Opus 38:

1. Cover-ups and Olympic Truth (10/4)

2. Another High-water Marc (10/4)

1. Cover-ups and Olympic Truth. I really hate it when the cover of a comic book is drawn by someone other than the person whose work fills the interior pages. I know: publishers indulge in this maneuver in order to increase sales. It’s an old trick. It’s been going on forever.

But in the old days, when "house styles" dominated both covers and interiors, it didn’t much matter that one tribe of artists did covers and another did inside pages. Gil Kane’s work doesn’t look much like Carmine Infantino’s, but their publishers used them frequently on cover art because their compositions were dynamic and eye-appealing and sold books. But neither artist’s work looked violently different from the work of the artists inside. Discernibly different but not wildly different.

Nowadays, the stellar performances on the cover are turned in by distinctive stylists whose work has earned favor among fans but looks very little like whatever other distinctive style is deployed inside. The two styles are usually so dissimilar that the difference screeches out at us. Adam Hughes did Wonder Woman covers for awhile there, but his languorous pin-up didn’t much resemble the Amazon tripping through the adventure within.

Publishers and editors surely don’t see the outside wrapper as a cover-up. They think they’re conferring some sort of bonus by giving us the art of an artist other than the guy who did the work inside. It’s an added feature of the book, they think. And they clearly think (correctly as it turns out--often enough to encourage them in the practice) that us poor fanboys will buy the comic book simply to get just one piece of artwork by a favorite artist.

I admit that I’m occasionally snookered into making a purchase because I like the cover art. Particularly if I order the book in advance based upon an entry in Diamond’s Previews and the interior art is by someone relatively unknown. I don’t have any evidence to eyeball, so I buy the book because in my perpetual delusion, I think maybe the artwork inside will measure up in some unanticipated way to the standard set by the cover. But it usually doesn’t. And if I don’t like the appearance of the insides, I just rip the cover off and file it, tossing the rest in the nearest trash barrel.

But that doesn’t happen often. By now, I recognize the trick when I see it. And I won’t play. The plain fact is that I don’t find many covers worth $2.95 all by themselves.

Comic book publishers aren’t by any means the only influence-peddlers to play this game. We see it everywhere. As a culture, we’re accustomed seeing the best face put forward. We’re used to hypocrisy, in other words. Take the recently concluded Olympics in Australia, for instance.

I watched the concluding ceremonies with all its film clips of triumphant moments in the Games. (I won’t call them "the Olympiad" as so many sportscasters have taken to calling the Olympics. That’s a linguistic affectation born of the impoverished vocabulary among sportscasters: an "olympiad," technically, is the four-year period between the Games, not the Games themselves.)

This self-indulgent effusion did not, of course, include any footage showing the Russian gymnast Svetlana Khorkina botching her vault because the vaulting horse had been erroneously set two inches too low. Expected to win the gold (no, I won’t say she was expected "to medal"; some words just shouldn’t be verbs, aristotle), Khorkina won nothing at the vaulting horse--and then, rattled by the bad vault, she fell during her routine on the uneven bars, thereby destroying any chance at a medal in the women’s all-around individual finals.

Khorkina was not alone in her disaster. The American Elise Ray fell flat on her back because the horse was too low. And Britain’s Annika Reeder injured her ankle in a fall and withdrew from competition.

But setting the vaulting horse at the wrong height was not the unforgivable error here. The real travesty was in failing to do the right thing to remedy the oversight. Olympic officials did not react in ways that would have enabled the athletes to recover and perform at their best. You would think that of all the life forms on the planet Olympics officials would have done better by the athletes in whose best interests they claim to be working. But they didn’t.

The Olympics of 2000 will be burned into my memory by the sight of Khorkina falling. She will be forever the symbol of the shame of this Olympics. The shame--the dirty rotten shame--is the hypocrisy of those who operated the Games, pretending that they are advocates for athletics and athletes. They aren’t advocates; they’re only athletic supporters, the kind of locker room presence that smells a little bad--like stale sweat.

That persons who profess great admiration for athletic achievement would blunder so badly, dashing the dreams of several of the world’s top athletes, reveals that these officials are really not devoted to athletic endeavor at all. If they were, they would have acted quite differently. Immediately, upon learning the horse was set at the wrong height, they would have stopped that competition for the day, declared all the results so far invalid, and given everyone a new start a day or so hence, when they’d have had enough time to recover their poise.

Instead, these athletic supporters merely gave the competitors a choice: you can do it over if you want to. But you have to do it now. By then, the athletes were too shaken to perform well, and most declined the option. Had they been given another start--a new day--all would have done better. And isn’t that what the Olympics is all about? Getting people to perform at their best?

No, it wasn’t the welfare of the athletes or the beauty of physical action superlatively done that animates these locker room bureaucrats and international freeloaders: it’s the precious television schedule, no doubt, which permits no deviation from the preordained broadcast timetable. Not even for the sake of the athletes could they jeopardize the tv coverage!

With friends like these, athletes need no enemies.

The success of the tv schedule will result, of course, in the Olympics paying their way. The Games will earn lots of money. (Remember when Jim Thorpe had his medals taken away from him because he played baseball for money one summer?)

But we wouldn’t want to mention any of this in the final orgy of self-congratulatory festivities, would we? So there were no pictures of Khorkina falling. Or of Ray or of Reeder.

And just to complete the hypocrisy, there wasn’t much coverage of the real Sydney, either. Prostitution and gambling are both legal in Sydney. "Adult services" fill 24 of the telephone book’s Yellow Pages. Drugs, while still illegal, are tolerated and available. Nude beaches abound.

Sydney is the champion sin city of that hemisphere. But the city’s mayor employed a euphemism, calling it "the international party capital."

The Sex Workers Outreach Project (which distributes health information and condoms to the city’s 4,000-plus sex workers) circulated flyers that informed visitors of prostitution’s legality, the location of brothels, and other tips for "clients" ("deal in Australian dollars," for instance). The Olympics even officially provided condoms.

At the more fashionable brothels, the madams offered "Olympic specials"--Olympic themed bedroom sports and boudoirs with large-screen tv so busy customers won’t miss any of the action at Stadium Australia (where beer and wine are served--as well as harder liquor).

And the government adopted an ordnance for the duration of the Games that permitted Sydney pubs to stay open 24 hours a day instead of just 5 a.m. to midnight.

Let the games begin indeed.

That settles it for me: I won’t buy any more of those $2.95 covers.

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2. Another High-water Marc. If, by chance, you missed Marc Hempel’s manic performance in Tug & Buster all these years, you now can make up for the lost opportunity. The Insight Studio Group has inaugurated a festive website called "Sunny Fundays" (www.sunnyfundays.com), which, among other worthy efforts, includes Hempel’s newest work.

Dubbed Naked Brain, this noble achievement is a one-page comic strip in antic black-and-white that showcases Hempel’s tendency to comedic insanity. No-holds-barred comedic insanity.

"Naked Brain is all things and it is nothing," Hempel’s expository text proclaims. "But, more than anything, Naked Brain is a weekly humor cartoon about farting, puns, and really messed-up people. Unless it’s not."

Naked Brain is the cartoon dumping ground for whatever Hempel can’t find a place for elsewhere--"all my scattered, various ideas that may be too sophisticated, raunchy, subversive, or otherwise in appropriate for, say, a daily syndicated strip. This is a comic strip that offers variety and plenty of surprises--plus the proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation that comics readers crave!"

You can tell from a mere glance at this prose just what sort of hilarity Hempel intends to perpetrate every week in this cyberspace. Sometimes, he says, he’ll tell short stories--extending beyond the weekly confines. Maybe a recurring character or two.

Maybe we’ll meet Tug and Buster again--Buster, a thimble-sized youth, and his friend Tug, a muscle-bound giant. Buster worships Tug as an icon of masculinity; Tug never does or says anything. Well, he smokes cigarettes and drinks beer, but that’s almost nothing.

The ensemble is replete with several other fascinating characters: John Stinkfinger, a would-be intellectual wuss, and Genital Ben, a trenchcoat-clad pervert, who interprets virtually everything anyone says as a sexual innuendo. And, finally, there’s Buster’s Mom, a prim-seeming lady who gets it on occasionally with the ever-mute Tug.

In his worship of Tug, Buster sees himself as a gift to womankind, and he goes with Tug to pick up chicks. When he spots a female of the species, Buster is likely to yell out, "Gland-Ho! All hands on dick! Walk my plank! My mizzen mast is hoisted!" And other such affronts to civilized sensibility.

In No. 8 of the comic book incarnation of this ensemble, Stinkfinger takes the gang to an art museum, hoping to imbue in them some semblance of civilized culture. We know in advance this won’t work. As he goes into the edifice of art, Buster says, "Somethin’ tells me there ain’t no drinkin’ or competitive fartin’ allowed in here." And Genital Ben seems bent on attracting the attentions of a young woman, who he asks to pose for him. "You want to paint me?" she says. And Ben responds: "Hmmm--I hadn’t thought of that." Later, he takes off all his clothes, thinking another woman might be interested in "the male nude," adding that "I’ve been told I’m Rubenesque." She screams and runs away.

In addition to regaling us with this sort of hilarity, Hempel will tickle the risibilities with his extremely abstracted renderings of human anatomy and physiognomy. Buster, remember, was merely a spherical head. Tug was a jut-jawed, huge-chested bulging-bicepted monster. All of this in a bold outline, starkly placed solid blacks, and fascinating textual variations.

Marc showed me samples of forthcoming "pages" of Naked Brain, and it is as stylish a visual performance as Tug & Buster ever was. Anyone who enjoys the art of cartooning will find Naked Brain a feast for the eye as well as a banquet of belly laughs. Hempel exploits the resources of his medium with elan, pacing his stories and composing his panels for the greatest comic effect.

Don’t miss this one.

And while you’re there, take in the other delights of "Sunny Fundays" (a title, by the way, that is as brilliant a display of verbal inventiveness as anything on the planet). Frank Cho’s uncensored Liberty Meadows, for example. Allan Gross’s conspiracy-theory-laden Doctor Cyborg, for instance. Mark Wheatley’s fantastic Frankenstein Mobster, or The Body by Allan Gross and Mark Wheatley with pictures by Gray Morrow. Fundays indeed.

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