Opus 85: Awards and Alarums, Rescue and Reviews, and Other News (April 10). Clay Bennett, editorial cartoonist for the Christian Science Monitor with national syndication through United Media, won, after three previous near misses as a finalist, the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 2001. It was Bennett's year for awards: he had finished the year being named the top editorial cartoonist by Editor & Publisher in the journalism trade magazine's first annual Features of the Year gambit.
Bennett is one of the profession's most skilled artisans. He draws his cartoons in the old-fashioned way and then scans them into his computer and adds tints that ultimately give his work a three-dimensional almost photographic appearance. Unique though that may be among today's cross-hatching and duo-shading editorial cartoonists, Bennett's most distinctive quality is in his dramatic deployment of imagery, often without words, to assert his opinion. Many of his colleagues are as much verbal in their commentary as they are visual, but Bennett leans heavily on visual metaphors, the unique province of editorial cartoonists.
For a comment upon the anthrax scare, he drew a rural route mailbox the tubular shape of which morphed into the barrel of a revolver, a dramatic representation of the death threat of anthrax by mail. In another cartoon, workmen are building a fence around a house with the fence is labeled "Security" and the house "Privacy"; the workmen are building the fence with boards taken off the house. A stunning visualization of the civil rights dilemma. In the wake of the September 11 atrocity, Bennett drew the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center with the soaring parallelism of their ribs converted into the stripes on an American flag, an apt representation of the attack as an assault on America.
The recognition of his achievement must be gratifying to Bennett, who was a finalist for the Pulitzer for three years running but didn't win. And his career has been similarly frustrating. His tenure at the Monitor began in 1998 following a period of freelancing (with syndication) after being fired in 1994 by the St. Petersburg Times where he'd been on staff for 13 years. It wasn't a cost-cutting move: the paper had been hiring regularly for the editorial staff. But the editorial page editor was relatively new and said, simply, that Bennett didn't meet his standards or serve the needs of his department, double-speak for "failing to conform to the paper's editorial stance." Whatever the case, Bennett didn't flinch, and the E&P and Pulitzer awards certainly honor his commitment both to his artistry and to his principles.
Bennett has been honored frequently before, having won two National Headliner Awards and three Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards. And this is the fourth or fifth time running that the Pulitzer has been awarded to a editorial cartoonist not working in the style of Pat Oliphant or Jeff MacNelly.
This year's RFK Journalism Award for editorial cartooning (promulgated recently) went to Signe Wilkinson of the Philadelphia Daily News, another talent not in the Oliphant mold.
Speaking of Oliphant, his cartoon on priestly pedophilia (see Opus 84), predictably, rattled Catholic cages all across the land. The newspaper in Columbia, Missouri (where I was last week) ran the cartoon and then, deluged with outraged reader response, apologized for running it. Ditto in Troy, New York, where the editor of the Record explained that she had intended to pull the cartoon but, at the last minute, had been called away to attend to a front page emergency and, in the throes of that evolution, forgot about Oliphant. Too bad. Careless, careless.
There've been a lot of these misguided editorial judgements lately, it seems to me. Editors have repeatedly over the last six months been apologizing for running cartoons that, after readers react, are discerned to be in poor taste. Before readers react, the cartoons seem to be fine-a little edgy perhaps, but within the realm of legitimate comment. This circumstance is, of course, an occasion for rejoicing: the more reader reaction there is, the more the power of the editorial cartoon is reaffirmed. And, at the same time, that power is impressed upon the editors who, otherwise, might be tempted to think editorial cartoons are frills they can easily abandon.
I've never seen or heard of an editor apologizing for a written editorial. I wonder why. Probably the written word does not incite readers to respond as readily as the verbal-visual comment does. Again, testimony-irrefutable, I'd say-that editorial cartoons are powerful instruments for conveying and shaping opinion. More powerful than words.
Meanwhile, taking one of the nation's most potent editorial cartooning berths, Tom Toles was hired by the Washington Post, which has spent an agonizing six months looking for a suitable replacement for Herblock, an institution in the nation's capital and across the land, who died last fall, having drawn editorial cartoons for over 70 years. (For more on Herblock, click here to be transported to the appropriate spot in Harv's Hindsights.) Although a liberal like Herblock, Toles is in no other way much like his predecessor. Herblock's drawing style set a fashion for a generation of editorial cartoonists; Toles' style is eccentric and individual and will probably not be much imitated. His cartoon is frequently in 4-panel strip format. Says Toles: "My artistic style is not really derived from the world of cartooning. I started as more of an illustrator. I wasn't interested in or capable of drawing the way most cartoonists draw. I primarily use the cartoon as a vehicle of opinion rather than humor. Humor is a crucial part of cartoonng, but I've always felt the opinion need to come first." Like any master of his medium, he makes humor serve his commentary. In a recent cartoon, he showed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld telling reporters that the boarded-up Office of Strategic Lying in the background was out of business; then when the reporters leave, Rumsfeld says to someone behind the closed door, "They're gone."
Like Oliphant, Toles signs his cartoons with a "dingbat": not a penguin, like Oliphant, but a tiny sketch of himself at the drawing board, usually making some acerbic comment on the shennanigans depicted in the larger drawing. A recipient of the Pulitzer in 1990, Toles has been at the Buffalo (NY) News since 1982, when his previous paper (since 1973, when he graduated from the State University of New York at Buffalo), the Buffalo Courier, folded. Tall, thin, and bearded, the 50-year-old Toles is described as self-deprecating and shy (although when he won the Pulitzer, he displayed the award for everyone to see by riding a unicycle around the newsroom at the News).
With the job filled at the Washington Post, the nation's remaining great cartooning billet, the Chicago Tribune, is still open since the death of Jeff MacNelly almost two years ago.
The National Cartoonists Society (NCS) announced the finalists for its annual cartoonist of the year award: Pat Brady (Rose Is Rose), Greg Evans (Luann), and Jerry Scott (who writes Zits and Baby Blues). One of the three will receive the heavy metal trophy, the Reuben, at the NCS convention in Cancun, Mexico, May 25. At the same meeting, Jerry Robinson will receive the Society's Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award. Robinson, who began his cartooning life working on Bill Finger's Batman (creating the Joker), is the only person to have served as president of both NCS and the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC). Founder of the Cartoonists and Writers Syndicate, Robinson was largely instrumental in securing recognition and compensation for Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, the creators of Superman.
Both Brady and Evans have been nominated before for the Reuben; in fact, this is the fourth or fifth final appearance for both. Scott's presence in the list marks the surfacing of a new policy at NCS, aimed at dealing adequately with the issue of co-creators. NCS does not grant membership to the writers of comics; and in theory, the writer of a comic strip cannot receive a Reuben. Some years ago, the Society changed its rules in this regard: now, any cartoonist who qualifies for membership can receive the group's highest award. And Scott is a cartoonist as well as a "writer": he drew and wrote Nancy for several years and is therefore fully qualified for membership in the club. Moreover, although Scott is credited as "writing" Zits, his writing consists of rendering the strip in rough drawings. His partner, Jim Borgman, then produces his drawing of the strip, following (but not inking) Scott's pencil sketches. Presumably Scott works the same way in writing Baby Blues for Rick Kirkman to draw.
CLIPS AND QUIPS. The Cleveland Plain Dealer has committed the unthinkable: it dropped Cathy, the niche strip for young working women. It also dropped nine other strips, including Judge Parker (another strip that seemed secure forever, rendered in a style as wooden as Cathy's) and Spider-Man, both of which apparently prompted more expressions of outrage than the Cathy cancellation. ... Cathy, meanwhile, celebrated its 25th anniversary with a cover story in Cartoonist PROfiles, No. 133 (March 2002), which reprinted the very first strip (November 22, 1976) in which Cathy is drawn normal-sized! That is, her head is not the same size as her body. ... At the Times-Union in Jacksonville, Florida, Mr. Potato Head was cancelled as a "pretty much universally disliked" strip; which goes to show, you can't always hit readers where they live with a feature so carefully contrived to capitalize upon the popularity of another product in popular culture. ... Dan Piraro, whose panel cartoon Bizarro appears in 200 newspapers nation-wide, is now going on stage with a one-man comedy act, consisting of showing slides of his cartoon and telling anecdotes about them, and he "does" puppets, a mind-reading fish routine called psychic salmon, and sings songs he's written; having seen this performance (at NCS's Reuben weekend in Boca Raton last year), I can recommend it unreservedly. ... In July, Humanoids Publishing, a subsidiary of a multi-faceted international conglomerate, will revive the magazine Metal Hurlant, the graphic-story magazine that inspired Heavy Metal; the first issue will include work by Kurt Busiek who teams with Gerald Parel on "Hunter's Moon." ... Raggedy Ann, the famous ragdoll created by cartoonist Johnny Gruelle in 1915, finally made it into the National Toy Hall of Fame, belatedly joining Mr. Potato Head, the Hula Hoop, the Slinky, Silly Putty, and Barbie in the pantheon. Barbie is also based upon a cartoon character-in this case, a trollop of a dish, the title character Lilli in a slightly risque German cartoon about a sexy young chick that first appeared in 1952 in Bild Zeitung; subsequently, Lilli was turned into a doll sold to men in tobacco shops. As Craig Yoe tells it in his fantastic book of cartoon trivia, Weird but True Toon Factoids (Random House, $5.99 everywhere): "Ruth Handler brought a Lilli doll from Europe and copied her to make a doll for little girls. She named her Barbie." For more about Yoe, see below, the unedited version of "Catching Up With Craig Yoe" that didn't make it into the Comics Buyer's Guide, No. 1483. (No, nothing nasty in it, kimo sabe: just a more complete portrait of our manic friend.) ...
Top Shelf went on a roller coaster ride last week, going bust and boom in less than 24 hours. The publisher was nearly destroyed with its distributor, LPC Group, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on April 2 because its bank, despite assurances to the contrary, impounded LPC's funds, which meant LPC's checks to publishers that week bounced. Top Shelf was hit with a shortfall of nearly $20,000. Desperate, Chris Staros turned to the Internet, told his story, and asked comics fans to rescue the company by buying quantities of its books forthwith. And they did. "Within 12 hours," Staros wrote, "we received over 200 phone orders and 850 on-line and e-mail orders. This staggering 1,000 orders had not only made us operational again, but has also reaffirmed to us that the comics industry is back, revitalized, and ready to take on the world." An event of the heart surely; but the quantity of orders for books, ironically, means that Top Shelf is unable to get all orders fulfilled and into the mail the next day, an operational point of pride with the company. Asking for patience, Staros and his crew plunged into their shipping department. Meanwhile, LPC is almost certain to recover. Chapter 11 does NOT mean the company is going out of business: this law gives a financially shaky company time to reorganize its finances for survival. Marvel did it. Many others have, too. And so, we are reasonably assured, will LPC. And all financial transactions after LPC's April 2 filing are protected, so the money will be forthcoming.
COMICS COVERAGE. Newspaper articles about comics don't usually appear except to explain why a paper has dropped a favorite strip or to exclaim over the latest thousands of dollars a rare comic book has garnered at auction. So when at least two newspapers launched regular columns on comics, we sat up and took notice.
One appears at the site of the online City Paper; go to www.citypaper.com and then click on "Funny Paper." There, writers Scocca and MacLeod treat comic strips as individual newsstories and summarize the events in many widely-circulated strips. They begin each installment with an introductory commentary on whatever phenomenon of the week strikes their fancy. For December 31-January 6, they noted that "raising a glass to the New Year has become a vanishing art" in comics. If we are to judge from the ways strips celebrated the New Year, "the denizens of the comics pages seem to be ringing in 2002 with sober reflection." No drinking in evidence.
Their weekly summaries by strip are often sarcastic in a comedic mode. About Mother Goose and Grimm, they once wrote: "Friday, Mother Goose replies to a clerk's 'paper or plastic' question with a smirk. 'It doesn't matter,' she says. 'I'm bi-sackual.'" Why is Mike Peters trying to do Adult Humor? Saturday, Grimm tosses a coin into a wishing well. 'I wish to be really popular with lady dogs!' he thinks. Presto! He's a fireplug. Hey, Peters: Female dogs don't lift their legs on fireplugs. Moron. Why is Mike Peters trying to do humor?"
Sarcastic, like I said.
At the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, comics are treated less flippantly in a column that started a year ago. "Drawn & Quartered" appears on Sundays, written most of the time by Burl Burlingame, occasionally alternating with Gary Chun and, sometimes, Wilma Jandoc. When I asked about its focus, Burlingame said: "D&Q was created to treat illustrated storytelling seriously. It's mostly about comics, but semi-related stuff like movies, anime, video games, comic books, comics-influenced movies and tv get covered from time to time." They've done pieces on war comics (last June in the wake of the Pearl Harbor movie and again in October), romance comics, manga, and Alex Ross's painted Wonder Woman: Spirit of Truth.
These discussions sometimes include such riffs as this from Burlingame: "Every comic artist loves to draw figures. They doodle constantly at the human form. It's a kind of shorthand, telling stories with pure body English. And every artist I know prefers the slap and energy of the original pencil sketches, before the idea has been ground down into ink dust." You can tell he knows.
D&Q is available online, too: go to www.starbulletin.com and do a "Search" for "Drawn & Quarterly." In the print mode, the column often features "Strip Show," a space where local Hawaiian cartoonists can display their efforts, but this doesn't appear online.
Time magazine also sponsors an online column on comics, Time.comix by Andrew D. Arnold. (Go to Time.com, then look for Arnold under "Columnists." Otherwise, the URL is longer than the Mississippi River. Somewhat like the next one cited here, in fact.)
For the discovery of this trove and for his continuing effort to round up all the news about cartooning (thereby providing me with a handy source), we're indebted to Michael Rhode of the Comics Research Bibliography (http://www.rpi.edu/~bulljo/comxbib.html).
REVIEWS. If your newspaper doesn't run Brooke McEldowney's 9 Chickweed Lane, you're missing one of the supreme treats in comics. But now you can get just a taste of McEldowney's banquet of visual whimsy in a new Andrews McMeel collection, a mini-paperback called Hallmarks of Felinity (96 5x6" pages, $8.95) that reprints those of the published strips that deal with the antics and attitudes of a cross-eyed Siamese cat named Solange. The book is an unabashed paean to cats and is, therefore, aimed at cat lovers. But it is also a book of strips by a cartoonist who loves to play with his medium, and it is therefore for comics lovers, too.
A little background. Three generations of women reside at 9 Chickweed Lane-grandmother (a widow), mother (a divorcee), and a teenage daughter (with all the usual adolescent baggage). And they have a cat, the aforementioned Solange. McEdowney explores their lives and interactions in the strip, but he does so with an emphasis on the visual aspect of his medium. Pictures, he believes, can be funny-or, at least, mildly amusing-themselves, without necessarily regaling us with a boffo joke every time.
"I don't really feel I have an obligation with every cartoon to turn out a yuck," he told me. "I actually decided at one time that it would be nice to work with a design idea or the concept of black-on-black, say." And so very often, the "joke" is a strip in which McEldowney plays with the visual illusions that are the cartoonist's stock-in-trade, giving us something pleasant to look at or to figure out.
Of the women, McEldowney delves most often into the mind of the teenager, and in a recurring set piece, she is practicing ballet. In installments of this exercise last fall, for instance, Edda (the daughter) is practicing before a mirror, and McEldowney plays visual tricks with the duplicative imagery and the multi-panel format of the medium. The pictures are virtually puzzles, and their solutions amuse us.
In one strip, Edda, attired as always in her black leotards, is depicted against solid black background, and only her head, bare arms, and ballet shoes show. In the doorway in the distance, we see the silhouette of the family Siamese, a mute audience to Edda's antics. Stunning.
The cat in the distance is a carry-over from another series of set pieces, "Hallmarks of Felinity," so its appearance with Edda in the ballet series is, in effect, a continuation of McEldowney's exploration of the psyche of the animal. In another series in which imagery reflects mental states, Edda's mother Juliette imagines herself to be the jungle heroine, Panther Woman, and we see her swinging on a vine through the strip's panels.
McEldowney's playfulness is on vivid display in the little book at hand. Individual strips are printed on two facing pages, one installment to every spread. In many instances, the first page gives us a visual puzzle; the second page, its "solution." The first panel in one strip is a picture in reverse (white on black) of a page of music with the notes ascending the musical scale in a steady, regular, upward progression; in the next and final panel, we see Gran, who has just turned on a lamp, illuminating the previous "dark" environs, and the lamp light reveals Solange, sitting on the "high end" of the keyboard of a piano. The Hallmark of Felinity being exposed-"Night Vision."
The strip is nearly a perfect example of the kind of complexity McEldowney toys with, playing the sequential panel structure of a strip like the narrative and visual instrument it is. The first panel's implicit question-Why a musical scale in a comic strip?-is answered by the succeeding panel. And it, in turn, is complicated too: with a single visual cue, McEldowney gets us to envision Gran clicking on the lamp and beholding, not at all to her surprise, the "cause" of the musical racket that has awakened her in the middle of the night. The cat has been walking along the keyboard, from the low note end to the high note end. And now the regular, ascending pattern of notes in the first panel is masterfully explained. All the pieces of the puzzle fall into place at once. And our sudden grasp of the meaning of it all is pleasing to us; we smile. The strip's mission for the day is accomplished.
In another strip, the first panel shows us Solange, a dead mouse in her mouth, standing near the sofa, and a feminine foot and ankle protruding into the panel on the right. The next panel reveals that the foot and ankle belong to Juliette, who is presently nearly prone on the sofa, necking with her boyfriend. The Hallmark of Felinity-"Sense of Occasion."
Here's an opening panel with Juliette in a state of frantic desperation, lunging across the panel, left to right, reaching for a flower vase that seems suspended in mid-fall. The second panel "explains": we see Solange, walking slowly along the mantlepiece, from left to right-now at the far right-and in her wake, every object on the mantlepiece is falling off (vases, decorative boxes, the clock, a china egg). The Hallmark of Felinity-"Grace."
And Solange is perfectly, gracefully, rendered. A cartoon embodiment of "cat." And of Siamese. I should know: I own one. (Or, to be truthful, she owns me in the manner of domestic cats everywhere.)
McEldowney seeks challenges in the strip. He avoids speed lines, for example, substituting other ways of showing motion-hair disrupted, skirt billowing-implying motion rather than resorting to overt lines. Such maneuvers, he explained, make the strip a little more engaging for him to do. "Less of a job," he said. "Or more than a job."
A musician (viola) with two degrees from Julliard as well as a cartoonist, McEldowney thinks of music and graphic art as running "concurrently," neither impinging much upon the other. "Graphic art functions, in the main, to convey images extrinsic to it," he once wrote; "music communicates only itself."
But both require composition, and composition, he believes, is a writer's domain. "We may draw," he says; "our drawings may be wordless. But the technique for a cartoon's composition-exposition, conflict, resolution-is a writer's. We are purveyors of drama-short and concise. As I think about it, this is one area where the composer [of music] and writer and cartoonist virtually merge in the manner by which they cobble their wares. A composer invents thematic material that must be introduced, played against other themes, and then developed before a resolution is achieved. No decent play or novel or cartoon is wrought any differently, save, in the cartoon's case, for considerations of brevity."
The humor in Chickweed is character based, he realizes: "Edda is teetering on the brink of puberty, wild to grow up, catalyzing conflicts within her mother [a divorcee and a professor], and between Juliette and her [old fashioned] grandmother. Basically, it's the setup for a sit-com. However, when I'm at my best, the gags arise from the emotional chafing of character against character in ways very peculiar to these characters."
And, he points out, "I rely a lot, in my humor, on posture and movement, where a character's physical attitude is critical to the gag." Perfectly exemplified, I might add, in the ballet series. Or the felinity series. Or in any of a dozen examples I could muster.
McEldowney draws on a digital appliance (that's "computer," tovarich), using a wacom tablet, but he puts a sheet of paper on the tablet so that it "feels" like drawing on paper when he draws. His line is a model of graceful elegance, flowing with a liquid clarity which he embellishes with gradations of mechanically induced gray tone. The result is a pleasure to see. And the comedy on display is a pleasure to figure out.
Andrews McMeel has also produced another in a seemingly unending parade of Dilbert books. This one, Another Day in Cubicle Paradise (128 8.5x9" pages in paperback, $10.95), begins with February 5, 2001, and reprints the strips in strict chronological order, including Sundays, until November 11, 2001. It's nice that they're all reprinted in order and with the dates still evident. Just in case, for scholarly purposes, you need to refer to the strip for July 20 by date since it is one of the rare examples of pictures functioning in tandem with the verbal content to produce the joke. Captioned "The Sociopath," the strip shows us that worthy, Ron, at a table in a restaurant on a date with the pyramid-haired Alice. He says, "Tipping is optional so I never do it." Alice says, "Um, have you eaten here before?" And in the last panel, we see the waitress throwing a roll at Ron, hitting him on the head with it and saying, "Here's some bread." And now we know: yes, he has eaten there before.
Actually, there are quite a few strips here in which the pictures contribute something to our understanding that yields a joke. Not all talking heads, in other words. But all, still, drawn with the skill of a Leroy letterer. Funny, though, very funny.
CATCHING UP WITH CRAIG YOE. "This is Yoe-tel, confirming your reservation," the voice on the phone said. It took me a minute. What reservation? Then, remembering Craig's penchant for substituting his last name for any "o"-sounding syllable in the English language, I realized it was Craig on the line. I was planning on being in the Peekskill vicinity of New York in a couple weeks, and I'd taken him up on his long-standing invitation to stay overnight at his place. Yoe-tel, ho-tel. He was calling to confirm my arrival date.
"C. Yoe in the funny papers," he ended the conversation.
Craig Yoe, C.E.O. of Yoe! Studio (or, as he would have it, "C.E.Yoe"), started out in life as a designer at Marvin Glass & Associates, a toy think tank in Chicago, where he worked on My Little Pony and Transformers, among other giddy gadgets. Marvin Glass is the home of chattering teeth and Simon and plastic vomit, just to give you an idea of the kind of education Yoe was getting there. When he'd had enough, he left and joined Henson Associates, the Muppet manics, levitating through the ranks to become vice president and general manager, which involved supervising the shop that built the puppets.
"Feathers and ping pong balls were my life for awhile there," he said.
After Jim Henson died in 1990, Yoe, now fully feathered and fledged, decided to try his wings, and, with Clizia Gussoni as his partner, he founded Yoe! Studio, which specializes, we might say, in concocting designs and concepts that will enhance and advance the commercial well being of franchise properties like the Pillsbury Doughboy, the Powderpuff Girls, the Crocodile Hunter, and Austin Powers. For such characters, Yoe! Studio creates style guides for companies to use in developing products with the licensed characters. Yoe! also designs logos, toys, web sites, advertising schemes and packaging vehicles, T-shirts and lunchboxes, and anything that can be improved with application of a slightly looney sense of humor.
The studio designed one of the most outrageously successful gimmicks in Taco Bell history-the Monster Eyeball Straw. For Nickelodeon, Yoe! helped make Slime and Gak household words. For Mudd's jeans for teen girls, the assignment was to conjure up a promotional scheme that wouldn't compromise the product's underground image, so they invented a 16-page quarterly teenage magazine that is distributed in the back pockets of the jeans.
See what I mean? A little lunatic.
Yoe's first post-Henson project was a book called The Art of Mickey Mouse. Craig invited nearly 100 internationally known artists to interpret the character. "The success of the book helped establish the Studio as an innovative player in the licensing industry," said the New York Times. "Disney C.E.O. Michael Eisner loved the book so much that he flew to Rome and presented a copy to the Pope." A similar effort, The Art of Barbie, inspired an exhibit at the World Trade Center. Mostly in pink.
The client list for Yoe! Studio includes AOL Time Warner, Nabisco, Pepsi, Microsoft, and that ilk. And the Studio has worked with dozens of cartoon characters-from Superman to South Park, Spider-Man to Snoopy, Betty Boop to Batman. The Studio redesigned Big Boy and now produces the comic book; ditto for bubble gum's Bazooka Joe.
Craig Yoe was last seen regularly on the pages of the Comics Buyer's Guide with a full-page feature called "Yo's Weird but True Toon Facts," which was launched about the same time as Yoe! Studio took flight. On the "Weird" page, Craig presented pictures and prose that retailed wonderfully strange factoids from the kingdom of cartoons. "There's a Disney employee named Allyson Wonderland," for instance, with a picture of Disney's Alice. Or, "Dick Tracy's creator Chester Gould was buried with a hand-painted Dick Tracy tie and a Tracy Crime-stoppers badge."
Or "Mickey Rooney took his first name from this little 'toon," accompanied by a picture of Fontaine Fox's "Himself" Mickey McQuire, the roughneck kid in Toonerville Trolley.
Or "Holy Underwear, Batman! Fashion designer Andre Van Pier makes Bat Bras in platinum going for $4,500! Spun gold versions are a steal at $3,500! The perfect gift for someone you know with a Dynamic Duo!" Which pun Yoe made clear with an accompanying photograph of a model wearing the aforementioned unmentionable.
Most of these exuberant examples of cartooning lore are collected in a pun-riddled tome called Craig Yoe's Weird but True Toon Factoids, published by Random House and sold for a ridiculously low price of $5.99 or something equally demeaning, 100% of which proceeds go to the Children Affected by Aids Foundation and the Milt Gross Fund, a charity of the National Cartoonists Society for cartoonists in need and their families. The book is an unabashed delight, full of bizarre facts, wildly cavorting word play, and scores of cartoons and rare visual aids.
The book is dedicated to Betty Yoe-"the only known mother who didn't throw out her son's comic book collection when he went to college!"
Yoe's passion for cartooning is scarcely a well-kept secret, but it was one of his high school chums, Dave Scroggy, who got the Studio into its latest long-term comics project. When Mike Richardson decided he wanted Dark Horse to produce statuettes of vintage comic strip characters like the syrocco figurines manufactured as premiums by Farina Cereal in the mid-forties, he turned to Scroggy, his products honcho, and Scroggy thought, immediately, of Yoe.
As soon as Scroggy described what he and Richardson had in mind, Yoe was 'tooned in: "They wanted a period-style, slightly primitive but charming look," he said. And as far as I'm concerned, they hit it on the button.
Craig showed me the prototype for the first one, Krazy Kat, several years ago during the Sandy Eggo Con. "What do you think of this?" he said, thrusting the 4-inch tall figurine into my hands. "Do you think the mouth should be open? Or just smiling, like it is?"
Krazy was strolling along, strumming on a banjo. "Just smiling," I said. And I immediately cornered Scroggy to see that he'd reserve one for me when they went into production.
Yoe and his staff have now produced (with concentrated effort from Jayne Antipow and Liz Mercer) over three dozen of these classic figures. They all incarnate the look of the period. They have the visible seam that identifies them as figurines pulled from a mold, but the mold seems to have been cast from a wood carving. And the figures are somewhat antiqued in the painting process.
Each one comes in a full-color tin box with that "old timey" feeling. And inside the box are a tiny booklet about the cartoonist and a pin-back button with the character on it.
Although my visit to Peekskill was purely social, Craig tried to convince me I was serving some official purpose: they were poised to produce the Albert figurine half of the Pogo-and-Albert set, and he suggested I could "consult."
Finding the offices and nerve center of Yoe! proved to be not quite as easy as you might think if you were given, as I was, its address. Craig neglected to mention that Chateau Rive is the name of a building not a street, and so the number he gave me is the room number, not the street number. But the road to Chateau Rive doesn't go anywhere else, so after I'd phoned Craig to get another set of directions, I was soon there.
High on a bluff, the crenellated edifice that houses Yoe! Studios overlooks a wide placid bend in the Hudson River below. Above the peaceful prospect and within the dignified castle-like pile lurks the manic engine of a zany creative enterprise that is undoubtedly best represented by bug-eyed comic characters capering enthusiastically across any handy vista of print or celluloid.
Once a residential girls school (and the setting for the 80s tv sitcom "The Facts of Life"), the building surrounds a courtyard in which a fountain gently burbles in the midst of the cloistered green sward. Craig escorted me through this medieval ambiance to a stairway tucked into a corner (just as similar structures had been in castles of yore). Up a flight or so we went until confronted by a door with a large "Yoe" on it, the "o" transformed into a bulging eye. Or was it a gaping mouth, tongue extended? I've forgotten.
Inside, a riot of color and shapes. Samples of all the toys designed by the Studio crouch on shelves or hang from the walls. Also Tweety, Porky Pig, Snoopy, Little Lulu, a cut-out of the state of Texas map. Yoe's abound-eyeballs, ping pong balls, pink tongues protruding. At every desk (and the Studio staff numbers about fourteen), a computer, flashing designs or columns of figures. Heaps of paper on tabletops. In short, the usual chaos of a workplace but augmented, here, by a cartoon sensibility.
The "office" was formerly an apartment with a suite of rooms, perhaps a dozen, one leading into another, and occasional connecting hallways corkscrewing through the maze. On the wall in one hallway, a framed original comic book page, Rattlesnake Pete, colored by its creator, Boody Rogers, whom Craig describes as "the world's greatest cartoonist." Across the top of the comic strip is Rogers' inscription: "To Craig Yoe-This ran in the first comic book ever." It's signed "Boody G. Rogers"; the "G" is for "Gordon."
Huddled in one alcove, three or four staffers were brainstorming about a new project. Next to that room, the Kermit bathroom, adorned with images of The Frog and laminated green. Down the hall, the Barbie bathroom-pink and laden with Barbie dolls and festooned with paintings thereof, relics of the book (and one that didn't make it into the book).
Craig thinks of these environs as a theme park rather than as a studio.
The so-called conference room we eventually reached was decorated to look like a wooden wall in the Sunday funnies-bright yellow with brown woodgrain and knotholes painted on. We sat at a round table on chairs that looked like Mickey Mouse's red short pants. A flock of antique Mickey Mouse figurines were gathered on a windowsill; a life-size cutout of Austin Powers gestured hypnotically at us.
I looked at syrocco statues of Terry and the Dragon Lady from Terry and the Pirates, Daisy Mae and Li'l Abner, Little Orphan Annie, Nancy and Sluggo, the Phantom, and Fearless Fosdick.
"Krazy Kat and Popeye and the Phantom and Felix the Cat are sold out," Craig said. "And these are all limited editions and won't be re-issued. We all know well and love the old comic strip characters of this period, and we did everything we could to be true to the original cartoonists. I think the love shows in the products. And the fans have responded accordingly.." (For a list, try www. darkhorse. com and go to "Product" and then "Statues.")
I looked at the Albert statue. Caroline Kelly, Walt Kelly's oldest daughter, had already been there and had approved it, so I concurred.
Later at Chez Yoe, the Yoe-man's private domicile-a building with a chateau-like aura, its entrance flanked by two-story turrets-I toured the walls upon which Craig has hung many framed original cartoons, several of George Herriman's Krazy Kat.
"Herriman was an artist," Craig said, capitalizing Artist. "Maybe the only true artist comics has produced. But I don't know what the hell Herriman is trying to get across 99.99% of the time. It has something to do with art and poetry and love and life, though-I'm sure of that. I once confessed to Patrick McDonnell, Herriman's biographer and creator of the comic strip Mutts, that I don't 'get it.' He laughed and said he didn't either. But I think he was being kind, and he probably gets a lot more than I do because he is my intellectual superior.
"And Bill Blackbeard," he continued, "he probably gets far more than me 'cause he is really smart in the headbone, but I believe there's a lot in Krazy Kat that Bill doesn't get either. And that makes me feel a little bit better. What I can appreciate is the beautiful art and drawing and inking and compositions-and the color when he did 'em in color. That stuff, as opposed to the content, is much more accessible-and sometimes breathtaking."
On one livingroom wall, a series of small shelves are arranged stairstep fashion up to a platform just below the ceiling. The cats of the household ascend these stairs to the ledge and then perch there. When they get bored with that, they can descend by going through a round porthole in the wall and down into the next room via a ladder, the feet of which are encased in women's high-heeled shoes.
We talked about comics and cartooning.
"When I was a kid," Craig said, "I bought a big comic collection which included a three-foot stack of comics by Jesse Marsh. I thought the art pure crap but hung on to them for a while 'cause people like Alex Toth spoke highly of Marsh, and I thought maybe they'd grow on me or something. Finally, I got rid of them as I needed the space. A few years later, I finally 'got it' about Jesse Marsh and have deeply regretted getting rid of those comics ever since. Marsh had a lyrical quality that I can compare only to-Herriman! And the stories were absorbing, gentle, and fun, too. I really want my stack back," he finished wistfully, "-and an original page!"
Ah, but don't we all want our stacks back? At home a few days later, I took my Krazy Kat statue off the shelf and admired it. If you have a lot of these things, you need to take them off their shelves to study them every so often. They appreciate it.
For more about Krazy Kat, you could do no better than consulting my book on newspaper comic strips, The Art of the Funnies; for more about that, click here. It's an excellent book, even if I do say so myself. And, of course, I do.
To find out about Harv's books, click here.
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