Opus 105:

Opus 105: Whenever I run into a long trawl of discourse like what follows herewith, I look for shortcuts. Mebbe you do, too. And in the interest of assisting you to that end, I'm going to try formally departmentalizing the ol' Rancid Raves. Not everything will fall handily into one of these departments, but by scrolling down the pages, you can, whenever you encounter one of these boldface headings, be fairly certain what it'll contain.

            Funnybook Fanfare: reviews of more-or-less current comic books.

            Civilization's Last Outpost: comment on the American scene, not necessarily comics-related.

            Under the Spreading Punditry: here we examine Bushwah and the Bush League and other political matters.

            Reprint Review: that says it all--reviews of books reprinting comic strips

            Grafik Novels: reviews of graphic novels (until I get everyone to adopt my name for them--long form paginated cartoon strips; too pedantic a nomenclature, surely).

            Nous R Us: despite the bad French, this department retails news--not all of it, but however much of it seems to interest or provoke me.

            Collectors' Corniche--a sentimental favorite, not yet in evidence, in which I tout some rare and wonderful tome of cartoonery on my shelf.

            Book Sales: a grab-bag, tovarich--books I somehow acquired a second copy of, old rare tomes, and review copies that I simply don't have room to keep at hand.

            With that for orientation, here we go again.

FUNNYBOOK FANFARE. Last weekend, I picked up the copy of Scribbly No. 4 (1949) that I'd bought in San Diego last summer and read it. I'd not read much of Shelly Mayer's Golden Age masterwork before, but now I know why it's a masterwork and why Mayer is a comedic genius. Yes, even such little introduction as is afforded by a single issue of one of his comic books is enough to be completely persuasive. First, the pictures. But before we get into that, I should remind you that Scribbly Jibbet, Mayer's protagonist, is also his alter ego, a young wannabe cartoonist working as a copy boy on the local paper. And the paper is staffed with the traditional stereotypical newspapermen--a raging, shouting editor and a money-grubbing publisher. Now the pictures--a manic display of sight gags. Some, admittedly, are as insubstantial as having Scribbly's tongue stick out or his ankle turn at a comical angle. Most are hillarious because of Mayer's propensity to exaggerate: he exaggerates physiognomy (mouths are bigger when shouting) and action (speed lines galore). And then there are the plots themselves.

            In one story, Scribbly earns the ire of his editor by doing (and getting published in the paper) a caricature of a local gangster that makes the thug look like "public enemy number one." The editor says the paper can be sued unless they can prove the allegation implicit in Scribbly's picture, an impossibility given the time constraints. So, seeking to appease the thug before the thug shows up to administer admonition, the editor tells Scribbly to run a complimentary-looking photo, but it gets torn inadvertently when a pesky wall phone gets out of control, hitting the editor on the head as well as ripping the photo. The editor sends Scribbly off for headache pills. At the drugstore, Scribbly, by mentioning the brand name of the pills, is dubbed "king for an hour" by the pill-sponsored radio program being conducted on the premises. (There was, at the time this book was published, a radio program called "Queen for a Day.") In Scribbly's case, they make him "editor for an hour." When Scrib's editor gives this idea the horse-laugh, his publisher phones him to remind him that the radio show in question is one of the paper's biggest advertisers. So Scribbly is editor for an hour.

            Exercising his new-found authority, Scribbly declares that the paper doesn't apologize to gangsters and publishes an even more uncomplimentary picture of the local gangster. Meanwhile, his erswhile editor is directed to sweep the floor. When Scrib's hour is up, the editor goes after him. But before the boy can be caught, the gangster shows up, enraged and looking for "the editor" responsible for the picture; Scrib's editor, naturally, directs the thug to Scribbly. They meet behind closed doors, but Scrib emerges victorious: that pesky wall phone attacked the bad guy and rendered him unconscious. In that state, he dropped a little black book that has names and places listed, "enough to put him away for life." Now the paper is no longer in danger of being sued because it can be proved that the gangster is "public enemy number one." And the office girl, for whom Scribbly secretly pines, kisses the youth.

            All of this complication, the interweaving of two (or two-and-a-half) plots, is achieved in a mere seven pages. Just seven! And there are three more stories herein: one more 7-pager, a 6-pager, and a monstrous 12-page extravaganza. All brimming with comedic Mayerisms. A treat. A feast of a treat. A veritable banquet.

            And if I say there are no Shelly Mayers on the comic horizon today, that's partly true. No Shelly Mayers and no Milt Grosses. (Although Bill Wray comes perilously close.) Today, the exaggerated visual clowning of these early masters is not much in demand. Today, verbal wit is more popular than visual wit. But every once in a while, we get a glimpse of the old manic buffoonery.

            Jane's World by Paige Braddock, for instance. Braddock's day job is with the Creative Associates that handle Peanuts materials. But at night, she takes us into Jane's World, a comic strip available, mostly, on the Web at www.JanesWorldComics.com. Jane, a gay single young woman trying to sort through life, also made it into print twice recently. First, in a paperback that collects the first year of the strip--Jane's World, 134 5x7" pages; $12.95 from Plan Nine, 1237 Elon Place, High Point, NC 27263 or www.plan9.org. Then in a Jane's World comic book from Girl Twirl Comics. While Braddock's visuals are not as manic as Mayer's, the world she creates for Jane with words and pictures is nearly as topsy-turvy as Scribbly's. In the funnybook, f'instance, Jane, who works at a newspaper, goes to a local deli to get a story about the place, which is staffed by clowns. At the insistance of her boss, she goes undercover, and, wearing a clown costume, is apprehended and jailed. As the situation that produces this outcome gets more and more absurdly complicated, Jane's rising irritation propels the story to the cusp of slapstick. Braddock's artwork is sketchy shorthand, and it aptly captures the sometimes frayed realities of Jane's often humorously disintegrating world. (I know: maybe, for the sake of the Plan Nine book, this should go under "Reprint Reviews," but it seemed to belong so neatly after Scribbly that I opted, as the proprietor, to ignore departmental rigidity and plunk it all down righ'chere.)

            The first issue of Marvel's 6-issue mini-series, Truth, is out. This is the much-touted revisiting of the origins of Captain America, a superhero created on the eve of World War II as the red-white-and-blue personification of America. In the original story from Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, sickly Steve Rogers is injected with a serum that turns him into a super soldier. Truth's re-telling of the story incorporates the notions set adrift by the infamous Tuskegee experiment, which, in 1932, infected black men with syphilis and then didn't treat them for the next forty years in order to monitor the effects of the disease. This atrocity was compounded by not telling the unwitting guinea pigs that they were subjects of an experiment. In effect, Truth is a prequel for the Kirby-Simon story: this series will focus on the black men who were the initial guinea pigs for the serum that, when perfected, turned skinny Steve into Captain America.

            The project has generated a certain measure of criticism, mostly race-based. The very concept is flawed, according to Leslie Brown, a professor of African-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis: an experiment, however dangerous, with potentially positive effects, he believes, would be tried on whites, not blacks. Joe Simon, for different reasons, applauds the series: "In my day, the industry almost totally ignored people of color," he said; "I think it's about time that somebody did it." Then there are the usual phalanx of bigots who object to anyone who isn't white wearing Captain America's red-white-and-blue longjohns.

            In the first of Truth's six issues, we meet the three men in their native habitats. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the series is Kyle Baker's artwork. Instead of the usual Marvel-style turgid realism, we have a loose cartoony style, which, notwithstanding, Baker splashes generously with black ink to impart a serious atmosphere to the proceedings of Robert Morales' deadly serious story. Baker's treatment here reminds me of Jordi Bernet's in the Torpedo series a decade or so ago. And by means of this novelty, I'm hooked: I thought the concept of the series was an obvious publicity stunt and wasn't going to get sucked in, but Baker's artwork persuaded me otherwise. The pitfall that yawns before Baker and Marvel, though, is precisely in Baker's treatment. A cartoony style perforce employs stereotypical imagery--in this instance, brown skin and big lips. I suspect that huge segments of the populace will, for this reason, find the series racist. They'll be wrong: Baker is solicitous in his visual characterizations not salacious. But any representation of African features, no matter how realistic, would attract the same accusation of racism. In publishing this project with such a cartoony style, Marvel shows editorial courage in pressing forward. More power to 'em.

            Increasingly these days, since the popularity of the "Batman animation style" of drawing superheroes, we've been treated to cartoony artwork that presents otherwise serious stories. The Powers and Catwoman are recent, successful examples. And here we have Mike Hawthorne's rendition of Anthony Johnston's 3 Days in Europe about a quarreling couple who are fighting over whether to vacation in London or Paris and, in the first of this 5-issue series, wind up going separately to their favorite destinations only to discover that, at the last minute, they've gotten mixed up. Simple style complimented by meticulously drawn backgrounds, albeit rulered rather than rendered. Still, nicely done.

            Finally, here's the first of six issues of Marville, written by Bill Jemas, pencilled by Mark Bright, and inked by Paul Neary. We enter the world of 5002 A.D. to discover that Ted Turner has racheted his TBS-CNN-Time/Warner-AOL take-over into longevity and global domination, but the world is suddenly showered by meteors that threaten its very existence. So Ted sends his teenage son back in time to the 20th Century in order that he survive the disaster, which, Ted assures us, will destroy the world in "exactly two minutes." His son, KalAOL, wearing a shirt emblazoned "Marvel Enterprises," returns to our time thinking he'll be somehow superior to the local population because of his knowledge of the future, but he discovers he has no particular superpower. "No X-ray vision," he says as he ogles a cute chick in shorts that walks by. "I come all the way from the future, and all I have to show for it is this stupid shirt," he mutters, disconsolately.

            For the rest of the book, he keeps running into the same would-be bank robber, bent on committing crime--first with a club, then with a knife, and, at last, with a gun. If you hear echoes of Superman's origins here--and Spider-Man's, not to mention other vague references--it's no accident. The book begins with a "Insider's Guide to Marville" that tells us about "Comic Book Characters" (Kal-El, Peter Parker, Bruce Wayne) and "Real World Characters" (Ted Turner, Jane Fonda, Paul Levitz). Probably dedicated fans would tune in to the allusions in the story itself, but Jemas and his cohorts are canny enough to know that anyone new to comics is not likely to know about Bruce Wayne's parents being killed by a mugger and Peter Parker's being propelled into fighting crime as a giant spider because he failed to recognize that with great power comes great responsibility.

            In-jokes are virtually the entire enterprise here, and it's good fun making fun, as Jemas says, of passionate fans and readers whose dedication stems from a desire to "escape from reality not read about it." Hence, this issue's subtitle, "Just Imagine Bill Jemas Creating the DC Universe." The next issue, he says, will poke at the other segment of funnybook readers, "millions of intelligent grown-ups ... who look past the metaphors, enjoy the characters for what they represent, and love when comic writers and artists place the characters in real-life situations and modern-day settings ... the people who look for moral messages." It's subtitle, naturally, will be "What if Bill Jemas Created the Marvel Universe." Not great literature, kemo sabe, but undeniably good fun.

            And that brings me to my Drastic Fubar of the Week. By pushing the wrong button on my cyberspace machine, I managed to order the special, signed, collector's edition of Marville No. 1, not the newsstand version. The special edition, with "spot foil cover," is one of only 399 signed by Jemas (on the cover but discretely--that is, illegibly), and it comes in a plastic sleeve with a gleaming seal affixed and a Certificate of Authenticity attesting to its being one of only 399 signed copies. This one, in fact, is Number 46. Holy Moly, gang! A low number. One of the earliest Jemas signed. His signing hand has barely begun and hasn't, yet, worn out much at all. (Still, as I say, he already can't write legibly.)

            Wonderful. But I thought I was buying a $2.95 funnybook, not a $20 Gem for the Ages. So I'm willing to part with it. At a bargain price (hoping to recoup some of my lavish expenditure). Merely $10. See "Book Sale" below for more details.

NOUS R US. Editor & Publisher has, for the second year, named (with the November 25th issue) its picks for cartoonists of the year: Jerry Scott and Tom Toles. Scott, who "writes" both Zits and Baby Blues, also picked up the Reuben as "cartoonist of the year" last May from the National Cartoonist Society and, a few weeks later, the Swedish Academy of Comic Art's Adamson statuette; Toles last summer took Herblock's vacant chair at the Washington Post after 29 years at the Buffalo News. Scott, says E&P's David Astor, did some naming himself as soon as he was named: "I'm lucky to have great partners," he said. "Both strips are completely collaborative efforts"--Zits with Jim Borgman and Baby Blues with Rick Kirkman. Both strips are growing, popular enterprises, Zits passing the 1,000-subscriber mark last year. Scott, a cartoonist himself as well as a "writer," keeps both strips "very visual," said Brian Walker, author of the recently published The Comics: Since 1945. When Toles arrived at the Post, he moved, immediately, in Herblock's corner. "My first day was one of absolutely terror," he said. He leans slightly to the left of the Post's usual stance, he believes, but so far, reader response has been, he said, "frighteningly positive." One sign of hope: a caller recently threatened to break his nose.

            Superman, who started the current rush of longjohn legions to the silver screen, is making another dash for it. Brett Ratner ("Red Dragon") has signed to direct the "re-invention" of the Man of Steel in a movie slated for the summer of 2004. The script, Ratner says, is "the original story and more." The character needs to be introduced to a new generation, Ratner believes. "Kids today don't know those old movies," he said, referring to the Christopher Reeve epic of 1978. "They know Superman but they don't know the mythology, so I'm excited to do it." As for George Reeves and his tv interpretation of Superman in the 1950s, that's no longer "old" but, presumably,  "prehistoric."

            Former Monty Python John Cleese has reportedly devised a "What If--?" Superman story called "True Brit." According to DC Comics editor Mike Carlin, in Cleese's story Superman's rocketship lands in England and the tabloids chase him away. "I have an offer out to an artist," Carlin said. "I don't have him confirmed yet, but I think it'll happen." Kim Howard Johnson, Cleese's personal assistant, added: "It's John's first work in the comic book field, and the story will definitely contain some Cleesian touches." Everybody wants into the act now that Hollywood is falling all over itself to make movies about men in tights, I say. The 96‑page book is expected out in December next year, Cleese's agent says.

            According to David Astor at Editor & Publisher: Mike Peters is bringing his Mother Goose & Grimm strip and Pulitzer Prize‑winning editorial cartoons to King Features Syndicate on January 1. "I have been very happy with Tribune Media Services, but King made me a fabulous offer," Peters told E&P Online. "It was probably one of the two or three hardest decisions I've made in my life." Walter Mahoney, TMS vice president of domestic syndication, said: "Unfortunately, we were not able to extend our agreement with Mike under terms that we felt were financially prudent for TMS." Peters, 59, said another reason he's switching syndicates is that change can help him stay excited about his work. As a Mother Goose replacement, TMS will offer Steve Watkins' Housebroken, a new comic about a middle‑class African‑American family that "takes in a down‑on‑his‑luck ex‑rap‑star dog."

            The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has filed an appeal to the highest court in Texas in the case of James Castillo, the manager of a Dallas comic book store who was convicted in August 2000 of "a display of obscenity" for selling an adult comic to an adult. The most damning "evidence" at the trial was, apparently, that the comic book store in question was near an elementary school. The prosecution reasoned (it is alleged) that since comic books are traditionally for children, it was dangerous to sell adult comics to adults near a schoolyard. We cheer the CBLDF on and hope for happier results at the appellate level. To close with a gratifying footnote--Last year, Don Simpson found himself being harassed by the Charles Atlas company's law firm which was seeking a licensing fee for the parody Simpson committed of the celebrated kicking-sand-in-the-face beach cartoon. Simpson and the CBLDF felt he was within his First Amendment rights and that the Atlas Empire was simply bullying Simpson because it thought he wouldn't fight back. Wrong. He did and so did CBLDF, writing Atlas a "firmly phrased letter." Atlas promptly backed off, and Simpson went back to lampooning the universe.

            Stan Lee, as everyone by now knows, is suing Marvel because he hasn't received any payment for presumed profits generated by the X-Men and Spider-Man movies. All I can say is-- "Good Luck, Stan." Hollywood is renowned for accounting methods that make Enron look like penny pitching at the corner lemonade stand. The key term here is "profits." And the Hollywood gang, as Art Buchwald discovered some years ago, is expert at running up costs that consume whatever profit might otherwise be expected. A better deal (should you ever negotiate a contract with Hollywood moguls yourself) is to ask for a percentage of gross. Meanwhile, "Stan-isms"--like "Excelsior!" and "'Nuff Said" are no longer being employed at the House of Ideas.

            And Don Rosa, the current generation's "duck man," decided to stop drawing Carl Barks' ducks until Egmont, the European publisher he works for, starts paying him something for the numerous reprintings of his duck stories. The most egregious act of piracy: Egmont is publishing a 450-page collection of his duck stories entitled, simply, "Don Rosa." Rosa is so popular in Europe that his appearances there resemble those of rock stars. His name, obviously, is enough to sell books. But he's not had much luck attracting the attention of his publishers and hopes that "if I shut down," they'll at least talk to him about remediation.

            Comics Revue, a monthly magazine that prints long runs by the week or month of such vintage comic strips as Gasoline Alley, Modesty Blaise, Alley Oop, Flash Gordon, Krazy Kat, Steve Canyon, Tarzan, Casey Ruggles, The Phantom, Little Orphan Annie and Barnaby, will reach its 200th issue this month. Launched in 1984 by Don Chin, the magazine was taken over by Rick Norwood with No. 4, and he continued its regular publication schedule for the next 19 years. The commemorative issue is a 100-page extravaganza priced at $7.95. Subscriptions for 12 issues of the 64-page monthly are $45/year ($80 overseas, $120 by airmail) from Manuscript Press, P.O. Box 336, Mountain Home, TN 37684; or www.io.com/~norwoodr.

            Diamond's Steve Geppi has acquired the license from Disney to produce new Disney comic books. Two titles are contemplated at first--Uncle Scrooge and Walt Disney's Comics. Dunno whether the insides will be new material or reprints.

            Operation Grateful Nation, coordinated by the White House Commission on Remembrance, is sending to American troops deployed around the world 100 giant greeting cards bearing a special cartoon by the creators of Blondie, signed by members of Congress and students from Boston College, Penn State University, and Princeton U. The cartoon depicts Blondie in fatigues, serving the troops stacks of turkey sandwiches. "Thanks, Mrs. Bumstead," says one soldier. "With chow like this, I'm ready to re-enlist!" To which Blondie beams: "We're honored to share Thanksgiving with the men and women who couldn't be home."

            According to Ayesha Court in USA Today, Jules Feiffer--cartoonist, playwright, and screenwriter--"moved from rage to innocence nearly 10 years ago when he began writing and

illustrating books for children." His ninth book, The House Across the Street (Hyperion, $15.95), is in stores now. His transition began when a respected children's book illustrator and friend asked him to write a book about a boy who loved movies. After Feiffer finished the book, his friend sheepishly revealed that he had written it himself in the meantime. Feiffer was livid--and

decided to write an even better book. "So spite was really what got me into this business," he says.

            The House, drawn in his characteristically fluid sketchy lines, is about an unnamed boy watching an older neighbor boy and fantasizing about his life. After 20 years writing plays and getting "beat up" by critics, Feiffer says, the experience of writing children's books is almost too good to be true. "What's wrong with this picture? This can't be an art form--this is too affirmative."

            So to get back to the cold, cruel world, Feiffer has written a play, "A Bad Friend," which premieres in June at the Lincoln Center Theater Company. "It's about a family of Jewish communists living in Brooklyn in the 1950s. Self‑evidently commercial," he deadpans.

            For most of his career, his work was adversarial, "forcing audience to pay attention to things they might not rather." But these days, raising his third daughter, Julie, 8, and writing children's books appeals to him more than fighting authority with his poison pen. He's already writing his next picture book about a little girl who can't stand how much her parents talk on the phone.

            For a little more about Feiffer's career, consult a book of mine, The Art of the Funnies, which is previwed here at your click.

            From Brian Kelly--In light of recent revelations as to the influence of Eli Lilly lobbyists in the inclusion of thimerosal indemnity in the recent Homeland Security bill, a small bit of flotsam gleaned from Eric Zorn's November 19 column, published in the recalcitrant Chicago Tribune: Evidently Ruth Lilly, 87, the last surviving great‑grandchild of the founder of the pharmaceutical giant, was an aspiring poet and writer in her private life. She submitted poems for many years under her maiden name of Mrs. Guernsey Van Riper, Jr. to Poetry magazine (circulation 12,000), published by the Chicago‑based Modern Poetry Association. She persisted despite being regularly rejected. The submissions editor for 30 years, Joseph Parisi, always wrote to contributors whose work was rejected, short encouraging notes so they would "feel that someone did read their stuff and did appreciate that they sent it." Mrs. Riper received many of his notes, and wanted to repay the courtesy. She recently decided to donate a sum of money to the Modern Poetry Association as a way of saying thanks for Parisi's encouragement. A sum of $150,000,000.00. "What a reward for editorial integrity!" exclaimed The Nation. Cartoonists know that if there are any people out there with a harder row to hoe than cartoonists, it's poets. So there's hope.

            The multi‑Oscar'd filmmaker Steven Spielberg and his longtime producing partner, Kathleen Kennedy, are in talks to acquire the feature‑film rights toTintin in hopes of launching a movie franchise based on the popular European comic strip about a fearless young reporter, saith the Hollywood trade papers. Spielberg will produce the project with Kennedy, though it's doubtful he'll direct.

            The trust that controls Charles Schulz's Peanuts has sued Mort Walker, creator of Beetle Bailey and founder of the International Museum of Cartoon Art (IMCA), which recently closed in Boca Raton, Florida, to regain strips that Schulz lent Walker in 1978. The complaint alleges the strips were to be returned to Schulz when the museum no longer needed them. The Charles M. Schulz Trust also claims Walker and the IMCA broke an agreement by selling four original strips, an allegation the IMCA denies. The plaintiffs contend the IMCA no longer needs Schulz's strips because it closed, and are concerned the IMCA will sell the strips to pay its debts. Schulz trustee Ed Anderson said the trust wants to display the strips at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California, where Schulz made his home. But Ken Seeger, an attorney for Walker and the IMCA, said his client still needs the strips because he's planning to reopen the museum. Lawyers on both sides said they hope to reach an agreement. Over the years, Schulz lent Walker's museum 44 original works and donated more than $1 million, according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday in San Francisco. A written statement from Walker, who also created the strip Hi and Lois, said he and his wife hoped a settlement could be reached, and referred to Schulz by his nickname: "My wife Catherine and I are sadly disappointed that this lawsuit has been filed," the statement said. "Sparky Schulz was a longtime friend and a key supporter of the International Museum of Cartoon Art."

            Schulz and Walker are the giants of the last half of the just-concluded century, and their careers and contributions to the artform are detailed in The Art of the Funnies; about which, more is available here if you click.

CIVILIZATION'S LAST OUTPOST. Concerned Citizens Want to Know: Why was Winona Ryder tried for shoplifting? According to The Week, "in the past two years, about 5,000 people have been busted for shoplifting in Los Angeles, but only one--a famous movie actress--was charged with a felony and put on trial." Why? Easy: entertainment value. Nothing entertains like a pretty woman in the docket. It makes for good cable-tv news, and Los Angeles, the self-proclaimed "entertainment capital of the world," knows gripping soap opera when it surfaces.

UNDER THE SPREADING PUNDITRY. Is the Bush League serious about homeland security and terrorist attacks within the U.S.? Not very. If it were really serious, we'd know what to do in the event of the chemical or biological attack. Do you know what to do? Do you phone someone? Crouch under your desk? Send out for pizza? What? Back in the antique past (that's the 1950s) when the government was, apparently, serious about an atomic bomb attack from Russia, there was all sorts of publicity and guidance about what to do in the event of an attack. There were "civil defense" shelters we were supposed to go to, and all office buildings had 'em--and the employees knew where they were. School kids were instructed about how to crouch under their desks until the blast was over. (????--so? Are we still alive after that? No one asked, then; but at least we were safe as long as we were under desks.) There were handbooks telling how to outfit your own private bomb shelter in your backyard. And on and on.

            None of this sort of pseudo‑preparedness exists today. Is anyone even talking about it? Nah. Instead, we have a government that concentrates on airline security--as if that's the only place we can be struck. And don't mention containerized freight. Heavens! For all the inspection performed on containerized freight, Osama bin Laden and his entire family (his brothers and his sisters and his aunts) could be living comfortably inside one of the containers, now stored dockside in San Francisco, and watching American tv programs via satellite. Meanwhile, none of us know exactly what to do if we're suddenly attacked by chemicals or biologicals. Do we behave differently if the attack is air-borne rather than water-borne? Who knows?

            The Bush League preparedness is all cosmetic. Seems to me.

            Except for something called the Total Information Awareness program (TIA), an ambitious plan to use new software and computer‑generated data collection that, in the words of the New York Times, seeks to "use the vast networking powers of the computer to 'mine' huge amounts of information about people." If the very existence of this peeping Tom project isn't enough to raise the specter of Big Brother in the backs of our so-called minds, the guy running this operation should. It's former Iran‑Contra player John Poindexter. Admiral Poindexter (as he is known) was Reagan's national security advisor who was convicted in 1990 of five felony counts of lying to Congress, destroying official documents and obstructing congressional inquiries into the Iran-contra affair, which involved the secret sale of arms to Iran in the mid-1980s and the diversion of profits to help the contra rebels in Nicaragua. The U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the conviction, saying Poindexter's rights had been violated through the use of testimony he had given to Congress after being granted immunity. Didn't say he was innocent, though--just that his rights had been violated.

            Post-election dithering continues unabated. But all the pontificating about why the Democrats "lost" (with half the state governors and nearly half the Congress, this is a dubious assertion on its face) persists in treating the election as if it were an athletic contest between two teams, Democrats and Republicans. These are political parties not football teams. As political parties, they are convenient avenues of access to the electoral process. No more. All politics, Tip O'Neill famously said, are local. He should also have said, "All elections are personality." Personality not policy. We're a nation of celebrity worshipers, remember? J.R. Ewing, Darth Vadar, and Tony Soprano are our heroes. People vote for the personity more than for the political party. That's why Dubya won. He was a fresh face, a new personality. Gore was a familiar face, a shop-worn personality.

            Al Gore may have racked up more popular vote than Bush, but he didn't rack up enough. Alas, Gore will never make it to the presidency. It's the hooded eyes. No one with hooded eyes has ever made it to the White House without also having a toothy grin and a Boston accent. Gore has hooded eyes, not much of a grin, and a Southern accent. Death to a national political career.           And if there's no appealing fresh face around, voters will go for the guy who's been there rather than the guy who's coming in all wet behind the ears. The guy who's been there may be a sonuvabitch, but, as the old saying goes, he's "our sonuvabitch."

            Meanwhile, speaking of unconvicted criminals, we have the U.S. Congress. The leaders of our government, saith The Nation, both Republicans and Democrats, have described this moment as a time of threat and crisis. Al Qaeda is resurgent. Saddam is collecting weapons of mass destruction and the economy continues to tank. So how does Congress meet its responsibilities in such a perilous period? It skips town early for a winter break.

            But not before accomplishing the Most Pressing Business of the Public Weal. Those sonuvabitches voted themselves a raise before adjourning for the holidays but they couldn't see their way clear to extend unemployment benefits for people that the sagging economy has deprived of gainful employment. Well, okay: they didn't actually "vote" to give themselves a raise. Some years ago, these clever statesmen adopted a standing rule that they get a raise every year (or every term, dunno which) unless they vote it down. Naturally, they never vote it down. But that, 'pears to me, is the same as voting for it, and we oughta shout it out: They voted themselves a raise--AGAIN!

            Just another sad example of how Congress gets ahead by doing nothing.

            Much of the post-election analysis tackles the question of the "new" Republican hegemony. Some pundits caution the GOP against presuming too much, as Newt did and lost power. Go slow. Don't gloat, as Dubya says. (But do--oh, by all means do--tack onto the Homeland Security Bill a few amendments that will favor big business, some of which, even though they've moved off-shore in order to avoid paying taxes, will collect tax money to undertake fulfilling new government contracts. And do hold a news conference to proclaim that Dubya isn't gloating.) Others, looking back over the Bush League's high-handed conduct ramming legislation through Congress in the early months of 2001 as if the Republicans had won popular mandate (they didn't, remember--Gore won the popular vote), expect more of the same now that the Republican stance has been, as they say, vindicated by the voters' shutting out Democrats.

            But all this analysis overlooks the most important statistic of the last election. Poor turn-out at the polls. Even the last presidential election saw barely half the eligible voters voting. Off-year elections are worse. And that, I submit, is the real pulse of the American populace. The Republican party is not the party of Americans, the GOP's proclamations to the contrary notwithstanding; neither is the Democrat party. It's the Do-nothing Party that rules. And it managed to engineer an entire Congress of like-minded souls. So I have faith--faith that Congress, with its long and nearly unblemished record of frustrating any sort of action whatsoever, will likewise stymie any presumptive, self-proclaimed hegemony within the Beltway.

REPRINT REVIEW. Here's another strip with highly visual comedy, Wiley Miller's Non Sequitur, in a second reprint collection from Andrews McMeel, The Legal Lampoon (128 11x8.5-inch pages; paperback, $10.95). (There've been two earlier paperback collections, both from Random House.)  As usual, Wiley takes on the legal profession (how can it be a profession if they're still just practicing?) with his "biased, unfair, and completely accurate law review" (as the cover of the book proclaims). Because the humor is so regularly dependent upon the blending of pictures and words, Non Sequitur doesn't lend itself easily to prose description. But here's one:

            Captioned "The Origin of the Second Amendment," the scene is an 18th century room in which several writers are, variously, at work. One is standing in the middle, carrying wall plaques upon which the stuffed arms of bears have been mounted (like heads of elk, say). And this guy is saying, "Okay--just so it can't possibly be misunderstood, how about: 'The right to bear arms shall not be infringed.'" He has a right to his bear arms, got it?

            Here's a mugger at the entrance of an alleyway, holding a gun on a well-dressed man on the sidewalk. The man, gesturing to a grinning fellow at the entrance of the previous alleyway, says to the mugger: "Sorry, but you're too late. I just settled a class action suit with the trial attorney in the next alley."

            In another, captioned "Pain Relievers," we see inside a drug store, with shelves labeled "Aspirin," "Non-aspirin," and "Divorce Lawyers," the latter shelves occupied by three contended-looking lawyers.

            Or Moses standing next to a burning bush, holding two stone tablets and saying, "It looks fine to me, but I need to run it past legal first."

            Wiley long ago established himself as a maverick. He's worked as an editorial cartoonist and as a comic strip cartoonist, but, contrary to much current practice, not at the same time. He realizes that the two modes require different skills, for one thing; but more significantly, he doesn't think one cartoonist should take two cartooning berths. Do one or the other, he says, and leave room for new talent to enter the field.

            He also realizes that newspaper editors are not going to change, so cartoonists will have to change to meet the newly emerging demands of the marketplace. Like all strip cartoonists, Wiley has to produce a "throw-away" panel for his Sunday strip. Some years ago, he re-designed the Sunday strip to permit him a sight gag that editors sacrificed by not using it. Editors who liked the extra bonus of the sight gag were tempted to use all of the Sunday strip.

            He also produces Non Sequitur as both a comic strip and as a panel cartoon. Using the same artwork, he crops in from the sides and adds to the top dimension of the strip to make it a square instead of a rectangle. (It's easy to do with his strip because his camera angle is always from slightly above his figures--as if shooting from the second floor of a neighboring building.) This makes Non Sequitur useful to newspaper editors in two formats, thus enhancing the chances that Wiley's work will be published in more papers. And in the annual award competition in the National Cartoonists Society, Wiley has won the category award in both strip and panel cartoon categories.

            He is forever tinkering with format, seeking new ways to fit his work into the newspaper market. His current Sunday format, for example, is vertical, which can be employed in the Sunday funnies in ways that yield enough additional space on the page to permit editors to add yet another comic strip to the Sunday offerings.

            Some years ago, Wiley did another Sunday-only feature about the spiritual adventures of one of the dearly departed called Homer. It didn't achieve satisfactory circulation (not enough income to justify Wiley's labor), so Wiley offered it online, but, again, not enough subscribers signed up. He retired it.

            I interviewed Wiley several years ago, shortly after Non Sequitur began in 1992, observing that he makes strategic use of the oblong space of a horizontal comic strip. "You make it work for you," I said.

            Said Wiley: "Thanks. I approached it as a design job. I have this space. How do I utilize it? It's exactly what I did with my editorial cartoons: I utilized the space. Composition is very important. It's one of the first things they tell kids that come seeking advice. I tell them that the physical part of cartooning is a form of abstract art. Before you can abstract something, you must know the fundamentals. And all of the rules of line and composition that apply to any painting or drawing apply to a cartoon--comic strip, editorial cartoon. Composition is very important. Utilize the space, make it readable. Doing something as incredibly simple as taking the [border] line off--take off the box--that gives me, it's incredible how that expands [the "drawing"]...."

            "Oh, yes," I said, "--then you get to claim the space above and below the strip."

            "Right," he said. "And that's the thing. It's utilizing white space. Just because you have space there doesn't mean you have to fill it up with stuff. Use that white space to emphasize your point. That's what composition is."

            Because Non Sequitur is a single panel, usually--in strip form but only one panel--it does not exploit the multi-panel strip's propensity for comic timing. Whatever timing there is in Wiley's work is achieved entirely through the arrangement of the visual elements in the strip. It is deliberately designed so that a reader must move through it, from left to right in reading order, in order to get the joke. Sometimes the picture sets up the joke and comes first; sometimes, the verbal content comes first and sets it up. But the final effect is to rely more upon visual presentation than verbal.

            Said Wiley: "And this brings us to another of the basic problems I think a great number of comic strip cartoonists have today. They are too heavily reliant on the written word. There's very little done of visual humor. Part of that is because there isn't much room for visuals. If you look at the old days, there was a great deal of wonderful artwork with emphasis on action and so on. Again, this is exactly what I did as an editorial cartoonist, it was the visuals--use the metaphor thing and all that to emphasize the point of the issue or my stance on the issue. I do the same thing here--utilize the visual and not rely on the written word. I use the written word as the setup. It puts you in one frame of mind, and then I jerk the reader in another direction with the visuals."

            To find ordering information, go to www.ucomics.com/store And stay 'tooned.

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