Opus 66:

Opus 66: Another Con Job and News and Reviews (August 1, 2001) The San Diego ComiCon is now nearly interminable. On a clear day, it goes on forever. It goes on forever on a cloudy day. It occupies every one of the exhibit halls in the gigantic San Diego Convention Center, filling, even, the newest extension of Hall C. It is too much of a good thing. It is so much, in fact, that it is, at last, enough— enough that, for most of us, it never ends.

How many times have you been reading a book so good that you hope it never ends? Ditto a good movie? Well, now, like a good book or movie, the San Diego ComiCon never ends. Not even in four days could you expect to finish it— to actually walk down every aisle, look into every booth, see all that is there to be seen.

This year, the exhibit hall opened on Wednesday afternoon, late, for a "preview." Next year, so the rumor runs, the hall will open all day Wednesday, adding a fifth day to the ComiCon’s run. Maybe with a fifth day, we can see it all. But I doubt it.

No single-handed reporter could hope to divulge all that happens at such an extravaganza. Not even so two-fisted a reporter as yrs trly. I won’t even try. Instead, here are a few observations in passing.

The Comics Journal celebrates its 25th anniversary this summer with issue No. 235, and at a panel presentation, founders Gary Groth and Mike Catron recalled the magazine’s first tremulous years when both worked regular 40-hour/week jobs in order to pay the rent and then produced the magazine on weekends and evenings, making liberal use of the office typesetting equipment at their places of employment (which also furnished office supplies in copious quantity). "Founded in criminality," I guess you could say.

At a Friday morning session, Dan DeCarlo’s new project was unveiled. Teaming with underground comix writer/publisher Dan Fogel (Cherry, UG!3K, LCD), DeCarlo will be producing a creator-owned series dubbed Lower East Side. Described as "Love and Rockets DeCarlo-style," the series features several young women of differing ethnicities. The books will be unfettered by the Comics Code. "PG-13, R-rated," enthused Fogel, whose Hippy Comix imprint will publish the books sometime next winter.

At a "Spotlight" session, Broomhilda’s Russell Myers held forth, describing his career of "serial failure" at trying to get syndicated. He worked at the Hallmark Cards factory in Kansas City while conjuring up one strip idea after another. He became so "skilled at failure," he said, that he could fly to New York City in the morning and be back home by midnight, having been rejected by all six major syndicates. Meanwhile, at Hallmark, his handwriting was in demand for the interior of many of the greeting cards. The scheme was to present the "greeting" as if written by the actual sender of the card, Myers explained, and "they always used my handwriting because it looked the least professional." Finally, he ran into Elliott Caplin who was looking for someone to take an idea of his and turn it into a comic strip. The idea was a witch named Broomhilda. That was it. And for this notion, Caplin enjoyed a percentage of Myers’ income for the ensuing three decades. Myers drew up a handful of strips, and Caplin, who was already writing a half-dozen or so strips, sold it immediately to a syndicate.

At the Insight Studio Group’s booth, the proprietors were flogging their newest publication, IS Art, a compilation of representative work from Frank Cho, Marc Hempel, and Mark Wheatley with text by Allan Gross. The other attraction at the booth was Playmate Tiffany Taylor (November 1998), who, in a plain black dress with bountifully brimming decolletage, sold photographs of herself in the altogether. (The photos, not the model.) Also on display was a dummy for the latest Cho enterprise, a coffeetable-sized tome reprinting the first year of Liberty Meadows (with all the censored strips restored to their full, untrammeled outrageousness), due out in the fall. As it happens, in the performance of my reportorial duties, I was required to pass by the booth several times, and I noticed, with a mixture of professional cartooning pride and simple bafflement, that Cho always had a longer line formed for his signature than Tiffany had for hers.

Exercising enviable discretion, I didn’t mention this fact later when I had dinner with Frank, his wife Cari (five months pregnant), and Tiffany (not pregnant). Tiffany, it turns out, is majoring in criminal justice and plans to become a policewoman. She posed for Playboy’s photographer because, she explained, she just wanted to. Simply one of those things, I gathered: being a Playmate is, for beautiful young women, something like climbing Everest is for mountain climbers. Although she’d modeled swimsuits prior to disrobing for Playboy, she’d had no other modeling experience. The photo session began, she said, with the photographer taking pictures of her fully clothed. And she gradually shed pieces of her attire as the shoot wore on until, at last, she had nothing left to shed. So she sort of eased into nudity, one garment at a time. I’ve always wondered how they managed the emotional atmosphere with a neophyte model.

To return to another beautiful thing, IS Art (Insight Studio Art): The Art of Insight Studios is elegantly designed by Mark Wheatley, ISG’s resident Renaissance man of multiple accomplishment: 112 9x12-inch pages bound on the short side with color as well as black-and-white reproductions; $29.95 (ISBN 1-889317-10-1). Every page carries artwork, and Allan Gross’s text weaves through it all. He gives the history of ISG, beginning with Wheatley’s fanzine, Nucleus, in about 1968, and continuing through his occupying the building on Saint Thomas Drive in Baltimore that became home to the Studio. (He doesn’t, however, mention that every room in the two-story brick building is stacked high with paper —scrap paper, magazines, newspaper clippings, etc.; but maybe that goes without saying.)

Then follow brief biographies of each artist accompanying generous sampling of art by each. From Cho, we have pencil sketches of apes and pretty girls, pictures of the toothsome Brandy from his strip, Liberty Meadows, and several reproductions of oil paintings, a genre Cho has recently begun to pursue with some dedication. From Hempel, we have a wild assortment of art, some realistic and illustrative, some insanely abstracted in a manic comedy manner (at which he knows no equal). And from Wheatley, another varied assortment of illustrative art in color as well as black-and-white —some very simple, some detailed and realistic.

At another panel, several folks paid tribute to Carl Barks. Don Rosa said he paid tribute to Barks every time he did another Duck story. Other panelists included Byron Erickson, Bruce Hamilton, Russ Cochran, Russell Myers (an old friend of Barks’), and m’self. When the session broke up, the crowd swarmed the end of the table where Rosa was seated. The rest of us sort of talked to ourselves. Nice to know that the cartoonist is still the biggest draw at a comicon.

"Ghost World," Terry Zwigoff’s film adaptation of Dan Clowes’ comic book series about disaffected teenagers, debuted in a sneak peek on Thursday night. I missed it, but I caught Tad Friend’s article on Clowes in The New Yorker for July 30. He reports that Clowes and Zwigoff (who made the classic biopic "Crumb" several years ago) started writing the screenplay in 1996 and went through 25 versions in the following two years. Zwigoff tells Friend he wasn’t that keen on the comic book:

"I didn’t think it was as funny as his other stuff. If Dan has a problem, it’s that his work is very derivative of Crumb’s —but that meant he had the right angry sensibility for me to work with."

Friend also talked to Robert Crumb, who said: "Terry basically used Clowes’ comic as a matrix for getting his own ideas across. A middle-aged record collector who gets laid by a teenaged girl is one of Terry’s big fantasies."

Zwigoff said: "I told Dan from the beginning that he was going to hate this film because there’s too much of me in it."

Friend observes: "Crumb, Zwigoff, and Clowes appear to have the healthiest and most harrowing friendship in the world: no complaint goes unexpressed or unreciprocated."

And that’s astute enough for me.

BOOK NEWS & REVIEWS. For the last 16 years, Andrews McMeel has produced an Off-the-Wall Calendar featuring Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons. Next year, the 17th, will be the last of the line. Dubbed The Far Side ‘Last Impressions’ 2002 Off-the-Wall Calendar, this finale supplies a Larson cartoon for all 365 days, the usual allotment. "Someone once said you should always leave a party ten minutes early," Larson writes. "I believe it’s time for me to take my calendar and go home.... A shared sense of humor is how friends find each other, I think. And sometimes when it strikes me that I really don’t have a lot of friends (six, at last count, but that includes two dogs), these little calendars have reminded me that maybe I do."

In a vain attempt to make it up to us for the dreary finality of it all, Andrews McMeel is supplying the calendar in six differently designed boxes. "Collect ‘em all," they urge. (And if you do, it’ll be the same to Andrews McMeel as giving them money for another five years.)

Still, there’s hope for Far Side fans: Andrews McMeel has announced that it has acquired the rights from FarWorks, Inc. to publish a comprehensive tome tentatively titled The Complete Far Side. It will reprint in chronological order every Gary Larson Far Side cartoon from its 15-year run. All of them. A staggering prospect.

Said Larson: "What can I say, except that I’m both thrilled and terrified at what this book represents. Thrilled because —for the first time— it contains every Far Side cartoon I ever drew, and terrified because —for the first time— it contains every Far Side cartoon I ever drew. Psychologists are going to have a field day."

This magnum opus will appear in two volumes, slip-cased. At more than 1,2500 pages, the volumes will include cartoons that haven’t been reprinted in any of the previous 22 collections, and Larson will compose an introductory essay for each of the years the feature was published.

There are over 40 million Far Side books in print. No word yet on price for the two-volume opus.

Speaking of publishing projects in the future, HarperCollins announced that it will publish the first full-scale biography of Charles Schulz. To be written by David Michaelis, author of the critically acclaimed N.C. Wyeth, the book is slated to appear in 2006. Michaelis will have full access to Schulz archives, letters, etc. Michaelis has also solicited reports of memories of Sparky, anecdotes about him, and the like. If you have something, ship it off to Michaelis at 2715 M Street NW, Suite 100, Washington, DC 20007; or e-mail 76212.701@compuserve.com

From NBM, The 101 Best Graphic Novels by Stephen Weiner. Called "a guide to this new medium," the tome lists 101 graphic novels alphabetically by author. Many of these are "long form comic books" rather than "graphic novels" if you’d like to quibble about definitions. Kyle Baker did Why I Hate Saturn as a single, long narrative, designed expressly for book publication; ditto Harvey Pekar with Our Cancer Year. But The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told merely reprints Batman stories from various issues of the various Batman comic books, and A Look Inside For Better or For Worse is a reprint of the newspaper comic strip by Lynn Johnston. A mixed bag, in other words. Weiner’s short history of comics and graphic novels is so short as to be almost misleading. Still, for librarians and other parties unfamiliar with the form, this "guide" can be useful as an introduction to the array of material available out there; 80 6x9-inch pages, $8.95 in paperback.

We’re up to the fourth volume in DC’s archival Spirit by Will Eisner —that’s through June 28, 1942. Eisner was drafted in 1942 and went into the Army in about May. Assuming a 8-10 week lead time before publication, these adventures were doubtless done by Eisner himself. The next volume of this series, however, will probably see the publication of work by the numerous "other hands" who sustained the feature through the War. As with the preceding three volumes, Eisner’s decision to use a light cream-colored stock mutes the glare of the reprint color, reproducing, in effect, the visual "feel" of the old newsprint comic sections themselves. The pre-War strips are not available in original art anymore, so these use reconstructed art by Greg Theakston —and well done it is, too. (Eisner’s early career and the invention of the Spirit are detailed in The Art of the Comic Book, about which, you can learn more by clicking here.)

COMICS. The first of DC’s "Just Imagine Stan Lee" series is out —Batman, with Joe Kubert on the art, expertly deploying his characteristic long shots to set mood as well as locale. Re-imagining the Batman origin, Lee gives us a black teenager named Wayne Williams, who has just lost his father, a cop, gunned down in the line of duty. Williams is framed by some neighborhood hoodlums and sent to jail, where he learns to operate a sewing machine and makes a pet out of a bat. He also works out a lot, building body and reflexes. When he’s finally released from prison, Williams takes up professional wrestling, wearing a bat costume that he makes himself. By the end of the tale, he’s destroyed the criminal who framed him. But Lee leaves on a suspenseful note involving some sort of cult. Will this outfit figure in the subsequent "Just Imagine" books? Dunno.

The story evokes both the Birdman of Alcatraz and Spider-Man in its broadest outlines, and it prompted me to ask myself: Why do this sort of story? And if you do it, what are you attempting to do? No small task here —take a well-known character and re-introduce him without actually simply re-telling the old origin tale (which has been re-told dozens of times by now). I finally decided that the objective would be to echo the original without duplicating it. And that is what Lee has done. He invokes the vengeance motif that has animated Bob Kane’s Batman since the beginning (more emphasized in recent years as Bruce Wayne went psychotic) and employs the bat guise and physical fitness, all the traditional elements but now arrayed in a somewhat different way.

This is a fascinating series to watch if for no other reason than to see how Stan Lee will do the rest —Wonder Woman and Superman are up next.

Avatar’s Coven No. introduces us to a white witch who returns to her beach house and slips into a bikini, mumbling to herself, "past time to unboard the windows [of the beach house] and strip off fears and trepidations," while the pictures show her stripping (ahhh, visual-verbal double entendre, the best kind). Once on the sunny sand, she runs into scantily clad demonesses, and the book turns quickly into a series of pin-ups with lots of female flesh in view. Al Rio at his best. No male characters in this thing.

In Codename Knockout No. 2, Angela changes her last name to Devlin (Angel, Devil —right?), and we meet her dad and mom, who represent "evil" and "good" somehow. The best thing in the issue is Joe Chiodo’s cover and Angela’s sidekick, a gay guy named "Go-go" Fiasco. ("Go-go" is a nickname for his real name, Arrigo.) He’s easily the best new character in comics —a blatant but not flamboyant homosexual, whose horniness is his constant subject.

And here’s a delightful collection of Roberta Gregory’s Bitchy Bitch comic strips. Bitchy is the lovable heroine of Gregory’s comic book, Naughty Bits, but she also has appeared in newspaper strip format in alternative weekly papers in Portland and Seattle, and this 70-page 6x7-inch booklet (Bitchy Strips) reprints a healthy sample (perhaps all) of these, one to a page in two tiers ($7; if your store doesn’t carry copies, contact Gregory at www.robertagregory.com). If you haven’t encountered Bitchy before, you are missing outrageous hilarity from a feminine point-of-view and some of the most deft cartooning around. Naughty Bits, meanwhile, is available through Fantagraphics. Bitchy has been the star of three stage plays and now appears animated on the "X-chromosone" series on www.Oxygen.com. Don’t miss it.

I can almost never read Wizard because the interior graphics are so razzle-dazzle as to defy actual readership, but I bought No. 119 because of Joe Madurier’s cover rendering of the voluptuous Red Monika. But I discovered inside a substantial preview of the new Elektra series from Marvel by Brian Michael Bendis and Chuck Austen (a perennial favorite of mine but in a somewhat different mode). Bendis’ restrained low-key narrative is a treat matched only by the stunning work by Austen. With the sort of truth-suspending hype we’ve come to expect from Wizard, they claim the Elektra story is "a full-length comic," but it isn’t. Not compared to the actual Marvel edition of No. 1, which is 16 pages longer. And bloodier. Wizard has excised the blood from their version of the story. Given their presumed early teenage fan-boy readership, that’s probably understandable, but they show the infamous picture of Elektra being skewered by Bullseye, so what’s the deal?

TROLLING ZINES. Thumbing a copy of U.S. News & World Report recently, I came upon a full-page ad for a die-cast metal replica of a World War II jeep with Beetle Bailey driving and Sarge and Otto as passengers. Well, Mort Walker’s characters are post-war denizens, but the idea of having them in a model jeep "precision engineered to U.S. Army specifications —with full operating parts, and official insignia" struck my fancy, so I sent off for one. The jeep is $9.98 the Beetle characters, $5 extra, plus $4.25 shipping and handling ($19.23 total) from: National Motor Museum Mint, Dept. SJPG-0657, 1 Eversley Avenue, Norwalk, CT 06851-5844.

Time plugged its "Cartoons of the Week" website in the July 23 issue: "Did you miss a favorite newspaper cartoon last week because of an early morning meeting? Well, we cull the papers for our ‘Cartoons of the Week.’" Not quite. First, by "cartoons," Time means "editorial cartoons." And second, I doubt they’re culling many papers: all the cartoons for the two weeks I looked in are from Copley News Service. Scarcely a survey of the field. And most of those Time picked are lame stabs at making a joke without offending anyone or making any particularly provocative comment. Daryl Cagle’s website is still, without quibble, the best for editorial cartoons— www.cagle.slate.msn.com

But the best print overview of editorial cartooning, month-by-month, is Comic Relief. This estimable publication just changed from magazine to tabloid newspaper format beginning with No. 139 (July). After 13 years of publication, having weathered several postage increases and paper cost hikes and other fee enhancements, CR has at last surrendered to the inevitable: either reduce production cost or raise subscription rates. They chose the former. But the new format has another benefit: many of the editorial cartoons are reproduced larger now than previously. All the other features remain —columns by Dave Barry and Will Durst, Dilbert, Doonesbury (a month’s strips each), Harper’s Index, and a wild assortment of off-beat cartoons (including Ted Rall and Tom Tomorrow and Callahan and Lynda Barry and others too numerous to mention). Subscriptions are $25/12 issues: Page One Publishers, P.O. Box 4688, Arcata, CA 95518-4688.

The July-August issue of American Heritage re-visits the Wertham crusade against comics. Kevin Baker does a fair job of presenting the facts, but when he allows that Congress decided "not to censor officially" but that "comics were forced to come up with their own self-regulating code," he jumps the line. I don’t think publishers were "forced" in the usual sense of the term: they doubtless felt enormous pressure, and they responded to that. But "force" implies something a little more overt.

FAME. At last, cartoonists and their art are getting more notice in so-called reputable vehicles. Will Eisner and his graphic novels (and the Spirit) were the subject of an article (and the customary David Levine caricature) in the June 21 issue of the New York Review of Books, and graphic novelists Dan Clowes and Chris Ware and others have been examined under the New York Times Magazine microscope recently. And then— Jim Scancarelli and Gasoline Alley made it to the front page of the Wall Street Journal —above the fold! Jim was pictured on the jump inside; but Walt Wallet, who was the chief reason for the story, was on the front page. The problem being addressed herein is, of course, how does a cartoonist deal with a beloved figure like Walt in a comic strip in which the characters age? Walt’s nearly 102, and the question is: How long can he go on? Scancarelli has been pondering this predicament for some years, and, at one point, had even plotted out the old man’s gentle demise. But, he told me, now he’ll have to made a few adjustments because the WSJ tipped his hand. No, it didn’t reveal the ending, but it skirted the subject too closely to make Jim feel he can go ahead as planned. But there’s no hurry in any event: for the time being, Walt will keep on going. (For the history of Gasoline Alley, you need to studiously peruse a book of mine, The Art of the Funnies; about which, you can read more by clicking here.)

COLLECTOR’S DREAM. Comic book fandom’s legendary Jerry Bails tells the story of a 70-year-old collector friend who was burglarized recently. Among the items stolen was a safe in which he kept prized items of his collection. It contained early issues of Batman comics, probably copies that the collector had himself bought as a boy, "for he seldom ever parted with his treasures," Bails wrote. "The police took the report of the robbery but offered little hope of finding the safe or its contents," Bails goes on. "Then, the FBI stumbled across an open safe in an alley. It had been raining, but the safe was upside down. The material inside, which the thieves did not recognize as valuable, had—miracle of miracles—been spared any damage from the rain. A call by the FBI located the owner, and he got his treasures back. Talk about riding a roller coaster in your 70s." There’s hope for us all.

Stay ‘tooned.

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