Opus 73:

Opus 73: A Ramble of Reviews (November 7). Like Christmas, the so-called "cartoon issue" of The New Yorker seems to arrive earlier every year. The first of these in 1997 arrived early in December bearing a December 15 cover-date; the next year’s came a week earlier with a correspondingly earlier cover-date. The retrograding continued, inexorably. Last year, the "cartoon issue" came in November, dated the 13th; this year, though, it’s come at about the same time and with about the same date. But since the first glorious celebration in 1997, this annual toast to the visual-verbal art has become more and more perfunctory. The first festival came with more cartoons and two or three articles about cartooning and cartoonists. Subsequent issues, while maintaining the increased allowance of cartoons, offer less and less in the way of text about cartooning. And this year’s issue continues the trend.

Nothing about this issue distinguishes it from other, regular, issues of The New Yorker except a "section" of cartoons that is composed of a 6-page article by Roger Angell and 14 pages of cartoons thereafter. That’s it. That’s why I say this is the "so-called" cartoon issue: its contents belie its theme. Apart from the 20 pages I’ve just mentioned, the rest of the issue deals with the world and its foibles in pretty much the customary way.

And we wouldn’t have Angell’s article, even, had we not declared war recently. Under the heading "Uniform Bliss," he examines the cartoon content of the magazine during World War II, beginning "When the country found itself at war in December 1941, The New Yorker wanted to be useful but didn’t always know how." His text is accompanied by seven vintage WWII cartoons from the magazine and one by GI cartoonist, Bill Mauldin, lifted from the pages of the military’s newspaper, Stars & Stripes. Angell also speaks, briefly, of George Baker’s venerable Sad Sack cartoons in Yank, the army’s weekly magazine.

Angell’s discussion is followed by a 6-page section entitled "The Way We Laugh Now," which demonstrates conclusively that we are somewhat more sarcastic now and edgier. Here’s a picture of two identically dressed operatives in the open doorway of a residence showing badges to the husband and wife who’ve just opened the door: "We’re from the FBI," says one, "going from house to house making sure that everyone is scared shitless."

And at the neighborhood saloon, one fellow at the bar says to the fellow next to him: "I figure if I don’t have that third martini, then the terrorists win."

The wartime section is succeeded by another six pages of the usual run of New Yorker cartoons (well, not quite usual: in most of these, the pictures contribute information vital to creating the cartoon’s humor rather than the usual New Yorker cartoon, which is mostly a caption spouting some vacuous, trendy comment that is funny enough on its own without any accompanying picture at all) and then a novelty—a 2-page piece illustrating what the New Yorker’s infamous "fact checkers" do to cartoons, whose "facts" they also check.

About a Charles Barsotti drawing of stylized snails wearing hats and captioned: "He’s long gone, sheriff—you’ll never catch him," a reference by one snail to another star-badged snail about a third snail who is easing out of the cartoon to the left, the checkers comment that the pictures don’t look like snails, that their hats look like derbies instead of stetsons, that snails’ eyes are supposed to be on stalks coming out of their heads not on their faces, and that, come to think of it, snails don’t have faces. The checkers are obviously being deliberately obtuse or else they have been hired expressly because they are nothing like any of the people who produce the magazine or read it. I’m sure they know just how comical their comments are. Hmm; maybe not.

Angell’s article is so routine a guided tour of bygone cartoons that it seems to have no substance other than pure nostalgia. He mentions a couple dozen cartoons but only seven of them are pictured. And he misses the opportunity to make a thematic statement by burying the most important thing he says in the middle of the article rather than steering toward it as a destination. After summarizing several WWII New Yorker cartoons, he writes: "Everything has changed at home, but everything is still the same. That became the sustaining great joke about the war in the magazine, even though it wasn’t true, and it worked every week." Still does. Or, if it doesn’t, it should, and we can take heart today from it.

On page 71 of this issue of The New Yorker is an advertisement for Chip Kidd’s new book, Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz. The ad quotes a letter that artist Andrew Wyeth wrote to Schulz in December 1999 after the cartoonist had announced his retirement due to illness. "I have been thinking of you," Wyeth says, "and your very remarkable quality of expressing in simple, direct statements the American way of life. It has brought pleasure to so many of us. Bless you always."

Kidd is clearly a devotee of Peanuts and Schulz and his book is a labor of love for both, but love is not enough. The book is something of a disappointment, even an insult, unwitting though it may be. Touted as containing numerous drawings from sketchbooks and "many more never-before-seen materials" culled by Kidd and his photographer, Geoff Spear, during "unlimited access"granted them by the Schulz family to the Peanuts archives and family collections, the book suffers from Kidd’s penchant for turning book design into an aesthetic power statement. Sometimes he treats its 336 7x8.5" pages as pages in a scrapbook; and sometimes, he blows up fragments of Sunday strips or comic book covers and runs them off on all four edges of the page which leaves us with partial images of no particular significance in themselves.

In short, at first blush, this book seems just another take on the "stretching the form" exercise Kidd performed in Jack Cole and Plastic Man, where, at least, the violence he did to book design seemed appropriate to the subject, mimicking the sort of elasticity that Cole’s creativity and his creation seemed to embody. And again in the Peanuts book, Kidd presents us with no pages in which the text appears unself-consciously as plain black type on plain white paper. Every block of text is reversed white out of solid black, or, if black, lays on colored paper. The typography shrieks chaos. And while that echoes perfectly the rest of the scrapbooky layout, the experience of reading the book is likely to produce a headache rather than to yield comprehension. Books are usually designed to make it easier for us to read them, not to dazzle us into confused submission.

But then, I’m from another age: I grew up on radio which presented its auditors with visual blanks that our imaginations filled up. Kidd gives us no open spaces at all, and I miss them. Not only are they inherently soothing, but they permit a sense of organization to get a foothold.

But even without a foothold, I still found much of inestimable value in the book. Jean Schulz, Sparky’s widow, supplies an Introduction that is a rare and loving glimpse into the cartoonist’s mind and methods. She reveals, as many of Sparky’s colleagues knew, just how insecure he was about his humor. "Sparky frequently wasn’t sure if something he’d drawn was funny," she writes. But "he had to draw what he thought was funny and hope that his audience liked it too. He was always glad to know people liked his characters or a particular storyline, but he knew he couldn’t write to that audience; he always wrote for himself."

Schulz’s drawings made while in the Army are likewise insightful—as is the sketchbook version of Schulz’s little book, I Need All the Friends I Can Get from 1964. Many of the ideas represented in the sketchbook never made it into the final version, and in comparing the two, we get inside Schulz’s head to a degree denied us heretofore.

The section reprinting scrapbook pages of Li’l Folks clippings gives us a healthy dose of the precursor to Peanuts. And all 17 of Schulz’s appearances in the Saturday Evening Post from 1948 to 1950 are listed by issue date and page number. Also reproduced here is one of the few strips in which adults appeared, from a golf tournament sequence in the spring of 1954.

The emphasis of the book is on the first years of Peanuts: we’ve reached only 1960 by the time we’re halfway through the volume. But that’s okay: we see too little of this period anywhere else.

For the most part, Kidd confines his remarks to annotating the pictures with historical background or to quoting Schulz himself from various previously published sources. But when he says Schulz’s treatment of Lucy and her psychiatric booth shows an "uncanny insight" into the "thought processes and methods" of psychiatrists, I think he’s too far forward on the skis. Nothing on display in Lucy’s sidewalk psychiatry stand reveals anything more profound about psychiatrists than can be discovered by watching re-runs of the Bob Newhart Show or any other tv show, for that matter. In short, Lucy’s psychiatry embodies common knowledge in our culture. Schulz’s deployment of the device is cultural criticism, not psychiatric: Lucy is out for a buck (that is, her standard 5 cents per consultation), a trait more revealing about her commerce-oriented society than about her supposed "profession."

All of the images in the book are reproduced from photographs—even the black-and-white daily comic strips. Many of these were shot from pages of Chris Ware’s scrapbooks and appear here showing the discolored scotch tape affixing them to the black pages. Similarly, reproductions of original art, of which there are several, display pasted-on logos and other blemishes that are normally removed during the publication processes. But such visual irregularities present us with original art as it really is for newspaper comics, and so the treatment is welcome here.

Blow-ups of Sunday strips clipped from the funnies, however—with giant red dots making yellow faces "flesh colored," sometimes grossly out-of-register—are loud and garish, neither of which describes either Schulz personally or his work, which was a model of subtlety and understatement. And this is the most severe failing of the book: Kidd’s design simply does not reflect in any way anything about the subject of the book. In truth, it does exactly the opposite, ostentatiously. It is therefore entirely out-of-place here.

The scrapbook pages of daily strips are sometimes reproduced very small, almost as small as today’s newspapers print the "classic" Peanuts. While we must squint to make out the words sometimes, this manner of presenting the strips displays one of the reasons syndicate editors insisted that Schulz do the strips in four equal-sized panels: the scrapbook dailies are almost all vertical stacks of the four panels, which could also be arranged in two blocks of two panels each, one atop the other, creating a perfect square. The scrapbook dodge also reveals the crudeness of newspaper printing: pieces of the drawings—fingers, feet, eyeballs—are sometimes wholly missing.

With the author of this book having been given "unlimited access" to Schulz material, you might expect a more definitive achievement under the title "The Art of Charles Schulz." But that book, if it is ever to be produced, is still in the wings; this one isn’t it.

Still, despite the excesses of Kidd’s treatment, the book is a treasure of information, and for any Peanuts fan (and who among us isn’t?) or student of cartooning, even its somewhat extravagant price of $29.95 is not too much to pay.

You can’t pay too much for a cat, either, at least if you rely upon the testimony of the cat. Not that you could ever get a cat to testify to anything, they being so self-sufficient as to scorn intercourse with humans. Assuming any of them would ever deign to recognize the human species.

If you think that the cartoon history of the cat began with A.B. Frost’s fabled "The Fatal Mistake: A Tale of a Cat" in Frost’s 1888 book, Stuff and Nonsense, you’re wrong. And Malcolm Whyte and his minions prove it in Great Comic Cats, an up-dated and revised and re-issued version of the 1981 book of the same title.

Being a cat owner (or, more truthfully, being possessed by a cat), I am as baffled by the beastie as any of the rest of you who are trapped in the same predicament, and I therefore resort as often as possible to the latest literature on felinity that might help me through the next day or the next hairball episode, whichever comes first. So I seized upon this newly minted tome eagerly. It is a nifty volume and I value it even though the new edition leaves me as helpless at dealing with my cat as I had been before, which is after reading the first edition. No, this book will not help us understand cats. But it does help us appreciate them.

The 2001 edition is longer than its predecessor by 11 pages, and while the page size is smaller in the newer (8x10" vs. 9x12"), the content of the pages, where comparable, is virtually the same, so there has been no substantial loss of material. And most of what is lost occurred in the opening chapters of the first book: in the first book, Frost’s comic strip about the cat who mistakenly ate rat poison begins on page 42; in the 2001 edition, the action begins on page 36. What’s missing is a second Egyptian rendering of cats, some Japanese cats, a full-page Durer picture of Adam and Eve adorned only by fig leaves (one apiece) in which a cat and several other species are said to symbolize various aspects of human nature (the cat represents drowsiness, judging from its appearance here), an excessive number of pages from an early 19th century children’s storybook in which a cat cavorts with Dame Trot and a dog named Toby, and a more than sufficient number of representations of J.J. Grandville’s French cats from the mid-1800s. In short, very little is lost at all. And that little is more than compensated for by the addition of pictures and prose about comic cats who have arrived on the scene since 1981.

Since then, we’ve had such legendary cats as Kliban’s, Phil Frank’s, Bill (from Bloom County), Hobbes (Calvin’s buddy), and Mooch from Mutts. Whyte’s added sections for all of these and increased the coverage of Edward Gorey’s cats as well as adding a color Sunday page from Gus Arriola’s Gordo. (You can find out more about Gordo and Arriola’s artistry, including his treatment of his justly celebrated Poosy Gato, by reading my book, about which, you can discover more by clicking here.) Gordo, incidentally, has survived a 60th anniversary at the end of October, an anniversary that will be celebrated the week of November 19 by the plump Mexican tour guide’s guest appearance in the comic strip Baldo by Hector Cantu and Carlos Castellanos. Baldo is, like Gordo, a Latino lover, but Baldo is a teenager and lives in a Hispanic community in this country while Gordo lived in Mexico. Cantu and Castellanos are fans of Arriola’s strip and wanted to pay tribute to the only long-running (44 years) American comic strip with a Hispanic milieu even though Gordo is no longer running in any newspaper anywhere. (But some of the best episodes are reprinted in my book, hint hint.)

But back to cats. The smaller page size of the new edition means shrinking the artwork, but the new book’s design, by Lynn Bell, is an improvement—airier, more playful. (Moreover, it aids and abets reading and enjoying the book, apparently bucking the trendy trend in book design.) The old book was published on slick paper; the new one, on something that smacks of matt finish, glossy without shining. The old book is falling to pieces: it was glued in the early days of gluing quality paperbacks, and the experiment didn’t work out that well. The new book is much sturdier, sewn not just glued.

The text that accompanies the pictures has been somewhat revised where it revisits the content of the first edition, and Bill Blackbeard, who had a hand in the first production, is no longer an active contributor but Whyte affectionately dedicates the book to him.

When I asked Whyte to describe the difference between the two editions, he said, "The difference is two decades of the world whirling by." Commenting that this edition was printed in Korea, he noted "the globalness of art and business" that is thereby signaled. "Editorially," he continued, "I think Great Comic Cats shows that cartoon art continues to record the spirit and mood of the times. It’s almost prescient of Mutts to lead the new century toward a need for a more gentle kind of humor in an ever-shrinking world where mortal danger lurks so close to everyone, everywhere."

Patrick McDonnell provides the 2001 edition with its Foreword, saying: "Cats are the perfect muses for cartoonists; they inspire us. We like to see them as kindred sprits: they are independent, creative, and resourceful. They have style. They’re in touch with their primal instincts. They masquerade at being domesticated. They’re not responsible, and they don’t follow orders. They like to play. They’re cool. They’re psychic. They meditate. It’s hard to get their attention. They have big egos and want to be adored. They enjoy their solitude; some never leave the house. They take long naps. This book wonderfully shows us the happy results of that inspiration on artists down through the ages."

In this, as in so many other things, Patrick has it right.

The 168-page paperback with European-style jacket flaps is $24.95. A limited hardcover edition is available for $45 (plus $5 p&h) only from Word Play Publications, 1 Sutter Street, Suite 205, San Francisco, CA 94104.

As it happens, I mistakenly acquired two copies of the older, vintage, version of this book; and if you’d like to complete your collection of Great Comic Cats, I’ll sell you the one with the pages still intact for $12, including p&h; just e-mail me for additional details.

SHORT SUBJECTS. In contrast to Kidd’s lugubrious opus is Scott Campbell’s spritely Danger Girl Sketchbook, designed by Comicraft’s John Roshell. Roshell’s is a somewhat wacky layout, too, but virtually every one of its 64 6x10" pages has focus and clarity, perhaps because the pictures are frequently organized around a single image—namely, a perfectly toothsome rendering of one of Campbell’s perky pretties. Here are reproductions of pencil drawings, inked art, a storyboard for a video game, concept drawings for figurines, and, astonishingly, flip-book images at the corners of the pages so you can set Campbell’s girls in motion. Model sheets and pencil drawings are annotated, highlighting key visual aspects of the characters: Abbey upper lip is "slimmer," nose "turns up," eyes "tip up" at the outer corners, boobs have a "slight droop" and (amazing!) are smaller rather than larger; Sidney’s boobs, on the other hand, have a "pushed up look." This book has more "how to" information per cubic inch than any of a dozen other instructional books I’ve seen, and every drawing here exudes the patented cutesy sex appeal of the Campbell femme. And Campbell’s sense of humor lurks throughout: among some sketches for video game load screen art is one depicting Abbey in a tight nipple-enhancing nightie holding a handgun as she presses up against the wall with the title "Abbey Chase in Dangerous Discovery." But an accompanying preliminary sketch gives the title as "Abbey Chase in Cold, Hard Nipples." A book that’s a delight from cover to cover, instructive as well as fun to look at. Perfectly exquisite pictures and a bargain at $6.95. The only downer: makes me lust for more of the memorable action of the Danger Girl comic book. Alas, what happened there? Too much success?

And while we’re on the subject of drawing the curvaceous gender, here’s No. 1 of Mike Manley’s Draw! which includes several delicious pages of pert ladies from Bret Blevins, another master. His women are not as tightly constructed as Campbell’s: Blevins’ girls are lithe and limber, lean and sexy. Elsewhere through the magazine there are many instances of rough drawings compared to their final versions, always highly instructive, plus interviews with Jerry Ordway and Ricardo Villagran on their working methods. A nuts-and-bolts mag and nicely done at $5.95 an issue.

Another in this line is Sketch ($5.95), a magazine of "comic book art tips and techniques" from Blue Line Productions, which also offers interviews with and articles by artists (No. 4 features Michael Turner but not much of his work and none of it in preliminary stages), but less nuts-and-bolts illustration. Instead, we get more technical guidance on such things as digital coloring, for instance, and lists of useful equipment and materials.

Back to the comic book rack, where we find the first issue of Bloodstone from Marvel. This is another Tomb Raider clone, and while young Elsa Bloodstone reveals a wise-ass wit, she and the rest of the book are rendered in a much too wooden manner by penciler Michael Lopez and inker Scott Hanna. The coloring by Color Dojo is too dark, flesh tones too tan, and shadows too deep, and the backgrounds throughout (where they occur) are drawn with a ruler, which only adds to the sensation of rigidity. But often there is no background at all except for solid color. Eighteen-year-old Elsa is built like a ceramic defecatorium but her pregnant mother is flat-chested. Sorry: doesn’t work for me.

And if you want to know the basis for some of my judgements of comic book artistry, you can’t do better than consult a book of mine, The Art of the Comic Book, which you can read more about by clicking here. Stay ‘tooned.

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