Opus 84:

Opus 84: CONTROVERSIAL RALL AND OLIPHANT, NEWS & REVIEWS (March 27, 2002). Much as I've criticized the grown-up news media for creating soap opera newsstories (those that continue from day-to-day-to-day) for the sheer sake of prolonging suspense thereby captivating an audience, I find myself in somewhat the same boat with this story. (And excuse myself only on the grounds that I'm not doing it to increase my ratings. I mean, who knows that I'm even doing this? Except the two of us.) We are now well into the third or fourth inning as First Amendment prerogatives get batted back and forth between Ted Rall, editorial cartooning's perpetual thorn-in-the-side, and Alan Keyes, ditto. Not content to let the letter from AAEC's leadership fight the Good Fight for Free Speech (see Opus 83), Rall struck a blow on his own (as he has every right to do, tovarich) on March 21. His cartoon published that day (see www.ucomics.com/tedrall) quotes from Keyes' online column: "Should such a cartoonist be punished? Arrested? Shot at dawn? Our toleration [sic] of Mr. Rall, and our means for dealing with him, are matters for prudential consideration. When serious and sustained attempts to undermine public opinion cannot be resisted by other means, governmental action may be necessary. We should not tolerate those who seek to debase our judgment and destroy our unity and resolve." The headline for the cartoon reads: "Everything Changed After 1-30-33." That's when Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. And to make his allusion clear, Rall runs photographs of scenes from jack-booted Nazi Germany underneath the superimposed type bearing the excerpts from Keyes' column. Ouch. Rall seems as testy about opposing views as Keyes, but at least Rall advocates expressing opinions not suppressing them. After finishing the cartoon, Rall boarded a plane bound for Tajikistan (which borders Afghanistan on the north) to take another look at how the War on Terror is actually progressing in the Asian hinterland. More truth will be forthcoming, no doubt.

            At first, I thought Rall was over-reacting a bit. The columnist he attacks, after all, is but an online presence, and not everyone is likely to have read Keyes' column in the digital ether. Perhaps not even a substantial number. But then I saw that the Scranton Times-Tribune ran an editorial on the issue. Observing that Keyes often charges that the political left tries to "stifle free speech that it finds offensive," the Times-Tribune points to the irony that "Keyes doesn't grasp that he's doing the same thing."

            So I reckon Keyes' outburst has attracted more attention than I would have imagined. Probably because Rall's "Terror Widows" cartoon became notorious-and Keyes' opposition to it became known to others of a similar tilt, who then visited it online. So Keyes hitched his wagon to a meteorite and is getting the benefit of Rall's ink in two ways.

            Ma Perkins, where are you and your Oxydol when we need you?

            Meanwhile, March 21st also saw distribution of Pat Oliphant's cartoon comment on the current Catholic church scandal (see www.ucomics.com/patoliphant). He pictures a writhing mass of small boys rushing out of the front door of St. Paedophilia's Catholic Church followed by a hoard of black-frocked priests, captioned: "Celebration of Spring at St. Paedophilia's-The Annual Running of the Altar Boys." Observers on the sidewalk say, "If I was the Pope, I'd marry a few of them off." And Olphant's faithful dingbat, Punk the penguin, says to a buddy, "I'll go tell the bishop." The buddy says, "The bishop has first dibs." Ouch, ouch.

            Both cartoonists are syndicated by Universal Press, which, as I've said before, has a well-deserved reputation for tolerating the expression of unconventional opinions by its cartoonists. And a good thing, too. Oliphant's sure to stir up high dudgeon from sea to shining sea. If the Guardians of Truth and Righteousness don't permit anyone to say anything critical of the widows of Nine-Eleven, they aren't likely to allow anything bad to be said about religion. (Unless, of course, it's fundamentalist Islam.)

            And then we have The Boondocks for March 27. Just talking heads so we don't need the pictures except to reveal that Huey is responding to his li'l friend's comment. (Jasmine?) She says, "The Bush administration is accusing Zimbabwe's president of rigging the election over there." The wordless central panel permits us to ponder the portent of the first panel. And then she goes on, "I wonder if this is what they mean when they say political satire is dead." Says Huey: "I'm going to go vomit."

ELSEWHERE. Jeffrey R. Sipe in the Hollywood Reporter reveals that Peter O'Donnell's toothsome special agent, Modesty Blaise, will be returning to the big screen soon in a flick called "My Name Is Modesty." Janet Scott Batchler and Lee Batchler ("Batman Forever" and the forthcoming "Smoke and Mirrors") have been signed to write the screenplay, which will chronicle the origin of the character from her days as a teenage refugee in post-WWII Europe to her rise in the underworld of Tangier, Morocco, and her eventual emergence as a British undercover agent. A search for cast is underway, and everyone I know wants to play Willie. Modesty's only other "live" incarnation was as Monica Vitti in the 1966 fiasco, "Modesty Blaise," directed by Joseph Losey. Modesty and her faithful lieutenant Willie Gavin are the subjects of my column, Funnies Farrago, in the forthcoming Comic Book Marketplace, No. 90, which should be out in a couple weeks.

            Newspaper readers' (and, hence, editors') interest in religion increased dramatically immediately after Nine-Eleven. So did attendance at church, and while that's dropped back to normal, newspapers (and, hence, syndicates) are still interested. As a result, we find more comic strips with religious themes. In Terry and Pat LeBan's Edge City, for instance, seder is being celebrated this week, and as it is celebrated, gentiles learn about it. And United Media just launched Your Angels Speak, a weekly single-panel strip format feature from Guy Gilchrist, who has been offering Angels for over six years online; now all of a blessed sudden, syndicates and newspapers are gobbling it up: 25 signed so far (a good number in bad economic times). And Wildwood, the revamped Bobo's Progress, turning Bobo the bear into the pastor of a woodland church, doubled its circulation last year with the alteration in its focus. Pretty soon, doubtless, in the inevitable way that anything shiny attracts attention in this magpie environment, the comic book industry will start issuing new funnybook titles with religious emphasis. Something a little less off-the-wall than the Leather Nun of a generation ago or the Warrior Nun of the present day.

            Remember the Slesinger suit against Disney over Winnie the Pooh? If you can't conjure up that recollection immediately, consult Opus 81 by clicking here. Then when you return, I'll reveal that the Slesinger in question at the moment is Shirley, the widow of the late "Uncle" Fred Lasswell, who, in carrying on with Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, holds a record for long-distance running with a daily comic strip. Just one of those odd factoids....

            Laugh and the world laughs with you? Not always. After fifteen years of providing the balm of laughter to the vicissitudes of life, Comic Relief, once a monthly magazine, has ceased publication. Some months ago, in an effort to stay afloat, the publishers converted from magazine format to tabloid. But even that was not enough.

            "They still had plenty of red ink," reported Funny Times, another monthly tabloid celebration of life's little hilarities. But, alas, red ink wouldn't pay the bills.

            Funny Times has inherited CR's mailing list of subscribers and is giving them all a six-month subscription by way of (1) filling out CR's obligation and (2) inducing them to extend their subscriptions, this time to Funny Times.

            Funny Times, like Comic Relief, publishes an assortment of editorial cartoons by some of the nation's most outspoken and a healthy ration of humor columns. Instead of the few comic strips CR ran, FT offers a giddy gaggle of gag cartoons by such luminaries as Randy Glasbergen (the champion nose cartoonist) and Charles Rodriguez, and a rotating roster of other mostly off-beat tooners. Subscriptions are $23/year: 2176 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, OH 44118.

            Ahhh, but will Funny Times last in these trying fiscal times? Well, yes, they assure us. "I would say," said George Cratcha, Business Manager, "that we now rule the educated, liberal, progressive, advertising-free, rational humor, politics and fun monthly review in the tabloid publishing market segment. We've been publishing continuously for seventeen straight years and have over 60,000 wonderful readers. We don't have rolling blackouts or California's other high costs. We own our world headquarters and furniture and toaster oven. We'll do anything to avoid real jobs."

            Yup. Well, take it from me: they're my kind of folks.

            The cover of the current (March) issue of Artforum International magazine, holy writ of certain corners of the art world, is a drawing of a demure damsel by Robert Crumb. Yessir, underground cartoonists are now poised to become de rigueur in the world's galleries. The cover treatment is occasioned by a report inside on a five-artist show at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam that closed in January. Crumb was one of the five, all dubbed "latter-day defenders of the one true path of modernism" in a show entitled "Eye Infection." All five of the artists, says Robert Storr, senior curator of painting and sculpture at MOMA, "share a fascination with the more unsightly aspects of contemporary life, a robust contempt for rules of the road laid down by magistrates of both the establishment and the avant-garde, a knack for the grotesque that capitalizes on the collision between refined facture and aggressively vulgar imagery, and a wayward way with words that has fooled much of the public into thinking that what these artists do is just a gag while giving art-world mandarins an excuse for dismissing them as retrograde anti-intellectuals and therefore beneath serious consideration." Whoa. "Refined facture" indeed.

            Samples of the work of the five accompany an interview with one of them, Mike Kelley, who is the Johnny-Come-Lately to the unruly crew. About Crumb, Kelley says: "Robert Crumb was a god to me in my younger teenage years. Before I saw Zap Comix, I had little interest in 'fine art.' (And I would argue heartily that the underground cartoonists were fine artists-their works were, both ideologically and formally, so much in contradiction to the history of mainstream cartooning that they could not be seen as otherwise. Also, their adoption of the comic-book form as a presentational forum links them to other radical avant-garde movements of the '60s, such as Happenings and Earth art, which also sought an escape from the confines of the gallery system. This is a point not often made with regard to underground cartoonists.)"

            Later in the interview, discussing Crumb as a political or social satirist, Kelley says Crumb was not always politically motivated. "At times, Crumb plays with the conventions of the narrative strip in a far more formal and playful way. That would be a different kind of politics-such works would be addressing the politics of comic-strip conventions as the form was historically constructed. As such, these would be a politics of the formal" (as opposed, say, to the politics of government or of mass media or some other manifestation).

            Fairly grand stuff, kimo sabe. But the lingo these so-called art critics lavish on us is the most amusing part of the magazine. High-flyin' grandiosity, you betcha. Makes you want to cry if you don't have to laugh.

SPARKY AWARDS. Nearly all the genre of cartooning will be celebrated at this year's Sparky Awards Dinner on April 16 at San Francisco's historic Palace Hotel. Cartoonists being honored are John Severin, Bill Melendez, Gary Larson, and Lou Grant. And Will Eisner and Phil Frank will also be given Sparkies in recognition of their "extraordinary service to the cartoon art community."

            Named for Peanuts' Charles M. Schulz, the award is conferred by the Cartoon Art Museum of San Francisco. According to the Museum's assistant director, Jenny Robb Dietzen, the Sparky "celebrates the significant contributions of cartoon artists who reside or work in the western United States and who embody the talent, innovation, and humanity of Schulz." Schulz was not only emblematic of the best in the profession, he and his wife Jean were great supporters of the Museum.

            The Sparky itself is a very weighty six-inch tall bronze statuette of Snoopy holding a pen and a bottle of ink. Not as large as the Reuben of the National Cartoonists Society but much heavier.

            This year's recipients represent cartooning in comic books, animation, syndicated newspaper panel cartoons, and editorial cartoons-all the chief venues for the artform except magazine gag cartooning and advertising.

            Severin first achieved national notice with his work in EC Comics in the 1950s. Earlier, believing his inking was not up to the quality of his pencil drawings, Severin had his work inked by Will Elder, whom he met through Harvey Kurtzman, who was sharing a studio and agency operation with Elder and another chum from their highschool days. Eventually, however, Severin started inking his own drawings and produced distinctive, crisp and gritty artwork, specializing in realistic adventure stories set in the old American West or on battlefields the world over. After EC collapsed, Severin did westerns and war comics at Marvel and DC, but in 1958, he began a long association with Cracked, the longest-lived of the Mad imitators. Severin had done some of his first solo artwork for Mad under Kurtzman and displayed a feel for humorous rendering which he indulged to good effect at Cracked.

            Melendez has been the animating force of Peanuts tv specials for almost 40 years, beginning with the first in 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas. With experience at both Disney and Warner Brothers studios, Melendez was doing tv commercials when Ford arranged for Peanuts characters to tout their cars in the early 1960s. After working with Schulz on the first two commercials, Melendez was asked to do the animation in Lee Mendelson's documentary about Schulz. And after that, came Christmas, also produced by Mendelson.

            The Peanuts characters, since they are "flat" and therefore not designed for animation, required special treatment to preserve their essential look while in motion. "I had to animate them in such a way that you wouldn't see the turns," Melendez once explained. He and Schulz worked very closely together, beginning, usually, with Schulz's outline for a story. Melendez has won eight Emmy awards and has created more animated tv commercial spots than anyone. He is also the voice of Snoopy.

            Larson didn't set out to be a cartoonist: he sort of fell into it in the late 1970s when, acting upon impulse, he submitted a half-dozen animal cartoons embodying an unconventional point-of-view to a nature magazine, which, to Larson's surprise, accepted all six and paid him in actual legal tender. Suddenly, Larson had a career. He continued producing cartoons that seemed bent on exploring the roles of animals and humans as if they'd been cosmically reversed, selling them to the Seattle Times for awhile, then to the San Francisco Chronicle. At first called Nature's Way, then Gary Land, the name soon changed to The Far Side and Larson signed for national distribution with Universal Press Syndicate in 1984. To everyone's amazement, Larson retired the feature in 1995 And has since produced at least one children's book.

            Grant, who was the editorial cartoonist for the Oakland Tribune for 32 years, is perhaps best known nationally as a crusty newspaperman Ed Asner on the Mary Tyler Moore tv show. Early in his career, Grant had been a writer on the Duffy's Tavern radio comedy, and when one of his Tavern colleagues wound up writing for MTM, he appropriated his friend's name. Grant also inked Jimmy Hatlo's They'll Do It Every Time in the late 1940s and did sports cartoons for the Milwaukee Sentinel. His editorial cartoons were syndicated by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate and were often published in Time and Newsweek as well as newspapers all across the land. A beloved favorite in the Bay Area, Grant died last fall, September 7, at the age of 81.

            Will Eisner, the creator of the Spirit and a pioneering cartoonist in instructional comics and graphic novels, is too well-known in this venue for much elaboration. The last of cartooning's greatest innovators, Eisner has been a long-time friend and supporter of the Museum.

            Phil Frank, on the other hand, is less well-known. Deliberately. Frank created a comic strip called Travels with Farley in 1975, and in 1986, he decided to forego national distribution in order to concentrate on local San Francisco issues. Producing Farley (now no longer traveling) exclusively for the San Francisco Chronicle, Frank sidesteps the 4-6 week lead time that syndication requires and draws comic strips on today's issues that are published in tomorrow's paper. Topicality reigns. And, as any editorial cartoonist knows, commenting on local issues always gets more attentive and loyal readership than swatting at national concerns. (See www.sfgate.com/comics/farley/ )

            Says Frank: "The setting [for Farley] is the hilly city of San Francisco teetering on the edge of the Pacific Plate, existing both in reality and imagination. It's populated in real life by individuals doing the most peculiar things, providing me with material enough to last a millennium. The other San Francisco that exists solely on my drawing board is inhabited by highly evolved urbanized black bears, sensuous meter aids, fast-talking feral felines, a right-winged raven, a trio of porcine bad boys in a BMW, a cyberswami named Baba, an undercover cop named Tuslo, a homeless entrepreneur and a procession of mayors to rule the lot. The common thread that ties this motley crew together is the fearless (though sometimes fearful) Farley, intrepid reporter for San Francisco's morning paper." With all of this, Frank has a devoted local readership but no national audience to speak of.

            Among his own devotions, Frank counts the Museum, of which he has long been a supporter, contributing special drawings, artwork donations and loans, and help with special events and promotions.

            The Cartoon Art Museum recently opened the doors at its new location, its third home, 655 Mission Street in downtown San Francisco, after a year's wait for renovations to be completed in the new home. The Museum was founded in 1984 by Malcolm Whyte.

            Past recipients of the Sparky are Chuck Jones, John Lasseter, Charles Schulz, Sergio Aragones, Gus Arriola, Carl Barks, Dale Messick, Ward Kimball, Stan Lee, and Morrie Turner.

Speaking of Sparking. Here comes Slave Labor Graphics with a modest collection of comic strip remembrances entitled Spark Generators (112 6.5x10" pages in paperback, $13.95). Produced under the auspices of the Cartoon Art Museum that we were just extolling, this book was inspired by inspiration. Herein, over two dozen cartoonists pay tribute to those who sparked their creativity: they draw comics about their idols and the very moments that inspiration smote them on the brow. Here's Tony Brandl with a three-pager in which he records his meeting with Jules Feiffer at a book signing and making such a pest of himself that the police haul him off. Jesse Hamm remembers (and imitates) Wilhelm Busch. Bill Morrison similarly thanks Jack Kirby, Elzie Segar, Bob Oksner, Dan DeCarlo, Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder, Al Capp, Matt Baker and Robert Crumb by drawing a panel in the style of each. Jeff Bonivert tells his hero's life story with a six-page sequence about Murphy Anderson. Scott Shaw revisits moments in his life when he encountered the work of such luminaries as Dr. Seuss, Carl Barks, Bill Hanna, Joseph Barbera, Jay Ward, Mort Walker, Gilbert Shelton, and others. Barb Rausch recalls Bill Woggon and succeeds in drawing herself only from the back (with emphasis on luxuriant hair). The irrepressible Donna Barr pays tribute to artists and writers: "Art is the rhythm," she says, "and writing, the melody." She also salutes, in the book's most memorable line (quoting Dan Barr), as someone definitely "not an influence"-Henry James, "who chewed more than he bit off." Wish I'd said that. Jeff Smith is here with Bone and Pogo, and Creig Flessel contributes memories of jobs done over a long lifetime in art, starting in 1936, when, he says, he was a "walk on," joining Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, Vin Sullivan, and Whitney Ellsworth to do covers for the pioneering comic books, More Fun, Adventure, and Detective. Clips from his oeuvre are sprinkled with lively sketches as Flessel recalls his models-from Howard Pyle and Matt Clark to Al Dorne and Stan Drake at Johnstone and Cushing, an agency shop where cartoonists could park their drawing boards and freelance, paying the rent by doing comic strip advertising jobs as assigned. Profit from the book's sale goes to benefit the Cartoon Art Museum, a worthy cause, but the book's worth owning on its own, too.

            AC Comics' reprint of The Sword of Zorro from Dell Comics showcases the work of Everett Raymond Kinstler, an elegant and atmospheric black-and-white production with gray tone artfully applied. Kinstler, who is interviewed in Comic Book Artist No. 17, looks like one of his idols, James Montgomery Flagg, satanic eyebrows and all, but in the artwork at hand, we can detect a little Joe Kubert. Not much; but a little. Kinstler says he admired the usual trio of pace-setters in comics, Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond, and Harold Foster, particularly Raymond's women; but the women here are his own. Kinstler used photo reference for some of his characters-Douglas Fairbanks for Zorro and John Carradine for one of the villains. The story, which Kinstler, judging from his interview, may have had a more than visualizing hand in telling, is a loping saga of a tale, stretching 34 pages, fraught with subplots and motivations and personality studies. The best of a bygone era, in other words.

            Stan Lee's take on Robin with John Byrne on the art gives us yet another bend in this let's-have-fun series of make-overs of classic superheroes. Lee's Robin is named after the bird (which Byrne has trouble drawing recognizably) not a medieval forest ranger cum highwayman, and Lee's Robin is an expert at the martial arts not a former trapeze artist. And as an abandoned child, Robin hates his parents for hating him enough to abandon him; naturally, he also hates all authority figures, but still, down deep, wants to know his parents and hooks up with Darrk who promises to help him find his. As this series unfolds, its unique feature has been taking shape. Although seeing Lee's version of some vintage superheroes is a hoot in itself, he's constructed an over-arching tale for the series, knit together by the lurking of the villainous Darrk, ostensible priest of an evil shadowy cult. In this book, we get a better look at Darrk. The plot thickens as it draws, inevitably, to a crescendo finale, which will take place, no doubt, completely in the dark.

            Bluntman and Chronic with script by Kevin Smith and art by Michael Avon Oeming is a lingering evocation of locker-room humor with an emphasis on the toilet section of the locker-room. Smith has managed to elevate tastelessness to comedy through the sheer excess of application. If you think igniting farts is high comedy, you'll love this book. Nicely drawn, too.

            For even more about cartoonists, check out A Gallery of Rogues: Cartoonists' Self-Caricatures, repleat with mini-biogs by yrs trly; check here for a preview.

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