STRIPPING. The Cincinnati Enquirer cancelled Aaron McGruder's The Boondocks in early January as part of a revision of its comic strip line-up. Sara Pearce, assistant managing editor for features, explained the decision to drop the controversial strip: "During the past year, Boondocks was substituted a number of times because it was deemed inappropriate for a family newspaper. We did not want to keep publishing a comic that we regularly needed to censor." In other words, since the Enquirer was frequently appalled by the inflammatory content of some of the strip's daily installments, they decided just to douse the source of the fire altogether by dispensing with the whole thing on a daily basis. No more problems. Newspapers have every right to do this, of course. But when they do it, they usually commit the sort of inconsistency that they'd crucify a politician for. Admitting that the strip "has its fans," Pearce said it makes others "uncomfortable." I wonder if she and the rest of the paper's editors apply the same criteria to the front page or to advertising supplements touting women's underwear. Even more intriguing, however, is her use of the word "censor." It's the first time I've seen a newspaper factotum use the word "censor" to describe what most editors, under similar circumstances, call "editing." Curious. The paper also dropped Agnes, Cathy, Mary Worth, and James; it added Red and Rover, Flo and Friends, The Hots, Frazz, and Tina's Groove. Looks to me like Tina's Groove is slowly displacing Cathy as the niche strip featuring the adventures of a single young woman.
Johnny Hart dipped his toe back into hot water on January 19. In B.C. that day, a couple of his cavemen are depicted sitting on a pile of rocks, one of them reading a book: "Sez here, 'Fred and Stanley Wong claimed they flew the first airplane.' However," he continues, "it has been established that their craft never actually became airborne." "Proving what?" asks the other caveman. "Two wongs don't make a wright?" says the first. Naturally, given Hart's record as a proselyting Born Again servant of the Lord, some people saw the strip as a slur against Asians. (Once you've established yourself as a crusader-for whatever cause-everything you do is suspect.) Several newspapers, including the Washington Post, Dallas Morning News, and two newspapers in New Mexico, the Clovis News Journal and the Portales News-Tribune, declined to run the strip because they didn't want to offend their Asian-American readers. "I understand trying to make a play on words," said Ray Sullivan, publisher of the New Mexico papers, "but it's just stupid. I don't think this would go over well in Chinatown." I am not aware of any substantial Chinese enclaves in the New Mexico towns Clovis (population, 32,000) and Portales (10,000), but that's just another aspect of my ethnic myopia, I suppose. Newspaper publishers, having a much more intimate exposure to such things, have learned to be cautious.
In the same vein, we'll probably hear an uproar about the Zits strip for January 20. In a single, strip-wide panel, we see Jeremy and his buddy Hector leaving the scene at the far right, the rest of the strip being devoted to a giant display in the snow of Jeremy's signature in a decorative cursive that would make John Hancock envious. Hector says, "The flourish at the end was a nice touch." To which Jeremy, sipping from a soda-pop container, says, "Long live the 48-oz. fountain drink." The problem here? The offense to Western Civilization? Well, I suppose Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman can explain that Jeremy squirted his signature in the snow with the straw he's sipping through, but in my day, adolescent males wrote their names in the snow with another, more anatomical, device. Surely, some reader somewhere-some cautious publisher-is gonna be pissed off.
Then there's Dagwood on January 19, whose pants fall down, exposing him in his shorts. Or The Hots on the same date in which the young wife is discussing her cycle and alluding to her sexual agenda for the evening with her husband. No end in sight, you might say.
Opus is gathering satirical steam. As the beloved flightless one left the Antarctica and found himself in the clutches of civilization again, he has been insulted by officious immigration gate-keepers and assaulted by the airport security apparatus. Berke Breathed is back.
One of my favorites from the last month or so is Carol Lay's "Dissent into Hell," in which she fills her customary half-page strip for alternative newspapers with a dramatization of this "news item": The Secret Service has been enlisting local police to keep demonstrators away from Bush and Cheney events, often confining them to fenced-off areas far from the media. Lay depicts a band of protesters with their placards being loaded into a truck to be transported to a "freedom pen" several miles away from the site of the Presidential Appearance. They finally arrive at "Corn Hole, Kansas" and are herded into a chain-link enclosure. One of the placards reads "We've been Bushwhacked," and one of the protesters is saying, "Think they'll ever come back for us?" The sign on the fence reads, "Free Speech Area." Ironic and bitter and true. Just another revelation of the information the news media isn't promulgating, despite having been granted freedom of the press expressly for the purpose of promulgating information-of all sorts, including that which is critical of government. Sigh.
JUST HEARD IN NEW YORK. The voice on the other end of the line sounded as if it was being extruded painfully from an atrophied larynx. Like fingernails scraping across slate, the voice grated, a groan that was nearly a grunt. "Jud Hurd, Bob," it excruciated, "-is this a bad time?" No doubt about it: the sound, the message-indisputably, Jud Hurd, my friend and editor. Abruptly businesslike-no preludes or preambles. But, withal, everlastingly courteous and considerate. No one I have ever known has committed a phone call with Jud's diffident squeamishness about the instrument's most frequently overlooked quality, its inherently heedless intrusiveness-its interloping capacity for barging into someone's life, wholly unheralded, demanding attention immediately, regardless of what the surprised and cowed recipient of the phone call might be doing or might desire or need. Jud recognized this uncivilized dimension of the telephonic universe, and he invariably sought to make up for its unthinking invasiveness by being so punctilious as to unhorse the barbarian. For me, it was never a bad time to get a phone call from Jud.
Jud's voice is probably the most well-known sound in the world of cartooning after the sound of a pen scratching a line on paper. As publisher and editor of the profession's longest-running periodical, the quarterly journal Cartoonist PROfiles, for 35 years, he telephoned others of the inky-fingered fraternity often, making several phone calls a day-interviewing cartoonists, lining up future stories, talking to syndicate officials, exploring sources of illustrative material for articles scheduled for a future issue of the magazine. He also answered scores of questions, from friends and total strangers, from established professionals and aspiring neophytes, wanting to know which pen or brush to use. Most of the questions were about cartooning, but some where not.
I phoned him one time-secure in my belief that good editors knew everything-and asked him, without warning, what the districts of Paris were called. In a blink came the answer: "Arrondisements," he said. "Thanks," I said and hung up. (I knew he'd know-and not just because he was a superior editor. He and Claudia, his wife, had made nearly a dozen trips to Paris over the years, and he could hardly have made such visitations without knowing about arrondisements. And I knew, too, that if he didn't know, Claudia would.)
Jud's editorial acumen is firmly rooted in a lifelong involvement in and practice of cartooning as a career. Born in Cleveland in approximately 1912, Jud discovered, at about the age of 12 or 13, that Charles N. Landon ran his renowned correspondence course in cartooning from his hometown, so Jud went downtown, met Landon, and enrolled in the course. He was hooked. He subsequently drew cartoons for the campus publications at every educational institution he enrolled in, junior high through college, and sold his first cartoon when he was about twenty-one. He sold it to the Calgary Eye-Opener, a humor magazine which, at the time, was published in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It promulgated an assortment of jokes and cartoons of the sort that, today, are so mildly risque as to be nearly inoffensive if not completely boring. For 1934, however, the Eye-Opener was a pretty spicy dish. Jud's cartoon depicted a honeymoon couple in a fancy hotel on January 1, the newly minted husband saying, "Let's start the New Year off with a bang." Jud was informed of the success of his assault on the bastions of publication by a letter from the associate editor, who wrote: "Payment will be three bucks on publication. Check will reach you in time to buy a case of Christmas lager or whatever it is that $3 will buy in Cleveland." The letter was signed Carl Barks, who would, somewhat later, make Donald Duck famous and invent for Disney's webfooted waterfowl a miserly mutton-chopped relative named Uncle Scrooge.
Jud attended Adelbert College of Western Reserve University (now Case-Western Reserve University), where he majored in economics and became art editor of the campus humor magazine, the Red Cat. In that capacity, he wrote various cartooning dignitaries, begging from them drawings of their characters to publish in the magazine. It was a common ploy among campus humor magazine editors. By letter, Jud met such steller 'tooners as E.C. Segar, Frederick Burr Opper, Eugene "Zim" Zimmerman, and Rube Goldberg. After graduation, Jud spent a year at the Chicago Art Institute and then lit out for California. In 1936, he was in Hollywood working as an inbetweener at the Mintz Studio but aspiring, all the while, to a career as a syndicated newspaper cartoonist. By 1937, he had achieved this goal, producing a thrice-weekly comic strip called Just Hurd in Hollywood (his actual given name being "Justin") with "an all-star cast": each strip consisted of a photograph of a movie star in the first panel followed by several other panels presenting Jud's cartoon rendition of an anecdote taken from the star's life. Jud obtained the anecdotes by interviewing the stars, meeting Joan Crawford, Joe E. Brown, Betty Grable, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper, Lana Turner, and so on. While in Los Angeles, Jud also met cartooning greats George McManus, George Herriman, and Walt Disney. The die was cast: Jud honed his interviewing skills and followed his natural inclination to seek out other cartoonists to hobnob with. But it would be a few more years before he combined those ingredients into another career, publishing a magazine of interviews with cartoonists.
Just Hurd in Hollywood was cancelled soon after it was launched: newspapers were being flooded with studio publicity material about movie stars, and a single syndicated gossip column contained many more anecdotes about more stars in the same space that Jud's six-column comic strip occupied. Jud went back to Cleveland and joined the art department at Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA), a feature syndicate, where he produced, among other things, an editorial cartoon for NEA's weekly service. In those days, many of the NEA cartoonists still lived in Cleveland and worked in the NEA offices, so Jud met such luminaries as editorial cartooning great Herblock, Clyde Lewis (Hold Everything), George Scarbo (The Comic Zoo) and Harry Schlensker (later Roy Crane's assistant on Buz Sawyer) and Bela Zaboly (then doing Our Boarding House with Major Hoople following Gene Ahern's departure for King Features and ownership of his feature). Jud went to New York to seek more cartooning fortune in 1940, drew a baseball cartoon-type story called "Pie Cobb" (a take-off on Ty Cobb) for Dell comic books, then returned to Cleveland, where he learned typing (an invaluable skill for a magazine editor acting as his own reporting and production staff) at the Spencerian Business College and met Claudia, who would eventually become his wife. While in New York, he met Peter Arno, Bud Fisher (who, in a somewhat alcoholic daze, offered Jud a job-which, alas, evaporated with the aforementioned daze), and H.T. Webster. Drafted into the Army in 1942 for the duration of World War II, Jud, like many artists and cartoonists, wound up in the Signal Corps, Intelligence Section, where he did a weekly cartoon about a dim-witted soldier named Crypto Chris, later reincarnated as Stew Pid, a character Jud created for American Steel and Wire Company while operating his Industrial Cartoon Studio in Cleveland after the war. Like Will Eisner in the postwar years, Jud produced cartoons and comic strips for commercial clients who wanted comics to emphasize safety messages, to enliven in-house newsletters and magazines, and to instruct employees or to sell products. In the 1950s, Jud tried, in vain, to sell a couple of comic strips to syndicates; then in 1955, Children's Playmate magazine hired him to produce a new "comic book section," for which Jud created Inspector Hector, Socko & Jocko, and Sandy & Dandy features. Finally, in 1959, Jud achieved national distribution by syndicating himself with a business-oriented panel cartoon, Ticker Toons, in which, employing (at last) his education in economics, he posed and answered questions about the stock market. It debuted in November, and a year later, it was picked up by the Chicago Sun-Times/Daily News Syndicate. By then, Jud was already at work devising another informational cartoon panel, Health Capsules, partnering with a physician, Michael Petti. It was distributed by United Feature Syndicate, which, later, also took on Ticker Toons. Ticker Toons lasted 10-12 years; launched in February 1961, Health Capsules was still going, although Jud gave it up a couple years ago, after over 40 years.
In 1952, Jud had joined the National Cartoonists Society (just six years after its founding in New York by Rube Goldberg and a half-dozen other cartoonists who had been convening occasionally during WWII to visit area hospitals to entertain convalescing wounded soldiers), and he occasionally made trips to New York on business, timing the trip to coincide with NCS's monthly meetings. In 1964, shortly after he moved to Westport, Connecticut, Bob Dunn (They'll Do It Every Time), then president of NCS, asked Jud if he would take over the editing of the Society newsletter-"guessing," as Jud usually puts it, "that I could spell." The assignment appealed to all of Jud's instincts and employed many of the skills he'd honed over the years, and he consequently poured more of himself into each successive issue. By 1968, it was consuming too much of his time as a volunteer, gratis employment. Jud offered to continue if NCS could find a way to pay him something. Happily, the NCS Board of Governors proved to be fiscally conservative (which, in those days, meant they didn't want to spend any money, no longer a conservative trait), and Jud then had the idea of continuing in much the same vein with a publication of his own. Cartoonist PROfiles was born with the winter issue in March of 1969. It and Jud's two syndicated cartoons have absorbed his energies ever since. Every day, he goes to work in the cozy one-room building in back of his home, a studio about 30 yards from his back door.
On December 13, 2003, at its anyule Christmas party held, this year, at the New York clubhouse of the Society of Illustrators, NCS presented Jud with the award it gives to those who have performed outstanding service to the Society and/or have made a significant contribution to the profession, the Silver T-Square. The first Silver T-Square was awarded to Britain's legendary political cartoonist, David Low, in 1948. Others have been conferred on such stellar performers as Cliff Sterrett, Herblock, James Thurber, Milton Caniff, Russell Patterson, Bill Mauldin, Arnold Roth -well, you get the idea: it is a distinguished company. And the initiation of Jud Hurd into it is long over-due. Few have done as much for cartooning. Arnold Roth presented the T-square to Jud, and Jud, taking it in his hands, stood at the microphone for a few minutes, his suit coat hanging like a smock from his shoulders, his hand habitually making small propeller motions as he, ever the editor, sought for the right words to rehearse, briefly, his career, displaying, as usual, his enduring love for cartooning.
I started contributing articles to the magazine in June 1991 and have had something in nearly every issue since, but I've been a subscriber much longer-since 1974. I missed the first 5 years of PROfiles, but I've not missed an issue since. Every issued reflected Jud's intensity as a reporter, his passionate curiosity about cartooning, his compulsive desire to understand everything about it and about those who make their living at it. He was perfect for the job, and it created him just as he created it. For all of its run thus far, PROfiles has served as inspiration and edification for hundreds of young aspiring cartoonists who yearn to make their livings at the craft. By this time, a couple generations of them have learned about the profession by reading PROfiles. But the magazine is also a sort of shop talk marathon. In a profession whose practitioners labor, mostly, in solitude, the talk has been invigorating as well as gratifying. Good for the soul of cartooning. So, Jud-Big THANQUES for the conversation. I've treasured the hours.
In the works, by the way, is a book that will reprint Jud's selection of favorite articles from the 35-year run of Cartoonist PROfiles; from Andrews McMeel, out this spring. We'll tell you here when it arrives. And we'll soon be offering off-prints of all the other articles from PROfiles for a modest fee; stay 'tooned.
NOUS R US. "American Splendor," the movie of Harvey Pekar's comic book life, continues to enjoy the spotlight: Andy Seiler in USA Today includes it on his list of the five best motion pictures of the year, and it took Best Picture honors from the National Society of Film Critics, which met January 3 at Sardi's in New York to announced its verdicts for the year. (Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River" came in second.) And the L.A. Film Critics have also honored the flick by listing it among its picks for the best of the year. Pekar, meanwhile, reports that his wife has kidded him about being a has-been as far as movies are concerned. "And I guess she's right," he goes on. "There's no place for me to go in the film business. "American Splendor" covered my life from when I was a little kid 'til I reached the age of 62. There's not much left to make a sequel about. [But] I never got too excited about the success of "American Splendor" because I figured it was, as I've said, a one-shot deal. It'd be different if I had a bunch of film scripts lying around to produce after "American Splendor," but I don't. I'm very grateful to be the object of praise and flattery, even if I don't really deserve it [Pekar credits the movie's makers for its success], but I'm not going to get my head turned by it so that I'll be riding for a fall." In the midst of all the excitement about the movie, Pekar is re-focusing on writing comic book stories, which, this time, will be published in trade paperback collections aimed at book store exposure where general readers can find them. ... Just to keep the honorific ball rolling, The Library Journal has concurred with me in naming Craig Thompson's Blankets one of the "Best Books of 2003." This is the first time a graphic novel has made the list, and this year, the genre is recognized with a second tome, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, the story of the cartoonist's growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution and the war with Iraq.
Christopher Reeve, superman both on and off the screen, has signed to direct a computer-animated feature film about baseball, "a urban fable" set in the 1930s. Said Reeve: "Many projects cross my desk but only a few are truly captivating. With the perfect blend of warmth and wit, this is a story with universal appeal that both children and their parents will love." He will oversee the entire production, from character development, casting and set design through animation and postproduction. It's due out in 2005. ... Russell Myers' comic strip, Broomhilda, about a 1,500-year-old green witch, love-starved and cantankerous, is the inspiration for a new musical being conjured up by Martin Charnin, the lyricist who co-created the musical, "Annie." They're hoping for a Broadway debut in 2006. ... At uComics.com, a website feature called "Comics Sherpa" ("your guide to undiscovered comics") permits "aspiring cartoonists (or established cartoonists with a new idea) to tap into the huge and loyal readership on uComics.com for feedback and exposure." That is, Comics Sherpa presents, without charge to the creator or the viewer, otherwise uncirculated comics for your delection and edification. ... Herge's Tintin is 75 years old: he first appeared, not, as usually claimed, in a Brussels newspaper on January 10, 1929, but with his dog Milou ("Snowy" in English) on January 4; the duo went on to have 23 book-length adventures that sold 200 million books worldwide in 55 languages. France's Charles de Gaulle, he of the impossibly grandiose self-esteem, once said, "deep down," that "my only international rival is Tintin." ... Max Allan Collins has produced the second of three untold tales in the Road to Perdition saga, Book Two: Sanctuary; more appetizing fodder for the Hollywood mill. ... And Wendy and Richard Pini's Elfquest, which, in 1979, was among the very first self-published comic books, is being archived by DC; Volume 1 collects the first five issues, among them, the issue, no doubt, that was the first comic book story that moved me to tears. ... Meanwhile, Dave Sim's Cerebus, another of the earliest self-published comics, launched in 1977, is reaching Sim's avowed goal, issue no. 300, after 27 years and 6,000 pages of aardvark adventures, a genuinely stupendous feat.
King Features is planning a year-long celebration of Popeye's 75th birthday, beginning the weekend of January 17 when the Empire State Building in New York bathed itself in spinachy green light from sundown to midnight. Popeye first appeared (as a mere walk-on) in E.C. Segar's loping comic strip, Thimble Theatre, on January 17, 1929, but the strip had debuted December 19, 1919 without him. Popeye's fame and his association with spinach were derived more from the Fleischer Studio's animated version of the strip, which series started in the summer of 1933, than from the strip itself. Segar had forced Popeye to consume a bowl of spinach on February 28, 1932, in preparation for a encounter with an iron-jawed braggart, but Segar didn't make much of this leafy plot ingredient. )His forte was prolonging Popeye's idiotic predicaments; Popeye punched people out very infrequently. In the movies, however, Popeye's very existence was defined by his pugilistic feats.) The end of the celebratory year will be marked by the holiday inauguration of a 3-D animated cartoon written by "Mad About You" comedian Paul Reisner. Meanwhile, in Segar's birthplace, the Illinois river town Chester, Ernie Schuchert and his partner Laurie Randall, co-owners of the Spinach Can Collectibles and Popeye Museum, join their fellow citizens in believing that Popeye and other characters in the strip (Olive Oyl and Wimpy) were inspired by local residents-Frank "Rocky" Fiegel, a one-eyed pipe-smoking layabout with a penchant for fisticuffs; Dora Paskel, an unusually tall thin woman who wore her hair with a bun in the back; and Schuchert's great grandfather, J. William "Windy Bill" Schuchert, who ran the Chester Opera House, hired Segar as a kid to operate the lights, and was accustomed to sending employees out for ample supplies of the hamburgers that he doted on. Segar never acknowledged these folks as inspirational, but that, it is averred by local fanatics, is because he died before he could do so. They nonetheless remember him-and Popeye, the latter with a six-foot 900-pound bronze statue that overlooks the Mississippi River and the "Popeye Picnic," an annual festival in September.
Eleven animated cartoons are in competition for the three nominations allowed for this year's Academy Award for animated feature film: Finding Nemo, The Triplets of Belleville, Brother Bear, Jester Til (Till Eulenspiegel), The Jungle Book 2, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, Millennium Actress, Piglet's Big Movie, Pokemon Heroes, Rugrats Go Wild, and Tokyo Godfathers. Despite Jeffrey Katzenberg's declaration last summer that traditional animation is passe, Triplets proves him wrong, according to David Ng at the Village Voice: this new French film is "a hand-drawn smorgasbord of caricaturized modernity told with minimal dialogue ... rejuvenates the 2-D genre through an artisanal obsession with detail." (I suspect "artisanal," a word not in my Funk 'n' Wagnels, is one of those portmanteau words, in this case, combining "artisan" and "anal," a particularly apt packaging to describe the anal retentive "obsession with detail." But I prevaricate.) Some digital effects lurk, but the film is mostly hand-wrought. The final nominations will be announced January 27; the Oscars will be presented February 29. ... Thomas Pynchon, the novelist whose reputation for reclusiveness is matched only by J.D. Salinger's, will appear in public, in a manner of speaking, making a guest appearance on "The Simpsons" during the show's 15th season, beginning next month. According to Al Jean, the show's writer and executive producer, the cartoon version of Pynchon will be wearing a paper bag over his head. Cute. He doesn't step out of character then: Pynchon has refused to permit any likeness of him to be published or to appear on tv.
The Herb Block Foundation, funded by the famed editorial cartoonist's estate, is offering a $10,000 award to the winner of its annual competition. (And the Foundation will pay the tax on the award so the recipient will receive the entire amount, a generous gesture befitting the cartoonist whose fortune established the Foundation.) This year's winner will be announced March 11 at the Library of Congress, with Ben Bradley giving a speech in honor of the occasion. ... Editorial cartoonist Ann Telnaes, 2002's Pulitzer winner, won the Berryman Award for political cartooning this year.
Editoonery In An Age of High Feelings. It may be that we live in a more vociferous age, or maybe it's simply that a polarized public is more readily inflamed by political issues than in times of yore. In England, for instance, 300 editorial cartoonists from newspapers throughout Great Britain were accused of anti-Semitism when they awarded first prize in their annual competition to Dave Brown of the London Independent for a cartoon that mimicked Goya's famous painting, "Saturn Devouring One of His Children." In Brown's rendering, it's Israel's Ariel Sharon who is the naked monster, and the child whose head he is biting off is a Palestinian. Immediately after the cartoon was first published last January 27, the Israeli Embassy in London lodged an official complaint; in rebellious response, the Independent reprinted the cartoon, on its front page, with an assortment of opinions about it, both for and against. In his acceptance speech, Brown thanked the Israeli Embassy for its angry reaction, which, he said, contributed greatly to the publicity about the cartoon, its notoriety, presumably, being somewhat responsible for his winning the prize. The Israeli protest, which seems, at first blush, excessive, was not, given the history of anti-Semitism. The protest was doubtless inspired not so much by the political message of the cartoon (Sharon's inhumane treatment of Palestinians) or by the gross depiction of a bloated Sharon as by the image itself. The picture of a giant Jew eating a child resonates with echoes of a hoary and vicious canard, the so-called "Blood Libel," a wholly baseless fiction of medieval times that charged Jews with murdering Christian children at Passover in order to use their blood in matzot. The first documented instance of this vile absurdity occurred in 1173, but just because it was "documented" doesn't mean it is true. It most decidedly isn't. But the rumor has persisted through the ages to this very day, hence the Jewish objection to a cartoon the imagery of which can be interpreted as a veiled reference to this monstrous lie about a people. Some Jews have detected a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere, and in such a climate, even veiled references to antique falsehoods can help fuel bigotry and hatred.
IRKS & CROTCHETS. Angelina Jolie (aka the Tomb Raider) may be the first human being who, through the induction of artificial augmentations to her bosom and her lips (not to mention other body parts we are not yet aware of), has actually turned herself into a comic book character. ... The House of Ideas, swollen with its own sense of self-importance, is once again systematically shooting itself in the foot by publishing its forthcoming issues in a "preview" magazine that's separate from the Previews catalogue, thereby making future issues of Marvel comics harder to discover than the future issues of any other publisher. As I've said before, time after time, when trying to initiate the Marvel minions into the mysteries of mass marketing,"Behold the mall and its myriad shoe stores." All those shoe stores gather under one roof for a reason, aristotle. ... Reviewing comic book sales for 2003, Diamond recently listed the top 300 for the year, the listing determined by "orders by dealers that were actually sold, shipped and invoiced to the dealers"-not the comics that sold the most copies to consumers. Sounds like a somewhat meaningless statistic to me, but then I don't follow baseball either. Marvel appears to enjoy the largest market share with 39.68% of the unit share, followed by DC with 30.60% and then Image with 7.77%. After the top three publishers, everyone else's percentage drops down quickly. Of the top 20 titles, DC's Batman no. 619 ranks first in quantity, then the first (Marvel) issue of the 4-issue JLA/Avengers series (no. 3 by DC ranked 15th). Marvel's Ultimate Fantastic Four no. 1 came in third. DC had 11 of the top 20; Marvel, 9. Ten of DC's 11 titles were Batman books. With numbers like these, we'd have to be capable of guessing the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin in order to be able to discern any significant difference in popularity between the two houses.
When former Illinois governor George Ryan was indicted on 22 counts of various sorts of corruption and political chicanery, the Chicago Tribune, which is without a staff editorial cartoonist, went to Scott Stantis of the Birmingham News and asked him to produce an editorial cartoon on the subject. Stantis, who is syndicated by Copley News Service, drew a picture of Ryan in a Saddam-like spider-hole. The episode prompted a certain amount of grumbling in the ranks of the nation's editooners. They've been carping, occasionally, about the Tribune's seeming refusal to hire a staff editorial cartoonist to fill the shoes left gaping by the death of Jeff MacNelly almost three years ago. The position, at one of the nation's largest and therefore most influential daily papers, is a plum, but, as one of the grousers observed, why should the Trib hire a staff cartoonist when they can get contributions from the likes of Stantis by simply asking for them? An unjust question, kimo sabe: Stantis may be "applying" for the job.
RIP. We don't commemorate every departure from this vale of tears in this corner, but the last month has brought news of the demise of several notables in the world of cartooning. Martin Sheridan, who wrote the first book about newspaper comics, Comics and Their Creators, published in 1944, died on New Year's Eve at the age of 89, but he almost died 61 years ago. In 1942, he was among the 1,000 people in the posh Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston when a fire broke out. Almost half the crowd died, trampled, suffocated, or burned. Sheridan survived after 58 days in the burn unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, followed by four months receiving skin grafts for his hands. (In later years, Sheridan regularly donated blood in order to repay the amount that he had received in transfusions.) Unfit for military duty during World War II, he become instead a war correspondent, among the first of the breed to be "embedded" with combat units. He went on patrol with the submarine Bullhead, the only journalist allowed undersea while the boat was on active duty; he was aboard a PT boat during the battle for Leyte Gulf, landing with the 96th Infantry Division; and he flew on a B-29 in the firebombing of Tokyo, March 9-10, 1945, supplying a beer bottle to be dropped with the plane's bomb load. He was aboard the amphibious transport Fremond in 1944 when he was approached by a young sailor who, after ascertaining that he was Martin Sheridan, told the journalist that he was the person who had pulled him out of the Cocoanut Grove fire. "I was stunned," Sheridan wrote, "here in the Pacific I have suddenly found the man who saved my life." Sheridan had assisted Russ Westover on Tillie the Toiler in 1936, an experience that doubtless inspired him to write Comics and Their Creators. His only other book in a career of freelance writing and public relations work was about the sinking of the Bullhead, the last U.S. ship lost in the war: attacked by Japanese aircraft after Sheridan had left it, it went down on August 6, 1945, taking its 84-man crew with it.
Ray Gotto, creator of two sports comic strips, Ozark Ike and Cotton Woods, died December 28 in Florida; he was 87. Gotto created his baseball star Ozark Ike McBatt while serving in the Navy during World War II and, after the war, sold the idea for the strip to Stephen Slesinger, an agent who also managed Red Ryder and King of the Royal Mounted and merchandised Winnie the Pooh. Slesinger placed the strip with King Features, where it debuted in newspapers November 12, 1945. Gotto's likable but naive mountain country athlete was sometimes compared, by those who don't read comic strips, to Ham Fisher's Joe Palooka and Al Capp's Li'l Abner. While it's true that Ozark, like Palooka, was an athlete, and, like Abner, was a hillbilly, these are wholly superficial resemblances. Gotto's hero was his own original conception. Yes, Ike, like Abner, was pursued by a pneumatic mountain lass named Dinah, whose Veronica Lake hair-do masked one eye but not any of the rest of her considerable embonpoint: she customarily wore shorts and a black-and-red T-shirt the stripes of which looked painted onto her impressive torso, and Gotto usually posed her in ways that displayed both her torso and her legs. But unlike Abner, Ike didn't run from women. And, unlike Palooka, he wasn't a one-sport athlete: in the off-season, Ike's perpetual financial problems (which inevitably prevented his longed-for nuptials with Dinah) drove him to play football and basketball. Most of the strip's stories were weeks-long depictions of athletic contests, to the inherent suspense of which Gotto added the human element of some tangential subplot. Gotto's drawing style employed a bold, flexing line and meticulous feathering and astonishingly intricate shading, all judiciously accented with stunning blacks. And it was all so tightly rendered, every wrinkle and lock of hair in its place, that the strips seemed to have a glossy sheen, a surface, as Max Allan Collins so adroitly put it, that "water would bead on." Ozark Ike continued until 1958, but Gotto abandoned it in 1954, the year after Slesinger died; the rights for the strip were tied up in the agent's estate, and, as Gotto told Ron Goulart, "after years of frustration, I decided to back out and move on." He moved on to another comic strip with an athlete title character, Cotton Woods, which Gotto owned. It started July 18, 1955; but this effort, syndicated by a much smaller syndicate, didn't do as well as Ozark Ike, which appeared, at one time, in about 250 newspapers. Gotto gave up Cotton Woods in 1958 and retired, moving, eventually, to Clearwater, Florida, where he joined the art staff of Sporting News and produced memorable drawings about competitive life on the playing fields. He also designed the Mets logo in about 1960. Which brings us to Tug McGraw.
McGraw, who led the Mets to its 1973 World Series victory and was then traded to the Phillies, died January 5, 2003; he was only 59. His experiences on the diamond and his own considerable sense of the zany convinced him he could write a comic strip about baseball. And he did. With the help of two professional writers, Dave Fisher and Neil Offen. Nothing like Ozark Ike or Cotton Woods, McGraw's epic was Scroogie, about a goofy team, the Pets. Drawn by Mike Witte in 1975-76, the strip's title character was a relief pitcher "based on me," McGraw confessed in the introduction to the Signet paperback that reprinted the strip. But, McGraw advised, "don't think Scroogie is really me, exactly like me, Tug McGraw. I mean, I may be a little weird, and crazy things do happen to me, and like Scroogie, I'm probably the best relief pitcher in all the baseball world, but-we're not exactly the same. For one thing, I'm better looking. And for another thing-well, I'm a lot better looking." According to Witte, who lived in Greenwich Village at the time and frequented second-hand bookstores on Fourth Avenue (amassing bound volumes of Punch), "'Scroogie' is the nickname for Tug's favorite pitch, the screwball, and of course he also purports to be something of a screwball himself. Tug was the originator of the idea, and he continues to feed baseball happenings and background material and gag suggestions every few days to the gag writers."
George Fisher, editorial cartoonist for the Arkansas Times, died at his drawingboard on December 15; he was 80. Fisher is noteworthy for at least two reasons. First, he didn't start editooning until he was 40; he'd been running a commercial art service in Little Rock when a friend persuaded him to take up the tools he'd sharpened by cartooning for the Stars & Stripes during World War II, which advice Fisher took, doing occasional cartoons almost as a diversion, but by 1976, he was the full-time staff cartoonist for the Arkansas Gazette (which died in 1991, whereupon Fisher moved to the Times). Second, he was never syndicated. During a time that syndication began to be regarded as an accolade of success and a sign of professional status (not to mention a source of additional income), Fisher scorned it. Syndication requires that a cartoonist produce a certain number of national issue cartoons every week, and Fisher preferred the freedom to concentrate on attacking local issues. He lambasted every Arkansas governor from Orval Faubus to Bill Clinton. He also took on segregationists and creationists. But perhaps his most celebrated target was the Army Corps of Engineers, which he personified in his cartoons as a mustachioed geezer in a pith helmet and jodhpurs wearing a button that commanded "Keep Busy." In recent years, we've discovered that the flood-control fetish of the Corps has created environmental complications beyond any of our anticipations a generation ago. But Fisher saw pitfalls and contradictions as early as the 1970s. In 1974, he depicted his sinister Corpsman in a strip, explaining his program: "The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers builds dams to slow the flow of water," the old coot says; "then it straightens out rivers to speed up the flow. It permanently floods land upstream to prevent occasional flooding downstream. Any questions?" Fisher's crusade against the environmental abuses espoused by the Corps of Engineers was the Arkansas equivalent of Thomas Nast's famous campaign against the corruption and graft of the Tweed Ring in New York. And Fisher could, if he wanted to, point to similar success. According to Michael Grunwald at the Washington Post, Fisher's opposition to the Corps' plan to "wrestle the unruly, meandering Cache River into a placid, ruler-straight 70-mile barge canal" prevented the Corps from implementing its scheme: it managed to convert the lower eight miles of the Cache to a placid ditch, but the rest of the river was untouched. (And now, the Corps, having been converted to an environmental religion, wants to return that section of the river to its natural state.) Fisher's cartoons also helped foil the Corps' plans to dam several other rivers in the state. "He had a huge effect on public opinion," said Dennis Widner, manager of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge since its opening in 1987. "This refuge wouldn't be here without him." Fisher's success in frustrating the Corps of Engineers alone validated his decision to focus on local issues. But there were doubtless other successes. A selection of his work over 28 years was published in 1993 by the University of Arkansas Press, The Best of Fisher ($14.95 in paperback), and it displays a savage unflinching wit on a wide range of state issues. In commenting upon the actions and antics of Governor Clinton, at one time the youngest governor in the nation, Fisher depicted him as a small child in a sailor suit, riding a tricycle-with a distinctive mop of eighties-style hair that obscured all of Clinton's face except his nose and chin. Said Clinton when hearing of Fisher's death: "He was the best cartoonist I ever saw." In one famous cartoon, Fisher showed Governor Faubus, then in his sixth term, standing before a legislative body whose every member (even the mouse in the corner) had Faubus' face. And Fisher regularly ridiculed the out-dated attitudes of a bygone generation with periodic visits to the "Old Guard Rest Home," on the porch of which lounged ol' Faubus and other politicians of his machine as well as a band of die-hard segregationists, all spouting speech balloons in the manner of Gene Ahern's Boarding House cartoons of another age. At a time when cartoonists aped Herblock's drawing style or newcomer Pat Oliphant's, Fisher's drawing style was his own. You could detect shades of Hugh Haynie or Bill Saunders or, even, Herblock (without a grease crayon), but Fisher's line was less finicky and much more supple than any of these, and his shading evoked Bill Mauldin's celebrated WWII pictures of Willie and Joe. Influences, perhaps; but Fisher had blended it all together into his own distinctive home brew.
BARBIE'S TALE. Barbie, Mattel's notoriously mature doll, seems, once again, safely in the hands of the toymaker. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled December 22 that Mattel can move ahead with a lawsuit to enforce a 40-year-old settlement agreement with the German company, Greiner & Hausser, which, in 2001, sued anew, claiming it had been defrauded in the original 1964 settlement. The initial legal action stemmed, doubtless, from the likelihood that Barbie was based upon a German doll named Lilli, which was sold to men in tobacco shops. Under the terms of the 1964 decision, Mattel kept the doll and G&H got some money. After the December 22 ruling, that settlement still stands.
The Lilli doll was the three-dimensional incarnation of a mildly risque cartoon character, a sexy young chick, who had debuted in 1952 in Bild Zeitung. Ruth Handler saw the Lilli doll, evidently, and she conjured up the memory of it later when she noticed that her daughter enjoyed playing with paper dolls that were teenagers and career women. Handler supposed, then, that, as she said years later, "Every little girl needed a doll through which to project herself into her dream of the future."
"Every little girl" presumably dreamed of having breasts, a wasp-thin waist, long blonde hair, bee-stung lips, and legs that go on forever. Said journalist Froma Harrop: "To a young girl, the Barbie doll is one scary figurine. Here you have girls gingerly stepping into the whirlpools of adolescence, and who comes along to explain the deal but Barbie. 'This is where you're headed,' the plastic vixen remarks. ... To which the young girl responds with great uncertainty: 'How do I get there, and do I have to?'"
Introduced in 1959 and quickly supplanting the traditional "baby" dolls that little girls played mother to, Barbie (named for Handler's daughter; Ken, later, for her son) inspired virulent opinions on both sides of the feminist issue. On one side, Barbie is said to create in impressionable minds a standard of personal worth that is wholly physical (and nearly impossible); on the other side, Barbie was an example of independence for the girls who played with her, allowing her to lead her own life-in short, she was/is a feminist icon. "Any toy," writes Newsday columnist Marie Cocco, "that nurtures such dreams is no instrument of repression."
Perhaps. But maturity among the doll population goes only so far. To bring up another issue altogether, why did biologists who discovered a pair of genes that cause male and female fruit flies to lack external genitalia name those genes "ken and barbie"?
We know the answer. And it all started with a cartoon character.
BOOK MARQUEE. If you haven't snapped up a copy of Robert Sabuda's stunning pop-up version of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, you should; paper engineering has never been this ingenious, this spectacular. ... Another incomparable treat is a second volume of Keenspot's Sinfest, Tatsuya Ishida's masterful web-strip, both beautifully rendered and delightfully hilarious in its irreverent wit. I've raved at great length about this before (click here to be transported to Opus 111), and it's highly satisfying to have yet another hardcopy volume of the strip because now I can consult its pages whenever I'm in need of a healthy laugh.
Here's a paperback book (148 8.5x11-inch pages) of college cartoons from the 1950s. Called College Cartoons: 50th Anniversary Edition, it features work by Frank Interlandi, Dean Norman, and Richard Watson, all, at one time or another in the 1950s, at the U. of Iowa. The book reprints two other books of cartoons: Interlude with Interlandi and Doodles by Dean (books of cartoons they did under those titles for the campus newspaper while undergrads there), plus a few strays and a sampling of Watson's "primitive" cartoons. Frank is Phil's twin brother, and the two of them attended the U. of Iowa in the early 1950s; Phil sold his first cartoon to the Saturday Evening Post in 1952 while still in college; Frank, meanwhile, stuck to the amateur stuff, cartooning for the Daily Iowan, the campus paper, employing a distinctive "double-line" sketchy style. After college, Frank was an editorial cartoonist at the Des Moines Register, syndicated by the Los Angeles Times. Today he's painting and living in Laguna Beach, California, where he occasionally runs into another champion cartoonist of better bygone times, Roger Armstrong. Norman went on to work for Hallmark Cards, syndicated his own cartoon to college papers for four years, and wound up writing and drawing Hi Brows cards for American Greetings, 1960-90. Watson, who was, judging from the evidence here, not a very facile cartoonist, became a professor of philosophy and was never heard of again. Since I was cartooning at another college campus a couple years after this bunch, I had a few pangs of nostalgia whilst browsing this volume. But the book is scarcely just a historic tome. While the cartoons reflect some of the quaint mores of the time, college life itself has not changed all that much. It still celebrates sex, alcohol, and cramming all night for an exam. So these cartoons are as funny today as they were lo those many moons ago. Norman supplies text commentary occasionally throughout, explaining local references, for instance, and giving a short history of the campus humor magazine-once Frivol, then re-christened Magazine X (back when "X" didn't stand for sexual shenanigans). Just $16.25 plus $2.50 media mail from Beaver Creek Features, 3508 W. 151 St., Cleveland, OH 44111-2105.
Maybe the most successfully syndicated cartoon aimed at the collegiate crowd and campus newspapers was Little Man on Campus, launched in 1946 by Richard N. Bibler. By the mid-1950s, the feature was appearing in 250 college newspapers. One reason for the durable success of LMOC (as it was usually termed) was doubtless that it was character-driven by distinctive, hilariously exaggerated personages: the hapless student Worthal, a buck-toothed victim of every campus circumstance, and his nemesis, the arch-fiend Professor Snarf. Bibler himself eventually graduated (from Kansas University, Colorado State, and Stanford) to become a professor of art on one of those California campuses.
Son of Faster and Cheaper is Floyd Norman's "sharp look inside the animation business" (as it sez, right chere, on the cover), an insider's glimpse of the minds and hearts of animators and story sketch artists and of the working conditions they endure in a few of the industry's most hallowed halls. For Norman, a veteran of 40 years as a story development artist in the animation business-mostly at Disney but including an early stint at Hanna-Barbera and a later one at Pixar (notably on "Finding Nemo")-this tidy little tome (128 5x8-inch paperback pages in black-and-white; $9.95 at www.afro-kids.com) is a bulletinboard whereupon he posts the cartoons that he, following the custom of cartooners in these environs, dashed off about his workplace for the amusement of others who labored there. "When I first arrived at the Disney Studio in the late fifties," he writes in the opening pages of the book, "I remember all the funny gag drawings that lined the walls of G-wing in the animation building. The artists enjoyed the good-natured ribbing of each other as well as the studio management." Published one to a page, these drawings, like all of those I've ever seen that have been smuggled out of animation studios, are lively pencil renderings, quickly and energetically sketched and deftly caricaturing notables in the places Norman worked. Norman, he confesses, became "somewhat of an animation editorial cartoonist," chronicling the daily antics in the studio and jabbing, occasionally, his bosses. We see ol' "Uncle" Walt Disney, and Joe Barbera and Bill Hanna, as well as Michael Eisner and Frank Wells (who appear in a mock "Frank and Ernest" series dubbed "Frank and Eisner").
Caricatures of Barbera and Hanna stand next to each other, Barbera saying, "What can I rip-off this season? And Hanna saying, "... and how fast can I get it done?" Here's a cartoon posing as a promotion for the animated cartoon "Tarzan." It shows Tarzan swinging through the jungle with Jane in his arms, singing "Gorilla my dreams, I love you." The movie-ad style lettering above them reads: "In Darkest Africa, Everybody Is White." And below, Norman writes: "I love the fact that Disney managed to keep this film 'African free.' Not one African was seen in the entire movie. When your story takes place in Africa, that takes some doing." In the later years-the last pages of the book-Norman's gags get sharper and edgier as his targets, the managment of Disney, become more and more bottom-line oriented, steadily cutting back resources and firing cartoonists, usually without much ceremony or notice. In one cartoon, Norman's caricature of Eisner is shown with a huge crowbar, prying the animation building loose and shoving it off a cliff. "Relax, Roy," Eisner says to Roy Disney; "I'm just making a few adjustments." On a later page, Norman notes sardonically: "Much to my surprise, I found out [one day] I would soon be retiring from the animation business." The accompanying cartoon shows Norman roasting the remains of Mickey Mouse over an open fire on a desert island; several animators stand behind him, and one says, "Hey, Floyd: we've voted you off the island." Norman has been invited back in regular intervals since then, but Michael Eisner and his accountant minions continue chopping off the arms and legs of the legendary Mouse House-most recently, announcing that the animation studio in Florida at Disney World would be shuttered soon. David Stainton, the new president of feature animation at Disney, has proclaimed that, in future, CGI will take the place of hand-wrought animation, thereby putting out of work hundreds of skilled craftsmen. Five years ago, Disney employed more than 2,000 in animation; now, only about 600 work in that venue. Is it any wonder that, here and there, from page to page, Norman sounds a caustic note of derision? But this book is a rare volume for reasons apart from its commentary on the state of the art at Disney and elsewhere: it is also one of the few book-length publications (perhaps the only one) of the sort of casually hilarious cartoons that are produced by animation's cartoonists in spare moments of exasperation or delight, a gem of a collection. (Well, there's one other of this genre-the "father" of this one, Floyd's Faster and Cheaper; for $15, including p&h, from www.cataroo.com).
I visited Disney's animation operation in Florida once, several years ago, to interview one of the animators there. I'd made an appointment in advance, so I was expected when I walked up to the receptionist's desk. She had a name badge all ready for me, but it was a badge with a secret security function: she cautioned me about it, telling me that I shouldn't leave the building until I had accomplished my purpose therein. If I went out into the sunlight, the cardboard would turn blue, thus invalidating the badge and making re-entry impossible. Sure enough: after the interview, I kept the badge on, and as soon as I left the building, the thing turned bright blue. I was suddenly a non-entity.
Kevin & Kell and Jane's World. On Monday, January 12, the Atlanta Journal Constitution dropped seven of its comics line-up to make room for new (well, "different") strips. One of the new ones is what attracted our attention, but before we get to that, here are the strips being phased off the page: Brenda Starr, Judge Parker, Sally Forth, Monty, Nancy, Baldo, and Ziggy. As do most newspapers in the throes of revising their comics page, the AJC began the process by running a reader survey to get an idea of which strips readers liked most. Baby Blues came in first with 9 percent of the vote; then came For Better or For Worse, Zits, Stone Soup, Get Fuzzy, One Big Happy, FoxTrot, Dilbert, Beetle Bailey and Blondie (to name the top ten). To attract attention to all these goings-on, the AJC prefaced publication of the ballot with features editor Frank Rizzo's profusely illustrated seven-part history of the comics in America that ran September 21 and through the following week. (I was one of those whom Rizzo consulted for the series, by the way-just so you know that my reportorial objectivity is seriously skewed here.) That week, the paper also published the 10 comic strips from which they proposed to choose new ones: Greystone Inn, Jane's World, Kevin & Kel, Off the Mark, Non-Sequitur, La Cucaracha, Luann, Lucky Cow, Rose Is Rose, and Rudy Park. The entire enterprise was elaborately staged and beautifully executed. Tallying the votes and pondering the implications thereof-and, finally, selecting the new strips to replace discarded ones-took until just after Christmas. (They have a paper to put out, too-every day.) The additions to the AJC lineup are La Cucaracha, Luann, Non-Sequitur, Rose Is Rose, and Kevin & Kell. And it's K&K that prompts my outburst here. But to delay that frenzy one more instant-the AJC, in announcing the strips that it was dropping, also lobbed a curve ball at the readers: fans of the cancelled strips will have one "Last Chance" to save their favorite. They can phone the paper or go to the AJC website and vote for one of the cancelled seven. The winner will be re-instated on January 26.
One of the fascinating things about this operation is that two of the 10 strips AJC was considering as replacements for cancelled strips were available only on the Internet: Jane's World by Paige Braddock and Kevin & Kell by Bill Holbrook. Braddock's strip, which regales us with the daily trials and tribulations of a young lesbian and her friends, both homosexual and heterosexual, has been "syndicated" on the Web since May 8, 2001 by United Media/United Feature (www.comics.com). (And, as you'll see at the end of this piece, Jane's World is much more than the description I've just given implies.) K&K is owned as well as operated by Holbrook at his own site, www.kevinandkell.com. Holbrook performs the seemingly impossible feat of single-handedly producing three daily comic strips. Two of them are syndicated by King Features: On the Fastrack, a jaundiced look at life in corporate American, started in 1984; Safe Havens, which focuses on children in a day care facility, began in 1988. Then, as if he weren't punishing himself enough, Holbrook launched K&K on the Web in 1995, September 4. I repeat: Holbrook draws and letters all three strips. Every day. He has assistance only in coloring K&K, which is done by Terrence and Isabel Marks; Holbrook colors Fastrack Sundays, and Safe Havens has no Sunday incarnation. And all three strips are actually drawn-that is, they are not ruled or French-curved (like, one would suspect, Dilbert) nor are they scrawled like B.C. or The Wizard of Id or Drabble. They're drawn. Skillfully. And with different pictures in every panel: no photocopied dramatic repetitions. Moreover, Holbrook deploys the resources of the medium for comedic effects like no one else. His characters often morph into symbols in the manner of editorial cartoons, the symbols representing, say, one character's emotional reaction to another. Holbrook cycles himself from one strip to another, producing three weeks of each one at a stretch, then going on to the next. Clearly, he works fast. "On a typical day," he told me, "I'll begin by writing four to six gags by 2 p.m., then I'll pick up my daughters at their schools. When I return, I'll begin drawing, usually doing about four daily strips and maybe a Sunday." He stays about six weeks ahead of his publication dates, even with Kevin & Kell, which doesn't actually require that much lead time. The six-week cushion is more comfort-factor than requirement.
Kevin & Kell is unusual in another respect. It's a family strip, and the father, Kevin, and the mother, Kell, have both been married before. That's scarcely standard funnies fare, but there's even more unusualness: Kevin is a rabbit. And Kell is a fox. (I know: that means she's really hot looking. But she's also really a vixen.) A carnivore marrying a herbivore is not usual. Holbrook explains, though, that Kell accommodates her husband by not eating meat in the house. She concocts vegetable dishes in ways that make them resemble veal, pork, etc. Kevin and his adopted daughter (a hedgehog) "eat salads and, occasionally, the lawn." Kell's job with Herb Thinners, Inc. is "hampered by having to hunt far from home, so as not to catch anyone related to Kevin (which, considering rabbits, is pretty difficult)." Kell's son, whom she brought into the marriage (her previous husband, by the way, was killed in what Holbrook euphemistically refers to as "a hunting accident"), is a teenager; and Kevin and Kell have a offspring of their own, Coney, a bunny with Kevin's looks and Kell's appetite.
"The Internet was bursting out in 1995, and I really wanted to do something to explore the nature of the medium," Holbrook told Rizzo. "I've been able to do longer story lines [than in his two other strips] because of the online archives. They allow readers to not get lost in the middle of a story." As for the stories: "Kevin and Kell are a functional family in a dysfunctional world, overcoming differences in a place where there are no rules. I can view all human differences through this prism, which allows me to comment in a universal fashion." Incidentally, that this "family strip's" title, "Kevin & Kell," rhymes with "heaven and hell" is not, I'm told, accidental.
Despite the high-tech venue for K&K, the strip is hand-wrought, just as Fastrack and Safe Havens are. Holbrook draws with a pen, then scans the art at 600 dpi and adds shading with Photoshop. At first, K&K was marketed by Holbrook's friend and partner, Doug Pratt, solely to Internet forums as a device by which new and repeat visitors would be lured to the site every day. Said Holbrook: "Online services are where newspapers were 100 years ago as new printing technologies created the ability for mass circulation. Then, an intense competition for readers led to the creation of an artform designed to hold an audience day after day: the comic strip. Today, only the medium is different. Online services are trying to make themselves into a habit, and a feature that presents an entertaining cast of characters that people want to visit daily will go a long way toward establishing that." Since K&K's debut, however, the forum "revenue stream" dried up; now K&K is a subscription offering, $20/year to have it delivered every day in your e-mail.
The AJC is the first print outlet for K&K, and while Holbrook doesn't plan to sell it actively in the newspaper arena, he will welcome any increases in the strip's print circulation. And since newspaper circulation is often achieved by feature editors trading information about which strips get the best reader response, K&K may show up in other papers. "Kevin & Kell achieved a large measure of its online popularity through word-of-mouth," Holbrook told me, "and I'd be pleased to see it happen in this venue." And since K&K is a solely owned property, Holbrook won't have to share the leasing fee with a syndicate. Nice work. You can find more of Holbrook in all three of his manifestations in book collections published by Plan Nine (www.plan9.org).
As for Jane's World, that other cyberspace strip AJC was considering, it didn't make the cut, but it continues apace in the digital ether. It also appears in comic book form, where Braddock adds new full-page panels and gags to reprinted daily strips. And Plan Nine has published a collection of Jane strips, too. The comic book will change from monthly to bi-monthly in March, Braddock told me: it'll be a square-bound book, aiming at a longer shelf life in retail outlets. And a new trade paperback is due out in February.
Jane is another actually drawn strip, and Braddock's confidently rendered drawings in her loose, breezy manner are every bit as visually witty as Holbrook's. Like Holbrook, she draws the strip with pen (a quill, the Radio 914 nib, the same that Charles Schulz used with Peanuts -a connection that will emerge in a few more paragraphs) and scans the art into her computer, then transmits it to her New York editors. She stays about three weeks ahead of her publication dates. If she doesn't exploit the medium as adventurously as Holbrook does (which is not a shortcoming: no one does what Holbrook does as often as he does it), she nonetheless produces a warmly humorous and humane strip that's both fun to look at and to read. Braddock, describing the strip, wrote the following for Cartoonist PROfiles in the spring of 2001 (No. 131, September 2001):
"In case you don't know, it's hard to be a female cartoon character. If you're a female cartoon character, you are expected to do jokes about dating, raising children, dieting and anything else that relates to poor body image. But what if you are a female cartoon character who feels that life is too short for caloric concerns? What if you are a cartoon character who chases vampires, needs sensitivity training, requires career counseling and basically needs to get a life-but doesn't know it. Well, then, you'd be Jane.
"When I started Jane's World, I had a vague notion about Jane's personality, but as the strips spun out in different narrative directions, she began to write her own story. I found that when I thought up a situation, and sat quietly with it, Jane would somehow communicate her response to the situation to me. When that started to happen, I think Jane's World really started to take shape. Jane had a story that needed to be told. I'm not trying to make a political statement here, but for too long, female cartoon characters haven't had the freedom to be goofy, flat-chested, androgynous or self-absorbed. Jane is a character whose time has come ... she's a character for 'the rest of us.' For all those 'A' and 'B' gals out there who are just trying to figure life out."
The try-out week's publication in AJC sparked a certain amount of buzz in the straight and gay press, both heralding "the first time a gay or lesbian character has been the primary focus of a comic strip in a mainstream newspaper." (In the U.S., that is. For a brief time, Jane's World was published in Sweden, but the newspaper went out of business.) Rizzo pointed out that other strips- For Better or For Worse and Doonesbury -have featured gay characters, but in Jane's World the lead character is gay. But the strip, he went on, is "about relationships, not sex." Braddock agrees. The gay content, she said, is subtle but not obscure. "Jane is a lesbian living in a straight world, and most of the jokes come from her interactions with other characters." The cartoonist doesn't focus on sex or overt lesbian issues in the strip. The lead character is that durable type, the "lovable loser." Jane is "an inept lesbian with a knack for getting sucked into all the wrong situations," according to one fan. Braddock has described the strip as "Ellen" meeting "Seinfeld": "It's really about nothing at all. It's about love triangles, bad jobs, poor communication habits, buying cars on eBay, unexpected lightning strikes that trigger prom-night flashbacks-we've even had vampires and alien abductions. I think you could say that it's a whacked, slice-of-life kind of strip."
As the strip rolled along, Braddock noticed a change in it. "Although I want there to be some whimsical, character-based humor each day," she told me, "I basically write the daily strip with the comic book in mind: each day is really not a stand-alone strip but one tiny installment in a continuing narrative. I think the strip has improved since I've been using this approach."
When Braddock began tinkering with the idea of Jane in about 1991, she had the notion of doing a strip that would be the antithesis to Cathy. At first, she called the strip See Jane, evoking the scintillating prose of grade school readers-See Dick, See Jane; See Dick Run, See Jane Run; and so on. The initial gag-a-day format soon evolved into humorous storytelling as the characters acquired personalities and took over their own lives. Like most character-drive enterprises, the strip nearly writes itself. "The characters are so defined," Braddock explains, "that I just paint the stage and let it all play out." Sounds simple, but it isn't: the challenge is in how to jest at emotional ups and downs: "It's hard to cover topics that are so emotionally charged and have them come out light," Braddock said. It helps that Jane is an optimist. "That's why I think readers get so attached to her. No matter what happens, Jane never loses hope. ... Jane keeps coming back for more, and miraculously, with her sense of humor intact."
Jane's world resembles Braddock's. Jane looks somewhat like Braddock, and the strip, Braddock said, "demonstrates my personal philosophy-that people should learn to be in the present, that most people take life way too seriously, and that there's not enough joy in the world." Although not, strictly speaking, autobiographical, Jane, Braddock said, "thinks a lot like me," and the strip depicts a utopian society that she wishes would exist. "It's partly based on my own experiences and then partly based on fantasy things I wish would happen to me," Braddock said.
In giving Jane a trial run in AJC, Rizzo explained that the paper was trying to find new readers. "I deliberately went out of the way to find strips that appeal to younger readers and to Atlanta's gay population." But Jane, it turns out, has as enthusiastic a straight readership as any strip. In the last analysis, the strip's involvement with relationships is its basic strength. Said Braddock: "I've gotten e-mails from people who didn't even realize Jane was gay." She's also gets e-mails from young women who say the strip makes them feel normal. Jake Morrissey, managing editor for comics at United Media, predicts that the strip's very human interest and themes will, eventually, make it a success with a much larger readership than it presently enjoys. "Successful strips," he said, "have been the ones which have resonated with readers-either the ones that reflect reality or which reflect a reality people want to know more about."
And one of these days, Jane is sure to break into the daily newsprint medium on a regular basis in this country. If there's any justice in the world of art and mass communications. (Ooops. Justice. I forgot: Ashcroft is in charge of justice these days. Maybe we'll have to wait a little longer for Jane.) In the hopeful meantime, for more about the strip and the cartoonist, beam up to www.JanesWorldcomics.com, where you can find some of the early Jane strips from the period in 1997 when Braddock was doing it on her own website three times a week for the love of the work without, necessarily, thinking of syndication. You can also read more about Braddock, who doesn't mention there, that she's Senior Vice President/Creative Director for Creative Associates, the Peanuts merchandising arm, where she oversees the licensing of Peanuts characters worldwide. "We get about 4,000 submissions a month for new Peanuts product. The licensing business was at an all-time high in 2002, and it was up 30% in 2003, so I'm expecting this year to be more of the same. The market for Snoopy and company in Asia is huge."
UNDER THE SPREADING PUNDITRY. When you pause to reflect on it, John Kerry's surprise victory in Iowa the other day shouldn't be such a surprise. All those polls that anointed Howard Dean as the "front runner" included a significant, but usually overlooked, statistic-sometimes, depending upon when the poll was taken, as many as 50% of the Iowans polled were undecided. So Kerry didn't manage an "upset," as the pundits seem to delight in crowing. There was no upset. For there to be an upset, someone has to be in the lead. In Iowa, no one was in the lead. Or, perhaps, "Undecided" was the front runner. Dean's reputed lead didn't exist: the polls simply weren't a good indicator because there were so many undecided. The only upset worth noting here is the pundits' upset. They were surprised at Kerry's victory. They'd written him off six months ago. After scoffing at his long-held and often obvious aspiration to become President-and making fun of his use of his initials, which are the same as those of another senator from Massachusetts-the pundits ignored Kerry. The blathered on about Dean, whose anti-war stance and fund-raising magic on the Internet made him news-worthy (or, rather, comment-worthy) and about Wesley Clark (a newcomer and hence attractive to news hounds and political junkies like pundits), John Edwards (ditto), Dick Gephardt, and, even, Al Sharpton (whose wit on the stump is tough to beat and therefore worthy of wider circulation on the airways). Kerry was a has-been to the pundits. Old news. An old face. What's more, he always looked as if he needed a shave; clearly, not presidential timber. (We all remember Richard Nixon's famous five o'clock shadow and what it cost him in facing the earlier JFK). So when Kerry won, the pundits were upset. Their prognostications were completely wrong. The pundits, however fun they might be to watch and to listen to, are usually wrong. Or merely opinionated to the exclusion of fact. (This pundit, too, of course.)
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