Interviewed at the Vegas Valley Book Festival October
Comedy Central's new adult animated cartoon series, "Shorties Watchin' Shorties," may be the first to make product placement an integral part of the entertainment. Cartoon characters have long been used to tout products, but the products haven't been embedded in televised storylines before. The maneuver, according to Stuart Elliott in Advertising, "is becoming increasingly popular as marketers seek alternative ways to reach consumers who can easily avoid traditional commercials by zapping them with remote controls or digital video recorders." So it's all our fault, eh? Some folks object to this innovation, anticipating, angrily, the day when all programming is nothing but commercial advertising. I'm a little wary of it myself; but some advertising, notably on the Super Bowl every year, is better than the sort of "entertainment" programming we're expected to watch. One of the products to be placed in "Shorties" is a pizza from Domino's, whose marketing officer, Ken Calwell, says the placement must be done "tongue in cheek: you're being so obvious about it, you're having some fun with it. If it's done creatively, with a wink and a smile, it works better." Sure. Still, there's something inherently dishonest, even sleazy, about sticking products for sale up as part of the entertainment being offered. One of Comedy Central's stars said he was "not a big fan" of branding entertainment in this manner. Said Jon Stewart, host of "The Daily Show": "I think commercials are commercials and should be labeled as such." And Stewart is much attended to these days. As a guest recently on CNN's "Crossfire," he astonished everyone by abandoning his goofy humor to express withering contempt for the hosts, Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson, saying they were partisan hacks whose "pro-wrestling" approach to political discourse was "hurting America." Returning to the subject later on his own show, Stewart twitted the duo again, saying: "They said I wasn't being funny. And I said to them-I know that, but tomorrow, I'll go back to being funny, and your show will still blow."
Bagatelles. In Sweden last month, a couple wanted to christen their newborn son Superman because when he was born one
of his arms was pointing upwards, approximating the position Superman
flies in. Understandably, local tax authorities, who, apparently, have
the final say in such matters way up north, nixed the notion, saying
the name could lead to the boy's being ridiculed all his life. An appellate
court upheld the decision. ... At the Festival of Comic Art at OSU last
weekend, Jeff Smith told me he has the Captain Marvel story for DC all storyboarded
out. ... By way of celebrating the 50th anniversary of Hi and Lois, a new tome is a-borning, Hi and Lois: Sunday Best, the first full-color
reprinting of the feature: it includes a sampling of strips from the
early years but concentrates, as I understand it, on the last eight
years or so. The color is brilliant, my spies tell me, and the selection
of strips reminds us of how often and to what pleasant effect landscapes
decorate the Sunday edition of the strip; should be out next month.
... NEA's annual Christmas strip, which the syndicate has offered every
year since 1937, deploys a different strip and cartoonist every year,
and this year, it's Spot the Frog, a strip about a frog and
his human landlord, rendered in a style of painful simplicity by Mark Heath. Starting November 29 and ending
on Christmas Day, this year's seasonal saga concerns Spot's effort to
discover if his landlord, Karl, who has grown a beard, is really Santa
Claus. ... Disney has abandoned all of its retail outlets except the
ones on the lot at
Breman Jewish Heritage Museum opens on October 24 an exhibit of original
comic book art celebrating "The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic
Books, 1938-1950," curated by Jerry
Robinson. The exhibit runs through August 28 and offers "rare,
never-before-exhibited original comic book art, vintage comic books,
1940s Hollywood movie serials, video interviews with some of the first
comic book artists and writers, and superhero memorabilia" plus
interactive stations for kids. In the same issue of the Breman newsletter
announcing this show is an article noting a little-advertised anniversary-the
350th anniversary of the arrival on these shores of the first
Jewish immigrants, September 1654, when 23 penniless refugees from
secret origin of Harvey Pekar
will be covered in Pekar's next graphic novel, The
Quitter, which deals with the cantankerous Clevelander's childhood
and early adolescence; due out next fall from DC's Vertigo imprint.
The book will be illustrated by Dean
Haspiel, one of the earliest of Pekar's illustrators, who professed
surprise at how violent Pekar was in his youth: "Nobody really
knows this, but
Garry Trudeau included URLs in a recent Doonesbury
sequence (October 11-16), sending readers to Websites where conservatives
pointed at Dubya's clay feet. One of the sites was so deluged with visitors
it shut down briefly, but the scheme otherwise seemed to have worked
to introduce reasonable conservative thought to the masses. Meanwhile,
over at a more conservative-leaning strip, Scott
Stantis' Prickly City,
readers had a less happy Internet experience. Launched in July, the
strip, which features a winsome little girl, Carmen, who lives in the
Elsewhere: over at Bruce Tinsley's Mallard Fillmore, a strip with a fowl conservative point-of-view, the title character, a duck, was taking a fiendish delight in Dan Rather's recent misfortunes, mustering a caricature of the CBS anchor to say, "I'd like to clear the air and say the memos are, indeed, fakes ... made by evil Bush operatives to make me look bad." Tinsley also takes a jab at Peter Jennings, who is made to say that ABC had planned "a hard-hitting, critical look at the whole CBS-Dan Rather mess, but then CBS might start doing stories about our mistakes. So instead, we bring you the third installment in our series, 'Does your pet watch too much television?'" Fillmore, which was invented to provide newspapers with a conservative alternative to Doonesbury, is more expert at name-calling and mud-slinging than it is at character portrayal. Even Tinsley admits that the Rather sequence is "piling on," but he nonetheless enjoyed the opportunity to mock a medium in which almost no one is willing to admit to liberal bias.
again, of Trudeau, he made
a rare public appearance on September 21 at
Princeton Historical Society hosted (October 24) an illustrated talk
about American political cartooning
by Georgia Barnhill, who used cartoons from the presidential campaigns
of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harris, Abraham Lincoln
and Ulysses S. Grant to demonstrate that contentious political campaigns
are nothing new in this country. During
Civilization's Last Outpost
Okay, some stand-up comedienne on tv's "The Last Comic Standing" found the solution to the financial problems of Social Security and Medicare: dipping into the Social Security trust fund (where all the surplus income is presently kept), just give everyone $1 million when they reach the age of 65. They can put the money in the bank and live on the interest, which ought to be sufficient, also, to cover most medical bills. And, yes, she assured us, there's enough money in the trust fund to activate this scheme immediately. Sounds good to me. Wish I had made note of the woman's name: she's a pragmatic genius who oughta be elected President.
The Checker Publishing Group has produced the first
volume of its proposed multi-volume reprinting of Alex Raymond's classic Flash
Gordon, and it's a handsome piece of work: about 90 9x12-inch pages
in color, hardcover for $14.95. The relatively low price tag may be
a factor of the source material used: judging from various evidences
(such as slightly off-register color here and there), Checker used the
Kitchen Sink Press Flash Gordon volume, reproducing its pages
nearly exactly. Moreover, the Checker book isn't quite as compendious
as the KSP tome: both begin at the beginning (January 7, 1934), but
Checker stops with
OF COMIC ART IN
Jay Lynch, one-time underground cartoonist and all-time humorist, was explaining the metaphysical significance of digital vs. traditional watches. I had just complained that many of today's school kids don't know how to tell time with a traditional watch: the hands that sweep around the face of the watch leave them dizzy and baffled. Lynch nodded in agreement, and then went on to observe that there was much more of import in the phenomenon: "With a traditional watch," he said, "you look at the hands on the watch's face and say, 'It's a quarter of seven.' With a digital watch, you read the numerical display and say, 'Six-forty-five.' Telling time with a traditional watch makes you look forward-to . With a digital watch, you're always looking backward-to . You're living in the past. This can't help but have an effect on the way you think about everything and will, over time, have a profound effect on civilization as we know it ...." Lynch broke off his explanation and grinned at the satiric joke of it, his teeth flashing briefly between his gray moustache and his gray beard. Conversation with Lynch is laced with observations of this ilk: his humor is satiric but quietly thoughtful, the comedy a sly wink at the follies around him.
We were having breakfast with Lucy Caswell, curator of the Cartoon Research Library at Ohio State University, on the morning after the conclusion of the October 15-16 triennial Festival of Cartoon Art, a two-day symposium on cartooning that Caswell had successfully engineered for the eighth time since the founding of the CRL. Lynch had been one of the fourteen speakers at this year's Festival, and we were shortly joined by two others-Art Spiegelman and Nicole Hollander.
Spiegelman, now that I have thought about it, was just emerging from a tortured couple of years dominated by the Past: he had spent much of that time reacting in comix to the 9/11 horror in Lower Manhattan, and with the publication of those pages in book form, In the Shadow of No Towers, he might be on the threshold of rejoining the Present. In the fall of 2002, he had declined to renew his contract as writer and artist at The New Yorker, saying that in his unhinged state of mind, he no longer found the magazine sufficiently iconoclastic: in the aftermath of 9/11, Spiegelman felt "the sky was falling," but The New Yorker, like the rest of American media, was trying to take things in stride. "It's insanely timid," he said. At the time, David Remnick, editor of the venerable weekly, said Spiegelman's contributions would continue to be welcome even if he weren't a contract talent. And just a month before this fall's Festival, a two-page comic strip by Spiegelman appeared in The New Yorker, depicting, with alarm and horror, the cartoonist's experience of the Republican Party's convention in his home town. Spiegelman is re-entering the world.
Almost the first thing he said to me when we ran into each other at the Festival's Gillray exhibit was that the cover on the magazine's current October 18 issue was by his wife, New Yorker art editor Francoise Mouly. His pride in his wife's achievement was palpable as he described it: against a rendering of the American flag she imposed a gray silhouette of the hooded and wired Iraqi whose image has come to stand for the disgrace of Abu Ghraib. She titled it "A Shadow Over the Election." It was Francoise, Spiegelman later explained, who convinced him to use black-on-black on The New Yorker's first post-9/11 cover to depict the twin towers of the World Trade Center that were no longer there. "I would have been much shriller," he said. That stunning image is replicated on the cover of No Towers.
Spiegelman's No Towers is without competition the year's most peculiar book. Its giant 10x14-inch page dimension is matched by the gauge of the pages: almost a sixteenth of an inch thick, the pages are boards rather than paper, and the volume feels more like a plank than a book. Only 20 of the tome's 40 pages are Spiegelman's comix: of the remaining 20, 14 are devoted to reprinting turn-of-the-19th-century Sunday comic strips, and 4 more present two essays by Spiegelman. In the second, introducing the vintage comics from the early 1900s, he reviews the history of the newspaper comic supplement. In the first, an introduction to the volume, Spiegelman discusses his experience of the disaster of September 11, 2001, and traces the history of his evolution of the ten Sunday-sized comic strip pages he produced by way of coming to grips with the tragedy. These comix are intensely personal and reflect, in subject and design, the confused but fierce desperation of a creative intelligence seeking to express the fear, frustration, anger, disbelief, paranoia, disillusionment and outrage aroused by the events of that terrible day and the weeks and months that followed. Parental anxiety mixes with political angst on these pages as the cartoonist recounts, first, his actions on that day and then his reaction to his government's responses.
Interviewed by Claudia Dreifus at the New York Times, Spiegelman said that the thing that surprised him most about that ghastly day was "how vulnerable New York-and by extension, all of Western Civilization-is. I took my city, and those homely, arrogant towers, for granted. It's actually all as transient and ephemeral as, say, old newspapers. Afterwards," he finished, "our government reduced a tragic event with so many ramifications down to a mere war-recruitment poster." These ideas, and many related others, find expression in No Towers.
Spiegelman's studio and apartment are in Manhattan's Soho district, just a handful of blocks north of the World Trade Center. When the Towers were attacked, he and his wife thought immediately of their daughter, Nadja, who was attending a school even closer to the disaster site. They find her at last (but not until after three panicky pages of comix), and as they leave the area, they witness the collapse of the second Tower. Glancing back at the sound of the collapse, Spiegelman sees the Tower as a glowing, burning architectural skeleton of itself-an image, he assures us, "that didn't get photographed or videotaped into public memory but still remains burned onto the inside of my eyelids several years later." This image, the incandescent bones of the building, recurs throughout Spiegelman's comix, beginning on the very first page, accompanied by the caption: "In our last episode, as you might remember, the world ended. ..."
But Spiegelman's ten-page epic is not exclusively a straight-forward narrative of his day that September 11 or of any of the days that followed. He chose the Sunday comics format because each page of the Sunday funnies, customarily, presents several comic strips, the work of several cartoonists, each in his individual style-in short, a "collage" of comics. And that suited his purpose perfectly, as he explains in his Introduction: "I wanted to sort out the fragments of what I'd experienced from the media images that threatened to engulf what I actually saw, and the collagelike nature of a newspaper page encouraged my impulse to juxtapose my fragmentary thoughts in different styles." Each of the ten comix pages he produced offers two or three "strips," each in a different style on a different topic-providing a varying perspectives on the events being recounted-accompanied by other, complementary imagery: political cartoons, trading cards, seeming photographs, even a Norman Rockwell painting (fraught with menace, a picture of an Arab terrorist facing a glowering George Bush, both armed and ready). The collage is a pastiche of emotions and graphic techniques. In some of the strips, Spiegelman appears in his Maus guise, evoking in picture and words his Pulitzer-winning graphic novel about his parents' survival of Auschwitz as an analog to his own experience of raining death on September 11. In other strips, Spiegelman is merely a caricature of himself, screaming that the sky is falling. To depict himself and his wife as he works through his obsessive conspiracy-detection phase, he resorts to the conflict-laden domesticity of Jiggs and Maggie, aping George McManus' distinctive way of rendering his classic Bringing Up Father. The Katzenjammer Kids show up as "the Tower Twins" with skyscrapers sprouting out of the tops of their heads.
Although he began the project half-convinced that he would not live to see it through to completion, by the time he reached the fourth page (which he produced during the weeks just before and after the first anniversary of 9/11), his focus had widened to include shock and awe at the Bush League's rapid employment of the tragedy to support the war without end that it launched before the toxic dust had settled in Ground Zero. The next couple of pages end with a panel that evokes Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland -in which Little Artie Maus falls out of bed, awakening from the nightmare of that page to discover the nightmare is real. In another concluding panel, Spiegelman reproduces George Herriman's Krazy Kat, strumming his banjo as he sings, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose"; and Artie Ignatz Maus, holding a brick in the shape of one of the Twin Towers, says: "I thought I'd lose my life on 9/11 ... I lost my mind soon after, and lost my last speck of faith in the U.S.A. when this cabal took over-I guess this really is the land of the free!" Here we have in an emblematic nutshell Spiegelman's entire undertaking-a reflecting, refracting and layered logic that turns inward on itself and self-destructs, just as "freedom" does when everything is "lost."
Each of the ten pages, double-trucks turned sideways and lying flat without an intervening gutter, is a rhetorical unit: the chaotic shards of emotions, thoughts, and fears scattering across the surface of every page achieve a kind of thematic unity subsumed under the page's dominant image. The first page evokes the dreaded menace of what may come next, after the Towers have fallen; the image is the "other shoe" that we are all waiting to drop. A two-tier strip provides a comical big-nosed vaudevillian "history" of the origin of the expression "dropping the other shoe." And at the bottom of the page within an immense circular shape, we see a terror-stricken mob running down the street as a giant shoe falls from the sky above. The theme of the next page is the collapsing Towers and the emerging threat of our own government. The third page details the rescue of Nadja but also questions the reliability of a government that lies about the quality of the air in Lower Manhattan. The fourth page is devoted to memories, snapshots of the events at Nadja's school, but the uppermost panel reminds us that the Bush League has hijacked the terror and put our fear to use in the service of a neo-conservative agenda. Here caricatures of Bush and Cheney ride a giant eagle, yelling "Let's roll!" as Cheney slits the bird's throat with a box cutter. The fifth page ignores the government's hijacking of our national grief and despair but sounds the alarm about the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq. By the last page, Spiegelman has dealt with the rootlessness this calamitous attack created, the divisiveness of the political reaction, the topsy-turvy results of Bush policies, the paranoia that fear engenders, the win-loss mentality infecting our culture (as Bush "wages war and wars on wages" in Spiegleman's carefully crafted phrase), and the displacement of our concerns by petty interests. On the last page, the falling shoe returns as Spiegelman depicts another street scene filled with mice and old-time comic characters, fleeing in frantic desperation as the sky rains cowboy boots on the eve of the Republican Convention in New York. With this deft deployment of his opening symbol, the cartoonist summarizes the saga of the transfer of his anger and horror at the terrorist attack to anger and disgust at the machinations of the Bush Administration, as neat a trick of literary legerdemain as any novelist or poet has performed.
While the heavily freighted imagery of Spiegelman's comix is a challenge to decode, the lamination onto it of souvenirs of a bygone comics age is even more difficult to comprehend. Why include reprints of vintage comics? Partly, this cultural detritus doubles the size of the volume, thereby making a book of what would otherwise be a pamphlet. But Spiegelman says he turned to old comics pages as others turned to poetry for comfort in a world that seemed about to disintegrate. "The only culture that was useful to me personally," he said, "was the comics culture." Thematically, the old comics became a new kind of World Trade Center: the twin Towers, once concrete and permanent, had disappeared and become ephemeral-first, skeletal images of themselves, then nothing; the old comics, the ephemera of another age, rose in Spiegelman's consciousness as more lasting, more permanent-more concrete-than the Towers. Explaining some of his devices during his presentation at the Festival, Spiegelman said that the comics of 1900 are today a "snapshot" of the life of that era. Moreover, they still work as comics. "Nothing changes," he said. And from this realization, he derived a renewed sense of purpose as a creative personality. The world had not ended after all: the vintage comics at the end of the book are the volume's "second tower," he said: together, the two sections of the book take the place of the Towers that have disappeared. Thus, in the shadow of "no towers," we find old snapshots of another time, foreshadowing evidence that life will go on.
I arrived at this conclusion with the considerable aid of the artist himself, whose explanations, both in the book and in the Festival presentation, augmented the imagery and the form of his comix creation, giving it a meaning and a significance that I had difficulty discerning unassisted from the content itself. Spiegelman is one of the most deliberate craftsmen in the medium; every picture he makes is formed through conscious decision. There are, seemingly, no accidents. Oh, a line here or there may drop into place in a serendipitous fashion without deliberate intent, but every image and every composition is a thoroughly thought-out, consciously wrought achievement. And Spiegelman, a dedicated formalist, often produces work that is embedded with design complexities that are obscure to the point of invisibility. Among the images he displayed during his talk was a page from Maus in which he depicted himself at the drawingboard while contemplating the commercial possibilities of the book; a large panel at the bottom of the page shows that his drawingboard is perched on a heap of mouse corpses, the "survivors" of Auschwitz. Spiegelman pointed out that the fragmentary shadow lurking in the corners of the page's panels traced the tilted shape of the Nazi swastika. Without his suggestion, I doubt that anyone would have seen it, a grace note underscoring the irony of achieving fame and fortune over the dead bodies of the century's most despicable act. Similarly, when he said that in designing his No Towers pages he employed a layout that "fell" down the page "like the crumbling Towers" of the WTC, I suspect no one could have determined that for himself without Spiegelman's help: his No Towers pages are not noticeably different in layout from any page of Sunday comics these days, even with the occasionally overlapping images. But however obscure such devices may be to us, they lend layers of meaning to the work for its maker, inspiriting and energizing his effort, making the creation possible. And for that, we must be thankful even if we cannot see, for ourselves, unaided, the significance of these subtle presences: they probably did more than we can say to bring Spiegelman back to cartooning.
By his own admission, he had, for ten years, been loitering in the comfortable lounge of The New Yorker. "I'd spent much of the decade before the millennium trying to avoid making comix," he writes in his Introduction to No Towers. "I'd gotten used to channeling my modest skills into writing essays and drawing covers for The New Yorker. Like some farmer being paid to not grow wheat, I reaped the greater rewards that came from letting my aptitude for combining the two disciplines lie fallow." But on the morning of the disaster, he vowed to return to making comix full-time "despite the fact that comix can be so damn labor intensive that one has to assume that one will live forever to make them." No Towers is pretty clearly his way of answering the question: What does a cartoonist do about 9/11? And given Spiegelman's intellectualizing of the artform, No Towers is a sometimes overwrought, mentally belabored answer to the question. It is, however, an answer. Spiegelman's explanations of his work are always almost as ingenious as the work itself. And because his artistry is so deliberate, so conscious, he can explain every image and its place on every page. Indeed, his explanations are part of the work, adding layers of meaning that only the artist could be aware of, but demonstrating, at the same time, how complex comics can be. Just as there is more in a James Joyce novel than any single reading can hope to discern, so is there more in a Spiegelman comic strip. And much of it, like a Joycean allusion, is there to be discovered only by repeated attempts to unearth meaning by persons to whom Spiegelman's imagery has the same significance as it has for the artist as a middle-aged man.
Spiegelman was the final speaker in this year's Festival; Nicole Hollander had been the first. With the thematic heading "Deletions, Omissions and Erasures," this year's Festival was about censorship, including self-censorship as well as editorial control-a topic right off the front pages of everyone's hometown newspaper these days. It may be that we live in a more vociferous age, or maybe it's simply that a polarized populace is more easily inflamed than in times of yore. Whatever the case, newspaper readers seem to be outraged more than ever by editorial cartoons and, even, comic strips. And newspaper editors, in their confused groping for ways to stem the ebbing of their readership, seem to be asking for trouble: they install "edgy" comic strips on their funnies pages in the hopes such works will attract younger readers, but then, when the edgy strips offend older readers (and most newspaper readership skews older), the editors fall allover themselves to apologize, and then begin to scrutinize their product with censorious eyes. I work myself up to a fine froth on this topic in an article for the Notebook newsletter of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, which can be viewed at www.editorialcartoonists.com. The differing sensibilities among generations are only part of the circumstance: the so-called culture wars, pitting the moralistic right against the licentious left, also foster censorship. Just a few days before the Festival, NASCAR racer Dale Earnhardt Jr. was fined $10,000 for uttering, in his exuberant victory interview, a certain four-letter word on national tv. His slip was scarcely in the same category as Janet Jackson's exploding bodice, but it was no doubt a moral affront to the same audience that is outraged by nudity in any form.
Spiegelman's connection to this Festival's theme is, doubtless, his contention that the news media were going along with the Bush League in the frantic weeks and menacing months after 9/11, to such an enthusiastic extent that they suppressed virtually all deviating views in a fervor of a grand and over-arching patriotism. I'm tempted, as a nearly unrelated aside, to note that Spiegelman himself was "censored" in his presentation. A two-pack-a-day cigarette smoker, Spiegelman breathes nicotine and tars. And he accepts speaking engagements only if he is permitted to smoke as he talks. The Festival's meeting facility, however, is a "smoke free" environment, so Lucy Caswell arranged for Spiegelman's presentation to take place outside on a terrace at the back of the Blackwell Conference Hotel-under a tentlike awning that had been erected for the purpose. For Spiegelman's show, we would all troop outside and take seats under the canvas. Alas, by mid-afternoon on the day of his presentation, the weather had turned inhospitable: it was cold, somewhat rainy, and even little windy. Faced with this situation, the cartoonist graciously consented to give up smoking for the hour that it took him to make his presentation inside the hotel. We could sit back in toasty-warm comfort while he feverishly chewed some sort of vile "nicotran" gum and ran through the sequence of his slides. It didn't seem to me that his presentation suffered at all from his privation, but Spiegelman said he could have done it in forty-five minutes if he'd been smoking.
Nicole Hollander, whose comic strip Sylvia has been wholly unabashed with its social commentary since syndication in 1980, talked with the weary exasperation of a frequent victim of censorship when she observed, at the opening session on Friday morning, that a syndicated cartoonist can be censored without even knowing it. A newspaper can drop Sylvia on a given day for using some allegedly offensive word or for presenting an unpopular opinion, and Hollander might never know that her strip has been dropped that day-unless a faithful reader tells her. Phantom censorship. Print and broadcast media have different standards about what is permissible and what isn't, she said. Back in the old days when giants walked the earth, the press barons like William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, and Joe Patterson could approve something for publication, and that was the end of the discussion. There's no longer anything like that, she said. Today's newspaper editors are cautious in the extreme. "They would like things to be as quiet as possible," Hollander said. And the comics "are like another world," a world completely different from the world on the front pages of the same newspapers that publish them. It's a world, she continued, "where 'Oh, my God' can't be uttered-a world like Laura Bush makes for her husband," she finished with a wicked grin. Showing a succession of Sylvia strips that had inspired alarm among editors, Hollander came to a particularly caustic example in which Sylvia observes that "you can't have an abortion because a doctor's life may be in danger." Hollander told of another strip in which, during a discussion of artificial insemination, the words "sperm" and "infertility" were used. An officious editor was alarmed about the potential the strip had for inspiring outrage among readers and phoned the cartoonist, wondering if she would consider, in the interests of heading off complaint, removing one of the two words. The mind boggles. Just one of the two inflammatory words? Which one would be better, do you suppose? Concluding, Hollander sighed: "I hope for the best," she said, "but we've lost a great deal."
The second speaker was Tom Batiuk, who, in his two syndicated newspaper strips, Funky Winkerbean and Crankshaft, often tells realistic stories that deal with social and human issues like teen pregnancy, breast cancer, alcoholism, suicide, capital punishment, aging, and illiteracy. Batiuk, not surprisingly, agreed with Hollander. "Newspapers' main goal is not to get angry letters," he announced, a telling indictment of today's journalistic enterprise. He then listed the Top Ten things that, judging from recent history, need to be censored: 10) Garry Trudeau; 9) Any kind of change; 8) Anything that isn't a joke; 7) Anything that's too successful; 6) Anything that approaches mature, adult thought; 5) Anything that might make readers think; 4) "Whatever you do," Batiuk enjoined, "don't tell your readers what you think"; 3) Anything about God; 2) Any sort of political discussion; and, finally, the top of the Top Ten, the Number One thing that needs to be censored, "the Truth." Don't tell the truth. And don't, by the same token, create characters and be true to them.
Batiuk was followed by Al Feldstein, who, with EC publisher Bill Gaines, created a line of horror comic books in the early 1950s and then edited Mad for almost thirty years. Feldstein fit into the mosaic of censorship because of EC's pivotal role in Fredric Wertham's campaign to destroy all crime and horror comic books. Wertham failed to achieve that goal, but his efforts resulted, eventually, in the institution of the Comics Code Authority of 1954, a now notorious industry effort to censor itself. Over the years at various convention presentations, Feldstein has taken unto himself a more and more central role in the creation of the comic book industry's most innovative line of comics. It was he, he told us, who prompted Gaines to launch a series of horror titles (Tales from the Crypt, the Vault of Horror, the Haunt of Fear). He allowed as how Gaines was responsible for the EC science-fiction titles, but it was he, Feldstein, who suggested that Harvey Kurtzman be assigned to create an adult humor comic book, Mad. But Feldstein also reaffirmed the reason for Mad's conversion to magazine format. As a magazine, Mad wasn't subjected to the Code's strictures-an undeniably fortuitous outcome-but that wasn't the reason for the comic book's conversion to a magazine. When Kurtzman threatened to leave EC for a job with Pageant magazine because he wanted to do more sophisticated satire than the four-color comic book would permit, Gaines let him transform the comic book to a "slick" magazine in order to keep him. Kurtzman left anyway, a few issues later, and joined Hugh Hefner in producing a slick magazine of satire, Trump.
Playboy's cartoon editor was next on the roster. Michelle Urry, her luxurious dark hair falling over her left eye in her trademark do, showed slides of the magazine's cartoons to illustrate how Playboy had handled topics that might outrage readers. While she spoke somewhat scornfully about editors who think they must decide what the public must be protected from, she also clearly knew which topics were the most controversial. Urry read from a prepared text to which she attended so studiously that she didn't notice until very late in the presentation that all the slides had been loaded into the projector backwards. We could see the pictures but couldn't read the captions. Urry, however, didn't seem at all flustered by this compared to her evident unease if she suspected someone in the audience was not paying strict attention to her remarks. If someone coughed or leaned over to comment to a neighbor, Urry seemed aware of it and often commented on it, usually in a humorous way. That seemed odd to me: she is a good-looking woman and seemed otherwise poised and completely at ease. During the question period after her presentation, the inevitable happened: asked how long she'd been cartoon editor at Playboy, Urry smiled sweetly and said, "Longer than I'm going to admit." (At least twenty-five years that I know of by personal experience; probably closer to thirty-five or forty years. Gentlemen don't tell, I know; but, then, I'm just a typist making no pretense at being a gentleman.)
Charles Brownstein, director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund since 2002, discussed the history of censorship in comics by noting the three crises that had plagued (and shaped) the medium. The first was in the 1950s-the institution of the self-censoring Comics Code. Next came the underground comix of the late 1960s. And, finally, the adult-content comic books of the mid-1980s -not porn but comics with mature storylines in the manner of Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's Watchmen. Works like these resulted in a continuing threat to comic book shops because their content is not aimed at juvenile readers. Brownstein closed with the mantra, "It's a medium, not a genre." A genre, like children's literature, may employ a medium, like books; but the medium, books, does not always and exclusively address young readers. Ditto comic books.
In this atmosphere of liberalism, Michael Ramirez, the conservative-leaning editorial cartoonist at the Los Angeles Times, might have felt uncomfortable, but if he did, he didn't show it. A past president of the AAEC and a Pulitzer winner (1994), Ramirez was the first unabashed political opinion monger in the docket, and he described himself and his brethren by saying, "We get paid to be obnoxious." He admitted that there were two sides to every issue-"My side and the wrong side"-but insisted that his political affiliation was bipartisan: "I'm a member of the anti-Stupid Party," he said with a smile.
We finished the first day with a feast of James Gillray, the 18th century British cartoonist. First, a presentation, "A Genius on the Edge: James Gillray," by an Australian with a neatly clipped British accent, Cindy McCreery, who spoke charmingly but rapidly. I think women with British accents are nearly irresistible, but, sadly, my hearing aids are attuned to a different frequency and I could comprehend almost nothing of what McCreery said. After her presentation, we all went to the OSU library for refreshments and a display of Gillray prints. Then many of us went to the Thurber House for another display (Ohio editorial cartoonists) and more refreshments. Upholstered, now, with enough nourishment to last the rest of the evening, cartooner Jim Whiting and I and Carl Nelson, a good guy to have around anytime anywhere, visited the Book Loft in Columbus' German Village and bought books at discounted prices.
Jay Lynch started the next day off with stories about his various adventures at the cutting edge of the underground comix movement of the sixties and seventies. Comix, he observed, came into being as an otherwise unexpressed protest against the Comics Code. None of his compatriots wanted to work under the blanderizing influence of the Code, so they took to the streets with their deliberately outrageous assaults on conventional mores-comic books about drugs and sex. Lynch's recounting of this history was insightful and entirely accurate, citing actual dates with aplomb. His own comix forays began at a very early age with hectograph and mimeograph publications; you can find some of his history and that of comix generally retailed in a book of mine, The Art of the Comic Book (which is previewed here). Lynch began a career as a satirist while still a teenager, and he told us about some of his efforts, undertakings that most people would describe as "pranks" rather than "satire." I prefer satire. Like the time he extolled in one of his publications the euphoric-inducing qualities of smoking dog poop. The satire was clearly directed at people who smoked all manner of mind-bending substances (some of which is even termed "shit," you'll recall), but Lynch said one of his readers was so persuaded that he actually tried smoking dog turds and was able, afterwards, to recommend the experience highly. Later, recalling his connection with Harvey Kurtzman at Kurtzman's Help, Lynch opined that he has become persuaded that all American culture after 1950 originated at 225 Lafayette Street, the offices of EC Comics and, later, Mad. Given that most Americans, at one time in their lives or another, read Mad, I agree with Lynch. Kurtzman's influence has been pervasive, and that influence began at EC.
Bob Levin, a lawyer and author of the Fantagraphics book, The Pirates and the Mouse: Disney's War against the Underground (270 6x9-inch pages in hardcover, $24; www.fantagraphics.com), discussed the legal battle between Disney and the underground cartoonists known as the Air Pirates, who produced blasphemous versions of Mickey and Minnie and the rest of the Disney menagerie as the thin edge of a wedge to dislocate American culture by attacking it at its source. Levin said he was drawn into the book project by an interest in obscure comics-related topics, and once into the Air Pirates, he was fascinated by the ramifications of the case. Corporate control of image, he observed, has become, in recent years, a hot button item. The question of copyright has absorbed the attentions of many an attorney lately, pitting the sanctity of copyright against the exchange of ideas that is vital to a free society with capitalism as its economic base. How long should a copyright prevent the unlicensed use of a created artifact? Disney, seeking to hold onto Mickey Mouse as a corporate symbol, successfully lobbied Congress to extend the life of a copyright for decades beyond the death of the originator. (Seventy-five years, as I recall.) Opponents note that the extension perverts the original intent of the Constitutional provision for copyright, which was to assure for a "limited time" that inventors and creators realize a reasonable financial return for their creativity. The notion of "fair use" included in the copyright law permits some use of copyrighted material by those who do not hold the copyright-provided, and this seems key, that the market value of the copyrighted item is not affected. This proviso surfaces again in questions about the use of copyrighted material in parody. A parody can't work without using the material being ridiculed, so the question of what is permissible revolves around the intent of the parodist: if the use of a substantial portion of copyrighted material has as its object diminishing the market value of the copyrighted material, it is illegal. And why else would a parodist ridicule something except to reduce its appeal (i.e., its market value)? Hence, the predicament. Levin didn't solve it, but he referred to a recent book discussing this dilemma, Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity, by Lawrence Lessig, the attorney who argued against extending the life of a copyright before the Supreme Court. And lost.
One morning as we stood holding sweet rolls and coffee cups, Levin told me that the astonishing thing about his book is how many of the Air Pirates comix were printed therein-the very artifacts that Disney had succeeded in banning forever from print. He's waiting, he said, to see how it will all play out.
Dan Perkins, known to most of the civilized and uncivilized world as "Tom Tomorrow," presented "Life in This Modern World," slides of his strip by that name. Alas, he, like McCreery, read rapidly from a prepared text, and his low and seductive tone, while suitable to ironic commentary, was nearly incomprehensible to my aided ears. Next, Lalo Alcaraz, whose varied career as a satiric humorist includes stand-up routines, publishing, and editorial cartooning for the L.A. Weekly as well as his current syndicated strip, La Cucaracha, presented a series of overheads about his strip and his editoons. The strip, a deliberate affront to bigotry about (and by) Latino America, has enjoyed some of the celebrity The Boondocks enjoys but not, yet, its circulation. (Andrews McMeel has just produced a reprint of the first year of the strip that includes an Introduction by yrs trly, which appears, by way of review, down the never-ending page of this installment of Rancid Raves; scroll down to see it.) For his presentation, Alcaraz assumed a stage persona as a cartoonist somewhat baffled by the eccentricities of newspaper editors who, on the one hand, want his edgy strip but, on the other hand, shudder whenever it gets edgy.
Ann Telnaes, another Pulitzer-winning editoonist (and only the second woman of the profession to be so honored), showed slides of her work with minimum accompanying commentary: her stance, probably, is that the work should speak for itself. And the work is notable, as I've said here many times before, because she so often speaks to issues few other editorial cartoonists attend to-women's concerns, for instance, particularly as they surface in Arab countries, where women have few rights. Telnaes is utterly outspoken: without a home paper, she gets into print solely by syndication, which means no one edits her. Her cartoons are simply put "out there"; and if an editor somewhere objects to what she says, he doesn't publish the cartoons that say it. Threatened, recently, with violence by an e-mailer, Telnaes was subsequently gratified to learn that she was supported by even some of those who disagreed with her, who wrote to urge her to continue doing what she was doing. Trained in animation, Telnaes produces cartoons in a drawing style completely foreign to the usual in the medium, and her work is distinguished by a stunning design sense. Her cartoons were recently exhibited at the Library of Congress, and a book, Humor's Edge (144 8x8-inch pages in paperback, some in color; Pomegranate, $24.95), resulted; I'll be reviewing it here next month.
The last speaker before Spiegelman was Joel Pett, Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist at the Lexington Herald-Leader, former president of AAEC and a board member of the international human rights organization, Cartoonists Rights Network (CRN). Pett spoke about the precarious professional status of political cartoonists in other countries, mostly Third World countries, where an outspoken editoonist is as likely to be jailed as to be read. CRN exists to come to their aid. Sometimes just the fact that an outside agency notices the plight of an incarcerated cartoonist is enough to get them released; sometimes, the effort required must be more extensive. During the lunch hours on both days of the Festival, a video traced the life and career of a Palestinian cartoonist, Naji al-Ali, who was, finally, killed by those who disagreed with him.
The Festival ended Saturday evening with a banquet that featured no speakers at all. Traditionally, the banquet is an occasion for guest cartoonists and registrants to socialize and discuss their mutual interests without the impediments of a formal program. There is, however, the annual drawing for door prizes, and Ed Black got all the Pogo figures. The next Festival, scheduled for the fall of 2007, will feature, among other things, the life and work of Milton Caniff, the centennial of whose birth will be celebrated that year. By then, my biography of Caniff will be out and available.
Of Cockroaches and Salsa
(first published in a review of the year 2002 in The Comics Journal)
The latest entry into the lists of deliberately antagonistic comic strips is La Cucaracha, a Latino land mine planted in the Hispanic boondocks, by Lalo Alcaraz, a 38-year-old comedian, writer, illustrator, political agitator, public speaker, and cartoonist. It is no coincidence that Alcaraz's strip is syndicated by Universal Press, which also distributes Aaron McGruder's The Boondocks strip and Doonesbury as well as Baldo, a strip launched in 2000 about an agreeable Latino teenager and his family by Hector Cantu and artist Carlos Castellanos. Looking at this line-up, you'd think Universal has a corner on the controversy market. It also distributes Pat Oliphant's ferocious editorial cartoon as well as Ted Rall's irreverent endeavors. The comics pages need sharp-edged, culturally critical voices, says Greg Melvin, who is Trudeau's editor and McGruder's as well as Alcaraz's at Universal. "The comics have to reflect the world is changing."
Alcaraz's parents were Mexican natives but he was born and educated in the U.S., spending summers in Mexico, where he was exposed to that country's prolific cartoon industry, which produces comic book print runs in the millions. At San Diego State University, Alcaraz drew editorial cartoons for the campus paper, graduating in 1987 and going to the University of California at Berkeley to pursue a master's degree in architecture. There, he co-founded a comedy sketch troupe, the Chicano Secret Service, that toured the West Coast 1988-1996, and a satirical magazine, Pocho. Since 1992, he has produced editorial cartoons for the L.A. Weekly, and that's where his cockroach debuted as "L.A. Cucaracha."
The unruly insect was featured in the early strips but faded into the background somewhat as the strip slowly transformed itself into a single-panel editorial cartoon. Alcaraz, meanwhile, approached several syndicates with a proposal to do a comic strip based upon the character. In 1998, Universal signed him to a development contract that gave him time and editorial guidance in refining his concept. That The Boondocks was launched at right about that time is probably not coincidental: McGruder's strip enjoyed the most successful launch in recent history, strenuously suggesting, I surmise, that something appealing to the growing Latino population in the U.S. might also do well. Although well-received in various markets, Baldo, Universal's first foray in this direction, is too good-natured to swagger up to Hispanic readership the way The Boondocks did to African-American readership everywhere it appeared. La Cucaracha, however, is right on target (Alcaraz jokingly calls it "Doonesbarrio"). Andrews McMeel has just brought out a strip-entitled tome that reprints the strip's first year from its debut November 25, 2002 to September 6, 2003 (128 8.5x9-inch pages in paperback, $10.95), and (a wondrous bonus to historians) every strip carries the date of its initial publication!
The chief actors in the strip's inaugural weeks are Eddie, an easy-going Mexican American (who might be Alcaraz's milder alter ego) with whom the title character (aka Cuco Rocha, an anthropomorphic hipster of the Blattidae persuasion, the cartoonist's politically radical side) bickers about the state of Latino America, and Neto, Eddie's tech-savvy bicultural little brother, and Vero (for Veronica), a Latina with her head on straight who might be the only sensible one of the bunch.
Alcaraz's drawing style, simple and somewhat angular with an unvarying line, is entirely competent, betraying actual artistic skill (unusual among so many contemporary newspaper strips). He spots blacks nicely, and the strip has a crisp attractive clarity. His images, particularly Vero's, sometimes, perhaps unintentionally, evoke Mexican codex. Often (but not always) he devotes most of every panel to the utterances of his characters with the result that much of the humor is verbal, the pictures serving merely to identify the speakers and time comedic revelations. Still, Alcaraz resorts to pictorial hilarities much more frequently than either Tinsley or McGruder, and his strip is better as a result.
The first strips in November and December 2002 commented on the emerging Latino majority among minorities, the absence of people of color on tv, and the downside to Latinos becoming the "biggest minority"-namely, as Cuco says, "endless cheesy marketing" (even Eddie succumbs, employing a Ricky Martin Visa Card to buy their drinks).
Eddie rejoices that the larger the Latino population, the more attention he and his amigos will get. "We're finally being discovered," he exclaims.
"Yeah, Eddie," Cuco observes wryly, "'being discovered' really worked out well for the Indians."
Alcaraz chose a cockroach as his title character because, he told me, he "didn't want to toss away a character that my audience was familiar with." By using a cockroach, a traditional literary figure in Mexican pop culture, Alcaraz also strikes a blow for Latino status by turning a negative into a positive. Said Alcaraz: "In the U.S., the cockroach was turned into a racial epithet by Americans (who will swear up and down that there is no racism in this country) against Mexicans, Chicanos and Latinos alike. I reclaim the cucaracha," he continued (I can almost see him mounting the barricade, waving a banner), "which has come to represent the people, the masses, the lumpen, the underdog, and have put him on top. He is defiant and makes the statement-Yeah, I'm a cucaracha! What are you gonna do about it?"
Alcaraz's revolutionary stance is perhaps best illustrated in the brouhaha he precipitated about the first Latin Grammys in 2000. Some Mexican artists wanted to boycott the event because they felt they were being elbowed out by Americanized Latin pop. Emilio Estefan, the Cuban American music mogul whose work earned six nominations, criticized the group for being divisive. To express solidarity with his fellow Chicanos, Alcaraz penned a parody news item in his L.A. Weekly column. Using Estefan as a representative target, Alcaraz referred to him as a "generalissimo" of the Latin Grammys, which (Alcaraz said) Estefan declared was "an independent nation." And he wrote some other hilarious but uncomplimentary things. Estefan threatened a law suit, and Alcaraz appeared in a nationally broadcast tv message to explain that his so-called "news item" was a parody. Opinion not news. And he further explained that Estefan did not really say the things he was alleged to have said in the parody. The message was ostensibly contrite, but it was delivered by Alcaraz dressed in Fidel Castro fatigues, punctuating his remarks with a large cigar.
Said Alcaraz: "Latinos don't ingest enough irony."
He acknowledges that "a lot of people get on me for criticizing Latinos, but I always say I do it because I care." Baldo, he says, is a cute family strip. But "someone had to make a big splash and create a strip that makes a statement, that takes a stand and has the nerve to disagree with the mainstream. I'm here to make an impact."
At the same time, he aims to "create images and portrayals of Latinos and other people of color in the media that don't come off as stereotypes, or sunny, Pollyanna-ish idealized caricatures of real people. Latinos are normal people. We are so mainstream it's ridiculous. I want to show how we speak Spanglish, how we relate to stuff on tv, how we feel alienated and how we like watching 'Friends.'" In short, Alcaraz will be lobbing satiric grenades over the fence in both directions-at American mainstream and Latino mainstream.
And while newspaper editors around the country ponder whether or not to appeal to Hispanic communities in their cities by land-mining their comics pages, Alcaraz continues to do editorial cartoons in addition to the strip. "I do R-rated cartoons for the L.A. Weekly," he told me, "and quite a few other alternate papers and lefty rags, Latino weeklies and pinko magazines. His editorial cartoons are also distributed by Universal Press and can be viewed online at www.ucomics.com.
The Eerie Glow in Danziger's 'Toons
One of the best things about the final throes of a Presidential election campaign is that the hapless voter is not left in any doubt as to what the candidates think of each other. We've almost never had any difficulty about that this time, but in most of these quadrennial contests, the months leading up to the last weeks' spasm of vituperative contumely are relatively well-mannered. Each candidate tries to convince his constituencies that his opponent is a scoundrel and a wife-beater without actually saying it. This time, the rivals have been saying it all along, thanks to the miracles of tv attack ads. In this climate of over-heated rhetoric, editorial cartoonists are quite at home.
That's because political cartoons are one-sided. They embody unfair expressions of opinion, and the more vivid and uncompromising the expression, the better the cartoon. "A cartoon cannot say 'on the other hand,'" editoonist Doug Marlette reminds us, "-it cannot be defended with logic. It is a frontal assault, a slam dunk, a cluster bomb. Journalism is about fairness, objectivity, factuality; cartoons use unfairness, subjectivity, and the distortion of facts to get at truths that are greater than the sum of the facts."
Into this one-sided fray to get at the truth comes Jeff Danziger with the latest compilation of his recent work, the title of which alerts us at once to his general assessment of the State of the Union as well as his admirably unflinching posture in print. Wreckage Begins with W: Cartoons of the Bush Administration (3207x10-inch pages in paperback; Steerforth Press, $16.95) starts on January 9, 2000, the beginning of the last Presidential ElectionYear, and ends on February 9, 2004, just as John Kerry emerged from the Democrat pack as George W. ("Whiner") Bush's chief challenger.
The book thus contemplates with appropriate horror and unrelenting alarm the contested count in Florida, GW's faith-based biases, the atrocity of September 11, the invasion of Afghanistan, the erosion of Constitutional rights in the name of national security, the deterioration of the alleged peace process in Israel, the skyrocketing national deficit, the recklessness of the invasion of Iraq, the bungled post-war operation there, the escalating violence in that country, international hostility towards the U.S., and, over-all, the general stupidity of the current resident at the White House and the ineptitude of the Bush League. It is, in other words, a book after my own heart.
Another cartoonist, Frank Miller-who reigns in the universe of comic books and graphic novels-commences firing in his Foreword, saying, without blink or blush, "Let us now praise angry men. ... These are angry cartoons by an angry man in an angry time," Miller goes on, "-you won't see any weeping Statue of Liberty in this book. This is gut-punch stuff, much needed in a time of flabby rhetoric and flabby thinking. ... Danziger's intensity reminds me of Herblock's and Paul Conrad's historic campaign of wit against President Nixon."
Miller's first encounter with Danziger was as his student in a high school English class thirty years ago. They enjoyed arguing then, Miller remembers. And Danziger engineered a passing grade in history for Miller, who was in danger of failing the class. According to a reliable source of mine, Miller and his history teacher were having a meeting to discuss whether or not the youth would graduate, when Danziger stuck his head in and asked the history teacher a simple question: "Do you really want to have this kid in your class another year?" Miller got a C in history and graduated forthwith.
Danziger is perfectly capable of explaining his stance as a cartoonist without Miller's aid. In his Introduction, he begins by talking about the importance of drawing to cartooning ("even if most practitioners work hard to make it look otherwise") and concludes that for the last three years his most frequently deployed visual effect has been "generalized wreckage." Elaborating, he continues: "We now live in a country where the visual metaphor of wreckage can be drawn as a background for all sorts of things-the economy, the political scene, the culture wars, and, of course, the real wars. It is probably unfair to place all the blame for this trend on the current administration, but they do seem to have taken the old saw about making omelettes a bit far," and he concludes with a deft metaphor: "One could say that Mr. Bush proves the observation that for a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail."
One of the scenes of wreckage appeared on September 13, 2001. Amid the debris in Lower Manhattan, Danziger shows firemen working, and a man with a cell phone approaches Rudy Giuliani, saying, "Mister Mayor-it's the President. He wants to know if it's safe for him to come to New York now."
The essence of political cartooning is the visual metaphor, a picture that represents an opinion in memorable terms. In one of his mid-2002 efforts, Danziger draws Miss Liberty sitting in a jail cell with the Bill of Rights on the floor next to her. Closing the cell door is Cheney, who says, "You'll be completely safe here." And Bush, peering through the bars from outside, smiles benignly and says, "Remember, we love freedom."
And here's a small crowd of Arabs, Iraqis doubtless, standing around a U.S. tank as a soldier standing on the tank addresses them: "Okay, now, democracy! Who wants democracy? Let's see some hands." Not a hand in sight.
One of his most stunning images is a silhouetted tree with a man hanged from a limb. The caption: "If Strom Thurmond had been black and had crossed the color line ..." This cartoon was drawn, the explanatory caption divulges, when it was revealed that the wizened old senator, in his youth, had fathered a child with his black mistress.
Some of Danziger's metaphors are nearly wordless. Employing a bawdy joke of antiquity, he shows GW playing piano in a brothel. The sign on the piano reads, "I have no idea what's going on upstairs," and the stairway to his right and the room around him are festooned with pictures on the wall depicting bags of money and statues of naked nymphs, cavorting.
And the cartoonist sometimes uses the comic strip form to present the sequence of a so-called train of logic. Here's GW in a contemplative mood: "So I asked myself, 'What would Jesus do?' And Jesus told me, 'I would take care of the poor, and the sick, and the old people.' So I said, 'Great!'" And in the last panel, he beams out at us: "'You take care of the poor, the sick and the old people, and I'll take care of everybody else.'"
Finally, here's a bitterly ironic picture of soldiers in a trench, under fire. One says, "Well, the administration's policy certainly seems to be working." "Yeah," says the man next to him, "-we're not swatting at flies anymore," a reference to the Bush League's explanation for why they didn't pursue al Qaeda at first because they wanted to develop an over-arching policy to get at terrorism. They didn't want to do it an incident at a time, piece-meal, which seemed, in GW's memorable phrase, "like swatting flies."
Not that Danziger is particularly partial to the opposition party. In February 2003, he depicts a few Democrat donkeys in a bar, one of them saying into his cell phone: "What d'you mean I'm not engaged in the great issues of the day? I'm down here drinkin' myself to death aren't I?"
And he shows Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary with hypodermic needles in their arms, his labeled "Sex" and hers, "Ambition," with a caption: "The Clintons explained."
The cartoonist's forte is atmosphere, not caricature; his caricatures are often only barely recognizable approximations of his targets. But his pictures are stunningly rendered. With a drawing style that deploys a bold, undulating outline, embellished with shading lines that are mostly vertical, Danziger evokes a eerily menacing world. The people in his pictures look strained as if they are barely functional, haunted by some unspeakable external pressure. His rendering of the human physiognomy often produces a cadaverous visage. And the vertical shading lines seem to light these ghoulish zombies from below as if they are lit by hellfires just out of our line of sight. The atmosphere conjured up by the visuals underscores Danziger's unflinching vision of the disasters of our political life.
A military veteran (1967-71) who served as an intelligence office in Vietnam in 1970, Danziger sees a re-enactment in Iraq. Vietnam, he says, was "a mess. I see many parallels with Iraq." More than that, the disastrous results of the Iraq debacle "announced to everyone in the world the limits of what we can do. That's a very dangerous thing to have done." The U.S. had more power and influence in the world before this demonstration of the limits of its power.
After his stint in the Army, Danziger taught English in high school for about ten years. He started moonlighting political cartoons as a freelance contributor to a couple of newspapers in Vermont in 1975, then in 1982, he took the plunge, quit teaching, and started cartooning full-time for the New York Daily News. "I knew that if I didn't quit one, I'd never get serious about the other," he told me.
Later, he joined the Christian Science Monitor for ten years, leaving in 1996 to become one of only a handful of editoonists who ply their craft entirely through syndication without a newspaper staff position. (Pat Oliphant, Ted Rall, and Ann Telnaes are three others in a similar situation.) Footloose, Danziger can cartoon from anywhere these days, electronic transmission giving him an immediate presence in the city rooms of all 100 of his client papers. He spent the last two years, before returning this fall to New York, in Frankfort, Germany, where his significant other worked as a bank executive. Danziger is a writer as well as a cartoonist: he's written for The New Yorker and newspapers, and he produced a novel, Rising Like the Tucson, based partly on his Vietnam experiences. But his pen is meanest when he uses it to draw.
UNDER THE SPREADING PUNDITRY: ONE MORE TIME
Political debate these days has degenerated into willful misunderstanding and distortion. Instead of arguing policy with a candidate, his opponents pounce on whichever phrase he's uttered that lends itself to the wildest misrepresentation. The Bush League is expert at this. John Kerry's now infamous "wrong war, wrong place, wrong time" was first intoned by the candidate as a way of comparing the invasion Iraq with the invasion of Afghanistan; the purpose of the phrase was to dramatize the Bush League's abandonment of the War on Terror (properly, in Kerry's view, conducted in Afghanistan) in favor of the War on Saddam (which, in Kerry's view, is a diversion, a distraction). The "right war" is, in Kerry's view, the War on Terror; the "right place" is Afghanistan, where al Qaeda is reconstituting itself while the U.S. and its allies are concentrating their efforts elsewhere. The "right time" falls outside this train of logic: the spring of 2003 was the "wrong time" to invade Iraq because the "right time" for that invasion would be after the weapons inspectors completed their work and diplomacy was given a chance to operate. None of this matters to the Bush League: they want to conduct a campaign that ignores Dubya's numerous mistakes, and they have become very skilled at creating little bonfires of scandal (the Swift Boat incident and, lately, the "outing" of Mary Cheney) that suck up all the air time on the networks so that there's no time left to focus on the catastrophic errors of Dubya's leadership.
If Dubya is such a dandy leader, how come we were so unprepared for the attacks of September 11, 2001? Clearly, he was leading us in a direction away from preparedness. If he's such a dandy leader, how come he spends so much time out of sight, cutting brush at his rancho in Texas? And if he's working so "hard" at fighting terror, how come we see him all the time on the campaign trail, shouting the same slogans over and over again? Who's minding the store?
As the Election Cycle enters the stage of its final froth, let me round off our coverage of the Presidential Debates by acknowledging that George W. ("Whiner") Bush seemed to do much better at the Second and Third set-to with Kerry. Better than he did in the First. But that's not saying much, considering how abysmally he comported himself during the first encounter. Still, I suspect we saw more of the "real" Dubya in the town-meeting style debate than we've seen before. He was actually glib: he had facts on the tip of his tongue, he didn't stutter or say "uh" too many times. He didn't stare blankly ahead of him while thinking of something to say. He was alert and articulate. If that's the way he is in real life, then we've been getting a phoney all this time-that foot-shuffling, aw-shucks country boy (but resolute) demeanor is probably a front, masking the real George W. ("Whopper") Bush. In the Third Debate, however, GW seemed more on the defensive, and the more he felt obliged to explain his policies and official postures, the more high-pitched his whine became. His platitudes began to sound like pleas.
Kerry, on the other hand, was a commanding presence by comparison. Still, a standard criticism of his campaign is that he isn't specific about Iraq. No? Well, let's compare specifics, shall we? Kerry says he intends, first, to internationalize the operation by calling a summit meeting (which will include other nations in Iraq's neighborhood-the ones most likely to profit from a stable society between the Tigris and the Euphrates). Next, he'll move to close Iraq's borders to keep out roving bands of al Qaeda operatives or frustrated Iraqi nationalists or whoever. Finally, he'll step up the training of Iraqi security forces and army. Now, admittedly, he doesn't say when-month and day-he'll convene a summit, but still, this plan seems much more specific than anything we're getting from the Bush League. Dubya is still long on slogans and short on anything else: "Freedom's on the march. Be resolute and strong. Don't give up. Have elections. Hunt those terrorists down." Don't see much specificity there, kimo sabe. But, we are assured, Dubya has a "vision" for America. He knows where he wants to lead it.
And that's the terrifying part. His unspecified vision. If we are to judge from the performance of the past four years, he and his big money cronies will invade Iran and give the rich more tax breaks and turn more and more of the wilderness areas of the land over to lumber and oil companies. We can't safely trust what this guy says-he often says one thing while doing the opposite (as in the "Clear Skies" policy that will result in more pollution)-and when he isn't specific at all, that would seem to leave the door wide open for whatever mad adventure he wants to take with other people's sons and daughters.
Some of George W. ("Warlord") Bush's stump speech in these closing weeks verges on self-parody. Attacking Kerry's desire to restore a tax that Dubya cut for the rich, GW says, scornfully, "The rich are gonna pay for Kerry's health care? Not likely. Why do you suppose the rich people hire all those lawyers and accounts? They do it in order to slip the bill to you" (by whom he means the ever-lovin' middle class tax payer). Wait a minute. Does GW hear what he's saying? He's saying that the very people he's bent on giving tax cuts to will spend all kinds of effort and boodle to avoid paying taxes. They get a double dose of reduction, then-part Bush League largesse and part privately financed chicanery. These are the guys who, the Bush League faith-based economic philosophers believe, will take the money they save on taxes and devote it to building their businesses thereby creating jobs for the unemployed. Say what? Those loop-hole hugging fat cats are going to let loose of some of their money? Geez, George: grow up. Or wake up. Or listen to what you're saying.
Even if Kerry isn't being specific (although I don't know how much more specific he could be), we know he's in favor of international partnerships as a fundamental aspect of America's foreign policies. And such a spirit of cooperation seems more "American" than the unilateral go-it-alone cowboy strut of the Bush Leaguers. By their temperaments you shall judge them: partner on the one hand; bully on the other. Take your choice.
All of which brings me to an essay I wrote last spring and never promulgated hereabouts. Now you'll be treated to this antique document. Partly, it'll enable me to remove from my desk all remnants of the Bush League Years in preparation for the incoming Kerry administration. Partly, it permits me to brag about how stunningly prescient I was in anticipating aspects of the Iraqi situation that have been revealed in recent months, since I wrote the essay. (Oh, sure. Tell us another one, oh ye of captivating modesty and shining head.)
HOW THE BUSH LEAGUE COULD HAVE AVOIDED LYING ABOUT WMD
I'm continually amazed at the chutzpah of the Bush League. They expect us to believe that they didn't tinker with the CIA and other intel about Iraq when it's fairly well-known that they've tinkered with scientific reports on such things as arsenic in the streams and global warming and the like. If they'll tinker with scientific fact, why wouldn't they, just as readily, tinker with so-called intelligence reports? Intelligence of this sort is always ambiguous, including, as it inevitably must, information on both sides of almost any question one might pose. Such data seems more adapted to being tinkered with than scientific data, so why wouldn't it be?
My theory is that the neo-conservatives surrounding George W. ("War Lord") Bush ignored the intel that didn't support their long-intended invasion plans. The neo-cons believed, I gather, that the Washington Establishment, including, in this case, the entrenched bureaucrats of the CIA and other governmental intelligence-gathering agencies, was too cautious-too "risk averse"-in interpreting the data ("too cautious" or, alternatively, "too professional"). These professionals were therefore prone to introducing gentle demurrers about intel that would hamstring any planned action. Their caution (or reasonableness-or laudable aversion to risking a definitive interpretation of sketchy information) would, if heeded, result in delaying, again, the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam. Goodness knows, professional bureaucrats are always saying "we can't do that because..."; so the neo-cons decided to ignore them, and they found other sources of more convivial intel-namely, the Iraqi defectors, all of whom had a vested interest in getting the U.S. to oust Saddam. This was, in effect, "faith-based" intelligence: it agreed with preconceived notions, and they therefore had faith that it was accurate. They then tinkered with the intelligence reports from more traditional governmental sources in order to make that information coincide with or support their faith-based intel. They weren't alone in concluding that Saddam was armed to the teeth with WMD; Britain, France, even Germany also thought that Saddam was girding for some sort of vile war. So we can scarcely hang the neo-cons and the neo-cons alone for interpreting intelligence to make it agree with their intentions.
But why Iraq? This brings us back, momentarily, to the Axis of Evil. In the post-9/11 world, the rationale for containment of rogue states lost much of its validity. Rogue states might be contained as nations, but not its freelance operatives (as we have learned about the Pakistani scientist selling nuclear gear to other parties). Nor can we hope to contain unknown terrorists who lurk in the backwaters of the world, awaiting opportunities to strike. If the enemy has no borders, how can he be contained? He can't. Still, the most obvious (perhaps simply because of the obviousness) of the hostile entities that lurk are those nations with nuclear or WMD capacities because they could sell this weaponry to terrorists. And so we arrive at the Axis of Evil-North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. As a practical matter, however, Iraq emerged as the only feasible target. North Korea, while already selling weapons to other countries and, presumably, to other non-national entities, was so closely allied with China, or vice versa, that an invasion of North Korea risked tumbling the international structure in that vicinity. Moreover, in any hostilities, South Korea would be pretty vulnerable. North Korea was just a riskier gamble. Iran, meanwhile, while undoubtedly a threat, was also poised to become more democratic; why upset the momentum there? Iraq, on the other hand, was, as intelligence agents doubtless knew, weak militarily. And friendless in the big power international community. Moreover, as the neo-con strategy surely realized, Dubya would be eager to take revenge upon Saddam for the presumed attempt Saddam made on the life of George Senior (although that assassination plot, as we've learned, was mostly imaginary). Finally, Saddam was in violation of UN dictates and could be invaded on those grounds. Thus, by a process of elimination, Iraq became the logical target. But not because they possessed stockpiles of WMD.
So Dubya's argument for invading Iraq ought to have been: in these times when national borders mean virtually nothing, we must stop those who seem likely to befriend terrorists, and Saddam, in perpetual violation of UN resolutions, is the first candidate. (Long-range neo-con global strategy was, at the time, founded on the notion that whichever country the US attacked, the attack itself would make the other countries behave themselves because they would now "believe" that the US would attack anyone in violation of international law. Ironically, the Bush League bumbling in Iraq has resulted in something approaching the opposite: our intelligence can no longer be trusted, and, although our military might is impressive, our ability to deploy it in any way short of overt force is highly questionable; in fact, we don't seem able to think about international problems in terms other than shoot-outs in Main Street. Instead of establishing our reputation with the invasion of Iraq, the Bush League has nearly destroyed that reputation for all practical purposes.) Dubya should have stressed Saddam's lawlessness and the threat he posed as a potential supplier of weapons to terrorists-not as a potential attacker himself. Then, he should have gone to the UN and talked until everyone agreed to go along. Neo-cons, wishing all the above, looked for WMD evidences in US intelligence that would support their plan, whether those indications were there or not. They may not have lied, but they surely mislead the American public.
Fundamental Islam could have been a factor in Dubya's rationale, adding to the risk of trying to contain Saddam. Without demonizing Islam, the Bush League could still have recognized that Islamic fundamentalism gave terrorism a moral impetus. And it would be impossible to say how this moral campaign might appeal to Saddam's megalomania. Under the best of circumstances, Saddam himself was unpredictable-not evil, necessarily, just unpredictable, even, by some measure, insane. We could scarcely afford to wait him out, even if he was contained. (Rumor was, he was on the verge of collapse anyhow; if we'd prolonged the discussion of intervention with UN, he may have toppled of the weight of his own regime's corruption.) Still, with the borderless terrorism displayed on 9/11, the great risk was that Saddam, in his hatred of the US and desire to achieve status among Arab states, would support terrorism by supplying the technical know-how he had developed on chemical warfare; then, nuclear capability.
I disagree with the preemptive strike idea if undertaken by the U.S. and any coalition not the U.N. I also dislike being a citizen of a bully nation. In short, I think Iraq should have been invaded and Saddam deposed, but not by the U.S. alone and certainly not without U.N. agreement and support. That's the huge mistake the neo-cons made. They were, mostly, victims of their own hubris-on two counts: first, they believe that the American people aren't capable of understanding anything as complicated and as reasoned as the actual threat Saddam posed (about which, more in a trice); second, they are convinced that the American people are willing to accept almost any lie that George W. ("Whopper') Bush might tell, provided he also, at the same time, assured them that any contradictory thing they might know was, actually, mistaken. So the neo-cons staged a massive deception, alleging WMD in vast amounts in Iraq in order to persuade us that it was necessary to invade.
The best argument for invading, it seems to me, is that, given Saddam's history and megalomaniac personality, it would be imprudent to believe him when he said he had no WMD. As I understand it, Saddam had vast stockpiles of the stuff at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991; and the U.N. inspection teams discovered much of it and got it destroyed but were unable to satisfy themselves that all of it had been destroyed. Saddam wouldn't produce the evidence (if he had it) that would assure them that all that stuff was gone. Why? Saddam's Arabian machismo and megalomania demanded that he do nothing to diminish his imagined stature in the Arab world. All those countries believed him a hero for defying the U.S. If he gave in to U.N. demands or admitted he had no WMD, he'd lose face. So he perpetuated what we now realize was the mythology that he was armed and ready. [Interestingly, the recent Duelfer Report makes precisely this point: the Iraqi dictator was obsessed with his status in the Arab world and relied upon his presumed WMD and defiant attitude to keep his prestige pumped up. Too bad we didn't have any experts on Arab culture loose in the Rumsfeld's shop in those days.] Saddam did say it had all be destroyed (wink, nudge), but would it have been prudent to believe him? Probably not.
In the last analysis, we were faced, then, with Saddam's record of inhuman treatment of his own subjects coupled to his possible possession of WMD and the foolhardiness of believing that he no longer had them-all of which seemed ample justification for regime change.
It was this argument that the neo-cons didn't think we were capable of believing. Obeying the impulses of the hubris that drives them, they latched onto an argument that they believed was simple enough for the average truck driver to understand and applaud: Saddam is poised with WMD and ready to share them with terrorists or use them himself to rain destruction on American with drone aircraft. This cynical underestimation of the American people will, I wont, be the neo-cons eventual undoing; and that has already begun, thanks to David Kay. (Who has also suggested that Saddam had become slightly deranged in recent years and actually believed he had a nuclear development program when he really didn't; all he had was a bunch of scientists who lied to him about it in order to get money for their personal expenses.)
In any event, the change of regime in Iraq should have been effected through the U.N.-through international cooperation, not lone ranger stuff. Alas, the neo-cons, believing that the U.N., like the Washington Establishment, was more prone to delay than to act, wouldn't wait for diplomacy to lay the groundwork for international invasion. Probably Saddam would have quickly moved to re-constitute his WMD programs if we'd left him entirely alone (and maybe that's what he thought he was doing, actually, by giving out funds to atomic scientists). But I doubt there was much real urgency to justify invading Iraq last year. There was, however, another, even more urgent, reason for invading last year. Hardline hold-outs like Donald Rumsfeld have now revealed that reason to us. Rumsfeld, in seeking to deal with the missing WMD situation, keeps saying, in effect, wait-we need more time to ascertain the location of this stuff. More time. More time now, not more time last year. Why not? Because the neo-con agenda required that Iraq be invaded and the entire matter settled before George WMD Bush ran for re-election. If their plan had worked (and most of it did until we got to the post-invasion fiasco), we'd be out of Iraq by now, our troops safely home and the Iraqis voting by droves in the desert. That would insure Dubya's re-election. And that was the urgency behind the 2003 invasion scheme.
It has come to naught, you might say. But that won't prevent the Bush League from pretending (as they've already started doing) that everything in Iraq is rosy. That, after all, was the plan. And the Bush League long ago demonstrated that its plans need not be changed to accommodate actualities: the fantasy is appealing enough, they learned, to earn the support of enough Americans to get them elected-er, appointed. They're gambling that this situation has not changed enough in the four years they've perpetuated falsehood and distraction to prevent us from noticing that they're running around naked. They have Cheney's motto emblazoned on their foreheads: Often in error but never in doubt.
AND YET AGAIN. Yes, I suppose you're justified in supposing, given the evidence before you, that once GW is defeated in his bid to be elected, at long last, to the Presidency, I'll have nothing more to pile up in the Punditry department. And that may be the case, which is all the more reason to expend just one more minute on the Bush League. Here's the Washington Post National Weekly (September 20-26) wondering about Dubya's religion: yes, he's probably the most overtly religious President we've had in decades (maybe ever), but just what religion is he? He doesn't go to church on Sundays, so what denomination can claim him? The clue is in Nancy Gibbs' article in Time last June (21st), during which she notes that Dubya's embrace of religion is "the approach of a Christian in Bible study searching for the small inarguable nugget of scriptural truth that will enable him to understand God's love for him, ignore all distractions, and stay sober." The puzzled authors of the Washington Post piece have doubtless not thought about the role of the Almighty in Alcoholics Anonymous. And that is the God to whom Dubya prays. Gibbs quotes Charles Kimball, a Baptist minister, who might be channeling GW: "I've experienced the truth in religion because it's changed my life, and I don't need to know a variety of other things because I know what's true for me." As Gibbs says, this sort of conviction "may not be the best one for deciding what to do next in Iraq." It's nice to have a pious President, but when piety shuts down perception, it may not be altogether a good thing.
Metaphors be with you.
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