Opus 150 (November 22, 2004). We begin this time a 3-part review of comic strip reprint tomes that you might want to put on your Christmas Wish List for your spouse. Or for yourself, for that matter. This time, Hi and Lois, Baby Blues, Zits, Foxtrot, Luann, The Other Coast, and the second volume of the Fantagraphics Peanuts project. And we take a somewhat long look at Bradford Wright's Comic Book Nation, a flawed piece of reasoning but a provoking book nonetheless. Between here and there, we glimpse The Jack Kirby Reader, Vol. 2, and ponder such excitements as law suits involving Disney and Marvel, the marvels of Brooke McEldowney's fabulous strip 9 Chickweed Lane, Ted Rall's latest banishment, Popeye's anniversary (continued), Australia's Stanley winners, Harry Lambert's death, Scott Kurtz's revolution, The Norm's campaign, and the latest entry into the "best editorial cartoons of the year" sweepstakes. Not to mention, at the end, a little Bushwhacking, some of it in the funnies. All of which, as I've said before, is too much to digest while sitting there at your keyboard, staring at the screen. So print it all out and park the product in the bathroom for later reading at your leisure. To assist in this drill, we are introducing our newest feature, the "bathroom button": click on the printer-friendly button under whichever opus of Rancid Raves you fancy, and you'll be able to print out just that installment without having to sit and watch your printer to stop it before it regurgitates this week's opus as well as last week's, which, of course, you've already read and have no further need of. Here come the reprints-
Reprints for the Season: Part 1 of 3
Just in time to make it to your Christmas shopping list, we have a parade of comic strip reprint titles, led by Hi and Lois: Sunday Best (128 9x12-inch pages in paperback, $17.95), an all-color celebration of the strip's 50th anniversary. A happy strip about a thoroughly modern suburban couple and their offspring, Hi and Lois has a more storied origin than any other comic strip around. It started with Mort Walker's Beetle Bailey. Beetle was Walker's attempt to turn a magazine cartoon creation named Spider into a more remunerative syndicated comic strip. "Beetle" replaced "Spider" as the character's name (because King Features already had a comic feature named Spider), and the character acquired a last name (adopted from John Bailey, the cartoon editor at the Saturday Evening Post who had encouraged Walker to focus on something he knew, college life), and the strip debuted September 4, 1950, with Beetle's hat in a permanent tilt over his eyeballs. But Beetle as a campus layabout set no circulation records, and after about six months, King was thinking of discontinuing the strip. Then inspiration struck. The Korean War was getting under way at the time and thousands of men of Beetle's vintage were being called up. Beetle could scarcely avoid military service. And he didn't: on March 13, 1951, he wound up in the Army, having ducked into a recruiting office as a purely temporary maneuver to avoid an unpleasant street encounter with a girlfriend. Almost at once, 100 new papers signed up for the strip.
By late 1953, the Korean War had cooled into a perpetual cease fire, and Walker, thinking that interest in matters military would flag, toyed with the idea of returning his indolent private to civilian life. As a way of testing the water, he send Beetle home on furlough for two weeks in April 1954. Readers didn't like Beetle out of uniform, though, so Walker left him in. But he'd introduced two new characters, Beetle's sister Lois and her husband Hiram Flagstone and their children. Walker found he liked doing family gags, so he looked around for someone to draw the new strip he proposed to King Features. He and his editor at King made lists of likely prospects, and when they met to confer, they discovered the same name at the top of each list- Dik Browne, who was presently working out of the comics advertising studio of Johnstone and Cushing. Walker and Browne were happily compatible, and Hi and Lois was launched that fall, on October 18.
The strip's popularity grew steadily, and by the early 1980s, it ranked eleventh in the Editor & Publisher listing of strips by circulation, within striking distance of the all-time long-distance running Blondie, which had been in the top ten for generations (and still is). Although both are family strips, Blondie, despite the title character's starting a catering business some years ago, has maintained a laser-like focus on the successful routines of its timeless formula-rotating through gags about eating, sleeping, raising a family, and work-almost without regard for societal changes that have transpired during its 75-year run. Hi and Lois has always been somewhat more in touch with the contemporary world, perhaps because both Walker and Browne were thoroughly surrounded by their own numerous offspring. Lois, like Blondie, has a business that takes her outside the home, but Hi, unlike Dagwood, has inherited some of the household chores: he's often seen in an apron, preparing dinner for the kids. And Chip, the teenage son, more accurately reflects the preoccupations of today's adolescent than does Alexander, the Bumstead boy: you never see Alexander wearing an ear-piece and carrying a portable CD player, f'instance, audio regalia that often bedecks Chip.
But it was the treatment of the infant in the Flagstone family that boosted Hi and Lois up the circulation ladder. Walker remembers seeing in a book a sketch of a baby thinking. "I thought it would be interesting to get inside a baby's mind and observe life through its lack of experience," he told me recently. "I built this character for Trixie where she is locked inside her inability to walk and talk and express herself, but you can read her thoughts. Her naive misinterpretations are a great source of gags. The circulation of the strip really started to take off after that."
Browne went on to concoct Hagar the Horrible, but he kept on drawing Hi and Lois, too. By the time of his untimely death in 1989, Browne had prepared his sons, Chris and Chance, to continue the family business at both strips. Walker, meanwhile, had long since involved his sons, Brian and Greg, in the writing of Hi and Lois (and Beetle, for that matter; but that's another story), and the strip continues today, still a product of Walker-Browne collaboration. The commemorative volume's reliance exclusively on Sunday strips is deliberate: Sundays were always special for the first generation of Browne and Walker. The Sunday installment is roomier than the dailies, and Walker tried to come up with Sunday gags that would permit his drawing partner to indulge his passion for drawing, filling the greater expanse with complex scenery and varying textures and brilliant colors-graphic masterpieces of childhood fantasies, nostalgic reveries, strolls through changing seasons, and the like. Chance, who studied fine art in college, started his full-time apprenticeship with his father in 1978. "I'm still trying to master that wonderful style that he developed," he said, although, considering the evidence in the present volume, he has pretty much achieved his ambition.
Brian and Greg follow in their father's footsteps, too. "Sunday pages are really special for us," Brian said. "Greg and I try to write episodes that are challenging to Chance, that will put the Flagstone family in a different environment-maybe at July Fourth fireworks or at the beach." And Chance delivers, inked by Frank Johnson, who has inked Hi and Lois since the early 1970s, when Dik Browne started dividing his efforts between this strip and his newly launched Viking enterprise. Brian, whose career includes curating museum exhibits of comics as well as authoring two lavishly illustrated histories of the medium (Comics Since 1945 and, just out, Comics Before 1945), says (and he should know) Hi and Lois is "one of the best drawn strips in the papers," remarking by way of elaboration that many of today's strips, in contrast to Hi and Lois, lack backgrounds and deploy a "talking-head" format. Most of the Sunday Best showcases in stunning color the work of the present creative team, but the volume opens with a half-dozen of Dik Browne's classics by way of setting the pace. And as this volume amply demonstrates, the new team has managed to keep up just fine, thank you. (I wish they'd left in the dates of the strips, though; just the petty complaint of a would-be historian. Someday, when some future generation finds this book in a time capsule.... well, they'll be utterly lost. Sob.)
Most of the rest of the current crop of reprints is, as usual, from Andrews McMeel, the champion comic strip reprint publisher, and none celebrate anniversaries of any vast dimension. Playdate: Category 5 (128 9.5x9-inch black-and-white pages in paperback; $10.95) is the 19th reprint volume of Baby Blues by Jerry Scott and Rick Kirkman. Launched in 1990, the strip proved one of the industry's fast-risers, currently appearing in over 900 newspapers. Enduring the baby blues, the MacPherson family now includes three offspring, Baby Wren having joined his older siblings Zoe and Hammie in a relentless test of the adults' parenting skills. The strip sparkles with such timeless observations as: "I think screaming is the primary form of communication for girls"; "Showers are better than baths. If you stand really close to the wall, you hardly get wet"; and "Sometimes being the dad is like being the weird kid in the neighborhood." Despite the prevalence, here, of verbal humor, the comedy in the strip is as often dependent upon a blend of word and picture in the best tradition of cartooning, writer Scott being not just a writer but a cartoonist who, in this strip and in Zits, is concentrating on writing the comedy rather than drawing it. The drawing he leaves to his partners-here, Kirkman. "Daddy," says Hammie, coming to his father in distress; "I was fixing my yellow truck and I think I got some on my nose." "Some what?" asks father Darryl, putting his finger on Hammie's nose. "Super glue," says Hammie, as his father, seeking to retrieve his hand, pulls it away, raising Hammie several feet off the floor by his nose. Stuck. On another day, Darryl tells his long-suffering wife, Wanda, that, "Thanks to me, we can now walk through the living room without tripping over toys." "Already?" Wanda says, "-that room was a disaster! How did you get everything picked up and put away so quickly," she continues, making her way to the living room. "Put away?" says Darryl in the last panel, which reveals that he's merely created a walkway through the room by shoving the toys into hedgerows, one on either side of the path. Behind his back, he's holding a snow shovel, an exquisite bit of visual humor. Baby Wren is rendered too small to seen with normal eyesight, but that's part of the comedy. Besides, the father's nose is so wildly out-of-proportion in the other direction that it makes up for it.
Random Zits reprints Scott's other enterprise, which is drawn with great skill and a profound understanding of the medium by Jim Borgman, who also does editorial cartoons at the Cincinnati Enquirer. This tome is one of the "treasury" series from Andrews McMeel: 146 8.5x11-inch pages in paperback for $16.95, it recycles the entire content of two smaller, 128-page productions but this time prints the Sunday strips in color. On Sundays, Scott and Borgman often exploit the potential of the expanded format by varying the layout to emphasize the day's gag-drawing long, narrow panels or re-arranging the usual grid to incorporate a larger vista. Here's a single panel Sunday with needle-point border and lettering; the picture shows teenage Jeremy going off to the right, eating a sandwich, leaving his shocked mother gaping at the cluttered kitchen he leaves behind. The motto inscribed above reads: "Give a teen a snack, and you feed him for a day; teach him to fix his own snack, and your kitchen will be a wreck forever." And here's Jeremy, explaining to his mother why he's coming home late from the movie: "Is it really that late? Wow-I had no idea. See, after the movie, we went straight to Pierce's house. His parents weren't exactly home, so we decided to just hang out there to prevent burglary and stuff. ..." He goes on at greater length, but the gag is in the way the speech balloons are drawn: they are balloons that seem filled with water, and as Jeremy rattles on, his speech balloon springs an increasing number of leaks, turning into a regular downpour, which eventually soaks his long-suffering mother. Enhancing the effect, the balloons are colored light blue (water color), and as the number of leaks increases, the water level slowly drops. Jeremy goes to bed, and his mother ditto, saying to her husband, "As I suspected: his story doesn't hold water." The gag is the vital hinge between two devices: the figure of speech in the mother's final remark, and the visual conceit that a speech balloon could be a water-filled balloon. This volume is littered, more than usual, with such visual devices, it seems to me. Jeremy's mother takes him clothes shopping for a week, and when he goes to try on a shirt, she says, "Would you like me to wait for you right here or someplace else?" The next panel, a visual answer to her question, shows her sitting alone on the barren moon landscape. And when she convinces Jeremy to try on a striped polo shirt, the youth is depicted as a stubborn donkey that she must pull into the fitting room. My guess is that Borgman formulates many of these visual devices for comedy: Baby Blues, with the same writer, has almost none of this sort of tomfoolery. Zits is a modern masterwork and every reprint is a treasury; this one, the fourth such volume, comes with a giant 22x33-inch poster that reproduces the antic wrap-around cover with its images of the characters dancing wildly.
With Foxtrotus Maximus, Andrews McMeel advances the recycled reprints dodge one more step: at 191 8.5x11-inch pages with color Sundays, this book includes strips from three previous compilations, but not all of the contents of the three volumes. A "treasury" volume reprints roughly 80 weeks of a strip; this tome, roughly 95 weeks, albeit not consecutively (at $16.95, still). With about 30 reprint volumes published and appearing in 1,000 newspapers, Bill Amend's strip is among the medium's most successful. The stars of the feature are members of the fictional Fox family: Roger, a well-meaning but clueless father; Andy, the sensible solve-it-all mom; and the three children-Peter, the eldest, a more-or-less normal egocentric sixteen-year-old, his sister Paige, who aspires to superiority and up-to-the-minute teenage fashions, and Jason, a genius child whose forte is inadvertently tormenting his siblings with scientific undertakings beyond their ken. This ensemble is rendered in a sort of Cubist manner, eyeballs both on one side of the noses, which restricts Amend's visual options to profile and full-frontal, the kind of artistic enterprise you might expect of an avid art student. But Amend, despite having taken a life-drawing class while in college at Amherst, was a physics major with aspirations to be a movie maker. He cartooned for the campus newspaper while in college but landed in the motion picture business before selling a comic strip to Universal Press, his syndicate. Soon after graduating from college, he was operations manager at San Francisco Studios, a film and tv sound stage. But he found out he didn't like making movies after all: too many other people involved. Said he: "I decided ... what I really wanted was sole authorship of my creations." And he returned to cartooning because "a comic strip would afford me control of a fictional universe of my creation that I would not have as a film director." And Amend remains in complete control: he has no assistants, no inker or letterer. He does it all himself. The aspect of the strip that appealed initially to Universal Press was that Amend offered a fresh vision of the role of children in a family, and the children continue to drive the comedy in the strip. And, through their interests, they extend the appeal of the strip to a wide readership: since the kids are all smart and up-to-date, the strip is tech savvy and appeals to the Internet demographic. The family is a loving one, but its members are all absorbed in the world around them, and the humor derives from their encounters with that world.
In Luann 2: Dates and Other Disasters (128 8.5x9-inch black-and-white pages in paperback; $10.95), we encounter something quite different: Greg Evans' warmly human strip about teenage life is concerned, chiefly, with relationships, not with technology or fashion or status. This book, unlike most such compilations, carries the publication dates of every strip, a boon to historians of the medium; so we know it covers May through December 2001, during which time Luann earns the right to drive the family car solo, finds out the hunk lifeguard at the pool is married, and gets a sprained ankle while on an errand with Gunther, her not-so-secret admirer. Luann's plain friend Bernice meets Zane, a dashing young man confined to a wheelchair, and commences an infatuation with him, which continues under the disapproving eye of the owner of the bookstore where they both work. Luann's brother Brad enters fireman training, and we watch the usual cast wander by in the halls of the high school-Aaron Hill, the object of Luann's infatuation (who recently, that is, in 2004, left with his family for Hawaii), and Tiffany, the blonde bombshell, the object of every adolescent male's panting admiration. Apart from the endearing humanity of the strip, its stories and characters, Luann is wonderfully easy on the eyes, crisp linework and uncluttered compositions, spotted by clean solid blacks. In short, a treat, story and art.
When Creators Syndicate launched The Other Coast by Adrian Raeside in 2001, the comic was designed to be run as a panel cartoon or as a strip: to achieve the single panel dimension, the strip panels are simply stacked on top of each other. This is a maneuver that NEA syndicate performed regularly through the twenties and thirties and, for all I know, through the forties and forever. The panels of Wash Tubbs/Captain Easy daily strips were always arrayed so the strip could be cut in half and the left-hand panels stacked on top of the right-hand panels; ditto Alley Oop. Raeside's strip is also sometimes a single panel wide in a composition that permits the cartoonist to reconfigure in the single-panel format much as Wiley Miller does with Non Sequitur. The theory, I suppose, is that maximum adaptability is a marketing virtue. And Creators apparently set out to test the validity of that theory one more time. I'm not sure it passed the test: most of the content of the first reprint volume, Road Rage in Beverly Hills (128 8.5x9-inch pages in black-and-white paperback, $10.95), which includes some of the earliest strips, permits the maneuver I just described, but by the end of the book, there are some three-panel strips that could not be handily re-arranged in a single-panel dimension.
Raeside's characters are Toulouse, a short big-nosed guy with a hair-do that makes him look like he's wearing Afghanistan headgear, and his long-suffering wife, Vicky. When the strip debuted, he wanted to be a writer, and she wanted to save the whales, the lemmings, the sparrows, even the starlings, and to that end, espoused every cause that comes along. These proclivities are no longer in evidence in this collection, and sometimes, Raeside strays from his couple and their mileu into something completely different-prehistoric times, for instance, or just any gag that rises to the surface of consciousness. Two ants, for example, apparently eating the clapboard siding on a house and one says, "Whooah! It's already 3 p.m.-pack up and let's go home." And the explanatory caption reads: "Why they're called carpenter ants."
Toulouse is so short that most of him is below the viewing area of a comic strip panel, a comedic turn that has the additional virtue of simplifying Raeside's drawing task; apart from this novelty, this is just another funny strip, the humor of which isn't particularly unique, twisted, or bent-it's just traditional humor, well within the prevailing currents of the mainstream.
When Vicky tells Toulouse not to take his computer apart with a crowbar in order to repair it, and then the next panel shows a repairman taking Toulouse's computer apart with a crowbar, we haven't wound up in a wholly unexpected place. Ditto when Vicky marvels about what she sees on his computer screen-"It's eloquent, it's bold, it's you"-and Toulouse, a beat later, says, "It's my screensaver."
Coast is well drawn, though, in the "contemporary style" that elsewhere seems intended to convince observers that one may become a syndicated cartoonist with very little artistic ability. But Raeside has artistic ability, so even his simple attempts at crude rendering resonate confidence and craft. In short, it's funny and competently done. But not unusual and not directed any more obviously to a young and spendthrift audience than any other strip seeking to convince editors to buy it. No niche appeal, in other words, and that, in our day of demographic scientology, is to be enthusiastically applauded whenever it occurs. Raeside is no novice at this: he's been the editorial cartoonist at the Victoria Times Colonist in British Columbia, Canada, where he lives, for over 25 years and has produced eleven books, including There Goes the Neighborhood, a blasphemous history of Canada. He's also written and illustrated a series of children's books starring Dennis the Dragon.
The second volume of Fantagraphics' gigantic Peanuts reprint project is out, and it is as elegant a production as the first (350 6.5x8-inch pages; hardback, $28.95). Covering the years 1953 and 1954, this one begins with a short introduction by Walter Cronkite, the CBS news guru and national icon of trustworthiness, who recounts, with regret, chagrin, and sadness, that he almost met Peanuts' creator Charles Schulz, but an assignment on the other side of the globe postponed their scheduled encounter. Before their interview could be rescheduled, Sparky had been diagnosed with cancer, and Cronkite "deprived of an opportunity to at least briefly share his company, was a particularly stricken mourner" at the cartoonist's subsequent death. Cronkite reveals that one of his treasured possessions was a figurine of Snoopy on his doghouse in pilot's helmet and goggles, forever in pursuit of the fiendish Red Baron. A gift from one of his children, it was music box that soon fell silent, but the Cronk kept it on his dressing table in his bedroom and bid it a fond good night every evening before retiring. "I suppose there are out there some people who will think I'm a foolish old romantic, possibly even a little nuts, to have such an association with, even to the point of taking to, an inanimate object. You Peanuts fans know better. You know that the greatest of Charles Schulz's magic tricks was bringing life to all those wonderful folks with which he peopled our world and brightened our days." This volume, like the first, includes a intriguing Index that earmarks various events in the strip's progression. Except for Linus uttering his first words, no other notable "firsts" seem to appear herein. But the Index compiler is having difficulty dealing with Ludwig van Beethoven: in the first volume, he appears under "Beethoven"; here, he appears under "van Beethoven." The strips are all here, though-even the fugitive Sunday for May 3, 1953, which is altogether among the missing print proofs otherwise and is, here, painstakingly reconstructed from microfilm. At the end of the book, the publisher apologizes for the occasional substandard appearance of the artwork, explaining that proofs of the strip in its early years were not archived and that although they've searched diligently for the best clip copies to use in reproducing the strip, they sometimes fail to find high caliber reproductions. I admire their intentions and their dedication, but Schulz was not Alex Raymond and Peanuts was not Rip Kirby: Schulz's drawings survive the abuse of their native habitat, reproduction on pulpy newsprint, much better than Raymond's, and only the most persnickety of Peanuts fans is likely to fault anything they find in this handsomely produced and thoughtfully assembled book.
NOUS R US
Not All the News That's Fit to Print, Just the News That Gives Us Fits
Mickey Mouse celebrated a birthday on November 18: that was the day in 1928 that he appeared in the first sound-synchronized animated cartoon; although he'd appeared in two previous films, they weren't sound. ... Otherwise, it seems to be a good month for lawyers at Marvel: the House of Ideas is suing Disney, claiming the Mouse House didn't have a legal right to make tv animated shows based on Marvel comic book characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men; other victims of legal assault from Marvel are NCSoft and Cryptic Studios, the makers of a computer superhero role-playing game, "City of Heroes," that employs a couple characters too similar to the Hulk and X-Men and other residents of the Marvel stable. ... Meanwhile, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit alleging that Disney stole the idea of Epcot theme park from a painting made by Mark Waters for Miniature Worlds, a theme park concept. ... Little Nemo's 100th anniversary is looming on the horizon, and in its honor, I'll be offering for sale here my monograph on The Genius of Winsor McCay; watch for it. ... In Cleveland, a couple reporters on the Plain Dealer have started agitating for some sort of civic statuary that recognizes the city as the birthplace of Superman. "To date," writes Sam Fulwood III, "only an obscure marker on St. Clair Avenue at East 105th Street tells visitors that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, a pair of Glenville High students, created him in 1934." With the anticipated release of the next Superman motion picture in 2006, followed, two years later, by the 70th anniversary of the Man of Steel's comic book debut, the agitation may reach monumental proportions yet.
In Brooke McEldowney's beautifully wrought strip 9 Chickweed Lane, a continuous celebration of visual comedic inventiveness, life for one of the principals is changing. Since the strip's debut eleven years ago, McEldowney has focused on a teenage girl, Edda Burber, her mother Juliette, and Juliette's mother, "Gran." In the first weeks of November, Edda auditioned for a prestigious ballet company, and by November 15, she'd been accepted. Said McEldowney in the United Media release: "When the strip began, Edda was twelve and Juliette was emerging from a scarring divorce. Now Edda is just about to turn eighteen, and it is time for that chapter to close, for the strip to transfigure and emerge as the story of a young woman who moves away from home to take up her new profession as a corps dancer in a metropolitan ballet company, living at her own address in an area I shall ambiguously call the West Seventies. Solange, her Siamese cat, moves with her. Likewise," he continued, "Juliette's lot in life changes dramatically when Edda leaves, spurring her to realize a dream: to dump her academic job and take up a more agrarian, self-sufficient way of living-something, she hopes, involving chickens and sheep dip. So, in a very substantial way a chapter closes. 9 Chickweed Lane is a completely new strip, but peopled with very familiar friends." McEldowney is uniquely suited to the course he has set for young Edda: he has a long and intimate association with music, having studied viola at New York City's Juilliard School and, after graduation, worked as a violist and music critic as well as cartoonist. His cartooning is likewise unique: he enjoys challenging himself visually. Deploying a liquid line and graduating tones of gray, he constructs individual strips that are always visually interesting: if his characters must talk among themselves for four panels, the camera angle in each panel is different-upshots, downshots, all around the scene. And very often-often enough to comprise a continuing delight-the comedy in the strip springs from an unusual composition, sometimes an optical exercise that is nearly illusory. If you haven't yet indulged yourself by reading this strip and watching McEldowney's visual tour de force, visit www.comics.com and the ladies at 9 Chickweed Lane for a week, and you'll become an addict for life. By way of whetting your appetite, here is a sample.
The online edition of the Washington Post dropped Ted Rall's cartoon as of November 15, saying that Rall's often strident liberal stance "did not fit the tone we wanted at WashingtonPost.com." Executive Editor Doug Feaver said the decision was "cummulative"-it had been building for quite some time. Last March, the online New York Times site also dropped the Ralltoon, saying "some of his humor was not in keeping with the tone we try to set." Lemme see if I have this right: the websites of two of the nation's foremost daily newspapers are more concerned about "tone" than controversy. I suppose that is not a matter of high urgency when it involves mere cartoons, but how do we know that "tone" is not a consideration in news coverage too? Investigative reporter Sy Hersh, speaking recently at New York University, said bombing in Iraq has increased dramatically lately and is now a daily exercise, but it's going largely unreported. "We don't know where," Hersh said. "We don't know how many [sorties a day]. How much tonnage? We used to get all of these numbers, but we [now] have no idea if they're dropping x-thousand. We don't know how much ordinance is being dropped on a country we're trying to save." Clearly, the failing is media-wide, not just online. Why is this news not being reported? Too messy? Not tonally suitable? Or simply another manifestation of gutless editors? When he was dropped by the New York Times, Rall said he thought it was because NYTimes.com had tired of dealing with e-mail campaigns launched in thousands of computer-generated e-missives by conservatives who were seeking to shut him up. One way or another, voices like Rall's are being silenced.
On Sunday, November 21, in a ceremony hosted by the National Council for Adoption (and in the strip itself), Popeye will formalize his adoption of the worm-like infant Swee'pea, who squirmed into the venerable strip in 1933. The week before, the strip's current steward, Hy Eisman, laid the narrative groundwork for the auspicious event by inserting into that Sunday installment a flashback showing when Swee'pea first appeared. The day before, New York's Museum of Television and Radio honored the one-eyed sailor by opening a special exhibition, "Well, Blow Me Down!-75 Years of Popeye." The event included screening the new DVD, "Popeye's Voyage: The Quest for Pappy," the first Popeye animation in 15 years, followed by showing classic Popeye cartoons from the Fleischer Studios. The "Pappy" in question is "Poopdeck Pappy," Popeye's father; the film will be broadcast on Fox tv December 17.
The Australian Cartoonists Association held its annual confabulation in early November and awarded trophies to various cartoonists, much as the National Cartoonists Society here does every spring. The Stanley (the Down Under equivalent of the NCS Reuben) for Cartoonist of the Year went to George Haddon, who, according to ACA President James Kemsley, "has been around for as long as anyone can remember. He has done lots and lots of work but he has found a niche for himself where he does the most wonderful humorous and general illustrations with a cartoony twist to them." Visit www.georgehaddon.com.au to see Haddon's work (it's under construction at the moment, so save the URL and visit at another time). Syndication in Australia is quite different from syndication in the U.S.; in fact, if a cartoonist is syndicated there, chances are he's what we'd call "self-syndicated"-he does it all himself. More common, though, is that a cartoonist is associated directly with a newspaper or other publication. David Pope, for example, won the Humorous Illustrator award, mostly for his work with the Sun-Herald (sorry; no website that I know of). The Sun Herald's John Shakespeare took the Digital Illustrator award (no website; sorry). And David Rowe of the Australian Financial Review was named Caricaturist of the year; his work looks vaguely like that of our Steven Brodner. Pat Campbell of the Canberra Times won the Single Gag Cartoon category; Peter Broelman of the APN Group got the nod for political cartooning; see www.broelman.com.au. Kemsley earned the Comic Strip award for Ginger Meggs, the country's long-running strip about the youthful miscreant Meggs; www.gingermeggs.com. Haddon won the General Illustrator award. Congratulations and a flip of the bunny's cotton tail to all the honorees. Good on yuh.
Harry Lambert, who visualized the classic DC superhero speedster the Flash for Gardner Fox's scripts, died November 13 at Boca Raton, Florida. He'd suffered for several weeks in the final stages of cancer; he was 88. Lambert started a professional cartooning career in animation at Fleischer Studios in the early 1930s; when comic books began appearing on the newsstands, he saw another opportunity and took it. He was not, however, a big fan of superheroes: his first and most lasting cartooning loyalties lay with magazine gag cartooning. He drew cartoons while in the Army during World War II, and after the war, he started his own advertising agency in New York. Upon retirement in 1976, he threw himself into playing bridge, becoming an expert and writing several books on the subject, including the bible of the genre, The Fun Way to Serious Bridge. Fifteen years ago, he was tracked down by comics fans and began appearing at comics conventions.
And on November 11 in Endersonville, North Carolina, Dayton Allen, a comedian and actor known chiefly for voicing such tv cartoon creations as Deputy Dawg, some of the denizens of "The Howdy Doody Show," and Terrytoon's theatrical release magpies Heckle and Jeckle, died of a stroke; he was 85 and lived in Flat Rock. He also appeared on tv regularly as one of the "men in the street" interviewed hilariously by Steve Allen in the earliest incarnation of "The Tonight Show."
The venerable Kansas City Star has taken Scott Kurtz up on his offer before the offer is formally made. Kurtz plans to syndicate to newspapers his daily online comic strip, PvP (Player vs. Player), for free (see Opus 143). Papers can run it without paying for it, provided they also include Kurtz's URL, a maneuver that is expected to steer avid readers to his website where they'll make t-shirt purchases galore. Kurtz expected to launch the syndication program later this month and announce the Star deal at that time, but when the Star jumped for the free strip a few weeks ago, Kurtz couldn't help himself: he blurted it out, chortling, no doubt, about the validation of his scheme that it represents. He may, if so fiendishly disposed, derive additional pleasure, perhaps, from the fact that his strip's debut in newsprint is taking place in the city where Universal Press is headquartered, that syndicate being one with which he could not negotiate a satisfactory arrangement for distributing his strip by more conventional means. The Star will give the strip a three-month trial run (until the end of January) in its weekly Preview insert then evaluate. This could be the beginning of the revolution: cartoonists syndicating themselves and retaining all rights, including merchandising, to their creations. Then again, maybe not: syndicates do things that independent operators can't, or don't, do. They offer client newspapers the reassurance that the comics they receive will have been screened and edited before they arrive at the newspaper. In addition to distribution, syndicates also offer an array of services-selling, bookkeeping, and exploring ancillary projects-that cartoonists seldom want to mess with.
But times, they are a-changing. The biggest bump in the syndicate road recently is the cost to newspapers to run a page of comics. Fees haven't risen much (if at all) in the last quarter century, but to newspapers under pressure to increase their profits (and, thereby, the dividends paid to corporate owners), the cost of comics has prompted draconian re-evaluation. Some papers have threatened to discontinue publication of comics altogether. In Turlock, California, for instance, where the Journal dropped its comics. Stepping in to fill the gap is Keenspot Entertainment, a website publishing 50 comic strips. On September 25, the Turlock Journal started running a twice-weekly page of 16 comic strips culled from Keenspot's line-up. Keenspot charges nothing but runs an ad promoting its website at the top of the page; at the bottom, a parallel advertising slot is open for the newspaper to sell to local concerns. A sports store, which "usually doesn't buy many ads," has bought the space for several weeks running. Everyone wins: Keenspot gets visibility for its website, where it sells merchandise; the newspaper gets advertising revenue on its comics page, and readers get "family friendly" comics fare. The Turlock Journal could be the thin edge of a giant wedge: it's one of a 90-newspapers chain owned by Morris Newspaper Corporation.
Meanwhile, on the Web, Nicole Jantze continues her quest to find enough paying subscribers to keep her husband's The Norm strip alive. Michael Jantze's winsomely inventive and insightful strip ceased syndication with King Features on September 12. It continues, in re-runs, on www.TheNorm.com, but if 4,000 subscribers sign up for $25/year by the end of the year, Jantze will start producing new material again online. At last report, the Jantzes were more than halfway to their goal. Michael will be happy to return to the drawingboard: when I saw him a few weeks ago, I asked him if he missed doing the strip. He confessed he did. He'd been at a comics convention recently, and as he drew Norm for fans, he found himself musing as he drew about what Norm was thinking and planning. The creative engine was idling but it was running. Jantze said he was surprised to realize it, but he is still cartooning The Norm, even though the strip is officially retired everywhere except at its website.
Daryl Cagle's Professional Cartoonists Index, the editoon website at Slate.msn, is entering the "Best of" sweepstakes this year with its first compilation of editorial cartoons culled from the website. The title, The Best Political Cartoons of the Year 2005, continues in the misnomer tradition established years ago by Pelican Publishing in its annual collection of editoons, always giving in the title the year after the year in which the contents were first published. So the Cagle tome will embrace the events of 2004, among them, the cliffhanger Presidential election, the suspense-and-smear filled campaign, terrorists in Russia and the Middle East, Martha Stewart's incarceration, and so on. Said Cagle: "As most cartoonists are liberal, this book may have a liberal slant, but we have no partisan bias in selecting the cartoons: the best cartoons are simply the best cartoons, whether from the right or from the left." The book'll be published in December and can be ordered, today even, from Amazon.com for $10.46, a discounted price. It will be fascinating to compare its "slant" to the perceived conservative slant in the Pelican collection, when the latter surfaces-usually in January or February; you'll read about it here. In claiming to represent the "best" cartoons of the year, both volumes reach somewhat beyond their grasp: the contents of neither are pulled from a complete file of the year's political cartoons. The Cagle book chooses, I gather, from the contents of the website, which includes the work of only those cartoonists who supply cartoons to the site; the Pelican book chooses from only those cartoons submitted by cartoonists. In both instances, then, if a cartoonist doesn't choose to submit himself, his work won't be represented. Among the ranks of the non-participants, Pat Oliphant, arguably the nation's foremost editoonist.
The Last Outpost of Civilization
In Antioch, a village of about 8,000 souls in northern Illinois some 50 miles from Chicago, the village board adopted a resolution on November 15 objecting to the pending opening of a new coffee shop in town, part of a franchise that serves strong coffee under the name Bad Ass Coffee Company of Hawaii, a firm based in Salt Lake City. The resolution reads, in part: "The shop's name is found to be utterly vulgar; to be highly offensive to ordinary moral sensibilities of this community and to be repugnant to the entire concept of family values and traditional American ideals." The coffee shop chain, which has been doing business in various other locations for over 15 years, pooh-poohs the accusation, saying the name is harmless and merely honors the donkeys that once hauled coffee beans up and down the mountainsides of Kona. Maybe in Kona they haven't heard of the Bush League's recent election and so haven't got on board yet with the moral values thing. Whatever the case, it's clear that it doesn't pay to be a jackass in these red-haze days.
When I concocted the title for this department, I thought it would serve a somewhat less ambitious role than the usual analytical review I often perform here (like that of Art Spiegelman's latest in Opus 148 or of Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis 2 in Opus 149). The idea was to do short reviews, not long critiques. A short review, by my definition, does little more than describe the book under scrutiny. A short review is a sort of proxy bookstore browser: when you make an idle visit to the neighborhood bookstore without having a specific purchase in mind, you pick up a book here and another there, flip the pages, read the dust jacket blurb and maybe the first page, and, considering what you've seen and the subject of the book, you decide to buy it. Or not. Under the Book Marquee, I thought I'd try to do something approximating that activity. That was the original notion. I wandered away from it, though, almost at once, and started doing longer reviews/critiques. Herewith, I'm going back to the original intent. Short reviews. Summaries of what's in a book that you might be considering buying.
Here, for instance, is The Jack Kirby Reader, Vol. 2, a new production from Pure Imagination-160 8.5x11-inch pages in paperback, black-and-white interior; $25. I confess to being somewhat lost amid all the Jack Kirby commemorative volumes on the newsstands, some from Pure Imagination, some from TwoMorrows, some from-whoever? I'm lost enough that I have volumes 2 and 3 from one series, volumes 1 and 4 from another, and so on, amassing a shelf of numbered volumes without any apparent chronological connection among them. My confusion, not theirs. This one, to return to the actual subject at hand, contains an apparently random sampling of Simon and Kirby stories from 1947 through 1957-beginning with a couple from Real Clue Crime Stories, then Punch and Judy Comics, Young Romance and Young Love, then Strange World of Your Dreams, Quick Trigger Western and a couple more. The contents, in short, live up to the back cover blurb touting "over a dozen rare comics" which are too expensive in their original issue for the average citizen to collect. But here you can see "how the versatile Kirby moves from romance strips, to war, to crime, to humor features with the greatest of ease." All true. A listing of the contents gives all the bibliographic data (story title, comic book title, number and cover date), a boon to researchers and historians of the medium. The Kirby on display herein is my favorite Kirby, the one whose inker's line is supple and embellished with clotted feathering and trap-shadow shading in that quirky way Kirby's best work always was. A couple of the stories-one of the funny animal efforts from Punch and Judy and the Western-are apparently not inked by Kirby's "classic" inker (who may have been Joe Simon but maybe not), but all the rest live up to my private standard. And the quality of the reproduction, deploying Greg Theakston's color-removal and reconstruction technique no doubt, is very good indeed. If you love the look of classic Kirby (which, for me, is before his Marvel stint), this is a good book to own.
Bradford C. Wright's Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001) is two things at once although it is sometimes taken to be a third. It is sometimes taken to be a history of comic books, but it isn't. Wright specifically disowns this purpose. "Mine is not an aesthetic history of comic books," he says early on, by which he means pretty much what I've always meant by coupling "aesthetic" to "history"-namely, a history about the form, about the narrative as a blend of pictures and words, to which many such histories (but not Wright's) add discussion of the contributions of numerous specific artists and writers plus the comings and goings of publishing enterprises. Not much of that here. Moreover, Wright has excluded, deliberately, from his examination the funny animal and teen-humor titles that flooded the market between 1940 and 1965 or so. "While [such] titles ... enjoyed very large preteen audiences, they all possess a certain timeless and unchanging appeal or young children that makes them relatively unhelpful for the purposes of cultural history. I do not suggest that these are irrelevant or have nothing to say about their times, only that there is far more fertile ground in exploring those comic books aimed at a slightly older audience-readers who, in other words, have reached a developmental stage at which they are capable of perceiving texts within a broader social and political context." So he purposefully ignores all comic books except superhero and adventure, war and crime, romance and horror comics because all those other comic books do not prove his hypothesis as readily. I'm not sure this practice represents sound scholarship, but since the book is mostly a venture into sociological realms the science of which consists largely of battering down open doors, Wright's plan, however front-loaded with foregone conclusions, is not flawed beyond usefulness. The book that results is an elaboration on an earlier tome, Comic Books and America, 1945-1954 by William W. Savage, Jr. (University of Oklahoma Press, 1990). Savage's book is 150 pages; Wright's is 340, and the pages are larger, too. One of the things that the book does is to show how the content of comic books reflects events taking place in the surrounding culture. During the Korean War, for example, lots of comic books about the Korean War showed up. Savage pays more attention to the atomic bomb and how it influenced comic book content than Wright does, but Wright nods in that direction. Wright, however, concludes that comic book treatments of nuclear horrors had the effect of demonstrating the atomic bomb as a "practical means for securing victory over the Soviet Union." Savage, on the other hand, concludes that comic books of that era tried to give their readers some hope that they might survive the nuclear age, that they wouldn't be blown to smithereens, even while describing the devastation that nuclear warfare would produce. And so it goes with sociological studies: you picks your evidence, and you formulates your conclusions from whatever you pick. Savage, doubtless, remembers (either from personal experience or vicarious reading) the practice drills school kids performed in imagining atomic bombs being dropped on their cities, crouching under their desks to avoid radio-active fallout. We all knew there was something vaguely illogical about what we were doing, but it was a relief from the tedium of the classroom, so we did it with a will. We could not forget, however, that there seemed to be a real threat looming out there-real enough for grown-ups to behave in this strange and illogical manner. It was a menacing time, and youngsters living through it couldn't help but haunted, however vaguely and intermittently, by the prospect of atomic annihilation. Wright, presumably, is too young to remember as a facet of his personal experience cowering under a schoolroom desk; his reading of comic books of this time is therefore, understandably, different.
The other thing that Wright's book does is suggested in the subtitle. "Comic books," he says, "epitomize the accessibility, disposability, and appeal to instant gratification that lie at the core of modern consumer culture. ... They offer a revealing fun-house mirror of life ... as young people have paid to see it. In this respect, comic books have long predicted the course of consumer culture, a culture so advanced now that it becomes increasingly difficult to discern the reality of our world from the array of images that represent it in our popular culture." In other words, Wright's central notion in the book is that comic books provide insight into the commercialization of youth culture, and perhaps they have even created the marketplace of youth-maybe even the "consumer culture" at large. Wright returns to this notion at various places throughout his discourse, but the rhetorical weight of his discussion lies with demonstrating the parallels between comic book themes and real life events in the history of the times, so it is easy to see how many critics think the book is about the relationship between actual history and the comics.
The book's text is mostly a recitation of the narrative content of various comic books. Early Superman adventures are described, for instance, in order to demonstrate that they fostered Depression era moral values about what is right and what is wrong. Wright's history of comics, wherever he must resort to it to knit together these recitations, is often superficial and, even, wrong. On the second page of the book, he says that a comic strip entitled The Yellow Kid was syndicated; the comic feature in which the Yellow Kid appeared did not always bear his name as its title, and it was never syndicated. He says that these early specimens of the form were called "comics" because they were humorous. Well, yes and no: they were called "comics" because they first appeared in weekend newspaper supplements patterned after the weekly humor magazines of the day, which were called "comic weeklies" or, even more shorthand, "comics." He refers to the McLure Syndicate as a "printing company"; the name of this syndicate is usually spelled "McClure," and it was not a printing company although it originally may have provided some of its clients with newsprint imprinted with its syndicated features on one side, leaving the other side blank for the client newspaper to imprint with its own news or feature material.
Wright goes on at some length about Fredric Wertham and EC Comics, citing some of William Gaines notorious testimony before the Senate subcommittee in April 1954. In explaining the deterioration of Gaines' testimony under questioning, Wright says only that the publisher was tired and felt "defeated." He fails to mention what almost all accounts of this disastrous appearance mention-that Gaines was taking dexedrine at the time as a part of a diet regimen, and that the effects of the drug began to wear off during his testimony. "When the drug wears off," Frank Jacobs explained in his book, The Mad World of William C. Gaines, "a dulling, depressing fatigue often sets in and one craves sleep. Gaines had taken a dexedrine early on the morning of the hearings, but the scheduled time for his testimony was delayed, and midway through his appearance, the drug began to wear off." Said Gaines: "I could feel myself fading away. I was like a punch-drunk fighter. They were pelting me with questions, and I couldn't locate the answers." Elsewhere, Wright talks about Gershon Legman's attack on comic books, Love and Death: A Study in Censorship (1949). Legman is a picturesque folklorist, more celebrated these days for his investigations into limericks and dirty jokes than for his objections to comic books. And after a couple of paragraphs, Wright allows that "Legman's book generated little interest. His critique of comic books did not resonate with the American public because it was rooted in a general condemnation of American culture" in ways that no one wanted to hear, which "denied Legman a leading voice in the debate over comic books." Why mention him then? Wright's failure to explain Gaines' ineptitude before the Senators might be justified because any explanation might interrupt the march of the narrative-or because it would take too much space for a relatively trivial scrap of information. But if those justifications apply to Gaines, what excuses the comparatively long detour into Legman's theories?
The book is not lavishly illustrated, but there are a score or so pictures of splash pages. The captions for some of them identify the artist and writer who produced them. For most, however, Wright hasn't done enough research to say who drew or wrote the story; his captions simply say, "Writer and artist unknown." In one such case, however, the artist and writer credit is given on the pictured page itself, in small hand-lettered text below the pictures.
These glitches and omissions are piddling matters, of course; but they suggest that Wright's grasp of history of comics is not quite as firm as he would have us believe. No matter: in the long run, his thesis is a generality, and because it is adequately supported by other generalities, specific accuracy is not crucial.
Many of Wright's observations, despite his shaky footing in history, are intriguing, and many of his conclusions seem valid, or, at least, thought-provoking. Here are some of them: "During the early years, the sheer novelty of comic books and costumed heroes was sufficient to generate strong sales. Writers and artists had little motivation to get very sophisticated in their storytelling, and they had compelling reasons not to. They assumed, probably correctly, that a superhero's appeal to juvenile readers depended, most simply, on how interesting his costume and powers were."
In comic books' creation of a youth market, "comic book publishers bypassed parents and aimed their products directly at the tastes of children and adolescents. This new trend in youth entertainment emerged from a growing sense among producers and some parents ... that young people deserved greater latitude to pursue their own happiness and means for self-expression." And again: "The emergence of the comic book industry marked a new stage in the twentieth-century advance of American consumer culture. ... As Hollywood movies [once a somewhat disreputable source of entertainment ] became synonymous with mainstream America, comic books filled a lucrative void at the bottom of the cultural hierarchy." And more: "If young people were not 'indocrinated' [into a life of crime, as Wertham maintained], they certainly were drawn into a culture defined more by market considerations that traditional values. ... With more money in their pockets, America's young people had the consumer power to help shape their own culture, and entertainment industries proved increasingly eager to accommodate them."
In rehearsing the rebirth of superhero comics, Wright mentions Julie Schwartz, the Flash and the Green Lantern but overlooks Carmine Infantino and Gil Kane. Wright continues into the Marvel Age, observing the "leap," as Peter Swanson says in the Atlantic Online, "that Marvel Comics took in the sixties by exploiting the notion that superhero skills, while very useful at thwarting crime, tend to alienate the superhero from the rest of society"-a leap, Swanson says, "toward a more mature narrative." (A leap, moreover, that includes, this time, the artists, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, as well as Stan Lee.)
After a discussion of the emergence of more mature themes in comics, Wright outlines the history of the direct market and its dubious impact upon comics-while assuring sales, it limited the audience and, hence, the future growth of the comic book industry. His conclusion, however, is that "comic books are losing their audience not because they have failed to keep up with changes in American culture but because American culture has finally caught up with them." Comics thrived, he says, because they were "a uniquely exaggerated and absurdist expression of adolescent concerns and sensibilities." But they are no longer unique. "America at the turn of the twenty-first century has a pervasive consumer culture based largely upon the perpetuation of adolescence. ... In a media culture preoccupied with youth, commercials for investment firms look like music videos, televised sporting events look and sound like video games, and network political coverage can sound like the plot for an X-rated film. Is there a place for comic books in an America that has become a comic book parody of itself?"
This is undeniably wonderful stuff, but I can't help but think that some of Wright's connections are a trifle fanciful. His cause-and-effect relationships often seem more poetic than practical. I'm not convinced, for example, that just because our culture has become increasingly a consumer culture that comic books are, perforce, doomed. Wright's novel conception of comic books as simply commercial detritus, without, apparently, a content that serves any other purpose except to effect a sale, leads him into arenas of abstraction that are quite removed from the real world despite the seeming connection that he creates by the ingenious coupling of verbal guideposts. Comic books are consumer products; our culture has become a consumer culture; ergo, our culture is a comic book. Or- given our society's preoccupation with youth, it follows that products created for young people must be harbingers of the consumer culture in which we now find ourselves. In the heady swirl of his high-flying syntax, Wright flatters comics fans by strenuously suggesting that the consumer culture was created by comic books. Or, at least, that the multi-million dollar youth market for consumer products was fostered by the comic book industry of the 1930s and 1940s.
In his examination of EC Comics, Wright says they were successful because they offered a nonconformist perspective in an era of conformity, a perspective that adolescents, always poised to rebel against authority, welcomed. "In the EC comic books, millions of young Americans saw their own anxieties writ large. A commercial expression of cultural defiance, EC brilliantly perceived the alienated generation among young people and recognized youth dissatisfaction as a marketable commodity." I rather doubt that Gaines and his chief collaborator, Al Feldstein, "perceived the alienated generation ... and recognized youth dissatisfaction as a marketable commodity" -however "brilliant" such a perception might have been. Wright's syntax is persuasive rhetoric, but it may be divorced from reality, not as widespread as he suggests. I suspect that EC's appeal lay in its enthusiastic embrace of shock as a narrative ingredient, exactly the appeal of most literature for the young. When Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother is consumed by a voracious wolf, young readers shiver in pleasure at the horrifying thought. EC boosted the concept into tales addressed to teenagers, but the concept was the same. And it was scarcely achieved as a result of a marketing strategy that "recognized youth dissatisfaction." It all fell out, though, as if it were planned that way. Wright's personification of the happenstances of cultural history gives haphazard events the appearance of having been consciously and deliberately planned: EC brilliantly perceived, a conscious act, rather than simply encountering, by accident, an audience to which its attitude was appealing. Moreover, Wright's treatment of the EC phenomenon implies that it was much more successful than it was. EC's horror titles were successful, true-just successful enough to finance the science fiction titles, which were foundering on the newsstands. But EC comics were not an overwhelming event in the marketplace, a deluge flooding adolescent America with blood and gore. Wertham's attack, remember, was directed at Lev Gleason's crime comics and superhero comics, too, not just EC horror titles. And EC's undeniable success, although relatively modest in terms of market saturation, inspired widespread imitation. It was the imitators as much as EC itself that gave credence to Wertham's arguments, thereby setting the stage for the collapse of the industry. Wright recognizes this circumstance, but his prose often builds to crescendo conclusions that side-step it.
Even Wright's fundamental proposition, that comic books were the early manifestation of a consumer culture-or of a youth market for a consumer culture-ignores earlier developments in the same vein. Books for adolescent readers had been selling for a couple generations by the time comic books arrived. Kids had been reading the exploits of the Rover Boys since 1899; the Motor Boys since 1906; and the Hardy Boys since 1926. All of these series were products of the Stratemeyer "syndicate," a factory-modeled enterprise run by Edward Stratemeyer designed to produce in vast quantity books for young readers at a price they could afford. The inventive Stratemeyer wrote two- and three-page plot summaries which he turned over to a phalanx of writers to flesh out into 200-page novels. The streamlining of the creative process enabled him to sell the books for relatively little. Just as comic books, later, were aimed at parting young consumers from their dimes, the Stratemeyer books targeted those same consumers with a fifty-cent price tag. Most hardcover books for young readers at the time cost twice as much, but, as Meghan O'Rourke observed in The New Yorker recently (November 8), Stratemeyer's books were successful "because the fifty-center was a hardback [and], unlike the [more nefarious and vulgar] dime novel, it seemed respectable to parents. And it was within range of a boy's allowance, or his wheedling skills." Ditto comic books. And both genre achieved their affordable prices by employing assembly-line production techniques.
Wright's book is a fascinating read, and some of its conclusions startling for their novelty; but the premise that comic books transformed the "youth culture in America" is a little extravagant for both the content of the book and the facts scattered through our history. Meanwhile, I've plunged into Bob Levin's engaging history of Disney's suit against the Air Pirates and Dan O'Neill, The Pirates and the Mouse (Fantagraphics, $24). I'm over half-way through the book and can say, without equivocation, that it's a gripping and often hilarious recounting of the case, replete with capsule histories of comic books and comix and more fascinating asides than a carnival funhouse. More when I finish.
Under the Spreading Punditry
Reaction in the funny papers to the results of the recent electoral disturbance in the land continues apace. In his mildly edgy Candorville, Darrin Bell made the mistake of trying to guess the future when producing, six-to-eight weeks ago, the strips running in the past couple weeks: his protagonist Lamont is still re-counting ballots, so we must suppose that Bell guessed the election would be prolonged as it was last time. In Over the Hedge, the strip by Michael Fry and illustrator T Lewis that achieves its satire of the human sapiens (sic) by taking a charming look at animals in the woods at the edge of suburbia, the turtle, Vern, and the raccoon, RJ, discuss the outcome, Vern suggesting that Kerry lost because he had "nuance-an appreciation for complexity, a grasp of subtext and subtlety-and Bush didn't." "Nuance," muses RJ, "-isn't that a new body spray?" Says Vern: "Do you ever tire of trivializing my ever observation?" "Not really," says RJ. The next day, RJ reveals his firm grasp on the political realities: "Dubya won 'cause he looks like the kind of guy you wouldn't mind borrowing your chainsaw-Kerry looks like the kind of guy you wouldn't mind borrowing your salad spinner." So there you have it: looks are everything in politics and movie-making. In the right-wingnut Mallard Fillmore, Bruce Tinsley's fowl newsman is dealing with the aftermath of the strip's post-election stance that Kerry won: Mallard is pondering how to escape this snare and delusion, saying to himself, "We could say it was a 'dream sequence.' Nah-overused. 'Parallel universe'? Nah-too trite. Looks like we're left with the CBS News approach: we don't care if it's not true, we're sticking to it." And he goes on to announce, "In our top story, President-elect Kerry said today ... " Finally, in another, newer, strip with a conservative slant considerably less strident than Fillmore, Scott Stantis's Prickly City, Carmen's pet coyote, Winslow, is shown reading the November 4 issue of the London Daily Mirror, which devoted its tabloid front page to a picture of smirking Dubya and the screaming headline: "How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?" Says Winslow, "How many times does he have to beat them before they stop calling him stupid?" To which Carmen replies, "Apparently every time isn't enough." Slight distortion of history: as almost everyone but Stantis knows, this is the first time GeeDubya beat his Presidential opponent at the polls, but I admire Stantis' wit nonetheless. (Another British periodical, the New Statesman, ran an almost blank cover in the middle of which appeared, very small, the words: "Oh, no!" I'm not suggestion that we should let the Brits determine the outcome of our elections, but considering that Tony Blair is GeeDubya's staunchest ally in all this, it is remarkable that any British publication is so outspoken.)
The elevation of George W. ("Whopper") Bush was simply too catastrophic to contemplate when last we met. At the time, just after the election, the pundits and pollsters were crediting "moral values" for swinging the balloting to Dubya-despite the man's record of lying, distorting and lawbreaking. Since then, however, I've dipped into Thomas Frank's book, What's the Matter with Kansas? and have decided that "moral values" isn't, entirely, a manifestation of the religious right. In fact, I think it's mostly a backlash in Middle America against the excesses of the "boomer" 1960s-the decade of unkempt hippies, bearded war protesters, flower children, potheads, dancing naked, wearing unwashed tie-dyed t-shirts, and similar anti-establishment antics. The sixties was the age that made "liberal" a bad name. To the aforementioned litany of the youthful license, not to say licentiousness, that prevailed in the sixties, we can add the subsequent triumph of pornography on the Internet, DVDs, and at your corner porn store not to mention sex on tv in the livingroom and drugs on the school playground, and it's easy to see how a Middle American would fear that his country's moral values are eroding away. Those who voted "moral values" in the election were actually protesting against this bogeyman of liberalism. Just as a vote for John Kerry was, for many people, a protest against Dubya, so was a vote for George W. ("Warlord") Bush actually a protest vote-against "liberal" America, licentious America, porno America. It was not, in other words, an endorsement of the Bush League agenda-privatizing Social Security, banning gay marriage and abortion, tax cuts for the rich, deficits forever, and an unending war against anyone who looks different. In short, GeeDubya did not actually win-except by the most astounding of defaults.
Moreover, lest the Bush League get altogether too triumphalist in celebrating Dubya's "historic" highest popular vote ever in the history of the world, it behoves me to remind them who it is who received the second highest popular vote ever in the history of the world. John Kerry. So George W. ("Wunderkind") Bush's supposed achievement is not so much a personal political triumph as it is testimony to (1) the increase in the U.S. population generally and (2) the intensity of voter feeling, which resulted in (3) a higher than ever turn-out at the polls. And for the last two of those, GW is beholden to his opponent, who inspired not only his own adherents but those of his rival, too.
Not that we don't have plenty to worry about with the elevation of Dubya. On November 4, he 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. I'm not sure GeeDubya knows what "political capital" is; he's used this bromide a couple of times recently-having never used it before-a reasonably sure sign that he's just discovered the expression. As we came up to the election, I took heart from the unprecedented endorsement of Kerry by The New Yorker, which has never endorsed a presidential candidate. I was inadvertently participating in a delusion. In reporting GeeDubya's win (November 15), Hendrik Hertzberg, writing in "Talk of the Town," noted that Bush, in his victory statement, talked about "a new opportunity to reach out to the whole nation," a hopeful sign. But by the next day, the ol' Dubya was coming out from under his rock and had changed his tune, as he is wont to do, by a few crucial almost imperceptible millimeters, vowing that he'd "reach out to everyone who shares our goals." Once again, it appears the ol' Uniter-not-Divider is espousing the familiar spirit of cooperation that, to him, means "everybody agree to do it my way."
We don't have to fear a reinstatement of the draft, however. GeeDubya's been quite clear about that. His so-called economic policies are designed to perpetuate forever an America so impoverished that the only way the young of its lower middle class can achieve a livelihood is to enlist in one of the military services. The supply of volunteers under this system is as likely to be as endless as the war on evil itself.
The only hope on the horizon, for me, is the hope that the Democrats in Congress, like much of the news media in the last year or so, has decided that it's okay to object to Bush League schemes. The nimbus of patriotism that has acted to mute criticism of the Bush League in the wake of September 11 has faded. If nothing else, Kerry demonstrated that one could criticize Dubya and not fear for his life afterwards. Even though the Republican majority in Congress has increased somewhat, I think the Democrats have acquired, at long last, a little backbone; I don't think GeeDubya will be able to cram through Congress much of his announced program. Even some Republicans object to various of his schemes. He has assumed a "mandate" where none exists, and when he tries to spend his illusory "political capital," I suspect he'll find he's close to bankruptcy. But then, I thought Kerry would win, so what do I know?
And I'm not alone, obviously. Editor & Publisher e-mailed several dozen cartoonists, non-political as well as political, asking who they believed would receive the most votes, Bush or Kerry; 18 thought Kerry while 15 picked Bush. Close, but no cigar. Bruce Tinsley, one of the respondents, picked Bush by 1.3% but thought there'd be an Electoral College tie. The winner, so to speak, was editoonist Mike Smith at the Las Vegas Sun: he guessed, correctly, the percentage of the vote in each candidate's column.
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