A Curious Man
The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley
I hadn’t thought about “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” in years. I remember reading it as a kid, before the internet made it much easier to find these kinds of weird factoids and information about different cultures.
And that’s why Neal Thompson’s biography of Robert Ripley appealed to me — it reminded me of a long-ago time when the world was a much larger, more unusual place. Ripley lived during the days when travel was exciting, dangerous, and exotic. Newspapermen could change the world … while making a good living. And cartoonists could make a fortune.
A hundred years ago, Ripley went from shy, young, aspiring newspaper cartoonist to globe-trotting, athletic millionaire. In A Curious Man, Thompson intersperses background factoids through Ripley’s life story in a reminder of his style and what made him famous. He began by drawing sports cartoons, in a time before photography, before moving to New York and being sent overseas. He was almost 30 when he created his famous comic strip, which developed slowly, over several years, in between competing in handball, a short failed marriage to a showgirl, and an around-the-world trip, where he combined curiosity and parochialism. Later, he wound up looking for women and drinking his way across South America, pastimes that punctuated his life.
His strip led him to radio shows, films, books, lectures, and celebrity appearances, as others did the work, uncredited. Later chapters begin to resemble a tabloid, rolling out scandalous stories and freak show examples. There’s not much sense of the man; he’s portrayed as something to watch, with no indication of what might be going on in his head.
That said, the biggest flaw in this book is the lack of examples of Ripley’s work. It’s a crime to talk about a cartoonist while not reprinting the art he’s known for. The book follows the old-fashioned approach of putting all the photographs together in one short (16-page) section, with a promise that downloading an app and scanning the page would show videos and cartoons. I didn’t bother to try.
As for the famous strip, there’s one poorly reprinted example at the end of the book. It’s a disappointment. Believe it or not, the comic is still running, now done by John Graziano. You can find out more about the book at the author’s website. (The publisher provided a review copy.)