OPUS 126 (October 30, 2003). Herewith, a new feature of our bi-weekly confabulations: a summary at the beginning of all the goodies to follow as you scroll down this digital document. The feature article of this opus, an obituarial appreciation of the work of William Steig, who died earlier this month and whose oeuvre elevated cartooning from art to Art. That'll be at the end of the scroll. Between here and there, news and reviews. Incidentally, as you may have noticed, we don't make any attempt at being comprehensive in our comics news coverage. Rather, we print just the news that gives us fits-fits of adulation or of contempt. One or the other. The news this time includes a possible Luann tv series, Aaron McGruder's latest scandalous strips, reaction to Rush's disgrace in The Boondocks and in Mallard Fillmore, Berk Breathed's newest book, a Tintin movie, events at the new Las Vegas con, cartoons that defame or incite, a spectacular survey of comic strip history in connection with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's revamping of their comics page, winners in the second annual Dilbert Weasel competition, mystery cartooners do Dilbert, Opus and toilet training, to name a few topics. We also review some comic books under the usual heading, Funnybook Fan Fair-to wit, some Number Ones (Two-Step, The New Baker -with excerpts from an interview with Kyle Baker outlining his future publishing plans- Walking Dead, Frankenstein Mobster, Kamikaze) and some old favorites (Green Arrow and Mickey Mouse) and books about Paul Murray, Jefferson Machamer, and Alex Raymond). And we give thoughtful and metaphysical consideration to Arnold's victory in California. It all starts immediately below (and concludes with one more desperate solicitation of your subscription fee).
Gaffe Report: I mistakenly said, in Opus 125, that Luann: Curves Ahead from Andrews McMeel was the first time Greg Evans' comic strip had been collected in a reprint volume. Actually, counting books published by Rutledge Hill Press and all the names Tor goes by (Berkley Books and Doherty Associates at least), there've been 17 or 18 (at least) reprint books of the teenage blonde. What I should have said about Luann: Curves Ahead is that it is the first reprinting from Andrews McMeel. Sorry, Greg.
And while we're on the subject, Luann might wind up on the tube. Dick Clark Productions has acquired the rights to a live-action incarnation of the comic strip teen. No casting decisions yet; the process is, after all, in the earliest stages. Said Clark: "[Luann] is set apart from others in its genre by its cliffhanging stories, social relevance and the keen character humor displayed not only in Luann's persona but in that of her family and friends." Evans told me not to hold my breath. "It's a development deal," he explained, "and there's a looooong way to go. In tv-land, any project at this stage is about as solid as a snowflake in hell." But he was in Burbank at the time, "doing meetings with writers, producers and show runners. Having lots of fun but keeping it all in perspective."
NOUS R US. Aaron McGruder continues to keep The Boondocks high on the visibility horizon. This time, the controversy was stimulated by a series of strips that ran October 14-18 in which one of the characters, Huey Freeman's friend Caesar, proposes a way to save the world: get Condoleezza Rice a boyfriend. Says Caesar: "Maybe if there was a man in the world who Condoleezza truly loved, she wouldn't be so hell-bent to destroy it." Huey, initially sarcastic about the idea, warms to it: "Condoleezza's just lonely and bitter. She would be a completely better person if she just had the right man in her life." They spend the rest of the week trying to find out if she prefers white men or black men. The Washington Post decided not to publish any of the series. But in announcing its decision, the paper minced around about the reasons, saying, "We had no way of knowing whether Mr. McGruder's assertion that Condoleeza Rice had no personal relationship was true or not." Over at www.tompain.com, the laughter was raucous in its scorn: surely, said the writer, the Post has sufficient resources to find out if Rice has a boyfriend-assuming that it is necessary to fact-check a comic strip. Instead, the Post chose to skirt the question altogether-probably, it is surmised, because of Washington scuttlebutt that Rice is gay. And the strip seems to buy into this rumor by proposing precisely the thing that a gay Condi Rice wouldn't want, a boy friend-thereby "outing" Dubya's national security advisor. What might be seen in another, less enlightened time, as the aged recommendation that all the frigidly intellectual Rice needs to make her a better person is to get laid-a crude, if ingeniously devised joke-became, thanks to the Post's "neutral phrasing" ("personal relationship" not "boyfriend"), confirmation of Rice's likely sexual preferences. Surely the Post knows more than it's saying, and what it knows is that Rice is, probably, gay. Or so it would seem from the evidence supplied by the newspaper's stumbling around. Michael Getler, who, I gather, is the Post's Ombudsman, felt the strip was within the bounds of allowable satire: "I don't know a thing about Rice's personal life, nor do the characters in the strip, and I think readers understand that. The Boondocks characters, and their creator, were being mischievous and irreverent, in their mind's view of the world, about a high-profile public figure, and that seems okay with me." Bravo. But over at TomPaine again, the more important notion was that "the psycho-sexual histories of our leaders can affect their decisions regarding war and peace. To any historian, this is hardly a radical idea. Remember that Hitler guy? But it's the kind of truth that makes newspaper journalists queasy-it's not 'news.' To concede such truisms undermines the legitimacy of their definition of what's fit to print-and by extension, the very foundation of newspaperdom. I suspect that this is ultimately why the Post wouldn't run this week's Boondocks-because the strip posited that White House leaders are human beings whose actions are affected by their mental and sexual health. It isn't such a crazy idea, if you consider presidents Clinton, Nixon, and Kennedy. But it's apparently too dangerous for the funny pages-or anywhere else-in the Washington Post." A little extreme, I'd say. (Nixon had an affair? Or was he simply too repressed for that? And how, exactly, did that affect his conduct of the office?) I think McGruder was just applying that old saw about sexual intercourse being the way to thaw a frosty (even bitchy) woman. But the Post, by killing the strips, turned his prank into authentic invasion of privacy instead of political satire.
The next week, McGruder was remarkably even-handed in commenting upon Rush Limbaugh's drug addiction. Caesar says he's sorry for Rush's followers, "who now have to swallow the fact that he's a fraud and a hypocrite. I mean-can you imagine what it would be like for millions of conservative white men to find out America's most brash right-winger is strung out on drugs? It's like-it's like-" And Huey interrupts to finish the thought: "-Louis Farrakhan going to heaven and finding out God is a white woman who likes pork sandwiches." Caesar gets the last word: "Something like that." But in Mallard Fillmore, Bruce Tinsley takes up the cudgel to rescue Rush on another matter by claiming it was a double standard that resulted in Rush's loss of his sports commentator gig. Mallard says: "All I'm saying is that true equality and double standards can't exist at the same time. Isiah Thomas said we only think Larry Bird was great because he's white ... Dusty Baker said white athletes can't handle heat like black ones can." The duck's co-worker chimes in: "Yeah, but that was different from this Rush Limbaugh thing." To which Mallard responds: "It sure was-they didn't lose their jobs." I'm looking forward to seeing how the webfooted wonder handles Rush's drug addiction.
Everyone's getting into the political swirl. In Jan Eliot's Stone Soup, Val Stone, widower with two young daughters, complains about having a sore knee but decides not to have a doctor look at it because then it would show up in her medical records and if she gets some better health insurance, she doesn't want a trick knee exempted as a "pre-existing condition." To which her sister responds: "So you have health insurance but you can't use it." Val: "They seem to frown on that."
Berkeley Breathed has a new children's book out, Flawed Dogs, his seventh. This one was inspired by the "staggering pet overpopulation"; we have too many pets, and too many of them are in animal shelters, awaiting adoption or death. I haven't seen this book, but apparently it consists of a series of portraits of the population at the Piddleton "Last Chance" Dog Pound. ... The rumors that Steven Spielberg is interested in producing a film based upon the Belgian comic strip, Tintin, seem to be true. According to Paul Davidson at FilmForce, "a film is definitely in the planning stages. The Foundation Herge is currently in negotiations with Spielberg on the film, and there may be an official announcement when the website gets its November 3rd relaunch. ... Jay Morton, 92, died September 6. A one-time writer and artist at Fleischer animation studios in the 1930s, Morton wrote perhaps the most familiar superhero phrases in the history of the genre. He scripted about 25 of the animated Superman cartoons, and his first description of the protagonist claimed he was "faster than a streak of lightning, more powerful than the pounding surf, mightier than a roaring hurricane." That evolved, however, eventually becoming "faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound." ... Peter Morisi, an ex-New York cop who, as PAM, also drew comic books, died October 12 in Staten Island. Morisi, 75, did most of his comics for Charlton from the late 1950s until the early 1970s, but he also did work for DC, Marvel, and others from time to time. Among his creations were Johnny Dynamite and the superhero Thunderbolt. ... Peter Paul, the Hollywood agent who allegedly bilked investors in Stan Lee Media out of $25 million in a "pump and dump" scheme, pleaded not guilty on September 22 in New York, to which he had been extradited from Brazil, where he has been living since skipping the country two years ago. ... Steve Geppi, Diamond's mogul and a collector of legendary acquisitiveness, is offering to pay at least $25,000 for an un-restored complete copy of Action Comics No. 1 in good condition-up to $1 million for a genuine, "near mint" copy. Geppi will be exhibiting his present copy of the book at the new comic convention in Las Vegas, October 31-November 2. Also at the Las Vegas Con, Mark Hamill will provide a sneak preview of his film about comic fans and cons, "Comic Book: The Movie."
In Jakarta, Indonesia, a newspaper editor was found guilty of defamation for publishing a cartoon about Indonesia's parliamentary speaker Akbar Tandjung, who has refused to step down while he appeals a conviction for corruption. The cartoon depicted Tandjung shirtless and dripping with sweat because of his legal travails. Guilty of "attacking the standing and reputation of someone by showing an unsuitable picture," the editor was given a five-month sentence, suspended for ten months. Aren't you glad you're livin' in th' good ol' U.S. of A.? ... In this country, all we fear is political correctness and bruised sensitivities. Usually. Until 9/11. Carol Lay, for instance, drew a cartoon recently in which she pictured a bearded man in a turban and referred to him as "Osama's no-good cousin, Randy Bin Laden." Turns out the U.S. harbors a considerable Sikh population, all of whom took offense. They were not only offended but frightened-and rightly so. Our enlightened society numbers among its citizens an assortment of oafs who have been attacking anyone looking "Mideastern." The cartoon has the rhetorical effect of sanctioning this thuggery. In response to a petition, Lay removed the cartoon from her website, then tried to make up for it by producing a follow-up cartoon illustrating different types of turbans. This only caused more protest. Laugh and the whole world laughs with you? Not any more.
STRIPPING. Most of the 800 strips of the last four years of The Boondocks, including the post-9/11 shockers, are now available in A Right to Be Hostile: The Boondocks Treasury (Crown, $16.95). And Aaron McGruder and his hostile juveniles are getting into merchandising in time for Christmas, beginning with T-shirts bearing the images of the smart-alecky kids. Said a spokesman for Character Vision, a Los Angeles licensing company: "The fashion statement is-'I'm smart and I have attitude: don't mess with me, I'm too smart for you.'" Meanwhile, plans for a January 2005 launch of a television animated Boondocks proceed apace (Sony production, Fox distribution), with a feature-length cgi animated film to follow from Sony if the tv series catches on. ... In Grand Avenue, Steve Breen's comic strip about a brother and sister living with their hip grandmother, a sequence in October explored the kids' emotions and reactions while explaining that they are living with the grandmother because their parents were killed in an automobile accident. Said Breen: "The most common question I get from readers is, 'How did these children come to live with Grandma Kate?' I didn't want people to think Gabby and Michael had neglectful or irresponsible parents; I needed to explain that they were orphans. In creating these strips, I did my best to make the children's reactions natural. I minimized the humor to some extent, but I felt it was also important to remember that a little bit of gentle humor helps people through painful time."
Jane's World, a comic strip about a lesbian and her friends by Paige Braddock, has been running on the United Media website www.comics.com for some time. Last month, it had a try-out in mainstream print when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution gave it a test run during the paper's proposed revamping of its comics section. The usual reader survey was preceded by a week of articles tracing the evolution of the comic strip from the Yellow Kid to The Boondocks. Written by Frank Rizzo, the articles focused on the ways life in America has been reflected in newspaper comics through the years. Rizzo interviewed me and Brian Walker (author of The Comics Since 1945 and its prequel, the forthcoming The Comics Before 1945). The first article on September 21, a Sunday, was accompanied by a spectacular color comics section that included, in addition to the paper's usual line-up, reprints (in color) of Happy Hooligan (from 1905), Hairbreadth Harry (1917), The Gumps (1919), Tillie the Toiler (1937), Li'l Abner (1940), Krazy Kat (1938), Dick Tracy (1945), Little Orphan Annie (1945), Peanuts (1952), Beetle Bailey (1952), Dennis the Menace (1953), and Steve Canyon (the first Sunday, January 19, 1947). The opening shot, however, was a magnificent Bringing Up Father from 1936 in which half-a-page is devoted to a George McManus panoramic view of the "old neighborhood" and all its denizens, kids and laundry ladies and no-account fathers, each puffing a speech balloon, with Jiggs commenting to the cop on the beat, "It's grand to see the old neighborhood again." It sure is. We see nothing like it these days, alas.
George WMD Bush was voted the Number One Weasel by Dilbert fans in the second annual Weasel Awards Poll. A weasel, as defined in cartooner Scott Adams' newest opus, Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel (HarperBusiness, $14.95), as a critter who is manipulative, scheming, misleading, cheating, and blame-shifting as well as harboring a host of other antisocial traits. Runner-up in the Weaseliest Individuals category that Dubya won was Michael Moore, followed by Yassar Arafat and Jacques Chirac, president of France. The Weaseliest Organization is the Recording Industry Association of America, followed by the White House and the Democratic Party. France won the country category, with the U.S. second and Saudia Arabia third. Microsoft won the company division; Halliburton second and MCI WorldCom third. The Weaseliest profession is politician, then lawyers, then the news media operatives. The Weaseliest Behavior is "blaming fast food restaurants for making you fat"; then, religious extremism, and "creating computer worms/viruses because you can't get a date."
Not satisfied with merely awarding Weasels, Adams decided to become one: he concocted a plot to enlist five "mystery guest" cartoonists to draw Dilbert the week of October 20 so he could "sit back and rake in the profits." Said Adams: "Avoiding work is one of the weaseliest things you can do, only the most cunning weasels can succeed at getting paid for doing nothing. Amazingly, the other cartoonists fell for my story about the 'creative challenge' and even acted happy about it." Monday's strip was done by Lynn Johnston (For Better or For Worse); Tuesday's by Darby Conley (Get Fuzzy); Wednesday's, Pat Brady (Rose Is Rose); Thursday's, Greg Evans (Luann); and Friday's, Stephan Pastis (Pearls before Swine). (You can see them all, lined up, at www.dilbert.com.) Watching these shenanigans all week, I was smitten by the irony of it all, an irony revealed only in the little known history of my appreciation of Dilbert's artistry. Years ago while ranting about the poverty of Adams' drawing skill, I asserted, by way of championing the power of the medium itself, that even though the pictures in his strip hurt my eyes, I couldn't imagine Dilbert drawn in any other way. That odd fact, I claimed, demonstrates for once and all just how persuasive an impact comic strips have upon their readers. But then I tried drawing the Dilbert cast in two or three different styles, the difference being chiefly in the quality of line. And I thereby proved myself wrong: it was possible to envision Dilbert looking differently without affecting the humor of the strip. I'm admittedly biased in favor of the success of my own experiment, but now Adams himself has proved me right. All of his mystery guests did Dilbert in a recognizable Adams' fashion, albeit somewhat more deftly than the Master. Only Conley deviated alarmingly from the completely flavorless manner for which the strip is notorious: Rob and Satchel and Bucky show up in their usual style. And Dilbert-Dilbert gets a mouth!
Newsweek interviewed Berk Breathed (September 22) by way of heralding his November return to the funnies with Opus, a Sunday-only strip. Breathed, now the father of a toddler daughter, was asked how fatherhood would influence the strip. "One grim suspicion," he said, "-more toilet humor. Which is fine, as I'm pulling back on the political stuff."
FUNNYBOOK FAN FAIR. The best of the week (akin to what cat yronwode used to call a "benchmark" against which everything else could be measured) is the first issue of Two-Step from writer Warren Ellis and artist Amanda Conner inked by Jimmy Palmiotti. I haven't had this much fun reading a comic book in weeks. Set in a vaguely futuristic Clockwork Orange world, the story introduces us to Rosi Blades, a "cam girl" (who wanders around an urban midway of delights, transmitting via video-cam everything she sees) and a zen gunman (or, as he later reveals, "a freelance black market agent"), whose assignment is to prevent the delivery to a reigning mobster of a mysterious package. She follows him as he retrieves the package from an ostensible thief. The fun part, aside from Ellis's snappy dialogue, is in the pictures. That begins with Conner's deft delineations, including a fetching heroine in her outlandish outfit with a video camera attached to one eyeball, and continues with Palmiotti's clean and flowing lines. But it also includes a generous smattering of irreverent sight gags tucked away in corners (fornicating cats, feline feces and other outrageousness). How outrageous does it get? Well, that mysterious package contains a huge "willy" that plays "The Ride of the Valkyries."
Next is Kyle Baker's comic book, a visual parody of The New Yorker dubbed The New Baker, which, after a few pages mocking that magazine's layouts and advertisements, takes up the subject announced on a cover that proclaims it "The Cartoon Issue." Page after page of mostly pantomime visual hilarities from the mind and pen of a manic cartoonist who, after twenty years in every aspect of the cartooning industry, knows his craft, inside and outside. Many of the cartoons are autobiographical. Said Baker (interviewed online by Tim O'Shea at silverbulletcomics.com): "I'm trying to focus on what's universal in our personal experience. Stuff like me trying unsuccessfully to dress the baby or trying to watch an action movie without waking the kids are the kinds of things almost everyone can relate to." And what does his wife think about being immortalized in his cartoons? "Liz asked me why I draw myself so fat. I told her it's because fat is funny. My daughter asked why I draw Mommy so skinny; I explained it's because Daddy's no fool." The jokes (mostly at Baker's expense, as he says) are funny. And so are the lively drawings. A treat, through and through. An added fillip of comedy is that The New Yorker's annual "cartoon issue" is likely to come out sometime in the next few weeks. And it won't be nearly as funny as The New Baker. Admittedly, New Yorker comedy is not ever as slapstick as Baker's, and it's not supposed to be. But a "cartoon issue" of the nation's premier purveyor of magazine cartoons ought to have at least as many cartoons in it as Baker has in his parody. Chances are, though-judging from past performances- The New Yorker's "cartoon issue" will be woefully shy of a full load of cartoonery.
In December, Baker will release his first major move into self-publishing, Kyle Baker: Cartoonist, a 128-page paperback. Originally, he'd planned to do a monthly comic book dubbed The Bakers, which would subsequently be combined in quarterly paperback re-issues. But that, he said, didn't make "good economic sense," so he's going straight to the paperback book format, landing in comics shops on the heels of his debut issue of the new Plastic Man monthly for DC. And then we'll get the graphic novel by Aaron McGruder and Reginald Hudlin, drawn by Baker -Birth of a Nation -sometime in the spring. Scheduled to appear in February is Baker's graphic novel, Nat Turner, about the man who lead a slave revolt in the Old South. "He's one of my heroes," Baker said; "he's a hero to all black people. It's the book I'm most excited about." While producing these titles, he'll also be doing the monthly Plastic Man, but he's scarcely daunted. "I've done monthlies before. ... In the eighties, I used to do a book a week. It took me four days to pencil and ink an issue of The Shadow. ... The most pages I ever did in a week was 64 pages of Dick Tracy." Not to worry.
Walking Dead No. 1 created and written by Robert Kirkman and expertly limned in black-and-white and gray wash by Tony Moore, offers excellent artwork as well as adroit pacing and storytelling (including suspenseful wordless sequences, which used to be a rarity in comic books but no longer is, thankfully). In this issue, we meet a cop, who, after being wounded in an exchange of gunfire with a crazy, wakes up in a hospital and finds that much of the local population is dead, even though some of it is still walking. "I'm not trying to scare anybody," Kirkman writes; he just wants to do a good zombie book. "Good zombie movies," he says, "show us how messed up we are; they make us question our station in society. ... I want to explore how people deal with exteme situations and how these events change them." So far, it looks like the long haul Kirkman promises will be worth tuning into every issue.
Mark Wheatley's Frankenstein Mobster also looks promising. The coloring on No. 0 is a bit dark, seems to me, but Wheatley's bold simple linework is a joy, and it survives even in the dark. In this issue, we meet Terri Todd, a lady cop, who takes a cab ride into the Dead End to retrieve the kidnapped daughter of her mummified cabbie. The daughter's well-wrapped, too. Spooky stuff, and the word-play title is worth exulting over.
Peeves and Plaudets. In DC's Green Arrow, Phil Hester and Ande Parks continue to delight with their deeply shadowed artwork, and the stories more and more rely upon the visuals. ... Jim Balent's Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose No. 18 is mostly a display of his ability to draw naked wimmin with colossal ta-ta's, something I normally (and I'm as normal as any of you) appreciate to excess, but here the boobs are too big and the wimmin naked too much of the time and there's not much story to justify all the exposure. ... I persist in being intrigued by the chiseled manga-nesed drawing styles on display in Hell and Kamikaze. But in No. 3 of the former, the story is nearly incomprehensible without having read Nos. 1 and 2. And even then, it's difficult to make out what's happening here: the extremely stylized drawings render recognition of the characters difficult from panel to panel, and the difficulty is compounded by artist Todd Demong's penchant for drawing figures very very small, so tiny that they can't be easily discerned. Moreover, over-use of a monochromic effect robs the art of the visual clues to identity that color often supplies. Penciller Francisco Herrera with Carlos "Lobo" Cuevas on inks gives us easily discernible visuals in Kamikaze No. 1, angular and crisply chipped out, and stylized, stylized, stylized. The story, I gather, will eventually get around to the "kamikaze" game, an extreme sport, the object of which, for its practitioners, is to experience the adrenaline rush that tells them they're actually alive. Sounds extreme to me. ... Ferioli's art in "Mother Hen Mickey" in Mickey Mouse and Friends No. 257 is warm and rounded and reminds me of Floyd Gottfredson's work in the forties when he was, in my view, most adept: Mickey's anatomy was pleasingly proportioned, head as big as his body and legs combined and balanced by those huge yellow shoes. ... It was a treat to see Linda Medley's clean and bold drawings in The Fables No. 18. ...
ELSEWHERE. Alberto Becattini and Antonio Vianovi have put together two more titles in their Profili series, Paul Murray: Mice, Ducks and Cheesecake, and Jefferson Machamer: Gags and Gals. Murray, who is known for Mickey Mouse, also drew winsome wimmin in the rounded, girlish manner of Disney heroines, and this volume is cobbled together chiefly to display them, not the traditionally sedate Disney animals, although a few of them put in brief appearances. We also get a few samples in color of Murray's Buck O'Rue Sunday strip ( c. 1951) in which the cowpoke hero encounters more than one toothsome cowgirl (but he really loves his horse, Reddish). (Ouch!) There's also a biography and a bibliography of Murray's oeuvre. The Machamer book, in which the biography is much too brief (mostly what can be found in Ron Goulart's Encyclopedia), concentrates on the cartoonist's girls, for which he is as known as he's going to get. I've always found Machamer's girls to be a little too flat-chested and his style of rendering too wispy, but they are his ticket to fame. Alas, Becattini and Vianovi treat Machame's gag cartoons as if they were free-standing pin-up drawings, so we have no captions to reveal whatever it was that was humorous about them. A curious disservice, seems to me. But the book includes a generous sampling of Machamer's Sunday page, Gags and Gals ( c. 1936), in full color with speech balloons intact (and in English). Nifty. The page size of these books, 9x12 inches, gives the artwork ample display and is therefore a great improvement upon an earlier 6x8-inch tome on Milton Caniff. The same authors have produced, in the "Caniff size," a handsome paperback devoted to Alex Raymond, subtitled The Power and the Grace. It includes a generous sampling of Raymond's art-from his earliest work ghosting strips for Chic Young's brother Lyman (The Kid Sister, Tim Tyler's Luck) and for Chic's Blondie as well as quite a lot of magazine illustration (for Esquire and Saturday Evening Post) and some Flash Gordon and a little Jungle Jim, Secret Agent X-9, and Rip Kirby, mostly promotional drawings and spots of the latter. I haven't had a chance yet to read the extensive text (in both English and Italian), but judging from the visuals, this is a pretty exhaustive attempt at getting around Raymond's life and work. The difficulty in mapping out his career, however, lies in identifying the ghosting work he did and some fugitive illustration work in the forties. The same authors stumbled just a little with Caniff, repeating canards that have long hovered over him; I wouldn't be surprised to learn they've tripped up a bit with Raymond, too, given the complexity of his story. (Unsporting of me, I realize, to snipe without having read the thing; consider this merely a cautionary note.) Regardless of the text, for the sake of the supporting illustrations alone, this book is a valuable document, and it's an elegant production, too, with a long bibliography that includes lots of Italian references.
On the cover of the newly minted Icon, the Frank Frazetta retrospective volume by Cathy and Arnie Fenner, is the advisory: "Completely Revised and Updated with More Art." And that's true. The 1998 edition was 163 pages; this one is 206 pages. So what's new and is there enough to spring the thirty bucks it'll cost you? If it's any recommendation, I'm keeping both versions in my library-for the time being-just because one of the differences between the two tomes is that some pictures published small in the first version are published larger in the second. And vice versa. But this difference is actually trifling, and, in the interest of conserving space, I should give up the 1998 edition. But I probably won't. The 2003 edition has a new Preface by the authors (who now style themselves Cathy and Arnie Fenner instead of Arnie Fenner and Cathy Fenner, which may mean Cathy did the revising for this edition). And in the one or two text entries I perused, one contained a new sentence, up-dating the facts. But most of the differences in the second edition are in the art. There are many more sketches and conceptual paintings; some of the latter were published quite small in the first edition, and now they're larger. And there are some more photos. And a few more movie posters, record album covers, and book and magazine covers. And a couple pages of Tarzan sketches and drawings. Here's one reason I'm keeping both: Frazetta's famous Buck Rogers battling the wild men cover that wound up on EC's Weird Science-Fantasy No. 29 but started out destined for Famous Funnies No. 217 is in both editions, a full page in each. But in the 2003 edition, we also have the cover as revised for the cover of EC's comic book. That's missing in the 1998 edition, but we have, instead, another Buck Rogers cover, this one published on Famous Funnies No. 211. Both the latter are smallish, roughly 3x4 inches; but I like having them both. But almost everything that was in the earlier version is still in this one. My only complaint: both books sometimes print a beautiful Frazetta painting on a two-page spread, running right through the gutter, which obscures, by cramping into the crevice, some of the art. In a really expensive book, such two-page productions would be handled with a fold-out.
THE ART OF CARTOONING. In The New Yorker for the week of October 20, the first issue to go to press after the death of William Steig on October 3 at the age of 95, nine Steig drawings appear, one, on the magazine's coveted Back Page, a full page effusion in color depicting the orgre Shrek embracing his trollish paramour. I'm not sure, but I suspect no other cartoonist has ever had as much of his work in a single issue of the magazine. Fred Cooper once drew every cartoon in an issue of the old humor magazine Life, but that was a virtuoso stunt not an editorial selection: displaying bravura versatility, Cooper drew every cartoon in a different style. While Steig drew differently at different times in his career, all of the October 20 crop effects the raw linear mannerism of the last three decades.
Steig sold his first cartoons to Life and its humorous competitor Judge, each of which paid about $25 apiece for cartoons. The New Yorker, at something like $40, was the top of the market, and cartoonists always started peddling a batch of cartoons at the highest paying magazines, then worked down the scale. Steig did the same, and he soon sold his first cartoon to The New Yorker: it pictured one prison inmate saying to another, "My son's incorrigible. I can't do a thing with him." That was in 1930; subsequently, Steig did another 1,676 cartoons and drawings plus 126 covers. He was one of a tiny fraternity of cartoonists who transformed their art and challenged expressionist masterworks. Only Ronald Searle and Ralph Steadman and Gerald Scrafe are, today, in the same league. Robert Osborne, in his day, was another. Steig graduated from cartoons to what he called "symbollic drawings" with the publication in 1939 of his little book, About People, in which the people were still recognizable as humans, but they embodied certain distortions that represented psychological states or attitudes. The distortions would continue, increasing in crescendo. Then in 1968 at the age of 60, Steig, acting upon the urging of fellow cartoonist Robert Kraus, produced his first book for children, CDB, a risible tome with letters standing for words. (Say the title letters aloud, "See de bee"; D B S A B-Z B, "De bee is a busy bee"; O, S N-D, "Oh, yes indeed." Or, M N X S L-T 4 U, "Ham and eggs is healthy for you." Or the champion baffler, F U R B-Z, I-L 1 O A; "If you are busy, I'll run away.").
His first celebrity arose from a New Yorker series of drawings about wise-ass kids called "Small Fry" alternating with another series about juvenile aspirations dubbed "Dreams of Glory," both rendered in a thoroughly competent but not particularly distinguished mainstream manner. But Steig achieved fame outside the magazine in 1942 with a book of drawings entitled The Lonely Ones. For this enterprise, he abandoned, forever as it turned out, the disciplined albeit inexpressive conventional cartoon line embellished with a gray tone wash and employed instead naked bold brush strokes. His most celebrated drawing from this collection depicted a sour-faced man huddled in a box with the immortal caption, "People are no damn good." Steig continued in this vein with All Embarrassed in 1944, but this compilation includes many drawings in which the line is a fragile, squiggly rictus, Steig's new manner. By the time he published Rejected Lovers in 1951, his humor was marked more by the pure whimsicality of its graphic treatment than by punchline comedy.
Paul Klee, quoted by Mark Feeney in his Steig obituary in the Boston Globe, once described the art of drawing as "taking a line for a walk." Said Feeney: "Much of Mr. Steig's work might be best understood as taking an emotion for a stroll." It was this sort of drawing about which Albert Hubbell, writing a foreword to the 1990 Our Miserable Life, said: "I cannot imagine anything more rash or more doomed to fail than an attempt to interpret Steig's drawings psychoanalytically. Pulling a long face and reading eschatological or other meanings into them would be equally foolish. This is graphic art, and graphic art is best dealt with on its own terms-lines and hatchings and smears and smudges put down on paper to convey a thought about something, or just to create a drawing ... for its own sweet sake. A Steig drawing is not an illustration to illuminate a situation or an idea; it is the idea."
David Remnick, the present editor of The New Yorker, ranks Steig with Peter Arno, Rea Irvin and Saul Steinberg key players in "shaping the spirit of New Yorker art." I'd add George Price, Helen Hokinson, and Charles Addams to the list, but Steig would still be there. Steig once said he had to break away from all the training he received in art classes: "I imagine most cartoonists who went to formal art schools had the same experience. I am satisfied to do humorous drawings. I think the cartoon is a worthy art." But the laughter provoked by a cartoon has something vicious about it, Steig said. "Laughter over a cartoon is pretty well explained by a man named A.M. Ludovici [who calls] his idea 'the theory of superior adaptation.' The idea is that a thing is funny if it creates in the spectator a feeling of superior adaptation, that for the moment he is a superior person, certainly superior to the man who has been hit over the head with a rolling pin."
Nobody in Steig's early cartoons was being hit with a rolling pin, but they did foster a sense of superiority among the witnesses. Many of them featured life in lower middle class neighborhoods like the one in the Bronx where the cartoonist grew up, and Steig often cast adults as the heavies in an unending contest between grown-ups and their offspring. A large woman tells her son, as he departs for a Boy Scout meeting, "Come home early or I'll kick you in the pants." A father, glowering at his son over breakfast, says, "What's wrong wit' oatmeal, if I ain't bein' too inquisitive?" But before long, the children started talking back to their elders. Approached by a panhandler, a well-dressed boy says, "Are you sure it's for coffee?" And here's a tableau at a poker table, with the father, angrily facing his diminutive son who has a big pile of chips in front of him, snarling, "I call your bluff!" Children were clearly Steig's favorites. "For some reason," he once said, "I've never felt grown-up."
Steig produced over 30 books for children (and their parents), blending "wistful idealism with gentle irony." His third, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969), which tells the story of a donkey who, by unhappy magical accident, became a rock, won the Caldecott Medal, the most prestigious honor for a children's book. "In Steig's books [for children]," New Yorker colleague Roger Angell said, "clarity and comedy feel as easily conjoined as words and pictures, and a little magic sometimes helps as well." Said Remnick, who read Steig's books to his own children: "He wrote the least condescending prose for children I've ever read."
Steig felt children were his best audience: they could appreciate his gallows humor, his love of language, and his sometimes disconcerting forthrightness. "I guess it's my respect for kids that makes me talk sensibly to them," he said. "You have to write for children," he went on, explaining the importance of talking to kids on their level -not, I assume, talking down to them. "If you don't write for children," he finished, "you'll end up writing Moby Dick."
In Steig's books, children learn about death and God and sinister menace as well as rewards and punishments. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, for instance, can be seen as a parable about death and rebirth. But, as one critic said, "His plucky picture-book heroes, constantly striving against the odds and somehow always just managing to come through, leave the world a better as well as a more entertaining place." They also often learn life's lessons on the way. In Doctor De Soto (1982), a mouse dentist violates his own rules when he agrees to treat a fox with a toothache. When the fox tries to eat the mouse-however amiably-because it is his nature to eat mice, he discovers that his benefactor was prudent enough to glue the fox's teeth together after extracting the aching tooth.
Sometimes the lesson is obscure. In Sylvester, Steig a pig appears as a policeman. In some ways, it was ill-considered type-casting: in the late sixties counter-culture milieu, portraying a cop as a pig could be interpreted as making a political statement. The International Conference of Police Associations tried to get the book removed from libraries. Steig, however, thought the pig wonderfully emblematic of the human condition: the pig, he told People magazine, represents "a creature surrounded with filth and danger, a victim of circumstances created by himself, unwilling and unable to do anything about his condition-and, even, perhaps, in a way, enjoying it."
The people who made Shrek into an Oscar-winning film in 2001 didn't get it either. The book's message, arising from the fate of its ogre protagonist, pretty strenuously suggested that like turns to like, even in cases of outrageously extreme ogreish negativity. But in the movie, that message was much softened. Ogreishness was represented as mere ugliness-appearance-and I had the feeling, after watching it, that the lesson of the adventure is that ugly people aren't suitable marriage partners for beautiful people. If Steig felt betrayed, you couldn't tell it from his recorded reaction, which was that "his" work was the book, and he was finished with that; the movie was the work of the movie people, who were entitled to do whatever it is they wanted to.
In addition to his achievements as cartoonist and author, Steig may have pioneered the "contemporary" greeting card. "Greeting cards used to be all sweetness and love," he told the Hartford Courant; "I started doing the complete reverse-almost a hate card-and it caught on."
Introducing the retrospective volume, The World of William Steig (Artisan, 1998), John Updike, novelist, essayist and erstwhile cartoonist, wrote that the book "serves to celebrate an original who has endured, who has taken his talent in one direction after another and found new territory deep in his old age. Steig's art is not just testimony to his love of life but robust evidence of the necessary interaction between art and life, reality and fantasy."
Edited and narrated by Lee Lorenz, retired cartoon editor at The New Yorker, The World is also more than ample evidence of the artistic seriousness and social value that cartooning can attain at the hands of a master like Steig. Those who might maintain that cartooning is an entertainment that can never reach the plateau of "art" have never seen the works of William Steig.
Despite his latter-day role as an illustrator, Steig didn't like illustrating stories, even his own. Said he (in "Getting to Know William Steig," a videotape by Weston Woods): "The difference between illustrating and drawing is that everything in illustration is prescribed so that there is no freedom. If I know what I'm going to draw, I'm not good at it. My greatest pleasure in drawing is in discovering what I feel like saying," he continued. "Illustrating is just a job. The thing I like least about my life is illustrating books because it's unnatural-it's an unnatural form for me. I like free drawing. The kind of drawing I like best to do is rarely published. I discovered I work best when I don't know what I'm doing."
And that may be all the explanation we need for the astonishing inventiveness of Steig's work.
Lorenz annotates Steig's approach by quoting the French poet Paul Valery, who "once wrote that 'all art is forgery.' That is to say, between the inspiration and its realization in whatever medium, there is the insuperable barrier of execution ... mixing colors, sharpening a chisel . . . [during which] the purity of inspiration turns stale. In retrospect, the course of Steig's career has been shaped by a sustained effort to remove those barriers and to allow his inspiration to spill directly onto the page."
Angell in the New Yorker's Steig obit, wrote that in the sixties, Steig "had stopped working from sketches and would wait, pen in hand at his drawing board, to act on whatever idea or style came next. Satyrs and brooding lions, rooster painters, cats strumming mandolins, clowns on horseback, graying fauns, naked damosels regarded by friars or foxes soon crowded these pages. 'Please! Not today!' pleads a tired dragon to still another knight."
Lorenz rehearses the stories of many of Steig's children's books, all of which reflect the cartoonist's whole-hearted acceptance of life and its variegated sensations. Summing up, Lorenz writes: "In the world of William Steig, bad luck, false starts, and wrong turns coexist beside sudden victories, redemptive love, magic palaces, and landscapes of great beauty. The challenges that are met and surmounted are presented as part of the rich fabric of life itself ... a baffling but irresistible jumble. Not a battle to be won, but a game to be played."
As a cartoonist, Steig undeniably influenced the direction and shape of modern cartooning. And to the extent that he (and Searles and Steadman, particularly) made cartoons into visual interpretations of the human condition, its emotions and psychology, Steig may even have raised the medium from entertainment to art. In some of his work, I'm certain that's what he did. By some of it, however-like the drawing of the man on a sofa in the accompanying gallery-I confess that I am entirely baffled. These effusions are comical drawings, no question-quirky renditions of anatomy and physiognomy, but apart from an antic sense of humor, they display no discernible insight into Life As We Know It, despite what all the critics maintain with their vast vocabularies. They may have more sharply honed senses of appreciation than I, certainly a lively possibility. But even Steig's wife wasn't sure about what her husband was up to. Writing in the New York Times after his death, Jeanne Steig, author and sculptor, said: "If Bill were asked what he meant to be saying [in one of his drawings] ... he would disavow any knowledge beyond the drawing itself, the physical thing. He drew from an impulse that went straight from the heart to his moving hand-and he always watched that hand with delight, wanting to see what it was up to. The interpretations others might bring surprised him. Really? he'd say, and make haste to forget whatever metaphysical visions had been assigned to him. He didn't need them; they got in the way."
But whether Steig's work is amenable to metaphysical interpretation or not, it is at the very least an expansion of the expressive capabilities of the medium-and it is in the same medium. It is not a motion picture version of a superhero comic book. It is more likely to be art than not.
By way of demonstrating the evolution of Steig's art, here's a brief Gallery of his work over the years.
UNDER THE SPREADING PUNDITRY. Arnold's election has prompted wonderfully wild speculations among media critics and political pundits about the potential meaning for all elections everywhere in the country from sea to shining sea. It seems Arnold's strategy was to rely upon his celebrity status to get him airtime with radio and tv personalities, thereby "making an end run around the establishment media-newspapers and the more serious tv news programs-to sell himself." Interestingly, inside the Arnold campaign, the word "viewers" was used instead of "voters."
"We went to the real mass media," said Arnold's director of communications. "We make no apologies for doing lots of radio or tv. It gave us 5, 7, 8 minutes of unfiltered opportunities to get our message out every day." And Arnold sold himself as a movie star, not as a knowledgeable politician. It was a strategy, someone observed, that made newspapers and the more serious tv correspondents "all but irrelevant." Another said: "The entertainment media played a disproportionate role in this campaign from beginning to end."
Most of the news coverage emphasized Arnold's appearance and manner rather than his comments on policy matters (which, of course, he made so few of that reporters were left with little else except his "performance" to comment on). Another media watchdog said: "What we were witnessing was a highly evolved version of a tendency already in place. The power of the entertainment media eclipsed the serious media. And nobody seemed to notice.'
So what is new? Public affairs news coverage in this country long ago assumed the function of entertainment. And political operatives have learned how to work effectively within that realm. Arnold's method of campaigning and his subsequent election have merely brought out into the open, in a wholly unabashed manner, the triumph of style over substance, looks over thoughts. That circumstance accounts for Bush's election, too. If Gore had won by more than 500,000 votes, perhaps the Electoral College wouldn't have been so skewed towards Bush. And Bush held Gore to only a 500,000-vote victory because the American voter was interested in a "fresh face." Gore's face was stale. Get the new guy in there-a little variety in our national life (as if government were a variety show). (Well, come to think of it .... Consider some of the vote totals in California: the Associated Press says that porn publisher Larry Flynt garnered a whopping 15,115 votes; child star Gary Coleman, 12,518; and porn star Mary Carey rated an udderly stunning 9,816. Entertainment is winning-that and the Oil-igarchy.)
If I were George WMD Bush, I'd be terrified about now. Arnold's election signals that the voter doesn't give a fig for experience in public office. Bush didn't have much as governor of Texas, but he's now got enough to disqualify him in the eyes of "viewers" looking for a fresh face. I suppose that means General Clark will get the nod. Moreover, actually having ideas about how to govern is equally irrelevant. And that's a genuine threat to the Bush League Cartel that's been running the government in accordance with their Grand Plan to Take Over the World. Whooop!
FOOTNOTE: In noting the passing of one-time cartoonist Herb Gardner last time, I was trying to remember the name of the novel he produced in the late fifties. It contains, if I remember aright, one of the funniest seduction scenes in literature. The book's title, A Piece of the Action. I think.
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