Opus 138 (May 17, 2004). In our feature story, we examine in vast detail the furor Ted Rall raised in his recent cartoon that keyed off the death of Pat Tillman, former NFL star who gave up a multi-million dollar salary to join the war on terrorism and got killed in Afghanistan last month. We inspect the cartoon itself to discover its inner (provocative) workings, and we rehearse Rall's rationale and response to the outrage he inspired. We also review a new graphic novel, Raymond Chandler's Marlowe, to see if prose fiction can be adapted to the visual-verbal artform. But before we get to those events, we skim the cartoonews about Liberty Meadows, "The Simpsons," Stan Lee, Roz Chast, MoCCA, a satirical strip of racial commentary in South Africa, Lalo Alcaraz's experience of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a new Peanuts book on the unlikely subject of writing, and we glimpse some of the events transpiring in the nation's comic strips. Without further adieu, away we go.
NOUS R US. With No. 37 (out in June) of the Image comic book, Liberty Meadows, 'tooner Frank Cho will be producing fresh material about the denizens of the wildlife sanctuary where beauteous Brandy and generously endowed Jen taunt fragile Frank amid the cavortings of an assortment of manic beasties. Through No. 36, the comic book has been mostly reprints of the comic strip that went out of domestic syndication in 2001, with occasional new strips to plug continuity gaps and restored strips that Cho's syndicate had censored for U.S. consumption. The syndicate continues to distribute Liberty Meadows abroad, and Cho's new strips will flow into that circulation stream. Henceforth, Cho will be producing a strip-a-day to fill the comic book. "It feels weird to write and draw a daily strip again," he said. "It's like my old syndication work schedule-but," he was careful to point out, "without the censorship." Incidentally, Image has published another coffeetable collection of Liberty Meadows-Book Two, Creature Comforts- compiling Nos. 10-18 of the comic book incarnation of the strip: 140-plus giant 9x12-inch pages on coated stock, superb reproduction, in hardcover for $24.95. At the back of the book, a gallery of cover art (mostly delectable pictures of Brandy) and assorted lively pencil sketches (always among my favorite artworks), plus a photograph of Cho with his first-born daughter, Emily, who is "helping" him put together the latest issue of the comic book. Since then, Frank has become a father again-this time, of Samantha ("Sam") Young-Jin Cho, to whom wife Cari gave birth March 8th. Congratulations and warm best to you all.
The six actors who furnish the voices of "The Simpsons" earned $125,000 per episode until settling the recent dispute over wages, which raised their pay to $360,000 per episode. Voicing each episode takes about two half days, and there are 22 episodes in a season. That works out to a little better than $16,000 an hour. The voice actors are, reportedly, thrilled. ... Curiosity Kits is now marketing a Make Your Own Comic Book kit for $15.95 at the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum Shop. The kit includes one No. 2 pencil, 12 colored pencils, four tracing sheets, and two 12-page blank comic books. All that for merely sixteen bucks! Oh, and illustrated instructions. What a bargain. ... Editoonist Milt Priggee's cartoon celebrating Cartoonists Day depicted Uncle Sam departing a graveyard through a gate signed "First Amendment Cemetery"; the tombstones he left behind bore the names of various newspapers- Chicago Tribune, Ashbury Park Press, St. Louis Post Dispatch, Buffalo News, etc.-all of whom have failed to replace staff editorial cartoonists who have died or moved elsewhere in the last few years. ... Roz Chast, a regular New Yorker cartoonist since 1978, will be honored at this year's Art Festival at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA), June 26-27, at the Puck Building in New York. The Museum gallery, around the corner, will be open all weekend, featuring original art by Harvey Award nominees (Garry Trudeau, Bill Griffith, Don Lomax, Patrick McDonnell, and others); the Awards will be presented at a banquet on Saturday, June 26, keynoted by Neil Gaiman. Said Chast: "This is very exciting. I'm especially grateful to be honored this year, now that the Art Fest has been expanded to a two-day affair."
Stan Lee, comic book legend, has entered into an agreement with IDT Entertainment, which acquired a minority equity interest in his new venture, POW! Entertainment. Lee will create original characters for six new animated productions in a series entitled "Stan Lee Presents." Initial plans, according to the Business Wire, call for distribution via tv broadcast and direct-to-video avenues. POW!'s animated tv series "Stripperella" never quite got off the ground a year or so ago, but a deal has been struck with MTV for a reality show, "Who Wants To Be a Superhero?" And we heard rumors about some sort of team-up with Playboy for another animated venture. Nothing in view yet, though. I don't mean to take away anything from Lee's huge contribution to the comic book medium-and I can certainly, at my advanced age, sympathize with Lee's desire to keep himself creatively engaged at the age of 81-but I wonder if maybe he's run his course. The characters he created in the 1960s were creations of that time; the same formulas won't work now, and I'm not sure even Lee can keep on creating timely, relevant fictions just because he wants to. Meanwhile, Peter Paul, the 55-year old ex-con and swindler who bilked investors out of millions and sullied Lee's reputation in setting up Stan Lee Media on the Internet in 1998 sits these days in a New York jail, awaiting trial. He's already sat for two years in a jail in Brazil, where he fled when the lid blew off his SLM dot-com scam in 2000. Not surprisingly, POW! does not have a website.
Michael Lackner, an attorney, comic book collector and co-author of "The Betrayal of Captain America" (a white paper for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies), says, in FrontPageMagazine.com, that Marvel has taken liberal leanings too far to the left, becoming downright radical, with the current run of Punisher. The Punisher as conceived by Gath Ennis no longer confines his vigilante rampage to exterminating crime bosses and thugs, says Lackner: "He's now taking on U.S. Intelligence and undermining support for the War on Terrorism." Anytime I read that someone's opinion is "undermining support for the War on Terrorism," I tend to applaud the effort. The Punisher that Lackner depicts in his diatribe seems a little over the top, true; but since when in these United States is it a political sin to express a contrary opinion about our government's policies? It becomes a sin when it's no longer "our" government.
South Africans, according to The Observer as quoted in The Week, "have learned to laugh at racism." The evidence is the comic strip Madam and Eve, a gag-a-day enterprise featuring a somewhat aristocratic albeit bourgeois white woman and the "snarky black woman who works as her maid." The strip is the most popular in the country's papers, writes Rory Carroll. The strip was created, ironically, by an American, Stephen Francis, who came to South Africa in the late 1980s and was inspired by the network of relationships he observed in his in-law's family. He found illustrator Rico Schacherl, and they launched the strip 1992, two years before the country's first multi-racial elections. The relationship between the maid and her mistress pokes fun at race relations, chiefly by letting Eve get the better of Madam. In 1994, the household was invaded by Madam's mother because, Schacherl said, "Madam was getting too liberal and the contrast between her and Eve was dropping off." In one strip, the mother, "a gin-swilling sexagenarian who has not really taken to the new order," watches the snow fall and marvels, "Thousands of snowflakes landing everywhere. What can be more beautiful than a white South Africa?" Eve, overhearing this effusion, looks out at us, aghast. On another occasion, Eve says she loves rugby because it affords her the pleasure of watching white men beating up each other "for a change." Both black and white readers follow the strip avidly. According to Human Sciences Research Council director John Daniel, quoted in the Johannesburg Mail & Guardian, the strip has struck a chord in South African hearts. "People can identify with both of [the strip's protagonists]," he said. "It does touch on a certain reality in everybody's life. Madam and Eve is one of a whole set of developments since 1994 which have contributed to changing attitudes in South Africa. It has been one of the positive influences. ... In a way the cartoon pokes fun at the white Madam, it makes her look rather silly [and] ... demystifies her in the minds of the readers." Schacherl's deft drawing style, crisp angular figures rendered with a clean, bold line, makes the strip a visual treat. "We decide on an idea and then brainstorm over the course of a week," Schacherl said. "Steve writes the script, we talk about it, and then I draw them." (Try www.madamandeve.co.za).
Lalo Alcaraz was recently presented with the Latino Spirit Award from the California Latino Legislative Caucus. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made the presentation, which prompted Marcelo Ballve of the Pacific News Service to interview Alcaraz, who has produced a fair share of political cartoons critical of Schwarzenegger's attitudes about Latinos. In one of them, the Governor, labeled "Mexterminator," wears Terminator gear and Latinos run away, scared; the caption reads: "Hasta la Vista, Latinos!" In preparing for the presentation ceremony, Alcaraz wondered aloud if the Governor reads his cartoons. "Does he know who I am?" he asked the factotums. "Oh, yes, he does," came the reply; "but this is meant to be a fun day-a fun, nonpartisan day." Alcaraz concluded: "So he's taking it all in stride; I'm just a little fly." He did arouse reader ire over Schwarzenegger in his syndicated comic strip, La Cucaracha, in which a character said he was surprised that the Republican Party was embracing immigrants like Schwarzenegger "but that it didn't hurt that his father was a Nazi." Said Alcaraz: "Oh, man-I got into a lot of trouble! A couple of papers apologized and said it was a mistake, but it's not like I made that up. His father was a Nazi. So maybe it was rude of me to bring it up, but I wasn't making stuff up." The cartoonist also has the Bush League in his sights. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Alcaraz drew an editorial cartoon for the L.A. Weekly, a long-time venue of his, depicting George W. ("Warlord") Bush running around with a missile between his legs, a perfect emblem of the macho motivation of the neoconservative foreign policy. Ballve asked him if he was fearful that the FCC would come after him for disseminating obscenity. "No, no," he replied; "I'd like to see them write that law." And when Ballve asked about Samuel P. Huntington setting the Latino agenda with a new book in which he argues that Latino immigration is a threat to the nation, Alcaraz said: "That's the privilege of the white mainstream-setting the agenda. We're constantly in reactionary mode. That's why art is important. It's not exactly public policy but it's all we've got to strike out with, like Bush's pre-emptive strategy." Reminded that the Latino population is growing everywhere, Alcaraz laughed: "We're coming out of the trees!" Ballve: "Is that good or bad?" Alcaraz: "I guess if one falls on your head, that's not too good." La Cucaracha is one of only two Latino-oriented comic strips in syndication; Baldo, written by Hector Cantu and drawn by Carlos Castellanos, is the other, both strips from Universal Press. "There's a glaring lack of diversity on the comics page," Alcaraz said. "Even though Aaron McGruder's Boondocks gets a lot of attention, and I'm starting to get a little bit, it's still pretty bad. There are a lot of ancient strips" that are occupying the limited space for comics in the nation's newspapers. Other African-American creators and their strips are: Rob Armstrong with Jump Start and Steve Bentley with Herb and Jamaal, Darrin Bell with Candorville, Barbara Brandon with Where I'm Coming From, Ray Billingsley with Curtis. Armstrong and Bentley aim at creating genuine human relationships among their characters rather than at grinding social axes; the others, move back and forth from the everyday to the issue of the day. Many strips now have racial minorities among their principals: Between Friends by Sandra Bell-Lundy, The Norm by Michael Jantze, On the Fastrack and Safe Havens by Bill Holbrook, Out of the Gene Pool by Matt Janz, Frazz by Jef Mallett, Luann by Greg Evans, Housebroken by Steve Watkins -and probably several more that have temporarily slipped through the grubby fingers of my brain. In any case, while we surely cannot rest smugly on any laurels yet, we can enjoy there being no more Joe and Asbestos strips with Steppin' Fetchit characters.
Carrie Nodell died on April 25 of heart failure; she was 85. She was a grandmotherly presence at comicons for years, always at the side of her husband of 63 years, Marty, the man who created the Golden Age Green Lantern. She and Marty were the first people I encountered at my first comicon. I'll miss seeing her. But I am reminded, on occasions such as this, of what John O'Hara said when he learned of the death of his friend George Gershwin: "George Gershwin died yesterday. But I don't have to believe it if I don't want to."
COMICSTRIP WATCH. What with all the excitement last month about the alleged political commentary in Darby Conley's Get Fuzzy and Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury-in both of which a character lost a leg in Iraq while serving in the military-you'd think someone other than me would notice similar anti-Bush political diatribe going on in two other strips, Michael Jantze's The Norm and Mark Tatulli's Heart of the City. Norm was laid off a couple months ago and wanted to talk to President Bush about it; and the last week in April, Heart's mother, a single parent, lost her job due to the sluggish economy. If this isn't political commentary, I've missed something. ... And lately, even tv shows have taken shots at George W. ("Warlord") Bush-just li'l jabs, nothing major. What's it mean? Entertainers whose livelihoods depend upon pleasing, and not offending, the multitudes have clearly discerned, in that mysterious prescient manner of all successful performers, that the American Public has had its fill of George WMD Bush. They're sick of him and his cronies. They're ready to watch him be ridiculed into retirement. ... Not surprisingly, Berke Breathed in Opus is taking a few shots at the Bush League, too, now that the strip has finally left re-entry behind. ... And in The Sunshine Club, about a gaggle of old folks as portrayed by a menagerie of animal types, cartooner Howie Schneider risks censoring with a dog joke. Two of his elderly animals are seated on a bench, and one gazes longingly at a nearby tree and says, "Maybe I'll come back as a tree." Then a dog comes up and lifts his leg at the tree, and the old fella says, "Or a dog." The anatomical instrument of the dog's desecration of the tree is not depicted, mind you: we see him from the side away from the tree. But still, Schneider's courting public outrage, I'm sure. In these politically correct, patriotic, and heterosexual times, doggie doodoo can't be permitted in family newspapers. Can it?
Janis' hair-do has been the subject in Jimmy Johnson's deft Arlo and Janis for the last week or so. The NEA strip was launched July 29, 1985. "The original idea," Johnson says at www.arloandjanis.com, "was that they would be a couple of maturing, counter-culture types-you know, hippies. They were supposed to have forsaken their youthful ways and wholeheartedly joined th Great Bland Rush to the suburbs. They did, I guess, but not wholeheartedly. I couldn't bring myself to do that to them. I like to think they retain some of their counter-culture attitude and that it lends the strip its cheek." On May 5, Arlo tells Janis that readers have wondered why she wears a saucepan on her head, or a baseball cap. Admittedly, that headgear is what Johnson's rendering of Janis' hair-do sometimes seems to depict. So Arlo undertook to give her a make-over the week of May 10. On the 12th through the 14th, he presents his wife with a variety of hair styles, and Johnson invites readers to vote their preference on his website.
In Brooke McEldowney's 9 Chickweed Lane, at Edda's Catholic school, St. Camilla's, one of the nuns recently displays a very definite romantic attraction to a visiting priest, and he obviously reciprocates. Risky stuff. As Pat Oliphant said here last time, "Readers get more irate about cartoons on religion than with those on politics." So why does McEldowney allude to the Church's contentious albeit traditional policy of celibacy for nuns and priests if not to question it, however mildly? Who knows what will ensue? Particularly in the wake of the Catholic Church's recent difficulties with priests who lust after small boys and their covering-up bishops.
Timing Is All. It wasn't Gasoline Alley's Walt Wallet who died. It was his wife, Phyllis (aka "Auntie Blossom"). We found out on May 5. Cartoonist Jim Scancarelli had been doing a number on us for weeks. First, he had Phyllis promise to reveal the secret of Skeezix's abandonment on Walt's doorstep eighty-some years ago. She won't tell Walt, though, until Skeezix is present to hear. Walt nags her for a week, but she won't give in. So they go to bed and fall asleep. Then on Tuesday, April 20, Skeezix gets a phone call in the middle of the night. "Oh, no!" he exclaims. And for the rest of the week-and the next week and a half-Scancarelli lets us believe it's Uncle Walt who has expired. Scancarelli has been preparing for this eventuality for years, chiefly by having Walt periodically wander off and forget why for several days at a time. He's old; he's forgetful. Now, we are led to suppose, he's finally "wandered off" for good. Nope. It was Phyllis. But for the 12 days that Skeezix displayed grief and made funeral arrangements, Scancarelli let us think it was Walt. On the TMS syndicate online Comics Page Bulletinboard, letter writers speculated feverishly. Pretty quickly, most of them realized the deceased could be either Walt or Phyllis. All of this suspense should have been played for all it was worth by the syndicate, but, oddly, wasn't. Still, when a comics section icon like Uncle Walt hovers at death's door, readers get aroused. Some, indeed, did. But the entire episode, which ought to have made headlines in the comics press, received very little notice. Why? Because the week that Skeezix got his midnight phone call, B.D. was losing his leg in Iraq. Timing is all. B.D. sucked up all the oxygen in the comics section atmosphere that week, and Scancarelli, who'd been preparing for this week of tenterhooks for months, got relatively little bang for his bucking. Some, yes; but not as much of a sensation as it doubtless would have been without B.D. One e-mailer wrote Editor & Publisher: "With all the hoopla over Doonesbury and Get Fuzzy coming to terms with the Iraq war, what's being missed is the very human drama of Gasoline Alley where comic strip icon Walt Wallet or his wife Phyllis surely will be pronounced dead very soon." Trudeau and Conley were dealing in very human drama, too; it's just too bad the news media can't handle more than one crisis at a time.
Meanwhile, Time's Quirky Pendulum is about to claim another victim, this time, Garry Trudeau. The Sunday Doonesbury for May 23 release, drawn in April, includes an image of a head on a platter. Coming on the heels of the publicity given the grisly beheading of an American in Iraq, the unfortunate result is likely to upset many readers. Trudeau's syndicate sent a warning on Friday, May 14. Due to the needs of color reproduction, the potentially offending strip is too far into the production pipeline to recall, but by drawing attention to it, Universal Press hopes to alert client newspapers, which, presumably, could soften its impact by explaining that it was conceived and draw weeks and weeks ago.
BOOK MARQUEES. Snoopy's Guide to the Writing Life pairs Peanuts strips about the beagle's writing endeavors with prose contributions about the craft by such authorial luminaries as Ray Bradbury, William F. Buckley, Jr., Julia Child, Sue Grafton, Elmore Leonard, Ed McBain, Danielle Steel, and others. Edited by Barnaby Conrad and Monte Schulz, the son of famed cartoonist Charles Schulz, the book may be the first of a new direction for Peanuts reprints. Now that the entire oeuvre hovers on the brink of reprinting with the Fantagraphics series, the only other way to wring revenue from reprints is to package them with other, related, amusements. This is a good beginning (188 7x10-inch pages in hardback; Writer's Digest Books, $19.99), launched with introductory essays by the editors in which they discuss their involvement with Schulz as a writer. Conrad also supplies a few biographical details about the cartoonist, and Monte Schulz talks about his father's reading choices and how that influenced his own, and he tells a story that vividly reflects his father's legendary insecurity. "Dining with my older sister at a restaurant in Mexico and noticing behind him at another table screen legends Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, he remarked how great it would be to meet them, to just go over and introduce himself and tell them how much he admired their work. But, of course, they probably wouldn't know who he was (a lowly cartoonist?), and he'd feel as though he'd intruded on their evening. Just then, from behind him, he heard a voice say, 'Mr. Schulz?' Turning around, my father said he saw both Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor standing there. Richard Burton said, 'We don't want to disturb you, but we're both big fans of yours and wanted to meet you.'"
The latest Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, No. 34, is out, sitting here on my desk. I don't get one of these every year. I'm not that interested in the price of comic books as listed in such publications as this, so there's little point in staying "current." (The prices recorded here are largely pipe-dreams anyhow. The only way to determine the worth of such antiques is to sell them: whatever they fetch is the "price." The alleged prices herein are "guides," like the book says, and they're of no significance whatever to people like me who buy old funnybooks for the pleasure of reading them, not to invest in them as saleable items.) Every other year or so, I buy a new Overstreet -chiefly to have reasonably up-to-date historical data at hand. Over the years, as printing technology has improved, the images of the comic book covers have improved, an advance to be celebrated. And various of the data have been corrected. (Although this edition perpetuates the same error about Animal Comics that has infected all previous 33 editions: Animal Comics No. 1 is cover-dated December 1942-January 1943, not December 1941-January 1942 as noted in the Guide. In other words, the first issue came out a whole year later than Overstreet says it did. One of the most egregious consequences of this sort of nonchalance is that the Comics Buyer's Guide, which, due to Editor-in-chief Maggie Thompson's abiding interest in Walt Kelly, ought to have known better, celebrated the anniversary of the birth of Pogo a year before the anniversary of his birth, which took place, as all us Kellyana nuts know, in the comic book, not in newspapers.) For my purposes, one of the happiest additions to Overstreet in recent years has been the sections on 19th century comics assembled, at great pains, by Bob Beerbohm and Richard Olson. Bravo, gang. Now if we can just get Overstreet to correct the date of the inaugural issue of Animal Comics.
THUNDER AND LIGHTNING. Ted Rall, two-fisted editorial cartoonist, wild-eyed gadfly, and rampant opinion monger, has done it again: he drew a cartoon that expressed an opinion so heavy-handedly that he outraged thousands. Two thousand, to be exact-that portion of the 6,000 e-mails he'd received that castigated him for a cartoon published on May 3. The cartoon was a response to the news of the battlefield death of Pat Tillman, the NFL pro who gave up a $3.6 million contract to enlist in the Army and fight terrorism. Tillman enlisted in the wake of Nine-Eleven, believing that he should be doing something more important for his country than playing football. When he was killed in Afghanistan, the nation's news media played the story big, emphasizing the sacrifice that Tillman had made. Rall's gorge rose at what he called "the extraordinary lionizing of Mr. Tillman as a national hero" (also expressing, later, his disgust at the news media's "decision to genuflect to a cult of death" that he said was "terrifyingly similar to the cult of Palestinian suicide bombers in the Middle East and the glorious coverage given by the Japanese during world War II to fallen kamikaze fighters"). He promptly produced a four-panel cartoon the message of which was at least as likely to be misinterpreted as his notorious "Terror Widows" cartoon of the winter of 2002. Since it's possible the cartoon isn't as readable here as it is at Rall's website (www.tedrall.com), I'll run through the verbal content herewith. (As usual with Rall, the visual content does little more than identify speakers, so the cartoonist's message is mostly verbal and not much diminished by my way of parsing it here.)
PANEL 1, captioned -You may remember Pat Tillman, the NFL pro who enlisted in the Army rather than accept a $3.6 million football contract-depicts "Tillman" enlisting and saying, "Never mind the fine print. Will I get to kill Arabs?"
PANEL 2, captioned-Tillman, who earned $18,000 [in the Army], falsely believed Bush's wars against Iraq and Afghanistan had something to do with 9/11-depicts Bush explaining, "We're attacking Afghanistan to get Al Qaeda, which is based in Pakistan and funded by Saudi Arabia, and Iraq to get Al Qaeda, which hates Saddam Hussein." The Tillman character responds: "Makes sense."
PANEL 3, captioned-Actually, he was a cog in a low-rent occupation army that shot more innocent civilians than terrorists to prop up puppet rulers and exploit gas and oil resources-depicts a soldier (an officer, presumably) saying to "Tillman," "Museums? Let 'em burn! Get down to Basra and repair that pipeline!"
PANEL 4, captioned-So when Tillman got killed by the Afghan resistance, one word naturally came to mind-depicts three newspaper staffers, searching for the right word, saying, in order, "Uh-idiot?"; "Sad?"; then-"Hero!"
Probably all of the outrage provoked by the cartoon arose from the supposition that Rall was calling Tillman an idiot. And so he was-but Tillman was merely a symbol for all those who, like the "Tillman" in the cartoon, believe the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are, as the Bush League claims, "preemptive" acts of national defense against the imminent threat of terrorism. Such people, Rall says, are, indeed, idiotic for believing the hype, and to call them "heroes" cheapens the word.
"The word 'hero' has been bandied about a lot to refer to anyone killed in Afghanistan or Iraq" he explained later. "But anyone who voluntarily goes to Afghanistan or Iraq [as a soldier] is fighting for an evil cause under an evil commander in chief. ... Tillman may have been an admirable person in many respects, but he made a terrible decision by joining Bush's mercenary military after Nine-Eleven. If someone dies because they screw up behind the wheel of their car, it's a tragic accident. It's awful and we're sad-but it ain't heroism, folks."
Rall could have made his point without using Tillman, but using the ex-footballer made the statement stronger. It also outraged many readers and so offended the editors at MSNBC.com that they pulled the cartoon almost as soon as they became aware of it. (MSNBC's online cartoons are fed to the site electronically by syndicates and are automatically posted, without prior review.) The Tillman cartoon, said editor-in-chief Dean Wright, "did not meet MSNBC.com's standards of fairness and taste." Taste, mostly, I'd say: demanding fairness in an editorial cartoon is like cultivating lemons for their sweetness. The magnitude of Rall's offense in invoking the memory of Pat Tillman can be readily discerned once we remember that in a capitalist society like ours, accumulating wealth is the highest personal aspiration. Tillman, in giving up this most revered of society's goals, achieved, at once, capitalist sainthood. He sacrificed capitalism's "all." To employ his name in any way except that which suggests the deepest reverence is to commit a blasphemy. And it is chiefly for this sacrilege that Rall was to be crucified in the days following the publication of the cartoon. (That and the usual misapprehension about cartoons among the Body Politic, many of whom still think of cartoons only as "funnies" and therefore see this one as joking about Tillman and his death.)
Apart from its apparent attack on the state religion, Rall's customary stance in creating a cartoon also deflects attention from his message to his method, which, in this instance, makes the cartoon drastically open to misinterpretation. The first panel creates an ironic tension between the caption and the "action" depicted. The caption is a straight-forward presentation of fact. But the picture supplies Rall's interpretation of the act described in the caption: "Tillman" here is seen as someone who joins up simply to kill Arabs. Well, yes, that's what he did. In his view, however, he wasn't merely killing Arabs: he was defending his country against terrorism by killing terrorists. Rall, legitimately I think, interprets Tillman's volunteering for military service in the weeks after Nine-Eleven as a manifestation of his anger at the terrorists (Arabs) not just as an act of unalloyed patriotism. The recruiting poster on the wall, incidentally, reads: "We're looking for guys who don't read the paper." And this brings us to the next panel, in which, again, Rall contrasts a plain statement of fact with his own view of the war-a nonsensical array of dubious causal relationships that, to "guys who don't read the paper," seems to "make sense." The third panel, in which caption and picture are in concert, rips the pretense from the second panel: the war is being fought, Rall alleges, to exploit oil and gas resources in the target countries, and many innocent civilians are killed in the process. If we buy Rall's argument up to this point, the fourth panel clicks into place with a perfect if shocking logic: those who, for patriotic reasons, participate in the fiasco of this so-called "war" are idiots. Calling them "heroes" does not change their idiocy. The punchline criticizes the "war" by implying that only by calling the soldiers fighting it "heroes" can we justify it. But calling them "heroes" does not dignify the fiasco or redeem it from its crass, grasping motivation . Finally, calling these idiots "heroes" cheapens the word and robs true heroes of the stature they deserve.
In constructing a sequence of ironic vignettes in which statements of fact are coupled to the cartoonist's interpretation of those facts, Rall effectively makes his version as factual as the undisputed information in the captions. As a deliberate rhetorical maneuver, the effect aims at persuading the reader of the accuracy of Rall's interpretations. If the first assertion is correct, so must the second be; and the first, in the initial panel, is straight fact, ergo-correct. But in ensuing panels, Rall presents his version of the situation in increasingly extreme terms, designed, no doubt, to heighten the contrast between the two assertions and, by way of this contrast, to illuminate the erroneous assumptions inherent in the first, supposedly factual, statement given in each panel's caption. Alas, a reader not disposed to sharing Rall's view to begin with is likely to assume that the cartoonist intends his version of the facts as a literal and exact truth, and this reader will take severe umbrage at the insult Rall has flung at what he holds dear. Rall's deployment of irony often slips enthusiastically into sarcasm, and sarcasm is almost always lost upon those to whom it is directed.
For all the manipulation inherent in Rall's rhetoric here, he undermines his cartoon's effectiveness by aiming at too many targets. The falsely motivated "war." The lack of logic in the motivation as claimed. The crass purposes underlying the invasions. The difference between volunteer soldiers (who enlist because they're looking for action) and draftees (most of whom get pressed into service against their will)-the difference, in other words, between the Afghanistan/Iraq invasion and Vietnam. (As Rall later pointed out on his website: in today's 100 percent volunteer Army, soldiers have chosen to point guns at other people and shoot to kill, just as "Tillman" does in the cartoon's first panel.) The degradation that the word "hero" suffers when it is applied to everyone who dies-or serves, or stands and waits. Rall's rhetorical technique and his skill at deploying it integrate all of these objectives and rationales into a single, four-panel comic strip. The argument that he is making surely demands this bundling of targets and motivations, and he does it as adroitly as Henry James might construct a novel. The last panel's punchline demands that a reader grasp all the nuances inherent in the targets Rall sets himself. Still, the complexity diffuses the cartoon by investing it with too many messages. Rall committed the first sin of editorial cartooning: he tried to say too much all at once. But we must admire the deft artistry, the manipulation of the medium's resources, that he achieves in the attempt.
Not everyone admires Rall's artistry; in fact, good numbers of readers condemned not only his ideas but his person and all his relatives, living and deceased. And Rall knew that his Tillman cartoon would "inspire outrage." Moreover, when he agreed to appeared on Fox TV's "O'Reilly Factor" and on "Hannity and Colmes," he knew full well what he was getting himself in for. O'Reilly told Rall, "You should be ashamed of yourself for what you did to Tillman." And before the segment concluded, the irascible O'Reilly called Rall "a far left guy" who "makes Garry Trudeau look like Rush Limbaugh." "Something is the matter with you, Mr. Rall," O'Reilly said, accusingly.
At his Rallblog, the cartoonist said he realized he wouldn't get a fair hearing with O'Reilly. "A lot of people don't know that O'Reilly's show is taped a few hours earlier; any real zingers on the part of a liberal guest get edited out [before airtime]. And Hannity is partial to yammering on and on and on so long that you can't get a word in edgewise." So why does he appear with these bozos? "I have to hand it to the conservatives," he said. "They're willing to confront ideas and people they find uncomfortable, which is a lot more than I can say for the so-called liberal media, which generally has nothing to do with true progressives." But, he continued, "I'm willing to be treated rudely by right-wing hosts for the chance to share progressive ideas with the American people. Liberals, after all, don't give other liberals exposure."
Rall's cartoon appears in about 140 outlets, but recently The New York Times ceased being one of them. The paper had been using Rall's cartoons on its website without paying a fee, but, said the Times' digital spokesperson Christine Mohan, "After two years of monitoring cartoons by Ted Rall we decided that, while he often does good work, we found some of his humor was not in keeping with the tone we try to set for NYTimes.com. ... While NYTimes.com and its parent company support the right of free expression, we also recognize an obligation to assure our users that what we publish, no matter what its origin, does not offend the reasonable sensibilities of our audience." Rall later wrote that he realized the NYTimes.com had been "skittish" about his cartoons since the "Terror Widows" affront (for details on the "Widows," consult Opus 82 and Opus 83 in the Rancid Raves Archives). But there's a larger issue: "I've been cancelled from a lot of newspapers," Rall told David Astor at Editor & Publisher; "it comes with the territory. But this [the reluctance of some papers to deal with reader complaints] is nothing short of appalling. It needs to change."
He has also speculated that his banishment at the NYTimes.com was a result of "anti-American pro-war/Bush bloggers who lead the charge" against him. And the same crowd, he said in his blog, is at it again, "deluging MSNBC.com with hate mail about my cartoons. Why? Because the last thing right-wingers want is someone who attacks them with the same ferocity as they attack Democrats." Rall vows to continue cartooning his views regardless of what happens at MSNBC.com. "But it's important to send a message to these neo-McCarthyite censors that their campaign of intimidation won't work. Whether you agree with everything I write or not, please e-mail MSNBC to ask them to keep giving you the option of reading my work." (Write to GeneralComments@feedback.msnbc.com with a copy to email@example.com.)
Rall claims most of the 6,000 e-mails he's received about the Tillman cartoon are positive responses. Here's one: "My thoughts on the death of Pat Tillman mirrored what you described in your cartoon even before reading what you had created. My opinion at the time was that the right wing morons and mainstream press, including ESPN, would make this idiot out to be the greatest hero since Audie Murphy. And they did-while totally ignoring the 700 or more other soldiers killed in the Middle East. To top it all off, when 'Nightline' decided to honor the soldiers, Ted Koppel was made out to be a traitor!" One other: "We know you are getting a lot of heat for the Tillman cartoon, but please know that some of us understand the purpose of political commentary and completely agree that the 'hero' label now means nothing. From the thinking half of the American public, keep up the good work."
On the other side of the issue are vitriolic missives threatening to kill the cartoonist and calling him cowardly, gay, communist, ass-hole, dickhead, loser, sick fuck and so on. Here's one of the more reasonable (from a Marine vet): "Ted Rall deliberately and mean-spiritedly insulted the patriotism and principles of Pat Tillman, which are only deserving of respect and commendation. Whether or not Rall agrees with the justifications for our national involvement in this war against terrorism, he would be well-advised to learn to avoid confusing the war with the warrior, and that those who choose to make such selfless sacrifices as Pat Tillman, and all the others who serve our country and the cause we're fighting for, are not somehow of less moral or intellectual stature than the likes of Mr. Rall, no matter how vehemently he disagrees with that cause." Here are a couple in a slightly more vituperative vein: "Fuck you, you anti-American son of a bitch. Get the fuck out of my country now! Call me, you bitch, if you have the balls to withstand justified criticism for your less than respectful comments about Mr. Tillman. You suck, and I hope crowds chase your liberal ass out of this country. Give me a number to call you, you fucking pussy ass cunt." Another: "Your a nim com poot and an idiot."
Rall, however, finds comfort in such communiques as the latter. "If the conservative base is represented by the reprehensible curs I heard from during the last few days," he writes in his blog, "there's hope for the future. The future, after all, belongs to those who can spell."
Nice thought, Ted, but I don't share your confidence.
GRAFIK NOVELZ. Everything from nursery rhyme to grand opera has been refitted for the silver screen, so why not have graphic novel adaptations of classic hard-boiled detective fiction? Here, nudging us to an answer to the question, is Raymond Chandler's Marlowe (144 7x10-inch paperback pages; ibooks, $17.95). In this "trilogy of crime," three of Chandler's Philip Marlowe stories have been converted to the visual-verbal medium of the cartoonist's art.
In the first, "Goldfish," written by Tom DeHaven and drawn by Rian Hughes, Marlowe goes off in search of a vanished ex-con who is reputed to possess, still, the fruits of his crime, a cache of pearls. The second tale, "The Pencil," written by Jerome Charyn and drawn by David Lloyd, finds our laconic private eye helping a marked man escape the vengeance of the mob, only to discover the whole thing is a setup in which he is the target. Finally, Marlowe is hired by a rich guy to persuade a night club floozy to take her hooks out of his son in an adaptation of "Trouble Is My Business" by James Rose with art by Lee Moyer and Alfredo Alcala.
I haven't read the Chandler originals of these tales so I can't say how good the stories are as adaptations; as hard-case crime fiction, though, they're pretty good. And as Chandleresque tales they're pretty good, too-suspenseful with the kind of convoluted plots we've come to expect in Chandler's work.
But plot and story are comparatively easy to mimic in adaptation. Chandler's prose style is another matter. And his management of language is integral to the meaning of his work. Its matter-of-fact reportorial mannerisms coupled to the slang of the street and the underworld give Chandler's stories a distinctive cast, a detached yet engaged aura that perfectly reflects the protagonist's moral stance. Marlowe lives and works in a sordid, corrupt world, but he manages to emerge more-or-less unsullied, albeit not unscarred, by attending strictly to the routines of his business, guided by an internal professional ethical compass that permits him to meet the world on its own terms without giving in to them.
In "Goldfish" and "The Pencil," silence evokes the Chandler style: wordless sequences or moments convert the narrative to straight description, visual information presented in a straight-forward inherently unemotional manner. In sequences of "Goldfish" in which words as well as pictures function, the dialogue is clipped, lending a terse patina to the unfolding of events.
"Goldfish" is the most complex of the adaptations-and the most successful. In addition to the devices I just mentioned, DeHaven furnishes the tale with another atmospheric maneuver. Marlowe is the narrator here, and his voice-over sometimes drones on while the pictures show us actions in another part of the drama, a part Marlowe isn't aware of. While not, strictly speaking, an exercise in irony, the tactic gives the proceedings the tart flavor of Chandler prose.
Hughes' pictures add yet another dimension to the tale. His simple linear technique gives his representation a Spartan restraint akin to the nearly taciturn Chandler prose. To the linework, he adds a mottled gray shading that hangs in every panel like cigarette smoke in an unventilated room, a night club, say, or a speakeasy. Finally, Hughes supplies a single second color to each page with a simple overlay out of which he carves highlights that accent the visuals. The color changes from page to page, scene to scene, and while some may find the colors reflect or enhance the mood of particular scenes, I don't think they work that way: I feel that they signal change of mood rather than the moods themselves.
The other two stories are illustrated in a much more conventional realistic, nearly photographic, manner; and neither of them deploys color. In "The Pencil," Lloyd's silent sequences go on longer than Hughes' in "Goldfish" but with equivalent effect, achieving an evocation of Chandler style without the voice-over narrator. The most appealing part of the tale is the young woman, Anne, a friend of Marlowe's who throws herself at him with only modest effect.
"Trouble" is, by comparison, a much more traditional treatment. Marlowe's first person narrative resumes as nearly straight accompaniment with a few ironic flourishes. Alcala and Moyer are expert illustrators but Rose's adaptation is much more verbose than the others: he gives us the wise-acre Marlowe and flip-sounding hoodlums. It's a thoroughly acceptable adaptation, but because the story is more convoluted than the other two, talking heads predominate.
Over-all, Marlowe is a successful translation of prose narrative to verbal-visual narrative, proving that the resources of the medium can be deployed for a variety of subtle effects beyond simple recitation of storyline and plot.
Metaphors be with you.
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