Opus 186 (June 19, 2006). Featured this time are a long essay on Wonder Woman & the “strong lead female characters” that have, lately, populated funnybooks plus a somewhat shorter diatribe about Marvel’s Civil War series and a rave or two about a brand new comic strip—all pictures, no words. Here’s what’s here, in order: NOUS R US —Superman as Jesus, Superman as gay icon, and the annual Superman festival in Metropolis, Illinois; the Raggedy Ann annual shindig in Arcola, Illinois, plus a short bio of her cartoonist creator, Johnny Gruelle; Coulter and Rall and the 9/11 widows; and Coulter and Ahmadinejad face off; FROTH ESTATE —The Chandlers, erstwhile owners of the Los Angeles Times, battle the new owner, the Tribune Company, over the new journalism (i.e., investment earnings); CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST —“The Omen” is wrong, er, incorrect; FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE —Civil War and Real Life in Red and Blue America; Bad Girls and Good Girl Art and our proclivity for circumlocution when it comes to T&A; COMIC STRIP WATCH —Marvin gets an Asian cousin; the pantomime of the surreal; BOOK MARQUEE —New titles forthcoming; DIMMING THE LIGHTS —Haditha, the fog of war and the failure of discipline and honor, plus Ted Rall again. 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.
As we slip, willy nilly, further and further into the hyper-religiosity of the times, it is doubtless inevitable that someone, many someones, would see “Superman Returns” as a modern, cinematic up-dating of the New Testament’s main story—the story of God sending his only son down here to save mankind. Or, as Marlon Brando, playing Kal El’s father, says in the opening of this year’s Superman saga, Kal El is being sent to Earth because humans “lack the light to show the way. For this reason, I have sent them you, my only son.” Those echoes, kimo sabe, cannot be accidental. Nor are other incidents in the movie—Superman sustaining a stab wound in his side and, on another occasion, posing with his arms outstretched as though crucified. Clearly, the makers of the movie are hoping to attract some fragment of the crowd that overwhelmed the box office for Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” movie a couple years ago. Evangelical Christianity is all the rage nowadays among the marketing mavens of Madison Avenue. If two nearly unknown hack writers can make millions with a series of sf novels about “The Rapture,” surely Warner Bros would be foolish not to play up whatever Christian appeal can be discerned in “Returns.” Surely. But there is, alas, nothing particularly unique about the Superman-Jesus parallel being touted in the movie. Western Civilization is laced with such parallels. The “savior figure” is inherent in the archetypal framework described by Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces: the cultural icon, the hero, is called to adventure, leaves the comforts of his home, meets a menace threatening the welfare of his people, conquers the menace, and returns to his home. Same old, same old, seems to me. A fresh wrinkle this time, however, is that “Superman Returns” is also being sold to the gay community. None of the marketeers are maintaining that Superman is gay, but the character has, apparently, always appealed to gay men. Maybe it’s just the display of male epidermis, thinly disguised in blue tights. In any event, the ever perspicacious Warner Bros ain’t overlookin’ this connection either, taking advertising on a gay cable tv channel. And the May 23 issue of The Advocate, the national gay mag, asked on its cover: “How gay is Superman?” The answer: not at all. But the movie-makers hope to seduce that audience into dropping a few coins in the turnstile when the movie is launched on June 28 (or June 30, depending which source you’re dependent upon). The double-barreled Warners Bros promotional approach may yield one of the year’s more fascinating theatrical encounters—when the Evangelicals meet the gays, entering and exiting the movie houses of the nation.
Meanwhile, Thursday, June 8, marked the beginning of the 28th annual Superman Celebration in Metropolis, Illinois, a hamlet of 15,000 souls at the southern tip of the state on the banks of the Ohio River, just 13 miles down river from Paducah, Kentucky. In 1972, DC Comics granted the city fathers’ request to be the adopted home of Superman; and the same year, the state recognized Metropolis as Superman’s home town by passing House Resolution No. 572, which also designated Superman a “Distinguished Son of Metropolis.” The impending movie, “Superman Returns,” generated a lot of interest in Metropolis’ annual shenanigan. Said Jim Hambrick, president of the Metropolis Chamber of Commerce: “I give 25-30 interviews a day from all over.” On the eve of the Celebration, he guessed “this will probably be the biggest festival ever.”
Numerous stellar persons were scheduled to appear over the weekend—Michael Rosenbaum, Lex Luthor of “Smallville”; Noel Neill, Lois Lane from the 1950s “Superman” series (she’s 85); comic book writer Marv Wolfman and artist Steve Rude; and Stephan Bender, the actor portraying the 15-year-old Clark Kent in “Returns.” At last year’s festival, one of the visiting dignitaries was John Schneider, star of tv’s “Smallville” and “Dukes of Hazard,” and attendance reached heights never before scaled. Festival co-chair Karla Ogle couldn’t say whether people flocked to Metropolis to see Schneider because they are “Smallville” fans or “Dukes of Hazard” fans, but they came in quantities that eventually totaled 35,000.
The “official Superman” for the weekend was actor Scott Cranford, a 6-foot-2 former body builder who auditioned for the role in a nation-wide hunt six years ago and has been Superman ever since. “Who wouldn’t want to be Superman?” Cranford asked, rhetorically. He wants to be Superman so determinedly that he married his wife Marcella in Superman costume three years ago during the Superman Celebration. Continuing this nuptial tradition this year was Christopher Denning, who appears as Superman at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, who married Bonnie Finkenthal next to the Superman statue on Sunday afternoon, closing the festivities.
Another highlight of the weekend was fund-raising for the life-size Lois Lane statue in Noel Neill’s image that will eventually stand on the courthouse lawn behind the 16-foot bronze Superman statue in Superman Square. Devotees could buy $75 engraved bricks for the base of the statue, which should be completed in about two years.
Illinois is the site for another comics-related festival, the Raggedy Ann and Andy Festival in Arcola, held this year June 9-11 in the little town just south of Champaign where creator Johnny Gruelle was born in 1880. The son of a painter father and a writer mother, Gruelle crew up in Indiana, where, at the age of 19, he began a career as a political cartoonist for an Indianapolis weekly. He was good enough to graduate to a daily, the Indianapolis Sun, and then to another, the Indianapolis Star, then another, Indianapolis Sentinel, then on to the Cleveland Press and, eventually, the NEA staff. After a decade or so of this, he entered a contest sponsored by the New York Herald, which was holding the competition to find a new Sunday comic strip. Gruelle concocted a fantasy about a kid-sized elf named Mr. Twee Deedle, who led children through a series of fanciful adventures. Gruelle won the contest, which yielded a $2,000 purse as well as the Sunday funnies assignment. While doing Mr. Twee Deedle, Gruelle also contributed cartoons to the weekly humor magazines, Judge and Life, and, later, College Humor—single panel, full-page birds-eye view cartoons about the small town doings. For Judge, the cartoon was entitled “Yapps Crossing” and Gruelle did it from 1912 to 1923; for Life, another version was called “Yahoo Center”; for College Humor, “Niles Junction.” The first Raggedy Ann book was published in 1918, launching such a successful career as a children’s book author that Gruelle stopped producing Mr. Twee Deedle in 1921. He returned to the Sunday funnies in 1928 with Brutus, which ceased with Gruelle’s death in 1938. Raggedy Ann was not Gruelle’s only venture into prose fiction: by the time she came along, he’d been writing stories for United Press or United Features for quite some time. By 1933, he claimed to have written one thousand stories for one syndicate or the other. He also wrote two books for Bobbs-Merrill: Little Orphan Annie Stories and Johnny Mouse Stories. There’s a Raggedy Ann and Andy Museum in Arcola, which contains numerous displays about the cartoonist and sells his books and other memorabilia. Great fun, but I didn’t get there this year.
“Over the Hedge,” the animated version of the United Media comic strip by Michael Fry and T Lewis, “held up well” in its second week, according to Entertainment Weekly: it pulled in $35 million to bring its total take, thus far, to $84 million. “X-Men: The Last Stand” earned almost $123 million in its release weekend (Memorial Day weekend), but EW doesn’t think much of the movie: “This diminished sequel, a brute-force enterprise, is what happens when movies are confused with sandwich shops as franchise opportunities: an even greater variety of superheroes is not the same thing as originality of recipe.” A sampling of criticism resulted in a C-plus for the flick; “Hedge” got a solid B.
For more about the Dick Tracy Museum (did I mention this before), visit www.chestergould.com
From Editor & Publisher: The Union of Concerned Scientists is sponsoring two cartoon contests, one for amateurs and one for professionals, designed to highlight political interference in science, one of the Bush League’s more infamous tactics—namely, changing scientific reports so they will conform to the neocon line. “The absurdity of political interference in science is fertile ground for satire,” said Francesca Grifo, director of UCS’s Scientific Integrity Program. Judges for the contest include Tony Auth of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Clay Bennett of the Christian Science Monitor, both Pulitzer winners; and Hillary Price, creator of the comic strip Rhymes with Orange, and New Yorker cartoon editor, Robert Mankoff. Among the prizes, an all-expense paid trip to meet the judge of choice and a $3,000 grand prize. Deadline for submissions is July 31. More details at the UCS website, www.ucsusa.org
In her latest sprew in book form, Godless: The Church of Liberalism, Ann Coulter, who has become the latest media-transmitted disease, charges that activist 9/11 widows are “self-obsessed” celebrity-seeking “broads” who are “enjoying” their husbands’ deaths far too much and making money out of their personal disasters. “These broads,” she writes, “are millionaires, lionized on tv and in articles about them, reveling in their status as celebrities and stalked by griefparrazies. I have never seen people enjoying their husband’s death so much.” In one of the finer ironies of the media culture in this country, she is echoing almost exactly what cartoonist Ted Rall said shortly after the 9/11 tragedy when he did a strip about the “Terror Widows,” accusing some of them—the ones who seemed to be courting exposure on tv and radio talk shows—of cashing in on their misfortunes (for a discussion of how his cartoon misfired, see Opus 82, then 83 and 84). Coulter and Rall “together”? Wonders without cease. But the seeming confluence of opinion disappears upon examination. Rall was expressing his revulsion at widows who seemed to be grand-standing their way to wealth and fame. Coulter, on the other hand, points to the 9/11 widows as examples of what she calls “the left’s doctrine of infallibility,” which, when interviewed by Matt Lauer on NBC’s “Today,” she couldn’t explain very well. Apparently she means that the widows, because they were made widows by such a transcendent national tragedy, assume they cannot be criticized for their opinions: they attack the Bush League with impunity because no one will have the temerity to question or criticize a 9/11 widow who so exquisitely, so personally, embodies the grief of a nation. Something like that. About as convoluted as Coulter is blonde. The Orlando Sentinel’s syndicated Kathleen Parker did better than Coulter at explaining Coulter: “Her point was that debate becomes strained to impossible when one of the gladiators on the other side has recently suffered a grievous loss. No one wants to challenge a wife whose husband has been killed or a mother whose son has perished in battle, even if they have become public political players. The opposition will always look like insensitive bullies, as does Coulter, who undermined her own messge more than her critics could. Calling the widows ‘witches’ and saying they were enjoying their husbands’ deaths was chum to the other side. Rabble-rousing, fear-mongering and gay-bashing may keep local constituents happy, but none of it gets us where we need to go: toward sane remedies for a united nation.”
Maybe Andy Borowitz at the Columbus Dispatch has the best take on these matters. On June 12, he announced: “Conservative pundit Ann Coulter today challenged Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to what she called ‘an insane-comment contest’ on live tv to determine who is the insane-comment champion of the world. Appearing on Fox News, the sharp-tongued darling of the right wing said that while she respects Ahmadinejad’s work, she thinks he will be ‘no match’ for her arsenal of crazy, unhinged remarks. ‘I’ve heard Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s nutty rants in the past,’ Coulter said, ‘and while I think he comes off like a total bananahead, in a one-on-one with me, he will be the picture of sanity.” In Iran, Ahmadinejad accepted Coulter’s challenge and said that while he was ‘confident of victory,’ he recognized that besting her in an insane-comment contest ‘would not be easy. In any competition involving verbal lunacy, Ann Coulter is the favorite going in,’ he said, adding, ‘I will need to train for this for months.’”
Universal Press will launch another manga-style comic strip on July 9. Van Von Hunter is a “fantasy-adventure parody that stars a vampire hunter,” by Mike Schwark and Ron Kaulfersch, who created the comic for the Internet. Compounding the deluge from Japan, Tokypop is releasing a series of Van Von Hunter graphic novels.
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.
The Froth Estate: The Alleged News Institution
In the last two years, the value of Tribune Company stock has declined 40%, which, according to the Chandler family, is due to “disastrous” decisions made by the Chicago-based media company. In mid-June, the Chandlers, who, for a century, owned the Los Angeles Times before selling it to the Tribune Company in 2000, demanded that the Trib Company spin off its television assets (it owns 26 stations) and sell some of its 11 newspapers. That would undermine the Trib Company’s grand plan, which envisioned becoming a media (and, hence, political and economic) powerhouse in major cities—Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago—where, after acquiring the Los Angeles Times and other Times Mirror properties, the Trib now owns a newspaper (Los Angeles Times, Newsday, and the Chicago Tribune) and a tv channel. The straw that apparently broke the Chandlers’ backs was that the Trib Company wants to take on $2 billion in new debt in order to buy back 25% of the company’s stock. The plan was intended to give cash to shareholders and lift stock price, thereby pacifying the investors who have, it seems, been agitating for higher returns on their investments, like all investors in the newspaper business. The Chandlers, who own the second largest block of stock in the company, declared that they would not sell any of it. After their objection became known, shares rose 2.9% to $31.94, just below the $32.50 maximum price that the Tribune Company has offered to pay under the buyback scheme, which expires June 26. Although the Chandlers seem motivated by a desire to preserve the journalistic integrity of the newspaper business they were once in, another consideration lurks: if they sold their shares, they’d have to pay whopping taxes. So maybe their motivation is not so pure. The Tribune Company’s strategy also seems directed at maintaining journalistic excellence: if it can keep investors happy with their earnings, the Trib won’t have to keep on eviscerating its newspapers with massive payroll deductions, the most conspicuous evidence, lately, of the company’s troubles with its investor base. The Chandlers threaten to push for new management if their demands aren’t met, and with 12% of the stock, they have the clout to make things uncomfortable; only the McCormick foundation, with 13.6%, holds more. But it’s not clear that the Chandlers are serious about any of this surface noise: if their threat stimulates an investor groundswell for the spin-off option, they will gain an edge in negotiating to withdraw from investment partnerships it is in with the Tribune Company. They want to end the partnerships without selling shares (and incurring tax obligations), but at present, the two sides are “hundreds of millions of dollars apart” on plans for doing that.
So much for good newspaper journalism, the health of the industry, and the future for comic strips. It’s all about the money, tovarich.
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
The June 6 opening of the movie “The Omen” was widely heralded with invocations of “the sign (or number) of the Beast,” the number 666. That’s why they picked June 6 to open: June 6 this year and this year only (for all practical—that is, mortal—purposes) is the 6th day of the 6th month of the 6th year of this millennium—ergo,060606, or 666. Well, the joke’s on the Devil and his devotees. According to a gaggle of English biblical scholars, cited by Ann Tatko-Peterson at Knight Ridder, the number, which appears in the Book of Revelation, was apparently mistranslated. It’s actually 616. So why not correct this horrendous misapprehension? Says Daniel P. Winters, author of Superstitions 101: “Because 6-6-6 rolls off the tongue easier. Plus, ‘The Omen’ would have to be rewritten, the related superstitions reconsidered, the stars realigned, the whole population re-educated. And, I’d have to rewrite my book.” Works for me.
Jon Stewart, in the wake of the brouhaha over Stephen Colbert’s presentation at the White House Correspondents dinner last month, described the dinner as “where the President and the press corps consummate their loveless marriage.” Quoted in Editor&Publisher.com.
I can never quite resist the headlines of the National Enquirer. June 19's issue blares that Angelina’s baby is not Brad’s. A notorious manizer, Angelina consumated a “relationship” with someone else just about the time of conception, and it’s entirely likely that the newborn child is that guy’s work, not Brad’s. Other revelations in the same issue: Brad Pitt is not a man but a transsexual, and Jennifer Aniston is not really a woman. I love this publication. How can anyone survive the Modern Age without its vigilante guidance?
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE
Civil War and Democrats vs. Republicans
The comic book reading public, a dwindling population by most reports, has just emerged, tired and sweaty-palmed, from the recent multiple-title cross-over extravaganza at DC, “Infinite Crisis,” which burst upon the newsstands in the wake of Marvel’s “House of M,” which, in turn, followed DC’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” which, in the now tedious rotation, probably followed something Marvel did, and so on, ad infinitum. I make it a point never to buy into any of these transparent marketing ploys. I sampled one once and learned that the casual reader can’t make much sense of the events transpiring on one title without dipping into others on either side and fore and aft, too. So to enjoy one comic book, you need to buy at least a half-dozen other titles, many of which, in the normal course of events, feature characters or artists in whom I have no interest. Moreover, keeping track of the proper sequence of titles and issues requires major bookkeeping expertise. And the pleasure afforded by successfully negotiating all of these snares and delusions is modest unless you happen to dote, with a passion approaching obsession, upon the very notion of “continuity” in characterization and event that these mini-series exploit. I may be in my dotage, but I don’t dote on continuity in comics. And that includes DC’s latest, OYL and 52. So I’m happy to give it all a pass, usually. Until Marvel’s Civil War.
Marvel Comics, which never tires of vaunting its realistic treatment of superheroes as individual and often cranky if not neurotic personalities, has generally been more in touch with the realities that surround its fictional universe than its cross-town rival, DC. So as DC prepares to warm itself in the box office glow of “Superman Returns,” which imposes an ethereal nimbus on its Christlike Man of Steal, Marvel has started “the next big thing,” a Civil War, which appears to create among the longjohn legions of the Marvel milieu a world paralleling ours by dividing the superhero population into two groups so diametrically opposed that reconciliation seems all but impossible. They may not be Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, but their division echoes the issues that are presently dividing the body politic of this nation.
The McGuffin is the role of the superhero in society: they are all masked vigilantes whose dedication to “doing good” we have always taken on faith. As editor Tom Brevoort put it in The Comics Buyer’s Guide (No. 1619): “How comfortable would people really be, if there was a Spider-Man, a guy swinging around roofs in Manhattan in a mask? You don’t know who he is, what he’s about—just dropping down, beating up on whomever he seems to feel like beating up on, saying, ‘Oh, they’re bad guys: trust me’—slinging away, not answering questions, putting people in the hospital. How comfortable would you be?” The answer, of course, is: not very. And when the civilian population of the Marvel Universe starts pondering these matters, their solution is to require superheroes to register with the government, putting their secret identities on file. Those who don’t opt in this direction must give up the superheroing life. The Civil War, then, pits one group of superheroes against the other—those who register against those who refuse to because giving up their anonymity puts them at personal risk and thereby threatens their ability to function effectively.
The series slogan puts the issue antagonistically: Whose side are you on? The standard ploy for comic book adventurers pits the good guys in the white hats against the bad guys in the black chapeaus. In Marvel’s Civil War, the white hats are divided among themselves over the issue of registration. At issue is national security and law on the side of registration and personal safety and liberty on the side of those who refuse to be regimented. The echo of our own, real life national dilemma is clear. The Patriot Act is intended to make us safer, but at what cost? We are expected to give up some portion of the liberty that the Patriot Act is presumably intended to preserve. A conundrum that Marvel’s Civil War poses in slightly bent miniature. “This has enormous ramifications beyond comics,” said Andrew Smith in CBG. The superhero, he says, usually operates within a tradition of “apolitical behavior” in which the costumed do-gooder ambles along within “certain accepted conventions.” Smith wonders how the popular culture concept of superheroism will be affected by Marvel’s storyline. But I take the proposition in a somewhat different direction. Just as Marvel’s Civil War unhorses the conventions that used to govern superheroing, so does the red state/blue state polarization in our national politics destroy the convention upon which effective politics has always existed—compromise. The superheroes, if Brevoort’s preview is any clue, will doubtless resolve the issue through some sort of compromise. “Each character,” Brevoort said in CBG, “may come to see the wisdom in the other side’s point of view or at least find a common ground between them.” If only our real life predicament could be resolved as easily. Someday, perhaps—when the heat of basic philosophical difference has somewhat abated—it may.
Whether I actually buy more than one or two or three issues in this series remains to be seen. I picked up what I thought was the first in the series, but now I’m not sure. It has “Frontline” on the cover, so it’s probably an offshoot (but vital to over-all comprehension—yeh, yeh: aren’t they all?). I haven’t read it yet, but it seems to be pleasantly gritty and therefore realistic (yeh, yeh: aren’t they all?). And Spider-Man taking off his mask and the Wolverine dilemma seem provocative, so—. Then again, I’m pretty bored with the Democrats and Republicans, who seem bent solely upon out-doing each other in graft, corruption and self-interest. They seem equally dangerous to the vitality of the Republic however hilarious their machinations may otherwise be. I regularly make fun of George WMD Bush because he’s goofier than the others in a gruesome catastrophic way. In hapless contrast, Joe Biden, say, is just all bullshit, and Ted Kennedy is all bluster, neither trait affording much opportunity for comedy. And neither end of the political spectrum seems capable of putting the interests of the country and its inhabitants ahead of their own plans to get re-elected forever and ever, so they can plunder the national treasury for the rest of their days. And if all of this authentic comedy fails to keep me amused, why would I find entertainment in a comic book series that seems to parallel this disastrously comical political reality?
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE
Bad Girls and Good Girl Art
Batwoman and Wonder Woman, Again and Again
“Strong female lead characters.” Femmes fatales. Bodacious bimbos. Tough babes. Wonderful. I’ve said it before, tovarisch, and I’ll say it again: T&A seems to breed hypocrisy and euphemism. And here we go again. The “lipstick lesbian” Batwoman, DC Executive Editor Dan Didio said, is “another very strong female character.” More strength; more T&A. Next, here comes the “new” Wonder Woman, “new,” I should say, for the fourth time that I am immediately aware of. This one is being reincarnated by tv writer and producer Allan Heinberg, whose introduction to the Amazon princess was in 1974 with Wonder Woman No. 212, featuring the first of the twelve labors Wonder Woman undertakes to rejoin the Justice League of America. Interviewed by PW Comics Week’s Douglas Wolk, Heinberg said he intends to “strip away” the accumulated continuity baggage Wonder Woman is carting around—politician, teacher, goddess, superhero, karate fighter— in order to “tell a more personal story and find out who Wonder Woman really is. What sort of person is she? What does she want? How does she feel?” Acknowledging that Wonder Woman “isn’t as clear-cut an archetype as Batman or Superman,” Heinberg sees that ambiguity as an advantage that “allows her writers and artists an enormous amount of storytelling flexibility and creative freedom.” In the opening pages of the new Wonder Woman No. 1, our heroine describes herself as being on an impossible mission to impart an ideology to a world that doesn’t believe in it. The ideology, Heinberg says, is “about the power of love and truth to bring peace and end suffering.” The problem is how does she achieve this goal—as political ambassador, teacher, religious figure, superhero? How? “Questions like these, while important ones, tend to weigh a character down,” Heinberg said, “—especially when she’s expected to fight supervillains every issue.” Simpler is better, he said. Simplifying by avoiding his own questions, he continued: “If Wonder Woman is, in fact, here to instruct, she should probably do so by example rather than by lecturing. It’s less condescending and makes more dramatic sense. Comics are a visual medium and, as a fan, I prefer to watch characters actually doing things than talking about them.” Sound reasoning, I’d say. But is it borne out in the first issue?
I confess that I haven’t followed Wonder Woman since George Perez cranked up all that Paradise Island folderol: Greek mythology doesn’t intrigue me much, probably because they all wear white togas and the whiteness and the sameness of the fashion is visually boring. It was a noble try, though, and I admire Perez for attempting it. But what’s been going on during the ensuing decades, I simply dunno. In this new launch, it seems that the “new” Wonder Woman is going to be Donna Troy, erstwhile Wonder Girl and the younger sister of the original Diana Prince in the star-spangled girdle. Here we meet Donna attired in short-skirted, bare-armed Greek warrior armor as she flies in to extract Steve Trevor from the clutches of some terrorists. But the terrorists want to talk to Diana Prince, not Donna Troy. Donna goes in anyhow and manages to get Trevor out of there after getting nearly mauled by a cheetah, who is being controlled by Minerva, who was, or is, the Cheetah. Before they actually exit the environs, Donna must elude the clutches of another female villain, Giganta, which Donna is able to do by sticking the big broad in the knuckle with the sharp point of her star-shaped earring. But then, just as the Cheetah gets ready to hack Donna’s head off with her, Donna’s, sword, here comes the original article, Diana herself, still in her John Byrne-designed costume. (One of the best make-overs in funnybook history, no contest.) Or so it seems. At first. But when Diana persists in killing her adversaries, a sin she committed before and was condemned to Limbo for, it develops that this Diana is just an apparition of sorts, conjured up by Dr. Psycho, who now shows up. Meanwhile, outside the compound where all the action and rescuing is taking place, the Nemesis shows up, vowing to rescue Donna but only, says Sarge Steel, the Director of the Department of Metahuman Affairs, who’s in charge of this operation—only with a partner, namely “Agent Diana Prince,” now attired in her Emma Peel kung fu outfit.
Enough to take one’s breath away, surely. There’s a healthy dose of action, though, so whatever’s being taught is being taught by example, not by lecture. The action, alas, is so often punctuated by the re-introduction of some personage from the past that it nearly loses a claim to be action. If “love” and “truth” are the motivating impulses and if this is the dramatization of those impulses, we don’t have here anything much different from the usual run-of-the-mill superheroics. Love and truth and an occasional punch in the bad guy’s mouth. But whatever the story or the plot, a sort of jumble at the moment, the entire enterprise is rescued by the dazzling artwork of Terry and Rachel Dodson. Terry’s beauteous damsels—and there are five of them herein, three of whom are “Wonder Woman” in one guise or another—are, as usual, a pleasure to behold, and his storytelling, compositions and breakdowns, is expert and dramatic. And Rachel’s inking is, as always, fluid and clean. She’s developed a fine-line technique for indicating minor musculatural definitions in anatomy that reminds me, strikingly, of the way Frank Cho wields a line; and that’s all to the good, of course, even though Rachel’s customary linear mannerisms were perfectly satisfying as they were.
Terry has a large role, Heinberg tells Wolk, in this concept. “I came up with the initial premise,” Heinberg said, “but every detail of its execution has been in loving collaboration with the Dodsons. Terry and I work together on every single element of the book.” Together, Heinberg said, they plan to explore Wonder Woman’s vulnerability as well as her power. Not to mention the numerous permutations of female anatomy. Oddly, perhaps, Giganta is not as well-developed in that department as her name and the reputations of those limning her into being might dictate. In fact, only Cheetah and Diana seem superlatively endowed in this installment.
As one of the fan press’s most notorious dirty old men, I can scarcely sit here and type carping complaints about pictures of voluptuous women in their scanties. Fact is, I’ve drawn scores of comedic lewd ladies in similar states of undress for years. Well beyond adolescence. In fact, some years ago, MU Press/Aeon brought forth an entire book of my vintage cartoons spotlighting nubile sex kittens in dishabille for the delection of connoisseurs of feminine contours. Called Not Just Another Pretty Face, the tome celebrates female body parts ensemble and human sexuality and the fate of Rubens in modern life. (A few copies of this timeless gem are still available for $15 each, including p&h. Just write me at the address at the end of the scroll. Shameless plug, granted—but shamelessness is the subject in this corner this month, so why not?)
No, I’m not objecting to pictures of naked women. What I’m en route to scoffing about is the uproarious circumlocutions that are employed in promoting products the appeal of which is frankly sexual. We haven’t (to my knowledge) gone quite as far as a paperback book collector/dealer named Lynn Munroe, who, in the name of political correctitude, eschewed using the term “GGA” (meaning “Good Girl Art”) in his catalogues, starting in the winter of 1993. Munroe discovered that many of the adult women he knew objected to the derogatory term “girl” when used to describe a woman as a sex object. So he obligingly consigned “GGA” to Limbo. Mind you, he continues to sell paperbacks with sexy women on the covers “in various stages of undress and peril”; he just doesn’t call ’em like he sees ’em anymore. (Which makes me wonder how he distinguishes GGA book covers from all others. Does he say “Sex Object, Female” to advertise his wares?)
“Some book covers are demeaning to women,” Munroe wrote that winter in his catalogue. “Often they strike at some dark fantasy or fears that both sexes share . ... The same covers are not acceptable on new books today, and we think that’s a step in the right direction. We present such covers for adult collectors and bibliophiles only. But we don’t need to call the women who grace those covers ‘girls’ or babes or bimbos or whatever demeaning terms we men have come up with over the years. And maybe then there will be more women in our hobby.”
Noble sentiments, these. But like so many similar attempts at appeasing the politically righteous, this one is misinformed and wrong-headed.
If Munroe thinks sex object art (SOA) has disappeared from the covers of today’s paperback novels, then he hasn’t been in a bookstore recently that sells the fictions of Rebecca Brandewyne, Cassie Edwards, Samantha James, and Constance O’Day-Flannery and their ilk. Yes, these are authors of those ripe bodice-ripping “romantic novels” written for women readers. For women readers!
And the covers of these books are produced in accordance with an unvarying formula. A nineteenth century couple is depicted—a young and virile man as impossibly handsome as the young woman with whom he is locked in embrace is voluptuous; her gown is open at the neck to reveal a generous bosom, heaving (we assume) with passion as she caresses his naked chest while he, one hand on her naked thigh (her dress having been hiked up to her waist), clasps her to him.
Pretty sexy stuff.
And these covers are presumably appealing to thousands of women readers who buy this cotton-wadding by the truckload (if we are to judge from the number of titles on the nearest bookstore shelf). These covers must be appealing or the publishers would surely have abandoned them long ago: this is a capitalistic marketplace, after all, and manufacturers must be adept at meeting the needs of their buyers or die. None of these publishers are dead yet. On the basis of this evidence, then, I rather suspect that Munroe is doomed to disappointment if he hopes banning “GGA” from the lexicon of paperback collectors will, in and of itself, induce more women to take up the hobby. Clearly, women are as interested in Sex Object Art (SOA) as men are. If they haven’t taken up the hobby of paperback book collecting (or comic book collecting for that matter), there’s doubtless another explanation for it: it could be that women have better things to do with their time.
At least, funnybook aficionadoes haven’t waded out as far into the Deep End in acquiescing to the demands of the politically righteous as Munroe has. Yet.
But there’s hypocrisy and euphemism afoot in comic book fandom, too. Wizard some winters ago produced a whole special issue devoted to the Bad Girl Syndrome. The magazine is mostly pictures, as you might guess, with several pages devoted to photographs and copy on Pamela Anderson as Barb Wire. But introducing the subject is Brian Pulido’s essay, “All Hail the Femme [sic] Fatales.” Pulido begins by citing the conventional wisdom of the industry that “female characters couldn’t sell comic books.” And then he traces the history of the last couple years that proves the adage wrong. Suddenly—overnight, as it were—female characters were selling comic books!
(Excuse me—“strong lead female characters.” We mustn’t overlook the “strong” part: that’s the part that justifies to the politically correct this blatant appeal to the male adolescent reader.)
Pulido goes on to offer an explanation for this phenomenon. “This isn’t a trend,” he says. “This isn’t a fad. Let’s recognize it for what it is: a genre. What do the leading characters of the genre have in common beyond the obvious?” he wonders. “You can see it on the page: it is passion. ... It’s the ’90s. It’s not threatening to imagine a heroic woman in control.”
Strong leading female character again.
Well, let me see. Apart from being strong in body, mind and will, what do these characters all have in common? They all brave insurmountable obstacles, Pulido says, and they kick butt and take names. Let’s get back to that “obvious” part he is trying to get beyond. All these Bad Girls share other attributes—boobs the size of basketballs, legs that go on forever, and costumes that are designed to reveal rather than conceal.
I guess I agree with Heidi MacDonald (for once), who said long ago in an issue of Lulu’s Clubhouse (the newsletter for Friends of Lulu, an organization devoted to fostering women’s participation in the comics field): “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when someone comes up to me at a convention and tells me that they are doing a book with a ‘strong female character,’ and then shows me a book where this strong character loses her clothes at every opportunity and every other panel shows her on all fours with her butt in the air.”
It’s offensive, MacDonald says. “It’s offensive because it’s bad comics.” Right. And it’s bad comics because the pictures are not enlisted in a storytelling task. They’re pin-ups. And after a while, they’re monotonous.
What’s so laughable about all these mostly male discussions on the subject of Bad Girls is how hard the fulminators of these gaseous dissertations work to avoid stating the obvious. Sex appeal. Bad Girls are popular not because of the “strength” of their character but because of the natural attraction that sexy women have for men. (Most comic book readers are still men, remember—and most of those men are adolescents with raging hormones. None of this is mere coincidence.) The “bad girl” part—the strong heroic personalities of these characters—is but the excuse that permits artists with an abiding interest in the fundamental appeal of the female form to indulge that interest. And in doing so, they incidentally appeal to readers with the same interests.
None of this should be baffling at all, yet so many who wax eloquent on the subject seem blind to the obvious. Well, it’s willful blindness, admittedly: truth is, no one apparently wants to talk about the obvious. Superhero comic books exist for somewhat the same constellation of reasons. Artists who like to draw the human figure in action have helped perpetuate the genre: where else can they draw what they most want to draw?
That’s not the whole reason for the longevity of superhero comics. Both superhero comic books and Bad Girl comics have other attractions that capture readers’ interests. Superheroes enact adolescent power fantasies. And Bad Girls enact another fantasy. Munroe alludes to it when he talks about “dark fantasies” or “fears” that we all share. Fantasy artist Rowena gets closer to the mark when (in a vintage issue of Previews) she says: “I just wonder if the bad girl isn’t an archetype of a woman that is a wonderful fantasy but not the type of woman that a man could have a traditional, real relationship with. These women exist purely in the fantasy world.” Rowena speculates that perhaps this “foreboding woman” idea took wing because of AIDS, which, she muses, might be responsible for “people having more and more detached interaction with the opposite sex” these days.
Maybe. But I submit that the “detached interaction with the opposite sex” she wonders about has its roots much deeper in the human psyche. AIDS, after all, has been around only a relatively short time. If people are having “detached interactions with the opposite sex,” it’s probably because sexual relations have always been fearful encounters (particularly in the subconscious), and a television-watching culture encourages passivity in all things—even sex, which gets passive only if the participants remain detached.
But the idea of woman as threat actually has its origins in the subconscious fantasy life within us all. According to Freud, we all carry around in our heads just below the surface of consciousness the remnants of infantile fantasies that preoccupied our earliest years. The first phase of psychic development during these years is the oral phase because the infant is focussed solely on food, which is taken by mouth. All sources of pleasure, then, seem to be oral. The fantasy develops in which the surest route to an enjoyable life is to eat. Everything desirable is seen as edible. Babies put everything they want into their mouths—or try to. Thus, in the fantasy, all things desired are eaten—including, naturally, the nurturing mother, upon whose breast the infant is fixated. Later, as we pass through other phases of psychic development, we acquire a sense of guilt, and from that, fear. The Oedipal phase, for instance—during which the child desires the mother in some vaguely sexual way—eventually inspires guilt in the child. Guilt in turn arouses fear: if we are guilty of something, surely we will be punished, and we fear the punishment.
Fear takes many forms in the subconscious. All of the psychic phases through which we pass remain in the subconscious, lurking there like shadows, shading our perceptions and our actions. From the oral phase, we inherit our interest in food as a source of pleasure. And we sometimes speak of desirable objects as if we wanted to eat them. (How many times have you heard the expression, “You look good enough to eat”?) When it comes to guilt, fear and punishment, the punishment in the subconscious usually fits the crime. If we want to eat everything and subsequently feel guilty about it, then our fear is that we ourselves will be eaten.
Since our sense of guilt arises in connection with Oedipal desires, sometimes the predatory gourmet we grow to fear is “woman.” Hence, the fantasy of the Devouring Woman.
In Bad Girls, this fantasy is manifest. Bad Girls are physically—sexually—desirable. But they are also threatening, powerful creatures. These two circumstances in conjunction awaken slumbering oral fears in our subconscious, adding nightmarish emotional weight to the formula before us. And in the spate of female vampire characters of recent years, the Devouring Woman fantasy is made bloodily explicit.
So what? Well, Munroe and Rowena are right: a fundamental appeal of the Bad Girl resides in her ability to rouse the nightmares of the subconscious—“dark fantasies” and unspoken “fears.” She is, indeed, a woman with whom no man can have a normal relationship.
But she’s also a nearly naked female of the species, and as long as propagation is achieved through the union of two sexes, the female of the species will appeal to the male for reasons so powerfully biological that you’d think they would need no explanation—or that any explanation attempted would not involve such large doses of circumlocution as we’ve seen to date. But then, we’d have nothing to laugh at here, would we?
Meanwhile, we can ponder the significance of a benchmark mutation of sex appeal as a sales gimmick that surfaced, so to speak, some years ago and then sank from sight. “Nude variant covers.” This marketing maneuver produced comic books the same issues of which had two covers: one with the strong leading female character (SLFC) clothed; a second, with her in the altogether. Buck naked. If you buy both versions, you can enjoy the sensation of a striptease.
At least, it’s forthright pandering.
COMIC STRIP WATCH
Marvin, the title toddler in Tom Armstrong’s comic strip, is getting another baby cousin. The mother of the existing cousin, Megan, is divorced but wants another child, so she flies to China and adopts Ming Ming, who shows up in the strip on June 25, convinced that she has been abducted by an alien and flown to the “planet America.”
I keep insisting, with a doggedness that must try even saintly patience, that comics are a visual-verbal artform. And so they are. It’s the blend of word and picture that makes comics unique among the static visual arts. But since we read the words by looking at them—just as we “read” the pictures by looking at them—the tilt in comics, metaphysically speaking, is toward the visual. It isn’t often in this visual entertainment, however, that we find comics unabashedly visual, comics that wouldn’t be comics if they weren’t visual enterprises. So a new strip called Lio by Mark Tatulli will surprise you. As you read down the page from Dagwood to Garfield to Ellie Patterson and come suddenly upon Lio, you’ll slip out of a recognizable world into a surreal one, a world where the pictures determine the strip’s reality wholly, or almost entirely, unaided by words. “Lio,” says Tatulli, “is a little boy with a deceptively sweet exterior” who “nonchalantly inhabits” a “dark, surreal world.” With a shock of hair in front that sticks straight up, Lio looks somewhat like Tintin might have looked as a boy. But Lio’s adventures are nothing like Tintin’s. And they nearly defy any attempt to describe them unassisted by visual aids. Here are a few, lifted from gocomics.com, the revamped uClick, website for Universal Press comics.
The first one I’ve pasted in here threw me for a minute: that’s Lio’s father in the first panel, not Lio. Lio is in the kitchen, and he’s spilled the box of animal crackers, which is where that herd on the floor in the first panel comes from. The first panel is a puzzle; the second panel explains it. In the next example we have every kid’s nightmare about brimming bathtubs coming true: there is a monster just beneath the surface. But in Lio’s world, it’s a benign denizen of the deep who shampoos the kid’s hair. The next one is somewhat dark and requires a little de-coding: I think Lio has dug a pit and covered it with leaves, with the intention of trapping the fat kid, and you don’t find all the evidence for this conclusion until you get to the last panel. In my final example, you must again take time to look at all of the picture, and when you do, you eventually realize that Lio’s voodoo doll is working: that kid suspended at the right is the spitting image of the voodoo doll Lio has just snared. So voodoo works, right? Most of Lio requires de-coding, which, in the Age of Da Vinci’s Code, is probably a smart marketing move. And the Lio code is all visual, all pictures. There are no words in Lio. Said Tatulli: “In Lio, the art [the drawing] is the writing. Each strip is like a mini puzzle. There is no verbal punchline; no rim shot. You have to look at the series of panels and kind of put things together.”
Tatulli says he takes “full advantage” of the space allotted to his strip to draw: “It’s very liberating for a cartoonist who loves to draw,” he said. “Lio is a very simple concept,” he continued. “It has to live within the pantomime format. What you see is what you get. No deep backstory, no intricate relationships. The reader should be able to look at a week of strips and instantly be able to know what is going on. Mostly, it is a surreal strip that needs no explanation for why things are happening the way they do. Once the reader accepts Lio’s world, they realize that anything can happen. And I believe the wordless format aids that. It’s simple joy in picture-storytelling with a funny or surprise conclusion, and the central character of Lio is your tour guide through this bizarrely funny world.” Bizarrely funny and, from time to time, just a little dark—threatening, where vague menace lurks. “Every child’s world is dark,” Tatulli said. “Do you remember lying in your bed at night thinking what would happen if your mother died? Lio is not me,” he went on, “but he is a reflection of what I was fascinated in as a child. Things like monsters, robots, aliens and animals that I was sure had feelings and could think like we do.”
And Tatulli should know about kids: he has four, a son and two daughters with his wife Donna and a fictional girl of grade school age who appears as the title character in another comic strip, Heart of the City, also syndicated by Universal Press. Tatulli did his first published comic strip in 1988 for the Burlington County Times in New Jersey—Bent Halos, about two rambunctious angels. But Tatulli put the strip aside after a while to ponder other concepts with broader appeal, and by 1997, he’d come up with Heart, another rambunctious juvenile who lives with and pesters her single mother in Philadelphia, where, until recently, Tatulli worked in television, animation and producing. Heart debuted in November 1998, and it’s still going strong. For Lio, Tatulli deploys an entirely different rendering style. Heart is drawn with a juicy brush; Lio, with a meticulous pen.
“It was important to me to separate the two strips visually,” Tatulli explained in a Universal Press news release. “So I picked up a pen and drew in a style that I haven’t drawn in for about 20 years. I was always intrigued by the artwork of an obscure 19th century artist, A.J. Volck—a political satirist during the Civil War, a Southern sympathizer. I was fascinated with his darkly detailed illustrations. Every time I looked at his spidery pen-and-ink drawings, I found something new.” In adopting a similar style for Lio, Tatulli hopes for “art that immediately stirs an emotion, simply by pen technique, even before you know what the strip is about.” The pen’s fine point permits him to add more detail than he could get with a brush, Tatulli says, and that’s part of his objective in Lio: “As a kid, I always enjoyed looked at detailed comic strips, even when I didn’t ‘get’ the joke. The drawings in Lio are very time consuming but also a real joy, and hopefully, I can bring the joy that I had looking at comics to a whole new generation of kids.” Kids and adults, he adds, “who remember being young.”
The two strips are as different in comedy as they are in appearance. Heart is a rather typical albeit exuberant, imaginative kid, bouncing around her life. Lio spends more time thinking, or, maybe, brooding. The strips are “polar opposites,” Tatulli said. “After doing a week of Heart strips, I have to mentally turn a dial 180 degrees to get into the Lio mode. It’s a whole other side of my personality much closer to my youthful cartoon experience that I dig into. I tend to think visually anyway, so Lio has been much fun to think about in terms of camera-angles and layout of action. Heart requires more ‘scriptwriting’ [verbalizing in a playlet mode] and I use whatever space is left for artwork.”
Heart, as I see it, is akin to a real childhood. Lio is, too, but here, it’s the childhood of the mind—of dream and nightmare; Heart’s childhood is all activity and much less cerebral. Tatulli says he finds ideas for Lio anywhere: “I can be inspired by an action figure or a sign in a store.” Lio is an imaginative kid, but his world is not exactly imaginary. “It’s not his imagination,” Tatulli said, “but his reality. Ideas are everywhere: it’s just a matter of taking that thing and bringing into Lio’s world.”
And into his own. “As selfish as it may sound,” Tatulli said, “I’m pretty much looking only to please myself. That’s the only way I can create a comic that I can be interested in and draw week after week, month after month.” Selfish as it may sound, that’s the only basis upon which any artist, any cartoonist, can realistically contemplate a career making drawings to meet deadlines.
“My goal,” Tatulli continued, “is to be able to tell a whole connected story with just drawings, and I think that is possible because comic stripping is an everyday thing. Every day you get a little better. If you ride a bike every day, eventually you can do it without hands. I want to take the multi-panel pantomime concept to new and edgy places it has never gone before on the daily comics page. At this point, it’s just an aspiration, but if this strip finds the audience that I hope for, the sky’s the limit.”
Lio would not have happened, Tatulli said, but for his wife. “The idea for the strip had been floating around in my brain for some time,” he said, “but I never had the time to commit it to paper. When I was laid off from my day-job, I suddenly had some time to put some basic inspirational drawings down. But it wasn’t until I showed the drawings to Donna, who instantly liked the idea and encouraged me, that I really sat down and started working out rough ideas for strips. And it came so quickly after that. Had it not been for Donna, Lio probably never would have seen the light of day.”
And the future looks bright. “I’ve always loved pantomime strips,” Tatulli said. “There’s something kitschy about them, and I wanted to explore that arena while updating the format to appeal to a modern audience. This format will work well with an international audience. Nothing will be lost in translation—because there is no translation! Heck, you don’t even have to know how to read! Truly a comic for all peoples of the earth!”
Lio debuted in 100 papers on May 15. Said Lee Salem, editor at Universal Press: “This launch has proven to be one of our most successful ones, both in terms of numbers and the heavy hitters on the list. Starting in more than 100 of the most influential newspapers in the country is quite an accomplishment for a new strip and indicates a continuing interest to follow.” And, as if endorsing Tatulli’s prescience, at least one paper on the international market has picked up the strip—Bel De Morgen in Brussels.
Tics and Tropes
“I am a success today because I had a friend who believed in me, and I didn’t have the heart to let him down.” —Abraham Lincoln
“Anyone can win, unless there happens to be a second entry.” —George Ade
“I drink to make other people more interesting.” —George Jean Nathan
“Always borrow from a pessimist—he never expects it back.” —Anonymous
Some forthcoming graphic novels: Sloth (a bored teen slips in and out of a coma) by Gilbert Hernandez, But I like It (on tour with a European punk-rock band) by Joe Sacco, Get a Life (early stories about a single Parisian guy and his bohemian lifestyle) by the French Dupuy and Berberian. And here’s Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries 1900-1969 by Dan Nadel, a coffeetable-size tome of 320 pages ($40) that reprints specimens of idiosyncratic work by 31 lesser known ’tooners, all of whom were experimenting with the new medium. And from the Andrews McMeel comic strip reprint factory: She’s Turning Into One of Them (For Better or For Worse), Sixteen Isn’t Pretty (Luann), 99% Perspiration (Frazz), The Flying McCoys: Comics for a Bold New World, Planet of the Hairless Beach Apes (Sherman’s Lagoon).
By the way, for some unaccountable reason, I gave the wrong statistics for Dude: The Big Book of Zonker last time. The volume is 288 pages, not 152; and it costs $19.95, not $16.95. Or so it sez at Amazon.com.
DIMMING THE LIGHTS
As we celebrate, a dubious word choice, the slaying of an infamous murderer, al-Zarqawi, we are reminded, as if we needed the reminder, of the brutality of warfare. It would appear that a bunch of U.S. marines, after an IED exploded and killed one of their number, went on a rampage in Haditha, killing about two dozen civilian Iraqis, last November 19. Difficult though it may be to admit that U.S. military can misbehave so egregiously, it is not difficult to understand why. According to Newsweek (June 12), even the most insightful of the marine commanders early in the Iraqi War, Lt. Gen. James Mattis, who sought to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis by encouraging his men to get out in the streets and play with the kids (“and—a small detail but important—taking off the sunglasses that made them look like invading aliens”)—even Mattis sent terribly mixed signals to his men. Appearing last year on a panel in San Diego, Mattis is reported as saying: “Actually, it’s quite fun to fight them. You know, it’s a hell of a hoot ... I like brawling. You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyhow. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.” Newsweek continues: “The Marine Corps, though justly famous for loyalty and discipline, has a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ mentality, according to some grunts interviews. ... The marines were happy with the loose rules of engagement for the Battle of Fallujah in 2004—like ‘the Wild West,’ said one—and not so keen about the stricter rules for ordinary street patrols imposed since then”—rules that require taking extreme care before opening fire on unidentified civilians.
American marines and soldiers face a nearly impossible situation. Because it is a guerilla war, they can’t tell the enemies from the friends, and they don’t speak the language of the natives so they have almost no way to sort through the evidence presented to their eyes in the field—on the streets, in the alleys, often suddenly, without warning. Thanks to our notoriously arrogant and ignorant leadership, our soldiers have no training in counterinsurgency. And they’re mostly all young, under 25. And frightened, scared of dying every day. Knowing the risk of death from even the most harmless looking civilian, U.S. soldiers are likely to shoot first and worry about proper identification later, and it would be grossly unfeeling of us to fault them for doing so. Unfeeling but not unreasonable. If they had received better training, they would be able to do better. But without adequate training—and, in many instances, without adequate equipment—they sometimes get through the 110-degree desert days with the aid of steroids, Valium, painkillers, and alcohol, according to one soldier interviewed by Newsweek. “They’d go on raids totally stoned,” he said. “We’re killing the wrong people all the time, and mostly by accident. One guy in my [tank] squadron ran over a family with his tank.” But some of the abuse is intentional, he admitted. “A lot of guys steal from the Iraqis. Money, family heirlooms, and then they brag about it.”
A volunteer army will attract a certain number—small to be sure but manifest—of people who want to be professional killers, who dote on the thrill of combat and life or death predicaments. Maybe not Reservists or National Guardsmen/women: presumably, they joined up for reasons having mostly to do with economic benefits rather than the buzz of the battlefield. But those who joined the regular army and Marine Corps—some of those, by no means all but surely some, joined because they want to shoot live targets. In the ambiguous situation in which they find themselves, it should not be surprising to find that sometimes soldiers like these kill almost indiscriminately. Sometimes they do so because they know no better. Newsweek concludes: “Left to their own devices, grunts sometimes improvise. It is possible that [the marines in Haditha] determined to ‘leave a calling card,’ which is to say, to warn Haditha that IEDs would be met with heavy retribution. It’s an old and primitive counterinsurgency tactic. Long ago, the Romans used it against the barbarians.”
Quite apart from the military personnel, who presumably operate under some hierarchy of control, there are 50,000 private contractors in Iraq, many of whom are trigger-happy shooters from the Old West. Is it any wonder that Americans are getting a bad name in Iraq?
In a recent column, Ted Rall wonders, particularly in the wake of the Arab ire about the Danish cartoons, why there’s no rioting in the streets of Iraq about the atrocity in Haditha. “The reason is simple,” he says: “for Iraqis, American atrocities are old news.” American soldiers have been killing Iraqi civilians with impunity for three years. He quotes a Baghdad shopkeeper “who says that U.S. troops have never shown respect for the lives of Iraqi civilians. ‘Six months ago,’ remembers Mohammed Jawdaat, ‘a car pulled out of a street towards an American convoy and a soldier just opened fire. The driver was shot in the head. There were no warning shots, and the Americans didn’t even stop.’” Such incidents have been reported in the European media, Rall says, but not in the U.S. media, which largely ignores this aspect of the so-called War. Rall quotes Rami Khouri, editor at the Daily Star in Lebanon: Haditha “is not a huge story [in the Middle East]. It’s getting a lot of coverage in the United States, obviously, but most people in the Arab world are against what the United States did in Iraq ... They say, Look, this was a catastrophe from the beginning and they’re not surprised that this is happening. They kind of take it in stride because everything the United States is doing in Iraq is seen as morally and politically unacceptable.” To which Rall adds: “They don’t see a difference between Haditha and the thousands of other Iraqis killed by U.S. forces since 2003.”
Rall quotes Marine General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who claims incidents of soldiers killing civilians “do not happen very frequently, so there’s no way to say historically why something like this might have happened.” Rall responds: “Actually, similar incidents have taken place in every war, including World War II. Pace’s statement is either a dazzling display of ahistorical ignorance or a bald-faced lie—take your pick. Pace adds that if some of his men committed an atrocity at Haditha, they ‘have not performed their duty the way that 99.9 percent of the fellow Marines have.’ That’s not what the Iraqis say,” Rall concludes.
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