Opus 135 (March 28, 2004). Long reviews, this time, of two new Mad-related publications, coupled to brief biographies of Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder, the heart and the pulse, respectively, of the enterprise. Between here and there, reviews of "The Triplets of Belleville," Mister O, Happy Halloween Li'l Santa, Greg Theakston's Thrill Book (of pre-Code 1950s horror and sf stories), AC's Golden-Age Greats Spotlight (Vol. 2), and of reprint tomes of The Boondocks, Baby Blues, and Fantagraphics' massive Peanuts project. And in our News Department ("All the News that Gives Me Fits"), more about Gary Gianni, the new artist on Prince Valiant, new writer on Gil Thorp (leaving behind the Left Behind guy), the worldwide spread of manga, Walt Disney and Archie team-up, the Green Hornet (related to the Lone Ranger), Shakespeare, Keith Knight, and a round-up of cartooning prize winners and contenders, concluding with a long-deserved honor for Jules Feiffer. Without further ado, here we go.
NOUS R US. No one won the Doonesbury contest, so, after holding it open for about a month, Garry Trudeau has ended the satirical shenanigan. Over 1,600 people responded in the competition, but not a soul in this broad land of ours, from sea to shining sea, was able to prove that George W. ("Warlord") Bush was actually on duty anytime during his supposed service in the Alabama National Guard in 1972. It was a tense month hereabouts. We are probably fortunate that during the last week of the contest, Dick Clarke published a book critical of the Bush League's alleged anti-terrorism, conveniently sucking up all the news media oxygen and elevating the White House defense system to Blast Furnace: otherwise, if we are to judge from the Halliburton (i.e., White) House's reaction to Clarke, Doonesbury would have become the target of an all-out scorched-earth campaign to destroy comic strips in America. Trudeau paid off as promised: he sent a check for $10,000 to the USO; if anyone had been able to establish Dubya's presence in Alabama during the months in question, Trudeau's gift would have been given in that person's name. ... I just ran across an a propos interview Hunter S. Thompson gave a year ago: asked about his "double life"-that is, his role as Duke in Doonesbury -Thompson snorted, "Well, that's a horrible piece of shit. I got used to it a long time ago. I used to be a little perturbed by it. It was a lot more personal. The bastard was, well, I don't read it or follow it. It no longer bothers me." Right; we can tell.
On March 21, as we mentioned earlier, Gary Gianni started his new gig, illustrating Hal Foster's classic, Prince Valiant. Now, a little more on the subject with Gianni's background in context. His predecessor, John Cullen Murphy, debuted in newspaper comics sections on February 20, 1950, with a strip about a prize fighter, Big Ben Bolt, written by Al (Li'l Abner) Capp's brother, Elliot; Murphy began collaborating with Foster on the Arthurian adventure strip in 1970 and assumed full responsibility a year later. In 1979, his son, Cullen, who majored in medieval history at Amherst College, started writing Prince Val. Gianni, whom the senior Murphy carefully selected and trained for the assignment, has been assisting on the strip for three years. My guess is that the increasingly sketchy appearance of the artwork in Val is due to Gianni's inks, but that's merely a guess. And his inaugural appearance on March 21 wasn't particularly edifying: most of the pictures were long shots of ships at sea. Anatomy and figure drawing, among Foster's strengths, were not, yet, much in evidence. But stay tuned. Gianni knows the history of the strip and likes it. Said he: "For lovers of romantic adventure and great spectacle, there is no other strip like Prince Valiant." Certainly; but "great spectacle," alas, disappeared from the Sunday funnies decades ago when Prince Valiant stopped being a full-page feature. Today, often appearing at fourth-page size, Foster's classic is just a wraith of its original. But Gianni will give it the good old college try. He once worked as a courtroom sketch artist for tv news but has done most of his work over the years in fantasy illustration. At 50, he has earned his artistic reputation with such efforts as Tales of O.Henry and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for the Classics Illustrated series, and, for Delray Publishing, scheduled for release this summer, paperback editions of Savage Tales of Solomon Kane and The Bloody Crown of Conan, Vol. 2, both containing scores of Gianni drawings and reproductions of oil painting. This fall, Dark Horse will bring out The Dark Horse Book of Witchcraft, an anthology of Gianni-illustrated tales.
On March 29, Gil Thorp acquires a new writer, Detroit News columnist Neal Rubin, a life-long fan of the comic strip about a highschool coach and his influence on his young charges. Said the Tribune Media Services Veep for syndication, Walter Mahoney: "Neal is a former sports and features writer who has the talent to reinvigorate Gil Thorp with compelling storylines and strong character development that will appeal to diehard Thorp fans and young new readers." Launched September 9, 1958, by Jack Berrill, the strip has been drawn by Frank McLaughlin since Berrill's death in 1996 and written by Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the "Left Behind" series of so-called sf novels about the Rapture and the Book of Revelations, until a couple years ago when Jenkins' son Chad took over the scripting. Said Rubin: "I'm a Gil Thorp zealot-and I have the anthologies, T-shirts, and refrigerator magnets to prove it." According to the TMS release, "With Rubin at the helm, the re-energized strip will focus on topics that are relevant to young athletes, including tabloid television, Internet gambling, and overzealous youth coaches." In other words, the "re-energized" strip probably won't be about the Rapture (known, to the cognoscenti, as "the Great Snatch," that celestial moment when God suddenly elevates certain select souls to heaven, leaving the rest of us behind to fend for ourselves through Eternity).
The story of Buddha by manga master Osamu Tezuka, all eight volumes of it, is being translated into English and published in this country by Vertical (400 pages; $24.95). It was first published thirty years ago. Tezuka, who introduced the world to Astro Boy and Black Jack, embellished the biography of Buddha by adding characters and subplots to create tale of epic proportions. Manga, as most of us now realize, are among the most popular of entertainments in their native Japan: about a third of all publications in that country are manga-New-York-telephone-book-sized comic books that aim at the vast audience of commuters who spend hours every day riding trains long distances to and from work. Subjects are as varied as the readers are, everything from sf to pornography. "There is violence and sex in manga," says Masuzo Furukawa, founder of Mandarake, a manga empire, "because it helps people release the stress and pressure of everyday life," which, in Japan, a tiny, crowded country ruled by a nearly obsessive politeness and formality, is a regular consequence of daily living.
And manga continue to invade the U.S. despite the wholesale absence of stress and pressure on every hand. Bookstores are installing shelf after shelf of manga in English, elbowing the graphic novels from Marvel and DC Comics off the shelves. At the local Borders recently, I was amazed to see an entire row of shelves with manga festooned thereon. As Andrew Smith reports in his Captain Comics column, "Viz communication's Shonen Jump No. 9, a manga anthology, sold 540,000 copies in August. You read that right: a Japanese comic book you've likely never heard of outsold Batman almost three to one." ... Another manga invasion is taking place in ethnocentric France, where the Japanese comics, introduced there in 1989, now make up 30 percent of the country's comic book market according to BBC's Caroline Wyatt.
Harvey Pekar will be packaging four trade paperbacks with Ballantine Books: one reprint of Dark Horse material and three volumes of new stuff. Said Ballantine editor Chris Schluep: "Harvey deserves every bit of recognition he's gotten. The past year reads like one of Harvey's own stories: after decades of tireless work, he finds himself suddenly pronounced an overnight success." I'm delighted that Pekar is getting recognition, but I think Schluep has misapprehended the essence of Pekar. In one of Harvey's stories, the decades of tireless work would be followed by pronounced obscurity.
In Orlando, Florida, the dispossessed Disney animators, re-grouping after the closing of the Disney Animation Unit at Disney World, have formed a new animation company, Project Firefly, based in offices on the back lot of the nearby Universal Studios Florida. The new enterprise already has a slate of original projects in development for theater and video release; some will be the traditional 2-D animation, some in cutting edge 3-D technology. ... Disney, meanwhile, with its Internet Group, is partnering with Archie Comics to "cross-promote their respective web sites, publishing, and video game launches." Says Allan I. Grafman, president of Archie Comics Entertainment: "It is an objective of ours to create affinity relationships with media companies reaching similar demographics. Because Disney Internet Group and Archie Comics share a common target market and entertainment values, our association represents an ideal cross-promotional partnership." Wow. Listen to that high concept marketing lingo. The same news release refers to Archie, Betty, Veronica, and Jughead as "role models." Jughead? ... India, in addition to becoming the world's telephonic switchboard for all 800-numbers, is also poised to become a rival to Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan in animation production. The country has a huge English-speaking workforce, a robust software industry, an active entertainment industry, and a developing animation production capacity. India also has a "rich heritage of mythological characters and folklore to facilitate content development," according to Andy Bird, president of Walt Disney International. Not to mention a gigantic audience: 340 million people under the age of 15-larger than the U.S. population as a whole-with seven million entering the 20-34 age group (high volume purchasers) every year for the next decade. ... DreamWorks' attempt to cash in on Pixar's fish story success with an animated feature called "Shark Tale" is, according to Rosario A. Iaconis at the Alameda Times-Star, an ethnic slur. The film blends "Finding Nemo" with the "goombah stereotype" of HBO's hit series, "The Sopranos," crossing the line into "cinematic exploitation of children." The Italian-infested shark story perpetuates the notion that "Italian-ness connotes organized crime," Iaconis said. To assess the cultural damage, he asks us to "consider the horrified reaction of the black community to 'The Kingfisher Klan,' a Spielberg cartoon production about a maritime mob consisting of Al Sharkton, Stepin Fishstick, Sambo Mako, and Starfish Jones." Prejudice has no place on the playground, says Iaconis, director of the Italic Institute of America, an educational, New York based nonprofit organization.
Kevin Smith is reviving an old radio and comic book hero, the Green Hornet, for the movies. The experience, Smith says, is liberating because the Green Hornet is considerably more obscure than the Batman or Spider-Man: fans are likely to be less possessive, so Smith can do pretty much what he wants to do, and he intends to make Britt Reid, the fella who masks up to become the Green Hornet, the most memorable and intriguing character in the movie. Quoting the Sci Fi Wire: "Too often in comic book based features, Smith argued, the villain steals the hero's thunder." According to antique lore, by the way, Britt Reid is a distant relative of the Lone Ranger, whose name was John Reid; his nephew, who appeared frequently on the old radio program, was Dan Reid.
It can scarcely escape notice that comic books have suddenly become Big Box Office for the denizens of Hollywood. Last year, we witnessed such money-churners as "Daredevil," "Hulk," "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," and "X2: X-Men United," not to mention "American Splendor," which won prizes up and down the midway and was even in contention for an Oscar. On a roll, Tinseltown's studios are reportedly considering over 70 comic book based projects. This spring, we'll see "Hellboy" and "The Punisher." Then in the following months, "Catwoman," "Spider-Man 2," "Lady Death" (animated), "Man-Thing," "Son of the Mask," and "Blade: Trinity" to name a few without mentioning the direct-to-video productions or the tv spawn. The trend, now firmly in motion, is sure to last another year or so before, like all fads, exhausting itself. To invoke Smith again in his Captain Comics, all that revenue "virtually guarantees more of the same for the next several years-as Stan Lee once said about the bandwagon mentality of Hollywood: 'Nobody wants to be first, but everybody wants to be second.'" Wonderfully ironic: a man with a vision before its time, Lee spent bootless years trying to sell Marvel superheroes to filmmakers before the moguls finally realized he had a good idea.
In Britain, one small trend is in the other direction-from theatrical productions to comic books. A former English teacher in Shropshire is adapting Shakespeare's plays to comic book format. So far, Simon Greaves has produced "Macbeth," "Twelfth Night," and "Romeo and Juliet" with both the original dialog and modern English "translation" side-by-side. He hopes his versions will demystify the Elizabethan lingo for today's young readers. "Often the formulation of Shakespeare's language is unfamiliar," he said, but comic books assist in understanding by providing visual cues. "Anyone who has read one of the comic books gets a good understanding of the plot and strong sense of the main themes," he continued, even though the stories are abridged. "Response to the books has been terrific," Greaves said: "we passed our first year's sales targets in under seven months." Incidentally, if you missed the recent PBS broadcast of Michael Wood's version of the Bard's life, you missed seeing most of the mysteries surrounding the Stratford native's life being solved by modern scholarship. The persistent notion that Shakespeare could not have written the plays for which his name is famous arose a couple hundred years after his death and was founded largely upon the absence of any biographical information about him. Without a biography, so the reasoning unraveled, there could be no life. And if Shakespeare didn't exist, he couldn't have written his plays. (Okay: I'm oversimplifying.) The big mystery, however, is how a humble glover's son from a provincial town could have acquired the knowledge of so many subjects that is on display in the plays. Shakespeare, the theory is, was not well educated enough to have written the plays. Wood approaches a solution to this problem by suggesting that Shakespeare was a tutor in a wealthy family which had a large library; so the Stratfordian read his way to knowledge. Not a bad idea. Wood also explains the cryptic bequest in Shakespeare's will, which leaves to his long-suffering wife "my second-best bed." My explanation of Shakespeare's authorship is somewhat less complicated by scholarship. Everyone acknowledges that Shakespeare's plays are works of genius. And we can't explain genius. Genius exists in different persons in different degrees, regardless of whatever their formal education may have been. If Shakespeare was a genius, as everyone admits, then no further explanation for his achievement is needed.
The therapeutic function of comic books is being explored in Kansas City, where a fourth-grader named Kamaal Washington produced with his 8-year-old brother Malcolm a 16-page comic book about coping with diabetes. Diagnosed with the disease last October, Kamaal hopes his comic book, Omega Boy versus Doctor Diabetes, will help other children understand the ailment and learn how to live with it. As Omega Boy explains to the book's protagonist: "You're not a monster, my friend. You are just a child with an illness. With the right attitude and proper healthy choices, you can be a superhero that conquers diabetes." Comic books are in the family: Kamaa's father, Alonzo, produces the Omegaman superhero comic book series.
When Dave Cockrum went into the hospital in December 2003, suffering complications from pneumonia, diabetes and a possible stroke, an almost immediate concern for him and his family was how to survive financially. Friends and fans mustered to the cause, generating plans for a tribute book and an auction and persuading Marvel Comics to settle questions of recompense for characters Cockrum created that the comic book company wanted to own, free and clear. Under the terms of the settlement, Marvel will continue to own the once-disputed creations (Nightcrawler, Storm, Colossus, Mystique, and Thunderbird) and will compensate Cockrum for his years of service. The arrangement, details of which remain confidential, permit the Cockrums to enjoy retirement in some measure of financial security. Assistance is still needed and plans for the tribute and auction go forward, but Marvel has lifted a big burden from the shoulders of one of its veteran contributors.
Meanwhile, Keith Knight -tall, dark, dapper 37-year-old cartoonist, rapper, hip-hop champion, activist, merry prankster and "satorial role model"-continues to prod audiences into laughter and mutual respect. Cool as he undeniably is, Knight is not the 21st century's Renaissance Man: he doesn't own a cell phone. He refuses to own one. But his madness has method. "I've started referring to pay phones as K phones," explains the author of the weekly autobiographical commentary comic strip, K Chronicles. "Pretty soon everyone in the world but me will own a cell phone, and all the pay phones will be mine." Think about it: Knight will have cornered the world market on a device no one has any use for. But the African-American cartooner is more resourceful than most in finding uses for things. Some years ago when the dot-com boom provoked high rents that had the effect of evicting people from low-rent housing, Knight hit upon a novel money-making scheme designed to capitalize on the diversity rage as well as assisting the newly dispossessed. "I put up signs all over town that said, 'Black People for Rent,'" he explained. "'Can't find 'em? We got 'em! Willing to stand around at any event for a minimal fee. Instantly adds diversity to your party or corporate function.' And I put my phone number down to call. People from all over the country called. From New York, Florida. Most people got the humor, but some didn't and were offended. And then there were a few racists who called, too, who wanted to vent, which was also great." Knight's weekly K Chronicles is, he says, "a hilarious and poignant combination of urban politics and race, love of family, and offbeat humor," and it is available in at least three collections: Dances with Sheep (1997), Fear of a Black Marker (2000), and What a Long Strange Strip It's Been (2002) at about twelve bucks each. Consult www.kchronicles.com for ordering information and outlandishness in general as well as information about his newest publication, an anthology of his single panel cartoon, (th)ink, culled from its regular appearances at www.Africana.com.
FILM REVIEW. I don't review films here much because, without closed captions, I usually can't understand them well enough to review them. So I am forced to wait until they come out on DVD before I can see them. By then, it's too late for a review. But "The Triplets of Belleville" is different: there's very little dialog, so I hazarded a visit to an actual movie theater. And I'm glad I did: I haven't seen anything in recent years to equal it in sheer cartoonery. It is an unqualified delight, an exemplar of what animated cartoons should be. The story is a simple thread upon which director Sylvain Chomet hangs shiny baubles of hilarity. Madame Souza, a near-sighted grandmother with a club foot and a rotund dog named Bruno, buys her grandson Champion a tricycle when he's barely out of infancy, and he grows up to be a competitive marathon cyclist. During the Tour de France, he is kidnapped by the Mafia and transported to America, where he, and two of his fellow cyclists, are forced to peddle stationary bikes in a mock race for the amusement of a gallery of mobsters. Madame Souza follows Champion to America-to Belleville, which, thanks to its towering buildings and an overweight Statue of Liberty in the harbor, looks somewhat like New York. There, she enlists the help of a trio of aged spinsters, the Triplets of the title, retired cabaret singers, to rescue her beloved grandson. But it's not the plot that engrosses and entertains: it's the visual comedy and the satiric bits that endear the movie to me. In a swipe at America's now-celebrated obesity, Chomet makes all Americans entirely round, rolling along the sidewalks to their various destinations. And his is an all-culture satire: the Triplets, from Chomet's native France, dine on frogs every night. But it's their fishing method that gets the most laughs: one of the three goes down to the river late in the afternoon and throws a grenade into the water, and the resulting explosion rains frog corpses that she gathers up and takes home for supper. The bicyclists are rendered as skinny torsos and hawkish visages with balloon-muscles for legs. Chomet disputes the charge that his cartoon is anti-American or anti-French or anti-cyclist. "'Triplets' is caricature," he said, "-it's not anti-American. When I do caricature, I'm not 'anti' the subject. I do caricature of someone I like very much because that way, they understand it." Agreed: caricature is not, inherently, an assault weapon.
Some of the funniest moments in the film are wholly visual: Bruno appearing, ever so briefly, as a spare tire; and the waiter in the restaurant-a stunningly hilarious enactment of overweening obsequiousness, every exaggerated movement servile and supplicating. Wonderful stuff. "It's a mad masterpiece," raved Rene Rodriguez in the San Jose Mercury News. It offers, said Steven Rea at the Philadelphia Inquirer, "a screwy and surreal scenario" and "a whimsical silent era charm and unbound drawing style that's captivating from beginning to end." Throughout, Chomet's sepia and orange palette and the raggedy line reminiscent of that epoch in Disney films in the 1950s when, in the studio's last innovation, the seamless inked line of the genre was abandoned in favor of photocopied pencils. Said Rodriguez: "Going against the trend of contemporary animation, which tries to replicate the real world with as much realism as possible, the world of 'The Triplets' is cheerfully exaggerated and distorted, from the bulging leg muscles of a marathon bicyclist to the impossibly tall, crowded skyline of New York City-inspired Belleville itself." Chomet admits the obvious-the influence of the silent films of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and, even more perhaps, Jacques Tati, whose laconic pacing seems evident in "Triplets."
But Chomet also loves animated cartooning and abhors the corporate motive that inspires major studios these days. He worked briefly on the sequel to Disney's "Hercules": a project unabashedly aimed at capitalizing on the projected success of the initial production, it was started before "Hercules" was released. But when "Hercules" flopped at the box office (despite its imaginative visuals), the sequel was abandoned in midstream. "But already money equivalent to the whole budget for 'Triplets' had been spent," Chomet noted. Such efforts are hollow and meaningless because those making them have no heart for the form. The corporate engines are geared for merchandising product, not creating animated cartoons. "Dispirited animators tend to make lifeless films," Chomet said. "Triplets" is blissfully full of life, a vivid testimony to the authenticity of Chomet's vision and motives. "Animation deserves to be considered serious filmmaking," he said. "But to nourish itself and its audience, an art form has to keep evolving toward something greater-not just a multimillion-dollar budget and a tie-in deal with a burger chain." In Chomet's "Triplets" (need I add?), nothing leaps out as a potential merchandizable property. Bruno is too ugly to be a plush toy; ditto Madame Souza and the Triplets themselves. All these creations are obviously intended to serve the purposes of the animated cartoon and nothing else. We haven't seen anything so pure in animated films for decades.
BOOK MARQUEES. From NBM (www.nbmpublishing.com), two by Lewis Trondheim, a European cartoonist reportedly heading up "a whole new exciting movement in comics, which, like its counterpart in cinema in France in the sixties, is being simply labeled 'La Nouvelle Generation' or 'Nouvelle Vague.'" The most recent to arrive on my desk is Mister O (32 9x12-inch pages in hardback, $12.95), a painstakingly achieved stick-figure saga of one-page cartoon strips in which a hapless circle-face with sticks for legs and arms aspires to life on the other side of a chasm. Like Wiley Coyote in his quest for a Roadrunner Dinner, Mister O is forever disappointed and frustrated. Each page is a 60-panel pantomime strip, detailing Mister O's heroic effort and, ultimately, failure. He has the idea that he can chop down a tree and use it as a bridge to the other side. It takes him some time to get something sharp enough to chop down the tree, but he does it; then, as he stands triumphantly on the tree trunk-bridge, he is attacked by a bird, who knocks him off the bridge and into the fatal chasm. With over two dozen adventures like this, kimo sabe, the book is a chorus in lessons in life. In the other volume, the second adventure of a minuscule St. Nick, Happy Halloween Li'l Santa (48 8.5x11-inch pages in hardback, $14.95), Trondheim teams with Thierry Robin to mix up the holidays. Another pantomimic effort, this one strikes a blow for environmental concerns with a gaggle of charming characters headed by the diminutive jolly old elf. Trondheim varies his layouts here, sometimes deploying a full-page drawing for dramatic effect.
And here, from Greg Theakston's Pure Imagination imprint, is Thrill Book (160 8.5x11-inch pages in paperback, $25), a collection of horror and sf stories from the 1950s before the Comics Code Authority reduced comic books to pablum. The black-and-white artwork is salvaged from the published four-color books, I gather, by the usual Theakstonizing process of drenching the color from the pages chemically, then reconstructing the lines of the drawings that might be broken or otherwise impaired. It does not yield a wholly satisfying result, but it's close enough to make volumes like this valuable additions to the reference shelf on funnybooks. The chief attraction here, for me, is in the line-up of artists whose work is represented- Wally Wood (cover only), Alex Toth, Joe Kubert, Berni Krigstein (with a nearly comical cautionary tale), John Romita, Bill Everett (better than I remember him), Robert Q. Sale (rare), Al Williamson, Russ Heath (exquisite), Joe Orlando, and Dick Briefer (with his usual Frankenstein monster) to name some. There are also a few stories in an entirely straight, horrifying vein by Jack Cole, bodaciously sexy renderings in a story by Rudy Palais, and a couple tales by Joe Maneely, whose work I've never seen much of but whose pages here convince me that we lost a great talent when he left us. I have a few quibbles, though, with the book qua book. First, why aren't credits supplied on the first pages of the stories? Seems easy enough to do, but Theakston gives the credits in his front matter, so if you're interested in who drew what, you must flip back and forth. In doing this, I discovered one story without credits ("Killer from Saturn"-looks somewhat like Jack Cole but it's probably Joe Orlando, whose name appears on the back cover of the book but nowhere else) and one credit without a story ("Witch in the Woods," the only Joe Sinnott story ostensibly in this volume). Even more frustrating for historical purposes, none of the sources for the stories are cited-no comic book titles, dates, or issue numbers. Considering that Theakston had all this information in his hands when processing the art, the omission is all the more frustrating. To make this book, which is, withal, a nifty collection, a valuable tome, all it would take is a line of type at the bottom of every story's splash page, giving the name of the artist, the name of the comic book from which the story is lifted, the issue number and date. Easy. But even without the bibliographic details handy, the book's a useful representative of the artists of this period, most, here, at the top of their form, as Theakston says.
Another effort in the same archival vein is Golden-Age Greats Spotlight: Volume Two (150 6x10-inch pages in paperback, $24.95) from AC Comics (www.accomics.com). This volume focuses on the Quality Comics heroes-Firebrand, Phantom Lady, Manhunter, The Human Bomb, T-Man, Quicksilver (dubbed "The Laughing Robin Hood," but an absolutely straight Jack Cole effort), The Ray, Lady Lucky, Espionage: The Black X, Hugh Hazard and His Iron Man, Wildfire, Spider Widow, The Clock Strikes, Arizona Raines, and Black Roger. Quality Comics in its heyday had some of the best comic book artists around, and AC publisher Bill Black has assembled a fair sampling here- Lou Fine, Will Eisner, Al Bryant, Jim Mooney, Rudy Palais, Bob Fujitani, Klaus Nordling, among them. Also between these covers-Torchy (probably by her creator, Bill Ward) in a particularly sexy state of lingerie, plus Doll Man by Reed Crandall. I've been baffled by Crandall credits for years: his EC material is distinguished by elaborate cross-hatching and shading, but his earliest work on Blackhawk is boldly linear with virtually no feathering. I've got some Doll Man stories in the latter mode, too. Here, however, we're all aflutter again, fully feathered, in a story from 1941. The art throughout is in black-and-white, occasionally enhanced with gray tone. The material is organized according to the comic book title in which the character appeared, so the Doll Man story, for example, comes after a Feature Comics cover. Black provides an introductory essay on Quality Comics and supplies credits for most of the stories herein; the credit lines sometimes appear on the story splash pages, too, but not always, alas. Black is one of the most knowledgeable Quality experts around (ditto on Gleason), so I hesitate to question any of his assertions, but I'm pretty sure Paul Gustavson never drew Plastic Man; Gustavson did Cole's other creation, Midnight, between Cole's two stints on the character-but I don't think he ever worked on the pliable crimefighter.
A propos, the current issue of Alter Ego (no. 34) is devoted to Quality topics, including interviews with Alex Kotsky and his son Brian (who reflects on his father's career and his own, as successor on Apartment 3-G), Al Grenet (Busy Arnold's final editor), Dick Arnold (Busy's son), Chuck Cuidera, Alex Toth on Reed Crandall -plus numerous artifacts of the period. Just $8 (single issue price, including p&h) from Two Morrows, which has just moved to 10407 Bedfordtown Drive, Raleigh, NC 27614; 12-issue subscription, $60.
PRIZES. 'Tis the season, every spring. Walt Handelsman, editorial cartoonist at Newsday, won the Scripps Howard Award for editorial cartooning, $5,000 and a trophy. Finalists were Kevin "Kal" Kallaugher of the Baltimore Sun and Jack Higgins of the Chicago Sun-Times. ... John Cole of the Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C., and Steve Sack of the Minneapolis Star Tribune are joint winners of the Fischetti Award. ...Mark Fiore, whose forte is animated editorial cartooning on the Web, won the 2003 James Aronson Award. ... With his off-beat panel cartoon, Bizarro, Dan Piraro won the Humane Society's 18th Annual Genesis Award for an Outstanding Cartoon, tendered for raising public understanding of animal issues. Said Piraro: "The Genesis Award means more to me than any other cartoon award because it stands for such an important cause. I draw animal rights-themed cartoons both to entertain and to galvanize the members of the movement and to attempt to educate readers, most of whom are not aware of the daily, routine and institutional abuse of animals in America." ... Jules Feiffer, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his decades of cartooning in the Village Voice (and elsewhere by syndication)-author, playwright, screenplay writer-will be presented with the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award at the May 28-30 annual meeting of the National Cartoonists Society in Kansas City. At the same gathering, "division awards" will be made to cartoonists in the various genre of the form-comic strips, panel cartoons, advertising, editorial cartoons, and so on. These are sometimes, by eager syndicates usually, called "Reubens," but they aren't. "Reuben Division Awards" maybe. Anything to distinguish the specialty from the omnibus. I haven't yet located the contenders in all the division categories (advertising, book illustration, magazine cartoons, comic books, animated cartooning), but in syndicated features, the nominees for editorial cartooning are Tom Toles (Washington Post), Ted Rall (Universal Press), and Mike Luckovich (Atlanta Journal-Constitution or, should I say-given his frequent appearance in the magazine- Newsweek?). Comic strips nominated are Red & Rover by Brian Basset (who also does Adam at Home), The Duplex by Glenn McCoy, and Pearls before Swine by Stephan Pastis. Panel cartoons finalists are Pardon My Planet by Vic Lee, Off the Mark by Mark Parisi, and Ballard Street by Jerry van Amerongen.
EDITOONERY. Speaking of editoonists, a new book looms: Attack of the Political Cartoonists, a tome assembled under the auspices of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, provides not only a run-down of the AAEC's roster but a selection of their best recent work by the tooners themselves. Slated for June release, the 160-page volume at $17.99 is a suitable opening shot for the summer's political machinations. Watch for it.
In June, the Library of Congress will be mounting an exhibition of the editorial cartoonery of Ann Telnaes; a book of her cartoons, Humor's Edge, will accompany the display and will include an interview with the Library's curator of popular applied graphic art, Harry Katz. Telnaes, as regular perusers of this picayune prose know, is one of the editoon genre's most eloquent voices, consistently coupling powerful images to important issues to create visual metaphors that burn in on the mind. Telnaes often attends to issues other editoonists overlook or glide by after taking a relatively harmless potshot at the target. She is particularly exercised about women's issues: "I'd say that women's issues on the whole are not reported enough," she said on a recent online Washington Post interview. "Just look at your front page-how many front page stories are about women? Women make up more than half of the U.S. population so it's not a special interest. Everyone should be concerned about issues that affect women because everyone has a mother, a sister, a wife, a girlfriend, or a daughter."
The state of the art of editorial cartooning has been somewhat shaky in recent years, according to many of the genre's practitioners, who point with alarm at the supposed decline in their numbers. But one among them says there is a better way to assess the vigor of the profession: "The repetition of the same image or idea by a large percentage of full-time editorial cartoonists gives a better idea of the state of editorial cartooning than numbers." Good point. "It's a fundamentally biological argument," explains my source (whose permission to quote I haven't, yet, acquired; hence the anonymity): "One calculates the health of a given ecosystem based on diversity of species rather than on the overwhelming number of one particular species." The more similarity, the less vibrant the profession. Well, yes, but-perhaps the thing that saps vitality the most is the increasingly shallow pool of cultural props that can be fished by editoonists. Literary echoes go over the heads of most readers; ditto historical references. Even the Bible, oddly, cannot be invoked with any confidence that readers will grasp the implications of the imagery. (My favorite allusion: What's the most powerful weapon in the world? Answer: The jawbone of an ass.) Cartoonists are left with popular culture-mostly, tv. That means the Sopranos and Janet Jackson are the coinage of the editoon realm.
And in Chicago, Doug Marlette proves, once more, that the imagery in editorial cartoons can be wildly misinterpreted. A recent scandal loose in the Windy City concerns the firefighters, some of whom were heard making racist remarks on fire department radios. For the Chicago Tribune, Marlette drew a cartoon that depicted a trio of firefighters gleefully turning their hoses on three hapless black citizens while dogs at the firemen's elbows snarled and a fourth fireman, gesturing in the other direction, says, "No, guys-the fire's over there!" The cartoon upset firefighters, citizens, and even Hizzoner, Richard Daley, who opined that it was grossly unfair to characterize an entire fire department for the sins of a few of its more benighted members. True, but editorial cartoons are not intended to be fair: they're intended to be expressions of opinion in terms of visual metaphors that will be memorable. Marlette, as usual (and commendably so), retreated not an inch. "I'm sorry that some of Chicago's firefighters took the cartoon as an attack on the department as a whole and not on extremists in the department," he said, "but I wouldn't change it." (Notice that one of the four depicted firemen is reacting creditably.) Marlette's editors agreed with the cartoonist. Said one of them, Don Wycliff: "Is it an exaggeration? Of course. That's what cartoons are. Is it unfair? I think it was fair commentary to invoke the iconic image of firehoses and police dogs of 1963 Birmingham (Alabama) to make the point that there is a problem in the Chicago Fire Department. ... and I think such icons ought not to be invoked often or lightly. I think the malevolent firemen with their hoses would have been sufficient to convey Chicago's unique and serious problem. The dogs, I thought, were gratuitous. But, hey-if I knew what makes for a good editorial cartoon I'd be drawing them instead of opining about them."
Bravo, Wycliff; well done this time. You were responsive to the situation and to the readers who are upset, but without groveling to the vociferous few or surrendering the right of a newspaper and its cartoonist to express an opinion on an issue of public concern. This is a distinction other editors should observe: there is a difference between responding to readers and surrendering to them. A response acknowledges their right to hold opposing opinions and recognizes that some issues have two sides and that, in this instance, sometimes editorial cartoons overstate the case in inflammatory terms (intentionally so). A response, in effect, says, "We hear you." It does not say, "We're sorry and to demonstrate our abject regret, we now agree with you."
At the Chicago Reader, Michael Miner went further than most in pursuing the Marlette story. Why, he asked himself, does the Chicago Tribune employ a cartoonist "who lives hundreds of miles away [in North Carolina] and doesn't work for the Tribune to make the Tribune's editorial statement on such a sensitive local issue?" Because, Miner went on, answering his own question, the Tribune still hasn't replaced Jeff MacNelly, its renowned staff cartoonist who died almost four years ago. "But the fire department controversy begged for a cartoon," Miner said. So the editors did what they've done before: they asked a nationally syndicated cartoonist to fill in, to do something on the topic. The Trib maintains that it is still looking for MacNelly's successor, but, by now, most of the editoon fraternity has concluded that the paper has no intention of actually hiring someone. Miner, however, uncovered a new piece of intelligence on the matter. Marlette, he reports, was one of many cartoonists who interviewed with the Tribune for the editoon chair. "I told them that whatever they did, I hoped they'd do honor to the great tradition of Chicago cartooning," Marlette said. "It's a shame that one of the great pilot lights went out" by reason of the Trib's failure to hire a replacement for MacNelly. Although the Trib had done nothing yet, Marlette stayed in touch, and when he was in Chicago recently for the dedication of the MacNelly Room in the Tribune Tower, he dined with editorial page editor Bruce Dold. "I don't lobby," Marlette said, "but I believe the Chicago Tribune deserves good cartoons." He and Dold came to an agreement: Marlette, who, from North Carolina, is the staff editoonist for the Tallahassee Democrat in Florida, would start sending cartoons on Chicago issues to the Trib, and if Dold liked them, he'd print them. This is a close to filling the MacNelly vacancy as the paper has come yet.
And Marlette would be a worthy successor to MacNelly. He's at least as acerbic and unflinching, and anyone interested in a convincing demonstration should pick up a copy of Marlette's latest collection of cartoons, What Would Marlette Drive? The Scandalous Cartoons of Doug Marlette (184 8x10-inch pages in paperback from Plan Nine, at an undisclosed price, doubtless revealed at www.plan9.org). Marlette's visual metaphors are unflaggingly vivid. Here's the American eagle, perched on the edge of his nest, looking at a broken egg therein, labeled "Social Security." The cartoon's caption: "Nest Egg." And here's a picture of a meat grinder, labeled "Trial by Media," with the legs of a unfortunate miscreant sticking out at the top of the machine. An FBI agent stands over the ground meat pouring forth and says, "...but here's your good name back" as he hands the ground meat a sign that reads "Richard Jewell" (the man who was erroneously accused of being the Olympic bomber during the Atlanta festivities several years ago). Powerful stuff.
Finally, at the College of the Sequoias, newspaper readers who object to an editorial cartoon have discovered a novel way of expressing their objection. Cartoonist Jose Rodriguez drew a cartoon for the student paper, The Campus, depicting California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger offering his views on gay marriage by saying, "Marriage should be between a man, his woman, and whoever he happens to grope." A reader (or readers) who found this somewhat pointless but surely innocuous opinion objectionable went around to various campus newsstands where the paper was displayed and cut the cartoon out of every paper, leaving a gaping hole in the newspaper's front page because the editorial cartoon appeared on its reverse. At last count, 400 papers had been thus vandalized. At last, the citizenry has found a way of responding to the press's freedom to speak with an effective way of uttering an opposing opinion. Effective but undemocratic. At the Visalia Times-Delta (location unknown), a responding editorial began: "The first objective of a political cartoonist is to get a reaction." Ahh, success. But cutting out editoons one doesn't agree with is the same as silencing speech, or repressing it. A resounding no-no.
REPRINT REVIEWS. The latest reprint of Aaron McGruder's irreverent strip, The Boondocks, has been out several months: A Right To Be Hostile (255 9x11-inch pages in paperback; Three Rivers Press, $16.95), with a Foreword by Michael Moore and an Introduction by McGruder, is a selective reprinting, skimming off the top of the first four years of the strip, beginning with the first strip, Huey telling Riley on April 19, 1999, that they weren't in Chicago anymore, and ending at March 11, 2003, by which time, McGruder was well into his critique of the invasion of Iraq and the supposed functions of the Homeland Security Secretariat. The book includes Sunday strips in color as well as the controversial post-9/11 strips and the notorious Thanksgiving Day 2001 strip in which Huey likens Dubya to Osama bin Laden. Part of the fascination of this collection is in the opportunity it affords of comparing the first years of the strip, when McGruder's caustic comment was largely social, with the last years during which he became shriller and shriller in political criticism. All in all, a valuable resource. ... Not everyone is thrilled with McGruder's screeds, however. Says Jon Thibault of FrontPageMagazine.com: "Unabashedly cynical and anti-capitalist, McGruder typifies the extreme Left. His belief in conspiracy theories is rivaled only by those of paranoid schizophrenics and Lyndon LaRouche campaign workers. After making libelous allegations against respected, erudite leaders, McGruder cowardly deflects any criticism of his statements by asserting that he's 'just a cartoonist' (the oddly self-defeating implication being that we should ignore his opinions in the first place). ... The Boondocks is marketed toward young adults, but McGruder's anti-Americanism and shameless attempts to be controversial can only be considered 'edgy' by children who think it's inherently cool to insult authority figures. The Boondocks remains, then, relevant only to kids and liberals, the two most unquestioning and easily amused demographics in America." Thibault accuses McGruder of "bludgeoning his young audience with his benighted ideology with no fear of retaliation or debate" because he is safely ensconced in a Los Angeles apartment "far from the middle-American flag-waivers he clearly detests." Er, Jon baby, I think you mean "flag-wavers" there: a "waiver" is "an intentional relinquishment of a right, claim or privilege." Talk about benighted, I think I can say, without fear of waiver, that there are as many benighted opinion-mongers on the Right as there are on the Left.
Just out, the eighteenth reprint collection of Baby Blues, Two Plus One Is Enough: Baby Blues Scrapbook No.18 (128 8.5x9-inch pages in paperback; Andrews McMeel, $10.95). Now chronicling the misadventures of a family of five, Jerry Scott and Rick Kirkman deal with Zoe learning to read and Hammie trying to make sure baby Wren doesn't gain on him in size or weight. Scott's insights into the juvenile mind in a family setting are, as always, brilliant; and Kirkman's drawings continue to impress me with the size-the father's nose is giant, but the kids are so minuscule they seem nearly impossible to delineate. Funny stuff.
The first volume in Fantagraphics' 25-volume complete reprinting of Peanuts is slated for an May unveiling, but there's plenty of buzz abroad about it already, ample indication of the probable success of the project. Tom Beer, staff writer at Newsday, quotes Chip Kidd, whose eccentric design for his Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz made it look as haphazard as a scrapbook: "Schulz did for the comic strip what the Bauhaus did for architecture. I know that sounds really eggheady, but what I mean is this: visually, he pared everything down to its simplest forms. Charlie Brown is a circle with two dots and a squiggle and a line, and all of a sudden it's a person. It's minimal, but Schulz is so in control of the minimalism that the characters almost work like typography-it's like you're reading them. There's your form. And then for your content: he predated Woody Allen's neuroses by a good 10 years. On the comics page!" This analysis, like Kidd's scrapbook concept, is more than a little haphazard, but it is at least respectful. The first Fantagraphics volume, reprinting 1950-52, will include much material never before reprinted despite the plethora of Peanuts books. Said Kidd: "There were some Schulz purists out there who said that he didn't collect a lot of those early strips for a reason: he didn't like them! But, okay, now if we are really to look at the career-it's like these are the scenes that were cut from 'Citizen Kane'! ... I know that sounds overly dramatic, but that's how I look at it. They're historically important." Hear, hear. Schulz, whose command of the medium and innovative deployment of human insecurities as comedy, set a pace for a generation of comic strip cartoonists, didn't think of himself as any sort of genius. After pondering whether he was smart or dumb, he once told an interviewer, "I've come to the conclusion that I'm just sharp. It doesn't require intelligence to do the strip, but it does take a certain sharpness." The Fantagraphics books will be reproduced from syndicate proofs for virtually all the strips, assuring clean and clear images. And the books will be introduced by a succession of stellar Peanuts fans, starting with Garrison Keillor and Walter Cronkite.
Harv's Hokum. "Motherfucker" is not a word one usually brings into the family discourse at the evening dinner table. Not at my family's dinner table at any rate. This middle America finickiness, however, exists entirely because of a widespread misapprehension of the word. The origins of the expression are presumed to be in the African-American inner cities of metropolitan America. Along those mean streets dwell families that, in large number, lack fathers. And, perforce, father figures. The society is largely matriarchal. In short, there is no lack of mother figures. Mother figures are the uncanonical saints of the inner city ghetto. And if, as many inner city denizens do, "mother" is pronounced as "mutha" and "figure" as "figger," it is but a short albeit misguided step for hearers to transliterate "motherfucker" from "muthafigger." And so we perceive that a term that appears to resonate coarsely with an incestuous disrespect is actually an invocation of the icon of the inner city family. With that understanding firmly in mind, then, it would appear to be a sign of respect or affectionate regard to say, at the evening dinner table, "Pass the potatoes, motherfucker."
Hey-if Ishmael Reed can do it, so can I. In his strange and wonderful novel (treatise? history of the neo-existant? operetta of signifying?), Mumbo Jumbo, Reed cites a class of citizen called "mu'tafikah," which, he explains, are "according to The Koran, inhabitants of the Ruined Cities where Lot's people had lived. I call the 'art-nappers' [looters] mu'tafikah because just as the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were the bohemians of their day, Berbelang and his gang are the bohemians of the 1920s Manhattan." No, I don't understand much of the syntax Reed musters to his task in this opus, but I love the glittering twinkle of the fireworks. And if the HooDoos, as Reed says, agree with the ancient Egyptians that "laughter washes the heart," then we should come away from this epic put-on with spotless ventricles. Last I heard, Reed had become his own publisher under the imprimatur "I. Reed." He is, without doubt, one of the Great Men of Letters of our age.
MORE MADNESS. Two good books for Mad fans have recently surfaced. The original Mad, as almost everyone now confesses, was pretty much the brain-child of Harvey Kurtzman, who, as the creator of Mad, may be the most influential American cartoonist since Walt Disney: Disney's vision of America as a small town full of good neighbors and obedient children was sharply contradicted by Kurtzman's satiric portrait of an urban society swarming with grasping politicians and greedy promoters and sexist bosses. Both versions persist but not simultaneously. The nation's youth outgrow Disney as soon as they are old enough to begin reading Mad, which infects them with a certain cynicism about the icons of American culture as well as the functioning of its institutions. Most of the iconoclastic underground cartoonists of the late 1960s were inspired by Mad, but Kurtzman's influence extends far above the underground.
Kurtzman attended Manhattan's High School of Music and Art, where he met Will Elder, whose contribution to Mad would seal its fate as manic satire. After high school, Kurtzman went to Cooper Union at night, working a variety of day jobs and winding up at a comic art "shop" that produced comic book stories for several publishers. In the Army during World War II, he made visual training aids. Returning to civilian life in 1945, he freelanced until 1950, when he began drawing for William Gaines' Entertaining Comics (E.C.), which had just launched a "new trend" of horror and science fiction titles. When Kurtzman suggested that E.C. start an adventure story title, Gaines complied, making Kurtzman the editor. But Kurtzman did more than edit Two-fisted Tales and, later, its companion, Frontline Combat: he wrote the stories, researched them thoroughly, and made detailed, panel-by-panel layouts (that he insisted the artists follow exactly), introducing a understated but highly dramatic manner of storytelling. Concentrating on war stories because of the then-current Korean conflict, Kurtzman eschewed the usual comic book glorification of battlefield experience, resolutely deglamorizing it instead.
Then in 1952, capitalizing on Kurtzman's penchant for humor, Gaines launched a new comic book called Mad (Kurtzman's shortened version of Gaines' working title, E.C.'s Mad Mag). After a few issues of rampant parodies, Kurtzman perfected the Mad formula: by extending a premise of everyday life to its logical and usually ludicrous conclusion, he made parody a powerful vehicle for satire, ridiculing popular culture mercilessly. With the July 1955 issue, Mad appeared in magazine format. But Kurtzman, seeking an even more sophisticated vehicle, left E.C. later that year to join Hugh Hefner at Playboy in creating a slick humor magazine, Trump, which failed after two 1957 issues. Kurtzman followed with Humbug and Help, but neither lasted. Then in 1962, he and Elder began producing for Playboy a fully painted satiric color comic strip called Little Annie Fanny. He also taught cartoon storytelling at the School of Visual Arts in New York, but his greatest teaching achievement was establishing Mad.
In Mad Art published last year, we have a "visual celebration of the art of Mad magazine and the idiots who created it" put together and written about by Mark Evanier, a knowledgeable curator and a facile and witty writer whose verbal talents do his subject justice here, conjuring up an impressive parade of comical anecdote as well as informed history. A massive 8x10-inch paperback of 304 pages (Watson-Guptill, $24.95-"cheap"), the "celebration" is as good a testimony to Kurtzman's forte and his lasting legacy as we're likely to encounter between the pages of a single book. Mad Art resurrects Mad's early years as a comic book by printing a few sample pages, but most of the content is culled from the magazine incarnation of the title. Arranged in a somewhat chronological fashion, beginning with a short history of the founding of Mad, the book is organized around the artists and their drawings and paintings. Evanier supplies a short biography of each cartoonist, accompanying the text with representative artwork. The comic book's originating cartoonists-Kurtzman, Elder, Jack Davis, John Severin, and Wally Wood -receive, appropriately, a few more pages each than most of their successors, but Evanier scarcely slights the ensuing generations of "idiots." The biographies are grouped in clusters approximating the order of the artists' Mad inaugurations. After the section about the charter members of the "usual gang of idiots" comes a section about the first generation of successors, those who found their way to Mad when the editorial reins had passed to Al Feldstein, who would carry on in Kurtzman's footsteps for nearly thirty years. There is also a section that purports to show how a Mad article comes into being and another discussing the mechanisms of assembling the printed product.
Throughout, Evanier's fine anecdotal hand in ample evidence. As he relates how the first successors of Kurtzman's staff came into the magazine, Evanier comes upon Don Martin, ostensibly "Mad's maddest artist," who, we are assured by testimonials, wasn't at all funny in person. Mad's maddest writer, Dick DeBartolo tells of having a story conference with Martin, who "would just sit there and say, 'Okay.' He'd do a great job with it, but in all the years I was around him, I only saw him laugh once, and that was when we were on one of the Mad trips and I got bitten by a dog." We meet John Putnam, who for years was the entire art/production department. He had worked in comics previously, usually assisting others. "Mostly," he said, "I erased the pencils and inked in backgrounds. Every so often, they found a panel so simple or unimportant, they'd let me draw it. They'd figure, 'He can't ruin this too much.' But I fooled them. I'd ruin it in a new, unexpected manner." I was introduced to Putnam one day a century or so ago when we were both wandering the streets of Greenwich Village. Putnam was distracted: he was looking across the street at a woman who had curlers in her hair. Apparently appalled by the practice among modern women of going out in public in this intimate state of dishabille, he announced his intention of producing a drawing or a story for Mad in which a woman would have her pubic hair in curlers. That anecdote, known only to me, is not, of course, in Evanier's book. But scores of others, all of soaring hilarity, are, the perfect accompaniment to the artwork of the book's title. The art in Mad Art is mostly in black-and white-because Mad was published in black-and-white for most of its history (until quite recently); but there are two 15-page sections in color, featuring miscellaneous painterly effusions and cover art (including Robert Silvers' photomosiac of Alfred E. Neuman's vacuous mug made up entirely of tiny reproductions of the magazine's covers over the years, Frank Frazetta's portrait of Ringo Star as a mock advertisement for "Blecch" [Breck] shampoo, and several samples of Elder's uncanny imitations of other artists' style and works, and some from Kelly Freas, too). Apart from providing a satisfyingly humorous trip down Nostalgia Alley, the book is also an authoritative reference on the history of Mad and its artists.
The second and equally satisfying commemoration of Mad is Will Elder: The Mad Playboy of Art, a tribute to and a record of the comedic graphic achievements of Kurtzman's soul mate and partner in comics almost since their days in high school together. A joker of maniac proportions, Elder was born in the Bronx and, after high school, went on to the Academy of Design, but left without graduating to join the army in the summer of 1942. He spent World War II as a map-maker with the First Army, landing on the beaches of Normandy six days after D-Day. He was also present for the Battle of the Bulge (during which a U.S. commander, asked by Germans to surrender, replied memorably, "Nuts!"-by which he intended no reference to Elder). In 1946, Elder and Kurtzman set up an art agency studio with another friend, Charles Stern, out of which all three freelanced. "We advertised our services by making one-sheet flyers into paper airplanes and sailing them out the window of our fourth-floor studio," Elder explained. "People would get them and look up. It was the cheapest form of advertising." (Click here to be transported to more biography and anecdote about Elder at Harv's Hindsights.)
By 1951, both Elder and Kurtzman were producing material for the "new trend" line of comic books from E.C. In the crime, science fiction, horror and adventure stories he worked on, Elder was frequently teamed with artist John Severin, whose work Elder inked, but when Kurtzman launched Mad in 1952, Elder came into his own as a solo humorous cartoonist, filling the panels of the stories he drew with dozens of zany characters irrelevant to the story, each a minute sight gag. The result was a profusion of visual hilarity that set the standard for Mad: thereafter, all the staff artists crammed their drawings with chochkes, as Kurtzman called them-"eyeball kicks." When Kurtzman left Mad to start Trump in 1956, Elder went with him; and he stayed with him for the run of both Humbug (1958-1959) and Help! (1960-1962). Then in 1962, Elder collaborated with Kurtzman in producing for Playboy the most sumptuously executed comic strip of all time: Little Annie Fanny was a fully painted color enterprise, in which a grown-up, voluptuous version of Little Orphan Annie wanders contemporary America, Candide-like, to satirize hip society and sexual mores. Like most Kurtzman productions, it was meticulously plotted with detailed pencil layouts by Kurtzman. Elder then composed each individual panel ("painting"), initially getting help with the finished painting from other artists but, eventually, doing all the final art himself. Elder's working method was meticulous. And time-consuming. Meeting deadlines was vital, but he worked too slowly to meet them as often as Hefner was scheduling the strip into the magazine. One of the cartoonists who sometimes assisted, Arnold Roth, remembers an occasion when he and others had been recruited to get Annie done by the looming deadline. Kurtzman rented a hotel room, and all the artists piled into the same room. In order to finish the strip as quickly as possible, they each worked on one panel at a time, passing them around the room. Roth suddenly realized that the panel he was coloring was a panel he'd done before. Once the alarm was raised, the difficulty was discerned. Elder was taking the painted panels into the bathroom and scrubbing them with water to remove whatever he didn't like. Then he put the panel out to be re-done. When Kurtzman found out, Elder's perfectionist tendency was curbed, and production went rapidly forward.
The Mad Playboy of Art is an impressive paperback, 400 9x12-inch pages with dust-jacket-like flaps fore and aft and production values much higher than the Mad Art volume-but then, there's much more color in this book (from Fantagraphics, $49.95; www.fantagraphics.com ). The book begins with a biographical chronology which is followed by portfolio sections showcasing Elder's work for various publications. The biography by Gary VandenBergh includes as many as I've ever heard of the anecdotes about the lunatic practical jokes Elder committed in his early years when he was universally known as "Meshugganah Villy" (Crazy Willy). Not all of his Mad work is included here (there's scarcely room), but the samples display his trademark tics and tropes. Several of his comic strip parodies (from Mad and its sister publication, Panic) are reproduced entirely (Archie, Gasoline Alley, Alley Oop, Captain Easy, Li'l Abner, Smitty), a vivid demonstration of Elder's uncanny ability to ape other drawing styles perfectly while, at the same time, infecting the work with his looney visual comedy. His work for Trump, Help, and Humbug is also sampled briefly. And a 58-page section reproduces, for the first time anywhere since initial publication, the work he did for Pageant magazine, 1958-62, accompanied by the pencil preliminary sketches for some of one feature. Two Annie Fanny stories appear here, both reproduced from original art, and all of the Goodman Beaver stories except the fifth, the banned-forever Archie story (that was deployed to satirize Playboy, but it was the Archie folks who embargoed the material for all time, not Hefner).Throughout are numerous sketches, incidental art, and photographs as well as examples of Elder's serious endeavors-landscapes and portraits-and additional text in sections by William Strong (who apprenticed, briefly, on Annie Fanny), Bruce VandenBergh and Nancy Elder VandenBergh (Will's daughter). The reproduction is superb from front to back, and the book includes countless gems from the Elder vault and oeuvre, many of which I'd long forgotten or never before seen. In short, a treasure for anyone who loves comics-comedy, satire, strips, books, and/or the incomparable Will Elder.
The biography of Harvey Kurtzman and his watershed endeavors in comic book storytelling as well as his revolutionary work in Mad are the subjects of a chapter in a book of mine, The Art of the Comic Book, which, by clicking here, you can see a preview of.
DUBYA THE POLITICIAN. George WMD Bush is a child of modern politics to the extent that he is almost its caricature. He exists to be elected. He has no other public service agenda, no other political objective. It is easy to see why: being elected is the symbol of political success, and since he failed at every business enterprise he undertook, politics was the only department of the Family Franchise left to him. And he is desperate to succeed at it-to be elected. And then to be re-elected. Everything he does aims at this goal, not at the public weal. Anything that might impede progress towards being elected is ignored or summarily squelched. Politics is the only thing that Dubya ever studied; he studied it at close hand, in his father's fortunes and fate. In Dubya's ambitions, the power elite of American industry-at least, those elements of it that find refuge in the Republican Party-found their perfect pawn. Or, rather, front man. They needed someone whose public personality was pleasing to the mob-another Reagan. There were no other genial actors available, but they found Dubya-the back-slapping, good ol' boy fraternity man par excellence, who could joke his way, winking and nudging, into the good graces of almost any company he found himself in. And Dubya was willing to perform for this bunch because their support might result in his succeeding at something at last-at politics. So the GOP Old Guard found its Fund-raiser in Chief; and George W. ("Whopper") Bush found the vehicle by which he could, at long last, succeed. None of them, however, expected their grand scheme to be beset by September Eleven. That tragedy, which might be imagined as the wrench thrown in the works of the Bush League political machinery, was actually quickly turned to its advantage: employing every tool of fear-mongering at their disposal-and with the terrors of 9/11 to underscore the truth of their claims-the Bush League climbed onto its juggernaut and set off for world domination, a destination we could not have imagined for ourselves just a few years ago.
So when George W. ("War Monger") Bush says, as he does repeatedly in his new campaign ads on tv, "I know exactly where I want to lead this country," I shiver in terror. If he knows, why doesn't he tell us? If he were ever asked this question, he would doubtless answer by resorting to warm fuzzies-peace, prosperity, justice for all-rather than employing the exactness he boasts of. We know he's too inarticulate to voice "exactly" anything, let alone a national goal. Can such a man, the captive of his inarticulateness, actually know anything with precision? Precision-exactitude-requires, last time I looked, some sort of linguistic ability, the kind that enables one to isolate and analyze thoughts and feelings. But Dubya's halting stammer as he searches for the next one-syllable word to express himself is not what makes me shiver. Politicians- national leaders-who know exactly where they want to take their countrymen are, generally speaking-if history is any guide (and it usually is)-autocrats, absolute dictators. They are concerned chiefly with outcomes, with end products. Democracies, on the other hand, are, by definition, about process. Means not ends. And so when Dubya says he knows exactly where he wants to take us, I tremble. In the secrecy and repressiveness of the Bush League's administration, we've had previews a-plenty.
Without further adieu, as I said, here endeth the lesson.
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