1. Politics As Unusual. Last October, the Library of Congress opened a one-man show of Herbert Block’s editorial cartoons, a retrospective of the life’s work of the profession’s record-holder for longevity. Herblock (it was his father who suggested the portmanteau signature) did his first cartoon for the Chicago Daily News on April 24, 1929. At 91, he’s still at it.
He’s been at the Washington Post for 54 years, and his assistant, Jean Rickard, says he comes into the office daily to keep close to the news. Thrice a Pulitzer winner, he does at least two cartoons a week. And he clearly has no intention of retiring any time soon.
At a reception opening the show, James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, noted the enduring nature of the kind of political commentary made in editorial cartoons. Editorial cartoons give a glimpse into history as it is being made and are therefore worthy of archival treatment and museum display. Thanks to depositories like the Library of Congress, people will be looking at Herblock’s cartoons 100 years from now. To which Herblock quipped, "Yes--and I hope they’ll be saying, ‘That was a good one this morning.’"
Herblock is a fixture on the political scene. Remarkably, he has taken paper-and-ink shots at twelve presidents--everyone from Herbert Hoover to Bill Clinton--and is about to embark upon a thirteenth.
His earliest work partakes of the squatty-cartoony-characters style of the legendary J.N. "Ding" Darling of the Des Moines Register. But when Herblock moved to Cleveland in the early 1930s to produce cartoons for syndication by NEA, his characters grew a little taller. By the 1950s, when he coined the term "McCarthyism," Herblock was the most imitated stylist in the field. In this, he was displaced eventually by Pat Oliphant and the "British style" when Oliphant arrived here from Australia in 1965. Oddly, the British style--horizontal format, raggedy linework, no verbal labels--was first used in this country by Chicago’s John Fischetti, but it was Oliphant whose work dazzled every practitioner of the craft to the extent that they began imitating him.
Herblock’s 1993 autobiography, Herblock: A Cartoonist’s Life (ISBN 0-02-511895-1), is one of the best of its kind. In it, Herblock divulges more than one professional secret:
"The most memorable advice to cartoonists that comes to mind was given by Chic Young," Herblock writes: "(1) you can tell if the ink on a drawing is still wet by rubbing your hand over it, and (2) if you spill drawing ink on the carpet, it can be removed with a pair of scissors."
Herblock has produced about a dozen other books, all reprinting his editorial cartoons accompanied by his own explanatory text. History by the day.
These days, another version of history by the day can be found in Doonesbury, Garry Trudeau’s long-running comic strip for Universal Press. Regularly reprinted by Andrews McMeel, the strip is already in 19 books and the 20th, out just before Christmas, is entitled Duke 2000: Whatever It Takes (152 9x11-inch pages in paperback; $14.95). It’s Trudeau’s quadrennial foray into election year presidential politics.
This time out, Duke, who started many years ago as Trudeau’s take-off on gonzo journalism’s Hunter Thompson, sets out to prove that any average American with a laptop, a few spam speeches, and a pile of soft money can become President of the U.S., the most powerful CEO on the planet. The sequence includes the infamous "talking Stetson," a cowboy hat with a familiar accent which gives visual substance to the Texas expression "all hat and no cattle," Zonker as spin doctor, Mini-D as the brains of the campaign, and Honey as campaign manager. And the book also includes other non-electoral segments--among them, Mike’s IPO on the Net and his crashing and burning into oblivion.
In a rare interview in Editor & Publisher last October, Trudeau discussed various aspects of his career. Remembering his first years (the strip debuted October 26, 1970), he marveled that he had been syndicated at all.
"The early Doonesbury didn’t fit anyone’s definition of a natural candidate for syndication," he said. "It was written on the fly, crudely executed, and ignored pretty much every convention of the business, largely because its creator didn’t know any better. It took a new syndicate with no other features (and thus nothing to lose) to take a chance on a strip that wasn’t really designed to reach a broad audience in the first place."
Trudeau was doing his strip for the Yale campus newspaper at the time.
"I’d been cartooning for all of six weeks when Jim Andrews of Universal talked me into the job I now hold," he continued, "so the stone flukiness of it can’t be overemphasized. Especially when you look at those early drawings. I’ve always thought my main contribution to the comics page was that I made it safe for bad drawing, that Cathy and Bloom County and particularly Dilbert would have been unthinkable had I not challenged the assumption that competent draftsmanship was prerequisite to a career in cartooning."
In this view, Trudeau is undoubtedly correct. (Although he must share credit somewhat with Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, which made simplicity permissible—thereby making scrawls possible.) While the high comedic satire in Dilbert is something to savor and treasure, I’m still only barely tolerant of the quality of its so-called art. I’m not sure whether the gain in one area is worth the loss in the other. I’m not sure whether to be grateful to Trudeau for the adult satire he made possible or to bemoan the degeneration of the art that he claims credit for (however tongue-in-cheek).
Luckily, my ambivalence on the question is fading a little. Many of the newer strips on the funnies page are better drawn these days. Or should I say "drawn rather than scribbled"? Even Doonesbury, the early appearance of which Trudeau himself is uneasy with.
Returning to his strip after the celebrated 18-month sabbatical in September 1984, Trudeau found himself bored by his own drawing style and began to change it, introducing a variety of camera angles, for instance, and assorted silhouette compositions occasionally. Moreover, the quality of the art itself improved. No surprise, perhaps: practice makes perfect, or, even if it doesn’t make perfect, it certainly makes for improvement.
This improvement was not due, as is sometimes asserted (even, once, by me), to the ministrations of Trudeau’s inking assistant, Don Carlton. Trudeau pencils the strip, and Carlton inks it. But Trudeau’s pencils are, I have it on good authority, pretty tight. So the post-sabbatical improvement in the appearance of Doonesbury is the product of Trudeau’s skill and persistence, not Carlton’s inking.
In any event, Doonesbury started looking much better to my tired old eyes. And in the reprint volume at hand, we have ample evidence of its present polish—including three color sections of Sunday strips.
Regrettably, Duke 2000 doesn’t tell us the running dates embraced by the strips inside. It appears, though, to stop with the releases for March 2000. By then, as you may recall (painfully, if you’re like me), the presidential election had been going on for almost a year with almost another year yet to go. The next reprint tome will doubtless include Trudeau’s take on the rest of the campaign—the conventions, the polls, the pounding tedium—as well as the culminating fiasco in Florida.
"Culminating fiasco" indeed. Could any fabricator of fiction concoct a more suitable satirical comment on the bankruptcy of American presidential politics than the sweaty conclusion to "Decision 2000"? What a joke! And the principal clowns in this three-ring circus are the agents of the ubiquitous tv news media.
Fortunately, the election of the President was not left entirely to newsmen. Throughout those undeniably historic five weeks ("a national nightmare," they called it), tv news guys and gals behaved as if the Republic had been dealt a crippling blow. And as soon as it was all over, the Reportorial Population repeated with annoying insistence that it was time for the nation to "heal," looking to Dubya as a national HMO, apparently forgetting that roughly half of the American people are never interested enough in such things even to go to the polls on Election Day.
These people are barely aware that there was a national nightmare. Who among them needs healing? They don’t even know they’re sick. The Reportorial Population is clearly living in a bubble of presumed reality that is entirely its own fabrication.
As for the much touted factionalism of the country—It’s not divided: it’s even.
Actually, I am grateful to the news media. Without them to rail against, I’d be tempted to fulminate about the machinations of the alleged electoral process in Florida. Despite Gore’s magnanimous leadership in this matter, many Gore supporters will doubtless continue to cry "foul" for the next four years. And I can’t say I blame them. It’s not fair, of course, that Gore was not permitted a full count of the ballots in Florida. Counting ballots is the only way elections can be decided.
But fairness, justice even, is never found in the verdicts of judges. For every winner in a court case, there must be a loser, and with every loser, there is the potential for a claim that the verdict isn't fair. But the justice in our courts is to be found in the process, in judicial procedure, not in the verdicts. The process permits every side to have its say, to make its case. And as long as the process is permitted to wend its way to a conclusion, no one can reasonably claim to have been treated unfairly.
Still, there’s no reason not to view the Florida Fiasco askance. A bumper sticker I saw the other day says it best: "The election process in Florida wasn’t broken; it was fixed."
In the wake of the Florida Fiasco, there's been a good deal of vehemence displayed about how political all the judges have been—how partisan, Democrat or Republican—from trial courts in Florida to the highest court of the land. Why, of course they're partisan. It is only in our fondest dreams that lawyers who become judges suddenly divest themselves of their partisan persuasions.
And we’re well aware of this judicial quirk. To avoid this partisanship, we cry: "Leave the decision to the people—not to the judges." Popular opinion to the contrary notwithstanding, every court's decisions are always the result of decisions made "by the people." The most partisan judge on a bench anywhere got there in one of two ways: he or she ran for the office and was elected by the people; or he or she was appointed by an elected official and/or confirmed by other elected officials. So the voice of the people has scarcely been ignored. To discern its effect, we may have to follow a labyrinth of cause-and-effect back to its origin, but eventually, we get to a voting booth somewhere. So "the people" have not been disenfranchised despite the protestations we may hear.
But partisanship is just another stalking horse—a figment of the Reportorial Population, designed chiefly to give pundits something to fulminate about. The Democrats and the Republicans are actually closer in belief than the pundits like to admit. Why in Florida—where we might assume their mutual antagonism roiled up more than ever—the two parties behaved as if they believed precisely the same thing—namely, that if all the ballots were counted, Al Gore would win.
We may be safe with the bureaucrats running the government as always, but the elevation of Bush still makes me nervous: The last time somebody took seriously what a Bush said, folks wandered in the desert for forty years (to cite more bumper sticker wisdom).
Editorial cartoonists, of course, are delighted that Dubya won. He’s much better material than Gore. Who would you be more inclined to laugh at—Tommy Smothers or Lawrence Welk?
Trudeau—like everyone who makes a living poking fun at politicians—agrees.
"Bush is the new Quayle," he said, "—a highly stable target because his flaw is a condition he can’t do anything about and isn’t likely to change. Gore, on the other hand, is only as good a target as he allows himself to be. ‘Stiffness’ doesn’t give you much to work with, and I don’t see an enduring liability in his ‘dishonesty’—in actuality, a flaw the media assigned him for balance, but which is now creating serious blowback (as in, surprise—Bush lies, too!)."
Despite the promise inherent in the Bush administration, Trudeau said "nothing will ever compare to Watergate, a Golden Age for satire." But, he observed, "Knaves and fools will never be in short supply." And so "politics unusual" will doubtless go forward, as usual, bristling with barbed comment from the pen points of the nation’s cartooning commentators.
And in case you are momentarily impaired mathematically, I should emphasize that Doonesbury recently celebrated its 30th anniversary (even though, strictly speaking, it’s been in circulation for only 28 years and 6 months due to the aforementioned sabbatical).
Says Trudeau: "I feel enormously blessed that after 30 years, I’m still allowed to do what I love. American pop culture isn’t exactly a stable environment for long careers, and even I’m amazed that I’m still around."
Around in about 1,400 newspapers.
By way of commemorating the occasion, the Doonesbury website (www.doonesbury.com) is being refurbished. And the strips will be posted on the same day they are published in newspapers instead of two weeks later. Moreover, the site’s huge archive includes all three decades of the strip and it’s searchable by content.
For a short history and analysis of the early Doonesbury, you might want to pick up a copy of my book, The Art of the Funnies (which you can find exhaustively described by clicking here).
Cathy Guisewite’s Cathy (the "female readership magnet" of the funnies page) for Universal has 18 reprint volumes, the most recent being Shoes: Chocolate for the Feet (the customary package, 128 8.5x9-inch pages; $9.95). Although Cathy’s appearance reminds me more of a tamed seal than a human being (over-all shape, flippers), she continues to rail on against the viscisitudes of life as they challenge the single career girl—er, woman. The comedy has worn a well-traveled rut, and the jokes have the rhythm of formula humor these days (Cathy confronts a problem and panic builds for two more panels until she has a comic epiphany in the last panel), but Guisewite has nonetheless captured the zeit geist of the contemporary woman and deserves her slot at the top of this particular heap.
A fifth collection of Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts (King) is also on the stands ($9.95, 128 8.5x9-inch pages): Our Mutts: 5 secures McDonnell’s hold on gentle, whimsical humor that sometimes veers off into mild philosophical observation.
For philosophy of an altogether more looney sort, we have the eleventh collection of John McPherson’s Close to Home panel, Close to Home Uncut ($9.95, 144 8x8-inch pages). McPherson, once a mechanical engineer, is one of several inheritors of the Gary Larson mantle of off-the-wall weirdness, and if we are to judge from this volume, he upholds the tradition for Universal Press superbly (and over 650 papers apparently agree).
King Features’ Zits is in its third collection, Don’t Roll Your Eyes at Me, Young Man ($9.95, 128 8.5x9-inch pages). Herein the Sunday strips are enhanced with gray tones rather than color and carry the "throw-away" sketch panel, too. The Jim Borgman - Jerry Scott creation has twice earned the NCS award for best newspaper comic strip (1998 and 1999), and the 900 papers that subscribe to the strip seem ample testimony to the creators’ canny ability to capture the angst of adolescent America with wit and understanding. Not only that, but they play with the medium, too, exploiting its capacities for comedy. The title of this opus, for instance, is taken from a strip in which, as Jeremy’s mother intones the words, Jeremy’s eyeballs fall out of their sockets and hit the floor, rolling, thereby creating a visual pun for the verbal commonplace she utters.
For those of us whose hometown papers don’t carry Aaron McGruder’s edgy new comic strip, The Boondocks, here’s Andrews McMeel’s "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 were off visiting some other planet last year when the strip attracted much attention (and even a dollop of controversy) at its debut, 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 recent 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. In one sequence, we have panel after panel depicting Huey in profile staring at a computer monitor, also in profile. Nothing exciting about that.
At the beginning, at least we occasionally saw shoulders and torsos as well as a disarmingly fresh in-your-face attitude--all yours between the covers of this first collection of reprints of the strip.
For more in the way of comic strip history, click here for hype about my book, The Art of the Funnies. Or here for information about my latest tome, Accidental Ambassador Gordo —the history of my favorite comic strip and a biography of its creator, Gus Arriola.
3. Fat Supes and Red-nosed Walt. Superman under the pulsing pencil of Ed McGuinness is entirely too muscle-bound (see Superman No. 166). How can he move with all that bulgey-ness weighing down his every limb? He looks for all the world like one of those toy creatures that carnival vendors make by blowing up balloons and then knotting them together. I’ve heard of "corded muscles" but "balloons"? And some of ‘em look ready to pop!
Finally, as a postscript to Opus 43 about the NEA Christmas strip and Rudolph the Red-nosed, Steve Thompson of Pogo Fan Club renown tells me that Walt Kelly almost did Rudolph. Here’s Steve: "In the late forties on the strength of his work for Dell, good ol’ Walt Kelly was approached by Montgomery Wards to produce a new comic book version of the story. Alas, Kelly turned it down without doing any preliminary work. I’m guessing that because he felt too constrained by the storyline. Nowadays, of course, with most folks using the ‘traditional’ stories as merely jumping-off points, he could have done wonders with the story.
Constrained by the storyline—or, perhaps, not being eager to draw reindeer. Kelly’s forte, after all, was in soft, rubbery animals not stiff-legged antelopes. Whatever the case, we have no Kelly Rudolphs. And now, turning in to the latest seasonal news, we’ll soon have no "Monkey Wards" (as we used to call it) either. Whither Rudolph now, gang?
Incidentally, if you want to keep up on Pogophilia, you should "join" the PFC, which means, actually, you get a subscription to The Fort Mudge Most, an occasionally bi-monthly magazine that Steve edits and produces. In addition to squibs of news and reports of research into Kellyana, the magazine usually includes reprints of Pogo strips or rare Kelly art. It’s six issues for $25 from Spring Hollow Books, 6908 Wentworth Avenue South, Richfield, MN 55423.
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