OPUS 229 (August 30, 2008). We review eight new comic strips/panels and decide that Keith Knight’s Knight Life is the best thing since Calvin and Hobbes. In an alarming act of vengeance, we profile the cartoonist profiler, John Read. Here’s what’s here, in order, by department:
NOUS R US
The wrong Smurf creator is accused of larceny, anime figurine pornography
NEW COMIC STRIPS GALORE
Argyle Sweater, Arctic Circle, Ollie and Quentin, My Cage, Deflocked, Home and Away, Family Tree, and Knight Life
Ted Rall’s Mission
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
Disgracefulness at the Olympics
NEWSPAPER COMICS WATCH
Sampling daring humor and linguistic dexterity
John Read Profiled
And our customary reminder: don’t forget to activate the “Bathroom Button” by clicking on the “print friendly version” so you can print off a copy of just this lengthy installment for reading later, at your leisure while enthroned. Without further adieu—
NOUS R US
Not all the news that gives us fits this time: just a couple notes in passing. First, if you read the UPI headline and were distracted by some Olympian feat before you could read the entire article, you’d have an entirely wrong idea. The headline—“Smurfs’ creator accused of grand larceny”—topped a story about Stuart Ross, the man who brought the tiny blue-skinned Smurfs to American tv, not Peyo, the Belgian cartoonist who actually created the characters. Just another instance of the routine misuse of the term “creator.” Merlin Haas on one of the online Lists was suspicious of the headline because Peyo died in 1992; how could he be accused of larceny? Ross, incidentally, is 71.
in Malaysia, where anime and the figurines they inspire have an
enthusiastic following, a number of figurines were confiscated
earlier this month when a mother saw a bunch of them in a toy shop
and thought they were “pornographic.” Doesn’t
surprise me much: some of those li’l nekid ladies are fairly
provocative. But “pornographic”? The episode, according
to P. Chan in the Malaysia Star, worries figurine collectors who fear they will be branded as sex
maniacs because of a few of the thousands of otherwise purely
harmless figurines. Said Chan: “I know a few people who collect
figurines (both the normal and ‘erotic’ ones) as a hobby
and they are hardly corrupted sex maniacs. ... Some otaku [fans of
anime] are afraid that comic shops will be raided and closed down
just because they carry figurines.” He ends with a plea to
authorities: “Please do not confiscate every single figurine
that has to do with manga or anime just because of a few pornographic
ones on the shelves.” Nice concept. Oh—and leave the
pornographic ones on the shelves, too, for those of us who enjoy the
spectacle of barenekkidwimmin wherever we can find them.
Fascinating Footnit. Much of the news retailed in the foregoing segment is culled from articles eventually indexed at http://www.rpi.edu/~bulloj/comxbib.html, the Comics Research Bibliography, maintained by Michael Rhode and John Bullough, which covers comic books, comic strips, animation, caricature, cartoons, bandes dessinees and related topics. It also provides links to numerous other sites that delve deeply into cartooning topics. Three other sites laden with cartooning news and lore are Mark Evanier’s www.povonline.com, Alan Gardner’s www.DailyCartoonist.com, and Tom Spurgeon’s www.comicsreporter.com. And then there’s Mike Rhode’s ComicsDC blog, http://www.comicsdc.blogspot.com For delving into the history of our beloved medium, you can’t go wrong by visiting Allan Holtz’s http://www.strippersguide.blogspot.com, where Allan regularly posts rare findings from his forays into the vast reaches of newspaper microfilm files hither and yon.
THE FROTH ESTATE
The Alleged News Institution
The Dem Con in Den
When Fox-News put up their set just outside Denver’s Pepsi Center, they placed their lights too close to the sprinkler system, the sprinklers turned on, and, yes, Fox, despite its claim to being fair and balanced, was all wet. As usual.
Comedian and social critic Bill Maher was in town to do a 45-minute stand-up act sponsored by Trojan condoms and Rolling Stone magazine. Pointing to the Trojan logo on the wall, he said, “I’ve never worked for Trojan before, but they’ve certainly worked for me.”
The city has been preparing for hordes of protesters for months, training police from all over the state. Sunday, August 24, was peaceful. On Monday, there was a minor altercation involving a bunch of marchers who tried to march where they had no permit to march, and somewhere between 50-70 of them were arrested. Maybe, according to some reports, 100 miscreants. Tuesday at another venue, two were arrested. Only a few dozen self-proclaimed protesters camped out in the parking lots set aside for hundreds to spend the night. The anticipated hordes hadn’t showed up as of Tuesday night. Nevertheless, NBC’s Brian Williams, reporting Monday night from the blind isolation of his broadcast booth in the Pepsi Center, described Denver as a “city transformed” where “giant SUVs roam the streets with men in black with automatic weapons on the running boards.” Then, after correspondent Pete Williams made a so-called “report,” Williams said: “Thanks for braving the streets of Denver for us today.” But those weren’t automatic rifles the cops were carrying: they were pepper ball guns—essentially, paint ball guns—which, admittedly, look somewhat like automatic weapons but are scarcely life-threatening. You’d think Willliams and NBC, if they are worthy of professing journalism, would have got their facts right.*
Not that Williams and NBC are the only so-called journalists with a dubious claim to the name. In the PBS booth, Jim Lehrer wondered aloud about this Dem Con’s claim to being a “green convention,” prompting Mark Shields and David Brooks to expound for some minutes about the Democrats’ environmental platform planks, speculating about the content of some of the speeches about to be made. Alas, they’re far afield. The “green convention” tag was concocted by the host city, which vowed to make the convention as “green” as possible. To that end, they hired a fleet of hybrid vehicles to transport dignitaries around in and encouraged visitors as well as people who work downtown in the vicinity of the Dem Con to ride bicycles, supplying about 1,000 of them, available without charge at bike racks scattered throughout the area. By the end of the week, 5,552 trips were taken on the loaner bikes, traveling 26,416 miles. The city estimated that 9.2 metric tons of CO2 emissions were avoided. Electrical power for both the Pepsi Center and the Convention Center was generated by wind. Volunteers sorted trash from convention sites, diverting an estimated 70 percent of the waste that would normally go to landfills; instead, it will go to compost or be recycled. Restaurants and hotels also participated. At one downtown hotel where “box” lunches were being prepared, there were no boxes: instead, the hotel was using brown bags made of recycled paper into which they were putting sandwiches and biodegradable forks and knives made of soy and corn. That’s the “green convention,” Jim.
*Those were SUVs with black-suited law enforcement officials on the runningboards, though. And there were apparently enough of them on display throughout the week to forestall a reenactment of the “police riots” of 1968. All told, 154 arrests were made. Not many considering Rush Limbaugh’s hopes for the Dem Con. A couple of the arrests resulted in accusations that the police used excessive force; both instances were videotaped. One involved an ABC camera-man (or producer, dunno which since sources vacillate) who was prevented from filming various celebrity pols being lavishly entertained by lobbyists. Bad mistake in law enforcement judgement, I’d say. But the Secret Service reportedly said Denver’s security system could serve as a model for similar situations in large cities. Dunno if Minneapolis/St. Paul did any kibitzing, but their cities are much more likely to experience radical rioting: after all, it’s the Republicans that most protesters are enraged by.
Bill Clinton, who is always forgiven by Democrats whatever he may do, gave a rousing speech in his usual persuasive conversational manner, putting into a ringing aphorism something I’ve been saying for years (ever since the neo-cons took over the world); to paraphrase—Our most effective contribution to the advance of civilization and our most persuasive way of spreading democracy throughout the world lies in the power of our example not in the example of our power. What he actually said was: “People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than b y the example of our power.” To which I gave my own perverse but probably correct spin. He was scheduled to speak for 10 minutes but spoke for nearly 20. As usual, he was forgiven.
THE ONLY REALLY IMPORTANT QUESTION ABOUT SARAH PALIN:
Can she spell potato? Probably, she can. She’s a hockey mom, after all, who’s proudly sending her oldest child off to Iraq to be blown to smithereens. After that, spelling potato is a cake walk. Which may remind many of us of her bimbo career as a beauty pageant contestant, strutting her stuff before a mob of drooling judges. And what does that tell us about the personality of the person who is but a heartbeat away from the Presidency? You’d think (wouldn’t you?) that the oldest man ever to run for the Presidency would take care to address the most overriding of the electorate’s concerns by appointing as his Vice President someone who is obviously capable of taking over in the event of the Old Man’s death. The former mayor of a town with a population under 7,000? Her only foreign policy experience is living in the state closest to Russia. Clearly, McCain is more concerned that we think he’s serious about reforming Washington than he is protective of the welfare of his country. If we believe his supporters, he didn’t pick Palin solely in the hope of attracting those supposedly disaffected Hillary Democrats (who would scarcely vote for Palin just because she’s a woman because her right-wing convictions are directly in contradiction of everything Hillary stands for) but, instead, because he saw in her a contemporary version of himself at his younger fire-breathing stage—a dedicated not to say crazy reformer. But let’s take him at his word: he’s a maverick and he wants to reform government, and he chose Palin because she’s a maverick who already reformed her state’s government. I called her a “bimbo” a minute ago, but she’s pretty clearly not a bimbo: judging from her remarks when McCain introduced her, she’s an articulate and somewhat fiery ideologue who believes that her way is the right way, the only way. She’s the last person I’d like to see coming at me if I were her kids’s hockey coach. Do we really believe that the way to reform the vast bureaucracy of federal government is to emulate Palin? To hold our breath until all our foes capitulate? In picking her and her reformer zeal, McCain drew attention to his own “reformer” methods—his temper tantrums and swearing binges against fellow senators who disagreed with him. Is this the way to achieve highly controversial objectives in a political climate that, once upon a time, worked best with compromise? Not likely. We all knew that McCain is an old man. In picking Palin, he demonstrated that he’s an old fool as well.
McCain celebrated his 70th birthday anniversary the day he announced his Palin choice. On the same day, Michael Jackson was 50, and R. Crumb, 65.
NEW COMIC STRIPS GALORE
The comics editors of the half-dozen biggest feature syndicates in the country review, every year, something in the neighborhood of 20,000 submissions. That’s what they say when you ask them. King Features, United Media (uniting Newspaper Enterprise Association [NEA] and United Feature), Creators, Universal Press, Tribune Media Services—the Big Six (or Five). Plus the up-and-coming Washington Post Writers Group. It could be more. Or it could be fewer. But if it’s fewer, it’s still in the tens of thousands. Or so I recall. But my memory in the numerical department is often blasted into meaninglessness. Once numbers like this get over a hundred or so, I lose all sense of proportion and every number is immediately escalated into incomprehensible thousands. Twenty thousand a year. That’s too many to be comprehensible. That’s about 55 new strips or panel cartoons that drift in over the transom every day. And some of these are good enough that their creators get “development contracts,” almost informal mutual agreements that the syndicate will help the cartoonist refine his concept with the option, perhaps, of actually signing him on eventually. Fifty-five new comics every day, seven days a week. That’s what syndicate officials will tell you, and there’s no reason not to believe them—unless you think they make up these numbers in order to justify their jobs; otherwise, what are they doing all day? Correcting spelling? Approving ever edgier gags? Counseling distraught cartoonists? Meeting with sales personnel? Answering phone calls from enraged readers and editors? So it could be less than 20,000. Or more. In any case, it’s a very big number. And out of that very big number, only a very small number of submissions are signed up and distributed. Less than ten a year, I’d say.
Despite this overt evidence (or testimony by syndicate officials), the number of comic strips and panel cartoons has stayed about the same for the last several years. According to Editor & Publisher’s annual Directory of Syndicate Services for 2008, about 208 comic strips are in distribution; about 143 panel cartoons. Last year, the Directory listed 206 strips and 150 panel cartoons; the year before, 214 and 147. Not much change. In our lurching economy with newspapers wringing their hands over their dire financial straits (declining advertising income, declining readership, and increasing costs willy nilly) and firing staff editorial cartoonist hand over fist in order to preserve a meager margin of profit—considering, then, all the gloom and disaster being bemoaned at every opportunity, for the comics content of the nation’s syndicates to remain at about the same level from year-to-year is a triumph.
Or not. If syndicates add to their rosters collectively about ten new comics features a year and if the aggregate every year stays about the same, then about ten comics features every year drop off—die and go away. Like Carroll’s nefarious Red Queen, we’re running fast to stay in the same place.
In the last twelve months, 8 new strips emerged on the Rancid Raves horizon. I began inadvertently piling up syndicate sales kits and press releases last fall: I meant to review each one as it debuted, but, typically, I kept putting it off, one by one, until I now have a small agglutination on my desk. Thinking, last month, that I ought to get to the task I’d set myself, I started reflecting on the current crop of new strips as I drove around the city, running errands. In my dimly lit memory—that is, without any actual physical evidence before me as I motored to and fro—it seemed to me that the distinguishing characteristic of all the new strips is that they’re badly drawn—or, if not badly drawn exactly, not very well drawn. But when I sat down and started looking through the stack, I changed my mind. None of these cartoonists is Alex Raymond or Milton Caniff or, even, Harvey Kurtzman or Crockett Johnson. But the art is better than it seemed at first impression. Simplicity ranks higher than complexity, but some of the more exhaustive rendering is lousy, and some simply drawn strips are, in their own way, engaging and pleasing to the eye.
Scott Hilburn’s non-descriptively entitled Argyle Sweater, which joined Universal Press’s line-up of 30 strips in April, might be deploying the most conventional drawing style of the lot, using Gary Larson’s Far Side as a standard—reasonable competence at rendering furniture and landscape but somewhat challenged by anatomy and facial features. “Primitive,” I think, is the term often used for such displays in which the grotesqueries in depicting animate things pass for cartoonish styling. The comedy is also of the Far Side ilk. I wonder if Larson knew what an epidemic he set loose when he faltered into print in 1979 with a panel cartoon that eventually became The Far Side. Hilburn’s fashion statement actually had a pre-print life: it started in the fall of 2006 online in uclick’s Comics Sherpa, a not-so-distant cousin of Universal. Then in December, according to Editor & Publisher, it was “promoted” to GoComics.com and then it earned a development contract. Hilburn is sold on the process: “For all the negative that’s been aid about Comics Sherpa,” he said at his blog, “it does what it’s supposed to do: it gives amateur cartoonists an opportunity to show their work on a larger scale, get feedback from readers and other cartoonists, gain exposure and grow an audience, learn what works and what doesn’t work, set and meet self-imposed deadlines and meet and network with other amateur cartoonists. It really is an invaluable and eye-opening experience,” he concluded, recommending it to any aspiring artist who can plunk down the registration fee.
Hilburn’s prose is often as far-out funny as his cartoons. His autobiographical statement includes this arch ramble: “Living next door to a nuclear weapons testing facility as a child, I was exposed to high levels of intense radiation. The prolonged exposure to this radiation resulted in the development of special powers such as extraordinary drawing and writing capabilities. After years of developing my artistic skill, it is now time for me to use my drawing powers and cartooning abilities to save the world. There is no need to thank me for my work. It is my gift to mankind.” He lives in Dallas, he says, “has all his teeth, can stand on one leg and whistle at the same time,” and is “a good spellar.”
Argyle Sweater is available as either a strip or a panel, but the alternatives are merely format adjustments intended to enhance the marketability of the feature by offering it in assorted sizes to fit whatever space a newspaper has at its disposal. Hilburn knows that strips are different than panel cartoons: attributing his insight to “the late great Arnold Wagner,” Hilburn points out that “drawing single panels, which are gag-centric, is like doing stand-up comedy while drawing strips, which are character and plot-centric, is more like a sitcom.” Argyle Sweater is stand-up comedy and pretty good, too.
At the other end of the spectrum of imagery is Alex Hallatt’s Arctic Circle. Joining King Features’ stable of 65 comics features (including those marketed through North American Syndicate) in August 2007, Arctic Circle makes us look at three nearly identical penguins, who, the syndicate’s press release tells us, have unaccountably wandered from the South Pole to the North Pole, where, despite the similarity in snow and ice, they encounter differences—a polar bear, for instance, and a snow bunny and a lemming and an arctic tern, none of whom are native to the penguin’s Anarctica. Hence, we assume, the comedy. It would be hard enough to draw penguins realistically in a way that would distinguish one from the other, and Hallatt raises to the challenge by modeling her penguins after clothes-pins, individualizing them with bumps or sprigs on their heads—Ed, Oscar, and Gordo (the dumbest one). The late Jay Kennedy, comics editor at King when Hallatt’s strip was submitted, reportedly liked the fact that the birds looked the same. “I had actually given them different beaks in addition to head feathers,” said Hallatt, “but I realized that that wasn’t necessary.”
The strip has a longish pre-syndicate history. Hallatt first drew the ancestral work, called, then, Polar Circle, when she was working as a waitress in New Jersey in 1992. She put it aside off and on for several years while working in clinical research, but in 2005, it appeared in print for a ten-week try-out in the Australian Regional Press. The late James Kemsley (of Ginger Meggs fame) saw it and passed it on to King Features, which offered a development contract in 2006.
Although the clothes-pin penguins in their black tuxes are easy enough on the eyes, the stark simplicity of Hallatt’s style puts the strip’s visuals in the Dilbert school of non-art. Cartoonists who draw in this way doubtless believe they are producing highly stylized contemporary Art. And, of course, they are—the contemporary design of wallpaper, repeated over and over in an endless pattern. Still, penguins are penguins and forever cute. Hallatt’s comedy, however, is neither cute nor very funny. My way of assessing the comedy in a comic strip is to tally the number of strips in which the punchline is telegraphed by the setup panels. In the first three strips here, the joke is fairly predictable. Anyone who’s seen “The March of the Penguins” knows the “weird-shaped ball” is an egg; after that, we anticipate that the joke will have something to do with mistreating an egg. Oscar’s need for affection predicts his overt appeal for it in the last panel. And we’re pretty sure “Bert” will be a killer whale or something very like it. Most, although not all, of Arctic Circle achieves its humor in this way, and because we are almost never surprised, the comedy is only ordinary. And ordinary in the age of The Boondocks, Pearls before Swine, and Get Fuzzy is pretty weak.
Since Piers Baker draws his Pastis-ische strip, Ollie and Quentin, with a line that is as unvarying and monotonous as Hallatt’s, you’d think I’d have little use for this King Features offering either. But you’d be wrong. Starting in January 2008, Ollie and Quentin is a “buddy” strip featuring the unlikely duo of a seagull, Ollie, and a worm, Quentin. Right away, you’re thinking: a strip about a diner and his dinner. No, they actually co-exist: Ollie is lazy but imaginative, and Quentin is adventurous with “an insatiable lust for living life to the fullest.” They team up to have “adventures.” My samples, perhaps unfortunately, are mostly about the pair’s recent foray into superheroing. But they don’t do that as a matter of routine; in fact, they may have never done it before. Or since. Baker is British, and his strip has been running in English newspapers before its debut in the U.S. According to the King Features press release, the cartoonist created the strip in 2002 as a “homage to all the poor lugworms that he used as bait while sea fishing in his youth.” Quentin is named after one of his brothers, and he freely admits that all of the characters, including Noddy, an easygoing bachelor artist, are aspects of his own personality.
For Baker, like most comic strip cartoonists, his characters live and breathe and have individual personalities that drive the events in the strip: “I have Ollie and Quentin’s whole world in my head now so often that I just throw them into a situation and see what they do. These situations could be simple everyday things like brushing your teeth, playing ball and cooking to the weird and wonderful parallel universes like worm holes and time machines. Since I have developed their own distinct voices, I might just start a conversation between them in my head and see where it goes.”
The comedy in Ollie and Quentin is not usually predictable and therefore not at all ordinary. The simplicity of the drawing, however, bores me. Shouldn’t a visual artform present pictures that are interesting? A worm as a character is probably the apogee of uninteresting art. And a seagull with a beak that never opens isn’t much better. Only Stephen Pastis tops this performance by giving Rat and Pig stick-figure arms and legs in Pearls before Swine. But Baker is not Stephen Pastis; despite the lifelessness of his line, his figures often seem to move, and he varies the compositions of the panels, imparting a modicum of visual excitement to the proceedings. Not superior but not altogether ordinary either.
With My Cage, which started over a year ago, in May 2007, King Features makes a painfully overt appeal to the “younger generation”—manga fans, most obviously, but also “multi-platform techno-savvy readers.” The strip is clearly engineered rather than inspired: it is a carefully constructed, deliberate effort by the syndicate to give newspaper editors something they all imagine will magnetize their publication for a generation that no longer reads newspapers. It’s name parodies the omniscient website “My Space.” Drawn by Melissa DeJesus, “a well-known and highly respected manga graphic novelist,” saith King’s press release, and written by Ed Power, the strip features a cast of anthropomorphic animals. Its star is Norman, “a 20-something platypus who wants to be a world-famous writer but has found himself stuck in a less than fulfilling middle-management job that pays the bills but eats away a little more of his soul each day”—a circumstance, no doubt, that has its roots in Power’s own life. At the King website, Power describes My Cage as “a comic strip for everyone who gets up earlier than they want to, puts on clothes they wouldn’t normally wear, and drives in traffic to a place they don’t want to be five days a week so they can have the money to do the things they enjoy the remaining two days (provided they’re not too tired).” I keep running into this situation: too many new comic strips are about frustrated writers or artists. Or so it seems. But the backgrounds of these characters, like that of the writer-designer heroine of Terri Liebenson’s Pajama Diaries, serve mostly to give syndicate publicity writers something to write in press releases: the strip’s action has almost nothing to do with the character’s vocational frustrations. In most of the My Cage strips I’ve seen, Norm is dealing with “relationship issues,” not wearing uncomfortable clothes or struggling through traffic to get to a work place he despises. Norm has a girlfriend, but the relationships he monitors seem to be mostly those among his fellow office workers. He also has a pet—an amoeba named Squishy, who presents another of those completely boring visual experiences like Quentin.
Power thinks manga art is “beautiful ... fluid with a lot of energy ... so different than other artwork on the comics page right now. It will really catch the eye of newspaper readers. ... Melissa’s art is ... really something pretty to look at once readers are drawn in.” Pretty, yes; different, yes. There’s more drawing in any panel of My Cage than in a week’s worth of Ollie and Quentin or Arctic Circle. But DeJesus often repeats a composition from one panel to the next, so there is a measure of visual repetition that can get boring. Presenting static pictures in succession is one way of dealing with a script that is almost always entirely verbal: Power uses the comic strip form to time his characters’ speeches; in his comedy, pictures seldom, if ever, function as punchlines. And Power telegraphs the jokes in the setup panels: the punchlines are usually entirely predictable. Ordinary humor coupled to visual monotony.
Deflocked by Jeff Corriveau, on the other hand, is both visually interesting and comedically surprising. Another King Features offering, Deflocked throws together four unlikely “outcasts” to see how they will fare. Two of them are dogs: Rupert, whose heart of gold and “raw naivete” reminds me of Darby Conley’s Satchel, and his older and wiser brother, Cobb, the moral and intellectual anchor of this band of outcasts. Tucker is a small boy, “who they are raising as their own.” But the strip belongs to Mamet, “the most derelict, self-absorbed sheep” in captivity, who plots against the rest of the household—not to mention the entire world—with a cranky misanthropy that approaches but does not equal or surpass Bucky the Katt’s. “There are no words to describe Mamet that haven’t already been used in court depositions,” reads the syndicate’s press release. “Armed with the lethal combination of ignorance and arrogance, Mamet is forever seeking universal adoration—or a quick, dirty buck—whichever is easiest.”
Corriveau began adult life as a comedy writer for the “Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” The Late, Late Show,” “Saturday Night Live,” and “Talk Soup.” But his success at funny words without funny pictures seemed hollow. “It was while penning a string of celebrity-centric cable specials that Corriveau began to question his lot in life,” reads the press release; “as Jeff put it: ‘I simply couldn’t write another Paris Hilton sex joke.’” So he began noodling around ideas for a comic strip. At first, he toyed with a strip based upon “iconic sitcoms.” But when he considered Charles Schulz’s Peanuts and its life-affirming emphasis, he reimagined his strip as relationship epic, fraught with “fragile hopes and moral-less victories.”
His drawing style is in most aspects wholly undistinguished. His line, while not the dead and static strand of Ollie and Quentin or Arctic Circle, often waxes thick without reason: it doesn’t define volume, say, or set foreground figures apart from background details. It simply flexes, now thin, now thick. Irrational though it seems, Corriveau’s line gives his pictures visual variety and, hence, some measure of eye appeal. The pictures are also a perhaps unintended satiric attack on the newspaper practice of publishing comic strips as small as possible. All Corriveau’s characters have giant heads and almost no bodies: it is literally a “talking heads” strip, the only sort of comic strip that present newspaper comic strip space allocation policies permit. And thanks to the irascible twist of Mamet’s so-called mind, we can never quite predict where the first two panels of a strip is going to take us.
Steve Sicula’s strip for Washington Post Writers Group, Home and Away, is, alas, the opposite of Deflocked in almost every way. Beginning in June 2008, the strip’s humor is passable: it’s predictable only about a third of the time. But Sicula’s drawing mannerisms are awkward when they are not also ill conceived. The strip concerns the Szwyk family, a name choice so off-beat as to be typical of the American melting pot. But it might well stand as a totem to the rest of the strip’s blatant appeals to niche readership, not to mention the clumsiness of its comedy and the cloddishness of its artwork. The Szwyks are describes as “typical parents juggling careers and child care,” but since Sam’s career keeps him at the computer and at home, where he manages the household chores and their two children, I doubt the family is “typical.” Not yet. Someday all our families will work like this, but not enough of them do yet to constitute “typical.” Sandy, the mother, leaves the house to pursue her career, which is high-paying and requires her to fly around the country a lot. Apparently, all of this is only too real to the cartoonist: “Home and Away is a window into my wife’s and my life,” he explains in the press release. “For the last twelve years, we’ve had to juggle travel schedules with everything else that goes on when raising a family. Our friends would ask us how we were able to do it. Just like everything else, we just adapted. Some would call it ‘mutated,’ but I prefer ‘adapted.’”
In rendering his strip, Sicula has managed to mix pictorial conventions, producing a visual jangle: Sam in shape (bell) and appearance (narrow, vertical head with unkempt hair, resembling a badly used shaving soap brush—which, I realize, no one uses anymore, thereby rendering a perfectly useful comparison pointless) echoes Dilbert, a stylized grotesque of the human anatomy. But the rest of the cast is drawn in a wholly unstylized manner, Sicula’s pictures attempting to approximate the actual appearance of people. This schizoid approach to image-making Sicula perpetuates in the way he draws eyeballs. Sometimes, eyes are just simple black dots; sometimes, they’re regular eyes—circular with pupils. Any cartoonist who opts for the former device is faced with the inevitable difficulty that the latter mannerism surmounts with a single bound—namely, depicting a variety of facial expressions. Black dots don’t do that well. Moreover, Sicula’s compositions are often static and his line is tentative. In short, his drawing ability is mostly not on display.
For a comic strip deploying virtually the same line quality but doing it well, we have only to drop in at Family Tree by Signe Wilkinson, who, last fall, added a daily comic strip to her schedule as political cartoonist at the Philadelphia Daily News (where she became the first woman editoonist to win a Pulitzer in 1992). The chief difference between the drawings of Wilkinson and the those of Sicula is that hers are competently achieved. In her overlapping images, for example, there are no ambiguous alignments or distracting juxtapositions. In one of Sicula’s strips, Sam is wearing a headset, but the line indicating the headset is impaled upon the line delineating the edge of Sam’s head, leaving us to wonder: is that line indicating a headset or Sam’s head? Elsewhere, as Sam and Sandy are seated at a table, the background details—a dresser or cupboard—impinge upon the rendering of Sandy’s mouth so we can scarcely see that it is open and she is, therefore, talking. In another strip in which she and Sam are in bed, her open mouth indicates, we assume, that she’s asleep, not talking, although for a couple panels, it’s not clear. (And in the third panel of this strip, what, exactly, is going on? What are those things the kids seem to be carrying? Or are those merely action lines? Good drawing doesn’t provoke such guesswork.) Wilkinson often jams as much background detail into her drawings, but we are not confused by her pictures. Her lines separate her images; they don’t mush them together. She uses solid blacks to accent her pictures; Sicula’s solid blacks often distract by drawing attention to nearly extraneous props (like the briefcase Sandy is carrying; yes, it tells us she’s either going to work or returning, but the solid black draws entirely too much attention to the equipage). In one Home and Away, one of the children barges into the third panel, but we almost don’t see her: she appears against a tangle of lines made even more incomprehensible by Sam’s patterned shirt. And in the previous panel, the juxtaposition of lines making Sam’s mouth and the back of the sofa all come together under his nose, establishing a collision of lines that anticipates the confusion in the third panel. Sicula’s drawings might be improved if he varied his line thickness, using fat lines to outline figures in the foreground. Wilkinson needs no such ruses because she so skillfully overlaps images and lines, preventing them from colliding in jumbled crashes. She also makes good use of gray tones, deploying them as background elements that help define figures in the foreground.
Family Tree is about the Tree family, father Ames, mother Maggie and daughter and son, Twig and Teddy, with the maternal grandmother, Agatha Bell, thrown in. But it is not just another family strip. Wilkinson, long a promoter of environmental concerns, makes her comic strip family “live green.” Ames, for instance, is letting his yard grow wild, thereby annoying his suburban neighbors who trim their lawns to carpet uniformity. “Family Tree combines my interests in raising tomatoes and raising children,” Wilkinson says, “neither of which ever goes exactly as we plan. Even though my husband and I were consistently brilliant parents, we managed to create enough detours from perfection to provide inspiration for Family Tree.” One of the country’s few women political cartoonists, Wilkinson “values her intensely unremarkable family life, which is marked by her interest in growing outdoor lilies, killing indoor orchids, finding an easy way to match her husband’s socks, and trying to figure out why Paris Hilton is famous,” according to the press release from her syndicate, United Feature, where Family Tree joins a roster of about 40 strips. Wilkinson also has a feminist row to hoe from time to time, and she’s attuned to the various hypocrisies of modern life, all of which she cuts down to size with an acerbic wit of flashing eloquence. She denies that the strip is political in the Republican or Democrat sense, but she tackles with relish social issues that arise from politics. The house next door to the Tree family is vacant but up for sale. Prospective buyers have included a gay couple and a black couple. The kids think the gay couple is “dullsville.” Other residents on the street think the gay couple “looks normal.” What about the Trees? “Are they normal?” asks one of the neighbors. “They think so,” says another.
While Wilkinson’s setups occasionally telegraph her punchlines, they usually don’t; and even when they do, there’s enough possibility for deviation from an anticipated outcome that our expectations are not met with precision. Usually the situations involve controversial topics or fads being tartly put in their place. Wilkinson’s comedy may not be as unconventional as the humor in Deflocked, but her treatment of the topics—and their very introduction into a comic strip—is surprising enough to make her strip’s comedy far from ordinary.
Wilkinson decided to add a syndicated comic strip to her daily chores because her first career choice, political cartooning, may be shutting down. She’s been at the game for 26 years, 23 of them at the Philadelphia Daily News, so one would think her situation is fairly permanent with more than a little assurance of a future. But considering the number of layoffs lately of editoonists with similar longevity at their papers, Wilkinson isn’t banking on permanence: if Family Tree can generate a living, she’ll be prepared for what may be the inevitable disappearance of a staff job at the Daily News. The prospect of joining the nation’s comics pages also appealed to Wilkinson because she’d be adding another woman’s voice to the meager chorus that presently chants all too softly there. Family Tree is not Wilkinson’s first try at stripping: several years ago, she launched a comic strip called Shrub, an overtly political enterprise with lots of little bushes. But Family Tree seems a much better vehicle for her distinctive brand of witticism.
Wilkinson was invited to submit a comic strip by United Feature’s new acquisitions editor, another political cartoonist, Ted Rall. For some years now, Ted Rall has been on a mission. The mission is not so much to displace the traditional editorial cartoon with the more unconventional (not to say off the wall) work of cartoonists who mostly supply alternative weekly newspapers as it is to raise the visibility of the latter group, all, in Rall’s view, worthy of greater circulation than they presently enjoy. To this end, Rall has conspired with NBM Publishing to produce three books that each sample about twenty cartoonists we may never have seen before. The first of these tomes, Attitude: The New Subversive Political Cartoonists, was published in 2002; the second, Attitude 2: The New Subversive Alternative Cartoonists, two years later. The third in the series, Attitude 3: The New Subversive Online Cartoonists, came out in 2006. Rall also edited individual volumes on Stephanie McMilllan, Neil Swaab, and Andy Singer—all, I think, available at nbmpublishing.com.
Attitude 3 includes the work of several Web cartoonists who can actually draw—D.C. Simpson, Brian McFadden, Matt Bors (lately picked up by United Feature, at Rall’s prompting no doubt), Mark Fiore (online animation), Mark Poutenis, Ben Smith, Thomas K. Dye, and Adam Rust; some who, charitably speaking, don’t draw so much as they diagram —August J. Pollak, Dorothy Gambrell, Nicholas Gurewitch, Steven L. Cloud, plus Chris Dlugosz and Michael Zole, who make hemispheres and squares talk; M.e. Cohen, who scrawls; David Hellman and Eric Millikin, who smear; and the inevitable clip-art specialists, Robert T. Balder and Ryan North. Their commentary is pointed and often funny; but too many of this breed have invaded a visual medium without a noticeable picture-making skill in evidence. Rall, a keen observer of pop and well as political culture, introduces the book by noting that cartooning positions at daily newspapers are fast disappearing. And the alternative, the indie weeklies, have reached a saturation point—no more openings for cartoonists there. That leaves the Web. And that’s where Rall looks for this volume. “It’s important to remember,” he says, “that although all of these cartoonists are at least partly defined by their identities as Internet cartoonists, they’re only working online because online is what there is at this particular moment in the development of media. They are cartoonists first, middle, and last,” he finishes, “—and damned good ones, too.”
But Rall’s view of the future for print journalism is not as grim as his assessment of the present state of the business. The present grimness includes such irrefutable factoids as: the Chicago Tribune divesting itself of about 80 employees in a single week not long ago; Gannett recently cutting 1,000 jobs; the two-year job cut total in newspapers nearing 10,000; and no one having yet developed an economic model for the Internet that works to give cartoonists a living in the digital ether. And this muster of dubious facts merely scratches the surface, indicating, in a rough way, the dimensions of the dilemma. Rall, however, sees a future in print journalism: “But first,” he said lately on the AAEC-List, “we'll have to go through contractions while publishers and CEOs figure out that the Internet cannot provide a viable fiscal replacement for print. Eventually, after more people have lost their jobs and the U.S. continues down the path of social and economic disintegration, people will start investing in print newspapers again. Because, really, there is nothing else that works. People don't read news on the Web; they browse. Advertisers won't pay big bucks for browsers. And people—and businesses—need reliable news, not blogger BS. In the long run, we'll have a newspaper business that looks more like Europe—a small bloc of major nationally-circulated papers, and lots and lots of small town and rural weeklies and biweeklies. If I had the money, I'd buy a chain of rural papers right now. That's the future, and that's where cartoonists need to end up somehow.”
In the meantime, Rall has his mission, which, recently, achieved some clout when he became acquisitions editor for United Feature. His goal, he told Dave Astor at Editor & Publisher, “is not to have only edgy content. My goal is to sell as many features as possible to as many newspapers as possible.” Several of the strips that United Feature has signed up since Rall came aboard have been much less conventional than the usual syndicate offerings. Family Tree we’ve already glanced at; then there’s Knight Life, which we’ll look at in a trice. Richard Stevens Diesel Sweeties, which Rall found on the Web, started appearing in newspapers in January 2007, but didn’t last, as we reported last time. Then there’s Tak Toyoshima’s Secret Asian Man, an Asian-American themed strip by an Asian-American, and Matt Bors political cartoons. Daily newspapers are interested in such less-formulaic features because they want to attract young readers who, so far, have stayed away from print journalism in blissful albeit uninformed hordes.
“Things haven’t been working [with line-ups of only traditional features],” Rall said. “So newspapers are trying something new. For too long, the dailies haven’t calibrated to the sensibilities of today’s comic creators and readers. I feel United is trying to do that.” Some newspaper editors, for all their good intentions, still don’t like or “get” these new strips, Rall notes, “but they’re receiving good reader feedback. They’re willing to trust their readers.” And many editors, decision-makers now from the generation that grew up on underground and unconventional humor, are quite at home buying edgier comics.
Although usually focused on his own life, the strip’s topics included politics, race, and social issues affecting people of color like Knight. “It covers everything,” he said recently, “—cops, homeless, kids, Vegas, supermodels, talk radio. All the weird stuff that happens to me, my friends and family.” Despite his often blunt social criticisms, he insists that he isn’t trying to change the world: “I’d really prefer to take over the world,” he confided to Hill. As he homes in on a topic, he deploys what he calls his “trademark, poorly rendered, barely thought-out, last-minute cartooning style” to convert topics to comedy in the strip.
Over the years, Knight has followed his muse wherever it led him, which, it turns out, is in several often divergent directions. The K Chronicles was on Salon.com from the very first day of the online magazine; later, at Africana.com. Knight added an overtly political commentary panel cartoon, (Th)ink, that runs in Black newspapers and alternative weeklies. He also does a cartoon for Mad magazine, Father O’Flannity’s Hot Tub Confessions, and produces Sports Knight for ESPN magazine. “Working for Mad is one of those dreams come true,” Knight said during an online chat at WashingtonPost.com, “—along with the daily strip. It’s an honor to work with folks like Sergio Aragones. It’s tough to break in, though: I had to submit a lot to get on the page. Still do.”
Beyond the drawingboard, he performs with his “occasional band,” the Marginal Prophets. And he is a social activist with a sly sense of humor. Some years ago, he distributed posters offering to “Rent-a-Black” to white people who wanted the cache of having a racial minority at their cocktail parties. He’s published five collections of The K Chronicles, and Dark Horse has just issued The Complete K Chronicles: A Comprehensive Collection of Keith Knight’s Award Winning Strip, a 500-page compendium culled from the first four collections; the fifth, commemorating his recent move to Los Angeles, I Left My Arse in San Francisco, is, like all these tomes, available at Knight’s website, kchronicles.com. A couple of years ago, he compiled (Th)ink cartoons in Red, White, Black & Blue: A (Th)ink Anthology. Keef’s latest production, his newly born son, he achieved with the help of his wife.
Syndicates have courted Knight for years, but it wasn’t until he won the Harvey Award in 2007 that he felt the time was right: “I figured it couldn’t be a better time to go daily,” he said during that online chat at WashingtonPost.com. The Knight Life is another manifestation of The K Chronicles—Keef’s life with his comments on the passing scene—but somewhat re-tooled for family newspaper consumption. “There was another title I liked,” he said during the chat, but no one else liked it. ‘For Keef’s Sake.’ But they said it sounded like I was playing God. I do control everything in my comic strip!” The daily strip format is “like a challenge or a puzzle,” he said: “How can I be funny and/or relevant in such a small space? It’s a fun, exciting challenge (so far), plus I have the Sunday strips to let loose a little.” Keef and his wife are the principal characters. “She wasn’t too happy when I first started putting her in,” Knight said, “but she has come around.”
Because Knight’s strip comedy derives from his own life and his observations about the society around him—and because his view of the universe is eccentric—the jokes in The Knight Life are never predictable. Sometimes—as here, when Keef is “celebrating the miracle of life”—the humor springs entirely from the cartoonist’s quirky contemplation of the world. In no way could we anticipate which way the ball will bounce. At other times— here, with “hi-lingual” and in The K Chronicles’ occasional celebration of “life’s little victories”—the joie de vivre is what brings a smile to our lips.
Fittingly, Knight’s drawing style—a sort of cartooning short-hand, as much sketchy suggestion as actual depiction—is as eccentric as his sense of the human comedy. His drawings are clear and uncluttered. Simple, yes, but bubbling with comedic energy: whenever his characters talk, they are all mouth, usually unhinged, and eyeballs, a perfect evocation of the human visage for comedic purposes. The Knight Life is undeniably the best new laugh- and thought-provoker on the comics page. Not since Calvin and Hobbes has there been so novel an entertainment in the funnies.
Meanwhile, Knight, his eye never off the ball, is scouting for animation possibilities. “That’s why I’m down here in Los Angeles,” he said. “Here or New York are the best places to be when it comes to developing stuff for tv and film (although I’d have too much fun in New York).”
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
China looms on the international stage as a superpower, but its internal economies will, by mid-century, so hamstring the nation that it will scarcely be able to dominate, saith John Pomfret at the Washington Post as quoted in The Week, August 8. “Thanks to the Communist Party’s ‘notorious one-child-per-family policy,’ the Chinese will lack enough young workers to care for its rapidly aging population,” estimated at 334 million by 2050. Moreover, despite its “burgeoning economy,” on a per capita basis, it ranks only 109th out of 195 countries in the world in productivity—“somewhere between Swaziland and Morocco.”
The Olympics in Beijing began with both a spectacular opening ceremony and a shameful suppression. Joey Cheek, 2006 Olympic champion speed skater, planned to rally Olympians to the cause of Darfur, outlining the steps that China, which has ties to the government of Sudan, could take to stop the atrocities there. But China, unwilling to endure any such criticism, revoked Cheek’s visa. “It would have been uplifting,” Sean Gregory wrote in Time, “if china had shown the self-confidence to accept a few rough edges around the manicured borders of its Olympic world—accepted, for example, that a distinguished Olympian who is also a critic of China is welcome there.”
Uplift, however, is only an incidental byproduct of the Olympic Games these days. We think the Games are about athleticism at its pinnacle. And so it is. A glorious display of strength and skill and dexterity and pure physical coordination. We watch the competition on tv and alternately cheer and weep with pleasure at the achievements of young men and women. But every once in a while, we’re reminded that the Olympics are a wholly commercial enterprise conducted for money, not for fame or personal achievement or any of the other things we occasionally let ourselves believe in. And when Nastia Liukin tied He Kexin at the uneven bars and the tie was broken by a Goldbergian juggling of numbers, we know something other than athletic endeavor is the governing consideration. If runners in the 100-yard-dash had tied, would the tie be “settled” by some extraneous re-arranging of numbers? Not likely. Instead, two gold medals would be awarded to the tied winners. But because events the winners of which are determined by the individual ratings of several judges, ties can be “broken” by manipulating the numerical scores. Liukin and Kexin weren’t permitted to share the gold as they would have if, say, they were swimmers instead of gymnasts. Kexin got the gold, and Liukin got the silver. Why? Because we must have “a winner” if at all possible: that’s what entertainment demands. And good entertainment yields profits. Bad entertainment doesn’t. How two gold medalists in the same event in the same Games are “bad entertainment” evades me. I’d think ties would make for even better entertainment.
I am reminded of the 2000 Olympics in which the willowy Russian champion gymnast (and one-time Playboy pin-up) Svetlana Khorkina fell at the vault because the apparatus was set two inches lower than standard—unbeknownst to her. When the problem was discovered, the vault’s height was corrected, and Khorkina and others who had attempted the low-slung vault were offered a chance to repeat their performance—provided they did it at once, now, today. For some, including Khorkina, that was asking too much: her psychological poise had been destroyed by the unaccountable failure. She couldn’t even do her best subsequently at her signature event, the uneven bars, where two of the moves are named after her; with her psyche in tatters, she fell on a daring release move she usually handled easily. To expect her to return, immediately, to the vault where she’d fallen was to expect bureaucratic adaptability in a fine-tuned athlete—an impossibility. Why couldn’t the repeat performance be done the next day? Or two days from now? Because the tv schedule demanded immediacy. The athletes counted for little; the over-riding principle was the need of the entertainment medium. What hypocrites we are. But, oh, the magnificence of a towering athletic achievement. I love to witness it, despite the extraneous control by the bureaucratic considerations of the media and the International Olympic Committee. (More about Khorkina at Opus 38, lo these many years ago.)
And then we have the champion howler, Michael Phelps, whose achievement in the water is also remarkable, no question, as Drew Litton here reminds us. Phelps broke all sorts of world records (aided, it must be added, by space-age swimming togs and a pool engineered to reduce turbulence). But—despite what NBC and all the medal counters proclaimed—is Phelps the greatest Olympic athlete of all time? Doubtful.“The traditional reward for Olympic swimmers is the best one gets to audition to become the next Tarzan,” wrote Bernie Lincicome at the Rocky Mountain News. “But none is asked to play wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys as fastest human Bob Hayes was.” Phelps has won 16 medals, “but the record is still held by a former Soviet gymnast, Larissa Latynina, who won 18—and at one world championship, she won five of six events while she was pregnant. Let’s see Phelps try that.” Phelps excels in one athletic activity—swimming. Jim Thorpe, a Native American who in 1912 won only two gold medals—for the decathlon and pentathlon—had to outperform his rivals at numerous athletic endeavors, not just one: running, jumping (high and long and by pole), throwing (shot, discus, javelin). Once upon a time, the winner of the decathlon was proclaimed “The World’s Greatest Athlete.” “The truth is, athletically speaking,” said Lincicome, “any decathlon finalist is a better athlete than Phelps. Very likely, most gymnasts as well, and, really now, what Kobe Bryant does is much more athletic than the individual medley.” Lincicome’s candidate for “best of all time in the Olympics” is Carl Lewis. “He must be considered before Phelps, though, alas, Lewis won only 10 medals and nine golds. Here’s the difference. Lewis won his running and jumping. That would be like Phelps getting his in swimming and diving.”
“Most states don’t recognize gay marriage—but now Hallmark does,” says Sarah Skidmore at the Associated Press. The nation’s premiere greeting card maker added same sex wedding cards to its line-up when California joined Massachusetts in legalizing gay marriage. “Hallmark says the move is a response to consumer demand, not any political pressure.” As Hallmark goes, so goes the world. It’s only a matter of time now.
NEWSPAPER COMICS WATCH
The Bump and Grind of Daily Stripping
In our persistent watchdog endeavor here at the Rancid Raves Intergalactic Wurlitzer, we keep track of the outrageousness of political commentary in the funnies. Here, for instance, is Berkeley Breathed in Opus again, making fun of GeeDubya’s gutsy governing style. And in Get Fuzzy, Darby Conley takes a shot at liberals. And in Rudy Park, Theron Heir and Darrin Bell pile on the Old Man. In the same vein as political commentary, we have a plentitude of bathroom humor. Over at Terri Libenson’s Pajama Diaries, where we usually expect sexual innuendo, her heroine, we assume, is sitting on the toilet. And if Mike Peters’ cast in Mother Goose and Grimm weren’t canine, some of them, it seems, would be sitting on the toilet, too. Peters, however, has made a grievous error: dogs of the female persuasion don’t lift their legs on fire hydrants; they squat, destroying the joke here, fore and aft. Speaking of sex, In Michael Fry and T (no period) Lewis’ Over the Hedge, Hammy the squirrel usually has the last word, and it is usually a colossal non sequitur. As it is here. But Hammy’s comment deftly deflects our attention from the truly subversive aspect of this strip. The discussion hovers over the disappearance of the female cast members, Luby and Velma, who, it is averred, moved to San Francisco, a legendary capital of gaiety. So when Vern says, “We lost them to the other team,” he doesn’t mean the Orioles. Next on this illustration, another of Jim Borgman/Jerry Scott’s Zits, which is forever demonstrating how the comic strip medium can be exploited for the sake of a laugh, as it is here. Finally, here’s a barely recognizable appearance of Dagwood in Mark Tatulli’s Lio—and, as usual, no courtesy nod to Blondie. It’s a good gag but it would fall flat if we didn’t all know the sandwich ritual in Blondie pretty well.
Several notables made cameo appearances in strips during the last fortnight. “Tony” in Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean has to be Tony Isabella, the famous columnist at the Comics Buyer’s Guide (and if you don’t think he’s famous, ask him). Zeke Zekley, unlikely as it may seem, is the name of an actual person, long-time assistant to George McManus on Bringing Up Father (Jiggs and Maggie) who didn’t, contrary to all expectation, inherit the strip when McManus died; but you wouldn’t know any of that from the gag in Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey. You can find out all about it, though, by reviewing Opus 162, just around the digital corner, here. And that’s cartoonist Dan Piraro and his wife Ashley in Bizarro. From cameos to commentary—in Doonesbury, Garry Trudeau provides a well-deserved characterization of the so-called news media in televisionland, a view Dave Coverly would doubtless endorse, judging from his Speed Bump. Mike Baldwin’s Cornered contains no particularly pungent political or social commentary; but it does make you look twice, always a bonus in a visual artform.
Before we forget, however, comic strip cartoonists are as adept with language as they are with pictures, and here are a few recent instances. Nothing I can add would add anything, I ween; but I can’t refrain from observing that Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey is straying teasingly close to a political statement. And in Kevin Fagan’s Drabble, the art of which makes my skin crawl almost as much as Scott Adams’ Dilbert, the route of the dialogue is nicely detoured, seems to me, adding up to a sly insight into one of our great foibles.. How’s that for aphids in your azaleas?
Finally, a couple of comic strip souvenirs. From Bill Griffith’s Zippy, a superhero sequence. Griff frequently alludes to comics and cartooning in the strip, but until this series, I didn’t realize Zippy was a superhero fan. I should have guessed, I know—he’s a fanatic devourer of all popular culture. And then, thanks to Funny Times (which you can find out more about at the website; here, I say only that it’s a monthly cartoon and comedy treat), the last, for the time being, Dykes to Watch Out For while Alison Bechdel goes on sabbatical to finish her next graphic novel.
Welcome to our sentimental section where I muse and marvel about antique volumes on the shelf and rare finds in old bookstores and the like. Nothing major. Skip over this if you’re busy.
From Yip Harburg, in Harold Meyerson and Ernie Harburg’s biography of the famed lyricist, Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz?
The word rainbow never appears in L. Frank Baum’s book, The Wizard of Oz. It was lyricist Yip Harburg who put it in the film. As he recalled it:
The little girl thinks: My life is messed up. Where do I run? The song has to be full of childish pleasures. Of lemon drops. The book had said Kansas was an arid place where not even flowers grew. The only colorful thing Dorothy saw, occasionally, would be the rainbow. “Over the Rainbow Is Where I Want To Be” was my [dummy or working] title, the title I gave Harold [Arlen, composer]. A title has to ring a bell, has to blow a couple of Roman candles off. But he gave me a tune with the first two notes [an octave apart]. I tried I’ll go over the rainbow, Someday over the rainbow, or the other side of the rainbow. I had difficulty coming to the idea of Somewhere. For a while, I thought I would just leave those first two notes out. It was a long time before I came to Somewhere over the rainbow.
The magic in song only happens when the words give destination and meaning to the music and the music gives wings to the words. Together as a song they go places you’ve never been before. The reason is obvious: words make you think thoughts. Music makes you feel a feeling. But a song makes to feel a thought. That’s the great advantage. To feel the thought ... And that’s why ... you can teach more through song and you can rouse more through song than all the prose in the world or all the poems ...
Songs have been the not-so-secret weapon behind every fight for freedom, every struggle against injustice and bigotry: “The Marseillaise,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “We Shall Overcome,” and many more. ... Songs are the pulse of a nation’s heart. A fever chart of its health. Are we at peace? Are we in trouble? Are we floundering? Do we feel beautiful? Do we feel ugly? ... Listen to our songs. ... The lyricist, like any artist, cannot be neutral. He should be committed to the side of humanity.
By the end of August or early September, the second issue of John Read’s Stay Tooned! will be out. This issue will feature Mike Peters, Jules Feiffer, Berkeley Breathed, Chad Carpenter, Tom Bancroft, Ben Towle, Bill Day, Mason Mastroianni and Joe Staton, who also provides the cover art, colored by Matt Webb. In addition, this issue includes columns or articles by Tom Richmond, Norm Feuti, Corey Pandolph, Daryl Cagle, Jack Cassady, and moi. For subscription information, visit staytoonedmagazine.com. Which brings us to —
TURN-ABOUT IS A FAIR PLOY
Under this heading, we do to editor-publisher-and-founder Read what he expects to spend the rest of his life doing, profiling cartoonists. Here, lifted intact from the Clarion Ledger, is a profile of Read:
Drawing on a Dream: Fan Turns Passion into a Publication
By LaReeca Rucker
In cartoons, a light bulb sometimes appears above someone's head when he or she has a bright idea. That's kind of what happened to Madison resident John Read, 51, last May while reading articles that originally appeared in Cartoonist PROfiles, a magazine published from 1969 to 2005 by the late Jud Hurd. While reading an autobiographical piece written by Marcus Hamilton, who was hired at age 50 by retiring Dennis the Menace creator Hank Ketcham, the bulb appeared. Just as Hamilton began drawing Dennis dailies at age 50, Read thought it might be possible for him to pick up where Hurd left off. His idea? Revive the cartoonist magazine, bringing back shop talk interviews and short biographies that were the staple of Cartoonist PROfiles' 36-year history.
Since then, Read has stepped into Toontown much like the detective in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” As publisher of Stay Tooned! magazine, he now interacts on a regular basis with famous toons like Dennis the Menace, Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. Read even convinced Dennis to stop menacing long enough to pose with Snuffy's nephew, Jughaid, on the first cover of Stay Tooned!
Read, an Air Force brat, was born in Waco, Texas, but lived in Alaska, Delaware and Japan before his father was discharged from the military in 1967 and the family returned to Mississippi. His love of cartooning began in second grade while living on an Air Force base in Dover, Delaware. A book mobile frequently made its rounds, where Read found collections of Peanuts (his favorite), Dennis the Menace and B.C. comics.
"I was amazed because I had only seen the Sunday funnies," he said. "I never knew you could check out a book that had nothing in it but cartoons. I thought that was the coolest thing in the world."
In 1966, Read discovered comic books while living in Japan, but it wasn't until the '90s that he began to appreciate humorous illustrations again. An aspiring cartoonist himself, he attended Meridian Junior College and the University of Southern Mississippi and graduated in 1980. Although he was the editorial cartoonist for the college newspaper, he became more interested in pursuing a career in film, and his first opportunity came two weeks after graduation when Hollywood came to Hattiesburg.
"It was a tv movie called ‘Don't Look Back’ about Satchel Page, and George C. Scott was the director," said Read, who was hired as a production assistant.
His next gig was a film shot in Alabama called “The Jaws of Satan.” "It was about a snake possessed by the devil who terrorizes a small Alabama town," he laughed. And then there was “The Beast Within,” also shot in Mississippi. "It's about a young man, who on his 17th birthday, discovers that he has a monster growing inside him," he said. "It was pretty awful, but I had a blast."
Read later worked as an assistant director and locations coordinator on the tv series “In the Heat of the Night.” He was an assistant locations manager for “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou,” and he did work for “The Patriot” with Mel Gibson and the PBS film “The Ponder Heart.”
"One thing led to another," he said. "I was just very fortunate to get work like that. It put my interest in cartooning on the back burner for many years."
In 1999, Read decided he wanted steady work. He was hired as a graphic designer at the Pearl Stamp and Sign Company, but soon felt compelled to do more. So he began contacting cartoonists like Scott Stantis of the Birmingham News and Steve Kelley of the Times-Picayune to see if he could interview them for a possible magazine. "Then, I got brave enough to call Marcus Hamilton himself," said Read.
The first issue of Stay Tooned! was published with a Southern cartoonist theme. Nine of the featured artists work in the South, including Hamilton, who lives in Charlotte, N.C.
Read hopes to attract up to 4,000 subscribers, similar to the readership base of Cartoonist PROfiles, publishing four times annually. So far, he's received subscription inquires from Italy, South Africa, Canada, France, Germany and Australia. He also hopes his magazine brings attention to the disappearing editorial cartoonist. "There's less than 100 full-time editorial cartoonists left in the country," he said. "They are an endangered species." Marshall Ramsey, the Clarion-Ledger's editorial cartoonist, is featured in the first edition of Stay Tooned.
"My sister got me a subscription to Cartoonist PROfiles when I first started out," Ramsey said. "It was my cartooning textbook. I was featured in it several years later. To be featured in Stay Tooned! is an equal thrill. It is further proof that I am living my dream."
Read received a handwritten letter and drawing from John Rose, the cartoonist who draws Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. "I loved every page of the first issue," he wrote. "I feel very honored that you included Snuffy and me in your inaugural edition ... Keep up the great work. Bodacious regards, John Rose."
Read owns reprints of the first 12 years of Peanuts comics and continues to buy them. He also played the lead role in the Center Players' (a Madison County community theatre group) musical production of “You're a Good Man Charlie Brown” last year.
"It fascinates me that we have grown men and women in the United States of America that make a living drawing funny pictures," he said. "I think it's a very valuable and needed form of entertainment in this country, and I want to celebrate it."
Read is also a fan of Calvin & Hobbes and owns more than 100 original Batman sketches. And he reads around 40 comic strips daily on the Internet. He said if his life were a comic strip, the theme would revolve around how lucky he is.
"It's just been one wonderful blessing after another with the wife and kids and everything," he said. "My life is mostly ups."
But he does regret that his mom isn't alive to witness the creation of Stay Tooned! "She was in the print business, and she was very proud of everything I did," said Read, whose mother died of cancer in 2000. "She didn't even know I had this in me."
To all of the foregoing, Read, responding to my request for autobiographical information, adds this:
For as long as I can remember, I have always loved movies and cartoon art. Prior to going off to university and changing my mind about what I wanted to do when I grew up, I had thought, from the age of eight, that I would be a cartoonist. Mort Walker's Backstage At The Strips and Jud Hurd's Cartoonist PROfiles convinced me that the life of a professional cartoonist was the life I wanted. Having my first cartoon published (full page!) in Southern Horseman magazine when I was 13 gave me enough confidence in my talent that, by the time I was 18, I had pursued, and secured, a wide variety of illustration jobs—in print shops, libraries, and the local newspaper.
I enrolled at the University of Southern Mississippi (in 1978, after getting the core courses out of the way in junior college) with the intention of obtaining a Commercial Art degree, but when I found out they had a film production program, I switched my major to Radio, TV & Film. The idea of making movies appealed to me more than having to draw every day, assuming I'd even be able to get work as an animator or syndicated cartoonist. I minored in English and Art, and graduated magna cum laude in 1980. For my graduation "thesis," I drew a 90-second cartoon, the first-ever animated short created at USM. During my senior year, I was paid to draw editorial cartoons for the school paper.
For the next twenty years I worked mostly in the motion picture field—on commercials, short films, television and feature films. From time to time, between production gigs and business ventures, I took on illustration jobs and taught cartooning classes to kids. I provided spot illustrations for a training manual, drew a Learn Your ABC's booklet, wrote and drew a coloring book, and self-published a book of my cartoons. It was published over 25 years ago, and I myself haven’t seen a copy for over 10 years. We had 100 printed, and it would compare to those sketchbooks so many artists “self publish” these days to sell at conventions.
In early 2007, I realized how much I missed getting to "meet" working cartoonists through Jud Hurd’s magazine, which had ceased publication when Jud died two years before. I decided, after talking to Claudia Hurd, Bob Harvey, Tom Heintjes and Marcus Hamilton, that I would endeavor to create a new cartoonists' magazine that might fill the void left by the passing of Cartoonist PROfiles.
While there are a number of magazines and web sites out there that promote the work of comic book artists—and graphic novelists—I decided I would see if there was a market for a magazine that heralds the work cartoonists in every arena, well-known and not-so well-known, are producing.
Stay Tooned! magazine is my paean to professional cartoonists, a celebration of the art and craft of the working cartoonist. A quarterly periodical, it will feature “shop talk” type interviews (and samplings of their work) with ’toonists in every field; we’ll shine a spotlight on syndicated comic strippers, editorial cartoonists, comic book artists, animators, caricaturists, greeting card and magazine cartoonists ... men and women working in any arena that involves the drawing of “funny pictures.” Along the way, we’ll also present articles and columns pertaining to the art and business of cartooning, along with some information of interest to aspiring cartoonists. Admittedly, most of the emphasis will be on the folks doing the more “cartoony” stuff.
Some of my favorite comic strips: Lio, Non Sequitur, Cul de Sac, Flying McCoys, Monty, Bizarro, Frank & Ernest, Over the Hedge, and Strange Brew. Some of my favorite comic books: Batman Strikes, Fables, Invincible, Ultimates, All-Star Superman, Detective, Amazing Spider-Man, and The Spirit.
I read a lot of the mainstream comics, especially DC, Marvel and Dark Horse titles, and will buy the occasional independent book if the art pleases me, but I have to admit, I cannot, for the life of me, “get into” manga. Manga—most of it anyway—and anime, for that matter, make my eyes tired. My 12-year-old enjoys a number of manga titles, though, and absolutely loves Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Based on the manga books I’ve tried to struggle though, I’m thinking it’s not meant for old farts like me anyway. I think the work of Robert DeJesus, and the guy who does Blink, is eye candy, though. I’d like to profile both of them, and Tania del Rio, in the magazine sometime soon.
I’m all for anything that furthers the visibility of drawn cartoons and comics, and keeps cartoonists working. While I prefer to enjoy my comics and cartoons in print form, I depend on the Internet for reading strips and panels that our newspaper doesn’t carry, and I recognize that the Internet is rapidly overtaking newspapers for “delivering” comics to their readers. In more and more cases, the Web is where up-and-coming cartoonists are finding an audience for their work.
Ragged and Funny
Money isn't everything, but it sure keeps the kids in touch.
Don't Drink and Drive: You might hit a bump and spill something.
If at first you don't succeed, skydiving is not for you.
Reality is only an illusion that occurs due to a lack of alcohol.
ONWARD, THE SPREADING PUNDITRY
The Great Ebb and Flow of Things
George WMD Bush was on the cover of Newsweek accompanied by the misleading heading: “What Bush Got Right,” which was also the title of Fareed Zakaria’s essay inside. Turns out, after careful reading, that what GeeDubya got right was the realization that all the policies he came into office espousing weren’t working. What he got right was to revert to a more traditional American (i.e., non-bullying) way of doing things. “It doesn’t reflect a change of heart so much as an admission of failure,” Zakaria wrote. Quite a comedown from “What Bush Got Right.”
In the August 18-24 issue of the Washington Post National Weekly Edition, Michael Cavna interviewed three editoonists about the art of caricature. All three were asked who they, as cartoonists, would prefer to draw for the next four years in the White House. Steven Breen of the San Diego Union-Tribune: “I want Nader to be president. He’s the strangest-looking of all of them.” Signe Wilkinson of the Philadelphia Daily News: “I pledge to draw the person who the Americn people choose to give me. I will be happy and grateful for their choice. But I hope whoever it is will not [again cause] me to have to draw zippers.” Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “You want someone who’s a bumbling idiot to be a president. And Obama’s not bumbling.”
Metaphors be with you.
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