Opus 222 (April 28, 2008). Without giving a single thought to whether the triple-two of this Opus is significant in the annals of cartooning or the history of humankind, we devote most of the verbiage this time to a report on several facets of the 3rd annual New York Comic-Con, the forthcoming Superhero Summer on the Silver Screen, and whether the much-touted Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare is authentic history, adequately researched, or just another spewing forth of excitable opinion. And more, much more—including reviews of several other books and a graphic novel, Percy Gloom. Here’s what’s here, in order, by department:
NOUS R US
Report on the New York Comic-Con
Then: Keith Knight gets a daily strip, Peter O’Donnell regrets at 88, Alan Moore and “The Watchmen” movie, graphic novel publisher jailed in Egypt, Chinese animation, Funky visit to The Birthplace, censorship at “The Simpsons,”Meanwhile nominated for an Eisner, Kemsley’s successor on Ginger Meggs, and—
Superhero Summer: peeks at the forthcoming blockbusters
COMIC STRIP WATCH
Celebrating Earth Day: Over the Hedge and some oddities
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE
Anna Mercury and Doktor Sleepless reviewed
Classics Illustrated from Papercutz (Great Expectations) and Marvel (Dorian Gray, The Iliad)
Mammoth Book of Best War Comics
The Complete Peanuts, Vols. 8 and 9
The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America
(Well, it didn’t; not that much)
—including a refutation of some of Hajdu’s erroneous thinking
The Complete Terry and the Pirates, Vol. 2
Percy Gloom reviewed
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
Big Comics Doin’s at New York’s Jacob Javits Center
The New York Comic-Con, on its third outing, April 18-20, registered over 64,000 persons but managed it in much more efficient ways than last year, which left thousands standing on the sidewalks outside, unable to gain entrance to the already packed Javits Center. PW Comics Week reports that although there were 10,000 fans lined up on Saturday morning, waiting for the exhibit hall to open, show manager Lance Fensterman said show personnel were able to get them inside in about 20 minutes once the hall opened. The International Comic-Con in San Diego should take lessons. Fensterman acknowledged overcrowding in program areas of the Center, where sometimes thousands jammed the hallways, particularly when several well-attended sessions adjourned at the same time, but “public safety officials were impressed,” he said, “with the spread of people on the [exhibit] floor and there were no concerns about safety.” Although the Con could use more rooms for panel presentations and more theater space, it will return to Javits next year, February 6-8, in virtually the same space as it occupied this year. Reconfiguring the exhibit hall, said Fensterman, will permit more exhibits, but he didn’t say what might be done with the programming.
night found Stan Lee, a legend in his own time as co-creator of the Marvel Universe,
accepting the Con’s first New York Comics Legend Award “at
an exclusive party at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square,”
reported Peter Sanderson at PW Comics Week. “Befitting Lee's
stature in the medium,” Sanderson continued, “it took not
one but three speakers to introduce him: comics writer Peter
David, Virgin Comics CEO Sharad Devarajan,
and Marvel editor in chief Joe Quesada.”
The award is intended to honor New Yorkers who have made major
contributions to the comics medium, and although Lee has long been
based in Los Angeles, he was born in New York City and grew up there,
and it was in New York that he did his groundbreaking work at Marvel.
“Noting that Lee had co-created so many world-famous
characters, Quesada kidded him by running down a list of some of
Lee's lesser lights, like the Porcupine, the Living Eraser, and the
monster Googam. Son of Goom. But Quesada concluded that ‘Stan's
greatest creation is Stan Lee,’ the persona that he devised for
himself, which Quesada
Lee then arose to accept the Award and to assume the role he had invented, “Spider-Man 3" playing on videoscreens nearby. “As his fans would expect,” Sanderson said, “Lee took neither the award nor himself too seriously. ‘You want to hold that?’ he asked, passing the award to another person on the platform. In mock annoyance, he complained that Quesada had just badmouthed Googam and even the Porcupine: ‘One of my greatest creations! I'm saving him for a movie. I'll never let Quesada talk about me again.’ As for the award, ‘I think I'm very grateful for whatever that was,’ Lee told his amused audience. ‘I have to make some explanation to my wife— You traveled three thousand miles for that? Then Lee told the audience ‘Thanks a million! You've all been wonderful!’ But Lee remained a good while longer, moving through the large room, greeting the delighted fans surrounding him.”
At a panel the next day, reported Johnathan Hardick at the Express Times, Lee surprised an adoring multitude of over 600 with the announcement that he is returning to comics full-time as a writer and editor. He will create his first “original comic book characters” in more than 20 years for Virgin Comics. Asked what his biggest challenge might be, Lee said: “I don’t think it will be difficult at all. To me the easiest thing in the world is writing and editing. Editing is easy if I do the writing because I love what I write. I’m a big fan of me.” He’ll pick the artists he wants to work with, Lee added, saying “we have a lot of volunteers” already. As for the new comic books/characters, he has a few ideas: “I had ten that I quickly jotted down but by the time we get to it, [it] will be complete different.” Typical Stan Lee—a flurry of notions, most of which are, doubtless, but half-formed, just the sort of antics that built the fabled House of Ideas (i.e., Marvel Comics, in case you’ve forgotten). “I had something in mind,” he went on, “but when I saw the teaser poster, it was completely different than what I had been thinking. But I find it kind of fascinating, so I may create something new based on the poster.” Sounds exactly like the way he co-created the Marvel Universe: tossed an idea at an artist, then when the artist delivered pages that looked “completely different” than what Lee thought he’d proposed, he created something else with words to go with the pictures. We’ll all wait on tenterhooks here at the Intergalactic Rancid Raves Wurlitzer, but I very much fear that Stan Lee’s creative inspirations are still too rooted in the 1960s to work well today: today’s comics audience is much more sophisticated than even his college-age readers were then. But we’ll see. And we’ll keep our fingers crossed.
Kai-Ming Cha and Bridgid Alverson at PW Comics Week proclaimed the New York Comic-Con “Manga Country,” adding that “San Diego may host the show with the biggest Hollywood presence, but this past weekend New York showed that it is still book country. With Random House, Hachette, Harry Abrams, HarperCollins and other trade book publishers in attendance,” they continued, “the New York Comic-Con had the feel of a publishing trade show buoyed by charged consumer exuberance of comics and pop culture fans.” But manga was The Presence: “There were big announcements by Viz Media and Del Rey; plans for a new line of color graphic novels by Tokyopop and a new content deal between Japanese publisher Square Enix and Yen Press. ... Viz Media announced a joint project with Stan Lee and Shaman King creator Takei that was launched in Japan over the weekend and will eventually hit American shores. ... [And] Tokyopop launched a new imprint, Tokyopop Graphic Novels, which will be a line of full-color graphic novels by manga-inspired creators from around the world. Publisher Mike Kiley anticipates the line will have cross-over appeal with American comics readers.”
But a small cloud has gathered on the sunny manga horizon. At a session on “Emerging Trends in Manga Retailing, panelists argued that “the trend [in comic book stores] is to carry fewer manga titles even as the number of releases steadily increases.” Said James Crocker, managing partner at Modern Myths in Northampton, Mass.: “We used to carry a whole lot of manga until chain stores started selling a lot.” Crocker and his fellow panelists, all operators of comic book stores, haven’t the shelf space to devote to the current flow of manga, and although manga apparently sell well enough in chain stores, they don’t move that well in comic book shops.
But the comic book business is clearly growing. According to an analysis conducted by ICv2 and presented at the NYCC, the U.S. retail graphic novel market reached $375 million in sales in 2007, up around 12% over 2006 sales. The periodical comic [comic book] market was $330 million in 2007, bringing the combined 2007 comic and graphic novel market to $705 million for the U.S. and Canada. Comics were up from $310 million the year before; the total was up roughly 10% from 2006 numbers. Graphic novels once again gained share of the business, increasing from a 52% to a 53% of the total. Manga sales were up only about 5%, “the lowest growth rate for manga since ICv2 began tracking sales.” Sales through bookstores were up by a mid-single digit rate, but direct market sales of manga declined 5-10%, “due to a reduced emphasis on the category by comic stores, a significant percentage of whom cut back on manga floor space in response to the growing number of releases and the increased difficulty in choosing between them. ... Another factor in the slowing manga growth rate may have been increased competition from publishers of American graphic novel material for space in stores. American ‘genre’ (superhero, science fiction, fantasy, horror) releases climbed 31% in 2007, to 1268 releases from 965 in 2006, according to the ICv2 white paper. Manga releases also climbed, to 1513 new releases in 2007, up 25% from 1208 in 2006. Over-all, there were 3,391 graphic novels released to the trade last year, according to numbers compiled by ICv2 from release lists provided by Diamond Comic Distributors, up 22% from 2006's 2,785 releases.”
Late Saturday afternoon the teaser trailer for Lionsgate Films' forthcoming film “Will Eisner's The Spirit” unrolled in its “world premiere” (as they say in the glitteratti biz) with cartoonist turned screenwriter/director Frank Miller, actress Eva Mendes, and producers Michael Uslan and Deborah Del Prete in attendance. According to an online mtv source, the teaser “fused the look of Eisner's classic comics series with Miller's Sin City movie, as a silhouetted Spirit raced across the rooftops of a film noir cityscape of blacks and grays, accented by the bright red of the Spirit's tie.” The filming of the actors has been completed, but the movie will not be ready for release until early 2009 because of the “long post-production process of creating the computer-generated backgrounds and other special effects, like the Sin City films, adapting to the screen the visual style of the comics artist,” here, both Will Eisner's art style and Miller's own. “Del Prete noted that Miller not only provided copies of Eisner's work to other people working on the film, but that ‘We had Frank there drawing on the set at all times.’” Miller said he loved directing movies, and he expects other comics artists to join the club. "Slowly, steadily, the inmates are taking over the asylum," he said. But Miller is still happy to work in comics. In addition to collaborating with Jim Lee on All Star Batman and Robin, Miller said he’s completed "122 pages of my next graphic novel," the title of which, he said, he could not yet reveal.
Neil Gaiman, called these days a “comic book legend,” was on hand to support the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which, reports Jennifer Vineyard at mtv.com, “just won a case that Gaiman has been championing for the past three years”—namely, the sordid Georgia assault on free enterprise and free speech in the person of comic book store owner Gordon Lee, who, as we all remember, was charged with “distributing harmful material to a minor.” The “material” was a comic book that depicted the first meeting of George Braque and Pablo Picasso in the latter’s studio, Picasso being, as he always was when painting, nude. Male nudity is pornographic to Georgians, it seems. But not to anyone else. Said Gaiman: “It manifestly was not pornographic any more than an encyclopedia entry featuring the Venus de Milo.” When, after three years, Gordon Lee’s case finally came to trial last fall, a mistrial was declared due to some malfeasance of the prosecuting armada. At the time, they vowed to bring the case back again this year, but, as Gaiman was happy to announce, the case had been dismissed late Friday afternoon, April 18. “It's cost the fund $100,000," Gaiman said, "and I think it was starting to edge into the millions for the city of Atlanta,” adding that freedom of speech in comics is not treated on the same level as those rights awarded to music, prose, art and movies. "Barely a week goes by before a librarian contacts us saying, ‘They are challenging this Daredevil graphic novel. How do I keep my job and keep this on the shelves?' Comics is just this strange, bastard medium that's thought to be intended for kids, and so it falls between the cracks. If this was prose, there would be no argument, but we're fighting for creators and publishers and retailers—and now librarians—so you're free to read the stuff."
And here, to conclude our second-hand reporting on the NYCC, is a piece by Editor & Publisher’s Dave Astor in which, observing the enthusiasm manifest there for all things cartoon, he wonders if newspapers will ever turn that to their advantage. Here it is, verbatim:
When Spider-Man creator Stan Lee briefly walked through a lower level of Manhattan's Jacob Javits Center this past Saturday, the comic-book legend was treated like a rock star by hyper-excited fans. I saw the reaction to Lee—who also writes the Spider-Man newspaper comic —just before I participated in a panel discussion on "Comic Strips for the 21st Century." That discussion was one of Saturday's 10 concurrent noon sessions at the New York Comic Con (NYCC), and one of nearly 250 total sessions at an April 18-20 event that also featured exhibits, autograph sessions, and much more. At least 50,000 people attended NYCC, which is only in its third year. San Diego Comic Con—the original event of this type—drew 125,000 people to its 38th-annual gathering last year.
In short, comics have a huge fan base. But few newspapers are making much of an effort to attract these devotees. Sure, many comic-con attendees prefer comic books, graphic novels, and animation to newspaper strips—but syndicated artists are among the draws at these events. And syndicated comics would be more appealing to cartoon fans if newspapers stopped shrinking the size of the strips they run. Also, many papers now have fewer comics in their daily pages and fewer pages in their Sunday “funnies.” Some Sunday strips used to run a full page; today, papers often cram six or seven comics per page into smaller Sunday sections. It would also be nice if newspapers' online editions offered more comics—including syndicated and local strips that don't make it into print editions. Some of these comics could be a little more "alternative" than those in print editions if newspapers really want to grab younger readers.
Many papers might feel there aren't enough good comics out there to justify a larger print and online lineup. That's debatable, because comics remain a popular part of newspapers despite the cavalier way these papers often treat cartoons. And the quality of newspaper comics might improve if cartoonists knew they were more welcome in that medium. After all, some of the best artists choose animation, graphic novels, children's books, and other outlets when they see what the newspaper world has to offer them.
Will many papers increase their comics offerings? Probably not. Newsprint is expensive, feature budgets have shrunk, and many managers are too busy laying off people to worry about the "funnies." Actually, papers could make more money off comics by creatively selling ads next to them while hoping readership of an expanded cartoon lineup helps stem circulation declines. But that would require long-term thinking rather than short-term profit obsession. So while newspapers apathetically cram comics into their pages, cartoon fans excitedly cram into comic cons.
Bravo, Dave. If this sort of considered effusion coming at the font of the periodical publishing business, E&P, doesn’t get newspaper editors thinking, probably nothing can. If it ever has.
IN OTHER, LESS WORLD-SHATTERING NEWS OF COMICS AND CARTOONING:
Ollie Johnston, the last of Walt Disney’s “Nine Old Men” (who, at the time their nicknaming, were all young men), his champion animators, died on April 14 at the age of 95, reports Entertainment Weekly (April 25 / May 2), quoting John Lasseter, head of Pixar/Disney animation: “Ollie had such a huge heart, and it came through in all of his animation, which is why his work is some of the best ever done.” ... Free Comic Book Day, Saturday, May 3, is the day after the “Iron Man” movie opens nationwide; no coincidence—this represents a return to the ploy that enhanced the first few FCBDs, hold ’em the day after a superhero blockbuster movie debuts. ... Keith Knight, who keeps busy with two weekly comics, The K Chronicles and (th)ink, will add a daily comic strip, the autobiographical Knight Life, starting in May, distributed by United Feature Syndicate. Says blogger Lore Sjoberg, announcing the advent: “I just hope the strip gets published online. I don’t pick up many newspapers these days.” Well, Lore, you’re missing a lot of good comic strips then. ... At EW.com recently, an assortment of comic book creators talked about the comic book that persuaded them to pursue their vocation. For Brian Michael Bendis, it was an edition of Fantastic Four No. 1 that came with a recording on vinyl; for Allison Bechdel, “probably not my first comic book,” The Adventures of Asterix, in which she could not read the French speech balloons but “the drawings were so rich and complicated” making the experience “peculiar and tantalizing”; for Jim Lee, an issue of Tarzan from the drawingboard of Joe Kubert; for Jessica Abel, the hardback collection of the Marston-Peters Wonder Woman published by Ms. Magazine; for Chris Ware, an early collection of Peanuts. Ten more at EW.com. ... And a week after winning the Pulitzer, Michael Ramirez won the editorial cartooning category of the Sigma Delta Chi Professional Journalism Society awards. ... In the wake of the presume success of its adaptation of Stephen King’s Dark Tower, Marvel Comics will soon begin the same sort of exercise with the novels of Orson Scott Card’s popular Ender series, saith PW Comics Week’s Laura Hutton. Another scrap of information falling during the NYCC.
Peter O’Donnell, creator of Romeo Brown and Modesty Blaise, among others, had only one regret as he approached his 88th birthday on April 11. According to the Press Gazette in England, he’s sorry that he doesn’t know what became of the young girl refugee who supplied him with the “history” of Modesty Blaise before the character became an international criminal and then an unofficial agent for Britain’s secret service. The girl’s role in the creation process is given in our history of the strip, filed here in Harv’s Hindsight, in case you’d like to refresh your memory. O’Donnell recalls that it was in 1962 that he received a phone call from the strip editor of Express Newspapers, Bill Aitken, “who wanted me to write a strip. I asked what sort of strip, and he said: ‘I want the strip you want to write.’” O’Donnell had been mulling over a heroine who could do what James Bond and all the other male heroes did, but he needed some sort of “background” for the character who became Modesty Blaise. That’s when he went back to 1942 and that young refugee he saw, at a distance, while serving in what was then Persia (now Iran) with a mobile-radio detachment near the Caucasus Mountains. “The strip,” O’Donnell said, “was an immediate success and, to my great delight, was syndicated to 42 countries. It also led to a series of 13 novels that I greatly enjoyed writing, and a movie that I didn’t enjoy at all. The film was a well-deserved failure. I don’t really want to see somebody else’s concept of Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin put on the screen. They’ve been my friends for more than 45 years now, and I like them the way they are.”
It’s a sentiment that Alan Moore would no doubt applaud. “Moore,” writes Trevor Owens in the Comics Corner of Fullerton College’s Hornet (fchornet.com), “has been the victim (and the perpetrator, in part) of some travesties in intellectual property film adaptation. From Hell, perhaps the greatest graphic novel of all time [created in collaboration with Eddie Campbell], was castrated in a film adaptation that pleased audiences that did not know better.” Moore knew better. He had created the source material. And he was grievously disappointed and angry. At the time, however, he simply announced that he’d have nothing to do with film adaptations of his work: he’d just take the money. But when his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was turned into a shadow of its former self by filmmakers, Moore vowed never again to permit another film adaptation of his work if he could possibly prevent it. If he didn’t own the work and couldn’t prevent its adaptation, then he wouldn’t allow the use of his name. “Moore created comics that shocked readers and emotionally moved them,” said Owens; “he has written a screenplay and published a novel. If his ideas suited other mediums, he would have not made them for comics.” Exactly. And now there is a flurry of anguished excitement about the forthcoming film version of Moore’s The Watchmen, which, alas, he doesn’t own and cannot therefore embargo. “If the From Hell graphic novel is well-regarded,” continued Owens, “Watchmen is worshipped. Moore and [artist collaborator] Dave Gibbons’ masterpiece should remain only as a comic; it was not intended to be a film and will not work when chopped and ground up to fit in a couple of hours on the silver screen.” True. “The only ray of hope for fans of the graphic novel Watchmen,” Owens concludes, “is that this is possibly the last Moore comic to be brutalized by cinema—there aren’t many left” that someone other than Moore owns.
On April 15, a detachment of Egyptian police raided the Cairo-based Malameh publishing house and seized copies of a graphic novel entitled Metro, claiming it was “harmful to public manners” because of its use of colloquial language. Metro is the first graphic novel to be published in Egypt, and it refers to events of a political and social nature, reported the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information in Cairo, which condemned the police entering the publishing house without an official order as well as the confiscation of the book, which was termed a “severe violation of freedom of expression.” Al Sharkawi, the director of Malameh publishing house, is currently under arrest in connection with a strike held April 6. He was previously detained in 2006 and tortured while in detention. Even though the general prosecution recorded the abuse, the officers involved were never punished.
The animation industry in China is booming. Last year, Chinese animation studios produced 186 animations with a total broadcasting time of 101,900 minutes (roughly 169 hours or three years of a weekly hour-long program). In China, said Ai Fang and Wang Xia on the China Economic Net, 34 tv channels and 4 animation channels, broadcasting about 8,000 minutes a day, are “a major platform, promoting the healthy development of the domestic animation industry.” With increased production for that platform, the quality of the product has steadily improved. In 2007, viewership of China Central Television’s channel for children ranked fifth among CCTV’s 16 channels. In the U.S., they say, the annual output of animation and derivative products amounted last year to $5 billion; in Japan, $9 billion. The global output value of the Chinese animation industry and derivative products related to video games and the like amounted to over $500 billion for a comparative period. Stand back: we don’t know how big this thing is gonna get.
Fred Van Lente, who writes the intriguing Comic Book Comics (which we reviewed last time, Op. 221) for his partner Ryan Dunlavey to design and draw, says they time their publication dates to coincide with convention appearances, so the second issue will come out in July for the Sandy Eggo Con. The third issue, probably in October. He thinks they might go to six issues. As for content, here’s what he told Andy Oliver at brokenfrontier.com:
in No. 2 we get the explosion of the Golden Age, how World War Two
affected the comics (and vice-versa), the true confessions of romance
comics, and the rise of E.C. Comics. In No. 3, it's the Wertham purge and the Comics Code, the beginnings of comics fandom and the
birth of the Silver Age, and then we decide, once and for all, who
was the more important creator in the Marvel Universe—Stan
Lee or Jack Kirby.
This is sure to be our most controversial issue yet! In No. 4, we've
got Pop Art, the Adam West Batman tv show (two very related things), R. Crumb and the undergrounds, and the magazine comics of the 1970s—Warren,
Heavy Metal and the like.” Van Lente says he did a lot of
research for a biography of Kirby that he ultimately didn’t
write, and that’s why Kirby is the constant thread through the
first issue of the series. He and Dunlavey had decided before
finishing their first joint effort, Action
Philosophers, a series of biographical
comics, that they’d do a similar series on comics. “We
saw the ground coming up at us pretty soon on Action
Philosophers,” he said, “—we
knew we would run out of philosophers about half-way through the
series, and we wanted to keep this nonfiction comedy gravy train
rollin’, you know? The history of comics is still in the same
basic ballpark as philosophy—the humanities—but different
enough for us to stretch different muscles.” Action
Philosophers is collected in three volumes,
all available online at EvilTwinComics.com.
Michael Sangiacomo, a reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, is, he says, “Cleveland’s unofficial comic-book ambassador” and always gets picked to squire interested visitors over to the slightly “tattered” Glenville neighborhood and the Kimberly Avenue house where Jerry Siegel was living in 1933 when he created Superman with his fellow teenager, artist pal Joe Shuster, who lived “a short distance away on Amor Street.” Shuster’s house, apparently, has been lost to the ravages of time, but Siegel’s house—the actual place where he dreamed up the Man of Steel—is still there, and its owner, Hattie Gray, revels somewhat in the place’s history: the house is “proudly painted Superman red, yellow, and blue,” Sangiacomo observes. Last fall, Sangiacomo took cartoonist Tom Batiuk out to the Siegel House, and they found Hattie Gray home, and she graciously let them in so Batiuk could see the third-floor workroom where Superman first saw the light of day. Batiuk took photos of the house because he has planned a sequence in Funky Winkerbean about a comic writer who gets stuck while writing Superman. A friend suggests that the writer visit The Birthplace, and he does. The sequence will run this summer, starting (it sez here) on Monday, August 11.
The Denver Post reports that Bob Dylan received an “honorary Pultizer” for his “profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.” While still Robert Zimmerman, the would-be and one-time folksinger put in some time in Denver, and on one occasion, he reportedly created a cascade of impacts of a lesser sort by kiting from the second floor window of folksinger Walt Conley’s apartment the occupant’s phonograph record collection in an early non-lyrical manifestation, no doubt, of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” ... Herge’s 1932 oil painting of Tintin for the cover of Tintin in America was sold at auction in Paris for a record $1.2 million. Here, I think, is the artwork in question.
At the weeklong thinktank Conference on World Affairs held at the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus in early April, one of the notable thinkers who appeared to make a presentation was Tim Long, a writer for “The Simpsons,” who showed clips that were, by turns, “hilarious, bitter, and off-color,” reported Jerd Smith in the Rocky Mountain News. Fox Network, which airs the tv show, employs a phalanx of censors to “figure out what will get us into trouble and what will not,” Long said. Noting that people can now air their outrages online with the Federal Communications Commission, Long said one of his favorite complaints came from a viewer who found it “entirely inappropriate for the preschool audience that would be watching the show” the broadcast of a commercial about a homosexual encounter Bart had with a space alien. Said Long: “Would a heterosexual encounter have been okay?” The censors also objected to the mention of a sexual act that was performed 1,000 times, saying the number 1,000 was inappropriate. “When the writers suggested using 1 million instead, the censors signed off on the script.” It must be working for them: first airing December 7, 1989, “The Simpsons” is tv’s longest running show at 420 episodes.
With a new series of books for children, TOON Books, Francoise Mouly, co-founder, with husband Art Spiegelman, of RAW magazine and, since 1993, art editor for The New Yorker, hopes to get kids interested in reading. “My husband and I both developed our love of literature through comics,” she said, adding that Art says “comics are a gateway drug to literacy.” The series launches with three titles: Benny and Penny in Just Pretend by Geoffrey Hayes, Silly Lilly and the Four Seasons by Agnes Rosenstiehl, and Otto’s Orange Day by editoonist Frank Cammuso and one-time undergrounder Jay Lynch. Interviewed in Horn Book (hbook.com), Mouly observes a fine irony: “As the medium grew up, kids got left behind. So that’s precisely why, after saying for decades, ‘Comics, they are not just for kids anymore,’ Art and I are now saying, ‘Comics, they are not just for adults anymore.’” ... Apparently not. At NYCC during a Kids’ Comics Publishers roundtable, reported in PW Comics Week, Diamond’s Janna Morishima said: “Over the past few decades, kids’ comics have become the most underground of underground comics. Only in the past few years has that started to change.” She cited First Second’s children’s line, Scholastic’s Graphix line, “and the growing trend of trade houses releasing graphic novels for children and traditional comics publishers developing titles for children as evidence that the market is growing.”
Superhero Summer. A superhero summer looms on the silver screen horizon. Five blockbusters are poised to amaze and amuse, only one, “Hancock,” not a fugitive from four-color fantasies: “The Incredible Hulk,” “Iron Man,” “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” “The Dark Knight,” and “Hancock.” Entertainment Weekly (April 25 / May 2) predicts that all but “Hellboy” will be in the top ten grossing movies of the summer, with the new Indiana Jones effort in first place. Comic book inspired superhero flicks have numbered in the top five money-makers in each of the previous four summers, 2006 including both “X-Men: The Last Stand” and “Superman Returns.” Marvel’s newly formed production company, with two movies in the wings, has the most to lose—or to gain. Its first franchise effort is “Iron Man,” which stars the unlikely Robert Downey, Jr., whose high-profile substance abuse history apparently helped him get the assignment: Tony Stark [aka Iron Man] has had a vew substance abuse problems himself. But Downey, by all accounts, did just fine.
Director Jon Favreau started shooting last winter without a firm script, and Downey, with a reputation for “in-the-moment inventiveness,” did some of the re-writing, determined not to let F/X overwhelm story (character and drama). Downey was intrigued by the Iron Man concept: “Stark is something of a weirdo compared to other superheroes. Whereas most of them are dealing with some extraordinary transformation, he’s very self-indulgent, a womanizer, and politically unsound by most people’s standards. And yet, my understand is that Iron Man got more [female] fan mail back in the day than any other Marvel character.” Downey was delighted to get the part, saying: “All the guys I’ve grown up with in this business, all my peers, they’ve all gotten their superhero ya-yas out, except me. Until now. I feel like I’m on Planet Iron Man, and it’s the greatest.”
What with the flop of 2003's “Hulk,” another movie about the character might seem foolhardy, but because the Hulk is almost as popular as Spider-Man, the moguls at Marvel’s new movie company decided a “do-over was worth the risk.” But this one isn’t another origin story: it begins with Bruce Banner in Brazil trying to find a cure for his monster addiction. “The new ‘Hulk’ film is said to remain truer not only to the comic book but also to the old Lou Ferrigno tv show.” Some publicity has alleged a “feud” between the movie makers and the Marvel production company. The movie’s director, Louis Leterrier and its star, Edward Norton, supposedly wanted a longer, “more meditative cut of the film,” but Marvel wanted an action-packed commercial film, running less that two hours. Marvel won, but, contrary to rumor, Norton and Leterrier are not sulking. In a statement at EW.com, Norton, who was said to be boycotting the movie, says that typically movies are collaborative efforts in which a variety of ideas are aired, some adopted, some not—“the heart of the filmmaking” process. “Our healthy process, which is and should be a private matter, was misrepresented publicly as a ‘dispute,’ seized on by people looking for a good story, and has been distorted to such a degree that it risks distracting from the film itself, which Marvel, Universal, and I refuse to let happen.” He “concedes that Marvel’s cut, though not what he wanted, is more commercial than his. ‘He’s very Zen about it,’ says a source.”
The Bat-flick, starring, again, Christian Bale with Michael Caine returning as Alfred, features the late Heath Ledger as the Joker, a role Jack Nicholson made famous. Ledger’s work is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the production, saith EW, quoting, in addition, another of the film’s actors, Aaron Eckhart: “I knew from the first day on the set that Heath was going to totally redefine the Joker. He just really got into it and took the character to the limit.” Said EW: “It’s impossible to know how Ledger’s performance in ‘The Dark Knight’ might have been perceived had the actor lived to see the film’s opening.” Added Eckhart: “That could be a good thing. You know, maybe it’ll just make people think about Heath’s talent.”
“Hellboy II,” says its director Guillermo del Toro, is “more idiosyncratic than the first one” and is “steeped in ‘folklore, myth and fantasy’ ... but also makes time for some domestic comedy between Hellboy (returning Ron Perlman) and his pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair),” who are now sharing an apartment. Based upon an original story by the character’s creator, Mike Mignola, the movie glimpses a world in which “fantasy is literally dying,” which, says del Toro, gives the production “a beautifully melancholic sense of loss ... —that, and kick-ass action.”
“Hancock,” the only non-comic book production, stars Will Smith as a “flawed, widely reviled alcoholic” who is, otherwise, an invincible do-gooder with superpowers who is seeking “to rehabilitate his public image with the help of a marketing expert.” Smith was attracted to the project because of its “slightly quirky, off-center approach,” mixing action comedy and serious drama. Said director Peter Berg: “If ‘Hancock’ works, those big tone shifts will separate us from films of the past.” The photo in EW shows Smith lifting up a car, evoking memories of another superhero on the cover of an antique comic book.
The San Francisco Chronicle gave Darrin Bell’s Candorville strip a trial run in the Doonesbury slot while Garry Trudeau is on sabbatical, and then the paper asked its readers what they thought. “More than 200 responded,” Editor & Publisher reported—60 percent of whom liked the new strip; 40 percent didn’t. In an accompanying piece, Executive Datebook Editor David Wiegand wrote: "A few readers said or implied that one of the reasons they like [Candorville] is because its lead characters are African-American. That was one of the reasons we were first attracted to it, to be sure. We want to find strips that reflect the diversity of the Bay Area, but that's easier said than done. For one thing, there are a lot of strips of every kind out there and you’d be surprised how few of them are very good, or funny, or even well-drawn. Several times a year, we're visited by very nice people representing the comics syndicates and they all tell us how certain they are that some new strip will do well in our market. And several times a year, I look at them and wonder if they have any idea of what our market is...."
My vast biography of Milton Caniff has just been nominated for an Eisner in the Comics-related Books category. You can find all the Eisner nominees for 2008 at the Comic-Con International website (www.comic-con.org). I’m thrilled to be among the nominees but have very little expectation of winning. Gary Groth, whose Fantagraphics published the book, told me in 2006 when he finished reading the typescript: “This is the best thing you’ve ever written.” I have a high opinion of Groth’s abilities as an editor, so I was bowled sideways. And then I paused in the midst of my happy dance to think about it. The typescript he read was an everso slightly revised and massively reduced version of what I’d finished writing in 1989. So “the best thing” I’d ever written was written nearly 20 years ago. Since then, apparently, my skill has been steadily deteriorating—even as I contributed regularly, virtually every issue, to The Comics Journal, also published by Groth. This steady downhill trend has culminated, it seems, in an Eisner nomination at the bottom of the hill.
We missed this one: on or about January 20, Ginger Meggs, Australia’s famed comic strip about the antics of a larrikin (unconventional) red-headed and somewhat mischievous kid, started appearing over the signature of a young cartoonist in Perth, Jason Chatfield, who is but the fifth to produce the strip, which, launched in November 1921 as Us Fellers by Jimmy Bancks, is arguably the third longest-running comic strip in the world (after The Katzenjammer Kids and Gasoline Alley). Bancks was followed after his death in 1952 by Ron Vivian, who kept it up until he died in 1973. The strip was then inherited by Lloyd Piper, who was the first of Bancks’ successors permitted to sign his name to the feature. When Piper died in 1984, he was succeeded by James Kemsley, who died December 3, 2007. Kemsley revitalized the sagging feature: he added daily releases to the Sunday only Ginger Meggs, and through sheer determination and persistence, he increased the Down Under icon’s circulation from a handful of Australian papers to international syndication in over 120 papers in 32 countries. Still, income is modest; Chatfield plans to continue doing editorial cartoons for the Perth Voice and the Loconut.com website as well as the strip. He recalled that Kemsley told him “the whole newspaper comic strip industry is at the mercy of American syndicates”; Ginger Meggs is distributed in the U.S. by Atlantic Syndicate/Universal Press. Five days before he succumbed to motor neuron disease, Kemsley asked Chatfield to continue the strip, having checked, first, with Sheena and Michael Latimer, Bancks’ daughter and son-in-law, keepers of the Ginger Meggs flame. “This is an amazing honor,” said Chatfield recently, when the strip was picked up by another Australian newspaper. “I’ve worked really hard to honor Kemsley’s memory and at the same time put my own slant on the strip,” continued Chatfield, who was born the year Kemsley took on Ginger. “I’ll certainly be modernizing it. Ginger Meggs will reflect the changes in Australian culture, language and concepts to keep it relevant to readers.” He intends, he said, to keep doing the strip for the rest of his life—“and to keep it going well past its 100th year.” Here is a sample of Kemsley’s Sunday color work: he deployed the strip’s layout differently from week-to-week. Also on display, two Kemsley dailies at the top, and at the bottom, two by Chatfield, including his farewell to “Kems.” Although I doubt you can read it, Chatfield’s second daily includes a “saying” like all of Kemsley’s do—a scrap of wisdom culled from some manual of popular aphorisms, no doubt. The two in Kemsley’s strips are: “Life is only as long as you live it”(which is lettered upside down) and, “A little knowledge gets a lot of people elected.” Sometimes the saying is related to the doings in the strip; mostly, not. The original of these was not an aphorism at all: Kems was behind on deadlines and knew he’d miss a cricket match his team was playing the next day, so he told his teammates he couldn’t get there by lettering a message to them into a strip that would be published the next day. In those days, the strip was probably published in only a few papers, and in Kemsley’s home base paper, it was doubtless printed the day after the cartoonist drew it. In any event, readers were intrigued by the message, so Kems started doing a new one every day—just an aphorism or axiom, though, no longer an urgent notice to friends or colleagues.
Fascinating Footnit. 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 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.
Irks & Crotchets
“It is telling that in our uniquely American taxonomy, Barack Obama is almost always described as a black man with a white mother and never as a white man with a black father.”—Ellis Cose, Newsweek, March 31, 2008
“Isn’t the Surge getting a little old to be called ‘the Surge’? It’s beginning to sound like one of those four-hour erections that men should call their doctors about. It needs a new name, like ‘The Long Goodbye.’”—Donald Kaul, syndicated columnist and two-time Pulitzer Prize loser
“I have no doubt we are in the midst of a global warming,” saith Darth Cheney, speaking at the annual White House Radio and Television Correspondents dinner, “—or, as I prefer to call it, spring.”
COMIC STRIP WATCH
To commemorate Earth Day, April 22, King Features asked its cartoonists to come up with eco-awareness strips. Participants included stalwarts like Beetle Bailey, Blondie, Dennis the Menace, Hagar the Horrible, The Lockhorns, and Zits, plus a clutch of the newer strips like Arctic Circle, Retail and The Pajama Diaries. "While the funny pages are about making people laugh, they have also historically been a forum for social expression," Brendan Burford, the comics editor for King Features, said in a statement. "We are proud so many of our cartoonists feel as passionately about the environment as we do."
Probably United Feature didn’t formally second the motion, but Michael Fry and T (no punctuation) Lewis at Over the Hedge devoted the entire week before Earth Day to an, er, “earthy” topic. Flatulence. Not your usual comic strip topic, and a little near the edge even in these increasingly liberated times, but definitely in the “save the earth” mode. Here’s the whole week. Notice, incidentally, that Monday through Friday’s strips are “stretched” horizontally to fit the newspaper’s comics page grid, but Saturday’s strip seems “normal.” That’s because the page size for the Rocky Mountain News changes on Saturday from tabloid to broadsheet when, under the JOA with the Denver Post, the two papers are published as one. “Stretching” and “squeezing” are criminal acts, no question. Both result from a mindless conformity to an all-margins-must-be-the-same layout philosophy, out-dated long ago. Why can’t comic strips run “ragged left” and “ragged right,” flushed to the gutters of the pages? No reason.
Back to Earth Day. I agree with Burford that commemorating Earth Day is a good thing, but I also think Jim Toomey went a little overboard by converting Sherman’s Lagoon on Sunday, April 20, to a form letter that readers could fill out and send off to the Director of the National Marine Fisheries Service to support saving some sharks. “Draw your favorite shark”? Maybe Toomey’s being satirical here? If so, he’s flying a little over my poor head. Or maybe he’s just giving Burford a friendly poke in the ribs.
Below the Shark Campaign is one of those Occasional Oddities that rarely infect the comics page: two strips with vaguely similar jokes or pictures. In this case, both strips deploy figures so large that only their lower extremities can be depicted; and both strips want to “talk to you” about something. Further enhancing the deju vu too effect, these two strips appeared in the local paper exactly as they appear here, one atop the other, one almost a visual echo of the other.
At the bottom of this visual aid is another Over the Hedge strip that ran on the day of the Pennsylvania primary. Written on April 11, ten days before the election, Fry and Lewis predicted that Hillary will win by 9 percent; she won by 10, which proves that, all the pundit excitement to the contrary notwithstanding, the outcome in Pennsylvania was never much in doubt: Hillary has polled ahead of Obama in that state for as long as polls have been conducted. But the “gracious act” of political sacrifice is a nice quirky touch. And Hammy the squirrel always sets me free.
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to these shores was heralded by Newsweek (April 21) with an article that included, at the end of the first paragraph, the following: “A few years back, a veteran Vatican bureaucrat remarked that ‘God has been very kind to us: we haven’t had a wicked pope in 500 years.’” I suppose that the magazine does not mean to imply by entitling the article “How Benedict XVI Will Make History” that Benedict is breaking that 500-year record, but theirs is an unfortunate juxtaposition of notions. One of the less distinguished of Benedict’s predecessors—of which there are legions—is Stephen VI, who, in 897 during his brief 15-month papacy, accused former Pope Formosus of perjury and violation of church canon. The magazine Mental Floss (May-June) takes the tale from there: “The problem was that Pope Formosus had died nine months earlier. Stephen worked around this little detail by exhuming the dead pope’s body, dressing it in full papal regalia, and putting it on trial. He then proceeded to serve as chief prosecutor as he angrily cross-examined the corpse. The spectacle was about as ludicrous as you’d imagine. In fact, Pope Stephen appeared so thoroughly insane that a group of concerned citizens launched a successful assassination plot against him. The next year, one of Pope Stephen’s successors reversed Formosus’ conviction, ordering his body reburied with full honors.”
Mental Floss, by the way, is a bi-monthly publication that specializes in obscure facts, factoids, and the like. The perfect journalistic diet, in other words. I wouldn’t be without it.
Words go in and out of fashion. I’ve encountered the word canoodle three times in the last six months; maybe four or five altogether in the last year. But I can’t remember seeing it much before that—for years. And yet, I remember it from years ago. It refers to “cuddling, or caressing in a sexual way.” If we are to judge from the seeming increase in the frequency of usage, there’s apparently more of it going on these days than before. Canoodling must be on the rise.
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE
An admirable first issue must, above all else, contain such matter as will compel a reader to buy the second issue. At the same time, while provoking curiosity through mysteriousness, a good first issue must avoid being too mysterious or cryptic. And, thirdly, it should introduce the title’s principals, preferably in a way that makes us care about them. Fourth, a first issue should include a complete “episode”—that is, something should happen, a crisis of some kind, which is resolved by the end of the issue, without, at the same time, detracting from the cliffhanger aspect of the effort that will compel us to buy the next issue.
Alas, the last two titles from the habitually brilliant Warren Ellis leave me shivering on the curbstone, none the wiser. Unamused and baffled. A bad beginning in any estimation. The eponymous Anna Mercury, some sort of agent in a tight-fitting leather suit, has a massive tangle of red hair about the size of her body. She spends the opening pages of the first issue of her title swinging like Bat-Spider-Man through the concrete canyons of a city, landing, feet first through an upper-story window, in a meeting of several unsavory types that she vanquishes with a flourish of broken glass, shattered jaw bones, and a spray or two of blood. This ends the episode of this issue—the only part with a beginning and an ending—but it leaves more questions unanswered than is good for it and is therefore not an emotionally satisfying encounter. There’s no sense of closure, however momentary, which a first issue episode must yield. One of these unsavory types she knows, a simple-minded young galoot, and she questions him about the test-firing of a “gun,” rubbing up against him with her fist clutching his equipment. He keeps whining about his having supposed that she deserted them. Or him. Which he offers, it seems, as a sort of excuse for his dereliction. But we don’t know what duty he has neglected, and Anna Mercury merely rants on about Mandragon Moon, a new Ataraxian territory, sheol cells, induction fields (of some kind of power, I suspect), and several other nonsense words, none of which are explained and therefore have no significance. By the end of the issue, she’s glommed onto some sort of spacecraft, which then takes off with her clinging to its outer layer. She’s a tough broad, no question, but we don’t know whose side she’s on by the end of the issue and therefore can’t tell if we should like her or not. She’s a marginally admirable personality but we don’t learn enough about her to like her, and her cliffhanging circumstance at the end of the issue, undeniably suspense-ridden, hasn’t been sufficiently explained that we know what, exactly, she’s up to. Too much mystery.
But not as much mysteriousness as we find in Doktor Sleepless: Bastard of Tomorrow, which is even more baffling than Anna Mercury—and the issue before me is the third in the title; by now, you’d expect some scraps of knowledge to have surfaced. Not so. I don’t know who Doktor Sleepless is or why. The book wanders back and forth among three or four or five locales. In one, a man in a prison cell tells a story to some other blokes, who may, or may not, also be inmates. More likely, they’re the storyteller’s interrogaters. Maybe he’s John Reinhart, the only name to crop up in the book, and maybe John Reinhart is Doktor Sleepless. The story the man in the cell tells is about a Tibetan monk and something called a tulpa and the capability of a mind to create matter that lives a separate existence. We then see a masked man in a raincoat on a ledge overlooking the city. Next, we’re in a happily-named shop, Catastrophe Books, where two women, the shopkeepers, talk a little about Doktor Sleepless and a box of books he’s sent, which one of the two women then sells to a mob of buyers. Then we’re outside in the rain with another nameless person, a man, who mutters to himself that “the me you used to kiss thrashes like a cat in a sack, somewhere in the back of my head, trying to get its claws through thick lithium.” Nice turn of phrase, but not very instructive. Then we’re in a huge house on a hill in which a petulant young girl accuses her mother of killing her father. There are a few more pages, but I learn nothing from them that helps. Too bad. I usually like whatever Ellis does. But not this time: too much mysteriousness, like I said.
The artwork in both of these titles, by Facundo Percio and Ivan Rodriguez respectively, is not only competent but expert. Expert without any particular distinction, however: exceedingly well drawn but well drawn in the way most comics these days are well drawn. And expertly colored, too. I don’t know where William Christensen of Avatar gets these guys, but they’re all highly proficient artists. But they are stylistically without distinction: very little in their work bears a mark of individual style. That’s not bad. It’s just not unusual enough to take note of. The storytelling ability of both of these artists is of the best sort, which leads me to think that Ellis’s scripts must be fairly detailed and precise.
THE CLASSICS, ILLUSTRATED AGAIN
I don’t know who Malcolm Jones is or what credentials he presented to Newsweek to get the gig reviewing “newly published Classics Illustrated” in the March 31 issue, but whatever Jones’ qualifications may be, he demonstrates no particular understanding of the comics medium. It’s a healthy dose of plug for comics, a three-page article, one page of it devoted to a full-page illustration from Marvel’s The Man in the Iron Mask, which Jones doesn’t refer to at all, but apart from issuing a nostalgic wake-up call, the piece does nothing that will enable the magazine’s readers to comprehend and therefore appreciate the unique artistry of comics. The “Classics Illustrated” Jones discusses is the series emanating from Papercutz, the NBM youth imprint edited by Jim Salicrup. As if to spite the full-page illustration, Jones ignores the recent Marvel foray into these elysian fields of yesterday’s literature; I won’t, but more of that anon.
While Jones manages to let slip an occasional thought worth noting, his article is mostly a self-indulgent paean to “the touchstones of his childhood”—namely, the original Classics Illustrated. These he extolls for their having exposed him to “stories” he was otherwise not going to be reading in their original, un-illustrated states as prose novels. In Classics Illustrated, Jones says, “I first discovered just how good stories could be.” “Stories,” mark you, not “comics” or “artwork.” For Jones, Classics Illustrated, then and now, is simply “stories.” He’s glad to see them returning to American life because they’ll acquaint new generations with “stories” and “how good” they can be. Stories. A story is a sequence of events (first this, and then that and then and then and then); when the sequence is informed by a plot (which indicates why something happened), we approach literary merit. But for Jones, “story” is the whole nutshell.
Because of his deluded idea about what literature is, he reports that, having read Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows and Michel Plessix’s graphic novel version of it (also Papercutz)—“both for the first time”—he can’t say which one is better. “Their charms are different,” he admits, “but each man has created a wonderful world, one out of words and the other in images.” At least Jones acknowledges that the two versions of the story are achieved in different ways. “Plessix,” Jones writes, “reminded me that Classics Illustrated was the way I got in” (“into” stories, presumably). He can talk about how much he likes Plessix’s pictures but he can’t find a way to praise Grahame’s languid prose. No question, Plessix’s version is brilliantly done, and I’ll have more to say about it when we visit The Wind in the Willows and its illustrators in Harv’s Hindsight in a few weeks. My point is not that Jones is wrong about Plessix. Or about Grahame. The point is that he is posing as a critic of a visual literature (funnybooks) but he can’t articulate how Plessix is different than Grahame except to say the former draws his world, the latter writes his. All of which is true. But if Jones knew his stuff, he could tell us how the two achieve effects based entirely upon their differing media. Since Jones dotes solely on “story” in his examination of literature, he clearly can’t tell the difference between the two Willows because both tell the same story.
And I could let it all drop without a murmur if he didn’t pursue his misbegotten notion by criticizing Rick Geary’s graphic novel interpretation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, another Papercutz production (56 6.5x9-inch pages in color; hardcover, $9.95). Jones confesses that he admires Geary’s ability to condense Dickens’ “hideously complicated story” into a work that can be read “easily and swiftly” despite the “visually crowded” pages, but then he displays his towering ignorance of Dickens when he says: “Geary is probably not the best choice to illustrate Dickens. Temperamentally, he’s simply not dark enough. His version of Great Expectations misses most of the danger and all of the gloom.” Danger? Gloom? Jones is undoubtedly remembering David Lean’s haunting 1946 film of “Great Expectations,” not Dickens’ novel. Dickens can be gloomy, and menace lingers throughout Great Expectations, as it does through Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend and, even, A Christmas Carol, but Dickens also regales us thoughout with some of the funniest characters in literature—exaggerated, caricatured vignettes of quirked humanity. Exactly the sort of pictures Geary makes. Geary is clearly exactly the best choice to illustrate Dickens. But Jones isn’t the best choice to make that determination: since he doesn’t see the art in Grahame’s prose, he can scarcely be imagined capable of seeing the comedy in Dickens.
Well, enough in this vein. We should be grateful to Jones for giving the larger world a glimpse of the graphic novel versions of literary classics.
In the two Papercutz books we’ve just looked at, the artwork is undeniably superior to the drawings in the Classics Illustrated comics that Jones so fondly remembers—a measure, no doubt, of the improved cultural and economic situation of comic books these days: publishers can afford better artists. And that sort of high class rendering prevails in Marvel’s adaptation of literary classics, which, so far, appear in serial format; probably Marvel will bundle the issues together to recycle as graphic novels and market them to junior high schools. I dipped lately into recent issues of The Iliad and The Picture of Dorian Gray, both adapted by Roy Thomas, who proves adept at varying his prose style to evoke his originals. The captions in The Iliad reek of antique Homeric locutions, and in Dorian Gray, we are reminded of Oscar Wilde’s graceful prose. As usual with Thomas, much of the narrative is advanced by the prose, pictures merely illustrating a verbal drone that hums through the books. The “drone” I have in mind, incidentally, is like that constant note sounded by one of the pipes in a clutch of bagpipes: it’s part of the music. And Thomas’ drone in these book is part of the storytelling. The motivating role given to verbal content here is probably unavoidable: condensing a long story into a comparatively few pages of comics requires the sort of shortcutting that can be done verbally but almost never with pictures bearing most of the freight. By the end of this issue, the third, of Dorian Gray, however, the narrative shifts from a glancing overview of the events of weeks, months and years to rehearsing a particular encounter between Gray and a friend, and there, Sebastian Fiumara’s delicately rendered Victorian visuals assume their share of the storytelling burden. In The Iliad, the narrative task is much more complex: Thomas must advance the story while deploying an array of leading characters, each with an unfamiliar Greek name. The pages are crammed with captions and speeches, around which Miguel Angel Sepulveda and his inker, Sandu Florea, weave expertly performed battle scenes and bloody encounters, all made even more complicated by the presence of gods and goddesses in ghostly outlines, hovering over their favorite warriors. By the end of this issue, No. 2 (of 8), the Olympians announce they are retiring from the field to let the mortals do battle as they can. Henceforth, Thomas’ task, and that of his collaborators, will surely be easier.
A LITTLE BUSHWACKING IS A GOOD THING
Not surprisingly, the Pope did better in confronting and assuaging those in his flock who have the most to complain of than has the Prez of the U.S. Benedick met on Thursday, April 17, with several middle-aged persons who as children had been sexually abused by priests in Boston. Face-to-face, and, briefly, one-on-one. GeeDubya has yet to do the equivalent—meet, face-to-face, one-on-one, with any of the mothers of slain American soldiers who now vociferously disagree with George W. (“Warlord”) Bush about the Iraq fiasco. The Pope has the courage of his convictions. The Prez of the U.S. is just a rich kid ex-Yale frat boy who found a post-graduate career in which to exercise the only skills he learned in college, those of a cheerleader.
In the U.S., Catholics, victims of ferocious bigotry a century ago, now occupy five of the nine seats on the Supreme Court and make up more than a quarter of Congress—a signal change in cultural and political status, observed the New York Sun, quoted in The Week, which goes on to cite a Georgetown University study that found that a third of the country’s 64 million Catholics never attend Mass, a quarter attend church only a few times a year, and a majority never go to confession. USA Today notes that, thanks to Hispanic immigration, Catholics are “holding steady” at about a quarter of the nation’s population, but “native-born Catholics—especially those under 30—are fleeing the church by the millions.”
The Sacred and the Profane. On Saturday, April 19, the Pope conducted mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and CNN broadcast the whole thing, accompanying it with a voice-over running commentary by a couple of happy talk announcers who, at one time, took the occasion to discuss the Pope’s various pronouncements on sex abuse among the American clergy, laminating the sacred with the most scandalous profane. Typical American tv, in other words. Well?—given the Church’s history lately—why not?
Afflicting the Comfortable and Comforting the Afflicted
Editoonist Vaughn Larson, a National Guardsman in Madison, Wisconsin, for nearly 20 years, is in Guantanamo for his third tour of overseas duty. He served in Desert Storm in 1990; then in April 2006, while cartoonist and news editor for The Review, a thrice-weekly paper in Plymouth, Wisconsin, he was sent to Iraq for a year. While there, he filed stories and sent cartoons to The Review and two other papers that publish his work—The Wisconsin State Journal in Madison and The Freeman of Waukesha. “I can’t say I’m widely syndicated,” he joked at the time in an Editor & Publisher article; “I’m just minutely syndicated.” He’ll be in Gitmo until next March.
Elsewhere: Some editoonists work with a cable news channel on the tv as they work; others play NPR or CNN on the radio. They do it to keep up-to-the-moment on the news of the day, seeking, as always, inspiration for the next cartoon. But broadcast news, whether audio-visual or just audio, is “headline news,” a digest of the day’s events as they transpire. And broadcast news often indulges in endless recycling of the Sensation of the Day or similar trivia about the celebrity of the moment. Anyone forming an opinion of the import of events from broadcast news necessarily gets only a bird’s-eye view of the tip of the iceberger, so to speak. Somewhat like arriving at an understanding of an elephant from an inspection of its tail. Or else the opinion is based upon events or personalities so unimportant as to be nearly meaningless in the Grand Scheme of Things. Given the source of their inspiration then, what kind of editorial cartoons can we expect from even the most talented cartoonists?
SCRAWLS ON THE BATHROOM WALLS
meat is not bad for you; fuzzy green meat is bad for you.
Artificial intelligence is no match for natural stupidity. The latest survey shows that three out of four people make up 75% of the population
THE FROTH ESTATE
The Alleged News Institution
The journalistical rumor millrace has Katie Couric stepping down as anchor of “CBS Evening News,” perhaps in January after the Presidential Election. She’s failed to deliver the ratings that her 5-year $75 million contract prognosticated. She was supposed to “reinvent” the tv news program, but the network abandoned all the new Couric gimmicks when the initial ratings began to falter, resorting to the standard evening news broadcast format. It’s a solid news report, but still hangs third in the big three network ratings competition, and a week or so ago, it reached the lowest ebb of the broadcast’s history. Despite the rumors, CBS maintains it has no plans to make changes. Some pundits have speculated that the reason for Couric’s abysmal showing have less to do with her than with an American proclivity favoring male news anchors over female. It’s just a sexist thing. But James Poniewozik at Time.com contends that no one could have halted the relentless slippage in network news show ratings. The Week quotes him noting that only a small percentage of Americans—“most of them over 50—have the time or inclination to watch a half-hour tv newscast in the evening; those who do will ultimately die. No star or futuristic set or new format will fix that.”
Newspaper circulation continues its steady decline. Editor & Publisher says that since 2004's semi-annual Audit Bureau of Circulation report, the top twenty metropolitan newspapers have collectively lost more than a million in circulation, an 8 percent drop. Some papers hope that by adding their website readers to the figures, they can recoup some of the over-all loss in the number of people buying the paper. We’ll see: the next ABC report is due at the end of April. Meanwhile, newspapers, desperate to increase profit for stock holders but unable to do so by raising advertising revenue because circulation is declining, are now seeking to enhance their bottom lines by reducing cost, which, these days, means firing staff or, increasingly, outsourcing some of their function. Print journalism has outsourced for decades: syndicated features and wire-service news reports have long been part of the daily mix. But now some big papers are having their ad production (design, layout, typography) done off-premises—specifically, in India. Data is e-mailed to one of several Indian companies specializing in ad production; the next day, return e-mail delivers the ads in camera-ready (so to speak) form. Jennifer Saba at E&P reports that newspapers are saving from 20% to 60% in production costs. “Back of the envelope calculation,” she writes, “shows that metro newspapers can realize a savings of about $500,000 a year. ... Chains like the Sun-Times Media Group [which plans to] outsource its ad production work for its 95 publications to Affinity Express [in India] expects to save $3 million annually.”
Creators Syndicate has started identifying the political leanings of its pundit columnists, writes Dave Astor at E&P. Tagging a columnist C, L, LT, or U (Conservative, Liberal, Libertarian, or Unaffiliated) enables client paper editors who are casting about for a variety of views to quickly pick what they need to balance their op-ed pages. Some columnists, like liberal Connie Schultz and conservative Bill O’Reilly, don’t like to be pigeonholed. “I like to think I’m more nuanced,” said Schultz. O’Reilly, who makes no comment but who can scarcely be described as “nuanced,” no doubt wants to remain untagged so he can slip into a newspaper’s line-up like a stealth bomber, dropping hyperbola and innuendo as if reporting actual fact instead of opinionated vituperation.
The Mammoth Book of Best Horror Comics is, apparently, out, and if it’s anything like The Mammoth Book of Best War Comics that surfaced a few months ago, it will fall somewhat shy of including all the “best.” The War Comics included nothing from EC’s Frontline Combat or Two-Fisted Tales, for instance, arguably the best war story anthologies every published in comics. The War book spans a healthy swath of the 20th century though: stories from the 1960s (earliest, 1962) through 2005. The book was first published in Britain, so it logically includes British as well as American comics—and some samples from other countries, notably, “I Saw It!,” Neiji Nakazawa’s recounting of his own experience witnessing the atomic bomb falling on Hiroshima, which led, we are told, to “a much larger work, Barefoot Gen,” a classic Japanese graphic novel. Although nothing from EC is included, the work of some of its notable artists—John Severin and Joe Orlando—appears, as do a couple of latter-day stories from Will Eisner and a brace of unlikely creators, Greg Irons and Don Lomax. It may not include EC material, but maybe that’s a bonus: in the range of other material assembled here by David Kendall, we see many powerful pictures and telling narratives, and we learn thereby that EC Comics was not alone in portraying war as it is rather than as the glorious “romantic” mission some, like our own benighted Prez, GeeDubya, would have us believe it to be.
Jen Sorensen, creator of the award-winning strip Slowpoke, which appears in the Village Voice and other newsweeklies, has released a new collection of the feature, Slowpoke: One Nation, Oh My God! with 150 of the cartoons and an introduction by Ruben Bolling of Tom the Dancing Bug notoriety. Says Sorenson in a news release from aan.org: “This is not just another quirky cartoon book. It is packed with commentary for every strip and chock full of devastatingly sophisticated and accurate political analysis. It also answers all your questions about tube socks and teledildonics.” Teledildonics?
MORE PEANUTS YET
The latest in the Fantagraphics Peanuts reprint extravaganza is out, The Complete Peanuts: 1967-1969: The Definitive Collection of Charles M. Schulz’s Comic Strip Masterpiece (340 6x8-inch pages, b/w; hardcover, $28.95), and it, like the previous eight volumes, is a superb example of the book designer’s craft, here, Seth’s. Nothing in the design draws particular attention to itself and therefore away from the book’s chief function, which is to present the comic strip to the best advantage—in this case, three daily strips to each page, uncluttered and therefore unblemished by any of those self-conscious designer-ish gimmicks like drawings screened to gray tone lines thereby destroying the art that you bought the book to look at or blown up so that the lines are raggedy and unattractive—nothing, in other words, Kiddish at all. Only in the book cover, jacket, and front- and back-matter is Seth’s subtle touch on display, its austerity matching that of the cartoonist’s simple but expressive visuals.
Each cover of the series has carried a bold-line close-up of one of the Peanuts cast, accented with gray tone and bathed in a subdued color, a different one for each book. With the faces, Seth aimed, he said, to “create a small moment of recognition/confusion.” At worldfamouscomics.com in November 2004, he explained: “I want the viewer to see the books in a slightly different light than all the other Peanuts books they’ve seen for the last 40 years. That’s why the color scheme is very low key and the overall design scheme is rather sedate. I want to try to ‘re-brand’ (to use a horrible modernism) the Peanuts strip. Or, really, I should say, I want to return Peanuts to the proper branding—which is sophisticated humor aimed at an adult audience. Too many decades of children’s products and marketing has confused the buying audience into thinking that Schulz was writing for kids. I wanted to get away from the bright colors and so forth, usually associated with kids’ books. Also, I really want this series of books to have some feeling for the sadder human moments of the strip, and I hope the overall design of the books (inside and out) will capture some of that.”
In taking the book design assignment, Seth (aka Gregory Gallant), a cartoonist himself (graphic novels like Clyde Fans: Book One and Wimbledon Green and It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken), wanted “a chance to do something beautiful for Sparky [as Schulz preferred to be called]. It is a daunting task in that sense,” he continued: “You have the responsibility of trying to honor the great man with your own paltry skills. You don’t want to do anything that will hurt his work. The only thing that makes it easier is that there have been many many horrible editions of Peanuts, and his work still goes on unharmed. At the very least, I can’t hurt Peanuts.”
Schulz’s work had a “profound influence” on Seth, he said, adding that “the only other cartoonist of equal value as just such an example would be R. Crumb. Though, seeming, both from different ends of the cartooning spectrum, they both have a lot in common. They both, uncompromisingly, did exactly what they wanted to do. They had a vision and they followed it through unflinchingly. Also, both of them managed to infuse their work with the power of their inner life—making a medium that is usually vapid and commercial and using it for very personal expression. This sort of thing is a great inspiration to anyone who believes that cartooning can be a meaningful pursuit.”
In the volume at hand, John Waters’ introduction takes appropriate notice of Schulz’s skill as a cartoonist, referring us, as too few introductions to comic strip reprint books do, to specific examples in the ensuing pages. This book sees the arrival of Franklin, the African American kid, and baseball star Jose Peterson, introduced for his brief appearance by Peppermint Patty, who bowed onto the Peanuts stage August 22, 1966, as revealed in the previous volume, which achieves even greater historic status for Snoopy’s donning goggles and helmet and climbing atop his doghouse as the Famous World War I Flying Ace to engage in endless battle with the storied Red Baron, Sunday, October 10, 1965. In the 1967-1969 volume, we also witness that rare phenomenon in Peanuts, an adult presence, an off-camera voice—the ticket seller at the movie theater. This may be the last time such an untoward thing happened in the strip. Isolated episodes like these are identified for us by one of the series most helpful features, an Index at the back of the book that tells us which pages to look at to see Snoopy as the World War I Flying Ace or as a vulture. I suspect the indexer of a mischievous cast of mind, though: in the 1967-1969 volume, I can’t find Zorba the Greek anywhere on page 104; he may exist solely to give the letter Z a referent. But we can easily tolerate and even overlook such playfulness in order to find who first wears a fake moustache. (It’s Snoopy, effecting a disguise as the World War I Flying Ace, shot down behind enemy lines.)
ANOTHER HISTORY OF COMICS CENSORSHIP AND RUIN
Mort Drucker, Mad’s caricaturist supreme, has provided us all with an excuse to buy the May
issue of Vanity Fair, the one with Madonna’s naked thighs on the cover. Inside, we can see more pictures of Madonna’s thighs and of her visage, which, nowadays, bereft of its adolescent babyfat and framed by long, luxuriously curled locks, is genuinely beautiful in a classical sense. But Drucker is the gem we found a few pages before happening, altogether unawares, upon Madonna. On page 186, he celebrates what David Hajdu calls Mad’s 60th anniversary by caricaturing a dozen or so of the magazine’s stalwart contributors. For some wholly unaccountable reason, Hajdu has picked 1948 as the year of Mad’s conception when, as he happily admits in the text accompanying Drucker’s picture, it was merely the year William M. Gaines launched the company that would launch Mad four years later. So the 60th anniversary dodge is pure fiction. And so is the “launch.” Gaines didn’t start EC (Entertaining Comics) in 1948: he just renamed the company he inherited, Educational Comics, when his father, the redoubtable Max, died in a boating accident. For the real story behind all this, Hajdu “heartily” urges us to read “a new book, by me, The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America.” I’m easily persuaded, so I’ve started reading this Hajdu podge history of comic books and the Wertham purge of the mid-1950s.
The book has been enjoying unusually enthusiastic notices, typically something along these lines (from Jenny Carlson at popmatters.com): “In this illuminating work, critic David Hajdu revisits the boycotts, bans, and congressional hearings that disenfranchised hundreds of artists and ended the golden days of the comic book industry.” Exactly the sort of thing you might expect if you use words like “plague” and “scare” in the title of your book. Maybe I should have entitled my Caniff biography Milton Caniff and the Epidemic He Started That Changed American Newspapers Forever. I can supply a gloss on this title that is just as well supported by facts as Hajdu’s title is.
I’m happy to report that Hajdu’s book is highly readable: Hajdu is a more than capable vociferator of the language, and his prose is liberally larded with quotations from various personages, from Will Eisner to Pete Morisi to Jack Kamen and Arnold Drake, whom Hajdu interviewed about their perceptions and experiences as the comic book developed through the thirties and forties until it became a plague. I doubt that anyone has taken as much trouble as Hajdu has in obtaining testimony from those on the scene at the time about the birth and subsequent delinquencies of four-color fiction. And many of his witnesses have never, to my knowledge, testified before. Morisi, for instance, an 81-year-old veteran who started drawing and writing in about 1948 with Fox Comics and ran through Quality and Marvel and Gleason before winding up at Charlton in 1957.
Hajdu quotes Morisi about Lev Gleason’s Crime Does Not Pay and its ostensible editor and guiding genius, Charlie Biro: “Biro was an egomaniac [said Morisi]. Look at the covers—his autograph was the biggest type on the cover. He wanted everybody to think that he was the whole show. ... He like to let on that he wrote everything, but he didn’t. Ginny Hubbell wrote just about everything that Charlie Biro took credit for.” Virginia Hubbell was a woman Biro had met while working at MLJ, “a bright, earthy woman, fair and smallish, with light brown hair that she wore in a pageboy,” Hajdu tells us, although how he knows that much about her personality and appearance, having never met her, is open to supposition. We suppose he got someone who knew her to describe her; and then he made up the rest. And this brings me to the only problem I have so far with the book—namely, Hajdu is a better writer than he is a reporter or researcher.
His fondness for headlong prose leads him into the errors of oversimplifying for the sake of a dashing sentence and inflating a few unsavory factoids for the sake of scintillating sensation. Having committed himself to the notion of a “plague” sweeping the country in the form of comic books, Hajdu must, perforce, keep reminding us of the epidemic nature of the phenomenon. And he pretty soon shifts to more bellicose metaphors: he inflates a vague cultural distrust of comic books into class warfare, pitting the youth of America against their parents and all other authorities. He finds and quotes bloody newspaper headlines about kids imitating crimes they saw depicted in comics, and he assures us that massive book-burnings were held in virtually every city in the country, incinerating the pulp temptations of a generation. And he talks about a “panic over comic books.” That’s a little extreme.
Yes, I was there then. I was fifteen when I bought the first issue of Mad comics off the newsstand in the drugstore at the corner of Sheridan and 25th. And I bought most of the EC war and horror books right there, too. Not to mention a lot of the Gleason titles—Boy Comics, Daredevill, and the ever-menacing Crime Does Not Pay. And, yes, there were book-burnings—but not in our town; yes, some misguided youths imitated the crimes they read about in Gleason’s comics—but no one I knew did. In fact, as a general rule, most of us were not much disturbed by either the comics themselves or crusades to separate us from them. The comics were nearly ubiquitous; the crusades, merely rumbling drumbeats in the distance, far away from us.
In his desire to keep his prose plunging along, Hajdu, a professor of journalism at Columbia University (home of the Pulitzers), often glides blithely by key information in the history of the medium, failing to supply much illumination. He enjoys describing Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, founder of what became DC Comics, as “a professional eccentric” with pretensions to being a twentieth century boulevardier but fails to reveal the one scrap of intelligence that links Wheeler-Nicholson’s early comic books to what Hajdu describes as the Major’s original intention in publishing them as “brochures to interest newspaper syndicates” in buying a comic strip. That’s why the contents of Wheeler-Nicholson’s New Fun was not reprints of previously published syndicated comic strips, such as festooned the interiors of almost all other comic books of the day. The Major’s first comic book was conceived as a piece of a marketing enterprise, not as an end in itself. But how did the Major get interested in newspaper comic strips to begin with? The Major’s earlier foray into fiction-writing involved his own syndication of illustrated stories to newspapers—text stories with a succession of panels of illustration appearing above the text in the manner of a comic strip. When illustrated stories evolved into comic strips—like the exemplary Tarzan, for instance, which first appeared as one of the illustrated stories breed—the Major’s interest evolved, too. His comic books as “brochures” fits neatly into his marketing plan for this larger enterprise.
It is, perhaps, too much to expect Hajdu, who, as far as I can tell, is not a comics scholar with any experience greater than he acquired in writing this book, to delve as deeply into Malcolm Wheeler-Nicolson as I have here. Hajdu is writing a book for popular consumption, not a history of the medium for popular culture libraries. Still, you’d think he’d mention that Siegel and Shuster took their Superman creation around to several publishers and newspaper syndicates before Sheldon Mayer saw it and recognized, immediately, that it was perfect for comic books. Hajdu takes pains to list several characters with traits Siegel incorporated into his Superman but doesn’t reveal how failed a creation Superman was until Mayer saw it. And as his verbiage whisks rapidly by, an occasional fact or two is misrepresented in the rush. Lee Falk’s Phantom, for instance, isn’t known, particularly, for having a “secret identity”; he has one, but he seldom appears as “Walker,” and when he does, he wears dark glasses so we can’t see who he is any more than we can when he’s wearing his usual domino mask and purple leotards. And “Walker,” we all know, is not his real name but an assumed one. Action Comics No. 1 wasn’t published in June 1938, as Hajdu says; that’s the cover-date, but the magazine made its appearance before June, in the usual fashion of comic books which are “published” weeks before their cover-dates. Hajdu thinks Superman is Jewish, “a viable metaphor for Jesus.” I doubt that most American youth, seeing Superman for the first time, would see either of these aspects of his character. Most of us would see in him a manifestation of the circus strongman, whose costume Shuster adopted for the Man of Steel—something Hajdu fails to mention, thinking, instead, that readers first encountering Superman lifting a car over his head on the cover of Action No. 1 couldn’t tell whether he was a hero or a villain. Elsewhere, Hajdu asserts that Captain America “gave Timely its first comic-book hit during the war”(my emphasis); but Captain America was a roaring success from his first appearance in his eponymous comic book, which appeared early in 1941 (cover-dated March 1941), before World War II.
These, I admit, are tiny tiny gaffes. And they do not much detract from the reading pleasure the book affords in regaling us with a familiar history that Hajdu has successfully salted with many new and wondrous discoveries, or uncoveries. I didn’t know that Estes Kefauver’s habit of wearing a coonskin cap had its origins in the Tennessee politician’s fight with Ed Crump, a Memphis political boss, who sought to discredit Kefauver by likening him to a “stealthy, pilfering raccoon.” Kefauver wore the coonskin cap to rub Crump’s nose in it. The book fairly brims with gems of this sort, including many retrieved in interviews with those comic book professionals whose opinions and memories have so seldom in the past been explored.
But as Bart Beaty observes in the first of a three-part review of the book, Hajdu leaves out information that even a casual observer might regard as integral to the case he’s trying to make. For instance, Hajdu quotes almost the entire first day’s 1954 testimony before the Senate subcommittee investigating the criminality of comics—and the third day’s testimony, which took place over a month later—but he leaves out altogether the second day’s testimony. “Given that the entire book builds to these hearings as the culmination of the drama,” Beaty writes, “this seemed an extremely curious absence.” The second day’s witnesses included Helen Meyer of Dell Comics, which company is almost entirely and suspiciously absent from Hajdu’s book. (Dell, an industry leader at the time, accounting for up to one-third of the total comic book output, says Beaty.) Meyer was quite critical of Fredric Wertham’s work (her company “repeatedly threatened to sue him if Dell were mentioned in Seduction of the Innocent”) and her “defense of Dell was extraordinary—certainly the flip side of Gaines’ defense of EC—but she also was blunt in her feelings about her competitors: ‘We abhor horror and crime comics. We should like to see them out of the picture because it taints us.” This, which Beaty applauds, is virtually the same message conveyed to the subcommittee by Walt Kelly and Milton Caniff, who Beaty excoriates for testifying in a way that abandoned comic books to their fate. “They came not to praise comic books,” he says, “but to bury them.” (Cute, but a stunning misapplication of the allusion to Marc Anthony’s speech in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”: Marc Anthony was doing precisely what he said he wasn’t there to do—praise Caesar. The oft-quoted opening gambit of his peroration was a ploy, designed to disarm a hostile audience, Roman senators who didn’t want him to speak, thinking he might stir up the masses to avenge the death of Caesar. Be that as it may.)
Representing the National Cartoonists Society, Kelly and Caniff were expressing the fear of its members, mostly syndicated cartoonists, that the “scare” about comic books would metastasize into yet another censoring hurdle comic strips would have to leap—in addition to syndicate editors and client newspaper editors. Although both Kelly and Caniff opposed in no uncertain terms official governmental censorship for comic books, both were afraid that comic books would “taint” comic strips. Beaty and many others who have visited this episode seem to feel that Kelly and Caniff ought to have stood stoutly by comic books, issuing ringing declarations and trumpeting freedom of expression and the like. But they were as afraid for their livelihoods as Gaines was for his. He courageously stood up for his oeuvre, it’s true; but so did they—all three appeared before the subcommittee voluntarily—and they were more successful in achieving their objective than Gaines was in achieving his.
The season of Joseph R. McCarthy, “the junior senator from Wisconsin,” was no time to be standing on soap boxes proclaiming democratic principles. It was a time for canny maneuvering, for appearing, as Beaty notes Caniff does, to “value highly” Wertham’s opinion because by saying so Caniff avoids appearing to be an opponent of the very things the senators were in favor of—mother, apple pie, healthy minds in healthy children. If Caniff didn’t “value” what Wertham was apparently valuing, then he would appear to be opposed to mother, apple pie, and healthy minds in healthy children. You aren’t likely to be successful in insinuating your views into the minds of potentially hostile listeners if you begin by offending the American Way. Yes, I know: the American Way is freedom of expression and so on. But that wasn’t what was in the collective senatorial mind at the moment. Neither Kelly nor Caniff gave ground on the question of freedom of expression: they both saw and voiced concern about the danger that any sort of official censorship might usher in. At the same time, they were there not to defend comic books, which were, in some quarters, only marginally defensible then anyhow; they were there to deflect attention from syndicated comics. And if the Comics Code Authority is the measure of success or failure, they succeeded: no such institution was inflicted upon syndicated cartoonists.
All of which is quite beside the point: the point is that Hajdu selected those elements of the issues that supported the inflammatory notion of a “plague” that spread across the country, “scaring” people out of their wits. It was more to his purpose, then, to present the comic book scandals as an epic struggle between a misguided psychiatrist and a self-sacrificing funnybook publisher. That made a better story. Not that Hajdu’s is a bad book. It has many virtues even if it lacks the objectivity of open-minded research reportage.
I have barely begun reading the book, but I already delight in its many strange and wonderful—and, for the most part, accurate—revelations. At the same time, I sometimes encounter an assertion the factual basis for which is questionable. And I wonder, occasionally, if, in testifying for Hajdu, some of his witnesses aren’t retailing heresay and fabrications in the manner of good storytellers everywhere, embellishing them a little for dramatic or comedic effect. Was Bill Gaines’ secretary, Shirley Norris, actually arrested and taken to court for selling a policeman a copy of Panic when this officer of the law came calling at the offices of EC Comics? The story, which ends when the judge throws the case out because the pictures in Panic are no more risque than lingerie ads in the subway, seems just too good, too juicy, to be true. Hajdu assures us that a record of the proceeding exists, but he relies, instead, upon Norris’s recollection and that of Lyle Stuart, EC’s business manager at the time. I don’t doubt that the episode took place, in some manner or another, but perhaps not in quite the picturesque way it is rehearsed here. Still, I look forward to reading the rest of the tome, and I fully expect to enjoy it rapturously; even if parts of it are more fiction than fact, sometimes fiction is truer.
MORE TERRY AND THE PIRATES
While we’re steeping in historical matters, here’s the second volume of IDW’s sumptuous reprinting of Milton Caniff’s epochal strip, The Complete Terry and the Pirates: 1937-1938 (352 8.5x11-inch pages, b/w and color; hardcover, $49.95). In what we now take to be typical of IDW’s reprint performances, the volume is handsomely produced—three black-and-white daily strips to a page, then a color Sunday, all in sequence and attentively dated; the reproduction of the strips is excellent, not as large as in the pioneering NBM series of yore but fully readable (lines clearly etched and gray tones unmuddied, color an accurate mirror of the original publication on newsprint); end papers reproducing panels of strips, dust jacket carrying a classical image of the strip’s heroes and a few of the femmes fatales, and front matter—an Introduction by novelist/journalist Pete Hamill and an essay by Bruce Canwell, associate editor of IDW’s Library of American Comics, both illustrated with rare visuals culled from the Cartoon Research Library (which was founded when Caniff left his papers to his alma mater, Ohio State University). In a laudable innovation, the front matter offers a page introducing us to the principal members of the cast and two pages that re-cap, in pictures and succinct captions, what has transpired “previously in Terry and the Pirates”—both features undeniably a boon to readers coming fresh to Caniff’s masterwork.
Hamill, who, as a youth, aspired to be a cartoonist and wrote fan letters to Caniff, is grandly appreciative of Caniff’s artistry both as a storyteller and as a picture-maker and reminisces informatively about the strip, its characters and their adventures. Canwell’s essay supplies some history of the strip, including Caniff’s relationship with Noel Sickles from whom he appropriated the chiaroscuro technique of illustrating the strip, and with New York Daily News publisher Captain Joseph Patterson, who commissioned Caniff to produce an adventure strip for him, resulting in Terry. Canwell also relates a short biography of Frank Engli, the cartoonist who made virtually a life’s work out of lettering most of Terry and most of Steve Canyon, and he puts the strip in its appropriate historical context by reviewing the history of China in the 1930s, including the Japanese invasion that started with a raid at the Marco Polo Bridge in July 1937 and the subsequent colossal “rape of Nanking” later that year in which 20,000 women were raped and 300,000 Chinese were killed. By this time, Caniff had established himself as a realistic storyteller: to the painstaking realism of visual detail, he added the realism of the personalities of his characters and the aura of authenticity gained by reflecting in the strip actual events in contemporary Chinese history. In December 1937, Caniff’s characters first encounter the evidence of the Japanese invasion’s devastation, but Caniff referred to the Japanese as “the invaders,” not as Japanese. Both Patterson and his cousin, Robert McCormick, who ran the Daily News’ sister newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, were isolationists and loudly advocated staying out of the wars in Europe and the Far East.
Patterson at first tolerated Caniff’s “invaders” in Terry, but when, in the fall of 1941, Caniff depicted “invader” airplanes with the distinctive Japanese meatball insignia, Patterson felt the cartoonist had gone too far: showing the high-handed Japanese war machine invading the China that, in Terry, had always been quaintly exotic and picturesque and friendly was bound to inspire anti-Japanese sentiment among readers and might encourage the nation to go to war. The publisher called Caniff in and told him to cease and desist. Caniff, famously, disagreed with Patterson, but the Captain had the last word: “Well, son,” he said, “by an accident of birth, we’re going to do it my way.” Caniff saluted and went off to figure out what he could do. Canwell says Caniff ignored Patterson’s orders, but that’s not what happened. Caniff told me that he didn’t want to do as the Captain had told him, but he didn’t think he could flout his boss’s wishes either. “I stalled,” he said. “I didn’t draw any more meatballs, but I didn’t send them all home to the States either.” As it happened, the sequence he was presently producing didn’t require any “invaders,” and before that sequence ended, the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and Patterson’s objection to the strip’s anti-Japanese posture evaporated.
Canwell makes only one other dubious assertion when he claims Noel Sickles helped out on Terry into the 1940s. That’s highly unlikely. And I’ve devoted an entire appendix in my biography of Caniff to refuting this canard. Canwell would have committed neither of these gaffes had he read my book, Meanwhile: A Biography of Milton Caniff (described here), in which, of course, The Truth is made manifest. Although Canwell’s history of China covers the Japanese invasion and the struggle between the Nationalists and the Communists, he surprisingly fails to mention the role of warlords in China during this period. The war-torn country, its government violently displaced and largely ineffective, was taken over, region after region, by marauding petty tyrants with private armies who ruled absolutely within their conquered territories all the while seeking to expand their boundaries through more conquest. One of these appears in the strips in this volume, “General” Klang, and given his prominence as a villain for four months in 1938, I’m surprised Canwell had nothing to say on the matter.
This volume includes several major developments in the Terry saga. The story resumes with Pat Ryan in the clutches of the river pirate Papa Pyzon, to whom the Dragon Lady sold him in the last volume. While Pat is proving his mettle to Pyzon, the Dragon Lady, heading a rival band, plots to overthrow Pyzon. Pat is wounded during one of several minor escapades and is treated by a renegade doctor, an outcast from the British navy, who tells Pat he was ruined by a half-caste girl who betrayed his love for her. Later, when Pat is about to be forced to marry the Dragon Lady, he arranges for the doctor to meet her, and the doctor immediately recognizes her as his traitorous lover. He takes a gun and shoots her point blank, and in the ensuing confusion, Pat and Terry and Connie escape. They wind up at a mining camp down river where Pat encounters the Only Woman in His Life—Normandie Drake, who, Pat learns to his sorrow, is married to a craven coward named Anthony Sandhurst (for whom Charles Laughton was Caniff’s model).
Also in this volume, we meet Big Stoop, the towering mute who joins the Terry trio (Terry, Pat, Connie) for the rest of their pre-war adventures, and Terry, growing into adolescence, falls momentarily under the spell of the mature and “experienced” Burma and makes a tentative move on the blonde bombshell in a sensitive sequence that shows how well Caniff understood the romantic yearnings of youth. And with the invader overrunning the country, the Dragon Lady, erstwhile pirate queen, calls upon her countrymen to join her in a guerrilla army. It was a stunning maneuver: villain to heroine at a stroke. In transforming the Dragon Lady from pirate to patriot, Caniff achieved a dramatic triumph that was both profoundly realistic and marvelously theatrical. The Dragon Lady had always been a virtual warlord. Now, she abandons petty crime to enlist in the Chinese legions mustered against. Japan. “This happened often to people such as she,” Caniff told me. “The Japanese were well hated on the mainland of China. This was often true—that someone like her was at heart a patriot, really quite sincerely a patriot, when the issue involved the invading Japanese. As long as the nation was at stake, she was a patriot. When it was all over she went back to her natural role—like everyone else.”
Wandering the bleak Chinese landscape, Terry, Connie, and Burma see a train bombed by an invader airplane and they rescue a little girl who survives. This is Nastalthia “Nasty” Smythe-Heatherstone, the bratty offspring of a wealthy Briton in China; she will return as a wholly unsavory young woman in the last years of the strip, but for the time being, she’s held for ransom by a river merchant named Hunter Yurk, one of the few villains Caniff introduced who he liked so little that he killed him off at the end of the sequence rather than letting him escape to return another day for more criminal mischief. At the end of this volume, Terry and Pat are poised to go to Burma where they hope to find the missing manager of a plantation owned by “Nasty’s” father—and where Terry will find the love of his young life, April Kane.
Volume Two of The Complete Terry is a juicy trove of memorable moments. Don’t miss it. You won’t want to miss the last volume in the series either: I’ve been asked to write an essay for it. (Just so you know how thoroughly without self-interest this review is.) Judging from the first two volumes, the IDW Terry is the perfect companion for my biography of Caniff: get them all.
QUOTES AND MOTS
Asked, in the April issue of CAPS newsletter, what is the greatest lesson he learned in his career (1969-today), Bob Foster, animator and conjurer of Myron the Moose, said: “Everything is preparatory to something else. Everything you do, everyone you met, every disappointment you encounter is preparatory for something that’s about to come along that you weren’t expecting. And it’s usually something pretty cool.”
“In times like these, it helps to recall that there have always been times like these.”—Paul Harvey, one of my uncles
Near the end of the book, the eponymous Percy Gloom meets a duck-billed crane-like creature named Millicent, to whom, a propos of nothing, Percy says, conversationally, “Say, Millicent, I’ve met some goats who can talk. Can you talk?” To which Millicent says, quite sensibly, “Of course not, Percy—I’m not a goat.” Cathy Malkasian’s graphic novel Percy Gloom (182 8x10-inch pages in sepia, hardcover; Fantagraphics, $18.95, $15.16 at fantagraphics.com) sprinkles softly glowing pearls of wisdom like this throughout as she traces the awakening of her hero, a small man with a sad face and a lazy eye whose hair seems pasted on in swirls. The book, drawn entirely in pencil and printed in sepia, is a fable, perhaps a parable, and the soft pencil shading lends the dreamy aspect of a fairy tale to Malkasian’s surreal setting with its twining landscapes and nursery rhyme houses with peaked roofs and meandering corridors and tilted-arch entryways. Percy has his heart set on becoming a writer at Safely Now, a “cautionary writing institute” where the employees test “seemingly benign” products to discern otherwise undetected dangers “from the injurious ink well to the pernicious pretzel” and then write warning labels (examining a hair brush, Percy discovers “handle-to-ear danger, possible hearing loss”). When he first reports for work, Percy meets a fellow laboratory denizen, Leo, who is a mass of scars and has a hook for one hand, tell-tale signs of his success at testing products by beating himself up with them to demonstrate their inherent heretofore undisclosed hazards to users. On this day, he drops an entire set of encyclopedias on himself, establishing thereby the possibility that “books can kill.” Safely Now is apparently run by a large overbearing woman named Margaret, who rewards Leo by hitting him sharply, just once, on the forehead with a hammer. “Does it show?” he asks eagerly. “Oh, yes, Mr. Leo,” she says soothingly, “—clear as day.” The cautionary way of life is ridiculed away.
Percy is not just named “Gloom”: he is a Gloom, or, rather, half-a-Gloom on his father’s side. Glooms, Percy explains to an accommodating black man named Bernard, see no point in their own existence. “For them, all human activity is a series of disastrous cycles. Every event portends its own destruction. Glooms are highly attuned to this potential and cannot make their peace with it.” Glooms traditionally slap themselves to death at the end of their mating years. But Percy is only one-half Gloom. “I am here to stay,” he tells Bernard.
In his youth, Percy had been in love with Lila, who taught him how to dance, but she had an affair with Finger (so named for “pointing people to the Truth”), a charismatic who wears dark glasses (so he can’t see very well) as the leader of a sect called Funnelheads. The name derives from their huge funnel-shaped headgear through which, Finger tells them, they receive “high wisdom.” Lila runs off with Finger and dies, with other Funnelheads, during a “human rockslide.” Percy, saddened, says: “I mistook her zeal for happiness.” Another of the book’s incidental tropes of perspicacity.
Then Percy meets Tammy, the Lucrecia Borgia of the tale. Tammy wants “to mate” with Percy but not until he fixes his lazy eye. Tammy turns out to be a screaming tyrant whose bad temper is the result of her conviction that everyone dies, an end she dreads and regards as a flaw in the scheme of life. Percy meets her parents, whom Tammy, in accordance with the dictates of a “religion” she has founded, plans to cook. But Percy, who is, above all else, a sensitive and sympathetic soul, rejects the very idea and pelts Tammy with several buckwheat muffins that he finds conveniently at hand. “Nothing really ends,” Percy has discovered, “—nor does it ever begin.” This discovery marks the dawn of wisdom for Percy, who tells Tammy as he lobs another muffin at her that “nothing is perfect, not here, not anywhere—death,” he concludes, “is not a flaw.” When his mother gives him the instructions his father left him about how to administer the deathslap, Percy, adrift in a small boat, simply smiles, dandles his hand in the water, and muses that his father, had he stayed around a while longer, “might have found all this pointlessness to be very entertaining.”
Percy, at last, has achieved a kind of beatitudinal equilibrium. In the usual, straightforward narrative of a novel, we would be able to recognize a turning point, some moment in the story that illuminates the experiences of the knight errant on his otherwise meaningless quest. From that moment, we—and the questing knight—attain understanding. The moment dramatizes the lesson we learn. “With great power,” Spider-Man says, “comes great responsibility,” a lesson he learns from the dire consequences of his having ignored his responsibilities. Malkasian’s narrative contains no such revelatory moment. It is a fairy tale, a string of events, not a drama. You’ll look in vain for the instant that Percy learns that “death is not a flaw.” We don’t know how it is that he has come to this conclusion; none of his experiences seem directly relevant to its arrival in Percy’s head. And yet all of them are. Percy’s awakening does not turn on a single event; it is, rather, the result of the accumulation of his experiences (only some of which I’ve alluded to here). The book begins, it seems, as Percy is first venturing out into the world—in search of employment, as we’ve noted. Until the events of this book, we suppose his life has been somewhat sheltered: his mother, an inventor, looks after him assiduously, even pampering him occasionally. And so this timid, sensitive and kind-hearted young man wanders out into the world, persuaded in advance that it is a fearful place, menace lurking everywhere. And his job, writing warning labels, confirms for him the accuracy of his understanding. But then he has many other experiences, some pleasant; some, not. But they are all, he decides, “entertaining.” If life tends, at least, to amuse, then it cannot be all bad. One should plunge into it, not fear it. And one should surely not fear it simply because it ends. We are all more resilient than we imagine.
The last scene in the book finds Percy with Margaret again. The Safely Now headquarters has collapsed, and she concludes that she has wasted her life. Percy gives her a toy telescope and tells her to look into it. After he assures her that it’s safe, she peeps into it and sees her twin—dancing. Then, much to Margaret’s consternation, her twin falls down, but—“Oh, she is—is getting up! She is—is—dancing again!”
“Yes,” says Percy, beaming, “in the business of caution, we are unprepared for happiness.”
Malkasian’s fable, or parable, concludes by recommending that we are more likely to find happiness if we engage with life rather than caution against it. However pointless it all may seem, it is, at least, entertaining.
ONWARD, THE SPREADING PUNDITRY
The Great Ebb and Flow of Things
John Yoo’s nefarious memo providing the legal basis for the Bush League to torture defenseless prisoners has been found wanting in purely legal terms. Recently released, the memos have been scrutinized by members of the lawyerly profession, including Jack Goldsmith, the attorney who succeeded Yoo’s boss at the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department and is now teaching law at Harvard. In his book, The Terror Presidency, Goldsmith says the torture memos have “no foundation” in any “source of law” and rest upon “one-sided arguments.” One might expect, says The Nation in discussing these matters, that the law would provide ample arguments for both sides of a question—that, after all, is why we have lawyers, to help us discover which argument is the right one. But, no: “The present criticism cites the utter shoddiness of the work.” The argument that the President has an inherent power to do as he wants in defense of the nation—the basis upon which the legality of torture rests—ignores legal precedent, most notably, the Supreme Court’s “landmark” 1952 “steel seizure case.” During the Korean War, President Harry Truman had seized possession of the country’s steel mills in order to prevent a strike that he felt would hamper U.S. war-making ability in Korea. The Court, however, found that the President hadn’t the license to act in this manner: the President has no power to act except in those cases authorized expressly by the Constitution or implicitly by act of Congress. To ignore this case in examining the question of Presidential power, The Nation concludes, “would be like advising a client on school desegregation law and ignoring Brown v. Board of Education. ... —a stunning failure of lawyerly craft and a stain upon our law and our national reputation.”
A brokered Democrat Convention? Not likely. That’s what all the pundits are talking about, all the news media parasites. So consider the source: to the news media, nothing would be more exciting in late August during a Presidential Campaign than for a political convention to be brokered. Or deadlocked. And the news media could use the excitement. Always. Or so they believe. Something to make up for the absence of Anna Nicole Smith and the perpetual rehabilitation of Britney Spears. By way of hoping to spawn a self-fulfilling prophecy, then, they’re touting the idea of a brokered convention. Excitement. Floor fights. Rampaging street demonstrations. Not likely. The Democrats know that’d be bad, so they’ll settle before the Convention here in Denver: they’ll know, going in, who their nominee will be. All the super-delegates necessary to the task will have declared their preference by then. Better piece by piece, state by state, than all at once during the Convention, which would smell of machine politics, and no matter who lost, the other faction would lose, too. If it happened during the Convention. But before? Before is okay: no fireworks on camera in front of the ravening so-called news media.
In Denver, meanwhile, a protest group has already announced that it will defy the city, which has been allotting demonstration venues to various groups by lottery. The group in question lost a lottery that would have given them a venue for a whole week, something no other group has. They will defy this imposition of onerous civic duty—namely, obeying the law—by “camping out” on the grassy City Center Park, an expanse of green sward between the state capitol building on a mile-high rise and the city-county building at a slightly lower elevation. Here, without toilets or running water, the protesters propose to camp out for a week. A smelly proposition at best.
Metaphors be with you.
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