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,
A PULITZER FOR A FORMER BLOKE (from E&P, AP, Journal News,
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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. The 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.
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
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
Cartoon: Vic Lee (Pardon My Planet),
Mark Parisi (Off
the Mark), Jerry Van Amerongen (
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
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")
Sylvain Chomet ("The Triplets of
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
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
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
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
Gasoline Alley, cartooner
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
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.
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
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
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
Disney will close the last of its hand-drawn animation studios, the
one that opened in 1989 in
of the endangered animators meet weekly at a coffee shop in
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.
with a degree in journalism and an interest in the autobiographical
comics of the 1980s, Sacco went to the
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
"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.
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. "
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
Tom DeLay ®-
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
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."
realize, of course," said Senator Thomas Hennings
"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.
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
meets and falls in love with Rosa Saks, who hooks him up with someone
who is trying to get Jews out of
Joe's disappearance, Sammy marries
last, however, he befriends young Tommy and is reunited with Rosa and
Sammy, whereupon Sammy announces that he's leaving for
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?
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
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."
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
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.
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
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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