Opus 162 (May 22, 2005). Our features this time include an introduction to Kin Hubbard, the Hoosier cartooner who invented Abe Martin, and a review of the career of Zeke Zekley and a speculation about why he did not, against all expectation, inherit Bringing Up Father (Jiggs and Maggie) when its creator, George McManus, died. Other items, and the order in which they appear, are as follows: Nous R Us -Calvin and Hobbes originals, the Spirit movie, bashing The Plot, Buzz Bunny re-styled, what a Blockbuster really is, Born Loser's 40th, a new triple threat strip from King, getting married in a comic strip, and Andy Capp not statuesque; Abe Martin Explained -the story of Kin Hubbard; Funnybook Fan Fare- Reviews of Street Angel, City of Tomorrow, Red Sonja, The Atheist, and Kiss and Tell; Some Outstanding Books, Cheap -the Quality Paperback Book Club cuts prices on some important comics-related tomes; Zeke Zekley, the man who wasn't there; a couple shots at civilization as we know it, nudistry and religiosity, and a little Bush Whacking with bloggers and the Right to conclude your day. Finally, as always, 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-
NOUS R US
Almost all of the original art for Calvin and Hobbes is archived ("on long term deposit") at the Cartoon Research Library at the Ohio State University. Said Lucy S. Caswell, the curator: "Bill Watterson is unusual among cartoonists since he kept virtually all of his original comic strips. The collection he has placed here is unusually complete." Under special collections use regulations, the artwork can be studied. Scrutiny may reveal, if the only original I've seen out of captivity is any indication (it's reproduced in my book, The Children of the Yellow Kid; more about the book here), that the lettering is fading away: Watterson used a felt-tip pen, or something similar, to letter many of the strips. The entire Calvin and Hobbes ouevre, remember, is being published in a three-volume slip-cased set this fall by Andrews McMeel, not, I suspect, using original art to shoot from but syndicate proofs, which are entirely serviceable, I'm sure.
Jeph Loeb, supervising producer for the tv show "Smallville," has already come up with a story idea for a live-action movie about Will Eisner's famed Spirit; the project seems poised for a "go." ... Disneyland is feting itself all year for its 50th anniversary; the kick-off was on May 4. ... Las Vegas, meanwhile, is celebrating its 100th anniversary: born as Clark's Las Vegas Townsite in a railroad land auction on May 15, 1905, it has evolved in ways no one could then have imagined -more than 130,000 hotel rooms, glittering casinos everywhere you look, topless showgirls and big name entertainers, and neon lights galore. The place is the epitome of 20th century capitalism: the whole idea is to make as much profit from as little investment as possible. And that's precisely what a slot machine symbolizes.
The full-page ad in a recent issue of Previews for Top Cow's forthcoming Magdalena-Tomb Raider-Witchblade-Vampirella team-up features the last-named trio, with Witchblade assuming a posture that is anatomically impossible: the torso just doesn't bend sideways that far no matter how desperately the artist wants to include a bum shot with a boob view in the same pose. ... And while we're on the subject of titillating pictures, here, in the Dark Horse section, is a picture touting Super Manga Blast No. 54 in which a seated fem offers the viewer a nearly unimpeded view up her dress. The Japanese are nuts about women's underpants, I realize, and I suppose that's explanation enough, but the attention to detail in this drawing verges on obsessive. ... In the same issue, an Image compilation of Jason Pearson's Body Bags books is announced, Body Bags: Father's Day No. 1 (of 2 issues); this is a title (and a cartoonist) that should have attracted more attention first time out, so don't miss this chance to see some brilliant funnybook cartooning.
Some stories translate better into graphic novels than others, according to the Denver Post. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein translates pretty well; Black Beauty and The Red Badge of Courage, less so. Puffin Graphics, which provides the basis for the comparison, stuck to the original story for Red Badge, "conveying the substance if not the elegance of the original." Okay, perhaps action translates better. But that doesn't elminate the possibility of more subtle deployment of the medium's resources. Have you seen City of Glass yet? Stunning. ... Reviewing Will Eisner's The Plot in the Boston Phoenix, Douglas Wolk says we all suffer from the Ray Charles syndrome: "when a beloved artist who repeatedly revolutionized his form dies and leaves behind one final big project, there's a natural tendency to see it as a last masterpiece, no matter how good it actually is." Wolk bucks the tendency, though, calling The Plot "one of the worst books Eisner ever wrote." Compared to a work of fiction in which the storyline can be constructed to take advantage of the form, Wolk is, in some measure, correct. But The Plot isn't a work of fiction: it's a polemic, Eisner proclaimed. And it obeys somewhat different rules than the Spirit stories, which Wolk calls "gems." The Plot has faults, some of which I pointed out in my review (Opus 160), but most of those are the result of Eisner's attempting something almost unprecedented in the form. He was bound to miss a few times. The amazing thing is how successful he was.
The Warner Bros' plan to subject Bugs Bunny and the Looney Toons to a make-over in the new fall series of Saturday morning cartoons struck terror-well, pretty active distaste anyhow-in the heart of 11-year-old Thomas Adams of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The manga-style creations, intended to capitalize on American youth's present fascination with action-adventure Japanese anime, looked menacing and scarcely friendly to him. He protested. He launched a website on February 28, inviting others who didn't like the new Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck to sign up on a petition to get Warner Bros to create entirely new characters for the fall series instead of "ruining" the old ones. Within a month, 25,000 signatures had been accumulated; and after a CNN story aired, the site's tally reached 80,000. Warner Bros caved. "We heard the outcry," said Scott Rowe, spokesman for Warner Bros Entertainment. "Buzz Bunny" and the rest of the new cast (who do not displace the old favorites but live in the year 2772) will still be manga-styled, but the initial versions of the characters have now been "softened" so they're not so scary. As for Adams, inspired by his success, he is reportedly considering a new petition to protest school homework.
Stan Lee has a new title-"King of the Cameos"-says the Los Angeles Times, which notes that he'll make his sixth "appearance" in a movie about Marvel characters in this summer's Fantastic Four flick; Lee will appear, briefly, as Willie Lumpkin, the mail man in the FF's Baxter Building.
As we sidle up to the summer's usual Blockbuster Season at the box offices of America's movie houses, it might be blasphemous to note that the box office "grosses" so systematically reported every Sunday for the weekend's uproar are somewhat misleading. First, the receipts for Sunday are only estimates because they haven't been actually tallied yet. More significantly, though, the "gross" is a result of two factors that have very little to do with the quality or innate appeal of the movie-namely, the number of screens on which the movie plays and the efficacy of the studio's marketing campaign. The more screens, the bigger the "gross." I suspect it isn't until a studio has evaluated the marketability of a movie that the number of screens is determined. If a flick looks like it can be sold, enough prints are manufactured to flood a host of screens; and then the promotional machinery kicks in. No one thought "Sideways" would sell, for instance; and it opened on only 30 screens, nation-wide. Clint Eastwood's name and reputation, on the other hand, suggested that "Million Dollar Baby" could be promoted; so it opened on 3,000 screens. Guess which one racked up the biggest "gross"? But the real money in movie-making comes from the home entertainment realm. Ticket sales used to account for 100 percent of a studio's revenue back in 1940; now, they add up to less than 20%. According to Edward Jay Epstein at slate.com, "Theatrical releases now essentially serve as launching platforms for videos, DVDs, network tv, pay tv, games, and a host of other products" from which studios derive their profits.
Comic Strip Watch. The Born Loser, an NEA comic strip about the hilarity of perpetual failure, celebrates its 40th year this month. Created by Art Sansom, the strip was inherited by his son Chip when Art died in 1991. By then, Chip had been apprenticing with his father for 14 years, writing gags and drawing the strip, which he continues to do in a graphic style somewhat more simplified than his father's. As a tribute to his father, Chip includes his name in signing the strip. Originally, the strip had no central characters: its gags simply arose from losing situations encountered by an assortment of anonymous personages. Gradually, however, one of those persons, Brutus Thornapple, emerged as the star loser. These days, he is plagued by his imperious boss, Rancid Veeblefester, his long-suffering wife Gladys, his ferocious mother-in-law, Ramona Gargle, his son Wilberforce and the neighborhood juvenile terror, Hurrican Hattie O'Hare. Among my favorites is a bibulous panhandler named Gravesite. I can't remember his first name-it may be Cyril or Clyde; who knows? -but he's a unqualified hoot. The strip claims a circulation of 1,300 newspapers, making it one of the top twenty strips; but only one reprint volume has ever appeared, The Born Loser's Guide to Life (Topper, 1990). Surely it's time for more.
Guy Endore-Kaiser is doing a new comic feature at United Feature called Brevity. It's a one-panel affair that is drawn by Rodd Perry to be used either in strip format or single-panel gag cartoon format. The two creators work together at the Ant Farm, a Hollywood motion picture advertising agency. In one of their recent Brevitys, Perry reproduces Brad Anderson's colossal canine, Marmaduke, with great precision to accompany this caption: "Suddenly, Marmaduke discovered that his whole life was a joke -and not a very funny one either." The first part of the sentence, ending with "joke," is funny; the rest converts the gag into an insult. These guys haven't been around long, and I suspect they have too many names to last.
Here's an exhausting new strip from King Features. Called Triple Take, it offers not just a gag-a-day but three gags every day! I realize that comic strips are in trouble at newspapers: the average 20-30 strip comics page costs the hosting newspaper a small fortune every year (figure a conservative $15/week for each strip), and newspapers persist in complaining that they're in dire financial straits even though their profit margin still hovers around 15-25%, higher than almost any other enterprise. So the notion of giving readers three chuckles in a single strip must have galvanizing appeal to fiscal-minded newspaper editors. The strip is the brain child of King's editor-in-chief, Jay Kennedy, who, I suspect, thinks he's marketing three for the price of one. He also realizes that coming up with three gags for one setup picture ain't easy. "It takes true talent," he said. And he's right. The gag part comes from Todd Clark, who is also fully employed as the co-creator of Lola, a strip about a cranky old lady who might be Clark's aunt or grandmother. (I'm not clear on this.) Scott Nickel draws the strip, moonlighting from a day job as a writer at Jim (Garfield) Davis' Paws studio. Says Nickel: "We get three chances to make the reader laugh. If we're successful at least two out of three times, we have a better batting average than most major-league baseball players. And we do it without steroids!" Easy for you to say, Scott: it's Todd who's coming up with multiple gags-all you have to do is draw one picture.
John Kovaleski says he likes "weaving selected moments from my life" into his comic strip, Bo Nanas, whose title character is a monkey. Last year, Kovaleski proposed to his girlfriend via the strip. This year, Bo seemingly "attends" the couple's actual wedding, which took place in a movie theater in Rochester, New York. Bo goes into a movie theater in the strip but sees a marriage ceremony taking place instead of a motion picture. And he runs into a number of people who are cartoon versions of the real-life friends of Kovaleski and Jocelyn Swigger, his bride. Said the cartoonist: "Cartooning is such an important part of who I am that it only feels natural to involve it in some way. Although, I must admit, having your own fictional character show up at your real wedding is a bit kooky."
In England, the Hartlepool Borough Council approved funding for a five-foot tall statue of Andy Capp, the celebrated drinking, gambling, womanizing comic strip creation of Hartlepool native Reg Smythe. But the plan was subsequently scuttled because ol' Andy was suddenly deemed "inappropriate" for this sensitized day and age. Too many citizens thought Andy wasn't the best image for the city. So much for laughter.
Eric Hoffer, a weathered longshoreman who turned philosopher in his dotage, was once asked, by another Eric (Severied, then in his wise man role at CBS), what he, Hoffer, thought a symbol of civilization was. "A hook," said Hoffer, "-a hook on the wall where you can hang a broom, the broom indicating that someone is interested in maintaining the physical environment," keeping it clean and orderly and functional. In other words, "maintenance" is the mark of civilization: civilized people are interested in maintaining their situation, their house, their village, their society. So what do we make of a so-called civilization that manufactures goods that cannot be maintained? Small household appliances, like coffee-makers, the working parts of which are somehow sealed up inside in such a way that we cannot get at them to repair them when they malfunction? Where's Hoffer's hook?
Abe Martin Explained
Some years ago, while browsing in my favorite used book store in Evanston, Illinois (it's Bookman's Alley, if you want to know-and if you're ever in the vicinity, it's worth a visit, not just for the treasures you might find in its cavernous embrace but because it's virtually a museum of odd artifacts, arranged to augment kindred subjects in the books on the shelves), I chanced upon a small volume of pithy comments, decorated, here and there, with cartoonish drawings of a funny-looking rural personage. The book had two names on the cover-Abe Martin and Kin Hubbard-and for a while, I didn't know which was the author. But I eventually, given the generous passage of time, figured out that Hubbard had invented Martin. And, as it turned out, I was right. If you want to know a good deal about Kin Hubbard, you should visit this Indiana History site, http://indianahistory.org/pop_hist/people/hubbard.html; but if you don't want to take the time just now to peruse his whole history, here's the short of it: "Kin" is not, as you might suppose, hillbilly dialect for "Ken"; no, it's short for McKinney, which is Frank Hubbard's middle name, taken hostage, we suppose, from Hubbard's mother's family, which, we further suppose, was sur-named McKinney. There, our suppositions end. Hubbard was born into the newspaper business, his father being the editor of one (which, in those days, meant he probably owned it, too). Kin drew from an early age and attained considerable graphic proficiency in the old fashioned galoot-style of cartooning. He was also no slouch as a caricaturist when it came to depicting local politicians. Taking these attainments on the road, he looked for a career as a newspaper artist, and after a false start or two, he wound up in 1901 at the Indianapolis News, where he worked as a staff artist, illustrating the news. This was before the half-tone process permitted reproduction of photographs in newspapers, so staff artists were plentiful around the country.
In the fall of 1904, Hubbard was assigned to report on the campaign swing being made through the southern part of the state by John W. Kern, the Democratic candidate for governor. In addition to portraying the gubernatorial candidate in various unguarded moments, Hubbard observed the indigenous population around Nashville in Brown County, making sketches and notes as he did. His coverage of Kern's speechifyin' included a drawing of "a satisfied agriculturist of Brown County," who, puffing a pipe, says: "Durned ef I see any excuse fer a change ez long ez we are all doin' so well." The drawing was published on or about October 1, 1904. When Hubbard returned to Indy and the newspaper office, he had a good deal more material in his sketchbook than the coverage of the campaign itself required. He showed his sketches to his editor and said he hoped he could re-tool some of them to use in some way, and his editor encourage him. As Hubbard doodled with his material, he grew increasingly fond of his whiskery "agriculturist" who he depicted wearing huge boots and plaid pants. By December, the bumpkin from Brown County had a name, Abe Martin. And on December 17, 1904, he made his inaugural appearance in the Indianapolis News. Hubbard drew Abe Martin just a-standin' there, staring at a playbill featuring a somewhat (for those times) scantily clad woman, a showgirl. And Abe is saying: "If I thought that blamed troupe done everything it has pictures fer, I'd stay over this evening and go home on the interurbin." (The last term described a an interurban trolley that connected small towns in much of Indiana and America for the first few decades of the century.) The feature, as Hubbard put it years later, "caused some favorable comment and it was decided to continue it." And so he did-nearly every day for the next 26 years. Almost immediately, he gave Abe a habitat: on February 3, 1905, the crusty rube announces that he's going to move to Brown County; and on the next day, Hubbard shows Abe atop a towering wagon-load of household goods, making his way into the rural setting where he will spend the rest of his career, uttering faux wisdom and country gossip of a vaguely amusing kind. Our samples of this oeuvre are taken from about 1910 and about 1920, left to right; as time went by, Abe's whiskers became more and more stylized, eventually appearing to be more of a muff around the character's neck than a beard on his chin. Abe looked a little more impish as he grew older, but otherwise, he didn't change much over the years. And he still pretty much just stood around a lot. In time for Christmas 1905, Hubbard issued a compilation of Abe Martin drawings and sayings in book form, and the publication was so successful that the cartoonist repeated the performance annually thereafter under the running title Abe Martin's Almanack. Some years, Hubbard brought out more than one book of reprints. In 1910, the feature was syndicated nationally, appearing eventually in about 200 papers, and Hubbard, who thought of himself as a writer, not a cartoonist-technically, in the jargon of the trade, a "paragrapher" (that is, a writer who produced short human interest and/or humorous feature material in paragraph doses)-became a national figure, praised by Will Rogers and Franklin P. Adams (the famed FPA who produced "The Conning Tower" for the fabled New York Herald Tribune). Abe Martin put Brown County on the national map, establishing it as a destination for all sorts of the writing and drawing classes, a reputation it continues to enjoy to this day. Indiana expressed its appreciation by naming a Brown County mountain ridge after Hubbard; and a lodge was named after Abe Martin when it was built in the Brown County State Park, which was established in 1932, two years after the cartoonist died of a heart attack at the age of 62.
Hubbard earns praise from his biographers (David S. Hawes and Fred C. Kelly) for a curious innovation: he usually accompanied his Abe Martin drawing with two rustic witticisms, not just one; and the two were usually completely unrelated. Our samples here, taken from the Almanacks, are encumbered with only one saying each, but that's not how they appeared initially in the newspapers. I suspect a good number of readers spent no little time trying to figure out how the two sayings were connected, contorting mentally in an existential exercise that no doubt divulged the music of the spheres if pursued avidly enough. It has led me nowhere, however, so I was delighted to discover that the essential unrelatedness of the utterances was deliberate and that they were never intended to be connected at all. Apart from appreciating Abe's insights, the other pleasure the feature affords is in the drawings. In defiance of the cartooning custom I've been extolling all these years as a measure of excellence, these drawings are as unrelated to the sayings, usually, as the two sayings are to each other. And at first blush, the pictures of Abe Martin seem distinguished by a monotony of pose that is breathtaking. Upon inspection, however, you'll discover, as I did, that the comedy transpires in the distance, in the tiny background details in front of which ol' Abe stands so sturdily, both booted feet firmly on the ground at almost all times. We see frolicking barnyard critters, cows and horses kicking up their heels in sheer animal exuberance, and all sorts of comically rendered farm machinery. Hence, our pleasure at perusing Abe Martin is three-fold: each of the two unrelated sayings affords its own delight, and the drawing offers yet another source of amusement. As I say, in defiance of cartooning custom. So much for the universality of that theory. There are other wrinkles in the Hubbard story, I suspect; and someday I plan to write more about him. Until then, though, I'll be running an Abe Martin "cartoon" here occasionally, just to keep the wit and Arcadian wisdom of his era before us in these trying times. Here, to close out this installment, are a couple more Abe Martin renditions-his debut on December 17, 1904, and his appearance on February 4, 1905, as he moved to Brown County.
Funnybook Fan Fare
The mini-series Street Angel, written by Brian Maruca and drawn by Jim Rugg, has reached an interim concluding issue with No. 5. Rugg says (at www.comicbookresources.com) that he needs a break, but he hopes to return to the character and the series after exploring creatively "some other things." Said he: "I'm not taking a break because I don't like the character. In the course of working on the book, I've grown to like this character much more than I did in the beginning. But this is my first comic book work. I have a lot of room for improvement, and that's part of what I plan to do for now. I don't have any concrete plans, but Brian and I have written a number of additional Street Angel stories already, so we'll see what happens." I hope what happens is that they return to the series. Street Angel is one of those rarities in today's comics kingdom, over-populated with new titles that rise and fall like so many roman candle rockets. The books are not only well and wittily written, but they embody a visual dexterity that proclaims Rugg a far more accomplished practitioner in the medium than his own verdict implies.
In the first issue of the series, we meet Jesse Sanchez-"an orphan raised by the streets. In an unforgiving world overrun with poverty, drug abuse, nepotism, and ninjas, Sanchez fights for the poor, the forgotten, and whenever possible, for food." It's a delicious display of sardonic humor: Maruca strings together his series (poverty, drug abuse; then the poor, the forgotten) leading up to non-sequitur conclusions in each series (in the first, nepotism and ninjas; in the second, food) that ring the gong of comedy. Nepotism and ninjas? How does that belong in the mean streets Maruca invokes? It doesn't, of course; and that's the hilarity of his writing. Jesse, we learn, is Street Angel, the nom de guerre by which she is known to the criminals of her neighborhood. The arch-villain of the first issue, however, is "the deadliest geologist of the last 1,000 years" (geologist?), who tried, at the tender age of 19, to flatten the earth "using proprietary semiconductor technology in conjunction with the magnetic resonance of the North and South Poles." Gobbledegook humor of the first water, no question. His current plan is to re-unite the earth's continents. I'm not sure how that is a threat, in and of itself, to all mankind, but I suppose moving all those continental masses would wreak some sort of wholesale catastrophe. In any event, the mayor of Angel City enlists Jesse to stop the crazed geologist; the interview is distinguished by Jesse's insistence on using a bull-horn to speak to the mayor. In the end, Jesse defeats a horde of ninjas (yes, ninjas) in Rugg's spectacular 3-page wordless sequence. After wholesale slaughter on every hand, she stands "triumphantly" amid the corpses littering the floor of the warehouse and says (triumphantly, we suppose), "Where's my shoe?" She then returns the mayor's kidnaped daughter to him, and in the issue's last panel, she goes back to the warehouse, the scene of her triumph, where "she turns her attention to finding her shoe until the next time that danger comes calling for-Street Angel." Jesse, on her knees, grubbing among the ninja body parts, says, "Stupid shoe." Terrific stuff, kimo sabe.
Rugg repeatedly deploys the resources of the medium to dramatic effect. He draws well: we can recognize his characters from one depiction to another, and all the props and locales are rendered with panache. Every line is confidently laid in; not a false move anywhere. No small achievement for a guy ostensibly a beginner at the comic book game. Rugg produces several nearly silent sequences of high action. Throughout, the pictures carry the narrative burden, sometimes in ironic comment upon the verbiage. But the words serve a large function, too: they are the wit in the story. Words and pictures blend to give us a witty, dramatically enhanced tale of derring-do and thumping action-comedy and adventure, not as united in purpose since the days of Roy Crane's Wash Tubbs. A signal achievement.
Each of the other four issues tells a single, stand-alone tale. In No. 2, Jesse encounters time-traveling pirates (who are prone to exclaim "Yar" in the best Robert Newton manner, with little or no provocation), Inca gods, and an overweight virgin. The pirates, whose motives seem somewhat hazy, hope, as they scamper menacingly about the 21st century, to encounter "virgins yearning to be free." Ah, Maruca-what a stunningly risible coupling of errant expressions. In No. 3, Jesse takes on a batch of Satanists. In the next issue, Maruca and Rugg deftly perform an impressive change-of-pace: here, we meet Jesse as a homeless person, dumpster-diving for donuts and survival. In No. 5, she befriends an aged former superhero, an African-American who battled the forces of evil as "Afrodisiac." Now there's a name for you. "Criminals feared me," he says, "women ... heh, heh ... women couldn't get enough of me." And Rugg, perfectly aping the Marvel style of yore, gives us several sample pages of the comic book in which the old guy starred as a young superhero. Jesse rescues the old guy from an assault by some street punks, and the two of them discuss the cannibalistic implications of the old man's "carnal knowledge" of a woman one of the thugs claims was his mother. But you have to be there. If you missed the series, don't fret: it's coming out in a trade paperback in June, all five issues, plus new material. This one is not to miss. Visit www.streetanglecomics.com for details, if you need 'em.
Howard Chaykin's latest, City of Tomorrow, is, if the first issue is any guide, another of his dazzling deployments of the medium's resources: he uses such devices as poster-ish typography and voice-over transitioning from one scene to the next with the same flair he developed in American Flagg, decades ago. And his timing, as always, is fiendishly, cynically, humorous. The story involves an array of beautiful people doing unpleasant things-from depraved sex to casual homocide. The opening sequence juggles four narratives-a bomber delivering a bomb inside the corpse of an infant, Eli Foyle extolling the history and virtues of his synthetic metropolis, the bomber getting a blow job just as an avenging factotum blows his head off, and a voice-over explaining the backstory. Throughout the book, we slip back and forth through three time frames-the past (for the founding of Columbia, the "city of tomorrow"), the present with Eli Foyle's son, Tucker, an agent of some sort, and the intervening period when Tuck was a rebellious teenager. Tuck seems to have the hots for another agent, Ryan-or vice versa-and their conversation is peppered with sexual innuendo and sarcastic remarks about the alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction they go looking for. Chaykin's work is always highly polished adventure with a dollop of satirical social criticism about the hypocrisy of status and sex, which, for Chaykin, is usually soulless recreation. And this effort is firmly in the groove. We look forward to the next episode and more mystification, more lust, more nasty talk.
The first issue-No. 0-of Dynamite's Red Sonja, as I said last time, opens with a tight shot of the heroine's derriere, displaying here more cleavage behind than the rest of the book does above. The titillation undercuts the otherwise spooky mood as she walks through a rainstorm by a spectral tree from which dangles a long-dead corpse. She strolls into a village and a tavern there, where she has a tankard or two, gets drunk, and then, recovering instantly when threatened, fights off a gang of goons and sets fire to the tavern and the town, all of which burn to the ground. It's nicely done pictorial narrative, mostly wordless, by Michael Avon Oeming with Mike Carey and art by Mel Rubi -brilliantly colored by Caesar Rodriguez with Richard Isanove. Red Sonja's face is a little too pretty for me-that is, too conventionally pretty. Frank Thorne's scowling visage suits the concept of the character better, I think. But I admire the storytelling here, even though we never find out why the sniper archer in the opening sequence refrains from nailing Sonja.
Phil Hester's The Atheist No. 1 is an intriguing tale grippingly told. The concept involves dead people coming back to life for some purpose as yet undisclosed. Hester's manner, visualized by John McCrea, doles out information piecemeal, first assembling stray, seemingly unrelated scraps, then pulling them all together by the end of the book, which concludes on a sufficiently suspenseful note that we look forward to the next issue. The maneuver is a satisfying one: while we are left in the dark about the major mystery, we learn enough about the attendant ones to gratify our curiosity about many of the minor issues the book raises. McCrea's treatment is as cryptic as Hester's narrative style: the pictures are deeply shadowed, the drawings sometimes elliptical, sometimes spare, sometimes as textured and feathered as those Filipino masterworks of yore. As for the title character, Hester explains that he is not really an atheist: he is merely dubbed that by others who can't understand his "uncompromising brand of logic," a logic that, by the end of this issue, leads the Atheist (Antoine Sharpe) to conclude that the supposed dead man he's interrogating is telling the truth about his being dead. "I am not an atheist," Hester continues. "I am the opposite. I believe in nearly everything, many of those things demonstrably false. I am happily bewildered. ... Most of the atheists I know, just like most of the religious folks, are swell. ... This work is not meant to proselytize. Whatever gets you through the night without bombing your neighbor is just fine by me. What you hold in your hand is a horror story that hopes, in some oblique manner, to address some questions about differing sources of human morality. It is meant to be a thrilling adventure tale that portrays a common point of understanding between reason and faith. It is this: while we are here, we must be sweeter to one another." And he finishes by quoting Albert Einstein: "Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind." Nicely done, Phil.
I picked up three issues of Kiss and Tell last week, but the numbering is somewhat eccentric: Nos. 1 and 2 are in "Volume 2," but No. 8 isn't. Oddly, I read them in that order and don't seem to have missed much. The story, by Jeff Amano as pictured by Craig Rousseau, introduces us to Sam Swede, a giant of a simple man who, by the end of No. 8, is a modern Samson: betrayed by his wife, daughter of the local mob chieftan, Sam is chained to pillars and brings down the temple around him and his tormentors, all members of the lawless mob that runs the city. The storytelling-breakdowns, panel composition, pacing-is well done, often cinematic, and Rousseau's minimalist manner is aesthetically pleasing as well as clear and informative, which is what all pictures in a visual narrative must be. Giulia Brusco's coloring, mostly monochromatic, varies the color from one scene to another, ostensibly suiting the mood or time of day (nights are dark blue and purple).
Some Outstanding Books, Cheap
The Quality Paperback Book Club, run by the old Book of the Month Clubbers, is currently having a sale that features several comics publications: In the Shadow of No Towers, $9.39; Dr. Seuss Goes to War (his political cartoons in the early 1940s, a classic piece of cartooning history), $5.29; Peanuts: A Golden Celebration (produced to celebrate Schulz's 50th anniversary on the strip, it came out just before he died), $9.19; The New Yorker Book of Dog Cartoons, $4.79; This Is a Bad Time, a collection of Bruce Eric Kaplan's painfully static New Yorker efforts, $5.99; and, just to complete the New Yorker reading list, Brendan Gill's engaging history of the magazine, Here at the New Yorker, $6.79. Also at QPBC: Gerard Jones' Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book is offered at the regular QPBC price of $15.99; ditto the new Crumb opus, The R. Crumb Handbook, $15.99. And the collection of Sunday strips by Berke Breathed, Opus: 25 Years of His Sunday Best, is $19.99. All three of the last-named are also available at half-price when you buy another QPBC book at full price; you'll be charged the regular price for the most expensive of your selection, then half-price for the rest. You can find out more about all this at the website, www.qpb.com.
George McManus's "Son" and Heir
And How That Didn't Work Out
Zeke Zekley is a name that has been routed out of comic strip history. Literally. Back in the 1940s, engravers at King Features took routing tools and erased his name from the plates of comic strips that he'd signed. Zeke died on April 28, 2005, at the age of 90. And he may have taken with him to his grave, as they say, the answer to one of the great questions that, at one time, puzzled of the profession: Why didn't he, after twenty years as George McManus's assistant, inherit McManus's celebrated comic strip, Bringing Up Father, when McManus died in 1954? Various rumors circulated at the time-and since-and not all of them complimentary. As long as Zeke lived, the rumors were whispered. And no one that I ever heard about ever approached him directly about them. I didn't know Zeke well, but I knew him well enough to believe that had anyone confronted him with any of these scurrilous tales, he would have promptly and vehemently denied them. He would have been astonished that such stories were being told and deeply hurt that anyone could believe them. And that, Zeke's imagined reaction, may be, in the last analysis, the proof that the stories were false: no one who knew him could believe the rumors, and no one who knew him would be so unkind as to make him aware of the slurs on his character that the stories made.
Zeke was one of the most pleasant people I ever met. On every one of the few occasions we talked, he seemed cheerful, unpretentious, and kind. Mark Evanier, who knew him longer and better than I, wrote in an obituary: "He was a great guy, generous with his time and talents. He employed a great many cartoonists but was not above sitting down at the board and drawing or lettering pages himself." As a journalist, I appreciated Zeke's candor and willingness to talk: he never dodged a question, and, in pursuit of the solution to the mystery I just alluded to, I asked some questions that might have made him pause-particularly if the rumors were true; but he never paused. I met him in the summer of 1998 in his apartment in Beverly Hills. Ed McGeean took me there, and we all went to the Friars' Club for lunch. Afterwards, we returned to the apartment, and we talked for a while, and I looked at some original strips Zeke still had on hand. And he showed me how he and McManus did some of the curlicue decoration in the strip, intricate embellishments that were the envy of anyone who produces artwork on a daily deadline basis. The following winter, I phoned him a couple times and conducted an interview, parts of which appear here.
Born in Chicago in 1915, Zeke grew up in Detroit, where, at the age of 18, he found his first cartooning job-with the Detroit Mirror, which promptly went out of business. Zeke freelanced briefly, but the Depression had hit Motor City hard, and Zeke and an artist friend, Lenny Benkoe, figured they stood a better chance of finding employment at their craft in New York or Hollywood. They flipped a coin, Zeke said, and it came up Hollywood, so they went West in the spring of 1935, ferrying a couple new cars to California for transportation. In Los Angeles, Zeke and Lenny were taken on at Disney on a trial basis, but after a few weeks, the studio cut back for the summer, laying off Zeke and Lenny.
"They told me to come back in the fall," Zeke told me, "and they'd try me in the Story Department."
Meanwhile, he had no work. Lenny had made an arrangement with a restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard, Bob Perry's Brass Rail: Lenny would table-hop around the place, doing quick portrait sketches for tips.
"So one night," Zeke continued, "I was in there while he was doing the drawings. And I'm seated over at a table, having a cup of coffee, and one of the waiters comes over to me, and he says, 'You're a cartoonist, aren't you? Your friend there, this guy doing the drawing, says you're a cartoonist.' And I said, 'Yes.' And he said, 'Well, you see that fellow in the back there in that booth? That's Charlie McManus. He's the brother of George McManus.' So I said, 'Gee, that's wonderful.' But I was very depressed at the moment because first of all, it was mixed emotions. George McManus had been an idol of mine. A lot of my schoolbooks, in the margins, had sketches where I'd copied Jiggs or did some of the characters from his strip. But I was getting letters from back east, from my friends, telling me who's taking out my girl," Zeke chucked, "and they're all out at the lakes over the summer, and they're all having a hell of a lot of fun, and all that. And here I am, I'm dead broke at this point and I'm trying to figure out, all right, I had a ride out here. How am I going to get back to Detroit?
"So I'm sitting here, and I'm having my coffee, I'm doodling with a pencil on the tablecloth. And while I'm thinking of getting back to Detroit, I'm doodling with this thing about McManus, and I'm drawing a picture of Jiggs," he laughed, "and I'm doing an imitation of his signature, you know, and things like that. And finally, I just waved to Lenny and said, 'I'll wait for you outside.' You know, until he's finished. And I went out to watch the traffic going by, and so forth. And a few minutes later, the waiter comes with the tablecloth, and he said, 'Did you do this?' And-oh, my God-I figured, here I am, broke, and now I'm going to have to pay for a tablecloth," Zeke laughed again. "And I was too nervous to lie, so I said, 'Yes.' And he said, 'Well, I took this, your tablecloth, over to Charlie McManus and he liked what he saw, and he asked would you come over to his table?'" Zeke chucked again. "And he said his brother might be interested in hiring me. So Charlie arranged a meeting, and a couple of days later, I met George, and he sat me down to a table. He was going out to take his mother out for a ride. She was pretty ill, but he was taking her out for this ride, and he just told me to try some lettering, and maybe rule out some panels for him, and so forth, and then left me in his apartment. I was a total stranger."
I said, "Pretty remarkable!"
Zeke continued: "And off he went. And when he got back, he said, 'Let me think on this and come back tomorrow.' So I did. And I got the job the next day. And we had a good twenty years together-from starting out with ruling the panels, and doing the lettering, and filling in the blacks; and here and there, a lamp, or a set of drapes, or a window, I would draw all these little things that he'd left open when pencilled, and I would finish them up. Or he would suggest what goes there and I would finish them up. Well, that went along for a year or so, and more and more, I started to do some more things, and even suggest gags and stories."
Then in 1937, Zeke told me, McManus went off on a cruise to Rio de Janeiro, leaving behind a pile of strips roughed out and telling Zeke to do the lettering. McManus would finish the drawings when he got back. Then McManus was delayed and he telegraphed Zeke to ink some parts of the strips. Then Zeke, who'd returned to Detroit for a visit, doing lettering and some inking on the road, got stranded by a flood in Arizona. Unable to reach either McManus or the syndicate, he manufactured a drawing board by taking out the drawer out of a chest of drawers in the motel and did some strips on his own.
"That was the first time I substituted some of my work for his," Zeke said, "and I shot them back to New York. George was very happy with it when he got back," he added, chuckling. "And from that point on, I took on more of the work. I started to do more and more of the Sunday topper, Rosie's Beau. Later on, we changed it from Rosie's Beau to Snookums, Snookums being a character that he had from a previous strip that he had before Bringing Up Father. It was called Their Only Child, and it was based on The Newlyweds and their baby, which he did for Pulitzer when he was with the New York World and Pulitzer had him, and then Hearst enticed him away with double what he was making with Pulitzer.
"We went on from that," Zeke continued, "and over the years, I was doing the Snookums thing on top, and I was kicking around ideas with him, and more and more, it became a collaborative effort. Mostly him, but lesser with me. But nevertheless, I would make a suggestion, and, the guiding hand of the pro, he would polish it up. And when I saw it, I knew I had a germ of an idea, but I never knew it could come off the way he did it."
Physically in the studio, the two had drawing tables in line, Zeke's just in front of McManus's. They'd pass work back and forth. Sometimes McManus would start something and give it to Zeke to finish while he started something else. Sometimes Zeke would suggest a gag or an idea, and McManus would mull it over and polish it.
"It went back and forth," Zeke said. "You get an idea, a germ of an idea, and we'd start a Sunday page. The Sunday pages were cut in half so they'd be easy to manipulate on a drawing board without having to reach too far. The top three tiers included the topper, Snookums, and the first three panels of Jiggs, which was continued with the remaining three tiers of panels on the bottom half of the artboard. So he could be working on one part, and I could be working on the other, and we'd pass them back and forth. And little things would arise. He'd say, 'You know, you've got a cigar in his mouth here, and you've got it also in his fingers.' And I'd say, 'I didn't do it.' He said, 'Well, I didn't do it,'" Zeke laughed. "Or he'd say, 'You've got spats on him in the first scene and you got him in stocking feet in the second scene.' And these kind of little, silly arguments would go back and forth."
I said, "So ultimately, once you really got into the swing of things there, sometimes you were penciling, sometimes you were inking, and vice versa, right?
"Well, yes," Zeke said, "Mostly inking and on certain things, I'd just go ahead and pencil things, and run it past him. And if he thought it needed correction, he would lend his hand and give it back to me."
I said, "So if you put a cigar in Jiggs' hand and one in his mouth, it was something you were doing as you were inking?"
"Yes," he said; "you're focused in on one piece for so long that you did some things almost automatically. You see his mouth-all right, put a cigar in it. And you're not immediately aware that he has his hand on a table-you're not looking at the hand-and there's a cigar already between his fingers," he finished, laughing.
"We got along famously," he went on. "It was a lot of fun. We'd go out for dinners together and breakfasts almost all the time. Sometimes we'd start the day at the studio; sometimes, I'd phone him and say, 'Do you want to ride with me?' And he'd say, 'Yeah,' so I'd just pick him up and we'd go to the studio. Other times, I'd just meet him at the studio. Usually, we got there nine, nine-fifteen, after breakfast. George didn't go out for lunch. I did; he'd take a nap. Once in a while, I'd bring back a sandwich for him. Sometimes, he'd say, 'No sandwiches for me. No, nothing.' But when I'd go out, I'd say, 'I'll bring you back a ham and egg,' or whatever. But I'd break for lunch. Sometimes, I'd go home because we lived near the studio and it took only about five minutes each way. And it was good, it was good. We had a hell of a lot of fun. I think he had a stillborn son, and I could sense that what he had missed in life was having that father-son relationship. And I sense that I sort of filled a niche there. He was godfather to both my children, and I can't say enough for him. You know, like a father."
I interrupted: "His wife was an invalid, if I remember."
"Yes," Zeke said. "He had a separate home for her with servants and nurses. And she lived out in Santa Monica."
At its peak, Bringing Up Father was renowned for its worldwide distribution, perhaps the first American comic strip to achieve international fame. Zeke told me that the syndicate official in charge of foreign sales said the strip was translated into twenty-seven languages and appeared in 850 newspapers worldwide.
"George was very generous with me," Zeke went on. "Financially, I was very well-rewarded because he recognized that I was able to be syndicated somewhere else. And frankly, I knew that I made more money than a lot of guys who had their own strip. But for a long time, Joe Connolly, who was the head of King Features, was absolutely adamant that we should never admit that anybody worked with George. The idea was that George did all his own work. And for a while, I said, 'My God, I want to tell my mother what I do.' She might think I'm selling dope, you know?" he laughed. "But George would give me credit when the gag was mine. He'd tell me to co-sign a strip, put my name just below his. And here and there, both signatures appeared. Usually, however, Joe Connolly had it routed it out at the engravers. And my name disappeared. Here and there, something got through, but it was quite a thing." (One of Zeke's signatures shows up on a daily strip that I put into that book of mine, The Children of the Yellow Kid, which gave me the excuse to give Zeke the credit that he deserved in a history of the medium.)
Zeke was not an official part of McManus's contract with King Features: he was McManus's employee, not the syndicate's. But McManus didn't like bookkeeping, and because he was so important to the syndicate, the syndicate arranged to deposit Zeke's pay in a bank account so McManus wouldn't have the bother.
Our interviews were liberally spiced with Zeke's anecdotes about various adventures he shared with McManus. And with a generous dollop of lore. How Jiggs acquired his wealth, for instance. In most histories and newspaper accounts over the years, it is said that Jiggs, who had worked as a common laborer, got rich by winning the Irish Sweepstakes. Not according to McManus. Partly in jest, McManus revealed the secret. When Jiggs was working as a hod-carrier, his employer was another Irishman named Ryan. Ryan liked Jiggs. He liked him so much that he gave Jiggs a dime every time he, Ryan, made a thousand dollars. Ryan, obviously, got very very rich. And so did Jiggs.
About the origin of Jiggs's name, however, McManus was silent. Zeke assumed it had something to do with the dance, the Irish jig.
Then there was the time Zeke went to San Simeon, the moutaintop castle Hearst maintained overlooking the ocean just south of the Big Sur. McManus was invited up to discuss a forthcoming development in the strip, and he asked Zeke if he'd like to come along.
"I said, 'Boy, would I!'" Zeke said. "So I got to go to Hearst's castle and was up there for several days, and got to play tennis with Gloria Vanderbilt, who was about fifteen years old at that time," he chuckled. "I was, what, about twenty-two or three? I slept in the bed that Cardinal Richelieu had died in. As you know, the place was filled with all these great antiques imported from all over the world. In the bathroom, there was a Goya painting. And the priceless works of art and antiques, unbelievable. And would you believe that I sat next to Marion Davies every night, at every lunch. Breakfast, it was buffet breakfast there and the Old Man [Hearst] didn't come down for breakfast, but you had to be there at, like, 11:30 for lunch, and he would come down with Marion, and we'd sit at this long table. Now, this room, this huge cavern actually, was like a cathedral that he had moved, stone by stone, from Spain, or somewhere, and removed all the pews. And this was his dining hall. The table went from where you are to Chicago. Fantastic antique chairs and tapestries, and silver, orbs, and swords, and armor, and what have you, all around the place. And I sat opposite W.R. Hearst. It boggles my mind to this day that I was in such high company."
McManus had been summoned to consult about having Jiggs' daughter get married to an Englishman who'd wandered into the strip. They decided to acquaint the Englishman with the United States by taking him on a tour of the country in the strip. It was a great publicity stunt because they deliberately stopped in all the major cities where papers carried the strip. Zeke did extensive research, finding distinctive landmarks in every city that could be depicted in the strip. One of the storied sites was Times Square in New York-rendered on a Sunday page that demanded the inclusion of hundreds of telling visual details.
"It was a huge panoramic scene," Zeke remembered. "Broadway north of 42nd Street. And it took forever to complete. We'd work on it a little at a time, doing bits and pieces on it for several weeks, referring all time to photographs. Well, when we sent that one in, we thought we'd hear something. And the only thing we heard was that the Claridge Hotel had been torn down-" he laughed "-and I'd put it in. I didn't identify it as the Claridge, but people wrote in to say the Claridge Hotel had been torn down. That was the only thing we heard."
George McManus died on October 22, 1954. He'd been ill, so Zeke had been doing the strip (assisted by Bernie Lansky) for some time. But the syndicate gave it to Vernon Green, who, Zeke supposed, had been training to do it in the King Features bullpen for some weeks. Zeke was shut out overnight. He received no further paychecks. Syndicates normally pay "on publication," and Zeke was ten weeks ahead with completed Sunday strips and four weeks with dailies. He felt he had some claim to payment for the work as it was published. But the syndicate took the position that as McManus's assistant, he was paid a weekly wage for assisting his boss-not for the strips-and since his boss was dead, he could no longer be assisting. No more checks. But the cruelest thing, Zeke told me, was that they immediately came out and changed the locks on the studio. "Out the window went a twenty-year relationship. It counted for nothing with them."
It wasn't the first time King had pulled the rug out from under an heir apparent. When E.C. Segar died in 1938, his assistant on Popeye, Bud Sagendorf, was passed over-perhaps because the syndicate thought he was too young at the time: he was 23 years old, but he'd been working with Segar for several years. Eventually, in 1958, Sagendorf came back, and to this day, the daily strips he produced are being reprinted all over the world. Only the Sunday Popeye, done by Hy Eisman, is fresh material. Sagendorf had told Zeke he didn't think what happened to him would happen to Zeke. But it did. Why?
Through the years, the rumors accumulated. One of them suggested that various well-known cartoonists insinuated their opinions into the selection process, conveying to King officials their opinion that Zekley was a gold-digging opportunist who was attempting to get himself declared McManus's heir-not only on the strip but in the dead man's bank accounts, too. Zekley should not, they insisted, be permitted to succeed in this underhanded scheme. In another story, equally-in my view-scurrilous, Zeke was accused of forging a letter from McManus that designated him the official custodian of Jiggs and Maggie. Zeke was completely baffled, he told me. He thought perhaps he was resented by King officials. And there was a letter. In these circumstances, I suspect, are the seeds of both rumors.
McManus and Zeke had discussed his situation on the strip more than once. McManus had urged his assistant to seek a separate contract with King to cover his future. And the last time McManus's contract was renewed, he let Zeke go to New York to do much of the negotiating. Some of the resentment that Zeke thought existed may have arisen as a result of this negotiation. What follows now is mostly my speculation, hemmed in, occasionally, by a stray fact or two. One fact is that the usual 50-50 split of income on a comic strip is an arrangement that exists only between the originator of the strip and the syndicate. Once the originator is no longer on the scene, the syndicate, which traditionally owns the strip outright, is free to negotiate a different sort of deal with the originator's successor. Usually, the successor is hired at a specified salary-so much a month. The originator had split the net income 50-50 with the syndicate, and the net income was determined by the number of papers that subscribed. In the usual arrangement for continuation of a strip, the circulation of the strip doesn't count: the successor gets a salary, and the syndicate keeps all the rest. Zeke, as I've already noted, was being generously compensated by McManus. My guess is that when he came to negotiate the last contract, Zeke tried to get some sort of guarantee that, first, he would inherit the strip; and, second, that he would be paid in an amount commensurate with the salary McManus was then paying him. But that would be much in excess of what King Features might pay a successor on the strip. Zeke had some inkling about the financial basis of the decision.
"The accountants got in on it," he told me. "There was this big figure of McManus's salary, which stopped when George died. And there was a good amount of salary that I was drawing. They could stop paying that, too. They could pay someone else a lot less and have lots of money left over. That's all I can think of: it became a bottom line thing."
The resentment Zeke felt directed at him resulted in part from his attempt, while negotiating McManus's last contract, to secure a just compensation for himself-a compensation roughly equivalent to what McManus had been paying him. He doubtless seemed grasping and greedy-which gives rise to the rumor that he was an opportunist seeking to become McManus's beneficiary in every way. And if he referred, as he was likely to, to the special "father-son" relationship he had with McManus, he would appear to have filial expectations as well as professional ones. But the official resentment had roots that went back earlier, Zeke thought. He imagined some of the King people were jealous of his having been invited to San Simeon. Some of them actually spoke to him about it. "We've never even met Mister Hearst," they'd say, "-let alone been to San Simeon."
And then there was the telephone fiasco, apparently often repeated. The studio phone was behind McManus and Zeke.
"The phone would ring, and he'd point to me to answer it," Zeke explained. "And if he didn't want to take the call, he'd signal me, and I'd say he wasn't there. Then George would cough or sneeze or something. And they caught me in a lie. So they had it in for me."
The mysterious letter was from Ward Green, then head of the syndicate. During the negotiation, Green explained that they couldn't agree on a financial arrangement for the future.
"I remember the basis of this letter," Zeke told me. "It was, 'Zeke, we can't even begin to talk about what money we would pay you because there may be inflation, there may be deflation. In one case, the syndicate would score a hit on you, or you would score a hit on the syndicate. So I don't think we can sign a contract with you based on George's passing away. So to be fair to both of us, we'd have to approach that when the time comes. But you have my word that you will be the first to take over.'"
And then, stubborn irony, Green died two weeks after McManus did. Zeke could never find the all-important letter, and his only witness, the letter's author, wasn't around anymore.
"To this day," Zeke said, "I'm looking for that letter."
So there was, indeed, a crucial letter. Did Zeke try to forge it to establish his right to the strip? Or did he just attempt to reproduce its contents from memory, as he had in conversation with me? We'll never know, of course. But based upon what I know of Zeke Zekley, I can't see him trying to forge anything. If he mailed to the syndicate a letter that repeated what he remembered in Green's letter, however, it could easily be the factual basis for the rumor about forgery. And I suspect that's what happened. So why didn't Zeke get the strip? I suspect it was the rumor about his grasping opportunism, fostered at the time of the last contract negotiation, that persuaded influential members of the inky-fingered fraternity to lean on King Features to deprive Zeke of what most people would have thought his just due-rather than the forged letter accusation, which would have followed the selection of McManus' successor and could not therefore have influenced the decision. In any case, Zeke was probably slandered out of his inheritance.
All the King Features officials who were there at the time and might know the truth of the matter are gone. None of the current King staff were around then.
Out of work and with a wife and two children to support, Zeke started his own strip, Dud Dudley, a Blondie knock-off, drawn in McManus's style (also, by then, Zeke's). It lasted only eight or nine months, then the syndicate, McNaught, pulled the plug because they weren't making enough on the strip's subscriptions to pay Zeke's guaranteed salary. (He'd insisted on a guaranteed salary as a way of spurring the sales force to do its job.) Zeke eventually launched a couple of other comic features- Peachy Keen and a panel, Popsie, neither successful -but he devoted most of his energies to the operation of a company he'd started in 1950, before McManus died-Sponsored Comics, which produced comics for various commercial enterprises. Under that umbrella, he generated numerous projects, including a stint doing the Army's P.S. magazine after Will Eisner gave up the contract. For all of these, including a trial color comics section for USA Today (which I have a copy of), Zeke hired other cartoonists to help with the work. He made a decent living, I'd say. And when I met him, he was a consultant and broker in fine art, antiques, and sculpture. His apartment was like a museum.
When I saw Zeke last, it was over lunch during a San Diego Comicon: he'd driven down from Los Angeles to visit Bernie Lansky. And he brought me an original of one of the Bringing Up Father dailies that McManus had him sign. A year ago, he phoned to thank me for the Christmas card. A forger? A grasping opportunist? Not likely, not likely by a long shot. Zeke was a gentleman, and gentlemen don't do those things.
Civilization's Last Outpost
A lesson in the power of a mass medium: since the opening of the movie "Sideways," sales of merlot, which the movie's character famously dislikes, declined 2 percent in the three months following the film's release while sales of pinot noir, which is extolled in the movie, jumped 14 percent. ... Nudity is a bigger business than I'd supposed: those primitive nudist camps of yore have been displaced by nudist resorts, up-scale operations in luxury venues like Desert Shadows Inn Resort & Villas in Palm Springs, California, where rooms go for $200 a night. According to USA Today, "Besides concierge service and the like, Desert Shadows offers [such] amenities [as] nude hot-air ballooning, in-the-buff moonlit hikes and naked drive-bys (via tour bus) of the homes of Palm Springs' rich and famous." Nude recreation, it sez here, "grew tremendously in the 1990s and is now a $400 million industry." H'mmm-"nude recreation," eh? That's a new term for it, I suspect. But I suppose it was inevitable that nudistry become more widely practiced once Playboy superceded Sunbathing Quarterly.
The private contractor security forces in Iraq consist largely of the sort of macho mercenaries you might expect. They aren't in it so much because they're patriots: these guys thrive on danger. "I like being some place where stupidity can be fatal," one said recently in a Washington Post National Weekly report, "-because here you work with people who think about their actions." He and his cohorts, it sez here, scorn the soft, pampered lives their fellow Americans lead back home in a society that "puts warnings on coffee cups." Pretty much sums it all up, if you ask me.
The unofficial launch of the Western Civilization's jihad was probably thirteen years ago when Vice President Dan Quayle attacked the producers of "Murphy Brown" for letting the lead character have a child out of wedlock. It's taken a while for the culture war to reach a fever pitch, but surely we're there now-with "marriage" being championed, but only between heterosexual couples. The religious right wants our society to return to the 19th century with its "traditional values" just as certainly as the Muslim extremists want to go back to the 7th century where their tradition has its roots-back to a time when marriage was a stable social institution. It is no longer stable, as Stephanie Coontz points out in the Washington Post National Weekly. "The origins of modern marital instability lie largely in the triumph of what many people believe to be marriage's traditional role," she writes, "-providing love, intimacy, fidelity and mutual fulfillment. The truth is that for centuries, marriage was stable precisely because it was not expected to provide such benefits." Marriage was pretty much, until the 1790s, a property arrangement. Then "love" entered into the equation. The conservatives of the day immediately predicted the death of marriage. And eventually, in some sense, that's what happened. Says Coontz: "For the next 150 years, the destabilizing effects of the love revolution were held in check by women's economic dependence on men, the unreliability of birth control and the harsh legal treatment of children born out of wedlock-as well as the social ostracism of their mothers." But love's victory negated most of these inhibitions, and various social changes (women in the work force, capable of supporting themselves) completed the conversion; as a result, the stability of marriage deteriorated. The personal as distinct from the societal values of relationships, however, emerged in a grand and glowing light. We can't really go back, either, says Coontz. We've gone too far afield in human and social relations. Meanwhile, it's fascinating to note that in the U.S., the red state Bible Belt has the highest divorce rate in the nation.
Under the Spreading Punditry
Rightwingnut bloggers, who became famous by nattering on until Dan Rather was defrocked, attempted another swift truth campaign during the Teri Schiavo episode. When it was reported a Republican memo called the case "a great political issue" that would energize the "pro-life base" of the GOP, the blogging multitudes claimed the memo was a hoax perpetrated by the nasty Democrats. The memo "doesn't sound like something written by a conservative," sniffed Power Line. "It sounds like a liberal fantasy of how conservatives talk." Alas, an aide to Senator Mel Martinez owned up, saying he'd written the nefarious memo. So-did the bloggers do as they've repeated demanded Rather and other left-leaning sinners do-apologize? Nope. In fact, according to Eric Boehlert on Salon.com, they still insist that the incriminating memo revealed nothing at all about Republican motives. Sure, guys. And you're just honest media critics, interested only in fairness and truth.
Bloggers, contrary to a conviction common in rightwing circles, do not have a monopoly on the truth. Or accuracy in reportage. A startling example involves Marcia Cross, one of the stars of ABC's hysterically popular (even in red states) "Desperate Housewives." On February 1, a blogger, who appears as Your Friendly Spy at ABC, posted an item on an infamously gossipy message board, DataLounge.com, asserting that Cross was a lesbian and would be "coming out" in a future issue of The Advocate, a magazine featuring gay and lesbian news and life-styles. The news flashed through the Internet and finally reached the mainstream press, where it proved so persistent that Cross herself had to call a news conference to deny the assertion. Then The Advocate felt obliged, understandably (and to its everlasting credit), to render the truth of the matter and devoted its March 15 cover story to the whole sordid business. In his story, reporter Adam B. Vary notes that rumors of celebrity homosexuality run rampant-all the time. "To be famous and gay remains the culture's last titillating taboo," Vary writes, "making it the juiciest way to jump-start ratings and newsstand sales." Or, among the more virulent of conservatives, to destroy opponents. Calling Cross gay looks suspiciously like a rightwing attempt to discredit the tv show-chiefly because rightwing activists often accuse their foes and other objects of their detestation of being homosexual. And there's little question that "Desperate Housewives" represents life-styles that most rightwingers detest (but nonetheless dote on sufficiently to make the show the Number One tv hit of the season).
All the fuss over Newsweek's alleged error in asserting that American interrogators flushed the Koran down the toilet is mostly another of the Bush League's smoke-screens, an excuse to attack the press. The Koran-flushing tactic had been reported before, so Newsweek was scarcely the first to tell the tale. And the violent demonstrations in Muslim countries that claimed to have been prompted by the magazine's report were hardly so inspired: the protesters were demonstrating against the U.S., which they'd seize any excuse to do- Newsweek just happened along at the right moment. Meanwhile-just a friendly reminder-remember that some (but, no, not all) Koran-inspired Muslims kill their wives for committing adultery. Stoning is the usual method. They dig a hole and put the woman in it up to her waist, pinioning her arms. Then a bunch of the village elders stand around and pelt her with stones until she's dead. A report (in the Washington Post National Weekly) revealed that a recent stoning took two hours to kill the sinner. Sort of turns your stomach, eh? A lot like watching a book get flushed down the toilet.
But we're hardly without fault in the arena of religiosity. A couple weeks ago, a particularly fervent pastor in Waynesville, NC, asserted that he would expect his flock to adhere to a political agenda inspired by his (and their) faith. It began last October when the Rev. Chandler told his congregation that those who vote for John Kerry needed to repent or resign from the church. Said he: "You have been holding back God's church way too long." His sermons frequently attacked abortion and the "gay agenda." There the matter rested until May 2, when Chandler called a meeting and told everyone the church was going to be political and anyone not liking it should resign. It would cleanse the church, he asserted. Nine people left, and they were subsequently voted off the church rolls. The subsequent excitement in the news media finally led Chandler to resign himself. The incident, however, demonstrates that extreme fundamental religious beliefs in the service of political agendas are not peculiar to the Muslim world.
As the religious right flexes its political muscle more and more, its fundamental hypocrisy is increasingly evident. A coalition called Focus on the Family, for instance, is doing anything but that. It has come to the fore in the Senate scrap over filibustering because, it is asserted, the liberal objection to GeeDubya's judicial appointments represents an assault on "people of faith." But in this self-appointed task, Focus on the Family is focusing on politicians, not families. And in so doing, they are, in effect, abdicating parents' rights to raise their children as they see fit: the Focus agenda seems perfectly willing to have the federal government determine standards of decency and morality instead of letting parents do it. This is another chapter in a long-running story that began when families could not survive financially without both parents entering the wage-earning work force. As homes were increasingly deserted by parents, the rearing of their children was increasingly assigned to public schools. Only a week or so ago, a report on a network news program explained that schools now had to teach kids such fundamental manners as how to eat at a dinner table, which, we always thought, was taught in the home. No more: parents are so often away from home at dinner time, it appears, that most kids eat meals in front of the television set, using their fingers mostly to stuff their mouths. Sad. And it seems to me that Focus on the Family and its ilk is taking us even further in that direction.
Metaphors be with you.
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