Opus 132:

Opus 132 (February 9, 2004). The features this time include lengthy reviews of the graphic novels Like a River and The Bloody Streets of Paris and a discussion of Janet Jackson's jug and the subversive effects of the nipple on Western Civilization. We also ponder the fate of Disney as Pixar departs and Michael Eisner shuts down the time-honored hand-animation studios of the Mouse House, the impending engagement of Cathy, the discovery of Noah's ark (buried forty feet beneath one of Saddam's palaces in Iraq, right where we knew all the time it would be), and, betraying a healthy preoccupation with mammary news, Pamela Anderson's bosom being nominated for National Landmark status, and Pete Rose and George Will (champions of ethical reasoning). And we survey the newscene and review some funnybooks-My Faith in Frankie, the Azzarello-Risso Batman series, Vertical, Kyle Baker Cartoonist, Two Step (the best new book around), and the first issue of the newly reborn Desperate Times.

FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE. I finally remembered where I'd seen Tom Strong before: as a blond, Captain Tootsie. ... I didn't care much for Caper when it first appeared, but in Nos. 2 and 3, Jacob's lover gets killed (or commits suicide), and with that, at least one of the Wiess brothers seems a trifle more human and my engagement with the series grows in consequence. Farel Dalrymple has difficulty drawing the same face recognizably from different angles, but his style is otherwise pleasant to watch. Our interest in the series, however, is fueled by morbid curiosity about urban bloodshed in the lawless underworld. This is the Jewish Sopranos in pulp. ... No. 1 of Drake of the 99 Dragons is too darkly colored and otherwise pretty much of a sameness with other modern samurai works. ... My Faith in Frankie No. 1 presents a refreshingly novel concept-a young heroine whose guardian angel (or "god") protects her from everything, including, now that Frankie is into her adolescent years and aspires to being a teenage love object, a sex life. Crisp, cute, and witty art from Sonny Liew and Marc Hempel as Frankie shifts back and forth from the present to the past, from young woman to kid, the latter appearing as a comic strip "Frankie and Her Pals," the rendering of which suggests, however perversely, a bent albeit rousingly amusing Peanuts. And the god herself embodies a cute visual concept. ... Lobo, in "Unbound" and "The Authority vs.," is beginning to look more like Hellboy than the satiric mockery of superheroism that his over-the-top vulgarity once created, and, to complete the transformation from superior satire to mundane superheroicism, "frag" has been replaced by the F-word, thus destroying the last vestige of ridicule in the character's adventures. Too bad. ... It's fun to see what Eduardo Risso is doing with the Batman series he and writer Brian Azzarello have embarked upon (No. 621 ff.), but this series, like so many before it, is yet another re-imagining of Bruce Wayne's personal tragedy, a kid witnessing the murder of his parents, configured again chiefly to bring on stage the usual gang of villains that parade through the history of the Caped Crusader. Young Wayne's terrible dilemma is an archetypal invention, no doubt, but I no longer believe we need to see its re-enactment every six months or so: I doubt much more of any dramatic, narrative, or thematic value can be wrung from this single facet of the Darknight's mythos. But I'll play along to find out anyhow for the sheer sake of Risso's chiaroscuro rendition if for no other reason. ... Trouble finally finished at No. 5; the best thing about this tale of teenage sluttishness is the Dodson artwork, although their compulsive treatment of nostrils is getting somewhat bizarre.

            Vertigo's Vertical by Steven Seagle, Mike Allred, and Philip Bond is a vertical comic book: the panels go from top to bottom in a booklet that is only one panel "wide," long and skinny (3x10 inches) and bound on the short side, so we read the story vertically, from top to bottom, along this extenuated axis. This is actually a silly piece of business concocted entirely to explore the idea of telling a story in which the format matches the tale, in this case, a story about a love-deprived young man who habitually falls from the tops of buildings and survives (a Freudian metaphor for sexual excitation). Seagle gives this trifling experiment in form and content a metaphysical significance that it scarcely warrants. Most of the tale doesn't require a vertical format for its meaning, so we are left perusing a comic book that is too awkward to hold and to read, the panel at the "top" of a spread is 19 inches away from the panel at the bottom. The whole thing leaves me wondering how many stories can be told in which a vertical format reinforces the narrative, er, direction. Next thing you know, someone will want to do a story that's horizontal. ...

            In DC's Plastic Man No. 2, we have more storyboard comedy from the irrepressible Kyle Baker, whose visual invention and sight gagging is often matched by hilarious concepts: here, for instance, the idea that Plastic Man, when he stretches himself into various guises, squeaks like those balloon animals do as they're being twisted into shape. Plas assumes the appearance of Scooby-doo and then vintage Hollywood actor William Powell (as Nick Charles from the old Thin Man movies). Fun stuff. ... But for amazing manic hilarities, here's Baker's Kyle Baker Cartoonist, a square-bound $14.95 book brimming with visual zaniness and wit, all 128 pages, some of it with political satire in evidence. Here's a toy manufacturer on the telephone, saying, "About China-we don't use the phrase, 'child labor'; we say, 'By Kids, For Kids.'" And a picture of Dubya at his desk in the White House, snorting coke and saying, "I still panic when I see those lights flashing in the rear view, but then I remember-that's my motorcade." And here's a dog at the computer, panting over a picture of a man's legs, crossed at the knee with one foot, therefore, elevated; the caption, "Doggie Porn." And an autumnal scene of a tree in the forest saying to other trees, "I've been thinking-how come when it gets cold, we have to get naked?" Or, finally, in a jail cell an African-American con tells his roommate, "I caught my wife eating crackers in bed, so I killed them." No clue in advance about where that caption is going until we get there. There's also a section in which Baker stars with his family. This guy is so good he ought to make a living as a cartoonist.

            The 200th issue of Wonder Woman, marketed as an occasion for celebration, is a mixed bag-partly by intention. It's a collection of tales by various writers and artists. The opening story, the conclusion to the "Down to Earth" story arc, is completely baffling to someone (me, in this case) who hasn't been following the tale, issue-by-issue. All the other stories are stand-alone episodes, and it seems to me if the concluding chapter of an on-going continuity is to be included in this package, there ought to be enough explanation to amuse people like me, who buy it more for the anniversary than for the character. In the second story, Rick Burchett manages a nearly perfect imitation of H.G. Peter's eccentric graphic treatment of the original Wonder Woman, and Linda Medley evokes the classic style but modernizes it nicely in her effort. Ty Templeton's interpretation, however, has a wooden aspect that I haven't seen in his art heretofore. Nifty pin-ups by Eduardo Risso and Brian Stelfreeze and Steve Rude are scattered among the narrative pages, Stelfreeze alone is worth the book. ... Two Step by Warren Ellis as visualized by Amanda Conner and inked by Jimmy Palmiotti is, at no. 2, still the best new comic book on the stands. Liberally laced with sight gags and background laughs, Conner (and, I assume, Ellis) exploit the medium's visual capacities even in page layout, giving us a pictorial way of witnessing two or three actions almost simultaneously. And there are numerous instances of engaging comedy-when, for instance, our dubious hero picks up our dubious heroine, tucks her under his arm, and sets out to flee the danger zone, she, facing backwards, sees the menace pursuing them more clearly than he, and so she urges him to greater effort by slapping his rear end as if he were a two-legged Seabiscuit. Nifty concept, adroitly managed. Conner's style, under Palmiotti's deft inks, is a perfect for the manic mode of Ellis's story-and, truth to tell, even if it weren't perfect for the subject, I'd rave about it. She can draw the same pretty female face twice or thrice, recognizable each time, and make it funny as well as pretty. Not too many of us can manage that. ... Mark Millar's funny animal book, The Unfunnies, is, judging from the first issue, aptly named: 'tain't funny, McGee. In this first episode, Moe the Crow is jailed for pedophilia and his naive wife, Birdseed Betty, turns into a sex worker to survive. Porn with feathers, perhaps; but not funny. Some porn is funny, kimo sabe, but not this.

            In Desperate Times no. 0 (a number, we take it, that comes either before 1 or at the end of infinity), Chris Eliopoulos brings back his loser bachelors, Marty and Toad, although both seem somewhat thinner, elongated actually, than in their earlier incarnation. The comedy, however, proceeds apace. Kennedy the drunken three-toed womanizing sloth is back (thank goodness: he had the best lines before), but Marty announces, on the very first page, that he's moving out, leaving Toad and Kennedy to shift for themselves in their bachelor paradise. Why? He's now married, we learn: he got married in Las Vegas while he was drunk. Because he was more than usually impaired for the occasion, he didn't know he was marrying a teetotaling vegetarian until he woke up a few days later. Then he discovered the only thing holding this marriage together was a mutual appreciation of sex. By way of prolonging this unlikely union, Eliopoulos takes them on their honeymoon-to Disneyworld. And there he leave us, until next issue. Meanwhile, Toad tries picking up a woman at the grocery store, but, as always, Kennedy has the best pick-up line: "Hey, baby," he says to a likely-looking specimen, "what say I treat you like dirt, walk all over you, and use you for sex?" Says she: "Your place or mine?" The book is not one of those "horizontal" experiments I referred to, jokingly, when belittling Vertical a few paragraphs ago, but it is horizontal-6x10 inches, bound on the short side, printing what were once intended as daily comic strips (like the Liberty Meadows book, also from Image), two to a page. Also, Sunday strips. Eliopoulos has tried to get this endeavor syndicated, alas, without much luck; the funnies pages of the nation's newspapers would be enlivened with his crisp, bold artwork and his divergent sense of humor. But since that didn't work out, we're the beneficiaries of syndicate shortsightedness. I suspect, however, that Kennedy's pick-up line probably wasn't in the strips Eliopoulos offered to syndicates. Nor, probably, was Marty's preoccupation with fornication. And for all of that, we are grateful.

NOUS R US. On the morning of January 28, I received an e-communique from the world headquarters and nerve center of Universal Press Syndicate, the outfit that distributes Cathy Guisewite's comic strip, Cathy. Two messages actually. One was that on February 14th, Valentine's Day, Cathy would be proposed to-presumably by her long-time beau, Irving. The message went on to say that "Guisewite isn't saying what Cathy's answer will be, but if Cathy does say 'yes' ... it'll be a comic and societal milestone." Guisewite, the missive concluded, would be releasing a statement on Wednesday, February 11, "about how Cathy's status may be changing-or not." The second message was at the top of the page, addressed to the editors of newspapers carrying the strip: "Even though as a Cathy client, you have the February 14 strip in hand today, Universal Press is asking that you not let 'the Cathy out of the bag' until cartoonist Guisewite releases her statement the Wednesday prior to Valentine's Day." In these days of insatiable 24/7 news cycles? Fat chance. Within a few minutes of receiving this message via the Internet, I was watching CNN, which announced that Cathy would be getting a proposal on Valentine's Day. And then along came the Associated Press, almost immediately thereafter, with the same information, also via the 'Net. Obviously, the journalistic profession's so-called "news embargo" doesn't work with comic strip news. And since "the Cathy is out of the bag," I have no further compunction about blabbing it hither and yon myself.

            I agree that Cathy getting engaged is a major comic strip event. (Although we don't know, yet-and won't until Guisewite lets loose on the 11th-whether Cathy will accept the proposal.) Maybe it's even a "societal event," considering that Guisewite was "one of the first female cartoonists to successfully break into the comics pages in November 1976, cracking the glass ceiling [of a lair] once occupied only by men." The first cartoonist of a major feature, that is, since Dale Messick in June 1940 with Brenda Starr. After 26 years of fat thighs and swim suits that don't fit, it's about time, I ween, that Cathy take off on a slightly different tack. She won't get married, I suppose, for many many months, so she'll still be the single-young-woman-in-the-workplace icon that's she's always been, but getting engaged is a step-a step away from the niche Cathy has so successfully enjoyed, virtually alone, for the entire run of the strip. That niche has been invaded, recently, by another strip about a single young working woman -Tina's Grove by Rina Piccolo. And I've see here and there that Tina has elbowed Cathy out of the line-up at several newspapers since Piccolo's strip debuted a year or so ago. Could be, then, that Cathy's engagement is a counter-maneuver aimed at reviving the passions of the erstwhile dedicated minions who've been following her adventures for over a quarter of a century. Guisewite tried a little political commentary several years ago (I think it was during the Dukakis challenge), but evidently decided that was not the right way to go. She subsided into the familiar routines. But now, threatened by Tina, she's fighting back. If it turns out that Cathy accepts Irving's proposal, the strip can veer off in an entirely new direction to explore the "wedding preparation" rituals of this culture. That could take years. Then there's the actual wedding with all of its inherent complications and conflicts. Followed by the honeymoon and getting setup in a joint domicile. Then, who knows? Children? More pet animals? The mind boggles. This kind of strategy has been worked before. In Blondie, for example, the scatterbrain flapper marries the scion of railroad baron, who disowns his son, thereby throwing the newly wed Bumsteads out into the world on their own to survive. And survive they did. They also had a couple children, a litter of dogs, and other adventures along the way. And Beetle Bailey, you doubtless recall, began as a strip about a layabout college student, who stumbles, one day, into an army recruiting office. But Beetle started out as just another worthless professional student. Change lurks in every corner, down ever alley. (But that's enough of a hint.)

            In my nearly endless raving about Bill Holbrook's online comic strip, Kevin & Kell, I mistakenly said Kevin's spouse was a fox. And I even made a bad joke about it. She is, however, not a fox; she's a she-wolf. ... Peter Kuper, who is among 39 cartoonists whose nontraditional efforts are on display through March 14 at the Maryland Institute College of Art, observed: "For most people, it's a toss-up between Dilbert, Garfield and Superman-that is [their] broad perception of what comics are [today]. You're constantly shaking off that stigma." According to Chris Kaltenbach at the Baltimore Sun, Kuper "has nothing against superheroes, funny animals, and maligned office workers-except when that's all people know about the comics." Today, however, as the exhibit, "Comics on the Verge," demonstrates, "comics are on the verge of crossing over into all the areas that are open to explore," Kuper said. "There isn't anything you can't do in creative comics. There is even top-level journalism in comics as a medium." ... Head Press Publishing is going to capitalize on Mel Gibson's "Passion" motion picture with a comic book version of the same subject, out in July. The book, Eye Witness, "uses the Passion story as the core of a tale of mystery and intrigue," said Robert Luedke, spokesman for Head Press. Set in present-day Jerusalem, the comic "utilizes the very same criticisms that are being leveled against 'Passion' (that a frank depiction of this story will fuel new anti-Semitism) as part of the storyline." Luedke says "Christian fiction" like this will help retailers draw new customers into their stores. We'll see. Anti-Semitism, in any manifestation these days, is hazardous to the intended message. ... This year is a "Seussentennial year," according to Random House, the publisher of the books of Theodor Seuss Geisel, the Cat-in-the-Hat guy, who was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, on March 2, 1904. His books have several images that recall his youth in the city: the red motorcycles of the cops in Mulberry Street are Indian Motorcycles, a breed once built in Springfield; the Deegel trout in McElligot's Pool are named after the local hatchery run by the Deegel family; and the factory in The Lorax recalls the city's old gas works-with its unusual number of smokestacks. Random House is staging a 40-plus-city "Imagination Tour," which began January 3 in New York; for more, see www.seussville.com.

            The big Burbank buzz is all about Pixar walking out after 10 months of contract negotiations with Disney, the latest fracture in the Mouse House foundation. Some weeks ago, Roy Disney, nephew of the company's founder, resigned from the company's board of directors, fulminating on his way out about how Michael Eisner, the present high poobah at Disney, was eviscerating the company by cutting back drastically on hand-wrought feature animation in favor of CGI. The current Pixar-Disney contract, by which Disney distributes the Pixar films for fifty-percent of the take after it reimburses itself for distribution costs, will expire in 2005; Pixar still has two films to produce under that contract. In seeking a new arrangement, Pixar presumably sought a somewhat more advantageous financial situation, an even split of the profits, for instance, and greater control over its movies. (Right now, Disney can make sequels apparently without Pixar's editorial input.) Steve Jobs, Pixar's CEO, did not mince words as he walked away: he called Disney's recent films "duds" and the quality of Disney sequels, such as the follow-up to the blockbuster "Lion King," "pretty embarrassing." Comparing the huge successes of "Toy Story," "Monsters, Inc.", and "Finding Nemo"flicks to Disney failures like "Treasure Planet," Jobs felt justified in saying, of Disney's vaunted marketing expertise, no amount of skillful marketing can "turn a dud into a hit." He also cited research that revealed that the Pixar brand is more powerful and more trusted in animation than the Disney brand. Jobs said at least four major Hollywood studios have approached him to undertake distribution of Pixar films. He also said he enjoyed working with Disney's Animation President Dick Cook and his marketing team and he said he would miss "the original spirit of Disney," an apparent nudge-wink about Roy Disney, who is attempting a palace coup: he and Steve Gold, another Disney board member who resigned in protest at Eisner's management failures, have begun fomenting revolt by encouraging shareholders to oust Eisner at the annual shareholders meeting in March.

            One of the criticisms of Eisner is that he takes a bean-counter's approach to the creative process. In a recent presentation to investors, Eisner effectively confirmed that supposition, telling his audience that the studio would seek "excellent entertainment" but with "creative cost consciousness"-i.e., as cheaply as possible. Some of the discontent in the creative corridors of the company was hinted at recently by an animator named Sylvain Chomet, who has produced the year's most unusual animated film, the almost dialogue-less "The Triplets of Belleville," a wholly hand-made animated cartoon, in contention, at the moment, for one of the finalist nominations for an Oscar. He worked in the Disney shop for four months in 1997 and discovered "what not to do on a feature film: they have this mentality they're trying to do 'product.' They are not making films anymore; it's like they do advertisements now. People are very talented but there's no soul." And as a result, the films they animate are cliched and formulaic. "Triplets," in contrast, took five years to make. Already a hit in France and Britain, it has some appeal for young people, Chomet says, but it has a satiric edge that would appeal chiefly to adults.

            Oddly, considering the layoffs and shuttings-down that have characterized the Disney animation operation recently, the company's tv animation division is scarcely on the verge of collapse. Producing films for the Disney Channel, Toon Disney, and ABC, the tv division has more than 30 series on the air seven days a week in over 80 countries. They have 5 series in production and nearly 50 projects in development. And in the feature animated film arena, the recently released "Teacher's Pet," entirely hand-made, drew kudos from Elvis Mitchell at the New York Times: "This marvelously quick-witted and gloriously goofy hand-drawn feature shows there's still more than 21 grams of life left in the form," he wrote. And coming this summer, what may be the last hand-wrought Mickey Mouse film about the three musketeers. Where there's life, there's hope, saith the guru, and maybe Roy Disney will successful overthrow the emperor and leave animation on the throne, where it started out over 75 years ago, building a pace-setting artistic enterprise.

            And here, before we get too far afield, is Popeye's 75th anniversary as celebrated in the strip last month.

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Popeye, as every comics scholar and casual peruser of the funnies must, by now, know, wandered onto the stage of E.C. Segar's Thimble Theatre on January 17, 1929, one in a long parade of Segar's incidental Dickensian supporting players. "Hey, are you a sailor?" asks Olive Oyl's brother Castor, who is hoping to put to sea almost immediately. Staring at him through his one good eye, a tattooed barnacle with a clay pipe clamped in his gums responds belligerently: "Ja think I'm a cowboy?" And so did we meet Popeye. Animated cartoons soon made him famous, and he's gone through several cartooning custodians in the ensuing decades. The daily strips are at present reprints (that's "classics" to the non-cognoscenti), but the Sunday strips are produced by Hi Eisman, a veteran cartoonist with a list of credits as long as my leg. He did comic books with Smokey Stover, Nancy, Tom and Jerry, The Munsters, Little Lulu, Blondie, Katy Keene, Archie, and Felix. He pencilled Kerry Drake Sunday and daily, 1957-60; Bringing Up Father dailies 1960-64; and finally got a byline drawing Bob Dunn's Little Iodine, 1967-84. He's been writing and drawing Popeye Sundays since 1994. And he has the distinction of also producing the world's longest running comic strip, the Sunday Katzenjammer Kids, which he's written and drawn since 1986. (And, in case you want to pursue the history of Segar and his Popeye at greater length, there's a whole chapter devoted to this subject in a book of mine, The Art of the Funnies, which you can glimpse a preview of by clicking here.)

HYPOCRISY RUN RAMPANT. In the same week that John Kerry assumed a commanding lead in the race for the Democrat nomination for President and Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, the nation was treated to Janet Jackson making a boob of herself on the most-watched tv show in the known universe. The nation's editorial cartoonists did their best to deal with all of these topics by combining at least two of them into single visual commentaries. Howard Dean showed up to rip off Kerry's shirt over his right breast, exposing the campaign contributions he'd taken from special interests. Groundhogs proliferated and instead of seeing their shadows, they saw Jackson's naked teta, which, for Robert Ariail, meant "six more weeks of seeing the Janet Jackson clip on CNN"; for Bill Schorr, "six more weeks of Jackson Family scandals." Many cartoonists played with the various meanings of the term "boob," obviously delighting in a news event that permitted them to fling the word around on the most serious page in a family publication by applying the term to stupidity or the television tube itself. CBS was a "superboob" for permitting this catastrophe (my favorite is John Sherffius' picture of Jackson with a perfectly rounded CBS eye serving as her bared right bosom over the caption "Superbowl Boobs Exposed"). And as soon as the Emp-tv folks claimed the whole thing was a "wardrobe malfunction," we had several naked Dubyas dealing with the Emperor's New Fiscal Plan or with the failure of intelligence agencies. The hypocrisy of the burgeoning brouhaha was sometimes the subject: Signe Wilkinson depicted an NFL official expressing his concern that Jackson's "tacky performance will tarnish the entire NFL family" as he stood before a small familial gathering of other NFL performers, including a generously endowed cheerleader, a crotch-clutching rock singer, a beer-guzzling fan, and a male personage wearing a T-shirt advertising Erectile Dysfunction, Inc. The only thing missing was a horse fart. By the end of the week-just five days after the horror was unveiled-on Daryl Cagle's editorial cartoon website (cagle.slate.msn.com), Jackson's jug was the subject of 50 or 60 cartoons, representing about half the full-time editooning fraternity. And this development is cause for celebration: clearly, "boob" has been outed at last after centuries of Puritanical cover-ups.

            On Ted Koppel's "Nightline" shortly after the scandal broke (and it took almost 24 hours to break because the glimpse of Jackson's headlight was so brief almost no one actually saw it well enough to realize what, exactly, had happened), one of his interviewees supplied the best response to all the excitement by observing that the televised Superbowl is not the cathedral of wholesome family entertainment everyone seems to think it is, judging from the extravagance of their alarm over Jackson's exposure. The Superbowl on tv is surrounded by jokey locker room commercials and punctuated by cheerleaders who nearly fall out of their decolletage, and its audience traditionally lays in a year's supply of beer to be consumed during the game. The event ain't high culture, kimo sabe. Even George Will, with whom I seldom agree, would agree, here, with me. His saving grace (perhaps the only gracenote in an otherwise savagely conservative career) is his entirely accurate description of football as senseless paramilitary violence punctuated by committee meetings (which he contrasts with what he perceives to be the more "American" sport of baseball, a pastoral game about community and the individual striving to bring someone home). His descriptions are congruent with traditional American mythology, no question; I suspect, however, that Will has not realized that the government he so admires these days no longer mirrors the mythology, that, in fact, it embodies the "non-American" football description to a breathtakingly exact degree. But that's beside the point. The uncontested best line about Janet's chest came from David Letterman, who announced he was getting tired, after only a day, of all MTV folks pretending to apologize to all the viewers who were pretending to be offended.

            The colossal hypocrisy of the public outcry is more than evident when we remember that our society supports a chain of restaurants called Hooters. And every year about this time, large quantities of us enthusiastically tune in to an entertainment industry award show the name of which, Golden Globes, evokes more vivid memories of the non-existent necklines of the Hollywood actresses on exhibition than of the size or shape of the trophy itself. The reason we fail to see the hypocrisy is that it isn't hypocritical at all. The real sin in regard to golden globes is not their visibility as spheres of femininity. The real sin is revealing nipples. That's the sin that Janet Jackson committed. Her performance, until the moment of revelation, was bracketed by other prancing females whose abbreviated costumes left very little to the imagination and whose gyrations flagrantly suggested sexual intercourse-all much more wanton than her naked breast, exposed and lonely. But she displayed her nipple, however briefly. That was the unforgivable sin. As S.A. Bennett observed in reviewing Moon no. 1 in the Comics Buyer's Guide long ago (over 18 months ago), when a man strips a young woman, leaving her topless, "that's okay since she's drawn sans nipples." That's the standard of decency in America, aristotle; and now we all know. Janet Jackson, too.

ARE THEY RIOTING IN THE STREETS YET? One of the things about at least a couple of the annual comicons that never fails to amuse me is the management's attitude about nipples. And not all nipples; just those on female chests. Ostensibly, the management is opposed to displays of "nudity." But actually, "nudity" is not the object of the crusade. In fact, nudity is permissible under certain conditions. Humans depicted from the rear, for instance, can be completely naked. But neither male nor female genitals can be displayed. Ditto female nipples. (Male nipples are okay.)

      Such nudities as are prohibited must be "masked" or in some fashion hidden from view. As a result of this policy, works of art in which nude females appear are deliberately defaced by those displaying them. Little snippets of masking tape are stuck onto the nipples, covering them up. It's as if the sight of a woman's nipple alone is enough to incite otherwise civilized males to rapine and other wholesale ravishments. (With a little imagination, of course, it's possible to envision a nipple where the masking tape is; but let's not be logical, shall we? And who was it who said "concealing is sexier than revealing"? Jean Harlow? George Burns? Voltaire? Randolph Scott? That's right: everyone--everyone knows it.)

      We all realize the reason for such policies as this. It's to protect the children. A laudable reason, surely. Children must be protected. (In homes viewing the Superbowl, little children were probably out of the room during the half-time show-or wouldn't understand what they saw anyhow; and teenagers, if they were around to see, weren't seeing anything they hadn't, in our culture, seen before.) But little kids come to comic book conventions, and they walk around looking at everything. And if we didn't mask nipples, children would see them and--and what? Run riot in the streets?

      Don't children have mothers of the female persuasion? Well, yes, runs the reasoning: but they don't know what nipples are for, and until they're old enough to know, we need to prevent the matter from coming up.

      Does this make sense to you? What are nipples for anyhow? Don't children know? If they don't, how did they spend their infancy?

      Well, bottle babies don't know. And we have to protect bottle babies . . .

      Geez, gang.

      You can tell that I regard the so-called logic of this policy as hilarious. So it should come as no surprise that some years ago I found a newsstory about a trial in Lafayette, Louisiana, entertaining as well as educational. A local ordinance applying to "gentlemen's clubs" employs the same logic as some comicon managers: nude female dancers, the law stipulates, cannot bare their nipples. In 1993, a raid on one of the establishments where nude women regularly cavort produced the arrest of seven of the cavorters who were "dancing with their nipples exposed." This was not a trivial matter: in Lafayette where they take nipples as seriously as they do at comicons, exposing them is a felony that could result in a prison term.

      The defense lawyer, however, initiated a supremely satirical strategy. He had the dancers tell the truth. And the truth, apparently, is that the dancers had found a way around the law.

      The relevant statute, while specifying that nipples must be covered up, does not say what the covering should be. The dancers explained that they had, indeed, complied with the letter of the law: they covered their nipples by painting on a layer of latex, which they allowed to dry and then applied foundation, powder and a blush makeup to make the latex shield resemble a nipple.

      No, I'm not making this up.

      To assist the jury in comprehending the effects of this maneuver, the defense lawyer presented several of the dancers in their prescribed, er, costume. After eyeballing the real thing-or, rather, the fake-the jury found all the women innocent.

      And so once again, the appearance is more persuasive than the reality.

      Life is just full of such lessons as this.

      Of course, at comicons we've known this for years: it is the appearance that is being censored, after all-not to mention the reality. But a variety of appearance is dubbed "art," and when it comes to art, we can tolerate almost any amount of nudity.

IF NUDE IS ART, WHY IS NAKED PORN?  "In Picasso's work, everything is staked on sensation and desire. His aim was not to argue coherence but to go for the strongest level of feeling. . . .  The most powerful element was sex. The female nude was his obsessive subject. Everything in his pictorial universe, especially after 1920, seemed related to the naked bodies of women. Picasso imposed on them a load of feeling, ranging from dreamy eroticism (as in some of his paintings of his mistress Marie-Therese Walter in the '30s) to a sardonic but frenzied hostility, that no Western artist had made them carry before. He did this through metamorphosis, recomposing the body as the shape of his fantasies of possession and of his sexual terrors. Now the hidden and comparatively decorous puns of Cubism (the sound holes of a mandolin, for instance, becoming the mask of Pierrot) came out of their closet. 'To displace,' as Picasso so described the process, 'to put eyes between the legs, or sex organs on the face. To contradict. Nature does many things the way I do, but she hides them! My painting is a series of cock-and-bull stories.'" So saith art critic Robert Hughes.

      And here is culture critic Susan Sontag on "the pornographic imagination": Pornography's aim, she says, is to induce sexual excitement. (And wasn't Picasso's aim somewhat the same?) The pornographer includes nothing in his or her work that does not contribute directly to the erotic stimulation that is his or her purpose. But this "purported aim or effect," Sontag writes, is not a "defect." Other kinds of literature aim with similar obsessiveness to excite the reader or observer. Pornography's "celebrated intention of sexually stimulating readers is really a species of proselytizing. Pornography that is serious literature aims to 'excite' in the same way that books which render an extreme form of religious experience aim to 'convert.'"

      The problem with pornography is a social one, not an artistic one. Says Sontag: "There still remains a sizable minority of people who object to or are repelled by pornography not because they think it's dirty but because they know that pornography can be a crutch for the psychologically deformed and a brutalization of the morally innocent." Thus, their objection to pornography is rooted in fear-very possibly, fear of seeing in pornographic works a secret repressed version of their own psyche, something they've been persuaded is unwholesome in their own natures. Attacking pornography perpetuates that repression.

      What's really at issue in the availability of pornography, Sontag writes, is "a concern about the uses of knowledge itself. There's a sense in which all knowledge is dangerous, the reason being that not everyone is in the same condition as knowers or potential knowers." It may be, she says, that certain kinds of knowledge are bad for certain kinds of people-particularly those whose life experiences have not properly prepared them for this new knowledge, whatever it may be.

      And so we come back to the children again. What should they know? And when should they know it?

      The problem with pornography is not that it is often lousy art or atrocious writing. If it's bad, it's because genuinely talented artists and writers have been persuaded not to try their hands at this nasty stuff. No, the problem is that pornography is about sex. And so are female nipples. To adults, female nipples suggest sexual activity, not dinnertime. And we aren't prepared, yet, to let children have much knowledge about sex. They're not ready. They may be, in Freud's phrase, "polymorphously perverse" in some sexual sense, but they aren't yet emotionally equipped to enjoy sex the way adults do. So we want to keep it a secret just a little longer. Like the fiction of Santa Claus. What harm can that do?

      The artist, like Picasso, must express himself. Why can't cartoonists do the same? Nekkid wimmin in cartoons represent just another manifestation of the artistic motive: the same passion that drove Rubens to paint naked women moves a cartoonist to do the same. For the visual artist, the impulse to explore his human surroundings and to convert his impressions to overtly conscious understanding of the world is the motive.

      The graphic artist draws or paints in order to "visualize" the world around him. The visualization involves a creative act that organizes the riot of color and form that he sees before him. We all try to organize the confusion of our sensing of the world around us. Language is the most conspicuous evidence of this impulse: merely by stringing words together in a meaningful sentence, we bring stasis to flux, order to chaos, organization to confusion. "Organization" is a species of "interpretation," and the artist's effort is to interpret the world he sees for himself, essentially for his own psychic benefit. As an incidental matter, other witnesses to the work may grasp and agree with the interpretation. Drawing women in the nude for a male artist is clearly an interpretive exercise of sexual fantasy. The interpretation involves erotic imagination as well as purely artistic motives. The existence of two sexes will do that. That's nature taking one of the courses open to it.

      The cartoonist or comic book artist, as a species of graphic artist, draws nekkid wimmin for precisely the same reasons. And when his effort results in pictures that are vaguely humorous (or even uproariously comedic), that merely reflects the lunatic interpretation a comedian is likely to make of any aspect of the human condition. The impulses being indulged, however, are the same for the cartoonist as for the Grand Masters. Cartoonists and comic book artists should therefore have the same rights as Rubens. Their works should be permitted to hang in public places. Like museums. Like exhibitions. Like conventions, even comic book conventions.

      And children should be taught by their parents about how to view such works. Parents who are timid about sex or reluctant to talk about it should not be permitted to foist off on to the rest of civilization their timidities, turning us all into agents of repression. That way lies madness (as you may have noticed).

GRAFIC NOVELZ. Like a River (110 6x9-inch pages in paperback; black-and-white, $9.95 from Humanoids Publishing) achieves poetry by blending a terse almost recalcitrant dialogue with distinctly pictorial narrative mannerisms in a story by the Swiss cartoonist Pierre Wazem. The tale focuses on a man named Vlad, who lives alone in a shack on the edge of a river running through what might be bayou country. He spends his nights drinking at a nearby saloon and his days, after recovering from the inevitable hangover, fishing in the river. He alternately rages at the fish and the river or sulks in his booze, drinking himself into a nightly stupor, his mind fogged with half-remembered incidents from his happier early life. Vlad murmurs a name occasionally, Macha, which, we learn, is the name of his deceased wife.

      Wazem launches into his story cinematically, with half-a-dozen wordless pages in which his "camera" explores the shack and, minutely, its contents and surroundings. Pausing at each individual panel, we are forced to inspect the pictorial contents, to try to understand their significance. Much of the story is told visually without verbal accompaniment, a maneuver that slows the narrative pace, giving this enterprise its distinctively lonely languid aura. The silences are, moreover, puzzling, even oppressive. And Vlad is the victim as much as the instigator of a pervading sense of loneliness that eventually overwhelms him. He takes out a shotgun and is about to discharge it into his mouth when his long-forgotten adult son shows up at the door of the shack. "Are you going hunting, Dad?" he says. Vlad puts the gun aside, offering no explanation for what his son knows he was about to do. The youth, now eighteen years old, was taken from his father seven years or so ago and placed in some sort of foster care. He's now studying at an art institute. He is appalled by his father's unkempt appearance and the squalor of the shack. Wazem's loose, sketchy drawing style-sometimes a fine penline, sometimes a slap-dash bold brush stroke, often embellished with careless cross-hatching-creates a slatternly atmosphere, perfectly suited to the sad, dysfunctional life being portrayed in the book's pages.

      Father and son spend a couple days together, repairing the roof of the shack, walking in the woods, drinking. The son gives his father a bath, the first he's had in weeks. And the father looks at the drawings his son brought with him, pictures of his wife, the mother of the youth. "She wasn't like that," he tells his son; "she was much more beautiful." He tells his son to try again, but the youth cannot produce a picture that satisfies his father.

      Vlad takes his son down to the river and tells him that his mother used to say, "Life is like a river." It rushes along and takes you with it. Sometimes you are thrown against rocks or tree limbs; usually, you get free. Sometimes you don't. You crash into a rock. "And you just get stuck there," he says, "in the stagnant water." He stands up to his ankles in a shallow pool of water. Silence. They return to the shack, and the father tells his son the macabre manner of Macha's death. The son now understands how his father came to be stuck in stagnant water and why he was removed from his father's care, and when he returns to school, he is reconciled to his father. After the son leaves, Vlad goes back to the river with his fishing rod. "Come on, then," he says, addressing his prey in the roiling torrent, "show me your big silver belly. You belong to me-to Macha and me."

      The simple tale of loss and reconciliation and rejuvenation gains its haunting poetic timbre from Wazem's narrative breakdowns-the long silent sequences-and from his blowzy, threadbare drawing mannerisms as well as from the sad and grinding poignance of the story itself. In contrast, we have a long who-dunit by Jacques Tardi, the celebrated French graphic novelist. In The Bloody Streets of Paris (190 9x12-inch pages in black-and-white paperback; ibooks, $17.95), Tardi adapts a prose detective story by French writer Leo Malet to the comics medium. The result is prose, not poetry, but Tardi's pictorialization nonetheless adds the characteristic visual dimensions to the tale.

      Bloody is one of several Malet socio-political thrillers about the anarchistic private eye, Nestor Burma, that Tardi has transformed into the visual-verbal medium. I don't know about the others, but the denouement of this resonates with the standard tell-tale mechanism of the vintage drawingroom mystery: collecting all the suspects and principals in one room at the end of the story, the clever sleuth makes them listen to his explanation of the mystery, concluding by revealing the identity of the murderer, who is always among the throng the sleuth has summoned for the recital. In adapting this verbose custom to comics, Tardi has little choice but to float speech balloons laden with verbiage through the panels of page after page of Burma's exposition. Tardi breaks up the prolixity, however, by augmenting Burma's discourse with pictorial vignettes that visually recall the key moments of the adventure as the detective describes their significance. But Tardi deploys the visual aspects of his art in other ways, too.

      The story takes place in mid-1941, less than a year after the German occupation of France began. We meet Nestor Burma, who had been a soldier in the French army, in a German prison compound, where he and countless others are being "repatriated," prepared for a return to civilian life once it has been ascertained that they will not be a threat to the Nazi regime. The story itself is too long and convoluted to rehearse at length here. (Burma takes 14 pages, almost 10% of the book, for his explanation of the mystery.) Besides, if I tell the whole story, the mystery will be revealed. Briefly and somewhat cryptically, then, the puzzle Burma solves starts with a fellow prisoner who is suffering from amnesia and is called, for want of an actual name, Globule. Other Frenchmen had found him dragging himself across a road, his face bloody and his feet too badly burned to walk. After a time in the camp, Globule dies-in Burma's arms, his last words, "Tell Helene -120 Rue de la Gare." For the next 170 pages, Burma tries to discover the significance of this deathbed supplication. And he eventually does, discovering along the way the explanation for Globule's burned and bloody appearance as well as the identity of those who tortured him.

      Tardi's drawing style employs a simple bold outline and profusely spotted solid blacks, all embellished with two tones of gray throughout. His visualization of his characters is cartoony rather than illustrative (For Better or For Worse rather than Mary Worth or Judge Parker), but in rendering the environs through which they move, Tardi resorts to a linear realism that is nearly photographic. (In fact, some scenes look very much as if they'd been traced from a photograph.) Thanks to Malet, the course of Burma's peregrinations is long and full of twists and turns. But at nearly ever juncture, he finds a new fragment of information, which, eventually, he combines with other fragments to piece together the whole story. As in every good detective story, the pieces begin to come together about three-quarters of the way through (the identity of Globule is revealed on page 123), and at that point, the narrative gathers momentum and moves somewhat inexorably to the drama of the drawingroom exposition. But even in the early stages of his search, Burma's tiny discoveries alternate with enough big ones to keep our interest from flagging.

      The mannerisms of Tardi's cartoony style make his cast members instantly recognizable on every appearance, and he has an unusually large number of principals. (Many of whom, Burma included, smoke pipes almost constantly.) The contribution to the tale made by the pictorial method is chiefly in timing, in pacing, the narrative, occasionally for dramatic impact. But Tardi's sense of place, his ability to imbue the story with palpable locale, is masterful, as cartoonist Art Spiegelman notes in a brief foreword.

Tardi's work is not poetry, like Wazem's, but it is surpassingly accomplished prose. Like prose, Tardi's adaptation is clear and evocative, with the emphasis on the former. In short, the book is an absorbing mystery novel, enhanced by Tardi's graphic skills.

CIVILIZATION'S LAST OUTPOST. If I happen to be caught in a longer-than-usual line at check-out at the supermarket, I pick up and read the tabloids that are usually arrayed in profusion near the cash register. I figure that management has placed them there to provide reading matter for customers in lines. It's a simple courtesy, I feel. But it's also a strategy: by giving us something to read, we don't notice how long we're standing in line, and so we'll come back again some day. Occasionally, I buy one of the tabloids. Usually, when I do, it's Weekly World News. This one is more outrageous than just about any publication on the planet.

      The first one I bought, many years ago, had two front-page headlines that were absolutely irresistible. One screamed out that a man's head had been blown off with an exploding cigar. The other proclaimed that a quadriplegic had saved his father's life by rolling four miles to obtain help when his father's tractor had rolled over on the old man. Alas, I lost this one, a genuine classic. Later, I bought one with a photograph of the Loch Ness monster on the cover. Well, I bethought myself, at least that mystery is solved: with photographic evidence before us, how can we doubt the existence of Nessie? A few months ago, the WWN ran a front-page story about the hairless monkey that Saddam and Osama bin Laden had adopted.

      Last week, I bought another one. This one's largest headline announced "Noah's Ark Found in Iraq." Well, anyone can say that, of course, but they had a photograph of it. That's persuasive. Apparently, Saddam has kept the Ark hidden forty feet under one of his palaces. The "gopher-wood ship" was discovered to be littered with the bones of at least 60 extinct species, including winged horses and unicorns. And they also found five more Commandments that were apparently never transmitted to Moses with the other ten. The new Commandments warn against: cloning and stem-cell research, one-world government controlled by multinational corporations, discriminating against people because of their sexual preferences, accumulating riches at the expense of others, and leaving this planet in search of another world.

      This issue (dated January 6, 2004) is freighted with fascinating stuff. Here's a Texas girl auctioning her virginity to pay off her credit card bill. And in Peru, they've found 16th century wreckage of a UFO. (Most of these things-including the quadriplegic kid and the exploding cigar stories-happen in the remote jungles of far-off South American countries beyond the reach of investigative reporters of mainstream journalism.) Every page presents new alarms. Here's a story about a witch doctor threatening to turn Camila Parker-Bowles, Prince Charles' paramour, into a man-with a photograph showing how she'd look with a beard. Not much different, actually. Another story "blows the lid off 500-year-old cover-up," announcing that the Earth is flat. Among the proofs offered, the New Testament's Book of Matthew which tells how Satan took Jesus "to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in their glory"-which, the expert saith, would not be possible unless the Earth were flat. You can't see all the kingdoms of the Earth if the Earth is round. Pretty convincing. A couple pages further on, it is announced that Canada is going to move Niagra Falls to "an undisclosed location" because it's too close to the U.S. They'll use giant cranes to effect the move, loading "the massive foundation stones" on to rail cars to be transported to the new location. If the new location is "undisclosed," it'll sure play havoc with the tourist trade; but, no matter.

      There are also numerous stories about terribly overweight people (with photos) and a story about Pamela Anderson's breasts, which the American Association of Breast Aficionados has proposed to the Interior Department be declared a national landmark, joining such other protrubences as Mount Rushmore, Old Faithful, and the Alamo. "Ms. Anderson's magnificent bosom has as much cultural significance as the Brooklyn Bridge," said Bob Genorwitz, communications director of the AABA. The White House, "surprisingly," has not "flatly rejected" the proposal. ("Flatly." Ha. These WWN writers-what playful wags they are.) According to an unnamed White House official, "a landmark doesn't necessarily have to be a building; it can be anything that the Secretary of the Interior determines is of 'exceptional value' in representing an important theme in our nation." Well, Pamela's boobs certainly qualify, then. But the idea has met with some objection. A Hispanic group insists that Pam's jugs shouldn't get landmark status until Jennifer Lopez's tush gets similar recognition. Others object because Pamela has had implants. Or did at one time. And maybe does again. "That's another reason why [the landmark] designation is so important, Genorwitz asserts. "Once a building or other object is declared a national landmark, it can't be altered or tampered with, even by a private owner." So Pam couldn't tinker with the size of her hooters again "without permission from the federal government." One congressman cautioned against taking all this too lightly: "After all," he said, "her bosom is as American as hot dogs and apple pie."

      All of which-the Ark, the Loch Ness monster, moving Niagra Falls-makes you wonder. Do people actually believe all this highly fantasized "news"? Are Americans really that gullible? Sadly-yes, they are. George W. ("Whopper") Bush and the Bush League found that out long ago and continue to exploit it. They know that anyone who believes the Earth is flat will also believe that Dubya's clean air act will make the air actually cleaner, that adding millions to the cost of Medicare will somehow ensure the survival of a program that already faces bankruptcy in a few years, that Saddam still has weapons of mass destruction, and that Dubya is such a good and decent man that he'd never lie to us.

      But Pete Rose did. And he's finally confessed. Charlie Hustle's admission, however, scarcely ended the controversy that has stalked him since 1989, when reports of his betting on baseball forced him to accept banishment from the game. Sportswriters and commentators of all stripes are now blathering about how Rose's confession might stimulate sales of his newest autobiography, thus enabling him to "profit handsomely." Oh, yes. And no other professional athlete profits handsomely from whatever misrepresentation is the current fashion? Steroids, anyone? That anyone connected with professional sports would complain about obscene profits is ludicrous. That anyone would complain about the moral and ethical standards in the same arena is likewise highly laughable. But then we have George Will, the man whose very facial expression is frozen in permanent disapproval of everything, taking Rose to task for lying for fourteen years-an ethical lapse of such stupendous proportions that he should never, ever, be allowed to enter baseball's Hall of Fame-even as a common tourist. This is the same stalwart pundit who attacked Jesse Jackson in 1988 with a series of questions designed to demonstrate that Jackson wasn't smart enough or knowledgeable enough to be President-a qualification that Will was apparently capable of overlooking in 2000, when he defended the intellectual shortcomings of George W. ("War Lord") Bush by opining that "the wise leader should strive to have intellectuals on tap and not be one himself." Quite apart from such instances of blatant hypocrisy are Will's journalistic ethics. He was among those who coached Ronald Reagan for his debate with Jimmy Carter in 1980, but he was able to praise Reagan's "thoroughbred performance" when he appeared later on "Nightline," without disclosing that he was one of the stage directors of the performance. He never told us, either, that his second wife was on Robert Dole's campaign staff in 1996 while he, the dispassionate man of reason, was applauding Dole's superior credentials for the Presidency. He's lately been caught praising entities whose success increases his income. His response: "My business is my business." And so, I ask, who is he to question Rose's ethics? In fact, most critics of Rose seem to forget that professional athletes are celebrated for their physical prowess and cunning rather than for the sort of intellectual and moral sophistication that would enable them to avoid career-threatening disasters off the playing field when suddenly confronted by them. And we've been forgiving them all for decades for being less than moral giants. Why pick on Rose all of a sudden?

      By the way, speaking of George WMD Bush, the latest (as of January 11) tally of U.S. military dead and casualties in Iraq has reached 3,482, of which only 633 are deaths (from hostile fire as well as accidents). The "wounded" include, I suspect, an unusually high number of persons who've lost limbs because the undersides of hummers and other vehicles are not sufficiently armored to protect their occupants from bombs that explode while they're driving over them.

      Oh, and while we're on the subject of conservative commentators, here's what a mock-loyal listener wrote recently in a letter to Rush the Limbaugh: "When you do the arithmetic, that works out to at least 11 hits of opiate-based analgesics a day-enough to put any lily-livered liberal in the emergency room, yet it didn't even slow you down! ... Most of us never suspected that you were ripped to the gills. You always made perfect sense to us."

      You'll notice that the liberal press has shown remarkable restraint in its treatment of ol' Rush-beau. Very few ya-de-ya-de-ya-ya columns. In fact, none that I've seen. And while editoonists lambasted him for his ESPN faux pax (mostly commonly by depicting him with his foot in his mouth), virtually none of them drew cartoons about Rush's substance abuse. Imagine what Rush would have done had Al Franken been hauled off for drug addiction. Liberal commentators are just so much more civilized that the conservatives. (Or maybe they're just so thoroughly intimidated by the conservative press lords, who, in turn, are cowed by the Bush League, that they dare not utter a single anti-Rush syllable.)

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