Opus 70:

Opus 70: Muse, Reviews, and News (September 26). Cartoonists, until the advent of adventure comic books and strips in the 1930s, were a rollicking lot. The idea was to make people laugh. That’s still true today. Except for most comic books. In the aftermath of the recent horrors, most of us, cartoonists included, have not been much inclined to laughter. We feel less like laughing just when we might need it most. But we need to grieve, too, and for awhile, that need overwhelms the other. Respecting that first need, the nation’s laughter industry took a short vacation. Leno and Letterman stayed out of sight for a couple nights. That wickedly irreverent weekly newspaper, the Onion, canceled its edition due out the week of the tragedy. The New Yorker published but not as usual: the week’s issue had no cartoons other than George Booth’s rendering of the redoubtable Mrs. Ritterhouse, who has put aside her violin and sits alone with head bowed.

All of which prompted Gene Weingarten at the Washington Post to ask, "When will we be able to laugh again?" He began by reporting that it took only 5 days, 2 hours, 8 minutes and 1 second from the time the first plane hit the World Trade Center until the first humor on the subject appeared on the Internet.

"It was feeble," Weingarten said, "and mercifully off-point—just a list of anagrams of the name Osama bin Laden (‘Is a banal demon,’ ‘I am a bland nose,’ ‘Animals on a bed’). For gallows humor," he continued, "five days is an eternity. Hours after the Challenger explosion, phones were crackling with bad jokes."

Comedy clubs were shuttered, he said. "It’s too bad. When people are filled with grief, they need to cry. When they are filled with fear, they need to laugh."

He cited Dave Barry: "A sense of humor is a measurement of the extent to which we realize we are trapped in a world almost totally devoid of reason. Laughter is how we express the anxiety we feel at this."

In conclusion, Weingarten described "a second bit of Internet disaster humor"—an illustration depicting the design of a rebuilt World Trade Center with "not two towers but five, and they look like fingers, the middle one stuck up much higher than the rest. Still not funny. But getting closer. A good sign."

Other good signs—a flood of comic book projects that permit cartoonists to express their feelings with the proceeds going to relief agencies. Among them, a poster-printing of editorial cartoonist Joe Heller’s post-atrocity picture of a grief-stricken Lady Liberty at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, which sold out by Friday, bringing in $15,000 for the Red Cross.

By last weekend, we were hearing laughter again. As a cartoonist friend of mine said, "We’re too irreverent a people to stop laughing even if we feel sorrow."

Oddly, the newspaper comics page seemed almost oblivious to the tragedy. Actually, of course, there’s nothing odd about it at all: since every strip on it is drawn weeks before publication, none of them could comment right away on the events in New York and Washington and western Pennsylvania. They all entered a sort of time warp. We’ve become accustomed to many comic strips nowadays commenting on political and social topics, but this week, they all seemed strangely disconnected from real life: the characters went blandly about their business, seeming to overlook deliberately the horrors being played and re-played on the nation’s tv screens. Instead, they went right on cracking jokes that seemed, in this new context, banal and meaningless.

Strange, as I say. And yet, normal, too. Given that everyone else in the media seemed bent on tailoring their content to the occasion, newspaper editors might have seemed insensitive. They could have dropped the comics page for a few days. But newspapers have never revamped their content to suit the vicissitudes of the day’s events. We don’t expect them to. We expect, rather, that the classified ads and the tv listings and the advertisements and grocery coupons and comics pages will be in their usual places, blithely ignorant of the news transpiring in the news columns of the paper. Death and destruction may reign on the front page, but comedy prevails on the comics page.

And for that, we must, in the last analysis, be grateful. A sense of humor is the spark of divinity in mankind: in laughing at himself, he rises above himself.

Book Reviews. I wouldn’t call them imposters because an autobiography posing as an art book is too valuable an addition to the reference shelf to have slurs cast at it. Two such tomes have surfaced recently: Glamour International No. 26: The Good Girl Art of Bob Lubbers and The John Buscema Sketchbook. The Lubbers book is the biggest surprise. The title suggests that we’ll see lots of Lubbers’ leggy ladies, and we do; but snaking throughout the book is Lubbers’ account of his career, and from it, we learn more than we knew before about this workhorse cartoonist with a flare for limning the curvaceous gender.

Lubbers drew such comic strips as Tarzan, The Saint, Rusty Riley, Secret Agent X-9, Robin Malone, and, my personal favorite, Long Sam. He also ghosted Li’l Abner in various ways (sometimes just penciling, sometimes just inking) for a significant portions of the quarter of a century that he knew and worked with Al Capp, who had engaged Lubbers to draw Long Sam in late 1953. Long Sam’s invention, we learn, was necessitated by one of Capp’s several contractual struggles with United Feature: whatever Capp succeeded this time in squeezing out of the syndicate he did it by promising to produce a new strip—namely, Long Sam, an epic about a beautiful hillbilly gal whose mother keeps her sheltered in a mysterious valley but who frequently escapes only to fall in love with whichever handsome male first comes into view. This routine went on for seven-and-a-half years (June 7, 1954 - December 29, 1962), during which time, Lubbers decorated the funnies pages with pictures of the luscious Sam.

Before there was "good girl art" and erotic comics, there was the comic strip "pretty girl." This was the thoroughly wholesome Girl Next Door of song and legend. Lubbers does this girl better than just about anyone, and this book is festooned with pictures of them—pictures of Sam and Robin Malone and all the toothsome ladies who drifted in and out of Lubbers’ strips. And we also get glimpses of his work for Fiction House in the early 1940s, for whose Wings and Rangers comics he produced many a glamorous cover girl. And scattered throughout the book are several autobiographical sketches produced expressly for this occasion. Just $35 (probably available from Bud Plant).

The Buscema book has a few pictures of pretty girls in it, but it is otherwise of an entirely different order than the Lubbers book. It is, after all, a "sketchbook," and the artwork in it is therefore not finished as all of the Lubbers drawings are. Many of the sketches are gestural drawings, looser and rougher in execution than, say, the sketches we saw in earlier books in this series, those featuring the work of Wally Wood and Al Williamson.

And many of Buscema’s sketches are of heroic male figures like Conan, who, once Roy Thomas had introduced him to, Buscema was eager to draw. "This is what I want to do!" he exclaims to editor David Spurlock in the interview that threads its way through the book’s 112 6x9-inch pages (from Vanguard in hardback, $29.95, and paper, $15.95).

Unfortunately, Buscema, although promised the Conan book, didn’t get to do it right away. Because he was Marvel’s highest-paid artist at the time Conan was launched and because Martin Goodman didn’t think Conan would sell well enough to justify employing his top talent on the title, the book was given to Barry (not-yet-Windsor) Smith, an unknown. (Buscema regales us with what he heard Stan Lee say: "The kid’s so eager to work for Marvel he’d probably work for Green Stamps.") When Smith left, Buscema finally got the assignment and immediately turned Smith’s svelte barbarian into "a big hulking guy," more in line with Buscema’s understanding of the physique of the Robert E. Howard character.

For tales like this as well as the often-stunning sketches of pirates, cowboys, superheroes, and sword-and-sorcery characters (not to mention Jim Steranko’s introduction), you need this book.

Another recent arrival at your local bookstore is Art Spiegelman’s Jack Cole and Plastic Man (DC Comics, $19.95 in paperback), which reprints his masterful 1999 essay from The New Yorker (April 19). This time, however, the biographical-critical essay is insanely enhanced by illustrative material, all wildly arranged by Chip Kidd. Kidd presumably took seriously the book’s subtitle, "Forms Stretched to Their Limits!" and produced layouts and color choices designed to stretch the traditional form of a "book" to such an extent that it threatens the reader’s essential ability to comprehend. Textual narrative cavorts from black type on yellow paper to red type reversed out of solid black for no apparent reason at all, and the pages are plastered (yes, it all looks pasted-on) with fragments of Plastic Man title pages and stories, faded and tattered newspaper clippings, photographs from ancient scrapbooks, and other tidbits. (Among the last, the first page of Cole’s account published in Boys’ Life of his cross-country bicycle trip made in 1932 at the age of 18; it’s illustrated with three Cole drawings, already pulsing with his frantic action style.)

The book also includes three whole Plastic Man stories, one Woozy Winks adventure, and the infamous "Murder, Morphine, and Me" tale from True Crime Comics. This last includes the notorious picture of a woman whose eye is about to be pierced with a hypodermic needle that appeared in Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent —a picture, I hasten to point out, that is part of a "dream sequence" in the story, not part of the "real" action. These reprinted funnybook stories are given with the same lunatic treatment that the rest of the book enjoys. First, the stories are photographed directly from the comic books’ yellowed pages in precisely the way I have always contended such vintage work should be reproduced. Not reconstructed and re-colored in garish hues. They are also printed on newsprint that has been tipped into the book at the appropriate places.

Alas, my hope for this method of reproducing old comics is not sustained here. The pages are reprinted with their out-of-register color intact; ditto the bleed-through ghostly images from the reverse sides of the pages. And that’s fine. But the color itself is overwhelmed by the yellowing newsprint, which is now no longer yellow but brown. The effect is to mute all the color, to submerge it all in a bath of brown, which veils all the pictures in a kind of fog.

This kind of reproduction—shooting directly from the original comic book pages—has been done before with superlative results. The New Yorker did it when Spiegelman’s Cole article was first published. The comic book pages reproduced therein were perfect, shining specimens. Presumably, the yellow of the aged newsprint had been filtered out in the digital process of scanning the images.

Clearly, Spiegelman and Kidd are aiming, in their book, to capture not just Cole’s virtuoso storytelling techniques but the vintage feel of old comic book pages. So they didn’t filter out the brown of the newsprint pages but, rather, left it there (perhaps even enhanced it) to augment their design purposes: in the book, the brown comic book pages (they almost feel brittle like old newsprint) fit the same scrapbook motif that prevails throughout.

Cute, but I wish they’d seized the opportunity to demonstrate again The New Yorker’s superior way of reproducing old comic book stories from old comic book pages directly—no reconstruction, no re-coloring in riotous color.

Otherwise, though, the book is a grandly eccentric objet d’art and a genuine trip of a visit to Jack Cole’s career and art. A few of his Playboy cartoons in watercolor are included as well as a much-too-abbreviated sample of his syndicated comic strip, Betsy and Me, which was launched just a few weeks before Cole committed suicide. Although this event has never been adequately explained (why would Cole kill himself when he has, finally, achieved syndication, a goal he’d had before him all his life?), Spiegelman makes a heroic attempt herein. Cole "died of growing up," Spiegelman concludes; but you must read his argument in the book to make sense of this snatch of poetry. And I’m not knocking it: poetry is often true even if it isn’t factual.

Book News. Books to keep an eye out for in the weeks ahead include Will Eisner’s latest graphic novel, The Name of the Game (DC Comics), another in his series of tales about urban Jewish families learning to assimilate in the New World, and Peanuts: The Art of Charles Schulz (Pantheon), which reprints 500 strips and sketchbook material never before published.

And there’s Spy vs. Spy: The Complete Casebook (Watson-Guptill), which offers all of the manic spy series of cartoons that Antonio Prohias originated at Mad at the height of the Cold War. Prohias had arrived in New York in May 1960, an award-winning Cuban editorial cartoonist whose blistering caricatures of the newly enthroned Fidel Castro had so attracted the dictator’s ire that Prohias fled for his life. In New York, he worked in a clothing factory by day and drew cartoons at night. Inspired by the polarization in his homeland where anyone not a vociferous Communist was automatically an enemy of the state, he cloaked his spies in bi-polar white and black and started them on their way, "locked in a mute, cartoon dance of mutual destruction," which they continued for the next forty years. Mad editor Nick Meglin says he initially planned to publish only a few strips, but Prohias kept producing plot lines that were "so ingenious, I’d say, ‘Okay, maybe a couple more.’ And maybe a couple more after that." The magazine continued the series after Prohias’ retirement in the late 1980s, employing ghosts. Today, the feature is bylined Peter Kuper, another master of silent storytelling.

News News. Joan Crosby Tibbetts may, at long last, have trumped the peanut butter moguls. For over 50 years, she has single-handedly waged a trademark dispute with the makers of Skippy peanut butter, who, she alleges, are using the name of her father’s famous comic strip character without permission—and without paying for it either. The originator of the spread, Rosefield Co., applied for a trademark in 1933 at the height of Skippy’s fame. But Skippy’s creator, Percy Crosby, had already obtained a trademark for his creation, and the Rosefield application was denied. Unfortunately, all documentation had, apparently, disappeared from government archives. Until recently. Recently, Tibbetts has apparently found a photocopy of records that show the Patent Office rejected Rosefield’s initial application in 1934. And so Tibbetts has filed a petition with the PO to cancel the trademark for Skippy peanut butter. A spokesman for the conglomerate now owning the bread spread says her claim is without merit. "We’ve been through this several times," he said. So far, nothing’s popped. But maybe this time ...

Stay ‘tooned.

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