Opus 41:

1. Current Events & Other Looney Tunes (11/24)

2. Reprint Lately Available (11/24)

3. Rancid Raves about Comic Books (11/24)

1. Current Events & Other Looney Tunes. We thought we were electing the 43th President of the United States on Tuesday, November 7. But we weren’t. Not at all. We were, instead, electing the 44th President of the U.S.

It is much overlooked in these media-heady days of Constitutional crisis that our 12th President was not Zachary Taylor, the "old Rough and Ready" soldier of the Mexican War, but David Atchison, a Senator from Missouri.

Never heard of him, you say? Well, you’re about to get an earful.

Taylor was due to be sworn in on March 4, according to the custom of the day. But March 4 fell on a Sunday that year (1849), and Taylor, being rather devout, didn’t think he should be engaged in any political activities on the Lord’s Day. So he announced that he wouldn’t be doing any swearing on Sunday but would wait until Monday.

The problem with this exercise of religious freedom was that his presidential predecessor would, by law, leave office at noon on March 4. So unless something could be done, the country would be without a President from noon Sunday until sometime Monday when Taylor would take the oath of office.

The Senate solved the problem by convening on Saturday. Because there would be no Vice President on Sunday either, the Senate would be without a presiding officer by noon that day, so the senators elected Atchison president pro tempore. According to Constitutionally determined presidential succession, the president pro tempore of the Senate would become President of the country in the absence of a President and a Vice President. So at noon on that historic Sunday, Atchison became, ipso facto, the 12th President of the U.S.

He remained President until Taylor was sworn in the next day. It was the least troublesome administration in the history of the Republic: after the election in the Senate on Saturday, Atchison celebrated his victory with a group of friends into the wee hours. The celebrants partook copiously, we are told, of quantities of adult beverage. As a result, Atchison spent the entire next day, dawn to dusk and through the night, sleeping it off. He was unconscious for his entire term of office as President of the United States.

Talk about Constitutional crises.

Meanwhile, Alfred E. Neuman made it to the cover of two newsstand magazines within a week or so. With typically idiotic nonchalance, he couldn’t do it in the same week. One appearance is the cover of the 400th issue of Mad, whereon Alfred’s vacuous gap-toothed grinning mug is a photomosaic, one of those pictures constructed digitally by deploying tiny images of all 400 covers at once. The picture is repeated inside as the centerspread.

You can get a limited edition of this masterpixel as a framed lithograph (signed by six of the magazine’s usual gang of notorious cover artists) at Warner Brothers stores; for information, phone 212/754-0300, ext. 3050. Pro’ly it’ll be expensive. I mean, what with the frame. And you can get a 224-page book with the same mug shot on the cover and all 399 other covers inside for $24.95 by phoning tollfree 1-800-278-8477.

Inside No. 400 is a special untold idiot history of the magazine that takes up ten otherwise valuable pages with completely false information.

Elsewhere, on the cover of The Nation (November 13th issue), we have the same familiar vacuous gap-toothed grinning Neuman mug again. He seems to be everywhere this month. No--wait! That face! There’s something non-Neuman but still familiar about it, something . . . Ha! I have it: the eyes, the eyebrows, the way the grin crinkles at the corners. Yes! It’s George W. Bush, sometime governor of Texas (whenever he’s not off running continuously for President). And the button on his lapel reads, simply, "Worry."

You have to see this one to believe it, folks. Yes, it’s another digital construction. These image manipulators are really cashing in these days--ever since Playboy made up a photomosaic of Marilyn Monroe with tiny images of its covers. You can see The Nation’s version on the Web: www.thenation.com.

Finally, The New Yorker has rushed its now-annual "Cartoon Issue" into print a little earlier this year (November 13) with an atypical black-and-white cover by Bruce Eric Kaplan. Kaplan always signs his cartoons "BEK," and the picture is always the same: one or two people standing with their feet far apart and talking in the telephone or passed each other. Unbelievably, BEK has a whole book of his cartoons out entitled No One You Know; it can’t be very exciting, given the penetrating monotony of his depictions.

The New Yorker’s annual celebration of the art of the single-panel gag cartoon gets thinner year-by-year. This year, although the magazine itself is a fat square-spined 186 pages, only 23 of those pages comprise the "cartoon issue" section. The first foray into this commemorative mode (in 1997) contained several modestly-longish articles about cartooning and cartoonists; but this text coverage dwindled steadily, issue by issue. This time, only one such piece appears--about Saul Steinberg. Fascinating, but surely The New Yorker, as the self-proclaimed champion of the gag cartoon, can find more than one cartoonist to write about.

If you want to know more about some other cartoonists, click here for "Harv’s Hindsights" where the latest brief bio addition is Will Elder.

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2. Reprint Lately Available. For those of us whose hometown papers don’t carry Aaron McGruder’s edgy new comic strip, The Boondocks, Andrews McMeel has produced a tidy 8.5x9-inch 128 page volume ($9.95 in paperback) that reprints what the publisher calls "a hearty compilation" of the strip’s "record-breaking" first year. The record in question is the number of newspapers that ran the strip at its debut in April 1999--some 160 or so, more than any other recent strip launch.

The situation, in case you who were off visiting some other planet last year, is that two inner city black kids move to the suburbs ("the boondocks") with their grandfather. There, they encounter white America, which, in the fantasy of the strip, burns with curiosity about and cowers in fear before the surly scowls of the two inner city would-be tough guys. The two kids, grade-schoolers Huey and Riley, are passionately anti-system and promptly begin expounding in a very adult way on all sorts of erstwhile taboo subjects in newspaper funnies sections. Race relations, biracial identity, and juvenile delinquency, for instance, crop up in the first six months as the boys enroll in the all-white school whose all-white faculty views them as either a cosmic threat or a laboratory experiment. Racial myths crop up right and left and are dispatched with sarcastic aplomb.

The grandfather keeps his politically motivated kids in check, but that doesn’t prevent newspaper readers from rising up occasionally in protest against some minor offense against taste or decorum that McGruder commits with abandon. McGruder is an outspoken advocate for his demographic, but his sense of humor (albeit a somewhat grim one occasionally) keeps the strip from becoming too shrill (even in the current election year series in which Huey continually bashes Bush).

The volume concludes by reprinting McGruder’s notorious strip celebrating "booty" on BET--namely, a close-up of a black woman’s "gyrating rear end"--for which, as usual, the cartoonist was criticized by an uptight white readership.

My criticism, such as it is, does not concern McGruder’s occasionally controversial subject matter as much as his graphic presentation. The strip was talky from the start, and recently, it has descended into mere talking heads. At the beginning, at least we occasionally saw shoulders and torsos. And a disarmingly fresh in-your-face attitude--all yours between the covers of this book.

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3. Rancid Raves. I wanted to like Dark Horse’s Spyboy. But I can’t get into it. I recently picked up three consecutive issues, but I wasn’t any closer to being able to name (or recognize) the principal players by the end of No. 12 than I was at the beginning of No. 10. I admire Peter David’s effort to tell a story as a dramatist--through what characters say and do and what others say about them. Without expository captions, in other words. But there’s too much snappy patter and not enough explanatory dialogue. And Pop Mhan’s art is entirely too sterile: backgrounds seem mostly speed lines and the like, and when there are actually pictures of objects, they are rendered with a ruler and a pen, enhancing the flat effect. And the visages of the characters keep slipping back and forth between cartoony manga and realistic manga. Sometimes the curvy characters are cute and sexy, though (which, to anyone aware of my weaknesses, may be why I wanted to like the series).

In DC’s Robin: Year One, No. 1, Chuck Dixon and Scott Beatty also try storytelling without many expository captions, and they mostly succeed. Can’t say why exactly, but I never felt particularly lost in these pages. The Batman mythos is well-known, of course, and that surely has something to do with it. But the "year one" conceit jerks the stars out of allignment for the nonce, so we can’t rely too heavily on the usual legend for finding our bearings. So whatever clarity exists must arise from the quantity and quality of the dialogue. Javier Pulido and Robert Campanella’s drawings are clean and uncluttered, and there’s much more atmosphere (background art) here than in Spyboy. While a ruler is much in evidence in the rendering of backgrounds, the sterility of the line is modulated by judicious shadowing with solid blacks. The result is a sharp and crisp appearance rather than flat and chewed-over by feathering that doesn’t work.

The first issue of Cartoon Books’ Rose, written by Jeff Smith and drawn by Charles Vess, gives us the sister princesses Briar and Rose, murmurings about "the dreaming" and "the hum," and the old red dragon with the ear tassles from Bone shows up and seems altogether the friendliest thing in the book. Vess’s work is, as usual, thoroughly competent. And so is Smith’s, but I confess I’ve begun lately to yawn when I encounter tales like this with their pungeant aura of fairy tale. That’s my problem though, and if you like tales of this sort, you’ll doubtless like this one. An odd distraction in the book is caused by the apparent decision to make the speech balloons transparent so whatever drawing is "behind" them shows faintly through. Why?

Wanderlust No. 1 with story and art by Bryant Shiu is an admirable albeit flawed try. He tells his story without tedious narrative or expository captions, but the visualization is weak. The angular style, often boldly shadowed, is pleasant enough but the panels lack backgrounds. Solid black and star-burst lines make dull locales. The story involves a distant planet and apparently mutant life forms, but most of the action takes place in space--in space ships. And there’s nothing very engaging about static pictures of rockets against a black ground.

Creator Neil R. King does some exemplary comics storytelling in his Elvis Must Die No. 4, making telling and dramatic use of the medium. The premise of the series is that a bunch of Elvis impersonators are actually secret agents, stowed away in niches of ordinary life until called upon to act in the service of their country. We begin the morning after a one-night stand with the lady waking up in bed with one of them. From there, the narrative alternates between a flashback of the previous evening and the present, adding a nice dimension of time and complexity to the tale. Although King well understands the medium, his drawing ability is rudimentary: he handles figures okay, but everything else--furniture, buildings, rooms, window sills--looks vaguely as if it belongs in another feature, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, say. The story, however, is suspenseful and provocative, and I’d go for the next installment. And that, for the nonce, will be it: King says he’s going digital with No. 6, perhaps producing an annual collection thereafter. Before he does that, though, you should pick up No. 5 and get on board.

The Remarkable Worlds of Professor Phineas B. Fuddle has finally achieved its finale with No. 4 of a limited series. The story--an extravagant light-opera time-traveling sort of concoction set in Victorian times--was doubtless a lark for writer Boaz Yakin and artist Erez Yakin, but it was a little too arch for me. The art is exhaustively detailed in settings and other accouterments, but most of the figures seem wooden and stiff. And I wish Erez had learned to draw moustaches that looked as if they were made of hair instead of cardboard.

In another final issue in a limited series, No. 13 in Batman: Dark Victory, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale wind up their tale with the same panache that has distinguished their work throughout. The storytelling deftly juggles menacing atmospherics and dramatic pacing, and Sale puts his quirky style to good use, drenching his pictures in solid black shadow. But the splashy spread of pages 4 and 5 seems excessive. Catwoman has an impressive chest, true; but two pages worth?

The debut issue of 10th Muse with Ken Lashley on pencils, John Stangeland on inks and Draxhall Jump Studios on diginks is a good start. The figures are elongated and they have ribbons for hair in the fashion of funnybook illustration these days, and the storytelling is effective and cinematic. Not quite as Bonded in snappy patter and quick cutting as Scott Campbell’s issues of Danger Girls, perhaps--and the layout doesn’t serve the story as well either--but the whole enchilada is awfully close in tenor and tempo. And there’s a lot of storytelling that doesn’t involve pinups of voluptuous women in tight-fitting tutus--always a sign of maturity in storyline. Writer Marv Wolfman manages to balance an action sequence against an alternating flashback and then cuts into yet another flashback, giving the whole enterprise a narrative density that intrigues. As for the tale itself--there are these three law school roomies, see--two girls and a guy--who give themselves a trip to Greece as a graduation present, and while there, one of the chicks goes missing; she shows up in the law offices of her two buddies eight years later, having acquired some sort of mysterious powers. . . . And eventually, we’ll get to the tenth muse. (The other nine, according to those old Greeks, each presided over one of the arts.)

For a real survey of the history and development of the comic book, you should give up this hit-and-miss browsing of my column and buy my book, The Art of the Comic Book. It’s got everything in it (except what I just wrote here); click here for more information.

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