Opus 62:


Opus 62: Name Dropping and Tale Bearing (June 6, 2001). More discouraging news in the realm of editorial cartooning. In the last few weeks, four more full-time editorial cartoonists have been laid off due to budget cuts. Or have been fired outright. Scuttlebutt in the inky-fingered fraternity is that none of these staff positions are likely to be restored when the economy inevitably improves. Once elminated, these positions will be gone forever.

The three cartoonists who were laid off are: Bill Schorr (at the New York Daily News), Dick Wright (Columbus Dispatch), and Daryl Cagle (Honolulu Advertiser). All three are syndicated (Cagle through his website and perhaps elsewhere, I dunno for sure), and Schorr also produces a syndicated comic strip, The Grizzwells; so none of them are likely to be starving in the streets. Ditto Steve Kelley, who was fired after twenty years on staff at the San Diego Union-Tribune. In addition to being syndicated by Copley News Service (the chain that owns the U-T), Kelley enjoys a modest moonlighting income as a stand-up comedian.

The ostensible cause of Kelley’s dismissal was an altercation with an editor over a cartoon, which, the editor alleged, Kelley tried to "sneak" into publication after the editor had rejected it. The cartoon depicted from behind two teenage boys wearing their pants in the low-rider position currently in fashion. Butt cracks showed, and one of two observing adults says, "Say what you want about today’s teenagers, they’ll have no shortage of plumbers."

Scarcely a revolutionary assault on the social or political mores of the nation, but Kelley’s editor, Robert Kittle, found it offensive. (One wonders what he thought of Dennis the Menace in its early days—not to mention Calvin in Watterson’s late lamented strip; butt cracks are scarcely in short supply in comics.) Kelley offered to revise the artwork and did. When he came back to turn in the final version, Kittle was no longer around, so Kelley left the cartoon with a page designer.

Subsequently, Kittle discovered the cartoon and yanked it while it was in the final production stage, saying that it had never been approved for publication. Subsequently, Bill Osborne, Kelley’s senior editor, approached Kelley, accusing the cartoonist of trying to slip the cartoon by without approval. When Kelley denied it, Osborne intimated that he was lying, and that lead Kelley to employ what he later described as "indelicate" language.

Kelley felt justified: "I don’t think anybody has the right to call into question the integrity of a 20-year employee who has never even taken a sick day," he said. "What I said to my senior editor was not something that was unheard of in our office suite. We have angry debates up there all the time, and words are used that you wouldn’t use in the corporate boardroom at IBM."

Still he said he wished he had been able to overlook the insult. "A better person might have been able to turn and walk out without responding," he said, "but I believe that my response to him was understandable."

He was suspended on April 9, presumably the day of the disputation. After several weeks of legal wrangling, Kelley was fired on May 25. He was offered six-months severance pay if he would not talk about the firing, but Kelley refused to take the money. On May 29, he was interviewed on local radio and tv news programs, and the dismissal and its cause became public.

Newspaper readers immediately protested. Many were angry with the Union-Tribune for keeping the story under wraps: it was, after all, exposed by broadcast news, not the newspaper itself. The U-T’s Reader Representative, Gina Lubrano, admitted that the paper had dropped the ball. "When it comes to covering themselves, newspapers inevitably do a terrible job," she wrote. "Instead of reporting it like any other story involving a high-profile figure, the paper said nothing."

After an attempt at wriggling the newspaper free of any culpability by arguing that as Kelley’s employer, the paper had a certain responsibility and was bound by legal considerations, Lubrano admitted (as gently and unobtrusively as possible) that the editors "failed to do their journalistic duty."

David Horsey, President of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, found the U-T’s response baffling: "You’d think a newspaper would say, There’s been a dispute and bad words said between an editor and a cartoonist. But how is it that the end result is that the newspaper throws away this talent, when newspapers these days need all the talent they can get?"

Kelley has received offers from other newspapers and syndicates but has made no decision about his future.

"For the record," he said on the AAEC List on the Internet, "six weeks before the firing episode, I received an excellent performance appraisal and a decent raise. I just want the paper to admit that I had no subversive motive in handing my cartoon to a third editor in our office suite. No supervisor is entitled to question an employee’s integrity without cause. By the way, Herb Klein, editor in chief of the Copley Newspapers and a friend of mine for twenty years, tells me that he knows I was not trying to ‘sneak’ my cartoon into the paper. He went to bat for me with the big cheeses but lost."

Kelley went on to say that he’ll miss his 20-year relationship with the readership of the U-T and the newspaper staff. "But I can’t say I’ll miss the management with the exception of Herb Klein."

The offending cartoon, meanwhile, went out on the Copley syndicate circuit to its 400 subscribing newspapers, many of whom printed it without demurer.

Clearly, Kelley’s situation at the U-T and his relationship with his editors involved more than this single cartoon. He had produced his share of controversial cartoons and was a public figure in San Diego.

But the tragedy in this circumstance for the editorial cartooning fraternity is that it indicates, one more time, how fragile is the editorial cartoonist’s hold on a staff position anywhere. Kelley, Schoor, Wright, and Cagle—all part of a discernible trend towards editorial cartooning through syndication alone. This leaves the nation’s newspapers with no cartoon voice to address local issues because all nationally syndicated editorial cartoons must, perforce, deal only with national topics. Sad but increasingly true.

I interviewed Kelley in 1993, and we talked quite a bit about the relationship between stand-up comedy and cartooning. The interview appears in Cartoonist PROfiles No. 108 (December 1995); back issues are available for $10 plus $4 s&h from Cartoonist PROfiles, P.O. Box 13, Plainville, CT 06062-0013; or via the Internet, at jjenkins@snet.net

And now on to OTHER NEWS.

An all-new Peanuts television special will debut next February with a Valentine's Day theme. Based upon Charles Schulz’s comic strip material about the holiday, this is the first freshly minted programming from Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez in eight years. The new special, and all the stalwart standbys, will be aired on ABC beginning next fall, not CBS.

In other Peanuts news: on Thursday, June 7, the Congressional Gold Medal will be presented to Schulz’s family in an afternoon ceremony in the Rotunda of the Capitol.

From the New York Post (Richard Johnson): The New York Times fired its only cartoonist in April after a big advertiser complained. Marisa Acocella, whose work appears regularly in The New Yorker, had been drawing a comic strip every other week in the Sunday Styles section. But her April 1 strip satirizing the cultish obsession over Chanel bags was her last. Insiders say the head of Chanel U.S.A., Arie Kopelman, complained to higher-ups at the Times. "The Chanel people weren't asking for her head," said one source. "The Times overreacted. This is real craven, spineless bootlicking." A Times spokeswoman said: "The Times has never made editorial decisions based on advertising concerns." Acocella was dropped, she said, for "strictly journalistic reasons." Chanel did not return calls. Acocella would say nothing except, "I loved working at The Times."

Jack Kamen, who drew primly beauteous damsels and their square-jawed handsome beaux in horrific contretemps for the old EC Comics line, has a son who’s an inventor. In fact, young Kamen is the inventor of the much touted "Ginger," an invention that we don’t know much about but are assured that it will revolutionize human society as we know it. Dunno whether that means a cure for cancer or the common cold, a trip to the moon or a shortcut through cyberspace. But that’s the story.

Kamen Fils was interviewed in his office by CNN recently, and we could see on the wall among the photographs of his idol (A. Einstein) and his favorite invention (helicopters, which he builds himself) framed copies of his father’s EC work. Then in the background, sitting in a chair, was a huge stuffed animal—a brown bear wearing a necktie. Asked about the bear, young Kamen explained: "They told me that to be in business you need a partner and a tie, so I bought a partner," he gestured at the stuffed bear, "and gave him the tie to wear."

The Comics Buyer’s Guide announced its annual Fan Awards in mid-May. The odd thing is this: DC Comics pretty consistently cops the top of the lists of things associated with a publisher—Favorite Publisher, Favorite Character (Batman), Favorite Writer (Alan Moore whose America’s Best Comics is now an imprint of DC in second remove), Favorite Comic Book (Starman), Favorite Graphic Novel (Shazam: Power of Hope), Favorite Reprint of a Graphic Novel (Will Eisner’s the Archival Spirit). Marvel garnered only the Favorite Editor (Joe Quesada) and Favorite Limited Series (Punisher). Virtually all of the Favorite Stories (11 out of the 13 named) were in DC Comics. And yet—despite all this seeming preference for DC product, Marvel titles are consistently reported in Diamond’s Previews as the best selling comic books. Month after month, the top ten is mostly Marvel. I suppose that means that the CBG Fan Awards tell us more about who is voting than the products they vote on. And probably not that many regular buyers of comic books vote.

Dilbert’s Scott Adams has released his latest book, God’s Debris, on the Internet exclusively as an e-book. Priced at only $4.95, it’s previewed at Dilbert.com but it’s not a Dilbert book: it’s "a thought experiment wrapped in a fictional story," Adams said. "It’s designed to make your brain spin around inside your head." Dense with ideas and philosophical notions, the book has been called a combination of My Dinner with Andre and The Celestine Prophecy. The story, such as it is, "is told from the perspective of a delivery man who brings a package and leaves with every idea he’s ever had shaken to the core" (USA Today). If this works out, perhaps Adams will abandon comic strips in favor of the thing he does best—writing, not drawing.

In the wake of the controversy over Johnny Hart’s Easter Sunday B.C. (which depicted a menorah being extinguished candle-by-candle until only a charred cross remained), only five of the strip’s 1,300 client newspapers have cancelled the feature; but at least five new papers have signed on, according to Creators Syndicate. The North Jersey Media Group (consisting of two newspapers) dumped the entire April 15 Sunday comics section to avoid publishing Hart’s strip and offending readers. At a cost of $30,000, NJMG printed a new funnies section without B.C.

On May 8, United Media’s Comics.com website launched Jane’s World, a strip starring a gay character by Paige Braddock, senior vice president and creative director for Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates. "Mine is a PG gay strip," Braddock quipped; she’s been doing the strip for alternative publications since 1994, but this is the first mass-audience exposure. "It’s like the ‘Ellen’ of the comics pages," she continued, referring to tv’s defunct program with Ellen DeGeneres; "but it will hopefully have a longer run." United hopes so too. Although offering the feature via a general consumer site seems daring, syndicate officials think of Braddock’s strip as just another good comic. "Our general point of view is to put good comics online," said Toby Sanders, general manager/web.

I said here recently that I hadn’t read the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon. If I had read it, I would have discovered what to me is a staggering fact: I am actually mentioned in the book—by name, kimo sabe! In Chapter 11 of Part VI, page 545. The entire text of my Pulitzer-wining appearance is: "Her scripts [that is, the scripts of Rose Saxon, "the Queen of Romance Comics"] were a tightly numbered series of master shots, the shooting scripts for ten-cent epics that, in their sparse elegance of design, elongated perspective, and deep focus, somewhat resemble, as Robert C. Harvey has pointed out*, the films of Douglas Sirk." The asterisk directs the reader to a footnote: "In his excellent The Art of the Comic Book: An Aesthetic History."

Among scholarly types, to " get a footnote" in this fashion is a signal event. And to be footnoted in a Pulitzer winning work—well, the mind boggles. While I’m only borderline scholarly, it’s still astounding to see my name there.

And it would be altogether too thrilling for words were it not for a disturbing fact intimately associated with the aforementioned staggering one: the book is mine, all right, but I have not ever written anything in it or anywhere else about Rose Saxon, a wholly fictional personage as nearly as I can tell, nor about the films of Douglas Sirk, another made-up fella.

So there you have it. A dubious distinction. My book is footnoted by actual title in a Pulitzer Prize winning novel but the reference is to non-existent material. The effect of the footnote, therefore, is to consign my entire book to the limbo of make-believe: by implication, the book has no more existence than the referenced material about Saxon and Sirk. Ha. Good joke on me.

I’d say Chabon is mocking the theoretical angst that usually infects my analytical prose from stem to stern were it not for yet another fact: he lists my book in his concluding "Author’s Note" among some two dozen or more other tomes that he found "helpful or indispensable." At least he didn’t find it negligible.

Chabon, incidentally, is a regular attendee at the San Diego ComiCon. He started reading comic books around 1970 when he was seven. The Kirby era at Marvel was just coming to a close. And the first comic book that blew his mind was Kirby’s Mister Miracle for DC: "Especially the issue where the eponymous hero fights a big-pink-lump-of-gum-man in the realm of his own unconscious—there was this incredible two-page splash of the Female Furies in full bondage-armor—jeez."

By the way (although not at all incidentally this time), what I actually say in The Art of the Comic Book is copiously hinted at elsewhere on this Website; just click here to be whisked off to the appropriate place.

Speaking of books I haven’t read, here’s another, fresh from the printer: Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America by Bradford W. Wright. This is not fiction but actual history coupled to analysis. It "fluently animates the artistic, economic, and social history of comic books from Superman as ’30s hero of the downtrodden to debates over kids’ consumption of violent imagery to fan culture." I’m afraid Wright actually tries to prove that comic books shaped the fate of the nation, but I’ll wait to see.

And (one more) here’s Comics and Ideology, a collection of scholarly essays edited by Matthew P. McAllister, Edward H. Sewell, Jr., and Ian Gordon. I haven’t read this one either, but its cover blurb indicates that the essays explore the ways that images and narratives portray social groups and issues. For instance, Dilbert as a workplace revolutionary; the women’s suffragist movement as seen in the cartoons of the old Life (humor) magazine; etc. This might well be fascinating, but a cynical reviewer is perhaps entitled to believe that this is but another in various recent attempts in academe to give enough social significance to comics to justify the professorial interest in the medium. This effort is, of course, natural to the ivied environment: after all, intellectual pursuits lead, inevitably, to examining virtually every aspect of our lives. Moreover, I share the view that the unexamined life is probably not worth living. (Actually, I veer off in Bernard Shaw’s direction—to wit, if you don’t think about and examine the life you’re leading, you are in danger of living your life but not knowing it; or words to that effect.) Still, I can’t help thinking that assigning to an entertainment medium any great social revolutionary or (even) reactionary role has the effect of inflating the function of that medium beyond its actual, likely effect. I also realize that this is an argument I can never win: those who disagree tend to take the view that, generally speaking, everything has some effect on everything else. That’s true, too. But then, it’s all true, isn’t it?

NCS NEWS. In early May, the Ethics Committee of the National Cartoonists Society issued its report on the Chip Beck Episode of last fall. In case you missed the excitement, here, in brief, is what happened then:

Beck, who was serving a second term as Treasurer, was voted off the Board by the other officers. Beck promptly went public with this news, posting his objection and his contentions to the website bulletinboards of both NCS and the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC). This maneuver quickly escalated into a heated exchange between other officers and Beck. Beck had contested several of Cagle’s decisions over the past year, and it would appear that the other officers decided that it would be easier to remove him from office than to continue to contend with him. Beck’s position was that since he’d been elected by the membership, he could be removed only "for cause" or by a vote of the membership.

The "cause" that might justify removing an officer is, usually, evidence of some sort of malfeasance. There was never any indication that Beck committed any illegal or unethical acts. So he was, as he claimed, removed "without cause," and that, he believed, was not permitted by the NCS constitution.

The furor was stilled by turning the matter over to the Ethics Committee, which was charged with investigating the situation. In May, the Ethics Committee (consisting of NCS past presidents, chaired, in this case, by Frank Springer) issued its report. They upheld the ouster of Beck, finding "no reason to reverse the Board’s decision." They also reported finding no evidence of misappropriation of funds or other unlawful or unethical acts by either Beck or Cagle or anyone else.

Beck, while recognizing that the decision was aimed at "not upsetting any apple carts," was disappointed that the constitutional issue was not addressed: "I was removed ‘without cause,’" he told David Astor at E&P, "which, according to NCS bylaws, is illegal."

To-date, no one has said why, exactly, Beck was ousted. My guess is that a conflict of personalities is at the core of the problem. And that, it seems to me, is not sufficient cause to remove an elected officer. But then, I don’t know all the particulars. And those who do aren’t talking.

return to top of page

To find out about Harv's books, click here.

send e-mail to R.C. Harvey
Art of the Comic Book - Art of the Funnies - Accidental Ambassador Gordo - reviews - order form Harv's Hindsights - main page