“A good salesperson has to be a psychologist,” Mel Rapp says, sitting at the back of his College Street optical shop, legs crossed alertly, riding a tangent in his distant, foggy voice. “I use all my experiences to try to inform the attitudes and feelings — the psychology — behind the frames people wear.”
His store, Rapp Optical, celebrates its 20th anniversary this month. The place smells like an antiquarian bookshop. Its narrow entrance is flanked by glass cases that flaunt a dizzying collection of frames — the slender and the massive, the impractical and the practically invisible — that sell at peak rates to the city’s trendsetters. Rapp created many of the pieces himself. He’s an optician, an artisan, a kind of optical philosopher, and he’s currently writing a book on “the psychology of eyewear” pulled from his 30 years in the field. One of its sources: comic books.
Glasses, Rapp argues, have a language of allusion all their own. Take, for instance, the round frames of Tintin‘s Professor Calculus. “Round frames are always, I think, suggestive of intelligence,” Rapp says, a link established by the thinkers who’ve worn them — Frank Lloyd Wright, Sigmund Freud, Gandhi — and the frames’ clever mimicry of our natural contours. “The roundness of the frame is parallel to the roundness of the eyeball.” But there’s another association: villainy. “If you look at documented, archival ghetto pictures of Jews in the 1930s, you will see a lot of Hasidic scholars wearing perfectly round frames,” says Rapp. Through the lens of anti-Semitic propaganda, their specs became malignant. “It depends what you do with that shape. There’s a scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark in which a Nazi is wearing small, round metal frames. He’s got this laugh with a mixture of evil, and he’s wearing the uniform, but it’s the glasses that give credibility to his face as an evil monster. Not to put the round frame in the category of good or evil; it’s just a device that is used. These are the stereotypes they’re playing on.”
Glasses were a blessing to early caricaturists eager to impale their subjects. “If you had a strong prescription, you’d have a thick lens. Imagine big, round lenses, maybe two and a half inches in diameter, surrounded by a thick wooden frame. You put that in front of your face and you become a caricature. Or look at drawings from the early 20th century. People were wearing, not just pince-nez, but monocles. The German boxer Max Schmeling — his manager wore this thick black monocle, either held by the muscle or fit into the orbit of the eye. That is caricature.” The monocle has itself come to define a certain maniacal elegance through characters like the Penguin.
Just as symbolic are the lenses themselves. On this point Rapp is unequivocal: “The world,” he says, “is divided into minus lenses and plus lenses.” A minus lens, which treats myopia (nearsightedness), makes the eye look smaller, “a minification of the eye itself that leads to a distortion,” he explains. “So the viewer will make the assumption that this character is bad.” A plus lens, the kind worn by R. Crumb, does the opposite. “When you wear a plus lens, it magnifies the eye. Every movement of the eyeball becomes exaggerated, and there’s a liquidness to the lens itself. When you look at this person, you see a lot of detail around the eyes, and there’s something disconcerting about that.” The effect, he says, shows in their work. “It’s curious that sometimes Crumb will not draw his eyeballs; in the caricature of the face, all you can see is the frame. What is he saying? Is he saying the lenses are so thick that somebody outside can’t see his eyes because of so much distortion? Or maybe he’s saying that it’s a barrier between the drawn character and the world. Who knows, if he was nearsighted, if he would still be the same Robert Crumb.”
No comic figure, however, is more closely tied to a pair of glasses than Clark Kent. It’s a subject Rapp knows well. “If you can believe this,” he starts, “I’ve been thinking about Clark Kent for about 10 years.” Rapp read Superman comics as a kid, and he still does, though these days he mines the material for what it reveals about his customers. “Clark Kent uses his glasses to conceal his true identity. He has a secret side to himself, and the glasses have to be large enough to make him look smaller. He doesn’t need the glasses to improve his vision. He just uses them as a mask; they conceal his strength.” This echoes the reasoning of some of Rapp’s more distinguished clientele. “I’ve had some of the most famous people in the world in this store. I had a famous, Academy Award-winning actor here, and the glasses he bought were large. He needed to not be recognized.
“It’s an issue of identity,” says Rapp. An identity drawn, in part, by cartoonists.