Opus 192 (October 7, 2006). Our big newsstories this time: The Boondocks isn’t likely to return to the 300-plus newspapers that have been carrying it; Art Spiegelman withdraws from the exhibition that he is largely responsible for bringing into being, the Masters of American Comics—and he explains why; Harlan Ellison sues Fantagraphics, and we explain why; AND the ranks of nationally distributed women editoonists gains a new member. We also dawdle through a long essay on how Pope Benedict mis-read the dilemmas of the world, a history of the Lone Ranger (now that he’s alive and well in a new comic book from Dynamite Entertainment), and a review of the latest Zits compilation. Here’s what’s here, in order:
NOUS R US
The Boondocks comic strip is not likely to return to newspapers
Dick Tracy turns 75 in Gasoline Alley
The National Cartoon Musem loses its Empire State Building venue
Gus Arriola’s Gordo on display in Carmel
Syndicate fees denounced
Bazooka Joe gets a make-over
Art Spiegelman withdraws from Masters show and explains why
HARLAN ELLISON SUES
COMIC STRIP WATCH
More iconoclasm in Chickweed Lane
A stroke in For Better or For Worse
“Guest Comic,” a new plan for trying out new strips from WPWG
Aline Kominsky Crumb has a book
Schulz remembered by his friends
Pibgorn comes back to life in full color
Froth Estate: Katie Couric
New woman in town, Lisa Benson
Washington goofiness inspires editoonists to do their best work
Soccer Hooligans of Islam assault the Pope
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE
NextWave some more
The Lone Ranger, his latest and earliest incarnations
REPRINT REVIEW: Zits
.... and the usual Bush bashing on the anniversary of 9/11
And our customary reminder: when you get to the $ubscriber/Associate Section (perusal of which is restricted to paid subscribers, as if you can’t tell for the initial cap in $ubscriber), 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. Because of our attempt, this time, to seduce new paying subscribers, the Magic Twanger that takes you to the $ubscriber/Associate Section comes very late in this installment, so you might want to scroll rapidly down to that moment, which follows, post haste, the “Under the Spreading Punditry” headline; then you’ll be able to activate the “Bathroom Button” as always. Without further adieu—
NOUS R US
All the news that gives us fits.
For the time being, Aaron McGruder’s notorious comic strip, The Boondocks, will not be resuming in October its daily appearance, as was announced late last March when the cartoonist said he was taking a six-month sabbatical. McGruder is now a tv mogul, writing and supervising the animated version of his comic strip, and he is probably much too busy to be a comic strip cartoonist any more. He was almost too busy before his sabbatical: for the last couple years of its run, The Boondocks was drawn by other hands, albeit still written in his best iconoclastic manner by the perpetually peevish McGruder. As his sabbatical approached its presumed termination, officials at McGruder’s syndicate, Universal Press, tried to get the young celebrity cartooner to name a date that the strip would return. No luck. And every day, said Universal’s president Lee Salem, “we were getting dozens of phone calls from newspapers [the strip ran in about 300], asking when he was coming back.” According to Laura Sessions Stepp in the Washington Post, “McGruder’s editor at Universal, Greg Melvin, flew to Los Angeles recently and spent a couple of days trying to get the cartoonist to abide by the terms of his agreement to return in six months.” Again, no luck. Eventually, the syndicate faced the obvious: “It was obvious,” Salem told Editor & Publisher, “that Aaron would not be able to meet his original six-month target of returning The Boondocks to newspapers. His Sunday strips needed to be in by mid-September to meet newspapers’ deadlines of publishing the strip by the end of October. We had to consider the newspapers currently running The Boondocks re-runs and expecting its return. It was unfair to keep them dangling any longer.” The syndicate notified client newspapers. “We want to thank the editors who gave this provocative new strip and talented cartoonist a chance in April 1999,” Salem said. “And we thank them for their patience as we awaited word about The Boondocks status.” Salem added that if McGruder decides to return to the daily grind, Universal will welcome him back. “Aaron is a brilliant cartoonist who brought a revolutionary voice to the comic pages,” Salem went on. “This situation is a far cry from the end of our relationship. Our hope is that we can work with him in the future, either in newspapers or different media.”
I say, as I said last April when promulgating McGruder’s decision to take off for six months, that his permanent absence is no surprise. When I interviewed McGruder in early 2003, he was already displaying an eagerness to escape the deadline grind of the daily comic strip for what he perceived as the more glamorous and remunerative realm of television and movies—which, furthermore, seemed less demanding than syndicate deadlines. He’d received nibbles from tv even while doing the strip for his college newspaper, the Diamondback at the University of Maryland. Even after Universal started syndicating The Boondocks, McGruder was dreaming of bigger things, even implying that the comic strip was but a stepping stone. I cautioned him against giving up the strip: it’s a daily pulpit, I said, and if you give it up, you’ll regret it because you won’t have a way of commenting anymore on the passing scene as it is passing. He agreed, but even as he saw the logic, he continued to dream of a grander vista. I can’t see him returning to a daily comic strip. Maybe, like Berke Breathed, he’ll eventually opt for a Sunday only strip. But that, as I suspect Breathed discovered in the 1990s when doing his weekly Outland, hasn’t the decibels for commentary that are generated by the megaphone of a daily strip’s constant and almost immediate nagging. Meanwhile, we’ll be glad McGruder was here, for however blink a time, knocking down doors and smashing windows to show just how pertinent, not to say impertinent, a newspaper comic strip can be. I must confess, though, that some of McGruder’s earliest strips were much funnier—and better social satire—than the political assaults he committed in the last couple years. Like these two, for instance.
The Boondocks began syndicated life in April 1999. It ended, for all practical purposes, in April 2006, just 7 years. Are we now into a new era of comic strip history? Bill Watterson quit after 10 years. Gary Larson after fourteen. Is this a trend? No more life-time strippers? Could be. If so, it will eventually resolve the argument over legacy strips, 50- and 60-year-old strips continued by sons and daughters and unheralded assistants of the creator or syndicate bullpen laborers, strips that take up space in newspapers that newer strips covet but can’t gain entry to. If this generation of comic strip cartoonists begin to leave the medium after a decade or so, that’ll happily open up the spaces for the next generation.
• The 75th anniversary of Chester Gould’s pace-setting police strip, Dick Tracy, is October 4, and several of cartoonist Dick Locher’s colleagues will be raising a figurative glass in their strips on that date: Beetle Bailey, Blondie, Bottom Liners, Brenda Star, Brewster Rockit, Chriss Britt, Gill Thorp, Grand Avenue, Loose Parts, Mutts, Next Heads, Pink Panther, Shoe, and Thick and Thin, to name a few. And Gasoline Alley, where the anniversary festivities have been transpiring since September 5, when the Alley’s Jim Scancarelli started a continuity with Tracy in it. And here’s an antique guest appearance Tracy made in Life magazine for a profile of Gould in the 1940s.
Tracy’s turn in Gasoline Alley concludes on October 4, the day the detective is seventy-five. When Scancarelli was reminded that the classic cops-and-robbers strip was coming up on a milestone anniversary, he decided to bring the cleaver-jawed cop back into Gasoline Alley, a reprise of the visit Tracy had made in 2001 when the strip turned 70. “I love to draw Tracy,” Jim told me, “and wanted to do it again.” He prevailed upon a collector friend, Matt Masterson, whose collection of original Dick Tracy strips is without equal in the known galaxy, to send him copies of some of the strips that showed Gould’s rendering of Tracy’s face from several different angles. Dropping the strips onto a light table, Scancarelli made rough tracings of whatever viewpoints he needed for a given installment of Gasoline Alley—“tracies of Tracy,” he said with a chuckle—paying attention mostly to the thickness and thinness of the lines. Scancarelli had secured syndicate approval for his Tracy story—his editor also edits Dick Tracy—but all along the line after passing the editor’s desk, his pastiche was such good mimicry that various factotums looked askance. At American Color in Buffalo, where the artwork is prepared for distribution, one person was convinced the strip was Dick Tracy and wondered why there were two Tracy strips for every day that week.
In the next sequence of Gasoline Alley, Walt Wallet, now 106 years old, visits the Old Comic Strip Characters Home, which permits Scancarelli to draw all his vintage favorites—the Yellow Kid, Barney Google, Snuffy Smith, Happy Hooligan, Moon Mullins. And Mutt and Jeff, who Scancarelli drew in the early 1980s, their strip’s last phase. George Breisacher was the contract cartoonist, and he produced most of the gags and penciled the strip; Scancarelli inked, and, occasionally, he had to re-do the pencils. “Sometimes George’s gags needed so many words that there wouldn’t have been room for the speech balloons if I’d followed his pencils for the figures,” Scancarelli said. The strips of the forthcoming Alley sequence will be loaded with allusions to comics history, events and phenomena from the gauzy past—a feast for afficianadoes of the medium. Be sure to get ’tooned in. If your paper doesn’t carry the Alley, visit a website that does: www.ComicsPage.com.
Back in his toddlin’ hometown Chicago, Tracy has been making guest appearances on a poster produced by the Illinois Tourism Council to tout unique Illinois destinations. For this appearance, Tracy assumes a vigilante pose, his trademark yellow overcoat flapping like a cape in the breeze around him as the poster proclaims: “Not All Heroes Wear Tights.” After September 30, Tracy is also featured on the FBI website, http://www.fbi.gov/gotcha/archive/gotcha.html in a special audio with Neil Schiff, Director of Public Affairs for the FBI. On Monday, October 2, a celebration took place at the Tribune Tower in downtown Chicago.Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich declared October 4 “Dick Tracy Day,” and similar declarations were made by the Illinois General Assembly, the U.S. Senate (by Senator Barack Obama) and at the other end of the building by the House of Representatives, where Illinois Congresswoman Judy Biggert read a resolution into the Congressional Record.
• For the Rancid Raves Record: the Stamford Advocate report about the National Cartoon Museum losing its Empire State Building venue that we referred you to a couple weeks ago was a trifle misleading. It suggested that Mort Walker’s version of events is at substantial variance with Peter Malkin’s. My guess is that both versions are essentially correct and can be integrated nicely into a seamless whole, lacking, however, the high drama of conflict that the newspaper reporter built into the account by saying, “Walker tells a different story.” In the original deal, the Empire State Building would provide facilities to the Cartoon Museum rent-free in exchange for half the proceeds from ticket sales, which were estimated at $7 million a year. But another attraction in the building had a similar ticket-revenue sharing deal, claimed it was exclusive, and threatened a law suit. Malkin, the real estate mogul who chairs the building’s ownership group, recognized the difficulty and told Walker that the Museum would have to pay $650,000 a month rent instead of splitting the ticket income. In effect, that cancelled the interim arrangement in which the Museum space was being held, rent-free, pending a remodeling, which, in turn, depended upon the Museum raising enough money to pay for the construction. The fund raising, while encouraging (it included a pledge of $1.8 million from the city), wasn’t yet robust enough to start construction, and the Museum couldn’t afford the rent without being open. Malkin said the original lease specified a date by which the remodeling would be completed, and he had extended that date “several times.” All this time, he had valuable space in a major city landmark that was not producing revenue. Since the Museum could not alleviate that situation, their arrangement was, as Malkin said, “terminated.” “Our lease was cancelled,” Walker said. That, it seems to me, is more-or-less what happened. Walker, meanwhile, resumes his quest for a home for the Museum.
• Under the heading “Black, White and Read All Over,” some of Gus Arriola’s more spectacularly designed Gordo strips are on display at the Carmel Art Association in Carmel through the month of October. The strip about a portly Mexican bean farmer with amorous aspirations twice won the “Best Humor Strip” award from the National Cartoonists Society, 1957 and 1965. Gordo started in the fall of 1941, on the eve of Pearl Harbor; Arriola, a veteran of animation at Screen Gems and MGM, spent the War in the Army Air Corps motion picture unit in Culver City, where he was treated, occasionally, to distant visions of Ronald Reagan strutting across the parade ground in his tailored uniform. Arriola was able to continue Gordo as a Sunday only strip through the War years; it resumed a daily schedule June 24, 1946. The 50 strips on exhibit at the Art Association gallery are culled from the thirty years after 1955, when the cartoonist developed a unique streamlined drawing style and began wild experimentation in strip design, particularly on Sundays. Said Arriola: “I had no idea I still had strips from that period. I didn’t realize until I saw them again that I was really trying to do something different for the times: I wanted to catch the reader’s eye in ways you just didn’t see in those days. I was influenced by Krazy Kat and other art deco art, which I adapted into my own work.” Arriola retired the strip and himself and his wife Frances in 1985 and now maintains that he spends his days imbibing gentle beverages while navigating a hammock, “smelling the roses when someone brings them to me.” For more about Arriola and Gordo, you need a book I wrote, Accidental Ambassador Gordo, which is full of Gus’s strips, both vintage and art deco. For a more elaborate sales pitch, click here. In the meantime, here are a few of the Sundays the originals of which are displayed in the Art Association gallery, plus two in color from the book.
CGC, the comics grading outfit that seals old comic books in plastic slabs so they will forever be “investments” instead of entertainment, is moving into new, larger facilities in Sarasota, Florida. This probably means they’re being successful. And with that success, we may look forward to even more old funnybooks being sealed away forever from human perusal like so many ingots of gold. ... The Wichita Eagle in Kansas, having dropped the losers in its comic section readership survey (Slylock Fox, Shoe, One Big Happy, and Peanuts), announced the replacement strips. The paper sampled eight strips, running them at intervals of several days, even weeks, each, then asked for a vote. Over 2,000 readers responded, and their choices will be added to the paper’s line-up: Mike Peters’ Mother Goose & Grimm, Jim Toomey’s Sherman’s Lagoon, Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine, and Dan Piraro’s Bizarro. ... Editor & Publisher’s intrepid reporter on all things syndicated, David Astor, was honored by the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists at their annual confabulation last June, receiving the coveted AAEC Ink Bottle Award for service and support of editorial cartooning. Congratulations, Dave—tardily sent, but sincerely meant. ... From The Week magazine: a brace of caped crusaders showed up the worse for wear in Scotland, when the police stopped a car because of its erratic progress and discovered that the driver costumed as Batman; slumped beside him in the passenger seat was “a visibly intoxicated Superman.” ... Wait! Gasp! A woman political cartoonist! The patriarchy quakes. Lisa Benson, mother of four and a freelancing editoonist in the backwoods of California, joins the Washington Post Writers Group on October 16. See Editoonery, below for details. (Yes, I’m joking about the backwoods....). ... E&P, taking note of an article in the Houston Chronicle, reports that “renowned comedian Carol Burnett wanted to be a cartoonist when she was growing up.” She edited her highschool newspaper and when she got to UCLA, she discovered there was no major in journalism. So she majored in theater arts. ... From the New York Times: “A leading German opera house has canceled performances of a Mozart opera because of security fears stirred by a scene that depicts the severed head of the Prophet Muhammad, prompting a storm of protest about what many see as the surrender of artistic freedom.” And of freedom, generally, I’d say.
Syndicate sites that offer paid subscriptions to their whole list of comic strips prompted Dean Miller, executive editor of the Post Register in Idaho Falls, to write King Features, suggesting, first, that “apparently King has decided that it can go it alone and no longer needs newspapers” and, second, that maybe King should pay papers like the Post Register for “product placement” that encourages people to turn on their computers and pay the syndicate site’s subscription fee. He may have been half serious. Certainly he was pointing out a competitive situation for newspapers and complaining about the fees newspapers pay for syndicated cartoons, too. King wrote back saying that its comics website subscription service, DailyINK, is “not a grand business model,” adding: “Experience has shown us that charging for access to comics online actually acts as a deterrent [for potential online subscribers because they have] the option of reading their comics in newspapers,” which is “for free” as a feature of the newspaper that they pay for as a whole. Miller may not have been entirely serious, but his comment leans in the direction that some newspaper editors have already veered off into. Subscription fees, while minuscule for an individual comic feature, mount up when they’re viewed in the aggregate and on a yearly basis. A newspaper that runs 25 comic strips at, say, $15 a week (a ridiculously low figure that doesn’t count Sunday strips), pays $375 a week, $1,500 a month, $18,000 a year for comics. Knight Ridder, when it was in the newspaper business a few years ago, startled some syndicates by suggesting that it would drop any strips that it could no longer get for free. Miller is taking the ostensible argument another step towards the abyss whether he intended to or not.
• Art Spiegelman withdrew his art from the current exhibit of the Masters of American Comics, a show that is split, as it was in Los Angeles, between two venues: in this case, the Jewish Museum, which is in New York City, and the Newark Museum. Spiegelman’s was slated for display in the Jewish Museum. No explanation was initially offered when the news first surfaced about September 15, but since then, the tireless and thoughtful Tom Spurgeon in his online Comics Reporter (www.comicsreporter.com) has uncovered Spiegelman’s explanation. It is long and, as Spurgeon says, nuanced; it appears in its entirety just below.
Last June, noted Michael Rosewald in The New Yorker, the bubble-gum icon Bazooka Joe got a make-over. The Topps Company’s new managing director, Paul Cherrie, correctly analyzed the problem with the tiny comic strips that come wrapped around the gum: Joe, Cherrie said, was “a little dweeb.” And the comedy in the strips was ancient even before it was stolen from vaudeville. After some market research among youthful gum-chewers and bubble-blowers, Cherrie’s team let Joe grow up a few inches and touseled his crewcut but let him continue to wear his eye-patch. Almost all of Joe’s old gang was retired, replaced by an excitable German named Wolfgang Spreckels (taking Joe beyond “Americancentricism”), a tomboy named Casey McGavin, DJ Change, a slouchy music slob, Cindy Lewis, an environmental snob, and an African-American kid named Kevin Griffin, who, because he’s African-American, is a science geek. Only Mort, the spiked-hair kid with his turtleneck pulled up over his mouth, remains from the old crew. “Mort is Kramer for kids,” Cherrie said. The history of Bazooka Joe appears hereabouts in Opus 127.
And here we thought it was gone forever, thanks to Will Eisner’s The Plot (see Opus 160 for our review). But no: the nasty canard lives on. The Week for August 25 summarizes Nine Shea and Jeanne Hoffman in The Weekly Standard: The infamous anti-Semitic tract known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is the lie that will not die despite repeatedly being exposed as a fraud. Public high schools in Saudi Arabia formally teach The Protocols as historical fact, and it is disseminated throughout the Middle East, often with the expressed support of the government. In Palestine, the ruling Hamas party cites the work in its charter, saying Israel’s “present conduct is the best proof” of The Protocol’s claim that Jews are intent on world domination. Arabs are entitled to their grievances against the state of Israel. But shouldn’t civilized leaders of all faiths and nationalities at least be able to agree that there will be no tolerance of ugly lies that do nothing but foster ignorance and hate?
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.
In an Open Letter to, we assume, “all concerned”; which we here at Rancid Raves Intergalactic Wurlitzer, are. Herewith:
A letter I sent to the Hammer and MOCA last January may answer some of your questions about my involvement and disengagement from the Masters of American Comics Show. If you want to print the lumpy and verbose prose in its entirety (including this disclaimer) it must be the slowest news day in several hundred years, but you have my permission. If you wish to excerpt or quote bits of it, please clear them with me. I’ve been circumspect about discussing all this because I deeply love the art in these exhibits, want it seen and understood, and find the current circumstances make that understanding less likely. I don’t think my reasons are reducible to a sound bite and want to avoid hurting any of the Institutions involved or myself by being quoted out of context.
Some Background from Spiegelman
About ten years ago I set up a slide lecture in my studio for twenty or so curators from the Whitney, the Met, the Library of Congress, the Brooklyn Museum and others including the Museum of Modern Art (which had mounted a show of my work in 1992) to make a pitch for an exhibition that would welcome Comics, the twisted hunchbacked dwarf of the arts, into the Hall of the Muses. I addressed the history and aesthetics of comics, showing the work of twenty or more significant artists to make my case for a medium worthy of more than sociological or “camp” interest—a “Low-Low” show to look at comics on its own terms, to redress the condescension of 1990's “High-Low” show. A year or two after that meeting, in 1998, I got a call from one of the curators, Ann Philbin, newly hired as the director of the Hammer, who enthusiastically announced: “Art, we’re finally going to do your show!” I was delighted, though I fled from the responsibility of curating the project, not wanting ultimate authority over which cartoonists should be “anointed” by being included. Ann found John Carlin for that thankless task (someone I’ve known since 1983, when—while still a grad student—he curated an astoundingly intelligent show of Comics and its relationship to painting at the Downtown Whitney). I agreed to be a senior consultant to the process and Brian Walker was then brought in as a co-curator to help realize the exhibit.
While I didn’t agree with all the curatorial decisions, I was very involved in the process throughout, and was proud to be part of the impressive show that opened at the Hammer and MOCA in November, 2005. Yet I was blind-sided to discover, only by reading an ad in the New York Times, that the show was scheduled to travel to the Milwaukee Art Museum, followed by the Newark Museum and Jewish Museum here.
My concerns about the venues were expressed in the
following letter to Ann Philbin and to Michael Darling of MOCA on January 26,
2006. John Carlin and I met with them five days later, but were unable to
resolve the issues we raised, which led me to eventually withdraw my work from
the exhibit’s final stop.
Dear Annie and Michael,
I’m sorry I haven’t answered the ongoing queries about loaning my work out for the touring version of the Masters Show sooner ... but every time I try to focus on it I get lost in a turbulent sea of conflicting needs.
I’m awed and deeply gratified by what the Hammer and MOCA have accomplished with the Masters shows in LA, and would like to find some way to accommodate your plans to travel my work, but remain troubled by the implications of what was only presented to me in the Fall as a fait accompli.
Please bear with me as I sort out the issues: My originals, like many works in this show, are fragile. The extended exposure is punishing for paper objects never intended for display and most of mine were done with anti-archival materials that are decomposing literally before one’s eyes. (This is obviously the case with the small Maus pages but is also true of quite a few of the other pieces I’m very proud to have had on view, like “Ace Hole” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.”) Retiring or, in some instances, substituting works to give a representative sense of what my areas of concern have been as a cartoonist is difficult considering how unprolific I am ... and further complicated by the fact that the projects I’m currently working on are retrospective in nature and will require access to the original art. (My first book, Breakdowns, is to be republished by Pantheon and I will have to send out the pieces related to that book for scanning before your tour is complete. Pantheon will also be publishing Meta-Maus, a book of sketches, drawings, interviews and notes from Maus that will require similar access to my Maus originals.)
About the venues: In the Milwaukee Museum the show’s fifteen artists will at least and at last be under one roof—a desirable presentation that reinforces the interconnectedness of the work as presented in the catalogue. Splitting the work between two major institutions in Los Angeles made an impressive statement about the momentousness of the occasion and, indeed, the collaboration was rightly seen as a tribute to the scope of the whole project. But in New York City, Art Capitol and birthplace of American comics, the carefully constructed arguments of the exhibit devolve into a woeful heap of unintended consequences.
I know that the two East Coast destinations, hardly as prestigious as the MOCA and Hammer, were no one’s first choices, but getting New Yorkers to cross the Hudson to New Jersey is far more difficult than inducing Angelinos to brave a freeway. We living artists selected for the Masters show are all in vital, ongoing dialogue with the earlier artists and most New Yorkers will not experience that dimension of the work from the current plans. While swell for New Jersey residents, placing the first half of the 20th century’s comic strip artists into the
Newark Museum is, from the perspective of this provincial New Yorker, the equivalent of hiding them in a Federal Witness Protection program.
The fact that the Jewish Museum will be the site within the NYC limits for the seven comic book artists to be exhibited there brings another issue to the fore, making central a subtext that was invisible at MOCA: the early comic book (unlike its more upscale cousin, the comic strip) was a largely Jewish creation. Recently, as comics become more widely embraced in the higher precincts of American culture, these Jewish roots have occasioned several celebrations (most notably Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Kavalier and Clay, and Gerald Jones’ recent Men of Tomorrow and even comic art exhibits, like the one shown last year at the Breman Museum of the Jewish Heritage in Atlanta.) [Note: this 2005 show curated by Jerry Robinson, “ZAP! POW! BAM! The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books, 1938-1950,” now appears, in abbreviated form, as “Superheroes: Good and Evil in American Comics” added by the Jewish Museum at the last minute to their half of the Masters show.] I understand that only four of the seven artists in the Jewish Museum’s portion of the show are card-carrying Jews ... and that I’m the only one still living who carries that card. But since Maus looms so large in the public’s perception of the comic book’s recent apotheosis, the subject of the Holocaust can trump considerations of form in this museum’s context. The statement intended by the Masters show, an exhibit formed to postulate that comics can actually be some sort of ... Art, would be undermined by presenting the medium as some sort of “ethnic” phenomenon.
I’m sorry that this letter has been reaching novel-length, but I have been leading up to something, and I’m thankful if you’ve borne with me thus far.
I have an idea, one that sidesteps most of the pitfalls I’ve just outlined, one that makes the East Coast shows conform to the project’s original intent, and actually makes the Newark and Jewish Museum shows both more satisfying. It requires some curatorial rethinking, as does any transplanting of an exhibition, but I propose that EACH of these two venues present works by all fifteen artists. The hundreds of objects that have been gathered in LA are more than sufficient to allow two complete overviews in which works are allowed to reflect on and “talk” to each other, keeping the historical armature somewhat in place but emphasizing the cross-fertilization’s between artists. (I’d love to see some McCays and Herrimans near my “No Towers” pages, some Gasoline Alleys and Peanuts near Chris Wares...) Visitors to each city’s museum could get an intimation of the medium’s sweep and—safety in numbers—the Jewish artists, while present in NYC, no longer determine an overarching discourse.
John Carlin and I have started talking about this and he is jazzed. We’d both be game to put in the extra labor to protect and expand the consequence of all that has been done til now and we’d like to explore it with you folks when we’re in LA next week. I have yet to figure out what to do about the problems I outlined at the top of my letter, but this at least makes finding a solution worth all the effort. I hope it strikes you that way as well.
warm wishes/seeya soon.—art
RCH again: Art’s reasons are, indeed, nuanced, as you can plainly see. And given his passion and devotion to the artform and his nearly obsessive engagement in cartooning in all its manifestations, past, present and future, I must applaud his decision, doubtless not easily arrived at, to withdraw. I can’t imagine very many other advocates for the art who would, having brought the form along as far as the Masters show, do the same out of pure principle. Others may call Art’s decision foolish and egotistical: if you don’t play the game my way, I’ll take my marbles and go home. And, of course, his decision is all of that. But it is more than that. It is also grounded in what seem to me the sorts of intellectual and aesthetic preoccupations that have always animated Art’s thinking about cartooning, and he thinks more profoundly than most of us and with a broader grasp of both the history and capabilities of the form. Cartooning itself is, after all, foolish and egotistical, as are most human enterprises in the context of the Grand Scheme of Things. And so Art’s decision is the perfect one for him and for what he stands for in cartooning. And, as I said, I applaud him for it.
The Masters show is poorer for Spiegelman’s absence, but then, I’ve seen the show, and I’m not so sure it is the artistic and cultural watershed for comics that Spiegelman and Carlin and others seem to think it is. More of that in its place—which is, whenever (soon I hope) I review the show and its catalogue. Soon.
TRUCULENT SCIENCE FICTION WRITER ASSAULTS FANTAGRAPHICS
AND INSULTS OUR INTELLIGENCE
Harlan Ellison, the international defamed science fiction writer—who hilariously styles himself “famous author, screenwriter, commentator and public speaker ... fearless champion of artist’s rights”—is one of the funniest self-proclaimed crusading geniuses I know. And I don’t know him that well. In fact, except by nefarious reputation, I don’t know him at all. Those who do must be in stitches constantly. His latest bugfuck hilarity is a legal stunt in which he alleges that he is suing Gary Groth, Kim Thompson and Fantagraphics (my publisher, incidentally) for defaming him and ruining his reputation as a hilarious bugfuck derange-o. In his brief (or, to more accurately describe it, length), Ellison manages, with his usual hilarious self-parody, to defame and slander Groth, calling him, among other things, “a scheming pathological liar” and “an obsessively vindictive and petty man,” who, with Thompson, runs “a tiny but hostile publishing outfit.” (If it’s so tiny, how can it ruin the reputation of an international supernova like Ellison? Hilarious, like I said.)
A short, petty man with a hilariously nasty temper, Ellison makes up for his shortcomings with a colossal ego of hilarious proportions, assuming that the mere mention of his name on the cover of a book or magazine will guarantee the publisher millions of dollars in sales. So he is suing Groth, thereby generating huge publicity for this “tiny but hostile publishing outfit” and stimulating all over the place copious sales of the book at issue. Did I mention that the guy is hilarious? Among the things Fantagraphics did that Ellison finds defamatory is calling him “a famous comics dilettante” on the cover of a forthcoming book. Last I looked, a “dilettante” is defined as “a dabbler in the arts” or “a lover of the fine arts; connoisseur.” And Ellison objects to being described as a casual “connoisseur” of arts other than his own? Hilarious.
Ellison has a reputation for pugnaciousness that he lavishly nurtures and conspicuously enjoys. In the hilarious belief that pugilistic accomplishment proves he can write, Harlan’s first act as a writer was in college where he slugged his writing teacher for telling him that he had no talent. He’s been proving his writing ability in the same merry manner ever since. Websites that promulgate the Ellison mythology regale us with this story of his fistic achievement, and since the content of such websites is surely culled from Ellison press releases, we must suppose he’s proud of this hilarious episode of rampant juvenile belligerence or he wouldn’t have bruited it about. It is virtually the only information about his life in most biographies. Most of his so-called
biographies consist of a long list of the honors and awards he’s received as a writer. Clearly, only those things he’s proud of are included. Slugging his writing teacher being one of them. His own website (http://harlanellison.com) presents a minutely detailed tally of the books, short stories, plays, screenplays, newspaper columns, and several postcards he’s written. This is one proud little fella. He mentions his present wife but not any of the previous four. What’d I tell you? Hilarious.
My only direct experience of Ellison was somewhat second-hand: I was the convention manger at a convention where he was a guest speaker. Apparently—according to report—he spent much of his time complaining hilariously that the workshop of which he was a part was being run by amateurs (yes, school teachers) as if a person of his lofty status somehow rated professional treatment. It was all ego, a trip by a hilariously deluded self-centered short guy, given to shooting off his mouth and punching people.
Ellison is short, prickly and belligerent. He is also a gifted wordsmith. It’s a delicious delight to read Ellison. He’s facile and glib, and his verbal flights are dazzling. His writing shines best when he’s voicing his anger about something. Or someone. And he apparently knows it because he gets angry often. He’s written a lot of angry prose. A lot of brilliant vituperative contumely. To say that he’s called those he despises by a great variety of colorful and uncomplimentary names is perhaps to go just a little farther than the facts will support, but not much farther. If he isn’t a name-caller of the first water, he’s close. So to find him, now, filing a suit against Groth and Thompson and FBI for calling him names is hilarious, like I said. Hypocritical, perhaps. He can call other people names but no one can call him names? He can dish it out but can’t take it? He’s afraid his reputation and therefore his livelihood will be damaged? How about the reputations and livelihoods of those he attacked? Seems to me that Groth and company talk about him in the only language he understands. But Ellison is a canny egomaniac: he’s waited until now to bring suit because he knows that FBI is flush these days: there are goodies now in what used to be a bare cupboard. He didn’t sue ten years ago when they verged on bankruptcy. No, Ellison, whatever else you may say about him, is not just a hilariously vindictive little twerp: he’s a smart and avaricious hilariously vindictive little twerp.
I would be better able to appreciate Ellison’s hilarities had he not chosen to sign off on his press release about the law suit with a reference to Ernie Pyle, a reference by which Ellison seems to be linking his name to Pyle’s. “Yr pal, Harlan (Remember Ernie Pyle) Ellison” it says. I remember Ernie Pyle. Ernie Pyle was a war correspondent during World War II, serving in both Europe and the Pacific. He was shot and killed by a Japanese sniper on April 18, 1945, just four months before the war was over. The previous four years, Pyle spent most of his time in the trenches with the dogfaces of the infantry, and he told their stories to the newspaper reading public back home—the stories of ordinary soldiers, not generals. Because he spoke for the common soldier, he was beloved by them. But you can’t find much Pyle in his dispatches from one front or another: Pyle the correspondent, the writer, disappears in Pyle’s stories. Only the ordinary soldier remains. And Pyle’s stature was great because of his self-effacement. In contrast, we have Harlan Ellison. Ellison served in the Army in the mid-1950s but was never shot at in combat. That’s not the only difference between Ellison and Pyle. Ellison’s writing is usually full of Harlan Ellison. His stature, as a result, is rather puny. That he couples himself to Ernie Pyle is a monstrous act of self-aggrandizement, a hilarity that I don’t find at all funny.
Wit & Wisdom of Harlan Ellison, Science Fiction Writer
“Call me a ‘science fiction’ writer, and I’ll come to your house and nail your pet’s head to the table.” —Harlan Ellison, science fiction writer
“I think love and sex are separate and only vaguely similar. Like the word bear and the word bare. You can get in trouble mistaking one for the other.” —Harlan Ellison, science fiction writer, married five times
“The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen—and stupidity.” —Harlan Ellison, science fiction writer and stupidity expert
“You are not entitled to your opinion; you are entitled to your informed opinion. If you are not informed on the subject, then your opinion counts for nothing.” —Harlan Ellison, science fiction writer, renowned more for the fiction than the science
COMIC STRIP WATCH
Tina’s Groove, Rina Piccolo’s strip about a waitress in a diner, is a consistently funny but not at all unconventional comedy; it is, in other words, like most successfully achieved comic strips. It makes you laugh almost all the time but not by means of unexpected quirks in the storyline. Occasionally, however, Piccolo slips into a thoroughly unanticipated mode and cracks me up with some wildly unanticipated gag. Like the week of September 18, for example, when she explores the implications of that aged expression by which Mel Gibson and other inebriates have excused their outlandish behavior—“It must have been the wine talking.” Here’s what Piccolo did with uproarious effect.
At 9 Chickweed Lane, the orthodox has finally been unhorsed. When we last looked in, a young priest, Father Durly, had come to New York looking for a nun with romance in mind, unconsciously perhaps but harbored therein nonetheless. The nun, Sister Aramus, had left her order and found refuge with Edda, the heroine of the strip’s ballet, in the apartment she shares with her statuesque gay dancing partner, Seth. If this summary doesn’t suggest enough of the iconoclasm loose in this strip, read on. Sister Aramus, now in mufti and therefore only vaguely reminiscent of the young woman Father Durly has come to see, pretends she is not Sister Aramus but Sister Aramus’ niece, Diane. This charade plays out for weeks, making us wonder if these star-crossed lovers will ever get together. Cartoonist Brooke McEldowney, however, knows better than to leave the predicament unresolved. Into the triangle comes the peculiar farmer Thorax, who often seems an alien being who regularly converses with the Almighty, whom he calls by his familiar name, “Monty.” Thorax announces that an asteroid will hit Earth in 71 hours and destroy life as we know it. Propelled by this emergency, Father Durly and Sister Aramus do what all human sapiens do under such circumstances: they seek each other out to iterate their mutual undying love. This happy consummation is arrived at after only just a few mild bumps, some of which Edda and Seth guide the fumbling lovers over. A heart-warming outcome for all us lovers, everywhere. Thorax has the final word. Sister Aramus notices, at last, that more than 72 hours have lapsed since the end of the world was announced. Then we see Thorax, musing in the last panel: “Or was it a hemorrhoid?” Seldom, if ever, in comic strips do we find so finely tuned a sense of humor coupled to a portrait of the human condition that is so daring and unflinchingly candid. If you’re missing this masterpiece of the cartooning arts, urge your paper to take it in. And while you’re waiting for that to happen, visit the strip at its website, www.comics.com.
In For Better or For Worse, Elly’s father, Jim, has had a stroke. Probably, something like this had to happen. Creator Lynn Johnston has announced that she will retire from the strip soon—next year?—and Elly’s father is unfinished business: he’s the last of his generation among the characters in the strip’s family. To finish the “story”—the history of the family, of all our families—he must die. And I think he has a lesson to teach us as he does. Johnston has always striven to make her comic strip comedy entirely human, and death is part of the human condition. We’ve seen Elly’s mother die, and Farley, the family dog. And we’ve seen Elly’s father, a widower, marry again to Iris, another senior citizen. And now, now Jim’s had a stroke. My guess is that he won’t die: instead, he’ll linger on, much impaired. That’s part of the human condition, too: increasingly these days, family’s face the extreme disability of their oldest members. Grandmothers and grandfathers have strokes and live out the rest of their days in a dreamlike state, aware, perhaps, of their surroundings but unable to respond to them. The “long good-bye” of Ronald Reagan is a common enough transitional phase for many. Here, the heart-ache among other family members is caused by a loss than isn’t a loss, an absence that is not complete. If Johnston can bring her gentle sense of humor to bear upon this agony—and experience suggests she will be able to—she will again have performed a service to humanity, teaching us how to smile hopefully at the disappearance of personality and presence.
Incidentally, at Johnston’s website, www.fborfw.com , a 42-step sequence shows how she produces the strip from each installment’s beginning on her notepad to its final stage at the syndicate where it is prepared for international distribution.
At the Washington Post Writers Group website (www.postwritersgroup.com), the concept of “Guest Comic” is being urged upon newspaper editors who are always looking for new strips to keep their comics page fresh. Most papers achieve this periodic up-dating by conducting a “drive-by” readership survey, dropping the least popular of the current line-up, and inserting an editor’s choice of some new comic strip, without knowing how the readers might react. A kind of Rushin’ Roulette, so to speak. The WPWG idea is to inaugurate a permanent rotating “guest slot” on the comics page, a place into which a new comic strip can be inserted for a run of two or three months, during which time, readers would be encouraged to comment on the new candidate. Readers who like the new strip will invariably recommend which of the current line-up to drop, expressing their choice in terms of violent distaste. By the end of the trial run period, the editor will know whether the new strip is popular enough to graduate to permanent residence—and which of the existing line-up seems the least popular. After dropping the latter and adding the new strip, the “guest slot” is open again, and another new strip can begin its trial run. If that strip doesn’t do well, an editor can simply drop it and try out another new strip. The Guest Comic notion seems to have several advantages over the hoary practices of yore. As WPWG points out, in this arrangement new strips are evaluated on their own merits rather than by pitting them against old favorites in the usual poll that asks readers to rank order strips. The long trial period of two or three months gives readers plenty of time to form opinions about the new strips, and the editor gets a nearly continuous stream of comment about the comics section. Finally, the likelihood is good that a paper will save money. Syndicates apparently don’t charge fees for strips that are being tried out, so newspapers with a permanent Guest Comic slot will have one strip on that page that costs them nothing, a savings of $700 or more a year.
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
Art Buchwald, who has been resisting his doctor’s orders that he die because his kidneys are failing, responded in the June 26 issue of Time to some queries. Regardless of his eventual demise, his answers are worth savoring. Q. Which presidency have you found to be the richest vein for a humorist? A. Nixon. But one of the things I have to live with is that I never made Nixon’s enemies list. All my buddies made fun of me. My buddies made it, and I didn’t. And my standing as a serious journalist in this town went way down. ... Q. And the Bush Administration? A. It’s a very rich vein. It’s like discovering gold. The people around [Bush]—Rove, Cheney, and the rest of the Administration—they lie to you. Unfortunately, it’s scarier if they don’t think they’re lying. I use that kind of stuff for satire.
George W. (“Whoopie Cushion”) Bush loves fart jokes. According to U.S. News (August 28), GeeDubya is “paranoid around women, always worried about his behavior. But he’s still a funny, earthy guy who, for example, can’t get enough of fart jokes. He’s also known to cut a few for laughs, especially when greeting new young aides, but forget about getting people to gas about that.” He’d probably love it if someone would send him either of these T-shirts, respectively inscribed: “Warning: I have gas and I know how to use it” or “Will Fart for Food.”
According to a report in Time (August 28), only 24% of Americans polled could name two U.S. Supreme Court justices, but 77% could name two of Snow White’s seven dwarfs. No one, probably, realized that none of the dwarfs had names in the original fairytale. Disney named them. But you knew that, right?
In Louann Brizendine’s new book, The Female Brain, we learn that we all begin life with a “female brain.” After about eight weeks in the womb, the male fetus takes a different route, “marinating in testosterone” as The Week describes it (August 25). The male brain’s “communication centers are stunted. The hub concerned with sexual pursuit balloons.”
Useless Trivia Department. The first couple to be shown in bed together on primetime tv were Fred and Wilma Flintstone. Bulletproof vests, fire escapes, windshield wipers, and laser printers have one thing in common: they were all invented by women. If you were to spell out numbers, you wouldn’t have to use the letter ‘a’ until you got to thousand. Every day more money is printed for Monopoly than the U.S. Treasury. Coca-Cola was originally green. The average number of people airborne over the U.S. at any given hour is 61,000. If you multiply 111,111,111 times 111,111,111 you get 12,345,678,987,654,321. The only food that doesn’t spoil? Honey.
Aline Kominsky Crumb, as usual, trading on her husband’s fame, has engineered the publication by MQP of a 400-page collection of her life’s work in cartooning. Entitled Need More Love: A Graphic Memoir, it will be released in 2007 on a suitable occasion, February 14, Valentine’s Day, and to kick-off the release, she will be the subject of a high-profile interview at the New York Public Library, just as her husband was when the publisher’s R. Crumb Handbook debuted last year—except that this time (yeh, you guessed it), Aline will be interviewed by Robert. The book will include autobiographical strips about growing up in a dysfunctional 1950s middle-class Jewish community on Long Island, the first visit to Greenwich Village, and the drugs, art, and sexual escapades of the ensuing 1960s. It will chronicle the early days of the underground comix movement, of which Kominsky was a part, meeting and falling in love with Crumb, and moving to France, where they have lived since 1990. According to MQP’s vp of sales and marketing, Stacey Ashton, quoted by Reid Calvin in the online PW Comics Week, the book is “a combination memoir, comics collection and art book that includes sharp vignettes of the movers and shakers—and the jerks—of the art and music scenes since the 1960s. But the highlight of the book is of course Aline’s clear and very personal and funny voice.” I’ve never heard her voice much, I confess; I’ve never been able to get beyond her terribly primitive drawing style. But I’m doubtless just a grumpy old man about that.
Another new book just on the horizon is They Called Him Sparky: Friends’ Reminiscences about Charles Schulz (112 6x9-inch pages in paperback; $14.95). Assembled by author and illustrator David Liverett, the book presents letters, stories, and photographs from friends of the creator of Peanuts and about 50 of his non-Peanuts cartoons of teenagers and adults. Among the other new books on the horizon: Scrum Bums, Darby Conley’s 6th Get Fuzzy collection is out from Andrews McMeel; editoonist Jeff Danziger, a hard-hitting unflinching opinion monger I admire, has another collection, Blood, Debt & Fears: Cartoons of the First Half of the Last Half of the Bush Administration, 320 pages from Steerforth; The Rejection Collection: Not in the New Yorker Cartoons, a compendium of 30 New Yorker cartooners’ favorite works that were rejected by the magazine; a 10th anniversary collection of Marshall Ramsey’s editoons for the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss.; Brevity: A Collection of Comics by Guy and Rodd (Ruy Endore-Kaiser and Rodd Perry), who have been conducting this single-panel strip of outre comedy drawn in a simple clear-line manner (not at all distinctive but competent enough) for the past year or so; and, finally, a storytelling fantasy in stunning full color by Brooke McEldowney, the strange but wonderful tale of the eponymous fairy, Pibgorn: The Girl in the Coffee Cup (62 8x11-inch pages in paperback; $15.99), who first appeared five years ago in the NEA Christmas seasonal strip, “A Fairy Merry Christmas.” And the Rosen Publishing Group, which has been producing school-ready material through its Power Kids Press imprint, has a new series, graphic biographies of such African-American and African heroes as Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, and Muhammed Ali, pictures by Terry Riley, Neil Reed or Nick Spender, nothing, though—according to Chris Barsanti at PW Comics Week online–remarkable or particularly distinctive. Just adequate visual storytelling.
Matt Stone and Trey Parker have hand-picked their ten most-beloved episodes for South Park the Hits: Volume 1, which includes “Best Friends Forever” (which Parker describes as “a final battle between heaven and hell”), “Good Times with Weapons,” and the nefarious “Trapped in the Closet,” featuring the cartooned version of Tom Cruise. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a single episode that has stirred up this much unwanted and wanted attention,” said Parker. “South Park” began its tenth season October 4.
THE FROTH ESTATE
News of the So-called News Media
Appearing on a tv news program (I think it was PBS’s “News Hour”), John Carroll, former editor of the Los Angeles Times, gently chided the newspaper industry—chiefly, the boards of directors of the corporations that now own newspapers and demand increasing profits, year after year—for not surrendering about half the usual 20% profit margin to invest in the future. He’d like to see the profit reduced to 10%, with the other 10% going to develop Internet capabilities. He believes that reducing the take by half would result almost immediately in an increase in circulation. More importantly, however, the present trend of soaking up 20% profit is “cashing in the paper’s future” in favor of short-term profits in the present.
Katie Couric, the New Walter Rather. Michael Coulter (no, no relation to the harpy) writes a column in one of our local weeklies called First Things First, which is called that because it appears first in the paper. He wrote about Katie Couric’s debut as the CBS Evening News anchor: “Okay, right off the bat—Katie? Um, that’s the name you’re going with, huh? Perfect, that will fit right in with all the esteemed nightly newscasters who paved the way for you, guys like Eddie R. Murrow, Davey Brinkley, Walty Cronkite, and the always colorful Danny Rather.” After viewing the CBS offerings for Katie’s first week, I’m pretty sure that Katie is going for personality, not news. It’s all a personality contest, of course, the ratings game: you watch the anchor you like. But ABC’s Charlie Gibson and NBC’s Brian Williams are still shooting for the news and a good broadcast; their personalities, although ultimately crucial, are, as a daily preoccupation, incidental to the news. At CBS, on the other hand, management clearly hopes that Katie will attract viewers by means of her warm fuzzy personna; the news serves merely to give the personality a place to manifest itself.
Coulter’s suggestion for Katie’s sign-off (which seems to have been the most thought-provoking issue of the inaugural broadcast): “I’m Katie Couric, have a crazy-fun fantastic evening and don’t forget, seriously, I’m really part of the problem.”
Secret News (an oxymoron if ever I saw one). This paragraph opened a 3,000-word story in Newsweek for September 18: “Is Iraq in a civil war? The CIA has developed its own secret guideline for answering that increasingly contentious question. CIA officials offered the definition of ‘civil war,’ which remains classified, at a closed-door Capital Hill briefing to discuss the latest grim Pentagon assessment of the conflict, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the briefing’s content who asked for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the material.” The story should have stopped there. The “news” was secret (the definition) so it couldn’t be released; and no one who knew anything about it permitted him- or herself to be quoted. So it was a nothing story about nothing.
Clips & Quotes
Albert Einstein on Death
“I have firmly decided to bite the dust with a minimum of medical assistance when my time comes, and up to then, to sin to my wicked heart’s content.”
“Our death is not an end if we can live on in our children and the younger generation. For they are us; our bodies are only wilted leaves on the tree of life.”
And then, in a letter to a child after she expressed surprise that Einstein was still alive:
“I have to apologize to you that I am still among the living. There will be a remedy for this, however.”
Probably more women wield the poison pens of political cartooning than we postulate, whenever we are in a postulating mood. They just aren’t as visible as the testosterone gender. So when the Washington Post Writers Group syndicate added Lisa Benson to its roster, starting October 16, it was worth shouting about. And Amy Lago, WPWG comics editor, shouted: “Lisa’s work is what I’ve been looking for for nearly two years,” she told me, “—conservative but not holier-than-thou. She leads you to her conclusion by showing you how she sees an issue rather than by telling you what she thinks. She uses very few words—truly makes use of the visual medium. Stellar stuff.” We agree; and we’ve posted a few samples of her work, crisp, clear opinion rendered with a crisp, clear line and signed, simply, “Lisa.” Thoroughly unpretentious but potent. Like Lisa herself, judging from her history and self-deprecating autobiographical remarks. Since 1992, Benson has been quietly tending the political orchards in Victor Valley just north of San Bernardino and east of Los Angeles, producing two cartoons a week for the Daily Press and winning awards for it. Until 1990, she’d been a full-time wife and mother of four, now ages 18 to 26. Then when her husband’s building design business began flagging in an industry-wide recession, she looked for ways to contribute to the family coffers. “Cartooning seemed like a glamorous choice,” she said. “It was either that or work in fast food. I shook some hands, and some people were actually impressed with what I could do—or felt sorry for me.” In 1990, she started doing paste-up and a cartoon for a “small and liberal” monthly publication, The Senior Advocate. After a couple years, she decided to explore the terrain of political cartooning a little more extensively. “I was so confident the Daily Press needed my services back in 1992 that I stuffed one cartoon into an envelope and mailed it to the opinion page editor. I must have included my phone number because Steve Williams called me in for a meeting and hired me to do two cartoons each week.”
Williams, the editorial page editor of the Daily Press, has been Benson’s staunchest fan since: during a recent visit to WPWG headquarters, he touted her work. Said Lago: “We asked for some national stuff and were blown away.” Alan Shearer, WPWG editorial director, agrees: “Lisa Benson is a rare talent who can illustrate a major news story in a single drawing and convey her ideas to readers in very few words. Conservative describes her politically. Brilliant describes her artistically. A combination of artistic talent, moral indignation and strong point of view mesh somehow to produce some of the finest work I have ever seen from a local cartoonist.”
That may be a little extravagant—Shearer is part salesman after all—but only a little. Benson draws her cartoons at the kitchen table, seated at a high-backed wooden chair in her northeast Apple Valley home. “It’s not easy,” she said. “I stare at the newspapers for three hours. There has got to be some news here [worth cartoon commentary]. I feel like I do the same thing—cover the same issues—over and over.” As a freelancer, Benson has other clients for her artistic talent: she designs packaging for cookies, posters for community events, and the pictures for three-dimensional pop-up children’s books. “It’s all different,” she said. But she seems fondest of editooning. “There’s no retiring from cartooning,” she said. “I’m happy.”
At WPWG, she joins one of the other nationally distributed women political cartoonists, Signe Wilkinson of the Philadelphia Daily News, the first woman to win a Pulitzer for editooning. Another full-time woman political cartoonist and the other female Pulitzer winner is Ann Telnaes, who, without a home base newspaper, is syndicated by Jerry Robinson’s CWS/NYTS. Wilkinson and Telnaes are the most visible of today’s women editoonists, but there are others. Etta Hulme, for instance, who “retired” but continues cartooning once a week or so for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and her syndicate, NEA. Of the 250 or so members of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, only about a dozen are women, among them: Cindy Procious, Huntsville Times, Massachusetts; Mikhaela Reid, Boston Phoenix; Annette Balesteri, Ledger-Dispatch/Brentwood News, Antioch, Calif.; Linda Boileau, Frankfort State Journal, Kentucky; and freelancers Ann Whitney Cleaves, Anne Ganz, Donna Hardy, Sarah Macy, Deborah Milbrath, Elena Steier, and Pamela Winters. Among the retired notables are M. Lord and the wonderfully acerbic Kate Palmer (who decided she preferred doing children’s books).
Canaries in the Mine Shaft
The evidence has been accumulating for several months, years even. On the homefront, it has become more and more apparent that our national government is now occupied by a cabal of clowns and their toadies, ignoramuses mostly, whose interest, chiefly, is in being re-elected forever, which they manage to achieve partly by spending our money on pork barrel projects in their congressional districts (not ours). On the campaign trail, however, the incumbents, regardless of political affiliation, suffer from an overweening modesty that prevents them from calling attention to their own accomplishments so they spend their energies in casting aspersions (throwing mud) at their opponents. If not their actual, individual opponents, then the entire opposing political party, which, the candidate assures us, is populated exclusively by the most craven, self-serving thieves and con men around. Political advantage, not national welfare, is the principle that guides these antics. Every action in the corridors of Congress seems to be taken solely to prove that the “other party” is a model of idiocy. Since the “other party” alternates, from one citizen to the next, we are forced to conclude that neither political party is worth whatever powder it might take to blow it to hell. We must, then, take some comfort in realizing that the truth of this proposition has been repeatedly established, time and again, over the last several years. It no longer needs daily demonstration; but political habits die hard. If the legislative record itself is not enough to persuade us that Congress has been taken over by buffoons and mountebanks, then we have only to contemplate that body’s lamentable attempt to purge itself of corrupt influences to be convinced that these guys are joking. Do they actually believe than any of us believe that they are cleaning up their act? If they do, the joke is much funnier.
Internationally, the U.S. is doing no better. With the so-called leadership of George WMD Bush and his gang of plundering bullies, the country has never enjoyed lower esteem by other nations than it now must endure. Not the country, exactly. The people of the country, considered as a whole population, continue to be viewed as essentially benevolent if profoundly misguided; their government, however, is increasingly seen as criminally insane. Criminal because its operatives break laws; insane because they cannot, apparently, see the hypocrisies that we see them committing daily. We see them and so does the rest of the world. GeeDubya announces that he is transferring fourteen Islamic hoodlums from overseas CIA prisons that, until two weeks ago, he denied existed, and he makes this proclamation proudly, seemingly unaware that he is confessing to having perpetrated a colossal falsehood. We don’t torture prisoners, he earnestly asserts, but then devotes weeks to a campaign to convince Congress to pass legislation that will permit the CIA to continue a program of interrogation that includes torture as what is termed, with perfectly straight faces, a persuasive “technique.”
With looney material like this to work from, is it any wonder that the nation’s political cartoonists are having their best year ever? And if you doubt that, cast an appreciative eye over this tiny sampling we’ve collected here for your everlasting amusement—from the ink bottles of Mike Lester, Rex Babin, Tom Toles, Etta Hulme, Mike Luckovich, Steve Sack, Pat Bagley, Garry Trudeau, and Ann Telnaes, plus a fragment of a page from the September 21 issue of Rolling Stone wherein Victor Juhasz’s illustration views the Bush League’s perpetual Hallowe’en trick-or-treating scare tactics in the suitably ridiculous setting of a campfire ghost-story.
If I were young Bushie, I’d be very very afraid for the future of the GOP. (That stands for “Grand Old Party,” incidentally—probably at first a term of opprobrium.) Editoonists, like all practitioners of the popular culture arts, must appeal to and therefore reflect the feelings of their audience. They can’t get too far away their readers’ beliefs; if they do, they pretty soon run out of employment. Given, then, the profusion of uproarious ridicule to which GeeDubya and his gang are now being subjected, we can conclude fairly confidently that the mood of the country is veering off into pronounced disdain for the Republican conservatives. Conservative editoonists have been pretty quiet lately. Even if we didn’t have opinion polls to tell us that the anti-Bush League sentiment is growing, we could tell from the health of the fun-poking canaries in the mine shaft of political commentary. The Bush-bashers are alive and thriving. And it’s a good thing, too: the news is too thoroughly depressing without viewing it through the prism of political cartooning, which, inevitably, supplants the grim with a giggle of scorn, thereby restoring perspective to our view of the chicanery in Washington.
Soccer Hooligans of Islam
Then Pope Benedict decided to join in the fun, and pretty soon, we have Muslims rioting about him for saying, outright, that Islam was spread by violent means, “the sword.” It’s hard to say with any conviction which side of this brouhaha is the more laughable—the Pope, who became a cartoon by joining the Danish cartoonists, or the Muslims, who, by repeating their performance every time they choose to be provoked, have become the knee-jerk equivalent of Keystone Kops, successfully degrading legitimate popular protest to soccer hooliganism and becoming thereby the laughing stock of the international community. Here again, we have editoonists to thank for pointing out the truth: Muslim protest has now become so predictable that it is as laughable as the juvenile who holds his breath until he turns blue when he doesn’t get his way. It’s as if human sapiens as a category of life on the planet has chosen a hysterical spasm of satirical laughter as the means of its self-destruction. Here’s Brian Fairrington, Mike Lane, Sandy Huffaker, and Ross Bateup.
I particularly enjoy the Pope-as-bomb conception by Bateup: not only does it suggest that the Pontiff is a suicide bomber, a sort of loose cannon, which by exploding in the face of Islam will also damage the Church, but the image recalls the Danish cartoon of Muhammad as a bomb, thereby attesting with its very existence to the greater freedom of expression and tolerance the West affords dissenting opinion even when it is essentially religious. In the last analysis, we may derive some comfort, however ironic, from the undeniable fact that children who hold their breath too long fall into unconsciousness whereupon the involuntary act of breathing resumes, unbidden.
Exercising an unexpected sly cunning, the Pope has never, quite, apologized for his gaffe, but his minions pointed out that the speech in which the supposed insult to Islam appeared was supposed to champion reason over violence and was in no way intended to affront Muslims. And certainly the Holy Father himself didn’t think Islam was spread by violence. Oh, no. C’mon, gang: let’s consider the actual evidence, the Pope’s speech itself.
The Pope was reading to a gathering at his alma mater an essay entitled “Faith, Reason, and the University: Memories and Reflections.” The ostensible burden of his argument was to prove that faith belonged in university studies just as reason does because one can’t reasonably explore science and mathematics and history and philosophy and human psychology without considering the role of faith in these realms. If human personality is a force in science and history and so on, so, too, is faith. My gross simplification aside, the Pope seemed to be examining the traditional conflict between the Greek ideal of reason in which facts are the basis of knowledge and the Biblical ideal of goodness in which faith is the foundation of morality. In the tension between the pursuit of knowledge and the admonition to be good we find the dynamic of Western Civilization. (That’s me, not the Pope, although he’d probably agree.) The Pope maintained that “thought” and “faith” are now joined together and that not to act with reason is contrary to God’s nature. By this route, the Pope believed he was making a place for faith in academic endeavors. And he was similarly making a place in faith for reason: faith thrives on reason.
At the beginning of his knotty exposition, however, he refers to a literary piece written in about 1400 that purports to be a “dialogue” between “the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.” And here’s the passage at issue: “The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 [in the Koran] reads: ‘There is no compulsion in religion.’ According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Muhammad was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Koran, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, ... he addresses [the Persian] with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: ‘Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.’ The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. ‘God,’ he says, ‘is not pleased by blood—and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats. ... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm or weapons of any kind or any other means of threatening a person with death. ...” This section, according to the Pope’s apologists, is but a part of his long discourse on reason and faith and is integral and illustrative of the points he intended to make. If faith, as he believes, thrives with reason, then violence has no place in matters of faith. Thus, the slap at Islam seemed inherent in his argument. But it isn’t. It isn’t at all of-a-piece with the essay as a whole. It is, in fact, entirely gratuitous: the Pope’s argument about the place of faith within the traditional realm of reason at a university and the function of reason in faith doesn’t need references to or shoring up by the history of Islam. So why did the Pope include this passage? Clearly, he thought his discussion of the role of reason in faith gave him a rhetorical opening to say something about the current crisis confronting Christianity and Islam, about the death and destruction rampant in the Middle East, about the mistaken Muslim notions of holy war—that is, about the role of violence in religious affairs. The Pope obviously feels that faith has a role in life and that entitles him—even obliges him—to comment on political as well as moral matters. He is pretty clearly against the idea of jihad in its present form. But he acknowledges here that the history of Islam at one time promoted violence as an evangelical method; with that as its heritage, one supposes, it isn’t surprising that in some of today’s Muslim population, violence is adopted as a legitimate Prophet-approved means of proselytizing.
That Pope Benedict fully intended to question aspects of Islam seems likely when we consider the passage in his essay the comes immediately after the one quoted above. For the Byzantine emperor, whose thinking was shaped by Greek philosophy, the statement that “not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature” is “self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. ... God is not bound even by his own word, and nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practice idolatry.” Although this may accurately describe the Muslim attitude, when we put this assertion in the context of the rest of the essay, in which the function of reason in faith is essential, the Muslim acceptance of God’s “transcendence” means that Islam is irrational, an affront to reason, and is therefore inferior to Christianity in which reason plays so large a role.
Alas, the Pope not only insulted the poor humiliated Muslims of the poverty-stricken streets of the Middle East who have nothing but their religion to cling to, he also demonstrated how completely mistaken he is about the present conflict between Islam and the rest of the world. It’s not about religion, as he supposes. It’s about power.
The agenda of the jihadists is, first, to oust Western influence in Muslim countries, then to reinstate the caliphate—the socio-religious political structure that prevailed during the time that Islam won converts by the sword—and then, it follows as naturally as water flows downhill, the True Religion will emerge. Driving the West out of the Middle East requires power, not religious faith. And the successful demonstration of this power will restore Arab pride: as Arabs triumph over the West, the sense of humiliation that has infected Muslims for centuries following the withering away of the Islamic empire in the face of barbarian conquest beginning in about 1300 will evaporate. Restoring the True Religion may be the ultimate justification for jihad, but the means to that end is the exercise of power, and in that pursuit, religion is the handmaiden to violence.
It is difficult for a secular Westerner, imbued with the values of individualism and personal liberty, to understand Muhammad’s doctrine of subservience, the essential surrender of the individual to the tribe that was the mode of social order in the Bedouin desert. But Muhammad’s success was rooted firmly in the culture of his day. Islam demands a somewhat higher order of surrender: instead of serving one’s tribal chieftain, one serves Allah. We may have difficulty in comprehending this fundamental aspect of Islam, but the Pope, who demands similar subservience to Christ in the doctrines of the Church, shouldn’t have that much trouble. His present perplexity, however, has its origins in the religious bubble: his life is religion; ditto the lives of those immediately around him. He quite naturally believes that all human affairs are essentially religious matters. The jihadist striving after power, because it is outside that realm, is beyond the Pope’s ken
The necessity, the imperative, for moral behavior undergirds all these efforts, regardless of the doctrines of different faiths. The Pope, like many in the business of propagating religion, believes that faith is the basis of morality. In a manner of speaking, it is. But morality is broader-based than simple religious faith would have it. Morality is a social science: it originates in the human condition. Because the human sapiens live in groups, the human condition is essentially social. Thus “good” is whatever enables both individual and the community; “bad” is whatever interferes with that enabling. Religious faith has historically simplified the social science of morality by codifying it. The simplification made it possible for vast numbers of basically uneducated and illiterate peoples to behave in a moral manner. As human knowledge accumulated through the ages, however, faith was repeatedly questioned. With every advance of science, the existence of God was brought into question. Joseph Campbell’s metaphor is useful. In his series of books under the banner “The Masks of God,” he suggests that God endures: every advance of scientific knowledge strips away one of the masks of God, and for a while, we believe the new mask that we see is the actual face of God. The next advance of knowledge, however, persuades us otherwise. But for Campbell, the essential truth is that regardless of how many masks are stripped away, God remains, even if behind yet another mask. Scientists are confounded by this mystery because for them only verifiable, measurable phenomena are real. Metaphors are too vague. In the confrontation between science and religion, a single complex of questions seems posed before us: what is life, and why do we live? Life, it seems to me—at least as far as humanity is concerned—is consciousness. We may live in part in order to perpetuate the species, but our other assignment is to reconcile science and religion, to bring them together in a consciously perceived whole. In this endeavor, fundamentalism, whether Christian or Muslim, is, as some irrepressible wag said, a hardening of the categories.
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE
Because of my habitual delinquency in perusing comics as they are published, several issues of a title often pile up before I get around to reading them. And so I read Nos. 6-8 of Warren Ellis’ NextWave last weekend, again, as usual, with great delight. The first page in each issue contains a prose orientation to the characters and their mission, a device every comic book publisher ought to adopt. Ellis performs this task with wit and verve, and then plunges us back into the milieu left simmering from last time. “The NextWave,” he remind us, consists of “five adventurers on the run from an anti-terrorist organization secretly run by terrorists trying to stop them from product-testing weapons of mass destruction all over the United States of America.” In No. 6, Dirk Anger, the leader of H.A.T.E. (Highest Anti-Terrorism Effort), is momentarily foiled in his attempt to destroy the renegade heroes of the NextWave when Aaron Stack, the robot, takes hostage and threatens to destroy Stack’s mother’s flowered dress that Stack keeps around and occasionally wears. We learn things in every issue of NextWave. In this issue, we learn that farting is a sign of life. The Captain, who is captain of nothing, having been sued every time he attempted an additional noun (Captain Marvel, Captain Atom, Captain Power—all taken by predecessors—“So I gave up. I decided I was just The Captain”), is again frustrated in his superheroics and lands in the mud, buried head-first up to his shoulders. “Do you think he’s dead?” asks Tabitha Smith. “He’s a guy,” says Elsa Bloodstone, “—how can you tell?” Says Tabitha: “Well, he wouldn’t be farting.” We also learn that “no good can come of a robot in a bra.” In No. 7 we acquire similar squibs of wisdom. Death doesn’t much matter: “X-Men come back more than Jesus.” And Monica Rambeau, the leader of the NextWave, reveals that Doctor Strange and “almost all” of the Avengers hit on her: “Thor and his ‘magic hammer,’” she murmurs in scornful recollection, “—Ant-Man and his dirty little feet, and I don’t even want to talk about the Wasp.” In this issue, they confront hulking lumps of mud in humanoid shape, or, as Monica says, “huge walking monster-things with death-ray faces” that come swirling into their midst on skateboards. Elsa takes a shot at one, hits it, and it blows up. “Oh, my God,” she exclaims delightedly, “—they explode! My life has taken on new meaning.” In No. 8, the monsters rampage through the city, looting clothing stores and wearing fragments of attire they find therein. These creatures, the Mindless Ones, have been summoned by the Dread Rorkannu, Lord of the Dank Dimension, who extolls their virtue in a war against “democratic humanity,” which tends to act together out of some sort of mutual moral sense. “Their precious ‘we,’” Rorkannu laments, “crushing out all that is black and white, creating an endless, hideous gray. You, my Mindless Ones, have no metaphorical gray—only some snot-green.” No. 8 concludes with The Captain triumphing, at last—stuffing Rorkannu down a handy toilet. Stuart Immonen’s pencils, brought to crisp light by Wade von Grawbadger’s inks and Dave McCaig’s colors, are as pleasant to behold as Ellis’ dialogue and outlandish plots are hilarious to read.
Ellis’s Fell, to some extent an experiment in marketing—priced at a mere $1.99 in the $2.99 market—is turning out more successful than anyone had a right to expect at first. According to Tom Spurgeon at Comics Reporter, sales of the first four issues have reached the 29,000 mark, “with No. 1 gaining on 40,000.” Spurgeon’s thoughtful take on this happy outcome is worth reading at www.comicsreporter.com
Here’s the coverto JLA Classified No. 17, which I believe is by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez. (I can’t find a signature or attribution anywhere.) I like to look at it. It employs so many of the touches that distinguish his art—tiny modeling lines that give muscles definition, the energy radiating from the physicality of the poses. The power of Wonder Woman’s blow emphasized by the pure verticality of her arm. The sensuality of the contours of her right leg. Neat stuff. It’s pictures like this that make comics fans of us all.
Who Was That Masked Man?
Just a little over two years ago, Dynamite Entertainment hove into view with the first issue of the horror comic book entitled Army of Darkness, following close on its heels with new material in the sword and sorcery genre featuring Red Sonja, the woman warrior in a metal bikini made from what appears to be a cascade of dimes. These successes inspired other titles, all adapting audio-visual media creations to four-color pages—Battlestar Galactica, Highlander, and Xena. Most recently, DE has turned to the most ancient of modern entertainment media, radio—“the theater of the mind”—to resurrect its “greatest hero,” the Lone Ranger. In the first issue of the title (which sold out, sending DE back to the press for an unprecedented second printing), writer Brett Matthews prompts artist Sergio Carriello and colorist Dean White to re-create the Lone Ranger’s origin tale. According to the received legend, refined somewhat over the years, a group of six Texas Rangers in pursuit of some owlhoots follow their trail into a narrow canyon whereupon the bad guys ambush the Rangers, killing all but one, who is, perforce, so badly wounded that the bushwhackers suppose he is dead. The outlaws ride off, and later that day, a wandering Indian named Tonto comes upon the massacred lawmen and discovers that one is still breathing. The Indian takes the man to a nearby cave and nurses him back to health. When he recovers, the lone surviving Ranger (the “lone Ranger”) vows to carry on in the war against evil, beginning by seeking out the cowardly baddies who killed his comrades. But before he sets out on his quest, he dons a mask to conceal his identity. He doesn’t know by sight who the ambushers were, but they know him by sight, and if they knew he’d survived, they’d hunt him down, and he would be virtually helpless to prevent their killing him: he wouldn’t be able to identify any of his would-be murderers before they set upon him. With remarkable foresight, Tonto, who had buried the five slain Rangers, had piled up earth for a seeming sixth grave so if any of the criminal element returned to the scene of the slaughter, they’d think all six had died.
DE’s first issue of The Lone Ranger takes this tale up to the immediate aftermath of the massacre: the last page in this issue shows us Tonto lurking near the battlefield. Matthews has embroidered the origin tale by providing some family history for the Lone Ranger. From previous accounts, we know that his name is John Reid and he has an older brother named Dan. Matthews gives him a father, too, and all three Reids are Texas Rangers; it is the father who leads the band of lawmen into that fated canyon killing field, both his sons in tow. Flashbacks establish how revered among the Reids the Rangers are, how the younger brother’s highest aspiration was to join his sibling and his father in the storied force. All of this will give emotional ballast to the vow the Lone Ranger will later take to do battle against evil, presumably as a passionate act of retribution for the deaths of his brother and father.
In one of the incidents of his childhood, John Reid is disciplined by his father for displaying a certain jubilance at the idea that his Ranger father killed a bad man. The father explains: “He was a bad man. He had it coming. That doesn’t make it a good thing.” “Why?” asks the youth. Says his father: “That’s something you’ll have to reckon for yourself. Do that, you’ll know you’re a man—and what kind.” The kid sits on the stump of a tree in the yard of their cabin pondering this wisdom late into the evening. Finally, he reports to his father: “The stump,” he says, “—you cut the tree down to build the house. It doesn’t mean you don’t miss the shade.” Learning this lesson takes four pages, one of which is devoted entirely to four page-wide panels depicting young John sitting on the stump as the day wanes, the sky getting darker and darker, panel by panel. This all seems a little precious. Effective perhaps, and clever, but a little too clever, too artificial. Still, the episode dramatizes one of several lessons young John learns from his father and his older brother, all of which gives their violent deaths greater emotional impact.
Carriello’s treatment of this material is expertly competent. His linework and draftsmanship are confidently achieved. His horses are a little textbooky, drawn from printed visual reference, doubtless, rather than the experience of watching the animal in the flesh, but his rendering of the sun-baked desert landscape of the Southwest is authoritative, and his storytelling maneuvers, pacing and camera angle and distance, are skillfully executed, creating visual variety as well as dramatic emphasis. White’s coloring enhances the temperature on the desert: he gives everything from the towering sandstone canyon walls to the posse itself an atmospheric oven-orange hue. DE has clearly recruited more than merely competent performers for this title, as, indeed, it has for the others in its line-up.
Oddly, while “The Lone Ranger” debuted on radio February 2, 1933, the story of how he became “lone” wasn’t told until Oliver Drake, a staff writer at Republic Pictures, conjured it up in October 1937 for the first movie serial, released in 1938. The Lone Ranger’s origin is a more-or-less familiar scrap of popular culture, but the story of the creation of the character is not so well-known. It is a Rashomonic tale that varies depending upon who we listen to. Most agree, however, that there were three principals: George W. Trendle, the owner of radio station WXYZ in Detroit; his drama director, writer James Jewell; and scripter Fran Striker, who was writing stories for radio from his home in Buffalo, New York, syndicating broadcast rights to stations around the country. The ingenious and persistent Dave Holland integrated the often contradictory pieces of the story into a seamless whole in his 1988 tome, From Out of the Past: A Pictorial History of the Lone Ranger.
“The creation of the Lone Ranger,” Holland says, “was a process, an evolution, not a single event.” It began, most likely, with Trendle’s desire to have a regular Western program on the air. At the time, Jewell was writing an anthology series of crime-fighter adventures called “Manhunters,” and one of the series was entitled “Curly Edwards and His Cowboys,” which was about a sheriff who tracked down outlaws operating as a masked man with a bandana concealing the bottom half of his face, not the familiar domino-style black mask worn by the Lone Ranger. Trendle liked the concept but not the show’s title. At first, according to Jewell, they were going to call it “The Lone Star Ranger,” but since Zane Grey had already appropriated that title, they modified it slightly, omitting the “star.” The only thing “lone” about the Lone Ranger at this point was that he worked alone; and so it was until Drake supplied a dramatically satisfying explanation. Jewell wrote the first “Lone Ranger” scripts, but, according to Trendle, “they weren’t very good, and I told him so. And gradually, they got better. And then I found out that he wasn’t writing them at all. They were being written in Buffalo by Fran Striker.” At the time, Striker was writing scripts for the “Manhunters” program, focusing eventually on a private investigator named Warner Lester. It was natural for Jewell to turn to Striker to help him shape the new Western program.
Drake’s ambush tale didn’t make it to the radio program until it was broadcast October 13, 1941. By then Striker was producing novels about the Lone Ranger, usually adapting radio scripts for the purpose, and he mentioned the ambush in a couple of them, but it wasn’t until The Lone Ranger Rides was published by Putnam in 1941 that the origin story received a full-blown treatment by Striker. The story was told again in Dell Comics Four-color No. 105, drawn by long-time LR artist Tom Gill and written by the prolific Paul S. Newman (“the brown-eyed writer,” he liked to say, “not the blue-eyed actor”), who usually asks that his middle initial be deployed every time his name is invoked.
Tonto didn’t show up in the saga until the eleventh broadcast of the show. In it, their circumstance was precisely reversed: the Lone Ranger finds Tonto wounded by an explosion and nurses him back to health. Later, after the origin tale had taken form, this encounter was integrated into the legend by presuming that it took place after the post-massacre episode; Tonto had wandered off after Reid recovered, and they didn’t meet again until the Lone Ranger finds the Indian wounded.
One of the most enduring elements of the relationship between the masked man and his “faithful Indian companion” was the expression they often used in addressing each other—“kemo sabe.” Recently, a group of concerned citizens in Canada launched a suit, alleging that the expression amounted to a racial slur. The court threw the case out but apparently without knowing anything of the origin of the expression. Some have stated that “kemo sabe” is a transliteration of “quien sabe” (who knows?). Not so. The name was taken bodily from the name of a boy’s camp, Kamp Keemo Sahbee, founded and named in 1915 and run by Jewell’s father-in-law. Brace Beemer, the actor who played the Lone Ranger on radio from April 18, 1941 through the last live broadcast on September 3, 1954, said the expression meant “faithful friend.” Again, not so: Jewell, who first appropriated the term, said it meant “trusty scout.” “That’s the only thing it ever meant,” he said, “or ever will mean.” The radio program continued in encore broadcasts until May 25, 1956, finishing a 23-year run.
The Lone Ranger arrived in the newspaper funnies on Sunday, September 11, 1938; the daily strip started the next day. Both were drawn by Edmund Kressy, whose ability was marginal. He once had LR mounting his horse Silver from the wrong side; and he insisted on putting eyes behind the mask, which gave LR a pop-eyed appearance. Kressy was assisted for a time by a more competent artist, Jon Blummer, but the syndicate, King Features, soon passed the assignment on to Charles Flanders, who continued the strip from January 30, 1939, until December 1971. The strip was reprinted in various comic book reprint anthologies, Magic Comics, King Comics and Ace Comics, and occasionally in Dell’s Four-color series. The character got his own Dell title in January 1948, again reprinting newspaper strips, a practice that was discontinued, at last, with No. 38, when Tom Gill was hired to draw the feature. He continued through the Dell Comics run, which ended May 1962, to be resumed by Gold Key in September 1964, finishing, finally, May 1977. On September 13, 1981, the newspaper strip was revived for a short run to coincide with a fresh film interpretation, “The Legend of the Lone Ranger.” The strip, written by Cary Bates and drawn by Russ Heath, continued until April 1, 1984.
In the roster of persons producing the Lone Ranger, Striker’s name is the longest-lived. He wrote 16 of the 18 novels, and most of the radio scripts for the entire run of the program, albeit with assistants for some of the time. He and his staff also scripted “The Green Hornet” from 1936 to 1952 (a chronicle of the crime-fighting deeds of Britt Reid, a descendant of the Lone Ranger), and “Challenge of the Yukon” (featuring Sergeant Preston and his husky, King) and the short-lived “Ned Jordan, Secret Agent,” to name some of the most familiar of his on-the-air works. At one time, it was estimated that Striker produced over 60,000 words a week in stories. He also wrote the newspaper comic strip until he died in a head-on car crash September 14, 1962 at the age, merely, of 59. Striker lightened his work load with a unique plotting device, which he called his “Morphological Approach to Plotting.” It consisted of lists of story elements arranged in columns—characters, goals, conflicts, solutions, etc.—from each of which he would pick one, combing his selections for a story. He might pick from the first column a lead character (old man, young man, soldier, miner) and from the second a goal (love, wealth, power, etc.), conflict from the third (blindness, lack of experience, visiting relatives) and so on. As Holland says: “You could do a random selection (number 12 from column A, number 3 from column B, etc.) and go from there.” After picking an array of story elements, all Striker had to do was devise a story that would incorporate all the elements. “All” required considerable ingenuity at times, but the process was clearly streamlined for maximum productivity.
Tics & Tropes
Kim Rice and Kate Ruin, who write a column of sex advice for a local weekly, recently applauded, as do I, the decision, finally, to make Plan B (or, more accurately, EC, “emergency contraception”) available upon request over the counter (or, at least, from behind the pharmacist’s desk) to women over the age of 18 who can prove their age. It should be available similarly to women under 18; there was nothing in the FDA’s 1998 approval of the drug as a prescription medication restricting its use to any age group, so why now? Easy answer: the Religious Righteous believe sex is evil, and they do anything they can to reduce the likelihood of its practice. Since they believe EC would increase the incidence of unprotected sex—chiefly among the young and inexperienced—they want to keep EC out of the hands of the young and inexperienced in the mistaken belief that if young people can’t get EC, they won’t engage in sex. But, say Rice and Ruin, no study they’ve ever seen suggests that the availability of EC would increase unprotected sex. “To us, thinking that promoting seat belt use encourages speeding or reckless driving is the same as thinking over-the-counter EC would encourage unprotected sex.” “Unprotected sex” in this context is a euphemism for “sex”: there’s no point in dragging an increase in unprotected sex into a discussion of EC unless it is to suggest that the availability of EC would increase sexual activity generally among unmarried sinners.
Almost everything the Religious Righteous are opposed to they are opposed to because it is likely to lead to unfettered sex. Abortion? If it is available for the asking, it will surely lead to people having more sex than is good for their salvation. Gay marriage? Just an indulgence of lust which, without opposite sex participation, can’t lead to children, and that’s the only justification for sexual activity to begin with.
Quips & Quotes
“The Bond villains now are all Eastern Europeans with designer stubble. I’m not frightened of guys like that. Fuck off. No, I want a guy with a false hand, an eye patch and maybe an owl—an evil owl that might peck Bond’s eyes out. Oh, and whatever side you dress on? That’s the side you wear your owl.”—Craig Ferguson in Playboy
What a hoot.
Of 380 or so syndicated newspaper comic strips and panel cartoons, only 19 or 20 have 1,000 or more subscribers; and of that number, only 11 were in 1,500 or more papers as of the summer of 2002. Zits, the comic strip about teenage so-called life by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman, just joined this elite circle, passing the 1,500 mark in July, only nine years after its launch. Zits accumulated client papers faster than any recent comic strip when it reached 425 less than six months after its debut; and that tally doubled in less than four years. Much of this phenomenal growth may be attributed to the strip’s focus on a typical teenage boy and his typically baffled parents: readers see their own adolescent offspring in Jeremy Duncan, and they can laugh, empathetically no doubt, at Jeremy’s seemingly clueless parents. Syndicate publicity supposes that the strip even attracts teenage readers, who sympathize with Jeremy’s ordeal and giggle scornfully at his befuddled parents. Not likely: today’s newspaper readers do not include many teenagers. The appeal of the strip is pretty clearly to adults, who, even if they don’t have teenagers under foot in their homes, were all teenagers once. Cartoonists and others in the margins of the industry (me, f’instance) like to think that the cartoon artistry of the strip is also responsible for its circulation and popularity. One newspaper editor, at least, agrees: “The artwork is the best I’ve seen in years,” according to Carl Crothers, editor of the Winston-Salem Journal in North Carolina. “The strip has movement that you don’t get in a lot of comics. So many are so static.” Borgman is a skilled draftsman, and the strip is among the best drawn in comics, but he and Scott aren’t just producing expertly drawn pictures: they consistently play with the form of their medium, exploiting its potential for comedy as well as for visual excitement, and the latest reprint collection of the strip, Crack of Noon: A Zits Treasury (256 8x11-inch pages in paperback; Andrews McMeel, $16.95), is an ample display of their inventiveness. This volume, like all “treasury” collections from Andrews McMeel, combines the content of two previous, smaller, books, which, with the Zits reprints, are termed “sketchbooks”: Thrashed (No. 9) and Pimp My Lunch (No. 10). The difference: the sketchbooks are entirely black-and-white; in the treasury compilations, all the Sundays are in color, but they lack a feature of the sketchbooks, Sunday’s introductory splash panel, which usually produces the sketchy version of one of the drawings in that Sunday’s strip. (A diabolical marketing ploy, no doubt: if you want the “complete Zits,” you must buy both the sketchbooks and the treasuries.)
The Borgman-Scott partnership is an unusual one for a comic strip. Said Borgman: “Somehow, we found a third brain that we share. When we do the strip, we’re one mind.” Scott, who wrote and drew the comic strip Nancy for twelve years, has another partner, Rick Kirkman, with whom he produces Baby Blues (another member of the 1,000-paper club). For Kirkman, Scott produces scripts. But with Borgman, a Pulitzer winner (1991) who continues to do five editorial cartoons a week for his newspaper, the Cincinnati Enquirer, the production is truly collaborative. In California, Scott makes a rough sketch of a strip and faxes it to Borgman. Scott doesn’t worry about artistic niceities: “I’m delivering story and attitude,” he told Mike Peters at the Dallas Morning News. Said Borgman: “I get not a script but an idea in the language of cartoonists. I get the gift of the storyboard. The heavy lifting—showing who needs to be where and when—is all done. I get to focus on the visual detail that I love.” In practice, however, Borgman doesn’t merely fine tune Scott’s sketches: his refinements are faxed back to Scott, and the two trade faxes back and forth until both are satisfied. “Both Jerry and I originate and write strip ideas, and we both draw, compose, and design the strip,” Borgman said. Explained Scott: “It’s a real sloppy arrangement where we both do about three-fourths of the work.” Sloppy or not, a dubious contention, the strip is a veritable exemplar of how the comic strip medium can be deployed for visual effects that yield comedy.
In the daily strips, Borgman and Scott sometimes play with the static sequential nature of the medium—a series of panels, all of which can be seen at once. Repeated images, for example, attract the reader’s eye, spotlighting the strip on a newspaper’s funnies page. Borgman and Scott deploy such images for humorous purposes: here’s Jeremy, with his black T-shirt up over his head for three panels; in last panel, he says, “I forgot whether I’m getting dressed or undressed.” In another strip, he is shown extravagantly kissing his girlfriend’s hand for three panels; in the last panel, we see the two at adjoining desks in a classroom, Jeremy clutching Sara’s hand still, but her head is not on her shoulders—instead, it’s resting on an open textbook as she says, “I’m sorry, Jeremy, but romance isn’t where my head’s at right now.” The cartoonists also exploit the horizontal dimension of the daily format. Here’s a single horizontal panel showing Jeremy at the top of the stairs, getting ready to catapult himself down the banister; at the bottom, far right, is his mother, who says, simply, “No.” In a week-long series, Jeremy’s mother meets him in his room, drawing attention to how neat she’s made it during his absence; while she talks, Jeremy unloads his backpack, and his belongings accumulate all week, day-by-day, creating a mountain of debris in his room, every day noticeably larger. Jeremy’s father confronts his son: “Your mother is concerned about the clutter in your room.” Jeremy, undaunted, says: “The woman has issues, Dad.”
On Sundays, Borgman and Scott often reformat the comic strip, exuberantly casting aside the medium’s usual pacing, the customary cadence of an orderly progression of panels, to make layout the functioning comedic element. A jumble of diverse shapes suggests discrete fleeting moments in a day. They sometimes line up images and impose them, like winks of illumination, upon the backdrop of an enormous elaborate drawing, or they may time an action in painstaking detail through a long series of tiny panels. Once in parallel horizontal rows of panels, they paired two actions taking place simultaneously. Jeremy practices dancing in frenetic postures in a panel-less Sunday. Two page-wide panels achieve punchline cohesion only at the far right of the second. One of my favorites in this book shows a giant Jeremy sprawling in several chairs in the livingroom, the picture divided into four separate panels with his father inspecting a different aspect of his son’s position in each of them; in the last panel, he says to his wife, “Teenagers take up too much room.” And she says, “Sending the boy away to college will be a small price to pay for regaining control of the living room.”
The capacity of the medium for visual metaphor is frequently plumbed. Jeremy’s clumping noisily around the house in giant sneakers is evoked with pictures of elephants going up and down the stairs. And here’s Jeremy’s father, seemingly contemplating an aircraft’s jet engine in the first panel; in the next, he’s engulfed in the jet stream burst of explusion; in the final panel, he is standing at the door of Jeremy’s room, saying, “New amp?” And Jeremy says, “You noticed?”
This collection also includes the notoriously sly “pissing in the snow” strip: in a single strip-wide panel, we see Jeremy’s signature, elaborately performed, in a snow bank, with Hector and Jeremy walking off to the right, Hector saying, “ The flourish at the end was a nice touch.” To steer clear of the urinary implication, Jeremy is shown drinking from a large cup through a straw and saying, “Long live the 48-ounce fountain drink.” It’s hard to see how he could have written his name by spitting cola into the snow; it’s much easier to imagine the traditional, time-honored macho alimentary performance, but the “fountain drink” gets the strip by the censors.
While Borgman always wanted to do a comic strip, the idea of a strip about teenage life was Scott’s. He did some sketches and ran into Borgman at a conference. “Look at this,” Scott said, “and tell me why it doesn’t look right.” Borgman saw short, squatty figures like those Scott had produced for Nancy for years. “I’ve got teens,” Borgman explained, “and they are tall, lanky. They wear loose clothes. So I started drawing them that way—draped over chairs, ducking through low doorways, very loose.” They stayed up all night, Scott said, “—like high school. Scheming, drawing, laughing, drawing.” Eventually, as they corresponded, exploring possibilities over the ensuing weeks, they realized they had too much good stuff to ignore, and they sold the strip to King Features.
The strip’s name, which Charles Schulz said was the worst name for a comic strip since Peanuts, came out of a joking response in a brain-storming session. Borgman and Scott thought their new strip was grittier and less sanitized than such strips had been in the past, but they were stuck for a name that might convey this contemporary approach. “One day at an editorial meeting with syndicate officials,” Borgman said, “Jerry said, ‘Why don’t we just call it Zits?’”
That was gritty enough for teenage reality. But too much for the syndicate editors.
Borgman continued: “The suits laughed, paused, and then said, ‘Of course not.’ They felt their sales force couldn’t sell it to editors, that there would be too much resistance among newspaper readers. But the more we talked, the more we felt it was exactly right. In the end, I think the name has been a big part of the strip’s success. No one ever forgets the name.”
For gags, Borgman and Scott rely upon their own recollected experiences growing up—and upon what their kids and the children of friends and relatives do and say. One of their characters, the boy and girl who are always shown “melded” together as one in a permanent romantic embrace and named “Richandamy,” was taken, literally Borgman says, from a couple he knew in college. Said he: “I’ve always been a little embarrassed that we didn’t change their names for the strip, but the real couple—still together after thirty years, I must tell you—seem to be cool with their existence as characters on the comics page.”
Zits was named best newspaper comic strip by the National Cartoonists Society in 1998 and 1999, and has been a frequent nominee for the distinction; and in 2001, Jerry Scott received the NCS Reuben as “cartoonist of the year” for Zits and Baby Blues. Borgman earned the same distinction for political cartooning in 1993. A new Zits “sketchbook” (No. 11, Are We Out of the Driveway Yet?) will be published in September; also that month, another Baby Blues compilation, entitled Framed.
UNDER THE SPREADING PUNDITRY
More Highly Amusing (if we don’t laugh, we’ll weep) Nonsense at the Nation’s Capital
And so, with the revelation that Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald knew all along that Richard Armitage, formerly Colin Powell’s Deputy Secretary of State, was the person who leaked CIA operative Valerie Plame’s name to conservative columnist Robert Novak, the allegation that White House henchmen leaked her name deliberately and unlawfully as revenge upon her husband, Joseph Wilson, for daring to question the contention that Saddam was trying to buy uranium (or some such) in Africa, expires, not with a bang but with a whimper. Well, yes—that contention proved false. But even if Karl Rove and others didn’t leak the information as a sort of political sabotage and even if they weren’t the initial sources of the information and even if they broke no laws doing it, they did, nonetheless, leak it. And what was it that George W. (“Whopper”) Bush said about anyone in the White House who leaked this information? Oh, yes: they’d be fired. Last I heard, jolly Karl was still workin’ out of the Halliburton House on Pennsylvania Avenue.
At long last, I’ve discovered a secret weapon, a way to halt the march of the Bush League as it tramples Constitutional rights and common decency willy nilly. Simple: destroy all the Sharpies in the world. GeeDubya, it turns out, favors Sharpies for all his written communiques—well, I mean, for signing his name, the only written communique he’s known to have committed. He insists on Sharpies according to Paul Bedard in U.S. News (September 25): “‘He asks for them by name,’ says a Bush insider, ‘and if someone hands him something else, he barks, ‘Where’s the Sharpie?’” So if GeeDubya couldn’t find any Sharpies to sign legislation into law, then we’d have none of those laws, and we could rest easily that the environment has been reclaimed along with our rights and a chance at reducing the deficit before our grand children have to shoulder this colossal financial burden.
In The Nation for August 14/21, Stephen Gillers commits a delightful hilarity with a mock newsstory: Bush Postpones 2008 Election. President Bush, citing his authority as Commander in Chief of the armed forces and his inherent constitutional power over foreign affairs, today ordered a postponement of the 2008 presidential election in order “to protect the American people in our war on terror.” ... Bush told the nation that the election will be “rescheduled as soon as a change in leadership does not create a security threat and not a second later. When the Iraqis stand up, we’ll vote.” ... Attorney General Alberto Gonzales laid out the legal basis: ... ‘Legally, it’s simple,’ he said. ‘It depends on what the meaning of ‘four years’ is. The Constitution says the President ‘shall hold his office during the term of four years.’ It does not say ‘only four years’ or ‘four years and not a day more.’ The Framers intended ‘four years’ to be a preference, not a rigid number. We should not take it literally any more than the words ‘hold his office’ means no woman can be President. A woman is running now. Time meant something different in 1789,’ Gonzales added. ‘This was before airline schedules and self-winding watches. People didn’t run their lives by the clock. Many Americans didn’t have clocks.” In the same issue is a cartoon with a caption that can stand alone: The Holy Land—that unique part of the world where people of all religions can get together and kill one another.
We snicker a bit at the idea of GeeDubya postponing the election, but the fact is that the so-called “right to vote” is not guaranteed in the Constitution. The “right to vote” is mentioned five times in amendments to the original document, but no where is it guaranteed with the precision we find in the constitutions we’ve insinuated into countries where we’ve had a say, according to the October issue of the Progressive Populist. According to their constitutions, “Afghans have ‘the right to elect and be elected,’ Iraqis have ‘the right ... to vote, to elect and to nominate,’ and the Japanese enjoy ‘universal adult suffrage.’” But U.S. citizens don’t. Voting is a state matter, not a federal concern, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in the infamous Bush v. Gore case, noted that “the individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the president of the U.S.—unless and until the state legislature choose a statewide election as the means to implement its power to appoint members of the Electoral College.” An amendment guaranteeing the right to vote has been proposed by American University law professor Jamie Raskin. It would say, in part, “Citizens of the United States have the right to vote in primary and general elections ... and such right shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State.” Meanwhile, on September 14, the House Administration Committee proposed by a straight Republican vote a bill that would require all voters nationwide to obtain IDs by producing a birth certificate or passport. Exactly this provision was part of a recent attempt in Missouri to “prevent fraud,” but it was struck down by Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan, who reasoned that the ID rule would allow the Legislature to add an onerous qualification to those spelled out in the state Constitution, which says “all citizens of the United States ... who are residents of this state ... are entitled to vote in all elections by the people.” Since no such language appears in the U.S. Constitution, voting in this country may very well become a “privilege” rather than a “right,” a privilege allowed to those who can navigate around bureaucratic hurdles.
Syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr., at the Miami Herald: “Form its 18-hour blackout of news that the vice president had shot a man, to its paying a newspaper columnist to write favorable pieces, to its habit of putting out video press releases disguised as tv news, to its penchant for stamping top secret on anything that doesn’t move fast enough, this administration [he means the Bush League, as if you didn’t know] has repeatedly shown contempt for the right of the people to know what’s going on.” And James Israel, publisher and editor of Humor Times, continues: “Indeed, one might wonder what fuels such paranoia. But we already know. It’s the same paranoia that causes them to have their lawyers do back flips trying to explain how the Geneva Conventions aren’t applicable anymore, how it’s okay for America, land of the free, to hold people without charge indefinitely, use torture, and invade countries at will. These people are guilty of voluminous crimes, as documented extensively in Congressman John Conyers’ recent report, The Constitution in Crisis (available at www.afterdowningstreet.org/constitutionincrisis ).”
From Max Hastings in the London Guardian, as quoted and paraphrased in The Week: Writing about the Muslim threat of violence—“It can’t be denied that President Bush, with his offensive rhetoric, has made things worse. In his mind, all ‘violent Muslim opposition’ is a form of Islamic fascism, and all is equally evil. By equating ‘the grossly irrational, totalitarian and homicidal objectives of al Qaida with the just claims of Palestinians and grievances of Iraqis,’ he invites Muslims who support Palestine to make common cause with al Qaida. ‘If the United States insists upon regarding all Muslim opponents of its foreign policies as a homogeneous enemy, then that is what they become.’”
Syndicated columnist David Broder, a writer whose voice is usually as measured and deliberative as his tone is restrained, has apparently had all he can take of the Bush League. On about September 22, he wrote about Thomas Jefferson’s language in the Declaration of Independence that invoked “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind ... a standard this administration flagrantly has rejected. ... The country thought Bush was a down-to-earth guy who would not rock the boat. Instead, swayed by some inner impulse or the influence of Dick Cheney, he has proved to be lawless and reckless. He started a war he cannot finish, drove the government into debt, and repeatedly defied the Constitution.”
Finally, with Bob Woodward’s new book, State of Denial, we have, at last, a genuine piling on. It’s clear that the days of effective operation left to the Bush League are numbered. GeeDubya has two more years to serve, but my guess is that he’s passed beyond lame duck to crippled gander. His tightly wound administration is fraying as we write. And if in the pending mid-term election the Republicans lose Congress—unlikely, but possible—that’ll be all for George WMD Bush: he’s not politician enough to survive if he doesn’t have a majority in the legislative branch to do his bidding.
But then, there’s Hugo Chavez. Boy, did he make a mistake by calling GeeDubya names. Chavez actually gave a momentary boost to Bushie’s standing. His name calling had the reverse effect of his intention in this country: everyone, even his avowed foes, came to GeeDubya’s defense by expressing their outrage that Chavez would have the temerity to denounce “our president.” It’s that antique adage come to life again: GeeDubya may be a sonuvabitch, but he’s our sonuvabitch, and no one else can bad-mouth him.
Nine-eleven Five Years On: Are We Any Safer?
The Forever War Ensues
From The Week’s September 22 summaries of speeches and events marking the fifth anniversary of the horrors of September 11, 2001: “War without end, amen.” That, anyway, seems to be the main message of President Bush’s 9/11 address, said Walter Shapiro in Salon.com. By casting the war in such broad, apocalyptic terms, Bush is suggesting that 50 years from now, “we will still be on the battlements worldwide against an enemy we might call al Qaida, the terrorists, violent Islamic radicals, the evildoers, or, simply, them.” But when we define our enemies in such hyperbolic language, it’s that much harder to devise policies to contain them. And we’re certainly not containing them now, said Ahmed Rashid in the Washington Post. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has outwitted Israel’s high-tech military. In Afghanistan, the Taliban has learned to dodge aerial drones and surveillance satellites. In Iraq, insurgents have brought the nation to the brink of civil war. Islamic radicals clearly are ready for “a long war.” Is the U.S. “prepared to match them?” There have been setbacks, admits Mario Loyola in National Review. But let’s not lose sight of the big picture: Western civilization has prevailed [so far—RCH]. Al Qaida’s goal was to destroy our way of life. So compare our “vibrant towns and cities” with the blighted slums of the Islamic world, “where progress and hope and safety are otherworldly notions.” The vengeful dogma of Islamic extremists will never be a match for the West’s love of freedom, prosperity, and peace. RCH again: Well, yes, it’s good to remember that we’re not at the End of the World just yet. Still, Loyola is being just a little Polyannish not to mention premature: Western Civilization hasn’t lost the war—not yet. But we’ve started giving up some of the freedoms we are ostensibly fighting for, and if the goal of terrorism, itself but a means to another end, is to cause panic and, eventually, to undermine the functioning of the targeted society—with an eye to eventually overwhelming that society, now weakened—then we here at Rancid Raves can’t be quite as sanguine as Loyola is. Back to The Week:
Quoting and summarizing Youssef Ibrahim in the New York Sun: Al Qaida may be capable of occasional bombing strikes on Western civilians, but it’s a small, grubby group of fanatics blinded by its own ideology. These few thousand men do not pose “an existential danger to the world.” When they fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, they “lost every battle they ever engaged in.” Their previous bombings—the World Trade Center in 1993, U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, the USS Cole in 2000—were “more pugnacious than crippling.” Only the grotesquely successful assault of September 11 made al Qaida seem like a menace to Western civilization itself. It’s now clear that it is not, said John Tierney in the New York Times. Compared with the Nazis, who had the world’s most powerful military, and the Soviet Union, which had the ability to incinerate every square inch of the U.S. in a matter of minutes, al Qaida’s terrorists are “a minor problem.” ... So let’s not overreact to the threat, said James Fallows in the Atlantic Monthly. Despite ominous talk of mushroom clouds in U.S. cities, it’s highly unlikely that terrorists could build or buy a nuke and smuggle it into the country. That leaves terrorists with one means of inflicting major damage on the superpower: Baiting us into foolishly damaging our own interests. The Bush administration has fallen into this trap, by invading Iraq, killing Muslim civilians, and playing into al Qaida’s narrative. Portraying the war as an epic clash of civilizations only feeds the terrorists’ false grandiosity—and drives Muslim moderates into the extremists’ hands. Terrorists may yet again strike on U.S. soil, but the reality is that we’ve essentially won the war. The sooner we recognize this, the sooner our politicies will be motivated by strategic self-interest instead of by terror.
RCH again again: I think, with the last couple paragraphs, we’re moving to a realistic grasp of the dilemma. The only real obstacle to our getting a grip on a practical plan of operation is that the Bush League needs to keep fear alive in order to get us to keep on re-electing Righteous Republicans. It is in the Bush League’s best interests to keep us fearful, which they do by touting the nearly mythical achievements of terrorists. We may, as Fallows says, have already won the war on terror. But that doesn’t mean our struggle is over, as Robert Dreyfuss persuasively argues in the Rolling Stone’s September 21 issue:
“Terrorism Can’t Be Defeated—Ever,” he headlines one section of his article; then goes on: Terrorism is not an enemy, but a method. As such, it can never be defeated—only contained and reduced. Even if the United States were to wipe out every terrorist cell in the world today, terrorism would be back tomorrow because new grievances and new crises for revenge will continue to create new terrorists. ... Rather than waging a global war, experts say, the U.S. needs to work closely with foreign intelligence services that know the lay of the land in their own countries to take down terrorists, one by one. ... As unsatisfying as it sounds, that approach suggests a definition of ‘victory’ in battling terrorism: the best we can do is to reduce the threat of terrorism to that of an ugly nuisance. ... With each passing day, the heavy-handed U.S. involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Israel-Palestine conflict is producing new terrorists. By his very policies, President Bush is spreading the virus, not quarantining it. The war in Iraq has radicalized Muslims all over the world, and it has allowed them to portray the invasion of Iraq as an attack on Islam. ... That, in the end, is the most important lesson of all to be learned from the campaign against terrorism. The hatred inflamed by the Bush administration cannot be fixed by cops, spies or soldiers. It can be fixed only by a more unified and coordinated stance toward the rest of the world—one that creates allies rather than inspiring hatred.”
Amen, as they might say.
Have They No Shame?
Five years ago, fresh on the heels of the horrors of September 11, when queried by the news media about the catastrophe, GeeDubya was manifestly puzzled by this colossal act of hostility, blurting out, “I thought we were the good guys.” And so we were. Once. But no longer, thanks to the very same George W. (“Waterboard”) Bush. If there is anything more shameful than this nation torturing helpless prisoners, it’s high officials in the government debating the issue, discussing—right out there in public!—whether torture ought to be permitted. In the United States of America I thought I was a citizen of, torture was never an option. Only the bad guys tortured.
I don’t doubt that some of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are pretty vicious characters. We’ve long forgotten that some of the al Qaida trainees advocated killing opponents by tearing out their throats with their teeth, practicing this ghastly method on live dogs. Maybe that was only rumor. Then again, it seems to me that one of the first American deaths in the Afghanistan invasion involved a CIA operative who was killed in exactly this manner by a just released prisoner, who was unarmed and presumed therefore to be harmless. Could be that this is all a figment of my imaginative recollection, of course. But for the sake of giving the Bush League’s argument its due, let’s suppose it’s all true: these guys are mad dog killers. But that still doesn’t, in itself, justify our adopting torturous methods of incarceration and interrogation. We have captured and imprisoned any number of domestic mad dog killers, American citizens all, and we don’t treat them cruelly in our prisons. Why should we treat anyone that way?
Because, the Bushies argue, of the “ticking clock” scenario. In this much touted situation, we capture a terrorist who, we deduce, knows that a bomb is in place somewhere, due to explode at a particular time in the not-too-distant future. So we have to be able to torture the guy to find out where and when in time to defuse the bomb before it explodes and kills thousands, perhaps millions, of loyal Americans, not to mention visiting Muslims and Jews and a few Buddhists. The logic of this scenario frays pretty fast, though, as Ted Rall pointed out in his column some months ago. If the terrorists are as well-organized as this supposes they are, then they’ll know they’ve been compromised: if we nab a guy high up enough to know where the bomb is and when it’s supposed to go off, he’ll be in close contact with other members of his cell, and they’ll know immediately that he hasn’t checked in recently or on time. If they’re as well trained as well-organized terrorists are supposed to be, this will immediately sound an alarm, and as soon as that happens, they’ll promptly change whatever plans they have, knowing, as well-trained terrorists must, that a key comrade has been nabbed and might well blow the whistle on them. So before we could extract any vital information from the guy, the plans about which he knows vital facts will have changed. So the torture will have been pointless. In other words, the whole idea of torture as a last-ditch measure necessary to save hundreds is fallacious. Surely all the Bush Leaguers and their minions in the intelligence community, and perhaps every member of Congress as well, know this. This kind of reasoning is not, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, completely foreign to these guys. So if they realize how fallacious the logic is, why do they persist in bringing it up?
It’s all political, kimo sabe, and it has absolutely nothing to do with keeping America safe. By loudly proclaiming the need for torture as an interrogation technique, the Bush Leaguers establish just how tough they are on security concerns. They’re so much tougher than the wimpy Democrats, who actually, some of them, protest torture as an ineffective not to mention cruel and unusual tactic. So if we want to be safe, we should vote all those rascals back into office, this year and forever after. Once again, the Bush League has sent the entire nation off on a wild goose chase in order to maintain themselves in power so they can continue to plunder their country.
Meanwhile, continuing the diversionary tactic, GeeDubya urges the Congress to adopt legislation that will “clarify” the provisions of Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which, he asserts, is too vague. What’s so vague and ambiguous about Article 3? To take the phrase that is often cited as demonstrating just how vague the Conventions are: among the acts that are prohibited “at any time and in any place whatsover” are “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment.” GeeDubya says he doesn’t understand that. It’s too vague. I beg to differ. It’s quite clear to anyone who isn’t looking for a legalism that will permit him to torture people. It means, simply, that prisoners, who are, for all practical purposes (even considering teeth as a weapon), helpless, should be treated humanely. Feed them, house them, clothe them, and treat them for wounds and illness. If you need to, ask them questions. Interrogate them. But don’t use physical or psychological abuse to get answers. Simple. Easy. All it means, really, is that we shouldn’t do to any of these helpless captives what we would rather not be done to us. (Now—where have I heard something like that before? And here I thought the Bush League was big on Christianity.)
Alas, Congress passed legislation that gives George W. (“Warlord”) Bush pretty much all he wants in the way of legalizing torture. Although John McCain, for whom I held out hope, claims he got what he wanted—that is, the Geneva Conventions were not, themselves, re-written—the bill he signed off on, to our everlasting shame, still gives the CIA the right to torture helpless captives. It is a hodge-podge of what Adam Liptak in the New York Times calls “interlocking paradoxes”—among them, imposing “new legal standards that it forbids the courts to enforce.” The much advertised negotiations between opposing parties were “a sham.” Said Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University, “The only thing that was actually accomplished was that the politicians got to announce the existence of a compromise.” Another law professor, Martin S. Lederman at Georgetown University, said: “They appear to have negotiated a statutory definition of cruel treatment that doesn’t cover the CIA techniques.” And so we’ve been sold out, all of us who believe in what we used to call “the American ideal.” Colin Powell put the strategic part pretty well: “Part of the war on terror is an ideological and political struggle. Our moral posture is one of our best weapons.” And to loudly debate whether we should torture prisoners or not and then to decide, conspicuously, that we can is to reduce that moral posture to a shambling slouch.
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