Opus 120:

OPUS 120: Funnybook Fanfare (August 3, 2003). Before we delve into the rash of News that follows and the subsequent review of Will Eisner's latest work and, finally, a rant about the Bush League and a screed about Airport Security, let us pause, briefly, to savor a fresh batch of Number Ones, first issues for (we assume) new continuing titles -namely, Hell from Dark Horse's Rocket Comics and Puffed from Image. Both are rendered in a cartoony manner: Todd Demong and Tim Kane (inks) draw Hell in a way that evokes, vaguely, the stylistic conventions of manga; Dave Crosland in Puffed reminds me of the manic visual comedy of Marc Hempel's Naked Brain.

            Hell eventually, after a three-page introduction, gets around to introducing us to young Corey Rollins, whose father was, apparently, a deserter from the army. But because we've read the introduction and noticed the name "Rollins" on a soldier's uniform, we know Corey's father was on some sort of mission to a secret island named Eden but called "Hell." As the story opens, Corey is visiting his mother in a state psychiatric institution; on his way home, he and his aunt are accosted by a robed and bearded fellow who talks about Corey's father and then runs off only to be killed by a passing car. A couple days later, two FBI agents show up and start asking Corey questions. Turns out the dead guy was also a deserter and he's the fifth such deserter who's been killed in the last two weeks. Because the agents allude to Corey's father's desertion, the kid is insulted and tells them nothing. Later, while he's skate-boarding, Corey is chased by a mysterious black limousine, which manages to wreck itself in pursuing the youth. Corey phones the FBI agents for help. When they show up, all four are threatened by a quartet of men in black who take Corey and the agents to meet a "great American" who transports all three to the secret island we saw in the introductory passage. And there the book stops, with Corey and his agents under the baleful stares of island residents who seem to be sentient animals of assorted species. Demong and company manage the tale with panache, letting the pictures do much of the storytelling. On several occasions, Demong uses embedded-panel layouts (small panels inserted into larger ones); and on one spectacular page, he gives us a bird's-eye view of a scene and has his characters walk through it in a series of embedded panels. Nicely done. The visual aspects of the story vary from long shots to mid-distance to close-ups, deftly manipulating the dramatic impact of the events as they transpire. Studio F did the coloring and did it superbly, deploying earth tones with plenty of solid blacks to enhance the menacing nature of the story. The auto chase sequence is inaugurated by the subtle device of having the car's headlines turn on. Nifty. Demong's abstracted manner of rendering sometimes makes character recognition from one page to the next a little difficult: we're reduced to recognizing clothing rather the faces. But his angular style with bold outlines and fine-line details is pleasing to the eye, adding an almost decorative quality to the visuals.

            Puffed is in black-and-white, and Crosland uses a variety of methods to give texture (and, hence, visual variety) to the pictures, hachuring and shading every panel. He also varies page layout and camera distance with wild abandon. We meet young Aaron Owens in Story View Park as he is informed that he won't be wearing the Big Bad Wolf costume today but, instead, the dragon costume of Puff (the magic dragon?). Aaron objects because the dragon get-up is too hot and sweaty; but he has no choice. We also meet the girl of his dreams, Trish, and a bug-eyed villain named Seaton. Aaron wanders all day long through the theme park, amusing the visiting kids, and then at the end of the day, he's kidnaped by Seaton, who takes him into "da Big City" (69 miles away) and dumps him into an alley, still wearing the Puff suit. That's Chapter One. The transition to Chapter Two is handled with spritely elan: on the left-hand page of a two page spread, we see Aaron staggering out of the alley, and the right-hand page continues the same panoramic bird's-eye view of the scene but extends it to the ghetto street into which Aaron is staggering. Chapter Two deals with Aaron's dilemma: after six hours in the suit, he needs to visit a restroom -desperately -but he can't extract himself from the suit by himself. He asks a passing woman, who is self-employed as a hooker. She agrees to help for $25, but when Aaron tells her that the zipper is between the legs of the dragon suit, she pauses, then declines. "Nice try, baby," she says and walks off. How Aaron solves his problem I'll leave for you to discover by reading the book. By the end of Chapter Two, Aaron is witness to a murder but still in the grip of his costume. Crosland's drawings are delightfully maniac. Despite the genuine threat that looms over Aaron on nearly every page, the comedic rendering of characters and locales give Puffed an engaging appeal: the funny pictures mock the predicaments, thereby imparting to the tale an appropriately humorous patina. Crosland's pictures don't have the clean, uncluttered look of Hempel's in Naked Brain, but there's the same sort of antic attitude about anatomy. Hempel takes it a step further into the realm of design, but Crosland still manages to appeal to the risibilities with a sure hand on his visuals.

NOUS R US. Archie Comics is jumping on the superhero movie bandwagon, it seems. Just four months after setting up an entertainment and licensing arm, Archie Comics Entertainment, Archie convinced Miramax to produce a live-action movie based upon the Archie characters, Betty and Veronica. Said Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein: "The demand for youth-oriented entertainment based upon well-known character properties continues to soar in the feature marketplace. With more than six decades of unparalleled success in the teen marketplace, Betty, Veronica, Archie, Jughead and the rest of the original Riverdale characters have all the elements to become a highly successful film franchise." Well, maybe. But Betty and Veronica are not the Catwoman and Storm. Now if Miramax can get Michelle Pfeiffer and Catherine Zeta-Jones for the parts, then we can look for box-office boom-boom. But until then, I can't help thinking that "character properties" alone, by themselves -without lots of explosions and head-wrenching action sequences -don't make for box-office bonanzas: just being a well-known comic book character is not enough, tovarich. (But then, if they'd wanted my opinion, they'd have asked me, right?)

            In another recently announced movie deal, Aaron McGruder has signed with Sony Pictures Entertainment to develop a feature film and tv series based upon his irreverent comic strip, The Boondocks. According to the Los Angeles Times' Greg Braxton, this is not McGruder's first attempt to get more mileage out of his scowling juveniles: he'd tried to get MTV interested in The Boondocks without much luck. ... TV's "Static Shock" has been renewed with an order for 13 new episodes for 2003-04, the show's fourth season. DC should be ashamed of itself for letting Milestone comics slip away from it (or, at least, away from newsstand publication). ...  And Superman's cape went up for sale at a Hollywood auction run by Profiles in History; Arnold Schwarzenegger's gloves from "T2: Judgment Day" were also on the block, but the auction house CEO, Joseph Maddalena, said of Superman's cape, "I can't think of a more important costume." He expects the cape to fetch $150,000.

            It was the 10th anniversary of Nickelodeon (the magazine) with the August issue, so to celebrate, I bought a copy. My first ever. I'm still not sure what I bought. One of the early criticisms of comic books (back in the 1940s when all the subversive brouhaha about them began) was that a young person would learn bad reading habits by following the speech balloons that required reading in all directions at once. Ironically, this magazine is more, much more, of exactly the same -with the added (presumed) virtue of presenting editorial content in a manner that makes it almost impossible to tell whether you're reading an advertisement or an article. I never agreed (nor have many others) with the 1940s reading experts, but if I don't fear for the youth of America reading Nickelodeon while learning to read, I do fear that they'll grow up unable to tell a pitch from a pontification. In a capitalistic society, that'll make better citizens of them, I reckon.

            To finish my report on the "Spawns of Insomnia" event that I mentioned here last time (Opus 119), 26 cartoonists set up in Seattle's Broadway Market, each one dedicated to finishing a 24-page comic book in 24 hours, starting from virtual scratch at 5 p.m., Saturday, June 28, and ending at 5 p.m. the next day. The cartooners were "locked in" from midnight until 7 a.m., when the Market opened again to the public. Nine of the 26 finished: John Aquino, Bill Barnes, Donna Barr, Phil Foglio, Lillian Ripley, Dan McConnell, Mark Monlux, Bill Morse, and Edi Sanidache. The comic books by Monlux and Barnes are both posted in their entirety at the website of stunt's sponsor, Cartoonists Northwest, www.cartoonists.net. The works of the others will be posted as time transpires, no doubt.

            The 24-hour marathon was something of an ordeal but, apparently, an invigorating one. Monlux, a professional illustrator for 17 years, had not done a comic book in that time, but "it sounded like fun," he said, when John Lustig, the president of the cartoonists club, broached the project to him. "It was a way to kick-start my desire to start publishing comics," Monlux said; "it was insane, but it was fun, and I'd do it again." His story, "The Infamous Dead Cat Story," was based upon his personal experience. For him, the biggest challenge was the pacing: "I had to maintain a schedule of doing one frame every fifteen minutes." The challenge for John McCulloch was "waiting until the latte booth opened." Said Lustig: "I've never had this much caffeine in my life!"

            Barnes explained his procedure: "I wrote and drew one page at a time. After page 14, I blocked out the remainder of the plot for pages 15-24 so that I didn't end up producing a 23- or 25-page comic. As it happened, I still came in one page short, and so the epilogue became two pages instead of one."

            The others who participated were: Scott Alan, Anne Catharine Blake, Mark Campos, Brett Cantrell, Te-Jui Darren Chiu, Jonathan Cotton, Ellen Exacto, Ray Feighery, Jonah Gilbertr, James Greer, Roberta Gregory, Mike Kloepfer, Larry Lewis, John Shirkey, Rich Werner, and McCulloch and Lustig. Some opted to do 8 pages in 8 hours.

            "It's been really unique to work with other artists right near at hand," Lustig said. And the event, staged mostly for publicity purposes (to attract new members) as well as for the challenge, was judged a roaring -er, sweaty -success. Said Lustig: "Many of the cartoonists at Spawns, dripping with the heat, punch drunk and on the verge of complete exhaustion as the end of the marathon drew near, were already talking about wanting to do it again next year. Even allowing for a certain amount of hallucinating, that's still pretty remarkable."

SWIPES. Joe Martin, who draws the comic strip Mister Boffo, claimed recently that Zits used one of his gags. In Zits, 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 when they saw the advance proof of the strip (see Opus 119), and to pacify them, Jerry Scott, who writes Zits for his partner, Jim Borgman, to draw, produced an alternative in which Jeremy mows "this stin," the first part of "stinks." The source for this gag, Martin claimed, is a strip of his in which a landscape engineer watches one of his cohorts mowing "F" and says, "I think Carlos is quitting." The Martin strip was never published in a newspaper, but it appeared on the cover of 1986 Mister Boffo collection, and Martin used it in the 1996 membership album of the National Cartoonists Society. Scott denied that he copied Martin. Oddly, he confessed, he thought at the time he conceived the gag that he'd seen a "message in the lawn" idea in one of Gary Larson's cartoons. "I certainly didn't think I was ripping of Mister Boffo," he told Dave Astor at Editor & Publisher; "I thought I was ripping off The Far Side," he finished with a chuckle. Scott said he felt bad that Martin was upset, but he also observed that cartoon history is littered with "situations" that cartoonists dip into without being guilty of plagiarism. Besides, he said, he's pretty sure the idea of writing messages into the grass with a lawn mower is older than Martin's 15-year-old cartoon: "I owed my name into the lawn when I was a kid," Scott said.

            Cartoonists are always swiping from each other, usually not gags, though; usually, it's in making their pictures that cartoonists borrow from their colleagues. Many of them have "swipe files," drawers full of clippings that show how someone else drew a Sherman tank, for instance, or a kitchen sink. Milton Caniff's files were mostly of photographs because he didn't want to commit a visual error by copying someone who hadn't drawn an object correctly. Cartoonists copy each other in other ways, too, sometimes even imitating a pose they liked in another's work. In most instances, cartoonists are not excoriated for this threadbare practice: those who swipe too often or too conspicuously are sometimes held up to scornful laughter and other indignities, but they are not drummed out of the profession like historians have been.

            It was only a year or so ago that a couple of highly visible historians were outed as plagiarists, having lifted whole sentences, even paragraphs, from others' works and, without changing a syllable, passing them off as their own syntax in their own history books. One of them was able to escape the odium of this blotch on his scholarly escutcheon by dying; the other, alas, lost her place on PBS's "Newshour" and now resides in some popular culture limbo, where, presumably, she will remain to live out (but not to outlive) the shame of her crime. More recently, we witnessed the uproar at the New York Times when one of its reporters was finally fired for making up factoids in his reportage; then, two top editors resigned, as if admitting their guilty incompetence for not having caught the thief earlier. And now, here's famed Bob Dylan accused of the very same crime -but he escapes without a scathe to his name. Some of the lyrics in his Grammy-winning album, "Love and Theft," are outright importations from a 1989 book, Confessions of a Yakuza, by a Japanese writer, Junichi Saga. Dylan: "Tears or not, it's too much to ask"; Saga, "Tears or not, though, that was too much to ask." And there are numerous other instances of this ilk. But that seems to be okay. In the New York Times, Jon Pareles says Dylan was merely "doing what he has always done: writing songs that are information collages. Allusions and memories, fragments of dialogue and nuggets of tradition have always been part of Mr. Dylan's songs, all stitched together like crazy quilts." Or, as Pareles says later, like "magpies' nests, full of shiny fragments from parts unknown." Sometimes Dylan credits his sources; but mostly, he doesn't. And he gets away with it. Why? Doubtless because the icons of popular culture, unlike scholarly historians or newspaper reporters working for the Times, are not expected to be scholars or footnoters. If they entertain us, that's enough.

            The sin of plagiarism, by the way, is of fairly recent invention. Until the middle of the eighteenth century, according to Thomas Mallon in Stolen Words, "originality" was not regarded as a literary virtue, and what we now dub "plagiarism" was an accepted practice. In some eras, "borrowing" another author's words and phrases was deemed a form of compliment. Says Mallon (whose work is laced with happy turns of phrase): "To some extent every writer's desk top is like a Ouija board, his pen pushed across it by whatever literary ghost he's just entertained. ... There was a time when the guiding spirits of the literary dead were deliberately conjured, a time before ancestor worship gave way to that form of youth-enthrallment known as originality. And it was no short period of time, either; it amounts to most of literary history." I particularly like the Ouija board simile, to which I might add what Virginia Woolf wrote: "Reading Yeats turns my sentences one way; reading Sterne turns them another." And I confess that I sometimes read E.B. White in brief snatches just before starting to write, hoping that the tone of his writing is contagious.

SPIDER NEWS. For some months now, Steve Ditko has been making regular appearances in print in The Comics,  Robin Snyder's "first-person history" newsletter of comics ($28/12 8-page monthly issues from Robin Snyder, 2284 Yew Street Road, No. B6, Bellingham, WA 98299). Each two-page installment of Ditko's version of Marvel and Spider-Man history labors somewhat under the freight of the author's proselytizing fervor: nearly ever incident he relates and every argument he makes is tailored to a philosophical purpose. As a one-time fan of Ayn Rand myself, I am deeply sympathetic, and it is beyond question that to work for a corporate entity like Marvel is to submerge individuality in the conglomerate goo, a demeaning exercise for any creative personality but even more insulting if you are attempting, in your own life, to champion Randian self-centered pragmatism. Much of Ditko's Spider-Man history until the last issue has demonstrated, repeatedly, that the creative impulse at Marvel was continually bent to serve the demands of fans or corporate moguls -persons essentially outside the creative realm, who, for that reason, should have no say in the creative process. In the most recent issue, however, Ditko turns directly to the question that has animated the Stan Lee-Steve Ditko "dispute" for years: who, exactly, "created" Spider-Man? Ditko's case, which he argues better than many of his evangelical exercises, is that Spider-Man was "co-created" by him and Lee. Only "true believers" who are motivated by faith rather than evidence are likely, Ditko feels, to buy Lee's contention that Spider-Man was alone his, Lee's, creation because Lee was the one who had the idea of making a superhero with the powers of a spider. Ditko visualized the idea, gave it physical presence, and is therefore entitled to be called "co-creator." As Ditko unfurls his argument, he manages to cast doubt upon even Lee's claim to having had the idea first.

            "For me," Ditko writes, "the Spider-Man saga began when Stan called me into his office and told me I would be inking Jack Kirby's pencils on a new Marvel hero, Spider-Man. I still don't know whose idea was Spider-Man." Ditko refers to Lee's interview a year ago on "Larry King Live" during which King reminded us of Lee's claim that he started thinking of a spider when he saw a fly on the wall. "You know," Lee said, "I've been saying it so often, for all I know it might be true." (Later in that interview, by the way, Lee insists that he was always assisted in the creation of Marvel heroes by the artists he worked with.) Ditko continues: "A leap from a fly to a spider is like from man to a cannibal. Stan never told me who came up with the idea for Spider-Man or for the Spider-Man story that Kirby was pencilling. Stan did tell me Spider-Man was a teenager who had a magic ring that transformed him into an adult hero -Spider-Man. I told Stan it sounded like Joe Simon's character, The Fly (1959), that Kirby had some hand in, for Archie Comics. Now here is a fly-spider connection. ... Stan called Kirby about The Fly; I don't know what was said in that call." Later, the Kirby-pencilled pages were discarded -and so were the magic ring idea and the notion that Spider-Man would be an adult. Had the original plan been followed -if Ditko had said nothing about The Fly -what sort of Spider-Man might have emerged, Ditko asks. "There would be lots of nots: Not my web-designed costume, not a full mask, no web-shooters, no spider-senses, no spider-like action, poses, fighting style and page breakdowns, etc." As far as I'm concerned, Ditko has made his case.

SS SIC'D ON CARTOONIST. The same sort of paranoia that drove Dick Cheney on 9/11 to send George WMD Bush flying off into the hinterlands and that inspired Cheney's furtive disappearance from public view in "undisclosed locations" -that is, a fear that the "head of state" might be killed -is now motivating the Secret Service to study a political cartoon and its creator, Michael Ramirez of the Los Angeles Times. (But first, about the 9/11 sneer: I don't mean to suggest that someone, even the Veep of these United States, should not want to avoid being killed. That seems natural, even normal. But it seems a little excessive to jerk the entire government around to "protect" the President -particularly when the result of the maneuvering served mostly to cast doubt on Boy George's courage -which, by the way, I have no doubts about at all. Cheney's advice on this issue is predicated upon an imperial view of the Presidency: forgetting for the nonce that ours is an elected government and that there are presumably hundreds, or at least scores, of suitable substitutes for Boy George, many of whom are listed in the section of the Constitution about succession in the event of the President's incapacity -forgetting all this, Cheney forfeited decorum as well as good sense when he treated the President like a monarch who rules by divine right and who is, therefore, irreplaceable. The death of a king in olden times often threw the country he had ruled into months, even years, of turmoil. But the death of a U.S. President, as we have grievously witnessed, does not create crippling chaos in a fully functioning democratic republic. By ignoring this wholesome fact, Cheney sent his boss into fear-driven flight across the nation, much like the sort of safari some banana republic despot might make. Cheney's advice, in this instance, undermined faith in our system of government by seeming to question the resilience of that government, its demonstrated ability to survive even such disasters as the murder of the head of state. And now, apparently, the Bush League is about to repeat the mistake by taking excessive action over Ramirez's cartoon.)

            The cartoonclick to enlarge evokes a famous Pulitzer-winning 1968 photograph from the Vietnam War that chillingly captures the moment just before South Vietnam's police commander pulled the trigger of the pistol he was pointing directly at the head of a Vietcong prisoner standing but an arm's length away. In Ramirez's cartoon, the pistol is being wielded by a figure labeled "Politics" and the position of the Vietcong prisoner is occupied by a caricature of Bush. In the background is a street scene with "Iraq" conspicuously lettered. The cartoonist said the cartoon was meant to call attention to the unjust political assassination of Bush over his Iraq policy. Said Ramirez, one of the nation's few highly visible conservative editorial cartoonists: "President Bush is the target, metaphorically speaking, of a political assassination because of the sixteen words that he uttered in the State of the Union speech," a reference to the British allegation that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Africa. Ironically, despite Ramirez's customary support of Bush and the Bush League policies, the Secret Service is investigating him. "We're aware of the image and we're in the process of determining what action, if any, can be taken," according to John Gill, a Secret Service spokesman. Another SS official said: "The Secret Service does take threats against all of their protectees very seriously, and they have an obligation to look into any threat that's made against any of their protectees." I suppose they'd better get Air Force One ready to take Boy George off to Omaha again then.

            The always reliable (hoohah) Drudge Report (is he still around?) quotes "an anonymous White House reporter" (all Drudge's sources are anonymous and probably nonexistent) as saying: "The world's first political 'snuff'cartoon ... there's a viciousness to this that's just not funny."

            Ramirez, questioned by Slate's online cartoon maven Daryl Cagle, said that the controversy is ridiculous, that cartoonists are supposed to push the envelope in what they do, that he intentionally chose a disturbing image to convey the point that the president is the subject of a political assassination, that the cartoon was obviously not intended to encourage violence, that there is a parallel between the politicization of the Vietnam War and the current deconstructions of the success and politicization of the Iraq War. Said Cagle: "I'm told that Mike had a police escort on his way in to work on Monday [the day after the cartoon ran on July 20] and that he spent the morning doing radio interviews about the cartoon. A Secret Service agent visited the paper [on Monday], expecting to talk to Michael about the cartoon, but the Times had the agent speak to their lawyer instead." Good move. Meanwhile, editorial cartoonists from sea to shining sea have been given, by this incident, fair warning: the literal-minded Bush League has no sense of humor and will persecute anyone who has. Cartoonists in the incendiary Mideast have been going to prison for cartoons like Ramirez's.

            Ramirez is not at all intimidated by this adventure. Brooke Gladstone of WNYC's radio show "On the Media" asked him if he planned any cartoons about the Secret Service. Ramirez said he was planning to use the same image again. "But this time," he said, "I'm replacing the South Vietnamese police chief with a gigantic howitzer labeled 'Secret Service,' and I'm going to have me instead of the President, and I have a thought bubble which reads: 'Over-reacting a little bit, aren't you?'" Then Ramirez laughed.

AT THE MOUSE WORKS. The most famous rodent of all, Mickey Mouse, may be making a come-back. Not that he's been away. He's been the logo image for Disney for generations, but to serve in that role, he was blanderized into total inoffensiveness -that is, his personality was ruthlessly suppressed and a varnished corporate seal affixed in its place. The list of taboos about how Mickey could appear and disport himself in public is, according to legend, long enough to encircle the globe. (Yes, I just made that up -the encircling the globe part, not the number of taboos, which is sufficient, judging by results, to stifle the character.) But that may change somewhat as the Mouse approaches the 75h anniversary of his first theatrical appearance in "Steamboat Willie" (November 18, 1928, at the Colony Theater in New York -the third Mickey Mouse film, but the first with sound, and it was the sound that established the Mouse's fame and the Studio's fortune). The Disney folks hope to refurbish his image, to up-date it for contemporary American young and old, in an effort to improve a sagging merchandising operation, according to Richard Verrier in the Los Angeles Times: "A series of Mickey Mouse U.S. postage stamps is in the works. [He didn't make it into the centennial series about comic characters that the USPS produced in the mid-1990s. The Mickey stamp will be unveiled in October at Disney World. -RCH] Classic comic books, as well as a daily syndicated comic strip featuring Mickey and his pals, are being rolled out once again. Two new direct-to-video movies, including a new 3-D versions of the Mouse, will be released next year. And as part of the hoopla, consumers can expect lots of news footage as 75 artists and celebrities are asked to create their own statues of Mickey Mouse."

            And maybe Yoe! Studio will be asked to re-issue its celebrated first tome, The Art of Mickey Mouse, for which Craig Yoe invited 100 internationally known artists to interpret the character. Who knows? Whether Mickey will revive the fortunes of the Disney operation is anyone's guess. The campaign of three years ago, headlined "Why do we love the Mouse," had "little effect," Verrier said. Mickey paraphernalia accounts for about 40% of the company's merchandise revenue, but sales have remained level for years. Still, Mickey has performed miracles before. In 1933, Ingersoll Watch Company avoided bankruptcy (it sez here) by introducing a Mickey Mouse wrist watch, selling more than 900,000 in three years. (The idea for a comic character with moving arms telling the time on the face of a watch was cartoonist Dave Breger's, incidentally. He patented the idea but the paperwork was drawn up by a college friend and had a loophole you could drive truck through; Disney's Ingersoll truck did just that, and Breger realized nothing from his invention. He went on to invent a slogan for his father's sausage company, "Our Wurst Is the Best," and to concoct a World War II soldier cartoon character, coining the term "G.I. Joe" in the process. And there'll be a plethora of information about Breger in a forthcoming issue of Hogan's Alley, all writ by hand by the dear sweet boy we all know and love, yrs trly.) Similarly, in 1934, Lionel (the train people) were saved by marketing a model railroad handcart with Mickey and Minnie pumping the handles.

            Mickey's revival is in the hands of Andy Mooney, who, until recently, worked at Nike. Mickey, Mooney said, "is our swoosh." Mooney is determined to "free" the Mouse from the ultra-conservative corporate culture that is reluctant to tamper in any way with the sacred symbol, and Mooney may well succeed. He's started invoking the Nike method by getting celebrities to boost the Mouse image. Most recently, Mickey appeared on a snug T-shirt worn by actress Sarah Jessica Parker during a racy scene in HBO's "Sex and the City." Traditionalists at the Mouse Works were, doubtless, appalled.

            In another stunt, Disney hired a graffiti artist to paint black-and-white Mickey Mouse comic strips on the sides of buildings on LA's Sunset Boulevard and Melrose Avenue -with the permission of the owners of the buildings (who may have realized the value of having a "one-of-its-kind" mural on their buildings' exteriors).

            Meanwhile, at the box office: "Finding Nemo" is the fifth box office hit for Pixar and Disney, and the fish story surpassed "Lion King" in the domestic market in the nine weeks since it was released. "Lion King's" initial go-round brought in $312.9 million; "Nemo," so far, $313.1, and it's not finished yet. That's good news for Disney, coming on the heels of the "Treasure Planet" fiasco. And "Pirates of the Caribbean" is also doing well.

            By the way, I just screened "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" and can report that if you like special effects and explosions and non-stop fisticuffs, you'll love this movie, the only redeeming feature of which is Sean Connery, who, as always, enlivens the proceedings by talking through clenched teeth. If you're looking for a storyline, though, stick to the comic book.

SUITS. Janet Clover is a 37- (or 38-) year-old one-time stripper who was into nursing for fourteen years before taking up her career in ecdysiastry. Or maybe she's just studying to be a nurse. Reports are somewhat vague on the matter. She's suing Stan Lee, Viacom and TNN (the erstwhile "Spike TV") to get them to cease and desist exploiting her by airing Lee's "Stripperella," that animated cartoon about a statuesque Pamela Anderson simulacrum who is a stripper by night and a superhero by day (or vice versa). Clover, who gives away the money she earns shedding clothing to such worthy causes as those that fight child abuse and homelessness, maintains that Stripperella's dual role is based upon her own life -"stripper by night, community worker by day," so to speak. Lee, Clover alleges, appropriated for his character the dual character of her life, which he learned about during "several hours of erotic dancing and intimate conversation" at a Tampa, Florida, strip joint last year. "I'm just trying to get her off tv," said Clover, "because it's not his idea. She was supposed to be a nurse, which is what I'm studying for. No one else out there strips and puts the money into the community," Clover says. So, obviously, Stripperella is, in actuality, Janet Clover. But then, using the same logic, so is every do-gooder in spandex with a dual identity.

            Elsewhere, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner is poised get into tv animation with another sexy superheroine confection. Called "Hef's Superbunnies," this series, too, will be developed by Stan Lee. Hef's affection for superheroics is life-long: once an aspiring cartoonist, Hef drew superhero comics for amusement while in high school. For the animated series, Hef has imagined a squad of Playmates who "will fight the enemies of democracy" worldwide, operating out of a headquarters run by an animated version of Hef himself (perhaps somewhat like Charlie in "Charlie's Angels"). Unlike their inspirations, however, these Playmates won't be taking their clothes off.

            Said Lee: "As a fan who bought and cherished the very first copy of Playboy in 1953, it is an enormous thrill for me to be partnering with a man who has done so much to shape the culture of the times we live in. Hugh Hefner has long been one of the great communicators in our society, and I can't think of anyone I'd rather partner with on such an unusual and exciting project." It's a mutual admiration society: allowing that comic books played an important part in his life as a youth, Hef said, "I'm glad that a creative genius such as Stan Lee was around to take the appeal of the comic book superhero to the highest level." It's not clear whether the "highest level" is represented by Lee's Marvel Universe or by Hef's Superbunnies.

            Lee will be a version of himself in yet another project, "Stan Lee's The Secret of the Super Six," an animated cartoon series being developed for DIC Entertainment. In this enterprise, a group of alien teeenaged superheroes are consigned to earth by their enemies and are then discovered by a cartoonist, Lee, who will help them learn how to be human. Said Lee about his debut as an animated cartoon character: "It appeals to me because it is something that I have not done in the past, and I love doing things that I have not done before." Couldn't ask for a better statement of motivation than that.

            The copyright infringement lawsuit brought against Disney by Capp Enterprises for "unauthorized references" to Sadie Hawkins Day in an episode of Disney's cable-tv show, "Lizzie McGuire," was dismissed "with prejudice" on July 22. I predicted this outcome: Sadie Hawkins Day, which, in the comic strip Li'l Abner, featured a bizarre foot race in which bachelors were given a head start but had to marry any single woman who caught up with them, launched generations of highschool and college dances in which, as in "Lizzie," the girls get to invite the boys. No one from the Capp operation objected in the years that the appropriation of the Dogpatch event gave publicity to the strip, so how can anyone object now? Obviously, they can, but to no avail. ... In another legal action against Disney and Pixar, a children's musician, Ray Yodlowsky, known in his business as "Mr. Ray," sued for copyright infringement because the manta ray character in "Finding Nemo," also known as Mr. Ray, is causing confusion among his young fans, some of whom, at a recent gig, expected him to be dressed as a manta ray.

GRAFIC NOVEL NEWS. In  Publishers Weekly for June 16, Douglas Wolk and Calvin Reid report on the BookExpo that took place in Los Angeles the last weekend in May. According to them, the graphic novel, once struggling to gain a toe-hold in the world of legitimate publishing, has arrived. In fact, judging from the unabashed enthusiasm of their report, graphic novels are taking the country and its booksellers by storm. Nearly every graphic novel publisher they spoke to reported "excellent responses from booksellers and often wildly supportive encounters with librarians. Manga publishers like Tokyopop, Viz and Dark Horse seemed almost to strut around the floor, all but giggling and making money-counting gestures. U.S. graphic novel sales (for both general bookstores and comics specialty stores) have increased from approximately $75 million in 2001 ($43 million from comics stores; $32 million from bookstores and noncomics retailers) to about $100 million in 2002, according to a graphic novel retailing guide published by pop culture Web site ICV2.com."

            Manga is responsible for a huge portion of this new activity. Tokyopop president John Parker said his company has about 14,000 retail outlets for its paperback graphic novels and the number is growing. "Viz, the other manga heavy-hitter, has seen triple-digit growth over the last three years, and expects to double its unit sales again this year, driven by its extraordinarily successful Shonen Jump magazine and big sales of 'Spirited Away' tie-ins (art books and a five-volume manga version)." But publishers of non-manga literary graphic novels are also enjoying success with bookstore distribution. Six years ago, according to Chris Oliveros of Drawn & Quarterly, his company's income "came entirely from the direct-sales network of comics specialty stores; now, distributed by Chronicle Books, about half his sales come from the book trade. Anticipation is high for fall titles such as Joe Sacco's Bosnian Diary, The Fixer and Chester Brown's eccentric biography Louis Riel. ... The big comics companies also made a stronger showing than ever at the BookExpo, in part thanks to the special graphic novel pavilion on the exhibit floor and a day devoted to graphic novel-related panels. DC Comics drew crowds for signings by Howard Chaykin and David Tischman (Barnum); Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran (Orbiter); and Neil Gaiman (the hotly anticipated Sandman: Endless Nights)." DC also generated traffic with the Alan Moore graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen on which the current movie with Sean Connery is based.

            "The only hint of a dark cloud" on the graphic novel horizon, said Wolk and Reid, is "the threat of a possible glut of titles -particularly in the manga category. With Tokyopop soon to release 40 manga titles a month and Viz planning another 240 volumes next year, it's getting harder for buyers to keep track of them all. ... Indeed, at several sessions, librarians pleaded for more information on categories, as well as age-appropriate labeling for younger readers. 'We don't shelve graphic novels, because we can't keep them on the shelves,' proclaimed one enthusiastic librarian."

CALENDAR TIME. Just in time for anyone who does his Christmas shopping early, Andrews McMeel has cranked out 2004 calendars featuring fifteen different strips or cartoon characters. In the 6x4-inch boxed day-to-day (BDTD) format are: Dilbert in *I'll Just Add It To the Compost Drawer; *Foxtrot; Garfield in *Cats Rule, Dogs Drool; Zits in *The Road Ahead; Cathy in *Things to Do; Baby Blues in *Never-Enough-Days-in-the-Week; and *For Better or For Worse. Priced at $11.99, each of these features a single daily strip on the weekday pages and, on Sundays, a two-tier Sunday strip. Dilbert is also available in wall (W), mini-wall (MW), and desk calendar (D) formats (at varying prices); and Foxtrot comes as a wall-hanging calendar, too. Gary Larson's Far Side is back, too (even though we were told this year's calendar would be the last in this series), with W, MW, and D. Get Fuzzy and Ziggy are available in BDTD, W, and engagement (E). (I have one of the Ziggy E for sale at $6; see below.) Scenes from Disney animated cartoons appear in the Disney Days calendar (BDTD), and in Looney Tunes: Back in Action!, Warner Brothers characters and scenes from the forthcoming movie are featured (W, E, and MW in either "Boy" or "Girl" theme). Peanuts can be found in BDTD, half-size mini-BDTD, 16-month E, and *MW (which features one daily strip for each month with one of the panels blown up to illustration size ($6.99). Non-Sequitur and *Close To Home are available in BDTD, with the panel cartoons printed half-page vertically. FOR SALE are all those calendars named above with an asterisk at the start of their names (like *this); price is half the whole dollar amount (that is, $6 for an item priced at $11.99 to the General Public.), plus $3 p&h for the first item, $2 each for every additional one thereafter. Write me at the e-mail destination at the end of this scroll for further instructions (and to find out if the item you want is still available).

ANOTHER EISNER GRAPHIC NOVEL. The plot of the African folk tale is pure, straight-ahead simplicity. In the thirteen century, the people of Mali were subjugated by Sumanguru, the tyrant king of the neighboring country, who achieved his victory partly through magic. During the cruel years of his oppressive rule, the true heir to the Mali throne, Sundiata, although born a cripple, learns to walk and grows to manhood. Sumanguru, warned to beware "the frog prince" -the crippled youth -seeks to kill him, but Sundiata goes into hiding and trains himself to become a powerful warrior. He then leads his people in a war against Sumanguru, and when the two meet on the battlefield, Sundiata defeats the oppressor. First, he deprives Sumanguru of his magic power by using magic of his own, a rooster spur on the tip of his arrow. No longer powerful, Sumanguru flees into the mountains and is sealed inside a cave. Sundiata, assuming his birthright as king of the Mali, "reigned as a beloved king until he was very old."

            This is the tale told in the most recent title to be added to the Will Eisner shelf of graphic novels, Sundiata: A Legend of Africa (32 8.5x11-inch pages in hardback from NBM, $15.95; www.nbmpublishing.com), which arrived here a couple months ago. Eisner's treatment of this tale affords yet another persuasive example of how this visual-verbal medium works. The essential narration of the story is about as naked and flat as the outline I've just provided. All the drama -the emotions of the characters (Sumanguru's anger in battle and his fear when deprived of magic power, Sundiata's resolve and masterful skill), the danger of their various predicaments, the crises they face -is conveyed by Eisner's pictures. The pictures put flesh on the tales's bare bones. Without the pictures, there is virtually no drama -just plot, flat and, alas, as uninteresting in itself as a Kansas landscape.

            In yet another variation of graphic style, Eisner does wash drawings throughout this book, and the gray tones are embellished by the addition of a second color, sepia. Although he sometimes varies the page layout, characteristically converting a multi-panel page to a visually integrated series of vignettes, most of this book follows the traditional comics grid-format -probably, I suppose, because of the origins of this work as a storyboard for a television program. While Eisner re-worked the storyboard for book presentation, changing some of it to his patented vignette-format page layouts, much of the storyboard remains.

            Eisner has converted two other storyboard adaptations of literary works to book format -Moby Dick and The Last Knight (Don Quixote) -and I wondered why he chose, on this occasion, to use African material instead of other works from the traditions of so-called "Western Civilization." I thought he may have turned to Africa as a way of propitiating those who have been offended by his 1940 creation of Ebony, the crassly stereotypical mush-mouthed, liver-lipped black kid in The Spirit. I had recently encountered on the 'Net a stray discussion or two on this subject (including, elsewhere, the assertion that Ebony was inspired by Connie, the stereotypical Chinese comic relief character in Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates of the 1930s). The question being addressed in these confabulations is usually something like: Should we object to the reprinting of Eisner's old Spirit stores when they contain, and thereby perpetuate, such a cruel, dehumanizing caricature of black Americans?

            Whatever the answer to the question, it is usually suspect. Fans of Eisner's work tend to point out that the racial caricature is typical of its time, and while they don't excuse the stereotyping, they accept it as part of the historical context inherent in the recycling of works from the past that are otherwise culturally or artistically significant. Those who are unfamiliar with Eisner's work and its place in the history of the medium tend, I believe, to demand its perpetual suppression on the grounds that it is racist and all racism should be eliminated. I suppose any dissemination of stereotypical imagery from the past acts to reinforce incipient prejudices we thought we'd left behind us, but to suppress those images seems extreme if not illogical. If we start suppressing stereotypical images from our past because they are offensive to us in our more enlightened times, then the next step is to suppress other aspects of our history because they, too, are offensive -like the interment during World War II of Japanese Americans, or, even, the entire epoch of slavery in the American South. But no one advocates blotting out of our history these two unsavory examples of man's inhumanity to man. Instead, we learn about these events and, viewing them from our present (perhaps slightly more enlightened) perspective, see them as unsavory, a realization that may, we hope, prevent us from committing similar sins in the future. It may be partly our sour recollection of the WWII treatment of Japanese Americans that inhibits an Ashcroftian impulse we might otherwise indulge to ship Arab Americans off to desert encampments. We made that mistake -committed that crime against humanity -once. And whenever we listen to our better selves, we resolve not to do so again. The same rationale -the determination to learn from our transgressions in the past -should govern our treatment of Ebony and the other caricatural images of African-Americans in comics and the other media of yore.

            I watched, the other night, Disney's embargoed "Song of the South," a live-action movie made in 1946 in which Uncle Remus's stories about Br'er Rabbit are the vividly animated segments. "Here, for the first time in several years," writes Leonard Maltin in Of Mice and Magic, "outstanding character animation was combined with compelling story treatment ... as close to perfection as one could possibly hope for." I agree. One of the marketing strategies of the Disney Studios required persuading homo sapiens to propagate so that, every half-dozen years or so, there would be fresh audiences of young movie-goers to view re-issued Disney films. But I don't think "Song of the South" was ever seen by another generation after its debut. Maybe it was, but probably not by more than one. By the time its re-issue turn came up, the African-American population was respected in enough circles to make its objection to the movie heard: quite apart from scholarly reservations about the authenticity of the Joel Chandler Harris material itself, the portrait of the Old South with happy darkies chuckling contentedly in their snug shanties was a serious perversion of the nature of slavery in America. I can understand why the film has been consigned to limbo: it lies about our history. Still, I'm sorry those brilliant sequences of spritely energetic animation will not be seen except in cloudy pirated videotape versions of the film. (Alas, because these sequences probably don't add up to more than fifteen minutes altogether, they will probably never be excised from the live-action film and re-packaged by themselves. And even if they could be re-issued as a very short film, the question of the authenticity of the Br'er Rabbit stories still hangs over the film like a shroud.)

            But Ebony in Eisner's Spirit stories is not a lie about history. The caricature that Ebony embodies is history, a part of it -the history of racial caricature in American cartooning. That history includes similarly cruel stereotypical exaggerations of the physiognomy of the Irish and of Jews. These caricatures exist because, at the time of their popularity, they were amusing.

            One of the most celebrated of cartoonists is Eugene Zimmerman, the "Zim" of the weekly humor magazine Judge. Zim, whose cartoons enlivened the magazine from 1885 to 1912, is noted for having made popular the visual device of exaggeration in cartoons. Others had exaggerated in their drawings before Zim, but most of his contemporaries drew more-or-less realistic pictures of people in their cartoons. Zim exaggerated. He caricatured. And he caricatured human anatomy, too, not just faces. But his facial caricatures, he realized well before the end of his life, would not be as acceptable in the 20th century as they were in the 19th. "Fifty years ago," Zim wrote in 1930, "the comic papers took considerably more liberty in caricaturing the various races than they do today. Jews, Negroes, and Irish came in for more than their share of lambasting because their facial characteristics were particularly vulnerable to caricature." That's how Zim explained his racism to himself: their faces were funny enough in nature to be even funnier if caricatured. Members of these groups "looked different," and because they looked different, they looked funny. In Zim's explanation, we hear a cartoonist talking, not a racist. It's a man looking for humor. His impulse was towards comedy, not contumely. He aimed to provoke laughter among his readers not prejudice. In his quest for comedy, he looked in places where the show business of his age also looked: in vaudeville and minstrel shows, African-Americans, Jews, and Irishmen were figures of fun.

            Zim was very much a man of his times. He could scarcely be a cartoonist otherwise. And in his day, racism was so much a fact of ordinary life that many were not even aware that they were racists. In short, Zim was no more racist than any other white person of his time. Which is another way of saying that they were all racist. But they probably didn't realize it. Many white folks didn't. They were blind to their faults. A not uncommon failing. Still is.

            Eisner's Ebony is a manifestation of the 1930s cultural milieu just as Zim's caricatures were of the popular culture of the late 1800s. Eisner, like Zim (like all of us, aristotle: even our political correctitudes are effusions of contemporary life), is a man of his times.

            No Ebonies appear in Eisner's Sundiata. The Africans are rendered in Eisner's realistic manner (which is not Alex Raymond's realistic manner nor Milton Caniff's, but it is not the caricatural mode of bygone times either). But Sundiata is not intended as a gesture of propitiation to the critics of Eisner's so-called racism. Eisner has never felt any need to apologize for Ebony, he told me. He needed a companion for the Spirit, someone the crimefighter could talk to. And because the Spirit's milieu was so often grim, Eisner wanted comic relief, and he, like Zim, turned to the entertainment culture around him, and there, he found Ebony. "We write to the audience of our times," he said. "Racial and ethnic caricature were permitted when I invented Ebony [in 1940]; they were common on the stage, on radio, and in movies of the day. On the other hand," he continued, "sexual innuendo was nearly completely forbidden. It's permitted today, of course. Times change. And in the time I came up with Ebony, he was a standard device of comedy." He was not, however, inspired by Caniff's Connie, he said. Both cartoonists, resorting simply to the standard comedic devices of their day, were doing what many writers and movie-makers were doing at the time.

            By the time Eisner returned to the Spirit after leaving the feature to serve in the Army during World War II, times had changed. Although he used Ebony in the post-war period, he knew the device was out-moded. He tried other kinds of kids for comic relief. He tried an Eskimo kid for awhile, he recalled, and then a white kid named Sammy.

            As for the Sundiata book, its origins are not in race relations but in television. "The local PBS station came to me," Eisner told me. "They had formulated a plan to do a series of tv adaptations of great classics -comics-like adaptations. The stories would be told by putting pictures on the screen, then speech balloons would pop up, and then words would appear in the speech balloons as they were spoken aloud. For young people. Very educational."

            Eisner did storyboards for Moby Dick and Don Quixote and Sundiata. He was drawn to the Sundiata material, he said, because, like all classic folk tales, its epic simplicity was much like comics. And every country -every culture -has its classic tales. Sundiata's story was one such classic. "There are more than thirty variations of the story," Eisner told me. He showed his version around to various experts, and one scholar told him he'd left out the psychological depth that emerged in the relationship between Sundiata, the lame kid, and his mother. But Eisner was opting for epic simplicity. Unfortunately, the tv series never took off, he said. And that left him with an inventory of sketches and storyboards and ideas for adapting such tales -including the Sundiata tale.

            "At my age," Eisner said, chuckling (he's 86), "I have to be concerned about how I spend my time because I may not have as much of it left as I once did. So, having invested time in this storyboard material, why not use it?"

            Moreover, in mustering the material for the tv series, Eisner had become interested in adapting classics, so he followed his muse, and it led him to the three books, so far, that NBM has published.

            At present, Eisner is finishing a book about Fagan, the Jewish character in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. He hopes to use the character to examine and address anti-Semiticism.

            When I asked him, at the end of our conversation, if I could quote him in this corner, he assented with alacrity, saying that I should feel perfectly free to quote him because he's recently hired a denial writer.

            "A denial writer?" I said.

            "Yes," he said, "and just as soon as I get off the phone, I'll put him to work composing a denial of whatever it is that you'll quote me as saying."

            Thanks, Will.

UNDER THE SPREADING PUNDITRY. Most of the reportage on George WMD Bush's State of the Union speech gaffe last January seems focused on whether there is any evidence that anyone in the Bush League "conspired" to deliberately mislead the American people by exaggerating the threat that Saddam posed to U.S. (and -heavens! -global) security. In other words, did Boy George lie? And the story has changed day-by-day, as is to be expected when facts are being trumped up. But it's all smoke and mirrors, and some genuine issues are consequently obscured in the usual media frenzy to uncover scandal. Here's what Boy George actually said on the matter of Iraq's alleged effort to get uranium from Niger: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Notice that he fobs it all off onto the British. And when, on July 12, CIA Director George Tenet stepped up to take the blame for this statement's presence in the State of the Union address, he pointed out that although the CIA still regarded as "highly dubious" any claim that Iraq tried to get uranium from African nations, the statement was still "factually correct" in that it attributed the possibly erroneous assertion to "the British government" and did not, in fact, assert any facts at all about the Iraq effort itself. It was the Brit's fault.

            Or it was George Tenet's fault.

            Subsequently, on about July 23, it was another White House official's fault. Stephen Hadley, Boy George's "deputy national security advisor," admitted that he should have deleted the reference to the British report because the CIA had warned against it as long ago as October. He just forgot. "Failed to recall" is how the Reuters report puts it.


            And his boss? Condoleezza Rice? Is she going to be next to come forward and take the blame for the speech? Well, yes and no, depending upon what the definition of "blame" is.

            In all this stampede to take the blame, the most conspicuous fact of all was being overlooked. George Tenet is quite correct when he takes the fall even though he did not, personally, vet the speech and the troublesome assertion. It was vetted by his shop, he said, and since he is ultimately responsible for whatever happens in his shop, he's to blame.

            And whose shop does Tenet work in? Why, George WMD Bush's shop. So if Boy George were to follow the Very Exemplary Behavior of his CIA Director, shouldn't he take the blame just as Tenet did?

            Three weeks into the scandal, Bush finally did mutter something about being responsible for what he says. But that hardly matters. As everyone knows, Boy George is only the front man for the Bush League: a witless wonder, he has become expert at nothing more than reading speeches off a teleprompter and mouthing to enthusiastic crowds this week's spin slogan. He's the League's chief fund-raiser, but he is not a thinking man -not the sort who could conceivably recognize as erroneous any information in a speech prepared for him. As far as he can discern, every syllable is a wonderful linguistic fabrication, a symphony of syllables singing a tune he can only hum, so how could one statement be more (or less) fictional than another? He can scarcely, then, be expect to assume any responsibility for the policies or actions of the gang for which he fronts.

            Did Bush lie? asked Richard Cohen in the Washington Post. Probably not. He's just "an uncritical man who believed what he was told." If you're looking for a scandal, Cohen said, our commander in chief's credulity may be the biggest one of all.

            That's one of the issues that all the excitement has overlooked.

            The other one is that in the nit-picking effort to affix some sort of blame for these "sixteen words" (as the refrain goes), the over-all picture is blurred. By concentrating on the trees, we manage to overlook the forest. The over-arching fact is that the Bush League was then  mustering as much information as it could lay its hands on to convince us all that WMD were being manufactured and poised in Iraq for the purpose of doing mischief on a grand scale. Most of the information was just about as reliable as the British allegation about African nations' selling uranium: it was all pieced together from scraps and shards from which analysts had to drawn inferences that may, or may not, be accurate about the Actual Situation. Since the Bush League wanted to persuade us to acquiesce to invading Iraq, it used mostly the evidence it had that supported that impulse. Other evidence (testimony from Iraqi defectors that Saddam had abandoned the WMD programs in 1991) was ignored. Even if there was no overt fibbing going on, as David Remnick at The New Yorker observed, Tony Blair and Bush misled us with their grim-lipped certainty about the existence of WMD in Iraq. They were all so convinced that they convinced many of us, but the support for their convictions turns out to have been pretty shaky, clusters of innuendo and possibility rather than hard physical evidence.

            To a great extent, the argument in support of all this Bushwah is a sound one: since, as the UN inspectors said, there was once a huge stockpile of WMD in Iraq and since there was no documentation that it had been destroyed, a prudent person would be wise to assume the worst rather than the best -to assume, in other words, that the stockpile still existed somewhere rather than that it had been, as Saddam claimed, destroyed.

            But if that assumption was sound then -sound enough to justify our invasion of the country -why isn't it any longer sound enough to create panic that we can't find the WMD? Maybe we can't find them because Saddam has already sold them to Osama bin Laden? Or to some other terrorist group.

            The assumptions that drove our invasion don't seem to be as operative today as they once were. We don't seem in a hot swivet to find the WMD any longer. For the sheer sake of logical consistency, it seems to me that the Bush League should be frothing with alarm at the possibility that Saddam's WMD are now in someone else's hands. I'm glad there's very little froth in evidence; but that makes me all the more dubious about the phoney froth of the pre-invasion frenzy.

            Meanwhile, the Bush League has once again turned to Britain's Tony Blair to make the case from the podium. Blair is not only always articulate but often eloquent and capable of conveying the passion of his beliefs in persuasive fashion. All things Boy George is scarcely up to. So the Bush League, as they did when they were drumming up enthusiasm for the invasion of Iraq, has again called upon this staunch supporter to work his oratorical magic on the American people and on the world at large. Blair made his speech before a joint session of Congress. He did, in other words, what George WMD Bush should have done had he the ability to do it. Clearly, he doesn't. And this is as frank an admission of the shortcomings of a "plain speaking" man in an age of nuances as we're ever likely to get.

            For more about comics, consult any of my books, previews of which can be reached via the Front Page.

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