Opus 220 (March 31, 2008). At the end of this episode, we take a long rambling look at the history of criticism in comics, and between here and there, we consider Hillary as an object lesson in sexism in editooning and review several new books. Here’s what’s here, in order, by department:
NOUS R US
Horton the movie, Trudeau’s sabbatical, recession hits comics, a syndicate goes out of business, and excerpts from interviews with Howard Chaykin (American Flagg!), John Rose (Snuffy Smith), and Steven Butler (Archie’s make-over)
The Danish Dozen and a Swastika
Sexism in caricaturing Hillary
Pat Oliphant on the joy of Election Year
Nights of Snowfall, Batman Illustrated by Neal Adams, Neal Adams: The
Sketchbook, The Best of Harveyville Fun Times, and Edward Sorel’s
Just When You Thought Things Couldn’t Get Worse
Ramble Through the History of Comics Criticis
And our customary reminder: don’t forget to activate the “Bathroom Button” by clicking on the “print friendly version” so you can print off a copy of just this lengthy installment for reading later, at your leisure while enthroned. Without further adieu—
NOUS R US
All the News That Gives Us Fits
“Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who” grossed $45 million on its opening weekend, the largest gross of that weekend and the year’s best debut financially, saith Entertainment Weekly, aided and abetted by Media by the Numbers. And the movie was still the top grossing flick of the next weekend, March 22-23, with $25.1 million. Seuss’s book of the same name has supplied sundry pro-life clubs with their mottoes: “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” said Horton, who carries around a flower full of Whos that are so tiny they can’t be seen with the naked eye. But according to EW, Japan was probably what Seuss had in mind with Who-ville: he wrote the book in 1953 after returning from a visit that nation, which was just emerging from post-war U.S. occupation. ... In the same issue (March 21) of EW, David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague, a comic book history up to the collapse of the industry in the wake of Fredric Wertham’s attack, is the week’s Book Pick, reviewed, enthusiastically (displaying a Jack Davis picture of the Crypt Keeper from the old EC comic book), but the reviewer—and perhaps even Hajdu—asserts that “by the mid-1940s, comics had become an industry, selling between 80 and 100 million pulpy copies a week, mostly to children” (my italics). I may be wrong, of course (I’ve been wrong twice—ooops, no, only once; I was mistaken about the other time), but I’ve always supposed that the quantity of comic books printed grew during the early 1940s due to the readership of soldiers and sailors, who avidly perused funnybooks in those tedious lulls between the battles of World War II; hence, “mostly to children” is probably wrong. ... EW has started, I don’t know how recently, “charting” sales of graphic novels and comic books, heralding beyond dispute the cultural arrival of the medium. The “top ten” sellers of the week February 25-March 3 was determined by consulting Comix Experience, a shop in San Francisco. Dunno about the wisdom of using a single comic book shop as an authoritative source of information quoted in a national magazine for the entire world to see and base opinions on.
Garry Trudeau started his three month sabbatical on March 23. Doonesbury will return on June 16, in plenty of time to disport in shredding the pretensions and hypocrisies of Presidential contenders over the next five months or so. It’s a puzzle, though, that Trudeau would abandon us all to our own political instincts while the race for the Democrat Party nomination is still running a fever. Several newspapers announced that they would use the Doonesbury hiatus to sample other strips, some of which will come from Trudeau’s syndicate, Universal Press. Other papers intend to offer re-runs of Doonesbury. ... In April, Trudeau will receive the annual Mental Health Research Advocacy Award from Yale School of Medicine “for his portrayal of the readjustment issues faced by soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan,” according to medindia.net/news. John Krystal, a professor of clinical pharmacology and research in psychiatry at Yale, said Trudeau’s fictional treatment of the physically and psychologically wounded “provides millions of Americans with a gut level appreciation of the impact of posttraumatic stress disorder on soldiers and their families ... helping to raise awareness about the importance of PTSD as a national challenge where investment in treatment and research could have an important and lasting impact.”
The comic book biz, like all U.S. businesses, may soon be limping in step with the Recession that everyone is talking about but few want to speak of by name. Publishers will feel the pinch—probably already have, as far as I know—and comic book shops, to the extent that they focus only on comics, may begin shutting their doors. Shops that also sell, say, sports cards or other collectible merchandise may do better. But the Recession will doubtless seep into corners of the comics biz in ways we scarcely anticipate as we go about our daily tumbies far from Wall Street. Take, for instance, this report from ICv2 about a national bookstore chain: “The financial markets are putting a major strain on companies that have to borrow money, and Borders, the nation's second-largest bookstore chain ... is the latest company to feel the pressure. Shares of the Borders Group fell 29% as the book retailer suspended its dividend and announced that it was investigating a wide range of alternatives including the ‘sale of the company.’ Borders CEO George Jones noted that the company has been searching for financial options but ‘the current credit environment has made many of these alternatives prohibitively expensive or entirely unavailable.’ Borders has lined up some $42.5 million in financing, but the source of the money is the aggressive hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management, and the funds come at very high price. The Pershing Square loan, which is due next January 15th, carries a hefty 12.5% interest rate and as part of the agreement Pershing Square will receive 14.7 million warrants that, if exercised, would give the hedge fund an additional 20% of Borders (it already owns 18%). According to analysts the onerous conditions of the Pershing Square loan will make it harder for Borders to find a buyer. Borders will have two weeks to find a better source of funding, but in today's financial market that is a tall order indeed.” Two weeks from when? Next January when the loan is due? Or from “now”? Dunno. But this hedgy circumstance demonstrates how even the lowly comics biz can become ensnared in the larger, grander devolutions of the financial world outside: Borders, the ICv2 report noted ominously, is “a major venue for manga sales.” I doubt that Borders will bite the dust as a result of the current financial crisis. It’s too big and usually profitable: someone will buy it and relieve its financial distress so it can once again yield profit. But Borders’ situation bodes ill for the comics biz: many comic book publishers, the small one- or two-title operations, are probably among those businesses that, like Borders, have to borrow money to do business. Not a happy outlook, kimo sabe. According to ICv2, “comic and graphic novel sales to comic stores slipped in February for the second time in four months.” An omen.
The March issue of Booklist, a publication of the American Library Association, is focused on graphic novels with a James Strum interview, a roster of influential women cartoonists, and lists of the “top ten best reviewed” graphic novels published in the last twelve months, one for adult graphic novels and a second for “youth.” According to booklistonline.com, the top ten best reviewed graphic novels for adults includes: Alias the Cat by Kim Deitch, Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot, The Fun Never Stops by Drew Friedman, Ghost Stories: Essex Country, Vol. 2 by Jeff Lemire, The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam by Ann Marie Fleming, My Life in a Jugular Vein: Three More Years of Snakepit Comics by Ben Snakepit, Super Spy by Matt Kindt, Superman: All Star No. 1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, Thunderhead Underground Falls by Joel Orff, and With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child by Keiko Tobe. I confess that I can no longer keep up with the graphic novels so prolific are the publishers thereof, but I am generally aware of what’s being published even if I can’t take the time to read them all, and I don’t recognize but two or three of the so-called “graphic novels” in this listing. But, I remind myself, this is a listing of the graphic novels that got the “best reviews” in ALA publications, not best sellers.
The winners of the National Cartoonists Society’s Reuben and of a dozen or so “division awards” (eg., newspaper comic strips, comic books, editorial cartoons, etc.) will be announced at NCS’ annual get-together, this year over Memorial Day weekend in New Orleans, where the cartooners will arrive a day early to help Habitat for Humanity build houses in the desolated neighborhoods. ... NCS members have resumed the practice of visiting the recuperating wounded at veterans hospitals around the country, a morale-building endeavor that began during World War II and resulted, eventually, in the founding of the Society (as recounted in “Rube Goldberg and the Founding of NCS” in Harv’s Hindsights, here). Typically, according to Jeff Bacon’s report in A Slice of Wry, the monthly newsletter of the Southern California Cartoonists Society, “the cartoonists are escorted from room to room as a group, and while visiting, they sketch cartoons or draw caricatures for the patients. When they leave, they thank the troops for their service and leave whatever artwork was generated. So far, NCS members have visited 17 different VA hospitals in such places as New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Florida, George, South Carolina, Kentucky, Texas and Idaho. Many of the hospitals have received multiple visits over the last couple of years. ... Cartoonists have also dropped in on several active duty military hospitals around the country.”
In accepting the Herblock Award on March 18, editoonist John Sherffius delivered himself of a short diatribe, saying: “I am angry” at the Bush administration for a litany of failures and malfeasance including “outright contempt for our Constitution ... This is not the America I want for my children; this is not the America I know.” He continued, Mike Rhode reports at comicsdc.blogspot.com, by noting journalism’s complicity: “It is grimly ironic that [while] we have one of the most abusive administrations in power, the press is withering within.” ... The third volume of short stories by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Good-Bye, is in the chute for May, according to the current issue of Previews. The stories in this volume were produced in 1971-72, and some of them focus on the effects on Japan of World War II. ... Also forthcoming, Get Lost: the Comic Designed to Send You, collecting all three issues of the Mad-imitation produced in 1953 by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito, plus an essay by Ron Goulart and “tons of documentary material” (it sez here). Get Lost got lost in the aftermath of a law suit brought against it by Mad’s Bill Gaines; Gaines lost the suit but the magazine never re-emerged. Until now.
DBR Media, a syndicate founded eight years ago to service weekly newspapers and small town dailies, ceased operations on March 17, reports Dave Astor at Editor & Publisher. An e-mail to DBR’s roster of over 50 cartoonists and columnists explained that the company has been “experiencing very hard times” and could no longer stay afloat, adding: “Please know that every effort is going to be made to compensate you. Money is still owed to us from clients. We are hoping to recover that.” DBR’s founders—Diane Eckert, Brad Elson, and Richard Wilson, whose first names supplied the company’s name initials—all worked for King Features Weekly Service, with which their new company would be in more-or-less direct competition. While acknowledging the common clientele both companies would pursue, Eckert, who was executive editor of DBR at its founding, felt there was room for both: with over 11,000 weekly papers in the U.S., she noted, there was “more than enough” clients to go around. Apparently not. KFWS, launched in 1986, is still running and, at last report (March 27), had picked up 17 of DBR’s client papers. At least two of the DBR creators are offering their features through georgetoon.com: Polly Keener’s strip Hamster Alley and her puzzle page, Mystery Magic; and Mark Szorady’s comic strip George and comic game panels Double Take, Word Pile, and George’s Word Ladder.
Jim Ivey, founder of the fondly recalled OrlandoCon, proprietor of the cARToon Museum of treasured memory, and a retired editorial cartoonist with a cross-country record (Washington Evening Star, St. Petersburg Times, San Francisco Examiner, and Orlando Sentinel) notes in a recent letter to me that there were 125 full-time staff political cartoonists when he started almost 60 years ago; now there are only 80. Jim also has some new nomenclature for the drawing styles of three “commercial successes” on the comics page. Dilbert belongs to “the circle-templet and straight-edge school of cartooning”; Drabble, “the crayon-on-the-wall school”; and Doonesbury, “the burned-match stick school” (in the early manifestation). “All three got by with the subject matter,” Jim adds. “I still believe Doonesbury was picked up initially because syndicates couldn’t get the 1960s underground comix artists to accept supervision from syndicates’ conservative standards: the early crudity of the art [in Doonesbury] seemed ‘underground’ to them.”
In Entertainment Weekly for February 15, Nisha Gopalan interviewed the Norwegian-born cartoonist Jason (aka John Arne Saeteroy, 42) whose graphic novel speciality is stories populated by people with animal or bird heads, ostensibly anthropomorphic, I guess you’d say. His latest production is a “droll sequel” to Alexander Dumas’ classic; Jason’s is entitled The Last Musketeer. In 2006, Gopalan reports, Jason left Norway for Montpellier in France “because the tradition of making comics is much bigger” in France; in Norway, “it’s for kids, mostly. Originally, I drew in a more realistic style, with people,” he continued. “But they were stiff and didn’t look that convincing.” (So he’s settled for stiff people with animal heads—how convincing is that? Sorry. Snide comment uncalled for. Perhaps.) He goes on: “I buy more DVDs than I buy comics. Musketeer is influenced by the film serials from the forties, like ‘Flash Gordon.’” As for his spare dialogue? “I’m a big fan of Buster Keaton.” And his stories end sadly because sad endings are more memorable. “If Ingrid Berman and Humphrey Bogart had gotten together in ‘Casablanca’—it would not have been the same thing.”
Can’t escape EW this time out, it seems. The magazine named “Popeye the Sailor 1933-38, Vol. 1" the Number Two DVD of 2007 in its year-end issue and ranked Well, Blow Me Down! Vol. 2, Fantagraphics’ reprint of E.C. Segar’s strip, as the Number Two “Best Comics of 2007.” Vol. 2 of the animated cartoon, covering 1938-1940, will be released in June, reports King Features, which syndicates the strip. ... Apparently Asterix is going into the movies, live-action, with “Asterix at the Olympic Games,” Gerard Depardieu playing—Asterix? ... In Japan, some 250 pieces of animation art from Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” were discovered in a storage closet where they’ve languished for 50 years. “Cels, backgrounds, preliminary paintings and sketches had been sent to Japan in 1960 for an exhibit to promote the film,” reports The Week. When the exhibition closed, the artwork was stored in a closet and forgotten. Now all of it is being sent back to Disney.
The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world: the “land of the free” currently holds one out of every 100 Americans in prison. “Per capita,” says Derrick Z. Jackson at the Boston Globe, “our rate of imprisonment easily exceeds that of Russia, is six times that of China, and seven times that of Germany and France”—thanks to “draconian” drug laws. “Most of those sentenced to long prison terms are black: one in 15 black men is in jail, compared to one in 106 white males.” And what has this factoid to do with cartooning? Nothing: it ain’t funny, McGee.
In his new book Maps and Legends, Michael Chabon reveals, according to EW (March 21), that he was passionately fond of Howard Chaykin’s 1980s sci-fi series American Flagg!, which is being reprinted, at last, after a delay of four years, by Dynamic Forces and Image. Hardcover will be out in July, with a two-volume paperback following in the fall. Chaykin left comic books for a few years in the late seventies to do "visual novels" for Byron Preiss. For Empire (1978) and The Stars My Destination (1979), he produced fully painted illustrations—several to a page in the fashion of comic book panels—that shared the narrative with the original author's accompanying text. When he returned to comic books in 1983 with American Flagg! for First Comics, Chaykin brought with him a heightened sense of design, and the pages of Flagg! are laid out like posters, panels alternating with full-figure renderings or lobby-card close-ups against a plain white ground. Typography also plays a dramatic role in the page designs and in the narrative itself, different type faces evoking a variety of emotional responses. The pronounced design quality of his pages gives sheer imagery a narrative role; there is little continuity of action in the usual manner of comics. The reader absorbs the story as a series of impressions, and Chaykin heightened the sense that the narrative progressed by imagistic fits and starts with a storyline that is extremely elliptical, jumping from one incident to the next and landing his readers, often, in the midst of the action with little or no preamble. And he employed the cinematic maneuver of the voice-over: in the last panel of a sequence, the speech balloons of the next sequence frequently appear, making the bridge between scenes. When more elaborate connective tissue was needed, he used television as his narrator: TV commentators supply explanatory background with their reports and analyses of the "news."
In subject, Chaykin's story is gritty and vulgar: it plunges through street gang violence in a futuristic multiplex with Reuben Flagg's sexual dalliances as a leitmotif. American Flagg! is sophisticated and intellectually intriguing, often in the manner of puzzle-solving. Emotionally, however, the tales are seldom engaging; none of Chaykin's characters are sympathetic enough to make us like them. Still, Chaykin's book is for adults: it is mature in theme and in manner of presentation. For its landmark innovative visual treatment alone, American Flagg! has deserved reprinting and handsome packaging ever since it first appeared. The project announced in January 2004, however, was apparently doomed from the start.
Interviewed by Matt Brady at newsarma.com, Chaykin explained the long lapse between that announcement and the projected publication this summer by saying that technological problems loomed almost at once. “The original art is long gone,” he said, so the reprint is being assembled by digitizing whatever images they can find, including the existing printed pages, and then re-coloring. Four years ago, the technology for achieving this result easily, inexpensively, had not yet been developed. And because the comic books of the 1980s were printed on plastic plates, the imagery to be digitized is often problematic even with today’s technology. But Chaykin is as convinced as he can be (until he holds the final hardcover reprint in his hands, he said) that the present effort will result in a “beautiful facsimile that still maintains the integrity of the original material but has a polish and sheen that supports it in a contemporary way.” The volume that will appear this summer includes the first 14 issues of American Flagg! plus a new 12-page “vignette that touches all the bases of the strip,” Chaykin said. Apparently, only the hardcover will include this new material. There is already talk of a second volume that would reprint the series up through No. 24.
John Rose is one of several editorial cartoonists who also does a syndicated comic strip. In addition to doing four or five editorial cartoons every week for a newspaper chain based in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where he lives, Rose also produces Kid’s Home Newspaper, a weekend activity page for children distributed by Copley News Service. And he does the legendary Snuffy Smith, a strip originated as Barney Google by Billy DeBeck in the late teens of the last century and continued, after DeBeck died in 1942, by another legend, Fred Lasswell. Rose was interviewed by John Read for the first issue of Stay ’Tooned, Read’s new quarterly magazine about cartooning. Here, I quote some from Rose’s part of that exchange.
Lasswell hired Rose as his inking assistant in 1988 because, Rose said, “he liked the way I drew big noses.” Rose worked in his Harrisonburg studio, connecting to Lasswell by fax, telephone, and e-mail and visiting Lasswell occasionally in his Florida studio. “He was the greatest cartoonist I’ve ever known,” Rose said, “and the biggest influence on my career. ‘Uncle Fred,’ as he liked to be called, was an extremely talented artist and writer, a wonderful teacher, and a great human being. His death in 2001 was a shock; I lost a mentor and a friend. And I didn’t know whether that chapter in my life was closing or if something new was going to happen. I heard nothing from King Features [about continuing the strip] for a few weeks after Fred passed away. He worked very far ahead, so Snuffy Smith was still running. Jay Kennedy, the editor-in-chief at King Features, knew that I had been assisting Fred, and called and invited me to audition, along with four other cartoonists, for the job. I was elated when Jay selected me! I never assumed the job was mine. I just felt very fortunate to be considered. It was the greatest opportunity to come my way, and I will always be very grateful to Fred, Jay Kennedy, and King Features. Working with Snuffy Smith each day is a lot of fun. I think the secret to its success, and the reason I really enjoy doing it, is the characters that Billy DeBeck and Fred created: they are just great characters to work with and fun characters to draw.”
In another article published several years ago, I read that Rose relies on gag writers for much of his comedy in the strip. And much of that comedy, in contrast to the Lasswell kind, is verbal rather than visual-verbal. Lasswell’s jokes invariably involved a picture in the punchline panel: the picture gave the words their humor. Maybe that’s one of the reasons that Uncle Fred is a legend.
For Stay ’Tooned information, visit staytoonedmagazine.com where subscriptions are offered: $40 for a 5-issue subscription.
At Archie Comics (wouldn’t you know?), they’re not finished experimenting with the new “realistic” look that was introduced with last year’s 4-part “Bad Boy Trouble” in the Betty & Veronica Digest. Now Jughead, the least humanoid-looking of the regular cast, gets the make-over treatment in Jughead’s Double Digest, starting with No. 139. Evidently the experiment with Betty and Veronica was a success, pulling in new readers who were on the lookout for manga-style books about young people. John Read interviewed Steven Butler, the cartoonist who did the girls’ make-over, in the first issue of Stay ’Tooned. Butler said he was very nearly overwhelmed by the response to the new look. “It’s been weird,” he said. “You go online and you see all this ‘I hate it! I hate it!’ and ‘The art is ugly!’ and all this stuff, and it’s like, man, you gotta have a thick skin. I never had to deal with stuff like that before with the Spider-Man or Badger books. ... I really didn’t know what to expect from the fans because I’d never done anything like this. One day—and this was before the first issue had even come out—my wife Christy was yelling my name, telling me to ‘Come here! Come here!’ and I jumped up and grabbed a T-square—ironically, I was working on a Betty & Veronica page right then— and ran into our den, where I was expecting to find a rat or a snake or something, which isn’t uncommon where we live [Lucedale, MS]. I’m going ‘What?! What is it?! Where is it?!’ And Christy’s pointing at the tv, saying, ‘Look! Look on the tv!’ and there’s Regis Philbin holding up artwork from the first issue, art that had appeared in The New York Times the day before. Regis is holding up this art, the same first page that’s been all over the Internet now, holding it up to the camera, and he’s saying, ‘Well, Kelly, what do you think about the new look of Betty and Veronica?’ So I’m standing there thinking, well, hey, and he holds the artwork up for a good long time, talking about it and all. He didn’t mention my name, but I’m thinking, ‘Good Lord—there’s my art!’
“Later,” Butler continued, “I heard it was a feature story on ‘The Today Show’ on NBC and it was mentioned on several other shows, too. And then, of course, it was spreading like wildfire all over the Internet. I went and Googled the ‘Betty & Veronica make-over’ and, when we saw all the stuff there, I though, ‘Man, this is definitely a polarizing thing.’ First of all, a lot of people thought Archie was making a wholesale change. But it was just a trial thing, an experiment with just the one storyline. Maybe they (Archie Comics) didn’t word it right in their announcements ... or maybe they did that on purpose, but either way, it got them a lot of publicity. Controversy or not, it put the ‘make-over’ on the map. Archie’s not known for taking chances, they’re more of a ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ company, so I’m sure they heard what the fans were saying. The trade book [that’s coming out about now], by the way, was what they wanted to do first originally, to put out something that could go on shelves next to all the manga books; they wanted to hit that niche market, to test the waters. Them deciding to run the story in serialized form was, like, not an afterthought but something that came secondary: ‘Hey, why don’t we serialize it first, then put it out in a collection?’ I understand they’re going to do another serious story, another four-parter, in another one of the digest comics, but the art will be more in the house style, the Dan DeCarlo look. They say it’s because of the overwhelming negative mail they’ve gotten. You know, I’ve never had anybody come up to me and say they hated the stuff—everybody I’ve met has told me how cool it looked, and how they wish it would continue on.”
Judging from the covers reproduced in Previews, the Jughead adventure will not be rendered in the DeCarlo manner—well, not much. It looks like a second installment of the “experiment” to me. This may be the thin edge of the wedge, kimo sabe: maybe the entire line of Archie books will, in a year or so, get a make-over. In another Jughead title, Jughead and Friends, Jug gets to play Riverdale Jones, an archeologist-adventurer in search of the Temple of Food. And in Betty & Veronica Double Digest, fans will get to decide the outcome of a romance Cheryl Blossom gets herself into, starting with No. 161.
As I said, just a moment ago, for Stay ’Tooned information, visit staytoonedmagazine.com where subscriptions are offered: $40 for a 5-issue subscription.
DANISH DOZEN SOME MORE AND A SWASTIKA
In an audio message posted in mid-March, the notorious international outlaw caveman Osama bin Laden expressed his displeasure at the recent re-printing in Denmark newspapers of the offensive Muhammad cartoons of 2006 (or 2005, depending upon where you put the benchmark). The Associated Press reported that Bin Laden described the cartoons as part of a “new Crusade” against Islam and, in lurching lingo that attempted to vault with religious fervor, warned of forthcoming retribution: “The response will be what you see and not what you hear and let our mothers bereave us if we do not make victorious our messenger of God.” The occasion for bin Laden’s rant may have been Muhammad’s birthday celebration throughout the Muslim world, but this isn’t the first time bin Laden has employed the Danish Dozen to whip up Islamic ire. He delivered a 50-minute harangue in April 2006, this time attacking Arab governments “for their inappropriate response to the publication of the cartoons,” said Flemming Rose, who, as culture editor of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper, commissioned the cartoon project that subsequently set the Muslim world aflame in 2006. “Obviously,” Rose continued in a recent article posted by pajamasmedia.com, “bin Laden would have preferred more killings and torchings of embassies. Bin Laden made clear that he saw the blasphemous Danish cartoons as a worse attack on Islam than the invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan.” The caveman cited what he called “the Prophet’s law” that “anyone who mocks him and belittles Islam and scorns it should be killed.” Bin Laden is apparently concerned about the rise in Europe of tough national leaders who reject jihadi intimidations as well as the Islamic call for Western countries to curtail traditional freedoms in deference to Muslim sensitivities. Said Rose: “What should be the response of Europe? More cartoons or less cartoons? What kind of civilization are we, after all, if we refrain from mocking and ridiculing bin Laden and his followers?”
Meanwhile, Kurt Westergaard, the cartoonist whose picture of Muhammad wearing a bomb-like turban is sometimes regarded as the most blasphemous of the lot, moved into another safe house, his sixth since the imbroglio began in 2006. “This will go on for the rest of my life, I am sure,” he said, quoted by Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times. “I will never get out of this. But I feel more anger than fear. I’m angry because my life is threatened, and I know I have done nothing wrong, just done my job. Anger,” he said, smiling, “is the best therapy.”
Under normal circumstances, Westergaard is apparently happy to be somewhat controversial. When he visited the Jyllands-Posten offices recently, he was attired, “as usual, in fire-engine red pants, a patterned red scarf and a Sgt. Pepper black coat—clearly an act of sartorial defiance,” wrote Kimmelman. “Now he’s accustomed to being (and maybe, who is to say, even slightly enjoys his status as) an accidental celebrity with a soapbox,” he continued, quoting Westergaard again: “Disagreement is an essential part of democracy. I want to explain my sense of this clash between two cultures because I have grandchildren who will grow up in this multicultural society. The Danes are tolerant people. They don’t deserve to be treated like racists.” He is probably not surprised that the cartoons aroused such anger in the Muslim world: “Cartoons always concentrate and simplify an idea and allow a quick impression that arouses some strong feeling,” he said. He did a cartoon recently in which Jesus, wearing a suit and tie, is depicted striding away from the cross on which hangs a sign: “Service hours, Sunday, 10-11, 2-3.” It is perhaps as sacrilegious to Christians as Muhammad in a tur-bomb is to Muslims. Islamic piety over the Danish Dozen, however, hasn’t altered Westergaard’s view of religion: “I’ve always been an atheist,” he said, “and I dare say these events have only intensified my atheism. But the same clash would eventually have occurred over some book or a play. It was waiting to happen.”
Flemming Rose, by the way, doesn’t live in safe houses, but he has removed his name from the local telephone directory, and he learned that a different Flemming Rose (“there are apparently several in Denmark,” adds Kimmelman) decided to change his name.
On this side of the Atlantic, cartoonist Sam Gross (The New Yorker, Esquire and a life-long raft of other magazines) carries on his fight against the power of the swastika as a symbol, and his collection of cartoons on the subject, We Have Ways of Making You Laugh: 120 funny Swastika Cartoons, is certain to provoke rage and hurt feelings. “Some people,” reports CBC News, “have accused the cartoonist of trivializing the Holocaust by using the swastika in cartoons.” Said Gross: “I’m not trivializing the Holocaust. I’m trivializing the swastika. The swastika is not the Holocaust. The swastika is a symbol.” The swastika has been around for thousands of years, explained CBC, “primarily in Hindu culture. Since Adolf Hitler adopted it as the emblem of the Nazi Party ... the sign has become associated with painful memories of the Holocaust.” Gross, who has been cartooning for over 40 years, said his goal was to take the power out of the symbol and also to be funny. “The symbol is held in such awe and terror,” he said. “I just got so angry that I decided to have fun with it.” In one of his cartoons, a vandal is shown painting a swastika on a wall, and a dog, watching him, says: “Try scent marking. It’s nicer.”
Fascinating Footnit. Much of the news retailed in this segment is culled from articles eventually indexed at http://www.rpi.edu/~bulloj/comxbib.html, the Comics Research Bibliography, maintained by Michael Rhode and John Bullough, which covers comic books, comic strips, animation, caricature, cartoons, bandes dessinees and related topics. It also provides links to numerous other sites that delve deeply into cartooning topics. Three other sites laden with cartooning news and lore are Mark Evanier’s www.povonline.com, Alan Gardner’s www.DailyCartoonist.com, and Tom Spurgeon’s www.comicsreporter.com. And then there’s Mike Rhode’s ComicsDC blog, http://www.comicsdc.blogspot.com For delving into the history of our beloved medium, you can’t go wrong by visiting Allan Holtz’s http://www.strippersguide.blogspot.com, where Allan regularly posts rare findings from his forays into the vast reaches of newspaper microfilm files hither and yon.
QUOTES AND MOTS
Here’s Chris Rock on some Election Year issues:
On George Bush: He’s made it hard for a white man to run for president. People are saying, “After Bush, I’m not sure we can take another chance on a white guy.”
On Barack Obama: Sometimes I feel like Barack forgets he’s the black candidate in the race: he’s running like he can win this shit fair and square.
These gems I found quoted in the March issue of Funny Times, about which I’ve written here before, entirely laudatory persiflage. And I’m about to do it again. They offer a complete line of T-shirts with so-called witticisms like this on them: What if the Hokey Pokey is what it’s all about? Or: Somewhere in Texas there’s a village missing an idiot. Or: Mall-Wart, Your Source for Cheap Plastic Crap. Or: Well-behaved women seldom make history.
You can find these, I’m told, at the Tunny Fimes website: funnytimes.com.
The monthly newspaper, Funny Times, publishes humor columns, gag cartoons, editorial cartoons, and a few comic strips. And at the Funny Times Cartoon Playground (which you can find your way to via the afore-mentioned website), you can find an assortment of caricatures of notorious persons by Matt Wuerker, various props, and a mechanism by which you can construct your very own political cartoon/strip. “It’s fun, it’s free, and if you come up with something special, we might even print your creation in an upcoming issue of Funny Times.” And whether printed in the newspaper or not, it’ll be visible at the Cartoon Playground gallery where anyone in the worldwide web can see it.
Subscriptions to this sterling publication are $25/year (12 monthly issues); visit the website or send your money to Funny Times, P.O. Box 18530, Dept. 7AJV, Cleveland Heights, OH 44118.
Afflicting the Comfortable and Comforting the Afflicted
Hillary Clinton doesn’t have the body of Paris Hilton or Angelina Jolie, and that may be a good thing: at least, we’re spared the sort of tabloid coverage of her campaign that would compete with the Swimsuit Issue of Sports Illustrated. But Hillary doesn’t have the body of Donna Reed or Barbara Billingsley (Beaver’s mom) either. Instead, she has the typical physique of a woman in her fifties whose figure has given way to middle-aged spread. She is, as we were wont to say in our sexist youth, “broad in the beam.” And that aspect of her appearance, which in most walks of American life would receive no more notice than an occasional gray hair or crow’s feet at the corner of the eyes, gives political cartoonists something to exaggerate in caricature. It is inevitable, then, that cartoons about Hillary depict her as a somewhat dumpy broad-in-the-beam broad, particularly since most political cartooners are male and given to ogling Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue with a connoisseur-like delection, a penchant that inclines them to make fun of anyone who must squeeze rather than slip into a bikini. Cartoonists have little choice in the matter: depicting Hillary as svelte would be not only dishonest, it might be inept. (Although Ann Telnaes has managed to achieve a caricature of Hillary that is both honest and ept without being unflattering.) Still, we ought to be able to achieve candor in caricature without the sort of sexist bias that is on display in Daryl Cagle’s drawing for the Caption Contest run recently at the Humor Times website. (That’s Humor Times, not Funny Times—both excellent weekly papers, though.) The drawing qualifies as sexist because Cagle has elected to depict Hillary at full length—permitting him the forgivable pleasure of drawing a picture of her funny figure—but has drawn only the faces of the two male candidates. Both the male candidates have bodies that can easily be caricatured—Barack Obama is tall and skinny and John McCain’s post-Vietnam disability makes his arms seem attached at his neck—but Cagle, being sexist and male (interchangeable personality traits), ignores the body comedy in Obama and in McCain while picking on Hillary. Being sexist and male, he evidently thinks it’s more fun to ridicule her middle-aged spread than the physical oddities of the male candidates. But I think we ought to take delight in all such irregularities, and so I have, for the nonce, assumed the temerity to produce an object lesson.Pretty funny, eh? What a Laurel and Hardy campaign we’ll have if Obama gets the Democrat nomination.
“A bad year for the nation is usually a good year for a political cartoonist” observed Joel Weickgenant at new.savannahnow.com, writing about an exibition of cartoons by Pat Oliphant. Oliphant agrees; in fact, Oliphant probably gave Weickgenant the idea. It’s been “extremely good” for editooning for the last seven years, Oliphant said. “We haven’t had such a good time since the Nixon years. In fact, those years now seem tame.” Sometimes Oliphant’s politics interfere with his instinct as a cartoonist: he claims to be “horrified at the idea of Hillary as president. Although as a cartoonist, I should be delighted.”
MORE QUOTES AND MOTS
“If I have anything to answer for, it’s making the comics page safe for bad drawing.” —Garry Trudeau
Sign in the window of Pete’s Café: “Eat at Pete’s or We’ll Both Starve.”
“If we’re going to talk about Star Wars, we might as well invite Darth Vader. I’m happy to accept.” —Darth Cheney, displaying what in anyone else might be called a sense of humor but with him, it’s a sense of menace.
COMIC STRIP WATCH
Darrin Bell persists. A few weeks ago, one of his Candorville sequences observed that security at Barack Obama rallies is somewhat lax. The Washington Post, as we reported here last time (Op. 219), dropped those strips without saying why. Maybe the moguls there thought that advertising the lapse in security would be tempting fate. Who knows? But Bell didn’t let it go at that. The week of March 24, Bell’s protagonist, would-be writer Lemont Brown, dreams himself back into mid-19th century America—during Lincoln’s presidency, to be precise—where he convinces Thomas Nast to draw cartoons that campaign for better security for the President. In a sly self-deprecating turn (in which is embedded a dig at the Washington Post), Bell makes Nast a pompous egotist who tells Lemont: “If, as you say, Lincoln is in danger, my powerful call to action will change everything.” Says Lemont: “You don’t have any self-esteem problems, do you?” Neatly done. By the end of the week, Bell had turned his satire full-bore on timid newspaper editors and publishers. Nast’s publisher refuses to print Nast’s cartoon about Lincoln’s danger, to which Nast says: “But my cartoons demanding better security for Abraham Lincoln may prevent a horrible tragedy and spare the nation 100 years of misery and hate.” Says his publisher: “Yes, yes—but on the other hand, a dozen or so readers may take offense.” The next day, Lemont reacts: “When we produce a society where editors and readers are afraid of discussing grave issues, we deserve the absolute hell that comes to us.” Not just kiddin’ around anymore, eh?
In Greg Evans’ Luann, her brother Brad goes on his date with Toni, and all of us incorrigible romantic nerds sigh with envy. ... In Darby Conley’s Get Fuzzy, easy-going and somewhat dim-witted Satchel says he learned how to swear by reading the comics in newspapers. “Dollar sign! Dollar sign! Asterisk! Ampersand! Squiggly!” he fulminates. “What else did you learn from the comics?” asks his owner, the hapless Rob. “Cats are evil,” says Satchel. “What else, what else? Oh, it’s 1954.” ... Barack Obama shows up, from the neck down, in Over the Hedge: RJ has recruited him to secure the release of a pit bull pup who has been arrested for stealing a semi. ...In other political comics content, in Scott Stantis’ Prickly City, where the coyote Winslow is running for Prez, he tells Carmen that he’s been imagining someone else, other than Carmen, as his running mate. Then, in a speech balloon emanating off-panel, we read: “Obama’s only ahead ’cause he’s a Negro!” To which Winslow says, hastily: “But Geraldine Ferraro means nothing to me.” From off-panel, we hear the last word: “Heck, I was only on the ticket in ’84 ’cause I have ovaries.” The next day Stantis’ aims his ridicule in a slightly different direction: Winslow, still at the lectern ostensibly holding a news conference, has Carmen at his side as he confesses that “I have been with another running mate outside of my ticket.” Carmen: “This is so degrading,” standing here, next to the miscreant. Winslow: “I am truly sorry if I caused pain to my campaign family.” “IF?!” says Carmen. ... In another department of the Risque, another bathroom joke in Hagar when the eponymous one says to one of his crew as they row out to sea, “You should have thought of that before we left! You’ll just have to wait!”
And maybe Stephan Pastis of Pearls before Swine is getting some long overdue comeuppance. In The Humble Stumble, Roy Schneider has the Rat from Pearls show up to announce, in his usual mean-spirited way, that he’s heard Humble Stumble is “closing up shop.” He’s there, he says, for “dibs on your stuff.” “Suddenly,” says Schneider’s character who professed great affection for Rat two panels ago, “I don’t love you so much.” Over at Pearls, where he belongs, Rat has been serving at the concierge desk, lobbing hostile greetings to a parade of characters from other strips—the big-nose father from Baby Blues, and Ted Forth from Sally Forth (asking for the services of a female escort, in a not-so-subtle allusion to a recent high profile scandal in the New York governor’s office). Coincidentally (or, maybe not), on the same day that Ted Forth shows up at Rat’s concierge desk in Pearls, in Sally Forth, Ted is telling Sally, “Well, I spoke to the hotel concierge....” Surely, this sort of thing doesn’t happen by accident, and Sally Forth’s writer, Francesco Marciuliano, confirmed my guess at his blogspot, saying Pastis and he had planned it all long ago. ... As for The Humble Stumble, it did, indeed, end last month. It wasn’t a joke. All the characters took a last bow on Sunday, March 9. It was the dramatic conclusion to an unprecedented two-week finale. In the last week of February, the characters learn their strip will end, and suddenly, characters from other strips (Jeremy from Zits, a fish from Sherman’s Lagoon, Cathy) show up, trying to claim Humble’s slot on the funnies pages of the nation. Cathy abandons the idea when she sees Humble’s client list, which, we assume from her sudden disinterest, is too short for her to be concerned. In the following week’s continuity, the characters discover that Schneider, who shows up at the drawing board, is going to keep the ending a secret from his cast. At the last minute, though, he tells them they’re going on a “road trip” back into the dimmer recesses of his brain for “reprocessing.” They all load onto their VW bus, and as they drive off, one of the characters plugs the CD Schneider made of the strip’s “fun songs,” available at www.royschneider.com Unprecedented, like I said.
Verbal witticisms abound. In Mike Peters’ Mother Goose and Grimm we find Grimm and his wall-eyed canine buddy in a diner where they ask the waiter, “What’s your special today?” “Stone crabs,” he says. “Do you have any crabs who aren’t stoned?” “I ... I’m afraid not.” “No wonder they always walk sideways.” I love this stuff. Pictures contribute almost nothing except to identify the speakers in this gag, but the dialogue proceeds with towering logic to its hilariously illogical conclusion. ... Randy Glasbergen’s panel cartoons are also highly verbal (although his pictures are always uproarious in themselves: Glasbergen is the champion cartoon-nose maker of the universe). Here, we see a fellow on the phone and we hear the recorded message he gets: “At this time, we’d like to remind you to eat and drink at regular intervals. Thank you for continuing to hold.” Nice smack-down for banal recorded telephone messages. ... And here are a couple by the redoubtable Dan Piraro in his Bizarro. First, two gorillas, one of whom asks: “We share 99% of our DNA with humans but there are 6 billion of them and we’re nearly extinct. What’s the difference?” The other gorilla says: “We’re pacifists.” In the other one, a shabby-looking homeless guy is saying to a briefcase-carrying businessman, “I’ve discovered that one very effective way to lower your taxes is to make no money.”
And here are a few where the joke does not exist without the picture—or without the words; in short, the best sort of comic strip artistry. Except for Bruce Tinsley’s Mallard Fillmore, which I’ve included here because Tinsley’s caricature of William F. Buckley is perfect.
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
Eric Effron, managing editor of The Week magazine, notes that “advertising is now claiming the final frontier.” Says he: “A science consortium called the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association runs a space center on an Arctic Ocean archipelago that transmits signals into outer space on the outside chance there are species out there who might be listening. For the first time, the scientists have teamed up with a sponsor, Doritos maker Frito-Lay, which has invited the British public to submit 30-second commercials about life on this Doritos-munching planet of ours. The winning entry will be transmitted via ultra-high-frequency radar to a solar system 42 light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major, which scientists say could be teeming with life forms.” So when the citizens of Ursa Major receive a message “brought to you by Doritos,” will they think “Doritos play a central role in our civilization?”
Those Short Lovable Reviews We All Know and Love
The concept of Bill Willingham’s Fables series is among the most intriguing in comics: Snow White, Prince Charming, Bigby “Big Bad” Wolf and other personages familiar from fairy tales told in nurseries around the world actually lived, and they’ve been forced by “the Adversary” to relocate, leaving their magical world for our “mundane” one, where they hide out, taking refuge in our cities but still, secretly, interacting with each other. So when I ran across 1001 Nights of Snowfall (142 7x10-inch pages in color; hardback, $19.99), I leaped at it. Herein, we find ten stories illustrated by the likes of Brian Bolland, John Bolton, Michael Wm. Kaluta, Derek Kirk Kim, Tara McPherson, Jill Thompson, Charles Vess, Mark Wheatley, Esao Andrews, Mark Buckingham, and James Jean, each purporting to relate some incident in the “pre-fairy tale” life of some popular character. We learn, for instance, that “the Runt,” who becomes Bigby, the “Big Bad” Wolf, is the son of the North Wind, hence, his huffing-and-puffing prowess. These prehistoric biographies are not warm and fuzzy like most eviscerated fairy tales these days. Here’s the occupant of the famed Gingerbread House, a witch, who tells her story: impregnated, she kills her newborn at birth, her lover having married the daughter of a rival tribe’s chieftain in order to guarantee peace between the groups. The old woman then assures her power gained by killing her baby by killing other babies, stolen for the purpose. Her exploits resonate with other tales—the Billy Goats Gruff, Rapunzel, the Frog Prince, and the like. Then Hansel and Gretel come along and push her into the oven. Providing the allusion of the book’s title, the frame story is a variation on the old Scherazade dodge: this time, it’s Snow White who is held captive by her just acquired husband, a sultan, who is in the habit of killing his wives on the day after a one-night honeymoon; to forestall the inevitable, Snow tells stories, one a night for 1001 nights. The original Scherazade postponed her wedding’s consummation devoutly to be missed by not finishing a story in a single night: each night, she stopped at an appropriately cliff-hanging moment, so her bloodthirsty spouse had to wait until the next night to kill her. And then, before he could achieve his ghoulish goal, she’d start another tale and stop when she reached an appropriate cliffhanger. Ingenious contrivances though Willingham’s “pre-origin” tales are, they are not, somehow, wholly satisfying. Most of them lack endings that make sense of the machinations that go before; the machinations are interesting—Bigby being the son of the North Wind is an engaging notion—but our interest fades with the lackluster conclusions. The pictures by the all-star ensemble, though, are worth a look.
Batman Illustrated by Neal Adams (340 7x10-inch pages, all in color; hardback, $49.95), is the third volume in a series reprinting Adams’ work on Deadman, Green Arrow/Green Lantern, and Batman, work that, he reluctantly admits in the Introduction here, revolutionized the way comic books were drawn—with dramatic perspectives, dynamic page layouts, and such intense feathering that clothing seemed to soften into gauze. Adams was the artist to imitate almost from his first DC appearance. But it took him a while to get there. DC declined to hire him just after he graduated from highschool in 1959. Adams worked at Archie Comics for a time, then did some commercial illustration, and then, at age 20, he started producing the syndicated comic strip Ben Casey, based upon a popular tv show. After four years of stunning artistic achievement on the strip, Adams gave it up, hoping to get into commercial illustration. But when the sample portfolio he’d spent six months preparing got “lost” at the first place he applied, he returned to cartooning, first at Warren and then, finally, at DC. This book’s ten stories and some covers (at which Adams excelled) starts with his first work for DC, World’s Finest Comics No. 174 (cover-dated April 1968) and showcases Dick Giordano’s deft inking as well as Adams’ pencilling.
An insightful companion to the Adams Batman book, Neal Adams: The Sketchbook (112 7x10-inch pages, b/w; $28) from Vanguard prints a goodly number of badly reproduced pencil drawings and a fair assortment of well-reproduced ones, but the big bonus is that all of them are accompanied by commentary from Adams, which turns the book into a veritable “how to draw” comic books manual. F’instance, under the thumbnail of a page layout, we find this: “One of the things I do now and then with a story is, while keeping the same elements, I try to make the story read faster or slower through design.” Then he shows us how he did it.
The Best of The Harveyville Fun Times (400 8.5x11-inch pages, b/w; paperback, $29.95 at lulu.com) is a sampling by Mark Arnold of his fanzine about the sundry wonders of Harvey Comics. The bulk of the content devolves around plot descriptions of stories about Richie Rich, Casper the Ghost, Little Audrey, Baby Huey, Wendy the Good Little Witch and other of the company’s confections (inspired, usually, from their animated incarnations at shops other than Harvey’s), plus a smattering of the Sad Sack—comic books, tv, movies for all the characters—but there is also a short history of Harvey Comics, probably the only aspect of this volume that is of general use as a reference tool, except, alas, that Arnold is remarkably stingy at citing precise dates. “In 1946,” he says, “Harvey Publications had its first bonafide hit with Black Cat Comics,” but couldn’t he have given the actual cover date (June) of that title’s first issue? Probably not: the book doesn’t deal much with the Black Cat or any of the newspaper strip reprint titles Harvey produced—apart from mentioning them (Terry and the Pirates, Kerry Drake, Li’l Abner, Steve Canyon, Dick Tracy and Blondie) in the Harvey history segment (which promulgates an erroneous newspaper debut date for Ham Fisher’s Joe Palooka comic strip); Arnold’s interest lies with the kiddie characters, not the material aimed at slightly older readers. Much of the book seems to be photocopied from Arnold’s fanzine, the reproduction quality of which, judging from these copied pages, was not high. Some of the photocopies are of newspaper and magazine articles, and a few of the artists are interviewed, with brevity, apparently, as the object. Nice pieces on Fred Rhoads (Sad Sack) but nothing on Lee Elias (Black Cat). The tome is a sampling of Arnold’s fanzine, not an encyclopedia: not all the stories of every character are described or, even, listed, but the book is all there is about the Harvey Empire, so until some researcher with better archival instincts comes along, we’re stuck with this. By the way, the Harvey family under the microscope here, Alfred and his brothers Robert and Leon, is no relation of mine or of my uncles, Fred and Paul.
If, like me, you have only a nodding but appreciative acquaintance with the work of Edward Sorel, you can get to know him much better in all his sardonic brilliance with Just When You Thought Things Couldn’t Get Worse (170 8x10-inch pages, some in color; paperback, $18.95 from Fantagraphics), a collection of Sorel’s cartoons and comic strips, culled from a his three decades of casting a jaundiced eye at American political and social life. I’ve see his cartoony paintings and penwrought illustrations on the covers of and inside such magazines as The New Yorker, Time, Rolling Stone, Esquire and The Atlantic, and while I admired his scribbly penmanship, I didn’t realize, until now, that the man is more cartoonist than illustrator: he dotes on the comic strip form because he can turn its capacity for comedic timing into a satirical weapon. Like Jules Feiffer who pioneered the method, Sorel dribbles out, panel by panel, self-revelatory bits of his monologuist’s hang-ups and preoccupations until, at last, having accumulated enough psychic evidence to condemn himself, his momentary protagonist stands psychologically naked before us, a screaming neurotic whose inability to live in the world is determined by a compulsion to analyze it. The intellectual is revealed as the incompetent. Here’s a man seated in a chair, mulling over his political experience as “The Voter,” saying: “In ’64, I voted for Johnson because he promised peace.” Next panel: “But he betrayed me. He escalated the war!” Then in successive panels, two per administration, he continues: “In ’68, I voted for Nixon because he promised an end to Big Government. But I was fooled again. He bugged phones, opened mail, and doubled the White House staff. In ’76, I voted for Carter because he promised to cut military expenditures. But instead, he kept raising the military budget year after year! Finally, I figured it out. I realized that politicians always do the opposite of what they promise. So I voted for Reagan. But he’s doing exactly what he said he’d do,” he concludes, now a quivering blob of desperate disillusionment. While much of Sorel’s cartooning oeuvre is like this—largely verbal, the medium deployed mostly to time the divulgences—he sometimes recruits pictures to his purpose, too.
In an admirably brusque introduction, Sorel traces his career, beginning in the mid-1950s with his associations with Monocle, Ramparts, and New Yorker Magazine, continuing in 1974 with the Village Voice, for which he produced a weekly cartoon “just a page away from the man who had inspired me to do political satire, Jules Feiffer,” then children’s books and Penthouse (“the only mass magazine that allowed me to do anti-clerical cartoons”) and, for long stretches in the 1980s, The Nation, ending, finally, in 1992, at The New Yorker again. The book is organized into chapters by the victims of Sorel’s savagery: Religion, Politics, Business, Life, and then, in one disconnected lump, Writers, Actors, Editors, Artists, Shrinks, Lawyers, and other Public Malignities. Here is a too short sampling.
ONWARD, THE SPREADING PUNDITRY
The Great Ebb and Flow of Things
The “surge,” we are told, is working. Iraq is becoming, day by day, more peaceful. But it isn’t military might or diplomatic acumen that has caused the great “Awakening,” as it is called when Iraqis suddenly stop shooting at each other and at Americans. Nope: it’s the Almighty Dollar. We’re now paying “salaries” to nearly 80,000 of the “militiamen” at a monthly cost of roughly $24 million. To qualify for a salary, a militiaman simply stops hostile violent behavior; he must also belong to a militia whose sheik has worked the deal with American commanders. It’s fairly easy to see how this came about: we’ve managed to utterly destroy Iraqi economy. The only way a man can earn a living to support his family is to work for Uncle Sam. Newsweek reports that Congress has already allocated $767 million for this purpose this year, “and the Pentagon plans to ask for $450 million more.”
A RAMBLE THROUGH THE HISTORY OF COMICS CRITICISM
The Comics Journal recently passed its 30th anniversary, and I intended to take note of it by reviewing the book I’m going to review here. Serious criticism of comics may have gone forward without the Journal, but it’s difficult to know where. The only other periodical devoted regularly to the comics was, back then—thirty years ago—the Comics Buyer’s Guide, but it was then and is now essentially a cheerleader for the industry, not a critic of any of it. And ivied-covered walls would likely not be much help in fostering a serious comics criticism for general consumption: academia has a penchant for drowning itself in self-indulgent obscurities in prose and thought. Like much theoretical scholarly endeavor, exploration of this sort is useful in its own peculiar, trickle-down way: some of it legitimizes the artform as it eventually filters through to popular criticism, and, hence, to the makers of comics, thereby influencing not only the cultural acceptance of comics but the ways comics are made. But academic criticism is not intended for a general readership. Or even a “fan readership.” No, it took Gary Groth and the Journal to kick-start serious popular culture critical writing about the comics. But we’d be mistaken if we believed there was no serious criticism before the Journal. There was. A good bit of it.
David Manning White and Robert H. Abel collected almost two dozen essays about cartooning and comics in 1963 for their The Funnies: An American Idiom, including pieces by actual practitioners of the art, Al Capp, Walt Kelly, and Allen Saunders. And there were also a few sprouts of theoretical writing about the comics in magazines and journals now too fugitive to be readily at hand for consultation. At last, though, someone has cobbled up an ingenious compilation of long lost scholarly and critical essays on the cartooning medium, Arguing the Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium (200 6x9-inch pages in paperback, $22, from the University Press of Mississippi). The ingenuity is that of the editors, Kent Worcester and Jeet Heer, who combed vast quantities of magazines and journals from 1895 to 1972 to unearth these gems of furtive admiration or thundering condemnation from the likes of Thomas Mann, Gilbert Seldes, E.E. Cummings, Dorothy Parker, Robert Warshow, Walter Ong, Marshall McLuhan, Gershon Legman, Leslie Fiedler, Umberto Eco, and a dozen more. This is a genuinely bright idea. Someone should have had this notion a long time ago. Maybe the two editors did, but it wasn’t until 2002 or so that the University Press of Mississippi (publisher of four of my books) recognized that the idea was a brilliant one, bringing out the book in 2004.
Worcester and Heer aim to “recover” the incidental critical writings about comics by “influential reviewers and critics—literary masters, if you will—who wrote on comics during the long epoch between the introduction of cheaply printed images and the consolidation of popular culture studies.” Interviewed by Tom Spurgeon, Heer said they looked for articles that “(1) appeared in general interest magazines or books rather than specialized academic tomes, (2) were written by writers of some accomplishment, and (3) appeared between 1890 and the 1960s.” He elaborated: “General interest writing is preferable because it’s engaged in a public debate rather than addressed to a particular field or discipline.” He acknowledged that discussion of comics existed before 1890, but “the intensity of the debate changed once comics became part of the fabric of daily life” as comic strips in daily newspapers. They ended their search for appropriate essays with the 1960s because after 1960, “the terms of the debate change and you start seeing critics who specialize in comics, in both fandom and the academy.”
The earliest published opinions about comics tended to be influenced by a literary bent that “objected to any effort to place commercial images on an equal footing with text.” In short, to the literary-minded, words were superior to pictures, and, in fact, pictures could pervert words. The earliest critic they quote is Sidney Fairfield, who wrote in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine for June 1895, taking the illustrator to task for “perverting” the “facts” (the text) by exaggerating. “He makes effects; he does not inform.” For Fairfield, the illustrator cannot add anything to “the well-developed characterizations of our successful novelists.” If the illustrator does not commit “a literary crime” by distorting the effects of a writer’s prose, then he is likely to take his cue “for a picture from some such inadequate and puerile suggestion as that conveyed in the familiar climax of love stories: ‘And she fell on his breast and wept tears of unutterable joy.’”
Through much of the serious thinking and writing about cartooning, this anti-image bias prevails. Talking with Spurgeon, Heer said: “I think especially in the Anglo-American culture, there is strong distrust of visual culture, particularly in its popular vulgar form. This goes back, I think, to the Reformation. Catholicism made its arguments through visual media like architecture (think of all those great cathedrals), painting (the Sistine chapel), and stained glass windows. Reacting against this, Protestants argued that truth resides in words alone: only reading the Bible can give you truth. To the Protestant mind, pictures are always suspect—babbles to confuse children and the weak-minded. This attitude, secularized in the 19th century, is the undercurrent of most hostility towards comics (and cognate art forms like film). Combined is a general suspicion of popular culture as debased and dehumanizing. Of course, if you read a lot of the crappy comics of the past, you realized that there was ample evidence to support this point of view.”
I’m not so sure about trundling in the Reformation to make the case, but Heer’s point is demonstratively valid from daily experience without invoking Papal authority: pictures in this culture aren’t serious; words are—the longer and the more of them, the better.
The essays in the book are divided into three sections more-or-less chronologically, beginning with “Early Twentieth-Century Voices” (roughly everything before the 1940s), then “The New York Intellectuals” (1940s) and “The Postwar Mavericks” (1950s and 1960s), the most recent by Don Phelps, whose writings yielded two for this compilation, both 1969. Each section is introduced by the editors, who provide some helpful orienting context for the essays to follow.
By the 1920s, comics had joined jazz as artistic phenomena worthy of serious critical attention, and Worcester and Heer reprint all of Gilbert Seldes’ celebrated essay, “The Krazy Kat That Walks by Himself” from his 1924 book, The Seven Lively Arts. From this once-provocative tome, we have been extracting Seldes' Krazy essay for years, claiming it is the first serious critical endorsement of cartooning as an art form. Oddly, another Seldes essay in the 1924 volume, "The 'Vulgar' Comic Strip," has, as far as I know, never been reprinted. And it isn't in the Worcester-Heer tome either.
In that essay, Seldes allows that the comic strip "is the most despised and with the exception of the movies it is the most popular ... of all the lively arts." He looks, briefly, at several of the 1920s crop— The Gumps, Bringing Up Father (known, usually, as "Jiggs and Maggie"), Mutt and Jeff, Jerry on the Job, The Hallroom Boys, Happy Hooligan, and a couple of other favorites of the day that have since sunk without a trace into the bog of forgetfulness. Says Seldes: "The comic strip has been from the start a satirist of manners; remembering that it arrived at the same time as the Chicago World's Fair (1893), recalling the clothes, table manners, and conversation of those days, it is easy to see how the murmured satiric commentary of the comic strip undermined our self-sufficiency, pricked our conceit, and corrected our gaucherie. ... I am convinced that none of our realists in fiction come so close to the facts of the average man, none of our satirists are so gentle and so effective."
The origin of Seldes' book reveals that its connection with comics is even more intimate than the two essays on the subject suggest. The 1957 edition modifies the original in two ways. First, Seldes has added comments to most of the chapters to reflect later developments; but the original text remains unaltered. Secondly, "for the historically minded," he has supplied an Introduction in which he explains that he first voiced the idea for the book in 1922 after witnessing "one of the last performances of one of Al Jolson's weakest stage shows." But he also reveals that another theatrical production in February of the same year was more a propos his book and its purpose. This was a ballet based upon George Herriman's strip. "The ballet was enchanting," Seldes writes. "The scenery, by Herriman, unrolled like a sideways roller-towel; the scenario was a distillation of a hundred strips." He continues: "In a way, the Krazy Kat ballet demonstrated both the essence and the eccentricity of what I was going to be doing for several years. My theme was to be that entertainment of a high order existed in places not usually associated with Art, that the place where an object was to be seen or heard had no bearing on its merits, that some of Jerome Kern's songs in the 'Princess' shows were lovelier than any number of operatic airs and that a comic strip printed on news pulp which would tatter and rumple in a day might be as worthy of a second look as a considerable number of canvasses at most of our museums."
Seldes wrote the book while in Paris, and the entire thing, all twenty-two chapters of it on the gamut of the "lively arts," was written "from memory"—except, he adds, for a folio of Krazy Kat strips and a few clippings. No other "notes, data or documentation."
Most of the Introduction Seldes devotes to explaining how, in seeking to champion the popular arts, he had inadvertently set up a rivalry between the arts—the "lively" ones and the rest, which might be termed "dull" or, even, "dead." In the ensuing confusion, which lasted for decades, it was supposed that Seldes was attacking the "great arts" or the "fine arts.” But, no, that was not his purpose. The "enemy" Seldes intended to attack, he says (at last), was the pretentious "high class trash" art that achieved its status by imitating the great styles. The Introduction attempts to eliminate the other great confusion of the book. The "seven" in the title alludes to the classical "seven arts," but the book itself doesn't clearly enumerate seven. "You could make seven," Seldes helpfully notes, if you counted feature movies and Keystone comedies as one of the arts; or "you could make ten if you counted all the forms of music separately. I never took a position on the matter,” he concludes, singularly unhelpful.
The chapter on the Keystone Comedies of Mack Sennett is perhaps more helpful in understanding Seldes’ critical stance. D.W. Griffith and Thomas Ince, Seldes writes, "were both developing the technique of the moving picture [by] exploiting their discoveries with materials equally or better suited to another medium—the stage or the dime novel or whatever. Whereas Mr. Sennett was already so enamoured of his craft that he was doing with the instruments of the moving picture precisely those things which were best suited to it—those things which could not be done with any instrument but the [motion picture] camera, and could appear nowhere if not on the screen. This does not mean that nothing but slap-stick comedy is proper to the cinema; it means only that everything in slap-stick is cinematographic; and since perceiving a delicate adjustment of means to end, or a proper relation between method and material, is a source of pleasure, Mr. Sennett's developments were more capable of pleasing the judicious than those of either of his two fellow workers." After describing the usual hilarities of a chase scene with "the immortal Keystone cops in their flivver, mowing down hundreds of telegraph poles without abating their speed, dashing through houses or losing their wheels and continuing" in the typical Keystone Comedy, Seldes goes on to observe that "everything capable of motion [is] set into motion; and at the height of the revel, the true catastrophe, the solution of the preposterous and forgotten drama, with the lovers united under the canopy of smashed motor cars or the gay feet of Mr. Chaplin gently twinkling down the irised street. And all of this is done with the camera, though action presented to the eye."
Seldes could be me, writing about the visual-verbal blend that is cartooning. Both of us take a medium’s essential characteristic as the basis for artistic achievement and critical assessment. Just as in motion pictures, motion is the medium, so in comics the blend of its basic ingredients, words and pictures, is the medium.
After Seldes, Worcester and Heer leap into the 1940s with Dorothy Parker’s “mash note to Crockett Johnson” (about the celebrated comic strip Barnaby), Clement Greenberg’s appreciations of William Steig and Britain’s David Low, and, into the 1950s, Robert Warshow’s notable essay about horror comics and Fredric Wertham, to mention a few. Manny Farber’s 1951 piece for The Nation seems a virtual echo of Seldes: “Top comic strip artists (funereal-faced craftsmen who draw with their hats on) like Al Capp, Chet Gould, and Milt Caniff are the last in the great tradition of linear composers that started with Giotto and continued unbroken through Ingres. Until the impressionists blurred the outlines of objects and diffused the near, middle, and far distance into a smog of light and dark, design had been realized in terms of outline and the weight of the enclosed shape. Today the only linear surgeons carrying on the practice—except for some rearguard opportunists like Shahn—are the pow-bam-sock cartoonists, whose masterful use of a dashing pen line goes virtually unnoticed in the art world.” He concludes: “Good or bad, uphill or down, comic strips are read by sixty or seventy million daily devotees. They satisfy a demand for inventiveness, energetic drawing, and a roughneck enthusiasm for life that other plastic arts cannot meet.”
By the late 1940s, Worcester-Heer says, “the bulk of comics-related commentary [was] alarmist,” concentrating on comic books that such critics as Sterling North called “a poisonous mushroom growth” foisted on the public by “completely immoral publishers guilty of a cultural slaughter of the innocents”—“a national disgrace.” Aside from such brief quotes as these in their introduction, Worcester and Heer don’t use any of what North wrote. But they include cullings from the nefariously over-the-top critic Gershon Legman and selections from the much more restrained (but sometimes alarmist) Walter Ong. “Legman read and adopted Ong’s critique of superhero comics as fascist genre” and in his Love and Death created “a thunderous, overloaded, angry juggernaut surmounted by a loudspeaker system which continuously blares Legman’s message: American censorship thwarts the imagery of normal sex and encourages images of brutality, perverted violence and blood-letting,” as Don Phelps puts it. Ong is represented by two essays, one of which, from 1941, castigates the use of Mickey Mouse-inspired “mascots” by military units during WWII because they mask the serious purposes of war; but in the other, from 1951, Ong finds redeeming virtue in Walt Kelly’s Pogo.
While an anti-picture prejudice runs through many of the essays collected here, by the 1950s or so, many of the critics find art where their predecessors have found only rubbish. Or, at least, they are willing to concede that cartoonists might be producing, some of the time, art as well as entertainment.
Mentioning the White-Abel volume a few paragraphs ago reminded me that I have often discovered in that 1963 book theoretical notions and scraps of history that I thought I’d brought out into the light for the first time myself much more recently after hours of painstaking digging and clawing around in ancient tomes and papyruses. Nothing new under the sun, as they say. But maybe we ought to be able to get at White-Abel more easily: maybe all of it should be reprinted by some ambitious publisher eager to do Good Works. And while we’re at it, let’s bring back for an encore William Murrell’s two volume History of American Graphic Humor (1933 and 1938); it, like the White-Abel book, contains much history and some theory that we seem to be re-inventing in a great huff these days. With these books at hand, easily accessible on every shelf, we could save ourselves a tubful of effort that we might devote erstwhile to unearthing genuinely undiscovered treasure.
Metaphors be with you.
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