Part I: Newspapering at the Millennium (12/17)
Part II: Schulz and Walker (12/17)
Celebrations, Part I: Newspapering at the Millennium. As the
century winds down, more and more celebrations of one sort or another
are piling up. The venerated Editor & Publisher, the newspaperman's
trade mag, published a special supplement to its October 30 issue.
The special issue named "the most influential newspaper people
20th century" and recited brief biographies of each. Altogether,
about 58 names rolled trippingly off the E&P tongue.
And what, you might ask at this point, does
a list of influential
newspapermen have to do with cartooning? Well, maybe not much. But
some of the more distinguished of our brethren regarded themselves,
essentially, as newspapermen. Walt Kelly. Milton Caniff.
Moreover, the fate of cartooning has been
intimately associated with
newspaper history for the last hundred years. And it is likely to be
a similarly symbiotic relationship in the next century, too. So it
behooves us to embrace newspapering--its past, its future, and its
First, some of the past.
The "top 25"in E&P's special
issue include such legendary figures as
Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, Robert McCormick, Joseph
Patterson, William Allen White, H. L. Mencken. Pulitzer is credited
with giving newspaper journalism a social mission, crusading always
for reform and progress, and against injustice, demagoguery, and
corruption. Hearst, in contrast, practiced journalism according to
his belief that the public "is more fond of entertainment than
of information. " Over the century, Hearst's way has doubtless
It was the Pulitzer-Hearst circulation battles
of the mid-1890s that
saw the coining of the term "yellow journalism" for their
brand of sensation-mongering in search of a newsstand nickel. As
every comics fan now knows, surely, the two papers enlisted a comic
character, Richard F. Outcault's famed Yellow Kid, in their battles,
each paper touting its Sunday comic section's stellar creation as an
attraction. Yellow Kid posters were everywhere. So bystanders to
this fray began calling the newspapers "the Yellow Kid journals,"
then just "the yellow journals. " And by subsequent evolution,
kind of journalism practiced in them became known as "yellow
But Hearst was always better at it
than Pulitzer. And Hearst has
bequeathed to the closing years of this century the same legacy he
left at the end of the last one--namely, a passion for circulation at
the cost of civic responsibility.
We've had ample evidence of it over the past
couple of years. We've
had pages and pages of speculation about oral sex in the Oval Office
and semen-stained dresses not to mention the bathetic excess that
consumed countless column inches while the nation waited to learn
whether or not John F. Kennedy Jr. had died in a plane crash at sea.
Kennedy's death was tragic, but our preoccupation
it--enthusiastically fostered by media coverage--was morbid and way
out of proportion. Kennedy had done little on his own to justify the
attention. He was the publisher of a magazine of political and
social ephemera. Otherwise, he was merely handsome and rich and the
inheritor of all our aspirations for Kennedy greatness and of our
anguished frustration over Kennedy failures and untimely deaths.
So eager was the press to capitalize upon our
interest in the
Kennedy family that it devoted enormous resources to the coverage of
this young man's disappearance and, then, his funeral. And at the
same time, it virtually ignored the death of Frank M. Johnson Jr. Johnson
died at the age of 80 just about the time the media was in
full froth over Kennedy. And Johnson, in sharp contrast, had
actually done something of significance.
Johnson had served as a judge on the federal
bench in Alabama since
1955. It was he who sided with Rosa Parks when she refused to sit in
the back of the bus. This decision and dozens of his others on civil
rights helped change the legal climate in the South, banishing Jim
Crow forever. Johnson was more deserving of our attention than
Kennedy, but Kennedy coverage was worth more to the press. The
sensation of his death sold papers.
That's the way it is with the press.
In Newsweek for May 24, 1999, Bill Clinton
is accused of neglecting
his presidential duties because of what the magazine headlined as
"The Lewinsky Distraction. " The real question, however, is:
Clinton preoccupied with the Lewinsky matter?
I wonder what might have happened
if the journalistic media had
pestered him as much about Iraq or Kosovo as about Monica. It was
the media that was distracted. And by wallowing in the story, the
press diverted the entire nation--not just the President--from much
more serious matters that should have been attended to. And yet
nowhere is the media's responsibility in this "neglect" hinted
at--even though it was Newsweek's reportage that first pried open the
Meanwhile, on the cover of the same issue,
the magazine launched yet
another diversion. Al Gore's presidential campaign is in trouble. How?
Eighteen months in advance of Election Day it's in trouble?
Who says? The pollsters who see him run behind George W. Bush--who
is ahead chiefly because no one knows anything about him?
And we don't know anything about George
W.'s positions on various
issues because the constantly diligent phalanx of reporters around
him are wholly engrossed in devising ever-more ingenious questions
designed to trick the would-be candidate into admitting that he once
(or--horrors!--twice) used cocaine (or didn't) instead of asking him
what he believes might be done for the public weal from the
Once again, this so-called "news"
magazine--and all the rest of the
pundits who allow themselves to be diverted from actual news to sheer
political gossip--is creating a distraction. However entertaining
all this speculation might be for the reporters who indulge in it,
its effect is to lengthen a campaign season that everyone already
agrees is too long.
Congressmen began running for re-election as
soon as the last
election was over. If it's a do-nothing Congress, surely the
perpetual electioneering is partly to blame. And who is it that is
starting up the next campaign already? The media.
Faced with criticism of this ilk, the self-serving
with its own sense of its importance, assumes a patriotic pose and
claims that this relentlessly unending "coverage" of national
elections is educating the public in the ways and byways of politics
thereby assuring government of, by, and for the people.
Well, it's not working. As coverage of presidential
extended over greater and greater spans of time through past decades,
the turnout at the polls has steadily diminished. And we don't need
to speculate long about why: the continuous coverage has turned
politics into a form of entertainment, and entertainment, as everyone
knows, is a spectator sport not a participatory one.
To every criticism, the representatives of
the press respond as a
single voice: We only report the news.
But there was nothing "new" in the
Gore "campaign" in May 1999 when
the media was reporting that his campaign was "in trouble. "
had actually happened yet so how could anything be "new"?
It doesn't matter: for decades, the
press has reported election
campaigns as if they were horse races. The "story" is who's
the latest poll--not what the issues are and how the candidates stand
Even the nomenclature (to which we've all subscribed)
sell-out of the press. "Story"? The press is in the fiction
business? Writing stories? Yes: it is, after all, stories that
entertain us best, as Hearst well knew. (He made up some of the best
ones, in fact. )
Realizing, no doubt, that their claim
of only reporting the news
seems pretty flimsy in the context of their untiring cultivation of
circulation and viewership and the accompanying pursuit of
advertising revenues, media spokesmen ultimately fall back upon an
even lamer excuse for the behavior of the press: We're only giving
the public what it wants.
C'mon. Every journalist knows this is a patent
Every journalist knows that the press can manipulate
appetites and tastes by the matter and manner of its reportage. Ask
any spin doctor. Small, insignificant events can be exaggerated and
made to seem more important than they are; large and significant
events can be ignored or played down, relegating them to
unimportance. We've seen the former technique work in Seattle during
the World Trade Organization's meeting where coverage of isolated
lawlessness in the streets made it seem that wholesale rioting was in
progress; and the latter for the Pope's visit to Cuba, which, had it
been given the same intense attention as his visit to, say, Poland
some years ago might have turned the tables on Castro just as it did
on Polish communism.
Sandra Mims Rowe, editor of the Portland Oregonian,
knows this full
well. As president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, she
inaugurated a campaign to upgrade newspaper credibility. Said she:
"The high road is there if we
will just take it. If newspaper
journalism and journalists long for greater respect, then newspaper
editors must supply the discipline to play down--not play up--the
trivial, the perverse, the bizarre. . . . The notion that readers
have created the demand for lowest common denominator journalism is
false. We are doing that ourselves. We can and must stop. "
Surely editors who agree and institute practices
accordingly will be
performing not only a self-service for the profession but a public
service for the nation. They will thereby reaffirm the Fourth
Estate's right to the special treatment the Constitution provides for
The intention of the First Amendment in guaranteeing
freedom of the
press is to make unfettered criticism possible. This purpose the
press has construed into "the public's right to know. " But
really, needed to know about Clinton's affair with Lewinsky? Who
benefitted from the news about it? Same answer: Only the ravening
press, selling more copies of newspapers and more advertising time on
TV as viewership increased.
The press abdicated its First Amendments privileges
abandoned public affairs reporting in favor of political gossip. And
the current buzz around the profession is finally coming to realize
something is amiss. Why does the public hate the press? Probably
because it mistrusts the press. And it probably mistrusts the press
because the press has behaved so badly, so irresponsibly, so far from
the ideals Pulitzer proclaimed--and arranged to celebrate ever after
in a series of prizes for excellence.
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2. Celebrations, Part II: Schulz and
Walker. But let me turn to the
other reason that I've unearthed here a moldy old issue of E&P.
so to observe that the E&P's "top 25" includes two
cartoonists--Charles Schulz and Herbert Block.
This is a signal event. That a couple of newspaper
viewed by the trade's bible as influential at all--let alone being
among the twenty-five "most influential newspaper people of the
century"--is a trumpet blast about the importance of cartooning.
all know it's important, us cartoonery types. But to have E&P
proclaim it to its hundreds of newspaper editor readers is a stunning
confirmation of what we've all maintained.
Not that there's anything very new about it.
Pulitzer knew it.
Hearst knew it. They knew that their Sunday comics were selling
newspapers. And every periodical publisher in this country knows
that Scott Adams' Dilbert is doing the same thing. It's the thing
comics have been doing since the very beginning.
But sometimes editors forget. In their dogged
pursuit of DNA codes
in dress stains and cocaine busts in ancient Texas, they forget (just
has they have apparently forgotten what newspapers enjoy First
Amendment rights for).
So it's nice that E&P should remind newspaper
editors about the
importance of cartooning.
A third cartoonist makes it into the E&P
supplement. After skimming
off the "top 25," E&P lists the also-rans at the back--"25
Made a Difference. " And this listing includes Bill Mauldin.
Mauldin and Herblock, both editorial cartoonists,
are recognized for
their truth-telling. Mauldin is noted for his World War II cartoons
for the serviceman's paper, The Stars and Stripes--Willie and Joe,
the dogface soldiers who represented the real war to those who were
really in it, up to their knees in flooded trenches and foxholes,
being shot at and losing sleep. And not shaving or polishing their
boots, much to General George S. Patton's chagrin. The Mauldin
write-up doesn't make much of his crusading pen in civilian life when
he drew cartoons for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and, later, for the
Chicago Sun Times. Hard-hitting stuff it was, but it was his common
soldiers that won Mauldin a place in cartooning history.
In the Herblock essay, fellow editorial cartoonist
Tony Auth notes
that Herblock "has used his space to cajole, accuse, educate, mock,
bemoan, or defend, all in an uncompromising style that defines
artistic courage. " Auth marvels that Herblock "exposes the
and bitterest betrayals of the public trust without becoming
embittered himself. " And he's still at it.
Lynn Johnston (of For Better or For Worse)
writes about her friend
and idol, "Sparky" Schulz. And Johnston's take is not as muscular
the assessments of the two editorial cartoonists. The societal
achievements of Schulz are, after all, not as noisy as Herblock's
coining a term (McCarthyism) for hysterical character assassination
and political smear campaigning. Schulz himself believes that his
particular accomplishment was in introducing "the slight incident,"
the tiny occurrence the comedy and significance of which arises
almost entirely in the context of the personalities of those
personages participating in the incident.
Charlie Brown's perpetual losing at baseball
is not a large event.
It is small. To everyone but "the round-headed kid. "
In comparison to Herblock and Mauldin,
Schulz may not, at first
blush, seem to have been as influential in newspapering. Johnston's
essay is a paean to Schulz, embodying her admiration, regard and
affection for the man and his work. It is a personal tribute more
than a professional assessment.
But in putting a finger on Peanuts' appeal,
Johnston arrives at
perhaps a more important destination than Auth does in writing about
Herblock. Schulz, Johnston says, "had the courage to talk about
loneliness and loss, about disappointment and anger. In so doing, he
profoundly influenced a new generation of comic artists and readers
as well. It was rebellion in reverse; impact with understatement and
an honesty that healed even when it hurt. "
Perhaps "unwittingly," she
goes on, Schulz "helped to unlock a
nation's inhibitions. . . . He made us look at and into ourselves. .
Until this funny, gentle, and simply drawn work came to be a
part of our culture, we didn't talk too openly about deep personal
feelings. You were a failure if you did. "
I wouldn't go quite so far as to say
that Peanuts healed a nation.
That's a pretty big order. But the strip did show us kids talking
like adults, displaying the same insecurities and quirks as
grown-ups. Because they were kids, these personality flaws didn't
seem all that important. By the same token, neither were the
preoccupations that often haunt us as adults.
Moreover, Schulz's kids enabled us to see the
humor in our dilemmas.
Before we knew it, we were laughing at ourselves. With a giggle, we
could put our cares behind us (or beside us) and go on with our
Well, maybe he did heal a nation after all.
What Johnston doesn't say in her essay, though,
is that Peanuts was
the first of the big box-office successes of the present era in
licensing comics. The Age of Schulz is characterized as much by the
extensive merchandising of comic strip characters as it is by the
deceptive simplicity of a drawing style that many other cartoonists
tried, some with success, to imitate in hopes that drawing style
alone would lead them to experience similar success.
In short, Schulz's biggest influence in the
world of newspapering
lies in showing how important a comic strip can been in the economic
life of a newspaper. Just as the Yellow Kid demonstrated the
commercial impact of the comics, so does Peanuts. Schulz's success
is a re-affirmation of the very principles that were enacted by the
earliest newspaper comics, principles that guaranteed the survival of
the comics medium.
And Schulz--and Dilbert--will help the medium
survive again, into
the 21st Century.
And the approaching dawn of the 21st Century
coincides with a couple
of comic strip anniversaries worth celebrating: Peanuts will hit the
50-year mark on October 2, 2000; and Mort Walker's Beetle Bailey will
hit the same mark a month earlier, on September 4.
As Schulz eased into his 50th year, CBS's "60
Minutes" did an
interview with him. Airing on October 31, the interview showed us
Schulz saying things he's doubtless said before elsewhere, but on the
cusp of Peanuts' anniversary, his words about the unique and very
personal nature of cartooning resonate through the cavern of a
Said Schulz: "If you read the strip for
just a few months, you will
know me because everything that I am goes into the strip--all of my
fears, my anxieties, my joys--almost, even, all of my experiences go
into the strip. They are me--that is me--what I'm thinking of, what
I'm writing, and what the characters are doing. "
And, once again, he asserted that
he does the strip alone. "Arnold
Palmer doesn't have anyone hit his nine iron, does he?" Schulz
quipped. "The comic strip is a very personal, wonderful medium.
unlike anything else. This is where I belong--doing it. I
wouldn't want anyone else to touch the strip. It's mine. It's the
only thing I can do--so lemme do it," he finished with a grin.
As I write this, I hear the news that Schulz
has colon cancer. I'm
suddenly as angry as I am sad. I'm angry because this unhappy
development seems a rotten way to reward him. Then I remember that
life is not about rewards; it's about satisfactions. And his must
surely be great.
Next, within a week, comes the announcement
that Schulz is retiring.
I had hoped that Schulz's retirement would
occur amid much happy
hullabaloo--with Roman candles going off in the sky and a band
playing. ("There's always a band," saith Professor Harold
We've been expecting the announcement
for some time. Some of us
began supposing that he would lay down his pen at the end of his
fiftieth year--that next fall the dreaded announcement would come.
And some of us knew that Schulz would probably
never retire unless
forced to: he was, after all, doing what he loved to do, so why would
So in a way, it's sad that he's been
forced, by the exigencies of
health, to give up the strip. Sad but, of course, inevitable. No
fireworks in the sky. No hilarious hullabaloo. Instead, a sort of
apprehensive hope that everything will be all right.
In announcing his retirement, Schulz said that
he wanted to focus on
his health and his family without the distraction of deadlines. Let's
that he can make as big a success of his health as he did
of his comic strip.
It has been a success virtually without equal.
A month after the "60 Minutes" program,
the National Cartoonists
Society convened on December 4 at New York's Century Club to
commemorate Beetle Bailey's arrival on the cusp of its 50th
anniversary by awarding Walker the Gold T-Square for "his outstanding
contribution to cartooning. " Walker is only the second cartoonist
receive this recognition; Rube Goldberg, a legendary founder of NCS,
was the other.
It is supremely fitting that these two recognitions
took place as
they did--Schulz on "60 Minutes," Walker at an NCS event.
different venues are appropriate to the ways in which each cartoonist
made a significant mark in the history of the medium.
Quite apart from their artistic attainments
in the artform, Schulz
and Walker were each important in arenas outside the comics sections
of the nation's newspapers. Appropriately, Schulz, who inspired a
merchandising effort almost without parallel, was recognized in a
mass medium, television. And Walker, who has labored long and hard
for the profession, was saluted by a gathering of his peers.
Both cartoonists have been awarded NCS's highest
(Walker in 1953, Schulz in 1955 and 1964); but Walker has also served
as the Society's president (1959-60) and has been active in its
affairs throughout his career.
Walker has had nine comic strips syndicated
at one time or another,
but his signal contribution to his profession was in the founding and
fostering of the International Museum of Cartoon Art.
Seeking both status and respect for the medium,
the Museum of Cartoon Art in an old mansion in Greenwich,
Connecticut, in the spring of 1974. Intended "not only to display
cartoon art with the dignity it deserves but also to further educate
the public to the valuable contribution it has made to our culture,"
the Museum moved through a succession of creaky Connecticut mansions
until finally coming to rest a few years ago at its own magnificently
cartoony edifice in Florida at Boca Raton (the "mouse's mouth"--yes,
not too far from Disney World).
Over the years, Walker has spent millions of
his own dollars and
countless hours of his time fund raising for the Museum and promoting
Walker sees both the social and, like Schulz,
the personal aspects
of cartooning: "As society becomes more spread out, family members
find themselves living further and further apart from each other, and
with life becoming more impersonal, comic strips help fill the void
in people's lives by creating the illusion of friends and shared
"The comic strip," he continued,
"is one of the few media that
allows one person to express his philosophy, his anger, his joy, and
his disappointment without outside restriction. It is one of the
purest forms of art and expression that exists. "
Schulz's philanthropies tend to be
anonymous (as well as extensive;
he is doubtless wealthier than Walker). But his most conspicuous
achievement in this regard is an ice skating rink he build for the
residents of Santa Rosa, California, where he has resided for over a
quarter of a century. Raised in the icy winters of Minnesota, Schulz
can begin every day, summer or winter, with an hour of skating,
indulging a pleasure of his youth.
Schulz built a merchandising empire and a skating
rink; and Walker
build a museum, a lasting monument to the arts of cartooning and to
the cartoonists who ply this craft.
Recently, both Schulz and Walker have been
active in raising funds
for another kind of monument, a National Memorial to D-Day, June 6,
1944, the day allied forces invaded Hitler's "fortress Europe,"
leading, within a year, to the complete collapse of the Third Reich.
The Memorial will feature several "thematic galleries" that
tribute to the wartime role of medicine, the clergy, cartoons, and
the like as a way of recognizing the contributions made in these
areas to the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of men and
women in combat.
Schulz has focused his efforts on the Cartoon
"I think cartoons were extremely important
during World War II," he
wrote in an appeal for donations to support a curatorship for the
Gallery: they boosted morale. "I am delighted that their role in
collective effort to overcome totalitarianism will be spotlighted,"
he continued, "where future generations can learn, among many other
things, that cartoons and cartooning can be very serious indeed. "
Walker enlisted his famously lazy
private in the fund raising last
fall. The cartoonist has produced several special strips drawing
attention to the Memorial. He and his characters also participated
in the last leg of a 1,500-mile Honor Walk to give publicity to the
"It takes an awful lot to get Beetle involved
in anything that
remotely resembles work," Walker said, "but this is a cause
he is standing up for. . . . As a veteran myself, I know the great
sacrifices that were made by Americans during the war and am both
thrilled and honored to be able to lend my support to this worthy
(For more information about the Memorial,
But Walker's special focus is the
Museum of Cartoon Art, his
professional cause. And through his comic strip, he has, for almost
fifty years now, deployed humor on behalf of his fellow beings.
Peanuts may act to heal the nation's psyche,
but Beetle Bailey
reassures us that the little man will endure. He may even prevail.
Although the strip is ostensibly about military life, Walker's army
is just another version of society at large, which sustains its
essential order through a hierarchy of authority.
From the point of view of most of us in a social
order, the flaws in
the system are due to the incompetence of those who have authority
over us. Beetle Bailey encapsulates this aspect of the human
condition and gives expression to our resentment of authority by
ridiculing traditional authority figures. But the ridicule is
gentle: it takes shape as Walker repeatedly shows us that everyone in
his army--authority figure or not--is but a bundle of personality
quirks. Hence, the strip is a great leveler: we're all equal. We
all have our frailties, our entirely human foibles.
Peanuts may have set the pace for simplicity
in rendering newspaper
comic strips, but Beetle achieves a highwater mark in the art of
cartooning. Over the years, Walker's style has evolved. At first,
he drew in a simple bigfoot style that seemed a mix of John Gallagher
and Tom Henderson, two great magazine cartoonists of the fifties.
(Walker says his style was absorbed from Frank Willard, Walter
Brendt, Chic Young, Milton Caniff, and Al Capp; so what do I know?
Just that where there's smoke, there's something to make your eyes
smart. ) But as the years rolled by, Walker refined his style,
streamlining simplicity into a unique comic abbreviation.
By the late fifties and early sixties, Walker's
forms had emerged. Not since Cliff Sterrett surrealized human
anatomy in the futuristic manner have we had such charming comic
abstractions of the human form. The flexibility of Walker's
abstracted simplicity is capable of extreme exaggeration for comic
effect. Indeed, much of the humor in many strips arises from the
antic visuals as much as from the situation depicted.
And so as we round the millennium corner, it's
a joy and a comfort,
a privilege and an honor and a deep satisfaction to take a moment
here to savor these two 50th anniversaries and the cartooning
achievements they represent in the half-century that Schulz and
Walker have been entertaining us.
But anniversaries do not mark endings: they
are merely milestones.
And even though Schulz may believe that he is retiring, he'll find
that he can't. The processes by which for fifty years he produced
the world's most highly regarded comic strip will continue bubbling
away on the back burner of his brain. The Peanuts gang will continue
to prode him from inside his head as they have all his life.
And they'll continue inside our heads, too.
And in our hearts.
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