Opus 77:

Opus 77: Happy Year’s End (January 2, 2002). We look back as well as forward on New Year’s Day. Everyone has a list of the "ten best" and the "ten worst" of the year. But not me. I haven’t time to stand far enough back from the year’s cartooning events to assess the damage. Or the refinements. Besides the end of the year—the last month of it alone—brought a wealth of material worth rejoicing over. So why forage among the preceding eleven months?

And first among December’s crop is Brian M. Kane’s Hal Foster: Prince of Illustrators, Father of the Adventure Strip. While I may quibble with him about the "father of the adventure strip" designation (and I do in a forthcoming issue of Comic Book Marketplace, No. 89, which is devoted to Foster), the book itself is an unqualified delight. Available in paperback (with stylish dust-jacket flaps) and hardback (200 8x11-inch pages, $19.95 and $29.95 respectively), this tome is the handsomest so far of the books about comics artists lately frothing forth from Vanguard Productions. Its emphasis is on illustration, and Kane, with access to the Foster family files, has assembled an impressive collection. Only a few panels from Prince Valiant and Tarzan find their way into the book (for more of each, you need to acquire reprint volumes of the first from Fantagraphics, www.fantagraphics.com, and of the latter from NBM, www.nbmpublishing.com, where you will be referred to auction sites currently offering the only volumes available), so the lavishly illustrated pages present photographs of Foster at various stages of his life and career and an extensive assortment of such unpublished art as his Christmas cards and special illustrations for the program booklet of the Reubens Awards Dinner of the National Cartoonists Society—plus, in a glorious 16-page color section, paintings and full-color covers Foster did while still working as a commercial artist before taking up a commission in 1929 to illustrate Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, and, elsewhere, numerous cartoon sketches he made while portaging through Canada with his bride on their honeymoon.

The text, which traces Foster’s life from his Canadian origins to his Florida retirement, is somewhat off-balance: Kane devotes many paragraphs to Foster’s ancestry and early life in Canada, and if he’d given similar treatment to the artist’s career after getting Prince Valiant going in 1937, the book, doubtless, would be another 200 pages longer. But what text we have is luxurient with little known facts about Foster: his occasional employment in the twenties as a guide on horseback and in canoe (and any fan of Prince Valiant will recognize Foster’s love of the out-of-doors), Foster’s selection for Valiant of a period in history that’s 500 years after the supposed time of the real King Arthur (and why Foster picked this period), Burroughs’ attempts to get the syndicate to pay Foster more (he was getting $125 a page at the peak on Tarzan; original art from this period is now sold for thousands), Foster’s working methods and advice to aspiring artists, why he picked John Cullen Murphy over Wally Wood and Gray Murrow to continue Prince Val (Murrow would do the Tarzan Sunday page for 18 years, a record), and Foster’s sad last illness, when, due to surgery on his hip, he lost all memory of his 70-year career as an artist.

The book also includes a variety of tributes from other cartoonists and artists—Neal Adams, Barry Windsor-Smith, Mark Schultz, Joe Kubert, Carmine Infantino, and others—with an introduction by James Bama and a preface by Bob Lubbers. The insightful Gil Kane is also quoted at some length: "One of the great things about his work is that in the area of romance he brought restraint, which is almost impossible.... [Romance] is so elaborate and so full of souped-up accentuated quality that you never find elements of restraint, of harmony, of considered line, a considered design, or of naturalism ... [which] is one thing you hardly ever find with romance, and yet Foster’s work has the quality of naturalism within the framework of romanticism that gives it enormous range and appeal."

Every great master of the medium should get a book like this one. Kane is to be congratulated for his dedication and perseverance in his self-assigned task. And we all should own the book. (I was so excited by its prospect that I mistakenly ordered two, one in hardback and one in paperback; the latter I’d be happy to sell for a mere $10 including postage to the first who ask for it; you can e-mail me at RCHarvey@worldnet.att.net.) Good as Kane’s book is on Foster, for more on Foster’s role in the history of the medium, you should, really, consult a book of mine, The Art of the Funnies, which is previewed elsewhere on this site; click here to be transported thereto. And now, without further ado, onward.

Steve Thompson’s Fort Mudge Most, the fan magazine of the Pogo Fan Club, arrived just before Santa with No. 75, which includes an appropriate yuletide sampling from Christmas with Mother Goose (Dell, 4-color 253; 1949) of cover art and an interior tale, reprints of the Pogo strip January 3 - February 14, 1960, and—a huge surprise—a hitherto unpublished 14-page essay by Walt Kelly on the history and state of the art of the comics as of about 1971 (or shortly thereafter). The argumentative thread that runs through the piece is that when newspaper comic strips became syndicated, cartoonists became less satirical and more inoffensive in their humor as they bought into the syndicate argument that their work, in order to appeal to the largest number of newspaper editors, should be as innocuous as possible while still attempting the occasional joke. That circumstance, however, began to change with Li’l Abner and Pogo and, even, Barnaby and Peanuts, and Jules Feiffer and Mad. And gradually, syndicates have, Kelly asserts, lost "control" over their cartoonists. And strips have become more satirical, more political. Even comic books have become more socially vociferous.

"In recent years," Kelly writes, "perhaps because of the seminal influence of Mad, some of the comic books have, in a bumbling fashion, turned to ‘good works’ as a means of fostering excitement." Kelly has his eye on the so-called relevant comics of the early 1970s—in which "superheroes have been fighting for ecology" and other social issues. But the attempts here, watered down by the committee-method of creation, Kelly finds less than energetic: "None of these comic books demonstrate the vibrance or vitality of the angry efforts of an individual cartoonist." Underground comix, on the other hand, are quite another fare: "Pornography aside, the undergrounds are the real thing of protest. Angry, strident, bold, cruel, sadistic, masochistic, vengeful, and sophomoric, but also real, unrelenting, and rebellious."

The precise date of this essay is unknown: the essay came to Thompson by way of cartoonist Jim Engel, who sent in newsprint proof sheets of what was apparently intended as an encyclopedia article for some sort of yearbook; but the article was never published, according to the best information Thompson (and others on the Net) have uncovered. Why? One speculation is that since Kelly extolls the virtues of underground comix (specifically, those of Robert Crumb and Foolbert Sturgeon), his article was seen as an affront to the Middle Americans, who were presumed to be the most avid buyers of the encyclopedia. And so the editors put the thing aside. Permanently. Until now.

An always surprising thing to me is how much most scholarship in comics, particularly newspaper comics, covers virtually the same ground as Coulton Waugh did in his watershed history, The Comics (Macmillan, 1947; reprinted in paperback in 1991 by University Press of Mississippi, www.upress.state.ms.us). Kelly, too, genuflects to the same idols of the early years in the medium. Undoubtedly, Kelly relied upon Waugh for much of his history, but even those historians who’ve come along in the last decade or so—historians who have delved deep into the early manifestations of the artform—have discovered few milestones to add to or alter those Waugh erected.

The Fort Mudge Most, incidentally, includes much fugitive and hard-to-find Kelly art in every bi-monthly issue as well as a steady schedule reprinting the newspaper strip. Subscriptions are $25/year, six issues, from Spring Hollow Books, 6908 Wentworth Avenue South, Richfield, MN 55423.

The comic book industry recently produced several tributes to the heroes of September 11. Among them are two from Marvel—Heroes and Amazing Spider-Man No. 36. Both are, it seems to me, worthy efforts. Both suffer somewhat from a maudlin reverence for the heroism of ordinary people and the horror of the tragedy itself. But it would be impossible to produce works that were otherwise. We are too close to the vile event. We still wince at the thought of it. Tears still well up. And any publication that focuses on this horrendous infamy must, by virtue of its content, be somewhat maudlin. Still, comic book artists and writers—like all Americans—felt they must do something, and producing comic books is what they do. We cannot fault them for that. Besides, both of these efforts are largely successful. Heroes, a simple gallery of heartfelt pictures and paintings; No. 36, a tale with a drumbeat of resolve as well as respect. Sentimental, yes; but nicely done. Commendable. Many of the images in Heroes will be on display at the New York City Fire Museum, 278 Spring Street, January 22 - February 7, 2002, an exhibition entitled "Heroes Among Us" sponsored by the New York City Comic Book Museum.

Proceeds from the sale of Heroes will go to the Twin Towers Fund, we are told. And a lot of that has been going around. Again, commendable. But I sometimes wonder if this horse hasn’t been ridden enough lately. I confess that I don’t get out much, not even for what normal folks would regard as the "usual" extensive Christmas shopping. So I’ve missed a lot of the marketing madness in the post-September-Eleventh era. And yesterday, wandering haphazardly through the end-of-the-year sales at a local department store, I chanced upon a rack of neckties all bearing stars and stripes of one configuration or another. These were "on sale"—$19.95 instead of $29.95, the regular price. Under the price announcement on the placard were the words: "A portion of the proceeds will go to a variety of charities for relief of the survivors of the September 11 attack." Or words to that effect. "A portion" of the proceeds. Made me wonder how much. A buck? Two bits? Made me wonder about the potential for abuse in these marketing ploys. Made me wonder whether any entrepreneur should be permitted, in the wake of a national disaster, to sell flags or flag-derived imagery for anything more than break-even prices.

Over at DC, Brian Azzarello surrendered, last fall, to the temptation to provide an explanation for the happenings in 100 Bullets. Where does Agent Graves come from? What is his mission or motive? In a laborious limited series of the book’s issues, we are supposed to discover answers to such questions. I confess, though, that I couldn’t sort it out. Just too convoluted. Something about rivalries in the Mob, I think. But my point is that it doesn’t matter. The tales being rehearsed in 100 Bullets are engaging, even gripping, without our knowing the history of Graves and his vengeful machinations. Humans, being human, must have explanations for everything; that’s a given. But storytellers are not necessarily compelled to assuage this desire. And sometimes, stories are better for the aura of mysteriousness that clings to them. The Lone Ranger of the antique radio program came out of nowhere, night after night after night. Without knowing his origins (which were eventually revealed in a novel), we were captive, held in suspense by his dedication and his deeds and the danger that lurked. Fortunately, since I didn’t understand the "history" of Graves and company, I’m still enthralled by the tales and by the ingenuity of Eduardo Risso’s art, page layouts and panel compositions.

And if you want more of Risso, you can find it in one of a new series of paperback graphic albums imported to this country by Dark Horse. Apparently a joint publishing enterprise called Venture by Dark Horse and Strip Art Features, the first couple books include a book-length tale written by Carlos Trillo and illustrated in black-and-white by Risso. Risso’s page design is less antic here, but his compelling deployment of shadowy solid black is another tour de force in Video Noire, a sometimes supernatural romp with the star of a kid’s tv show who exerts a murderous influence on her young viewers. The action follows private detective Benedict as he tries to solve the hideous murder of his partner Gelin, who, as we learn much before Benedict, was bitten to death by a small mob of juveniles under the influence of Miss Dready, the tv personality I mentioned. And there’s more weird stuff throughout, which, if I were to detail at all, would probably ruin it for you. Suffice, at the moment, to say that Risso’s work alone, regardless of the story it illuminates, is worth the purchase price of $9.95.

Another in this series is about a chubby but dignified-looking (in the manner, say, of Nero Wolfe) private investigator named Otto Porfiri, who makes his debute in Drama on the Cliff by Franco Saudelli. Porfiri is perpetually attired in a trenchcoat (unbuttoned), with a scarf around his neck and an Alpin-sort of hat on his bullet-head; he also wears a bow-tie and a sweater with very large checks on it. The book includes four short stories, one of which (the earliest Saudelli effort, I’d say) gives the tome its title. Porfiri is not exactly a successful gumshoe. He’s dogged enough, persistent, and wholly game. He knows the right moves. But he is nearly thwarted in every adventure by an untoward event over which he had no control. Unlike James Bond, he is not, apparently, resourceful enough to surmount these last-minute obstacles. But this is not comedy; Porfiri is not a figure of fun. He is merely somewhat hapless.

Take, for instance, "Nero von Wurtburg II," the third story in the book. It begins, seemingly, as a typical PI job—spying on the husband for the wife, who suspects her spouse of cheating on her. And that, of course, is what is happening, but along the way, pedigree dogs wander into the plot (Nero is one), and before long, Porfiri is investigating the disappearance of Nero more avidly than the peccadilloes of the errant hubby. Then a couple pairs of unsavory types show up, one set of which aims a car at Porfiri, who, frozen like a deer in the headlights, escapes at the last moment—but not without injury. He breaks his leg and spends the rest of the case in a cast from toe to knee.

Satisfying though these tales are, the real treat is in watching Saudelli’s drawings. Not only does he display mastery of the storytelling capacities of his medium. His pictures are also exquisitely executed—copiously detailed, cleanly rendered, stunningly set off with black accents. Porfiri himself, his chubby chinless face sometimes surprised by events but most often arranged in a businesslike scowl, is a delightful visual conception. And the women, who populate portions of each adventure, are lovingly limned, seems to me—and each of them, like the heroines of Apartment 3-G under Alex Kotsky’s pen, beautiful or pretty but distinctively different in appearance from the others of the curvaceous gender in the story. A delight, a feast for the eye.

Dark Horse brought out another series of European-origin black-and-white graphic novels a couple years ago, and those, too, were stunningly drawn. Let’s hope this series lasts long enough for several more appearances by Porfiri.

For some years now, the editorial cartooning fraternity has decried an annual anthology from Pelican Press called The Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year. Two objections routinely surface: first, that a cartoonist dutifully submits the five "candidate" cartoons that the editor requests only to discover, later—when the book is published—that none (or only one) of his cartoons has been selected; and, second, that the published selection, while not conservative in the right-wing sense is nonetheless more, er, decorous than some of the more outspoken of the cartoonists like. And the latter are usually the ones not very well represented in the book. In sum, many editooners believe the book is wildly mis-named. Daryl Cagle recently did something about it.

Cagle runs an online cartooning site, http://cagle.slate.msn.com, at which one may view the editorial cartooning efforts of virtually the entire practicing profession, day by day by day. At year’s end, Cagle summed up the year’s editorial cartooning: "During a year when dramatic events in the news increased the audience for editorial cartoons, cartoonists have responded with some of the worst work in the history of the profession. Editorial cartooning thrives as an art form when there is a diversity of views, a hearty public debate, and editors who are open to different ideas—this diversity was lost on 9/11. Nearly all Americans, cartoonists and editors alike, came to share the same perspective in support of America’s War on Terror. Local and national newspapers led with the same headlines as we all watched the same news each day. The cartoonists responded with one mind."

After cataloguing the most-used images (weeping Statues of Liberty, defiant Uncle Sams, etc.), Cagle continues: "To compete for an editor’s eye, cartoonists are squeezed into a horizontal box, pressured to be funny, to use few words, to have acceptable opinions, to have an acceptable drawing style and to draw a cartoon on the subject being discussed each day on CNN. After 9/11, the editors, cartoonists, and readers had the same opinions. It should be no surprise that most cartoons were similar and banal."

I’m tempted to add here that the "same opinion" everyone came to share was one deliberately fostered by media moguls, who, in an attempt at patriotism, encouraged their editors and reporters to produce work that supported the President and avoided any criticism of the Bush Leaguers. According to The Nation (January 4/7, 2002), "CNN chief Walter Isaacson distributed a memo effectively instructing the network’s domestic newscasts to be sugarcoated in order to maintain popular support for the President and his war." And every time you hear George II’s speeches referred to as "eloquent," you’re hearing a chorus of the same song.

But I prevaricate.

Cagle and his editors (a reclusive lot, one suspects) sought to set things right with their own "best editorial cartoons of the year," a selection of 75 cartoons by 48 different cartoonists who comment on a host of the year’s news events albeit with an emphasis on the Attack of 9/11 and its various aftermaths. Among the other topics are the China Olympics, the Economy, and the Spy Plane incident of last winter. For the most part, the cartoons selected are ingenious displays of the use of visual metaphor. And it is here that editorial cartooning’s strength lies: in creating an opinionated visual metaphor about an issue, editorial cartoonists plant an image in their readers’ mental apparatus, an image that may rise again, later, to influence the readers’ thoughts and, even, actions.

Only 17 of the 48 cartoonists represented have more than one cartoon in the collection. Cagle has the most—7. Cagle is good, no question, but his metaphors aren’t as compelling as Clay Bennett’s. Bennett, Editor & Publisher’s recent choice as editorial cartoonist of the year, is represented with four cartoons, each one a telling image. One, for instance, shows dozens of Muslims praying—all on their knees, facing the same direction as usual, except for one votary, who faces the opposite direction; he’s labeled "Terrorist." It’s as good an image as we’re likely to find to convey the notion that bin Laden and the Taliban are not like most Muslims.

Take a look. And metaphors be with you.

return to top of page

To find out about Harv's books, click here.

send e-mail to R.C. Harvey
Art of the Comic Book - Art of the Funnies - Accidental Ambassador Gordo - reviews - order form Harv's Hindsights - main page