in over $1000 dollars a week, living a glamorous lifestyle and gaining an unparalleled education through experience. Still, Platt disliked writing jokes, preferring a more soft and droll humor that was less popular amongst mass audiences at the time. He pressed on through writing not 1, but 3 shows a week and averaging about 3 hours sleep a night. Elements of a 1930's joke writer remain throughout Kin's work though and a trademark of his characters, even in his YA books, is that at some point they say "rotsa ruck". It's a throwback to George Burns era comedy.
From the beginning, Kin always disliked compromise. He notoriously lost his temper when collaborating. After eventually offending too many comedians, Platt left the joke writing business. He didn't travel too far though, landing on his feet at the story department at the Disney studios. Finally, his drawing talents and writing skills seemed to merge into a singular purpose. While Platt was excited about the direction of the animation medium, he felt disappointed in the compromised roundness of the drawing style that seemed to suck the personality out of the art. The artist at Disney he most admired was Bill Peet, who would also later leave Disney in favor of creating his own children's books.
After Disney, Platt went to work for the MGM animation department where he befriended Heck Allen, who was also a Western writer. One of Allen's books inspired the title for Kin's first children's book. Platt also met Joseph Barbera and Bill Hanna. When they later left MGM to form Hanna Barbera Studios, Platt was hired on as one of the studio's main writers. Within a year Kin was put in charge of thirty writers in the shorts department at MGM. He was soon married in LA, only to get fired shortly after. This would spur on his first move back East to New York. Luckily, at this time, the comic book industry was being born.
In the early 40's, Platt wrote and drew hundreds of comic book stories for Timely Comics. This gave Platt the chance to work more autonomously and to exercise his drawing skills. Platt drew detective stories, superhero stories and funny animal stories. Amongst his creations were the superhero Captain Future, Inferior Man "The Weakest Man In The World" and SuperMouse. He drew these while living in a brownstone apartment off of Central Park West. He would also return to writing animation for a number of companies including Walter Lantz and Hal Seeger Productions.In 1943, at age 31, Platt was drafted into the army. While enlisted he wrote the book, lyrics and music for a musical play Let Freedom Ring. Platt played piano and writing a musical was one of his grand ambitions that he harbored since being a teenager. While stationed in India, as part of the Army Air Corps (USAAF), he drew the spicy weekly comic panel Broad Views for an army newspaper called The Hump Express. He also began doing "lightning quick" caricatures as a performance/drawing act. Army life, however, did not suit Platt's temperament. He was constantly getting in trouble for insubordination and found himself chasing around a Red Cross girl. This just happened to be the Commander's girlfriend and Kin was transferred over to China.
In 1946, he went back home to New York. He was married and had a son, Chris. While living in Great Neck, New York, he continued writing for comic books and drawing Mr. & Mrs. Between 1947 and 1948, he worked for Timely again, alongside Stan Lee, working on the company's teen related comics with titles such as Cindy, Rusty and Willie. He had known Lee as far back as 1941. By 1950, he would also have a newspaper strip of his own creation, The Duke and the Duchess, where he spoke out against Joe McCarthy and other political opinions, but it only lasted until 1954. Some of the hundreds of comic books he wrote included the scripts to the Bob Hope, Sgt. Bilko and Jerry Lewis comic books. Ironically, Platt had done sketches of Bob Hope earlier in his career before he had moved to Hollywood.
His first children's book, The Blue Man, was published in 1961 and introduced his character Steve Forrester who would appear in three more books. The book was a sort of underground hit with librarians even though it was bashed at the time by some critics. One reviewer, from the School Library Journal, stated that the book "could not be recommended for purchase". Others, however, found something special about the book with comparisons drawn to JD Salinger's The Catcher In the Rye. Later Scholastic re-released it in paperback form. The story concerns a boy who takes the law into his own hands after he believes a blue bodied alien has killed his uncle. The character carries a rifle and goes on a road trip searching for the mysterious killer. The subject matter, while tame compared to some of Platt's later books, still sets the standard for his distinctive style.
In the early 1960's, Platt relocated to Santa Monica, CA. He also had an act in Vegas (learned in the army) calling himself The Fastest Draw In The West. The act consisted of him doing lightning quick caricatures in 4 to 5 seconds that were projected with a wall projector. From 1963 to 1965 Platt also contributed several stories for humorous comic books and a few War titles published by DC comics. Platt's wife, Ruth, also helped out by scripting some romance titles. Platt's most well-remembered contributions to popular entertainment were at the Hanna-Barbera studios. He helped create the shows Top Cat and The Jetsons. He also wrote for The Flinstones and Jonny Quest. Of all these shows, Top Cat was the best reflection of Platt's humor with its cast of eccentric characters who hung out in an alley.In 1965 Big Max, written by Kin, was published by Harper Brothers and was the first mystery written for beginning readers. Platt's second novel, a mystery called Sinbad and Me was rejected by Harper, but later bought by Chilton. It won the Edgar award in 1967, was reprinted multiple times and is still well-remembered and sought out today by collectors. Even though this book also featured Steve Forrester, it was far different than The Blue Man. It's strengths relied not on Platt's "edginess"" but instead as his skill as a Mystery writer. Platt would go on to write 2 more Steve Forrester mysteries as well as ten mystery novels for adults. 7 of these would feature Max Roper, a karate expert private eye who sometimes killed with his hands. These mysteries usually revolved around a sports theme.Platt's breakthrough book came in 1968 at the age of 57. The Boy who Could Make Himself Disappear would set his career in a new direction, writing about taboo subjects up until 1980's Flames Going Out. The story concerns Roger Baxter, a boy who is troubled as a result of a dysfunctional family. His mother abuses him. And, perhaps too close for comfort, the absent father who lives in LA is a comedy writer who completely ignores his son. As a result, Roger suffers from a severe speech impediment. His problems leave him lost in New York City and on the verge of a mental breakdown. He finally learns to cope through friends and the assertion of a speech therapist. The book touched a nerve with readers and heralded in a new form of psychologically based YA book that would follow by authors such as Marjorie Kellogg and John Neufeld. The Boy Who Could Make Himself Disappear was reprinted in a number of languages, had multiple Dell/Laurel-Leaf paperback printings and was even adapted into a Hanna-Barbera produced live-action film starring Scott Jacoby.Oddly enough, around this same time, Platt also began writing under a number of pseudonyms. Beginning in the late 1960's, he published 3 "Adults Only" paperbacks that included Pandora (as Guy York), Lovers & Exorcists (as Wesley Simon York) and Sex Heel (as Guy West). Obviously the pseudonyms of West and York derive from Kin's history of moving back and forth from New York to the West Coast. He would also use the name Nick West to pen three books in the juvenile series Alfred Hitchcock's Three Investigators. But it doesn't end there. Astonishingly, Platt wrote another 8 paperback originals for California publisher Canyon books under the name Kirby Carr. This lurid men's adventure series that Platt created was titled The Hitman. The books have Platt's trademark humor mixed in with all the elements you might expect from a 1970's action/exploitation movie. Reading these books today has the feel of a Quentin Tarantino movie in the works. Also, in the 70's, Platt wrote the occasional comic book story as well as picture books for children based on animated characters.To say that Platt's career was diverse is an understatement. This renaissance man also dabbled in sculpture, painting, architecture and was a seasoned runner and golfer. When you consider all of the TV shows he wrote, that are still viewed today, and the amazing number of comics and novels he produced, it is fair to say that his audience as a creator was in the millions. There is no doubt that his work created a huge cultural impact.
On a more personal level, his work, particularly his Young Adult novels, had a huge impact on me when I was a teenager. This led me to contact Kin via phone in the late 1990's and we also briefly corresponded by mail. According to Platt, "I've developed a personal relationship with some of my readers who have had problems, and by correspondence or by phone, we were able to solve some of them. I helped them to center on the more important ways of finding their own identities and a fuller life."
Kin Platt's fans remain adamant about his work and hope for more titles to see print. They also express the desire to see old titles back in print. Kin's son Chris has been trying to foster interest in his father's legacy for years. This has resulted in Kin's only posthumous work to date. A Mystery For Thoreau, Platt's foray into Historical Fiction, was published by FSG in 2008. The Blue Man was also reissued in 2005 through a small publisher, Twin Lakes Press, begun by a Kin Platt fan with the intention of reprinting more of his books. The facsimile printing featured a new introduction by Chris.
Below is a bit of information on three of my personal favorite books by Kin Platt.
"What makes a book or author controversial? Dealing with a current topic that the guardians consider too risky to discuss. All my good books were so categorized, and I've done a dozen since that were turned down for the same kind of attack on the injustices and frauds I see."
- Kin Platt
"Durango Street updated, not only in language which is uncensored street talk throughout, but - more important - in the ending, where your suspicion that Owen doesn't have a chance is conformed."
- Kirkus Reviews
"A taut and very tough novel...as direct as a hammer blow."
-The New York Times Book Review
(from A Teacher's Guide to the Paperback Edition of Headman - 1980, written by Dr. Jo-Ann Lynn Mullen))
This story of street survival and the desire and inability yo leave the ghetto takes place in Los Angeles, California, and in an alternative reformatory called Camp Sawyer.
Early in the novel the main character, Owen Kirby, is sentenced to spend two years at Camp Sawyer, an alternative to traditional prison in that it operates in a country camp setting and according to the rules of an honor system. The reader experiences Camp Sawyer with Owen and gets to know a great deal about him --- his family background, his thoughts, his relationships, and his problems.
After Owen is released and returns to his home environment, the reader accompanies him and sees Owen through optimistic experiences and, more frequently, through the realization that life for Owen has not really changed at all.
From the book jacket:
"When I get outta this dumb camp, he told himself, I'll be somebody.
Yeah? Like what?
He tried reaching out in his mind to grasp the future. Nothing there at all but space. Then he saw himself running...Breathing hard. Scared. For his life? he wondered. Jesus, always?
He thought about the other kids...
Running with gangs. Stealing. Fighting. Stabbing. Shooting. They all got to wind up in the clink, he told himself.
What about yourself? What plans you got to be a big man?
I don't know yet, he told his inner mocking voice. Gimme time. Don't bug me."
Kin Platt has created a hard-hitting, brutally honest portrait of Los Angeles street life. He has captured the rhythmic cadence of its lean language, the real, unglorified dichotomy of its violence and the bitter irony of society's panaceas. Against this backdrop, he weaves a powerful, disturbing story of a young man's fumbling search for personal dignity and a place in the world.
Notes (Dave Kiersh)
The book is short (186 pages) but fast-paced. This has to do with short chapters and short sentences. At times, Platt even uses fragments to build rhythm. Like most of Kin's other YA books from the 1970's we hear the character's inner dialogue through italics. The format is similar in The Doomsday Gang and Flames Going Out which also have an abundance of swear words in the dialogue. Also, all three off these books take place in LA and have unhappy endings. Platt was living in Los Angeles while he wrote these books. Of the three, only Headman appeared in paperback. Indirectly, it seems that the nihilistic and sometimes darkly humorous tone in these books is similar to the attitude represented by the punk movement starting up in LA in the late 1970's. Kin wrote these books while in his 60's, but was still acutely aware of what was going on around him. For example, in Flames Going Out, he even references several punk bands such as The Germs. Books like these would often stem from Platt taking newspaper clipping files and writing about real topics that were of interest to him. Another similar book that Platt wrote around this time that never saw print was entitled Homeboy Toothfairy.
The Doomsday Gang (1978)
From the book jacket:
Forming the Doomsday Gang was the first real goal of his young life. It was an idea that had taken him over so completely that he carries it with him like an obsession.
Doomsday...it not only sound good, it mean something. Goddam, the end of the world be what it mean.
Seasoned and street wise at 15, Coby and the other four had hustled, stolen and fought as long as they could remember. But with their own gang, things would be different. The Doomsday Gang would grow large and powerful. With guns of their own, they would take any gang in East Los Angeles...
In tough, spare language, Kin Platt has written a searing indictment of the poverty, hopelessness and filth of urban decay. It is the painful story of a boy's search for meaning and self-respect in a world that offers none--and of young lives, honed on the keen edge of violence, hurtling blindly toward doomsday.
Notes (Dave Kiersh). This is not the first motley gang of hoods that Platt has written about, if you count his scripts for the Hanna-Barbera produced cartoon series Top Cat. Surprisingly, some of that same brand of humor is found in this darkly nihilistic tale.
Flames Going Out (1980)
From the book jacket:
Alone in her room she played the match game, obsessively. It was another secret not to be shared with her parents.
The match game becomes you and you are the match. It flares and swells and flames brightly and then it dies. That is you dying in the air and you can do it over and over again. Until the day you don't have to strike the match and hoard the flame because you won't be there any more...
Her shrink had told her that every person is really a hundred different people, that she had to find a structure for her life with in that diversity. But Tammy remained divided, angry, and withdrawn -- until she fell in love with Jonathan, who was even more lost than she was.
With compassion and insight, Kin Platt has written a powerful, tragic love story that reflects in unsparingly honest scenes and language some of the nightmare truths that confront today's young people.
Notes (Dave Kiersh):
I can't read this book without thinking of the made-for-tv movie A Last Cry For Help that aired in 1979. This movie, written, produced and directed by Hal Sitowitz concerns a girl who falls in love while recovering in a hospital from a suicide attempt. As in Flames Going Out, the girl in A Last Cry For Help realizes that the boy's problems are worse than hers. In both cases the results are tragic. Additionally, both movies feature psychiatrists as prominent characters, are set in LA, and have pivotal scenes taking place at a beach location. I wonder if Kin ever saw this movie? Ironically, a book even more similar to this movie, about a suicidal cheerleader, was published the same year (1980) by my other favorite writer Frank Bonham. The title is Gimme an H, Gimme an E, Gimme an L, Gimme a P.
And finally, another excerpt from Kin Platt's autobiography to sum this up:
"By the mid 1970's, Susan Hirschman, who had started my writing career by publishing The Blue Man at Harper Brothers, was the publisher of Greenwillow Books at Morrow. She took two of my gang books ---Headman and, a few years later, The Doomsday Gang. Kids liked Headman, which won an ALA notable book award. The Doomsday Gang nearly did but was sunk because of street language. Susan warned on her publicity sheet: Do Not Buy This Book If Language Offends You.
The guardians of the minds of children like to pretend kids don't know all the dirty words, even after being exposed to them all their lives, usually at home. When Susan suggested cutting some of that wordage from Doomsday, I laughingly told her she would have to cut out most of the words in it, since every other word in every sentence was tainted.
Morrel Gipson, soft-spoken but courageous, took Flames Going Out for Methuen. It was about teenagers with drugs and ahead of its time in 1980. Nobody wanted to hear about this possible problem for young people. It died. As did my lead characters."