Opus 64:

Opus 64: A New Outrage from a Familiar Source (June 20, 2001). Ted Rall, aided and abetted by NBM Publishing, has produced what may be his signature work. In a 6x9-inch 96-page graphic novel, Rall re-visits George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four and shifts the focus somewhat, making his fable truer for our time than Orwell’s. Entitled 2024, Rall’s book features another Winston Smith and another Julia, and they have a forbidden love affair and get caught. But it isn’t a Big Brother government that destroys the souls of the characters in Rall’s dystopia. "Orwell thought some evil totalitarian government would oppress us," Rall explains in the book’s introduction, "but our worst enemy is really our own stupidity."

Winston, who works in a huge hi-tech company, has virtually no interests in life except buying things and being entertained. He’s in the "work-to-spend" trap.

We can glimpse the horrifying dimensions of Rall’s futuristic world by culling a few phrases from the captions in the first part of the book:

"Existence itself had been proven totally arbitrary. Neopostmodernism was the pinnacle of thought. Paradoxically, it was also the utter absence of thought."

"He never talked to anyone. Why bother? People were more interesting in the online ether than in the ‘real’ world."

"History had been revised. But the demise of print meant that electronic archives could be edited with a few keystrokes or simply deleted. And with minds cluttered by sports statistics, song lyrics and plot lines, no person could trust his recollection of yesterday."

"Information was unreliable and mutable." ("Mutable." This one is chilling with its contemporary ring. An astonishing number of our political class have taken with greater enthusiasm than ever to the "Big Lie" technique: they unabashedly ignore facts in order to state so-called "truths" that will advance their cause. The theory is that if they tell a big enough lie and utter it often enough, it will become a fact—in short, a truth. Examples? Bush is a environmentalist. He’s compassionate. Need I go on? Well, then there’s Trent Lott calling Jim Jeffords’ defection from the Republican Party a "one-man coup" that had the effect of subverting the will of the people as expressed at the polls. Say what? How about that fifth Supreme Court justice whose vote stopped the counting in Florida which had the effect of electing to the Presidency the man who came in second in the popular vote? Wasn’t that a coup, too, Trent? Or are we expected to have forgotten that "fact" by now?)

"If you thought about it, changing a truth to a lie made the lie true—so it had never been a lie at all." (Bushspeak or Lottspeak, take your pick.)

Winston, tinkering with his computer, introduces a new factoid into the culture, and before too many weeks, he encounters the same factoid and, forgetting that he fabricated it, believes it wholeheartedly.

One character anticipates the abolition of absolute spelling: "Spellcheck makes it unnecessary to know anything more than a few key syllables per word."

In Rall’s brave new world, "the key to life was simple: keep yourself entertained, stave off boredom, avoid discomfort, hang on to your job long enough to collect social security and hope for a way out before you came up for euthanasia."

"Derrida and the post-modernists said it best: everything is subjective, therefore nothing means anything. Morality, law, language, beauty: it was all arbitrary and meaningless. When nothing matters, only one thing does: it’s all about me."

The prevailing nihilism is illustrated in the book’s byword: "Yes. No. Whatever." It runs as a refrain throughout.

The only life is the entertainment the characters find online in an electronic environment. The love affair between Winston and Julia is their mutual introduction into an alternative reality. But they are both too attuned to the old ways, and when caught, Rall’s Winston, like Orwell’s, gives up and resumes his old patterns of behavior. "It’s all about me."

Rall’s acerbic wit and his penetratingly bitter portrait of present-day cultural preoccupations seem devastatingly accurate. But he, like Orwell (and, indeed, like most critics of their contemporary societies), leaves out a human dimension or two. The trap they both fall into is to analyze the social order as if the social order were determined entirely by societal institutions like the government or corporate enterprise. Government and corporations would certainly like it if that were true.

But it isn’t. Love, grief, anger, shame—human emotions still shape our destinies, like it or not. The emotions are the motive power of mankind, not the abstract constructions of law and the marketplace.

Still, Rall’s vision is caustic and thought-provoking—well worth contemplating at merely $15.95 (hardbound).

In a highly ironic way, the book is the embodiment of Rall’s dominant intellectual weapon, cynicism. He chooses to tell his story in the comic strip mode even though his clunky drawings are aesthetically repellant and contribute virtually nothing to the sense of the narrative.

The drawings are such crude generic representations (deliberately so, cynically so) that they are relentlessly repetitive, and his visual characterizations are therefore without individual distinction or identity.

As a storyteller, Rall partakes whole-heartedly of the tv talk show syndrome: his story unfolds visually as no more than talking heads. The pictures add no information to the narrative: they identify the speakers, and the speeches are often juxtaposed in satiric tension with the captions, but we don’t need the pictures to make over-all sense of the tale. Rall could tell this story without the pictures.

But if Rall can be imagined as writing a prose novel or the dialogue for a play, he has doubtless chosen the graphic novel medium because he feels (cynically) that no one will read anything that is purely text. We are all too visually oriented. And so he produces a visual accompaniment for his prose in which the pictures contribute nothing to our comprehension of the story. This is the ultimate cynicism. Rall turns his chosen medium against itself.

Lately, however, Rall has been issuing various diatribes on the flaws and failings of America in purely prose form.

In an essay entitled "0.15 Seconds," he marvels "at the ever-compressed cycle of American celebrity." Apparently the fifteen minutes of fame that Andy Warhol once posited for everyone is shrinking to even less. Rall traces the short but happy fame of his friend Dave Eggers, who wrote A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, about which critics raved for a brief but hysterically laudatory time. Then, less than three months after the hardback release of the book in February 2000, Entertainment Weekly was writing about the "Dave Eggers backlash." And within a year, Eggers and his book were consigned to limbo.

Rall concludes by quoting an e-mail he recently received: "I’ve been waiting for your new books to come out so I won’t buy them. Boring, trite, burnout. Retire! You are yesterday’s news."

To which Rall says, "It was inevitable. Now the backlash is beginning before the fame."

He also wrote an essay explaining that he wasn’t really as rich as most people think he must be (since he’s famous and all) and another one toasting the dubious successes of the Baby Boomers: "They had the chance to change the world, to make revolutions both social and political, and very nearly pulled it off." Despite this failure, their "self-interested protest" against the Vietnam War "caused" the U.S. to pull out of Southeast Asia and, if they didn’t end racism, at least they ended lynching.

I take perverse pleasure in reading Rall’s seemingly acute and undeniably cutting put-downs in prose—most of the targets he skewers are the ones I like to imagine as squirming uncomfortably—so I’m happy to have his other recent book on my shelves. Revenge of the Latchkey Kids: An Illustrated Guide to Surviving the 90s and Beyond is a 1998 collection of Rall’s verbal essays accompanied by a selection of his comic strips on similar themes ($19.95, 216 pages; Workman, ISBN 0-7611-1040-2 or 0-7611-0745-2 in paperback). As Jules Feiffer says in the Introduction: "The text is the thing. Funny, fractious here and there, nasty now and then, brilliant. The cartoons come on as sidebars (or side-men, playing sassy-satiric riffs off the text). They are vital but secondary."

Most of the cartoons were actually produced before the text (and appeared in print previously in alternative weeklies across the nation) so it is doubtless more accurate to think of the text as riffs off the ‘toons; but that’s a minor quibble. Because so many of the cartoons come from earlier in Rall’s career, they are better than, say, 2024. He was just finding his edge in those days, just honing the ways in which his approach to the comic strip medium was so different from anything else as to elevate his work about the run-of-the-mill. The satiric tension between caption and speech balloon is much more pronounced herein; and the pictures often give us a dollop of visual information that enhances the jab he’s taking (even though his idea of physiognomy and anatomy is abstracted to the point of clumsy).

The text brims with irritated rant. In his recommendations about body piercing, for instance: "Surgical studs—tacks attached to your bones through your skin—are still somewhat unusual, but risking tetanus every time you take a shower gets old fast. Having both arms and legs removed makes a far more compelling statement about the impotence of humanity in a post-technological world—and allows you to lose forty to eighty pounds without dieting. Moreover, you can always tie your severed limbs to a chain attached to your belt loops. Talk about making a splash at the next tailgate party!"

And about declining newspaper readership: "The American Society of Newspaper Editors needed a poll to tell them that 40 million Generation Xers (Americans in their later twenties and early thirties) don’t read the daily paper. This cluelessness is partially indicative of how the industry got into this mess in the first place."

Rall should do more writing like this and less drawing: the former displays his wit; the latter, just a worn out novelty.

But the difficulty with today’s newspapers is that they are forced to compete with the more glamorous journalistic venues on the tube. As a consequence, newspapers find their reportorial staff among tv’s rejects, and the rejects—the freshly minted, bright young talent just getting into the game—aren’t often very bright or knowledgeable at all. Recently, Jim Scancarelli did a sequence in Gasoline Alley that involved a Catholic priest who was pretty obviously patterned after a real acquaintance of the cartoonist’s. A reporter was sent to interview the real-life Father Bob and asked him, among other things, how his wife felt about his appearing in a comic strip.

In my day, most reporters knew that Catholic priests don’t have wives.

In short, the average reportorial crew in daily newspaper journalism today simply isn’t aware enough to do the sort of in-depth reporting that might distinguish print journalism from broadcast journalism.

Broadcast journalism, on the other hand, is racing 24/7 against itself. With numerous national outlets, none can afford to take the time to actually investigate facts or, even, to find them: they are therefore all reduced to reporting the day’s rumors over and over and over again. Sad, but true.

Meanwhile, Rall commits a mistake in Latchkey similar to the one he perpetrates in 2024. It is, as I’ve said, the same mistake any satirist makes (in fact, satirists must make this mistake or they can’t hone a cutting edge on their assaults). He generalizes a mountain from a mole hill. His tragic picture of contemporary society is based upon his taking popular culture as an all-inclusive portrait of that society. And popular culture is simply the tip of the ice-burger.

If you listen only to the babbling brook of popular culture, you can be persuaded of almost anything. The Baby Boomers didn’t, really, "very nearly" pull off a social and political revolution in the late 1960s despite what they may claim for themselves. American society was still pretty far from crumbling into little bitty pieces in the face of student protest on college campuses. Munitions manufacturers were in pretty good shape then still; ditto the rest of the military-industrial complex. Shutting the college president out of his office is not quite the same as shutting down General Motors. And U.S. social order rests more on factory production than on professorial privilege.

And it rests on much smaller, seemingly inconsequential foundations, too. All politics may be local, as they say, but all meaningful life is personal. Popular culture is but the sum of parts that, in the normal course of daily life, seldom impinge much in any fundamental way on the need to provide shelter and sustenance for our families. The driving force remains the same, regardless of what "popular" form satisfying it takes this week. And it’s the driving forces of the human condition that shape our futures.

Dubya and his big bidness cronies haven’t been able to impinge upon it. The Senate, regardless of which party is in the majority, remains as separate from the motive power of ordinary life as a cruise ship from the corner grocery store. Newspaper polls and journalistic shortcomings aren’t real life. Real life is a whole lot less novel but a whole lot more engaging than body piercing practices.

Still, it’s fun to read about such curiosities when so talented a word-slinger as Rall gets going on them. Cynicism is a vital ingredient in his formula for satiric criticism, however. And cynicism, however comedic at one time or another, wears thin. And sometimes wears out.

I’m reminded of what Berk Breathed said recently in explaining his retirement from the comic strip ratrace: "The strip encouraged my cynicism (most humor is cynical by its very nature), and I wanted to—sorry I have to say this—find more positive storytelling. Negative humor is forgotten immediately. It’s the stuff that makes us feel better about our lives that lives long. Much more satisfying. Enter, children’s books."

I wouldn’t expect to find Ted Rall producing children’s books soon. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he does—eventually. When he tires of throwing furniture around the livingroom and breaking all the good china in the kitchen cabinet.

But if he wants to draw pictures to illustrate tales for kids, he’ll have to perfect a drawing style that is a little more representational than the linoleum-block manner he has so far deployed.

More Rancid Raves. Daredevil Yellow is a limited series re-telling the origins of the Marvel character, and on the opening spread in No. 1, we see multiple images of DD tumbling through the air from building to building, a clear demonstration, one more time, of the fundamental appeal of superhero comics to artists: the longjohn legions offer endless opportunities for figure drawing.... In Savage Dragon No. 85, Eric Larsen returns to storytelling: after numerous issues in which he divided the pages into grids of panels jammed with fisticuffs and movement in the manner of Marvel of yore, he resorts here to demonstrating what he was (and is) so good at—plumbing the medium’s capacity for pacing events for dramatic impact; and it’s about time.... Mike Kunkel took a year to produce the second issue of his Herobear and the Kid comic book; No. 3 is now out, just a month short of another year (and still delightfully rendered and produced in a manner that preserves the liveliness of the pencilled action), and this time out, we learn something of Herobear’s powers (he flies) as well as what being a hero means—and Kunkel expertly introduces a suspenseful glimpse into the next issue’s probable predicament when a mysterious and monocled menace murmurs, "I thought that I was the only secret to survive".... Jill Thompson’s Scary Godmother is as whimsically rendered with her spidery line as the tales are whimsically told, and both picture and story reward lingering over them to discover and savor (in No. 1 of the current series) such nearly subliminal hilarities as the wolf in sheep’s clothing (Harry the Werewolf is wearing a shirt with images of sheep on it) and Ed "Big Daddy" Roth’s Rat Fink at the helm of one of those fanciful three-wheeled hogs; ahhh, but Scary in full color is even more delightful....

In 10th Muse No. 4, we discover (at last) that this supernumerary muse (one above the classical nine, all of which serve the arts) is "justice." Gregory Parkin at Diginks illuminates this tale with a deliciously flowing line, waxing and waning with pleasing effect on Emma Sonnet’s flowing locks and flowing anatomy and visage; but the feathering and modeling on clothing is sometimes awkwardly done. And the colors by Marvin Marino are still too dark: in combination with Parkin’s often black-drenched renderings, the dark palette obscures pictures where they ought to be clarified. And I still have a deuce of a time discerning who’s talking in the disconnected fragmentary captions. Emma? And when is she talking? Now? Or in a dream? Or in a previous but forgotten life?

There's not much left to the imagination in Codename Knockout No. 1. This issue is distinguished by two highly unusual elements. First is Frank (Liberty Meadows) Cho's stunning cover drawing of Angela St. Grace, the agent who is the knockout of this book's title. Seldom (perhaps never) has the female form been drawn in this position from this angle. But Cho's signal achievement here is in making the lady attractive from this unlikely, even uncomplimentary, perspective; and Cho manages this extraordinary feat with his usual aplomb--as if it takes no effort at all. A stunning performance. The second aspect of this issue that is so unusual is that Angela spends most of its pages virtually nude. She's just taken a shower, see, and is sitting on the veranda, clad only in a wrap-around terrycloth towel, doing her toenails, when she's attacked by a platoon of ninjas. So she has to defend herself while somehow keeping the terrycloth towel between her and utter social disgrace. But that's not all. Oh, no. Just to make the impossible even more so, writer Robert Rodi has her talking throughout the combat sequence to her mother on a cell phone, a conversation Angela doesn't dare break off because she doesn't want her harridan mother to be offended. ("Who are you talking to?" Mom wants to know as her daughter grunts while kicking a ninja. "Is there a man in your room?") So imagine this: Angela uses one hand to keep the towel more-or-less in place (an effort at which she's not quite successful, thankfully) and the other to hold the cell phone to her ear. That leaves one foot free for beating up the bad guys. (She has to stand on the other foot.) What a hoot. And because this comic is a full-service funnybook, Angela's gay sidekick, Go-go Fiasco, is also nude. He's still in the shower when the ninjas show up. Unlike Angela, however, Go-go thinks he’s being "hit on" in quite another way at first. Or so he says.

The San Diego Union-Tribune, contrary to the dim prognostications indulged here in Opus 62, acted swiftly to replace Steve Kelley, the editorial cartoonist who was fired on May 25. Steve Breen of New Jersey’s Ashbury Park Press (another in the Copley chain, like the Union-Tribune) was hired in mid-June to take the editoon position in San Diego. Breen, who won the Pulitzer in 1998, will join his new paper on July 9. He also produces a syndicated comic strip, Grand Avenue. Breen grew up in Southern California and attended the University of California at Riverside as a political science major. Normally, replacing an editorial cartoonist is a prolonged process, so hiring Kelley’s successor within a month seemed precipitous to observing editorial cartoonists. But Breen was already in the Copley family, so to speak; and, according to the scuttlebutt among other cartoonists, the Union-Tribune wanted to act quickly in the hopes that news of a new cartoonist would overshadow news of Kelley’s departure. Kelley, as a moonlighting standup comedian and because of a paternity suit in which he was involved a year ago, was something of a celebrity in San Diego, and his firing was much noisier than the paper could have predicted. (They offered him a big severance check if he’d keep quiet about it all; but Kelley, to his credit, would not be bribed into silence.) As one cartoonist wrote on the Internet: "My own impression is that it’s a case of a paper embarrassing itself through its shoddy firing of a fine cartoonist—and then acting quickly to repair their very public, bleeding ulcer."

Finally—okay, I know now: Douglas Sirk is an actual person, a real director of motion pictures and other such things. He is not, as is Rose Saxon ("Queen of the Romance Comics"), a fictional personage made up by Pulitzer-winning novelist Michael Chabon. But all of you who rushed to make sure I realized the error of my assertion (Opus 62 again) simply fell into the very snare I imagined Chabon’s maneuver would create—namely, confusion over what is real and what is make-believe. If I assumed, given the context, that Sirk was as fictional as Saxon, we may safely assume that many readers of Chabon’s novel will assume that I am as fictional as Saxon, too. Or maybe not. Maybe some alert readers will assume that I am as real as Sirk, assuming they all know that Sirk is real. Or not. See? Confusing, right? What did I tell you?

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