Opus 136:

Opus 136 (April 19, 2004). Headlining this installment are reviews of Playboy's 50th anniversary Cartoons collection, Michael Chabon's Pulitzer-winning novel and the comic book it has given rise to, Joe Sacco's The Fixer, and the second reprint volume of Pearls before Swine. In the news, at varying lengths, are the winner of this year's Pulitzer for editorial cartooning, the secret in Gasoline Alley, the death of pioneering African-American cartoonist Chester Commodore, all the nominees for the Reuben Division Awards from the National Cartoonists Society, Skippy's last chance at justice, Aaron McGruder profiled in The New Yorker, the demise of animation at Disney and another tantalizing body part from Janet Jackson, Condoleezza Rice and the Nine-Eleven Commission, the sources of terrorism, and getting left behind. For the best in reading pleasure, print this out and peruse it at your leisure while lying about the house this weekend. Without further adieu, then, here we go, one rabbit surveying another.

BOOK MARQUEES. I must admit that it's greatly gratifying for typist such as I to be brought to a realization of the power of typing. In reviewing Playboy's 50th anniversary issue some weeks ago (Opus 129), I complained that the magazine's retrospective article seemed remarkably deficient in the cartoon category-particularly when considering that the publisher, Hugh Hefner, was a cartoonist himself during his college years and, in devising Playboy, had set out to create with the cartoons he published a distinctive "look." I am delighted to report, herewith, that the Playboy folks obviously read my deathless prose and have responded accordingly. They've published Playboy: 50 Years: The Cartoons, which is priced at $50 (like the other anniversary tomes) but available through www.amazon.com for $35 plus $3.99 p&h. Alas, this addition to Playboy's golden library is, by comparison, a pallid production. I was looking forward to it, expecting the sort of lavish treatment given the Playmate book or, even, the Photographs book. The Playmate book came equipped with thousands of photographs of barenekkidwimmin, of course; but it was also laced with text, short biographies of the models and other prosaic detritus. Even the Photographs book had text. Not much, admittedly-just single pages to introduce the various sections of the tome. But Cartoons has nothing comparable. Just Hef's two-page Introduction. Nothing else. Oh-and a list of the cartoonists in the back. That's it. No biographies. No anecdotal effusions. Nada. What a sad commentary on the magazine's attitude toward what is, undeniably, one of its most outstanding features.

            It may be expecting too much to hope for biographical data and anecdotal material, but the other books led me to anticipate much more than we have here. About Eldon Dedini, for example-who is one of only three Playboy stalwarts represented herein with thirty or more cartoons-we might have learned that Esquire published his first gag cartoon in 1940 and that, by 1944, he was selling to most major magazines while working at Disney. Then in 1946, David Smart, publisher of Esquire, phoned him and offered to double his salary if he would work exclusively for the magazine, generating ideas for the other cartoonists as well as being featured himself.  When the arrangement ended in 1950, Dedini started selling to The New Yorker.  About 1960, he heard from another cartoonist who had just sold a cartoon to Playboy and had been advised by Hefner to apply color "in the Dedini style."  Said Dedini: "I figured that if they were going to teach people to work in my style, I'd better get in on some of it." And so he did; most issues of the magazine feature a full page color Dedini cartoon.

            In Cartoons, the only cartoonists represented by more than Dedini's 30 cartoons are John Dempsey (with 33) and Gahan Wilson (32). I was hoping the book might tell us, at least, the publication debut dates of the cartoonists. When was Jack Cole's first cartoon published in Playboy? Grahan Wilson's? Shel Silverstein's? Nothing here about any of that. Just cartoons, 360-plus giant 9x12-inch pages of them, mostly full-pagers, too. Mostly in color. Cartoons don't require explanatory text, of course; but neither do pictures of naked women. The text is frosting on the cake, the extra-the bonus. And in the case of the cartoonists, text would have borne witness to their unique contribution to the magazine. In his Introduction, Hef says: "I once commented that without the centerfold, Playboy would be just another literary magazine. The same can be said for the cartoons. Playboy's visual humor has helped to define the magazine." But he treats pix of naked flesh with more respect than the cartoons he's touting. He quotes Jules Feiffer rather extensively, probably because Feiffer discusses the political posture that Playboy's cartoons represent, and for Hefner, sexual politics is seemingly the raison d'etre of the cartoons. Hefner's been playing this game for a long time, pretending that his magazine has been on some sort of mission of salvation in a Puritanical society instead of being merely, as the cover proclaims, "entertainment for men." Entertainment, politics, crusading for freedom of speech and sexual license-all true of Playboy, no question. But the cartoons and the cartoonists deserve better from the magazine the stature of which has been achieved as much by the cartoonist's pen as by the photographer's lens and the touch-up artist's airbrush. And Cole, whose brilliantly watercolor cartoons established the visual style for Playboy's cartoons-Cole is represented here in only 9 cartoons. Only 9! Silverstein's fabled cartoon reportage on his tours of other countries and cultures is altogether missing. Judging from the number of their cartoons in the book, the rest of Playboy's top ten  cartoonists, in addition to those I've already named, are Erich Sokol (with 23 cartoons), Alden Erikson (21), Buck Brown (17), Phil Interlandi (15), Doug Sneyd (14), Marty Murphy (11) and Feiffer (10).

            My guess is that the dearth of biographical information on these pages is a consequence of the magazine's not maintaining any personnel files on its cartoonists. When Erich Sokol died a year or so ago, Playboy's legendary cartoon editor, Michelle Urry, was highly distressed to be unable to tell me much about him. My miserly farewell to this hugely entertaining cartoonist was derived entirely from scraps culled from the Internet, all of them in some foreign tongue that I, linguistically challenged as I am, could barely decipher. To have assembled any biographical or anecdotal content for the Cartoons book would have taken, in all likelihood, major research and reportage, neither of which is much in evidence here. (And neither of which is Urry's office staffed for.) Many of the cartoons have been reprinted in earlier collections; in fact, I suspect the same printing plates were used again here. The book is pretty obviously a thrown-together compilation, done as thoughtfully and carefully as speed allowed but done quick nonetheless. The chief evidence of haste-this volume doesn't even supply the date of initial publication for the cartoons, something relatively easy to have secured.

            Ah, the stories that could be told. I interviewed Urry several years ago for Cartoonist PROfiles, and as she escorted me out of Playboy's New York offices, she talked about Vargas' work for the magazine, remarking that as he searched for new variations in poses for his pin-up paintings, the anatomy of his girls got more and more extreme and contorted, until finally, she concluded, "he forgot where the tits go." Thanks to this book, none of us will forget. Despite the disappointments herein, the book is nice to have-a huge collection of some of the medium's most talented and pace-setting practitioners, handsomely reproduced all in one handy (albeit heavy) tome.

ELSEWHERE. Sam Henderson's Magic Whistle (96 6x9-inch pages in paperback; Alternative Comics, $11.95) is back again, another annual compilation, it appears, of gag idea rough sketches and final-art comic strips (many in color; all rendered in Henderson's best Cathybert manner) from the Emmy-nominated former Spongebob guy, everything from hilarious to lame, manic to pointless; but a squint, nonetheless, into the antic mind of a cartoonist. ... Scribblings (48 8x10.5-inch pages in paperback, $15 from www.budplant.com) by Playboy contributor and animator Dean Yeagle is a nifty compilation of his black-on-white pencil drawings of pin-up girls with occasional animals and birds thrown in. Rendered in animation style, Yeagle's girls are the sexiest cute femmes to come along this eon, a breath-takingly refreshing departure from the metallic basketball-bosomed woman-warrior legions in their armored snuggies that populate funnybooks (the only place, other than Playboy, where feminine embonpoint is cartooned). You could keep this next to your drawingboard as a handy how-to instruction book. ... Speaking of which, Dover (at www.doverpublications.com) has reprinted a couple of vintage classics, Learn to Draw Comics by Jingle Jangle master George Carlson ($5.95) and Cartooning, Caricature and Animation Made Easy ($6.95) by Chuck Thorndike, another masterful denizen of the days of yore. In their originally published form, both of these are rare enough to command a considerable buck, but from Dover, you can have 'em for a song.

A PULITZER FOR A FORMER BLOKE (from E&P, AP, Journal News, and Stamford Advocate). No one has ever in the same year won both the Herblock Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. That's because this year's Herblock Prize is the first-funded by the Herbert L. Block Foundation, established at the death of the famed Washington Post cartoonist. Less than a month after collecting the Herblock (on March 11), Matt Davies was named winner of the Pulitzer (on April 5). Each award comes with a $10,000 stipend (and with the Herblock, the income tax is paid in advance, leaving the entire amount for the recipient). Davies, editorial cartoonist at the Journal News of White Plains, NY, was born and raised in England and came to the U.S. in 1983 at the age of 16. Ten years later, he ended a freelancer's career when he was hired by the Journal News, which, until Davies, had not employed a staff editorial cartoonist. It was the first Pulitzer anyone had ever won under the paper's masthead, and the newsroom was a pandemonium of congratulations at the announcement, the delirious mob breaking out bottles of champagne that had been on ice in the hopes that he would win. "He did it! He did it!" shouted editorial page editor Ron Patafio.

            Davis was at his drawingboard, drawing a cartoon for the next edition of the paper. "I had prepared myself extremely well not to win," he said, "then I heard this incredible eruption from the newsroom. I'm blown away by the whole experience," he continued. "When I see all the other work that's out there-to get a prize like this-I'm just thrilled."

            In naming Davies, the 18-member Pulitzer board noted the cartoonist's "piercing cartoons on an array of topics, drawn with a fresh, original style." Rendered with a spidery line and wispy cross-hatching, Davies' spindly-limbed lumpish caricatures "make people think," said his publisher, Gary Sherlock, "-and that's what it's all about." Davies' British background doubtless gives him a somewhat more detached (not to say jaundiced) view of American politicians. Despite the cultural differences, though, Davies says "politicians are all the same" no matter where they are found.

            Davies joked: "I guess I should really thank the voters of Florida," an allusion to his penchant for skewering the current occupant of the White House, whom he finds a gushing fountain of inspiration for cartoons on such governmental ineptitudes as the Iraq mess, high unemployment, relaxation of environmental regulations, and other offenses. But he's not, he says, "a shill" for the Democrats: "As soon as John Kerry does something stupid, I'll go after him," Davies said. At the moment, however, he is "appalled" at the right-wing agenda that has been rammed through Congress. "I feel Bush is president of the Republican Party, not of the rest of us," he said. One of his favorites among the cartoons he submitted depicts his simian George WMD Bush, standing by himself in a huge empty U.S. Treasury over the caption: "The Bush Space Program."

            "It was a bolt from the heavens idea," Davies said. "I was just thinking, 'Where the hell are we going to get the money to do all this [space and other] stuff?' And it just hit me." Intergalactic space vs. space as a void, a vast emptiness.

            Most of the rest of Davies' Pulitzer portfolio can be viewed at www.nyjournalnews.com/davies.

            Both of the other nominees for the Pulitzer this spring are also more liberal than conservative: Steve Sack of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Garry Trudeau, whose comic strip Doonesbury won the Pulitzer in 1975. Trudeau's win was the first time a comic strip had been so honored, and some among the editoonery fraternity were somewhat miffed about it. And they were similarly miffed 12 years later when Berke Breathed and his Bloom County got the nod, the second defection of the Pulitzer selection board from the sacred precincts of political cartooning.

            Apart from the feather the Pulitzer puts in the caps of Davies and his paper, his win is notable because the Journal News is a relatively small circulation daily-much like the Richmond News Leader was when Jeff MacNelly won his first Pulitzer in 1972-proving that, industry rumor to the contrary notwithstanding, big-city papers aren't the only winners in the Pulitzer competition. "As an editorial cartoonist," Davies told David Astor at Editor & Publisher, "I'm pro-underdog. I feel like the underdog newspaper won. To give that to my newspaper and my colleagues is a tremendous feeling I'll never forget. If this newspaper were anywhere else, it would have huge respect. It puts out really good, top-notch stuff. But we're in the shadow of the New York Times. One thing the Times doesn't have is an editorial cartoonist. And my publisher said to me, That's one of our biggest trump cards." The publisher, Gary Sherlock, speaking for himself, said: "We've got, as the Pulitzers have now recognized, one of the very best in the business."

            And in hiring a full-time political cartoonist, the Journal News did more than bring itself distinction. It also demonstrated that one of the ways of earning accolades is to have a full-time editorial cartoonist, bucking a trend that many in the profession find distressing: the tendency of newspapers nationwide to forego a staff cartoonist, relying instead upon nationally syndicated editoonists-and thereby sabotaging the paper's ability to comment on local issues. Remarking on the trend, Davies said money shouldn't inhibit newspapers from hiring a cartoonist of their own. Said he: "There are so many young cartoonists out there who could be hired for what it would cost to get a cub reporter. And readers love cartoons-even if they disagree with them." Davies, who is president-elect of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, plans when he takes office in September to continue the AAEC's effort to fight job loss in the profession and to stress the importance of editorial cartooning to newspapers. In fulfilling that latter mission, AAEC cooperates with Newspapers In Education in sponsoring weekly "Cartoons for the Classroom" lesson for schools at www.NIEonline.com.

            By the end of the day on Monday, April 5-the day the Pulitzers were announced-Davies was back at his drawingboard, finishing the cartoon he'd been interrupted at. It depicts George W. ("Warlord") Bush standing in the rubble marked Iraq, with a slightly ajar door left intact. On the door appears the lettering: "U.S. Exit: June 30," the date the U.S. plans to return sovereignty to the country. And Dubya is saying, "As you can see, the date still stands."

NOUS R US. Chester Commodore, the legendary African-American cartoonist at the Chicago Defender, died April 11 of complications following a heart attack at a hospital in Colorado Springs, to which he had ostensibly retired in the spring of 1981, after more than three decades as the Defender's leading staff cartoonist. He was 90. As it turned out, Commodore had retired only from daily cartooning: in the long shadow of Pike's Peak, he continued drawing occasional cartoons as well as doing some painting until 1992 when he officially returned from semi-retirement to produce editorial cartoons on a somewhat more regular timetable for the Defender and other African-American newspapers published by John Sengstacke. In his heyday at the Defender, Commodore produced several panel cartoons and comic strips in addition to the editorial cartoon-among them, the famed Bungleton Green, the longest running (44 years, 1920-64), continuously published Black comic strip in America. Starting as a comedic bum, Bung (as he was sometimes called) became, by turns, a king, then a millionaire, financial tycoon, family man, adventuring time-traveler, and even superhero for racial justice under three of Commodore's predecessors. Commodore brought the character back to his gag-a-day function when he took over in 1960; the strip was discontinued four years later. For details on Commodore's life and career, visit my source for all this, Tim Jackson's "Pioneering Cartoonists of Color" website at http://www.clostoon.com.

            Aaron McGruder, The Boondocks, the rage of youth, and the arrogance of audacious name-calling are among the topics in Ben McGrath's "The Radical," a profile of the cartoonist in The New Yorker's double-issue, April 19-26. McGrath quotes Doonesbury's Garry Trudeau, who notes McGruder's shrill "singularity of purpose always runs the danger of becoming tedious. ... You have to take your knee off the reader's windpipe from time to time." But McGruder, too full of himself as a suddenly successful and talked-about cartooner, probably wouldn't be able to hear the advice. McGrath soft-peddles McGruder's astonishing weeks attacking George WMD Bush in the immediate aftermath of Nine-Eleven (for which both I and McGruder think he deserved a Pulitzer) but correctly notes that McGruder's entrance into the multi-tasking world of "the Hollywood hustle" and the lecture circuit has undermined the quality of the strip. He also reveals (for the first time as far as I know) that McGruder no longer draws the strip: he writes it, but it is drawn by Boston-based Jennifer Seng ever since the Condoleezza Rice excitement last fall (when Huey and his cohorts try to find a date for the National Security Advisor and seem to suggest that she's lesbian). Moreover, as Trudeau observes, McGruder has "stopped telling stories, for the most part, which I thought was a pity." True, but McGruder thinks he has bigger fish to fry. He's  now plunged deeply into the arenas beyond the newspaper strip. With film director Reggie Hudlin, he is developing a prime-time animated tv Boondocks series, due to air sometime next year on Fox, and the two have written a graphic novel, Birth of a Nation, which re-runs the 2000 presidential election with Florida's fiasco taking place this time in East St. Louis, which promptly secedes from the Union and forms its own country, Blackland. Who knows? Maybe McGruder's new empire will work out for the best and become the fresh new way of attacking the foibles of the U.S. Or McGruder may discover what I believe Berke Breathed discovered when he gave up Bloom County/Outland for the lures of mega-media: nothing matches the daily platform of a newspaper comic strip as a bully pulpit.

            From Meredith Dellandrea's CBS News Online: Rupert Bazambanza, an artist now in Montreal who survived the Rwandan genocide, is marking the mass killing's 10th anniversary this month with a comic book that retails his experiences. Titled Smile through the Tears, the comic book tells the story of the Rwanga family, his friends who were killed in Rwanda a decade ago. Bazambanza began the project two years ago as a way of honoring their memory. He pulls no punches in the story, depicting many brutalities that he witnessed. The images still haunt him, but producing the comic book has been therapeutic: "After the genocide, we needed therapy to deal with everything we went through," Bazambanza said. "In doing this comic book, that's what I did. I got everything out that was in my head."

            Joan Crosby Tibbets has, for the time being, reached the end of the line of legal options in her 40-year crusade to correct a 70-year-old theft. The daughter of famed cartoonist Percy Crosby, Tibbets claims that the makers of Skippy peanut butter appropriated the name from her father's popular comic strip, Skippy, without permission, never compensating her father for the use of the name. The story of this lifetime of legal maneuvering (and a short history of Crosby's tragic life and brilliant work) I'll retail in Harv's Hindsights in a week or so; here and now, let it suffice for me to say that I have no doubt whatsoever that the Skippy peanut butter moguls stole the strip's name. The use of the name might have been coincidental except for the board fence. The board fence upon which for years (but not lately) the peanut butter company lettered the name "Skippy" was a regular feature of the comic strip. Click to EnlargeThe confluence of these two elements-fence and name-is simply too convenient to ignore. And Tibbets didn't. But the U.S. Supreme Court (busy, no doubt, pretending that Justice Scalia's friendship with Veep Cheney won't at all color his judgment in the secret energy cabal case pending before it) declined to hear her case, announcing their so-called decision on Monday, April 5. Tibbets, now in her seventies, vowed to continue her battle in the court of public opinion; see www.skippy.com . Waging her battle alone, she has relied solely upon her personal financial resources; she faced a huge corporation with virtually unlimited funding. In such contests, the money usually wins. "The big corporations believe they can just wear others down," Tibbets said. And of course she's right. How would this case have been resolved if Skippy had been a character in the Disney stable? Surely, we know the answer to that one.

            Tim Story, who directed the 2002 low-budget flick "Barbershop," has been picked to direct the projected Fantastic Four movie. ... The Comics Guaranty folks, who grade comic books by condition from "mint" to "junque," displayed recently in Los Angeles a copy of the 300th issue of Dave Sim's Cerebus the Aardvark, Sim's life-long self-publishing project just concluded after a remarkable 25 years of regular publication. From his personal file, Sim will sell collector copies of the last issue, numbered 1-100 and signed by him and his drawing assistant Gerhard. One of the issues of No. 300 was graded and certified 9.8 ("stunning" saith the news release from Scoop). Since No. 300 was just published-merely a month or so ago-this grading makes one wonder what it takes to get a rousing rating of "10." This is a brand new comic book, f'pete's sake. Just published and it gets only 9.8? Well, collecting is a fetish after all. ... Cathy's Cathy Guisewite will be the Grand Marshal of the 49th annual Kentucky Derby's Pegasus Parade on April 29 in Louisville. The theme of this year's parade is "Broadway Toon Town," a salute to cartoon characters who have made it to the stage and screen. ... Larry King's recently published book, Remember Me When I'm Gone, will include the answers several cartoonists drew in response to King's question: How would you like to be remembered after your death? Contributors include Universal Press cartooners Rob Harrell (Big Top), Steve Moore (In the Bleachers), Lennie Peterson (The Big Picture), and Jim Davis (Garfield); Davis, the only one who didn't draw an answer, sent in a plain prose response: "I would like to be remembered as someone who was extremely old." ... Gary Barker, who has drawn Garfield for several decades, moved recently from the PAWS headquarters in Muncie, Indiana, to Pinellas County in Florida (from whence he continues drawing about half the orange tabby's strips), where he plans to give workshops and spend time in the local schools, encouraging kids to develop their talents. "My biggest pet peeve is how [poorly] the arts are treated in the schools," Barker said; "art is forever." The once anonymous limner of the lazanga-lover's adventures is named in the hardcover tome published last summer, In Dog Years, I'd Be Dead, a commemoration of Garfield's 25th anniversary, which occurred last June.

            After dribbling it out in dribs and drabs over the last month, let me now make up for my dereliction by listing, in one convenient spot, all the nominees for the National Cartoonists Society's Reuben Division Awards this year. First, for "cartoonist of the year" (which is The Reuben Award): Pat Brady (Rose Is Rose), Greg Evans (Luann), and Dan Piraro (Bizarro). The other nominees, by "division" or category, are:

Editorial Cartoon: Mike Luckovich, Ted Rall, Tom Toles

Newspaper Panel Cartoon: Vic Lee (Pardon My Planet), Mark Parisi (Off the Mark), Jerry Van Amerongen (Ballard Street)

Comic Strip: Brian Basset (Red and Rover), Glenn McCoy (The Duplex), Stephan Pastis (Pearls before Swine)

Greeting Card: Richard Goldberg, Gary McCoy, Glenn McCoy (he won this last year-and Gag Cartoons; and he's also won in Editorial Cartoons)

Newspaper Illustration: Grey Blackwell, John Klossner, Bob Rich

Magazine Feature/Magazine Illustration: Steve Brodner, Hermann Mejia, Ralph Steadman

Advertising Illustration: Pat Byrnes, Tom Richmond, Bob Staake

Comic Book: Batton Lash (Supernatural Law), Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise), Eric Shanower (Age of Bronze)

Gag Cartoon: Robert Weber, Dean Yeagle, Jack Ziegler

TV Animation: Rob Renzetti ("My Life As A Teenage Robot"), Paul Rudish ("Star Wars: Clone Wars"), Tom Warburton ("Code Name: The Kids Next Door")

Feature Animation: Sylvain Chomet ("The Triplets of Belleville"), Eric Goldberg ("Looney Tunes: Back in Action"), Andrew Stanton ("Finding Nemo")

This is a sterling assemblage of nominees, kimo sabe. I'm not familiar with the work of every cartooner listed here, but it is gratifying to see such worthies on the list as Van Amerongen, Brodner, Steadman, Staake, Ziegler, Yeagle, Weber, and Chomet. (Not to mention all three of the Reuben nominees.) And all the nominees in the comic book category are in the cutting edge category of comic book cartooning rather than ageless stalwarts; it would appear that NCS has finally come to realize that comic books are a legitimate manifestation of the cartooning arts, not just the poor relations of juvenile junk literature. Extrapolating from my experience of some of the work here, then, I'm sure that the rest must be, similarly, exemplars of the craft. And so, without hesitation, I wish them all the best of fortune. The winners won't necessarily be the best because the best are already listed here as nominees.

REPRINTZ.  If you haven't see Stephan Pastis' newspaper strip, Pearls before Swine, you should probably glom onto this tome from Andrews McMeel, This Little Piggy Stayed Home, the second compilation of the strip (128 8.5x9-inch pages in paperback, black-on-white; $10.95). Only a couple of years old, the strip has already attracted considerable applause for the sardonic twist of its humor, an original bent that is good enough to compensate for the stick-drawing rendering style of its creator, who is not so much imitating the manner of Scott Adams' Dilbert as he is attempting to do even less drawing. The main characters, you may remember, are a rat, a pig, and a goat, complemented occasionally by several zebras. None of them have names. The rat is a mean, self-centered arrogant personality and the pig is impenetrably stupid. In the first panel one day, rat says to pig, "I got my eyes dilated and I can't see. Can you help me cross the street?" Taking his hand, pig says, "Sure." Rat says, "Remember to look both ways." Pig looks up. Pig looks down. In the last panel, we're in heaven and rat, eyes still dilated, is saying, "Are we there yet?" This collection includes the strips recording a visit to the Sign Convention for those geometric symbols for "man" and "woman" (as on the doors of restrooms). An autograph hunter says to the "man" symbol, "How 'bout an autograph, bathroom sign guy?" The man symbol objects to this impersonal manner of address, saying he has a name. "I'm sorry," says the autograph hunter; "what's your name?" Says the man symbol, "John." Pastis does this with a perfectly straight face, remarkably. At a restaurant, pig rejects a bottle of wine of 1961 Bordeaux, saying to his friend, "They think I can't read the expiration date, but I can." On another occasion, pig decides "bidet" is French for "drinking fountain." For two weeks, rat and pig and the others demand better treatment from Pastis. Rat moves to Family Circus, and in the last panel of Pearls, he is depicted on a wandering stroll leaving Billy's patented dotted line "trace" behind. Says rat: "I feel like a x@#$#& snail." In a similar manner, Pastis visits Marmaduke, Nancy, the Jumble puzzle, and the panel witticism, Love Is. I'd be more enthusiastic about this strip if it weren't so simply rendered. Pastis can draw better but he chooses not to, resorting to the simplest shapes and giving them sticks for limbs. In itself, there's nothing objectionable in this affectation; but if Pearls proves terribly successful (which seems likely, given its track record so far-and it is nominated for a Reubens Division award), we'll be deluged with other strips whose creators strive to imitate the drawing style, to the everlasting impoverishment of the medium as one of the visual artforms.

STRIPPING. Doonesbury isn't the only comic strip through which, occasionally, actual persons from real life wander (although in Doonesbury, the actual persons often appear as asterisks in cowboy hats). Cartooner Lalo Alcaraz, who produces La Cucuracha for Universal Press as well as political cartoons for the LA Weekly, showed up for two days as an elementary school pupil in Fraz, Jeff Mallett's strip about a school janitor who is actually a famous hit-song writer. And in Rob Harrell's Big Top, a strip about a boy with a circus and a clutch of talking animals, Dusty, a poodle, had a date and an evening out with Paris Hilton (who, not to fudge the matter, didn't actually appear in any recognizable way, clothed or not, in the strip; we saw only portions of her physique, apparently fully attired, glimpsed at the edges of the panels). ... Harrell, incidentally, has several of his paintings in a Minneapolis art gallery at an exhibition entitled "Inspired by the Figure." ... Gary Gianni's inaugural solo appearance doing Prince Valiant on March 21 wasn't, as I said last time, particularly notable-mostly long shots of ships at sea. But the next week's Val demonstrated illustrative panache that we haven't seen displayed in this feature for years. Bravo.

            Then on April Fool's Day, it began to look like Aaron McGruder took over Rudy Park and La Cucuracha for the day. Some years ago, a bunch of cartoonists exchanged strips on this holiest of holidays (Garfield's Jim Davis did Blondie, if I recall-that sort of commendable foolishness), so I was holding my breath in anticipation. But McGruder did his own Boondocks, and no one else joined in the shenanigan. Just Darrin Bell and Alcaraz. McGruder, as far as I know, was not part of the conspiracy. ... In San Francisco on April First (dubbed "St. Stupid's Day" in the City by the Bay), the annual parade, part Mardi Gras and part Hallowe'en, marched on the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle and demanded that Bill Griffith's comic strip, Zippy, be reinstated in the newspaper's comics line-up; it had been missing since March 21. Griffth, who now lives in Connecticut but once lived in nearby Noe Valley, put in an appearance and made a speech. The demonstration, however-which is traditionally a pointless parade celebrating "the feast day of the patron saint of the Church of the Last Laugh"-did not achieve its objective: Zippy was not reinstated at the Chronicle. Probably just as well: within a week, the strip was back "home," being published in the five-days-a-week tabloid, the San Francisco Examiner, which is where Zippy had debuted as a mainstream comic strip, having run in underground publications for years. ... On the fated March 21, Griffith's strip featured a 19th Century American comic strip character, Professor Tigwissel, who, the cartoonist claims, first appeared in the New York Daily Telegraph on September 11, 1875, making the good Professor likely the first newspaper comic character.

            In Gasoline Alley, cartooner Jim Scancarelli has been reviewing the history-or, more accurately, the biographies-of his principals, Walt Wallet and his adopted son, Skeezix, in particular. Walt, as the whole world must know, found Skeezix in a basket on his doorstep on Valentine's Day, 1921. The story behind this wholly unanticipated event is firmly lodged in the lore of cartooning. Gasoline Alley had been invented by Frank King at the direction of his boss, Robert McCormick, editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, for which, in the second decade of the 20th Century, King was producing a weekend full-page feature called The Rectangle-a conglomeration of single-panel cartoons and assorted funny pictures. In 1918, the year of the Alley's invention, McCormick reasoned that since almost everyone now owned an automobile, King should include in the assortment of material on his page something about automobiles. In those days, everyone could fix his own car, and a lot of tinkering was done on weekends in the alleys that ran behind everyone's house at the time. Hence, "gasoline alley." It first appeared on November 24, 1918, and for many months thereafter, it was but a single-panel cartoon among many on King's page. In August 1919, it began appearing daily; and then, through the next year, it sometimes appeared as a comic strip, sometimes as a panel. Then, finally, it assumed the strip format as a permanent posture. By 1921, McCormick's cousin and co-proprietor of the Tribune, Joseph Patterson, was dictating the content of the paper's comics, and he suddenly told King to get a baby into the strip. The strip needed something to attract female readers, he said. King protested that his protagonist, Walt Wallet, was a bachelor. But Patterson was unfazed: get a baby in there, he commanded. So Walt acquires a baby in about the only way King could think the proprieties would permit-in a basket, abandoned on his doorstep. Much excitement ensued-naming the child, arranging for its feeding and clothing and education. (Walt, for a long time, insisted on treating Skeezix as if he were some brand of miniature automobile, with great comedic effect). It was the presence of the infant in the strip that led to King's celebrated innovation-the aging of the characters. King reasoned that the baby couldn't stay a baby forever; ergo, if the baby grew older, so must everyone else in the strip. As this process proceeded gradually through the years, along comes a mysterious woman, a European opera singer named Helene Octave, claiming to be Skeezix's real mother. Scancarelli, in March's releases this year, took up the narrative at this point, having Walt tell Skeezix about the time he was kidnaped by Madame Octave. Walt's verbal recitation is accompanied by visuals depicting the highlights, and Scancarelli deftly modifies his drawing style to evoke the vintage work of the strip's creator, producing a unique streamlined version of King's 1920s style. In April, Skeezix's adoptive mother-Phyllis Blossom ("Auntie Blossom," a widower), who Walt married July 24, 1926-starts reminiscing with Skeezix about his early years, and suddenly, she decides to reveal to him the last remaining secret of his origins: why his mother abandoned him on a doorstep. No one has ever covered this ground before in the strip-not King, nor his successor, Dick Moores (from whom Scancarelli inherited the strip). But Phyllis should know: as comics collector and Gasoline Alley historian Bob Bindig has described in his recounting of the strip's narrative, Phyllis and Helene were nurses together in France during World War I, and shortly after Helene married a colonel in the French army, Phyllis married her first husband, Jack Blossom, who subsequently died in Arabia (as the Middle East was called back in those more poetic times). Probably the Alley doesn't run in your paper: its circulation is not wide these days. But if you want to see the last secret of Skeezix's life revealed, log onto the Tribune Media Services site, www.comicspage.com

FUNNYBOOK FAN FAIR. I rejoiced here, years ago, at the appearance of Roberta Gregory's Naughty Bits comic book: its protagonist, Bitchy Bitch, whose encounter with life was a seemingly endless screed of exaggerated complaint about the annoyances womanhood is heir to, was a hilarious concoction. Since I can't afford to buy every comic book I like (which, if I could, would certainly include Naughty Bits), I gave up buying this title after a dozen or so issues, but last month, I picked up No. 39, and I'm happy to report that Gregory has lost none of her outrageous mastery of the form. In this issue, Bitchy discovers a lump in her breast, and in the throes of her anxiety, her breasts acquire a vicious personality, which she attacks in her usual manner: "A lot of good you stupid bags of blubber have done for me," she rants. "Maybe been instrumental in getting me some lousy sex over the years. All the money I spent on overpriced underwire bras to try to keep you monsters in line, and now you're trying to kill me! This is the thanks I get?" In response, her breasts become separate, animated entities with rows of sharp teeth and-well, you gotta be there. ...

            The more I see of Eduardo Risso's work, particularly in 100 Bullets, the more I think his inventiveness is due, in some indeterminate measure, to a desire to avoid becoming bored. It puts me in mind of a vintage story about an old-time cartoonist, who, at the end of a day at the drawingboard, retired to the nearby saloon, where several others of his craft were dosing their livers. Our hero ordered a drink and downed it quickly, and then turned to his conferees and burst out in exasperation: "Noses! Noses! Noses!" Then he put his head down on the bar and wept. The story makes no sense until we recall that old time cartoon characters had bulbous noses. All of them had noses like that. And if you spent your day at your drawingboard penning these creatures into ink-and-paper life, you spent several hours every day drawing round, bulbous noses. All round. All bulbous. No distinguishing characteristics, no other shapes. Just round and bulbous. Where's the challenge in that? Where's the variety, the novelty, the interest? Boredom aboundeth, no doubt. "Noses, noses, noses" indeed. And I suspect that a certain amount of the inventiveness in Risso's pages arises from a simple artistic impulse to keep the job interesting. And so we find him giving himself challenges, and then meeting them. In 100 Bullets No. 49, for instance, we have, on the third page, a picture of a girl in a dress running out of the scene, directly toward us. The artistic challenge in drawing a picture of a girl in a dress running is in how to render the legs. In life-and in motion pictures-we can see the shape of a leg "through the cloth," so to speak: the fabric molds itself around the contours of the leg, revealing shape even as it conceals flesh. In drawing this visual phenomenon in a linear mode, the trick is to deploy the lines in ways that aren't quite linear. In other words, you can't outline the leg: that would, in effect, disintegrate the cloth. You can do it with feathering, making scores of tiny lines that model the shape through the cloth. But Risso's forte is line and shadow, not shading or modeling, and here he tries to achieve the objective-preserving the shape of the leg and the existence of the cloth covering it-with line and shadow alone. And he doesn't quite do it. On one side, the line that indicates the outline of the leg destroys the illusion that cloth is covering it; on the other side, the defining shadow delineates the shape of the leg so sharply that it may as well be a line. The drawing, like virtually all of Risso's work, is expertly done, and even if it isn't entirely effective, it shows that he's challenging himself, page after page. And mostly succeeding in meeting the challenge, too.

            Pulitzer novelist Michael Chabon has teamed with Dark Horse to bring to four-color life the comic book creations concocted in the suppposed 1930s by his characters in the award-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (scroll down past the Bushwah to find a full-bore review of the novel). In the new comic book, The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, Chabon contributes the lead story, "The Passing of the Key" (as it goes from one generation's Escapist to the next), and to frame the book as a whole, he maintains the conceit of the novel, that his characters Sam Clay, the writer, and Joseph Kavalier, the artist, are real, historical personages who created the Escapist and thereby spawned a comic book publishing company in the closing years of the Depression. Continuing his spiel, Chabon tells us in the introductory pages of the comic book that the publisher in question came to grief in a lawsuit brought by DC Comics, and the characters created by Kavalier and Clay disappeared from publication except irregularly, here and there, in an assortment of Chabon's fictional comic book lines. The present Dark Horse comic book, however, reincarnates those fabled and illusive heroes, culling a representative sampling of their stories from "every epoch of the Escapist's strange and checkered history." Subsequent issues of this title will bring forth more samples from across the years. In this issue, we have the work of Chabon, interpreted by Eric Wight, and then Jim Starlin, Kyle Baker, Howard Chaykin, Kevin McCarthy, and Steve Lieber illustrating stories by McCarthy or, with Chaykin and Starlin, their own. Chabon's cover story (that is, that these tales come from different periods in the Escapist's publication history) is a clever ruse that permits a parade of artists and writers to march by, each indulging his own stylistic quirks to his heart's content while ostensibly representing a different period in the Escapist's run. Wright draws in a style supposedly suggesting the mannerisms of the Golden Age (although the pictures look more like Milton Caniff's work than, say, Wayne Boring's or C.C. Beck's); Chaykin in a Red Scare tale set in a mid-1950s when Senator Joe McCarthy ruled the Senate and the front pages of the nation's newspapers, produces his trade-marked sado- masochist frolic, deploying his panels and page layouts in a fashion evoking the legendary "artfully disarranged dislocated panels" Kavalier was famous for. Starlin's Luna Moth story, ostensibly froml the 1970s, presents a superheroine typical of the period, suitably statuesque and, visually, entirely nude despite the blue coloring applied to her body in an effort to suggest a spandex costume. The least successful of the stories is "Prison Break," a longish piece by McCarthy and Lieber. Beginning with the notion of a "reverse escape"-that is, from the outside to behind bars in a prison for the purpose of thwarting some scheme of vandalism on a grand scale-the motivation seems somewhat shaky, but Lieber's art is superb. Baker's story, says Newsweek's Michele Tepper online, is "a pitch-perfect delight [in] homage to the jokier, more muscle-bound comics of the 1950s." The book is rounded off with a prose "tangled and glorious history" of Chabon's fictional publishing empire and its comic book characters by Malachi B. Cohen, reprinted from The Comics Journal. The entire project, which contemplates a series of books like this, will eventually provide a squinty-eyed over-view of the "history" of the comic book as a genre as well as the history of Kavalier and Clay's characters. An ambitious endeavor but one that, master-minded by the master artificer Chabon, will be enjoyable to watch unfold. I have only one carping criticism. As you will ascertain if you read the appended essay on the novel (also taken from The Comics Journal where it first appeared), I have a tiny cameo role in the footnotes of Chabon's novel. When we last discussed the comic book project, he assured me that I would make appearances in every story in the comic book, "usually wearing some kind of expensive female lingerie." Well, Michael, I must report that I've looked in vain in this issue for any such manifestation. Chaykin's pictures of a shapely lady in black underwear don't quite count: I'm bald, and she isn't.

            From Alternative Comics, 8 ˝ Ghosts by Rick Tommaso, a cleanly drawn comic book rehearsing a filmmaker's sojourn in a haunted house, his attempt to make a movie using the disembodied, and their revenge, so to speak, upon him. ... AC's reprint title, Best of the West, hit its 40th issue with a great Frank Frazetta drawing of Red Mask on the cover and, inside, stories drawn by Fred Guardineer, Pete Morisi, Dick Ayers, Bill Everett, and the tireless Frank Bolle, who is now drawing Apartment 3-G for the funny papers. Publisher Bill Black and his minions reconstruct the artwork for these stories, enhancing the naked black-and-white with an attractive array of gray tones. Time Holt, Calamity Kate, the Haunted Horseman, Smiley Burnette, the Masked Rider, and the Durango Kid ride again. 

CIVILIZATION'S LAST OUTPOST. Alistair Cooke and Peter Ustinov, gone within days of each other. And then NPR re-assigns its "Morning Edition" host, the storied Bob Edwards-all in the same week. The world seems to be slipping out from under me. Lots of tributes to Cooke on the radio, he being a radio personality with his weekly "Letter from America" to his native Britain. I first saw the impeccable spokesman in the 1950s, hosting "Omnibus," one of tv's earliest anthology shows-art, music, history, science, all in a package. That was back when television moguls still aspired to cultural status rather than simple ratings. Then I saw him regularly on "Masterpiece Theater." Cooke was an elegant and urbane user of oral language and a journalist of deserved repute, but he made a mistake once. I was listening to his weekly "Letter" on the day he referred to the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. He began by describing the "little mountain town with a tiny population" in which the school stood. But he was wrong this time. He had apparently researched by using a gazetteer, which supplied data about a small town in Colorado, Columbine Valley. That town is near Denver and near Columbine High School, but Columbine High School isn't in that little town: it's in a much larger suburban sprawl at the outskirts of Denver. Not in the mountains either. We all have clay feet, though, and to see Cooke's sticking out under his throne only makes his achievement larger. I saw Ustinov in person once. In Istanbul, in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel there. I was just checking out, and as I stood there at the desk, the clerk explained that a film was being shot in the lobby that day, and if I heard someone shout "Action," he, the clerk, would step away and perform some previously rehearsed activity, something unobtrusive enough to serve as the background ambiance for a scene in the flick-and he was telling me so I wouldn't think he was being impolite or inattentive if he suddenly seemed to be abandoning me at the desk. Sure enough, before I'd finished my check-out, someone shouted "Action," and my clerk spun away. Ustinov was coming down the staircase into the lobby. Cameras were rolling. He walked by the check-out desk. I was suddenly in the background of the scene. Mom-I might be in pictures! Ah, but no: they apparently cut that footage of me out of "Topkapi" because I didn't see me when I saw it. But I love Ustinov for all sorts of other reasons. I don't have any stories about Edwards, sorry to say, except that I heard about his departure from "Morning Edition" on April 1, and I thought it was one of the holiday's pranks. But I'll miss his marvelous voice in the morning. Growing older isn't so bad: it's losing friends and the fixtures of your life that is upsetting.

            Several parents and their children in Glassport, Pennsylvania, were upset by an Easter pageant in which the Easter Bunny was whipped and eggs broken, a maneuver no doubt inspired by Mel Gibson's "Passion," intended, according to the director of the performance,  to "convey that Easter is not just about the Easter Bunny-it's about Jesus Christ."

MOUSE DROPPINGS. The 75 Mickey Mouse statues that were unveiled last fall at Disney World to celebrate the rodent's diamond anniversary will begin, in May, a nation-wide tour. In clusters of 15, the statues will visit 10 cities (two for each group) through the year and then finish at Disneyland in Anaheim. Each of the Mickeys is decorated by a different celebrity-Elton John, Ellen DeGeneres, Tony Hawk, Tom Hanks, Ben Affleck, and so on-some of whom painted the statue; others dressed theirs. When all the festivities are done, the statues will be auctioned off to raise money for the charities chosen by the embellishers. Missing from the tour is the statue dressed by Janet Jackson; the management removed her Mickey from the ensemble following the Super Bowl incident, evidently wishing to avoid reminding the viewing throngs of Janet's famous hooter. The singer may be missing from the parade of statues, but the Mouse isn't missing from the life of the singer. She has this tattoo, see: "I have a tattoo on my most private part of Mickey and Minnie Mouse involved in a sexual act," Jackson giggled. "It's my sense of humor. My boyfriend thinks it's terrible. He loves Disney too much, but I just laugh. It's fun." Maybe, but others who have desecrated the Mouse have found themselves sued by Disney. Is it too much to imagine that this prank, like the SuperBoob venture, has been concocted solely in order to reveal, for promotional purposes, another part of the Jackson anatomy? If it goes to court, the plaintiff will, presumably, demand that evidence of Miss Jackson's transgression be revealed.

            Meanwhile, Disney will close the last of its hand-drawn animation studios, the one that opened in 1989 in Japan. "Home on the Range," the animated feature that opened in early April, is the last hand-drawn Disney film produced for theatrical release. Universal has one more in the can-"Curious George"-and it appears to be the last of the breed. Floyd Norman, who's spent half-a-century in animation at Disney, Hanna-Barbera, and Pixar (he worked on "Finding Nemo") among other studios, spoke fondly of the traditional manner of animation when we typed at each other recently. "Hard to believe, isn't it?" he said, referring to the collapse of hand-drawn animation. "All the way from 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' to this." But "Home on the Range" is not, actually, the "last" of the hand-wrought films from Disney. This fall, the hand-drawn "The Three Musketeers" with Mickey, Donald Duck, and Goofy as will be released, direct to video, not to theaters. Norman worked on this one "in a consultant sort of way," he said. "I followed the film from its development through production. I must confess I was impressed by what the kids did with this material. Unlike most of the lackluster Disney sequels, this production captured some of the early Disney cartoon spirit. Something that's been missing from Disney films for years. Having seen the film, I almost feel it's a shame to dump it on the direct-to-video market, when adults and kids alike would love to see Mickey, Donald and Goofy up on the big screens again. I even appealed to Disney boss Dick Cook to give this film a theatrical release. I mean, if they can send second rate stuff like 'Teacher's Pet' and 'Piglet's Big Movie' [to the big screen], you'd think that Disney's top star would deserve as much. However, much as Dick Cook would like to do this, I'm afraid he'll bend to Eisner's will. It's my opinion that Michael Eisner hates Disney animation, and he's doing his best to bury it once and for all, so I don't hold out much hope for the film getting the release it deserves. Disney has now put 'all their eggs in one basket,'" Norman continued. "If their new digital film, 'Chicken Little,' fails at the box office next year, there will be no traditional animation unit to return to: Disney has complete gutted their animation division, and all their top artists have been scattered throughout the industry." At a peak moment in the recent past, Disney had over 2,000 people working in animation, Norman said. "Now there's less than two hundred. It's very sad. Disney has lost itself. They want to be something else. They took the mouse off the logo. Disney doesn't want to be Disney any more."

            A few of the endangered animators meet weekly at a coffee shop in Burbank- Chad Frye, Stan Sakai, Bob Foster, Paul Power, Stan Shaw. And Floyd Norman among a few others. They are continuing a 20-year tradition of Friday confabulations, despite the steady erosion of their employment. They commiserate about disappearing jobs and they network about possibilities. "Computer-generated graphics isn't the problem," according to Kathleen Quaife, who was interviewed in March by Lynell George of the L.A. Times. "There's work," she goes on, "plenty of work. It's just that it's done in every other country on the planet." Divorced with two sons, she's taking in boarders to make ends meet. Some of her former colleagues have banded together to start new animation companies. A few have packed up and moved to India or New Zealand, Taipei or Shanghai-places where animation jobs are still available, albeit at considerable reduction in salary. Two women quit the business altogether and opened a funky retail shop, selling t-shirts and jewelry and other artifacts designed by themselves and their other former animation workers. Others find themselves bagging groceries in super markets.

            Norman, though saddened by these events, is relatively philosophical about it. He's reinvented himself several times over the decades since he began at Disney in 1956-from animator to storyboard artist, from features to Saturday morning tv, from ink and paint to CG. "This is a job people use to have for a lifetime," he told George. "To see your job disappear, everything you worked and trained for? There's nothing that prepares you for that. We've seen a lot of fads and trends. Right now, it's CG. But what people forget is that it's all about a good story. Three-D, 2-D -whatever.  I see it at Pixar but not at Disney. Pixar is doing Disney storytelling. And I don't think Disney has learned that yet. I hope they do. But until then, the artists are taking the hit."

GRAFIC NOVELZ. In these days of sound-bite truths that flicker by too quickly to grasp let alone comprehend, the cartooning reportage of Joe Sacco sidles up, sits down in your favorite chair in the livingroom, pours itself a tall cool one, and crosses one leg over the other, ankle on knee, with the air of a guest settling in for a long visit. Sacco's cartooning has a stolid quality: copiously-painstakingly-cross-hatched into shades of non-commital gray, his picture stories sit there, immovable as granite truth-fixed and abiding, inviting contemplation and understanding-and so they sink in, slowly becoming integrated into our way of thinking about certain subjects. Palestine. Bosnia. Sarajevo.

            Equipped with a degree in journalism and an interest in the autobiographical comics of the 1980s, Sacco went to the Middle East in the early 1990s. "After I got there," he said, "I thought, Well, I should do comics about this and my experiences." And he did. He did a 9-issue documentary mini-series about Palestine for Fantagraphics 1993-96; the series was reprinted in two paperback volumes, Palestine: A Nation Occupied (1994) and Palestine: In the Gaza Strip (1996). "My journalism training kicked in," he explained in an interview with Calvin Reid at Publishers Weekly. And his training persisted, kicking him all the way to Bosnia in 1995 at the ragged end of that brutal conflict. His experiences there he reported in Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia, 1992-95 (2000).

            A page of a Sacco report is a painful thing. Its visual details are so carefully, meticulously, rendered, the labored obsessive cross-hatch masking an otherwise modest artistic ability with the tonal variety of a photograph. But there are no blurred images as there sometimes are in photographs, no fuzzy edges, nothing hidden in the shadows. It's all there, starkly before us, every gritty war-blasted detail picked out and laid down in pen-and-ink. We can't escape from it: it's there, demanding contemplation with the nearly hypnotic power of morbid interest pulling us in. Because the imagery is static, unmoving, it awaits us and then, as we view it, seeps deeply in. Our understanding is thereby enhanced in ways impossible of achieving in the flickering mode of television or motion picture. And while journalistic prose might be as precise, Sacco's pictures have an immediacy, a presence, that mere verbal reportage lacks. Pictures always win over prose.

            But Sacco's journalistic method involves both pictures and words. "I take lots of photos for reference," he said; "otherwise, I do what any reporter does. I do lots of interviews." Which may account for the prevalence in his comics of facial close-ups. He continued: "I keep a journal and look for stories. When I return home, I index my notes, write the story, and begin to draw. I don't draw much in the field, maybe some sketches. In the field, it's about getting to know people."  In reporting the conflicts he has witnessed, Sacco plays his favorites. But his favorites are not political. They're human. His bias as a reporter favors human misery. "Suffering motivates me," he told Reid; "I wouldn't do this if it didn't. When I see what I've seen, I'm compelled to tell these stories."

            Suffering and hopelessness and the disintegration of civilization against which human society struggles and, somehow, prevails-these are the subjects of Sacco's reporting. In his most recent work, The Fixer (112 8x11-inch pages in hardback; $24.95), he returns to Sarajevo and finds, again, the man who has made his living by assisting journalists to find stories in the rubble of the war and its aftermath. Sacco spent time with the fixer Neven in 1995, and he listened to Neven's stories about his role as a soldier and sniper in one of the warlord bands that attempted to bring some order to the chaos that prevailed as civil society broke apart. We see Neven as Sacco sees him-sitting at a table in a dimly lighted café, smoking an endless chain of cigarettes, asking now and then for a pittance to buy another pack of smokes or another cup of coffee. And telling stories about himself in which he is sometimes heroic, sometimes barbaric. He seems a little boastful, but Sacco supplies historical context, and Neven emerges as more victim than victor. Indeed, so does Sarajevo as a country.

            "Neven knew a lot about the warlord situation, and his stories were consistent," Sacco said. "But even I could never really make up my mind about what was true." At intervals throughout the book, Sacco hears from some of those who knew Neven in his soldiering days, and they brand him a braggert and a showboat. But at the end of the book, Sacco meets a man who assures him that Neven was "unbelievably courageous." The organization of the book gives the rhetorical advantage to this concluding assessment. The narrative switches from 2001, when Sacco returns to Sarajevo, to 1995, when he first met Neven, and then back to Neven's early life in 1984, then again to the war years, 1992-93. By this maneuvering, Sacco acquaints us with the context of Neven's wartime experiences as well as Neven's recital, his personal take on the situation. Like Sacco, we are puzzled by the man: is he what he claims to be? Or what he appears to be-a blowhard in a cafe, mouching cigarettes and coffee from an American journalist, who will pay anything to get a story. Sacco seems to lend support to this interpretation with his own self-effacing mannerisms. "With Neven," he writes in the book, "I'm like a teenager on his first few dates-a little enthralled, a little infatuated perhaps...." How acute are the observations of such a witness? Can we trust him? His unflinching and unflattering opinion of himself convinces us: he is, at least, as truthful as we could want him to be. After all this, we are ready to believe the last page-the testimony of another who knew of Neven as "unbelievably courageous." It rings true-as true as anything in that dysfunctional society.

            "After the war," Sacco says, "Neven is in dire straits." He has no vocation anymore. He is a parasite attached to visiting journalists, who come around less and less frequently. He is, Sacco admits, symbolic. "Sarajevo is a café economy," he explains. "The cafes on the main streets are full, but then you wonder, What are all these people doing here in the middle of the day? The economy is bad, and people are desperate. Reconstruction after war is a long process."

            The story of Neven shows the brutality of unfettered guerilla warfare and the barren, soulessness of the ensuing peace, all booze and cigarettes and bleak memories in a shattered society whose young look for a few fleeting moments of good times amid ruin and penury and garbage and wreckage. Sacco's pictures-and his portrait of Neven-convey this sense of Sarajevo with a detachment that is, ultimately, ironic:  by being so seemingly objective and unengaged, Sacco's story is, paradoxically, bitter. There is about Sacco's reportage a grinding, dismal truth-about the misery of war and its aftermath, about the renting of the fabric of social discourse and civility, but also about the indomitable will to survive and to do better. But that single gracenote is more a consolation than a triumph, and we are left saddened rather than hopeful.

UNDER THE SPREADING PUNDITRY. In all the excitement on the airways about the Nine-Eleven Commission, Condoleezza Rice's status as a fugitive, and Richard Clarke's pained allegations, the most obvious fact has been sidelined in favor of the inciting stuff. Clarke maintains that our government failed us. That includes the Clinton Administration as well as the Bush League. Clinton did more than George W. ("War Lord") Bush and his minions, but neither did enough. The Bush League is all a-twitter to prove that it did everything any reasonable person would have done to prevent Nine-Eleven. In short, the Bushites claim they are without fault. But logic destroys this argument. And logic is what all the smoke and mirrors obscure. Here's the basic premise: either attacks of the Nine-Eleven variety are preventable, or they are not. If they are not preventable, then all the fuss of the Homeland Security Department is pointless window-dressing. If they are preventable, then someone screwed up before September 11, 2001. There are no other options in the proposition. The Bush League should simply face the facts inherent in its own policies and stand up and take responsibility-and its share of the blame. Reasonable people will agree, no doubt, that the Bushites did everything within reason to guard against terrorist attacks-given the time and place and the rest of the context of 2001. With Bob Kerrey, I say I don't know if I'd know what to do, given the circumstances. When Rice says the country was not on a "war footing" at the time, she's right. When Clinton bombed a terrorist installation (perhaps erroneously), he got nothing but grief from the populace at large. We weren't ready for war yet. And we didn't actually believe anything so fantastic as a world-wide web of terrorist conspirators, poised to do anything as outlandish as attacking the U.S. on our own ground. Despite the earlier attempt on the World Trade Center towers, despite the Cole-despite such evidence, the idea of a terrorist network audacious enough-foolhardy enough?-to mount such an attack was, until Nine-Eleven, beyond our comprehension. Mine anyhow. All that is true. Makes sense to such reasonable people as I. But I'm not a national security advisor. I'm not paid to imagine the most dire of outcomes in a constellation of the most mundane of situations. Rice is. One of her explanations for the absence of action on her part was that the information she received didn't tell her to do anything. What? She has to wait for instructions? I thought the national security advisor initiated action, told people what to do, started things; but to hear Rice, her job was to sit there and read memos and wait for someone to tell her it is time to act. That's a screw-up. Among others. Admit it and move on.

            One thing that bothered me not a little was the misdirected effort and naive understanding of the Arab world that Rice, in the name of the Bush League, confessed to (unknowingly, but there it was). Lee Hamilton, the co-chair of the Commission, asked Rice whether the Bushites had a plan to attack the source of the problem with terrorism and the roiling Middle East. He prefaced his question by noting that terrorism flourishes in that part of the world because many of the more fundamental Muslims resent the cultural influence of the Western nations (the U.S. in particular), an influence that seems likely to destroy their traditional way of life. Paradoxically, Arabs also are unhappy with their autocratic rulers who have deprived them for generations of a better standard of living. The source of terrorism, in other words, lies in the hearts and minds of disenchanted and desperate people who want something more out of life than starvation wages, mud huts, and high mortality rates. Such people, particularly if they are young, are ready recruits to the terrorist cause. When asked, then, how the Bushites proposed to tackle and reverse this situation, Rice responded that their expectation was that once the freedoms of democracy were installed in the Middle East, all these resentments and ills and social discontents would evaporate. Moreover, her belief is that the only way for a people to achieve democracy is for them to do it themselves. The naivete displayed here is stunning. It's true that democracy must grow out of a society's cultural history; it cannot be imposed from without. But the pivotal notion here is "cultural history." A society must have developed (matured? grown?) to a level of civic sophistication that enables democracy to take root. I'm not sure a fractious tribal society has reached that point. Even if it has, it will take generations yet before "democracy" in Iraq blossoms enough to make that society the envy of the Middle East. Meanwhile, what happens to the "source" of terrorism? It continues to flourish, I'd guess. To attack the source, the U.S. and its allies must mount something of a humanitarian effort akin to the Marshall Plan that saved lives in Europe after World War II and re-invigorated social institutions. As I said once before, our invasion of Afghanistan should have consisted of a miles-long convoy: in front, tanks; immediately behind them (in space as well as time) should have come 18-wheelers loaded with food, clothing, medical supplies and farming implements and seeds. And those should have been followed by busloads of agriculture experts and social workers who would be willing to assist in establishing some orderly mechanisms in this blasted and troubled country. And the same convoy could have invaded Iraq. Don't those Bush Leaguers recognize the source of the problem? Probably not: they've so far done little except to aggravate it. As Bob Kerrey said, terrorism is the symptom, not the enemy; the enemy is the miserable sort of life and government the Arab nations have endured for far too long.

            Questioned several times, by Kerrey and others on the panel, about why the Bush League took no action against the terror network for eight long months, Rice explained that Dubya wanted a comprehensive plan of attack: he didn't want to be swatting flies, she said, deploying that now famous expression. And so the energies of the incoming Bushites were devoted to reviewing previous plans and past events and devising a new, all-encompassing strategy that would blast bin Laden and his ilk from the face of the globe forever. Commendable. But shouldn't a government as large and variegated as ours be able to plan largely and swat flies simultaneously? Wouldn't it have helped keep al Qaeda in check if we'd been dropping bombs on their training camps in Afghanistan occasionally? Guess not.

            The distraction of the episode: the hullabaloo about "Doctor" Rice (as she is denominated) testifying-again-before the Nine-Eleven Commission, but this time, in public and under oath. Until March 29, the Bush League maintained that she could not testify because if she did, it would violate the sacred separation of powers principle that keeps the Executive and Legislative branches of government checked and balanced. According to this principle, Presidential advisors, who hold office at the pleasure of the President without the consent of Congress, are personal advisors, in effect the alter egos of the President, and as such, they cannot be called to account by Congress except, we assume, by impeachment. In short, they enjoy the same status as the President does. Finally, however, the political pressure on the Bush League grew so great that it consented to Rice's appearing in public testimony before the Commission, provided everyone agreed that her appearance does not constitute a precedent-a precedent that would be invoked in future to require other Presidential advisors to appear before Congress. Her testimony does, of course, set a precedent. Regardless of what you call it (or don't call it), it's a precedent. By refusing to call it what it obviously is, the Bush League displays once more, for all to see, its penchant for ignoring reality. Or, rather, for re-naming selected scraps of reality to make them coincide with whatever the political illusions of the day. For the Bush League, it is what you call it, regardless of what it may actually be. Cosmetics is all. Re-defining precedent (or, rather, ignoring what the word actually means) is a touchstone for the environmental policies of the Bush League. "Healthy Forests Campaign" is the name given to a plan to permit logging interests to chop down trees; similarly, the "Clear Skies Initiative" is what they dub their gutting of clean air regulations. And when they permit arsenic to be dumped in streams, they call it the "Clean Water Act." (Or they would have if they thought they could get away with it.) They manage the latter pollutions by the astonishingly obvious maneuver of redefining terms in regulatory law to permit activities that the laws were intended to prohibit. Arsenic is re-defined out of existence, for example. This insidious practice is criminal (because it flouts the obvious intent of the law) and maybe treasonous (because it has the ultimate effect of undermining government itself). But the linguistic shenanigans don't stop with the environment. The champion of them all, "Compassionate Conservatism," should have warned us about what was in store. Before long, we had "Free Speech Zones," fenced-in compounds where protesters could protest without anyone seeing or hearing them. And here all this time I've been thinking the entire country was a "Free Speech Zone." And after that comes the inevitable twists of logic itself. If the meaning of words is no longer inviolate, then you can say, with a perfectly straight face, that the worse things get in Iraq, the closer we are to victory. Dubya can seemingly persuade us that he's making the world a more peaceful place by initiating an unending, unilateral pre-emptive war. Well, I beg to differ. You can call a Sherman Tank an SUV if you want, but it's still a Sherman Tank. And Condoleezza Rice's appearance before the Nine-Eleven Commission sets a precedent whether you call it that or not. That, mayhap, is almost beside the point. The Commission is not Congress, the body before which Presidential Privilege claims its Constitutional right. Besides, other National Security Advisors before Rice have testified in public before Congress. Like they say about Cheney: the Bush League is often in error but never in doubt.

LEFT BEHIND. While strolling through Sam's the other day, a whole boxed set of the "Left Behind" series of so-called sf novels caught my eye. It was the visual impact of the unified spine design that did the catching, but at that very moment, I had an epiphany about George W. ("Whopper") Bush's education program. "Left Behind," as you may know, refers to those poor souls who are "left behind" after all the worthies among us are transported bodily to Heaven during "The Rapture" (or, as it is sometimes called, "the Great Snatch"). The Rapture, according to the Book of Revelations, is to be followed by "The Tribulation," a period of seven years' struggle for souls. No fun, for sure. So Dubya's education scheme, the No Child Left Behind program, takes on a startlingly different meaning once we remember his connection to the Born Again multitudes. His education program is not intended to educate anyone: its purpose is to ring a little bell in the minds of the Righteous who constitute that fabled "base" of his. It suggests that Dubya doesn't want any kid to miss out on The Rapture. No wonder he doesn't fund the program: it's not about education at all. It is, instead, a sly wink and a conspiratorial nudge, a reminder to the Bush League base that Dubya is a member of the same club.

            Congressman Tom DeLay ®-Texas) is, too. Reportedly there's a sign on the wall in the Majority Leader's office that reads "Today May Be the Day." Or some such verbiage. "The Day" in question is the day of The Rapture. Any day now, the Almighty might reach down and snatch us worthy souls up to Heaven. So here we have a guy engaged professionally in arranging laws to govern the future of our nation even though he's convinced there won't be much of a future. Is this sane?

            Probably not. But are any of us anymore?

Pulitzer for Comics: Fact and Fiction with the Old Caviler in Clay Feet

(Reprinted from The Comics Journal, no. 248, with a restored section of thematic analysis that had been removed from that worthy periodical because of space limitations, of which there are none here in the electronic ether)

One of the names dropped by Michael Chabon in his Pulitzer-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, is mine. On page 547, to be tediously precise, he writes: "Her [Rosa Saxon's] scripts were a tightly numbered series of master shots, the shooting scripts for ten-cent epics that, in their sparse elegance of design, elongated perspectives, and deep focus somewhat resemble, as Robert C. Harvey has pointed out,* the films of Douglas Sirk." The asterisk sends the dutiful reader to the bottom of the page where he or she finds: "In his excellent The Art of the Comic Book: An Aesthetic History." Much as I'd like to think I can get even by dropping Chabon's name here, I can't: as you may have noticed, this column has not yet won a Pulitzer, so the venues are scarcely equivalent. And let's face it: having my name mentioned in a Pulitzer winning novel is as close as I'll ever get to the Prize itself.

            But Chabon's book had another way of rippling the otherwise placid pool of my life. I didn't read it when it first came out, but people kept phoning me about it. My cousin wanted to know if, when Chabon referred to real cartoonists like Al Capp and Milton Caniff, his references were to authentic historical facts. A close friend insisted that I read the book so I could tell him which of Chabon's references were "real" and which were "made up." So, kicking and dragging my feet, I read the book. And I'm happy to report that the references to the real cartooning world that Chabon makes from time-to-time are to genuine, ascertainable not fictional, facts. With a couple exceptions.       

            Chabon remarks, fairly early on, that Al Capp stayed two nights in a "certain ancient red row house in the West Twenties" to which many aspiring young artists wended their ways before being beaten back into the boondocks from whence they'd come, their dreams of fame and fortune pounded to dust by the merciless indifference of the Big Apple. Capp put in at least two penniless, garreted stints in New York before conjuring Li'l Abner, so Chabon's assertion is plausible. But not likely. I doubt that the "red row house" he describes ever existed. But it could have.

            Then at the end of the novel, with the comic book industry poised for the so-called Kefauver Committee investigation of the alleged link between comic books and juvenile delinquency, Chabon remarks, casually, that when Walt Kelly and Milton Caniff appeared before this August group, they "completely sold out their brothers-in-ink" in testimony laden with "humor, sarcasm, and witty disdain." This criticism has been leveled at Kelly and Caniff before-in effect, that they didn't stand up to the Senate Subcommittee and protest the idea of censorship but, instead, acquiesced to the attack on comic books, in effect agreeing that comic book production ought to be shut down.

            Well, no and yes and no. Not to be too much a caviler about it, it is entirely possible to read their testimony and come to the foregoing conclusion. Kelly, who put on a show, doing sketches of his characters while babbling on in a humorous self-deprecating way, even seemed to be pandering to the senators. Still, while Kelly and Caniff agreed that some comic books were pretty awful (and, indeed, some were), they didn't support censorship. In fact, they were there to present a statement from the National Cartoonists Society opposing any infringement upon Constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press and of speech. This is the statement:

            "The National Cartoonists Society views as unwarranted any additional legislative action that is intended to censor printed material. The Society believes in local option. We believe that offensive material of any nature can be weeded from the mass of worthwhile publications by the exercise of existing city, state, and federal laws. Further, we believe that the National Cartoonists Society constitutes a leadership in the cartoon field which has previously established popular trends. We therefore will restrict any action we take to continually improving our own material and thus influencing the coattail riders who follow any successful idea. We believe good material outsells bad. We believe people, even juveniles, are fundamentally decent. We believe, as parents and as onetime children ourselves, that most young people are instinctively attracted to that which is wholesome. Our belief in this sound commercial theory is only in addition to our belief in free expression and the noble traditions of our profession. Our history abounds in stalwarts of pen and pencil who have fought for freedom for others. For ourselves as artists and free Americans, we too cherish freedom and the resultant growth of ideas. We cannot submit to the curb, the fence, or the intimidating word. The United States of American must remain a land where the Government follows the man."

            Given the political climate of the time-in April 1954, Joe McCarthy was still a power, and reputations were being destroyed by innuendo and careers sabotaged by blacklists-this statement is remarkably forthright. While its lurching syntax self-servingly promotes NCS as a body that can influence the way cartooning is practiced, it also objects, unequivocally, to any legislative action that would restrict freedom of expression in the press (or anywhere else). It scarcely reads like a "sell out."

            Still, in his testimony before and after reading the statement into the record, Kelly, just elected president of NCS, seems to snivel a bit. In tracing his own career, for example, he says he discovered that his sort of comics-"folklore stories and things having to do with little boys and little animals in red and blue pants and that sort of thing"-were "not particularly acceptable" in the comic book medium. So he went into newspaper cartooning. NCS is composed of similarly-minded cartoonists, Kelly went on, all of whom "would hesitate, any one of us, to draw anything we would not bring into our home. Not only hesitate, I don't think any one of us would do it." When asked if he didn't "deplore some of the things that [are being] purveyed to the children" while still believing that "the harm, if such exists, is outweighed by a good many other things," Kelly said, "I think basically that is our position, yes, sir."

            "You realize, of course," said Senator Thomas Hennings of Missouri, "the great danger of censorship?"

            "I realize, too," Kelly said, "the great danger of the magazines in question."

            "So it is a rough problem, is it not?" Hennings said.

            "We are put in a rather unpleasant position," Kelly said. "We don't like to be put in a position to defend what we will defend to the last breath."

            At this point, Caniff was asked his opinion, and Caniff took the occasion to point out that syndicated comic strips are already "censored" twice by the time the newspaper reader sees them-once by editors at the syndicate, and a second time by editors at the subscribing newspapers. "Insofar as deploring individual [comic] books," Caniff continued, "that is a matter of individual taste. Some books I like which you wouldn't like. I can't say, blanketly, for instance, that I dislike all crime comics or that I think they are bad. I think they are only good or bad as they affect you, the individual, and by the same token, the individual reader of any age group is affected relatively rather than as a group and cannot be condemned, I believe, as a group."

            This assertion is followed by an interval of Kelly's clowning around at an easel while drawing his characters for the amusement of the senatorial panel. After which, Caniff takes the microphone again to remind the senators that, while the chief function of comic strips is to entertain, cartoonists have also employed their skills and their characters in public service projects-selling war bonds during wartime, savings bonds during peacetime; supporting public health campaigns, dental hygiene, science education, military preparedness, and so on. "I hope," he concluded, "just for the simple business of letting you know how the other half live, shall we say, that we do some good with the very medium which is fighting for its life, if you will, and we think very highly of the industry as such, because of its enormous potential."

            Kelly was then asked what he would propose to do about offensive comics.

            "I don't know," Kelly answered. "I have no idea, sir. My personal philosophy on such a thing would be that we must educate people to not like that sort of thing or to at least not produce it. How we can do that, I don't know. It does seem to me that this is a manifestation of a particularly bad world situation at this time, that these are not in themselves the originators of juvenile delinquency so much as juvenile delinquency is there and sometimes these are the juvenile delinquents' handbooks. I would be frightened at doing anything about it, sir."

            Kelly, Caniff, and the NCS as a body, all resisted the temptation to legislate against comic books. This, despite being terrified that the effort to control the comic book industry would spill over into syndicated cartooning, resulting in yet another layer of "censorship" in the system. Kelly and Caniff were, then, walking a tightrope: they wanted to register their objection and that of their colleagues in the NCS to any legalized censorship, but they also had to acknowledge that some of the comic books the senators were concerned about were, to some people, offensive. If they seem more than a little obsequious as they respond to their interlocutors, it is doubtless because they were having a difficult time keeping their balance on that tightrope.

            But there was something else going on, too-something not readily apparent from the transcript of the day's hearings. Kelly wasn't the only one drawing while he testified.

            He and Caniff were accompanied by other members of NCS. According to Kelly's instructions, they all arrived at the hearing room early enough to get seats in the front row of the audience. And they brought sketch pads with them. All during the afternoon testimony, they sat there, drawing caricatures or portraits of the senators on the panel. Kelly's plan was to distract the senators. "It is hard not to pose when that is going on," Caniff observed, when recounting the adventure years later. "Before it ended, the jury was hardly listening to the unhappy book artists. After the session, we went from one legislator to another, delivering the art. Each Congressman flew home with a half-dozen drawings of himself-and a dim recall of the testimony. The Elf of the Okefenokee had cast another spell!"

            Caniff's recollection is a little rose-tinted, I'm afraid. The senators may have recalled only dimly the testimony, but it didn't matter: the publicity generated by the hearings doomed the comic book enterprise as it was then practiced. And, judging from the questions the senators were asking as they were "posing," I don't think they were all that much distracted either. The point of this anecdote, however, is not to assert the efficacy of Kelly's strategy but to explain some of his behavior, his clowning around. It, like the front row of cartoonists sketching the senators, was intended to divert the jury in the hopes that they would not be too severe with cartoonists, whether they drew for newspapers or comic books. As Caniff said later, "The comic book cartoonists were [our] brothers." While Kelly the Clown seemed to be kowtowing to the senators, he was actually playing a part in the little drama that he had devised. 

            Apart from these cavils, however, Chabon is pretty accurate in his citations of the actual history of the period in which his novel is set, the late 1930s through the mid-1950s. And if you haven't read the book but plan to and if knowing some of its outcomes will ruin it for you, you should stop reading this exposition here. Otherwise, forge ahead forthwith.

            The Kavalier and Clay of the book's title are, as almost everyone by now knows, cousins who together invent a roaringly successful comic book superhero, the Escapist. Joseph Kavalier draws the Escapist and Sammy Clay (nee Klayman) writes the stories. Like the real life personages Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, whose concoction of Superman their careers echo, Joe and Sammy are Jews. Joe, who grew to young manhood in Prague as the Nazis began to make life miserable for the Jewish citizenry, studied to be a magician and escape artist and then performed a genuine escapist feat, getting himself smuggled out of the country in a coffin-like box containing, in addition to himself, a giant simulacrum in clay called a "golem." Going to live with his Klayman cousins, Joe is quickly befriend by Sammy, who, when he discovers that Joe can draw, proposes to his boss, Sheldon Anapol, a sleazy entrepreneur of whoopie cushions and joy buzzers, that the three of them produce, as an advertising vehicle for the novelties and toys, a superhero comic book. They do. And Sammy's boss makes sure that he, not the cousins, retains ownership of the Escapist and all the accouterments thereto, reaping millions while Joe and Sammy garner only a few thousand apiece.

            The Escapist's superhero mission is to help the oppressed escape their oppressors, and Joe's creative fires are fueled by his hope to get his family out of Nazi-occupied Prague, particularly his little brother Tommy. Thus, in the four-color universe that Joe illuminates, the Escapist battles the Nazi horde and always wins. The Escapist, as Chabon explained in The Comics Journal (March 2001, no. 231), is created from the inner lives of Joe and Sammy. Sammy the Gimp, crippled by polio, wants to escape the life he has; he wants to be somebody, somebody else at least. And Joe wants to help others escape-his family, first; but also whole boatloads of Jews presently under the heel of Hitler's jackbooted minions. The Escapist represents to each of its creators his innermost desire, his dream. As a metaphor for the creative impulse, the creation of the Escapist is a marvelous formulation. But, as it turns out, the book is not just about the creative impulse.

            Joe meets and falls in love with Rosa Saks, who hooks him up with someone who is trying to get Jews out of Europe by sea. Joe donates much of his income to the cause and plans to marry Rosa, but when the ship carrying his brother to the U.S. is sunk by a German U-boat, he goes off the deep end and abandons Rosa (now pregnant with their child) to enlist in the army as the U.S. enters the world-wide conflict. Hoping to kill Nazis, he finds himself instead assigned to a remote outpost in the icy wastes of the Antarctic, where he spends the entire war in an oddly distant but still engaged way.

            With Joe's disappearance, Sammy marries Rosa in order to provide her unborn child with a father, but since Sammy is gay, we know that their marriage is an unconsummated arrangement. When the child is born, he is named Tommy. Sammy spends the war in various writing occupations, eventually going from one comic book publisher to another, a skilled editor and storyteller. Rosa, an artist in her own right, finds a career as an inker, using the name Rosa Saxon. Joe returns after the War, but, knowing about the marriage and his son, he does not return to Rosa even though he wants to. Instead, he hides out in an office in the Empire State Building where he spends his days penciling a long saga about a golem, a elaborate graphic novel, the first of the genre.

            At last, however, he befriends young Tommy and is reunited with Rosa and Sammy, whereupon Sammy announces that he's leaving for Hollywood to try his luck in Tinseltown. Joe finds that the money he left in the bank while on the ice at the South Pole has multiplied many times, giving him sufficient capital to buy the publishing house for which he and Sammy had created the Escapist. So he does, and he and Rosa start a life together, a life, we assume, that will include Rosa's inking Joe's graphic novel, which, we are told, will give comics an artistic and literary patina that will send the medium off in a new, more mature direction. The story ends there, with Sammy's farewell note to a new "Kavalier and Clay."

            I enjoyed the book. It's the first work of prose fiction I've read in months, and I was smitten, fairly soon, with Chabon's impressive research (surely, one picks a lock in exactly the way he describes Joe Kavalier doing it) and his seemingly inexhaustible invention-the copious details of setting and situation, the deft personality sketches, the decorative side-trips up garden paths (that turn out not to be garden paths at all), the creation of subplot and subsubplot, the detours and divertissements (Dali as a parlor entertainer)-in short, his fecund capacity for making up stories and creating anecdotal asides and then weaving them together, creating larger wholes out of the minutia he so lovingly (apparently) trots out for us, page after page after page. I admired Chabon's storytelling skill in arriving at the consummation of the love affair between Joe and Rosa and in easing Sammy Clay into the realization that he is gay. I also admired, frequently, particularly happy turns of phrase, scattered liberally throughout. But by the time I approached the end of the tome, I was expecting something a little more "significant" than I found.

            I wanted Joe and Rosa and Tommy to get together. I wanted Joe to get his golem story published and to revolutionize the comic book medium by so doing. But I expected, after 600 pages of narrative, something larger than ordinary domestic bliss and professional satisfaction to be championed.

            On its unvarnished surface, the book is a fictional re-imagining of an actual event-the creation of a popular comic book superhero whose creators are cheated of their rightful share in the wealth that their creation generates for a vaguely unsavory publisher. Given this flagrant parallel to the Superman mythos and the fate of Shuster and Siegel coupled to Chabon's oft-stated affection for the comic book medium, I expected the indictment of the comic book industry to be more savage. Or the creators to triumph over adversity and bring the slimy publisher to his knees, groveling and begging for mercy. The largest possible theme for the novel within its ostensible frame, I thought, should have to do, more overtly than we find it here, with the exploitation of talent by a heartless capitalism and the just retribution visited upon the exploiters. But nothing of that sort happens on anything like the scale the circumstance, paralleling a real-life commercial abuse, seems to deserve.

            What, then, is the book about?

            A certain amount of fuss has attended the epigraph that was supplied, inadvertently in conversation, by Will Eisner: "We have this history of impossible solutions for insoluble problems." But that, I believe, is Eisner's reference to the golem, not to the book or its import. The chief "insoluble problem" is anti-Semitism; but the novel, while dwelling on it considerably, doesn't seem to make a thematic statement about it. Apart from the agony Joe feels at the distant persecution of his family across the Atlantic, neither protagonist experiences anti-Semitism in any sharply evoked way. Joe lashes back at the Germans he encounters in America, but even though one of these is provoked to strike back, the anti-Semitic content of this episode is muted. Although undeniably critical of bigotry and the evils it spawns, the book, despite the latitude afforded a work of fiction, does nothing much to crush the evil. It leaves the problem as it found it, insoluble. Shining a light on ethnic abuse is a worthy and useful goal in a novel, but that is not Chabon's theme here.

            Then there's Chabon's paean to "escapism" (p. 582):

            "The shaping of a golem was a gesture of hope, offered against hope, in a time of desperation. It was the expression of a yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something-one poor, dumb, powerful thing-exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills, cruelties, and inevitable failures of the greater Creation. It was the voicing of a vain wish, when you got down to it, to escape. ... The newspaper articles that Joe had read about the upcoming Senate investigation into comic books always cited 'escapism' among the litany of injurious consequences of their reading, and dwelled on the pernicious effect, on young minds, of satisfying the desire to escape. As if there could be any more noble or necessary service in life."

            Coming as the narrative moves to the conclusion towards which it has been wending its dilatory way for 600 pages, this effusion suggests that Chabon has in mind something about the value of a work of the imagination as a means of escape as well as the very human need for a means of escape. But the novel, instead of dramatizing this notion, seems to enact its opposite. While the comic book character of the Escapist enables both Joe and Sammy to realize their innermost dreams, none of the novel's characters actually escape. They are all made to face the common humanity of their existence. Joe tries, going into deep freeze to do it; but he is resurrected and comes back to life. He tries a second time, hiding out in the Empire State Building; but, again, the pulses of life quicken, and he returns. The "escapist" cannot escape. Neither can Sammy Clay escape his destiny: he finally goes to Hollywood. So apparently the novel is not about escaping.

            It is, instead, about confronting, accepting, one's humanity-even when in the grip of an impulse to escape, even when aspiring to escape, even when being seduced by the comfort of escapism. The golem? The golem, a sort of superhuman savior, is part of the Jewish tradition, which, you may recall, includes the messianic notion that the world will be saved by a descendant of David. But the golem in this book turns to limp gray dust by the end. There is no savior of the world; just you and me and our common humanity, bumbling through life, making the best of a sometimes bad situation.

            And perhaps, in the last analysis, that's what the novel is about. Ours is not a four-color reality. Our hopes and dreams may be star spangled, but there is something more important in life than the monetary gain to be realized by reaping the financial harvest of your labors in popular culture. More important and, at the same time, more ordinary. Indulging the creative impulse is important: Joe creates a comic book epic, a personal statement through his art. But just as important is the achievement of a life of warm companionability, of love and affection. A life with Rosa and Tommy.

            We may hope for the same for Sammy Clay, who, in lighting out for the West Coast, may yet achieve something akin to what his cousin has, a partnership uniting pencils and inks, Kavalier and (the erstwhile Mrs.) Clay, a meaningful human bond that will stand against the vicissitudes of misfortune and faltering resolve. In short, the adventures of Kavalier and Clay, while amazing, seem to prove that there is something more important in life than comic books. A commonplace? Well, yes, but most literature that endures deals in the commonplaces of human experience. The art here lies in invoking the interplay between a yearning for escape and the necessity for confronting life as it comes.

            As for my "appearance" in the book-well, yes, it's a thrill to be mentioned in a Pulitzer-winning novel. At least, I was thrilled. At first. And then, as I pondered the matter, the thrill began to fade. Slowly, it dawned on me: Chabon has "expired" me. He didn't actually celebrate my death, but he consigned me to a limbo between fact and fiction where I cease to exist in the normal way. Take another look at page 547. My name appears in a sentence alleging that I compared Rosa's comic book page layouts to the films of Douglas Sirk. Then comes the exceedingly complimentary footnote-"In his excellent The Art of the Comic Book." It's nice to be dubbed "excellent" by a Pulitzer Prize novelist, no question. But then the real world begins to assert itself. Douglas Sirk is a real person, but Rosa is not. In my book, I do not, then, refer to the work of Rosa Saxon. Nor do I cite Douglas Sirk. Chabon is complimenting me for doing something I didn't do. So the question might well arise in the mind of a semi-alert reader: Does this book exist? Is Harvey a real author or another of Chabon's fictions?

            And if you consider that of the 13 other footnotes in the book, 10 concern wholly fabricated circumstances, the validity of any assertion associated with a footnote in the book is brought into serious question. So while I may rejoice in being mentioned so favorably in a Pulitzer-winning novel, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that most readers of the book regard me as just another character made up for the occasion-or, not much better, as a walk-on like Max Ernst (p. 245), dragooned into service for the patina of realism that his presence adds but under circumstances highly suspicious and probably manufactured.

            So do I exist or not? Am I real or one of Chabon's characters? Is my book another of his creations? We'll never know for sure.

            But until next time, metaphors be with you.

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