Opus 61:


Opus 61: Jack Davis Gets the Reuben (May 29, 2001). The legendary Jack Davis--stalwart of EC Comics and Mad, caricaturist, and cover artist extraordinaire--was named "cartoonist of the year" for the year 2000 by the National Cartoonists Society at the annual awards dinner on May 26 at Boca Raton Resort in Florida.

For a combination of reasons, Boca Raton would seem the most auspicious place for a cartoonists' gathering. "Boca" means "mouth" in Spanish; and "raton" means "rat"--or, perhaps, "mouse." Given that Disney World is just up the road a piece (about half the length of Florida, actually), one might suppose that Boca Raton invokes one of the world's most recognized cartoon characters.

Or not.

The origins of the place name are somewhat obscure, but it probably had nothing to do with Mickey Mouse. The "mouth" in question is the mouth of a river, an inlet leading into the ocean. "Raton" can also mean "dragging or hauling." Or "thief." And so maybe "boca raton" refers to the place at the mouth of the river where small boats were dragged upon onto the beach.

More likely, the name originated with "thief." At an early missionary colony hereabouts, the good monks complained about the Indians stealing everything not nailed down. So Boca Raton actually means "thieves' inlet."

But for Memorial Day weekend, Boca Raton meant "host"--host to the NCS.

The Society's token of esteem for the "cartoonist of the year" is a blunt object, a statuette made of some sort of heavy metal that has been formed into a pyramid of comically acrobatic naked figures (all male, hence the comedy). This trophy is dubbed the Reuben in honor of the Society's first president, Rube Goldberg, who, after a long career as strip cartoonist, magazine writer, humorist, editorial cartoonist and all-round celebrity, turned sculptor in his dotage. One of his objets d'arte was a lamp consisting of a pile of hilariously cavorting nude men; this lamp became the prototype of the Reuben trophy.

In accepting the Reuben, Davis said, with a characteristic modesty that is as legendary as his skill, that he wanted to thank "all of you who came up to me this weekend to say you like my work--I appreciate it."

Davis started his national career in DC comic books in 1951 but soon was working exclusively for Bill Gaines' EC Comics, where his bold linework and fustian cross-hatchery produced distinctive but realistic pictures in tales of the old West, war, and horror (which he never liked much). Regarded through most of his career as an extraordinarily fast worker, Davis explained that he learned to work fast because of Gaines' payment policy: EC artists were paid immediately when they delivered the artwork. And then Gaines would give them the next script. At most comic book publishers of the day, artists waited for days or weeks for payment. Because of Gaines' pay-on-delivery practice, the more frequently Davis turned in work, the more money he collected because he collected often. Speed paid.

He displayed a flair for visual hilarity when Mad was launched in 1952, and once he'd added caricature to his repertoire, he was much in demand for advertising art and album and magazine covers (notably, TV Guide, Sports Illustrated, and Time). He has worked in every venue open to a cartoonist, even doing character design for animation. But he never achieved the one thing he'd set out for despite several attempts--a syndicated comic strip. He received NCS's Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997, and when the subject of his candidacy for the Reuben came up at a panel discussion last year, Davis allowed (in his soft, rolling Georgian drawl) that the Lifetime Achievement Award was enough for him. But it apparently wasn't enough for his colleagues in the Society.

At an afternoon presentation, Davis said he doesn't work as hard as he used to, preferring to spend time boating near his home on St. Simeon Island off the Georgia coast. He showed a slide that pictured him at the wheel of his boat with a beer can in hand. "That's paradise," he said.

Even being nominated for the Reuben is a distinct honor. Reuben nominees are selected by the NCS membership at large. In the initial voting, members submit ballots listing five candidates. There's no prefabricated slate of nominees from which members pick candidates; the ballots aren't multiple-choice listings. Instead, members must come up with the candidate names themselves, without prompting (so to speak). The three names mentioned most often become the finalists, and they are listed on the final ballot which is submitted for vote to the membership. The other two finalists this year were Pat Brady for his strip, Rose Is Rose, and Matt Groening for The Simpsons and the rest of the Groening empire.

This was Brady's fourth consecutive time as a nominee for the Reuben. Last year's Reuben winner, Pat McDonnell (Mutts), won on his fourth time. Rose Is Rose was launched April 16, 1984. Four reprint volumes are available through Andrews McMeel, and a fifth, Sunday strips, Rose Is Rose in Loving Color, from Rutlege Hill Press.

It was Groening's first nomination. He started humbly enough in 1977 with a weekly strip for alternative newspapers. Called Life Is Hell, it is based upon Groening's experiences in Los Angeles and appeared to star two rabbits named Binky and Sheba, one of whom has only one ear, and/or gay twins in fezes named Akbar and Jeff. It was a big success and still is, reportedly appearing in 250 papers. Then came The Simpsons. On September 8, 1986, this dysfunctional but somehow loving family debuted as a two-minute sketch on the Tracey Ullman Show. It was Groening's first experience with animation, and the characters (based, somewhat, upon Groening's own family--his father is named Homer) immediately attracted an audience. The Simpsons got its own prime-time tv show on the Fox Network in 1990 and has won an Emmy and gone on to become the longest-running prime-time animated series on tv. But Groening wasn't finished yet: in 1993, he founded a comic book publishing company and began producing Bongo Comics, which at present publishes four regularly appearing titles--Simpsons Comics, Radioacive Man, Bartman, and Itchy and Scratchy Somics. Groening's fortune was made.

In addition to presenting the Reuben, NCS names the "best" cartoonist in thirteen categories or "divisions," whose winners receive a placque. In contrast to the nomination process for the Reuben, nominees for the "division" awards are chosen by various NCS chapters. A chapter is assigned a particular category, and members who wish to be considsered in that category submit sample materials to that chapter. Cartoonists need not submit themselves; others may submit work for them. But the selection process here begins, in effect, with self-nomination. The chapters participating in the nominating process then choose three from the submissions, and those three become the finalists; then members of the nominating chapter vote and pick one of the three as the winner in that category.

This year's nominees in each of the categories are listed below with this year's winner in each case identified with an asterisk (*) preceding the name:

Newspaper Comic Strip: *Bud Blake (Tiger), Frank Cho (Liberty Meadows), Mike Peters (Mother Goose and Grimm)

Newspaper Panel Cartoon: Dave Coverly (Speed Bump), Dave Whamond (Reality Check), *Dan Piraro (Bizarro), who won in this division last year (and who, like everyone, thanked others for contributing to his good fortune--including, he said, his girlfriend "who controls my sex life").

Editorial Cartoon: Frank Cammuso (Syracuse Herald-Journal), *Jerry Holbert (Boston Herald, NEA), Jeff Parker (Florida Today), Mike Peters (Dayton Daily News; Tribune Media Services)

Newspaper Illustration: *Drew Friedman, Bob Staake, Lori Triefeldt

Magazine Illustration: Mark Brewer, *Peter deSeve, Drew Friedman

Magazine Gag Cartoons: Pat Byrnes, Benita Epstein, *Kim Warp

Comic Book: *Dan DeCarlo (Betty and Veronica), Kevin O'Neill (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Jeff Smith (Bone)

Advertising and Illustration: Pat Byrnes, Steve McGarry, *Craig McKay, who won in this division last year

Greeting Cards: *Bill Brewer, Benita Epstein, Anne Gibbons

New Media (a new category this year for computer animation): Jerry Craft, Mark Fiore, *Bill Hinds

Book Illustration: Doug Cushman, *Mike Lester, Bob Staake

Feature Animation: Thom Enriaquez, *Eric Goldberg (for the "Rhapsody in Blue" segment of the new Fantasia with character designs by Al Hirschfeld), Nick Park and Peter Lord

Television Animation: *Gary Baseman, Rick Kirkman, Matther Nostuk

Arnold Roth, who received the Society's Gold Key "Hall of Fame" Award at the awards dinner that evening, was emcee and presided with his usual sardonic wit. After Jack Davis sat down, Roth said that he thought it wasn't nice of Jack to make fun of the way Southern people talk.

And in concluding the evening's festivities, Roth thanked the audience for its "patience, which qualifies you all for sainthood," he said, "which you will receive as soon as the word can be passed along by Johnny Hart."

Also during the weekend, the question of the survival of the financially strapped International Museum of Cartoon Art in Boca Raton came up, prompted by an aborted auction on May 19 at which the storyboards for Mickey Mouse’s first movie, Plane Crazy, failed to sell.

At the NCS opening reception held at the Museum, the IMCA founder Mort Walker and Joe D'Angelo of the Hearst Corporation (a major donor to the Museum) both spoke briefly about the auction in New York. And the next day's Baton Raton News carried a story about the it.

"We are not moving, not closing, not filing for bankruptcy," Walker said. According to the report, the Mickey auction was "halted" when a computer glitch made it impossible to verify certain bids. A new auction (or a resumed one) is scheduled for June 8.

Walker said there are several options they'll explore to meet the July $200,000 payment--including getting donations from NCS members here this weekend. D'Angelo, who was honcho of King Syndicate until being promoted, said he was sure the Museum would survive in Boca Raton in the location it now occupies. A city councilman is quoted in the story as being eager to work with Walker to keep the Museum in Boca Raton: it would be "unthinkable," he said, for it to close or leave.

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