Not All the News, Just the News That Gives Us Fits
Harvey Pekar's forthcoming autobiographical graphic novel is titled The Quitter because, Pekar explained to Glenn Lovell at the San Jose Mercury News, "I quit at things because I can't stand the tension of waiting to see if I'm successful at something. I quit sports in school. I quit college. I even quit the post office because I worried I wouldn't be able to bundle up the envelopes tight enough that they wouldn't break apart." Lovell elaborates: "Pekar remains our pre-eminent practitioner of woe-is-me-ism. You name the accolade or accomplishment, and Pekar will find its downside." Ostensibly famous, now, after the movie adaptation of his story "American Splendor," Pekar says he is nonetheless "waiting for the other shoe to drop: I've always gotten good reviews, but my work has never sold very well." He's signed a deal with Random House to do four paperbacks, but he's not hopeful of financial success. "If they're fairly well received," he said, "I'll be able to barely get by. If not, I'm faced with the prospect of working at McDonald's. I don't have very many salable skills." Pekar and Robert Crumb, the artist who first rendered the schlub hero's adventures in comics form, are "a match made in hangdog heaven," Lovell says in a phrase too memorable to let slip by (so here it is).
I've never understood "The Simpsons." I watched it a couple times when it first appeared and everyone was raving about it; I didn't think it was all that funny. The show is now the longest-running primetime animated series in history-and the longest-running sitcom currently on the air. Something's wrong with me, I realize, but now in my dotage, I'm too old to change. Perhaps I should buy Chris Turner's new book, Planet Simpson: How A Cartoon Masterpiece Documented An Era and Defined A Generation (Random House)-reportedly (according to Ben Rayner at the Toronto Star) "an entertaining, episodic examination of the Simpsons phenomenon from various socio-cultural, historical and theoretical angles." Turner concedes that nothing destroys humor of something like a discussion of what makes it funny, "so he took care to keep Planet Simpson as lively and irreverent as possible while still holding it up to serious, intellectual study," Rayner said. "Thus, while there is much novel theorizing about 'The Simpsons' influence on the development of Internet culture and the show's place at the epicenter of an explosion in American satire that now includes such disparate offspring as 'South Park,' The Onion and 'The Daily Show,' there are also plenty of amusing, capsulated asides [and memorable moments recounted] providing much opportunity for a pastime most beloved by the show's fans-Remembering Simpsons." Rayner, himself an unreconstructed fan of the show, concludes with this cosmic assessment: "To its adherents, 'The Simpsons' has transcended its humble beginnings as an 'adult cartoon' to become an almost religious fixture in our lives. To many, in fact, 'The Simpsons' is-if I may borrow from John Lennon and the B-Sharps-'bigger than Jesus.' Ignorance of the show and its impact is almost like ignorance of Christianity; you don't have to buy into it, but you should probably try to understand what it is everyone's crowing about." So Planet Simpson is for me, I guess. If not that, then one or more of the titles in HarperCollins new series, Simpsons Library of Wisdom. This month, the first two volumes will sally forth: The Bart Book and The Homer Book, joining over 30 other Simpsons books in print. The Bart Book will share the kid's School Survival Guide, secret codes, pullable pranks, dream tattoos, favorite El Barto "tags," and the Xmas list to end all lists (it sez here). With a bountiful cast of characters, the book possibilities seem, as they say, endless. I'm still lost. I don't like "King of the Hill" either.
Jules Feiffer's new play, "A Bad Friend," is a semi-autobiographical fable based upon the cartoonist-playwright's pre-fame life in the early 1950s. Interviewed by Jane Horwitz at the Washington Post, Feiffer said: "When I got out of the Army in 1953, I fell into the company of a number of young Brooklyn artists. ... All of us were left wing." Among them was a middle-aged painter "who attached himself to us. ... He turned out to be Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, the most important Russian spy ever caught in this country. So years afterwards, I thought I have to ... describe what it was like ... as a young man in your twenties to feel like you know everything and it turns out you know nothing." The play is critical of the House Un-American Activities Committee's witch hunts for commies, but it also ridicules fellow travelers who remained convinced that Joseph Stalin was a good guy. Surprisingly, Feiffer reported, many of his friends and acquaintances of this stamp told him they approved of the play. "It seems to have been, at least for these people, the first time they saw a version of themselves that they recognized, as opposed to a stereotype. I was bowled over." The play opened in Washington October 30 and will run through November 28.
Strippery. In Greg Evans' Luann, the title character said farewell to the love of her young life during the week of October 25: handsome Aaron Hill, with whom Luann has been smitten ever since he showed up years ago, moved with his family to Hawaii, but before he left, he took Luann to dinner, and when he took her home, he kissed her. Adolescent dreams were never so fondly, heart-warmingly, enacted. When I asked Evans whether this event would inaugurate a long-distance romance, he wrote back: "Lots of readers have taken me to task for sending Aaron away. They cite my reader poll a few years back in which I asked who Luann should go to the Prom with, Aaron or Gunther. Aaron won (by a slim margin) and so readers expected a Luann/Aaron romance. But as we in the writing business know, happy hookups don't yield good drama-or comedy (witness Li'l Abner, "Moonlighting," "Friends," etc.). The best relationships are the ones we never quite have. So will there be a long distance romance? I can tell you with absolute certainty-maybe." ... And in Stone Soup, cartoonist Jan Eliot started a "book club" which she populated with female characters from other comic strips- Connie Duncan from Zits, Ellie Patterson from For Better or For Worse, Dilbert's cubicle mate with the pyramid hair-do, and Rose from Rose Is Rose (who, when they discuss books they want to read suggests Lady Chatterly's Lover and is transformed, forthwith, into Vicki the Biker). Nicely done. And Eliot expertly captures the appearances of all these distaff characters without copying them, hair by hair. A treat.
Berke Breathed is always quotable these days (after years of being a rigid recluse). Interviewed on the occasion of the publication of Little Brown & Company's new compilation, Opus: 25 Years of His Sunday Best, a collection of the cartoonist's favorite strips from Bloom County, Outland, and, lately, Opus, Breathed was confronted with the "fuzzy math" of a anniversary book that is published one year too soon: Bloom County started in 1980. "Buy the book January 1 of next year," Breathed said, "if these things bother you, and sleep at night with a safe 25 years. Listen," he went on, "Bush has raised the bar with getting comfortable with fuzzy everything. On his terms, I should have been able to call this the Centennial Opus Collection." About his current endeavor, Opus every weekend, Breathed admitted that "a Sunday-only strip is not actually a comic strip in most any sense. Four cartoons a month rather than 30 is something else. Something less, I fear. But I hope that it's more than nothing. This is exactly how our government rationalized the current war. The wrong war is better than, well, no war. Bush told me this in an e-mail."
And Finally: Boris Yefimov may be the oldest practicing cartoonist on the planet: he was 104 on September 28, and he still draws every day-albeit just for personal pleasure, not for a living. Although not a willing instrument of the Communist state in Stalin's Russia, Yefimov survived by his talent, dutifully creating caricatures that ridiculed Soviet foes from the Bolshevik Revolution to Mikhail Gorbachev's "perestroika." He helped sustain the morale of frontline Russian troops during World War II with pictures of Hitler as a crazed zealot, and during the ensuing Cold War, he depicted the U.S. as a mean-looking Uncle Sam, bristling with missiles and dollar signs. Yefimov had little choice: Stalin gave him orders, and Stalin crushed those who disobeyed. Yefimov's brother, editor of the Party's newspaper, Pravda, was arrested in 1938 and tortured and executed at the age of 40. Yefimov has a picture of his brother on the wall of his riverside apartment in Moscow. "It may be superstition," he told Richard Balmforth of Reuters, "but I think that somewhere, in the place where the fate of people is decided, those years that were taken from him were passed on to me."
The Laudable Tenacity of Telnaes: Raw Indignation in Symphonic Line
The first words Ann Telnaes said to me were: "I think I love you." This memorable (to me-she's forgotten it entirely) moment occurred in June 1998, three years before she earned a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. She had been editooning for about six years by then, but I had just encountered her work and, noticing an e-mail address under her signature, I'd written to say that I was delighted to see such hard-hitting cartoons as hers, drawn in a style markedly different from the usual run-of-the-mill. "I think I love you," she responded, but, popping the rising balloon of romance immediately, she continued: "Tell your wife this is not a come-on: it's just that I'm so sick of editorial cartoonists and syndicate people who seem to have forgotten editorial cartoons should have a point."
And so, alas, my fling crashed and burned at take-off. Just as well: I'm of a vintage to qualify as her father, and these December-May romances never last. (Well, December doesn't.) I mention all this mushy stuff in order to establish two things before telling you about Telnaes' new book of cartoons. First, I am a friend of the cartoonist; second, my friendship was preceded by a fervent admiration for her work. And that admiration has survived the friendship and continues, unabated, growing more profound with each new cartoon.
Humor's Edge: Cartoons by Ann Telnaes (144 8x8-inch pages in hardback; Pomegranate, $24.95) is, like Telnaes and her cartoons, an elegant production: her drawings, which appear on the Web (www.anntelnaes.com) with sparkling accents of color, are reproduced here on sumptuous glossy paper with those same accents plus annotations that provide the political context for the cartoons. The book's title and its contents are taken from a recent (June-August 2004) exhibit of her work at the Library of Congress, and her interview by Harry Katz, Head Curator of the Library's Popular and Graphic Art Division, is the chief text feature of the book.
In the book's introduction, fellow editoonist Ben Sargent of the Austin American-Statesman, writes about Telnaes' impact: "There's no better word," he writes, "to sum up the cumulative effect of the perceptive analysis, bold imagery, trenchant wit, and tireless indignation that make up a Telnaes cartoon. ... It might be easy to call her proudly liberal, but her indignation is kindled by any variety of injustice, oppression, hypocrisy, or sham, from whatever quarter. While she's deployed much of her best venom against affronts to women's rights and civil liberties, she's had plenty left for the vast array of other corruptions, plots, and idiocies that seem so depressingly endemic in public life."
As for her drawings, "they are unique," Sargent says, "-in their grace, simplicity, and power of line, probably a reflection of Ann's early career as an animator and graphic illustrator. And she's a master of the cartoon virtue called 'economy of line' -every single element in a Telnaes cartoon helps to draw the readers eye and mind to the message."
Syndicated to newspapers throughout the country by Tribune Media Services, Telnaes has no home paper and works out of her private D.C. domicile (which she shares with her husband, David Lloyd, a Washington legal talent). Without an editor at her elbow, she suffers no "prior restraint" in expressing her opinions however she chooses. 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. So Telnaes plunges ahead, full speed, pennants flying and trumpets blaring. She trained in animation and spent six years in Disney's Imagineering division, and her distinctive style evokes images of Disney and Warner Brothers animated cartoons. But the fluid lyricism of her line suggests that famed theatrical caricaturist Al Hirschfeld was an influence. Not so, Telnaes explains. She admires Hirschfeld, but she studied and was influenced by Ronald Searle, Robert Osborn, and Gerald Scarfe. She also admired Herblock, for his art and for his fierce expression of opinion, thoughtfully arrived at. While she is especially exercised about hypocrisy and the abuse of power wherever she finds manifestations of either, Telnaes is notably ferocious on issues affecting women, and she sees those issues where others are overlooking them. When the news media were frothing a few years ago about Pakistan and India both having developed the atomic bomb, Telnaes remembered a report about the two countries being in the top five in population by 2020. "Where will they put all those people?" she wondered. And so she drew a cartoon depicting two pregnant women facing each other, their protruding bellies abstracted into round bomblike shapes with fuses protruding on one side. One belly is labeled "Pakistan's Population"; the other, "India's Population." And the cartoon's caption reads: "Other bombs being developed we should be concerned about." Picture and words blend to evoke the familiar expression about the "population explosion."
"Women's issues on the whole are not reported enough," Telnaes said during a Washington Post "Live Online" discussion last winter. "Just look at your front page-how many front page stories are about women? Women make up more than half of the U.S. population so it's not a special interest. Everyone should be concerned about issues that affect women because everyone has a mother, a sister, a wife, a girlfriend, a daughter." To dramatize the inadequacy of news coverage of women's concerns, Telnaes cited the situation in Afghanistan: "Everyone now is familiar with Afghanistan when the Taliban ruled. This wasn't something that just came out of September 11. This started back in 1996 when the Taliban took control and established rules which put women at an extreme disadvantage. They weren't allowed to work, go to school, get medical attention, because the Taliban wouldn't allow women to be seen by men, and all the doctors were men, of course, since women weren't allowed to work. Can you imagine our government ignoring, for so many years, a regime which curtailed men's rights to that extreme?"
Telnaes passionately opposes the current tendency to meld church and state into a political juggernaut. "Anything having to do with abuse of power motivates me," she told Katz. "That goes for politics and religion, as well as organized religion. I've done a lot of things about the Vatican and its influence throughout the world because it affects so many women that aren't even Catholics in terms of family planning. Or the recent scandal about sexual abuse of boys we had here in the United States-I did a lot of cartoons about that. That's a difficult issue because some people take cartoons like that to mean you're criticizing Catholics in general."
When the Vatican denounced same-sex marriages in July 2003, Telnaes spotted the hypocrisy inherent in an institution that, having rejected the U.S. bishops' "zero tolerance" policy, seemed willing to tolerate molesting young boys. She drew a picture of a red-robbed cardinal labeled "Vatican" saying, "We reject legalizing same sex unions ... on the other hand," he continues-and here, we resort to the cartoon itself, which, in the best traditions of the medium, deploys its words and pictures in tandem to make a memorable assault on a two-faced institution. "It's a bit of a stretch to put gay marriage and sexual abuse together," she admits, "but I think it's legitimate. And I wasn't criticizing Catholicism or Catholics. I'm criticizing the organization, the leadership of the Church."
The power of Telnaes' streamlined drawings is enhanced by the strong sense of design by which she organizes her images. Her deployment of shapes, positive and negative space, color, and stark white and solid black give her art an impact not on display as consistently in any other editorial cartooning of our day. Sometimes the design itself is the message. When Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston answered questions about the molestation of young boys in churches under his wing, he responded, usually, "I don't recall." Telnaes drew the Cardinal uttering this legalistic bromide, depicting him from the waist up, a vast expanse of solid black clerical garb from the collar down, which, at the left of the picture, threw into sharp relief her rendering of his nose, elongated in the best Pinocchio tradition, ending in the shape of a cross in a vast white space to the right. Contrasted against the mass of solid black on the left, the white half of the picture-the part with the long nose-is emphasized. And when Telnaes commented upon the Taliban's rise to power in Afghanistan in 1996, she cried out against the enveloping burka and the subjugation of women it represented by drawing a black solid in the center of which a woman's eyes can be seen peering out from a white rectangle. She has since employed this device several times in commenting on the treatment of women in the Muslim world.
Telnaes is also a brilliant caricaturist. She credits lessons she took while attending the California Institute of the Arts, but, just between thee and me, lessons hone talent they do not create it. She loves to caricature. "I find that a successful caricature has more to do with how much you know the person than what he looks like," she told me once. "I hate doing caricatures from still photos. I like to see a person on video or tv or in person-because I feel that's a way you get to know them."
The world of editorial cartooning is dominated by male view points: there are fewer than a half-dozen full-time women editorial cartoonists. I'm everlastingly overjoyed that one of them is Ann Telnaes, whose work is so stunningly executed and so unflinchingly outspoken on issues so frequently overlooked. And you'll see what I mean in this great little volume. Here's a gallery of her work, some from the book, some from my files, including a couple of my all-time favorite Telnaes cartoons. (One was done when Katherine Hepburn died; it shows a pair of slacks on a hanger. Brilliant.)
Funnybook Fan Fare
The two-issue mini-series (with only two issues, a minuscule mini-series) Harry Johnson takes a trip into a venue I've often hoped someone would visit-light-hearted adventure with a liberal dose of sexual shenanigans. The title character is a private detective of the Sam Spade sort with a snap-brim hat and a broken nose and five-o'clock shadow, and he has a beauteous damsel for a client and an equally fetching stripper for a traveling companion when he takes the case that takes him to South America. The character designs are by Dean Yeagle, an animator and illustrator whose toothsome femmes appear, from time to memorable time, in the pages of Playboy. (Yeagle has lately produced two tasty paperback collections of his pin-up chicks, Scribblings and Scribblings 2, which prove, without quibble, that he is a master at limning pertly cute young sexpots, all sporting zaftig embonpoint of the softest most enticing sort. For more, see www.cagedbeagle.com.) Yeagle's designs are expertly translated into pencil renditions by Craig Rousseau and inked by Norman Lee, serving a confection by Charles Fulp (of Fulp Fiction, at a website of the same name); colors by Liquid elevate the visuals to yet another highly burnished realm of excellence. The story, which employs Nazi villains and a mildly crazed captive scientist (who has developed a serum for making super soldiers that works, so far, only on women by increasing the size of their bosoms) as well as a femme fatale in leather and a chorus line of Nazi girl soldiers, is a trifle, and it is loaded with double entendre and silly juvenile jokes, many of which spring from the names of the characters, beginning with the hero. I first encountered "johnson" as slang for the male sexual apparatus when visiting t-shirt shops years ago on Myrtle Beach, where every t-shirt seemed just another pun of the same ilk. In the comic books at hand, we are quickly initiated into this region of the infantiley risque when the shapely Selena Crabbe, wearing a bright red, skin-tight strapless gown, enters the detective's office and says, "I'm looking for a Harry Johnson." To which our hero reposits: "Shouldn't be hard to find one in a dress like that." The name of the stripper is Fanny Sellers. They journey, after a stop in South America, to India, where they acquire a "native" assistant whose name is Dhalabil Phut. His first name is pronounced, Harry concludes, "dollar bill," so Harry decides to call him "Buck" for short. "But," says Fanny, "that would make his name ... " Mercifully, she doesn't finish the sentence. The Nazi general's name is Butplugge, which, he tells us, is pronounced "boot ploog" but which Harry translates into "butt plug." Most of the humor and sexual innuendo is of this adolescent kind, but the pictures and the storytelling-breakdowns and layout-are skillfully managed. I suppose this may be as close as I get to good, light-hearted adventure with similarly light-hearted sexual content. Not bad at all; but not superlative either (except the pictures).
Understanding the Axis of Evil
About a year ago, Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian woman in exile, created a stir in the publishing world with her first book, entitled Persepolis, an autobiographical account of her childhood in Iran, growing to adolescence under the totalitarian regime of the Islamic revolution. It was the form of her narrative as much as its subject that captured the enthusiasm of book critics: Satrapi told her story in the form of a graphic novel (hence, the more appropriate term "graphic memoir" to designate a work of non-fiction). At the time, Satrapi was living in France, a virtually unknown young would-be painter hoping to be a children's book author.
Like Art Spiegelman's Maus (which inspired her), Satrapi's work persuasively demonstrated that the visual-verbal narrative could be deployed for serious subjects, and suddenly, like Spiegelman, Satrapi was a famous personage, being interviewed hither and yon by critics and reporters, all frothing over her achievement. Now 34, Satrapi, abetted by her fame as a cartoonist, has published two children's books and the sequel to her first endeavor, Persepolis 2 (192 6x9-inch pages; hardcover, $17.95). The title, which means "city of Persians," is a symptom of the author's nonconformist stance, evoking, as it does, the ancient culture of Satrapi's native country by way of reminding her readers that Iran is not synonymous with the hostage-taking of 1979-80 or with the repressive rule of the mullahs since then or with the menace the Bush League sees in the present Iranian government.
Her hope, Satrapi explained in an interview with Bitch magazine last year, is that her books will "put a face on this 'axis of evil'" and thereby persuade people that behind that abstract expression there are genuine human beings, individuals, with lives and stories, loves and losses, like people everywhere. Said she: "If I have one goal, it is to show that this drastic division of the world into West and East is complete nonsense. If people can read my story and they can identify with me and imagine that this could happen to them, then I have done the biggest part of the thing that I wanted to do, which is to convince people that I am not different. I am not scary-we are very much alike. I try to understand you [in the West], so please try to understand me."
Like any artist, however, Satrapi has motives that arise from a creative impulse rather than a political or even humanitarian one. Interviewed in the lobby of her hotel when she visited the U.S. promoting her second opus, she complained about how difficult it is in American hotels for cigarette smokers like her. When her interviewer suggested that the rules against smoking were intended to promote good health, Satrapi replied tartly: "If they had to forbid everything that's bad for the health they shouldn't permit lots of things."
Her questioning dissidence has informed her life and, therefore, her art. The first Persepolis begins in 1980, the year the mullahs began requiring women to wear the veil. Satrapi is ten years old, a rather typical smart and spirited youngster who, as she grows to the age of fourteen, encounters the oppressive pressures of the extremist theocracy and, with the mischievousness of youthful exuberance, resists living "under the veil." At the end of the book, her parents, middle-class secular liberals who value their daughter's independent thinking, send her away to complete her education in Vienna, where, they believe, she will be safe from the Islamic fundamentalism that smothers intellectual and pyschological growth.
Persepolis 2 reveals that her escape is illusory. Because she is in a foreign environment, she finds herself as much a misfit in Austria as she was in Iran. First living in a convent, she is evicted by the nuns because she rebels against their rules. She then takes up with hippies and lives in a house with several gay men. Her first romantic relationship ends badly when she discovers her boyfriend in bed with another girl, and when, on the heels of this discovery, her landlady wrongly accuses her of theft, she takes to the streets, sleeping in streetcars and finding food in trash cans for two months until she collapses and awakens in a hospital.
Although the book is subtitled "The Story of a Return," her homelessness in Austria is a better metaphor for the life the book rehearses. She spends four years in Vienna-her adolescent years, the most trying time of growing up, when teenagers search for identity. And she tries several identities (including drug dealing), but she is conducting her search as an outsider in a culture hostile to the beliefs of her upbringing. Instead of assuring her safety, her parents unwittingly condemned her to soul-destroying isolation. Homesick when she leaves the hospital, she returns to Iran.
There, she continues to search for herself, and homesickness takes on a contrary shade of meaning as she grows increasingly sick of this home: her experience of freedom in Europe makes the oppression and sexism of her homeland harder to endure than ever. Although the girlfriends of her childhood dress like American tv actresses, they are deeply imbued with Islamic traditions, and when Satrapi reveals that she has slept with a man without being married to him, they call her a whore. She is as much a misfit in Iran as she was in Austria. She tries suicide but fails. Concluding that she was not meant to die, she undertakes a cosmetic make-over and becomes an aerobic instructor. She meets the man she will marry, and they attend the University of Tehran together as art students, but they prove completely incompatible, and she divorces him and leaves Iran. At a tearful family parting, her mother tells her, "This time, you are leaving for good. You are a free woman. The Iran of today is not for you. I forbid you to come back." Satrapi returns to Europe.
The book is not a feminist tract, Satrapi insists. "The men [of Iran] are not in much better situation that we are," she said; "they go to jail also. ...We suffer on different things, but in the artistic way, the female and the male are equal-everybody suffers. Anybody who [makes an] attempt toward freedom suffers."
Her self-portrait is unflinching: Satrapi is scarcely a heroic protagonist. Once while back in Iran, she runs into the morality police while wearing lipstick. Desperate to avoid arrest for this violation, she distracts them by going to them and pointing to a man nearby, a person wholly unknown to her, who, she says, has said something indecent to her. They arrest him and ignore her lipstick. Later in the book, Satrapi laughs about it and never quite redeems herself for this mean and selfish act. Despite its uncomplimentary nature, she believes it was necessary to include the incident to show the repression and paranoia in Iran. "Fear pushed me to do it," she explains. "I was so scared of being caught by these people. By creating an atmosphere of complete paranoia, they are able to manipulate so easily a whole population. ... When you are scared, you don't think anymore." In an interview with Vanessa Jones of the Boston Globe, Satrapi elaborated on the circumstance, relating it to America under the Bush League, which has "scared people so much that they've lost any sense of criticism."
Satrapi's black-and-white naif drawing style, evocative, sometimes, of Matisse, seems too simple for the depressing realism of her story. But she drenches many panels in solid black, masking the almost complete lack of visual detail while also giving the story a suitably somber aura. And the simplicity of her style permits her to capture the emotions of her characters with just a few lines, often adding comic relief to an episode with revealing facial expressions. Working in black and white is more difficult, she believes. "You cannot cheat when you make artwork in black and white," she said: "you make a lousy drawing, [and] you put some color on it, and it looks nice. With black and white, if it's lousy, everyone will see it."
For an artist who likes to write, the graphic novel form as a creative vehicle was, to Satrapi, "absolutely obvious. ... When I read Maus, I saw that it was possible to talk about a war in the comic format. I have always been drawing, and I think that pictures have, once in a while, power that words don't have. I have always [made] narrative illustrations, so after a while, making comics became like making evidence for me." Questions about the appropriateness of the form to the subject are, to her, irrelevant: "No one would ever ask a writer why he wrote a book and didn't make a movie," she said.
Asked about the possible limits of the graphic novel form-particularly whether certain emotions like the homesickness and the profound sense of displacement of her book's first part can be adequately portrayed in visual-verbal terms-Satrapi suggests that if this is a shortcoming in her work, it is due to her own limits as an artist and writer, not the inadequacy of the form. Said she: "Maybe I haven't been successful. That is one thing. But saying that the graphic novel is not able to do that is absolutely false because there are so many graphic novels that talk about internal feelings."
While much of her story is told with a simple progression of uniform-sized panels, she varies this routine for dramatic emphasis, deploying the resources of her medium effectively to enhance the significance of a sequence. Sometimes, Satrapi's pictures are purely diagrammatic; sometimes, symbolic-both visual maneuvers that the simplicity of her style permits her to indulge readily without being stylistically intrusive, both adding dimensions of meaning to her narrative. She provides a vivid diagrammatic shorthand explaining her body's changes during puberty with a series of mug shots, showing her jaw getting larger, ditto her eyes, nose, then feet, and so on. A similar series of symbolic pictures illustrates how much she and her first husband differ in taste and aspiration. Another diagram shows how the shape of the veil reveals the hairdo beneath. The narrative is often highly verbal, heavily laden captions accompanying pictures and carrying most of the storyline. But one sequence is entirely wordless, the silent progression of pictures showing how a friend fell to his death when fleeing the morality police; and the very silence augments the horror of the event.
In the New York Times, Luc Sante wrote: "Satrapi's voice is as artfully artless as her graphic style, never giving any indication of effort or calculation but simply communicating, in a way that feels unmediated, like a letter from a friend ... honest, strong-willed, funny, tender, impulsive, self-aware."
Satrapi says she doesn't think of herself as a cultural ambassador, but that is what she has become with her books. "If you leave your country, it's because life there is unbearable," she said, "and you have to quit. But it doesn't mean that after you arrive [in a new place], your life is very easy. It's very hard because you have to assimilate a new culture. You come from somewhere where you have been someone, and you become no one. Everyone looks down on you. You don't have any more culture because you have to forget your own in order to assimilate a new one. I was not an Iranian, I was not a European-I was nobody."
Now living in France where she has lived for some years, Satrapi says, "If I were a man, I might say that Iran is my mother, and France is my wife. My mother, whether she's crazy or not, I would die for her. No matter what, she is my mother. She is me, and I am her. My wife I can cheat on with another woman, I can leave her, I can also love her and make her children. But it's not like that with my mother."
When she started her book in 1999, "I didn't know that the situation of the world would be such that my book would be really important to read," she says. "At that time, I thought I was just making a book of memory." But today, her book, she hopes, will show that Iran's 70 million people are human beings, "not just an abstract notion." In this spirit, she concludes: "If tomorrow we are going to be the next target [in the war on terrorism], it is not the government that is going to pay; it is the people, the civilians."
She has two more graphic novels in preparation: Embroidery is based upon a long afternoon in hker late grandmother's house during which several ladies sit and talk about sex; in The Chicken and the Plum, her great uncle, a musician in the fifties, recounts his long life during his last eight days.
End of a Long, Strange Winding Trail
One of the last adventure strips in captivity will expire at year's end: on Sunday, December 26, Steve Roper and Mike Nomad ends after 68 years. The strip changed its name more times than any other (save one) -five. Nancy was once Fritzi Ritz; just two names. Popeye was once Thimble Theatre. Only Snuffy Smith equals the Roper/Nomad enterprise for alternating titles. Snuffy Smith was once Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, and before that, it was Barney Google and Spark Plug, a modification of its simpler predecessor, Barney Google; but it began as Take Barney Google, F'instance. Every name change signals a shift in the popularity of a character in the strip. Following his career nurturing a race horse named Spark Plug, Barney loitered for a decade in the foothills and was then replaced by the hillbilly lay-about Snuffy and his moonshining brethren. Fritzi surrendered her spotlight to her niece, Nancy. Popeye, once he wandered onto the stage at Thimble Theatre, got all the applause.
Some haphazard histories of Steve Roper and Mike Nomad suggest that the strip started out as The Great Gusto. Yes and no. That was, indeed, the first name for the strip, but a strip with that name was never syndicated. In 1935 in Toledo, Ohio, Allen Saunders had given up, temporarily, his quest to become a syndicated cartoonist. He'd tried a one-panel feature, Miserable Moments, patterned after Clare Briggs' When A Feller Needs A Friend, but that went nowhere, so he continued his newspaper career as drama critic for the Toledo News-Bee. Across the street at the Toledo Blade, its art editor, Elmer Woggon, had also tried, unsuccessfully, to get himself syndicated as a cartoonist. "He had created the first aviation strip, Skylark," Saunders wrote, "which failed to get off the ground, I suspect, because its creator had never been in a plane." Another reason may have been a jarring contradiction inherent in Woggon's approach: he drew in a bigfoot comedic manner, but he tried to show how airplanes actually work, an endeavor that would have been more appealing if pictured realistically. But he had another idea-a gag strip about an old-time medicine show impresario and con-man named J. Mortimer Gusto, "The Great Gusto," who was to be accompanied, as many of his ilk were, by a "shill" to work the crowds, in this case, a pint-sized Indian in a giant sombrero named Wahoo. Gusto was modeled after vaudeville comedian and thirties movie-star W.C. Fields (who would rather be in Philadelphia than dead). Others in the ensemble included a beauteous Indian maiden, Minnie-Ha-Cha, a tot named Pigtails, and the horse that dragged Gusto's wagon around, Ammonia. Despite the stellar line-up, Woggon felt somehow inadequate to tell their story, so he enlisted Saunders, who, he knew, had been selling detective fiction to the pulps. In those days, apparently one kind of writer was as good as any other kind so Woggon quite naturally supposed that if Saunders could write theater criticism and detective fiction, he could write a humorous comic strip. Saunders agreed. But their combined efforts in The Great Gusto did not result in a strip that attracted subscribing newspapers. Some editors, however, had expressed interest in the diminutive Wahoo. Woggon and Saunders retooled their effort, making the little big-nosed fellow the star and title character of their comical continuity strip, now titled Big Chief Wahoo. In his new role, Wahoo is "the richest Indian without a reservation" and sets out for New York, where he hopes to reclaim his sweetheart, Minnie-Ha-Cha. This incarnation sold. Gusto became the supporting character, who shows up on the fourth day of the strip's run and encounters Wahoo en route to the Big Apple.
The strip debuted November 25, 1936, and several amusing adventures ensued-Wahoo as a backward native encountering civilization and Gusto as the bombastic Fieldsian operator. The daily production of the strip was more than Woggon could undertake alone, however, and before long, Wahoo had acquired a rather extensive "staff." As Saunders put it: "It takes many more hands to draw a strip than to write it, and Wog had added to our team his brother Bill, a former WPA artist named Don Dean, and Paul McCarthy." But the strip's revenues did not support such an extensive production operation: Bill Woggon left for the West Coast (and, eventually, a comic book character, Katy Keene), and McCarthy went to New York. Dean stayed on. He was a more accomplished artist than Woggon, and by March 1938, Wahoo was beginning to look a good deal more polished than it had when it started. The polish showed in a more confident line throughout but particularly in the increasingly detailed facial treatments of all characters except Wahoo and Gusto, both of whom continued in the bigfoot tradition. Pretty girls got notably prettier, Minnie-Ha-Cha most of all. Meanwhile, another change was lurking in the wings.
In 1939, Saunders was offered the writing chores on Apple Mary, a continuity strip about a street peddler and her "family." Although he wasn't much attracted to the assignment, Saunders soon found a way to heighten his interest. "Laboring over the continuity," he once wrote, "I chanced upon a happy idea one day. Instead of treacly melodrama, why not do stories of the sort that were used in popular magazines for women? " At a stroke, Saunders midwifed the soap opera comic strip, and Apple Mary became Mary Worth. The success of the remodeled strip doubtless prompted Saunders to take another look at Wahoo. Surveying the average comics page in the nation's newspapers, he realized that serious continuity strips were more in evidence than humorous ones, and he decided to apply that nostrum to Wahoo. He brought in a handsome heroic character named Steve Roper, a freelance news photographer, and before long, Wahoo was playing second fiddle to Roper. Serious storytelling required more realistic visuals, and Woggon "stepped aside uncomplainingly as a succession of such men took over his drawing board." The first of these was Dean, who, by then, was up to the task. The strip's title was changed a little to take the emphasis off bigfoot: starting in about late 1939, it was Chief Wahoo, and it remained so until after World War II. Woggon's association with the strip continued: he lettered it until he died in 1977. "Don stayed with us until he sold a strip of his own, Cranberry Boggs, a New England version of Li'l Abner," Saunders said. Boggs was launched January 8, 1945; Dean may have continued drawing Wahoo for a time, or perhaps another (as yet unknown) artist took over. Shortly after World War II ended, Pete Hoffman took over the drawing. (He says "after the War," which would be in the fall of 1945; but he may have been discharged earlier, assuming the art chores as soon as Dean left.) Hoffman had enlisted in the Army air corps shortly after Pearl Harbor, but he had met Saunders and Woggon before then, as the cartoonist on the campus weekly newspaper at the University of Toledo. By the time of his discharge from miliary service, Hoffman said, Wahoo was in the last stages of its transition to serious adventure storytelling, "and a more illustrative style of drawing was desired; my style fit their needs." Completing the transition was the next alteration of the strip's title: it was now Steve Roper and Chief Wahoo. In 1947 or early 1948, Wahoo disappeared, leaving Steve Roper alone on the marquee.
Hoffman stayed on the job until he sold his own strip, Jeff Cobb, about a crusading and adventure-prone newspaperman, which was launched June 28, 1954, but he said he'd enjoyed "ghosting [Roper and Wahoo] for nearly nine years." Jeff Cobb lasted 24 years, written and drawn by Hoffman, who delighted in telling storytelling with a minimum of verbiage. Hoffman's successor on Steve Roper was William Overgard, who had been drawing comic books for Lev Gleason in the post-war years. He'd been trying to get a syndicated gig, and when the Roper job opened up, he was invited to compete with other candidates for the assignment. "Fortunately," he wrote, "I managed to scoot by and win, and that was the beginning of my career as a strip cartoonist." Overgard was more than just an illustrator: over the years, he wrote several television scenarios and a couple novels; my impression is that his relationship with Saunders (and, subsequently, with Saunders' son John, who took over his father's writing career) was sometimes rocky, that he often did as much writing (or re-writing) on the strip as drawing. Almost upon arrival, Overgard persuaded Saunders to add a new cast member-a tough, Mickey Spillane sort of anti-hero named Mike Nomad, "a realistic working-man kind of guy who was not beyond taking any opportunity that presented itself," Overgard said. "This type of hero hadn't really become popular at that time" he added, but "I had been including [him] in some of the strip submissions I had been sending to various syndicates without success." Understandably, since Nomad was Overgard's conception, he probably tinkered with Saunders' scripts if he didn't like the way the writer treated the character. Nomad was soon center-stage, most of the stories engaging him rather than Roper. Ironically, Nomad didn't show up in the title of the strip until Overgard was about to leave. In early 1983, Overgard launched an unusual humor strip: Rudy was about an eponymous talking ape, a one-time vaudeville star, but despite its fantasy premise, it was drawn in Overgard's realistic manner. Fran Matera took over Steve Roper and Mike Nomad in 1984.
Matera's career was as varied as the strip's title had been. He ghosted Kerry Drake for a year or so (1946); ditto Little Annie Rooney (1951) and Rex Morgan, M.D. (1976-78), Apartment 3-G, and Judge Parker. He had a byline when doing Dickie Dare (1947-48) and several other strips- Mr. Holiday (1950-52), Nero Wolfe (1957), Galexo (1974-75), The Legend of Bruce Lee (1982-83), and Chuck White and His Friends and Can You Solve the Mystery, not to mention the occasional comic book assignment.
With Steve Roper and Mike Nomad's departure from the ranks of adventure strips, only 9 adventure strips remain among the 17 storytelling strips: Alley Oop, The Amazing Spider-Man, Annie, Dick Tracy, Brenda Starr, Mandrake the Magician, The Phantom, Mark Trail, and, on Sunday only, Prince Valiant. (Two more, Tarzan and Flash Gordon, are in re-runs.) Of the 9, only 3 (Spider-Man, Brenda Starr, and Mark Trail) appeared after 1940; the adventure strip heyday, the 1930s, was clearly over, and Roper and Nomad are among the last vestiges of a glorious era in newspaper comics. The remaining storytelling strips are: Gil Thorpe, Mary Worth, Rex Morgan, Judge Parker, Apartment 3-G, Funky Winkerbean, For Better or For Worse, and Gasoline Alley. Of the 17, only two (Funky Winkerbean and FBOFW) are still in the hands of their originators; the rest are legacy strips, some better done than others.
Under the Spreading Punditry
The election of George W. ("Whopper") Bush is simply too catastrophic to contemplate yet. The pundits and pollsters credit "moral values" for swinging the balloting to Dubya. And he's a person of "moral values"? He lies, distorts, and breaks or perverts the laws he's supposed to execute, but he's a champion of "moral values"? Fine. "Moral values" is, I suspect, a doublespeak for "Christian values." We're talking the political usurpation of the government by the religious right. "Christian" to them doesn't mean all Christians. It means only the Christians in my church or denomination. Theirs is a curiously intolerant Christianity. We agonize about "religious fundamentalists" taking over the government in Afghanistan and/or Iraq when "religious fundamentalists" have already assumed a throne in our own so-called form of government.
Yesterday (November 4), George W. ("Warlord") Bush held a press conference to announce that he was going to spend the "political capital" of his "mandate" in repealing the 20th century. The Little Old Lady in Dubuque who refused to vote was right when she explained her civic dereliction by saying that voting only encourages them.
As a measure either of the intensity of the Presidential race or of the increased license allowed to comic strip cartooners, several comic strips jumped in and commented on the Election Campaign. In the closing days of the campaign, in Jeff Mallett's Frazz, the school staged a "mock election." The candidates were Willy Wonka and Harry Potter. Said the school janitor Frazz: "But those aren't real people. They're just characters manufactured to advance a line of thought." To which the teacher says, "What's wrong with that?" And Frazz responds: "It's too close to right." In Bill Griffith's Zippy, the Lone Ranger rides up too late to save the country. And in Darrin Bell's Candorville, the central character, a black guy named Lemont, spent the rest of the week just trying to get to vote. I'm sure there were other manifestations of political angst; I just missed seeing 'em all.
In the conservative mongering Mallard Fillmore, cartoonist Bruce Tinsley sought to beat the time lapse predicament (the time between when he produces a strip and when the strip is published, always in syndication too long an interval to permit overnight response) by staging during the week before the Election a sequence in which Kerry wins. So on Wednesday, the day after the Election in real life, newsduck Mallard says: "Good evening. Our top story is that this week's comic strips were drawn before the Election and show John Kerry winning. If what's being reported here bears no resemblance to actual events, you're probably used to it, if you watch much broadcast news." A neat shot at the so-called "liberal media." (So if the Republicans occupy the White House, influence a majority on the Supreme Court, and control both houses of Congress, why are they still complaining about being a minority persecuted by the "liberal media"?) Meanwhile, in Bud Grace's Piranha Club, Ralph Nader has won the Election but is late to deliver his State of the Union address to Congress because he missed his bus.
Editorial cartoonists, who haven't the time-lapse hurdle that confronts syndicated comic strip cartoonists, can produce their reactions for tomorrow's papers. Alarm and disgust prevailed among all but the conservative minority. There are more liberal political cartoonists than conservative, but the conservatively inclined are more numerous than I'd supposed. Recently on the list serve of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, the participants assembled a roster of conservatives that numbered 44. Of those, only about 25 are full-time editorial cartoonists, but that represents at least a quarter of the total full-timers in the country. Not bad for a bunch claiming victimhood every chance they get.
The New Yorker endorsed Kerry, mostly, we gather from editor David Remnick's testimony to Charlie Rose on October 30, because it would disingenuous not to: the magazine has been faithfully critical of GW all along, implying support of whoever his opponent might be. In the published endorsement, however, Kerry's virtues were detailed and applauded at the end of a long litany of all of Dubya's sins and crimes of malfeasance.
Yes, I'm sorry Kerry didn't win: caricaturing him over the next four years would be a lot more fun than caricaturing the front man for the Bushwah Boys. On the other hand, it's a pleasure to compose poison-pen Bushwhacking prose in honor of the current Halliburton House occupant. Four more years of bungling and bumbling-who could ask for more?
In the spirit of the next four years, then-in the interest of championing moral turpitude in loyal opposition-here's our discovery of the answer to a question that has plagued the human sapiens (sic) for almost a century:
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