Opus 106:

Opus 106: CIVILIZATION'S LAST OUTPOST. Nothing has got my wattles in more of an uproar recently than the beer makers who stop making their beer as soon as I decide it's my favorite beer. It's happened to me with such alarming regularity that I've thought about hiring myself out to brewers to imbibe their competition's brewskis, thereby condemning them to an early obsolescence. Old Nick disappeared after I'd been drinking it for a few months. Then I found a lovely California beer, Devil Mountain Black Honey Ale, that lasted for six months before expiring. Then one lovely winter's day, I discover Thomas Hardy Ale. Ahhh, delicious. Bought two four-packs on successive weeks, and then it sank out of sight, never to surface again. Ditto a Scottish beer called by the unlikely name of Old Skullsplitter. I took up with Reverend for a time; delicious but the waxed-on bottletop frustrated my attempts to open the bottles, so I gave it up. Reluctantly. And then I discovered Samichlaus. Perfect. Now the distributor is coming up empty of Samichlaus. Old Nick has showed up again, but by now, my palate is accustomed to something a bit sweeter. Back to Reverend for a time, whilst praying for Samichlaus.

            On December 3, ABC World News Tonight announced that Turkey had agreed to let the U.S. use its air bases in the event of a war with Iraq. NPR and the News Hour said that Turkey wanted a resolution from the U.N. - the so-called "second resolution" - authorizing the use of force, implying (if not stating outright) that such a resolution was a prerequisite for use of the bases. Reuters said the Turkish announcement "did not clearly say that a second resolution was a condition of Turkish support." Given the confusion, I thought that ABC, by ignoring the second resolution business, gave its report a spin that pretty clearly portrayed the U.S. as triumphant - in short, just another foreign policy coup for the Bush League. A trivial matter, I suppose, but it is not the only time that network news has created the impression that the current administration is right or successful or victorious when, upon closer examination, that's not quite the case. When the U.N. adopted its Iraq resolution, it was reported as a clear triumph for the Bush League despite the fact that it was the French strategy that the U.N. adopted, not the U.S.'s. And all this trivia is remarkable only because Rush Limbaugh and others on the right keep insisting that the news media are "liberal" in their handling of the news when the evidence suggests quite the opposite.

NOUS R US. According to one of the recent rumors that run rampant across my computer screen, The New Yorker, one of the last bastions of single-panel gag cartooning (Playboy is the other), will move into the black on its balance sheets this year - for the first time in living memory. Hired in the 1990s to re-vitalize the magazine and turn the long-running loser into a profit-making enterprise, Brit Tina Brown proved more adept at generating buzz than generating a buck. She did, indeed, revive the moribund weekly, but she also reportedly spent money lavishly. When Brown left (to assume command of and name a new magazine, aptly christened Talk), David Remnick became editor. And now, a profit looms.

            While a healthy slice of credit is due Remnick, no doubt, cartoons also had a role to play. Specifically, the Cartoon Bank. Established early in the last decade by cartoonist Robert Mankoff, the Cartoon Bank sold original art and high-grade prints, and when The New Yorker was finally persuaded that the Bank was a money-making operation and not just Mankoff's ego-trip, the magazine acquired it, and Mankoff almost simultaneously became the magazine's new cartoon editor, a capacity in which he continues. And the Cartoon Bank goes on apace, too, generating profit for the magazine as its licensing arm. One cartoon, Pete Steiner's celebrated picture of two dogs before a computer screen, one saying to the other, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog," generated $100,000 in sales according to Glenn Fleishman, who wrote about Steiner and his cartoon for The New York Times, February 17, 2001. Fleishman now says: "Between 2000 and the present, the economy may have tanked, but the Cartoon Bank's revenue was from so many sources, not just big-ticket reprints, that I'm sure a large part of [The New Yorker's] million-dollar [profit] came from funny pictures."

            On January 1, King Features will pick up Dan Piraro's 17-year-old panel cartoon, Bizarro. Piraro goes to King in the hopes that syndicate will increase the circulation of his off-beat cartoon, now running in about 200 papers. He had joined Universal Press in 1995, just about the time Gary Larson's notorious Far Side ceased at Universal. It was a repeat performance: Piraro had launched his cartoon with Chronicle Features in 1985, effectively replacing Larson's cartoon when Larson moved to Universal. At Universal, they wish Piraro luck, suggesting that he may have greater visibility in King's line-up where the "concentration of good panels" isn't quite as intense as it is at Universal.

            Eileen Sullivan at the Ball State Daily News reports that Gary Baker, one of Jim Davis' chief assistants on Garfield, hopes to leave the Paws headquarters in Muncie, Indiana, to pursue a teaching career in Florida. Barker, who has worked with Davis for 19 years, pencils the Garfield strips, working from sketches that came to his desk from gag-writing sessions Davis conducted with Brett Koth (his partner on Mr. Potato Head), who comes to Muncie once every month or so to brainstorm non-stop for a couple days with Davis. Barker's essential task is to keep the characters "on model." The strip is then lettered and inked by other Paws staff members. "Jim is still very involved with the strip," Barker noted; "he still writes."

            Barker said he will continue to work for Davis while looking for a teaching position in Florida. The only facet of his job that will change is location. Barker said he will still perform the daily functions of the strip, but all communication with Davis will now have to take place over the Internet, telephone and fax machine. Though Barker said he'll miss the environment at Paws, he said it's time to migrate south. "That way if I fall apart, I'm already in Florida," Barker said.

            Education and literacy is very important to the 50 plus employees at Paws. Because of that, Barker said Davis has encouraged him in this career goal. "Never once have I felt unappreciated," Barker said. "I have always had that feeling of respect." He hopes, now, to make his experience available to students. Barker's biggest inspiration was Curt Swan, the comic icon most closely associated with Superman. Barker said he originally wanted to draw comic books for a living. After experimenting with comic books while working at Paws, Barker saw how much work goes into simply one page of book, and so decided to stay with the strip. "Comic books are so intensified; strips are more laid back," Barker said. His favorite character in the strip is Garfield's stone-dumb, perpetually dateless owner, Jon, and pictures of Jon in various attitudes are posted around his work station. Barker said it is important that teachers encourage students to do what inspires them the most, and not to discourage reading comic books. "The corner stone of society is the arts: music, literature, etc." Barker said. "It's really sad to see a school that cut the arts program; I think it needs to be a concern with others."

            "I was kind of shocked the suit was filed," Beetle Bailey's Mort Walker told E&P Online, reacting to the legal action taken last month by the Charles M. Schulz Trust to reclaim original Peanuts strips that Schulz had donated to Walker's International Museum of Cartoon Art (IMCA) in the 1970s. "He was always generous with us," Walker said and noted that he had offered to temporarily return the Peanuts strips - he placed the number of them at 19 - if he could get them back when IMCA reopened. The Schulz Trust, which maintains that the strips were only loaned not donated to the IMCA, reportedly wants the comics returned so that they can be displayed at the Charles M. Schulz Museum, which opened in August in Santa Rosa, California, where Schulz lived for many years. Observing that the Santa Rosa museum already has thousands of Schulz originals, Walker said he would hate to set a "chaos"‑creating precedent of people asking for parts of the IMCA collection back. But Walker also said that he will suggest, when meeting next month with the IMCA board, the possibility of resolving the dispute by returning the strips. Meanwhile, as he continues to explore options for a new location for IMCA, Walker is also waiting to see if IMCA's building in Boca Raton will be sold. The latest possibility is that the city of Boca Raton would buy the building for $2.75 million and turn it into a cultural center.

            Walker and Schulz stand as the twin colossuses of newspaper comic stripping for the last half-century. Their pivotal roles in shaping the destiny of the funnies are thoroughly examined in a book of mine, The Art of the Funnies, a preview of which can be viewed by clicking here.

UNDER THE SPREADING PUNDITRY. The other Bond, Julian, chairman of NAACP, responded to the Democrat performance during last month's election by saying, "when the shameless compete against the spineless, the shameless always win."

            The chief reason for the Democrats' lack of backbone is that they fear an imagined public reaction against anything they might say that's critical of Boy George. So they say nothing. And in saying nothing, they appear to have nothing to offer - hence, they lose elections. Dubya's vaunted popularity, according to those perpetual opinion polls, continues to intimidate the beleaguered Dems by hovering in the so-called stratosphere. Well, maybe. His popularity may be hovering, but it's been declining, too - slowly, but surely. And maybe Dubya is not as secure in the affections of his countrymen as it appears.

            The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation and Harvard University recently conducted a poll which included these two questions:

1. Is the country headed in the right direction or is it seriously off on the wrong track?

2. Do you approve or disapprove of the job Bush is doing as president?

Half the respondents were asked no. 1 first, then no. 2; for the other half, the order was reversed. When asked no. 2 first, the percentage that thought the country was headed in the right direction was boosted 8 points higher than the job approval percentage. But when the questions were asked in the order above, Dubya's job approval fell 6 percentage points.

            When the same exercise was performed in 1998 with Clinton as president, the results were somewhat different. Asked the job approval question first, the response to no. 1 was boosted by 10 points. But - and this is the key factoid - when the order was reversed, Clinton's job approval rating didn't drop a point.

            Which, according to the Post's report on the matter, "suggests that public views of Clinton in his sixth year were more firmly fixed than current opinion of Bush."

            In other words, public opinion of Boy George, while seemingly highly approving, is not very strongly held. Yet. Who can tell what it might be when Bush gets to his sixth year as a resident of the White House? In the meantime, Democrats ought to read this report, take heart, and get some steel in their spines.

GRAFIC NOVELS AND OTHER REVIEWS. Just in time for Christmas is Li'l Santa (48 8.5x11" pages in color; hardback, $14.95) from NBM. Written by Lewis Trondheim (who did the gruesome hilarity, Dungeon, as well as Oddballz, two comic books from NBM) and charmingly rendered by Thierry Robin, the book gives us a day-in-the-life of Santa just as he's preparing for one of his periodic (well, anyule) tours of the world. The whole thing is in pantomime, which requires careful set-ups for the gags. These occur, initially, at the rate of about one gag per page, with the gag in the last panel of the 16-panel grid on that page. Once the rhythm is established, the gags start to take longer than a page, and the page layout starts varying as Robin introduces double-wide panels and other layout deviations. The comedy is low-keyed, gentle and, as you might expect with pantomime, entirely visual. Here's Santa coming to the elves workshed, a tiny building, and as he steps inside, we turn the page, opening onto a double-page spread that reveals a vast and fully mechanized workshop. And here's a bunch of snowmen with carrot noses who, threatened by a woodland monster, blend themselves together into one large snow creature with carrots for teeth. Robin's graphic style is simple and angular. All his characters, including Santa's elves, are cute and diminutive and perfectly comprehensible visualizations. A treat, cover to cover.

            Richard Kolkman has a weekly comic strip called Things from Nowhere on the Web, www.thingsfromnowhere.com, and he's putting out a print version that can be ordered, it sez here, from the December Previews. The first 32-page issue will be out in February. The strip is a playfully inventive "consideration" of the unexpected and/or unexplained. Each only three or four panels in duration, the first panels establish a provocative notion and the last explains or elaborates upon it. Here, for instance, we see a space vehicle hovering over the moon as the caption drones: "2018: Japan photographs every detail on the surface of the moon. Evidence of NASA's missions will be revealed in these photos." In the next panel, we see technicians viewing a computer screen as the prose continues: "However, if the entire surface of the moon is photographed and no man-made object appears, then - ." The last panel is a picture of Neal Armstrong with the concluding caption: " - Houston, we have a problem." In another, a man manifests desperation for a "coke" - just a taste, please! he pleads. The camera pulls back, outside the room he's in, outside the building itself, and shows us that he's in Pepsi Hospital; "No Cokes Allowed" the signs read, and an attendant says, "Let me get you another AOL glucose drip." Or, here's a man swimming, apparently exhausted by the ordeal, who comes upon one of those air mattresses; he reads the label, "Not legal as a life-saving device," and drowns. Teasing nonsense from popular culture and history, nicely done. Look for it.

            I've wondered for most of my adult life about the Berenstains, Stan and Jan. Single-panel gag cartoons signed "The Berenstains" started appearing in the Saturday Evening Post and Collier's and other magazines whose cartoon line-ups I devoured as an apprentice cartoonist in the early 1950s. I knew this was a husband-and-wife team, and without thinking too much about it at the time, I assumed they drew in exactly similar styles. A few eons later, I began to suspect this explanation was a little simple-minded, which, while entirely appropriate in political punditry of the sort I commit here regularly, is scarcely adequate for explaining the artistry of drawings. Does one pencil and the other ink? Or do they really draw exactly alike? No thanks to a new autobiographical tome, Down a Sunny Dirt Road (210 pages; $20 in hardback from Random House), by Stan and Jan Berenstain, I still don't know what the drawing arrangements are between this husband-and-wife team. I do know, however - after reading this book - that these two have collaborated on and produced over 200 books about the Berenstain Bears, the series for Random House's Beginner Books.

            My continued ignorance about the couple's cartooning roles is not too surprising. The presumed audience for this autobiography is, I gather, the millions of people who grew up on the Berenstain Bears since their initial appearance in 1962's The Big Honey Hunt; so the narrative concentrates on the duo's adventures as authors rather than as cartoonists. After a brief recollection of their inauguration into cartooning (John Bailey, cartoon editor at the Saturday Evening Post, explained to them, after their first year's fruitless submissions, that they ought to be doing cartoons about family life for the Post, not cartoons about classical music, Picasso, Freud and Shakespeare), the book breezes on into their subsequent specialization in cartoons about kids, which leads, perforce, to writing children's books. There are also several highly entertaining anecdotes about their various meetings with Dr. Seuss, who, as the Berenstains assure us, IS Beginner Books. Seuss, guided by his unerring instinct for publishing, kept recommending that the Berenstains do their "next" book about something other than the Bears, and when the couple did as he suggested, he received their effort warmly but then suggested that they do it over, this time with the Bears in the starring roles.

            It takes over half the book to get Stan and Jan through childhood, schooling, and World War II, and until they team up officially as husband and wife and cartooning partners, the chapters alternate between Stan and Jan, each writing his own. Their cartooning career, alas, is represented by a mere four pages of cartoons, augmented by another 7 or 8 reprinting magazine covers they did and the illustrations for a host of "marriage advice" paperbacks (Marital Blitz, Lover Boy, Call Me Mrs., etc. - all uproariously funny, kimo sabe, the pictures humorously contradicting the pleasant optimistic blather of the accompanying text). Their syndicated feature, Sister, is nowhere in evidence. But a Chronology at the back mentions this one - and nearly everything else this extremely prolific team has produced (including two sons, both of whom are in the family business), and a Bibliography lists everything else. There are also several pages showcasing each of the authors "serious" artwork, mostly paintings and drawings done while in school or during WWII. With those as evidence, it's plain that both of them can draw very well indeed. I still don't know how Stan and Jan share the drawing chores, but I enjoyed the book anyhow. So will you.

            Stay 'tooned.

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