recess radio program

04/15/05
Wilhelm Busch, Max and Moritz, and Comics
    by John Cech

In 1865, one of the great comic works about two of the baddest boys in the history of childhood, Max and Moritz, first appeared in Munich, Germany. It was written and illustrated by Wilhelm Busch, who was born on April 15, 1832, in the small town of Wiedensahl. As a young man, Busch studied art in Antwerp but was so awe-struck by the work of the Dutch masters whose paintings he saw there that Busch reported that he was "quelled ... so thoroughly that I never really dared to earn my bread by painting, as many another was doing." Instead, Busch found his way to the Munich Academy of Fine Arts where he joined a group of young artists who dubbed themselves "The Order of Night Lights." While he remained interested in serious art, he began to make his living in the popular satirical cartoon pages that were the latest in political and social commentary in Munich at the time. And along the way, Busch also essentially perfected, if he didn't in fact invent, that fusion of illustrations and words that we today know as the comic book.

He couldn't have chosen two better rascals to launch this fresh, new form. Max and Moritz told the story, in verse, of the seven tricks that these two scalliwags play on their neighbors --- the Widow Bolte, whose chickens they steal and eat; Tailor Billy, whom they lure into crossing a footbridge which they've already sawn past the point of its holding his weight; Master Lampel, the teacher , whose Meerschaum they load with gun powder; Uncle Fritz, whose bed they fill with biting beetles; the baker -- everyone seems to suffer at the hands of these two imps until they finally meet an adult who out-foxes them and restores an order to the world by dealing, ruthlessly, with these rebellious, destructive Kinder. Even at the time, the sadistic pranks (and their comeuppance) of Busch's kids were seen as controversial -- it stood the idea of the child as essentially innocent on its head and tweaked its nose. And yet many people also found these adventures hilarious, despite their political incorrectness, and Max and Moritz have served as the proto-types for practically every wild child from the Katzenjammer Kids to Dennis the Menace. Busch died a national hero in 1908, having remained, perhaps fittingly, a bachelor. But he wasn't without children -- dozens and dozens of his offspring inhabit his Picture Stories-- which are still in print, still incorrect, and still funny.

Copyright 2005 John Cech

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