Saturday, June 21, 2014

Wrapping It Up

Dan Baines has posted the fourth and fifth entries in his FeeJee mermaid build.  It's glorious.

I'm pressed for time this morning, so I'll update this post later with some more thoughts.  One thing I did want to discuss is the nature of "classic" gaffs.  I've had a few email discussions about Mr. Baines' project with folks puzzled that the mermaid looks odd.  That's entirely intentional, and true to the original ones from the 19th and early 20th century.

Back then the upper body of a monkey grafted to a large fish was a wonder and an amazement.  It's an aesthetic that defines a classic FeeJee mermaid.  A modern version would likely make a few tweaks to the plausibility of the gaff by replacing the lower body from a fish with one patterned after marine mammals like a seal or a killer whale.  Different audience, different aesthetic.

One of the interesting things about the history of gaffs is that there was a quite intentional split between realistic creations and more stylized, almost "cartoony" ones.  It was brought about thanks to a cultural backlash against the whole idea of displaying oddities.  Well meaning folks found it distasteful that both living and dead "freaks" would be exhibited for the amusement of the masses.  That lead to a variety of local ordinances against obscene and disturbing performances.  Exhibitors responded by either recasting their exhibits as scientific curiosities, embracing the realistic approach, or making them intentionally ridiculous.  

One path gives us the Minnesota Iceman, crafted by Hollywood special effects experts.   With a museum-style display it had the defense of "historical or scientific value" against any kind of obscenity charge some small town lawman could throw at it.  The other path leads to "classic" style gaffs that are obvious fakes.  Doug Higley's work is a good example of the latter approach taken into the modern era.


CoastConFan said...

That’s an excellent overview of the transformation from classic Victorian gaff to postmodern cartoonism. I had never thought as to why gaffs changed over time except due to the increased relative sophistication of target rubes.

I hadn’t thought of Argosy magazine in years. I remember it as a slightly dotty men’s magazine with some peripheral scientific interest and a big dollop of adventure. Looking up its origin, I was surprised to find it was actually a Victorian publication in origin, being created in 1882. That explains a lot. After a brief bankrupts, it became a pulp fiction pub, but by the 20s it was publishing a lot of excellent fantasy and SF.

The publication I remember was from the 1960s and the eccentric mix of “man’s stories”, half baked science articles, adventure stories, weak archeology and some assorted twaddle. It eventually died in 1978 only to be revised in digitial form in 2013 (which I did not know until now),

Article on Argosy

Archive of free downloads of pulp magazines:

The Pulp Magazines Project talks about said pubs

Free downloads of the British Argosy magazine, founded in 1865

Propnomicon said...

@ CoastConFan

The backlash against the sideshows was a really interesting period. The people behind it had the best of intentions, but it ended up having some terrible consequences. A lot of the "freaks" enjoyed comfortable lifestyles and a real sense of family thanks to the touring shows. When it ended they were oftentimes forced to live in communities where their deformities weren't nearly as accepted.