Opus 107:

Opus 107: NOUS R US—Rawhiding. As Maggie Thompson observed in the Comics Buyer's Guide (No. 1520, January 3, 2003, which, in the time-honored fashion of comics, came out well in advance of January 3—in fact, before Christmas), the current froth and furor over the gaiety of the Rawhide Kid is the predictable outcome of a deliberate publicity scam, the promotional purpose of which was transparent to most observers from the start. The formula is the old tried-and-true "make an unconventional, preferably outrageous, assertion that is likely to offend a large segment of the American public and sit back and watch the fireworks." The fireworks, like the December 12 CNN "Crossfire" program on which Stan Lee appeared to defend the honor of Marvel Comics, are intended to generate heat not light, to create spectacle not to illuminate. And "Crossfire" is entertainment, not information. The program is in the same class as mudfights and wrestling for tv. The only adult thing about the Rawhide Kid segment was Stan Lee, who was measured and reasonable in every possible way. Ironies abounded. Not only was Lee there to represent the comic book company he is currently suing, but the comic book being examined for its gay crusading is not, according to report, very much in the propaganda mode at all. The Kid's homosexuality is, they say, only alluded to; it is not, in other words, part of the story or the plot at all. Hence, it is incidental to the series rather than integral.

            The "Crossfire" program plunged forthwith into the sort of melee that characterizes its modus operandi when it introduced the hysterical Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition (an intergalactic group of do-gooders composed, no doubt, of Ms. Lafferty, her husband, and her addled next-door neighbor), who, true to form, began immediately to shrill about how the nation's children (perhaps, even, the world's entire juvenile population not to mention kids everywhere in the universe) would be contaminated by reading a comic book in which a vague allusion to a character's sex life is made. Her opinion is, of course, complete balderdash. The tiny tots whose mental state she is so concerned about are not likely to read the comic book, which will be labeled for adult readers; and even if they did, the allusion to the Kid's sexual preference is, as I understand it, too veiled to be understood by anyone except adults who are reasonable well-informed. Ms. Lafferty might realize that had she read the funnybook in question, but she hadn't. In fact, she couldn't because it isn't out yet. (Pardon the expression.) But none of that matters. Nothing reasonable does once the Traditional Values Posse gets formed and mounted up.

            The most valuable aspect—perhaps the only valuable aspect—of this "outing" on "Crossfire" is the exposure it gave to the sort of non-thinking segment of the American population that manages, through sheer ignorance and closed-mindedness, to successfully convict comic book store owners of dealing in obscenity when they sell adult comic books to adults simply because the comic book store is near an elementary school (see Opus 105 for the details on this, in case you missed it). The facts don't matter to these frilly-minded minions. Their so-called minds are made up and have been for most of their lives. Rampant prejudice and bigotry flourish in such environments, and we have "Crossfire" to thank for reminding us of just how virulent the breed is. Too bad we can't develop a vaccine for this scourge of mankind.

            Mystery Solved. I muttered, a few weeks ago (Opus 106, in fact), about how Stan and Jan Berenstain drew their cartoons and book illustrations and so on. Did they really draw exactly alike? Or not? And then I bemoaned the faint fact that their recent autobiography (which I reviewed in the aforementioned Opus 106) didn't shed any light on the way this famous team teamed up at the drawing board. And then, as chance would have it, I came upon a book of their cartoons, It's Still in the Family (Dutton, 1961) while tidying up my study. (I was under edict to finish this task by Christmas...) On the flap of the dust jacket (but nowhere inside) we find the following revelation: "They created their cartoon style while studying [at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art] and have developed identical techniques so that theirs is indeed team work. So close is their collaboration that they work simultaneously on the same drawing—one of them sometimes sketching figures upside-down. Their usual division of labor is for Stan to draw the boys and Jan to draw the girls." So there.

            Speaking of Good Things, it slips my mind occasionally to mention assorted treasures that keep on keeping on. Like Andy Feighery's SPEC Productions, f'instance. This is a little cabin industry in Manitou Springs at the foot of the cog railway that goes to the summit of Pike's Peak in Colorful Colorado. Andy produces a vast quantity of magazines and booklets that reprint vintage comic strips—Dick Tracy, Alley Oop, Moon Mullins, Buck Rogers, Smilin' Jack, Joe Palooka, Kerry Drake. These are all reproduced at giant dimension, usually 8.5x14-inch page-size, which gives the strips beautiful display. The price tags are $15-20, but the page counts are generous and the reproduction size is, as I said, giant. SPEC Productions also produces the Caniffites Journal, a quarterly magazine that keeps bringing up new fugitive material about the Master. Andy has a catalog if you want to get a notion of what's available. Write him at P.O. Box 32, Manitou Springs, CO 80829 or e-mail at specproductions@msn.com.

AT THE MOVIES. Can Disney's Treasure Planet be as bad as some of the reviews suggest it is? Yes. Yes, it can. Jim Hawkins is all sulking adolescent angst in a undisguised attempt, we assume, to appeal to a teenage audience. The idea, probably, is that if James Dean inspired a youth cult, so could a pouting Jim Hawkins. Alas, this plot device is too threadbare for today's adolescent movie-goer. And nothing else in the film is sufficiently redeeming. Almost no manic comedy, for instance, of the sort that animation is so deft at. The continually morphing globular mascot of John Silver is a re-hash of Aladdin's genii but without any inspiring animation. The antique robot B.E.N. is a Jerry Lewis routine. And the cyborg Long John Silver attempts, vaguely, to reincarnate the classic menace of Robert Newton's eyeball without marked success. The concept, a sailing ship that cruises through space, is an attractive notion, however absolutely outlandish, but it is continually undermined by such understandings as the space age has foisted off on us and made part of our common knowledge—"Wait a minute: if there's no atmosphere in space, how do we get the breeze to blow and fill the sails?" And I don't even want to bring up the fact that none of the characters stumping around on the space ship's quarterdeck are wearing space suits or oxygen-breathing apparatus or the like. Hey, it's a fantasy. But it isn't well done fantasy. It is merely expert. A flawless technical achievement without soul. The best part: the character of Jim Hawkins' mother, based upon Emma Thompson. (And when did Disney start using caricatures of its voice actors for the physical characteristics of the characters in the film? Cute, but why? And who, save for the cognizanti, would know?)

FUNNYBOOK FANFARE. The 3rd Degree, a new series from NBM, is nicely drawn with a spidery line and copious gray tones by Justin Norman (with David Linder), but the first three issues are all plot and no personality. We encounter a complicated story without any of the guidance that strong characters would give us through the maze. ... ACG's first issue of Heroes Unlimited includes two "Cowboy Sahib" stories drawn by a young but marvelously adept Leonard Starr, and the reproduction, in black-and-white, is much better in this title than it has been in far too numerous of the others from ACG; but I don't know why the editors of this series can't include such basic information as the dates of original publication of the material reprinted herein. ... Gotham Girls has reached the 5th and final issue, all delightfully illustrated by Jennifer Graves with expert inks by J. Bone—lively and energetic art; but the jewel in the crown is the cover art on nos. 1-4 by Shane. ...

            DC has produced another of its imaginary reincarnations of the 80-page giants of yore, this one featuring the Amazon Princess, Wonder Woman, with a three-chapter story from 1948 by William Moulton Marston with art by the quirky H. G. Peter and three stories by Robert Kanigher, penciled by Ross Andru and inked by Mike Esposito, all of which proves, as if it needs proving, that women in foundation garments are not at all sexy. Maybe they were in the forties when Peter first conceived WW's costume, but not these days. I'm not sure many of the readers of this collection would even know a girdle if they saw one. Arthur Adams does a fair job of jazzing up WW's embonpoint in an ad I saw somewhere recently, but he was also working with John Byrne's make-over of the costume, which, as I said at the time, at last gave WW a costume worth fighting for. And Adam Hughes' covers have been stunning. I'd like to see what the Dodsons, Terry and Rachel (pencils and inks), would do with the character. Their interpretation of Harley Quinn was perhaps the most memorable debut of an art team we've had in quite a while, and their stint on Black Cat for Marvel is equally unforgettable. Or maybe more so, given that the Black Cat is a more voluptuous female than Harley.

            Amanda Conner is another deft limner of the curvaceous gender, on display in various issues of Codename: Knockout. I'm sorry to hear of the demise of this series. I didn't pick up every issue, but those that I did were a hoot. Robert Rodi's stories were nifty, and his dialogue was witty, laced with double entendre and other sorts of verbal fun. Conner's art, inked by Jimmy Palmiotti, was, without exception, crisp and clean and clear. She is particularly good at faces, and her women were beautiful, individual, and, often, funny. Yanick Paquette and Jason Martin teamed occasionally to give us a completely different rendition of the zaftig Angela—a another triumph of linear quality over noodling, the spare feathering here serving chiefly to burnish the pictures rather than to delineate imagery. (That means the feathering for modulation was not overdone as it so often is; and, moreover, it does not distort as it often does under other hands.) Their specialty, it would seem from nos. 10 and 11, is rendering pictures that permit the reader to look up girls' dresses. That, however, is par for the course in this title, which concentrates on T&A with a dedication that verges on satire.

            Banzai Girl is another of those titles that exists for the sake of the artwork, which focuses mostly on the heroines' derrieres and chests and seizes every possible opportunity to show us their underpants. ... Meanwhile, I see that Lady Death is going to be reborn; her eyeballs are still blank but she's undergone a breast-reduction operation which will doubtless reduce proportionately the popularity of this wet dream queen. ...

            No. 6 of Y: The Last Man puts Yorick, the last of his sex, on a boxcar with some swine, headed for California, but he gets bounced overboard, knocked unconscious, and found by (gasp!) a woman; meanwhile, his sister Hero finds out someone with a pet monkey is loose in the world and, knowing only one person with such a pet (her brother), she suspects—well, we can guess. This is a pretty talky issue of this title, but, as usual, there are sequences of activity without much verbiage. All told, an intriguing title from Brian K. Vaughan (writer), Pia Guerra (pencils) and Jose Marzan, Jr. (inks). ...

            We're up to No. 4 of Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and with No. 3, it started to get interesting. The series fascinates me even if I can't quite figure out why one would want to team-up Allan Quatermain, Prince Nemo, Hawley Griffin, Mr. Hyde, and Wilhemina Murray. Okay: it's a team like the Justice League or the Avengers except that these people are literary characters with a previous existence in assorted Victorian novels. That much I get. But why these characters? In Moore's stories, they seem to be just another gang whose members' individual prowess or expertise have little to do with the unfolding of the plot. It's fun, though, and I suppose that's justification enough. And you have to keep an eye on Kevin O'Neill's drawings: like the artwork in Victorian magazines (I'm thinking, chiefly, of Punch), the pictures here reward scrutiny for nuances of story and snatches of humor. ...

REPRINT REVIEW. Tom Batiuk has done it again. And again and again. He's created three, maybe four, comic strips, and now here's another book reprinting one of them: Your Favorite—Crab Cakes (Andrews McMeel, 128 8.5x9" pages in paperback, $10.95—except below in Book Sales, where a review copy is going for far less) serves up a healthy helping of Crankshaft, which Batiuk produces with Chuck Ayers at the drawing board.

            Crankshaft is Batiuk's third comic strip. His second, John Darling, evaporated spectacularly several years ago when the title character, a fatuous tv personality, was murdered in the last release; but his first, Funky Winkerbean, still flourishes, albeit in a fresh incarnation. In 1992, Batiuk fast-forwarded the strip, leaping four years into the future and taking his cast of highschool students into their post-graduate lives and creating, thereby, his "fourth" comic strip.

            The Crankshaft collection brings us the eponymous Ed Crankshaft in all his cranky glory as a schoolbus driver. Driving a bus full of yowling kids would make anyone cranky, but in Ed's case, since he's a senior citizen set in his ways, the momentary mood of a bad afternoon at the wheel has metastasized into total personality.

            He delights in performing those annoying maneuvers that have made schoolbus drivers infamous for generations—backing over mailboxes, trying to outrun kids chasing after the bus because they arrived at the busstop a second too late, and making mothers run after the bus for blocks, waving their children's forgotten lunch boxes or homework or textbooks or mittens as they run.

            "The first week of school, the kids are always waiting at the road," Ed thinks one fine autumn day. "The second and third weeks, they start barely getting there in time," he continues. "It isn't until the fourth week of school that the fun really starts," he finishes with a fiendish smile broadening across his aged visage.

            On another day, he muses: "There must be six mothers running after the bus with their kids' lunches. It's a lunchbox jamboree."

            Training a new driver, Ed reminds him of "our motto: kids wait for school buses, school buses don't wait for kids."

            But Ed's cantankerousness is merely his crusty exterior. He blusters and grumbles and invokes the gods of vengeance upon a society whose only sin is not suiting itself to his whims, but on the inside he is a gentle, often thoughtful, soul, caring and kind. He finds time to console his friend Ralph, whose wife struggles with Alzheimer's. He explains death to his grandson and rescues his son-in-law who is about to forget an anniversary.

            With two grown daughters, the husband and two children of one, and an assortment of co-workers and neighbors, Ed Crankshaft gives Batiuk and Ayers an arena of operation that can encompass almost any human condition from old age to teen age, from parenting to tutoring, from community service to friendly persuasion.

            And in every condition, Ed is as likely to display his cynical side as his softer interior.

            When his daughter comments on how "sweet" it is for him to put up a bird bath, Ed turns the sentiment on its head: "Yeah," he mutters, "I've been meaning to get this cat feeder up all spring."

            His other daughter asks him to babysit: "Dad, will you watch the kids tonight?"

            "Why?" he growls. "What are they going to do?"

            Typically, Batiuk, who explored unwed teenage motherhood and breast cancer in Funky Winkerbean, finds poignant human conditions to examine in Crankshaft. Ed survived a near-death illness (as many elderly people do), and he has encountered Alzheimer's among his friends.

             In Safe Return Home (112 8x8" pages in black-and-white, hardcover; $12.95 from Andrews McMeel) selected strips from the Alzheimer's sequence are reprinted. The sequence concerns two women of Crankshaft's acquaintance—both with steadily worsening Alzheimer's Disease. Subtitled "An Inspirational Book for Caregivers of Alzheimer's," this is a special collection indeed. Not only is the subject unusual, but the emotional impact is profound.

            Gentle humor lightens the emotional load throughout; and the humor also enhances the impact. Batiuk and Ayers exploit their artform's resources, too, taking advantage of the medium's capacity to blend past and present with alternating panels in sequences that show how an Alzheimer's sufferer can mistake old memories for present events. This is a thoughtful and caring series of comic strips, expertly done.

            Then in 1998, Batiuk revealed that Ed couldn't read and sent him off to learn how.

            Adult illiteracy is a much more widespread situation than most of us realize. Batiuk learned about it when his parents enrolled in a program to learn how to become tutors for adults who couldn't read or write.

            "As always," Batiuk said, "my first goal was to write as interesting and as real a story as I could. A story about someone who has harbored a secret from his friends and loved ones all his life and, ultimately, a story about how he deals with it."

            At first, he thought the story would involve Ed's lady friend Grace, who would become a tutor.

            "But it soon grew to involve Crankshaft himself," Batiuk said. "By using Crankshaft, it not only gave the series more impact, but it supplied some information as to why he's such a cranky guy—why he would never read to his grandchildren, for example."

            As always, the cartoonist researched his subject thoroughly. He learned that it takes about two years for an adult with family responsibilities to learn to read. And he took two years in the strip, returning periodically to Ed's tutorial experiences throughout the period. In the collection at hand, Ed graduates.

            Ed Crankshaft debuted in Funky Winkerbean in 1986 or so. In those days, with Funky Winkerbean and his friends all still in school, a schoolbus driver seemed a logical addition to the cast. He was created while Batiuk was waiting for a flight in an airport.

            "I based him on a school bus driver who traumatized me when I was in school," Batiuk said. "I pulled out my sketchbook and began to jot down some ideas. Almost instantly a character began to emerge—a crusty, old curmudgeon of a school bus driver. A crotchety geezer whose grouchy exterior concealed an enormous lack of character. He was one tough old bird, but then growing old isn't for sissies. I had to tone him down somewhat to make him believable, but his whole look and personality was formed before it was time to board my plane."

            After only one appearance in Funky, letters started to arrive. "Even letters that dealt with other subjects would often include a P.S. about Crankshaft," Batiuk remembered.

            Quick to take the hint, Batiuk plunged into "a frenzy of creative activity in a desperate attempt to elicit that wonderful response again."

            Then, taking the advice of friends, he decided to spin-off another comic strip, this time with Crankshaft in the lead. Batiuk was already producing both Funky and John Darling. But writing a comic strip is like breathing to Batiuk; he was undaunted.

            Drawing, however, was another matter—"more like an asthmatic attack," he explained, perpetuating the breathing metaphor. So he turned to a college chum who was then editorial cartoonist for the Akron Beacon Journal, Chuck Ayers.

            "Not only was he interested," Batiuk said, "he was psyched. Turns out his mother-in-law was a Crankshaft fan."

            And so Batiuk's third comic strip was born in 1987 and now runs in about 300 newspapers. As of the first of the current year, though, it is no longer being distributed by Universal Press. Crankshaft joins two other strips that moved recently to King Features (Mike Peters' Mother Goose and Grimm, leaving Tribune Media Services; and Dan Piraro's Bizarro, departing Universal Press).

            Batiuk said the decision to leave wasn't easy, but King has done a good job increasing the circulation of Winkerbean (to almost 400 papers) "in difficult times," the cartoonist noted, and he clearly wants to see if it can do something similar with Crankshaft, which is presently in about 320 newspapers according to David Astor at Editor & Publisher..

            Crankshaft began at Creators Syndicate and moved to Universal in 1991.

            Stay 'tooned.

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