Reading The Book of Marco Polo

Marco Polo has been my companion throughout my life. By the time I was born he was firmly ensconced in the pantheon of heroes transported to America from the European past. He was a figure from a time-space called the Middle Ages, along with Robin Hood and King Arthur, where men wore tights, fought with swords and staffs and wore funny hats. This was not a place of well-defined chronology, geography or correspondence to modern nations. It was simply after the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans and before the discovery of the New World. Marco Polo was neither a noble thief nor a mystical king. He was an adventurer and wanderer, the man who knew how large the world truly was.

The Adventures of Marco Polo
Classics Illustrated, No. 27
New York: Gilberton Company, Inc., 1946

Marco Polo was from a place called Venice, a town whose canals and bridges were reproduced on the walls of many Italian restaurants. I had a sense that he came from a different part of our past than other heroes. I first met him in a kind of general store where toys, paper and school supplies were sold, a place to stop between home and school and spend some pocket change. There was candy, gum and soda along with newspapers and magazine. Among the magazines were racks of comic books. The adventures of super heroes were issued every month, each one dressed in tights with lightning emanating from his fist and a grimace of rage wrapped around his face. These narratives were colorful but predictable. Along the back shelf, often buried underneath the current Green Lantern or the Justice League of America, were graphic versions of stories taken from European and American books, the Classic Illustrated comics. The Man in the Iron Mask, The Tale of Two Cities and The Count of Monte Cristo proved to be good comic books. They all took place before atomic bombs and rocket ships. It was the best and the worst of times, and people were riding in horse-drawn carriages with feathers sticking out of their hats.

The store where I found the comics was close to a luncheonette — The Hamburger Depot. Here a model train carried orders along the wall to each booth equipped with a silver jukebox. The culture that surrounded me in school, television and cinema — Paul Bunyan and Rumplestilskin, Pinocchio and Snow White – was a mélange of American and European folklore. It was much easier to look at the pictures than to process nineteenth-century descriptive prose. I preferred the comics to the books in the library.

I read the colorful Classics Illustrated version of The Adventures of Marco Polo sitting in a booth at The Hamburger Depot. In retrospect, this proved to be an excellent introduction to a book that has attracted, repulsed, confounded and puzzled men of great learning for seven centuries. As I flipped the pages, a teenage customer dropped a dime into the jukebox and chose a song by Elvis Presley. I could see immediately that young Marco, who was a teenager when he left Venice, wore tights and a floppy hat. When fighting the Moslems, whose faces were always dark, he rode a white horse. When being introduced to a white-skinned Princess Silver Bells, he knew how to be polite. The skin of Kublai, his king, was a shade of yellow. Kublai had long fingernails, wore an embroidered gown with big sleeves and a tall hat. He ruled the kingdom of Cathay, which was a marvelous place.

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