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E-Mail | Introduction | Archives | Message Board December 02, 2005
Issue #1097 of 1097
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[Scott Shaw!]

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Title: The Story Of Checks
Issue: None
Date: 1972 (Fifth Edition)
Publisher: Federal Reserve Bank Of New York
Cover Artist(s): Penciled by Marie Severin; inked by John Severin

Here's an Oddball item with what is very probably the single dullest comic book cover ever published - and that's exactly what its publisher wanted! Ah, but inside THE STORY OF CHECKS are some of the most charming pages ever drawn by the equally charming lady cartoonist who also brought us THE INCREDIBLE HULK, SUB-MARINER, "Dr. Strange", KULL THE CONQUEROR and NOT BRAND ECHH - Mirthful Marie Severin (with inking by her big brother, the great John Severin! Talk about "Severin's pay"!) Check this out -- we guarantee it won't bounce!

THE STORY OF CHECKS is a 24-page, four-color free "giveaway" comic book "pamphlet" with uncoated newsprint covers. With a cover that depicts nothing more than a static shot of thick stacks of checks, things could only get better inside this little funnybook -- and fortunately for us, it does!

The brilliant Marie Severin graciously shared the inside story of THE STORY OF CHECKS. with ODDBALL COMICS: "In the 1950s, when the Comics Code came in and sales of comics went down, I looked elsewhere for freelance work. Having worked in banks, and still having some personal connections with people working in the banking business, I went to the Public Information Department of the Federal Reserve Bank. They were looking for someone to work up a promotional comic book to appease the public regarding the rising trend of the computerization of checks and how it affected the banking process. Their concern was that folks would become so suspicious of any personal information being passed along 'in code' that the entire economy might eventually go kaflooey."(Please note that the computer-style font used for the front cover logo of this edition of THE STORY OF CHECKS certainly seems to support this agenda.) But Marie also received the specific instruction that THE STORY OF CHECKS should not look like a typical comic book - the Federal Reserve Bank Of New York wanted adults to read the comic without being embarrassed by being seen reading a comic book - hence, the institutional, static - and rather boring -- cover image of towering stacks of checks! Furthermore, the interior art had to have a degree of sophistication in its presentation, as to not be mistaken for a mere kids' "funnybook" either! Without any specific art direction, Marie took the bank's list of information and figures - much of which was intended to impress the public with the vast amount of paperwork was involved in the checking process - and put together a rough layout and script that somehow managed to walk the creative tightrope decreed by the Federal Reserve Bank Of New York. After a long and exhaustive back-and-forth process with her employers, Marie finally received the "okay" to proceed to the final product. "I knew my brother Johnny was looking for work, too, so I asked him do the inked finishes over my pencils - after all, his crisp linework looked so much more professional than mine." (As you'll see, the final results were both clever and charming, reflecting its cartoonist-creator!) According to Mirthful Marie -- after taking into account its various printings over the years and the fact that it was distributed in all twelve federal reserve districts -- THE STORY OF CHECKS supposedly had the highest print-run of any comic book ever published -- a fact that she says really impressed her boss at Marvel, Smilin' Stan Lee! As the years progressed, and the information in THE STORY OF CHECKS needed to be updated, the Federal Reserve Bank Of New York employed Marie to create new artwork, which she inked herself, some of which appear in the latter pages of this fifth edition.

THE STORY OF CHECKS opens with an inside-front-cover diagram of a typical check, identifying the "stubs", "number of check", "payee", "drawee bank", identification number", "amount of check" and "drawer". Next, on the splash-page (signed by cartoonist John Severin, Marie's talented older brother; "I told him to sign it", says Marie.), we're welcomed by the host and narrator of THE STORY OF CHECKS, "Mr. Tillinghast", Vice-President of the generically-named "Blank Bank". (At least, I think that's his name; it's kinda hard to read backwards through the pebbled window of his office door; Marie says that it wasn't based on anyone in particular; she merely wanted to use the sort of name that might evoke a fussy banker-type.) Here's Mr. Tillinghast's intro:

MR. TILLINGHAST: In my hands I hold one of the most important pieces of paper in the world…a check. We use checks to pay $9 out of every $10 we spend. Today, there are about 91 million checking accounts in the United States. I want to tell you what happens to the checks exchanged between these accounts, and also, some facts about the past, present and future of checks.

In "Checkbook Money", Mr. Tillinghast introduces us to the Hendersons, "a typical American family", as Mrs. Henderson signs for a C.O.D. package from Fitzhugh's department store, paying for her purchase with a hand-written check.

MRS. HENDERSON: Thank goodness we have a checking account! I forgot I'd have to pay for this today. I don't see how people ever did without checks.

MR. TILLINGHAST (narrating): Most of us, like Mrs. Henderson, agree that checks are convenient, but like her we think very little, if at all, about how checks do their job. A lot of money moves around the United States by check. In fact, sums adding up to billions of dollars each day criss-cross among our cities and towns in a complex pattern to settle millions of payments like Mrs. Henderson's that make up the ordinary business of our lives. Checks also settle billions of dollars of government and business payments.

Next, in "How It All Began…", Mr. Tillinghast explains the earliest origins of the check:

MR. TILLINGHAST (narrating): Experts aren't sure…Some say the Romans invented the check about 352 B.C. Others give credit to Holland in the 16th Century. In Amsterdam, about 1500 A.D., people learned to deposit their cash with "cashiers" for a fee, rather than risk storing it at home. The cashiers agreed to collect and cancel debts by way of their depositors' written orders…in other words, checks. In England, in the latter part of the 17th Century, people began to make deposits of cash with goldsmiths…The goldsmith gave his customer "goldsmith notes" (the forerunners of bank-issued currency). These were simple pen-and-ink receipts - written promises to pay the customer, or to his order. But in addition…the customer might write the goldsmith directing him to pay a certain sum to a person, or to his order, or to the bearer of the note. The orders to pay differed from modern checks only in being less uniform.

After we're shown a portrait of Englishman Lawrence Childs, "the first banker in the modern sense" who produced the first printed checks in 1762, we're taken further back in time, to see how checks got their start:

MR. TILLINGHAST (narrating): But before that, in England, the use of checks had begun to spread…Someone receiving checks from different people drawn on different banks found it inconvenient to go to the various banks to get payment. He deposited the checks in his own bank, which did the collecting. Presenting checks to other banks was accomplished by use of messengers. This meant that each bank's messenger made many trips every day to every other bank…The story goes…that one day a weary messenger stopped off on the way at a local coffee shop…As he settled down to have his coffee, he noticed another bank messenger…and as it turned out, each carried a bundle of checks drawn on the other's bank. In the course of conversation, they decided to exchange their bundle of checks. They would return to their own banks, thus shortening their trip. Soon other messengers, hearing of this simple method, started to meet at the coffee house…They all would exchange checks and return to their respective banks, saving many extra trips. When the bankers found out about this, many objected….But as time went on, they realized the value of this system and it has proved itself over the years…Today the local "clearing house" is an integral part of the check collection operation.

Then we're shown a clever diagram of how a modern clearing house works:

MR. TILLINGHAST (narrating): The clearing house operates almost the same as the original coffee house gatherings…Banks send a DELIVERY CLERK and a SETTLING CLERK to the clearing house. They bring bundles of checks, one bundle for each of the other banks, and a LIST of the AMOUNTS DUE their banks from each other bank. And there they hand over the checks drawn on the other banks, receive the checks drawn on their bank, and settle net balances among themselves.

Next is a section titled "Checks In The United States":

MR. TILLINGHAST (narrating): More checks are used in the United States today than in any other country. Their history here began in 1681 with a famous experiment called "The Fund At Boston In New England". To meet the shortage of hard cash for trade, the businessmen of Boston mortgaged their land and wares to the fund. They in turn received a credit against which they could draw checks. The merchants hoped that use of these checks would spread among the public. Checkbook money in the colonies, however, was soon replaced by paper currency which better suited the needs of the time. Only after the Revolutionary War, when deposit banking became established, did checks come into widespread use. By the time of the Civil War, with the growth of cities, improvised transportation and cheap uniform postal rates, checkbook money had surpassed bank note currency in volume. But the country lacked a central clearance mechanism for checks. Banks that had frequent transactions with each other set up accounts with each other and thus checks were handled with ease between such " correspondent" banks. However, some banks charged the presenting out-of-town bank a fee called an "exchange charge." These charges were a major source of income to many banks…But the charges made a check drawn on, say, a Chicago bank, with less in New York than its face value. To avoid the exchange charge, a bank would send out-of-town checks to a "correspondent" bank rather than by the most direct route. The correspondent would in turn send the check to one of ITS correspondents…The result - checks sometimes took a long time to be collected ad went a roundabout way…

In a section titled "The Federal Reserve System", we're shown a portrait of President Woodrow Wilson and a map of the United State, breaking down the nation into federal reserve districts, federal reserve bank cities, federal reserve branch cities, federal reserve districts and federal reserve branch territories.

MR. TILLINGHAST (narrating): When President Wilson signed he Federal Reserve Act in 1913, a new era began in the story of checks in the United States. The act provides that each federal reserve bank serve as a check clearing and collection center for the banks in its district that have accounts with it. The system provides a national clearing mechanism that eliminates the lengthy rerouting and exchange charges on checks. A member bank that receives checks payable out of town may now clear the checks through its federal reserve bank or branch or city correspondents. City banks encourage their country bank "cousins" to use their special collection facilities. The correspondent banking network and the federal reserve system work hand in hand the process the ever-rising volume of checks that need to be collected. During 1971, the federal reserve system handled more than 7.7 billion checks, amounting to over 3.8 trillion dollars. Also, of course, many other checks were collected by city correspondent banks, or local clearing houses, or by direct presentation from one bank or another.

Next, the omnipresent Mr. Tillinghast presents two more diagrams, one visualizing the concept of "Dollar-Switching"; the other, an intricate tracing of a personal check from the Hendersons -- "a typical American family" --through the collection and clearing facilities of the federal reserve system. (From this point on, it looks like the artwork in this edition of THE STORY OF CHECKS was both penciled and inked by Madcap Marie herself.) Having established the history of checks, Mr. Tillinghast clues us into the inner workings of the Federal Reserve Bank Of New York itself, including this nutty visualization of a multi-armed machine that reads, itemizes, records and endorses checks. Then we're given a look at a parade of rejected checks that are improperly endorsed, drawn on accounts with insufficient funds, forgeries, written on nonexistent accounts, with stop-payments or dated ahead-of-time. Then we're shown "A Look Into The Future", as Mr. Tillinghast participates in a chart that shows how the number of checks increase about 7% every years…"At this pace we can anticipate nearly 60 BILLION CHECKS BY 1985!" In response to the impracticability of such amounts of paper, Mr. Tillinghast makes a prescient prediction:

MR. TILLINGHAST (narrating): Some people foresee the day when most payments will be handled completely by banks' computers linked together and to their customers by an electronic payments system, most paper checks could be eliminated.

Then we're given another look at the Henderson family, this time somewhere in a future America:

MR. TILLINGHAST (narrating): Looking back to the typical American family, Mrs. Henderson might eventually be able to pay for her C.O.D. package from Fitzhugh's department store directly from her home using the electronic payment system. She may be able to transmit her payments over ordinary telephone lines connected to her bank's computer. The computer would verify her identity (perhaps by voice), charge her bank demand account, and pay Fitzhugh's bank for credit to the store's account. Most of the Hendersons' receipts and payments will be made electronically by their bank without the use of checks. And at the end of each month, a record of these transactions will be printed by the bank's computer and mailed to them. But scientists, bankers, lawyers and equipment manufacturers will have to get together on planning and development before such a system can be put into operation.

This is followed by a two-page "Glossary" of banking terms and inside-back-cover demonstrations of "How To Write A Check" and "How To Endorse A Check". The back cover of THE STORY OF CHECKS is merely a blank yellow check, er, page!

ODDBALL Factoid - Cartoonist Marie Severin began her noteworthy career in comic books as EC Comics' house colorist! Legend has it that Mirthful Marie would scrupulously color any panel that she considered to be too offensive a dark blue, to partially obscure the gory details from young eyes!

**Extra-special Oddball thanks to Mirthful Marie Severin for her valued cooperation in researching this column. Thanks, Marie, you're as charming as you are talented -- and that's saying a lot!**

For more from Scott Shaw!, visit his Web site at http://www.shawcartoons.com/.

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comicbookresources.com | 12.02.05

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