Opus 75:

Opus 75: E&P Awards and Other Fresh News plus Reviews (December 5). Lynn Johnston of For Better or For Worse and editorial cartoonist Clay Bennett of the Christian Science Monitor were named top cartoonists in the Features of the Year exercise recently performed by the venerable journalism trade magazine, Editor & Publisher. "Features" are part of the ammunition newspapers load, targeting the attention of readers with the hope of increasing circulation, and readership popularity was a factor in selecting the winners in E&P's first Features of the Year competition. With that as criteria, no one could be surprised at Johnston's first place finish in the comic strip category: "For Better or For Worse wins more newspaper reader polls than any other strip," said David Astor, editor of E&P's Syndicate News section.

But popularity was scarcely the only criterion employed by the editors of E&P in making their selection. Although Bennett's work appears in a national newspaper and is syndicated by United Media to about 100 other papers across the country, his name is hardly the household word that Johnston's has become with her strip distributed (again by United Media) to about 2,000 newspapers. In selecting Bennett, E&P clearly intended to recognize excellence in craftsmanship.

Johnston is no slouch in the craftsmanship department either. Indeed, the popularity of her strip arises chiefly from the quality of her storytelling in both narrative and graphic terms. Her stories typically deal with the sort of ordinary events that enliven or inflict the daily lives of her readers as well as her characters. Last year, for instance, featured a wedding and a twilight years romance, both aspects of everyone's lives. Elly Patterson, the mother in Johnston's fictional family, saw her son get married and her widowed father start dating a woman of his vintage.

In previous years, Johnston achieved notice when she dealt with somewhat controversial subjects such as homosexuality and the deaths of a family pet and of a grandparent. A current crisis in the strip explores another too-frequent element of life: daughter Elizabeth goes to college and moves in with the young man she loves, but he, as it is turning out, is a philandering cad.

Johnston's visualization of these mundane but moving matters is in a cartoony mode rather than in the realistic manner of, say, Mary Worth or Rex Morgan. But her cartoony technique is not slapstick; it is, rather, a simple rendition of the physical appearance of things. Her characters are sometimes caricatural just as much cartooning, by its nature, must be. But the caricatures are achieved more for the sake of simplicity in depiction than for comedic effect. And she varnishes her austere line-work with a variety of gray tones, giving the final product a photographic patina.

Bennett, too, deploys gray tones—and color—for effect. He draws his cartoons in the old-fashioned way and then scans them into his computer and adds tints that ultimately give his work a three-dimensional appearance. Unique though that may be among today's cross-hatching and duo-shading editorial cartoonists, Bennett's most distinctive quality is in his dramatic deployment of imagery, often without words, to convey a statement of his opinion. Many of his colleagues are as much verbal in their commentary as they are visual, but Bennett leans heavily on visual metaphors. For a comment upon the anthrax scare, he drew a rural route mailbox the tubular shape of which morphed into the barrel of a revolver, a dramatic representation of the death threat of anthrax by mail. In another cartoon, workmen are building a fence around a house with the fence is labeled "Security" and the house "Privacy"; the workmen are building the fence with boards taken off the house. A stunning visualization of the civil rights dilemma. In the wake of the September 11 atrocity, Bennett drew the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center with the soaring parallelism of their ribs converted to the stripes on an American flag, a perfect representation of the attack as an assault on America.

The recognition of his stunning visual achievements must be gratifying to Bennett, who has been a finalist for the Pulitzer for three years running. And his career has been similarly frustrating. His tenure at the Monitor began in 1998 following a harrowing period of freelancing (and syndication) after being fired in 1994 by the St. Petersburg Times where he'd been on staff for 13 years.

The Times offered no comprehensible explanation for the abrupt and unexpected dismissal. It wasn't a cost-cutting move: the paper had been hiring regularly for the editorial staff. But the editorial page editor was relatively new and said, simply, that Bennett didn't meet his standards or serve the needs of his department. Most observers (which included such editorial cartooning luminaries as Tony Auth, Pat Oliphant, Mike Peters, Jim Borgman, Jules Feiffer, and Jeff MacNelly, all of whom wrote protest letters to the Times) assumed Bennett was fired because his progressive perspective was at odds with the growing conservatism of the paper's editorial page, a circumstance the paper sought to deny by claiming their editorial page encouraged diversity of opinion. Still, it looked to everyone who was watching like the classic situation of an editorial cartoonist getting fired for failing to conform to the paper’s editorial stance. Whatever the case, Bennett didn't flinch, and the E&P award certainly honors his commitment both to his artistry and to his principles.

Bennett has been honored frequently before, having won two National Headliner Awards and three Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards. Johnston, who has also been honored often (including the Cartoonist of the Year Reuben Award from the National Cartoonists Society), is starting to look forward to retiring from the strip, which debuted 22 years ago. Aiming for a thirty-year run, she expects to end FBOFW in six or seven years. In the meantime, she's increased her staff to relieve her of some of the workload. Diagnosed in 1995 with a neurological disorder called dystonia, she describes her condition as mild (helped by medication) but admits that she doesn't have the energy she once had.

Two other comic strips were in the final running at E&P: Darby Conley’s Get Fuzzy, a strip about a man and his house pets, an ill-tempered cat and an amiable dog, which has demonstrated spectacular popularity as its circulation doubled last year, and The Boondocks by Aaron McGruder, whose post-September 11 strips took such unconventional positions as questioning the legitimacy of Bush’s presidency, wondering why other nationalities hate Americans, and ridiculing cable news for treating the war like a mini-series with logos and dramatic music. Three other editorial cartoonists were in the finals: Steve Breen of the San Diego Union-Tribune, Ann Telnaes of Tribune Media Services (TMS), last year's Pulitzer Prize winner, and Signe Wilkinson of the Philadelphia Daily News. The Features of the Year also named two columnists: Leonard Pitts, Jr., of the Miami Herald, and Steve Dale who produces "My Pet World" for TMS.

This Just In. Dean Kamen finally went public with Ginger, the code word for what was widely being touted as an invention that would revolutionize life as we know it. Kamen, son of Jack Kamen, whose name we all recognize as one of the vintage EC comics stable, is already a multimillionaire due to his invention of various medical apparatuses, including IBOT, a sophisticated robot in the form of a six-wheeled wheelchair that can climb curbs and mount stairs. Ginger is related to IBOT, and that’s how it got its nickname: Kamen and his team dubbed IBOT "Fred Upstairs," and when they came up with another, smaller, robot, they called it Ginger after Fred Astaire’s dancing partner, Ginger Rogers. Ginger, whose real name is Segway, is best described as a scooter that reads the mind of its passenger and performs accordingly. Equipped with gyros and computer brains, Segway turns and goes forward and backward by assessing the intention of its passenger as telegraphed by subtle changes in body posture and attitude. Battery operated, it can go 7-15 mph for around 20 miles before needing a recharge. Kamen hopes Segway will change the world, chiefly by eliminating automobile traffic in downtown neighborhoods (to which people will come via auto, as before, but will park the car and navigate the locale on the robot scooter). A self-taught physicist and mechanical engineer who dropped out of college, Kamen lives in a 32,000 sq. ft. hexagonal house he designed with a fully lighted baseball diamond indoors. Sounds like something out of the sf imaginations of Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein to me.

LAST FLASH. Ted Rall, the editorial cartooning fraternity’s gadfly and all-around acerbic cartooner and columnist, set out for Afghanistan on November 15, hungering, we assume, for an eye-witness view of the hostilities. Like Geraldo Rivera. Unlike many of the network newsies, Rall said he’d enter the arena from the north, Tajikistan, so while many of his tv brethren stand on the roof of the hotel in downtown Islamabad with the hills of northern Pakistan in the background but at considerable remove from the battlefield action, Rall will be shuttling back and forth across actual Afghanistan soil to collect news for written reports for the Village Voice and audio reports for KFI Radio in Los Angeles. He also plans to file two weekly dispatches on his self-syndicated column. His cartoon, however, will, presumably, languish until he returns to a drawingboard-equipped residence.

Funnybook Reviews. Harley Quinn continues to be one of the best comic books on the stands—well drawn, well written, thanks to the Dodsons (Terry and Rachel, pencils and inks) and writer Karl Kesel. The occasional guest pencilers and inkers (who are good but not Dodson good) are betrayed by contrast to the Dodson manner. Terry’s action is acrobatic and his layouts maniacal, all of which beautifully supports the quipping humor Kesel supplies in the script. Other pencilers have produced thoroughly competent (even better than competent) work, but not as energetic as Terry’s. And the rendition of the curvaceous gender is, as I’ve said before, voluptuous without insulting realism; no basketball bosoms here. Rachel’s lines are clean, uncluttered, no unnecessary feathering or noodling. In the last issue, however—No. 14—they’ve started doing something with noses that is not just a little strange. They rely upon colorist Alex Sinclair to give definition to noses in the three-quarters view, indicating only a portion of a nostril with line. The result is an odd-looking nose made up mostly of one nostril. Maybe after seeing the results, they’ll reform. Ahhh—and in No. 12, there’s an exquisite moment in which the drawing style shifts to the animated manner, seemingly to deny the ugly reality of death. Nifty. I confess, however, to being sometimes baffled by certain events in the stories of this series—probably because of the numerous characters and my inability to keep current on the DC Universe (who is Robin nowadays anyhow?)

Just finished another in the Lucky Luke opus in translation from Glo’worm in England, The Dashing White Cowboy, in which Luke comes to grips with a traveling theatrical troupe, one of whom loots the local bank in the midst of the stage productions. Dunno why this series doesn’t get the attention that, say, Asterix does. Rene Goscinny’s parody of the Western is nearly effortless, and the drawings of Morris (Maurice de Bevere, who created the feature) are expert. He’s great on horses, for instance, and it’s not easy to do a cartoony horse and rider and make them look like they belong together, one astride the other. But Morris does it. Luke, who wears a cigarette dangling out of his mouth perpetually (replaced in the animated series from Hanna Barbera by a straw), is a likeable galoot; and his steed, Jolly Jumper (probably the smarter of the two) is a perfect cartoon nag.

Cool Cat Studio No. 1 reprints some of Gisele Lagace’s online strip from www.keenspot.com, a website fecund with comic strips, some changing daily. My favorite is Sinfest by Tatsuya Ishida, but Lagace’s graceful artwork compares even if the humor, which is somewhat tame by comparison, does not. Some new material in the form of multi-page strips is offered, but the comedy is mostly visual—big heads, very cute, little bodies. ... Angel and the Ape No. 4 is out, and the best thing about all the issues so far is the artwork. Arthur Adams does the covers in a copiously linear manner and the interior is done in a completely different style, more cartoony (big heads, heavy outlines) by Philip Bond. Cartoony and cute. The story by Howard Chaykin and David Tischman no longer holds up: it’s too involved for serial publication, seems to me. Or maybe it’s just that the writers deviate too readily from the plot whenever a sexual innuendo occurs to them, and their pursuit of the nastiest meanings leaves the story in tatters behind them. ... More cute art is turned in by penciler Carlo Barberi and inker Juan Vlasco on Impulse, which is up to No. 80 now. All in the Japanese style, looks like to me—mannered and contrived and cute. But the story leaves me baffled.

So does Alan Moore in Tom Strong’s Terrific Tales No. 1. I’m sure sf fans love this stuff, but it’s getting a little wordy for comics, seems to me. ... More cute animation-style (this time, Chuck Jones) in The Furries by Shawn Keller; very little panel-to-panel continuity here, it’s mostly character model sheet material and a few ensemble tableaux with typeset descriptions and narratives. Cute but not comics yet. ...The best of the week is Catwoman No. 1, with a stunning cover and well-paced and posed storytelling inside by Darwyn Cooke and Mike Allred. Cooke is a fugitive from the Batman animation set, and his style displays much of that simplified aura, but he complicates it slightly. His rendering of Selina Kyle displays a different way of doing the cartoon "pretty girl" face than we have seen in others of this mode—cute but with more individualistic personality. Matt Hollingsworth’s muted colors add atmosphere and definition expertly, and Ed Brubaker’s story is promising. All in all, a provocative and promising re-incarnation of Catwoman. Oh, and I’m amused at the discretely placed speech balloon on page three, first panel, strategically positioned to obliterate any cleavage. Well done throughout and not a prurient picture in the lot.

For the place of all these engaging comic books in the history of the medium, consult my book, The Art of the Comic Book, about which, you can read more by clicking here.

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