Opus 206 (June 5, 2007). In our report on the annual meeting of the National Cartoonists Society, we announce the winner of the Reuben as Cartoonist of the Year, plus the winners in the numerous “division” competitions, and we rehearse some of the doings that were done over Memorial Day weekend in Orlando where the inkslingers met. We also report on Berkeley Breathed’s correction of the impression that he was going to kill off Opus and on the discovery of a cartoon torture manual in Iraq. We discuss the legacy issue in comic strips, bemoan the final closing of the Gotham Book Mart, note the Falwell furors in political cartoons, and do a lingering review of the first reprint collection of the comic strip Edge City before commemorating the 40th anniversary of the debut of Sgt. Pepper and his Lonely Hearts Club Band. Here’s what’s here, in order, by Department:
NOUS R US
Berk Breathed on the No Longer Dead Opus
Fred Schodt on Osamu Tezuka
Salicrup’s Birthday and a New Tales of the Crypt
Ageism at Disney
Cartoon Torture Book
CARTOONIST OF THE YEAR
Report on the Annual NCS Meeting and Award Winners
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE
Marvel vs. DC
Civilization’s Last Outpost
Ray Bradbury on Fahrenheit 451
COMIC STRIP WATCH
The Legacy Question
Un-Spun, A Guide to Making Sense of Political Shenanigans
Gotham Book Mart Closes
Walt Handelsman Samples
Sgt. Pepper and Paul McCartney
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 effervescent Berkeley Breathed, creator of Bloom County, Outland and Opus, admitted recently that his wit sometimes runs away with his mouth. As we reported here last time, the cartoonist alluded to the impending death of his famed penguin, Opus. That, however, is not in the offing. “I was kidding about killing Opus,” Breathed confessed to Douglas Wolk at Salon.com. In the same interview, Breathed plugs his new children’s book, Mars Needs Moms!, and laments the sad state of affairs GeeDubya has created for satirists. “His ridiculousness is approaching the sort of existential absurdity that is untouchable,” Breathed said. “I can’t make him any funnier than when he’s trying to explain himself in a town hall meeting. Any day now, he will go with ‘I’m the decisioner,’ and we satirists will know that our balls have been cut off entirely by a very shrewd adversary. Reagan did this too by becoming senile.” You can read the whole enchilada (and Breathed is always a treat to read) at http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2007/06/03/breathed But is he really kidding about killing Opus? Or is he merely ducking responsibility for what he let slip out last month? I still think Opus is not long for this world. But then I thought the Republicans would retain control of Congress last November, too.
Fred Schodt, who wrote the seminal study of Japanese comics, Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics, in 1983, pondered the present state of the genre on May 29 with Robert Taylor of MediaNews. “When I was in college,” Schodt said, “it was sort of like rock ’n’ roll—part of youth culture. I remember these students carrying these big fat manga around. And there was a certain amount of cachet to reading a magazine ‘backwards,’ from right to left. Now you can be a manga fan in an American high school and not be thought of as weird. But of course if it becomes too mainstream, the kids will go on to something else.” Schodt’s book has a Foreword by Osamu Tezuka, “the god of manga.” “He was a genius,” said Schodt. “When I met him in the 1970s, he was already an exalted figure in Japan. In terms of social respect, Tezuka ranks up there with JFK and Gandhi. A lot of people have called Tezuka the Walt Disney of Japan ... [but] Walt Disney was primarily an entrepreneur; Tezuka was primarily a creator. He drew more than 150,000 pages in his lifetime.” Many of those are now on display in the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, the only U.S. venue for the exhibit.
On June 2, the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York celebrated the 50th birthday of Jim Salicrup and his 35-plus years in comics. Once an editor at Marvel and editor-in-chief at Topps, Salicrup has for the past few years been engineering titles in NBM’s young adult graphic novel imprint, Papercutz. To its series of manga-like modernizations of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys novels, Papercutz is adding an anthology title, new stories under an old and honored banner, Tales of the Crypt—evoking the fabled EC Comics line of the 1950s. Conceived as a bi-monthly title, the 48-page comic book will debut in June, saith Kate Culkin at PW Comics Week; periodically, stories published in the comic book will be compiled for trade book collections.
The Mouse House has been accused of a particularly sinister brand of agism. In a Brigham Young University study of 93 Disney characters who appeared to be aged 55 or older, according to Britain’s Daily Mail, “a significant majority were depicted as either nasty and bad-tempered or dotty and useless: 25 percent were shown as grumpy, 12 percent as evil or sinister, 8 percent helpless, 3 percent senile or crazy, and 2 percent the object of ridicule.” Reporting in the Journal of Ageing, the researchers expressed alarm that children, witnessing these insidious portrayals of their elders, “could form a negative impression of them.” Could be.
U.S. troops who invaded an Al-Qaeda “safe house” some weeks ago found a torture manual in comic book form. As reported at newspaper.asia1.com, the drawings in the booklet “were a horrific how-to torture guide,” created “presumably to teach terrorists what to do with their victims to force them to talk. Some images showed how to drill hands, sever limbs, drag victims behind cars, remove eyes, and put a blowtorch or iron to someone's skin, according to the Fox News Channel. Others showed how to suspend a person from a ceiling and electrocute them, break limbs and restrict breath and put someone's head in a vice.” CNN quoted a military spokesman: 'They made it in a cartoon manner, so that no matter what your literacy rate, what nationality you are, all you've got to do is look at these pictures to understand how to conduct tortures of innocent people.” Not having seen this grisly manual, I can only suppose that the miliary spokesman said it took the form of a comic book because the pictures accomplished their instruction by depicting actions in sequence. Terrible as this deployment of the artform is, it is also a vivid testimony to the effectiveness of comics in communicating.
It’s apparently final: Frank Miller has written the script and will direct the Lionsgate film adaptation of Will Eisner’s masked crimefighter, the Spirit. Said Miller: "Will was a dear friend, a mentor, and translating his vision to the screen will be a labor of love.” Miller's "vision is perfectly matched to that of Eisner," said Lionsgate Theatrical Films prexy Tom Ortenberg.
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
CARTOONIST OF THE YEAR, ETC.
National Cartoonists Society Launches Its Raft of Annual Awards
Every year in the spring, the NCS recognizes excellence in various categories of ’toonery endeavor, giving awards to a dozen or so cartoonists, some of whom, but not all, are members of the Society, a circumstance heavy with the implication that self-aggrandizement is not the only agenda. For the first ten years after the Society’s founding in 1946, the only award given was to the Cartoonist of the Year. In the mid-fifties, other more specialized achievements—in comic strips, editorial cartoons, single panel gag cartoons (in both newspaper and magazine), and sports cartoons—were added to the honor roll. Today, comic books, advertising cartoons, book illustration, and animation lengthen the list to an even dozen. Sometime in 1953 or thereabouts, when Bill Crawford saw a lamp that the venerable Rube Goldberg had sculpted into a pyramid of cartoony nudes, Crawford realized that it would make a perfect trophy for the Cartoonist of the Year, and so the Reuben was born, supplanting the earlier memento, a silver cigarette box engraved with the characters from Barney Google and called the Billy DeBeck Memorial Award in remembrance of one of the fraternity’s more revered departed, the creator of the aforementioned Google. The story of Rube and his helping to found NCS can be discovered by clicking here; and when you return from there, we’ll resume from here—forthwith:
Very early in the evolution of its awards program, NCS took to meeting in posh surroundings. For years, the annual ceremony took place at the fanciest hotel in New York, the Plaza, at the corner of Park Avenue South and Fifth Avenue. And attire for the ceremonial banquet was strictly black tie and tails. The purpose was wholly public relations. The idea was to show that cartoonists were not, reputations to the contrary notwithstanding, grubby ink-stained and unshaven bohemians, slaving away in attics by day and brawling in saloons at night. Some cartoonists may have worked and lived in exactly this manner, but once a year, for the Awards Banquet, they dressed up and put on the dog to convince the world at large that they were not only respectable citizens but fancy-dress members of the upper classes in the entertainment industry. And whoever was designated Cartoonist of the Year was expected—nay, commanded—to exploit the honor to heighten the visibility of his cartoon feature, to garner thereby increased circulation, greater fame, and enhanced income. It was all very practical, very mercenary.
Over the years, much of the insidious merchandising purpose underlying the occasion has receded into the dimmer recesses of the collective NCS memory. But the outward and visible signs are steadfastly maintained. And so the Society meets in a posh place—this year, the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Orlando, Florida, that vast recreation venue that Walt Disney created where once there was only a swamp. And the required attire at the Reuben Banquet is still black tie and tuxedo. The reason for the poshness and the formal wardrobe, however—to attract attention by displaying cartoonists in upper crust finery—has evaporated altogether. Members are even advised not to broadcast the time or the place of the festivities so that attendees will not be pestered by their fans, who might converge in multitudes to beg autographs. The event is now so far removed from its original function as a publicity stunt as to be a secret conclave of the cartooning clan. And this year, the last vestige of the original scheme disappeared. In the roster of Reuben Award winners printed in the souvenir program, the name of the first winner, Milton Caniff, is followed by the name of his celebrated comic strip, Terry and the Pirates. And that is entirely true—but beside the point. Caniff received the trophy as Cartoonist of the Year in the spring of 1947 for his work the preceding year, the last year he produced Terry, 1946. By the time the award was conferred, he was doing his new strip, Steve Canyon. And in keeping with the initial promotional impulse behind the Award, in every listing of Reuben winners until this year, Caniff’s name is followed by the name of his new strip, Steve Canyon—even though that first award, for his work in 1946, could not have been for the new strip, which debuted in January 1947. In this anomaly, the underlying rationale for the Award is revealed: since its mercenary purpose could scarcely be fulfilled by promoting Terry and the Pirates, Caniff was cited for his new strip so he would benefit monetarily from the publicity. But if this year’s perversion of that purpose is perpetuated, the last of the practical, merchantile, reasons for the NCS awards will vanish, leaving only the black tie, the tux, and list of Reuben winners that begins with an accurately inaccurate citation.
The venue for this year’s Event, the Ritz Carlton Hotel, while posh and exotic enough, was a fiendishly isolated locale. As a resort, it offered few recreations on the premises— swimming and golf. And drinking and eating. To indulge in any other disportment, you had to leave the property, but the hotel offered no complimentary transportation service to any of the area’s plethora of wonders—SeaWorld, Disney World, Epcot, Universal Studios World, MGM, etc. To get to any of these places, you had to hire one of the hotel’s town cars, engage a taxi, or rent a Hertz car. While golf has been a big attraction for the upper reaches of NCS membership, the Orlando location was chosen, presumably, for the other amusement possibilities it offered the families of cartoonists, some of whom are not golfers. And yet the hotel selected amid all these attractions made it difficult—well, expensive—for anyone to take advantage of their proximity. The perversity of this year’s destination decision ironically underscores the loss of purpose that has, over the years, left the awards adrift. All that is left of the original scheme is the costliness of the site of the festivities. The leadership of the Society persists in chasing after the most luxurious and expensive hotel destinations (“five star,” “five diamond”) as if luxury alone were the object of the Event. And the Ritz Carlton is perfect for that: it offers little other justification as a destination.
In defense of the such choices of venue, it is said that the Reubens weekend is a “party” for cartoonists, a celebration of themselves wherein they gather over drinks in raucous good fellowship. The craziness is more myth than reality, the reputed zaniness of cartoonists notwithstanding. As Dan Piraro, this year’s master of ceremonies, said: “Most of these guys are not all that crazy in person. Imagine a group of middle-aged characters in golf shirts and hagar slacks, drinking heavily. That’s a cartoonists convention. I like all these guys, don’t get me wrong. But there are only about five that are what you’d call crazy.” Bill Amend, who had joined Piraro for an online chat, disagreed: “Actually, it’s insanely crazy. We just wait until Dan goes to bed before we let loose.”
Nurturing good fellowship is a worthy enough goal in itself, no question. But camaraderie can be fostered in surroundings much less expensive than “five diamond” hotels. And since ostentation is no longer the publicity stunt rationale for the annual gathering, why not seek more affordable accommodations? Something most cartoonists, who are no longer as well-paid as they once were, could aspire to. But then, if they wanted my opinion, they would have asked for it, right? And since they didn’t, let us proceed apace to the ostensible purpose of this report—to announce the winners of all those awards.
Bill Amend was named Cartoonist of the Year for selflessly creating hundreds opportunities for young cartoonists on the nation’s comics pages by retiring the daily edition of his comic strip, FoxTrot, last fall. No, I’m kidding: that’s not why Amend received the Reuben trophy for Cartoonist of the Year from the National Cartoonists Society at their 61st annual meeting, this year held at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Orlando, Florida, May 25-27. He earned the esteem of the inky-fingered fraternity with the consistently high quality of his comic strip over its 19-year run. That’s why he got the Reuben. We don’t want to overlook, however, Amend’s having created more than 500 openings on comics pages nationwide when he stopped doing the daily FoxTrot (continuing only the Sunday version)—an action enthusiastically applauded by scores of aspiring cartoonists who can’t get their foot over the funnies pages threshold unless someone already therein leaves, creating a vacancy. (FoxTrot’s circulation is customarily cited as better than 1,000 newspapers, but that is a tally of sales, not newspapers, and since the strip is sold as a daily and, separately, as a Sunday; a newspaper that buys both daily and Sunday is recorded as two “sales” which are then, erroneously, by reason of antique tradition, reported as circulation.)
During the ceremonial presentation banquet, Beetle Bailey’s Mort Walker received the Gold Key Award, the Society’s equivalent of a Hall of Fame. Others in the Hall of Fame are Hal Foster (Prince Valiant), Edwina Dumm (Capt Stubbs and Tippie), Raeburn Van Buren (Abbie ’n’ Slats), Herbert Block (Herblock, editorial cartoonist), Rube Goldberg (Boob McNutt and editorial cartoons), Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon), and Arnold Roth (freelance). Walker, a past president of NCS and previous winner (in 1953) of the Reuben, has won just about every award the Society bestows, except the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award; and he’ll doubtless get that ere long.
In accepting the Reuben, Amend, a slender wraith of a man with a prison pallor and an enviable mop of fluff-dried and therefore unruly hair, marveled at the trophy’s considerable weight, asking, midway through his acceptance remarks, if someone else could hold it for him. He said he was afraid he might fall and impale himself on it, alluding to the pointy stopper of the ink bottle that surmounts the statuette’s pile of goofy naked humanoids.
In an online interview conducted May 18 by Suzanne Tobin, comics page editor at the Washington Post, Amend remarked about his decision to discontinue the daily FoxTrot instead of turning it over to another cartoonist to perpetuate: “I’ve always viewed my strip as a personal form of expression/observation more than a business, and the thought of continuing it with others at the helm just seems wrong to me.”
Commenting on so-called “legacy strips” and the occasional crusade to expunge them from the funnies, Amend said: “I won’t say older strips should be dumped, but I wish that when newspapers did surveys or otherwise gauged reader opinion, they gave younger readers more clout than they currently seem to. It does sometimes seem as though the comics section is aimed to please the over-60 crowd way more than the under-30 one. Which doesn’t help newer cartoonists get a toehold in papers, and it doesn’t encourage younger readers to develop the habit of reading the paper. It’s definitely tough to convince a newspaper to drop a classic for a new strip. I’m glad I got the breaks I did when Bloom County and Calvin ended and freed up some space.”
Amend doesn’t think comics are a dying art form: “While newspaper cartooning is certainly feeling a squeeze these days,” he remarked, “the rising popularity of webcomics makes it pretty clear that people still like to draw cartoons and people still like to read them. The challenge is to figure out how to earn a living off of web content.”
Answering a question about why he didn’t let his characters grow older, Amend said: “I created the FoxTrot characters such that they would play off of each other in interesting ways. Were I to age the kids even a couple of years, the changes in their interests/maturities would affect the whole structure of things, and I wasn’t interested in doing that in such an irreversible way.”
More about Amend and his adventures creating FoxTrot can be found in the Hindsight department; click here.
Runners-up for the Reuben this year were both creators of single-panel cartoons: Dave Coverly, who does Speed Bump, and Dan Piraro with Bizarro. All three have been nominees in previous years. Quipped Amend: “NCS dues came in a little short this year, so they just used last year’s ballots to save money. The three of us objected strenuously, of course.”
About legacy strips, Piraro said: “You could argue that older strips should be dropped, but I guarantee that almost any [strip] you choose [to drop] will have millions of daily readers who consider it an irreplaceable part of their daily routine.”
Added Coverly: “Yeah, I don’t really feel like it’s my place to say whether older strips should be dumped. With a little luck, I’ll be drawing one of those older strips someday. Newish strips I do like are Pearls Before Swine and Frazz, but, like Dan, I don’t read the comics much—in part because I don’t like seeing good ideas I should have come up with myself.”
In March, members of NCS voted by mail on the slate of candidates for the Reuben. Earlier in the winter, NCS chapters juried submissions in the twelve categories, or “divisions,” of cartooning, picking three finalists in each. Herewith, I list the finalists in all divisions (being a finalist, given the competition, is a distinction itself, not to be overlooked in the breathless excitement of learning who the winners are), prefixing the winner’s name with an asterisk (*):
Comic Strip—Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead; Mark Tatulli’s Lio; and *Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine. In accepting, Pastis paid tribute to the late King Features editor, Jay Kennedy, who responded to Pastis’ submission by personal letter, without which encouragement, Pastis said, he may not have continued to develop his strip. (Pastis was eventually syndicated by United Media, not King.) Newspaper Single Panel Cartoon—Tony Carrillo’s F-Minus; *Hilary Price’s Rhymes With Orange; and Kieran Meehan’s Meehan. (According to E&P's syndicate directories, Meehan formerly created Meehan Streak for Tribune Media Services and now does A Lawyer, A Doctor & A Cop for King.) Newspaper Illustration—Sean Kelly, Robert Sanchuk, and *Laurie Triefeldt, who produces World of Wonder, a weekly illustrated feature page with educational implications, demystifying such things as “storms,” “castles,” “bugs,” “magnets,” “Vikings,” “night creatures,” and “ancient Greece,” worthy topics all.
Gag Cartooning—*Drew Dernavich, Mick Stevens, P.C. Vey. All are New Yorker ’tooners, a circumstance that vividly reflects the shriveled state of today’s market for magazine cartooning, but it also makes me wonder why no Playboy cartoonists were among the finalists, Hefner’s magazine being the only other gold-standard outlet for gag cartooning. Editorial Cartooning— Mike Lester of the Rome (Ga.) News-Tribune; Glenn McCoy of the Belleville (Ill.) News-Democrat; and *Mike Ramirez of Investor's Business Daily. Interestingly, as E&P’s David Astor observed when the nominees’ names were first published, all three finalists are conservatives in a cartooning profession consisting mostly of liberal and centrist creators. (Makes me wonder which chapter did the editorial cartoonist selection this year.) Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau announced the winner in this category, and his tongue-in-cheek recitation of the names of the finalists acknowledged the oddity: Lester “on the right,” McCoy “on the far right,” and Ramirez “on the knuckle-dragging right.”
Comic Book—This category once again reflects NCS’s historically abysmal appreciation of this genre. All three nominees are creators of graphic novels, not comic books: Acocella Marchetto (Cancer Vixen), Marjane Satrapi (Chicken with Plums), and *Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese), who made headlines earlier this season when his book was the first graphic novel to be nominated for (but didn’t win) a National Book Award for juvenile fiction. (NCS will adjust its sights somewhat in the future, I’m told, creating a new category for Graphic Novel.) Book Illustration—*Mike Lester (93 in My Family); Wiley Miller (The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Basil); and Adrian Sinnott (Caveman Manners). Greeting Card— *Carla Ventresca, Pat Byrnes, and Kevin Ahern.
Feature Animation— "Over the Hedge” (based on the comic strip of the same name by Michael Fry and T Lewis; directors Tim Johnson and Karey Kirkpatrick); *"Open Season" (character design, Carter Goodrich); and“Ice Age 2: the Meltdown” (character design, Peter De Seve). Television Animation—David Hulin (“Geico Gecko”), Steve Loter (“Kim Possible”), and *Craig McCracken (“Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends”). Advertising Illustration— Craig McCay, Jack Pittman, and *Tom Richmond. Magazine Illustration—*Steve Brodner, Tom Richmond, and Jean-Jacques Sempe.
The NCS Silver T-Square, given occasionally to “persons who have shown outstanding service or contributions to the Society or the profession,” was presented to the sons of NCS’s past president, Steve McGarry, Joe and Luke, whose contribution consists of orchestrating sound and computer imaging for several of the Society’s last annual meetings and creating an ambitious NCS online presence with a website that gives a comprehensive history and directory of the Society in interactive format. While it may seem unprecedented to add the names of these two youthful non-cartoonists to a roster that includes such luminaries as England’s David Low as well as James Thurber, Herblock, Walt Kelly, and Arnie Roth (not to mention Cliff Sterrett and Russell Patterson), the boys join several non-tooners—Harry S. Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, King’s Joe D’Angelo, and Universal Press’s John McMeel among them.
Dan Piraro again applied his acerbic wit to mastering the evening’s ceremonies, but he
cast a pall of gloom over the proceedings almost at once by announcing that this year would be his last at the podium. Several of us speculated that Steve McGarry will be Piraro’s successor. This year’s pre-registered attendance stood at 145 cartoonists, plus their wives, children and miscellaneous hangers-on, a grand total of perhaps 300 souls, a somewhat smaller crowd that at other recent Reubens festivities, which usually attract over 400 people. Maybe the destination wasn’t as attractive this year as in previous years. Who can say? Of the twelve division winners, one third—four—weren’t in attendance to receive their award. There are usually a few absentee winners, but it seems to me this year’s muster was a little larger than usual. Purely a subjective reaction, though, as I’m sure you can tell.
The awards banquet has in recent years acquired an encompassing “program” of presentations by sundry of the Society’s members, swelling the occasion from an evening’s ceremony to a three-day Event. On Friday and Saturday, afternoons are devoted to presentations; on Sunday, the afternoon is free of programming, leaving us all at loose ends, desperate to find some worthwhile way to spend the hours until the concluding event that evening. For the past several years, Sunday evening was devoted to “roasting” one of the Society’s more distinguished members. Beginning with Bil Keane (who, as master of the revels, had enlivened the awards
presentations with hilarious sarcastic comments about his brethren and who therefore deserved a thorough roasting), the next few Roasts skewered Mell Lazarus, Sergio Aragones, and Cathy Guisewite. This year, thankfully, the Roast disappeared; it had become increasingly distasteful. The Friday night karaoke also disappeared this year. The combined loss of frivolity effectively nullifying the claim that the weekend was a “party” for cartoonists. All that remained was a series of cocktail hours. But the Sunday night cocktail party and erstwhile Roast was re-tooled as a “Salsa Dance” party in the misbegotten belief that everyone wanted to dance. Few did. At Sunday morning’s brunch, I met Percy Crosby’s daughter, Joan Crosby Tibbets, who has been, for decades, trying to get the makers of Skippy peanut butter to compensate her for their poaching on her father’s famous comic strip character’s turf; the tale is retailed in our Hindsight department, here. It was a delight to meet Joan (and her daughter Kim), a charming and outgoing lady with a sultry voice like Tallulah Bankhead.
Friday afternoon’s presentations featured Jerry Van Amerongen and Mort Walker. Amerongen, whose offbeat newspaper panel cartoon Ballard Street (which replaced his equally offbeat The Neighborhood in 1990) was named best panel cartoon in 2003 and 2004, presented a series of his favorite cartoons and talked about how his odd ideas occur to him and take form. Walker, chosen, doubtless, because he would later be honored with the Gold Key Award, traced his career, which began when, at the tender age of eleven, he sold his first cartoon—for a dollar, to Child Life magazine. This financial windfall coming in the depth of the Great Depression—a bonanza in a time when a youth could deliver groceries and mow lawns all week for a total income of twenty-five cents—so inspired the youngster that he gave up school for a semester to devote his energies entirely to his burgeoning business. At the conclusion of his presentation, Walker introduced the Scandinavian entrepreneurs who have conspired to publish the “complete Beetle Bailey,” in a series of books that will start appearing in the fall. The American English-language editions will be published by Checker.
On Saturday afternoon, two of the most outrageous cartoonists loose in the world made presentations: Bud Grace, whose assault comedy strip, Piranha Club, was once called Ernie, and magazine cartoonist Sam Gross. Grace regaled us with a faux autobiographical presentation, illustrated with photographs of his trailer park origins and of an amply endowed bare-breasted native of the Amazon outback, who, Grace alleged, was his first wife. The hilarities culminated in a display of gag cartoons that was calculated to offend every sexual, ethnic, and political sensibility in the known universe. His strip character Ernie’s using a dipstick to find out why his cow isn’t giving milk was the mildest of the lot. Gross followed with a collection of even grosser offenses to good taste and decorum—all, however, hysterically funny. Perhaps his most infamous cartoon depicts a somewhat shocked looking couple at a table in a restaurant under a sign advertising “Frog’s Legs”; the couple stare at a legless frog on a small cart, coming out of the kitchen, propelling himself with his hands in the manner of amputee street beggars. Known these days as a New Yorker cartoonist, Gross started selling to all sorts of magazines in 1962, making the rounds to the New York offices of cartoon editors every Wednesday. His presentation brimmed with anecdotes about his early career and the lessons he’d learned.
“The worst thing that happened to cartooning,” Gross said, “was when they put a pen in James Thurber’s hand. It looks so easy when even a blind man can do it.” He remembered what Peter Arno had said: “Every cartoonist has 200 gag ideas; after he’s used those, he has to buy gags.” Gross doesn’t seem to buy many gags, and he keeps meticulous records, filing roughs of all his cartoons and recording dates of composition and revision—a total, he said, of 24,825 cartoons. So far. Most magazines pay cartoonists when their cartoons are published, but Gross insisted on being paid upon acceptance. “No other business works the way magazine editors think cartoonists should,” he said—so why should he? “If you’re funny,” he said, “you can get away with anything.” Almost anything. He cited a collection of cartoons about swastikas that he is working on, reducing an inventory of nearly 500 swastika cartoons to a publishable 120.
At the Society’s business meeting on Saturday morning, membership was reported at 548 and a treasurer’s report declared the Society solvent. Towards the end of the meeting, President Rick Stromoski (of Soup to Nutz) surrendered the gavel of his office to the incoming Jeff Keane (co-cartoonist on The Family Circus with his father, Bil), who will be President for the next two years. But the highlight of the morning was when editoonist Mike Luckovich came to the microphone to read some letters that had been occasioned by his participation in a United Nations “Cartooning for Peace” program some months ago. Attendees at the event repaired to the Society of Illustrators Clubhouse for dinner that evening, and that’s when Luckovich committed one of the pranks for which he is growing increasingly notorious. He had invited a friend to join him at the affair, and when the friend showed up, Luckovich took the podium and introduced his friend as the President of the Society of Illustrators. His friend, caught unawares, quickly assumed the role Luckovich had assigned him, ordering up expensive bottles of wine from the Clubhouse cellars and generally behaving like a pompous ass. A few days later, Luckovich received a letter from a UN factotum, who was writing to tell the cartoonist that the man he’d introduced as the President of the Society of Illustrators was, in all probability, an imposter. He would keep Luckovich informed, said the correspondent, as they investigated the allegation. Luckovich wrote back, expressive shock and dismay. The factotum then reported that the UN investigation had revealed that, yes, the guy was a fraud. Luckovich expressed more and more dismay. The UN investigator then reported that they’d discovered that the imposter was in fact a friend of Luckovich’s and—...
Well, you had to be there. And here, since you weren’t, are some sketches and photos of various of the characters who populated the weekend.
And, while we’re posting pictures, we’ve added a antique cartoon from the vibrant pen of Percy Crosby, in honor of having met, in person, his daughter. This one comes from the old Life humor magazine to which Crosby regularly contributed cartoons about kids before incarnating Skippy as a comic strip. Skippy doesn’t appear in this cartoon, but he was born in the pages of Life on March 22, 1923, then translated into his newspaper version, starting June 23, 1925. Tacked onto this artifact is another—a drawing by the great T.S. Sullivant. It’s a rare Sullivant—just a single speaker; and it’s political, another scarcity from Sullivant at this stage in his career. In 1918, when this drawing appeared in the pages of the June 13 issue of Life, the American attitude about the war we’d just entered in Europe was considerably more enthusiastic than our attitude about war these days; Sullivant was in perfect step with his countrymen.
FARRAGO OF PERSIFLAGE AND BADINAGE
Said FoxTrot’s Bill Amend: “Newspapers seem way more PC and sensitive with regard to comics than I remember them being when I was younger. When I first created my characters, they were purely fictional, but over time, I noticed bits and pieces of my own siblings and parents (and later, my wife and kids) showing up in them. More than anything, though, I think they represent various aspects of my own personality.”
OUR IMMIGRATION POLICIES
During the hundred years after 1820, 34 million people came to the U.S., three-quarters of them staying and becoming, officially, what we call “Americans.” For many of these newcomers, their first encounter with America was a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. Known in some parts these days as “Miss Liberty,” the statue was sculpted by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, who joined his fellow Frenchmen in seeing the monument as a symbol of the two nations’ commitment to liberty. Emma Lazarus, an American Jew and a poet, saw Miss Liberty as a beacon to the world and wrote a poem that, carved onto the pedestal supporting the statue, came to represent what Bartholdi’s statue seemed to mean to the millions who immigrated to this country. The poem is entitled “The New Colossus.”
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Those last lines—“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—have rung across the decades in American ears, and they still sometimes make us misty-eyed, but they ought not cloud our minds. They embody our immigration policy, in historical fact as well as sentiment. I haven’t formulated what you might call a coherent (eschewing “comprehensive” as political jargon) view on the issue, but whatever policy we adopt in the future, it ought to reflect this sentiment, this resolve. What follows herewith is more of a smattering of thoughts on the subject than a formula. And it begins with my being troubled no little that we have become so frightened as a people that we now contemplate building walls where we have traditionally held open a door. The revered Ronald Reagan envisioned America as “a shining city” on a hill, “a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and heart to get here.”
And where is that vision today? It has been scared out of us. Fear and fear alone is justifying a sea change in our attitude towards immigrants, legal as well as illegal. Illegal immigrants will throw the economy into a tailspin, some say. But it hasn’t yet; our economy seems to be working just fine with a reputed 12 million illegal immigrants in the labor market. Illegal immigrants will take jobs away from American workers, they say. But that hasn’t happened: Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria, one of the best thinkers around these days, reported in the issue of May 26 that “the six states that get the largest inflow of illegal immigrants—New York, California, Illinois, Texas, Florida, and Arizona—have unusually low unemployment rates. ... As for the argument that immigrants depress the wages of native-born Americans, the best new research on this topic—by economists Giovanni Peri and Chad Sparber—demonstrates
that unskilled immigrants complement rather than replace native Americans in the labor force, doing jobs that native Americans will not.” I’m not suggesting that we return to the immigration policies of the nineteenth century which permitted virtually everyone who could get here to join the club. But what if we did? Within the bounds of some reasonable guidelines, say—no convicted criminals being shipped here instead of serving their time, f’instance. We’d flood the labor market and wreck everything. Well, maybe, maybe not. Once the labor market is satiated, there’d be no jobs here to attract immigrants coming here because they can’t find work in their own countries. Presto, our illegal immigrant problem would be solved.
Well, of course not: we’d have gangs of criminals roving the streets mugging people for a living because they can’t find work. But that’s another kind of problem and perhaps a more manageable one.
Okay, then, how about those illegal immigrants using a host of social services without paying for them? Maybe, maybe not. The health services they use keep them healthy enough to keep doing in the labor market what they’ve been doing—jobs that native Americans won’t do. And health services prevent the spread of disease that might otherwise overwhelm us. But are illegal immigrants really getting something for nothing? If they work, they must produce a Social Security card, which, for illegal immigrants, is obtained through forgery. But the Social Security number must function. And if it functions, both the employee and his employer are putting money into the Social Security fund—money that the employee, that illegal immigrant, can never collect because he cannot prove citizenship. All those millions of dollars help build up the fund, which the rest of us, all us legal citizens, eventually, dip into. And that fund pays for many social services—not the same ones, perhaps, that illegal immigrants are using, but others, which, without sufficient revenues, would find funding elsewhere, draining revenues from other publicly funded services.
But the real problem remains singularly unaffected by all the debate. The real problem is that our national economy is founded on slave labor, and we’ve never been able to entirely escape its dubious benefits. “Cheap labor”—workers who do the jobs regular Americans won’t do—is a modern euphemism for slave labor: economically, they come to about the same thing. We could solve the illegal immigrant problem if we’d remove the attraction—jobs. If American businesses paid works well enough to attract an American labor force, the jobs illegal immigrants trek here to hold wouldn’t be here. Attraction removed; illegal immigrant problem solved. But advocates for cheap immigrant labor maintain that those American businesses presently served by this labor force cannot survive if they pay the kind of wages American citizens expect. Maybe not. They can’t survive in the way they are surviving—even thriving?—now. They’d have to raise the price of their goods. That would give our economy something to adjust to, but maybe we ought to face it. Maybe we ought to finally, at long last, abandon slave labor as the basis for our economy.
But it’s not the economy that makes us want to build walls where we have traditionally held open doors. It’s fear. We have become a fearful nation. And that’s a shame. Freedom cannot thrive where fright reigns. Moreover, our fear gives victory to the terrorists. By the same token, as Zakaria writes in the June 11 issue of Newsweek: “If we are not terrorized, then in a crucial sense we have defeated terrorism.” (In this issue, Zakaria’s column is expanded to a cover story, a seven-page essay condemning the Bush League’s leadership in the nation and the world. But you don’t need to read the essay to realize that GeeDubya, with an approval rating below 30 percent, is condemned as grossly incompetent: the cover says it all. “After Bush,” it states in 96-point type, “How to Restore America’s Place in the World.”)
If we weren’t all so frightened, we’d see immediately the colossal impossibility of “securing” our borders. Build a wall to keep out undesirables? How long a wall? The U.S.-Mexican border seems the most fraught, and it’s pretty long, but the U.S.-Canadian border is twice as long. Want to build a wall there? And then, if we succeed in walling off Canada and Mexico, what about the thousands and thousands of miles of coastal border? What sort of wall do you want there? And what happens to surfers in California?
If we weren’t scared, we see how silly we are behaving.
FROM HILAIRE BELLOC
And here, beginning with a splendid caricature of the historian, wit and poet by Britain’s revered David Low, are a few memorable lessons from the best verse:
The Tipple’s aboard and the night is young,
The door’s ajar and the Barrel is sprung,
I am singing the best song ever was sung
And it has a rousing chorus.
West Sussex Drinking Song Chorus
Do you remember an Inn, Miranda?
Do you remember an Inn?
And the tedding and the spreading
Of the straw for a bedding,
And the fleas that tease in the High Pyrenees,
And the wine that tasted of the tar?
I said to Heart, “How goes it?” Heart replied,
“Right as a Ribstone Pippin!” But it lied.
The False Heart
When I am dead, I hope it may be said:
“His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”
On His Books
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE
A recent revision of the guide to the Marvel Universe tried to reassign the gay caballero to the straight world. The Rawhide Kid, it was claimed, wasn’t actually gay at all, despite all appearances to the contrary in the min-series “Slap Leather” in 2003. His behavior in that series was assumed for a strategic purpose: the Kid adopted “an eccentric persona” in order to “confuse others,” his enemies, presumably. But Marvel’s ed-in-chief, Joe Quesada, is having none of it. Marvel isn’t disclaiming the Kid’s homosexuality, he told newsarama.com: the write-up in the Marvel Handbook is “a screw-up, plain and simple.” The Kid’s still gay. (For my view of the Rawhide Kid’s slap shtick, re-visit Opuses 108, 110, and 115 in the Archives.)
At Nebraska University, writing in the Daily Nebraskan on March 19, Luke Miller made a heroic attempt to see real life politics as reflections of the different comic book “realities” of the Marvel and DC universes. Or vice versa. Comparing DC’s “Infinite Crisis” to Marvel’s “Civil War,” Miller saw the former as pure fantasy; the latter, as somewhat realistic. The DC series concerned a struggle among superheroes in wholly fictional parallel universes; the Marvel series, however, was rooted in present-day American political realities—government restriction of individual liberties in the name of national security. “Escapism vs. realism,” Miller opined. “In other words, over the last couple years, DC has grown increasingly fantastic in its plotlines while Marvel has tried exceptionally hard to keep its plots more grounded in reality.” These two positions represent polar extremities in comic book fiction. Miller sees the Democrats and Republicans as similarly polar, each vying for the extreme wings of their respective constituencies: the Democrats for the extreme left; the Republicans, the extreme right. He flings many amusing barbs at each party, and I enjoyed witnessing the imaginary fray, but he provoked me to disagree with his characterization of the ethos at each publishing house. Marvel may have based its “Civil War” series on a scrap of real life, but the entire Marvel line consists of fantasy figures, superheroes all. With the disappearance of all the Western titles, Marvel’s entire output has been superheroic. Only recently, with the adaptation of Stephen King’s Dark Tower and, just a few weeks ago, with the appearance of the Marvel Illustrated line (comics adaptations of The Man in the Iron Mask, Treasure Island, and The Last of the Mohicans), has Marvel moved away from the purely fantastic world inhabited by its super-powered beings. In contrast, DC has long produced titles about more-or-less ordinary mortals, behaving, often, in extraordinary ways but mortal and not super-powered nonetheless—Vertigo’s 100 Bullets, for instance, or Loveless, not to overlook such recent phenomena as Army @ War, American Virgin, Scalped, Y: the Last Man, and so on. DC’s superheroes may live in a more fanciful world than Marvel’s longjohn legions, but DC’s books on the whole are more varied in subject and treatment than Marvel’s. Can’t they think in anything but spandex terms over at the self-proclaimed “House of Ideas”?
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
Editoonist Dave Horsey at the Post-Intelligencer in Seattle drew a cartoon recently in which a man says to his wife: “Presidential debates already? This campaign’s started a whole year early!” His wife says: “I’m all for it —as long as we can get Bush and Cheney to leave a year early.”
As the cost of a gallon of gas soars to $3.50, the more stoic among us calculate that the sort of water sold, usually, in 20-ounce containers at 89 cents each at local gas stations, costs $5.70 a gallon. I’m not sure what the connection is, if any, but since gasoline seems a more valuable commodity than water, which is available, virtually for no cost, through the taps of nearly every home in the nation, I suppose we ought to consider that gasoline at even $3.50 a gallon is cheap for the value received.
As recently as last December in Newsweek, George Will observed that “the price of a gallon of gasoline, adjusted for inflation, was 83 cents lower [in December 2006] than in 1981.”
For years, the New York Times told us recently, scientists have been baffled to explain why the males in some duck species have “ridiculously long, curly penises,” particularly when aroused for propagation purposes. The explanation has at last arrived in the wake of behavioral ecologist Patricia Brennan’s dissection of duck genitals. She discovered that the females in corresponding duck species “have vaginal tracks just as [long and] curly and complicated as their males’ penises.” In Nature, everything fits its purpose.
The world famous sf author Ray Bradbury was awarded a special Pulitzer citation in May, but he declined to attend the presentation ceremony because he would not be permitted to give a speech. By custom, winners of the Prize just shake hands with the president of Columbia University and smile for a photograph, reported Amy E. Boyle Johnston in the L.A. Weekly. No speeches. And Bradbury wanted to use the occasion to tell the world how his most celebrated novel, Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, has been routinely misinterpreted ever since. It’s not about government censorship, he claims; nor is it a response to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s fear-fostering smear campaign against alleged communism in government. Fahrenheit 451 was not a fresh version of George Orwell’s 1984, either. Bradbury’s novel, the author says, is about the effect of television on literacy. As early as the dawn of the 1950s, Bradbury saw televison as
a threat to literacy. Books are burned in Fahrenheit 451 because people aren’t reading them anymore, and they aren’t reading them because television has become an opiate that satiates their appetite for genuine knowledge by offering a steady diet of “factoids,” information rendered useless by reason of its being presented without meaningful context. Exactly what today’s tv has become, alas—watch any news broadcast and see.
COMIC STRIP WATCH
Graham Nolan has given up drawing the Sunday Phantom, Lee Falk’s legendary comic strip about the first costumed hero; the strip is now bylined DePaul, writer, and Ryan, artist, on both Sundays and dailies—the first time in years that both have been produced by the same creator. On May 14, Darryl and Wanda MacPherson, the father and mother in Baby Blues, kiss. I’ve always wondered how the strip’s delineator, Rick Kirkman, might create the illusion of this intimate act, what with the giantism of Darryl’s proboscis. But, amazement of amazements, he managed it through the time-honored cartoonist’s device of leaving out a few key lines. You can witness this slight of hand and pen at the end of this paragraph. And here’s Mort Walker doing a “Where’s Waldo” version of Beetle Bailey. Neatly done, too—a spectacular way to attract attention on the comics page, I might add. Mike Peters and his drawing assistant Jeff Parker conducted a nifty nod of appreciation to Johnny Hart on May 14 in Mother Goose and Grimm. And at the Orlando Sentinnel, Doonesbury and Mallard Fillmore balance the op-ed opinion page, Garry Trudeau’s strip running at the bottom of the page on the left-hand side and Bruce Tinsley’s immediately to its right. And the paper’s editors, anxious to make sure we not miss understanding the political evenhandedness of their maneuver, give each strip a headline—as you see, Doonesbury “from the left,” and Mallard “from the right.” Surely, the all-comprehending editor of the op-ed page doesn’t think his readers are incapable of sorting out these divergent viewpoints on their own? Does he?
You can tell a good deal about the political temper of the times from the funnies these days. Cartoonists whose endeavors run in the daily papers must be closely attuned to the attitudes their readers harbor—otherwise, their strips fall quickly out of favor, off the page, and out of the paper. So when a political figure comes in for ridicule in several comic strips over a few weeks—particularly in comic strips not renowned for their political heft—you know that political figure, or the philosophy he espouses, has lost clout and has acquired nearly universal disapprobation. So it is with great pleasure, smacking of lips and rubbing of hands in glee, that we observe a couple of Wiley Miller’s recent Non Sequitur strips in which the Bush League’s philosophy of government comes in for a jibe or so. At various times in his career, Wiley worked as a political cartoonist; he’s reverting to form here. But not quite so much in the next sample, the third of Wiley’s strips on display, wherein I direct your attention to the running man on the right. This nameless sprinter contributes nothing essential to the day’s gag, but he gives the entire enterprise a delightful comedic gloss: his desperately dashing figure supplies just the touch of panicky fervor, the visual hilarity of which heightens the satirical implication of the joke with a patina of nearly slapstick humor. The last of our harvest this month is June 1's Brevity in which we have a joke only fans of Carl Barks can appreciate, and since it appears in a general circulation newspaper, we must assume that most newspaper readers are, or were at one time, readers of Carl Barks, whose Uncle Scrooge perfected the technique of diving like a porpoise in a pond of lucre. Those who can’t see in Guy and Rodd’s billionaire the echo of Barks’ famous fowl miss the joke altogether. Finally, without illustration, a snatch of wisdom from Get Fuzzy on June 1. Bucky is conducting one of his usual tirades for more and more material comforts, and Satchel comments, “Cats never know how good they have it.” To which Rob adds a shattering insight: “And yet they know it’s not good enough.” Don’t we all.
If the issue of “legacy strips” is ever to be resolved in favor of art rather than commerce, it will be done by newspaper editors, acting, ironically, in the interest of commerce. And the issue has always been one of art vs. commerce. It was ever thus: in a capitalistic society like ours, artistic enterprise—the realm of the creative personality—is always at the nexus of art and commerce. The alternative is medieval: if an artist is to make a living by his art without accommodating commercial demands, he must seek out a patron—as did his forebears in ages past—to supply sustenance and shelter whilst the artist plys his craft. These days, the dilemma—the contest, the struggle, the argument—is being vividly played out on the funnies pages of the nation’s newspapers. Probably close to half of the comic strip line-up in any paper is made up of legacy strips—strips no longer being produced by their initial creators but by former assistants or by relatives or by cartoonists hired to ape the mannerisms of the genius who inaugurated the feature years before.
Legacy strips endure because the syndicates who distribute them want to continue to make money from them and because these strips inherit a faithful readership of thousands who dote on the doings of the characters therein and because newspaper editors want to continue to hold those readers as paying customers. Newspapers insist that they have only limited space to devote to comic strips, so as long as they hold on to legacy strips, letting these vintage endeavors take up portions of the available space, papers foreclose on opportunity for new strips by a younger generation of cartoonists. New strips can’t find a way to wedge themselves onto the crowded pages, and so they wither on the vine. Not all new strips. Some succeed against nearly impossible odds. Calvin and Hobbes, Garfield, For Better or For Worse, Dilbert, FoxTrot—all entered the competition well after legacy strips had become an established phenomenon in comics sections, and all achieved “best seller” status with circulations of more than 1,000 newspapers. Against nearly impossible odds. The argument against legacy strips is persuasive: by occupying the limited space for comics in newspapers, they prevent new strips from finding an audience; they thereby stymie creative enterprise. A new generation of cartoonists is therefore lost to the genre. The argument in support of legacy strips is equally persuasive: as long as they remain popular with readers, why should a newspaper drop them? Who among us doesn’t wish for a continuation of such popular tv programs as “Seinfeld” and “Friends”? Our affection for such entertainments argues, passionately, for their indefinite perpetuation. Hence, legacy strips.
And newspapers, as the vehicles by which comics strips find their audience, are, in essence, commercial: they want to continue to appeal to buyers, reading buyers and advertising buyers (who won’t buy unless they assured of a goodly number of reading buyers). But newspapers are in trouble these days. Their readership is slipping, dropping off, slowly but surely. If newspapers are to survive, the argument can be made that they must find new ways to appeal to readers. They must make room for fresh endeavors, enterprises more in tune with the zeitgeist of the times. Legacy strips don’t always and forever reflect the sensibilities of fond but bygone days: many of them morph into mirrors of contemporary sensibility. But that’s hazardous: a legacy strip that changes risks losing its faithful audience, the guarantor of its allotted space on the comics page. Chances are, legacy strips don’t change much. And so if the comics line-up in a given newspaper is to change at all, it will doubtless change because the newspaper’s editors think they must reach out with something new in order to attract a readership that is otherwise ignoring newspapers. Newspaper editors do this all the time, sometimes with great success.
And it has begun. As of June 4, the Washington Post dropped both B.C. and The Wizard of Id from its daily line-up, explaining, “Johnny Hart, who created B.C., and Brant Parker, who co-created The Wizard of Id with Hart, died in April. Both strips [are] now being done by family members.” To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time a major metropolitan newspaper—the chief venue for comic strips and the largest sources of revenue for syndicates—has dropped a strip because the originating cartoonist has died, in effect declaring, “No legacy strips for us.” The Post will continue subscribing to B.C. and Wizard, posting them on the paper’s website, but the print versions are now history at the Post. This, it seems to me, is a responsible—even creative—way to respond to the death of comic strip creators: let their creations die with them.
Dropping such strips keeps faith with their creators, assuring that their comedic voice isn’t altered in an imitation, however faithful. Discontinuing these strips may seem to be breaking a bond with readers; but it isn’t. The bargain a newspaper makes with its readers is to bring them the most truthful and complete news and the best entertainment. The best entertainment on the funnies page may be the strip that is looking for a chance to find an audience, not the strip that proved, under its original management, that it could nurture a faithful readership. Dropping a strip when its creator dies is the only way to make a clean break, to clear away the past to make room for a bright new present.
I have many friends who produce so-called “legacy strips” and do it very well, and I’m sorry if they’re miffed by my view of the matter. (Miffed? Outraged, more likely. Vastly disappointed anyhow.) But they belong, rightfully, to a tradition that should come to an end. I don’t think they should be immediately forced into retirement: they are now the “creators” of the strips they produce. And by that token, when they die, “their” strips—the ones they inherited and perpetuated so well—should die, too. That should be the new rule. And I applaud the Washington Post for taking the first step in the direction of institutionalizing that rule. To prolong the legacy tradition, an essentially commercial custom, will, followed to its logical conclusion, eventually crowd out all new efforts. The legacy tradition has already morphed into yet another strain: the rerunning classic. We have Peanuts in perpetual rerun: fifty years of strips, none of which are topical, can be recycled for generations, fifty years to each cycle. Ditto Tiger and Andy Capp and Henry and Tarzan and Fred the Basset. Will Calvin and Hobbes be next?—resurrected from the dead? Why not? And what about all the Disney character strips? Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, nary a topical joke in them to hitch the comedy to a specific time; they can be reprinted forever. And Bugs Bunny likewise. Nancy? The list goes on to the crack of doom. And make no mistake, doom lurks: reruns coupled to legacy strips threaten to take over the comics pages: both can be distributed by syndicates at far less expense than original work. The economies of the business work against new endeavor. And at syndicate websites, we find vintage strips, Rip Kirby and Li’l Abner and a host of others—Mutt and Jeff— fugitives from another age, blooming anew on a digital garden That’s where they belong. In print, let’s have new, fresh enterprise. In place of B.C. and The Wizard, the Post started Sherman’s Lagoon, scarcely a brand new creation—but not old by any means—and Lio, which is brand new, less than a year or so.
Onward, the Spreading Punditry
The Great Ebb and Flo of Things
As the case of the fired federal prosecutors unspools before our eyes, we are smitten with the realization, not for the first time, that the Bush League has been afforded by its six-year incumbency ample opportunity to infiltrate every niche and cupboard of the federal bureaucracy with its adherents. That is why the game of governance is called patronage, after all: we must expect every administration to install like-minded operatives throughout the corridors of power, however obscure and hidden away they may be. But the so-called religious convictions of those the Bush Leaguers regard as the most loyal make me shudder to think of the consequences. The vast bureaucracy of the federal government has been systematically infected by the contagion of Karl Rove with legions of rightwing moles, like the Justice Department’s Monica (is that really her name? Or am I mis-remembering) Goodling, graduates of religious colleges (hers is Pat Robertson’s Regent College), who, with the righteous conviction of their all-encompassing faith, believe that since God’s law is superior to man’s, anything they do in what they presume is God’s service can ignore man’s laws. That is the insidious danger in theocracies: they tend to devalue human beings. And we’re now stuck with the clean-up for untold years of post-GeeDubya.
After hours and hours and tedious hours of debate, Congress has funded the hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan some more. The debate, cartooner and gadfly Ted Rall pointed out on May 29, was illogical the whole time. “Logic never entered the debate. Instead, an absurd rhetorical turd carried the day, among pro-war Republicans and reluctant Democrats alike: supporting the troops requires funding the war.” Nonsense, he goes on to demonstrate, logically. “Cutting off funding would do nothing to jeopardize U.S. troops fighting in Iraq.” Because if the funds were no longer available, GeeDubya would have to stop U.S. troops from fighting in Iraq and bring them home, where they’d be a lot safer than they are in Iraq. So the way to keep “our boys” safe is not to fund a war that keeps them in the sights of an enemy pointing weapons at them. So much for logic in American politics: it left long ago. You can read all of Rall’s rant at his website, www.tedrall.com
Unbeknownst to me—while I was out, probably, nodding off in a quiet corner of some dusty bookshop somewhere or sipping slowly my weekly martini (Bombay Sapphire gin, thank you)—Fletcher Hanks achieved cult status as a comic book cartooner. In a promotion for one of its newer productions, I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets!, Fantagraphics tells us that Hanks “had a short career,” spanning 1939-1941, during which time he drew wooden approximations of human sapiens (“each of his characters has exactly one, wildly caricatured, facial expression”) who encounter “global-scale atrocities” galore, meting out grotesque punishments to fit the crime. All fifteen of his oeuvre, some featuring “the jungle heroine Fantomah, whose face becomes a snarling skull when she uses her magic powers,” have been collected in this 124-page tome, catering to the cult but, doubtless, no one else.
If you are having trouble ascertaining the truth about any topic that our political leaders devote their attention to, you are not alone. You are probably in the majority. Realizing this sad fact of contemporary American life, Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson have written a book that might help. Un-Spun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation (210 5x8-inch pages in paperback; $xxx)—“a citizen’s guide to avoiding the malarkey of partisan politics,” saith Mara Liasson of NPR. At the end of the book are nine rules that should guide citizens to a grasp of actualities. Among the rules: look for general agreement among experts, check primary sources, know what counts (be wary of statistics), know who’s talking, and cross-check everything with other sources. The book is entertaining as well as informative. Jackson and Jamieson begin with the story of the nation’s first “snake oil” salesman and season the ensuing chapters with other historical tidbits. And every chapter starts with a biting cartoon from the pen of Signe Wilkinson.
On May 22, New York’s Gotham Book Mart closed its doors forever. In the New York Times, Ethan Wilensky-Lanford concocted a fond farewell piece, focusing on the auction that unsentimentally attempted to dispose of a legendary inventory of books—books signed by John Updike, letters from D.H. Lawrence and Anais Nin, Andy Warhol’s wig rack, a box of books from the James Joyce Literary Society, “which convened quarterly at Gotham for about 60 years.” But the article doesn’t even mention Frances Seloff, the book-loving lady whose passion for literature and contemporary authors founded and built the Gotham Book Mart, turning it into a mecca for those who doted on modern literature. She devised the motto that informed the wrought iron sign depicting three fishermen in a boat that John Held Jr. created to hang over the door—“Wise Men Fish Here,” it said. And that’s the title of the book about her and her bookshop by W.G. Rogers, who begins by saying: “Frances Steloff made the Gotham Book Mart. Then it turned around and made her. You couldn’t have the one without the other.” I haven’t read the book yet, but I used to visit the bookshop regularly, even before I studied Joyce and learned about the James Joyce Society, and when I first visited the shop in the late 1950s, Frances Steloff was still alive, her diminutive and probably frail form lurking behind the counter and a stack of books. As I remember it, she was always reading a book.
The Gotham Book Mart threatened to move from its 47th Street locale for years; it finally carried out the threat a couple years ago, and John Bennett and I visited the new environs on 46th Street soon after they opened. It was an elegantly outfitted bookshop with wooden cabineted shelving, but it lacked that lived-in quality that had infected its historic venue. No dusty heaps of tomes on every horizontal surface. And as it turned out, Andreas Brown, Steloff’s successor, couldn’t pay the rent regularly enough in the new place and owed the landlord, at the time of the auction, more than half-a-million dollars. So the inventory was sold to settle the debt. Sad, sad all around. Saddest yet, the realization that the World-wide Web has obviated the need for used book shops like the Gotham Book Mart. Why browse in dusty aisles for lost treasure when you can find it in an instant on the ’Net? The answer, of course, is that bookish sorts are more like fishermen than hunters. Hunters know what they’re going after, and they aim accordingly. But fishermen never know, quite, what they’ll catch. And so they are often ecstatically surprised at what they pull in while fishing in such happy heaped-up places as the Gotham Book Mart, one of the most celebrated of a vanishing species.
Andreas Brown’s other passion is Edward Gorey, whose place in Cape Cod Brown and associates have turned into a museum. Let us hope it fares better than Steloff’s.
Read and Relish Department
Robert B. Parker’s indefatigable private eye, Spenser, is in conversation with an attractive female news reporter, who tries, and believes she is failing, to explain her motives to him.
“Look,” she says, “you’re a white male; you can’t understand a minority situation. It’s not your fault.”
Spenser says: “Extend that logic, and we eventually have to decide that no one can understand anyone. Maybe the matter of understanding has been over-rated. Maybe I don’t have to understand your situation to sympathize with it, to help you alter it, to be on your side. I’ve never experienced starvation either, but I’m opposed to it. When I encounter it, I try to alleviate it. I sympathize with its victims. The question of whether I understand it doesn’t arise.”
“That’s different,” she says.
“Maybe it isn’t,” says Spenser. “Maybe civilization is possible, if at all, only because people can care about conditions they haven’t experienced. Maybe you need understanding like a fish needs a bicycle.”
From A Savage Place (1981)
The Green Eyeshade Award, recognizing outstanding journalism in the eleven southeastern states, was presented by the Society of Professional Journalists to editorial cartoonist Robert Ariail of The State in Columbia, South Carolina. It is Ariail’s fifth Green Eyeshade.
The departure from this vale of tears of the so-called Reverend Jerry Falwell on May 15 was heralded by many editoonists with a cartoon that showed the founder of the Moral Majority (which is neither) aghast to discover himself in the Nether Region of the afterlife rather than in Heaven’s celestial choir. The ironic comedy is cruel, of course—albeit not entirely unexpected or unprovoked in the wake of Ted Haggard’s exposure as a lascivious sinner while trumpeting endlessly about family values and sexual purity. Falwell seemed, in life, a pretty upright sort; he didn’t, so far as we know, consort with prostitutes of any of a seemingly endless array of sexual persuasions. The cartoons naturally sent the Righteous among us into paroxysms of rage, fulminating about such things as the evils of same-sex marriage, as if a cartoon showing portly Falwell in Hell created an obvious rhetorical opening for such a tirade. Canadian cartoonist Michael DeAdder, quoted in Daryl Cagle’s blog, decided, he explained—“after much debate, mostly with myself”—to show Falwell arriving in Hell instead of Heaven. “The irony was just too tempting. Falwell, for all his preaching about love and forgiveness, himself practiced hate and intolerance.” But, DeAdder concluded, “I really don’t think Falwell will find himself in Hell. The God Falwell preached about was far more forgiving than that. Some cartoonists have already made the point that Falwell’s God was far more forgiving than Falwell himself.” Slate’s columnist Timothy Noah was not so forgiving, noting that Falwell “hit the jackpot trafficking in small-minded condemnation.” Noah goes on to substantiate, with quotations from Falwell himself, that the would-be preacher was a bigot, a reactionary, a liar, and a fool. About Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, Falwell was dubious about his “sincerity and nonviolent intentions”; then, four years later, Falwell claimed he supported King “who did practice civil disobedience.” Falwell said AIDS “is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals.” He advocated public schools being taken over and run by “Christians” and said “there is no separation of church and state.” Feminists, he said, are “sexist. They hate men; that’s their problem.” Those who cry out against global warming, Falwell said, are part of a conspiracy “to destroy America’s free enterprise system and our economic stability.” You can read the whole of Noah’s screed at http://www.slate.com/id/2166220/
Incidentally, when typing the foregoing, I came up empty for Ted Haggard’s last name. Couldn’t remember it. So I googled “Ted” and “hypocrisy,” and Ted Haggard showed up, first in the list.
Last time (Op. 205), I neglected to include samples of Pulitzer winner Walt Handelsman’s work; here are a few. I haven’t seen that much of his work, and these are purloined from such annual collections as the Best of ... , but it would appear that Handelsman doesn’t resort to visual metaphor very often: his forte is more verbal, and he uses the visuals to time the delivery of his pronouncements. Or so it would appear—from a limited sample, admittedly.
“Half of the American people never read a newspaper. Half never voted for president. One hopes it is the same half.” —Gore Vidal
“Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” —William Butler Yeats
“Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine.” —Fran Leowitz
“Key to longevity—keep breathing.”—Sophie Tucker.
“If you don’t know where you are going, you will wind up somewhere else.”—Yogi Berra
“I refused to attend his funeral, but I wrote a very nice letter explaining that I approved of it.” —Mark Twain
“Life is too short to stuff a mushroom.” —Shirley Conran
AT THE EDGE
The Comic Strip by Terry and Patty LeBan
Newspaper comic strips, which once, through the 1930s and 1940s, offered adventure fantasy that permitted us to escape the humdrum of our lives, now, increasingly, provide no relief whatsoever. Except laughter, a welcome balm even if it isn’t escapist. Comedy in comic strips these days is more frequently grounded in the realities we know than it is in the fantasies we dream. Perhaps the most celebrated of the reality-based albeit humorous strips is Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse. Others of recent vintage are Jump Start by Rob Armstrong, Arlo and Janis by Jimmy Johnson, Herb and Jamaal by Steve Bentley, Luann by Greg Evans. Brooke McEldowney’s 9 Chickweed Lane may be the most insightful, edgy and artistically inventive of the breed, an intelligent and literate gem about which I’ve raved herein often. And I’m not about to stop, even though lingering over it right now results in a detour from my main objective this time.
Despite its obvious excellences, Chickweed Lane enjoys but modest circulation. McEldowney seems not to mind much: “Chickweed,” he wrote me recently in response to a question, “has never been a franchise chain of restaurants; it has always been a small but, I like to think, very special café with sidewalk tables and really good food and wine. I console myself with that thought.” I do, too, taking a seat often at one of the tables to imbibe the wine of McEldowney’s wit and manifest humanity.
The granddaddy of all the everyday life comedy strips is Blondie, still delving into Dagwood’s daily misadventures in its 77th year. But the most enduring is Gasoline Alley, now in its 89th year, produced with loving and thoughtful care by Jim Scancarelli. A relative newcomer in this genre, Edge City, is unusual in at least two ways. First, it is produced by a husband-and-wife team, Terry and Patty LeBan; second, it may be the first contemporary strip to feature a Jewish family. Andrews McMeel has just brought out the first collection of Edge City strips, over 40 weeks worth, every one, dailies and Sundays, in full color (128 8x9-inch pages; paperback, $12.95).
We learn in the book’s Preface that the LeBans experienced at first some trepidation about teaming up on a syndicated daily comic strip. “Our marriage had survived fussy babies, fixer-upper houses, and a husband who thought he could make a living drawing people with big noses. But syndication?” They discovered, happily, that they work well together. They meet once a week to devise plotlines and gags, and after six years, “we still share the same address.”
Terry, who draws the strip, is a veteran cartoonist who, after twenty years at the drawingboard, has a portfolio that includes editorial cartoons, magazine gag cartoons, underground comic books, superhero comics, and kids’ humorous comics. His wife, a licensed social worker, brings her insights about contemporary life in suburban America to the milieu they’ve invented together. The initial notion for the strip was to focus on a couple living in the inner city, which was where the LeBans lived at the time. Then Patty made a key observation: “It’s not where people live; it’s how they live.” They moved the locale of the strip then to “edge city”—that outer residential suburban ring surrounding a major metropolitan area—where they could imagine the daily doings and weekly crises of a family like their own: Len and Abby Ardin and their two children and two cats.
Len, co-owner of a small messenger service, loves rock music and used to play in a punk rock band but now dotes on technology and gardening. Says Terry: “Len is always trying to figure out the intersection of the image he had of himself for so long and the new reality of his life as a suburban dad.” Abby is fully employed as a therapist in private practice. Their son Colin, a third-grader, juggles homework and extracurricular activities while lobbying for more time to play video games; the daughter, Carly, is six, competitive and bossy.
Typically, the strip runs thematic continuity for a week or two at a time, humorously exploring the motivations, fads and crises of a modern family in the suburbs. For two weeks, Len displayed his unhappiness at finding a sink full of dirty dishes every morning after Abby, always pressed for time, leaves home for work without cleaning up after herself. Abby, the therapist, finds a solution by suggesting a way they can confront each other to alleviate their minor irritations at each other’s behavior. For two more weeks, Abby struggles with insomnia, finally curing herself by deciding to fill her sleepless nights by working on “that book” she’s always wanted to write but has been putting off forever. As soon as she starts to work on it, her insomnia vanishes. Says Len: “Few needs are stronger than the need to procrastinate.” Abby responds: “I may never have another sleepless night.”
When Abby decides to give up her office and work out of their home, she soon abandons the plan when she starts gaining weight. Len buys a particularly ugly artifact (a stuffed groundhog playing a guitar) on e-bay; he starts a blog and alienates some of his rock-fan friends by saying the Beatles “ruined rock.” Deluged by irate e-mails, he smiles in satisfaction: “The last time I had this much fun, my parents had to talk to the principal,” he says.
For two weeks, they are puzzled by what smells like a gas leak in their house. When firemen on three fire trucks arrive to inspect the premises, they discover the cause of the “leak”: Colin has neglected, probably for weeks, to perform one of his assigned chores—scooping out the cats’ litter box.
In devising sequences for the Ardins, Patty, thinking of her own life as well as the lives in the strip, says: “On the one hand, you’re trying to be what you think a family ought to be, and on the other hand, you’re pulled in so many directions. There are a lot of very funny and sort of disjunctive situations that families find themselves in right now. I think we’re trying to portray that in a funny way—and sometimes, in a poignant way.”
During one two week sequence, Len and Abby learn that a couple they know is planning to divorce. They can’t believe it because the couple always seemed “so good together.” Says Abby: “I guess you can’t take marriage for granted. No matter how solid it seems, it can always fall apart.” Suddenly, the implication of what she’s said dawns on them; they stare at each other for a long minute, and then Len embraces Abby, saying: “Not if I can help it.”
The Jewish LeBans also deploy their strip to give readers a glimpse of their ethnic traditions. This collection includes the two-week sequence when Colin’s objection to attending religious school two evenings a week is overcome when Len, who never attended religious school, agrees to enroll in adult classes in the same institution. And when Abby’s mother decides that doing the Passover seder for the extended family is too much for her, the next three weeks are devoted to Abby and Len preparing for the ritual event.
The LaBans didn’t set out to do a strip about a Jewish family. At first, the Ardins were just an ordinary non-denominational comic strip family living in “edge city.”Even though, Terry said, “I’ve always considered all my characters to be Jewish,” neither he nor Patty had planned to make the characters’ religion overt. But as they approached their first Christmas in late 2001, they realized that they’d have to do something: every comic strip celebrates the season in some way, many devoting the release for December 25 to a Christmas card for their readers.
“The Ardins could celebrate Christmas by default,” Terry mused for Alexandra J. Wall of The Bulletin at jewishsf.com, “or we could ignore the whole thing. But we felt strongly that we didn’t want to have them be our vision of typical Christians.”
Working a month ahead of publication date, the LaBans did their Edge City holiday strips, hinting at a big family dinner for the Ardins and at exchanging presents—but making no explicit allusions to Christmas. Then when Christmas actually arrived and the funnies page was full of overt references to the occasion, the LaBans resolved that, in future, the Ardins’ Jewish heritage would be made obvious. That spring, the Ardins sat down around a seder table, probably the first time a comic strip family did so. Strips preceding the occasion discussed Passover in an easy, light-hearted but not frivolous manner. Said reporter Wall: “The LaBans didn’t want the Jewish theme to impede the humor.” Thereafter, the strip makes explicit references to Judaism several times a year, whenever the calendar says it’s an appropriate time. (For Alexandra Wall’s complete article, written in March 2002, visit http://www.jewishsf.com/bk020315/1c.shtml )
Despite the cloned familial appearances, the LeBans deny that the strip is autobiographical. “Still,” they write in the Preface to the reprint volume, “there are undeniable similarities between what goes on in Edge City and what goes on in our lives. In fact, we’ve sometimes had the experience of writing about something in the strip and then having it happen in reality. Which means there will probably be a story in the near future about Len and Abby winning the lottery.”
The comedy in Edge City is often highly verbal, especially in the daily strips; the medium’s usual verbal-visual blend occurs more often in the Sunday strips, where, presumably, Terry has more elbow room to develop the visual dimension. But his drawing style—traditional big-foot, three-fingered and rubber-limbed as well as bulbous-nosed—restores the verbal-visual balance with its purely pictorial hilarities. Rendered with a brush that produces a flexible line, bold and clean without much feathering or fussing, Terry’s style is well-suited for the most exaggerated depictions of characters’ actions and reactions. Terry’s attention to current fashions in casual clothing is unusual in a comic strip: both Len and Abby vary their wardrobes from week to week (reflecting, I suspect, Patty’s influence on the strip and its illuminator). The coloring is nicely subtle, a muted palette laced often with soft earth tones.
The inaugural collection of Edge City is a good way to meet the LeBans’ creation, a quiet reflective sitcom about human foibles rather than an outrageous and raucous satire of folly and failure. Here are a few glimpses of that warm comedy—a couple Sunday strips and a selection from the sequence about Colin’s summer camp experiences.
Forty years ago today, Sgt. Pepper’s Band began to play, and a few weeks later, forty years ago, I sat in the livingroom of Chris’s house in Norwalk, Connecticut, late one night, and we both listened, I for the first time, to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. We were both slightly stoned, and Chris sat there, slouched in a chair, a silly vacuous toked grin on his face, as he waited for The Moment—that last sustained into oblivion note in “A Day in the Life.” Popular music, particularly albums of it, would never be the same again. The June 4th issue of The New Yorker carries a nicely fond piece by John Colapinto on Paul McCartney, one of the Beatles’ informing musical geniuses. John Lennon was the other, and the two were brothers in their musical souls. While glimpsing McCartney now, Colapinto also, in a page, traces the emergence of the Beatles from McCartney’s first sight of Lennon, in Liverpool in 1957, “playing banjo chords on an incorrectly tuned guitar and making up lyrics as he went along,” to their American debut on Ed Sullivan’s tv show in February 1963. In another page, he rehearses the sad breakup of the band at the end of 1969, McCartney forced to sue his friends to gain control over his own creative endeavors. “It really was hellish tough times,” McCartney said, “and I very nearly went under. I was suing my friends—and that’s not fun. I wasn’t working, I was drinking in the daytime to try to sort of pretend I was ‘partying,’ and I wasn’t. And Linda was my savior. Linda [his first wife, who died of breast cancer] was absolutely my savior. Strong woman. She just was able to hang in there and help me hang in there.” Was it Yoko Ono, whom Lennon insisted on bringing to recording sessions, who started the dissolution of modern music’s most famous group? “Let’s not blame either of them,” McCartney says. “It’s a long time ago and it’s water under the bridge. They were ... in love. And that excuses a lot of things.” By the mid-1970s, McCartney and Lennon were able to rekindle their friendship, getting together whenever McCartney came through New York, Lennon’s new home with Ono. By the time Lennon was murdered in December 1980, the two were fast friends again. “Which is something that I’m enternally grateful for,” McCartney told Colapinto, “—that would have been really difficult if we hadn’t [reconciled].”
The Sgt. Pepper album’s famous opening sequence was inspired by McCartney’s youth during which he fell asleep listening to the radio, plays and music. Said Colapinto: “McCartney conceived the idea of opening the album with the sound of a crowd laughing when he recalled the excitement and mystery of hearing laughter from an unseen studio audience in a radio show. ‘You didn’t know what made them laugh,’ McCartney said. ‘Did someone’s pants fall down? What was it? That’s what we were trying to recreate. Putting in those things that got your imagination going.’”And here, just so I won’t lose track of it, is a fragment of lyric from McCartney’s new song, “the End of the End”:
On the day that I die
I’d like jokes to be told
And stories of old
To be rolled out like carpets
That children have played on
And laid on while listening
To stories of old.
To find out about Harv's books, click here.
send e-mail to R.C. Harvey
Art of the Comic Book - Art of the Funnies - Accidental Ambassador Gordo - reviews - order form - Harv's Hindsights - main page