Opus 115 (May 18, 2003): AWARD SEASON. The National Cartoonists Society will hold it's annual Reuben Award banquet at the historic Palace Hotel in San Francisco over the Memorial Day weekend. The Comics Buyer's Guide is touting its annual Fan Awards. The Harvey Awards are in the wings, and so are the Eisner Awards. According to Time.com's Andrew Arnold, "The Eisners have a reputation as the 'mainstream' awards and the Harveys as the 'altys.'" Who could have any objection to this deluge of awards? Not I. The more awards, the merrier. And certainly, the more awards, the less seriously we should contemplate any of them.
Arnold recently (April 24) reported on his experience as one of the operatives of the Eisner Awards whose task, as a member of a committee, was to pick the nominees for "professionals" to vote on. Arnold himself confesses some bafflement as to how he qualifies as "professional" enough to serve on the panel. But if we consider the other members, he should have no qualms. Of the other four judges, one was a comic book store owner/operator, one was a purchasing agent for Diamond, one a web-based comix journalist (like Arnold-that's two in that category), and only one, Charles Vess, was an actual comic book creator-that is, a "professional" maker of comics, a writer or illustrator of them. In Vess's case, both. In my jaundiced view, only Vess on that panel of "professionals" was, in fact, a professional. The rest, like me, are mere hangers-on in the eddying inlets of the "profession." It may be true that only "professionals" can vote on the Eisners, but they are working from a list cobbled up by a decidedly "unprofessional" gaggle of comics fans and enthusiasts.
The judgement of these professionals is, like the judgement of human beings everywhere, flawed and idiosyncratic. Not evil, mind you: just human. Frank Miller's Dark Knight Strikes Again was dismissed, apparently (according to Arnold), because it was "the worst Frank Miller book ever." Now there's an articulate, rational evaluation. In their next breath, the "professionals" picked several crudely executed works, chiefly, I suspect, because these efforts were deemed to be "honest," their candor making up for their lack of "professional" polish. We seem doomed, in these politically correct egalitarian times, to accept and laud everything, every clumsy effort-excusing amateurish artwork and storytelling by saying that it is "honest," brutally honest. Heartfelt, perhaps. Artistic skill apparently has little to do with whatever criteria these "professionals" invoke. At least at CBG, no one has any pretentions: there are no criteria upon which "Fan Favorites" are selected. It's an out-and-out popularity contest. A pure democracy: votes and nothing but votes. No criterion. No professionals either, but no one is pretending there are.
REPRINT REVIEW. The Andrews McMeel winter-spring crop of books reprinting everyone's favorite comic strips has been sprouting, week by week, on my desk since February, and now, in a fit of guilt, I'll bring in the harvest.
Zits Supersized (256 8.5x11-inch paperback pages, $14.95) is one of the treasury series-that is, it includes the content of the two preceding non-treasury tomes, Zits Unzipped and Busted!, but this time, the Sundays are in color (albeit lacking the playful sketchy splash panel, the throwaway panel for newspapers that choose not to publish the strip at its fullest dimension). There's also a color introductory sequence, a parody of "Good Night Moon," describing a "great teen room," which turns out to be a highly unkempt room. Since this strip about the terrors and triumphs of being a 15-year-old youth in the American culture appears in well over a thousand newspapers, it scarcely needs an introduction here, but I can remind you that it is written by Reuben-winner Jerry Scott and drawn by Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist Jim Borgman and is one of the most inventive enterprises on the funnies page. Scott and Borgman continually exploit the nature of their medium, playing with both timing and visuals, particularly on Sundays when they have somewhat more room to flail about in. It's always a treat to see this strip, and I see it every day in my hometown paper; but I treasure the reprint volumes because they permit me to re-visit the hilarities of Jeremy's teenage life as perpetrated by the most imaginative team now producing a syndicated strip.
In a May sequence (20th-30th) the strip will introduce its readers to Locks of Love, a Florida-based national charity that takes donations of human hair and makes wigs for financially disadvantaged children who have lost their hair under medical circumstances. Jeremy's paramour, Sara Toomey, decides to make her life simply by cutting off her unmanageable hair, and instead of letting her tresses be swept into the garbage, she donates them to Locks of Love. Since its founding in 1997, Locks of Love has helped more than 1,000 children suffering from hair loss due to alopecia areata, an autoimmune codition that attacks hair follicles and prevents hair from re-growing, severe burns, radiation treatment, and dermatological conditions that result in permanent hair loss.
And here's the fourth reprint volume of Get Fuzzy, one of the nation's fastest-growing strips. Featuring a power-mad Siamese cat named Bucky and a gentle soul of a mixed-breed dog named Satchel (who wears a wristwatch even though he can't tell time) and their put-upon master, Rob Wilco, the strip is now in about 325 newspapers. The Get Fuzzy Experience (128 8.5x9-inch pages in paperback, $10.95) traces the adventures of this unlikely trio through the saga of Bucky's feud with the ferret next door and reveals (1) the reasons Rob won't let his pets outside without him and (2) Bucky's deepest secrets (all contained in his "Hello Kitty" diary). Like his character, cartoonist Darby Conley is single; unlike Rob, Conley has no pets because they are forbidden in the Boston apartment building wherein he dwells. But, he says, "I am a great 'animal watcher,' and I hang out with stray cats and other people's dogs, not to mention rats in the subway." In other words, Conley has no excuses for not coming up with humorous situations for his strip; and, in fact, he needs no excuses. The strip is invariably funny. Conley grew up on Richard Scarry, Charles Schulz's Peanuts, and Herge's Tintin, and he always wanted to be a cartoonist. He failed for awhile, serving as an elementary school teacher instead, but he remembers the best job of his youth-lifeguard at a swimming pool where no one ever actually swam so he could draw to his heart's content.
Andrews McMeel has also brought forth an adjunct publication, a tidy 5x5-inch hardback tome with Conley's characters exploring what it means to be a cat. Or to encounter one. Or to be tormented by one. Entitled simply I Would Have Bought You a Cat, But ..., this gem is intended as a good gift for cat lovers. Or perhaps as a warning to would-be cat owners. Or for Get Fuzzy lovers. Just $9.95.
Up, Up, and Oy Vey. Last summer, we found out the Thing, a super-strong animated mound of orange bricks, is Jewish. Created as a member of the Fantastic Four in the Marvel rejuvenation of superhero comics in 1961 by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, the Thing was, to Kirby, always Jewish, just like him-according to the artist's colleagues. One of Kirby's unpublished drawings depicted his 500-pound boulder-man in full rabbinical garb. And now, this generation of writers at Marvel Comics decided to share their in-joke with the world. In the much-discussed June 2002 issue of the Fantastic Four (No. 56,"Remembrance of Things Past"), the Thing is in his old Lower East Side 'hood, battling the evil Powderkeg, and he pauses to pray the traditional "Sh'ma Yisrael" over an injured bystander. Powderkeg wisecracks: "Funny, you don't look Jewish."
Few comic book characters do, even though, as Montreal comic book author Mark Shainblum points out, "almost all the major superheroes of the Golden Age (1938-1950-ish) and the Silver Age (1958-1972-ish) were created by Jews." Besides Marvel's Lee (born Leiber) and Kirby (ne Kurtzberg), the list includes Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Batman creator Bob Kane, MAD magazine's William Gaines (whose father Max was a comic book pioneer, arguably the inventor of the magazine format), and veteran DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz. Ditto Will Eisner (The Spirit; Sheena, Queen of the Jungle and numerous others) who pioneered the graphic novel with A Contract with God, his illustrated Jewish family saga. Perhaps the most notorious and acclaimed graphic novel, Art Spielgelman's Maus, recasts the Holocaust with Nazi cats and Jewish mice
Yet, according to an Internet news source, Marvel chairman emeritus Stan Lee claims he just doesn't get it. Lee sounded flattered, but flustered,when Radio WNYC recently called him to talk about the Thing's newly-revealed Semitic heritage.
"You know, I didn't intend for him to be Jewish," Lee laughed. "No. I never thought for a minute what [the characters'] religions were."
Undaunted, the show's host pressed on: "How much has Jewishness, do you think, informed the medium" of comic books?
Laughing again, Lee replied: "You know, I have no idea. I never really thought of it. It is strange when you mention it that the best-known characters were done by Jewish writers. I guess that is an odd thought." With that, the living legend signed off, adding apologetically: "I hope I didn't spoil your whole show."
Elsewhere, the irrepressible Lee is bouncing back into the entertainment business. He has signed with Endeavor, which will represent the comic book maven's budding production shingle Pow!Entertainment. Lee-created characters have recently launched several major film franchises, including "Spider-Man" (which has grossed more than $800 million worldwide), "X-Men," "Daredevil," and the forthcoming "The Hulk" and "X-Men 2." In the year since Pow! launched, the company has set up close to a dozen film and television projects, and it will soon be moving into the gaming arena. Lee's upcoming "Stripperella," an animated series on TNN starring Pamela Anderson, is also a Pow! production.
FUNNYBOOK FANFARE. I have applauded the intellectual honesty and moral fortitude of Marvel's Truth and Kyle Baker's interpretation thereof (in Opus 113). But with the Rawhide Kid, Marvel stubbed its four-color toe. No. 5, the last in the "Slap Leather" mini-series featuring the title character as a gay caballero, has on its cover a Scott Campbell drawing of a horse rearing up that is, without a doubt, the greatest horse drawing in all comics. Facial expression, musculature definition-the whole thing, every rippling detail. Beautifully done. But Ron Zimmerman's story, finally unraveled herein, is an unmitigated travesty.
In what must be the medium's clumsiest plotting, the story circles around a town sheriff who, although ill-equipped for the task, tries to maintain the peace. No gun-slinger, he nonetheless hesitates not a whit when it is necessary to face down the bad guys-who, being better at gunplay than the sheriff, always whip him. The sheriff's son, witnessing this humiliation time after time in four issues of the series, accuses his father of being a coward despite the obvious evidence to the contrary.
The Kid arrives in time's nick every once in a while and eventually agrees to help the sheriff rid the town of the marauding baddies. So he does-assisted by the all-thumbs-and-elbows sheriff. And when it's all over, the sheriff's kid fawns all over his father, saying that he was wrong and that he now thinks his dad is the bravest man ever.
There's absolutely no development in the story that would account for the kid's sudden change of heart. None. And when the kid says he loves his father not because he killed a man but because he "tried not to," one must wonder whether Zimmerman reads his own stories while typing them. Nowhere in this sequence does the father make any statement that suggests that he "tried not to" kill a man. Mostly, in fact, he tries to kill the chief hoodlum as hard as he can.
Veteran graphic genius John Severin illustrates this tale, and for the most part, he displays his usual consumate skill in rendering the Old West. Occasionally, however, I think he slips in a signal that he doesn't think much of the story. In one issue, for example, he draws a panel that is largely vacant of imagery because he depicts the characters just from the eyes up. In No. 5, one panel is mostly a picture of a cowboy hat, viewed from behind. Scarcely a scintillating visual. Both of these instances serve the story, but they also are conspicuously out-of-kilter when compared to Severin's usual masterful storytelling. So I suspect these subtle maneuvers are his way of flippin' the bird to Zimmerman's script.
As for the homosexual theme that inspired so much comment when the series was announced last winter, it is mostly not there. Every cover has carried the incendiary notice-"Parental Advisory EXPLICIT Content"-but that's just window dressing. There is nothing explicit about the Rawhide Kid's presumed sexual orientation. No sodomy on display at all, in other words.
In fact, homosexuality isn't even mentioned. Instead, we have the characterization of the Kid as a sometimes swishy cowboy and dialogue that commits every cruel gay life style cliche in the lexicon of popular culture, a simpering chorus of jokes of questionable taste. Although one might suppose, given the message implicit in Truth, that Marvel intended to treat homosexuality respectfully, perhaps even suggesting that heroism isn't a purely masculine trait, that gays can be heroic, too. But Zimmerman handily sabotaged that plan, if it ever existed. His treatise here can do little except perpetuate the stereotypes. He turned what could have been a cautionary tale into a Mad magazine prank, and a misfiring one at that.
The series could be highly amusing comedy for hordes of entirely unbiased but knowledgeable readers. I can imagine many gays laughing at the cliches (they are extreme) and getting a kick out of watching the Rawhide Kid unhorse homophobic prejudice with every utterance and action, most of which are performed in the light-hearted manner of a good James Bond flick. Alas, our world is not beset by hordes of entirely unbiased but knowledgeable readers, and as a result, the story of the Rawhide Kid's gaiety is as likely to confirm prejudice as it is to thrive as wholesome hilarity in a humane society.
I'm sure we haven't heard the last of the Rawhide Kid. Given the success of the promotional stunt this series was, Marvel will doubtless produce another Rawhide Kid mini-series in the near future, one that denies that the Kid is gay.
But I don't think they should let Zimmerman do it until he can demonstrate that he reads what he writes. They could give him a quiz after he turns his script in, I suppose. But whatever else they do (or don't), they should be sure to get Campbell to draw more horses.
THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK. Dave Letterman said it best: "We've got to teach these Iraqis how to behave. For examle, you can't just go looting and rioting in the streets-unless your team wins a championship."
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