Opus 72:

Opus 72: Reviews and the Simpsons and the Right to Know (October 24). A week or so ago, I was listening to some Sunday morning gasbags as they were vaporizing about the White House’s request that networks refrain from airing videotapes of Osama bin Laden because, even if the tapes did not contain coded messages to his minions worldwide, they overtly gave comfort to the enemy by assuring them that al Qaeda’s leader was still there and by cheering them all on to greater and greater feats of atrocity. Naturally, all the journalistic jaw-waggers were alternately muling and shrieking in alarm about freedom of the press. The public, went the relentless chorus, has a "right to know," and therefore the press has an obligation to blab everything it finds out as soon as it possibly can, without let or hindrance.

On that same day, I’d read an article in the newspaper about the counting of the Florida Presidential ballots. This was the count sponsored by a consortium of major news organizations (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, CNN, Associated Press, Newsweek and others) who commissioned the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center to examine the 180,000 uncounted ballots and to tally the number of "votes" in various hanging and dimpled chad categories. The notion was to determine, for once and all, whether George W. Bush got the most votes in Florida or Al Gore. This exhaustive and tedious effort was concluded about the end of August. But after the abominations of 9eleven, the consortium agreed unanimously not to report the results.

It is reasonable to suspect that these news media giants decided to suppress news because it might tarnish Dubya’s image in the midst of the war on terrorism. Not so, they say. It’s just that they haven’t the resources to pursue this story and the terrorism story. They haven’t the resources? What would it take? One reporter—or two and a typist—to do a story on the numbers of ballots in the various counting categories? Surely, even in the midst of the froth of reportage on the war these giant news organizations can collectively muster one or two reporters to turn out a report on the results of this landmark Florida fiasco. But no.

"The priorities of the country have changed," said a spokesperson, "and we need to marshall our person-power and our financial resources to cover the events of September 11 and the aftermath."

"People are focused on the fact that we’re at war," said another consortium representative.

So much for our "right to know."

PROFESSORIAL POPCORN. Given the growing interest in popular culture that is amply manifest in the ivy-covered corridors of college campuses (coupled to the promotion-inspired dictum to publish books and articles on every subject under the sun), it comes as no surprise that Matt Groening’s The Simpsons should be the subject of an entire tome of scholarly essays that examine every aspect of the program. Edited by a small self-serving committee (William Irwin, Mark T. Conard, and Aeon J. Skoble, each of whom has an essay herein, an essay the publication of which will advance the career of the essayist) and archly entitled The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh! of Homer, the book continues in what would be, in any setting but collegiate, a self-mocking manner with such chapters as "Homer and Aristotle," "Marge’s Moral Motivation," and "Thus Spake Bart: On Nietzsche and the Virtues of Being Bad." In "Lisa and American Anti-Intellectualism," Skoble, an assistant professor of philosophy at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, argues that the family’s precocious daughter sends a mixed message:

"American anti-intellectualism... is pervasive but not all encompassing.... In contrast to her relentlessly ignorant father, [Lisa] is often shown having the right answer to a problem or a more perceptive analysis of a situation.... Although her wisdom is sometimes presented as valuable, other times it is presented as a case of being sanctimonious or condescending.... The show calls attention to the cultural limitations of small-town America, but it also reminds us that intellectual disdain for the common man can be carried too far and that theory can all too easily lose touch with common sense."


FUNNYBOOK REVIEWS. The good news: Eric Larsen is back! Yessir, with No. 89, Savage Dragon seems his ol’ self, battling the tongue-in-cheek Deadly Duo in a cascade of manic action and comedic ironies. But more significantly: Larsen is once again deploying the resources of the medium in inventive ways instead of marching his pictures across the page in three-tier six-panel cadences. He’s timing the action, varying the panel size, often for the sake of humor. Good ol’ Finhead.

The luxurious Harley & Ivy: Love on the Lam is not all that Joe Chiodo’s presence promises. Too bad—the idea sounded great on paper: it would seem that if anyone other than Bruce Timm could limn this lithesome pair, Chiodo would be that someone. But, no; didn’t work out. Chiodo should stick to pin-ups: in attempting a fully painted narrative, he skimps on background detail (an endemic problem with the painterly approach which isn’t capable of detail work on this scale) and the story itself doesn’t permit him much display space for his perky pin-ups. Chiodo loses both ways. Judd Winick’s story, alas, is little more than a half-baked notion that is supposed to give Chiodo an excuse to paint pretty pictures of his curvy specialties. And just how is Batman immobilized when he battles that hulking vine-thing? Can’t tell from either visuals or verbiage.

No match at all for the regular Harley Quinn title with Karl Kesel’s punning scripts and sense of humor and the Dodsons’ (Terry on pencils, Rachel on inks) lively pictures, antic in layout and shifting perspective and acrobatic in ever-lovin’ action. Get the real thing.

Go-go Fiasco is probably the best name in comics these days. As a purely fantastic and mysteriously comic concoction, it is matched only by Billy DeBeck’s Hello Swifty, a detective character who appeared briefly in Barney Google in the thirties. In Codename: Knockout, Go-go is the faithful sidekick, and he generally takes a backseat to the protagonist, a statuesque Angela Devlin, who spends most of her time in the nude or nearly so, thanks to Robert Rodi’s scripts. These are sophisticated and humorous, and while all the barenekkidwimmin pictures add an element of adolescent voyeuristic delight to these tales, the dialogue and the plot twists display a mature wit at work and make this series a treat. In No. 4, which consists mostly of a flashback relating how Angela’s mother got hooked up with her father, her ethical opposite, the penciling chores are divided with Yanick Paquette doing the flashback. The inker, Mark Farmer, is the same for Paquette and the regular pencil-pusher, Louis Small, Jr., but it’s still possible to tell that Paquette’s command of the visual medium is superior. Small is perfectly competent, but Paquette is a dazzler and shows it in feathering and modeling.

Astra bills itself as "all new manga from Jerry Robinson, Golden Age Batman artist and creator of the Joker." Since the pictures aren’t drawn by Robinson and the script is written by someone else, you have to wonder just what his involvement here is. Well, we’re told that he is collaborating with someone on a theatrical musical called "Astra" and that the comic book is a sort of interim enterprise until the musical is produced. Judging from No. 1 of the title, Astra may be intended as a "funny, sexy sf romp," but I couldn’t see much hilarity here. Not much romp either, and the sexy part, so far, is simply that a planet with a wholly female population has run out of sperm for perpetuating the species and sends its princess, Astra, off into space to find some men. That’s ordinary biology, not sexiness. About as erotic as dissecting a frog. The elaborate decorative pictures notwithstanding, the narrative is cryptic and ambiguous, as much manga seems to be. And midway through the book, we shift from pictures of the heroine in some sort of suspended state to pictures of men aboard their own spacecraft without any explanation whatsoever.

In No. 8 of Battle Pope (Part II of "Shorts"), we have another novelty: sex and violence in liturgy. With Jesus as a spaced-out hippie and the Pope as a bully and a lout, a crude loud-mouth looking for a lay, this title, which may have been intended as a kind of satire, is nothing but a tasteless assault on religious sensibilities with no discernible objective except to shock and offend. Organized religion has its problems: it often confuses the organization with the religion, for instance. But this funnybook is merely striking sparks without creating any light.

Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo No. 50 is another in his long line of engaging and successful adventure stories featuring his lop-eared protagonist. A beautifully rendered opening splash page is evocative of the art of the Oriental, and in the ensuing silent sequence and in the spare dialogue throughout, Sakai continues to demonstrate thorough mastery of the medium. His hachuring gives a range of texture and, hence, visual interest to the black-and-white pages. And he even knows when to use "whom." Always a treat to read the latest from Stan.

Insight Studios Group is producing a new series, Hammer of the Gods, about the questing adventures of the Viking Modi, son of Tyr. Written by Mark Obie Wheatley, the book is drawn in his stunning simple bold outline manner by Michael Avon Oeming who drenches his pictures here in dramatic shadowy blacks with dense gray tones supplied by John Harris Staton. The simplicity of Oeming’s abstracted style imparts to the narrative an almost physical power, an apt mode for his subject. He and Wheatley have researched the Viking milieu with great care, and the books show the result: on some pages, the decorative borders evoke Norse artifacts. Nicely done. And you can find more of this on the Web at Insight’s site: www.SunnyFundays.com presents Hammer in a daily color version. And an expanded version of the daily color strips is coming out in December.

Stan Lee revives the hoariest fragments of the Superman mythos in his Just Imagine series: Superman’s strength is explained by the Earth’s having less gravity than Krypton. Gee, that’s what we all touted as the reason ’way back when I was but a broth of a lad, and it’s nice to see this reason surface again. Meanwhile, it’s getting clearer and clearer that Stan’s going someplace beyond the tales in the individual titles of this series. That scar on Superman’s face isn’t explained herein, and the last page hints broadly at "things to come." At the back of the book, Michael Uslan and Kyle Baker lampoon the Superman publishing empire. A hoot.

With Vamperotica No. 2, I conducted a scientific survey. I ordered both the nude cover version as well as the "regular" (clothed?) cover. Exactly what I expected: a scam. Cover "vamp" Kelly Kole takes her shirt off for the nude version but folds her arms demurely over her chest so, practically speaking, there’s no more nudity here than on the regular cover, on which the largest picture is as "nude" as its counterpart on the "nude" cover. Bare arms and shoulders. Be still my throbbing heart. Inside are more photos, in black-and-white on porous newsprint, and a couple stories about what seems to be an Egyptian vampire with lots of flowing hair. Several pages of poetry by Anastasia Heonis in white lettering on black-and-white photographs conclude the book. She seems to be imitating a vampire in these jingling verses. Over-all, a strange production indeed.

I’ve never been able to imbibe quite enough of Harvey Kurtzman’s drawings. His uniquely abstracted renderings inform his tales with their exaggerated raw simplicity, lending great visual energy to the narratives. Alas, Kurtzman didn’t illustrate enough of the stories he wrote to slake my thirst. And I may never be entirely satisfied. But Denis Kitchen is helping. Kitchen has just revived a long-lost Kurtzman gem, The Grasshopper and the Ant. Originally produced in color drawings for Esquire magazine (May 1960), the story re-enacts the fable about the playboy grasshopper who fritters away his summer while the diligent ant stores up grains for the winter. Kitchen reproduces the story from the original delicately colored art and at full size rather than the greatly reduced pictures Esquire published. The result, a small square (8x8") hardback of 80 pages (half of which are blank, facing Kurtzman’s drawings, one panel at a time on the right-hand page), is an exquisitely wrought showcase for the comedic vigor of the drawings. Just as rewarding is Kitchen’s introduction, which inventories much of the work Kurtzman did outside the publication arena of Mad, Trump, Help, Humbug, and, eventually, Playboy, and suggests that future books of this kind may be in the offing, reprinting the rest of the fugitive masterpieces.

Kitchen also offers and an insightful interpretation of Kurtzman’s version of the Aesop fable. As Kurtzman portrays him, the grasshopper is a creative soul, a beatnik celebrating the artistic sensibility; the ant, on the other hand, is the dedicated drudge of daily existence. And in Kitchen’s view, Kurtzman, as artist, husband and father, was both grasshopper and ant, so when at the end of the tale, the ant’s store of grain proves inedible, his pyrrhic victory suggests that life without artistic and intellectual endeavor is joyless and unrewarding. At the end, the ant and the grasshopper contemplate a winter of starvation, but at least the grasshopper has had a summer of joy and fulfillment. Perhaps Kurtzman was saying that life must embrace both ordinary industry and soaring artistry; either, without the other, is empty and doomed. At just $25, this book is a treat and a bargain.

For more about Harvey Kurtzman—his life and career with EC, his invention of Mad, Trump, etc.—consult my book, The Art of the Comic Book, which you can find out more about by clicking here.

COMIC STRIP REPRINTS. The latest crop of comic strip reprints from Andrews McMeel (4520 Main Street, Kansas City, MO 64111-7701; 816-932-6700) includes a couple of "treasury" collections, three "firsts," and several from series. A "treasury" collection (just to keep you up-to-date on the jargon) is a 256-page volume that combines the contents of two previous reprint books, usually adding just a little, so you if you’re a genuine fan-addict, you can’t be content with owning just the two previous tomes: you must also purchase the "treasury."

Butt-naked Baby Blues (9x11" paperback; $14.95) is the Baby Blues treasury that mines both Lift and Separate, I Shouldn’t Have to Scream More Than Once and Motherhood Is Not for Wimps. Baby Blues, you’ll recall, is the risible reportage about a young family written by Jerry Scott and drawn by Rick Kirkman. And in this "treasury," some of the reprinted strips have been grouped by storyline and a few sentences of text have been inserted to ponder such things as "Parenthood." Sunday strips are in color and include the opening "throw-away" panel, which is usually conceived as a separate sight gag all itself, related to the day’s strip only thematically. This is a genuinely hilarious comic strip even though I wish Kirkman wouldn’t draw the father’s nose so huge. It’s impossible to imagine him kissing his wife. Or putting on a pull-over sweater. Or drinking a glass of water.

Scott has made a career out of working with cartoonists whose last names end in -man. In this case, Jim Borgman, who draws Zits, the other Scott-written hit of the funnies. The "treasury" at hand is called (with all the delicacy inherent in teenage argot) Big Honkin’ Zits (9x11" paperback; $14.95). Its content is culled from Don’t Roll Your Eyes at ME, Young Man and Are We An "Us"? The "treasury" expands upon the content of these predecessors by adding a 14-page section in which each of the strip’s cast is described and discussed, illustrated with antic rough sketches of the personnel. The Sundays are all in color, but the "throw-away" panels are not included. (They’re in the other two books.) I love the way Borgman draws, and I admire the inventiveness he and Scott display in the visuals of their strip. Sundays, particularly, are often designed to create their comedy through layout. Comedy and sometimes just beauty, visual charm. Here’s a large, single-panel Sunday strip celebrating the colors of deciduous autumn with Jeremy and his father raking leaves. Dad says, "Tomorrow, I’m (puff, puff) buying a leaf-blower." To which his son responds: "Make it a chain saw instead." But the picture—shot from above—is a delight, gnarly tree limbs and clusters of color span the space. Delicious.

The Lower You Ride, the Cooler You Are (128 9x9" pages in paperback, $10.95) is the first collection of Baldo, a comic strip focusing on the doings of a Latino teenager and his family and friends. Written by Hector Cantu, who was assistant features editor at the Dallas Morning News until the strip’s success enabled him to quit the day job, and drawn by Carlos Castellanos, a freelance illustrator and cartoonist, Baldo is a thoroughly respectable entry into the current lists of comic strips that are actually drawn rather than ruled with a straight-edge. In short, it’s well drawn. It’s also funny. The humor, although sometimes invoking a Latino milieu, is usually a more generic reflection of teenage life in school and elsewhere. Which serves to prove, I submit, that humanity is pretty much the same regardless of cultural encumbrances. Still, it’s nice to savor the occasional salsa of Baldo’s ethnic heritage.

Another recent entry in the "drawn comics" lists is Grand Avenue by Steve Breen, an editorial cartoonist who last spring left his berth at the Ashbury Park News in New Jersey for the San Diego Union-Tribune, another Copley newspaper, where he took the place left vacant when the U-T fired Steve Kelley, its editorial cartoonist for twenty years or so. In 1999, Breen, who garnered a Pulitzer just about then, launched his comic strip, and now we can see its debut and early months for ourselves in Your Grandma Rocks, Mine Rolls (128 8x9" pages in paperback, $10.95). Grandma Kate MacFarlane is a power-walking with-it sports fan who inspires her grandchildren, twins Michael, an aspiring Shakespearean actor, and Gabby, destined to be a billionaire. Since they live with her, her inspiration to them is as constant as their tendency to exasperate and baffle her. But she usually outsmarts them. Breen’s drawing style is of the traditional pen-and-ink school, fine lines mostly with a few spots of black and more noodling with shading and texture than many strips on the page. In this age of demographic niches, I’m not sure which niche this strip aims at, but it’s a warmly humane family comedy and worth a look.

Lola, another 1999 debut strip, also features a grandmother, but Lola is like no other senior citizen. She smokes cigars and lives with her son and watches wrestling on tv but only if she can put her can of beer on her lucky doily. The bumper sticker on her car reads: If you don’t like my driving, stay off the sidewalk. That kind of grandmother. A year or so ago, Steve Dickenson and Todd Clark, producers of the strip, attracted a little attention in Little Rock, Arkansas, when their client paper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, started getting complaints about a strip in which Lola says: "Grandchildren are like farts. You can only stand your own." The strip was dropped like a hot marshmallow. Defending this lingo, Dickenson said: "We don’t live in the fifties anymore. The rest of the newspaper content is indicative of that." A survey of readers showed they favored returning the banished strip to their paper by a ratio of 4-to-1. This collection of the first year of Lola doesn’t include that wind-breaker, but there are others: Old Age Isn’t for Sissies is the title (128 8x9" pages in paperback, $10.95). The drawing herein isn’t stellar stuff (in the early Drabble mode, I’d say), but the comedy is cranky and Lola’s deadpan commentary on life as we live it is often dead-on.

A trio of other recent releases from Andrews McMeel: When Did Ignorance Become a Point of View, which, with the barb of its title, signals another collection of Scott Adams’ Dilbert, the usual barely drawn unvaryingly dull visuals coupled to one of the sharpest wits in the business (128 8x9" pages in paperback, $10.95), who, in the introduction, invites us all to subscribe to the free Dilbert newsletter that is "distributed whenever I feel like it, usually four times a year," at www.dilbert.com. Mutts Sunday Mornings (144 8x11" pages, $12,85) is the second all-color reprint of Patrick McDonnell’s classic Sunday strips. The coloring is wonderfully muted and nuanced, and the comedy (with the dog Earl, the cat Mooch, and their respective owners) is enhanced by McDonnell’s deployment of the throw-away panel to ape famous paintings or classic comics, linking the picture thematically to that day’s hilarity. A pure delight. And in Graduation: A Time for Change, Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse reprints strips from June 1999 to March 2000, the period that embraces Michael’s graduation from college and Elizabeth’s inauguration into alleged higher education, Michael’s engagement to Deanna, Elly and John facing middle age, and the arrival at their home of Elly’s widower father (136 8x9" pages in paperback, $10.95).

Johnston has also produced a series of tiny (3x3.5") hardback books for Andrews McMeel, each celebrating some aspect of family life. These aren’t reprints: the drawings on the right hand pages face spare verses on the left, and the Patterson family is again featured. In A Perfect Christmas, for instance, we follow all the usual preparations and rituals, starting with: "Christmas season is upon us, Has it been a year? Halloween is barely over, Brace yourself, my dear." Two others in this series are about newborn children: Isn’t She Beautiful and Isn’t He Beautiful—identical recitations about bringing the baby home, feeding it, sleeping (or not) through the night, toilet training, and the other so-called joys of child rearing. Johnston is expert at catching just the right note of humor and exasperation. She’s had practice. Her earliest forays into cartooning were about pregnancy and babies: she decorated the ceiling of her doctor’s exam room with cartoons so expectant mothers, lying there on their backs on the examining table, would have something to do to amuse themselves. The tiny books are just $4.95 each, from Andrews McMeel.

And if you want to know more about the history of the newspaper comic strip, I can do no worse than to refer you to my tome on the subject, The Art of the Funnies; click here, and you’ll be transported to a place where you can read more about it.

Stay ‘tooned.

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