Opus Six:

1.  More Ralls Than Not (8/9)

2.  Ten-year Tenure (8/9)

1. More Ralls Than Not.  Ted Rallz [sic], sometime political cartoonist
and cultural gadfly and general all-around spiteful malcontent, is
hard at work, performing his usual shtick.  If you've read the
interview with him in The Comics Journal No. 206 (August 1998), you
doubtless realize that the man doesn't like anything.  In fact, he
dislikes everything.  Everything except the kind of skuzzy atmosphere
of a New York subway.  "My [drawing] style," he announced (with some
measure of pride, I thought), "is an attempt to create that
atmosphere on paper."
     In his relentless crusade to demean everything, he recently attacked
Art Spiegelman in The Village Voice.  It is transparently the act of
a man nearly eaten up with envy.  Rallz's bitterness rings through
the piece like a change of bells.  His basic premise: as a cover
artist and art consultant for The New Yorker and other with-it
periodicals, Spiegelman stands so high as a comics guru in the
estimation of the New York publishing world that he virtually
controls the cartooning profession in that city.
     Among the sins this status leads Spiegelman to commit, according to
Rallz, is that of helping his friends to get cartooning assignments.
>From there, Rallz goes on to criticize Maus and virtually everything
else Spiegelman has done.  Most of the criticism, far from
well-considered, is of the pot-shot, sniping ilk.  As an analytical
exercise, in other words, it's pretty tepid tea.
     But as frothing screed, it sounds exactly like the fulmination of a
man who feels his talent has been overlooked by the World and who now
stands on a street corner hurling invective at whoever he imagines
has been so obtuse as to have snubbed him.
     With all that bile in his belly, it's a wonder he can take
     The tirade is pure envy, through and through.  At every turn, we can
hear Rallz screaming:  Why aren't I as famous and powerful in the
cartooning world as Art Spiegelman?  How come the Pulitzer Committee
hasn't given me an award?
     The reason, of course, is that Rallz is nowhere near the cartoonist
(or artist) that Spiegelman is.  Rallz has no graphic aesthetic
sense, for instance.  He barely likes drawing. 
     "For me," Rallz sez, "the words are the main point.  The graphics
come second.  The cartoon is an excuse to present a conversation."
But still he has enough sensibility to realize his drawing is
thoroughly third-rate:  "I feel like my art has a long way to go," he
admits.  But, on the other hand (with deft self-serving logic), "The
art isn't important at all.  You don't need to have good art--as
proven by Thurber, Larson, Callahan."
     Well, but--hey--those guys were funny, Rallz.  That's what redeemed
their pedestrian attempts at drawing.
     As an example of Rallz's so-called sense of humor, we have a
generous helping of his crude linoleum block drawings in The Worst
Thing I've Ever Done (66 9x12" pages in paperback for $8.95 from
NBM).  I confess neither Rallz's lumpish lop-eyed monotonous drawing
style nor the subjects in this book appeal to me.  But we must credit
the man for unabashed outrageousness.
     A few years ago, Rallz tells us in his Introduction, he started
collecting anecdotes by asking people outright--"What's the worst
thing you've ever done?"  Astonishingly, people told him.  And after
a couple of years of surveying the American populace, Rallz had 630
sordid, revolting stories to choose from.  He chose two dozen and
illustrated them.  Some are only a page long; a few are 6-8 pages in
length.  Most will turn your stomach.
     Here we have the lawn-mowing Mafia, a bunch of teenagers who, to
retain their monopoly on lawn mowing prices, assault a rival kid and
shove him into a drawer in a nearby mausoleum.  When they take him
out the next day, he's lost his mind.  What fun.
     And there's the woman who recounts the most sexually exciting
experience of her life--picking up a complete stranger in a bar and
having sex with him in his car outside. 
     And the guy who tried to kill his pet rabbit by hitting it on the
head with a bottle, and when that didn't work, he shoved the animal
into the freezing compartment of his refrigerator.  When he opened
the door a day or so later, the rabbit was still alive, so he turned
it loose.  And, not least, we meet the asshole who poured gasoline on
turtles and set them afire.  "I didn't know those turtles could run
that fast," he says.  "They ran until--well, until they stopped.  I
didn't know those turtles could scream either.  Could it have been
the hot gasses rushing out of the poor little guys' lungs?"
     What fun, like I said.  A stunning example of the Rallz sense of
humor at work. 
     He differs violently from Spiegelman, who can draw in a variety of
ways, whose work is often screamingly funny and politically or
socially acute, and who actually likes the work of others in his
profession.  No wonder Rallz is so ill at ease with him.
     But--wait!  Don't go away.  Now that I've brought you along this
far, I can let you in on The Secret.  Here it is: the article is a
huge put-on.  Yes, a hoax!  Rallz is not at all serious in his
vituperative contumely.
     With the insight that The Worst Thing book gives us, we can easily
see that the article is, to Rallz, a gigantic joke.  It is born of
the same sense of humor that finds comedy in screaming turtles.
     The first clue is in Rallz's copious quotation of "anonymous"
cartoonists who are so afraid of Spiegelman's power--his undoubted
ability to destroy careers willy-nilly--that they refuse to be quoted
by name.  As everyone knows, cartoonists, as a breed, are completely
fearless.   So the very notion that Rallz couldn't find anyone
willing to go on record by name is utter hogwash.
     And the very number of cartoonists who allegedly prefer to make
nasty remarks "anonymously" is a dead give-away.  There are simply
too many of these gutless wonders; it defies logic.
     Clearly, Rallz is making things up as he goes along--fabricating
charges and accusations and then attributing them to fictitious
"anonymous" cartoonists.
     But the final tip-off to the joke lies in Rallz's discussion of
Spiegelman's drawing style.  Rallz calls it "cookie-cutter storyboard
art," flat and one-dimensional. 
     At this juncture, we know. 
     Surely, we say, you jest.
     The joke, of course, is that cookie-cutter storyboard art that's
flat and one-dimensional is a perfect description of Rallz's style!
And so, by turning himself inside out--attacking himself as if he
were someone powerful and famous--Rallz reveals that there's
absolutely nothing serious about his article.  And he clearly doesn't
intend us to take it seriously.  Goodness knows, I don't. 

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2. Ten-year Tenure.  When I talked with Garfield's Jim Davis on the eve
of the strip's twentieth anniversary in 1998, among the things I
asked him was how he felt when the strip hit 2,000 subscribing papers
before it was even ten years old.  He said that it was a relief
because he knew, then, that he'd be around for a while.  He knew he
had a job for life.
     That's what syndication used to mean for a cartoonist.  Lifetime
employment at the craft you loved. 
     And we had runs of comic strips that spanned decades.
     No more, I fear.
     The trend, I suspect, is typified by Bill Watterson and Gary Larson
and Berk Breathed.  I imagine that in future we'll have more and more
strips that come and, despite enormous popularity, go away within a
decade or so.  The typical run of a popular strip will be closer to
ten years than to a lifetime.
     That's probably good. 
     As fans of a particular strip, we'll be deeply disappointed, of
course.  All of us miss Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side--and, many
of us, Outland and Bloom County.  We always want to hold on to things
we love, to keep them forever.
     But after awhile, even the founts of creative genius begin to run
dry.  The gags seem repetitive and therefore stale.  We don't notice,
naturally, because we are encountering day after day the very things
that made us love the feature to begin with.  So we welcome the
repetition, and the strip scarcely seems stale because it continues
to give us what we want.  But it's probably pretty threadbare
nonetheless.  We just won't admit it.
     The new regimen of shorter runs won't permit strips to become stale.
 They'll all disappear before that. 
     Moreover, their disappearance will create vacancies on the comics
pages more often, thereby allowing new strips to emerge with greater
regularity.  The profession as a whole will benefit: more cartoonists
will be able to make a living at their craft.
     Meanwhile, the retired cartooning geniuses will pursue other avenues
of creativity.  Gary Larson, for instance, "went into hiding.  He
made a couple of short films.  He played his guitar.  He threw sticks
for his dogs.  They threw some back." 
     The quotation is from the front flap of the dust jacket for a book
entitled There's a Hair in My Dirt! A Worm's Story (HarperCollins,
$15.95).  This is the first widely-circulated, tangible product of
Larson's retirement years.  Called "an adult children's book," it is
a 64-page full-color ecological exploration in which Larson
demonstrates the essential unity in nature--all nature, of which,
necessarily, homo sapiens is but a small part. 
     Larson said he felt guilty about being a party to mankind's
"theme-park approach to nature.  We judge plants and animals by
whether they're entertaining to us."  And so in his book, he advises
us to consider communing with the rest of creation.  "Things can be
low on the food chain," he says, "but that doesn't mean they're
     Not only are we part of nature, but nature is a pretty grisly
enterprise, according to Larson.
     In the book, a father worm explains this to his son, who has become
disgruntled because, among other things, all worms get to do is crawl
around underground and eat dirt.  "Dirt for breakfast, dirt for
lunch, and dirt for dinner," the kid exclaims in exasperation.
"Dirt, dirt, dirt!"
     His mother interrupts to tell him that if he'll be good and listen
to his father's story, they can all have some "fresh, cold dirt for
     Father then regales his son with a tale about a beautiful maiden
(well, as beautiful as Larson can manage--which is to say, ugly) who
loves Nature and wanders through the countryside gushing about the
birds and animals.  She comes upon a meadow a-bloom with wild flowers
and marvels at the brilliance of the colors: "Oh, Mother Nature," she
says, "what an artist you are!"
     Father worm mutters another, more accurate, assessment: "Mother
Nature," he says, "what a sex maniac you are!"  And then goes on to
explain that the flowering meadow is actually "a reproductive
battlefield" in which "bright colors, nectar, mimicry, deception, and
other tricks" are deployed by flowers in desperate competition for
the "attention of pollinating insects."
     This sort of lesson is repeated throughout the book, which ends with
a kind of tragedy for the beautiful maiden.  It's exactly the sort of
far-out outcome you'd expect from Larson; and it serves appropriately
as the book's finale, a lesson about life for the young worm and for
all of us.
     Stay 'tooned.

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