OPUS 228 (August 17, 2008). In addition to the usual skimming over of comics news, we focus this time at length on Jules Feiffer (a new collection of his Village Voice cartoons is out from Fantgraphics) and Khalil Bendib, a Muslim-American editorial cartoonist whose goal in life is to show how ridiculous are our stereotypical images of the Middle East—when he’s not running for President, that is. Lynn Johnston talks about the end of the “new stuff” in For Better or For Worse, we note the passing of EC Comics artist Jack Kamen, and scoff at plans to wreck the Democrats convention in Denver. Here’s what’s here, in order, by Department:
Jack Kamen, 1920-2008
INTO THE PAST
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—
Mad magazine hasn’t had it so good in years: a recent issue was banned, albeit only briefly, in 40 Circuit City stores because it included a 4-page spoof of a consumer-electronics retailer called “Sucker City.” If the purpose of satire is to reveal human vice and folly, Mad achieved its purpose here with an uproarious second bounce. Moreover, by being banned, the magazine also scored the kind of publicity coup it hasn’t had in generations. Jim Babb, a Circuit City spokesman, said the banishment was the work of “some overly sensitive souls at our corporate headquarters” and apologized “for the knee-jerk reaction.” The affected stores were directed to put the magazine back on the racks said the Associated Press. At Mad magazine, editor John Ficarra said the usual gang of idiots was caught entirely unawares: “We were shocked and confused by this entire incident,” he said, “mainly because we had no idea that Circuit City even sells magazines.”
At the Edmonton Sun, Kevin Williamson says the plethora of superhero movies of late is due to studio executives’ eagerness to produce flicks that can exploit the medium’s capacity for special effects and their subsequent discovery that comic books offer exactly this sort of fodder—and a pre-sold audience, comics fans who already worship the heroes. Williamson quotes Hellboy’s Mike Mignola: “People were saying comics were going to go away. If nothing else, comics will continue to exist because Hollywood is making movies out of them. They’re here to stay now. I’m sure right now, based on Iron Man and Hulk movies, a lot of projects are being greenlit and being pushed to come out in the next couple years. In two or three years, we might see twice as many comic-book movies. The bad thing is a lot of people are now doing comics with the intention that they will become films. And so you see people’s creations tailored toward what a film or tv show might be.” When that happens, the comics medium suffers because its producers are thinking of their creation as a storyboard for film instead of as a unique storytelling art form that achieves its impact by yoking words and pictures in a static fashion for narrative purposes.
Publisher’s Weekly reports that “sales slipped 3% in Marvel's publishing segment in the second quarter ended June 30, falling to $31.8 million. The company attributed the decline to a drop in sales through the direct (comic bookstore) channel and difficult comparisons to last year's second quarter when trade paperback editions of Civil War sold well as did limited editions of the comic book series The Dark Tower and The Death of Captain America. Operating income also declined in the quarter, falling 3.3%, to $11.7 million. The decline was due to rising costs for ‘talent and paper,’ Marvel said as well as digital investments. Marvel is investing $4 million in digital initiatives in the year. For the first six months of 2008, earnings were off 17.5%, to $21.6 million, while revenue dipped 3.6%, to $58.3 million. For the full year, Marvel expects sales in the publishing group to be between $130 million and $135 million, with operating margins of 37% to 40%. In 2007, the publishing unit had sales of $125.7 million and margins of 42%.”
The Comic-Con International continued to be celebrated by Entertainment Weekly in the post-Con issue of August 8, which included photographs of various celebrities mugging for EW’s camera at the Hard Rock Hotel in San Diego. And in his Hit List column, Scott Brown headlined: “Kim Kardashian, Carmen Electra wow Comic-Con throngs,” then added a typical sneer: “Setting the bar a bit low, are we, girls? I could slap on a chain-mail bustier, slather myself in frosting, and wow those guys.”
Once again, one of Japan’s cultural phenomena is invading these shores. In New York, the newly opened Atom Café is aping Tokyo’s “manga cafes,” where young fans of the medium congregate to read the books. Publisher’s Weekly reports that the Atom Café “has amassed a collection of 20,000 manga titles in Japanese and 1,000 translated manga for English readers.” Atom Café is “equipped with sofas, tables and cubicles for reading. Readers may choose coffee or tea and a selection of noodles and onigiri (seaweed-wrapped rice balls) to enjoy with their comics,” which they rent for a $5 hourly fee. Andy Konkykru has posted to his website, konkykru.com, all of Joseph Franz von Goez’ 1783 pictorial narrative adaptation of his theatrical production, Lenardo and Blandine, with English translations of the captions. Consisting of 160 individual panels, von Goez’s effort may be, as Konkykru argues, the very first “graphic novel.” More description of the work can be found at onpanel.wordpress.com/2008/08/04/goez-lenardo-and-blandine-1783the-first-graphic-novel. Fascinating though this is, I suspect we can go on discovering ever earlier specimens of “graphic novels” forever; I favor establishing an arbitrary although not entirely disjointed date for such things as comic books and comic strips and graphic novels. For comic strips, for example, it’s 1900: before that date (the debut of F.B. Opper’s Happy Hooligan), everything that looks, however vaguely, like a comic strip is a “prototypical comic strip”; after that date, everything that looks like a comic strip is one. For the graphic novel, without thinking too much about it, I’d suggest 1930, the publication date of Milt Gross’s silent pictorial novel, He Done Her Wrong. It’d be better if the “first” graphic novel used words as well as pictures, but until I think of one, this’ll probably do: it has all the other earmarks of a graphic novel—designed and produced as a book, not a reprint of comic strips. (For the whole Milt Gross story, visit Harv’s Hindsights here, May 2006.)
Nirit Anderman at haaretz.com rejoiced recently at the prospect that Israel seems poised “to join the family of nations that appreciate and value comics.” Most comic books in Israel have been imported. But “in the last four months alone,” Anderman says, “no fewer than 12 such books were published here, either originals or in translations.” ... Jeff MacNelly’s legacy strip, Shoe, is moving from Tribune Media Services to King Features, effective September 1; it appears, according to the Business Wire, in about 500 newspapers. ... On August 11, E&P reminds us, Tom Batiuk started that Superman-themed sequence in his Funky Winkerbean. Peter, erstwhile Marvel Comics writer, has moved to DC to write Superman, and before the 3-week sequence concludes, he will visit the Glenville, Ohio, home of Jerry Siegel, where Siegel and his cohort Joe Shuster, created the Man of Steel 75 years ago.
Alley Oop also passed the three-quarters-of-a-century mark this month. On August 7, a special anniversary storyline concluded in the 600 or so newspapers that carry the strip. In the story, the monarch of Moo, King Guz, issues a proclamation that every citizen of Moo is invited to celebrate the prehistoric country’s 75th anniversary at a special party. Oop mopes around for days because his birthday is August 7, and he thinks everyone’s forgotten him. This date for the anniversary commemorates Alley Oop’s second debut: it started December 5, 1932, with a shoe-string syndicate that went under in a few months, effectively ending the strip’s first run on March 2, 1933. After several months shopping his creation around, V.T. Hamlin struck a deal with NEA and redrew his opening sequences for a second launch August 7, 1933; for the whole V.T. Hamlin epic, visit Harv’s Hindsights here, October 2005. Beyond the borders of the strip, the anniversary was celebrated with a ceremony at Alley Oop Fantasy Land Park in Iraan near Fort Stockton in West Texas, where the strip’s creator was reportedly working when he first toyed with the idea of a caveman strip in the late 1920s. Hamlin was a native of Iowa, and there, on August 7, in the Iowa Historical Museum in Des Moines, Jack and Carole Bender, the current artist and writer of the strip, appeared to answer questions after a screening of a documentary, “Caveman: V.T. Hamlin and Alley Oop,” directed by Max Allan Collins. The Benders returned to their home in Pawnee, Oklahoma in time to attend an Alley Oop birthday party at the Pawnee County Historical Society on August 9. Jim Scancarelli paid tribute to Hamlin’s creation in his Gasoline Alley Sunday strip for August 3, delighting in creating a portmanteau pun for the occasion—“Gasoline Alley Oop”; see GoComics.com/gasolinealley/2008/08/03. And here, as promised, is that special anniversary strip that Jack Bender produced by clipping and pasting pictures originally drawn by the incomparable Hamlin. Alas, those were the days, my friend—we thought they’d never end.
On the Web, Scott Kurtz’s PvP reached its 10th anniversary on May 24, an occasion that, regrettably, slipped right by under the very nose of the Staff and Minions here at the Rancid Raves Intergalactic Wurlitzer. Kurtz celebrated by having Brent and Jade get married. He had vowed at the start of his strip that they would never marry. “Once you marry the protagonists that have sexual tension, it ruins it,” he told Jonathan Callan at comicbookresources.com, But he changed his mind. Married himself for twelve years, Kurtz realized that he had been writing the characters as a married couple all along. “Their banter and conversation is a reflection of the way I interact with my wife,” he said. So he decided to have them get married, and then, realizing that the strip’s 10th anniversary wasn’t too far off, he arranged to have them marry on the very day of the anniversary. “I was inspired by ‘The Thin Man’ movies from the forties about a married couple, Nick and Nora [Charles, played as a perpetually albeit slightly inebriated detective by the dapper William Powell; the always sober and sensible Nora, by a cool and gracious Myrna Loy]. Those are brilliantly written, clever and hilarious and awesome. That’s when it dawned on me that when writers sit down to write a married couple that’s interesting, it can work.” Kurtz plans to go on drawing PvP “until I die. The question is just whether other people will be reading it. I've become too attached to these characters to not visit with them at least once a day, whether I'm doing it and making money or in a nursing home drawing them on napkins for myself. I want to do other things too, of course. I hope that PvP is not the last thing I do that people ever care about.” But he doesn’t intend to take a break to pursue other projects. “It seems to me that—it's a gift that this thing has any life to it at all. There's so many people who never get to do what they like for a living, let alone live their dream. It just seems to me that if I ever let PvP stop, or didn't take full advantage of the momentum, I'm crapping on everyone who never got to do this.” Bravo.
Here, for Marjane Satrapi fans, is a description of Persepolis adapted in The Week from Rick Steves article in the Chicago Tribune: “Persepolis in southern Iran is ‘the greatest ancient site between the Holy Land and India.’ Darius and his son Xerxes built this complex of palaces around 500 B.C. For the next 200 years, their successors ruled over the Persian Empire, which extended from Greece to India at its peak. Dignitaries from 28 kingdoms once walked through Persepolis’ majestic ‘Gate of All Nations’ to ‘pay their taxes and humble respects to the emperor.’ Cuneiform inscriptions over the gate roughly translate as: ‘The king is empowered by God. Submit totally to him for the good of Persia.’ Cut into the mountains adjacent to Persepolis are ‘grand royal tombs, on the scale of Egyptian pharaohs.’ Those of Darius and Xerxes, featuring huge carved reliefs of ferocious lions, still evoke the rulers’ awesome authority. The Persian Empire came to an end when Alexander the Great sacked and burned the city in 333 B.C., and ‘Persepolis has been in ruins ever since.’” About all that remains, apparently, are the teetering pillars and arches of the Gate of All Nations.
Lynn Johnston’s family epic comic strip For Better or For Worse will release the last of the cartoonist’s “new” art on Sunday, August 31, when Elizabeth marries Anthony. The strip will continue but as recycled strips from its first years—before it became widely circulated, so many of its fans will never have seen these strips. Johnston, however, will be tinkering with the artwork of the “old” strips, making adjustments. “I want to fix things,” she said during a presentation she made on August 8 at the Toronto Reference Library where the Canadian cartoonist received The Giants of the North award. Her early art for the strip was unquestionably different than it has been for the last decade or more: it was simpler, even, sometimes, crude, compared to the finesse of latter years. FBOFW began as a gag-a-day strip, but Johnston said her jokes provoked her storytelling sense. She explained: “My usual response to a gag is ‘And then what happened?’” What began happening was the rest of the story, day after day after day. Continuity was, thus, born, emerging naturally from Johnston’s inquisitive mind. Her storytelling compulsions, however, have nearly crowded pictures out of the strip for the last several years. A typical daily is five panels; given the reduced circumstances of the contemporary comic strip, each of those panels is minuscule. And Johnston raises the legibility hurdle by putting speeches in each of them! It is a measure of her mature skill as a cartoonist that we can make sense of the images before us, recognizing the characters and reading what they say.
Although Johnston intended to weave “old” strips into the continuity over the past year, she didn’t do it much. My understanding was that she would only occasionally inject “new” strips, that the bulk of the year would feature the “old” ones. But most of FBOFW for the last twelve months consisted of “new” strips, probably because Johnston couldn’t resist telling “what happened next”—wrapping up the Liz-Anthony romance and confronting the future of Elly’s stroke-stricken father (who, on August 16, suffered another heart attack just as Liz was getting ready to go down the aisle; the combination could be another classic Johnston turn, like the death of the family dog Farley). The few “old” strips stood out alarmingly. My neighbor, a long-time FBOFW fan, asked me in some consternation, “What’s going on in that strip? It doesn’t look like the same artist is drawing it.” This difficulty will, presumably, be somewhat abated if Johnston “fixes” the “old” strips before they are distributed to the 2,000-plus newspapers that subscribe to the feature.
Animator Nancy Beiman was present during the Toronto festivities and contributed many out-takes from Johnston’s remarks to madcartoonist.blogspot.com. Johnston decided to give up the strip because she couldn’t make jokes about little kids anymore, she said. “Michael [the married Patterson son in the strip] has children but I have no grandchildren, and I couldn’t really see it any more. It’s better to end it when it’s time. It all comes full circle.” She also added that “the drawings were becoming stiff. I couldn’t move.” I think she meant the five-panel format was too cramped for good drawing, but I can’t say for sure.
“I tried to make it a legacy strip,” Johnston said. “I contacted an animator and spoke with him about his taking it over. You need to be an animator, have an animator’s sense of perspective and body movement. We decided it would not work. ‘It’s your dream,’ he said.”
The never-ceasing deadlines faced by syndicated cartoonists were wearing her out. “Someone young might not have the determination to do this for 25 years,” she said; “they drop out. Six weeks dailies, 8 weeks Sundays. Six weeks dailies, 8 weeks Sundays,” she chanted, referring to the number of weeks ahead of publication that strips must be finished. “Jim Davis [Garfield] wants to put this on a t-shirt! A lot of young people will shine for two or three years and then they just can’t take it. It’s a different era. I’m thrilled they can’t make it,” she exclaimed with a broad smile on her face, “—I’m extremely competitive.”
About fame, she said she’d like to capitalize on it to do something good with it. “I would like to do something for the betterment of society rather than just retire or disappear. Take whatever I’ve got and push forward. I don’t know what I’m going to be doing, but I’m on my way!”
Farley will be back: he’ll be in a new children’s book, Farley Follows His Nose. “And there’ll be a stuffed Farley toy, and a group of Ontario veterinarians licensed him for the Farley Foundation, which pays the bills for sick pets when the owners cannot afford to.” And Johnston will be illustrating another children’s book written by her sister-in-law, Beth Cruikshank, said E&P. Aimed at kids 4-7, the book stars a dog who loves to eat.
Subhead: The Afflicted and Their Affliction
full-time staff editorial cartoonist has been turned loose. Stuart
Carlson has been forced to accept a buyout from the Milwaukee
Journal Sentinel, effective August 15, his 25th anniversary with the paper. At his editor’s urging, Carlson had
been concentrating on local-issue cartoons for the last couple of
years. “The idea,” said Dave Astor at Editor &
Publisher, “is that local content enables newspapers to run
something readers can't find anywhere else.” Soon, 70% of
Carlson’s cartoons were local. But it didn’t seem to
matter. In late July, Carlson was told that the Journal Sentinel "could no longer justify a full-time cartooning position"
as the paper was cutting back. "So I was faced with either
taking a buyout or being laid off," he added. "I took the
former." Astor added that “the Journal Sentinel used to have two staff editorial
When the news of Carlson’s fate reached Nick Anderson, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, Anderson issued a statement: “Everyone understands that these are tough times for newspapers, but they have gone from full panic mode to suicide mode. Many editorial cartoonists are part of the online reinvention and renaissance of their newspapers through blogs and animation. Newspapers that eliminate the editorial cartooning position are being incredibly shortsighted. Research shows that readers are drawn to visual content. Without a staff editorial cartoonist, they are foreclosing on a significant opportunity for building their readership base in the Internet age. They shouldn't be eliminating cartoonists, they should be shining a light on them and harnessing their potential for building a loyal readership and fostering vigorous dialogue."
James Rainey, a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, agreed in his “On the Media” with a piece entitled “Editorial Cartoonists: A Dying Breed.” Said Rainey: “I had already been talking to some of America’s best editorial cartoonists about the enduring power of a single well-drawn image when The New Yorker delivered the proof with megaton force—that cover depicting the closet jihadist, Barack Obama. ... Newspaper publishers and editors take note. Even in that wildly divided audience [some outraged by the cover, some applauding], no one doubted the cartoon’s power to engage and provoke. Because cartoonists have such a potent ability to excite, infuriate, perplex and amuse, you would think that newspapers—struggling to maintain audiences in the Internet Age—might lovingly nurture them. Instead, cartoonists are disappearing like brunet anchors at Fox News—about a hundred are scratching out a living today, compared with about double that a couple of decades ago. And the presidential election cycle has been less engaging for their absence. ... I’m worried that the loss of cartoonists—and their verve and vitality—continues to numb- and dumb-down an audience that doesn’t need any help sinking into complacency.”
Rainey’s interviewing of editorial cartoonists about the power of political cartoons was seen by most of the editooning fraternity as bitterly ironic, considering that the LA Times fired its editorial cartoonist, Michael Ramirez, a couple years ago. It was a budget consideration: the paper has no intention of replacing him. (Ramirez, remember, won his second Pulitzer just last spring.) Many of those on the AAEC-List recommended that whenever any editoonist is interviewed on such matters, he or she should preface their response by asking: “If editorial cartoons and caricatures are so powerful, why don’t you have a staff cartoonist?” Don’t accept such weasley answers as “I don’t know,” or “It isn’t my decision,” or “You’re preaching to the choir,” or “It was a budget thing,” or “We can get syndicated cartoons at a fraction of the cost.” All such answers are “stupid and unacceptable” because syndicated cartoons have never and will never ever comment on local issues as only a staff cartoonist can. The big story in editooning is not the caricaturing of the presidential candidates, which happens only once every three or four years. The big story, said one of the commentators, is that “a business that has a monopoly on local graphic commentary has decided to abdicate this monopoly instead of exploiting it; readers and journalists would be very interested in finding out why their company is embracing this suicide business model.”
Oddly, many editors value editorial cartoonists highly even when they send them packing. Don Wright’s editor, for example. Don Wright, who accepted a buyout last month from Florida's Palm Beach Post after 19 years with the paper (following 26 years at the Miami News), will continue producing editorial cartoons for distribution by his syndicate, the Tribune Media Services, until the end of the year before deciding how much he’ll want to work after that. “Wright, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner,” noted Dave Astor at E&P, “drew more than 11,000 cartoons during his 45-year career.” Wright drew his first editorial cartoon as an experiment. At the time, 1963, he was a photographer at the Miami News, “and a good one,” wrote Randy Schulz, his editor at the Post, reviewing Wright’s career as he bid him farewell. “One cartoon, though, led to another. He won the Pulitzer after just two years. ... Don won a second Pulitzer in 1980. He has won the Sigma Delta Chi Award for Distinguished Service in Journalism, the Inter American Press Award, the Overseas Press Club Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Journalism Award, the Reuben Division Award for Editorial Cartooning from the National Cartoonists Society, the National Headliner Award and the Best of Cox Award, all multiple times. According to The New Yorker, Don's work inspired Chinese intellectuals and businessmen during the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989. As his editor since 1990, I've received thousands of phone calls and e-mails accusing Don of being anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim. He's none of those, of course, but it may surprise readers to know which cartoon inspired the strongest reaction. When Walt Disney died in 1966, Don drew a cartoon of all the Disney characters crying. He still hears about it, favorably. ‘I'm sometimes baffled,’ Don says, ‘by the number of readers who believe that cartoons should be lightweight and entertainingly 'funny.' Humor has a lot of relatives— wry, subtle, slapstick and even black— all aimed at the endless Iraq War, inept and corrupt politicians, rising unemployment, recession, Americans losing their homes, and on and on. But, think about it for a moment. How funny are those?’ Don is an irascible perfectionist. His cartoons reach the level of art, but at 74 he retains the soul of a cub reporter, checking the facts on which he bases a cartoon. I think it's safe to conclude that the experiment worked.” (Not to be entirely snide about it, but Schulz should follow Wright’s example and spend some time checking his facts: Wright won the NCS award for editorial cartooning only once, not “multiple times”; might be true for others, too, although Wright scarcely needs awards to qualify as an excellent political cartoonist.)
Editorial cartooning in newspapers is no longer an experiment either, but it’s not working out anymore. The fate of the profession, as we’ve noted here many times in the last couple years, is doubtful. Another political satirist, Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau, recognizes the plight of his inky-fingered brethren. Interviewed by Michael Cavna at the Washington Post, Trudeau was asked about the present state of political satire today as compared to 1970, when Universal Press launched his strip. “When I started,” Trudeau said, "Pogo was winding down, Lenny Bruce was dead, Tommy Smothers couldn't keep his tv show on the air, two late-night hosts made only the tamest political jokes and ‘Saturday Night Live’was still six years away. So there was a lot of running room for someone like me. Now, ‘SNL’ is a major cultural fixture, as is ‘The Simpsons,’ ‘The Daily Show,’ ‘South Park,’ ‘The Colbert Report,’ Bill Maher and the five major late-night talk shows— not to mention all the feeder comedy camps like Second City, The Onion and The Harvard Lampoon. ... So Big Satire, as Al Franken might call it, has never been more robust. The only venue where satire is languishing, sadly, is my own. A handful of strips feature political humor, but there are only half as many editorial cartoonists working as when I started out, mostly because their fortunes are tied directly to those of newspapers. An editorial cartoonist represents not just a salary and benefits, but if he's any good, he's also a lawsuit magnet. Never mind that the paper always wins; to a margin-obsessed publisher, a staff cartoonist today is all downside.” Too true, alas.
Trudeau thinks Colbert is as good as satire gets. “With the character he plays, every day is Opposite Day, and he's sustained and built on that conceit brilliantly. And because Colbert is as charming as he is quick, he's bulletproof. Not a scratch on him. After two years, his running critique of the ignorant, right-wing blowhard still stands, and there's not a damn thing Bill O'Reilly can do about it.”
Asked about the supposed influence of satire on politicians and the electorate, Trudeau said: “I've never felt any of us had significant influence. The fear of public ridicule is universal, but I see no real evidence of it moderating behavior. What is different is that satire is now a pervasive part of public life, in part because every move a politician makes can be recorded. And he need not actually do something reprehensible to be vulnerable. A lot of what late-night shows do now is not just found humor— it's manufactured. A politician can merely scratch his nose, but if the tape is sped up and looped, it can look like he's ripping his own face off. And any kid can knock this kind of stuff off in his bedroom and throw it up on YouTube. ... Satire is no longer in the hands of responsible licensed professionals like me.”
this election season, Trudeau said: “It's a beaut, because
everyone's paying attention. But remember, the worst president in
U.S. history is still in the White House. For Big Satire to ignore
George W. Bush during his final year in office would be foolish—
and wildly ungrateful. He's done so much for our profession, and he
may yet have another war in him. We still owe him our fullest
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.
MOTS & QUOTES
Michael Caine, who reprises his portrayal of Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler, in “The Dark Knight,” was interviewed by the tabloid Globe, which, tongue doubtless in cheek, asked if he did any stunts in the movie. Said Caine: “Me do stunts? I’m 75 years old! I won’t be doing any more stunts, thank you very much. I try to avoid danger at all cost.” Caine is one of the few big British stars who never moved permanently to Hollywood, but he has a condo in Miami, which he explained by saying: “In Miami, they have the greatest experts in geriatric illness in the world. They keep you alive just to make money!”
“When Hillary Clinton announced she was running, I was swamped. Guns were flying off the shelf.”—Frank Morreale, Reno gun store owner who says gun sales shoot up whenever it looks like a Democrat might take office.
“There’s only two kinds of people that don’t like pornography,” said Larry Flynt, beloved pornographer and notorious publisher of Hustler magazine: “Those who don’t know what they’re talking about, and those that don’t know what they’re missing.” Flynt was th subject recently of the documentary “The Right to Be Left Alone,” a title that incorporates what Flynt describes as the most important right a government can grant its citizens. Distasteful as it may be for some to admit (but not me), Flynt has probably done more to keep the First Amendment’s principles of freedom of speech and expression alive and well than any other single individual. About politics, Flynt has a similarly vivid notion: “The Democrats are always trying to reinvent the wheel,” he says, “and the Republicans are always trying to reinvent the swastika.”
Horace Greeley, the newspaper editor famed for urging every young man to go West, insisted that the word news was plural, not singular. He is said to have once wired a reporter: “Are there any news?” To which the waggish recipient responded: “Not a new.”
doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” —Mark
As we all know by now, we’ve been told often enough, this is a historic Presidential Election. One reason for its historicity is that, for the first time ever, an African-American is the presumed candidate of one of the major political parties. Another reason is that the Other Party is likely to nominate the Oldest Man ever to run for President. This year’s Presidential Contest is also historic because, for the first time, a woman was a viable and, for a while, even the inevitable, candidate of one of the parties. It’s also the first time that Ralph Nader has run for a third time (or is it the fourth?) although that perhaps is too precious an achievement to be historic. But we can’t quarrel with another claim for historicity: a nationally known Muslim is running for the office. In yet another first for this Election Season, Khalil Bendib announced his candidacy over a year ago at the Mudrakers Café on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California, vowing to turn not only swords into ploughshares but “box cutters, machetes, Ginsu knives— any sharp cutting implement” he would convert to “organic-food cultivating equipment.”
Bendib, who achieved national prominence by drawing scathing editorial cartoons for a suspicious variety of small, usually weekly, newspapers as well as The Black Commentator and other online publications, aspires to be, as he says, with a nod to Dr. Seuss, the Prez in the Fez. Adopting the campaign slogan “The Pen Is Funnier than the Sword,” Bendib declared, “Ours will be the funniest, most hilarious administration in American history.”
In a press release announcing his candidacy, Bendib acknowledged that some skeptics claim that the current administration, having turned the United States of America into the world’s laughingstock over the past seven years, may be a tough act to follow, comedically speaking. How does Bendib propose to outdo the clowns currently occupying the White House? The key, according to candidate Bendib, will be to “make the rest of the world laugh with us, rather than laugh at us, as has been the case for the past decade or so.” But critics want Bendib to go beyond these facile generalities, asking, “Where is the beef ?” and—more importantly— “Is it Halal (Kosher for Muslims)?” What follows are a few planks from the candidate’s Presidential Platform:
* On Government waste and pork barrel spending: “As a self-respecting Muslim, you can guess how I feel about pork: I’m not exactly wild about it!” Bendib declared.
* On Free Trade: The “Prez in the Fez” favors the free flow of Danish goods into America —except for Islamophobic cartoons, of course.
* On Education: “Pens not guns, books not bombs, Math Instruction not Mass Destruction.”
* On the Patriot Act: “Once elected, I will act like a patriot—and repeal the Patriot Act!”
* On the Use of Torture: In the candidate’s own words, “If you absolutely must obtain information? Tickle, don’t Torture! Amuse, don’t abuse!”
* Finally, on Guantanamo Bay, the candidate says: “Render unto Fidel what belongs to Fidel, have the Cubans tear down the torture center and put in something more positive there—like a dental school or something.”
“Mirth makes right, not might,” Bendib says repeatedly, adding, “Disarming the enemy through the power of laughter and good cheer” is the best defense. “The enemy” in this case is Bendib’s satiric target— Islamophobic stereotypes. Says Bendib, tongue no longer in his cheek: “Sadly, Islamophobia runs deep in America today and it has been cultivated as an excuse for preventive wars, domestic spying, torture, the suspension of habeas corpus and the erasure of so many of our most treasured constitutional freedoms. What better way to bring back our precious liberties and to rid us once and for all of the exaggerated fear of Islam than to elect America’s first Muslim president? In 1960, President Kennedy did not bring the Vatican into the white House, as initially feared, and in 2008 the Prez in the Fez will not bring Mecca into the Oval Office!” To paraphrase another great president before him, the Muslim candidate concludes: “The only thing we have to fear is the fear of Islam itself! God Bless America and Peace Be Upon You!”
In his cartoons, Bendib has been campaigning against stereotypical thinking about the Arab world for years. Born in Paris of war-refugee Algerian parents who had fled their native country during the French colony’s war for independence, Bendib returned to Algieria with his parents at the age of six, and when he was twenty, he came to California to complete his studies. He’s been here ever since.
His cartoons, he says, are “hard-hitting, myth-shattering, platitude-mocking cartoons [that] rarely shy away from the truth, as they seek to expose the crude racial stereotypes, ‘dis-information’ and info-tainment pabulum offered as gospel by our mass media. In the proud tradition of genuine watchdog journalism,” he continues, “I aim to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable— and to give a voice to the voiceless.” After digesting a few dozen of his cartoons, I’d disagree with only one of these assertions, his use of the word rarely: I don’t think Bendib ever shies away from the truth as he sees it.
With his North African roots, Bendib has a non-Eurocentric view of the shenanigans in American political and cultural life. His perspective is fresh, and it is uncompromising, as we can see from the accompanying gallery of his work; more at bendib.com.
Martin Rowson, a Brit writing for the New Humanist in late 2003, saw Bendib’s drawing style as distinctively American: “Bendib is immediately definable and recognizable as an American cartoonist rather than anything else—inside the tent,” Rowson said, “but, in his case, pissing inside as well.” Bendib’s drawing style may be American, but his perspective is aggressively not. Rowson continues: “As a skeptical Old European, I agree with almost everything he says, and find none of it objectionable. In the U.S., however, post-9/11, post-The Patriot Act and all the rest, this stuff is genuinely incendiary. I know cartoonists who have been sacked, had their doors beaten down by the FBI in the middle of the night and even fled into exile. All power to his pen, then.”
I don’t know what Rowson was smoking at the time: I know many American editoonists, and almost none of them have suffered the tyranny he describes. (But one, Michael Ramirez, was accosted by the FBI, which, with the humorlessness of its bureaucratic mind, failed to see the satiric comedy in one of his cartoons, which ironically seemed to advise, as I recall, the assassination of GeeDubya. But even Ramierz escaped with his freedom and his pen.) Rowson, however, is right about Bendib’s cartoons being skeptical and non-American (as distinct from un-American) in their incendiary assaults on the received wisdoms of American cultural biases. Bendib’s cartoons remind us unflinchingly that in all our policies for the Mideast, we harbor a bias against Palestinians and for Israelis—without the slightest regard for facts, history, or the possible validity of an opposing point of view. At a convention of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists in 2002, Bendib’s presentation about this American bias was interrupted by a Jewish cartoonist, Hy Rosen, who, having heard enough about the American prejudice against Palestinians, demanded that Bendib do a few cartoons attacking the Palestinian educational system, which preaches anti-Semitic bile in schoolrooms and textbooks. Bendib was taken aback momentarily but continued his presentation without much acknowledging Rosen’s complaint. Bendib is right about our anti-Arab bigotry; but Rosen is right, too, about Muslim anti-Semitism. An effective political cartoon, however, does not permit the nuance of admitting that an alternate point of view exists. Effective political cartoons are black-and-white statements: there is good, and there is evil, and nothing in between. Bendib epitomizes this unequivocal approach to editorial cartooning.
Compared to Bendib’s cartoons, most other American political cartoons are poetic rather than ponderous: they jab and pun and poke fun while Bendib attacks with club and claw. His visual metaphors and images are vivid and unmistakable. In Bendib’s cartoons, corporate America is a bloated villain, a rapacious and unrepentant despoiler of natural resources and civilization. The fat greedy capitalist has long disappeared from the gallery of caricatures in the cartoons of other American editoonists (although not from American life, which, for the most part, is run to suit fat greedy capitalists). Politicians in Bendib’s cartoons are invariably giants of hypocrisy, greed, and self-delusion. Government is always ignorant and unethical. America is self-absorbed and uninformed about the world beyond its borders. But Bendib is scarcely blind to the faults of the Arab world as is amply demonstrated by his “Contest for the Fanciest Nuclear Turban” cartoon. Bendib’s audience, however, is the American public, not Indians or Pakistanis, so he seldom levels one of his broadsides toward that part of the world. Besides, as he explained when we exchanged e-mails, “Mine is an underdog sensitivity: whoever happens to be picked on unfairly, I identify with.”
Lately, Bendib has given his cartoons a footnote, a diminutive beaked and feathered sharp-shooter, who, like Pat Oliphant’s penguin Punk, occupies a corner and comments on the principal action transpiring above. “He cracks me up,” Bendib told me. “He just showed up one day on the page, sort of volunteered. He’s my alter ego (most of the time), making sarcastic quips to complete the joke or to add to it another layer in another dimension. It gives me one more chance to make readers laugh and think. There’s always a P.S.; my mind works that way.”
Unlike Oliphant, Bendib hasn’t given his mascot a name. Some of the cartoons I’ve assembled here come from his 2003 collection, It Became Necessary to Destroy the Planet in Order to Save It (160 5x8-inch pages, paperback; from Plan Nine Publishing, $15.95); the bird appears in only the latter pages in this book, but in the more recent Mission Accomplished: Wicked Cartoons from America’s Most Wanted Political Cartoonist (208 5x8-inch pages, paperback; $17), the feathered friend is a constant companion.
In his sharply either/or vision of the world in which an opinion is either completely good or wholly evil, Bendib reminds me of similarly uncompromising “us vs. them” editoons that can be found, these days, only in labor union magazines and newspapers. Typically, the labor side of any dispute is championed, and management—or big business, or Congress in the pay of big business—is damned. The only practitioners of this brand of editorial cartooning I know of these days are Gary Huck and Mike Konopacki, who published a collection of their cartoons, entitled Them (112 8x11-inch pages, paperback), in 1990; still available at Amazon.com, as are their other three titles: Bye! American, Working Class Hero, and Two-headed Space Alien Shrinks Labor Movement. More recently, in 2005, Ben Yomen, a stalwart pro-labor editoonist from the ancient 1930s and 1940s, published In Labor’s Corner (174 8x11-inch pages, paperback; $20 from Yomen, 1073 Barton Drive, Apt. 102, Ann Arbor, MI 48105), a collection of his cartoons for a host of labor publications. In mainstream American journalism, perhaps the issues have become too complicated for such simplistic cartoons (although I’d say Bendib proves that it can be done); but we can find the same kind of unflinching assault approach in collections of special issue cartoons like Cartooning AIDS Around the World (123 8x11-inch pages, 1992 paperback; available for a pittance at Amazon.com) published under the auspices of Jerry Robinson’s Cartoonists and Writers Syndicate. Edited by David Horsey, editoonist at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and Maury Forman, a former health care administrator, the book collects the work of 61 cartoonists from 21 countries, all unalterably promoting the fight against AIDS and lambasting governmental inertia and public apathy.
Bendib, meanwhile, continues his campaign. As of July 12, he had appeared at over 50 campuses and community groups, “and I’m just getting warmed up,” he said. “It’s a come-from-behind campaign. Obama won’t know what hit him.”
MORE T-SHIRT WISDOM
Always run spellcheck. It’s impotent.
Someday we’ll look back on this, laugh nervously, and change the subject.
I want my kids to have everything I didn’t have. Then I want to live with them.
Someone switched off the light at the end of my tunnel.
ALL BROTHERS, AND WE’RE ONLY PASSIN’ THROUGH
Sometimes happy, sometimes blue,
But I’m so glad I ran into you---
We’re all brothers, and we’re only passin’ through.
Old Folk Ballad Lustily Sung By Walt Conley in His Trademark Husky Rasp of a Voice at the Last Resort in Denver, Lo These Many Years Ago
Jack Kamen, 1920-2008
Jack Kamen, one of the formidable half dozen artists whose individual styles distinguished EC Comics from the house-style products of other blander brands, died August 5 of causes related to cancer. Kamen joined EC in the early 1950s, and publisher William Gaines and his writer, Al Feldstein, regularly produced scripts that relied on Kamen’s talent for limning beautiful women. Gaines had a weakness for artists who could draw well-endowed women: it was Feldstein’s skill at drawing the “sweater girls” of the day that persuaded Gaines, immediately upon first viewing Feldstein’s work, to hire him. Kamen’s women were, without question, good-looking and statuesque; they were also stiffly rendered, as were Kamen’s men. According to ComicsReporter Tom Spurgeon, Kamen explained this peculiarity by saying the wooden renditions were easier, and therefore quicker, to produce, and Kamen, who aspired to higher planes of illustrative endeavor, was doing comics for the money, not for the Art: he wanted to do his assignments fast and turn them in because Gaines paid upon acceptance. When Gaines stopped producing sf and horror titles in response to the new Comics Code, Kamen was instrumental in developing the publisher’s short-lived “picto-fiction” line, but at the same time, Kamen was moving more aggressively into advertising art, where he spent the rest of his career. At Spurgeon’s ComicsReporter.com, you can find a longer appreciation of Kamen.
Kamen’s son Dean became famous as an inventor of medical devices, an offshoot of which was the celebrated Segway, the two-wheeled self-balancing personnel transporter that young Kamen expected would revolutionize urban life by displacing the automobile. Oddly, in a book about the development of the device, Code Name Ginger: The Story Behind Segway and Dean Kamen’s Quest to Invent a New World, author Steve Kemper mentions Dean’s father only once—as doing presentation illustrations—and not by name. Then again, perhaps that’s not so odd: Kemper, who had been recruited by Dean to document the progress of the invention of Segway, spends several paragraphs at intervals throughout the book discussing Kamen’s search for a name for his revolutionary device (Baltrans, Edept, Gyroporter, Jitterbug, Arabesque, Cha-Cha, Acros, among many others) but evidently missed the meeting at which “Ginger,” the in-house code name for the invention, was finally christened Segway. Just another inexplicable omission.
Here are three pages from a Tales of the Crypt story in No. 31, August-September 1952. Drawn by Kamen in his distinctive manner, it purports, tongue in cheek, to tell how Kamen came to work for EC when the company was still publishing romance comics. Then the bottom fell out of the romance—just about the time Gaines and Feldstein started writing horror stories, which, they learn to their surprise, are selling faster than they can be printed. To satisfy this new trend, Kamen must get ugly. In the final pages of the story, Kamen goes home and, locked in his studio, tackles the werewolf story by becoming a werewolf. Then he wakes up. The third page here includes self-portraits by the other three of the EC champions at the time, Graham Engels, Johnny Craig, and Jack Davis. Of this quartet of the apocalypse only Davis is still alive and well.
THE SILLY SEASON
Mired, as we have been for over a year now, in the morass of what used to be a once-every-quadrennial race for the White House (or, as it is now known, Haliburton House, named for the commercial enterprise that most profits from it), it might relieve the monotony of the political so-called debate if we turn, for the nonce, to the history of the mascots associated with each of the major parties. Mike Rudeen at the Rocky Mountain News supplies this: “The Democrats have been identified by the donkey since 1828, when presidential candidate Andrew Johnson was called a ‘jackass’ by his opponents. Political cartoonists of the day began portraying Jackson as a donkey. ... And after Jackson won the election, the donkey became the icon for all Democrats. Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast is credited with creating the Republican symbol nearly half a century later when he used an elephant to symbolize the large Republican vote. By 1904, it was the party’s recognized symbol.”
Another animal is also in the mix these days—a rhinoceros, or rhino. Or RINO, which means, friends tell me, Republican In Name Only. Genuine fiscally conservative, small government isolationist Republicans are likely to see George W. (“Warlord”) Bush astride this thick-skinned beastie instead of the customary pachyderm because GeeDubya and his minions have so completely abandoned the Grand Old Party’s grand old principles. Maybe that’s what editoonist Scott Stantis had in mind when he produced the accompanying gem.
Speaking of Nast, Clay Bennett of the Chattanooga Times Free Press received from the Overseas Pres Club of America the 2007 Thomas Nast Award for best international editooning the judges for which cited Bennett’s “distinctive cartoons marked by sharp focus and pungent simplicity.” That’s very true, of course; but they could say pretty much the same about almost any political cartoon good enough to win an award. But, what the hey, the judges are probably not cartoonists and therefore can’t think of any other way to describe what they like. Bennett was more articulate in quipping a response: “I accept this honor not as any recognition of artistic talent nor as a testament to any inherent wit or wisdom. I accept this award as a tribute to my neurotic insecurity and the obsessive work ethic that it inspires.” Seems to me that the cartoonist has a greater gift for verbalizing than the judges.
While we’re nudging up against Nast, a new and long awaited book on the Father of American Political Cartooning has just been released with a title designed, doubtless, to compensate for the wait with its length: Doomed by Cartoon: How Cartoonist Thomas Nast and the New York Times Brought Down Boss Tweed and His Ring of Thieves (paperback, $19.95 or less from Amazon.com). It is written by John Adler “with” Draper Hill. Hill is the “long awaited” part: I don’t know anything about Adler, but Draper, an editoonist retired from the Detroit News, and I have been friends for years. He is without quibble the world’s foremost authority on Thomas Nast, and I’ve been waiting for his biography of Nast for several lightyears now; probably, alas, it will not appear due to Draper’s failing health. The book at hand, then, is likely to be the most of Draper Hill that we can find outside of a website that celebrates Harper’s Weekly, Nast’s home base for twenty-five years (1862-1886), including those when he was lambasting Boss Tweed. My guess is that Draper’s role in Adler’s book is to fact-check his text; and Adler could not have better back-up. The book is not a biography but a history of Tweed’s fate at Nast’s hands: reportedly, Adler tells the story in chronological order as Nast visualized it, almost a serialized pictorial narrative, covering 1866-1878. I’ve sent for a copy, and I’ll tell you about it when I get my hands on it.
The University Press of Mississippi, one of my publishers, announced the publication of Garry Trudeau: Doonesbury and the Aesthetics of Satire (224 6x9-inch pages, paperback; $22) by Kerry D. Soper, director of American Studies at Brigham University. I haven’t yet seen the book, but a press release assures us that Trudeau “is arguably the premier American political and social satirist of the last forty years.” The book will provide a history of the comic strip, analysis of Trudeau’s satiric methods, discussion of the ways Trudeau challenged (and changed, I might add) the business practices of the industry, and a consideration of the aesthetics of Doonesbury.
Living in Denver, I’m probably more aware than you are that the Democrats are poised to perpetrate their Presidential nomination convention here in a week or so. News of the preparations appears regularly in the local newspapers. Barack Obama (whose name I often think is actually Barako Bama, or maybe Barak O’Bama), the presumed anointed one, has moved his acceptance speech, scheduled for Thursday, August 28, from the convention site to a nearby sports arena that seats more people—75,000 to be exact. August 28 is the same date that Martin Luther King Jr. appeared on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, a coincidence not likely to be overlooked by O’Bama or his minions or the so-called news media. August 28 is almost the same date that ill-fated Hubert Humphrey delivered his acceptance speech in Chicago in 1968 while the local gendarmes were applying clubs to the heads and shoulders of anti-Vietnam War demonstrators in Grant Park, just outside one of the Dem Con hotels. And there’s at least one bunch of patriots that has vowed not to let us forget the “police riots” in Chicago. Calling themselves Re-create 68, the group is one of several that have acquired permits to demonstrate, parade, and protest in various venues during the Denver Dem Con.
The city has set aside an assortment of areas near the convention site for protesters to protest. Local officials have avoided calling these areas “Free Speech Zones,” thereby avoiding the bitter irony inherent in that nomenclature, but the effect is nonetheless the same: speech, in the form of loud and vaguely unruly crowds, is not free in this country anymore; instead, it is partitioned off and fenced in so as to protect public affairs from being bombed by Islamic Maniacs and Hooligans. (Yes, the terrorists have won.) Moreover, the “protest zones” are almost all some distance from the venue of the convention. The major protest area is within sight of the convention hall, but, still, the protesters are not likely to be seen much or heard much if they stay in their designated enclaves.
The city, however, is doing the best it can to satisfy all parties, even if the needs of the parties contradict each other. Because the number of groups wanting to stage protests exceeds the number of sites available near the convention hall, the city held a lottery some weeks ago, awarding sites and days to petitioning groups accordingly. Seems fair to me—assuming that you can’t just let people run around loose and convene here and there for the purpose of protesting, a possibility, as I said, that no longer exists in post-9/11 America. The city is also supply speakers’ platforms and microphones to the protesters in the designated protest zones. Into this circumstance, the noxiously named Re-create 68 has injected itself, its name proclaiming its intention—to behave in ways that will precipitate another “police riot” during the festivities. From Denver, the group plans to trek noisily to Minneapolis and the Republican Convention, which takes place a few days later.
Tom Hayden, one of the Chicago Seven, that band of gypsy malcontents who, one way or another, engineered the protests in 1968 and were tried for their impudence, is now a grizzled elder, and he’s been quietly advising some of the 2008 protesters. He also recently issued a few advisory remarks for the city’s police and other law enforcement agencies. “I think that Denver officials would be well-advised not to believe everything that the FBI warns them about,” he said recently. “That’s how things can get out of hand, due to fabricated, exaggerated projections about violence or protest. They don’t learn. What you saw in 2000 was the claim that 75,000 anarchists were descending, the secret funding of permanent police equipment, the denial of permits for protesters. You saw the same thing in 2004. You will see the same thing in 2008. They’ve learned nothing from 1968.” As the convention nears, he said, federal dollars pour into security preparations, scaring peaceful protesters away and ratcheting up fears and anxieties, setting the stage—provoking an atmosphere—for confrontations at demonstrations that would otherwise be routine and mostly peaceful. It’s an inflammatory venue, just waiting for some incident to spark a conflagration. We’ll soon see if Hayden is right.
INTO THE PAST
In August 1945, Coronet magazine, a digest-size periodical of the day, published an article by Allen Saunders, the writer half of the team that produced Mary Worth. Among other things, Saunders discusses operations of some of the other teams in the business. Excerpts: “Most teams, oddly, work far apart. For example, Glenn Chaffin, who writes Flyin’ Jenny, and Weare Holbrook, author of Clarence, have never even met the artists with whom they work. Down on a Mexican rancho, Charlie Plumb draws Ella Cinders from scripts written by Fred Fox in New York. Renny (J.P.) McEvoy writes Dixie Dugan in Hollywood and mails the script to the artist in the Catskills. ... I can, and often do, lean over Elmer Woggon’s shoulder in Toledo, Ohio, while he is drawing our Chief Wahoo and Steve Roper. But my pencil layouts for Mary Worth are mailed every week to the artist, Ken Ernst, in Albany, Wisconsin. Buck Rogers’ artist, Dick Calkins, writes the continuity, then calls in John Dille, who created the strip, Dille’s son Jack, and Richard Yager, an assistant. Only after deeds of the 25th century hero have been vigorously debated are they committed to paper and ink. Even more involved are the preparations for the adventures of Don Winslow of the Navy. The creator, Lieutenant Commander Frank V. Martinek, dreams up characters and continuity. He turns his ideas over to a research director, who lays out the copy and hands it over to a preliminary artist. The finished drawing is done by Leon Beroth, an old Navy man, whose signature appears on the published strip.” Among the pleasant surprises here—J.P. McEvoy’s nickname is Renny.
A new collection of Slowpoke comic strips is on the horizon, and in homage to the occasion, creator Jen Sorensen was interviewed at Funny Times, a monthly newspaper of gag cartons, editoons and humor columns. Sorensen may have the perfect genes for political and social satire in comics: “My background is Viking and Jewish,” she says, “so I have occasional urges to pillage and plunder, then feel guilty about it.” Asked how often she works right up to her deadline, she said it takes about six hours to produce the “typical Slowpoke cartoon ... from first pencils to final touches in Photoshop.” But the writing part is “unpredictable and generally takes however much time I have. I dimly remember finishing a cartoon early, once.” She’s drawn cartoons all her life. “While other kids were playing Space Invaders, watching Michael Jackson videos, and generally becoming well-socialized, I was holed up in my room drawing comics. I’m not sure whether this helped or harmed me. For most of my life, even as I got published here and there, I resisted the idea of cartooning as a career. It seemed like a wildly impractical thing to do. Only when I quit my day job a few years ago did I finally accept my inner cartoonist. Because my transition [from “other” to “professional cartoonist”] was gradual, there was no single moment when I came out of the ink closet. My family knew I had doodling tendencies all along, and probably had their fingers crossed that I would resist them and become something respectable like an endocrinologist. Or at least a plastic surgeon, which in retrospect might have had entertaining results. But eventually, I was running in enough newspapers that there was no denying the harsh reality that I’d gone pro.”
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
From Empire and the Berthoud Pass by Louise C. Harrson:
“Beans, stone-hard beans forever soaking on every threshold or simmering on the stoves, were the mainstay, the staff of life in pioneer days. Fortunately, the supply of beans seemed to be inexhaustible. It never gave out. When other potables became scarce or unattainable, and they usually were one or the other, there were always beans. Beans with salt pork, beans with bacon, and beans with ham, buffalo, or deer; beans with grease, with gravy, and plain boiled beans; beans for breakfast , for dinner, and beans for supper. The West could not have been won but for beans.”
We can now purchase, for our private amusement, an “action figure” Jesus as well as a bobblehead Hugh Hefner. I suppose it’s a healthy sign that the functions aren’t reversed.
Hefner, by the way, nearly choked to death in mid-romp with a young Playmate, reports the National Enquirer. Hefner was in bed with Sondra Theodore, Playboy’s gatefold for July 1977, when “a small sex toy” became lodged in his throat, cutting off the breathing passage. “As Hefner gasped on the bed, the quick-thinking Theodore pumped Hef’s chest until the toy was dislodged.” Brains as well as boobs, what a concept.
We saw this one coming, didn’t we? —Ashley Dupre, New York ex-Governor Eliot Spitzer’s paramour, has joined production house Reveille (“The Office”) in concocting a reality dating show described, says Dan Snierson in Entertainment Weekly, “as a cross between ‘Pretty Woman’ and ‘Cinderella.’” It will feature Dupre “working with a therapist to deal with her past and try to fall in love.”
Paris Hilton struck back after McCain used her in an ad attacking Obama. In an Internet response video she purred: “Barack wants to focus on new technology to cut our foreign oil dependency, and McCain wants off-shore drilling. Why don’t we do a hybrid of both candidates’ ideas? We can do limited offshore drilling with strict environmental oversight and create tax incentives to get hybrid and electric cars.” I guess she just looks vacuous. Or else she has really canny speech writers.
The Bump and Grind of Daily Stripping
Not content, apparently, with attempting to offend Muslim sensibilities and then oil cartel sensitivities, Berkeley Breathed has turned, perhaps, to offending Christians. It’s about time. His Opus release for August 3 is neatly ambiguous. When he invokes “our creator,” Opus thinks he’s discussing the cartoonist who made him; but Steve pretty clearly thinks the Flightless One is talking about God Almighty Himself. Which leads to the punchline, handily side-stepping the issue. But won’t the Religious Righteous find offensive any allusion to the Almighty in such a lowly cultural extrusion as a comic strip? (Written on August 5, before I’d seen any reports of outcries anywhere. But surely the pristine Washington Post wouldn’t have let this scurrilous blasphemy be published? We’ll see.) (Nothing so far, August 17. But Breathed is pretty clearly seeking to stir up trouble: in today’s strip, Opus is shown, admittedly from a discrete side-view, getting a colonoscopy. First, a couple weeks ago, we had a picture of the outside of the bum in the mooning episode; now we have pictures of the inside?) And while you’re inspecting the Opus specimen, look down the page to the Zits Sunday strip, another of the frequent demonstrations by Jim Borgman and Jerry Scott of the vital function that pictures serve in this verbal-visual medium.
Tatsuya Ishida’s online comic strip Sinfest is not only the best comic strip on the Web but perhaps the best new comic strip around. Here’s a sample, one “daily” and a fragment of a “Sunday,” which, for some time now, have been appearing in “Sunday comics” color. It’s been going since January 17, 2000, and the entire run is archived at sinfest.com so don’t be content with the accompanying snippet. Apart from the beautiful drawing (yes, beautiful—how else do you describe Ishida’s flowing line and tidy compositions?), the comedy is persistent and hip, the punchlines wholly unexpected, time after time, a joyful surprise every time. Ishida has tried, as I understand it, to get this gem syndicated but without luck. Once you’ve seen a few, you’ll understand why: it borders on the blasphemous but uproariously so. Surely we deserve to be offended in so hilarious a fashion. Ishida often posts a screed of one sort or another on his site; here’s a recent one:
“Whenever I peel an orange, I save the stem end for last. There's something about pulling out the spine that is very satisfying. Texture-wise, visually, the little plucky squirty sensation, it's a fun little operation to cap the peeling process. That's sorta my modus operandi when it comes to food. I leave the best for last. When I have a chicken pot pie, for example, I eat all the carrots and peas first, and leave a stash of chicken for the big finish. When I have a sandwich I work my way around the crust to the middle. I have this shit down to a science. Sometimes, though, it's not so smooth. Things can get complicated. Like, when I'm eating a pancake breakfast with hash browns, bacon, and eggs, I can't decide what my favorite thing is. I panic a little in my heart because I don't know how it's gonna end. But that's what life is all about. Thrills, man. Thrills. I start out all confident that I'll end with a bite of bacon but then, the sweet syrupy pancakes start to win me over. Then the hash browns, that unassuming dark horse, makes a comeback. And then the eggs are like, ‘Hey, we're the pure unblemished souls of chicken! Recognize!’ At that point, all bets are off. It's anybody's game. I might go with bacon. I might not. Nothing's set in stone. Anything can happen. I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, ‘Tat, You crazy fool! You HAVE to have the last bite planned out AT ALL TIMES!’ But I like to live on the edge, Jack. I take chances. I flirt with danger. That's how I roll. —T.
Three collections of Sinfest strips have been published; they’re all available through the site. Don’t miss ’em if you can.
DANCES ON: MORE FROM THE MASTER
In the fall of 1959, I made my first visit to Greenwich Village, then considered the Bohemian capital of artistic and literary America. After blundering around the raffish crazy quilt of its streets for several hours, I found myself at Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue with my back to the old Limelight coffee house, and there, across Sheridan Square, emblazoned over windows that had once been storefront display for some departed mercantile enterprise, was a sign with a familiar nameplate — "The Village Voice," it said, the "Voice" larger than the lowercase "Village," which was confined to a box that extended behind the capital "V" of the free-standing "Voice."
I didn't know it at the time, but the Voice had been in these digs for less than a year, having outgrown the two-room walk-up above Sutter's Grocery at 22 Greenwich Avenue that had been its birthplace in October 1955. I had been an occasional reader of the weekly paper since sometime in 1957, when a cohort who worked in the reference room of the library at my alma mater had drawn my attention to it. So it was satisfying, somehow, to have chanced upon the familiar logotype and to realize that I was, as I stood there across the street from that building, within its aura, so to speak, and breathing the very air of iconoclasm that had distinguished the Voice since its founding.
Having recently escaped the Boulder campus of the University of Colorado, I was in New York marking time until the Selective Service saw fit to pounce. In those days, no male could make a serious start at a career while under the threat of imminent draft, so I thought I'd fill what months of liberty remained to me by freelancing cartoons in the Big Apple. I eventually sold a few but none at the Voice.
Fact is, I didn't even try to sell anything at The Village Voice. In common with many newly-minted college graduates, I didn't know much; but I knew that my sense of humor wasn't hip enough for this paper. Besides, it already had a cartoonist. It was to admire his work that I'd become an occasional reader of the Voice, and I knew for a certainty that I wasn't in the same league as Jules Feiffer.
But, then, no one was in the same league as Feiffer.
Then, Feiffer's cartoon was a startlingly different looking enterprise. No other cartoonist produced anything like it. Although it consisted of a succession of images like the conventional sequential "strip," Feiffer scorned the traditional panel borders of newspaper comic strips, dropping pictures of his actors and actresses into an otherwise uncluttered ocean of white space. And instead of speech balloons, he merely clustered the verbiage of his characters' utterances around their heads, a single slanted line pointing to the speaker.
Feiffer was interviewed last December at forum.newsarama.com by Michael Lorah, who thought Feiffer’s work had an “on stage” quality and wondered if his manner of presenting his strip was somehow influenced by his work on The Spirit when he was assisting Will Eisner. Said Feiffer: “Eisner was both theatrical and cinematic, and those Spirit stories that I worked on — some of which I wrote — open, quite a few times, with the character stepping forward and addressing the reader and telling the story in the first person. Then we’d blend into the cinema part of it where the story was illustrated. So it doesn’t at all surprise me, although I can’t be sure it’s true, that the monologue notion I developed came directly out of my working with Eisner. He was doing that before I worked with him, and I used that device a number of times when I started writing The Spirit. It wouldn’t surprise me if that’s where I got the idea, but it was clear to me in the beginning that because the message I wanted to convey, whether it was social or political, was so different from what readers were used to that my visual approach could not be cinematic. I couldn’t show angle shots. I had to be as quiet and docile visually as I was being subversive in terms of the story I was telling. I had to kind of lead the reader from one picture to the next, saying that there was nothing here to threaten you.”
The comedy of his cartoons was as unusual as their mode of presentation. No vaudevillian boffolas here, no pratfalls or custard pies. No puns, either. Instead, we had chorus after chorus of the old "bait-and-switch" as ostensibly hip characters engaged in erudite conversations or monologues that ended by revealing their self-absorption and cultural shallowness. Feiffer's characters were always talking. But none of them ever listened.
Feiffer's cartoons have been described as "comic nightmares, biting vignettes of contemporary life as it is experienced and explained away by sensitive adults, beatniks, precocious children and politicians. The introspective adults are by far the most frequently portrayed, they who, according to Newsweek, have ‘rationalized Hostile Group attitudes' and are trying to find themselves." In dramatizing their search, Feiffer ripped away the hypocrisy and sham of the intellectual fads that preoccupied so many of the creative poseurs in the Village (and, as it proved, elsewhere).
When the first collection of his cartoons was published in 1958, Gilbert Millstein, reviewing the book for The New York Times, applauded the cartoonist — "alone and unafraid in a world made of the macrocephalic bromides of psychoanalysis, avant-gardism, progressive schooling, the hideous nuances of cocktail-party conversation, politics, television, togetherness, and the careful conformism of the equally careful outrageous."
Feiffer’s rendering mannerisms were, at first, inspired by the work of William Steig and, perhaps, Saul Steinberg, two New Yorker cartoonists who evolved styles of drawing that were spare and abstracted. He was also influenced by Andre Francois, an Austrian/French cartoonist. But these cartoonists were inspirational in another way: their cartoons explored “nuances of character,” as Adam Phillips said a year or so ago at voanews.com.
“These insights showed me that you can use cartoons to tell the truth about people,” Feiffer told Phillips. “They don’t have to be full of action or adventure. They don’t have to be gags. They can be like the fiction I read.”
Exploring the inner life of his characters — their insecurities and anxieties about every aspect of their lives, including sex, verboten everywhere else in those button-down days — Feiffer’s cartoons were shocking. “When I started my work in the Voice,”Feiffer said, “the initial reaction was people stopping me not to tell me how good or funny [the cartoon] was or how much they enjoyed the wit. It was ‘How did you get that into print?’”
Getting his cartoons into print was the first step in Feiffer’s plan to get books of his cartoons published. His cartooning career, which, up to then, included mostly the six years (1946-52) he spent working (and conversing heatedly) with Will Eisner, had been interrupted by the Korean War, for which he, like thousands of other men his age, was drafted into the army. When he escaped the army in early 1953 after his two-year hitch was up, he tried to sell 30-, 40-, 50-page booklets of narrative cartoons to book publishers in New York. He made the rounds. For two or three years he made the rounds, earning a pittance whenever his money ran out by taking jobs in “schlock art studios” for six months at a stretch — long enough to qualify for unemployment provided he succeeded in getting himself fired, which he managed. “That was never hard,” he said.
“All of [the book publishers] expressed great interest in the work and no interest in publishing it,” he recalled for Chris Mautner in a June 16 interview at Mautner’s blog, panelsandpixels. “Their excuse was, as they gave it over and over again, that they didn’t know how to market it. Since I was an unknown, they couldn’t take a chance on publishing it. If I were known — if my name were Steinberg or Steig or Thurber — they would grab it. My problem was that I wasn’t Steinberg or Steig or Thurber and I had to figure out how I could be. It was clear that once I could get in publications they would recognize, they’d recognize me. I saw on all their desks copies of the Village Voice, so I figured if I could be in that paper, then they might confuse me with Steinberg, Steig, or Thurber and publish me. And that’s exactly what happened.”
He walked into the offices of the Voice at exactly the right moment. The editors were looking for free talent, and Feiffer, for whom the newspaper represented only the vehicle by which he hoped to attract the attention of book publishers, was happy to work for nothing as long as he could get into print. He got into print on October 24, 1956, and was almost at once recognized as a unique talent. “I thought it would take six months to a year,” he said; “it took a matter of weeks.” Here’s the inaugural strip, in a style nearly unrecognizable today; more Robert Osborn than Steig.
The book Feiffer initially wanted to get published was Munro, a 50-page graphic novel (as we’d call it these days) about a small boy who was drafted into the Army through bureaucratic bumbling and then was unable to convince anyone that a mistake had been made.
For Feiffer, the Army was an epiphany that inspired his career. He was introduced to “the sense of mindless authority that any military operation oppresses you with — it hits you, right between the eyes — the use of language is misappropriated to not say what you mean but to maneuver and manipulate people and disguise meaning,” he told Brian Heater at thedailycrosshatch.com. “All those versions of that that I had seen in my civilian life plus all of it being so highlighted by my military experience, I decided within months of my being in the army that I wasn’t going to be a traditional comic strip artist. I decided that I had to comment about the world around me and use my cartoons for the purposes of social and political satire. If I hadn’t been in the army, it would have been a very different career.”
But all of this was still below a distant horizon when I first encountered Feiffer while I was still in college in 1957.
Al Shepard, my librarian friend, and I had worked on the campus humor magazine, The Flatiron, which had been banned in the fall of 1955 (coincidentally, just as the Voice was publishing its first issues, probably some sort of massive celestial correspondence was in effect: as one irreverent publication dies, another is born to take its place). In subsequent years, Al and I passed many pleasant hours planning to launch a new, cleaner, version of that magazine. (We eventually floated two, but only a brace of issues of each.)
Feiffer's cartoons had caught Al's eye, and he'd pointed them out to me, thinking I could do something similar in one of our projects. But I declined to try it. For two reasons. First, Feiffer's work was so distinctive in both appearance and content that anyone attempting anything in that vein would immediately proclaim himself as a rank copy cat. Secondly, I lacked the requisite skill. I wasn't above aping another cartoonist, mind you: I just didn't have the wit to do it with Feiffer.
Even today, Feiffer is without peer.
No cartoonist since Walt Disney has dabbled so brilliantly in so many related fields. A sort of Renaissance Man of cartooning, Feiffer produced a weekly cartoon for nearly 44 years, and he also wrote plays for the theater and for movies, and novels. And all of these endeavors are critically acclaimed. Munro, for instance, after achieving publication in 1959 with two other Feiffer short works (under the title Passionella), was transformed into an animated cartoon — “a devastating satire on the misuse of authority,” Feiffer still calls it — and earned an Oscar as the year’s best animated short in 1960.
But Feiffer's accomplishments do not end with the foregoing summary. In reviewing his career, I was astonished to realize what a seminal figure he has been in the history of cartooning and, even, in the history of comic fandom.
His weekly cartoon clearly influenced (if it did not inspire) Garry Trudeau, and Trudeau's Doonesbury, in turn, has set the pace for satirical newspaper cartoonists since the collapse of the Nixon White House in 1974.
And Feiffer's 1965 book, The Great Comic Book Heroes, might well have legitimatized an interest in old comic books thereby helping to establish fandom. Feiffer's book was the first mainstream manifestation of nostalgia for the funnybook artifacts of the thirties and forties. "Fandom" had been brewing since the early sixties, and the first price guide was published in 1965 by Argosy Book Shop in Hollywood. But Woody Gelman's pioneering Nostalgia Press didn't publish any reprint volumes until after Feiffer blazed the trail with The Great Comic Book Heroes. And Overstreet's first Comic Book Price Guide didn't appear until five years after Feiffer's book — 1970, the same year as Don Thompson and Dick Lupoff produced their affectionate look backwards at comic books of the Golden Age, All in Color for a Dime.
“The Great Comic Book Heroes was the idea of an editor at Dial,” Feiffer told Lorah.“He was then not known for what he is known now — E.L. Doctorow. Doctorow came up with the idea, and he couldn’t think of anybody better fit for it than me. He suggested it, and I fell for it. I thought it was a wonderful idea. I would just take a very personal, autobiographical approach to the whole thing, just write about stuff that I liked as a kid, or some things I didn’t like but had observations about. I had a ball, and he was a wonderful editor who helped me considerably. ... There’s no doubt the work was as sophisticated as anything else I was doing at the time when it came out because those were the things I had to say. And it did recruit a more high-brow and more literary audience so they denied that I was doing a comic strip [in the Village Voice] because they couldn’t admit to admiring a comic strip. They had to give it another name. People would tell me how much they loved ‘those essays’ I did, and I would insist they were cartoons, and they’d say, ‘No, no, no, no — they’re not cartoons.’ Because they couldn’t admire cartoons. ... All I was ever trying to do,” Feiffer said, “was to clarify what was going on in society. Explain it to myself and explain it to my readers, and do it in an entertaining way so that I could make a point without being resisted, as I’d found over the years that lecturing people didn’t work. Nobody was going to listen if you told them what they were doing wrong. But if I got through their guard and humored them, they could have insights that might change, alter their method in society for the long run.”
The quality of the reprinted comic book stories in The Great Comic Book Heroes is not up to present standards, but the book is unquestionably one of the most readable books on the subject to be published. Feiffer's nostalgic and analytical essays occupy the first fifty pages of the 189-page work, and they are purely astute.
In writing of Bob Kane's Batman, Feiffer observes that Batman "popularized in comic books the strange idea, first used by the Phantom in newspapers, that when you put on your mask, your eyes disappeared. Two white slits showed — that was all. If that didn't strike terror into the hearts of evildoers, nothing would."
On Wonder Woman: "My problem with Wonder Woman was that I could never get myself to believe she was that good. For if she was as strong as they said, why wasn't she tougher looking? Why wasn't she bigger? Why was she so flat-chested? And why did I always feel that, whatever her vaunted Amazon power, she wouldn't have lasted a round with Sheena, Queen of the Jungle? No, Wonder Woman seemed like too much of a put up job, a fixed comic strip — a product of group thinking rather than the individual inspiration that created Superman. It was obvious from the start that a bunch of men got together in a smoke-filled room and brain-stormed themselves a Super Lady. But nobody's heart was in it."
In the "schizoid and chaste menage a' trois" between Lois Lane and Clark Kent and Superman, Feiffer saw the "typical American romance" enacted twice: Lois, pursued by Clark, scorns him; Superman, pursued by Lois, scorns her. This sort of thing marked "the difference between a sissy and a man. A sissy wanted girls who scorned him; a man scorned girls who wanted him. Our cultural opposite of the man who didn't make out with women has never been the man who did--but, rather, the man who could if he wanted to but still didn't."
Four score and three years later, we can't add much more to the picture Feiffer painted — except, perhaps, some precise dates. Fantagraphics, incidentally, has reprinted this long out-of-print watershed tome, minus the illustrative comic book stories but with the Feiffer’s insights intact (80 6x9-inch pages, paperback; $8.95).
Given the role Feiffer has played both in newspaper cartooning and in appreciation of the art of comic books, it is, as I said, astonishing that his name so seldom crops up in the fan press. But perhaps the Fantagraphics project will correct the oversight.
Beginning in 1989, Fantagraphics Books undertook to publish in fifteen volumes the complete works of Jules Feiffer — cartoons and plays and novels and miscellaneous writing. Three volumes were published in 9x12-inch paperback format before the project was temporarily sidetracked. The third volume took us to the summer of 1958, when Feiffer's weekly cartoon for the Voice was only about twenty months into its 43-year run.
That summer, Feiffer was probably still doing the cartoon without pay — the same remuneration for which many of the contributors to the Voice labored in the paper's salad days (so even if I'd "sold" a cartoon there, I wouldn't have lined my pockets any). But fame was just around the corner. The London Observer had picked up the cartoon, Playboy's Hugh Hefner was a fan and was about to commission Feiffer to do a monthly cartoon for his magazine, and McGraw-Hill was on the verge of bringing out a collection of the cartoons called Sick, Sick, Sick (which was the name of the feature in those days).
In short, Feiffer was on the cusp of national notoriety. But whatever the triumphs of the next decades, he would continue to produce a cartoon for every weekly edition of the Voice. It was here that he got his first big break. And Feiffer and The Village Voice are inextricably linked as a result.
Then one gloomy morning in 1998, the Voice did him in. After years of publishing his cartoon for nothing and then for next-to-nothing, the Voice had started to paid him handsomely — for several years — until the arrival of another new management, which, in an effort to cut expenses, announced they were cutting Feiffer’s pay drastically. Insulted (and understandably so), Feiffer took his cartoon out of the paper, a sad and fateful act. Although the cartoon was in syndication (since 1959) and therefore continued to appear in various venues, “the Voice is what made the whole thing practical,” Feiffer acknowledged to Michael Dean at The Comics Journal when discussing his retirement of the weekly cartoon. Choosing between the straight-jacket syndicate deadline and more flexible working conditions for numerous other projects, the cartoonist elected to discontinue the cartoon. He had been lambasting cultural Achilles’ heels for decades, but the cartoon was as much a political cartoon as it was social commentary, and Feiffer was awarded a Pulitzer in 1986 for political cartooning. But political cartooning, he observed on PBS’s “NewsHour,” has changed—and not for the better.
“When I used rage in a political cartoon, it was aimed at certain people for certain reasons and on certain issues,” he explained. “But now, attitude has replaced politics, replaced sensibility—and any kind of philosophy. It’s gotcha and smugness and I’m cool and you’re not and I know more than you do; I’m gonna go with attitude which will stop you from asking questions.”
Feiffer at first considered just stopping the strip without actually staging a finale. But realizing that many of his readers would be disappointed, he decided to do one last pirouette or two with the only regular reappearing character in the cartoon—the dancer. After the leotarded dancer’s first appearance with a “dance to spring” on March 27, 1957, she returned, a typical Village artistic amateur, to celebrate every season—hopeful and giddy in the spring, lazy and wilting in the summer, wistful and nostalgic in the fall, bleak and shivering in the winter. Given to leaps of ecstasy and silly ranting, she was modeled after “the first girl who slept with me and spent the night,” Feiffer told Sarah Boxer at the New York Times. She was a modern dance student at Brooklyn College, who, Feiffer believes, has since died. “The early dancer looked just like her,” he said. “And as I changed girlfriends, her body changed.” But none of the dancer’s appearances were based upon either of his wives (Judith Sheftel, an executive at Playboy, 1961-83; or his present spouse, Jenny Allen, a writer and stand-up comic, whom he married in 1983).
The dancer came to represent Feiffer himself. “At a certain point,” he said, “the girl became me, and I became her. She was there to talk about how lousy her life was. That I will miss.”
In the four-installment finale that ended June 18, 2000, it’s deeply gratifying to see that Feiffer and his dancer are as dysfunctional as any of the other couples he’s dissected over the years. And then Feiffer becomes a dancer himself, laminating another layer of meaning on his final assertion on the “NewsHour”: “I do want to find a job for the dancer.”
I’m reminded of William Butler Yeats’ line—“How can we know the dancer without the dance?” How can we know a cartoonist if there’s no cartoon? But Feiffer is perhaps more in the mold of Don Marquis’s alley cat, Mehitabel, about whom Archie the Cockroach wrote so memorably (always in lower case):
dance mehitabel dance
caper and shake a leg
what little blood is left
will fizz like wine in a keg
Archie’s poetic life of Mehitabel, illustrated by George Herriman in his kraziest manner, also provides the appropriate coda for the alleged retirement of a cartoonist: “There’s a dance in the old dame yet,” Mehitabel sings, “toujour gai, toujour gai.”
Feiffer’s next dance was writing children’s books. But for a brief time after the Voice run, he created a monthly op-ed piece for the New York Times. “I only worked on it for about two years,” Feiffer told Michael Lorah. “I dropped it because I went on to other things. The Times, which had been very free-wheeling in accepting my stuff in the beginning, began to reject ideas that I thought very good. I was not inclined to accept that at this stage. I was too old to have work turned away more than every once in a while, which they began to do regularly, and the editorial tone had obviously shifted against what I was doing. If I were a younger guy and had ambitions in that direction, I would’ve tried to argue my way through it, but by this time, I was very involved in writing children’s books, which I love and which were being accepted on a huge scale. And I wanted to write some more plays, so I happily gave up the Times. Well, not all that happily: I was sorry to lose the exposure, but it was clear that they were not as open to me as they had been.”
Fantagraphics is returning to its Feiffer reprint project with Explainers (a 568 5x9-inch brick of a book, hardcover; $28.99) (not to be confused with The Explainers, a 1960 collection of Feiffer cartoons from the Voice and Playboy, or a Feiffer play of the same vintage), which continues with Feiffer’s Sick, Sick, Sick but in a different format than the earlier three Fantagraphics volumes, all paperbacks 8x11 inches, and only about 90 pages each). In the new format, the volume reprints the Village Voice cartoons one to a page. For the sake of unifying the appearance of this segment of the Fantagraphics Feiffer Library, the new volume repeats some of the cartoons that were published in the third volume of the original series, October 24, 1956 through June 11, 1957, but adds a decade to it, ending with December 29, 1966. The recently released Passionella and Other Stories, marking the relaunch of the project, is another brick of a book (180 5x9-inch pages, hardback; $19;.95). The next in the series will be Feiffer’s Playboy cartoons, probably in the 8x11-inch paperback format. All may be found at fantagraphicsbooks.com.
In the early years of Explainers, we see Feiffer searching for a visual style.
“I just floundered around,” he told Mautner, “—mainly trying to find a line that would be expressive in a newspaper, that would simulate what I could do in pencil but never could manage to do in ink, that would seem fresh and free and innovative. ... In the early weeks and months, you can see the drawing style would change from week to week. I’d go back and forth. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I was determined to try everything until I found my way into what it should be—and that took a period of months.”
By 1958, as this book demonstrates, he was no longer looking for a style: he was now perfecting or refining the style he had settled on. But the pencil still apparently occupies a special niche in Feiffer’s artistic armament: in illustrating his wife’s 2006 book, The Long Chalkboard, Feiffer deployed only a pencil augmented occasionally by a wash, producing images so soft and casual that they might represent the apogee to which he was groping in those vintage Voice drawings. They are undeniably among the cartoonist’s finest drawings — spontaneous seeming and relaxed. Graceful. Here are a couple.
Lorah asked Feiffer how well he thought his cartoons from the 1950s held up. Pretty well, Feiffer said: “Individual relations between young men and young women are not a hell of a lot different as far as basic anecdotes. If you read those strips, the sexual strips, or you see the film ‘Carnal Knowledge’ [which Feiffer wrote], it doesn’t date at all because nothing has happened to date it. And if you look at the political strips, as I started to do, it becomes depressingly clear that in the days of George W. Bush, we are reliving stuff we’ve already gone through. Government does what it did back then in the fifties. It says one thing and means another. It uses language to distort. It uses communication to avoid communication.”
Mautner asked Feiffer how it felt to see his old cartoons in print again. Said Feiffer: “It’s kind of amazing to see how much of it holds up and how interesting it remains to me as the author of it instead of making me wince and wish it away. I kind of enjoy looking at it. I see it primarily at this late date as a body of work, but it’s a body of work that increasingly builds and develops and makes sense, so I’m quite happy about it. ... Here and there [as I look through it], I say, ‘Jesus Christ— I used to be good!’”
we’ll learn even more about Feiffer: he has finished writing
his memoirs, and the book is now going through its final editing
process. And he’s is back in the Village Voice for the
first time in eleven years. The editors approached him, asking if
he’d do some cartoons about the Presidential Contest. You can’t
keep a good man out, or down.
Portions of this article appeared in a long column I did for The Comics Journal some years ago, and I’ve also pilfered from my own biographical appreciation of Feiffer that can be found here in Harv’s Hindsights for May 3, 2003, all enhanced by more recent interviews with Feiffer conducted by Mautner and Heater, Phillips and Lorah. The Hindsight piece is accompanied by the dancer’s last four appearances in 2000, when she cavorts with Feiffer, who, for the occasion, wears tails and doffs a top hat.
THE SPREADING PUNDITRY
The Great Ebb and Flow of Things
My memory isn’t flawless, but I recall reading recently that the economy lost 70,000 jobs in the last quarter, and 48,000 of them were SUV salespersons. I can’t find the source of this statistic anymore, and I may be misremembering, the privilege of dotage. But whether apocryphal or not, the instance dramatizes a well-known factoid that we often delude ourselves into forgetting: dire circumstances drive us, not best intentions. The cost of gasoline has done what costs always do in a supply-and-demand economy: it forces people to give up expensive habits. People aren’t buying SUVs anymore because it costs too much to operate them. They’re gas guzzlers. We knew that. We’ve known it for as long as SUVs have been on the road. And yet—despite our certain knowledge that by driving SUVs we were depleting the world’s oil reserves faster than necessary—we bought and drove SUVs anyhow, willy nilly. And we would keep on driving SUVs until the cost of gassing them up became prohibitive; then we drop them like so many hot pomfrits. We react to our present situation, always—never to a distant future, however accurately it may be anticipated. The lesson, insofar as there is one, applies to global warming. Many of us may agree that global warming is caused in large measure by human activity, but, being human, we’re not likely to do anything about it until living in the warmed climate becomes uncomfortable. Once in the hothouse, we’ll look for ways to live in it. But until we’re in it, we probably won’t do much that’s effective in preventing global warming.
Now, about all those polls that show Obama and McCain virtually neck-and-neck in the stampede to the White House. There are, I’m told by reliable sources, about 72 million Democrats in the country but only 55 million Republicans. Does that sound like an even match-up to you? Republicans won the last two Presidential Elections, I’d say, because the Democrat candidate didn’t fire up enough of his fellow party members to go vote. The Republican victory was a direct result of Democrat apathy. That’s scarcely true now. There are admittedly two contrary factoids in the Obama corner: first, discontented women who had voted for Hillary; second, racists who won’t, under any imaginable circumstance, vote for a black person. But in McCain’s corner, we have all those evangelicals who don’t find him sufficiently “faith-full.” On the other hand (the third so far in this writing), Obama is attracting many younger people who might not have voted for any less-inspiring a personage. Most of these youths, by the way, use only cell phones so they weren’t reached by pollsters working landlines, the usual access to a polled population. Maybe that all translates into a neck-and-neck race, but there’s yet another factor—the news media. The news media, in an effort to keep ratings and readership high, want a closely-contested race, something with a measure of suspense, something to keep us all on the edges of our chairs, tuning in at every opportunity to see who’s ahead this week. If it was apparent that Obama was going to win (as I think, probably, it is), suspense would evaporate and the news media would lose audience. To keep the audience, then, the news folks report only the polls that make the race seem exciting, neck-and-neck polls.
To find out about Harv's books, click here.
send e-mail to R.C. Harvey
Art of the Comic Book - Art of the Funnies - Accidental Ambassador Gordo - reviews - order form - Harv's Hindsights - main page