Opus 155:

Opus 155 (February 13, 2005). The rabbit feat this time celebrates Black History Month with a short reprise of the career of one of the great African-American cartoonists, E. Sims Campbell. That's towards the end. The intervening topics and their order are as follows: Nous R Us -more comic book character movies, Disney's Uncle Remus may make a come-back, The Simpsons book, Stan Lee and the "60 Minutes Wednesday" gaff, and the Spirit movie; Funnybook Fan Fare -Shanna, Concrete: The Human Dilemma, Gun Fu, The Wicked West, Wyatt Earp: Dodge City, and Angeltown; Comic Strip Watch -Zippy's secret, Cathy's wedding, Ted Rall and Pat Tillman again, Garry Trudeau and Honey (is she Peanuts' Marcia reincarnated?), and Prickly City dropped at the Chicago Trib; Civilization's Last Outpost -why models walk that way and termite flatulence; and, after Black History Month, a little punditry. Finally, our usual Friendly Reminder: Remember, when you get to the Members' Section, the useful "Bathroom Button" (also called the "print friendly version") of this installment that can be pushed for a copy that can be read later, at your leisure while enthroned. Without further adieu-


Comic book heroes aren't doing as well at the motion picture box office as it seemed they would in the first flush of financial excitement over the X-men and Spider-Man movies. According to Andrew Smith at Captain Comics, "Electra" never got higher than fifth in the top ten box office hits and dropped off the list altogether after three weeks; and he goes on to note that "Catwoman" was a financial as well as a critical flop, ditto "Daredevil" and "The Punisher," and "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" "barely covered its all-star salaries." Moreover, "comic-book-like movies such as 'Matrix Revolutions' and 'Van Helsing' imploded on impact." John Lippman at the Wall Street Journal wonders if superheroines will ever match superheroes in box office appeal. And Robert Weinberg, a former Marvel writer, opines that "guys like girls dressed up in sexy outfits, but when it comes to action, they still prefer the men doing it." And Monohla Dargis in The New York Times thinks there's something "disturbing, even disrupting, about a woman who walks (or flies) alone." Nuts. "Alias" on tv still reigns supreme; "Kill Bill" movies are doing all right. Ditto the first Lara Croft movie. Discounting female action characters because they're female is sexist tripe. I don't think Hollywood is finished milking these cash cows yet, and here's Vincent P. Bzdek at the Washington Post to second the motion:

            No fewer than 18 big-budget movies scheduled for release this year were inspired by comic books or superheroes, including, this spring and summer, "Batman Begins," "Fantastic Four," "Constantine," "Sin City," "Ultraviolet" and "Sky High." The boom was already well underway last year. Eight superhero movies made it to multiplexes in 2004, led by two of the year's five biggest box-office draws, "Spider-Man 2" and "The Incredibles." Together, "Spider-Man" (2002) and "Spider-Man 2" have made more than $1.6 billion in the United States, making them the sixth and eighth most popular movies ever here. And the hero worship doesn't seem likely to stop any time soon. "Superman Returns," under the direction of Bryan Singer ("X-Men," "X2"), is scheduled for release in 2006, the first new Superman movie in 20 years. DC Comics hopes to release films of "Wonder Woman," "The Flash" and "Shazam" in the next couple of years. Its rival, Marvel Comics, has ambitious plans to bring more of its wards to the big screen, too, including "Captain America," "The Phantom," "Ghost Rider," and sequels-or additional sequels-to "Hulk," "X-Men" and "Spider-Man."

            Disney's famed (and infamous) "Song of the South" may get released on DVD sometime in the near future. The movie has been kept locked up for decades because of the "happy darkie" portrayal of Uncle Remus, whose tales of Br'er Rabbit in animated sequences spice up the otherwise live-action flick. I obtained a bootleg copy of the film some years ago, but I'd love to have a copy that isn't blurry: the animation sections are nifty. The rumor about the possibility of the DVD, by the way, is promulgated at Mark Evanier's www.povonline.com, one of the Web's happiest and most informative sites; we recommend it unreservedly. ... "The Simpsons," as every fan of the show knows, is the 10th longest-running tv series ever. Chris Turner, one of the fan-addicts in question, has authored an exhaustive tome about the show, Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Defined a Generation, which, Louis Jacobson tells us in the Washington City Paper, reveals that Turner believes the show "has embodied, even driven, nearly every major cultural trend in the past decade and a half," making it "by far the most important cultural institution of its time"; it is, Turner allows, impossible to imagine contemporary pop culture without it. ... Cracked, the longest-lived of the Mad imitations, is still alive, apparently; it was recently purchased by the Teshkeel Media Group, a Kuwait company that develops original material for children throughout the world, "with a focus on the Arab and Islamic markets." ... Graphic novels got a three page fold-out spread in Time for February 7; the spotlight falls on Paul Hornschemeier, Marjane Satrapi, David B., Rieko Saibara, and Joann Sfar, with an aside to Art Spiegelman. ... "The Incredibles" collected top honors at the 32nd Annie Awards, winning best animated feature, best directing, and best voice acting. ...  Qkids, a new magazine of short stories, articles and comics (sounds a bit like Pilote or Spirou) is published from Sweden but edited in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and sold throughout the Arab world. Its aim, according to editor Fahd F. Al-Hajji, is "to wean Muslim children away from satellite tv and expose them to Islamic views." Muslim children, he noted, generally lack a reading habit: they are always glued to tv, which is unhealthy. ... In Greece, the Austrian author of The Life of Jesus, a comic book that portrays Jesus as a hippy, was tried in an Athens court and found guilty of blasphemy; he was given a suspended sentence of 18 months, but various writers' groups are protesting because they fear this case will discourage other artists and publishers working on similar books-"a serious blow to freedom of expression in the country," they said.

            When a U.S. District Court ruled in favor of Stan Lee and said Marvel had to pay him 10 percent of the profits from Marvel Enterprises film and tv productions, "60 Minutes Wednesday" pounced on the event, regurgitated a Bob Simon interview of some months ago, and added fresh material to it. Lee, obviously reluctant to go into much detail, said he was "hurt" by the company's refusal to pay him what his contract called for and brought his suit with reluctance. Simon's questions and comments, clearly intended to heighten the drama of this incident, kept referring to the characters Lee created and how he was, in effect, being robbed by Marvel, who was going to the bank with earnings gained from the sweat of his creative brow. Immediately after the program aired, objections burst forth about the injustice of Lee's taking all the credit for creating the characters that populate the Marvel Universe. "It's amazing that he walks away with all the credit and all the money for some of the creation of these characters," said Robert Katz, nephew of Jack Kirby, who probably contributed at least as much to the ambiance of the Marvel Universe as Lee. "The artists who did the lion's share of the creation have walked away with absolutely nothing," he added. Lee, it looked like, was once again taking more than his legitimate share of the credit-and this time, he was going to go to the bank, too. All this holy ire springs from some vague suppositions, though; and maybe Lee isn't the self-serving monster he seems. First, I've seen recent interviews with him (by Larry King, for one) in which Lee studiously avoids taking sole credit for Spider-Man and the like: he interrupted King and expressly disavowed any solo creation, saying he was "co-creator" with a succession of artists. So before jumping all over Lee for his performance on "60 Minutes Wednesday," we might take a breath and assume that the show's editors may have cut out any such disavowals because they would tend to dilute the intensity of the injustice they were promoting for the sake of the aforementioned scandalous high drama. Secondly, without having actually seen the contract at issue, my assumption is that it is based upon Lee's long service to the company as editor and publisher, not, per se, for creating the characters. Kirby and Steve Ditko and the others did not work as long or in as many capacities for Marvel as Lee did; they are, in any just distribution of material gain, entitled to much less. Finally, Lee's contract calls for a share in the profits from the various enterprises involving Marvel characters. The most conspicuous of these are the movies, but, as almost all of us know, movies never make any profit; their accounting systems see to that. In fact, Marvel has already said that it has not realized any profit from the Spider-Man movies or the rest. So when Simon asked Lee what he'd do with the tens of millions he stands to receive and Lee said, jokingly, that he could always use a new pair of sneakers, he was being more realistic than Simon or "60 Minutes Wednesday."

            In The New Yorker of January 17, Margaret Talbot writes about manga at some length. I'm not a fan of a lot of the manga now littering the bookstore shelves. There's something just too precious about the artwork, too cute, too delicate and affected and, for much of the stuff now selling in this country after the introduction of Lone Wolf and Cub years ago, much much too saccharin. Lone Wolf was okay; and some of the other manga mannerisms I like. But the wispy lined, big-eyed concoctions-no, thanks. Talbot tells us that "tens of thousands of Hello Kitty products-from pink vinyl coin purses to packets of 'sweet squid chunks' bearing her wide-eyed likeness-is a billion-dollar business." And, she goes on, "One reason the Japanese are so good at this kind of thing is that many adults in Japan are curiously attuned to cuteness. Even in a cosmopolitan city like Tokyo, kawaii -or 'cute' culture-is everywhere: road signs are adorned with adorable raccoons and bunnies; stuffed animals sit on salarymen's desks' Hello Kitty charms are offered for sale at Shinto shrines." I'm not opposed to "cute," mind you; in fact, some kinds of "cute" I like. But not, apparently, the "cute" of the Far East. What's more, there's something creepy about the manga books featuring big-breasted women with little girl faces. Maybe Lolita was big in Japan.

            That Mike Uslan Spirit movie I alluded to last time-yes, he's apparently working at it. In an interview last September with Chris Mason on superherotype.com, Uslan admitting that he's talking to lots of people about the film and that there's a "production team" that includes Deborah Del Prete and Gigi Pritzker, Ben Melniker, Steve Maier, Linda McDonough and F.J. DeSanto. By then, Uslan had also discussed the project with Eisner. "To be true to Eisner," he said, "the film must be highly stylized and crafted. ... The first time I saw 'Blood Simple,' for example, I knew that the Coen Brothers could execute a great Spirit film." ... "Will Eisner: The Spirit of An Artistic Pioneer" is a documentary being directed by Andrew D. Cooke, brother of the co-producer Jon B. Cooke, who is working up an issue of his Comic Book Artist devoted to Eisner, as is Roy Thomas at Alter Ego, No. 48, which was already in the works when Eisner died; the issue will focus on Eisner's years at Quality Comics, with tributes from scores of people. The Comics Journal is also coming out with an Eisner issue, and Wizard's March issue contains an Eisner profile. Strange how so much of this was in the works before Eisner died, a measure of his emergence as a graphic novelist, I reckon.

Funnybook Fan Fare

Frank Cho's long-awaited Shanna for Marvel has arrived, and it's a beaut. Touted as a pin-up lover's delight, the actual product is much much more. Cho is a master of the medium, and his storytelling here is fine-tuned for pace and suspense and emotional impact. The opening sequence is highly cinematic, imagery progressing from utter darkness to laboratory lumination in suspenseful stages. (And the piece of pipe that opens the door shows up again six pages later when Doc breaks the glass cage that keeps Shanna alive but in suspended animation.) As for Shanna's epidermis, it's almost everything we've been led to believe it would be. Yes, she's nekkid, but because the Marvel moguls moved the book from Adult to PG-13, Cho had to re-visit his artwork and cover up the nasty bits. It's a shame, kimo sabe. And it's also something of a joke: Cho has "arranged" hunks of the glass cage's two-inch-thick glass to cover Shanna's derierre, and in his most spectacular nude shot, bubbles are artfully placed to provide bikini coverage. Tiring of this coy pictorial maneuvering, he at last simply wraps the zaftig jungle queen in an old horse blanket. The very artificiality of the masking devices up to then serve to flip the bird to Marvel's cringing editors. But the best joke of the first issue-Doc's signal that he's okay under Shanna's unconscious nekkid body-survives.

            In the second issue of Concrete: The Human Dilemma, the human dilemma- propagation and population explosion as a consequence of sexual love-moves more obviously into the spotlight. Larry, whose proposal of marriage Astra has accepted, nearly comes unglued when she starts talking about having a family right away. At the other end of the book, Maureen offers the solution to the "dilemma": she loves Concrete and he loves her, but he's without sexual apparatus and therefore incapable of the loving recreation she has in mind, so she strips and caresses herself while letting him watch. Potentially, it's a bad taste locker-room joke of grossly raucous proportions-or an utter embarrassment-but Paul Chadwick manages the entire sequence with great delicacy, humor, and emotion. Surprised the next morning by a visit from Walter Sageman, the population control guru, Maureen leaps up and runs into the bathroom. In the book's last panel, she's wearing the shower curtain, a delicious visual gag that finishes the issue off with a sly smile.

            Gun Fu has been a visual firecracker from the first issue of the 4-issue series, and the last issue maintains the pace. Joey Mason (pencils) and Howard Shum (inks) manage the most severe manga style around, producing highly abstracted visions of human anatomy and physiognomy, but they also do some nifty storytelling, including mood sequences of considerable effectiveness. The end of "The Lost City" series is bloody-and sad, affecting. The 4-issue ride has been a joyful scamper. No. 4 concludes with Shum interviewing photographer Glen Luchford followed by Shum's own photographs of some Victoria's Secret models, accompanied by manga pin-ups by Shum and Mason. Now this manga style I like. Bold lines and square fingers distinguish it from the simpering style that turns me off (in case you're keeping score).

            More of that style of manga-influenced art undertakes a much more serious subject in The Wicked West, an 82-page graphic novel about vampires and gunslingers in the old West and in the 1930s. Neil Vokes gives visual life to the tale by Todd Livingston and Robert Tinnell, drenching most sequences in deep black shadow against which his filagree line is attractively contrasted. Vokes' lines aren't bold, but they're not wispy either, and liberal use of solid black gives the enterprise a more sinewy appearance. So I like it. Vokes is good with mood but not so good with action. In the opening sequence, he jams too much activity into one panel as he depicts his protagonist kicking a table, drawing his guns, and shooting at the bad guys. All this action in a single panel robs the incident of visual drama. But it winds up with a great tagline: after the gunslinger kills his would-be assassins, he looks into the wallet of one of them and concludes that it isn't his lucky day after all-"They didn't pay you in advance," he says. I'm not a big fan of vampire tales, but this one adopts a storytelling device that elevates the narrative above mere spookiness. In 1932 a grandfather and his grandson go to a movie about an old time sheriff, a schoolmarm and a vampire. The movie's story is rendered in pencil, splashed with gray tones and light blue; the other story is inked and colored. The book's narrative flashes back and forth from the 1932 movie to the old West in 1870, where the gunfighter of the opening sequence becomes the school teacher in the town and must kill a few of the local vampires, led by one of his students, a girl who tries to seduce him. The two narratives run parallel, ending separately with their protagonists driving stakes through the hearts of the undead. The interplay between the two stories makes for both contrast and emphasis, one narrative culminating in a moment that sets the emotional stage for the resumption of the other narrative on the next page. And on the last page, we find out who the grandfather is, an identity that binds the two tales together as a fable of the rites of passage from youth to manhood.

            In Wyatt Earp: Dodge City No. 1, we get some nice black-and-white (with gray tone accents) illustration in shadowy chiaroscuro from Enrique Villagran. His crisp, bold lines handle the action and staging with aplomb, and he can draw horses with panache, a vital but often neglected talent with artists attempting to draw the American West in the 19th Century. He gets the right ambiance with his pictures of characters and of interior scenes although some of his exterior sequences take place in front of buildings that look entirely too brand spanking new for the sun-baked old West, but he is a superb artist and shows, page after page, that he can draw anything with convincing confidence. The story has the famed shootist Wyatt Earp coming into Dodge City to assume the marshal's job (nice treatment of a rainy opening sequence); Doc Holliday also shows up. Writer Chuck Dixon's characterization of Holliday is about right: the man was all gambler and psychopath. Earp, however, is given a lawman's nobility that the actual gunslinger never had. The actual Earp also made a living as a gambler: he acquired a badge in whatever town he was in purely as a way to facilitate profits at the gaming table. He has emerged in Western lore as a heroic figure, but most of that heroism is the result of Earp's own diligent burnishing of his autobiography. But who comes to comics for authentic history and biography? Dixon and Villagran give us an engrossing tale, expertly rendered; and that's what we came here for.

            I went back for another look when Angeltown No. 4 (of 5 issues) arrived. Shawn Martinbrough's storytelling and visual technique are still the most impressive thing about the series: crisp and as almost as heavily shadowed as Eduardo Risso's work in 100 Bullets, the pictures move the story forward with emphasis and eye appeal. But Gary Phillips' story is as tangled a web as any of Raymond Chandler's, and plunging into the fourth issue without seeing the second and the third is a thoroughly disorienting experience. And I doubt that had I visited the second and third issues I'd be any the wiser. The tangle is simply too thick. This is a story whose individual chapters could profit enormously from plot summaries at the beginning of each installment. But it's still fun to look at.

Comic Strip Watch

In the last week or so, Bill Griffith's Zippy has come close to revealing the secret of the strip's peculiar sense of humor-the seemingly meaningless juxtaposition that animates the strip occurs when Zippy, who "lives" in the audio-visual world of tv commercials, attempts to apply the principles of that life to the life he encounters in the real world. I was hoping to quote something here by way of demonstration, but I discovered that, suddenly-overnight-the Houston Chronicle's online comics page won't print out strips anymore, and without the actual strip in front of me, I can't quote it. You can find it, though, by going to the King Features website (www.kingfeatures.com) and look for strips that ran the week of, say, January 31.

            Cathy's wedding was achieved in the same kind of outlandish spirit that has prevailed in the strip all along, a signal accomplishment, I thought. Cathy and Irving said their vows on Saturday, February 5, but the ceremony began on Monday, January 31, with typical Cathy comedy: the bridesmaids debate the order in which they'll go down the aisle, and at first, they all want to go last; then, when it is explained that the order is dictated by the "sacred wedding tradition" of "best friend" going first, "best rear" going last, none of them wants to go last. Cartooner Cathy Guisewite also raised $18,000 for the pet sanctuary where she volunteers by getting Cathy and Irving's well-wishers to make donations through an online "registry" for Electra and Vivian, the couple's pampered pet dogs.

            Ted Rall's at it again. Apparently not in the news with scandal and sensation enough lately, he's dug up Pat Tillman again. In the original outrage of last April, Rall offended vast regions of the land by suggesting that the football player turned Army ranger was not exactly the selfless American patriot he was made out to be: according to Rall, Tillman satisfied his aggressive nature as much as his patriotic impulse by giving up the gridiron brawl for the desert fire fights in Iraq and Afghanistan. So he was scarcely a hero; he was, actually, a dupe of the Bush League's propaganda. Since then, we discovered that Tillman was killed by friendly fire, the result of battlefield stupidity as much as individual derring-do. On February 3, Rall stages an interview in his strip with the ghost of the NFL soldier. "Still dead, eh?" it begins. "Uh-huh," says Tillman, "and they still make me wear this uniform-'stop loss' has gone too far." In the last panel, Rall tells Tillman that "the media has already forgotten you," to which Tillman bristles, saying, "No way, man. Republicans control all three major religions." Tillman, in other words, is wholly unrepentant. Rall's cartoon here conducts a more effective rhetoric than his first attempt on the Tillman subject; but no outrage, no publicity, no appearances on right-wing tv talk shows. Just Rall, saying, "I told you so."

            At theWashington Post's online "Chatological Humor" by Gene Weingarten, Garry Trudeau was asked (on or about February 2) if the character Honey, the reprobate Duke's, er, retainer, might be based on Marcie in Peanuts. Said Trudeau: "Honey was based on a translator I met when I was traveling with the press corps during President Ford's trip to China. It was clear to us that she and her colleagues were improvising in order to put the best face on everything, so that was my departure point. There was a kind of deadpan, opaque quality I was going for, which is why I hid her eyes behind glasses. I was trying to come up with an earnest foil for the impulsive, volatile Duke, who had just been appointed ambassador to China. That being said, there is a definite similarity in tone and appearance to Marcie, and readers have remarked on it over the years. As an avid Peanuts reader, I'm sure her influence was buried in my brain somewhere, but had I been intentionally channeling the character, I like to think I would have done a much better job of disguising it!"

            The Chicago Tribune dropped Scott Stantis' conservative-leaning strip Prickly City on February 7, saying the strip attributed to Senator Ted Kenney something he did not say. The dialogue in the strip between the little girl Carmen and her coyote friend starts with Carmen saying, "Did you hear what Ted Kennedy said during the Condoleeezza Rice confirmation? 'They lied and people died.'" To this, Winslow the coyote pup says, "Wow! Ted Kennedy said that? Was he driving?" Winslow's allusion is to the Chappaquiddick incident in 1969 in which a girl working on Kennedy's campaign died when the car Kennedy was driving ran off a bridge into the water; Kennedy escaped but the girl drowned, and Kennedy's explanation was slow in coming and tortured when it came. The intended irony is that Kennedy is a fine one to talk about lying and causing death. Geoff Brown, the Trib's feature editor, said they killed the strip because it attributed to Kennedy something he didn't actually say. "This episode," he said, "is strictly about the words put in Kennedy's mouth. Had the strip arrived at its punch line without asserting that Kennedy made such a statement at the Rice hearing, then we would have run it and laughed along with everyone else." For his part, Stantis, in effect, agreed. In the strip he sent to his syndicate, Universal Press, the words attributed to Kennedy did not appear within quotation marks; UP's editors added the quotes, thereby converting the remark to a direct quotation. Stantis knew those weren't Kennedy's exact words; he was paraphrasing the gist of the Senator's remarks and didn't put them in quotation marks. Prickly City, it sez here, appears in about 100 newspapers; none of the others, as far as Stantis knows, dropped the February 7 release.

Civilization's Last Outpost

Termites, we understand, are difficult to detect until they've done their damage. A California pest control magnet has found a way to discover them. Turns out termites are extraordinarily flatulent. "They eat a huge amount of roughage," said the exterminator, Terry Clark. In fact, according to the New York Times, termites produce so much methane gas that a 1982 report in Science magazine estimated that 30 percent of the methane in Earth's atmosphere comes from the insects. So Clark devised a way to discover termite flatulence as an early-warning system, indicating they might be about to pounce on someone's house. Ah, the march of science-what a gas.

            On Slate.com, staff writers tried to find out why models walk the way they walk-you know, that vigorous stride, swinging hips and shoulders in undulating rhythm like Jennifer Garner in "Alias." Some models have to take lessons in walking. "It depends on where they're from," according to Andrew Weir, a New York casting director. "If they're from Brazil or South America, the walk is innate. The other girls have to watch the Brazilians for a season or two until they catch up." The walk I've just described is the "Versace walk." Another locomotion, Weir explained, is just "street walk"-no swish. Most shows deploy models walking "street" with a little extra, a nearly natural stride with no hands on hips or posing. "But the walk," says Slate, "is still slightly exaggerated: some extra swagger makes skirts swish dramatically and gives tailored looks a bit of extra power." Yup, that's what I say whenever Sydney Bristow comes striding into the camera on "Alias."

A Famous Unknown Cartoonist for Black History Month

All around the tiny room in the rear flat on Edgecombe Avenue in Harlem were stacks and stacks of drawing paper with pictures on them, tottering stalagmites of wispy pencil sketches, muscular charcoal renderings, and delicately hued watercolors. The linear quality in the drawings had a nervous, searching aspect: outlines were made with several strokes of the pencil as the artist sought exactly the right placement, then the final delineation was made with single firm, dark stroke. Texture and modeling were added with grease crayon or charcoal or simply repeated strokes of a snub-nosed pencil, dashing diagonal lines back and forth across the surface of the picture to produce gray tones from dark to light. In the watercolor pictures, the lines were simpler, bolder-single strokes outlining figures and features-with color added in broad daubs and easy splashes. In the midst of the room's litter, a twenty-five-year-old man of an even dark cinnamon complexion sat at a drawingboard propped against the edge of a dresser. His visitor, a white man perhaps only four or five years older than the artist, stared at the stacks of drawings, his eyes bulging slightly as disbelief surrendered to comprehension. He saw gag lines written below many of the pictures, and he knew, then-beyond any hesitancy or doubt-that he had discovered a treasure trove of cartoons, a bonanza of bonhomie as yet untapped by the publishing world.

            "I wanted to yell Eureka," the man said later, "-because I saw at a glance that my troubles were over."

            What Arnold Gingrich called his "troubles" early that fall of 1933 any other magazine editor would have dubbed a blessing: his publisher in Chicago had just phoned him in New York to tell him that the number of color pages in the maiden issue of their new magazine had been increased from twenty-four to thirty-six. This unanticipated bonus was troublesome only because Gingrich had been hustling to fill twenty-four pages with color illustrations; with the allotment suddenly increased by a third, his quest had turned into a desperate scramble.

            They had always planned on devoting plenty of pages in the magazine to full-page cartoons, and now, with the windfall color pages, cartoons in color seemed the easiest solution to Gingrich's problem. All he needed was twelve good cartoons in color. He had journeyed to New York to secure for the magazine the work of the cartoonist whose renditions of the curvaceous gender would be perfect, he knew, for a men's magazine such as Esquire planned to be. Russell Patterson was, Gingrich said, his "beau ideal of the kind of cartoonist" they wanted: the "Patterson Girl," a regular fixture on the covers of Sunday supplements and humor magazines, was as well known as the Ziegfeld Girl. But Gingrich was on a budget, and when he met Patterson in his studio and offered him a hundred dollars each for Patterson Girl cartoons, Patterson had laughed. Just laughed.

            "I don't think any well-known illustrator would be interested in doing work for your magazine at that rate," Patterson said. "But I know a young fellow who might serve your purpose-if you don't draw the color line."

            Gingrich said he had no use for the color line-certainly not at present, desperate as he was. "Besides," he added, "-what the hell, magazines weren't wired for sound, so drawings would not carry any trace of any kind of accent."

            So Patterson told him about "a fantastically talented colored kid," a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, who produced reams of wonderful drawings that he was unable to sell because, as a black man, he couldn't get past the receptionist to show his wares to any editor in New York.

            He gave Gingrich an address where the artist was living with his aunt, and Gingrich went to Harlem. "I had to step over squads of kids on the outside stairway to get to the room where he worked," Gingrich said. And that's how he met Elmer Campbell, who would become rich and famous as "E. Sims Campbell," Esquire cartoonist par excellence.

            Gingrich, his ears ringing and his breathing more and more constricted, pawed excitedly through Campbell's stacks of cartoons. "I saw that they were all beautifully executed," he said, "whether as roughs or as finishes. My impulse was simply to poke a finger in toward the point midway down of each pile and say, 'How much down to here?'"

            He took armloads of the cartoons away with him, leaving his check for a hundred dollars as a "down payment" against future publication, which, Gingrich assured the young cartoonist, would be extensive. For the next 38 years, beginning with three cartoons in the very first issue dated Autumn 1933, Campbell's cartoons and illustrations appeared in Esquire with such regularity that Gingrich believed he was in every issue. (And he almost was.) Campbell collected pay for his own drawings and for supplying gags that other cartoonists illustrated.

            Said Gingrich: "It was Campbell's roughs and our using them to inspire other cartoonists that had the most immediate bearing on the magazine's success. Without a doubt, it was the full-page cartoons in color, an ingredient that we hadn't even thought of in the first place, that catapulted the magazine's circulation from the start."

            Campbell's impact did not end with cartoons. He also contributed the image of the magazine's familiar mascot, the pop-eyed moustachio'd old roue called Esky. Arnold had been trying to come up with a satisfactory image for the purpose for weeks without luck. He noticed several sketches of an impish little man among the drawings stacked in Campbell's room and, with the artist's permission, added the pictures to the stack of cartoons he carted off. A short time later, sculptor Sam Berman in New York transformed the Campbell character into a three-dimensional ceramic figurine, which was henceforth photographed for cover appearances with every issue of the magazine.

            Born in 1908 in St. Louis, Campbell had displayed artistic talent at an early age and resolved on a career in commercial art despite occasional admonitions from his elders that any "Negro" with such ambitions would be wasting his time pursuing them. He learned the fundamentals of art from his mother, a painter, and the value of education from his father, a high school principal. While a teenager, he left St. Louis for Chicago, eventually enrolling in the University of Chicago as well as the Art Institute. Later, in New York, he attended the Art Students League. He had freelanced in both cities but didn't sell much until Arnold discovered him for Esquire. Shortly after his debut in the magazine, Campbell was getting commissions from around the world. But it was in Esquire that he achieved the apotheosis of his art.

            George Douglas, writing about Esquire in his history, The Smart Magazines, said: "The Esquire connection meant the most to him, no doubt, because in essence he, as much as anyone else, established the magazine's visual style. His work was highly finished and polished, of course, and he could render a wide variety of curvaceous females-chorus girls, innocents, vamps, supercharged office secretaries-in moods ranging from the voluptuous to the risible. His touch, in any case, fit Esquire to perfection. It was slick, jaunty, tongue-in-cheek, stylishly erotic, playfully adult. So apt was the material that it was used eventually in all manner of drawings, not only cartoons-fashion drawings, covers, illustrations for stories and articles, fillers of all sorts."

            Living up to his burgeoning income, Campbell moved into the Dunbar Apartments on Seventh Avenue, the most glamorous apartment building that African-Americans had in New York. And there, the cartoonist met Cab Calloway, jazz musician, band leader, and the instigator of Minnie the Moocher, whose scat "hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho" enlivened the evenings at the Cotton Club whenever Duke Ellington had gigs out-of-town. The jazz man and the cartoonist became fast friends and frequent habitues of Harlem nights.

            Calloway loved Harlem. "Harlem in the 1930s was the hottest place in the country," he wrote in his autobiography, Minnie the Moocher and Me. "All the music and dancing you could want. And all the high-life people were there. It was the place for a Negro to be. ... No matter how poor, you could walk down Seventh Avenue or across 125th Street on a Sunday afternoon after church and check out the women in their fine clothes and the young dudes all decked out in their spats and gloves and tweeds and Homburgs. People knew how to dress, the streets were clean and tree-lined, and there were so few cars that they were no problem. Trolleys ran down Lenox Avenue to Central Park. People would go for picnics on a Sunday afternoon, and the young couples would head for the private places between the rocks to spoon and make eyes at each other. I'm not being romantic. Harlem was like that-a warm, clean, lovely place where thousands of black folks, poor and rich, lived together and enjoyed the life."

            Harlem was also the destination for much of New York's night club population, white as well as black. And Calloway and Campbell joined in.

            "By the time I met him," Calloway said, "Campbell was a well-established cartoonist. He was also, like me, a hard worker, a hard drinker, and a high liver. I used to think that I worked hard. Cotton Club shows six or seven nights a week, matinees at the theaters a couple of afternoons, theater gigs sometimes in between the Cotton Club shows, and benefits on the weekends. But Campbell outdid me. He drew a carton a day, not little line drawings, but full watercolor cartoons. And he played as hard as he worked. He loved to drink. When we got to know each other, we would go out at night to the Harlem after-hours joints like the Rhythm Club and just drink and talk and laugh and raise hell until the sun came up. Somebody would get us home and pour us into bed, and we'd be back at it again the next night.

            "One of my favorite cartoons by Sims," Calloway continued, "shows a boys' choir in a big church. All the choirboys are white except for one big-eyed Negro. The choir master is getting ready for the Sunday service, and he's looking at this Negro kid with a reprimand in his eyes. The caption reads: 'And none of that hi-de-ho stuff.' Elmer did that cartoon in 1934, and it was published in Esquire in October of that year. He and I were tight friends by then. Jesus, I loved that man. He was one of the straightest, most natural men I'd ever met. Unaffected, you know, just honest and open; loud and noisy when he got drunk, and ornery as hell when anybody disturbed him while he was working. ... Over the years, we stayed close to each other. Many a night, he and I would hang out together screwing around, drinking bad gin straight in after-hours joints. I would complain to him about my wife, and he would complain to me about his. We were personal with each other, and we could holler at each other about our problems while we laughed at them. ... We joked and laughed and shared things, man to man. There are few men I've had that kind of friendship with."

            In 1936, Campbell moved to fashionable Westchester County where he built a flagstone mansion on a large piece of land, about which Gingrich exclaimed: "It was many years before it was anything but earthshaking to have a home of that kind [in that neighborhood] occupied by a Negro." click to enlarge

            While Campbell drew cartoons about life among the fun-loving classes and wrote articles about the nightlife in Harlem, he was celebrated for drawing pretty girls, and he gained renown for the harem cartoons he rendered in lovingly luminous flesh tones. The girls in Campbell's cartoons looked white, but according to the cartoonist, "If they came to life, they'd be colored. Colored girls have better breasts and more sun and warmth," he is reported to have said; "I like a fine backside, and they have it!"

            In 1942, Campbell's leggy ladies began appearing in pen-and-ink black and white in a daily newspaper cartoon called Cuties from King Features Syndicate. click to enlargeCuties lasted until about 1970, but Campbell's photograph never appeared in syndicate promotional literature: a black man drawing zaftig white girls in various states of undress, however modestly portrayed for newspaper readers, would have scandalized the editors of papers in the South, who, as a matter of course, would undoubtedly cancel their subscriptions to Cuties in droves. Campbell's racial identity was pretty carefully guarded. And when he occasionally joined other cartoonists of the National Cartoonists Society in roving around Manhattan nightclubs, his racial identity sometimes underwent transformation. If the group was stopped at the door by the bigotry of the day, Campbell's cohorts assured the officious factotum guarding the entrance that the dark-skinned man in their company was, in fact, an Arabian prince. Doors promptly swung open.

            The color bar began to be lifted somewhat in the 1950s, but Campbell had, perhaps, had enough, and by then, he was able to do something about it. In 1957, he left his baronial mansion in White Plains and moved to Switzerland, where he lived until 1971, mailing his work to stateside clients. In the early 1960s or thereabouts as Esquire underwent format changes, Campbell's harem girl cartoons appeared in Playboy as well as their birthplace. He returned to the U.S. in the fall of 1971 and soon thereafter learned that he had cancer. He died in January 1972. Calloway was heartbroken.

            "I have lost many relatives and friends in my years," Calloway wrote, "but other than the death of my mother, none has struck me as Elmer Campbell's did. It was because the man was so full of life that his death hit me so hard." At the funeral home, Calloway was overcome. "I was angry that he'd left me," he said. "The feeling came upon me so suddenly that I had no control of myself. This goddamn man who I had known for so long and spent so many drunken and sober, joyful and serious hours with had left me." He began beating his fists on the coffin and hollering. His wife and friends pulled him away. Said Calloway: "I've known and worked with people like Duke Ellington, Pearl Bailey, Lena Horne, Dizzy Gillespie, Jonah Jones, and Bill Robinson-to name just a few-but if you want to know the name of a guy I loved, remember E. Simms Campbell. My friend."

            Campbell was, as far as I'm able to determine, the first African-American cartoonist to make it big in the world outside the black community. Although his race was a secret for much of his career, his mark on the history of American cartooning is indelible.


Footnotes: Gingrich believed that Campbell had a cartoon or illustration in every issue of the magazine until the cartoonist died. He had discovered this phenomenon when assembling a collection of cartoons for Esquire's 25th anniversary. For the entire quarter century, Gingrich wrote, "the common denominator was that not one issue had ever gone to press without a cartoon by Campbell." Thereafter, "it became a point of pride with the editors and the makeup people to see to it that nothing should be allowed to let him spoil that perfect record; and although there were times when it was necessary to dig up a rough sketch out of the files and run it in its really unfinished state, for failure to receive a fully rendered drawing on time to make a given issue's press date, none had, until some months after his death, ever actually gone to press without a Campbell cartoon." However fondly and passionately Gingrich believed this, I, alas, have at least three issues of Esquire (January and September 1946, January 1947) without Campbell cartoons. But the myth is, notwithstanding, a measure of the esteem in which Campbell is held.

            Cuties has been collected in at least four paperbacks: Cuties In Arms (1942), More Cuties in Arms (1943)-both with the World War II military market in mind; and Cuties (1945) and Chorus of Cuties (1952), from which the pen-and-ink cartoons near here are poached. Campbell also illustrated a children's book, Popo and Fifina (1932) by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, and a collection of Haitian poetry, We Who Die & Other Poems, by Binga Dismond. Gingrich tells his story in Nothing but People, an autobiography.

            For more about African-American cartoonists, visit Tim Jackson's site, www.clstoons.com, the single most comprehensive source of information on the subject.

Under the Spreading Punditry

Remember the election of 1967 in South Vietnam? U.S. officials were "heartened," the New York Times said, "at the size of turnout in [the] presidential election despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting." According to reports, 83 percent of the 5.85 million registered voters cast their ballots. "The size of the popular vote and the inability of the Vietcong to destroy the election machinery were the two salient facts in a preliminary assessment of the national election." We hope this is no harbinger of things to come in Iraq, where we are encountering so many other similarities to Vietnam. The recent election in Iraq was a genuine triumph of the spirit of citizenry, and I can easily imagine that civic pride will become the engine by which the insurgents are defeated. So let's hope.

            The Bush League budget for the coming fiscal year boosts spending in warfare categories and cuts in many domestic programs, including Environmental Protection Agency funds (6 percent, the biggest hunk from the clean-air fund) and a program to help people pay their heating bills (8 percent). But "financing for the apprehension of Army deserters would double." I guess they expect a lot of activity in that area.

            GeeDubya reportedly doesn't understand why people 55 and older are objecting so strenuously to his Social Security proposals: after all, they won't be affected at all, he says. His obtuseness highlights the difference between George W. ("Wooden-hearted") Bush and most of humanity. People over 55, particularly those over 65 or so who are already drawing Social Security benefits, know, for an absolute fact, the tremendous value of the existing Social Security system. And they want to make sure their children and grandchildren will enjoy the same sort of relatively carefree twilight years. GeeDubya, apparently, could care less about people not of his generation and therefore doesn't understand anyone who does. Sad.

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