Opus 211 (September 23, 2007). This isn’t a blog, kimo sabe: it’s an online magazine—almost 30,000 words this time, and, if printed out, nearly 50 8x11-inch pages. We don’t backtrack to cover all that happened in August whilst we were trekking ’cross country, but there’s plenty of cartoon news even without August. At the end of this installment, we spend an inordinate amount of time on the festering in Iraq and the blundering of the Bush League, but we’ve put that at the end deliberately so anyone not interested can just stop before venturing in. The other Big Story is the Islamic brouhaha caused by a Swedish cartoonist’s alleged drawing of Muhammad, which prompts our examination of other sensitivities that have been imposed upon by cartoonists recently—Berk Breathed in Opus, a couple college cartooners, and, even, in the distant past, McCay and Herge. Will it ever end? Can we legitimately suppress the work of the past just because it’s racist or otherwise offensive by today’s standards? We also say a fond farewell to the 2007 edition of the San Diego Comic-Con, which, in some respects, left something to be desired (or maybe it’s merely my bruised ego). We review the astonishing reprint tome for the Girls & Sports comic strip, Rick Veitch’s equally amazing Army @ Love, and appreciate the life and work of Phil Frank, who died too young. I also ponder my new life in a two-newspaper town and review the contents of the two, one of which has the only full-time staff sports cartoonist left in captivity. Here’s what’s here, in order by department:
NOUS R US
Shooter Returns to the Legion
Books for Teen Girls
Keith Knight Gets Harvey
The Beloved Femlin on Display
Comics for Cell Phones
Iranians Get Top Honors at International Cartoon Contest
What the FBI-Ellison Settlement Was
Lynn Johnston on Her Hybrid FBOFW
Infamy at the Famous Palm Restaurant
Ku Klux Klan Komics
Who Is Asok?
Cartoonist PROfiles To Be Reincarnated
Cooke Quits Spirit
THE PERVERSE POWER OF THE CARTOON IMAGE
A Reprise of the Danish Dozen, This Time in Sweden
Other Insensitive Cartooning
Burying the Past in order to Deny it: Won’t Work
SAN DIEGO COMIC-CON WRAP-UP
Jobs Continue to Evaporate
The Froth Estate
Murdoch Conquers the Street
LAND OF MY YOUTH
Denver: A Two-Newspaper Town
And What’s in the Papers
Paris Hilton Is a Comic Book Character—No Surprise!
No Crusader He: Just a Reporter, M’am
COMIC STRIP WATCH
Zits, FBOFW, Lio and Peanuts, Beetle’s 57th, Prickly City’s politics, Agnes, and more
Ketcham’s Magazine Cartoons
Harvey’s Little Louie Loutermouth
Puff for Children
Voutch from Paris
Lisa’s Story: The Other Shoe
The Ancient Pursuit as a Sport
Phil Frank Dies
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE
Army @ War
Ra’s al Ghul Again
MORE UNDER THE SPREADING PUNDITRY
More Than Anyone Can Reasonably Absorb at One Sitting
And 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
For the past month, you’ve been living on canned goods, articles and opuses I preserved in July for consumption in August whilst I was trekking cross-country to Colorado, where, withal, I now reside. Safely ensconced if not yet entirely unpacked (it takes more than a month to unpack 400-plus boxes of books, kimo sabe), I resume the Rancid Raves vigil, monitoring the Vast Newsmongering Media for signs of cartooning life. We “resume,” I say, without bothering to backtrack in order to regale you with colorful bits we otherwise missed in August. What happened in August, stays in August.
On the eve of “Heroes” return for a second season on NBC channels, we learn from a DC Comics press release that the funnybook factory will publish a hardcover graphic novel based on the tv show, Heroes, Inc. (240 pages; $29.99). With interior art by Tim Sale plus Michael Turner, Phil Jimenez, Koi Turnbull, Marcus To and others, the volume will feature alternate covers by Alex Ross and Jim Lee and an introduction by “Heroes” star Masi Oka Hiro. ... The one-time editor-in-chief at Marvel, Jim Shooter, who began his comic book career at the age of 14, writing stories for DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes in 1966, is returning to the title, starting with No. 37. Shooter left DC in 1976, and he’s returning just in time to create a story arc that will culminate in the 50th anniversary of the band of young superheroes. Said Shooter: “I have always loved the concept of the Legion—young heroes in a fantastic future. The characters have changed a little, but not enough to spoil the party for me. These are the first comics characters I ever wrote. They’re still very special to me. I’m having a ball,” he added, “—I see no reason not to stick around for a long time.” ... Both DC and Marvel are gearing up titles aimed at a new audience for comic books, manga-nurtured teenage girls. Beginning with Plain Janes, DC launched a line of graphic novels under the banner Minx, headed by Executive Editor Karen Berger, one of the chief architects of DC’s Vertigo line, the most adventurous in comics. “We were looking at the success of manga as a great sign that teenage girls were actually reading comics again,” Berger told Matt Phillips at the Wall Street Journal, adding, in an interview with Sean Boyl at comicbloc.com, “We haven’t had that specific readership since—what? romance comics [in the 1950s], which were still on a very fringe basis.” Unlike manga, which translate and reprint Japanese sources but reduce production costs by not reformatting the books so they must be read from back to front, right to left, as they are in the country of their origin, DC’s Minx books are manufactured from scratch in the U.S.: they’re written in English and read from front to back, left to right, in the usual English-language manner. Cecil Castellucci, who wrote the first of the Plain Janes, doesn’t aim specifically at girls when writing. “I just write stories,” she told Liz Behler at comicbloc.com. “It just happens to be that mostly they tend to lean towards girls, but I think a good story is a good story to be enjoyed by all.” Jim Rugg, who drew the book, chimed in on the same note: “I wouldn’t change the art for a male audience. My approach to the art was fairly realistic and there wasn’t anything I did to cater to either gender.” Marvel’s approach to the young female audience is somewhat different, according to Phillips: “Instead of starting a separate line, the company has been hiring writers known for their established female following.”
The October issue of Vanity Fair, the one with Nicole Kidman, lips parted, baring her bra on the cover, publishes an excerpt from David Michaelis’ Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography. Entitled “American Beagle,” the piece is about Snoopy and how he grew from a beagle to a symbol of the triumph of imagination. (That part, the “symbol of the triumph of imagination,” is me, not Michaelis; although it might be—I haven’t read this part of the book yet.) Vanity Fair, which typically has female skin on its cover but hard-nosed reportage inside, costs $4.50; for merely seven times that amount, you can get the whole Schulz book. But it won’t have bare female flesh on the cover. ... The coveted Harvey Award (no relation) for best syndicated comic went to Keith Knight for his self-syndicated The K Chronicles. Editor & Publisher reveals that Keef won over four other contenders: Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury), Tony Millionaire (Maakies), Patrick McDonnell (Mutts), and Antiques: The Comic Strip by J.C. Vaughn, and Bredan and Frian Fraim. ... To mark the 60th anniversary of the Air Force and its one-time unofficial spokesman, Steve Canyon, retired Air Force Master Sgt. Russ Maheras has produced a new Steve Canyon strip for Air Force Times, a civilian weekly newspaper that covers that branch of the military. According to E&P, the color strip is “set in the present and follows Brig. General Steve Canyon as he investigates Taliban activity in a remote valley in the mountains of Afghanistan.” Canyon’s other creator, Milton Caniff, would be celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth this year. And if you haven’t yet bought my book about Caniff, click here to visit a description of it where you’ll be persuaded. ... Mikhaela Reid, a cartoonist, was married to Masheka Wood, a cartoonist, by Ted Rall, another cartoonist. The last time this sort of thing happened, saith E&P, was in 2001, when Cindy Procious, editoonist for the Huntsville Times (Ala.) was married to Clay Bennett, editoonist for the Christian Science Monitor, by Dennis Draughton, then editoonist for the Scranton Times (Pa.).
At the Franklin Bowles Gallery in both San Francisco and New York City, “LeRoy Neiman’s Femlin: 50 Years of Femlin,” original ink drawings from the pages of Playboy, will be on display through September. Neiman, 86, began his association at Playboy with the cuddly little elfin nude, attired in black stockings and arm-length gloves, in 1954, virtually at the launch of the magazine. “Let it be known,” he writes at the Franklin Bowles website, “I love Femlin! Femlin is an emancipated attention-getter, a quirky prankster, rambunctious, joyous, but vulnerable—an antidote against boredom and the humdrum.” The Femlin, whose Rubenesque albeit somehow dainty embonpoint can be seen regularly on the Playboy Party Jokes page, is one of the happiest visual conceptions of the century. I’ve bought several of the Playboy Party Jokes books just to get an inventory of Femlin images. Denis Kitchen, at one time, was trying to get Playboy to allow him to produce a Femlin figurine, even had a prototype, which I glimpsed in the back of the booth one time, lo these many years ago when the Chicago Con had not yet been enchanted—when it convened at the Ramada Inn instead of the Rosemont Convention Center. ... Bill Crouch, the Rancid Raves operative who told me about the Femlin show, also reports that the Westport Historical Society just opened “A Cartoon Legacy: Beetle Bailey - Hi and Lois - Hagar the Horrible, The Walker-Browne Family Collaboration,” an exhibition the title of which looks as if it was compounded expressly to slap opponents of “legacy strips” in the face. Or, perhaps, just to rub their noses in evidences of the kind of superior achievement collaboration can produce even over generations. The show will be on display until January 4, 2008. Visit westporthistory.org.
Comics in the Ether. Japan has blazed another trail into the future for comics—comic books on mobile phones. The first comic book to be released exclusively on cell phone in the U.S. is Thunder Road, “a post-apocalyptic adventure” by Sean Demory, drawn by Steven Sanders, and offered initially just a few weeks ago by uClick, the digital arm of Universal Press syndicate, through its GoComics service (where, online, you can find excerpted squibs and scraps of Rancid Raves, should you be so inclined). Reporting for the Associated Press, David Twiddy notes: “For $4.49 a month on Verizon—or $3.99 a month for AT&T and Sprint—subscribers can view nearly a dozen different traditional comic books.” Current offerings include Bone, Teenage Ninja Turtles, and such new arrivals as “the crime noirish Umbra and the Hindu-folklore inspired Devi,” with new chapters or issues for each title added weekly. GoComics displays one panel at a time, reformatted from the print version with larger typefaces in word balloons. Pushing the phone’s buttons advances the view from panel to successive panel, and the reader can also scroll across the larger images. “Mobile comics have been a cellular mainstay for years in manga-crazy Japan, where some titles already begin life on cell phones before going to print,” said Twiddy. Although just starting out in the U.S., Twiddy says uClick claims 55,000 subscribers a month “in the first year of offering its GoComics service.” TokyoPop, which supplies most of GoComics manga titles, is experimenting with animation and “other cinematic touches,” including tie-ins with “manga-themed games, ring tones, wallpaper and other content.” Wireless companies are still somewhat uncommitted, though: “small screens and short battery lives make online reading a chore.” But steadily advancing technology will doubtless erase such reservations.
Sanders admits the small screen presents challenges in devising the visuals, but the new medium also offers opportunities for the cartoonist to control how the reader peruses the story, one panel at a time without being able to skip ahead to the last panel, where the surprises lay in wait. “I think the future of comics itself lies in digital format,” Sanders said. He observes that with the disappearance of the 10-cent comic book of yore, comics are no longer a cheap form of entertainment. From this realization, Sanders draws a startling insight: Comic books priced at $3-4 aren’t likely to attract purchasers other than those who are already “heavily invested” in comics and used to reading them—and buying them at today’s prices. The economics of the funnybook biz seem poised to work against developing a future audience.
Elsewhere: Editor & Publisher’s 2007 Syndicate Directory is out, listing all the features currently distributed by syndicates. A tally of the comic strips on today’s horizon comes to 206; it was 214 last year. But the panel cartoons have gained a little—150 as opposed to 147 last year. At a time when various pundits are predicting the demise of newspaper comics, this nearly static status is encouraging. ... The Week magazine, which appeared as a fresh face among the weekly newsmags a couple years ago, earned my applause by using a painted cover that usually featured a caricature of the week’s big news-maker—a cover political cartoon, in full color. The magazine also devoted a page or two every issue to an array of the best editorial cartoons of the week, another plus. And the cartoons were usually fairly tough-minded—not the Jay Leno sort of editoon that Newsweek typically publishes. Lately, alas, the cartoons have become more laugh-inducing than thought-provoking. ... According to dutchnews.nl, the best read magazine in the Netherlands is the Donald Duck comic book. ... From Editor & Publisher, we learn that Tom Toles, the unflinching editoonist at the Washington Post, ranked 48th in GQ’s list of “The 50 Most Powerful People in D.C.” The Post’s executive editor Len Downie agreed with the magazine’s choice: “Whenever people from the newsroom get together, Tom is there—no matter if it’s a local subject, a national subject, an international subject. That’s not something you normally expect from an editorial cartoonist.” ... At the first International Cartoon Contest in Syria, 207 cartoonists representing 29 countries participated, with 13 Iranian cartoonists collecting the top prizes. The event honors Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali, saith presstv.ir, “the most famous political cartoonist in the Arab world,” who produced more than 40,000 drawings and created a cartoon character, Handala, “who has bcome an icon of Palestinian defiance.” Al-Ali was shot to death by “unknown persons” in London in 1987; the next year, the International Federation of Newspaper Publishers posthumously awarded him the Golden Pen of Freedom. ... Harlan Ellison’s suit against Fantagraphics Books for defamation was resolved some weeks ago, shrouded in legally imposed silence. But newly released court records reported by Mark Rahner at the Seattle Times reveal the gist of the agreement: “The two parties will stop messing with each other,” and Fantagraphics is removing the two passages in its history, Comics As Art, that provoked Ellison’s suit. Moreover, in future editions of The Comics Journal Library Vol. 6: The Writers, Ellison’s name will be expunged—as well as a 1980 interview with publisher Gary Groth that resulted in another suit being brought this time against both Groth and Ellison by Michael Fleisher, who alleged libel. Groth gets 30 days and 500 words on Ellison’s website (www.harlanellison.com) to rebut Ellison’s statements “that accuse Groth of embezzling funds in the Fleisher litigation and soliciting contributions to the Fantagraphics Legal Defense Fund under false pretenses” and other claims, most of which are doubtless further instances of the famous Ellison tendency to extravagance in verbal appearances. ... HarperCollins is planning graphic novel adaptations of the works of J.R.R. Tolkein, Agatha Christie and C.S. Lewis. ... The New Yorker has introduced a board game version of its back-page cartoon caption-writing contest; the game went on sale in Target stores in early August, and it had been on sale in Barnes & Noble and independent book stores earlier in the year.
Lynn Johnston’s “hybrid” version of her popular strip, For Better or For Worse, began September 3. As we’ve reported before, Johnston originally thought she’d just end the strip this fall. She’s sixty, she said, and she wanted deadline-free time to do other things that she’d always wanted to do. And she has a health issue: she suffers from dystonia, a neurological condition that makes her hands tremble. She controls it with medication, but it’s still there, lurking. And she’d run through the storyteller’s cycle, as she told Chris Mautner at the Patriot News: “A husband and wife who have children, the children grow up and now they have children. Michael has children who are the same age that he and Elizabeth were when the strip began.” It seemed a good time to dismount from the cycle. I suspect Johnston’s syndicate, Universal Press, wanted her to reconsider. Maybe not: Universal is extraordinarily accommodating of its cartoonists’ wishes. Whatever the case, Johnston had second thoughts about stopping, and then she had the hybrid notion: re-run FBOFW strips from its early years as if Michael is telling the family history to his children.
This was a happier solution, happier than stopping altogether, cold turkey. It would cut down on the time needed to produce the strip, freeing Johnston to do those other things she wanted to do; and the strip’s fans would still have the strip to read. (And many of the fans had never seen the early years of FBOFW because it hadn’t been in all that many papers when it started.) Moreover, the hybrid option assuaged the storyteller. Ultimately, she told Mautner, she couldn’t stop in September: “The characters sort of won’t let me.” There are loose ends, danging plot threads. The hybrid permits her to tie them all up, slowly, over the next few years as she mixes new material in with the re-running material. “I’m interested and readers are interested to know what is going to happen with Anthony and Elizabeth,” she said, referring to the divorced father whom Elizabeth dated when they were both in high school. “That resolution can’t happen too fast,” Johnston continued. “They’ve only just started to see each other again after a long time apart. Both have had other relationships and now he has a child and some baggage, and so does she. You just can’t wrap it up too quickly.” The hybrid permits the storyteller to do what she’s always done—to examine her characters, their personalities and motivations, why they do what they do. It was to answer those sorts of questions that she began telling stories: FBOFW started as a gag-a-day strip about a young family, but then Johnson began to wonder—why did Ellie do that? What will happen next because of what she did? The same kind of curiosity drives her now.
“A lot of people didn’t like Anthony,” she said. “But you see, Anthony has never really had an opportunity to be recognized and understood by everybody. He was just a shadow figure. And all the reader has seen is little bits and pieces. And so that’s another reason why the [run of] the strip has to be extended—so that Anthony’s character can be more fully explored. And his [failed] marriage discussed and his relationship as a single parent and his business sense and the things he likes to do. He’s just not a complete character, and it’s hard to accept that Elizabeth, who is a well-known character, should be lost to someone that nobody knows.” Before the current hybrid started, Johnston had Elizabeth explaining the failure of Anthony’s marriage to a friend. The process of understanding Anthony has begun. It will continue, weaving in and out of the story Michael is telling his children of his own childhood.
The Permanence of Infamy. The Palm was originally a speakeasy in New York. Located on Second Avenue just around the corner from the offices of King Features, the place became a hangout for cartoonists and newspapermen in the 1920s and 1930s, and the cartoonists, falling, occasionally, under the influence of the spirits of the place, decorated the walls with pictures of their comic strip characters. The Palm eventually became a legitimate restaurant and saloon and opened an overflow facility across the street, dubbed Palm Too. Inspired by the second bistro’s success, the founders opened yet another adjunct in Washington, D.C. Then in Dallas, Los Angeles, Denver—even San Diego. All have cartoon murals, but the vintage work is in the original joint in New York. The Washington Palm recently underwent renovation and moved its entrance to the side. It also moved the caricatures from the old entrance to the new one. Jeff Dufour and Patrick Gavin at the Washington Examiner wondered whether one of those caricatures would mysteriously “disappear.” Would Mark Foley’s mug, which has greeted guests at the old entrance, continue beaming on them in the new entrance? Or would the now disgraced congressional sex fiend be consigned to limbo? Probably, Foley will still be there. “What’s politics without a little scandal?” asked a Palm spokesman. “You can be famous, infamous, or forgotten—with few exceptions, once you’re on the wall, you’re on the wall.” Said Dufour-Gavin: “That also answers the question about former Rep. Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham’s visage on the restaurant’s back wall, as well. It’s here to stay.”
More Elsewhere. The indefatigable Craig Yoe at his arflovers.com site has uncovered yet another strange fragment of comics history—Ku Klux Klan Komics. Shocked and awed, Yoe notes that in the strip, Our Ku Klux Klan by cartooner Al Zere, the “Klan is kind of a cute, lovable Shmoo-like mob of aggressive masked do-gooders who you call upon, kind of like Superman, to right life’s little wrongs—getting rid of meddling mothers of girlfriends, putting snobby rich dudes in their place, etc.” The strip ran in the New York Evening Post in the early 1920s, demonstrating that the Klan had some sort of followership up north. In fact, Indiana was a hotbed of Klan activity in the 1920s. ... Asok, the weirdly brilliant character in Dilbert, is a native of the sub-continent India, named after an Indian colleague of Scott Adams, the strip’s creator. I have wondered, occasionally, where the name came from; now I know. Asok arrived in the strip in 1996 as a summer intern. Despite being “mentally superior to most people on earth,” Asok was laid off when his job was outsourced to India, so he joined the company to which his job was outsourced and now works by “Indian Standard Time.” He was earlier denied permission to be a regular employee, reports the Hindu in New Delhi, even though he performed the functions of a senior engineer and was told “as you gain experience, you’ll realize that all logical questions are considered insubordination.” ... Baldo, a comic strip about a teenage Latino and his family by Hector Cantu and drawn by Carlos Castellanos, will pay tribute to Latino WWII veterans with a sequence starting September 17, featuring Benny Ramirez, a fictional American Latino now in his eighties who lost a leg during the War. Saith E&P: “Ramirez will share his stories and discuss how he felt about serving in a military for a country that discriminated against him.” Said Cantu: “This is kind of our answer to the Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on World War II [airing September 23], which is 15 hours long and has less than 20 minutes on Latino veterans.” Burns added those minutes in response to an outcry from the Latino community when it learned there was no footage about Latinos. Researching for the sequence, Cantu worked closely with Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, an associate professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas-Austin, who began the U.S. Latino and Latina WWII Oral History Project in 1999. ... And here is a look at the Marvel superheroes’ stamps, released in July by the U.S. Postal Service, which, last year, issued a sheet featuring DC’s longjohn legions.
Reincarnation of Cartoonist PROfiles On the Way. From Editor & Publisher: A quarterly cartooning publication titled Stay Tooned! is scheduled to premiere in November. "I intend to combine the best parts of Cartoonist PROfiles— telling the stories of professional cartoonists—and The Aspiring Cartoonist—information and instruction for cartoonists," John Read, the periodical's founder, told E&P. "My plan includes marketing it to working cartoonists, aspiring cartoonists, fans of cartooning, and people who buy cartoons." The first and subsequent issues of Read's subscription magazine will also focus on non-newspaper cartooning and cartoonists— including animators, comic book artists, greeting card creators, children's book illustrators, etc.
He said the first issue will have a southern-cartoonists theme, and feature people such as Steve Kelley, editorial cartoonist for the Times-Picayune of New Orleans and Creators Syndicate; Marshall Ramsey, editorial cartoonist for the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., and Copley News Service; Scott Stantis, the editorial cartoonist for the Birmingham (Ala.) News and Copley who also does the Prickly City strip for Universal Press Syndicate; and John Rose, who does editorial cartoons out of the Harrisonburg (Va.) Daily News-Record as well as the Kids' Home Newspaper cartoon/activity page for Copley and the Barney Google and Snuffy Smith strip for King Features Syndicate. Also: comic creators Mark Pett (Lucky Cow/Universal), Marcus Hamilton (Dennis the Menace/King), Jimmy Johnson (Arlo and Janis/United Media), and Greg Cravens (The Buckets/United).
Read is long-time cartooning fan who worked as an assistant director and locations scout in the film- and TV-production industry for 20 years after graduating from the University of Southern Mississippi. He then became a graphic designer for a sign company in Jackson, Miss. Read has also done freelance cartoons and taught kids how to draw cartoons. His magazine's Web site is still under construction, but, in the meantime, Read can be reached at email@example.com.
A Short Zippy History. Zippy the Pinhead, Bill Griffith’s incomprehensibly hilarious comic strip star, was once almost a tv personality. By 1997, the time of an interview Bob Andelman conducted with the cartoonist for Mr. Media, Griffith and his wife, cartoonist Diane Noomin, had produced nine drafts of a live-action movie script over the previous 12 years, but nothing came of any of them. Then they wrote several scripts for a animated tv version of the surrealistic character, famed for saying, among other things, “Are we having fun yet?” The expression long ago passed into common parlance, much like R. Crumb’s “Keep on truckin’,” and, like Crumb, Griffith realizes not a dime for originating the by-word. “The only time it annoys me,” Giffith told Andelman, “is when it’s another cartoon character saying it.” Like Garfield or Dennis the Menace. “The worst of all was a Ziggy t-shirt,” Griffith added. “That rankled for a few minutes.”
Griffith created Zippy for an underground comix title in 1970 and had no expectation of getting into national syndication. The comic featuring Zippy, he thought, was “too hard-edged” for mainstream consumption. “What makes people like something is if they reinvent it themselves,” Griffith said, “—they make the character become who they think it should be. That’s why the blandest are usually the most successful. The most successful strips in America tend to be the ones that are the least challenging. Zippy is challenging. That’s not what most people what to do when they casually read through the comics. They just want to get through it.” And a classic criticism of Zippy is that you have to read it twice, sometimes even more, before you get it—and sometimes, you don’t get it even then because there’s nothing, exactly, to “get.” What can you make of another celebrated Zippy comment: “All life is a blur of Republicans and meat”? Admirable, awe-inspiring, apt. But what does it mean, exactly?
Zippy got into King Feature’s syndicated line-up almost by accident. Or maybe it was an insidious plot. When Will Hearst III took over the San Francisco Examiner, he wanted something offbeat for his readers, and in 1985, he signed up Hunter Thompson and Zippy, which, at the time, Griffith was self-syndicating to alternative newspapers. A year later, Hearst’s King Features wanted the strip. Griffith, taken aback and not quite sure he wanted the daily grind of a syndicated strip, responded with a list of non-negotiable demands—“things I would require in order to work for them,” Griffith told me when I interviewed him in 1992. “I had thought of the list as a way of not working for them: they would never agree to these things, I was certain. I said I had to keep my copyright; I had to keep the larger format— I actually draw the strip out of proportion: it’s taller than any other strip ... so that it has more headroom [for speech balloons]. ... You can’t censor it; you can’t edit it. You have to guarantee me a certain amount of money weekly because I’d be giving up my exclusive deal with the Examiner. I felt like I was taking hostages. A sort of power play. And this guy sat across from me [his name was Alan Priaulx] and said ‘Yes’ instantly to everything. About six months later, I found out a little more about why he was so agreeable. ... Six months after Zippy started running with King, this guy quit. Which kind of freaked me out a little: I thought maybe I was going to go with him. But everybody assured me that they liked Zippy and that it was doing fine.” Then Griffith got a letter from Priaulx; he was now in a completely different business, “and he said he just wanted to tell me what had happened, how Zippy had come to King Features. He said he’d wanted to leave the syndicate—he wasn’t happy; it wasn’t the right job for him—but he wanted to leave with a bang. And he said he felt that by hiring me and by adding Zippy to the King Features roster, he was leaving a ticking time bomb on their doorstep as he left. He just wanted to shake up King Features. He just wanted to give them the weirdest strip in America.” The bomb is still ticking; in 1997, the time of the Andelman interview, it was in about 200 newspapers—“185 papers more than I ever thought it would be in,” Griffith told Andelman.
COOKE QUITS SPIRIT
Darwyn Cooke, whose interpretation of Will Eisner’s Spirit has been hailed here and elsewhere for its excellence and faithfulness to the “spirit” of the original, will leave the title after No. 12. Cooke’s inker, J. Bone, is moving into other projects, and Cooke doesn’t want to handle the series without him. A new creative team had not, by early August, been named. Speaking of the Spirit led Cooke to comment in dailypop.wordpress.com on what he sees so far in Frank Miller’s work on the movie version of the iconic character: “I think it will be a really fantastic crime movie, and it’s probably going to be visually stunning, but I think his interpretation seems just a little one-sided to me. From what his interviews indicate, he seems to be concentrating on the sex and violence. I always thought the strip had so much more depth to it than that. Those were elements that helped drive many of the stories, but I don’t think they were what the strip was about. And I think at the end of the day, as nasty as the business was that the Spirit gets involved in, it’s a hopeful strip. It’s got optimism at its heart, and humanity. I don’t know that the movie is going to reflect that, but I think it’s probably going to be damn exciting.”
At the San Diego Comic-Con, Cooke had other discouraging words for the medium and its fans. “There is no room in the direct market for new ideas,” he remarked, echoing what others, Grant Morrison among them, have said. Presumably, the major publishers are playing with a deck of what they’re sure will produce winning hands—namely, all the tried-and-true long-john legions. They don’t want to risk anything on something new and different, untried— nothing that isn’t an obvious candidate for Hollywood treatment. And all those blockbuster movies aren’t doing the comic book medium any good, financially. Cooke thinks direct market comics “are on their way to extinction. ... It doesn’t matter how much money the Spider-man movies make if it doesn’t bring anyone in to buy the comics. This theory’s been floating for twenty years now that these movies will bring people back to comics. It doesn’t work that way. Ask any twelve-year-old kid on the street, he probably thinks Spider-man was created for the movie—or for the [Saturday morning tv] cartoon. He doesn’t know it’s a comic book.” And so he doesn’t go looking for the comic book.
Moreover, Cooke said, the monthly comic book itself is becoming “less and less important.” Every publisher is gearing monthly comic book production towards the subsequent compilations that are issued shortly after a given multi-issue story arc ends. The money these days is in graphic novels, and collections of monthly comic book story arcs pass for “graphic novels,” and so they sell, better than their initial publication in monthly format. In my view, one of the most vibrant developments in four-color fiction has been the limited mini-series in which writers and artists focus on a single story arc and the accompanying cast of characters. Storylines and characterizations are refined and focused, yielding books that are inevitably better than the monthly installments of a title that is designed, apparently, to plunge ahead forever, whether the creators have an idea for a decent story or not. One intriguing by-product of this imperative happened at Marvel in the early days of the Second Coming of Comic Books when Stan Lee, unable to think of suitable endings for the handful of stories he was simultaneously scripting in various titles for his artists, simply continued stories from issue to issue, hoping something would occur to him. Usually, something did, eventually, and one story arc would end and another would begin. Cooke sees the evaporation of the monthly series as fundamentally a good thing: “Ultimately, I think we’re going to see graphic novels, manga, superhero books, and everything else in album form [hardcover books in the graphic novel mode], and everything else in album form in bookstore chains, and they’ll have to fight it out with all the other product available, which is, I think, the way it should be.”
Cooke is looking at the graphic novel format for his next projects, he says—rumored to be a fairy tale for children and another that will have “sex, and violence and swearing” and “involves a lot of paranoia and craziness. I think it’ll be a fun read for the adults out there.”
Memoir of the Day: “I start things, but I never ...” —D. Stahl
Einstein believed, he said, “in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”
“I eat cold eels and think distant thoughts.” —Jack Johnson, explaining the attraction of black men to white women
MORE ON THE PERVERSE POWER OF THE CARTOON IMAGE
Part I: Muslims Again
We don’t wish to insult Islam any more than we’ve insulted Christianity or Judaism, but Muslims must eventually come to realize that their feverish protests about cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad are becoming cliche. Boring. And with boredom comes a rapid diminishing of the sort of attentiveness among the public that the protests are intended to provoke. The latest outbreak took place in Sweden in Oerebro, a town west of Stockholm, where the local paper, Nerikes Allehanda, published on August 18 or 19 (accounts differ) a drawing of a dog with the head of a bearded man in a turban. The drawing, which can probably be found somewhere on the Web, is quite sketchy—almost crude— so sketchily vague, in fact, that if the artist and the newspaper that published the drawing hadn’t identified the face as Muhammad’s, we couldn’t possibly know who it is intended to be. How they know is another facet of the puzzle: since visualizations of the Prophet are prohibited by Islam (lest they inspire idolatry), no one can possibly know what Muhammad looked like. No one, therefore, can “caricature” him. All of which, fascinating though it may be, is beside the point. The point is that Swedish Muslims took offense at this desecration of their religion’s holy founder, who is revered in Islam to an extent few other religious figures are in any other religion. About 200 Muslims staged a local protest, the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) condemned the “cartoon,” and ambassadors and other governmental dignitaries of Islamic countries soon chimed in, all equally outraged at this provocation. Arab News reported that OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu “strongly condemned the newspaper for publishing the blasphemous caricature and said that this was an irresponsible and despicable act with mala fide and provocative intentions in the name of freedom of expression.” While he called on the Swedish government “to take immediate punitive actions against the artist and the publishers of the newspaper,” he also called upon Muslims “to remain calm and to exercise restraint.” The Swedish prime minister, seeking to avoid the mistake the Danish prime minister had made last year by refusing to hold talks with Muslim ambassadors who had requested a meeting, invited representatives of Muslim countries to meet and discuss the issues. At the same time, he expressed regret that Muslims were offended but noted that politicians in Sweden cannot “pass judgment on the free press.”
Despite echoes of the Danish disturbance of last year, the drawing in Nerikes Allehanda was not, like those of the Danish dozen, a cartoon. It was, however, a picture of Muhammad, according to the man who drew it, Lars Vilks, who drew a series of pictures intended to spark discussion of the principles of free expression. Another drawing shows a giant hook-nosed pig, looming over hillside houses; its caption: “Modern Jew sow, swollen by capitalism, on her way to tear apart some peaceful villages.” Vilks hoped a discussion of freedom of speech would examine what limits, if any, should be imposed. Interviewed by the news agency TT, he said he had observed how Islam is treated with greater deference than other religions, and yet, Vilks continued, “Muslims are able to have a go at Jews in the roughest manner without any reaction because people are afraid to attack Muslims.” His drawings were intended for display in an art gallery, but after several galleries refused to display them, the issue was taken up by Nerikes Allehanda, which published one of the drawings, the Muhammad drawing, to show what prompted the reluctance among gallery managers.
In a later report in Arab News, OIC’s Ihsanoglu expressed concern that “this kind of irresponsible and provocative incitement in the name of defending freedom of expression was leading the international community toward more confrontation and division.” He said he hoped a legal mechanism could be developed to prevent the recurrence of such episodes. “Freedom of expression does not entail freedom to insult,” he said. “There has to be a way to stop this. There are certain values that every country abides by. There are red lines in all societies. We want them to know that we don’t mind their criticism of our religion, but our Prophet is off limits.” The exquisite irony in these sorts of dilemmas is that freedom is freedom: if limits of any sort are imposed upon it, it ceases to be freedom. While it is true that human rights is a value in Western societies and it is equally true, as Ekrem Dumanli maintained in Todays Zaman (Cf. turkishweekly.net), that “respecting human rights means respecting people’s identities and the sacred elements and sacraments that form those identities,” if a society that espouses freedom of expression begins to exempt certain subjects, whether religious or not, from examination or comment in deference to the wishes of those who might be insulted, the slide down the slippery slope has begun. If the Prophet is exempt, who’s next? Can’t say anything untoward about Jesus? And then maybe George Washington? Lincoln? Henry Ford? George W. Bush?
Many Muslims, according to Siraj Wahab in Arab News on September 13, believe that calls for dialogue between the Islamic world and the West are meaningless “in the face of such extreme provocation. They are a waste of time. Dialogue should not be two monologues in two different directions. It will not and does not lead to any better understanding; it does not lead to any change in positions.” Wahab added that the lesson Muslims learned from the Danish turmoil is simple: “Boycott their products, and then they get the message.” E-mails have started listing Swedish products to boycott. Some Muslims, however, believe they should simply stop responding to such provocations: “They are provoking us because they know we can be provoked,” said one.
Meanwhile, to complete the cliche, news.bbc.uk reports that the purported head of al-Qaeda in Iraq has offered a $100,000 reward for the murder of Vilks—$150,000 if the artist is “slaughtered like a lamb.”
Cliche but tragic. Aren’t you glad you live in a secular society?
At times like these, we will do well to remember something Doug Marlette said (slightly paraphrased here to make it universally applicable): “Editorial cartoons push the boundaries of free speech by the very qualities that endanger them. Because cartoons can’t say ‘on the other hand,’ because they strain reason and logic, and because they are hard to defend, they are the acid test of the first Amendment, and that is why they must be preserved. As long as cartoons exist, Americans can be assured that we still have the right and privilege to express controversial opinions and offend powerful interests.”
Part II: The Contagion Takes
To extend the cliche: the terrorists are winning. Two successive installments (August 26 and September 2) of Berkeley Breathed’s Sunday strip, Opus, were killed by cautious editors at about 25 of the 200 or so newspapers carrying the feature because they feared the strips might be offensive to Muslims. Or because of a mildly suggestive joke. Or both. In the dubious strips, Steve Dallas, Breathed’s caricature of shallow male chauvinism, confronts his blonde bimbo girlfriend’s equally shallow pursuit of fads. Lola Granola dons a hijab one week and announces that she’s rejecting “decadent Western crud,” which is okay by Steve because if she gives up the American Idol notions of gender equality, he thinks he’ll be the sexual beneficiary of her more submissive attitudes. The next week, Steve commands Lola to doff the burqa she’s donned in favor of a “smokin’ hot yellow polka-dot bikini” for their day at the beach. But when Lola returns, she’s covered head-to-toe in a “burqini,” and she makes a joke about Steve not “getting it,” alluding, on the one hand, to Steve’s inability to perceive the value of Muslim-inspired female modesty and, on the other—we may assume—to the likelihood that she’ll be denying him her sexual favors. The Washington Post, the flagship paper for the Washington Post Writers Group syndicate that distributes Opus, was one of the papers declining to publish the strips. Several commentators, Eugene Volokh at huffingtonpost.com among them, voiced alarm at the tendency they perceive in such “censorship.” Said Volokh: “It looks like certain media outlets are establishing or reinforcing a social norm that immunizes Islam and Muslims from a certain kind of commentary. And we as readers and writers should try to fight such a social norm, by criticizing those who are acting on it.” It’s fairly clear that it’s the Muslim content of the strips—or, indeed, any “Muslim-related humor”—that gave editors pause. The week before the first Lola strip, Opus ridiculed Jerry Falwell, and none of the client papers dropped the strip. Other religions clearly do not enjoy the immunity that Islam in U.S. newspapers enjoys. Newspapers have regularly published editorial cartoons poking fun at the inherent hypocrisies of the Catholic Church as revealed by the sexual depredations of its priests; and few complain about it. But editors are obviously intimidated by the violent reactions of radical Islamists. Since the object of terrorism is to strike fear into the hearts of the populace, we must conclude that the terrorists are winning. Even in a so-called secular society. Among newspaper editors anyhow.
On September 16, the butt of the joke (so to speak) in Opus was a fat lady. I’m waiting to see if that inspires protest from obese America. It apparently didn’t intimidate any newspaper editors.
Part III: The Contagion Spreads
The success of Islamic protest against cartoons that are alleged to be offensive has given encouragement to newspaper readers everywhere, each of whom—every one of the millions—can find something offensive to them in something the newspaper publishes. Most often, it seems, in an editorial cartoon. In Cleveland, a 12-year-old girl was accidentally killed when she was hit by a stray bullet from a gunfight in the street. The city’s mayor, reported the Associated Press, “devoted special attention to the case, attending a news conference at the crime scene and hugging the child’s mother, who is a friend of his daughter.” At the Plain Dealer, editoonist Jeff Darcy sought to point out that a mayor’s time and effort might be better spent: a mayor ought to be concerned about all of his city’s citizens—and all of the victims of street violence—whether they are friends of his daughter or not. Commendable though the mayor’s sentiment in this instance might be, it smacks, vaguely, of a narrow focus of concern, akin to cronyism. Darcy drew a cartoon of a little girl on the street wearing a shirt that reads: “Don’t shoot—I’m a friend of a friend of a friend of the mayor’s daughter.” The paper’s editor subsequently apologized to the dead girl’s parents who had complained that the cartoon was insensitive. Of course it was. Most cartoons, as Doug Marlette has so helpfully pointed out (above), are insensitive. Perhaps there is another way that Darcy could have made his point. In fact, there is certainly another way. But that way, perhaps, might have been offensive to someone else.
College campus newspapers are particularly vulnerable: their cartoonists are often not too expert, and their shots sometimes go astray as a result. At the University of Virginia’s student paper, the Cavalier Daily, cartoonist Grant Woolard wanted to heighten awareness on campus of the terrible famine in Ethiopia. He drew a cartoon that showed several nearly naked black men fighting each other with sticks, stools, boots, shoes and other artifacts. The cartoon was captioned: “Ethiopian Food Fight.” The night after the cartoon was published, 200 students held a sit-in to protest what they saw as a racist cartoon, demanding that Woolard, who is white, be fired. One letter to the paper’s editor the next day said: “I see two interpretations of the cartoon: 1) Any fight between cannibals is a food fight; 2) Ethiopians are so poor that they eat things like sticks, chairs, or boots and are in fact fighting with their food. Either way, the cartoon is not funny. More importantly, it is blatantly racist.” Woolard’s motive is commendable, but, as the letter-writer demonstrates, the cartoonist woefully underestimated the awareness of his readership. Or maybe he was dead right. The letter-writer, at least, wasn’t even vaguely aware of the famine in Ethiopia, and so, lacking that knowledge, he or she focused on the imagery—the fighting naked black men—and thought that, a visualization of jungle violence, was the cartoonist’s message.
Woolard, appalled at what his cartoon provoked, explained: “I was not trying to trivialize famine. When you have a food fight, you fight with food. This cartoon [was supposed to bring] you to the realization that there’s a famine.” There is no food, so if you’re going to have a food fight, you have to use something else. Sticks, furniture, shoes. “In general,” Woolard continued in his interview with the Washington Post, “people give very little thought to starving people in other countries. But I will admit that I really lacked the foresight in anticipating the reaction. I should have thought that they were going to think I was portraying Africans as savages.” Woolard’s editor, Herb Ladley, didn’t realize the implications of the cartoon either. “This one came in late at night,” he said, “and my initial reaction was, ‘This is offensive.’ But we print a lot of offensive things.” He cited an earlier Woolard cartoon that depicted the Virgin Mary and indicted that she had a sexually transmitted disease. He realized the Ethiopian cartoon was a mistake “the instant the public raised a question about it,” he said. A day or so later, Woolard was forced to resign, and he’s irked about it. Two of the paper’s editors approved the cartoon for publication, and both are still on the staff. “Editors should take equal blame,” Woolard told Barney Breen-Portnoy at the Daily Progress in Charlottesville: “This is not just about me. This is also about standing up for the First Amendment.” Certainly is.
Part IV: ... and On and On into Even Our Own Benighted Past
So sensitive have we become—hypersensitive—that we seek to deny history rather than to risk offending anyone. When Herge’s 1930-31 version of Tintin in the Congo was reprinted again in July, it inspired a good deal of hand-wringing about the patronizing colonial attitude it embodied, the stereotypical caricatures of Africans, and their portrayal as lazy and childlike. At the heart of the matter was the undeniable fact that the book is intended for young readers. Borders in Britain and the U.S. reacted to protests by moving the book from the children’s section to the adult section. One list commentator scoffed astutely enough about “this over-sensitive culture and the implicit insistence that children are more important than adults (whom, incidentally, are treated as children).” But when he insisted, quoting Stanley Kubrick, that “no work of art has ever done social harm though a great deal of social harm has been done by those who have sought to protect society against works of art which they regarded as dangerous,” he drew a scornful response from another lister, who, citing Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” averred that art most certainly does have an effect. Perhaps “no single [work] is going to singlehandedly transform society or move an individual to violence, but that does not mean that they have no effect.” Those who maintain that works of art are essentially harmless are saying, at the same time, that works of art have no effect, an assertion that flies in the face of Mein Kampf, for example, not to mention reams of anti-Semitic material, the virulence of which in schools in Palestine fuels the Arab-Israeli conflict. Still, it seems a little extreme in the case of Tintin in the Congo to ban the book, which is what a Congolese student studying in Brussels sought with a law suit; ditto a Swede of Congolese origin, who admitted, when his case was dismissed, that “the important thing was to draw attention to the racist character of this book which no longer has a place in 21st century society.” That, indeed, is the important thing: call a spade a spade, if you will—call racist material racist—and we’ll learn from it. Jonathan Zapiro, an outspoken and courageous South African political cartoonist and no stranger to censorship attempts (see Opus 208), commented: “Herge was ashamed in later years and had stipulated in his will that Tintin in the Congo not be published in English. But censorship is not a good thing. Do you censor Alan Paton’s patronizing early works, or Salman Rushdie? Publish with a disclaimer but don’t stop people publishing.”
Last summer, just before the Tintin story broke, a minor hubbub occurred on one of the comics lists I frequent when someone complained that Winsor McCay’s work reflected “a gratuitous racism.” In Nemo, the juvenile hero is accompanied on his dream adventures by a green-skinned Flip and a dark-skinned “Imp,” a refugee from McCay’s earlier work, Tales of the Jungle Imp, in which South Sea Islanders or Africans scamper about. Racist, yes, but McCay was no more racist than anyone else at his time. What we call racism today was the coin of the realm in McCay's day. The people who weren't what we'd call racists then were the exceptions, not the rule. Moreover, many cartoonists of that time were not so much racists as humorists: they thought anyone who looked "different" looked funny. So African Americans, the Irish, Jews—all looked "different" and hence looked funny. They drew them that way because they thought they'd get laughs. And they did.
We live still in a racist society, and it was racist then, only, perhaps, more so. McCay was simply channeling the prejudices of his time. When I say that cartoonists of that day were not so much racist as humorist, I don’t mean that they weren't racist; they were. But I think they were humorists first, racists second. That is, they were both. But as cartoonists, it was the "different appearance" of racially different persons that appeared to them to be "funny," and for that reason, we have a carload lot or more of cartoons of the late 19th and early 20th century that depict racial and ethnic stereotypes—African Americans, Irishmen, Jews, American Indians, etc. Cartoonists thought they looked funny; that's undoubtedly a racist attitude, and the humor agenda does not excuse it. But cartoonists were no more (and no less) racist than their social milieu.
Herge explicitly acknowledged the influence of his time and place upon his portrait of the Congo: “The fact was that I was fed on the prejudices of the bourgeois society in which I moved. ... It was 1930. I only knew things about these countries that people said at the time: ‘Africans were great big children ... Thank goodness for them that we were there!’ And I portrayed these Africans according to such criteria, in the purely paternalistic spirit which existed then in Belgium.”
Cartoonists almost always channel the prejudices of their time. How else would they appeal to a general readership? It is a mistake to judge other times and places by the standards of our own supposedly enlightened time. Well, that's not quite the case: we can judge them, of course, and we can find them reprehensible, but we can scarcely condemn other people in other times and places for holding opinions typical of their time and place. Such opinions constitute "a problem"? Well, yes; but what of it? Was Christian persecution of the Jews in the Middle Ages a problem? Was Roman persecution of Christians a problem? Problems imply the need for a solution, and I daresay that whatever solution we offer today for the "problems" of the Middle Ages or the Roman Empire is meaningless. We can't fix things back then; they've happened. We can, presumably, fix our own derelictions, but we aren't likely to if we go around patting ourselves on the back for our superior liberal enlightenments (compared to the benighted McCay, say)—particularly since we are not superior or liberal or enlightened all that much.
To expect McCay and/or Herge to reflect our ideas of racial equality is expecting a good deal too much; both were creatures of their times, as most cartoonists, if successful, must be. A successful cartoonist appealing to a mass audience had to reflect that audience’s attitudes or fail. I suspect it is ordinary Political Correctitude that inspires today’s righteous criticism of McCay and Herge, not radical Islamic doctrine, but the effect in either case is to muzzle free speech. And in the cases of McCay and Herge, we also suppress our own past. Denying the unpleasant aspects of our past doesn’t make them go away. Nor does it help us get through our present predicaments. He who knows only his own generation remains always a child—and risks repeating the mistakes of those who’ve blundered along before. Ostriches notwithstanding, hiding offensive images does not deny them existence. Keeping something out of sight permits the whatever is hidden to fester and thrive in secret. It is better to know it and to label it in order to avoid repeating it. So publish McCay and Herge and accompany the racist images in their works with annotations that explain how unjust and irrational those degrading stereotypes are.
Fascinating Footnote. Much of the news retailed in the foregoing 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
The last word on attendance at this year’s comics extravaganza was more of a whimper than a bang. The Comic-Con International at San Diego has grown steadily for 37 of its 38 years, attendance spiraling into the stratosphere, year by year. But not this year. Despite recording three “sold out” days this year (only one, for the first time ever, last year), attendance seems to have leveled off at around 125,000, just about where it stood last year. I’d been guessing 140,000-160,000 for this year, assuming, with history as a guide, that attendance would increase by the usual leap-frogging increments of the past. But this year, the show’s management imposed artificial “caps” on attendance each day. “Once those caps were met, we basically shut down,” said David Glanzer, Sandy Eggo’s pr guru, in an interview with Tom Spurgeon at comicsreporter.com. Safety and crowd comfort were the guiding principles. Glanzer estimated that around 50,000 people were milling around on-site each day, and with that, the show has reached its limit at the massive San Diego Convention Center, so it’s not likely to grow any for the next five years, through 2012, the last year it’s booked in the facility. So far. I don’t know whether management will seek another venue or not; not many facilities in that part of the country are larger than the San Diego Center. Otherwise, rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, Sandy Eggo is not likely to try to get around its space limitation by adding a day to the show: that’s too expensive—for everyone, exhibitors and attendees and the show itself. But, Glanzer said, they’re considering other strategies, such as adding off-site programming. Another rumor Glanzer shot down: Artists Alley was not smaller this year than last. Although it was smaller in the planning stages, at the last minute, said Glanzer, “We were able to move the Art Auction upstairs to the Sails Pavilion so we didn’t lose any tables. ... In fact, I believe we increased space by about 25 tables over 2006.”
Glanzer also attempted to unhorse persistent complaints that “we’ve left our roots” in comics for the allure of Hollywood. He was less persuasive here. Yes, from the beginning, as he said, the Con has included science fiction and movies. Shel Dorf, who inspired a knot of teenagers to found the Con in 1969, came West from Detroit, where, in July 1965, he’d been among the founders of the Detroit Triple Fan Fair, a two-day meeting for fans of fantasy literature, movies, and comics. But over the years, one leg of this three-legged stool upon which the Con rests has grown more than the others, creating a wholly lopsided contraption, Hollywood’s big budgets crowding out all other considerations. Spurgeon said he’d talked to several “medium-sized” exhibitors of comics who said they were seriously considering not returning next year. Floor space devoted to comics in the cavernous exhibit hall has remained about the same year after year, but the acreage devoted to movies, tv, games, and toys has steadily increased, and for the last several years, comics have been dwarfed by these other aspects of the show.
When Dorf was still active in the management of the Con, newspaper cartoonists were always a highly visible presence at the Con. Not any longer. For most of the past several years, only one newspaper cartoonist got Guest billing. This year, Morrie Turner of the celebrated inter-racial strip Wee Pals and political cartoonist Daryl Cagle served their turns. And the iconoclastic Aaron McGruder had a session on the program, as did several cartoonists representing the National Cartoonists Society. But newspaper cartooning usually gets short shrift at Sandy Eggo. I admit that I felt not a little miffed this year by the lack of attention accorded Milton Caniff (chiefly, I confess, as it affected his official biographer). Caniff was one of the Con’s “themes”: the 100th anniversary of his birth was ostensibly being celebrated. It seemed an appropriate gesture: Caniff’s influence on cartooning was immense. As Caniff’s biographer, I offered to do a session on the art of storytelling in comics as he had refined and improved it, relying upon my just published “definitive biography” (Caniff’s term) of Caniff. Of course, I was flogging the book—just as Hollywood producers flog their movies and everyone else on the program at the Con is selling their product. That’s what program events do at the Comic-Con. But my offer to do a session was declined. I was on the program once with a panel about the current enthusiasm for reprinting vintage comic strips (Dick Tracy, Pogo, Peanuts, Dennis the Menace, Gasoline Alley, even Terry and the Pirates) and a second time for a session about the “Steve Canyon” tv show of the late 1950s, where the producers of a DVD collecting all the shows flogged their product. Neither of this events spoke to Caniff’s cartooning genius, the only reason for celebrating him at a comics convention. Nothing on Terry, Caniff’s pace-setting masterpiece.
I was miffed, as I say, until I noticed that there wasn’t a single session on Herge, the creator of Tintin, who was also a “theme” of the Con (the 100th anniversary of Herge’s birth, too). But there were six sessions on “Star Wars” (Friday was “Star Wars Day”). Single sessions commemorated other “themes”—Robert Heinlein, Grendel, Groo (his 25th), the Rocketeer (ditto), and for the 25th of Love and Rockets, two sessions, one for each of the Bros Hernandez. Roy Thomas, a pace-setter in comics and an enduring presence, was featured at two sessions. (I was delighted to learn, in a subsequent conversation with Roy, that my suspicions about the Spider-Man newspaper strip were correct: Stan Lee doesn’t write it. Roy Thomas does. Or, as he puts it, he “helps” Stan Lee. He assured me that Lee approves in detail everything he, Roy, does with the strip and sometimes makes adjustments or changes.) Surprisingly, given its emergence in recent years, there wasn’t much on the graphic novel; nor was there a depressing amount of programming given to manga. Lots on toys. Specialties I never imagined: the Ball-jointed Doll Collectors had a meeting. And porn star Jenna Jameson was in attendance.
She was there to promote her comic book. Here’s Scott Huver’s take at nypost.com: “Showing up at the San Diego Comic-Con in a cleavage-friendly and belly-baring ensemble that threatened to cause heart failure among hefty comic book guys whose primary idea of a sexy night in bed is reading a yellowed copy of Josie and the Pussycats, the world’s most famous porn star unveiled her latest entrepreneurial effort, the comic book Shadow Hunter, a five-issue mini-series due in 2008 that casts her as a sultry, supernatural enchantress who uses a wicked sword—and possibly the occasional Reverse Cowgirl—to battle the forces of evil. Published by Richard Branson and Gotham Chopra’s celebrity-centric Virgin Comics line (insert obligatory ‘Jenna Jameson’ and ‘virgin’ joke here, and then insert second joke about the use of the word ‘insert’), Shadow Hunter is a dream project for Jameson, who loves the idea of mixing demonic duels and double-Ds.” The book’s creative team has not been named yet, but Jenna is enthused about the book, which, she said, won’t shy away from her hardcore history.
To hear her tell it, Jameson has always been aware of a “crossover” appeal linking comic book readers and porn movie fans. Said she: “It’s all a matter of the fact that as human beings we love fantasy ... whether it’s fighting legions of zombies or being sexual, it’s the same sort of thing.” Well, not quite. She might have referred to those “hefty comic book guys” reading Josie and the Pussycats for sexual excitement, but, no—she’s trying to move into the mainstream. She doesn’t do movies anymore; instead, she’s capitalizing on her celebrity as many other celebrities, from Martha Stewart to Cindy Crawford, do, launching a series of products in her name—a fragrance, a clothing line (called “Hello Jenna”), and a lingerie company. She’s also in pre-production for a movie based upon her book, How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, which will be called “Heartbreaker” and may star Scarlett Johansson as Jenna. Negotiations are still in progress. Jenna’s big on “sensitivity” these days and likes Johansson for the part because she can “bring some depth and she’s kind of dark.”
Jenna wants the movie to be an authentic treatment of the porn movie business, not a “complete fabrication” like “Boogie Nights.” Jenna’s movie, she says, will be “one hundred percent reality”—even explicit. “It has to be. Not because we want to draw male fans [but] because I want to tell the true story.” The true story, according to Jenna, is that “I turned something that was an industry that was completely unaccepted by America into something that is widely accepted now. And I think that writing my books changed things for a lot of women to accept their sexuality and be more powerful in a way.” Apparently, she doesn’t think that the Internet with its proclivity for delivering porn in the privacy of one’s home had anything to do with the current boom in porn. Moreover, “because even though I’m a porn star, I think that ... I’ve been so successful because people can relate to me and then can see themselves dating me or being my friend.” She is, indeed, a fantasist. She expects to star in whatever movie results from the comic book Shadow Hunter, and she’s looking forward to the chance to show off her athletic talent: “I’m so athletic,” she said. “I can’t wait to do the whole—I’m a gymnast, so I can kind of show off all my talents, finally.” All her talents. Show them off.
Yes, movies and Hollywood and popular culture generally have been a traditional part of the Comic-Con mix, but not to the virtual exclusion of comics and cartoonists, which, alas, is the quo of the present status.
Son of Pithy Pronouncements
“My life is a performance for which I was nver given any chance to rehearse.” —Ashleigh Brilliant in Pot-Shots
“One of the very nicest things about life is the wayk we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.” —Luciano Pavarotti
“About the only thing that comes to us without effort is old age.” —Chef Gloria Pitzer
Afflicting the Comfortable and Comforting the Afflicted
Heads continue to roll out of the nation’s newspaper editorial offices. Craig Terry, who for 18 years was the editorial cartoonist and graphics editor at the Northwest Florida Daily News, was relieved of his position on August 24. It was a cost-cutting maneuver, and it involved several other staffers, mostly from advertising. Adding insult to injury, Terry and the others were given no notice in advance but, when told of the decision, were immediately escorted from the building like so many criminals. A perp walk for an editooner. Terry had to get his former assistant to retrieve from his computer his freelance contacts and family photos, music, and other personal data. ... On the other coast, Mike Shelton was fired last October at the Orange County Register after 24 years; he continued doing cartoons for distribution by his syndicate, King Features, until recently, when he stopped editooning altogether to concentrate on Internet animations. ... The San Antonio Express, which was one of the few papers in the country with two editorial cartoonists, one liberal and the other conservative, fired Leo Garza, the conservative, in August; John Branch stays on. While budgetary considerations may have been a cause, the newspaper’s management offered no reason for choosing to fire the conservative. Matthew Sheffield at newsbusters.org wrote the paper, asking for an explanation, and received a bland, fact-devoid response, blathering about “the numbers” and asserting that it was “a judgment call.” (“Judgment calls,” by the way, used to refer to a decision reached in an emergency situation where the decider had no time to deliberate; now, at the San Antonio Express and everywhere else, it means, simply, “it is our opinion.”) Sheffield was outraged and wrote back: “A ‘judgment call?’ ‘About the numbers’? What does that mean? You provide no specifics which gives you no credibility. Don’t you find it the least bit hypocritical that you are refusing to disclose your decision-making process when you routinely publish editorials demanding that government and other businesses do just that? How are you doing anything but using the ‘unfettered power’ (your phrase for the Bush White House) you have over your editorial page without having the respect for the public opinion to explain yourself. You owe it to the public to explain your actions with more than peremptory phrases and dismissive language, especially as a member of our self-appointed ‘fourth estate.’” What, indeed, about the “public’s right to know,” which is so often invoked to support a journalist’s mission? No response from the Express yet.
Finally, to commemorate Fred Thompson’s entry into the Presidential Stakes, here’s Holbert at the Boston Herald, picturing the “Law and Order” D.A. making his announcement on tv, saying: “I’m running for President ... well, to be honest, I’m walking briskly for President. Some might even say ‘sauntering’ for President. A pleasant stroll ... meandering ...”
THE FROTH ESTATE
The Alleged News Institution
Just when we thought the practice of journalism could get no more trivial, Rupert Murdoch, notable right-winger and the last of the press barons, successfully bullied his way into sacrosanct precincts of the Wall Street Journal by throwing his money around and buying the paper. This aroused consternation in the Froth Estate, most of whom still, despite the tabloid myopia of their own journalistic efforts, respect what they perceive as the superlative reportage going on at the WSJ. While it’s true that the Journal was, and may still be for all I know, a model of thorough-going objective journalism, some commentators saw little to wring hands over: the Journal, they averred, had long ago abandoned journalistic excellence in favor of improving its bottom line. And Michael Wolff in Vanity Fair even found something to be happy about in the Murdoch acquisition. Say what you will about Murdoch’s penchant for sensational news and topless bimbos on page three of his papers—not to mention his desecration of the London Times (which, he assured the newspapering fraternity when he bought it, he would not corrupt—then proceeded directly to corruption)—Murdoch, Wolff said, “is the only media conglomerator who has any interest whatsoever in print.” Moreover, “the unique thing about Murdoch as a newspaperman is that he is, truly, the only one of his kind to understand that, to survive, he had to get beyond newspapers—way beyond.” And so he has done exactly that. But, said Eric Alterman in The Nation: “Examine any Murdoch newspaper—or book publishing or network news operation for that matter—and you will find any number of clear, inarguable abrogations of journalistic principles in the service of the immediate interests of Murdoch’s corporate empire. ... Whatever actual news the media properties report is almost beside the point. When news values and business interests clash, business wins. ... Business always wins.” And sometimes in the interest of his businesses, his news vehicles support even left-leaning politicians. “It’s not that Murdoch is open-minded,” Alterman says, “—it’s that he’s single-minded.” Given Murdoch’s complete disregard for ethics of any sort, journalistic or whatever, I worry about how he will bend the WSJ to work his will in China, where he has extensive interests. Or, rather, how he will subvert the legendary WSJ objectivity in order to improve his investment posture in China. That, I’m sure, is his objective in buying the paper.
LAND OF MY YOUTH
Denver, land of my youth and now the precinct of my dotage, was, until not too long ago, one of the last two-fisted two-newspaper towns in America. The so-called cross-town rivalry (the papers’ offices were actually just a few blocks apart downtown) took shape as a sometimes frenzied contest for circulation, the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post each striving mightily to drive the other out of business. This robust symptom of journalistic enterprise disappeared a few years ago with the inauguration of a Joint Operating Agreement that now joins the two papers at the hip. In theory, they are still rivals, still scrapping for each other’s readership. That, after all, is the objective of the legislation that created JOAs—to preserve newspaper competition, and hence the quest for Truth, in cities where more than one newspaper have survived the modern age. JOAs re-arrange two newspaper operations to reduce the expense so that both newspapers can persist. The papers use the same presses and printers, hence cutting production cost, and they share in advertising revenues according to some fantastic and ingenious formula, but they maintain separate and independent editorial and newsroom staffs, thereby preserving the illusion that a competitive edge still exists. In Denver, the Post and the News (which calls itself “Rocky”) even occupy, now, the same building, a brand new edifice in downtown Denver, overlooking the historic City Center Park.
Despite the good, even commendable, intentions that inspired JOAs, few successful ones remain. Without researching the matter at all, I know of only three—in Denver, in Seattle, and in Detroit. The editorial cartoonists I know in these cities usually shrug and grimace when I ask them how their JOA is doing. In Seattle, at last report, one of the partners to arrangement is suing to escape it, alleging that the other partner is the greater financial beneficiary. Or some such.
Back in the 1940s and 1950s when I was growing up in the city, the News was a morning paper; the Post, an evening paper. Now they both appear in the morning. The chief manifestations of the JOA are that the classified sections of the two papers are identical and the weekend editions of the papers appear as a single publication. On Saturday, the front page is flagged Rocky Mountain News, with Denver Post in smaller type; on Sunday, the reverse. Whatever the grievances harbored by staff members of the two papers, comic strip readers can have no complaints: both the Saturday and the Sunday editions publish nearly all of both newspaper’s comic strips. On Saturday, the combined line-ups consume four consecutive broadsheet pages, a veritable orgy of comics. The Sunday funnies are not quite as glorious: the strips are jammed onto the pages, as many as 6-7 to a page and only eight pages in all, four for each paper’s comics content. As is usual with a paper’s Sunday edition, some of the daily strips are not carried on Sunday. The News doesn’t publish the Sunday Over the Hedge, for instance, or Drabble or Candorville; the Post leaves out Agnes, Dog Eat Doug, and the Elderberries. The News runs some strips on Sunday that don’t appear on weekdays: Piranha Club, Frank and Ernest, and Opus (which is a Sunday-only strip).
My family subscribed to the Post, probably laboring under the assumption that a broadsheet paper was a more serious news vehicle than a screaming tabloid like the News. The Post’s comics roster in those days included several stellar strips—Terry and the Pirates and then, in addition, Steve Canyon, plus Gordo, Red Ryder, Mutt and Jeff, Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, Brenda Starr, The Gumps, to name a few—but I always lusted after the News’ line-up: Pogo, Peanuts (which, when it started in the fall of 1950, was in the Post; I’d like to know why they let it go), Li’l Abner, Captain Easy, Alley Oop, and on Sundays, Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan and Russell Patterson’s Mamie. Today, too, the News seems to carry better strips—and more. Its roster totals 41 strips compared to the Post’s 29. The News’ strips include 9 of the 18 most widely circulated strips (those in 1,000 or more newspapers); the Post publishes only 5 of the top 18. But the Post gives better display to its daily strips—24 strips and 5 panel cartoons on one-and-a-quarter broadsheet pages; the News, while filling four tabloid pages, runs some of its 29 strips and 11 panels at a minuscule dimension and sometimes distorts the art in strips with the infamous “shrink” lens to get strips squeezed into the available slots. Oddly, in seeming violation of the territorial exclusivity clauses in syndicate contracts, both papers carry Dilbert. The Post runs the current manifestation; the News, “classic Dilbert,” re-runs, under the heading The Dilbert Zone. Explained Mary Ann Grimes of Dilbert’s United Media Syndicate: “Dilbert is too popular to be left out of any newspaper when we can accommodate both papers, which we could in this situation.” With very little of that kind of prompting, we can imagine similar situations with “classic” reruns in newspapers all around the nation where the current versions appear in a rival paper, thereby eviscerating the old exclusivity clauses. But this circumstance is mostly wholly imaginary: as I said before, almost no cities in this country support more than one daily newspaper, so “territorial exclusivity” is defacto nonexistent wherever comics are published.
Another strange escape from the logic of competition took place in September in the Post, where Stephan Pastis’ Pearls before Swine appears. For about a week, Pastis committed one of his cross-over sequences in which he ridicules Bil Keane’s Family Circus. This sort of internecine tomfoolery is amusing to the cartoonists and those of their readers who are attuned to the game, but it seems mostly an instance of the poverty of Pastis’ comedic imagination since he is relying on another cartoon for his jokes. And in cities where the only newspaper in town runs Pearls but not Circus, the in-group joke may well be entirely lost on those readers who don’t know what Family Circus is. How would they know if the only paper in town doesn’t run it? In Denver, however, there’s no danger of that: Family Circus runs in the other half of the JOA, the Rocky Mountain News. So we have the unlikely situation of a comic strip in one newspaper giving publicity to a strip in the competition. Odd but not without precedent in Denver. Al Capp regularly spoofed Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy with Fearless Fosdick in his Li’l Abner, and Dick Tracy ran in the Post while Li’l Abner ran in the News. Gould didn’t object to the ribbing: he always said he was grateful for the free publicity Capp was giving him. Maybe Bil Keane feels the same way about Pastis’ effort; dunno. During this sequence, Keane appears in Pearls, a passable caricature by Pastis, which proves, despite the usual artwork in his strip, that he can draw: he simply refuses to do so on a regular basis as a way of thumbing his nose at his colleagues. Pastis’ stick-figure Rat and Pig seem to be saying to other cartoonists: “See? Pastis can assemble a more-than respectable list of subscribing newspapers without doing any drawing at all, and you spend hours slaving over your drawingboards in the mistaken belief that the quality of artwork makes a difference to newspaper editors. Ha! Fat chance. And here’s the proof.”
In the political arena, the News runs Doonesbury and Candorville, countering both with Prickly City, a strip of conservative bent by editoonist Scott Stantis, who, despite his bedrock right-wingery, gives us a pair of protagonists, a little girl and a coyote, who represent conservative and liberal points of view, respectively. The News also publishes Zippy, whatever politics you can discern in that. In the Post, we find no obvious political points of view in the comics section, but on the editorial page, where it doubtless balances an otherwise prevailing liberal caste, we find Mallard Fillmore, Bruce Tinsley’s liberal-bashing screed masking as a comic strip. In August, a spate of letters to the editor in the Post lambasted the paper for publishing such a “one-note” unbalanced comic strip, inspiring a more rational response from other readers, who wondered “since when did political satire require ‘balance.’” A more accurate criticism of Fillmore is that name-calling isn’t inherently humorous—or satirical. Tinsley’s venom often overwhelms his comedic sense. Doonesbury, in sharp contrast, is a character-driven strip, the satire of which is embedded in the personalities of the cast, some of whom—Zonker, most conspicuously—seem to have no political axe to grind at all. Tinsley’s duck, on the other hand, is simply a satirical quack, a genuine faker.
The News also has one of the last—maybe THE last—full-time sports cartoonists, Drew Litton, who treats sports like an political cartoonist treats politics, eschewing the time-honored mannerisms of the great Willard Mullin and those he inspired, all of whom drew portraits of athletes surrounded by smaller antic figures which Mullin dubbed “goomies” that illustrated what was essentially reportage on a sporting event. (Click here to visit our appreciation of Mullin in Harv’s Hindsight.) In contrast, Litton lays into jocks and teams and their managers for whatever foolishnesses they commit. The News recently celebrated Litton’s 25th year at the paper, publishing a four-page supplement that contained what readers had nominated as their favorite Litton ’toons. In his blog, Litton wrote: “25 years. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long. It seems like only yesterday when I sat in the press box at Mile High Stadium for the very first time. ... I’ve been able to live out my dream in this incredible city and state. I’ve been able to draw about Super Bowl wins (let’s not talk about the losses), a couple of Stanley Cup championships, and the birth of Denver’s first major league baseball team. ...”
On the editorial pages, both the News and the Post achieve distinction with their own full-time staff political cartoonists at a time when many daily newspapers have no staff editoonist at all. At the Post, Mike Keefe wields a rapier-edged line. Here are a couple examples of his work. One of them, captioned “Double Take,” reprints a 1980 cartoon on immigration that is still relevant in today’s milieu, proving, as the caption implies, that we have made little progress on the matter in the last 27 years. Last spring, Keefe won the 25th annual Fischetti Editorial Cartoon Competition, to which 71 other editooners had submitted over 200 cartoons. At the News, Ed Stein holds forth, drawing not only an editorial cartoon but a comic strip, Denver Square, which, published only in Denver, focuses on local issues or a local slant on national issues. (Qwest, alluded to in one of the strip’s, is the telephone company hereabouts.)Contemplating all these cartooning riches as well as the majesty of the front range of the Rockies, I’m glad to be back. For me, it’s home. It’s also the home state for “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Lyons, Colorado, just up the road from Denver, is the blue grass Mecca of the West.
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
Paris Hilton, whose vacuous visage is the very personification of “celebrity”—the meaninglessness of being famous for being famous—is the tabloid media’s love child, no doubt about it. By way of demonstrating just how rich a vein of newsiness the heiress represents, here’s Cindy Adams’ story in the New York Post (August 20), so tantalizing an array of puns and wordplay that I can’t ruin it by excerpting; here’s the whole uncontaminated piece:
PARIS HILTON MAY BE A CARTOON (FOR REAL)
Let’s don't anybody say Paris Hilton is a flash in the pen. Let's don't even mutter about this Feline Felon flaming out. The child is only beginning. Stan Lee, who brought you Spider-Man, who brought us X-Men, who brought mankind The Incredible Hulk, who brought himself millions, who is now bringing "Superhero" to the Sci-Fi Network at 9 p.m. on Thursdays, is poised to bring us Miss Paris Hilton Herself.
"I have a first-look deal with Disney," Stan told me. "That means I don't know who'll be behind this until I at least show them the finished product and see how they feel. But the plan is to make an animated cartoon show with her on TV. A hip comedy in the superhero comedy- adventure genre. We get on very well. This is a charming, very likable person. Sophisticated. Great comedic sense. A fine voice. And seriously hard-working. Totally unlike whatever the public is led to believe. And she has input. She attends every meeting. What we plan to do is truly tasteful. I'm doing a few of these kinds of shows. I'm working with Ringo Starr for a similar idea. I've told him I'll make him famous."
Stan Lee had the good sense to wait for the laugh. Then: "And I'm planning another with Hugh Hefner. Actually, he's not a sybarite. In my hands, he'll come off as America's greatest secret agent."
The laugh might have been shorter, but Stan Lee's credit line has definitely grown longer.
Anyway, "Who Wants To Be a Superhero" did six episodes last season. It has a Go for eight this season. And that's even before Paris starts burning.
RCH again: That’s the story. Too good to be true, eh? The Arizona Republic adds that in the “Party Girl’s origin,” she’s “bitten by a radioactive club monkey.” Surely that’s fiction.
FOOTNIT TO HISTORY
Retired editooner Jim Ivey, reflecting on his adventure in 1959, comparing European and American political cartooning—to the detriment of the latter—adds a footnote or more to my report (Opus 208). He has always squirmed in discomfort at the title Newsweek gave its September 14, 1959 article, “A One-Man Crusade.” He didn’t see himself as a crusader at the time or his report as any kind of a campaign. Said Jim: “Actually, after the Newsweek piece and Editor & Publisher’s 8-page condensed version of my report, I didn’t write continuously (‘crusading’) on the subject.” He wrote only two articles, he told me, both at the invitation of Freedom & Union: one discussed European cartoonists “as seen by Jim Ivey”; the other compared American and European cartoonists, “a generalized over-all view of the two groups, how they worked, and so on. And except for the San Francisco Examiner [his employer] sending me to interview visiting cartoonists, that was it! In fact, I groaned when the subject came up after 1962—enough already!” he concluded, adding: “It’s all ancient history now!” In Jim’s view, he was simply making a report, not picketing the profession. But his report, especially when seen in the warm glow of hindsight, was perceptive and accurate, and over the years, the profession has, in effect, reformed itself pretty much along the lines his report suggested.
Jim, uncomfortable with my having unearthed the “ancient history,” finally wrote “to attempt a summation of my European Fellowship controversy, for once and for all.” To wit: “Criticism of U.S. editorial cartooning was widespread in the late 1950s. The little one saw of European cartooning was so fresh, exciting and modern. My concept was to visit those cartoonists and see what was there, their opinions and their working philosophies and methods. My [resulting] report was run in Newsweek’s ‘Press Section’ (as ‘One-Man Crusade’—a phrase I dislike; I consider ‘reporting’ as accurate). Newsweek backgrounded me for three hours in New York City before I left the U.S. Editor & Publisher ran an 8-page condensed version of my report. The president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists [AAEC], Charles Werner, naturally felt obliged to defend U.S. editorial cartoonists with letters [to editors]. So I feel, since everything I mentioned is now part of today’s U.S. editorial cartooning, that I deserve at least a modicum of credit for that change for the better.” Right. But Jim goes on: “One aspect that I’ve avoided mentioning is that after the controversial Fellowship report, I was on-the-spot and had to deliver. The miracle is that, overall, I seemed to have passed the test.” Right again.
COMIC STRIP WATCH
Ever notice that there are no backgrounds in the daily Zits? Well, occasionally a sofa crops up or a doorway, but usually, no background details. Just white space against which Jim Borgman’s expertly drawn characters cavort. He manipulates the medium masterfully, and he draws with great and admirable skill. But not many backgrounds. Okay by me. Just sayin’. ... For Better or For Worse, on the other hand, was, in recent years, positively cluttered with background details. And speech balloons. And tiny tiny figures without room to cavort any. So eager was Lynn Johnston to get the elements of her stories into place that she often had recourse to strips five and six panels across, each panel crammed with verbiage and visuals. Too hard to read for these ancient orbs. But the hybrid FBOFW that began running on September 3 has only three or four panels, each open and uncluttered, easy to look at and read.
Here’s a rarity: a three-quarters view of Snoopy’s doghouse. I suppose it’s happened more than once, but I’d not seen it before. ... And Mark Tatulli, without the usual professional courtesy of footnoting his strip with “apologies” to Charles Schulz, appropriated the Peanuts characters and the classic Lucy deception for a gag in the pantomimic Lio. Lio, now in about 275 papers it sez here, is Tatulli’s second strip; his first, Heart of the City, is about a “normal” kid, not a preternatural one. ... Beetle Bailey passed its 57th birthday in September, which creator Mort Walker and his son Greg celebrated with a mere footnit in the September 4 release—that and a funny picture of Sarge greeting a cake. Whatever else cartooning may be, Walker insists, it’s still also about making funny pictures. ... And it’s sometimes self-referential, as it was in Kevin Fagan’s Drabble on September 5, where the human sapiens are typically rendered somewhat more than funny—and somewhat less; they’re grotesque, is what they are. ... With the 2008 Presidential Campaign now well underway, it’s not surprising to find politics infecting the funnies in more places than Doonesbury and Mallard Fillmore—unaccustomed places, that is, like Zippy for September 6, in which Griffy, creator Bill Griffith’s alter ego in the strip, is clearly alluding to GeeDubya’s legendary isolation from the real world. Zippy, you might think, is a kindred soul, but I’d disagree: Zippy lives in a world in which advertising slogans constitute reality, a much more real environment than GeeDubya’s happy and democratic Iraq. Prickly City is conservative editoonist Scott Stantis’ daily strip in which, you’d think, Stantis, like Bruce Tinsley in Mallard Fillmore, would grind a political axe in support of all things right-wing. Well, no. Stantis is not Tinsley; he may tilt to the right, but he doesn’t wear blinders while he leans. And so it’s not altogether surprising to find Carmen, Stantis’ young conservative heroine, and her liberal coyote sidekick, Winslow, bantering about politics in a way that is critical of both, or either, persuasion, as they did on September 11 and 12.
In Tony Cochran’s Agnes, the diminutive heroine’s verbal extravagance is the comedy. In August, Agnes attempted and failed to dive off the diving board at the swimming pool. She is ultimately overwhelmed by her own imagination. Standing on the diving board, she says: “This could result in many number of tragic tragedies. One, I have many fracturable aspects. Two, I could die and stuff. There could be contusions, abrasions, lacerations, sprains, strains, dislocations, a very wicked reddening of the skin...” To which her buddy responds: “Hey! I’ve got one—your eyeballs could pop clean out of your head!”—inspiring a sarcastic reply from Agnes: “You’re the morning sun on my dark night of woe,” she intones. A couple days later, Agnes invites her friend to mock her for her failure to dive—to make “mean-spirited jokes” at her expense, to indulge in “nasty finger-pointing and eye-rolling” when her back is turned. But her cohort refrains from mocking: “We’re friends,” she says, “—I won’t do any of that.” Agnes is shocked: “Ohmygosh,” she says, then drips with sarcasm: “Did I jump and die? Is this the afterlife? Are you my spirit guide?” “Knock it off, pencil-neck,” her pal says.
Hilary B. Price delivers what ought to be a classic in her Rhymes with Orange on September 14: a psychiatrist tells his patient, “You have kleptomania.” And the patient says, “Can I take something for it?” ... Jef Mallett in Frazz, a strip about a elementary school janitor and his relationship with precocious pupils in the student body, is often philosophical. Here’s a thoughtful little girl on the football field, saying: “You know that net by the goalpost that keeps footballs from going into the stands?” She pauses and looks at Frazz, and then continues: “How many footballs could you buy for what those cost?” Says Frazz: “You’re looking for logic in a sport where the players have meetings.” Beautiful. Mallett, by the way, is an avid swimmer/runner/cyclist (like Frazz), and early in September, he was one of several athletes making a five-mile swim across the straits that connect Lake Michigan and Lake Huron to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Mackinac Bridge and raise money for Mentor Michigan, an organization for youth mentoring. ... In Frank and Ernest, the eponymous pals ponder politics. “A presidential candidate unveiled his energy plan,” says one, “—he wants to fuel all of the people all of the time.” After that sinks in, he continues: “And another candidate dropped out of the race—they say it’s because of lack of funds.” Which inspires this reaction: “That’s just as well. Anybody who won’t spend money he doesn’t have shouldn’t be in the White House anyway.” Ouch—too true.
Read and Relish
Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi tells this one: “Two decades ago, journalist Michael Kinsley performed a non-scientific experiment. He slipped dozens of self-addressed cards into best-selling titles of the day in various Washington, D.C. bookstores. If you found the note, which would have meant you’d read at least half the book, you would collect a $5 reward. After five months, no one had claimed their prize.”
When we think of Hank Ketcham, we think, perforce, of Dennis the Menace, the syndicated newspaper cartoon that Ketcham produced for fifty years until his death in June 2001. But for almost ten years before Dennis was born in March 1951, Ketcham was a freelance cartoonist, drawing gag cartoons for magazines and, like most of his confreres, illustrating ads and articles in those same magazines. Fantagraphics Books, which is reprinting all of the Dennis cartoons in tidy tomes, two years per volume, now performs a similar service in publishing a collection of Ketcham’s otherwise lost forever work for magazines, assembled and introduced by Shane Glines and Alex Chun, Where’s Dennis? The Magazine Cartoon Art of Hank Ketcham (173 7.5x6-inch pages, bound on the short side, some in color; $19.95), with introductions by Ron Ferdinand and Marcus Hamilton, who are the present proprietors of Dennis, Sunday and daily respectively (producing impressive Ketcham-like drawings). It’s a treat to see in the volume at hand Ketcham’s languorous line limning adults, including several of the pin-up or chorus girl persuasion. Among the specimens are a few featuring a variety of tow-headed kids, paired, on the next page, to a Dennis panel in which Ketcham repeated the gag verbatim. Also herein, on page 143, the cartoon Ketcham cites in his autobiography as an example of how an additional visual prop or two can give a scene a persuasive reality—here, the lantern hanging on the back of the wagon—a trick he picked up from a New Yorker cartoonist (Perry Barlow, if memory serves; I can’t check my memory, though: my reference library has yet to be unpacked—sorry).
This may be the only opportunity I’ll have this season to confess that I was, in 1954-55, so inspired by Ketcham’s Dennis that I attempted a version of my own in my highschool newspaper. (I had virtually no difficulty in getting the thing published because the editor of the paper was conveniently located: he had the same address I did. Same name, too.) I tried to ape Ketcham’s graphic mannerisms but realized, almost at once, that I hadn’t the skill orexperience. I did a little better in capturing Dennis’ personality, though, imagininghim as a teenager, the enfant terrible slightly aged. My class in highschool was populated with a generous delegation of juvenile delinquents to serve as models, and I also appropriated the signature hair style of the day, the “duck-tail,” in my teenage version of Dennis, whom I named Little Louie Loutermouth. He was featured in a panel cartoon I called I Hate Skool, borrowing, this time, a little from a book just hitting the bookstores, which Ronald Searle illustrated for his friend Geoffrey Willans, Down with Skool!, about a fanatical schoolboy-chauvinist pig named Nigel Molesworth. Here are a few.
Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary) says he’s 69 years old and doesn’t want to waste time on projects without real meaning for him. Producing a children’s book from the lyrics of “Puff the Magic Dragon” is such a project. Yarrow has been pursued, he said, for fifteen years by a friend who wanted him to do a series of books illustrating his songs. Now we have the first. As Jennifer Miller says in reviewing the book for the Rocky Mountain News: “Never before has the renowned folk trio allowed the lyrics to their beloved classic to be put into pictures in a children’s book. And the debut is magical. French illustrator Eric Puybaret’s soft-edged paintings capture all the misty enchantment of this story about a dragon who befriends a boy, Jackie Paper, only to endure great sadness when the boy grows up and has to leave.” Many of those who have sung along with Peter, Paul and Mary over the decades have supposed that Puff dies when Jackie grows up and leaves the land of Honalee, but the pictures in this book reveal that he doesn’t: he’s kept alive by Jackie’s daughter, who comes to visit him. Yarrow had no hesitancy in supplying an ending to the Puff legend: “Whenever you make a creative choice, you either trust your instincts or you don’t. I was dead set on not doing it unless it was going to be done with the kind of sensitivity I thought was honoring Puff.” At the end of the book, Yarrow’s co-author of the song’s lyrics, Lenny Lipton, writes: “‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ has become part of our culture, and every day of my life I wonder how it was that I came to play a part in its creation. There are many what-ifs along the way to Puff. I left a poem in Peter Yarrow’s typewriter, and he added some new lyrics and turned it into a song. If I had taken what I had written seriously, I would have kept the piece of paper and Peter might never have seen it. And if Peter hadn’t met Paul and Mary, it’s probable that nobody would have ever heard of Puff.” The book (26 10x12-inch pages in full color; $16.95) comes with a CD of Yarrow singing “Puff,” “Froggie Went A-Courtin’,” and “The Blue Tail Fly” with his daughter, Bethany.
I don’t know if Andrews McMeel has published books of cartoons by Europeans before, but they have now—with This Is As Bad As it Gets (128 8x11-inch pages in full color; paperback, $16.95), a healthy dose of the sardonic wit of the Parisian cartoonist Voutch. Voutch, who supplies no other name, first or last, spent fifteen years as art director of a publicity agency then, in 1995, began cartooning. He also says he’s co-champion of the world in boomerang throwing, a dubious claim. His cartoons, painted in gouache, a version of watercolor, are visually more locale than personnel: he typically renders the human sapiens as pencil-thin physiques with very large noses, and their conversations take place in settings that dwarf them—poolside at a massive pool, on a terrace overlooking a valley in the distance rendered in panoramic scope, under a giant tree on an expansive plain. Even indoors, Voutch’s characters seem overpowered by their surroundings—rooms with 20-foot ceilings and garishly colorful wallpapers. His sense of humor is similarly unique. The book’s front cover flap explains it nicely—“a cartoon cocktail of cynicism and absurdity,” in which “Voutch takes on newfangled technologies [lots of clone jokes], communication overload, snide doctors, unreasonable bosses, and dysfunctional relationships.” Here are a few: A waiter in a restaurant with an ornate stone wall says to a couple who’ve asked about an item on the menu: “The ‘Succulent Wild Boar Corsican Style’? It’s a pork chop with noodles and a little ketchup.” Here’s a mother eagle, sitting on a nest with her four offspring, who spies her husband, approaching over a distant mountain range with something in his claws; she says, “Well, here comes your father the idiot, late with the child support again.” A doctor and his assistant confront a patient, saying: “ We’ve managed to isolate your selfishness gene. It’s huge.” Several psychiatrist jokes. One says to his patient on the couch: “But of course, you’re absolutely right: your mother was never a showgirl in a seedy bar in Buenos Aires. I confused your file with Mr. Dos Santos’s.” Another: “As far as I am concerned, your psychoanalysis is over. I’m opening a pizzeria.” With captions like these coupled to pictures of visually insignificant people, Voutch has done everything a cartoonist can to make his fellow beings seem trivial and meaningless—just the sort of antidote we need in the Age of GeeDubya, who has made everything seem so massively threatening.
Khalil Bendib has a new book of political cartoons out from Olive Branch Press, Mission Accomplished: Wicked Cartoons by America’s Most Wanted Political Cartoonist. Born in North Africa under the French colonial regime, Bendib offers what is probably the nation’s only non-Eurocentric perspective on current events. His cartoons often view the Mess-o-patomia in the Middle East from the Arab or Palestinian perspective, for instance. As his website puts it: “His hard-hitting, myth-shattering, platitude-mocking cartoons rarely shy away from the truth, as they seek to expose the crude racial stereotypes, ‘diss-information’ and info-tainment pablum offered as gospel by our mass media.”
Lisa Moore, Tom Batiuk’s doomed character in Funky Winkerbean, will die October 4 of breast cancer. Lisa had survived much in the strip: as a teenager in the 1980s, she had a child out of wedlock and gave it (him) away; then she and Lester Moore got married, and in 1999, she discovered she had breast cancer. After a mastectomy and chemotherapy, she was cancer free. Batiuk transformed her ordeal into an uplifting continuity, and the strips were reprinted in book form, Lisa’s Story, for which Batiuk was honored by the American Cancer Society for his sympathetic portrayal of those afflicted with cancer. Lisa finished her law degree, opened a practice, and she and Les had a baby daughter. Then in the spring of 2006, the cancer returned and metastasized. She dies, but hers is not a death without hope. Said Batiuk: “For me, there is a miracle in Lisa’s story. It’s not that much of a downer. It’s a hopeful story because it shows how a loving couple treats each other under all circumstances.” I agree: it’s a sad story, but full of heart. And, even, humor. The final chapter in Lisa’s life has been combined with her earlier cancer episode in a volume titled Lisa’s Story: The Other Shoe (258 6x9-inch pages in black-and-white; paperback from Kent State University Press, $18.95). You will probably weep a little as Lisa and Les reach the end of their life together—I did; but in the courageous manner of their meeting that end, you’ll find satisfaction, knowing that people can be like this. They are fictions, but they seem real, a triumph of the storyteller’s art. The book also contains resource material on breast cancer and information about support systems and health care. Incidentally, the strips all carry month and day dates, so we can determine from the sequence the years, making the volume historically important as well as spiritually uplifting.
THE SON OF CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
The famed weekly supermarket tabloid, Weekly World News, founded 28 years ago by National Enquirer owner, Generoso Pope, who’d just installed color presses for the Enquirer and launched WWN because he couldn’t bear to think of the old black-ink presses standing idle, ceased publication with its August 27 issue. At first, the WWN stories were mostly true, albeit incorporating “facts” that no one bothered to check. “If a guy phoned and said Bigfoot ran away with his wife,” said “reporter” Sal Ivone, “we wrote it as straight as an Associated Press story.” The stories, at first, were “85 percent true,” according to one of the WWN minions; but, as the Washington Post’s Peter Carlson writes, they soon learned that “too many facts can ruin a good yarn, so Pope and his editor encouraged their reporters to embellish a bit. ... Gradually, true stories became half-true stories, then quarter-true stories, then. ...” WWN was, Carlson alleges, “the most creative newspaper in American history; it broke the story that Elvis faked his death and was living in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It also broke the story that the lost continent of Atlantis was found near Buffalo.” The Onion, another wholly fictional newspaper, was much influenced by WWN. Said Joe Garden, Onion features editor: “They really knew how to take hold of a premise and go as far as humanly possible with it. It was beautiful.” These fantastic tales were introduced with headlines so memorable as to become legends. “Twelve U.S. Senators Are Space Aliens!” “Plane Missing Since 1939 Lands with Skeleton at the Controls.” “Florida Man Screams from the Grave, My Brain Is Missing.” (This one was based upon an actual newspaper story about a Florida undertaker who was arrested for selling the body parts of his clients to research scientists.) I used to buy the paper occasionally to revel in its extravagances. One of my favorite stories was about the exploding cigar that blew a man’s head off. It appeared in the same issue that reported an 8-year-old quadriplegic’s rolling 5 miles to get help for his father, who’d become pinned beneath an overturned tractor. But the part of Carlson’s eulogy for WWN that I liked most is this: “In their quest to make fake news seem real, WWN’s writers found an unexpected ally— reality. The real news reported in real newspapers in those days frequently rivaled anything that WWN writers could concoct. For instance: Americans elected a president who’d once co-starred in a move with a chimpanzee. Rich women hired ‘surrogate mothers’ to bear their children. The Soviet Union suddenly dropped dead. Scientists invented a magic pill that gave men erections. California cultists committed suicide, believing that the Hale-Bopp comet would carry them to Heaven. Lurid details of a president’s sex life were released in an official government document. Religious fanatics hijacked airplanes and flew them into buildings. Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California. Scientists studying DNA revealed that humans were 98.6 percent genetically identical to chimpanzees.” No wonder WWN’s circulation dwindled to badly that the paper was axed. Who, today, needs its sleazy fantasies?
That He Produced with Borus
“When are you going to review my book?” asked Andrew Feinstein on the early evening of July 26. We were walking along the Seaport Village waterfront in San Diego on the way to the Southern California Cartoonists Society’s annual Comic-Con kick-off party. Feinstein and his sideburns towered over me as we lurched along. “Soon,” I said, remembering, though, that when he sent me a copy of the book, he’d expressed the “hope” that I’d “enjoy it enough to review it,” implying that if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t mention it. And I confess that the artwork, which Feinstein perpetrates, hurts my eyes. But the book, Opening Lines, Pinky Probes, and L-Bombs: The Girls & Sports Dating and Relationships Playbook (144 8x10-inch pages in full color; Santa Monica Press; $14.95), is like no other comic strip reprint book you’ve ever seen. Neither is the strip.
Girls & Sports is a male chauvinist enterprise about girls, dating, the bar scene, parties, and, occasionally, sports. It was born in Denmark in the spring of 1997 while Feinstein and his cohort Justin Borus were touring the country as juniors in a college international business program. “As part of the program,” Feinstein remembered for Dave Astor at Editor & Publisher, “they took us on long bus rides to visit different businesses—the LEGO factory, Carlsberg beer. ...” Between visitations, Feinstein and Borus amused themselves on the bus by discussing their favorite topics, which they belabored so often and at such length that a female student in the seat in front of them finally turned around and blurted: “Would you please shut up? All you talk about are girls and sports!” The two would-be jockstrap Lotharios were stunned into a spasm of creativity and invented their comic strip on the spot, entitling it, in another spasm of inspiration, Girls & Sports. They did the strip for their campus newspapers at their respective colleges, Feinstein’s Emory University in Atlanta and Borus’ William College in Massachusetts. When the strip was picked up by other campus newspapers, the collaborators—Borus on writing, Feinstein on pictures—began pitching it to other college newspapers, and by 2004, they had a client list of more than 70 papers. Then they turned to civilian newspapers and, against all odds, sold the strip to more than 100 of them—“an astounding total for an independent [self-syndicated] strip,” said Astor. Then Creators Syndicate picked it up, and its circulation has grown since. Its success, Feinstein believes, is easily explained: “We’re targeting a demographic that has been mostly ignored by mainstream newspapers. Many comics are about babies, families, married couples, or retired people. There wasn’t a strip that discussed the things young guys talk about.” And young women are also readers of the strip. “For them,” Feinstein said, “it’s like reading the opposing team’s playbook. We get as many e-mails from women as we do from men—and a lot of our clients are female editors.”
The reprint collection perpetuates the ambiance of the strip. The strips aren’t dated, and they don’t run in the order of their original published appearances. Instead, they are grouped in chapters that organize the gamut of singles’ preoccupations as if they constitute a game, a board game perhaps. (Bored game? No; too much word play.) Dating and the search for an ideal mate or a night’s conquest are seen as a sports events, but the chapters are titled like a course in dating: Getting the Night Started, Scouting the Prospects, First Date, Going All the Way, The Serious Relationship, Getting Out of the Game, etc. For page layout, the book imitates the prevailing men’s magazine style, breaking the page into 4-6 individual units—boxed paragraphs, strips, marginal illustration—on the assumption that the purchasers of this volume will be fugitives from laddie magazines, all of which are designed for readers with an attention span shorter than the life cycle of the fruit fly.
But the organization and design of the book are mere window-dressing. The meat is in the text paragraphs that pose the problems and in the strips that illustrate these dilemmas. Under the heading “The Game Plan,” we read: “We all tend to fall into the same trap. We get to the bar or party and approach mediocre girls for our first conversation. Why? These middle-of-the-road girls appear to offer the perfect warm-up. We can try out new material (which jokes are working that night and which ones need to be reworked), get the blood flowing, and, most importantly, get that first conversation under our belt. However, more often than not, these harmless warm-ups turn into all-night discussions. Solution: GO HOT EARLY! You should ignore the tendency to warm up with average-looking girls and go straight for the magnificent beauties. That way, if you get into a marathon conversation, at least it’s with a girl you’re excited to be talking to.” Then come a couple strips, in the first of which, a guy says: “It’s early. Let’s warm up with those ugly girls.” To which his accompanying buddy says: “No way. Your warm-ups last all night”; which draws this reposite from the first guy: “It’s not my fault that ugly girls find me irresistible.”
And here’s the whole story on “The Pinky Probe”: “Your first date has gone fairly well, but it’s coming to an end. You’ve had great conversations, and she’s still interested in what you have to say. You’re pretty sure it’s time to move in for ‘The First Kiss,’ but will she reciprocate? Since the last thing you want is the ‘turn away’ or a slap in the face, the recommended strategy to confirm that she’s indeed ready and willing to kiss you is the Pinky Probe. Step 1: To properly execute the Pinky Probe, gently extend your pinky and mentally prepare it for battle. Your pinky is about to go on a kamikaze mission and will need all your loyalty and support. Step 2: Innocently poke your extended pinky against the hand of the girl. Just as a kitten will grab a piece of string that is dangled in front of its paw, a girl will grab your pinky immediately if she welcomes the intimate contact. If she’s not interested, your pinky will gently bounce off her hand and, in the unlikely event she notices, you can play it off as your average everyday muscle spasm. Step 3: If the conversation is going as well as you think, the girl will likely grab your pinky and, before you know it, you will be holding hands. Once you are holding hands, you have an open invitation to move in for a kiss.”
In another department, our guides take up a knotty problem: “Before having sex with you, a girl might ask: ‘How many girls have you slept with?’ Never answer this question truthfully. Girls just want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want a guy who hasn’t slept around and yet they also want a guy who is good in bed. Unfortunately, as any guy knows, you can’t be good in bed without a lot of experience.” On the same page, we confront another imponderable: “How long do girls expect guys to last in bed? We’re not the Hanukkah candle! I can’t figure out why girls complain when a guy can’t last more than 30 seconds. If I were a girl, I’d be insulted if a guy lasted longer than 30 seconds.” And that’s because: “... the only shot we have at lasting longer than 30 seconds is if the girl is really unattractive.”
Borus and Feinstein also examine infidelity. “Note to girls: ‘Is my boyfriend cheating on me?’ Of course your boyfriend is cheating on you! That’s what guys do. But look on the bright side. It means that your boyfriend is cool enough that other girls are actually interested in him. The only reason why some guys don’t cheat on their girlfriends is because they can’t get another girl to hook up with them. Remember, there’s a difference between not cheating and not being able to hook up with someone else.” Elsewhere, our authors list unanswerable questions that girls use to start fights: How come you’ve been going out so much with your friends lately? Would you love me if I gained 30 pounds? Could you possible love another girl as much as you love me? Why don’t you get dressed up for me anymore? Have you noticed that your friends aren’t as nice to me as before we started dating? Do you miss being single? You can guard against the disaster that such questions precipitate by “building up credit for a rainy day”: cook dinner once a month, give gifts on “non-sanctioned occasions,” pay for all meals, go shopping with girlfriend without complaining. The best defense, however, is “the nuclear option”: just say, “Okay, fine—let’s break up.” “While this may seem harsh, your girlfriend will quickly learn not to fight with you for fear you’ll drop the big one on the relationship.”
This is all fun stuff if you don’t take it too seriously. If you think it’s serious, you will quickly come to the conclusion that men—single or married—if on the hunt, are shallow and self-centered. Women in pursuit, likewise.
In preparing strips to be reprinted in this tome, Feinstein told me that he re-drew many of the early strips because he felt his earliest art wasn’t very good. “And a lot of people still think that,” he said with a self-deprecating grin. I’m one of them. It’s not that all of his characters look alike. They don’t. They all have the same bug-eyed look, true, but Feinstein runs an exhausting gamut of visual gimmicks to give each pop-eyed visage a distinctive variation. Some characters have round noses ; some, pointy noses; some pointy noses point up; others, down. And hair styles are endlessly varied: Feinstein has undoubtedly become the world’s foremost expert in discovering how many different ways hair can be simply drawn yet individualized. But probably the most ingenious mark of distinction is that one of his male characters, Marshall, has square ears. Only a man who knows—with celestial certainty—that his drawing ability is excerable will resort to drawing square ears as a way of individualizing his cast. Feinstein is clearly such a man, but he is also a dedicated cartoonist, whose vaulting ambition is matched by his tireless endeavor to do better. And better and better. We have to admire him for that, despite his awful artwork.
PHIL FRANK DIES JUST DAYS AFTER FORMALLY RETIRING
Phil Frank, who for 32 years produced a comic strip about his own alter ego, a disheveled newspaper reporter and sometime park ranger named Farley, died September 12 after a long illness brought on by a brain tumor. Farley was unique: for the last 20 years of its run, it appeared only in the San Francisco Chronicle. Frank, a long time resident of the Bay Area who lived on a houseboat in Sausalito for many years, died at a friend’s house in Bolinas at 9:30 p.m. with his wife and daughter at his bedside. He was 64.
Just days before, Frank had announced that he was laying down his drawing pen: his illness made it impossible for him to draw either Farley, his picaresque San Francisco refuge of feral cats, vociferous ravens, clueless park rangers, gurus, wild pigs and political figures, or his syndicated strip, Elderberries. His final Farley strip, the last in the “classics” that have been re-running for almost a year, appeared on September 7. The characters in the Elderberries—crotchety old ladies and gents who live in a retirement home—will live on, but under new management. Here’s Carl Nolte, staff writer at the Chronicle, who wrote what follows on September 9 when Frank retired his pen; I’ve adjusted verb tenses occasionally and added a few amplifying facts from other sources, including Marianne Costantinou’s 2005 piece for the Chronicle.
Frank, an amiable man with a shock of unruly hair and a rakish mustache, closely resembled the character he created. Sometimes, Frank even talked like Farley, with wry remarks and keen observations on the passing scene. The fictional Farley, who lives in a San Francisco apartment with Bruce, a wisecracking raven, was a familiar character to Chronicle readers for decades.
Being a cartoonist isn't all fun and jokes, said Rod Gilchrist, executive director of the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. "It's a lonely and difficult thing," he said. "You are in your studio, slugging it out. You have to produce something every single day."
It's tough to be amusing every single day, but Frank did it. He drew more than 9,300 comic strips, almost never missing a day.
"He is a cartoonist's cartoonist," said Joe Troise, Frank's writing partner on the Elderberries strip. "That means other cartoonists admired his work. Phil also loved cartooning as an art form. He is like a musician who loves music."
Frank likes to quote a man who came up to him after a talk and told him how lucky he was to have found a career that he enjoyed that also brought enjoyment to other people. "It is a simple thing," Frank said, "but it's something I still think about."
The Farley strip, running only in the Chronicle, gave Frank an opportunity to offer his own view on the local scene, including political developments. It was always much more than a comic strip— Frank called it "really a horizontal [personal] column, documenting the life and times of the characters in the Bay Area." Drawing the strip for just one paper gave Frank shorter lagtime between drawing a strip and its publication, which meant he could draw cartoons based on local events while they were still in the news. Politicians could announce policies early in the week to see them carried out in the comic strip in only a day or two. The characters in the strip, including a band of feral cats living in Golden Gate Park, always acted faster than civil servants. Elderberries, which Frank launched with Troise in late 2004, is about life in a low-rent retirement home and is syndicated by Universal Press to 50-75 newspapers. Installments of Frank and Troise's version of the strip stopped running daily when Frank became ill about a year ago. The current cartoonist, Corey Pandolph, is a resident of Portland, Maine. A new book of Frank’s Elderberry strips will be published this year.
One of the secrets of Frank's success as a cartoonist, Gilchrist said, was his ability to use multiple story lines that followed the doings and deliberations of different characters. Set in the Bay Area, Farley was populated with an antic array of characters, ranging from Bruce D. Raven, Irene the meter maid and a hapless San Francisco cop named Inspector Tuslo to Orwell T. Catt, one of those feral felines in Golden Gate Park. Frank also featured other animals, including wild pigs and an assortment of bears who run a restaurant called the Fog City Dumpster, spend summers in Yosemite National Park, and hibernate at the end of baseball season. When Farley's characters went on vacation, they visited either Asphalt State Park or Yosemite, where the determined Velma Melmac, a tattooed chain smoker from Manteca, spent her time trying to make nature resemble her suburban home, hanging No Pest Strips around campsites and vacuuming the nature trails.
"He created all these imaginary little worlds," Troise said, each of them with separate stories. Troise thinks Frank's animals, particularly Bruce D. Raven, the feral cats and the Fog City Dumpster bears, are all versions of Frank himself. "They are all intelligent and mischievous," he said, "—like Phil himself. I like that about him."
Frank also drew what passes for the real world, and his favorite targets were local politicians, especially San Francisco's mayors from Dianne Feinstein to Gavin Newsom. In Farley's world, mayors were seen measuring public opinion by consulting talking mirrors and gurus like Baba, one of his cartoon inventions. In the comics, mayors treated city bureaucrats as if they were royal retainers, ready to carry out the mayor's every whim. When Mayor Frank Jordan was unwise enough to appoint a lowly politician to high office, Frank's cartoon mayor appointed a feral cat to run the municipal aquarium.
Frank's all-time favorite mayor was Willie Brown, [as picturesque as any cartoon character]. His Honor appeared in the strip as an emperor surrounded by spear-carrying flunkies. When city officials displeased the mayor, Frank had their heads lopped off. Brown loved it. He once appeared at a San Francisco event in a crown and regal robes. It was a joke, but the mayor was only half kidding. Frank's cartoons on the Brown regime appeared in a book of his work called "Don't Parade on My Reign." Brown himself snapped up copies of the book and gave them away as Christmas gifts. "I gave autographed copies to everybody," Brown said. "I gave one to Bill Clinton, to Hillary and to Arnold Schwarzenegger."
"Did I like it? Are you kidding?" Brown said. "Phil made me famous."
It was a rare case of cartoon symbiosis. "Willie," Frank once said, "was a gift from the cartoon gods."
Frank himself had a keen eye for politics and history. He was particularly interested in southern Marin County, and had a home in Sausalito and a retreat in Bolinas. He was a serious historian and for many years was president of the Sausalito Historical Society. In July, the society named a research center in City Hall for Frank. He was a leading citizen of the town and was grand marshal of Sausalito's Fourth of July parade in 2006. But this year, he was too ill to go to the parade, so the Cal Alumni Band, the only marching band in the parade, left the main route to serenade Frank at his house several blocks away.
Frank had made a point of knowing every nook and cranny in Sausalito, and worked hard to preserve its history. "If Phil doesn't know about it," said Tom Mondgren, one of his neighbors, "it isn't known."
Like a lot of Californians, Frank was a transplant from another area. He was born in Pittsburgh in 1943, and went to Michigan State University, hoping to be a commercial artist. He saw an ad in the State News, the college paper, offering $5 a cartoon to someone who would produce a daily political cartoon for the paper. Frank signed up. His cartoons commented on the war in Vietnam and the civil rights struggle, and campus, local and national politics. He drew five days a week for four years; his cartoons were such a hit they were syndicated in other college papers. After graduation, he worked for Hallmark cards in Kansas City, but he left the Midwest to come to California in the 1970s.
On June 16, 1975, he started producing a comic strip called Travels With Farley. Syndicated to 50 newspapers, it introduced the Farley persona, a younger version of Phil Frank, with more hair and a wilder mustache, who worked, when he worked, for a dying afternoon newspaper with the perfect name for today’s print news media, the Daily Demise. In this stage of his life, Farley traveled the country meeting people and observing life. Farley later became a park ranger (in charge of picnic tables and bear management). He had a dog named Bob, who later was the star of another Frank strip, a short-lived one called Miles to Go.
Travels With Farley was converted to the local San Francisco Farley strip in 1985, going from a syndicated strip in several papers to a strip that appeared just in the Chronicle. Frank said he'd grown tired of Farley as what he called "a naive traveler," so he gave him a home, in San Francisco, surrounded him with a cast of Bay Area characters, and gave him a job at the Daily Requirement, a thinly veiled version of the Chronicle with offices at the corner of Myth and Fission (Fifth and Mission, for anyone not well versed in San Francisco topography).
But Troise saw Farley’s conversion differently. "I think Phil wanted to become a bigger fish in a smaller pond," he said.
In any case, the new Farley strip was for many years the only purely local comic strip in the country. [Jeff MacNelly eventually did one for the Chicago Tribune, where he was also the staff political cartoonist; and Ed Stein, editoonist at the Rocky Mountain News, continues the tradition with his strip, Denver Square.]
Frank had several other cartoon irons in the fire—a strip in Car and Driver magazine, several commercial accounts, and some cartoons in other magazines. He was also an incurable romantic. He lived in a Sausalito houseboat for 13 years before moving ashore to an old house in Sausalito, where he delighted in telling visitors that Baby Face Nelson, the noted gangster, once hid out just down the street. Frank loved old stories, old cars, his wife, Susan, his two children, and history.
At sfgate.com/podcasts, hear a roundtable discussion on Phil Frank's career with Bad Reporter creator Don Asmussen and editorial cartoonists George Russell and Tom Meyer, moderated by Cartoon Art Museum director Rod Gilchrist. At sfgate.com/philfrank, watch Phil Frank playing TV travel guide in excerpts from a Sausalito walking-tour history video presentation.
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE
Rick Veitch is one of the most inventive comic book makers of the day. He seems never willing to sit and rest on previous laurels: he’s forever, it seems, examining some new comics storytelling mode or a new aspect of an otherwise old subject. Some years ago, he impressed me with a series of comic books in which he regaled us his visualizations of dreams he was having. Recently, he produced a graphic novel, Can’t Get No, in which he juxtaposes words and pictures in a novel manner: the story is told in pantomime but every picture is accompanied by boxed text, which runs a prose poem parallel to the picture story, complimenting it in a subtle way but not referring directly to any of the events being pictured. Even if the language sometimes soars to pretentiousness, the narrative tension between the verbal and the visual is exquisitely maintained, yielding an unusual reader engagement in the work. Now, Veitch comes along with a rollicking tale of modern U.S. warfare, Army @ Love (Nos. 1-6, so far), in which sexual licentiousness and heavy doses of nudity almost overwhelm the satire. Veitch puts his soldiers in the fictitious but wholly recognizable Afbaghistan, where the objectives of the military operation are entirely obscured by two overwhelming motivations: sex and money. In the first issue, we meet Switzer, a girl soldier, who, in a free fire zone with a male combatant named Flabbergast, proposes, during a lull in the shooting, that they get naked and “do the dirty,” which, she alleges, will initiate him into the Hot Zone Club, an organization, it turns out, that she has invented solely to get Flabbergast to screw her while under fire—because that makes it all more exciting. Flabbergast eagerly takes her up on her proposition, and they both strip and have at each other. It’s an appropriately lewd introduction to the series, which is unabashed about sex, engaging its cast members in endless couplings, none of which obey the usual monogamous imperatives. Switzer is married to Loman, a bagman for the mob back home in the States; Flabbergast is single but quickly falls in lust with Switzer. The other principal couple introduces Colonel Healey who is married to Allie, who, back home, tries to cure her loneliness by getting it on with Loman. Healey, head and founder of “Momo” (the Motivation and Morale initiative), is a former marketing manager who ingratiated himself to the military moguls by devising a way to increase recruiting for the Army while at the same time keeping morale high—the Retreat.
Held periodically but frequently, Retreats are all-out sexual orgies, and they created the perfect match-up for recruiting for a war that was going on forever, rotating troops back and forth, eventually exhausting human resources. As Healey explains it: “How do I motivate a modern American kid to give up his life of privilege, submit to the military and go to a foreign land to kill people? And the answer is I offer them something they can’t get online or in the movies—something we call ‘peak life experience.’ ... Turns out that the steady diet of movies and video games [among American youth] has addicted them to small amounts of adrenaline, and combat is an adrenaline junkie’s dream.” But Healey’s scheme offered something more—“the secret sauce.” By putting women into combat and inventing the Retreat as a way to break into the danger and monotony, Healey united in one package deal all that young people hunger for—“Danger! Power! Drugs! High tech! Sex!” It’s an adolescent’s dream come true—“spring break on steroids!” No wonder everyone lines up to join. As Veitch put it in No. 1: “My new series ... imagines how surreal the current war might get in five years, focusing especially on how the miliary might have to market it to a new generation of recruits.”
Despite the prevalence of nudity and copulation, a second satirical strand permeates the series. Noticing that much of the war effort in Iraq has been contracted out to private agencies, Veitch imagines what might happen if the war is almost entirely outsourced. In Veitch’s war, the country is bankrupt, so the government goes in search of corporate sponsorship for the military. Suddenly, patriotism goes out the window, replaced by corporate greed. Sex and the profit motive animate all the action in Army @ War, and, issue by issue, Veitch finds new ways to twist his satirical knife in the side of modern corporate war-making. Ingenious. And it would be funnier if it weren’t so true. Veitch’s pictures are copiously detailed; inked by Gary Erskine, they haven’t much visual flair, but Veitch is expert at it, and he fills some panels with background action that occasionally functions as a sight gag. It’s clear he’s having a great time, and so are we, watching him at work—and at play.
Lobster Johnson is one of the great names in fiction. (One of the others occurs in Billy DeBeck’s Barney Google in the 1920s—a detective named Hello Swifty. If you can conjure up a name like that, your fortune is made.) In the first number of a 5-issue series bearing the name of his crustacean hero, Mike Mignola surrounds him minions of varying skills, evoking Doc Savage, another bygone hero of pulp fiction. The story is set in 1937, and, sure enough, there are fiendish Germans afoot throughout. We meet an American first, Jim Sacks, a failed baseball player who has found employment testing a power suit for its inventor, Kyriakos Gallaragas, and his daughter. The Germans kidnap the inventor and torture him to obtain the secrets of the suit, and when he won’t talk, they threaten his daughter. That’s where the book ends. Lobster Johnson, while all this is going on, careers around trying to find out where the kidnapers have taken the scientist. Jason Armstrong drew the story in a manner reminiscent of Jodi Bernet but somewhat more shadowy—not yet Mignola’s solid bathtub blacks, but black enough. Throughout, visual sleights seep into the story—breakdown and layout tricks, not just acrobatics of composition. They delight the eye and the heart and lend atmosphere to the tale. The entrance of a wraith-like woman is heralded when the smoke from candles all suddenly blows the same way, away from an open window. I look forward to more.
Batman Lobo: Deadly Serious is the first of two by Sam Kieth. Kieth is good on a certain kind of picture at a certain scale, but his work reveals its essential grotesque cartoonishness when he draws his characters at a distance from the camera. And his visual invention flags when it comes time to portray outlandish monsters, which Kieth presents here as sort of large-mouth blobs, intricately cross-hatched and shaded. Kieth does the story here, too, and it, alas, isn’t much better. Lots of atmosphere but no articulation. Batman is summoned psychically to discover what is possessing the women in a certain area—a disease? a plague?—where he runs into Lobo and they have a confrontation that comes to naught. While they struggle meaninglessly, a schoolgirl is possessed and wanders off. Kieth follows her, probably so he can try a variety of ways of getting her wardrobe reduced to undies, ending, finally, in a two-page spread where she covers herself with nothing but a sheet. Not much makes sense in this, the opening issue of a two-issue run. Not even the characters understand much of what happens. That’s part of the plot, I understand, but when Lobo says, “Where’d that ship come from? Oh, who cares!” he infects us with his disinterest. I liked Lobo when he first loomed up on the DC landscape: his raw brutality turned funnybook violence into over-the-top comedy. A match-up with Batman may have seemed like a pairing of equals to someone, but it’s not coming off here, and the contrast between Batman’s restraint in murderous matters and Lobo’s eager inclination to chop his foes into mince has the effect of unmanning Lobo and robbing him of his only redeeming feature—his complete and absolute single-minded ruthlessness. Too bad. What will happen in the concluding issue? Don’t know. And don’t want to find out.
The fourth Sparrow art book is Shane Glines’ and it brims with his Batman-animation style babes whose anatomy is abstracted into pure design, juxtaposed color and shape, often without linear assistance. Glines is working on a biography of long-lost cartooner Roy Nelson, and his renderings reflect his admiration for Nelson—reflect without imitation, a homage to a worthy pioneer. You might find more at CartoonRetro.com, although I tried and was told my machinery couldn’t turn up that page. A momentary glitch, surely.
Ra’s al Ghul, described as “the immortal madman,” is one of the more fascinating villainous geniuses in comics. Standing athwart Batman’s world, Ra’s was once reputed to be 450-500 years old, having discovered, in the Lazarus Pits, a secret to immortality. His particular madness, apparently—if we are to judge from Wikipedia, not always a reliable source— is prompted by a compulsion to create a world in perfect environmental balance, which, he believes, can best be achieved by eliminating most of the pollutants, namely, human sapiens. That’s why he wants to kill everyone. But he, at the present, is presumed dead himself. A Lazarus Pit supposedly misfired. Batman Annual No. 26, Head of the Demon: The Origin of Ra’s al Ghul, takes matters up at this point. But you wouldn’t know it from the book itself: written by Peter Milligan, the story, such as it is, presumes that the reader has a much more intimate knowledge of Ra’s long and convoluted biography than the average reader is likely to have and leaves a half-dozen plot elements dangling, unexplained and unaccounted for. In one strand of the plot, Ra’s daughter Talia is persuaded by the White Ghost to educate her son, Damian (presumably the result of an affair she had with Batman years ago), about the history of his grandfather. Unbeknownst to her, the White Ghost plans to use her son as the corporal vehicle by which Ra’s will be brought back into this world from whichever Lazarus Pit he’s in. In rehearsing Ra’s centuries of history, Talia touches on various aspects of his life, including his having saved the Duke of Wellington from certain defeat at Waterloo, turning the tables instead on Napoleon, whom, Ra’s mutters ominously, he desires to topple for “a personal reason.” We never find out what that reason might be. Nor do we learn how his first and most beloved wife, Sora, was brutally murdered, but Talia mentions it. The interlude at Waterloo seems altogether pointless unless it is simply an excuse for penciller David Lopez to draw Napoleonic military uniforms—or, perhaps, to show us how ruthless a swordsman Ra’s is. Dunno which. Or if. Meanwhile, Batman is roaming the hinterlands, looking for two ecologists who have disappeared while pursuing the mysteriously long-lived Methuselah moth. Perhaps the moths were contaminated by contact with the Lazarus Pit? Dunno. At one point, Batman encounters three assassins, but he keeps referring to their number as “four.” Dunno why. Never more than three pictured. Batman later runs into a demented old man who supposedly knows where the ecologists are. He does, and he leads Batman to them, repeatedly asking, as he does, about some apples, the significance of which we never learn. The ecologists are dead, brutally murdered. Batman eventually gets to the cave where the White Ghost is hanging out, they fight, and WG loses his balance and falls into the Lazarus Pit that he had intended to put Damian in. So will Ra’s come back as the White Ghost? So we are left to assume. Posing as a self-contained one-shot book, the Annual reads more as if it is intended to launch a storyline. Presumably, if Wikipedia is correct, that will commence with Batman No. 670. But there’s nothing in Annual No. 26 to advise us of this possibility. We are left, instead, with an unexplained “personal reason,” a pointless Waterloo, Methuselah moths, two dead ecologists, and those apples, about which the old man keeps saying, “I’ve told you about the apples, haven’t I?” “Several times,” says the grim Caped Crusader. As always, he knows more than we do. Inker Alvaro Lopez works with a clean and unencumbered line, attractively free of noodling and other forms of embellishment; the art in the book is a pleasure to behold, even if that full-page picture of a Batjet taking off in the desert is a waste of narrative space. Hardware ain’t inherently interesting.
ONWARD, THE SPREADING PUNDITRY
The Great Ebb and Flo of Things
We cover politics here at the Rancid Raves Intergalactic Wurlitzer because politics is the closest thing we have to a national comic strip. August, as it happens, was a laugh riot. At the national comedy club—sometimes called, with a knowing chuckle, the country’s capital—politicians, as usual, took the month off and went back home, where they pretended to discover what their constituents wanted them to do. Now they’re all back in Washington, doing what they always do—holding meetings to divvy up the taxes we pay, spending the money on Projects back home that will earn them the undying gratitude of voters who will then, perforce, re-elect them and send them back, again, to Washington for more divvying up. While pondering the shenanigans of our nation’s leading comedians, we must always remember that in the American Heritage Dictionary, the fifth definition of “congress” is “sexual intercourse.” Under the golden dome of the capitol, the fifth definition becomes the first order of business: screwing all us citizens is the name of the game.
As soon as our laugh riot leaders got back from vacation, the fog of politics resumed. Thanks to George WMD Bush and a compliant news media, we’re all pretty aware of the fog of war—the confusion that exists on the battlefield in the midst of combat when perception is skewed and reason bombarded. The fog of war is accidental. The fog of politics is deliberate: politicians aim to confuse, and they do it through purposeful obfuscation. A tightly knit group of them have been doing it for months, now, as they parade before us in what Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker calls “the Long Campaign.”At this “preposterously early date,” he writes, “the political arena, ideally a marketplace of ideas, [is] in our country, more often than not, all marketplace and no ideas.” The “demand for news of political conflict,” he goes on, results in candidates and the news media “making political mountains out of policy molehills.” The early commencement of the 2008 Presidential Race does not, alas, mean that we’ll get rid of GeeDubya any sooner. No, all it means is that the Sunday morning gasbags and political pundits of all stripes will have something to talk about, endlessly. The Long Campaign is their creation: they need it because it can be reduced to horse race analysis, and the punditariat is not capable of analyzing anything more complicated than a horse race. And so they conspire with the politicians to keep us as amused albeit as ignorant as possible: to properly appreciate American politics, one cannot be one without the other. No candidate for President these days wants to talk about the urgent matters looming on the horizon—the steady and life-threatening deterioration of the infrastructure in American cities, the fiscal crisis spawned by runaway health care costs, the colossal inefficiency of the federal bureaucracy (of which FEMA and the tragedy of Katrina in New Orleans is a shrieking example). Nobody wants to talk about it except Fred Thompson, now that he’s entered the lists. Fred Thompson is an actor who is best when he’s looking serious. When he has his serious face on, he looks like a sage and a statesman. When he grins, he looks like an old man with bags under his eyes and a wife too young for him. Unfortunately, running for political office in this country requires that the candidate spend a lot of time grinning. And that’s too bad because Thompson wants to talk about real issues in government, not phoney issues, the champion of which is the Mess-o-patomia as Jon Stewart calls the Iraq fiasco and the disaster in Palestine.
Our savior in these areas, General David Petraeus, came to Washington to deliver his so-called analysis of the Situation in Iraq. He said things were not as good there as we might have wished, but that we shouldn’t give up yet because we were making good progress. Not particularly noticeable progress, but steady progress. Good progress. Did anyone have any doubts about what he would say? Petraeus is a soldier, a thorough-going professional. His business is making war and winning. Soldiers in the American tradition do as they ordered to do. They don’t quibble. They get their orders and they follow them. Not so long ago, we had a thundering demonstration of just how dedicated military people can be to following orders. The Walter Reed Army Medical Center was, in some of its operations, a shambles, lacking proper equipment, facilities, and personnel to adequately care for soldiers wounded in Irag and Afghanistan. But the hospital staff was military: they didn’t complain about their material deprivations. Their training, the training of any American military person, urges them on to perform their mission with whatever personnel and equipment is at hand. Don’t fuss: just do it. And so at Walter Reed, that’s what they did. They were subsequently criticized for their silence, for not asking for more equipment, more personnel, better facilities; but they did what their training expected them to do—their mission, without complaint. Petraeus, likewise, is trained to do the job, not to quibble about it. The military job in Iraq is to pacify the countryside. What American soldier would issue a report about his mission saying, in effect, it cannot be accomplished? Not any self-respecting military person. Not Petraeus. And so, no surprise, he told Congress that the mission in Iraq is not going as well as we might hope, but that it can, given enough time and resources, be accomplished. A good soldier’s report. What else could we expect?
Petraeus has been accused of being a Bush League shill, ginning up data to support GeeDubya’s persistence in staying the course in Iraq. But that’s scarcely the case as a tell-tale exchange during the General’s Senate testimony reveals. Senator John Warner, an erstwhile loyal Bushite who has defected so far as to call for GeeDubya to begin troop withdrawals in December at the latest, asked Petraeus whether the surge was working, and Petraeus insisted there were signs of progress. But Warner persisted in pursuing the issue to the heart of the matter, to the oft-stated reasons for our being in Iraq, asking, “Does that make America safer?” To which the good soldier responded: “Sir, I don’t know actually. I have not sat down and sorted it out in my own mind.” That tells us all we need to know. First, it tells us that Petraeus concerned himself solely with the military mission in Iraq—pacify the countryside. Second, it tells us that he’s not in GeeDubya’s pocket: if he were, he’d have reassured Warner and all of us that we were safer today because of our “success” (limited though it is) in Iraq. And putting it all into relevant context is Mike Littwin in the Rocky Mountain News: “If Petraeus isn’t ready to say that the war in Iraq is making us safer, I wonder who is?” And if no one is, then why are we there? Warner and Petraeus together successfully destroyed the Bush League rationale for the American military presence in Iraq. This explosion, however, wasn’t much noticed in the news media or among the Presidential hopefuls, scampering blithely around the countryside.
But the data in Petraeus’ report on Iraq and his presentation of it to congressional committees was thoroughly examined in the news and opinion columns and on the airways. And so were two other reports, one by NIE the other by GAO, neither of which, unhappily, were vastly supportive of the Petraeus version of events. The NIE report, for instance, alluded to the factional fracture of the Iraqi government, ancient tribal rivalries and sectarian loyalties conspiring to render the government incapable of acting. The national police force is riddled with corruption and sectarian tensions, and the army—well, the army, while better than it was a year ago, isn’t yet quite ready. Why not? How long does it take to train soldiers? The American military was virtually nonexistent when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, but a year later, we were landing an invading force in North Africa. In somewhat less than a year, we had created a huge army, fit for combat. These days, basic training takes 6-8 weeks. In that time, the American military trains raw recruits and makes operational combat-ready soldiers out of them. And the Iraqi Army has been training how long? A year? Two? The Iraqi Army isn’t combat ready because Iraqis join the army for one reason and one reason only: to earn money. It’s the best paying job around. So young Iraqis join up and stay in training long enough to collect a couple paychecks; then, when they have enough to sustain themselves and their families for a few months while they look for employment at something more satisfying than shooting their fellow citizens, they desert. The Iraqi Army is a sieve through which the male population of Iraq trickles, in and out, for purposes that have nothing to do with national defense or security. Is it any wonder that the Iraqi Army isn’t ready yet? As a civic institution, it may have been training would-be soldiers for years, but the soldiers being trained today aren’t the same guys who were being trained yesterday. The learning curve, under this haphazard process, is not only steep, it’s precipitous and littered with speed bumps and potholes. The Iraqi Army is not ready because the training is, in effect, hit and miss, mostly misses. The Iraqi Army also lacks sufficient equipment and weaponry, no small matter.
But the hilarities of August persist. Everyone talks about withdrawing American troops from Iraq as if that were an actual choice. It isn’t. Not anymore. The decision has already been made. We’re pulling out, starting in December with about 5,700 troops and continuing in the spring until we’ve pulled out 30,000 of the 167,000 American soldiers in Iraq. It was a decision that was made over a year ago although, to hear George W. (“Warlord”) Bush talk about it, you’d think he just made it. In the wake of Petraeus’ optimistic assessment of the military situation in Iraq, GeeDubya addressed the nation, telling us that our military “success” in Iraq has enabled him, as Commander in Chief, to order a reduction in the number of soldiers stationed in Iraq. George W. (“Wishfulthinking”) Bush has been referring to the “success” in Iraq for some weeks now: he keeps repeating the word—sometimes as if it describes an existing circumstance, sometimes as if it refers to something just about to transpire. The strategy here is the same as the Bush League, tutored by Karl Rove, has practiced all along: by alleging something, they create a new reality. As Lenin is supposed to have said, “A falsehood repeated often enough becomes a truth.” Or maybe it was Karl Rove who said it. Or Joseph Goebbels. Whoever said it, it’s true, and for the proof of that truth, we have only to cast an eye back over the Bush League’s short history.
Or we could remember GeeDubya visiting Anbar province in Iraq on Labor Day and declaring victory: “The level of violence is down, local governments are meeting again, police are in control of the city streets, and normal life is returning.” Oh, yes—and Afghanistan isn’t the world’s major producer of opium. GeeDubya’s statement is brimming with half-truths and innuendo—that is, his usual mode of utterance. He implies that it’s the infamous “surge” that’s changed life in Anbar, leaving out, for the nonce, the tribal chieftains who have turned on the local insurgents, thereby establishing a new regime in the neighborhood. As usual, GeeDubya was setting us up. Claiming that the violence is down prepared the way for troop withdrawal: he can pull the troops out, asserting that we have re-established security and safety throughout Iraq. Mission accomplished. Well, sure: he lied to get us into Iraq, why shouldn’t he lie to get us out? It worked the first time, why wouldn’t it work again?
We should also recollect that when GeeDubya first proposed the notorious surge, he said it was in the nature of a “surge” to be short: he envisioned a surge—that influx of 30,000 more troops—to last only a year. And—lo and behold—that’s exactly what he’s just announced. Again. That 30,000-troop surge will end next spring, a year after it commenced, and by summer, we’ll be back to 137,000 troops on the ground in Iraq. Nothing new in that, but GeeDubya and all the little Indians on the Campaign Trail talk about the 30,000 troop reduction as if it involves a decision-making process just set in motion by Petraeus’ report. Even if the surge itself weren’t planned for just a year’s duration, the Pentagon’s troop rotation plan would dictate a draw-down in troop strength next spring. The mandated rotation calls for troops to stay on active combat duty for 15 months, then be sent home for a year before being called up to combat duty again. Combat duty is staggered by unit so that X-number of units are always on duty in Iraq while another X-number are home, resting up to be sent back again. Over time, straight math governs decisions. By next spring, straight math will dictate that the troop level in Iraq must stand at about 130,000. I may have the number of months wrong here, but that’s immaterial to the point: the point is that by next spring, the rotation pattern will reach a tipping point, the point at which thre are no more units whose rotation pattern permits keeping over-all troop strength at greater than 130,000.
Everyone in government has known about the rotation pattern for months, years. All those Presidential wannabes debating the merits or lack thereof in reducing troop strength in Iraq—they’ve all known about the April 2008 “go bust” point. They’ve all known that the American military presence in Iraq would be reduced in the spring of 2008. Either that or start drafting civilians into the Army, a political no-no. Since they’ve all known about it, what’s the debate about? Why debate a fait accompli? So all that high decibel huffing and puffing over troop strength in Iraq was a political charade, an elaborate game to be played out before us voting spectators. Just another example of how phoney issues dominate political activity and the news thereof in this happy land.
In a rare spasm of truth-telling, GeeDubya in his post-Petraeus speech to the nation alluded, for the first time, to the legacy he’ll be leaving his successor in the White House. The American presence in Iraq, he admitted, will continue beyond his time as President. It’s nice that he’d admit it; many of us hapless citizens, however, have realized the inevitable for months if not years. And some of us even realize that “troop withdrawal” doesn’t means that all the U.S. military personnel will be home again. Nope: sorry. Not so. We’ll be leaving 50,000-100,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq forever—like the troops in Korea— staffing those gigantic military bases we’ve built to guard the oil companies’ investments. But no one is mentioning that. That’s not part of the debate. The debate focuses on phantoms and phantasmagorias, not facts. The reality that our political leaders want us to face is a fiction they concoct solely to give themselves something simple-minded to talk about while stumping the hustings for votes.
The fact is that we should not—can not—leave Iraq precipitously. We must do something to bring some measure of security and political stability to the country. It is our moral obligation: we came in there, stomped around and created ample opportunities for chaos, which, sure enough, then ensued. We made a mess, and we ought to try, more diligently than we have, to clean it up. I think it was a mistake of gargantuan proportions to have invaded Iraq: we should have stayed in Afghanistan until it achieved some measure of stability as a society and as a government. Moreover, we ought to conduct the War on Terror in the same manner we conducted the Cold War. Democracies are notoriously bad imperial powers: their populations tire quickly of the sort of military adventures with which empires are founded. But democracies are awfully good as object examples. If our foreign policy is to foster democracies and free societies worldwide, we should do it in the most effective way we can: by minding our own business (mostly, although not, perhaps, so exclusively as to be completely isolationist). Our own business, properly attended to, would serve as the beacon it always has, lighting the way for other peoples to freer societies and self-governance. We’d achieve our objective without firing a shot—just as we accomplished the collapse of the Soviet Union. Need more proof of the error of the Bush League’s ways? How many wars have we won in the last five? Only one—World War II. The Korean War is still going on; we enjoying the temporary reprieve of a truce, but it’s been in place now for over fifty years, no victory in sight. We lost Vietnam. And we haven’t won in Afghanistan or Iraq. So we should stop thinking of ourselves as the most powerful military force on the planet. That conviction, however technically accurate it may be, hasn’t won any wars for us recently.
Having made the mistake of invading Iraq with guns and tanks, we then compounded the error by letting the Bush League run the invasion their way, all the best advice in government to the contrary notwithstanding. The Bush League is a reprehensible mob of zealots and liars, no question; but by letting them do what they would, we assume responsibility for their actions, however wrongheaded and duplicitous. George W. (“Whopper”) Bush’s deceptively cheery analysis of the Situation in Iraq should not blind us to the accuracy of some of the Bushites’ other observations: Iraq is a keystone in the Middle East, and we cannot afford to let it deteriorate into a haven for terrorists or to become an adjunct Iran. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, if we can do something to repair the damage we’ve done in Iraq, we will have gone a long way toward reviving the trust and esteem we once enjoyed around the world. At present, most of the planet’s other nations have a pretty good idea that America’s word isn’t worth much. We said we were going to save Southeast Asia from communism, but we got tired of the effort after a few years and bugged out, leaving the southern half of the country to be taken over by the northern half, the communist half. In 1956, we told the Hungarians, who were rebelling against their Soviet satraps, that they could count on us to help rescue them from communist slavery. But we did nothing as Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest. In 1991, GeeDubya’s revered father urged urged Iraqis to rebel against Saddam, implying that we’d support them in this effort. We didn’t. And several thousand of the rebels died. “Most of us,” as Ed Quillen said recently in the Denver Post, “would like to live in a republic that kept its word and protected those who took its side. But if this ever was such a nation, it was a long time ago.” Before we broke treaties with Native Americans, before Hungary, before Vietnam. Let’s not add Iraq to this repulsive litany. Let us not do what GeeDubya is setting us up to do—declare victory and bug out, creating another myth in our wake.
It is possible, always, that everything is not quite what it seems. In fact, disillusionment crops up often enough to destroy one’s faith in his own eyesight, which, in my case, to begin with, hasn’t been 20/20 since grade school. Pat Tillman, the former NFL star who gave up a lucrative $3.6 million contract to join the Army Rangers and fight the bad guys in Afghanistan, becoming, thereby, George W. (“Wrongheaded”) Bush’s bullnecked, square-jawed unflinching steely-eyed posterboy for bellicose patriotism, died, it now appears, under very strange circumstances. At first, the Bush League put it out that he was killed by the enemy in a battle with the Taliban; Tillman was, in short, the very incarnation of battlefield heroicism. Then it emerged that, no, he was killed by his own uniformed countrymen who accidentally fired in his direction. And then, last month, the Associated Press revealed that he died as a result of being shot three times in the head at close range. “The Army says the case is now closed,” reported The Week, “but Tillman’s family says it believes the government is still concealing information about the incident. A House committee this week opened hearings into Tillman’s death.” Incidentally, it developed a couple months ago that Tillman was scarcely the Bush League’s ideal warrior-patriot: far from being a God-fearing Christian exemplar, Tillman was an atheist from a skeptical, left-leaning family, thought the war in Iraq was “illegal,” and planned to vote for John Kerry in 2004. His favorite author was far-left theorist Noam Chomsky.
Myths persist, however, aided and abetted, usually, by most of the mainstream so-called “news” media. Most of the excitement over Barry Bonds’ breaking the homerun record ignored what Roger Angell told us in The New Yorker on August 20: baseball’s “most hallowed record,” as it is dubbed, is “hallowed but hollow, perhaps,” Angell writes, “since homerun totals are determined not just by the batters but by different pitchers, in very different eras, and, most of all, by the outer dimensions of the major-league parks, which have always varied widely and have been deliberately reconfigured in the sixteen ballparks built since 1992, thus satisfying the owners’ financial interest in more and still more home runs. Bonds has been called a cheater, but the word should hardly come up in a sport whose proprietors, if they were in charge of the classic Olympic hundred-metre dash, would stage it variously at a hundred and six metres, ninety-four, a hundred and three, and so forth, and engrave the resulting times on a tablet.” Angell is a famously enthusiastic baseball fan and can’t be ignored.
Another popular myth is that the Iraqi government can’t enact an oil law the objective of which is to share oil wealth fairly among the three principal ethnicities of the nation—the Shiites and the Kurds, whose spheres of influence embrace oil fields, and the Sunnis, who are oil-impoverished. The Bush League wants us to believe that the intensity and bitterness of these historic ethnic rivalries has stalemated the legislative process. It’s those ever-recalcitrant Iraqis who are to blame for failing to reach this crucial benchmark. Nowhere, until recently, have I encountered any alternative explanation for this seemingly irrational Iraqi behavior. Then a week or so ago, Jim Hightower, a typically irresponsible liberal and therefore wholly reliable source, offered an explanation: “Major media outlets ... have swallowed Bush’s line whole, frequently and unquestioningly reporting that, for some reason, those quarrelsome Iraqis can’t even agree on something as basic as sharing oil revenues. ... Truth is, this is not about sharing profits but about a cynical power grab by multinational oil giants. Big Oil got the Bushites to write a provision into the proposed law that would open two thirds of Iraq’s oil fields to ownership by foreign corporations—unlike Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Iran, which all control their oil drilling and extraction.” And we all know how troublesome Venezuela and Iran have become as a result of their national ownership of oil production; don’t want that to happen in Iraq. “In short,” Hightower continues, “the law would force Iraq to surrender sovereignty over its most valuable economic resource—and that’s why it is not passing. One thing the nation’s politicians all can see is just how vehement public opposition to Big Oil’s law is. So when you see stories about Bush, Cheney and others imploring Iraq’s Parliament to pass this law—remember, they’re not promoting national reconciliation; they’re promoting a shameful oil scam.” Soon after running across this blatant expose, I saw veiled references in the Washington Post National Weekly Edition to Big Oil’s attempt to control Iraqi oil.
Both the Post and Hightower may be wrong about Big Oil’s designs upon Iraqi oil. But it rings true even if it isn’t, which is a measure of how thoroughly we have come to believe that the Bush League is infected with an essential duplicity: we know they lie and that their chief interest in any undertaking is the enhancement of corporate wealth, particularly if the undertaking has something to do with oil. By the same token, we’d probably believe that the Bush League has made conversion to Christianity a fundamental requirement for citizenship in Iraq so blatantly have the Bushites advocated the Sublime Truth of Evangelical Christianity. Which brings me to an apostrophe about church and state. I’ve been uneasy about the intimacy that the Bush League advocates between religion and government but couldn’t put my finger on just why I was uneasy. Then I encountered an article in the September 3 issue of Newsweek by Lisa Miller, who is reviewing a book, God’s Harvard, about Patrick Henry College in Purcelllville, Virginia, the stated goal of which is to “prepare Christian men and women who will lead our nation and shape our culture.” In the course of the review, Miller acknowledges what liberal intellectuals “fear most about evangelical Christians” but goes on to say that fear is well-founded in the case of Patrick Henry College: “The students at Patrick Henry do want to take over the world and they do think that anyone without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is going to hell.” Miller’s question— “Does Patrick Henry College actually pose a threat to American values of pluralism, equality and democracy?”—encapsulates the source of my uneasiness. If these “culture warriors” have their way, pluralism, equality and democracy will cease to exist in America. Only those with “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” will rule. Beware of zealots, whether political or religious.
Another thing we’re not being adequately informed about by the ever-vigilant Froth Estate is global warming. Time and Newsweek and other national news orifices have done numerous cover stories on the issue, but not until Robert J. Samuelson, a Newsweek columnist, attacked his own magazine have I been convinced that anyone is approaching the problem with anything like an objective grasp of the realities. Virtually all the coverage of global warming is advocacy reportage, supporting one side of the argument over the other. Samuelson manages to take both sides at once, undermining his own magazine platform but suggesting a more sensible path to follow. “We in the news business often enlist in moral crusades,” he began in the issue dated August 20-27. “Global warming is among the latest. Unfortunately, self-righteous indignation can undermine good journalism. Last week’s Newsweek cover story on global warming is a sobering reminder. It’s an object lesson of how viewing the world as ‘good guys vs. bad guys’ can lead to a vast oversimplification of a messy story. Global warming has clearly occurred; the hard question is what to do about it. ... The global-warming debate’s great unmentionable is this,” he continues: “we lack the technology to get from here to there. Just because Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to cut emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 doesn’t mean it can happen.” Citing a 2006 study from the International Energy Agency, Samuelson points out that carbon-dioxide (the main greenhouse gas) emissions will likely double by 2050, and “developing countries would account for almost 70 percent of the increase.” Most of those countries are not likely to do anything about greenhouse gases. Countries, say, like China, where the number of carbon-dioxide-emitting automobiles is expected to go from 26 million to 120 million by 2020.
Under most of the scenarios Samuelson discusses, the best we can hope for—even we adopt the most stringent measures—is to curb emissions growth, not eliminate it or, even, to reverse the trend to restore some earlier, less harmful, level of emission. Newsweek’s cover story was “contrived,” Samuelson says; for dramatic impact, I say, in agreement. Samuelson allows that some of the many measures proposed ought to be implemented. He urges more research and development, cutting oil imports in the U.S., and drilling for domestic natural gas (“a low-emission fuel”). But the essential problem remains: we don’t have a realistic solution to the problem of global warming, and calling those who question the gravity of the issue fools or cranks or oil industry stooges avoids coming to grips with what to do. In his book, Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming, Bjorn Lomborg reportedly says global warming isn’t as bad as the media and Al Gore would have us believe. And rather than pursue the phantoms of eliminating or drastically reducing emissions—both nearly impossible—Lomborg suggests we’d spend our time and energies more effectively if we started now devising ways to live in a warmer climate. At last, rank realism.
What of the other hilarities that were perpetrated over the summer? What of the departure of the insidious cynic Karl Rove and of the incompetent master of mendacity Alberto Gonzales? Of both, good riddance, I say. Rove, whatever his other ideologies, attempted to politicize government as no one ever did: everyone in government, if he’d succeeded in his plot, would have towed the Bush League line. He succeeded in bullying scientific agencies into re-writing reports to make them conform to the party line instead of to verifiable fact, a shameful enough achievement. But he failed to keep the Christian Right on board. Said Lou Dubose in The Washington Spectator: “Harnessing the Christians was an electoral strategy not a governing strategy.” Quoting Tom DeLay, DuBose said that Rove could get “the wackos” to vote every two years, but he couldn’t entirely placate them between elections. “Again and again, the Bush administration foundered, and its support flagged, as it attempted to accommodate Christian extremists whom Rove was struggling to keep in harness with the economic conservatives who for decades had dominated the Republican Party.” And so, ultimately, Rove left Washington having failed to achieve the One Great Thing he hoped to accomplish—creating the Republican Party as a permanent majority. An editorial in the Washington Post National Weekly Edition summed up Rove’s time in office: “If the manufactured polarization of the Bush-Rove years did not even serve its ostensible purpose, then what was the good of it?”
Gonzales? A sad case, that the son of an immigrant worker in a despised ethnicity should rise so high and fall so short. But he supplies an object lesson in the futility of cronyism in government.
And then we have the clueless Larry Craig, caught with his pants down in the mens’ restroom of the Minneapolis airport. His ordeal dominated the news for a week, another example of journalistic irresponsibility running amuck. As always, Garry Trudeau got it right. Uncle Duke, had he been in charge of Craig’s fate, would have “made a fake video of him soliciting female sex.” Duke’s son realized the truth of the situation at once: “Craig’s strategic error was soliciting gay sex instead of straight sex.”
Craig’s dilemma provided some commentators with an opportunity to skewer Rudy Giuliani, saying “a man who shamelessly flaunted his adulterous affairs [is] more reprehensible than someone who tried desperately to hide his failure to live up to [the cultural conservative] moral code” even while believing in it. Apart from whatever else he proved, Craig demonstrated the tragic error of trying to live a life you don’t believe in—or of believing in something you cannot live with. Craig’s fate, undeserved on its face, was nonetheless the perfect salute to the departing Karl Rove, who specialized in sleazy sex rumors about political candidates: with Craig, a sleazy sex fact torpedoed a Republican stalwart, who, otherwise, Rove would champion. Pat Bagley, who editoons for the Salt Lake City Tribune, is another cartoonist who got it right. Here’s his take on the Craig episode. A masterpiece of multiple implications, it perfectly captures the ludicrousness of the GOP position on Craig and gaiety and the essential hypocrisy we’ve come to expect from moral zealots. I met Bagley and interviewed him in the 1990s, my first interview for Cartoonist PROfiles magazine. At the time, his work was powerful and funny. And he’s merely gotten better, more powerful, funnier. And he’s also gotten himself syndicated with Daryl Cagle, and that gets Pat exposure and visibility that he never had before. Now he’s emerging as a national force.
And, speaking of Rove and the sensationalism of all this sexual, Mitt Romney’s Mormonism has not yet surfaced in all its unfamiliar aspects. So far, following the pattern Rove established, we’ve heard only about the sex part: just vague albeit overheated rumblings about the practice of polygamy that was once a pillar of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. It was abandoned when Utah became an official U.S. governmental entity. As Rove well knew, we’re happily titillated by sex. But not by racism. The Mormon religion was also blatantly racist: until 1978, African Americans were regarded as such inferior creatures that they were not permitted to assume any of the priestly positions in the church hierarchy. But we haven’t heard much about that. Romney was presumably raised in that benighted tradition, but he is also smart enough to realize how benighted that notion is. Still, in this day of high road political tactics, I’m surprised someone hasn’t come forward to nail him to the wall about the beliefs of his forebears. We haven’t heard much about the Mormon conviction that human sapiens will eventually become gods either. But since that is the ambition of every Presidential candidate, we can scarcely fault Romney for it. Of all the distracting irrelevancies laying in wait for the Romney campaign, we’ve heard mostly only about the sex part. Rove taught his minions—and his opponents—well.
We haven’t heard much about Condi Rice either these past few months. What’s with this fashion plate and one-time potential Republican candidate for Prexy? If Fred Thompson can jump in even at this late date, surely she can.
Metaphors be with you.
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