Opus 80:

Opus 80: Fanny Valentine II, Wonder Woman, News, and Olymping (February 13). Little Annie Fanny's back. And her front, too. We applaud them all. And all three are vividly on display in Volume II of Dark Horse's monumental reprinting of the Playboy comic strip that was once, in its day, the most lavish example of the cartoonist's art on the planet. In recent years, other fully-painted comics have appeared so Little Annie Fanny is no longer the only one of the breed. But it is still the best, the most satirical, the most laboriously produced, the most beautifully painted, the most copiously conceived.

                Little Annie Fanny, for the young and restless among us, first burst over the horizon of popular culture in the October 1962 issue of Playboy. It was written and produced at irregular intervals for the next 26 years by Harvey Kurtzman and his life-long friend and collaborator, Will Elder (or "Wacky Willy" as we have come to know him). It was revived briefly a couple of years ago by Bill Schorr and Ray Lago but has since slipped unheralded into another limbo of indeterminate duration. While we may mourn this lapse, we rejoice in the encyclopedic reincarnation of the Kurtzman-Elder creation, all 107 installments of it, in Dark Horse's handsome two-volume paperback edition.

                Little Annie Fanny: Volume II: 1970-1988 (240 8.5x11" pages; $24.95) begins with the episode for May 1970 and ends with September 1988, 62 episodes in all-more here than in Volume I because the installments are shorter. In the early years, Annie often cavorted in zaftig splendor across 5 or 6 pages in Playboy, but the number of pages steadily declined due, doubtless, to the elaborate production process that was required. The fewer pages, the more frequently the feature could appear. The last 4-pager appeared in January 1973, after which, the strip took only 3 pages. The last two were only 2 pages long. For the history of Annie's conception and birth, you should consult the appended Denis Kitchen essay in Volume I, which is described, and somewhat supplemented, by my review of that tome, Opus 47 of R&R Wired (which you can spring to tout suite by clicking here).

                In the stories in Volume II, Annie's generous embonpoint is more often than in Volume I on display wholly unencumbered by any raiment whatsoever (or, just as frequently, by an article of clothing that is just barely clinging to her bountiful anatomy), and she, and her admirers, are often clutching, endearingly, at various of her portions. Her magnificent chest is more pendulously portrayed herein than in the early years when they seemed more like anatomical torpedoes than body parts. Here they seem, well, softer, mobile. Finally, it's clear in this volume that Annie is sexually active, an aspect of her association with assorted companions (her agent Solly, a caricature of Phil Silvers; Ralphie Towzer, nearly a reincarnation of Goodman Beaver; and Daddy Bigbucks, whose golden dome evokes Annie's inspiration, the original Little Orphan Annie, and her guardian, Daddy Warbucks). The extent of her sex life is somewhat in doubt in her earliest adventures. By the 1970s, the sexual mores of the nation had evolved in a Playboy direction sufficiently that no one would any longer be shocked by Annie's literal roll in the figurative hay. The country was ready. And so were Annie's readers. Moreover, not even the most avid of Annie's devotees could have supposed, by then, that her Candide-like innocence was synonymous with virginity. This wonderful seeming contradiction, as I observed before, underscores the Playboy theme: Annie's seemingly undebauched innocence signals, by a satiric quirk of masterful subtlety, that sexual activity is not at all corrupting. In Annie's case, it doesn't seem particularly fulfilling either. She never talks about it in any explicit detail. Mostly, in fact, her copulations seem almost incidental-minor distractions in a life otherwise dedicated to the pursuit of every fad and passing fancy that infect American culture.

                The satiric import of Little Annie Fanny would be largely lost to today's reader without the careful annotations at the back of the book supplied by Kitchen. Kurtzman's satire was extremely topical, and the targets of the moment usually disappeared within a few months, so we need Kitchen to explain what the unisex movement was, what Portnoy's Complaint was all about, who Bobby Fischer and Mark Spitz were, and why Anita Bryant needs to be reminded that "the orange is also a fruit." Kitchen also tells us who is being caricatured whenever, as is often the case, the celebrity in question is no longer visible on the popular culture circuit.

                In a pair of concluding essays, Kitchen discusses in detail, with ample illustration, the convoluted production process that all but overwhelmed Annie. Kurtzman began with a rough sketch which evolved into more and more detailed drawings at successive steps in the process with Elder contributing gags to the story as it progressed through its numerous stages of development. Not the least of these involved Hugh Hefner, Playboy's founder and editor, who,  in his youth, had aspired to be a cartoonist. Hef was a formidable collaborator, actively engaged in the formulation of every installment's theme and gags. The strip had to be submitted for his suggestions and approval at every step of the way. The back-and-forth between Hef and Kurtzman, Kurtzman and Elder, Kurtzman and other Playboy editors had to have been nearly mind-numbing.

                Jules Feiffer, who was cartooning for Playboy during the early years of Annie's run, recognized Hefner's genius for cartooning (which genius didn't necessarily make him any easier to work with).  Feiffer would send in roughs of his cartoons, and Hefner would send them back with two- and three-page letters that reviewed virtually every panel, every drawing, in the rough.

                "At first," Feiffer said, "I'd look at them and groan, Oh, shit. [But] they never did not make sense. And often he would bring up things that he was absolutely right about, and I'd agree with. When he didn't, then I would write him back, or call him, and say, I disagree because of such-and-such. And he'd say, Okay-go ahead. He would never say, I'm sorry you disagree, but it's my magazine, [and] if you want this in, you'd make the change. That conversation never took place.

                "The conversation that took place was, If you can't do it my way, do it your way. His way was never, ever, about selling out my principles in order to make it dovetail more with the magazine's marketability or approach. He was fascinated by the subject [of cartooning]; he just loved the nuts and bolts [of it]. How do you make this work better? I think this panel is diversionary. They're talking too much here about something else. It was extraordinarily helpful. And over and over again. He would criticize cartoons in order to make my point stronger-although my point was often counter to the Playboy philosophy."

                Arnold Roth, who occasionally helped Elder color Annie, produced his own cartoon series, "The History of Sex," for Playboy, but he simply wouldn't tolerate Hefner or any other editor fiddling with his cartoons. He felt he did his best work out of his own head and sensibility and would brook no suggestions or interference. For Playboy, he worked out some ground rules with Hef.

                "I made a deal that if he didn't like something, I wouldn't do it over, but I would replace it," Roth told me. "If you agree to changing things and doing them over, you'll be doing it to everything. I didn't want to collaborate with Hefner. Although I admire and value his editorial judgement, I think he can't leave well enough alone. I only had to replace a few things out of lots of cartoons I submitted. It was filthy and fun-though I think with one or two exceptions, my favorite jokes were clean ones: they had nothing to do with sex."

                But when Hefner saw in the "Olympian Games" the picture of King Midas whose magic touch had turned his penis to gold, he couldn't stop himself.

                "He sent a three-page single-spaced letter," Roth remembered, "about how he really didn't want me to replace it, he liked it a lot, but the only thing is, he didn't like the way I drew the penis. And Caroline [Roth's wife and partner] opened it, I was working-and I was in a horrible rush on a job-and she was reading this letter to me, and she's dying laughing, and she says, 'I can't believe this guy is heading a two-hundred million dollar a year business and has time for this.' She showed me the memo-with 'From the desk of Hugh M. Hefner' at the top-and here was a sketch. It was three red lines-two parallel with an inverted V on top. He's showing me how to draw a penis! So I wrote back and said, 'You're right. The way you indicated is the way to draw a penis, but unfortunately that's the way I draw noses, so for clarity sake-," he chuckled, the conclusion of the sentence obvious. "And that was the end of that," he said.

                 He never cleared his ideas in advance. "At the magazine," Roth said, "they had no idea what was coming: every chapter, I would just do it. And they'd ask me: 'How long is this going to go on?' And I'd say, 'As long as I'm paying tuitions for my kids in college.'"

                But Kurtzman had no deal with Hefner. And the tedious, painstaking process for generating Little Annie Fanny bogged down the production. Elder's predilection for painting perfect pictures made the process slow enough, but the endless editorial tinkering doubtless took the heart out of doing the feature. The more back-and-forth, the longer it took to produce the strip. And the longer it took, the fewer installments appeared every year, and the greater the interval got between installments. Finally, the world's most luxuriant comic strip just faded away. The last episode appeared 9 months after the penultimate one, a mere two pages each time.

                Elder's penchant for perfection is well-known. (And in the aforementioned Opus 47, Roth tells a story that vividly illustrates this; click here.) In one of the essays at the end of the book, Gary VandenBergh helps us see "Little Annie Fanny through the Eyes of Will Elder," quoting Elder: "I always looked for the holes in Harvey's layouts to put in [sight] gags." And the colors-"the colors were like gems to me," Elder said. "I worked very hard to give them iridescence," that luminous glow that bathed Annie in all her glory.

                Alas, that glow is mostly missing from Volume II. The book's only flaw is a conspicuous one. On about two thirds of the pages herein Elder's once iridescent colors are dim, clouded as if a sepia film had been dropped over the art. The fault lies with Playboy, not Dark Horse. The Dark Horse production team worked minor miracles in Volume I and on much of Volume II. But they had inferior material to work with.

                Astonishingly, considering Hefner's supposed consuming interest in what he sometimes thought of as Playboy's crown jewel-Annie-Dark Horse was given tearsheets to reproduce the strip from. Tearsheets! Not original art. Not even color transparencies, which surely exist for most of Annie. When I asked Kitchen about this, he was unequivocal in laying the blame at Playboy's doorstep.

                Kitchen had been involved in the reprint project since the early 1990s, when Kitchen Sink Press first approached Playboy. The project was revived at Dark Horse and, because of his interest and knowledge of Kurtzman's work, Kitchen was invited to participate. He agreed, knowing that "Playboy had 80-90% of the original art and transparencies on virtually all of the pages. Harvey showed me an internal Playboy memo from 1990 which itemized their inventory of every LAF story by original art and by transparency.... I simply assumed that Playboy, with its legendary high standards, and Hefner, with his legendary eye to detail, would want these definitive (for now) volumes to have the best possible reproduction."

                Apparently not. Instead, Playboy's cartoon editor, Michelle Urry, supplied only the pages torn from back issues of the magazine, saying, "Treat these as if they were originals."

                "The sad thing," Kitchen continued, "is that I know Playboy has the majority of the art and virtually all of the transparencies. The books should have been perfect."

                He remains astounded that Hefner didn't intervene on behalf of the kind of quality he has always insisted on in the magazine.

                Still-despite this glaring blemish-the books, both volumes, are treasures. The reproduction in the first volume, after all, is fine; and the heroic efforts of the Dark Horse production crew very nearly surmounted the obstacle inherent in using tear sheets. For the record-for the pictures that are good pictures and for the exposition and annotation in the back of each volume-you don't want to pass this set by. The Annie set, even somewhat clouded, is still a joy to behold.

                Annie, by the way, is discussed absolutely nowhere in any of my books, as you can tell if you want to preview any of them, which you can do by returning to the home page with a simple click here. Annie is mentioned, however, in a long recitation and examination of Kurtzman's career, his invention of war comics that don't glorify war and the almost accidental conception of Mad, both of which are covered copiously in The Art of the Comic Book, which is previewed just a click away from here.

Wonder Woman. While we're handing out valentines to our favorite four-color lasses, I'd like to do the same with the Amazon in the tinfoil Woo-Woo bra, Diana Prince, who recently made an appearance in Wonder Woman: Spirit of Truth. I'd like to do a hearts-and-flowers rave, but I can't, quite. Infected by the spirit of truth, I must, instead, ponder the flaws in this endeavor, flaws which actually undermine its message.

                This is apparently the fourth in a series of grandiose treatments of DC superheroes by Paul Dini and Alex Ross. The others were Superman: Peace on Earth, Batman: War on Crime, and Shazam! Power of Hope. All are distinguished by Ross's sumptuous paintings and Dini's ambitious attempts to meld the superheroics of the long-underwear legions to the larger social purposes inherent in what was once called Western Civilization.

                Ross's paintings are highly polished renditions of the familiar heroes, and his skill is such that he gives this make-believe world a palpable visual reality. Glistening with sunny highlights, his world is also much more beautiful than the actual reality around us. But supeheroic literature is like that: not only larger than life, but prettier, too. Ross' ability to paint successive pictures of the same personage and make each one look like the same individual is remarkable. His portraits depict the same person no matter what the angle. Moreover, Ross sidesteps both of the pitfalls that lay before anyone trying to tell stories in comics with full-color paintings. First, rendering pictures without benefit of a delineating solid outline often results in obscure visuals; people and artifacts sometimes aren't clearly enough indicated by color alone to enable us to recognize them, particularly when they appear in the distance. And, second, many skilled draftsmen, even when they work in line rather than pure color, cannot draw faces that are as distinct from one another as they are in real life. Ross's pictures are both clear and distinctive. But he should avoid two-page spreads: the gutter in the middle of his picture clutches his rendering so tightly at the binding that the imagery in the center is spoiled.

                Ever since John Byrne redesigned Wonder Woman's costume, eliminating, at long last, the star-spangled girdle that looked more at home in the foundation section of a Sears catalogue than on a shapely superheroine, I've been more appreciative of this character's charms. And here, Ross adds a refinement that seems long overdue. The golden WW that embraces Wonder Woman's bosom culminates, if that's the word, in the central spire of the W, which suggests an eagle's beaked head. This sharp culmination is pointed at Wonder Woman's clavicle in such deadly proximity that I'm sure if she ever bent forward she'd be punctured just below the neck. Ross has thoughtfully bent the bird's beak and neck outward, making it less of a menace to the Amazon princess's shapely neck.

                Wonder Woman's costume is actually the pivot upon which Dini's story seems to revolve. Diana discovers that many of the downtrodden multitudes whom she wishes to rescue reject her ministrations because her manner of dress and her straight-forward mode of operation are sometimes an affront to local custom. For instance, she tries to find evidence that a dictatorial desert government uses villagers as shields, placing women and children in the line of fire whenever an invasion is threatened. Walking among these robed and veiled women, Wonder Woman realizes that "in their eyes, I was a brazen symbol of confrontation." After a consultation with Superman, she decides to wear less colorful garb in future undertakings. She has some success in several instances, and, back in the desert village, she dons a hooded robe in order to insinuate herself into the populace. But when she at last confronts the military who come to take women away to serve as shields again, she drops the robe and stands there, defiant, in golden bra and spangled panties. It is easily the most effective visual in the book, the one that serves the story most dramatically. But it also makes hash of the narrative's point: if she learns from her earlier experience the value of blending into the local population in appearance and behavior, then here, faced with the same problem that brought about her self-realization before, she suffers a prodigious relapse, resorting to her costumed self once again.

                Nonetheless, despite this evidence to the contrary, Wonder Woman says she's learned her lesson: henceforth, she'll wander about in search of deeds of derring-do to do attired in the everyday raiment of ordinary women, "without title or trappings." Until she has to spring into action. Then it's back to the red-gold-and-blue undies again.

                This explains, we suppose, why superheroes have secret identities. Their actual, flamboyant personages would alarm and intimidate the citizenry; so, in the interest of maintaining order in everyday life, superheroes don't wear their colorful longjohns until they go into battle. And with this realization, we find the flaw in Dini's story that undercuts its message. The thematic end towards which this convoluted tale wends seems to violate the announced purpose of the book. If the book champions "the spirit of truth," why must Wonder Woman indulge in the most basic dissembling of all, disguising herself to prevent people from seeing who she really is? Or is it only "the spirit" of truth that we should aim for, not its actuality?

                Alas, the Wonder Woman book is a spectacular failure, a visual sleight of hand that masks with its virtuoso visuals the hypocrisy at its narrative core. No hearts and flowers except for the pretty pictures.

News, Odds & Addenda. Jenette Kahn, who, when she became publisher at DC Comics in 1976, became also one of the few women at the time in a high echelon role in publishing and entertainment, will be stepping down as President and Editor-in-Chief by the end of the year, having accomplished, she says, "almost all of the things I set out to do at DC Comics." Makes you wonder, given the list of DC's achievements in the last few years, what she didn't get done. Paul Levitz, currently Executive Vice President and Publisher, will take her chair, but, oddly, will continue to perform his present assignment as well as hers. So, if one person can do both jobs, why did they need two executives all this time? Seems a slap in the face to Kahn.

                The Newspaper Feature Council is shutting down after 47 years, a bad sign for cartooning. It began in 1955 as the Newspaper Comics Council with an avowed purpose of improving the visibility and viability of comics in newspapers. The name changed in the 1980s when syndicated columnists were added to the membership, which included, in addition to cartoonists, syndicate officials and newspaper editors. Despite its strategy of bringing such interests together in common cause, the Council was never well enough funded to achieve much, and, in the last analysis-which resulted in its disbanding-the Council's leadership could find no mission for the organization. "The really important issues of the industry were going to be resolved elsewhere, not by us," said Sid Goldberg, NFC'S president last year. Other groups, such as the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors and the National Cartoonists Society, compete for active membership and offer forums on similar concerns. But none of these other organizations has the potential clout of NFC to act on behalf of cartooning had NFC managed to engage the committed participation of the categories of membership it sought. It attracted cartoonists and syndicates, but the newspapers it aimed to influence were not interested. Too bad.

                At the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Chris Bleistein resigned as Executive Director, a position he'd held for only 13 months. His replacement is Charles Brownstein, who has worked in the industry as publisher of the magazine Feature and freelance writer for The Comics Journal, Comics Buyer's Guide, and other outlets; he was also programming director for the Sandy Eggo Con for two years. The CBLDF was founded in 1986 as a non-profit operation to defend the Constitutional rights of members of the comics community, including but not restricted to cartoonists and store operators who are threatened by censorial elements in their neighborhoods.

                Mr. Potato Head, the plastic tuber, turned 50 on February 12; he is no longer just a toy, having ascended last summer to the starring role in a comic strip by Jim "Garfield" Davis and his gag-writing partner, Brett Koth....  With a historic reputation for incest, murder (by poisoning), and assorted corruptions, Lucretia Borgia, the 15th century Italian aristocrat born as a result of a union between her father, a cardinal in the Church (who later became Pope Alexander VI) and one of his mistresses, will soon star in a new comic strip as part of Italy's year-long campaign to reconstitute her as an exemplary mother and wife.... Irish McCalla, who achieved fame as tv's

"Sheena, Queen of the Jungle," died at 73 on February 1 of complications from a brain tumor and a stroke. She'd made a post-jungle career as a painter and she never claimed thespian talent: "I couldn't act, but I could swing through the trees," she once said. And she did her own stunts, too, until she slammed into a tree while swinging and broke her arm. Bill Black at AC Comics published a book about McCalla and Sheena a few years ago, and it's still available at www.accomics.com....  Also on the web, this time at www.EdwardRHamilton.com, an online and off-line discount bookseller, is Superman Masterpiece Edition by Les Daniels, a boxed set that includes an 8-inch statue of the 1938 character, priced at $29.95, half the initial cost....

                The 20th annual Rube Goldberg competition took place February 9 at Purdue U. in West Lafayette, Indiana, where an assortment of devotees convened to show off gadgets that purported to do what Goldberg's celebrated cartoon did-namely, to employ outrageously complicated mechanisms to perform ludicrously simple tasks. This year's mission, reported the Indianapolis Star's Kristina Buchthal, was to devise ways to raise and wave a flag. The winner, the Society of Professional Engineers, concocted a contraption that used pingpong balls, toy rockets and steam to raise a flag up a waving arm in 50 progressive steps. "The device, dubbed 'Mission to Mars,' was designed to look like an astronaut landing on the red planet," said Buchthal.

Olympic Moments to Remember. I can't watch the Olympics. Well, I can watch the tv but I don't see much. I'm forever tearing up. The sometimes impossible feats performed by these young athletes just overwhelm me. I rejoice in their joy, in their pride of achievement, in the thrill of competition. The human spirit is elevated by the purity of the endeavor: here, they attempt the impossible for the pure joy or satisfaction of doing it as well as it can be done. And the distillation of purpose in such dedication brings tears to my eyes.

                To keep a running tally, as the sports commentators do with numbing persistence throughout the Games, of how many medals U.S. athletes have piled up misses the point, it seems to me. The point is to enter the contest and play the game and play it as well as you can.

                The official supporters and promoters of the Olympics are forever drumming this point into our heads, vociferously touting "the dream" and athletes' performing at their best and so on. Yes, that's what it should be about. But as the commentators enthuse on, I am brought up short by the recollection that the Games are not, really, about playing well. That's not all they are about. The Games are also about spectacle. They're about television spectacle. I once thought that these two objectives need not be in conflict. And they usually aren't. But when they are, playing well is trumped by the needs of the tiny screen. I realized this with a grinding certainty during the Summer Games in Australia. And while I don't want to spoil anyone's appreciation of this winter's contests in Salt Lake City, I want to recall the incident that nailed this realization to my heart because, in my perverse way, I think that by exposing, once again, this other purpose of the Olympics I may tear that veil of hypocrisy away and leave just the purity of the athletic endeavors.

                With my wife (who is much more passionate about the Olympics-and the Miss America contest-than I, who almost never watches either), I was watching the women gymnasts. The Russian Svetlana Khorkina was the best bet to win the gold, the commentators were telling us, and then, this information scarcely out of their mouths, we watched as Khorkina botched her vault. She did so, we found out later, because the vaulting horse had been erroneously set two inches too low. Khorkina not only failed to win the gold, she won nothing at the vaulting horse-and then, rattled by the bad vault, she fell during her routine on the uneven bars, thereby destroying any chance at a medal in the women's all-around individual finals.

                Khorkina was not alone in her disaster. The American Elise Ray fell flat on her back because the horse was too low. And Britain's Annika Reeder injured her ankle in a fall and withdrew from competition.

                But setting the vaulting horse at the wrong height was not the unforgivable error here. The real travesty was in failing to do the right thing to remedy the oversight. Olympic officials did not react in ways that would have enabled the athletes to recover and perform at their best. You would think that of all the life forms on the planet Olympics officials would have done better by the athletes in whose best interests they claim to be working. But they didn't.

                The Olympics of 2000 will be burned into my memory by the sight of Khorkina falling. She will be forever the symbol of the shame of this Olympics. The shame-the dirty rotten shame-is the hypocrisy of those who operated the Games, pretending that they are advocates for athletics and athletes. They aren't advocates; they're only athletic supporters, the kind of locker room presence that smells a little bad-like stale sweat.

                That persons who profess great admiration for athletic achievement would blunder so badly, dashing the dreams of several of the world's top athletes, reveals that these officials are really not devoted to athletic endeavor at all. If they were, they would have acted quite differently. Immediately, upon learning the horse was set at the wrong height, they would have stopped that competition for the day, declared all the results so far invalid, and given everyone a new start a day or so hence, when they'd have had enough time to recover their poise.

                Instead, these athletic supporters merely gave the competitors a choice: you can do it over if you want to. But you have to do it now. Right now. Immediately. Not an hour from now, but right now. By then, the athletes were too shaken to perform well, and most declined the option. Had they been given another start-a new day-all would have done better. And isn't that what the Olympics is all about? Getting people to perform at their best?

                No, it wasn't the welfare of the athletes or the beauty of physical action superlatively done that animates these locker room bureaucrats and international jockstrap freeloaders: it's the precious television schedule, no doubt, which permits no deviation from the preordained broadcast timetable. Not even for the sake of the athletes could they jeopardize the tv coverage!

                With friends like these, athletes need no enemies.

                The success of the tv schedule results, of course, in the Olympics paying their way.  The Games will earn lots of money. And they must earn money. They must pay their way. Remember when Jim Thorpe had his medals taken away from him because he played baseball for money one summer?

                Well, that, to me, is the shame of the Olympics. That and the venality of the judges for the pairs figure skating a few nights ago when they gave the gold to the Russians instead of to the obviously superior Canadians. The athletes, as usual, all behaved like champions; and the Olympics officials, as usual, like chumps. And having fulminated about that, nothing more remains but the purity of the endeavor. Enjoy. Let the games begin indeed.

                Stay 'tooned: it's the only way to remain sane.

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