Opus 79:

Opus 79: Still Having Fun Yet Plus Reviews (January 30). Zippy the Pinhead, co-star of Bill Griffith's Zippy, disappeared, briefly, from the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle at the first of the year. In the consolidation maneuver with the San Francisco Examiner, the Chronicle inherited all the other's syndicated content, and, seeking to reduce the combined roster of comics so all would fit into the paper's customary comics alcove, the paper conducted a readership poll by which it determined that seven strips were low enough on the popularity scale to risk dropping: Spider-Man, Curtis, Family Circus, Marmaduke, Piranha Club, Sylvia, and Zippy.

                Zippy was first published in the mainstream by the Examiner in 1985, and Griffith was understandably miffed that this sentimental home suddenly shut him out. He promptly mustered Zippy's fans by e-mail. Telling them that newspaper editors are "very responsive to reader reaction," he urged them to protest. "You can bring Zippy back," he said.

                Only about 4 percent of the Chronicle's readers participated in the poll, Griffith observed later. And because the older readers of newspapers are more likely to respond to surveys, the poll clearly overlooked Zippy's fans, who tend to be younger and hip. They are the sort who can understand Zippy's conviction that the America portrayed in advertising is not an artificial construct but actual reality, a conviction that opens the door to a host of nearly philosophical murmurings by Zippy and his more cynical cohort, Griffy (Griffith's alter ego in the strip), about the nature of life itself. For Zippy, life is a happy picnic of glazed donuts, Ding Dongs, and taco sauce at a vintage bowling alley in Hollywood. For Griffy, life is a struggle to discover meaning. Zippy's only concession to Griffy's perplexity is his perpetual query, "Are we having fun yet?"

                Zippy's fans mustered outside the Chronicle building on January 17 to protest Zippy's demise two weeks earlier. Several were dressed in Zippy's clown costume. Others handed out free Ding Dongs and taco sauce. The plan was to pelt the building with glazed donuts until management conceded defeat and restored Zippy to the funnies page.

                But the Chronicle frustrated the plan: deputy managing editor for arts and features, Mi-Ai Parrish, appeared at the front door and announced that Zippy would be reinstated.

                Zippy's supporters cheered and lofted donuts into the air. They had won. Then they fell silent.

                What would they do now? They had rallied. To what purpose now?

                Then one man, who clearly understood Zippy better than the rest, started a chant: "Cancel Zippy! Cancel Zippy!" And the crowd joined in.

REVIEWS. Howard the Duck is back, and so is Steve Gerber. In No. 1 of the rejuvenated comic book, Howard and his paramour Beverly Switzler are living in a shack on the grounds of Histy's junkyard, where Howard works as a security guard. Bev, meanwhile, is applying for a job at a dot.com that is manufacturing artificial boys for a boys' band called The Backdoor Boys (and, yes, there appears to be a reference to gaiety herein). All the staff of the place, where Bev is eventually hired as supervisor, are young women who look exactly alike (Bolle women, in other words) and have names like Heather, Tiffany, Jennifer, Britney, Kimberly, and so on. Turns out the dot.com is run by Dr. Bong, who, for those who don't remember this megalomaniac from Gerber's first epoch epic, has a bell for a head and a giant clapper for a left hand, which, occasionally, he raises to ring his bell-head. Bong's scheme is to take over the world by introducing young girls to his boys' band: "Our research has shown that a reliable percentage of girls, if exposed at an early age to simulated music infused with an aura of simulated sexuality, can be counted upon to embrace a simulated politics when they reach voting age-the kind of politics in which brand-building, image creation and message management consistently trump substance and truth." In short, the kind of politics we are already actively engaged in.

                Gerber, we are happy to note, is as peevish as ever. Some of his targets-hit in passing with a smattering of satirical scattershot-are from another decade (marketing, brand names, demographics) but, alas, they seem to have endured into this one. And he seems poised to lambast globalization pretty soon.

                In Phil Winslade, Howard has found an excellent visualizer, whose expert renderings he inks with a feathery line that softens every image nearly photographically. His figures seem elongated a bit much on occasion, and I wish he'd make Howard's head rounder, but Beverly is, as she should be, wonderful.

                You may recall that Howard attracted the attention of the Disney legal legions, and in response to their allegation that he looked too much like another duck, Howard was depicted thereafter wearing trousers. That nonsense continues herein. But we should be grateful that he's still smoking a cigar: I would expect in these days of political correctitude that he'd have given up smoking. The book ends on a cliff-hanger, as Gerber's first series often did. Howard falls into one of Dr. Bong's vats of protein (from which the artificial boys are grown) and the whole mess explodes. When Bev finds Howard, he has been changed-into a giant rat. Or is it-could it be?-a mouse. Mickey?  (And if you need a refresher in what Gerber accomplished with his nation-building first series of Howard the Duck books, I remind you that I have a goodly portion of a chapter devoted to just that in The Art of the Comic Book, which tome you can preview by clicking here.)

                I keep forgetting to mention how good a storyteller Stan Sakai is. Not only are the stories themselves engaging, but his command of the medium, his deployment of the resources of cartooning-timing for emphasis, changing camera angles for variety in visuals, spotting solid blacks and different textures, and so on-is always impressive. With Usagi Yojimbo No. 54, our rodent ronin befriends a young goat in "Lone Goat and Kid." And there's a two-page-wide panel depicting a battle on a bridge that reminds me of that celebrated battle scene in Prince Valiant.

                C. Scott Morse is not quite up to Sakai in storytelling skill, but in some respects, he's close. In Ancient Joe Nos. 1-3, he tells a story that may be absolute nonsense, with no narrative point or sense at all, but his storytelling skills are such that he keeps us turning pages, from one baffling nonsequitur to another, mustering mood with atmospheric pictures in sequence. Pictures in sequence coupled to speeches in balloons-that's comics storytelling even if the pictured images are fantastical to the point of unrecognizable. Morse seems, sometimes, to draw with a spatula: his lines are often bold, blunt, and heavily blackened. How can we become engaged with "personages" whose images are so strange that we cannot recognize fellow beings in them? The speech balloons engage us. The sequential pictures engage us. Engaged, we turn the pages, following the "story" even if it is wholly perplexing and, ultimately, seems to have no point. Except-except the dead girl is at last released from her pinion when her father digs her body out of her grave and removes the fork in her chest. And Ancient Joe, his face that grotesque mask Morse gives him, is left to ponder the whereabouts of his perhaps deceased wife.

                Will Eisner's latest graphic novel for DC Comics, The Name of the Game (168 7x10-inch pages in hardback, $29.95), is another of his visitations to the Jewish milieu that found an echo in his youth in the Bronx. Here we find the story of the wealthy and influential Arnheim family into which several other families intermarry mainly to climb the social ladder. Although the tale spans several generations, it focuses mostly upon Conrad Arnheim and his wives and offspring and the marriages the latter make. The picture that emerges is unblinkingly bleak: the marriages are loveless and often abusive, the family relationships are grasping, calculated and sometimes cruel, and all the children are spoiled and self-indulgent. I couldn't find a single character among the generations depicted that was at all likeable. These are mean or pitiful people.

                Eisner's work in this respect is in the American literary tradition of naturalistic fiction. Those who wrote in this tradition in the early part of the 20th century (Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, Edith Wharton) produced similarly grim pictures of the human condition in which all aspiration and achievement are doomed to disappointment. In The Name of the Game, the only thing that thrives is the Game itself; its human players all fail at being anything but perpetrators of the Game. Not one of them presents us with a caring and capable personality.

                The Game is the game of marriage for advantage. Its goals are social advancement and the accumulation of wealth and power. Its values are determined by the need to maintain appearances at all cost. The only even vaguely admirable people in this exercise are some of the women, who are at least strong personalities even if their strength is expended almost entirely on achieving and then sustaining the appearances upon which their social standing (and their only power) rests. Although Eisner presents this milieu as Jewish, it is emblematic of the American Dream itself-the go-getter philosophy of George Babbitt, who puts individual advancement ahead of everything in a materialistic frenzy of capitalist consumerism.

                The grinding inevitability of his story Eisner frames between the ironic bookends of a Foreword and a Coda that present the Game as a happy-ever-after fairy tale. This twist gives the story its moral patina. We realize at last that the fairy tale inspires people to play the Game. But as the intervening narrative reveals, the fairy tale is just that-a fairy tale, all cotton candy, while the reality is grim and unyielding to all who try to enact the fairy tale. And those who don't are represented by Conrad's brother Alex, a hopeless alcoholic who was perhaps driven to drink by his early perception that the Game is not worth playing.

                Eisner's pages brim with his usual brushline artwork, printed in sepia with tinted as well as textured shading. His layouts are the now-familiar jockeying of shapes and shadows to create pictorial vignettes rather than panels. And, as always, his masterful depiction of body language contributes to our understanding of the story and its people. Again in this book as in Minor Miracles, his previous opus, Eisner introduces passages of expository prose set in type rather than hand-lettered. Sometimes illustrative decorations are spotted throughout a page of type; sometimes the type is inserted between snatches of pictorial narrative.

                I'm not sure what to make of this device. It occasionally grates to encounter naked typography here and there. It breaks the rhythm, so to speak. But it permits Eisner to cover a certain kind of ground in less space than pictorial exposition requires-discussion of social trends, for instance, reviews of historical events, and the like. I know, too, that at one time, Eisner felt that the presence of speech balloons in graphic novels marked them as publications for juveniles. In Last Day in Vietnam, he experimented with speeches sans balloons, but the devices this endeavor required are not applicable to every kind of story. Perhaps a smattering of type-set text is another maneuver in the direction of making sequential art seem as mature as, here, it is.

                The Name of the Game proves, one more time, that Eisner is still master of the medium. I wish, though, that next time, he'd try a somewhat more upbeat story. He's always leaned in the naturalistic direction, I think. In his Spirit oeuvre, many of the stories are of defeated or destroyed aspirants. But the presence of the Spirit, the mere fact that the Spirit will prevail, lends a optimistic aura to the work. And I miss that in many of Eisner's graphic novels. I'm sure he doesn't intend to revive the Spirit; but I wish he'd revive the something of the spirit of those tales. (For an exhaustive examination of Eisner's place in the history of comic books and his development of the Spirit, you must submerge yourself in that book of mine that I tried to foist off on you earlier, The Art of the Comic Book; and if you didn't take my advice to get a preview of it when I first mentioned it, you can do so now by clicking here.)

PITHY PRONOUNCEMENTS. Greg Rucka is making a Batman believer of me again. In Detective No. 764, the psychological complexity of Bruce Wayne's maneuvering to shed himself of Jennifer Fairchild rings true (albeit perverse-perhaps true because perverse, as we all are), and then there's Margaret Sawyer, the new (and gay) major crimes unit shift commander who's facing a challenge, and Sasha Bordeaux, Bruce's bodyguard, who's about to discover her client means more to her than she'd supposed. The artwork pencilled by Shawn Martinbrough and inked by Jesse Delperdang seems a little stiff to me on occasion, but that's the new with-it trend, I reckon.... I picked up AC's first issue of Fighting Yank because it includes a FY story by Mort Meskin and Jerry Robinson, who number among the most artful of comic book artists in those days, but I encountered this pastiche of Kirby artistry by Eric Coile that is a royal hoot from beginning to end. A 22-page story includes a cast of thousands-Yankee Girl, Merl (Odin?), Kid Quick, Captain Flash, Squeeks (the monkey buddy of Crimebuster), and such villains as Red Square (a guy with a square head, uv cuss), Sputnik, and Panda. And Coile (billed as "Hard-boiled Hack Koilby") apes Kirby so well that when I first flipped through the pages, I thought AC had stumbled upon some long-lost King's ransom.... In Paradise TOO (here, No. 5), Terry Moore is going for comedy with a Tinkerbell character named Kixie, and the expedition must be counted a success. Light-hearted and joyous, thanks to Kixie's exuberance. And there's something irresistible about a book the title of which can be abbreviated PTOO. This issue includes a sampling of some daily strips Moore has done, some with Kixie in them, some without. Maybe Moore's gonna try for syndication, eh? Here's a single-panel strip entitled "Bill Gates in Love," which shows a bespectacled nerd at a computer, typing, "How do I love thee, Melinda? Let me count the ways in binary code-0, 1, 01, 011, 0011...." And then from Basement Comics we have Book One of Cavewoman pin-ups by Devon Massey, page after page of Cavewoman's massive chest in both its dimensions. The chief challenge to an artist in such an enterprise (speaking, here, from experience) is to find enough different ways of depicting an unencumbered bosom to fill a whole book. Massey manages this so far, and there's a Book Two in the offing. The next challenge for the artist is to avoid boredom after having exploited every physical pose known to man. Er, woman. I marvel at Massey's invention and endurance.

                Stay 'tooned.

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