Opus 110:

Opus 110 (March 15): NOUS R US. Forthcoming—"Take-Along" pocket-sized comic books in Gemstone's Disney line-up; the first in the diminutive dimension (5.5x7.5-inch, 128 pages) will be Walt Disney's Donald Duck Adventures. For more details on the Gemstone Disney, scroll down to "Comic Book Controversy" below. ... "Frazetta: Painting with Fire," a 60-minute documentary VHS video, featuring footage of the artist painting as well as interviews with such luminaries as Neal Adams, Dave Stevens, John Buscema, Simon Bisley, Al Williamson, Nick Meglin, Angelo Torres and Bo Derek; a subsequent release in DVD will include "several hours of new footage."

            Duck artist Don Rosa just returned from an Italian comicon in Naples where he was the main attraction. Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada and "millionaire cartoonist" Jim Lee were listed merely as "guests also in attendance." The Carl Barks ducks are the biggest comic book sensation in Europe; superheroes barely rise into visibility.

            Finalists in the annual Pulitzer competition for editorial cartoonists are Dave Horsey (Seattle Post-Intelligencer), Clay Bennett (Christian Science Monitor), and Rex Babin (Sacramento Bee). Both Horsey and Bennett have won before, and Bennett just received the Scripps Howard Award for Editorial Cartooning, the judges for which commented that "the total sophistication of Bennett's work set it apart. The point of his cartoons is instantly clear."... And, according to David Astor at Editor & Publisher,  the finalists for the National Cartoonists Society "Cartoonist of the Year" Award (i.e., the Reuben) are "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening and three syndicated newspaper comic strip cartoonists—Rose is Rose creator Pat Brady (United Feature Syndicate), Luann creator Greg Evans (also United), and Bizarro creator Dan Piraro (King Features Syndicate). Although he is nominated, probably, mostly for the tv series, Groening also has newspaper ties: Bart and Homer and the rest spawned a weekly comic strip currently distributed by Universal Press Syndicate, and Groening still does the Life in Hell strip for Acme Features Syndicate. This is Groening's second (at least) nomination; Brady and Evans have both been nominated five or six times previously. Piraro is a first-time nominee this year. The winner will be announced May 24 during the annual Reuben weekend in San Francisco. ... Meanwhile, Steve Sack at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune just won the annual Headliners Award from the Press Club for his editorial cartoons. Sack, incidentally, has recently taken to drawing his cartoon in pencil with pencil shading, producing pictures with all the nuanced grays that pencil can create (and that modern printing's enhanced technology now can reproduce almost exactly).

            From Scoop: William Joseph White, known throughout fandom as Biljo White, died February 26 at the age of 73, only a week after being diagnosed with Burkett's lymphoma and just three weeks after retiring. Biljo was perhaps best known for publishing the fanzine Batmania, which debuted in 1964 during the tv Batman craze. Other accomplishments include being co-creator of a character called The Eye, creator of The Fog, art director of Alter Ego, and possessor of a "fabulous comic book collection," known as Biljo's White House of Comics because of the cinderblock building behind his home in which he stored thousands of Golden Age comics, most of which he acquired right off the newsstands as a kid.

            And Bill Woggon died Sunday, March 2, at the age of 92. Woggon, who briefly assisted his brother Elmer on the newspaper comic strip Big Chief Wahoo, made his lasting mark with a comic book creation, Katy Keene (the fashion queen), which started in the back pages of MLJ's Wilbur in the mid-1940s (either in No. 3, Winter 1944—if you believe Krause's Standard Catalogue—or in No. 5, Summer 1945, in other sources). Woggon chanced upon a sure-fire gimmick for appealing to America's girl youth, all of whom, it seemed, shared an overwhelming desire to design clothing. And Katy gave them all the chance to be designers: Katy was a fashion model and needed lots of different clothes to wear in the course of her professional daily life. To supply this vast wardrobe, her readers were invited to send in suggested designs, and they did—producing sketches by the carload lot—and Woggon and his staff picked those that Katy would subsequently wear, changing outfits from panel to panel throughout whole stories. And in the corner of every panel for every costume change appeared the name and hometown of the young designer of the outfit being modeled in that panel. Bonanza! Katy celebrated her success by joining the line-ups of other MLJ comic books, eventually gaining her own title in 1949. Woggon cited as his influences comic strips Brenda Starr, Fritzi Ritz, and Tillie the Toiler. And, Ron Goulart tells us, George Petty's pin-up girls, which, Woggon averred, "inspired me to create Katy Keene." Katy was always more fully clothed than the Petty Girl, but her typical pose accentuated long, Petty-esque legs (even though, judging from the artwork, Woggon and his assistants lavished most of their time on Katy's eyelashes and hair, drawing nearly every follicle individually).

FUNNYBOOK FANFARE. The Rawhide Kid's "Slap Leather" story continues its schizophrenic assault on aesthetic sensibilities, the uncloseted hero evidently posing a genuine dilemma to writer Ron Zimmerman, who apparently can't decide whether the mini-series is a jest or a gesture. As a result, he produces both bad jokes and bad didactic. Characters persist in ignoring Sheriff Morgan's obvious courage by calling him a coward, and the gay caballero himself is called a "daisyboy" who carries on "like a woman." And with the appearance of the town's mayor, a personage named Walker Bush whose "daddy and brother" bought the election for him—and who looks remarkably like Boy George Dubya—the book becomes Marvel's Mad magazine. The arrival on the next page of a Don Knots look-alike named Bernard Phife completes the transformation. There's a certain collegiate—er, sophomoric—element of humor here, but it undercuts what might otherwise have been a serious statement about manhood and courage and the irrelevance thereto of sexual orientation. John Severin's meticulously authentic art, however, continues to rescue the production (except on those talky pages where Severin seems to signal his disapproval of the excessive speechifying by drawing only the tops of the talking heads).

            In Image's first issue of PVP: Player vs. Player, Scott Kurtz brings his online comic strip to the print medium. His drawing style is crisp and uncluttered, deploying a simple bold outline against a wire-thin detailing line and dramatic black solids. The characters, all members of the staff of PVP, a gaming magazine (I think), interact with risible results. The boss is in perpetual possession of a coffee cup, and then there is the tech support guy, the good-looking female lead writer, a pony-tailed hippie creative director, and the office troll. In one sequence, they go after an invading mouse but become upset when the creature dies (perhaps from drinking too much coffee) and give it a Viking funeral, which, naturally, sets the toilet on fire. Frank Cho provides the cover for this inaugural issue, but the insides are as good as the outside. (Incidentally, Cho's jungle queen opus from Marvel ought to surface soon, and this toothsome wench, it seems, will be losing her tiger-skin tank top and thong as often as not.)

Pogosongs. As time fritters its way into the distant future, more and more treasures of the past are being cast up on the beach of our present-day, reincarnated in some pleasingly convenient, thoroughly modern mode. Quite apart from the gems of DC's archival tomes, feasts for the nostalgic eye, here we have, at last, a banquet for the nostalgic ear, a CD made entirely of reconstituted vinyl recordings of Walt Kelly's nonsense verse sent to music, "Songs of the Pogo," a platter first pressed in 1956 and rare, today, as a hen's molars. Geoff Merritt and Ric Menck at Parasol have added to this already invaluable musical collection the content of two other Kelly efforts (7-inch singles, "No" and "Can't," both made in 1969), plus some undated rehearsals and Kelly's reading of the preface from The Pogo Papers (where the fabled "We have met the enemy and he is us" first appeared).

            Delicious stuff, all—whether the dulcet tones of Fia Karin singing "Oh, roar a roar for Nora, Nora Alice in the night, for she has seen Aurora Borealis burning bright" or Walt himself belting out the rollicking choruses of "Go Go Pogo" or Mike Stewart booming the bittersweet "Whence the Wince [my wench, quoth I]" or the chorus, shoulder-to-shoulder, singing the martial "Parsnoops" or Karin, again, this time doing a bump-and-grind with "Don't stir me, boy, nor try to spoon—don't sugar me 'cause us is throon."

            The CD comes with an assortment of accompaniments. Liner notes by Merritt (explaining the origin of the project), by me (a brief bio of Kelly), by Menck (an even "shorter biography" of Norman Monath, who supplied the music for Kelly's lyrics), by Mark Burstein (on "Kelly and the Nonsense Tradition" with an additional, more personal, "testy-monial"), by Steve Thompson (president of the Pogo Fan Club and editor of the Fort Mudge Most, the Club's newsletter, on "the singalong"), and the lyrics of the songs on the 1956 record. All of this in a 4.5x4.5" booklet with many drawings by Kelly in color. The cover rejuvenates the original album cover exactly but with new delicate shadings. A snug and tidy merry package, a perfect fit. Indeed, the package is worth owning for its own sake whether you ever listen to the recordings or not.

            In retail stores and catalogs the CD is likely to be priced at $16.98. From Parasol (303 West Griggs Street, Urbana, IL 61801-2609; or www.parasol.com), it's $12.50 plus p&h ($2.75 for one; $4 for two, and so on)—slightly less. Parasol is the distribution and publicity arm of a half-dozen labels and has been around since 1991. Merrit, the owner, has been around a little longer and is a passionate Pogo fan. His prized possessions include one of the scarce (and costly) Wade figurines, an original daily strip in which Albert and Pogo "discuss the government taking away our dreams," and, naturally, the CD itself.

            The Fort Mudge Most, incidentally, is available bimonthly by subscription, $25/six, from Spring Hollow Books, 6908 Wentworth Avenue South, Richfield, MN 55423 (or visit www.pogo-fan-club.org).

            And if you're looking for more Pogo artifacts, Mark Burstein has engineered the re-issue of the celebrated "Enemy" videotape; read about it at Opus 101 by clicking here.

COMIC BOOK CONTROVERSY. According to Ray Conlogue writing in the Toronto Globe and Mail, comic books seem to have abandoned their original juvenile readers. "The problem," he said, "is the mind-numbing sex and desperately repetitive violence" in the comics. "Mind-numbing sex" is more than a little exaggeration, I say: there's almost no actual intercourse depicted in today's titles—hinted at in titles specifically tagged for "adult readers," but not illustrated. But if, by "mind-numbing sex," Conlogue means that the women in superhero comic books are more zaftig these days than in yore, he's right. "Wonder Woman," as he says, "has developed a lot more cleavage than I remembered [as a youthful reader]."

            As for violence, says Conlogue: "It may have been inevitable that the superhero would sooner or later have to start killing the villain, but it was not inevitable that this be done, as it has been, in a subliterate way. Violence, once permitted, quickly became gratuitous, with a rocketing body count and a new breed of amoral 'hero' represented by characters like The Punisher and Wolverine." The Punisher makes unrelieved war on mobsters with heavy weapons; Wolverine, one of innumerable "mutant" beings with peculiar powers, eviscerates super-powered villains with razor-sharp claws that sprout from his knuckles.

            Conlogue quotes Stacy Allston, an Internet comic critic writing under the name Ouzomandias, who questions the pretension that current comics are either adult or sophisticated. "We confuse ourselves in this," she writes. "The presence, or absence, of adult content does not guarantee the quality of a work . . . 'Adult' has become a euphemism for words like 'lurid,' 'erotic,' and 'pornographic,' as well as an accurate descriptor of concepts like 'topical,' 'complex,' and 'difficult.'" She mentions comics where the use of nudity can be justified as one means of symbolizing the conflict of good and evil forces. But thoughtful transgression of that sort is rare. More often, " 'Adult' serves as a euphemism to mask a puerile obsession with sex and nudity." When the potty‑mouthed humor that accompanies it is understandable by 10‑year‑olds, as it invariably is, "We should not describe it as 'adult.'" Allston, Conlogue says, believes, as he does, that the recent denigration of "kids' stories" within the comic business "is connected to a rooted disrespect for children in our culture."

            Again, I'd say both Allston and Conlogue are extreme in both their analyses and their pronouncements. It's true that there are more comic books concocted expressly for adult readership—which, by most counts, means people over 18. It's true 'adult' themes in these titles is often more adolescent than mature, but much the same can be said for television. Not that tv redeems comic books: tv, as a wag once said, is called a "medium" because it is neither "well done" nor "rare," and I'm not holding it up as a cultural standard of artistic excellence; but its omnipresence in our society qualifies it as a standard against which matters of taste can be measured.

            It's true that the superheroic genre revels in violent action; and while there is a certain amount of gore displayed in some titles (those marked for "adults"), much of the violence is of the bloodless sort akin to Saturday morning tv in which the good guys beat the bad guys by hurling "force bolts" at them. Many action titles are more acrobatic than visceral in depicting the exploits of their protagonists, and this category of comics has been growing steadily for some years. Comic books that aren't about superheroes are also on the rise.

            Still, the number of titles specializing in blood and gore and sexual innuendo (almost all of these are the so-called superhero titles, but not all superhero titles fall into this category) clearly shocked Allston and Conlogue. Anyone who has not actively perused comic books during any extended period between 1965 and today would be shocked: they have not have become inured (as I apparently have) to the content by continual exposure to it as it has changed over the years. Like the proverbial frog in the pan of water on the stove that does not notice the gradually increasing heat and so boils to death, so are some of us cooked by reason of our familiarity with the medium. And as I look about the local comic book store, I can see how the uninitiated might be alarmed by what they see there.

            But these books that have excited Allston and Conlogue are not, as they suggest, indicative of a societal "disrespect for children." They are, rather, reflective of the aspirations of the writers and artists who produce them—and those of their publishers—who, for at least half-a-century now, have thought about their medium as an artistic one capable of reaching the sort of sophisticated expression aspired to in other creative realms—novels and movies, for instance.

            As Conlogue notes, comic artist Peter Kostka declares that he "would go nuts if someone told me that [children's stories] are all I would ever be able to do in the art form that I love the most."

            Not all motion pictures are mature and sophisticated either, but that doesn't preclude creative enterprise aimed at maturity and complexity in artistic expression. As it turns out, both the movies and comic books now embrace works that range from infantile to sophisticated. And Conlogue and Allston have gotten themselves hung up on the ones in between, the hormonally laden adolescent ones.

            Some of the more mature endeavors, usually going by the name "graphic novel," have attracted attention and applause in such venues as the New York Times, where Nick Hornby began his December 22 survey of graphic novels with this:

            "However often you tell yourself that the comic book is a legitimate art form, with its own language and style, its Chaucers and Shakespeares (although there are some high-culture snobs who would argue that even Stan Lee at his best fails to approach the heights that "King Lear" attains), its critics, its ability to get us to see the world in a new way, you may still feel an urge to explain yourself if you are caught reading one in public."

            Hornby continues: "The more exposure to graphic novels one has, the more one realizes that the relative youth of the medium, at least in its current adult form, presents its artists with problems of appropriateness that the more established arts don't have. Whereas most established writers know what constitutes a novel, and filmmakers understand what will sustain a film, even the best comic-book artists sometimes seem unsure of their material and their intended audience."

            He goes on to review several graphic novel titles: Eric Drooker's "startlingly beautiful" Blood Song, "a strong and compelling narrative" about a young woman's flight from Eden to a corrupt urban world, told entirely in pictures that Hornby likes but is somewhat baffled by (the simplicity of the pictures, he says, doesn't give him "a lot to grapple with" so maybe he needs "lessons in how to read books like this"); Jason Little's Shutterbug Follies, "a convoluted adventure story" about a curious young heroine told "with economy and flair" but somewhat off-target, "like a Nancy Drew mystery adapted by Brian De Palma"; Adrian Tomine's Summer Blonde, a group of four novellas "populated by marginalized, lonely and sexually inept Gen Xers ... cheerless but never less than smart," which establishes Tomine has having "both talent and a writer's eye for the truth"; Kim Deitch's Boulevard of Broken Dreams, "an ambitious, surreal and occasionally baffling attempt to narrate the history of animation in the last century ... full of metaphor and imagery that shift meaning, flashbacks and flash-forwards and a bagful of tricks that give the book heft"; and Lynda Barry's One Hundred Demons, a "heavily autobiographical, brutally honest, thoughtful and soulful" book ("not, please note, 'comic book'—no qualification is necessary").

            The stories in Barry's book, Hornby says (deploying a delicious metaphor of his own), "all contain little grenades of meaning that tend to explode just after you've read the last line."

            Hornby also cites Barry in explaining why "comic books" have received so little attention by culture mavens: "Nobody feels the need to provide deep critical insight to something written by hand."

            "In the end," Hornby concludes, "asking whether graphic novels are a waste of time is exactly the same as asking whether all novels are a waste of time: the answer is that it rather depends on who's writing them. Barry seems to me almost single-handedly to justify the form; she's one of America's very best contemporary writers."

            But all good comic books aren't, exactly, graphic novels. Allston recommends Bone, a epic-length adventure series by Jeff Smith as one of the few current comics "friendly to all‑ages readers." But she added that all‑ages comics are declining yearly and even now are almost impossible to find.

            "More and more," she said, "it seems necessary to look to reprints for a less salty approach to the medium."

            A trove of material in this category is about to re-surface: Gemstone Publishing has signed the license to publish Disney comics in North America, beginning in June. The titles will reprint Carl Barks' Donald Duck tales and other vintage works as well as more recent endeavors produced for overseas licensees by Don Rosa, William Van Horn, Pat Block and a host of European cartoonists. As an appetizer, a classic Barks story, "Maharajah Donald," will be published in time to be given away on Free Comic Book Day (May 3 at your neighborhood comic book store). The debut of this gem was in Boy's and Girl's March of Comics, No. 4 (1947), which collectors can seldom find for less than $7,000.

            The revival of Disney titles has been greeted enthusiastically by the comic book fandom. Editor-in-chief John Clark, who held the same position for the last American licensee, sees the return of Disney books as vital to the future of the comic book business:

            "When I was a kid," he remembered, "my mom bought comic books to read to me, so when I got older, I knew what comic books were and started buying them for myself. That scenario, sadly, doesn't happen anymore, and I believe it needs to start happening again if the comic industry is to ultimately survive. A revival of this buyer's profile is what we hope to achieve."

            In Clark's view, today's young readers will become tomorrow's readers of graphic novels, thus assuring the continued vitality and growth of the medium as a mature art form.

            The June re-launch will offer Walt Disney's Comics and Stories and Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge, both in the 64-page "prestige format" (square bound paperback) at $6.95—a price virtually guaranteeing parental purchase (or collector acquisition). Then in September, the more affordable $2.95 32-page comic book format titles will arrive—Walt Disney's Donald Duck and Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse and Friends.

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