Opus 185 (June 5, 2006). The Headline “Event” this time is our report on the Reuben Weekend of the National Cartoonists Society—namely, who won the Reuben and all those division awards. And we throw in numerous fascinating tidbits along the way. Our other major features include an appreciation of Alex Toth, who died May 27, and a pondering of the advent of the “lesbian lipstick” Batwoman. Here’s what’s here, in order: NOUS R US —New Garfield movie, top ten film characters include three (or four?) comics characters, who’s been writing Blondie all these years, prototypes of the X-Men in fantasy literature, rare “lost” Winsor McCay art found, comics foster reading skills, Harper’s banned in Canada for its publishing of the Danish Dozen; COMIC STRIP WATCH —More cross-over nonsense, new artist on Judge Parker, two new comic strips: A Lawyer, A Doctor and A Cop and Pajama Diaries; submitting to The New Yorker; THE REUBEN WEEKEND— Who won? and all that; BOOK MARQUEE— Arf Museum and the reappearance of the lost Backstage at the Strips masterpiece; REPRINTZ— The Long Road Home, The Big Book of Zonker; FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE— A great gatefold, “lipstick lesbian” Batwoman; ALEX TOTH— Stylist supreme, dies at his drawingboard; and a little Bushwhacking, just to keep in practice. 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—
NOUS R US
All the news that gives us fits.
On June 1, the Dalai Lama, refugee spiritual leader of Tibet, honored Belgian cartoonist Herge (aka Georges Remi) for raising awareness of Tibetan culture in one of his classic adventure tales. Simon Melick, spokesman for the International Campaign for Tibet, is quoted by World Entertainment News Network: “For many people around the world, Tintin in Tibet was their first introduction to Tibet, the beauty of its landscape and its culture. And that is something that has passed down the generations.” ... The inaugural New York ComiCon, held the last weekend in February 2006 and so well attended (reputedly, 33,000) that not everyone could get in, will re-convene next February 23-25 but upstairs at the Javits Center where it will have twice the space. Show organizer Greg Topalian said there’d be longer daily hours, too, and he “promises better pre-registration procedures, new technology and a much expanded and better trained registration staff,” saith Calvin Reid at PW Comics Week. ... The second Garfield film, “Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties,” is scheduled to open in theaters on June 23 with Bill Murray again voicing Jim Davis’comic cat. ... Three of Entertainment Weekly’s top ten most powerful film characters originated in comics: Wolverine (No. 1), Spider-Man (No. 3), and Bart Simpson (No. 9); four if you count Shrek (No. 4); June 9 issue.
Sony Pictures has purchased the North American film rights to Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel/autobiography, Persepolis, about growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution. According to metimes.com, Satrapi will co-direct the animated film. ... In the program booklet for the Reuben Weekend of the National Cartoonists Society (see below for our rambling but terribly informative report), a full-page ad about Blondie’s 75th anniversary is signed by Dean Young, the ostensible author of the strip, and John Marshall, making the first time Young has permitted the name of the man who draws the strip to surface in anything like a public forum. Young has not, however, deigned to acknowledge Paul Pumpian, who has been writing most of the gags for the strip for something like twenty years. ... The Dutch company that owns Editor & Publisher has been acquired by a group of private investors operating under the name Valcon Acquisition BV. With the same purchase, saith E&P, the group bought other Dutch-owned magazines, including Billboard, Hollywood Reporter, Adweek, and nearly four dozen others. We don’t know, yet, whether Valcon Acquisition BV is an Arab company, but nothing surprises us here at the Intergalactic Rancid Raves Wirlitzer. ... Larry Wright, who retired recently as one of the editorial cartoonists at the Detroit News, celebrated his freedom by buying a 2006 Corvette. He told Jenny King at the Detroit News that he’s longed to own a sporty convertible ever since his father sold his 1951 Ford convertible while he was in the Army. According to Wright, it was his wife who encouraged the fulfillment of his life-long dream. “Why don’t you by a new Corvette?” she said. “That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me,” he replied. Since then, he’s been seen tooling around the town, giving rides to teenagers.
“X-Men: The Last Stand” set a new box-office record over the holiday weekend according to Peter Sanderson at PW Comics Week. In the commentary surrounding the much ballyhooed debut of the film, it was suddenly discovered, by MSNBC’s film critic John Hartl, that being a mutant might be a metaphor for being a homosexual: both are social outcasts despised by so-called “normal” beings. Yeah, well—the mutant group concept can stand for any ostracized and persecuted segment of society—racial minorities, f’instance, or, even, teenagers, since adolescents traditionally feel put upon and persecuted by the parents and teachers. Hartl goes on to point out that the X-Men, created in 1963, could have roots in other science-fiction works—like Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron, which, published in 1961, “deals with a bright boy who stands out too much and is threatened with brain surgery.” And then there was the 1960 movie “The Midwich Cuckoos” that treated a group of super-intelligent kids as threats to mankind. And these, Hartl says, “owe a debt to Olaf Stapledon, the British writer who specialized in epic tales of martyred geniuses, especially the 1935 novel, Odd John” in which the “telepathic title character and his fellow ‘wide-awakes’ and ‘supernormals’ are persecuted, forced to establish an island colony and hunted down by mercenaries.”
Gregory McAdory, aka “the Dragon,” is on the road, showing his animated cartoon, “Dragon’s Ninja Clan,” to throngs of Youth to give hope to “a generation in need.” McAdory, a former gang chief, was doing ten years in various penitentiaries around the country, when he started watching the Oprah Winfrey show, and she turned him around. “I’ve learned,” he told BlackNews.com, “that there’s more to life than what society deems favorable and acceptable. It was the challenge of living through my experience that helped shape my mind to reflect only positive thoughts; to know that I am someone, regardless of my situation or environment, and which gave me the inspiration and passion to create my life’s masterpiece.” His animated message features a group of crime-fighting characters whose mission is to “bear arms with purpose in a never-ending battle against gangs, drugs and thugs,” using martial arts and positive hip-hop music to protect the inner-city streets around the world. McAdory developed the cartoon while incarcerated.
From June 1 to August 31 in the Reading Room of the Cartoon Research Library at Ohio State University, rare cartoons by Winsor McCay will be on display: five original, hand-colored drawings made by McCay for his 1903 series The Tales of the Jungle Imps which he produced while on the staff of the Cincinnati Enquirer. How these original drawings arrived at CRL involves a tale worthy of the most fevered expectations fostered among devotees by the Antiques Roadshow. Until January of this year, none of these drawings were known to exist according to a CRL news release. Then in January, Lucy Caswell, curator of the CRL, received a phone call from a stranger who had found some “old cartoons” among a stack of boxes that had been in her family’s business establishment for years. Caswell, always skeptical because she receives many such phone calls from people whose “finds” turn out to have only sentimental value, agreed to meet her phone caller the next day. When she brought in a battered cardboard folio and opened it, Caswell knew immediately that a treasure had been unearthed. Said Caswell: “It’s remarkable that these originals would turn up in Columbus, Ohio, which is the only city in the country with an academic library devoted to cartoons. We’re delighted that the family who found these important works understood that some of them belonged in an institution where they would be preserved and protected while also being made accessible to scholars, researchers and students.” CRL acquired only five of the trove; the finder asked to remain anonymous but presumably will someday offer the rest of the originals for sale.
Two generations after psychologist Frederic Wertham insisted that comic books contributed to juvenile delinquency and rotted the brains of their readers, libraries across the country are gleefully stocking graphic novels in their young readers sections, according to Karen Springen in Newsweek (May 22). Librarians and parents alike see the long form comic book as a bridge that takes young people from “picture books to chapter books.” Some even maintain that graphic novels (even comic books) may help kids in future careers, Springen points out, quoting Hollis Rudiger of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison: “The work force increasingly relies on the marriage of images and text. Internet information is entirely image and text.”
In Clay County, Florida, the First Coast News tv channel aired a story about 29-year-old Christopher McMonigle’s comic book collection, which, valued at about $30,000, had been stolen from his home. An astute mother saw the broadcast and remembered that her son had acquired, seemingly overnight, an astonishing number of comic books. She trotted him down to the sheriff’s office, whereupon the boy and his six confederates were arrested. Not only had they stolen most of the comic book collection but some guns and ammunition. In my day, most mothers who were alarmed about the extent of their offspring’s comic book collection just threw them all out while their son was off at summer camp. In Florida, obviously, they do things differently.
The Danish Dozen Flies On. In Canada, the country’s largest retail bookseller removed all copies of the June issue of Harper’s from its 260 stores because of Art Spiegelman’s article publishing the twelve offensive cartoons and annotating them; see Opus 1984. The cartoons, claimed Indigo Books and Music, could foment riots with their attendant property destruction and death. Indigo’s founder and CEO, Heather Reisman, is getting a reputation: according to James Adams in the Toronto Globe and Mail, she ordered all copies of Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf removed from stores in 2001, claiming the book was hate literature. Two years later, Reisman was one of the founders of the powerful lobby group, the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy. Meanwhile, in the U.S., two major chain bookstores, Borders and Waldenbooks, carry the June Harper’s. However, three months ago, both yanked a small U.S. publication, Free Inquiry, when it reproduced four of the Danish cartoons. In another of the endlessly amusing instances of hypocrisy that afflict the well-meaning, that issue of Free Inquiry is presently being sold in the Indigo stores in Canada. The Montreal Gazette found Indigo’s banning of Harper’s disturbing: “The [Spiegelman] article is only modestly provocative and well within the bounds of reasonable discourse. That Canada’s largest bookseller should deem it beyond the pale sends an unfortunate message. It tells the thousands of Christians, for example, who are outraged by The Da Vinci Code that if they want that offending novel out of circulation, they should go and burn down a few embassies. In fact, it would be hard to name a religious or political group in Montreal that couldn’t find something to offend them on Indigo’s shelves. Maybe they, too, will absorb the lesson that violence trumps reason every time.”
In Jordan, editors of the two newspapers that published the Danish cartoons were each sentenced to two months in prison for violating a section of the country’s penal code that outlaws publication of material likely to offend religious feelings or beliefs (in this case, by publishing a likeness of Muhammad, a blasphemous act to many Muslims). The hapless editors said they did not intend to offend Muslims; they published the cartoons to criticize the Danish newspaper that originally printed them. One of the editors was also doubtless guilty of common sense. He published an editorial that began: “Muslims of the world, be reasonable. What brings more prejudice against Islam—these caricatures or pictures of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim?” [Seattle Times, cpj.org, and news24.com]
In Iran, the weekend edition of the reformist daily newspaper Iran has been suspended indefinitely and its editor and cartoonist arrested. The official reason for the closure is linked to a cartoon that offended Azeris, a Turkic ethnic group comprising about 25 percent of Iran’s 70 million people. In the cartoon, a boy repeats the Persian word for “cockroach” in several ways while the uncomprehending insect in front of him says “What?” in Azeri. The cartoon apparently alludes to the difficulty of assimilation in Iran. Soon after the publication of the cartoon, riots broke out, and in Orumiyeh, where Azeris make up the majority, the newspaper’s office was set afire. The cartoonist, incidentally, is Azeri. Newspaper closure is not unusual in Iran. Between 1999 and 2004, the Khatami government severely restricted freedom of the press, and a state censorship committee shut down 22 newspapers; another 81 were closed by court order. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has lodged a formal protest, calling for the release of the editor and the cartoonist. [cpj.org and asianews.it]
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.
COMIC STRIP WATCH
The cross-over craze of in-jokes continues in Ric Stromoski’s Soup to Nutz, where Stromoski gets even with Stephen Pastis who put Stromoski in his Pearls before Swine as a frog who couldn’t get a date. In Soup to Nutz, Pastis appeared last December as a kid with a head so large that his football team used it to block field goals. At the time, Stromoski knew that Pastis would skewer him, Stromoski, in Pearls later on so he just beat him to the punchline. Pastis thinks this sort of in-jokery is something comic strip readers dote on: “The vast majority love to see it,” he told William Weir at the Hartford Courant, “because the comics page can be kind of static and predictable.” But, as I explained in Opus 183, my guess is that “the vast majority” of readers don’t even make sense of Pearls’ in-group hilarities because for comprehension the jokes require the reader to be familiar with another strip that may, or may not, be published in the same newspaper. The sort of infantile self-indulgence that Stromoski and Pastis (and Get Fuzzy’s Darby Conley; see Op. 183) have become habituated to has very little to do with entertaining readers and a whole lot to do with locker-room horseplay. Like lighting farts, it seems to vastly amuse those for whom lighting farts represents the height of humor. Pastis tells Weir that he plans to “crash” the world of storytelling strips, beginning with Mary Worth. Old lady fart jokes?
Bill Amend, who was one of the five nominees for the NCS Reuben last weekend, commemorated the annual meeting of the National Cartoonists Society in his strip, FoxTrot, for Sunday, May 28, the day after Mike Luckovich made cartooning history. Amend’s contribution to the annals of the medium is a worthy one, so we’ve posted it here.
Finally, after many arduous weeks of breathless anticipation, we have Judge Parker being drawn by Harold LeDoux’s successor, Eduardo Barreto, whose first daily Parker strip appeared May 29. Barreto lives and works in a small seaside town near the place where he was born, Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1954. His first published cartoon feature was an sf strip that was published in 16 South American countries. In 1983, he began working for DC Comics, where he drew nearly every character. He also did work for Marvel and Dark Horse; and he has done at least a couple graphic novels, one of which, The Long Haul by Anthony Johnson, I reviewed at Opus 158. He also illustrated Ande Parks’ Union Station. His work is crisp and clean, very attractive. As influences, he lists Russ Manning, Hal Foster, Al Williamson, Mark Schultz, and Alex Raymond—all in pretty much the same vein; he’s probably closest to Williamson with a dash of George Evans thrown in. Here are a couple of his first Parkers, showing his rendition of Randy compared to LeDoux’s, and his treatment of female characters, who seem much better looking without LeDoux’s quirky approach to mouths and cheek-lines. His figure work here seems a little stiff, but that’s probably deliberate because, if syndicate tradition is any guide here, he was doubtless told to try to look as much like LeDoux as he could at first, then slowly ease into his own style.
A couple notable new strips have surfaced recently. Starting last September from King Features, we have A Lawyer, A Doctor, and A Cop by Kieran Meehan. At first blush, this effort would appear to be the Absolute Last Word in Niche Marketing. Or the First Word, perhaps, inaugurating a parade of similarly targeted strips—A Teacher, A Dentist, and a Barmaid; or A Cab Driver, A Postal Worker, and A Computer Wiz. For good measure, the “doctor,” a psychiatrist, is African-American, and all three of these professionals are long-time buddies, who collect occasionally and confabulate at a local coffee shop under the watchful eye of Sophie Defoe, the diner’s owner and manager, who provides a common-sense feminine perspective on the pretensions of our professional trio. But once we get beyond the blatant sales pitch of the strip’s title, the comedy that ensues quickly displaces our distrust of marketing ploys. Meehan’s sense of humor, while not unconventional, is not predictable, and his drawing style is pleasantly competent, just about as appealing as possible with a rendering manner that deploys a line of unvarying (and therefore usually boring) width. Meehan compensates for linear monotony with competence at anatomy and composition. Much of the humor on display in the syndicate sales kit is verbal, but Meehan exploits the medium in timing the speeches and achieves a wholly respectable comedic result.
Also from King, a much more inventive strip, The Pajama Diaries, by Terri Libenson. The strip purports to be the diary (which Libenson illustrates) of Jill Kaplan, an introspective young suburban mother “balancing her career as a freelance graphic artist with family life and responsibilities”—she has a husband and two young daughters. Exactly the sort of person that Libenson herself is. In the strip, Libenson creates a narrative tension between what the diary is saying and what the pictures are portraying. The pictures either add nuance to the meaning of the words or contradict them, either way, producing a humorous effect. Even more significantly, however, is the feminine point of view embodied in the strip. Says Libenson: “In my mind, The Pajama Diaries echoes what so many women are thinking, and also provides an opportunity for others to peek inside the thoughts of a modern, multi-tasking mom. My strip addresses motherhood, work, relationships, feminist issues, and even marital intimacy—all from a first-person point-of-view.” And she’s right. The comedy is often insightful, and the insights are sometimes just biting enough to give a wistful satiric edge to the strip. This is the most inventive comic strip to come down the pike in quite some time. Nicely done. And then from Universal Press, there’s Lio, an even greater novelty; we’ll look at it next time.
THE NEW YORKER EXPERIENCE
My Rejected New Yorker Cartoons
Tim Kreider at his website, www.thepaincomics.com, writes a good deal of engaging prose, accompanied, occasionally, by cartoons of his own devising. On May 3, he began his account of his New Yorker adventure with a wholly unrelated preamble about Stephen Colbert’s now notorious presentation at the White House Press Corps Dinner. Because I agree with him so lavishly, I quote him verbatim here, before getting to his analysis of New Yorker humor, which is as insightful and succinct as his characterization of Colbert’s audience; herewith—
Those of you who have not seen or heard about it should immediately view the video or read the transcript of Stephen Colbert's address at http://www.crooksandliars.com/2006/04/29.html#a8104 . The speech is very funny in itself, but it's astonishing considering that it was given in the presence of George W. Bush himself, who sat rigid and unsmiling a few feet away at the same banquet table. Particularly notable is the tense silence from the Washington Press Corps, apparently as squeamish about humor as they are about truth.
It is not easy to draw a New Yorker cartoon. (Indeed, as the title of this collage implies, I have failed to do so.) David Foster Wallace once described them as having "an elusive sameness." The usual subtext seems to be self-congratulation on (disguised as self-deprecation of) New Yorkers' trendiness, superficiality, and materialism. The typical reader response to one is a barely perceptible lifting at the corners of the mouth, and perhaps a murmured, "Mm." They have to be clever; droll, even. They must never actually be funny. For example, a friend of mine looked at panel #3 here [depicting an orgy, captioned:] "What happens at the Pulitzers, stays at the Pulitzers," and suggested that it ought to be "Caldecotts" instead. This alteration made the cartoon exponentially funnier—hilarious, even—but also instantly rendered it ineligible for The New Yorker. It's a tough genre. I have spent five of the last six winters in New York City, and once a year, on average, I get an idea that is clever enough but not too funny to be a New Yorker cartoon. This winter, in one of the sporadic and invariably futile bursts of ambition I succumb to when I'm up here, I finally decided to draw them all and submit them.
Footnit: I disagree only slightly, almost not at all. I think “Caldecotts” not only makes the cartoon funnier, but it would have improved its chances for purchase by The New Yorker by reason of its having increased the obscurity of the allusion. For Kreider’s ensuing report on his visit to the offices of the August weekly—definitely worth knowing—consult http://www.thepaincomics.com/weekly060503a.html, and look around while you’re there for other evidences of his wry wit and insight.
Quips & Crotchets
“In spite of the cost of living, it’s still popular.” —Kathleen Norris
“The only fool bigger than the person who knows it all is the person who argues with him.” —Anonymous
“Only two groups of people fall for flattery—men and women.” —More Anon
Pearl Williams, bawdy comedienne of the 1950s and 1960s: “Definition of indecent: if it’s long enough, hard enough, and in far enough, it’s in decent.” Quoted in the April-May issue of Bust magazine. Well, where else?
The Reuben Weekend
The 60th Annual Convening of the National Cartoonists Society for the Purpose of Giving Each Other Awards
“Congratulations,” I said to Mike Luckovich, shaking his hand warmly, “—on winning the Chester Gould Reuben.”
“Oh, you heard?” he said. “Well, I’m not giving it back,” he quipped with a grin.
It was a historic occasion. The NCS held its 60th convention May 26-28 in Chicago, where Chester Gould had invented Dick Tracy just about 75 years ago (it debuted October 4, 1931), and Gould had won the Reuben, the NCS trophy for “cartoonist of the year,” twice, in 1959 and in 1977. Only eight of the 61 Reuben winners have won twice; the other seven: Milton Caniff (1946, the first; 1971), Charles Schulz (1955, 1964), Dik Browne (1962 for Hi and Lois; 1973 for Hagar), Pat Oliphant (1968, 1972), Jeff MacNelly (1978 for editorial cartooning, the next year for Shoe), Bill Watterson (1986, 1988), and Gary Larson (1990, 1994). NCS devoted a certain portion of the weekend’s festivities to celebrating Dick Tracy’s anniversary, and my remark to Luckovich invoked these matters while also referencing another happenstance, which shall remain thoroughly cryptic until sometime next month, when all will be revealed. But Luckovich’s winning the Reuben this year is historic in quite another sense. Luckovich draws editorial cartoons for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and for him, the Reuben is the other half of cartooning’s double-crown: he won the Pulitzer a few weeks ago, his second. This, then, is now officially the Year of Luckovich; for more about Mike, see Opus 182, where I’ve reprinted a long interview I did with him several years ago. As far as I have been able to determine, consulting rosters of awards, this is the first time an editorial cartoonist has won both these competitions in the same year. The Pulitzer, although announced in the spring of 2006, is for cartoons produced in 2005; ditto the Reuben.
The Pulitzer comes with a cash award of $10,000; the NCS Award, with the aforementioned Reuben, a weighty metal statuette of an 18-inch high pyramid of naked big-nosed cartoon characters, sculpted by Rube Goldberg, one of the NCS founders, who thought, at the time, that he was making a lamp stand in pursuit of his hobby sculpting comical statuettes. A fellow NCS member, Bill Crawford, saw the lamp stand and realized at once that it would make a perfect trophy for the Society’s “cartoonist of the year” award and convinced Goldberg to let him borrow it along enough to make the cast. Crawford substituted an ink bottle (Higgins Ink shaped) for the light-bulb socket, and the trophy’s design was complete. It was then christened after its original maker, who, later, drew this picture of it.
“It is a horrible looking creation,” said Mort Walker, creator of Beetle Bailey and the unofficial dean of American cartoonists who presents the award to the winner every year at the Reuben banquet. “The minute we recoiled at the sight of it, we knew we had the design we’d been searching for,” he continued. “It was hideous and disrespectful and honest enough that no cartoonist would feel finky handing it to another and saying, ‘Here—take the stupid thing. You won it by majority vote of the members who think you’re the outstanding cartoonist of the year. You deserve this.’ It has served us well. There has been lots of grumbling about its lack of beauty, which makes us very proud. It fits us. So does grumbling.” I’m quoting Walker’s remarks from Craig Yoe’s antic website, www.arflovers.com, where he also supplies drawings of the statuette by Hank Ketcham, Chester Gould, Alfred Andriola, Johnny Hart, Bud Blake, and Harold Foster.
In these festering times, fraught with worry and multicultural sensitivity, it is probably politic to mention that none of these worthies had ever heard of Abu Ghraib, and neither had Goldberg; if they had, they would surely never have depicted the naked men in a pile. Up a tree, maybe, but never in a pile.
Only three other political cartooners have won both awards, and only two of those at almost the same time: Jeff MacNelly won the Pulitzer in 1978 for cartoons done in 1977, and he won the Reuben for 1978, announced in 1979; and Pat Oliphant won the Pulitzer in 1967 for cartoons done in 1966 and the Reuben for 1968, announced in 1969. But only Luckovich has reaped the awards for the same year—although it won’t seem that way when the lists are assembled. He will appear to have won the Pulitzer for 2006 because that’s when his win was announced; the Reuben listing, however, will give the year correctly as 2005. Herblock also won both awards, the Pulitzer in 1942, 1954, and 1979 (each for the preceding year); the Reuben for 1956. Mike Peters won the Pulitzer in 1981 for 1980, and the Reuben for 1991, but the Reuben was for his comic strip, Mother Goose and Grimm, not for editorial cartooning.
The Reuben, notwithstanding the surpassing dignity of its origins and design, is seldom awarded to an editorial cartoonist. NCS more often honors syndicated cartoonists for newspaper comic strips and panel cartoons than any other kind of cartoonist. Of 61 Reubens (two were given in 1968 when the balloting produced a tie), only 7 have gone to political cartooners. In addition to those I’ve just mentioned, the Reuben also went to Bill Mauldin (1961) and Jim Borgman (1993). Oliphant, as I said, won twice. Cartooning venues other than newspapers are similarly slighted: the “cartoonist of the year” trophy has gone to a non-newspaper cartooner only 10 times. It went twice to Mad cartoonists (Mort Drucker in 1987 and Sergio Aragones in 1996), but only once to a magazine cartoonist (Charles Saxon in 1980), a comic book cartoonist (Will Eisner in 1998), and to an animator (Matt Groening in 2002). It went once to “humorous sculpture” the year the Society gave its Reuben to the man it is named after, Rube Goldberg (1967); and three times to “humorous illustration” (Ronald Searle, 1960; Arnold Roth, 1983; Jack Davis, 2000). One sports cartoonist, Willard Mullin, got the trophy (1954). All the rest of the time, the “cartoonist of the year” has been a syndicated newspaper cartoonist, doing either a strip or a panel—44 of the 61 Reuben winners.
The “Reuben Weekend,” as it is known among the cognoscenti, usually begins on Friday and concludes Sunday evening. Some of the time is devoted to presentations and/or panel discussions; some of the time is spent in mischief-making and cocktail drinking. This year, slightly more than 200 of the Society’s 570 members attended, many bringing wives and children, which brought the total attendance to about 400 people.
In addition to presenting the Reuben, NCS confers “division awards,” recognizing excellence in the various genre of cartooning. Because being nominated is nearly as distinct an honor as winning in each division, I’m listing all the nominees here and marking the winners with an asterisk (*) before their names: 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 weekend also honored Ralph Steadman, who received 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. Locher received the Silver T-Square in recognition of his life-long service to cartooning. Other nominees for the Reuben, incidentally, were: Bill Amend (comic strip Foxtrot), Dave Coverly (panel cartoon Speed Bump), Brian Crane (comic strip Pickles), and Dan Piraro (panel cartoon Bizarro).
On Friday afternoon, presentations were made by Steve Silver, who has been named caricaturist of the year by the National Caricaturist Society and who creates character designs for animation studios (Disney’s “Kim Possible,” for instance, and Kevin Smith’s “Clerks: The Animated Series”); and Elwood Smith, a humorous illustrator whose old-timey looking cartoons appear in books, magazines, newspapers, etc. By way of demonstrating how he warms up and keeps loose for work, Silver showed a spectacular series of sketches, all displaying great energy and invention—some, just faces; others, full figures caught in the middle of some lively activity. He sketches as quickly as he can: “If I can do it quick,” he explained, “then it’s good for animators.” He uses books of old photographs and stills from movies, and he takes a sketchbook with him to the zoo and to coffee shops, where he draws whatever he sees. Typically, he uses colored pencils or markers to indicate over-all shapes, then adds the linear dimension in black ink. When but a mere broth of a lad, he found a sketchbook in his backyard and was thereby inspired to do caricatures. He got his professional start, he said, doing caricatures in a theme park, Sea World in San Diego. He sketches constantly. And he often makes his own sketchbooks: he collects a stack of different kinds of papers—watercolor paper, pebbleboard, etc.—and has them bound into booklet form at the local Kinko’s. The different paper surfaces produce slightly different effects as he draws on them. Most of the sketches Silver showed during his session can be found in his book, The Art of Silver (160 9x11-inch pages in hardcover; $40; available at www.silvertoons.com); some of the sketches appear in this vicinity, ample testimony to the liveliness of Silver’s interpretations.
Smith showed his wares, too, beginning with some images from George Herriman and other vintage cartooners whose styles inspired Smith; and he also showed a few very short animations. A tribute to Will Eisner filled out the afternoon’s schedule—a short film of 10 minutes, excerpted from a longer work in progress by Jon Cooke and his brother, plus commentary by Jules Feiffer and yrs trly.
Saturday’s presentations were made by another humorous illustrator, Everett Peck, and by Dick Locher and Ralph Steadman. Locher, celebrating Dick Tracy’s 75th anniversary, was preceded by Jean Gould O’Connell, the only child of Tracy’s creator, Chester Gould, and her children, Gould’s grandchildren. They all spoke lovingly, admiringly, about Gould as father and grandfather, not as cartoonist. When Locher took the floor, he began with one of his well-tooled openers: “The brain begins to function the minute you’re born and doesn’t stop until you stand up to make a speech.” Despite the Dick Tracy anniversary, Locher talked mostly about his editorial cartooning, probably because samples of these made a better show than pictures of the cleaver-jawed flatfoot. Well, funnier at least. The editorial cartoonist, Locher said in conclusion, is like a blind javelin thrower: “he may not always hit his target but the audience stays alert.”
Steadman, after running through a carousel of slides of his artwork, had ten minutes left and asked the assembled multitudes if they’d like to see more. We all cheered, and so he brought out a box of slides, which editoonist Rob Rogers fed individually into the projector. Steadman then got carried away with anecdotes about his career, the people he’s known and worked with (including Hunter S. Thompson), and his dire opinions of politicians, particularly American ones. “Cartooning is a weapon,” he said, “and I want to use it to attack a rotten world.” He paused, looking sad. “But the world is worse today than when I started,” he finished. He sometimes pranced around the stage as he enacted some outlandish event, adding body English to the anecdote. All very amusing, but by this time, he’d talked longer than we’d bargained for, and he had to be nudged off stage. He threatened to repeat this prolix performance that evening when accepting the Caniff Award, but we managed to inspire him to quit by applauding when he stopped his harangue to take a breath.
Every evening event—Friday, Saturday, and Sunday—began with a hour or so of liquid emollient during which numerous uninhibited conversations take place, usually at decibels above normal, which doesn’t make them any more intelligible because everyone is shouting. Talking with Jules Feiffer, I confirmed a theory I had nursed about Will Eisner. During the afternoon’s tribute, Jules had mentioned the parade of cartooners he witnessed coming and going in Eisner’s studio when he, Feiffer, worked there from 1946 through the early 1950s. Notwithstanding the seeming testimony of the parade, I persisted in thinking that Eisner’s pioneering genius was not appreciated or properly understood until well after he’d abandoned The Spirit. As art director of the Eisner-Iger comics shop 1936-1940, Eisner had laid out stories scripted by the shop writers, determining panel composition and narrative breakdown—the essential drama of the tales—before turning the finishing work over to the bullpen artists. And he also checked their work and approved it at stages all along the way. Even at this stage in his career, Eisner was passionately intrigued by the comics form and experimented with it, continually plumbing its potential. His experiments influenced the way many of his crew thought about making comic books, and many of those he influenced—Jack Kirby, for instance, Joe Kubert, Bob Powell and others of the pioneers who came through the Eisner-Iger shop—went on to shape the medium in their own ways, ways that had been, in turn, formed by Eisner. At this point, Eisner’s influence, while considerable, was subtle, even insidious.
But his subsequent work on The Spirit, 1940-1952, which we now see as so seminal, was not widely appreciated by comic book artists during the initial run of the feature. During its publication life, The Spirit was not all that visible: it appeared in newspapers and took the form of a comic book, but it wasn’t a comic book on the newsstands where other comic book artists might see it. And even when it entered its reprint phase with Police Comics in September 1942, well into its third year, The Spirit was merely a backup feature. (By the same token, because in Sunday editions of newspapers it took the form of a comic book, The Spirit was not a newspaper comic strip, so strip cartoonists may well have overlooked it. In fact, many of them disdained comic books.) My feeling is that it wasn’t until The Spirit started getting its own reprint titles in the 1960s that it achieved visibility enough to attract the attention and admiration of any considerable number of comic book artists. By the time Warren launched its reprint series in 1974, The Spirit—and Eisner—had a cult following among a new generation of comic book creators, and it was then that Eisner’s graphic storytelling genius began to be appreciated. His influence on comic book making, then, had its second major impact—the impact we all attribute to The Spirit—two generations of comic book artists later, so to speak, not so much during the years that Eisner was actually producing the feature. I blurted out to Feiffer as much of this theory as I could at the top of my lungs, and he seemed to agree. I think. But, as I said, our conversation took place during a noisy cocktail hour, so I might have been imagining most of his part in it.
Later, after the Reuben dinner, I ran into Darrin “Candorville” Bell at another liquid soiree and complimented him on the bite of his satire, particularly the strips that reveal the hypocrisy of our so-called government. Bell thanked me for the compliment but said it was easy to do satire of that sort: all you have to do is quote the Bush League verbatim, and the hypocrisy leaps out at you.
Sunday afternoon was devoted to baseball in the form of a Cubs game to which interested parties had purchased tickets earlier. I didn’t. I’ve never been able to understand sporting events the culminating activity of which invariably involves people showering together. Doesn’t seem all that competitive. While cartooners gasped at the Cubs near win, I and Jeremy Lambros (your friendly Rancid Raves webmaster) and cartoonist historian Ed Black drove fifty miles to Woodstock, where Gould lived since the mid-1930s. We celebrated his strip’s 75 years by visiting the Dick Tracy Museum. Occupying only two or three rooms in the town’s historic court house (wherein the jail serves as a restaurant downstairs), the Museum is jammed with memorabilia that illustrate Gould’s life and career. On display are several of the reputed 60 comic strips he concocted and tried to sell between 1921, when he arrived in Chicago from his home state, Oklahoma, and the summer of 1931, when Joe Patterson of the Tribune-News Syndicate finally bought one, namely, Plainclothes Tracy, which Patterson promptly renamed. “They call cops ‘dicks,’” he explained; “call him Dick Tracy.” For the whole story of Gould’s career, visit Harv’s Hindsights. In a scrapbook on a stand in the Museum, you can thumb through the pages and see strips and cartoon features Gould did for the papers he worked for in Chicago—as well as the actual telegram Patterson sent Gould, telling him that his 61st submission had “possibilities.” Gould’s drawingboard is also on permanent display. Here are photos I took of it, plus the display of “rejected” strips and another of B.O. Plenty and a friend.
The weekend concluded with a buffet dinner and the now traditional “roast” of some well-regarded member of the club. This tradition began about five years ago when Family Circus’ Bil Keane, who had been master of ceremonies for decades, retired from the position. Keane was known for the wry insulting wit of his introductions, so when he retired, his confreres took the opportunity to get back at him by staging a “roast,” the first, as it has turned out, of a succession that now grows tiresome. Mell Lazarus has been roasted; ditto Sergio Aragones. This year, it was Cathy Guisewite’s turn. She was the first female target, and her self-proclaimed lack of drawing talent in the strip Cathy made her particularly ripe for ridicule. Bil Keane initiated the festivities with a few of his well-turned comments. “Before I begin,” he began, ignoring the ludicrousness of this remark, then going on to recollect a recently run marathon in his hometown, Phoenix. “I wondered,” he said, “what would make 20,000 people run 26 miles in the hot Arizona sun. Then,” he continued, “I saw behind them, Ralph Steadman, making a speech.” Having tagged Steadman, Keane then turned to the evening’s victim, issuing another of his dry deadpan bromides: “Of all the women ... cartoonists ... currently making a living ... at the profession,” he said, drawing out his pronouncement by prolonging the pauses between words, “Cathy Guisewite ... is ... one.” He then launched into one of his patented double-talk routines, which usually sends the room into gales of well concealed laughter. And it did again. Keane was followed by Barbara Dale, Lynn Johnston, Mike Luckovich, who did a very funny and insightful analysis of the Cathy comedy formula, and Mell Lazarus, who did a particularly unfunny reading from what he represented as Guisewite’s diary that recorded her lusting after various members of the Society. So unfunny was it that Lazarus had to supply his own laugh track, snickering throughout in what was probably intended as some sort of satirical embellishment but which actually made no sense whatsoever. Finally, Guisewite took to the podium herself and let her tormentors have a dose of their own medicine. And she was better than any of them. All of the viciousness of the individual presentations was typically undercut in each presenter’s closing comments, which inevitably extolled the high virtue and supreme humanity of the target. The roast of Bil Keane was wonderfully appropriate; as time expires, the succeeding roasts seem lamer and lamer. And now, a collection of my photographs and caricatures and notes for your delection.
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
According to Harper’s, fifteen—that’s 15—Harlequin novels published last year featured love between a Western woman and an Arab sheik. Have you ever noticed that all bodice-ripper novels involve a woman having to choose between a respectable, stand-up guy in a suit and a social outcast with a hairy chest? And herewith, we have revealed the secret appeal of the genre to women readers: the choice is between social decorum and lustful self-indulgence, and women, apparently, desire both. They want both domestic safety and sexual excitement: they want to satisfy their rampaging sexual appetites without giving up the security of a good home and a dependable provider. The struggle between these two seemingly conflicting impulses informs the plots of virtually every bodice-ripper out there. So now you know all about the feminine mystique.
Turns out that the penny is not the only extravagance of the U.S. Treasury. It costs 1.23 cents to manufacture pennies; and it costs 5.73 cents to produce a nickle. No wonder the national deficit is spiraling out of control. Too bad: we can’t blame the Republican spending spree for it anymore.
The second of Craig Yoe’s Arf books, Arf Museum, is out (120 giant 9x12-inch pages in paperback; $19.95), and it is as delightful a romp through the rare and wonderful as the first volume. Among the seldom-if-ever-seen specimens: a cartoon by Hugh Hefner, one of the few he published in his own magazine (very early on, naturally); Reamer Keller cuties, which make me wonder why Playboy never published any Keller; Bettie Page and some gorillas; Picasso’s comics; various Rube Goldberg inventions; and Art Young cartoons, some from his celebrated visits to Hell. Many of these are taken from Yoe’s own collection of comics rarities, holdings that make me feverish with envy. Yoe also publishes here, for the first and only time (a most wondrous find), ten full-color paintings of the Yellow Kid by his creator, Richard F. Outcault, who produced them as cover art for the Yellow Kid magazine, a periodical that, alas, saw only one issue, which, apparently, was enough to prove it could not succeed even with the wildly popular Yellow Kid as a loss leader. The paintings, you may remember, were discovered some few years ago in the cartoonery archives of Syracuse University, where Yoe occasionally serves as an adjunct professor. Now—only in Arf Museum—we can all see what only a very few have hitherto beheld. Other manic works of art appear herein—the hilariously inventive morphing exercises of Punch cartoonist Charles Bennett in the 1860s, a comic book tale about tattoos by Stan Lee, drawn by Fred Kida, a nearly naked Dan DeCarlo cutie, a two-page strip by Mort Walker recording the life-altering experience Roy Lichtenstein had meeting with the National Cartoonists Society (including Walker’s caricatures of Rube Goldberg, Bob Dunn, Russell Patterson and other NCS headliners—yes, caricatures! and in Walker’s usual style, too), a generous smattering of Yoe’s own brand of cartooning lunacy, and the Punch cartoon that gave the word cartoon its modern meaning. It’s a drawing by John Leech. Entitled “Cartoon No. 1,” it was the first in a series of “cartoons”—meaning, “preliminary drawing” for a mural, painting, or fresco—Punch offered for consideration in a national competition to select patriotic decor for the halls of the newly completed Houses of Parliament in London. Leech’s picture was published in Punch for July 15, 1843, but Arf, alas—through the mischievous intervention of typographical error—has the date wrong, citing 1884. But the drawing itself is reproduced here in a clearer state than I’ve ever seen it before. Subtitled “Substance and Shadow,” the drawing mocks the pretensions of the national contest by having a few of London’s homeless population in to view the patriotic paintings the contest was supposed to conjure up for the walls of the building. The homeless in their raggedy clothes starve in the streets of the nation’s capital while the effete governing class worries itself about interior decoration of the seat of government. Not much has changed in the ensuing 163 years.The popularity of the Punch series, four or five “cartoons” (preliminary drawings), gave the term common parlance for a humorous drawing, and so the modern meaning of “cartoon” came into being.
Speaking of monumental tomes on cartooning, the best book about the life of a syndicated cartoonist is back in print—namely, Mort Walker’s Backstage at the Strips. Published initially in 1975, the book was almost immediately lost in the shuffle as its publisher, Mason/Charter, went bankrupt. The volume, in both hardcover and paperback, has been scarce ever since. But the paperback version, with a new cover but otherwise an exact copy of the original, is now available again, thanks to on demand publishing, through Amazon.com for about $25.
The sequel to the Doonesbury book about B.D.’s loss of leg will be out in August. The initial volume, The Long Road Home: One Step at a Time (96 6x8-inch pages in paperback, $9.95), appeared last summer with all royalties from sales going to Fisher House Foundation, which provides temporary housing near hospitals for the families of soldiers receiving treatment. B.D. lost his leg in April 2004, and the book publishes all the subsequent strips tracing his ordeal and rehabilitation until the following Christmas, when B.D. returns home to his wife, Boopsie, and his daughter, Sam. During these seven months, cartoonist Garry Trudeau carried on in his usual fashion in the strip, deflating political balloons hither and yon, but he returned periodically to a much more serious purpose, showing us “B.D.’s survival of first-response triage, evacuation to Landstuhl’s surgeon-rich environment, and visits by numerous morale-boosting celebs, both red and blue in hue.” The book’s backcover blurb continues, telling us that B.D., former football hero and coach, is “awed by morphine, take-no-guff nurses, his fellow amps, and his family.” Trudeau researched this story at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he visited wounded soldiers and amputees, hoping to tell their story in as honest and unflinching a way as possible but preserving, too, the warriors’ sense of humor, dark as it often is. “Whether you think we belong in Iraq or not,” Trudeau has said, “we can’t tune it out; we have to remain mindful of the terrible losses that individual soldiers are suffering in our name.” In the Introduction, Senator John McCain says Trudeau tells B.D.’s story well: “Biting but never cynical, and often wickedly funny, these comic strips will make you laugh, reflect and—in the end—understand.” The book begins with the strips recording B.D.’s falling unconscious after being hit; it ends at Christmas, when Sam gives him a seemingly inappropriate gift—rock climbing shoes. “So I’m an optimist,” the girl says, “—sue me.” A tidy tome, it runs one four-panel strip, with extra-large panels, to every page. My only complaint about the book that rehearses this otherwise humane and caring story is that none of the strips are dated; historians at some future time will miss this vital data. But the story, even without dates, will endure as a testament to human capacities, to Trudeau’s heart and creative sensibilities, and to the potential of the comic strip to touch us all, profoundly, meaningfully. The sequel is entitled The War Within: One More Step at a Time. As with its predecessor, proceeds will go to Fisher House.
And while we’re on subjects Trudeavian, here’s The Big Book of Zonker (152 9x11-inch pages in paperback with French flaps; $16.95), which purports to be the entire history of the world’s “greatest living slacker,” strip by strip. It begins with Zonker Harris’ unlikely appearance in the huddle of B.D.’s football team on September 21, 1971, just a year after the strip was syndicated by Universal Press, debuting October 26 in a mere 28 newspapers. (It’s now in more than 1,400.) But you can’t tell from the book when Zonker first appeared: as always, no strips are dated. The volume is, however, divided into sections that are, presumably, chronological, giving Zonker a biography in much the same way as the 2001 publication of Action Figure gave us the life and times of Uncle Duke. Although Zonker has always represented “high” aspirations, he has been resolute in avoiding anything approaching actual work. After being thrust unprepared into the world with only nine undergraduate years to sustain him, Zonker served as a “spin doctor” during Duke’s 2000 presidential bid, then became a professional tanner and, finally, a skilled nanny. And it’s all unforgettably here.
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE
Frank Miller’s story in Batman & Robin: The Boy Wonder continues at a painfully slow pace. In No. 4, Vicki Vale is undergoing surgery in the hospital after her encounter with bad guys and bad vibes, and Batman, persisting in his pathological plan to make Dick Grayson a worthy sidekick by making him as twisted as he, Bruce Wayne, is, takes the kid into the Batcave. And here is the epic moment: entering the subterranean environs, we open a six-page “gatefold” that, one turned page in succession after another, reveals as it unfolds the vastness of the cave and its contents in a panorama 36 inches wide. Stunning exploitation of the resources of the medium, Frank.
All the four-color excitement over last weekend was generated by a story in the New York Times on May 27 about the “return” of Batwoman to the DC Universe as a “lipstick lesbian.” The Batwoman persona returns, but the crime fighter is not secretly Kathy Kane, the original Batwoman who was introduced in Detective Comics No. 233 (July 1956), hung around Batman longingly for a few years, and was eventually killed off by the League of Assassins in Detective Comics No. 485 (September 1979). The original Bat-girl was Kathy Kane’s niece, and the two of them seemed to have some romantic inclinations towards Batman/Bruce Wayne and Robin/Dick Grayson, but nothing other than a tepid variety of adolescent flirting transpired: in those distant days, comic book heroes didn’t have sex lives in which sex was a factor. They were differently gendered but not sexed up at all. The “new” Batwoman is Kate Kane, who, we’ll doubtless discover when she debuts in the 11th issue of the weekly series 52 sometime in July, took over guarding Gotham while Bruce Wayne was off sulking after the conclusion of the Infinite Crisis mini-series. DC’s executive editor Dan Didio was interviewed on Newsarama, where he attempted to explain that having a gay Batwoman was not merely a publicity stunt but part of an on-going effort to “reinvigorate the Batman franchise,” which he felt was somewhat stale because all the characters “were coming from the same place, the same sense of origin.” Didio wants to infuse in each of the Batman characters such a distinct “sense of individuality” that readers won’t be able “to pickup a Batman book, a Nightwing book, and a Robin book and feel like they’re reading the same story. These are three different people with three different perspectives, with three different stories taking place.” Each should have his or her own individual “tonality,” he said. “That’s what we want to do with Batwoman right now: she should have her own tonality, her own feel so that her character and her story has something that’s unique to itself, and not just another Batman story with a woman.”
This all sounds admirable enough, but I’m not sure that making the new Batwoman a lesbian is the only way to accomplish the goal. Didio points to other post-Crisis characters, many of whom are ethnic or racial minorities. “We wanted to have a DC Universe that was more reflective, not only of our readership, but of society as a whole,” he explained. Moreover, Batwoman being gay gives her stories “a different point of view, a different perspective on the DC Universe that other characters might not have.” Didio’s interviewer rather logically pointed out that one’s sexual orientation is not, necessarily, a determining factor in how that individual might fight crime: “Heterosexuality as a character trait has been largely ignored with Batman, yet it’s not the same when you’re talking about a gay character.” Didio handily dodged the illogic involved in his plan by suggesting that a lesbian character’s keeping her sexual preference secret from her family would have an effect on her personality. Sexuality is not the theme of Batwoman’s stories, Didio hastened to say, but her different sexual orientation will provide writers with the opportunity to play her private life against her heroic life, presumably in some way different than how Robin’s private life plays against his heroic life. Well, I suppose. But I sometimes wonder if the superheroing business—that is, writing and drawing superhero comic books—hasn’t run away with its own ambitions a bit. The ambition, I assume, is to produce stories about heroic persons who have rounded, individual personalities and lives—who are not, in other words, the cardboard cutouts that stood in for people in the old timey funnybooks. Peter Parker’s early nerdishness clearly gave Spider-Man a dimension that, say, Superman didn’t have; and that was all to the good. Peter Parker proved something that the conjurers of lipstick lesbianism for the new Batwoman haven’t, apparently, learned. It’s probably sacrilegious to mention it, but the ethnic or racial or sexual nature of a character is are not the only basis upon which individuality can be built. If you want rounded, individualized personalities for your superheroes, you don’t have go to obvious stereotypes to get them. You could go to real people, for instance. Admittedly, relying upon obvious ethnic and racial and sexual origins is a shorter and faster way to get where you hope you’re going, but it’s not quite as authentic. Individual identity is rooted in something more complex than ethnicity, race, or sex, and to choose those as keys to character is to reveal the poverty of your imagination.
I wasn’t sure what a “lipstick lesbian” is, so I googled that and came up with a page in belladonna.org that begins: “If you put ‘Lipstick Lesbian’ into a search engine, you’ll get a whole bunch of porno sites for men.” Well, no, actually—what I got was this belladonna.org at the very top of the Google list. But the website’s opening gambit prompted a wild speculation or two, which I’ll get to anon. A “lipstick lesbian,” I learned, is a feminine woman who loves other feminine women—as distinct from, say, a “femme” who is a feminine woman who loves masculine women. “You’re a lipstick lesbian if —you derive a sense of power from towering over people when you wear high heels, you think of your makeup as warpaint, you think that ‘feminine feminist’ is not an oxymoron but a redundancy, you can do anything a man can do (backwards and in high heels), and you think Adam was a rough draft.” So how will this play out in the Batsaga?
Didio said “there’s history between Bruce Wayne and Kate Kane from before she put on the costume.” Belladonna says, “When we go to gay bars, no one believes that we belong there. Cautious women assume that we’re straight women looking for kicks, and unfortunately, there are a lot of those out there, preying on unsuspecting lesbians.” Moreover, she says, “When men find out we’re lesbians, they want to watch.” Then there was that business about a “lipstick lesbian” search turning up porno sites for men. So what sort of relationship did Bruce and Kate have before she donned her skin-tight costume and knee-high leather boots? Is the secret plan for a gay Batwoman intended to appeal, subliminally, to male fantasies about witnessing fights between women?
Or is the whole thing just a publicity stunt? If so, it surely worked. And it didn’t hurt the publicity any that GeeDubya chose as his topic for his Saturday, June 3, radio broadcast his intention to try, again, to persuade Congress to adopt a Constitutional amendment prohibiting marriage between persons of the same sex.
ALEX TOTH, STYLIST SUPREME, DIES AT HIS DRAWINGBOARD
Alex Toth, whose command of expressive simplicity in drawing and visual storytelling inspired generations of cartoonists, died at 7 a.m., May 27. According to his son Eric, Toth was at his table, drawing or writing, at the time; he was 78 years old. Those who knew he was ill in recent weeks sent in good wishes, about twenty mail bags of them. John Hitchcock, writing at www.tothfans.com, the Toth fan forum, said, “Those twenty bags of letters and cards was a really beautiful thing for Alex. Not only was he shocked, but I think he then knew how much he was loved by his fans and that his work will live forever.”
Born in New York City in 1928, Toth, an only child, started amusing himself at the age of three by doodling. He attended the High School of Industrial Arts, and while still in school began selling two- and three-page filler stories and spot illos to Steve Douglas at Famous Funnies for Heroic Comics. In 1947, he went to work at the All American division of National Periodicals (now DC Comics), where he stayed, more-or-less, until the mid-1950s, when he started doing comic book adaptations of cowboy movies and tv series for Dell-Western—Roy Rogers, Rex Allen, Zorro, “Sugarfoot,” “77 Sunset Strip,” “Sea Hunt,” “The FBI Story,” and others.
At National, Toth did the usual array of superhero stories, but I first became aware of his illustrative elan in stories about the frontier vigilante do-gooder, Johnny Thunder. I didn’t know, at the time, that the artist was Toth, but I loved the character’s costume and his Lincolnesque visage, vintage Toth of the period. By the time he was doing cowboy comics at Dell-Western, Toth had come under the spell of Milton Caniff, Frank Robbins, and Noel Sickles, who, Toth was surprised to learn, had been Caniff’s inspiration. Henceforth, Sickles was Toth’s idol.
In the 1960s, Toth moved to Southern California and was soon working in animation, doing character design, chiefly, but occasionally returning to do a comic book story for DC or for Warren’s black-and-white magazines. By this time, he had virtually perfected the purity of line that is the legendary Toth.
Toth was not just a master of black-and-white illustration: he was also the indisputable champion of telling simplicity in drawing. As his style matured, it simplified. And with every simplification, his work became more and more refined until it achieved the absolute distillation of visual storytelling. In short, there is an exquisite purity in the mature Toth artwork, a purity of spirit and expression that serenades the soul of the beholder.
Toth understood exactly what he was about. He knew what makes music in visual art. Writing about Roy Crane and his simple but telling renditions in the classic Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy, Toth quoted the maestro violinist Isaac Stern: “Make it so simple you can’t cheat!”
There isn’t a fudged line in Toth’s best work. And most of his work is the best.
Once Toth said: “For the first half of my career I was concerned with discovering as many things as possible to put into my stories—rendering, texture, detail. For the second half of my career, I have worked as hard as I could to leave out all those things.” At first, he said, “You’re learning, you’re reaching out for all kinds of things to put into your work ... to enrich it. ... It’s only after you’ve reached a certain age or maturity that suddenly you start to look at it in a different way, and you say, There’s too much going on in there that doesn’t need to be there. Now, how do you leave out the right thing—that’s the secret of it.”
With this kind of artwork, the reader-observer “has more fun with it,” Toth believed, “because when you do come upon a simple piece of work, your eye draws in all the rest of it that isn’t there. You’re participating, and this is a kick that we all have. I have it to this day.”
He invoked Crane’s Wash Tubbs again: “Now that man draws so simply that you can count the lines. It’s all that stuff that he leaves out that he lets you participate in it. It’s beautiful, it’s absolutely gorgeous artwork—and it’s a lot of fun. If your work is too rich,” Toth went on, “if you’re socking in all of this gorgeous technique panel after panel, you bore the hell out of your reader. You’ve got to let him rest once in a while, back off and participate by drawing in things that he doesn’t see there in black and white.”
And if you want more Toth, there’s more available. Kitchen Sink Press once brought forth a genial scrapbook-memoir of Tothwork, called (with apt simplicity) Alex Toth ($12.95). Assembled by Toth’s long-time admirer Manuel Auad (who subsequently has published several Tothbooks), this 144-page volume collects a good deal of fugitive and rare Toth—one-pagers for car magazines, model sheets for Hanna-Barbera, pin-ups (Black Canary, Johnny Thunder, the Fox), partial storyboards and fragments of comic book stories, sketches and doodles. And essays.
The book includes only two complete stories of any length—“Unconquered,” the true story of a Czech patriot, and “Air Power,” a translation into static visuals of a Walter Cronkite “You Are There” television segment on the history of aviation. In both, Toth is illustrating someone else’s script, but we have his interpretations to savor.
In two issues of Adventure Comics in 1972 (nos. 418 and 419), Toth interpreted someone else’s Black Canary story. Close-ups so tight that only fragments of pictures to tell the tale (and they did), wild angles that focused attention on the telling details, layouts stretched to serve story needs. Shadows, simple linework, fast action. Two treasured issues.
To those who have admired Toth’s work for decades (as I have), it comes as no surprise that he is as eloquent in words as he is with pictures, and this book gives us a generous sampling of his prose. He writes with perception and feeling about the idols who inspired him— cartoonists Noel Sickles, Milton Caniff, Roy Crane, and Frank Robbins, and illustrators Robert Fawcett and Albert Dorne. And in discussing Sickles, a huge talent who gave his life to exploring graphic art instead of earning a living, Toth recognized himself: “Throughout his professional career, Noel was restless of soul, mind, spirit and talent while on his year-by-year search for new, fresh targets. ... One pays the price for that preoccupation, that bid of R&D or R&R away from cash-’n’-carry production woes. One satisfies oneself with less, monetarily and materially, enjoying another reward beyond price, that of regenerating excitement and passion in one’s work, in new, better, expressions of oneself within its framework.”
For admirers of Toth, his 1975 creation of an Errol Flynn-like swashbuckler named Jesse Bravo in a too-short series for Warren deftly dubbed “Bravo for Adventure” is the ultimate Toth. By then, Toth’s line was spare and expressive, his solid blacks dramatic and vital, and his storytelling masterful—particularly in the suicide sequence of the not-all-bad bad guy in which Toth yokes layout to timing with dramatic impact. Moreover, the character and the 1930s milieu and the stories seemed to express what Toth believed adventure tales should be. This, I think, is his personal creation, done to satisfy his soul rather than to line his pocketbook.
We learn more about Bravo in the KSP book. In an essay at the end, Toth tells the story of the series’ arduous creation while his wife was in critical condition in the hospital. Distracted by his wife’s illness, Toth produced the Bravo series while “totally disoriented,” he says— drawing and writing straight ahead (as the animators say), a page at a time. And yet he produced a masterpiece.
Toth’s line is purer in its black-and-white state than Frank Miller’s in Miller’s now classic Sin City books. And Toth’s milieu is sweeter. Miller’s world stinks of brutality; Toth’s smells of heroism.
In the 1990s, Toth looked at the current crop of comic books and saw “hateful garbage in its intent and conception. Dehumanized, dehumanizing gore, offal. I see it, hear it, in our disgustingly nasty, ugly, movies and TV, based on attitudes reeking with bile and contempt—every character more detestable than the other. All the media are debased by this!”
We miss Bravo and the silvery laughter of adventuring for the fun of it.
Regrettably, little of Bravo is in evidence in the KSP book; the whole of him was once collected by Dragon Lady Press in 1986 and dedicated, by Toth, to his wife, who, by then, had died.
Why no more Bravo? Toth explains that, too, in another essay. But that’s for you to find for yourself.
And if you do, you’ll be treated to a trove of Toth delights elsewhere in the book—visual tricks, dramatic lighting, marvelously expressive pictures in which, sometimes, a single line tells the story, reveals motive or emotion. And then, a too-brief portfolio of his doodles. Here the simplicity of his line is telling indeed. Watch the duck in the one-pager reproduced near here. Panels 3 and 4.Was ever a duck’s curiosity and attentiveness more completely captured than here? Now, count the lines.
Footnit: Some of the foregoing first appeared in my Comicopia column in The Comics Journal, No. 185 (March 1996). At www.arflovers.com, Craig Yoe supplies a short but heartfelt appreciation of Toth; and he also announces the next Tothbook, The Alex Toth Doodle Book, due in bookstores soon, but not, alas, soon enough—never soon enough.
BUSHWHACKING AND THE CONTINUING THREAT TO OUR WAY OF LIFE
The Bush League, in the person of George WMD Bush, has attached “signing statements” to more than 750 pieces of legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by GeeDubya hisownself. Other presidents have issued “signing statements” when signing legislation into law, but, according to U.S. News and World Report (May 29), Georgie’s “record far outstrips that of any other president.” A “signing statement,” in effect, states that the Chief Executive may, at his own discretion, choose not to execute parts of the law he just signed into being—for one reason or another, national security, say. The philosophical underpinning of the GeeDubya “signing statement” is the so-called “unitary executive theory” that holds “that the president is solely in charge of the executive branch” and that, in the preservation of separation of powers, “Congress can’t tell him how to carry out his executive functions.” The “signing statement” philosophy if not the unitary executive theory itself seems to fly in the face of Article II of the U.S. Constitution, Section 3 of which plainly states that the President “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” The Constitution says absolutely nothing about whether the president gets to choose which laws he executes. The Constitution also says absolutely nothing about separation of powers: that notion underlies the structure of our government, but it ain’t an article in the Constitution. So what the “unitary executive theory” does is create a pseudo-intellectual smoke screen for the president’s breaking of the law by flauting of the Constitution. No wonder GeeDubya never vetoes anything Congress sends his way: with a “signing statement,” he just vetoes by line-item whichever parts of the law he doesn’t like. Line-item veto, by the way, was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the Bush League is re-constituting the presidency as a monarchy.
From Editor & Publisher: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Sunday, May 21, that he believes journalists can be prosecuted for publishing classified information, citing an obligation to national security. So the reporter responsible for the New York Times publishing the story about illegal wiretapping by the NSA—that reporter is likewise doing something illegal? Said Gonzales: “There are some statutes on the book which, if you read the language carefully, would seem to indicate that that is a possibility.” When it comes to “reading language carefully”—and deploying it, too—Gonzales and the other Bush Leaguers are expert without peer. For example: When Condoleezza Rice says it is not the policy of the United States to torture its prisoners, she seems to be saying we don’t torture. But that’s not what she actually is saying. She is saying, merely, that torture is not a POLICY. True. But she doesn’t say we’re not doing it. In fact, she rather pointedly (once you know how to read the language as carefully as she uses it) doesn’t say anything at all about whether we actually torture detainees. In fact, we do torture them even though we have a policy that we don’t. This rhetorical posture permits the Bush League to go right on, blithely torturing helpless prisoners, while all the time stoutly maintaining—with the conviction that only truth-tellers can sustain—that we have a policy against torture. We clearly do have just such a policy. They never mention, of course, that they ignore that policy at whim, just as George W. (“Whopper”) Bush might ignore some provision of a law he doesn’t like.
The deterioration of language, the growing disconnect between words and their meanings, is not confined to the political realm. Catherine Callaway just came on my tv and said: “Good afternoon, everyone—it’s good to see you here at CNN Headline News.”
She can see me? From the glowing screen in that box in the livingroom?
Metaphors be with you.
To find out about Harv's books, click here.
send e-mail to R.C. Harvey
Art of the Comic Book - Art of the Funnies - Accidental Ambassador Gordo - reviews - order form - Harv's Hindsights - main page