Opus 103:

Opus 103 (October 31): CIVILIZATION'S LAST OUTPOST. In this season of electoral frenzy, have you ever wondered why you never see on tv any advertisements in which the makers of one product attack a rival product? Just think: with all the different brands of toothpaste alone out there, if toothpaste manufacturers got into the negative advertising mode, what a bonanza it would be for tv. Well, surprise: at one time in the dawn of television, as I understand it, tv commercials did go negative. But pretty soon, that stopped. The advertisers discovered that the consumer believed everything he was told by the negative ads, and as a consequence, he bought none of the competing products—none of the products being negatively attacked, that is, because they were all inferior, as advertised so persuasively by their competitors.

            Our ever-lovin' politicians, on the other hand, aren't, apparently, as canny as the manufacturing moguls. They keep right on blasting away at their opponents with negative ads. Their campaign strategists have convinced them that negative advertising works. Naturally, it works: it works to put money into the pockets of the advertising agencies that produce the negative ads.

            But it also works to undermine public confidence in politicians and the political process. Each of us has said, at one time or another after viewing a spasm of competing negative campaign ads, "I don't believe either of them."  One possible consequence of the rising tide of negative political advertising is the steady decline in the number of citizens that go to the polls. They don't vote, probably, because they are convinced, partly as a result of the negative advertising, that there's no point in voting: the self-serving dissembling and other sorts of political chicanery will continue unabated no matter how they vote. And the negative ads confirm the suspicion. In short, negative advertising corrodes democracy.

            I'm looking forward to the day when some bright young politician realizes this and conducts his campaign accordingly—a negative campaign, necessarily, but one in which the target is negative advertising, attacking the practice on precisely these grounds: it corrupts and destroys the democratic process. What a turn-around that would be.

COMICS ON THE STANDS.  In 21 Down No. 2, we again have on the cover a stunning painting of the leggy Mickey by Joe Jusko, but the interior art (perhaps by Jimmy Palmiotti, again, as I remarked in Opus 100, the credits in this title are so cutely offered that it's impossible to tell who is actually doing what; okay—I should know who Palmiotti is and what he does, mostly, but let's pretend that I don't and that I, like most of the civilized world, am coming upon this book with no previous knowledge at all)—the interior art, as I say, is considerably less expert. The shading of faces, in particular, gives the same individual a different appearance in nearly every panel. But the storytelling is just fine, again setting up with panache for the cliffhanger last page. A third thread of narrative is laced into this issue as we meet Harmony Peterson, a creature of such hypnotic beauty that people kill each other to be near her. ... The Goon No. 1 introduces us to Eric Powell's brute-force protagonist who goes around bashing people for no discernible reason. The story, crammed with nonsensical ghoulish so-called humor, is less a story than a simple progression of events and unexplained situations, brimming with violence but headed in no direction I can make out. It's a perfect example of the rhetorical persuasiveness of the medium, which, so potent is the visual presence, can make you think something is happening even when it isn't. The artwork, a deft blend of Jack Kirby and Wally Wood, is the best thing here, enhanced throughout by gray tones; but it's not enough.

            Black Widow No. 3 by Greg Rucka with art by Igor Kordey carries the cover caution in screaming type: "Parental Advisory Explicit Content." And it's a good thing, too. Herein, Yelena "becomes" the Black Widow, passing her test by killing Petra. Apart from this somewhat revolting development, there's a few pages of sick sex and lots of muddy artwork. ... The Ballad of Utopia, Nos. 1-3, gives us another dose of Mike Hoffman's skill with a brush in a meandering and disjointed story by Barry Buchanan. Ostensibly, the protagonist of this "Gothic" tale of the Old West is an "under-sheriff" (a deputy? Why employ a British term?) named Samuel David, and he's trying to sort out the killing of a stagecoach station-keeper named Charlie Burnette, who turns out, by the end of the first issue, to be a woman (and a shapely naked one at that). A mysterious man in a top hat adorned with a cat skull wanders through these pages but we're not sure, exactly, why. The action is often not clearly depicted—that is, we don't know what's happening despite Hoffman's pictures; and scenes change without a clue to warn us. Hoffman, whose style strenuously suggests Frazetta, is most persuasive when rendering female embonpoint, and his cover paintings here, like those he executed for last year's Tigress Tales, are deftly done. But the black-and-white interior art is uneven. Some pictures are exquisitely achieved with copious delicate feathering; others seem slap-dash. And in some, his fine lines are so fine they nearly disappear. His women are always supple and graceful renditions, but the male anatomy is sometimes stiff and unconvincing. Buchanan's forte, judging from this wandering saga, is not plotting but dialogue. In search of authentic-sounding Western argot, he invents numerous highly picturesque locutions, such as: "Benton's Cross is a small dog-turd of a place that attracts all the wrong kinda flies"; and "Sheriff makes Birdy [Johnson, the drunken stage driver] hoof it back to town to sober him up. Bob prods him every time he slows down, so Birdy learns to walk and vomit at the same time. By the time we reach town, we've left a pretty juicy trail." This sort of thing, if combined with more Hoffman pictures of zaftig women, would make the series worth buying.

            Hawkman No. 7 is another Western, this one, I gather (again, I'm coming in late and therefore in a perfect position to assess the probable difficulties an entirely new reader might have), inventing a 19th century origin for a 20th century hero. Although Rags Morales on pencils and Timothy Truman on inks do a painstakingly copious job drawing pictures, they cannot rescue James Robinson's story, which includes, near the beginning, three pages of continuous verbal exposition that no amount of camera movement can enliven, and, at the end, a headlong dash to conclusion, so hastily reached that the last page is crammed with captions alluding to events not shown (and not, apparently, likely to be shown). The exposition covers nuances in the situation that are never, in subsequent pages, developed: Robinson dwells on the relationship between an accused murderer, an African-American, and his supposed benefactor, whom he is presumed to have killed, but this relationship, fraught with racial overtones, is never mentioned again, nor does it seem to function in what's passing for plot. Hawkman, called Nighthawk here, meets a lady gunslinger, saves her ass, goes to bed with her, and learns her name, Kate—in that callous and casual order. Nighthawk later breaks the erroneously accused murderer out of jail and is saved by Kate, and then the erstwhile murderer promises to show them his master's "treasures," but the story, having reached page 21, must conclude on the next page. So it does. We never find out about the treasures. Much of the action in action sequences is undecipherable: Morales shifts camera distance like a cinematographer, hoping, by alternating mid-range and extreme close-up shots, to convey some sense of the rapidity of events, but only confusion results. Confusion and a sense of speed, admittedly, but the confusion baffles. One panel gives us a tight close-up of a pistol going off, and the next panel shows us a gunny grabbing his gut, suggesting he's been shot. But it's not clear. The panel before the pistol close-up shows him training his own pistol on Kate, but she's leaping up from a table and falling back while firing her pistol, an image that dominates the panel to such an extent that we overlook the guy behind her with his pistol out. The book's concluding action sequence works somewhat better, but, again, there are close-ups alternating with mid-range shots, a maneuver that confuses rather than clarifies. Why the story dashed to conclusion, I dunno. Is this the last in a 7-issue mini-series? Will there be more, further issues that will develop the storylines hinted at in the last page's captions? Was this intended to be a longer-running series but got canceled? Who knows? And if you just picked this comic up from the stands and had to make sense of it, you'd have a hard time.

            Invasion of the Dumb Blondes No. 1 from ACG, however, is not baffling at all. Dumb blondes galore, and lively, energetic pictures by the ever-masterful Owen Fitzgerald (methinks), who, as an animator, could convey the breezy sense of a bevy of comedic cuties in perpetual motion (mouth or body, face or figure) better than anyone, even Bob Oksner, who followed him on Bob Hope, lo these many moons ago. The action is fast and furious—or, rather, hilarious—and the gags silly, but you buy this one for Fitzgerald, who limns Broadway Babes and a couple Moronica stories, the rest of the book given over to stories of Bikini Luv, who may be drawn, here, by Oksner. ... And Jim Mahfood's crisp style of drawing and eclectic topical humor is on display in Stupid Comics No. 1, a collection reprinting mostly one-page strips from various places on sundry concerns of the latte set. Worth your time and money.

DRASTIC FUBARS. I've committed two of them recently. No. 1—When, in Opus 98, I mentioned Alan Light's article on Bruce Springsteen in the August 5th issue of The New Yorker, I assumed it was the same Alan Lighit that once publisheed the Comics Buyer's Guide; but, turns out, it isn't that Alan Light at all. That Alan Light, the CBG Alan Light, is still safe in obscurity, not writing articles about rock stars for New York magazines.

            No. 2—Lately, I found out that I was wrong about the reason that the Muslim world hates the U.S.  Here's what I said (in Opus 98): (a) 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. (b) 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.

            The so-called reasoning here consists, it seems to me, of two parts, which I've tagged (a) and (b). Both remain somewhat accurate but not entirely. Dubya's "they hate our freedom" (a) is still a simpleton's explication, but it's closer to being right than mine (b). I'm currently meandering through Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great about America, and I found this: "The West is a society based on freedom whereas Islam is a society based on virtue." I think he's right, and if he is, our differences seem nearly irreconcilable. To people to whom virtue is the highest value, freedom represents licentiousness, an open invitation to stray from proper behavior. To people for whom freedom is the highest value, virtue represents unquestioning restraint, an inhibition that interferes with the individual's presumed desire to develop his or her potential to the fullest. Thus, when the Muslim world dubbed the U.S. the "Great Satan," they were not speaking figuratively: instead, the U.S. and the personal freedoms it stands for are the Great Temptation for mankind, seducing everyone away from the straight, the narrow, the virtuous. In Islam, the "right way," the religious way, has been discovered and ascertained; it needs no further elaboration. In the West, the "right way" is still being debated in various nuances, and while the debate goes forth, individuals are free to explore their natures. Why don't we simply agree to disagree, D'Souza asks. Because even the question embodies a liberal attitude that the righteous cannot countenance.

            Still, the danger lies in the absence of a healthy scepticism. I remember a haunting fragment of a PBS radio interview shortly after September 11. I don't remember the names of the people involved, but one of them asked a rhetorical but potent question: What might have happened on September 11 if even one of the suicide pilots had the slightest doubt about the certainty of his going to Paradise immediately upon impact with the building he was pointing towards?

            Certitude, particularly moral certitude, is dangerous. It is also nearly unavoidable in the human psyche, I suppose. Here between shining seas, we have bred various certainties of our own, the "religious right," for instance. So we are no more immune from the fanaticism that animates Islamic fundamentalism than Muslims are. And the more power the fanatics acquire (say, in the Justice Department of our government), the more I tremble, particularly after September 11. But if we aspire to wisdom, we must also view our certainties as tentative, way stations on the path to knowledge rather than the destination itself.

            Meanwhile, not to neglect the ostensible purpose of our gathering here around the softly glowing tube we're peering into, we have Larry Gonick's latest installment in his multi-volume Cartoon History of the Universe (320 8x10" pages in black-and-white paperback, $21.95). This one, Volume III, propitiously, takes the story from "The Rise of Arabia to the Renaissance." In other words, it delves, in Gonick's now familiar jocular manner, into the origins and spread of Islam. Gonick says he had no idea, as he prepared this tome, that it would reach the bookstores at a time that American interest in Muslim history would be running so high. But he doubtless has no hesitation about embracing the fortuitiousness of the situation.

            Like many others, I've lately browsed through several accounts of the rise of Islam, and Gonick's is at least as confused, which is to say as "accurate and conscientious," as any of the others. Our unfamiliarity with Arabian names, and the tendancy among Arabs to name everyone with similar names, combines to breed a certain complexity in such narratives as Gonick's, but he leaves us in no doubt, and neither do most other accounts, that the initial spread of Islam was accomplished as much by force as by sweet reason. The sword seems natural to early Muslim proselytizing. Given this heritage, it should not surprise us that fundamental Islam turns so readily to violence to assuage its frustrations. Let us hope that the violence of the Christian crusades of yore does not similarly infect the enterprises of the West as it undertakes to redress the wrongs it perceives.

            Gonick remains as sturdily irreverent as before. His comedy sometimes resides in the narrative, in the jarring juxtapositioning of facts that seem, today, hilariously contradictory; sometimes the contradiction is revealed by the pictures that seem to deny the import of the accompanying prose narrative; and sometimes, the humor resides entirely in the pictorial content, sight gags or wise-ass remarks made by his characters, who seem bent on puncturing the pomposity of history itself by their very presence in the book. Gonick's drawing, it seems to me, is somewhat more slapdash in this volume (and in Volume II) than in the original comic book incarnation of his story, but his sense of humor is, thankfully, intact. And so is his tact: he thoughtfully refrains from depicting the Prophet, respecting Islam's prohibitions against pictures of Mohammed.

            Garry Trudeau says Gonick's book is "brilliantly rendered and unexpectedly timely." He also asks the burning question (and supplies a telling answer): "Will reading an erudite, if flat-out hilarious, account of Middle East history help us make sense of our current clash of cultures? Let's put it this way: ignorance hasn't worked." I'll second the motion.

            As for the screed in (b), I think it's probably true, but it is not so much about the Muslim world as it is about other fragments of the planet, sometimes including Muslim societies, sometimes not. And it's probably true that some Third World countries welcome Ameican capitalism with its rapacious intentions as a shortcut to better living for the citizenry; better living may not result, but capitalism and its exploitation of natural resources seem full of promise nonetheless.

COMIC STRIP REPRINTS. High-Spirited Rose Is Rose (128 8.5x9-inch pages; paperback, $10.95) is the sixth reprint collection of Pat Brady's warmly human, visually inventive comic strip about young family: Rose is the wife and mother, Jimbo is the husband and father, and Pasquale is their small son (originally about two years old; now, a couple years older). "Pasquale was my nickname when I was very young," Brady once explained. "My father called me Pasquale for several years. I think it's Italian for Patrick, but I've never been quite sure."

            Most of the Rose reprints have been from Andrews McMeel, as is this one. One, however—Rose Is Rose in Living Color, a full-color compilation of Sunday strips—was published in 1999 by Rutledge Hill Press in Nashville. Like all its predecessors, High-Spirited includes material produced expressly for this collection. Brady always does more than simply pick strips to be reprinted. In this volume, he conducts a sort of "Where's Waldo" exercise, hiding Pasquale's guardian angel in a series of double-truck, four-side bleed illustrations of crowd scenes. Pictures have always played a more than merely illustrative role in Brady's strip.

            Launched April 16, 1984, Rose Is Rose developed into one of the most visually imaginative comic strips around. Comprehending the humor depends upon understanding the pictures as well as the words. In fact, many of the strips seem to be visual puzzles. The punchline is the solution to the puzzle. I made this observation to Brady when we talked several years ago: "I look at the pictures in the first panels, and I say, Oh, what is this? And then—all of a sudden—the last panel shows me what it is, explains it, and the explanation is the punchline. Do you do this deliberately? I suppose you must."

            "Yes, I do," Brady said. "I've never heard it expressed like you have, but I'm pleased to hear it.  I just think it makes it more interesting to try things like that. It's another way of making the work as interesting as it can be. It's definitely something that I do consciously. It's not one of the first things that I think about, but as I'm toying with the idea, as I do a thumbnail sketch, I'll see a possibility to add that dimension, and if I can, I do it."

            Brady gets most of his ideas from "active" daydreaming. "I'll come into my studio in the morning," he said, "and I'll have a cup of coffee, and I'll toy with words and phrases and I'll doodle until something starts to emerge.  But for me it's very seldom that anything will happen in my family life that can be translated into the comic strip.  It's mostly a process of day-dreaming."

            I asked if the act of drawing itself ever produced ideas. For many cartoonists, it does: "You start drawing the picture, and as that is going on—a character takes shape, his personality, already established, emerges, and an idea comes out, a joke or gag—"

            Brady said he does that, too, but "more often than not, the ideas will emerge from words rather than doodles.  I think Sparky [Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame] told me that he gets his ideas from doodling.  And I do that.  But for me, it's mostly words."

            I asked if there were specific things he did to stoke ideas—magazines he reads, television he watches, current events?

            He answered: "Often what I find works for me is to try to think of something that will be visually interesting, that will look visually exciting or pleasing. And then I try actually to write a strip—or a joke—around it. A moonscape, for instance. Ahh, it would be great if I could do a really realistic moonscape, or space scene. Now what can I do with that? I end up writing a joke to accommodate the art. I don't know if other cartoonists do that. But it works for me."

            And it results in one of the medium's most engaging graphic enterprises. Anyone who wants to observe the visual heart of the art of cartooning should watch Brady's work. And in this collection, the visuals are, if anything, more energetic than ever. Visit www.ucomics.com/store for information about other Rose books.

NEW FROM ANDREWS MCMEEL. The most recent reprint titles from the comic strip reprint capital of the universe:

Your Favorite—Crab Cakes! (Crankshaft by Tom Batiuk and Chuck Ayers), 128 8.5x9-inch paperback pages, $10.95; another visit with the world's most cantankerous kind-hearted bus driver and cynical representative of the "greatest" generation

*FoxTrot: Assembled with Care (FoxTrot by Bill Amend), 192 8.5x11-inch pages in paperback, $14.95; selections from three other collections, Death by Field Trip, Encyclopedia Brown and White, and His Code Name Was The Fox with Sundays in color

*Groovitude: A Get Fuzzy Treasury (Get Fuzzy by Darby Conley), 256 8.5x11-inch paperback pages, $14.95; combines the contents of the two previous reprints of this increasingly popular strip, The Dog Is Not a Toy and Fuzzy Logic, with the usual "Treasury" gimmick, Sundays in full color

*What Now? Mutts VII (Mutts by Patrick McDonnell), 128 8.5x9-inch paperback pages, $10.95; another in the series reprinting the whimsical humor prompted by a dog, Earl, and a cat, Mooch, and their occasional human escorts

Night of the Bilingual Telemarketers: Baldo Collection No. 2 (Baldo by Hector Cantu and Carlos Castellanos), 128 8.5x9-inch paperback pages, $10.95; the nation's only Latino entry on the comics page, Baldo will soon be animated by Univision Communications, the number one Spanish-language broadcaster in the U.S. This volume includes the tribute to Gus Arriola's Gordo strip (which, I hasten with unseemly speed to add, is the subject of a book of my own that you can find out more about by clicking here).

*SALE BOOKS. These books (the ones marked with an *asterisk) are hereby offered for sale at the ridiculously low price of $5 each, plus shipping and handling ($3 for the first, plus $1 for each additional title). E-mail me by going to the very end of this section; I'll then give you ordering instructions and hold your order for two weeks, pending receipt of your check.

            Meanwhile, stay 'tooned.

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