Opus 205 (May 16, 2007). We meet the new monarch at King Features and see what Betty and Veronica look like as Archie aims for the manga crowd, and we list the political cartooners and the awards, including the Pulitzer, they won during the last two weeks, and, finally, we discuss, one more time, editorial cartoons that arouse the ire of the religious, and we look at a smattering of comic strips that seem destined to do the same. Here’s what’s here, in order, by Department:
NOUS R US
Wealth of Material for Editoonists in the Early Campaign
Dick Tracy News
Pibgorn at GoComics
Opus No More?
New Monarch at King: Brendan Burford Takes the Editor’s Chair
Simpsons in Playboy
PEN MIGHTIER: The Sound of a Single Voice Is Noisy Enough
But Is That Good?
Cartoon Gets Killed in Killed Cartoons Book
And Other Prejudices about Political Cartoons
EDITOONERY: The Awards Season
Should Pulitzers Go to Animated Editoons?
Cancer Vixen Again
COMIC STRIP WATCH
Strips Getting Edgy Some More
Doonesbury Calls for GeeDubya’s Impeachment
Funky Winkerbean and Lisa Moore’s Cancer
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE
Captain America and Serious, Grown-up Marvel
Betty and Veronica Get New Looks
DC Comics Goes Backward
B.C. Retrospective Tome
Other Heroes Includes the Oft Excluded
Art Out of Time Reviewed, Copiously
The Alternative List to Time’s 100 Most Influential
And our customary reminder: don’t forget to activate the “Bathroom Button” by clicking on the “print friendly version” so you can print off a copy of just this lengthy installment for reading later, at your leisure while enthroned. Without further adieu—
NOUS R US
All the News That Gives Us Fits
The good news is that Darrin Bell’s superlative strip of political and social satire, Candorville, is back daily in the Los Angeles Times, starting Monday, May 14; because of the greater lead time for producing color comics, the strip won’t return to the Sunday funnies until early June, saith Sherry Stern, Deputy Features Editor. This happy development is doubtless brought on, at least in part, by the outcry from Candorville fans when the paper dropped the strip several weeks ago. The power of protest is asserted once again. The power of protest is not, however, an unalloyed blessing; see “Pen Mightier Than Sword (Also Funnier)” below.
I was in western Nebraska when “Spider-Man 3" opened so I missed the excitement at the local comic book shops on the next day, Free Comic Book Day (FCBDay). The Lincoln Journal Star announced the movie’s opening with an illustrated banner atop Page One—a picture of a swinging web-slinger captioned “a popcorn movie masterpiece.” In smaller type, it added other fascinating bits: Spider-Man’s name is hyphenated because Stan Lee wanted to further differentiate the character from Superman; Peter Parker’s middle name is Benjamin; and “Spider-Man 3" cost $250 million. But inside, the reviewer implied the movie’s budget was $500 million. The New York Times is no more certain: “The movie may have cost more to make than any film in Hollywood history. Sony put the budget at $260 million, with additional marketing costs of about $120 million, but some published reports have placed the budget at above $300 million.” And maybe, whatever the cost, it was worth it: “Spider-Man 3" broke all box office records for its opening day and the weekend that followed, “domestically and internationally,” said Sharon Waxman at the NY Times: $148 million for the opening three days, $59 million of it on Friday, both figures higher than the previous record-holder, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.” And it took in an estimated $227 million in 105 foreign markets, “outstripping the previous record-holder, ‘Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith.’” Most of the reviews are enthusiastic. Some quibble about the multiplicity of plots—three separate good-guy-vs.-bad-guy rivalries and too many “high-energy showdown set pieces.” “They eventually start to come off as indistinguishable and adverse to story flow,” said Sally Kline at the Washington Examiner. But director/co-writer Sam Raimi earns kudos for “taking CGI special effects to a new level and for infusing a higher degree of character complexity to the comic-book superhero genre.” Sony is already talking about another Spider-Man sequel even though this third flick was supposed to be the last in the line. One caution: “Spider-Man 3"’s big box office is partly the result of not facing much competition in the way of another action flick on the opening weekend.
As for FCBDay, the bloom is apparently off the rose. Most accounts report enthusiastic raves by shop owners and operators, but the shops in my hometown are only lukewarm fans of the freebie foray. The give-away comics bring in a few scads of visitors who wouldn’t otherwise cross the threshhold of a comic book store—so the increased population in the shops creates an aura of excitement—but it seems these mini-hordes are not magically transformed into regular paying customers. Since shops must buy the comic books they are giving away, FCBDay is a financial investment for shops: it must pay off somehow. One shop makes its money by discounting racks of books, which are bought by some of the guests who came in looking for freebies. Another shop—on campus, which means it has a regular clientele of comic book buyers—doesn’t participate in FCBDay by getting any of the free books; instead, it discounts heaps of books from its backstock. In other words, FCBDay can be made to pay off for comic book shops, but perhaps not in quite the way the founders of the event hoped.
With the retirement of Tony Blair, Britain’s famously savage political cartoonists display mixed emotions. Independent cartooner Dave Brown’s feelings are typical: “I detest the man and what he’s done, but he was great to draw. You put all that bile, hatred and angst into drawing.” As the “war” in Iraq wore on, according to Peter Graff at Reuters, the caricatures of Blair became more and more venomous: originally likened to Bambi, he eventually appeared as a vulture, perched on coffins, surrounded by hellfire and covered in blood. Increasingly, he looked decidedly evil or deranged. Blair’s presumed successor, Gordon Brown, offers less opportunity for good caricature. “He’s a bit duller,” said Charles Griffin, onetime staff cartoonist at the Daily Mail and Mirror. But Conservative leader, David Cameron, heir of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, presents a more promising visage. “He’s got a good face to do,” said Griffin. “It’s quite sort of rubbery. Shiny forehead. Starey eyes. Maybe he’ll be prime minister instead of Brown one day, and that’ll save me.”
On this side of the Atlantic, we are fully submerged in the miasma of the 2008 Presidential Campaign. Already. Some of us, caught starkly unaware, wonder why it should take two years out of a political leader’s life to run for President. During that period, none of the candidates will have time or energy to perform any useful public service, a shirking of responsibility that demonstrates their unfitness for the White House or any other political office. And voters will quickly reach a state of ennui so paralyzing that they’re unlikely to go to the polls when the occasion arrives. In short, a 2-year Presidential Campaign seems a bootless enterprise for all concerned. Except for tv pundits and Sunday gasbags, who need something to talk about, endlessly. Obviously, the 2-year contest has been arranged exclusively for their entertainment and convenience and no one else’s. Except maybe political cartoonists, who contemplate various delights.
Signe Wilkinson of the Philadelphia Daily News, while depressed by the endless “war” in Iraq, nonetheless looks forward to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, reports Dave Astor at Editor & Publisher, and Glenn McCoy of the Belleville (Ill.) News-Democrat is rubbing his hands in glee at the thought of what he can do with Barack Obama. McCoy, one of relatively few conservative editorial cartoonists nation-wide, is also delighted that the Democrats control Congress. “When the party you’re opposed to is in power,” he said, “it makes a cartoonist’s job a little easier.” Mike Thompson at the Detroit Free Press voiced the opposing view: “Since the majority of political cartoonists are left-leaning,” he said, “a Democrat-controlled Congress will prove a challenge.” Said last year’s Pulitzer-winner, Mike Luckovich at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Divided government means more conflict, which is better for cartoonists,” but, he added, “most cartoonists, even if they’re sympathetic to a party or candidate, are going to hit them if they do something stupid or hypocritical.” Several of the cartoonists Astor talked to said good-looking candidates—like Obama, John Edwards, Mitt Romney—are hard to caricature. People like Donald Rumsfeld, on the other hand, are easy. “I find it hard to miss Rumsfeld on any level,” joked Thompson, “but he was so wrong on so many things that he made great cartoon fodder.” Clay Bennett at the Christian Science Monitor quipped that Rumsfeld, notorious for asking rhetorical questions, is “the only guy I know who could hold a press conference without anyone else in the room!” Although editoonists are initially excited by the prospect of fresh targets that is offered by a Presidential Campaign littered with so many candidates, once the “race” gets down to two or three possibilities, the challenge mounts. With fewer candidates, the number of opportunities deserving a cartoon is reduced, and sound-bite news coverage of the campaign reduces even further the topics worthy of ridicule. Every cartoonist is soon faced with the same dilemma: how to do a cartoon that is different from the cartoons done by his colleagues when they are all looking at the same limited range of possibilities and provocations. Instead of rejoicing at the advent of another Presidential Campaign, many editoonists groan in exasperation.
The Tintin film project seems, at last, underway. With an announcement that preceded by only a few weeks the 100th anniversary of the birth (May 22) of the character’s creator, George Remi, Nick Rodwell, the second husband of Herge’s widow, said Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks will begin pre-production soon. According to Anne Feuilere at expatica.com, it has not yet been decided whether the film will be a live-action feature, a traditional animated film or CGI—or a mixture of all three. Four of the Tintin adventures are being considered: The Blue Lotus, Tintin in Tibet, The Seven Crystal Balls and Red Rackham’s Treasure. Until a few weeks ago, I’d never read any of the two-dozen Tintin books; I was saving them, I suppose, for my old age. Or an appropriate occasion, whichever came first. I’m happy to report that both have arrived, and I’m wading through the oeuvre. Sometime later in this anniversary year, I’m likely to regale you with my reaction to all of it, or as much of it as I can manage to read in the number of sittings permitted me. Consider yourself warned.
Lynn Johnston will receive the Order of Manitoba, the Canadian province’s highest honor, in July. The distinction, established in 1999, “recognizes excellence or achievement in any field of endeavor that benefits the social, cultural or economic well-being of Manitoba and its residents,” according to CBC News. In her strip, For Better or For Worse, Johnston told a story about Elizabeth Patterson’s teaching adventures in an aboriginal community in northern Manitoba. ... In Woodstock, Illinois, the Chester Gould Dick Tracy Museum is poised to launch The Sunday Project in conjunction with the famed strip’s 75th anniversary year. The Project will reproduce Dick Tracy Sunday strips from May through December of 1932. Scanned in high resolution and reproduced tabloid-size on 11x17-inch medium-weight paper, the Sunday pages are available for purchase by subscription. Several “Specialty” pages—of celebrated events in the cleaver-jawed sleuth’s life—are also offered. (For details, visit www.chestergould.org and/or http://www.chestergould.org/navigation/news/TheSundayProjOrderForm.pdf ) Continuing the festivities, the 75th Anniversary Retrospective Art Exhibition, “The Art of Dick Tracy—75 Years of Crooks, Dames and Fedoras,” offers a decade by decade history of the strip, exploring the growth and development of its title character, the changing nature of crime in America, and the aesthetic changes that took place during the strip’s first 75 years. The exhibit will open during the annual Dick Tracy Days weekend in Woodstock, Friday, June 22. By the way, the second volume of the Complete Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, Dailies and Sundays: 1933-1935 is out, and it is as handsome a production as the first. Reproduction of these vintage strips is pristine, the best I’ve seen anywhere. The volume, printing two strips on each generous 7x10-inch page, bound sideways, includes, in addition to strips from May 1933 through January 1935, the second half of an interview conducted with Gould by Max Allan Collins, consulting editor for the series and Gould’s successor in writing the strip; Collins also supplies introductory essay, beginning, “By May of 1933, Chester Gould was feeling his oats, writing and drawing his innovative detective strip....”
Among the phenomena in Iraq brought on by the American invasion is a plethora of newspapers: in the warm sunlight of freedom of the press, newspapers sprouted up all over the place. Ditto political cartoonists. But their number is diminishing, according to Hammoudi Athab, head of the Iraqi Cartoonists Association. The group presently has about 50 members, according to Athab, quoted in USA Today; “but dozens of cartoonists have fled Iraqi’s violence.” Cartoons are high art in Iraq—as they are in many other countries where illiteracy is widespread and cartoons therefore serve as the chief means of spreading news and opinion. In Iraq, a newspaper’s cartoon is often the first thing a reader turns to. Iraqi cartoonists tackle a much wider range of subjects than their American counterparts, who tend to focus on politics almost to exclusion of all else. In Iraq, corruption, kidnappings, government inaction, and the U.S. military are frequent topics. One thing none of them tackle—the Prophet Mohammad. Iraqi cartoonists draw more cartoons than Americans. Typically, an editoonist in the U.S. does little more than a cartoon a day. Omar Abdel-Ilah, who cartoons for the Baghdad-based Al-Ta’akhi, says he draws about 20 cartoons a week. “But that increases if there is a lot of news in one week,” he added. Each day, he scans the previous day’s edition and then grabs his pencil and a pad of paper. It takes him less than 15 minutes to start a drawing, he said. His editors, thinking of their own safety and his, sometimes recommend that he be a little less caustic about local satraps. As in many other countries, Iraqi cartoonists are often the targets of political revenge. One of the most popular Iraqi cartoonists died of a heart attack in November 2005 just after getting a death threat. Another survived an assassination attempt last year but is physically unable to work.
Brooke McEldowney’s online color comic strip, Pibgorn, is leaving its United Media website to take up at GoComics, the distribution portal for uclick, the digital entertainment provider division of Andrews McMeel Universal. A new installment of Pibgorn appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, but, starting at GoComics on May 14, the last month’s strips run at United Media will be re-run in order to lead up to the conclusion of a storyline that was interrupted by the site shift and left unfinished. Pibgorn was born in 2001 as one of United Media’s long tradition of Christmas season strips. McEldowney clearly fell in love with his blithely mischievous fairy character and decided to continue her adventures as she spreads enchantment in a less than enchanted world. Said he: “Ever since Pibgorn’s inception, it has been a growing, evolving and at times highly experimental entity all its own. Now, moving on, I feel as a parent does when enrolling his child in a new school—all new teachers, new rules, new atmosphere, new playgrounds. I just hope the other kids don’t pinch.” Online, Pibgorn has been “a sensation,” said GoComics CEO Chris Pizey. It enjoys about 10,000 subscribers, McEldowney told me. Incidentally—just to keep you aware of my possibly dubious motives in mentioning the site—GoComics carries a nearly brilliant blog about comics and cartooning: it consists entirely of R&R out-takes—just snippets and abridgements though, fragments dribbled out a little five times a week. Here at www.RCHarvey.com is the only place you can find the Complete and All-encompassing Rancid Raves, posted whole and uninterrupted. Rejoice.
Opus No More? Berkeley Breathed, who can’t seem to make up his mind which of several professions to adhere to, was caught muttering about the impending “death” of Opus when interviewed by Mike Shea and the Texas Monthly recently. The topic of the interview was ostensibly Breathed’s latest children’s book, Mars Needs Moms, but when he was asked what projects were on the horizon, Breathed said: “Three—a novel; two of my books in development at Disney; and Opus’s death, which approaches.” By “Opus,” Shea pressed, did the cartoonist mean the comic strip or the character? “I mean the death of Opus literally,” said Breathed, “as told in the comic, which means the suspension of the feature (no dates set as of yet).” Shea: “Are you serious about killing off Opus in the strip?” Breathed: “Yes, but my wife would leave me, she reports. I have to factor this in.” Shea: “Do your publisher and newspapers know this?” Breathed: “They know that all good things come to an end. I’d like to see Opus go out with George Bush, both headed into the sunset.” Breathed is being cute, of course: one could assume, from the whole context of this exchange, that he is alluding to the imminent demise of print newspapers, not just his strip or character, both of which would cease with the expiration of hardcopy journalism. But it’s hard to say for sure. See what you think at http://www.texasmonthly.com/2007-04-01/bookreviews.php.
The verdict is still out about the alleged death of newspapers. But it doesn’t surprise me that Breathed is going to abandon his flightless fowl once again, as he’s done twice before. As soon as he acquired ownership of his first nationally syndicated strip, Bloom County, where Opus originated, Breathed discontinued the strip, offering in its place a Sunday only feature called Outland, which was to have starred a waif named Ronald Ann but into whose orbit Opus soon spun. Then, after a couple years, Breathed gave up on Outland, too. Presumably, he discontinued Bloom County in order to escape the garroting grip of deadlines for a daily strip. He thought his life would be easier with just a Sunday strip. While his life was probably easier, it was not as festooned with fame as it had been under the 7-day regimen. Nor was it as lucrative. With both ego and purse hurting, Breathed turned to other ways of exploiting his storytelling talent—namely, children’s books, of which there may be as many as six since 1991. But he clearly missed the platform that a nationally distributed comic strip provided for commenting on social and political issues, so in December 2003, he revived Opus in the current incarnation, a Sunday strip bearing the penguin’s name. Breathed elbowed his way into the Sunday funnies by insisting that editors publish the strip at half-page size, promising spectacular art to justify the excessive allotment of space. To advance his crusade with editors, Breathed dumped on all older strips, particularly those no longer being produced by their originators, saying they were undoubtedly inferior due to their age and editors should kick them out of the paper to make room for newer enterprises, Opus in particular.
Opus never fulfilled Breathed’s promise: it was not spectacular art. And I suspect that its circulation was not as robust as Breathed hoped for. Once again, as he discovered with Outland, a strip without notoriety and circulation isn’t enough to sustain his continuing interest; so now, he’s contemplating giving it all up. Again. I am, admittedly, being cynical and probably unfair to Breathed: no one should expect a cartoonist to expend time and talent on an enterprise that isn’t rewarding emotionally as well as financially. But I can think of no other explanations for his on-again off-again behavior. Breathed is, after all, a child of the 20th century’s last half, during which we’ve seen several stunningly talented syndicated cartoonists elect not to spend their entire lives at the drawing board, chained to deadlines. Bill Watterson. Gary Larson. Frank Cho. Aaron McGruder. Michael Jantze. And now, again, Breathed. These defections may be symptomatic of the times. Lifelong indentured servitude seems a thing of the past. And maybe that’s just fine. In the realm of funnybooks, we’re getting a superior product on a mini-series basis—and probably because of the mini-series as a genre. Hellboy shows up every now and then, whenever Mike Mignola gets a good inspiration, we may suppose, instead of plodding on, issue after clockwork issue, in order to obey the dictates of a publication schedule rather than the impulse of creative inspiration. Ditto Mad Man, Michael Allred’s idiosyncratic concoction. What sloughs of inferior effort could Superman have avoided had he been featured in mini-series instead of regular, monthly titles? Then again, had the mini-series been viable back in the 1930s and 1940s, perhaps Superman would not have lasted as long as he has because he would not have been a presence long enough or steadily enough to nurture a following. Who can say? Not me. Not right now.
Right now, it’s enough to pause a bit to celebrate the evolution of cartooning venues that stimulate creativity rather than stultify it through sheer clock-punching regularity. But before you dash off, read Shea’s interview: Breathed is a delightful if cynical wit. Insightful, too. Commenting on his new children’s book, Breathed says that it is his “first fully digital paintings. It’s a revelatory artistic experience, making a computer create artwork, but a deeply distressing one as well, as at the end of the day, you’re not holding a painting. It is only light. I haven’t quite come to terms with this.” Neither have many colorists. As I mentioned before, some comic book pages are colored much too dark, probably because the colorist is looking at his/her work on a computer, and the light, coming from “behind” the drawings, illuminates the colors, making them seem brighter; but when printed in ink on paper, the colors, once so bright and gleaming, are dark, too dark, sometimes, obscuring the artwork they are intended to embellish.
New Monarch at King. Jay Kennedy’s assistant, Brendan Burford, was named comics editor of King Features Syndicate at the end of April. The appointment was announced by T.R. “Rocky” Shepard III, president of the company, who said: “The recent death of our editor-in-chief, Jay Kennedy, was a terrible blow to everyone, both at King Features and throughout the industry. However, as he did in all things, Jay had planned for the inevitability of succession one day when he hired Brendan Burford. Brendan has worked side-by-side with Jay for the last seven years and brings to his new position a broad knowledge of the comics and the cartoonists we represent as well as a deep love for the art form. I am confident that he will lead King Features to even greater success as he continues the search for new cartooning talent that Jay Kennedy so ably mastered during his 20-year tenure.”
Expressing his gratitude for Kennedy’s tutelage—“my mentor [to whom] I owe many of my professional successes”—Burford said he was honored and “thrilled to be able to carry on the tradition of excellence” sustained by Kennedy and was “looking forward to the growth we’ll continue to enjoy over the years.”
In an interview with Tom Spurgeon at ComicsReporter.com, Burford said he has lived and breathed comics all of his life—ever since he could read, “since I could pick up a pencil.” He is a cartoonist himself, albeit not syndicated (his wife, though, Rina Piccolo, is syndicated through King with her strip, Tina’s Groove). A graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York, Burford served a year as an editorial assistant at DC Comics before joining King in January 2000, first as an editorial assistant, then assistant editor and, finally, associate editor. Producing an irregularly published anthology of cartoon reportage, Syncopated, he is a small press editor and publisher. With these credentials, Burford brings an unusual background to bear on syndicated comics. Others of his predecessors have been cartoonists—both the legendary Sylvan Byck and Bill Yates, Kennedy’s immediate predecessor, were cartoonists; but none of them were as young as Burford. He’ll be 29 soon. But youth at King is hardly a disadvantage: the syndicate’s founder, Moses Koenigsberg (whose name, Anglicized, gave the enterprise its name) was only 35 when he laid the groundwork for the syndicate in 1913.
In his interview with Burford, Spurgeon asks questions that are both penetrating and informed (Spurgeon co-produced a King-syndicated strip, Wildwood, for several years); I recommend you visit www.ComicsReporter.com to partake of the whole enchilada, but I’ll excerpt some of it here.
From the start, Burford said, his boss, Jay Kennedy, was grooming him to be his successor, giving the younger man experiences that would equip him to assume the editor’s chair. The two worked closely together on many projects; separately on others. Kennedy was King’s editor-in-chief, which meant he supervised syndicated columnists as well as cartoonists. Burford, as comics editor, will concentrate only on comics, leaving the columns to another of Kennedy’s assistants, Glenn Mott, who, like Burford, worked under Kennedy’s supervision. Mott and Burford are now editorial equals on the organization chart.
In selecting new comic strips, syndicate officials often look for a demographic “hook” to hang the new work on. One of King’s new launches in the last few years, for example, is Retail, a humorous look at the world of retail workers. “We wanted to appeal to this part of the demographic,” Burford explained. “It makes perfect sense. It’s [aimed at an audience] not represented [on the funnies page]. Something like 33 percent of the U.S. workforce has worked in retail at some point in their life.” But canny syndicate editors know that looking too intently for a demographic can blind them to works of genius that don’t seem to fit anywhere—Calvin and Hobbes, for instance. Surgeon wanted to know how Burford balanced the two.
Burford pointed to the recent re-alignment of strips on the nation’s comics pages when Bill Amend stopped doing the daily FoxTrot. There was, Spurgeon observed, no clear demographic successor. Burford agreed. “It had a uniqueness,” he said. So editors who went looking for a “logical demographic replacement” couldn’t find anything. Instead, they picked up whatever strip was on their Wish List—Zits, or Mutts, or Pearls Before Swine. “Whatever was first on their list, they put in. Tina’s Groove picked up a lot of slots,” he continued, “—and Tina’s Groove and FoxTrot are two very different strips in terms of demographic.” He concluded: “What it taught me and I imagine the other syndicates as well was that this whole ‘This is the logical replacement for the strip because it meets that old strip’s demographic need’ —that’s all bullshit.” He talked briefly about a new strip that he will take to his May sales meeting: “It’s a very simple premise. It’s not necessarily hook-laden. It’s a unique cartoonist with a unique voice.” And that’s how they’ll sell it.
“My default setting,” Burford said, “is to go after the voice. I always defer to someone I think is a talented person, and I try to let their talent and their impulses shine through more than some kind of contrivance, some kind of concoction.” He added that he and Kennedy often went looking for something that would fit in the syndicate’s marketing effort rather than waiting for a work of genius to come flying in over the transom. Sometimes they looked for something to fit a demographic hole; sometimes they looked for a way to engage a particular cartoonist on a project that cartoonist would find amenable. But they always kept an eye on the transom.
Remembering his experience at DC, Burford laughed about the preference in comic book circles for the designation “illustrator” as opposed to “cartoonist.” Said he: “I don’t care if you’re Frank Frazetta or Charles Schulz or anyone in between, you’re a cartoonist. A few people are illustrators,” he conceded, “but most are cartoonists.”
Towards the end of the interview, Spurgeon observed that Burford is now “the face of King Features to a lot of people.” Burford demurred: “The face of King Features is the comics,” he said.
Nude Simpsons. Various so-called news outlets have let it slip that Bart Simpson will appear nude, full frontal, in the impending Simpsons movie. It happens, Newsweek alleged, in a nude skateboarding scene. Creator Matt Groening denied that Bart will lose his virginity in the film. In an interview published in the June issue of Playboy, Groening said: “You will see nudity, but it’s not who you want to see naked.” Bart? No: Groening didn’t say, exactly. Other cullings from the Playboy interview:
Despite the numerous demands of the tv series and the movie and merchandising, “About once a week, on Thursday,” Groening said, “I suddenly remember I have a weekly comic strip to write.” Life in Hell is “the one thing I still do completely on my own,” he said. “I’ll take full blame for everything, misspellings and all.” He started doing the strip while he was working at a photocopy shop, and if we are to judge from the appearance of the strip in recent years, he usually resorts to those devices to produce the strip. I haven’t seen a Life in Hell strip for years that wasn’t the same drawing, repeated ad infinitum.
Groening named Homer Simpson after his father, but his dad was “nothing like the character.” And then, later, Groening continued, “I named my son Homer in part trying to prove to my dad that I had the best intentions. I wasn’t just trying to get back at him for some perceived slight.”
Bart Simpson was inspired by Hank Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace, the tv incarnation. “I remember the premiere episode of ‘Dennis the Menace’ in 1959, the animated opening sequence of this Tasmanian devil-like cyclone spinning out.” Out of the cyclone came—the “menace,” a kid! “I was so excited,” Groening went on. But then came disappointment: “It turned out to be this fairly namby-pamby pseudo-bad boy who had a slingshot but didn’t ever seem to use it. Bart Simpson is basically what Dennis should have been.”
Awash in Simpsons licensed products, Groening said: “I had a rule that none of my Life in Hell characters would ever endorse anything—except Akbar and Jeff, who would endorse anything.” This gives you an idea of the sort of comedy that infects Groening’s response to every question; the cartoonist is an unrepentant and unrelenting wise-ass.
Now divorced, Groening is dating again. “Dating’s no fun,” he opined. “Unfortunately, it’s part of the process of getting to know someone. I once said, ‘Love is like a snowmobile racing across the tundra and then suddenly it flips over, pinning you underneath. At night, the ice weasels come.’ A lot of people have that on their MySpace page.”
Also in this issue of Playboy is an essay by Daphne Merkin. Entitled “Penises I have Known,” it does for this much abused appendage what Christopher Hitchens did for the blow job in Vanity Fair some months ago.
Still with Playboy, last month’s issue—wouldn’t you know—was replete with a portfolio of photographs of, yes, Anna Nicole Smith. “Hers is a sad story,” commented writer Kevin Cook, author of Tommy’s Honor, “but as Hef said, it would have pleased her that people will still admire her pictures.” Yes, sadly, I suppose so. But there’s no way this display can be seen as anything but one last exploitation of the woman’s bosom and derriere.
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. Three other sites laden with cartooning news and lore are Mark Evanier’s www.povonline.com, Alan Gardner’s www.DailyCartoonist.com, and Tom Spurgeon’s www.comicsreporter.com. And then there’s Mike Rhode’s ComicsDC blog, http://www.comicsdc.blogspot.com
Read and Relish Department
Slabbing comic books, the practice of sealing them forever between hunks of transparent plastic, is a perfect satirical caricature of the collector’s mania, which is to own, not to enjoy. —RCH
“Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.” —William James.
PEN MIGHTIER THAN SWORD (ALSO FUNNIER)
In the March issue of Slice of Wry, the monthly newsletter of the Southern California Cartoonists Society, the President, Karyl Miller, tells of her adventures as a tv mogul. “Back in the late 80s,” she writes, “I wrote and was supervising producer on a sitcom called ‘My Sister Sam,’ which starred Pam Dawber and Rebecca Schaeffer as sisters. We weren’t the biggest hit, but CBS liked us enough to renew us. We were half-way into our second year when suddenly the network fell out of love with us. How could we tell? Well, a network rejects you just like a lover rejects you. He doesn’t return your calls, doesn’t beam at the sight of you, and never mentions the future (because there isn’t going to be one). So ... wha hoppen? Our show made a big boo-boo. We broadcast an episode where the Dawber character has casual sex with no regard to its impact on her teenage sister. Nobody wanted to see this story—especially not at 8 p.m when impressionable children were watching. At least, that’s what the angry viewer letters said. And soon, we were history.
“So guess how many negative viewer letters it took to cancel this show. 20? 18? Nope. Out of millions of viewers it took only five little ol’ viewers letters to get us the boot. Why? Because most people don’t write a letter so the ones who do write are given extra special consideration. Most people are lazy when it comes to sitting down, forming a thought and committing it to paper. And that’s still true today. The Nielson rating company estimates each angry viewer costs the show roughly one rating point or 900,000 viewers. So to CBS, those five angry people meant four million, five hundred thousand fewer viewers, which meant less advertising income, which meant we were toast.
“Point: It’s actually possible in this increasingly indifferent society to have an impact on things you care about if you make your opinion heard. All you have to do is write a letter! And if you spellcheck it and don’t swear—all the better! And if you sign your letter and add your town and phone number, you’re going to be batting 1,000 in the credibility department.”
Miller’s ultimate point was that comics fans who are upset with newspaper editors’ decisions about their paper’s comic strip line-up—which strips to drop; which strips to add—can affect the decisions by simply writing in. “If they stick us with some stupid strip we’ll have only ourselves to blame. And anyway, today when newspapers are getting skinnier and skinnier, isn’t it important the editors know that many, many readers still love the funnies and care about the funnies? So everybody—out of the kitchen and into the streets!”
As wonderful as Miller’s insight into decision-making in the media is, it is a chilling vision: it reveals just how few voices are affecting decisions that are far-reaching. In my neighborhood recently, the University of Illinois banned its mascot, Chief Illiniwek. The Chief had been a presence on the campus since 1926, most conspicuously during half-time ceremonies at football and basketball games when a student, dressed up in buckskins and feathers, did a faux Native American dance to the applause of Illini fans. I’m not a particular fan of the Chief, and I think the dance he does is silly. No wonder, I decided, that Native Americans on campus took offense at it and, for a dozen or more years, lobbied and protested to get the Chief and his goofy jig banned forever. They finally succeeded: they got the NCAA in on the act, and NCAA issued a proclamation that the U. of I. would no longer be permitted to host post-season athletic contests until it got rid of the Chief. That predicated a loss of revenue, always vital. So the University banned the Chief. The process was a good deal more convoluted than that, but the gist given here will serve as background to the editorial that John Foreman, publisher of the News-Gazette, the civilian paper hereabouts, wrote.
Although not any great fan of the Chief, Foreman was “saddened,” he said, “over the way the decision to ban the Chief was reached—saddened because so many people who care deeply about it, in the end, simply had no say in the matter.” Acknowledging that some people were offended by the vision of Native American culture that the Chief represented, Foreman opted for greater tolerance. “I’m offended by some of what I see on television, for example, and by a lot of rap music. But I don’t think the fact that I find it offensive—even that many find it offensive—really justifies trying to make it go away when others approve of it. I can change the channel. ‘Live and let live,’ they used to say. You don’t hear that expression much anymore. More and more, people think they need to decide what’s best for everyone.” He estimated that maybe 10 or 15 percent of the university population thought the Chief offensive. They could have avoided seeing the dance; they could have turned away or taken the opportunity to visit the restroom. But they didn’t. And “they didn’t want anyone else to see it either. They didn’t want to live and let live. ... In the end, a handful of people got rid of Chief Illiniwek. ... The Chief’s demise is directly attributable to a few social activists on the NCAA committees and a small core of UI leaders” who were embarrassed by the continuing Chief controversy. “Despite the views of many American Indian activists, even the majority of American Indians never crystallized behind the notion that there was something wrong with the Indian symbolism for sports teams. The only attempt ever made to scientifically gauge their opinion on the matter resulted in resounding approval for the use of such imagery. The best argument that could ever be mustered against Chief Illiniwek was that ‘some people’ were offended by it. ... That doesn’t seem like a very good way to decide anything—let alone something that mattered to so many people. ... Yet more and more decisions happen just like that. If one person is offended by the presence of a Christmas tree in the dormitory cafeteria, we get rid of it. If two or three people are offended by the selections performed at a school holiday program, we change them. For the most part, the rest of us go along with that. Most of us don’t want to offend others—even if it’s just a few others, even if we really wish they’d just live and let live.” In the case of the Chief, the few who were offended finally found a way to get rid of the offensive figure: they found someone who could essentially just decree an end to Chief Illiniwek without taking a vote or anything like it. “It doesn’t seem fair,” Foreman concludes. “It doesn’t seem right. It’s sad, really. And if it’s the way decisions are going to be made about other issues people care about, it becomes terribly important in the whole scheme of things—and that has nothing to do, really, with Chief Illiniwek.”
Puts me in mind of the way it was decided to invade Iraq.
A few protest letters may re-instate a favorite comic strip; and for that, all of us here at Rancid Raves are happy. But our happiness is short-lived when we realize that, by the same token, a few well-situated voices can decide to send thousands of Americans off to die in distant deserts. Particularly, as Bill Moyers recently demonstrated on a PBS special, “Buying the War,” when dissenting voices fall silent. “Four years ago this spring, the Bush administration took leave of reality and plunged our country into a war so poorly planned it soon turned into a disaster. The story of how high officials misled the country has been told. But they couldn’t have done it on their own; they needed a compliant press, to pass on their propaganda as news and cheer them on. ... As the war rages into its fifth year, we look back at those months leading up to the invasion, when our press largely surrendered its independence and skepticism to join with our government in marching to war.” It was a horrifying 90 minutes of television—made all the more heart-breaking at the revelation that various news media, the Knight Ridder people chief among them, knew the Bush League claims were fraudulent but couldn’t get any of the big, harbinger papers like the New York Times or the Washington Post to publish their stories.
So how are we deciding things these days?
Onward, the Spreading Punditry
Okay, the war on terror is over. We won. Last month, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, famed 9/11 mastermind who’s been in U.S. custody for years, confessed to beheading journalist Daniel Pearl and to playing a central role in every single action of the Terrorist Hordes. And we’ve got him. So it’s over, right?
Despite this obvious fact, GeeDubya has launched a surge to finish off Iraq. That’s Plan A. Plan B, we learn, is to insist that Plan A work.
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
Arthur Frommer is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of the first of his empire of travel books, Europe on 5 Dollars a Day. Wandering the Left Bank in 1957 Paris, young Frommer chanced upon a family-run hotel, the Claude Bernard. “He found budget bliss in a room overlooking the rooftops of Paris for $2 (about $14.50 in today’s dollars, adjusted for inflation),” wrote Kitty Bean Yancey in USA Today. That chance encounter prompted Frommer to get into the travel guide game. Today at the Claude Bernard, rooms start at $130.
MORE SPIKING OF CARTOONS
Scarcely had we posted our review last time (Opus 204) of David Wallis’ Killed Cartoons volume than the ’Net was buzzing with a fresh variety of scandal: it seems that Wallis’ publisher, Norton, was so queasy about one of the cartoons he’d picked for the book that it wouldn’t publish it. Yup: they killed a Doug Marlette cartoon slated for the Killed Cartoons tome. And here is the offending cartoon, which first appeared in late 2002. As reported at www.cagle.msnbc.com, syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker jumped gleefully on this scrap of rampant hypocrisy: “As the world knows by now, some Muslims have no tolerance for irreverence when it comes to their Prophet. When Marlette [now at the Tulsa World but then with the Tallahassee Democrat] drew the cartoon, the paper pulled it from its Web site and kept it out of print editions after several thousand e-mails and death threats jammed its server. Chris Lamb, author of Drawn to Extremes: The Use and Abuse of Editorial Cartoons, likened the Marlette omission [in Killed] to ‘writing a history of the United States and leaving out the Civil War.’ Editors and publishers, including Norton President Drake McFeely, typically explain their decision not to run certain cartoons with arguments about responsibility and sensitivity. McFeely said Norton’s decision was based on sensitivity to the political environment: ‘We blinked at that one, but we did not blink on the other 282 pages of cartoons.’ ... Many doubtless would agree with Norton’s decision, figuring that the possibility of mortal threat is a pretty good reason not to publish a controversial cartoon. But, in fact,” she rages on, her wattles in full uproar, “it is the very reason to publish. ... Instead, by capitulating to intimidation (even if we call it sensitivity), we embolden the forces that have no interest in freedom. We telegraph to Islamist totalitarians, whose ultimate goal is subjugation of the West, that death threats and riots will silence us into submission—the literal meaning of ‘Islam.’ In the country that helped midwife free speech into civilization, that may be the definition of irresponsible.” Parker’s hysteria is a little extreme. I doubt, for instance, that Islamists’ “ultimate goal is subjugation of the West”; more likely, they just want us to leave those countries in which they constitute a majority of the population. But, Parker’s snit aside, her chief point, that a free press shouldn’t permit itself to be intimidated into silence, is a good one and worth making. Parker’s motives in raising the issue are not entirely pure: she was the one who achieved a certain journalistic celebrity in 2002 by taking note of the suppression Marlette was subjected to. She probably expects to bask again in muck-raking glory. And that’s fine: more power to her, I say. (Well, maybe not all that much more power.)
The cartoon in question debuted on the Tallahasee Democrat website in the last week of December. Marlette sent it in from his home in Hillsborough, North Carolina, electronically, and it was posted to the website automatically. It prompted complaint from Muslim groups almost at once, and it was quickly yanked. Muslims found the cartoon offensive because the name “Mohammed” invokes the religion’s prophet founder and therefore seems to imply that Islam is a bomb-throwing religion, thereby nurturing post-9/11 bigotry about all Arabs as well as Islam. Marlette and his newspaper were flooded with e-mails (approaching 6,000 within a week or so of the cartoon’s appearance). Parker got wind of the excitement and wrote about it. Both she and Marlette in a written statement that was distributed nationally pointed out that the cartoon plays off the “What Would Jesus Drive” campaign against gas-guzzling SUVs. Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C., noted the connection: “Jesus represents Christianity, and Mohammed represents Islam,” he said. “It’s a direct parallel.” Marlette protested, saying that the cartoon was not an assault on Islam or its founder but on “the distortion of Muslims’ religion by murderous fanatics and zealots.” Parker concurred, saying that “anyone half awake understands” that the cartoon attacks “fundamentalist Islamists [who] have hijacked [Muslims’] religion to justify murdering Americans.”
And that’s true: in the “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign, the message is against SUVs; the parallel in Marlette’s cartoon, then, is its message against Ryder trucks (an allusion to the Oklahoma City atrocity) being used to haul bombs to unspecified destinations. But the nuances of the parallel are not immediately apparent, I’m afraid, and as a result, it’s easy to misinterpret as Hooper and thousands of others did.
Marlette was not the only political cartoonist at the time to raise the ire of readers with imagery that verges on ethnic stereotyping. At the Palm Beach Post, Ombudsman C.B. Hanif devoted an entire column to the inflammatory nature of cartons that touch on religion. He starts with a cartoon by Walt Handelsman of Newsday that showed several people admiring a proposed design for New York's World Trade Center. A bearded figure, probably representing Osama bin Laden, says that the proposed building—very tall, like the World Trade Center—was "perfect," apparently for destruction. Said Hanif: “The drawing too closely resembled many fellow law-abiding Muslims. Though that struck me as the worst kind of stereotyping, it won't be the last time a cartoon bothers someone due to the message he or she perceives.”
He goes on to discuss a recent series in Wiley Miller’s Sunday Non Sequitur in which Wiley’s angelic doughboy is sent into the Middle Ages where he is bullied and punished by the officials of a local religion. A letter-writer, Anthony Orrico, was outraged by what he saw as an anti-Catholic sentiment, saying, among other things: “You have abused the First Amendment privilege of free speech. Who will you persecute next? Protestants? Jews? Muslims?"
Wiley responded: “Actually, Mr. Orrico defends the material himself when he said: 'I acknowledge that some past and present Catholic prelates have abused their power, as have some of those of other religions when they possessed similar power.’ Well, that's all the story line is about--the abuse and corruption of power. And that is why I use the generic term, 'the church,’ throughout the story, as the shoe of corruption is sadly one that fits all faiths at any given time in history. This story is not intended as a shot at the Catholic Church, and to say this material is 'vehement anti-Catholic' is quite a stretch to say the least.
"Let's put it this way,” Wiley continued, “if this was intended to be anti-Catholic material, it would have never seen publication. First of all, I am Catholic. Secondly, my syndicate would never allow material to be distributed that defamed any faith. And last, no newspaper would run it. I understand the sensitivity Mr. Orrico has regarding anything that even remotely smacks of criticism toward the Catholic Church, as the church has taken quite a beating in the press over the past year. But that beating is not only well-deserved, it is self-inflicted. ... Catholics should be directing their rage at the source of those problems ... the hierarchy. Censorship is not the answer to the problems of the Catholic Church. Indeed, that is the very reason the problems got to be so big. If people see their faith reflected in this material, then they shouldn't blame the mirror."
Marlette also used the criticism of his cartoon to make a larger point: “What I have learned [from a 30-year career as a cartoonist] is that ... no one is less tolerant than those demanding tolerance. ... Despite differences of culture and creed, they all seem to share the egocentric notion that there is only one way of looking at things, their way, and others have no right to see things differently. ... Here is my answer to them: In this country, we do not apologize for our opinions. Free speech is the linchpin of our republic. ... Granted, there is nothing ‘fair’ about cartoons. You cannot say ‘on the other hand’ in them. They are harder to defend with logic. But this is why we have a First Amendment—so that we don’t feel the necessity to apologize for our ideas.”
All of which is true. But it is also true that cartoons that tread into religious or ethnic territory are almost certain to raise the hackles of those who see their territory threatened. Cartoonists have almost never been safe on this score, whether on the editorial pages of the nation’s newspapers or in the comics section, and, increasingly, controversy often starts in the latter. At the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, a special 2003 exhibition explored “Hate Mail: Comic Strip Controversies.” Displaying strips from Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks, Garry Trudean’s Doonesbury, Berk Breathed’s Bloom County and Outland, Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse, Scott Adams’ Dilbert, and Wiley’s Non Sequitur, the show, it seemed to me at the time—and now—strenuously attests to the courage of newspaper editors and syndicate officials and to the maturation of the American newspaper reading public, which has grown more tolerant of expressions of opinion in its entertainments. Newspaper comics were criticized at birth—the Yellow Kid, the Katzenjammers—for being vulgar and, hence, a bad influence on the young. None of the contemporary strips in the Museum’s show would have been published in newspapers a century ago—perhaps not even a quarter-of-a-century ago. Today, most of the strips on display are not only tolerated but enthusiastically supported by large segments of the newspaper readership. Cartoons that edge up to ethnic issues will inevitably draw fire, but we’re still more tolerant today than we once were.
Still, we have timorous editors and publishers—like Norton, which managed, with its very timidity, to perpetrate a colossal irony that proves the point of Willis’ book. Delicious. Exquisite. Marlette, writing in Cagle’s Best Political Cartoons of the Year, 2007 Edition to comment on the Danish fiasco by reference to his “What Would Muhammad Drive?” cartoon, extended his argument: “I was used to negative reactions from religious interest groups, but not the kind of sustained violent intensity of the Islamic threats. The nihilism and culture of death of a religion that sanctions suicide bombers and issues fatwas on people who draw funn7pictures is certainly of a different order and fanatical magnitude than the protests of our home-grown religious true believers. As a child of the segregated South, I am quite familiar with the damage done to the ‘good religious people’ of my region when the Ku Klux Klan acted in our name. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) that led the assault on me describes itself as a civil rights advocacy group. Among those whose ‘civil rights’ they advocated were the convicted bombers of the World Trade Center in 1993. They cannot be taken seriously. For many of those who protested my cartoon, recent emigres, many highly educated, it was obvious that there was not that healthy tradition of free inquiry, humor and irreverence in their background that we have in the West. There was no Jefferson, Madison, Adams in their intellectual tradition. Those who have attacked my work, whether on the right, the left, Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish or Muslim, all seem to experience comic or satirical irreverence as hostility and hate. When all it is, really, is irreverence. Ink on paper is only a thought, an idea. Such people fear ideas. Those who mistake themselves for the God they claim to worship tend to mistake irreverence for blasphemy.”
The issue, as you surely have observed, is not confined to Muslim extremists. Tony Auth at the Philadelphia Inquirer reacted to the recent Supreme Court decision upholding the federal partial-birth abortion ban by depicting the five Catholic justices wearing bishop miters. Joseph Cella, head of a leading Catholic pro-life group, shrieked that the cartoon “breached the line of reasonable editorial commentary. ... [with a cartoon that ] is venomous, terribly misleading and blatantly anti-Catholic.” He said, without any evidence to support his claim, that the “Supreme Court did not ‘follow marching orders’ from the Vatican.” How would he know? Quoted by Steven Ertelt at lifenews.com, Cella fulminated on: “The Inquirer’s insinuation that a Catholic judge cannot act dispassionately and apply the law is an affront to all judges of faith and smacks of anti-Catholic bigotry and elitism of the worst kind.” Well, I dunno. Seems to me that the “worst kind” of behavior is to ignore the tenets of one’s faith in the course of daily and professional life. So how would you expect five Catholic justices to rule on such a moral question as abortion? It’s a thorny issue, and, alas, there are no easy answers. There is, however, one guarantee: if you draw a cartoon that can be interpreted as slighting one religion or another, you’ll stir up trouble, probably more than your timorous editor can easily tolerate.
PENIS MIGHTIER THAN SWORD
A typo any of us typists would be happy to have committed, but I’m repeating it here as deliberately as it was doubtless constructed in the first instance as a lead-in to:
The pen may be mitier than the sword, but it takes only the tiny pen point of a diligent editoonist to pop the bubble of pomposity. To attack oppression, on the other hand, persistence is needed. —RCH
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
The case of Seung-Hui Cho and the 32 murders he committed at Virginia Tech presents vividly the hopelessness of the gun dilemma in the U.S. None of the various impediments designed to prevent the sale of firearms to unbalanced persons prevented Cho from buying a gun. All failed because of some administrative factor, a failing at once tragic but all too human. Moreover, Cho’s teachers and others in university officialdom couldn’t notify his parents of any of his evident maladjustments because state and federal laws require that colleges treat students as independent adults not as anyone’s children. And anti-discrimination statutes prohibit putting students on involuntary medical leave even if they manifest serious mental illness. Students have sued colleges for discriminating against them “because of suicide attempts and psychotic episodes.” Said Rich Lowry in National Review Online: “Instead of requiring sad, sick people to get treatment, we let them wander freely in the name of civil rights.” I’m not suggesting that we repeal all such laws; I’m saying, only, that their good intentions enable disturbed people like Cho more latitude than might be good for them. Or us. That, however, is a risk we must run if we wish to be free in a humane society.
The statistics against which these feeble protections are erected are nearly overwhelming. According to The Week magazine, “about 1,000 crimes involving firearms are committed every day, and some 29,000 Americans are killed by firearms every year. Of those victims, about 11,000 are murdered, 17,000 use a gun to commit suicide, and nearly 1,000 die in accidents. By comparison, the annual toll of gun deaths in Britain is about 100.” Just 100! “And in Canada, 168. Every day in the U.S., eight children alone die from a gun wound. ... we lose the equivalent of the massacre at Virginia Tech every four days.”
Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association has run athwart the American Jewish Congress with its America’s First Freedom magazine, the current issue of which has a cover drawing that depicts New York’s Jewish mayor Michael Bloomberg as an evil-looking octopus stretching its anti-gun tentacles all across America, a country that loves its first freedom. David Twersky of the AJC said the magazine’s editors should have known that the octopus has a history as an anti-Semitic symbol. NRA’s spokesman Ashley Varner pleads complete ignorance. But Twersky is scarcely placated. “For them not to know this is really, really stupid,” he told Sara Kugler of the Associated Press. Gee, I didn’t know that either, so I must be really, really stupid. But the Anti-Defamation League, while allowing that some might take offense at the drawing, didn’t think the cartoon is inherently anti-Semitic. What’s more, when octopus is deployed in an anti-Semitic effort, it is usually accompanied by some very specific symbol that underscores its intention. The NRA drawing has no such symbol.
Read and Relish
You know the speed of light. What’s the speed of dark?
Death is hereditary.
Anything worth taking seriously is worth making fun of.
All true wisdom is found on t-shirts.
An Acquired Taste: Be Among Them
Onward, the Spreading Punditry
What if the Bush League had been right about Iraq? What if the neoconservatives had been purely prescient about the outcome of this Mideast adventure? Our invading horde would have been greeted with showers of flowers as it tramped through the streets of Baghdad; experienced bureaucrats would come out of hiding to assume government positions; and civic life would, overnight, be re-arranged and efficiently run. In one swell foop, we would have established convincingly the prowess of the American military machine and the potency of the foreign policy it served. Iraq would be the object lesson: Iran and North Korea, already designated targets by GeeDubya as members of the Evil Axis, would then have quaked in their boots and given up nuclear ambitions in fear of being invaded just as the first member of the evil trio was. And the world would be a better place today. And when, exactly, did any dream of this dimension ever achieve actuality? Dreamers serve a purpose in human affairs, but they probably ought not to be policy-makers and commanders-in-chief of vast military machinery.
EDITOONERY: THE AWARDS SEASON
Pulitzer Prize for Political Cartooning
The Pulitzer for last year’s editorial cartoons, announced April 17, is both a second and a first. This is the second time Walt Handelsman of Newsday has won the $10,000 prize (he also won in 1997), and it’s the first time the prestigious award has honored work that included animation. About a year ago, Handelsman started creating animated political cartoons for the paper’s website in addition to drawing the usual static version for the editorial page of the print edition. His portfolio of submissions to the competition included 10 still cartoons and 10 animations. Said Newsday’s editor, John Mancini: “It’s terrific that the Pulitzers recognized not only Walt’s keen powers of observation, biting sense of humor and political insight, but also how’s he’s leading the way to show what editorial cartooning can be in the electronic age.” The other two finalists for the Pulitzer—Nick Anderson of the Houston Chronicle and Mike Thompson of the Detroit Free Press—both do animation as well as traditional print. Should political cartoon animation be a separate Pulitzer category? “I don’t know,” Handelsman told Dave Astor of Editor & Publisher—“it’s so new.”
Handelsman taught himself animation techniques by working at home evenings after putting in a full day at the office, relying on his family’s understanding. He thanked his wife, reported Newsday’s Keiko Morris, joking that waking her in the wee hours “to see what I did to Dick Cheney” was a common scenario. He also thanked his sons James, 15, for “his brutally honest criticisms,” and Billy, 12, “for sound effects.” “I told them that sacrifice is a life lesson,” the cartoonist said. “It’s important to realize that if you work hard, occasionally great things can happen.”
Handelsman has a history of working harder than necessary. After two years at the University of Cincinnati, he returned in 1979 to his hometown, Baltimore, where he worked in commercial art, doing layouts and production work at Quality Composition, a local agency; there, he met and married the boss’s daughter. But he wanted to get into political cartooning, so he did cartoons for a weekly for three years without compensation, after which he landed at Patuxent Publications, a chain of 7 weeklies. He spent the next three years there, winning 11 awards from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association and self-syndicating his cartoons around the country to daily newspapers. It paid off: in May 1985, he was hired full-time at the Scranton Times, a daily gig. Four years later, he left for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, and from there, he went to Newsday in 2001.
As the political cartooning profession shrinks, many political cartoonists have started animating their commentary at newspaper websites, expecting—or hoping—that a presence on the Web will extend their professional lives. Editoonist Daryl Cagle in his blog at www.cagle.msnbc.com is pretty sure they’re “wandering blindly.” Acknowledge the seemingly bleak future for newspapers as a print medium, Cagle questions the adaptation tactic many newspapers have adopted—turning to the Internet. “It makes perfect sense to chase the shifting audience,” Cagle writes, “but the move to the Internet doesn’t make much business sense.” There’s no money there, he says. And he should know: Cagle operates the Web’s biggest venue of political cartoons, but it is successful because it “is associated with MSNBC.com, which gets its traffic from MSN.com, which gets most of its traffic from the famous MSN.com home page, the default home page for PC buyers using the Internet Explorer browser, who don’t bother to change their home page. ... The trick to finding a big audience on the Web is to bring your site to the audience [as MSN.com has done], not to expect the audience to find your site.” For many newspaper editors, he continues, “Internet strategy is a fantasy from the movie ‘Field of Dreams’: ‘If you build it, they will come.’” But they don’t. And websites don’t, as a rule, pay for content: they pick it up, gratis, from other media. They steal it. (Or poach it. Pick your verb.) And so animating political cartoons on the Web doesn’t seem promising as a way for editoonists to stave off extinction. “The problem for cartoonists is much the same as the problem for other content creators; there is no market for animated political cartoons when websites don’t want to pay for content.” Despite the popularity of his site, Cagle says he still makes his living selling cartoons “that are printed in ink on paper to traditional clients who actually pay. ... Even the successful JibJab guys use their political cartoons for publicity and make their living doing animations for commercial clients. The editorial cartoonists seem to be charging ahead in their aimless endeavors, typically creating animated political cartoons on the side, for newspaper employers who pay them nothing extra for the extra hours, creating content that no one wants to buy in syndication.”
Animating political cartoons may be the distant future for editoonists, but in the meantime, Scott Stantis, editoonist at the Birmingham News (Ala.), doesn’t think the Pulitzer for political cartoons should go to the animated variety. He admires Handelsman’s work and thinks of himself as a friend, but he doesn’t think an animated political cartoon is the same thing as a static political cartoon. “Let’s put it this way,” Stantis wrote in his newspaper, “giving the Pulitzer Prize for an animated cartoon is like awarding it for best novel to ‘Doctor Zhivago’ starring Omar Sharif. It’s just not the same thing.” He went on: “What’s next? ‘The Family Guy’ gets a Pulitzer? ‘The Simpsons’? ‘American Dad’? The JibJab guys? They’re animated, have political content, and are posted online. According to the new rules, they’re all eligible. So don’t be surprised some day if you see Scooby-Doo accepting the highest honor in journalism.” The biographical note that accompanied this screed concluded: “By writing this column, Stantis understands he is obliterating whatever minuscule chance he ever had at winning a Pulitzer Prize.” I think Stantis has a point, but not exactly the one he tries to make by keying off the Pulitzer committee’ appreciation of the “zaniness” of Handelsman’s animated cartoons. Stantis wrote: “What makes an editorial cartoon great, what makes it the thing readers turn to first on the editorial page, is the unique ability of a well-conceived and well-executed cartoon to cut through the spin. To slash through the deliberate fog that politicians create and get to the hard and often uncomfortable nub of an issue. They may take a comic turn but in their black hearts they are not ‘zany.’ They’re savage. ‘Zany’ is not what an editorial cartoonist aspires to yet many in the publishing business increasingly expect it.” Here, Stantis is ranting against the Jay Leno comedy to which editoonists often sink; his objection is to recognition of “zaniness” as a legitimate tactic for a political cartoonist. But the distinction he draws between, say, “Family Guy” and an editorial cartoon in print form is a more valid reason to object to the Pulitzer committee’s singling out Handelsman’s animation for a Prize. Static editoons work most powerfully when their messages are carried by visual metaphors, images that sear the brain and linger there. And animated editorial cartoons have not yet reached the metaphorical stage—hence, they are, as Stantis strenuously implies, a different artform, and they require a different category for recognition by the Pulitzer people.
Other Awards. The Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for political cartooning went to Clay Bennett of the Christian Science Monitor. Signe Wilkinson at the Philadelphia Daily News won the Thomas
Nast Award for international cartooning from the Overseas Press Club. And the Denver Post’s Mike Keefe earned the top honors in the annual John Fischetti
Editorial Cartoon Competition established by the Journalism Department of the
Columbia College in Chicago. Chip Bok of the Akron Beacon Journal won the
editorial cartoonist of the year “opinion award” from The Week magazine, a weekly publication that routinely, diligently,
scours dozens of news periodicals every week to digest their gist in its pages.
It also publishes a selection of political cartoons every week, sometimes two
pages of them. Jack Higgins of the Chicago Sun-Times was honored by the
Chicago Bar Association on May 3 for a series of cartoons he did on political
corruption. Mike Lester at the Rome News-Tribune (Georgia) received the
Sigma Delta Chi Award for Excellence in Editorial Cartooning. Lester said
getting this recognition from the Professional Journalists Society was the high
point in his career, “outside of most improved conduct in the sixth grade.”
Later, he confided in Daryl Cagle,
whose syndicate distributes Lester’s cartoons: “I’m flattered and have a
feeling of validation to have won, but my suspicion is that the awards
committee probably just misspelled ‘Luckovich’” (a reference to the editoonist
at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who
won both the NCS Reuben and the Pulitzer last year, and the Headliner Award,
last year and this). At State University of New York in Brockport, student
editooner Kory Merritt won this
year’s John Locher Memorial Award for college editorial cartooning. The award
memorializes the son of cartoonist Dick
Locher, who produces political cartoons and Dick Tracy for the Tribune Media Services. Ann Telnaes won the first prize in the 15th Dutch
Cartoon Festival 2007, the theme of which was “Man and Religion in Cartoons.”
Telnaes, whose female perspective often yields piercing insight into current
events, sometimes depicts religion as the oppressor of women’s rights,
particularly the Catholic Church and its attitude towards abortion and its
opposition to women in thepriesthood. Her winning cartoon showed a woman
surrounded by four men of various religions, symbolically boxing her in,
imprisoning her, by drawing restrictive red lines around her. Telnaes’ most
recent book is Dick, a collection of
cartoons about Cheney, the President of the Vice of Power, each one a caustic
vision of arrogance gone sinister.
MORE PITHY PRONOUNCEMENTS
Once corporations assume control, you have “corporate culture”—which is no culture at all in the traditional sense. Culture becomes “product.” —RCH
“A fellow who is always declaring he’s no fool usually has his suspicions.”—Playwright Wilson Mizner
“If it’s not one thing, it’s another.” —Robin Williams
Cartooning Affirms Life in the Face of Death Threat
We reviewed this book in Opus 197, but briefly. Here’s the same review again, this time, with remarks by its author, and a quick look sideways at her previous graphic novel.
The back cover of the little pink book with the purple dust jacket asks a question: “What happens when a shoe-crazy, lipstick-obsessed, wine-swilling, pasta-slurping, fashion-fanatic, single-forever, about-to-get-married big-city girl cartoonist (me, Marisa Acocella) with a fabulous life finds ... A LUMP IN HER BREAST?”
One of the things that happened in this case is a colorful graphic memoir entitled Cancer Vixen (212 8x8-inch pages, hardback; $22). Another thing that happened in this case is exuberant cartooning the way exuberant cartooning should be.
Suffused with wit both visual and verbal, the book is a roller coaster read of emotional highs and lows, joy and anger illuminated on every page by Acocella’s simplest line art. (She has other styles.) She uses visual symbols like an editorial cartoonist—also diagrams and charts—to take us, step by step, day by day, through the ordeal of initial suspicion about the lump, then examination, diagnosis, and treatment by lumpectomy and chemotherapy. The book is informative in copious detail, explaining every aspect of her disease and its treatment—with cartooned visual aids. Acocella satisfies her curiosity, and ours, about breast
cancer, but in addition to being curious, she’s a cartoonist and thinks like one—in visual-verbal terms—as is evident on every page.
“I think visually,” she said, “so it was easier for me to put it down in images rather than in just pure words.”
She deploys narrative breakdown and page layout as deftly as she wields her pen, adroitly blending word and picture for comedic purposes as well as educational ones. “Finding Humor in a Tumor” was the headline over a review in the New York Post, and that’s as accurate a headline as we could ask for.
Doing the book was therapeutic, Acocella said when interviewed by Don Aucoin at the Boston Globe. “By focusing on the work, it took the focus off cancer—even though I was writing about it. Instead of focusing on a lumpectomy, I would focus on a deadline or writing. I always found that for me, a little bit of denial is not a bad thing.”
She was inspired by Art Spiegelman’s Maus and other graphic novels. She had produced a graphic novel of her own in 1994. Entitled Just Who the Hell Is She, Anyway? it was based upon a comic strip, She, that Acocella did for Mirabella magazine. “It got good reviews,” Acocella said, “but went pretty much unnoticed because the
concept of graphic novels was relatively new then.”
Acocella’s cartoons appear regularly in The New Yorker and in Glamour magazine, and for a time, she did a bi-weekly comic strip in The New York Times, the first—and, to date, the only—comic strip ever in the Gray Lady of American newspapers. That arrangement dissolved a year or so ago.
Doing a book about her cancer was exactly the sort of cartooning Acocella has always done. “I had always worked pretty much as a hybrid journalist cartoonist, and everything has always been autobiographical for me, so it was a natural fit. The best cartoons are things that are really truthful. I have always documented everything.”
According to reporter Allison Xantha Miller, Acocella “goes shopping to figure out what her characters will wear, which once resulted in her being thrown out of a Gucci store for taking pictures of the clothes.”
Cancer Vixen brims with personal drama as well as hilarity. We get generous glimpses of her professional life as a freelance cartoonist and of her love life. She is on the cusp of marrying for the first time at the age of 43 to celebrity restaurateur Silvano Marchetto. Will her fiancé desert her now that she’s “damaged goods”?
The book is a love story as much as a gleeful expose of a terrifying subject. “I didn’t realize what I had,” Acocella told Julian Kesner at the New York Daily News. “I didn’t know how much he loved me. He could have had any girl with the best legs or the best breasts, but he married someone who had breast cancer. That’s pretty special.”
Her byline on the book acknowledges how special: Marisa Acocella Marchetto, “right now, cancer-free,” she says, “—thankfully.”
Cancer Vixen is great, accomplished, effective cartooning. And it is also a comedic but life-affirming love story.
Onward, the Spreading Punditry
Perhaps a word of two of explanation is needed about the political vacillation of This Colyum. In my wilder moments of egomaniacal self-adulation, I imagine hordes of readers of This Space wondering why I haven’t gone after GeeDubya much lately. The answer is quite simple: he doesn’t need me to point out that he is a fraud and a liar when every time he opens his mouth lately, he proves it himself. Naturally, I feel like the third wheel on a prom date. So I have maintained a discreet silence. His only demonstrated competence lately is as cheerleader, the role he first assumed while in college and has ever since fulfilled admirably. At a recent rally
(we don’t, here at Rancid Raves, call them “addresses” or “speeches”), he ranted on about Iraq until he reached the cheerleading crescendo: “We will win the war in Iraq!” he exclaimed, raising his fist defiantly. Sis boom bah. This guy doesn’t need critics when he’s his own worst enemy.
The other reason I haven’t lambasted GeeDubya much lately is that there seems no worthy alternative to him. All those guys in Washington are of the same breed exactly. Self-interest motivates them all. They want to be re-elected in order to continue to wield the power that will get them re-elected again, and to be re-elected, they need money to campaign, and they serve the moneyed interests who will give them money in exchange for favorable legislation. In that environment, what’s GeeDubya but just another national disgrace?
Meanwhile, the debate goes on. And on and on and on. The Democrats want to set a timetable to pull out of Iraq. The Bush League objection to that, a seemingly valid military strategic objection, is that if we set a departure date, the “enemy” will simply bide its time, hiding out in alleys and desert caves, until that date, when they’ll emerge again and wreck havoc. If we announce a departure date, we’ll be aiding and abetting the enemy, they say. Well, shoot. The enemy already knows we’re going to leave. Just because we haven’t announced a departure date doesn’t much affect them: they know if they bide their time, we’ll be leaving, and they’ll get to run roughshod over the country. Setting a definite departure date doesn’t much change that expectation.
But “leaving,” I hasten to add, doesn’t mean there won’t be American troops in Iraq. Who do you think will occupy those four giant military bases we’ve build since 2003? Gnomes?
COMIC STRIP WATCH
Here are the last two B.C. strips produced under Johnny Hart’s supervision, released April 27 and 28. Also on display, Dilbert for April 21, which ran too soon after the horrendous events at Virginia Tech for some papers; like all syndicated strips, it was produced weeks before publication without any intention of commenting upon or referring to the slaughter of 32 college students. Mike Peters’ intentions in Mother Goose & Grimm for April 4, however, are not accidental at all, proving, once again—if it needs proving—that political commentary can be found more and more frequently on the funnies pages. And so, as we see in Brian Crane’s Pickles for April 10, can jokes that skirt—even rub up against—once taboo subjects.
Meanwhile, in Doonesbury, where we are no longer surprised by any topic’s cropping up, Mark Slackmeyer called for GeeDubya’s impeachment on April 17. Slackmeyer and Michael Doonesbury, as they occasionally do, are examining letters from readers, one of whom complains that the strip spends too much time “criticizing Bush day after day.” Mike says: “Actually, we’re not as relentless as you think. Despite Iraq, Katrina, wiretapping, torture, etc., in the last year there’s only been a total of 55 strips ripping the President.” Then Mark blurts it out: “Impeach Bush now!” And Mike hastily adds: “Okay, 56.” The next day, as Mike points out that of the 365 strips in the last year, 271 were “completely politics free,” Mark blurts again: “Impeach Cheney, too!” “Hey!” says Mike, “—stop wasting our quota.” By the end of the week, they’re talking about sex. One reader, while appreciating the strip’s political content, says, “You need to include a lot more sex in the strip.” “Boy, is that a bad idea,” says Mark. Mike agrees: “Do you have any idea what we look like naked?” “We don’t,” says Mark, “—the model sheets were lost years ago!” “Could be really nasty,” adds Mike. Then during the first week of May, Doonesbury went into reprints while cartooner Garry Trudeau took a vacation. Rerunning strips from October 2002 when the Bush League was hyping an invasion of Iraq revealed just how prescient Trudeau was, said Editor & Publisher. “The strips predicted major post-invasion violence between Shiites and Sunnis and high death tolls in Iraq.” Said Trudeau, quoted in the Dallas Morning News: “The possible outcomes I was describing five years ago did not spring wholly from my imagination. I’m just not that smart. But a lot of other people are, and anyone open to countervailing arguments about the wisdom of invading Iraq could have found their warnings easily enough.”
The current storyline in Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean involves Lisa Moore in another struggle with breast cancer. She will undergo chemotherapy again, saith E&P, learn that her prospects aren’t good, opt to stop treatment, agonize over how to tell her young daughter about her deteriorating health, and decide to testify before Congress on behalf of increasing cancer researching funding. The story will run until October, and towards the end, Batiuk will show people around Lisa how to deal with the possibility of an unfortunate ending. The entire sequence will be published by Kent State University in October in a book entitled Lisa’s Story: The Other Shoe.
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
A California perfume company, after years of scriptural study and research, has formulated a biblically themed fragrance called “Virtue,” which includes “notes” of apricot, frankincense, and myrrh in a blend of 3,000-year-old scents. It retails for $80 for a 1.7-ounce bottle, but it enables its wearers to smell like Christ and many of the saints, according to the company’s CEO, quoted in The Week magazine. We trust that the lucky folks so anointed won’t smell 3,000 years old, but who can say for sure?
During the fabled 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, recorded the events and carried on an affair with one of the athletes, the American Glenn Morris, who later played Tarzan in some of the movies of that icon, we learn in the Washington Post National Weekly Edition for March 19-25. “After winning the gold medal in the decathlon, Morris ripped open Riefenstahl’s blouse and kissed her breasts in full view of 100,000 spectators.” No wardrobe malfunction was claimed, but then, it didn’t take place on television in everyone’s livingroom either.
A Christian university founded by televangelist Pat Robertson has been one of the top suppliers of personnel to the Bush League’s administration it sez in The Week, quoting the Boston Globe—more than 150 graduates of Regent University, including Monica Goodling, a top assistant to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales until she resigned rather than testify before Congress in the fired prosecutors scandal. When he founded Regent in 1978, Robertson said its mission was to provide “Christian leadership to change the world.” The idea, I suppose, is to turn the other cheek and fire all the federal prosecutors who don’t tow the party line. “Christian leadership” as in Communist Party-controlled Soviet Russia. That’s a little strong, I agree. But you gotta agree there’s an echo in here.
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE
In the current issue of the Comics Buyer’s Guide (No. 1631), the cover story features an examination of An Event in funnybook history rather than a promotion of the latest superhero movie, which has too long been the most conspicuous function of CBG. This time, the magazine takes a lingering look at Marvel’s Civil War series and the death of Captain America, interviewing some of the writers who crafted the sea-changing series and editor-in-chief Joe Quesada. Brian Michael Bendis felt the series “delivered on its promise and it was about something.” Dwayne McDuffie “liked the idea for changing the background and forcing characters across the line to come down on an issue that isn’t about who can hit the hardest.” I agree: even without having read the series (yet—or still), I am persuaded that it dealt in a mature way with a grown-up issue. As Captain Comics (aka Andrew Smith) observed, the series presented “an interesting metaphor for real-world politics”—the Super Human Registration Act against which Captain America struggled and lost, a shadow of the Bush League wiretapping and torturing rampage against individual rights in the name of protecting citizens from terrorist acts. Captain America opposes the government edict, and his death at the end of the series stands for the death of the values he represents, values we’d all deem “American,” as I said in Opus 202. But his symbolic function was, in the story as it unfolded, a good deal more nuanced than that, I now perceive. The values he embodied are presented in the series as outdated. In CBG, Ray Sidman writes: “He wants the rules of the era he grew up in to still apply, but, unfortunately, we’re living in a world where people aren’t quite as free as the time when he was created.” So are “FDR values” out-of-date, as Smith suggests in his interview with Quesada? Quesada pussyfoots around an answer, saying that the American flag, which Cap wears as a uniform, means something different to each of us, thereby implying that the character represents something more than “FDR values.” And perhaps, I suspect, that “something more” is not out-dated. Quesada insists that “Marvel is nobody’s soapbox,” adding: “The only thing we’re trying to tell is stories of heroic characters, and they’re metaphors for the heroic ideal” (my emphasis). The nuances that soften the edges of Captain America as a symbol of “American values” are sometimes subtle through the series, no question—and sometimes not: Cap is made to feel out-of-touch with America by Sally Floyd, who points out that Cap doesn’t know who won the last World Series or who is the latest American Idol. But being clueless about the fads of popular culture is not the same as being out-of-touch with bedrock American values. The nuances may have been intended to make Cap a less obvious symbol, but, philosophically, the character remains an emblematic. Captain America may not mean to the present generation of his writers and creators what he meant to my generation of readers and to his creators, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. But that says more about the erosion of passing time than it does about the “heroic ideal” that Captain America represents. He’s still Captain America symbolizing what America means, and when he died in Captain American No. 25, the America he symbolizes died, too. Marvel may deny that its books offer a soapbox for anybody’s political schtick, but the denial rings a little hollow. And I’m still cheering them on. On a somewhat more cataclysmic level, Marvel writers and editors view the post-Civil War landscape as a substantially changed Marvel universe and look forward to exploring its new dimensions.
At Archie Comics, cataclysm looks different. Here, the assault is on Archie fans: Betty and Veronica Double Digest No. 151 landed last week with the girls’ much touted stylistic make-over displayed on the cover as well as through the opening story, the first installment of a four-part tale. The hope at Archie is that the New Look will appeal to a slightly older readership. Said managing editor Victor Gorelick: “Most of our readers are between 7 and 12-13 years old, and mostly girls. Once these girls finish reading Archie Comics, they’ll usually go on to chapter books and a little bit more detailed stories. We want to try to keep that audience a little bit longer. So we’re trying out this new look and seeing what the response is going to be.” The scheme was prompted by the flood of graphic novels in the nation’s bookstores, and since most of those are the manga books that appeal to Archie’s traditional audience, I anticipated that the New Look would be manga-like—wispy lines, big eyes, and pointy chins. So it is with a spasm of relief that I am able to report that the transformation has been achieved without too obvious an importation of these foreign mannerisms. Penciled by Steven Butler, a veteran of Archie’s Sonic the Hedgehog series, the New Look retains almost nothing of the Dan DeCarlo DNA that has distinguished Archie books for generations, but the characters’ eyes aren’t disproportionately large and Al Milgrom’s inks are muscular, his lines firm and often bold, embellished with the sort of feathering we find in most realistically illustrated comics. The only manga infection, pointy chins. At least the girls are wearing slacks or jeans, not schoolgirl short skirts, and no one’s panties are on view. In short, it’s not as bad as I’d feared. To a DeCarlo fan like me, though, it’s bad enough. DeCarlo developed a style that was crisp and comedic and, for the curvaceous gender, sexy. The comedy seems on its way out—but not, as the management hastens to point out, everywhere. The New Look is, so far, confined to the single four-part story in which Veronica falls for a new guy in town, “a bit of a rebel” who rides a motorcycle and, in the first installment, gets into a rumble with some other chopper-heads; all four chapters will doubtless be reprinted sometime after the initial run, assuming, for the occasion, the appearance of a “graphic novel,” a final gesture aimed at capturing the manga-reading crowd. All other Archie stories are still being rendered in the DeCarlo manner. Betty and Veronica in Butler’s New Look preserve at least one idiosyncracy of the old style: they continue to look almost identical except for hair color and style. Neither Jughead nor Archie makes an appearance in this installment, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Butler does to them. He admits a difficulty with Jug: “It would be kind of hard to do Jughead without that nose and without that hat,” he admitted to Bill Radford at the Gazette in Colorado Springs. His version of Jughead includes a slightly larger hat, tilted more to one side, and a goatee. And “I gave him a kind of Bob Hope nose,” Butler said. He hopes readers will give the New Look a chance. The generally negative reaction so far, he said, “spurs me on to do even better work to prove to them that I’m not just hacking this stuff out—that I really do care about what I’m doing.” Here are some samples of his work and a fond glimpse of the DeCarlo manner, too—by way of contrast.
P.S. Can anyone tell me what a “chapter book” is?
And then at DC Comics, loath to be left out in the 21st century’s first rash of drastic re-structuring and renovating, the management is celebrating the success of 52, the year-long weekly series, with a sequel. Andrew Smith observed that such a series “had never really been done on a large scale before in America because it takes roughly a month to write, draw, ink, letter and edit a 22-page comic book. DC managed it with four writers and a cast of rotating artists—and they didn’t miss a single ship date.” The sequel, Smith said at captaincomics.us, is another weekly series, “Countdown, a 52 in reverse, starting at issue No. 52 on April 18 and counting down every seven days to issue No. 1 this time next year.” Sounds like fun to me, but I wasn’t able to afford to keep up with all 52 issues of the inaugural series, so I don’t expect to do any better this time around.
A 50th anniversary collection of B.C. strips is due in September from Checker Book Publishing Company. Entitled Growing Old with B.C., the 200-page paperback will offer nearly 500 strips chosen by Johnny Hart before he died, plus several drawings he made expressly for the volume, including “never-before-seen concept art” from the strip’s beginnings in the late 1950s. ... Matt Richtel, saith E&P, has authored a novel, Hooked, “a thriller about love and other addictions”; Richtel, a New York Times technology reporter, writes under an assumed name to co-produce the comic strip Rudy Park with cartoonist Darrin Bell. ... Destined for August publication, Blondie: The Complete Bumstead Family History. Published by Thomas Nelson, the book, by Blondie writer Dean Young and Melena Ryzik, will focus, E&P says, “on the long-running strip’s history, characters, and creators. Various strips are also reprinted.” I would think lots of strips, but let’s wait and see.
Also from E&P: Universal Press Syndicate has entered into a partnership with Lulu.com that will utilize the latter’s print-on-demand technology to produce books reprinting some of Universal’s comic strips that, “for different business and strategic reasons, are not published by our sister company, Andrews McMeel Publisher,” said Kathie Kerr, Universal’s Assistant Vice President for Communications. An arrangement may eventually—perhaps soon—evolve whereby consumers can search a database of comic strips and pick whatever they want to reprint for their own personalized book or calendar, each to be printed as it is purchased.
Among the numerous other titles available on demand through Lulu.com is a handsome catalogue for an exhibition mounted in April at Jackson State University by a couple friends of mine, John Jennings and Damian Duffy, entitled “Other Heroes: African American Comic Book Creators, Characters and Archetypes” (176 9x11-inch glossy pages in paperback; color, $50). The show, and the catalogue, includes work by Kyle Baker, Omar Bilal, Denys Cowan, Jerry Craft, Keith Knight, Turtel Onli, Jackie Ormes, E. Sims Campbell (with my essay; see Hindsight), Trevor Von Eeden, and many others (Jennings and Duffy, too: Duffy writes, Jennings draws). The show is a critical response to the 2005-06 “Masters of American Comics” show that celebrated the work of only 15 American cartoonists (but no women). The book includes a few essays as well as many examples of art by nearly 50 artists, mostly contemporary practitioners. (See www.lulu.com; search “Other Heroes” under “Books.”) All profits from the sale of the catalogue will be donated to Scholarship America’s Disaster Relief Fund, which provides financial support to lower-income Gulf Coast students displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
REVIEW OF AN ACTUAL BOOK: Art Out of Time
Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969
I bought this book because it reprints a sequence of Cecil Jensen’s Elmo comic strip. And Milt Gross gets a few pages, too—from his comic book, Milt Gross Funnies (1947), a 15-page story, the longest continuous Gross narrative I’ve seen. And as I stood there in the bookstore, thumbing through the tome, I chanced upon some other favorites—George Carlson, Jefferson Machamer, and Charles Forbell—enough, in other words, to persuade me to add the heavy volume (320 8x11-inch pages, color; Abrams, hardback, $40) to my already overburdened and perpetually sagging shelves. When I got it home and looked into it further, I began to wonder what the heck about this compilation cohered. It seemed, upon closer albeit still somewhat cursory inspection, to be a genuine mishmash of unrelated exhibits. The title of the book was almost no help in discerning what it is that held it together in the compiler’s conception of it. “Art Out of Time”—what’s that mean?
The compiler, or author, Dan Nadel, seems to be one of those professional dilettantes, an enthusiastic dabbler in the visual arts, a hanger-on at the fringes of the New York art world, who makes his way through the sheer brilliance of his bullshit, which, in Nadel’s case, finds its usual expression (according to the back flap of the book’s dust jacket) in “the Grammy Award-winning visual culture studio and publishing house, PictureBox, which produces The Ganzfield, an annual book of pictures and prose.” If “visual culture studio” is not bullshit for “my collection of pictures,” I don’t know what it is. The more frustrated I became, the more I pondered the origins of the book. It began, probably—I imagined—with Nadel’s non-stop effusions about old comic books in his “visual culture studio,” an orchestral recitation usually performed for artist acquaintances that eventually attracted the attention of someone associated with Abrams. Since Abrams has had some success with picture books of comics art, it seemed logical that Abrams would be interested in the “visionary” comics art Nadel was always talking about. So Nadel bundled up bunches of his favorite stuff and trotted it over to Abrams. When it was all plopped on the desk of an editor, that factotum’s first reaction was, doubtless, to say, How are all these pieces and cartooners related to each other? What holds it all together? At this point, Nadel had to invent a rationale for the book.
“These are lost comics,” he probably said—the works of cartooning geniuses that have been overlooked and forgotten as the history of comics marched inexorably onward, blithe and nonchallant withal. The cartoonists are “visionary artists,” and the book is intended to rescue their work from the oblivion wherein it presently reposes, neglected and ignored. This art, then, will be taken “out of time,” removed from the shadowy obscurity of past times, and brought forth into the present where it can receive the admiration it deserves. Hence, “art out of time.” And then Nadel began to elaborate. The book would not be just about “lost comics”; it would also be about “what words and pictures are capable of”—“conceptual and visual feats.” And he then divided the heap of artifacts into different piles “according to the most notable element of each.” And finally, he wrote a short introduction to each of the five sections he’d created. The first section, “Exercises in Exploration,” offers “comics that bring readers into new visual worlds.” “Slapstick,” wherein Gross resides, is “mercilessly funny comics”; “Acts of Drawing” features “artists distinguished for their unique way with a pen”; “Words in Pictures” collects “cartoonists who, above all else, were prose stylists and plot technicians”; and “Form and Style” concerns itself with “ingenious graphic devices and aesthetics in comics.” And so the book was invented. And its rationale seems sound enough on its face, but upon inspection, it falls to pieces pretty fast.
The “prose styling” in the “Words in Pictures” section doesn’t seem particularly distinguished or brilliant. No James Joyces here. If we are to judge from Nadel’s examples rather than his verbal effusions, what he means by “Words in Pictures” is “plot.” Here we have Jensen’s Elmo, Harry Hershfield’s Dauntless Durham, Boody Rogers’ Sparky Watts, H. J. Tuthill’s The Bungle Family, and C.W. Kahles’ Hairbreadth Harry. These are mostly parodies, distinguished by form and plot rather than prose pyrotechnics. Okay: Nadel got carried away with himself when he started blurting out about “prose styling.” Curiously, he doesn’t mention one of the visual “feats” on display in this section: in The Bungle Family for January 1, 1933, Tuthill has formatted his page to announce the New Year with flights of ducks, the most innovative and inventive maneuver in the book.
In singing the praises of penmanship, Nadel includes the wooden configurations of Fletcher Hanks’ “Stardust” from Fantastic Comics No. 10 (September 1940) and the similar ineptitudes of Rory Hayes’ “The Creatures in the Tunnels” from Bogeyman Comics No. 1 (1969) in the same chapter with the nimble penwork of Charles M. Payne’s S’Matter Pop and Jefferson Machamer’s bristly styling in the Sunday strip he produced in the 1930s, Gags and Gals, for which Machamer adopted a hodge-podge layout deftly suited for arraying the smattering of single-panel gag cartoons in Sunday page format. The stylistic triumphs of George Carlson, Norman Jennett, and Gene Deitch, and the supple brushwork of Dick Briefer and Howard Nostrand are to be found in other chapters under headings that are only remotely apt. Similarly, the stylistic achievement of Stan MacGovern in Silly Milly is exhibited in the “Slapstick” chapter; it belongs there, I suppose, but it more accurately belongs under “Form and Style,” it seems to me, with such brilliant performances as those of Forbell, whose newspaper work in the Sunday strip Naughty Pete has been thoroughly lost until now.
Some of Nadel’s choices seem odd to the point of sabotaging his argument. Harry Grant Dart’s The Explorigator, an impoverished 1908 imitation of Little Nemo, is reproduced so small that it cannot be read. And another “Exercise in Exploration,” Herbert Crowley’s The Wiggle Much, is simply terrible, pointlessly stiff figures suspended motionless over a rhyming libretto, purely children’s fare and nonsensical at that. And Rory Hayes—well, the less said, the better. And if you’re going to do a book about “visual feats,” why don’t you include Cliff Sterrett’s Polly and Her Pals? Or George Scarbo’s Comic Zoo? Or Clare Dwiggins’ School Days? To name just three lonely possibilities. Instead, Nadel includes “A Visit to the Circus,” a story from the single issue of Jacky’s Diary No. 1 (April-June 1960), created by Jack Mendelsohn in “faux-children’s prose and picture style.” Nadel’s ravings on this specimen reveal the artistic values he espouses. “In a recent interview, Mendelsohn described his drawing process as ‘like a Zen state, I would follow the pencil wherever it moved. I made very few changes from the pencils.’ It is funny and gracious work, lying somewhere between Henri Matisse and Jean Dubuffet, in its faux-naivite and straightforward beauty. Mendelsohn’s characters are both expressive and iconic—his reduced graphic language makes them stand out even more, perfectly communicating with just a couple of circles and a line. It is also a surprisingly prescient style—its pared down, whimsical look is now shared by many contemporary underground cartoonists.” Most of whom can’t draw for beans, I ween. The buzz-word criteria here piles up to a crescendo of self-indulgent critical argot: faux-naivite, straightforward beauty, expressive and iconic, reduced graphic language, prescient style. The most impressive thing about this effort is the number of dignified, high-fallutin’ words Nadel can assemble to describe imitation primitive childish scrawling. And that, we are lead to believe from all the enthusing, is “art.” Phooey. Mendelsohn’s work is funny and unique; but it ain’t high art, kimo sabe. Neither is Garrett Price’s revered White Boy Sunday strip, which gets extensive coverage here—18 pages of it, enough to reveal that its technical innovation is much more modest than its reputation would have it. Pleasing, yes, but in a languid rather than startling manner.
Upon more extensive examination, the book’s many virtues surface. Everything is meticulously dated, for example—something too few histories get right as consistently as Nadel does here. His short introduction is accompanied by a Timeline that places his exhibits in sequence and context, another bonus. And at the end of the book are short biographies of the cartoonists within, a big plus. Despite the numerous shortfalls here, the saving graces are great—Forbell’s resurrection alone is worth the price of the book. And to that, add Price, Gross (to whose history Nadel adds significant parts, mostly missing from my own essay in Hindsight; for which, click here), Jennett, MacGovern, Hershfield, and Deitch. And Cecil Jensen, who did more in cartooning than polishing the gem of Elmo.
Jensen, Nadel tells us, was born in 1902 in Ogden, Utah, but he spent most of his professional life in Chicago, whence he had wended his way to study at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. After two years of that, he worked for a variety of newspapers, winding up at the Chicago Daily News, where worked longest. He was the second string editoonist at the News; the first stringer was the famed Vaughn Shoemaker. Jensen drew an editorial cartoon six days a week (thereabouts): his cartoon appeared on the same page as Shoemaker’s. Shoes did a three-column cartoon at the top of the page; Jensen filled two columns at the bottom. Except on Saturday, which was Shoes’ day off, and then Cees did a 3-column ’toon for the top of the page. So—two cartoons per issue: one by Shoes, one by Cees.
Jensen occupies a fond niche in my memory for his creation of the world’s stupidest comic strip hero in the eponymous Elmo. Nadel supplies the tidbit that Jensen created the strip in response to a challenge from his executive editor, Basil (Stuffy) Walters, to whom Jensen had confided that “the comics in the News smell.” To which Walters responded: “All right—you draw a strip.” And so Jensen did. Ed McGeean, a cartoonist of mine who worked at the News for years, once told me that Shoes had no faith in Cees’ creation: he told Jensen that Elmo wouldn’t succeed because the protagonist was too stupid. Maybe Shoes never heard of Li’l Abner. Then again, Elmo was stupider than Abner. When asked how Elmo would be different than other comic strips, Nadel says, Jensen retorted: “The strip is supposed to be funny.” And I thought it was, hilariously so.
Elmo started October 28, 1946, and then in 1949, Elmo was supplanted as the star—and lost title billing to a moppet named Little Debbie. The strip continued under that title until 1961. Elmo was a sort of urban Li’l Abner—except that Elmo was dumber than Abner. I admired this kind of stupidity in a comic character. And Elmo made it all seem so easy, too—smiling his bland, ear-to-ear grin the whole time. I loved it. I copied Elmo’s jaw and grin in my own youthful comic strips.
Elmo spent most of his career working in the office of a breakfast cereal manufacturer. Elmo actually owned the company. The previous owner, oppressed by the responsibilities of being a millionaire and owner, gave Elmo all his stock in the company. So Elmo went to work there, but he was too stupid to know that the owner of the company should be giving the orders. Instead, he took orders from the Commodore, an unscrupulous robber baron who was running the company at the time. The Commodore, seeking to get Elmo occupied with something to keep him out of his, the Commodore’s, hair, hires a movie star to work as Elmo’s secretary. This is Sultry. And she is. Elmo’s girlfriend from back home gets wind of all this and comes to the big city to keep an eye on things. About this time, cute Little Debbie shows up and becomes the face on the cereal box, selling billions of bushels of cereal. The portion of Elmo that’s reprinted in Art Out of Time comes from the one-shot Elmo comic book of 1948, which, I suspect, is the introductory sequence of the strip, and Little Debbie shows up at the end of the segment. You can’t keep a good sales girl down. She took over, elbowing Elmo off the marquee of his own strip, as I said. But by then, Elmo had dropped out of the Denver Post, my hometown paper, and so I lost track of the whole thing.
Jensen may have been the first editorial cartoonist to produce at the same time a syndicated comic strip. But he was noted in Chicago circles for another creation. Colonel M’Cosmic. Colonel M’Cosmic was vaguely reminiscent of David Low’s fatuous Colonel Blimp (remember Opus 202?). But Colonel M’Cosmic was celebrated in Chicago for his resemblance to another fatuous pseudo military man, Colonel Robert (“Bertie”) McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, the powerful rival of the Daily News.
McCormick had received his commission as a colonel when he joined the Illinois National Guard on the eve of World War I. It was a rank he earned solely by reason of his political position as publisher of the Tribune, but McCormick so loved the title that he retained it ever after. He had virtually no combat experience during the European adventure and no military training to speak of; but he fearlessly offered his opinion on military matters on the editorial page of the Tribune whenever the subject came up on the paper’s news columns. And he regularly harangued a radio audience from the pulpit of station WGN, the station owned by the World’s Greatest Newspaper (as the Colonel modestly denominated his newspaper). The Colonel offered his opinion fearlessly on all manner of subjects. So varied were these subjects that the Colonel could well be imagined the world’s foremost authority on every subject. But military matters—and war—were his specialty. That and geopolitics generally. All during the 1930s, McCormick lectured the world on the dangers of Nazism. In these editorial lectures, he displayed, as his enemies were fond of saying, “one of the finest minds of the fourteenth century.”
When war broke out in Europe upon the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, McCormick quickly proclaimed that “this is not our war.” The British and the French were thoroughly competent to fight it without American assistance. McCormick was resolutely isolationist. Until Pearl Harbor. Then the Trib was resolutely bellicose: “We have only one task,” the paper blared, “and that is to strike with all our might.”
Despite this stance, McCormick continued to be critical of the government’s conduct of the war effort and other related matters. His criticism was viewed in some quarters as treasonous. One Chicago citizen, Jacob Sawyer, even wrote the Colonel a letter, expressing the fear that the Tribune’s editorial pronouncements were undermining the morale of the country. To this, McCormick responded with a letter that eventually found its way into print in the Daily News. McCormick began by pointing out that Sawyer was making a mistake in believing the powerful propaganda circulated by McCormick’s enemies. What they saw as a campaign of hatred was actually, the Colonel said, “a constructive campaign without which the country would be lost.” And then he went on to cite his credentials as savior of his country by regaling Sawyer with a list of his accomplishments in the military. “You do not know it,” McCormick rumbled, “but the fact is that I introduced the ROTC into the schools; I introduced machine guns into the army; I introduced mechanization; I introduced automatic rifles. ...” And so on in this vein. A remarkable display of ego, bombast, and pomposity bordering on megalomania. And when the Daily News got its hands on this epistle, it published it with glee.
And Jensen produced a cartoon to celebrate the occasion, showing Colonel M’Cosmic surrounded by other Colonel M’Cosmics, all claiming firsts in one military milestone after another. M’Cosmic appeared periodically in the pages of the News thereafter, each time commemorating another of McCormick’s pontifical pronouncements. Two of Jensen’s achievements appear here. Genius is in the details. Notice the hilarious accouterments: M’Cosmic wears a WWI helmet and spurs (the mark of his stature as a cavalryman, the only kind of officer to be, forsooth) and around his neck, a pair of binoculars (another mark of elite officer status). Always, M’Cosmic is accompanied by a round-headed kid, a juvenile doorman (judging from his uniform)--the M’Cosmic Grenadier, no doubt.
So that’s the story of Jensen’s other triumph. When John S. Knight bought the Daily News some years later, he told Cees to cease and desist: Knight wanted to make friends in Chicago, not enemies. And so Colonel M’Cosmic faded away, like the old soldier he was.
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
One last fling before we slam the door this time: Time, as is its occasional wont, did one of those “list” features last month—this time, a roster of the editors’ choices as the 100 most influential personages infecting our culture. The largest grouping consisted of those who are in the entertainment business. Justin Timberlake, for instance—pictured, satirically no doubt, in a wet t-shirt that revealed his nipples. Sacha Baron Cohen. Brian Williams, NBC’s Nightly News anchor, who might object to being classified as an “entertainer.” Williams—have you ever noticed?—has the most lopsided face in television. One eye squints more than the other, one eyebrow slants more than its neighbor, his nose is bent off-center, and his mouth twists to one side. But I enjoy the way he delivers the news.
No cartooners made it to Time’s list. Not a one. Frank Miller, however, made it to “The Alt Time 100,” an alternative listing fabricated by Joel Stein, who reasoned: “Sure, Pony Ma, the Chinese tech entrepreneur on the Time 100, is important. If you’re completely detached from reality. To find out who really matters, I held a lunch where today’s real powerbrokers compiled a list of 100 people who actually influence society.” Stein’s conferees: Xzibit, rapper and host of MTV’s “Pimp My Ride”; Bridget Marquardt, 1/3 of Hugh Hefner’s current girlfriend; Eddie Sanchez, UFC fighter; Tommy the Clown, krump dancer; Dr. Boogie, hairstylist; Jimmy Jimmy Coco, spray tanner; Glenda Borden, party planner. With each name on the list (posted at Time.com), the formulators gave reasons for the inclusion. Next to Miller’s name, it says: “Sin City and 300? Enough said.”
Others on this “reality check” list included: Tom Anderson, founder of My Space; Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, creators of You Tube; Mike Lazrdis, Blackberry founder; Tyra Banks, tv host (“The panel felt that if they had to choose between Tyra and Oprah—a rule they invented themselves—they’d pick Tyra. In fact, they called her the new Oprah.” And then they also picked Oprah: “Still, they love old Oprah too.”); Angelina Jolie, actress (“Adopting babies, the panel thought, was a good trend to start”); Osama bin Laden, head of Al Qeda (“The panel pointed out that he’s likely to outlast Bush as head of an organization”); Jack Bauer, tv character; Borat, made-up character (“The panel is not at all sick of Borat”); Eva Longoria, actress (as a result of “a late push to put a Desperate Housewife on the list; Eva won because she gets spray tanned by Jimmy all the time—though he tried to make it sound socially important by saying she should make the list ‘for taking the fear out of spray tanning’”); Michael J. Fox, actor (“The panel loves stem cell research, and they believe Fox is the top stem cell researcher in the world”).
Paris Hilton also made the list: “The panel wanted to create a side list called ‘Trainwrecks’ which would include Paris Hilton (or, as Xzibit called her, ‘Paris Hitler’), Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Nicole Ritchie, Anna Nicole Smith and the Bush twins. But 100 is an awful lot of people,” Stein explained, “so I listed them separately. I left off the Bush twins because I’m not sure the panel really meant it. We were drinking quite a bit by the time their names came up. It just didn’t seem fair.” Anna Nicole Smith made it because, as Glenda Borden pointed out, “she had presidential levels of press coverage.” Hugh Hefner made it, too. So did Bill Clinton, Elvira, Ellen Degeneres, and Jesus—at 28th in the listing. Stein was, initially, aghast at including Jesus: “When I made it clear that only living people could make the list, the panel—in loud unison—pointed out that he’s very much alive. There was no taking Jesus of this list.” Right.
Metaphors be with you until next time.
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