Opus 147:

Opus 147 (October 12, 2004). We take a lingering look at Darby Conley's Get Fuzzy in its latest Andrews McMeel manifestation at the end of this installment, and between here and there, we review comic books Gray Area No. 2 and the first two issues of Bloodhound, ponder the first Presidential Debate, the deterioration of confidence in the so-called "news" media, Fox TV News' dilemma, and news in cartooning-including such matters as Steve Geppi's rise to the board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Mickey Mouse's religion, the insidious presence in WWII's France of an anti-Semitic comic book, motion picture plans for Eisner's Spirit, Trudeau's visit to Walter Reed Army Hospital, the war on yard signage, and the latest disturbance in The Boondocks. (Who is McGruder mad at anyhow?) It all begins immediately, but if you don't want to wait around to scroll through all the good stuff, just print off the whole installment and put it in your bathroom for later reading at your leisure.


Hi and Lois will celebrate its 50th anniversary on October 18. The strip had its beginnings in a furlough Mort Walker's Beetle Bailey took, going home to visit his sister Lois and her husband and family. The sequence, reportedly, went so well, permitting Walker and his crew to tap an as-yet unexplored but rich vein of family comedy, that Walker decided to spin-off the family into a strip of its own. When Walker and his King Features editor, Sylvan Byck, both made separate lists of likely cartoonists to draw the feature, they discovered, to their surprise, that Dik Browne was on the top of both lists. Browne drew it until his death in 1989. The strip is continued today-one of the medium's most successful legacy strips-by Brian and Greg Walker and Chance Browne, who pencils it, and "Walker Studio" stalwart Frank Johnson, who's been inking it since the 1970s.

            Jump Start also bumped up against an anniversary, its 15th, on October 2, and tooner Rob Armstrong has signed with United Feature syndicate for another ten years. One of a handful of strips by and about African-Americans (in the form of Joe and Marcy Cobb, "a young couple working hard to balance the demands of their careers-he's a police officer, and she's a nurse-with a loving marriage and warm family life with young children Sunny and Jojo"), the strip displays a lively and contemporary sense of humor with charm and insight, but it is frequently, alas, a parade of talking heads, and to make sure his verbiage is readable, Armstrong letters larger in boldly outlined speech balloons, all of which reduces the amount of space he can give to pictures. The cartoonist reaches beyond his strip, too, appearing often as a motivational speaker, offering himself as a role model to help young people set goals for themselves; Armstrong is the youngest of five children, raised by a single mother in West Philadelphia.

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Persiflage and Bagatelles. The 20th Annual Stanleys Weekend of the Australian Cartoonists Association is slated for November 5-7 in the "southern highlands," Bowral, just ninety minutes' drive southwest of Sydney. The Stanley is the Aussie equivalent of the American Reuben, presented to the "cartoonist of the year." For details, contact the ACA Secretary, secretary@abwac.org.au . ... Slated for a July 2005 arrival is Bob Andelman's biography of Will Eisner, A Spirited Life. ... France's Antefilms Productions has been signed to produce twenty-six 30-minute animated episodes of the Fantastic Four for tv. ... Jeff Smith's finale, the superbly printed 1300-page paperback compiling all twelve years of the Bone comic book, was extolled in Time by Time.com's Andrew Arnold (October 11): "While children will read Bone for its breathless adventure and sight gags, older kids and adults will appreciate the themes of blind fanaticism and corrupting power. You might want to bone up on it." ... Captain Canuck, the Canadian superhero launched in 1975 by Richard Comely, has been resurrected by Riel Langlois, who wrote the new series of comic books, and his brother Drue, who drew the stories. ... In Cairo, Egypt, a new line of comic books has presented the region with its first superheroine, Jalila, a Wonder Woman clone of sorts, who, with three other superheroes, fights terrorists and other manifestations of extremist attitude in a future Middle Eastern country where the political turmoil and racial/ethnic tensions of the present are things of the past. Created by Ayman Kendeel for his AK Comics, the new superheroes are intended as more positive role models for young people in the Middle East. ... Animator Frank Thomas, one of the legendary "Nine Old Men" at Disney, died September 8 at his home in Flintridge, California; he was 92; among the memorable moments he brought to life are the first date and spaghetti dinner in "Lady and the Tramp," Thumper teaching Bambi how to ice skate, Pinocchio trapped in the birdcage by Stromboli, the lovesick squirrel whose heart is broken in "Sword and the Stone," and Captain Hook playing the piano in "Peter Pan."

            Mark I. Pinsky, who wrote a book entitled The Gospel According to the Simpsons, has written another in the same vein, The Gospel According to Mickey Mouse. Originally, the Disney Message was simple unvarnished American Puritan ethic, says AP's religion writer, Richard N. Ostling, in reviewing the book: good is rewarded, evil is punished, work is good, and everything will turn out happily in the end. Disney substituted magic for religion, Pinsky observes: Snow White is revived by a kiss; Geppetto in "Pinocchio" doesn't pray but wishes on a star. But with the 1948 short "Johnny Appleseed," religion started insinuating itself into the Disney oeuvre: Johnny thanks God for his gifts and sings "The Lord Is Good to Me." After Disney's death, that trend continued, somewhat, in the Christmas production "The Small One," but once Michael Eisner arrived on the lot, the Studio dabbled in pagan fantasy ("The Black Cauldron"), Hinduism ("The Lion King"), animism ("Pocahontas"), Confucianism ("Mulan"), and, even, Christianity ("The Hunchback of Notre Dame").

            Here's a strange, even sinister, tale. In his recently published book, Text Image Mosaics in French Culture: Emblems and Comic Strips, Laurence Grove, a professor at Glasgow University, reveals the existence of an anti-Semitic comic book produced during the Nazi occupation of France. The comic book, Le Temeraire ("The Bold"), was published for about 18 months, during which time it enjoyed a "virtual monopoly" among children's magazines because of the strict censorship of the Nazi-collaborationist Vichy regime; the book ceased publication when the Germans were driven out of the country in August 1944. According to Mike Whine, spokesman for the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who is quoted by Gary Anderson, writing in the Sunday Herald of September 19, the magazine's stories may have contributed to France's ongoing problems with anti-Semitism: like all cartoons for children, these will have had a "lasting effect," Whine said, influencing the attitudes of people who are now elderly adults but whose feelings must have shaped social developments over the last half-century. While some of the stories portrayed Britons as "duplicitous, corpse-groping torturers," the producers of the magazine's most frequent target was the European Jewish population. British historian Antony Beevor said the magazine "exposed an 'embittered' right-wing element [in French society at the time] on whom the Nazis could rely for assistance without coercion." Said Beevor: "The French extreme right was intensely anti-Semitic. [The comic book] was unforced collaboration, that's certainly clear." Author Grove reported that apparently some of the people involved in the publication of The Bold became involved because it was the only work they could find; "but they didn't have to be so zealous," he said. Four of the cartoonists-Raymond Poivet, Jean Ache, Hidalgo and Guy Bertet-would later transfer the successful theme-based format of The Bold to found Pilote, the magazine that introduced Asterix the Gaul to the world; none of the four is thought to be still living.

            Michael Uslan, who brought us the Batman movies, is now confronting Will Eisner's Spirit, hoping for a big screen debut. Uslan says he wants to do it "right," to do justice to Eisner's conception. In Q&A with Chris Mason, Uslan said: "The Spirit is unique insofar as he is a 'real' guy in a 'real' city who is patently aware of the absurdity of his own situation-trying to be a masked hero because he thinks this will make him more effective in his approach to fighting crime in his neighborhood and throughout the City. Instead, he finds being a masked hero gets him into predicaments with a rogues gallery of beautiful villainesses, never knowing from encounter to encounter if he's going to wind up dead or in bed, while in the process getting the crap beat out of him on a regular basis." Well, I dunno, but I don't remember too many of Eisner's stories in which the Spirit is "aware of the absurdity of his own situation." And while femmes fatales played a role often in the Spirit's adventures, they were scarcely a constant menace. So Uslan is already "re-interpreting" the Spirit for a contemporary audience-which is, after all, what Eisner tried to do when producing the original tales. Whether the Spirit will find his way into motion pictures (again-Sam J. Jones did a tv movie in 1990 that wasn't at all bad) may depend upon whether "Sky Captain" succeeds. Uslan is mum about who should play Denny Colt, saying only that "fifty years ago, James Garner would have made a great Spirit." I agree. Whoever plays him, however, his blue mask, to properly do homage to Eisner's concept, should be painted on.

            As B.D. in Doonesbury enters rehabilitation programs to aid in recovery from the loss of his leg below the knee while on duty in Iraq, his creator, cartoonist Garry Trudeau, has been visiting Ward 57 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center where the actual wounded are being treated and undergoing therapy. Writing for Stripe, Michael E. Dukes accompanied Trudeau on a visit August 27 and filed this as part of his report: "Trudeau first visited Water Reed in June after B.D. lost his leg. 'It's important to me to get the details of his recovery right,' he said during an interview with Rolling Stone magazine earlier this year. He met each patient with a warm smile and a firm handshake. 'Hi, how are you? Are you new in town?' Trudeau asked one soldier. He greeted them all with a soft, smooth and compassionate voice. He didn't barrage them with a schedule of questions, though; he let them do most of the talking. ... Staff and patients gave him details about therapy regimens and equipment used. Staff and patients alike thanked him for sharing the wounded soldiers' story with the world. 'I'm glad you had the courage to do that,' said Colonel William J. Howard, Walter Reed's Occupational Therapy Service chief. ... Trudeau seemed to hone in on the tiniest details during his visit, something that's reflected in the comic strip. He whipped out a little blue note pad a few times, scribbled some comments, and then tucked it back into his pocket. ... There were no hordes of fans or groupies asking for autographs as the average-height, thin artist walked the hospital halls. Perhaps if his characters B.D. or Zonk were visiting, there would be more commotion. But Trudeau didn't seem to mind; he wasn't visiting for his own glory or publicity. He said he came because he cared for the soldiers."

            Rick Stromoski, who produces the strip Soup to Nutz and draws Steve McGarry's Mullets, is being persecuted by Bush zealots in his neighborhood. A sign supporting Kerry was stolen from his front yard recently, and its replacement was also taken. Stromoski later found the burned remnants of one of the signs. Posting his report at the Daryl Cagle Cartoon Web Log, Stromoski wrote: "We are living in a political climate of fear, intimidation, and unilateral pre-emption ... [and the actions of his political opponents] cast a disparaging pall over the opposition's party and those who represent it." No one at the local Republican Party headquarters has made any effort to express "any concern for my family's welfare or outrage that their party is being represented in this way. Their indifference and silence speaks volumes."

NOOSE FROM THE BOONDOCKS. Aaron McGruder's strip gets into the scandal columns so often that it deserves a sub-department all its own here in R&R Central. The animated Boondocks, produced by Sony Pictures TV, was offered to Fox TV some time ago, but Fox turned it down. (Gee: I wonder why?) Cartoon Network has picked it up, though, ordering 15 half-hour episodes; it will debut sometime in late 2005 or early 2006 in the cable network's "Adult Swim" line-up, which airs Saturday through Thursday from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. Reports David Astor at Editor & Publisher: "The Boondocks will occupy a 'prime position' during the first half of the six-hour block." Meanwhile, in the print realm, McGruder honed the satirical edge of his strip with a week-long sequence (September 20-25) that bristled with targets and prompted outcry in several quarters. The Washington Post, rapidly becoming the most timid newspaper in the country, chose not to run the sequence (as it has chosen in other instances of imagined outrage caused by Boondocks), but only a handful of the 250 client newspapers did likewise. McGruder's satire cut in at least two directions, but it was his use of the dreaded "N-word" that doubtless prompted Political Correctitude wherever it reared its ugly head. Here are the offending strips.

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On the one hand, as Kevin Walthers in Salt Lake City wrote, "the joke was on Russell Simmons and BET, essentially calling them on their hypocrisy of claiming to be for advancing the African-American cause while continuing demeaning stereotypes through hip-hop videos. I took it as Mr. McGruder saying, 'If Simmons and BET thought they could make a buck with this, they'd do it.'" McGruder often takes a swipe at BET, so I'm sure that was one of his targets here, too. Some of the newspaper ombudsmen commenting on the week's objectives saw the strips as spoofing tv reality shows. Well, yes: that, too. "If they thought they could make a buck with this, they'd do it"-just as BET would. But on the other side of McGruder's cutting edge comedy, he was using reality tv to ridicule the sorts of cultural deficits that cripple those in the Black community who accept them, the same sort of thing that Bill Cosby so famously commented on a few weeks ago. The very proposition of a tv show entitled "Can a Nigga Get a Job" highlights the problem: what, in the Black community, makes unemployment so rampant that "getting a job" becomes a signal event worthy of a provocative reality tv show? McGruder offers several explanations. Being "on time," punctual, is not, according to the stereotype widely accepted in both Black and white communities, a value; but being punctual is essential in the work-a-day world. In lauding the "lowered expectations" that being lazy and stupid foster, Riley is gaming the cultural climate: he's using the stereotype for his own personal gratifications. And when the usually sensible grandfather gets hooked on the show, he, like many African-Americans whom McGruder hopes to awaken, doesn't seem to realize he's been made a victim by his own weakness for tv entertainment, particularly entertainment that appears to champion African-Americans. The Black community itself, or at least certain parts of it, is the target here, just as it was in Cosby's diatribe. It's scarcely surprising, then, that Boondocks this week gave offense. Thomaysa Glover, an African-American mother of two in Sacramento where the Sacramento Bee covered the story at some length, found the racial term "n***a" offensive even with McGruder's asterisks. Offensive and even dangerous. On the other hand, comedian Dick Gregory, who entitled his autobiography Nigger, believes the word needs to be used and openly discussed: "We need to take this snake out and defang it," he said. But Glover has a point, too, about the rest of the sequence in the strip: "When you get a preponderance of such negative images, they are bounced back to us and they hurt us," she said. "Society still holds the whole race responsible for the negative things that only a few might do." True, but I think McGruder embraces a wider range of objectives in his strip, and he will undoubtedly go right on breaking a few eggs every time he wants to make a cake.

            Steve Geppi, president and founder of Diamond Comic Distributors, for all practical purposes the nation's only comic book distribution operation, has joined the board of directors of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Other board members are Chris Staros, Peter David, Neil Gaiman, Milton Griepp, Greg Ketter, Frank Mangiaracina, Louise Nemschoff, and, the latest to join before Geppi, Paul Levitz-a stellar assembly of movers and shakers in the business. While Geppi's influence and dedication to the medium will, as he says, heighten the Fund's exposure within the business community and help with vital fund-raising activities, his advent here seems a trifle unusual: one wonders, for instance, what his position might be in a case involving a comic book that his company elected not to distribute because it assumed a moral posture Geppi disapproves of. I'm not saying such an occurrence would ever come up, but Diamond, which also publishes the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide (the industry's "bible of pricing"), already enjoys a near monopoly in many aspects of the business, and Geppi therefore wields more power than any of the others on the board.  And, as the old saw has it, power corrupts. Probably other members of the board would object strenuously if any such thing ever happened. And it probably never would. Geppi is doubtless too much of an institution in himself to stoop to such sordid  shenanigans. After more than 20 years in the business, he enjoys a reputation as a tireless enthusiast for the medium, a dedicated advocate for its growth and development, and a philanthropist of no small stature. On the CBLDF board, he will continue to work on behalf of the medium.

Finally: Since my opinions on the entire galaxy of human endeavor are constantly on display in these parts, you doubtless don't need any more of the same, but it isn't often that I'm actually grilled in print on subjects of someone else's choosing. So you might be fascinated, utterly, by the captivating modesty on display at the website of the Great Lakes Chapter of the National Cartoonists Society ( http://www.ncs-glc.com/ ), where Craig Boldman assaults me with an array of queries all his own: http://www.ncs-glc.com/GLC/rcharvey/rc001.html . The site, dubbed "the GLyph" (GL standing for "Great Lakes"), is worth a visit more than once. It is, Craig told me after I prompted him to describe it, "a visitor-friendly mix of comics-related news and features originating from the Great Lakes Chapter of NCS." At present, tourists there can find interviews with strip cartoonists Michael Jantze (The Norm) and Rob Harrell (Big Top) as well as Hy Eisman (Katzenjammer Kids and Popeye), plus a historical piece on the seminal days of Walt Disney, chapter doings, and a page of comics by chapter members. Forthcoming are an essay on E.C. Segar by Ed Black (in honor of Popeye's 75th anniversary) and an interview with strip cartooner Jef Mallett (Frazz).

Funnybook Fan Fare

In Gray Area No. 2, our deceased hero, Chance, a former New York cop, learns that he has been selected for the Gray Watch, a sort of Afterlife police department assigned to prevent souls from "going bad" in the "gray area," that vicinity neither heaven nor hell to which the majority of souls on earth are consigned because they are not worthy of the "higher plane" but not "corrupt" enough for eternal condemnation. John Romita, Jr. does the pencils and Klaus Janson the inks, and the visuals are, without quibble, crisp and deft, ranking among the best work either artist has done. At the center of the concept for this series, concocted by Romita and writer Glen Brunswick, is the notion that "everyone matters: when you care about others, you become one with the fabric of the universe and your power increases exponentially." In short, "compassion is the key to control" for a member of the Gray Watch, something that Chance, a normally quite calloused and uncaring individual, must learn. This socially oriented philosophy is startlingly Confucian, a religious practice that "stresses the relationship between individuals, their families, and society, based on li (proper behavior) and jen (sympathetic attitude)." We'll see.

            In the first two issues of Bloodhound by Dan Jolley with Leonard Kirk's pencils inked by Robin Riggs, we meet a brutish, powerfully built convict named Travis Clevenger, once a cop but now serving time for having killed his partner. Because he has a reputation for being able to run down metahumans, one of his former law enforcement colleagues recruits him to help find the stalker who, with a record of raping and murdering his victims, has his sights set on the daughter of Clevenger's deceased partner. Initially, Clevenger scornfully declines the opportunity, but during the prison riot that breaks out just as his interview is being concluded, he changes his mind. In the next issue, he gets outfitted with a tracking device (a metal collar), meets the now grown (and beautiful) daughter of his partner, and takes out a couple of questionable types whom he detects staking out his motel room. Both issues are soaked with bloody violence; and there are a couple moments when I thought Clevenger was so brutal as to be a somewhat more straight-forward version of Lobo. The books have a distinctly cinematic tinge: the storyline unravels and the action explodes just as I imagine it would were this tale to be told on the silver screen. Jolley deftly manages to keep aspects of his story and his protagonist's history hidden while at the same time dribbling out just enough information that we have a firm grasp on the main current of the narrative's flow. This is no small trick. But it's an essential one. Too many of the new books I've reviewed here recently maintain a mysterious suspense as the only device holding us as readers; the result is that we're baffled but don't know why, and we understand so little that the narrative itself seems entirely directionless. Jolley, as I said, doesn't make this mistake; he keeps us in suspense but doesn't lose us in the process. The drawing style on display is detailed linear realism with little or no shadowing-the "every wrinkle must show" school of illustration. So copiously is everything painstakingly delineated that it almost hurts to look at the artwork. Almost. But Kirk is so sure-footed and Riggs so adept with his brush that there are no visual distractions: every prop and detail is faithfully, persuasively, rendered with a line that flexes width for clarity and definition, and every composition serves the story. Oddly, it seems to me (and maybe it's just my dotage kicking in) that the beautiful women in the story are drawn in a slightly different manner than the men: their faces, for instance, are without modeling or blemish, compared to the men, whose cheekbones are feathered into existence and brows furrowed with care. And the hair on the woman FBI agent seems from a different style of drawing than Clevenger's long locks. But this peculiarity (if, in fact, it is that) is a minor matter, scarcely a distraction; and the story plunges ahead expertly.

Book Marquee

The fallout from The Complete Far Side and The Complete Peanuts is beginning to land. Having witnessed the marketplace success of such compendia, now we'll get The Complete Calvin and Hobbes next fall; The Complete New Yorker Cartoons is already in the bookstores. The book, which reprints 2,000 cartoons, also comes with two CDs that contain all 68,647 of the cartoons published between the magazine's launch in 1925 and now. What a treat for researchers and Other Interested Parties (OIP). I haven't picked up my copy yet (I ordered one from Bud Plant), but I'm eager to find out how the CDs are arranged and whether the cartoons are dated. Now that would be a real boon: we'd know, at last, which weekly issue of the magazine that Charles Addams' famous skiier cartoon appeared in. I'll let you know when I know.

            Also on my list for reviews in the future: Bernet, a lively collection of Spaniard Jodi Bernet's sketches and strips (with biographical notes thrown in) edited and published by Manuel Auad; Bernet is likely to be recognized in this country for his superb work on the noir gangster feature, Torpedo 1936 and the sexily comic one- and two-pager, Clara de Noche, published here as Betty. ... The third volume in TwoMorrows' Modern Masters series, Bruce Timm, interviews, articles, and lots of art by the minimalist master (not to mention the same publisher's stunning Hero Gets Girl: The Life and Art of Kurt Schaffenberger, and Against the Grain: Mad Artist Wallace Wood, a tantalizing title). ... The second volume of Fantagraphics' Peanuts reprint, Art Spiegelman's In the Shadow of No Towers, Bill Schelly's Words of Wonder: The Life and Times of Otto Binder, and, given the political season, a brace of editorial cartoon tomes, Wreckage Begins with W: Cartoons of the Bush Administration by Jeff Danziger, with a foreword by a former student of his, Frank Miller, and Humor's Edge: Cartoons by Ann Telnaes -these two being among the half-dozen or so genuinely thought-provoking editoonists of the times. Oh, and then there are all those graphic novels piling up. Slated for review, all of them, but, given the deluge, who knows? Thirty years ago, I bemoaned the dearth of published material about cartooning and cartoonists; now there's more coming out every month than I can keep up with.

            Meanwhile, I'm thumbing through One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw by Witold Rybczynski. Yup, there is, indeed, such a tome, and I've got a copy of it, right chere.

Under the Spreading Punditry

The first of Presidential Debate of the current season provided us with another illustration of the meaning of the word "stupified": that was the usual expression on George W. ("Whopper") Bush's face whenever interlocutor Jim Lehrer asked him a question. The reason Dubya did so poorly, as surmised by Cokie Roberts the following Sunday, was that he has not in the last three-and-a-half years faced anything but hand-picked friendly audiences. His press conferences have been rigged so that he calls only upon reporters who are likely to ask friendly, soft-ball questions. And the crowds that cheer him during his campaign stops are all assembled "by invitation only."  But for the Presidential Debate, GW was suddenly faced with a questioner who would ask thought-provoking questions (of a man who cannot think on his feet) before an audience that was forbidden any expression of approval or disapproval whatsoever. Silence. No cheering multitudes. None of his applause lines were getting applause. Talk about unsettling. The Bush Leaguers, on the other hand, were delighted with their leader's performance: at least he didn't come up completely at a loss for a response as he did during last spring's press conference when a reporter asked him if he'd ever made a mistake.

            The worst moments in the debate occurred during GW's bathetic attempt to portray himself as a compassionate leader, regaling us with the tear-jerking details of his encounter with Missy Johnson, whose husband had been killed in Iraq. All at once, Dubya put on his sad face. He shook his head in dismal frustration, signaling just how impossible it is for anyone to properly compensate another for the loss of a loved one. "This is hard work," he might've said. "Sad hard work." The man is without shame: it was so transparently a carefully rehearsed piece of stagecraft designed to show us just what a wonderfully sympathetic fella he is. And yet his 2005 budget, according to the Washington Post on October 3, proposes to cut administrative staff at the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is already so understaffed that it cannot process promptly claims for benefits from all the disabled vets of Iraq and Afghanistan. George W. ("Warlord") Bush should arrange to meet Staff Sgt. Gene Westbrook, 35, who was paralyzed in a mortar attack near Baghdad in April and still has received no disability checks because his paperwork is incomplete or missing or something. Through the end of April, only two-thirds of the 26,633 vets filing for benefits have had their paperwork processed. And it won't get better. The processing staff is what the Bush League proposes to cut in their 2005 budget. Good ol' sympathetic, compassionate heartthrob Dubya.

            But Dubya is, nonetheless, entertaining. It amuses me to see him confronting an audience and explaining his policies and actions to them by using exactly the simple, one-syllable words his handlers have used to explain to him his policies and actions, a marvelous reflection of the man's intellectual vacuity. Another of Dubya's amusing quirks is that "GTB" nod of the head with which he punctuates an utterance whenever especially pleased with himself and his response. "GTB" means "Got That Baby," and Dubya deploys this nod whenever he thinks he's done particularly well. These hilarious aspects of his performance almost compensate for having to endure his perpetual whining about how hard the work is and how obtuse anyone is who doesn't just shut up and go away when confronted by the August presence of the Commander in Chief (who, in the natural arrangement of hierarchies everywhere, knows all and deserves not to be questioned whatsoever). But the most revealing part of the evening occurred when Lehrer asked each of the two candidates to identify their opponent's most conspicuous personal shortcoming that might disqualify him for the Presidency.  Before launching a barrage of his usual dubious accusations, Bush expressed his appreciation for the help John Kerry's daughters showed his daughters in getting them accustomed to political campaigning. When it was his turn, Kerry said he was glad to have met Bush's daughters and gotten to know them a little. Bush chuckled and allowed as how he had to keep a leash on his daughters; Kerry smiled and said he'd learned not to do that. There you have it: polar opposites on the gender issue. Texas macho vs. Boston civility. In Texas, we leash our women and they, apparently, like it; in Boston, we don't dare because we know they're people, too, and they'll strike back, like any self-respecting person. Laura and Teresa to the teeth.


Civilization's Last Outpost

All the foaming frenzy about CBS's use of forged documents in the "60 Minutes" story about GW's National Guard service successfully obscured the essential facts in the piece: Dubya got into the Guard because of his father's political influence and got kid-glove treatment for the same reason. We didn't need to see documents to be convinced of these facts: anyone with half a wit knows that Big Shots get favors for their offspring. And most of the citizenry probably accepts this peculiarity of class society as a fact (albeit a vaguely sordid one) of modern life. Why be a Big Shot of you can't grant favors, particularly to your own kids? In the aftermath of Dan Rather's expose, the witnesses who testified about the documents were also able to support the contention that GW was a favored son of the privileged class. The documents were scarcely necessary: personal testimony convicted Dubya. The sad irony is that the whole enterprise was unnecessary: we all knew, from Molly Ivins' book Shrub as well as from other substantiating evidence, that Dubya was a spoiled brat of privilege whose only achievement in life before getting elected governor of Texas was as cheerleader. (A role he has been comfortable in ever since, doubling as the Republicans' Fund-Raiser-in-Chief.) So Rather got himself crucified for no reason at all.

            But CBS's performance in this instance is hardly the sole reason we no longer trust the news media. Fox TV News must bear most of the blame for our skepticism. Once a national news outlet began deliberately shading the news to favor a point-of-view and increased its viewers as a result, the stampede was on. Every news medium hankered to express a point-of-view. And finger-pointing soon prevailed: the conservative right accused the mainstream press of liberal bias, and the mainstream left accused the conservative minions of right-wing bias. Now we no longer know who to believe. In a social and political order like ours, in which the freedom of the press is so fundamental-and so frequently extolled as fundamental-to an informed body politic, this outcome is both sad and alarming. If we can't trust the news media, how are we to know what we think we know about candidates running for office?

            The political bias of the news media is not new in American public life. It ran rampant for much of the 19th century, for example. Somehow, the Republic survived. It probably will again. (Although the dispatch with which the Bush League is demolishing democracy and perverting existing law is breath-taking; I wouldn't have imagined a single band of outlaws could do such lasting damage. Maybe the Republic is in more danger than I imagine.) In this climate, the Presidential Debates on national tv assume great importance. Only in these encounters do we see the candidates naked, unshielded by their handlers and unadorned by the news media. But because all the candidates make highly questionable assertions of so-called "fact" every other paragraph or so and then flagrantly contradict each other on these matters of "fact," we don't know whether they're telling the truth either. Chances are, they are; and they aren't. Depending, entirely, on whether the truth serves their purposes or not. We must, therefore, make our choices based upon our assessment of their "personalities." And that's not new either. In fact, we can tune out huge piles of pundit pronouncement and prognostication once we accept the simplest fact about American elections: we vote for "star quality" not for political acumen. We are a nation of celebrity worshipers, and it is the celebrity of a candidate that counts highest at the polls. GW was the celebrity in the 2000 Election; Al Gore was a familiar (and therefore worn-out) face by then, no longer with the candle power of a celebrity. Now GW is the shop-worn article, and John Kerry is the fresh face, the latest celebrity. Being new is not enough to qualify as a celebrity. Michael Dukakis was new, but that wasn't enough even against the colorless George Herbert Walker Bush. And Kerry is about as colorless as Dukakis. But he is new, and his newness is being weighed in the subconsciousness of the American voter against the accumulating sordidness of Dubya's record. Dubya's colorful and likeable personality would, normally, gain him the White House again. But the magnitude of the Bush League's relentless duplicity is beginning to impinge upon their leader's celebrity, and GW's stupified whine is beginning to wear thin. Against this apparition, even the colorless Kerry will win.

            That takes care of the Presidential Election, but what about all the other elections? No debates among contestants for them, so how do we decide? And the outcomes of these are more important than who sits in the Halliburton House; the occupant of the President's Mansion (as it was once called) provides a large measure of the nation's entertainment, but he can't actually affect our lives much (or so I used to think before the advent of the Bush League; now I'm not so sure). Those who occupy the lower ranking public offices can hit us where we live. So what to do? I can think of no better course of action than the one I've been recommending for years: Vote the Rascals Out. Vote against every incumbent. This practice will keep government "fresh"; no office holder will hold the office long enough to amass any real power, and so, since power corrupts, corruption will be minimized. If no incumbent is re-elected, all the members of Congress and state legislatures and city councils will be newcomers and not very experienced. Their inexperience will prevent them from actually accomplishing anything. Through sheer inefficiency, governmental power will be drastically reduced. There will be less interference in our daily lives. As the role of government diminishes, the cost of it will likewise grow less. Taxes will be reduced, too, and the deficit will slowly evaporate. And we'll all live happily ever after.

Foxnote: I suppose I'm the sort of delinquent who enjoys it when airplanes hit those air pockets that make the aircraft drop a few dozen feet all at once: the expressions on passengers' faces are highly amusing. In much the same spirit, I enjoy watching Fox TV News every once in a while. Since its mantra is "live news," the managers of this enterprise are eager to break away from whatever interview their anchor may be conducting to cover what they call "breaking news." I've watched when they disengage from an elaborate explanation of American foreign policy by Collin Powell in order to show us "action footage" of a grade school in Tupelo where a seven-year-old has just been arrested for carrying a shotgun to school. "Live!" It's a practice that sabotages the Agenda. Just a day or so ago, the anchor cut away from a political discussion of the impending Presidential Debate because he had footage of a fire in a hotel in downtown Baghdad where a bomb had gone off. The fire-seen dimly in the distance and at night (which means you can't see anything at all to speak of)-was, in the Fox lexicon of news coverage, much more important than the impending Presidential Debate. At that moment. But the situation highlights the problem for Fox. The dilemma is: how do you satisfy your audience's presumably ravenous hunger for "action footage" while still maintaining that the violence in Iraq that we see on the tv screen is only "minor"-that, in actuality, confrontations between Iraqi forces and the vicious insurgents are infrequent and of virtually no consequence when balanced (another of Fox's mantras) against the unshown news about building roads and schools and a democratic form of government. A real predicament: Fox can't serve its political purpose (which is to downplay the violence) while serving its news dictum (which is to get action footage and show it over and over in order to increase viewership). And on tv, visuals have a rhetorical weight far in excess of the feeble words: while they're saying everything is going swimmingly in Iraq, they're showing us pictures of car bombs exploding and body parts flying. At the time I was watching (October 7), the anchor and one of his interviewees suddenly realized the contradiction inherent in their coverage and started talking at great length about how the pictures we were watching weren't an accurate picture of life in the country, which was, we were assured, just fine for millions of Iraqis. At that moment, I thought of ol' Baghdad Bob, Saddam's information minister who kept telling us about Iraqi victories while the U.S. forces were surrounding him. What a hoot. The Fox airplane just keeps hitting that air pocket, bumpity bump.


Get Fuzzy: Humanity with Wrinkles

Darby Conley's comic strip about a somewhat simple-minded and therefore sweetly good-natured dog and a conniving and therefore surly and sadistic Siamese cat is one of the newer stars in the syndicated sky. Launched September 6, 1999, Get Fuzzy won the National Cartoonists Society's Reuben division award for best comic strip of the year 2002, and at last count, it is in about 500 newspapers, a thoroughly successful number.

            The strip has been already been reincarnated in six titles by Andrews McMeel, the industry's reprint leader, and last summer, the seventh appeared, Bucky Katt's Big Book of Fun, a fat 256 page 8.5x9" "treasury" volume, combining the contents of two previous smaller tomes (Blueprint for Disaster and Are you Bucksperienced, each 128 pages) but this time printing the Sunday strips in color.

            Which of the furry duo, Bucky, the cat with the snaggle-tooth temper, or Satchel, the dog with wrinkles and a wrist watch, is the most popular with readers depends, we suppose, on whether the reader is a dog lover or a cat lover. Garfield's Jim Davis, no slouch as a feline fancier, is a fan of the strip: "I think it's hysterical," he says. "That cat has at least twice the attitude of Garfield. He's a sociopath!"

            Ominously, Get Fuzzy, like Garfield, features a cat, a dog, and a mild-mannered owner. "It never occurred to me," said Conley, 34, "that my strip had the same structure as Garfield until someone pointed it out after it was in syndication."

            The amiable pooch and the ferocious puss have an owner, the somewhat hapless Rob Wilco, but in cartoonist Conley's mind, the strip was always about the animals, not their so-called "master." And Conley exploits that ineffable aspect of the cartoon universe that convincingly lends animals human traits and abilities. In the strip, the animals walk on their hind legs and participate in conversational exchanges with Rob and other humans, and no one betrays any suspicion that this isn't altogether normal. This tactic permits the animals to display the distinct personalities that pet owners always believe their pets possess.

            Bucky and Satchel are usually depicted sitting saggy-bellied on their haunches like bean bags, and Conley's distinctive drawing mannerism indulges a fussy obsession with tiny details: every hair on Rob's head is carefully drawn, and most of these follicular manifestations are entirely untamed and stick out every which way, a mildly aggravating visual distraction. Inexplicably, given this detail fetish, Conley says one of his major influences was the Belgian adventure strip, Tintin, by Herge, a monument to clear-line simplicity. And Conley admired the drawing rather than the adventure story. Conley admitted that he began conjuring up ideas for a strip by ripping off The Far Side, but he soon realized recurring characters and story lines suited his comedic sensibility better and offered more opportunity for humor.

            He picked a Siamese cat, he said, because he likes "the white eyes popping out of the dark face" and he thinks "the little paws that look like gloves are funny."

            Although the cartoonist was without pets when he started, he now owns two cats. Or they, rather-in typical feline fashion-own him. He hoped they would help him with the comedy: "I thought I would get ideas from them, but I don't. They just sit there." Typical, for cats.

            Conley thinks his dog and cat are stereotypes of their species: "Satchel being sweet and naive and Bucky being selfish and temperamental."

            The name of the strip derives, somewhat indirectly, from a poster Conley did for his brother's rock band, the Fuzzy Sprouts, the headline of which read: "Life's too short to be cool. Get fuzzy."

            He confessed that Rob, their patient, long-suffering and "quietly sarcastic" owner, was an afterthought. "He is the straight man," Conley explained, "the vehicle that gives Bucky and Satchel context. Bucky's not nearly as funny, it turns out, unless he's annoying somebody." And Bucky, behaving in the self-centered manner of a typical cat, is almost always annoying. But it's the good-natured Satchel who gives the strip its humanity. Says Conley, reflecting an acute understanding of his strip's appeal: "If the strip was just Bucky without Satchel, I wouldn't be able to stand it."

            Conley's rendering of the affectionate canine is his most successful visual characterization, a pictorial rhetoric that gives meaning to the dog's otherwise often pointless utterances. Satchel's large eyes are full of wonder, and his down-turned mouth bespeaks a perpetual bafflement, perhaps even disappointment, at the inexplicable antics of the world around him. It's the visage of sad innocence trying to make the best of things, and it cries out for a hug.

            This collection includes the episodes in which a neighbor in Rob's apartment building brings home a pet ferret, which immediately inspires Bucky's most feral response. When Rob tells the cat to stay away from the ferret, Bucky launches into a breast-beating diatribe: "That ferret oughta be thanking the inventor of the wall, boy. If he was here right now, I'd be whipping him around like a fur slinky."

            Says Rob: "Those are pretty strong words, coming from a guy who's been mistaken for a plush toy."

            And Satchel provides the grace note: "Ha, ha, ha," he laughs gently, "-Bucky Beanie."

            But Satchel is more often likely to misunderstand what transpires around him-but to enjoy it all immensely regardless.

            Rob comes home one day to chastize Bucky for making a voodoo doll of the ferret and pushing it through the pet flap into the neighbor's apartment. "Naturally, the ferret considered it a threat," Rob goes on.

            But Bucky has another thought: "Now, see, I would consider a Bucky Doll a present! I guess it's a fine line, huh?

            Says Rob: "It's a big, fat, glow-in-the-dark line!"

            Satchel, delighted, says: "It sounds pretty."

            Among the strips in this compilation are those that involve Satchel chasing a bike rider, getting his paw caught in the wheel spokes, and going to the vet for treatment. He loses his watch in the encounter with the bicycle, but Bucky finds it and returns it to him. To reward the cat for his thoughtfulness, Rob gets a fish for him, but Bucky doesn't eat the fish right away, and after two days, he declares the fish is his "friend" and gives it a name, "Smell."

            "The fish is dead, man," says Rob.

            "Which means it will stop smelling after six months or so," says Bucky. "Relax."

            Rob finally throws the fish away, and Bucky is aghast.

            "You got rid of Smell E. Fish? But he was my friend. He was the only one in this house I could talk to! He listened to me!"

            "Bucky," says Satchel, timidly, "he wasn't-um-alive."

            "If it loves you," says Rob, "it will come back."

            Conley majored in fine arts at Amherst College, but his subsequent career as an elementary teacher seems, to him, to be more pertinent to the strip because Bucky and Satchel are like kids-and Rob is as much teacher as parent.

            The week of April 19, 2004, a more substantial reality invaded the strip briefly. Rob learns that his cousin Willie lost a leg soldiering in Iraq, and when the dismembered vet arrives in a stateside hospital, Rob goes to visit him. During the same week, Doonesbury attracted national coverage when B.D., the erstwhile football player turned coach turned  soldier, loses his leg in the same conflict. Doonesbury's Garry Trudeau was often interviewed about the episode, which, he explained, he introduced as a way of reminding his readers in 1,400 newspapers of the kinds of sacrifices being made by American military personnel. Conley, on the other hand, said nothing at the time except that he preferred the strip to speak for itself. Later, however, he spoke to Editor & Publisher's David Astor, saying that he never planned to delve into Willie's rehabilitation as much as Trudeau is doing with B.D., but Willie will reappear in the strip at some future point.

            The very fact of Willie's tragic disability was a departure for Conley, who generally refrains from all political and social commentary. He sees a mass media already clogged with opinion and doesn't want to get into that melee: Two years before the Iraq-related incident, in an interview about the tendency in many contemporary strips to crusade or castigate, Conley said: "I get annoyed by other's views I don't agree with, and I think that's how annoying my views would be to some people."

            This volume, however, includes a strip that references terrorism. Bucky announces his plan to produce a "Where's Waldo" type book entitled Where's Osama? "On the last page," Bucky explains, "a platoon of marines finds him." click to enlargeWhen Rob tells him it won't sell to kids, Bucky disagrees: "I got the images from a nintendo game."

            But the satirical thrust here seems directed more at video games than at the politically inflammatory subject of the "war on terrorism."click to enlarge

            Clearly, the situation as it emerged in Iraq by the spring of 2004 changed Conley's mind somewhat about commentary. But the Willie incident is not included in the present reprint volume. Nor has therebeen any notable repetition of such pointed social commentary since the spring of 2004. Instead of edgy satire, we have Satchel's implacable albeit wrinkled humanity, overwhelming Bucky's nastiness through simple ignorance-that is, by ignoring the intimidation.

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