Opus 129:

Opus 129 (December 14, 2003). Featured this time is a review of Rudy Park: The People Must Be Wired, an Andrews McMeel collection of the two-year-old strip by Theron Heir and Darrin Bell, including a discussion of whether, or not, newspapers can tolerate edgy, social commentary strips these days. But before we get to that, we also examine a strip that sucks, Johnny Hart's latest assault on the religious sensibilities of his readers (with Berke Breathed's reaction), two more 50th anniversaries (one is Playboy's, which, alas, neglects cartooning), homoeroticism in tv's Batman series of the sixties, next year's movies based upon comics characters, Dark Horse's Conan revival, a couple of Number Ones, including Kyle Baker's Plastic Man. But before we get to any of that, here's our anyule greeting.

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STRIPPING. Here, for today's show-and-tell, are two recently published comic strips. Click to Enlarge To understand the full comedic implications of the Zits exhibit, you need to remember the trouble that the strip's creators, Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman, got into by having Jeremy mow into the lawn the first two letters of that awful word, which, here, is repeated in various permutations as a sadistic act of revenge upon those PC editors who thought the lawn-mowing gag, er-sucked. For more background, re-visit Opus 119 by clicking here.

            As for the B.C. strip, it caused an uproar among the one billion practicing Muslims in the U.S. (Well, among some of the one billion anyhow.) The first inkling of trouble appeared in a Washington Post Internet chat shortly after the strip was published on November 10. It makes no sense, the reader opined, except metaphorically. As a metaphor, it slammed Islam. The caveman goes into a house marked with the Islam crescent and then says it (the House of Islam) "stinks." It's just an ordinary outhouse? Maybe, but as a finishing twist of deciphering, someone noted that the lettering in the space between the first and second panels-SLAM-appears vertically, in the shape of an "I," which, presto, turns "SLAM" into "ISLAM." B.C.'s creator, Johnny Hart, professed to be dumbfounded by this interpretation of a gag he described as "a silly bathroom joke."  Said he: "This comic was in no way intended to be a message against Islam-subliminal or otherwise. It would be contradictory to my own faith as a Christian to insult other people's beliefs." Richard S. Newcombe, president of Creators Syndicate which distributes B.C., averred that giving any religious interpretation to the strip was "reading too much into it." Maybe. But given Hart's record as an outspoken and therefore somewhat arrogant-seeming Born Again possessor of the Religious Truth, I tend, this time, to veer off in the direction of the metaphorical meaning of the strip. If not intended as a sly sort of slur, why all the crescents in the pictures? Why did Hart pick nighttime if not to enable him to put crescent moons into the sky as well as on the outhouse door? A clever use of symbols and sequence, just the sort of thing that would appeal to a Born Again cartooner who regards anyone not of his conviction as somewhat misguided-certainly all those towel-head Muslims out there, not to mention any of a half-dozen other world-class religions. Sorry, Johnny: this time, your story won't wash. This time, you were too cute for your own good.

            Interviewed online by Washington Post comics editor Suzanne Tobin, Berke Breathed gives Hart's slam a creditable value. "The good news about Hart's Islam-is-poo strip," Breathed said, "Is

that at least you know a real human has shown up for work with his strip. The paper is littered with cartoonists too-well, deceased-to actually participate in their own strip. It's a pity because there's a rather agitated bunch of very alive cartoonists that are waiting for their space to show us what a little passionate cartooning can be. The other side of the Affaire Hart is his disowning of his gag. This is the part where he insults his audience, which he might want to avoid. I'm all for bigotry in the public square [but] for people to respond accordingly, they need to own it. Either Johnny is fibbing or he needs to get back in touch with his inner Id. I'm surprised that Garry Trudeau urged everyone to leave him alone. We're in the business of not being left alone. It's a fascinating bit of insight into the artist behind the feature, and, by God, let's get into it. It's the very bit of life that the comic page is needing as it gets consumed by the Jim Davises of the world and their writing staffs." The Washington Post Writers Group syndicates Breathed's new Sunday strip, Opus, and Breathed, who demands that newspapers run Opus at the half-page size, has been lobbying for papers to dump old stand-by strips to make room for his work, which he allows is visually brilliant. For more on this, click here to re-visit Opus 127.

            Elsewhere: Marmaduke, that lovable unwittingly destructive Great Dane, is fifty. Brad Anderson created the overgrown lapdog (and that's Marmaduke's essential "problem": he thinks he's a lapdog not a Sherman tank) in 1953, modeling him after his parents' boxer, Bruno. Marmaduke appears in about 660 newspapers, as a panel on weekdays and as a comic strip on Sundays. Ballantine Books has released a celebratory volume, Top Dog: Marmaduke at 50, a collection of favorite panels selected by Anderson-a tome I haven't yet seen but expect to shortly.

CIVILIZATION'S LAST OUTPOST. This comes right out of The Week: New Hampshire Supreme Court has ruled that a lesbian affair does not constitute adultery. In a divorce case, the judges found that since a wife's sexual relationship with another woman did not include "intercourse," it did not meet the official definition of adultery. Legal scholars expressed surprise, saying that most Americans would consider their spouse's sexual relationship with either a man or a woman "an equivalent betrayal." Well, yes, maybe. So if a father molests his son, is it incest or homosexuality? The legal dilemmas abound. Ditto, of course, confusion. Angela Lipsitz of Northern Kentucky University conducted a study in which she kept track of 85 college students who vowed to remain virgins until their wedding days. Only 39 percent managed to keep their pledges, and half of them admitted to having engaged in oral sex. "They think that oral sex doesn't count," Lipsitz said. Right. Neither did William Jefferson Clinton, and he comes from a whole generation of Americans who, seeking to preserve their virginity, had oral sex in the back of their automobiles. But Clinton was impeached for his beliefs; the rest of us just muddled through.

NOUS R US. Playboy celebrated the 50th anniversary of its debut with the January 2004 issue, a luxurious "Collector's Edition" extravaganza with two double-page fold-out sections displaying all the magazine's covers and all the Playmates (albeit, at minuscule dimension for a change, only an inch tall and a half-inch wide) and a 21-page salute to its past, visuals mostly (8-10 per page) with captions pointing out the historic significance of the pictures and photographs. (Pamela Anderson has been on the cover more times than anyone else: 10 times. The runner-up, and the best of all in my view-the more imaginative "Femlin" with 8.) As one of the last redoubts for magazine cartooning (The New Yorker is the other one) and the one that showcases cartoons in their most exotic form, that is-in full, painted color- Playboy, you would expect, would devote more than a little of its celebration to its cartoons and cartoonists. Hugh Hefner, the magazine's founder, was a frustrated cartoonist; and he has, from the very birth of his magazine, given generous space and unusual emphasis to the cartoon content. Alas, Playboy on this auspicious occasion, does no better by its cartoon content than The New Yorker does with its annual "cartoon issue." This issue offers the usual allotment of full-page cartoons and the smattering of smaller ones in the back, but the anniversary section prints only a handful of cartoons and mentions by name only Jack Cole, Jules Feiffer, Gahan Wilson, Shel Silverstein, Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, and Arnold Roth. This would have been a perfect opportunity to shout from the rooftops (or the centerfold) the unique achievements of this handful of graphic comedians; but, no-their names are merely mentioned, somewhat in the manner of a roll call. But barenekidwimmin get ample display: in addition to the usual Playmate and the January "preview" of the past year's lovelies as a prelude to picking one as "Playmate of the Year," the celebration includes 20 pages of bare bosoms bountiful and derrieres perfectly rounded. Despite the magazine's trumpeting of the value of cartooning, in the last-anniversary-analysis, female nudity is Playboy's signal achievement in its 50-year history. (Well, we all knew that, didn't we?) This issue summarizes Hef's long-winded Playboy Philosophy, reducing the prolix 200,000 words to a 1,600-word capsule. Hef appears, as usual, on a couple pages of snapshots taken around the Playboy Mansion West; as usual, he is surrounded by zaftig blonde bombshells and garbed in a dressing gown. I'm not sure, judging from these photos, that Hef is actually alive anymore. These days, Hef, who is a beneficiary of either perfect facial bone structure or botox injections, has but two grimaces: grinning and grinning with teeth showing. There's something distinctly mummified about his appearance. In photo after photo, he looks as if he's been propped up next to another blonde or another celebrity and snapped in that pose in order to provoke posterity's everlasting envy. The festivities are enlivened with an essay on politics by Norman Mailer (whose views, sad to say, are more wish-fulfillment than factual), Al Franken answering twenty questions, Hunter S. Thompson waxing nostalgic, George Plimpton (in one of the last things he wrote) recalling his stunt photographing Playmates, and an interview with Jack Nicholson. But, in a final spasm of neglect, no special array of cartoon Christmas cards this season, alas and alack.

            Did I mention this before? I finally remembered the name of Herb Gardner's first novel- A Piece of the Action (1958, Simon and Schuster). ... Remember all those stories, given credence by Fredric Wertham probably, about the homoerotic relationship between Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, living together in snug obscurity in the labyrinthine Wayne Mansion? It appears, now, that the producers of the campy "Batman" tv show in the 1960s read all about that, too. And then made something of it. According to Adam West, who played the cowled crusader, the sexual innuendo in the show was no accident. In the December 12 issue of The Week, quoted from Ramp, West said: "It was so blatant-in an effort to pay homage to the comics but also to titillate and amuse the adults. We were careful never to appear to be touchy-feely. If you'll notice, Batman and Robin never touched. But if you look at the Batpoles in the Mansion, I had a bigger one. It was just there in case somebody wanted to notice." Sometimes the production stepped over the line, West claims, and the network yelled. "We got memos frequently, like, 'You can't light his crotch that way because we can see too much of a bulge.'" I dunno; it sounds too cute to be real. Or mebbe it's just West's fixation. Giant batpole? "Too much of a bulge"? But then, there are more things in this world, Horatio, than we have dreamed of. West, who claims to be grateful for the fame the show brought him, was never able to escape the role because casting directors always saw him in tights. Despite the giant batpole, they could never imagine him in bed with Faye Dunaway, West said. Just with Dick Grayson, apparently.

Movies: I'm not sure that getting comic book characters up on the Big Screen necessarily elevates comics into the cultural stratosphere. Nor does it do much for the social standing of comic book fans, if we are to judge from what Avi Arad, chief of Marvel's movie operation, said in the December issue of Playboy when asked how it is decided which of Marvel's 4700 (?) characters to film: "With the comics, computer games and animated shows doing well," he said, "the geek community gets bigger and bigger, and they'll go to any Marvel film." ... And here, from No. 1506 of the Comics Buyer's Guide, is a list of comics-based flicks for 2004, by projected release month: January -Mark Hamill's "Comic Book: The Movie," a look at how Hollywood creates a comic book character movie, in DVD; April -"Hellboy," the celluloid version of Mike Mignola's demon spawn, played by Ron Perlman; and "The Punisher," a second attempt at capturing the essence of Frank Castle, a loose cannon vigilante bent on exterminating the Mob, with Thomas Jane in the title role and John Travolta playing the villain; June -"Garfield," the orange tabby in animated action; July -In "Spider-Man II," Tobye Maguire takes on Doc Ock, the eight-armed scientific madman; and Halle Berry appears in "Catwoman," playing, as they coyly put it, "a catwoman" not "The Catwoman" (who, we suppose, was so deftly impersonated by Michelle Pfeiffer, that not even the beauteous Berry can supplant the visual memory (Berry says she's "one of nine"); August -"Blade: Trinity" brings Wesley Snipes and Kris Kristofferson back for what is being called the last of the trio of Blade shows; and "Man-Thing," Marvel's swamp monster sloshing across the screen; September -"Constantine (aka Hellblazer)" with Keanu Reeves playing the supernatural grifter; October -"Lady Death," the pneumatic spook lady animated in DVD; December -"Fantastic Four," Marvel's first family, arrives, as do "The Incredibles," another animated film, also in DVD, from Pixar, the animating champs responsible for the record-breaking "Finding Nemo" and the Toy Stories.

            Others, for which release dates have not been announced, include: "A Thousand Days (Strikeforce: Morituri)" in which a band of superheroes is given life for only 1,000 days, in development for the Sci-Fi Network; "Alien Legion," a CGI spectacular using the Epic comics series; "Asterix & Obelix vs. Caesar" and "Asterix & Obelix: Cleopatra," based upon the hugely successful and long-running European comic book, stars Gerard Depardieu as the diminutive Gaul (when "Cleopatra" was released in Europe in 2002, it was "the most successful film there in 35 years," saith CBG); "Blueberry," the film version of Moebius' dark and gritty take on the U.S. Western stars Vincent Cassel as Blueberry; "The Crow: Wicked Prayer" with Eddie Furlong and Dennis Hopper; "Gen13," another animated DVD that has already run in Europe and will reach these shores in 2004; "Son of the Mask" gives Jamie Kennedy a shot at the role that Jim Carrey originated; "Preacher" with James Marsden playing the part of Jessie Custer, the disillusioned pastor who has a problem with God, screenplay by the comic book series creator, Garth Ennis; and "Mirror Mask," a film written by Sandman comics fave, Neil Gaiman, and produced by his buddy, Dave McKean.

CORRECTIVE: Rabbiteer John McCarthy noticed this drastic fubar last time: it wasn't Vernon Grant's mother who had gone to the Art Institute of Chicago and then, out there in that South Dakota sod house, taught Grant; it was his teacher. I just read that too fast at the Vernon Grant site and thought it said he was trained by his mother. Encouraged, yes; trained, no. Sorry, kimo sabe. His teacher may have lived in a sod house; or not.

ALL THE ALICE YOU WANT TO KNOW. "What is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations?" Pictures and words together-comics. Without my realizing it at the time I first met Lewis Carroll's Alice, I had encountered the definition that would, in the years of my dotage, guide me down many a rabbit hole. Oddly, I can't remember my first reading of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass. I remember liking Through the Looking Glass better, but I don't remember my initial experience of it. Probably I was read to rather than reading them myself. But I don't remember the initiation. Odd, as I say, but revealing also. It's as if Alice and her acquaintances, strange and wonderful, and certain of her utterances or those of the creatures she meets have always been loitering about in the back of my mind. Perhaps I am only jung and easily freudened, but I suspect that C.L. Dodgson and his creations-Lewis Carroll, Alice, the tardy White Rabbit, the irritable Duchess, the Walrus and the Carpenter and their seaside feast, the tottering White Knight, and the mysterious aged man a-sitting on the gate-all of them, are so thoroughly integrated into our culture that they're part of the collective unconscious, like walking upright or kissing on the lips. But whether this suspicion can stand rigorous examination or not, at least three other people have found Alice almost everywhere in comics.

            Byron Sewell, Mark Burstein, and Alan Tannenbaum have produced a record of the evidence, a copiously annotated bibliography entitled, pertinently, Pictures and Conversations: Lewis Carroll in the Comics. It's a handsome production-full color cover, 100 7x10-inch typeset pages on slick paper, with occasional illustrations. (There'd be more of the latter except for copyright issues that the compilers wished to avoid.) An essay by Burstein launches us into the project by pointing out that Lewis Carroll's Alice books, illustrated, initially, by himself and then by John Tenniel, yoked pictures and words for meaning in the same way as comics do. He discusses the organization of the bibliography after rehearsing  the origins of comics from Hogarth and Rowlandson through Topffer and Busch and then Outcault's Yellow Kid, whose debut took place three years before Dodgson's death. Just three years after Dodgson died, "the first incursion of his own characters into comics took place" in the Chicago Sunday Tribune. Drawn by R.L. Taylor, a "teaser" page for a forthcoming comic strip appeared on November 10, 1901. A week later, the first of the series appeared. As an example of the thoroughness of the 250-plus entries in this bibliography listing Carroll characters in comics, here's the entry for this: "Included in a weekly section entitled 'Merry Andrew's Jests and Jingles / Edited by R.L. Taylor' [in an oval panel on the upper left] and 'Four Pages of Smiles and Chuckles' [in an oval panel on the right]. This is the first strip in the series, entitled ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN FUNNYLAND / SHE TAKES THE DUCHESS / TO SEE THE 'TRAINED GYRAFT [sic].' This full-page strip consisted of six panels. The Carpenter is wearing the same folded paper hat as in the familiar Tenniel illustrations. This is the earliest Carrollian comic strip noted by the Editors [viewed on microfilm; it is unknown if any copies of the actual newspaper strip have survived]. Some subsequent strips consisted of four panels with another strip running along the bottom. The Editors have only examined microfilm strips through the end of 1901; presumably the strip ran for a while thereafter."

            The bibliography is divided into numerous sections-Early Appearances, Classics Illustrated and Marvel Classics, Funny Books (including straightforward adaptations), Horror and Science Fiction, Promotional Give-aways, Political Parodies, Superheroes and Villains (DC, Marvel, Others), Translations and Reprints, Japanese Comics, Walt Disney Productions, and Erotica and some unclassified-over 250 annotations in all, as I said.

            The book concludes with several appendices listing non-American editions, the contents of Disneland Magazine and others, indices listing the bibliographic entries by author and by title, and an essay by David Lockwood, "Classics Illustrated and Marvel," excerpted from Lockwood's planned book on the history of Alice illustrators.

            Here are a couple more examples of the meticulousness of the annotations:

            "Keith Giffen (writer and artist). Brooklyn, NY: Lodestone Publishing, The March Hare, No. 1, Nov. 1986. Pp. [32]. $1.50. (USA); $2.10 (CAN). NB: Contains the detective story 'Home Sweet Hit Man,' in which a March Hare character (sketchy pencil lines) acts as the alter ego of Milo the detective. This issue states that it is continued, but in fact, no others made it into production, although some of the Editors' sources say that No. 2 will be issued soon."

            The entry on Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neil's The League of ExtraOrdinary Gentlemn (Vol. 2, No. 3, Nov. 2002) includes this description: "The marvelous front cover depicts a number of taxidermied characters from children's literature, mounted in Victorian-style glass cases in an other-wordly museum, including Tenniel's White Rabbit. The Caterpillar's hookah has its breathing tube attached to a regulator affixed to the top of a bell jar displaying a card gardener (with a skull for a head). A beheading axe lies on the floor in front of it. An eerie Cheshire Cat stares out of another case. Brian Talbot reported on the Internet that he had spoken with Alan Moore, who informed him that 'the scene depicted on the cover is one of a parallel world British Museum' and that the 'depiction of characters from Alice' was Kevin O'Neil's addition. There are no references to Carroll in the text."

            The first printing of this deliciously compendious compilation has sold out, but a second printing is in process (incorporating a few more items), and the result may be ordered at the publisher's website, www.IvoryDoor.com, for about $20.

REPRINT REVIEWS AND OTHER OPINIONS. From Andrews McMeel, here's the first (of many, I suspect) collection of Rudy Park, The People Must Be Wired (128 8.5x9-inch paperback pages; $10.95). Written by journalist Theron Heir and drawn by editorial cartoonist Darrin Bell, the action of this strip takes place almost entirely in a coffee shop, the House of Java Cybercafe, to which Rudy, a gadget-obsessed former dot-commer, has resorted in order to earn a living after the collapse of his 'Net-biz. The comedy is provoked mostly by Rudy's techno-geek obsessions and by those of a wildly assorted collection of zany caffeinated customers-among them, a loudly cantankerous Scrabble champion, Mrs. Sadie Cohen; an inept over-the-hill political agitator, Uncle Mort; a former college jock, Randy Taylor; Rudy's boss, an African-American named Armstrong; and the occasional toothsome wench whom Randy approaches with dating in mind. And others, some of whom, as these pages turn, are fugitives from real life. Well, politics, actually, which sometimes resembles real life.

            Life in the cybercafe turns manic pretty often. One day, a heavily moustachio'd man dressed like Charlie Chaplin comes into the shop, spouting Internet sales slogans. "Hot girls," he says; "girls, girls, girls." Rudy thinks: "My ship has come in." The salesman rails on: "Make $50,000 a week from your own home! Bring the romance back into your marriage! Recession-proof stock! Never burp again!" He gets increasingly more agitated, his moustache extending itself as if electrically charged. "Secrets to performing oral surgery? Only $1.99!" At last, Rudy, exasperated, asks him why he's there. "You weren't answering your e-mail," the man says, suddenly calm. Rudy stares at him, unbelieving. Finally, scowling slightly, Rudy thinks: "The spammers have crossed the line." The salesman raves on: "Raise a talking pet!" And another cyber salesman drifts by, saying, "Live odor-free!"

            On another day, Armstrong tells his customers to place their coffee orders by using the computer on the counter. "Type in your order and hit 'send,'" he says. The objective, he explains, is to evade paying taxes. "Our customers have been paying sales tax while the customers of online merchants don't," Armstrong says; "it's an un-American double standard! Well, no more, I say! Our customers can now order over the Web. You will have a tax-free experience. In the spirit of Patrick Henry, you will have equality!" Mrs. Cohen, persuaded at last, types in her order for a double mocha. "Whipped cream?" asks Armstrong. "No," she said. Behind her in line, another customer whispers: "Don't say it; send it." To which Mrs. Cohen says, "I just want a freakin' mocha." Armstrong: "And you shall have equality!" And another customer, a mousy chick, says, "If I order via catalog, is my scone tax-free?"

            One week, Rudy decides to become vegan, claiming "it takes real sacrifice to grow," he says "it's broadened my perspective." Armstrong points out that Rudy's diet is only six hours old. "I'll celebrate with a burger," says Rudy, putting on his jacket. The next day, Armstrong asks how the vegan life style is going. "Day three, isn't it?" he says. "Treating me well," says Rudy; "but I have made one slight modification-I'm now on the all-meat diet." Continuing the next day, he expounds the Atkins Diet theory. "You're thin as a rail already," says Armstrong. Rudy, oblivious, turns to a waiter and says, "Another burger, sir-I'm dieting."  Mrs. Cohen, who lurks nearby, mutters, "I blame the media."

A two-bounce gag.

            Once Rudy leaves the coffee shop to visit a computer store, where he is told that his palm pilot is "old and clunky." The latest advance, the next generation of digital organzer, is smaller, the "pinky pilot." Rudy buys one and takes it back to the House of Java, where he boasts to Armstrong that the new gadget gets e-mail and web access. "I hope it also floats," says Armstrong. "Huh?" says Rudy. "You just dropped it into your soup," Armstrong explains. Rudy looks into the bowl and extracts a small something: "Is this it?" "Oyster cracker," says the analytical Armstrong.

            Rudy Park had the misfortune to debut on September 3, 2001, and it had therefore run only a week when 9/11 struck, making comic strips and comedy, for a time, irrelevant. But relevance soon became part of the daily fare at the House of Java.

            Uncle Mort phones the White House to announce that he knows when the War on Terror will end. At the other end of the phoneline, an officious factotum says, "How could you know it ends on or around November 7, 2004, just after the next Presidential election?" Mort says nothing for a moment; then, "Are you toying with me?" he asks. And the mischievous guy on the phone says, "You know, Rumsfeld's the love-child of Nixon and Martha Stewart."

            Dick Cheney shows up at the coffee shop one day in drag, a disguise that includes a blonde wig, because he fears that his life is in danger from marauding terrorists. "Aren't you being a little paranoid?" Armstrong asks. "We're just being cautious," Cheney says, invoking, as is his wont, the Royal We, "-in the light of the legitimate threats we face. Like that thing under the scone!" he screams suddenly. Armstrong extracts "the thing." Says Armstrong: "Raisin." Cheney: "Thought it was bin Laden."

            Ken Lay drops in, too. Inspecting the cake display case, he says: "I see you've got a plate of 18 donuts." Armstrong: "Sir? I see merely two." Lay: "No, no, take a closer look. It's at least 18." Armstrong: "Methinks you're inflating things."

            When Lay leaves, he unintentionally leaves behind his Enron address book, which, Mrs. Cohen discovers, lists Dick Cheney's secret, undisclosed hideout. She tracks him to the address and finds that it is a Taco Bell. Stopped by a uniformed guard, she gains entrance by identifying herself as a Texaco lobbyist. To find the Vice President, the guard tells her, "Go to the counter. Ask for 'El Burrito Supremo.'"

            But this is a bipartisan strip. Later, Rudy discovers Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt under a table. "We're not under the table," one of them assures Rudy. "We're out front, promoting a responsible, alternative agenda. We're taking a courageous stand on tough issues. The café floors of America must be buffed."

            Collin Powell appears, taking refuge in the coffee shop because he's been locked out of the Pentagon. Then in comes Rumsfeld, who announces that he wants to bug Al Gore's phone. "Gore, sir?" asks a minion. "Remember the beard, men," says Rumsfeld. "Listen up-our enemies are everywhere. They could be in our neighborhoods, our churches, under our desks-" "Relax, sir," says the minion, "you no longer work for Nixon."

            Meanwhile, Randy Taylor finds a job-"undressing people," he says, revealing, later, that he's taken a position as an airport security guard. Not a reassuring development, considering that Randy is so mentally challenged that he can't spell I.Q.

            The strip is not all snide comedy at the expense of politicians. But Heir and Bell ladle in enough spice of this sort to give their concoction a distinctly topical flavor. Drawn with an undulating line and accented by gray tone and solid blacks occasionally, Bell's artwork, while not as stunning as, say, Michael Jantze's in The Norm or Pat Brady's in Rose Is Rose or Brooke McEldowney's in 9 Chickweed Lane (to rattle off a few of the more conspicuous contenders), is more than competent for the tasks Heir poses for him, and his caricatures are deft whenever needed. Bell's style evokes memories of Bloom County, and the resonance, as it turns out, is scarcely off-base. Rudy Park could well become the Bloom County of this century's first decade.

            Brad Stone, writing last summer at the Newsweek net niche, ponders the identity of the times in terms of comic strips. The 70s had Doonesbury, he says, the 80s had Bloom County, and the 90s had Dilbert. Which strip, Stone wonders, will capture the zeitgeist of this decade? He reviews the candidates, beginning with Darby Conley's Get Fuzzy, winner of NCS's "humor comic strip of the year" last May and currently running in 400 newspapers. Reprint volumes have sold over 400,000, Stone reports, but since Rob Wilco and his pets, Satchel the good-natured dog and Bucky and cat with the snaggle-tooth temper, don't comment on the issues of the day, it cannot qualify as a successor to Doonesbury. Conley refrains, deliberately, from commentary. He sees a mass media already clogged with opinion and doesn't want to get into that melee: "I get annoyed by other's views I don't agree with," he told Stone, "and I think that's how annoying my views would be to some people."

            Another contender is Aaron McGruder's irreverent and iconoclastic The Boondocks, a sort of piss-on-everybody strip about which I've written plenty here already. Stone thinks Huey Freeman and his pals are a little too sharply critical to be reflective of the age. Stone considers Rudy Park, too.

            Stone quotes Heir: "Doonesbury and Bloom County challenged people, but most of all they entertained. That's what we think about. We don't try to be a bullhorn." And judging from the overview that the reprint collection at hand affords, Heir and Bell might well turn out to have captured the more light-hearted of this decade's critical spirit. But Stone wonders if any comic strip specializing in commentary will achieve the pinnacle Bloom County reached (with 1,200 newspapers at its peak) or that Doonesbury presently occupies (with 1,500 papers). Edgy strips like Pearls before Swine (with only 100 papers), Frazz (with 125), and La Cucaracha (65) have scarcely appeared above the horizon of public consciousness yet; and Rudy Park, with 80 papers, and The Boondocks, with 250, are also still fighting for recognition. (Stone, like most reporters writing on this aspect of the subject, fails to mention Bruce Tinsley's Mallard Fillmore, the lame duck strip with a conservative tinge, the only one of its kind. According to the King Features website, the strip is in about 400 newspapers, a more-than-respectable showing.)

            "The first challenge," Stone goes on, "is simply carving out space." New strips must elbow their way onto comics pages "crammed with seemingly immortal, humor-challenged fare like Garfield and Hi and Lois, many of which are now tediously passed down by their creators to other writers." To find an audience-and immortality-a new strip "has to bump off those mysteriously popular vets."

            But even if securing display space weren't a significant hurdle, there's some doubt that "politically charged commentary" in a comic strip would be welcomed on the comics page by newspaper editors. The times, after all, are different. Stone quotes Jake Morrissey, comics editor at United Media, who remembers that Doonesbury came along when the body politic was goosey with Vietnam and Watergate; and Bloom County used lovable animals to mask its social commentary. "To come from a political perspective, and particularly a liberal perspective, is probably more difficult now, and I don't honestly know why that is," Morrissey said.

            Gee, let's see. Does the Bush League practice intimidation or not? Given the timid temper of the times, we might expect Mallard Fillmore's circulation to be soaring, but it isn't. (Although 400 papers is, as I said, a thoroughly respectable circulation.)

            But Darrin Bell is, notwithstanding, bent on cracking into print with sharper social commentary. He's been freelancing acerbic editorial cartoons for several years, and he's also been producing another comic strip, solo, for the Web and for a few African-American newspapers: Candorville is a sort of racially diverse "Friends." The chief characters include Lemont Brown, an aspiring writer; Susan Garcia, a corporate ladder-climber; and Clyde (aka "C-Dog"), an angry youth who (in the PC of politeness) "makes the wrong choices in life." An apprentice criminal, in other words. The strip is one of only a few strips to be launched in both English and Spanish. Bell, who is African-American, deploys the Candorville resources to explore such issues as bigotry, poverty, homelessness, biracialism, th culture of victimhood, youth, and personal responsibility. And he spares no one.

            Here's Clyde, caught by two policemen, pistols pointing at him as he steps out of the broken display window of a television store, a tv set in his arms: "This is racial, isn't it?" says Clyde. And here's a little old lady, giving food to a stray dog and saying, "Oh, you poor little dog-would you like some food?" while, just at her elbow, a homeless man sleeps in a doorway.

            If Candorville can't find a niche in most metropolitan dailies in this country, then Morrissey and Stone might be right: the times, they are a-changed to hostility for liberality. And then what will become of the conservative mantra that the media is liberal?

FUNNYBOOK FAN FAIR. Conan is back, and Dark Horse has him. Kurt Busiek has taken up the tale, and in the first issue, Busiek introduces the Cimmerian of yore as a legendary warrior-king-chieftan-now, presumably, dead and gone-whose legend lives on in the dog-eared remnants of parchments and scrolls found surrounded by treasure in an underground cave by the ennui-striken son of some absent ruler, who has sent him treasure-hunting across the countryside. The bored royal youth demands that his wasir translate the chronicles, and so he does. The Conan of Roy Thomas and John Buscema was among the first comic book characters I encountered when re-entering the world of funnybooks thirty years ago as just another reader, so I have a soft place in my head-er, heart-for the scowling, taciturn swordsman, but I can't say I looked forward to this encore appearance. I just didn't want the pleasures of my recollected Conan disrupted by some new incarnation-some self-indulgent "up-dating," some writer's ego-driven "modernization" that would ruin the classic concept suspended in my memory. Busiek is not Thomas by any means-and comic book storytelling has moved on from the day when prose was as important to mood as the pictures. Storytelling these days is much more cinematic, dependent upon visuals and dialogue rather than lyrical captions (and better for it, too, I ween). But the artwork here is a treat, evoking both Buscema's slouching primate-like protagonist and Frank Frazetta's painted interpretations for the covers of paperback editions of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories. Generally speaking, I don't think fully painted artwork functions well in comic books: it usually lacks the visual definition that's needed to carry narrative. Alex Ross has mastered it, though, so, I thought, there's hope. Here, Cary Nord has achieved another dimension in mastery. And he's done it through an ingenious marriage of ancient workmanship and modern technology. The secret: his pencil drawings are not inked before they're colored by Dave Stewart. Stewart gives the pictures hue and texture; but Nord's pencils, flickering through the color, give the color delineation and, thereby, definition and visual clarity. The result, which I noticed before knowing the technique, is painted artwork that is more linear than the usual. But the lines scarcely overpower the visuals: they are a fine filigree that contains the color, defines the forms and figures, and sometimes supplies texture. Stewart's colors, meanwhile, furnish subtlety and nuance. Lovely. It will remain to be seen if Busiek can reincarnate the Conan of Howard and Thomas, but the Conan of Buscema and Frazetta is here, alive and well-a legend brought back.

            Number Ones: In the first issue of Caper by Judd Winick with art by Farel Dalrymple, we meet a pair of Jewish assassins at the turn of the century (that is-just to be clear-1900) in San Francisco. Dalrymple's gritty style suits the subject, which drips blood at the beginning and the end. None of the characters introduced here are at all admirable or even likeable, seems to me, so it's a little hard to tell where this is going. More merciless murders and unfeeling reactions, I suppose. But Dalrymple's artistry tantalizes enough that the series is worth, at least, a second look. ... Teen Titans Go! is an attempt to put the Cartoon Network show on paper, and the pictures, at least, succeed. Todd Nauch's pencils, particularly as inked by Lary Stucker, are crisp and angular in the currently popular manner of would-be manga art-simple geometric shapes enlivened with a flexing line and modeled by Brad Anderson's adroit colors. Nice looking. But since I'm not a viewer of the tv series, I had a little trouble getting into this story. Shouldn't a first issue orient the "new reader" to the situation-maybe list the characters and their names, for instance? So often the characters call each other by slangy nick-names that I can't tell if Beast Boy is the Changeling of yore or not. Probably not.  The Teens seem to be engaged in video gaming in order to hone their fighting skills, and, meanwhile, the bad guys, led by a computer geek named Gizmo, seem to be doing somewhat the same except they're viewing the "real" Teens via some sort of Internet hook-up (or so it appears). Their objective here is to analyze the Teens' characteristic battle maneuvers actions in order to be able to predict them in actual combat. I think. Lots of action sequences, some nifty posturing by cute characters, and very little background detail. Seems to be a trend: don't draw backgrounds-instead, draw speed lines and make color swatches. The moral to this installment is: teamwork is better than solo action. All this is pleasant enough, but about half-way through the book, I came across a disturbing ad for a videogame called (I think) Super Duper Sumos. This is a fighting video game, I assume, featuring those larger than healthy Japanese wrestlers. So, if I'm reading this right, now we're engaged in making obesity seem heroic and therefore attractive to an alarmingly chubby adolescent population? I have a fervent dislike for do-gooder parental groups seeking to impose their view upon the creative universe out there, but this maneuver seems just a tad misdirected to me: in a not so subliminal fashion, it suggest that being fat is a good thing. ... Kyle Baker's first issue resurrecting Jack Cole's famed Plastic Man is entirely in "animation style"-by which I don't mean the crisp renditions of the Batman manner. No, this is in one of Baker's usual styles-a static version of a Tex Avery animated cartoon-big-nosed burly bodies with spindly comical legs and arms. The backgrounds are fanciful color overlays (just like the latter-day Chuck Jones) against which Avery-like figures cavort in antic action. I love Baker's stuff; and this is just fine. But it's not the Plastic Man I remember. Not that Baker set out to do Cole; from this evidence, it's clear he didn't. He's just being Baker, and Baker is awfully good. But this effort is a little too "animated cartoony" -too much like storyboards awaiting animation. It's all poised for movement, manic movement at that. Baker re-tells Plas' origins as an acid-soaked (and thereby rubberized) Eel O'Brian, one-time small-time crook who, with his new powers, decides, with no motivation at all, to become a crime-fighter. And at the end of this installment, Plas' chief sends him off to capture the criminal O'Brian (i.e., himself). What fun. Throughout, there is little of the aura of serious crime-fighting that lurked in Cole's comics. And the sight gags here are all of the sort that cry out for animation: if we saw this in motion instead of in static panels, the comedy would be much more hilarious than it is here, where it is merely hinted at. The plot, such as it is, is a whole-hearted echo of early animated cartoons, which were held together entirely by a succession of gags. Just one gag after another. Plot consisted of whatever setups were necessary to get to the gags. Ditto here. Nice art; well-imagined gags but not Plastic Man. Something new and wildly wonderful, no question. But not Plas. (And Woozy has too much hair.)

            In the 4th issue of the 5-issue mini-series, Cinnamon: El Ciclo, Cinnamon and Mace (who, in previous issues, wants to kill Cinnamon) cooperate in rescuing a bunch of kids, Mace's charges, from a burning building, and then they run off, looking for the missing kid, Helen, touching base, en route, with a possibly corrupt politician. This series is pretty obviously an attempt to do a "Western" version of 100 Bullets -in appearance, anyhow: Francisco Paronzini's pencils as inked by Robert Campanella ape Eduardo Risso's. And it's not a bad job albeit the brightly lit western venue is missing altogether the deeply shadowed ambiance of the more urban crime scene. Jen Van Meter's story hasn't quite Brian Azzarello's sinister milieu either.

UNDER THE SPREADING PUNDITRY. We don't often get a vivid demonstration of how the conservative bias on Fox News works, so I am pleased to parse the November 18 coverage of the recent Massachusetts supreme court decision on "same sex marriage." On Fox, both before and after the report, the announcer reminded us in no uncertain terms that "President Bush opposes same sex marriage." On CNN, no mention of Bush's position, but at the end of the report came an announcement about a poll by which viewers would phone in or e-mail to express their views on same sex marriage. So how was Fox's re-iteration of Dubya's view not the "fair and balanced" "real journalism" the network boasts? Because the repeated announcement was clearly intended to reassure the right-wing religious base of the Republican Party that Bush's heart was in the right place-regardless of what those heathens in Massachusetts were up to.

            On the same date, I watched the two networks' coverage of George W. ("Whopper") Bush's departure for London on a state visit. On Fox, we saw happy pictures of Dubya and his wife boarding their plane, bound for England; the report concluded with voice-over information that there would be protesters in London, but, we were cheerfully reminded, this represented only a small percentage of the British population-a vocal population which we cannot ignore, but certainly not a large number. On CNN, we saw the same pictures of Dubya and Laura skipping gaily up the stairs to their plane, plus, in anticipation of the assembling protest movement, interviews with Londoners about the Bush League visit-both people opposed to and those in favor of the visit and Bush's role as a war monger; on NPR, the reporter speculated that the streets of London would be filled with protesters. The "story" here was about the crowds massing to protest Bush's presence. Fox virtually ignored the gathering storm except to downplay it; the other tv and radio networks I attended to may have overplayed the threat of protestation-although CNN's "balanced" interviewing, talking to advocates both pro and con, suggests a more even-handed approach to the news than Fox's deliberately belittling the menace in the situation.

            As for the coverage of the warfare in Iraq, it's clear that, as the Bush League has maintained, the news media tend to stress the violence and disorder rather than the reconstruction successes in the country. That's a media bias, though, not a "liberal" one. Television, in particular, wants vivid, action-packed pictures. Building schools is not very action-packed. Exploding bombs and the smoking ruins of automobiles surrounded by corpses are much more "visual." Some networks have come to realize the bias inherent in their pictorial orientation and have begun producing occasional stories about less gory events in the much abused country. But it's difficult for the average citizen (like me, who has no pretension to being anything other than ordinary) to sort out the truth-particularly when the Bush League, known prevaricators, are touting one side over the other.

            Meanwhile, here's George W. ("Warlord") Bush rolling back the tariff on steel, saying that the tenure of the tariff, about 21 months, was long enough to enable the U.S. steel industry to regroup to compete with foreign steel manufacturers. So we don't need the tariff protection anymore. "Mission accomplished!" Not everyone agrees, of course-chiefly, the representatives of the steel manufacturing industry, the very folks the tariff was supposed to help. But the mission is accomplished, saith Dubya, so who are they to object? Surely in this episode, we have a preview of how the Iraq adventure will conclude. Following a national election by caucus (composed of selected, friendly natives), Iraqis are supposed to take over their own government in July, it sez here; so by the time the Republican convention will re-nominate its Fund-Raiser in Chief, George WMD Bush will be able to say, as he said with steel tariffs, "Mission accomplished!" Democracy has come to Iraq. The campaign message is clear: Re-elect me, and we'll bring the same kind of democracy to you-hand-picked, one-party, oil-friendly puppet politicians drawing shamefully high wages from both the public till and lobbyists. What swill.

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