Opus 82:

Opus 82: NEWS&REVIEWS, IN THAT ORDER (March 13, 2002). First, before we get to the reporting of Significant Events that distinguishes this niche in the 'Net, let me seize this opportunity by the throat in order to announce that another book of mine is now being offered for your delection (and purchase) on this almost buyer-free website. Yes, A Gallery of Rogues: Cartoonists' Self-Caricatures, a 1998 production of the Ohio State University Libraries, is now available and previewed right here (click to be transported there). Rogues, only in the unjacketed hardcover limited numbered edition sold here, has not been widely promoted, nor is it available in many places. Not Amazon.com, for instance. In fact, this may be the handiest source for it. I wrote the biographies of the 150-plus cartoonists who are self-caricatures herein, but it's doubtless the pictures, not the prose, that'll keep you amused as you ramble through life. And now, the news.

            That persistently lovable gadfly, Ted Rall, is back in the public eye, prodding everyone into a hot swivet the week of February 28 with his cartoon, Search and Destroy. The first of the offending six panels announces: "They're eerily calm. They smile and crack jokes and laugh out loud. They're the scourge of the media-TERROR WIDOWS." Then in the next five panels, we meet five of these fun femmes being interviewed on tv.

            Here's one saying, "I keep waiting for Kevin to come home, but I know he never will. Fortunately, the $3.2 million I collected from the Red Cross keeps me warm at night." In another panel, the interviewer says, "The unbearable grief of the empty spot in your conjugal bed must weigh down your heart with unimaginable pain." To which the widow says, "Huh? Oh, yeah, definitely." She's wearing a T-shirt that says, "Your ad here." Another widow says, "Of course it's a bummer that they slashed my husband's throat, but the worst was having to watch the Olympics alone." The final panel shifts to a related subject, "Terror Widow Meets Terror Widower." And a woman says, "A pre-nup? I got $1.8 million from the airline security firm." To which a man responds, "Yeah, but I sued the airline itself. I scored $5 million."

            Since it's a cartoon and everyone still expects a "cartoon" to be funny, many of the readers of this diatribe thought Rall was making fun of the widows of those who lost their lives in the September 11 tragedy. And the allusion to the death of Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl, whose throat was slashed on camera for the terrorists' propaganda video, was simply too much for weak stomachs. The outcry was, they say, huge. The New York Times, which publishes Rall's cartoon on its website but takes it directly from the Universal Press Syndicate's electronic feed without review or editing, pulled the cartoon off the website almost at once-as soon as viewer protest reached the throne room, in fact. The Washington Post kept the cartoon up for a couple days longer but soon bowed to the pressure of viewer outrage and yanked it.

            Drawn in Rall's usual woodblock squarehead manner (which we may term "blockhead" style), the club-footed appearance of the cartoon was matched in crudeness by the raw heartlessness of his approach to a sensitive subject. Most critics said they were appalled by Rall's supreme tastelessness in criticizing the widows left grieving in the wake of September 11's vileness.

            The Weekly Standard, eager to join in the fray excoriating Rall, said in its March 18 issue that to call the cartoon "a lapse in taste doesn't begin to capture [its] sociopathic quality of ... deranged misogyny." Then the Standard, indulging in a vendetta inspired no doubt by Rall's rabid liberal habit of calling Bush an unelected president at every opportunity, told of the legal battle Rall is waging against another cartoonist, Danny Hellman, who "impersonated" Rall on the Internet and ended this disquisition by inviting the anti-Rall multitudes to donate to Hellman's legal defense fund and then supplying its Internet address. This gesture, some of Rall's friends allowed, was hitting below the belt because it had nothing to do with the issues raised by the cartoon. Just another standard for behavior, I guess.

            Throughout this brouhaha, Rall's syndicate stood by him. "Pushing the envelope of polite criticism is what editorial cartoonists do," the press released statement read. "Rall represents a point of view that will not be everyone's opinion. He is looking at recent news events with the cynical eye of a satirist." Universal Press has a well-deserved reputation for supporting its stable of cartoonists and columnists, however outrageous the views expressed might sometimes be.

            Rall may be a rampant, liberal-leaning cynic, but his cynicism, like that of most of the breed, is born of a bitterly disillusioned idealism. Rall is the only cartoonist I know who went to Afghanistan to cover the war there first-hand (he was there mid-November to mid-December), and the reports he sent back, both cartoons and columns, reveal how profoundly disappointed he was with the way the war was being conducted-or, rather, with the way the Bush League was misleading the American public about the war and with the shabby coverage in most of the so-called news media.

            The cause of the Bushies' interest in Afghanistan, Rall asserted, is not the welfare of the citizenry or the imperative to make the world safe from terrorism by rooting out Osma bin Laden's thuggeries; it is, instead, the oil reserves landlocked north of the country. To get the oil out, it is necessary to construct a pipeline to ocean-going tankers, and the shortest route for the pipeline is across Afghanistan. And when, after only a few weeks, the war seemed won and the media rejoiced, showing scenes of a "liberated" civilian population throwing off the yoke of Taliban oppression, Rall pointed out that Afghan women had not discarded the burka in the wholesale numbers suggested by tv coverage-and that the feudal society of Afghanistan would probably continue to operate as a loosely-bound federation of mutually hostile warlords whose fundamental rivalry would undermine any nation-building effort.

            One can disagree with Rall's interpretation of the situation but cannot ignore the passion of his convictions. The same passion was activated by the behavior of some of the widows of victims of September 11. He was inspired to do the Terror Widows cartoon, he explained, by "about a half-dozen publicity hounds" among the widows, those who paraded themselves and their so-called grief through a round of tv talk shows.

            Their conduct, Rall said, seemed calculated to make careers out of their tragic circumstances or to advance political views and social causes. He was offended by Lisa Beamer, whose husband reportedly led a charge against the skyjackers on the plane that went down in western Pennsylvania. She is allegedly trying to copyright the phrase "Let's roll," her husband's last words as he and others tried to turn the tables on the terrorists.

            As for Pearl's widow, Rall was profoundly disturbed that she kept appearing on tv. "It seemed pointless and tacky," he said. "If your husband is dead, don't you have more important things to do than go on television?"

            While I sympathize (and even agree) with Rall's disillusionment, I think his satire seriously misfired. In the first place, however guilty Lisa Beamer may be of crass commercialism, the real villains here are the tv paparazzi who storm the residences of survivors and disrupt their mourning in search of just one more "story" of human grief and desolation. This culture nurtures Lisa Beamers. Strong-willed and principled persons resist; but some are not strong-willed. Or principled. And they become as crass and self-serving as the media mavens who invade their privacy.

            But even if tv culture itself were not the chief villain in this exercise, Rall failed to identify his target clearly in his cartoon. Yes, the big type said "Terror Widows," but it wasn't all widows of September 11's tragedy that he was aiming at. In fact, by Rall's own account, it was less than 1 percent. He was outraged only by those few widows who seemingly sought celebrity, deliberately trying to parlay their individual tragedies into lucrative careers or saleable products. Just those widows. Just "the scourge of the media," as his introductory heading claimed. But his introduction didn't make the distinction emphatic enough. His heading could too readily be misread to mean "all Terror Widows," not just those whose behavior was gauche and calculated. Maybe instead of "the scourge of the media," he should have labeled them "a new breed of media pundits-Terror Widows." Or maybe "Pundit Widows." The introductory prose should have spent more energy on refining the meaning of Terror Widows than on setting a mood ("They're eerily calm ...").

            Still, Rall's mail was supportive: usually 200 letters a week, it climbed to over 2,000, four-to-one in favor of his stance, Rall said in one of his less pathologically meanspirited moments. And Rall has no regrets and offered no apologies.

            "I've done a few lousy cartoons in my time that I'd love to take back," he told the AP, "but this isn't one of them."

            Rall was interviewed by Daryn Kagan on CNN, March 8, and by Fox's Bill O'Reilly the same day. Kagan asked questions and waited for Rall's response. O'Reilly asked questions and then stomped on Rall's answers by supplying his own, O'Reilly's, before Rall could finish a sentence.

            Here's a tip for anyone who gets invited to go on tv by one of the minions of the reporting profession: get your message straight in your mind before you go on the air. Know what you want to say; and if you don't have something to say, don't go on the air. Most normal citizens will be beat up by the O'Reillys of the world: these guys are experts at their trade. They know how to manipulate their guests to achieve their own agendas. (O'Reilly kept blocking Rall's responses by turning his microphone volume down, reducing some of Rall's remarks to unintelligible mumbles.) And if you go there thinking you'll get a chance to say your piece,  you'll be walking right into the O'Reilly trap.

            To avoid being trapped, know your message and repeat it every time you get to talk. Let's say Rall's message was to defend the function of the editorial cartoonist to provoke discussion on public policies. If he began every answer to whatever question O'Reilly asked by saying, "The function of the editorial cartoonist is to provoke discussion" or "to slap contented half-asleep citizens in the face often enough to wake them up" or some such-if he'd bracketed everything he said with remarks like that, his point of view would inevitably emerge if O'Reilly aired the interview at all.

            As it was, Rall's opinion barely surfaces in an exchange in which O'Reilly brow-beats him and scores all the points by not letting Rall finish uttering a coherent thought. Too bad. Rall's worth listening to even when you disagree with him. And sometimes, he's even funny as well as provocative. To see the cartoon that sparked all this controversy, go to Universal Press's site, www.ucomics.com, find Ted Rall's name under editorial cartoons, and when you get to his cartoons, click on "Previous Cartoon" and back up until you come to Terror Widows.

            And, speaking of media intentions, David Letterman had the good sense and superior taste to resist ABC's seduction. He's staying with CBS, he told his audience March on 11, rather than be the instrument by which Ted Kopple is toppled from his late-night throne at ABC's "Nightline." If ever there were a vivid demonstration of the real purpose of tv as network moguls see it, this was it. A veteran newscaster, one of the most respected in tv journalism since the days of Walter Cronkite, was targeted for replacement in the network's (Disney's) desperate grab at a demographic that would boast its advertising earnings. Kopple appealed to older viewers; ABC wanted a younger, more spendthrift, demographic, the much-touted 18-35 age group. And Letterman, they opined, would deliver that; Kopple wouldn't. So entertainment would replace news; the bottom line supersedes public service. I was tempted to draw a caricature of Kopple wearing a Mickey Mouse hat, captioned: "Ted Kopple fights back at ABC." But someone else surely has done that.

            Elsewhere, Bill Griffith tweaked the noses of the nation's demographically motivated newspapers in his syndicated strip, Zippy, beginning the week of March 11. Griffith is clearly stewing about the San Francisco Chronicle's readership survey conducted in January that almost got Zippy booted out of the paper. Zippy ranked low, Griffith maintained, because most of the readers who respond to such surveys are older. And Zippy's readers are usually younger. So, as the strip for March 11 reports, older readers are empowered when it comes to newspaper readership surveys. An elderly couple is discussing the comics, and the husband says, "Boy, Helen-being 63 and conservative still means something in this country." And Helen says, "Right! We totally dominate any newspaper comics poll." Then they commiserate a little because they don't have equal power in other areas of the country's social and political life. "Right you are, Stanley," says Helen. "Imagine a world without Snoop Doggy Dogg!"

            CLIPS&QUIPS.  Oni's Trout reached the second of a 2-issue series, and while I can't claim to understand much of its humorous weirdnesses, it's a pleasant sojourn through black-and-white art by Troy Nixey that reminds me, vaguely, of Wanda Gag's children's book, Millions of Cats, but Nixey's treatment gives his characters a strange but comedic elasticity that Gag's lack. The boy, Trout, remains in complete possession of his soul, perhaps the only resident of these pages to enjoy that status; and the old man, Lint, explains as much of the goings-on as he can. For more than that, you'll have to see the book.

            If you think that the "animated style" is too simple for subtlety in rendering facial expression, you need to examine what Darwyn Cooke is doing-say, in Spider-Man's Tangled Web, No. 11, "Open All Night," or in Catwoman, No. 4. In the former, look for Jill's expression when she's looking for Peter Parker's address; in the latter, notice Selina chewing her lip (p. 9). Cooke's work is simply exquisite. Beautiful. As crisp and energetic as anything the legendary Owen Fitzgerald ever did. Just brilliant.

            Bev spends most of the second issue of Steve Gerber's reincarnated Howard the Duck wandering around in a fuzzy towel. This issue doesn't advance the story or hone the satire much. The high point of hilarity occurs in the shower, which Bev is taking with Howard when he, transformed into a giant mouse in the last issue, changes again, this time into a giant ant-eater, whose snout, as he stands there in the shower facing Bev, seems in an inappropriate place. Otherwise, we see the dump in which they dwell invaded by cursing Brownies in search of Osma El-braka ("braka" means duck)-"Freeze, motherfucker," yells the lead Brownie with a howitzer in her hands-and we hear Bev beginning to wonder if she'd be better off leaving Howard; and, overhead, the maniacal Doctor Bong hovers in a flying saucer, menacing our dumped-on duo.

            The one-shot, Love Bunny and Mr. Hell by Tim Seeley, perpetuates the bathroom joking that infested Howard. The book's premise is that our heroine, a sort of comic book freak, dresses up as a superheroine in a bunny costume but has no powers whatsoever except kick-boxing, which she applies to invading bad guys at the local comic book convention. The opening sequence includes a full-page rendering of her sitting on the toilet, but it's her reference to the superheroine anatomy, "uber boobies," that brings a chuckle. Competently drawn in crisp black-and-white, but the story, also by Seeley, seems a bit too fanboyish to me.

            Another extremely well-drawn book these days is CrossGeneration's Ruse, of which I've seen only No. 5 by Butch Guice and Mike Perkins. Mark Waid's story, however, seems to dawdle along and is much too freighted with verbiage. Waid's commendable attempt to re-create the conversational meanderings of Victorian English simply slows things down. Let the pictures do more work, Mark. Or maybe my opinion here is influenced by the lack of spacing between lines of lettering: everything in the speech balloons and captions looks crammed so I guess I think there's more there than should be. Still, the story doesn't grip me even if the artwork does.

            P. Craig Russell's Ring of the Nibelung, Vol. 4, No. 4 continues to display some of the most exquisite art in comics. I don't know how much of this Dark Horse series I actually own: I can't juggle all the volume numbers, issue numbers, and chapter numbers (this issue is "Chapter Three," f'instance). But Russell's drawings are beautifully executed-detailed but not smothered in detail; clean, clear linework. And at the end of this issue are pages showing his steps in adapting Wagner's Ring to comic book treatment. More clarity on every page.

LONG LINGERING LOOKS. Just out from Andrews McMeel is a "treasury" of Sunday Bizarro by Dan Piraro. Called Life Is Strange and So Are You, this book is 144 8.5x11-inch pages in paperback, all in color like a Sunday should. Bizarro has been compared to Gary Larson's Far Side, but Piraro has a warp that is distinctly his own. And he draws better than Larson. Before he got this cartooning gig about 15 years ago, Piraro worked, variously, as an art school dropout, New Wave band singer, Neiman-Marcus ad illustrator and salesman of plumbing supplies. He lives in Dallas with a wife and two daughters and, as he says, "four million other people."

            This tome is not a comprehensive compilation of all Bizarro Sundays. It is, rather, Piraro's favorites, most culled from recent rather than bygone years. But the big bonus here, beyond the comicality of the cartoons themselves, is that Piraro has annotated the book, slipping comments underneath most cartoons, explaining where the idea came from or making some other illuminating or impolite remark.

            Here's a 1995 cartoon showing a bunch of old-time pirates on board their ship about to shoot canon at a distant rowboat. "Hold yar fire," yells the pirate chieftain. "It's a prosthetics salesman." Half the pirates, upon closer inspection, have wooden legs. About this, Piraro writes: "I still love this joke after all these years. On the same day, a week after it ran, I received two letters: one criticizing me for being insensitive to the plight of amputees; the other from a prosthetics company who wanted to put the image on t-shirts to use as promotional items. They mentioned that many of their customers thought it was hilarious."

            Typically, Piraro's Sunday cartoons are crammed with visual information. Here's a scene seemingly of an accident: a car has rammed into a fire hydrant, which is spewing water like Old Faithful, and a number of citizens are standing motionless in odd poses. (It's difficult to render motionlessness in a motionless medium: Piraro, with typical perversity, does it with those little parentheses lines that in anybody else's cartoons indicate quivering.) A speech balloon points off into the stratosphere, saying: "Nobody move! I lost a contact!" This, the caption explains, is the "Attack of the Far-sighted 50-foot Woman." Peering closely, we see that the giant contact lens has fallen on one of the citizens, who lies, prostrate and senseless, on the pavement just in front of the car that smashed into the hydrant.

            Instead of explaining the technique for rendering a giant contact lens (no small achievement, Dan), Piraro's annotation reads: "I like this kind of cartoon that requires you to look carefully to get the gag. The two characters walking behind the street pole at the left are me and my then-girlfriend, Kristine. Not long after my divorce I found that putting a woman (or her cat) in your cartoon is a far more effective aphrodisiac than any sports car."

            Piraro and his "then-girlfriend" (who changes from time-to-time) are often background characters in the cartoons. Many of Piraro's comments concern his growing involvement with the ways color can be deployed, pointing out how certain effects can be achieved. And he loves to do cartoons with lots of "background jokes" in them.

            Here's a scene inside the passenger section of a 747 with every one of the 9 seats in each of several depicted rows being occupied. The speech balloon comes from a goose in one of those seats, who says to the man next to him: "Would you mind changing seats with me? We're trying to stay in formation." And then, as we examine the drawing more carefully, we see other geese in other seats, and, except for the speaking goose, they seem to be seated in V-formation. One of the characters way in the back is a rabbit; another, a pig. The guy with an arrow through his head is Piraro.

            Here's a crowded street scene in which a smoldering rock has squashed a man. As the gathering crowd looks on, a well-dressed man pushes through, saying, "Let me through! I'm a meteorologist!" In the background, we see the entrance to a place identified as "another trendy shallow nightspot."

            The other bonus for Bizarro fans is that at the end of the book Piraro "explains" certain odd symbols that recur, time and again, in his cartoons. The Crown of Power. The Flying Saucer of Possibility. The Inverted Bird. (Nah: I'm not gonna explain 'em. Buy the book: it's only $15.95.)

            The book includes the first recurring background joke (T-shirts emblazoned "Mediocrity Rules") as well as "the first official appearance of many of the recurring symbols all together" in one drawing.

            Piraro's sense of humor is not quite as bent as Larson's. But it's close, and this book is a treat and an education in cartooning.

            And speaking of cartooning treats, here's Arnold Roth Free Lance (124 giant 9x12-inch pages in paperback from Fantagraphics Books, www.fantagraphics.com, for merely $22.95), a "catalogue" of the retrospective exhibit of fifty years of Roth's graphic lunacy that is touring the country. As a "catalogue," the book stands alone as both biography (which, I confess, I wrote) and tour of the special madness that is Arnie Roth's inventive visual comedy. The book is an elegant production with a profusion of color reproductions as well as a copious assortment of black-and-white pictures from the Roth oeuvre. The end papers reproduce the carved top of the famed Punch Table, the furniture around which the writers and cartoonists who produced Britain's revered humor magazine would gather once a week to lunch, extravagantly, and to invent the next issue. Roth sat at the Table for a full year while residing in England and contributed from these shores for nearly three decades. He is one of only three Americans who have been invited to carve their initials in the venerable tabletop (the others are James Thurber and Mark Twain-who actually did not carve his initials: he said he'd share the last two letters of William Makepeace Thackeray's ornate monogram. "Everyone assumed that he was simply too drunk to handle a penknife," Roth told me.) Roth might well be described as the cartoonist whose work gives cartooning its name. If cartooning implies funny pictures, then Roth's the epitome of the genre. I've plundered my own Roth biographical essay twice in this niche-at Opus 47 and again recently in Opus 80-for hilarities to which he was a party, and if you'd like a generous sampling of the work of this manic cartoonist, now's the opportunity to seize.

            And Roth, by the way (but not at all incidentally), is one of the 150-plus cartoonists whose self-caricatures and brief bios appear in A Gallery of Rogues, the afore-mentioned book of which I was a major fabricator (I helped select the self-caricatures in addition to writing all the bios that accompany them); for more about the book, as I said before with annoying persistence, click here. Oh-Piraro is self-caricatured and bio'd in the book, too. And so is Bill Griffith. Kopple isn't, though; neither is Letterman. You can't have everything.

            But you can stay 'tooned. Right here. Get the Rabbit Habit if you don't already have it; click here to find out about how to have a long and hoppy life.

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