Opus 114 (May 4): Appreciating Cartoons and Cartoonists. Every year, we encounter Cartoon Appreciation Week right about this time. The dates shift a little from year to year, but that doesn't make cartoonists any more shifty than the rest of us. Cartoon Appreciation Week, as fomented by the National Cartoonists Society, is whatever Monday-through-Sunday includes May 5. So this year, it's May 5-11.
They picked May 5 because it was on that date in 1895 that the New York World published a cartoon called Hogan's Alley by Richard Outcault, a freelance technical draftsman, who, when not diagraming electrical equipment, drew comical pictures and peddled them to weekly humor magazines. Hogan's Alley, like others Outcault had sold to magazines, featured the juvenile antics of a swarm of slum urchins, and among the raggedy and bedraggled mob, Outcault drew one distinctive little kid: he was bald (his head having been shaved as a cure for lice), and he had big jug ears and a gap-tooth grin, and wore a nightshirt that reached to his ankles. His name was Mickey Dugan, but when, on subsequent appearances, his nightshirt was colored yellow, he was dubbed the Yellow Kid.
The Yellow Kid turned out to be a genuine crowd-pleaser: people bought the newspaper just to follow his shenanigans every week. The character was so popular that William Randolph Hearst hired Outcault away from the World to draw the cartoon for his New York Journal. But Joseph Pulitzer at the World hired another artist to draw the Yellow Kid, and for quite some time, the circulation battle between the two press lords had the Yellow Kid in the front lines as the most conspicuous combatant: delivery wagons taking newspapers around the city had posters on their flanks bearing the grinning visage of the Yellow Kid.
The cartoon was usually referred to by the name of its star, and "The Yellow Kid" is often called the first newspaper comic strip (even though it wasn't first, and it didn't appear in a "strip" but as a single, large drawing) because it demonstrated the commercial prowess of cartoons. After the Yellow Kid's noisy reign, newspaper publishers knew cartoons attracted readers and sold papers. They were convinced about the value of comics, and so comics came to reside in the pages of newspapers and, for decades, to flourish there. And for that historic reason, Cartoon Appreciation Week always convenes around May 5, which is, itself, called Cartoonists Day. To celebrate this year, I'd like to remember some things about Charles Schulz, the man who gave us Peanuts and ushered in the Age of Schulz.
The Age of Schulz is characterized as much by the extensive merchandising of comic strip characters as it is by the deceptive simplicity of a drawing style that many other cartoonists tried, some with success, to imitate in hopes that drawing style alone would lead them to experience similar success. Schulz's biggest influence in the world of newspapering lay in showing how important a comic strip can been in the economic life of a newspaper. Just as the Yellow Kid demonstrated the commercial impact of the comics, so did Peanuts. Schulz's success was a re-affirmation of the very principles that were enacted by the earliest newspaper comics, principles that guaranteed the survival of the comics medium.
Perhaps -- if there is justice as well as poetry in the music of the spheres -- Schulz's success came because his heart was pure. His life's work harbored no ulterior motive: he did it because he loved it. He embodied cartooning. He was the very emblem of cartoonist. Quite simply, he loved to draw funny pictures. That's what comics are, he would say -- funny pictures. That's what they are in their essence.
His passion for his art can be discerned in his description of the act of drawing.
Talking to his peers at a convention of the National Cartoonists Society in 1994, Schulz revealed a truth about why he -- and countless other artists and cartoonists -- draw pictures, a truth so stark as to be fundamental:
"I am still searching for that wonderful pen line," he said. "When you are drawing Linus standing there, and you start with the pen up near the back of his neck and you bring it down and bring it out, and the pen point fans a little bit, and you come down here and draw the lines this way for the marks on his sweater, and all of that. This is what it's all about -- to get the feelings of depth and roundness, and to make the pen line the best pen line you can make."
In this, Schulz was speaking for all his colleagues, past and present and future, the legions of scribblers who find pleasure and fulfillment in their lives by making pictures.
Not only was Peanuts a huge financial success for both its host newspapers and its creator, it was a psychological success for Schulz. As he said when he retired, doing the comic strip fulfilled his childhood dream. Being a cartoonist was all he ever wanted to be. And it was, in effect, all he was. When he ceased being a cartoonist, he ceased being.
Schulz's death on February 12, 2000 will go down in the history of popular culture as one of those ineffable coincidences that seem potent with the possibility of somehow explaining life's mysteries. It was Saturday night, precisely on the eve of the publication of the last Peanuts that he would ever produce, the next day's Sunday strip. And so Schulz's departure gave numinous meaning to an otherwise untimely and therefore meaningless exit.
For nearly fifty years, Schulz produced a comic strip for every day in the calendar. And he did it, as we all now acknowledge, himself. No assistants. No letterers. Just Schulz. In this, Schulz represented -- stood for -- cartoonists in an almost iconic way. He was what all cartoonists are -- only more so.
Schulz did it himself because, he insisted, there was no other way of doing it. The characters were aspects of himself, and you can't get someone else to do aspects of yourself.
"If you read the strip for just a few months, you will know me," Schulz said, "because everything that I am goes into the strip. That is me."
And there can be no more stunning an instance of the intimate relation between a creator and his creation than that accompanying the publication of the last Peanuts strip that Schulz produced. Schulz's nearly simultaneous departure proclaimed with the awful resonance of some sort of celestial poetry that, as he often said, he was himself the comic strip he created. When it stopped, he did.
The end of Peanuts was, as are all good comic strips (Schulz's in particular), a masterpiece of timing -- "prophetic and magical," Lynn Johnston said. It was even more than that. Writing Schulz a posthumous letter, Johnston, creator of the strip For Better or For Worse, credited her friend with one last enviable ending:
"Leaving us as your last strip appeared was the winning touchdown," she wrote, "the Valentine, and the Great Pumpkin all rolled into one. It was more than a punchline: it was a powerful reminder that there's more to this life than we can see with our eyes and feel with our senses. I cannot imagine an exit with more class. Once again, you accomplished something extraordinary."
That he did. And with Peanuts now in perpetual re-runs, we are reminded daily of the extraordinary talent that produced that strip for almost half a century, a talent that stands for cartoonists everywhere and the work they do that we enjoy, and appreciate.
AND YET ANOTHER. In the quartet of cartoons that ended his syndicated cartoon series in June 2000, Jules Feiffer depicted his "signature character, a stringy-haired modern dancer" in "disputatious dialogue with the artist, who was desperately claiming his own place in the spotlight," said Mel Gussow in the New York Times recently. "It was, Feiffer said, 'my turn to dance,' and in the last cartoon, his version of himself -- bald and bearded but still dreaming about morphing into Fred Astaire -- tipped his top hat and exclaimed, 'Wait for my big finish! You'll be dazzled!'" The dazzle, Gussow concludes in his March 4 article, has arrived.
According to the pertinent press release, the art and life of the "quintessential New York cartoonist, dramatist, satirist and modern culture commentator" are on display at the New York Historical Society through May 18. One aspect of the exhibition, "Julz Rulz: Inside the Mind of Jules Feiffer," explores Feiffer's caustic imagination "in the context of the aesthetic, political, social, and personal influences that have transformed his satirical outlook -- generally anxious, occasionally angry -- on 20th‑century urban culture."
The press release goes on to say that "Julz Rulz" will investigate Feiffer's creative legacy and the manner in which he manages to periodically reinvent himself to reach new audiences (as will be illustrated by the inclusion of a substantial amount of Feiffer's new work). In another corner, "Feiffer's Family Tree," are displayed (until June 1) the many cartoons and comic strips that were influential in Feiffer's own work, including 19th‑century political and social cartoons, such as those of Thomas Nast, and many items related to the character of the Yellow Kid. Although there have been periodic efforts to showcase aspects of Feiffer's oeuvre, no integrated, interdisciplinary exhibition survey of Feiffer's art has been organized in New York or elsewhere before this.
According to Ayesha Court in USA Today, Feiffer "moved from rage to innocence nearly 10 years ago when he began writing and illustrating books for children." His transition began when a respected children's book illustrator and friend asked him to write a book about a boy who loved movies. After Feiffer finished the book, his friend sheepishly revealed that he had written it himself in the meantime. Feiffer was livid -- and decided to write an even better book. "So spite was really what got me into this business," he says.
His ninth book, The House Across the Street (Hyperion, $15.95), drawn in his characteristically fluid sketchy manner, is about an unnamed boy watching an older neighbor boy and fantasizing about his life. After 20 years writing plays and getting "beat up" by critics, Feiffer says, the experience of writing children's books is almost too good to be true: "What's wrong with this picture? This can't be an art form -- this is too affirmative."
The children's books represent a turning point, said Gussow, quoting Feiffer: "All my working life," Feiffer said, "whether in cartoons or in the theater, what readers and audiences saw of me was the satiric, abrasive side. There was no outlet to show the fun side, the affectionate side." Doing children's books he discovered a freedom -- returning to his own childhood, he could show children challenging and overcoming parental authority and replacing cold reality with an active fantasy life.
But back in the cold, cruel world, Feiffer has written a new play, "A Bad Friend," which premieres in June at the Lincoln Center Theater Company. "It's about a family of Jewish communists living in Brooklyn in the 1950s. Self‑evidently commercial," he deadpanned.
Working on a play or a book, Gussow reported, Feiffer writes in longhand and often revises. But in cartooning if he doesn't like something, he just begins another drawing. "With writing," Feiffer said, "it tends to improve every time you take a shot at it. I think there's a logic and orderliness to writing, which you don't have in drawing. That requires simply the energy and luck to get it right."
Feiffer has said that he used to draw the individual figures of his cartoons again and again until he produced some he liked. And then he'd cut them out and paste them up into the cartoon's format.
"The big surprise has been how easy it was to give up the weekly strip," he said not long ago, "and how I haven't missed it at all."
He told Gussow that he was relieved not to be drawing political cartoons during these bellicose times. "It seems to me what made me a serious political artist was that I always believed that what I did, along with other cartoonists, could effect change in someway. I no longer have that illusion. Nothing I could do is going to change the mind of Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, or Dick Chaney. How happy I am that I stumbled into all these other forms."
These days, Feiffer is more interested in raising his third daughter, Julie, 8, and in writing children's books than in fighting authority with his poison pen. He's already writing his next picture book about a little girl who can't stand how much her parents talk on the phone. But Feiffer still draws. Late at night, Gussow said, the cartoonist often goes back into his office and sits at the drawing board, "and he starts to improvise."
Said Feiffer: "It's the only work I do that has no text connected to it, where the drawing just lives by itself. With me, it has to be a form of play, and this is the purest form of play because it's not connected to an assignment. It's all free-form." Looking forward to the next evening, he said, "I put on some jazz and it's as if I'm dancing."
For more about the dancing cartoonist -- a whole life-long fandango, in fact, plus the last four appearances of his storied cartoon -- visit our Hindsight department by clicking here.
NOUS R US. I hate it when this happens and even more so when I'm the guilty party. We reported here last winter, Opus 106, about the lawsuit the Schulz Trust filed against the International Museum of Cartoon Art (IMCA) for the return of a certain number of original Peanuts strips, which, the Peanuts parties contended, were only loaned to the IMCA, not donated. Subsequently (Opus 108), the IMCA produced letters from Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, specifying that all but about a dozen or so of the strips were, in fact, donated, not loaned. Having followed this "story" (I hate that concept, too: it's not a "story"; it's a series of events, not a fairytale or a soap opera), we neglected to report its resolution at the end of March, thereby joining all the other newshounding media who are so diligent about reporting scandal and impending disaster but negligent about reporting outcomes, particularly outcomes that are peaceful and well behaved. I writhe in mortification. The outcome as reported in Editor & Publisher by the vigilante David Astor: the Schulz Trust dropped its suit when the IMCA delivered 19 original Peanuts strips -- that is, 15 of the "donated" strips, plus four others as substitutes for four that the IMCA folks couldn't find. The settlement specified that IMCA continue to search for the missing strips. This whole unhappy episode emerged, if I can be permitted a few speculative rather than reportorial remarks, because of one kind of misunderstanding or another, as such things usually do. I suspect (but I don't know for sure) that the Peanuts parties thought that the IMCA, which closed last year in Boca Raton, was kaput forever; so if the Museum wasn't going to be open, they wanted the strips back for their own Schulz museum, which opened last summer. They might also have feared that the IMCA would sell the original Peanuts strips to raise money to pay off its debts. But Mort Walker, founder of the IMCA (and one of its principal funders) had no plans to close the Museum forever; in fact, he was actively searching for a new home for it. Therefore, he could see no reason to return the Peanuts strips: he expected to be displaying them in the IMCA's new venue (wherever that might be). And so the Schulz Trust brought out the heavy artillery as a way of attracting his attention. I don't know whether it all came about this way or not, but it sure seems that way. Walker, meanwhile, continues his quest for a new home for IMCA.
And, continuing in our never-ending effort to drop the other shoe whenever possible, the Chicago Tribune at last announced that it was discontinuing Beetle Bailey, which it had stopped publishing last summer but had religiously refrained from saying whether it was dropping or not in a cunning attempt to co-opt reader ire. (The strategy, explained in this department last time, Opus 113, is that irate readers are somewhat pacified if they're told the decision on the strip's fate "hasn't been made yet"; and so they shut up and get off the phone and leave the hapless newspaper editor free to pursue more important matters, like telling us about Monica Lewinsky's latest tv gig.) The Chicago Sun-Times promptly picked up the strip, displaying competitive savvy as well as political acumen: it added the adventures of the world's laziest soldier to its comics line-up just when military matters were, once more, absorbing public attention -- that is, during the invasion of Iraq. Okay, Beetle is still in Camp Swampy, not in the Iraqi desert, but he's wearing the uniform. By the way, just to put the combat deaths in Iraq into context, did you know that over 200 military personnel die on active duty every year in peacetime? They are killed by various accidents -- exploding munitions, bad drivers, malfunctioning airplanes, human error, and the rest of the usual crop of ordinary disasters.
And, speaking of death in Iraq, we keep hearing about how relatively few civilians were killed. True. But lots of Iraq soldiers were killed, and each one of them is a husband or father or son of a civilian, so if the surviving civilians don't seem whole-heartedly grateful to Anglo-American forces for liberating them from Saddam, we shouldn't be all that surprised. The Iraqi emotions could not be anything but mixed under the best conditions.
As we rejoice (or not) in the presumed success of the X-Men sequel, it's amusing, I ween, to ponder the essay of E! Online's Boris Kit, who, on April 3 or thereabouts, listed the whole "cheesey" crop of bad superhero movies that have preceded the current blockbusters. He started with 1982's "The Swamp Thing" in which "Alec Holland rescues Adrienne Barbeau over and over" and then proceeded to: George Lucas' 1986's "Howard the Duck" ("If you want to see George Lucas fall flat on his face, this is for you"), 1987's "Superman IV" (which grossed only $15 million compared to the first of this generation's Man of Steel flicks, which reaped $134 million), 1989's "The Punisher" (with Dolph Lundgren, "a poor man's Rambo ... [with] enormous potholes" misses because our hero "does not have a skull on his T-shirt"), 1991's "Captain America" ("the low point in comic movies" with J.D. Salinger's son Matt as Cap -- and all this time, I thought Salinger was too reclusive to breed), 1994's "Fantastic Four" (made solely so that Roger Corman, "schlock-lord producer," could keep the rights to the characters but was never intended to be released), 1995's "Judge Dredd" ("Sylvester Stallone as Dredd takes his helmet off!"), 1996's "Barb Wire" ("bad Casablanca with Pamela Anderson's big guns ... everything, including Pamela, flat as a board" -- or, dare we say it? "bored"), 1997's "Batman and Robin" (the 4th in the series, which Kit calls "Rocky Horror Picture Show 2," adding, "this might be the worst movie of any genre in the history of movies"), 1997's "Spawn" (in which Martin Sheen sends a covert government assassin to hell -- "loud, dumb sound effects," says Kit, "with a pretty neat cape that acts like it's alive"), 1997's "Steel" ("Shaquille O'Neal isn't as bad as you think," says Kit; "he's bad, but could be worse"), and 1999's "Mystery Men" (a parody that missed "by being just like every other bad comic movie"). I repeat all this here by way of providing a dose of humility amid the celebration.
UNDER THE SPREADING PUNDITRY. So where are all those weapons of mass destruction that we invaded Iraq to rid the world of? So far, they're missing in action. But, the Bush League explains, that's because Saddam destroyed them all on the eve of the Anglo-American invasion. How do we know this? Some (or one, I forget which) of the involved Iraqi scientists told us. And, naturally, we believe him. Why should we believe him? He, like so many of the beat-up and brutalized Iraqi population, has surely become expert at telling authority figures what he imagines they want to hear. And he certainly realizes that we want to hear some plausible explanation for the complete absence of the WMD that were our alleged reason for invading the country. But does it even make sense? Why would Saddam secretly destroy the very weapons the existence of which justifies the invasion of his country by the world's most formidable military force? Saddam is a canny guy: wouldn't he seize the opportunity to try, one more time, to forestall the invasion? Wouldn't he suppose that he could keep the Anglo-Americans at bay by telling them, "Ooopsie -- we just discovered all those weapons of mass destruction you've been talking about, and -- you know what? -- we're just now destroying the whole lot of them, just like you wanted us to. So now you have no excuse to invade my country anymore. Go away. Or risk egg on your face in front of the whole civilized world."
This argument, naturally, never occurs to the masses of Americans who cheer George W(ar) Bush on, oblivious of any factoid that may tend to undermine his rectitude and legendary perspicacity. Boy George is, they cheer, a leader! Just what we need.
Ol' Dubya, the front man for the Bush League, explained the unilateral isolation of the U.S. in its Iraq Attack by saying that it's America's obligation to "lead," implying that somehow a leader is likely to be alone because he's so far out in front of the unwashed masses he's leading. Dubya has regularly referred to himself as a leader, another one of those Big Lies that, through endless repetition, convinces innocent bystanders that it must be true. But leadership is an accolade you don't confer upon yourself. Leaders usually have some mysterious personality trait often dubbed "charisma." But leadership can be achieved without alchemy. The military service schools have classes in it. Leadership can be fostered, they say, through "precept and example." The two together. You announce a precept, and then you exemplify it through your own behavior. Other personality traits would enhance the effect, but you can achieve leadership enough for military purposes by rigorous practice of this principle.
Bossism, on the other hand, requires no leadership qualities. Bossism is what bosses have: they have the position of authority, and from that position, any order they give must be followed. Bossism is the creation of organization charts; leadership is the effusion of personality traits coupled to admirable principles. Teddy Roosevelt was a leader. When, during the Spanish American incident in Cuba, he summoned his troops to ascend San Juan Hill, he yelled, "Follow me!" He didn't shout, "Charge!"
Press lord William Randolph Hearst, during the same war, provides an example of bossism. He sent Frederick Remington, the famed painter of the West, to Cuba to provide pictorial coverage of the hostilities. After awhile, it being apparent that nothing was happening, Remington wired Hearst, begging to come back home because no war was going on in his vicinity at the moment. Hearst, legend has it, wired back: "You furnish the pictures; I'll furnish the war." And, of course, he did, but not by leading a charge up San Juan Hill. Nope: Hearst was in a boat off-shore, egging the belligerents on -- "Let's you and him fight," as the J. Wellington Wimpy so memorably put it in E.C. Segar's masterful Popeye. Well, yes: we do need leaders, but more of the Teddy Roosevelt sort, not the wimpy sort.
Ahh, but Boy George did look great in that flight costume as he climbed out of his just-landed plane aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, didn't he? Incidentally, landing aircraft on carrier flight decks is a highly risky business, kimo sabe, and with this, my respect for ol' Dubya rachets up a little. It was a canny PR move and a gutsy one, too.
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