Opus 104:

Opus 104 (November 13, 2002). NOUS R US. Doonesbury ran for Congress in Connecticut. Almost. It was actually Charlie Pillsbury, a New Haven lawyer, who did the running on the Green Party ticket, but Pillsbury was rooming with Garry Trudeau at Yale when the cartoonist was fomenting a campus comic strip called Bull Tales, which subsequently became Doonesbury. The characters in the strip were contrived from Trudeau's known associates, and at the time, Pillsbury was known as "Doone," prep school slang, according to Mark Leibovich in the Washington Post, for "someone who is not afraid to make a fool of himself," which, Pillsbury acknowledged, pretty much explains his political effort. Trudeau's adaptation of his roommate's name is explained by ordinary subtraction and addition: Pillsbury - Pill + Doone = Doone-sbury. "The Doone," Pillsbury elaborated, giving cloddishness a Shakespearean patina, "is a relative to the clown, the fool. The fool was the only one who could talk back to the king. Some people may call me a fool, but the fool can talk back to the king, and sometimes the message gets through." We don't know if Pillsbury got his message through by getting elected, but we applaud the quixotic endeavor, regardless of the outcome. Not that we need any more fools in government: it's quixotic endeavors we hope to encourage. (And don't overlook the Doonesbury book on sale at the end of this opus.)

            Scott Adams' next book will be about leadership, the Dilbert creator told James Barron at the NY Times. His current opus, Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel, the first new Dilbert book in four years, is about the "gigantic gray area between good moral behavior and outright felonious activities." Weasels, Adams said, have "gone from being the exception to [being] the norm" in our society. The book offers instructions on how to hide one's incompetence while outshining one's co-workers - how, in other words, to be a weasel. "Leadership," Adams allows, "may be too close to [weaseling]." But there is a difference: corporate managing, he explained, "is essentially fooling yourself; leadership is fooling other people."

            Only about 25% of the 200 syndicated comics features included anniversary themes on September 11, saith E&P.

            USA Today's story on next summer's DreamWorks animation feature, Sinbad, focussed almost entirely on the film's voices, supplied by Brad Pitt, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Now, I like at least two of these stars extravagantly, but none of the animation team is mentioned in the story by name. In fact, the only reference to the visual content of the epic is to the little beard that Sinbad has, which, on occasion, matches one that Pitt sports. When he's not clean-shaven, that is. Which, sometimes, he is.

            Playboy, one of the last two bastions of magazine cartooning (The New Yorker being the other), is due for a make-over, according to Peter Johnson at USA Today. The new editorial director of the magazine is James Kaminsky, who comes to the gatefold community from the No. 2 spot at Maxim, one of the plethora of so-called "men's magazines" littering the newsstands with cover pictures of scantily clad women rather than naked ones (Gear, FHM, Stuff, etc.). Kaminsky is charged with bringing the venerable Playboy into the 21st century, where twenty-something guys, "famous for their short attention spans and love of quick reads," are the targeted audience. The pursuit of this tv-trained concentration-impaired reader has resulted, throughout the magazine industry, in an editorial style that breaks up content into nibble-sized paragraphs, scatters them throughout the magazine in shotgun-style layouts on pages indistinguishable from advertising pages, and touts page-long articles as if they are epics of investigative reportage. Presumably, Playboy will soon display the same frenetic circus-poster style mannerisms. It will also result, I suppose, in photographs of barenekkidwimmin in which we see only one or two body parts at a time.

FUNNYBOOK FANFARE: Reviewing Number Ones. This month, for a change, I encountered several new comic book titles that are pretty nifty. Too often, in my rigorous drill of attempting to catch new titles as they spill out onto the newsstands, I see only drek or marginal amateurism on display. As you may have noticed. But this time, we have a joyful noise.

            From Howard Shum, who writes and inks, and Joey Mason, who pencils and colors, an absolutely stunning debut for Gun Fu, a headlong dash of an adventure set in 1936 and starring Cheng Bo Sen, "a gun-shooting, kung fu-using Hong Kong cop who speaks hip-hop which no one seems to notice." Bo Sen begins by foiling a robbery in Hong Kong and then is exported to London where a queenly personage employs him to destroy the Nazi robot soldier program. The action is fast and furious and nearly wordless. But the stellar aspect of this book is the crisp, clean artwork, which is performed in an extremely stylized manner, coupling fragile interior linework to bold outlines and deploying an abstracted version of human anatomy and equipage that reminds me of manga and the Powderpuff Girls but only just. Mason is clearly in complete command of his medium: he deftly paces the action, insinuates both verbal and visual comedy with panache, and depicts all the necessary action and locale with a graphic shorthand that is both clear and highly design-y. This book seems to me as sharp a departure from conventional comic book styling as Samurai Jack was a departure from conventional animated cartooning. Mason also did the coloring, fulfilling from conception outward a role more than ordinarily essential in this book: because customary forms are so abstracted and the linear qualities are so regimented, color serves a vital function in helping us to differentiate forms, characters, props, and whatnot. And Bo Sen's hip-hop argot helps to create his flip personality. One of my favorite riffs: Bo Sen chasing after the bad guys by commandeering a rickshaw but neglecting to commandeer the guy to pull the vehicle, so the pursuit must, perforce, take place downhill. All of which Bo Sen (and Mason) accomplishes with elan.

            Skaggy the Lost is a production of SLG Publishing and someone with the unlikely name, Igor Baranko. (It's the "Igor" part that seems unlikely: I can't believe that anyone actually bears the name of Frankenstein's hunchback laboratory assistant; but that's obviously a hang-up of mine and shouldn't bother anyone else.) This is so quirky a blend of an eccentric graphic style and a parade of bizarre concepts that it must, of necessity, be the work of a single, er, intelligence. And it is a delight to behold. Skaggy is a Viking who has come to a North American shore with his brother, Hrafn Twobearded, to find the gold hoard of the Skraelings. Baranko's grotesque renderings of homo sapiens are sometimes quite recognizably of humans; sometimes, not. His style blends excessively detailed fineline noodling with blots of solid black in a wholly engaging manner. And his storyline and dialogue are a perfect match for the artwork. Skaggy's crew includes a fat friar who wanders off down the sandy beach and encounters three maidens who are discussing the prospect of marriage. "If you're dreaming of getting married," says one, "then marry Skamkel, my nephew. He's got so many pigs you'll get tired counting them. So what if he farts at the table? Just open the windows more often." "But," says the dreaming maiden, "people say Skaggy's male organ reaches his knees." "Nonsense," exclaims the first, "I saw him in bath. My husband Hrafn's is longer even though they are brothers." "Interesting," says the dreamer. "And my mother," interjects the third party, "says look in your husband's coffers not his pants." A purely delightful mix of the outlandish and the profane.

            Fade from Blue gives us a thoughtful story by Myatt Murphy with exquisite art by Scott Dalrymple. In this inaugural issue, we meet four half-sisters, who, it says here, "share more than just one missing polygamist father. Drawn together by the sudden, unexpected deaths of their mothers, the four form their own family in order to survive. Years later, the truth of what really happened in the past threatens to unravel the existence they're created for themselves in the present and to expose the lies they'e been keeping from each other since that fateful day." In the well-tried tradition of tales of this sort, Murphy begins by introducing us to each of the four women, one vignette at a time: one is brainy, one is flighty, one is a dumb beauty, and the fourth is a tough cop. The vignettes bring each of the women to a moment of minor crisis, and on the last page of the book, Murphy conjures up a gripping cliffhanger as the plot poises to introduce us to the absent father, for whom one of his daughters is searching - probably, according to another, in vain: "If you can make four women believe you're a faithful traveling businessman instead of a bounty-hunting polygamist, I'm sure he's done a great job at creating a new life for himself that no one will ever find." Dalrymple's artistry is realistic and impressive. He feathers occasionally but knows when to quit. And his renditions of physiognomy are expert: each of the four women looks different, and each is entirely recognizable from one picture to the next, despite shifting camera angles and changing poses. In short, he knows how to draw. And Murphy knows how to write.

            Solar Stella, on the other hand, needs more story to go with Jason Bone's charming pictures. The date on this book is August 2000, but I only recently acquired it through the usual channels, so I have no notion as to why it's been languishing in some sort of distribution limbo for two years. If, in fact, it has. Bone is a master of a variation of the "animated Batman style": he deploys a bold albeit flexing line and dramatic solid blacks with stunning effect. And he paces the action, varies page layout and perspective, and times sight gags with great skill. It's a pleasure to look at pages of his art. But the story, in which we meet Stella as she falls into the toils of some sort of interplanetary prince with a harem, is a series of events uninformed by any overriding plot purpose. Stella herself, while relentlessly in the spotlight, actually does almost nothing: her predicament is resolved when a space monster intervenes. Bone has sprinkled pin-ups and paperdolls through the pages of the book, and the whole enterprise, including the plotless story, has a captivating, whimsical appeal.

            Finally, if you've missed Hunt Emerson's assault on sexual inhibition in his Firkin comics, now's the chance to make up for your dereliction. Produced in tandem with fellow Brit Tym Manley, the comic strip features Firkin, a cat, and regularly examines (if that's the term) some premise about sex in a two-page "essay" that is always, without deviation or fail, hilarious. The hilarity, alas, cannot be adequately described in mere prose - which makes it, perforce, better-than-average cartooning. Until now, Firkin appeared in this country only in a series of comic books that reprinted the strip from various British publications; now, we have, from Knockabout Comics, a 140-page trade paperback ($17) that reprints about 70 of these treasures from the pages of Fiesta magazine, over half of them in full color or duotone. The premise of the series is, if we are to judge from the opening prose introduction, that sex is all human beings think about. Not every 8 seconds, as the experts have it, but ten times as often - or, every .08 seconds. This preoccupation "infects" our approach to every aspect of life. Or, as the authors so delicately put it: "If it moves, you want to shag it. If it doesn't move, you want to dress it in red lace-edged black latex, take polaroid photos of it, put it on wheels, and then shag it." As proof, the authors offer the contents of the book, Firkin, as "ample evidence that there is nothing so ridiculous as the human animal in pursuit of copulation." Most of the action involves Charleen and her beau, Neville, and they are, most of the time, utterly naked, their genitalia flapping in the breeze as they, er, pursue. The pursuit, however, is never along conventional lines. This isn't just a sex comics, tovarich. Take, for instance, the time that Neville and Charleen visit a nudist beach. You'd think this is the excuse for group pictures of naked frolicking, but no group shows up. Instead, Charleen discovers that her IUD (described as "a sort of tv aerial put in the neck of the womb to repel babies") has picked up BBC Radio 4, so she tries to keep her knees together so no one can hear the broadcast. "How can I pretend to be a cool 20-something with a cunt full of Radio 4?" she asks, plaintively; "I want hiphop, garage, dance..." Neville undertakes to change the station by "deep tuning." Well, after a few extravagant moments, Charleen is bringing in a horse race broadcast, which doesn't make her any happier. The hilarity, as you can see, evaporates in the mere telling of this interlude. You need to see the pictures, too - which invariably exaggerate human action and anatomy by making body parts elastic and stretching them to comedic extremities that even Tex Avery would admire. Completely unabashed.

GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW. From NBM, here's the second of Vittorio Giardino's 3-volume series on the Spanish Civil War, No Pasaran! (48 8.5x11" full-color pages in paperback, $11.95). In the closing years of the pre-war decade, the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) was the great romantic destination. On one side were the Republicans; on the other, the Nationalists, led by Francisco Franco, whose side eventually won, setting up a dictatorship with Franco at its head. Germany and Italy supported Franco in the conflict, supplying arms, chiefly, and some forces. Their objective was to test modern weaponry and warfare strategies in the field, and for this reason, the Spanish Civil War is often described as "the opening battle of World War II." The Republican side included socialists and communists as well as anarchists, so Russia supported the Republicans, albeit not as enthusiastically as the Germans and Italians supported the Nationalists.

            Coming to assist the out-gunned Republicans were scores of "volunteers" from other nations - England, U.S., France, etc. - whose governments refused to take sides officially. These volunteers came together in the so-called "international brigade," which, given the idealism of the volunteers, became the romantic crusade for a generation of the world's liberals in the waning years of the thirties. They thought they were coming to the aid of democracy in a contest between democracy and fascism. And while it is true that the Republican side included the elected government of Spain and the Nationalist side represented the "rebellion" against the duly-constituted government, that government was sinking rapidly into anarchy, and democracy was menaced on every hand. Taking the reins of government in early 1936, the Republican party began actively persecuting Catholics and the clergy with torture and execution and creating administrative chaos by emptying prisons and destroying records. At the same time, its communist constituency was quietly taking over. The crusading romantics from other countries who flocked to the Republican standard after Franco's invasion of Spain from Africa in the summer of 1936 saw Franco's victory three years later as the murder of Spanish democracy by international fascism. But it is more accurately seen as a triumph of traditional Spain over the revolutionary left and international communism. And Franco, despite the bad press he suffered for decades thereafter, wasn't a fascist: he frustrated Germany and Italy during World War II by resolutely refusing to join the in fray on either side, maintaining Spain's "neutrality" or "non-belligerency" throughout the hostilities. And the authoritarian regime Franco established at least gave his country its first stable government in more than a century.

            The Spanish Civil War was, by all accounts, a brutal war, both sides committing appalling atrocities. The most infamous of these was the April 1937 aerial bombing of the village of Guernica. It was the first time bombs had fallen on non-combatants, and the inhumanity of the act inspired Picasso to paint his celebrated mural in which the rain of death has distorted all forms of life. Bombing continued through the war, and many more civilians were slaughtered from the air.

            Giardino's tight-lipped spy Max Friedman (Orient Gateway, Hungarian Rhapsody) was once engaged in the war on the Republican side, but he left; in this series, he returns to Spain in order to find his old comrade in arms, Guido Treves. His quest leads him to the front, where, posing as a news photographer, he falls in with a pretty Belgian reporter. As the Republican forces retreat from the advancing Nationalists, he and she get separated from their entourage of newsmen, and Max is wounded in the shoulder. Nonetheless, he vows to press on in his mission to discover what has become of his old friend.

            Giardino supplies an introduction that reprises, briefly, the action of Volume 1 and discusses the Spanish Civil War in a cursory but intensely personal manner as he recalls stories he heard as he grew up about the inhumanities of that celebrated interlude in Spanish history. Max's story, the story of the graphic novel, Giardino tells in his patented restrained, low-key Hemingwayish fashion. In a flashback, we get a glimpse of Guido in action and now have a better understanding of why Max wants to find him. Throughout, Giardino's meticulous line, bold and unfeathered, and his surpassing artistry. He can draw handsome men and beautiful women and make them look different, individual. And he can preserve that individuality from panel to panel, page to page. Many of the comics artists currently rendering in a realistic manner could learn much by studying Giardino.

UNDER THE SPREADING PUNDITRY. Amusing as it is to sit back and watch the Democrats fall upon each other tooth and claw, spewing recrimination and vituperative contumely as they seek to pin the blame on somebody for their spectacular loss in the recent disturbance at the polls, these post-election contortions are instructive as well as entertaining. They reveal as nothing else can the ugly truth: the Democrats have nobody to blame but themselves. Not even they are looking for anyone else to blame. Exactly. The Republicans did not so much win the election as the Democrats lost it. And they lost it because they have lost their way. They are the opposition party but they didn't oppose. They therefore have nothing to offer.

            And they offered nothing. Offered nothing and stood for nothing. Judging from the clarion call we heard nowhere, the Democrats have only one agenda: get re-elected. And so, with the sterling exceptions of a few like Paul Wellstone and Nancy Pelosi, they would take no position that they imagined would cost them votes. Rank and file, they crouched there, cowering before a pResident they dared not defy or even disagree with. And in this posture, they expected voters to cast their ballots for them. Cast my ballot for them? I wouldn't raise a finger to help them. (Well, actually, there is a finger that I would raise....) As the little old lady from Duluth is reported to have said when asked why she didn't vote: "I didn't want to encourage them."

            David Broder was exactly right when he wrote: "The fecklessness of congressional Democrats - who lacked the nerve to say what most of them really believe about either the Bush tax cuts or his path to war with Iraq - made it easier for the president to look like the rare politician with the courage of his own convictions."

            And, indeed, that's how he seems. A politician with the courage of his own convictions. Courage or audacity - comes to the same thing, either way. I may disagree with every one of the Bush League's plots to advance the cause of oil barons and Big Business everywhere, but I must also admit that the Bush League has convictions and the courage to act upon them. It won't make me a cheerleader, but I admire them for political guts.

            What will happen next with every branch of the government in the so-called "control" of the Bush League? Broder posits the possible horror: "Clearly after such an election, Republicans will feel emboldened. ... Even without the benefit of a clear electoral mandate [in the election of 2000], Bush pushed for and largely achieved sweeping and even radical changes in education, fiscal policy, defense and foreign policy doctrine. He also proposed to shift the boundaries in church-state relations, change Medicare and Social Security and alter the makeup of the judicial branch by determinedly conservative appointments. A president who moved so boldly on a shaky political base will surely attempt far more now that his party is clearly in the ascendancy."

            In the immediate aftermath of the election, Dubya said, with an assumed modesty that was, in itself, stunning, that the victories on the hustings were due mostly to the merits of the candidates themselves, not him, and that he was hoping, now, to change the tone in Washington, to work to achieve genuine bi-partisan government. That's what he said before, remember? Changing the "tone" means, if we are to judge from what he did as soon as he assumed the office in 2001, "do it my way." Don't object. Don't disagree. Don't consult. That's a change in tone, no question. By the same token, "bi-partisan government" means "everybody do it my way." Everybody go along, in lockstep with the Bushwah.

            Horrifying as it may be to contemplate the U.S. becoming a banana-republic dictatorship, the Cassandras who conjure up such visions reckon without acknowledging the inherent scalawaggery of Washington politics. As Congress has repeatedly demonstrated, there are more ways to avoid doing something than there are ways to do something. And I have perfect confidence that timorousness will continue to assert itself on every hand, plunging Congress once again into the abyss of gridlock. We have about as much to fear from the Bush League as we do from, say, kamikaze tumbleweeds in kayaks. Or, even, from "weapons of mass destruction."

            According to Greg Easterbrook in The New Republic (quoted and paraphrased in The Week), "weapons of mass destruction" is a useless catchphrase. I wouldn't go quite that far: I think the Bush League has made very effective use of the term as a potent scare tactic. But otherwise, I agree with Easterbrook when he says: "Chemical and biological weapons conjure up images of 'gruesome mortality.' But throughout history, they have been ineffective weapons - less deadly than conventional bombs." The proof of this assertion is, of course, that if chemical and biological weapons were really as effective as we imagine they are, they'd be in daily use around the globe. All it takes is a change in the wind, and poison gas kills its dispensers instead of its erstwhile targets. The international agreement that outlawed chemical and biological weapons was adopted by nearly every nation in tacit recognition that the things didn't work right so why waste money manufacturing and storing them in any quantity? "Atomic bombs are in another category altogether ... 'millions of times more dangerous' than any other weapon. If Saddam used biological or chemical weapons, a stray wind or a speedy arrival of antibiotics could limit casualties to a few dozen. With an atomic bomb, he'd surely equal or surpass Hiroshima's death toll of 70,000. So let's stop 'talking in loose generalities' about weapons of mass destruction. The Iraq debate comes down to this: 'Saddam must not be the first madman to acquire the atomic bomb.'" That may be a more accurate statement of the proposition that's been loosed on the world, but it probably, by itself, would not have terrified anyone into accepting Congress's abdication of its Constitutional power by giving Dubya a declaration of war before the fact. "Weapons of mass destruction," on the other hand, is a wonderful phrase for terrorizing people.

            Meanwhile, the much-touted Bush League victory in the United Nations isn't, quite, a victory. Remember "regime change" as the first objective Dubya announced for invading Iraq? The recently adopted resolution on Iraq says nothing about regime change. And the U.N. didn't give Dubya a blank check to invade Iraq at his discretion as the U.S. Congress did. In the excitement over announcing the passage of the U.N. resolution (any resolution) after so many weeks of dilly dallying, the news media (at least the so-called "news" media on tv) neglected to mention a couple of salient factoids. My local paper (bless the print medium) included in its report a sidebar from the Associated Press that quotes from a joint statement issued by China, Russia, and France "outlining their interpretation" of the U.N. resolution, which, they say, "excludes any automaticity in the use of force." According to them, the Bush League doesn't get to invade Iraq immediately if Saddam fails to comply with the inspection team's demands. Dubya must return to the U.N. for permission. Sounds to me like France won this round, not the Bush League, but you wouldn't know it from the reports on the gabbling 24/7 networks.

            Yes, I know: all this political diatribe seems off the subject. And so it is until you recall what Jeff MacNelly said upon returning to editorial cartooning in 1982 after only eight months away from it: "When it comes to humor, there's no substitute for reality and politicians."

            So don't get your wattles in an uproar: breathe deep, stop what you're doing often, and wear glasses if you need to. Drive carefully - stay away from other cars and honk all the way. And take another drink and walk a little slower: life is not sweet but it's nourishing as Larry Calloway taught us all. And by all means, stay 'tooned. Among the means afforded you is an analytical history of newspaper funnies in a book of mine, The Art of the Funnies, which you can preview by clicking here. And for a similar treatment of comic book history, click here for a preview of another of my books, The Art of the Comic Book.

SALE BOOKS. Speaking of Doonesbury, here's the only compendium of Trudeau's earliest efforts (first published in 1971):

Doonesbury: The Original Yale Cartoons by Garry Trudeau; Foreword by Erich Segal; the 6x7" paperback from Alligator Books, a division of Sheed Andrews and McMeel; 6th printing, September 1976. There was also an American Heritage edition (1971) of the same work but in hardback; I'm keeping that. But this paperback, with slightly soiled cover and pages just barely, almost imperceptibly, yellowing, is offered here and here only for $7.

Pogo by Walt Kelly; Simon and Schuster, 1951. This, with its burgundy tweed cover, is the first Pogo reprint book, "variant no. 4" as listed in Steve Thompson's Walt Kelly Collector's Guide, which, by the way, reports that (as of a dozen or so years ago when it was first published) there is "no discernable difference on the collector's market in the value of any of the variants." This is scarcely a pristine copy: the cover is dog-eared and chipped here and there, torn in one place; and the interior pages have perceptible yellowing (just barely). But it's still a classic and if you need a good reading copy, you can have this one for $12.

The Jack Acid Society Black Book "by Pogo" as told to Walt Kelly; Simon and Schuster, 1962. This is a second printing of a fairly scarce book. It, like the immediately preceding title, is not in mint condition: the cover bears no tears or rips but the spine is askew, as if someone sat a great weight on this book for many moons. It's been reprinted in Pogo Revisited, but this original issue is merely $18.

The Pogo Poop Book by Walt Kelly; Simon and Schuster, 1966 - first printing. This item is in very nearly pristine condition. Also reprinted in Pogo Revisited, this one, given its nifty condition and relative scarcity, is priced at $38.

For shipping and packaging, add $3 for the first book, $1 each for every title after that. For further instructions, scroll down to the very end of the next opuses where you'll find an e-mail option; click on it and tell me what you want. I'll give you payment instructions then and hold the book(s) for two weeks thereafter.

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