In a Bethesda Bookstore, the Prints of Propaganda
By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2004; Page D01
"This one is great!" Andy Moursund says as he pulls out another of his posters.
It's a cartoon that shows Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, each depicted as an octopus, fleeing in terror as a Japanese soldier slices off their legs with a sword.
"It's a Japanese sushi bar!" Moursund says, laughing.
Actually, it's a Japanese propaganda cartoon from World War II that Moursund has blown up into a poster. He makes a lot of posters these days. Using a computer, he scans them from his strange collection of antique oddities -- old ads, cartoons, postcards, book covers and lurid tabloid front pages -- and he sells them at the Georgetown Book Shop, his used-book emporium in downtown Bethesda.
Taken together, Moursund's bizarre posters constitute an alternative American history, an unofficial Museum of Stuff That's Way Too Weird for the Smithsonian.
He reaches down and pulls another poster out of a bin. At first glance, it looks like a beautiful full-color drawing of the Statue of Liberty. But at second glance, you notice that Lady Liberty is Chinese. And she's holding an opium pipe. And she's standing on a human skull. And the beams of light emanating from her head read "Filth" and "Immorality" and "Ruin to White Labor." It's an anti-immigration cartoon from an 1881 issue of the Wasp, the San Francisco literary magazine edited by Ambrose Bierce.
"I love these old immigration images," says Moursund, 59, "because they show that people used to say the same things about the old immigrant groups that they're saying now about the new immigrant groups."
The phone rings and Moursund answers it: "Georgetown Book Shop." He listens for a minute, then takes out a pen and writes something on the back of his left hand, which serves as his notebook and is already covered with phone numbers and messages. This is not unusual. His wife, Fallon, swears that the only time she's seen his left hand devoid of notes was their wedding day in 1990.
Moursund hangs up the phone and continues pulling his favorite posters out of the bins in the front of his store.
"Welcome to Greenville, Texas," says one. It's a blowup of a 1940s postcard that shows the main drag of scenic Greenville, where roadsters with running boards are parked under a welcome sign proclaiming the city's proud motto: The Blackest Land . . . The Whitest People."
"I BREAK STRIKES!" screams another poster. It's the cover of a 1935 book subtitled "The Techniques of Pearl L. Bergoff." Apparently, those techniques were pretty straightforward: A photo on the cover shows a goon whacking a striker with a baseball bat.
"HITLER IS RIGHT!" This poster is a blowup of the cover of a 1940 book that is, Moursund says, a 452-page rant against Jewish bankers, black rapists and the Treaty of Versailles.
"I Googled the author," Moursund says, smiling mischievously. "He published one other book, a picture book of Germany. It was published in 1949 -- in Buenos Aires." He bursts out laughing.
Moursund has an odd sense of humor -- "it's kind of a black humor," says his wife -- and it's reflected in his choice of images for the posters. They're all a tad off-kilter. This is kitsch with a twist. One poster is an ad for a 1934 Fourth of July picnic -- but it's a picnic sponsored by the Communist Party. Another poster is an ad for a 1939 "Pro-American Rally" in Madison Square Garden -- but it's sponsored by American Nazis. "Onward Christian Soldiers," says one poster -- but the name of that beloved old hymn is written atop a photo of a 1925 Ku Klux Klan march in Washington.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company