Opus 184 (May 22, 2006). I’m saving the Really Big News until the end of this introductory paragraph, kimo sabe, mentioning here at the onset only that our feature this time is a review of the new comic strip reprint tome, Candorville: Thank God for Culture Clash, coupled to a short history of the strip and its creator, Darrin Bell, who first emerged on the national stage as a real trouble-maker. We also take a look at Art Spiegelman’s examination of the Danish Dozen in the June Harper’s and review some comic books. Here’s what’s here in order: NOUS R US— A franchise of Dagwood Sandwich Shops is launched, but John Marshall, who draws the strip that inspired the shops, remains anonymous; Playboy says good-bye to Eldon Dedini; MORE DANISH AGAIN— Spiegelman in Harper’s, Ted Rall in Global Journalist, and no cartoons of Muhammad in the NCS Reuben program booklet; BOOK MARQUEE— High Hat online, Bob Staake’s latest diatribe and a stunning book, which leads to: UGLY ART vs. BAD ART—A history of bad art from Thurber to Trudeau and how it differs from ugly art; CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST— Da Vinci debunked; REPRINT— Candorville and Darrin Bell’s controversial editoon in September 2001; FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE— Reviews of issues of American Virgin, Next Wave, and Truth, Justin and the American Way and Liberality for All; BUSHWHACKING— Stephen Colbert’s assault on GeeDubya’s sensitivities and a new Dr. Seuss ditty. The Really Big News is that I’ve finished Phase One of revising the Milton Caniff biography that has been diverting me for the last year. It took my five years to write the first version, which, at 900-plus pages in typescript, was too long for most publishers to consider. Phase One involved reducing the book by almost 40 percent, which phase is now, as of two weeks ago, complete. Phase Two, a final edit for polishing and catching typos and for selecting and captioning illustrations, is now underway; it’ll be completed by the end of June, at which point, you can expect another celebration here. Hoist one for the ol’ Harv. And our customary 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—
Hear Ye, Hare Ye
Subscribers Notice: A Pointless Exercise
We are updating the way we send the Rabbit Habit alert because spam catchers filter us out. You should have received an e-mail asking you to confirm your e-mail address. Responding to this will help us build our new list and provide better, swifter service. Of course, if you’re reading this, you’ve already done that. And if you haven’t done that, you aren’t likely to be reading this. Pointless exercise, like I said. Sigh.
Correcting the Malfeasances of the Past
Now would be the best time to re-visit Opus 183, our most recent, in order to make some sense of my diatribe about Stephen Pastis, Darby Conley, Pearls before Swine, and Get Fuzzy. We used the wrong group of strips to illustrate the rant, and so it probably didn’t make sense. Probably, I suppose, no one noticed because so little of this picayune prose actually makes sense. But for those who were puzzled by the Get Fuzzy strips that seemed to have nothing to do with the accompanying tirade, you were right. We’re corrected that: now, the strips that should have been there, are there. So take another look.
Not content with the sin of omission, I also committed one. Last time I said that I’d just received the most recent issue of Inkspot, the magazine of the Australian Cartoonists’ Association, and I said something cute about it’s being the “Autumn” issue, implying that their most “recent” issue was, actually, ahead of the game somewhat. Ho, ho—the joke’s on me. The reason it’s the “Autumn” issue is that, Down Under, the season is, at present, autumn; when it’s autumn here, it’ll be spring there.
NOUS R US
All the news that gives us fits.
In a passel of reviews of the animated film version of H.A. and Margret Rey’s Curious George, which some reviewers dislike intensely because it tries to up-date the classic, Peter Hartlaub of the San Francisco Chronicle, writes, with a perfectly straight face: “There is no nudity in ‘Curious George.’” Presumably, he is reassuring concerned parents, but I venture to guess, without having seen the movie, that George is as naked in the movie as he is in the books. He’s a monkey. No clothing. Ergo, naked.
From an Editor & Publisher round-up: Lynn Johnston and her comic strip dog, Farley in her strip, For Better or For Worse, received a Special Award from the Purina Animal Hall of Fame for “chronicling the bond between people and their pets.” ... The first in a chain of Dagwood Sandwich Shops will open in June in Palm Harbor, Florida. An obvious marketing ploy whose time, surprisingly, has taken a generation to arrive, the shops were conceived by Dean Young, who, saith E&P, produces Blondie with Denis LeBrun; but LeBrun retired from the strip last summer, and since then, the only signature on the strip has been Young’s, who, apparently, doesn’t deign to recognize the artwork done by John Marshall, who inherited LeBrun’s chair. In fact, I have it on impeccable authority that Young specified in the search for LeBrun’s replacement that whoever it was should not expect to get to sign the strip. So the imposture continues, with Young pretending to be the sole author of the classic strip he inherited from his father, Blondie’s creator. ... An animated short by Pulitzer-winning editoonist Ann Telnaes will be part of the forthcoming “Tomorrowland: CalArts in Moving Pictures” show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, May 25-August 13. The Telnaes short will be shown June 18 & 19. ... According to the latest statistically meaningless straw poll taken at Doonesbury.com, of 15,573 respondents, 79% said GeeDubya is the worst president ever; surprisingly, of the 319 voters who said they love Georgie, 55% called him the worst president; and of the 1,499 who said they can take him or leave him, 56% said he was the worst.
In its June issue, Playboy takes a moment—a half-page in the “After Hours” section—to “bid farewell to a master cartoonist,”Eldon Dedini, reprinting three of his cartoons and a short prose remembrance: “The Playboy family has lost a beloved member ... who painted nearly 1,000 cartoons for this magazine. ... ‘Eldon’s world was one of light and music,’ recalls Michelle Urry, Playboy’s Cartoon Editor. ‘He drew on both in his work. His art was gentle and good-natured.’ His watercolors—images of satyrs and nymphs, spoofs of Japanese pillow books and Sunday funnies—are unmistakable and ubiquitous; Playboy has run a Dedini in almost every issue since 1960. His vision of a bucolic paradise populated by sexually liberated mythological characters became a part of the magazine’s identity. Eldon will be deeply missed.” That it took until the June issue to eulogize Dedini’s achievement is an indication of the lead time between the preparation and the publication of the magazine: Dedini died in January. The June issue carries another Dedini cartoon inside, but the perpetual Dedini has been missing from Playboy for at least two previous issues, April and May. I wonder how extensive their inventory of unpublished Dedini cartoons is. Here’s hoping we find out—that they publish them all, eventually.
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.
MORE DANISH AGAIN
Those of the public prints with a long lag between events and the publication of confabulation about them are now coming along like so many sanitation engineers, picking up the offal strewn along the journalistic main street after the hysterical parade of the Danish Dozen has long since passed. At least one of them, Harper’s, in its June issue, offers the best discussion I’ve seen yet—apart from those we committed here, that is. It’s sober, reflective, and informative, as you might expect of a periodical that’s had plenty of time to assemble facts and to ponder them. The article, by cartooner Art Spiegelman, covers the Danish Dozen and a host of related issues—freedom of speech and of the press (“trumpeting its own obsolescence” by leading its readers to the Internet to see the offending caricatures), the death of opinionated journalism, the function of graven images, the hypocrisy of publishing photos of Abu Ghraib but not the Muhammad caricatures, flag-draped coffins, the craven self-serving cowering of the Bush League, and so on. The piece seems entirely unrushed, but appearances are deceptive: to get into a June issue, presumably Spiegelman was writing this exegesis sometime in April, not so long after the frantic dashing about by the news gathering media in their often failed attempt to get the facts and to get them right. It was Spiegelman who I quoted in Opus 179 at the end of February: “The notion that the images can just be described leaves me firmly on the side of showing images. The banal quality of the cartoons that gave insult is hard to believe until they are seen.” And it was Amanda Bennett, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who probably agreed when she published at least one of the Danish caricatures, citing a famous photograph taken during the Vietnam War: “Would the words ‘a naked young girl burning with napalm’ have made us understand the horrors of the Vietnam War as completely as Nick Ut’s iconic photo?” And so Harper’s publishes all twelve of the pictures, at Spiegelman’s behest, no doubt, and Spiegelman annotates each picture, explaining who is being caricatured and why. (Muhammad was not the only person being ridiculed graphically in the series, and not all the bearded turbaned figures in the cartoons are Muhammad.) The article includes a reproduction of the page where the caricatures first appeared in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, which shows how the cartoons were initially presented to the world at large, clustered around an explanatory article, all under the heading “Muhammad’s Face.” In other words, the caricatures, when first published, were put in context by the accompanying prose; they weren’t just sprung on an unsuspecting public without explanation. No other publication that I know of has done as much to show us what the fuss has been about, and anyone who wants to maintain a permanent file of the most disruptive cartoon episode of the last 100 years is urged, herewith, to get a copy of the magazine.
Spiegelman says that Jyllands-Posten has “a history of anti-immigrant bias.” Understandable, I suppose, in a small county with a burgeoning Muslim population that, presumably, seems vaguely threatening to the natives. This factoid, which I’ve seen alluded to elsewhere in even the frenetic coverage of February, adds an illuminating lamination to the reason that the paper offered for conducting its Muhammad experiment—although, as I said before, the announced rationale seemed reasonable on its face at the time, regardless of whatever ulterior motives we can muster in the aftermath; see the aforementioned Opus 179. Writing as a secular Jew, the son of Auschwitz survivors, Spiegelman brings more than just a cartoonist’s sensibility to the furor. But as a cartoonist, he is scarcely surprised at the reaction the Danish Dozen provoked. “Caricature is by definition a charged and loaded image,” he writes. And when the Jyllands-Posten editor claimed to be exploring the implications of depicting Muhammad in book illustration, his first mistake was to invite cartoonists to draw the Prophet. “Cartoonists!” Spiegelman exclaims: “A breed of troublemakers by profession!”And when discussing the quisling reaction of the American press, his prose drips with scorn about the news outlets’ “professing a high-minded nod toward political correctness that smelled of hypocrisy and fear” that is of-a-piece with their now well-known reluctance to offend readers or advertisers with anything approaching an opinionated political cartoon, a rank timidity that has resulted in making editorial cartoonists “an endangered species, dying off even quicker than the newspapers that host them.” He continues, a note of satiric bitterness creeping in: “I hear beleaguered editors and infuriated Muslims chanting in unison. Both groups, after all, are notoriously wary of images.” Ahh, Art: I am destroyed with envy over your sharply honed barbs and the deadly accuracy of your aim.
Of all the responses world-wide to the Danish cartoons, none, Spiegelman says, were “more flabbergasting than Iran’s announcement that it would host an international Holocaust cartoon contest as payback, to ‘test’ the limits of Western tolerance of free speech.” Whatever the Iranian so-called logic, it struck Spiegelman “as a little unjust—even somewhat paranoid—to punish Jews for Danish sins.” The most inspired reaction to the Iranian contest, he says, was that of the artists in Tel Aviv “who announced their own Israeli anti-Semitic cartoon contest, stating: ‘We’ll show the world we can do the best, sharpest, most offensive Jew-hating cartoons ever published! No Iranian will beat us on our home turf!” After confessing that he was among the judges for this competition, he concludes by publishing his “final solution” to Iran’s anti-Semitic cartoon contest, a copy of which appears nearby.But to savor Spiegelman—his ironic wit and satire (the foregoing “final solution” is the merest taste, kimo sabe), his sly sarcasm and his easy manipulation of the mother tongue for risible effect as well as poetic justice—you need to pick up a copy of June’s Harper’s.
Ted Rall also chimes in on the Danish Disasters with an essay in the March Global Journalist on how he makes a cartoon and what a cartoon of the political sort is supposed to accomplish. “The strongest editorial cartoons question authority and conventional wisdom,” he writes. But it’s a task fraught with risk: “It’s best to cause offense only in the service of making an important point in order to elicit vibrant discussion. Sometimes, however, a cartoonist’s faulty execution causes that goal to be lost, leaving controversy and nothing else.” Which, by one reading, is what the Danes did. By another reading, however, they accomplished precisely what the editor was looking for when he commissioned the caricatures: publishing them revealed how thin the fundamental Islamist skin is, and how intimidating mobs of irate Muhammad’s followers can be. Rall’s essay is accompanied by quotations on the issues culled from publications around the world and by a timeline that traces some of the events that were initiated by the September 2005 publication of the caricatures. The timeline, alas, leaves out the crucial December meeting of the leaders of 57 Muslim countries after which organized protest and street demonstrations began throughout the Muslim world. Global Journalist looks like a quarterly, and its cover says it intends to stay on newsstands until June 15, but if you miss it, you can find Rall’s article at his website, www.tedrall.com : go to the Rallblog, then scroll down to April 10, where you’ll find a link to the Global Journalist article.
Finally, the most depressing news of all: The Reuben Journal, the “program” for the annual Reuben Awards Weekend of the National Cartoonists Society, May 26-28, declined to print a cartoon that depicted Muhammad. The cartoon was submitted as one of the ads that are traditionally taken by cartoonists in the Journal to help finance its publication. The ad was produced by cartoonist Keith Robinson, whose self-syndicated Making It has been going steadily since 1985. At his website, Robinson rehearsed the whole ugly tale; herewith—
Just a Cartoon...
"Nothing is mean if it’s funny enough." —Eddie Haskell
Every Memorial Day weekend the National Cartoonists Society throws a big whoop-de-do centered on giving an award—the Reuben (named for Reuben "Rube" Goldberg)—to the outstanding cartoonist of the year. The printed program—really a magazine—for this event is called The Reuben Journal. I, like many cartoonists, take out an ad most years in the Journal. Wednesday, I delivered the artwork for my page.
Thursday I received a voice mail from Mell Lazuraus. Mell does the comic strip Momma. He is also, and has been for longer than I’ve been an NCS member, the editor of The Reuben Journal. On the voice mail, he told me how much he enjoyed my work. He was very positive, very complimentary. At the end of the message, almost as if it were an afterthought, he said, "Of course, we can’t run this ad. Call me."
I dialed Mell and made my argument as to why he could—and should—run my ad. As I rattled off each point, Mell chuckled, like an indulgent parent listening to his child argue why he should be allowed to stay up an hour past his bedtime to play Super Mario. Mell waited until I was done, then said, "So, what have you got for an alternative?"
"Well," I said, "how ‘bout I run something that says, ‘The editor wouldn’t allow me to run the ad I wanted to. Here’s the URL where you can find it on my web site’?"
"Yeah, I think that’d be okay,” he said. So here is the ad that will run in the Journal, www.makingit.com/hell_no/ [as well as the ad that won’t].
What points did I make to Mell as to why he should run it?
First, newspapers are killing cartoons. Comic strips have been reduced in size. New strips rarely get a chance. Local editorial cartoonists are practically extinct. This lack of support may make people think newspaper cartoons are irrelevant. But the controversy over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad reminds the world that cartoons can be a powerful method of communication. We shouldn’t ignore it.
Second, protestors are using the threat of violence to keep cartoons from being printed. We shouldn’t give in.
Third, there is no historical tradition that a drawing of Mohammad is in-and-of-itself offensive. While some Muslims do not make or show images of Mohammad because of the biblical laws against graven images, there is a long history of portraits of Muhammad in Islamic art. His image appears in thousands of mosques and on pendants worn by many Muslim men. There is even a carving of Mohammad on the wall of the United States Supreme Court Building, along with other historic lawgivers.
Why don’t the media talk more about this? Perhaps because not talking about it gives them a convenient rationalization—religious tolerance—for not showing the offending Danish cartoons. The real reason: fear. This ruse that any drawing of Mohammad is offensive reminds me of David Letterman’s comment about the apology CBS issued after Janet Jackson’s "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl: "Today, CBS pretended to apologize to the people who are pretending to be offended." We shouldn’t go along.
And the final point? I think it’s funny. And if I start second-guessing and softening my cartoons because I’m afraid someone will get mad —or even violent—then I don’t deserve to ask for your time to read them.
At their best, cartoons can be touching, thought provoking, and hilarious all at the same time. That’s what the Reuben Award celebrates. That’s what I aspire to. Even though I can’t (of course) run my ad in The Reuben Journal, I can at least post it on my website. I just may have someone else start my car for a while.
Footnit by RCH: NCS is notoriously genteel. As an organization, it will go to almost any lengths to avoid controversy, particularly controversy within its ranks. It exists solely to foster good fellowship among cartoonists. Lazarus’s gentle almost whimsical refusal to run Robinson’s ad is not surprising. But it is a little disconcerting for a cartoonists’ organization to decline to get its fingers inky.
Checker Books’ seventh volume of Winsor McCay: Early Works is out; it was scheduled to appear in August but waited nine months, the usual period of gestation. ... Alison Bechdel’s autobio graphic novel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, is to be released June 8 by Houghton Mifflin. “The book,” Editor & Publisher says, “recounts the cartoonist’s childhood living with a closeted gay father who taught English and ran a funeral parlor.” When not producing an autobiography, Bechdel does a comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For.
Wandering lonely as a cloud through the electronic ether the other day, I chanced upon an online magazine called High Hat, www.thehighhat.com , which turns out to be a repository of intelligent writing about cartooning and comics. Issue No. 6 is presently up and running; the five previous issues are also in the vicinity (Nos. 1 and 2, 2003; Nos. 3 and 4, 2004; No. 5, 2005). No. 6 includes essays on Powers, Ty Templeton, Carol Lay, and Carol Tyler (“wife to Binky Brown creator Justin Green, working mother, and maybe the greatest little-known cartoonist in this country, or the least well-known great cartoonist, or some damn thing”), a long interview with Rancid Raves fave Keith Knight, and an appreciation of Abner Dean, a cartooning star of the 1940s and 1950s who almost no one is aware of anymore. But we should be: his work, in such tomes as It’s a Long Way to Heaven, “looks like gag cartoons,” as Chris Lanier says, “—there’s a funny drawing, and then a caption that might provide a laugh—but on closer examination they reveal themselves to be a different animal.” Dean’s people in his books are all naked (but without genitalia so they would not offend even the “values” conscious citizen of our present day), and the comedy they enact is the human comedy, a bleak vision of life on earth that Dean represents symbolically in picture after picture, so stark and grim that we must, for self-preservation, laugh at it.
Bob Staake’s blog for May 9 is entitled “If Cartoonists Only Knew How To Draw,” a provocation if ever there wuz. “The cartoonist,” Staake begins, “communicates to his reader ... through the use of a visual vocabulary—a wiggle here and a line there and a blotch of ink in between. ... The basic nobility of that cause innoculates (for the most part) cartooning against the accusations that it is a vocation filled with practitioners (98% white and male) who couldn’t draw their way out of a paper bag if their life (or their profession) counted on it. Imagine turning on the Olympics and seeing 78% of the figure skaters fall on their asses. Imagine if 70% of all domestic flights crashed on take-off.” Not only is professional cartooning often marred by ineptitude, Staake continues, but “it fails to recognize why it isn’t better respected as an industry.” Cartooning isn’t viewed as a legitimate art form, he says. “Individual cartoonists deserve respect, but just because they earn it doesn’t mean a positive residue should trickle down upon anyone who puts nib to paper. ...” Staake attributes the lack of respect paid the profession to more than mere incompetence: too many cartooners, he says, “fail to push any aesthetic envelope or embrace even a modicum of visual experimentation,” a posture, he continues, “as audacious as it is self-delusional. ... The American comic strip in particular is mired in pop cultural predictability, most syndicated cartoonists falling back on a well-established vocabulary of visuals and a less than venturesome imparting of concepts, ideas, humor and characters.” If cartooning ever achieves legitimacy as an art form, he says, “it will only occur when cartoonists en masse make the conscious effort to approach their work with a commitment to fresh self-expression both visually and conceptually rather than regurgitating its contextual traditions, relying on establish forms and a resignation to stagnation over experimentation.”
Staake, we hasten to add, practices what he preaches. You can sample his work at his website, www.bobstaake.com, or in a book he illustrated that’s just been published by Fantagraphics Books, Inc.: dubbed “the world’s most nightmarish children’s book,” Struwwelpeter (36 10x10-inch pages; $14.95) offers ten short poetic tales written in 1844 by German physician Heinrich Hoffman. Staake has adapted Hoffman faithfully, “all inappropriateness, Teutonic didacticism and political incorrectness firmly intact.” In “Slovenly Peter,” we meet a thoroughly unwashed and unkempt kid, whose “stink exceeds a lethal dose. Don’t believe me? Take a whiff, puke or poop’s a better sniff!” Cruel Frederick’s abused dog finally turns on his master, and Pauline, who plays with matches, successfully burns herself up. That sort of inappropriateness. And Staake’s stylish brilliantly hued geometricities are a treat for the eye, which is why I say he practices what he preacheth.Delightful as such frowned upon literary excursions as this are, it’s Staake’s assessment of the state of the cartooning art that engages me here. And he has, unwittingly, given me the opening I’ve been dawdling around waiting for. I don’t agree that the profession is awash in deluded unadventurous ‘tooners, but it’s true that a large percentage of practitioners are cranking off lame pictures, an annoying shame in a visual medium. Here’s a screed on the subject that I have had waiting in the wings for six months:
UGLY ART VS. BAD ART
Of the several blots on the escutcheon of our culture that get my wattles in an uproar every once in a while, the uppermost one in cartooning is the medium’s propensity to foster bad art and ugly art. As a visual artform, cartooning should, perforce, nurture craft and skill at visualization. Instead, it often tolerates and thereby encourages incompetence and carelessness. Newspaper cartooning is the only place in our culture that a bad artist can achieve professional or, at least, commercial status. A bad actor cannot find work; a bad salesman starves. A bad artist finds employment as a cartoonist doing a syndicated newspaper comic strip. Or a self-published comic book. Drawing comic books these days, especially the superhero stripe rolled out by major publishers, requires a level of proficiency at drawing than bad artists cannot attain. Not just competence but skill, panache—in style if not in anatomical accuracy. Self-published comic books, on the other hand, require only investment capital. And many of them display little else. Fortunately for the artform, these specimens soon sink in the sea of mediocrity that spawned them: they surface long enough to satisfy the would-be artist’s ego, then capsize when they can’t produce enough revenue to satisfy the misguided investor who financed the project.
Newspaper comics, however, are different. Garry Trudeau has often said that in his Doonesbury he made the newspaper comics safe for bad art. And that is doubtless true. But cartooning had become a refuge for bad art long before, thanks to James Thurber. Thurber was a writer who had the good sense to know he couldn’t draw for beans. At the fated moment in the late 1920s when he was persuaded otherwise, he was sharing office space with E.B. "Andy" White. The two of them were working for The New Yorker, Harold Ross’s magazine then in its infancy. Thurber and White were slowly finding their way to a prose style for the magazine that would distinguish its text in the same way the cartoonists then working for it distinguished its illustrations. Ross believed that the best things in the early issues were the cartoons, saying that if he could somehow elevate the rest of the magazine—chiefly its prose—to the same level of sophisticated urbanity, he would, at last, have the magazine of his dreams. In addition to writing "casuals," the short prose paragraphs for the front section of the magazine, Thurber and White were charged with polishing the captions of cartoons when the cartoons seemed almost perfect but not quite. Sometimes the "polishing" turned into complete re-writes. Over the years, re-captioning cartoons became so customary a practice at The New Yorker that it was widely acknowledged that the cartoonists themselves were not entirely responsible for the hilarities their drawings perpetrated. George Price, for example, apparently only once did a cartoon of which he was the author of both drawing and caption. (And it was, in fact, not a captioned cartoon but a funny drawing that celebrated the Yuletide by depicting several department store Santas riding the subway in costume; it was used on the cover.) In recent decades, however, the magazine abandoned this whorey practice: nowadays, with one exception, the cartoons are the concoctions solely of the cartoonists, who devise both picture and caption. The exception debuted a few months ago—the cartoon captioning contest on the last page that invites readers to supply captions for an incongruous tableau supplied by one or another of the magazine’s contract cartooners. Here, for example, is a drawing depicting several naked people seated on stage under a banner, “Welcome Stockholders,” and one of the naked folks, a man, is standing at the podium, saying—something. Another: a couple of adults walking down the hallway of a school, children walking on the walls and the ceiling overhead.
At the time Thurber became a cartoonist, however, he and White were writing most of the captions for the magazine’s cartoons. Thurber also doodled. A "doodle" is a highly technical term in the cartooner trade: as the venerable historian and cartoonist Coulton Waugh put it, "a doodle is a simple basic shape, a form one works out idly while thinking of something else." As Thurber was thinking of verbal witticisms, he apparently made crude sketches of his favorite subjects—or, perhaps, of the things he feared most. Women and dogs. He realized that his drawings were incompetent excrescences; he habitually crumpled the scraps of paper upon which he’d doodled and threw them into the wastebasket. We don’t know what prompted White to retrieve one of these ineptitudes the first time he did it, but he did. And he then gave it a caption. According to legend, he repeated this exercise several times over a few days or weeks and, subsequently, showed the captioned doodles to Ross, offering them as serious candidates for publication as cartoons. Ross looked at these miserably maladroit scrawls and, cognizant of Thurber’s penchant for practical joking, thought White was in league with Thurber, that both of them were pulling his leg. He refused to consider publishing any of them. Then, to the everlasting detriment of cartooning, Ross saw reviews of the book White and Thurber did together in 1929, Is Sex Necessary? The reviewers praised Thurber’s drawings, and Ross, startled no doubt, relented and began publishing Thurber’s "cartoons." The first appeared in the January 31, 1931 issue of The New Yorker and ushered in the Age of Incompentent Art, giving bad art a home in American cartooning.
For a long time, Thurber was the only practitioner of this peculiar performance that purported to raise oafishness to art—or, at least, to commercial viability. Then Trudeau came along, trying, with only occasional success, to imitate Jules Feiffer. By the late 1960s when Trudeau’s admiration was transforming itself into the sincerest form of flattery, Feiffer had made a career of his acerbic analysis of artsy avant garde pretension in cartoons that he labored to make look as offhand as The New Yorker’s prose casuals. The angular style of his earliest efforts for the Village Voice in the fall of 1956 evoked the UPA style of animated cartooning, which, by the mid-1950s, had infected much commercial magazine art, illustrations for advertisements as well as articles. Almost immediately, however, Feiffer evolved his own style, a loose-limbed sketchy manner that seemed dashed off, the epitome of casualness. In later years, he was known to draw the individual figures that made up his cartoon many times, over and over, until he produced several that were, in his eyes, acceptably loose looking. These he would clip out and paste into the usual montage of his cartoon. The objective was to preserve the air of spontaneity that prevailed in the sketches, a goal Feiffer successfully attained with every one of his published efforts—good art, all of them. Not a bad drawing in the lot. When Trudeau tried aping Feiffer, he achieved only the sketchiness but none of the elan that a Feiffer drawing then evinced.
Trudeau’s success, which was achieved more by the audacity of his wit than the polish of his pictures, opened the way for others, many of whom could not display an artistic skill even remotely akin to Trudeau’s. (Trudeau, who majored in graphic design at Yale, is actually a competent artist—as his strip since his sabbatical in 1983-84 amply demonstrates.)
And so a doodle that escaped the captivity of a wastebasket in the late 1920s has matured into a host of varieties of bad or ugly art. Bad art is incompetent; ugly art is competent but has no eye appeal. It is unattractive because its compositions lack symmetry or balance or its linear treatment is too tentative or monotonous. Bad art reflects no confidence in line or composition; ugly art offers no variety in texture or line. Cathy is bad because the cartoonist can barely draw. Dilbert and Pearls before Swine, a recent phenomenon that has captured the so-called imagination of editors everywhere, are ugly. They are ugly because they are visually uninteresting; they are, in short, dull. Brevity, a new arrival on the pages of the News-Gazette, is another of the same ilk. Agnes, on the other hand, is neither bad nor ugly. Although it seems to be merely squiggles on paper, cartooner Tony Cochran displays a knowledge of anatomy and an ability to depict it; his characters are recognizably the same personages every time he draws them; he spots blacks and supplies shading, which gives his squiggles eye appeal. But too many of the medium’s recent manifestations are either bad or ugly, alas.
At this rate, we’ll eventually reach the point at which comic strips will be described as a medium in the same way television is: it’s a medium because it is neither well done nor rare.
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
According to Entertainment Weekly, a Christian anti-porn ministry called XXXchurch has published a New Testament with a cover proclaiming “Jesus Loves Porn Stars.” The plan is to distribute the books at erotica conventions starting in June. Says founder and pastor Craig Gross: “Whether you’re in the porn industry or addicted to it, we, the church, are here to help.” He’ll learn, of course, that “on your knees” means something different in porn.
Halliburton, the notorious government contractor and honeypot for Darth Cheney, has just been awarded a $385 million grant to build a network of detention centers across the country. Each of them will be capable, according to report, of detaining up to 5,000 people. What Bush League plans do you suppose this hints at? They say the contract is merely a contingency maneuver; the centers probably won’t ever be built. But what contingency prompted the preparedness? The multi-million dollar grant, meanwhile, will doubtless be spent on a coast-to-coast search for possible sites among the military installations that have been shut down. There’s not enough money for much more than that.
Finally, there’s this: in Opus 179, I quoted Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times, who compared the Danish Dozen to the forthcoming movie, “The Da Vinci Code,” wondering if the news media, with their newly discovered sensitivity to the religious convictions of their audience, would be as circumspect with the movie as they were being with the pictures of Muhammad. Said Rutten: “The novel’s plot is a vicious little stew of bad history, fanciful theology and various slanders directed at the Vatican and Opus Dei, an organization to which thousands of Catholic people around the world belong. In this vile fantasy, the Catholic hierarchy is corrupt and manipulative and Opus Dei is a violent, murderous cult. The late Pope John Paul II is accused of subverting the canonization process by pushing sainthood for Josemaría Escrivá, Opus’ founder, as a payoff for the organization’s purported ‘rescue’ of the Vatican bank. The plot’s principal villain is a masochistic albino Opus Dei ‘monk’ for whom murder is just one of many sadistic crimes. (It probably won’t do any good to point out that, while it’s unclear whether Opus Dei has any albino members, there definitely are no monks.) ... Neither it nor its members are corrupt or murderous. It is a moral—though thankfully not legal—libel to suggest otherwise. Further, it is deeply offensive to allege—even fictionally—that the Roman Catholic Church would tolerate Opus Dei, or any organization, if it were any of those things. So how will the American news media respond to the release of this film? Certainly, there should be reviews since this is a news event, though it would be a surprise if any of them had something substantive to say about these issues. But what about publishing feature stories, interviews or photographs? Isn’t that offensive, since they promote the film? More to the point, should newspapers and television networks refuse to accept advertising for this film since plainly that would be promoting hate speech? Will our editors and executives declare their revulsion at the very thought of profiting from bigotry?”
Rutten concluded that the media would barge right on with stories about the movie, effectively promoting box office receipts and, incidentally, several monstrous canards about the Catholic Church. And he was almost right. But many of the stories—most of those in the major weekly newsmagazines—debunked the so-called “history” of Brown’s novel. They did, in other words, have “something substantive to say about the issues,” the part I boldfaced in Rutten’s remarks. But otherwise, a plethora of photos and sidebars, all of which will prod attendance at the movie. If the movie had been about Muhammad .........
When Darrin Bell’s Candorville began in October 2003, it was apparently about the multi-ethnic, multi-racial urban milieu. Lemont Brown, the lead character, is African-American, and his best friend, Susan Garcia, is trying to work her way up in the corporate world handicapped by being the only Latina in an office that just took “cultural sensitivity training” (“If you need a siesta,” says one of her co-workers, “we understand.”) Lurking at the edges is Clyde (or, as he prefers “C-dawg”), a wannabe gangsta and ne’er-do-well whose idea of a Saturday night on the town is looting appliance stores.But Bell quickly went beyond the seeming confines of his subject to explore bigotry, poverty, homelessness, personal responsibility and the culture of victimhood as well as politics and current events, all on encore display in Candorville: Thank God for Culture Clash (128 8x9-inch pages from Andrews McMeel; $10.95).
Homeless persons showed up once a week in the early months of the strip, snoozing in boxes in the alleyways. Says one homeless man to another: “The hours are good, but the pay stinks.”
Susan and Lemont spend many leisure hours on the rooftop of their apartment building, musing about the world around them. “I think Reverend Wilfred’s gone off the deep end,” Lemont says. “He told us how Jesus preached peace ... and then said the U.S. should assassinate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.”
Later in the week, Lemont confronts Reverend Wilfred with this seemingly contradictory message, but the Reverend explains: “If Jesus were here, he’d agree with me that we should send ninja assassins with nuclear machetes to murder Venezuela’s President.” Lemont is aghast: “Jesus would what?” Wilfred: “Oh, not in so many words, of course, but his meaning would be quite clear.”
Reverend Wilfred also encourages his flock to vote Republican after he is given $50,000 in tax-payer funds from the Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives.
Most of the comedy and satire is entirely verbal, arising in conversational exchanges among the characters. But Bell also deploys a unique verbal-visual device: a strip of two panels, one of which explains, often by satiric contradiction, the other. Here, in the first panel labeled 2001, Lemont, in the dredlock fashion of the day, is watching tv as the on-camera reporter says: “In other news, energy company executives are meeting with Dick Cheney to craft American’s energy policy.” The second panel, dated 2005, shows Lemont with a crop cut, still watching tv, from which the following issues forth: “In other news, nobody seems to know why energy prices are so high or why energy companies are enjoying the highest profits in history.”
In another two-panel strip, each panel labeled November 2005, Lemont is again watching his tv, which says: “This just in—President Bush said today it was absurd for anyone to think America tortures its war prisoners.” In the next panel, the reporter is saying: “In other news, Vice President Cheney is lobbying Congress to allow the CIA to torture war prisoners.” Political satire doesn’t get any more pointed than that.
Lemont asks a friend: “Dude, what’s it to you whether I say ‘Happy Holidays’ or ‘Merry Christmas’?” Replies the friend: “Well, my belief system is so fragile that if I don’t hear ‘Merry Christmas’ everywhere I go this time of year, I’ll stop believing in God altogether. I’ll become a pervert, I’ll abandon my wife and kids and take to a life of crime.” Lemont, smirking slightly: “Well, as long a you have a rational explanation.” The friend: “Fox News is right: you liberals hate my children.”
Bell’s style deploys a simple bold line, no feathering or texture, and uncluttered panels shaded in tones of gray. He also frequently resorts to a close-up of a character’s nose in a small panel, a labor-saving device that frees him up enough to draw another strip, Rudy Park, which is written by the heretofore mysterious “Theron Heir,” lately revealed to be a journalistic personage named Matt Richtel. Rudy Park had one of the most unfortunate launches in comic strip history: it burst on the newspaper world in early September 2001, not a month that anyone was thinking much about comic strips or comedy. The strip has, subsequently, recovered.
As might be evident from this, the 31-year-old Bell has a longer history in cartooning than the short syndicated history of Candorville suggests. He has been drawing the strip in one or another of its pre-syndication guises for thirteen years. In its first incarnation in 1992 as a project for Bell’s highschool AP English, it was called Lemont Brown. “Candorville, the name of the city where Lemont lives, was rarely mentioned,” Bell said during one of the Washington Post’s online interviews. “That changed when I realized Candorville would appear much higher on any alphabetized list than Lemont.”
While attending the University of California at Berkeley in 1995, Bell took up editorial cartooning. He continued Lemont Brown as a daily strip in the campus paper, the Daily Californian, but it was his political cartooning that first thrust him into a national spotlight. On September 18, 2001, Bell’s cartoon commented on the Islamist fanaticism that had inspired the suicide attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and on the Pentagon in Washington. The cartoon depicts two robed, turbaned and bearded men in the palm of a gigantic hand with talon-like fingernails. The surrounding flames and a bat-winged demon suggest that we’re in Hell. One of the bearded men is saying, “We made it to paradise! Now we will meet Allah and be fed grapes and be serviced by 70 virgin women and ...” The other man, standing slightly behind the speaker, has dropped a handbook entitled Flight Manual and is tapping the speaker on the shoulder, trying to direct his attention to their surroundings.
The next morning, the Daily Californian reported that more than 100 students clogged the paper’s lobby to protest what they saw as the “racist” message of the cartoon which portrayed Muslims as rather simple-minded fanatics. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, xenophobia peaked, and anyone in the U.S. who “looked Middle Eastern” was at risk, and the stereotypical images of Bell’s cartoon were seen as fueling the growing prejudice. The protesters demanded an apology from the paper, but the Daily Cal wouldn’t back down. Quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, Editor Janny Hu said: “We maintain that the editorial cartoon fell within the realm of fair comment and the First Amendment.” The paper subsequently published letters on both sides of the issue, but that wasn’t good enough for the more determined of the protesters, who took the matter to the Student Senate in the form of a bill that condemned the editorial cartoon and called for the paper to publish a front-page apology and to subject its staff to “mandatory” (later changed to “voluntary”) diversity training. Finally, in a maneuver that looked startlingly like extortion, the bill recommended that the newspaper’s rent be raised for the offices it occupied in a campus building. The irony was very nearly overwhelming: Berkeley, remember, was the bastion of the Free Speech Movement of 1960s.
The pending legislation drew letters blistering with outrage from several political cartoonists, including two Pulitzer winners and past presidents of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, David Horsey of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and Steve Benson of the Arizona Republic. Said Benson: “I was under the impression that only in totalitarian regimes are such blatant efforts to choke off free expression allowed. Those in the Student Senate who are trying to gag individual views which they deem unacceptable have completely misread the cartoon. Bell was focusing his fire at the Islamic fundamentalists responsible for the terror attacks against the World Trade Center, not at Muslims in general.” The effort to extort an apology from the paper by bringing financial pressure to bear was, Benson said, “completely antithetical to the American tradition of unfettered free speech.” Horsey, referring to his own experience with protesters, said he was quite familiar with “interest groups who purposely misread and find unintended meanings in cartoons primarily to forward their own political agendas. ... A fair reading of [Bell’s cartoon],” he continued, “would make it clear the intent of the cartoonist was to criticize terrorism, not Islam or Islamic people in general. ... It is outrageous that the senators are giving any thought to a measure which would seek to stifle freedom of speech and freedom of the press. This is an action worthy of some authoritarian regime, not a student government centered in a great university which is dedicated to the free exchange of ideas. ... Threatening sanctions of a free press—even a student-run press—stinks of McCarthyism.”
The bill was, to the best of my knowledge, never passed. The final irony of the episode is that Bell, accused of racism, is somewhat a racial minority himself. With a white Jewish mother and a Black father, Bell is the very definition of biracial. He defiantly chooses neither: “I’m both,” he says, “—not half, but both is the way I look at it. ... Most biracial people know they have feet in two cultures, and they’re okay with that. It’s the rest of the world that wants them to choose.” Some of his Candorville strips have provoked a certain amount of flak, he admits, “primarily from White critics who feel it’s their duty to tell me I’m being offensive to Black people.” Anyone who thinks he’s white is “half wrong,” Bell says.
While at UC Berkeley, Bell showed his editorial cartoons to the Los Angeles Times, which published them as freelance submissions. The paper also ran some Lemont Brown strips. “I sent them Lemont Brown every day for a year,” Bell laughed as he talked to Mike Peters at the Dallas Morning News in 2004, “and finally they agreed to run it once a week ‘and then we’ll see.’”
About then, Bell met Richtel, a journalist at the Oakland Tribune who was developing the Rudy Park comic strip. Bell continued freelancing editorial cartoons for a year or so after Rudy Park debuted, but once Candorville started, he gave up editooning.
Candorville, which now appears in about 300 newspapers, is “semi-autobiographical,” Bell said. “A lot of me is in Lemont, especially his anxieties. Only difference is my ‘Susan’ is actually my wife, not a platonic friend. I’m much, much luckier than Lemont.” Bell told Mike Peters that his wife, Laura, is a big fan of Susan, and Susan even looks a bit like her. “They have some common personality traits,” he said, “but they are different enough that if I do something not particularly flattering, Laura knows it’s not her.”
As for the rest of the strip’s cast, “it’s a balancing act of fiction and real life,” Bell said. “I’ve taken all my friends and squeezed them into three characters. They are amalgamations of what’s going on in my life, not a diary. I can think of situations and throw them at the characters, and the way they react is from my life.”
Clyde, the aspiring rapper and would-be thug, is Lemont’s childhood friend, but, unlike Lemont, he has never stopped being angry at the world. Said Peters: “Nothing is ever his fault. Nobody matters but Clyde. Since life’s unfair, the only way to win is to cheat your way through it.”
Clyde is a fairly overt stereotype and a negative one at that. To which Bell responded during his online interview: “Unfortunately, the fact that something may be a stereotype doesn’t mean there’s no truth in it. There are many, many people like Clyde. I think most of them hang out on my corner in Oakland. I try my best to get at the heart of why he behaves the way he does because I don’t think ignoring people who make all the wrong choices will ever help them make the right ones. I want people who might see a lot of themselves in Clyde to see him make mistakes, to see why he’s wrong, to laugh at that part of themselves, and, hopefully, to think twice the next time they have an urge to act like Clyde. I balance Clyde against Lemont, the protagonist of the strip, for that purpose. Where Clyde goes wrong, Lemont goes right and puts things into perspective.”
Bell tries to avoid being preachy, he told Peters. “Being preachy is easy. But I won’t deal with any heavy issue unless I can find either a joke in it—that doesn’t belittle the issue—or find a truth in it that will make people laugh, especially if they haven’t thought of it before. Making people laugh is essential.” If he can’t find a comedy in a situation, “I put it on the back burner until the right angle comes to me,” he said.
“I want to make people laugh and think at the same time,” Bell said during the online session. “I think you can’t poke fun at the important ironies of life—or even the frivolous ones—without being an activist in someone’s eyes. Candorville’s social activism is an expression of my naive belief that people should never be afraid to ask questions, even if those questions are unpopular. I don’t pretend to have any answers, but I do have an awful lot of questions. ... Whether I make people laugh or I make them angry, or I make them shake their head in disbelief, or I just make them yawn, I realize how fortunate I am every day that I get to wake up and create something that other people will read. I get to do that, and I get to draw funny pictures. I get to do that for a living. It won’t make me rich, but it makes me happy and fulfilled, and I’m thankful for every day I get to do it.”
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE
The second issue of American Virgin delivers on the promise of the first issue. The smarmy religious virginity of its protagonist is increasingly assaulted by the increasing misfortunes of his life: his finance killed in Africa, Adam goes there to retrieve her body, accompanied by his potty-mouthed sister. En route, Adam loses his holier-than-thou cool more than once. He comes upon bare-breasted native women and little boys diddling themselves, offenses to his evangelical sensibilities. Rude stuff. This series will either end with his re-instatement as a fanatic or with his complete disillusionment.
Loveless No. 6 is a beautifully rendered, done-in-one tale of African-American life before and after the supposed emancipation of the Civil War. Drawn by Danijel Zezelj, the entire issue takes place around a night-time campfire in the woods, and the surroundings—the trees like silent judging sentinels—are exquisitely evoked in fading light and deepening shadow.
The fourth issue of The Exterminators continues as one of the medium’s most disgustingly intriguing enterprises. But the enormous fat lady on the couch, where she’s been sitting, unable to rise, since 1992, is a bit much; and her complaint is that a rat is biting her on the ass from underneath. ... Alan Moore’s last issue of Tom Strong, No. 36, is one of his sf bafflers, moving in realms I cannot recognize. Chris Sprouse’s art, as always, entertains. But the story, which eases us up to the “end of the world” signaling the end of the comic book and (?) of Tom Strong? Is he dying? Being transported to another plane of existence? Well, it’s probably excellent, but not my cup of tea, except for the last page, where all the Strongs stand on a balcony, waving farewell to all of us.
Next Wave, now up to No. 4, continues to be one of the best superhero romps in the funnybooks—mordantly witty with snappy patter among the characters and a smart-alecky narrator. Warren Ellis clearly has his tongue in his cheek, but the adventures, despite the light-hearted patois, are threatening enough and his heroes ingenious enough in extracting themselves. In No. 2, they dispose of the giant dragon in the purple shorts; in Nos. 3 and 4, a grizzled cop is infected by a life form that turns him into a giant robot, but the heroic ensemble manages to eradicate the disease, restoring the cop to life as he knew it, albeit a little the worse for wear. Ellis produces tracts of action without much dialogue, and it’s fun to follow it. And Stuart Immonen’s art is crisp and clear, boldly outlined with fineline trim. I’m reminded of Mike Mignola but without shadows and so many solid blacks. Beautiful. And thoroughly expressive of whatever the plot needs. The simplicity of the artwork is suitably enhanced by Dave McCaig’s colors, which give nuance as well as substance to simple shapes and outline figures. A final big plus: the opening page in each issue introduces us to the characters and their various idiosyncracies and powers. Nicely done, Ellis.
Continuing the parade of excellence but this time with a genuine, full-bore slapstick send-up of superheroics, we have Truth, Justin and the American Way, written by Aaron Williams and Scott Kurtz and drawn—ah, illuminated, levitated—by Guiseppe Ferrario. In bare outline, the story is simple enough. We meet Justin Cannel, a nerdy stockroom boy, who, on the eve of his wedding to the toothsome Bailey, is going to his bachelor party. His friends have sent him a box with a costume to wear for the occasion, but, unbeknownst to them or to Justin, an alien spy, fleeing the authorities with a super-endowed costume in a box under his arm, has switched packages, leaving the powered longjohns on the front seat of Justin’s car. Justin gets home and puts the suit on, and it turns out to have a mind of its own but one commanded by whatever Justin says that the suit interprets as a directive. So when Justin, after donning the garment, says, “This thing doesn’t fit!” the suit promptly shrinks in every extremity until it fits him perfectly. The suit endows him with super strength, too. Wearing it, Justin goes to his bachelor party, which is being held in a room in a swank downtown hotel. And it has just been raided by an operative of the FBI, looking for the suit. When Justin won’t give up the suit fast enough, the guy—or, Baxter McGee, to invoke what he offers as a name—waves his pistol around, discharges it accidentally and shoots Justin, whose costume, naturally, makes him impervious to bullets. Justin, in an uncharacteristic retaliatory fit, punches McGee and sends him flying across the room. When McGee gets up and shoves his gun under Justin’s nose, the costume causes Justin to disassemble the piece. McGee then pulls out a grenade, arms it, and tosses it to Justin. Justin wants to throw it out the window, but his friends warn him that there are people down below. “What do you want me to do?” Justin blurts out, “—fly away with it?” The suit interprets that as a command and promptly activates its flying mechanism, sending Justin upward, smashing through the ceilings of successive floors of the hotel until he reaches the rooftop swimming pool. When the grenade goes off, Justin is dislodged from the floor of the pool and plummets down through the holes he made going up until he’s back in the room where it all began. Then, seconds later, the pool drains through the holes Justin made, descending through the hotel in a cataract. Justin and his friends leave the hotel (and the damage they’ve inflicted on it), pretending to be dissatisfied with the hotel’s service; they continue the party at Bailey’s apartment. She comes home and is understandably distressed to see her place trashed by the adolescent behavior of Justin’s beer-guzzling buddies. That brings us to the end of No. 2 with only another 2-3 issues promised in this limited series.
Well, I guess the story isn’t as simple to outline as I thought it was. But the idea is: a nerdy teenager gets to wear a self-actuating super suit that interprets the kid’s every wish as a command, and trouble ensues. Also comedy, most of which is due to the superb rendering by Ferrario, a 36-year-old Italian who, for the last twelve years, has been working in animation. I learned all that by visiting Kurtz’s website, www.pvponline.com , but as I watched the action unfold in the comic book, I was pretty confident that the artist was an animator: it has all the tell-tale earmarks—no linear loose-ends so the linework supplies leak-proof color-holds throughout, for one thing, masterful comedic pacing for another, plus visual hilarities galore, manic exaggerated expressiveness in the actions and reactions of the characters—but more than that, the artwork displays an absolute command of the medium. Narrative breakdowns, panel composition, timing—all executed flawlessly with an eye towards creating humor at every possible turn. Ferrario’s line flexes from bold to fine and back again, a thing of beauty in itself, and he also did the coloring, I believe (no one is credited with it), and his colors add nuance and emphasis, not to mention background detail, on every page. The story, mildly amusing in itself, is turned into a major comedic achievement solely by Ferrario’s interpretation, his refinements and sight gags, including incidental caricatures of notable personages. The joy in reading this book derives entirely from the pictures. Here are a couple pages.
In the first, we see Justin stopping at the liquor store to pick up a keg of beer for his bachelor party. Notice from the 1970s tv series “Sanford and Son,” Red Foxx and Demond Wilson in the foreground of the top panel. The perspective in this panel, by the way, is that of a security camera. What a hoot! The kegs that Justin lifts at the bottom are not empty: he thinks they are because the suit has given him, without telling him, super strength so a full keg feels to him like its empty. One panel might make the point with the aid, say, of a caption; but two panels do the job visually with no verbal accompaniment. (Subsequently, the liquor store clerk tries to lift one of the “empties” and we find out, for sure, it’s not empty.) On the other page in this vicinity, we see Baxter McGee in the first panel; he’s contemplating Justin’s super-powered flight upwards through several floors of the hotel, clutching the grenade. (McGee thinks Justin is a communist operative.) The panel composition makes sure we see the hole in the ceiling above McGee so we’re ready for Justin to drop out of it in the next panel. Then panels 3 and 4 prepare us for the deluge of the descending swimming pool, which arrives in panel 5. The change in perspective in panel 4 emphasizes the characters’ dawning realization of impending dampness and thereby heightens suspense for a moment before the liquid catastrophe is upon them; nice touch, nicely dramatic—and cinematic. In a final risible fillip, Ferrario next shows us the waterfall as it completes its descent and spews through and out of the hotel into the street outside. The action creates the comedy, and it does so in the continuous manner of an animated cartoon, one thing leading to another in hilarious succession.
In recent years, fans have accepted great variation in drawing styles for comic books, making possible cartoony mannerisms like Ferrario’s as well as the detailed realism of, say, Howard Chaykin, the stark expressionism of Phil Hester and Ande Parks, and the linear precision of Eduardo Risso. We are lightyears away from the days when everyone was expected to draw like Neal Adams. And so we’ve seen plenty of “animation style” renderings in the last few years, many of which are as cartoony—as Warner Brothers-ish—as Ferarrio’s. You might be tempted to think Justin is just another in that style. You’d be wrong. Ferarrio works in that style, but he elevates it to high comedic art. Don’t miss this one.
And Then There’s Liberality For All. We may safely assume, I think, that Mike Mackey and Donny Lin, the writer and artist who perpetrated the so-called comic book Liberality for All, expect the more liberally inclined of their readers, like me, to foam at the mouth when untangling the tripe of their book’s first issue. The concept of Liberality, after all, is to debunk a history that is imagined to fit what these authors believe the liberal vision is. We should be irate, then, at what they suppose is a liberal administration of government. In Mackey’s heavy-handed reconstruction of recent history, Al Gore won the 2000 election, precipitating a couple generations of liberal presidencies. Gore’s response to 9/11 was to “negotiate” with the terrorists, resulting, by 2021, the time of the tale rehearsed here, in Osama bin Laden becoming the Afghanistan ambassador to the United Nations. We see bin Laden, plotting with his cohorts and saying, “The American government poses no threat now. We will negotiate with the infidels until our daggers are the sharpest.” And, addressing the U.N., he thanks U.S. President Chelsea Clinton and Vice President Michael Moore—“If it were not for American leaders like them, I would not be here today,” he says and then continues to “apologize” for the “misunderstanding of September 11th, 2001.” After this orientation, we follow the exploits of Sean Hannity, part-time radio talk-show host, who now has a mechanical arm and moonlights on a heroic mission—to protect America from an atomic attack in the form of briefcase bomb and, eventually, to restore a conservative government. He is assisted, in this installment, by a mustached bald-headed guy named Liddy, who regrets the disbanding of the NRA (“so many cold, dead hands,” he murmurs) and says he hates “all the electronic gun control junk” he finds on his weapon. “The best gun control,” he says, is achieved “by using two hands.” Throughout the adventure, Mackey slips political grenades into his tale: the briefcase bomb is, we learn, “Iraqi-designed,” a sly assertion that rejuvenates the mythical partnership between bin Laden and Saddam.
Despite the ham-fisted political message, the book is adroitly constructed in the best comic book manner. As we turn the pages, we are tugged along by three storylines: one in pictures, another in captions, and a third in staticky speech balloons that represent radio broadcasts. The latter are divided into two “voices”—right and left. In effect, then, as we watch the action unfold before us, we are treated to three “voice over” strands. Here’s a portion of one of the radio strands: “I will never forget what the liberal left has done to our country ... our nation’s once mighty military conscripted into U.N. troops! God taken off of our money and out of the Pledge of Allegiance, not that anyone should swear allegiance to what the ‘new’ American flag represents! And now Iraq, Iran and the Unified Republic of Korea all have nukes!”
In captions, we have another voice in a melancholy drone: “That which is given and not earned is seldom appreciated,” implying that the left-leaning generation in power has done nothing to earn their freedoms (but that the out-of-power right-wing has, in some unspecified way, earned theirs, the same freedoms). “Like spoiled children, we [the hapless citizenry under the Clinton-Moore regime] squandered our fortune of freedom and liberty and were shocked when it was gone. Now that generation of fools stands on the shoulders of giants and, with outstretched arms laden with wanton bowls of entitlement, unashamedly asks, ‘Please, sir, I want some more!’ Those who fought for our rights etched, then eroded, a path of destiny for this country to flow. The turbulent current that boldly swept this country through time has been diverted by poor leadership. Our nation’s course, which was once like a forceful torrent, has become an insignificant stream, taking the path of least resistance ... the flow of freedom that welled forth from our nation’s capitol has stagnated into the dank swamp of its geologically historic roots. Many liberties have been lost there, pulled down to the dark murky depths.” This funereal dirge is also a call to arms: by denigrating the present state of affairs, revolution is encouraged, leading, we must suppose, to the restoration of right-thinking good guys to governing power.
Hannity and Liddy survive their first encounter with the law enforcement agencies of the present regime, but they still must capture the briefcase bomb. Lin’s artwork is thoroughly competent, distinguished by a rickety but appealingly bold line without much feathering, and his coloring participates in the propaganda: the early sequences featuring Hannity are in red while the panels focused on his opponents are blue. Cute.
While I appreciate the cunning manipulation of the medium despite the purple prose of the captioned voice-over, the best part of the book is its revelation of the alleged “thought processes” of the Right. How do these guys think? And why do they think that way? In Mackey’s drone, we find the answer. Their opposition to the Left is, if we are to judge from what we see here, based upon the conviction that any deviation from the Received Wisdom of the Right leads, as naturally as water flows downhill, to the deterioration of society and, by extension, of the quality of human life itself. There’s an inexorability about this nightmare: give an inch, and the whole fabric of society as we know it will be torn asunder. The only way to deal with bin Laden is to stomp him into the ground. That’s it. Anything less than that will inevitably lead to his assuming power in the U.N. And in the next issue of Liberality, it seems he’ll become President of the U.S. So we must hold the line against any corruption of the purity of Right thinking. No compromise is possible. (So a democratic form of government, in which compromise is the essence, is out of the question.)
I can understand now, better, the opinion of a right-wing-nut friend of mine who has no objection to gays’ sexual orientation and practices but will not endorse the idea of gay marriage because it would lead, inevitably, to old men marrying young boys and, hence, pedophilia would be legalized and run rampant. Marriage would be corrupted beyond redemption. When I pointed out that condoning marriage between a man and a woman did not, ipso facto, devolve into the marriage of old men and pre-pubescent girls—there are laws prohibiting under-age marriage without parental consent—it made no difference. Not that it matters much. Marriage is already hopelessly corrupted. When, centuries ago, societies slowly gave up the practice of arranging marriages as if they were real estate—in which women were regarded as the property of the male population— “love” became the basis for marriage. And if “love” can be the reason for marrying, the absence of “love” is sufficient reason for divorce; hence, the divorce rate soared until it almost matches the marriage rate. Marriage—i.e., family life as we used to know it—has been completely destroyed by the insinuation into the otherwise perfectly reasonable property “contract” the notion of “love.” So why worry about the effects of gay marriage upon this decayed and disgraced institution?
BUSHWHACKING (continued as a permanent perpetuation)
Mortimer B. Zuckerman, editor-in-chief of U.S. News and World Report, a sometimes right-tilting weekly newsmagazine, concludes the May 22 issue with an editorial saying: “For Republicans to even try to present themselves to voters [this fall] as fiscal conservatives after five years of reckless budget-busting, is not just absurd. It is insulting.” It is, he correctly asserts, “hypocrisy on stilts.” That’s good: hypcrisy on stilts.
In his column for May 16, Ted Rall, eternal gadfly and art-wiz, takes up the “secret” (no more) government eavesdropping effort, asking: “If losing our privacy can prevent another 9/11, isn’t it worth it?” His answer: “No. Hell no. First and foremost, domestic spying is not an anti-terrorism program. It is terrorism.” And he reminds us of how absurd the idea of electronic eavesdropping is to begin with: surely, if bin Laden and his operatives were shrewd enough to engineer the airplanes-as-missiles scheme, they’d be smart enough to know that telephone communication, whether by corner pay phone or cell, is not a good way to stay in touch with each other. Surely they know their phones, whatever devices they may use, are being tapped. And then Rall wonders why we are so peeved over the NSA data-mining and domestic surveillance efforts. In the 1990s, he reminds us, a NSA factotum “freely admitted to the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur that its Echelon keyword and voice-recognition software system sought to intercept ‘every communication in the world.’” So why are we shocked, shocked, these days, a decade later, to find out the guy knew what he was talking about? It’s been going on for years. And we ostensibly knew about it.
In another recent column, Rall discusses GeeDubya’s messianic vision of himself as savior of the world. “Despite the man’s wacky religiosity,” Rall writes, “I have been giving Bush the benefit of a small amount of remaining doubt after five years of the most disastrous rule this nation has ever suffered. I believed that he was breathtakingly bigoted, stupid, and ignorant. But I didn’t think he was out of his mind. Until now.” What happened that changed Rall’s mind is that George WMD Bush denied Seymour Hersh’s contention in The New Yorker that the Bush League was contemplating nuking Iran, but in denying it, GeeDubya also said that he reserves the right to wage preemptive war—and that he hasn’t taken the military option, including nukes, off the table. “Bushspeak analysis shows that it’s no denial at all,” Rall says, and he goes on: “Many people have asked me during the last year whether I thought Bush would attack Iran. I said no, because he’s out of troops, out of cash and out of political capital. He couldn’t, so he wouldn’t.” Now Rall isn’t so sure: “You don’t need troops, money or the support of the American people when God talks to you. And when you’re insane.”
All the buzz in early May was about Stephen Colbert’s “blistering tribute” to George W. (“Warlord”) Bush at the White House Correspondents Dinner. GeeDubya, it sez here in the Editor & Publisher report, “was not amused.” It was a brilliant bit of satire, though—no question. The eerie thing about it was how silent the room was as Colbert’s purpose began to emerge, enlarge, and then explode. All those hard-nosed correspondents evidently were too intimidated by the Bush League to actually laugh at some pretty funny remarks. For example, Colbert, in his persona as a witless but dedicated conservative Bushite, criticizes the press for it’s negative attitude about GeeDubya. About the recent personnel changes at the White House, Colbert says, “you write, ‘Oh, they’re just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.’ First of all, that is a terrible metaphor,” Colbert continues. “This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!” (a reference to an aerial disaster equal in tragedy if not body count to the sinking of the Titanic). The press corps sat there, frozen in terror at what GeeDubya might say or do. Would he leave the head table, where he was seated, just 15 feet from Colbert? Would he just sit there and continue sulking? Or would he send for the Secret Service hit squad to rub out the offending comedian? No one knew for sure. You can find the complete transcript at http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1002461887 . (If this URL isn’t all on one line, copy it and paste it into your browser.) And if you Google for Stephen Colbert, you eventually will find a videotape of his presentation, which adds the dimension of the silence of the room. Colbert’s chutzpah in continuing his gutsy routine without much encouragement from the audience—and certainly nothing but sullen silence from his target—is astonishing, a ringing, albeit silent, endorsement of his show business dedication.
With the so-called Iranian crisis, the Bush League is up to its usual trick, foreign policy by foot-stamping. GeeDubya stamps his foot and demands that some other country do as he says. He won’t talk to them until they do as he tells them to. Unfortunately, if they do exactly what he tells them to, there won’t be anything to talk about when they start talking.
Finally, I can’t resist quoting the following in its entirety.
I’m the Decider
by Roddy McCorley
Well, it took me awhile, but I finally realized what "I’m the decider" reminds me of. It sounds like something a character in a Dr Seuss book might say. So with apologies to the late Mr. Geisel, here is some idle speculation as to what else such a character might say:
I’m the decider.
I pick and I choose.
I pick among whats.
And choose among whos.
And as I decide
Each particular day,
The things I decide on
All turn out that way.
I decided on Freedom for all of Iraq.
And now that we have it,
I’m not looking back.
I decided on tax cuts
That just help the wealthy.
And Medicare changes
That aren’t really healthy.
And parklands and wetlands—
Who needs all that stuff?
I decided that none
Would be more than enough!
I decided that schools,
All in all, are the best.
The less that they teach
And the more that they test.
I decided those wages
You need to get by,
Are much better spent
On some CEO guy.
I decided your Wade
Which was versing your Roe,
Is terribly awful
And just has to go.
I decided that levees
Are not really needed.
Now when hurricanes come,
They can come unimpeded.
That old Constitution?
Well, I have decided—
As "just goddam paper,"
It should be derided.
I’ve decided gay marriage
Is icky and weird.
Above all other things,
It’s the one to be feared.
And Cheney and Rummy
And Condi all know
That I’m the Decider—
They tell me it’s so.
I’m the Decider
So watch what you say,
Or I may decide
To have you whisked away.
Or I’ll tap your phones.
Your e-mail I’ll read.
’Cause I’m the Decider—
Like Jesus decreed.
Yes, I’m the Decider!
The finest alive!
And I’m nuking Iran;
Now watch this drive!
Now that I think about it, Dr. Seuss anticipated this administration pretty well when he wrote Yertle the Turtle.
Me, too. —RCH
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