Opus 159:

Opus 159 (April 17, 2005). A long appreciation of Dale Messick is our featured event this time, plus a review of the graphic novel The Irregulars. A rundown of this installment's contents, in order, by department: Nous R Us -Art Spiegelman makes Time's most influential list, Signe Wilkinson's Red Lake comment raises Indian ire, Scott Stantis' Prickly City gets yanked in Seattle, the psy-ops plan for winning hearts in the Mid-East, Steve Geppi says he's a changed man (or a misunderstood one); Civilization's Last Outpost -More choice is not necessarily better, how the Polish communists reacted to the election of John Paul II in 1978; Comic Strip Watch  -Speed Bump's caption contest garners 3,000 entries, Doonesbury proceeds to go to Fisher House, Get Fuzzy shoots beaver; Editoonery  -Nick Anderson wins Pulitzer's $10,000, R.J. Matson gets Post-Dispatch chair; Sin City reviews; Too Many Graphic Novels? Dale Messick, and the review of The Irregulars. Then a couple Bushwhacks and we're done. Finally, our usual Solicitous Rejoinder: 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-


Two cartooners made Time magazine's annual list of the world's most influential people (April 18): Japan's Hayao Miyazaki and our own Art Spiegelman. Miyazaki was extolled by no less a critical intelligence than Stan Lee, who said the anime master "has consistently pushed the creative envelope" and has "taken the art of anime and brought it to new heights through an inimitable vision and sense of storytelling." Spiegelman's rave writer is Marjane Satrapi, who says the Maus man deserves the honor because "he is the reference for any cartoonist"; for her anyhow, "-he showed me that comics can be more than superhero stories." But she spends the rest of the page in a comics and prose tribute to the man who, during her visit with him, smoked three times more cigarettes than she, another famous smoker, did: "He's a better man than even I had expected," she concludes smugly. Spiegelman is one of the few people in the 71-page section to get a full page to himself, joining Barack Obama, Martha Stewart, Sony's Howard Stringer, SpacShipOne's Burt Rutan, and Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko. Condoleezza Rice and Jamie Foxx are the only ones to get more than a single full page: they each got two, including giant photos. By comparison, most of the 100 run to half or third pages: GeeDubya got only a third page, Nelson Mandela, half-a-page.

            While it's nice to see cartooning get all this dignifying recognition, such accolade line-ups always make me wonder. Why Spiegelman and not, say, Garry Trudeau? Trudeau is in the public square more often with opinions that are, arguably, more powerfully put than Spiegelman's occasional outbursts. The objective in compiling the list was, apparently, to pick "men and women whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world." Rice, we may agree, qualifies; ditto George W. ("Whopper") Bush and numerous others of the political persuasion listed herein. But for the cartoonist, why not Aaron McGruder? He upsets at least as many people every week as Trudeau-and many many times the number outraged by Spiegelman, who, as I say, doesn't surface that often. I'm afraid I suspect that Spiegelman, whose talent and influence are undeniable-certainly by me-got the nod because they somehow felt they needed a cartoonist on the list what with the surge of graphic novels. Who to pick? Spiegelman is most often on the tips of people's tongues in New York's media power centers whenever they talk about the new cultural status of cartooning, or "comics," so why not Spiegelman? Who else qualifies, given the presumed criterion here? Enough quibbling. I don't seriously question the wisdom of the listers' choice: Spiegelman is, indeed, an inspirational force in cartooning (not to mention being brilliantly analytical and deeply knowledgeable about the history of the medium). I'm nattering on here merely to show how readily lists of this sort can be criticized-and invariably are. And in the last analysis, apart from the Bushes and Rices and Yushchenkos, how can you, really, make up any kind of genuinely meaningful list? Dan Brown made it to this list, for instance- The DaVinci Code guy?-but not for his writing ability; his novel, while tantalizingly constructed, was quite badly written. Very little description, for instance, no characterization. He's on the list, though, for writing a mystery story that "kept the publishing industry afloat." Still, lists are a fun game, kimo sabe. I love 'em.

            About 75 Indians (that's "Native Americans" but I'm quoting from the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Bob Von Sternberg) gathered outside the office of the Duluth News Tribune on March 31 to protest a cartoon the paper published about the recent Red Lake school killings. The cartoon, a syndicated effort from Pulitzer-winning Signe Wilkinson of the Philadelphia News, showed a man with a headband and a ponytail holding an "Indian Tracking Guide" as he follows a path strewn with guns, skulls, swastikas and a picture of Adolf Hitler. The man says, "I'm not recognizing these signs." The Red Lake readers and their sympathizers thought the portrayal of Indian culture was insensitive and stereotypical. Wilkinson intended no offense: her point was that parents need to learn to "read" (recognize) different signs these days in order to understand where today's teenagers are coming from and thereby to prevent such wholesale slaughter as 16-year-old Jeff Weise conducted. But even for the American Indian, who has a reputation for "reading sign," the task of self-education is daunting. This would be just another instance of newspaper readers mis-reading an editorial cartoon except for what the leader of the protest, Mike Sayers, said: "If one of us did something similar, we'd be fired," he said. "We thought [the newspaper] should ask for the resignation [of the person responsible for the cartoon being printed]. It was really disturbing that someone on the staff found humor in it and put it in the paper" (my italics). Sayers has helped identify the problem in virtually all such incidents. In most citizens' minds, cartoons equate to comedy. They're supposed to be funny. Editorial cartoons are cartoons and, so the reasoning runs, they are therefore funny-to someone, somewhere. Most newspaper readers, I daresay, think that editorial cartoons are supposed to be funny. And these readers are easily outraged when an editorial cartoonist tries to make a point that may be mildly amusing but is heavily freighted with seriously thought-provoking, even disturbing, imagery. They think the cartoonist is ridiculing something, making fun of something. And it's usually someone or something that the offended readers don't think we should be laughing about. Like Native American culture, especially when an entire community is in grief-stricken shock as it is at Red Lake.

            Elsewhere, on another occasion (Washington Post's online cartoonist interview series),  Wilkinson commented on the dearth of female political cartoonists, saying, "Perhaps one reason women don't go into this biz is that you need really thick skin." Wilkinson is one of the profession's dryest wits, and later in the interview, when asked what it was like to get the Pulitzer, she said: "It's like having Ed MacMahon coming to your door with the publisher's sweepstakes. YOU HAVE WON!" But then came the self-deprecating closer: "There are so few cartoonists and so many prizes, if you stick around long enough, you're sure to get one. Cartooning is so well-regarded in the [journalism] profession that it's ranked right around the Pulitzer prize for hair coloring." Growing up "on the Mad magazine sensibility-particularly Sergio Aragones," Wilkinson, while valuing the function of the political cartoon, is not persuaded that the genre can change the course of Western civilization. "It's been my experience," she said, "that people don't pick up a cartoon, smack themselves on the forehead, and say, 'Well, now I'm going to vote the way this cartoon says I should.' Mostly, I think cartoons reassure people who already agree with them that they aren't alone."

            In the New York Times, meanwhile, Maureen Dowd speculated about why there are so few women shaping the nation's opinions. "As a female columnist," she wrote, "I can hazard a guess: Men are utterly unnerved by opinionated women." Opinionated men are clever and daring; opinionated women are castrating shrews. "Few women, sadly, are willing to put up with these hostile reactions. ... There are scores of brilliant, talented women out there who could join the ranks of the nation's leading thinkers and pundits. First, though, men will have to stop calling every women with strong opinions a bitch." Or, perhaps, women will have to get used to being called whatever female opinion mongers are called. If it's going to work both ways, it's gotta work both ways.

            Meanwhile, the Washington Post National Weekly reports (March 21-27) that laughter improves health and lessens the chances of heart attacks. A study recently demonstrated that laughter induced blood vessels to dilate, which improves blood flow. A good thing, considering that heart attacks can be brought on by constricted blood vessels that impede the flow of blood.

            According to David Astor at Editor & Publisher, the Seattle Times dropped several of Scott Stantis' Prickly City strips recently during a sequence that alluded to the Terri Schiavo tragedy. Carmen's favorite team in the NCAA tournament lost, so her "liberal" buddy, Winslow the Coyote, says, "I know a way I can end your agony" and takes away her food. In a subsequent strip, Winslow goes on to say, "I'm doing it to stop your suffering, Carmen. Besides, suicide and euthanasia are cool now. Hunter Thompson. Million Dollar Baby. It's all the rage." I feel compelled, at this rhetorically convenient juncture, to point out that if the "million dollar baby" had asked her hospital attendants to pull the plug on her life support system, they would have had to do it: that's the law. The patient can always decline treatment or terminate it. But the makers of the movie wanted an emotional crisis, so they, in effect, manufactured one where one didn't need to exist. But I divaricate. Stantis said he received "dozens" of critical e-mails on the sequence, many saying "how dare he make light" of the Schiavo case. His syndicate, Universal Press, was not aware of any other papers pulling the sequence. And even at the Times, which ran the first strips in the sequence before yanking the rest, there was no "huge outcry"; just "a handful of complaints, well within the range of what we receive fairly often about Prickly City," said Cynthia Nash, director of content development at the paper. So the paper over-reacted by imagining a response that never materialized. Typical timorous editing. And, once again, "cartoon" means "funny," and the Schiavo situation wasn't funny. Stantis, who realizes newspapers have a right to pull strips they don't like, finds that behavior a little strange when considering that social and political commentary reputedly bring highly prized but hard to reach younger readers to newspapers. Stantis, who doubles as editorial cartoonist at the Birmingham News (Alabama), believes commentary is as legitimate on the comics page as it is on the editorial page. "The comics section is the only part of the paper we can't talk about Terri Schiavo?" he asked, rhetorically.

FOOTNIT: Stantis has launched a weekly podcast based upon the strip, David Astor reports. Accessible via PricklyCity.com (or http://images.ucomics.com/images/podcasts/pricklycity/pricklypodcast040205.mp3 ) and lasting 5-10 minutes, the podcasts are "a lot like an audio blog," Stantis explained. "To my knowledge, no other syndicated daily comic strip artist has ever attempted this. It allows me to flesh out the strip and explain the ideas behind it more fully. I'm keeping it light and funny. I'll talk about either the strip that just appeared or what's likely to come next and maybe get into why the characters said or reacted the way they did."

            The U.S. Army hopes to win the hearts of young people in the Mid-East by producing a comic book and is inviting applications for the job. Special Operations Command is concocting the comic at Fort Bragg, home to the army's 4th Psychological Operations Group (the storied "psy-op warriors"), whose weapons, according to BBC News, include radio transmitters, loudspeakers, and leaflets. The initial character and plot development has already been completed based upon the activities of security forces as envisioned for the near future. A successful applicant to continue the work, according to the advertisement, should have experience of law enforcement and small unit military operations along with a knowledge of Arab language and cultures. Walking on water is apparently not required; nor, it seems, is drawing ability. "In order to achieve long-term peace and stability in the Middle East," the ad reads, "the youth need to be reached." The army's comic book will be in competition with a new Egyptian publishing venture that has created a clutch of what it bills as the first Arab superheroes: Zein aka the Last Pharaoh; Rakan, a hairy medieval warrior in Mesopotamia; Jalila, a brainy Levantine scientist and fighter for justice; and Aya, a North African "vixen who roams the region on her supercharged motorbike confronting crime wherever it rears its ugly head." The objective here is "to fill the cultural gap created over the years by providing essentially Arab role models ... to become a source of pride to our young generations." Ahh, success: the humble comic book, until recently the flotsam in the cultural sea, is now a weapon of mass instruction.

            Speaking of the Mid-East, freedom of expression is again at risk in Turkey, where the prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, once a champion of free speech, is suing a satirical magazine, Penguen, for publishing a cartoon that caricatures him as a frog, camel, monkey, snake, duck and elephant. Helena Smith in the Guardian says Erdogan is incensed and demands sixteen thousand pounds in compensation. This is the fourth time Erdogan has taken the media to court for poking fun at him. The cartoon at issue was printed on the cover of the magazine in defiance after Erdogan took legal action against one of Turkey's most prominent political cartoonists. Said Penguen's editor: "We printed the drawings as a message to say that cartoonists cannot be silenced. This was a test of the sincerity of the prime minister, who says he wants Turkey to be a member of the EU. Now he has shown his true face." Erdogan said he found the cartoon "deeply humiliating." The court that threw out one of his earlier suits commented that "a prime minister who was forced to serve a jail term for reciting a poem should show more tolerance to these kinds of criticisms." Erdogan's litigious inclination fostered fears that the neo-Islamists are bent on stifling the press. Burak Bekdil, a columnist, wrote: "Perhaps Erdogan has something against animals. The late premier Adnan Menderes, who was hanged after the 1960 military coup, was depicted as a belly dancer and he did not sue. Can there be less free speech in EU-candidate Turkey than in a semi-democratic Turkey of the 1950s?"

            Here's a switch: comics inspiring novels rather than novels being adapted in comics (or comics in movies). Best-selling author Jonathan Lethem has a three-book contract with Dark Horse to produce novels based upon Carl Anderson's Henry, Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy, and Dondi by Gus Edson and Irwin Hansen. Lethem says his previous protagonists have typically been "conflicted youth or developmentally arrested adults," so Henry and Nancy and Dondi fall right in line. Mute Henry's plight is how to convey his deepest frustrated urges; with Nancy, Lethem says, "I get to investigate the limits of intelligence ... and the mysterious icon of the Three Rocks"; and in Dondi, he will explore "the role of missing parents in the development of a sensitive, artistic soul such as my own." Working titles for the novels are: Silent Utterances of Youth, The Thorny Hair of Girlhood, and Alone with My Lonely Angst. Each will be illustrated- Frank Miller will do Henry, Bill Griffith (Zippy) the Nancy book, and Mike Mignola, Dondi. My source for this startling information is dated April 1, if the novel titles haven't already given the game away.

            At a memorial for Will Eisner in New York on April 7, a who's who of cartooning gathered, and many spoke of the personal and professional virtues of the man whose example has guided so much of the profession's effort. "Through it all," reported Heidi MacDonald, "the connecting thread was the gift of Eisner's insistence on pushing his own boundaries while recognizing the talent of others. How could you not feel like a slacker when an 80-year-old man who had inspired everyone was proclaiming himself still a beginner and trying to move on to the next thing?" Gary Sassaman reported on his blog that he learned that Eisner's preferences about a movie version of his Spirit was for Harlan Ellison to write, William Friedkin to direct, and James Garner to play the leading role. Bravo.

            In the latest issue of Busted, the news magazine of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Steve Geppi, distributor Diamond's head, who was recently appointed to the CBLDF Board of Directors, defends his reputation. I observed here when he was appointed that he seemed an unlikely champion for freedom of the press because of his earlier reputation for censoring comics. His censorship, if I recall aright, involved his refusing to distribute various titles that, for one reason or another (sexual content, profanity, etc.), offended him. My impression at the time was that his conservative (religious?) views drove his judgement to extremes; but I may have that wrong. Still, the question remained: How can a person who allegedly so willingly imposed his moral and political views on the distribution system he controlled be a defender of freedom of expression? Geppi spoke directly to that criticism in remarks addressed to the Diamond's September Retailer Summit:  "Some of you old timers who are probably extremely shocked right now that I'm up here as a new member of the Board because for those of you who go back far enough, you know that I once had the reputation-not a truly valid reputation-but an accused reputation of being a censor. That was at a time when I thought I was doing the right thing because I was looking at some of the things that were being sent out in the mail to us to solicit, and quite frankly I didn't think the retailers should be exposed to them. And I'm not talking about violence or sex. I just thought the quality was poor, and then I got accused of being a censor. But I do very much believe in free speech and I very much believe in what the CBLDF represents." Earlier in the evening's agenda, Geppi had referred to the notorious effects of Frederic Wertham's crusade against comics in the mid-1950s, saying, in part, that "Wertham later recanted-not that a lot of people know that." Geppi himself seemed to be recanting: "Yes," he said, "there are comic books that have violence. Yes, there are comic books that have sex. Yes, there are comic books that have nudity. But there are other comic books, too. Like other entertainment media, whether it be television or movies, comic books are a medium that entertains. Comic books are in a unique position, and we're fortunate enough to represent them." And he vowed to do his best to advance the cause for which the CBLDF was created. Good enough. For now.

            Elsewhere in the same issue of Busted, CBLDF reports some success in opposing various incipient laws that, while purporting to protect children, actually deny freedom of expression. And Peter David reports on the tattoo he acquired to raise money for the Fund. Wendy Pini drew a picture of one of her Elfquest characters on his arm with a ballpoint pen, challenging David to get it tattooed. "If someone will donate a thousand bucks to the fund, I'll have it made permanent," David quipped. After a few hours of fruitless fund-raising to get David disfigured permanently, Richard Pini returned and said WaRP Graphics would donate the money because it was WaRP's characters (that's "Wendy and Richard Pini") that were being promoted. So David got branded for life with a picture of Leetah on his upper left arm.

Civilization's Last Outpost

Barry Schwartz writes in the April AARP Bulletin that the greater the number of choices, the more dissatisfaction results. The original notion about variety on the store shelves was that choices underscore freedom: the more choices one has, the greater freedom exists in making a selection. If there's only one brand of soup on the shelf, you have no freedom when it comes to soup. By the same token, then, the more choices we have, the greater our freedom, and since freedom is one of America's iconic values, a vast array of choices must be good. And so we have, Schwartz enumerates, 85 types of crackers, 285 types of cookies, 80 pain relievers, thousands of mutual funds, hundreds of cell phones, dozens of calling plans-and on and on and on. The variety of screws, bolts, and nails available in the average hardware store is so vast that you have to take the item you want to screw, bolt or nail in with you to make sure what you purchase will fit. Even toilet paper comes in scores of kinds. Studies have now determined that just because some choice is good, more choice isn't necessarily better. Sometimes, the more choices there are, the less likely we are to make any selection at all. Stymied by the very abundance of possibilities, we refrain altogether from action.

            I was watching the PBS News Hour the other night when Zbignieu Brzezinski (Jimmy Carter's national security advisor) was on, being interviewed about the Pope, who, by then, had died. Zbig knew the Pope both before and while he was Pope; both are Poles, and they used to have conversations, I gather. The interviewer asked if the Communists in Poland were apprehensive about Karol Wojtyla when he became Pope, and Zbig told a story that he said illustrated their attitude. Here's the story:

            It seems there was a big Communist Party meeting going on in Krakow while the cardinals in Rome were picking the new Pope in 1978, and right in the middle of the party secretary's speech, someone burst into the hall, shouting that Wojtyla had been chosen Pope. The party secretary was stunned and sat down in mid-sentence. He didn't realize that the microphone was still on when he leaned over to the assistant party secretary sitting next to him and said tremulously: "My god, Wojtyla is Pope! Now we'll have to kiss his ass!" And the assistant leaned back and said with equal timorousness: "Yes-if he'll let us."

            That, said Zbig, illustrates how the Polish Communists felt about John Paul II. Then and thereafter, I assume. Might be a total fabrication, of course; but this wouldn't be the first apocryphal event to be celebrated in Christendom.

Comic Strip Watch

Celebrities often make guest appearances in Rob Harrell's Big Top; this week, Ellen DeGeneres shows up. ... More than 3,000 people responded to Dave Coverly's challenge to supply a speech in an empty speech balloon in his March 14 Speed Bump panel. That day, Coverly depicted a gorilla in a diner apparently declining the service of a cup of coffee, with a blank speech balloon hovering over his head, an open invitation for creative souls everywhere to supply a few pithy bon mots. The best entry, Coverly says, will appear with an encore of the drawing to be published in late May.

            John McCain has supplied the introduction to the Doonesbury reprint volume chronicling B.D.'s leg loss, The Long Road Home: One Step at a Time, scheduled for May release. The advance and all royalties from the sales of the book will go to the Fisher House Foundation, which provides "comfort homes" in the vicinity of major military and veteran's medical centers for the use of relatives visiting recuperating service personnel.

            The April 4 installment of Darby Conley's Get Fuzzy was doctored in various of its venues. Bucky Kat is raving on about the animals associated with holidays-Christmas turkey, Thanksgiving turkey, Valentine's Day beaver, Easter bunny. When Satchel, horrified, concludes that means people eat leprechauns on St. Patrick's Day, Rob calls a halt-then catches himself: "No-hold on, Valentine's Day what?" Some papers deleted "beaver" and substituted "marmot." It's not clear to me, though, whether the editorial adjustment was achieved at individual newspapers or by Conley's syndicate, seeking to provide client papers with "alternate" strips. Makes me wonder where editors let their minds run.


Editoonist Nick Anderson of the Louisville Courier-Journal received the 2004 Pulitzer Prize "for his unusual graphic style that produced extraordinarily thoughtful and powerful messages."

Anderson was stunned by his selection, given the caliber of the competition. Runners-up were Garry Trudeau for Doonesbury "for provocative cartoons that used realistic characters to dramatize social and political issues" and Don Wright (Palm Beach Post) "for his portfolio of wry but hard-hitting cartoons that addressed a wide range of issues with unflinching honesty." Trudeau won in 1975 and was nominated again last year. Said Anderson: "It's an incredible honor. The first person I called was my wife, and the second person I called was my dad. I'm glad this happened while he is still around." (His mother died in 1971.) Anderson received the news from one of his editors, who screamed at him to come to his office. "I figured I must have done something really good or really bad," Anderson said. Anderson, 38, joined the Courier-Journal a month after graduating in 1991 as a political science major from Ohio State University; in 1995, he became the paper's chief political cartoonist. Anderson's drawing style combines a spidery line with an unusual filagree shading technique that imparts to the final art the quality of a fine etching. An unabashed critic of the Bush League, Anderson said of his craft: "The rule, I think, is to provoke thought. In the process of provoking thought, you often provoke anger, and that's not a bad thing. In fact, it can be a very good thing because that's the beginning of dialogue. Being funny is fine," he continued, "but to what end if you're not going to have a point of view?"

            Joel Pett, an unflinching editoonist whose acerbic wit makes him a standup comedian without peer, whom I (and Editor & Publisher) listed a couple weeks ago as one of the three finalists, was, in fact, not one of the trio. Sorry. And E&P apologizes, too. But Pett, a 2000 Pulitzer winner, deserves to be among the finalists in any year.

            The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has finally hired a political cartoonist, R.J. (Robert John) Matson, who has been drawing a cartoon a week for the New York Observer and four cartoons a week for Roll Call, the congressional newspaper in Washington. The position has been vacant since late 2003 when John Sherffius resigned for reasons that were not very well specified but seemed, to various observers, to have something to do with his political point of view not coinciding with that of his editors. And he got fed up with his cartoons being rejected or modifications being suggested. So he left.

            An online P-D article supplies some background on Matson: His cartoons and illustrations have appeared in numerous publications including The New Yorker, The Nation, MAD Magazine, The Washington Post and Rolling Stone. Born in Chicago in 1963, Matson was raised in Brussels, Belgium, and Minneapolis. His artistic gifts surfaced early, nudging aside his dreams of being a major league pitcher or a race car driver. "I was a compulsive doodler," Matson said. "Being a cartoonist was the one dream I never outgrew." In grade school he drew comic strips, which he photocopied and sold for 25 cents, featuring his classmates. While a student at Columbia University, his political cartoons and weekly comic strip for the campus newspaper got enough positive feedback to persuade him that he had a good shot at going pro. After graduating from Columbia in 1985, he worked as a reporter, a bartender and a freelance artist. He was 25 before he was able to scrape by solely on his income from drawing. "I never would have found the drive and the perseverance to become a cartoonist if I hadn't convinced myself that I would be a miserable failure as a lawyer, doctor or an advertising executive," Matson said. "That's been the secret of my success so far."

            Matson's taste in humor runs the gamut from the acerbic, George Carlin, to the absurd, Monty Python. His artistic influences are equally broad, and include the vitriolic 19th century political cartoonist Thomas Nast, the whimsical George Herriman (Krazy Kat) and Walt Kelly (Pogo), R. Crumb's underground comix, and the popular French children's comic book series "Asterix." Among contemporary editorial cartoonists, Pulitzer prize-winners Pat Oliphant and the late Jeff MacNelly are two Matson favorites. As for his political bent? He enjoys skewering "whoever is in power," he said. "My biggest thrill will be setting up shop in the same office that was home to great artists like Daniel Fitzpatrick, Bill Mauldin, Tom Englehart and John Sherffius," Matson said. "It's an honor to join a newspaper with such a rich cartoon tradition."

            Most of the personages Matson names, I rush to point out, were somewhat liberal in their leanings, and that, according to rumor, was the undoing of Sherffius. And on the horizon looms Lee Enterprises, a newspaper chain that is seeking to add the Pulitzer dailies, fourteen of them including the P-D, to its holdings, bringing its roster up to 58 dailies in 23 states. Lee's honcho, an enterprising woman with an ominous last name, Mary Junck, was recently named Publisher of the Year by E&P, but the chain has acquired a chorus of carping journalism school critics, who question its dedication to journalism. It also has its defenders, also among the academia of journalism schools. I'm scarcely in a position to have an opinion one way or the other; the point of the digression, then, is that when an acquisition hovers over any paper, the fate of its opinion-makers can hang in the balance or dangle on tenterhooks, choose your metaphor.

All Of Us Sinners

Last weekend, I saw "Sin City," that nearly exact translation into film of Frank Miller's highly stylized starkly black-and-white graphic novel rendition of brutality and wickedness in a town populated almost entirely by tough guys and gorgeous dames. The most interesting aspect of the graphic novels is the manner in which they are rendered. Miller drenches the pictures in solid black. It's almost as if he's setting himself a test-to see how much of the drawing he can shroud in black and still leave enough to tell the tale. It's fascinating to see how he plays with light and shadow. Ditto the movie, which, like the books, is mostly black-and-white, just a little color here and there for accent. Miller was a co-director, and his cohort Rob Rodriguez used the graphic novels as storyboards for the movie, so it's understandable how closely the motion picture follows the books. The movie led the weekend box office take April 1-3 with $28.1 million, and sales of the re-issued graphic novels from Dark Horse increased by 25 percent over the same period. By April 13, ten days later, when Dan Rather interviewed Rodriguez and Miller as well as one of the movie's stars, Bruce Willis, on "60 Minutes Wednesday," the box office take was bumping $50 million, having earned more than its production cost of about $40 million, an unusually low price tag because such vast quantities of the footage was created in a computer after the actors had done their acting in front of a green screen. By any commercial measure-and that, alas, is often the only measure a capitalist society offers-"Sin City" is a huge success. Can't quarrel with the figures. And I don't. Moreover, as a transformation of Miller's fantasy into celluloid, the movie is an aesthetic triumph. No question. It also produced among the reviewing class a weekend of the most over-heated prose I've ever seen-wonderful stuff. Here are a few gems mined from the reviews that shuddered exquisitely over that weekend:

            From Ella Taylor, L.A. Weekly: "Sin City," an exquisitely made, unbearably faddish movie that will strike joy into the hearts of all who revere amputation and apocalypse, opens with a swoony love scene culminating in a murder for the heck of it. From there it moves smartly to the promise of child molestation and, with the culprit having had both his face and his balls shot off by Bruce Willis, steams merrily along toward cannibalism, electrocution and the mounting of severed female heads on walls. Had enough? If not, then you are in all likelihood an adult male aging ungracefully, or a pimply youth with a pimply youth's fondness for comic books about hell on Earth. If you're a woman of any age who gets off on this stuff, even with its feeble stabs at feminist role reversals, I throw up my hands. Still, given the current vogue for empty aesthetics, I'm bracing for the laurels that middle-aged critics suffering from hipster anxiety will heap on this fusion of comic-book art, Asian combat anime and digital cinema. ... "Sin City" brings together three of Miller's tales, in which ambiguous heroes, festering in the same interstitial cracks of the city as their quarries, take revenge as a means to redemption from their own failings. ... These three heroic abstractions (no one in his right mind could call them characters) coalesce into a gaga knightliness that only a virgin schoolboy could get behind. ... The product of three adolescent imaginations with a Sam Fuller fixation, brilliant mastery of the toys in their digital sandbox, and next to no grasp of life, "Sin City's" moral dilemmas are bogus and engage no emotional response. Unlike the Spider-Man franchise, the movie has no sense of fun beyond the filmmakers' high-pitched giggles at the expense of audience stamina. ... Given the burgeoning market for their work at home and abroad, in all likelihood [Quentin Tarantino] and Rodriguez and their legion imitators will get better and better at what they do, while having less and less to say. For those of us who like our movies to show or tell us something about the way we live, that's both too much, and not nearly enough. 

            From Roger Moore, Orlando Sentinel: Frank Miller's "Sin City" is an episodic thriller about murders, thieves, hookers, cops and ex-cons, loosely connected stories from his Sin City comic books. ... The hallmarks of Miller noir: expressionistic jet-black streets of eternal night, unadulterated violence, tough guys, tough broads and tough talk. ... [Said Miller:] "I look for characters with an inner darkness to them. That's what makes noir. These stories aren't noir because there isn't enough light on the set. They're not just dimly lit movies. There's a darkness at the heart of the heroes, men with big secrets, something terrible in their past." ... Miller's other trademarks-his unblinking eye for violence and the sexism that gives every shapely woman in his comics an excuse to lose her clothes-is part and parcel of the world that he works in and the audience he commands: comic-book-reading males. "Comic books are the last bastion of rampant sexism, a place where women are not only the victims of graphic, callous violence but are portrayed as enormous-breasted, tiny-waisted caricatures who think clothes are something other people wear," wrote Robert Wilonsky in a widely published New Times screed on the genre a few years back. Miller flinches at that criticism. He says he makes his women "strong," and insists that the sexuality of "Sin City" is like the violence-stylized, a fantasy. "And my fantasy is that, in Sin City, there are all these women, hookers, who have overthrown their pimps and who rule their own neighborhood," Miller says. Strong, tough women, able to hold their own with men in a violent world. But you can't help but notice that these strong women almost always have their shirts off. "Hey, I'm a guy," Miller laughs in protest. "Whaddaya want from me?" There's no debating that Miller's fantasies, whether on the page or on the screen, sell.

FOOTNITS: I understand that on Hugh Hewitt's conservative radio show, someone said the movie embodied the "culture of death" that is running rampant in American society. Wonderful. Another cultural football to kick around. Perhaps the most fascinating of the reviews, though, was by Slate's film critic, David Edelstein, who began by saying how often he has often lamented the amorality and opportunism of the vigilante genre as well as the sadism and righteous torture on display in movies and tv in the wake of September 11-including the "explosion" of the comic book superhero genre and other "cookie-cutter action thrillers" that "have been crafted for a generation weaned on Game Boys" and computerized special effects that "have taken cinema farther and farther from the world that human beings actually inhabit." Then he saw "Sin City" with "the most relentless display or torture and sadism I've ever encountered in a mainstream movie." Then, the verdict: "I loved it. Or, to put it another way, I loved it, I loved it, I loved it. I loved every gorgeous sick disgusting ravishing overbaked blood-spurting artificial frame of it. A tad hypocritical? Yes. But sometimes you think, 'Well, I'll just go to hell.'" His point, eventually, was, I think, that the movie was a movie-making triumph, a stunning demonstration of what cinematography and editing can do up there on the Big Screen. In short, he loves it, as he even says, as "an art object." And that, I suspect, is what most movie critics are lauding about the movie-its overwhelming achievement as motion picture artistry. They are surely not celebrating the view of humanity that it offers. Miller deliberately constructed the scariest most repulsive ambiance he could imagine, the ultimate indulgence for the fan of noir crime, and he did it to entertain himself and those of us who can lose themselves in it for the nonce. He didn't do it in order to create role models. And here, his art-his entertainment-takes place in motion.

Mixed Notes about Graphic Novelz

Big box office has transformed book-length comics from the butt of the joke to the belle of the ball, sez Erika Gonzalez of the Rocky Mountain News. "It's hard to pinpoint exactly when graphic novels made the move from castoff to cool," Gonzalez goes on. "But publishers say the movie business certainly provided the genre with more credibility." In this society, that is-"credibility" equals "big money," the bigger, the more credible. "Ghost World." "The Road to Perdition"-both movies made from book-length comics. And then we have all the longjohn legions up on the Big Screen. The consequences of all this excitement are not unalloyed benefits.


Gonzalez quotes Dan Clowes: "I think this is bigger than it's ever been before, but I kind of liked it back when everybody hated us. There was no pressure. I used to send out my comics and hope it would be reviewed by the Comics Buyer's Guide." Clowes is being nostalgic, not analytical. Seth goes a step further, or deeper.

            Working on the next book in his Clyde Fans graphic novel series, Seth, aka Gregory Gallant (an even phonier sounding name), claims to be somewhat baffled by all the attention graphic novels are getting. "I'm not sure why it's happened," he said in a recent listserve note. "Ten years ago, using comic books to tell a story was a stupid idea. Now it's a mundane fact. You don't have to sell it to anyone anymore that you're not just an idiot for working on this." The demand for product, however, is likely to result in a surge of hastily produced material. "I think there's going to be a pile of bad graphic novels in the next couple of years," said Seth.

            The flood of manga that has deluged the shelves in chain bookstores is emblematic of a financial and marketplace breakthrough that may not be quite the same as an artistic or cultural achievement. The number of superior graphic novels that have appeared in the last couple years is impressive: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest boy on Earth, Blankets, Persepolis, In the Shadow of No Towers, David Boring, Ghost World, Joe Sacco's reportorial efforts from Bosnia to Palestine not to mention Maus and the steady flow of innovative work from Will Eisner. And I'm just scratching the surface here. But manga are produced out of a different sensibility-a different culture, of course. They may satisfy the immediate voracious appetite among publishers for product that can be moved onto shelves for consumers-particularly young female consumers that the comics industry has almost never appealed to before. But how many of these tomes off an alien assembly-line with their wispy artwork and tedious pacing will, for long, satisfy an American reader? For a time, they will. For a time, they have. But that time may be passing.

            In short, the manga boom may be going bust. Publisher's Weekly reports that ADV, a Houston-based manga publisher, has laid off as many as 40 staff from its manga division because the marketplace is saturated with the product: "Anyone can see there's only so much shelf space available [in bookstores] for manga," said DVD president John Ledford, "-we've adjusted our schedule to keep pace with the [limited] opportunities."

            Just in time, I hope, to clear the beaches for a mounting tide of domestically produced graphic novels. I don't want to sound provincial or chauvinistic or ethnocentric, but if the bookstore shelves are jammed with manga, few bookstore operators will want to risk more shelf space and capital to stock even more of what they doubtless regard as the "same thing"-drawn books. Manga have helped enormously to establish among booksellers the market value of the graphic novel, and for that, let us be everlastingly grateful. But there are other breeds of graphic novel just waiting to be born-that is, to find readers via bookstores. And these works may be more attuned to the American sensibility. Maybe, in the rush to market, some of this material will be pure unadulterated dross; but if none of it can find its way into bookstores, we'll never be able to find the wheat amid the chaff because we'll see neither.


Dale Messick, creator of Brenda Starr, arguably the longest-lived newspaper adventure strip with an eponymous heroine, died on April 5 just six days shy of her 99th birthday. Her health had been in a long decline since she suffered a stroke on 1998; she'd lived in a nursing facility for a time, but she died in the Penngrove, California, home of her daughter, Starr Rohrman, who had been caring for her through the last few years.

            Messick, who changed her first name to avoid being hit on by male newspaper editors, was a thorough-going professional cartoonist all her life. In her book The Great Women Cartoonists, Trina Robbins called Messick "one of the most seriously committed and tenacious woman cartoonists of the century. In a 1973 newspaper interview, Messick describes her pregnancy: 'It was throw up, draw Brenda, throw up, draw Brenda.'" The anecdote captures with succinct perfection not only Messick's dauntless dedication but her irrepressible sense of the ridiculous-about herself as well as the world around us.

            Messick was born in Indiana but left as soon as she could for New York where she worked in greeting cards while conjuring up comic strip ideas in her spare time. Before Messick came up with Brenda and went on to become "the grande dame of comics," she tried to sell four other strips, whose histories (with sample art) Robbins rehearses in her book- Weegee ("drawn probably when the artist was just out of high school" and drawn better, I might add, than many contemporary strips of the mid-1920s) about a country girl coming to the big city to earn a living (On Stage anyone?), Mimi the Mermaid and Peg and Pudy the Strugglettes, which "metamorphosed into Streamline Babies." None of them sold. Then in early 1940 she was dating C.D. Batchelor, the editorial cartoonist at the New York Daily News, and he told her that the newspaper was going to launch a new publication, a comic book supplement to the Sunday comics inspired by the recently invented newsstand comic book, which, by 1940, was doing a booming business. For this purpose, Batchelor said, the newspaper needed eight new comic strips. Messick promptly invented a girl bandit strip and sent it in.

            By then Dahlia (or "Dalia," as it is usually spelled these days), knowing that a woman cartoonist would have small chance of success in the male-dominated world of the time, was signing her strips with the gender ambiguous "Dale," thinking that most editors to whom she submitted her work by mail wouldn't suspect she was female. But Captain Joseph Patterson, publisher of the News and head of the adjunct Chicago Tribune-New York Daily News Syndicate, knew Dale was a woman. Messick's characters were undoubtedly the most frilly-witted heroines in comics, and perhaps for that reason, Patterson wanted nothing to do with them. Or perhaps the Captain had once before tried, unsuccessfully, a strip by a woman cartoonist and had vowed never to make that "mistake" again (although I don't know who that cartoonist might have been, and it seems unlikely, as you'll see in a trice, that he was prejudiced against women). In any event, Patterson didn't like the strip. He might have been guilty of simple male chauvinism. These days, we're tempted to accuse him of sexism. But anyone hoping to make that charge stick will have to explain Mary King and Mollie Slott. King was Patterson's first assistant on the Sunday Tribune, and he made no bones about her contribution to the paper's success, giving her credit for "at least half of every good idea I ever had." He eventually married her. And Slott was Patterson's good right hand on Tribune-News Syndicate matters. It is doubtful that a rampant sexist would give such power and responsibility to women.

            When Slott saw the girl bandit, she saw possibilities, and she convinced Messick to change the bandit into a newspaper reporter, a red-headed beauty inspired by Hollywood star Rita Hayworth. For her heroine's first name, Messick borrowed that of one of the day's glamorous debutantes, Brenda Frazier, and picked "Starr" because Brenda would be the "star reporter" of her newspaper, The Flash, which was named by Slott. And then, Slott prevailed upon the Captain to buy the strip.  He agreed-but only so long as Brenda Starr would never appear in his newspaper, the New York Daily News. And it didn't. Not until after Patterson's death in 1946.

            Messick's chronically romantic newspaperwoman first appeared June 30, 1940, in the Chicago Tribune's newly launched Sunday Comic Book Magazine. The cut-out paper dolls that distinguished the Sunday Brenda for so many years were not yet in evidence, but in almost every other respect, the early adventures are vintage Brenda-as Richard Severo says in the New York Times, "a symphony of decolletage, good legs precariously balanced on high-heeled shoes, and Dior-like clothing that no woman would be likely to wear to a newspaper office." No self-respecting professional journalist, that is. But Messick knew little about the newspaper business and purposely avoided learning anything, believing that actual knowledge would corrupt her imagination.

            And so Brenda Starr flounced onto the comics page, festooned with fluffy nighties and lounging pajamas, low-cut (for that day) gowns, and plots governed only by the whim of Messick's breathless invention, which often ignored logic and reason in favor of such purely feminine diversions (in the traditional male chauvinist sense) as a fresh hairdo or a new pair of shoes. Yes, I know: that sounds sexist.  But consider the evidence. On March 30, 1941, for instance, a doctor speculates that he'll have to amputate Brenda's legs so badly have her feet been frozen in a Sun Valley winter storm. The next week, we're still waiting for a verdict on the projected amputation. But by the following week-happily, Easter Sunday-Brenda has miraculously recovered so she can waltz down the avenue in her Easter finery. 

            By the end of her first year, Brenda is the fashion plate she'll be for the rest of her run under Messick, who stopped drawing the strip in 1980. ("The syndicate pushed me out," she said, with a sort of bittersweet chuckle, "or otherwise I would have continued on.") In her first adventure, the redhead is a little more fiery than she eventually became for the duration, but otherwise, she lacks only those stars in her eyes to be the Brenda we've always known (and, yes, loved). At the strip's peak circulation in the fifties, it was in 250 newspapers-which, for that day, was a goodly number. The stories are fast-moving adventures. Fast and even a little dizzying. But that is always part of the pleasure of reading Messick's strip. The woman with a man's name kept us on the edge of our chairs for forty years, and you don't do that without being a teller of good, suspenseful tales, however dizzy they sometimes are. As for Brenda, she was, from the very start, independent and feisty as well as courageous and resourceful-not only a suitable protagonist in an adventure story but, as it developed, a thoroughly admirable role model for ambitious young women who could find no others of their sex much worth admiring on the comics page. CNN's Charlayne Hunter-Gault is reported to have said that as a teenager aspiring to a journalism career, she hoped for the kind of "mystery and romance" she saw in Brenda's big city newspaper career. Hunter-Gault is surely not alone.

            Messick, like any convincing storyteller, lived her character's life. She dyed her hair to match Brenda's. "I am Brenda Starr," she would tell interviewers. "Brenda is the glamorous girl I wished I was. She's what most women wish they were and what most men wish their women were, too," she'd add (with a laugh, unless I miss my guess). "Whenever I hear from real reporters," she went on, "they would all say their lives weren't as interesting as Brenda's. Who would have read Brenda if it was real life?"

            Linda Feldman of the Los Angeles Times visited Messick in early 1999 and observed that the cartoonist didn't make small talk: she just said what was on her mind, even offering unsolicited information. "I was married twice," Messick blurted out, "divorced twice, had a bad car accident and a baby and never missed a deadline in 43 years. I mailed Brenda in before I saw the baby. I was a terrible mother."

            "Not true," interrupted Starr, who was born a year after her namesake's debut. "She was a fine mother, though my life cerainly wasn't ordinary. I attended seven different schools before the fifth grade because we traveled in the Brenda Starr rolling studio-a silver streamer RV outfitted with its own water supply. Mother was a vagabond who worked seven days a week. She and my father both loved to travel, and she just had to have adventures. She eventually would use the adventures in the strip. My father, Everett George, was her business manager and the draftsman who did the lettering for the strip."

            Her mother slipped back into the conversation: "That's why we got married-we needed each other." Her second husband was Oscar Strom. Brenda married only once, but it took 36 years to get to the altar. Her life was forever haunted by her romance with her "mystery man," Basil St. John, a manikin-beautiful male specimen who wore an eye patch. He'd show up every so often to take Brenda into his arms. The redhead would melt in ecstasy-but then, the guy would run off, usually in pursuit of a rare black orchid from which he could extract a serum that provided temporary respite from the effects of the exotic disease he was dying of. Finally, in 1976, the love-lorn pair married. And then St. John took off again on another wild orchid chase. click to enlarge

            Messick told Feldman that she rarely watched tv because she "can't tell when the commercials begin and shows end." And she never read fiction because she could always predict what's going to happen next. She did, however, date. In her eighties, she managed to juggle three boyfriends simultaneously. "All three wouldn't make one good man," she told an interviewer, "but at my age, you can't be too choosy," she concluded (probably with a short laugh).

            Messick achieved her fame through talent and dedication-not academic training. She spent two years in the third grade and repeated that performance in the eighth. I met her only once, in the winter of 1998, when I was visiting Mark Cohen and his wife Rosie in Santa Rosa. Mark arranged our meeting for dinner one evening, and after dinner, we drove to Messick's home in a senior residential area. As we pulled up outside her place, Messick asked if we wanted to come in and see her "studio." We did, and we did. It was a spare bedroom and lacked a drawingboard. But there were souvenirs of her years drawing Brenda Starr all around. She was still drawing: she took a tiny sketch pad with her to the mall almost every day, and she sketched the people she saw. She showed me some sketches, all very confidently executed work. And when I professed admiration for one of them, she gave it to me (and I've posted it near here with a self-portrait of the cartoonist as a little old lady). She said she was working on an autobiography, Still Stripping at Ninety (never finished), and she was drawing a panel cartoon for a local newspaper called Granny Glamor.click to enlarge

            She harbored, slightly but persistently I believe, some resentment over the male chauvinism that had infected the profession all her life. She felt that the National Cartoonists Society had never quite accepted her-even then, in 1998 as NCS was poised to give her the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award at its annual meeting that spring in La Jolla, California. Messick, I think, felt a little more comfortable with me, a stranger, as the evening wore on, and her talk was increasingly enlivened by a satirical sense of humor, often self-deprecating, punctuated, usually, by a short little hoot of laughter. "Ha," she might say at the end of a particularly cutting remark. She was, in short, a delight. And I'm glad to have met her.

FOOTNIT: Brenda is now being produced by a writer-artist team, Mary Schmich, a columnist at the Chicago Tribune, and June Brigman. They just completed a sequence highly critical of the news media's celebrity journalists, whose egos, in the strip, drive their careers, not their news sense. Written before the pundit-payola scandals that surfaced with Armstrong Williams' getting money from the government for promoting the Bush League agenda, the sequence, which ran in February and March, understandably attracted more attention than Brenda usually does in the 20 or so newspapers that now run it. And this is not the first time Brenda has been critical of the news media, but this time, thanks to the publicity attending the pundit-payola scams, the strip earned two pages in the April issue of Editor & Publisher. Said Schmich: "It's always interesting to me that the way to get noticed by the media is to write about the media." Interesting-even indicting.


Graphic novelists continue to find inspiration in the fictions of other media. The Irregulars (128 6x9-inch pages in black-and-white paperback, $12.95), for instance, is taken from the Sherlockian canon of Arthur Conan Doyle. The Baker Street Irregulars, to employ their full nom de guerre, are a gang of street arabs, orphaned waifs by definition, who assist Sherlock Holmes occasionally in his detections. As Holmes puts it in A Study in Scarlet: "There's more work to be got out of one of these little beggars than out of a dozen of the [police] force. The mere sight of an official-looking person seals men's lips. These youngsters, however, go everywhere and hear everything." In the Holmesian oeuvre, the Irregulars appear rarely after their introduction in the first adventure, but the romantic appeal of the notion of a raggedy band of unofficial agents of the "law" is nearly irresistible. Writers Steven-Elliot Altman and Michael Reaves, in any case, were unable to resist it, and they've appropriated the concept and Conan Doyle's principals for this tale of supernatural horror and mystification.

            In addition to Holmes and Doctor John Watson, we encounter Inspector Lestrade, Miss Irene Adler ("the woman" to Holmes), and Holmes' notorious nemesis, Professor James Moriarty, the so-called "Napoleon of crime" who once wrestled with Holmes to his death-Moriarty's, not Holmes'. Fed up with his creation, Doyle tried to make it appear that Holmes had died so he would never again have to contend with him and could spend the remainder of his life writing serious works; but popular demand-and financial need, I assume-finally prevailed, and Doyle, after almost ten years, brought his once-dead armchair detective back from the grave, or, more precisely, from the bottom of Reichenbach Falls, a picturesque cataract in Switzerland, to which Doyle had brought the foes for a final confrontation as related in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894).

            In the popular mind, Moriarty never died either. So compelling was Doyle's portrait of this master criminal, to whom there are only a couple of references in the canon, that he has lived on in the minds of Sherlockians ever after. And he, and a few others of the Undead, materialize again in this graphic novel. The game gets afoot when we witness Watson committing a particularly untidy murder with a knife. Others recognize him, too, so he is quickly arrested and jailed, pending trial. Holmes summons the Irregulars, and, telling them he must leave the country on another urgent matter, he gives them the responsibility of finding out who really did the murder. For the purpose, Altman and Reaves have recruited a miscellany of cockney urchins and given them names: Wiggins, their leader; Molly, a clever matchstick girl; Patch, a pickpocket and escapist; James, an accomplished artist; Puck, a "singular child" with some sort of second sight; Burke, a protege of Watson's, and a dog named Toby. Puck, as it turns out, is the most useful in tracking down the murderer, but he's comforted and encouraged by Molly, who takes a motherly interest in him, and the indefatigable Wiggins.

            Moriarty, of course, is behind it all. He's seeking to conquer the world with the incantation of a cryptic mathematical formula (or something very like it; it scarcely matters what, exactly, he's up to since he and his ambition are present simply to get the pot boiling). As one step towards his objective, Moriarty kidnaps Irene Adler, and the Irregulars set out in pursuit. They've already interviewed various witnesses (including a picturesque trollop) to the crime Watson is alleged to have committed, and now they follow Miss Adler's kidnaper into the sewers of London, which they find to be inhabited by an awe-inspiring array of supernatural beings, most of which tower above them in this nightmarish netherworld of brimstone monsters, shape-changers, and other demonic vermin. From this point on, the tale assumes the dimensions of a rousing Hollywood action flick, fraught with special effects of the exploding and disintegrating sort: the earth trembles, belches smoke and fire and falls apart in great chunks. How our heroes get out of all this and rescue Miss Adler and clear Watson's name-that's the rest of the story, which is best discovered in the pages of The Irregulars.

            Picturing all of this, from the foggy London streets to the collapsing castles of the underground, is Angelo Ty "Bong" Dazo, an illustrator and graphic designer who lives in Bulacan, a remote province of the Philippines. Dazo's work is typical of Filipino artistry. Many of his cohorts have, over the years, illustrated comic books and graphic novels for American publishers, and their achievement is distinguished by copious detail, virtuoso draftsmanship, and elegant brushwork. Dazo is no exception. His patchy deployment of black shadow and feathering is sometimes distracting, but his line is confident and bold as well as supple and sinuous where necessary. Among his most affecting visual maneuvers-drawing characters walking off into the fog, disappearing as they go. Page layouts and breakdowns are imaginative and varied. Many pages are dominated by one large picture, with smaller panels elaborating the ambiance and advancing the narrative. The pacing is ingenious, controlled by layout as well as breakdowns, and the visuals are highly atmospheric-from the teeming street scenes in London to the steaming netherworld beneath. I suspect the first publication of these pictures was on pages somewhat larger than we have here, but even at this reduced dimension, the performance is impressive and a pleasure to behold. In a well-done graphic novel, the pictures are the story, as I've said before-and nowhere is that more evident than here.

Under the Spreading Punditry

The Bush League has no shame. The Pope dies-one of the most majestic and beloved world figures-and GeeDubya can't resist hooking his little neoconservative wagon to a star. He trots right out with one of his many transparently self-serving attempts to recruit new followers-Catholics this time-by praising the Pope for championing "the culture of life," hoping, I suppose, that everyone will believe the phrase originated with Bush. In fact, however, John Paul II had introduced the expression to describe the Church's opposition to abortion, contraception, and euthanasia, but the Bushies mean something quite different when they invoke the "culture of life": having appropriated the Pope's phrase, they now usurp its meaning, attempting, by association, to make it apply to anti-stem cell research, anti-AIDS aid, pro-torture, pro-death penalty, and so on-the rest of the right-wing nut agenda. All of which, by exaggerating association, fosters "a culture of life"-in much the same way as killing terrorists fosters life among the terrorists' foes. But the Pope, who opposed war (in Iraq or anywhere else) and the death penalty, meant the expression to stand for something considerably more life-affirming than isolated, special-interest appeal political causes. Stealing the Pope's words was Bush's insidious attempt to bring the Pope in line with Evangelical fundamentalist doctrine so the Republican "base" could claim the Pontiff as one of theirs, and, by insinuation, the entire Catholic population of the U.S. voting public. What a hideous slight of hand. The British have a word for linguistic manipulation of this sort: dogwhistle politics. By which they mean utterances that most people don't even hear because they seem entirely vacuous; but the in-group elite hears exactly what the speaker intends, and they recognize it as embracing and extolling "their" beliefs. GeeDubya and his gang effectively used the Pope's happy phrase to promote ideas the Holy Father abhored. And now George W. ("Whopper") Bush is at it again, this time hoping people see him and the Pope in a nimbus of celestial accord when, in fact, their relationship was not quite so perfect. As I say, they have no shame.

            I liked what Anna Quindlen wrote about the "culture of life" in Newsweek (April 4): "Arguments about Terri's case centered on something described as a 'culture of life.' It is an empty suit of a phrase, absent an individual to give it shape. There is no culture of life. There is the culture of your life, and the culture of mine. There is what each of us considers bearable, and what we will not bear. There are those of us who believe that under certain conditions, the cruelest thing you can do to people you love is to force them to live. There are those of us who define living not by whether the heart beats and the lungs lift but whether the spirit is there, whether the music box plays." Let the band play on. And, yes, there's always a band.

            Former House Republican leader Dick Armey, now a lobbyist in Washington, is co-chair of FreedomWorks, which is about to launch a massive "disinformation" campaign, says AARP, the objective of which is to paint AARP as "a tool of left-wing ideologues" who want to turn America into a "socialist, welfare state" because they object to GeeDubya's plan to dismantle Social Security, beginning by establishing "personal" accounts. Disinformation indeed: so what's new about that in the Bush League? If they follow Karl Rove's strategy in such matters, they'll doubtless accuse the entire membership of AARP of being homosexual thereby discrediting whatever the organization says. Well, it worked in Texas with Ann Richards, in South Carolina with John McCain, and in the midwest during the contest with John Kerry. Why not?

            Metaphors be with you. Sigh.

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