Opus 98:

Opus 98: CIVILIZATION'S LAST OUTPOST (August 29). Hallowe'en is here already. If we are to judge from the displays of plastic pumpkins and rubber masks in the stores, the annual spook-out is just next weekend. Hallowe'en is, after all, the second most consumer intensive holiday of the year after Yuletide (or, before, to be chronologically correct), but do we need to rush it in the same Christmas spirit? ... And what about the latest fashion that has us all buying up jeans that have been dyed to look wrinkled in front and threadbare in the back, as if we'd been wearing the garment for several uninterrupted months in the wild. Is this really an advance in Western Civilization? Where's the laundry and dry-cleaning lobby when we need it?

            How many more comic books with skimpily-costumed "bad girls" can the market support? Probably, judging from successive issues of Diamond's monthly Previews, a lot more, sad to say. For the male adolescent, there can never be too much nearly naked (or entirely naked) female epidermis on view. The adolescent appetite for sexual stimulation is, apparently, insatiable. So we can expect the deluge of embonpoint to continue. The sardonic tone here may strike some as peculiar, coming, as it does, from a one-time cartoonist who peddled pictures of barenekkidwimmin in amusing sexual situations. While I still peddle pin-ups of this ilk at comic conventions, I gave up doing "girlie cartoons" years ago. Maybe I grew up. Or maybe I realized, at long last, that I'd drawn cute girls in just about every pose imaginable and once I started repeating poses, I got bored, lost interest, and went on to something else. I was, in short, no longer an adolescent. But the adolescent male never loses interest. And that brings me to the next topic, which makes a statement about the relative maturity of our civilization here between the  shining seas.

            I am continually amazed (not to say aroused) by the display of magazine covers on the average newsstand these days. All beauteous female faces and cleavage. Some of these productions are so-called "men's interest" magazines: Gear, Maxim, Stuff, Front, Bust, Flex, King, Stun (notice the inventiveness of the titles), FHM, SFX, Rolling Stone, Muscle and Fitness. But even women's magazines are promoting decolletage-Cosmopolitan, Elle, Glamour, Jane, even Good Housekeeping, Vanity Fair, and Gentlemen's Quarterly (with Heidi Klum as Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, Bardot, etc.). Oxygen, no less, joins the parade. There is (pardon the expression) no end in view. Adolescent preoccupation gets another jolt in specialty magazines offered through the mail. Here's a catalogue advertising "hundreds of videos and magazines for lovers of naturally hairy women." I'm in favor of natural, naturally, but I'm a little put off by the merchandising of it.

            In the midst of the brouhaha about the Pledge of Allegiance, Hendrik Hertzberg at The New Yorker observes that the real offense in the Pledge is grammatical. "The phrase ['under God'] has been inserted in the wrong place. It should be 'one nation indivisible, under God.' As is, it sounds as if it's God that's indivisible (which would be news to the Trinitarians among us). Also the flow would be better." I agree, but grammar was never anyone's favorite subject except for mathematicians, none of whom are ever elected to Congress or elevated to the judicial bench.

            Dan Gillmor at the San Jose Mercury News observed recently that the entertainment industry is stealing from us all. By extending the strictures of the copyright law every time Disney's exclusive right to Mickey Mouse seems threatened, Congress is in collusion with the entertainment cartel, "taking works that would otherwise enter the public domain and keeping them private." The function of the copyright law, according to the Constitution, is "to promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." For "limited times," not forever, the present inclinations of the cartel to the contrary notwithstanding. The cartel's present drive for "absolute control [of copyrighted material forever] means demolishing the rights we users of copyrighted material have enjoyed for centuries, such as the fair-use right to make personal copies or to quote from copyrighted works. It means carving away what's left of the public domain, shrinking the public commons from which so many creative works have emerged in the past." The cartel argues that without the extensions of the copyright law, anarchy will prevail-no creative person will ever be adequately compensated for his or her work. Maybe; maybe not. But the real fear of the entertainment industry, at the root of its desire to protect forever such vagaries as "intellectual property," is fear of "the end of the business model that has centralized control over much of our culture, a system that has produced extortionate profits for companies that have a remarkable tendency to cheat the artists in the process." Hear, here. The irony of the Mickey Mouse extension, Gillmor says-that "Walt Disney got rich by using material that had fallen into the public domain-is utterly lost on the current operators who run the conglomerate." The heirs of the Brothers Grimm got nothing from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but, using that material, Disney expanded the capacity of animation, setting a new standard for the medium. Somehow, we should reach a realistic compromise, seems to me-something that guarantees financial reward to creative persons for a period of time somewhat less than the combined longevity of their heirs for generations to come.

            Back to Normalcy: To celebrate the first anniversary of 9/11, Cartoon Bank is again offering a print of Art Spiegelman's September 24 New Yorker cover. Called "Ground Zero," it dramatically, stunningly, suggests the twin towers of the World Trade Center in two somber tones of black (flat and glossy). Last fall's signed and numbered version sold out, the proceeds going to the September 11th Fund. The new version is smaller (18x24"), unsigned and unnumbered and unlimited. It's available from www.cartoonbank.com/groundzero.asp for $240 (matted and framed for $340). The proceeds this time, however, do not go to the September 11th Fund. Clearly, the nation and its money-grubbers are back to normal. And while we're at it, where, exactly, did all that money we spent on li'l flags go to?

NOUS R US. Bud Plant reports that Gary Gianni is the heir apparent to take over drawing Prince Valiant in some future year when John Cullen Murphy decides to give it up. ... In Bill Griffith's Zippy strip, Zippy re-drew himself with a square jaw and chiseled nose in order to keep company with a bland beauty from Romance comics who has wandered into the strip of late; Griffy, anxious to rescue Zippy from the "politically correct enticements" of the girl-her "heavy mascara and constant sobbing"-convinces her to return to her origins ("where everyone's nose is chiseled"), and she leaves on August 27, saying she's "not ready for a man in a muu-muu."... Bruce Tinsley's Mallard Fillmore makes the pithy observation that "if current trends in education continue, the only two subjects taught in public schools will be 'tolerance' and 'zero tolerance.'" Given the National Education Association's website guidelines for celebrating 9/11 in the classroom (among them, that teachers refrain for identifying any ethnic group as the terrorists-despite a public record that brims with accusations and evidence about Islamic extremists), I'm veering off in the direction of actually agreeing with ol' Webfoot. ... Alan Light, once publisher of the Comics Buyer's Guide and, subsequently, of Spin and Vibe magazines, appeared in the August 5th issue of The New Yorker with an article about Bruce Springsteen's new album; I'm jealous, naturally, but not so much because Light made it into a magazine to which I, on occasion, have aspired to. No, I'm envious because his article is illustrated by Al Hirschfeld's caricature of Springsteen. ...

            Forthcoming Events. On November 8, the New York City Comic Book Museum will present its first Golden Panel Award for Excellence in Comic Book Art and Storytelling; we are referred to www.nyccbm.org for details, and there we will find the usual voting categories-best writer, best artist, best publisher, etc. And here I thought we might really have something. ... And the 100th anniversary of the Teddy Bear approaches. This cuddly creature of the cradle was named for Theodore Roosevelt, who, near the end of his first year as President of the U.S. (December 1902), went on a hunting trip in Mississippi. Alas, they flushed no bears for the fearless Teddy to bag until, at last, a pack of hunting dogs forced an exhausted bruin into a pond where a guide roped it and thumped it on the skull with his rifle butt. Roosevelt, summoned to make the kill, found the bear, which weighed less than he did, stunned and tied to a tree. TR, sportsman that he was, refused to shoot at such a pitiful target and commanded that it be put out of its misery. Someone else killed it. With a knife, Edmund Morris reports. But Teddy suddenly got credit for a kindly act of mercy: the editorial cartoonist Clifford Berryman of the Washington Post drew a cartoon depicting TR turning away in disdain from a cute little bear. Readers took to the bear, and Bear-yman started affixing a small, roly-poly bear to his signature. Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, Rose Michtom, wife of a candy store owner, made two stuffed toy bears, which her husband put in the window of his store, calling them "Teddy's Bears" and offering them for sale at $1.50 each. The demand was so great that the Michtoms set up the Ideal Toy Company to meet it. In German, another entrepreneur, toy manufacturer Margarete Steiff, started producing stuffed bears; in 1907, the first year "teddy bear" appeared in the dictionary, Steiff sold 974,000 bears. It still sells more than 800,000 a year. All because an attentive cartoonist drew a cute bear cub with fuzzy ears.

COMIC BOOK REVIEWS. Here she is at last: bending over to adjust her hose (and presenting, thereby, an uninterrupted vista down the front of her shirtfront), her posture suggesting the "P" in The Pro, Garth Ennis' send-up of superheroicism adorns the cover of her own book, deftly illustrated by Amanda Conner and cleanly inked by Jimmy Palmiotti. As previewed, this character is a Working Girl whom one of the galactic power (the Voyeur-ooops, I mean the Viewer) picks to confer superpowers upon in order to prove that "any human" can be a hero. I confess that I was a bit leary of what Ennis, renowned for his potty mouth and execrable taste, would do with this material, but he has produced an absolute hoot of a comic book, the last word in re-imagining the comic book universe of superheroes as if they all had human faults and quirks. Ennis confines his scatological humor to showing us the Pro breast-feeding her infant, sitting on the toilet, dangling a cigarette continuously from her mouth, and saying "fuck" in all its configurations. As a concession to decorum, Ennis restricts her professional activity to administering oral sex. And the only superpower she engages for her work is super-speed: she can give more head a night than before. After she gets her superpowers, she's inducted into the fellowship of superheroes, meeting a Superman-type (who later submits to a blow job in order to discover what it's like), Batman-and-Robin types (about whose gaiety Ennis leaves no doubt), and a Wonder-Woman type (ditto). No, I won't tell you any more (except to say that the Superman-type's ejaculate, which the Pro evades at the last moment, does pretty much what you might expect from a super-powered being). Conner's visualizations are, as usual, superb. The Pro's facial expressions, particularly, are perfect renderings of world-weary cynicism. She has a seductive figure, but to prevent this asset from being too erotic, Conner has given her various skin blemishes and a costume the scantiness of which is somewhat de-sexualized by clashing color and bad design. Palmiotti's inks, clean and crisp, do Conner justice. This comic book is, over-all, so successful that you may be sure a reprise will be forthcoming, which, alas, will doubtless ruin the whole concept by attempting to repeat the one-shot's triumph. Image and Ennis would do well to take Walt Disney's advice, a piece of wisdom acquired when the sequel to "The Three Little Pigs" flopped: "No more pigs," Uncle Walt decreed.

            Some Number Ones. Decoy: Storm of the Century by Buddy Scalera with Courtney Huddleston on pencils and Mostafa Moussa on inks is another of those tired sf notions which inflicts upon us a cutesy extraterrestrial (little green man with a big head and a single eyeball) loose in "our" world, attached to a cop, who is something of a bumbling nerd. In this inaugural issue, we meet the nerd's competent female partner and his boss, who has lost patience with the nerd, and they all go to attend to a flood in the subway. Apart from Joe Chiodo's cover, the artwork is merely adequate: Scalera's renderings are stiff-the anatomy wooden, faces inconsistent-and his ability to draw wrinkles is impaired.

            Big Daddy Danger is an often cornball spoof of the professional wrestling universe, Big Daddy being a wrestler by night and a crusading crime-fighter by day (or vice versa) who wears a mask into the ring in order to cover the mask that is his actual face. Apparently. Adam Pollina, who writes and draws the book (with inks by Tyson McAdoo), has captured the blustery hype of the wrestling world: "A champion of the people, a Champion for the people!" Big Daddy roars, flaunting the championship belt after vanquishing a challenger-"Big Daddy Danger can bruise with the best and outwit the rest!" In this adventure, Big Daddy rescues the kidnaped mayor but carelessly leaves the mayor's daughter alone at the wheel of a getaway car, hurtling down the highway. He also doesn't spend enough time with his worshiping son; trouble ahead, no doubt. The book is drawn in a variation of the Batman animated style but with enough elaboration of facial expression to undermine the over-all design effect to which simplicity otherwise tends.

            Gotham Girls, on the other hand, while not quite achieving the design quality of page layout introduced eons ago by Ty Templeton's animated-style Batman Adventures, nonetheless paces the story nicely, the layouts adding visual variety and emphasis as well as timing, and making perfectly comprehensible narrative sense, page after page. Paul Storrie has Catwoman stealing a vial of some sort of chemical and being discovered, in mid-theft, by Batgirl. The two exchange witticisms for several pages as Bat chases Cat, and when Selina finally evades her pursuer, she finds herself in a snare of Poison Ivy's devising, with Harley Quinn's help. Jennifer Graves' pencils, neatly inked by J. Bone, present the larcenous ladies and their law-abiding opponents, Batgirl and the lady cop Montoya, in lively action, and she limns a cute physiognomy, too-including not only a variety of facial expressions, but even, from, say, Batwoman to Ivy to Montoya, subtly difference appearances. Not easy to achieve in the simple style. Given the tongue-in-cheek tone of Storrie's narrative, I'm not sure whether Selina in this one is criminally or altruistically motivated. Probably the former, but it's not clear.

            I wonder, sometimes, about the flood of books featuring bad-girls-turned-criminal. First, we had Harley Quinn, something of a one-shot lark but now, as a continuing title with Harley as the protagonist, verging into title-character-as-heroine mode. Ditto Catwoman, especially in Selina's Big Score. Selina finds humanitarian reasons for her criminality here, and it is, after all, a caper flick, but still, title characters as criminals tend to glorify, or at least elevate, criminal behavior. It was precisely this aspect of crime comics in the 1950s that Fredric Wertham was able to turn against the industry. If you trace the life story of a crook, the very form of your narrative works to make the bad guy into the hero of the piece: he's just the protagonist, of course, but as the center of the narrative, he's in the spotlight usually reserved for the hero. Are we cresting a dangerous trend? Well, I wouldn't go that far, not with Ashcroft in the Attorney General's office. After all, he looks like a hero, too. (For more about how criminal protagonists became heroes and played into Wertham's hands, see my book, The Art of the Comic Book, which is previewed here.)

OTHER COMICS. Live Nude Girls No. 2: Pretty Like a Princess is a $6.95 collection of short stories in black-and-white (with a tip-in tale in color on slick paper) by Laurenn McCubbin and Nikki Coffman, a depressing venture into the world of unhappy women who have been disappointed by men. Rendered in the once fashionable manner that outlines shaded areas of a drawing as well as the over-all dimensions of figures and forms, the drawings are more than competent albeit overwrought with technique, and they usually reveal the ironic meaning of the verbiage, which, otherwise, drones on, a voice-over (or voice-under) accompanying the pictures. Mostly what we have here is a scrapbook of bad choices made by single women. In the title story, the protagonist gets dolled up for a night on the town and winds up giving oral sex to someone she meets in a bar. Sad. I suppose "Art" that aims at realism results in depressing artworks, but I prefer more sinewy efforts, ones that aim to reveal more about the human condition than its moments of crushing ennui.

            Catwoman: Selina's Big Score, for instance, a deftly rendered and cinematically paced tale by Darwyn Cooke (96 7x10" pages in hardback, $24.95). Before resuming the Catwoman persona in the first issues of that title, Selina Kyle indulges in one more caper, scoring a small fortune by teaming up with her one-time lover, a hardcase named Stark. In the execution of the robbery, Stark dies, and Cooke gives the moment emotional resonance when the man opens, at last, to Selina. Slam Bradley shows up, too, and the whole adventure is nicely, er, "Cooke-d." The book reads like a storyboard for a film, and Cooke demonstrates repeatedly his mastery of the medium, yoking words and pictures for new meanings, and, often, relying on pictures alone to tell the tale. A veteran of tv's animated Batman, Cooke's variation on that style is achieved with a heavier line and a splashier brush that often drenches his drawings in the deep shadows of solid black, enhanced throughout by Matt Hollingsworth's colors. Cooke's cover painting alone is worth the price.

            DC's Shazam! and the Shazam Family, Annual No. 1, perpetuates the idiotic legal tactic that somehow dictates that the publisher cannot use "Captain Marvel" on the cover of a comic book about him. So, "Shazam!" But inside, we meet all those friends of our long-lost youth-Captain Marvel (the Big Red Cheese himself), Captain Marvel Junior, Mary Marvel, and Uncle Marvel (the W.C. Fields simulacrum, Mary's Uncle, Dudley Batson). The book reprints stories from 1942, 1943, 1945, and 1947, culled from Captain Marvel Adventures, Captain Marvel Junior, and Marvel Family comics, and the entire roster of the original crew of Fawcett artists, except late arrival Ken Schaffenberger, is represented-C.C. Beck and his chief associate, Pete Costanza, Mac Raboy, Jack Binder, Bud Thompson, and Marc Swayze-rendering into visual life the superlative tales of Otto Binder (who wrote all the stories herein). Captain Marvel Junior's solo story in which he encounters his celebrated nemesis, Captain Nazi, is drawn by Raboy, whose finicky fine lines always clog up too much in these reprint efforts. Junior's episode in the 5-part story, however, is drawn by Thompson, who has never been given just recognition for his deft brush and the slender athleticism of his conception of Junior. (Here, however, his Junior doesn't appear often enough to display Thompson's surpassing skill; too bad, maybe next time.)

            The stories include a couple of Binder's epoch-making efforts. From Marvel Family No. 1 (December 1945), for instance, we have the origin and death of Black Adam, Captain Marvel's predecessor in another epoch, who, when he realized the extent of the powers Shazam had given him, turned criminal. This was a Major Event in the comics of my youth, and I remember how we were all fascinated by this mysteriously evil version of our favorite longjohn hero. In an unusual, by today's standards, display of violence, Black Adam is shown breaking the backs and necks of his opponents; and in a revealing glimpse into the American prejudices of an earlier, less sophisticated time, we hear old Shazam vowing, after the Black Adam disaster, to confer his powers in future on "a boy, who would be pure and unsullied by the world." Ah, yes-those good old days when young people were pure and unsullied. By the same token, this notion reflects a curious idea about adulthood and the maturation it represents: as you grow older, you lose innocence and purity and, sullied by the world, you are perforce capable of evil.

            The 5-parter records the epic encounter of the Marvel Family with their counterparts in the family of the resident evil-doer, Dr. Sivana-Sivana Junior and Georgia Sivana, his son and daughter. In an ingenious Binder plot, a particular element morphs every 10,000 years into another element. By assembling all three (past, present, and future) versions, Sivana hopes to build a device that will defeat the Marvels and enable him to rule the world (his perpetual ambition). The paired members of the families journey through time to Atlantis, past, present, and future, to find the elements. In the last chapter, however, the Marvels, as usual, defeat the Sivanas-by outwitting them. Odd, isn't it, that the so-called geniuses (the Sivanas) should be outwitted rather than overpowered by the muscle-enhanced Marvels.

            The first story in the issue is the inaugurral appearance of Mary Marvel, and it is drawn by Swayze, who conjured her up to suit the dictates of the Fawcett editors, who, having decided to give Billy Batson a twin sister who would also summon Shazam's power, asked Swayze one day to come up with some sketches for the character. And he didn't spend much time on it. "I laid aside the Captain Marvel story I was working on and whipped up some sketches. ... I didn't work up a variety of poses and expressions as I was certain that my first drawings were going to come back, time and time again, for revisions before final approval upstairs." But Swayze was wrong: his initial sketches were accepted forthwith, and he was given the script for the first Mary Marvel story almost at once. "No conferences," Swayze wrote, "no joint skull sessions of any kind." But he wasn't too happy. "Mary wasn't ready," he said. "She had been hastily sketched for approval, but in my opinion, she wasn't ready for the road ... wasn't ready for panel after panel of appearances under inconceivable comic book circumstances." But there hadn't been time to conduct such pencil rehearsals: Mary was summoned to the stage immediately. Swayze said he did some additional sketching at home in the evenings, but the production schedule threw him into a deadline situation and he had little leisure to put his practice sessions to use. It is Swayze, by the way, who says the physical appearance of Captain Marvel was probably not patterned after Fred MacMurray. Despite Beck's assertions in later years, Swayze, who started in Beck's shop in 1940, very near the beginning, says he doesn't remember Beck, who visualized the character initially, ever mentioning MacMurray, although he did mention Frederick March. Much of this sort of information can be gleaned from the Fawcett Companion, a 160 8.5x11" square-spin paperback from TwoMorrows ($15.95) that reprints a wide array of articles about Fawcett, many written by the principals (Beck, Costanza, Swayze, executive editor Will Lieberson, art director Al Allard, writer Rod Reed). TwoMorrows also publishes the magazine Alter Ego, which features a department about Fawcett, including a regular column by Swayze. For more information, visit www.twomorrows.com.

BUSHWAH DEPARTMENT: Political Comedy for the Masses. A somewhat steady dribble of Bushwah over the last year has asserted, sometimes in terms of the purest wonderment, that the terrorists "hate our freedom." This utterance, like the claim that the American voter approved the Bush League agenda by "electing" Dubya, is an over-simplification that verges on outright mendacity. It is a non-explanation on a scale so colossal that only a simpleton could aspire to it. That it is offered to the nation says more about the Bush League's opinion of the voting public than it does about the people who blather the statement. Why avoid the truth? Because the truth, or even an approximation of it, doesn't reflect well upon the policies of the Bush League. To the extent that the Islamic world despises the U.S., it does so because it hates change, and capitalism yoked to free enterprise is the very engine of change. They hate capitalism because of the unrelenting exploitation of human and natural resources that capitalism represents. They hate capitalism because it is the embodiment of colonialism, the "all for me and none for you" philosophy of rapacious entrepreneurial enterprise. It seems too bad that the Bush League doesn't grasp this simple fact because its foreign policy (the "you're either with us or against us" and "our way is the only way" mantras) is but another nuance of the same colonial attitude that earned us the enmity of the Muslim world to begin with. And so we perpetuate the image and attitude that cost us nearly 3,000 citizens and our pride on 9/11.

            And then we have the current effort to make it harder for individuals to declare bankruptcy. Well, it is a little silly to make it too easy for people to escape the consequences of their profligate purchasing. But then, Harper's Index tells us that half the bankruptcies filed last year were filed because of medical expenses, not irresponsible buying of consumer goods. So who, you ask, will benefit from making it harder to declare bankruptcy? Why, creditors, of course-the business community that extended the credit to begin with. Meanwhile, Harper's tells us that the total profits of Fortune 500 pharmaceutical companies were up by 35 percent last year, compared to the profits of all Fortune 500 companies, which were down 54 percent. Ahh, y'gotta love those Bush Leaguers. Their logic is irrefutable: they're the same folks who believe we can eliminate forest fires by cutting down all the trees. Who can argue with that logic?

SALE BOOKS. Two this week. I managed, in error (my usual operating mode), to acquire two copies of DC's Spirit Archive, Vol. 7 (July-December 1943), a nifty hardcover priced at $49.95; you can have this one, unread-untouched by human hands-for merely $20, plus $3 p&h. And, a real vintage item, a library-bound (and now discarded) copy of Dave Breger's 1966 How to Draw and Sell Cartoons. Creator of WWII's Private Breger (which, in post-war years, became Mister Breger), Breger produced what may be the very best "how to" book around. I use parts of this one in the course I teach. And its section on perspective is the clearest I've ever encountered. Includes examples by numerous cartoonists and pages of Breger's own cartoons, which he carefully analyzes for gag style and composition techniques. Just $7 plus $3 p&h. To order, e-mail me via the click-on somewhere below. First come, first served. And I'll tell where to send money.

            Stay 'tooned.

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