Opus 35:

1. Comic Strip News and Bull (9/6)

2. At San Diego’s Con (9/6)

1. Comic Strip News and Bull. Compiled (in part) from Editor & Publisher (with thanques, here, to David Astor, intrepid reporter of the syndicate scene): Scott Stantis’s strip, The Buckets, hit its 10th anniversary April 22, and Stantis celebrated by reprinting notable strips for the whole week, April 17-22 ... Also in April, in Robb Armstrong’s Jump Start, Joe Cobb, the strip family’s father and a cop, is shot--three times, in the chest, but survives because he’s wearing his bulletproof vest; it’s part of Armstrong’s effort to honor law enforcement officials ... And last spring, Brian Basset, erstwhile editorial cartoonist at the Seattle Times and creator of Adam@Home, launched his second strip, Red and Rover, about a boy and his dog, set in "the sixties," for which Basset deploys a bolder line and more angular style ... Sylvia, Nicole Hollander’s off-beat feminist strip, turned 20 in May ... Also in May, Pat McDonnell did a weeks’ worth of strips in Mutts about the need for pet adoptions ...

Ten- and twenty-year anniversaries may seem inconsequential, but when we remember than less than half of any year’s crop of syndicated strips make it to a fifth-year anniversary, ten-and-up represents a signal achievement. And in Hollander’s case, even more so because Sylvia , although now distributed by LATS, achieved viability through self-syndication.

Time did a rave review of Dan Clowe’s recent opus, David Boring, a series of comic books (that I haven’t seen; sorry). And the magazine also committed a nifty page-long write-up about Joe Sacco and his latest Fantagraphics book, Safe Area Gorazde, comicbook reportage on the Balkans fiasco. Originally, however, Time had planned to cover Sacco’s book with a two-page comic strip of its own. Written by Time’s Joel Stein and drawn by Seattle cartoonist Michael Dougan, the piece would be a comic reviewing a comic. But at the last minute, the editors canceled the review-comic because they were not comfortable with presenting a serious work like Gorazde through the filter of Stein’s "smart-alecky style." Stein’s replacement piece, all text, is sometimes a little light-hearted but, over-all, respectful of Sacco’s work.

According to Astor’s August 7 report, at least 70 newspapers are now running daily comics in color, a significant jump since 1996, when only about 27 papers colored daily strips. Most of the papers (62) are clients of Reed Brennan Media Associates, which packages comics pages for national distribution via cyberspace. The potential for the spread of this possibly delightful contagion is limited by the printing capacities of newspapers. In some configurations, only the front and back pages can be run in color. But since Brennan does the colorizing, the cost is not prohibitive if the printing plant can handle the load.

Although readers seem to like their daily comics in color, many cartoonists are less than enthusiastic. Since they design their strips for black-and-white reproduction, the addition of color, willy nilly, changes the appearance of the strips. They could color their daily strips themselves, of course; but few have the time.

In August, Charles Atlas finally lost one. You remember the famous comic book ad? It’s a comic strip about a skinny kid and his girl on the beach where a muscled bully kicks sand on the kid, who’s too weak to defend himself. So he takes the Charles Atlas body-building course by correspondence and develops the physique of a bull ape; then he goes back to the beach and punches out the bully that started it all and wins his girl back.

In a 1991 DC comic book parody of this famous comic strip ad, the newly muscled kid goes back to the beach and smashes his former girlfriend’s face, saying, "I don’t need a tramp like you anymore!"

Charles Atlas Ltd. sued last year after learning of the parody, but Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald in New York dismissed the suit, saying, "This is precisely the type of expression of ideas that the First Amendment is designed to protect. It is an undeniable twist on plaintiff’s comic ad for the once-weak character to gain strength only to himself become a brute and a bully. ... [The ad is] a farcical commentary on plaintiff’s implied promises of physical and sexual prowess through use of the Atlas method."

Aaron McGruder’s strip, The Boondocks, about an African-American family as refugees in suburbia from the harder-edged inner city keeps getting headlines. In May, the chief protagonist of the strip, Huey, spouted off about his teacher, who, Huey said, is "keeping the masses ignorant." He went on to say that the man should enjoy his "ill-gotten riches" because "the day of reckoning fast approaches." Cause for alarm: the strip, drawn weeks earlier, appeared just two days after a teacher was murdered by a student in Lake Worth, Fla. McGruder, who’s a frequent target of reader complaint, pointed out that Huey is just a comic strip character whose readers know he’s anti-system but not anti-people. McGruder says he no longer tries to second-guess what upsets readers, hinting darkly at a racist double-standard: "Trudeau gets away with things, but I can’t say the word pimp."

He gets in trouble saying the word booty, too. But, alas, I lost the clipping with the details. Maybe it’s "boody."

Elsewhere, Steve Dickenson and Todd Clark, producers of the strip Lola, garnered a little attention in Little Rock, Arkansas, when their client paper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, started getting complaints about a strip in which Lola says: "Grandchildren are like farts. You can only stand your own." Defending this lingo, Dickenson said: "We don’t live in the fifties anymore. The rest of the newspaper content is indicative of that." At last report (August 21), readers favor returning the banished strip to their paper by a ratio of 4-to-1.

And now, the newest strips being offered around the planet: From Universal Press, we have Baldo which features Latino characters, the title personage being a teenager (whose concerns, it seems to me, are not much different from non-Latino teenagers; but maybe that’s the point); written by Hector Cantu, once a staffer at Hispanic Business, and drawn by Carlos Castellanos ... From Los Angeles Times Syndicate, here comes Monkeyhouse, a strip about a 9-year-old girl and her widowed dad by magazine freelance cartoonist Pat Byrnes ... Ward Sutton has moved from Minneapolis to New York to be closer to the New York Times, which regularly publishes his op-ed cartoons, and the Village Voice, for which he rejuvenated his Minneapolis Reader strip, Ward’s Cleaver, into Schlock and Roll ...

And here’s a switch: at United Feature, Executive Suite is now Bull$ n’ Bear$. The strip, by William Wells (writer) and Jack Lindstrom (cartooner), started by finding humor in the office; then, last spring, the creators decided to capitalize upon the national obsession with investment by refocusing on the stock market. The cast stays the same, but now they’ll be talking about NASDAQ and portfolios as well as where to take lunch and how fast the office copier works. This is the second time Wells and Lindstrom have re-tooled: they began with a strip called The C.E.O. that ran in weekly business newspapers; then United Feature picked it up to run as a daily in 1985.

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2. At San Diego’s Con. Mike Kunkel took a booth again at this year’s Con--a whole booth, where he did little more than sell the second issue of Herobear and various merchandise derived therefrom. The second issue is a trifle tardy in arriving: the first issue came out last year at the Con. I hope we don’t have to wait a whole ‘nother year for the third issue; nothing is worth quite so protracted a wait. But Kunkel’s book comes close.

The story, some of you may remember, revolves around a little kid named Tyler and his stuffed toy bear, which, with a pocket watch that doesn’t work, he inherited from his Grandfather when the old man died. When Tyler presses on the toy bear’s nose, it turns into a giant, six-foot polar bear with a cape around its neck (for flying). While this sounds more than a little like a clone of a famously popular comic strip about a kid and his stuffed tiger, the superhero angle gives it a patina of novelty. And the broken watch, it turns out, is a sort of "bat signal" that tells the bear there’s a deed of derring do to do somewhere.

The real charm of the book, however, is in Kunkel’s rendering technique: all the art is shot from pencil drawings, which are tinted shades of gray but which include the sketchy rough preliminary outlines of the figures, too. Altogether, the method gives the black-and-white artwork a remarkably soft appearance. And in the character designs and action sequences, Kunkel’s day-job expertise in animation shows to good advantage.

At the Insight Studios booth, Frank Cho was signing copies of his Liberty Meadows comic book and the newly minted, pink jacketed Frank Cho, Illustrator, an art book that, according to Mark Wheatley, is a blockbuster seller: Diamond told him it logged more initial orders than any other art book--even Frazetta’s Icon. And, in fact, the latest (end of August) report is that the book is absolutely sold out. No more. Nada, kimo save.

The comic book is also doing well: the number of orders increases with every issue. Although the book is essentially a reprint of Cho’s syndicated comic strip, Cho has restored the gags that his syndicate censored, so you get undiluted Cho (Brandy, Dean, Leslie, Ralph, Frank, et al) herein.

The comic book, lest I failed to mention it recently, offers 32 8x11-inch pages reproducing in black-and-white the daily strips and, on stouter stock, surrounding covers in color. The back cover and inside covers reprint Sunday strips in color; and the front cover (or, as we say in the biz, the cover cover) presents a freshly minted drawing (usually of the toothsome Brandy) by the inimitable Cho. The strips run sideways throughout, which means they appear about twice the size they are printed in newspapers--large enough, in other words, to do Cho’s fancy art footwork justice.

Issue No. 13 was out at convention-time; and No. 15 will consist entirely of "reader favorite" strips, selected from the votes of avid readers. Subscriptions are available, 12 issues for $40, starting with No. 7: Insight Studios Group, 7844 St. Thomas Drive, Baltimore, MD 21236.

And also at the booth, Marc Hempel of Tug and Buster fame showed me samples of a secret project, stunning examples of both his design skills and his off-the-wall comedic sense.

At the Dark Horse booth, I saw the actual figurines for Beetle Bailey characters--Beetle, Sarge, General Halftrack, Miss Buxley, Cookie, and Sarge’s dog, Otto. They look much better in the, er, "flesh" than they do in photographs in catalogues. For only $10.95 each (an astonishingly economical price), you can celebrate the 50th anniversary of Mort Walker’s strip in three-dimensional style.

And other figurines produced by the Craig Yoe Studio (Krazy Kat, Ignatz, Li’l Abner, Daisy Mae, and others) are similarly engaging with their antique appearance (cast seams showing and all). It helps to see the actual item, not a photograph--which may, ultimately, explain why conventions persist (namely, for the actual--not vicarious or counterfeit--experience).

For more about comic strip history, click here to learn about the content of a book of mine called The Art of the Funnies.

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