Opus 172 (November 14, 2005). This week’s hare-raising harvest of news and reviews includes several Large and Important Items—namely, reviews of the animated “Boondocks,” The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, and The Complete Dennis the Menace, plus news about Stephen King writing for Marvel, a long-lost book of Crockett Johnson’s found, and a few thoughts about Rosa Parks. Sprinkled generously along the way are numerous other Fascinating Factoids and reviews of a baker’s dozen funnybooks. In order, here’s what’s here: our annual Report on how well we did over the last twelve months in supplying you with comics news and reviews and cartooning lore; NOUS R US —manga poised to invade newspapers, a batch of authorial talent recruited at Marvel, Crockett Johnson’s long-lost book, Jerry Siegel’s disaffected son speaks up, Alan Moore takes his name off everything he doesn’t own, the fight for Skippy goes on, Disney and Pixar in negotiation; STEPHEN KING and Robert Browning join Marvel; COMIC STRIP WATCH —newly launched strips achieve modest success despite the plethora of legacy strips, and the winner of the Weasel award; BOONDOCKS ON TV —McGruder rampant, offensive language, political posturing, and tactical maneuvering; REPRINCE —The Complete Calvin and Hobbes reviewed with quotes from Watterson’s introduction, The Complete Dennis the Menace and Ketcham’s achievement, a new FoxTrot book; FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE —reviewed are Revelations, Loveless, Jack Cross, Fell, Paris, Army of Darkness, Advent Rising, Wha...Huh?, Shaolin Cowboy, Y: The Last Man, and Gotham Central; ROSA PARKS —the legend and the facts; and a few vicious swipes at the Bush League and our do-nothing Congress. Without further adieu, here’s how we did last year—
Annual Stock-taking and Bean Counting
You may have noticed, I hope, that we’ve been assaulting you with persiflage and bagatelles persistently last month. Obviously, we’re trying to compensate for the total loss of September due to computer malfeasance. Our contract, after all, calls for approximately bi-weekly visits, and we missed every week in the ninth month. In the tenth month, however, we posted three Rants & Raves and three Hindsights. So we hope you think you’ve been adequately compensated for the September deficiency.
The year as a whole was better than last year. From November 2004 through October 2005, we posted 23 installments of Rants & Raves (22 last year) and, in the gratuitous bonus division, 11 Hindsight articles (10 last year). That’s a total of 34 visitations for the year. We promised to post something nearly every other week and if there are 52 weeks in the year, that’s 26 times; so we’re doing better than we promised we would. Monthly page averages are similarly outstanding (even if we say so ourselves): Rants & Raves averaged 40 pages a month. What other magazine on comics gives you 40 pages a month? What a bargain at $1.32/month! Hindsights add another 8 pages per month, or 48 pages per month, total.
Despite the flip tone herewith, we’re not bragging: we’re merely hoping to demonstrate having achieved the value you bargained for when you subscribed. The quantity anyhow; about the quality, you must be the judge. I keep saying “we” as if there were more than one of us, and there is. This website is designed (handsomely, I think) and operated (faithfully, without question) by my partner, Jeremy Lambros, who holds forth from Los Angeles. Jeremy handles all the technical machinations—subscription accounts, book purchasing, posting articles and installments and illustrations, everything but the actual writing of the material and selection of illustrations. Oh, and I mail the Harvey-authored books from here, Rancid Raves Central, whenever he tells me we’ve sold something. The used book sales are handled entirely by me, sales and shipping. Opus One of R&R is dated May 5, 1999; so we’ve been doing this, Jeremy and I, for five-and-a-half years, with amazing regularity. Well, I’m amazed anyhow. In this throw-away culture of ours, very little lasts for five-and-a-half years. But we do. Proving that Rancid Raves are forever. And we’re glad you’re still with us. No one has cancelled, by the way, that I know of; and the number of subscribers has steadily increased.
And if anyone is looking for a reliable webmaster, let me recommend my partner, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Comic Strip Watch
Once more, you must admit that I was wrong. Again. When, in Op. 171, I asserted strenuously than Jen Seng was drawing Aaron McGruder’s strip these days, I was dating myself. Seng was, indeed, the first of McGruder’s drawing assistants, beginning sometime in mid-2003 (or so I believe). But, I am informed, she and McGruder parted ways last year, and Carl Jones is the current illustrator of The Boondocks —and has been for over a year, methinks. No, no one yelled at me about this: I found out by my lonesome, diligently fact-checking myself as the flotsam and jetsam of information drifted by in the daily ebb and flow of news.
NOUS R US
Come January, a half-dozen or more North American newspapers will start carrying manga in their Sunday comics sections, which, if all goes according to the marketeers’ fond plans, will soon be awash in doe-eyed women in frilly, short-skirted outfits and effeminate-looking long-haired heroes, the usual ingredients in Japanese comics. We don’t have to look far for an explanation for this new venture: newspapers are desperate to attract young readers, and manga-style comics in this country are astonishingly popular with teens, particularly young girls. Said John Glynn, vice president at Universal Press Syndicate, which is distributing two of the new strips: “We thought if teens and young kids are reading manga, then why don’t we get something in the paper that teens want to read?” Canny, eh? Yuri Kageyama of the Associated Press notes that the average age of newspaper readers is 53 “and climbing—hardly a recipe for circulation growth.” Too many of the comics carried by newspapers have “an older following,” said Kirk Lapointe, managing editor of the Vancouver Sun, one of the papers that will begin running the manga strips. He admires manga for their artistry, which, he believes, will “contribute to the graphical beauty of the paper over-all.” The only two manga-style strips presently in the offing are both produced by Americans who have become enamored of the Far Eastern visualizing mannerisms. Van Von Hunter, by Ron Kaulfersch and Mike Schwark, is a horror spoof, said Kageyama, “about a warrior and his female sidekick who dress in Gothic-inspired costumes and are on a mission to fight evil.” Peach Fuzz, drawn by Lindsay Cibos, concerns the efforts of a nine-year-old, Amanda, to become friends with her pet ferret, Peach, “who harbors delusions of being a pampered, veil-donning princess.”
Stuart Levy, CEO of Tokyopop, a leading distributor of manga, was born in Los Angeles but went to Japan in 1989 and realized, Kageyama noted, that the manga he saw all around him was “hot as a lifestyle statement, touching on fashion and music, in the same way hip hop has defined a cultural attitude.” Said Levy: “Manga is the core of this kind of lifestyle and culture, which is becoming a global trend.” In this country, CosmoGirl magazine, the top circulation teen publication, began running manga produced by Levy’s company last August. Harlequin Romances are coming out in manga form. And Papercutz is already publishing Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys in manga-style comics and graphic novels. Manga is less a genre than a storytelling style, and the style, if I’m to judge from the books of it that I’ve seen, is slow-moving and introspective, not qualities that I can see being readily appreciated on a once-a-week basis: in Sunday manga comic strips, less will happen at greater intervals, not traits designed to sustain readership. But we must at least credit newspaper editors for understanding that the comics are a part of their product that appeals to readers. Maybe manga will demand more space, and that will lead to ... well, who knows what?
Marvel Comics is attracting more and more authors from other genre to the four-color fold. The big coup is Stephen King (about which, more below), but others include: Damon Lindelof, co-creator of the tv series “Lost,” who will write a Hulk series, starting in December; Daniel Knauf, creator of HBO’s “Carnivale,” will do six issues of The Ultimate Iron Man, starting in Spring 2006; David Morrell, whose novel First Blood introduced Rambo to the world, will write Captain America for an arc; Eric Jerome Dickey, author of Thieves’ Paradise and others (seven of which made the New York Times bestseller list), will write a six-issue series of X-Men starring Storm, debuting in February; not to mention Jonathan Lethem and Charlie Huston. Marvel ed-in-chief Joe Quesada has been recruiting “serious talent” like this for some time. Said he: “I see it as a prime opportunity to expand not only the comic-reading fan base but also to bring more talent and new voices into what has been for so very long a very incestuous field. That inbreeding led to insular stories that were impenetrable to all but the hardiest of fanmen. Print enough titles like that, and you’ll find that you’ll have an incredibly happy but rapidly shrinking fan base.” And that, I submit, is precisely what’s been happening at Marvel for several years. They’ve managed to re-invigorate their superhero universe somewhat with Marvel Knights and similar min-series, but it’s still just more longjohn legions, pounding each other harder and harder. At DC, meanwhile, we have such departments as America’s Best and Homage, taking superheroics into new realms, and the Vertigo imprint venturing off into non-superhero fiction—all of which is going beyond the traditional arena of comic book stories and into a region hitherto unexplored, namely, adult literature. Alas, except for King, the influx of fiction authors at Marvel seems aimed, still, at superhero stories. Could be that all those authors, with an eye on what Hollywood has been doing lately with funnybook characters, hope to get some of what they’re writing up on the big screen. That may be the attraction: they’re doing comics as a way of storyboarding stories for motion picture treatment. As for King, he’s doing it, I suspect, out of a lifelong affection for the medium. And his comic book advent may work a change on the medium akin to that wreaked by the movies.
Magic Beach is the title of a book done in the late 1950s by Crockett Johnson, creator of the famed Barnaby comic strip and of several children’s books starring Harold, a kid with a purple crayon. Johnson had done four Harold books when his editor at Harper asked him to use the same character in a book for slightly older children to be released in the publisher’s “I Can Read” series. Johnson produced a tale inspired by the legendary Fisher King, but his editor decided the book was not for children and turned it down. Johnson eventually sold it to Holt, and it was published in 1965 as Castles in the Sand —but not with Johnson’s illustrations. Now, after almost half-a-century, Johnson’s book is being published by Front Street Books with his drawings, pencil sketches reproduced from the dummy he manufactured to show Harper. The dummy was discovered by Johnson’s biographer, Philip Nel at Kansas State University, and he showed it to Front Street’s Stephen Roxburgh, who knew—“instantly,” he says—that he wanted to publish it. The art in the book is shot from the pencil drawings, using a “full color” process that preserves even the ghosts of preliminary sketches that lurk behind the finished ones. Said Roxburgh: “It gives the lines a little more weight,” which, he surmises, preserves the richness, fullness, and graduated subtlety of the pencil pictures.
In South Africa, former president Nelson Mandella has authorized the publication of his biography in a nine-issue series of comic books, aimed at preserving the iconic Mandella’s legacy. “You know you are really famous when becoming a comic character,” Mandella joked at the October 28 launch of the series. ... Michael Siegel, son of the Superman co-creator, has finally spoken out about his father, supplying author Gerard Jones with enough fresh insights that Jones revised portions of his book, The Men of Tomorrow, for its paperback edition, which arrived in bookstores on October 31. Among the new information: the Siegels moved back to Cleveland from New York because Jerry couldn’t meet his deadlines; and refutation of the long-standing tradition that Jerry’s second wife, Joanne, was the model for Lois Lane. Judging from Michael Sangiacomo’s story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Michael Siegel’s new information does not treat his father kindly. And we ought to view the new information with a certain skepticism: Michael is apparently not fond of his father and is bitter about not having enough money to finish college, becoming, ultimately, a plumber; and if he’s bitter, how accurate are his statements about his father likely to be? ... Michael Kilian, a veteran newsman with the Chicago Tribune who has been writing Dick Tracy for Dick Locher since the syndicate pulled the strip away from Max Allen Collins more than a decade ago, died on October 26. Kilian, in addition to his 40-year career as a journalist, wrote fiction, 24 books—Civil War mysteries and novels about the Cold War and several Jazz Age mysteries about the Roaring Twenties.
Alan Moore, unhappy with the way the movie “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” turned out, demanded that his name be taken off all films based on his work, and he’s refusing to take money for any of it. And when filmmaker Joel Silver told the press that Moore was happy with the way “V for Vendetta” is going, that really pissed off the famously reclusive British comics writer, and he now wants his name taken off all of his published work that he doesn’t own. From Heidi MacDonald’s PW Comics Week story: Despite all this, “Moore remains good-humored for the most part. Asked if he feels prescient [because 1985's Vendetta is about terrorist bombings in London], he says, ‘I wouldn’t like to claim I was being prescient, but that said, it is pretty clear I have a direct line to God, and I know every moment of the future before it happens.’ He also points out that America’s current preoccupation with terrorism is nothing new for Brits. If Americans are more worried about dying in an Islamic jihad than a nuclear winter, ‘no offense, but that is perhaps more of an American perception than a global one,’ [Moore said]. ‘You have to remember that over here there were teenagers being taken out of cellar bars in separate carrier bags all through the ’70s and ’80s because of the war in Northern Ireland. In that case, the IRA were largely being supported by donations from America. That was why I was a bit worried when George Bush said he was going to attack people who supported terrorism, I thought, ‘Oh my god—Chicago is going to be declared a rogue state, and they’ll hunt down Teddy Kennedy.’” Moore’s watershed Watchmen, meticulously rendered by Dave Gibbons, was listed at the top of the list of ten of Time magazine’s top 100 novels “since 1923" in the October 24 issue; commentator Lev Grossman called it “a work of ruthless psychological realism ... a landmark in the graphic novel medium.” And Entertainment Weekly called it the Citizen Kane of comics. Soon, probably, we can stop taking note of such accolades in general circulation periodicals: until recently, recognitions like this were so rare as to be benchmarks, but now, they’ve become so everyday that they mean less—albeit still reinforcement of the cultural status, but no longer rare.
A little over a year ago, in April 2004, we reported in our Hindsight department that Joan Crosby Tibbetts had reached the end of the legal road she’s been traveling for decades, seeking redress from the manufacturers of Skippy peanut butter for their use without permission of her cartoonist father’s celebrated comic strip character. (Details in Hindsight, “Percy Crosby and Skippy: The Great Peanut Butter Crime.”) Well, not quite. Tibbetts’ civil suit went to the Supreme Court without favorable resolution. But she tells me that a criminal case is looming—that is, a case in which it can be demonstrated that the peanut butter company, Rosefield, committed deliberate theft, a crime. So all is not lost. There’s a chance, yet, that the guilty may be punished and the deprived compensated. I’m not lawyerly enough to sort through all the nuances, but it appears that Rosefield persisted in using the Skippy name and the board fence so distinctive to Crosby’s comic strip logo even after January 1934, when the cartoonist won a lawsuit against Rosefield that denied Rosefield the right to register Skippy as a corporate name and identity. Although the current owners of Skippy peanut butter may attempt to deny their appropriation of the comic character (and they revised the label on the jar some years ago to eliminate the distinctive Skippy board fence), a new book of peanut butter recipes, The Magic of Peanut Butter, published under the auspices of Unilever, the current owner, reviews the history of Skippy peanut butter and prints a picture of the original label, fence and all. The history also conveniently neglects to mention the 1934 decision in which the manufacturer was prohibited from using the Skippy name, claiming instead that Rosefield successfully registered and copyrighted the name. For the full story on this sordid caper, visit www.skippy.com. In the meantime, cross your fingers and hope.
“Chicken Little,” the first film to come out of Disney’s revamped animation studio, may shape the future of the company, which is currently in negotiation with Steven Jobs to extend the distribution relationship with Jobs’ Pixar. If the film does well at the box office, it will prove Disney is not dependent upon Pixar to create viable new characters, and Disney’s negotiating hand will be strengthened; if the film does poorly—not likely, according to Laura M. Holson of the New York Times —the reverse would happen, giving Jobs greater leverage. ... Brian Hibbs doesn’t expect to have to buy any drinks for himself at comic conventions and industry events for the next year or so. The class action suit he initiated in 2002 against Marvel Comics resulted in the company’s issuing $1.5 million in credits to Hibbs and other comic shop retailers, all of whom are grateful to Hibbs, who operates Comix Experience in San Francisco. Comic shops are notoriously shoestring operations, and Marvel, by refusing to accept returns on books that were shipped late or whose content was not as advertised, drove many retailers to the wall—and some out of business altogether. Marvel’s present practices are improved, Hibbs said. ... Meanwhile, Marvel’s superheroes continue to take over the known universe with licensing deals hither and yon. The latest is with Teshkeel Media Group to distribute Marvel product in Arabic in the Middle East and North Africa, where over 50 percent of the 250 million population is under the age of 24. Last year, Spider-Man invaded India.
Eight portraits of Doonesbury characters, framed and signed by Garry Trudeau, will be auctioned off, live, on e-bay to raise money for the Fisher House Foundation, sponsor of Fisher House, the “home away from home” for families of patients in major military and VA hospitals. Andrews McMeel, the parent company for Universal Press, Trudeau’s syndicate, donated ten portraits to the Foundation; the other two were part of Washington D.C.-based radio station WMAL’s November 10 giving campaign.
Signe Wilkinson of the Philadelphia Daily News, the first woman to win the Pulitzer for political cartooning (in 1992), is offering a collection of 50 of her cartoons in an on-demand book entitled One Nation, Under Surveillance ($12.49 at www.lulu.com) by way of celebrating her 20th year with the Daily News. Says Wilkinson in the book’s Foreword: “This collection is for fellow paranoids who think that we have long since given private companies and the federal government way too much power over our lives.”
UNDER THE SPREADING PUNDITRY
Now Where Have I Heard That Before?
“I don’t think anyone anticipated a breach of the levees.” —George W. (“Witless”) Bush
“I don’t think anybody could have predicted that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile.” —Condoleezza Rice
No imagination there.
MARVEL AND STEPHEN KING AND ROBERT BROWNING
The story of how one of the world’s top fantasy writers was engaged to produce material for a comic book company reads like a comic book story. Or a Hollywood movie. At a comic convention some time ago, Marvel’s Joe Quesada was on a panel presentation and was asked if he could have one writer, who it would be. And he said, without hesitation, “Stephen King.” Whereupon, that got back to King, and before any of the astonished minions at Marvel knew it, they were in deep discussions with King and his agent about what sort of thing King might do in funnybooks. “We knew right from the onset that Mr. King wanted to do a Dark Tower series,” Quesada told Newsarama.com during a regular Joe Friday exchange recently. King came to the Marvel offices to discuss story ideas, Quesada said: “Mr. King just kind of looked up at the ceiling, and off the top of his head, started rattling off stories and stories and stories. He was telling about parts where Roland would go and do this and such, and then meet the villain here, and on and on. Literally, in ten minutes, he rattled off enough stories to fill up roughly four or five trade paperbacks. He just did it offhand—the stories just poured out of him, and all of them, middle, beginnings and ends. It was amazing to watch, and basically, hear Stephen King tell us original stories that no one, before then, had ever heard.” King, apparently, will not do the final scripting: he’ll plot the stories and have final approval of scripts completed by another writer. The books will be illustrated by Jae Lee, “the only person who can do it justice,” Quesada said. King apparently agrees, saying: “I love Jae Lee’s work, and I think this is going to be a dynamite partnership. Frankly, I can’t wait. As a lifelong fan of Marvel comic books, and as an adult reader who’s seen comics ‘come of age’ and take their rightful place in the world of fantasy and science fiction, I’m excited to be a part of Roland’s new incarnation.” Lee’s pencils will be finished, I gather, by Richard Isanove, who is charged with “making it look like something unique.” The first of the series will appear in April 2006, with a six-issue hardcover compilation to arrive in time for Christmas later in the year. Based upon King’s epic Dark Tower series of novels, the comic books are expected to expand on various events that have merely been alluded to in the novel series, focusing, initially, on Roland’s youth, when he earns his guns as “the gunslinger.”
Quesada quite rightly sees King’s participation in comic book production as a possible watershed event. “This is huge,” he said, “—a huge chance for comics to reach a lot of new people. ... Not just Marvel, but the comics industry.” He elaborated: “This is the kind of thing that can bring new readers to the comic book format—whether they show up at the comic book store or the book store for the trade collection, we’re going to get them hooked in,” he vowed. “Hopefully, we’ll have more people coming into the medium and getting hooked, not just on the great Dark Tower stories we’ll be telling, and not just on Marvel titles, but on comics. This will open a door that maybe wasn’t open for this large an audience before. Hopefully, they’ll come through, enjoy Dark Tower, and look around while they’re here.” Quesada said he’s often asked if he thinks there’s a license “out there” that could help the comic business, drawing in more people. “This is that license,” he said. “We’re dealing with a lot of people—not all, but a lot of people—who’ve never read a comic before, or who have a preconceived notion of what comics are and what comics do. So, we want to break those preconceptions as soon as possible. In that regard, from the very first page of this book, we want it to look and feel like something special—it has to live up to the quality of the novels. That’s a lot of the reason we put this into the hands of one of the top artists in the industry.” King’s coming could, indeed, change the nature of the comic book genre.
King’s inspiration, incidentally, comes, as he says, from a poem by England’s 19th century poet, Robert Browning, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” “This nightmare poem,” as the editors of the Oxford Book of English Literature call it, “had no allegorical purpose, according to Browning, but the phantasmagoria is so powerful as to invite many allegorizings. W.C. DeVane traced much of the landscape to one chapter of a book Browning had memorized as a boy, Gerard de Lairesse’s The Art of Painting in All Its Branches. The chapter’s title, ‘Of Things Deformed and Broken,’ might be a motto to the poem. However the poem is interpreted, its universal appeal seems to center upon its vision of a willfully ruined quester, whose own strength of imagination has become a deforming and breaking agent, and who calls into question the meaningfulness of all premeditated human action.” The poem’s title is from Shakespeare’s King Lear, III.iv.173. A childe is a well-born youth who is a candidate for knighthood. Roland is apparently the last of the questers, all of whom failed, one by one, before him. When I first read the poem, I saw Roland as a young knight; King, evidently, sees him as a figure in the Old West, the proverbial gunslinger.
Here are a few stanzas from the poem—the first three, one from near the end, and the last two, which ring with a strange despair.
My first thought was, he lied in every word,
That hoary cripple, with malicious eye
Askance to watch the working of his lie
On mine, and mouth scarce able to afford
Suppression of the glee, that pursed and scorned
Its edge, at one more victim gained thereby.
What else should he be set for, with his staff?
What, save to waylay with his lies, ensnare
All travelers who might find him posted there,
And ask the road? I guessed what skull-like laugh
Would break, what crutch ’gin write my epitaph
For pastime in the dusty thoroughfare,
If at his counsel I should turn aside
Into that ominous tract which, all agree,
Hides the Dark Tower. Yet acquiescingly
I did turn as he pointed; neither pride
Nor hope rekindling at the end descried,
So much as gladness that some end might be.
And just as far as ever from the end!
Nought in the distance but the evening, nought
To point my footstep further! At the thought,
A great black bird, Apollyon’s bosom-friend,
Sailed past, nor beat his wide wing dragon-penned
That brushed my cap—perchance the guide I sought.
Burningly it came on me all at once,
This was the place! Those two hills on the right,
Crouched like two bulls locked horn in horn in fight;
While to the left, a tall scalped mountain ... Dunce,
Dotard, a-dozing at the very nonce,
After a life spent training for the sight!
Not hear? When noise was everywhere! It tolled
Increasingly like a bell. Names in my ears
Of all the lost adventurers my peers,—
How such a one was strong, and such was bold,
And such was fortunate, yet each of old
Lost, lost! One moment knelled the woe of years.
There they stood, ranged along the hill-sides, met
To view the last of me, a living frame
For one more picture in a sheet of flame
I saw them and I knew them all. And yet
Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,
And blew. ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.’
I dunno about you, but I can feel the reason that King liked this poem. It’s right there, between
my shoulder blades—the shudder.
Civilization’s Last Outpost
One of the top newsstories the first week in November was about how the Halliburton White House tries to manipulate the News Cycle—in this case, by announcing the nomination of Sam Alito to the Supreme Court on Monday in order to knock stories about Scooter Libby’s indictment off the front pages and out of 24/7 tv news. The reporters gleefully regaling us with this “story” were apparently oblivious to the fact obvious to all of us: it worked. Are the news minions really that Pavlovian? Give them a newsstory and they run with it, regardless of its implications? “Hey, guys—watch this space and you’ll see us being manipulated, and then you’ll see us report about how we’re being manipulated, and then ...” The mind boggles.
Speaking of the mind boggling, we’ve clearly reached a watershed place in the steady progress of civilization towards greater and greater sophistication and wisdom: at this point in our development as cogent beings, we can safely give up indoctrinating the Young and, instead, present them with alternatives to choose from. And so we can offer Intelligent Design as an alternative explanation for all life on the planet thereby enabling the otherwise unformed Young to choose between ID and Darwin’s theory of evolution. And while we’re about it, surely we should offer alternatives in history as well as in science. In history, for example, we can deny that the Holocaust ever took place as well as recounting how it happened. They’re both just theories of history, after all.
According to an article in the November issue of Mother Jones, a British pharmaceutical company has developed “a pure extract of pot that comes in a pharmacy-friendly bottle and is designed to be sprayed into the mouth.” Can’t beat that.
And this came to me via the e-net: As you walk up the steps to the building in Washington D.C. that houses the U.S. Supreme Court, you can see a frieze over the colonnaded entry facade. The sculpted frieze depicts a row of history’s famous law givers, and each one is facing towards the central figure, who looks out at us: it’s Moses, and he’s holding those fabled tablets listing the Ten Commandments. Right up there, over the doorway to the Supreme Courthouse. And the Ten Commandments appear again in the building—engraved on the oaken doors that lead into the courtroom and on the wall behind the Supreme Bench. We amaze ourselves with every act of unintended hypocrisy.
According to Yahoo News, the number of African-American soldiers is shrinking. Black Americans made up 29% of the enlisted personnel in the Army in 2000; today, only 25%. That’s down 15% (I don’t do the math here: I’m just quoting the story); the same is true of the Marines, where the figure is down 23%, and the Air Force, where it’s down 11%. The Navy is about the same. Factors that account for this include a rise in Black college attendance and the greater unpopularity of the Iraq War among African-Americans than among whites. At the same time, Hispanics in the Army have increased from 9% to 11%.
Just after Hallowe’en, I was delighted to learn that 35 million pounds of candy corn will be produced this year in the U.S.
COMIC STRIP WATCH
In the current (November) issue of Editor & Publisher, Dave Astor assesses the vitality of a dozen or more of the comic strips introduced in the last five years and finds, to his surprise perhaps, that several have managed to become popular despite a foreboding marketplace. “With newspaper feature budgets tight and older comics taking up lots of space,” Astor writes, “it’s tough for fresh material to break into the funny pages.” Subscribing lists grow more slowly these days, according to Jay Kennedy, King Features editor-in-chief. But they do grow—enough that syndicates apparently regard strips with as few as 65 client papers as successful. A long-standing tradition in the syndicate business used to be that the income from a comic strip isn’t enough to keep its cartoonist alive until it has at least 100 subscribers. Four of the “successes” Astor cites have fewer than that. And only three have more than 200 client papers. None of the strips he mentions are break-away gang-busters successes with more than, say, 400 circulation. That is rare under any circumstances. Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine has been getting a lot of buzz in the last couple years, but its circulation is only about 250. Still, given the huge legacy strip population in the comics sections, it’s a wonder that any new strip gets more than a couple dozen subscribers. Astor takes note, however, of the “anecdotal evidence that more newspapers are giving newer voices a chance.” And he cites the Star-Ledge of Newark, New Jersey, which announced October 2 that it was dropping long-running strips Garfield, Cathy, Hi and Lois, Fred Basset, Marvin and Heathcliff to make room for at least two new strips, Brevity and Frazz.
Last winter, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution revamped its comics line-up, dropping Brenda Starr, Judge Parker, Sally Forth, Monty, Nancy, Baldo, and Ziggy (all oldish strips except Baldo) and adding La Cucaracha, Luann, Non Sequitur, Rose Is Rose, and Kevin and
Kell, Bill Holbrook’s online strip (his third daily strip, the other two, Safe Havens and Fastrack, are print-based). The paper’s reader survey resulted in this top twenty roll-call (in rank order): Baby Blues, For Better or For Worse, Zits, Stone Soup, Get Fuzzy, One Big Happy, FoxTrot, Dilbert, Beetle Bailey/Blondie (tie), Crankshaft/Mutts (tie), Doonesbury, Family Circus/Pearls Before Swine (tie), Classic Peanuts, Overboard, Rhymes with Orange/The Lockhorns (tie), Garfield. And The Boondocks was 21st. Of the 20, only about half are “old” strips with track records of 20 or more years; the rest are relatively new.
Heartening, yes, but—. But in the Good Old Days of Yore: We recently reported that the number of syndicated comics (panel cartoons and strips) numbers about 200-250 these days. In the 1947 Editor & Publisher Annual Directory, I counted 140 panel cartoons and 267 comic strips, plus 29 editorial cartoons. Leaving the latter aside for the nonce, that’s 407 syndicated comics back in the good old days.
Jeff Mallett’s Frazz (with 200 subscribers) has developed a unique stance to go with its unique premise—a successful young songwriter who, even after success, continues to work as a janitor in an elementary school. Frazz is every kid’s good buddy, and numerous philosophical conversations transpire, usually thoughtful and paradoxical, like life itself. Here’s an exchange from November 9: A kid says to Frazz, “You ever notice how people can always smell what they don’t want to smell ...” And Frazz interrupts: “Like a cigar a block away?” And the kid continues: “... but people never hear what they don’t want to hear?” Frazz, momentarily stymied, recovers: “Aren’t you supposed to be in class right now.” A silent panel ensues as they look at each other (the kid obviously not hearing what he doesn’t want to hear). Then the kid says, “Also, you can never get a bad song out of your head.” And Frazz hums, “Does anybody really know what time it is ...”
In the fourth annual Weasel Poll conducted at Dilbert.com, George W. (“Warlord”) Bush was named the “weaseliest individual,” receiving 13,059 of the nearly 40,000 votes cast. According to Dave Astor at Editor & Publisher, Karl Rove came in second, but the margin of victory for George W. (“Whopper”) Bush was vast: Rove got only 4,915 votes. In other categories, the White House won the Weaseliest Organization with 10,794 votes, followed by the Republican Part (7,234). The Weaseliest Behavior went to advocating teaching Intelligent Design (9,661) with second place going to gasoline price gouging (7,828). Oil companies edged Halliburton as the Weaseliest Company, 9,639 to 9,571.
THE BOONDOCKS STILL BAD
On Sunday, November 6, the long-touted animated version of Aaron McGruder’s comic strip, The Boondocks, debuted on the Cartoon Network’s late-night Adult Swim time period, bristling in moving color with the same attitude we’ve grown accustomed to finding in the static version in the paper. Its arrival was heralded in that week’s issue of Newsweek by critic Allison Samuels, who noted McGruder’s friendship with Dave Chappelle. The comedian ended his tv show, Samuels says, “in part because he become uncomfortable with mainstream audiences’ laughing at black stereotypes without thinking more deeply about their social causes.” McGruder isn’t at all bothered by such squeamishness: “I think I have a better compass [than Chapelle] so I think it won’t bother me as much that white Americans are laughing at stuff some blacks are embarrassed by,” he said. “I think we as black people spend way too much time worrying about what white people think of us. I don’t give a fuck about what white people think.” I suspect, though, he’d be disappointed if the tv show were such a resounding flop that Cartoon Network cancelled it in mid-season. But that is not likely, judging from the first episode.
McGruder told Greg Braxton at the Los Angeles Times that he’s “thrilled,” as Braxton puts it, “at the show’s Korean-drawn anime aesthetic and believes that the tv show takes the strip to fresher, funnier heights.” I’m not quite so thrilled. The animation is entirely adequate if wholly undistinguished—typical Far Eastern shop work, hard-edge shadowing and lurching motion. The characters’ mouths often seem out-of-sync with their words, and when they open their mouths wide, the animators fail to adjust the chin accordingly, so instead of the chins moving downward, they just get smaller to make room for the larger mouth. The character designs approximate the newspaper version fairly well except that the eyes are much larger on tv than in newsprint. Such shortcomings as these, however, are likely to be overlooked because the narrative content is powerful.
The inaugural episode finds McGruder’s displaced African-American family—Huey Freeman and his brother Riley and their Grandad—invited to an effete all-white garden party at the home of the neighborhood’s richest white guy, Ed Wuncler (voiced by Ed Asner). McGruder has nicely surmounted the problem of topicality by abandoning it altogether. “We cannot make a show that’s going to be dated,” the cartoonist told Lola Ogunnaike of the New York Times. “It has to survive into syndication and be watchable in ten years.” The comic strip’s pungent appeal after its first year lay entirely in its unblinking assault on political and social events that were happening just beyond its borders. The animated version, which takes much longer to produce, clearly cannot delve much into current events: those events would no longer be current by the time the show airs. And so the show pays no attention to such matters. The show’s comedy arises solely from an abrasive culture clash as the races encounter each other. It’s racist comedy. What’s funny about it is its rampant racism. White people are unctuous fools, and black people, except for Huey and Riley, are either self-loathing or subservient, sometimes both. McGruder’s most unsavory creation, Uncle Ruckus, shows up as a servant in the Wuncler household and sings an uproariously tasteless song before collapsing in a drunken stupor. Wuncler’s son, just returned from service in Iraq, is a gun-toting hoodlum who has adopted gangsta mannerisms as thoroughly as American pop culture has adopted African-American culture. In the forthcoming second episode, we’ll meet a ghetto “ho” who has captured Grandad’s fancy.
What we’re laughing at here is undeniably funny, but for white viewers, it’s satire without a cutting edge: the white people in the show are simply too stupid and self-absorbed for us to see ourselves in them, and so we learn no lessons about our own prejudices and foolishnesses. What black people might think of the satire, I can’t say, but they are held up to ridicule more mercilessly than white people. This kind of satire, as McGruder surely knows, is risky: the people he’s attacking here are likely to applaud their alter egos as embodying just the attitudes they themselves hold and value most. And that’s not all. McGruder may be attacking racism in all its manifestations here, but he’s also exploiting it: if his attack succeeds in driving racism out of American life, he’ll have no tv show left. The comic strip was rescued by incorporating political satire.
In the Chicago Reader article promoting the tv show, Jake Austen sees the comic strip as a case of arrested development. “Instead of Riley sparring with white authority figures or Huey balancing insults and sweetness with the mixed-race girl next door, the current strip is limited to the principal characters in slothful signature situations (sitting on the couch, sitting on the chair in front of the tv, relaxing in an empty field). ... the cartoonist’s growth as a joke teller allowed him to limit the strip to two characters (or one character and a tv) delivering setups and punchlines about current events. ... The original concept of urban kids in a ‘boondock’ setting is nonexistent.” What diverted McGruder from what was seemingly his initial goal—an edgy satirical newspaper comic strip—was the hypnotic attraction of another medium, television. Austen thinks McGruder “originally developed his characters with an eye toward animation.” And when that opportunity arose, McGruder put the comic strip on cruise control and poured his creative energies into animation. He says McGruder wants to get out of the syndicated comic strip business and into the movies and tv. “He rarely has a good word to say about the comics medium,” Austen writes. And if McGruder leaves the comics page, it will be “the most disappointing action of his cartooning career” because it will leave undone what the gifted satirist could have accomplished with “his gallows humor” in a “strip that featured a wide cast of characters engaging in a rich narrative discourse” on a great range of social issues. “Despite his strip’s self-imposed limitations,” Austen continued, “it is frequently the best comic on the page and on occasion feels like the most important thing in the newspaper. When something awful happens and our president is involved, McGruder is the truth-telling jester desperately needed in the cowardly media.”
I agree with most of this, but Austen falls a little short of analyzing McGruder’s situation. The cartoonist is hugely attracted to working in movies and tv: for one thing, the money is better, assuming a success in these media roughly equivalent to his success in syndication. But, just a significant, the demands on his time are likely to be easier to satisfy. The daily deadline of comic strip syndication is a daunting encumbrance: no deadline is as deadening to the creative spirit in someone who is not passionate about the medium. Newspapermen have daily deadlines, too, but every day, for them, it’s a different story. In a comic strip, it’s the same story—the same characters, the same pictures of faces and noses. Day after day after day. If you don’t love doing it, you’re soon burned out. And if you’re tempted by the blandishments of Hollywood moguls and friends in the motion picture business—like McGruder—you tire quickly of the medium that you originally were so fond of. I don’t think McGruder began his strip thinking it would be a good vehicle for tv; but when the strip achieved success almost overnight, he quickly saw other possibilities in other media. And the harpies and sycophants that typically fasten on talent fastened on him and flattered his young ego and took advantage of his willingness to be tempted. McGruder is quite aware of all this, incidentally. He knows that he’s getting a big head; but he knows, too, that the success he’s having gives him greater and greater clout, and with that, the license to do more and more of what he wants to do and less and less of what he might otherwise be required to do. He knows that his moment in the catbird seat is going to depart as quickly as it came, and he’s rushing to capitalize on it before it’s gone. He continues to write his comic strip, but it is now drawn entirely by others, chiefly, these days, Carl Jones. Ogunnaike says, “It is not uncommon for McGruder and Jones to write a week’s worth of comic strips in one day.” There’s nothing particularly unusual about that, but the time spent indicates how little of McGruder’s creative energy is now devoted to the strip. When we talked a couple years ago, McGruder was already thinking about giving up the strip. But he knows that he’d miss the daily platform: he has to know it because I told him he would.
Cartoon Network pays Sony Pictures Television, the show’s producer, $400,000 per episode, making the tv “Boondocks” the most expensive show the network has, said Ogunnaike. And Cartoon Network has already asked to see another season of scripts. Mike Lazzo, senior vice president of Adult Swim, said: “It’s in keeping with what we want to do, to find provocative voices and give them a show.”
Perhaps the most provocative aspect of the first episode, at least the most widely commented upon, is the repeated use of the dreaded –word. According to those who police these affronts, the –word shows up 15 times, mostly in the choruses of Uncle Ruckus’ song. One of McGruder’s friends, Najee Ali of Los Angeles’ Project Islamic H.O.P.E., is adamantly opposed to the use of the word. Said he: “The –word should not be used by anyone. It represents a horrible part of our past, a painful reminder of slavery. When black people were lynched, that often was the last word they heard as they hung at the end of a rope.”
McGruder is understanding but unbending: “I’m not being cavalier about this. I’ve known Najee for many years, and I definitely give him respect. But I look at this, and I know that everybody has to do their job. Their job [Nagee and company] is not to condone the use of that word, and my job is to do a funny show about black people on late-night cable.” In the comic strip, McGruder uses asterisks or “profanitype” (@#&*x%), and, he says, “I’ve used it extensively. I try to use it more and more. It’s tough on newspapers. They’re not really thrilled about it, but I keep trying to push them.” On late-night tv, he can pull out the stops. “I think it makes the show sincere,” he explained. “I just think that at a certain point, we all have to realize that sometimes we use bad language. And the –word is used so commonly, by not only myself but by a lot of people I know, that it feels fake to write around it and to avoid using it.” He realizes that the show’s anticipated demographic consists mostly of 18- to 34-year-old white males, but he doesn’t think the show sets a bad example for them. Said he: “I think 15, 16 years after the advent of gangsta rap, young white kids have heard the word ‘nigger’ before. And they’ve said it maybe a few times. I’m not sure. So if they start saying it all of a sudden on [November 7, the day after the show’s debut], I refuse to take responsibility.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton reportedly supports Najee. And Bill Cosby doubtless agrees. He believes that shows like “The Boondocks” perpetuate a negative image of blacks that reaches beyond U.S. borders, and that’s not so good. “We can sit and laugh at these things here, but they also play in Asia, Africa, London, Scotland,” Cosby said. “This is the image people get of us.”
But McGruder is not likely to stop using the –word or anything else that some might take offense at. He tends to be headstrong and unrepentant, seeing his mission and acting on the vision without hesitation. And it’s cost him. Veteran filmmaker Reginald Hudlin’s name appears on the tv show as executive producer, but the two close friends split last year. Hudlin was recently named entertainment president of Black Entertainment Television, a frequent target in the newspaper Boondocks, and McGruder vows that he’ll have “absolutely no problems with continuing shots at BET.” As for Hudlin’s roll with the tv “Boondocks,” McGruder says: “We are contractually obligated to have his name on the show. He hasn’t worked on it, and I haven’t talked to him in a year.” Neither he nor Hudlin will discuss the details of their break-up. Said Hudlin: “I have worked with Aaron since before he graduated from college, and we’ve been developing ‘The Boondocks’ as a property for five years. It’s not unusual in Hollywood for people to have creative differences or for someone to want to assume complete control of a property. But I think the show will be a big success.”
McGruder has enjoyed an almost unrelieved run of success since launching The Boondocks in the campus newspaper at his alma mater, the University of Maryland, in the late 1990s. “Going as far as I can with my own creative instincts has generally only paid off,” he told Ogunnaike. He doesn’t have a close relationship with his fans because he wants to “protect” the work—in effect, to preserve his vision uncontaminated by outside opinions. And the kind of success he has thus far enjoyed has, I suspect, acted to strengthen McGruder’s conviction that he is always right—not only about his work but about other tangential matters. Ogunnaike reports that McGruder “proudly recalled persuading [the editor of the UM’s Diamondback paper] to pay him $30 per strip, $17 more than his fellow cartoonists were receiving at the time.” Some accuse him of playing the “race card.” The editor he persuaded, by the way, was Jayson Blair, who might also be accused of playing the race card in securing a job at the New York Times, which eventually fired him for fabricating stories. He was subsequently lampooned in The Boondocks, the strip he helped to get started. Said McGruder: “You can actually look at Jayson Blair and say, ‘Wow, you set black people back.’ A lot of people are accused of that, but he actually did it.”
McGruder remains outspoken and apparently uncompromising. But he’s not quite both all the time, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. He has attacked Condoleezza Rice repeatedly, both before and after her ascension to Secretary of State, and he’s boasted that he’s called her a “murderer” to her face, but I think his memory might be a little cloudy on that. In May 2004, we reported here (in Opus 137) on McGruder’s receiving an award from the NAACP in 2002. At the Image Award presentation ceremony, McGruder sat in the same row as another honoree, National Security Advisory Condoleezza Rice, who, by that time, was one of the cartoonist's main nemeses. Accepting the Chairman's Award, McGruder perpetrated one of his usual assaults on the Bush League. Afterwards, he was shocked when Rice came up to him and asked him to draw her into his strip. "It was an indication of how little I mean to her," McGruder said. They had a short hushed conversation, and when they parted, observers applauded, thinking they'd had a "nice little exchange." Not according to McGruder: "She couldn't have cared less about what I had said about her. She's not scared of me. I'm scared of her. I am not a threat to Condoleezza Rice. What I really wanted to do was call her 'murderer' to her face." But apparently he didn’t. Not then. Maybe later, but maybe not. I suspect McGruder these days is recalling what he wanted to do and thinking that he did. He started making that claim when speaking in December that year at a banquet celebrating the 138th anniversary of The Nation magazine. About his outspokenness, he told Braxton at the time: "I've always been aware that I have an opportunity to say things that nobody else is saying, or is afraid to say. And I don't want to waste a single opportunity."
Still, McGruder is perfectly capable of tactical maneuvering. During the months of preparing the tv “Boondocks,” he heard rumors about White House phone calls to tv networks that result in projects being killed, and he prudently decided to lay back a bit and cool out until the tv show is picked up by a network. Said McGruder at the time: "The grand experiment of The Boondocks was to take on radical politics and make it cute. I was able to package it as mainstream. At a certain point, when we live in a certain time where there are ramifications for saying things, I'm finding myself in a different position. Now I'm being judged. Until this show is picked up, it's time for me to take it down. I don't take back anything I've said, but strategically, it's time to stop—at least for now. Theoretically, it could hurt the show. And I can do more with the show on the air than if it is off the air. Right now," he continued, "I want to err on the side of caution. If it gets on the air, I'll re-evaluate things. And if it doesn't get on the air, I'll re-evaluate things." At that time, I concluded by welcoming him to mainstream America. But now, his show is on tv, airing weekly. And the gloves are off again. No question.
Quips & Quotes
Another example of Shit Happening: “I’ve produced bigger things than you by eating fiber!” (in Dilbert, where a big fella in a ten-gallon hat is addressing Asok, October 30, 2005) —Scott Adams. [How do you pronounce Asok, by the way? “Ass suck”?]
From a life-long friend of mine: “If you and I always agreed, one of us would be superfluous.” Thanques, Gary.
Picture/photograph books that print double-truck pictures across the gutter, effectively destroying the center of the picture.
The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, three hardback volumes in a slip-case from Andrews McMeel ($150; $95 from Amazon), weights 23 pounds. Or 250 metric tons if you want the weight of the entire limited first edition of 250,000 copies. But 23 pounds is doubtless enough for individual fans of the strip, and if you think 23 pounds isn’t all that heavy, try carrying this baby around: it’ll give you the kind of backache you can get only after a hard night’s sleep on a bad mattress. Twenty-three pounds of tightly packed slick paper is a solid block of unyielding heavy. It weighs, and that’s about all it does. But this particular concrete-like block is more than weight. Apart from its sheer mass—which, to belabor the point, is, as Calvin might say, stupendous—this compilation is easily the most extravagant publishing event of the season. Each of the three 500-page volumes has a different full-color picture of Calvin and his friendly leonine on the front and back; and flecked endpapers. The daily strips appear three to a page, which means a week’s worth takes two pages, then on every third page, a full-color Sunday—altogether, 3,160 strips, everything published between November 18, 1985 and December 31, 1995. The set also reprints the special watercolor drawings produced for the 17 other Calvin and Hobbes reprint tomes, which, together, have sold over 30 million copies. Even the so-called black-and-white pages herein are printed “in color”: the background against which the strips appear in black on rectangles of pristine white is cream-color, which means, for a printer, full color. In the same elephantine mode as the set’s weight is the ample page size (10x12 inches), which offers generous display space: the daily strips are fully a third larger than they appear, microscopically, in most newspapers these days—8x2.5 inches vs. 6x1.5 inches. We can see these strips, every decorative and functional detail, and we can read the words, too. Finally, for the obsessive historians among us, each page carries the publication dates of the strips thereon.
The first volume comes with an Introduction by C&H creator Bill Watterson, who regales us with his history as a cartoonist from about the age of eight or nine, illustrating it with occasional scraps of juvenelia and even an early Calvin & Hobbes strip in which Calvin’s design includes bangs that hang over his eyes. Watterson’s writing is as engaging as his cartooning—casual, personal, even intimate, prose, as friendly as a nuzzling puppydog. And self-deprecating to a fault. He fell in love with cartooning early, smitten by the charm of Peanuts: “The strip’s subtleties went right over my head, but I loved the expressive drawings, and Charles Schulz’s economy of line perfectly suited my lack of patience and minimal drawing skills.” Although he says he gradually came to believe cartoons were an artform, when he was a kid, he loved cartoons because they were the opposite of Art: “Anyone can make pictures like these,” he believed; “I liked cartoons because they weren’t art—they were just funny.”
In tracing the evolution of his passion for cartooning, Watterson takes us through his short unhappy career as an editorial cartoonist and then his four years in the wilderness, doing grocery ad layouts by day, inventing comic strips by night. He found relief from the grinding drudgery of his day job by “reading books in a cemetery” during his half-hour lunch break. At last, a secondary character in one of his strips, a kid with a stuffed tiger, prompted more than routine interest at United Feature. Ironically, the syndicate did not buy the strip Watterson developed at their encouragement. But they did offer him a job drawing another comic strip that they wanted to translate into a licensed product. Watterson declined. “It was hard to decide which offended me more,” he writes, “—writing and drawing material for a character that wasn’t my own, or creating a comic strip for the purpose of advertising a commercial product. ... This little episode undoubtedly fueled some of my later outrage at the prospect of licensing Calvin and Hobbes.”
As most fans of the strip know, Watterson passionately resisted licensing his characters to merchandising moguls. “I clearly miscalculated how popular it would be to show Calvin urinating on a Ford logo,” the cartoonist commented wryly. He explains in a Q&A flyer that came with my set that he wasn’t against all merchandising when he started the strip, but, as he says elsewhere, the more he got into the world of Calvin and Hobbes, the more any appearances by the characters outside that world seemed likely to threaten its stability and Watterson’s ability to sustain a creative engagement with it. Unhappily, his syndicate, Universal Press, wanted to cash in on the popularity of the strip by merchandising the characters nation-wide, wall-to-wall. The syndicate owns the strip and could have done whatever it wanted; to its everlasting credit, it refrained from licensing C&H because Watterson so bitterly opposed it. But the clash took an enormous toll. “For several years it poisoned what had been a happy relationship,” Watterson writes, “and in my disillusionment and disgust at being pushed to the wall, I lost the conviction that I wanted to spend my life cartooning. Both sides paid a heavy price for this battle.”
By then, Watterson was living a monastic life in the desert of the Southwestern U.S., where he hoped to work undisturbed. The work of a syndicated cartoonist is “extremely solitary,” he said, “so it helps to be pathologically antisocial. I worked in my home and mailed the strips away, so I never had much sense of an audience reading my work. This was fine with me, as it let me preserve the idea that I was drawing the strip primarily to entertain my wife. For me, the world of Calvin and Hobbes was very small and private.” The struggle over merchandising his creation took so much out of him that he spent most of 1991 on sabbatical “to recharge my batteries.” Three months of that time, he served on a grand jury.
When he returned to the strip, he told Universal Press that one way he could reinvigorate his interest in cartooning would be to explore the possibilities of the Sunday strip, varying its layout and design to suit his drawings and the gags instead of manufacturing a product to fit the prefabricated dimensions demanded by newspaper editors. The syndicate arranged new contracts with client papers accordingly, ushering in the last wildly inventive years of the Sunday strip.
Watterson’s artistic sensibilities were stimulated by the “novelty and beauty” of his desert surroundings, and having lost, as he said, his conviction that he would spend his life cartooning, he was eager to try painting as a way of engaging with this new environment. To do that, he had to give up C&H, which, with its demanding deadlines, left him little time for doing anything else. What’s more, as I’ve speculated, despite the attraction of deploying his Sunday strip in any way his imagination prompted, the dailies remained postage-stamp size, hardly rewarding for an artist to contemplate. And he had enough money from years in 2,000-plus newspapers and reprint books from Andrews McMeel to be able to retire to painting. And the study of music. Finding little aesthetic gratification in the printed product and needing no additional income, Watterson felt no compulsion to continue—and great temptation to do something else. So he left Calvin and his stuffed toy behind. Painting and the study of music consume him these days.
But Watterson remains immensely grateful for the experience of Calvin and Hobbes. Said he: “It’s an exceedingly rare privilege to have your work read by people every day, year after year. If you’re inclined to go beyond jokes and say something heartfelt, honest, or thoughtful, you have a tremendous opportunity. And best of all, because the comics are generally regarded as frivolous, disposable entertainment, readers rarely have their guard up. ... The Calvin and Hobbes phenomenon was one of those times when the planets all lined up. Somehow everything came together, and readers were ready for the strip at the same moment I was ready to draw it. I certainly never agin expect to duplicate th strip’s success or wide appeal. To be honest, seeing the planets in a row sort of freaks me out anyway, and once is probably enough. But the experience of writing and drawing Calvin and Hobbes changed my life, and that level of challenge and engagement will be my goal in whatever I do. I truly loved drawing this comic strip, and I’ll always look back on Calvin and Hobbes with great pride and affection.”
It is rare that we find someone who can so articulately discuss cartooning, its art and its attractions. Watterson’s answers to various readers’ questions in the accompanying Q&A are as revealing as anything he’s written. When he first left syndicated cartooning, he didn’t follow the comics in the newspaper for a long time. “Now,” he says, “I read the comics almost like a normal person. This is not a great age of newspaper comics, but there are a few strips I enjoy. Things could be better; things could be worse.” And when someone asked about the theological/moral element she saw in the strip, Watterson said simply: “Actually, I’ve never attended any church.” About cartooning on the Internet, he said: “I don’t keep up with this. The Internet may well provide a new outlet for cartoonists, but I imagine it’s very hard to stand out from the sea of garbage, attract an audience, or make money. Newspapers are still the major leagues for comic strips—but I wouldn’t care to bet how long they’ll stay that way.”
One questioner observed, with accuracy, that many cartoonists believe their pencil drawings are better than the inked versions and wish they could somehow preserve the
“spontaneous energy” of those initial sketches. Watterson, however, harbors no such secret sentiment—because his inked drawings are nearly as spontaneous and energetic as other cartoonists’ pencils. “My pencil sketches were just minuscule notations of who was talking,” he said. “In fact, I did as little preparatory pencil work for the finished strip as possible, so the inking would be a real drawing encounter, and not a sterile tracing of pencil lines. Ink is a wonderful medium all on its own.”
Finally, asked about what books he reads, over and over again, Watterson said: “H’mmm. Suddenly, I feel very shallow.”
Andrews McMeel may be the champion reprinter of contemporary newspaper comic strips (and I can’t think of any other publisher that comes close), but Fantagraphics is making a serious bid to being the champion reprinter of classic comic strips. Two years ago, Fantagraphics brought forth the first volume of what it promises will be the Complete Peanuts, all 49-plus years of Charles Schulz’s monumental achievement. But that was merely the splashiest of the classic reprint projects. Fantagraphics started nearer the Dawn of Time by reprinting all of E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre with Popeye. FBI (that’s Fantagraphics Books, Inc.) has also produced a multi-volume reprinting of all Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, including, at the end, a generous sampling of John Cullen Murphy’s art over Foster’s scripts. Other reprintings include Milton Caniff’s Dickie Dare, a healthy dose of Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie, the first few years of Walt Kelly’s Pogo (with Introductions by that dear sweet boy we all know and love, yrs trly), and several volumes that fill in the gaps left in other reprintings of George Herriman’s Sunday Krazy Kat, not to mention the on-going recycling of all of R. Crumb. And now, here comes Dennis the Menace. Or, to cite the actual title, Hank Ketcham’s Complete Dennis the Menace. We may be forgiven if we suppose—awash, as we are, in reprint projects whose titles all begin with “complete” (The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, the aforementioned Peanuts)—that discerning nostalgia has given sudden rise to a compulsion for comprehensive accretion of cultural detritus that threatens the bookshelves of every American with affection for newspaper comics—that is, if we judge from readership surveys, virtually every American who still consults print media for some information other than tv program listings. The current flood started with the Complete Far Side in October 2003, which proved hugely successful, inspiring, no doubt, the Calvin and Hobbes project. By the same token, the success of FBI’s Peanuts effort probably prompted the Dennis endeavor. Whatever the cause, the end result is enthusiastically welcomed here at Rancid Raves.
The first volume, covering the Menace Years of 1951 and 1952, is in hand, and a satisfying handful it is. A healthy handful: measuring 6x6-inches with 610 pages, the book is very nearly a square in every dimension, a building block of the entire compilation, you might say. The cartoons are printed one to a page, a generous display size, in black and white, as they were when first published in newspapers. Jacob Covey’s design continues the FBI Peanuts motif of restrained but decorative layout with telling spot illustrations. The book comes with illustrated dust jacket, and under it, more pictures on the front and back of the hardcover. And, a defining mark of elegance, there’s a book-marker thread sewn into the binding. Chic. Classy. And convenient. Patrick McDonnell (Mutts) provides an appreciative Foreword (“Every meticulously designed panel is a masterpiece of composition”), and Brian Walker (Hi and Lois, Beetle Bailey) supplies an Introduction that rehearses Ketcham’s life and career and the rise of Dennis as a national menace. It was Ketcham’s four-year-old son Dennis who sparked the cartoonist’s creative engine: when some random mischief of the boy’s inspired his mother to say to Ketcham, “Your son is a menace!” Ketcham heard the euphony of “Dennis the menace,” and it was too delicious to pass by. And it was doubtless the euphony that secured the feature’s initial success. Ketcham’s drawings were confident and the comedy deft, but everyone in the business at the time, winter 1951, knew two things for sure about syndicated comics: first, panel cartoons didn’t sell; second, nothing about little kids sold. But Dennis the Menace laid waste both myths within a year. Surely, Ketcham’s skill notwithstanding, the sound of the feature’s title had a great deal to do with that success.
By the time Dennis debuted March 12, 1951, Ketcham had been for at least half-a-dozen years a successful magazine cartoonist, selling regularly to Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, True, and other stalwarts of the medium. His 1951 drawing style, in short, was scarcely unpracticed, but although Dennis looked as expertly rendered as it was then, Ketcham was not quite yet the brilliant black-and-white pen stylist that he became and for which he is justly celebrated and admired throughout his profession. In this volume, you can readily see the gradual stylistic evolution in his deployment of the medium: flip back and forth from the early pages to the last pages, and you’ll see how stunningly designed the latter were in comparison to the former. Historians of the medium dote on displays of this kind, and reprint tomes typically provide exactly the sort of demonstration of stylistic development that we see herein. In my case, my pleasure is enhanced by a secret sense of satisfaction. I was in high school when Dennis debuted, and I was immediately smitten by Ketcham’s drawings. I promptly devised a cartoon of my own for the highschool newspaper. The student body, particularly my class, was distinguished by its hellion behavior, and I adapted Dennis to the task of making fun of this juvenile display of delinquency: I invented a short teenager with fashionable ducktail hair-do named Larry Loudermouth, a slightly older verison of Dennis in which “menace” had transformed into incipient hoodlumism. And I imitated Ketcham’s drawing style—which, and here’s the source of my (until just now) secret satisfaction, I could actually do in the early years of Dennis the Menace. Once Ketcham found his stylistic footing, however, he was beyond me: I could no longer hope to ape his manner any more than I could juggle eggs or vault over pickup trucks in a single bound. But here, in this first volume of The Complete Dennis the Menace, I see the style that I could, and did, copy successfully.
We are afforded even more fascinating insights into the evolution of Dennis with this book. In its early stages, Dennis was competently rendered, as I said; Ketcham was, after all, a thoroughly established professional cartoonist, not a novice finding his way. But by the end of the first year, as we can see here, Ketcham was much more than merely competent: he was designing pictures, varying the treatment of solid blacks for visual variety; by the middle of the second year, he was experimenting with textures and different compositional strategies. By then, in other words, he was well into the mode of drawing that would distinguish the rest of his forty-plus years drawing the cartoon. Ketcham experimented with perspective and texture and the like as a way of keeping himself fresh at the task; the consummate professional, he knew that the work would suffer if he ever became bored with doing it.
The characters did not achieved their definitive look until the cartoon was five or six months old. In one or two early appearances, Dennis’ father, Henry (who soon looks like Ketcham himself), has blond, not dark, hair. Dennis himself is occasionally taller in the first months; he doesn’t assume his brand-name size (about one-and-a-half heads tall) until the fall. With his head bigger than his body, he is cuter in his enduring dimension than at his inaugural size. For the first year or so, Dennis is depicted scowling, menacingly, more often than not. Nowadays (and for many recent years), Dennis seldom frowns thereby perpetuating an engagingly innocent charm as a diminutive form of human. Most of the gags herein take place in the home, although there are quite a few with Dennis at the barber’s, menacing the blameless tonsorial staff. Dennis is occasionally shown interacting with other children, but his possibly dim-witted pal Joey hasn’t appeared yet; neither has know-it-all Margaret. Dennis has a few transactions with neighbors, but Mr. Wilson isn’t around (although his wife shows up, by name as well as in body, on July 29, 1952; both the Wilsons, perhaps, although unnamed and not quite as rotund, on August 2, 1951). Ruff arrives on July 16, 1951, when Dennis brings him home in a way that echoes that classic maneuver, “can I keep him: he followed me home”; although Dennis doesn’t say that and the dog has actually been given to him by some disenchanted dog fancier, the echo is there, resonating fondly. By the end of 1952, just about everything is in place: Dennis and his parents look like they’ll look for the next half-century, and Ketcham’s visual mannerisms are established (albeit continuing to evolve).
AND NOW ONE MORE FROM ANDREWS McMEEL
The latest reprinting of FoxTrot strips takes its title from one of the sequences reprised. Jason Fox, the unbearably brilliant ten-year-old in the family, is a passionate fan of "Lord of the Rings." He memorizes the books, wears the costumes, lives at the websites, and draws, he says, "detailed maps of Osgiliath on my binder." And so he is distraught beyond comfort when he discovers that his despised older sister Paige pines for a seat at the opening of "The Return of the King" only to gawk at the pretty-boy actor Orlando Bloom—hence, the book's title, Orlando Bloom Has Ruined Everything (128 8.5x6.5-inch pages; paperback, $8.95). The rest of the Fox family cavorts in this tome, too, performing their usual pirouettes to the tunes of popular culture, thereby revealing our society's compulsions and addictions.
FoxTrot's creator, Bill Amend, recently admitted that if he had not concocted the comic strip, he'd probably be "a retired former do-com zillionaire." And then he got serious: "I'd probably be doing something in a similar vein, maybe in film or video games or books or something." After graduating from Amherst College with a degree in physics, he worked in animation and film for a while before inventing FoxTrot.
In naming the strip, Amend said he wanted to get away from "the sort of obvious 'family' titles like 'Family Affair' and 'Family Ties' and 'Family Circus.'" Having come up with the name Fox for the family, he continued, "I decided I liked how 'FoxTrot' incorporated that and also used a dance as a sort of metaphor for the energy and comings and goings I envisioned in the strip."
The Fox family is a thoroughly modern family, and the drawing style Amend adopted to render their adventures, a sort of cubist approximation, is intended to underscore the modernity of the strip by giving it what’s called “a contemporary look.” The Foxes are steeped in the popular culture of our times—middle class school preoccupations, tv, clothing fads, computers, music, and so on. This isn’t the sort of family you can find in the Sears catalogue. But no dog or cat pets lurk—except for Jason's iguana, Quincy. Amend, however, has pets of his own: "I have a German Shepherd as well as a number of pet peeves," he explained. "When I was a kid, I had a hamster named Quincy, hence the iguana's name."
At www.time.com, Andrew Arnold lists his top ten graphic novels, alphabetically: Berlin, City of Stones by Jason Lutes; Blankets by Craig Thompson; Bone by Jeff Smith; The Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Kim Deitch; The Dark Night Returns by Frank Miller; David Boring by Daniel Clowes; Ed the Happy Clown by Chester Brown; Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware; Palomar, the Heartbreak Soup by Gilbert Hernandez; and Watchmen by Alan Moore with Dave Gibbons.
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE
I try to keep up-to-date on comic books. It’s impossible, of course: there are new titles coming out every month, more than anyone could hope to visit, one-by-one. But if the drawing style manifest on the cover is attractive, I’ll sample the book. Here are some recent Number Ones:
Revelations by Paul Jenkins drawn by Humberto Ramos, a six-issue series about murder in the Vatican, gets London cop Charlie Northern to investigate the dubious suicide of a priest who was found empaled on the spikes of a wrought-iron fence below his window in the Vatican barracks. The story begins as we watch this guy falling onto the spikes; then some sinister shenanigan by a suspicious personage ensues—all during a rainstorm. And at night. Under the circumstances, it’s a little hard to make out exactly what’s happening. Ramos’ style is manga-inspired (or is that hip-hop ghetto?) and very nicely done in a full-painted manner, but all those raindrops streaking across nearly black imagery render details in the picture hard to see. The visuals improve as soon as the rain stops and it’s no longer night—in short, when we get to London where Northern is recruited by an old chum, now a priest. Northern is pretty anti-Catholic, and his wry observations about the Church enliven the proceedings when he gets to Rome and inspects the “crime scene.” The storytelling—by which I mean the manipulation of visuals in the service of a narrative—is expert and, occasionally, inventive. Ramos’ ghetto version of the manga manner is muscular, blunt-fingered, without lines, and opulent with luxurious color and plentiful background detail. And with this first issue, we are provoked enough to want to know how it will all turn out.
Loveless No. 1 is another array in a different time zone of the sort of mayhem and bad language we’ve become accustomed to in Brian Azzarello’s other oeuvre, 100 Bullets. Loveless, like Bullets, is conceived as a finite series: dubbed a “spaghetti Western-noir,”Loveless is supposed to run 50 issues. Bullets will finish at 100. Azzarello says Loveless will be more brutal than Bullets: “I’m going to cram twice the violence and twice the bullets into half the issues,” he says, perhaps with a smile. In Loveless, we’re in the Old West right after the Civil War with a handful of galloots lying atop a rise apparently spying on a town down in the valley when Wes Cutter comes along, engages them in some cryptic chit-chat (they all know each other, kimo sabe), then he manages to shoot them all dead. The storytelling here is nicely accomplished, breakdowns focusing individual panels on grim faces and then hands alternatively as the opponents for the forthcoming battle line up and ready themselves for the explosion of gunpowder that ensues. Everyone’s teeth are gritted, so we get the idea that danger lurks. Patricia Mulvihill’s colors are muted throughout the book, emphasizing the unrelieved reality of it all, and her treatment of the opening sequence, which takes place at night, is in blues and purples, very nice. Marcalo Frusin’s wire-thin linework, a crisp but slightly less stylized evocation of Eduardo Risso’s in Bullets, is steeped in moody solid blacks, so the broad brim of the hat on the person accompanying Wes Cutter casts a shadow that completely obliterates that personage’s face. At the end, the wearer removes the hat, and we realize that we’re looking at Wes’ reputed wife, who makes lascivious remarks and gestures just as the book ends. By then the two of them have wandered through town, startled a few former acquaintances, and convened upon their ranch, which has been taken over by a renegade passel of soldiers, perhaps refugees from a Civil War engagement. Azzarello’s mastery of colloquial lingo is, as usual, masterful, and the story reels out without any excess verbiage whatsoever, just atmospheric clipped comments and occasional hints as to what this is all about. This issue is an excellent example of how first issues should function. We should be tantalized enough to want to buy the second issue, but there should also be some minor suspense with satisfying resolutions. Exactly what happens here. Despite the hovering mysteriousness of Wes Cutter’s purpose in returning to his apparently abandoned ranch (and wife?)—still largely unexplained by the issue’s conclusion—there are three suspenseful encounters, each resolved satisfactorily, two of them violently, but the persons dealt with in this manner seem deserving of their treatment, so we feel good about it.
Warren Ellis has two first issues out this month, both cop stories. Jack Cross opens with a wordless sequence of slaughter by assault weapons: a bunch of suits enter an apartment house, knock on the door of an apartment within, and shoot everyone they find inside. They don’t speak. All very cinematic with highly detailed realistic rendering from Gary Erskine. So far, mystery and violence. Next we meet Jack Cross himself, an Asian, walking the beach and holding hands with an Asian woman who is enlisting his aid in finding out who a particular bad guy is and who he works for. He infiltrated one of the Department of Homeland Security’s anti-terrorist units and, on assignment, turned and killed his three compatriots. Cross is recruited because he might be able to make the guy talk. And during the rest of this issue, we see enough of his methods to realize that he just might. He gives orders commandingly and demonstrates a complete ruthlessness in coercing the subject. His manner establishes his control of the situation, and he impresses the captive with his purposefulness by shooting off one of the captive’s fingers. But on the last page of the book, we seem him apparently overcome emotionally, crouching on the floor by himself in the corner of the men’s room. Everything is there, working: over-all mystery unsolved, suspenseful incidents satisfactorily resolved as we watch Cross in action and come to appreciated his effectiveness. Compelling stuff.
In the other Ellis first issue, Fell, the title character, Richard Fell, is a cop just arrived at his new assignment in Snowtown, a run-down, gritty crime- and poverty-infested neighborhood where hope has all but disappeared. Fell is another hardcase cop but Sherlockian in his deductive prowess. He meets a girl bartender and solves his first case, a murder committed in the most ingeniously outrageous manner imaginable—based, Ellis tells us, upon an actual occurrence. Ellis has an unerring ear for the way people talk to each other, on display here and in the aforementioned Cross. The art in Fell is committed by an Australian named Ben Templesmith, who, Ellis assures us, is “crazy on a base genetic level”: Australians are, “after all, a people descended from those who were deported from Britain for having sex with bread products.” Well, I don’t know about that—the bread sex, I mean—but Templesmith agreed to join Ellis in this project which has no financial basis whatsoever except whatever sales of the book can bring in. And Ellis insists on pricing the book at only $1.99 so we can buy “the whole thing for a handful of loose coins.” In Templesmith, Ellis surely got the best end of the deal: the pictures look painted as much as drawn, and Ellis has imposed a 9-panel grid on the pages, which makes Templesmith do more work than on some other plan. His style gives the pictures a grimy lumpen quality that makes them perfect for incarnating Ellis’ seamy Snowtown. I look forward to seeing more of this title. And we all will if you dig for pocket change often enough. I encourage you to.
In Paris by Andi Watson and drawn by Simon Gane, we encounter an American art student, Juliet, studying in the title city. Her instructor hires her out to do the portrait of a wealthy damsel, whose aunt is a tyrant. She gets the job because she’s female, she explains: “I have to paint precious little daddy’s girls because they won’t allow a man to stare at their pretty little bodies.” This is ordinary life on an ordinary scale in a city of artistes. It’s Gane’s quirky clunky linear compositions, graced with tones of flat gray (screens, technically speaking), that engage and sustain interest here. My memory isn’t what it used to be (if it ever was), but somewhere back there in the distant reaches, I remember seeing his work in early black-and-whites—in the 1980s, perhaps—as quirky then as it is now. Gane manages to array the clunks of his idiosyncratic mannerisms into the most elaborately fascinating street scenes and Baroque interiors. It will go on: a second issue, at least, is in the offing. And perhaps in it, we will discover if Juliet’s portrait subject, Deborah, will evade her aunt’s dictum long enough to permit the neophyte artist to paint her in the nude, as she seems intent on achieving. Or not.
The pencils are credited in Army of Darkness vs. Re-Animator No. 1 to Sanford Greene and the story to James Kuhoric; no one, apparently, did the inking. We meet Ashley J. Williams, “Ash,” who, posing as an Elvis impersonator, attracts the attention of the local authorities by vanquishing a regiment of the undead one night in a Wal-Mart after closing hours. Ash, it turns out, is a time-traveling vampire hunter (or something akin) who does battle with the necromancer deadites in different ages, having just returned from Arthur’s England. Scheider and Daisy Duke (in a very short nurse’s outfit) arrive to engineer Ash’s escape from jail, and there are, throughout, various portals to the darkest places opening up and closing . Kuhoric has the gift of glib and pursues the tale here mostly for laughs. He is ably assisted by Greene’s pencils, rendered in a sort of bent Warner Bros fashion with exuberant animated action and anatomy (even though all the characters’ noses are exactly alike).
Advent Rising: Rock the Planet, No. 1, “New Kid on the Planet,” is a futuristic take on the Hardy Boys: Ethan and Gideon have just moved into a new neighborhood—I mean, onto a new planet—where they dash around in dune buggies, surf on hover boards, and play team sports while hoping to attract the attention of a gaggle of teenage girls in their new school. The pencils by Cliff Richards and inks by Dennis Crisotomo are entirely competent if undistinguished, and the story, by Donald Mustard, Bill Jemas and Rob Worley, is a thoroughly adequate evocation of F.W. Dixon, and the book goes on forever: this is quite possibly the longest single slick-paper issue comic book to be published in the Current Age. From Majesco Entertainment Company. At one time in my life—long ago, alas, in those lost corridors of youth—I was a big Dixon fan; and if you now, like me then, find adolescent adventuring entertaining, you’ll surely enjoy this foray into the arena. The best part about the book is the ad for Martin’s Misadventures, an online comic strip by James Burns at www.martinsmisadventures.com, which may not be “the most exciting comic strip you’ve ever read” (as claimed here), but it sure is well-rendered in the domestic version of the manga manner and seems funny as well as nicely wrought.
Wha ... Huh? is a one-shot collection of riffs on the “What If ...” notion. For instance, “What if President Andrew Jackson had taken Ben Grimm’s place in the Fantastic Four?” Or “What if the Identity Crisis happened in the Marvel Universe?” Or (my personal favorite) “What if Wolverine did appear in every comic?” In short, this is a Mad comic book reincarnation and rip-off in the antique Arrgh! mold focused entirely on Marvel characters. Most of the “What If’s” are one-pagers, and the most of writing is done by Brians (K. Vaughan and Bendis). All the hip-hop ghetto-style art is by Jim Mahfood and is a treat for the eye, page after page—simple but expressive linear work with strategically placed solid blacks for accent and modeling. Mostly one-note jokes but all visualized with a light-hearted exuberance that makes the book great fun. Mark Millar did the Jackson page, on which Old Hickory rants on and on about the peculiarities of his Presidency—he was the first presidential candidate to be nominated by convention rather than by party caucus in Congress and he was the first to win the popular vote but to be denied the office by electoral vote, throwing the election into the House of Representatives. Vaughan explores the implications of what might happen if it were discovered that the Black Panther was actually white. Everyone’s alarmed, of course, and they all accuse the Black Panther of fraud, but he has the perfect comeback: What about the Black Widow? In another sequence, the Punisher is a bleeding heart instead of a rampaging avenger. And there’s a wonderful picture of Galactus sitting on a toilet in space. And the startling assertion that Gen Grimm’s Aunt Petunia had to die because she was the only one of Marvel’s 4,700 characters that wasn’t tied into some kind of movie deal. I’ll keep this one.
Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man, drawn by Pia Guerra or Goran Sudzuka and inked by Jose Marzan, Jr., offers some of the best writing and storytelling in comics—not to mention one of the most provocative concepts: every man on earth dies except one, and he’s trying to hide out. This one’s for “mature readers,” kimo sabe, by which I mean readers old enough and experienced enough to think. A decided treat. And so’s Gotham Central, written by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka —stories about the police department in a city where the cops brush up against costumed crimefighters every now and then. In the current story arc, young men are showing up dead, dressed in Robin regalia.
Geof Darrow’s Shaolin Cowboy is up to No. 3. Or maybe this is just the second issue. It’s hard to tell. It doesn’t come out that often, and I may have missed the actual second issue, and Darrow messes with the numbering that we all love. It sez here “Volume 54,” but it’s clearly not the 54th volume. And this issue includes six pages of covers, various issues from Vols. 50, 69, 72, 58, 7, and 15. All fictitious, naturally. In No. 3, Vol. 54—the apparent current issue—Darrow’s gunslinging Asiatic is, as usual, surrounded by gore and blood, a whole field of freshly rotting corpses, in fact. Then there’s a nearly naked baby, saying “Mine,” and some creatures dangling in space and oozing some viscous substance, one of whom turns on the Cowboy and gives him a blackeye, whereupon this issue ends. This title is engaging in its own inimitably revolting way simply because we want to know what outrage to civilized sensibilities Darrow will commit next and whether his mute hero will triumph yet again, deservedly or not.
OCTOBER 31, 2005
Rosa Parks spent the day lying in state in the Capitol rotunda, an honor reserved for national heroes. In her case, heroine. She was the first heroine to achieve this distinction; and the first African-American. When she died and the newscasts began to fill with encomiums extolling her as a “fighter” for civil rights, a tireless crusader, and all the rest, I remembered a somewhat different Rosa Parks. I remember reading that she had no equal rights agenda in mind that day, December 1, 1955, when she sat down on a seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and refused to get up so a white man could sit there. She was just tired. She’d worked all day, and she was tired, I remember reading; she just wanted to rest her 42-year-old bones a little. No crusader she. So why, I wondered, are we making such a fuss today?
One reason for making the fuss is that, whether she meant to or not, her refusal to get up that day effectively launched the civil rights movement in 20th century America. Condoleezza Rice is right when she said that had it not been for Mrs. Parks, she, Dr. Rice, wouldn’t be U.S. Secretary of State today. But still, there was more accident than purpose in Rosa Parks’ action (or inaction) that day. Wasn’t there? She was just a tired 42-year-old lady seamstress wanting to relax, right? Well, yes—she had been tired that day, and she probably didn’t have a civil rights agenda in mind when she got on the bus and sat down. But the popular media coverage of the event glossed over a few other facts in Rosa Parks’ life, facts that made her sitting down and refusing to get up look a little more energetic than the popular media reports of the day made it seem.
The first fact is that when she wasn’t working as a seamstress, she was acting as secretary of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. So when she phoned her mother from jail where she’d been taken for breaking the law that dictated she give her seat to that white guy, she probably figured her mother would phone E.D. Nixon, the president of the local NAACP for whom she’d been secretary; and Nixon phoned Clifford Durr, a white lawyer who’d been working with NAACP for some years. They came down and bailed Rosa Parks out of jail, but by then, Nixon was already thinking about how they might use the incident to protest the inequalities of Jim Crow. When Rosa Parks went to court on December 5, Nixon and his cohorts had launched a boycott of Montgomery’s bus system: no African-Americans in the city were going to ride the buses until they could sit where they wanted, first-come, first-served, without having to give up their seats to any white guys who came along. Nixon mustered the Black ministers of the town to the cause, and one of those was that young fella Martin Luther King, Jr. So Rosa Parks is responsible for creating the incident that brought King into national prominence thereby giving the Civil Rights movement a charismatic voice. Well, yes. But Rosa Parks did even more than that.
Another fact about Rosa Parks is that she’d done some sewing for Viginia Durr, Clifford’s wife. And Virginia Durr had subsequently been instrumental in getting Rosa Parks to go to Highland Folk School in Tennessee in the summer of 1955. There, Rosa Parks attended a workshop that offered ideas and training about how to fight segregation. On that day, then—December 1, 1955—Rosa Parks may have been tired after a long day’s work, but she was also a dedicated and trained civil rights worker. Dedicated to NAACP and its purposes as Nixon’s secretary; trained at Highland Folk School. And if she didn’t think she’d start anything when that bus first drove up and stopped to pick her up, another fact stared her in the face as soon as the bus door opened. It was a face from her past—the bus driver’s face. James Blake’s face. It reminded her of her experience with Blake in 1943.
In those days (and continuing into the 1950s), Blacks not only had to sit in the back of the bus, they had to enter the bus by the rear door, not the front door. But to pay their fares, they entered at the front, dropped their money in the coin box, then got off the bus and walked back to the rear door, where they again boarded the bus. Jim Crow demanded that Blacks not walk through the white section to get to the black section. On that day in 1943, Rosa Parks thought that rule was silly, and so after she paid her fare, she walked through the bus, not out of it, to get to the black section at the rear. The bus driver, James Blake, called her on it, telling her to come back to the front, exit the bus, and re-board it at the rear door. Rosa Parks refused. He repeated his order. She refused again. But then, rather than provoke an incident, she just decided to get off the bus and catch the next one. And so she did. Thereafter, for the next 12 years, she avoided getting on a bus driven by James Blake. When she saw him at the wheel, she waited for the next bus. But not on December 1, 1955. And that day, yes—she was tired. Physically tired probably, but also doubtless tired of the charade of racism in Montgomery.
This time, she may have thought, she would face down James Blake. She would get on and pay her fare and let him see her. She probably still didn’t think she’d turn her bus ride into a protest. Not yet. She sat in the middle section of the bus’s seating—the part between the whites only and the Blacks only, where Black people could sit as long as there were no white people standing. When Rosa Parks sat down, there were no white people standing; but at the next stop or so, a white man got on, and he wanted her seat. But she wouldn’t give it up, and so the civil rights movement got an incident that jump-started it. Rosa Parks may not have intended that day to jump-start the civil rights movement, but by the time James Blake asked her to give up her seat to a white man, she knew she wasn’t going to give it up. She was no ordinary submissive Black citizen whose rights were being abused: she was, as I said, dedicated and trained. And that’s not all.
Nixon asked her to fight the fine she’d be paying when she went to court. The plan was to fight it all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. And Rosa Parks agreed. She agreed even knowing, as her husband said, that by taking a stand, she risked her life in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. Thirteen months later, the Supreme Court ruled that Montgomery’s segregation laws for buses were unconstitutional. The bus boycott ended, and Rosa Parks went for a ride on a bus. So did Martin Luther King, Jr. Shortly thereafter, Rosa Parks left Montgomery and moved to Detroit, Michigan, where she soon went to work for a young Black congressman, John Conyers. She worked for him until she retired; and she traveled around the country, making speeches and endorsing good causes. She may have been a little old lady by then, but she was never as tired as the popular media made her out to be in 1955 on James Blake’s bus.
If you still think individuals can’t make a difference any more, think again.
Still More Under the Spreading Punditry
The cartoon back page of Time’s October 31 issue is by Bruce Handy and Glynis Sweeny, who launch a vicious attack on George W. (“Whopper”) Bush and his newly announced energy conservation policy, ending with this picturesque quote from the Bush caricature’s lips: “If manufacturers were free to make really long cars, people would arrive at their destinations that much sooner—and thereby save fuel, which is why I’ve ordered a sweeping overhaul of federal automotive standards,” he says as he throws away the book of EPA Standards.
As GeeDubya’s approval ratings drop percipitously, day by day, we find on every hand that the gloves are off. Where the scribbling gasbags once voiced approval of the Bush League, they now are less enthusiastic; where they once expressed tentative heresies, they now scream for GeeDubya’s head. In Newsweek’s October 31 issue, the lead story, about the Libby indictment, reviews the history of the Cheney cabal’s fabrication of reasons to invade Iraq and pulls no punches. “Cheney,” it says at the beginning, “was looking for evidence to support an Iraq invasion.” About Joe Wilson’s report that Saddam did not purchase uranium from Niger, we read that Cheney may not have seen the report, but “Cheney might not have been inclined to believe a word of it anyway. At the time of Wilson’s debunking [of the Bush League’s Niger claim], the vice president was the Bush administration’s leading advocate of war with Iraq. Cheney had long distrusted the apparatchiks who sat in offices at the CIA, FBI and Pentagon. He regarded them as dim, timid time-servers who would always choose inaction over action.” And further on: “Central to the [case for war] was the belief that Saddam was determined to get nukes.” And so on. The article rehearses the entire story of how the Bush League mislead the American people, cherry-picking the facts that supported its purpose and ignoring the rest. And it all appears here as straight factual reporting. No quibbles. This, it argues, is the duplicity employed by our government in action. It’s as if no one disputes the facts of this criminal behavior anymore. And it’s about time Newsweek and the other so-called news organs woke up to these facts.
Interestingly, no sources, anonymous or otherwise, are quoted in most of the story of the run-up to war. “From here, as we now know, things got a bit out of hand.” As we now know? That’s all the attribution we get? That’s the whole source of the information? What a joke. What happened to all that Newsweek solicitousness about sources? Elsewhere in the magazine, we get chorus after chorus of explanations for why quoted sources are unnamed (“feared for his job,” etc.), but in the story that blows the Bush League out of the water, not a source is named. We are asked, in effect, to trust the magazine’s integrity. Fine. I’m willing to do that. That’s just what I’m doing when I accept their assertion that an unnamed source wants to be anonymous in order to protect his job.
Notwithstanding this diatribe, I have enjoyed for years the column in the magazine by Fareed Zakaria, who says what he thinks albeit with deliberate not headlong speed. But even he has become somewhat less diplomatic of late. In his September 26 offering, he goes on about “Leaders Who Won’t Choose” in the wake of the Katrina disaster. “The U.S. Congress is a national embarrassment,” he writes, “except that on one is embarrassed. ... Today’s Republicans believe in pork, but they don’t believe in government. So we have the largest government in history but one that is weak and dysfunctional. Public spending is a cynical game of buying votes or campaign contributions, an utterly corrupt process run by lobbyists and special interests with no concern for the national interest. So we shovel out billions on ‘Homeland Security’ to stave off nonexistent threats to Wisconsin, Wyoming, and Montana while New York and Los Angeles remain unprotected. ... We denounce sensible leadership and pragmatism because they mean compromise and loss of ideological purity. Better to be right than to get Iraq right. Hurricane Katrina is a wake-up call. It is time to get serious. ... For all its virtues, the private sector [elements of which, Wal-Mart and Federal Express, performed so well during the Gulf Coast crisis] cannot accomplish all this. Wall-Mart and Federal Express cannot devise a national emergency policy for the United States. For that and for much else, we need government. Can somebody help us get our money’s worth?”
Pretty strong stuff, and it’s about time.
Starting on Veteran’s Day, George WMD Bush has gone on the offensive, castigating his critics, now numerous, for calling him a liar—for fabricating the evidence that took us to Iraq with tanks and guns. Well, shucks, GeeDubya—those who are now calling you a liar out loud are doing so out of a pronounced sense of political decorum: they call you a liar in order to avoid telling the truth, that you are stupid as a board. Can’t you recognize kindness when you encounter it?
On the matter of torturing detainees, it seems to me that no one can any more claim we are not torturing them—unless by “torture” you mean only the rack and the thumbscrew. The sorts of physical abuse and humiliation to which these prisoners (that’s what they are) are subjected constitute torture in anyone’s lexicon. And in Congress and the other corridors of power in the nation’s capital, they’re debating about what kind or degree of torture to allow. In this country, there should be no debate about torture. We should be able to say we don’t torture, and say it without fear of some contradictory evidence popping up on a remote isle in the Caspian Sea. No debate. For this country’s leaders to be debating such a subject is a disgrace.
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