Opus 101: WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY AND HE IS WE (Grammatically Correct RCH). (October 4). Yes, I know, Hallowe'en comes on Thursday this year, not, as the above diatribe would indicate, on Friday. I'm simply using an old gimmicked-up piece of art to illustrate this illustrious anniversary celebration. I submitted this several years ago to the Comics Buyer's Guide on the occasion of another Pogo anniversary (maybe the 50th). But it wasn't used. Roughly a third of what I submit to CBG isn't used. They haven't room, they tell me. So this column shows up in print only once a quarter or so, whenever, apparently, several of the editorial staff are out-of-town and those who remain behind get desperate for material.
But the reason the above counterfeit Kelly wasn't used was for the very good reason that the EE (Esteemed Editor), Maggie Thompson, a passionate Kelly fan, doesn't think any of Walt Kelly's art should be published that isn't, actually, his. That is to say, we shouldn't tamper with the Master's drawings. We shouldn't change his intention (as I did by supplying the persiflage in the speech balloon). Being something of a purest myself, I'm sympathetic to this position. In fact, I'm even a little chagrined at the sinning I did. I didn't tamper with the drawing, though-just the words. Still, I altered Kelly's intention, thereby desecrating his Art. But I hate to work in vain. Having written a new speech for Churchy, set it in type, made it fit the balloon, pasted it into the artwork, and made a printable copy thereof, I am reluctant to let the artifact languish. Reluctant but not opposed. And it would have languished forever, unseen by human eye, except that I thought about it when mustering the remainder of this anniversary celebration. So here it is. And here am I, shamefaced as usual.
The desecration was inspired by the historical fact that the newspaper comic strip version of Walt Kelly's famed Pogo debuted on October 4, 1948, in the New York Star, a doomed liberal voice among the Big Apple's daily newspapers. Pogo appeared only in the Star, so when the Star died the following January, Pogo died, too. Briefly. Then Kelly persuaded Robert Hall of the Hall Syndicate to take it on, and the nationally distributed version of Pogo started on May 16, 1949.
Although the date that's our benchmark this time marks the debut of Pogo in the Star on October 4, that is not really Pogo's birthday. Pogo, as every schoolboy knows, first surfaced in a comic book called Animal Comics. He was in the very first issue. The first issue appeared 60 years ago, so we're commemorating Pogo's sixtieth birthday here. And I'm commemorating it by publishing a correction that I submitted last winter to CBG but which, like a third of what I submit, didn't get published. It may be published this year; maybe not. But, as I've said before, I hate to do work in vain, so I'm posting this correction up here in the ether. Here's how it went:
Last year-specifically in the summer of 2001-Maggie Thompson, the Esteemed Editor (EE) of the Comics Buyer's Guide, told me and other contributors that one of the December issues would celebrate the 60th anniversary of Kelly's masterpiece, inviting us to contribute something appropriate. I was delighted. In fact, I was so excited by the prospect that I immediately dropped everything (as I am wont to do when everyone else around me continues, steadfastly, to hold everything firmly in their collective grip) and wrote something for the occasion. (It was a review of a freshly available videotape of the notoriously scarce animated film, "We Have Met the Enemy," that Kelly and his wife Selby created in 1972, a review which follows anon.) I was so eager to join in the celebration that I never thought about the anniversary itself. Not at all. And it wasn't until I held the commemorative issue (No. 1466, December 21) in hand and looked at the reproduction of Pogo's first appearance in Animal Comics No. 1 that I realized we'd made a mistake.
It wasn't Pogo's 60th anniversary at all. Animal Comics first appeared in the fall of 1942, probably November, with a publication date of December 1942‑January 1943. So Pogo wasn't sixty years old in December 2001; he was merely fifty‑nine. How could we have committed this Drastic Fubar?
Easy. Many have perpetuated the error before us. Most conspicuous among them, the Overstreet Price Guide, which gives the wrong date for Animal Comics No. 1, December 1941 ‑ January 1942. But that's wrong. (Write it down: wrong.) That the wrong date is so readily accepted may be explained by Kelly's career, which, at first blush, seems to be missing, strangely, most of a year.
Raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Kelly had puttered around in a series of dead-end jobs until the love of his young life, Helen Delacy, went off to California at the end of 1935; he followed her there and took work at the Mouse Factory, where he remained until May 1941. That month, the Disney Studio was stuck by disgruntled workers, and Kelly, who had friends on both sides of the picket line, took a leave of absence, ostensibly to attend to a sick relative (his sister) back in Connecticut. He never returned to California.
It would be convenient for biographers if, after arriving back East, Kelly went to work immediately for Oskar Lebeck at Western Publishing, producing the first issue of Animal Comics later that fall. And this chronological convenience may be the chief reason that people so willingly suppose that Animal Comics began late in the fall of 1941. But that's not what happened. It would be a year before Animal Comics appeared.
In that year-from roughly June 1941 to, say, September 1942-Kelly was drawing other features for Western, the first of which showed up in Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies No. 3, which appeared on the newsstands late in 1941. Kelly drew "Kandi the Cave Kid" for that issue and the next three and then intermittently for three more. But his most impressive work of this period was on the first issue of Fairy Tale Parade, cover-dated April 1942. And he did miscellaneous other work for Western. But it wasn't until the summer or fall of 1942 that he produced the first Pogo drawings for the inaugural issue of Animal Comics, dated December 1942 - January 1943, as I have been saying.
Kelly himself contributed to the confusion about Pogo's birthdate. In later years, he told and re-told versions of the conception of Pogo, each one with his tongue more firmly in his cheek than the last time. In about 1946, he wrote an inside-front-cover introduction to Pogo for Dell's Four-Color No. 105, which was published in CBG No. 1406 last year. Under the heading "To Whom It May Concern," Kelly says flat-out that it was in 1941 his friend, Prof. Rover Boysenmexico, was hit on the head with a bottle containing "chewed bits of paper" upon which were written "tales" about Albert the Alligator and "one Pogo Possum, a possum by trade." But by 1953, when Kelly wrote another such front matter introduction, he'd narrowed the birthdate down to 1942. Given the bemused state of Kelly's mind on the topic, it is not surprising that EE herself fell into this pit of error.
"We've had 1941 as the Pogo debut for years," she confessed, "popping it out of our database every year ending in 1 or 6. And why? Why, because, at some point, we locked in Overstreet's information, which has been wrong ever since he started listing Animal Comics. Anyway, I didn't even catch it when I scanned my copy of Animal Comics No. 1 for the Pogo piece. I'd have caught it if I'd been able to have reference to the Kelly checklist Don and I put together years ago, but hunting for that sort of thing is why I had to build the addition on my house" (which addition, I footnote, enables EE to store old funnybooks in an orderly and easily-findable manner).
So now we have it right-1942. And the beauty of it is that this year we get to celebrate Pogo's 60th anniversary all over again. We could go on like this forever. And now, just to make up for helping to perpetrate so colossal an error, here's that "Enemy" review I wrote for the anniversary issue. (It didn't make it into CBG either.)
POGO'S ENEMY. Last winter (that is, in March 2001) at the annual PogoFest in Waycross, Georgia, I finally witnessed a screening of the seldom seen animated Pogo cartoon, "We Have Met the Enemy." Never commercially released, the film was created by Walt Kelly and his wife Selby in the wake of their disappointment with the 1969 tv production, "The Pogo Special Birthday Special," directed by Chuck Jones. For the Jones production, Kelly wrote the script, including the songs and some of the music (and he voiced Albert, P.T. Bridgeport, and Howland Owl), but the animation is decidedly "Chuck Jones" not "Walt Kelly" despite some brilliantly executed swamp scenes in purples, blues, oranges and pinks by Bob Inman. Kelly had hoped for something closer to vintage Disney (the kind of Disney cartoon he himself had worked on in the 1930s). He enlisted Selby in a new project, and the two of them together produced two "pilot" films. One is twenty-four minutes long; the other, twelve.
The longer of the two is not actually an animated cartoon. It is, rather, a storyboard with a sound track. Nothing moves except the camera, which pans across scenes, zooming in sometimes, and tracking back at other moments. The sound track is all Walt Kelly: he provides a narrative and the speeches for all the characters (changing his voice a bit from one to another) plus the occasional sound effect.
The 12-minute "Enemy" is animated: everybody moves. There are a few shortcuts here and there, but the over-all effect is a unique and stunning cartoon. The Kellys managed to preserve the undulating thick-and-thin-line ambiance of the comic strip artwork, for one thing; and then, to give the film a softer, swampier "feel," they laid in the color with colored pencils, which yields a somewhat sketchier and therefore more casual imagery instead of the mechanical precision of the usual solid-color method. In some of the animation, pencil lines underlying the final animated artwork can be discerned. And all the backgrounds bear the distinctive Kelly curlique embellishments in linework as well as succulent reds, yellows, and browns and the occasional turquoise-blue.
The earthtones are scarcely accidental. The film contemplated in the two pilots was intended to support the ecology movement. Kelly hoped it would be shown annually on Earth Day as a public service with local tv stations filling out a thirty-minute time period with spliced-in minutes of civic leaders explaining what their community was doing in support of Earth Day and ecological principles.
The story in both versions is the same. Upset by the pollution they find in the swamp, Pogo and Albert go looking for the cause. There are a few comic incidents en route, but they finally discover Mister Pig at the Fort Mudge Memorial Dump, and he and his piglets seem to be pouring refuse into the peaceful lagoons of the swamp. Upon further investigation, however, it turns out that the pigs are only disposing of detritus that Pogo and Albert and others have thrown away. And so we come to the celebrated conclusion that "we have met the enemy and he is us."
Although the plots are essentially identical, the longer of the two versions includes a segment in which Albert seems to hallucinate. In a nightmarish manner, he sees pollution everywhere and almost drowns in the muck-infested swamp with its "sulphurous vapors" (a Kelly turn-of-phrase). And then he realizes that he's not dreaming: the muck is there, everywhere. Presumably, had the fully animated film been completed, it would have included this segment.
At the end of the longer film, we see P.T. Bridgeport sitting beneath a tree, gazing lugubriously out over the fetid swamp and pleading for a better tomorrow -in Kelly's lyric phrasing, "a fragile day as yet unborn, as yet unknown."
The shorter film has a somewhat happier ending. But the message in both is the same: we are all culpable when it comes to pollution.
Each of the pilots was intended to be used to drum up funding for a fully developed animated film (which would probably have included animation of the storyboarded Albert nightmare sequence). Unhappily, funding sponsorship disappeared before the project could be completed, and Kelly recycled the story in the book, We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us.
The short animated version was never entirely completed. The story is complete-that is, it comes to an ending (albeit without Albert's hallucination). And the action of the characters is fully animated, but in a couple of segments, the characters cavort without backgrounds. Still, it's a unique bit of Kellyana, and now we can all own our own copies of both the short and long versions.
Both the original films were copied onto a high quality Betacam SP tape, and each of the copies now available is a direct VHS copy from that tape. I screened mine before penning this epistle, and I must say I'm entirely happy with it. The sound track on the short version seems a little difficult to make out (but then, my battery-powered hearing aids might have been running low), but the sound in the longer of the two films is fine, and it's a hoot to hear Kelly babbling on, ad lib, excitedly describing scenes and actions and then voicing all the characters. And the still drawings (sketches, loose and lively) are quite as charming as anything Kelly ever produced. The moving pictures are even better, of course; but the stills are nothing to turn up our nostrils at.
For your copy of this famously scarce artifact, order via the 'Net at http://www.idiom.com/~lexmark/WHMtE.htm; or send a check made out to Selby Kelly for $34 (which includes packaging and postage) to: P.O. Box 2006, Mill Valley, CA 94942. The guy opening the mail on the other end will be Mark Burstein. Overseas orders: contact Mark at this address or via eMail at email@example.com or phone 415-768-1306 during normal business hours Pacific time.
The only other animated Pogo, incidentally, is the 1980 "claymation" from Stowmar Productions. Although intended for theatrical release, it came out only in videotape, first through Fotomat Drive-Thru Movies as "I Go Pogo," then as "Pogo for President" through Disney Home Video. Making liberal use of the comic strip scripts for Pogo's several runs for the presidency, the film sounds like Kelly in its characterizations and southern-friend lingo. But it is wholly lacking in satirical political relevance. Without that edge, it is just so much nonsensical vaudeville.
Claymation works well for the rubbery characters Albert and Churchy and the occasional frog but falls dismally short of capturing such furry creatures as Pogo and Miz Hepzibah and Porky.
The best animated Pogo is in "Enemy"; and now you can own your own. And if you want to keep up on Kellyana, the place to do it is in Steve Thompson's bi-monthly Fort Mudge Most, "the official newsletter of the Pogo Fan Club," $25 for 6 issues; make checks payable to Spring Hollow Books and send yours to that institution at 6908 Wentworth Avenue South, Richfield, MN 55423.
NOUS R US. Time warp time-Erik Larsen celebrated the 100th issue of his Savage Dragon by cranking out a 100-page epic that examined, in a spiraling cycle of chapters, what the world would be like if one man's life had taken a somewhat different turn than it did. "How could a single instant change the course of human history? Witness the deadly domino effect as one event cascades into another and forever alters the very planet itself." I have a tough time, now, in my dotage, keeping track of all the slippery elements in a time-travel tale, so I might be mistaken here, but it seems to me that this whole magilla serves to explain Dragon's origin. Doesn't it? It sure felt like it, concluding with the narrative jolt of the last revealing picture, a vuja de with a vengeance, that conjures up the short-term memory of the same picture earlier in this issue-and the long-term recollection of the same scene scores of issues ago in the title's run. The effect was not unlike the experience I had reaching the end of Alfred Bester's Stars My Destination. Larsen turns the whole thing on its head. Or inside-out. Upside-down. But thoroughly explanatory. Seemingly. Stunning. If, that is, I'm reading this a-right. By the way, Larsen pencilled most of the issue and inked a couple dozen pages but recruited inking help from ten friends for the rest, chapter-by-chapter. An awe-inspiring achievement, kimo sabe.
The Comics Buyer's Guide celebrated its 1,500th issue at the end of August but, as Editor Maggie Thompson noted later, without any fanfare of the usual drums-and-trumpets sort. Instead, they ran a short article about an EC comic book of the 1950s that told medical stories. The comic's cover illustrated the story and proclaimed the anniversary. The book's title is MD, and MD in Roman Numerals is 1,500. Nicely done, gang. ... The Week magazine, a sort of Reader's Digest of the week's news (which is what Time set out to do when it started in the 1920s), continues to delight with its capsuled but comprehensive coverage, including original full-color political cartoon covers and a reprint page of political cartoons inside. The cartoons are harder-hitting than the array Newsweek gives us every week, but they aren't, yet, displayed attractively on the page. Aiming, no doubt, for the largest size possible (an admirable motive), the editors have opted to put three on a page, letting them overlap each other on the corners and leaving strange white space at the edges. The magazine remains slim (about 40-50 pages) and economy-oriented: it's printed on newsprint albeit with generous use of color (including four-color photos), but the last few issues have sported a double-truck ad at the beginning, so probably the magazine is beginning to break even. Soon, we may expect to see all sorts of jazzy, expensive improvements, which, I suppose, will threaten to destroy the uniqueness of the periodical. Sigh. ...
Next year, on June 21, the first day of summer, the Martin Beck Theater on West 45th Street in New York will be renamed for Broadway's premier caricaturist, Al Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld will be 100 on June 21st and will have spent over three-quarters of the century illuminating the New York stage and its denizens. Said Hirschfeld: "I'm startled. It's incredible. I'm touched." Rocco Landesman, president of the company that owns the Martin Beck Theater, said: "It struck me as the most natural and obvious thing in the world. He's such an iconic figure. When I was a kid, the way I visualized Broadway was Al Hirschfeld. As far as I knew, Hirschfeld was Broadway." The Martin Beck was named for a vaudeville impresario who built the theater in 1923. ... A retrospective of Hirschfeld's work from 1927 to the present closed September 8 at the Morgan Library in New York, but do not dispair: Hirschfeld gets an annual show in the Otis Guernsey/Burns Mantle Theater Yearbook, The Best Plays of [the Year]. For the last 10-15 years, this compendium has included a gallery of that season's Hirschfeld drawings, some of which have never been collected elsewhere (and may never be, given that the personages in them might be mere flashes in the pan and disappear never to be seen again). ...
CIVILIZATION'S LAST OUTPOST. At the risk of incurring grammatical ridicule, The Sopranos is back. With a vengeance. That, of course-vengeance-is a regular motif of the show. But the season's debut on Sunday, September 15, wreaked a vengeance of quite another sort. It racked up a record-breaking viewing audience. And it did so in spite of the broadcast networks' conviction that, in the wake of September 11, 2001, tv watchers wanted softer, "family friendly" shows to watch. Wrong again. The Sopranos are back, as I say (and this time on the other grammatical foot), with a vengeance.
I admit that for three seasons I've avoided this HBO hit because of its fucking language. Surely, I thought, genuinely creative personages could figure out a way to invoke New Jersey's gangster milieu without resorting to the coarsest language in the culture. Watching the show would implicitly endorse the bankrupt imagination that wallows in maledicta. On the other hand, the culture has coarsened wall-to-wall a good deal in the last couple decades. Even I, puritan that I am, use fucking language when, er, aroused.
I still think that "fuck you" is not an all-purpose term of endearment and using it in screenplays is a sign of intellectual feebleness. But I've started watching The Sopranos. It started when I wandered into the local Blockbusters and paused by an entire ceiling-to-floor rack filled with videos of the first, second, and third seasons of the show. What's all the fuss about-really? I wondered. The opportunity presented itself to discover the answer by beginning at the beginning. And so I rented the tape with the first three episodes on it; and now, my wife and I have watched all of the first two seasons. We're hooked. But while we enjoy the show (despite its language), we don't see it as the creative triumph that the Emmy people do. And we don't think any of the acting-with the exception of Edie Falco's-is comparable to the excellencies of Dennis Franz's interpretation of the conflicted Andy Sipowicz on NYPD Blue.
The more serious question, however, is: Why is this show so fucking popular?
The answer, I suspect, lies in the American tendency towards road rage. Road rage symbolizes a national impatience with the niceties of the social compact. If someone does something that frustrates your own desires, then kick their butt. If some poor dupe cuts you off in traffic, hit your fucking horn and blow him away. Tony Soprano is road rage incarnate. And because he blows away those who frustrate his ambitions or threaten his power, he is the vicarious representation of what we all wish, secretly or fervently, that we could do to those who anger us. That we seem, as a nation, to admire anti-social characters-Darth Vadar, J.R. Ewing-is a potent comment on our national psyche, but it also conjures up the most American of our mythologies-the lone cowboy do-gooder. For generations, this cultural icon has been riding alone into dysfunctional towns all across the Old West. As soon as he ties his faithful steed to the hitching rail in front of the saloon, he encounters evil. It's almost always an evil that the good citizens of the town can't, somehow, overcome by themselves. And so Our Hero in Chaps undertakes to dispatch the evil, which he does with dextrous gunplay and admirable efficiency, riding off into the sunset shortly thereafter, leaving the town a better place. This persona usually effects his good deeds by acting entirely outside the law. But he's not an outlaw: his actions personify the law that everyone in town implicitly endorses. Our Hero does not so much enforce the law as he embodies it. He is a law unto himself. And although he does not wait for legal sanctions, he does not do anything that runs counter to the legal and ethical traditions of the town. He is a champion of individual action, and therefore he is the epitome of the American hero. Tony Soprano is a more brutal version of the Lone Cowboy, but in every other respect, he embodies the same mythology-except that here, the laws of society are represented by the "rules" of conduct that govern the Mafia, a society within the society at large. And in The Sopranos, the traditional American mythology acquires the modern patina of road rage, the expression of individual righteousness gone wild, nearly losing every semblance of reason in the process.
All of which is harmless enough in our entertainments, but when we fall in with a pResident who embodies the same spirit, we court catastrophe. The Bush League's international conduct since September 11, 2001, has reincarnated the Lone Cowboy. Dubya, much admired for his immediate response to the disaster, actually did nothing any more statesmanlike than act out a national road rage. Like any pickup truck driver, he reacted by kicking butt. While this reaction was in perfect keeping with the national temper at the moment, the more we began to learn how many Afghan civilians were killed by American smart bombs, the less politic Dubya's reaction seems. Like Tony Soprano-only without the furtiveness that characterizes much mob vengeful violence-he drove our truck into Afghanistan, wrathfully blowing the horn all the way to the border. Not only was it unstatesmanlike: it wasn't even very canny as a tactic. Satisfying as this may have been to the American electorate, the effect of this maneuver was to warn anyone in the path ahead to get out of the way. And Osama bin Laden did just that. We gave him ample warning; and he took it. A much cannier maneuver would have mounted an invasion of silently dropped parachuting special forces, who could have invaded under cover of darkness-almost immediately after the collapse of the Twin Towers-in small but sufficient numbers to surprise bin Laden and to take him (without hazarding quite so many civilian lives). But road rage ruled the day. And it's about to do it again: Dubya and his oily masters are about to drive a truck into Iraq, horns blowing all the way in an orgy of Oedipal self-indulgence.
An assortment of the polls of public opinion in August, incidentally, determined that support for unilateral action against Iraq is lukewarm (or less than 50%) among women, minorities, senior citizens, and college graduates. Support-more that 50% approval-can be found most often among white males and those who have not graduated from college, with southerners backing the Bushwah 62% to 34%. Remember what happened to Captain America and Bucky at the nightmare conclusion of Easy Rider?
But, back to Tony Soprano. As a piece of literary rhetoric, The Sopranos commits the same mistake that the much maligned crime comics did in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In tracing the criminal career of some crook (ostensibly to show that "crime doesn't pay"), the stories naturally concentrated on the crook. The bad guy thereby occupied the spotlight that in traditional fiction focuses on the "hero." So the bad guy became, by this maneuver, the "hero" of the story. And since youthful readers are expected to emulate the heroes of their fiction, crime comics were perceived as evil influences. And one so-called psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham, even saw them as primers for crime, responsible for the post-World War II rise in juvenile delinquency. In all the ensuing excitement and alarum, dozens of comic book publishers, including the esteemed EC Comics, went out of business. How times have changed! Awash in Emmys, The Sopranos seems in no danger of being censored or canceled or otherwise dispatched. We're the ones being taken for a ride.
REVIEWS. Red and Rover, A Boy, A Dog, A Time, A Feeling (128 8.5x9-inch pages; Andrews McMeel paperback, $8.95) is the first reprint collection of Brian Basset's second comic strip, Red and Rover, launched May 7, 2000, through Washington Post Writers Group syndicate. Red is a ten-year-old boy, and Rover is his dog. But the strip is more than a boy-and-his-dog strip. It is also, quite deliberately, a time warp, taking us back to the days of Basset's own childhood, the late 1960s and early 1970s, "when a snowy day was a special treat, when exploring the backyard was a jungle adventure, and when your dog was your best friend in the world." Back to a time before computer games sucked the imagination out of childhood.
The book reprints the very first strips but, regrettably like all Andrews McMeel volumes, omits the dates of publication on every strip, so historians, who might otherwise rejoice at this helpful incidental information, are, instead, eternally frustrated. Red first encounters Rover when the dog knocks him down just in time to save him from being run over by a truck. Convinced that the dog is his guardian angel, the kid takes him home and prevails upon his parents to let him keep the animal. After that comes days and weeks of the life of a kid three decades ago: Red and Rover use a packing box as a space capsule, open a lemonade stand, play soldier, fly toy airplanes, and take up body-building with Charles Atlas as a model.
Basset, son of editorial cartoonist Gene Basset, draws Rover as a dog, a regular four-feet-on-the-ground canine. No Red Barons here. But if Rover isn't anthropomorphized visually, he is still able to communicate verbally with Red. We think. Maybe. Rover "talks" in thought balloons. And Red sometimes seems to comprehend those thoughts as if they were spoken. Sometimes, though, he doesn't. Their relationship is not the same as that of Jon Arbuckle and Garfield. And Rover isn't Snoopy either.
Early in their relationship, Basset establishes that Red can understand the dog: the boy tells his parents what the dog has "told" him. But does he actually "hear" Rover? Probably not. Basset later gets specific. Red says to Rover: "Mom says you and I have such a special bond it's as if we know precisely what the other is thinking." Rover thinks: "Okay, what am I thinking of right now?" Says Red: "Right now, you're thinking of food." Rover is silent for a panel; then thinks: "Whoa-you're good." In this sequence, Red's remarks don't require his being prompted by (or understanding) Rover's thoughts. In sequence, the speeches suggest that he does understand; but in content, Red's remarks are entirely stand-alone (without prompts) comments.
Another time, Red turns to Rover, who has his head on the chair arm, and says: "Mom says you and I are so close we can read each other's thoughts." Rover thinks for a moment without comment, then goes to the other end of the room, and thinks: "Okay, now what am I thinking?" So far, Basset hasn't violated the "rule" that governs this relationship-the mysterious bond between a boy and his dog that is reminiscent of another bond, that between a boy and his stuffed tiger. But Red isn't Calvin anymore than Rover is Hobbes. Rover, for one thing, behaves pretty much like a dog all the time. And Red behaves like a bright kid but not a misanthropic one.
Here, on a Sunday, is Red sitting under a tree with Rover snuggled up next to him. Red is watching the leaves fall, saying: "Red, brown, yellow, orange, yellow, yellow, red ..." And so on. Finally, he turns to us and says: "Dogs only see in black and white." Then he resumes his color identification for his four-legged pal: "Orange, red, yellow, brown, yellow, yellow ..."
On another Sunday, Red and Rover are sitting in the middle of one of those backyard inflatable plastic swimming pools, but all the water has drained out. "Next time," says Red, "you're getting your nails clipped before you go swimming."
Another time, Rover is shown barking at a tree. "Bark, bark, bark," he says. "Yes," says Red, coming on the scene and inspecting the tree, "Yes, it is bark." He pulls Rover away by his leash, saying, "Come along, Einstein." Rover is still barking, though-and we can see that it's a squirrel in the tree that's attracted his attention.
Red has a pesty teenage brother, Martin. Red, looking through his new telescope, says: "I found where the astronauts first stepped onto the moon." Martin takes a look and says, disparagingly, "That's a thumbprint, not a footprint." Red looks again, and then turns to his brother and says, "Why would they walk on their hands?"
Not Calvin by any means, but clever nonetheless. Playing one-man baseball, Red fantasizes: "Two on, two out, two strikes, bottom of the ninth-here's the pitch." He tosses the baseball up into the air and swings at it as it comes down-classic one-man baseball. He misses. He stares at the ball on the ground for a moment, then says to Rover: "I just struck out a great batter."
Later, Red expresses a crush on Marcia Brady of tv's "Brady Bunch" show by writing her a fan letter. But he misspells her name, "Marsha." And when he doesn't get a letter back right away and discovers he's misspelled her name, he supposes that the letter went to another girl, "Marsha" Brady. "It could happen," he explains to Rover: "I once wrote a letter to Santa Claus and found it in Mom's top dresser drawer."
I knew a girl once whose name was Marcia Garcia. And when I pointed out that it was impossible to pronounce both names correctly, she was struck mute for the rest of her life.
Ironically, Basset's other strip, Adam @ Home, exploits the very computer age that Red takes a nostalgic vacation from. Launched in 1984 as Adam, this effort has undergone several transformations. At first, it was about life at home with a particularly lethargic house-husband, father of three, whose wife, Laura, brings home the paycheck. The timing was perfect: the feminist movement had inspired house-husbandry from sea to shining sea. The strip took off. Then disaster struck. Or, rather, seeped in on all sides.
After about a year, Basset admits, he went on "auto pilot" and began just "cranking out the strip." Said Basset: "I lost track of what I was doing."
It was a bad moment to lose it. Newspapers traditionally re-evaluate new acquisitions for their comics pages after about a year, so Adam was being carefully scrutinized at just the time Basset was coasting. "I lost close to half my client papers," he told me.
Fortunately, he realized what he was doing, or not doing, and subjected the strip and himself to a critical examination that resulted in re-thinking the title character. Basset made Adam a stronger personality. "Just because he was at home didn't mean he had to give up doing other things that men did," Basset explained.
And he introduced another character, a baby-inspired, Basset admits, by the arrival of his own first child. Prior to becoming a father himself, Basset was imagining Adam's family adventures; now, as Basset said, "Adam started becoming real."And the strip shifted gears subtly: it became a strip about parenting. Adam was still a house-husband, but he was also a parent. The strip revived, and by the time I talked with Basset in the fall of 1991, Adam was in about 50 more papers than it had been in at its peak the first year.
Then came the next jolt. Basset lost his job. He had been doing Adam at home in the evenings while working full-time as the editorial cartoonist for the SeattleTimes. Just out of college, he'd been hired on a try-out basis in 1978, and the try-out had lasted for the next sixteen years. For the last couple of those years, Basset had been getting mixed signals from the paper. The editorial page editor criticized his work, but other managers praised it. And Basset was even nominated for a Pulitzer by his paper. Still, formal termination proceedings had been initiated in August 1994. Basset had offered to resign if a reasonable settlement could be arrived at. But "we didn't come close," Basset said. Then the paper fired Basset in October 1994. The axe fell on the day after Times staffers started a petition drive in support of Basset.
The paper said it was eliminating the position of staff editorial cartoonist for budget reasons, but the previous two-year history suggests that Basset's performance no longer satisfied his bosses. Other Times staffers were angry and disgusted. Basset was well liked and his editorial cartooning was highly regarded. Eric Nalder, the paper's Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter, interviewed by Editor & Publisher, praised Basset and said the paper wouldn't be able to get a better editorial cartoonist.
Although Basset, with the aid of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild, fought the decision, he was not reinstated. Concentrating on his comic strip, he introduced yet another new wrinkle: Adam started running a business on the Internet while still "at home." And the strip was re-titled accordingly, Adam @ Home. With Red at one end of the technological spectrum, so to speak, and Adam at the other, I guess you could say that Basset is having his cake and eating it, too. Not many of us are so lucky. Although Basset might not have thought himself so blessed in the fateful fall of 1994. Andrews McMeel has published at least six Adam reprint collections; for information, dial 1-816/932-6700 or visit www.ucomics.com/store.
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