Opus 151 (December 5, 2004). Concluding our visit this time is an extensive review of The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker, preceded by a report on its cartoon editor's antics on stage and followed by a quick assessment of the annual Cartoon Issue of the magazine, just out. In addition, Part 2 of our three-part review of newspaper comic strip reprints continues the Christmas gift list with nods at For Better or For Worse, Opus, Dilbert, Sherman's Lagoon, Mutts, and Rudy Park -plus reviews of the new Will Eisner Companion from DC and some comic books: the new Hardy Boys from NBM, and the first issues of Wild Girl, Angeltown, and Gravedigger. We also praise "The Incredibles," glimpse Disney's "The Three Musketeers," and broadcast an analysis of what's going wrong in the animated cartooning game. After all that, there's not much of the universe left, kimo sabe; it all commences immediately (and if you want to read it at your leisure, proceed to the "print friendly" button and print out just this installment for perusal later)-
NOUS R US
Not All the News That's Fit to Print: Just the News That Gives Us Fits
The fortieth anniversary of Rudolph's red-nosed broadcast was Wednesday, December 1st. I think it's the tv broadcast this item refers to. ... The first of Mike Allred's 12-volume Book of Mormon in comics form, The Golden Plates, is selling well: over 12,000 copies in the first three weeks after the self-published book went on sale. Allred hopes to daw the life story of Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but decided Smith's life would mean more to readers if they knew about the Book of Mormon first. He estimates the project will take two years, during which time he will decline assignments in all commercial endeavors except for existing contracts, including one for a film version of Allred's Madman character next summer. ... Howard Cruse was featured in "The Book List" section of The Week magazine where various authors have appeared to recommend their favorite books. Cruse's are all graphic novels: Hear the Sound of My Feet Walking Drown the Sound of My Voice Talking by Dan O'Neill, Gertrude's Follies by Tom Hachtman, Seven Miles a Second by David Wojnarowicz and James Romberger, Our Cancer Year by Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner and Frank Stack, Bread & Wine: An Erotic Tale of New York by Samuel Delany with art by Mia Wolff, and Narcissa by Lance Tooks. ... Lessee now, we have "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" with artificially induced settings and locales, "The Polar Express" with artificially induced actors, and "The Incredibles" with CGI both. Seems to me we're rapidly approaching a time when we won't need actors and actresses or, even, movie studios with sets. ... In India, Gotham Studios Asia is gearing up to produce superhero comic books in order to capitalize on the nation's booming youth market. "Imagine a country with a population of kids twice the size of the entire population of the U.S.," said one of the operatives. ... CrossGen, an Oldsmar company that filed for bankruptcy court protection last June, has sold all its assets at auction to Disney for $1 million. Disney acquired 26 comic book series developed by CrossGen since 1999. ... In France, Gilles Chaillet, a comic book artist, recently completed a painstakingly detailed 11x16-foot map of Rome at the time of the Caesars showing over 13,000 buildings, five percent of which are entirely accurate and thirty percent fairly accurate. It took him 5,000 hours to complete the task, which he has dreamed of doing since the age of nine-that is, fifty years ago. ... Irwin Donenfeld, son of the founder of DC Comics, died of heart failure on November 30 in Norwalk Hospital in Connecticut; he was 78. ... Global Digital Creations Holdings, a fledgling animation studio on the campus of Shenzhen University in China, is poised to release its first 3-D feature film, "Thru the Moebius Strip," a sf adventure about a boy's time travel to another galaxy to rescue his father. The story is the concoction of France's Jean Giraud ("Moebius"), who combined aspects of Jack and the Beanstalk with sf history from Jules Verne to "The Matrix," according to Howard French.
Cathy is still talking about her impending wedding. Irving proposed last February, and Cathy hasn't been about anything else but the wedding since the eponymous heroine got engaged. Every aspect of wedding planning has been carefully examined-picked up, turned this way and that, microscoped, pinned to the wall, and then subjected to usual Cathy reaction, a hysterical punchline. Ten months of this. There can't be anything left to examine. But still it goes on. If you find this excessive, it's probably because you never had a wedding.
The Comics Journal, if you haven't noticed, has morphed again: it's bigger now and has a square-back binding. In bookstores, it can be shelved with books, square-binding out. It also has a color section. In a recent issue (No. 263), those four-color pages are devoted to reprinting two of George Carlson's antic stories from Jingle Jangle Comics. Excellent reproduction. Shot from the pages of old comic books. Yellow newsprint, sometimes a little bleed-through from the reverse sides-all those warts, present and accounted for. But-and here's my point-those pages look exactly like they look in a vintage comic book. Exactly. It's like having a copy of the old comic book in your very own hands. Every detail and blemish and printer's flaw right there. No jazzed-up attempt to "improve" the appearance of the original publication by drenching the color out and retouching and recoloring. Just the original in glorious Newsprint Tone. Any attempt to improve upon the antique appearance merely destroys the ambiance. In the current issue (No. 264), we find a healthy sample of the mysteriously dark Sunday strip, Little Joe.
As of November 21, Prince Valiant is being written by Mark Schultz. Even though I didn't notice the change in the byline, I could tell a fresh breeze was blowing through King Arthur's Court. We're back in Camelot, for one thing-and it looks as if we'll see knights in armor and in action again. It's been too long. Cullen Murphy, the previous writer who produced the script for his father to draw, was pampering his medieval history degree excessively, trying to tie the events in Hal Foster's mythical middle ages to actual history, and with this artifice, his stories tended to limp somewhat.
Stephan Pastis is at it again. In his three-year-old strip, Pearls before Swine, he's poached on other cartoonists' turf, drafting their characters into service in his strip. The week of November 22, Pastis' malcontent Rat busted out of Pearls and found his way, first, into Zits, then FoxTrot, Boondocks, Luann, Rose Is Rose, then Dilbert, while Pig and Goat, left behind, wondered about how much "harm" Rat could do to those other strips. As I've said before, I'm not sure this is a good dodge. To properly appreciate the comedy, readers must be familiar with the "visited" strips. If Pearls appears in your paper but Zits doesn't, what sort of understanding do you bring to a strip that ends with Rat embracing Jeremy's mother while saying to the father, "Beat it, Fatty-she's mine"? If you don't know Zits, you at least understand that Rat is doing something untoward; but for the fullest appreciation of the situation, you need to know the characters in Zits. Pastis has selected strips with hefty circulations, so chances are most Pearls readers will also know the other strips. Pastis told David Astor at Editor & Publisher that he likes doing these visitation sequences and does it once or twice a year. "Readers have fun with it," he believes. "When I was growing up reading the comics, I loved it when strips made fun of each other. Cartoonists enjoy it, too. Ultimately, it's more attention for their strip-and they usually ask for the originals." Well, to begin with, I'm not sure much of this sort of criss-crossing of strips was happening when Pastis was growing up in the 1970s; if there was any of it, it was very limited. So what is he thinking of? He may enjoy the stunts; so may the cartoonists whose works he is briefly appropriating. But he is trafficking in material that isn't his. The jokes gain their punch from the other creators' works, not Pastis's. The next week, Pastis sent his characters off to "Gracebert" where they encounter Dilbert's Scott Adams as a drug-addled Elvis impersonator. Adams is a friend of Pastis's: he virtually discovered Pearls, and he champions the strip. But I don't know if I were he if I'd get a big kick out of being portrayed as a drug-addled Elvis impersonator. Pastis believes he's enhancing the funnies with these tricks. Readers need a reason to look at the comics, he says, and he thinks this sort of thing will help. "Comics need to do something to stay noticed," he told Astor. I'm not sure that's valid either. People read comics for the pleasure of it-because comics make them laugh; not because they're interested in the alleged notoriety Pastis is fostering. His characters also sometimes go on strike against him, invoking his name repeatedly. Do all his readers know his name? Considering that he seldom signs the strip, and when he does, the signature is illegible, I doubt it. Pastis seems bent on fostering a self-referential medium here, and I think that's a little too self-indulgent to be good for either his strip or anyone else's. Harmless enough, maybe, but it doesn't speak well for his creative energy. These stunts do show that he can draw better than his strip suggests he can: he comes pretty close to copying exactly the characters he dragoons into his strip from his neighbors'. Pearls is funny enough-that is, plenty funny indeed-without poaching from others; so why do it?
Funnybook Fan Fare
The first issue of NBM's new Papercutz series, The Hardy Boys, is out. Over-all, given that the audience is a whole lot younger than I, it's probably a passing effort. Joe and Frank Hardy seem bright and energetic and everlastingly curious-just as in the classic series by Franklin W. Dixon. The opening sequence involving the brothers' rescue of a race horse that's been kidnapped by animal rights activists is pretty lame, though. We don't know why the activists thought kidnaping the horse was a good thing; nor do we witness their arrest. We see them tied up after Joe and Frank have captured them; that's all. And putting a horse so prominently in the book's first pages was a mistake: artist Lea Hernandez isn't that good at doing horses. So it is a nearly pointless gambit except for serving the purpose for which it was designed-to show the Hardy brothers in action. And there isn't that much action in the rest of the book, which does little more than introduce us to the Hardy family, the boys' school and their friends. Essential narrative elements, but not very exciting, and although Hernandez and writer Scott Lobdell do a competent job of getting through this phase, they do nothing in layout or panel composition to enliven the exposition. I'm sure the manga-loving adolescents who come across this book will like it: Hernandez's drawings are sharp and clear, albeit fairly simple, even for manga. And most of the characters look pretty much alike, and backgrounds are pretty stark, lacking visual detail. That, however, is the weakness in manga generally and ought not to affect the sale of this book.
Wild Girl No. 1 is a showcase for some very pleasing fluid brushwork by artist Shawn McManus, a lot of it unaccompanied by captions or dialogue. Silent pictures, in other words, and very nicely achieved, too-pacing, clarity-storytelling, all expertly handled. A certain amount of this works, but after awhile, under the conditions imposed here, we are left with far too many questions. We don't know who the Wild Girl is except that she is apparently running away from home and her babysitting charge, spooked by some other-worldly presence. This circumstance coupled to the nearly complete absence of verbal explanation leaves us pretty much at sea in trying to understand what's happening-or, even, what's about to happen. Something with dogs. But what? Writers Leah Moore and John Reppion have fallen into the narrative trap so many authors of weird suspense thrillers fall into when they try to create both suspense and mysteriousness at the very beginning of a story. Both are necessary, but the trick is to reveal just enough story information to keep the reader interested. Not everything can be a mystery: something must be divulged, some fragment of the heroine's personal history or desires-anything that will engage us enough in the character to care what happens. Otherwise, we're just baffled. For hints on how to avoid this dilemma (or what the alternative might be), see Funnybook Fan Fare in Opus 147's review of Bloodhound. It's difficult to do in serial publication like a comic book series, but it can be done.
In Angeltown No. 1 (of a 5-issue series), Gary Phillips writes a crackling good story for Shawn Martinbrough to illustrate. Mystery and suspense, but plenty of clues to cling to, to orient ourselves to the good guys and the bad guys and what some of the menace is. Private detective Nate Hollis is charged with finding a slain woman's husband who is a prime suspect in her murder. Nate's a tough guy and gets around a good bit in this issue. We also learn that his father, a cop, was killed and that he is believed to be a dirty cop. Nate and his grandfather, a war hero named Obadiah "Clutch" Hollis, have vowed to find the dead cop's murderers. In these circumstances alone, we have suspense and mystery (did the woman's husband kill her? who did Nate's father?), but we also have bits of information that make us care how it comes out. After watching Nate in action, we admire his skill, his tenacity in detection and follow-through, the dispatch with which he puts down those who interfere with him. We also admire his taste in women. So we care enough that we want him to be successful in his two quests. And Martinbrough's artwork is spectacular. Most of the characters are African-American, always a tough physiognomy to render convincingly without stereotyping. Martinbrough does it in high style with crisp bold linework and sculpting black shapes that carve out and highlight facial details. Superb. He also bathes most of the story's visuals in deep shadow, adding to the ambiance and making his sculpted blacks part of a single, unifying visual grammar.
Quips & Crotchets. Catwoman: When in Rome, Chapter Two is nicely paced with visuals doing a big share of the storytelling, and varying page layouts serve the drama of the story, too; but since I came on after the beginning, I can't make much sense of what's going on. That's my fault, though. ... The Invincible Ironman No. 1 is an airbrush exercise, the visuals virtually photographic. I find this a little sterile myself: all that creative passion is devoted to figure drawing and rendering faces with, apparently, little energy left to devote to backgrounds or settings, which tend towards plain, even antiseptic. But it's all expertly done by Adi Granou, and Warren Ellis' story is a good one, reiterating the classic Ironman dilemma in the tension about the uses of technology. Spooky last page with a picture of a metallic-skinned man-another Ironman? ... And 100 Bullets No. 55 ends on a note of genuine tragedy when the deformed trumpeter loses his lower jaw. The last pages in this issue are grim and terrible, and Eduardo Risso holds back from the usual flash and filigree of his intricate page layouts to underscore the horror with stark straight-forward narrative visuals in a more-or-less conventional layout. ... The one-shot Gravedigger: The Scavengers from Christopher Mills with pencils and inks by Rick Burchett is a beaut. Crisply rendered with deft thick-and-thin lines, dramatically composed panels and page layouts (bound sideways), toned various grays (by Mills), and with a Lee Marvin look-alike in the lead. A brutal, a-moral tale but expertly done.
Civilization's Last Outpost
Senate majority leader Bill Frist, who will lead the charge to privatize Social Security, has probably forgotten that his campaign committee has lost more that $500,000 in the stock market since 2000. Maybe he should have just given it to the government to invest for him. ... At the famed Algonquin Hotel in New York, site of the fabled Round Table of Roaring Twenties gossips, you can order the martini to end all martini: instead of an olive, it has a diamond in the bottom of the glass. Just $10,000. About martinis, Dorothy Parker wrote an ode: "I love a martini, but two at the most. Three, I'm under the table. Four, under the host." ... The Gallup Poll says Darwin is still on shaky ground in America: only 35% of those asked think the theory of evolution is well supported by evidence; another 35% say evolution is just one of several theories and is not supported by any evidence; and 29% say they don't know enough about it to have an opinion. The people in the last two categories all, presumably, voted for George W. ("Whopper") Bush. ... The Cobb County school district in Georgia affixes to its science textbooks a sticker that reads: "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered." ... If you're interested, still, in the Da Vinci code, you might be equally interested in the Great Master's Seven Principles of Life: 1) Seek the truth, 2) Take responsibility, 3) Sharpen awareness, 4) Engage the shadow, 5) Cultivate balance, 6) Nurture integration, and 7) Practice love.
REPRINT REVIEWS: Part 2 of 3
The Christmas crop of newspaper comic strip reprint volumes from Andrews McMeel includes a notable number of quarter-century commemoratives. Suddenly Silver: Celebrating 25 Years of For Better or For Worse by Lynn Johnston (304 8.5x11-inch paperback pages, black-and-white with color Sundays; $16.95) conducts the festivities for one of the world's most popular comic strips; FBOFW is published in over 2,000 newspapers, one of fewer than a half-dozen strips to achieve such giddy altitudes. The book is about as perfect an anniversary volume as you'd want-crammed with mementoes, insights and souvenirs of a quarter century of overflowing creative exuberance. It offers selections from the strip's run in three sections-early, middle, and recent years. No complete stories appear, but we get a healthy taste of the ups and downs in the lives of the Patterson family over the years. Little things like Elizabeth getting eye glasses, Michael's glowing zit on the tip of his nose; big things like the birth of April, her father John and his brother-in-law Phil getting lost in the wilderness, Michael's marriage to Deanna and the birth of their first child. As much as anything, Johnston's strip is a heart-warming chronicle of life as it is lived by a family as it grows both larger and older. The days are mostly filled with everyday occurrences. But not always. Out of fidelity to her chronicle, Johnston addressed several issues that impinge upon the lives of many families, issues that, until she attended to them, were taboo in the funnies. The more inciting of these episodes-Lawrence's coming out to announce he's gay, the death of the family dog Farley, the death of Elly's mother-are re-visited herein and are just as moving upon re-reading as they were when I first encountered them, ample testimony to the reasons for the strip's international popularity-namely, Johnston's surpassing talent for storytelling and characterization.
One of the incidental consequences attending retrospective compilations is the insight we gain into the cartoonist's graphic progress. In the early years, FBOFW was a much airier strip: the drawings were looser, their movement larger, freer, and the figures in the panels were surrounded with white space. By the middle years, Johnson was using an assortment of gray-tone devices to vary the texture of the drawings, a practice that she indulged more and more, eventually producing gray backgrounds in every panel. She also lavished more detail on her drawings. This combination, while it enhances the illusion of reality in the strip, has the unfortunate side-effect of reducing the clarity of the pictures: at the size they appear in the newspaper, her strips seem visually cluttered. It is therefore a pleasure to see these daily strips reproduced in this volume at a generous size, three to a page-large enough to enable us to appreciate the detail of the images Johnston has created. The Sunday strips, alas, are given only half-a-page each, not quite enough space to properly display her Sunday specialities.
Each of the book's three sections is introduced by Johnston with an essay musing about her life and her work. In one, she tells about how her husband Rod got lost in the wilderness for three "long, harrowing days." Her brief experience of possible widowhood "realigned" her priorities. And when she used the experience in the strip with John and Uncle Phil's disastrous canoe trip, it marked a turning point for the strip. Until then, she'd focused "almost exclusively on parenting, household chaos, and relationships within the family close circle of friends." But after John and Phil's brush with death, "the first time the strip dealt with a genuine life-and-death situation ... the harsh realities of the world intruded more often, the family's perspective widened, and the length, depth, and complexity of the story lines increased."
Several other short text pieces appear-one by Johnston's gay brother-in-law who helped her with her approach to Lawrence's coming out; another by her sister-in-law, a veterinarian, who suggested a way for the aging family dog Farley to meet a just and dignified demise; and Johnston's son and daughter each supply glimpses into the cartoonist's life. But the heart of the book is the heart of FBOFW; and the reason the strip has such heart is that its creator does, too.
Johnston talks about those "middle years" when the strip's growing fame gave her a big head. "It's appallingly easy to make the mistake of believing one's own publicity," she says. But she always kept on working hard, perfecting her craft. And she soon got both feet back on the ground. Discussing her protagonist, Elly Patterson-"Elly is me," she says-she reports that her son once asked her why Elly has "an inflatable nose." Said he: "One day you draw her with a regular-sized schnozz and then, it's blown up like a spud!! How come?" Replied Johnston: "The answer lies somewhere between the two worlds I live in: goofy and genuine, silly and serious, impossible and painfully real. The inflatable nose has helped suppress an inflatable ego, which is equally unattractive and should be made fun of as often as possible!"
Elsewhere, Opus is putting on his Sunday Best, too, in a celebration of the 25th year since Berke Breathed's Bloom County debuted in 1980. (Yes, that's not twenty-five years yet; see Opus 149 for Breathed's sniveling explanation.) The vehicle for this festive occasion is Opus: 25 Years of His Sunday Best (220 9x12-inch pages in hardback, full color; $29.95 from Little, Brown), an expensive production that only barely justifies the extravagance. The quarter century being commemorated includes all three of Breathed's strips: about halfway through the volume, his second strip, the Sunday-only Outland, commences, and the last 18 pages are devoted to the return of Opus, which occurred about a year ago. The early strips are scarcely colorful enough to warrant to expense of color printing: mostly, colored personages are arrayed against a plain white background. It gets a little better with Outland, but not until Opus does one feel that the resources of the palette are being exploited at all. The covers, front and back, are quite another matter-delicately and thoroughly hued, both. On the opening page, by way of plunging into the reverie of the book, Breathed prints a "primordial" 1981 Sunday Bloom County that "features a little blond-haired boy with an over-tweaked imagination working out his real-life anxieties and passions via space hero fantasies. Now that's a ripping Good Idea to build a classic strip around!" he exclaims, invoking memories, deliberately, of Calvin and Hobbes by way of laying claim to being the most hapless cartoonist of his generation, too ignorant of his creative achievement to recognize a Work of Genius when he made one. With his second Work of Genius, however, Breathed admits he did better: he encountered a penguin. It was, as he once said, the inspiration of a lifetime, and he again didn't realize what he had: he quit the strip. But Outland, which came along next, saw the reintroduction of Opus before too many of its Sunday episodes expired. Steve Dallas also returned. And Bill the Cat, Breathed's scruffy parody of Garfield. The collection, arranged, we gather, in rough chronological order, demonstrates that Opus's beak was much more appealingly rendered in the early years before it became a meatloaf. Probably the volume includes many of its fans' favorite Sunday sojourns of the strip; it includes my all-time favorite. One of Breathed's blonde bimbos wanders into Outland and, after noticing Opus and Bill the Cat and the cockroach making bad jokes about women, says: "You mock the half of humanity that makes your graceless existence bearable. Men should pause for one moment and take another long look at the very thing that brings meaning to their meaningless lives." She stalks off, indignant. Cowed, the trio watches her leave, then, in that last cosmically satirical panel, they look down the front of their jockey shorts-presumably, at the "very thing that brings meaning to their meaningless lives." The book is worth the price for this strip alone. It also includes Breathed's "farewell" strips from Bloom County and Outland, both nicely done. Breathed says he re-wrote some of the strips-"just a little, to improve and tighten the writing and to update the punchline if it would keep a funny strip from feeling way out of date." None of the strips, however, carry publication dates, thus defeating a significant reason for publishing a commemorative volume to begin with.
The usually nearly reclusive Breathed has granted several interviews in the last year-some, I suppose, to promote the re-launch of his strip; some, recently, to promote the book. Mike Peters at the Dallas Morning News talked with the cartoonist a week or so ago about the general state of newspapering. Asked whether the news media failed to perform an adequate information-dissemination function in the flag-waving period after 9/11, Breathed said: "Yes, the media blew it. And newspapers are our last great hope for this stuff, tv long having sold out to popular sentiment. But the papers are scared, too, for other reasons, which has weakened their knees. A single call from a wingnut in his Winnebago threatening to stop buying the Daily Bugle because Bill the Cat looked like he might have been blowing a raspberry toward the president's photo will send the Bugle's corporate parent into paralysis." Peters wondered if people are losing the ability to read news critically. Said Breathed: "On the contrary, we're beginning to look like Russians: we rightly don't trust the motives of the corporate media giants that now deliver us the news. Has anyone wondered what the country would look like if Fox and Sinclair Media Group ran all the news during Watergate? If the Republican administration were rumored to be funding their next campaign by selling of child slaves to Turkestan, could Fox have found it in their heart to assign anyone to look into it?" When he spoke to newspaper editors at a meeting in New Orleans a few weeks ago, Breathed said, "I told them that if they continue to shrink/sideline/brutalize the comics in the face of a nationwide, catastrophic exodus of young readers from newspaper pages, they will have ignored one of the few features of newspapers that could-with great imagination and daring-be part of their salvation. Editors, join me! Bring graphic art to your pages in a way unimagined before. We shall deliver the nubile eyeballs!" On Sunday, November 21, Breathed did an encore of his performance with Outland: as he had in that re-incarnation of Bloom County, Steve Dallas returned to the funnies yet again, arriving in the Opus strip characteristically leering at women. All the old gang is slowly assembling again.
Saturating the season with greetings, Dilbert returns in It's Not Funny If I Have to Explain It (240 8.5x11-inch paperback pages, b/w with color Sundays; $14.95). It's the 24th compilation of the cubicle slavey's tribulations, and this one, Scott Adams assures us, contains his very best work. It's hard for him to say which of his books is the best, he says, "because I loathe 90% of everything I've ever produced." But "the good news is that I've made so many comics that the 10% I love are enough to fill this treasury." Adams "handpicked every comic" in the book, from some that first appeared in 1996 to some as recent as last spring. (And every strip is dated so data-hungry historians will know the social context in which these were produced.) But the bonus in these pages is in the handwritten comments lettered in red beneath each strip. Said Adams: "They're the sorts of things I might have said if you were reading the comics in front of me and I felt compelled to ruin your experience by talking while you did it." So fecund is Adams' wit that his comments ratchet up the comedy in every strip.
Sherman's Lagoon, that perpetually underwater strip about denizens of the deep by Jim Toomey, is increasing its circulation slowly but surely: it's in about 200 papers these days, and it's in its eighth reprint collection, Catch of the Day (128 8.5x9-inch paperback pages, b/w; $10.95). I sometimes think that all the hilarities committed in this strip could easily be performed by humans not finny folks; and then I come across something like the day Sherman and Megan, the shark couple, discover a baby fish in a basket on their doorstep. "Maybe the stork paid us a visit," says Sherman. Megan says: "Storks don't bring baby fish ... storks eat baby fish." Sherman has the last word: "Maybe he forgot his lunch." For jokes like this, you need sharks.
And here's the 13th volume of Mutts reprints, Dog-Eared (128 8.5x9-inch paperback pages, b/w; $10.95), Patrick McDonnell's whimsically philosophical contemplation of life among pet dogs and pet cats. The Sundays here are all in black-and-white, which reduces the impact of those opening panels that mimic famous paintings or pop imagery, but the whimsey is undeterred-a great way to stimulate an afternoon of gentle thoughts and quiet reverie. In this collection, Earl and Mooch spend a week discussing the cat's new pet snail, which he's taking by leash for a walk. He's on a leash, Mooch explains, because "I'm afraid he might run away."
Rudy Park, which has been running since 2001, written by Theron Heir and drawn by Darrin Bell (who also produces, solo, Candorville), takes a look at various aspects of popular culture as they wander through the cybercafe that Rudy manages. In the second collection of the strip, Peace, Love and Lattes (128 8.5x9-inch paperback pages, b/w; $10.95), several of Saddam Hussein's doubles drop in, claiming, naturally, that they are not Saddam, and Attorney General John Ashcroft takes up residence in the pastry container on the lunch counter to keep an eye on the populace. The gang from "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" also comes by to make sure everyone is properly dressed for the comics page. In this volume, the question of invading Iraq is discussed: "I ask you," trumpets the strip's resident rabble-rouser, "is there even one logical explanation for why we're suddenly going to war?" In the next panel, we see George W. ("Whimper") Bush seated at his desk in the Oval Office, muttering, "I'll show daddy who's President."
Resuming my attempt to keep reviews in this section short (if not sweet), here's The Will Eisner Companion from DC (176 6x9-inch pages, hardback; $19.95), a mine of Eisner information. Appreciative essays by Dennis O'Neil and Christopher Couch are followed by a Selected Chronology of Eisner's life and work, a "who's who" and "what's what" of characters and events in the Spirit stories, plot summaries of the nearly two dozen graphic novels and classic adaptations Eisner has done since A Contract with God in 1978, and an essay about Eisner's graphic novels by Stephen Weiner. Denis Kitchen writes a brief Afterword, and a selected list of Eisner's works concludes the volume. The book is illustrated in black-and-white with panels culled from the various works discussed, and a color section reproduces a few latter-day covers, the Spirit "origin story" of 1966, and one of Eisner's favorite Spirit outings, "The Story of Gerhard Shnobble," the little man who discovered he could fly. This is as tidy a reference as you're likely to find on a single artist.
The Incredibles and Other Animated Ventures
I don't like animated fish much. Or any kind of cartooned fish. The requisite artwork is too mundane for my taste. Fish faces have no character, no individual distinction. Eyes and mouth in a nose-shape. That's it. So while I enjoyed the story in "Finding Nemo," I didn't admire the animation. "Toy Story" was okay, albeit somewhat saccharine. I missed "Toy Story 2." "A Bug's Life" was another manifestation of fish art. And "Monsters" got by me, too. But "The Incredibles" is something else. To utter the obvious, "The Incredibles" is, indeed, incredible. An unqualified delight. Much much better than fish. "The Incredibles" is simply brimming with the kinds of things I look for in animated cartoons-manic action sequences and impossibilities made manifest. In addition, the film displays intellectual as well as visual wit. And heart. I'm not going into great detail here, but to give an example of its wit-the speedboat sequence with young Dash hanging on the stern, acting as the motor by kicking his feet at supersonic speed. Perfect. A character-link between dilemma and solution that too seldom occurs in superheroic action. And then we have Elastigirl working as a parachute-which reminded me of Plastic Man, who often did much the same. The colors even echo ol' Plas: Elastigirl's uniform, like Plastic Man's, is red with yellow-and-black belt. And so, naturally, the parachute is red with yellow-and-black trim. The film, throughout, inspires the silvery laughter of deep appreciation and contentment. Right down to the last scene's tribute to Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, who appear in caricature. Even the credits sequence is nifty. If this is a sample of what will replace hand-wrought animation, I'll welcome its advent. Unhappily, the signs are not as good elsewhere as they are in "The Incredibles."
About the same time, I saw Disney's "The Three Musketeers" with Donald Duck, Goofy, and Mickey Mouse in the title role. Here is hand-drawn animation at its technical best, and it went straight to video, bypassing theatrical release, probably because Michael Eisner has declared traditional animation dead, and if this flick had gone into theaters and proved a success, "he'd look like a moron for shutting down Disney Feature Animation," as one of my spies put it. It isn't a great animated film-like, f'instance, "Pinocchio" or "Alice in Wonderland" (the last of the really great ones, in my opinion) or, even, "Aladdin." But there are several satisfying moments: the celestial scene when Mickey and Minnie fall in love at first sight, a deft parody of all such romantic musicals; comic operetta overtones, invoking Gilbert and Sullivan's "Pirates of Penzance"; and, best of all, Donald's hysterical frightened squawking as he recounts the events that brought him to disaster, an explanation that Mickey says he can't understand a word of. Neither, of course, can we, and that's the joke of it. Pegleg Pete (or Black Pete, depending upon your era) is the best comedic part in the production; almost every one of his appearances is laced with the kind of hilarious exaggeration that makes good animated comedy, beginning with his taking a shower and singing to himself as he does. Running for about 68 minutes, this is the first and only full-length movie that Donald and Goofy and Mickey have appeared together in-despite Disney's long entertained intention of doing just this movie with just this cast. It is a good, solid piece of work. But not an inspired animated cartoon. And much the same can be said for much of the Disney product for several decades. Why?
The root of the problem in the fast-fading animation department at Disney, according to Merlin Jones at www.savedisney.com, is revealed in the tension between two ways of storytelling. Animators have customarily concocted stories in visual terms. But the new Studio management, seeking to impose some sort of structure upon the chaotic traditions of the place, imported writers from live-action movies. It began, as nearly as I can tell from what Jones says, with Jeffrey Katzenberg, who, Jones says, "needed a script to react to, to make notes on, a script dominated by snappy patter and situation comedy. ... He could not easily pre-visualize the final outcome of a storyboard or short treatment." In contrast, animators started with funny pictures that they could make funnier. "An animated picture does not serve the medium if it is simply an illustration of a written script. Without caricature in action, it can't come to life. Those elements favored by animators are the entertainment bread-and-butter of a cartoon movie." Manic movement, exaggeration, personality and comic situations-otherwise, "why bother drawing it? ... Cartoon stories need to be told from a visual storytelling angle that requires non-verbal, non-literal conceptualization on a broad scale in order to effectively realize the medium. Writers who are not artists do not generally think in these terms and are forced to limit the development of ideas that are difficult to comprehend without visual support. Visual invention, observation and satire that drives a cartoon are not just acting business and gags, and can't be frosted on top of a 'straight' scripted situation-but is intrinsic to the very world-view and conception of a successful piece." And so, as in the editoonery business, we have the "word people" at odds with the "picture people." This analysis explains, to me, why so many of the recent Disney animated features have been, as animated cartoons, relatively lifeless. They lack the energy and liveliness that true animation-antic visual invention divorced, if possible, from all semblance of reality-thrives with. "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," for example, was a terrible animated feature because it wasn't much different than the 1930s motion picture with Charles Laughton. The most conspicuous example of its failure as an animated cartoon is revealed in the characterization of the cathedral gargoyles. If ever there were an opportunity for inventive animation, this is it. But the movie passed the moment by without a flicker.
Floyd Norman, a veteran in animation for years, agrees, I think, judging from what he writes in the last issue of CAPS, the monthly newsletter of the Comic Art Professional Society. He recalls the vital function of the "story men," the cartoonists who sketched sequences to visualize the story as the story was being formulated. These were the animators Jones refers to above. Says Norman: "Those of you familiar with the Disney story development process in Walt's day know that the 'story men,' as we were called in those ancient times, were the animated film's screenwriters. This was a concept that served Disney well for decades, yet completely befuddled the live-action types that took over the company in the early eighties. Those Hollywood hot shots seemed unable to comprehend a storyboard [a sequence of pictures outlining the film's action and story] and insisted on having a script before green-lighting a movie. Keep in mind, I'm not only talking about Disney, but every mainstream studio around now follows this direction. Funny thing is-if the idea of using a screen play is so effective, why has the story telling been so poor? Today, it's not unusual for an animated film to have a dozen screenwriters hammering away at the script. The storyboard crew that translates these script pages into visuals has also grown in numbers. I can't help but be reminded of my first job as a story man in the laid back sixties at the Disney Studio. There were probably only six of us, along with old time gag writer Larry Clemmons, on 'The Jungle Book.' We managed to craft this story with almost remarkable ease compared to today's convoluted story development process. We worked a normal five day week as was customary at Walt's studio. There was no overtime, long hours, or frantic weekends. Finally, instead of pitching to a legion of executives, we pitched to only one person, and his name was Disney. Unlike today's over-paid managers, Walt actually understood what he was looking at, and whether or not it worked. I confess that working for one of the greatest and toughest story editors in the business spoiled us. There are several animated films in either development or production today. I'm willing to bet each and every one of them has already been through several drafts with no end in sight. Yet, no matter how many screenwriters take a swing at animated films today, the results have been less than desirable. As a matter of fact, with the exception of Pixar Animation Studios, I've yet to be impressed with any of animation's recent story telling efforts. Maybe it's time to let the story artists be story tellers again. Perhaps screenwriters need to learn that animated films work best when the story is crafted visually, and not the other way around. Finally, haven't we had enough interference by studio executives who think they know story structure simply because they took a few classes [in it]? I long for the day when story artists can once again tell animated stories. When creative storytellers do more than just translate poorly written script pages into visuals. When executives realize that in order to work effectively in the medium, you must first understand the medium." Hear hear.
Lipping the Trite Fantastic on the Sidewalks of the New Yorker
Bob Mankoff is a funny fella. A very funny fella. He could be a stand-up comic. Instead, he's the cartoon editor of the most prestigious cartoon-publishing enterprise in the country, The New Yorker. Tall and thin with a salt-and-pepper moustache and chin whiskers fringing a cadaverous visage framed by long luxuriant locks, Mankoff obviously enjoys being funny. And that's part of his act: when making appearances hither and yon, he assumes the persona of an egomaniacal cartoon editor. In the guise of a towering ego, he struts back and forth across the stage, dropping one-liners at every step. He basks in the laughter he provokes in his audience. He enjoys the spotlight so much that he doesn't share it much with the three New Yorker cartoonists who have accompanied him to Chicago on a promotional tour for the new landmark compilation, The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker, a nine-pound 656-page gargantuan compendium that prints 2,004 of the cartoons the magazine has published from its first issue, February 21, 1925, through last winter's anniversary issue, February 23, 2004. This historic achievement comes equipped with two CDs that contain all 68,647 cartoons published during that period. Mankoff pauses, an elaborately dramatic moment, and then says he'll give ten bucks to anyone who can find a cartoon in back issues of The New Yorker that isn't in the Complete Cartoons. Another pause. "Twenty bucks if you keep quiet about it," he snarls with a fiendish grin.
Behind Mankoff on stage is a table at which are seated David Sipress, Matthew Diffee, and Charles Barsotti, each with a table mic in front of him. They watch, rapt, their editor cavort in front of them, gesturing at key rhetorical moments to the projection screen behind them upon which New Yorker cartoons flash in sequence, beginning with some early ones from the magazine's first year and continuing through 2004. When Mankoff reaches the year Barsotti's first cartoon was published in the magazine, he urges Barsotti to take up the narrative, but as soon as Barsotti says something, Mankoff jumps on it, elaborating on the idea to make it funnier. Barsotti tries a couple more times, but we never find out much about what he thinks because Mankoff is helping him along every time. When the chronology gets to Sipress' debut in The New Yorker, he is invited into the monologue. Mankoff asks him a question or two, Sipress responds, grins, and Mankoff plunges on into the next decade. Diffee enjoys a similar monosyllabic cameo appearance. During Mankoff's monologue, we find out that he is not only cartoon editor for The New Yorker, he also contributes cartoons from time-to-time, and he's the president (or CEO) and founder of the Cartoon Bank, an online cartoon marketing operation that he invented and then sold to The New Yorker. Mankoff pauses at this point to wonder, eyebrows erect with mock suspicion, about conflict of interest, which he expresses in terms of organization chart logic: who's in charge here, he wonders.
Mankoff is, of course. And many of the cartoons he selects for the magazine to publish have been brilliant, even though, over-all, New Yorker cartoons tend to run heavily to verbal humor these days rather than the classic visual-verbal blend of comedy that founder Harold Ross had in mind when he started talking to his cartoonists about "idea drawings" as distinct from "illustrated anecdotes." (For a discussion of The New Yorker's role in the evolution of the modern gag cartoon, click here to be transported to our Hindsight Department, where we recently posted a prolonged essay on the subject.) Mankoff trained to be cartoon editor by studying experimental psychology at Queens College in the 1970s. "I quit when my experimental animal died," he once said, referring to a pigeon with a number but not a name. "I took it as an omen and became a cartoonist." He submitted cartoons to The New Yorker for two years ("about 500 cartoons in total") before he sold his first one in 1977. (The New Yorker is notoriously picky in its cartoon selection.) He became a contract cartoonist in 1981: under the terms of the contract, The New Yorker gets first choice of a cartoonist's output; the cartoonist enjoys certain fringe benefits, perhaps even a health care plan (it depends, probably; I'm not sure). Then in 1997, he became cartoon editor when Lee Lorenz retired. Mankoff reviews about 1,000 submissions every week, culls about 40 from the lot and takes them to the weekly "art meeting" with editor David Remnick and others, where about 20 are picked for publication at an average rate of about $675 each. Before publication, every cartoon is checked against the computer-file of New Yorker cartoons to make sure the same punchline hasn't appeared in the magazine before. Ideas, not artwork, sells the cartoons. "It's not the ink," Mankoff intones, "it's the think." Mankoff is conscientiously on the look-out for new talent, always, and he would like to see more women cartoonists in the magazine. "I'd say about 10% of the cartoons submitted come from women," he said in an online interview recently, "and it's no doubt if women ran the magazine and one was cartoon editor more would be selected."
During the question-and-answer period following Mankoff's Chicago presentation, we learn that The New Yorker cartoon editor is no longer involved in picking the magazine's cover illustration as of yore. That duty has fallen to a relatively new staff position, art editor, filled these days, and since its inception in the early 1990s under Tina Brown's editorship, by Francoise Mouly, who, with her husband Art Spiegelman, is apparently responsible for bringing much new talent into the magazine, often recruiting from the ranks of Spiegelman's underground cartoonist "gang" (as Mankoff termed it) whom she and Spiegelman promoted in their avant garde 1980s magazine, Raw. Mouly not only cultivates cover illustrations but, we assume, all other illustrations in the magazine that are not captioned cartoons. Mankoff, I suspect, wishes it were otherwise, that he, like his predecessors in the cartoon editing chair, had some say in these matters. But he doesn't. Much. I also suspect that Mankoff chaffs a bit at the fame the magazine's reportage has earned over the years, beginning, most spectacularly, with John Hersey's "Hiroshima" in the 1950s. He mentioned investigative reporter Seymour Hersh a couple of times in a less than deferential way. The New Yorker enjoys a reputation as the forcing bed for the modern single-panel gag cartoon: the genre achieved its apotheosis at The New Yorker, and the magazine is revered among gag cartoonists as a result. Its cartoons also rank high on the cultural scale generally. But the New Yorker writers seem to stand higher in our sober Puritan work-ethic culture: serious reporting is closer to God than silly laughter. And it was ever thus. Mankoff, I think, is somewhat resentful of this state of affairs and regards cartoonists, justifiably, as superior beings. After all, many cartoonists, he observes, can write passable prose; few journalists can draw acceptable cartoons. Asked about the future for cartooning, Mankoff says, "The future will be online in combination with on-demand publishing." His opinion reflects his own bias in favor of the business he created, Cartoon Bank, a distinctly online, on-demand operation. How acute his prognostication is may be judged from his response to another question. He was asked his opinion of the current plight of editorial cartoonists, whose ranks have steadily dwindled over the last ten years or so as newspapers discontinue staff positions. Mankoff professed to know nothing about this dilemma; he has never even heard about the crisis, he said.
But all of the minor annoyances that plague Mankoff fade when he's on stage. There, he's in his element-always joking. His wife is a tolerant person, he implied: there are few places they go together that she doesn't hit him for uncontrollable wise-acreage. "Like when I got to the supermarket," he explains, "and they ask, 'Paper or plastic?' And I say, 'You know, I'm gonna eat it all here.'" Someone in the audience asks, "How does a cartoonist protect his work from being ripped off?" "Guns!" Mankoff quips. Warmed by the glow of the spotlight, he prances around the stage, mugging to the audience and sometimes laughing at his own jokes, the perfect caricature of a genuinely funny man, thoroughly enjoying himself. And we, seated in rows at his feet, enjoy him just as thoroughly.
REVIEW. The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker is a hugely satisfying tome. Organized by decade, it offers to anyone turning pages through it a tour of American mores and cultural preoccupations from the Roaring Twenties through the Great Depression and World War II and on into the long summer afternoon of the Eisenhower fifties, then into the counter-culture sixties and seventies, followed, in due course, by the more exuberant eighties and the bubbling carefree nineties. Joel Stein, writing in Time magazine, said: "You can see how confused and fascinated New Yorkers were by skyscrapers in the 1930s, how threatened and angered men were by workingwomen after World War II and how uncomfortable Americans were with the growing ubiquity of television in the '50s." At the Lansing State Journal, John Mark Eberhart wrote: "The real treasure here is how the book and CDs lay bare the American soul from the Jazz Age to the beginning of the third millennium. Life, death, music, art, peccadilloes, sexual mores, fashions, technology-all these subjects surface, and as they do, we see in each decade that passes how some of our hopes and anxieties are timeless while others wax and wane." I suppose so. But we must be wary of generalizing the American Character from New Yorker cartoons. The comedic posture that New Yorker cartoonists assume is to make fun of the pretentiousness of the upper classes and the self-proclaimed intellectual elite, the self-importance and arrogance of the powerful, and the folly of fads. So the mirror held up to life has a bend or two in it at the start; the image it reveals is therefore more refraction than reflection. To get at an authentic picture of the culture, you must look around the corner of the cartoon. And there, in this collection, you're as likely as not to see universal rather than time-bound human nature. Said Mankoff: "There's a bedrock core of humanity. We have the same pompousness that needs to be punctured."
Mankoff goes on to say that until the 1980s, the punchline was in the third person: we were laughing at the people in the cartoons. But beginning in the 1980s, the speakers in the cartoons were in on the jokes. And the jokes, in my view, became more verbal, less dependent for their hilarity on comprehending the picture as well as the caption. A few years ago, just to indulge my own perversity, I took several New Yorker cartoons and switched captions around, then circulated them among friends and acquaintances. The cartoons were still funny. Clearly, the pictures added little to the comedy. Yesterday, I opened the Complete Cartoons at random to a two-page spread of 1954 cartoons. Seven cartoons in all, and none of the captions made any sense at all without the pictures. The blending was perfect.
And the pictures for the first fifty or sixty years were better pictures; the cartoonists, better draftsmen. As editoonist Jeff Danziger said in his review in the Christian Science Monitor: "If there's one trend in this book to bemoan, it's that the artwork has gotten worse, or at least less important. Real drawing is rarely taught in this country any more, and much draftsmanship is celebrated for its distinctive quality, even if awful, rather than for skill with a line." Generally speaking, about cartooning in most genre except comic books, I agree. But with The New Yorker I think the perceived deterioration is a result of shifted emphasis: too many of the cartoons these days perpetuate the visualizing quirks of James Thurber (who was a writer, not an artist) and too few the graphic verve of, say, Peter Arno or George Price. Said Danziger: "That trend doesn't make the cartoons any less funny, but something is missing."
Something, yes, is missing in the magazine these days, but in this collection, by definition, nothing is missing. I can't tell, off-hand, what Mankoff's criteria were for skimming off the cartoons he had printed in the book. My guess is that he avoided cartoons that were too topical to be understood immediately by today's reader. At the same time, he wanted some that would reflect the preoccupations of their times. As a result, topical references, of which there are only a few, tend to be general rather than specific. Most years are represented by 15-20 cartoons, but the years of World War II take fewer pages. Judging from a quick run through a couple of the war years on the CDs, the magazine published a great many more cartoons about the military personnel, the war, and the war effort on the home front than we see in the book. Whatever his criteria, the cartoons in the book are, almost without exception, incisive social commentary, undeniably funny, and superb examples of the art of cartooning in single panel gag cartoons. The work is so good, page after page, that I find myself lingering much longer than necessary on this page or that, just luxuriating in the risible reverie induced by the haiku-like excellence in every cartoon.
Each decade is introduced with an essay by one of The New Yorker's regular writers-Roger Angell, Nancy Franklin, Ian Frazier, Rebecca Mead, Lillian Ross, Mark Singer, Calvin Trillin, and John Updike. (Franklin reveals that it was the repeal of Prohibition that rescued the magazine: income from liquor ads pulled it out of the red in which it had been foundering since the beginning.) And throughout the book, short essays discuss such topics as drinking, nudity, the space program, business culture, and the Internet. Some of the cartooning stalwarts get short essays of appreciation, too-Peter Arno, George Price, James Thurber, Charles Addams, William Steig, Saul Steinberg, George Booth, Jack Ziegler, Roz Chast, and Bruce Eric Kaplan. Alas, Helen Hokinson receives no such tribute: I've always thought Hokinson, Arno, Price, and Addams were the magazine's big four, the first three because their characters typified distinctive demographics of the New York population-Addams because he so distinctively didn't typify any demographic, any human beings anywhere (that we know of). Hokinson was in the magazine almost from the beginning: her first cartoon was published therein August 1, 1925, just three weeks before Arno's first cartoon on August 29, 1925. So it's disappointing to have Hokinson so cavalierly passed over in this roster.
Many of the cartoons in the book I've seen before: many of them have been reprinted in the periodic anthologies of New Yorker cartoons over the years. So while perusing the book is a gratifyingly pleasant experience, it is the complete file of cartoons on CDs that most attracted me to this enterprise. Searchable by cartoonist, date, subject-even caption-the CDs constitute a lavish boon to cartooning scholarship. With a few nibbles of the mouse, we can discover that Addams' first cartoon was published in The New Yorker for February 4, 1933-earlier than I'd supposed. And Sam Cobean, he of the "naked eye" (the cartoon thought balloon device by which Cobean revealed that most men undress women mentally when they look at them), didn't get into the magazine until April 8, 1944-much later than I'd have thought. George Price first appeared June 4, 1932; and the most celebrated of his early cartoons (depicting a reclining man floating three feet above his bed with his wife explaining to her visitor, "He's been up there a week") on August 13, 1932. The same drawing with a different caption was repeated several times thereafter. The first of Peter Arno's Whoops Sisters cartoons (in which two tipsy cleaning ladies, decked out in fake fur muffs and flowered hats for a night on the town, comment-"Whoops!"-on the passing populace, whose pretensions seem, to this dyspeptic duo, outlandish) appeared May 1, 1926. Arno produced a parade of cartoons of these spontaneous femmes, and they helped establish him as a regular in the magazine, but only one of the series appears in the book. John Held, Jr., who had known and worked with founder Ross when both were young in Held's hometown, Salt Lake City, first appeared in the magazine April 11, 1925. Because, by then, Held's sheiks and shebas with cue-ball heads were icons of the age, Ross prevailed on him to do something completely different for The New Yorker: Held did imitation woodcut drawings of 19th century pseudo events. Gluyas Williams showed up March 13, 1926 with one of his full page renderings, depicting the embarrassment of "The Doorman Who Forgot the Name of the Oldest Member" of the club. James Thurber had been writing for the magazine since 1927, but his first cartoon didn't appear until January 1, 1931, thanks, in part, to Thurber's office-mate, E.B. White. Thurber doodled while thinking, and White, charmed by these scrawled images of doleful dogs and ferocious women and cringing men, pulled some of the scraps out of the waste-paper basket where Thurber had filed them, gave them captions (he and Thurber typically captioned many of the magazine's cartoons in those years), and tried to convince Ross to publish them. Ross was sure White was pulling his leg, but when a review of the Thurber-White book, Is Sex Necessary? (1929), praised Thurber's drawings in the book, Ross relented and gave the world the most celebrated of its cartoonists who could not draw. (And if White routinely supplied the captions, then Thurber was not only a non-drawing cartoonist but a captionless cartoonist. Add to this the fact that Thurber was nearly blind most of his productive life, and we have the kind of achievement we can all envy unreservedly.) Eldon Dedini's first cartoon came along September 30, 1950. By then, he'd been supplying gags and cartoons to Esquire for several years; he began submitting to The New Yorker at the urging of David Smart, Esquire's publisher, who told Dedini he was ready for The New Yorker.
Otto Soglow's famed Little King, later syndicated through King Features, debuted in the magazine on June 7, 1930, but Soglow had been a regular since nearly the beginning, his first cartoon appearing November 14, 1925. And his earliest lasting impression was created with a series of visually boring cartoons: a picture of an open manhole with a ladder sticking up out of it, suggesting that workmen were below, was accompanied with a different caption, week after week in 1929. One of them: "She told me I was just like a lark singing in her heart." The last one in the series depicts the workmen for the first time: they've come up out of the sewer and are replacing the manhole cover, and one says, "And that's that." It's this sort of fascinating fustian and dross the CD file enables us to uncover, conveniently, and I, as you can plainly see, rejoice in such vast stores of cartooning trivia.
The excellence of the package, unhappily, makes all the more noticeable the annual failure of the Cartoon Issue of The New Yorker. This year's version, the November 29 issue, arrived whilst I was fondly thumbing the Complete Cartoons. At the beginning of the book, I came across editor Remnick's affectionate assessment of the place of cartoons in the magazine: "the cartoons are essential to The New Yorker. They are what readers read first. ... They set the tone of the magazine. They are, in fact, the emblem of the magazine and, as far as I can tell, the longest-running popular comic genre in American life." I'd nominate the Sunday funnies for "the longest-running popular comic genre in American life," but that's beside the point. The point is: if cartoons are so vital to The New Yorker, why is the annual issue commemorating them so chintzy an undertaking? The first of these specimens came along under Tina Brown's editorship, and it was the best of the lot. It included, in addition to a cartoon-laden cover and a section of cartoons, at least two substantial articles about cartooning, one on Thomas Nast. Subsequent Cartoon Issues have not lived up to the promise of the first. They all have multi-page cartoon sections (in addition to the usual allotment of cartoons throughout the magazine), but the articles celebrating the artform are pitifully inadequate, compared to the Nast piece, or missing altogether. This year, for instance, the only article remotely connected to cartooning is Jonathan Franzen's "The Comfort Zone: Growing Up with Charlie Brown," a nostalgic recollection of his childhood through which Franzen threads conversational references to Charles Schulz's Peanuts. Franzen allows that "Charles Schulz was the best comic strip artist who ever lived," but he produces very little evidence or analysis in support of this extravagant claim. He talks about the Peanuts characters and how they were, in some obscure way, models for him; and he finds parallels in the comic strip of his own young life (going to summer camp, for example). But the article, despite its references to Peanuts, is actually about Franzen's relationship to his father. It is, in short, the flabbiest attempt to shoe-horn into the Cartoon Issue of the magazine some text having some vague connection to the artform that is "essential" to The New Yorker. Doubtless the title of Franzen's book of essays, How to Be Alone, has more to do with the inclusion of this article here than its actual content: Charlie Brown was famous for aloneness, too. Given the resources of the magazine, it's not just a pity but a shame that Remnick and his minions cannot find more to say about the art of cartooning or those who practice it.
But at least, we now have this glorious compendium of the cream of the art of single-panel cartooning, The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker. For that, I rejoice-although my satisfaction would have been a few notches higher up had Mankoff and Remnick thought to include in the book the last of Peter Arno's cartoons. Published in the issue dated February 24, 1968, it probably appeared on the stands just about the time Arno died on February 22, and in the timing of its publication and in its subject, it was, it seems to me, an apt capstone to a cartooning career and a cosmopolitan life style that was "the New Yorker": Arno was the modern incarnation of Eustace Tilley himself, debonnaire and detached just enough from the milieu in which he lived to mock it all.
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