Opus 181 (April 10, 2006). Copyright battles, forgeries, law suits, and Reuben nominees capture our attention this time. And we also review an obscure but helpful book about African-American comics and cartoonists and the annual Pelican production, Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year, plus a couple of comic strip reprints, and we rehearse the history of Humor Times. En route to these destinations, we make a few stops; here’s what’s here, in order: NOUS R US —Maybe the Siegels own Superboy, a cartooning forger makes a Rockwell, the anti-Semitic cartoon contest in Iran, Ted Rall poised to sue Ann Coulter, The Boondocks diminishing client list, the scientific basis of superheroic prowess affirmed in La-la Land, the Islamic faith revived by the Danish Dozen; AWARDS SEASON— Reuben nominees and Pulitzer possibilities; BOOK MARQUEE —A new Will Elder collection, a book about African-American comics and cartooners, the latest Spirit archive; Rosenbach Company, a musical by cartoonist Ben Katchor and Mark Mulcahy; FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE —Superheroine anatomy and reviews of first issues of Blue Beetle, Tag and Bink II, Pat Novak, Batman: Year 100, and Anthem; COMIC STRIP WATCH —Cross-over cameos in several strips and the new writer on Dick Tracy; EDITOONERY —Review of Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year compared to Best Political Cartoons of the Year; REPRINTZ —Reviews of books of Frazz and Big Top; MONTHLY POLITICAL HILARITIES —Humor Times; and then, the usual Bushwah. And our usual reminder: 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
All the News that Gives Us Fits
The tangled web of Superman’s legal ownership continues to snarl and twist. On March 23, Judge Harold S.W. Lew of the Ninth Circuit District Court in Los Angles ruled that the Warner Brothers’ tv series “Smallville” may be infringing upon the copyright to Superboy. According to articles collected at movieweb.com, “may” implies a certain measure of doubt: a final verdict, apparently, will depend upon whether “Smallville” is about Superboy or Clark Kent. Warner Bros contends that the series is about the teenage Clark Kent; and, in fact, the costumed superhero doesn’t appear in the show. Warner Bros plans to appeal the ruling. But embedded in Judge Lew’s ruling is another, more incendiary factoid—namely, that the descendants of Superman’s co-creator Jerry Siegel, his widow and daughter, own the copyright to Superboy. Acting under the provisions of the current copyright law, Joanne Siegel and her daughter Laura had, in 2002, given DC Comics/Time Warner notice that they were terminating Time Warner’s copyright on Superboy. That termination, in Lew’s opinion, went into effect November 17, 2004, which meant the Siegels had successfully recaptured Superboy rights. But their ownership doesn’t, in itself, mean they are entitled to share in the profits from the “Smallville” series since November 2004. If a jury subsequently determines that “Smallville” is about Superboy, not Clark Kent, then the Siegels can open a bank account; if the series is about Clark Kent, they needn’t bother. Moreover, Lew’s summary judgment is intended to addresses only the “Smallville” issue, not the question of copyright ownership. Despite his incidental finding about that ownership, the question of the Siegels’ termination of copyright with DC has yet to be resolved in court. Still, Lew’s finding opens a significant chink in DC’s legal armor, seems to me. The legal tussle over Superboy goes back to 1938, when Jerry Siegel concocted the character. But DC Comics (then National Periodicals) published nothing featuring the teenage Superman until 1945, while Siegel was in the military in the Pacific. After he returned to civilian life, he sued DC in 1947 over the ownership of Superboy. He won. Then in 1948, he transferred the copyright to DC in a $100,000 settlement he and his partner, Joe Shuster, reached over both Superman and Superboy. It was this ownership that the Siegels intended to terminate when they sent notice to DC in 2002. Siegel and Shuster had sought earlier, in 1973, to regain copyrights on Superman but lost in court two years later. Soon thereafter, as the “Superman” movie began to be touted, Siegel launched a public relations campaign to protest DC’s treatment of him and Shuster, resulting in Warner Communications awarding the duo pensions for life and credit as co-creators of Superman. Shuster died in 1992; Siegel, in 1996. Two more knots in the tangle: first, even if Siegel’s heirs eventually do get ownership of Superboy, DC still owns the trademark on Superboy, so no one else, regardless of ownership, can use the name as the title of, say, a comic book; second, in the currently running Infinite Crisis series, a version of Superboy turns out to be a villain, and in No. 6 of the series, both Superboys are killed, thus removing “Superboy” from the pantheon of DC’s superheroes and effectively foreclosing on any future effort the Siegels might make to cash in on the character as a DC enterprise.
Don Trachte told Jud Hurd in 1989 (Cartoonist PROfiles, No. 82) that he got into cartooning because he loved to draw. That was it. That was the chief motive. Turns out he painted as well as drew, and what he painted was Norman Rockwell paintings. Trachte got into cartooning in about 1934 when he visited a neighbor, Carl Anderson, and volunteered to assist him in the production of the comic strip Henry, which had just been syndicated by King Features after a two-year run in the Saturday Evening Post. Trachte assisted to a fare-thee-well. By the early 1950s, he had inherited the Sunday Henry, which he continued to produce through the 1980s and, even, into the 1990s. Trachte died last year at the age of 89, and among the things he left his sons was a Rockwell original painting. Entitled “Breaking Home Ties,” the canvas depicted a father, probably a farmer, seated on the running board of his truck with his son, who’s all dressed up, ready to leave for college. It was published on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post dated September 25, 1954, and was one of Rockwell’s most popular works. Trachte bought the painting from Rockwell in 1960 for $900; at the time, Trachte was a neighbor of Rockwell’s in Arlington, Vermont, and he’d even posed for the painter: he’s the school principal in the cover painting “Outside the Principal’s Office,” published May 23, 1953. As the sons contemplated the “Home Ties” painting after their father’s death, it seemed to them that it differed significantly from its published version. The boy’s face was different, and the coloration wasn’t quite the same. Eventually, the Associated Press reported, they became convinced that the painting was a fake. Later, while scouring his father’s studio, David Trachte noticed a gap in the wood paneling, and when he and his brother Don pulled the panel out, they discovered behind the phoney wall a cache of art—including the actual original “Home Ties” painting. The elder Trachte had evidently forged a copy of it, the one on display, in about 1973, when he was going through a bitterly fought divorce. Since property is always an issue in such proceedings, the speculation is that he made the copy so that if his wife was awarded the painting, he would release the forgery but keep the original, which he secreted away behind the paneling. He had several Rockwell originals, but, according to rumor, after the divorce, he possessed only two; the wife got the rest and probably sold them since they are no longer in the family. One account of the discovery of the original notes that several other paintings were found behind the fake wall. Were these Rockwells too? Didn’t say.
In Iran, the Hamshahri newspaper’s contest for Holocaust-related cartoons garnered some 700 entries from 200 people as of mid-March. The Associated Press reported that most submissions are from Iranians although six come from Americans. The contest was launched last month in response to the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in Europe where Holocaust deniers can be arrested and tried for their utterances but nothing happens to those who publish insults to Islam. The Iranian contest, which runs through May 15, ostensibly tests—or perhaps mocks—the West’s championing of free expression: will Western newspapers publish anti-Semitic and Holocaust-denial cartoons as readily as they did those blasphemous caricatures of Muhammad? One of the American cartoonists was Mike Flugennock, whose cartoon asks: “What has Ariel Sharon learned from the Holocaust?” Pictured are bulldozers razing Palestinian homes and an Israeli solider pointing a gun at a Palestinian protester’s head. Flugennock’s answer to his question: “Humiliation, tyranny, brutality, and murder.” The cartoonist insists the cartoon is not anti-Semitic but legitimate political commentary: it criticizes not the Jewish people or their religion but the Israel’s policy toward Palestinians. Said Flugennock: “It specifically addresses policies of the Israeli state with regard to its behavior in Palestine, and their similarities to the strategies employed by the Nazi regime in Warsaw and elsewhere.” His cartoon and his defense of it demonstrate the difficulty any political cartoonist has in commenting on the situation in Israel and Palestine: is criticism of Israel inherently anti-Semitic? In the abstract, most editooners would say, no. But with actual cartoons in evidence, the distinction is sometimes not clear.
It looks like Ted Rall will be suing Ann Coulter for slander and libel. Coulter has twice, once in print and once online, said that Rall (and Garry Trudeau and the New York Times) were “the only submissions” to the Iranian Holocaust cartoon contest. Soon after the first of these slanders, Rall announced on his blog that if he had the money, he’d sue. His fans mustered to the cause, pledging over $20,000 for legal fees. That is enough to start exploring legal options and strategies, Rall said, and that’s what he’s now doing with his attorneys. “I’m as much a free-speech purist as it comes,” Rall told Dave Astor at Editor & Publisher, “but in my opinion, this is not a free-speech issue. This is about hijacking my politics and trying to equate my opposition to the Bush administration with anti-Semitism and Holocaust revisionism. Ann Coulter is planting the seed among millions of readers that I’m a Holocaust revisionist [denier], which I’m not. I’m not going to tolerate that.” Coulter is notorious for snarling scabrous remarks about persons and positions she can’t stand—or understand, I assume. About the Danish Dozen riots, she wrote: “Muslims immediately engage in acts of mob violence when things don’t go their way. That is de rigueur for the Religion of Peace. ... So it’s not exactly a scoop that Muslims are engaging in violence. A front-page story would be ‘Offended Muslims Remain Calm.’” Shrieking on about the kid-glove treatment the Western press has afforded Muslim issues, she wondered if “the conventions of civilized behavior, personal hygiene, and grooming [are] inapplicable when Muslims are involved.” I tend to agree that in the current West-Middle East culture war, radical Islamists, as Coulter says, tend to use “the ‘offense against Islam’ ruse [as] merely an excuse for [Islamists but not all Muslims as she says] to revert to their default mode: rioting and setting things on fire,” but I don’t think that assessment, however accurate albeit oversimplified it may be, justifies the later remark about cleanliness and grooming. Coulter is so extreme in her pronouncements as to become a caricature of right-wing alleged thinking. Oddly—and this may tell us something about right-wing nuts—the caricature inspires applause among conservative enthusiasts, not scornful laughter, which usually results from the ridicule embodied in caricature.
According to Editor & Publisher, only about a third of the 300 newspapers carrying The Boondocks elected to publish reruns of the strip during Aaron McGruder’s six-month sabbatical. The rest of the papers are running other strips. One paper picked up Darrin Bell’s Candorville; a couple others, Wiley’s Non Sequitur. ... The Museum of London opened on April 1 an exhibition of visual satire produced about the city over three centuries. Entitled “Satirical London: 300 Years of Irreverent Images,” the show runs until September 3, displaying the work of William Hogarth, James Gillray, and Thomas Rowlandson among others. A “lavishing illustrated” paperback catalogue by curator Mark Bills is available. A museum of cartoon and comics art is also opening in London, but I lost the news release with the particulars; sorry. ... Craig Yoe, at his www.arflovers.com, made the startling announcement that Mutt and Jeff are gay. “I thought everyone knew,” Yoe said. And when you think about it—Jeff seems to live with Mutt, who is ostensibly married with a son, but when the situation calls for it, the two might be in a hotel room together. ... Houghton Mifflin is joining the trend: it’s adding a comics and graphic novel anthology to its “Best American” series with the October publication of The Best American Comics 2006. ... Starting April 3, the Chicago Defender inaugurated a new comics page with strips by African-Americans instead of its erstwhile fare of Mickey Mouse, Hazel, Henry and Popeye. The Defender, one of the nation’s stalwart Black newspapers, celebrated a century in publication last year.
On April 1, several “liberal” editorial cartoonists posted cartoons at Elena Steier’s http://americanblogress.com/rebel/praise.html praising GeeDubya to the skies. Said flaming liberal Ted Rall: “We’re asking Americans of all faiths to let go of the partisan rancor that we’ve helped fuel because we were annoyed at Bush over things like Iraq. Forget the national debt, Osama, torture, and all that stuff. We can, and so can you!” The explanation for this stunning mea culpa is contained entirely in the date. April Fool.
At the California Science Center, the “Marvel Super Heroes Science Exhibition” opened on April 2. According to Alex Chun at the Los Angeles Times, the exhibit “makes the case that, scientifically speaking, superhero powers aren’t as far-fetched as they once seemed.” For example, there’s an Iron Man-like “exosuit” that permits men to carry 650-pound packs. Said Nicola Lisus, spokeswoman for the show’s sponsor: “It’s amazing that the creators at Marvel thought this up 40 years before we started it.” Stan Lee is also amazed: “I never realized it before, but I’m a scientific genius,” he said. “When I was coming up with these characters, I didn’t have time to do any research because I was writing 12 comic books a month. I just knew things that anybody would know from reading the newspaper or reading books.”
Denmark will launch what the Associated Press calls a “massive campaign” to improve its global image, “which was tattered” by the publication of a dozen caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. According to Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the country’s prime minister, “We would have done so anyway, but the cartoon crisis has, of course, underlined the necessity of a reinforced marketing campaign.” The effort will market Denmark as a “creative and open nation, as a nation of education.” They will probably not use cartoon characters in the campaign. ... And in Saudia Arabia, outrage over the Danish Dozen has revived Islamic faith. Several new grass roots movements have sprung up to champion Muhammad and to manifest love for him. The spokesman for one of the groups, the International Committee for the Defense of the Final Prophet, is quoted by Faiza Saleh Ambah in the Washington Post National Weekly as believing that “this religious but peaceful activism could put an end to violence and drive groups like al-Qaeda out of business.” Until now, extremist groups have offered an attractive option for disaffected youth, but the spokesman said he is “very optimistic about this movement, this cartoon intifada. It has given people opportunities to take matters into their own hands and do something positive for their religion. It’s generating a very potent feeling, and it’s capable of destroying the pull and influence of groups like al-Qaeda.” The cartoons were, doubtless, only the trigger; but the ad hoc groups inspired by the rampaging may supplant in the Muslim world the Western-style civic institutions that have failed because they were not based on Islam culture and needs.
ALARUMS AND EXCURSIONS: Regular subscribers to this service should receive a notice in their e-mail box every other week or so, announcing the posting of the latest installment of Rants & Raves or Harv’s Hindsight. The subject line is invariably, “Hare’s Your Rabbit Habit.” If you haven’t received such a notice recently, it may be because your computer, perpetually enhanced by unseen digital gremlins working unbeknownst to you, has imported some sort of spam blocking mechanism that decides our notice is spam. In order to frustrate this barbarism, make sure that "email@example.com" is an allowed user in whatever e-mail client you use.
National Cartoonists Society Nominees. The NCS website lists five cartoonists who have been nominated for this year’s Reuben Award, the NCS designation as “cartoonist of the year”: Bill Amend (comic strip Foxtrot), Dave Coverly (panel cartoon Speed Bump), Brian Crane (comic strip Pickles), Mike Luckovich (editorial cartoons, Atlanta Journal-Constitution), and Dan Piraro (panel cartoon Bizarro). NCS also confers “division awards,” recognizing excellence in the various genre of cartooning. By genre, this year’s division nominees are: Magazine Gag Cartoons—Pat Byrnes, Gary McCoy, Glenn McCoy; Newspaper Panel Cartoons—Mark Parisi (Off the Mark), Hilary Price (Rhymes with Orange, which is actually published in strip format but as a single panel), Jerry Van Amerongen (Ballard Street); Newspaper Comic Strips—Jim Borgman and Jerry Scott (Zits), Michael Fry and T Lewis (Over the Hedge), Brooke McEldowney (9 Chickweed Lane); Advertising Illustration—Roy Doty, Jack Pittman, Kevin Pope; Animation Feature—Nick Park, director “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” Craig Kellman, character design “Madagascar,” Carlos Grangel, character design “Corpse Bride”; Book Illustration—David Catrow, Laurie Keller, Ralph Steadman; Editorial Cartoons—Jim Borgman, Michael Ramirez, John Sherffius (the latter two have both recently been “displaced” from their newspapers; Ramirez found a new home, Sherffius is freelancing and syndicating); Greeting Cards—Dan Collins, Gary McCoy, Stan Makowski; Magazine Feature Illustration—Steve Brodner, C.F. Payne, Tom Richmond; Newspaper Illustration—Greg Cravens, Nick Galifianakis, Bob Rich; Television Animation —Glen Murakami (“Teen Titans”), David Silverman (“The Simpsons”), Dave Wasson (“The Buzz on Maggie”); Comic Books— Paul Chadwick (Concrete, the Human Dilemma), Erik Larsen (Savage Dragon), Rick Geary (various titles, usually termed “graphic novels”). The winners in each category will be proclaimed during the annual Reuben Banquet on May 27, this year, in Chicago. At the same event, Ralph Steadman will receive the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award. And Dick Locher, who produces four editorial cartoons a week for Tribune Media Services while writing and drawing Dick Tracy, will receive the Silver T-Square in recognition of his life-long service to cartooning.
Rumors about nominees for the Pultizer Prize in editorial cartooning have begun circulating. Editor & Publisher speculated that likely candidates include: Jeff Danziger of the New York Times Syndicate, Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jeff Parker of Florida Today (Melbourne), Rob Rogers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau, and Nick Anderson of the Courier-Journal in Louisville (now at the Houston Chronicle). Anderson won last year and is therefore unlikely to repeat; Danziger just won the Herblock Award, but that didn’t disqualify Matt Davies of the Journal News in White Plains, New York, two years ago, so Danziger’s scarcely out of contention. I’d add Steve Sack of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, whose work has lobbed one brilliant visual metaphor after another at his readers all year. Artistically, he shifted a couple years ago to pencil-shaded drawings, and recently he’s launched into full color paintings. But it’s all idle speculation at this point; and by the time you read this, the actual nominees may have been announed. If so, you’ll read about it here next time.
The Week magazine, as good a weekly news report as you’re likely to encounter (which also uses a full-color painted cartoon as its cover), has announced through Editor & Publisher the winner of its Editorial Cartoonist of the Year competition in its third annual Opinion Awards:
Mike Luckovich, Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Runners-up are: Chip Bok, Akron Beacon Journal; David Horsey, Seattle Post-Intelligencer; Steve Kelley, Times-Picayune; Jack Ohman, The Oregonian. The Week also makes awards for Columnist of the Year and Blogger of the Year. The magazine believes it is qualified to make judgements about opinion mongers because it regularly condenses opinion columns in its news summaries, a maneuver that involves reading and screening scores of opinion pieces every week. Each issue of the magazine also offers a page or two of editorial cartoon commentary.
On April 4, saith E&P, Garry Trudeau received a lifetime achievement award from Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy for his focus in Doonesbury “on injured veterans from the Iraq War” that “touched a national chord.” Three other media practitioners, none from newspapers, were also cited, all for their Iraq War coverage or commentary.
Fascinating Footnote. Much of the news retailed in this segment 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.
Just out from Fantagraphics is Chicken Fat, a tidy (98 8x8-inch pages in paperback) collection of “drawings, sketches, cartoons and doodles” by Mad’s maniac ’tooning genius, Will Elder ($14.95). Lovingly assembled by Elder’s son-in-law, Gary VandenBergh, the little tome brims with gag cartoons (some rough, some finished), unsold comic strip ideas, satirical articles pitched to Pageant magazine in the 1960s (a major Elder outlet then) but not published, pencil sketches, color mock-ups and roughs, caricatures of political figures (Jimmy Carter as Mr. Peanut is a hoot), and, of course, Little Annie Fanny, in various states of anatomical magnificence. Copiously annotated throughout by VandenBergh, the book is a perfect companion to Fantagraphics’ earlier compendium, Will Elder: Mad Playboy of Art, also still available.
For as long as I’ve known him, Bill Foster, known in more dignified circles as William H. Foster III, has been working steadily at a comprehensive history of Black cartoonists and Black characters in comics. I haven’t known him all that long, but the assignment he’s given himself is massive enough to have consumed as much of his time as he can spare from his day job as a professor of English and Communications at Naugatuck Valley Community College. All the while, he’s been writing short articles and doing interviews on the subject hither and yon. At last, many of these fugitive gems have been collected in Looking for a Face Like Mine: The History of African Americans in Comics (98 6x9-inch pages in paperback, $9.95; www.finallyinfullcolor.com). Among the essays I enjoyed most is his interview with and tribute to Richard “Grasshopper” (or “Grass”) Green, one of early comics fandom’s most prolific and talented cartoonists who produced his own comic books for years—an inspiration and a gentleman, and a musician as well as a cartooner. In a succession of essays, Foster lists some landmark comics produced by Black cartoonists, reviews comic books about racism, and discusses numerous Black comics characters and gives their histories. He examines the presence of Blacks in comics as well as their absence. The last piece in the book is about Black female characters, which Foster concludes: “Hopefully, this brief but colorful showcase will encourage both longtime and brand new readers of comic books to keep an eye out for images of Black women in comics. They are indeed out there and worthy of reading, enjoying and sharing. The best thing about the increasing number of characters of color today is that with so many to choose from, no one character has to carry the impossible mantle of ‘a credit to you race.’ As a long-time comic book reader and collector, I feel that a character, whatever his/her racial or ethnic background, should be able to represent his or herself and not have to be a spokesperson or a stereotype. I live for the day when a good, well-written story with strong characters is its own reward.” And Foster is optimistic that the day he is waiting for will come. “I have a very long view,” he writes, “and I look at how much things have changed since the beginning of comics to the present day.” By way of assisting us all to that consummation devoutly to be wished, Foster provides a short guide to determining whether a given work, a comic book or film, is racist, beginning with descriptions of the traditional racial stereotypes in mass entertainment. Relying upon film researcher Donald Bogle’s work, Foster defines the five categories of stereotypes “used in mainstream media’s representation of Blacks in films and comics”: (1) “Tom” or “Uncle Tom,” the “socially acceptable Good Negro” who suffers in silence and good humor; (2) “Coon,” the Black buffoon, a figure of fun whose appearance and antics inspire laughter; (3) “Tragic Mulatto,” the self-hating half-breed, the only one of the five that doesn’t appear in comics because that “would necessarily include a blunt discussion of interracial sex”; (4) “Mammy,” the large bossy but somehow motherly female, trying to keep her good-for-nothing husband in line; and (5) “Brutal Black Buck,” an evil savage and sexual predator whose desire to “wreck havoc on all white people” results invariably in his being killed “because he represents too much of a danger to white society.” Using these categories as points of entry, Foster then poses three questions that should be asked about images of Blacks in comics. First, are any of the traditional stereotypes present? Second, is the image presented as parody or reality? And third, are the images of Black people presented as a deliberate attempt to reinforce the negative image, the “otherness” of Blacks? “Has the artist created a world where everyone represented some humorous stereotype or has he singled out African Americans for particular negative treatment?” Until we have Foster’s magnum opus, we’ll have to be content, happily so, with this modest volume. Modest but informative and very helpful.
The latest DC archival compendium of Will Eisner’s The Spirit, Volume 18, reprints the famed Sunday strip from January 2 to June 26, 1949, by which time Eisner had honed his storytelling and graphic skills to their epitome, in my opinion. This is the really good stuff, and this series of books is also a much better example of the reprint effort than most of DC’s archives series. In the first place, the visuals are reproduced either from Eisner’s originals or high quality prints thereof, so the linework is not blotchy or matted, as it is so often in the typical archive volumes. Moreover, the paper stock in the Eisner books is off-white, almost cream color, so the appearance of the pages is much less garish than the usual run-of-the-mill archive book. In short, a superior product, from both artistic (visual storytelling) and printing perspectives.
‘The Rosenbach Company,’ Ben Katchor and Mark Mulcahy’s Strange Musical
I don’t usually lift whole articles, hip and thigh, for reprinting here at the Rancid Raves Intergalactic Wurlitzer, but this one, involving not only the eccentric cartooner Ben Katchor but Abe Rosenbach, a legendary book collector whose adventures in quest of fugitive tomes engaged me for years, was too much to resist. Rosenbach’s A Book Hunter’s Holiday sits on my shelf to this day. Ada Calhoun wrote this piece so well for the New York Times that I doubt I could improve upon the way it appeared on April 2, 2006. So here’s Ms. Calhoun:
Ben Katchor, who is best known for melancholic graphic novels like The Jew of New York and Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, doesn’t seem to like the theater. He says he can’t remember the last time he saw a Broadway show. He admires the work of Gilbert and Sullivan—but only in theory.
“I can’t say I enjoy seeing it staged,” he said. “Even in their lifetime, they always complained about people hamming it up. I hate that. They wanted it played serious, deadly serious. Gilbert was a cartoonist. I listen to the records and imagine the cartoons.”
Now Mr. Katchor’s own musical, “The Rosenbach Company: A Tragicomedy,” is about to be staged at Joe’s Pub in the East Village, and not surprisingly he wants it to be played serious as well. Even so, at performances of the show in Philadelphia, audiences laughed frequently. Mr. Katchor, who created the show with the singer and songwriter Mark Mulcahy, said he could tolerate laughs in New York, but would appreciate it if people didn’t order crunchy food during the show.
This stage show is a result of an unusual commission from the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. The Rosenbach brothers, Abe and Philip, were Philadelphia businessmen in the first half of the 20th century; Abe became a legendary book dealer and collector, supplying some of the world’s great libraries. Bill Adair, the museum’s director, wanted Mr. Katchor to create something to commemorate the Rosenbach Museum’s 50th anniversary.
Sitting in his snug office in the former servants’ quarters of the Rosenbachs’ elegant 1860's town house in Philadelphia, Mr. Adair explained that he was a longtime fan of Mr. Katchor’s, and so he started, in his words, “stalking” him and ultimately persuaded him to visit the museum. A fellow book lover, Mr. Katchor looked through the Rosenbachs’ collection, became fascinated with the eccentric brothers, and agreed to the commission.
Mr. Adair, who oversees the museum’s $1.5 million annual budget, had envisioned a book of illustrations, perhaps a riff on James Joyce’s manuscript of Ulysses, Lewis Carroll’s letters or another treasure from the museum’s collection. But to his surprise, Mr. Katchor said he did not want to do a comic book, but rather a musical with his collaborator, Mr. Mulcahy. The two were then working on a show called “The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island,” which was presented at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 2003 and at the Kitchen in New York in 2004. Mr. Adair said yes. Two years and $75,000 later, “The Rosenbach Company” was born.
The show begins with the brothers’ middle-class childhood and traces their careers and misbegotten love lives. The central romance, however, is between Abe Rosenbach and a stack of dusty books (“An uncut copy of the first edition of Tom Jones, / In its original boards, was the cause of all my troubles,” he sings), and much of the action takes place on a screen behind the singers. Projected images of Mr. Katchor’s evocative drawings dominate the stage.
First performed at the 2004 Philadelphia Fringe Festival, “Rosenbach” received a rave in Variety and has now been booked into Joe’s Pub for three successive Monday nights, starting April 10.
Dining at the Little Poland restaurant on Second Avenue in the East Village, Mr. Mulcahy and Mr. Katchor looked like any two middle-aged neighborhood characters whiling away the afternoon over kasha and pirogis. Mr. Katchor, who lives on the Upper West Side, had a rumpled grey sweater, rosy cheeks and a mad-scientist stare. Across from him, Mr. Mulcahy wore his wiry hair pulled back loosely into a ponytail, with a thick brown leather watchband around his wrist. The former frontman of the 80's rock band Miracle Legion, Mr. Mulcahy lives in Springfield, Mass., with his family, including newborn twin daughters.
Ryan Mercy, an actor whom Mr. Katchor met by chance at a Chinese restaurant and cast in both “Slug Bearers” and “Rosenbach” (in which he plays Philip), said that as a first-time director Mr. Katchor tended to give the cast notes like “Don’t move your hands” and then, inevitably, “Why are you standing so still?” Since he does not know how to write sheet music, Mr. Mulcahy gave the actors cassette tapes of him singing the songs instead. Mr. Mulcahy and Mr. Katchor are “from a different planet,” Mr. Mercy said, “but that’s what makes it fun.”
Mr. Katchor’s eccentricity is underscored by his unusual voice—a distinctive monotone whine, which makes him sound rather like a glum vacuum cleaner. “I like doing impressions of him,” said Mr. Mercy affectionately. “We all do impersonations of Ben.”
Given its unorthodoxies, the show is remarkably slick. “It was like a summer stock or really more like a backyard production,” Mr. Adair said. “But then when the stage lights went up, it was totally pro. It felt like a miracle.”
Mr. Katchor does not find it miraculous. He says he knew what he wanted all along—“a show about passions.” Like the Rosenbach brothers, he said, “I know what obsessions are.”
Quips & Quotes
“Nearly every religion on Earth claims sole ownership of the path to salvation. Simple logic would dictate that they can’t all be right and that a very large percentage of humanity holds beliefs that are flawed, if not wholly in error.” —William Falk, editor of The Week. Well, maybe, but you wouldn’t want to tell this to any members of the Afghanistan Supreme Court which sentenced Abdul Rahman to death because he converted from Islam to Christianity.
“The problem with beauty is that it’s like being born rich and getting poorer.” —Joan Collins
“Getting divorced just because you don’t love a man is almost as silly as getting married just because you do.” —Zsa Zsa Gabor
“Good judgment comes from experience, and experience—well, that comes from poor judgment.” —A.A. Milne, creator of Winnie the Pooh
“When you are an anvil, be patient; when a hammer, strike.” —Arabian Proverb
“We do not stop playing because we are old; we grow old because we stop playing.” —
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE
Before we get into any of the four-color fantasies that throng in this department, take a look at this picture that I purloined from the Pittsburgh Comicon’s promotional newsletter—Powergirl by Amada Conner and the cover art from Tarot No. 37 by Jim Balent. I’ve been saying for years that Conner’s comedic sensibility informs most of her artwork, and this pair of drawings dramatically illustrates my conviction. Both drawings depict zaftig heroines whose figures, in particular their chests, are the chief attraction. Both are expertly achieved. The spirals on Balent’s beauty’s bosom, however, are blatant visual emphases of her endowment. And there’s nothing funny about this woman: in her skimpy attire and ample embonpoint, she’s raw seduction, inspiring sensual appetites not risibilities. Conner’s Powergirl is equally sexy, and her costume, while not as brief as the other, is clearly designed to emphasize her ample upperstory, but Conner poses her in a way that makes one smile rather than pant. It’s a sexy pose but not just a sexy pose. She’s rolling up the sleeve on her left arm, but to do so, her right arm passes over her upper torso—or, it would if her boobs weren’t so bountiful; but they are, and so her arm passes under rather than over, and her breasts rest on the arm as if on a shelf. In this maneuver, Powergirl seems much more alive, much more personable, than the Balent bimbo, who is little more than a rack for a string bikini. Powergirl’s bosom seems soft and pendulous, even a little squishy, compared to the ponderous prosthetics next door. Balent’s femme seems to be saying, “Hey, bubba—lookit these tatas.” Conner’s is saying, “Let’s get to work—oh, and, my eyes are up here, sweetheart.” Conner’s is an ingenious pose cleverly executed. It’s not just an incitement to lust. And the ingenuity makes us smile—in appreciation of both the view and the artistry. And that’s why I say Conner has a visual sense of humor.
Now, for a few first issues, starting with Blue Beetle by Keith Griffen and John Rogers as drawn by Cully Hammer. Hammer’s art is always crisp and clean, but he’s drawing a two-stranded jumble of a tale here. It seems that Jaime, a teenager, is invaded bodily by a scarab, or beetle—a blue one—which apparently gives him armor like a carapace. One strand of the narrative presents us with Jaime and his friends just shortly before he is infected with the blue beetle. The other storyline takes up in media res with the arrival of the carapaced Blue Beetle by space capsule in a desert where he is met by a murderous Green Lantern, Guy Gardner (“the crazy one”), who tries to obliterate him. We get switched back and forth from one strand to the other with no explanation until, by the end of the book, we realize that Jaime is the Blue Beetle. Nice pictures, as I said—very nice. Except for the one that shows the beetle getting under Jaime’s skin. Yuck.
Star Wars: Tag and Bink II looked like it would be a gas—light-weight bumbling gendarmes of the Empire in gleaming white armor, committing faux pas wherever they go. Turns out, however, that the first issue isn’t very funny at all. Kevin Rubio isn’t really suited to comedy, if we are to judge from this specimen. Lucas Marangon draws well, but his storytelling skills are in short supply. Mostly, he too often depicts instants just after or just before key moments, thereby robbing those moments of dramatic power—and, not at all incidentally, blurring narrative thrust. He frequently shows characters making inexplicable movements, more meaningless activity. And too many panels are wholly blank of background detail. What happens in this story? Got me. Mostly Tag and Bink are apparently failing at something, but dang if I can tell you what it is they’re supposed to be doing. No jokes in that.
Pat Novak from Moonstone is probably a one shot, one of those noir gumshoe stories, and like the most memorable of them, confused by too many characters and too frequent double-crosses and other betrayals and switchbacks in the plot. Steven Grant compounds the inherent problem of the genre by shifting back and forth, at first, between two time periods—one when Novak is young, the other when he is an old coot. Most of the action takes place during the latter period, and while Tom Mandrake gives Novak an appropriately weather-beaten visage, if it weren’t for the slouch hat Novak wears, we probably couldn’t recognize him from one page to the next. Part of that difficulty is that Mandrake steeps his art in deep shadow, which inevitably obscures details, or, when not blotting out details, adds feathering and other kinds of noodling penlines, turning clean renderings into fustian spiderwebs. And there are too many blonde women, two of whom look almost exactly alike—until we discover that one of them isn’t who she seems to be at all. And if that is confusing, then you have a taste of the book. Novak narrates the tale, infesting it with the tough talk of hard-boiled private eyes everywhere, riddled throughout with similes and metaphors that pose as the wisdom acquired in the school of hard knocks. Here are a few: “The fridge was as empty as a hooker’s dreams, but, like most hookers, it held plenty of alcohol.” “It was a good spot for an ambush, as pretty as a woman’s legs and just as hard to walk away from.” “He has his good points, too, but there wasn’t enough bourbon in the Bay Area to bring them to mind.” “If San Francisco’s a cesspool, Contra Costa’s where it flushes into.” “It was a nice house, if you wanted to know where the skeletons were buried and didn’t mind becoming one of them.” Toilet images abound: “It was like flushing a toilet. Everything goes round and round but it all ends up in the same place.” “Cops are like any other dogs: throw a stick and they’ll chase it.” “He went a little nuts—if Everest is a little hill.” Often inventive, sometimes funny (like that last one) but, after a while, almost predictable and a trifle tiresome. Every time Novak opens his mouth, you get ready for one of his double-bounce utterances—first a metaphor, then a lesson or a cryptic observation. And what is the story? Got me again. But then, I’ve never made any narrative sense out of The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon.
The first of the 4-issue series Batman: Year 100, written and drawn by Paul Pope, is off and running: Batman runs through most of it, alternately panting and coughing. He’s being hunted by a sophisticated SWAT team of some unspecified future, he gets wounded, and a couple of blondes come to his aid—a mother and daughter, who look so much alike that only their hair styles identify them, and when they are depicted in a way that doesn’t show the whole head, we’re completely lost. Pope’s drawing style is a splatter version of Eisner with spaghetti anatomy and silly putty facial features: everything visual is in a state of flux, and the locale is rendered in vintage decay. Seedy, gritty, and falling down. This all takes place just far enough into the future that no one seems to remember Batman; but not so far that automobiles on wheels have been outmoded. The book’s title is not explained anywhere in the interior pages—that is, in the story itself. For illumination, we must consult the back cover blurb, which tells us that the action inside takes place in 2039, 100 years after the first appearance of Batman in Detective Comics No. 27. We also read: “Visionary writer/artist Paul Pope presents a dark, dystopian world devoid of privacy, one filled with government conspiracies, psychic police, holographic caller-ID, and absolutely no room for ‘secret identities.’ A sci-fi future where everything is known by everyone—yet there is one bizarre anomaly, the Batman.” This information, plus Pope’s performance within, is enough to persuade me to pick up the next three issues.
Roy Thomas was writing Conan at Marvel when I re-entered the comic book scene in the early 1970s, so for auld lang syn I have always harbored a friendly feeling for his work, whatever it was or will be. He’d been scripting at Marvel since 1965, and after a short stint as editor-in-chief 1972-74, he would continue writing Marvel tales until 1980, when he left for six years at DC. While at DC in about 1983-84, he tells us at the end of the first issue of Anthem, he had an idea about a band of superheroes and how they might function if the Allies had lost World War II, at least temporarily. As the concept morphed in Thomas’ mind, the group acquired a name, Project Anthem, and then he gave the characters code names derived from “The Star Spangled Banner”: Dawns Earlylight, “Rockets” Redglare, Bomb Burst, Liberty, and Stars and Stripes, and, for the sake of Southern ambiance, “Stonewall” Jackson (who, Confederate scripture notwithstanding, is not mentioned at all in “The Star Spangled Banner”). A nifty notion although some of the names prove a little cumbersome in ordinary discourse: you just about have to say “Dawns Earlylight,” the whole thing; at least, Thomas does in scripting this tale. In this inaugural issue, the superheroes are awakened in a mysterious laboratory where a scientific genius named “76" has been incubating them for some unspecified time. He explains how Japan has invaded the American West Coast and occupied it; and the East Coast has been taken over by the Hitler’s Nazi hordes. (In reviewing the war-drenched history of the 20th century, he refers, in passing, to the Spanish Civil War, which he says took place 1937-38, more-or-less accurate. It actually began in July 1936 and lasted until March 1939, when Madrid fell to the Nationalists. But I’m quibbling, the usual fluttering compulsion of the unfettered critic. Sigh. How else do I earn my keep?) The troupe of superheroes has been “drafted,” 76 says, but we don’t get to find out for what because just then, a gang of stormtroopers crashes through the wall into the lab. The art is by Daniel Acuna, with whom Thomas teamed up to produce the initial first issue of Anthem, the only other issue, in May 2000; and I suspect the pictures in this first issue are reconstructed from that earlier first issue rather than shot from original art. The lines have that fuzzy Theakstonized look. But they are, nonetheless, adequate, even satisfactory. Thomas’ postscript essay explaining how his Anthem took shape and came into being takes six pages of text, illustrated with Acuna’s pencilled concept sketches for the characters. Thomas is usually somewhat longwinded (as am I, so I scarcely think it’s sinful), and this issue is quite wordy, our orientation requiring considerable exposition. The premise, however, is provocative, and I look forward to the next issues with enthusiastic anticipation.
Meanwhile, what’s become of the new Spirit comics that Darwyn Cooke is supposed to be doing?
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
The journalist who coined the term “gonzo” died February 26 of a heart attack at 68. Bill Cardoso was a friend of Hunter S. Thompson and when he saw Thompson’s initial foray into the self-absorbed reportage for which he became notorious, he called it “pure Gonzo.” This was Thompson’s report for Scanlon’s on the Kentucky Derby. Cardoso recognized gonzo when he saw it, but he was not himself a gonzo reporter: his brand of journalism was, Rolling Stone says, “a shining example of rigorous reporting and clear writing.”
This just in from one of our Vast Network of Rancid Raves Spies: There is more money being spent on breast implants and Viagra today than on Alzheimer’s research. This means that by 2040, there should be a large elderly population with perky boobs and majestic erections and absolutely no recollection of what to do with them.
From Jay Wing via the Internet: April Fools' Day Origin. There are several explanations for the origin of April Fools' Day, but here is the most plausible one. April 1st was once New Year's Day in France. In 1582, Pope Gregory declared the adoption of his Gregorian calendar to replace the Julian calendar and New Year's Day was officially changed to January 1st. It took awhile for everyone in France to hear the news of this major change and others obstinately refused to accept the new calendar, so a lot of people continued to celebrate New Year's Day on the first of April—earning them the name April fools. The April fools were subjected to ridicule and practical jokes and the tradition was born. The butts of these pranks were first called poisson d'avril or April fish because a young naive fish is easily caught. A common practice was to hook a paper fish on the back of someone as a joke. This evolved over time and a custom of prank-playing continues on the first day of April.
In what must be the year’s most spectacular abdication of professional responsibility—perhaps the century’s—the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the state’s largest newspaper, declined to editorialize about the recently passed anti-abortion law. The editors discussed the issue at great length but finally, in a decision so astoundingly irresponsible and journalistically dubious as to defy comprehension, decided to say nothing because, they said, they didn’t think they could change anyone’s mind on the issue. Moreover, whatever they said, “it could well jeopardize the credibility we have worked long and hard to establish,” said editor Randall Beck. His editorial page editor, Chuck Baldwin, added: “Regardless of which side we came down on this, people would read into it things that are not true. [And] they would think our coverage is tainted, and not just on abortion but on everything.” All of which is probably true, but it’s true about almost everything that a newspaper publishes on its editorial pages. The real reason for the paper’s reluctance is probably that the editorial staff couldn’t agree on a stance. Admittedly the abortion issue has produced what appears to be “intractable division” everywhere, locally and nationally, and the chance of changing anyone’s opinion is doubtless remote. The editors say they’ll comment editorially on other issues but not this one. Still, for a newspaper to refuse comment on an issue so profoundly affecting our national life seems to me journalistically unethical. Given this colossal measure of editorial timidity, it’s no wonder political cartoonists are in trouble: understandably, editors so dedicated to not creating controversy are not likely to be fond of provocative opinion-mongering of the sort editoonists routinely do.
For some reason, 2006 has been designated “The Bard’s Year” in Merrie Olde Englande, and the Royal Shakespeare Company will spend the year presenting all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays and poems. The official launch of the Complete Works Festival in Stratford-upon-Avon, according to U.S. News and World Report, coincides with Shakespeare’s birthday weekend, April 22-23. ... Also in this magazine, we learn that one of Condoleezza Rice’s first acts as Secretary of State was to ban Playboy and Penthouse from the newsstands in the State Department. Next on the block? Perhaps the lad mags, Maxim and FHM.
Dunno who has time to figure these things out, but on Wednesday the 5th of April, at two minutes and three seconds after one o’clock in the morning, the time and date was 01:02:03 04/05/06. Presumably, this will never happen again. “You may now return to your normal life,” it sez here.
And then there’s the wag who had to look twice at the URL firstname.lastname@example.org thinking, the first time, that it read “world-o-fart.”
In conclusion: Bob Pozner tells me that Leonardo Da Vinci invented the scissors; tigers have striped skin, not just striped fur; and Winston Churchill was born in a ladies' room during a dance. When the conversation lags at the banquet table, it's always good to have such tidbits on the tip of your tongue.
COMIC STRIP WATCH
Stephen Pastis is up to his old triques again, casting what he terms “pearls” before those whom he sneeringly calls “swine” (his readers? his cartoonist colleagues?) by involving other comic strip characters in his strip. This time, his obnoxious Rat babysits for the Baby Blues toddlers. “If you need me,” he tells Zoe and Hammish, “I’ll be doing tequila shots in the kitchen.” And in Lalo Alcaraz’s La Cucaracha, Beetle Bailey shows up. An angry Latino reader and serviceman writes in to complain about the strip’s portrayal of soldiers as stupid. Cuco Rocha (the parlor name of the titular insect) writes back that “it is not the policy of this strip to mock soldiers. You must have us confused with another strip.” Then, holding the letter of complaint, he turns to a snoozing Beetle and says, “I think this is for you.”
Edge City, the comic strip by the husband-and-wife team Terry and Patty LaBan, is again this year offering an optional storyline about Passover, 12 daily strips and a Sunday. Dated April 3-15, they can be published individually or all at once.
In Bill Amend’s Foxtrot, the family genius, Jason, who has betrayed an occasional interest in becoming a cartoonist, decides to take over The Boondocks while Aaron McGruder is on sabbatical. And Amend achieves near McGruder cynicism on March 30 when Jason researches for the strip by watching tv. “Aaugh!” Jason gasps; “this is so painful! It’s worse than Aaron McGruder described!” Paige says: “He’s watching B.E.T.?” Says Peter: “Congressional hearings on C-span.”
In Darrin Bell’s Candorville, Lemont confesses to Susan that he’s fathered an illegitimate child with a sweetheart of his youth, Roxanne. Now, that’s a taboo subject in the funnies. And this news comes shortly after we all learned that Susan is secretly in love with Lemont. But what will Lemont do? He’s talking about marrying Roxanne and, as Susan observes, making them all miserable ever after.
Classic Boondocks are being re-run to hold Aaron McGruder’s place in the line-ups of only about a third of his client newspaper list, as I said. One of those classics from the first week or so of the strip caught my eye. Huey and Riley are pondering their fate in their new surroundings, an all-white suburb of Chicago, the inner city of which they lately resided in. Riley says: “If we jack that Lexus across the street, we could get to Chicago by Wednesday.” Huey says: “Forget it, Riley—we’re stuck here.” McGruder re-uttered Riley’s words in the last of his strips before sabbatical—about “jacking” (stealing”) that Lexus. Neatly poetic. And I hadn’t realized McGruder had the fine-tuning sensibility for such nicely rounded endings. But doesn’t the very circularity of this maneuver proclaim, somewhat resoundingly, that you can take the kid out of the inner city but you can’t take the inner city out of the kid? Is that really what McGruder wanted to issue as his final statement?
Dick Locher has officially assumed the writing chore with Dick Tracy. He took over the task as an interim effort after his writing partner, Michael Kilian, died last October; now his syndicate, Tribune Media Services, has made it official according to Editor & Publisher. Locher, who assisted the strip’s creator, Chester Gould, 1957-1961, says he’s ready for the challenge, which, he said, is “awesome.” He will also continue to produce four editorial cartoons a week for TMS.
The April issue of Playboy takes up the issue of Intelligent Design and “the battle between faith and reason” and interviews Kurt Vonnegut, who begins by saying: “I belong to an unholy disorder. We call ourselves Our Lady of Perpetual Astonishment. There was absolutely nothing, not even nothing, and then there was this great big bang. And that’s where all this crap came from. Evolution is so creative. That’s how we got giraffes.”
Anyone suffering an unsuppressed surfeit of ennui could, a year ago—even four months ago—make the case that political cartoons “decorate” the editorial pages of the nation’s newspapers. They are published on that page in order to break up the otherwise solid gray of typography with a smidgeon of visual elan. They are graphic embellishments, nothing more. But that’s changed. The tsunami of outrage that swept Europe and the Muslim world at the affront created by the Danish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad asserted the power of hand-wrought imagery like nothing else had before. No one can, any longer, pooh-pooh the editorial cartoon as mere decoration.
Canny and knowledgeable newspaper editors have always known that political cartoons pack a punch worth considering. Even dunderhead editors come to this realization if they publish a cartoon that trods the toes of local interests whose advocates, provoked, phone the paper in a rage. At Pelican Publishing Company in Gretna, Louisiana, they’ve known, for over three decades, that editorial cartoons make memorable statements of opinion that capture history on the run by recording immediate responses to events as they occur. For 34 years, Pelican has celebrated the prowess of editooning by publishing an annual collection of the Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year. For 32 of those years, the Pelican collection was the only one of its kind. Two years ago, editorial cartoonist and Internet entrepreneur Daryl Cagle published a competing compilation, Best Political Cartoons of the Year, drawing for content upon his website, where scores of editorial cartoonists have their wares displayed daily. I compared the two productions at Opus 176, but now that Pelican’s 2006 edition is out (208 9x11-inch pages; $14.95), I’ll summarize here some of ways the two books differ before considering the Pelican collection alone.
Edited by Charles Brooks, who was the political cartoonist at the Birmingham News for 38 years, the Pelican tome has often been criticized by editorial cartoonists for favoring conservative attitudes in its choices of cartoons. Brooks makes his selections from cartoons submitted by the cartoonists, who, presumably, send in the requisite five of their cartoons that they regard as their best work of the year. While Brooks is doubtless more conservative than, say, Ted Rall, his selections seem to me to reflect a Southern gentleman’s sense of decorum rather than a right-wing bias. Whatever the reason, the Brooks book almost never publishes cartoons of the belligerently liberal sort. As a result, many liberal cartoonists no longer submit cartoons to Brooks, thereby compounding the problem by assuring that he’ll have more, and probably better, conservative cartoons to pick from than liberal. The Cagle volume veers off in the liberal direction somewhat, although Cagle has a co-editor in Brian Fairrington, a conservative, but the bias in the Cagle book is towards his website: the content of the book is drawn entirely from the cartoons published at his http.//cagle.msnbc.com. In short, neither of these two Best books is comprehensive; both leave out major American editorial cartoonists. Tony Auth, Ann Telnaes, Pat Oliphant, Don Wright, and Ted Rall, to name a few, are significant voices that are not represented in either of the Best books. Another noticeable difference is that the Cagle collection publishes about twice as many cartoons as the Brooks book, but they appear quite small, four to a page; in Brooks, most cartoons are given half-page display.
In recent years, the Brooks books have seemed less skewed to the conservative side than the earlier editions. And the present volume, the 2006 edition (the content of which, incongruously—as with the Cagle book—is from 2005), is scarcely a cheerleader for the right. In the lead-off section of the book, “The Bush Administration,” every cartoon on its 30 pages is critical of the Bush League and GeeDubya. That may be inherent in the editoonery game: the best cartoons assault authority rather than applaud it. But a rabid right-winger would have found something positive to say about Darth Cheney and company; Brooks, apparently, found nothing in that vein. Ditto the sections on “Congress” and “Government.” Clearly, whatever conservative bias may have existed in the past has evaporated while contemplating the colossal incompetencies of the present regime.
The other measure of Brooks’ conservative bent can be found in the number of cartoons he chooses from those submitted by conservative cartoonists. Since everyone submits five cartoons, those who are represented here with five cartoons betray Brooks’ bias. In this edition, 8 conservative cartoonists have five cartoons published; but 7 liberal cartoonists get five cartoons each. Not much bias inherent in those numbers.
My criticism of the Cagle book is that it gives undue emphasis to relatively trivial matters by including large numbers of cartoons on such topics as the runaway bride, the Koran in the toilet, Cindy Sheehan, Terry Schiavo, and Saddam in his underpants. Brooks ignores most of these matters, using just one or two cartoons on Sheehan and nothing on the others. He includes several cartoons about steroid use in sports, probably too many, but in general, he does not dwell on inconsequential matters to excess as does the Cagle book. Brooks’ “Natural Disasters” section is almost entirely preoccupied with Katrina; nothing about the tsunami in Southeast Asia or the earthquake in Pakistan, both of which, admittedly, may have fallen just outside the boundaries of the book’s content this year—the tsunami being late in 2004, the earthquake falling too late in 2005 to make Brooks’ November deadline. Still, the tsunami didn’t make the 2005 edition because of the deadline timing; it should have been included, then, in this year’s edition.
Brooks publishes every year cartoons by the winners of the Pulitzer Prize, Fischetti Award, Sigma Delta Chi Award, Overseas Press Club, National Headliner, Scripps-Howard, and the Canadian National Newspaper Award. Cagle includes only the Pulitzer, but he prints what appears to be the winner’s entire submission portfolio.
The chief flaw in the Brooks book this year is the direct result, I suspect, of the compilation’s declining reputation among editorial cartoonists. There are too few of the country’s major political cartoonists represented and too many relatively unknown editooners. Missing here (but present in the Cagle book) are Steve Benson, Chip Bok, Matt Davies, Bill Day, Vic Harvell, David Horsey, Doug Marlette, Mike Lane, Jack Ohman, Ed Stein, John Trevor, Signe Wilkinson, Larry Wright, and Dick Wright to name some of the more obvious omissions. Presumably, none of them submitted anything. In contrast, only a half-dozen or so of the heavy hitters are missing in Cagle. Many of the unknowns in Brooks deserve that status: their drawings are jejune, their visual metaphors clumsy or nonexistent, and their impact therefore negligible. The cumulative effect of this imbalance is that the collection seems weak even when many of the individual cartoons are unflinching, hard-hitting statements. Judging from the compilations of the last two or three years, Brooks no longer deserves the reputation of conservative bias. But he’s takenthe rap for that for so many years that I doubt the Pelican book will escape its aura as long as Brooks continues to be the editor. That’s too bad. Whatever its flaws, the Pelican book—through longevity alone, with its 33 predecessor volumes—is a valuable summation of the work of the nation’s editorial cartoonists year-by-year, a vivid history of our reactions to the events of the times at the very moments they come upon us. Here’s a look at a few of the best in this year’s edition.
TWO NEW REPRINTZ
Here are a brace of fresh reprintings of a couple relatively new comic strips, both well-drawn, which proves that there is still room for the visually adept in making newspaper comics. Both are from Andrews McMeel; both are128 9x9-inch page b/w paperbacks, $10.95 each.
In Frazz: Live at Bryson Elementary by Jef Mallett, we encounter Frazz, a strip that established itself immediately at its debut in 2001 as both witty and wise. The title character is a successful popular songwriter named Edwin Frazier who refuses to give up his day job as janitor in an elementary school because he loves the ambiance and the kids. And they, in turn, love him: Frazz the custodian is everyone’s friend and champion.
The gags are never predictable, and they are often mind-bending. Caulfield, a genius child, asks his teacher: “If the pen is mightier than the sword, and if a picture is worth a thousand words, what would a picture of a sword be worth?”
And when Caulfield’s calculator dies, Frazz tells him he needs a “mathmortician.”
The dialogues between Frazz and the diminutive scholars are often deeply fascinating. Kid: “You ever notice how people can always smell what they don’t want to smell ...” Frazz: “Like a cigar a block away?” Kid: “But people never hear what they don’t want to hear?” Frazz: “Aren’t you supposed to be in class right now?” A silent panel ensues. Then the kid says: “Also, you can never get a bad song out of your head.” Frazz, humming: “Does anybody really know what time it is ...”
Caulfield wonders why Ellie looks so happy going to school. “Doesn’t she know she’s facing mind-numbing conformity and a sedentary lifestyle? What’s to be happy about?” Says Frazz: “Maybe the spiffy new back-to-school outfit.” Caulfield: “Where reason fails, retail prevails.”
Caulfield is reporting to Frazz a recent educational discovery he’s made. “In infinity, there are just as many odd numbers as there are even and odd numbers,” he says. “Wow,” says Frazz, “you’ve been thinking awhile.” Caulfield: “Mrs. Olsen was reading us the adventures of Ed the Actuary.” Frazz, entering into the spirit of the conversation, “That must have seemed like ...” Caulfield: “Say it. Get it over with.” Frazz: “Forever.” Caulfield: “In infinity, there are just as many lame jokes as there are lame jokes and good jokes.”
“I can’t remember my homework,” Caulfield says on another occasion, “but I can remember the times and channels of all 30 of my tv shows. Memory is a weird thing,” he concludes. And Frazz says, “Whereas obliviousness is fairly straightforward.”
Mallett’s lumpy style of rounded forms is perfectly suited to rendering the diminutive denizens of the elementary school, and he frequently fills strip-wide panels with cavorting kids. One winter Sunday, they are playing hockey and comparing the stories their parents have told them about their own school days. “My grandma says she had to walk five miles to school,” says one kid. “My great uncle says he walked to school in weather so cold his burps froze.” “My grandpa says he had to walk uphill both ways.” Caulfield, entering into the spirit of the exchange, says: “My dad had to take a bus across town even though he lived a block away from school.” His playmates look severely dubious. Caulfield explains to Frazz: “I bet we’d learn from history better if it was more believable to begin with.”
Appearing in about 150 newspapers, Frazz passed its fifth anniversary on April 2. Said Mallett: “Five years of Frazz is wonderful, but I think it says more about my readers than it does about me. I started this strip with the conceit that readers were smarter than a lot of features were assuming, and I’ve layered the humor to satisfy both the brains and the more casual audience. Turns out they’re all pretty sharp, and willing to work for their fun if I ask them to. And in turn, they keep me on my toes. I couldn’t ask for a better situation.”
For the first year or so of the strip, Mallett kept his day job as art director and political cartoonist on the capital bureau of the Booth Newspapers in Lansing, Michigan. The double duty just about killed him, he said. But doing political cartoons got him back into cartooning, which he’d abandoned when “life interfered” after he left nursing school. He’d done a daily comic strip while in high school but got sidetracked into the art direction gig.
“I loved doing political cartoons,” Mallett said. But “I don’t miss it as much as I thought I would.” He eventually realized “that I really wasn’t qualified to comment on political issues. Not that anybody else who does it is either. I’m much more comfortable asking questions in the strip.”
Asked once if Frazz isn’t what Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes might have been had he grown up and mellowed, Mallett said: “He’s not, but I’m not surprised by the resemblance. That’s the greatest strip ever, and I’d be a fool not to have tried to learn from it. I’d also be a fool to try and copy it. You might as well try and counterfeit the Mona Lisa.”
His penchant to sometimes try edgy material resulted, once, in his syndicate, United Media, nixing his use of the word “booger.” “But things have loosened up since then,” Mallett reported. “I even did a fart joke and nobody complained. Now that’s progress.”
But he doesn’t ponder the whys and wherefores very much. “I just do the best I can and hope it clicks,” he said. “That may not be good business, but I think it’s closer to good art.”
If, like Toby Tyler, you’ve ever wanted to run away with a circus and have a monkey for an intimate friend, you’ll dote on Rob Harrell’s Big Top, which debuted in April 2002. Pete is an eleven-year-old growing up in a family of talking circus animals. The monkey, Manfred, is Pete’s roommate, but the boy’s best friend and father-figure is Wink, a reformed biker bear in love with Katie Couric, who, late in 2003, made the bear’s day by blowing him a kiss on the air. Kingston, the lion, plays a sweet sax, and Dusty the poodle is addicted to chapstick.
Pete, when not washing down the elephant, attends to the various needs of his menagerie and his own. He has a crush on the trapeze girl, Andrea, but he takes time off from mooning around the grounds to do an intervention with Manfred, who is addicted to chocolate, and to encourage Wink to lose weight through exercise rather than liposuction.
Wink has a stuffed animal version of himself from the circus giftshop. “Look at me—I’m adorable,” Wink says about his stuffed alter ego. “Look how well it’s made—the attention to detail—the stitching, Pete, the stitching!”
The inter-species relationships are not always fret-free. Visiting Kingston the lion, Pete asks to use the bathroom and discovers it’s a litter box. “Say, Kingston,” he says, “do you have another bathroom?” “Why, what’s wrong?” says Kingston. Pete: “I’m just ... it’s a litter box, and I’m not familiar with the protocol.” Kingston: “Well, it’s not really a puzzle, Einstein.” Pete: “All right, all right.” He disappears around the corner. Kingston mutters: “Sometimes I wonder about that kid.” From around the corner, we hear Pete: “Do I take my shoes off?”
Refreshingly, Harrell is another of the new crop of cartooners who can actually draw. I find his treatment of Andrea’s hair and Kingston’s mane a little annoying (instead of being hairy-looking, they look as if it’s lathered on like silly putty), but every picture is confidently rendered by someone who knows what he is doing.
A MONTHLY VISIT OF POLITICAL HILARITIES
The Humor Times is a monthly newspaper of editorial cartoons and other verbal as well as visual comedy. In its usual allotment of 20 pages, it offers editoons by the nation’s stellar performers—Mike Keefe, Rob Rogers, Dan Wasserman, Steve Sack, Daryl Cagle, Ann Telnaes, Clay Bennett, Walt Handelsman, Jeff Parker, Mike Lane—plus columns by Will Durst and Jim Hightower and a brace of panel cartoons: a week’s worth of Dan Piraro’s Bizarro and Dave Coverley’s Speed Bump. Most of the paper is black-and-white, but the cover and a center spread are in full color. At merely $15 for a year’s issues, it’s a bargain break in an otherwise bleak diet of the day’s news.
The paper grew out of James Israel’s Comic Press News, which began in 1991 in Sacramento, California, offering political cartoons and local advertising. “The first issue came out, appropriately enough, on April Fools Day,” Israel told me. “However, the joke was not the paper itself, but the real-life politics that the publication lampooned, using the great work of talented political cartoonists from around the country.”
Israel had just left another small publication, and was inspired by another editorial cartoon paper out of Santa Cruz, California, the Santa Cruz Comic News, to start his own. Said Israel: “Sacramento seemed like a good home for such a paper, being the capitol and a political town. The first issue, hitting the streets right on the heels of the first Gulf War, contained a ‘short history’ of the war, using editorial cartoons, of course. It made a big splash, and was an immediate success, at least as far as readership went. Becoming a financial success was another matter, as the paper depended on local advertising, and competition among all the small local publications was fierce.
“It became obvious after a few years,” Israel continued, “that the readership was much stronger than the advertising support. This may have to do with the political content, as many businesses shy away from anything remotely ‘controversial.’” So Israel tried promoting the paper solely on a subscription basis. If the readers are so enthusiastic about it, he reasoned, perhaps many of them would be willing to pay a subscription fee. This scheme permitted Israel to make the paper available anywhere in the world. But since readers outside Sacramento would have no interest in local businesses advertising in the paper, Israel created a new title, Humor Times, with no advertising but more cartoons in their stead. “It has basically the same content as the Comic Press News, which is still being published,” Israel said, “but has more cartoons.” Launched in mid-2000, Humor Times enjoys a growing subscription base, Israel said. “It could grow a lot faster if I could afford a big marketing campaign,” he said, “but for now, it will have to grow more organically.”
“I don't think I'll ever get rich off of it,” he reflected, “but I'm getting by, and I receive all kinds of inspiring feedback. Just today I got a call from a woman who said, ‘I don't smile or laugh much these days, with what's happening in the world. But after reading your paper, it had me roaring! It's great, to put it mildly. Thank you very much!’ I get those kind of calls and letters all the time, and it keeps me going! All I can say is, with newspaper headlines shouting out bad news every day, it's a good thing the Humor Times is on the scene to balance out the gloom with lighthearted political humor. Happy days are here again!” Curious people can check out the paper's website at www.humortimes.com and even request a free sample copy.
UNDER THE SPREADING PUNDITRY
Ever wonder why George WMD Bush never vetoes any legislation passed on to him by Congress? One big reason, of course, is that he doesn’t want to make any of the Republican majority in Congress angry at him. As long as he keeps signing bills, they can keep shoveling pork back to their home districts. But there’s another reason. GeeDubya doesn’t need the veto because he has introduced a device that simply nullifies any legislation he doesn’t like. It’s called a “signing statement.” After George W. (“Warlord”) Bush signed into law the reauthorization of the so-called Patriot Act, he also issued a signing statement, largely ignored by the ever vigilant news media. At issue was the provision of the Act that required the President to inform Congress about how the FBI is implementing its expanded powers under the Act. The signing statement, however, asserted that GeeDubya alone will decide whether to inform Congress or not. And he won’t tell Congress if he concludes that doing so would “impair foreign relations, national security, the deliberative process of the executive or the performances of the executive’s Constitutional duties.” So GeeDubya decides whether to obey the law or not. All by himself. In effect, he annoints himself emperor and to hell with Congress. And to hell with democracy and the Constitution while he’s at it. He did precisely the same thing with a signing statement issued after he signed the McCain amendment forbidding cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of detainees. Maybe he’ll enforce the law; maybe he won’t. It just depends. Hey—if I’m commander in chief during a perpetual war, I can do whatever I want to do. Apart from the sheer immorality let alone unethical behavior this action embodies, there’s the little matter of Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution—the only part of the document that specifies Presidential duties, which include, specifically, that “he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” That’s it. That’s the main thing the Constitution says about what the President is supposed to do. I’d say his signing statements are grounds for impeachment: they are deliberate announcements of his intention not to faithfully execute the Laws of the land.
In the same spirit of Divine Rule, we have just learned the GeeDubya can declassify secret information simply by divulging it. If he says it, it’s declassified. We’re sure not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
In the same mode, we have Eugene Robinson writing in the Washington Post National Weekly about Darth Cheney: “The people running this country sound convinced that reality is whtever they say it is. And if they’ve actually strayed into the realm of genuine self-delusion, then things are even worse than I thought.” Sure enough: things are worse than he thought, which he then proves by quoting the Dauntless Quail Hunter, who, on “Face the Nation” a couple weeks ago, said unequivocally that there was no civil war in Iraq. This is the same guy, remember, who said our troops would be greeted as liberators and that the insurgency, almost a year ago, was in its “last throes.” Queried on these matters, Cheney insisted that these pronouncements were “basically accurate and reflect reality.” Whose reality?
The seemingly endless discussions about withdrawing our troops from Iraq have conveniently overlooked the facts on the ground that strenuously suggest that the U.S. military will be a presence in that beleaguered nation for decades to come. While the Bush League has mostly failed to reconstruct Iraq’s cities and infrastructure, it has succeeded spectacularly in building at least four, perhaps five—maybe six—mammoth military bases. Here’s The Nation, quoting from Thomas Ricks’ report in the Washington Post about his visit to one of those “super bases,” Balad Air Base, about 42 miles north of Baghdad: the base “has an American ‘small-town feel’ and is sizable enough to have ‘neighborhoods,’ including ‘KBR-land’ (in honor of the Halliburton subsidiary that has done most base-construction work) and the walled-in ‘CJSOTF’ (the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, so secretive that even the base Army public affairs chief hasn’t been inside). There is as well a Subway, a Pizza Hut, a Popeye’s, ‘an ersatz Starbucks,’ a twenty-four-hour Burger King, two post exchanges where tvs, iPods and the like, convoyed in, can be purchased, four mess halls, a hospital, a speed limit of ten miles per hour, a huge airstrip, 250 aircraft, air-traffic pileups of a sort familiar over Chicago’s O’Hare airport and a ‘miniature golf course, which mimics a battlefield with its baby sandbags, little Jersey barriers, strands of concertina wire, and, down at the end of the course, what appears to be a tiny detainee cage.’ Ricks reports that, of the 20,000 troops living in ‘air-conditioned containers’ (soon to be wired for Internet, cable tv and overseas telephone access), ‘only several hundred have jobs that take them off base.’” Another of the super bases, still under construction, covers fifteen to twenty square miles and is so large that it has two bus routes.
The Nation’s article concludes: “To this day, those Little Americas remain at the secret heart of ‘reconstruction’ policy in Iraq. As long as KBR keeps building them, there can be no genuine withdrawal. Despite recent press visits, our super bases remain swathed in policy silence. The Bush Administration does not discuss them (other than to deny their permanence). No plans for them are debated in Congress.” But they’re there. And as long as there are “Little Americas” in Iraq, there’ll be American military.
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