Author: Michael H. Price

MICHAEL H. PRICE: Roy Crane: A life in comics

MICHAEL H. PRICE: Roy Crane: A life in comics

Continued from last week…

The following text contains the remarks of comic-strip master Roy Crane (1901 – 1977) from a visit with George E. Turner and Yrs. Trly. on May 13, 1969, in the Editorial Art Department of the Daily News & Globe-Times at Amarillo, Texas. George and I had become acquainted with the Texas-bred artist a few years earlier when he had visited various client-newspapers on behalf of his Reuben Award-winning feature Buz Sawyer. – M.H.P.

Back about 1912, when I was a boy, our next-door neighbor in Sweetwater [Texas] was a traveling salesman for a wholesale grocery firm. Mother and I went with him and his wife, once, when he made his rounds, and we went up to Amarillo. I had an impression of endless grass, and the car seemed always to be going uphill. The grass was very thick and grew right up to the ruts – there wasn’t a graded road. There was a world of prairie dogs. They’d dive into the runs, and we’d run over hundreds of them a day. Now they [residents of the Texas Plains] have discovered trees, and there are beautiful lawns and flowers.

Les Turner, who later was my assistant on the Wash Tubbs daily strips, is from Wichita Falls [Texas]. We were going on a sort of bumming trip together after we finished art school. There were no jobs for us, and we went riding freight trains and hitching rides. I missed him by one day when he got a ride to California. I went to Galveston and got a job as ordinary seaman on a tramp steamer to Europe. When we returned and landed at New York, I got my first art job on the New York World.

I started Wash Tubbs in 1924. Later that year, [Harold Gray’s] Little Orphan Annie came out, and it was quite a departure. Here was a strip that tried to make you cry instead of laugh! I wanted to make Wash Tubbs an adventure strip, and the office wanted to make it a movie [humor, i.e.] strip. When I broke in, there had been a few continuities. I think Andy Gump [of Sidney Smith’s The Gumps] ran for President, and they had running gags about the election. He lost, of course.

But 1924 was in the day of joke comics, and the guy who took [subscribed to, i.e.] the most joke magazines was the biggest-rated cartoonist. Some [cartoonists] collected foreign joke books and had them translated. I was living in Cleveland, then. Once, two different strips in the Cleveland paper had the same joke on the same day – and there it was, the next day, in still another one! No one paid much attention to adventure strips until the Depression. They were called comics, and they ran on the comics page, and they were supposed to be funny.

A number of us were trying to tell stories. We called them continuities, not stories. They were more or less like the situation comedies on teevee today. I was trying for adventure, connected with romance. In 1929, I picked up [Captain] Easy. He was someone I could put some force behind. [The title character] Wash had been with a pal about like himself, and they couldn’t fight or anything. I even had to have some eunuchs in a harem help them out a bit, and that was going too far! Easy was what I needed, a two-fisted type.


MICHAEL H. PRICE: The Man Who Was Easy

MICHAEL H. PRICE: The Man Who Was Easy

Back during the middle 1960s, my newsroom mentor George E. Turner and I became acquainted with the Texas-bred cartoonist Roy Crane (1901–1977), whose daily strip Buz Sawyer – a staple of the local newspaper’s funnies section – had recently landed a Reuben Award from the National Cartoonists Society. Like some Oscar-anointed filmmaker with a current box-office attraction, Crane was visiting his syndicate’s client-papers, one after another, to help promote this touch of newfound momentum for Sawyer as a circulation-builder.

Now, George and I were admirers of Crane’s storytelling artistry from ’way back, and we were as interested in an earlier example called Wash Tubbs. Crane had shepherded Tubbs during the 1920s from a gag-a-day feature to a full-fledged high-adventure vehicle of sustained force, then entrusted it in 1943 to his boyhood pal and studio assistant, Leslie Turner, when the opportunity came to develop Buz Sawyer.

For a good many readers, the greater attraction of Wash Tubbs lay not so much in its title character – a boyish adventurer with an affinity for trouble – as in Washington Tubbs’ cohort, a man of action known as Captain Easy. Easy seemed to George Turner and me an essence of resourceful heroism, and we had wondered: Who might have been the life-model for the rough-and-ready Southerner? (Wash Tubbs’ origins seemed an easier call – in part, a wish-fulfillment projection of Crane himself.)

So while visiting with Crane, we asked about Easy. One of us set forth the theory that Easy was based upon either Richard Dix or Jack Holt, square-jawed, hawk-nosed figures who were noted for their tough-guy movies at the time Easy had appeared. Crane smiled and changed the subject.


George and I were hardly alone in the wondering. Historian Ron Goulart also had asked; Crane had replied simply that his brother-in-law had suggested that Washington Tubbs needed a strong sidekick, and that he, Roy Crane, had concocted Easy in response to the idea. Goulart had said that Easy seemed reminiscent of Tom Mix, the cowboy star, but Crane had dismissed the idea by saying that he had used his brother-in-law as a model.

But according to separately collected but unanimous opinions from school-days friends of Crane, Mr. William Lee, a.k.a. Captain Easy, was modeled after a college pal. Journalist-turned-novelist Carlton Stowers put us on the track after he had visited with another friend from Crane’s youth.


MICHAEL H. PRICE: Backwater Texana and a music-biznis digression

MICHAEL H. PRICE: Backwater Texana and a music-biznis digression

The songwriter and guitar-builder Greg Jackson, a key music-making cohort of mine since 1981, has taken the occasional hand in the comics racket, as well, as a consequence of the affiliation. Greg is the life-model, for example, for the character of Jackson Walker in Timothy Truman’s Scout books, and Greg supplied the lap-steel guitar riffs for a funnybook-soundtrack recording that accompanies a chapter of the Prowler series, first as an Eva-Tone Soundsheet insert and eventually as a digital file.

Greg and I have a rambunctious Texas Plains upbringing in common, too – our hometown areas sit within half-an-hour’s drive from one another, and we attended West Texas Suitcase University during the late 1960s and had many of the same musical accompanists – although we never met until after both of us had resettled in North Central Texas. A steady influence overall has been the work of the Oklahoma-to-Texas balladeer Woody Guthrie, whose rough-hewn autobiography of the 1940s, Bound for Glory, once inspired Greg and me to begin thinking about a composite memoir. Guthrie’s equally rough-hewn cartoons had suggested that a comic-book composite memoir might suit the Jackson-Price agenda just fine: Call it Rebound for Glory.

A worthy thought, but the music-making imperative has taken prior claim to such an extent that what stories Greg and I have managed to tell together have all turned out to be songs. Postmodern folkie-scare material, for the most part, but with nods all along to a shared family-band tradition. Our first album of Texas Panhandle ballads – ballards, as Greg calls ’em – arrived in 2006 under the title Mortal Coils, with as emphatic a nod to Aldous Huxley and Mr. Shakespeare as to Woody Guthrie.

The origins of some such material predate Greg’s and my efforts by a good many years, including quite a bit of resurrected ancestral material from the 1930s – 1950s. We’ll be taking the Mortal Coils songbook out for an in-person jaunt on September 5, 2007, at Granbury, Texas. The plan is to vary the program to include some recitations of neo-Texana by my longtime newspaper publisher, Rich Connor, with whom I work at The Business Press of Fort Worth, in Texas, and the daily Times Leader of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania (not far, incidentally, from Tim Truman’s turf). The spoken word and the gargled lyric have quite a bit in common, in this instance.

Did I say “predate” – ?? Back in 1934, the silent symphony of a Southwestern dawn inspired two music-making brothers to begin a long-in-the-making song called “Mornin’ on the Desert.” One of the authors, Manny Jackson, eventually became the father of Greg Jackson, a like-minded soul who eventually would retool the verses into a coffeehouse ballad.


MICHAEL H. PRICE: The canine Frankenstein from 1934

MICHAEL H. PRICE: The canine Frankenstein from 1934

The kinship between science and fantasy runs deep into antiquity – deeper, yet, than the well-aged but comparatively modern notion of science fiction. The filmmaker Ray Harryhausen, in his foreword to my revised edition of the late George E. Turner’s Spawn of Skull Island: The Making of King Kong (2002), invokes the spirit of the alchemist Paraceleus (1494 –1541) in describing the imaginative zeal necessary to bring (seemingly) to life the impossible creatures of cinema.

Paraceleus, of course, believed that the power of imagination also was necessary to the development of real-world scientific breakthroughs. His speculations about the creation of life in a laboratory setting prefigured nothing so much as that most influential novel of science fiction, Mary W. Shelley’s 19th-century morality play Frankenstein, or a Modern Prometheus. (Prometheus, of course, had beaten both Ms. Shelley and Paraceleus to the punch, if only in the realm of ancient mythology.)

History and science have long since validated Frankenstein as a plausible argument. Real science absorbs the most extravagant science-fictional influences, wonders, “Why not?” – and then proceeds to maneuver fiction into plausible fact. Hence the experimentation that has long since led to the transplanting of limbs and organs in workable, life-saving terms, if not to the creation of Life Its Ownself. The relationship will continue apace as long as Big Science holds humankind in a thrall of mingled hope and unease.

One of the odder collisions between science-fantasy and credentialed research took place during the spring of 1934, in a University of California research laboratory at Berkeley. Here, Dr. Robert E. Cornish announced that his team had restored life to a dog, Lazarus by name, that had been put to death by clinical means. Cornish bolstered his claim – a purported breakthrough that seems to have led no further – with motion-picture footage. The resulting publicity attracted such attention that the college’s administration booted Cornish off the campus. A June-of-1934 report in Time magazine describes a saddening follow-through:

With undying hope in his voice, hollow-eyed young Dr. Robert Cornish last week repeated, over and over, the name of the dog he had killed almost two months ago with ether and nitrogen, revived with chemical and mechanical resuscitants … Lazarus gave no sign that he heard.

But the bony white mongrel was no longer crawling on his mat. He was walking, slowly, with stiff, dragging hind legs and vacant eyes. He ate regularly but without enthusiasm. Dr. Cornish realized that part of the dog’s brain was still dead, might remain so for months or years of apathetic existence.

Last week, too, Lazarus was no longer in the shabby little laboratory on the University of California campus where he had tasted four minutes of death. He was in the Cornish home in Berkeley, where Dr. Cornish had taken him when the university provost asked [Cornish] to vacate…

Cornish carried on, via a follow-through described in a credulous 1935 report from Modern Mechanix & Inventions magazine:


MICHAEL H. PRICE: Can’t Get Enough of B.T.K.

MICHAEL H. PRICE: Can’t Get Enough of B.T.K.

You just can’t live in Texas if you don’t have a lot of soul, as Doug Sahm would have it. No, and you can’t live in Arizona if you don’t have a sense of Yuma.

But we were talking about Texas, where you also just can’t live without an immersion in the lore of Billy the Kid. Folklore and pop-fiction, that is, as opposed to factual knowledge or even perceived truth. By the time of the post-middle 20th century, such mis-familiarity had so thoroughly outstripped the facts in the case of this most notorious badman that most of the B.T.K. legendry bombarding the youth of America – and not merely the Texas / New Mexico Plains region – came not from Texas, but rather from Texas as filtered through the movies and the comic books.

For years on end, my most vivid images of Billy the Kid came from Toby Press’ Billy the Kid Adventure Magazine (29 issues, spanning 1950 – 1955 and boasting efforts by the likes of Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, and Harvey Kurtzman) and from the after-school telecasts of an extensive run of low-budget movies starring, by turns, Bob Steele and Buster Crabbe. At a turning-point for such awareness, while visiting Northwest Texas’ Panhandle–Plains Historical Museum with the folks, I noticed a display containing this document:

Tascosa Texas

Thursday Oct 26th


Know all persons by these presents that I do hereby sell and diliver [sic] to Henry F. Hoyt one Sorrel Horse Branded BB on left hip and other indistinct Branded on Shoulders, for the Sum of Seventy five $ dollars, in hand received.

[Signed] W.H. Bonney


Jos. E. Masters

Geo. J. Howard

“You know who wrote that, don’t you?” asked my Dad. “Your teevee-cowboy hero, Billy the Kid – that’s who. Billy Bonney.

“Except he wasn’t any teevee hero,” Dad continued. “More of a juvenile-delinquent punk, if you ask me.”

“They had juvenile delinquents in 1878?” I asked in reply, missing the point altogether. I was sufficiently flabbergasted by the revelation that Billy the Kid had been a Real Guy – or that the movies and the comic-book series (both loosely conceived and dense with internal contradictions) could claim a basis in fact – to find myself at a loss for words as to this larger issue.

The right words would occur to me later. My father had heard at first hand some harsh accounts of Billy’s dealings, via a Depression-era acquaintance with Elizabeth “Frenchy” McCormick (ca. 1852–1941), last survivor of the long-abandoned frontier settlement known as Tascosa. So Dad and I had plenty to discuss – my Hollywood-and-funnybooks perception, vs. Dad’s owlhoot-punk opinions.


MICHAEL H. PRICE: From ‘Barefoot Gen’ to ‘White Light/Black Rain’

MICHAEL H. PRICE: From ‘Barefoot Gen’ to ‘White Light/Black Rain’

Steven Okazaki’s documentary feature White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will arrive August 6 over the HBO premium-cable network, marking the 62nd anniversary of the arrival of thermonuclear warfare. The film’s harrowing impact has been a matter of record since its in-competition run during last January’s Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

Though hardly the first of its kind, White Light/Black Rain proves a timely and emphatic reminder. It possesses a sharp consistency with the pioneering Barefoot Gen manga-turned-anime tales of Keiji Nakazawa, and with Masuji Ibuse’s novel Black Rain, as filmed in 1989 by Shohei Imamura. Okazaki’s film brings full-circle, East-meets-West, a persistent question raised by one history-in-the-making Hollywood epic of 1947, The Beginning or the End, which traces the Manhattan Project to a climax at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (In its very title, The Beginning or the End had declared thermonuclear weaponry a topic of perpetual relevance. Further outcroppings since then have included 1982’s The Atomic Café, a pageant of A-bomb boosterism propaganda; and 1995’s The Plutonium Circus, concerning the Texas town most thoroughly identified with nuclear “preparedness” as a tax base.)

White Light/Black Rain finds its more persuasive voice in interviews with survivors of the bombings, illuminated by a gauntlet of harrowing archival footage. Its appreciation requires context, lest White Light/Black Rain be mistaken for an unprecedented re-examination. Its nearer origins lie in the graphic novels of Nakazawa, whose first-hand account of Hiroshima – he professes to have noticed the approach, followed by “a million flashbulbs going off at once” – yielded two Barefoot Gen animated movies of the 1980s. Nakazawa has aligned himself with Steven Okazaki since the 2005 documentary The Mushroom Club, a short-film stage-setter for White Light/Black Rain.

The bombings have amounted to fodder, both imaginative and factual, for the American motion-picture industry since well before that turning-point of World War II. In a time of reciprocal hostilities, the U.S. entertainment industry felt a duty to commit propaganda as a function of advocating an any-means-necessary end to the war.

WWII, of course, no more ended with the bombings than it can be said to have begun at any absolute moment. One war bleeds into another, like the ocean ignoring its explorers’ charted boundaries, over the greater sweep of history. It is a simpler matter to cinch the moment at which Hollywood – itself an occupied territory at the time, given the influential presence of the armed forces’ motion-picture production bureaucracy at studios large and small – began anticipating a bombing run over Japan as a matter of meeting the Axis powers’ aggression in decisive terms.


MICHAEL H. PRICE: Jiggs & Maggie Go to the Movies, and Vice Versa

MICHAEL H. PRICE: Jiggs & Maggie Go to the Movies, and Vice Versa

George McManus (1884-1954), once a household name via his long-running domestic-shenanigans comic strip Bringing Up Father, stands as a practical embodiment of the comics’ industry’s cinematic possibilities. The last of his comics-into-movies adaptations, Jiggs and Maggie Out West (Monogram Pictures; 1950), came to hand recently during the excavation process for a fifth volume of novelist John Wooley’s and my Forgotten Horrors film-book series.

What? Bringing Up Father’s Jiggs and Maggie in a horror and/or Western movie? Well, not precisely so – but close enough to fit the Forgotten Horrors agenda. The books’ greater point all along has been that of isolating the weirdness in a range of motion pictures beyond the narrowly defined genres of horror and science-fantasy. And more peculiar than William Beaudine’s Jiggs and Maggie Out West, they don’t hardly come.

Born in St. Louis to Irish parents, McManus registered early in the last century as a newspaper cartoonist capable of finding a resonant absurdity in everyday domestic life, and of veering into dreamlike fantasy in the manner of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland. With McCay, during the 1910s, McManus began exploring the finer possibilities of cartoon-movie animation: It is McManus, in a live-action prologue to the 1914 animation-charged Gertie the Dinosaur, who stakes a wager with McCay about the challenges of bringing a prehistoric beast to a semblance of lifelike motion. McManus’ larger filmography dates from 1913, as source-author, animator, and occasional actor.

Monogram Pictures’ formal Jiggs and Maggie series spans only 1946 -1950, but the funnypapers’ Bringing Up Father – a broadly parodic but subtly satiric study of an Irish-immigrant workingman, Jiggs, and his social-climbing wife, Maggie – had become fodder for the movie business many years beforehand.


MICHAEL H. PRICE: Moe Lester and the Persistenence of Absurditude

MICHAEL H. PRICE: Moe Lester and the Persistenence of Absurditude

(Continued from our July 15 Installment)

Only on occasion nowadays do I revisit at any length the bizarre Southwestern region whose Dominant Culture gave rise to the chronic-to-acute exploits of Konstable Moe Lester. I use the word character facetiously, for in all his years of published misadventures (whether small-press or nearer some nebulous mainstream) and privately circulated gag strips, Moe has never been anything more than a facile caricature, a “type” embodying and exaggerating traits, mannerisms, and attitudes that prevail amongst the denizens of West Texas’ so-called Panhandle region.

Now, I feel a profound and abiding nostalgia for that territory, having grown up there and having spent the first decade-and-a-half of my career touring those Panhandle backroads as both a rock-band musician and a reporter for a centrally located daily newspaper. But nostalgia must be acknowledged as an ailment before it can be dealt with on any practical level: When its pangs of homesickness intrude upon my mostly idyllic self-exile to a more nearly metropolitan base of operations, Moe Lester simply rears his ugly proboscis as a reminder of why I had put that sprawling Panhandle country behind me, in the first place.

Once a lusty land, the Texas Panhandle slouches into the 21st century as a scattering of dying hamlets – Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, writ large. The long-gone corporate land-grab barons, whose minions (bureaucratic, military, religious) subdued the native tribal culture, left behind an empire of once-vast ranches, once-thriving railroads, and once-monumental oil-and-gas production outfits that in scarcely the span of five generations have given way to an economy driven by speed traps, Dairy Queen cuisine, prison-system boondoggles and bureaucracies-within-bureaucracies, and the occasional Wal-Mart – bane of the independent small merchant. New methods of petroleum reclamation (drilling at a slant to tap the resources beyond the reach of old-school vertical methods) yield wealth and environmental hazards galore; the citified corporate interests get the wealth, and the countryside gets the hazards. You get the picture.

This is Moe Lester Country, and welcome to it. “The land of the living dead,” as Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard characterized the region in an all-but-epic narrative poem of 1986 called “Brownsville Girl.” Where the more progressive restaurants divide themselves into two sections: one for smoking, one for chain-smoking. Where reciprocal bigotries endure despite superficial desegregation of the ethnicities, and where law enforcement practices a policy of intimidation as a stop-gap against (if not a prelude to) harsher measures. Moe Lester is the emblematic intolerant rustic-with-a-badge.

But of course the Texas backwaters are scarcely the sole domain of rampant Yahooism, and I don’t mean the Other Google. I’ve heard readers and colleagues from Maine to Alabama to Orange County (thank you, Barry Goldberg) remark that they’ve met a Moe Lester or two in their own localized ramblings. And yes, Moe’s patently shallow characterization manages to ignore the benevolence and common decency that remain to be found in such provinces. If one looks hard enough, anyhow.

Because benevolence and common decency aren’t particularly funny. And self-important ignorance is the very stuff of lowbrow, big-nose/big-foot humor. Besides, we all talk funny down yonder in the boondocks.

Yes, well, and many’s the time I’ve dismissed the Moe Lester comics as “those stupid ‘cop’ cartoons,” but all the same they have been a constant in a career whose more artistically earnest endeavors have proved fleeting or erratic. I’ve been putting this character – I mean, facile caricature – through his paces for long enough to know that there must be some reason greater than the mere urge or economic need to see one’s words and pictures in cold print.

Moe didn’t even see generalized publication until my senior year in college – 1969-70 – when as new editor of the campus newspaper at West Texas State University I drafted him into the service of lampooning an oppressive administration and its bullying uniformed security force.


MICHAEL H. PRICE: Moe Lester – Román Noir, or Roamin’ Nose?

MICHAEL H. PRICE: Moe Lester – Román Noir, or Roamin’ Nose?

The ungainly fellow pictured alongside is a concoction of my grammar-school days, modeled originally after an authoritarian physical-education teacher who took immense delight in reminding us younger kids that soon we would matriculate to the intermediate grades where he held sway. Talk about your incentives for under-achievement!

Because one must ridicule that which one cannot combat outright, I proceeded to reduce this intimidating presence to a cartoon character – exaggerating his pronounced nose and chin, as well as his intense Texas-redneck dialect – and set about subjecting him to sundry humiliations within the pages of a Big Chief composition tablet. These pages in turn were duly, if guardedly, circulated for the amusement of sympathetic classmates. The confiscation of these prototypical Underground Comics (ca. 1955) was long in coming but inevitable: I was having too much fun in plain view of a cheerless society.

The agent of my character’s simultaneous popular discovery and christening was one Mrs. M.E. Jenkins, third-grade home-room teacher and Tireless Champion of the Status Quo. Inquiring as to the contents of my sketch-pad, Mrs. Jenkins noticed its star player straightaway – and invited me to explain his raison d’etre to the assembled class. I improvised: “Aw, he’s just this goofy ol’ guy who gets in trouble a lot.” Then she asked: “And what is his name, Michael?”

Gulp! Well, now, no way was I going to identify my dreaded life-model – and so I made up an alias on the spot: “His name is Moe Lester, Miz Jenkins.” (Pre-emptive crisis-control tip: Never speak in puns to people who neither Get It nor want to do so.)

“A molester!?!” bellowed Mrs. Jenkins, grabbing me by one ear and leaving the classroom to its own snickering devices as she hupped me down the cavernous hallway to the Principal’s Office.

Not quite nine years of age, and already the author of a Banned Book. Over Mrs. Jenkins’ shrieks of outrage, Principal Howard Amick prevailed with somewhat a saner voice: He found the pages worth a chuckle but, even so, pronounced them a Waste of Talent. Damnation by faint praise, in other words, within a public-school system whose elementary art curriculum consisted of finger-painting and construction-paper cut-outs.

The menacing teacher who had served as an unwitting life-model for Moe Lester found himself transferred before I could reach fourth grade. So whew, already. But others like him have cropped ever since and all along, in the form of schoolyard bullies, college deans, petty bureaucrats, dim-witted newspaper editors, police officers of a maverick bent, and so forth. Abuse of authority is rampant, as if you didn’t know, and those who can’t bring themselves to buy in are well advised to find what humor they can in its ridiculous essence.

A recurrent, if not entirely current, incarnation of Moe Lester dates from 1969-70, when as a college undergraduate I based a revamped version upon such influences as (1) a uniformly lunkheaded and malicious campus-cop department at West Texas Suitcase University, (2) Lyndon “Beans” Johnson, and (3) a big-shot rancher-turned-political agitator named J. Evetts Haley, who at the time was holding forth as the Phantom President of W.T.S.U., my alma mater, such as it was and is – in hopes of marginalizing the on-campus outcroppings (yes, even in the provinces) of such influences as the Panthers and S.D.S. A primary aestheticable influence would involve the likes of Basil Wolverton, Walt Kelly, Gene Ahern, Al Capp, and Boody Rogers – masters of convoluted wordplay and cartoonish exaggeration. Many of the more recent Moe Lester pages, including a 1993 appearance in Heavy Metal and a couple of stories-in-progress with fellow Texas-bred cartoonist Frank Stack, date from times more recent. But the template was struck long beforehand.


MICHAEL H. PRICE: Amazing Colossal Sculptures

MICHAEL H. PRICE: Amazing Colossal Sculptures

Last week’s dispatch from this quarter drew some parallels between cartooning and Fine Artsy facial studies, as provoked by an exhibition called The Mirror and the Mask: Portraiture in the Age of Picasso, at the Kimbell Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas. A companion opener at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth has less of an academic mouthful of a title – Ron Mueck, plain and simple – but digs comparably deep into the function of portraiture during Times of Anxiety (which is to say, all times) by concentrating upon the assembled work of one present-day artist. Namely, Ron Mueck, Muppeteer-turned-monumental sculptor.

So I’ll be expecting my Hearty Handshake any day now from the Greater (than what?) Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, on account of doing my bit for provincial tourism and the hometown’s arts-and-farces scene. These exhibitions, of course, are anything but provinciable.

Mueck will require little introduction, although some of his now-cryptic, now-blatant clay-into-silicone signature-pieces are more widely recognized than his name. The Untitled (Seated Woman), a smaller-than-real piece of unnervingly lifelike resonance, has been an object of worldwide fascination since its début in 2002 as a fixture of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Send this one out on institutional loan or place it in temporary storage, and the North Texas enthusiasts will mount a massed protest. Mueck’s namesake exhibit has previously graced the Brooklyn Museum and the National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa. It will remain on view at Fort Worth’s Modern through Oct. 21.

I find that Mueck’s works, though engaging if approached cold and without preamble, make a great deal more sense when regarded in a pop-literary context – all due respect to the stodgier curatorial realm. The tinier human figures might leave the absorbed viewer feeling a great deal like Mr. Swift’s Lem Gulliver, awakening to find himself confronted with motionless Lilliputians. Mueck’s larger-than-life figures reduce the observer, conversely, to the state of the awestruck expeditioners of 1933’s King Kong, edging warily past a fallen Stegosaurus. Mueck sums up his approach with a simple manifesto: “Life-size is ordinary.” Which recalls this echo from Old Hollywood:

“It’s not big enough!” raged the filmmaking artist Merian C. Cooper (1893-1973), on so many occasions that his Hollywood crews learned to anticipate his demands – by thinking in unreal proportions and translating such impressions to the movie screen.

How big? Well, that 1933 accept-no-substitutes original Kong is Cooper’s chief surviving brainchild.