Opus 22:

1.  Good Grief and Bad: The Abuse of Satire (3/8)

2.  Comic Stripping (3/8)

3.  Books and Funnybooks (3/8)

1.  Good Grief and Bad: The Abuse of Satire.  Paul Krassner, editor
of the Realist, committed a "joke" in his Spring 2000 issue (No. 143,
if you're counting).  It's a Peanuts cartoon.  But it's not a Schulz
Peanuts cartoon.  In a style approximating Schulz's, Krassner's hired
pen depicted members of the Peanuts gang performing a variety of
sexual actions, including (but not limited to) fallatio and
cunnilingus as well as ordinary copulation.  What fun.  Ha.
     I once subscribed to the Realist.  Years ago--in the sixties, I
think, when I was going to New York University during summers.  I
appreciated, then, Krassner's irreverent sense of humor.  It was
Krassner, you may remember, who published in the Realist a spurious
account of the airplane trip from Dallas to Washington, D.C., after
the Kennedy assassination, during which, given a moment alone with
the Kennedy corpse, Lyndon Johnson committed an act of necrophilia,
using the hole in Kenney's skull as a sexual orifice.  Hilarious.
     Krassner once invented an anagram for Spiro Agnew's name.  (You
remember Agnew?  He was once Vice President of the United States
under Nixon; Agnew resigned when it came out that he'd been taking
money from government contractors--or some such--while governor of
Maryland.)  The anagram was GROW A PENIS.
     Later, as interim publisher of Hustler, Krassner--an equal
opportunity advocate, doubtless--published a picture of himself nude.
  In a recent interview, Krassner claimed that the most creative use
he ever heard of the photograph was that "a couple of women said
they'd masturbated to it--and people rolled joints on that page."
     You get the idea.  This is the kind of gross-'em-out sense of humor
that Krassner evidently gets off on.
     It was about the time of the Johnson-Kennedy extravaganza that
Krassner printed Wally Wood's cartoon of the Disney characters
committing sexual outrages similar to those depicted in the Peanuts
     I wasn't offended by the Disney stuff.  After all, the Disney
"organization" had done about as much as it could to stamp out
individuality in its ranks, to squeeze out every drop of creative
juice out of its minions without acknowledging the creator's
contribution, and to "disney-fy" life in general, removing all
aspects of ordinary life that might offend the eye or nostril of the
headmistress of a Victorian girls' school.  And I think that Wood's
cartoon brought attention to precisely the latter sorts of maneuvers
by the "organization."  By showing the sacred Disney menagerie having
sex, it startled us into realizing that sex--and, indeed, many
aspects of ordinary existence on this planet--had no place in the
Disney universe.  The Disney universe therefore was not depicting
anything approaching real life.  The cartoon held this posture up to
ridicule.  The cartoon was therefore satire.
     But this--
     This depiction of Schulz's characters is not satirical at all.  What
is the object of the satire?  To suggest that the Peanuts gang was as
a-sexual as the Disney characters?  So what?  In the case of the Wood
cartoon, the objective was not to ridicule a-sexuality but to use
that peculiarity of the Disney universe as a way of pointing out how
absolutely lifeless and untrue the "Disney vision" could be.  In
denying such aspects of ordinary life as odor and ugliness (not to
mention acts that assure survival of the species), the Disney
organization purified "life" to such a degree that the resultant
vision of life was wholly fraudulent.  It was a lie.  Telling such
lies to the young is wrong.  And Disney's target audience is mostly
youngsters.  If we believe such lies when we are young, we are liable
to be made very unhappy indeed as we encounter real life and find
that it is nothing like the Disney version.  The purpose of Wood's
satirical cartoon, then, was corrective.  It was to ridicule a vision
of life that was fraudulent and therefore somewhat dangerous.
     Since the Peanuts cartoon is essentially the same statement as the
Wood cartoon, we are entitled to ask similar questions of it:  What
is the satirical objective in portraying the Peanuts gang as rutting
animals?  Does this expose the a-sexuality of the Peanuts gang?  Why
should a-sexuality be exposed?  Does that accomplish the same thing
that Wood's cartoon accomplished?  In his comic strip, did Schulz
maintain that life was rosy--or that it should be?  Did he sweep all
of the normal human preoccupations under the rug and ignore them?
(Hardly.)  Do we now, thanks to this cartoon, know something about
Schulz and his philosophy of life that is corrective?  Do we now see
that his Peanuts gang is corrupt because it counterfeits and thereby
denies the human condition (as was the case with the Disney vision)?
     Yes, I'm sure Schulz would have hated the cartoon.  Just like the
Disney folks hated Wood's.  But Wood was attacking an organization.
Schulz is a solitary creator, whose creation reflected his personal
vision of the world.  We might applaud an attack on a faceless (and
sometimes oppressive to its operators) machine but not on a single,
gentle creative soul.  Why would anyone want to provoke Schulz in
this fashion?  What is achieved by doing it?  Schulz's vision of life
was scarcely fraudulent.  He saw and depicted loneliness and failure
and insecurity and heartbreak.  That's fairly real.  Fairly accurate.
  Scarcely fraudulent.  So a false vision of life is not being
ridiculed by this terrible cartoon.  It therefore does not qualify as
     What is it then?  What human folly is being ridiculed?  Given the
caption, the cartoon is intended to be no more than an expression of
Krassner's exasperation at what he sees as an excess of grief
displayed on the front pages of the nation's media.  He doubtless
sees all the attention generated by Schulz's retirement--then
death--as excessive.  I also think we, as a nation, sometimes go
overboard. Certainly we did when John F. Kennedy Jr. died.  That was
excessive.  But Schulz was a constant daily presence in the lives of
millions for nearly half-a-century.  In comparison, JFK Jr. was a
very brief candle indeed, nothing more than a mote in the eye.
Grieving at great length and in volume over JFK Jr. was clearly a
little foolish.  What, after all, did he actually do for us?  Schulz
entertained us and, even, helped us to mature.  Or, at least, he
helped us face ourselves and our insecurities and heartbreaks.  We
will miss him, and for us to express our sense of loss by giving him
a 2-page obit in The New York Times and by putting his picture on the
cover of Editor & Publisher is hardly excessive.  It seems, in fact,
humanly proportional to the sense of loss.
     Krassner clearly finds expressions of grief in these dimensions
excessive for the death of a cartoonist--a mere cartoonist.  But that
tells us more about Krassner than about ourselves.  For one thing, it
tells us that he hasn't figured out how to direct his attack more
precisely at the real object of his anger or exasperation.  You don't
ridicule a nation's excesses by ridiculing the thing the nation is
excessive about.  Casting aspersions on the Peanuts gang and Schulz
scarcely reveals us to ourselves as we really are.  The Peanuts
cartoon, having the Wood Disney cartoon as its sole inspiration, is
aimed in the same way as the Wood cartoon.  Its target is therefore
the Disney target--fraudulence.  But there is nothing in the Peanuts
vision that approaches the fraud in the Disney vision.  In fact, as
I've said, the Schulz vision is sometimes uncomfortably close to real
life.  So Krassner missed his mark altogether.
       I guess I think Krassner's Peanuts "gag" is just
that--gag-inducing.  Nearly made me retch.  It's crude and obvious
and not very imaginative.  Wood's was imaginative.  It may not have
been an entirely original thought: maybe many others had muttered
sardonically under their breaths about the absence of a sex life for
Mickey and Minnie or about the fact that neither Donald nor Daisy
wore pants but it didn't seem to matter because they obviously had no
genitals and therefore no need for modesty shields.  But to express
those ideas in concrete form--as a cartoon--was an act of
imagination.  And it was also original insofar as it was audacious.
But having seen Wood's cartoon, I guess I'm jaded: the Peanuts effort
is pure imitation--just another stab in the same direction without,
even, the saving grace of originality.  It may be audacious, but it's
copycat audaciousness.  And I guess I think a copy-cat
mentality--imitating when you can't create for yourself--is the sin
here, not the fact that Schulz never showed Lucy pleasuring herself.
Or that he never acknowledged the sexuality of human nature.  Sex may
be a big problem in human relations, but it isn't the only problem,
and Schulz surely dealt with a host of the other ones.
     Yes, aspects of the cartoon are funny.  The Linus and Sally pair-up,
f'instance.  And Charlie Brown with his jar of viagra.  Who but a
loser would need it?  (But that says something about those who do
need viagra but who may not be the classic loser than Charlie Brown
is.  Bob Dole?  Well, okay--maybe he's a loser.  But Hugh Hefner?)
But after you laugh at the sheer inappropriateness of the scene,
what's left?  What are we laughing "at"?  Are we really laughing
derisively at the excesses of our national grief?  I don't think so.
     No, Krassner's cartoon is just a cheap shot.  A cheap, crude shot.
Without a target and therefore without impact.  Nastiness for the
shock value alone.  And, as I said, it shows us more about
Krassner--the poverty of his imagination, the impotence of his rage,
the frustration of evaporating fame, the ineptness of his satire, his
inability to properly focus his anger and his attack--than about
Peanuts or Schulz.  Or us.
     Krassner must be over ninety by now.  I thought people mellowed as
they reached their dotage: I, at least, am looking forward to that
blessed state.  I guess Krassner isn't.  I don't think we necessarily
ought to go gently "into that good night" (in Dylan Thomas's poetic
phrase).  I encourage "raging against the night," but not this way.
This is ill-tempered impotence, nothing more.  
Post Script.  Actually, Krassner is still in business, publishing the
Realist.  It's been published more or less regularly since 1958, he
says--except for a brief hiatus in the 70s.  But he's running out of
steam: he vowed last October to produce only half-a-dozen more
issues, and I assume the one I've been railing about is the second or
third in that number.  

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2.  Comic Stripping.  NBM's comic strip reprint series is well
underway now with second volumes for both Rick DeTorie's One Big
Happy and Kevin Fagan's Drabble.  These are 128-page paperbacks
priced at $9.95 each.  DeTorie's strip is about an extended family
(including grandparents) which has discovered the richest vein of
comedy in the youngest member of the tribe, Ruthie (age, probably,
about eight).  Fagan's drawing technique has matured in recent years:
still simple, it displays a variation in line and composition that
put in well within the Beetle Baily - Hi and Lois - Hagar school.
And, most important, both cartoonists arrange for pictures to supply
the punchlines in many strips.  The same cannot be said, unhappily,
for a number of today's comic strips which are so verbal in their
humor that they are, pictorially, just talking heads like their soap
opera cohorts over at Judge Parker's, Mary Worth's, and Rex Morgan's.
  Only Apartment 3-G among the continuity strips still resorts at
least once a day to pictures of something other than faces.  
     Among gag strips, Robb Armstrong's Jump Start is overwhelmingly
verbal.  The pictures contribute little to the jokes, and Armstrong
unfortunately accents the verbal content by outlining speech balloons
with a bold line.  But his humorous insights into family life are so
keen that apparently no one notices the absence of visual meanings in
the strip.  Another highly verbal strip is Cathy; so verbal, in fact,
that cartoonist Cathy Guisewite is using the comic strip form purely
for timing the dialogue.  The collection of Cathy reprint books from
Andrews McMeel, however, is enormous: with the most recent, I'd
Scream Except I Look So Fabulous, the offerings approach twenty
volumes (at the standard Andrews McMeel format, each book 9x9" 128
pages, paperback; $9.95).  With a dedicated niche readership (one
newspaper editor termed it "a female magnet"), the strip is still
widely circulated even if its heroine ends nearly every installment
in a high state of agitated frustration reached by a purely verbal
     Although I'm not fond of Rick Kirkman's rendering style in Baby
Blues, Jerry Scott's gags are always telling, and the strip uses
pictures to achieve its comedy.  The latest from Andrews McMeel is If
I'm a Stay-At-Home Mom, Why Am I Always in the Car?  Brian Bassett's
strip about the other half of the domestic equation, a stay-at-home
dad, is up to its sixth reprint from Andrews McMeel, Cafe Adam.
Recently re-named Adam at Home (it was launched simply as Adam), the
strip has survived a talking-heads phase (and simply drawn talking
heads are at the bottom of the barrel of visually interesting vistas)
and now deploys pictures for hilarity as often as it employs verbiage
alone.  Presumably, the strip has improved in this regard from an
otherwise distressing fact: Bassett was "let go" as editorial
cartoonist for the Seattle Times a couple years ago (no reason given)
and now concentrates his cartooning efforts on the strip.
     Another who is absolutely dependent upon pictures for comedy is John
McPherson, whose panel cartoon, Close to Home, mines the vein of
weird humor left unattended by Gary Larson when he ceased doing The
Far Side.  Andrews McMeel is approaching a dozen reprints of this
series with the last one, Striking Close to Home.  In contrast, a
volume reprinting "Maxine" panel cartoons (based upon a series of
greeting cards) doesn't need but one picture to establish the crabby
personality of its only cast member, senior citizen Maxine herself.
Invented by Hallmark Cards artist John Wagner in 1986, Maxine's
acerbic observations ("I believe this old world needs more
understanding . . . that's why I shout directly into people's faces")
branched out into a daily comic feature in 1995, Crabby Road.  But
it's humor is so predominantly verbal that the pictures of Maxine are
monotonous.  Do you need a picture to find the following Maxine-ism
funny: "There's a reason why I have a bowl of goldfish in my house.
You never know when you might have to stretch a can of tuna."  Well.
Lunchtime here.

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3.  Books and Funnybooks.  Will Eisner's newest offering is under the
NBM imprint.  After Kitchen Sink went down the drain, DC Comics
picked up the Eisner Library of graphic novels and the Spirit
reprints, but NBM has latched onto a series that has, thus far, been
seen only overseas--namely, comics adaptations of children's
classics.  Eisner says he's felt for years that "the great stories
that provide a foundation to our culture are particularly suitable
for narration in sequential art form."  And about a half-dozen years
or so ago, he did Moby Dick, which was published in Europe.  His
second undertaking in this category is The Princess and the Frog, a
fairy tale from the Bros. Grimm, now available in hardback from NBM
(32 pages in full color; $15.95).  
     This story, Eisner reports, "enabled me to contribute some humor to
the story and add a little narrative reshaping."  It is also a vivid
display of something we've seen far too little of--Eisner's skill
with watercolor.  The full color treatment does not lend itself quite
as well to the page format Eisner adopted for graphic novels
(background colors are not as malleable as background "white"), but
Eisner strokes in the color with breathtaking highlights,
demonstrating a mastery of color we have not seen displayed except
briefly on covers.  Eisner's book joins an already distinguished
line-up of children's literature from NBM, including a stunning
rendition of Wind in the Willows and C. Craig Russell's adaptations
of the tales of Oscar Wilde. . . .
     M. Rex No. 1 offers some very appealing artwork by Duncan Rouleau
(inked by Aaron Sowd and Jose Guillen--and if any of these are
misspelled, it's because of the fancy typography on the credits by
Dennis Heisler; I think).  The book is marred, however, by (1) a
storyline that is a trifle confusing because it jumps from the
subplot involving one personage to another subplot without adequate
background and (2) page layouts that, in a valiant attempt to imitate
Scott Campbell's spectacular success in Danger Girl with splash-like
compositions with overlapping panels and quick cuts, compounds the
confusion by making it difficult to simply follow in order the events
that are unfolding and (3) lettering that is often too small to read.
  (With respect to the latter, it would appear that individual panels
or images and their speech balloons were inserted into page layouts
without regard for what might happen at different reduction rates.)
All very glitzy and nifty but without narrative cohesion or
     Hourman No. 10 has a bondage cover of classical dimensions, but the
story is very nearly impenetrable for someone coming in as late as
this.  I tore off the cover to save it, though.
     100 Bullets continues to be impressive.  I was impressed by Eduardo
Risso's artwork from the very start of the series: clean lines,
stunning use of solid black, page layouts and panel compositions
varied for dramatic emphasis and visual variety.  With No. 6, the
first of a two-parter, Brian Azzarello conjures up street talk with
an authentic ring--while, at the same time, constructing another of
the series' distinctive moral dilemmas to be solved by a bullet from
the mysteriously anonymous handgun.  Can't say, in the wake of school
shootings, that this title is championing a popular notion, but it
does make absorbing reading, and that's the legitimate function of
     Another visual tour de force is The Witching from DC's Vertigo
imprint.  This title may, in fact, deploy more of the narrative
resources of the medium than just about any other title on the stands
at the moment.  The page layouts alternate collages of imagery with
full-page individual portraits (that introduce new characters) and
with the customary tiers of panels--creating, respectively,
atmosphere, emphasis, and dramatic pacing.  And there are verbal
messages scrawled in the margins, too.  Chris Bachalo's art is
cleanly rendered, his panels cryptically composed and delicately
colored, the dominant sepia tones accented with flashes of other
colors.  I'm not into witches much, so the story Bachalo and Jeph
Loeb are telling scarcely grips me, but for the sake of the pictures,
I'll keep watching the series.  
     Stupid, Stupid Rat Tails is Jeff Smith's vacation from the Bone
yard.  So now, while the regular Bone series goes on hiatus as Smith
turns his attention to an animated incarnation for his cuddly
characters, we are to be treated in the print version to this
mini-series starring Big Johnson Bone.  Drawn by Smith but written by
Tom Sniegoski, this series, judging from the first issue of a trio,
will be somewhat more verbose than Smith's usual schtick.  Partly
that's because the hero of the piece is a garrulous old tale-tale
bearer and legendary explorer whose penchant for regaling us with
stories about his past triumphs blooms on every page.  I'm reminded
of the vaudeville mouse in Walt Kelly's Pogo.  And so are Sniegoski
and Smith, I think.  A character in this new series is a monkey named
Mr. Pip, who, given sufficient provocation, utters an axiom that
could be the clarion call to cartoon success: "When all else fails,
follow the mice."  The mice lead them to a rock-hurling dragon named
Stillman (a nifty visual rendition from Smith, I might add).  The
first book is a treat.  Smith's right: Sniegoski's script is a hoot.
     But does Smith really believe that we won't ever figure it out?
"Bone," I mean.  Big Johnson Bone, in particular.  Anyone who's ever
browsed a T-shirt shop in Myrtle Beach (or any other seaside resort
area) knows that "johnson" is a fond if obscure term for a particular
part of the male apparatus.  And "bone"?  Well, c'mon.  I'd say Smith
is cutting it pretty close to the, er, bone this time.  If we don't
cop to the code and get the allegory with this clue, we never will.
(Jeff: Just kidding, man.)

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