Opus 27:

1. News & Comments (5/18)

2. Reviews: A Tricked-up Trio (5/18

1. News & Comment.  In The New Yorker last fall (November 15, 1999),
we have what may be that magazine's first gay cartoon.  William
Haefeli shows two men reclining on a bed in a department store, and
one says to the other: "I still say we should get a queen-size
mattress--despite the obvious jokes it will invite among the sales
staff."  The trick is to achieve a laugh without ridiculing or
demeaning the gay community, and I think this one does the job.  It's
also somewhat of a rarity in the pages of The New Yorker: a cartoon
in which neither the picture nor the words make humorous sense
without the other.  Too many of the magazine's cartoons these days
need no pictures for their captions: the comedy is verbal, not the
verbal-visual blend that good cartooning should be.  This gem, for
instance, is typical: "I don't think, David, that agreeing to
disagree is a good foundation for marriage."  Do you need a picture?

New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff made an audio appearance on our
local NPR station, and I phoned in and made the observation that too
many New Yorker cartoons are verbal witicisms not verbal-visual
blends.  Yes, he said, and I'm trying to change that--implying that
the change has been largely accomplished.  Well, I dunno: judging
from the magazine's cartoon content, I'd say it's pretty much the
same as always.

The Comic Book Crisis.  We've been hearing for some years how deep
the financial doldrums of the comic book industry is, how
crisis-ridden the business is, how close to collapse and other
disasters.  Yup: another false alarm.  Y2K in another guise.  In the
Comics Buyer's Guide No. 1363 (December 31, 1999), Editor Maggie
Thompson lays the rumors to rest.  Ten years ago, there were 15 comic
book publishers producing at least for issues a month; today, there
are also 15.  Not exactly the same 15, but the same number.  Ten
years ago, there were an estimated 3,500 comics shops nationwide;
today, the number is estimated at 3,600.  The dollar value of new
comics published every month ten years ago was $850; today, it's
higher than that.  Doesn't look like an industry in dire straits to
me.

In fact, if you've read one of my books (The Art of the Comic Book),
you'll know that I think we're on the cusp of another Golden Age in
comic books.  Maybe not financially, but artistically.  For more
about The Art of the Comic Book, click here.

Haynie Gone.  Hugh Haynie, editorial cartoonist at the Louisville
Courier-Journal from 1958 to his retirement in 1995 (and syndicated
by the L.A. Times), died of lung cancer on November 25, 1999.  I
hadn't seen much of his work in the last years of his career, but
what I did see revealed an innovative posture on the editorial page.
As we all know, the editorial cartoon is the flag that indicates that
this is, indeed, the paper's editorial page: the editorial cartoon
brands the page.  Hayne's did even more.  Frequently, the entire
design of a day's page was built around his cartoon.  On such
occasions, his cartoon was not a simple rectangle containing a
drawing.  Nope.  The figures in Haynie's pictures transcended and
violated the panel confines--arms, legs, bodies were projected beyond
the borders, characters wandered off in all directions.  And the
typography of the editorial page maneuvered around Haynie's
configuration.  Too bad more papers don't do the same: their
editorial pages wouldn't be so gray.

When Hayne retired several years ago, Draper Hill, erstwhile
editorial cartoonist at the Detroit News, attended the ceremonial
banquet that was held in Louisville, home of the Kentucky Derby, and
he told me this story.

Numerous dignitaries were in attendance--fellow editorial cartoonists
from other venues, city fathers and Kentucky Derby factotums,
newspaper moguls, and so on.  Many speeches were made, and, at last,
it was Haynie's turn.

It was not altogether certain that Haynie would, actually, take to
the podium.  He was a notoriously reticent man at such public
affairs.  But he rose to the occasion.

He began by disputing the assertion of one of those who had spoken so
well of him.

"I must say that I disagree about my being a Louisville
thoroughbred," he said.  "If I were, indeed, a thoroughbred, I
wouldn't be put out to pasture.  I'd be put out to stud."

Naturally, the room broke up.

Simpsons Bombs.  The Sunday strip spawned by the Fox Network's
with-it animated TV show ran into trouble almost at once.  An early
episode had one of the characters chopping off the fingers of one
hand, for instance--hysterically funny, no doubt, on television, but
fairly ghastly in static print where the harmlessness of such cartoon
violence can't be dramatized with movement.  After a couple
installments like this, several papers dropped the feature.  And I
have to say, I agree with their action: dismemberment ain't really
funny except in animation.

In the Trenches.  A recent issue of liberal weekly, The Nation
(December 6, 1999), provides a round-up of numerous efforts resisting
globalization (i.e., the emergence of corporate power over political
power and nationalism in shaping world affairs).  Among those efforts
are cartoons.  In Mexico, a member of the longjohn legion named
Superbarrio leads the fight in comic books.  "Under NAFTA,
Superbarrio's heroics have taken him on many crusades across the
border.  Once he swept into Los Angeles to take water samples for
toxic testing in Mexican labs (the local environmental group did not
trust the results they were getting from the US government).  And a
booklet by Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras illustrates the
common workplace scenarios to help Mexican workers learn about their
labor rights so they can more effectively defend themselves against
abuses by the primarily US-owned corporations operating on the
border."

Awards & Notices.  A press release from United Media notes that Over
the Hedge, written by Michael Fry and drawn by T Lewis, won the
Religious Communicators Council's 1998 Wilbur Award for "excellence
in the communication of religious issues, values, and themes." In the
award-winning entries, the strip's main characters--RJ the raccoon
and Verne the super-sensitive turtle--ponder the origin of humanity,
the plausibility of reincarnation, and the eternal question: Is God a
turtle or a raccoon?  Said Lewis: "We've touched on stupid topics,
life and death topics, and spiritual topics.  Winning the Wilber is
particularly satisfying because it means sometimes we get it right."

And in Jump Start, cartoonist Robb Armstrong devoted a week's strips
to one of his nurse heroine's patients who was coming to terms with
being paralyzed.  He got the idea for the series after speaking
before the New Jersey Coalition on Women and Disabilities.  Touched
by the up-beat and positive people he met, Armstrong decided he could
turn the experience into an inspiring story in the strip.  "I wanted
to get people to think about thse experiences because people have a
very hands-off attitude toward the whole topic of disabilities.  It's
uncomfortable--just like any other kind of bias.  People pretend it's
someone else's concern, but it's not."

In a later development, Armstrong's nurse Marcy encountered Charles
M. Schulz in her hospital where he's being treated for colon cancer.

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2. Reviews: A Tricked-up Trio. This Colyum is not a geyser, but every
once in a while, I have to gush.  This is one of those times.
Andrews McMeel has exceeded expectations.  Normally, reprint books
just reprint the comic strips.  And there's certainly nothing amiss
in that.  But Andrews McMeel (4520 Main St., Kansas City, MO
64111-7701) has recently manufactured a trio of reprint volumes that
do more than that. Two of them are considerably enhanced visually;
and a third, both visually and verbally.

To begin with, the three strips being reprinted--Mutts by Patrick
McDonnell and Zits by Jim Borgman and Jerry Scott and For Better or
For Worse by Lynn Johnston--are among the nation's most popular
strips.  Mutts is about a dog, Earl, and his best friend, Mooch, a
cat, and their relationship with their owners.  Zits focuses on a
teenager, Jeremy, and his friends and parents.  And FBOFW, as
everyone surely knows, is a treatment in real life terms of the
trials, triumphs and daily trivia in the lives of the Patterson
family, patterned somewhat closely on the cartoonist's own situation.

All three strips are critically acclaimed as superior examples of the
cartoonist's artistry.  So even if the books weren't visually
augmented, these three volumes would be worth owning.  But, as I
said, there's more.
To begin with, Mutts Sundays (144 8.5x11" pages; $12.95) is all in
color.  Every delicious page.  What makes this special is that
McDonnell has made his Sunday strips special.

As David Folkman says in Hogan's Alley (No. 7): "McDonnell's Sunday
page is reminiscent of an era when cartoonists such as Winsor McCay
and George Herriman mixed their palettes to strikingly unique effect.
  Whereas many contemporary cartoonists seem content to add a few
panels linking together a Sunday strip, McDonnell continually
redefines his space and achieves a colorful panorama."

All Sunday comic strips these days are designed with one or two
"throw-away" panels.  Newspapers then have an option: they can
publish the strip as a third page, using the throw-away panels; or
they can discard these seemingly superfluous panels and publish the
strip at a smaller size--say, as a quarter page.  Or, even (horrors!)
an eighth page.  This maneuver gets more comics on a page albeit at
an insanely diminutive size.

Cartoonists engineer throw-away panels in a number of ways.  Often,
one way deploys the double-size title or logo panel.  Newspapers that
print the strip at a small size simply drop the logo panel,
substituting a line of type above the strip.

If, instead of a double-size logo panel, there are two throw-away
panels, chances are they are the first two panels in the strip.
Cartoonists devise two gags for such enterprises: one is contained in
the throw-away panels.  Newspapers that publish the whole strip--at a
third-page size or better--give their readers two jokes on Sundays.
(That's how the cartoonists lobby for publication at the larger size:
give 'em more for the buck at that size.)  But that means that a
cartoonist must come up with eight gags a week instead of seven.  

Clearly, the throw-away logo is the better option.  But many
cartoonists, being creative souls, sometimes devise a visual device,
some sort of graphic embellishment, for the logo panel--again, to
induce editors to use the whole strip.  Frank Cho in Liberty Meadows,
for instance, makes his logo panel function like the cover of a book,
with the rest of the strip that Sunday being the book.

McDonnell does that, too--only moreso.  McDonnell uses his logo panel
as a sort of separate canvass, and on it, he pays homage to
cartooning and painterly greats of the past.

For his Halloween Sunday strip, for instance, he imitated the cover
of Detective Comics No. 27--the one that introduced Batman with a
figure of the cowled crime-fighter swinging across the rooftops.

"I wanted to get a bat into it," McDonnell told Folkman--because bats
evoke Halloweeny thoughts.  Even if not everyone knows his "Batman"
logo panel with Mooch the cat in the Bat costume is imitating
Batman's inaugural appearance, McDonnell says, "it still makes a
really interesting opening panel" for Halloween.

McDonnell used other comic book covers, too.  Once it was Harvey
Kurtzman's famous cover for the first issue of Mad Comics. Another
time, it was the cover of Zap with Mooch getting the electrical
boost.

Once he put Ozzie, Earl's master, on the cover in a pose and costume
aping Superman on the cover of Superman Comics No. 1.  The strip that
Sunday was about "how pets perceive their owners as being able to do
anything for them"--like Supermen, in other words.

Sometimes the opening panel is related to the day's strip, sometimes
not.  Sometimes McDonnell's desire to produce a particular homage in
that panel inspires the gag that follows.  Sometimes he must cast
about for an image that suits the strip he's already concocted.

When he wrote a gag that had Earl dreaming about Mooch, McDonnell
turned to McCay's Little Nemo and used the traditional image of the
last panel in McCay's strip--a picture of Nemo falling out of bed.
And when Earl was in bed in another strip, McDonnell imitated McCay's
famous walking bed picture.

A graduate of art school, McDonnell draws upon a familiarity with
famous paintings.  And he tries to imitate even the hues of the
colors in his inspirations.  For a Mother's Day strip, McDonnell
adapted James Whistler's famous picture of his mother.

Sometimes the opening panel's picture has nothing to do with anything
in the strip.  McDonnell copied Mondrian's "Composition with Red,
Blue, and Yellow" once, putting Earl and Mooch into two of the color
blocks from whence they stare out at us.

And so every Sunday, Mutts is a quiz: can you name the source of the
first panel's imagery?  Can you detect the relationship between the
first panel and the punchline panel?

And this book is likewise a quiz.  And a delight.  The colors are
delicately applied, a visual feast.  In short, not only is this tome
exemplary of the cartoonist's art: it is similarly an exemplar of the
printer's.  A well-made book.  And so is Humongous Zits, "a Zits
Treasury."

At first blush, Humongous would seem to be repeating the marketing
dodge of the Calvin and Hobbes years.  The contents, we are told with
a cover blurb, "includes" material from two previous
collections--Zits and Growth Spurt.  The Calvin and Hobbes books,
you'll recollect, came, like this, in threes: the third volume
repeated some of the contents of the two preceding ones, but not all;
and it added Sundays in color.  So to get the complete re-run, you
had to buy all three books.  And so it would appear in this case.
But--no.  Not so.  Humongous reprints all of the content of the two
previous books.  Every strip.  Dailies and Sundays.  So why buy this
huge 256-page 8.5x11-inch tome for $14.95?  (Twice the page count of
the others--and the pages are two inches wider.)

First, because the Sundays are now in color; in the other two books,
they were "colored" with gray tones.  But Humongous doesn't include
the opening panel; the other two, do.  And Borgman and Scott use the
opening panel as a book cover for the day's strip, so it's always
different and frequently funny in itself.  You miss this if you're
content with only the Humongous book.

Leaving out the opening panel, Jim Borgman told me, permitted them to
publish the rest of the Sunday strip at a larger dimension--always a
benefit with Zits because the Sunday strips are so visually
adventurous.

If you're content with just the two previous volumes, you'll miss the
chief decorative device in Humongous.  Every so often, one of
Borgman's rough sketches for the strip is published in blue ink on
the page next to the final published art taken from that sketch.  

Borgman has a file of rough sketches because of the way he and Jerry
Scott work together.  Scott's "script" for the strip is a roughly
drawn strip which he faxes to Borgman in Cincinnati (where Borgman
does editorial cartoons for the Enquirer). Borgman then applies his
sensibility to Scott's and redraws the strip, faxing a photocopy of
it back to Scott on the West Coast.  Scott approves or comments.
Back and forth.  And the photocopies of the sketches are therefore
"around"; so they decided to include some of them in this book.  

So I'm glad to have this "treasury" for the insights provided by the
sketches as well as for the content of its predecessors.  If you
missed either of the first two books, this one will bring you up to
speed.  And if you're an appreciator of comic strip artistry, you
need Zits on your shelf.

Like McDonnell, Borgman and Scott experiment with the comic strip
format.  Daily strips exploit the horizontal and the sequential.  On
Sunday, the cartoonists vary panel size and layout, often achieving
startling effects.  And here you have lots of effects--dailies and
Sundays.

According to Borgman, he and Scott exploit the comic strip format in
this fashion because they want to see (and to demonstrate) what
cartooning can do in this format that no other art form can do.  And
they do it often enough to make Zits a joy to watch.  So if you want
to see what a comic strip can be, this is the book you need to have.

The reprint volume of For Better or For Worse is another sort of
thing altogether.  It's available in hardback ($29.95) as well as
paper ($14.95), for one thing--with a dust jacket and everything;
8.5x11-inch, 224 pages.  But the big difference is in the book's
contents.  

It's part diary, part scrapbook, part family history.  It is a 20th
anniversary memoir and meditation on life--family, marriage, career.
Its chief difference from all other comic strip reprint books I've
ever seen (which is more than a few, tovarich) is that at least half
of this book is text.  Straight narrative prose.  That's the diary
part.  The scrapbook part is the comic strips, dailies and Sundays,
that capture the key moments in the history of the strip--that is,
the lives of the Pattersons.

In The Lives Behind the Lines, Johnston tells part of her own story
and all of the Pattersons' story.  She begins:

"When I started For Better or For Worse twenty years ago, it was with
a certain amount of youthful blasť.  We [Lynn and her husband Rod]
had two kids, they drove me crazy, we had moved to an isolated town,
and this was the perfect job for a show-off, a cartoonist, a would-be
writer, a dreamer, forced to live in the real world long enough to
change diapers, relate to adults, keep a home in order, and grow up.
The children were raised in the warmth and security of my husband's
family.  Rod's mom and dad lived a five-minute walk away from our
home and were the center of our private little carousel."

In these few sentences, we have as good a preview of the book as we
need.  In a happy turn of phrase, a self-deprecating adjective, a
flash of reality check, we have a tantalizing but revealing glimpse
of Johnston's warmth and wit.  And the book, like the strip, brims
with it.

In revisiting important moments in the strip's history, Johnston
supplies details of the Patterson's lives that never appear in the
strip itself.  After marriage, for instance, the young couple lived
in a basement apartment in Toronto as John, the husband, finished
studying dentistry.  Elly went to work in a bookstore and freelanced
her writing.  She never finished college.  She had John instead of a
degree.

In addition to the more mundane matters--child rearing and
house-keeping--the book covers the assorted traumatic moments of the
last two decades with the Pattersons: the coming out of a gay
teenager, sickness and death of a grandparent and a beloved family
pet, menopause, growing older, going to college, and so on.

There are Sundays in full color, daily strips in black and white, and
marginal sketches and drawings, some in color.  And Johnston's
marvelously thoughtful, caring and comical prose.

"If there's a statement to be made in what I do," she writes on the
last page, "it would be:  Cherish your working partnerships.  Take
time to see all the good there is in the people you know and to
expect the best in those you don't. . . .  Think of each person as a
novel waiting to be read.  I'm fifty-two and I'm only just learning
all this stuff.  I wonder why it's taken so long!"

Fortunately for all of us, we've had twenty years of Johnston's
teaching so far, but that's not long enough.  Johnston promises
another nine years before capping the ink bottle on her comic strip
creations.  And this milestone book will still be around (maybe, by
then, with another, some sort of grand finale--although Johnston is
leery of the labor writing such a book requires: "It nearly put me in
the hospital," she said of the 20th anniversary effort).

For the strip, though, she promises to provide a real ending. "I
promise I will wrap it up so that it'll have closure. We're not going
to just say good-bye to the characters."

Until then, we've got the next nine years.  

And during those nine years, you'll want to bring yourself up-to-date
on the history and development of the medium by browsing in my book,
The Art of the Funnies (about which, more if you click here); or, if
you want a

Stay 'tooned (which you can do best by checking into my Hindsights
section; click here).

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