Opus 143 (August 2, 2004): Two big features this time-a summary of the recent travails of Garry Trudeau and Doonesbury and a lengthy diatribe on the San Diego Comic-Con, July 22-25, which asks the question: Is it about comics anymore? And if not, what is it about? We also examine graphic short stories and a reprint of the newspaper strip Between Friends. Before getting to those meaty matters, though, here's a glimpse of the news that gives us fits.
NOUS R US
Director Robert Rodriguez has finished shooting "Sin City," a gritty underworld film based upon Frank Miller's stunning black-and-white series. When I met Miller at the Harvey Awards in New York in June, I asked him how he liked working in movies. He loves it, he said. ... In the Phantom, Old Man Mozz, the uncanny reincarnation of Old Man Mose in Al Capp's Li'l Abner, posed his Dogpatch-like riddle to the purple-clad jungle guardian. To explain the mysterious ailment lurking in the sea, "Look 30,000 times-and see, O Ghost Who Walks!" he commanded. And the Phantom finally figured it out: using a microscope that magnifies 30,000 times, he detects the virus that weakened him. Not as much demented fun as Capp had with his aged mountain man on Sadie Hawkins Day, but the allusion is enough to provoke a smile, and that's worth the trip. ... Marvel Enterprises is suing Disney for nearly $55 million compensatory damages and other fees it claims it is owed in royalties for made-for-tv episodes of "Spider-Man," "X-Men," and "The Hulk." ... The Calvin and Hobbes collection, a complete reprinting from Andrews McMeel of all of Bill Watterson's celebrated comic strip, is slated for a September 2005 release and will use three hardcover volumes of 480 pages each to embrace its ten-year run. ... Someone on the Web uncovered this classic: that DC Comics is named after Denny Colt, the criminologist who died and came back to live as Will Eisner's Spirit. ... Bugs Bunny's birthday passed us by, sorry to say: he debuted in "A Wild Hare" on July 27, 1940, so he's 64.
Lynn Johnston allowed, recently, that although she's going to lay down her pen in 2007, For Better or For Worse might be continued by another cartoonist. "I've been blessed in recent years with a wonderful support team at my studio," she said, a team that has "transformed" her life by arranging for her to spend her energies on creating the strip instead of on business and administrative matters. "There is so much to plan," she continued, "so much to look forward to. We are discussing ideas I would never have thought possible. Everything from working with another artist on a new version of the strip to animation and live action are being discussed." The strip, Johnston has discovered, "has become a living entity-people want to know where, after 30 years, will John and Elly Patterson, their family and friends go?"Almost certainly there'll be future FBOFW projects. Meanwhile, she's moved the strip back to her first syndicate, Universal Press, after a 7-year run with United Feature. "United is a wonderful organization, and full of talented people," Johnston said. "My joy at returning to my lifelong friends at Universal is greatly tempered by the sadness of leaving my many new friends at United." Johnston clearly has the soul of a diplomat; but she means what she says, too.
Once again, funnybooks garner Big Press: in Time for July 19, Daniel Clowes' Eightball No. 23 made it to the magazine's top ten list of "Trashy Novels" to read this summer. "Eightball positively crackles with self-loathing and pop-culture smarts," writes Lev Grossman. "Every frame is like a melancholy miniature Daumier, rendered in pulpy primary colors. If you're wondering what all the fuss is about comic books-sorry, graphic novels-check out Clowes. Nobody does them better." Under the heading "Trashy Novels," this may not seem much of an accolade, but the subhead puts us straight: "Put down that Proust! Summer is for books with no redeeming value-except for being irresistibly readable. Relax. It's summer." Clowes, Grossman finishes, is "like Holden Caulfield with his phaser set on kill."
Among the announcements and official leaks at the San Diego Comic-Con last week was the news that "The Simpsons" will "out" one of its cast in January. Said producer Al Jean: "We have a show where, to raise money, Springfield legalizes gay marriage. Homer becomes a minister by going on the Internet and filling out a form. A long-time character comes out of the closet, but I'm not saying who." Fans are already pondering the question. A likely candidate, Waylon Smithers, billionaire Monty Burns' sidekick. Writing for PlanetOut Network, Christopher Curtis says: "In previous episodes, the audience has learned that Smithers has a Mr. Burns screensaver and has dreamt of Burns jumping out of a birthday cake-naked." There's a clincher for you: naked man equals secret gaiety. Curtis continues by noting that the series won an Emmy "for an 11th season episode called 'Homer's Phobia,' in which Homer worries that a gay antiques dealer is making his son, Bart, gay. TV Tome, an online site of television information, claims 'Homer's Phobia' was the most controversial episode in the show's history, causing thousands of complaint letters to flood the network and its stations." ... Michael Jantze edged up to the subject in The Norm for the week of July 19. Norm's wife Reine wonders if Norm's friend Ford is "happy." Norm doesn't think so: "He looks pretty miserable to me." "I don't think we're talking about the same thing," says Reine. "Are we ever?" says Norm. Reine explains that since Ford hasn't dated since his divorce, he might be "happy." "Oh," says Norm, "using that as a determinant, he's definitely happy." But they still aren't communicating: "Did you say that with or without quotes?" Reine wonders. Typically, I missed the whole thing until Jantze explained it to me. In defense of my seeming obtuseness, however, I have to say that I saw only the first strip of the series before running into Jantze in the Sandy Eggo mob, and the quote marks didn't show up until the next day. The series ended on Saturday with one of Jantze's deft comedic twists, conflating the metaphorical code and surface meaning:
Also in San Diego, ibooks' president Byron Preiss announced the debut of "Stan Lee's Sunday Comics," an online subscription site offering "fantastic comics by legendary creators." Like the Sunday funnies of yore, the site will up-date every Sunday with fresh infusions of Joe Kubert's Yossel, Jimmy Gownley's Amelia Rules, Bernie Wrightson's Captain Sternn, and Keith Giffen's Trencher. More will follow. Stan Lee will host the feature at www.komikwerks.com furnishing a weekly "Stan's Soapbox." Subscriptions are $4.95/month or $49.95/year (two months free).
Forthcoming. At his booth in San Diego, publisher Nat Gertler announced that his About Comics is poised to bring out a volume of another of Charles Schulz's long-lost cartooning efforts outside Peanuts- namely, It's Only A Game, a one-panel cartoon about sports that he launched in late 1957. Continued by Jim Sasseville, the feature ran only a little more than a year, until early 1959, before Schulz pulled the plug (rather unceremoniously, according to Sasseville, who said Schulz just told him one day to stop). The book will feature commentary by Derrick Bang, the heroic Schulzian, and should be out in November. ... And just over the horizon, a comprehensive look at one of the giants of comic strip art who has yet to receive appropriate biographical treatment: Alex Raymond, by Tom Roberts (Adventure House). Tom loaned me a mock-up of this tome a couple years ago, and I salivated over it then. This is a major work, kimo sabe; don't miss it. Only Milton Caniff of the Great Triumvirate (Hal Foster, Raymond, and Caniff) will remain after this, and I'm working on him: the definitive opus is due out the year of the centennial of Caniff's birth, 2007, from Fantagraphics.
For Garry Trudeau and Doonesbury, the year has yielded a bumper crop of publicity, and if notoriety is power (and in this culture, it is), Trudeau has emerged as the most potent force in cartooning. The current craziness began last winter when he offered a $10,000 prize to anyone who could provide credible evidence that George W. ("Whopper") Bush served in the Air National Guard during the mysterious summer-fall months of 1972. No winner. But plenty of commentary by the pundit press and Bush League supporters. Then Trudeau was nominated for a Pulitzer for political cartooning; it would have been his second, had he won, but he didn't. After that, in rapid succession, BD lost his leg in Iraq and Trudeau published in a Sunday strip the names of all the American military who'd lost their lives in Iraq. All the resultant excitement doubtless prompted the management of Rolling Stone to do a cover story on Trudeau, and in the published interview (August 5), the famously reclusive cartoonist pulled no punches. Eric Bates, introducing his subject, erred twice. Trudeau's syndicate, Universal Press, says Doonesbury is in 1,400 newspapers; Bates says 700. (He may be right, though: syndicates typically count "sales" not newspapers, and Sunday strips are sold separately from the dailies; so if a newspaper publishes both the daily and Sunday strips, the syndicate records two "sales" and reports both as "newspapers.") Bates also says Doonesbury is the only comic strip to ever get a Pulitzer, overlooking Berke Breathed's capture of the same trophy with Bloom County several years later. (Bates also lists Trudeau's marriage to NBC's Jane Pauley as if that were an achievement equivalent to getting a Pulitzer or an Academy Award nomination; but enough nit-pickery.)
Trudeau knew George WMD Bush when they both attended Yale, where Trudeau served on a dormitory social committee with the scion of the Texas oil family, who was two years ahead of him. "George Bush was chairman," Trudeau said. "Our duties consisted of ordering beer kegs and choosing from among the most popular bands to be at our mixers. He certainly new his stuff-he was on top of it," he continued with a chuckle. Bush, he said, already had "awesome social skills. ... He has that ability to connect with people. Not in the empathetic way that Clinton was so good at, but in the way of making people feel comfortble. He could also make you feel extremely uncomfortable. He was very good at all the tools for survival that people developed in prep school-sarcasm, and the giving of nicknames. He was extremely skilled at controlling people and outcomes in that way. Little bits of perfectly placed humiliation."
Trudeau's first cartoons for the campus newspaper, the Yale Daily, were about Dubya. The paper published an expose on the abuses of physical hazing at the Deke house, Bush's fraternity, where initiates' buttocks were being branded with hot irons, and Trudeau illustrated the story. The resulting scandal lead to Bush's being interviewed by the New York Times, to whose reporter he explained that they just used heated coat hangers and that it didn't hurt any more than a cigarette burn. Said Trudeau: "It does put one in mind of what his views on torture might be today."
Commenting on the Vietnam and Iraq wars, Trudeau called them both "discretionary wars entered into under false assumptions. You could argue," he continued, "that both initially had worthy goals. The Iraq adventure, however, was crippled by a fatal arrogance from the onset. The Powell doctrine of using overwhelming force to reach achievable goals with a clear exit strategy-conceived in reaction to mistakes made in Vietnam-was summarily discarded, inviting nearly all the consequences the doctrine was designed to avoid."
Having skewered a succession of seven presidents, Trudeau was asked to compare Dubya to the others. "Nixon was the gold standard," Trudeau said. "He made many careers, including mine." After commenting on Ford, Carter and Reagan, Trudeau came to Dubya's father: "George Bush was a competent public servant but no leader. Now, of course, he seems to me a paragon of decency, moderation and thoughtfulness, everything his arrogant, radical, proudly ignorant son is not. What a shame the world has to suffer the consequences of Dubya not getting enough approval from Dad." The current occupant of the White House, Trudeau continued, "has created more harm to this country's standing and security than any president in history." Moreover, the Bush League is cowardly and secretive. "Every Friday afternoon, [they] quietly gut an environmental regulation and rename it 'Clean Skies' or 'Mossy Trails.' Hence the secrecy: The Bushies simply do not trust the people to get it right. So like the pigs in Animal Farm, they rewrite the laws that protect us all in the middle of the night. You thought you had certain rights under the Constitution? Guess again, partner-you forgot to read the Patriot Act."
About the same time this issue of Rolling Stone hit the newsstands, in the strip Trudeau was ridiculing Veep Cheney for telling Senator Patrick Leahy to "fuck off" when they encountered each other on the Senate floor. "It felt great," an unidentified speaker (clearly Cheney) says in one of those talking White House sequences; "very cathartic. From now on, I intend to use far more robust language than I have. When I speak out in the future, I'm letter the SOBs know exactly how I feel." "You mean, on Howard Stern's show or something?" asks Dubya. "No, no," says Cheney, "I'll keep it on the Senate floor." The next day, Trudeau continues to expose Dubya's obtuseness. Cheney says, "I not only intend to use the F-word from now on, I'm also using the S-word, the C-word, the P-word, and the J-word." After he leaves, Dubya calls out: "Karen!" "Yes, sir?" "Find out what the J-word is." (The J-word? Whoop!) This sequence was too much for the finicky Toledo Blade: the paper dropped the three days in which these alleged obscenities appeared. Ron Royhab, the executive editor, explained that the paper's policy is not to use comic strips that violate its policy regarding obscenity, profanity and vulgarity. "We do not use any form of abbreviation to substitute for a vulgarity, as was done in those comic strips. I don't think parents would want their children reading a comic strip that includes vulgarities, even though they are abbreviated rather than spelled out." And we all know, of course, that the children are going to skim rapidly through the newspaper, flipping pages at breakneck speed, in their haste to get to Doonesbury. They won't understand the strip, probably, except for the profanity codes, which, as Royhab and his ilk know, the kids will comprehend at a glance. Sigh. But the Blade wasn't censoring the strip, explained managing editor Kurt Franck: it was simply scrubbing its pages of all evidences of the strip's poor taste. This was cleansing, not censorship. Ever the upholder of good taste and the protector of its readers' sensibilities, the Blade's story on Cheney's Senate encounter with Leahy was also cleansed; it didn't go into enough detail to actually inform readers about what happened. Good taste prevailed.
While all this was going on in peaceful, tasteful Toledo, 38 papers in the southeast region of the nation lost Doonesbury. The Sunday comics sections of these papers are produced by Continental Features, and Van Wilkerson, the president of that enterprise, was, he said, tired of getting complaints about Trudeau's strip. He wrote to all 38 of his clients, saying: "It is my feeling that a change in one of the features is required. I have fielded numerous complaints about Doonesbury in the past and feel it is time to drop this feature and add another in its place. If the majority of the group [of 38 papers] favors a replacement, you will be expected to accept that change." Of the 38 papers, 21 wanted to drop the strip; 15 didn't; and 2 didn't express an opinion. "I wouldn't call the vote overwhelming," Wilkerson admitted, "but it was a majority opinion." He denied that he was making a political statement. But at least one of the 15 papers that wanted to continue publishing Doonesbury objected strenously. At the Anniston Star in Alabama, executive editor Troy Turner admitted that the strip causes headaches from time to time, "but there is a proven readership for it. Newspapers," he continued, "need to think of readers first, or they will continue to struggle." Continental apparently never conducted similar "polls" for any of the other 22 strips in its Sunday package; Doonesbury was clearly singled out. Star publisher H. Brandt Ayers e-mailed Wilkerson to say he and his editors "strongly object to an obviously political effort to silence a minority point of view. For years, my New Deal father bore the opposition views of Orphan Annie and Daddy Warbucks, and I believe he would have fought an effort to silence them by a simple majority vote. This is wrong, offensive to the First Amendment." The Star will "find a way," its editors vowed, to continue to publish the Sunday Doonesbury, even though it won't be in the comics section Continental supplies. The paper publishes the daily Doonesbury on the back page of its first section, not on the comics page.
Trudeau applauded: "I greatly appreciate the Star's speaking out against such an unfair process, asserting its right and responsibility to put in front of its readers a diversity of opinion. This seems particularly important during a time of war, with all its grave implications to public life." As for the so-called "poll," it was patently unfair. "The popularity of individual comic strips naturally waxes and wanes," Trudeau said, "and newspaper lineups will naturally reflect the evolving preferences of editors and readers. ... However, in this case, Doonesbury was singled out for internal polling because of the views of a single individual; other competing strips were not put to the same test. In this way, one opinion drove a process that eliminated the strip from 38 newspapers across the entire region, including 15 papers that wanted to keep it." If this isn't a breed of censorship, it is clearly an act of the Thought Police, which is just as reprehensible.
Another of those who objected to Wilkerson's high-handed crusade was Andrew Kelly, a physician and one of the sons of Walt Kelly, famed creator of Pogo. He wrote Editor & Publisher: "This poll was obviously not a poll-it was a statement asking for a majority endorsement. My father had to endure such 'small-mindedness.' This is small-minded because publishers, more than anyone in a democracy, have to understand the role of controversy-this is what keeps us a free people. When those in power begin to feel criticism is 'wrong' or 'troublesome,' they betray their authoritarian leanings: they believe their position is right, and the others are wrong. They begin a sycophantic process of listening to a smaller and smaller group of people, establishing an oligarchy. This is the beginning of the erosion of democracy-NOT the support. This publisher needs to do what this White House needs to do-uphold democracy and learn to view controversy as exactly what the founding fathers counted on to keep us free."
Alas, these are not times friendly to the expression of views antithetical to the frosty thoughts of conservatism and authorities in general. In the Los Angeles Weekly, Jan Strnad, comics writer and novelist, reports another adventure equally chilling. He had decided to do "something dramatic" to keep George W. ("Warlord") Bush from being re-elected. (Or "elected," if you think about it.) "So I did what any morally outraged person with too much time on his hands would do: I designed a T-shirt. And a bumper sticker." These artifacts bear the legend "Dump Bush" and a picture of Dubya with a speech balloon hovering near him, saying, "I suck at this job." Fairly harmless stuff, you must admit. Strnad sold the shirts and stickers online through CafePress.com, and then he contacted Microsoft Small Business Center (MSBC) to place as many banner ads on the Internet as fifty bucks would buy. "I paid the money. I submitted the banner." When he subsequently checked to find out what happened, he was shocked to discover that "my entire campaign had mysteriously disappeared, had been totally erased with Orwellian thoroughness, as if it had never existed." Upon inquiry, the MSBC explained that his materials violated its policy against "hate speech." Said Strnad: "I had just been branded a hatemonger!" He explained to MSBC that "I was not in any way advocating violence against the president. That would be Wrong. I was merely encouraging people not to vote for the man, which is political speech, which is free and protected." To no avail. MSBC would not approve his campaign. So he asked for his money back. Nope, sorry. "It isn't our policy to issue refunds," said a factotum-"as if," Strnad said, "that explained everything. As if I were expected to reply, 'Oh, it's your policy to take people's money for a service, to arbitrarily decide not to provide that service, and to keep their money anyway. I understand now. Never mind, and I'm sorry for the intrusion.'" Strnad contacted his credit card company and had the charge removed from his bill, but that didn't satisfy him. "I've taken my case to the state Attorney General's Office and to the ACLU, and I'm standing up and declaring in my most outraged voice, 'This is not right!'" Pause. "I wonder if this, too, would be considered 'hate speech.'" A lesson for us all in the machinations of corporate America.
Capitalism and the free enterprise system seem the best way to arrange societies, but unfettered, the craven impulses fostered by these institutions will soon drive us back into the jungles where survival of the fittest is the only rule. In a decent, humane society, government imposes itself between the voraciousness of capitalism and the hapless consumer, forcing the former to adhere to a certain pattern of decorous behavior, a behavior intended to insure that the pursuit of happiness by the weak and powerless is not entirely frustrated. A government like the Bush League that seeks to eliminate obstacles to "business enterprise" (free-wheeling capitalism) is the enemy of its citizenry. Let's hear it for Garry Trudeau and Jan Strnad, freedom fighters.
FOOTNIT: In the Rolling Stone interview, Trudeau also talked about cartooning and the BD situation. Since he so seldom speaks out, it seems useful to quote him on these other topics. (His low profile, Bates tells us, "is mainly an act of self-preservation: His daily strip generates so much controversy that putting out fires could consume all his time. 'I didn't need to do it,' he says with a shrug, 'so why not save myself the aggravation?'") He believes there is a "fugue-like quality" in the way he writes strips, saying he learned a great deal about timing from Peanuts and Jules Feiffer, whose drawing style he aped in the beginning. Admitting, as he habitually does, that his early style, "a kind of urgent scrawl," made comic strips safe for bad drawing, he explained that after his sabbatical in the early 1980s he made a conscious effort to refine the appearance of the strip. "I was bored and needed to amuse myself," he said with a laugh. "Actually, I took the strip in a rather reactionary direction. It was quite postmodern when I started; now it looks more cinematic, like one of those story strips from the forties."
BD's amputation and his rehabilitation have produced an extraordinary response from readers, particularly wounded soldiers. Trudeau visited Walter Reed Hospital in Washington to talk to amputees and learn about the nature of their ordeal. "Most of the soldiers will admit to having bad days when they feel overwhelmed," Trudeau said, "-either by their physical pain or by the hard work of looking at themselves in a new way. But it's not as depressing as you might think. In fact, it's uplifting and inspirational. Part of it has to do with the fact that these guys are wrapped in a culture that is very positive, very can-do. Their whole mind-set is: This is a problem I can overcome." Trudeau said he was "overwhelmed by some of the letters that came in about BD. It was so emotional." He said he was talking to a soldier in the hospital and explaining that he drew Doonesbury and in it, BD lost his leg. "The soldier's eyes widened," Trudeau said, "'BD lost his leg?' Here's this mangled, broken hero lying in his bed, and he's concerned that this characer he knows had such a terrible thing happen to him. It was very moving."
SANDY EGGO AND THE REALMS OF FANTASY
"Stupendous" may not be a large enough word to describe the grandiosely-named Comic-Con International San Diego-the monstrosity that has mushroomed out of what some of the fonder of us old gaffers still call "the San Diego Con." It now occupies the entire San Diego Convention Center, a huge cavernous 9-hall structure that, if stood on end, would be taller than the Empire State Building by half. According to preliminary reports, this year's attendance, somewhere around 80,000, topped all previous records. But that, by now, is expected: having established, year after year, that every year's attendance is better than the previous year's, we would be astonished only if the attendance in a given year were fewer than last year's. And so the tallying will proceed apace, every year smashing last year's record, until we finally dash across the 100,000 line.
The Con is not only large: it is also amorphous, a thing without an identity. It is a great wallow of toys and games and movies about toys and games. And comics. So vast has the Con become that the comics portion of it is dwarfed into near non-existence. It's tempting to say, even, that the Comic-Con isn't about comics anymore. And that's true. But that isn't the whole truth. The whole truth is that the toys and games and movies and bizarrely costumed denizens of the exhibit hall aisles all have roots, somehow, in funnybooks. The sponsors of the Con sometimes say, informally, that the Con is a celebration of "popular culture." It is may be that. But vistas of popular culture remain beyond the reach of even this voracious enterprise. Music, for instance. And teen fashions. And books and magazines that treat of subjects that can't be found in comics or games. So it isn't all of popular culture that is memorialized at the Con. Only a portion of it.
A clue about the possible identity of the Con may can be discerned in one of the give-aways presented at the Industry Registration Desk. (This used to be called "Pro Registration": it was where the "Professionals," all guests of the Con, picked up their name badges and souvenir programs and assorted freebies. The name badges don't read "Professional" across the bottom anymore: they read "Industry." So I'm no longer a "professional"; I'm "industry." And that, too, may be a clue about the Con's new identity. For those of us who can be said to work in the "industry," it is no longer enough for the Con to say we are "professionals." That term has taken on too ambiguous a meaning. Over the years, the Con management successfully blurred its meaning. Originally, "professional" presumably meant "cartoonist" or "artist" or "writer"-someone who derived his or her livelihood from making comics of one sort or another. But that soon expanded to include publishers. Then retailers, I suppose. And then when ordinary civilians in Klingon garb started getting "Professional" badges, no one could say, anymore with any precision, what the professions were. "Industry" may be a broader category, but no one can say, either, what the "industry" is.) Among the freebies issued to "Industries" checking in at the Industry Registration Desk was a copy of the July 19-25 issue of Variety, "The International Entertainment Weekly." Now perhaps we're getting close to identifying the Con. Variety is about "show business," a term that has puffed itself up to embrace every aspect of the entertainment and broadcast media (including news programs and techniques as well as the more straightforwardly named "entertainment"). But, no- Variety is as amorphous a publication as the Con is a convention. Neither can be identified by its content. Still, Variety contains a clue: this issue was given away at the Industry Registration Desk (and maybe everywhere else, although I doubt it) because it included an 8-page section about the Con, plus a 16-page section glorifying the achievements of Stan Lee.
The Con section is kicked off by Mark Evanier, who sketches a short history of the 35-year-old event, founded by Shel Dorf in 1970. Other articles discuss the tv and Hollywood manifestations recently of comic book characters and the phenomenon of manga. But, tellingly, fewer than a dozen actual cartoonists are mentioned by name. Publisher Mike Richardson, among the first to explore tie-ins between comics and tv/movies, is quoted as saying that his "Dark Horse Comics is a comic company, first and foremost," but reporter Adam Goldworm immediately points out that "Dark Horse achieved its early success by publishing titles based on properties from other media such as 'Aliens,' 'Predator,' and, most recently, Conan." But Richardson's remark is an insightful tip-off to the role of comics in the Con. Comics may be "first" in any exercise to determine the identity of the Comic-Con in its present manifestation, but I don't think they're "foremost." Comics are first only chronologically in the conception, birth and growth of the Con. In addition to their historical function in the evolution of the Con, comics these days apparently serve a purpose none of the medium's pioneers could have imagined. The reportorial purpose of Variety's coverage is apparently to assert that comic books are "a cost-effective litmus test for consumer interest" and, hence, of surpassing interest to movie-makers. Considering that comic books are read by far fewer people than go to movies, this "litmus test" seems a somewhat risky proposition unless we assume that comic book readers are a microcosm of the American consumer as a whole, a thoroughly terrifying, but scarcely improbable, notion. (It would explain George WMD Bush, for example, and it makes the 2000 so-called election of a candidate who came in second a parallel of analogous marketplace significance, elections having become consumer-oriented not citizen-oriented, with the best cover selling the most copies. And so we get the funnybook presidency with a cardboard character in the White House. Yes, comic books today are better than this but they haven't always been.)
Variety's Stan Lee section is a monumental promotion for all things Stan Lee-the reality tv show "Who Wants To Be a Superhero," "Hef's Superbunnies" (another attempt to bring to animated life Lee's fantasies about Playmates), "Nick Ratchet" (a true-to-life superhero character tailor-made for Pierce Brosnan), and ibooks projects (such as "Lee's first young reader picture book, Superhero Christmas, about a heroic family that sets out to rescue Santa from the evil Ice King"). Throughout this section, in which articles are awash in full-page ads trumpeting "Stan Lee," Lee is elevated to near mythical status as "the greatest comic writer in the world," but, thankfully, he is systematically described as the "co-creator" of the Marvel Universe, with his collaborators, chiefly Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, given equal billing (even though the hostilities of subsequent years are ignored or glossed over). Despite the hyperbola, it's nice to see Lee given some credit for the big screen success of Marvel creations that has, recently, been attributed, nearly exclusively, to Avi Arad. Lee has been pounding the Hollywood pavement since the early 1980s, but, writes reporter Thomas J. McLean, "Lee says Marvel's management did not make film and tv a priority until the current leadership, spearheaded by Avi Arad, came to power in the late 1990s."
Another clue as to the present identity of the Con can be discerned in the massive Star Wars display in the exhibit hall. This "exhibit" is four times the size of the largest comics exhibit booth, DC Comics' 50x70-foot unit. And yet, Star Wars has no obvious connection to comic books. The movie preceded all comics manifestations, in both books and newspaper strips. So what's the connection? George Lucas' epic film series relationship to the Comic-Con is both historical and conceptual. The first Star Wars movie was promoted at the Comic-Con two years before the movie debuted. And every subsequent chapter of the epic has been promoted at the Comic-Con. This year, Lucas chose the Comic-Con as the venue at which the name of next year's Star Wars chapter, "The Revenge of the Sith," was revealed. But the historical relationship has its roots in the very concept of Star Wars: in characters and story, Lucas' saga is a vast comic book, a monumental fantasy of heroism and deeds of derring-do. And its fast-paced action sequences, tumbling one into another in rapid succession, and its hypertensive scene-shifting embody comic book storytelling techniques. But "fantasy" is the key. Here is the essential nature of the Comic-Con: it is a celebration of fantasy, of the human capacity to imagine people functioning in wholly unrealistic but entertaining ways. Playing with action figures and other toys, we imagine that these inanimate representations are real, breathing and pulsating creatures with hearts and minds and aspirations and fears. That's the fantasy that makes toys fun. Games offer another entrance to the fantasy realm. Ditto movies and every other aspect of fantasy life invoked at the Con.
And so when newspapers do stories on the Con, they invariably, these days, focus on the fantasy realm with the promise of the biggest monetary rewards-movies. In the USA Today July 26 wrap-up on the weekend, the emphasis was on the Con as a required launching pad for a certain kind of enterprise. Said David Goyer, director of "Blade: Trinity" (out in December): "Comic-Con has become the place to initially mount a campaign, whether it's a comic book announcement, a video game or a genre film. Had we not had a presence here, it would have been a glaring omission. First and foremost, everyone would have said, 'Are they trying to hide something?'" Reporter Scott Bowles noted that "every studio-along with adults dressed as Wookiees from 'Star Wars,' Power Rangers and Wonder Woman-descended on this city for a four-day 'geek-out,' as the faithful put it." And he quotes Avi Arad, guru of the superhero flick: "These fans love their movies and heroes like no other. And they're very savvy with the computers. Word about your product gets out very quickly. If you can make a good impression here, your movie has hope." Actor Lance Henriksen, starring in "Alien vs. Predator" (opening August 13) agrees: "These are the fans you want to impress because if they don't like what you show them, you're cooked. These guys know how to use the Internet." Adds Josh Whedon, director of "Serenity": "This is where a groundswell starts for your film." Halle Berry made an appearance last year, touting the "Catwoman" movie. Her appearance scarcely rescued the film: it opened this year and bombed at the box office on the very weekend of the Con, despite the generous display of Ms. Berry's bosom. Neither "Catwoman" nor "The Hulk" recovered from early online drubbings. Still, if Ms. Berry hadn't shown up last year, perhaps the debut of the movie would have been even worse. Ah, movies: we love 'em. Interestingly, in virtually every report about the Con, the names of cartoonists are almost never mentioned anymore.
One thing about the Con never changes. Long lines. Again this year, the Con management demonstrated its stunning inability to learn from its experience, and the 10 a.m. opening was heralded every day by a line of would-be registrants stretching out of the back of the Convention Center and along the waterfront, sometimes as far as Seaport Village, blocks away. On opening day, Thursday, the line was a mile long according to Peter Rowe, reporting in the San Diego Union-Tribune. Surely there are better ways to process crowds. Pro Registration-er, "Industry"Registration-on the other hand, seemed remarkably streamlined this year. There may have been a long line and an interminable wait on "Preview Night," Wednesday, and on Thursday morning, but I didn't arrive until Friday morning, and by then, I could walk through the process without pause. Actually, I did pause: after picking up my badge and program, I ran into a friend and we paused to exchange a few words. We were about four sentences into this exercise, when a member of the Elite security force told us we had to keep moving. "You can't stand here and talk," he said. I looked around: the lobby in which we stood was nearly deserted. "Why?" I asked. "We have to keep this area clear for the crowds," he explained. So rather than risk getting my knees capped, I moved on. Didn't stop. Yes, friends, it's true: the Comic-Con is run for the convenience of the security forces. Those of us who attend are mere encumbrances to their efficient machinations.
I am similarly bemused by the ostensible purpose of a meeting room upstairs labeled "Industry Lounge." Admittance to this sanctum is restricted to those of us wearing "Industry" badges: a heavily wired guard at the door makes sure none of the unwashed masses can enter. This room is the Con's greatest fraud. Set up with round tables, it also boasts several coffee urns at the edges and a couple lemonade dispensers. The coffee urns are usually empty. Ditto the lemonade dispensers. I came in at 3 p.m. on Friday, and, upon discovering no coffee or lemonade, I advised the minion at the door accordingly. "Yes, I know," she said. "When was the lemonade delivered?" I asked. "At three o'clock," she said. "How about the coffee?" I asked. "It came at one o'clock," she said. "It's gone," I said; "are you going to get any more?" "No." "Why not?" "Because it costs $58 a gallon," she said, explaining that the purpose of the Industry Lounge is not to provide visiting professionals with refreshment but, instead, to provide a place to which they could resort whenever they wanted to escape the attentions of the ravening hordes in the exhibit hall. It was a sort of "retreat." A noble intention, I thought, but if that's the purpose, why have any coffee urns or lemonade dispensers around? Their presence inevitably suggests that one of the functions of the Industry Lounge is to provide refreshments, and since there is almost never any refreshment in evidence, the urns and dispensers can serve no purpose save to make visitors angry that there is no coffee or lemonade. Give it up. Dispense with the dispensers and the urns. As it is, they constitute a cruel deception. A fraud, as I said.
The exhibition (once simply termed "the dealer's room" at early Cons) is too vast to be thoroughly explored even in the four days of the Con. It is simply too much. Just walking from one end of the exhibit hall to the other can consume a half-hour even if you don't stop to gawk at a display or a skimpily clad young woman (of which there are plenty, some wearing tails and kitten ears in hopeful imitation of some friendly furry critter they admire). The Con management here, however, shows itself to be canny as well as compassionate. The various aspects of the fantasy realm being celebrated are grouped in kindred clusters to create "pavilions": one pavilion is for Gold & Silver Age Comic Books; another, for Independent Press; another for Illustrators. Small presses, usually of the self-publishing sort, are all grouped in one area. And Artists Alley still provides a home for individuals peddling their wares and skills. The strategic maneuver of grouping similar kinds of displays makes it possible to visit only those aspects of fantasy that you are most interested in. By browsing among the Gold & Silver Age Comic Book booths, strolling through Artists Alley, and sauntering the Small Press Pavilion, I managed to have the sort of convention I used to have at San Diego years ago. I picked up some Joe Palooka comic books (as research fodder for a project I'm contemplating) in the Gold & Silver Age Pavilion. And in the Small Press Pavilion, I met Roger Langridge, whose Fredthe Clown is a masterful cartooning performance (and I bought every publication he had on display, including a page of original Fred art, a festival of intricate decoration and undulating line, clearly delineating every visual element). Langridge, a native of New Zealand, now lives in London, he told me, where, as he explained in one of his books five years ago, he survives "on a diet of soap and pornography. Possibly the foulest-smelling cartoonist that has ever lived [he continues], Roger was nominated in 1996 for a Smut Award for gratuitous foul language in a carton-based narrative work but was disqualified for biting one of the judges." This is all the rankest nonsense, of course: Langridge's comics are masterpieces of sight gags and whimsy without a foul word or smell anywhere in evidence. To experience Langridge is to experience comics as high art. Don't miss him. Or it.
In the Independent Press Pavilion, I met Kyle Baker and his hair. He disabused me of a couple of my mistaken notions about his work. It wasn't a New York Jewish accent I detected in a sequence in his King David book: it was his mother's accents. (Well, okay; but I thought it was funnier my way.) I also picked up a copy of the second issue of Kyle Baker: Cartoonist (128 7x10-inch paperback pages; $14.95), which, like the first issue, is an amalgamation of gag cartoons and short stories, done in a variety of styles of which Baker is master, hilarious and outrageous. (Two guys in Hell, lugging huge boulders around and being prodded by one of Satan's pitchfork-armed helpers; one guy says, "At least we're working." And here's a guy stranded on a desert island, building a television and a lounge chair out of logs.) The book's concluding section consists of various cartoon treatments of Baker's domestic life (www.kylebaker.com ). Baker draws funny, and that, plus a genuinely antic sense of humor, makes him a consummate cartoonist whose work always rewards careful perusal after enjoying a laugh. I stopped in the places I usually spend money (Bob Beerbohm's booth of Golden Age comics and Stuart Ng's always intriguing booth with its vast array of cartooning-related books, many of vintage eras, www.stuartngbooks.com ) and spent money.
I didn't go to the Masquerade (never do) or the Eisner Awards (ditto). Nor did I screen any films, whether Lucasfilm or anime. But I did attend a few of the program sessions in the upper reaches of the Convention Center. At a session entitled "The Future of Black Comics," Kyle Baker, Mike and Mark Davis (Blokhedz), Travis Johnson (Variance Press), Jeremy Love (Gettosake), Dwayne McDuffie (Milestone and Justice League Unlimited), Lesean Thomas (CannonBusters), and moderator David Walker (BadAzz Mofo) contemplated the state of the industry for African-American artists and publishers before an audience that was, surprisingly, predominantly Black. (Maybe not so surprising: probably much of the audience hoped to be the future of Black comics.) Some years ago, the panelists might have focused on how people of color could gain entry into the comics industry; this year, they talked about how to get authentic Black stories into the marketplace. Invoking memories of the earlier circumstance, McDuffie, one of the founders of the regrettably short-lived Milestone Comics line under the DC umbrella, said "the plantation wouldn't take me"-meaning, the mainstream publishing houses; so he turned to independent publishing. Most of his fellow panelists said much the same. Baker quipped that he looked around to see what was out there and thought, "I bet I can do this badly alone"-and started his own publishing enterprise. It is less a problem getting hired these days than getting a Black subject accepted. Mike Davis said he got into comics publishing because he wanted to provide African-American readers with the kinds of stories that weren't available when he was growing up. Mainstream publishers "wanted us to do a straight shoot-'em-up, gang-bang, ghetto book"; he wanted to do stories about everyday African-American experience. Said another panelist: "We want to unite culture through diversity." Walker summed up the chief difficulty: "Everyone-black or white-has the same problem: how to get it out there." For African-American creators, the problem is somewhat complicated by a general belief that "Black people don't read comics" and that "white people aren't interested in stories about the Black experience." Neither, several panelists protested, is true. And this fictive complication is compounded by the absence of comic shops in Black communities, Johnson observed-where there are mostly "just movie houses and liquor stores." The Davises advised doing "guerilla marketing." Network, someone in the audience said-"take it to the streets" with hip-hop as a guide. Most panelists agreed that the situation for Black experience material is opening up. Thomas said he didn't start drawing Black characters until he was nineteen; he's twenty-nine now. "Keep up the momentum," said Love, "things are starting to roll." The idea, he urged, is to build a catalogue of work and own it. "Do it yourself and do it like you want to do it."
Aaron McGruder, whose syndicated comic strip The Boondocks has made both a controversial and celebrated cartoonist, appeared twice during the Con. At a Spotlight session Friday evening, he introduced himself to a large crowd of screaming, whistling, applauding fans. McGruder has become an accomplished platform performer through a steady schedule of appearances before many groups across the country, mostly (but not exclusively) college students. In addition to his lectures, he has devised treatments for tv shows and is working on an animated "Boondocks." Meeting his syndicate's deadlines has become increasingly difficult; for relief, McGruder has taken on an assistant to draw the strip that he continues to write. He found Jennifer Seng on the Internet; "I visited her site," he told me, "and liked what I saw." He still hasn't met her in person. He said he still does some drawing on the strip, but she has shouldered the biggest share of the load. McGruder began this session by tracing his career from high school through college and, finally, syndication. When Milestone Comics appeared on the scene years ago, he rejoiced: at last, some place where a cartoonist of color could find work. He wanted to draw a comic book but realized, fairly soon, that he hadn't the necessary skills or inclinations. So he invented The Boondocks, which appeared, for a time, on the Internet before getting published in the campus newspaper at the University of Maryland. Even there, McGruder admitted, deadlines were a persistent problem, and he was doing only six strips a week. For comedic effect, he speculated about why he thought it would get easier when he got syndicated and had to do seven strips a week. That was just one of the little illogical paths his thinking must've taken. McGruder is expert at this sort of self-deprecating humor. He recognizes that his success with the syndicated strip has given him power in the entertainment world, but his understanding of his situation is thoroughly realistic, not egomaniacal. Successful negotiation is more likely if you're willing to walk away from the deal, he said, and because he has a career in syndication, he can always walk away-and those he's negotiating with know it. But it wasn't like that at the beginning.
He offered his comic strip to Universal Press, and when he went to Kansas City to discuss the possibilities, he met executive vice president and editor-in-chief Lee Salem-a notoriously blond man whom McGruder described, to the delight of his audience, as "the whitest man you'll ever see." They hit it off immediately, McGruder said. "I asked him right away-okay, what do you want to change?" And Salem responded by saying, "You need more angry Black kids in the strip." McGruder's audience roared with appreciative laughter. From that moment on, McGruder has had none of the difficulties many young aspiring cartoonists think they'll have with a syndicate. He does pretty much what he wants to do, and his syndicate, McGruder says with conviction, trusts him. They may sometimes not understand the material he's doing, but they trust him when he tells them his readers will get it. McGruder acknowledges that this circumstance is extremely rare-"particularly in Hollywood," he said. His editor at the syndicate stops him occasionally for one of two reasons: if his strip is legally actionable or if it seems likely to cause newspapers cancel their subscription to the strip. In the first case, the strip is spiked; McGruder has no choice. But in the second case, if McGruder is willing to risk it, his syndicate allows him to. When various of his editorial supervisors suggested that when he does material his white readers won't understand, he risks cancellation, McGruder takes another tack. "I'm in the Washington Post and other big newspapers," he explained. "And that validates me. So if white men don't get it and I'm in the Washington Post, they'll assume I'm a genius." At first, McGruder said, he didn't know how to handle controversy; but he learned. He doesn't take phone calls; and his e-mail address is known only to friends and his editors. People who object to what he says in the strip want to argue with him, he says; and he hasn't time to argue. Arguing won't change his critics' minds; nor will it change his. So he doesn't see the necessity for it.
At the session, McGruder started taking questions fairly soon: he encouraged questions because, he said, he'd rather be talking about something his audience was interested in (assuming that a single questioner shared a curiosity with the rest of the audience, not a safe assumption). And the questions pretty quickly provoked McGruder into political commentary. "Condoleezza Rice's job as National Security Advisor is to kill people," McGruder said; "and she's good at it." And then, noting the inescapable fact that most African-Americans achieve success by "working for the white man," he said that "the difference between working for John McMeel [the white man who is the head of McGruder's syndicate] and working for George W. Bush is the body count." A provocative laugh line, perfected on the lecture circuit. And when some of his answers prompted an outcry, resulting in a loud heated exchange at the other end of the large room, McGruder spread his arms and crooned, "Whoa-calm down, calm down now-it's all right" and quieted the revolt. Towards the end of the session, he was asked: "Are you optimistic about the future of this country?" McGruder smiled and said softly, "Wow-" and then, "Does the guy who does Mutts get asked questions like this?" He urged his listeners to vote in the coming election. "Voting," he said, " is like praying: it just might work. But I'd have a plan in case it doesn't." Given his success, McGruder's demeanor is remarkably low-key and self-critical; he recognizes the source of his power and readily acknowledges it, but it does not appear to have given him a big head. Yes, he'll say, I know I'm a success and I'm not yet thirty years old, implying that he's fully aware of the pitfalls ahead for someone who finds success too soon. He seems unassuming and unpretentious, but his modesty isn't false, and his humility is tempered by a grasp of certain undeniable realities.
The next afternoon, McGruder hooked up with Kyle Baker and Reginald Hudlin (director of "House Party," "Boomerang," and "Serving Sara") to discuss their "comic novel," Birth of a Nation, and "Hollywood, Comics and Black Culture." Joined by tv's "Static Shock" creators, Dwayne McDuffie and Denys Cowan (who is working with McGruder on the animated "Boondocks"), they pretty quickly strayed onto the ground explored in the earlier session on the future of Black comics. Acknowledging that there is no longer a color barrier for comics creators, Cowan said, "I don't know every [Black creator] anymore, and that's a good thing: more Black people are getting into the industry. But there's still resistance to stories on Black themes." But the "amazing success" of The Boondocks reveals that this kind of material can succeed. As for the Hollywood connection, someone noted that television is already more open to controversy than newspapers. Hudlin said he was working in Hollywood because of the difficulty in working in mainstream comics where there is great "resistance to change because of the impulse to exploit copyrights." Cowan, Hudlin and McDuffie all spoke about management and supervisory matters-the importance of getting the people who worked for them "vested" in the process and the product. A major concern among all the panelists is how to do what they want to do without compromising their vision. "They're all evil," Hudlin said of the Hollywood moguls and their breed, "but occasionally their interest coincides with yours." And the issues born of social conscience must not be neglected. McGruder said he and Cowan went to Korea partly to observe the working and living conditions of the people doing the animation on the Boondocks project. It behooves the socially conscious creator to check out who's making your spin-off product, McGruder said, if for no other reason than to avoid the charge of hypocrisy. Still, there is always an occasion when compromise on some issue seems the wiser course. "The more success you have, the more you can do," McGruder said; "I'm a firm believer in living to fight another day."
At a session I moderated, "The New Mainstream," the panelists explored aspects of the same concerns that animated the discussion in the future of Black comics-namely, how to get their product "out there" where it can find readers. The "new mainstream" is defined as that material that is somewhere between superhero comics and the literary avant garde of the graphic novel. The panelists and their creations circumscribe the area: Batton Lash, whose self-published Supernatural Law celebrated its 10th anniversary during the Con; Collen Doran (A Distant Soil), David Brin (writer of The Life Eaters), Max Allan Collins (writer of The Road to Perdition), Dean Haspiel (The Billy Dogma Experience), Stuart Moore (Lone), and Eric Shanower (Age of Bronze). All acknowledged that the emergence of the graphic novel with its own section in retail bookstores is a development to celebrate, but, Collins observed, graphic novels are not a "genre": they're a literary medium embracing several genre-science fiction, crime, adventure. And real success-public acceptance-will be signaled when graphic novels are shelved in bookstores by genre, in science fiction sections, in crime sections, and so on. Doran reported on the huge acceptance she's experienced at BookExpo, where her work is lately much more enthusiastically received than at comics conventions; Lash said he'd had similar experience. The sudden success of manga in this country was, briefly, applauded, but Brin warned that manga represent a "false path for us." Doran agreed: manga do not have the kind of plot complexity and nuanced characterization that Americans are accustomed to finding in their literature, even in comics. Western literature, Brin observed, follows "the Homeric tradition of storytelling"; manga do not. The session concluded with most of the new mainstreamers as frustrated by their lot in the marketplace as they'd been at the start of the hour, but hopeful, nonetheless, that small inroads are being blazed. Just as the graphic novel was nowhere on the horizon of public consciousness a decade ago and now is everywhere, so, perhaps, the work in the new mainstream will ease into view. Or maybe that's my conclusion, not necessarily theirs. Since I was trying to quell a revolt in the audience among manga lovers who resented the aspersions they thought Doran and Brin were casting their direction, I didn't take notes as carefully as I might have had I been a mere observer, so I asked Batton Lash to express a view or two. And, not surprisingly, he did; to wit:
"My argument [on the matter of visibility for the New Mainstream] was that both The Comics Journal and Wizard are 'publications of record' for two opposite ends of the business (alternative/artsy-fartsy and extreme superhero/collectibles, respectively) and, with a couple of exceptions, almost totally ignore the books in the middle, which, I believe have the most 'entry appeal' to the non-comics reader. I think comics should be a 'big tent' and offer books to all kinds of readers. That's the lip service of 'diversity,' but sadly, there are lots of good comics-potential money makers for creators, retailers and distributors-hanging on by their fingertips at best or falling through the cracks at worse. I put books like Stray Bullets, Dignifying Science, Electric Girl, Strangehaven, THB, Age of Bronze, Queen and Country, Finder, Fred the Clown, and of course, Supernatural Law, among many others, as New Mainstream titles. To be fair, both the Journal and Wizard might have had press on some of the above titles, but those are exceptions and never the focus. I consider Bone and Strangers in Paradise New Mainstream books, and they have gotten attention from the Journal and Wizard; Jeff Smith and Terry Moore's books are too much of a phenomenon for the Journal to ignore and both books have a collectible cache for Wizard's interests.
"What is important to keep in mind," he continued, "is that there's nothing wrong with the mission statements of the Journal and Wizard. They have their interests and audience and that's their focus. And that's fine. But where's the publication for creators like Andi Watson and Scott Morse and titles like Hopeless Savages and Rob Hanes? As Stuart Moore mentioned on the panel, refer to Kim Thompson's essay 'What We Need is More Crap' -with 'crap' being used to refer to genre material that is popular in other media, such as sf, fantasy, crime, romance, etc. The 'crap' exists-the titles are out there, but they are the comics industry's best-kept secret, undeservedly so. New Mainstream are titles that have a general public, 'real world' appeal for the newbie and the fan just seeking an entertaining read. As I said on the panel, an event like 'JLA vs. Avengers' caters to a niche market, while something like Castle Waiting has a better chance to attract a new reader, someone who might be put off by a preconceived notion of comics as a visceral, boys-club, closed-shop, esoteric medium. Castle Waiting, by the way, is a perfect example of a New Mainstream title. It's creator, Linda Medley, was no amateur; she was a seasoned pro. Her book got respect and acclaim from her peers; yet it got lost in the marketplace. It wasn't artsy enough for the Journal and it wasn't visceral enough for Wizard. Who champions a book like Castle Waiting? What publication caters to readers that have outgrown superhero universes, but finds the cutting edge stuff a little too raw for their tastes? I have been publishing for ten years, and at this year's San Diego show I met dozens of longtime comics aficionados who never heard of Supernatural Law. Take a look at an e-mail I just received from a newbie (who I met online): 'I just got through a big stack of Supernatural Law comics (which I had never heard of until this week) and I'll see if I can get my local store to start carrying these. Amazing stuff...! I'm no good at writing fan mail so I'll leave it at that.'
I don't mention this to be self aggrandizing but to make the point that this guy was fed up with today's mean spirited, self-important comics. He clearly enjoyed the comics medium, but where were the fun comics, done for the sake of entertainment? That's where the New Mainstream comes in. Those comics exists, but hardly anyone knows it!"
On the last day of the Con, web cartoonists ganged up on two of their more traditional peers to ask: "Is Newspaper Syndication Dead?" Mustered to the fray by Scott Kurtz (PvP), Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins (Penny Arcade), Dave Kellott and Rich Stevens faced Michael Jantze (whose strip, The Norm, is syndicated) and Kristopher Straub (Checkerboard Nightmare). Bolstered by sheer numbers, the battle seemed, for a time, to veer off in favor of web cartooning. The webtooners asserted that they had complete editorial freedom to say whatever they wanted without fear of the institutional interference of syndicate editors. Nor do they fear offending readers: we go after people who enjoy our work. And Kurtz said he'd stopped negotiating with Universal Press when they refused to give him all rights to his creation-including merchandising that is already in place on his website. (I encouraged him later to try again, to negotiate rather than to demand; surely there's a common ground upon which the two parties could meet, particularly considering Universal Press's unusually liberal and nurturing policies with regard to its cartoonists.) All said they were making a living with their website cartooning, mostly through merchandising spin-off products and taking advertising. But all acknowledged that newspaper cartooning had an advantage: everyone knows where to find the comics in a newspaper; and comics on the web are everywhere on the web. Despite the apparent advantage for cartooning in newspapers, most of the panelists championed web cartooning. Straub said newspapers didn't give cartoonists enough room to do decent artwork. And Jantze, an unusual practitioner of the syndicated craft who maintains an online store where he sells originals and merchandise, said half his income comes from his website. The general feeling seemed to be that newspaper comic strips were on the cusp of extinction. And that was more than I could stomach, so I stood up and started shouting.
It's true, I said, that newspaper comics came into being as circulation builders. When, at the turn of the century 104 years ago, big cities had several daily newspapers, one of the things that distinguished one paper from another were the comics sections, which were different in each paper. With the decline of cities with more than one paper (there are now less than a dozen such venues), the fundamental raison d'etre for the comic strip would seem to have disappeared. At the same time, newspaper journalism changed. During the first years of the 20th Century, newspapers vied for readers; newspapering was about circulation and the political power that came with great readership. Then newspapers got serious about something they called their journalistic responsibility; as circulation battles ebbed and disappeared, newspapers took up the serious role as reporters of fact and crusaders for truth. Comics in this environment would seem to have no place whatsoever. And yet they've endured. They've endured as the number of cities with more than one paper (the number of occasions for circulation battles) dwindled to virtually nil. Why? Because comic strips remain one of the newspaper's most popular features. As any newspaper editor can tell you, there are two things a newspaper can do to enrage its readers: it can get the crossword puzzle wrong, and it can change the comics line-up. Either of these delinquencies will spur readers by the thousand to phone their paper in sputtering rage. So even if there is no longer a competitive reason for publishing comic strips, there remains a readership interest reason. As long as there are newspapers, I opined, there will be comic strips in them. And how long will newspapers last in a world increasingly cyberspacial? Just as long as they're needed to convey to consumers the weekly avalanche of grocery store coupons. In short, as long as there are grocery stores. And we are likely to need groceries for a good long time yet.
Despite my optimism about the future of newspaper comic strips, the web's appeal to many aspiring cartoonists is undeniable and very real and substantial. There's no competition for venues, for one thing. Syndicates, the traditional avenue to readership, launch only one or two new strips a year even though they may receive as many as five or six thousand submissions in the same year. Newspaper space is limited. Web space is not. Ergo, a cartoonist can always find a place to cartoon on the Web. Whether he or she can make a living there is another matter. At about this unravel in the skein of reasoning, Kurtz dropped his bombshell. Working with Frank Cho of Liberty Meadows fame, Kurtz is planning to self-syndicate to newspapers: he will offer newspapers a daily comic strip without charge. All the newspaper needs to do is to publish his URL in the strip. Kurtz gets enough traffic on his website to generate an income. And he knows newspaper exposure will increase the traffic: Jantze published Kurtz's strip name in The Norm one day, and Kurtz said his e-mail and hits on his site increased dramatically. From that experience, he figures the daily exposure of a strip in the newspaper will enhance the earning power of his site to the point that he needn't charge newspapers for the strips.
This stunning maneuver comes at a time when syndicates have been freshly assaulted by newspapers complaining about the fees they must pay for comic strips. Although the fees for strips haven't increased for thirty years, newspapers, claiming to be strapped financially, whine about the pittance they must pay. (Actually, while it's a pittance per comic strip, the aggregate is a considerable expense for a paper. If a mid-sized city newspaper runs 20 strips a day, its weekly expense can be $1,500; that translates into more than $70,000 a year, no small potatoes. But newspapers are money-making machines: most generate a profit of 20-25%, a higher rate than just about any other business in the nation. So why do newspapers claim to be impoverished? Because they are no longer owned by journalists or civic-minded politicians. They are owned by stockholders who demand a high return for their investment. Hence, making greater and greater profit is the essential function of newspapering these days, not reporting the news.) Knight Ridder papers recently demanded that syndicates reduce their fees for comic strips by 20%-or the entire chain of thirty-plus papers will drop comic strips. Kurtz's plan plays right into this situation.
At first blush, it seems destined to succeed beyond anyone's wackiest dreams. But Jantze issued a realistic caution: newspaper editors worry about the reliability of such self-syndicated independent operators. They are leery about what would happen if the feature they've contracted for fails to show up one week. What will they do about the "hole" in their comics section? If the strip proves popular with readers, its sudden disappearance will stimulate the usual hail of complaint, exactly what editors want to avoid. How reliable is the cartoonist as a single individual? This sort of fear provided the traditional rationale for syndicated comic strips: the syndicate, in effect, guaranteed the regular appearance of the strip (and of other features). That's why syndicates insisted that they own the strip: if a cartoonist went on a two-week bender and missed deadlines to a fare-thee-well, the syndicate would hire another cartoonist to produce the strip, aping the creator's style, thereby insuring that the client newspapers would still have the strip to run. Private entrepreneurial cartooners don't, on the face of it, offer that kind of insurance. Kurtz said his insurance is a backlog of a year's strips. True. But will his interest in the strip endure? Will he be sufficiently engaged in it to continue producing the strip indefinitely, which is what newspaper editors look for-even while thinking about the next readership survey and how that might dictate a change in the comics line-up. And recent history on the comics page has done little to dissuade editors of this reluctance. Bill Watterson, Berke Breathed, and Gary Larson all gave up popular comics features after relatively short runs. They got tired. They quit. People do that. Syndicates, however, don't.
Still, the Kurtz-Cho scheme is revolutionary and extremely attractive. It may well succeed and change the world of newspaper cartooning forever.
And so the sun sets slowly in the West-west, even, of San Diego-and another Comic-Con comes to an exhausted conclusion. And here, by way of ending this report, are a few glimpses of this year's rendition of the extravaganza.
Flummery at CBG. As long as the Comics Buyer's Guide came out weekly, the news of the comics universe reached us all in a fairly timely way. Some of the more controversial matters-particularly if they reflected poorly on major advertisers-didn't get much play and sometimes a news flash took two weeks to get into CBG print, but still, the weekly platform convinced us, even if the actual content did not, that we were being kept abreast of developments in the field. As an additional convincer, those of us wired to cyberspace could get an infusion of fast-breaking news via CBG Express, CBG's "Electronic Bulletin." When the venerable weekly went monthly, the news function of CBG Express was suddenly enhanced: "While the print version of CBG is now a monthly," we are assured with every ethereal bulletin, "the editorial staff is still reporting to work on a daily basis-and we intend to continue to stay in touch with you, providing shipping information, news bulletins, birthday lists, and the like. We're shifting the e-mail schedule so's to reach you whenever possible on Wednesdays: in time to let you know what you'll want to check out in your local comics shop. Moreover, you can expect to receive bulletins regarding important news stories." After a month or so of these, I'm no longer convinced. The post-Sandy Eggo edition, for instance, contained the news that CBG Editor-in-Chief Maggie Thompson "was honored with the first-ever Women of Distinction Award from the Friends of Lulu." It's about time Maggie was recognized in such a manner, but that's the only news in this July 28 edition. Nothing about the Eisners, "the Oscars of the industry," which were announced on Friday, July 23. No glimmer of what keynoter Michael Chabon said at the presentation ceremonies. I didn't attend, so I can't tell you, but I'm a staff of one, and CBG is thronging with staffers. But if you want to know the Eisner winners, you can visit ComixView at www.comixview.com where you'll find Brian Hovey's report, a complete listing of winners and highlights of Chabon's remarks. DC Comics was the big winner, glomming fifteen of the twenty-six awards. See how easy that was to get the news to you? Understaffed as we are here at Rancid Raves World Headquarters, we can at least steer you through the cybermaze to an informative source. CBG Express, meanwhile, regales us with the Letter of the Week, a list of creator appearances at comic shops, shipping news (what's coming to your shop this week and next), and a list of assorted comics personnel with birthdays between August 8 and August 14. Feel informed? In the July 14 issue, CBG Express told us about the financial plight of Alternative Comics, which has made a world-wide Internet appeal to fans to buy its books in the hopes of mustering enough cash to survive. Three weeks later, we still don't know how that worked out. This tirade is, of course, unfair: CBG has never been quite a news publication so it's scarcely cricket to criticize it for failing in that department. It's a bulwark of the industry, a bulletinboard for retailers and publishers and other advertisers. It's first function has been to nurture the industry. And with the monthly incarnation, it has plunged headlong into the Extreme Collector/Investor realm. News has always been a secondary concern despite the window-dressing at CBG Express. And with the electronic issue of July 28, the backseat status of news is vividly established.
The medium of the graphic novel has now fostered another breed of cartoon art in book form, the short story anthology. The oft-touted first graphic novel, Will Eisner's A Contract with God, is not, really, the first of its kind, nor is it a novel-a long narrative; it is, instead, a collection of short stories. So the current crop of short story volumes is in a direct line of succession from its most celebrated modern prototype. But it is the critical and commercial success of the graphic novel-the long-form cartoon strip story-that has brought into being these smaller, gem-like enterprises. Without the graphic novel, these short story volumes would never have surfaced. Many of them seem to be the spontaneous cartooning effusions of graphic artists who make a living in some other medium. Grickle (124 6x9-inch pages in paperback, black-and-white; Alternative Comics, $14.95), for instance, is the work of Graham Annable, a LucasArts video game animator in San Francisco's Bay Area. And his storytelling betrays his chief vocation: many of the short stories have the pacing and comedic epiphanies of a storyboard, the static visual device by which animators plan and plot their films.
The first story, a five-page pantomime entitled "Slight Aberration," rehearses a day in the life of an ordinary citizen who, driving home from work one day, accidentally hits and kills a pedestrian whom the driver doesn't see because he was momentarily bending down to select a tape to play on his tape-player. After the accident, the driver, oblivious to the havoc he has just wrought, plays his tape and joyfully sings along with it. At home, he feeds his dog, has dinner, reads for awhile, watches tv, plays with the dog, and then goes to bed. Lying in bed, he suddenly experiences a flashback in which he sees the face of the person he hit with his car: although at the time of the impact he was not conscious of what he had done, he had apparently caught a glimpse of the victim as the body was flung over the car. And the face of the injured party was burned into his mind, even though he was not conscious of perceiving the image. Our protagonist is horrified by the grotesque face he has suddenly "remembered." He doesn't know where the face came from. Or why he is seeing it. He can't sleep. He sits up all night. In the morning, he reads the newspaper and sees the frontpage story about the hit and run victim. He and his dog exchange a long look for several panels. But in the last panel, he and the dog are in the car, enjoying the music of the tape player. The "Aberration" was not only slight but transitory. Life goes on, oblivious to the tragedies on all sides.
Many of Annable's stories are flavored with the same bitter irony. But others are not bitter at all but philosophically noncommittal in the best existential mode. Timmy and Johnny go ice fishing, but Johnny gives it up almost at once, telling Timmy that he has devised a way to "shed" his mortal shell and "be engulfed by the answer to the universe." He speeds off on his snowmobile, and we see him arriving at another plane of existence, where he acquires knowledge that binds him in oceanic splendor to the rest of all life (or something of the sort). On the last page, we are back with Timmy, who's hauling in the fish. Says he: "That Johnny's missing out."
In another tale, an a-social soul named Evan finds his joy in life sitting on the toilet, reading. His story unfolds in jigging rhyme: he loses his job because no one knows him, but he wins a radio show telephone quiz, and the knowledge he has accumulated by reading makes him the world's foremost authority on all subjects. When he gets his own radio show, the radio station "needed to make one slight adjustment to keep Evan there-inside the studio there needed to be a very specific chair"-in short, as we see, a toilet.
Some of Annable's efforts are wry one-pagers. He gives us a birdseye view of an office in which each of the workers is thinking his co-worker is an idiot; but the one who voices this opinion to his boss is promptly fired. In a four-pager, two rowdy kids visit their grandfather and annoy him with their antics; finally, he tells them that he's going to die very soon and when he does, "my ghost will permanently lie beneath your bed at night." The kids run off in terror.
These sardonic profundities would be pretentious were it not for Annable's eye for the ridiculous and his superb pacing and comedic timing. And his drawing style: his simple nearly stick-like figures wear the expressive faces of a Robert Osborn creation, and the elastic cartoony abstractions sabotage the gravitas with the detached disinterest of comedy. On the one hand, Annable is poking fun at the human condition itself. But the result is therapeutic. What we laugh at, we can scarcely take altogether seriously; instead, we smile and contemplate. And we wonder, our sense of wonder nurturing the realization that life, in all its ludicrousness, is still a mystery. A second collection, Further Grickle (same dimension and price), continues Annable's explorations; see also, www.indykworld.com/altcomics for news about his forthcoming 48-pager, Stickleback.
From the same Alternative Comics neighborhood, comes Hickee (about the same dimensions as the Grickle books; $12.95), a collection of short pieces by Annable and nine of his cohorts in the animation industry. Throughout, these efforts are irreverent, uninhibited, and often unfinished belches of visual-verbal hilarity. Joe White's "Pipe Dreams" portrays an old man and an old woman sitting on a bench taking turns smoking a pipe. His pipe smoke takes the shape of seductive women; hers, of hunky men. Cheered by these visions, the oldsters embrace, fall asleep in each other's arms, and dream the figments of their pipe smoke. Other contributions are less uplifting, one-page fragments about farting and fornication, and the occasional visual pun. Some are merely doodles that end before they're finished (but not without a smile).
Veteran animator Sam Henderson supplies a short introduction in which he explains that "we don't make any money doing these silly little comics." They all have day jobs. And because they are animators who often work in abstracted styles, they are sometimes accused of copying each other. Says Henderson: "A couple years ago, people were telling me about this guy who was imitating me. I finally saw Graham Annable's Grickle, and like I expected, it was a comic that was also drawn in a minimal style and very funny, but in its own way. I later told Graham about how people had been (wrongly) telling me that he was copying me, and it turned out people were telling him the same thing about me."
These tomes, taken as a whole, show cartoonists at play, making fun of themselves and their fellow human sapiens and our mutual self-delusions. Aspiration invariably ends in ignominious deflation, but we are the better for the lessons these 'tooners provide: they don't take the human condition seriously, and maybe we shouldn't either. As Walt Kelly said eons ago, "It ain't nohow permanent."
Between Friends is a comic strip about the little hilarities of real life in the same tradition as Lynn Johnston's For Better or For Worse. It gives us a humorous glimpse at contemporary womanhood. Mature professional womanhood, not hot young thing womanhood. And now Andrews McMeel has published a collection of the strip, Coffee, Tea, and Reality (128 8.5x9-inch pages in paperback; $10.95). Cartoonist Sandra Bell-Lundy charts the lives of three women friends in the strip. Susan is married to Harv, a laid-back (well, more like unprepossessing) funeral director and neatness freak, and they have an adopted daughter, Emma. Susan works outside the home, but one of her closest friends, Kim, works at home, writing a syndicated women's issues column. Of African descent, Kim was single when the strip started ten years ago, representing another of the niches professional women find themselves in. But she eventually married Derek, a high school English teacher. He was a single father (toddler son, Danny) before marrying Kim, and Kim is now learning that "deadlines" and "four-year-olds" are not always compatible. In a Sunday strip, Kim is depicted musing at her keyboard while Danny is swinging on the drapes in the background, the floor littered with toys. The caption reads: "How to tell when you've been working too hard ..." and Kim is thinking, "Maybe if I had another one, the two of them would pay together quietly and I could get more work done."
The third of the trio is Maeve, a sophisticated and savvy divorcee who is a terrific sales director at the office but can't manage her love life despite the considerable energy she devotes to this pursuit. Moreover, she can't quite leave her former husband alone. Around Christmas, she phones him: "Hello, Simon?" she says. "'It's Maeve. Listen-about you buying me a gift for Christmas ..." Simon mutters: "Buying? You?" And Maeve continues: "I think it's a wonderful gesture for a divorced man to think of his ex-wife like this, but I can't help feeling that it might lead to complicated expectations in the future, so I would prefer we just continue to mail each other greeting cards, okay?" Simon says, "Uh, sure, Maeve-I completely understand." Maeve hangs up, and in the last panel, we see a vaguely disgruntled Simon, still holding the phone and saying to himself, "She expects me to buy her a gift." There are enough other supporting players to justify a grammatically correct shift in the title of the strip from Between Friends to Among Friends, but the aim here is colloquial life, not grammatical propriety. Besides, the women tend to share one-on-one rather than as a group.
Bell-Lundy's objective is to show us a slice of ordinary life but to slice it humorously. In sensibility and drawing style, Between Friends is close to Johnston's strip. Moreover, both strips are drawn by women, and, just to compound the kinship, both women are Canadians. Johnston supplies this volume's Foreword, saying: "Sandra's tongue-in-cheek (that often gets bitten) style of writing is pure, personal, and funny. ... This is woman-to-woman stuff said in grocery lines, at the office, or while commiserating over doughnuts at the kitchen table. This is the open door, the honest dialogue between the folks who have 'been there.' It's a woman's world in which I feel welcome!" But the authenticity doesn't prevent the male reader from appreciating the comedy. Here's Harv and Susan dressing for an evening out. Harv looks at Susan as she applies make-up and says, "Another new outfit? What happened to your little black dress?" Says Susan: "It got littler." On another day, Susan and Maeve are stolling along and Susan says, "The older I get, the more quickly time seems to fly by-I've often wondered why that is. I suppose there's no simple answer." Maeve says, "Sure there is ... downhill is always faster." And they both smile.
When King Features launched the strip February 21, 1994, the publicity asked the question: Who understands women? And answered it: Other women, that's who. Bell-Lundy had been answering the question by self-syndicating her strip for two years before attracting King's sponsorship. Born and raised in St. Catharines, Ontario, Bell-Lundy sold her first cartoon at the age of thirteen and cartooned her way through Brock University (majoring in French).
Said she: "Just for laughs, I would caricature myself and my friends in a cartoon format whenever we were in the midst of some situation or crisis. This is where the idea came from for the strip." Her plans for a cartooning career hit a low-lying roadblock in 1987: "I met Tim. What do you do when you meet a good-looking man in a bar who tells you that he is a funeral director? You marry him and put him in your strip."
For the next several years, Bell-Lundy held a full-time day job and cartooned at night, but it was a killing pace, and it wasn't until she quit the day job that she was able to sell the strip to King Features.
Now the mother of two small children (the first of whom, Devin, arrived six weeks after King launched the strip-realizing another of Bell-Lundy's fond dreams), Bell-Lundy continues to find comedy in her life, but the comedy now includes parental relationships with their offspring as well as female relationships with men and with the working world. The emphasis, however, is still where it was at the beginning. "I felt the easiest thing for me to write about would be the relationships between women who were good friends and the types of ups and downs that they faced," Bell-Lundy says. "The most obvious place to find my characters was to look at myself and the women who I have shared friendships with since high school. I stay in touch with the women I went to school with, and while I don't write anyone's life verbatim, it's hard not to be influenced by a night out with the girls."
Metaphors be with you.
To find out about Harv's books, click here.
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