Opus 108:

Click to EnlargeOpus 108: RAWHIDE KIDDING AROUND (February 24,2003). Now that the first issue (of five) of the "Slap Leather" story is out (pardon the expression), we can actually see what all the fuss has been about. And what we see is an unadulterated mess. Or maybe the correct expression is "adulterated" mess. Take, for instance, the cover. For anyone assuming that this book is about the good ol' Rawhide Kid of yore, there's nothing "wrong" with Dave Johnson's picture of the Kid. Here's this sort of macho dude (in the old Western sense of "fancy dresser"), blowin' smoke off his gun barrel. Nicely done. But if you know that the Kid is portrayed as gay in this issue, the cover assumes another aspect. The Kid now seems not so much macho as mincing. And the way he's holding the gun in his right hand is not just a little suggestive. (Remember the gun; we'll come back to it.) Apart from the, now, blatant stereotype of a gay man we see here, there's the screaming Parental Advisory about (dripping red ink) "Explicit" Content. "Explicit," in the parlance of the labeling game, usually means some kind of nastiness, naked women or four-letter swear words. Neither appear in this book. The only thing herein that's "explicit" is the shooting of the Sheriff Morgan and the killing of his deputy. And even that is so subtly pictured that you have to read between the lines (and the panels) to determine that the deputy has been killed; and it's not all that clear, at once, that Sheriff Morgan has been shot. Violence is deliberately muted, even obscured. No bloodshed is visible. So what's "explicit" about that? Nothing. And there's nothing "explicit" about the Kid's gaiety either.

            Fact is, if you weren't a fairly knowledgeable person-of-the-world sort, you wouldn't recognize the Kid's being gay. Only a reasonably aware reader will detect in the Kid's mannerisms all of the customary cliches associated with a faggoty life style—fancy clothing (leather), a preference for pastel colors, a limp-wristed lingo ("Oh, stop," are the Kid's first words, "It's a few bruises and two bullets. You'll live.") And if you do recognize all the signs, then the "Explicit" tag on the cover becomes insulting. What's "explicit" (nasty) about the gay life? The label effectively perpetuates the prejudices gays already encounter.

            Moreover, if you recognize all the signs, it seems to me that you'll also recognize the homophobic stereotype. It's cute and amusing, but if the diversion here were racial—that is, if the object were to reveal that the Rawhide Kid is a racial minority not a queer—this treatment would be racist.

            Stereotypes are the coin-of-the-realm in comics, admittedly. It would be difficult to convey meaning without their use in a visual medium. But here, the imagery is comedic, and it unhorses other, more serious, impulses that the story lets loose.

            The story itself, so far, is another instance of clumsy maneuvering. At first, the plot is deftly painted in one of the Western's traditional patterns: we meet Sheriff Morgan and his twelve-year-old son Toby and his playmates, cavorting in the dusty streets of a desert town, and then the baddies arrive, roistering noisily into the saloon, and Morgan dutifully goes in after them to collect their guns, which, according to a local ordinance, they must turn in to the sheriff until they leave town. The leader of the baddies, Cisco Pike, objects to the local ordinance and when Morgan tries to enforce it, Pike shoots him in the arm and in the leg, and when Morgan's deputy tries to help, Pike shoots him and kills him. Morgan's son witnesses all this excitement, and when he runs up to help his father, whom Pike has thrown out into the street, the Rawhide Kid shows up and prevents the baddies from prolonging the agonies of the lawman.

            Up to this point, the story unfurls with deliberate restraint: much of both atmosphere and action are achieved by artist John Severin, whose skill at the accouterments of the Western have never been surpassed. Ron Zimmerman holds the verbiage in check and lets the pictures do the narration. But then we find ourselves in Morgan's house, where he, realizing that his son is in shock at having seen his father pistol-whipped and shot, suggests that they, father and son, have a little talk to clear the air. And the kid blurts out, all in one over-inflated speech balloon:

            "Well, see, I wuz just thinkin' 'bout the shame and humiliation I wuz feelin' while I watched you let your deputy git his brains blowed out, then seein' you git beat like an old rug in front'a all my friends and havin' ta realize that my paw is nuthin' but a yellowbellied coward and how I gotta run away from home now so's nobody will know I'm yore son—that's all."

            Suddenly, it all makes sense. We're in Mad magazine. Despite the measured pace of the visuals, this isn't a serious Western at all. By articulating all this emotion into one highly unlikely (for a twelve-year old in the 19th century American West) heaped-up speech balloon, invoking every disillusioned son cliche in the universe, Zimmerman shifts gears, turning his tragedy into a farce. Now the Rawhide Kid's evening ablutions next to his campfire—doing sit-ups in nothing but his speedos—are entirely understandable and every stereotypical image thus far deployed becomes part of the joke. Zimmerman is making fun of the mythology of the West. He's ridiculing the ideals of masculinity and resourceful individuality that the Western has traditionally represented.

            Or is he? Dunno: those opening pages of nearly silent menace, proceeding, step by inexorable step, towards the disastrous shoot-out, seem too straight (oops) for high camp comedy or cultural satire. If Zimmerman is supposed to be satirical, he's blown his assignment.

            Maybe this expedition into the Old West is intended as a serious treatise on masculinity and its relation to courage. The thematic elements are all lined up: first, a sheriff whose courage and, therefore, masculinity is questioned by his son (who, with an almost willful blindness, fails to see that his father, far from being a coward, acted with great bravery); then, a legendary gunfighter whose courage and skill have long ago established his masculinity beyond reproach or question; then—what next? If we follow the implications of the ingredients, the sheriff's son will learn that masculinity is defined by something other than the ability to beat a bad guy in a gun fight. He'll learn that the Kid is gay, and that will destroy "masculinity" as a measure of courage. And since masculinity is associated with gunplay, gunplay by itself will be similarly discredited. And courage will be defined by some other, better, means, with masculinity itself irrelevant in the equation.

            Or maybe the objective is to demonstrate that homosexuality isn't necessarily effeminate.

            Either way, what can we make of the claim that the Kid's homosexuality is only implicit and not integral to the story? Clearly, it will have to be explicit before it can become integral, and if Zimmerman is aiming to redefine masculinity and courage with this tale, gaiety will have to be both explicit and integral. Ditto if he's attempting to erase effeminacy as an aspect of homosexuality.

            Meanwhile, the Kid's nom de guerre, "the fastest gun in the West," will, thanks to the symbolism of the cover with his gun dangling between his legs, take on a new and somewhat derogatory meaning. Ain't we got fun.

            Like I said, a mess, a hodge-podge of contradictory meanings. So far.

NOUS R US: COPYRIGHT EXTENSION. Mickey Mouse's beaming image appeared in the pages of various of the nation's press in mid-January, accompanying the news that the Supreme Court upheld, 7 to 2, the right of Congress to extend the copyright protection afforded by the U.S. Constitution. Rather joyfully, I thought, the announcement of this landmark decision suggested that somehow Mickey was safe, and so we should all rest easier in our beds.

            At issue was the 1998 law known as the "Mickey Mouse Extension Act" because it came into being as a result of aggressive lobbying by Disney, whose earliest representations of its pip-squeaky mascot were set to slip into the public domain in 2003. To prevent that from happening, Congress, persuaded by an ungovernable fondness for animated rodents (not to mention Hollywood campaign contributions), extended copyright protection an additional 20 years for cultural works, thereby protecting movies, plays, books and music for a total of 70 years after the author's death or for 95 years from publication for works created by or for corporations. It was not the first time that Congress had acted to protect Disney's mouse, but this time, Congress was challenged in court by a collection of interested parties who maintained that the Constitutional provision for copyright was intended to protect a creator's right for only a limited time and that by extending this protection every time it verged on expiring, Congress was, in effect, granting copyright protection forever, a perversion of the original intent of the Constitution.

            In the majority opinion that sustained Congress, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cast aspersions on the "wisdom of Congress's action," but allowed as how ruling on the wisdom of congressmen is "not within our province." Well, it is within my province, which, being that of a tireless typist and hack writer, includes, naturally, all of the known and unknown universe.

            Judging from the number of extensions Congress has granted over the last decades, we are perilously close to having copyrighted material protected in perpetuity. This is clearly contrary to the original intent of the Constitution, which states, in Section 8 of Article I, that Congress "shall have the power ... to promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries."

            The apparent logic embraces several notions: (1) that science will not advance nor the arts flourish unless inventors and artists can reap the financial rewards of their creativity; (2) that society is enriched by the advance of science and the flourishing of the arts; and (3) that, therefore, inventors and artists are guaranteed possession of their ideas in a manner that will assure them of financial reward.

            Neither the Disney corporation nor the Internet nor descendants of the original inventors and artists are mentioned. I'm scarcely a legal scholar, but it seems to me, in my innocence, that the chief beneficiaries of this Constitutional intention are the society at large and the creative individuals whose innovations are presumed to nurture that society. As James Surowiecki said in The New Yorker last winter, the Constitutional provision for copyright focuses upon "compensation not control."

            In other words, the essential purpose of copyright is to encourage creativity by assuring that creators will be rewarded. Creativity is, in human psychology, its own reward: creative personalities create because their inner selves drive them to. Still, it's nice to have bread on the table and various other creature comforts as a result of one's creative endeavor—hence, the value of copyright.

            Between the lines, however, another value lurks. The language suggests that even after the expiration of copyright protection, society at large will continue to benefit by enjoying the unfettered circulation of such works as have, for a "limited time," been protected. Publishers, for instance, who no longer have to pay permission fees to copyright holders, could publish works in the public domain at prices that are much more affordable to the general populace, thereby fostering learning and pleasure and the like. The very use of the term "public domain" implies a societal value beyond the private benefits that accrue to copyright holders. Extending the protection of copyright deprives the public of much of the benefit it might derive from creative endeavors.

            Instead of promoting creativity as intended, saith the Washington Post Weekly, the current law "has turned whole categories of American national culture into heritable assets owned by people who had nothing to do with their creation." And it inhibits free expression by restricting the dissemination of cultural artifacts.

            The framers of the Constitution clearly had no idea that corporate ownership would ever be a factor, and yet corporate ownership is what now drives the copyright bus. It is the corporate owners of copyrights that profit by that ownership, not individual creators. Not any more. Walt Disney is dead. Ditto George Gershwin, whose "Rhapsody in Blue" teetered, momentarily, on the brink of the public domain until the copyright extension was wedged into law.

            Under the copyright law that prevailed in 1946, before the first of Congress's 11 tamperings (over 40 years) took effect, Tarzan, created in 1912, would have entered the public domain in 1968; Mickey Mouse, in 1984; Blondie, in 1986; Dick Tracy, in 1987; Superman, in 1994. By the time the copyrights expired in these cases, the creators had died. Their right to financial reward for their ingenuity and inspiration, it seems to me, died with them.

            If the characters they created earned enough during the creators' lifetimes to compensate them appropriately, then the creators could make adequate provision for their heirs to benefit, somewhat, from their work. Not, probably, enough to guarantee a life of ease and idleness, but enough, doubtless, to gratify a son or daughter or distant cousin who had nothing to do with the original acts of creation.

            My attitude here will doubtless infuriate creators who would like their offspring, for generations into the future, to enjoy the benefits of their progenitor's genius. And, of course, that would be nice. But, in the last analysis, perhaps the best we can do—maybe the best we should do—for our children is to bequeath them the will and skill enough to make their own way in the world and be self-sufficient. What more could any reasonable person want?

            By 1984, when Mickey's copyright would have expired under one of the previous dispensations, Disney, as I said, was dead. And, more to the point, so was Ub Irwerks, who may have had more to do with inventing the Mouse than the owner of the plantation. But the empire built upon the Mouse is an entity in itself and doubtless offers financial security enough to Uncle Walt's offspring, both biological and corporate. And I have a hard time imagining the entire edifice crumbling to dust just because Mickey's copyright expires.

            Had the old law been restored, we would have reaped at least one benefit: if copyrights are permitted to expire, eventually, young campers can huddle around their campfires and sing Irving Berlin songs without fear of ASCAP's invading the premises to claim licensing fees.

            At the same time, the entertainment cartel could expect compensation for Internet use of material still copyrighted, especially (and perhaps only) if the use of that material generates financial gain for the user. Even the oldest version of the copyright law is adequate for this purpose.

            As for Mickey the Mouse, the only image that would have drifted off into public domain right away is the one in the earliest Disney films, such as 1928's "Steamboat Willie" (which, ironically, is based upon a Buster Keaton feature, "Steamboat Bill, Jr."—a creative maneuver that the present copyright law would prohibit). The so-called "modern" Mouse familiar today is a later creation and would remain protected for several more years. Moreover, Mickey Mouse is not only a character but a corporate trademark, and those never expire as long as they are in use.

More about Copyright. Too many of us assume that our work isn't copyrighted if it's not registered with the Library of Congress. According to Amy Cook, writing in Writer's Digest (November 2002), while registration provides "certain benefits," registration is not necessary to establish copyright. "Under current law," she writes, "a copyright exists as soon as an original work of authorship is fixed in a tangible medium of expression. You own the copyright to your work as soon as you write it down or save it on your computer." Or draw it on a piece of paper.

            Moreover, she continues, "as of March 1, 1989, it is no longer necessary to put a copyright notice on your work." Such notice, however, is helpful because it identifies you as the copyright owner—and establishes the year of creation. The notice consists of three elements: copyright symbol (or the word copyright or copr.), your name, and the year.

Fugitive Peanuts. As we reported here in December, the Schulz trust brought suit against Mort Walker's International Museum of Cartoon Art (IMCA), demanding return of Peanuts strips that were "loaned" not "given" to the Museum. The IMCA has since unearthed letters specifically designating about 50 strips as "gifts"; the others, about 16, will be returned.

Still Starring. My spies (well, one trained observer) reports that Dale Messick, creator of the comic strip Brenda Starr and the Grand Dame of Lady Cartoonists, is now living at home with her daughter, Star Rohrman, near Santa Rosa, which was the cartoonist's hometown for many years. Messick had been living in an assisted living facility. She is frail and, alas, doesn't draw anymore; her eyesight and hearing aren't what they used to be. After retiring from the syndicated rat race, Messick, for a time, drew a humorous panel cartoon about a little old lady, Granny Glamour, for local publication. When I visited her, meeting her for the first and only time in 1998, she was still living in her own apartment and would take a small pad of scratch paper to the mall and make sketches of passersby as she sat there. She had a wonderfully sardonic sense of humor, particularly about little old ladies and fading glamour. Her granddaughter, Laura, was recently accepted into the prestigious Actors Studio in New York and has been in two plays produced off-Broadway already. Must make her glamourous granny proud.

FUNNYBOOK FANFARE. This time, instead of committing outright reviews, I thought I'd alert you to my biases and prejudices about comics (as if they weren't apparent already) by just telling you what titles I'm reading and the ones I'm about to read and why. I've been reading 100 Bullets since it began, and the title—the stories by Brian Azzarello and, most particularly, the artwork by Eduardo Risso—still grips me. I've started reading Y: The Last Man and 21 Down, too: the concepts intrigue me, and the execution in both, so far, is superb. I prefer Pia Guerra and Jose Marzan, Jr., in the latter title: their work is a little less fussy than whoever is drawing 21 Down. (The credits are simply too cute: Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray are credited for "expressions" or "language" and Jesus Saiz and Palmiotti for "metaphors" and "permeation"—respectively—or "imagery" and "shade." So who's drawing it? Penciling? Inking?) I've read several issues of Fables, too; again, the concept (fairytale folk loose in the general population but still dealing with their nursery rhyme hang-ups) is engaging (although the last story arc, "Animal Farm," wasn't as gripping as the first story). I'm also picking up successive numbers of Marville (but, having missed No. 2, I'm waiting until I get it before reading the rest on hand) and Truth. The latter is already inspiring racist ire because of the caricatural style Kyle Baker has adopted for visualizing Robert Morales' story. I knew that would happen. (You read it here, Opus 104, kimo sabe.) Notice that I said the ire is racist, not Baker's drawings.

            I picked up Batman: Gotham Adventures No. 58 because Ty Templeton inked it. He's the one who launched the "animated style" years ago, and I wanted to see if he still had the chops. Well, sure. But it was his layouts and breakdowns that distinguished the first several numbers of Batman Adventures, and while guest penciller here, James Fry, does a little dancing here and there, the layouts aren't the organic ballet that Templeton's were back then (sigh). I'm following Three Days in Europe, written by Anthony Johnston and drawn by Mike Hawthorne, for the sake of the artwork as much as anything; I'm not into the story much yet, but the pictures—crisp, simple linework with deftly spotted black solids—are engaging.

            I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the Deadline mini-series. I'd seen only the first issue of this title and now have the trade paperback. And I'm dipping a toe into Gotham Central, too, just to see how that notorious city fares without a superhero on call. I'm also looking forward to reading Pistolwhip: The Yellow Menace from Top Shelf and The Yellow Jar from NBM. The latter in particular because Patrick Atangan's careful drawings evoke Japanese prints with great affection.

            Finally, to shift to a more detailed review mode, we have "Volume 1" of Slapped Together Comics, an anthology of work by sundry hands, the cover of which includes such pronouncements as: "Laugh till it Hurts! (Or else...!)" and "Various Artists Doing Questionable Material." This is an event from Crazy Moma Productions, cartoonist Elena Steier being the nutcake. She draws the opening tale by John Reynolds. Entitled "The Gratuitous Violence Patrol," it is not about a concerned citizens' group opposed to violence. It is, rather, about two cops who respond to a call to rescue a little old lady's cat in a tree and wind up blowing away half the neighborhood in a spray of lead accompanied by a spray of the innards of any innocent bystanders they happen to catch with one fusillade or another. The cat is completely destroyed, naturally, and our heroic pair hand what they assume is its remains ("or maybe a scorched tree branch—it's hard to tell") to the little old lady, who then explodes. Blood and gore galore, but all in good, clean fun. The book brims with this sort of unfettered outrageousness, including the perfectly tasteless "Dickie Pinkus Son-of-a-Bitch" by Jay Scruggs, a delight. (Scruggs is presently the inker on Bud Grace's Piranha Club comic strip, among other so-called "achievements"). All of the contributors have other, presumably more productive and financially rewarding lives. Among them are Ron Goulart, John Klossner, Martha Keavney, Tim Akin, Bill Jankowski, Frank Mariani, Ted Steier (somehow related to the Mama), Wes Alexander, Eric Feurstein, John Droney, John Kovaleski, and Harley Sparx. I particularly relished Elena's "Flim Flam Paper Dolls," which consists of scraps of descriptive prose accompanying real cut-out clothing for the stars of Flim Flam Studios; Jankowski and Mark Gallivan's crisply rendered "Tactical Investigations Team"; Ron Goulart's "The Funnies," probably the most far-reaching put-down of comics on paper; and others of the Mama's imagination—"The Revenge of Brunhilda" and "High School Reunion," to name two. But, frankly, there's not a bad apple in this barrel of fun, which these creators roll out with inventive enthusiasm, aiming, probably, to see how they can exploit the medium to tell jokes in bad taste. With 128 6.5x10" black-and-white pages in square-bound paperback, it's merely $19.95 from Crazy Mama Productions, P.O. Box 270-979, West Hartford, CT 06127-0979; or, online, at http://striporama.com.

THOUGHTS ON HEROIC HEARTS. My friend Joe Thompson, formerly, in the 1960s when all this was just getting going, a technical intelligence officer at White Sands proving ground in New Mexico, said, in reaction to the Columbia disaster:

            So, what do I recommend? I recommend we accept that there were always known to be some fairly high risks at certain strategic elements of working with experimental aircraft (or space ships, if you will). And I praise the history of past explorers—even those who founded the New World, or rounded the Horn, or who traveled the route of Captain Cook. My regret is that our society, convinced of the great value of human life, has been sold on the idea that there will be NO accidents. I too value human life, and I too feel the horror of the disaster of the loss of these outstanding men and women. But I also value their spirit and their efforts and their accomplishment. And, given the chance, I would jump in a second to go on the next shuttle flight if it could serve any purpose—even as an example to others. That is the magnitude of the accomplishment of these people—be they the first man in space, Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, or American‑supported astronauts, or those lost before and those dozen, likely hundreds, maybe thousands, yet to be lost in the future. So, for me, it is a time to praise the spirit of the human being, time to praise the many who have gone before—Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus (after whom this space shuttle was presumably named), Lewis and Clark, and certainly Ernest Shackleton. It is time to praise the seven who have just perished in their wake,  and it is time to be mindful of the many yet to seek and explore, and some yet to die. It is a time to find out what happened, to seek to avoid it in the future, to commit to the next generation of technology, and, above all, it is a time to look to the skies and say, "That is my Star! I will go chase Her!!!"

            All of which, reminds me of lines from Tennyson's Ulysses:

Come, my friends,

'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

... for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars until I die.

...Though much is taken, much abides; and though

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are—

One equal temper of heroic hearts ... strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

            —not to mention the great Goethe, for whom striving was all. To be human is to strive. To fail to strive—to give up striving—is to give up being human.

            We mourn the deaths of the seven Columbia astronauts not because they died; hundreds of people die every day without our even knowing about them. Nor is our mourning in honor of the uniforms they wore; dozens of servicemen and women die in peacetime every year, virtually unnoticed by the population at large. So why is our mourning so seemingly excessive in this case? Because, I think, the extravagance of our mourning for these seven souls matches the extravagance of their undertaking. Were they not attempting something large, our grief and sense of loss would not be so great. "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" Next time, our grasp will be surer, but, being human, we will ever reach for something more, above, and beyond....

            To stay 'tooned, click here and get yourself transported to the Main Page, where the content of this website is mapped out and my very own books are offered for sale (and previewed with but one more click of your clicker).

BOOK SALE. Some First (and other) editions by Bill Mauldin or Al Hirschfeld.

Up Front, Bill Mauldin's classic book about men at the front in wartime, liberally illustrated with Willie and Joe cartoons from WWII's Stars and Stripes, the serviceman's newspaper. This is a first edition, 1945, not the Book-of-the-Month Club edition. When I bought it, it lacked a dust jacket, so I've supplied one—a color photocopy of the dust jacket on my own first. Only $12, kimo sabe.

Back Home, Bill Mauldin's account of his post-war adventures as an angry young cartoonist and ex-soldier trying to adjust to civilian life (when, in his case, he'd never had a civilian life as a adult before). Liberally illustrated with his syndicated cartoons of the period. I have two copies, both are first editions (1947) but only one has the original dust jacket; the other has a dust jacket I made by color-copying the other book's dust jacket. The book with the original dust jacket is $12; the one with the photocopy jacket is $10.

The Brass Ring, Bill Mauldin's autobiographical account of his adolescence in the Southwest, his budding cartooning career in Chicago and in Phoenix, his entry into the Army by way of the National Guard in September 1940, and his subsequent career as a soldier cartoonist who earned the Pulitzer Prize with his Willie and Joe cartoons by the time he was 23 years old, at the time, the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer. This is not a first edition; it's the second printing, but it comes with an intact dust jacket and a special insert—on nifty paper, a copy of his 1945 Pultizer-winning cartoon. Merely $10.

Listen to the Mocking Bird by S.J. Perelman, profusely illustrated by his long-time friend, Al Hirschfeld, a 1949 first but no dust jacket. At first blush an autobiography (because Hirschfeld's caricature of Perelman appears throughout), it isn't: it is a collection of humorous pieces that originally appeared in The New Yorker. But the reason for owning the book is Hirschfeld's exquisite drawings, not Perelman's prose (which is perfectly acceptable, don't misunderstand; but I originally bought this book for the drawings). Unusual among Hirschfeld's oeuvre, the drawings are not caricatures (except for Perelman's) but imaginary characters of the artist's own concoction. Every drawing is embellished with a second color overlay. Just $10.

Shipping. As usual, add $3 postage (Media Mail) and packaging for one book, plus $2 each for every additional book. For payment instructions (and to verify availability), e-mail me using the handy e-mail button at the end of the next opus (the previous posting)—just scroll all the way to the very end.

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