Opus 99:

OPUS 99: News, Defining Comics (Again), Funnybook Review, Milton Caniff Profiled, Newspapers for the Elder (September 11). Jeff Smith, who has been making a career and a life work out of a comic book called Bone, is now contemplating another horizon: when Bone ends with No. 55 (next summer), he'll turn to that 1940s favorite, Captain Marvel of Billy Batson fame, to produce a 4-issue limited series by the following summer. ... Disney's next animated feature is Treasure Island, due November 27, with a difference: Jim Hawkins this time will go jaunting across space in search of treasure, accompanied, of course, by Long John Silver (but his wooden leg will be replaced by a remnant from a cyborg). ... We reported here last time that Gary Gianni was heir apparent to Prince Valiant, when John Cullen Murphy gives up drawing it; not entirely so, it turns out. According to King Features' Jay Kennedy, there is no scheduled turn-over date. Gianni has been assisting Murphy on the strip from time to time, and when Murphy steps down, Gianni would certainly be in line to take it over. But there have, apparently, been no official discussions along those lines. Sorry-Gary and all: my mistake for picking up that report (which originated elsewhere). ... Good ol' time religious imagery has invaded the funnybook realm once more: interior art for Superman: Day of Doom no. 4 has a big drawing of Superman aloft, posed and gesturing remarkably like Christ Himself in Michelangelo's "Last Judgement" fresco in the Sistine Chapel; and that "Death of Captain Marvel Statue" is an intentional mimicry of another Michelangelo masterpiece, the Pieta, a marble carving so life-like it seems to breathe. ... Newspaper strips also include some serious religion: last March, Guy Gilchrist, who also, with his brother Brad, produces Nancy, started Your Angels Speak, a seriously inspirational strip, moving it from the Internet to syndication by United Media; meanwhile, Dan Wright who drew Wildwood, the gently philosophical strip about a pastor who is a bear in the woods written with Tom Spurgeon for King, decided to call it a day and the strip ceased last winter. ...

            Meanwhile, last weekend in Bethesda, the Small Press Expo folks handed out more Ignatz Awards: Outstanding Artist, Megan Kelso for Artichoke Tales no. 1; Outstanding Graphic Novel, James Sturm for The Golem's Mighty Swing; Promising New Talent, Greg Cook for Catch as Catch Can; Outstanding Series, James Kochalka for Sketchbook Diaries; Outstanding Comic, Kelso again; Outstanding Online Comic, Jason Little Bee at www.beecomix.com; Outstanding Debut Comic, Joel Priddy for Pulpatoon Pilgrimage; and Outstanding Story to Scott Mills for "Trenches." The Ignatz Award, as I understand it, is a brick, fittingly enough. It might surprise the contest organizers to know that I have an Ignatz Award, too-given me by the Orlando Comic-Con years ago when Jim Ivy was running it. His was the first Ignatz Award, and where SPX got theirs, I dunno. ...

COMIC BOOK REVIEWS. Periodically, for no particular reason that I can detect, the 'Net lists of comics lovers suffer an upheaval that brings to the surface one more time a universal cry for defining comics. Again. Preparatory to taking a peek at one of the best examples of the artform to appear in months, here's my revised and up-dated definition:

            Comics, or works of the cartooning arts, consist of pictorial narratives or expositions in which words (often lettered into the picture area within speech balloons) usually contribute to the meaning of the pictures and vice versa. A pictorial narrative uses a sequence of juxtaposed pictures (i.e., a "strip" of pictures); pictorial exposition may do the same-or may not (as in single-panel cartoons-political cartoons as well as magazine-type gag cartoons). My definition is not a leak-proof formulation. It conveniently excludes some non-comics artifacts that the other definitions include, perhaps unintentionally (a rebus, for instance); but it probably permits the inclusion of other non-comics. Leak-proof or not, this proffer of a definition sets some boundaries within which we can find most of the artistic endeavors we call "comics." Even pantomime, or "wordless," cartoon strips-which, guided by this definition, we can see are pictorial narratives that dispense with the "usual" practice of using words as well as pictures. But that doesn't make the usual practice any the less usual. Pantomime strips are exceptional rather than usual. And the exception proves the rule: why identify these comic strips as "pantomime" if the presence of verbal content were not strenuously implied in "comics"?

            Usually, the interdependence of words and pictures is vital (albeit not essential) to comics: the presence of verbiage in the same view as the pictures gives immediacy to the combination, breathing the illusion of life into the medium. (I'm using "vital" in the most literal sense, kimo sabe.) My definition seems to exclude Harold Foster's Prince Valiant and Burne Hogarth's Tarzan and Warren Tufts' Lance. Exactly. These are not comics. They consist of pictures with text underneath telling a story. They are illustrated narratives, and they were published in the Sunday comics section of newspapers. But the place of publication doesn't make them comics. Nor is William Donahey's Teenie Weenies a specimen of comics: the feature was published in the Sunday funnies, but it consisted of a single picture illustrating a text short story. Not comics despite its venue. Comics are a species of illustrated narrative. So is a rebus. So is Prince Valiant. So are many of today's children's books. "Illustrated narrative" includes all of these as subsets. But the subsets are not interchangeable: each has distinguishing characteristics that set it apart from the others.

            And now, approaching the Point of All This, scholarship and criticism in the comics needs a critical vocabulary and a way to evaluate works of cartooning art. And I made some forays into creating both a vocabulary and a rudimentary means for evaluation in the first couple of my books, The Art of the Funnies and The Art of the Comic Book (which, if you've been sufficiently provoked, you can learn more about by clicking here). I've been accused, by those who don't read well, of founding a one-note analytical method for the cartooning arts. The products of those arts, I usually say (as I've said here), are distinguished by the yoking of words and pictures, a blend of verbal and visual elements, that produce a meaning that neither words nor pictures, by themselves, is capable of. "Distinguished" means "the best of the products"-the most distinguished of them-those in which this blend occurs. If that's not an evaluative criterion, what is?

            But-I hasten to add-examining comics for visual verbal blending is only the first step in appreciating comics. Many excellent comics do not meet the "neither makes sense without the other" criterion. Nor should they. But if we begin by looking for a verbal visual blend, then we "tune up" our critical faculties, making them more attuned than they usually are to the visual narrative content in the medium. The visual narrative content is often neglected in criticism of comics in favor of "story" criticism-that is, criticism that is essentially literary. But since the narrative, the story, in comics is made of both words and pictures, any analysis appropriate to the medium should include examination of how the pictures work as well as how the words work, and by looking for verbal visual blending, we are focussing, momentarily, upon pictures as well as words. Once "tuned up," we can examine other components peculiar to the medium to see how they contribute to the storytelling.

            Panel composition, for instance: how the visual elements in a picture contribute to (or detract from) the storytelling. (Close-ups lend emotional intensity to a speaker's utterance, say.) Narrative breakdown: how the way the story is divided into panels, into visual verbal units, paces the action and, often, creates mood. Finally, layout-useful mostly in comic books where the panels can be arranged differently from page to page to achieve a variety of effects (tall, vertical panels, a sense of height, for instance). To examine comics without discussing also the visual verbal blending, the panel composition, narrative breakdown, and page layout is akin to talking about motion pictures without looking at them.

            All of which, as preamble, brings me, at last, to Roger B. Langridge's Fred the Clown, no. 4, an absolutely exquisite exemplar of the cartooning arts. Apart from Langridge's meaty style (bold lines, waxing fat and waning thin; confident deployment of solid blacks, cross-hatching galore, gray tones and a galaxy of textures, all arrayed with stunning clarity), we have, page by page, masterful demonstrations of the use of breakdown to time the action and to create mood, of panel composition to focus attention, and of layout to tell story. The "story" in literary or purely narrative terms is simple: ol' Fred, feeling low about his lot in life-merely a clown, a profession of no social value whatsoever-discovers, through a nostalgic dream visit to the past, that custard-pie-in-the-face comedy has value. Simple. But Langridge's way of telling this story is what makes Fred the Clown art of a high order. And it's "silent comics," by the way: no one speaks a word throughout.

            Other note-worthy comics this month make use of the tools of the cartooning arts, too, albeit not quite as noticeably as Fred the Clown. But there are still things to celebrate.

            Painting as a commercial artform, one of the ornaments of another age (when Saturday Evening Post and Collier's thrived, say 1930-1955), is getting revived on the covers of funnybooks, in case you hadn't noticed. Here's a nifty example on the cover of Y: The Last Man, no. 2, by J.G. Jones. And Brian K. Vaughn delivers the second installment of his tale, enhanced in the best manner of the medium by Pia Guerra who is inked by Jose Marzan, Jr. It's a trifle wordy occasionally, but the verbiage helps create personality portraits; and the pages often erupt in pictorial storytelling-silent pictures setting mood, breakdowns timing the action for both suspense and comedic effects. In this installment, Yorick Brown, the last man on earth, is briefly captured by a young woman who intends to sell him, but he escapes (he's an amateur escape artist) with his pet monkey and finds his way to the White House, where he meets his mother, a congresswoman. And we also encounter Secretary of Agriculture Margaret Valentine, who becomes President because all those ahead of her in the line of succession were male and were killed by whatever plague is attacking every living being with a Y-chromosome. This one's got me hooked; I'll be back.

            Fables is also giving us painted covers, these by James Jean. Bill Willingham's invocation of fairy tales and nursery rhymes is penciled by Lan Medina and inked, in no. 3, by Steve Leialoha; in no. 4, by Craig Hamilton, whose strokes are blunter than Leialoha's and lack much of the fine-line feathering; but both inkers preserve Medina's meticulous work admirably. The crowd scenes in no. 4 are particularly engrossing. The situation herein is that characters from fairy tales (Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf, Beauty and the Beast, Old King Cole, etc.) have fled their "land" and have hidden out in contemporary America, attempting to pass themselves off as regular people. They've been successful so far, setting up a "shadow" civic government of their own within the usual structure. And then Snow White's sister, Rose Red, goes missing under mysterious circumstances-leaving her apartment in disarray, blood splattered all over. Snow gets a detective, Bigby Wolf ("Big Bad"), to investigate. In no. 3, Bigby determines by the quantity of blood splattered that Rose cannot any longer be alive; in no. 4, the "fables" celebrate Remembrance Day (and we get the backstory explaining this milieu), and Rose Red suddenly turns up at the party, not dead at all. What's the meaning of all this? Assembling all the cast in the livingroom at the end of the issue, Bigby promises, in the fashion of drawingroom mysteries since William Powell played the Thin Man, to explain it all-in no. 5.

            The mystery is a good enough device to get us to return, but the real pleasure in this series is in the cameo appearances by various fairy tale protagonists. Beauty and the Beast, for instance, are having marital difficulties, which have the effect of making the Beast revert to his bestial form. Icky. And then, in one of the most inspired revisitations, we have Prince Charming, who is so charming that diabetics should hold this book at arm's length whilst reading it: he's charming, all right, but also a complete cad about women, charming them into bed and then leaving them for the next conquest. Old King Cole shows up as the "unofficial mayor" of Fabletown, and as he paces his apartment, we see three fiddles arrayed in one corner, a rack of pipes in another; and when he has breakfast, he eats dry cereal from a bowl, naturally. Finally, here's Pinocchio, miffed because when the Blue Fairy turned him into a real boy, she neglected to invoke any sort of aging process so he's a boy forever and he pines for puberty.

            In no. 2 of Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, our Victorian protagonists begin to try to figure out what the alien invasion is all about. Lots of moody dark scenes and plenty of Kevin O'Neill's quirky depictions of human anatomy and physiognomy and Moore's usual expert exploitation of the medium. I suspect, however, that Moore is too literate for his audience. His text piece at the end of the book, a mock travel guide of fictional and real places, while marvelously inventive and full of fun, is likely to appeal mostly to collegiate funnybook readers, who will doubtless delight in references to Don Quixote, Sanco Panza, Montesinos' Cave, and the like. And here is a description of Trypheme by Marguerite Blakeney, who adds that she and Fanny, "as is customary with the women here," wear "only silver sandals and a kerchief, making Percy positively scarlet with embarrassment." I can't help but feel that very few of those under, say, the age of 40 are likely to recognize the punning allusion: Percy is Marguerite's husband, who, on occasion, assumes a swashbuckling identity named after a flower-the Scarlet Pimpernell.

            I confess that I have trouble with Moore's League. Why all the literary allusions when he does nothing with them? Okay: he's created the Victorian equivalent of a superhero team by bringing together a collection of 19th century literary heroes-Nemo, Quatermain, Griffin the Invisible Man, Mister Hyde (of Doctor Jekyl fame), and Wilhelmina Murray. So far, so good. But he goes no further. In the old superhero comic book team-ups, the adventures were divided into chapters, and each chapter was the province of one of the team members. Typically, the foe in a given chapter was defeated only by the application of the super-power the hero assigned to that chapter possessed. If the hero were Flash, for instance, he would vanquish the foe in his chapter through the use of super speed; and by the same token, the foe's abilities were such that only super speed could thwart him. In effect, form followed function. If Moore were to do somewhat the same, then the Invisible Man would achieve some sort of minor key triumph through his invisibility. But it seems to me that only Hyde, through sheer monstrousness (size and strength), works in this manner.

            As for literary allusions, they don't "work" either. The inn the team stays at in this issue is dubbed "Bleak House," an evocation of Charles Dickens' novel of that name. But nothing about their stay in this inn has anything I can see to do with the peculiarities of Bleak House, an indictment of England's cumbersome legal system, featuring a disfigured heroine and the startling "spontaneous combustion" of one of Dickens' more unsavory characters.

            In contrast, Willingham's use of fairy tale characters "works" in Fables. Pinocchio and Old King Cole, for instance, provide some humorous asides, comic relief so to speak, in the midst of the unfolding horror story of Rose Red's bloody disappearance. These asides are the equivalent of the pun by which Percy Blakeney turns into Scarlet Pimpernell. But the Bleak House allusion goes nowhere. The usual literary reason for an allusion is to give emotional resonance to an event or character. In Fables, for instance, assigning the detective role to Bigby Wolf-i.e., the Big Bad Wolfe-gives the detective the aura, or resonance, of "the Big Bad Wolf," which works to make the character a somewhat threatening personage. And when Willingham adds to this conception Bigby's tendency to turn into a wolf (a werewolf?) when angry, he gives his brooding protagonist an unpredictability that further enhances his menacing personna. Nothing like this is going on in Moore's League, seems to me.

            To take another example-one in another mood altogether-here's Frank Cammuso's little book, Max Hamm: Fairy Tale Detective (48 6x8" pages, paperback; $4.95). Cammuso, who in real life is an editorial cartoonist at the Syracuse Post-Standard, is having some fun here, parodying the hard-boiled detective fiction of the Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett sort. His protagonist is a pig named Max Hamm, whose partner is Humpty Dumpty, so the name of their detective agency is, naturally, "Hamm and Egg's." Dumpty, out on a case, gets killed (like Sam Spade's partner), and Hamm tries to solve the case. Cammuso presents his story in the form of a children's book-each page carrying a large wash-and-pencil picture with accompanying typeset text-but the book is littered with punning double entendres, many of which would be above the heads of the youngest readers. (You could still read this to your child, though, with pleasure for both of you.) Dumpty turns out to be not so hard-boiled as you might imagine: when his body is discovered on the sidewalk outside the King Cole Club, he's "sunny-side up." Hamm continues: "All King's horses and all of King's men couldn't put Dumpty together again. For this one, they were gonna need a spatula." Allusions like these enhance the comedy of the story. Indeed, they are the comedy in the story, and the comedy is the story. But most of Moore's allusions-like the Bleak House-don't function within the context of the story to add anything except, maybe, to tweak the egos of those readers who recognize the allusion (even if they, no more than Moore, can make nothing of it).

BOOK REVIEWS. At the risk of seeming to pan one publication in order to promote my own, let me say a few words about Milton Caniff: American Stars and Stripes (144 6x9" pages; paperback, $16.95 from Bud Plant), one of a new series of "Profiles" ("Profili") from Italy brought to us under the auspices of Glamour International. Edited by A. Becattini and A. Vianovi, this is a tidy tome which is most valuable for its extensive bibliography and the illustrations that run throughout. Many of the illustrations are rare, having seldom been reprinted; and Caniff's illustrations for fiction c. 1929 are completely new to me. (They are, judging from the presumed date of publication, for short stories published by the Columbus Dispatch, the newspaper for which Caniff worked during his college tenure.) Unhappily, either because the page's diminutive dimension or because the source material wasn't high quality, many of the illustrations are flawed: the more fragile lines drop out altogether.

            The bibliography is particularly noteworthy for its having included information about where to find reprints of Caniff's works (The Gay Thirties, Dickie Dare, Terry and the Pirates, Male Call, Steve Canyon). Missing from the citations, however, are several interviews that, as happy coincidence has it, are included in the book I edited, Milton Caniff Conversations. (I said this would get self-serving eventually. For more information about this collection, click here.) They do list John Bainbridges' New Yorker profile (1944) and Arn Saba's epic undertaking in The Comics Journal (1978) as well as the "shop talk" interview with Will Eisner (1982), but they have missed Jules Feiffer's piece (which was produced for the Festival of Cartoon Art at Ohio State University in 1986), Jay Maeder's interview in the Rocket's Blast/Comic Collector (1972), both of Shel Dorf's interviews (1978, 1985), Austin Stevens' insightful piece for Yankee (1979), and a couple articles from armed forces publications-to mention some obvious omissions. The editors don't claim comprehensiveness: theirs is a "selected" bibliography, but I'd still expect Feiffer and Stevens to have been turned up by their researches. They also list the titles of the Nostalgia Press reprints but, unaccountably, fail to cite the publisher by name.

            The book's text (both in Italian and English) purports to trace Caniff's biography, and it is here that the editors occasionally blunder. Some of the errors may arise from the writer's unfamiliarity with the language of his source material or American environs. Since there is a Miami in both Ohio and Florida, for instance, the editors assume it is Miami, Ohio, that Caniff went to for a summer's employment between high school and college. Not so: it was Florida, and it was while on an outing near the Everglades that Caniff was bitten by mosquitoes, and one of the bites eventually caused (it is supposed) the phlebitis that kept him out of the military during World War II (a somewhat crucial biographical fact that is missing from the recitation herein).

            Most of these errors are of a minor sort. L.A. Brophy, the AP editor who recommended Caniff for a staff job was in Columbus, not Chicago. John T. McCutcheon was the editorial cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune, not its "cartoon director." And Male Call was not, as Graziano Frediani asserts in the Foreword, a "gag-a-day strip"; it was once or twice weekly. But in two areas, the erroneous assertions are, relatively speaking, monumental.

            It is claimed, for instance, that Caniff made notes and preliminary sketches for Steve Canyon "while still working on Terry and the Pirates." Perhaps he did. (In fact, I'm pretty sure he did.) But Caniff always claimed that he didn't draw a stroke or write down anything about his new strip while still under contract with the Tribune-News Syndicate for Terry: if he had done such preliminary work, the Tribune-News could claim it owned the strip because Caniff had developed it on "company time." So by what route did the editors come to the conclusion that he filled his spare hours during his last two years on Terry by sketching ideas for his new strip?

            More serious, however, is the perpetuation of the canard that Noel Sickles, who developed the chiaroscuro inking technique that Caniff appropriated (always crediting Sickles for the inspiration), drew "entire sequences" of Terry. The two cartoonists shared a studio during the early years of Terry, and they often assisted each other. Sickles was doing Scorchy Smith for AP, and, while he loved drawing, he hated making up stories and writing dialogue; Caniff often helped him out with scripts. In return, Sickles often helped Caniff by drawing backgrounds (particularly those involving equipment) in Terry. This much, Caniff has always admitted. But there is absolutely no evidence, beyond the opinions of comics historians and would-be art critics, that Sickles drew "entire sequences" of Terry. And since Caniff has always expressly denied this sort of ghosting, we might do well to show our respect and admiration for the cartoonist by believing what he says. At least until actual evidence to the contrary can be produced.

            And while a few sleuths are out looking for that evidence, I'll be mounting my evidence that Sickles did not draw Terry, which will appear in the inaugural issue of a new magazine called Comic Art from the publishers of Illustration magazine. Sometime this winter; look for it.

            Meanwhile, for the sake of a copious bibliography and the unveiling of a dozen or more hard-to-find pictures drawn by Caniff, pick up a copy of this book. Apart from the occasional erroneous factoid, the book over-all is admirable for the amount of detail it's managed to stuff into an astonishingly succinct narrative. And keep your eye out for No. 96 of Comic Book Marketplace, which will contain several pieces on Caniff, written by yrs trly, and numerous nifty pictures.

CIVILIZATION'S LAST OUTPOST. Let us begin with a modest heresy: newspapers, distracted by what they perceive to be the most potent of the reading population for advertisers, are neglecting the demographic with the highest discretionary income. Ironically, that overlooked segment of the populace already inhabits the newspaper domain. It requires no courting; it needs only a little TLC of the tender lovin' care kind.

            The conventional wisdom in newspaper publishing sees Baby Boomers and Generation-Xers as the age groups whose purchasing power advertisers are most eager to attract. And newspapers, zealous about cultivating a readership that will attract advertisers, have, for a few decades now, pursued 21-36 and 37-50 age groups with special sections and features designed to recruit them as regular readers. And I'm not saying this is wasted effort. But it has, I believe, so commanded the attention and effort of newspaper executives that they have overlooked an equally potent demographic, one that is already loyally theirs. Us old folks.

            Surveys have for years indicated that newspaper readership "skews older." People over 50 are the largest demographic in the U.S. One out of three Americans falls into this group. And it's probably the fastest growing demographic around. By 2030, if present trends continue, there will be more Americans over 65 than there will be children under 18. And today, people 65-69 have the highest discretionary income of any demographic; and people over 70 come in second. Boomers and X-ers haven't comparable discretionary income because they're meeting the financial demands of raising families and sending kids to college. People over 50 represent the greatest untapped potential in our society.

            I admit that I could be wrong about newspapers' ignoring the fogey population. But judging from the funnies, the conclusion seems inescapable. If newspapers were at all conscious of and sensitive to their most loyal readership-the ones with the most money to spend on advertised products and services, the largest portion of the readership-then the funnies wouldn't be published at such diminutive dimension as they are. As small as they are, they're hard for codgers like me to read. And if newspapers aren't making it easy for me to read the comics, then the newspapers may fairly be accused of ignoring my needs as a loyal subscriber.

            Newspapers are scarcely alone in this. According to the issue of License magazine published in conjunction with last summer's trade show, License 2001 International, held in New York City in June, the over-50 demographic is the "untapped" age group. Ironically, an AARP-Roper report claims that per capita income peaks among those in their 50s.

            If demographics embody the compelling logic of a consumer culture, then citizens over 50 represent the most fertile field for newspapers to cultivate. And my guess is that newspaper readership will always "skew older." Even the Boomers and X-ers who resist the blandishments of newspaper promotional campaigns and don't become regular subscribers while booming and x-ing-they will all, inevitably, skew older as time goes by. And once they get past the frenetic years of raising and colleging their offspring, they'll have more spare time, and they'll start reading newspapers then because they'll have the time to.

            But just to make sure of their loyalty, newspapers ought to print the funnies large enough for us squinty-eyed geezers to read. They should enthusiastically adopt the philosophy espoused and enunciated most forcefully by Signe Wilkinson, editorial cartoonist at the Philadelphia Daily News (syndicated by Washington Post Writers Group), who said, memorably: "Cartoons are a reason people read newspapers. Thus, newspapers should have more rather than fewer, run them bigger rather than smaller, and should feature them prominently rather than hide them."

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