Opus 124: OUR LAST DESPERATE ATTEMPT (September 28, 2003). One more time, here's the deal: in order to pay the cost of hosting this website, we're forced to start charging a "membership" or "subscription" fee. We've tried to keep the subscription fee as low as we can-as little as we can get a processor to operate for. If you're reading this, chances are very good that you're a Charter Subscriber to this website-that is, you've been subscribing to our Rabbit Habit notice for awhile. For Charter Subscribers, Charter Membership is available in our new operation if you sign up before October 1, 2003. That means, tovarich-sign up today (which you can do by clicking here). For Charter Members, it's $2.95 for the first month (October) and then just $2.95 a quarter (every three months) thereafter. That's merely a buck a month, gang! And for Charter Rabbiteers, that fee is Fixed for Life: as long as we operate the site, your quarterly fee will remain $2.95. Moreover, for Charter Rabbiteers only: you'll receive, sometime in October, a Genuine Rabbits Fete Club Card. Not only will this signal your Charter Membership, but if you run into the Happy Harv at any comic convention where he is selling his books, your Rabbits Fete Card will be good for a 10 percent discount on any of those books. What a deal. Even if you never use your Rabbits Fete, it'll be a handsome hareloom that you can pass along to your posterity.
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NOUS R US. More about the Fantagraphics Peanuts project. All 49-plus years of Charles Schulz's masterwork will be reprinted, two years to a volume, beginning with the first tome in April 2004. The plan is to publish two volumes a year. Designed by Canadian cartoonist Seth (Palooka-ville), the books will be about 320 8x6.5-inch pages in length and will cost $28.95. The first volume will be the most treasured, no doubt: over 50% of its content will include Peanuts strips never before reprinted. According to Eric Reynolds at Fantagraphics, sifting through the early strips was like excavating an archaeological dig: he discovered the foundations of a universe that, then, was still in its formative stages.
The big hurdle in marketing Berk Breathed's new strip, the Sunday-only Opus, is the cartoonist's requirement that the strip run in the half-page format. Most Sunday strips, although designed for half-page publication, include a couple "throw-away"panels that can be discarded by newspapers that want to print the strips smaller so as to put more of them on a page. Some strips, like Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois, are equipped with two Sunday gags: one for the two opening panels that can be clipped off and discarded, and the other for the rest of the strip. Zits and Mutts come with entertaining opening splash panels that are amusing graphic displays but can be deleted without doing any substantive damage to the gag of the remaining strip. In many instances, newspapers publish Sunday comic strips smaller than the quarter page size that, theoretically, is left after cutting out the "throwaway" panels. At the smaller size, as many as five different strips can be crammed onto a single page. Some papers get even more by running some strips vertically and reducing others still smaller. Bill Watterson with Calvin and Hobbes is the first cartoonist to specify that his Sunday strip had to be published "whole," as the half-page design. For the last few years of the strip's run, starting in 1992, Watterson did not produce any Sunday strips with throwaway panels or splash panels that could be discarded. Some papers ran the strip smaller than a half-page, but they couldn't eviscerate it. Breathed's Opus follows the same plan, as I understand it. Judging from David Astor's report in the September 22 Editor & Publisher, to accommodate the specification, papers choosing to run Opus will probably reduce the size of other strips to make room for it. Many of the papers who are so far signed up are struggling with re-designing their pages for Breathed's benefit. Some haven't yet decided exactly how they'll do it; but those who are determined to get the strip will manage somehow. Said Alan Shearer, Editorial Director of Breathed's syndicate, Washington Post Writers Group: "Newspapers fit in Calvin and Hobbes, and they'll fit this in, too."
CIVILIZATION'S LAST OUTPOST. I finally saw "Chicago." It takes me awhile to see these modern masterpieces of the celluloid arts: since the deterioration of my hearing, I can't understand much of the dialogue when I witness it in a theater. So I wait until the flick is available on videotape, then watch it at home where closed captions make up for my deficiency. I know that "Chicago" won the Oscar last year, but nothing associated with the ballyhoo about the film then suggested that it was the artfully tuned satire that it is. "Chicago" is a hilarious albeit outrageous slap in the face of an America in which celebrity is the only reality. Our America. In content and form, the film melds satirical purpose. Wonderful. I'm astounded that the same Hollywood that honored "Gladiator" could discern the merit in a movie like "Chicago." Maybe it didn't. Maybe the Oscar came to "Chicago" for some reason other than the excellence of its achievement as satire. Maybe it was because of the face and figure and supreme talent of Catherine Zeta-Jones-Douglas, pregnant dancer. Who knows? Whatever the case, the movie is an artistic triumph in every cinematic and social sense.
The cover on Previews for September is another terrific production. The Tomb Raider cover, not the Justice League cover. Well, no: both are terrific, actually, each in its own way. But the Tomb Raider rendering is the one that is awe-inspiring. I'm not sure who drew it because Previews doesn't credit its covers, assuming, I gather, that all us rabid fanboys will recognize immediately which fan-favorite artist did the deed. I suspect this one was drawn by Tony Daniel: the signature, although fashionably almost unreadable, is pretty clearly "Tony D-" something, something. Two more names? Daniel was assisted, it seems, by one or two others. Inker? Colorist? No credits, so who knows. But my reason for remarking on this marvelous production is that what it depicts is anatomically impossible. A lovely image of an enticing female form, no question: Lara Croft, her back (arched in the extreme) turned to us, her head thrown back, arms outstretched, caught in the midst of some high excitement or other. But no female ever had a form like this. In order to give proper display to Croft's ample bosom, Daniel has shoved it up higher on her chest than normal human anatomy allows. From this grotesque distortion, we learn the rhetorical power of imagery: pictures can convince us of nearly anything, impossibilities even. As I said, it's a picture of an attractive, sexy woman-still attractive, still sexy, even if possessed of an impossible anatomy. We also learn that we are likely to overlook such impossibilities when gripped by the sex appeal of a expertly drawn picture (even when the anatomy, despite its appeal, is fraudulent). Distortions of this sort, which attempt to present both T and A in the same field of vision, are common these days. We see them everywhere. Pondering all this, I am reminded of something Michelle Urry, Playboy's cartoon editor, told me once as we walked out of her office. We were talking about Vargas and his superbly rendered pin-ups. The longer he drew, Urry said, the more exaggerated the women's anatomy became, the more twisted and turned their bodies. Eventually, she said, "he forgot where the tits go." And now, after a score of years or more, we're back to Vargas again.
REPRINT REVIEW. The seventh collection of Pat Brady's Rose Is Rose is out from Andrews McMeel (128 8.5x9-inch pages in paperback, $10.95), Rose Is Rose: Right on the Lips, with a cover showing Rose puckered up about to be smooched by her husband, who appears on the back cover. Both drawings display Brady's visual inventiveness: the faces are slightly out of focus, but the lips are perfectly in focus-just as the face of your loved one must appear as you approach for a kiss. Launched April 16, 1984, Rose is a warmly human strip about a young family: Rose Gumbo is the wife and mother, Jimbo is the husband and father, and Pasquale is their small son (originally about two years old; now, a couple years older). "Pasquale was my nickname when I was very young," Brady explained. "My father called me Pasquale for several years. I think it's Italian for Patrick, but I've never been quite sure." One of the early devices in the strip was that Pasquale spoke in unintelligible baby talk which his mother understood and translated. But Brady abandoned this device several years ago, and Pasquale now talks like everyone else. Brady broadens the horizon for humor with imaginative additions to his cast of three: Pasquale's guardian angel, for instance, and the family cat Peekaboo, and Rose's alter ego, Vicki the Biker Chick, who materializes any time Rose starts thinking self-assertively or adventurously about some aspect of her life. And sometimes, when Rose is feeling especially protective of her young son, she materializes as a grizzly bear. And then when Rose is engaging in an activity that reminds her of her own childhood, Brady draws her as a little girl. In this collection, all three Roses show up in one strip: Rose is standing on a diving board getting ready to plunge into the swimming pool; in the second panel, she's that little girl, trembling in fearful anticipation of the dive from that great height; in the third panel, Vicki appears and takes the plunge without a tremor; in the last panel, Rose emerges from her dive into the pool, both arms raised in victorious triumph.
The visual imagination on display in Rose is one of the things that makes the strip an exemplar of the high art to which the medium can aspire. The strip's comedy is often highly visual-that is, comprehending the humor depends upon understanding the pictures as well as the words. In fact, many of the strips seem to be visual puzzles. The punchline is the solution to the puzzle. I made this observation to Brady when we talked several years ago: "I look at the pictures in the first panels, and I say, Oh, what is this? And then-all of a sudden-the last panel shows me what it is, explains it, and the explanation is the punchline. Do you do this deliberately? I suppose you must."
"Yes, I do," Brady said. "I've neve r heard it expressed like you have, but I'm pleased to hear it. I just think it makes it more interesting to try things like that. It's another way of making the work as interesting as it can be. It's definitely something that I do consciously. It's not one of the first things that I think about, but as I'm toying with the idea, as I do a thumbnail sketch, I'll see a possibility to add that dimension, and if I can, I do it."
I asked Brady if his own family-wife Barbara, daughter Chloe (fourteen then, now twenty-one)- supplied him with ideas. "Sometimes ideas come from family life," Brady said. "But I have to say that 99% of my ideas come from active daydreaming. I'll come into my studio in the morning, and I'll have a cup of coffee, and I'll toy with words and phrases and I'll doodle until something starts to emerge. But for me it's very seldom that anything will happen in my family life that can be translated into the comic strip. It's mostly a process of day-dreaming."
One of Brady's early comic strip efforts was called Dreamer, a highly inventive two-panel strip in which the second panel presents an unanticipated visual variation on the picture in the first panel. It didn't sell, but the imagination that conjured it up is still active in Rose.
I asked if the act of drawing itself ever produced ideas. For many cartoonists, it does: "You start drawing the picture, and as that is going on-a character takes shape, his personality, already established, emerges, and an idea comes out, a joke or gag-" Brady said he does that, too, but "more often than not, the ideas will emerge from words rather than doodles. I think Sparky [Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame] told me that he gets his ideas from doodling. And I do that. But for me, it's mostly words."
Still, the medium's visual character plays an active role, he explained: "Often what I find works for me is to try to think of something that will be visually interesting, that will look visually exciting or pleasing. And then I try actually to write a strip-or a joke-around it. A moonscape, for instance. Ahh, it would be great if I could do a really realistic moonscape, or space scene. Now what can I do with that? I end up writing a joke to accommodate the art. I don't know if other cartoonists do that. But it works for me."
To create the visual puzzle, Brady often plays with perspective. "I've done a lot of experimenting with perspective," he said. "I found that it's fun and it's effective for me to imagine a visual theme and then rotate it in my mind like a computer wire-frame image-just turn it, see it from above, below, the side-and I find that I'm able to do that and get more interesting visual results rather than just doing everything from straight on, which, for me, is monotonous- not only to look at, but to do. What I try t o do is to make it better. To make it more interesting, more appealing. And so the more that I experiment, the more I challenge myself; and the more I challenged myself, the more my art, I think, has improved over the years. There's room for more improvement, of course; I still keep trying. All the time."
He does the same sort of experimenting in the dailies, shifting the perspective, viewing from odd angles. "I find that when I do that," he said, "sometimes it opens up the strip, and it looks a lot bigger than it actually is. I think we become oriented to the short strip, short in height, but turning it opens it up dramatically."
In the same spirit of enhancing interest (his own as well as his reader's) in his work, Brady isn't content to let his publisher produce the Rose Is Rose collections unassisted. He plays an active role in the design and execution of the book, and all the collections include "extras"-visual features created expressly for the book and not available anywhere else. In Right on the Lips, the added feature is the "flipbook" animation that, flipped front to back, shows us Rose anticipating the arrival at home of her hubby Jimbo, and, back to front, Jimbo's view of Rose as he approaches his home. Both progressions end, smack! -right on the lips!
Brady also arranges the strips in the books by subject or theme rather than by simple chronology. This maneuver frustrates comics historians like me, but it gives the book a cohesiveness it would otherwise lack. Five of the previous six books are from Andrews McMeel; the sixth, Rose Is Rose In Living Color, a stunningly reproduced anthology of Sunday strips in brilliant color, is from Rutlege Hill Press (www.rutlegehillpress.com) for merely $14.95.
Where can you find regular infusions of this sort of news and lore for just a buck a month? Just here, aristotle-just here. So click here and stay 'tooned.
FUNNYBOOK FANFARE. Superheroes are getting more and more realistic, or so they say in most of the recent panegyrics on the subject of funnybooks. But that's almost old news. One of the most realistic titles appeared as long ago as 1989 and then sank without a ripple of regret, apparently. This was Marvel's Damage Control, which featured a team of construction engineers and building contractors whose job it was to clean up after superheroes. Typically, the cosmic battles waged by the gangs in tights left the urban landscape in shambles, buildings toppled by "force bolts" or giant robots doing the bidding of villainous megalomaniacs. Somebody had to re-build the cities laid waste in this superhero warfare, and so along came the Damage Control gang. The title appeared in three mini-series, two in 1989 and a third in 1991-all reasonably well-done despite the "one joke" nature of the concept. But most of the trumpeted realism in superhero comic books resides in the quirky personalities of the heroes. Ever since Stan Lee and Steve Ditko transformed Peter Parker into Spider-Man but left him with all his teenage insecurities, superheroes haven't been quite as superior as they once were. But none of the longjohn legions have really addressed themselves to the pyschic disorder that must lurk in the farthest recesses of their brains. Until now.
All of a sudden, Bongo Comics is attending to this very concern with Heroes Anonymous, a comic book about a support group for superheroes. Heroes Anonymous is for superheroes what Alcoholics Anonymous is for alcoholics. Except imbibing is not verboten. Or something like that. In No. 1 by Scott M. Gimple (with pencils by A.J. Jothikumar), we meet The Blitz, a retired World War II-era superhero, who conducts the sessions of group therapy. (Issue No. 1 is actually entitled "Session 1." Canny touch.) Says The Blitz: "We have to deal with the real world. Family issues. Dental work. Salmonella. But we also have to deal with our world-men with big cheetah heads, women that fire heat-seeking missiles out of their heels. Aliens. Belligerent talking fish. Psychotic dancing robots. The list goes on. ... Under the mask, we're real people with real problems. We need support like anybody else. That's why we keep checkin' our egos and our mystically-charged scepters at the door. That's why we're here. ... See you next week," he finishes, "-Lightning Rod, you bring the donuts."
In the inaugural issue, we watch Attaboy work through his hang-up. His problem surfaced when, as sidekick to The Midknight, the kid learns that, unbeknownst to him, his spandex-clad mentor has been bribing his teachers to give him superior grades in school. When Attaboy (aka Toby Kettle) discovers that his "entire academic career has been a joke," he comes apart and gives up superheroing. But the love of a good woman (and their mutual fascination with a vintage tv show called "Birds of a Feather"-"the adventures of a loveable black orphan, Arnie Feather, and his older brother, Eugene, thrust into a white family that owns and runs a restricted country club")-brings him back to the so-called reality of costumed crime-fighting.
But the real treat in this book-apart from the not-to-be-sneezed-at wit of the storylines and dialogue-is the artwork. Inked by veteran Andrew Pepoy, the pictures are clean and crisp in a style somewhat akin to the "animated Batman" manner-that is, simpler than the usual superhero fare. Pepoy's line is bold and flexible, accented by the contrast he provides with fragile fineline trim on the details. The frosting on the cake comes with the decision not to publish a color comic book. But it's not just black-and-white either: the artwork is enhanced by the addition of a second color, a light yellow-orangish hue, that accents the visuals throughout.
'TIS THE SEASON, BEREFT OF REASON, FRAUGHT WITH GORE. We love to shudder in vicarious fear at the sort of hideously appealing fake horror that Hollywood cooks up for us from time to time. But these days, we can find the authentic article between the covers of a good graphic novel-namely, The Beast of Chicago (80 6x9-inch hardcover pages in black-and-white, $15.95), the sixth in the NBM "Treasury of Victorian Murder" series of graphic novels, all written, drawn and exhaustively researched by Rick Geary. "The Beast" is a man who went by the name H.H. Holmes (among many aliases). He came to Chicago in the summer of 1886 and found work in an Englewood drugstore at the corner of 63rd and Wallace streets. He eventually took over the business, and in the years running up to Chicago's celebrated Columbian Exposition of 1893, he built a hotel across the street from the drugstore and moved the business and himself into it. The hotel took in permanent residents as well as transients, and Holmes conducted a flourishing business from the drugstore, selling a variety of snake oil elixirs and, soon-ominously-a line of articulated human skeletons, extracted, everyone supposed, from presumably nameless corpses otherwise destined for Potter's Field burial. And when the Exposition opened, the hotel catered to the tourists who arrived in droves in the Windy City to visit it-mostly female tourists, mostly unmarried. Many of those (if not most) who stayed at Holmes' hotel were never seen again after checking into the facility. Years later, after Holmes' apprehension and execution, the building was inspected and found to be a maze of narrow passageways and a warren of strange rooms, many of an air-tight construction into which gas jets expelled their poison. In the basement, investigators found a huge furnace (large enough to cremate a human body) and a stained dissecting table (large enough to accommodate a human form) with all the accouterments for dismembering cadavers. Holmes eventually admitted to killing 27 persons, but many of those who have subsequently written about him have put the number at 50 or 100, even 200. (And Holmes' testimony, Geary tells us, was, itself, suspect: many of the 27 persons who he named as his victims were discovered to be still alive.) Holmes was also a con man of exceptional skill and an accomplished bigamist, having married three different women, all of whom were shocked when they were told, after his arrest, of their husband's familial enterprise. Since he could scarcely have built the hotel with money earned in the drugstore, it is supposed he borrowed most of it, supplying fraudulent collateral (or, alternatively, cashing in the insurance he'd taken out on his victims). Holmes was hanged in the spring of 1895; his hotel burned to the ground in August of that year (the site is now occupied by the Englewood post office). "The castle," as local residents called it, had been boarded shut for two years by then, but it had opened in 1890 and had served Holmes' nefarious purposes for at least three years.
"Holmes is generally thought to be America's first serial killer," Geary writes. "Rather, he was the first American to be caught and convicted for having committed multiple murders over a period of time. Surely," he continues with a baleful smirk, "others went before him whose crimes remain, as yet, unrecognized." Geary begins the book by quoting Holmes, who, while in prison awaiting trial and, then, execution, wrote a spurious autobiography: "I couldn't help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than a poet can help the inspiration to sing."
This tome, as all of Geary's previous work in this series, is meticulously researched and rendered in an as authentic a way as possible. The buildings, the streets with their occasional litter, the costumes of his populace-all drawn in painstaking detail in Geary's distinctive style, which partakes somewhat of the linear mannerisms of art nouveau, outlining fineline renderings with an defining bold line (think of Winsor McCay's Little Nemo pages), but Geary adds a fustian patina by nicking his lines with a progression of dart-like notchings that soften the edges and mold the shapes just as feathering, in another drawing style, does. Tonal variety is achieved through the painstaking application of parallel lines that turn white expanses into shades of gray. These graphic maneuvers give the visual proceedings an antique air, perfectly suited to the ambiance of Geary's subject, Victorian-age blood-thirstiness.
Geary's storytelling style in these productions adds to the general aura of foreboding in which his stories are lovingly shrouded. In telling his tale, he deploys word and picture in much the fashion of a Ken Burns' historical documentary. Sometimes, the pictures show a street scene or a building where the action has taken place. The verbiage drones on, unemotional and matter-of-fact, relating the circumstances. But the pictures usually lend this spare recitation a sinister quality, often by contrasting to the prose a parade of images that hint at things otherwise unspoken. On one page, we meet the man Holmes hired to strip corpses of their flesh by way of preparing skeletons "for scientific study." A vertical panel on the left shows a skeleton at full length. A stack of panels on the right shows us, top to bottom, the assistant, Mr. Chappell (a man who is looking, furtively, off-camera to the right), a box with a wrapped corpse in it, and then a caption: "Holmes would explain that the corpse was that of a recently deceased patient or the unidentified remains from the city morgue." Below this caption is a picture of a hand-shake. And below that, more caption: "Mr. Chappell asked no questions." Suddenly, the ostensibly friendly hand-shake depicted acquires the air of a conspiracy. On another page, reviewing the relationship between Holmes and one of his numerous mistresses, Julia Connor, who became pregnant by Holmes, the caption, "It is known that, after December 1891, Julia Connor and her daughter Pearl were not seen or heard from again." Below the caption, Geary gives us a drawing that depicts a framed photograph of Holmes, Julia and Pearl in the typical Victorian familial pose, father behind seated spouse and offspring; the framed photo has fallen to the floor and sits on its side, the glass broken, shards on the floor at its side. Geary's visual here underscores the callous disregard for human life that lay under Holmes' charming veneer.
Each new arrival in the book's cast is depicted face-front in the manner of a family photo album-each smiling sweetly. Unsuspectingly. Geary also supplies maps of the city, showing where Englewood is in relation to the Columbia Exposition, and diagrams of the castle of horrors itself, all of which enhances the rhetoric of authenticity that reeks throughout the book. Despite the grisly nature of his subject, Geary supplies no explicit pictures of the ghoulish enterprises of Holmes-no blood, no gore, no disembodied intestines. All is discrete, restrained. And the very restraint serves the narrative by imparting to it another layer of sinister menace.
Geary lists his sources on the opening pages of the book, but he omits the most recent on the subject (because it hadn't been published when he was delving about for information): The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Just in case you want to pursue this ghastly material in great detail (464 pages worth).
Or you could pick up any or all of Geary's other titles in NBM's series: A Treasury of Victorian Murder ("three delectable murders"), Jack the Ripper (a recitation based solely upon the known facts in the case without resort to speculation about who the Ripper may have been), The Borden Tragedy (Lizzie Borden's handiwork, axing her mother to death with "forty whacks" and her father with "forty-one"), The Fatal Bullet (the assassination of U.S. President Garfield), and The Mystery of Mary Rogers (a New York cigar store clerk whose body was found floating in the Hudson River on the Jersey side). All on view at www.nbmpublishing.com. Just in time for Hallowe'en, tovarich.
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AND NOW, FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. If you've ever had any doubt about newspaper comic strips being for adult readers (and in this corner, we never have, of course), Howie Schneider and United Feature syndicate will dissipate the dubiousness. Schneider, at age 73 a veteran cartoonist who, for 35 years, produced a comic strip about two mice called Eek and Meek, has concocted a new comic strip, The Sunshine Club-Life in Generation Rx, which concerns itself with the comings and goings and dodderings of old folks. And who, except adults, would find anything amusing in such a milieu? Surely not children-or, even, the somewhat older "Young": these demographics can't even imagine being "old," let alone what might be amusing about it. So The Sunshine Club is clearly, unequivocally, without any hesitation whatsoever, addressed to adult readers, readers who know they'll grow old eventually-who probably have aging parents and who know some of the problems and issues pertaining thereto.
Syndicate promotional material sometimes skirts the matter delicately, quoting Schneider about "change" not "aging": "Change can be intimidating. And it can be funny. I can't think of any other comic strip that deals with this ballooning situation in quite the same way I do." I can't either. Jim Scancarelli faces the aging of his cast in Gasoline Alley, for a long time, until Lynn Johnston's For Better or For Worse, the only comic strip in which characters grew up and older, and while Walt Wallet, the strip's earliest star, must be nearly 100 years old now and Scancarelli often turns the spotlight on the annoyances that plague Walt at his advanced age, the strip isn't actually about "senior citizens." The aged. Old folks. Howie Schneider's strip is exactly about this population. But with a difference: the characters in The Sunshine Club are all anthropomorphic animals. Not people. And with this simple scrap of visual rhetoric, the strip avoids being about "old people." Hooha!-what a joke, son.
In a press release, United Feature is more straight-forward: "There's no other way to say it. Aging is a fact of life. It starts at birth and never stops. It's as much a part of our world as eating and sleeping. It's inevitable, if not always welcome. Since we can't control it, the best course of treatment is to laugh about it." And that's what Schneider's strip does.
We meet Uncle Bunty and George, a cat, it would appear, and a large dog. "Did these organ-donor people get to you yet?" George asks Bunty. "Yes," says Bunty, "but I'm leaving my body to my pharmacist-he already has an arm and a leg."
Watching a parade of young animals cavorting, dancing, roller-skating, and just running around, Bunty says, "We grew old just in time."
And when Bunty is asked by his doctor to fill out a form listing all his ailments and medications, he complains: "All this just for a stress test?" And the nurse responds: "This is the stress test."
Willard, a cat, is ordering off the menu at a health-conscious restaurant: "I'll have two antioxidants, a simple carbohydrate, and a good, low-calorie protein." The waiter says: "Yes, sir-and perhaps a nice laxative to wash it down with?"
And, as all of us elderly folk know, a night's sleep is usually interrupted by a visit to the bathroom. In an expertly executed strip-wide panel, Schneider evokes the dilemma. The entire panel is solid black sprinkled with speeches: "Ouch!" "Aieee!" "Aargh!" At the far right, light streams in from the half-open bathroom door, and through the opening, we see the lighted bathroom and George, who says, "Why is it we lose our night vision just at the time of life we need it most?" Ahh, truth.
The humor is often entirely verbal. "There goes Ethan," says Bunty, observing a friend walking away. "He lies about his age, y'know. Every birthday he steals a year or two." "So how old is he," says the female animal with Bunty. "Who knows?" says Bunty; "he's a kleptogenarian."
Not all the jokes reside in the upper age levels. Edna, a large fuzzy animal of some sort, and Maud, a cow, observe a male friend buying a hot dog at a hot-dog stand. "He and his wife are both ardent vegetarians," says Edna; "but he cheats on her." Says Maud: "The cad."
The reason that comic strips about aging are scarce-to-nonexistent is that newspaper editors are seeking to attract young readers (and buyers) for their papers. "Young" means, roughly, 20-37 or so-the age bracket that presumably includes people who have the most money to spend on products being advertised in newspapers. Since newspapers make their profits almost entirely on advertising revenue, their editors need to demonstrate to potential and existing advertisers that their newspapers are reaching the audience that the advertisers are most eager to seduce. Young people with money.
Young people would not be interested in comic strips about old people. Or so it is assumed. Young people are interested in comic strips about child rearing (Baby Blues), families (FoxTrot), life in the business world (Dilbert), and so on. So syndicates have steered religiously away from any comic strip having to do with the concerns of the gaffer generation. Comic strips about old coots (like me, kimo save) are as taboo in the syndicate realm as comic strips about kids were until Hank Ketcham proved, with Dennis the Menace, that the time-honored taboo was so threadbare as to be useless. Now maybe Schneider and United Feature will perform a similar service for the elderly.
The prohibition against comics about senior citizens is an incidental by-product of the newspaper industry's panic about dwindling readership and their consequent desperation to attract younger readers, to recruit an audience that will last for a few more decades. The irony is that most surveys reveal that newspaper readership skews older. Moreover, the "older" demographic is the fastest growing one. And it is also the demographic with the largest disposable income. People in this age group have already raised families and paid for college educations. They now have money to spare and leisure time to spend it in. And yet, newspapers seem dedicated to ignoring this situation in favor of a feverish pursuit of "the Young." Maybe that's because American industry has yet to produce many products exclusively for the elderly that can be advertised in newspapers. And that may suggest why the AARP magazine, Modern Maturity, has such a vast circulation: it advertises what older citizens need.
Cartoonist Schneider, incidentally, is distinguished by another professional achievement. Maybe two. For one thing, he is one of only a handful of cartoonists who, for a time, produced two daily comic strips. He'd been doing Eek and Meek since 1965 when, in 1975, he launched a second strip, Bimbo's Circus. But his signal distinction among cartoonists is that he changed his comic strip characters from animals to humans. Eek and Meek were originally mice, sort of. When the strip began, they looked, as Schneider said, "like little cocktail franks with one-line arms and legs, and there wasn't that much expression on their faces-which is just what I wanted. At the time, I really wanted to write something, and I didn't specifically want to do a comic strip, but I wanted to write on the comics page, so I needed drawings." He settled on the absolute minimum of drawing. The two characters didn't actually look much like mice at first, but, eventually, they had to have some species identity, and the lumps on their heads started looking like mouse ears. (Perhaps only Schneider knew they were mice at first: they had evolved from another strip idea of his, one in which a government scientist is experimenting on mice, two of them, and they started talking to each other. The rest of us, however, doubtless thought of the duo as, well, er-a pair of cocktail franks.) As time passed, Schneider's drawings got more elaborate: he put flesh on the stick-arms and stick-legs. "Which, of course, necessitated pants." Then the "mice" started showing up at the local saloon, and, oddly, the others at the bar were apparently people, not mice. "It wasn't obvious to me," Schneider said, "but it was pointed out that this was a strange combination, so I began to give some consideration to making a 'people' strip." He didn't want the change to seem too obvious, though, so when he re-designed the mice as people in 1982, he gave them haircuts that suggested the same shape their heads had when they were mice. By that time, not very many people noticed the difference, apparently, and the strip continued for another couple decades with a human cast.
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GRAPHIC NOVELZ. The rapidly maturing artform of the graphic novel is, in some of its manifestations, already beyond the realm of simple storytelling. What it took the prose novel slightly over a century to accomplish-to go from Walter Scott to James Joyce-the graphic novel seems to have achieved in less than a decade. That's over-simplifying, of course. But the exaggeration emphasizes the actuality.
In Farewell, George (48 8.5x11-inch saddle-stitched pages, Slave Labor Graphics, $6.95), Ben Towle tells four folktales in comic strip form, deploying the resources of the medium in traditional ways. In the first story, the "Georgia Peach," baseball's legendary Ty Cobb, is goaded out of retirement and hits a baseball into the heckling pitcher, knocking his eyes out. In the next, "Thunderstruck," a kid is spirited off for twenty years when he follows an attractive woman into the mysterious netherworld of her home. In the third, Towle tells the "true" story of the Goatman, Charles McCartney, who wandered the nation's byroads with a dozen goats, selling picture postcards of himself to survive. And, finally, we have "'Coon Monkey," shaggy dog story in which a monkey trees and kills raccoons. Towle's drawing skill is adequate, mostly, although his ability to depict attractive women is marginal. But his spare brush stroke style is up to the task for the usual functions of visual narrative, and he embellishes the simplicity with gray tones and displays a good grasp of the storytelling devices of the medium. The Goatman story, attempting to retail the biography of an actual person, veers off into mere illustrated narrative, but the rest of the stories are paced by the visual aspects of the medium. Each of the stories ends with a twist that is both amusing and puzzling in a nudge-nudge, wink-wink manner.
Sara Varon tells eight short stories in Sweater Weather (86 7x9-inch paperback pages, Alternative Comics; $11.95), mostly in pantomime. In the first story, a rabbit and a turtle are walking through the forest when it starts to snow. As it gets cold, the turtle retreats into its shell-and invites the rabbit to come in, too. Inside, the turtle serves hot tea, and the rabbit knits a scarf for himself and a cap for the turtle. Then they both go "outside" again, and we see that the turtle's cap has rabbit-ear shapes atop it. A pleasant, wholesome tale of friendship and warm, fuzzy feelings. In another tale, a cat builds a snowman after the first snow of the season, and the snowman joins the cat in numerous wintery activities. One day, the cat leaves the snowman, who lights up a cigarette and inadvertently sets his scarf afire. He melts away in the blaze, leaving only his carrot nose. The cat finds the carrot and, later, gives it to a hungry bear who has just awakened from hibernation. In the only story to employ speech balloons, each of the story's 26 panels represents a letter of the alphabet. Varon's drawing style deploys a simple bold line, and although her backgrounds and props are fully detailed (albeit in the manner of diagrams rather than photographic representation), her people and animals are abstracted simplifications a couple steps above stick figures.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the book is the extravagance of its production: much of the book is printed in a single color, a purple-tinged off-black, but in one story, the backgrounds are all in light blue, and in a section of paperdolls (that you can cut out or photocopy and put together), orange is the second color. Varon finishes the book with several pages of full-color postcards to cut out and send to "your pal" (with a perforated page of stamps that can be affixed but not for postage purposes). One story is about bees and beekeeping, including diagrams showing how an artificial beehive is constructed.
Because the stories are rendered mostly in pictures without words, this book is more about feelings than it is about intellectual matters: pictures can evoke emotions, but intellectualizing requires verbal content. The dreamlike plots and the book's accouterments-cut-out paperdolls, stickers, games-give the entire enterprise the feel of a children's book. But it isn't. The meaning of this book is to be found in its entirety as a package rather than in any of its parts. It is the book's sunny ambiance-it's child-like delight in friendship and good deeds, in invention and crafts-that is Varon's message. She summons us to take a wholesome pleasure in our surroundings, people and things.
But in Farel Dalrymple's Pop Gun War (136 6x9-inch pages in paperback, Dark Horse; $13.95) we have neither simple drawings nor straight-forward narrative. Here with a surrealistic urban nightmare, we approach the Joycean world of Finnegans Wake. Rendered in a realistic mode with textured, gritty, scratchy but clearly outlined drawings, the story is shrouded with unspecified menace under its bleached metallic sky. Nothing much happens albeit in a threatening way. A winged man crashes in the City and pays to have his wings removed with a chainsaw. A small boy named Sinclair finds the wings discarded in a trashcan and straps them on his back. Chased by a band of bullies, he discovers he can fly, and, later, he goes in search of his sister Emily, who plays in a rock band. Along the way, we meet Addison, a seemingly homeless man that the bully boys beat up on; a dwarf named Sunshine Montana, who unaccountably grows into a giant, steps on and crushes some of the bullies, then, swallowing Percy, a large airborne fish wearing spectacles-"my compatriot"-walks into the sea; a sadistic monk named Koole; Ben Able, a blind private investigator; a shrink in a fur-color coat who carries a woman's talking head in a carpet bag; King Doll, Harold Dollpimple, who stages puppet shows for the children, and a few others.
In just this listing of some of the
cast, we have ample indication of the complexities of the nightmare
Dalrymple unveils. But whatever the implications thereof, throughout
we have Sinclair, rising above the menaces. By the middle of the
book, he has grown real wings out of his shoulder blades, and when
the "angel" who discarded his wings at the beginning of the book
shows up at the end to claim them, Sinclair flies off, saying, truthfully,
"Not these-these are my own." His haunting image, hovering over
the City and the children, baffled yet enduring, remains in the
back of the mind, like the tiny glowing pinpoint of light in the
expiring picture on the tv screen except that Sinclair, suspended
in midair, stays with us.
MORE BUSHWAH. And what, exactly, makes the Bush League think ousting Saddam and turning Iraq into a puppet state is going to set the Middle East free? Consider, as I observed once before, that the dominant idea in the Muslim world is virtuous living while the dominant idea in the West is individual freedom. These two notions are nearly incompatible from either of the two perspectives. To a Westerner, to insist upon "virtue" as a guide for behavior is to restrict freedom of choice. To a Muslim, to insist upon freedom of choice is to put licentiousness ahead of moral behavior. And so, when the U.S. is called The Great Satan, it isn't merely a metaphor: the U.S. is the great tempter, the society whose licentiousness tempts everyone into straying from the path of moral rectitude. And how does our liberation of Iraq fit into this?
Inevitably-once the lawlessness and looting and guerilla warfare subside-the U.S. will be seen as attempting to eradicate all moral influence in the Mideast. Our invasion is the first step in a wholesale plan to corrupt Islam, to destroy morality so that the oil-grubbing, licentiousness of the West can prevail everywhere. We can tout our good intentions until the camels come home. We may, indeed, intend to establish freedom and democracy in Iraq as an example to the rest of the Mideast. But that's just what Muslim fundamentalists-in fact, Muslims generally, as a historical matter-don't want. The impulses in the Muslim countries are not towards democracy; in fact, democracy is, itself-with its championing of the individual-a corrupting influence. So when Boy George says we're going to bring democracy-and freedom!-to the Mideast, he is saying precisely what the traditional Muslim mind fears most. We should not be surprised, then, to discover that our effort in this direction is not universally welcomed. Many Iraqis believe their culture is ready for some form of democracy; the idea is not entirely anathema to all Muslims. But it is to many-many more, in fact, that the simple-minded evangelical notions of the Bush League can imagine. For many, in offering democracy as a justification for invading Iraq, we are seen as offering to destroy the faith of these Muslim people, not something they're going to look upon with favor. The Bushwhacking scheme may yet work, but we are naive to expect the wall-to-wall Muslim populations to welcome us and our democratic ideals of individual freedom.
MORE MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. George WMD Bush has been lauded for his "courageous" leadership in the weeks following 9/11. And what, exactly did he do? He reacted to that atrocity with all the statesmanlike instincts of the average American truck driver. He promptly set about to "kick their ass." Most of us would have done the same, given the provocation and the power. But what the country actually needs in the White House is not another one of us, but someone cannier, more statesmanlike, than we are.
A statesman's response to 9/11 would be to assault the causes of the anti-American feeling in the Muslim world, the feeling that fosters terrorism. Acting like enraged truck drivers, we attacked the symptom, not the cause. The cause? The failure of the Arab nations to produce a decent way of life for their populations. If young people in the Arab world were not frustrated at the total absence of opportunity-and at the abject poverty and misery that awaits them on almost every hand-they would not, presumably, be condemning the United States and the Western powers for having betrayed them by corrupting their religion and therefore their society, thereby insulting Allah and bringing his wrath down upon them. In their view, the only way to retrieve their lost civilization is to turn back to Allah, to revive Islam with a vengeance and to enact that revenge upon the corrupting civilizations of the West, chiefly the United States. A statesman might have invaded Afghanistan, but he would have followed the tanks immediately-immediately!!-with trucks loaded with humanitarian aid and busloads of dedicated "nation builders" committed to showing the Afghans how to manage their society in ways that improved the lot of the people there. Once we remove the causes of the misery that nurtures terrorist training camps in the wilderness, terrorists will dwindle rapidly in number and prowess. They'll find no fertile field in which to sow their discontents. They'll have no fresh recruits. They'll be ostracized by those around them. And they will no longer threaten anyone anywhere.
If you've stayed with us this time this far, you have a pretty fair sampling of the sorts of things we do here-news about cartooning and comics, reviews of comic books and graphic novels and reprint volumes, all supplemented, when possible, with shreds and patches of ancient cartooning lore. None of it can you find anywhere but here. Some of the content of the coming weeks we can predict: next time, a few notes on Harvey Pekar's cinematic enterprise, the film version of American Splendor, and reviews of more new reprint tomes from Andrews McMeel; later in the month, in "Harv's Hindsights," a report on the longest-running, continuously published comic character in America. No: it's not the Katzenjammer Kids. Don't miss out. One more time: stay 'tooned by signing up to subscribe (for a mere buck-a-month); click here to be transported to the appropriate spot.
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