Opus 29

1. Punk on the Loose (6/14)

2. Spoofing Superheroes (6/14)

3. Reprint Roundup (6/14)

1. Punk on the Loose.  I knew all along that somehow 1998 had been
incomplete.  The last several decades have been bench-marked,
year-by-year, with an annual roundup of editorial cartoons by Pat
Oliphant, but no such tome appeared in 1998 to collect the cartoons
he did in 1997.  That's 'cuz he didn't do a collection in 1998.
     But he did do one in 1999, spanning two years: from February 10,
1997 through January 19, 1999, with the title Are We There Yet?  The
cover illustration, to which the book title is the caption, shows
Clinton at the helm of a half-submerged barge on a tour of the sewer.
  Apt.  Punk's comment: "Depends what you mean by 'there.'" To which a
sewer rat responds, "Or 'yet.'"  
     So now my psychic life is complete, the Oliphant version of American
history marches on without a gap, and my bookshelf is one book longer
(from Andrews McMeel, 160 7 x 10" pages; $12.95).
     This volume covers (among other things) the infamous Clinton scandal
that monopolized the attention of the media for all of 1999.  I've
been looking forward to seeing how Oliphant handled this great
national soap opera, and for my money, he nailed it pretty neatly.
He saw Starr as an out-of-control Frankenstein monster, crashing
through walls to confiscate dresses and nighties.  He saw that the
Moninksy preoccupation resulted in most other functions of government
being neglected.  And he saw Clinton as morally bankrupt but still a
politician.  (Or maybe "morally bankrupt" and "politician" is
oxymoronic.)
     Given the hypnotic trance into which this single transgression
plunged American media, it is refreshing to see that Oliphant had
other concerns during that scandal-soaked year.  He was outraged by
campaign finance shenanigans, the bombing of Iraq, the state of
American jurisprudence in the wake of the O.J. trial and the au pair
case, the Microsoft monopoly, and the arrogance of the IRS.  And he
took pleasure in poking fun at Janet Reno's seeming indifference to
congressional demands that she mount all-out investigative offensives
at every beck and call, and Newt's ignominious flame-out.  And that's
just a few episodes in the two-year period, which was, you must
admit, flush with instances of political maladroitness and
governmental mischief-making.
     As always, Oliphant is hard-hitting and uncompromising (at least in
the cartoons he selected for this album).
     The opening cartoon shows Clinton as a flim-flam man, running the
old shell game, which is labeled "budget."  Then here comes the
Commander in Chief, reviewing a rank of soldiers with Paula Jones and
John Huang clinging to his legs as Clinton thinks: "Act Presidential,
act Presidential, act Presidential"--which, of course, he can
scarcely do with those two bulldogs hanging onto him.  Here's a
picture of the globe, which is falling apart at the bottom while, on
top, GOP elephants toss Clinton in a blanket.  (Probably the best
single visual interpretation of the scandal and the ensuing
impeachment I've seen.)  Finally, Starr wanders in as a skunk
wondering why everyone is running away from him.
     While there was no collection of editorial cartoons published in
1998, Andrews McMeel did produce an Oliphant book that year.  Called
Oliphant's Anthem, it is the exhibition catalogue published in
connection with a show of Oliphant's work at the Library of Congress,
April 2 - July 6, 1998.  The book includes images of all sixty
Oliphant works that were on display--in addition to editorial
cartoons, miscellaneous drawings and sketches, paintings, and a
handful of bronze sculptures.
     An elegant paperback production of 132 10x10" pages, the book
features an exquisite color drawing on the cover and another for the
frontispiece.  Apart from two paintings in color and four color
photographs of sculptures, the rest of the book is black and white.
And it concludes with a series of comic strips starring Punk and the
White House cat, Socks.  
     With fresh pencil renditions of Punk, Oliphant's minuscule dingbat
penguin, in the margins next to the cartoons, Oliphant records his
reactions to his own cartoons now, some years after having drawn them
initially.  And each cartoon is also accompanied by a short
annotation, explaining the issues the cartoon addresses.
     But the bonus in this book is the long interview with Oliphant
conducted by Harry Katz, curator of Popular and Applied Graphic Art
at the Library of Congress.  In the course of two days, they recorded
six hours of conversation from which the material here is culled,
providing a rare feast on the thoughts of a cartoonist who seldom
agrees to be interviewed.  
     We get a short rehearsal of Oliphant's career in Australia before
coming to the U.S. in 1964 (he left Australia on Friday and was
drawing for the Denver Post on Monday), and then the cartoonist talks
about the usual array of ailments in his profession--chiefly the
timorousness of editors (who are responding to publishers who are
fearful that advertisers might fail to buy ads if offended by
something in the paper) in the face of politically correct attitudes
in every niche of the culture.
     This timidity has produced a preference among many editors for
humorous cartoons rather than opinionated ones because comedy is
usually less offensive that opinion, particularly if you disagree
with the opinion.  Astonishingly, even humor is suspect these days,
Oliphant says.
     Humor is a "great vehicle for getting a serious message across," he
said, "but we're not allowed to joke very much these days.  What has
occurred?  What was that--the rise of feminism?  Notoriously
humorless.  And there's a surge of religiosity in this country as
part of the movement not to offend anybody."
     Since Oliphant is no longer associated with a daily newspaper but
depends for his income entirely upon the circulation his syndicate
(Universal Press) achieves, the temper of the times can be disastrous
for him as entrepreneur.
     He can send out cartoons electronically and many are published in
client papers the next day, but the technology can't get by nervous
editors.  "If it were not for the fact that editors have become so
timorous in these politically correct times, I would probably have a
greater readership than I have," Oliphant said.
     Given the circumstances, it's nearly impossible to realize the
purpose editorial cartoons are supposed to serve:
     "I think the cartoon should start some sort of dialogue in the
letters column," Oliphant said.  "One should be provoking and
provocative.  I've never been able to determine whether a cartoon can
ever persuade, that is, actually change somebody's mind.   I think
that, if it happens at all, the work is probably done through
presenting the prickly aspects of a controversy or promoting a
dialogue.  From that may come some good.  Putting the cat amongst the
pigeons, I think it's called."
     The book reprints Oliphant's famous 1966 Pulitzer-winning cartoon,
the one that he allegedly contrived to fit the formula he detected in
the winners of previous years.  Having determined the pattern, he
simply cut a cartoon to fit and submitted it.  And it won.
     Well, not quite in that way, as it turns out.  The cartoon (which
shows Ho Chi Minh carrying a dead Viet Cong in his arms and saying,
"They won't get us to the conference table, will they?") was produced
in the course of his usual daily grind, and he wasn't too pleased
with it.  But when the time came to submit twelve cartoons to the
Pulitzer judges, he realized that this cartoon "typified all the bad
cartoons" that had won the Pulitzer in the past, and so he included
it.  And it won.
     Punk doesn't appear in this cartoon, incidentally; Oliphant usually
leaves the penguin out if the subject is terribly serious.
     To avoid becoming boring, Oliphant deliberately varies his style.
Sometimes the variation is aimed at producing a particular reaction
in a reader.  Most of his work is done very quickly in the final
execution stage.
     "I'm looking for the magic combination of the message and the
drawing just melding perfectly.  And maybe once very few years that
happens to my satisfaction," Oliphant said, with a typical artist's
discontent about his work.
     He reports that about 1980 he felt particularly unhappy with his
drawing.  "It's easy to get into bad habits," he said.  "Then you
tend to start drawing by code, and you'll just get sloppy unless you
review what you're doing every so often."
     Later, as part of his reassessment of his own work, he enrolled in a
life drawing class and worked at it twice a week for two or three
years, drawing from a model.
     "Of course there's nothing wrong with going a couple of times a week
to look at a naked lady," he said.  "Bill Christenberry [the
instructor] still laughs about this: I would get to the door and, if
it was a male model, I'd go home.  I told him if I wanted to draw a
naked man I could look in the mirror!  He still tells this story,
and, believe me, it loses nothing in the telling!"
     In addition to discussing his career and the state of the profession
generally, Oliphant also comments on some of the cartoons, prompted
by Katz.
     And Katz gets almost the last word, commenting on the generally held
view that Oliphant is cantankerous.
     Katz responds by saying that a certain cantankerousness is "part of
the nature of your profession."
     And he continues: "Yes, you do produce negative commentary on issues
but, in essence, you're feeling very positive that you can make a
difference, that you can educate people, that you can, in a positive
way, point out when we might be going down the wrong road."
     Oliphant is very pleased with this: "You're saying everything that I
think about in the dead of night," he said.  "Just say it that way.
It's hard for an artist to just come out and say these things.  It's
a nice thing to say, and I agree with it wholeheartedly."
     It's a nifty collection and a thought-provoking interview,
altogether worth every cent of the $24.95 cover price.  

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2. Spoofing Superheroes.  It had to happen eventually.  A nationally
syndicated newspaper comic strip that spoofs the longjohn legions in
comic books.  The first (I believe) to enter this fray is Mike
Luckovich with a strip called SuperZeroes.
     Offered by Tribune Media Services starting in January, the strip
features a brace of brothers who drink some radioactive juice and
promptly turn into superpowered beings, complete with spandex and
capes.  Although they call themselves Manly Man and Bluebird, they
could have been dubbed "dumb and dumber" because they sure are.
     Manly Man is the muscled one; Bluebird is about twerp-size.  Both
unmarried, they set up their "secret lair" in the basement of their
mother's home.  They also hire a butler--Phipps.  He looks somewhat
like an undertaker.  But I guess all butlers do.
     Spoofing funnybook heroes is pretty easy to do.  And most of the
early SuperZeroes strips don't venture much afield from the
predictable range of possibilities.  Manly Man is worried that he
looks silly because his cape clings to his rear; Bluebird puts static
cling on the list of archvillains.  Manly Man spends a lot of time in
a phone booth because he got his hand stuck in the coin return.
     But it could get better.  According to the syndicate's promo kit,
this dashing duo are supposed to be battling such foes as pushy
telemarketers and rude waiters.  In other words, the villains here
are presumably going to be all of the irritating aspects of
contemporary society.
     And Luckovich could pull it off.  He's got the social overview
experience.  His day job is as editorial cartoonist for the Atlanta
Constitution, so he knows an irritating aspect of society when he
sees one.
     With SuperZeroes, Luckovich joins the growing ranks of his brethren
who produce syndicated comic strips as well as a daily editorial
cartoon.  Tim Menees was the first editorial cartoonist of the
current generation to double on a comic strip: he produced Wordsmith
in 1976 while doing editorial cartoons for the Pittsburgh
Post-Gazette (where he still works).  But it was the late Jeff
MacNelly who made a success of the dual role when he started Shoe
September 12, 1977.
     Since then, many editorial cartoonists have followed suit--Mike
Peters, Jack Ohman, Jim Borgman, Bruce Beattie, Dana Summers, Bill
Schorr, Brian Bassett, to name a few.  
     It's relatively easy for an editorial cartoonist to break into strip
cartooning.  If they can find the time.  Most newspaper editors are
more confident about subscribing to a comic strip produced by a known
talent than one by a newcomer.  And Luckovich, thanks to his fifteen
years as an editorial cartoonist, is a known quantity.  
     Not all cartoonists think doing this kind of double duty is a good
thing.  Wiley Miller, who presently does Non Sequitur, has been both
a strip cartoonist and an editorial cartoonist.  But he does only one
at a time.  He does it as a matter of principle.  He doesn't think a
cartoonist can produce two daily features of high quality; and by
filling two cartooning slots in a newspaper, such cartoonists are
taking a place that some otherwise unemployed cartoonist might fill.

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3. Reprint Roundup.  The new millennium is scarcely five months old
(or, maybe, it's not even here yet if you believe the mathematicians
who think the new age begins the year after we start saying "two
thousand"), but it's already beyond debate that it's a good time for
those of us who are passionate about oldtyme funnybooks.  A goodly
number of superior reproductions of rare old comics are coming out
with some regularity.
     DC's embossed Millennium Editions, for instance, provide telling
glimpses into the distant past of the medium.  If you missed the
Silver Age debut of the new Flash, you can catch up with history in
the ME reprint of Showcase No. 4, where the "birth of the Silver Age"
is alleged to have taken place.  And here we have Green Lantern No.
76 in which Denny O'Neill and Julie Schwartz and Neal Adams gave
relevance a home in superheroicism.
     But the real insight these editions yield dawns over such genuine
antiques as Action No. 1, Whiz No. 2, and Detective No. 27.  We've
seen reproductions of the chief features of these titles before--the
first Superman story, the debut of Captain Marvel, and the
introduction of Batman, respectively.  But the ME reproduces the
entire contents of Action No. 1 and the others.
And that is surely their most valuable contribution for armchair
historians of the medium.
     In Action No. 1, we find (in addition to the full-color Superman
story):  a Western, "Chuck Dawson" (in black-and-white, reminding us
that many of the interior pages of early comic books were not
resplendent in four-color glory) by H. Fleming; and, in color again,
"Zatara," a magician (displaying stunningly confident work by a
youthful Fred Gardineer); "Sticky-Mitt Stimson," a humor feature not
unlike C.D. Russell's famed Pete the Tramp; a couple pages detailing
some of the "Adventures of Marco Polo"; another Gardineer entry, "Pep
Morgan," a prize-fighter; "Scoop Scanlon," a return to the
black-and-white signature for a newsman tale; and another western,
"Tex Thomson," by Bernard Baily.
     In Detective No. 27, we have (in addition to Batman's full-color
debut by "Rob't Kane") more work from Gardineer and Fleming (this
last, another Western, this one using only a second color, pink, both
solid and screened for variety), "The Crimson Avenger" by Jim
Chambers (who makes his hero look like Milton Caniff's Pat Ryan from
Terry and the Pirates), and an installment of "Slam Bradley," the
Captain Easy inspired adventurer from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
By Detective No. 38 a year later, Shuster's place at the drawing
board for Slam Bradley had been taken by Dennis Neville.  And in
"Cliff Crosby" (artist unknown), we find out-and-out swipes from
Caniff's Terry.  While in "The Crimson Avenger," the art chores have
fallen to Jack Lehti, whose work looks more like Alex Raymond's
(vaguely) than Caniff's.
     In short, in these bygone titles, we get a good education about the
quality of art and story at the time.  In each of these ME books, we
also get a short albeit informative essay by Robert Greenberger.
     One of the best discoveries made possible by this series is that the
artwork on a lot of these forgotten back-up features was better than
the artwork on the lead stories.  Maybe that's not surprising either:
the people who drew for comic books in those prehistoric times were
either has-beens or wannabees (artists who were on their way down and
out or artists who were on their way up--both categories eyeing
magazine illustration, not comic books, as a career destination).
     And the ME Whiz No. 2 reveals, among other things, that DC not
Fawcett had the best artists.  Not surprising, I suppose: Whiz No. 2
was Fawcett's first comic book, and DC by another name had been
publishing comic books for several years by the launch of Action No.
1 and had, doubtless, attracted a number of pretty fair artists.
     Another revelation: the splash page opening for comic book stories
had not yet been adopted.  No surprise here either: the invention of
the splash page is generally credited to Will Eisner.  Starting in
June 1940, Eisner produced a weekly comics "supplement" in comic book
form for newspaper syndication.  It was for this that he invented the
Spirit.  And because the supplement comic book had no cover, Eisner
developed a splash page to serve that purpose.  (More on this
eventuality can be found in the introductory material to DC's
archival Spirit series, recently launched--to which, I should add in
the interests of full disclosure, I contributed an essay.)  And the
ME comics I've been talking about here all appeared, originally,
before 1940--before splash pages, in other words.  
     The champion of reprint houses these days, though, is Bill Black's
AC Comics--if you go by persistence and longevity at the project.
Black has been reproducing classic Westerns in Best of the West for a
couple years at least (the title is up to No. 9 at this writing) and,
in Men of Mystery, superhero stories from the Golden Age for more
than a couple years (20 issues so far).
     Best of the West usually includes a Haunted Horseman tale by Dick
Ayers, Redmask from Frank Bolle, Black Diamond by an assortment of
artists, and Durango Kid.  The reproduction (which begins with
Theakstonized pages from Greg Theakston and ends with reconstruction
by Black and others at the AC shop) is usually splendid.
Black-and-white throughout, but Black has added a gray tint that
snaps the artwork off the page.  Nifty.
     Among the highlights (for me) recently: in BoW No. 9, a Calico Kid
story drawn in a nearly humorous fashion by Dick Ayers (not so
strange: Ayers's earliest comic book endeavors included comical
renderings of Jimmy Durante); and in No. 8, an expertly rendered
Black Diamond episode from Doug Wildey and a Redmask story with
cowboy movie star Tim Holt (who assumes the guise of the Redmask in
these books) teaming with the Black Phantom, a fetchingly drawn lady
gunslinger.  
     Many of the latter-day Redmask stories were drawn in the wake of the
3-D movie craze of the 1950s, and Bolle attempted to produce the
effect of 3-D by extending the pictures of his figures beyond the
panel borders.  No triumph as 3-D, but the maneuver gave the pages a
lively and energetic look, a definite plus.
     BoW No. 8 also includes a brilliantly illustrated piece from British
artist Denis McLoughlin, whose career is outlined in a text feature
by Matthew H. Gore in Men of Mystery No. 18.  (All AC historic titles
include text pieces well-furnished with useful tidbits of information
about the features being reprinted.)
     And there is plenty of other stand-out art--again, in adroitly
tinted black-and-white.  In MoM No. 18, for example, we have a
stunningly drawn Son of Sinbad story by Joe Kubert from 1953.  (This
is one of the few times Black gives a publication date for the
original appearance of the material; he always cites the comic book
title and issue number but almost never the date.  And I wish he
would.  I think it would be easy to do--and a great boon to geezers
like me, hung up on history.)
     In No. 19, we have a "Kenton of the Star Patrol" story by Wally
Wood, a "Space Patrol" story by Bernie Krigstein (splashing ink like
Frank Robbins) with a long, carefully staged two-page fight sequence,
and a "Rocky Jones, Space Ranger" tale skillfully done by Ray Orsin.
     The much oogled Phantom Lady makes several of her numerous AC
appearances in No. 20--two by Matt Baker, her classic illustrator,
and one in a "Spider Widow" story by Rudy Palais, one of Baker's
predecessors on the scantily clad character.  And in this issue, we
also have the second "Death Patrol" story by Jack Cole from Military
Comics No. 2 and an interview with Frank M. Borth, who did the Spider
Widow and was the second artist on the Phantom Lady.
     Cramming history onto the page in both text and picture is an AC
tradition, and if you haven't picked up on it yet, you oughta.
     Gemstone is another of the champion recycling outfits.  Recently,
it's been bringing out EC "pre-Trend" titles--the books produced
before Gaines happened on Al Feldstein and the two started doing sf
and horror galore, setting the industry standard.
     In the two titles at hand--War Against Crime and Crime Patrol (both,
unlike AC's titles, in color)--EC is not setting a trend but
following one, namely Lev Gleason's pace-setting Crime Does Not Pay
and other titles that got Fredric Wertham grinding his teeth and
cranking out indictments of the comic book industry.
     The treat here is in seeing the early work of artists who, later,
became stalwarts in the EC stable or celebrated elsewhere in the
comics realm.
     In Crime Patrol No. 2 (from the fall of 1948), for instance, we have
some of the last efforts from Henry C. Kiefer.  Kiefer did most of
his work through the 1940s, plying his brush in the service of
virtually every publisher in the game.  About the time he was doing
crime stories for EC, he was also working for Gilberton, illustrating
such classic literature as Great Expectations, David Copperfield, and
Wuthering Heights (to name a few).  He didn't do much after about
1953 (when he was 63 years old); he died in 1957.
     In War Against Crime No. 2 (from summer, 1948), we find several
fascinating nuggets.  A story by Lee Ames, for example, who worked in
comics only briefly in the forties before leaving to become an
illustrator.  Most recently, he did a series of "how to draw" books
under the running title "Draw 50 . . . ."  In Draw 50 People, Ames
enlisted the deft pencil of another comic book veteran, Creig
Flessel.  Flessel, like Ames, was one of those artists on his way up
in the formative years of funnybooks, making merely a pit stop in
comics en route.  (But Flessel, unlike Ames, returned to four-color
pages occasionally throughout his career.)  The work of these two was
among the most expert rendering in early comics, as we can readily
see from the Ames story here.
     In Draw 50 People, incidentally, Flessel provides a text preface to
his pencilled pages of drawings.  In this short essay, he talks about
"draftsmanship," "drawing," and "rendering."  He confesses that his
drawings--his pencil preliminaries--are the "real draughtsmanship,"
drawings that are part of the artist.  These are "spontaneous," but
they are often "muddled and overworked" as he turns them into
finished paintings.  
     "Many of us make renderings," Flessel goes on, "renderings that are
detailed delineations, shaped, shaded, and detailed to a
fare-thee-well.  I have rendered many turkeys!  But once in a while,
I make a drawing!"
     Another artist who left comics early in his artistic career is
represented in War Against Crime No. 2, Stan Aschmeier ("Stan Asch").
  Remembered more for his DC efforts on Dr. Mid-Nite, he does a story
here in a much more simplified manner than his earlier superhero
work.
     Another whose effort herein is more crisply done than his later
albeit more celebrated work is Graham Ingeles.  Revered for his
grisly renditions of horror stories as "Ghastly," he does a stunning
job here on a Western.
     Finally, this issue includes a story that teams Frank Bolle and
newcomer Leonard Starr.  I'd say Starr is inking Bolle here--and he
added a certain finesse to the pictures as he went, too.
     It's a hoot to see the work of these artisans in the unfamiliar
surroundings of the EC books, and for the sake of the insight into EC
history afforded by these titles, Gemstone deserves a round of
applause.
     Avalon Communications in Canada (flying under the banner ACG) is
also producing reprint titles--in this case, reissuing newspaper
comic strips.  Dick Tracy, Brenda Starr, and Terry and the Pirates,
for instance.  But the quality here is marginal.  
     Reproduced from newspaper clippings, the artwork is often muddy,
clogged up with shading detail.  Complicating the reproduction
process is ACG's choice of paper--very nearly the coarsest brand of
newsprint, about as absorbent as toilet tissue--which results in
spreading lines that further clot the art.  Too bad: otherwise, ACG's
attempt is nobly inspired.
     Reprints are history revisited.  Given the serious dose of nostalgia
that infects the collector psyche, reprints ought to be one of the
major pillars upon which this industry rests.  Until quite recently,
the technology for reissuing masterworks from the past was pretty
makeshift.  And as a result, the reprint enterprise has been
sluggish.  Nowadays, however, publishers could deploy the latest
advances in printing techniques and flood this nostalgic market with
exact reproductions of the masterpieces of yesteryear.  I'd buy 'em.

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