Opus 195 November 14, 2006). We are happy (not to mention exhausted) to report that the third year of subscription Rancid Raves produced even more monthly content than the second year, which was better than the first year. We also review the Library of Congress’ Cartoon America and the graphic novel, Pride of Baghdad. And we present some unique visual tributes to Jack Davis and Sergio Aragones, sample Doonesbury’s latest invention, The Sandbox, examine plagiarism in editorial cartooning, preview a new comic strip, and eat crow for predicting the wrong result of the recent election. Here’s what’s here, in order by department:
NOUS R US
More Danish Dozen Doin’s
Harassment of Cartoonists in Foreign Lands
Lost Girls Clears Canadian Border
The Year’s Best Graphic Novels
Unique Visual Tributes to Jack Davis and Sergio Aragones
Playing in Doonesbury’s Sandbox
Matt Wuerker, Paul Conrad
Jim Borgman’s Day After Dilemma
A Good Weekly Editoon Roundup
New Books by Editoonists Jeff Danziger and Mike Luckovich
Rants & Raves Gallery: Neat Pix
A NEWCOMER ON THE COMICS PAGE
New Strip from King Features
BOOK REVIEW: Cartoon America
Graficity: Pride of Baghdad
Onward, the Spreading Punditry
How to Vote Next Time
Coming Soon: The Big Bug-out
And our customary reminder: don’t forget to activate the “Bathroom Button” by clicking on the “print friendly version” so you can print off a copy of just this lengthy installment for reading later, at your leisure while enthroned. Without further adieu—
Annual Stock-taking and Bean Counting
Once again this year, as last year, we stumbled in September and tried, in October, to make up for it by flooding you with a double-allowance of the usual persiflage and bagatelles. Our contract, as you doubtless recollect, calls for approximately bi-weekly visits, and we missed a week in the ninth month with Rants & Raves. In the tenth month, however, we posted three Rants & Raves and two Hindsights. So we hope you think you’ve been adequately compensated for the September deficiency. We also missed a week in March: I was, my personal self, out of commission for a couple weeks that month getting my colon removed, all 7.8 miles of it, everything from Las Vegas, New Mexico, to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. It was diverticular bleeding, not, thankfully, cancer. We don’t need the colon, I’m told. Another of those superfluous organs, like the second kidney and the appendix and, in red states—until just last week—the brain. In any case, I was able to resume my typing tasks in time to pound out two installments in April and thereafter. If you count Hindsight articles as one of the two visits a month, we missed none all year: even in the two months (September and March) with only one Rancid Raves, there was a Hindsight posting, so there were, as per contract, two postings per month.
The year as a whole was more prolix than last year. From November 2005 through October 2006, we posted 23 installments of Rants & Raves (same as last year) and, in the gratuitous bonus division, 13 Hindsight articles (11 last year). That’s a total of 36 visitations for the year. We promised to post something nearly every other week and if there are 52 weeks in the year, that’s 26 times; so we’re doing better than we promised we would. Monthly page averages are similarly outstanding (even if we say so ourselves): Rants & Raves averaged 51 pages a month; last year, 40. What other magazine on comics gives you 51 pages a month for only $1.32! Hindsights averaged another 8 pages per month, or 59 pages per month, total. To be compulsively persnickerty, we should probably discount the pages devoted to frothing-at-the-mouth political commentary since it’s only sometimes, thanks to the Danes, comics-related. Say 8-9 pages of such superfluity a month, probably too high; but in a magazine that is sometimes about superheroes, superfluity ain’t all bad, kimo sabe. So you’re still getting a magazine of comics news and lore that runs 50 or so pages a month. And it is a magazine, not a blog. Blogs, as I understand them, are like diaries or journals; a magazine, like Rants & Raves, offers discrete articles on different subjects. And that’s what we do. We divide the articles into departments (News [“Nous R Us”], Book Reviews, Comic Strip Watch, Graficity [Graphic Novels], and Funnybook Fan Fare, all directly engaged in comics, plus a few trimmings like favorite quotations and reports on the oddest doings around, Civilization’s Last Outpost), but they’re still articles, not journal musings.
Despite the flip tone herewith, we’re not bragging: we’re merely hoping to demonstrate having provided the value you bargained for when you subscribed. The quantity anyhow; about the quality, you must be the judge. I keep saying “we” as if there were more than one of us, and there is. This website is designed (handsomely, I think) and operated (faithfully, without question) by my partner, Jeremy Lambros, who recently moved to Illinois (my balliwick) from Los Angeles. Jeremy handles all the technical machinations—subscription accounts, book purchasing, posting articles and installments and illustrations, everything but the actual writing of the material and selection of illustrations. Oh, and I mail the Harvey-authored books from here, Rancid Raves Central, whenever he tells me we’ve sold something. The used book sales are handled entirely by me, sales and shipping. Opus One of R&R is dated May 5, 1999; so we’ve been doing this, Jeremy and I, for seven-and-a-half years, with amazing regularity. Well, I’m amazed anyhow. In this throw-away culture of ours, very little lasts for seven-and-a-half years. But we do. Proving that Rancid Raves are forever. And we’re glad you’re still with us. No one has cancelled, by the way, that I know of; and the number of subscribers has steadily increased. So you may console yourself that you are part of a burgeoning enterprise. And herewith, we’re off and running for the 195th time.
NOUS R US
All the news that gives us fits.
The Muslim world is not finished with the Danes yet. While we were all voting on this side of the Atlantic, on the other side, in Kuwait City, lawmakers also voted, 25-12, passing a non-binding resolution to sever diplomatic ties with Denmark. Some of the body wanted similar action taken against the Vatican for the Pope’s having insulted the Prophet Muhammad. One member of the National Assembly, speaking, doubtless, for others, felt that Islamic governments had failed to address the issue forcefully enough and urged that all Muslim countries join in boycotting Danish products. The feeling among some was that if stern (financial) measures are not taken, attacks on the Prophet will continue. “We are not true Muslims as we failed miserably to defend our religion,” said one, quoted in the Arab Times online. It’s been over a year since the insulting cartoons first appeared, but there have been other incidents in Denmark. And in the minds of many, the blasphemy began long before the Danish Dozen surfaced: the “war on Islam” began in 2001 with September 11 “when Islam was linked to terrorism” by the American president. ... In the Arabian Sea’s atoll nation of Maldives, political action took other forms. There, cartoonist Ahmed Abbas fled the local authorities, seeking asylum at the United Nations offices. The UN, unable to grant political asylum except when an individual’s life is immediately threatened, refused refuge. According to the Minivan News report, Abbas’ life was not in danger: he was simply seeking to avoid serving a six-month prison sentence as a result of being convicted of “disobedience”—that is, for making comments in August 2005 that could be interpreted as encouraging people to assault the police. In a Minivan Daily article, Abbas suggested that the way to treat the police “who beat us is to seek them out individually and for us to act in such a manner that makes them feel that beatings result in pain.” Abbas denied that he intended to incite physical attacks on police. Supporters of Abbas claimed he was tried “in absentia,” a violation of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights “which the [Maldives] government has recently signed. Their commitment to human rights on paper does not translate to commitment to human rights in practice,” according to a spokesman for the opposition political party. The government defended its action by saying that Abbas was repeatedly summoned to trial but failed to show up in court. The cartoonist, known for his sarcastic cartoons for Minivan and websites opposing the government, said he never received a summons. Every side seems to have a valid point-of-view, but the government’s crime remains unexcused and unexcusable: exercising its inherently superior powers, it brought faux legal action against a citizen for speaking out against an abuse of power. Abbas is now in Maafushi prison; two of his editors at Minivan have been charged with “disobedience,” and journalists from the U.S. and Britain were arrested and held for several hours and then put on flights out of the country. The Malvides government was cracking down in anticipation of a demonstration by the opposition party that took place on Friday, November 9.
In France, meanwhile, another cartoonist is being harassed by authorities, this time for actual cartooning. Khalid Gueddar, who cartooned for the Moroccan weekly Demain Magazine until it was banned “and its editor, Lmrabet, was sentenced to three years in prison,” left the country and now lives in France with his family, but he continues to draw satirical cartoons for various newspapers and the website Bakchich.info, according to a report at rsf.org. His present troubles apparently stem from his cartoon accompanying an article by Lmrabet “questioning the will of the Moroccan authorities to stamp out drug trafficking.” After publication of the cartoon, gendarmes repeatedly visited Gueddar’s family inquiring into the cartoonist’s activities. These visits, said Reporters Without Borders, are “grotesque” and constitute “a form of harassment and intimidation that we firmly condemn.” ... And in England in a trial in the Old Bailey, a British Muslim denied the charges that he incited murder and used racist language last February in Central London during a protest against the Danish Dozen. A microphone was thrust into his hands during the rally of 300 protesters, he claimed, and he began shouting the slogans on the placards in the crowd around him, some of which called for beheading those who insulted Islam. “I was repeating what I heard in other speeches,” said Mizanur Rahman, 23, “and I didn’t think about what I was saying or the consequences. ... I feel almost ashamed,” he continued, “—I feel the words didn’t make sense. I didn’t think anyone would take me seriously. I didn’t intend for anyone to be harmed or attacked, let alone to be killed.” To no avail: the Guardian reports that the jury found him “guilty of using threatening, abusive or insulting words, or behavior with intent to stir racial hatred.” The jury was deadlocked on the second charge, inciting murder; the crown will seek a retrial.
On the Danish Dozen, Garry Trudeau, asked by the San Francisco Chronicle why U.S. news media declined, almost universally, to publish the cartoons, said: “I assume because they believe, correctly, it is unnecessarily inflammatory. It’s legal to run them, but is it wise? The Danish editor who started all this actually recruited cartoonists to draw offensive cartoons (some of those he invited declined). And why did he do it? To demonstrate that in a Western liberal society he could. Well, we already knew that. Some victory for freedom of expression. An editor who deliberately sets out to provoke or hurt people because he’s worried about ‘self-censorship’ is not an editor I’d care to work for.” Asked if he would include any images of the Prophet Muhammad in Doonesbury, Trudeau said: “No. Nor will I be using any imagery that mocks Jesus Christ.” Much as I admire Trudeau, I’m not sure he has the Danish editor’s motive right. As I understand it, the cartoon project was undertaken in order to test—or to demonstrate—the extent to which the secular press is intimidated by Muslim attitudes. The effort did more than that, as it turns out: it also dramatized the cultural gulf that exists between the Muslim and Western societies. The immediate consequences approached tragedy, but I suspect both societies are now more sensitive to their differences and how to negotiate their way around them than they were before, when each seemed to exist in profound ignorance of the other—and, sadly, proud of it.
On about October 19, according to the Christian Science Monitor, 38 Muslim scholars from 20 countries sent the Pope a letter urging mutual tolerance and respect, and 500 prominent Muslims signed a religious ruling rejecting violence against civilians. Neither action got much publicity, but when Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s No. 2, issues a videotaped pronouncement, it is picked up by every news medium, worldwide.
Lost Girls, Top Shelf’s three-volume erotic graphic novel by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie, has been selling faster than the publisher can print it. The first run of 10,000 sold out upon release; the second 10,000, released in October, also sold out. And about 17,000 of the third printing’s 20,000 press run are obligated to backorders. Porn sells, but we knew that, eh? A fourth printing is already anticipated, especially since the book has been approved for sale in Canada. ICv2 quotes a letter from Shawn Ewart, Senior Program Advisor of the Prohibited Importations Unit, to Top Shelf attorney Darrel Pearson explaining the findings in two key areas, depictions of incest and bestiality, and of sex involving persons under 18. With regard to the depictions of incest and bestiality, Ewart said, "...these depictions are integral to the development of an intricate, imaginative and artfully rendered storyline....[T]he portrayal of sex
is necessary to a wider artistic and literary purpose." Similarly, with regard to depictions of sex involving persons under 18, Ewart said, "...these representations serve a legitimate purpose related to art and to the very detailed story about the sexual awakening and development of the three main female characters. Furthermore, it is my opinion that this item does not pose an undue
risk of harm to persons under the age of 18 years." No publisher could ask for better publicity.
Citing increased paper costs, Gladstone has suspended four of its six Disney titles, retaining only Uncle Scrooge and Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, saith Steve Bennett at ICv2. ... Marvel Entertainment reported a year-over-year sales gain of 14% for the third quarter even though net income dropped from $23.4 million to $13.2 million, according to ICv2. Surprisingly, publishing revenues were greater than licensing income, which was down “in large part because of a decline in revenues from the Spider-Man property, which has become the major engine driving Marvel’s licensing sales.” This is encouraging news: everyone knew that 2006 would be “a tough one for the company” because there were no movie releases this year and because the company had to take over its own toy manufacturing. Among Marvel’s next challenges is proving that it can produce in-house highly successful films based on its own properties, a test that will commence with the 2008 release of the Iron Man movie.
PW Comics Week lists the year’s best graphic novels: Lost Girls, Fun Home, Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness, Making Comics, Ghost of Hoppers, Curses, American Born Chinese, Can’t Get No, The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, and Dragon Head Vol. 1. At Amazon.com, the year’s top ten are (in order from the top): American Born Chinese, The Last Christmas, Fun Home, Abandon The Old in Tokyo, Billy Hazelnuts, Lost Girls, War Fix, The 9/11 Report, Revelations, and Ohikkoshi. The criterion, I’d guess, is sales rather than aesthetic quality. In the latter category, one of the number, American Born Chinese, an allegory on Chinese-American identity, is up for the National Book Award in a few weeks. The novelist, Gene Yang, professed amazement: “It’s crazy,” he told Tim Leong at comicfoundry.com. And he doesn’t expect to win. “I think it’s already so crazy that they nominated a graphic novel,” Yang said. “If they actually gave it to a graphic novel—I don’t know—my brain would melt. Honestly, I really do feel that by getting the nomination, I won already. It was completely unexpected.”
The December issue of Playboy carries two new Dedini cartoons; I just knew the magazine had an inventory of unpublished Dedini, and there are probably a few more in the offing. The new cartoon editor, incidentally, is Jennifer Thiele, succeeding the late Michelle Urry.
From Editor & Publisher. Ted Rall, hoping to eliminate all typographical and grammatical errors for the second edition of his newest book, Silk Road to Ruin, is offering prizes to those who find “new” (previously undetected) typos—“one sketch per typo,” he said. Anyone who finds 15 such glitches will receive “the original artwork for one of my recent syndicated cartoons.” In the book, which combines prose and cartoon reportage, Rall tells of his travels through “the Stans,” oil rich erstwhile Soviet states in Central Asia where brutal dictators clash with Islamist guerillas, the elderly starve while oilmen deal, and looters careen through the countryside looking to sell “disinterred nuclear missiles.” The region is the “next thing” for American foreign policy, Rall believes, and yet the government is virtually ignoring it. ... At Universal Press, Mark Tatulli’s May-launched pantomime strip, Lio, has now signed up 150 subscribing papers, “the strongest comic release since The Boondocks in 1999.” The Boondocks started with 160 subscribers and reached 200 within six months. ... Dave Kellett’s Sheldon strip has moved from United Media’s Comic.com website to its own site, SheldonComics.com. Although I’ve been reading the strip for a year or so at the United Media site, I never knew that Sheldon is a software billionaire boy; I just thought he was a kid with a pet duck and a nearly clueless grandfather. ... Two children’s books by syndicated cartooners were among the “Teachers’ Picks: Best of 2006" in Parent & Child magazine: The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Basil by Non Sequitur’s Wiley Miller and Just Like Heaven by Mutts creator Patrick McDonnell. ... George W. (“Whopper”) Bush was the easy winner in the 5th annual “Weasel Awards” competition at Dilbert.com: GeeDubya got 15,447 votes with Donald Rumsfeld a distant second, only 5,216 votes. The “Weaseliest Country” was the U.S. (9,121) with North Korea a near second (9,110). ...
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.
Every year when it seems autumn is about to flutter away into winter, the Comic Art Professional Society (CAPS) has a banquet to honor a fellow ink-slinger. Honorees recently have included Mell Lazarus and Will Eisner, to name a couple. CAPS, which hangs its headgear in Los Angeles, was started in 1977 by Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, and Don Rico, and last spring as the CAPS Board began to contemplate the annual fall fandango, they probably thought it was about time, after almost thirty years, to invent a trophy to give the honoree. Naturally, they approached Sergio and asked him to design the statuette. He did. It depicts in three comedic dimensions a small cartoonist holding a giant pen and standing on one foot on a laptop computer, his other foot stuck in an ink bottle. The computer recognizes that CAPS membership includes writers as well as cartooners. The Board was delighted and turned Sergio’s sketch over to Ruben Procopio, a sculptor who has devised many of Disney’s maquettes. Then the Board began cudgeling its collective brain for a name for the award.
“All good awards have a name,” CAPS prexy Chad Frye wrote, “—the Oscar, the Emmy, the Reuben, the Golden Globe, the Eisner, Miss Congeniality—you name it.” And so they struggled to do just that, name it. “We tossed around a few ideas, but the more we thought about it, the more it was obvious. This new CAPS award should be called ‘The Sergio.’” By one of those giddy happenstances, everyone who learned about the name was delighted with it. Except Sergio, whose feelings about it weren’t, at the time, known: he wasn’t told about it until—well, you’ll see. “When even outsiders heard that Sergio was designing the CAPS award, they asked if we were going to call it ‘The Sergio,’” Frye wrote. Obviously, the name was perfect. Then, the plot began, as all good plots do, to thicken to a delicious broth. Procopio learned of the trophy’s name, and he made a change to the design Sergio had submitted: he modified the face of the miniature cartooner so it would look like one of Sergio’s self-caricatures. Here’s a copy of Sergio’s original sketch and a photograph of the trophy itself.
Meanwhile, the Board had decided to honor Mad cartoonist Jack Davis at the annual banquet. So on October 21, Davis was presented with the first Sergio for lifetime achievement. Then, before Sergio himself could react to this unanticipated christening of the product of his devising, he was called up to the podium and presented with the second Sergio. That was Sergio’s second surprise; then came the third surprise—that the little sculpted cartooner looks like its second recipient. The CAPS newsletter (a booklet, actually) was produced for the banquet in two editions, one for each honoree. Inside each are unique drawings contributed by admirers; here, for your delection, is a selection.
Notice that although the date of the dinner is the same on the covers of the booklets, the times are different.
Persiflage and Badinage
“In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.” —Albert Einstein
“If everybody’s thinking the same thing, then nobody’s thinking.” —George Patton
“Being a celebrity is probably the closest to being a beautiful woman as you can get.” —Kevin Costner
“The statistics on sanity are that one out of every four Americans is suffering from some form of mental illness. Think of your three best friends. If they’re okay, then it’s you.” —Rita Mae Brown
“Ninety-eight percent of the adults in this country are decent, hard-working, honest Americans. It’s the other lousy two percent that get all the publicity. But then, we elected them.” —Lili Tomlin
NOW PLAYING IN THE SANDBOX
A New Department at Doonesbury.com
Michael Yon in The Weekly Standard asked recently: “How are our troops doing in Iraq?” His answer: “Who knows?” Part of the problem, Yon believes, is that the news media are not covering the story adequately. There are only nine reporters—“only two of them working for domestic U.S. media”—embedded with the troops, “compared to 770 during the initial invasion.” More significant, however, are the obstacles in the way of journalists seeking to report events outside the protected Green Zone in Baghdad. Obviously, the Pentagon doesn’t trust the press, especially in a war about which most news is bad. But, said The Week, “refusing to let reporters cover the actual fighting does a disservice to the troops.” Added Yon: “The government has no right to withhold information or to deny access to our combat forces just because that information might anger, frighten, or disturb us.”
Garry Trudeau’s latest venture won’t solve this problem, exactly, but it will come closer than straight journalism has so far come. On October 8, Trudeau launched The Sandbox, a military blog, on his www.Doonesbury.com website. The announcement was made in the Sunday installment of Doonesbury by the character Ray Hightower, a soldier: “Hey, folks,” Hightower begins; “you may have heard how dangerous it’s become for the press to cover operations OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom) and OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom). Result: the public feels increasingly disconnected from the troops in the field. Solution: let the troops report on themselves.” And that’s what The Sandbox is for. It’s a “command-wide milblog from the Global War on Terror, where anyone stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan could operate in ‘a clean, lightly edited debriefing environment where ALL content, no matter how robust, is secured by the First Amendment. So if you support the troops—but haven’t a clue what they’re actually up to—you owe it to yourself to log onto The Sandbox,’” Hightower finishes.
The focus is not on policy or partisanship; the website has a comment section, Blowback, for that. Instead, soldiers tell stories about some of the events of their daily lives, “the unclassified details of deployment—the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd.” At first, Trudeau and his staff combed the universe of milblogs and picked pieces to run in The Sandbox. “But now,” he told Pam Platt at the Louisville Courier-Journal, “most of what we’re posting is original. ... Initially, we were mostly worried about whether we’d get enough contributions to sustain the quality, but those concerns proved unfounded. ... We can really handle only three or four pieces a day. Obviously, we’re looking for variety—in authorship, tone and subject matter—but we’re open to anything people want to submit. Other than requesting a military address (we list the milblog URLs), we’re not in a position to verify authenticity. But there’s little braggadocio in these dispatches. They’re mostly thoughtful, heartfelt reactions.”
The Sandbox, although read by soldiers in the field, is intended chiefly for the homefront, Trudeau said. But it can’t be seen as a “bellwether for gauging troop morale.” Said the cartoonist: “It’s much too anecdotal and random. The writers represent only a handful of the 140,000 troops serving.” And the bloggers are self-selected, which means they are the sort of people “who enjoy writing,” Trudeau said, “and response to their work matters to them, so they take some care.” The site is “very well edited by David Stanford,” Trudeau added, “a former senior editor at Viking-Penguin, who has impeccable taste and an invisible hand.”
Writing about Doonesbury generally—with particular reference, doubtless, to BD’s loss of a leg in combat and his rehabilitation over the ensuing months—David Hinckley at the New York Daily News observed that “Trudeau has managed something many war supporters maintain is not possible: taking the side of the troops who are fighting the war while consistently lampooning those who got them into it.” And The Sandbox is another instance of Trudeau’s contention that “whether you think we belong in Iraq or not, we can’t tune it out; we have to remain mindful of the terrible losses that individual soldiers are suffering in our name.”
The entries in The Sandbox are moving vignettes of soldiers’ lives, their thoughts and feelings, and sometimes of the thoughts and feelings of their spouses left at home. Here are excerpts from a couple. (For a better sample, go to http://gocomics.typepad.com/the_sandbox/ .) The first brims with poetic brio.
Isn't it amazing the way time can play tricks on you? Have you ever sat in a classroom, or a meeting, and felt that the clock was taunting you? Or been in a situation where time sped past because you were enjoying the activity so much? Rare is the man or woman who seems satisfied with the passage of time, as if since we created our sundials and calendars we can control it.
How would it be if we didn’t have clocks? How was it?
"I'll meet you at Starbucks at high noon."
"When the shadow is longer than the stick, I'll depart."
"I'm being deployed to Iraq for twelve moons."
Time can be seen as both a curse and a blessing, then. When you want something to last forever, your mind perceives it as going by faster; a song you love, the life of someone you care for or depend on, a good book, childhood, a cruise to the Caribbean. And when you want something to end, oh man the time simply drags; your morning commute in traffic, the mother of all meetings, a deployment to Iraq, the time spent waiting for results of a medical test.
The mechanisms inside the clock aren’t wrong. They’re pretty much constant. The cycles of sun, moon, tide, and season are not false. They rule our lives.
Out here in the desert, Time is King; the minutes are his minions, and the months his sabers by which you are knighted. The King controls all that you do, when you come and go, and how long until you see your children. Every mission and order is based on a strict time schedule. We are deployed for a year, "boots on the ground,” so 365 becomes a mystical combination of integers, a mantra, a prayer.
We are nothing more than Australopithecus in a uniform, or a burka, or an expensive tailored suit. From the geographical perspective, humankind's time on this earth is less than the blink of an eye. Plate tectonics dismiss us. Volcanoes are too wise to notice our antics.
We study anthropology even as we live within it. We fly and drive and move around this planet, on these continents; we live and we fight. We are caricatures of ourselves, cartoon nations embroiled in our global struggles. The mountains fold their arms and they watch. We used to fight for food or a mate. Now we fight for freedom or money.
When you find yourself as a soldier in Iraq, holding some of the finest tools in your hands, the modern equivalents to stone and flint, to a rock swung from a stick to snare the hunted, you can’t help it, you count the days. It's a reflexive reaction. Hit my knee with a rubber mallet.
You track the hours, the seconds, and the months. X amount of Sundays left. X amount of weeks. I will eat in this chow hall X many more times. This many times I will lie in this bed and stare at the cracks in this ceiling. Like the wallpaper in the home you grew up in, you don’t even notice it anymore. You just cast your thoughts upon its patterns and let your mind roam free.
And just because you're in the desert and the sights and sounds are so surreal, and you’ve forgotten what America smells like at 9:00 in the morning as you walk past your neighbor's garden or the bakery on the corner, you act as if the possibility and difficulty of life is a finite thing, while your true path lays spread before you like a virtual chess board. Pawn or King? Bishop or Rook? Should I move forward slowly, or attack my fate with a flank?
"To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else." —Emily Dickinson
RCH: And then we hear from a wife in Seattle:
Things I've done that I might not have if my husband were here:
1) Set up the TV, VCR, amp, and cable
2) Programmed a universal remote
3) Put my clothes in both sides of the dresser instead of squishing them into just half
4) Assembled a table
5) Slept alone for 39 days and counting
6) Watched Gilmore Girls every Tuesday without argument (for once!)
7) Ate cereal for breakfast and dinner
8) Used the power-drill...twice
Being alone provides some unique opportunities and helps you discover new interests. I liked the buzz of the power drill, the burn in my arm from the weight up over my head. I like having ultimate, un-interrupted, guilt-free control of the remote. I like having time to plant a garden, to use the shovel. I decidedly don't like spending nights sitting alone on the couch, but that has pushed me into new activities, more involvement, and there is nothing wrong with more distractions.
RCH: Yes, blessed be the distractions.
Matt Wuerker has found employment. At last. Sort of. Wuerker has earned his living for the last 25 years as a freelancer, but starting November 21, he’ll be the staff cartoonist for The Capitol Leader, a new newspaper in Washington, D.C. “I’ve been self-employed for so long I just pray I remember to pull my pants on when I go to work,” he said in the report posted at editorialcartoonists.com, the website of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. The Capitol Leader will be published three times a week while Congress is in session, competing with Roll Call and The Hill. Wuerker heard about the new paper a couple months ago and submitted samples. “My editor sees the intrinsic value of having original [editorial] cartoons from an in-house cartoonist—imagine that!” said Wuerker. He’ll also do caricatures and other art for the paper, and he’ll keep doing some freelance work.
One of editoonery’s Grand Old Masters, Paul Conrad, who was forced into retirement in 1993 by his host paper, the Los Angeles Times, but keeps on turning out cartoons for syndication several times a week—“As long as I’ve still got interest, I don’t see any sense in quitting”—is the subject of a PBS hour-long special in the “Independent Lens” series. Conrad, who’s a peevish opinionated 82 these days, is as “combative” as ever, says Lynn Elber, the AP’s tv writer. And he clearly relishes uttering a bon mot that will shock, which he does with a fiendish grin several times during the hour. Conrad’s ire is directed sometimes at his own profession. He has little regard for the current trend among some editoonists for comic strips rather than single panel cartoons. Said he: “It’s dialogue, long conversations, from one panel to another. Some have a political point but when you get finished reading them, you knew that at the beginning. So what am I doing reading ’em?” And he has no use whatsoever for political commentary on the comics page. “Who the hell’s gonna go to the comics page to find out what’s going on with any given political subject?” he snorts. The program shows a great number of Conrad’s cartoons, too many, alas, without readable captions—and the artform, remember, is a blend of pictures and words—and the images are too fleeting, but there are enough of them to convey the undeniable truth that Conrad is a master of the visual metaphor. I remember one of his first stunningly effective ones: during the worldwide unhappiness over South Africa’s apartheid, he drew the continent as the head of a black man, thrown back, mouth open in a silent scream. I suppose Conrad did metaphorical images before that, but that one was so powerful, that he latched more firmly than before onto the image as the vehicle for his opinion. Words were incorporated into the image, but the image alone was the sledge hammer driving the point of the words home.
One of the on-the-air consultants is Chris Lamb, author of Drawn to Extremes, a recent, and very good, historical review of editorial cartooning in this country. At one point, he asserts that only about 3 percent of the nation’s daily newspapers have full-time editoonists on staff; that translates to about 45 papers, but I think there are almost twice as many full-time political cartoonists at work. The profession is among the endangered species, no question, and in days of yore, editoonists were much more numerous. But 3 percent is a tragic low ebb, and I don’t think we’re there yet.
What To Do After the Election. On Monday, November 6, the day before Election Day, Jim Borgman, who’s celebrating his thirty-year anniversary as the staff political cartoonist at the Cincinnati Enquirer, pondered aloud at “Borg’s Blog” the dilemma of the editorial cartoonist on the day after Election Day. “It’s nearly impossible to say something worthwhile in the Wednesday morning newspaper on the day after an election,” he wrote. The cartoon must go into production early the preceding evening, usually before election returns are complete, so the cartoon can’t be about who won and who lost unless the outcome was a foregone conclusion; and if that’s the case, what’s so important as to deserve cartoon commentary? The predictability gives that cartoon “a hollow feel,” Borgman said. And if the races were close, what editoonist would hazard a guess, however educated, about the outcome? The solution for many editorial cartoonists is to turn away from the election and comment on some other issue, Borgman said. But “this tends to make one look clueless, commenting on, say, global warming or the Bengals’ season when everyone else wakes up wanting to talk about election results.” Too often, he continues, the day-after cartoon comments “on the need to clean up the yard signs.” There is no good solution: “You can’t write (or draw) journalism before it happens,” Borman concludes.
The political cartooner’s predicament, however, suggests a pleasant pastime for the day after—surveying the editoon landscape to see how the inky-fingered fraternity sorted through the lack-luster options available to them. Borgman, for instance, focused on state races, which, in Ohio, will doubtless reverberate in the next national election: if the Grand Old Party is no longer in control of the state apparatus, then perhaps the voting in 2008 won’t be tampered with. Happily, the Republicans lost widely, so Borgman appropriated an Iraq invasion image, depicting the GOP elephant as a statue being toppled from its pedestal in front of the state house. Safe enough. Borgman’s comment is a workmanlike achievement but nothing startling and doesn’t intimate anything for 2008 or fixing elections. I haven’t scanned the entire national output for the day, but I found four that seemed above the cut of ordinary clever, and in one case, even a little edgy. Jeff Danziger, as we’ve come to expect, is deliciously vicious, depicting Darth Cheney and GeeDubya as mad dogs finally caged. Wayne Stayskal, whose bent is conservative, puts the best face on the Republican losses by reminding us that even in the wake of tragedy, the sun also rises. Stuart Carlson creates a nicely ambiguous comedy, applicable regardless of the election outcome, and with a message about the importance of voting. Mike Lester made me laugh, though—and with a handily pointed commentary, too.
Plagiarism Again. At the New York Post, editoonist Sean Delonas was caught in what some think is an act of plagiarism. His “America’s Referendum” cartoon reminded the Gawker at gawker.com of a Jim Borgman cartoon from 1990. Here are both. The outraged Gawker shrieks on, spewing sarcasm: “Now we’re not trying to imply that Delonas plagiarized the idea—as we’ve seen before, all cartoonists are hacks. And, you know, 1990 was a long time ago: there’s no reason Delonas would remember that cartoon (except maybe that it won the Pulitzer Prize). We’re just gonna chalk this one up to coincidence, right?” A shadow of a spiteful irony falls across this tableau: a couple years ago, Borgman was accused of ripping off a Jeff MacNelly cartoon. In Borgman’s case, according to those who saw both cartoons (I didn’t), the drawings were startlingly similar, virtually line for line; with the Delonas dominoes, it’s only the idea that is borrowed, not the drawing. Borgman was suitably chagrined and apologetic, saying the MacNelly drawing was burned in his subconscious and bubbled up to consciousness when he needed just that image—he wasn’t consciously copying, in other words. As I said at the time, this kind of copy-catting in a profession with “swipe files” in its DNA is not only predictable but expected. Every aspiring young cartoonist is encouraged to start and maintain a “morgue”—a file of visual references, photographs, drawings, etc., that he or she may need to consult on occasion for hints about how to draw some unfamiliar object. No one expects that the cartoonist will copy, line-for-line, a cartoon that might be filed in his morgue; but no one would be surprised to discover a cartoonist copying a drawing, nearly line-for-line. The history of cartooning is filled with examples of “swipes” of this kind. The more able cartooners resort to photographs only (or pictures in Sears catalogues) to avoid copying another artist’s work. But in a craft dealing in visual imagery, the line between imitation and inspiration is not as clear as the Gawker and his breed suppose it is. How many editoonists have used the image of the Saddam statue being toppled—a photograph now nearly iconic—deploying it, as Borgman did for the election in Ohio, to signal regime change? How many have used a variation of the famed photo of the marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima? Too many to list. Are they all plagiarists?
The test of the cartoonist’s skill is in how effectively he uses an image, not in whether the image is entirely original with his cartoon. Borgman’s use of the dominoes in his 1990 cartoon was far more potent than Delonas’ use of the same device. In 1990, most of us still remembered the “domino theory” that inspired our disastrous Vietnam adventure: the theory was that if one country “fell” to communism, then the next country would soon fall, and so on. Like dominoes in a row, one country would topple the next and so on until the whole world was communist. Borgman used the self-same domino theory, symbolized by the dominoes, against the communist regime in the Soviet Union, which heightened the drama in Gorbachev’s fall from power and the ultimate collapse of the Soviet communist monolith. Applying the domino theory to the Bush League in the recent election doesn’t work as powerfully. Incidentally, one of the editoon fraternity, commenting on Delonas’ alleged swipe of Borgman, noted that he had a much older example of the same image being used in a Mike Peters cartoon done during the Nixon era, long before 1990.
A few weeks ago, the student cartoonist at Harvard’s campus newspaper, The Crimson, was accused of stealing the image of North Korea’s Kim Jong II with his oddly erect hair-do transformed into the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb explosion. Daryl Cagle was one of several editoonists whose work was cited as being the inspiration. Cagle said he drew his “mushroom-do Kim” three years ago. Cagle, at his blog (http://Cagle.MSNBC.com), noted that political cartoonists frequently come up with the same image at about the same time. In the cultural backwater that we have occupied for several decades, literary and Biblical allusions no longer work: too many of the body politic are no longer familiar enough with Shakespeare or the Bible for images invoked from either to have impact. Editoonists are forced to rely on popular culture for their images—television programs and advertising campaigns, mostly. Under the circumstances, it’s not too surprising when we see the same imagery being used by several cartoonists addressing the same issue. At his editorial cartoon website, Cagle has coined a word for such occurrences whenever five or more such duplications surface: he calls them “Yahtzees,” using a term from a game by that name. Cagle goes on: “Editors are as much to blame for this phenomenon because they all want the same thing from cartoonists: Jay Leno style funny jokes about the news that convey no opinion at all. ... When editors all want the same thing from a cartoonist, and cartoonists are all drawing on the same topics at the same time [and fishing in the same shallow pool for imagery, as I said], it is no wonder that we come up with the simple, easy, first-gag-that-comes-to-mind.” In the case he was discussing, the “mushroom-do Kim.” Delonas isn’t dealing with a popular culture image that is as current as it once was (when Borgman used dominoes), but it can scarcely be called an act of plagiarism. Not in cartooning. Not yet. And perhaps never.
The current spate of accusations about plagiarism in editooning undoubtedly stem from the detection of other, more blatant, thefts that have been committed in the prose columns of some of the nation’s top newspapers. Alarmingly, fiction as well as robbery has been perpetrated in newsstories. As a result, journalistic antenna are up; every editor is on guard, sniffing for plagiarism and fabrication anywhere in his newsprint. Suddenly, those in a profession that advocates “swipe files” as a tool of the trade are being held to a standard their training and traditions never contemplated. Confusion reigns. Most plagiarism is not illegal, by the way: it’s typically thought to be highly unethical but usually not against the law—unless someone is making great wads of lucre from someone else’s idea or infringing upon copyrighted material, in which case, it’s copyright law that’s being broken, not plagiarism law, which, to the best of my knowledge, doesn’t exist. Regardless, cartoonists who want to achieve a measure of professional standing should probably not use images in precisely the same way that others in the fraternity have used before them. Strive for originality. That’s what the great ones did, and do. That’s why Paul Conrad is a great political cartoonist. He also sometimes misfires completely, using an image that is either ambiguous or too removed from popular comprehension. That’s the risk he takes for originality.
Many of the editooning brotherhood complain about the quality of the political cartoons published in weekly roundups. Said Daryl Cagle, voicing a commonly held opinion: “Newsweek magazine is an ugly culprit, reprinting opinionless gag cartoons, week after week. ... Time does it, too, and with all the hundreds of cartoons to choose from every week, they often print the very same cartoons in their cartoon roundup that Newsweek does.” The problem begins at home, though, with the newspaper editors who prefer jokes in the editorial cartoons they publish: jokes won’t anger subscribers who might, in a fit of pique, cancel their subscriptions. Even if editors didn’t demand more chuckles than knuckles, they’dget a certain number of the former. Cartoonists are, after all, cartoonists, and they like to vary their pitches, sometimes producing a gag cartoon instead of a thought-provoking one. (Gag cartoons, in this linguistic progression, must, perforce, gag the readers if thought-provoking ones provoke thoughts.) It’s refreshing, in this tepid climate, to discover a weekly newsmagazine that publishes opinionated cartoons. The Week publishes a page of them every week, sometimes two pages. The cartoons are not necessarily sterling examples of the art of visual metaphor. And not every cartoon is a hard-hitting one, but most are; and none seem to go just for a laugh. Here’s the page from October 27.
Short Notes about New Books, Just Arriving or Just About To
Jeff Danziger has a new collection of his political cartoons out, Blood, Debt & Fears: Cartoons of the First Half of the Last Half of the Bush Administration (320 7x10-inch pages, black-and-white; paperback, $14.95). Jules Feiffer’s back-cover assessment is beautifully pungent and wholly accurate: “Jeff Danziger’s muscular line cracks like a whip, flailing into shreds the hypocrisies that make up the body politics. Drawing like a dream, he renders these smart, witty (often hilarious) comic nightmares. His rage is our solace.” I love that: “His rage is our solace.” Indeed. Danziger can’t caricature worth a toot, but his draftsmanship otherwise is superb, easily the equal of the other drawing masters, Pat Oliphant and Jim Borgman. The stunning cartoons arrayed chronologically (and dated) in this volume are accompanied by Danziger’s prose comments; intended, probably, to put each cartoon into the context and climate that inspired it, his remarks have a bite of their own, too.
Another editoonist who never pulls his punches, two-time Pulitzer and one-time Reuben Award winner Mike Luckovich at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has a new collection, too: Four More Wars (248 6x8-inch pages, b/w; paperback, $16.95). This compilation is arranged by topic—Bush, Cheney, Iraq, 9/11, Campaign 2004, etc.—and Luckovich supplies a short introduction to each section. “Bush is a walking disaster,” he writes to kick off that section. “In virtually every aspect, America is in worse shape because of his actions, from his handling of Iraq, to the tax cuts, to ignoring global warming, Katrina, the war on science, illegal wire-tapping, torture, Harriet Miers—the list is endless.” But, he continues, “two groups have overwhelmingly benefitted by having Bush in office: rich people and cartoonists.” The book includes some intriguing extras: Luckovich’s reports on his trip on Air Force One with Bill Clinton (and the cartoon, a self-caricature, that Clinton drew at Luckovich’s request), his visit to Rumsfeld’s kingdom in the Pentagon where he participated in a macho one-armed push-ups contest with one of the brass, and the White House Press Corps Dinner that he and fellow editoonist Mike Peters attended, prankishly affixing phone cords in their ears in imitation of Secret Service operatives. Henry Kissinger assumed they were security personnel and asked them to escort him; they did. Later, they stationed themselves at the metal detector through which all guests had to pass, “telling people they had to take their shoes off and stuff like that. Nobody did, believe it or not.”
As coincidence would have it—coming hard on the heels of our long disquisition last time on Charles Addams—the master of the macabre is on a calendar for 2007, an “engagement calendar” measuring 8x14 inches and offered at a bargain price, $4.98, by Daedalus Books at www.salebooks.com. At the same destination, you can find Patrick McDonnell’s 2007 Mutts wall calendar, 12x24 inches, for another mere $4.98.
“If ‘The Flintstones’ has taught us anything, it’s that pelicans can be used to mix cement.” —Dunno Who
Rancid Raves Gallery
A new feature of our online extravaganza this time, a gallery of art without much reason for being here except as examples of the craft of cartooning. At comic conventions last summer, you could buy any number of “sketchbooks” created by any number of cartooners. Among them, increasingly, are sketchbooks by animators moonlighting in the static realm. One of them, Chris Sanders, lately of “Lilo and Stitch,”populated his booklet with charming Lilo-like sexpots almost too cute to be sexy. And one of his drawings, as I told him when I bought the booklet, offered the most ingenious use of a bikini I’ve ever seen—as a sort of hammock. The visual imagination that resulted in this highly inventive cheesecake is very nearly sublime.
COMIC STRIP WATCH
On November 8, one of the cubicle-dwellers in Dilbert died in his cubical. On November 9, Carol, a co-worker, tells the pointy-haired boss, “We’ve got a dead guy in cubicle D-32.” This may be the first time death has been referred to in a comic strip in such blunt terms. Eighty years ago, no syndicated cartoonist could mention even sickness. Now, we have death. And death as a joke. And this, I strongly suspect, is a step forward in civilization. In the direction of candor, anyhow. ... In Sherman’s Lagoon, neither of the critters running for office, Fillmore the turtle and Hawthorne the hermit crab, won election. They were defeated, they are told, by a write-in candidate—namely, “None of the Above.” “Humiliating,” says Fillmore. “Beaten by a nun,” says Hawthorne. A pun of awesome implications. And religion in a comic strip, too. Will the outrages ever cease?
Meanwhile, in Gasoline Alley, as foretold here a few weeks ago, ol’ Walt Wallet, 106 years young, has traveled by Toonerville Trolley to the Old Comics Home, where, on November 10, we see among the crowd greeting him Li’l Abner, Terry (of Pirates fame), Little King, King Aroo, Andy Gump, Penny, Joe Palooka, Smokey Stover, Offisa Pupp, and others, which, alas, appear too small online for me to detect by actual identity. As usual, cartooner Jim Scancarelli has performed miraculously in presenting these vintage characters, only slightly streamlined for modern consumption. Bravo. ... In Brooke McEldowney’s 9 Chickweed Lane, we are now back on the farm with Edda’s mother, the former college professor Juliette Burber, who is having repeated encounters with the mysterious Thorax, a reputed alien wearing a bucolic bib-overall disguise. Here’s the dialogue from November 8: Juliette says to Thorax, “Your trouble is, you’re insane. You won’t come to grips with reality.” To which Thorax says, “With what part of reality have you come to grips, Dr. Burber?” Silence transpires for two panels as Juliette ponders the matter; then, in the fourth panel, she says: “Okay—I take back the word ‘insane.’” Thorax responds: “I’d rather you didn’t. I’m not done with it yet.” The most refreshing comedic nonsense in comics, no contest.
A NEWCOMER ON THE COMICS PAGE
Our culture seems to foster enough would-be cartoonists to populate a good-sized suburb. Every year, feature syndicates receive thousands of submissions of ideas for comic strips and panel cartoons. King Features, I read somewhere, receives between 5,000 and 7,000 a year. But King launches only one or two, so when a new strip comes out, it deserves a serious look. King’s latest, which started November 12, is The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee, which dwells on the mental gyrations of a ten-year-old boy genius interacting with his father, mother, an in-house grandfather, and his “naive laboratory assistant,” a lab rat named Joules. The strip’s creator, John Hambrock, has been laboring in the vineyards of commercial art since graduating from college in about 1985, for the last decade or so, heading his own agency, In-House Communications, which specializes in industrial advertising, packaging and print design. The first thing we noticed about Edison Lee is that it is drawn in a thoroughly traditional cartoon manner. In other words, it hasn’t the fashionable “contemporary look,” a phrase usually deployed to avoid saying something is badly drawn by someone who can’t draw. Hambrock can draw. His style is not startling in any way, but it is wholly competent, displaying both a confident line and a sure composition sense. Edison’s visage and diminutive dimension suggest what Hambrock later confesses—that he was smitten with Ernie the Elf while working on the Keebler account at one of his previous employments. The second thing we noticed is that the strip is determinedly political: almost every strip gives the precocious Edison an opportunity to make a barbed remark about the state of American politics, all with a marked inclination to the left. Said Hambrock: “His young age and innocence allow me to present social and political commentary in a completely innocuous way. The strip addresses issues and topics that straddle the political spectrum, but it does so through the voice of a very likable child, which makes what he is saying a little less offensive and more digestible to readers. I created this strip purposefully with a little something for everyone,” he continued. “Readers may not always agree with Edison’s particular viewpoints on issues, but I’m hoping that he will at least get them to think for a minute and laugh.”
In one strip, Edison’s father is complaining about how long it will be before he’s eligible to be shop foreman—“two whole years,” he says, “—any idea how long that is?” His wife responds: “Well, if you’re a giant sequoia, it’s a few minutes. To a hamster, it’s more like a lifetime.” And then Edison pipes up: “For a Democrat looking ahead to 2008, it’s an eternity.” In another strip, Edison asks his father if he’s ever cheated on his taxes. “Absolutely not,” says Dad. “People who do cheat wind up getting caught at some point. There aren’t many ways to hide income from the government these days.” And Edison says: “Dress it up as Osama bin Laden, and I guarantee they’ll never trace it.”
While it’s nice to realize that a syndicate thinks there remains a place on the funnies pages of American newspapers for another liberal point-of-view, Edison Lee’s commentary is fairly tame and so calculated that the punchlines are very nearly predictable. The political zingers are almost gratuitous. They are also, as we might expect in the sales kit samples I’ve been quoting, somewhat generic, as if taken directly from a liberal “talking point” list. The reliance upon conventional political cliches can be explained by the nature of the syndication enterprise. The kit, after all, is intended to demonstrate to prospective client newspapers what the strip is about. Given the duration of the initial sales period—several weeks, even months—the commentary must have a fairly long life, and that means Hambrock can’t comment on the news of the day. Perhaps, once the strip gets going, Edison’s observations will become more inventive and edgy by reason of their more immediate reflection of current events. The sales kit has surely laid the foundation for such an eventuality, and we applaud both King and Hambrock for braving what, until quite recently, was the prevailing right-wing climate by lobbing some left-leaning utterances into the public prints, however generic the content must necessarily be during the launch period. We’ll keep an eye out.
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
Cinemactress (a quaint old Time mag coinage) Scarlett Johansson told Allure that people who suppose she is sexually available are mistaken. But, she goes on, “I do believe that human beings are not instinctually monogamous. On some basic level, we are animals, and by instinct we kind of breed accordingly.” Must be something about the movies: in the U.K., Sienna Miller believes the same thing. She kicked Jude Law out of the house last year after she found out he was indulging himself with his children’s nanny, but she’s lately had second thoughts. “Monogamy is a weird thing to me,” she said in Rolling Stone, “—it’s overrated because, let’s face it, we’re all fucking animals.” And it used to be, some eons ago, actresses were socially unacceptable because misguided respectable people thought they were little better than prostitutes.
The U.S. Postal Service is modernizing according to The Week. They’re removing tens of thousands of those street-corner mailboxes because, it is supposed, most people pay bills online and communicate by e-mail. For the same reason, USPS will be phasing out its 23,000 postage-stamp vending machines. The first to go will be those in low-traffic areas, just as the first of the mailboxes to disappear were those that were “underused.”
In the Bush League’s faith-based initiative, 98.3 percent of the $1.7 billion in federal funds awarded to religious organizations went to Christian groups, saith the Boston Globe. Jewish organizations got 1 percent; Muslim, 0.34 percent; interfaith, 0.16 percent. Incidentally, I read in the New York Times some weeks ago that day care centers run by religious groups don’t have to comply with the regulations other day care operations do because religions are exempt from certain kinds of governmental interference, part of the separation of church and state tradition. Privately funded day care centers, though, must comply with the rules and also fill out small mountains of paperwork. We live in interesting times.
In Boston and fourteen other U.S. cities, according to Jane Lampman at the Christian Science Monitor, Muslim Americans included in the annual month of Ramadan a “Humanitarian Day for the Homeless” and set up charitable centers to distribute food, clothing, hygiene kits, and, for children, toys. Charitable giving is one of the “five pillars of Islam,” and this year’s Humanitarian Day expected to serve 18,000 homeless and needy Americans of all faiths.
Tics & Tropes
“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” —Blaise Pascal
“Be good and you will be lonesome.” —Mark Twain
“Good judgment comes from experience, and experience—well, that comes from poor judgment.” —A.A. Milne
“There are plenty of good five-cent cigars in the country. The trouble is, they cost a quarter. What this country really needs is a good five-cent nickel.” —Franklin P. Adams
The Froth Estate
The Alleged News Institution
According to the New York Post, CBS’s Evening News, starring Katie Couric, is back where it started, in third place, with 7.4 million viewers. Charles Gibson got ABC to second place with 7.9 million viewers, but Brian Williams outshone both his competitors, and NBC racked up 8.5 million viewers.
The Library of Congress, according to James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, “is home to one of the world’s great collections of original cartoon art.” Because Congress itself is just across the street to inspire cartoonists, I’m not surprised: with all those legislative shenanigans transpiring so close by, the cartoons should be great. By reason of its unfettered non-sequiturial grandeur, that statement is so completely beside the point as to be simple nonsense. But the Library of Congress (LOC) is neither simple nor nonsensical. It was founded in 1800 as a reference resource for Congress. At the time, it was believed that lawmakers ought to know something about the matters they create laws for; that quaint belief has been discarded in recent times. Nowadays, all that is required of a Congressman is that he channel to his district back home as much of the nation’s tax revenue as he or she can. The LOC started collecting and preserving cartoons and caricatures almost at once. And Congressmen, too, have ever since then been eager to accumulate their own private collections of cartoons, giving special preference to those that ridicule them. Thomas Jefferson aided and abetted the original LOC scheme by leaving all his books to the Library of Congress, and the LOC has grown and improved its scope ever since with gifts from other public spirited souls. One of the most recent acquisitions is the Art Wood Collection, “the most comprehensive private collection of original, historical American cartoon art known to exist,” Billington assures us. Again, I’m not surprised—at the extent of Wood’s collection. He was (and still happily is, at last report) one of the great collectors of the world.
Art Wood began collecting original cartoon art at the age of twelve or thirteen, and he’s probably in his eighties now, so he’s been collecting a long time. He started by visiting the Washington Star’s editorial cartoonist, Cliff Berryman, who gave him one of his son Jim’s cartoons and one of his own. When Wood found out that syndicates routinely destroyed comic strip art once it had been reproduced and distributed, he persuaded the pertinent factotums to let him paw through the heaps of original art for the best samples for his collection. And when Wood became an editorial cartoonist himself, he approached his colleagues; he even approached me one time, and I sent him one of my unpublished gag cartoons (of which I had several thousand). So now I’m in the Library of Congress. Wood had original work from all the great names in cartooning—Bud Fisher, George McManus, Hal Foster, Milton Caniff, Chester Gould, Alex Raymond, Al Capp, to name a few of the “moderns.” He also had originals by 19th century American ’tooners—Eugene “Zim” Zimmerman, F.R. Opper, Thomas Nast, A.B. Frost, and other giants. One of Wood’s hobbies once he became an editoonist was getting Presidents to autograph one of his cartoons about them. With thin-skinned Presidents, this proved problematic: they didn’t want to sign a cartoon that was critical of them—Lyndon Johnson, for instance, who referred to Wood with some colorful Texas range-riding argot. But Wood stage-managed a publicity event with other cartoonists in which the final moment was devoted to Johnson autographing each of the cartoonist’s caricatures of him. Naturally, a Wood caricature was among the array, and naturally Johnson signed it, not wanting to create an incident in front of tv cameras. Wood rehearses many of his collecting adventures in his 1987 book, Great Cartoonists and Their Art, which reproduces in pristine condition many of the originals in his collection. Wood, by this time nearly obsessive about acquiring original cartoon art, shamelessly retails stories detailing the ruses he sometimes resorted to in order to obtain originals.
In 1995, Wood opened a museum in Washington, D.C. to display his collection, the National Gallery of Caricature and Cartoon Art. Passionate and knowledgeable about the history of cartooning as well as the craft, he took me to lunch one day at the Press Club and we enjoyed a few hours of deeply pleasurable conversation. Then he gave me a tour of the museum around the corner at 1317 F Street. It was due to open in a few weeks, but at the moment, its walls were bare, being painted in the general refurbishment of the place. It was a tidy gallery and a great venue in the heart of the action. Unhappily, funding for the project soon dried up, and Wood closed the museum and started looking for another way to preserve the collection. By the time he gave his collection to LOC, it numbered 32,000 pieces by more than 3,000 cartooners; it more than doubled the LOC collection. By comparison, Mort Walker’s National Cartoon Museum claims over 200,000 pieces; while the holdings include many rare pieces, the concentration is the last 50-60 years. Wood’s donation to LOC inspired the book at hand, Cartoon America: Comic Art in the Library of Congress (324 10x10-inch pages in black-and-white and color; hardback from Abrams, $50).
Like most Abrams productions, the book is a delight for the eye. Its giant pages are capable of reproducing rare art at discernible dimensions. Here’s Homer Davenport’s famous caricature of his boss, William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Keppler’s picture of himself and editors in conference at Puck, beautiful reproductions of some of Ollie Harrington’s delicately shaded Dark Laughter cartoons from the 1960s, to mention too few. Some of the content you’d never expect to still exist—a photograph of the actual woodblock from which Thomas Nast’s famed “Let Us Prey” cartoon of the Tweed Ring was printed. Color art—caricatures by William Cotton, Miguel Covarrubias and the like—is reproduced in color. And many of the black-and-white originals are also photographed and reproduced “in color” in order to capture the under-drawing in non-photo blue as well as ordinary lead pencil. The catalog of a show I curated at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle is, I believe, the first to be done in this manner—Children of the Yellow Kid, described in more detail here (where it is also offered for sale). It was the Frye’s museum director Richard V. West’s idea to reproduce the art in this innovative manner, the object being to create a book that was as close to the viewing experience in the museum as possible. This objective was realized more successfully on some pages than on others. The LOC book, too, does not always achieve the perfect reproduction of the art on the wall that the technique is intended to. But when it does work, it is marvelous to see, with Charles Dana Gibson and George Herriman, for example.
The book is divided into sections by cartoonist—Lyonel Feininger, Rose O’Neill and Nell Brinkley, Winsor McCay, John Held Jr., Frank King, Chic Young, and Charles Schulz and Mort Walker, and so on. Each section is introduced by a different writer, often an authority on the subject: Art Spiegelman for Feininger, Trina Robbins for O’Neill and Brinkley, Brian Walker on The Gumps and Barney Google and Wash Tubbs; Patrick McDonnell on Herriman; Brumsic Brandon Jr. on Harrington; and I did Schulz and Walker. Lynn Johnston writes about “The Joy of Writing” For Better or For Worse; editioonist Kevin “KAL” Kallaugher, about “Caricature as Weapon”; David Levine, “Caricature and Communication”; Bill Griffith, “Underground Comix.” The reach of the book is no less than a history of cartooning in America, and under the editorship of Harry Katz, erstwhile graphic arts curator in LOC’s Prints and Photographs Division where the collection is housed, it comes comfortingly close. His long introductory essay scans the cartooning landscape, and Katz goes further back into the dim recesses of European origins than I’d expected—Honore Daumier is included in both prose and picture, and John Tenniel, and Jose Guadalupe Posada Aguilar. From France to England to Mexico—I wouldn’t have thought to include so many cartoonists from other countries in a history of American cartooning. As a whole, the essay and the illustrations throughout the book lean in the direction of “museum art,” self-contained single-picture artworks that can hang on a wall and be admired for their artistic technique. Katz’s essay is long on 19th century antecedents of cartooning and short on some aspects of modern cartooning—the adventure comic strip, for instance, and the soap opera strip, receive much less attention than I would have imagined they would. Terry and the Pirates is represented in the art, ditto Prince Valiant; but both are reproduced at quarter-page size, too small for the details of the artwork to be admired. Saul Steinberg’s self-portrait, on the other hand, gets an entire page to itself, a rather too generous allotment of space for his relatively simple albeit intriguing penwork. Similarly, caricaturists and editorial cartoonists get better display than comic strip cartoonists because the former need less space: one of their drawings can be given full-page treatment while to do the same for a single panel of a Pogo strip would consume far too much space if whole strips were to be afforded treatment equal to that given single-panel art. But, enough. Weenie cavils aside, this is a beautiful book with stunning contents. Books like this—sprawling compendious anthologies with encyclopedic ambitions—are too easily criticized. Everyone will have a favorite nit to pick. Only the conceit of the critic in me compels me to force upon innocent bystanders the sort of quibbling I’m doing here. The pictures alone are a treat; the pictures with the essays double the pleasure.
One last word—and picture: Paul Conrad’s 1977 cartoon about teenage unemployment among African-Americans. Elegant art, eloquent statement. And I don’t think it provoked rioting in the streets despite the bomb-do.
Books like this I contemplate with mixed emotions. They are, alas, the best that afficionados of original cartoon art can expect these days. Too much original art is now in the files of library special collections which, unfortunately, are not often enough opened up for display. And so much original art is, in effect, locked away from public view forever. Sporadically, libraries produce books like these, and for that, we must be enormously grateful because we would not otherwise see these rarities. Yes, libraries and museums preserve the art that might otherwise evaporate into the ether or be confined to private collections. But in libraries and museums, preservation necessarily, alas, takes precedence over the actual purpose of the art, which is to be seen. No one is to blame for this annoying state of affairs. Without libraries and museums taking an interest in original cartoon art, we’d probably lose most of it over the decades. Everyone is simply doing their duty. But we need more wall space for displaying the art. And more books like Cartoon America.
Another Graphic Novel
Brian K. Vaughan’s new graphic novel, Pride of Baghdad (136 7x10-inch pages in color; Vertigo, $19.99), bears a purposefully ambiguous title that multiplies the book’s meaning, making it an allegory about tragic loss and vaulting aspirations gone awry. On the narrative rather than allegorical level, the book rehearses the adventures of a pride of lions, four of them, that escapes Baghdad’s zoo when it is bombed during the U.S. invasion in 2003. Even before the bombs begin to fall, one of the pride, the lioness Noor, has been agitating other animals in the zoo to turn on their keepers and break out of their cages. But before anything comes of that plan, the bombs free all the animals. Rendered in the best Disneyesque anthropomorphic naturalist manner by Niko Henrichon, the lions roam the deserted streets of bomb-torn Baghdad, looking for food. They run from an invading phalanx of tanks and meet a good-sized sea turtle, whose function in the story is to explain the “war” and the evil of oil, which, spilling into sea, poisoned numerous of his kind. The lions come upon a dead human and Zill, the male lion, is about to make a meal of the corpse over the objections of the others, who remember humans as their “protectors,” when a small herd of horses gallops by. Food on the hoof, because it is guaranteed fresh, is more attractive, and the lions set off after the horses, following them into a deserted palace, where they encounter another lion, chained to the wall, de-clawed and de-fanged, an obvious allusion to the tortured populace under Saddam. “Those who hold us captive are always tyrants,” says Noor.
Just then, a gigantic bear shows up. His unexplained presence in the palace and his pose as the chained lion’s keeper (or torturer) imply that he is a simulacrum for the country’s erstwhile dictator. When the bear declares the lions his smorgasbord, Zill attacks him, and a bloody fight ensues. But the bear is killed by the horses, stampeded over him by another of the lions. The pride leaves the palace and beholds a magnificent sunset that tints the city as well as the sky a royal albeit bloody red. Just as darkness falls, a group of American soldiers arrives, and, thinking the lions might attack them, they kill all four of the beasts.
“I didn’t want to put them down,” explains one soldier, “but—.”
“I know,” says a companion, “you didn’t have a choice.”
“These things aren’t wild out here, are they?” asks the first soldier.
“No, not wild,” says the second, “they’re free.”
And they are also dead. The next page shows us a flight of aircraft dropping bombs, and after that, a two-page spread of a darkened cityscape with fires burning in the distance. A caption reads: “In April of 2003, four lions escaped the Baghdad Zoo during the bombing of Iraq. The starving animals were eventually shot and killed by U.S. soldiers.”
On the last page, Vaughan gives the book’s title its other meaning with a single, full-page picture. We see a monumental statue of a lion standing with its paw on the chest of a man, who is fighting off the big stone cat. Earlier, the meaning of this tableau was explained by the turtle: “Legend says that as long as that statue’s still standing, this land’ll never fall to outsiders.” That’s the pride of Baghdad.
The book has the kind of thematic complexity that can keep literary critics pawing through the rubble for hours. If the lions represent the Iraqi people, yearning to be free, and if their escape from the zoo represents the initial success of the American invasion, then the slaughter of the lions by U.S. troops probably stands for the ultimate failure of the invasion: the newly freed population is “killed” by the well-meaning invaders, who, under the threat of the insurgency, “didn’t have a choice” but to defend themselves. But if those they killed were not “wild” but “free,” where does the parable leave us? With blood on our hands, it seems, our best intentions frustrated by our inability to see that the lions were simply contemplating the sunset, not planning to attack—unless, as it happens, they are provoked. With the emblematic last page, however, the tragedy turns defiant, giving the Iraqis the kind of victory that will endure even as it inspires further resistance to the invaders.
The pictures throughout serve dramatic as well as narrative purposes. Henrichon’s lions, delineated with a sketchy and therefore “furry” outline, conjure up “The Lion King,” including, even, an innocently ignorant cub, forever asking questions. “What’s a horizon?” he asks when Zill describes a remembered moment of past freedom (a description that gives the sunset scene at the end a gloss beyond simple visual beauty): “At the end of every day,” Zill says, “I watched as the horizon devoured the sun in slow, steady bites, spilling its blood across the azure sky.”
The book is beautifully drawn, Henrichon’s illustrative elan on display with every page, every scene rendered in exact detail, no fudging, no shortcuts. Page layout and the narrative breakdown of the action into discrete visual moments serve the story by enhancing the drama. Once the lioness comes to the rescue of the cub, and the page is partitioned into just two panels: one, a small crowded panel, shows us the cub, threatened by a gang of vicious monkeys; the other, consuming three-quarters of the page, shows us the lioness, poised to spring from her lofty perch on a nearby wall, her looming bulk suggesting the menace of retribution. In the ensuing fight, wordless panels depict the lioness’s attack on the monkeys, blow by blow. Later, as the lions prowl the city, Henrichon moves the camera of his panel compositions around, giving us distance shots that provide the context of locale and then close-ups that intensify the meaning and impact of the lions’ remarks.
Double-page spreads invariably serve to heighten drama. On the first page of the book, a raven warns Zill that “the sky is falling.” Zill scoffs, but then, upon turning the page, we encounter a vast expanse of sky from his point-of-view, and we, and he, see warplanes roaring overhead. “Ah,” says Zill, comprehending. As the lions leave the wrecked zoo, we turn the page and witness a two-page scene of mass confusion with animals rushing by in panic as bombs continue to fall in the distance. Then, underscoring Zill’s remark that the newly freed lions have “other things to worry about,” we see on the very next page a giraffe decapitated by a wayward shell, his head exploding right before us. As the lions set foot outside the walls of the zoo for the first time, we turn the page into another two-page spread that puts the lions in the midst of a vast plain under a man-made arch formed by sculpted crossed swords.
Color serves the drama, too. In the zoo and in the surrounding forest where lions first walk free, the colors are earth tones, naturalistic. In the midst of the bombing and in the smouldering streets of Baghdad, the colors are yellow and orange, tending to red, suggesting the heat of the desert sun, and when the animals enter the deserted palace, the palette turns cool—dull greens and muted blues, noticeably dropping the temperature inside those walls.
In theme and in execution, skillfully deploying the visual resources of the medium, Pride of Baghdad is a vivid demonstration of the literary seriousness to which graphic novels can lay claim.
ONWARD, THE SPREADING PUNDITRY
Okay: so I was wrong about the outcome of the recently concluded election. What do you expect? I’m a typist, not a prognosticator. When I predicted that the GOP would remain in control of Congress, both houses, I was trying to decompress my own expectations, to dial back my hopes so I wouldn’t be too disappointed. Again. I was hoping for a Democrat victory, and all the pollsters were predicting one; so to guard against experiencing another Great Disappointment, I pooh-poohed the possibility. But now—now the Democrats are seemingly the ruling party in Congress. Can we expect miracles—the end of the Iraqi nightmare and dependency on foreign oil? Not likely. Can we expect wholesale roll-backs of odious Republican legislation? Not likely. Remember: Democrats are politicians, too—“career pols,” in fact (see below). They are as dependent upon big money contributions to their re-election campaigns as Republicans are. Yes, here in the warm glow of a long awaited victory for some group other than the Bush League, I have high hopes. But I secretly suspect we’ll just be distracted by a new razzle-dazzle and not much helped over-all. We’ll see. The noises coming out of the Democrats in these first few days are heartening, but we’ll see.
Those of us who remain, still, foolishly mesmerized by political shenanigans will be wiser if we refrain from rejoicing too exuberantly. The Democrats, we are reminded, did not so much win an election as the Republicans lost one. Die-hard conservatives hold to the view that conservatism is still triumphant: all of the newly minted Democrat congressmen, someone pointed out, are fiscal conservatives and security motivated. We’ll see.
In the meantime, what follows next are two short diatribes: first, a recommendation about how we ought to conduct ourselves as voters hereafter; second, a vivid description of how the Bush League (with the aid of the Democrat Congress, to be sure) will extricate us from Iraq—not “cut and run” but “the Big Bug-out.”
Harv’s Ballot-box Manifesto
Now that the election is safely over, it can be revealed: a Ballot-box Manifesto to end governmental chicanery for all time. Anybody who has been paying attention lately knows that the problems in this country are all caused by the federal government. The Bush League is to blame for a lot of it recently, but the general malfeasance began long before this bunch of economic thugs and political con men came into office. Contrary to the rhetoric of gerrymandering, we have a choice, one of four. We can start a revolution and overthrow the government. But that’s pretty messy and would probably take a few weeks away from watching the latest scandal unfold on cable tv-news. A bloodless coup, on the other hand, is not as untidy, but it still requires physical effort beyond that which we, as a populace of couch potatoes, are willing to make. Alternatively, we can all agree not to vote for anyone next time we have the opportunity. If no one is elected, there’s no government. The country will get a two-year holiday from government, and we’ll surely be better for it. Or, fourth, we can vote against every incumbent. Throw the rascals out. This is the one I personally favor.
The Founders, when they were inventing the Constitution, never supposed that Congress would become a professional politicians club. Professional politicians, “career pols,” as we call them here at the Intergalactic Rancid Raves Wurlitzer, are necessarily most concerned about keeping their jobs so they can pursue their professions; that’s what makes them professionals. They will do anything to keep getting elected; they won’t do anything that might prevent their getting re-elected. That means they won’t do anything that might offend a voter, and many of the ills plaguing our country can be fixed only by offending someone—usually someone who is very rich and powerful and who contributes lots of money to politicians to enable them to keep on getting elected. If we want government to actually do something for the benefit of The Country (rather than just the career pols and their immediate families and closest friends and campaign contributors), we have to get rid of the professionals and give government back to the amateurs.
The Founders expected Congress to be made up of amateurs, people who would be elected to serve a couple years and then go back to their businesses, happy to be finished with the whole election exercise. Amateurs are by definition part-timers. Amateur politicians would be most eager to get the law-making done so they can go back home and resume their ordinary lives, conducting their businesses and clothing their families. The Founders had no idea that Congress would be in session, off and on, for most of every year. The Founders expected that making laws would not take much time because most of the governing, they imagined, would be done by state governments. So being a congressman wouldn’t be a full-time job. Congressmen’d spend very little time in Washington. As a result, lobbyists would have a hard time finding them let alone bribing them. Amateurs, when confronted by a social problem that needs fixing, would tackle the problem and ignore all of the “interested parties” whose oxen might get gored in the fixing. Amateurs wouldn’t want to spend the time, tediously attending to all of the ancillary matters that have little, if anything, to do with the actual problem. They’d be largely ignorant, or unpracticed, at such dilly-dallying and shilly-shallying. So I say, restore government to the amateurs: get rid of the professionals. Some might demure, saying that by voting against incumbents consistently, we’d lose something valuable in government: the experience of the long-time public servant (i.e., career pols). But I disagree. The only thing we lose when we get rid of professional politicians is their expertise at lining their own pockets without any of us finding out about it until too late. Amateurs won’t be in office long enough to learn the sneaky stuff. We’d be better off with them, believe me.
THE BIG BUG-OUT
No, the Bush League will never say they’re getting ready to “cut and run.” They’ve discredited that phrase too assiduously. The Democrats, even in power, won’t want to use it. But that’s what they’re going to do, regardless of what they call it—both the Dems and the Repubs. You may be sure that George W. (“Warlord”) Bush is preparing the way for withdrawal, Republican rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding. First, the phrase “stay the course” was consigned to limbo. Then, listening to Tony Snow the other day on Fox-tv (yes: I often tune in just to see what the enemy is doing), I heard him say several times that one of our objectives in Iraq was to “create the conditions for Democracy to flourish.” Or words to that effect. So we’re no longer “spreading Democracy around the world.” We’re just “creating the conditions” for it. We won’t leave Iraq, George W. (“Whopper”) Bush says, until “we get the job done.” The “job,” now, is somewhat different than it was three months ago. Now, the “job” is to “create the conditions.” That’s a pretty ambiguous phrase with several fathoms of wiggle room for GeeDubya and Darth Cheney and their ilk to deploy in escaping from the desert. By one kind of interpretation of “conditions,” we’ve already finished the job: we took out Saddam, the chief obstacle to a “condition” for Democracy, and the country has held elections, the supposed symptom of democracy, so now we can leave. Mission accomplished.
What will actually happen, though—aided and abetted by the slippery rhetoric I’ve just dissected—is that we’ll leave because the Iraq government will ask us to. We’ll pressure them to ask us until they do. The negotiation will go somewhat like the negotiation with Pakistan. First, the stick: we’ll bug out completely unless you ask us to leave. Second, the carrot: if you ask us to leave, we’ll agree to station 30,000 troops around the country in those fantastically modern military bases we’ve built—troops that can, in emergencies, step in and help your national police and army put down outright rebellion. Those will be the conditions. If they don’t agree, we’ll just leave ’em, high and dry, without any military support at all. That’s all hot air, of course: we’d never abandon the oil fields of Iraq, having now secured them. But they don’t know, for sure, that we’re blowin’ smoke. So they’ll ask us to leave. And we will, leaving behind only 30,000 troops to occupy those bases and protect the oil—er, I mean, the populace from rebellious Sunnis and the like. And while we’re at it, we’ll be creating just enough stability for the Iraqi politicians to continue to graft their way to millionaire status. That, I suspect, has been the motive for most of them, and that is the real reason they’ll buy our proposition: they need American security forces in sufficient, albeit modest, numbers to keep the lid on just enough to preserve the mechanisms of corruption they’ve now got in place.
The plan, as I’ve outlined it—and as I’d be willing to bet exists pretty much like this—involves hypocrisy on a colossal scale, sure, but it’s the Big Lies that are believed. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s a way out, and we should take it. It is not the most honorable way, but our entry into Iraq wasn’t so honorable either; and the exit contemplated here is cut from the same cloth. We should slink away as quickly and quietly as we can and vow never to do anything like this again. We should then continue to do what this country has been so very good at for a couple centuries now: we should spread democracy by exemplifying it at home and by nurturing it when it blossoms abroad—nurturing it when we find it cropping up, not forcing it in places where the fields are not yet fertile enough to support the growth.
Footnit: In the New York Times, we learn on October 26 that Vietnam has gone from communism to a form of capitalism in the three decades since U.S. troops pulled out. “It has Asia’s second-fastest-growing economy, with 8.4 percent growth last year, trailing only China’s, and the pace of exports to the United States is rising faster than even China’s.” And all this happened without our invading either country. Probably wouldn’t have happened in Vietnam if we’d stayed there. Capitalism, which codifies human greed, will eventually undermine any form of government that sustains itself by oppression because capitalism comes from within; it is not imposed from without. When the West engaged China, it planted the seeds of capitalism. Engagement, not invasion, is the way to change regimes. And after capitalism, can democracy be far behind?
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