Opus 46:

1. Irks and Crotchets (1/31)

2. Back in the Saddle (1/31)

3. Editoonery (1/31)

1. Irks and Crotchets. Speaking of extremes, sometimes I think that merchandisers go too far. We’re all accustomed to rapacious capitalists, of course, who do anything for a buck. But in the latest Previews, I think Dark Horse has taken pandering to ludicrous lengths. They’re offering Bettie Page Air Fresheners! Say what? The coyness of the promo copy is as remarkable as the product. "Although we must name these scents by their true designations (rose, coconut, lemon), we feel that all of these items are really enhanced by that indefinable substance we think of as ‘Bettie-roma’!" And what, exactly, might that indefinable aroma be? "Post-coital fragrance"?

More funny than offensive, admittedly. But revelatory about our times and ourselves. Only $1.99 each, tovarich--with artistic depictions of Bettie by Jim Silke and Dave Stevens on the cardboard do-dads you can hang from the rear-view mirror in your car.

And in the same issue of the catalogue, we have a new comic from Image. Called Dollz, it seems poised to explore the Pinocchio Premise. Old guy ("the Dollmaker") makes puppets that come alive. The wrinkle? The puppets are all cute li’l babes, rendered in that manga manner that prompts raised eyebrows about kiddie porn. And the promo copy almost forces us to think thoughts along those lines: "To the powerful, pleasure-seeking elite, the Dollz are the ultimate symbol of status and wealth. In this near-future fable, Toy Story meets Blade Runner, and fantasy becomes reality in a hedonistic world being consumed by its own hunger for carnal pleasure and power." Hedonism? Carnal pleasure? Pleasure-seeking elite? What fun, gang.

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2. Back in the Saddle. From Cottonwood Publishing, a brand new incarnation of Stan Lynde’s folksy panel cartoon, Grass Roots. Lynde, more celebrated for his comic strips--the humorous (at first parodiac) Rick O’Shay (1958-1977) and the more realistic Latigo (1979-1982)--retired from the syndicate game to his native Montana, where he raised cattle for a time, then started re-issuing his strips in reprint volumes and, in 1996, published his first novel, The Bodacious Kid, set in the Old West. He followed with a sequel about his youthful hero, Careless Creek, providing a few finely wrought illustrations for both books.

In 1984, Lynde began producing a weekly panel cartoon that he intended to reflect the views and values of small town and rural America. Set in the Old West, the cartoon focused on ranch hands Billy (the younger of the two) and Shag, "who," as Lynde says, "expressed through humor, wit, and earthy wisdom the values and opinions held by ‘grass roots’ America." Alas, the feature failed to pick up enough subscribers to make it a paying operation, and Lynde discontinued it after a year or so.

But then in 1998, he revived it because it seemed increasingly valid. "More and more often, the issues and events covered and advanced by the big metropolitan newspapers and major tv networks seemed to have less relevance to the interests of people in the nation’s rural areas," he wrote. "Stories that played well in the beltway and big cities of the east and west coasts often [meant little to] people in the heartland. . . . and the media’s preoccupation with scandal seemed often to have more to do with ratings than reporting."

Billy and Shag came back--this time, in the modern West not the historic one. But their homespun observations ring just as true. Cottonwood has published collections of both incarnations of the feature, the second with the subtitle "1998-1999." In each book, Lynde augments the humor of each cartoon on a facing page of prose in which he elaborates on the thoughts presented in the facing drawing.

About one cartoon showing his characters on horseback on a spring range, Lynde writes: "Everyone likes the season of spring, but in the high plains and mountain country of the West, its coming is an annual miracle. Bleak winter is past, the snows retreat, new grass springs forth and flowers bloom. Calves, foals, and lambs are born all across the rangeland. It’s time for spring fever, bad poetry, and new beginnings."

And when Billy asks Shag what he thinks about "political correctness," Shag answers: "I find most of it more political than correct." And Lynde agrees, adding on the facing page: "‘Politically correct’ terminology . . . frequently corrupts the language, impinges on the First Amendment, and lends itself to revisionism and the rewriting of history. A Crow Indian friend of mine rejects the term ‘Native American’ with these words: ‘I’m not a Native American! I’m a F.B.I.--a full-blooded Indian!"

Each book is 7x8.5 inches, paperback; 150 pages in the first, 128 in the second. The first is $13; the second, $15.95. Both from Mountain Press Publishing Company, tollfree 1-800-234-5308. And some of the Rick O’Shay books are available there, too; ditto Latigo and both novels.

Lynde says he retired from cartooning in 1999 with the cessation of Grass Roots and is now working on "The Pretty Good American Novel." It’s a historical western, he says, based upon an early example of organized crime in the gold camps of Virginia City and Bannack, Montana, where the elected sheriff of the region, Henry Plummer, led "as raunchy a bunch of roughs as the frontier ever produced" in looting the citizenry.

"So the solid citizens (mostly Freemasons) organized, hanged some twenty-odd miscreants in the winter of 1863-64, and banished others. A very interesting time in view of the discussions of crime, punishment, death as a deterrent, and what society may be called to do when the law itself becomes ineffective or corrupt."

He expects to submit the final draft to publishers this winter. Judging by the high quality and authentic atmosphere of his two earlier novels, this’ll be one to watch for.

And if you like Westerns and want to know how they resonate in superhero funnybooks, you should consult a book of mine called The Art of the Comic Book, which you can read a little about by clicking here.

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3. Editoonery. The state of the art of editorial cartooning these days is pretty accurately portrayed in Graphic Opinions: Editorial Cartoonists and Their Art (Popular Press, 278 6x9" pages; $24.95; phone 419-372-7865 or Bud Plant, 1-800-242-6642). In the mid-1990s, two academics, Jack Colldeweih and Kalman Goldstein, discovered a mutual interest in cartooning and set about surveying the contemporary landscape. With the help of six colleagues across the country, they conducted interviews with two dozen editorial cartoonists, all in their late thirties or forties--the generation after Pat Oliphant, in other words. And after Jeff MacNelly, too. From these interviews and other sources, 4- to 6-page articles were written about each cartoonist, rehearsing short biographies and then discussing their attitudes towards their work and the world they work in. Four cartoons by each cartoonist complete each individual’s chapter. Among those represented are Steve Kelley, Signe Wilkinson, Jack Ohman, Joel Pett, David Horsey, Mike Luckovich, Jeff Stahler, and Michael Ramirez (to name a few). Most of the interviews were conducted in 1994 and 1995; a couple, in 1997. And the book was published in 1998, so the last three years of turmoil and angst are not covered. But the turmoil and angst of the last three years has been largely the same as it was the previous three years, so the book is still relevant.

In introductory chapters and a conclusion, Colldeweih and Goldstein put the interviews in historical perspective and summarize their, er, "findings": "Editorial cartoonists have always been expected to meet daily deadlines, and have something interesting to say and arresting to look at. They have had to reconcile their individualistic and distinctive viewpoints with their editors’ more cautious definitions of appropriate content. Now they are also pressured to be funny rather than satiric, and expected to comment wittily on social and cultural trends as well as political developments. . . . And increasingly they have to huff along beside the speeding chariots of technological change. They are running, but running scared."

The interviews, judging from the two or three I read with cartoonists I interviewed myself in the last five years, fairly represent the cartoonists--their careers and viewpoints; and the full-page reproduction of their cartoons is entirely adequate. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the book for the comics scholar is its extensive bibliography: each chapter ends with a list of articles and books that the interviewer consulted. In short, this is a raris avis indeed: a sympathetic and largely accurate book about cartooning and cartoonists done by collegians, whose ivory tower isolation from actual reality often renders them wholly unsuited for examining any endeavor outside the ivied walls. Colldeweih and Goldstein prove distinctly exceptions to that sweeping generalization. (But it’s "Steve" Greenberg, fellas; not "David" Greenberg.)

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