Opus 71:

Opus 71: Laughing Again (October 10). The nation’s laughter ceased for a fortnight after the atrocities of September 11. Out of respect for the dead and in stunned contemplation of the awful dimensions of the disaster, our funnybones just didn’t function. But the American sense of humor is irrepressible as well as irreverent, and it soon began bubbling to the surface again. In the October 1st issue of The New Yorker, which had published no cartoons the previous week, the lead cartoon by Leo Cullum depicted one of Cullum’s dog-faced men and one of his duck-faced women having a drink at the bar, and she, looking at the man’s loudly patterned jacket, says, "I thought I’d never laugh again. Then I saw your jacket." It struck just the right note. Cullum didn’t avoid the subject; he confronted it, head-on. And he found something in the tragedy to laugh about. It was a relief to see it, a relief to know we could laugh again.

The Onion, for me, completed ritual of risible rejuvenation. It had canceled its issue the week of the sneak attack. But the next week’s front page article reported on an interview with God, who thundered, "Not only do I not want anybody to kill anyone, but I specifically commanded you not to, in really simple terms that anybody ought to be able to understand. I don’t care what religion you are, or who you think your enemy is, here it is one more time: No killing, in My name or anyone else’s, ever again."

And it went on in this vein for another couple dozen paragraphs, concluding: "I’m talking to all of you here!" God bellows. "Do you hear Me? I don’t want you to kill anybody. I’m against it, across the board. How many times do I have to say it? Don’t kill each other anymore—ever! I’m fucking serious!"

And then, later, The Onion, reporting that Michael Jordan had reverted to basketball, listed all the signs of his much-hoped-for return—American flags displayed all over the nation, heightened security at airports and sports arenas, and so on.

Frank Cho was among the very first on newspapers’ funnies pages to acknowledge the tragedy. Newspaper comic strips, delivered to their distributing syndicates about four weeks in advance of publication date, are notoriously slow in tuning in to current events. And, indeed, they seldom do. But in Cho’s Liberty Meadows for September 24, Ralph the midget bear finally takes flight with his home-made rocket. He carries a unfurling American flag, and the notation below says, simply, "9-11. You are loved. You will not be forgotten."

Cho clearly had to get his syndicate, Creators, to sideline a previously submitted strip and to substitute this one and distribute it almost overnight to the Liberty Meadows client papers.

December, incidentally, will be the last month for the newspaper version of Liberty Meadows. Cho is giving up the strip as of the December 30 release. But that’s not the end of the beauteous Brandy, the colossally insecure Frank, and the rest of the manic menagerie. They will all continue their adventures but in comic book form.

In making the transition, Cho reveals his true nature—namely, an infinite capacity for fiendishness, for mercilessly tantalizing his readers in the time-honored tradition of the newspaper comic strip. The December storyline leads up to Brandy’s accepting a marriage proposal from someone other than the ever-doting Frank. But to find out what happens on her wedding day, readers will have to buy the Liberty Meadows Wedding Album, a comic book that will be on sale only in comic book shops around the country.

The diabolical dimensions of this cliffhanger are worthy of the master of all such tenterhooks, the great tantalizer Al Capp. Obviously, Cho had found his calling in the newspaper strip; it’s a shame he’s moving away to pursue a career in illustration and comic books and graphic novels.

Aaron McGruder was another early commentator on the terrorist attack. In The Boondocks for September 24, Huey Freeman appears to be alluding to the tragedy with references to the perpetual absence of a smile on his face. And in Bill Amend’s FoxTrot strips for the week, Roger Fox decides to give blood, an act of bravery to his son, who fears the antiseptic needle but, now, respects his father for his fearlessness.

The most unusual reference on the comics page was inadvertent. On Saturday, September 15—only four days after the event—in 9 Chickweed Lane, Brooke McEldowney’s teenage heroine, Edda, and her boyfriend Amos pass the place where they’d built a snowman last winter, and they pause "to remember the fallen." Some readers thought that the remark trivialized the horror; others, thought it quietly respectful. Despite its evocation of the tragedy, this strip was produced in late August and the allusion to the terrorist abomination on the immediately preceding Tuesday was entirely unintentional.

Then on the following Monday came another eerie seeming reference. Edda is seated at the piano, practicing, and she is musing: "Why is it that artistic expression can be mastered only after years of sedulous practice while hatred and monstrosity seem to be instinctively performed?"

Heavy stuff, but, again, McEldowney had produced the strip weeks before the events of September 11 about which Edda’s comment seems so apt.

On the same day, October 17, Tatsuya Ishida turned to the horrors of evil in his online strip, Sinfest (www.keenspot.com). "Why is there evil in the world?" asks the lead character. "I think," responds the female lead, "so we can appreciate the good stuff." "Yeah, well," the fellow responds, "I could do without it." Ishida’s strip is presumably produced much closer to its online publication date than a newspaper strip. But his comment is still wonderfully appropriate.

By the week of October 1st, enough time had passed that several strips could comment on the catastrophe. In Funky Winkerbean, Tom Batiuk has Cindy Summers reporting from Ground Zero. And in The Boondocks, Huey watches tv coverage of the U.S. reaction to the calamity. The next week, in Jump Start, Rob Armstrong depicts the twin towers of the World Trade Center, turning the strip sideways to do so. The occasion is the Cobb family’s reviewing of photographs they’d taken during a trip to New York. "Wish you were here," thinks Marcy.

And in Non Sequitur, Wiley depicts "autumn in New York," showing a man who has raked his leaves into two tall towers.

Clearly, we’re ready to laugh again, albeit not too robustly. Still, our readiness is perhaps less urgent than our need for humor.

By the merest chance, I’d been browsing through some of E.B. White’s essays last week and came across the piece he wrote for The New Yorker upon the death of James Thurber. "Thurber was both a practitioner of humor and a defender of it," White wrote, observing that Thurber believed "every time is a time for humor." Every time in the long course of times past and present and future, yes; but perhaps not every occasion. Thurber, White reported, was angered once by someone’s reference to humor being a shield not a sword: "He wasn’t going to have anyone beating his sword into a shield," White said.

Humor may not be a shield, but it surely is a barricade. Freud maintained that jokes and other manifestations of humor are acts of aggression, veiled attacks upon authority figures and others whom we cannot assault in a more direct fashion. By disguising our attacks as witticisms, we evade retaliation. And so humor is the barricade behind which we muster in order to lob grenades of ridicule at our foes, whether monstrous or merely annoying.

And as we return to the barricades this month, the nation’s editorial cartoonists are finding their voices again, too. George W. Bush, the so-called "war president," is no longer regarded as a legitimate target for unfettered merry-making. But the Taliban and Osama bin Laden have been gleefully subjected to venomous assault. And some of it, thankfully, is even highly comedic.

Daryl Cagle’s recent release depicts bin Laden conducting a meeting with three of his lieutenants. All four look exactly alike. "Here’s the plan," says bin Laden; "I don’t wear any disguise—we’ll have every other man in Afghanistan dress up to look like me." "Clever," says Lt. One. "Brilliant," says Lt. Two. "When do we start?" asks Lt. Three. Remember: they all look alike.

For more of the same, tune in to Cagle’s website, a feast of cartoons editorial and otherwise— http://cagle.slate.msn.com

Our sense of humor unites us as surely as the cataclysm did. I like what Walt Kelly wrote in 1952: "Thank goodness we have become a hugely comic race, the fit foil of cartoonists and similar busybodies who, even as they stand apart to declaim, realize with a sad and wonderful joy that we are all in it together. Huddled and cuddled as if we worked for a large ad agency and were running a test proof of the slogan for the pudding, we may achieve our end, we may even escape it. But the ride together is good for a moment or two of beauty and a number of laughs. It is to be hoped that when we’re through coasting, there will be enough of us left who will want to climb back up the hill and try it all over again."

E.B. White (again) reported once that Harold Ross, the curmudgeonly hard-to-satisfy editor and founder of The New Yorker, had been uncharacteristically pleased with something in the current issue of the magazine, and he left White a note, which said: "I am encouraged to go on."

And so am I as we emerge from under the dust and wreckage of disaster and heartache that temporarily clouded our vision. Thanks to our senses of humor, we are, all of us, encouraged to go on.

And so we do.

Another Triple. Once every three years, the Cartoon Research Library at Ohio State University sponsors its Festival of Cartoon Art. And festive it is. Arranged by the tireless and dedicated curator of the CRL, Lucy Shelton Caswell, whose smile of welcome lights rooms, the celebration features two days of presentations by cartoonists and comics historians as well as gallery exhibitions of the print cartoon arts.

The CRL, established in 1977, is the largest and most comprehensive academic research facility documenting printed cartoon art. Its holdings of more than 370,000 materials include 240,000 original cartoons, over 20,000 books, 13,000 serial titles, and 2,800 linear feet of manuscripts. A biographical registry of cartoonists numbers over 3,000.

On September 29 and 30, this year’s Festival, the seventh, took "Virtuoso Cartoonists" as its theme. Attendance at the Festival is limited by the seating capacity of the auditorium in which the presentations on Friday and Saturday are given, and again this year, every one of the 275 seats was occupied. Usually, the guest speakers show slides of their cartoons and comment upon the work, embellishing with biographical details and comments on the state of the art as they go. This year, seven presentations were made on each day, excitement and appreciation mounting by the hour. Like the man says, "You had to be there," so what follows is a poverty-stricken substitute, a mere tincture of the substance and tenor of the occasion.

Caricaturist David Levine began the festivities on Friday morning. He stood in the well at the bottom of the inclined seating area, draping himself, with a remote control for the slide projector in his hand, over the lectern just next to a giant projection screen. As he clicked the remote, his distinctive crosshatched drawings appeared on the screen.

"I’m fascinated by the endless variety of the facial characteristics of my species," he said. And he is still excited by the challenge. "I see a face, and—Wow!—the potential!" Like most editorial cartoon commentators, Levine assaults those with power, hoping to make us see that they are just ordinary people like us.

Eldon Dedini, whose work appears mostly in The New Yorker and in Playboy, showed slides of his cartoons. Early in his career, he was cartoon editor for Esquire, writing gags for other cartoonists to draw. "If you want to know why an editor isn’t buying," he said, "you don’t ask the editor, Why isn’t it funny? Conversations about cartoons don’t count. It’s what’s on paper that counts."

Asked how long it takes him to complete one of the brilliantly hued watercolors for Playboy, Dedini said he spends "about a week" on most of them. But he doesn’t work at it eight hours a day. He paints until it no longer "works" with him. Momentarily stymied (or bored), he leaves it alone and works on something else. And occasionally, he looks at the incomplete watercolor on the easel and thinks about it, and then, after a while—perhaps after another day—he’s drawn to it again. "I let it tell me slowly what it needs," he explained.

During the question-and-answer period following Dedini’s presentation, Lynn Johnston raised her hand to comment: "On behalf of the human form," she said, "I thank you for the way you draw women’s busts."

Jim Borgman and Rick Kirkman, who, with writer/cartoonist Jerry Scott, produce Zits and Baby Blues, appeared with Scott on a panel, discussing the relationship between cartoonists and writers. Asked if Borgman and Kirkman use fewer gags than he sends them, Scott quipped, "I send them fewer than we use."

The name Zits originated as a joke, Borgman and Scott recalled. King Features Syndicate wanted something that would immediately suggest the subject, teenagers in America, so Scott said, "Well—how about zits then?" And the syndicate officials protested: Oh, no, they said, we can’t use that!

Said Borgman: "And so, of course, that’s when we decided that’s what we had to call it."

Charles Schulz told Borgman that Zits was "the worst name for a comic strip since Peanuts." But Zits sold like hotcakes and is now among the top circulation strips.

Canada’s revered editorial cartoonist Roy Peterson confessed that he doesn’t have "a paying job: I’m a freelance cartoonist." He gets a year-long contract every year from the Vancouver Sun and has for thirty-nine years. He figures that his readers spend only seven seconds on a cartoon—"those wonderful seven seconds."

"My job as an editorial cartoonist is to attack power," Peterson said. As for his political persuasion: "I’m in the radical middle."

Will Eisner and Jeff Smith (whose serial comic book, Bone, is now in its eleventh year) appeared together to discuss the current state of the art of the graphic novel. Smith marveled that "something’s going on out there" because graphic novels are finding their way into mainstream bookstores. "I can feel the tectonic plates moving," Eisner said. And it’s been a long time coming. "I built a toll booth," Eisner said, referring to his 1978 graphic novel, A Contract with God, "and then waited for the highway to come through."

Ben Katchor, whose Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer and other works focus on seemingly mundane aspects of life, said he aims to make "a poetic reason for the way things are." One of the strips he discussed was about the sound of light switches. But he didn’t research light switches, he explained, because "research leads to a banal answer," and he’s looking for poetry.

Cartoonist-historian Trina Robbins discussed her research into the life and work of Nell Brinkley, a much neglected woman cartoonist whose career took a spectacular turn when she covered the "trial of the century" in 1908 with courtroom sketches of Evelyn Nesbitt, former Floradora Girl and the wife of millionaire playboy Harry K. Thaw, who had shot to death the celebrated womanizing architect, Stanford White, because of his attentions to Evelyn. Robbins’ copiously illustrated book, Nell Brinkley and the New Woman in the Early 20th Century, came out last summer from McFarland and Company.

Sergio Aragones showed no slides. In his staggeringly accented English, he told his life story, how he grew up drawing pictures and how he came to New York in the early 1960s with $20 in his pocket. He immediately tried to get syndicated. He thought being syndicated was essential for a career in cartooning because in his native Mexico "syndicate" means "union." Naturally, every syndicate he approached turned him away, and he, baffled, eeked out a temporary existence reading poetry in a flamenco cafe in the Village. Lacing this catalogue of reversals of fortune with expressive body language, comic shrugs and muggings, Aragones drew the Festival’s first standing ovation.

It is impossible to report on Lynda Barry, who syndicates her weekly strip, Ernie Pook’s Comeek, to about 28 alternative newspapers, a number, she revealed, that is steadily dwindling but she is not troubled at all by it. She’s quite happy, she assured us, doing what she does, however many, or few, her subscribers. In her hyper stream-of-consciousness manner, she discussed creativity in one of the most frenetic presentations on the planet, pacing back and forth across the stage like a caged animal, dribbling sentence fragments and hilarious asides at every step. Hence the impossibility of reporting on it accurately here. We haven’t room. Or time.

But we can hint at how it transpired by noting that she began by singing a song. She also marveled at the lyric of another song, which, for years, she assumed was "You and me and Leslie," an odd arrangement, she opined, for a love song. "You and me" was clearly a couple, so who was Leslie and what was he (or she?) doing in the equation? And then she eventually realized that the lyric was "You and me endlessly." A much better sentiment for a love song.

Australian-born Pat Oliphant began by saying, "This is an accent not a speech impediment." He prefers to call his work "political cartooning" rather than "editorial cartooning" because, I gathered, the latter suggests a relationship with the editors that may or may not be an accurate reflection of his situation, particularly now since he has no home base newspaper and makes his way entirely through syndication with Universal Press.

He briefly traced his professional career, beginning in 1953 at The News in Adelaide (at the same time that young Rupert Murdock acquired the paper) and continuing through The Advertiser (a name, he said, that more accurately reflected the paper’s principal concern than his previous billet) and then to the U.S. in 1964 and the Denver Post in Colorado until 1975, when he shifted to the Washington Star and stayed there until the paper folded in 1981.

Before he started political cartooning at The Advertiser in about 1955, his job involved, among other mundane chores, re-touching photographs. He illustrated how he did this by drawing a picture showing two ponderously endowed society matrons in conversation, a tableau that included a third personage, a wholly inconsequential one, who had somehow insinuated herself between the two luminaries at exactly the moment the photograph was snapped. Oliphant’s job, he explained, was to eliminate the inconsequential interloper, and to illustrate his function, he proceeded to tear his drawing, top to bottom, "cutting out" the intrusive nobody. Holding up the torn fragment with the nobody on it, he said, "I often wondered what she thought when she saw the photograph in the next day’s paper."

He applied his re-touching skills to photographs of livestock shows, too. The photos depicted prize-winning sheep and chickens and cows, but it was the photos of bulls that were problematical. To illustrate, Oliphant sketched a bull in profile, an angle that revealed the bull’s ample sexual apparatus in stark outline. "My job," said Oliphant, pausing dramatically for our laughter as we realized what he was about to do—and then, without saying anything more, he took out a small knife and cut out the offending parts of the bull. This skill, he said, "stood me in good stead for what I did to politicians later."

He rejoiced at the freedom he enjoyed at the Denver Post to express his opinions. Opinions were not as welcomed at The Advertiser, which, he explained, was unalterably in favor of good weather and ferociously opposed to bad weather. Asked who he envisioned as his audience, Oliphant said, "I draw for myself."

The Bush administration’s inauguration of the war on terrorism turns political cartooning into a delicate balancing act, Oliphant said. He loved to apply "the old slash and burn" approach to George W. Bush. But now, he said, "we must be very careful."

Does that mean no attacks on the President at all? No, Oliphant said: but we must be careful. By this remark, I assumed that he meant criticism must be weighed against patriotism. Before September 11, the political cartoonist could bash Bush mercilessly; now he must consider the effect on the war effort, on international opinion, on Bush’s ability to assemble and sustain a coalition necessary to the task.

Extending the Virtuoso theme were two exhibitions. On display in the CRL Reading Room Gallery were original Calvin and Hobbes Sunday strips, selected by Bill Watterson; and, at the Columbus Cultural Arts Center, the work of "Historic Virtuoso Cartoonists" in framed tearsheets and original art clung to antique brick walls. Accompanying the first display is a handsome full-color catalogue, Calvin and Hobbes: Sunday Pages 1985-1995, with annotations throughout by Watterson, available through Andrews McMeel (96 9x12-inch pages; $12.95).

In an introduction, the reclusive Watterson discusses his working methods, his inspirations, and his frustrations with the limitations and politics of syndicated newspaper cartooning. He also speaks with great affection of the form: "It’s been five years since the end of Calvin and Hobbes," he writes, "the longest time I can remember in which I haven’t drawn cartoons."

Instead of cartooning, he has been teaching himself to paint, and he’s learning about music. He unpacked storage boxes of his original strips to pick pieces for the exhibit, and he discovered anew his passion. "I no longer take quite so much for granted the versatility of comics and their ability to depict complex ideas in a beautiful, accessible, and entertaining form. For all their seeming simplicity, the expressive possibilities of comics rival those of any other art form. Five years after Calvin and Hobbes, I love the comics as much as ever."

Among the "historic virtuosos" are numbered Nell Brinkley, Milton Caniff, Jay "Ding" Darling, Edwina Dumm, Rube Goldberg, Oliver Harrington, George Herriman, Walt Kelly, Joseph Keppler, Rollin Kirby, Winsor McCay, Jeff MacNelly, Willard Mullin, Thomas Nast, Frederick Burr Opper, Richard F. Outcault, Charles Schulz, James Thurber, and Art Young (to complete the roll call alphabetically). The accompanying catalogue samples the work from the walls, recites brief biographies, and attempts to define "virtuoso," employing for the purpose a score or more brief discussions solicited from cartoonists and historians and critics. It can be ordered from the CRL, 27 West 17th Avenue Mall, Columbus, OH 43210-1393 for $10, plus $2.50 postage; make checks to Ohio State University.

The Festival concluded on Saturday night with a banquet at which Frank Pauer, editor of the Cartoonist, the newsletter of the National Cartoonist Society, was presented with the Silver T-square in recognition of the excellence of his service to the Society. But the longest applause, with the attendees all standing, was reserved for Lucy Caswell. She had once again arranged a series of events and made them all mesh delightfully, attending to the tiniest detail, marshaling a legion of hosts and guides to shepherd the multitudes from meetings to coffee breaks and back, from exhibition galleries to the banquet, on foot and by bus, and smiling happily all the while. And so it ended, another in the triennial series of the "I Love Lucy Show," an accolade well-earned and heartily bestowed.

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