Opus 102:

OPUS 102: CIVILIZATION'S LAST OUTPOST (October 10, 2002). So here's Congressman McDermott from the Great State of Washington suggesting that, in the turmoil of the current debate about whether to invade Iraq, pResident Bush "might mislead" the American people. You think? Naturally, the GOP came apart at the seams in rage over this slight, but think about it. Dubya is the guy who, during the 2000 Presidential campaign, told Nevadans he wouldn't store nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain; now, the Bush League wants to fill the mountain up with radioactive garbage. Dubya is the guy who, when his education bill passed through Congress, heralded a new era for education with great fanfare in the Rose Garden; then the Bush League produced a budget that falls somewhat short of the funding necessary to implement the program. Mislead? No, not him. Not that the donkey drivers are any purer, mind you. Who can forget Clinton saying he never had "sexual relations" with that woman? (It wasn't exactly untrue. I suspect teenagers in Arkansas at the time of Clinton's puberty had pretty much the same attitude about sexual intercourse as teenagers everywhere. Boys in heat were satisfied if their girlfriends performed oral sex, and they both came away feeling they hadn't "done it." They were both still virgins.) My point is: politicians mislead. That's their thing. Show me a politician who doesn't mislead the voters, and I'll show you a man desperate to avoid elective office altogether.

            Cyndi Lauper, 49-year-old chanteuse who broke into public view with her wacky personality and tri-colored hair, once aspired to be an artist of the painter or sculptor sort she told Melissa Merli of the News-Gazette in Champaign, Illinois. In a brief college try, she said, "I learned about the impressionists and neo-impressionists and then I started painting and drawing. I tried to make sculptures. I tried to work as an assistant to sculptors. I didn't realize that artists slept with their models. That wasn't what I was interested in, so I decided to sing. That I could do without having to sit next to a lecher." ... According to a new national survey, most teenagers, 56 percent, lose their virginity at home or at their partner's home, not in a truck or a car. ... Most of Saddam Hussein's recent public appearances have been made by doubles. Photo analysis by German tv reveals that he has three surgery-altered look-alikes who can be told apart because their ears are slightly different. You heard it here. ... An arsonist destroyed one of the last six covered bridges in Madison County, Iowa, and Robert James Waller, author of the best-selling Bridges of Madison County, offered a $1,000 reward to find whoever torched it. ...

NOUS R US. Andrews McMeel Universal's online operation, uclick, is offering a customized comics page subscription for $9.95 a year. From a list of over 90 comic strips and editorial cartoonists, you can pick your favorites and then check in every day to keep up. Or you can have the page e-mailed to you. It's a modest enough fee to pay for having a tailor-made comics page. Try www.mycomicspage.com or go to www.ucomics.com/store and look at the top for the tab labeled My Comics Page.

            Or you can drop in at the Houston Chronicle, www.HoustonChronicle.com; once there, find "comics" on the left, click there, then on the next page, look above the list of comics for a tiny "Build your own comics page" squib and click on that. Once there, you build your own page from a list of over 100 strips (more than uclick offers at the moment, and many of the same). It's free, but you have to build your page every day.

            The traditional NEA Christmas strip this year will be "Duncan's First Christmas," featuring the characters from Raising Duncan by Chris Browne. NEA's anyule holiday strip always runs through the month of December, ending December 25 with a merry Christmas for us all; it's been going on since sometime in the 1920s even though the NEA folks will say it started in 1937. This year, the festivities begin December 2. When the time comes, you can catch it online at www.comics.com/neaholiday. Duncan is a scottie, by the way. Or is it "scotty"?

            According to Burl Burlingame at the Honolulu Star Bulletin, this election season's gubernatorial candidates in the island state strike terror into the hearts of editorial cartoonists. They're both women, and editorial cartoonists, mostly men, still harbor a vestige of old fashioned gentlemanliness that makes them reluctant to poke fun at the way a lady looks. Caricaturing women has always been hazardous duty in this society: exaggerating a man's physical features makes him an individual (he thinks), but doing the same with a woman makes her (she thinks) look less like the icon of feminine appearance that society demands every woman conform to.

            But Hawaii's candidates complicate the matter beyond the traditional complication. One of the candidates, Linda Lingle, is difficult to caricature, says Burlingame, because everything about her in real life is already exaggerated. Even a realistic drawing winds up looking like a caricature. "If she were a man, this would be an asset because it makes her distinctive and individual. That long angular face, the sizable nose, those peculiarly shaped glasses, that immaculate coif that swoops up in gleefully devilish points, the kind eyes and shrubbery-like eyebrows, the oh‑so‑feminine makeup and jewelry. But no matter how she is drawn-even if these aspects of her appearance are softened-people recognize her as Lingle."

            On the other hand, her rival, Mazie Hirono, has almost nothing to seize upon, says Burlingame. "Her primary characteristics are her merry eyes and her too‑pretty, tight little smile, prominent cheekbones on a head that's shaped like a Fender guitar pick, her glossy football helmet of black hair, and those eyebrows arched in permanent surprise. Hirono resembles half the women on Oahu. Pity the poor caricaturist who's trying to make Hirono distinctive." Moreover, even when these characteristics are exaggerated wildly, Hirono still looks more like a life drawing than Lingle, says Burlingame.

            Yes, I agree: Hirono is a problem. Lingle, however, can be dealt with in the way suggested to me by a female cartoonist one time: when caricaturing a woman, but be sure to give her a long neck and large eyes. She'll be happy; and the resultant caricature will look pretty much like the lady (except for the flattering long neck and luminous eyes)....

            Mr. Magoo, the near-sighted animated version of W.C. Fields, is making a come-back. In December, Airwave Comics is publishing the official comic‑book adaptation of "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol," marking the first time Mr. Magoo has been published in comic books since 1965. The comic book's advent coincides with the return of the 1962 Magoo Christmas classic, the first animated special produced expressly for tv. To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the landmark program, NBC‑TV will air "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" this holiday season in a prime‑time slot. The official comic book adaptation will be published as a 56‑page commemorative comic book in two formats: a limited‑edition version packaged with the DVD of the classic program ($22.98) and a standard comic book ($7.98).  Both versions contain the adaptation, two all‑new stories, a reprint of a classic Mr. Magoo comic‑book story from the 1950s, and a surprise interview with an animation artist that contributed to classic Mr. Magoo cartoons. ...

            In a report filed via Internet, the damages portion of the Gaiman vs. McFarlane trial ended quickly on the evening of October 3 when Neil Gaiman decided to keep his copyright interest in characters he created for Todd McFarlane's Spawn comic-Medieval Spawn and Cagliostro-rather than seeking breach of contract damages from McFarlane. Since it was determined that Gaiman had copyright interest in the characters, he can now collect, presumably, whatever McFarlane's companies owe him in royalties (on over $5 million wholesale value of Angela and Medieval Spawn toys, for instance). Under the option Gaiman chose, the rights for Miracleman that McFarlane purchased from Eclipse remain with McFarlane.

            The amount Gaiman may realize is likely to be determined by what McFarlane is willing to give to get back unencumbered rights to a portion of his Spawn creation. One of the most emotional points in the trial was when McFarlane described discovering that he was no longer sole owner of all versions of Spawn, a character he'd created over twenty years ago in high school, and on which he'd built his comic, toy, and media empire. Threatened with forever sharing the rights to Medieval Spawn, Cagliostro, and Angela, characters that have taken on significant roles in the Spawn universe, McFarlane may be willing to cut a deal better than the one Gaiman could have enforced, and without all of the accounting issues that will otherwise have to be resolved. Still, McFarlane may appeal, and Gaiman may seek ownership of Miracleman, which McFarlane could offer as part of the final settlement.

            The report of this affair concluded: The trial ended with a bizarre, almost surreal scene of camaraderie between the two adversaries, who both comported themselves with great civility and showed considerable mutual respect, at least in a creative sense, throughout the entire proceedings. After Judge Shabaz dismissed the jury and adjourned the court, McFarlane caught up with Gaiman outside the courtroom. With one of the Spawn comics that had been used as an exhibit in the trial in his hand he asked Gaiman to sign it for a young boy who was in the courtroom with one of McFarlane's attorneys. McFarlane signed the comic and handed it to Gaiman saying, "I saved you the sweet spot." Gaiman signed and posed for a picture with McFarlane and the boy, providing a fitting coda to a case about a medium that is, after all, about entertainment and fun.

            From an Internet report: The Free Comic Book Day Steering Committee announced the results of a week‑long vote by comic book specialty retailers, designed to determine the timing for Free Comic Book Day 2003. With all precincts reporting in, X2 (the sequel to the hit X‑Men movie) took the day, with 63.49% of those voting choosing to tie Free Comic Book Day 2003 to the movie's release next spring. "There were no overvotes or undervotes," said a Free Comic Book Day spokesperson. "There were no hanging chads or pregnant chads. There was a guy named Chad who voted, but we kept an eye on him. The voting process went very smoothly and the results are clear: Those supporting the Hulk and those supporting the X‑Men both made excellent arguments in their online debate, and now the people have spoken!" Free Comic Book Day 2003 will take place on Saturday, May 3, 2003, one day after the release of X2. Further details will be released as they become available, and will be posted on www.FreeComicBookDay.com as well.

            According to an AP report, Mickey Mouse's days at Disney could be numbered and Bugs Bunny might soon be wisecracking for someone other than Warner Bros. if the U.S. Supreme Court sides with an Internet publisher in a landmark copyright case that the high court started hearing October 9. Conceivably, the earliest images of Disney's mascot and other closely held creative property could plunge into the public domain as early as next year. At issue is a 1998 law known as the "Mickey Mouse Extension Act" because of aggressive lobbying by Disney, whose earliest representations of its squeaky‑voiced mascot were set to pass into the public domain in 2003. The law extended copyright protection an additional 20 years for cultural works, thereby protecting movies, plays, books and music for a total of 70 years after the author's death or for 95 years from publication for works created by or for corporations. The law was almost immediately challenged by Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig on behalf of Eric Eldred, who had been posting work by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James and others on his Web site. Lionel Sobel, editor of the Entertainment Law Review, said the Internet has pumped up the demand for images that are now protected. Said he: "Now we have thousands of people who want to create a Web site and would like to have ready access to a whole library of materials."

            Lessig claims Congress acted unconstitutionally by extending copyright protection 11 times over the past 40 years. The plaintiffs contend the Constitution grants Congress the right to grant copyright protection for a limited time and that the founding fathers intended for copyrights to expire so works could enter the public domain and spark new creative efforts to update them. By extending copyright protection retroactively, largely in response to corporate pressure, Congress has in effect made copyright perpetual, the plaintiffs claim.

            Disney has come under special criticism because the company reaped a fortune making films from such public domain fairy tale characters as Snow White and Cinderella, but is fighting to prevent others from doing the  same with its own Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and other characters. Only the copyright on the Mickey portrayed in Disney's earliest films, such as 1928's "Steamboat Willie," would expire in the next few years. The more rounded, modern mouse familiar today is a later creation and would remain protected for several more years.

            But wait for the fine print, I rush in to say. Even if the Supreme Court finds in favor of the plantiff and Mickey falls in the public domain next spring, legal experts said it is unlikely that Disney and other companies would suffer immediate harm. Mickey Mouse, for instance, is not only a character but a corporate trademark, and those never expire as long as they are in use.

COMIC BOOK CRYPTICS AND QUIPTICS. The comic book version of Samurai Jack came out last month, and it's a disappointment for anyone who is enthusiastic about the animated tv program-visually disappointing, that is. DC should have attempted something in print at least as visually ambitious as the animation. Bastard Samurai, for instance, is a stunning display of what sort of effects could have been achieved. ... Superman in the Fifties (square-spine, 192 pages) offers 17 tales, only five drawn by Wayne Boring, who, speaking as one who grew up in the fifties, WAS Superman then. Curt Swan is represented by just 3 stories; he belongs to the sixties, methinks. So Al Plastino does the majority of these-seven. He imitated Boring, whose barrel-chested Superman set the fashion for the period, but his inking isn't as juicy as Stan Kaye's on Boring. In one aside, we are reminded of Superman's youthful infatuation with a mysterious wheelchair-bound young woman, Lori Lemaris, who, he is eventually surprised to learn, is a mermaid, hence the reason for the wheelchair (and the blanket that keeps her lower extremity covered). So how come he didn't know she was a mermaid? He didn't use his X-ray vision to see through the blanket? Well, that would have been a little lecherous, I suppose. But who among us wouldn't have used the power had we had it?

            From Marvel comes Captain American: The Classic Years, Vol. 2, the last 5 of the 10 stories Joe Simon and Jack Kirby did to launch the character. Square-spine, with 212 pages (which, oddly, aren't numbered even though the table of contents gives pages numbers for the stories herein; somebody's goof). Reconstruction of the art, as usual, is marginal, and some of the color is so dark you can't make out the linework, but the pure energy of Simon and Kirby's visuals is evident, ample testimony to the influence their work must've exerted on their colleagues when the books came out in 1941. In re-coloring the artwork, a nifty nuance has been added: the colors were not originally highlighted with flecks of white, I'd guess; but here, the sides of things next to imaginary light sources are left white, giving the pictures a satisfying glow. But those little wings on the sides of Cap's helmet? They look pretty silly in these renditions, all fluttery sort of.

            Moonstone has produced a revival of Lee Falk's Phantom, the first costumed freelance crime-fighter in comics, who is destined, it seems, never to die. Here Ron Goulart supplies the story, pencilled by Mike Collins and inked by Art Nichols. The pictures are sometimes wooden and clunky, the interpretation of the Phantom's musculature is knotty and its delineation clogged-looking, and the management of shadows is clumsy. And the Phantom's nose varies its shape from time to time. (It's aquiline, not straight.) But Goulart's fast-moving story is full of twists, shifting scenes deftly when the pages turn, and he preserves the invincibility and sure-footedness of Falk's vintage character expertly. Nothing stops the Ghost Who Walks: when a bad guy holds a gun on him and commands that he drop his, the Phantom does so but immediately, unhesitatingly, springs at the dude, taking him out with a well-placed blow to the chin. It's always been refreshing to encounter a hero like this. It takes him a little time to work through the morass of evil, but he's certain to do so eventually. He just always wins, kimo sabe.

COMIC STRIP REPRINT. The biggest fish story in cartooning is Sherman's Lagoon, a comic strip about a shark. It would be even bigger if it were about a whale, I suppose, but it might not be as funny. Jim Toomey, who produces the strip, explains: "Anytime you have a 3,000-pound fish controlled by a brain the size of a tulip bulb, you're bound to run into trouble-and an endless source of gags."

            Still, I never would have thought a comic strip about a shark would be funny. The shark itself, as an objet d'art, never struck me as being particularly interesting. All doughy, sort of-no sharp angles for visual interest. Facial expression? How? But Toomey has converted me. I still don't think sharks are very interesting visually, even Toomey's cartoon sharks; but they are funny-Toomey's sharks, that is.

            The sharks in question are Sherman and his significant-other, Megan, both Great Whites, who live in the eponymous lagoon, which Toomey has populated with several other underwater critters by way of giving the strip a cast and himself something visually interesting to draw-Fillmore the good-natured sea turtle, Hawthorne the cranky albeit shy hermit crab, Broderick the snobbish seahorse, and a couple smaller fish. And Kahuna, a submerged Polynesian stone head that occasionally spouts words of would-be wisdom.

            All of these lagoonies are turned loose in two recent strip reprint collections from Andrews McMeel: Sherman's Lagoon 1991-2001: Greatest Hits and Near Misses, a 10th anniversary compilation (256 8.5x11" pages in paperback, $14.95), and Greetings from Sherman's Lagoon: The 1992 to 1993 Sherman's Lagoon Collection (128 8.5x11" pages in paperback, $10.95).

            There have been talking animal strips in the funnies for most of the medium's history, but Sherman's Lagoon is the first talking fish strip that I can remember. Toomey claims the idea for the strip came to him because he spent so much of his time being all wet.

            "I was certified as a scuba diver at twelve years of age," he once explained, "and I am still excited by the undersea world. I've always been fascinated with fish. I liked sharks even before the movie Jaws, and I've studied oceanography and boats."

            At the time he was concocting Sherman's Lagoon, Toomey was living in northern California, but he grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, and graduated from Duke University, where he studied to be a mechanical engineer. But three years into his first engineering job, he quit to do political cartoons for the Alexandria Gazette and, later, the Alexandria Journal. These days, he's back in the East, on Chesapeake Bay, where he spends his spare time scuba diving, surfing, and philosophizing.

             Toomey tried to sell two other comic strip ideas before hooking onto his fish story. One of them was about a single mother, a boy, and a dog in the big city. Toomey, at the time, lived in the suburbs and had no children.

            "I had no insight into the characters," he remembered. "Nothing in common with them. I couldn't write from experience. I was rejected across the board."

            And what does he have in common with a Great White shark? Rapacious hunger? Stupidity? Living under water? Well, maybe.

            "I looked for characters that represented aspects of my personality," he said. "Many strips are autobiographical, and mine is no exception. There are parts of me that are neat, parts are messy, parts are nice, and parts not so nice. I separated each aspect of my being into a character with an eye to developing a cast of characters that will play well off each other. Characters, after all, are the key element in a cartoon strip."

            Some funny animal strips-like the vintage Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck strips, for example-tell jokes that seem oblivious of the cast's furry or feathered natures. The jokes may be funny, but they aren't funny because they happen with a rabbit or a duck. But in Sherman's Lagoon, most of the gags are rooted in the characters' natures.

            Sherman eats a lot and will swallow anything that moves. He is particularly fond of "hairless beach apes," the sun-bathers that bask on the beaches of his lagoon.

            As Megan approaches Sherman one day, she sees a pair of swimming trunks lying next to him. When she asks Sherman about it, he explains:

            "That's mine. I had a little snack."

            "And you just throw the wrapper on the ground?" Megan says, incredulously.

            "Sorry," says Sherman.

            Cannibal comedy abounds. On another occasion, Sherman watches a small fish is swimming by, talking on his cell phone as he swims.

            "How's Thursday at ten?" the little fish is saying into the phone. "Good. Let's pencil it in."

            In the next panel, Sherman swallows the fish.

            "Cell phones have made my life so much easier," he says to the observing Fillmore.

            "They never look where they're going, do they?" says Fillmore.

            Social satire is sometimes easier to accomplish when you do it with non-humans: there is almost no reader protest from oppressed minorities.

            "Water covers two-thirds of our planet," Toomey said. "We get a glimpse of it occasionally on television, but for the most part, we can only dream about what happens below the surface. Sometimes when I write a gag, I draw from subject matter that is unique to the underwater world-or our image of it."

            Fillmore sees a lot of "gunk" in the water around Sherman and asks him what it is.

            "Fish guts," Sherman says, contentedly. "Some giant tuna trawler just dumped it right on top of me."

            He beams happily. Fillmore stares aghast.

            Sherman goes on, smiling broadly: "This is what I always imagined heaven to be like."

            "What religion are you?" says Fillmore.

            Toomey launched his strip in May 1991, syndicating it himself. He mailed out 1,000 solicitations and got back three responses. Undaunted, he continued for the next four months mailing four weeks of the strip to 1,000 editors once a month. By August, he had sixteen subscribing newspapers.

            And just about then, he heard from Creators Syndicate, which offered him a contract. At the expiration of that contract a few years ago, Toomey took his strip to King Features, which is now distributing it to about 200 newspapers.

            Greetings, the fifth collection of reprints, includes work from the strip's first year of national syndication; Greatest Hits samples strips from even the early self-syndicated period. Sunday strips reproduced in the latter are in color.

            Stay 'tooned.

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