Opus 178 (February 13, 2006). Hoppy Valentine’s Day, kimo sabe. We’re a little shy on newsy tid-bits this time: because of the furor over those 12 cartoons of Muhammad in Denmark, we’re devoting the largest portion of this installment to the Danish Dozen. They were published last September, but the outrage in the Arab street didn’t reach riotous proportions until about two-three weeks ago. If the objection to the cartoons is so sincere, why did it take so long to erupt in such fury? We trace the evolution of the protest, provide links to the offensive images, and quote a score or more of opinions about the cartoons and the role of the press in a democracy. Our second longest segment reviews Ron Goulart’s re-issued The Adventurous Decade and tries to identify the “first” adventure comic strip, an attempt that involves Allan Holtz’s surprising research. Here’s what’s here, in order: NOUS R US —New Disney CEO connected to comic book history, Doug Marlette finds an editoonery berth in Tulsa, Tintin in trouble again, and an object lesson in why it’s not a good idea to mug a cartoonist; THE DANISH DOZEN —Why they are offensive to Muslims and why it doesn’t matter what they look like, a link to the images, the crusade for freedom of expression in democracies vs. virtue in Muslim countries, what cartoonists are saying about it, including a sterling essay by Pulitzer winner Signe Wilkinson; the Tom Toles Flap and why nobody has heard about it; Word of the Year; Oswald Goes Home; COMIC STRIP WATCH— Dilbert gets naughty and Garfield goes nutso; the humble woodchuck and the State of the Union; BOOK MARQUEE— another publisher starts a line of graphic novels, a new Jaime Hernandez tome, the best scholarly source on comics, New Yorker cartoons and the tradition of excellence; MICHAEL BERRY and why he never made it into Playboy; Are Americans Conservative? THE ADVENTURE COMIC STRIP; Funnybook Fan Fare —Nextwave, Revelations; GRAPHIC NOVEL— Earthboy Jacobus; and a little recreational Bushwhacking. And our usual reminder: when you get to the Member/Subscriber Section, don’t forget to activate the “Bathroom Button” by clicking on the “print friendly version” so you can print off a copy of just this lengthy installment for reading later, at your leisure while enthroned. Without further adieu—
NOUS R US
The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont— Jim Sturm’s comics college—reached the conclusion of its first semester recently, and the results look good: “It’s a pass/no credit system,” said Sturm, “just like Harvard Medical School.” Maybe, but I wouldn’t engage any of his graduates to remove my tonsils or any other body part. Tuition is $14,000, “and that doesn’t include colored pencils.” ... Bob Andelman, the author of Will Eisner’s official biography, A Spirited Life, says Eisner has a connection to Disney: the new CEO and President of the Mouse House is Bob Iger, great-grandson of Jerry Iger, Eisner’s partner in the comic art shop the two set up in the 1930s.
Doug Marlette, who has been cartooning for the Tallahasee (Fla.) Democrat from his home in North Carolina, will be moving to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to take the editorial cartooning chair at the Tulsa World, which fired its previous editoonist for apparent plagiarism. (See Opus 175.) Pulitzer-winner Marlette, who also produces the syndicated comic strip Kudzu, is a visiting professor at the University of Oklahoma in Tulsa and likes the idea of joining the staff of a newspaper that is family-owned, not a link in a corporate chain like the Democrat, a Knight Ridder paper. Marlette’s second novel, Magic Time, is scheduled for release in September by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which also published his first, The Bridge, in 2001. The Democrat, meanwhile, has been flooded with applications from editoonists eager to assume Marlette’s mantle, but the paper hasn’t decided yet whether to replace him. Chances are, it won’t. Almost no newspapers with circulations comparable to the Democrat’s modest numbers have editorial cartoonists on staff. Rumor has it that Marlette was hired there because one of the editors was an old friend.
Editoonist Tim Menees was laid off at the Pittsburg Post-Gazette in early February. It was another in the industry’s tsunami of cost-cutting moves: the family-owned Block Communications chain is facing negotiation with its union this year and doesn’t believe it can survive with a union work force unless it reduces expenses. The paper also laid off its Washington Bureau chief, Michael McGough, who, like Menees, is non-union. When I met Menees over ten years ago, there were two daily newspapers being operated out of the building where he worked. Both had editorial cartoonists, Rob Rogers being the other one. Then the two papers merged. Surprisingly, the new entity kept both cartooners on board, and Rogers survives this purge. Menees, who deployed a unique style and concentrated on local issues, will be sorely missed. He has been at the paper for about 30 years, but Allan Block said simply: “We don’t need two cartoonists.” “Looks like a strength to me,” said editooner Clay Bennett, “—a great one-two punch. I guess it looks different through the eyes of an accountant.” Bennett, who is president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, said he when he was starting his career, he worked with Menees at the Post-Gazette. “Tim took me under his wing and taught me a lot about cartooning. He’s been a great colleague and friend. I take this very personally.” Menees resisted getting syndicated because he thought local issues were more important; and if more of his brethren shared his conviction, there’s a change the profession wouldn’t be en route to extinction these days.
Tintin is courting danger again, this time, from People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who have raised objection to Tintin in the Congo, just released in English for the first time, because the book “glorifies the hunting and mindless ill-treatment of animals.” The book is also not particularly kind to Africans, who, the translators note, “are depicted according to the bourgeois, paternalistic stereotypes of the period” of the book’s composition, a fault the author, Herge, admitted to sometime after the volume’s initial publication.
Here’s a good reason not to mug a cartoonist. Daryl Cagle reports on his blog that 82-year-old Aussie cartooner Bill “Weg” Green ran out to his carport when he heard someone swearing up a storm out there. Turned out it was a thief, who pushed Green away and made his getaway on the cartoonist’s grandson’s bicycle, even though it had two flat tires at the time. When the police arrived, Green drew a caricature of the robber from memory and gave it to the coppers, who immediately recognized the fugitive as a man they’d just arrested for another crime and were holding in a van.
THE DANISH DOZEN
We may not, as I’ve said on occasion, print all the cartooning news here, but you may be assured that we publish the best of it. Our story on the flap over the Danish cartoons of Muhammad ran in our Christmas Issue (right here), which appeared in the digital ether just before December 24. By then, the Muslim protest inspired by depicting the Prophet had been spreading, but slowly, since the publication of the cartoons on September 30. Since Christmas, other newspapers in Europe reprinted the cartoons, apparently to prove that the freedom of the press would not be intimidated by Muslim sensibilities. Then, suddenly—seemingly overnight—the Islamic world was roiling with mobs in the street, shaking fists at the sky, burning cars and flags, breaking windows, assaulting embassies, and terrifying bystanders. Once there were action-packed street scenes to film, the ever alert American media took notice, on or about February 2, and for the next two weeks, we had a daily dose of Arab rioting to witness vicariously. What happened? What transformed the relatively tame protest of three months duration into an attack on civilization in ten countries, leaving, to-date, ten or more dead in its wake?
I’m tempted to say, rubbing my hands in smug satisfaction, that’s vivid testimony to the power of cartoons. Tempting as it is to congratulate the medium, the cartoons were not the authentic cause of all this turmoil. They were just the match, struck too near the tinder of a Muslim world rife with resentment and riddled with marauding bands of incendiary political hooligans, looking for opportunities to advance their agendas.
While Westerners may not, given their heritage, ever fully grasp the reasons for the Islamic rage, we may approach an understanding by remembering two things about the Muslim world. First, the popular Western notion of Islam as unsophisticated and anti-intellectual is not only wrong-headed but historically inaccurate. As Charles Kimball points out in his book, When Religion Becomes Evil, “when Europe was languishing in the Dark Ages, Islamic civilization was thriving from Spain to India. For several centuries Muslims led the world in areas such as mathematics, chemistry, medicine, philosophy, navigation, architecture, horticulture, and astronomy.” Then, as Kimball puts it, “something went wrong. From the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries most of the lands with a Muslim majority fell under the control of outside powers,” and the vitality of the Islamic civilization faded away. Today, throughout the Muslim world, the followers of Muhammad are baffled by this fall from influence and hope for its return.
The second cause of the resentment rooted in the fundamentally different emphasis in the value systems of the two cultural traditions. In the West, “freedom” is the most powerful orienting principle. Anything that fosters freedom is valued; everything that threatens it is condemned. In the Muslim world, “virtue” is the parallel value. To the Muslim, the freedoms of the West seem licentiousness, and they therefore threaten the virtue of his world and must be condemned and rejected in the most strenuous way.
Complicating this polarization is the steady influx into European countries of immigrants from the Middle East and Asia, creating in every country a large minority population determined to remain outside the cultural mainstream of those countries. Islam is now Europe’s fastest growing religion and is now the second largest religion in most European countries. Molly Moore of the Washington Post Foreign Service notes that “many of Western Europe’s estimated 15 million Muslims feel alienated by cultural barriers and job discrimination and stigmatized by anti-immigration movements and anti-terrorism laws that they believe unfairly target members of their faith.” All of that constitutes a tinder box waiting to ignite, and into that inflammatory vicinity came the largest daily newspaper in Denmark, the conservative Jyllands-Posten, whose culture editor had a point he thought needed making.
The Issues Being Aired
Flemming Rose explained: “In mid-September, a Danish author went on the record as saying he had problems finding illustrators for a book about the life of the Prophet Muhammad. The [eventual] illustrator insisted on anonymity,” Rose continued, giving the reasons for the illustrator’s trepidation: “Translators of a book by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali Dutch politician who has been critical of Islam, also insisted on anonymity. Then the Tate Britain in London removed an installation called ‘God Is Great,’ which shows the Talmud, the Koran and the Bible embedded in a piece of glass.” He might also have mentioned the 1989 death threat against writer Salman Rushdie for his portrayal of Muhammad in his novel, The Satanic Verses. His Japanese and Italian translators were stabbed, the former, fatally; and his Norwegian publisher shot. And then there was the murder a year or so ago of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, killed by an Islamic fundamentalist for harshly criticizing fundamentalism.
“To me,” Rose went on, “all those spoke to the problems of self-censorship and freedom of speech, and that’s why I wrote to 40 Danish cartoonists asking them to depict Muhammad as they see him. Some of the cartoons turned out to be caricatures because this is just in the Danish tradition. We make fun of the Queen, we make fun of politicians, we make fun of more or less everything. Of course, we didn’t expect this kind of [violent world-wide] reaction, but I am sorry if some Muslims feel insulted. This was not directed at Muslims. I wanted to put this issue of self-censorship on the agenda and have a debate about it.”
Self-censorship is as inhibiting to free speech as official censorship, and Rose wanted “to examine whether people would succumb to self-censorship as we have seen in other cases when it comes to Muslim issues.” The debate Rose hoped to start would, pretty clearly, involve protesting the climate of intimidation surrounding Islamic concerns. At first blush, it would appear that the device Rose chose to inaugurate the debate proved so incendiary that discussion was impossible.
In picturing Islam’s revered Prophet, the 12 cartoonists who responded to Rose’s call did exactly what they should do if their object was to inflame the Muslim population. The traditions of Islam prohibit artistic representations of any of the prophets—whether Muhammad, Jesus, Moses, or Abraham. In some of the strictest branches of Islam, not even the human form can be depicted. Such images, particularly of the prophets, could lead to idolatry, which is specifically prohibited in the Qu’ran. Islamic tradition on the matter, however, is not as iron-clad as those who protested the cartoons would have us believe. Muhammad has appeared through the centuries in hundreds of paintings, drawings and other imagery both in the West and in Islamic countries without a word of complaint in the Muslim world; some of these, from Persian miniatures to the present, can be seen here: http://www.zombietime.com/mohammed_image_archive/ Images of Muhammad and other sacred persons similar to Orthodox Christian icons are commonplace in Shi’ite communities, particularly in Iran, according to a blogger named Soj, who goes on to say “there are also Muslim works of art depicting Muhammad in Central Asia, and neither these nor those in Iran are considered inflammatory.” Nor are they censored. Perhaps the current outrage arises, as much as anything, from the fact that the Danish Dozen are cartoons, cartoons traditionally being comical and instruments of ridicule. Anything “cartooned” is therefore belittled, diminished. In the case of the Prophet, a highly blasphemous act. But, says Soj, unflattering pictures of the Prophet have appeared in the West for years, beginning with Christian churches and illustrations for Dante’s Inferno and culminating with derogatory images in tv’s “South Park.” And yet, “there’s been no rioting, storming of embassies or CNN coverage.”
Nor was there this time. Not at first, anyway. At first, apparently the only objections to the cartoons came from the Danish Muslim community shortly after the publication of the 12 cartoons on September 30. Some of them played off the violence lately committed in the name of Islam. One shows Muhammad wearing a turban shaped like a bomb with its fuse smoldering. In another, Muhammad stands on a cloud in Heaven, saying to the newly arriving, freshly deceased suicide bombers, “Stop! Stop! We have run out of virgins!” (Now, that’s funny.) Another shows a bearded, turbaned peasant in the desert, leading a donkey. (Not funny, and not particularly well drawn, either.) In one, the cartoonist depicts himself at a drawingboard, furtively drawing Muhammad. Another image is merely a visual symbol, using the Islamic crescent and star to form Muhammad’s face around. All twelve can be seen here, http://face-of-muhammed.blogspot.com/ or www.brusselsjournal.com/node/698
How the Outrage Spread
In the Western tradition of political cartooning, nothing in any of the images is particularly alarming, but to Muslims, the images are not only blasphemous, but highly insulting to the most holy of Islam’s sacred personages. Moreover, they reinforce a dangerous confusion in the West between Islam and the Islamist terrorism that nearly all Muslims abhor. Still, it wasn’t until October 20 that an official objection surfaced. The ambassadors in Denmark from eleven Muslim nations signed a letter of protest sent on that date to the Danish prime minister, but he said he could do nothing: in a country that promotes freedom of the press, he pointed out, “I have no tool whatsoever to take actions against the media—and I don’t want that kind of tool.”
The newspaper initially refused to apologize, citing its long-standing policies: “We must quietly point out here that the drawings illustrated an article on the self-censorship which rules large parts of the Western world. Our right to say, write, photograph and draw what we want to within the framework of the law exists and must endure— unconditionally!” Editor Carsten Juste added: “We live in a democracy. That’s why we can use all the journalistic methods we want to. Satire is accepted in this country, and you can make caricatures. Religion shouldn’t set any barriers on that sort of expression. This doesn’t mean that we wish to insult any Muslims.” But, he concluded, “if we apologize, we go against the freedom of speech that generations before us have struggled to win.” At about the same time as the ambassadorial protest, an Islamic group called Holy Brigades in Northern Europe threatened terrorist retaliation.
The prime minister, while resolutely defending the independence of the Danish press, explained to the Muslim ambassadors that they were not without recourse. “Danish legislation prohibits acts or expressions of a blasphemous or discriminatory nature,” he wrote. “The offended party may bring such acts or expressions to court, and it is for the courts to decide in individual cases.” The embassies evidently applied to the courts on November 1. A spokesman for the group said: “We have based our action on the article that the drawings were published alongside, and the intention of the article. We believe that it was the newspaper’s intention to mock and ridicule.” The article warned Danish Muslims to br prepared for insult, mockery, and ridicule. Apparently nothing came of this legal supplication. And by then, the Danish cartoonists were in hiding, having received death threats, and the Danish prime minister had introduced a bill to stiffen penalties for those convicted of threatening and harassing people who, in the exercise of their legal rights, make statements about such topics as religion. “That’s unacceptable,” he said; “we want to protect freedom of speech in Denmark.”
By mid-November, the contagion was spreading to Muslim nations. Protest was beginning to gather momentum. Other motives started adhering to the protest, and even more sinister developments were afoot. According to a blog by Dennis Rennie, European correspondent for Britain’s Daily Telegraph, a “delegation” of Danish Muslims made several trips to the Middle East in December to circulate a 43-page green-covered “dossier” on “Danish racism and Islamophobia.” They met with scholars, Arab League officials, and senior clerics in Cairo and Beirut. The dossier contained the original 12 scabrous cartoons and at least three more, these, profoundly offensive. Muhammad is depicted in one with a pig’s snout; in another, as a pedophile demon. A third cartoon showed a dog raping a praying Muslim. These cartoons were included in the dossier because they had been sent to Muslims who had complained publicly about the original 12 in Jyllands-Posten. Rennie interviewed one of the “delegation,” its purported leader, Ahmed Akkari, a devout man of 31, who denied that the inclusion of these extra cartoons was intended to exacerbate Muslim ire against the Danish newspaper: he maintained that this salacious trio was always expressly identified as not being among the cartoons the paper published. And in the dossier, they were supposedly separated from the original dozen by pages of letters and other contents. They were included as examples of racist images that were circulated in Denmark, thereby supplying “insight in how hateful the atmosphere in Denmark is towards Muslims.” Akkari’s hope was that the religious leaders to whom he showed the dossier would combine to bring international pressure to bear on the Danish government to apologize for the blasphemy committed in one of the nation’s newspapers.
The provocations advertised in the dossier received a little “official” help, too, from Muslim governments. In Egypt where the government had cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood in the weeks leading up to the national elections, the Mubarak regime apparently decided it could divert attention from its own abuses of power by posing as defenders of Islam abroad. Egypt’s foreign minister branded the Danish cartoons as a scandal and launched a multi-national effort to prevent recurrence of such insults to Islam. In Iraq, a Shi’ite newspaper demanded an apology from Jyllands-Posten. In Pakistan, fundamentalists reportedly offered a reward of 500,000 rupees ($8,333) to anyone who killed the cartoonists. It was beginning to get out of hand.
Islamist Radicals Take Up the Cause
In Mecca at about the same time Akkari’s green-covered dossier was making its rounds, the leaders of the world’s 57 Muslim countries gathered for their regularly scheduled summit meeting. By this time, the Danish Dozen were widely enough known that a closing communique expressed “concern at rising hatred against Islam and Muslims and condemned the recent incident of desecration of the image of the Holy Prophet Muhammad in the media of certain countries” as well as “using the freedom of expression as a pretext to defame religion.” The summit, according to Hassan M. Fattah writing in the New York Times, was “a turning point.” Anger at the images became more public, and in Middle East countries, government controlled press coverage “virtually approved demonstrations that ended with Danish embassies in flames.” What was initially a popular “visceral reaction” provided the avenue to another objective: it gave autocratic Muslim governments a popular movement to sympathize with and to join in, hoping to “outflank an growing challenge from Islamic opposition movements” by appearing to be the defender of the Faith.
In the first weeks of January, 2.5 million Muslims made the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj. Doubtless, they all heard there about the Danish cartoons, and they took their smoldering outrage home with them. By mid-January, Muslim anger had turned to fury and erupted, widespread and vicious. Protesters in the Arab streets were calling for beheadings. According to blogger Soj, the Hajj was responsible for Saudi Arabia getting into the act, further inflaming Muslim anger. Soj points to the incompetence of the Saudi government in managing the crowds in Mecca. On January 12, he says, 350 pilgrims were trampled to death in a “stampede.” Such tragedies have happened before, Soj said: in 2004, 251 were killed in the same area of the city. “These were not unavoidable accidents; they were the results of poor planning by the Saudi government.” In 2004, the Saudis had vowed that they’d correct whatever deficiencies existed so it wouldn’t happen again; they apparently didn’t. And to divert attention from their negligence, the Saudi government began running up to 4 articles a day in the state-controlled newspapers condemning the Danish cartoons and calling for a formal apology from Denmark. “When that was not forthcoming,” Soj said, “they began calling for world-wide protests.” And that is just about the time that protests increased in fervor throughout the Muslim world, attracting the attention, at last, of the American tv news media, ever on the alert for exciting footage.
On January 26, according to Fattah, Saudi Arabia made a “key move”: it recalled its ambassador to Denmark. And Libya followed suit. “Saudi clerics began sounding the call for a boycott, and within a day, most Danish products were pulled off supermarket shelves.” Fattah quotes a Cairo political scientist, who said: “The Saudis did this because they have to score against Islamic fundamentalists.” The fundamental Islamists were gaining in power because of Muslim anger over the occupation of Iraq and “the sense that Muslims were under siege.” Out of dissatisfaction with the status quo, Muslims who participated in elections were voting for Islamists. In order to outflank them, the established governments adopted an Islamic posture on the Danish Dozen.
Chip Beck, an American political cartoonist, former Marine and CIA operative, has spent many weeks in Iraq at various intervals since the U.S.-led invasion and has some familiarity with the Islamic world. Said he on one of the List Serves I subscribe to: “The rage is not surprising, but I have to smile at the hypocrisy of the ‘audience.’ A couple of years ago, before I went to Iraq, I was following cartoons that appeared in the Arab and Muslim press, Internet, etc. On any given month, perhaps a thousand cartoons appeared around the world that showed not only Americans, Europeans, and Israelis in harsh—even nasty, maniacal—light, but made direct attacks on Jews and Christians. I don't recall seeing specific attacks on Jesus (or Issa as he is called in Arabic), but certainly the religious symbols of Christianity and Judaism were employed and offended. In strict Islamic terms, it is a sin to depict any human, not just the Prophet Muhammad (praise be his name) ... so there's a lot of professional cartoonists out there in the Islamic world sinning up a daily storm. The only reason the God of the Jews and the God of the Christians is not attacked the same way the Jews and the Christians are, is because that God is the same one of Islam. Yet the mean-spiritedness of the anti-Jewish, anti-Christian attacks would be considered blasphemous as well, at least in some scholarly quarters, because they attack ‘people of the Book’ and the ‘sons of Abraham (Ibrahim).’ [The “people of the book” were afforded special protection by Muhammad.] My feeling is that the outrage is driven behind the scenes by a political machine, not a religious one. Religion in the terrorist camp is just a tool, the same way the Soviets used the proletariat to hide their true agenda.”
Since Muslims are apparently not protesting the anti-Semitic cartoons in Arab newspapers in the Middle East, we must conclude that the Bush League has been hugely successful in exporting to that region the essence of American politics, hypocrisy. But there’s plenty of hypocrisy to go around. In April 2003, Jyllands-Posten reportedly refused to publish cartoons about the resurrection of Christ on the grounds that they could be offensive to readers and were not funny. In this country, Abdul Malik Mujahid, chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, spotlighted the essential double-standard by wondering whether an anti-Semitic cartoon or one showing the Pope in a compromising sexual position would have been tolerated in Europe the way the cartoons of the Prophet were by those who published them.
Protest Gets Organized
Whether or not the Saudis or the Egyptians hitch-hiked on outrage in the Arab streets for their own purposes, it’s clear that the protests quickly moved beyond spontaneous demonstrations of popular opinion. Radical Islamists pretty quickly seized upon Muslim displeasure over the Danish Dozen for their own purposes—namely, to foster hatred for the West and modernity. In Beirut on Sunday, February 5, reported Rory McCarthy of the Guardian, “heavily-laden coaches and mini-vans” drove down to the seaside Corniche and disembarked their passengers, “young, often bearded men who wore headbands and carried identical flags with calligraphic inscriptions in Arabic such as, ‘There is no god but God and Muhammad is his Prophet’ and ‘O Nation of Muhammad, Wake Up!’ There were soon as many as 20,000 of them filling the streets.” The crowd grew restive, then fierce, and before the day was over, they marched on the Danish embassy and set it ablaze. “Then,” McCarthy continued, “in the afternoon, as suddenly as it had all begun, it ended. The leaders of the mob turned to the angry young men beside them and told them it was time to leave. Obediently, the crowd thinned out and began walking back to the buses.” And so the culture war, fueled by political extremists and religious fanatics, turned again into a real war.
Elsewhere in the Muslim world, beginning in Indonesia, other Danish embassies were attacked, and Danish products were boycotted. When the European Union offices in Gaza were targeted, men handed out pamphlets warning Denmark, Norway, and France that they had 48 hours to apologize. Said one Muslim protester in London: “We don’t know why these silly people use these cartoons unless they were showing how much they hate us. We have to defend our Prophet otherwise Allah will punish us. We will not accept this ridicule.” In Copenhagen, Egypt’s ambassador said, “The government of Denmark has to do something to appease the Muslim world.” According to Condoleezza Rice, Syria and Iran were the chief culprits in fomenting unrest. And they might be, although the Bush League’s agenda—to inspire enough American outrage about these two countries to justify making war on them—makes any assertion from the White House environs suspicious. But it’s hard to deny the likelihood that some of those 20,000 protesters in Beirut came from Syria. And Iran scarcely has clean hands: the Iranian daily newspaper Hamshahri decided turn-about was fair play and launched a competition to find the best cartoon about the Holocaust, saying the objective was to test the limits of free speech. In democratic Copenhagen, Flemming Rose offered to publish any cartoons submitted in the contest.
Islamic critics charged that the cartoons were a deliberate provocation and an insult to their religion designed to incite hatred and polarize people of different faiths. Defenders of the newspapers and artists said the cartoons simply intended to highlight Islam’s intolerance. While the protests reflect the Arab suspicion and distrust of the West, the behavior of Islamic extremists seem to bear out the accuracy of the charge of intolerance. The West may have lost its sense of the sacred, but Muslims lost their sense of humor.
So did Jeff Jacoby at the Boston Globe: “The current uproar illustrates yet again the fascist intolerance that is at the heart of radical Islam. ... Most of the pictures [cartoons] are tame to the point of dullness, especially compared to the biting editorial cartoons that routinely appear in the U.S. and European newspapers. ... That anything so mild could trigger a reaction so crazed—riots, death threats, kidnaping, flag-burnings—speaks volumes about the chasm that separates the values of the civilized world from those in too much of the Islamic world. Freedom of the press, the marketplace of ideas, the right to skewer sacred cows—militant Islam knows none of this. And if the jihadists get their way, it will be swept aside everywhere by the censorship and intolerance of sharia.”
At the end of January in Denmark, the prime minister, while maintaining that the government could not apologize on behalf of the newspaper, said that he, personally, “never would have depicted Muhammad, Jesus or other religious character in a way that could offend other people.” Jyllands-Posten also issued an apology while defending its right to publish: “The initiative was taken as part of an ongoing public debate on freedom of expression, a freedom much cherished in Denmark. In our opinion, the 12 drawings were sober. They were not intended to be offensive, nor were they at variance with Danish law, but they have indisputably offended many Muslims for which we apologize.” The paper categorically rejected the charge that its intention had been to launch a campaign against Muslims in Denmark and the rest of the world. Muslim groups meet later in the day and declared that the apology was too “ambiguous,” demanding a clearer apology. The same group, however, appreciated hearing the prime minister’s sentiments.
Meanwhile, at the Cartoonist Rights Network, Executive Director Robert Russell was most concerned about the fate of the twelve Danish cartoonists. “It is not our position to make a judgment on the merits of any particular cartoon,” he wrote. “We are concerned about the safety and well being of the cartoonists who may have caused offense and may be the victims of revenge, censorship, violence or threat of violence. ... The global response to the twelve Danish cartoons is unprecedented in the history of cartooning or, for that matter, the history of freedom of the press. Nowhere nor at any time as the impact and power of editorial cartoons been so unequivocally demonstrated, now not only in ink but in blood. Cartoonists Rights Network is horrified that this issue has turned so violent.” He vowed to keep abreast of developments. As far as I know, the cartoonists are still where they were two months ago—in hiding.
Freedom of the Press Asserts Itself
Meanwhile, throughout Europe, newspapers began reprinting the Danish Dozen in support of the general principle of freedom of the press. As of February 9, newspapers in sixteen countries had joined in a demonstration of solidarity. In Germany, the daily Die Welt published one of the drawings on its front page and said the “right to blasphemy” is one of the freedoms of democracy. In Paris, the legendary daily France Soir covered its issue printing the Danish cartoons with a cartoon of its own, depicting Muhammad beside Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist holy figures. The Christian God says, “Don’t complain, Muhammad, we’re all being caricatured here.” The managing editor was fired immediately by the paper’s owner, an Egyptian-born Catholic. Le Monde, the influential French daily, ran an editorial asserting that French law permitted religions to be “freely analyzed, criticized and even subjected to ridicule.”
Fairly soon, most papers that reprinted the cartoons enjoyed another benefit: increased sales. The circulation of France Soir, in financial straits and up for sale, increased by 40 percent on the day it published the cartoons. The Associated Press’s Jamey Keaten quoted the ironic remarks of the vice president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, who said: “Here’s some advice to those newspapers today facing ruin, bankruptcy or collapse: all you need to do is insult Muslims and Islam, and sales will get hot as blazes.”
In England, the Daily Telegraph, which elected not to reprint the cartoons, was nonetheless firm in asserting its right to do so: “The right to offend within the law remains crucial to our free speech. Muslims who choose to live in the West must accept that we, too, have a right to our values, and to live according to them. Muslims must accept the predominant mores of their adopted culture: and most do. One of these is the lack of censorship and the ready availability of material that some people find deeply offensive. Those Muslims who cannot tolerate the openness and robustness of intellectual debate in the West have perhaps chosen to live in the wrong culture.”
The Guardian agreed. “If free speech is to be meaningful, the right to it cannot shirk from embracing views that a majority—or a minority—finds distasteful. ... But that is not the end of the matter. There are limits and boundaries—of taste, law, convention, principle or judgment. ... The right to publish does not imply any obligation to do so. ... Every newspaper in the country regularly carries stories about child pornography, yet none has yet reproduced examples of such pornography as part of their coverage. Few people would argue that it is essential to an understanding of the issues that they should do so.” The Guardian did not question the right of the Danish paper to publish the cartoons, but “it is another thing to put that right to the test, especially when to do so inevitably causes offence to many Muslims and, even more so, when there is currently such a powerful need to craft a more inclusive public culture which can embrace them and their faith. That is why the defiant republication of the cartoons in ... Europe ... is more questionable than it may appear at first sight.” The restraint of the British press may be the wiser course, “at least for now. There has to be a very good reason for giving gratuitous offense of this kind.”
In the U.S., at first only the New York Sun reprinted the cartoons. The reticence reflected a reluctance to exploit the sensationalism inherent in the situation, but as the controversy abroad swelled and spread , the imperative to reprint grew. The Inquirer in Philadelphia finally decided to publish the most inflammatory image. Editor Amanda Bennett said good journalism required them to publish: as the controversy persisted, people needed to know what the fuss was all about. She compared it to decisions in the past to publish photographs of the bodies of burned Americans hung from a bridge in Iraq and to the 1989 photograph of an artwork by Andres Serrano showing a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine. “You run it because there’s a news reason to run it,” Bennett said. The day after the cartoon’s publication, a dozen Muslim protesters peacefully picketed the newspaper offices.
In Texas, the Austin American-Statesman ran one of the images. And so did the Daily Press in Victorville, California, and the Tribune-Eagle in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where the Muslim population is minuscule. Among tv networks, ABC and Fox each showed one cartoon; NBC and CBS declined.
On February 3, the U.S. State Department got officially into the act, spokesman Kurtis Cooper saying: “These cartoons are indeed offensive to the belief of Muslims. We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press and expression, but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable.” A State Department spokesman also said that cartoons about Muhammad are as objectionable as the anti-Jewish cartoons that often appear in Arab newspapers.
Comic book legend Joe Kubert, founder and president of the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art in New Jersey, took exception to the statement. “Surely he should recognize that the Danish cartoons appeared in independent newspapers which the Danish government cannot control. The anti-Semitic caricatures in the Arab press are typically published in newspapers over which their governments exercise complete control—and which they could bring to a halt at any time, if they so chose.” And here is the source of the Muslim exasperation that the Danish government doesn’t chastize Jyllands-Posten: in Muslim countries, the press is a creature of the government; in Denmark, it isn’t. Muslims, understandably, don’t believe that, or can’t understand it.
For its February 13 issue, Time mustered diverse opinions. A Harvard law professor accused the U.S. news media of “giving in to intellectual and religious terrorism. ... It is in the public’s interest to see these cartoons that are causing so much outrage. When you see them, you see the extent of the over-reaction. They are not nearly as bad as cartoons that routinely run in the Muslim media against Jews, Christians, the U.S. and Israel.” He and many free press advocates miss the central issue: it isn’t the content of the pictures that is outrageous to Muslims; it’s the very existence of a depiction of the Prophet.
An Indonesian said: “Why do you have to insult somebody to assert freedom of the press?” The editor of a Moroccan weekly said: “The cartoons are adding insult to injury. Not only are you invading and robbing our lands; you are insulting our faith.” An unnamed Muslim blog is quoted: “Yes, Arabs and Muslims are uptight when you touch their religious or national symbols, but Europe had made of political correctness and the cult of the Holocaust and Jew-worshiping its alternative religion, and they get even more uptight when you touch that. Europeans might not respect their flags, and they might laugh with Jesus and Mary, but if you touch their true religious symbols, they will bombard you with indignation and persecute you in the best European inquisition tradition.”
Tom Heneghan, religion editor at Reuters, wrote: “The row over caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad resembles a dialogue of the deaf, with many European spokesmen defending the right to free speech and many Muslims insisting Islam must be treated with respect,” adding, later, that “the word ‘respect’ repeatedly pops up in Muslim comments, revealing how much the cartoons linking Muhammad and terrorism hurt the feelings of people who feel humiliated by the West. ... Respect was the main issue for Muslims outraged by the images they consider blasphemous. ‘It’s all about creating a culture of respect, of wanting to live together under the roof of a plural citizenry,’ said Mohamed Mestiri, head of a Parisian Islamic philosophical institute. ... the cartoons [are] the latest in a history of Western affronts to Muslims, who, only in recent years, have mustered enough political clout to fight back.”
In Newsweek for February 13, Fareed Zakaria, whose opinion columns I find unusually thoughtful and wise for a general circulation periodical, was writing about the future for democracy in the Middle East, but he paused to use the Danish Dozen to make a rhetorical point: “The cartoons were offensive and needlessly provocative. Had the paper published racist caricatures of other peoples or religions, it would also have been roundly condemned and perhaps boycotted. But the cartoonists and editors would not have feared for their lives [as they presently do]. It is the violence of the response in some parts of the Muslim world that suggests rejection of the ideas of tolerance and freedom of expression that are at the heart of modern Western societies.”
According to Craig S. Smith and Ian Fisher in the New York Times, “Most European commentators concede that the cartoons were in poor taste but argue that conservative Muslims must learn to accept Western standards of free speech and the pluralism that those standards protect.” In fact, I didn’t see much in this vein—or hear it, either, once the uproar reached the broadcast medium. Most discussions seemed to center on what Westerners should do to accommodate Muslim sensitivities. But it seems to me that this is a two-way street. And I found agreement in U.S. News and World Report for February 13, which quotes Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss-born Muslim and philosopher teaching at Oxford, who said both sides need to learn some hard truths about living together in the world. Free-speech advocates must recognize that Muslims view the depiction of their Prophet as blasphemy. They also have to realize that Muslims come out of cultures unaccustomed to the ridiculing of their religion. “On the other side,” he continued, “Muslims should know that for the last three centuries in Europe ... there has been an acceptance of the cynical and ironic treatment of religious issues and people.” High-minded sentiments, said reporter Jay Tolson. “But Tamadan admits that polarized climate makes it unlikely that either side will soon be making concessions.” Alas, true, I suspect.
Cartoonists Speak Out
One editoonist on the AAEC List Serve said: “It seems to me that the Danish cartoon issue is the same thing to freedom of the press that shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater is to freedom of speech. Just as there must be a good reason to shout ‘fire,’ there should have been a better reason—not to mention better cartoons—to print the cartoons in question.” Garry Trudeau, no stranger to controversy, said he would never use images of Muhammad. “Nor will I be using any imagery that mocks Jesus Christ ... I may not agree with [an editor’s] reasons for dropping any particular [Doonesbury] strip, in fact, I usually don’t, but I will defend their right and responsibility to delete material that they feel is inappropriate for their readership. It’s not censorship,” he declared; “it’s editing. Just because a society has almost unlimited freedom of expression doesn’t mean we should ever stop thinking about its consequences in the real world.”
In a press release, Joe Kubert marveled that “an art form sometimes mistakenly assumed to be less than serious [could have] triggered [such] a deadly serious reaction.” He then went on to acknowledge “a truth about political cartoons ... that they are one of the most powerful forms of communication” and cited several cases in American history where cartoons have shaped events, resulting, in several states, in “angry politicians ... introducing legislation attempting to restrict what cartoonists could draw.” Such laws, he noted, were eventually repealed. He expressed alarm, however, that in the wake of the riotous objection in the Muslim world some voices have been raised to propose restrictions on cartoonists and editors with respect to religious matters. “Censorship would be a mistake,” Kubert said. “It would give any religious group veto power over the cartoons—or writings, or speeches—of its opponents.” Artists sometimes produce offensive works, “but that does not justify rioting or censorship,” he said. “In a civilized society, people respond to offensive art by refraining from entering the museum in question or buying that particular paper. ... Western leaders need to say clearly that while Muslims may find the cartoons offensive, the violent response to the cartoons is absolutely unacceptable. Establishing the ground rules for how to conduct a civilized debate, not searching for ways to appease the angry mobs, should be our goal. Surely we must strive to live in a world governed by reason and civility, rather than one in which cartoonists or their editors must fear for their lives.”
At the Cartoonist Rights Network, Executive Director Robert Russell was most concerned about the fate of the twelve Danish cartoonists. “It is not our position to make a judgment on the merits of any particular cartoon,” he wrote. “We are concerned about the safety and well being of the cartoonists who may have caused offense and may be the victims of revenge, censorship, violence or threat of violence. ... The global response to the twelve Danish cartoons is unprecedented in the history of cartooning or, for that matter, the history of freedom of the press. Nowhere nor at any time as the impact and power of editorial cartoons been so unequivocally demonstrated, now not only in ink but in blood. Cartoonists Rights Network is horrified that this issue has turned so violent.” He vowed to keep abreast of developments.
In Australia, a couple cartoonists spoke up, both advocating publication of the cartoons in the name of free speech, but one, Bill Leak, said he objected to the Danish Dozen chiefly on artistic grounds: “I think they’re deeply unfunny and very badly drawn.”
In Europe, many German political cartoonists have condemned the cartoons depicting Muhammad as a terrorist. One publication called them defamatory and not worth defending. French cartoonists were similarly disposed. Said Rene Petillon, who cartoons for the weekly satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaine: “Such a cartoon directly associates one religion with terrorism, and this is unacceptable.” At the same time, he acknowledged that “freedom of expression is non-negotiable.” Petillon has just published a comic book depicting Muslim fundamentalists in France as small-minded machos who terrorize their women. Entitled The Headscarf Affair, the book refers to France’s 2004 ban on Muslim headscarves in public schools and stars a hapless detective who is hired to find a wayward Muslim teenager who has converted to militant Islam. “My aim was to criticize the Islamists,” said the cartoonist, “especially their attitude towards women. The main idea is to make people laugh. In a modest way,” he said, “I’m calling for more understanding and dialogue.” The book has been well-received so far, he said, becoming a bestseller in a very few weeks and earning the praise of a well-known Muslim feminist and of the head of the French Muslim Council, who said its portrayal of arcane theological disputes in Islam is both accurate and amusing. Petillon, who has a penchant for ridiculing the powerful and the pious, has lampooned his own strict Catholic upbringing in an earlier comic book and made Corsican nationalists laugh at themselves in another. “What’s troubling about the Danish affair,” he said, “is that it helps the fundamentalists rally people to their cause.”
Patrick Chappatte, a cartoonist quoted in the Swiss newspaper Le Temps, said: “The reaction in Muslim countries shocks me because it confirms the weight that radical Islam has acquired. A real totalitarianism is at work in the world and wants to impose its views not only on Arab Muslims but on the West. The same way that they veil women, Islamic radicals want to veil cartoons in the press.”
The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) issued a statement that emphatically supported freedom of expression and, while expressing sympathy for the Islamic sensibilities, condemned without reservation violent protest and called for both sides in the current situation “to raise the level of the debate and not just the level of invective. All would be well-served to realize that they can stand up for their beliefs without trampling on others to do so.” The complete text is at http://editorialcartoonists.com/index.cfm
Gadfly ’tooner Ted Rall, my favorite trouble-maker, foamed at the keyboard for absolute no-holds-barred, nothing-held-back freedom of the press at http://www.tedrall.com/ Click on “Columns” and then look for “The Nanny Press and the Cartoon Controversy,” dated 2/7/06.
Editooner Doug Marlette, who has some experience with Muslim outrage over his cartoons (see Opus 127), rejects the idea that Westerners ought to make special concessions to sensitive Muslims: “The genius of Western democracy is that there should be no ‘special’ rights of privileges for any group of class of people. All are created equal and are treated equally under the law. Law is insensitive that way. And so is intellectual inquiry. And so is good satire.”
To which columnist Kathleen Parker said: “None of us likes it when our icons are busted, or our revered symbols ridiculed. But we tolerate offense in the spirit of larger freedoms under rules that have sustained us for centuries. What we have learned over time is that free expression is society’s relief valve, without which aggression and hostility go underground. What eventually bubbles back up to the surface is the sort of spirit that drives today’s jihadists. Better to air and view our disagreements by the light of day—in the public forum—rather than wait for them to find expression by darker means. As Marlette puts it: ‘Our ability to engage in vigorous debate and to tolerate robust intellectual discourse and all the attendant controversies is a measure of the health of society.’” And, I might add, of the maturity of that society—that is, of its ability to handle diversity without going all to pieces.
A goodly number of the American editoonery brotherhood did their commenting in the usual form, pictures. KAL did a full-bore 2/3 page comic strip in color for the Washington Post and seems to me to have captured the dilemma for cartoonists as well as for the rest of us. And Elena Steier did one of the best, a compassionate but hard-hitting and truth-telling cartoon. Signe Wilkinson, Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist at the Philadelphia Daily News, turned to the keyboard and, as always, produced an essay that confronts the issue, expresses an opinion without equivocation, and bubbles with wry wit and humanity. It’s always a treat to read Signe; here she is (after which, a few closing remarks by that dear sweet boy we all know and love, yrs trly):
One Picture, A Thousand Outcries
By Signe Wilkinson, February 7, 2006
As someone who has been picketed and protested for her blasphemous, insensitive, anti-Islamic cartoons, I have nothing but sympathy for my Danish colleagues who have incurred the wrath of the godly by publishing a portfolio of cartoons making fun of one of the world's great—but apparently humor-impaired—religions. However, I also have compassion for the members of humor-impaired religions. After all, I am a Quaker.
It's been my experience that most groups are humor-impaired when outsiders make fun of them. On MSNBC.com, readers were asked to vote on whether they thought the Muslim protests were justified. The vote was running 82 percent against the Muslim reaction when I checked Thursday night.
But let's just change the image. What if it were a cartoon showing someone burning the American flag? What if it were a depiction of Jesus with a smoking shotgun as a comment on Christians shooting abortion doctors? What if it were the Star of David used as a hoop that a politician must jump through to get elected?
I'm guessing the approval rating would plummet. Actually, I don't need to guess because at various times in my career I've penned (and my newspaper has published) cartoons along those lines. Lack of humor ensued after each one. A number of my cartoons have caused boycotts, lost advertising for my newspaper, and elicited streams of phone calls and/or picketing in front of our building.
My editors have had to explain the nature of cartooning to the offended representatives of various faiths, ethnicities, and political groups. And I am not alone. Nearly all cartoonists worth their salt have enraged some portion of their readership, often when religious symbolism was part of the cartoon. While at least one colleague received death threats, most of the ensuing protests are loud, sometimes intimidating, but generally peaceful. I don't go out of my way to poke fun at the religiously faithful. I have no grounds to criticize other religions, when my own is such a quirky (though perfect) little cult. Unfortunately, cartoonists are easily bothered. I am particularly bothered when some group wants to impose its way of life on me—and most particularly when its adherents want my tax dollars to help them do the imposing. Religious groups are often among those asking for tax dollars, or particular laws to advance their interest or legalize their morality.
As the editor of the French newspaper France Soir noted after publishing the Danish cartoons, if we were to abide by all the rules of all the world's religions, we wouldn't be allowed to do much of anything.
I'll risk being called anti-Muslim to do my job
This said, readers should know that cartoonists working for mainstream American newspapers—and there are more than 80 around the country—generally try to avoid negatively caricaturing any group just to make fun of them. American history is filled with examples of published images that would not run in newspapers today, our most egregious sin being the racist portrayals (without comment) of black Americans in cartoons, advertising, and illustrations. As the civil-rights movement revealed the injustice behind those racist images, those cartoons went from being humorous to hideous.
Blacks weren't alone in trying to influence how they were portrayed in popular culture. Long before 9/11, Arab-Americans asked for cartoonists to be more sophisticated in their depiction of Middle Easterners. Early in my career, I received a heads-up from an Arab-American group pointing out that all Arabs aren't head-scarf-wearing sheikhs.
At several of The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists conferences, representatives from Jewish, Latino, Arab, and other ethnic groups pled for relief from what they saw as derogatory stereotypes that we cartoonists routinely used as shorthand.
Our images have changed over the years, though many of us still draw sheikhs with scarves because they feature prominently in the news. If you wear dresses and scarves, cartoonists are going to draw you with dresses and scarves. But I think if you did a study—and I haven't—you'd find that more cartoons about the Middle East now feature Arabs who more resemble an American teenager at a mall.
Of course, sheikhs get to choose what they wear. Many women in Islamic societies don't. My encounters with Muslims have mostly come over cartoons protesting the treatment of Muslim women. After one such cartoon, a local woman called me to defend the headscarf. I said I had no problem with anyone freely wearing a headscarf or any other religious outfit. I then asked her, "But you wouldn't force other women to wear a headscarf, would you?"
After a pause she replied, "Well, if it was for her own good."
So there you have the reason I go to the drawing board every day. I am drawing to help prevent a world where someone else decides what I must wear for my own good. And, I'm willing to risk being called anti-Muslim to do it.
I'm guessing the Danish cartoonists were trying to do the same thing. The cartoons were criticizing violence and suicide bombing in the name of Islam. The cartoonists have the right to publish. And, in a free society, Muslims have a right to protest and publish their own cartoons in response. This is not a right granted to cartoonists or protesters in some Muslim countries.
I hope Muslims will come to know that they aren't the first, and won't be the last, to be offended by a political cartoon. I know cartoonists will take into consideration the reaction to this caricature when drawing their next ones on Muslim issues. If the reaction of the "Arab street" continues to be violence whenever they don't like something they see in someone else's newspaper, then I predict more such cartoons are on the way. My suggestion is that instead of threatening to draw blood, Muslims should pick up their pens and draw return cartoons instead.
Wilkinson is one of America's few contemporary women editorial cartoonists. She was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1992. She regularly contributes to Organic Gardening magazine, the Institute for Research on Higher Education, and Oxygen.com, and is the author of One Nation, Under Surveillance.
As For Me, Your Hoppy Obedient Servant
I support the freedom of the press to publish cartoons, regardless of their import. The press is either free or it isn’t; there aren’t degrees of freedom. The question with respect to the Danish Dozen, however, is: What was the comment that they were making? Was it worth making? The question any editor must ask about a cartoon or prose opinion comment is: Will it provoke thought or mindless outrage based upon a misunderstanding? That, it seems to me, is a legitimate question. If the outcry overshadows the comment, then the cartoon has destroyed itself. Every editorial cartoonist wants to be provocative. But if the provocation diverts attention from the issue being examined, what’s been gained? So the next question about the Danish Dozen is: What was the issue that the cartoonists addressed? And do the cartoons make insightful comment on the issue?
I feel that if a cartoon provokes more hostility than thought, it's crossed the line and defeats its purpose. Few people can think clearly in the white heat of outrage. Cartoonists must have the right to cross the line, no question, and in the case of the Danish Dozen, they clearly did, so was the purpose of publishing the cartoons therefore frustrated? For some of the cartoonists, the purpose was to suggest that terrorists found their actions condoned, even encouraged, in Islam. These cartoons misfired: no one is talking about the Islamic roots of terrorist strategies. So at first, I thought the basic objective of the drill had been frustrated, that the message of the cartoons was obliterated by the fuss they incited.
And then, studying the matter further as I wrote this piece, I decided it hadn’t. The cartoons that connected terrorism to Muhammad failed, but not all of the cartoons aimed at that target. The reason the Jyllands-Posten commissioned and published the cartoons was to protest a dangerous timidity in the news media that was being promoted through intimidation by Muslim extremists. Rose, remember, said he “wanted to put this issue of self-censorship on the agenda and have a debate about it.” Believing that self-censorship is as inhibiting to free speech as official censorship, Rose wanted “to examine whether people would succumb to self-censorship as we have seen in other cases when it comes fo Muslim issues.” The debate Rose hoped to start would, pretty clearly, involve protesting the climate of intimidation surrounding Islamic concerns. At first blush, it would seem that the device Rose chose to inaugurate the debate proved so incendiary that discussion was impossible. In short, it would appear that the hostility inspired by the cartoons thwarted their purpose. But lately, as the smoke begins to clear over the wreckage of Danish embassies in the Muslim world, it seems that the debate Rose wanted to have is actually occurring on all sides. Feathers were ruffled, feelings hurt, sensitivities ignored, property destroyed, and a dozen lives lost, but the conflagration of opinion all around us would seem an unabashed endorsement of the balls-on, all-out, wheels-up, publish-and-be-damned-to-you free speech and unfettered press posture that Ted Rall so vividly champions.
And, yes—I am rubbing my hands in joyless glee over this demonstration of the power of pictures. At the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman did the same, figuratively speaking. “Have any modern works of art provoked as much chaos and violence as the Danish caricatures? ... But there are precedents going all the way back to the Bible for virulent reactions to proscribed and despised images. Beginning with the ancient Egyptians, who lopped off the noses of statues of dead pharaohs, through the toppling of statues of Lenin and Saddam Hussein, violence has often been directed against offending objects, though rarely against the artists who made them. Educated secular Westerners reared on modernism, with its inclination toward abstraction, its gamesmanship and its knee-jerk baiting of traditional authority, can miss the real force behind certain visual images, particularly religious ones ... —a deep abiding fact about visual art, its totemic power: the power of representation. This power transcends logic or aesthetics. Like words, it can cause genuine pain. Ancient Greeks used to chain statues to prevent them from fleeing. Buddhists in Ceylon once believed that a painting could be brought to life once its eyes were painted. In the Netherlands in the 1560s, pictures were smashed in nearly every town and village simply for being graven images. ... To many people, pictures will always, mysteriously, embody the things they depict. Among the issues to be hashed out in this affair, there’s a lesson to be gleaned about art: even a dumb cartoon may not be so dumb if it calls out to someone.”
But art is not our only concern in this affair. Robert Spencer, writing for humaneventsonline.com December 14, noted the much larger implications of the disturbance in Denmark: “[Freedom of speech] is imperiled internationally more today than it has been in recent memory. As it grows into an international cause celebre, the cartoon controversy indicates the gulf between the Islamic world and the post-Christian West in matters of freedom of speech and expression. And it may yet turn out that as the West continues to pay homage to its idols of tolerance, multiculturalism, and pluralism, it will give up those hard-won freedoms voluntarily.”
Similarly, Joshua Micah Marshall at his blog, TalkingPointsMemo.com, looks stoically, albeit glumly, I think, to an unwelcome future: “There’s something peculiarly 21st century about this conflict—both in the way that it’s rooted in the world of media and also in the way that it shows these two societies or cultures ... can’t interface. The gap is too large. The language too different. One’s coming in at 30 degree angle; the other, at 90. ... Is it just me, or does it seem that more and more often there are public controversies in which ‘blasphemy’ is considered some sort of legitimate cause of action—as if ‘blasphemy’ can actually have any civic meaning in a society like ours. ... An open society, a secular society, can’t exist if mob violence is the cost of giving offense,” he continued. “In any case, there is a hint of the absurd in this story, the way continents of people get swept up in reaction to some simple pictures. But this episode seems like a model for what I imagine we’ll be living with for the rest of our lives.”
Meanwhile, as of this writing on Saturday, February 11, riots continue, reason is a voice crying in the wilderness, and Ahmed Akkari sits sadly in Copenhagen, contemplating the chaos he believes his green-covered dossier caused. According to Doug Saunders at the Toronto Globe and Mail: “Friends, strangers and close family members blame him for exactly the thing he says he was trying to prevent: the caricaturing of Muslims as violent fanatics. The riots, he acknowledged, have placed his fellow European Muslims in far worse position than before. ‘Yeah, it has been more violent than I expected,’ he said. ‘I had no interest in any violence. ... It is bad for our case because it’s turning the picture completely from what this should be about to something else—and this is a dangerous change now.’ He never intended this to be more than an internal Danish conflict, a technical matter—how to get the government to acknowledge that something had gone wrong. ... The overseas trip was planned only after the domestic campaign ran aground. ... He is horrified to find that the Danish people—and he proudly considers himself a Dane—have been demonized.”
OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND
Just on the cusp of the furor over the Danish Dozen appeared a cartoon by the Washington Post’s Pulitzer-winning Tom Toles, one of the nation’s most outspoken editoonists who now occupies the berth hallowed by another of the best of the opinion mongers, Herblock. Toles’ cartoon on Sunday, January 29, was a reaction to a remark by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who, a few days before, had responded to a reporter’s question about whether the U.S. military was over-extended in Iraq and elsewhere, but chiefly in Iraq. Rumsfeld denied the allegation, saying that the Army was not stretched too thin: it was, he said, “battle-hardened.” Here’s Toles’ cartoon, which you probably ought to take a quick look at before going on with this diatribe. It seems to me that Toles effectively deconstructed the tough-guy Rumsfeldian euphemism, revealing the reality that it masked. But the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the most senior and influential of the military’s generals, didn’t see it that way, and they took an unprecedented step: they joined in signing a letter to the Washington Post, calling Toles’ cartoon “reprehensible” and accusing the cartoonist of making fun of the wounded soldier.
Reaction from various points of the political compass was almost immediate. A few—and only a few, as it turned out—were upset that the cartoon seemed a breach of good taste, employing a quadruple amputee to make a political point. Political cartoonist V. Cullum Rogers, long-time factotum of the AAEC, addressed this issue with devastating logic, his usual weapon: “I go along with Oscar Wilde, who famously said, ‘A gentleman is someone who is never unintentionally rude.’ Deliberate tastelessness (blasphemy, fart jokes, profanity, personal insult—whatever) is like every other arrow in our quiver. It should be employed when it’s appropriate to the topic involved, when it’ll get the message across better than anything else, and when it won’t defeat the cartoon’s purpose by creating a stink that drowns out what the cartoonist was trying to say. Tastefulness is the ability to tell which particular acts of tastelessness meet those criteria and which don’t. So I’d say it’s pretty important, if only in a negative sense: without it, how can you tell how effectively you’re deploying its opposite?”
Most reactions to the cartoon were supportive. Some were appalled that senior Pentagon officials would use their rank and status to express an opinion that was essentially political. Because the letter would, regardless of its intent, exert pressure on the paper, it was seen by some as an attempt at government censorship, just another in the long tedious succession of Bush League attempts at silencing opposition. Others were alarmed that this August group of military leaders was so demonstrably incapable of seeing what most readers saw right away in Toles’ cartoon. Clay Bennett, president of AAEC and editorial cartoonist at the Christian Science Monitor, observed wryly that “it appears the Joint Chiefs interpret cartoons as accurately as they do pre-war intelligence.” In a letter to the editor, Ronald M. Garrett of Morrisville, North Carolina, wrote: “Whoever wrote the letter for the Join Chiefs knew that the cartoon wasn’t about wounded soldiers. It was about rear-echelon political hacks who dismiss the results of their foolish decisions, who never seem to learn from their mistakes and who don’t seem to care that when they write a check, the infantry signs it in blood.” Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor at the Post, defended Toles, saying: “I respect the views of the Chiefs and of others who echoed their criticism, and I understand their reaction. But I don’t agree with their reading of the cartoon. (Nor, by the way, did many other readers, who wrote to support Toles or take issue with the Chiefs.) I think it’s an indictment of Rumsfeld, who is portrayed as callous and inaccurate in his depiction of the Army and its soldiers. Whether that’s fair to the Defense Secretary is a separate question. I don’t believe that Toles meant the cartoon to demean the soldiers themselves, and I don’t think it did.”
Bennett, quoted above, went on to say that the Joint Chiefs “should be as concerned with the soldiers in the field as they are with a cartoon in the Washington Post. Maybe they should provide the body armor soldiers need to help avoid the sort of injury shown in the cartoon.” Toles, who declined to comment very extensively on the issue, granted a short interview with “NBC Nightly News” and said substantially the same thing as Bennett.
But then, just as the issue was beginning to gather momentum, it disappeared. Vanished. The media had another issue—the Danish Dozen. And with burning flags and waving fists in the air on every Arab street, tv news had better pictures than Toles and his cartoon. Toles was probably just as glad that press attention was diverted: he pretty clearly prefers working at a drawingboard to express his opinions, not at a microphone. His concerns, however, are shared by less publicity-shy reporters, namely the redoubtable Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, who noted recently that “there are grave concerns within the military about the capability of the U.S. Army to sustain two or three more years of combat in Iraq. Michael O’Hanlon, a specialist on military issues at the Brookings Institute, noted ... that ‘if the President decides to stay the present course in Iraq, some troops would be compelled to serve fourth and fifth tours of combat by 2007 and 2008, which could have serious consequences for morale and competency levels.’” But we’ll probably never get to this discussion. As Hersh said, “The Administration has ‘so terrified the generals that they know they won’t go public,’” quoting a former defense official. Not even Toles’ cartoon, it seems, helped. Before the subject was completely overshadowed by Muslim rage, another of the editooning brotherhood made a crucial observation, saying he was appalled “that the Joint Chiefs effectively changed the subject. The media flap is now about the cartoon and not about the wounded Iraq vets”—or troop levels. Well, maybe. That’s as far as it went, surely. But had the controversy continued—had it not been blown out of the water by the Islamic furies—it’s probable that some of the response would have gotten around to the issue that inspired the cartoon, whether the military could sustain prolonged combat in Irag. Toles’ cartoon missed its mark not because of bad strategy or tastelessness; it was sheer bad timing that caused the misfire.
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv
The Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia has developed a spray that can be applied to animal poop that effectively removes the stink. Now that’s an advance in civilization. ... And, speaking of freedom of the press, the New Times of San Luis Obispo ran an article about how easy it is to make meth if one merely dials up the right terms on the Internet. The paper listed the ingredients and gave the recipe, having obtained, as it said, both on the ’Net. The outcry was considerable among the paper’s readers, but the editor stuck to his guns, maintaining that the chief reason for publishing the article was to demonstrate how accessible the drug was in the Digital Age. Everyone’s home computer is the corrupting culprit. The editor, it seems to me, used the same tactic that Flemming Rose did: the idea was to publish something so inflammatory that readers would be provoked into confronting a danger they were busily overlooking. It can still be debated whether teaching people how to make meth is any more dangerous a way to accomplish a journalistic goal than to enrage the religious sensibilities of millions, worldwide. The trick, in this day of multimedia overload, is to attract their attention.
The “word of the year” for 2005 is “truthiness,” which means, the American Dialect Society tells us, “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true rather than concepts or facts known to be true.” The word has been popularized lately on Comedy Central tv by Stephen Colbert, who has declared, in the spirit of genuine truthiness, “I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart.” The word is not a fresh coinage, however: other meanings for it date back to 1824. The year 2005 offered other fascinating verbiage, and the ADS, which convenes a committee every year for the purpose, has generated an exhaustive list at http://www.americandialect.org/ To make the list, words or phrases do not have to be brand new, but they must be newly prominent or notable in the past year somewhat in the manner of Time’s Person of the Year. “Katrina,” for example, was a runner-up for 2005, a term describing a natural disaster. In the same realm, “brown-out” refers to the poor handling of an emergency. ADS contrives secondary lists for the Most Useful Word, the Most Creative, the Most Unnecessary, and so on. The Most Useful last year was podcast. Under Most Creative, several lively examples are listed: whale tail, the appearance of thong or g-string underwear above the waistband of pants, shorts, or skirt; muffin top, the bulge of flesh hanging over the top of low-rider jeans; and, my favorite, flee-ancee, the runaway bride, which, alas, is so narrowly defined it will not be used much. The winner of the Most Outrageous is crotchfruit, perhaps inspired by the expression “the fruit of one’s loins,” this term began among proponents of child-free public spaces. The Most Euphemistic winner was internal nutrition, force-feeding a prisoner against his or her will; holiday tree and extraordinary rendition were also runs. The Word of the Year for 2004 was red/blue/purple states; for 2003, metrosexual. One can almost trace modern history through the yearly winners. For 2002, the word was weapons of mass destruction or WMD; for 2001, 9/11 or September 11; for 2000, chad; 1999, YK2. In 1991, it was mother of all —, fill in the blank.
Illinois, my home state, is the second most corrupt state in the union. (The first is Massachusetts.) I’ve lost count of the number of former governors who’ve served jail time, and the immediate past occupant of that office, George Ryan, is currently being tried for various offenses against the body politic. He, naturally, pleads not guilty; it’s all a massive misunderstanding, and so forth. But one thing that’s hard to explain is that he always seemed to have plenty of cash in his pocket, but his bank records show that he withdrew only $6,700 over a ten-year period.
OSWALD’S BACK HOME
According to Reuters, “in the rich tradition of goofy sports trades, eminent sportscaster Al Michaels has been traded for a rabbit. Not even a real rabbit, a cartoon rabbit.” The Walt Disney Company, owner of ESPN and ABC, traded Michaels to NBC Universal for rights to highlights from a selection of NBC’s sports coverage—and for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Universal has owned Oswald since the character was stolen from Walt Disney by Charles Mintz in 1928. The story of Mintz’s chicanery and the birth of Mickey Mouse is patented Disney Studio fare and can be found in virtually any history of the Studio or biography of Disney. The particulars in this case come from Disney’s World by Leonard Mosley (Lanham, Maryland: Scarborough House, 1990), pp. 90-100.
Mintz had taken over Disney’s distribution company by marrying its owner, Margaret J. Winkler. At the time, Disney was cranking out a series of comedies about the adventures of a little girl named Alice. Based vaguely upon Alice in Wonderland, the novelty of Disney’s conception was that Alice was a real girl, but her adventures took place in an all-cartoon setting. Live-action footage was superimposed on cartoon backgrounds with animated animals. Mintz had the prescience to realize that the Alice Comedies had about run their course by the end of 1926. Moreover, he was on the verge of signing a contract with Universal to provide a series of animated cartoons, and Universal wanted something new. With that as incentive, Mintz was able to convince Disney to abandon Alice, and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was concocted.
Oswald proved to be more than the star of a successful animated cartoon series: he prompted inquiries about merchandising and licensing, and that provoked Mintz’s greed. When Disney went to Mintz’s office in New York in February 1928 to renew their contract (hoping for a slight increase in payment), Mintz made his move. He offered Disney less on a new contract than on the previous one, telling him to take it or leave it, but if he didn’t take it, Mintz would take Oswald. Disney didn’t own Oswald, Mintz told the cartoonist: Mintz did. He also revealed that he had been secretly recruiting Disney’s animators to leave and form a new company with him. If Disney didn’t accept the terms of a new arrangement in which Mintz and Universal would become his partners and hold all rights to the character, then Disney would be effectively out of the Oswald business. After fuming for almost a month, Disney declined Mintz’s offer. And according to Disney legend, Mickey Mouse was invented on the train ride back to California from New York in late March. And now, after 78 years, Oswald is back where he started out.
Disney’s Winne the Pooh franchise, according to Tim Appelo in the Seattle Weekly, produces a quarter of the company’s annual revenue. Pooh is Disney’s “second-most-popular character, in both the Ernest H. Shepard and Disney versions, both of which Disney owns.”
COMIC STRIP WATCH
Eager, no doubt, to make a sensational splash in the tabloids, Scott Adams, who’s been pulling wings off corporate flies for decades, took another tack last month, producing two versions of Dilbert for January 25—a “naughty” version and a “harmless” version. The former is immediately in this vicinity. The naughtiness arises from the possibility that the baby in the last panel is looking at the woman’s large bosom, the implication being that the baby might want to be breastfed. I have a difficult time supposing that: the baby is pretty tiny, and his eyes are nearly invisible. I’d have to break an eyebrow to discern that the baby is “looking at” the woman’s boobs or at anything at all. Moreover, the leap in logic from a time zone gag to a breastfeeding gag is a bit much. So much for Adams’ desire for notoriety. In the “harmless” version, by the way, the kid is saying, “Less talking, more burping.” That’s actually funnier.
Garfield Comedy Askew. Here, from Kurt Blumenau at Surf’s Up, his favorite comic-spoof website, http://www.cs.washington.edu/homes/natetrue/gar.html wherein a randomizer sorts through panels from Jim Davis’ cat strip and presents, according to no logic whatsoever, a sequence, which, Blumenau maintains, is “funnier than any real Garfield printed in the past 15 years or so.” I’m not sure I’d agree with that: the comedy at this site is more in the Far Side mode than Garfield. But it has its moments—thanks, chiefly, to the personalities of the characters, long firmly embedded in our brains (a tribute, undeniably, to Davis’ skill at characterization over the years). “Enjoy it now, before the copyright lawyers swoop in and kill it off,” sez Blumenau.
Fascinating Footnote. Much of the news retailed around here is culled from articles eventually indexed at http://www.rpi.edu/~bulloj/comxbib.html, the Comics Research Bibliography, maintained by Michael Rhode and John Bullough, which covers comic books, comic strips, animation, caricature, cartoons, bandes dessinees and related topics. It also provides links to numerous other sites that delve deeply into cartooning topics.
QUIPS & QUOTES
“If men can run the world, why can’t they stop wearing neckties? How intelligent is it to start the day by tying a little noose around your neck?” —Linda Ellerbee
“Being a well-dressed man is a career, and he who goes in for it has no time for anything else.” —Heywood Broun, whose reputation for slovenliness was legend
“When people are free to do as they choose, they usually imitate each other.” —Eric Hoffer
“All women’s dresses, in every age and country, are merely variations on the eternal struggle between the admitted desire to dress and the unadmitted desire to undress.” —Lin Yutang
“A woman’s dress should be like a barbed-wire fence: serving its purpose without obstructing the view.” —Sophia Loren
A short fortune-teller who escapes from prison is a small medium at large.
A hangover is the wrath of grapes.
A lot of money is tainted. Taint yours and taint mine.
The worse a pun is, the better it is.
Civilization’s Last Outpost: State of the Union
From Air America, which, observing that both Groundhog Day and GeeDubya’s annual State of the Union address occurred this year in close proximity, said: It is an ironic juxtaposition. One involves a meaningless ritual in which we look to a creature of little intelligence for prognostication; and the other involves a groundhog.
The report on the State of the Union, required by the Constitution, wasn’t always delivered in person before the assembled magnificence of Congress. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson declined to appear in person, saying that the pomp and circumstance of addressing that legislative body reminded him of the British monarchy. He delivered his speech by mail.
Incidentally, an archaic meaning of the word congress is “sexual intercourse.” It’s a comfort to know that, in naming the legislative branch, the Founding Fathers anticipated precisely what the group would be doing to us all. I’m continually amazed at the prescience of the Founders.
Hill & Wang, the nonfiction imprint of the distinguished literary publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux, will be producing graphic novel adaptations of the 9/11 Commission Report and biographies of Malcolm X and Ronald Reagan in a new line called Novel Graphics, a backhanded attempt to capitalize on the current craze without seeming to do so. Something like that. ... In Ghost of Hoppers, Jaime Hernandez’s new graphic novel, the cartoonist returns to Maggie, taking up her story a year or two after 2003's Dicks and Deedees; the heroine is now managing a rundown apartment complex in the San Fernando Valley, her greatest years behind her (and she knows it). In his review, Douglas Wolk speaks lovingly of “the creamy grace of Hernandez’s artwork [wish I’d said that] that makes it worthwhile to pause and stare. His drawings are pure eye candy—a few simple, curvy lines and crisp geometries that economically communicate facial expressions, body language, the way clothing drapes.” Wonderful. Oh, and the Hernandez oeuvre, too.
One of my publishers, the University Press of Mississippi (www.upress.state.ms.us), has announced the July publication of what will surely prove to be a definitive work about Carl Barks, Thomas Andrae’s critical study Carl Barks and the Disney Comic Book: Unmasking the Myth of Modernity. Also warming up for the fall is Thierry Groensteen’s The System of Comics, a tome about the medium’s formal conventions. And next spring, we may expect to see another in the Conversations series, this one on Art Spiegelman, plus two books about “the true father of the graphic novel,” the 19th-century cartoonist Rudolphe Topffer—one, a critical study; the other, a reprint in English of all of his “picture stories.” The resources for the comics scholar and enthusiast being assembled at Mississippi are not just impressive: they’re vast. Most recently, the Press has produced Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature (2005) by Charles Hatfield, “a progress report on an evolving field”; Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium (2004), a collection of essays from obscure places compiled by Jeet Heer and kent Worcester, offering evidence that serious critical writing about comics goes back over a century; Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture (2005), Bart Beaty’s attempt to rehabilitate the psychiatrist’s reputation as a progressive reformer; and Comics As Philosophy (2005), a collection of essays by contemporary writers (including one by moi) that serves as a neat bookend to the shelf with Arguing the Comics at the other end, edited by Jeff McLaughlin.
Greg Theakston is moving ahead, Bob Andelman reports, with plans for his book, Early Eisner, due out later this year from Pure Imagination. ... And IDW is releasing a new Will Eisner’s John Law series by Gary Chaloner in April. It will offer a four-part series entitled “Angels and Ashes, Devils and Dust.” There’s also a new daily webcomic on the horizon—John Law’s Web of Crime—at ModernTales.com.
When cartoon editor Bob Mankoff digitized all the cartoons ever published in The New Yorker, he created a file from which the magazine has been producing, regularly, small themed collections of chortles—cartoons on golf, baseball, business, politics, technology, and so on. Since I have the Complete New Yorker Cartoons, a book accompanied by CDs, I didn’t think I needed any of these tidier compilations. But I couldn’t resist Michael Witte’s jacket illustration for The New Yorker Book of Art Cartoons. And I’m glad I surrendered. Culled from the entire 80-year history of the magazine, the cartoons herein include the usual gang of geniuses—Charles Addams, Helen Hokinson, George Price, William Steig, Whitney Darrow Jr., Eldon Dedini, James Stevenson, Barney Tobey, but not, unaccountably, Peter Arno—instead of just the often lame efforts of the current crop of contributors. I also found a single example of early work from Michael Berry, who, later, specialized in statuesque blondes and their corpulent sugar daddies. I sat down and browsed through the tome at a single sitting, savoring the wit and visual artistry on display. From front to back, the book is a nearly convincing demonstration of an unacknowledged truth of which second-hand booksellers are in firm possession. They’ll readily buy second-hand books of cartoons if they’re New Yorker collections but not those from other sources, Saturday Evening Post, True, etc. Those, apparently, just aren’t good enough. I don’t entirely agree, but the volume at hand is nonetheless a persuasive argument in favor of the booksellers’ instinct, not to mention an unqualified delight in itself. Moreover, I can’t imagine having as enjoyable a browsing experience pouring over just the work of today’s band of New Yorker cartoonists: their draftsmanship, for one thing, is often too primitive for my taste, and the sense of humor on display is frequently much too verbal, merely witticisms or pseudo sophisticated cant that doesn’t require pictures to achieve their alleged humor. For most of the vintage cartoons in the Art collection, you need to grasp the implications of both caption and picture in order to get the joke. That’s the way single-panel cartoons used to function in the heyday of the genre. Alas, no longer. All the more reason to relish this collection, and others of its ilk. Here’s a quick sampling.
Since last summer, The New Yorker has been running a cartoon captioning contest on the back page of every issue, ironically requiring of contestants the very sort of blending of word and picture that the best panel cartoons achieve and that, too often, today’s New Yorker cartoonists fail to arrive at. In the best of the genre, the caption makes no sense without the picture and vice versa. Taken together, however, the verbal and the visual act in perfect concert to reveal a comedic meaning neither is capable of alone without the other. The gambit in the back page contest starts with a picture that contains a blatant incongruity. Here’s a man and woman in the livingroom, the woman, seated on a couch, completely wrapped in the coils of a gigantic snake. The man is saying something—what, the contestants will reveal. The caption will “explain” the picture; and vice versa. In another, the picture shows a man walking through an office wearing a bunny costume, one of the two men watching him is saying something as yet undetermined. The cartoon will appear twice more: first, as a finalist with three alternative captions; then, as the winner with the editor’s ultimate choice from that trio. Here’s a finalist, showing a couple unpacking in a hotel room, their suitcase, open on the bed, is full of water with fish swimming around. The man is saying, “I never know what to pack”; or, “So, then, I guess the Johnsons are feeding our clothes”; or, “I just thought of something. What if your parents don’t collect dead goldfish anymore?” All three, I say, are funny; and all three are funny in the traditional, classical manner of verbal-visual blending. One of them will be the winner. Insightful as this contest is into the classical comedic mechanism of gag cartooning, they also provide the magazine with a way of using the same drawing three times for four jokes, twice with the same caption. A useful economy, I suppose. While the insight afforded by the contest enhances our appreciation of the artistry of the panel cartoonist, the traditional New Yorker cartoon—like those in the Art collection at hand—does not always rely, as the contest cartoons do, upon a visual incongruity. As you can see from the sampling I’ve provided, the pictures are very often not puzzling in themselves at all. And that, perhaps, is the sign of greatest achievement in the medium.
SPEAKING OF THE ESTEEMED MICHAEL BERRY
Beginning with the founding of the National Cartoonists Society in 1947, its Ethics Committee customarily dealt with such esoteric but thorny matters as copyright infringements, ownership of comic characters’ names, ordinary plagiarism, and the like. Once, though, the Committee was called upon to referee between one of its members and Hugh Hefner, editor and publisher of the country’s newest magazine sensation, Playboy. This was in the spring of 1957, three years after the magazine’s, er, maiden issue. Gag cartoonist Michael Berry, known for his zaftig women rendered in delicate wash and wispy line, claimed that Hefner was reneging on a contract when he declined to buy the finished drawings for a couple of Berry’s cartoons that Hefner had approved in rough form. On behalf of the Committee, Milton Caniff, its chairman, wrote Hefner, asking that the issue be resolved. Hefner asserted his right as an editor to reject finished drawings that weren’t up to his standard, but he offered to pay Berry $10 each for the rough drawings that he had defaced by writing “OK” on them. Berry produced a letter from Hefner in which the publisher had remarked that Berry’s “appearances in color in several of the Playboy imitators eliminates any value your work would have for us.” It was this consideration and not the artistic merit of his work, Berry contended, that led Hefner to reject successive revisions of finished drawings of his cartoons. It has since become a commonplace of the history of Playboy cartooning that Hefner, a frustrated if mediocre cartoonist himself, sought, from the beginning of the magazine, to assemble a stable of cartoonists whose work was distinctive and would be exclusive to Playboy.
Caniff solicited the opinion of NCS members more familiar with the magazine cartooning field. Long-time New Yorker contributor Otto Soglow said that if Hefner’s treatment of Berry was indicative of the new magazine’s practice, then Playboy should be “boycotted or sued.” But Mort Walker, who was one of the most frequently published magazine cartoonists in the country until Beetle Bailey claimed his exclusive attention, demurred. He allowed as how he had always felt that an editor had the right to “call the whole deal off if he doesn’t receive an acceptable finish”—even though most editors accept virtually without quibble the final drawings that cartoonists submit for cartoons approved in the rough. “In my opinion,” he wrote, “there is no basis for an Ethics Committee action in this instance.” The Committee did not always act in such cases; but it always investigated.
Ironically, when I tried to find a Berry cartoon to illustrate this piece, I couldn’t. Not easily at any rate. His cartoons were in Playboy imitators and he frequently illustrated ads in mainstream slick magazines, but his presence in these other venues was not, apparently, as widespread as Hefner’s comment suggests.
Son of Quips & Quotes
“If left-wing critics were half as influential as they’re cracked up to be, you’d think they would have swayed some of those media moguls by now. But they haven’t.” —Todd Gitlin
Congressman Charles Rangel, the African-American Democrat from New York, was asked what he thought of George WMD Bush: “Well,” he said, “I really think he shatters the myth of white supremacy for once and all.”
“We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.” —Charles Bukowski
“The big print giveth, and the small print taketh away.” —Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, an early celebrity on primitive television in the 1950s
When ABC’s tv news co-anchor Bob Woodruff and his cameraman Doug Vogt were seriously injured by a roadside bomb explosion in Iraq a couple weeks ago, Woodruff’s celebrity brought into the spotlight a seldom reported aspect of the hostilities in that besieged country: covering Iraq has become history’s most dangerous assignment for journalists. As of January 30, 61 journalists have been killed. An even less reported fact: of the 61, 42 were Iraqis. I assume the latter includes cameramen, translators, and facilitators of all sorts. The U.S. has lost only 2 journalists; European countries all together, 9. In his column for January 31, Ted Rall opines that journalists who seek safety by embedding themselves with the military are actually accomplishing exactly the reverse of their intention, quoting Michael Holmes of CNN, who observed that “a U.S. convoy or military convoy of any kind in this country is such a target.” Makes sense to me.
ARE AMERICANS REALLY CONSERVATIVE?
Karl Rove and his ilk are fond of proclaiming that the country has undergone a political sea change: the populace is now conservative, no longer liberal. Is that right? No: Rove is engaging in his favorite maneuver—creating a new reality that suits him but that bears no resemblance to actual facts. Here are some numbers from polls taken last fall through November by the Pew Research Group, the Wall Street Journal, and CBS News and reported in Jim Hightower’s Lowdown newsletter (yes, a flaming progressive publication):
65% say the government should guarantee health insurance for everyone even if it means raising taxes
86% favor raising the minimum wage (including 79% of self-described “social conservatives”)
60% would reduce the deficit not by cutting domestic spending but by reducing Pentagon spending or raising taxes
77% think Big Oil is gouging consumers, and 80% (including 76% of Republicans) would support a windfall profits tax on the oil giants if the revenues went for more research on alternative fuels
69% agree that corporate off-shoring of jobs is bad for the U.S. economy, and only 22% believe it is good because it keeps costs down
55% now say invading Iraq was the “wrong thing to do”
69% believe America is on the wrong track (up from 60% in September), with only 26% saying it’s heading in the right direction
ADVENTURE STRIP HISTORY: ELUDICATION AND DISCOVERY
An invaluable reference for the general as well as the specialist reader, Ron Goulart’s The Adventurous Decade, which I mentioned last time, has been re-issued after thirty years in a lavishly illustrated paperback edition (192 9x12-inch pages, priced insidiously at $24.99, not $25). I raved about the illustrations last time, but the text alone is even more valuable for the afficionado of the medium, so this time, I’d like to dwell on that aspect of this sumptuous reincarnation. As I said when I reviewed the book in 1976, Goulart concentrates on the newspaper adventure strip in its golden age, the thirties. But he doesn’t confine himself to that decade. He places the adventure strip in context, leading up to the thirties by reviewing the development of the continuity strip in the late teens and through the twenties. And he sometimes carries on into the forties when the story of a certain cartoonist or strip would be rudely interrupted if it were concluded abruptly on New Year’s Eve 1939.
The research that clearly underlies every sentence is impressive. In addition to dating accurately many enterprises which had until this volume only the foggiest of origins, Goulart regales us with the names of every artist and writer to work on a strip. He rehearses the histories of the most well-known adventure strips—Wash Tubbs (Captain Easy), Tarzan, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Terry and the Pirates, etc.—enriching our fund of historical knowledge about virtually every one of them. And he also gives us, in similarly unstinting detail, the histories of many lesser known, and sometimes nearly unknown, adventure strips of the day. There are mounds of gleaming nuggets of knowledge to be mined from this book, little gems of fact: like the fact that Noel Sickles designed the logo for Terry, or that Walter Scott (of The Little People fame) drew the Sunday Captain Easy during the forties, or that Red Ryder is a re-named and slightly more square-jawed Bronc Peeler, that Smilin’ Jack acquired his moustache years after the strip began (he first grew it as a temporary disguise), that the Dragon Lady made her debut before Terry was two months old (she appeared in the first Sunday adventure; Sundays told a separate story from the dailies in those fond days), and on and on. Some of these glittering tid-bits are old news now, but that’s because Goulart found them and shared them with us in this book thirty years ago.
Goulart lavishes several affectionate paragraphs on some of my favorites, which have everywhere else been neglected: Leslie Turner with his masterful continuation of Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs (later, Captain Easy) and Frank Miller (and Bob Naylor) with his beautifully hachured Barney Baxter. Mel Graff gets long over-due recognition for his graphic achievements on Secret Agent X-9 and Patsy. And Goulart fondly champions the work of Carl Pfeufer on Don Dixon, a Flash Gordon simulacrum. Goulart doesn’t mention every adventure strip of the thirties. He omits those whose initial emphasis was on humor (like Alley Oop, Oaky Doaks, Big Chief Wahoo and others). And some strips are dated less precisely than others. But this is a majestically minor matter, easily elbowed out of the room by the book’s over-all excellences.
If the book has a fault, it is not Goulart’s fault. It is, rather, a fault that grows out of the very extent of information that is also its surpassing virtue. Goulart’s exhaustive research has seemingly uncovered the name of every ghost who ever did someone else’s work without getting credit for it. And often, according to Goulart, the ghost did better work than the bylined cartoonist. He attributes the improvement of the art in Flash Gordon to Alex Raymond’s employing an assistant, Austin Briggs, an veteran illustrator of pulp magazines, who, Goulart alleges, was a better artist than his boss. That may have been true a few years before they met, but that is no longer the case by the time Briggs started working for Raymond: any close examination of the work of the two artists at that point reveals that Raymond was the superior. But his earliest efforts on Flash were not at all impressive, which leads Goulart to conclude that Raymond learned from Briggs, even implying that Briggs may have done some of the drawing for a time. Not likely. Raymond’s early Flash was not at all as spectacular as it became, but the improvement was effected, as Goulart himself says, by Raymond’s aping John LaGatta and Matt Clark, illustrators in slick magazines. Briggs’ journeyman mannerisms were not in the same class as LaGatta and Clark and could therefore hardly have been Raymond’s inspiration. I’ve quarreled with Ron about this on other occasions, and I’m sure I’ve never quite persuaded him of the accuracy of my point of view. (Raymond’s growth as an artist is thoroughly traced in my book, The Art of the Funnies, previewed here.) But that is beside the point at hand. At hand is the impression created by Goulart’s roll call of ghosts: it seems, after a few choruses of Goulart’s gotchas, that every bylined cartooner kept a ghost in the attic of his studio. The inevitable incidental impression created by these revelations is that the accomplishments of the medium’s notables are undermined: if they didn’t do it solo, then the achievement is diminished. In the interest of historical accuracy, the mythologies surrounding certain luminaries in the history of the medium need to be dissolved with fact, no question. And Goulart has taken us several light years down the road to this destination. If the effect of his debunking is to reveal that some famous artists have hands of clay, that is unfortunate but it is the effect of standing them in the bright light of factual history, and that is scarcely Goulart’s fault. But the impression lingers, nonetheless, that many of the medium’s historic heroes are hollow men. And many are, indeed. But many are not, their employment of uncredited assistants notwithstanding.
The book is one of the most enjoyable reads you’ll encounter. Goulart’s easy-going prose style, highly colloquial with flashes of hip and illuminating wit, slides effortlessly by. With its anecdotes about cartoonists, random summaries of selected storylines, short biographies of artists and writers as well as strip heroes, Goulart’s text alone is purely invaluable. But now, amply illustrated—often from original art—the book is a veritable treasure trove of comics history. In this rectangular incarnation, bound on the short side, its pages amply display at generous dimension the horizontal art; and occasionally, strips in their original art are printed across two-page spreads, probably at close to the size of the originals. In his short introduction, Goulart says he did not revise any of the text of the 1975 edition, but he notes and corrects “the few errors of fact and judgment” that he has become aware of. The pictures in this edition are equal to the text as insightful history, a package hard to come by in these days of so much slapdash, haphazard, ill-informed history. When The Adventurous Decade was first published in 1975 in 6x9-inch format, I said it was “the best little book about comics to come out in years.” That’s still true, but now, with lavish illustration, it’s the best big book about comics to come out in years.
Among the book’s accomplishments is putting the adventure strip firmly in its proper historical niche. The adventure strip that matured in the thirties found manifestation in dozens of endeavors—not just in Terry, Flash Gordon, Tarzan, Buck Rogers, and Dick Tracy. And Goulart gives us chapter and verse on a lot of these other efforts. Moreover, he ties the origins of the adventure strip to the continuity strip—and the continuity strip to its origins, the movies. Serials in the movies pulled in audiences. And newspapers, competing frantically for greater readership, jumped on the serial bandwagon, printing serialized fiction by weekly or daily installments— hoping thereby to bring back today’s reader to buy tomorrow’s newspaper. And the next day’s and the next day’s. Tarzan, which is often dubbed the first adventure strip, debuted on January 7, 1929, but it was not, strictly speaking, a comic strip. It was a string of illustrations with narrative typeset text beneath; it was one of the numerous illustrated serialized works of fiction then available in syndication to newspapers. Incidentally, it was with syndicated serial fiction that Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson got his start after being cashiered from the U.S. Army in 1925. He launched his own syndicate in October, offering adaptations of The Three Musketeers and Treasure Island and the like. He went broke soon thereafter and disappeared, to re-emerge a decade later as publisher of a pamphlet of comic strips entitled Fun Comics. He encored with several other titles and got in debt to his printer Harry Donenfeld, who, as we all know, took over the comic book line, which eventually became DC Comics.
Meanwhile, in newspapers, once the principle of serialization was applied to one feature of the daily newspaper—prose fiction—it didn’t take long to reach another, the comics page. Goulart mentions some early strips (Desperate Desmond, Hairbreadth Harry, even Little Nemo) as establishing the continuity precedent upon which the adventure strip is based, and he deals at some length with Ed Wheelan’s Midget (later Minute) Movies, a parody of motion picture serials that began on April 8, 1918. But he judiciously avoids naming any single strip as “the first adventure strip,” reasoning that this kind of innovation doesn’t emerge all at once in its full-blown glory. From an assortment of precedents, certain patterns emerge, and the end-product that is the adventure strip represents the final configuration of certain of these patterns, the tying together of several erstwhile separate threads. Goulart doesn’t identify specifically any of these threads. If he had done so, he would have approached a definition of the adventure strip. And if he had defined it, he might have tried to name the first of its kind. But he does neither. His argument against there being a single first strip that emerged like Botticelli’s Venus, whole, intact, all at once, is sound. Much as I admire the wisdom of his reasoning and his restraint in avoiding the kind of quibbling that naming of firsts fosters, I can’t resist the temptation myself.
Although neither Tarzan nor Buck Rogers, which was launched on the same day, is any longer considered the first adventure strip, each contains the essential ingredients of the genre: (1) continuity, (2) serious story, (3) realistic artwork, and (4) exotic locale or incident—that is, out-of-the-ordinary “adventures” as opposed to the fundamentally domestic trauma of the soap opera strip. These ingredients are present variously in an assortment of early strips. Here, in chronological order, are some likely candidates, drawn from a list in my 1976 review of Decade, supplemented by Allan Holtz’s superlatively researched article in Hogan’s Alley, No. 10 (2002): Hairbreadth Harry (October 21, 1906), Midget Movies (April 8, 1918), The Gumps (February 12, 1917), Jack Davis’ Adventures (July 7, 1922), Wash Tubbs (April 14, 1924), Little Orphan Annie (August 5, 1924), Phil Hardy (November 1925), Oliver’s Adventures, Craig Kennedy, Ben Webster, Swiss Family Robinson (all in 1926, says Holtz), Bobby Thatcher (March or May 1927), and Jack Lockwill’s Adventures and Little Annie Roonie (both 1927 Holtz says), Schooldays (March 1928), Tailspin Tommy (May 14, 1928)—sixteen in all, and all before Tarzan and Buck Rogers. Holtz discovered by happy accident a 17th, perhaps the earliest manifestation of the genre, and we’ll get to that anon.
Each of these contains one or two of the necessary elements of an adventure strip, but only 11 of the 16 contain them all. Both Hairbreadth Harry and Midget Movies are continuing strips, featuring exotic events with artwork as realistic as the graphic conventions of the day required (not illustrative artwork, mind you: that refinement on realism was left for Tarzan). But neither strip told its story with complete seriousness. Some of the stories in The Gumps were told with heart-rending seriousness, but the usual ingredients were hardly exotic. The same applies to the early Little Orphan Annie. Holtz disagrees. He also disagrees with the inestimable Bill Blackbeard, who argues convincingly that “it is the imminence and actuality of real (not comically exaggerated or spoofed) suffering, hardship and death that form the crux of the realistic adventure strip.” In his introduction to a reprint volume of Bobby Thatcher, Blackbeard says Annie doesn’t qualify as an adventure strip because it offers “no threat, fear and display of realistic violence, demonstrably able to injure and kill the artist’s sympathetic characters.” In Holtz’s view, the crucial consideration is the creator’s intent, and as he reads Annie, the creator, Harold Gray, clearly intended his strip to be read as his orphan heroine’s ongoing adventure. Eventually, Annie is as menaced by death and dismemberment as any hairy-chested macho male soldier of fortune, but at first, dire though Annie’s predicament in the orphanage is, it is not threatening enough, in my view, to qualify the strip as an early entry in the adventure genre. I disqualify Little Annie Roonie for the same reason.
Of the remaining contenders, Wash Tubbs has for the last twenty years or so been considered the first adventure strip. NEA, the syndicate that distributed it, called it “the original adventure strip” in 1929 ads that were addressed to newspaper editors who doubtless knew about Tarzan and Buck Rogers. The implication is that at least the syndicate knew what sort of strip it had; moreover, it thought editors were likely to agree. Crane, who never struck me as particularly egotistical, thought he had invented the adventure strip and was markedly disappointed to learn, from Jim Ivey, who edited the first reprint collection of Wash, that there had been earlier manifestations of the breed. But Wash didn’t start as an adventure strip: it was, at first, a humorous treatment of the antic gyrations of a clerk in a grocery store as he pursues one winsome damsel after another, all to no avail. Crane quickly tired of this routine, however, and sent Wash off to the South Sea islands in the fall of 1924. Still, Wash’s adventures were played mostly for laughs, or at least chuckles, at his expense until early in 1928 when Crane introduced the villainous Bull Dawson, a genuine bad guy whose bullying of Wash and his sidekick is sadistic enough to threaten life as well as limb. Even before that, in October 1926, when Wash fell overboard and was left floating alone in the middle of the ocean, his life is clearly at risk. At that point, Wash Tubbs contained all the ingredients I’ve considered essential to the adventure strip.
It can be argued that Wash is too humorous to qualify for the seriousness we expect in an adventure strip. True: Crane always mined the humorous vein in his material, and the innate exuberance of his diminutive hero turned many threatening incidents into incipient comedy. But the dangers were presented as real—not mock—threats to life and limb, and with that, the strip achieves all the seriousness necessary to an adventure strip. Whether or not Crane’s artwork was realistic enough is also open to debate, I suppose. Wash, at least, was something of a cartoon creation. But then, so was Milton Caniff’s Connie in Terry—and, later, Hotshot Charlie. So I don’t think we can disqualify Wash Tubbs on the grounds of unrealistic artwork. I think, rather, that the artwork in Wash is as realistic as we can expect of strips of its vintage. Certainly, the bloody fights Bull Dawson engages in are as realistically portrayed as anything in early Buck Rogers. Still, there are other strips that were earlier with exoticism, death threats, serious continuing stories, and attempts at realistic rendering—Phil Hardy, Oliver’s Adventures, and the rest of the 1926 roster above—so maybe Wash Tubbs isn’t the first adventure strip after all.
Holtz, trapped in the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh on a rainy day and passing the time by cranking away at a microfilm reader, happily chanced upon another candidate with an even earlier launch date: Bobby the Boy Scout, Holtz tells us, began August 21, 1911, long before even Jack Davis, the other serious contender for first place. Judging from the sample strip that accompanies Holtz’s Hogan Alley revelation, Bobby was rather clumsily rendered—albeit with the acceptable conventions for realistic illustration in newspapers of the day—and the pictures were accompanied by typeset text beneath. The story was carried entirely by the text in this specimen, so the pictures amounted to illustrations of a prose narrative—in short, an illustrated narrative rather than a comic strip. But Allan tells me that the published example was not typical of the strip; typically, he says, the pictures often contributed narrative content not present in the text. The blend of the visual and the verbal therefore qualify Bobby as a comic strip. And it contains the requisite array of ingredients for an adventure strip. Ergo, Bobby the Boy Scout is the first adventure strip. Well, yes and no.
The “first” of anything usually implies a pioneering function: the pioneer is the first in a parade, the drum major leading the band, a pace-setter showing the way to others following in its footsteps. Coulton Waugh, in his venerable history of the medium, The Comics, invokes what he calls the Columbus Principle: even if Columbus wasn’t the first European to set foot in the Western Hemisphere, his achievement inspired others and earned him a niche in history. Bobby the Boy Scout, undeniably a very early adventure strip (perhaps, barring further discoveries, the very first of the breed), blazed no trails that anyone followed. Neither did Jack Davis. If either had served as such an inspirational first, we’d have known about them long before Allan Holtz dug them out of the amber microfilm. Wash Tubbs, on the other hand, inspired a host of adventure strip cartoonists. And after Captain Easy arrived in the strip on May 6, 1929, Crane’s role in the history of the medium was secure. Captain Easy was the role model for Dynamite Dan Flynn in Caniff’s Dickie Dare and for Pat Ryan in Terry. He was Uncle Phil in Graff’s Patsy. He was Slam Bradley in a comic book feature of that name by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Slam Bradley even had a short sidekick like Wash. And Clark Kent looks just like Slam Bradley. If we operate under the Columbus Principle, Wash Tubbs is the first adventure strip. Goulart, I think, tacitly agrees: the first full chapter in his book devoted to a single strip he gives to Wash Tubbs. I’ll leave it at that—adding only that Crane’s history is perpetrated in our Hindsight Department, here; and in a long chapter in the aforementioned Art of the Funnies, previewed here.
Oh—and, finally, speaking of adventure strips, I’m up to page 1550 in revising the 1900-page typescript of my biography of Milton Caniff. Slated to be published in the summer or fall of 2007 in time to help celebrate the centennial anniversary of Caniff’s birth, it’s on schedule so far.
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE
Warren Ellis’ Nextwave is another in what I’ve come to regard as a string of compelling Ellis titles, each distinct from the others but all performed with intelligence and panache. Here, we have tongue-in-cheek wit and hilarious satire as well as danger and action. This is one of those comic books that makes you hug yourself in delight: this is what paginated cartooning can be. Nextwave is an anti-terrorist team recruited by General Dirk Anger, the splenetic director of H.A.T.E. (Highest Anti-Terrorism Effort). Anger is one bad guy. When we meet him, he’s introducing himself to a squad of trainees, saying: “Every day, I smoke two hundred cigarettes and one hundred cigars and drink a bottle of whisky and three bottles of wine with dinner. And dinner is meat. Raw meat. The cook serves me an entire animal and I fight it bare-handed and tear off what I want and eat it and have the rest buried. In New Jersey.” That’s how bad he is.
Nextwave is led by Monica Rambeau (“Rambo”), “a veteran super hero previously known as Captain Marvel, whose mother always wanted her to get a proper job, so she joined H.A.T.E. When her mother died, she went to Hell, and is used as a bucket by giant weasels dressed as cheerleaders. And that’s what happens when you tell your kids to get a proper job.” Monica’s on a tear because she’s just learned H.A.T.E. is funded by Beyond Corporation, which is the equivalent of a terrorist cell. Anger defends himself by saying it was “an open bidding process” involving “faith-based funding.” We’re only up to page 7, and we’ve already witnessed a jab at the Bush League and several volleys at traditional Marvel superheroics, macho America, and bad parenting as the cause of all evil in the world. It’s enough to make you squirm in ecstasy.
Issue No. 1 begins with another great Ellis opener: we meet “Elsa Bloodstone, and The Captain, in Abcess, North Dakota,” where they’re having a drink on the terrace and discussing The Captain’s obscene name: he insists on calling himself Captain XXXX. Then they begin speculating about the function of a massive construction project looming over the town of Abcess. (“Abcess”? In North Dakota? Beautiful.) Leaving us dangling with the assumption that some sort of weapon of mass destruction is being manufactured, Ellis jumps right into Dirk Anger’s screed to the trainees, then to Monica’s defection. The book includes several dramatic wordless sequences, an Ellis trade-mark, as well as a hand-to-hand fight between Elsa and a robot, fraught with a comedic spoof of the old Stan Lee inspired combat repartee. “I shall kick you to death with slippers on so it doesn’t hurt so much,” says Elsa as she snatches the robot’s weapon away from it. “I’m an awful liar, aren’t I, darling?” she concludes.
Meanwhile, the factory on the hill overlooking Abcess collapses as the earth opens up and a green dragon wearing purple underpants comes burbling out of the crevasse. This is Fin Fang Foom, another jubilant dig at vintage Marvel, who has been “burning with the need to mate since 1956" but “has absolutely no genitals whatsoever.” “Oh, XXXX,” says Captain XXXX. And Elsa agrees: “AbsoXXXXlutely, darling.” At just this point in the whirligig narrative, Ellis interrupts to announce: “Nextwave is a superhero comic about five people who have just minutes to prevent a town from being eaten by a giant lizard monster in purple underpants.” Stuart Immonen’s pencils yield modernistic angular figures and faces (he’s every bit as good at facial expression as Amanda Connor) that Wade von Grawbadger inks crisply, cleanly, in an art nouveau manner (lately associated with “retro” style), and Dave McCaig colors, introducing geometric modulations that add depth to the visuals. Great fun, well served. Can’t wait for the next issue.
The sixth issue of Paul Jenkins’ Revelations concludes the mini-series, sumptuously drawn and painted in subdued, modulated hues by Humberto Ramos, who deploys a variety of hip hop visual mannerisms to excellent effect—baggy pants, bulging foreheads, lantern jaws, angular anatomy. Charlie Northern, you’ll remember, was brought from his comfortable gig as a detective in England to the Vatican to investigate the mysterious demise of a priest named Richleau, who fell to his death from a balcony. Apart from the mystery to be solved, the story creates tension by pitting Charlie’s lack of faith against the rest of the cast, most of whom are higher ups in the Catholic hierarchy—an antagonistic non-believer spewing blasphemies among the passionately faithful. But the chorus of Charlie’s anti-Catholic screed is Jenkins’ Trojan horse: Charlie’s atheism perpetuates the mystery, which can be solved only by an act of the faith Charlie denies. To explain the priest’s death, Charlie must believe in the religious mythologies that include an active agent of evil, the Devil himself. And in solving the mystery, Charlie gets his faith back. But Jenkins is scarcely proselytizing here. His argument is deft and clever, but it leads to a disturbing conclusion. That faith Charlie acquires includes the conviction that evil is an active presence in the world. Charlie muses: “I’ve just found out what happens when a man gets given the very thing he thinks he wanted. Not faith, but proof. If you get proof,” he goes on, “you lose hope.” Nicely done. This issue is extremely talky: all the “action” is conversation. Ramos’ visuals, however, redeem the situation: he moves his camera around, changing perspective and distance constantly, and when the characters are in the airport, we see other faces in the milling crowd, each distinctively rendered and given a vivid individual expression suggesting an untold story.
Down No. 3, Warren Ellis’ tale about a female tough-guy cop gone undercover to bring to justice another undercover cop who joined the mob, is drawn by Cully Hammer, whose crisp, clean rendering I like a lot—muscular outline, flexing line to show volume and shape, minimal feathering and detailing. Our heroine, Deanna, is sent by the copy gone bad, Nick, to rub out some troublesome underlings, resulting in one of Ellis’ patented wordless action sequences. I’d like to know how he maps these out for his visual collaborators. Deanna doesn’t get all the bad guys: some escape and head for Nick, intending to take him out. Deanna, committed, now, on Nick’s side, goes after them—almost as if she’s forgotten that he’s the outlaw she’s supposed to corral.
In Spider-Man and the Black Cat No. 5 (of 6), we get another healthy dose of the ever languorous lines of Terry and Rachel Dodson and more pictures of the zaftig Black Cat as the teleporter Francis reveals he was sexually abused as a child. And in Chicano No. 2, we have more of Eduardo Risso’s surpassing black-and-white renderings of a sardonic crime story by Carlos Trillo about the dwarf female detective, whose gift seems to be to bumble out of the various troubles she bumbles into. A visual treat inspired by a sense of humor as twisted as O. Henry’s.
Earthboy Jacobus (300-plus 6x10-inch pages; black-and-white paperback, $17.95) is an eruption of an sf graphic novel with bug-eyed monsters galore, but in this heady conflagration, cartoonist Doug TenNapel sets off flares of love and loyalty, loss and redemption, skepticism and faith, the everlasting power of father-son relationships, and the need to belong. The story begins on the day Modesto Police Chief Edwards retires, and as he drives homeward, gloomily contemplating his lonely future, he runs into a flying whale, killing it. In the whale's belly, he finds a boy named Jacobus, a fugitive from a parallel world. Chief takes the boy home and undertakes raising him. He sends him to school and teaches him to hunt. And to fight. The inhabitants of the parallel world, ectoids, try to retrieve Jacobus, but the boy doesn't want to go. He and Chief battle the aliens and, temporarily, win. By the end of Part One of the book, Jake calls Chief "father," and the old man calls Jake "son." But this filial relationship seems about to shatter as Part Two introduces us to the adolescent Jacobus, smoking cigarettes and sassing his father. When the ectoids return, however, father and son are united in the struggle against them. The battle takes them into the ectoid world, and at the end of Part Two, Chief is swallowed up by the all-devouring Army Mouth, leaving Jake to fend for himself. Part Three begins eight years later, with the mature Jacobus a sort of solitary samurai, fighting a one-man war against the ectoids.
A fighting Marine Corps ethos runs through the tale: Chief and his best friend on the police force, Noah Walsh, were in the Corps together. Walsh, a chaplain, saved Chief's life, but Chief is a defiant anti-religionist: he blames God for the accidental drowning death of his biological son some years before and his wife's subsequent departure. Chief and "Chappie" are bound by "Semper Fidelis," however, and Chief eventually saves Chappie from a life as an ectoid. To Chief, "Jesus is just another fairy tale—an invented savior," but when Jacobus arrives, the old man displays a glimmer of faith: looking up at the sky, he whispers, "You gave me another boy." A second chance.
There's a happy-ever-after ending—including, with its satisfyingly circular maneuver, another visit to the belly of a whale-like ectoid creature. And even Jake's weird hand is pressed into thematic service. Finally, in a round of weddings and births, the cycle of life asserts itself as the book concludes (albeit not without a menacing invocation of that parallel ectoid world). But apart from the complexity of TenNapel's thematic interweavings, the book's most distinguishing feature is its stunning artwork. TenNapel wields a juicy brush, splashing his pictures across the pages with raw energy. His style is angular; his line, bold and brusque. He embellishes with a filagree line, and details are often rendered with the finest tracery. But his thickest lines seem often dashed off, the brush running dry in the artist's haste to get strokes on the paper. On a back-cover blurb, Mike Mignola of Hellboy fame sees Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) in TenNapel's graphic gyrations, and TenNapel's cartoony mannerisms do indeed suggest, without imitating, the Watterson techniques. But TenNapel uses solid black in ways Watterson never imagined. "Chiaroscuro" is the name given to the deployment of light and dark in the graphic arts. In cartooning, the most celebrated of the practitioners of this technique was Milton Caniff, who modeled forms by laying in solid black as shadow. TenNapel, however, uses black for visual contrast, not for shadow. Light sources are of no concern to him: the artistic preoccupation is to heighten the visual impact of white space by ladling in heavy black areas—and vice versa. Background detail disappears in black solids; silhouettes, both black against white and white against black, are frequent. The combination of techniques—cartoony rendering, lots of solid black—leaves a little to be desired in the depiction of the bug-eyed monsters: we're not familiar with their anatomy, and since TenNapel's style obscures rather than clarifies such visual evidence, the monsters are often little more than vague, menacing shapes. This shortcoming, however, matters little in the long run: the raw energy of TenNapel's art underscores the savagery of the fighting and the starkness of the struggle, and that is enough to carry the narrative. We don't miss the anatomy lesson, and the story's thematic messages ring out like a change of bells.
UNDER THE SPREADING PUNDITRY
What alarms us most about George W. (“Wiretapper”) Bush is not that he ordered electronic eavesdropping—that’s been done by presidents before. And presidents have tapped wires without a warrant before, too. Wiretapping began almost as soon as we had telephones: J. Edgar Hoover ordered the phones of bootleggers tapped during the 1920s. Congress outlawed the oversightless practice in 1932, but Franklin Roosevelt started in again before World War II, listening to “persons suspected of subversive activity.” Harry Truman continued spying on subversives during the post-WWII Red Scare days. All without a warrant. But GeeDubya’s wiretapping is a symptom of his scariest trait: he thinks he’s a law unto himself. He’s convinced that as president—or, more precisely, as Commander-in-Chief—he can do pretty much whatever he wants to do without the express permission of any other governmental body, as long as he can say whatever he’s doing has something to do with the so-called “war on terror.” It’s that war that activates his Constitutional powers as Commander-in-Chief. No war, no Commander-in-Chief. But since George W. (“Warlord”) Bush is the one who declared the war on terror, he also gave himself the powers of a wartime president, the Commander-in-Chief. He is, therefore, the law unto himself. When he signed the so-called McCain anti-torture amendment, he issued a “signing statement” that stipulates that he has the right to ignore the amendment whenever he so chooses under the Constitutional authority as Commander-in-Chief. This statement is one of more than 500 he’s issued to expand his powers. New York University law professor David Golove told the Boston Globe: “The Bush signing statement is saying, ‘I will only comply with this law when I want to ... I have the authority to do so and nothing in this law is going to stop me.’” With a monarchical attitude of Divine Right like that, this guy is no longer a joke: he’s a hazard. And he’s a hazard to the future if not the present: will his successors extend the license GeeDubya has appropriated to himself? And to what ends?
One of the Constitutional obligations of the U.S. President is that he “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” George W. (“Willful”) Bush can be impeached for failure to do so. He’s already failed to execute the laws of the land at least twice: in the spring of 2001, he issued an executive order (that’s a fiat or proclamation, depending upon how publicly it is enunciated) establishing a procedure for gaining access to presidential papers that virtually blocks their release—in direct contradiction of the Presidential Records Act and an executive order by Ronald Reagan; and he misappropriated funds that Congress had designated for the Afghanistan military campaign, diverting $700 million to the construction of a military staging area in Kuwait from which the invasion of Iraq could be launched—and this was well before anyone had even started talking, publicly, about Saddam’s WMD and the imperative we had to invade. GeeDubya had long-standing plans, you may be sure, to “take out Saddam,” and he began putting those plans into effect as soon as he was sworn in. Part of those plans included concocting some sort of reason for the invasion that he could foist off on the body politic. He was just waiting for the right opportunity to come along. September 11 gave him the opportunity. In the Bush League, it’s the Wild West all over again, but GeeDubya isn’t just a cowboy: he’s an outlaw.
Oh, yeah: and the Bushies aren’t going to tell Congress what they discovered about why the response to Katrina was so pathetic, citing executive confidentiality. “Executive confidentiality” means “I don’t dare tell you what I’ve been up to because it’s as illegal as hell.” Can’t fool me. Not any more.
A poll conducted by Zoby International discerned that 52% of all Americans say Congress should “consider” impeaching GeeDubya if he wiretapped American citizens without court approval. Alas, the Bush League has so successfully wrapped this Constitutional indiscretion in CYA, in particular the alleged briefings given to a “bi-partisan” gaggle of Congressional leaders, that the issue is entirely too obscure for legal action. Noxious as it may be, an American president probably has the right to eavesdrop on citizens if he does the right dance steps on the way to the phone; and GeeDubya, I think, probably did. This time. The terrifying factoid lurking in the background, however, is that we now possess the technical sophistication to eavesdrop on virtually any electronic conversation anyone may have. What’s to prevent a power-mad politician in the White House from listening in on his political foes, real and imagined? And the Bush League policy on wiretapping without a warrant paves the way for absolutely unbridled invasion of the privacy of every American. Who knows how far GeeDubya’s successor will take this?
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