Opus 119:

Opus 119: NOUS R US (July 15).  The New York Times signed up 550 cartoonists on July 1. Sort of. No, the nation's "newspaper of record" is not starting a comics section, alas. But the New York Times Syndicate (NYTS) is now representing Cartoon Arts International (CAI), Jerry Robinson's "consortium" of cartoonery from 75 countries. (His Cartoonists and Writers Syndicate is a subsidiary of CAI.) According to David Astor in Editor & Publisher (June 30), NYTS is marketing the CAI roster to clients foreign and domestic in four categories: "Views of the World," a selection of daily cartoons from around the world; "Business Views," a dozen cartoons a week on business and the economy; "Comment and Caricature," topical illustration and 20 caricatures of world notables every month; and four or five cartoons a week from Kevin Kallaugher ("KAL") of the Baltimore Sun. Robinson, founder of the 25-year-old CAI, is a past president of both the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists and the National Cartoonists Society, the only tooner to serve in both positions; he launched into his career as assistant to Bob Kane on the Batman comic book, for which he created the iconic villain, the Joker.

            In Tom Armstrong's Marvin, the eponymous comic strip infant took his first step on July 7; and on August 3, a Sunday, the li'l fella gets a birthday party, his "first" (after twenty-one years in the comics sections of the nation). Hereafter, Marvin will age one year for every three he spends in syndication, a development prompted, says Armstrong, by an online interview with the Washington Post. A question-""What do you think Marvin would be like if he was an adult?"-intrigued the cartoonist, who quickly realized that if Marvin aged, little-by-little, he'd acquire more material for the hilarities of the strip. Now that he's walking, for instance, Armstrong can get him into a lot more trouble. Similarly, at every stage as he grows older, Marvin will furnish fresh fodder to chew on.

            I've wondered for some years if the statue of Popeye erected in E.C. Segar's hometown, Chester, Illinois, is still there. I'm happy to report that it is: a color photograph of it appears in the June 20 issue of The Week magazine (still the best fresh face on the newsstand, a weekly digest of the news thoughtfully and, as nearly as I can tell, even-handedly assembled). ... One of my favorite comic strips, The Norm, is being translated into magazine format (called The Norm Magazine), and the first issue is now out. This one reprints the 2002 Sunday pages that trace "The 12 Steps to Marriage" that took place during the "supposed" year between New Year's Eve 2001 and New Year's Day 2002, when Norm woke up in bed with his erstwhile paramour/friend, Reine, who, it developed, was now his wife. One of the Great Moments in Comic Strip History, if you ask me. ... Another of Rene Goscinny's creations, an manic Vizier named Iznogoud ("He's no good"), will be transformed into a live-action motion picture, due out in early 2004. Goscinny's Asterix was made into a live-action film last year, and his Lucky Luke adventure with The Daltons is in production; an animated Asterix is also in the works. ... And, speaking of flicks, here's Warner Brothers signing John August ("Charlie's Angels") to do the screenplay for a fresh version of ERB's Tarzan-not, says August, "a sort of jungle hippie" of the past but "more ferocious and wild, like Wolverine without the claws."

            Disney's into more legal difficulties. Probably serves 'em right: Disney has been suing citizens for centuries over various infractions of copyright laws, and now it's getting some of its own back, you might say. This time, it's the Estate of Al Capp, which claims exclusive rights to the notion of Sadie Hawkins Day (on which day, the bachelors of Dogpatch are given a head start in a footrace and must marry any of the unwed Dogpatch girls who catch them). The Disney Channel's series "Lizzie McGuire" is supposed to have a Sadie Hawkins Day dance in some future episode. Disney, as might be expected, says Capp does not have exclusive right to a concept like Sadie Hawkins Day. And I agree. Moreover, given the number of colleges that routinely celebrated Sadie Hawkins Day over the years-and probably without Capp's express permission-my guess is that the Capp folks will have a hard time winning this one.

            In a Seattle market a couple weekends ago, a gaggle of local cartoonists participated in a 24-hour marathon comic book creation, dubbed "Spawns of Insomnia." The idea, according to the one who conceived it, John Lustig, president of Cartoonists Northwest, a local cartoonists club, is for a cartoonist to create an entire comic book in 24 hours in full view of the public. "It's cartoonists in the wild," he said, "-in the primal state of creation." The original 24-hour creation idea was Scott McCloud's, as near as anyone can remember, who challenged Steve Bissette to a competition several years ago. Subsequently, McCloud and Erik Larsen (Savage Dragon) also created a comic book in 24 hours. Among the cartoonists who participated in the weekend frenzy were Donna Barr (Desert Peach), Roberta Gregory (Naughty Bits), and Phil Foglio (Girl Genius). The contest site closed at midnight with the contestants locked in until it re-opened at 7 a.m. the next morning. No word yet on who (or how many) finished the event.

            Here's an ad in a recent CBG, No. 1543, for an NBM graphic novel called Black Rust. The cover, reproduced therein, shows, from the front, a woman who would be naked except (1) her panties, which she appears to be lowering, have not yet been entirely lowered, and (2) she has "x"-shaped bandaids on her breasts, covering the nipples. This is an unusual occurrence at the fastidious CBG, where nakedness is usually eschewed. But now, thanks to this ad, we know at last that at CBG, total nudity, perhaps nastiness in general, is determined almost entirely by whether or not nipples are revealed, and as long as they aren't, every other manifestation of nakedness is okay, I guess. ... I don't mean to trivialize NBM's fall offerings, which include, among other such stellar attractions as Black Rust (a collection of fantasy art dubbed "gothic eroticism" from a new artist, Chad Michael Ward), a new Rick Geary Victorian Murder, The Beast of Chicago. Of these, more later when they appear.

            On June 20, Zits got zapped in two newspapers because it almost used the word "sucks." In the strip that day, Jeremy is mowing the lawn at the Duncan homestead, and he doesn't much like the job. So to assuage his irritation, he mows a phrase into the grass, and we see the first part of the phrase-"this suc," which, the more imaginative among us realize, is the beginning of an expression that "ks" would finish off in the vernacular of the day. The Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times both squirmed in discomfort. "That's not a word we're comfortable printing anywhere in the paper-even if it is just the first three letters," said Sherry Stern, assistant features editor of the LA Times. Shortly, King Features provided a substitute in which the incompleted word starts off "sti" with the expectation that Jeremy will subsequently add "nks" and complete his thought for the day. Jerry Scott, who writes the strip, said he wasn't crusading to bring crude language into the newspaper, but he also pointed out that the word "sucks" appears in numerous contexts in our culture "and it's not considered profane in a lot of places." But, he finished, he's in the business to make clients happy, not uncomfortable. Still, he said, in the situation in which Jeremy finds himself, "any teenager would probably have used that word. I hear parents using it. I hear it on prime-time tv and talk radio. You're binding the hands of a humorist when you can't use popular slang in comics, which are supposed to mirror and reflect society." I guess I agree with Scott. What's more, I'm not sure that "sucks" was ever exclusively a nasty expression. It's not a very elegant usage, to be sure; but I'm pretty sure that whatever indecency it initially may have implied was quickly subsumed under broader, alternative meanings. "Sucking air, big time," for instance, seems fairly harmless. And the rest of the non-Los Angeles non-Chicago world apparently agrees: Two weeks later, on July 5, one of the characters in Adam Miller's Bachelor Party says, about something he doesn't like, "This sucks!" Probably the strip doesn't run in either the Chicago Tribune or the LA Times. It was Scott, by the way, who modified the Zits artwork because his drawing partner, Jim Borgman, is on vacation.

            "Vacation" is perhaps to languorous a term. Borgman got married in early June to University of Cincinnati professor Suzanne Soled, which meant that the couple's domestic circumstance has been enhanced by a few more teenagers than either one was experiencing before. Five, all told. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer website, Borgman "is taking a little time off to sell one house, renovate another, blend a large collection of dogs, cats and other assorted pets into a happy menagerie and go on a traditional honeymoon. Then the whole family is taking off for a two-week safari in South Africa." Best wishes, Jim and Suzanne (and all the rest, too).

            Brooke McEldowney's 9 Chickweed Lane was ten years old on July 12. This is a remarkable comic strip. It is remarkable for its grasp of female psychology: its principal characters are a single mother, her teenage daughter, and her gritty grandmother. It is also remarkable for the visual inventivenss that is often solely responsible for the day's humor. McEldowney deploys solid blacks in endlessly satisfying (and humorous) ways, and he manipulates our reading of his strip through imaginative narrative breakdowns, again with comical effect. Chickweed Lane is likewise remarkable that it appears in only 60 newspapers. It is a work of cartooning genius and deserves much wider circulation. Alas, only one reprint volume is available: Hallmarks of Felinity, a celebration of the family's Siamese cat (and, of course, of all cats), from Andrews McMeel (96 6x5-inch pages in hardback, $8.95; published in 2002).

            Jake Morrissey, managing editor of comics at McEldowney's syndicate, United Media, agrees that the strip is a remarkable achievement: "After ten years," he said, "McEldowney continues to surprise his readers. His unending curiosity in his characters' lives makes the strip as lively and intelligent today as it was when it debuted." McEldowney also produces another daily cartoon, Pibgorn, on the web, accessible via www.comics.com, the United Media site. Pibgorn is a fairy who first appeared in one of the syndicate's traditional Christmas season strips that run through the month of December every year. Now she appears on the web in glorious, glowing color.

SINBAD IS BAD. Well, not bad exactly, but a disappointment. It's still more fun to watch Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., in 1947's "Sinbad the Sailor." More swashbuckling, more energy, more color. (Yes, that's "Junior," not his father, who also buckled swashes to a faretheewell; Junior was the WWII hero, too.) Roger Ebert liked the DreamWorks effort, calling it "another worthy entry in the recent renaissance of animation." He liked the love story (with all its sensual overtones), "some genuinely beautiful visual concepts," and what he called "high energy animation." True, there were lots of sequences of swirling computer-induced color swatches, but I found the combination of traditional hard-edged flat-colored drawings and digital paintbrushed objects jarring. At first, I thought another movie had somehow invaded the "Sinbad" screen. It was all expertly done-flawlessly done, I'd say-technically speaking. But apart from a few sword-fighting scenes and some sequences with Sinbad and his paramour running or falling, most of the actual "action" of this "high energy animation" flick took place on the faces of the principal characters. Lots of action there. In fact, if this much mugging occurred in a live-action movie, we'd say it was lousy acting. Sinbad has nice eyes, though.

            And the plot, such as it is, is unadulterated nonsense: why, with all her power, does Eris physically steal the Book of Peace and frame Sinbad for the theft? Probably because she wants to get him in her clutches for sexual purposes, I'd say; but that part of the story is muted out of existence. Maybe, being the goddess of chaos, she just wants to make trouble. I suppose. But what does the Book of Peace do for us again? And why does anyone want it? Apart from this pivotal plot point, John Logan's story employs equal parts of the antique legend of Damon and Pythias (which should be spelled Phintias), a classic tale of friendship and loyalty, and Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in "Pat and Mike" or any of their other feisty romantic comedies.

Most disappointing for an animated cartoon, there were no moments of high comedy-particularly of the visual sort. The so-called comic relief characters were pallid intimations of humor. The slobbering dog? Funny? Not very. Weak tea stuff. Nothing that made me throw my head back in laughter or grin in joyful appreciation. No songs, no dancing, no life. Disney's usual way of enlivening its animated cartoons by striking up the band and belting out a chorus often falls flat when the songs are tepid; but "Sinbad" could have used a song or two.

            A couple of moments were decent. When Sinbad's ship takes off the edge of the world and suddenly converts to a winged vessel, that was okay. And the only real humor in the flick-when the "island" opens its eye and we realize the land mass isn't land at all but a giant fish.

            It's essentially a love story, and it's told in a manner that would be perfectly at home in live-action but seems strangely out-of-place here in an animated cartoon. As I've said for years (deploying my customary retrograde brain processes), animated cartoons ought to do something that can't be done in live-action movies. Alas, these days, that's nearly impossible. Special effects in movies, now that computer generated imagery has been perfected enough to match the visuals of cinematography, can be employed to do anything that used to be possible only in animation.

            Most reviewers have raved about the voices of Michelle Pfeiffer (Eris) and Catherine Zeta-Jones (Marina, who falls in love with Sinbad). That's fine, I suppose, but I went through the whole thing thinking Pfeiffer was Marina. The voices just aren't that distinctive. Admittedly, being hard of hearing and assisted by hearing aids leaves me somewhat disadvantaged for commenting on this aspect of the production. But what's the big deal? High priced voices, sure; but-and this may come as news to DreamWorks-when I go to a movie with Zeta-Jones in it, I'm not going to listen to her voice.

            Finally, as Stephen Hunter wondered in the Washington Post, "Whom is this movie aimed at?" Little kids? Not hardly-not with all that mushy love stuff. (Sinbad and Marina actually kiss on screen! But they don't chew on each other's mouths, so I suppose that's okay.) Teenagers? Pretty tepid stuff for the hormonally infected: Sinbad and Marina don't actually go to bed together. Aged folks like me? Not enough laughs, kimo sabe. It is, as Hunter's cohort Desson Howe said a day or so later, "a respectable effort that doesn't care to do more than course smoothly and effortlessly through familiar waters." No big splash. And very little approaching the exuberance of Junior's "Sinbad the Sailor." Nothing to bring that silvery laughter of joyful appreciation to my lips. Maybe not quite another "Planet Treasure Island" fiasco, but close.

            Makes me wonder what might have transpired if they'd made Sinbad a mischievous little shrimp of a character (a somewhat livelier Popeye, f'instance) instead of a square-jawed Howard Keel sort of romantic leading man. Such a character could have had a few hilarious moments of his own on the screen, and, with the right dialogue and boudoir demeanor, could have still engaged the heart of the sumptuous Marina. Now that's something that would be possible only in an animated flick! We'll never know, of course: Hollywood animation studios seem bent on producing romantic comedies with Keel-jawed he-men in the lead.

COLLECTORS' CORNICHE. Last summer, Krause offered its compilation of all we know about funnybooks that can be crammed into a voluminous 1,240 8x11-inch page book. Assembled by various of the staff of the Comics Buyer's Guide, the volume, dubbed the Standard Catalog of Comic Books, is also gigantic in its scope and ambition. This spring, we've begun to hear rumblings about the second coming of this leviathan, and I hereby applaud the advent. Although the tome is doubtless intended as a price guide, mostly, it serves other purposes almost as well. (Okay: I admit that price guides strike me as voodoo catechisms. Usually, they boast a whole lot of scientific methodology to counter charges of price-fixing, and in the boasting, they seem to be protesting altogether too much, which, as any Shakespearean scholar  realizes, means they're actually confessing to the charge. But the other uses to which all this data can be put are undeniable and vastly appreciated.) As a scribbler about the history and lore of comics and cartooning, I use the Overstreet Price Guide as a reference not as an index of value. (I will probably never sell any of my comic books anyhow, at least the old ones: I need 'em to read 'em.) Hype about the Krause book rehearses its contents: cover prices, writer and artist credits, value (price guide), story titles, circulation figures, and cover dates. But the first edition achieves only a portion of this content. It seems to me, doing only a cursory thumb-through, that most of the titles are there, but the data is somewhat shy of a full boat. By the compilers' count, although 95 percent of the cover prices are recorded, only 26-30 percent of the writer and artist credits are given. That ain't bad by any means. Besides, they're not done yet. All along, the publisher intended to produce successive editions, each one adding to the store of information between its covers. Most of the data in the first edition is concentrated around Silver Age titles and thereafter, but the goals have been staked out, and I'm looking forward to the next edition(s) not just to see how close they'll come to reaching their objectives but for the pure sake of the information the book affords.

            In researching old comics, I have relied on the Overstreet book for years. And it is rich in information, no question or quibble. But it lacks one ingredient that the Krause book now supplies for 83 percent of its listings-cover dates for each issue of a title. And I recently had cause to be grateful for the Krause data. I just finished proof-reading the text of and writing captions for TwoMorrows' forthcoming book The Life and Art of Murphy Anderson, and I resorted repeatedly to Krause for the cover dates of books I only knew by title and issue number. (The Murphy Anderson tome is an autobiography, by the way. I interviewed him several times over many months, and we constructed his autobiography by removing my questions from the transcripts of our dialogue, leaving Murphy's answers-which, re-arranged in strict chronological order, became, ipso facto, a first-person narrative, an autobiography. Such is the alchemy of the art of the interview. Murphy then read and edited the result, and, later, I visited him in his sumptuous New Jersey studio to help select artwork for the book. The volume is lavishly illustrated with work from every period of his career, including a nifty 16-page color section with many of his re-created covers. It was slated to come off the press in June at the printer's-who, by the way, is Murphy C. Anderson III, Murphy's son, who has just set up a huge printing plant with multi-color presses and a bindery and the whole digital enchilada. For more information about the book, visit www.twomorrows.com.)

            Once the Krause project gets further alone-in subsequent editions-its value will increase as the information within increases. At the moment, in order to thoroughly research some aspect of a cartoonist's work, you need both Overstreet and Krause. Overstreet has more information about writer and artist credits, for example. Comparing the two on a couple specific titles demonstrates the difference. For Police Comics Nos. 1-20, Overstreet credits Jack Cole for Plastic Man; oddly, Krause does not. Cole gets credit starting with No. 21, but not before. Will Eisner, on the other hand, is credited from the first appearance of the reprinted newspaper supplement, The Spirit, in No. 8. For the Animal Comics listing, Krause gets the cover date half right-December 1942 (but it's December 1942-January 1943); Overstreet still has it completely wrong: as of No. 32, the most recent at hand here at Rancid Raves World Headquarters, it's giving the years as 1941-42 although the December-January part is correct. All this in the Krause volume will no doubt get better as future editions roll off the presses. Avid users of funnybooks are solicited in the first edition to help supply missing information. And, slowly, that will happen. And perhaps such conveniences as a alpha-tab of some sort will be added so we'll know when we're in the K's or the M's and so on.

            About the price guide stuff, I dunno. Actually, it's beyond me, tovarich. Some of the titles have the CGC grade under 'em; others do not. Then at the bottom of each page, we're given a "multiplier" number to determine the price of a particular comic book of a particular grade. The prices cited appear to be Near Mint (NM), but for Mint (M), you are advised to multiply by 33 for 9.9 CGC-graded, or by 1.5 for "other grades" (whatever they may be). I did the math on a few and compared the results to the Overstreet figures, but I'm sure I was doing it wrong, now that I look at it again. When Fantastic Four No. 1 is valued at $16,500 NM in Krause (or, multiplied by 33 for 9.9M, $544,500) and in a comparable state at $27,000 in Overstreet, 9.6 NM, I am lost. If the two price guides don't come up with roughly comparable values for a given edition and condition, where does that leave the bamboozled collector? Chasing after phantom prices, as usual. As for me? I'll be readin' mine. And waitin' for the next edition of Krause for whatever trove of new information it contains.

REPRINT REVIEWS. At the Washington Post (which seems, now that I ponder it, to lurk over every paragraph of this epistle), a recent readership poll of the comics section resulted in the paper dumping Rugrats, a relative newcomer to the funnies, and Hi and Lois, a perennial favorite for generations. In their place, the Post installed BoNannas, a brand new strip by John Kovaleski about a talking monkey (rendered in minimalist style), and Get Fuzzy, Darby Conley's three- or four-year old endeavor about a good-natured dog and a sadistic Siamese cat. Conley's strip won the Reuben division award for best comic strip of the year at the May 2003  meeting of the National Cartoonists Society. And Andrews McMeel has brought out the first "treasury" reprint tome, Groovitude (256 8.5x11-inch pages in paperback, $14,85), which combines the contents of two previous volumes, A Dog Is Not A Toy and Fuzzy Logic, but prints the Sundays in color.

            The book also includes a Preface by Conley, in which he admits that he began by ripping off The Far Side but "the prospect of recurring characters and story lines forced me to do something different." The text is accompanied by several pencil sketches in which Conley demonstrates the evolution of Satchel the dog and Bucky the cat. The pencil sketches, like most pencil sketches by cartoonists, are loose, free-and-easy drawings, not nearly the fussy tight renderings that emerge when Conely inks his work. And Bucky looks more cat-like, seems to me, in these preliminary versions than he does in the strip these days. Conley picked a Siamese, he says, because he likes "the white eyes popping out of the dark face" and he thinks "the little paws that look like gloves are funny." I have a Siamese cat, and I've tried to draw her, but the dark face has always been problematical: the mouth disappears in blackness, which means I lose the best way of revealing emotion. It works better if the face is a soft dark gray (more like Siamese color, in other words), but that's hard to achieve in stark black-and-white. Conely thinks his dog and cat are stereotypes of their species: "Satchel being sweet and naive and Bucky being selfish and temperamental." He confesses, too, that Rob, their owner, was an afterthought. "He is the straight man-the vehicle that gives Bucky and Satchel context. Bucky's not nearly as funny, it turns out, unless he's annoying somebody."

             Not so many years ago (in Opus 1 of this extravaganza May 1999), I tried to formulate the defining characteristics of Bad Art. One of those characteristics was clutter. If a cartoonist drew too many things into a single composition without varying linear treatment in such a way as to accentuate one object over others, then the picture is cluttered.  Juliet Doucet's Plotte books, for instance. She's a competent artist, but she clutters her work with too much detail, all of equal visual importance.

            Another trait of Bad Art is tentativeness. If the cartoonist is not confident of his or her ability, then the linear quality lacks that confidence, and it is, perforce, tentative. Or timid. Or, simply, lacking in confidence. The comic strip Agnes sometimes presents this aspect of Bad Art, although the squiggly linework is deceptive. Rudy Park may be a better example.

            A third indicator of Bad Art is an absence of any sense of design. Bad Art of this kind lacks visual balance or symmetry. So, for instance, a shoulder seems wider on one side of the neck than on the other. Meg! or Meatloaf at Midnight or Helen, Sweetheart of the Internet -all strips, it seems to me, that lack a pleasing element of balance.

            A final (for today) symptom is a lack of demonstrable knowledge of anatomy. If a cartoonist (like, say, Lynda Barry) draws human beings whose arms are single strands of spaghetti, limp-looking things with no elbows or wrists, then it's Bad Art.

            That'll do for now. Other characteristics will surely occur to me as time wobbles on. But let me hasten to add that art that possesses one or more of the foregoing is not, ipso facto, Bad Art. There are other ingredients, secret herbs and spices, doubtless. Whatever they are (or it is), they transform mediocre art into Bad Art, genuine achievements in ineptitude. (In fact, ineptitude might be the over-all category that best describes Bad Art.) It's like making soup. You can boil up all the ingredients of vegetable soup and still, after tasting, realize that something is missing. Ditto Bad Art. Sometimes you can find one or more of these traits in a cartoon, but you still think that it's not bad. In fact, it might be okay.

            You'll notice that "simple drawing" is not a characteristic of Bad Art. If it were, Pearls Before Swine, which is rapidly rising in national popularity, would be Bad Art. But it isn't. One reason is that the linework in Pearls shows confidence. And there's no clutter. But there is balance and symmetry and a demonstrable knowledge of anatomy (i.e., elbows and knees). I would think Steve Pastis would get bored to desperate tears drawing these simple geometric pigs, rats, zebras, and goats day after day, but apparently he's challenged enough that the task remains interesting to him. No accounting for taste or appeal or what-sets-you-free, I guess.

            A recent entry into the minimalist line-up of comic strips is a Sunday-only feature called Tiny Sepuku. Andrews McMeel has recently published a collection of this enterprise, Dear Tiny Sepuku: One Little Cartoon's Bold and Bewildering Love Advice (144 8x8-inch paperback pages, $16.95), and with this tome in hand, you can get the idea of the strip pretty quickly. But before you peer at the example in this vicinity, you should understand that Tiny Sepuku is, as its creator, Ken Cursoe asserts, "an advice comic strip."

            Cursoe, through the sordid and unhappy adventures of Tiny, gives "advice" to the lovelorn. Readers write in with questions, Cursoe letters the questions in the first panel of the strip, and then forces the hapless Tiny to deal with the problem. In one way or another.

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            A fellow writes in wanting to know why his ex-girlfriend, who said she wanted to remain friends after breaking up, makes no effort to maintain a friendship. The rest of the strip shows Tiny in a conversation with his girlfriend, who wants to break up but remain friends. Turns out, though, that he won't be able to see her, phone her, or communicate via e-mail. She won't be available for any of these contacts.

            "So you don't really want a 'friend,'" Tiny says, "you want a guilt-free breakup."

            "All my breakups are guilt-free," she says. "Just ask all my 'friends.'"

            Tiny's "advice" is almost always of this sort. Instead of advising anyone, Tiny exemplifies the hopelessness of the problem. Or the bitter-sweetness of any so-called solution. But he makes us smile-at the endlessly frustrating nature of relationships in the human condition.

            "The name of the strip," Cursoe explains, "is a butchered spelling of the Japanese word seppuku, which roughly means 'sacrifice for the benefit of others.'" One of Tiny's friends asks him what the word means, and he elaborates on the definition:

            "Like when a samurai gives up his life for the honor of his clan, or when a mother tenaciously defends her young from a pack of stronger predators, or when a person loses their life while coming to the aid of a complete stranger."

            "So what does 'Tiny' refer to?" Tiny's friend asks.

            "Uh," he falters, "nothing. Never ask that question again."

            The strip began in about 1997 as a parody of "Hello Kitty," an insipid Asian-inspired (probably) pokemon sort of thing starring a kitty without a mouth. Cursoe's parody was published in a small monthly periodical which, in 1999, surrendered to the inevitable and went out of business. Cursoe, he said, was perfectly willing to do the same himself with respect to Tiny. But roommates and other persons bent on damaging him for life persuaded him to persist by submitting the strip to larger alternative weeklies. "All of a sudden," Cursoe writes, "Tiny became a syndicated comic strip."

            Then in May this year, Tiny began appearing weekly on the Uclick website of Universal Press, and the tome at hand appeared just in time to herald the ethereal debut of Tiny.

            Cursoe's drawing so-called style is, as I intimated, minimalist. Tiny and his friends have oval heads (Tiny's with a lump at the bottom that suggests a lemon) and tiny bodies. At first, Tiny had feet, but those disappeared. Ditto the extremities of his friends. One of his friends appears to be a small Albert the Alligator, although I can't be sure. That's the thing with minimalist art: you're never quite sure.

            The earliest strips appear to be drawn with a brush: the lines wax fat and wane thin. Later, I suspect Cursoe discovered the felt-tip pen. In any event, the strip is uncluttered, the lines display a certain confidence, balance and symmetry, and if there are no elbows in view, at least there are no spaghetti arms either.

UNDER THE SPREADING PUNDITRY. It's pretty clear that the greatest threats to the American way of life are those posed by well-meaning but fanatical religious fundamentalists. Some of them are adherents of Islam; others are born-again Christians in the right wing of the Republican Party. Not all born-again Christians; just some of them, mostly the fundamentalist sort. Rhetorical cuteness aside, I realize that it violates an unwritten dictum of social decorum to speak ill of anyone because of his or her religious belief. Yes, but-but we indulge no such reservation when speaking of the Muslim fundamentalists. We fear them because they are extreme in their fundamentalist conviction; how about extremists of a more domestic variety?

            Both Islam and Christian fundamental groups are motivated by a sense of moral righteousness that makes them impervious to contrary opinion. (One of the reasons for gridlock in Congress is inherent in the philosophical impossibility of the sort of compromise that makes politics work when one side of every issue is seen by its adherents as a moral, and hence nonnegotiable, position.) While Osama bin Laden is the ostensible leader of one faction, John Ashcroft, being an actual American citizen with all the rights and privileges thereto, might well be the spearhead of the other group, a group which George WMD Bush and the rest of the Bush League seem bent on appeasing in every way possible (but mostly, in the ways that aren't readily apparent to the rest of the body politic).

            If Ashcroft is under the radar of public awareness, Tom DeLay is deep down in a tunnel somewhere. According to the New York Times as reported in The Week, "DeLay's 'radical right-wing agenda" goes far beyond a tax policy tilted toward the rich. A born-again Christian, he's proclaimed that his goal in politics is to enshrine a 'biblical worldview' in government policy. He's blamed school shootings on the erosion of Christian values that comes from teaching kids about the theory of evolution. He's likened the Environmental Protection Agency to 'the Gestapo,' and wants industry-not big, bad government-to decide what to release into the air and the water. It's considered intemperate to say so, but the fact is that in Washington, it's no longer 'politics as usual.' Tom DeLay and his radical clique are hellbent on transforming America into a country most of us wouldn't recognize."

            When the Founding Fathers framed our government with the Constitution and insisted upon a separation of church and state, they probably did not have in mind the sort of religious influence we see in the DeLays of Congress. They were doubtless fairly sure that in a free society with competing "factions" (political parties), the competition would prevent one party or another from achieving the sort of majority that would make compromise unnecessary. In short, they did not foresee what we now have in so many crannies of the government.

            Is it the end of the world? No. Ours is still a healthy democracy (or republic, take your choice). But it is likely to remain healthy only if we succeed in making a regime change before too many more years.

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