OPUS 230 (September 15, 2006). We note at great length the transition in Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse from “new” material to what she calls “new-runs,” rehearse the various origins of Superman, and rejoice at the freeing of Steamboat Willie (aka Mickey Mouse). We also review several books, including Comic Arf and the big Sickles book from IDW, and funnybooks, including Hunkel’s take on Captain Marvel, The Helm, and Black Summer, which leads us to a report on the Repub Con. And we offer Charles Solomon’s appreciation of Bill Melendez, who died September 2. Here’s what’s here, in order, by department, beginning, as any respectable journalism must, by correcting errors we’ve made in the past:
Ooops! Mistakes We’ve Made
NOUS R US
Watchmen crisis, more Islamic censorship, Dagwood sandwiches forever, Cartooning for Peace in Israel, Crumb’s art reviewed, Dark Knight now second
Free Willie: Mickey Mouse on the loose
When an Ending Is a Beginning: Lynn Johnston For Better and For Worse
ORIGINS OF SUPERMAN
Was Siegel Avenging His Father’s Death?
Sex in Shuster’s Art
Plus an Alternate Artist on the Man of Steel
Jim Borgman Escapes Workload
Feiffer Back in the Voice
NEWSPAPER COMIC PAGE WATCH
Beetle Bailey, Alley Oop, Gasoline Alley, Dilbert, Dennis the Menace
Comic Arf, How to Draw Stupid, Berenstains at Child’s Play, Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles, New Orleans after the Deluge
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE
Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam, Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang, The Helm, Black Summer
BILL MELENDEZ, 1916-2008
Charles Solomon’s obit
ONWARD, THE SPREADING PUNDITRY
Notes on the Grand Old Party’s recent Palin-tology
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, here we go, starting with the Drastic Fubars of recent vintage—
in danger, when in doubt,
Oops. Renny is not J.P. McEvoy’s nickname, as I so confidently announced in Opus 228; Renny is, apparently, another McEvoy altogether—J.P.’s son? Wife? Daughter? This I derive from the 1960-61 Album (membership directory) of the National Cartoonists Society wherein John H. Striebel, who drew McEvoy’s Show Girl, which later became Dixie Dugan, says he’s been drawing the strip for 32 years (as of 1960) and that it’s been written by Renny McEvoy for 25 of those 32 years. Who knew?
And John McCain was 72 on August 29, not, as I erroneously blurted out last time, 70. Well, what can you expect? As McCain himself has said—inspiring confidence in his would-be Presidency—at his age, he doesn’t learn much anymore. Or words to that effect. And I’m almost his age, aristotle.
Finally, the comics editors of the half-dozen biggest feature syndicates in the country review, every year, something in the neighborhood of 5,000 submissions, not 20,000 as I so confidently reported recently. But it’s still an impressive number: it’s about 20 or so new strips or panel cartoons that drift in over the transom every day.
NOUS R US
All the News That Gives Us Fits
Alan Moore, who has regularly re-arranged the aesthetic of comic books since writing Watchmen in 1986-87, never wanted the graphic novel to be made into a movie. Interviewed recently at wordpress.hotpress.com, Moore said: “I’d written Watchmen to exploit aspects of comic book storytelling that couldn’t be duplicated by any other medium, to try and show off what comics are capable of.” Besides which, his experiences with Hollywood have convinced him that American movie-makers are incapable of producing serious work: their overriding aim is to crank out pablum for the American audience that “can’t remember that there’s more than one country in the world.” As the interviewer put it: “Moore’s work imbues comic book characters with Shakespearian weight and depth; Hollywood reduces them to the level of one-dimensional stereotypes.” Understandably, then, the movie version of Watchmen was widely decried from the start: Moore fans, supporting their idol, refused to believe the graphic novel (comic book) could be transformed into a motion picture. Then many of them saw the trailer on the road to Damascus during the Comic-Con in San Diego a few weeks ago and experienced a conversion. Director Zack Snyder apparently proved that Watchmen could, indeed, be a good movie. The latest stumbling block, however, is legal, not aesthetic. Snyder made the film with Warner Bros but 20th Century Fox now suddenly comes forward with a claim on the film and a request that it’s release be blocked until the claim can be satisfied.
The rights to Watchmen were held, first, by Fox which subsequently relinquished them to Warner Bros, but a proviso lurks in this obscure niche of Tinseltown treaty-making: “Producers who take the project elsewhere are supposed to give the original studio another look at the project anytime ‘changed elements’ (new casting, new director, new script, new budget, etc.) come into play,” explained ICv2. Fox alleges that producer Lawrence Gordon didn’t do what he should have done; Warner Bros says he did. A trial date has been set for January 6, 2009; the movie is supposed to open March 6, 2008. Nicole Sperling at Entertainment Weekly suspects both parties will settle long before the trial date—and certainly long before the movie’s release date. Saying “there’s plenty of incentive to get a deal done,” ICv2 points to the sales of DC’s Watchmen graphic novel inspired by the screening of the trailer at Comic-Con as a barometer gauging the possible financial fate of the flick: DC has printed 900,000 copies of the book since the trailer debuted. At DC, President and Publisher Paul Levitz said: “As far as we can tell from our conversations with the book industry people, there has never been a trailer that did this.”
Interested parties on both sides of the Hollywood dispute don’t want to risk losing out at the box office. Said Sperling: “A number of scenarios could occur, including Warner Bros doling out a cash settlement or a cut of the profits to Fox.” Meanwhile, Watchmen fans are up in arms at even a distant prospect that the Fox will succeed in blocking the movie’s release. “They’re taking on Fox,” writes Scott Bowles at USA Today, “—threatening to boycott the studio’s future movies and, more alarming to studio executives, pirate films. That includes one of Fox’s biggest of 2009, ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine,’ scheduled for May 1.” However irate they are, fans are also deeply suspicious of the timing of Fox’s action: because the studio waited until the $100 million film was completed before bringing suit, their effort seems wonderfully like a sneaky promotional stunt undertaken in collusion with Warner Bros.
The death of Michael Turner, founder of Aspen Comics, will not affect the publisher’s plans, said editor-in-chief Vince Hernandez, quoted by Vaneta Rogers at newsarama.com: “It was never a question of whether we could go forward. There was never a moment we even thought about quitting or stopping our line or anything of that nature. All the stuff we do going forward, we’re going to do in his memory, but everything else is the same.” ... Random House has cancelled publication of Sherry Jones’ novel, The Jewel of Medina, “a fictional account of the life of Muhammad’s wife Aisha, from her engagement to him at the age of six to the Prophet’s death,” according to dw-world.de, because the book “could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment” of Muslims. Novelist Salman Rushdie, several of whose books have been published by Random House, voiced his stern disapproval: “This is censorship by fear, and it sets a very bad precedent indeed.” Rushdie spent years in hiding when Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini called for his death for publishing the book The Satanic Verses, perceived as a blasphemous depiction of Muhammad. Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, another creator who has spent time in hiding because of the threats of a hooligan fringe of Islamic radicals, agreed with Rushdie: “One of the really big publishing houses has backed down. This is not a good sign.” ... At marketwatch.com: Rex Morgan, M.D., a comic strip with a long history of medical advocacy and exposition, is taking on a new crusade: informing users of a certain kind of life-saving albuterol inhaler of the need to explore treatment options when the manufacture and sale of the inhaler is prohibited at the end of the year because it uses chlorofluorocarbon propellants. Other inhalers approved by the FDA don’t contain CFC propellants, but patients must be aware of the need to make a transition to a different inhaler in a medically responsible way. Said Woody Wilson, who writes Rex Morgan: “Our goal with the strip is to affect the health decisions of our readers. It’s our duty and honor to help get the word out.”
The first of DreamWorks’ Tintin movies will be based on two of Herge’s books, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure. Directed by Peter Jackson, not, as previously supposed, Steven Spielberg, said Leo Cendrowicz at news.yahoo, the film will be animated with motion-capture technology, starring 18-year-old Thomas Sangster as the title character and Andy Serkis, who played Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings" triology, as Tintin's dyspeptic crony Captain Haddock. ... Here’s a headline that wrote itself: Funnybooks have lost their virginity according to Publishers Weekly: Formed in 2006 to produce superhero and adventure comics based upon Indian mythology, Virgin Comics, the joint venture between Richard Branson's Virgin Group and the Indian comics publisher Gotham Entertainment Group, is no more. Its New York office is closed, and the eight staffers are now unemployed. ... From the Rocky Mountain News: Larry Doyle, who wrote the revived Pogo for the first two of its three years drawn by Neal Sternecky, 1989-1991, following their previous 3-year partnership at the U. of Illinois’s Daily Illini where they collaborated 1982-84 on Escaped from the Zoo, another satirical animal strip, has been nominated for the Thurber Prize for American Humor for his comic novel, I Love You Beth Cooper. Named for author-cartoonist James Thurber, the man whose cartoons destroyed the medium’s aesthetic, the award will be presented October 16 at a ceremony at the storied Algonquin Hotel, where the nearly blind Thurber once lived, occasionally. ... When filmmed, saith Entertainment Weekly, the final Harry Potter book will be divided into two motion pictures, Part 1 to be released in 2010; Part 2, in 2011. ... According to Lorrie Lynch in Parade, the girl group Danity Kane will appear in their own comic book written by member Dawn Richard; to be published September 29.
Indiana’s second Dagwood’s Sandwich Shoppe is, apparently, a success reports Melanie Csepiga of the Northwest Indiana Times. Opening at Cedar Lake on July 15, it offers the usual extensive menu of hot pressed sandwiches, toasted subs, fresh deli sandwiches, salads and wraps, including a Cuban, that rarely found sandwich that combines sliced pork loin with ham, Genoa salami, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard. But the big attraction remains the sandwich named after the comic strip character—the Dagwood, a skyscraper of deli meats piled high with various cheeses, roasted peppers and fresh and pickled veggies. It’s a challenge, said Debbie Govert, the manager, and it’s taken on, at least once each, by those stopping in. Owner of the Dagwood franchise from Lafayette to Muskegon, Michigan, and east to the Ohio line, Sam Bowers plans to open another Shoppe in South Bend where his first is still running briskly under the supervison of his son. "I enjoy it. I'm 67 years old, and I'm having a good time," said Bowers, a retired Navy man, who hopes his chain will eventually number six Shoppes. The Dagwood Shoppes began in New Orleans; Katrina blew them up north to Indiana, but the chain's famous Zapp's Potato Chips still come from Louisiana.
to Karin Kloosterman at israel2lc.org, “It might not look like
it on CNN, but the majority of people who live in Israel and the
region—Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens along
with Palestinians—are rooting for peace,” and she
cites several projects that have brought Arabs and Jews together “to
show the positive face of the Middle East: Israel has Interns for
Peace, Chefs for Peace, Belly Dancers for Peace, bloggers, musicians
and even dentists in the name
Robert Crumb long ago passed from guttersnipe scribbler to fine artist whose cartooning vision acutely ridicules our numerous hangups and fantasies. Just in case you missed Crumb at the pinnacle of his satirical and artistic achievement, here’s Ken Johnson at the New York Times, reviewing an “enthralling” exhibit of more than 100 works “from all phases of his career” currently at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art, organized by Todd Hignite, the publisher and editor of Comic Art magazine. Johnson begins with a summary of Crumb’s artistic career: “What a long, strange trip it's been. Over the course of his five-decade career the comic artist R. Crumb has gone from hero of the hippie underground to toast of the international art world. Founder of the deliriously psychedelic and ribald Zap Comix during the Haight-Ashbury wonder years, he has more recently contributed comic strips made in collaboration with his wife, Aline Kominsky Crumb, to The New Yorker. In 2004 he was included in the Carnegie International and had a career retrospective at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany.” Excerpts from the review: “Viewers should set aside two or three hours to take in this show. It requires a lot of reading, which brings up another of Mr. Crumb's virtues: he is a gifted writer with a great ear for vernacular speech. ... Whatever the aesthetic and formal attractions of his work, Mr. Crumb's penchant for barging past the limits of good taste and political correctness into psychologically juicy and dangerously complicated territory is still the main draw. ... The exhibition is full of wild sex. Mr. Crumb makes no bones about his lust for big, muscular women, and his uncensored erotic fantasy life is not only entertaining but also liberating. See ‘How to Have Fun With a Strong Girl’ (2002), a suite of 12 drawings in which the scrawny Mr. Crumb climbs like a monkey all over a powerfully built young woman. We should all be so open to, and forgiving of, our libidinous fantasies. ... The influence of LSD, which Mr. Crumb has called his ‘Road to Damascus,’ is evident in works of funky surrealism from the '60s and '70s. The classic ‘Meatball’ (1967), in which ordinary people from all walks of life are hit from out of the blue by consciousness-altering meatballs, is mysteriously trippy.”
In Entertainment Weekly for August 8, Mark Harris in his “Final Cut” column applauded the likelihood that “The Dark Knight” would, eventually, rack up enough box office revenue to secure a second place in the all-time ticket-sale sweepstakes, immediately after “Titanic” which Harris sees as forever at the top of the heap with its $600 million. “After all is said and done,” he intoned, “‘Titanic’s’ record will remain untouched.” Maybe so. But by September 1, “The Dark Knight” had collected $500 million—just a little over three months after opening. Most cash box watchers don’t expect the “Titanic” record to fall, but “The Dark Knight” is making a race of it. And at ICv2, we learn that the Batflick is shaping other statistical history: in BookScan’s listing of the Top Twenty Graphic Novels, “for the second straight month, five Batman-related titles made the Top Twenty with four of them in the Top Ten,” a reflection, it seems, of the popularity of the movie. Watchmen still ranks first in the list. The five Batbooks: The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight Returns, The Long Hallowe’en, Year One, and Arkham Asylum. Thanks to the popularity of the Caped Crusader, “American-published titles account for half of the Top Twenty,” the rest being manga, the brand that has long incited soaring sales in graphic novels.
a short while, editoonist Matt Bors was excited when he found that Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s
“driver” lately convicted of, well, driving, was a fan of
his cartoons, specifically, one that lampooned Hamdan’s show
trial. "At first I was excited,” blogged Bors. "[M]y
comics actually made it past their defenses on to the land where
iguanas have more rights than humans." Then, reports Clif
Garboden at The Phoenix in Boston, Bors “realized that, like Hamdan, he could easily be
judged by the company he kept. ‘With the flimsy standards of
evidence preferred by the Bush administration, does this mean I could
be tried in a military tribunal for giving aid and comforting humor
to the enemy?” he wondered. “It's okay, Matt,”
concluded Garboden, “—we'll send art supplies to your
“That’s a foregone conclusion,” said copyright scholar Peter Jaszi of American University’s Washington College of Law: the image of Mickey Mouse in his first movie, “Steamboat Willie,” is in the public domain. Disney’s Mouse, the very emblem of intellectual property, single-handedly responsible for Congress’s successive extension of copyright protection to interminable lengths, has been discovered with ears of clay. Joseph Menn at the Los Angeles Times, with the research assistance of Scott Wilson, rehearsed the whole gory saga on August 22. You can probably find Menn’s tale indexed at www.rpi.edu/~bulloj/comxbib.html, the Comics Research Bibliography, but the gist of it is that the copyright notice as displayed on the title card at the beginning of “Steamboat Willie” creates “an excess of ambiguity” about whose name is attached to the copyright. The title card reads as follows (a vertical listing with the diagonal here signaling the break between each line): Disney Cartoons / Present / A Mickey Mouse / Sound Cartoon / Steamboat Willie / A Walt Disney Comic / By Ub Iwerks / Recorded by Cinephone Powers System / Copyright MCMXXIX. The 1909 copyright law that governs this notice specifies that the word copyright or its symbol be “accompanied by the name of the copyright proprietor”—a rule, Menn explains, that scholars say means “in the immediate proximity.” And in the vertical listing of this instance, two other names appear between “Walt Disney” and the word copyright. “The authoritative legal treatise Nimmer on Copyright says that a copyright is void if multiple names create uncertainty, and courts have agreed,” Menn says. Mickey Mouse, then, is in the public domain—that is, the Mickey Mouse image in “Steamboat Willie” is now free of its Disney cocoon. The image has undergone several mutations since, and those are still safely in the grip of the corporate ogre.
Intriguing as the legal gyrations are, we’re not likely to start seeing vintage Mickey Mouses on coffee cups and t-shirts unencumbered by the Disney name. Disney lawyers insist, rightly I’d say, that it is “inconceivable that any modern court would find any confusion about the identity of the proprietor of Mickey Mouse cartoons.” Still, if the matter ever went to court, Disney would probably lose. But not after a long and costly battle. Disney has financial resources enough to discourage any but “the most well-financed competitor,” and there can be no doubt that the Mouse House would defend itself against any possible poaching of its most famous symbol.
Disney has always pursued copyright infringements with aggressive ferocity. The Studio threatened to sue three Florida day-care centers because they had painted Disney characters on their walls. “And this year,” Menn reports, “Disney did sue a home-based business for $1 million after a couple put on children’s parties with ersatz Eeyore and Tigger costumes.” The colossal irony is that Disney has made a fortune by making movies using characters that it claims are in the public domain—folklore’s Cinderella and Snow White, of course, but also Bambi and Pinocchio, both of which were “created” by individual authors. But irony has never deterred the Disney legal minions.
Disney is not only fierce about protecting its alleged copyrights, it verges on the vindictive. It brought suit against Gregory S. Brown, a former 51-year-old employee living on disability payments, who is responsible for freeing Willie. When Brown attempted to exploit Mickey Mouse images he thought were in the public domain, he was hit with a $500,000 judgement, and Disney seized $20,000 from his bank account, all of Brown’s savings. Later, when a young legal scholar sought verification from the Disney in-house lawyers of the legitimacy of the lost copyright on “Steamboat Willie,” he was threatened with legal action if he “openly advanced such claims,” said Menn, quoting the Disney correspondence: “With respect to your plans to otherwise promote these as being in the public domain, please be advised that slander of title remains actionable under California law for both compensatory and punitive damages.” Undeterred, the student wrote an article for his university’s law school publication; it, however, did not, apparently, attract the attention of the Disney machine or provoke its ire.
For the foreseeable future, then, we can expect Mickey Mouse to be treated as if he were the exclusive property of the Disney Empire.
WHEN AN ENDING IS A BEGINNING
The last year of Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse has turned out to be anything but. The strip ended August 31. But it didn’t. It’s starting over. But it isn’t. The last year of FBOFW—by which I mean, this time, “the previous twelve months” not the “final year”—has also been confusing to Johnston’s legions of faithful readers. Some days, the strip looked as if it had been drawn by some other cartoonist, a new hand, somewhat less confident at making pictures. But, no, those were Johnston’s drawings albeit almost thirty years old. But if FBOFW’s readers were confused, Johnston has probably been coming unglued for quite a while now.
She had been planning, for some time, to retire from the strip after thirty years. But as 2009, the thirty-year mark, approached and retirement discussions with her syndicate, Universal Press, got serious, she was prevailed upon to consider other options. We’re in the age of “classic reprints” thanks to Charles Schulz and his fabulous Peanuts, so why not do the same with FBOFW? Johnston wasn’t enthusiastic. Then her life took a wholly unanticipated twist: Rod, her husband of more than 30 years, left her.
“He fell in love with somebody else,” she told Pam Becker at the Chicago Tribune in November 2007 when news of the impending split became public. “It had been over a long period of time,” she said, but added that her husband’s departure in April 2007 had come as a surprise to her: “she had been planning her retirement to spend more time with her retired dentist husband.”
“I can’t believe it happened, but it did,” she said, struggling to hold back the tears. “People change, feelings change. ...”
Reporter Becker had interviewed Rod Johnston in 2004, and this month, on September 4, she recalled some of his remarks, shedding just a sliver of light on what may have been the causes of Rod’s discontent. Said Becker: “I was not surprised [in 2004] when he praised his wife’s talent: ‘We all hear funny stories every day, and we go home and forget them,’ he said. ‘But Lynn records them. ... And then when I see that she’s done it in the paper, she has all the nuances, all of the inflections, all of the aspects to that story that made it an outstanding story. So she’s an amazing recording device, and of course a great storyteller.’ But he also didn’t hesitate to make less flattering comments,” Becker goes on, reporting Rod’s next utterance: “‘She’s had a huge success,’ he said. ‘And as she said [earlier in that day], it really went to her head at first. She’s very self-centered, actually, and very consumed with herself. And so we’ve had this constant struggle where, does she want to be the star, or does she want to be an ordinary person? And she herself struggles with that. ... I’ve often thought that in life we’re given many temptations or challenges, and who would think that success and fame are a challenge? But they are, very much.’ I came away impressed that their marriage,” Becker concluded, “—then going on 29 years—had survived these challenges.”
But it didn’t survive much longer. Three years later, the marriage was asunder. As Lynn Johnston thought about shutting down the strip, she was easing into her sixties, and she contemplated her future: “I thought I would be a retired woman with my Tilley hat and sitting on a cruise ship and going to the Galapagos,” she said, quoted recently by Michael Cavna at the Washington Post. “I never thought I’d be single at this time in my life.” With that in mind, she realized she still wanted to work. “I want to keep my hand in it,” she said.
With her syndicate, she planned a new reprint format that she called a “hybrid”: she’d do some new material to “frame” reprinting the old material. Michael, her comic strip Patterson family’s oldest offspring, was married to the winsome Deanna and was father of two; in new strips, he’d tell his children stories of his own childhood, and the stories would be reprinted strips from FBOFW’s early years, beginning with the strip’s beginning on September 9, 1979. At the same time, Johnston would produce new strips to tie up the loose narrative threads of her decades-long tale. April, the youngest of the Pattersons, would set off for college; and Elizabeth, who has been dating her teenage flame Anthony, now divorced and the father of a little girl, will have to either marry Anthony, or not. Readers, it seemed, were divided on the subject. Anthony’s a nerd and Elizabeth is a babe, so how could she contemplate a life with Anthony?
In practice, Johnston’s hybrid cruise ship didn’t ply the waters quite as ripple-free as she’d hoped. She got entangled in her story, as usual—a compulsive storyteller always asks herself, “And then what happened?”—and spent more time producing new material than she did framing old material and using it. And the old strips, which appeared sporadically, only a day or so at a time and occasionally a Sunday, were jarring in appearance: her drawing style had changed dramatically over the years, becoming much more detailed (and the panels more crowded) than the early material. Her readers were baffled. Despite all the publicity about the “new” FBOFW, they didn’t know what was going on.
A new plan emerged. Johnston would re-draw the old strips—not in her “new” compulsively complicated, detailed manner but in the old “freer, looser” style. In the process, she would “fix” any awkwardnesses in the old artwork, making it seem new again. “It’s in your blood,” she told Cavna, “—it’s part of your life. I don’t want to quit being a cartoonist. It’s tough to put it down. You still think of gags. And at the same time, I knew I’d be looking at material that I’d want to improve.”
And so the new plan acquired a modification: not only would Johnston re-draw the old strips, fixing them, but she would write some new material, too. “It’s going back to the  beginning when Michael and Elizabeth were very young,” Johnston told Cavna. Dubbing her new plan “new-runs,” she continued: “I’m going back to do it how it should have been done. ... I’m beginning with all this knowledge [of what “will happen” in the future], so it’s a much more comprehensive beginning.”
She sounded “energized,” Cavna wrote: “She characterizes this experiment as a way to create a better, livelier, funnier beginning to the strip. Call it the Old Adventures of the New Lynn Johnston.”
Said Johnston: “In this business, you’re a perfectionist—you’ve got to be. My early work on the strip was freer, it was more spontaneous. But I want to combine the confidence and the experience [I have now] with that freedom—that’s the best of all worlds. All of September will be brand-new material,” she continued. “In October, it will be [a ratio of] 50-50 [new and old]. The color Sunday comics will be all-new material. ... I think it will be 50-50 for the first year, at least. It’s going to be the best work I can possibly do. It’s going to be a lot more fun,” she went on, then, recalling the family sheepdog who died saving young April, adding: “And Farley is coming back!”
Commented Cavna: “She says she feels 30 years old again while drawing it and relishes the joy that comes from returning to the comic strip’s roots—to a time when she herself was still newly married, raising small children and discovering her full talent through a newborn strip.”
At her website, fbofw.com, Johnston expressed her gratitude to her readers for their loyalty and talked about the strip’s new launch: “Without the need to visit all of the auxiliary characters, I can concentrate once again on the insular little Patterson household. I have the children all to myself again. I can do spot gags and silly stuff. I can fix what I don't like about my early work as I add and subtract ... redraw and just improve everything. The crazy part is drawing the way I used to draw!! I practiced, using the first two [reprint] books, copying as if I was trying to draw someone else's work, not my own! It's taken some time to simulate the earlier work, but it's coming and because it's a simpler style with less detail in the background, I can comfortably do all the art myself without the need for another illustrator. This makes the process faster and because I'll be including some of the classics, I'll be able to take some much needed time off!
I expected to find a return to my old style of drawing a bit stressful, but it's been easy! I also expected to find it hard to rip into the belief that I was a young mom again with two small kids, but this is really fun!!! I'm so enjoying the loose style, the freedom to play with the younger Pattersons again and the less complicated cast of characters. Mixing the classic and new strips is both challenging and rewarding as I improve the work I started with. Who gets to do this??? I consider it a real privilege to be able to work on the beginning again and I hope you'll enjoy what I do.”
As far as Johnston and her syndicate know, no one has ever attempted “new-runs” in which a strip’s earlier storylines are retold. And reaction among the strip’s 2,000-plus subscribing newspapers is mixed, according to Dave Astor at Editor & Publisher. Some—the Gazette at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota—are dropping it. The Gazette’s editor Steve Buttry polled his readers, nearly two-thirds of whom, he said, “strongly favored giving another comic strip a chance. A huge groundswell of support could have changed my mind. With the split response from the public, this became a clear decision if not an easy one. The first three letters of ‘newspaper’ are important to us.” In New Hampshire, the Union Leader will continue to publish FBOFW; the Washington Post will take the strip out of its print edition and run it online. By early September, according to John Rogers at the Washington Times, only about 2 percent of the strip’s clients had notified the syndicate that they were dropping the strip; that’s about 40 papers.
The end of the “new” material in FBOFW prompted Hank Stuever at the Washington Post to “honor” a peculiar kind of the strip’s devotees—“the haters,” or “Foobsters” (based upon the audio rendition of FBOFW, pronounced, Stuever assures us, “foob”), of whom Stuever is, apparently, in the first rank. “These are the many millions who live to despise every last thing about the comic strip, and, as such, have never missed a day. For them, Foob has never been worse—worse puns, worse sap, even worse life choices. Which, in a sick way, means For Better or For Worse has never been better!”
“True Foobsters,” he rails on, “loved to underscore their particular peeves: The way the characters ate (‘smork, chomp, chew, smack’) or laughed with their mouths open and tongues out. Some loved to hate Elly’s obsession with housework, or [daughter-in-law] Deanna’s blankly pretty face and lips. Little things can cause a Foobster to hurl the newspaper to the floor—especially bad puns in the fourth panel, with those little Fooby bon mots about life. Lynn Johnston may think she has fans, but does she know she has such devoted anti-fans?”
“The end of the world is here!” he exclaimed on August 27: “Lizardbreath [Michael’s early name for his sister Elizabeth] has married Blandthony. Grandpa Jim is on his deathbed, with pitiable second wife Iris at his side. ... Somebody says something disgustingly pithy every panel now. You can feel the comic strip family saga coming to a close in a cataract haze of soft focus.” Wonderfully inventive vituperative—almost poetic.
“Foobsters everywhere,” Stuever extolls, “—weep. Creator Lynn Johnston is semi-retiring, repurposing her archives beginning with next week’s strips. ... As a farewell, she seems to have made an extra effort to drench this week’s wedding of Elizabeth Patterson and Anthony Craine in even more sentimental goo than faithful readers have come to expect.”
Sentimental goo, maybe, but Johnston managed a finale for the “new” material that compares happily with all her best work, knitting together two strands of her long narrative to reinforce the message of the strip’s title and its final episode—with an ironic wrench that brought a lump and a tear to every fan (a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye). In an ending that is also a beginning, the threads she draws together end the courtship of Elizabeth and Anthony, begin their marriage, and, for the time being, reassure us about the contentment of her grandfather.
The wedding and preparations for it take most of August. Just before Elizabeth’s wedding, Grandfather Jim, who has been nearly speechless since having a stroke last year, suffers a heart attack: instead of attending his granddaughter’s wedding, as he and she fervently wished, he’s in the hospital. All those in the family who are aware of this circumstance nonetheless insist that Elizabeth not be told so she can enjoy her wedding.
The preacher’s remarks must’ve rung with ironic poignancy for the cartoonist. Referring to the lifetime commitment Elizabeth and Anthony are making with the vows they will soon take, “knowing that marriage is one of the most important obligations that any two people will ever swear to uphold,” he continues: “Marriage is a challenge, but so too it is love. Marriage is patience and giving and caring and faith. It is honesty and openness and thoughtfulness and truth in that your understanding of one another will lead to a greater understanding of yourself. Marriage is friendship and respect. It’s the willingness to accept your partner’s qualities and differences, weak an strong. It is a promise made, and a lasting successful caring marriage is a promise kept—again and again and again.”
After they are pronounced man and wife, Elizabeth learns her grandfather is in the hospital. Momentarily stunned, she announces that since he can’t be at the wedding, she and Anthony will go to him in the hospital. And they do, resulting, in the pun that concludes the release for August 27. Here’s that strip and the conclusions Johnston supplied in both the last daily and the final Sunday, plus the first of the “new-runs.” In the last daily, Grandfather Jim’s wife Iris gives the 29-year-old strip it’s coda, the title’s explanatory gloss (while repeating, for readers whose newspapers don’t carry the Sunday installment, the ironic sentiment that laces Elizabeth’s wedding ceremony). And then comes the Sunday conclusion in which Johnston tells us what will become of all her characters and bids us a farewell, sort of.
To understate the obvious, all the speeches underscoring the meaning of the strip’s title cannot have been the easiest writing Johnston has done. And then, to emphasize the enduring nature of the urge to human commitment, in the second week of the “new-runs,” Elly is talking with Connie, the single mother who is her neighbor. They talk about Connie’s being single, and irony slips in again: “I don’t live in the past, Elly,” Connie begins. “I can see myself with another guy—I mean, if the right one came along. It’s not as though I’m not looking. I work in a busy place. I go to the gym. I mean, I am in the market—I just have to find the right aisle.”
The goo is scarcely oozing sentiment here. More like wistful hope.
IRKS & CROTCHETS FROM WILL DURST
The New Yorker magazine cover is just another example of what happens when liberals try to help.
Republicans are ratcheting up the Barack Obama attack machine. Next they’ll say that being half-black and half-white is another example of flip-flopping.
George Bush gave a speech critical of China. In Thailand. Before he went to China. That is so George.
Prez Bush has agreed to a time horizon, which is different than a timetable the same way that vertical moisture is different than rain.
THE VARIOUS ORIGINS OF SUPERMAN
This year, the storied Man of Steel is seventy-five years old, so they say. He didn’t find his way into print until the early summer of 1938 when he appeared in the first issue of Action Comics (cover dated June), so maybe he’s only seventy. But he’d been invented, so the story goes, five years before he was first published. Tom Batiuk retails a fragment of Superman’s birth legend in his comic strip, Funky Winkerbean, wherein a comic book writer named Pete, suffering writer’s block, visits the Cleveland house on Kimberly Avenue where 17-year-old Jerry Siegel was first smitten with the Superman idea. Pete imagines himself to be Siegel and reenacts the moment of Superman’s conception and its immediate aftermath. It was a hot summer night in 1932 or 1933, the legend goes, and Siegel couldn’t sleep. Instead of tossing and turning all night, he concocted a bulletproof strong man who could fly. Then, first thing in the morning, Siegel dashed over to his best friend’s house where he described his creation to Joe Shuster, who promptly drew pictures of Siegel’s creation. And then they spent the next five years trying to get a Superman comic strip syndicated, a goal they didn’t reach until Superman had proved immensely popular in comic books, whereupon, he was promptly syndicated in daily comic strip format. Siegel and Shuster were typical teenage nerds at Glenville High School, and Siegel has admitted that the absence of romance in his young life influenced his conception of Superman: in his civilian guise as mild-mannered Clark Kent, Superman wears glasses, like Siegel did, and Clark Kent, like Siegel, is spurned by womankind in the person of snobby Lois Lane. But Clark can take it because he is secretly the most powerful man on earth—just as Siegel might have imagined himself as a writer capable of stupendous feats of fiction-writing. If Lois knew—if all the pretty girls in Siegel’s school knew—why, Clark/Jerry would easily be the most popular kid on campus.
Batiuk doesn’t commit any armchair psychology in his reimaging of Superman’s creation. In his version, Siegel, sleepless in his bed on that hot July night, thinks he would be more comfortable if he could fly up in the night sky “where it’s cool.” Presto: he envisions a flying superhero. The emphasis, at the moment of conception, is on flying, not strength or invulnerability, which, admittedly, came along pretty quickly thereafter. For novelist Brad Meltzer, however, flying had nothing to do with Siegel’s invention of Superman.
At the very moment that Batiuk’s Siegel was thinking on the nation’s funnies pages how cool he’d be if he could fly at a high altitude, USA Today was airing another explanation for Siegel’s inspiration. Siegel had lost his father, Michel (sometimes called “Mitchell”), who died of a heart attack while a robbery was transpiring in his second-hand clothing store at 3560 Central Avenue on the night of June 2, 1932. “I believe the world got Superman because this kid lost his father,” Meltzer told Patrick O’Donnell and Michael Sangiacomo at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “It can’t be just a coincidence,” Meltzer said, “that Michel died and within a short time, his son creates the world’s greatest superhero.” Deprived of his father, young Jerry sought justice symbolically, O’Donnell and Sangiacomo say: “He invents the ultimate crime-fighting superhero ever, Superman, to be his instrument of vengeance” against the criminal element of society.
In his new murder/espionage novel, Book of Lies, Meltzer has Michel die of gunshot wounds inflicted by the robbers, the incident becoming a plot element in the book. The surviving Siegel relatives remember hearing stories about Michel being shot during the robbery, but the death certificate reports that Siegel had chronic myocarditis and died of heart failure, no mention of bullet wounds. Jerry Siegel never mentioned his father’s death during a robbery, but this fact of his early life had surfaced before Meltzer brought it up. In his 2004 history of comic books, Men of Tomorrow, Gerard Jones repeats, as fact, the story that Michel was shot to death in his store. Like Meltzer, Jones believes the father’s death “had to have an effect” on Jerry. As Jones told David Colton at USA Today, “Superman’s invulnerability to bullets, loss of family, destruction of his homeland—all seem to overlap with Jerry’s personal experience. There’s a connection there: the loss of a dad as a source for Superman.” But as anyone who has read Jones’ tome knows, he is as much novelist as historian, imagining conversations and semi-fictional incidents that he sprinkles throughout his ostensibly factual account of the birth of comic books.
Two novelists, then, have been seduced by the coincidence of Siegel’s father’s being shot to death and the subsequent creation of a fictional hero impervious to gunfire. But sequence alone is not a cause-and-effect relationship, no matter how it’s tarted up by the writers of fiction. Moreover, the hero’s invulnerability, while neatly explained if he has been invented to avenge a shooting death, cannot be so readily seen as protection against a heart attack. I’m afraid we’re left with the highschool nerd and his passion for early science fiction as a much more convincing explanation for the creation of the superhero who sparked the comic book industry into being.
Both Siegel and Shuster were fans of the new science fiction genre, Siegel having produced with typewriter and hectograph what may be the first sf magazine, called Cosmic Stories, in 1929. Eventually, together, they published another sf fan magazine, Science Fiction, the third issue of which, in January 1933, included Siegel’s Shuster-illustrated story “The Reign of the Superman,” the first use of the name and concept. But this Superman was the villain of the piece. A few months later, Siegel re-imagined his superpowered creation as a hero, thinking, correctly as it turned out, that a hero could generate more stories than a villain. Siegel and Shuster were both movie fans and claim to have been influenced by Tarzan and Douglas Fairbanks’ portrayals of Robin Hood and the Black Prince, and by Popeye, the animated cartoon version, whose feats of strength were awe-inspiring. “The super-strength and action in the animated cartoons were absolutely sensational,” Siegel said in an interview published in Nemo No. 2, August 1983. And as sf fans, Siegel and Shuster could scarcely have failed to be aware of Philip Wylie’s 1930 novel, Gladiator, about a super strongman.
Siegel and Shuster produced Siegel’s revised Superman in a comic book in the late winter of 1933, but when the publisher backed out, saying the drawings weren’t good enough, Shuster destroyed all the artwork except the cover drawing, which he kept in pencil form. (Batiuk approximates that cover in the last panel of his August 29 strip that depicts Siegel and Shuster working together.) This first heroic Superman had no costume: he was attired in t-shirt and ordinary trousers. But by the time the creative duo produced a successor, he was wearing tights, inspired, doubtless, by circus strongman costumes. Shuster, a somewhat puny adolescent, was, at the time, trying to improve his physique by working out with weights. “I used to get all the body-building magazines,” he said in the Nemo interview; he undoubtedly saw plenty of pictures of strongmen in the spangled spandex of the day. And there were other sources of inspiration.
Lately, we’ve seen numerous articles and books devoted to examining the role of Jews in creating the comic book industry. Seigel and Shuster were Jews, and so were Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Harvey Kurtzman and so many of the early pioneers in the form that no one could doubt the creative role of individual Jews in this field any more than their role in another entertainment medium, movies, could be denied. It’s a little more difficult to claim a Jewish cultural influence in comics, however, because any recourse to Jewish history and tradition invokes the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, which, as a matter of history, is both Jewish and Christian. Siegel cited Samson among his inspirations—along with such non-Biblical heroes as Hercules and Popeye—and he realized that the tradition of super-strong characters was long and populous in Western culture, including Roman and Greek gods and goddesses, plus such American icons as Paul Bunyon, John Henry, Pecos Bill, and others. Much of the recent theorizing along these lines takes us to Prague in 16th century Czechoslovakia where, according to legend, a rabbi, anxious to protect the Jews of the city, created from clay the Golem, a superhuman champion. In his new book, Disguised as Clark Kent, Danny Fingeroth makes the case that the legends of the Golem “became a piece of the collective cultural mythos ... that influenced the Jewish kids who gave us the earliest superheroes.” That may be the case, but I suspect that Samson and Hercules were as much a part of that cultural mythos as the Golem, for Jews as well as gentiles. But I haven’t yet read Fingeroth’s book, and I suspect it will prove much more convincing than I’ve suggested here, so I’m looking forward to perusing it. Whetting my anticipation, Fingeroth, asked by Peter Sanderson at PW Comics Week if there is anything that specifically marks the American comic book superhero as an outgrowth of Jewish culture, replied: “Disguised leaves that as an open question. My personal inclination is to say, Yes—in the sense that the business was largely founded and originally staffed (including writers and artists) by people of Eastern European Jewish descent. Certainly in the sense that superheroes offer hope for a world where power is wielded wisely and for the benefit of society by wise and compassionate people is a fantasy that Jews—and any historically persecuted minority—would be more like to come up with than people from groups free of such history.” For my present purpose, perhaps it’s enough to acknowledge that Siegel and Shuster, in inventing Superman, were influenced by a good deal more than Siegel’s father’s death.
In the Nemo interview, Siegel says it wasn’t until late in 1934 that he concocted a dual identity for Superman. It was the dual identity—the powerful Superman hidden behind the spectacles of the mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent—that gave expression to his typical adolescent frustration with his failure to appeal to the opposite sex despite his conviction that he was as worthy as any other youth in the vicinity. “What if I was real terrific?” Siegel said he thought at the time. “What if I had something special going for me, like jumping over buildings or throwing cars around or something like that? Then maybe they would notice me. That night ... the concept came to me that Superman could have a dual identity, and that in one of his identities he could be meek and mild, as I was, and wear glasses, the way I do. The heroine, who I figured would be a girl reporter, would think he was some sort of a worm; yet she would be crazy about this Superman character who could do all sorts of fabulous things. In fact, she was real wild about him, and a big inside joke was that the fellow she was crazy about was also the fellow who she loathed.” In devising a dual identity, Siegel acknowledged models before him in the movies—“The Mark of Zorro” and “The Scarlet Pimpernel.” But my feeling is that much of the inspiration for Superman—the strong man as well as the strong man’s disguise—can be found in ordinary adolescent angst.
Meanwhile, Meltzer has launched an effort to save the house where Superman was born. The one-time Siegel home on Kimberly Avenue is somewhat disheveled these days, and the novelist has established a charity, Ordinary People Change the World, to raise $50,000 for repairs by auctioning off various items—such as a t-shirt signed by Siegel, a walk-on role on the tv show "Heroes," original art from dozens of top comic-book creators, and various souvenirs designed by Chip Kidd. Quoted by Matthew Price at the Oklahoman, Tulsa-born writer Sterling Gates, now the writer of "Supergirl," shared his thoughts on preserving part of Superman's history: "That house is an important keystone in our modern mythology,” he said, “and it should be kept and preserved as an historical site. I mean, if the house where Elvis was born is kept up with, then the house where Kal-El was born should be kept up with, too." The house has been occupied since 1983 by Hattie and Jefferson Gray, who, Price says, quoting the Associated Press, “have agreed to give the Siegel and Shuster Society first rights to buy the house when they decide to sell.”
The recent court decision giving the heirs of Jerry Siegel ownership of Superman is being disputed by DC Comics, maintaining that the material produced by Siegel and Joe Shuster was “work for hire,” which, if it can be legally established, will give DC possession of the Man of Steel once again. Pawing through the archives, searching for evidence in support of their case, DC minions have unearthed documents that cultural historians, not to mention comics chroniclers, must regard as a “treasure trove of insight into attitudes toward women, standards of beauty, images of masculinity, censorship and the interplay between comics and other illustrated media,” says Jeff Trexler at newsarma.com. Joe Shuster’s art was savagely and repeatedly criticized by his editor, Whitney Ellsworth, who, in a series of letters, warned Shuster to “tone down his depiction of Lois Lane ... to make her less sexy.” And “the criticism did not stop with Lois,” Trexler continues. “Another alleged problem with Shuster’s artwork is that it made Superman look gay—or, in the period slang of Ellsworth’s January 22, 1940 letter, ‘lah-de-dah’ with a ‘nice fat bottom.’” Trexler sees in Ellsworth’s correspondence reasons for Siegel and Shuster subsequently suing for ownership of the character: “For Siegel and Shuster, such critiques were serious business. If you want to understand why they took the risk of suing DC in 1947 to regain the rights to Superman, read these letters—time and again the company warns them that their work borders on the ‘unacceptable’—‘the situation is serious enough to warrant your doing some real worrying,’ as DC might ‘make other arrangements to have [the work] done.’ Since DC seemed to be building a case to get rid of them, a lawsuit—no matter how risky—seemed to have better odds than the prospect of winning over the publisher.” You can find Trexler’s article here: newsarama.com/comics/080808-EarlySupermangay.html
In another piece at newsarama.com, Trexler produces sample Superman comic strips drawn by Russell Keaton. “It's relatively common knowledge that in 1934 Jerry Siegel approached other artists besides Joe Shuster to be his collaborator on Superman. One of these artists was Keaton, who had been ghosting the Buck Rogers Sunday pages.” Keaton eventually decided "not to gamble on such a young and inexperienced writer" and, a few years later, launched his own newspaper strip, Flyin' Jenny. But that’s not the whole story. The Siegel family, in assembling documents that would establish their right to Superman, found a box of old Superman material, which, upon closer inspection, included photostats of letters, scripts and Superman comic strips drawn by Keaton. Writes Trexler: “As Jerry Siegel would later explain, in 1934 [years before Superman’s comic book debut in 1938] Joe Shuster had become discouraged with the Superman newspaper strip and decided to let it go. His departure prompted Siegel to look for a replacement, so he sent an inquiry to Keaton.” Before abandoning the project, Keaton produced several daily strips, which, together with Siegel’s scripts, provide “a decidedly different take on Superman's origin. In this version,” Trexler goes on, “the infant Superman arrives here from the future via a time machine, sent to 1935 by the last man on earth. The couple that discovers him: Sam and Molly Kent.” You can see the strips and letters and scripts at newsarama.com/comics/080820-SupermanKeaton.html
Fascinating Footnit. Much of the news retailed in the foregoing segment is culled from articles eventually indexed at 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 povonline.com, Alan Gardner’s DailyCartoonist.com, and Tom Spurgeon’s comicsreporter.com. And then there’s Mike Rhode’s ComicsDC blog, comicsdc.blogspot.com For delving into the history of our beloved medium, you can’t go wrong by visiting Allan Holtz’s 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
“My whole family has been havin’ trouble with immigrants ever since we came to this country.” —Senator Rawlins, “Finnian’s Rainbow”
“There go the people. I must follow them. I am their leader.” —Alexandre Ledru-Rollin
“Being in politics is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it’s important.” —Eugene McCarthy
Editoonist Jim Borgman, a Pulitzer Prize-winner who has been with the Cincinnati Enquirer for 32 years, has joined the growing rolls of full-time newspaper staff political cartoonists who have left their positions, usually involuntarily. According to the Notebook newsletter of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC), in a three-month period ending, approximately, in early August, “at least nine cartoonists announced they were to be laid off, forced to take buyouts or had decided to step down or retire from their long-time drawing gigs.” Borgman was one of 60 applicants accepted by the Enquirer for severance under the company’s voluntary severance program, which included up to a year’s pay for employees with longtime service. Presumably, Borgman qualifies. And we also presume he welcomed the chance to escape, with a tidy bankable bundle, some of the deadline pressure he has been working under since the 1997 launch of Zits, the syndicated comic strip he draws that Jerry Scott writes. He said as much when he bid farewell to his readers:
“What a remarkable landscape of nonsense and characters I’ve gotten to chronicle [over the years]. ... Hidden behind each day’s cartoon has been a sweatfest aimed at amusing and engaging you in the topics of our times, all done in the belief that when we are fully immersed in lively debate we make wiser decisions about our world. I’ve poured my blood and bones into a job which, if done well, looks effortless and whimsical. I’ve had fun and you’ve told me you have, too. It’s been important to me that my work be of this place, midwestern, blue collar, with a voice from the heartland. ... You are beautiful, kind and generous people and it has been an honor to share these years with you. There is no place I would have rather invested my life.”
He continued: “When I created Zits twelve years ago with my partner Jerry Scott, my hours behind the drawing board doubled and the weekends turned into weekdays. A body can only do double duty for so long, and mine has gotten soft in the middle. It’s telling me to get the bike down from the garage ceiling and breathe some fresh air again. I don’t know if I’ll miss this precious real estate I’ve enjoyed and the chance to talk about anything on my mind. I do look forward to reading a newspaper without a highlighter in my hand. Sometimes lately when I watch the news I feel like a butcher looking at a field full of cows. I don’t see the animals anymore, just the hamburger. That’s a good sign that it’s time to shake yourself off and do something else. ... The thing I treasure most from these years is the relationship you and I have built, meeting over coffee every morning. When my editor suggested that it was a shame to let that lapse, I agreed and came up with an idea. Over the years I’ve played at creating a weekly comic strip devoted to just us and this curious place we live. Outsiders won’t get it. All I can tell you so far is that it will be about a little flying pig who lives in the back booth of a chili parlor in a quirky town called Porkopolis. Watch this space in January.” Porkopolis, need I add, is one of the early names for Cincinnati. "I've enjoyed doing two of the best jobs I can imagine,” Borgman told one online reporter, “—drawing editorial cartoons and my comic strip Zits. And I have loved it all, although it is exhausting," Borgman said. "Continuing Zits while doing a new weekly feature sounds like a great balance. I’m not retiring—just reducing workload."
The AAEC Notebook listed the other casualties of the “long bad summer”: Dave Granlund, who had been at the MetroWest Daily News in Massachusetts for 31 years; Jake Fuller at the Gainesville Sun in Florida; Don Wright at the Palm Beach Post in Florida (see Opus 227 and 228); Dick Adair at the Honolulu Advertiser; Stuart Carlson, after 25 years at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; and Dwane Powell, after 33 years at the Raleigh News & Observer (Opus 227). David Catrow of the Springfield News-Sun and Paul Combs at Tribune Media Services left full-time positions to pursue other career choices in illustration, both thinking, perhaps, it is better to leave now of their own accord—with opportunities open before them—than to wait for the axe to fall. The ninth in the AAEC roll call is Pat Crowley, also at the Palm Beach Post but as a cartoonist-illustrator, not as an editorial cartoonist.
The Village Voice approached Jules Feiffer some months ago about doing an occasional cartoon for the weekly, once Feiffer’s historic home base—until a fresh-faced management decided, ten years ago, to effect savings by drastically reducing Feiffer’s pay. The experience, apparently, is much like shooting oneself in one of one’s feet and then discovering a limp. Feiffer, while devoting his deadline-free hours to other pleasant purposes since, has admitted that he misses the visibility that a weekly cartoon afforded him. So the Voice offer was, seemingly, attractive enough to tempt him. In April, he returned to the Voice with a cartoon about Hillary Clinton. And in the August 13 issue, he submitted the accompanying “comment,” as the Voice describes it, “on our annoyingly long election season” (a somewhat walleyed description since Feiffer’s comment is on one of the candidates not on the length of the election season). I came by this specimen under circumstances that prohibited me from making a color copy, so the delicate pastels of Feiffer’s drawing must, here, be imagined. But you need no more imagination than the eyes in your head to admire Feiffer’s loose-limbed delineation.
This cartoon by South African editoonist Zapiro (aka Jonathan Shapiro) would probably never get printed in an American newspaper. Indeed, it even raised hackles in South Africa. By way of leading you to an appreciation of Zapiro’s audacity, we’ll start by identifying the guy unbuckling his pants as a necessary preamble to raping the lady on the ground labeled “Justice System”: he’s Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa’s most powerful political party, the ANC, and he will, because he’s the party’s leader, almost certainly be elected in the next few months to the country’s presidency. The figures holding Lady Justice down represent the ANC and two other political parties, both in league with the ANC. The only obstacle in the way of Zuma’s political progress is a pending court action: he is about to be tried for corruption, fraud, money-laundering and racketeering, charges that his supporters, chiefly those in the other two political parties in the tripartite alliance, say are manufactured to thwart his career. Zuma denies the charges, but in doing so, he has criticized the judiciary, strenuously implying that judges need to be careful what decision they reach in responding to his application to have the case dismissed. And this is not the only instance of Zuma’s alluding to a more “authoritative” government should he be elected: freedom of speech and the press are often his targets, and Zapiro has been in Zuma’s sights for several years. The rape metaphor in the cartoon at hand is inspired by a trial in which Zuma was charged as a rapist in 2006. During testimony, it emerged that the woman Zuma allegedly attacked was HIV positive. When Zuma was asked by the court if he was worried about getting infected himself, he said, No—that he had showered after having sex with her. Ever since then, Zapiro, when he portrays Zuma in a cartoon, puts a shower spigot on the ANC leader’s bald pate. Ever since then, too, Zapiro has been a particular target of Zuma’s displeasure, making the cartoonist’s continued assaults on the ANC leader all the more risky, his crusade all the more courageous and commendable. (More about this episode at Opus 208 in my report on the annual convention of the AAEC, where Zapiro received the Courage Award from the Cartoonists Rights Network International.)
Zapiro’s paper, the Independent Times, stands by its cartoonist in an editorial published the day after the cartoon raised ANC’s ire: “Shapiro has encapsulated in one drawing the biggest threat to South Africa’s future—that our justice system will be the sacrificial lamb offered up on the altar of ‘our savior,’ Zuma. The [tripartite] alliance has openly attacked the judiciary ... and has announced strikes and protests should Zuma’s corruption trial proceed. They have called for a ‘political solution to the criminal case’ against Zuma. Their willingness to ‘kill for Zuma’ ... and to mortgage our democracy for Zuma is frightening. ... Zuma might be a bit of a joke, but what’s being done in his name is definitely not funny.” Reader reaction to Zapiro’s cartoon was varied: some thought it “disrespectful” to Zuma and insulting to the alliance; others thought it was brilliantly on target. Said the cartoonist: “There is a very, very pronounced tendency in this country towards exceptionalism, as if our politicians are more sacrosanct than politicians worldwide. That, I take issue with.”
While visual metaphors about sex are not common in editorial cartoons in the U.S., they crop up occasionally—most recently, on the cover of The Week magazine, which always features a full-color illustration in the mode of a political cartoon. Here’s what appeared on the cover when the magazine reported on the Russian invasion of Georgia. While John McCain, with his POW tendency to bellicose reaction, thinks Russia is the culprit in this incident, many other observers agree that Georgia’s president precipitated the crisis by behaving provocatively to goad Russia into doing something that would, presumably, enlist the U.S. and the West more overtly in Georgia’s support. In short, it is far from clear which of the participants in the Georgian crisis is the bad guy deserving of punitive response from the West. What is clear, though, is what Fred Harper, The Week’s cover artist, makes even more obvious: Putin’s invasion of Georgia was an act of masculine machismo, a phallic projection of power.
We don’t see that sort of imagery often, however frequently it might be deserved. Several years ago, Ann Telnaes used the device but in silhouette in a cartoon she did about some abuse the news media was engaging in (if I remember correctly; don’t have the cartoon at hand, alas). In her cartoon, the microphone boom was phallic.
NEWSPAPER COMICS PAGE WATCH
The Bump and Grind of Daily Stripping
More anniversaries abound on the comics page. Beetle Bailey turned 58 on September 4, and his creator, Mort Walker, in a rare move, commemorated the occasion in the strip. At eandppub.com, a signal oddity was noted: “If you’re a Beetle Bailey fan, you might consider including the reversed numbers 85 and 58 in your next lottery picks.” [On September 3], Walker turned 85; the next day, Beetle turned 58.
Earlier by a couple days, Walker acknowledged Alley Oop’s 75th anniversary in Beetle Bailey. And a few days before that, Mark Tatulli did the same in Lio. Meanwhile, Jim Scancarelli in Gasoline Alley celebrated Labor Day in the way all good workers should—by taking the day off.
Then we have Scott Adams’ demonstrating how to further simplify his already diagrammatic art in Dilbert: he draws the “ghost” character as a simple silhouette outlined with dots.
Finally, we have the Sunday Dennis the Menace, drawn, for years, by Ron Ferdinand. The coloring of the Sunday Dennis is always stunning, bright and shiny like a new button. Nearly every weekly installment deploys a colorful silhouette, as seen in the fourth panel of the uppermost of the two Sundays on display here. But it’s the strategic use of white highlighting in flesh tones, accented with rosy cheeks, elbows and knees, that lifts the strip off the page. It was the strip’s creator, Hank Ketcham, who initiated this unusual practice, Ferdinand tells me: “Back in the late 1980s, Hank used to do these morale booster posters for Economics Press. He loved doing them because it gave him a chance to work with color for a change. He’d use the Dr. Martin’s dyes and treat the pictures like little watercolor paintings. That’s where he came up with the white highlight effect to give the faces that sculpted look.” And since then, Ferdinand has continued the practice with surpassing elan. Incidentally, if you’ve ever wondered what Dennis will look like when he grows into teenagery, you’ll be glad that Ferdinand has, as of September 14 (the strip at the bottom), assuaged your curiosity in the sixth panel.
BARACK O’BAMA’S EXPERIENCE
We keep hearing about how Obama doesn’t have enough executive experience in government to be President. I disagree. And so does Ted Sorensen. Sorensen, who worked for John F. Kennedy for ten years, which, perforce, included not only JFK’s Presidential years but his career in the Senate and as a perpetual candidate, knows something about what it takes to be Prez, and he has endorsed Obama, a man allegedly without much experience of Presidential caliber. In an interview in Parade magazine on May 4, Sorensen said this about what sort of experience a President needs to have had: “Experience that is required to make decisions and answer tough questions under pressure. Kennedy had some of that from the war and from almost four years on the road testing Presidential waters. People say he had no executive experience, but I’ll tell you that running a national campaign [for President] takes executive experience. It has a lot of similarities to running the country in terms of the kinds of people you have to win over and the ones you have to negotiate with, the kinds of people you have to stare down or run over.” Not to mention your ability to pick the right sort of staff. And how, you might ask, do I think Obama stacks up in this realm of experience? In other words, what kind of national campaign has he run? Considering that a little over a year ago, he was regarded as the longest of the long shots, running up against the heir presumptive, Hillary Clinton, whose political apparatus was one of history’s most powerful, her husband’s—and Obama won the primaries and is now the Democrat’s presidential nominee, I’d say his campaign proves he has plenty of the kind of executive experience Sorensen thinks will make him a good President. In contrast, we have John McCain, who touts his experience. His campaign staff has changed several times, and he’s stumbled and fallen more than once, changing tactics each time. His campaign may now be running more effectively, but can we afford a President who will learn on the job by making mistakes?
Short and Swift Reviews of New Tomes
Awash as we have been for quite some time now in graphic novels, it’s refreshing, purely by way encountering something different, to come upon a happily bubbling stew of novel graphics such as the redoubtable Craig Yoe serves up in the fourth volume of his “Arf” books, Comic Arf (122 9x12-inch pages, color; Fantagraphics paperback, $19.99). The book opens with a 44-page display of Milt Gross goggle-eyed toonery—a sampling of his celebrated manic Sunday strips, That’s My Pop, Count Screwloose, and Nize Baby—including 31 pages of Gross’s lesser known audience participation feature, Draw Your Own Conclusions. This inventive endeavor from the late 1920s was a four-panel strip in which the first three panels set up a dilemma that readers were invited to “solve” by drawing the fourth panel on their own. Yoe sent a couple dozen of these specimens around to various cartooners and invited them to supply the fourth panel: those that responded include R. Crumb, Mort Walker, Gene Deitch, Dean Yeagle, Hunt Emerson, Mike Mignola, R. O. Blechman, Joost Swarte, Sam Henderson, Richard Sala, Al Jaffee, Bill Griffith, Denis Kitchen, Patrick McDonnell, Matt Groening, Art Spiegelman, Bil Keane, Jules Feiffer, and Sergio Aragones, to name most of them. Each page includes a self-caricature of the Concluder and a short biography.
The antics are continued for the rest of the volume with sections of Walt Kelly (a short story in which “Contrary Mary” dreams herself into a vaguely threatening Slumberland, taken from one of Kelly’s seasonal comic books), Dudley Fisher (his bird’s-eye view of neighborhood activities in Right Around Home, the birds being Archie and Alice, who never fail to comment on the puzzling doings of the human [sic] sapiens around them), Gardner Rea’s spidery-outlined magazine cartoons, and Bob Powell’s nightmare visit to Hell—each accompanied by a short biography. As in his other Arf books, Yoe devotes several pages to a couple of fugitive cartoonists whose work is not widely known or appreciated—in this volume, Jose Antonio Guillermo Divito, whose leggy ladies give Argentina a curvaceous name, and Arch Dale’s diminutive “Doo Dads,” which the Scot cartoonist created during one of his sojourns in this hemisphere for the Canadian Grain Grower’s Guide, which sounds pedestrian enough that Dale’s page of cavorting elf-sized beings couldn’t help but enliven. But to list the contents in Comic Arf is to overlook the Yoe-charm that infects this volume as it has its three predecessors. Yoe commissioned an assortment of artist friends and associates to produce uncommon caricatures of Kelly, Fisher, et al. And the pages of the book are littered with tiny visual delights and incidental verbal scraps, tucked here and there as if Yoe didn’t want to leave too much unencumbered white space. The book, in short, is not only informative, as most books inherently are, but entertaining in its bibliographic minutiae, as few books dare to be. For an ample preview, visit arflovers.com. (The site was down, temporarily, when I checked; but keep trying.) And while we’re playing hokey from graphic novels, don’t forget another Yoe-opus, Clean Cartoonists’ Dirty Drawings, a charmer, reviewed at Opus 214.
Here’s another one I’ll add to my shelf soon: Kyle Baker’s so-called instructional manual, Learn How to Draw Stupid ($16.95). Cartoonist Frank Santoro, author of Storyville, reviewed the book and it sounds worth owning. Said he: “Maybe I was just high, but I laughed through the entirety of How To Draw Stupid; every page is, well, funny. It just might be Baker's best book to date, his voice is so well represented. Structured like most ‘How to Draw’ books yet devoid of the typical step-by-step, rote instruction that typifies the genre, this book serves more as an advertisement for Baker, his oeuvre, and his philosophy.”
To anyone under the age of forty, Berenstain is the name of a rambunctious family of bears in books for children, over 200 of them, by title. At the more rarified altitudes over forty, however, Berenstain is the name of a husband and wife cartooning team, Stan and Jan, that produced rafts of magazine cartoons in the Golden Age of the weekly “general interest” magazines during the decade immediate after World War II—Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Look. A biography of the pair, Down a Sunny Dirt Road, appeared in 2002 (and is reviewed here at Opus 106), but it focused on the more well-known of their accomplishments, namely the bruin books. Now, at long last, we get a healthy helping of their cartooning enterprises in Child’s Play: Cartoon Art of Stan and Jan Berenstain (176 9x11-inch pages, in hardcover and color; $35) by their son, Mike. Here’s a good sampling of the syndicated comic strip they produced 1953-54, Big Sister, a menace in a skirt with a polka-dot ribbon in her hair, and over 50 pages of the panel cartoon, It’s All in the Family, that they did for McCall’s from 1956 until the early 1970s, when it migrated to Good Housekeeping and lasted there until 1988, long enough that the last few years were ghost-written and drawn by Mike Berenstain. (This family was not at all like the Archie Bunker bunch on tv, by the way: this was a typical Eisenhower-era suburban husband and wife with three kids, a thoroughly wholesome gang with the surname Harvey.) The book’s big plus is in reproducing all of the covers the Berenstains did for Collier’s, each a color rendering of some disorganized (and therefore highly comic) children’s group activity—visiting a museum, going on a picnic, putting on a school play—in which dozens of third-graders and their frustrated parents and/or teachers are depicted from an elevation slightly below the perspective of a passing bird. Every kid is doing something different, each pursuing his private passion without much thought for the others of his peers at his elbow unless, as is the case with some of the boys, it is to pester a girl. Finally, as a boon to chroniclers of the medium, all the pictures in this book are sourced and dated. Amazing. Except for the McCall’s cartoons, the Berenstains concentrated on their bear books for forty years, which Mike continues, with his mother’s supervision I assume, since the death of his father in 2005, noted here in Opus 174. I was never a big Berenstain fan, but this book could make me one. Alas, Mike fails to include the most vital of the information about his parents, the answer to the tantalizing question: which of them drew what? Their cartoons and covers and books were all signed “the Berenstains,” and you could never tell how Stan and Jan worked their graphic partnership. Did she pencil and he ink? Did they switch back and forth? Mike leaves the question unanswered. I, however, found an answer, perhaps, I confess, a spurious one, and rehearse it in Opus 107 and again in the obituary for Stan, Opus 174.
The big book of Sickles is out from IDW, Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles (394 giant 11x11-inch pages, some in color, with a sewn-in bookmark ribbon; hardcover, $49.99). No, I haven’t yet read it, but it seems encyclopedic. On pages 144 to 381, it reprints Sickles’ run (December 4, 1933 - November 21, 1936) on the Associated Press comic strip that he made famous by experimenting with drawing styles, one of which was the celebrated chiaroscuro technique adopted by his friend and studio-mate, Milton Caniff, for Terry and the Pirates. Having this panoply of artistic endeavor before us all at once between the covers of a single tome would make the book treasure enough, but it is all prefaced with a long exhaustive biographical essay by Bruce Canwell, copiously illustrated with Sickles’ teenage endeavors and then some of the comic sketches he made of Caniff during the years they shared a studio followed by a generous and impressive selection from the hundreds of illustrations, in color as well as in black-and-white, Sickles made for magazines and advertisements during a long career. Nowhere else can we find as much of Sickles’ work outside of the Scorchy Smith comic strip. The volume begins with a spritely written appreciation by Jim Steranko and concludes with a helpful list of sources and a “selected” bibliography by Francisco San Millan. I’d have been even more impressed had the publisher thought to include a few of John Terry’s Scorchy Smith strips so we could see just how bad they were and thereby come to an even greater appreciation of Sickles’ skill. But we can’t have everything. What we have is an impressive and valuable work that concludes with a poetic grace note. Sickles didn’t like doing Scorchy Smith very much: he hungered for other artistic challenges. In the last strip he did, he may have signaled his feelings at leaving Scorchy: a character frees a pigeon from its cage, and the bird, unfettered at last, takes flight. So did Sickles. For more about Sickles, you can consult Harv’s Hindsight for October 2004, “The Unsung Sickles.”
A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge is a 14-part web comic about Hurricane Katrina by Josh Neufeld. It is, we are assured by Newsweek’s Jessica Bennett, “raw and painful.” It tells the story of six real-life New Orleanians who survived. Well-drawn with a juicy brush (reminds me, slightly, of Craig Thompson’s manner); harrowingly paced. The first two chapters, depicting the storm and the immediate aftermath, are virtually wordless except for place names in captions. Then the stories of the six individuals begin—this time, with speech balloons and all the rest.
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
With an irony that was as impressive as the display was, the massed precision drills that opened and closed the Olympics in Beijing were a perfect evocation of a totalitarian regime.
Colorado, my beloved home state, produces more beer and a smaller obese population than any other state in the Union. Now you know why it is beloved.
In San Diego, a high school math teacher won a round in federal court, saith the Los Angeles Times, when he was allowed to re-hang a couple banners he’d had on the wall in his classroom: “God Bless America” and “One Nation Under God.” He’d had the banners up for two decades, but last year, his principal ordered them taken down because they seemed to be an impermissible attempt to make a Judeo-Christian statement to his students. There goes the Pledge of Allegiance.
Barney Rosset, an 86-year-old publisher and “First Amendment defender whose battles on behalf of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and other explicit works helped overturn U.S. censorship laws,” won an honorary National Book Award for “Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community,” according to the Associated Press.
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE
An admirable first issue must, above all else, contain such matter as will compel a reader to buy the second issue. At the same time, while provoking curiosity through mysteriousness, a good first issue must avoid being too mysterious or cryptic. And, thirdly, it should introduce the title’s principals, preferably in a way that makes us care about them. Fourth, a first issue should include a complete “episode”—that is, something should happen, a crisis of some kind, which is resolved by the end of the issue, without, at the same time, detracting from the cliffhanger aspect of the effort that will compel us to buy the next issue.
Mike Hunkel, an ingenious animator who created a comic book about a boy and a bruin named Herobear that came out so infrequently that it has inspired a nostalgic crowd of would-be readers (me among them), is back in the funnybooks, this time, writing and drawing DC’s Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam, another of those equivocal “Captain Marvel” titles trumped up to comply with an antique court ruling that prohibits anyone, ever, from using the name “Captain Marvel” as the title of a comic book. Marvel Comics got away with it for a while by shifting the accent from the first syllable to the second—“Captain Mar-VELL”—but, strangely, spelling it “Captain Marvel” on the cover of the series. I’ve never figured out how they managed to evade legal scathing for this blatant offense. Maybe because Marvel Comics wasn’t ever involved in the original lawsuit that dragged on for over a decade, ending, finally, when Fawcett, which had created the original Billy Batson/Captain Marvel team, gave up publishing comic books rather than admit that the “Big Red Cheese” (Captain Marvel) was a swipe of Superman. (He wasn’t; so why admit it?)
Hunkel, who told Stephanie Mangold at PW Comics Week that he has loved Fawcett’s Captain Marvel since he was a child, was thrilled when DC editor Jann Jones approached him about doing the book last spring. Said Hunkel: “I really want to play with that idea of what you would do as a kid with this gift [of superpowers]. A lot of what I want to offer the fans is a connection to Billy Batson as a fun kid with a spontaneous outlook on the world. I want people to think about What if you had been given this magic word?”
As one of a series of titles DC launched a year ago for a youth audience, Hunkel’s Billy Batson book is aimed unapologetically at “younger readers.” But it is a delight for this older reader. Hunkel’s storytelling skills—his deployment of panel breakdowns and page layout, his use of multiple images in the same panel, his comedic timing—are superb. And his streamlined big-foot treatment of Captain Marvel and all the other characters in No. 1 of the title is the silver lining. Hunkel’s drawing style, familiar to all Herobear fans, preserves a kind of sketchiness in shadowy fine lines lurking behind flamboyantly bold brush strokes, a combination that creates nice visual contrasts in every panel as well as fostering an impression of free-flowing spontaneity.
The inaugural issue, which includes two episodes of Captain Marvel satisfactorily performing superhuman feats, offers sufficient reminders of the origin of the character, empowered by the mysterious subway wizard, Shazam, and endears Captain Marvel to us by means of a notably novel notion: Billy secures an apartment for himself and his annoying sister Mary by signing the lease as an “adult”—that is, as Captain Marvel, who, for the occasion, dons mufti as Billy’s “father.” He registers Billy and Mary for school (Fawcett Elementary) in the same guise. But too much of the proceedings are infected with a boyish sense of humor. Hunkel, like many who have attempted to follow in the footsteps of C.C. Beck, who created Captain Marvel and supervised his adventures, takes Beck’s assessment of the character’s success too literally: Beck maintained that the stories were not about a superhero but about a boy who was transformed into a superhuman force for good. The books, then, partook of a juvenile sensibility, a boy’s ideas about good and evil. While that is true, Beck’s Captain Marvel never behaved as if he thought his adventures were frivolous, and Hunkel’s Captain Marvel often does, with the result that the book is essentially humorous, sometimes even slapstick. Fascinating on its merits, but not an authentic revival of Beck’s creation.
The other mistake today’s creative committees make in trying to revive the Fawcett character is to make him too serious, too grim, as if Captain Marvel were another Batman but wearing a red suit instead of a purple-gray one. Beck’s Captain Marvel was a straight-forward personality who took his role seriously, but many of the so-called evils he faces were not realistic but magical, and Captain Marvel’s dilemma was therefore somewhat comical: he had to figure out how to overcome seemingly invincible magic with just ordinary superpowers. The most common incidental predicament involved Billy Batson’s being tied up and gagged so he couldn’t say his magic word to turn himself into Captain Marvel. You’d think that would get old pretty fast, but Beck and his cohorts managed to invent dozens of ways for Billy to get the gag torn off his face. The other advantage Beck had over today’s comic book creators is that he knew he was producing stories for young readers, not adults. Not very many of today’s comic books are published for that audience.
Like Beck, Hunkel keeps young readers high in his consciousness. “I’m trying to create an all-ages series here,” he told Mangold, “—for kids and the kids at heart. For those that are looking for sweet, fun and innocent kid adventures and stories, I look forward to them finding the book.” In his quest for fun kid adventures, Hunkel has shifted the emphasis slightly from the Beck-like “adventure” to kidding around “fun.” Hunkel’s Captain Marvel may attract and hold today’s young reader, but this version of the Red Cheese is a different breed than Beck’s.
Hunkel crams a lot onto every page, resorting, usually, to 5- or 6-tier layouts; many of his pictures are tiny as a result, and some may find this irritating. I don’t, despite my failed eyesight. More irritating to me is the characterization of Mary Marvel, who is portrayed as a typically annoying little sister. (Contrary to the Beck mythos, her superpower is apparently restricted to speed; Beck’s Mary was also strong, intelligent, etc.) The major action in this issue is, upon close inspection, entirely phoney. Captain Marvel starts out to stop a runaway circus train, but just as he sets himself to bring it to a halt by pushing it back from the front, a low-overhead tunnel looms ahead, threatening a carload of giraffes, whose necks stick up too high. So Captain Marvel turns himself into a giant drill and bores a larger hole in the mountain to permit the giraffes to pass through un-decapitated. But then Captain Marvel must stop the train on the other side of the tunnel before it crashes into the pile of earth and rock that his drilling has spewed out on the track ahead of the train. So he stops the train by pushing back from the front—a feat he performs with less distance between the train and disaster than existed before, when the train was approaching the tunnel from the other side. The crisis, in short, never actually existed. If Captain Marvel could stop the train on the far side of the tunnel before it crashes into the mound of earth and rock, he could just as easily have stopped it on the other side of the tunnel, thereby avoiding the necessity of drilling through the mountain. Hunkel knows this is nonsense: Mary ridicules her big brother for the showy display of strength, but Captain Marvel explains it all by saying, “It looked so darn cool.”
“Certainly Captain Marvel can powerfully punch or knock around the evil-doers,” Hunkel says, “but using his brain and his wits, and even kid-like view of the world, I also want Cap to find other ways to beat the bad guys.”
Hunkel has toyed with three or four short storylines in this issue, a masterful display of inventiveness, and while most of the books in the series are intended to be self-contained one-issue stories, in this issue, Hunkel creates a cliffhanger with the introduction of a nasty bully of a little kid named Theo Adam, who, by the next issue, will become, no doubt, the famed Black Adam, the first person the old wizard Shazam endowed with the magic word. A mistake, as it turned out: the guy used his powers for evil rather than good. Reading Fawcett’s Captain Marvel—at the time it was coming out, believe it or not—I was ever intrigued by Black Adam. His black longjohns, his frown, his evil intent. A fascinatingly contrastive personality in Billy Batson’s world. I doubt, however, that Hunkel’s Black Adam will prove as engaging. Theo Adam is already just another diminutive pre-adolescent kid, like Mary. Like Billy. All bigfoot fun, but not Captain Marvel. Still, I’ll come back for more just because Hunkel is fun to watch.
Before we leave Fawcett behind once again, here’s a facsimile reproduction of the February 1922 edition of Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang, Vol. III, No. 30, from About Comics (64 5x7.5-inch pages, b/w; paperback, $5.99). Captain Billy was William H. Fawcett, a veteran of the Spanish American War and World War I, who launched his publishing empire with a booklet of risque jokes, a sample of which we now have in hand, the aforementioned February 1922 relic. Eventually, Captain Billy published racy cartoons as well as suggestive jokes, but in 1922 the booklet was all gray type, unrelieved by any pictorial content except for the cover illo. The jokes are sometimes racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic, and About Comics has wisely elected not to clean up Captain Billy’s act: this is an authentic reproduction, word-for-word, page-by-page, “not intended for audiences who cannot view this in its historical context.” For the whole of its historical context, you might visit Harv’s Hindsight for September 2006, where we rehearse Captain Billy’s history as well as Captain Marvel’s, pointing out, along the way, that Whiz Comics, in which Captain Marvel debuted, was a remnant of the old Whiz Bang, at the time, as we’ll soon see, on its last leg. As nearly as I can tell, this Whiz Bang reprint is complete in every detail, including indicia and incidental advertising and announcements. “Don’t write for early back copies of our regular issues,” we are advised on the inside front cover, “—we haven’t any left.”
issue, like all others, begins with “Drippings from the
Fawcett,” Captain Billy’s personal column, wherein, this
time, he regales us with an account of his recent travels, which
included a stop in Atlanta. “Here we struck nice warm sunshine.
The Atlanta ladies are a genial lot, but their costuming somewhat
crashes with the constitutional scheme of affairs as laid down by the
eighteenth amendment [the one prohibiting the ‘manufacture,
sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors’]. Their hats
are full of cocktails—and sometimes also their heads, I am
told. In fact, a bird of paradise plume is quite the vogue in
Atlanta. The information is also vouchsafed that some Atlanta girls
are born foolish while others marry.” Which the good Captain
follows with this chestnut: “Overhead a rather humorous remark
of a local celebrity, Clay Robson by name, one evening in the lobby
of the Kimball House. Robson is a well-known Georgian lobbyist and
political boss, who is considered a power in the present state
administration. Clay jokingly spluttered to a group of friends that
‘I was twenty-one years old and grown-up before I knew that
“damned Yankee” was two words.’” Another gem:
“Pat and Mike were to run a race to a tree by different routes.
Pat—‘If oi get there first, oi’ll make a mark on
the tree with this chalk, Mike, and if you get there first, you rub
it off.’” Or this: “Where did I get my education?
Why, me dad used to take me over his knee. He made me smart.”
And: “My bride is a nice girl, but she sleeps with her knees
up, and the draft gives me a cold.” I like the Whiz
Bang of later years because it has cartoons.
Here are a few, some from the January 1929 issue, others from
December 1930 (including the photo of Captain Billy and his swimsuit
The ribald little magazine lasted under the Fawcett family’s imprimatur until the 1940s. In early 1942, by which time Fawcett’s Marvel family of comic books was swamping the racks at newsstands, the venerable ancestor of them all was acquired by another publisher, Country Press of Greenwich, Connecticut, which reincarnated the title, this time as a bi-monthly with the 8.5x11-inch page dimension of many regular magazines, most notably Ballyhoo, recently expired but fondly remembered. (Founded and deployed in August 1931 by cartoonist and humorist Norman Anthony, the brightly covered Ballyoo suffered a hiatus from February 1939 until it was revived as a quarterly in the winter of 1953 by Dell and Bill Yates.) Now directed chiefly at servicemen, the new Whiz Bang’s cartoons were almost all of the girlie variety, and pin-up photos graced a few of the pages in the middle. The interior pages were all printed in sepia, as you can tell from the sample in this vicinity, a nice specimen of Carl Buettner’s fluid brush stroke and perceptive interpretation of the curvaceous gender.And all this time, I thought Buettner was only an editor, more the fool I; I should have asked Roger Armstrong more about Buettner when I had the chance.
Back to funnybooks.
The Helm No. 1 from Dark Horse is a perfect first issue (of a 4-issue mini-series by Jim Hardison). The first page is a thorough-going orientation to the title’s underlying proposition. In fact, the first panel, depicting an angry young woman wearing designer glasses, almost does the job all alone. Crossly, she says: “It’s over between us, Matthew! Here’s your cheap-ass ring back. I can’t see spending my life with a thirty-year-old video store clerk who still lives in his mom’s basement.” From this single speech, we learn the guy’s name and the whole depressing catalogue of his circumstances. With the next few panels, Bart Sears on pencils and breakdowns and Randy Elliott with finishes reveal that Matthew Blurdy although tall is also soft-pudding overweight, scraggly long-haired, wishfully bearded, and thoroughly brow-beaten by the customers at the video store—a gross caricature of a typical fanboy. On the next page, he’s fired and staggers out of the store. Then he does something unexpected: he gets on a motorcycle—given Matthew’s other qualifications, I wouldn’t have thought he’d own a bike—and roars off into the gathering gloom of the evening, tears pouring down his face as he agonizes over the loss of his “lady love.” His grief is short-lived: he spies a “Garage Sale” sign outside a gothicky mansion and stops to inspect the wares, despite the admonition of the skeletal character who greets him: “There is nothing for you here.” Suddenly, Matthew hears a voice: “Canst ye hear my voice? Quickly! Come unto me!” it commands. It’s a talking helmet, an antique-looking metallic headgear, molded into the shape of a bearded visage, which changes expressions as it talks.
The Helm, as it calls itself, tells Matthew that he must be “the chosen one” because only the Chosen One can hear the Helm’s voice. If Matthew puts this golden chapeau on his head, the Helm tells him, he’ll be endowed with “power beyond reckoning—yours to command.” Magic. So Matthew, being not only cheap but broke, steals the Helm, and when, down the road, he stops and puts it on, he sees “little fairy babes” and “giant gnarly cloud monsters.” By the time Matthew gets home to his basement lair, the Helm has decided he was wrong about Matthew: the pudgy former video store clerk is not “the One”—“You livest with your mother! There must be some mistake. You are no Valhalladrim!” But Matthew is now intrigued by prospect of having superpowers, and when he awakens the next morning, the Helm has reconciled himself to being owned by a big fat man-child, whose vaguely repulsive brimming-over dimensions Sears and Elliott carefully, lovingly, delineate for us during Matthew’s morning ablutions, which conclude with the chubby man sitting on the toilet.
The Helm promises Matthew that he’ll “defend the world against the forces of darkness and evil” that very evening. Matthew buys a cheap knock-off sword at the mall, and that night, he and the Helm go off into the spooky woods where, sure enough, a giant hobgoblin lurches out of the undergrowth and attacks. Matthew’s sword immediately breaks, but he manages to “kill” the monster with the broken shard of the weapon, plunging it into the beast’s neck—all unassisted, it seems, by the Helm, who just lies there in the bushes and does nothing. Afterwards, however, the Helm pronounces himself pleased with Matthew’s performance and promises to train him to be the Valhalladrim that “he is destined to be—or to die in the trying.” “What?” says Matthew. “To be continued,” of course—a nearly classic cliffhanger. What dangers lurk ahead for our pudgy fanboy? Sears’ expert pencils are adroitly inked by Elliott’s flowing line—nothing particularly stunning, but so thoroughly professional that we can enjoy Hardison’s tale without being distracted by amateurish visuals. Hardison’s concept is, in and of itself, engaging enough to keep us coming back for more, and he’s embellished the notion with a hero whose comedic flailing about while not quite endearing him to us at least makes us want to know how he fares in the enchanted grip of the cantankerous magic hat.
Avatar’s Black Summer has reached its terminal issue, No. 7, with a kind of answer to the question Warren Ellis asked himself in devising the title. I jumped on the series with No. 1, unwittingly missing the first issue, No. 0, in which Ellis posed the predicament; here it is: “If we invite or condone masked adventurers to fight crime outside the law, do we get to draw a line where they stop?” That’s the essential question. Ellis elaborates: “Condoning their activity is much the same as giving them carte blanche to fight crime wherever they perceive it to be. This leads to a much bigger question than, say, asking if superhuman combatants in America should be registered with a Federal agency [Marvel’s Civil War fracas]. In fact, it leads to this: If a self-identified crimefighter lives in a country where a President can be said to have prosecuted an illegal war and therefore can be said to have killed a great many people in the enactment of his criminal enterprise, What does that masked man do?” Yup: Ellis is talking about George W. (“Warlord”) Bush, and if you don’t think GeeDubya is guilty of war crimes, then read Nat Hentoff on the subject.* So what does Ellis’ masked man do? He kills the President of the United States. That’s how Black Summer begins—with John Horus, the ostensible leader of the Seven Guns, a superpowered gang of do-gooder vigilantes, killing the Prez because the Prez is a criminal. The rest of the series is about how the other Seven Guns react.
Juan Jose Ryp produces some of the medium’s most gruesome art—detailed renderings of disembowelings and dismemberments galore, blood and guts raining down on nearly every page—all so meticulously and copiously drawn that every panel is bursting with visual as well as visceral minutiae, every tiny aspect of every tiny thing regurgitated for us in full color while Ellis calmly goes about destroying several of his heroes in pursuit of his thesis. “This is the freedom of doing a piece of superhero fiction outside the auspices of company ownership or the weight of continuity,” he says, “—the big questions can be asked in a very direct and brutal manner.” In the situation Ellis has concocted, as he says, the law enforcement institutions of the country go all out: “The country is now at war with its own heroes. In a situation like that, there are no sides. Not any more. It’s about who survives and who doesn’t. It’s about whether the idea of America lives or dies. It’s about where you draw the line.”
Ellis’s spokesman in this profoundly provocative adventure is one of the Seven Guns, Tom Noir, who receded into alcoholism when he was crippled and his beloved, another of the Seven, was killed during one of their heroic exploits. But when Horus killed the Prez, Tom comes back to life in order to answer Ellis’s question. The answer: You kill the killer who has crossed the line. At first blush, Ellis’s answer would seem merely to perpetuate the dilemma: Tom Noir, like John Horus, has crossed the line. He is an out-of-control vigilante, acting on his own sense of justice. But Tom sees the difference between himself and Horus: Tom knows that vigilante action is illegal action. And so in arranging to kill Horus, he also arranges his own death. By crossing the line, he deserves to die. And by killing himself, he takes the onus off everyone else: no one else needs to cross the line. And so the task of maintaining order once again reverts to its rightful place. Another character, Frank Blacksmith, the co-designer of the enhancements that created the Seven Guns, realizes where that is: “Law is what governments do!” he yells at the self-righteous Horus. “One man wearing a fucking bucket on his head does not get to decide what laws are!”
Black Summer is Ellis’s version of what he calls the current “vogue” in posing political questions in superhero fiction. GeeDubya doesn’t wear a bucket on his head, but he has been guilty of deciding what the law is. Sadly, we haven’t been able to draw a line for him.
* Google Nat Hentoff and follow the link to the Village Voice. The pertinent columns are “The ‘W’ Stands for ‘War Criminal’” (June 24) and “Judging the Torture Presidency of George W. Bush” (July 2). Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions that is the basis for Hentoff’s case “guarantees” that any detained person—whether a prisoner of war, an “unprivileged” belligerent, a terrorist or a noncombatant—has the right to be free from “cruel treatment and torture, outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment.” “Outrages upon personal dignity” have been committed and admitted to by administration and military officials. Quite apart from various evidences, many of which may be arguable, that GeeDubya actually, personally (that is, in the person of Prez of the U.S.), ordered torture, he knew it might be taking place: he had received memoranda from the Justice Department that provided the legal excuses for the American military and CIA to use enhanced methods of interrogation. From this, we must conclude that he knew something might be happening. Under a provision of the Geneva Conventions called “command responsibility,” GeeDubya, as commander-in-chief, is held responsible even if the breach of the Conventions is committed by a subordinate “if [the superior] knew or had information which should have enabled [him] to conclude, in the circumstances at the time, that [the subordinate] was committing or about to commit such a breach” and did nothing to prevent “or repress” the breach. Without question, GeeDubya “had information” that suggested something untoward was likely to happen. In a breach of another sort—an abdication of journalistic duty—the news media, as Hentoff points out, have failed to report much at all about a June 6 letter, signed by 56 Democrats in the House of Representatives, asking the U.S. Attorney General to appoint a special counsel to investigate whether the Prez or his cohorts have taken actions that violate the War Crimes Act “and other U.S. and international laws.” Since the U.S. signed the Geneva Conventions making it U.S. law, it seems obvious to me that we have some guilty parties hereabouts.
MORE RABBIT RIDDLES
What would you call a cold puppy sitting on a rabbit? A chili dog on a bun.
Why do rabbits have shiny noses? Because the powder puff is at the wrong end.
Why is a rabbit like a dime? Because it has a head on one end and a tail on the other.
What is a rabbit after it’s four days old? Five days old.
What would you have if you ate nothing but carrots? A rabbit habit.
WE’RE 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.
Bill Melendez, 1916-2008
Charles Solomon in a special to the Los Angeles Times did a better job than I can do, animation not being my particular interest as it is his. Here he is, verbatim:
Animator, director and producer Jose Cuautemoc "Bill" Melendez, whose television programs and theatrical films featuring Charles Schulz's Peanuts characters earned four Emmy Awards, an Oscar nomination and two Peabody Awards, died September 2 at St. John's hospital in Santa Monica, according to publicist Amy Goldsmith. He was 91.
Melendez's career extended over nearly seven decades, including stints at Walt Disney Studios, Leon Schlesinger Cartoons (which later was sold to Warner Bros), United Productions of America and Playhouse Pictures. In 1964, he established Bill Melendez Productions, where he created his best-known works, including the holiday classic "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (1965). Over the years, his films were honored with two additional prime-time Emmys, three National Cartoonist Society awards, a Clio Award and 150 awards for commercials.
"A Charlie Brown Christmas," which Melendez and his partner Lee Mendelson produced for CBS, established the format of the half-hour animated special—and began one of the most popular franchises in animation history.
Animating Schulz's simple drawings posed problems. "Charlie Brown has a big head, a little body and little feet," Melendez said in a 2000 interview for the Times. "Normally, a human takes a step every 16 frames—about two-thirds of a second. But Sparky's [Schulz's] characters would look like they were floating at that pace. After several experiments, I had them take a step every six frames—one-fourth of a second. ... It was the only way that worked."
"A Charlie Brown Christmas" won an Emmy and a Peabody; CBS has rebroadcast it every holiday season since. Breaking with tradition, the filmmakers used an upbeat jazz score by Grammy-winning composer Vince Guaraldi and real children for the characters' voices, rather than adult actors imitating children. Melendez supplied Snoopy's laughs, sobs and howls. Schulz insisted that as a dog, Snoopy couldn't talk. Melendez experimented with making sounds that suggested a voice and speeding them up on tape—assuming a professional actor would do a final recording. But time ran short, and Melendez ended up serving as Snoopy's voice in 63 subsequent half-hour specials, five one-hour specials, the Saturday morning TV show and four feature films. In his later years, Melendez chuckled over the fact that he received residuals for his vocal performances.
Working with Mendelson and Schulz, Melendez brought the Peanuts characters to the big screen in 1969 with "A Boy Named Charlie Brown." Time magazine reported that "when 'A Boy Named Charlie Brown' sticks to a boy named Charlie Brown, it becomes a good deed in a naughty world, bright, nonviolent and equipped with an animated moral, the way Snoopy is equipped with a tail."
Three sequels followed: "Snoopy, Come Home" (1972), "Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown" (1977) and "Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don't Come Back!!)" (1980).
"Bill Melendez brought his special warmth, charm and directness to the Charles Schulz characters and brought them to life," animation historian and Oscar-winning filmmaker John Canemaker said Wednesday.
Melendez also oversaw the first specials based on the comic strips "Garfield" (1982) and "Cathy" (1987), two adaptations of the "Babar" books, and an animated version of C.S. Lewis' "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" (1979). Through the London branch of his studio, he directed "Dick Deadeye, or Duty Done" (1975), rewritten fragments of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas with designs by illustrator Ronald Searle.
Born in Sonora, Mexico, Nov. 15, 1916, Melendez moved with his family to Arizona in 1928, then to Los Angeles, where he attended the Chouinard Art Institute. He was one of the few Latinos working in animation when he began his career at Walt Disney Studios in 1939, contributing to the features "Pinocchio," "Fantasia," "Bambi" and"Dumbo," as well as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck shorts.
Melendez was an active participant in the bitterly fought strike that led to the unionization of the Disney artists in 1941, after which he moved to Schlesinger Cartoons, animating Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and other classic Warner Bros characters. In 1948, Melendez joined United Productions of America and was delighted by the company's innovative approach to animation. "The animation we were doing was not limited, but stylized," he recalled in a 1986 interview. "When you analyze Chaplin's shorts, you realize people don't move that way—he stylized his movements. We were going to do the same thing for animation. We were going to animate the work of Cobean, Steinberg—all the great cartoonists of the moment—and move them as the designs dictated."
After animating numerous UPA shorts, including the Oscar-winning "Gerald McBoing-Boing" (1951), Melendez served as a director and producer on more than 1,000 commercials for UPA, Playhouse Pictures and John Sutherland Productions. In 1959, he directed the first animation of the Peanuts characters for a series of commercials advertising the Ford Falcon.
"What made working in commercials fun then was the quick turn over of ideas," Melendez said. "That speed was refreshing."
Melendez is survived by his wife of 68 years, Helen; two sons, Steven Melendez and retired Navy Rear Adm. Rodrigo Melendez; six grandchildren; and 11 great grandchildren. Memorial services will be private. Donations can be made in Melendez's name to Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.
Matt Schudel at the Washington Post adds a few insights; herewith pertinent excerpts:
With producer Lee Mendelson, Melendez formed a 43-year partnership that has generated more than 70 Peanuts productions, including four feature films. He also animated more than 370 commercials using Peanuts characters and remains the only animator Charles M. Schulz trusted to bring his famous comic strip figures to life.
"We had a wonderful relationship, the three of us, Schulz, Bill and I," Mendelson said yesterday in an interview. "Bill moved the characters off the page. He didn't do anything too elaborate. By keeping that simplicity, that caused a seamless transition. I think that was the key to our success."
Success was hardly assured when the first Peanuts special, "A Charlie Brown Christmas," was broadcast by CBS in 1965. Network executives feared it would be a colossal flop, with no laugh track, a jazz musical score by pianist Vince Guaraldi and a religious message that Melendez thought at first was too overt.
Schulz later told him, according to the Los Angeles Times, "Bill, if we don't do it, then who will?"
Much to everyone's surprise, the show was a huge hit and garnered Emmy and Peabody awards. Cartoonist Robert Smigel called it "the greatest half-hour American tv has ever produced."
In addition to animating every Peanuts film and TV special, Melendez provided the wordless voice of Snoopy, Charlie Brown's irrepressible beagle. Melendez spoke gibberish into a tape recorder, then played the tape at high speed. (He used the same method to record the chirping voice of the bird Woodstock.)
"We were such good friends and we understood each other," Melendez told the Newark Star-Ledger in 2002. "Sparky used to say to me, 'Bill, I'm a cartoon strip artist and you couldn't do what I do. You are an animation artist and I can't do what you do.' ... So he never tried to crowd me, and I would never dare question what he did as a strip artist."
ONWARD, THE SPREADING PUNDITRY
The Great Ebb and Flow of Things
John McCain’s message to Baracko Bama on the day the latter accepted the Dem nom: “Tomorrow, we’ll be back at it. But tonight, Senator, job well done.” Old sailors, like McCain, know that in the Navy the highest praise is expressed with that single liquid phrase, “well done.” In the Air Force, they shout the flashier encomium “Outstanding!!” With exclamation points. But in the Navy, a tradition-bound and therefore restrained service, “well done” does just fine.
I decided to waste another week of evenings—my fifth in a row, counting the Olympics—this time, watching the Repubs. Doing a little background research by reading one of the weekly prints, I ran across a phrase in an article about the speeches at political conventions —"unsupported by facts." Here, at last, we have a succinct way of describing nearly everything in modern American political discourse. Almost everything almost every politician is saying is "unsupported by facts." It's all hot air, vaporous attitudinizing designed to sway what we believe without making any reference to actual reality. Energy independence? In today's global economy? Impossible. It’s all interdependent, and they all know it. But since they know we want to hear it, they say it, over and over. Victory in Iraq? What's "victory"? We've already won. We've destroyed the country: in warfare, that means you've won. It’s worse during an election campaign. And McCain seems better at being worse than Obama. Recently, he ran an ad (“I’m John McCain, and I approved this ad”) asserting that Obama sponsored a piece of legislation that would conduct sex education in kindergarten. True, but what McCain’s ad failed to mention was that the “sex education” proposed for kindergarten classes had to do with warning tots about sexual predators, telling them what to beware of and the like. The assertion of the ad, in other words, was “unsupported by facts.” In short, it about as close to being a lie as you can get without actually fabricating.
By the way, how many black faces did you notice as the tv cameras scanned the delegates attending the Repub Con in St. Paul? Not many. But there were some, one of whom had apparently done a count. Interviewed on camera, this personage (whose name, alas, I missed) said there were only about 34 African-American delegates this year; last time, four years ago, he said there were 156. Maybe that’s one of the directions McCain would like to change. Here in Denver, the Democrats mustered a delegation that was about 24 percent African-American v. that minority’s 2 percent in St. Paul. But the Democrats didn’t do so well on arrests of demonstrators—only 154, as I said before. The Repubs, on the other hand, did much better—about twice as good, 286, including a high-profile journalist, Amy Goodman, who did not dilly dally around before getting her version of the event into syndication. “Behind all the patriotic hyperbole that accompanies the conventions, and the thousands of journalists and media workers who arrive to cover the staged events, there are serious violations of the basic right of freedom of the press,” she wrote, continuing: “Here on the streets of St. Paul, the press is free to report the official proceedings of the Repub Con, but not to report on the police violence and mass arrests directed at those who have come to petition their government, to protest.” Goodman was arrested, it seems, for committing no more offense than being at the scene of some arrests and asking for the officer who was in charge, hoping to get a couple of her colleagues released. Altogether, Goodman claims, 40 journalists were arrested in St. Paul, a dramatic demonstration, no doubt, of the Palin view of the news media as elistist.
Nine of the roiling mobs in St. Paul were injured; none in Denver. Property damage in Denver was also on the skimpy side—some graffiti; but in St. Paul, tires were slashed, windows broken, fires set. But then, it’s the Republicans who have created the mess we’re in, so, naturally, protest would cluster around them, not Democrats who, mostly, have done nothing. Nothing at all.
Columnist David Sirota at Creators said this, among other things, about the Repubs’ call to patriotism, “Country First”: “Who is the country? According to the Census Bureau, it will soon be mostly non-whites. That is, the demographic groups who the alleged ‘country first’ party regularly disparages, whether Senator Trent Lott yearning for a return to segregation, Rep. Tom Tancredo scapegoating Latinos, President Bush genuflecting to Bob Jones University’s white supremacists, or Ronald Reagan echoing bigoted rallying cries at the scene of Mississippi race murders. Maybe,” he continues, “I just don’t get it. Maybe ‘country first’ really does mean refereeing foreign civil wars, spending billions overseas while cutting domestic programs, exporting jobs and bashing ethnic groups that will soon comprise the majority of the nation. But I don’t think so. More likely, Republicans have simply taken the famous parable to heart—the one about patriotism being the last refuge of scoundrels.” A little strong, perhaps, but I admire his dexterity with a telling phrase.
And then we have Sarah Palin, the self-proclaimed hockey-mom who alerted us to the difference between a pit bull and a hockey mom: “Lipstick,” she said with a genial smirk. You may think, looking down this scroll for a while, that I’m spending much too much time on a erstwhile beauty contest winner, but it’s all in my line of work: this online magazine, you’ve noticed, is about cartooning and, often, comedy, and since Sarah Palin is the biggest political joke of the season, she belongs here. Gloria Steinem wishes it weren’t so. A few fragments of her thoughts on the subject:
“Her down-home divisive and deceptive speech [at the Repub Con] did nothing to cosmeticize a Republican convention that has more than twice as many male delegates as female, a presidential candidate who is owned and operated by the right wing and a platform that opposes pretty much everything Clinton’s candidacy stood for—and that Barack Obama’s still does. To vote in protest for McCain/Palin would be like saying, ‘somebody stole my shoes, so I’ll amputate my legs.’ ... Palin was elected governor largely because the incumbent was unpopular, and she’s won over Alaskans mostly by using unprecedented oil wealth to give a $1,200 rebate to every resident. Now she is being praised by McCain’s campaign as a tax cutter despite the fact that Alaska has no state income or sales tax. ... Palin’s value to [the patriarchs of the Grand Old Party] is clear: she opposes just about every issue that women support by a majority or plurality. She believes that creationism should be taught in public schools but disbelieves global warming; she opposes gun control but supports government control of women’s wombs ...” And on and on.
But McCain’s strategy, his hope to attract the GOP right wing nuts, has, apparently, succeeded, as Steinem says: “So far, the major new McCain supporter that Palin has attracted is James Dobson of Focus on Family. Of course, for Dobson, ‘women are merely waiting for their husbands to assume leadership,’ so he may be voting for Palin’s husband.”
The Dem veep nominee, Joe Biden, told reporters—privately according to the AP’s Nedra Pickler—that “Palin was a smart political choice who has changed the race but is not prepared to be a heartbeat away from the Presidency.” McCain’s decision to pick Palin was undoubtedly a politically-motivated choice, aimed at getting himself elected not at guaranteeing the well-being of the country should he expire before his term in office. McCain, therefore, stands revealed as a cunning politician of the Karl Rove School. The Palin decision on conspicuous display, it’s clear that with McCain, it’s the same party politics game we’ve had for the last eight years: every action is undertaken for its political effect, not for the sake of the country’s welfare. In fact, sometimes the political impact has been bad for the country. We don’t really need more of the same, right?
Ed Koch, the outspoken, often on matters about which he knows nothing, former mayor of New York, a conservative Dem who supported GeeDubya, is unhappy with the Repubs’ choice of a former mayor from a tiny town in Alaska. (All towns in Alaska are, relatively speaking, tiny; the population of the entire state is less than that of the metropolitan area of Denver.) “Protecting and defending the U.S. means more than defending us from foreign attacks,” Koch said, quoted by the Associated Press and going on to cite such concerns as civil liberties, abortion rights, gay rights and access to health insurance. He said he is particularly troubled by McCain’s choice of a running mate. “She scares the hell out of me,” he said.
Sarah Palin’s children are named Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper, and Trig—weird names. Do we really want a Vice Prez, a heartbeart away from the Presidency, who has such strange taste in names? That’s about as relevant to her fitness for the office as her teenage daughter’s being pregnant without benefit of marriage, the proximity of Alaska to Russia as an indication of foreign policy expertise, and commanding the Alaska National Guard as qualification for being commander in chief of the American military establishment. And yet, despite the inherent fallacy in this kind of thinking, it persists. The last is particularly egregious since few of our presidents have had much military experience in their background as a qualification; in fact, the founders probably would prefer that the chief executive have no military experience, that he (or she) be a civilian commander.
John McCain hugged Governor Palin after her maiden (you should pardon the sexist expression) speech on Wednesday before the faithful multitudes. It was another first. Hugging in public between politicians of the opposite sex. Fritz Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro didn’t hug: they held hands instead—aloft in a victory salute to the adoring masses. But that was 24 years ago. Times change. I notice, though, that Palin rather quickly disengaged from McCain’s embrace. Public hugging may at last be acceptable between a man and a woman who work together, but you don’t want to push it: if you prolong the hug, it begins to mean something more than fellowship. Archie Goodwin, Nero Wolfe’s gofer and a man-about-town in his own right, had more than one girlfriend, and he said he could always tell if their relationship was progressing: if the hug lasted a little bit longer than it would between friends, it meant they were destined to be more than just friends.
Palin probably wants to keep her relationship with McCain wholly professional, friendly but not fervent. And that might be hard to do with a guy who likes women a lot and whose relationships with them have often been of the fighter-pilot sort—swift and short. “In flight school and the years immediately afterward, McCain distinguished himself as a carouser of almost legendary proportions, tooling around in a convertible Corvette, romancing a Brazilian model and a woman whose stage name was Marie the Flame of Florida,” notes Karen Auge in the Denver Post. When McCain came home in 1973 after 5½ years in the Hanoi Hilton, a broken man physically, he found his wife, a former model, likewise broken physically: she’d been in an auto accident that smashed her legs. McCain admits to indulging in several infidelities during this time, finally divorcing his crippled wife in 1982 in order to marry a millionaire beer distributor’s daughter, who was, and still is, a spectacular blonde. And that lobbyist he was suspected of being friendly with a year ago—another blonde.
Not that I think McCain is a ravening womanizer, an irredeemable sex maniac or anything of the sort. I don’t. Nor do I think his admiration of the opposing gender is a bad thing or essentially wrong. It isn’t. Young men, among whom McCain was once numbered, chase women and try to catch as many as they can. Navy pilots perhaps more than most young men: their careers are dangerous—try landing on an aircraft carrier—and their lives potentially short. They want to do all the living they can while they can. McCain, like many Navy pilots I have known, was in his youth a fun-loving sort of guy who, from time to time, aspired to trophy women to adorn his life. Palin, whose looks qualify her as a trophy candidate, clearly doesn’t want to be added to McCain’s list.
Speaking of Palin, as we must occasionally until the Election is over, here is that website letter from a citizen of Wasilla, Palin’s hometown, where she once served as mayor: http://www.thepresidentialcandidates.us/about-sarah-palin-a-letter-from-anne-kilkenny/741/ Apparently, not everyone in Alaska worships at the altar of the lipsticked hockey mom.
But the daughter of my wife’s cousin (always an unimpeachable source, kimo sabe) lives near Wasilla and knows about Sarah. Cousin’s daughter is not a Palin foe. She says Sarah does what she says she is going to do. Sarah got rid of the governor that no one liked and made a lot of changes for the good. This year the cousin’s daughter’s family will receive almost $10,000 from the state’s oil revenue funds. Every family in Alaska will be receiving money according to the number of people in their family so some will get a bigger check and some less. Part of the money is to help pay for fuel etc. Rich state.
Rich enough to pay Palin $17,000 in per diem last year for the days she worked at home in Wasilla instead of at the governor’s mansion in Juneau. Dunno how she maneuvered that, but it sounds like a good trick to me.
MORE UNSUPPORTED BY THE FACTS. The Grand Old Pachyderm jumped all over Bucko Bama for the metaphors he used to suggest that McCain, despite his professtations to the contrary, would carry on just like ol’ George W. (“Whopper”) Bush: “You can put lipstick on a pig,” O’Bama said. “It’s still a pig. You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change. It’s still going to stink after eight years.” McCain’s minions leaped to their feet, shrieking that Obama was saying Palin was a pig since she wears lipstick. Or some such offense to logic. A rampant sexist remark in any case. Well, I beg to differ. Obama is better at deploying language than that. If he intended his remark to apply to Palin, he would have said pitbull, not pig. Carl Woodward at the AP, however, made a more telling observation: “Emotionally wounded fishermen have yet to be heard from,” he said. “Aggrieved pig farmers are mum.” And the McCain gang handily chose to overlook the inconvenient fact that McCain had used the lipstick metaphor some months ago, disparaging Hillary’s health plan as lipstick on a pig.
No politician in these fevered times is likely to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. They all bend the facts to fit their own purposes. Obama claimed that there were more black men in prison than in college even after newsstories refuted it. And he reconfigured a McCain remark about staying in Iraq 100 years: Obama implied that McCain expected American soldiers to be in combat for that length of time, but McCain was drawing a parallel between his expectation for Iraq and our experience in Korea, where we’ve been for the last nearly 60 years.
Still, McCain is the champion distorter of fact, no contest. “Even in a political culture accustomed to truth-stretching,” writes the AP’s Charles Babington, “McCain’s skirting of facts has stood out this week. Not only has he accused Obama of calling Palin a pig, he says Obama would raise nearly everyone’s taxes when independent groups say 80 percent of families would get tax cuts instead.” Then there’s the sex education thing. Not content to lie about his opponent, McCain lies about his running mate, saying, repeatedly, that she “killed the federally funded boondoggle, Bridge to Nowhere, when, in fact, she pulled her support only after the project became a political embarrassment.”
Unsupported by the facts, indeed.
Now that the quadrennial political convenings are over, we know that the forthcoming Presidential Election is likely to be decided by racism, ageism, and sexism—all enduring facets of American life. The Grand Old Pachyderm scores two out-of-three and so will doubtless lose.
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