Opus 235 (December 22, 2008). The news, alas, is not as festive as the season: more editoonists have been fired and one newspaper, teetering on the brink of extinction, is cutting back on its comic strip section, portending an ill wind blowing our way in the future. Our longest feature this time, apart from the wake we hold for newspapers and editoonists, considers a facsimile edition of the legendary Landon Correspondence Course in Cartooning. With one eye on Xmas gifts, we review a goodly number of books and take note of the passing of Forrest J Ackerman and Bettie Page, and we present the second half of the review of Brian Walker’s Comics: The Complete Collection, easily the best buy of the season, plus a scathing review of the Punisher movie, financial news from Tokyopop and comic book stores, and the dangers of editooning in South Africa. Here’s what’s here, in order, by department:
CORRECTION for Harv’s Hindsight
NOUS R US
Financial crisis hits Tokyopop but not, so much, comic book stores; Pulitzers for online news organizations, more casualties among editoonists, Rocky Mountain News and other newspapers on the edge of extinction, comic sections cut back, South African cartoonist fights on, Obama to be caricatured, obits for Forest J Ackerman and Bettie Page, Superman’s birthplace saved
XMAS LIST: BOOKS FOR A MERRY YULE :: PART TWO
John Romita, Mauldin’s Willie and Joe, Peanuts through 1970, Eats Shoots and Punctuation, Al Jaffee’s Tall, Risko caricatures, Landon Course, Baker’s drawing stupid tome, new Eisner how-to, Peter Poplaski’s Sketchbook, Alexa Kitchen’s, Graphic Shorthand by Jim Ivey, New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest instructional volume
The Other History of Comics Book
Second half of the review of Brian Walker’s Comics: The Complete Collection
And our customary reminder: when you get to the $ubscriber/Associate Section (perusal of which is restricted to paid subscribers), 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 installment for reading later, at your leisure while enthroned. Without further adieu, then, here we go—
CORRECTION FOR HINDSIGHT:
In our most recent posting to Harv’s Hindsight, we mistakenly supposed that Dick Moores had fired Bob Zschiesche because Zschiesche took too long to do the Sunday Gasoline Alley; not so, exactly. Here’s a revision to the two paragraphs in question:
King had employed other assistants over the years—Sals Bostwich, probably the first according to Scancarelli; John Chase, Val Heinz, Albert Tolf, and Jack Fox, who went on to assist Ed Dodd on Mark Trail. Perhaps the most picturesque in name and career was Bob Zschiesche (pronounced “zeee-chee”), whom King hired in early 1950 to assist him and, later, Perry. But Zschiesche didn’t last long after Moores took over: Scancarelli, the present mechanic in the Alley, told me that Moores subsequently convinced King to fire Zschiesche because he, Moores, could do what Zschiesche was doing and make more money. But when Perry retired in 1975 and Moores faced the Sunday strip as well as the dailies, he hired Zschiesche again to help on the Sundays. Zschiesche had just retired after 12 years doing editorial cartoons for the Greensboro Daily News in North Carolina and was tinkering with an idea he had for a different kind of editorial cartoon that he thought he might do. Preoccupied with this aspiration, he devoted less and less time to Gasoline Alley: Moores found himself doing more and more of the Sunday strips while Zschiesche dawdled for weeks over one installment. Finally, in 1980, Moores let Zschiesche go and took on all seven days of the strip. He’d hired Scancarelli to assist on dailies the previous summer; Jim’s first daily was published December 27, 1979. Zschiesche’s last Sunday was dated April 6, 1980; Jim’s first, April 13.
Zschiesche went off to pursue his new approach to editorial cartooning: he depicted ordinary citizens commenting on their concerns, but every cartoon was set in an actual locale with the people standing in front of picturesque Victorian houses or local landmarks. Calling it Our Folks, Zschiesche syndicated it himself in 1980: traveling around the country as his own salesman, he eventually signed up 38 papers. About self-syndication, Zschiesche said: “I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s a crapshoot—but it’s great fun.” He ended the feature after a short run and retired, again, to the family farm near Prophetstown, Illinois. But he couldn’t stop cartooning. He did a comic strip with anthropomorphic farm animals for the local paper; that was its entire client list, but Bob was happy drawing the strip regardless of its circulation. He also tried his hand at a strip about teenagers, samples of which he showed me at the time; it was like just about any strip about teenagers you might name. Bob was, by then, too shy and self-effacing to try to sell it. He died a short time later. He deployed a crisp fustian drawing style with great eye-appeal; I wish Our Folks had made it big and lasted a long time.
NOUS R US
All the News That Gives Us Fits
Tokyopop Associate Publisher Marco Pavia, explaining recent layoffs to Icv2.com, said: "Publishers and booksellers are describing this as one of the worst retailing environments in memory and I don't know what to add. I think that's an accurate assessment. We're adjusting to this landscape that's shifting every day. We need to be as responsive as we can to these new realities just to endure." Being responsive in a self-preservation sort of mode, Tokyopop laid off another eight employees in early December, making 47 since last summer. Pavia's description of the market conditions in the book trade follows the similar remarks by the CEOs of Barnes & Noble and Hastings. But, Icv2.com added in another December 18 report, the numbers from comic stores are "holding up really well" in the economic crisis, quoting Diamond Comic Distributors Vice President Sales and Marketing Roger Fletcher: "Diamond's sales are tracking close to last year’s levels, but down about 3%. Retailers are trying to be prudent and conservative on inventory," Fletcher explained. "That's led to some sales declines." Fletcher thought January orders might be down because that’s a time that retailers traditionally decide to close their stores, if they’re going to. But store counts dropped only 2.5% from last year, Fletcher said.
& Publisher reminds us that the medium’s
longest running continuously published panel cartoon celebrated its
ninetieth anniversary on December 19, when, in 1918, a sports
cartoonist at the New York Globe filled his space with “Dubious Athletic Achievements.” It
was popular enough to prompt repetition, and when it went beyond
sports oddities, it was re-christened “Believe It Or Not.”
Robert Ripley’s story is regaled in the third of Harv’s
Hindsights long ago and far away in May
2000 (or was it 1999?).
In a press release, the Pulitzer Prize cabal announced its decision to let Internet news operations compete for the Prize, but the Board emphasized that all the material entered—whether online or in print—must come from U.S. news organizations that publish at least weekly and are "primarily dedicated to original news reporting and coverage of ongoing stories," and "adhere to the highest journalistic principles.” That, I assume, leaves out bloggers like the HuffingtonPost but it may include online animated editorial cartoons just as it does certain kinds of other video although two kinds of news photography remain restricted to stills.
Starting December 8, Patrick McDonnell’s strip, Mutts, featured its canine and feline characters, Earl and Mooch, discussing the Obama family’s hope to adopt a dog from an animal shelter. McDonnell, who has served on the board of directors of the National Humane Society since 2000, is a major advocate for animal adoption and, according to Icv2.com, hopes the week’s storyline will spur even more interest in animal adoptions. The cartoonist has received several awards for his efforts, which include, twice a year, a special “shelter series” in the strip and, most recently, the publication of a hundred of these strips in an Andrews McMeel volume, Shelter Stories: Love Guaranteed. Among the strips are photos of 70 dogs that have found homes through adoption.
Among the few things about Hefland that we failed to mention last time in our exhaustive profile of Mr. Playboy’s publishing career and lifestyle is Christie Hefner, the founder’s 56-year-old daughter who, with her father’s encouragement, insinuated herself into the Playboy business in 1975 and, by 1988, was CEO and chairman—all of which might have proved, were we so disposed, that there’s more to Playboy than barenekidwimmin. Cartoons about rapacious hedonists of both sexes, for instance. But the daughter has had enough: she’s retiring from the company in January to devote more time to public service of a somewhat different albeit unspecified sort, saith Bloomberg News. “I’ve long planned to spend part of my life doing things other than corporate life,” Ms. Hefner explained cryptically. Perhaps her departure was inspired by Playboy’s loss of $52 million in the third quarter, brought on, like the kindred calamities we see on all sides these days, by the recession-induced drop in ad revenue at the magazine. Until a replacement for Ms. Hefner can be dragooned into duty, the interim chairman will be a member of the board since 2002, Jerome Kern. Not the long-deceased composer, this Kern, a resident of Castle Pines, Colorado, is a philanthropist who has served previously as a trustee board member for the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and has chaired numerous charity events in Denver. Playboy Enterprises evidently qualifies as a philanthropic endeavor.
Merry Christmas. Two more editorial cartoonists received unwelcomed Christmas presents from their employers: after narrowly escaping layoff in April, Eric Deverick departed the Seattle Times on December 12, and Brian Duffy was laid off at Gannett’s Des Moines Register where he’s been since 1983. Deverick, says Allan Gardner at DailyCartoonist.com, is going into another line of work altogether—designing clothing for a skateboard company and, moving to Southern California, joining an industrial design company as a business development specialist. He isn’t planning on doing any more editorial cartooning. Duffy’s departure leaves the Des Moines Register with a big hole on its front page. Once home to the legendary Jay Norword “Ding” Darling, the Register is the only daily newspaper in the country that still publishes its editorial cartoon on the front page, where all newspapers once ran their staff cartoonist’s opinion.
Duffy didn’t leave quietly. Interviewed by local tv channels, he didn’t mince words describing his feelings about Gannett: “Whatever I gave to Gannett—and I gave everything I had for 25 years and never missed a deadline—whatever I gave wasn’t reciprocated,” he said. “How did I find out? That’s the stunner,” Duffy said. “It hit me like a ton of bricks—there’s no other way to say it.” And then the crowning blow: after he was told he was fired—there was no warning, he said—he was escorted from the building without being able to gather personal items from his office. “We’ll have somebody bring your bag and coat down,” he said he was told. Although syndicated to 400 papers by the Register syndicate, he vowed never to let the newspaper publish any of his cartoons again. And he cancelled his subscription to the paper. A video of one of his tv interviews is available at the E&P website, editorandpublisher.com and here, http://www.politicker.com/video-former-des-moines-register-cartoonist-speaks-out from fellow editoonist Robert Tornoe, Politicker.com’s cartoonist, who, annoyingly, was just laid off there after serving full-time since just last April.
These casualties drop the total number of full-time staff editoonists to 88. Down from 101 last May, a spectacularly precipitous decline. One of the charter members of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC), Jim Ivey, who drew editorial cartoons for 40 years from coast to coast, Washington D.C. to San Francisco, tells me the number of editoonists in 1948 when he started was 125. My speculation is that it went up somewhat over the years before beginning its sharp decline in the last decade or so.
early warning signal has gone up in Minneapolis at the Star
Tribune, which is hoping to whittle its staff
with buyouts and has listed the staff editorial cartoonist position
as “eligible.” Since the paper has only one staff
editorial cartoonist, Steve Sack, he may be counting the months until
his job disappears.
More Festivities. Another Christmas gift of the dire sort threatens yet another editorial cartooning slot: on December 4, E.W. Scripps, owner of the Rocky Mountain News, announced that it is putting the 150-year-old tabloid up for sale, and if a buyer doesn’t come forward by mid-January, Scripps may close the paper, by circulation, the chain’s flagship. The News (which is what we called it when I was a kid hereabouts, not today’s slangy locker room locution, “the Rocky,” which it prefers to be called these days) is losing about $15 million a year, and even if some idealistic billionaire with journalistic stars in his eyes would be interested in acquiring the paper as a hobby, financing a buy in this credit-crunched economy would be extremely difficult. When the News folds, Ed Stein’s editorial cartooning job will disappear, too—as will the position of one of the nation’s last two full-time sports cartoonist, Drew Litton. (The other remaining full-time sports cartoonist is Bill Gallo at the New York Daily News.)
The situation abounds in ironies. Denver is one of the nation’s last two-newspaper towns thanks in part to the 1970 Newspaper Preservation Act, which created the possibility for joint operating agreements that would, it was hoped, preserve two independent editorial voices in cities where at least two newspapers existed, each threatening the other’s financial well-being. Most JOAs maintain two newspapers as separate news and editorial entities but consolidate business operations under one staff, thereby achieving a savings that presumably is enough to enable both journalistic enterprises to continue. The first irony: of the 27 JOAs approved since the law was enacted, 16 have failed. The Newspaper Preservation Act is not preserving newspapers. In 16 instances, the savings effected by the consolidations was not sufficient to keep both papers alive. Ditto in Denver. The Denver JOA went into effect in January 2001 with the business operation being handled by a third entity, the Denver News Agency, jointly owned by the two newspapers, the News and the Denver Post, which split the profits from the DNA. Due to massive decline in ad revenues, the News’ share of 2008's profits will be $15 million short of covering operating costs. Second irony: the circulation of the News is slightly greater than that of the Post, but because of its smaller page size, the News’s advertising income is less than the Post’s. Third irony: so the News is responsible for there being even less revenue in the Post’s share than the Post might generate on its own.
The Rocky Mountain News, which published its first issue April 22, 1859—20 minutes before the first issue of a rival paper (which never published a second issue)—is Colorado’s oldest newspaper and the oldest continually operating business in the state. Fourth irony: a month ago, the News launched an ambitious anniversary celebration, planning to publish every day for the next 150 days, until April 23, 2008, an article about a major newsstory from the past, illustrated by the changing face of the newspaper’s front page. Chances are, the culmination of the celebration planned for April 2008 will not take place. Scripps, which owns 14 other newspapers around the country, is merciless in shoring up its profit margin: it shut down another of its papers, the Albuquerque Tribune last February; the Tribune was in the nation’s oldest JOA with the Albuquerque Journal. The year before, Scripps shuttered the Cincinnati Post, which was in a JOA with Gannett’s Cincinnati Enquirer, an arrangement Gannett announced it would not renew. If Scripps were a journalistic enterprise rather than the manager of “profit centers,” its papers would all survive. But that’s old fashioned journalism.
John Morton, a veteran newspaper analyst, is quoted in the Denver Post, estimating that more than 30 daily newspapers are for sale at present. The New York Times at its website on Friday, December 5, reported that the Miami Herald is for sale, but no one knows of any serious offer yet. The largest of the McClatchy chain, the Herald “generates a very slim operating margin ... the most attractive part of any deal could be its prime waterfront real estate. But the Florida real estate market is in deep recession—one of the reasons for the struggles of the paper, which used to benefit from heavy real estate advertising.”
On Pearl Harbor Day, the New York Times reported that the Tribune Company, owner of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, might be filing for bankruptcy because its cash flow is less than is specified in an agreement with bondholders. The next day, the Tribune filed for bankruptcy protection. Last December, the Tribune Company “went private” (i.e., shed its stockholders) when a real estate billionaire, Samuel Zell, “bought” the company in a move widely heralded as the first in what newspaper watchers hoped would be a wave of private investor purchases across the industry, restoring newspapers to private owners instead of Wall Street investors, which, it was expected, would lead to the reinstatement of journalism as the chief mission of the newspapers. In Zell’s case, it hasn’t happened: he may know about investments (although maybe not so much about purchasing newspapers) but he proved ignorant of journalism. In financial straits similar to the Tribune’s are the companies that own the Inquirer and the Daily News in Philadelphia; ditto the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. Even the New York Times is hard up for cash and is hoping to score a huge loan. In most of these cases, the newspapers are actually making money, but not enough to make adequate payments on their debts. Part of the problem with the Rocky Mountain News is that it has $130 million in debt incurred by installing new printing equipment a year or so ago. Cited in the Denver Post, the corporate ratings agency Fitch “predicted that some newspapers and newspaper groups are likely to default on their debt in 2009—possibly leaving some cities with no daily newspapers.”
in Detroit, the JOA’d Detroit News and Detroit Free Press (the 20th largest U.S. newspaper by weekday circulation) have taken a giant
stride in that direction. The papers announced that they will drop
home delivery of their print editions except for the three highest
revenue days, Thursday, Friday and Sunday. On the other days of the
week, “newspaper readers” can find the news on the
papers’ websites. “More and more outlets will be moving
this way,” R&R correspondent John McCarthy speculates. “It
will affect our cartoonist friends directly.
Quite apart from our concern over the fate of a democratic form of government in a society of people ignorant of what’s going on in their world, we also wonder about the fate of comic strips. A trivial consideration, I realize; but this niche is about cartooning in all its print venues. Hence, our interest in the future of newspaper journalism. An interest suddenly turned to anxiety: the Times-Union in Jacksonville, Florida, announced on December 14 that it intends to drop eight comic strips daily and Sunday. Said Jeff Reece: “Financial realities are forcing us to make some difficult and unpopular decisions. The next step might be the hardest—and least popular— of all the adjustments we have had to make: cutting comic strips. ... The comics page is known as the third rail of the newspaper industry,” Reece continued. “No editor in his right mind will touch the comics unless it is absolutely necessary. We don't want to make our readers unhappy. But economic realities make this necessary.” What are the economics? Figuring that the average comic strip costs a newspaper $15 a week for dailies, ditto for Sundays, a newspaper can cut expenses by $1,560 a year if it drops one syndicated strip from its line-up. And if the Times-Union drops eight strips, that’s $12,48 a year in savings. In actuality, the savings will be greater: probably some of the eight strips will be the more popular ones with fees higher than our average $15/week/Sunday. “Eliminating eight comics brings the kind of savings we needed,” said Reece. “It’s painful but necessary.” The paper will give its readers a chance to vote on a list that’s made up of more than a dozen strips, some of which finished in the bottom half of a recent readership survey and a couple of which, newly added to the line-up, received “an unusual amount of criticism from readers.” Another strip that’s a candidate for dropping is For Better or For Worse, a candidate because, Reece said, “it’s essentially in re-runs.” Reece doesn’t think any of the eight strips will ever return once they’ve been dropped.
There you have it: my worst nightmare looming on the southeaster edge of the continent. Before long, other papers will surely follow suit: after firing a superfluous editoonist, trimming the comic strip line-up to the bone is the next best way to save money. One of the Times-Union readers, responding to Reece’s announcement, said it best: “Obviously, no one at the T-U gives a shit about their own comics survey or their own web site. Pathetic. Let the paper die. It’s no wonder.” Extreme, maybe, but not far from my own sentiment.
all across the land are facing severe financial losses as the economy
tanks, exacerbating the other rolling calamities that continue to
batter the industry—loss of advertising income, particularly
classified, declining circulation, falling stock value, and the
competition from the Internet. Much of the catastrophe is very nearly
phoney: as we’ve observed here before—and as Paul
Oberjuerge observes in a long piece at oberjuerge.com/?p=552
The financial plight of newspapers generally is not determined by their balance sheets so much as by investors that own stock in the newspaper businesses who want higher profits. Since newspapers cannot generate more income—falling circulation and declining ad revenue preclude that—they do the only thing that remains: they reduce costs, thereby jacking up the difference between income and expense, creating more profit. The most conspicuous expense any paper has after the cost of newsprint is its payroll, and so newspapers have, for several years now, cut costs by firing staff. And editorial cartoonists, who are quickly perceived as superfluous in a field that supplies syndicated editoons at a fraction of the cost of salary and benefits for a staff cartoonist, are among the first to go. This grim circumstance has become suddenly grimmer as the economy dives for the depths. Nationwide, advertising revenue dropped only 7% in 2007, but in the third quarter of this year, the quarter ending in September when big banks and investment houses began to fail, the plunge reached 18%. The most irreplaceable losses have occurred in classified advertising with CraigsList dislodging daily journalism’s most dependable source of income: advertising used to account for about four-fifths of a newspaper’s revenue, and at large city newspapers, classifieds were half of that.
At the Rocky Mountain News over the weekend following the shattering announcement of its impending dissolution, hope revived at the report that a Montana media company, owned by Shawn White Wolf, wants to buy the paper—if he can muster enough investors in this sinking economy. I hope he can pull it off: the News’ comic strip lineup is far superior to the Post’s. Meanwhile, the Post is scarcely home free: on December 13, Post publisher Dean Singleton asked the paper’s unions to re-negotiate their labor contracts immediately, seeking to slash $20 million in expenses. Singleton’s request, reported by Jeff Smith at the Rocky Mountain News, “comes a day after Moody’s Investors Services said his MediaNews Group [owner of the Post] faces an increased risk of defaulting on its loans.”
Editoonist Scott Bateman, who, we reported, just lost his gig doing daily animation at Salon.com, is back, albeit with a weekly, not a daily, animation. He speculated that this unexpected turn of events was brought about because his cartoons generated traffic at the website, adding that Salon, unlike HuffingtonPost, pays him. He now has more spare time, which he is investing in creating an animated feature film in Flash. He’s not the first to make a feature film in Flash, he says, deferring to the pioneering Nina Paley, who produced “Sita Sings the Blues,” which has won several distinguished awards. She may at last have found her niche: she’s made at least one syndication attempt that failed; maybe two. Her comics for alternative newspapers did fairly well, but she couldn’t achieve success with more mainstream efforts. You can see a tantalizing teaser of Paley’s film at sitasingstheblues.com, a scintillating visual treat. Bateman’s work on his film can be viewed at atomagevampikre.org; his animated cartoons at batemanimation.com.
HANKY PANKY IN SOUTH AFRICA SOME MORE
Zapiro’s educational campaign in South Africa has spread from newspapers into schools. Zapiro, the pen-name of editorial cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, has for some time been pointing a loaded pen at the president of the African National Congress, Jacob Zuma, accusing that worthy of venality and stupidity. A year or so ago, Zuma was accused of raping a woman who turned out to be HIV positive. During the trial, Zuma explained, among other things, that he had guarded against contracting HIV by taking a shower after he’d had sex with the woman. Thereafter, Zapiro invariably portrayed Zuma with a shower faucet coming out of his forehead, a visual reminder to readers of Zuma’s cupidity and ignorance. Zuma, who is expected to become the next president of South Africa after elections early next year, was found not guilty of rape by the Johannesburg High Court, and he has brought suit against Zapiro, claiming the cartoonist is defaming his character.
But Zuma fumes against Zapiro in vain: the cartoonist persists. And now, reports Bongani Mthembu in Weekend Witness, he’s infiltrated the formal educational system with his incendiary crusade. Parts of an examination paper for Empangeni High School eleventh grade students are based on one of Zapiro’s cartoons, one of those for which Zuma is suing the cartoonist. Entitled “The Jacob Zuma Moral Degeneration Handbook,” the cartoon, referring to Zuma's rape trial, offers rules such as: "A short skirt means she is asking for it”; "No" means "Give it to me big boy!"; "When having casual sex, always apologize for not having a condom"; "After casual unprotected sex permanently remove conscience before then sleeping with your life partner(s).” Under the second section, titled "Leadership,” one of the points is: "Being Deputy President means—babes and backhanders." Zuma is pictured several times, once with his pants down around his ankles and once with him ogling a scantily clad woman.
According to a Cape Argus article, students taking the test are given a series of questions based on the cartoon and another newspaper editorial that likens the behaviour of Zuma supporters at his rape trial to that of Neanderthals. Zuma supporters have objected strenuously to the cartoon, saying it “wrongly presents the ANC president as a rapist, [male] chauvinist and lacking moral fibre. This is in spite of the fact that the ANC president was cleared of rape charges by a competent court of law and his undying fight against women abuse and moral decay in the society.” Parents of the students have also complained, and the Education Department has launched an investigation of the teacher who devised the exam.
Ironically, Zapiro was at one time a staunch supporter of the ANC. After serving in the South African army, he became politically active and deployed his art to promote Nelson Mandela’s then-banned African National Congress party and other anti-apartheid groups. But these days, not even Mandela escapes Zapiro’s scrutiny. The Associated Press reports that a recent exhibit of the cartoons includes many that show the anti-apartheid icon as strong, enduring and almost saintly, but a few ridicule his foibles and missteps, most notably when Mandela accepted an award from former Indonesian dictator Suharto. The famed national liberator is depicted in another cartoon with his halo askew because of a domestic policy gaffe, calling for fourteen-year-olds to have the vote. But Zapiro is still in awe of Mandela’s achievements.
"Mandela embodies the greatest things that came out of the struggle (against apartheid) and since democracy," said Shapiro. "It is this spirit I have tried to tap into,” adding: “It's fantastic to have the opportunity as a cartoonist, as a satirist, to criticize an icon like Mandela and know that he understands that criticism. He has said he is not a saint, and I felt I had to be critical of him. I owed it to myself and to him.”
Early in his cartooning struggle against apartheid, Zapiro was arrested and jailed. In prison, he did a drawing of what he thought Mandela looked like. Pictures of the imprisoned Mandela had been banned for decades, and so few people saw him until he was released in 1990.
have been influenced and driven by him," Shapiro said. "It
has been a strange and wonderful relationship—mostly praising
him and occasionally sniping at him from the sidelines. Increasingly,
he became the conscience of the nation.”
A Rancid Raves Gallery
After all that grimness, a little levity might be in order. Herewith, a Yuletide display consisting of some Santas by Eugene “Zim” Zimmerman, the great 19th century humor magazine cartooner, and, as a final fillip, one page of Elena Steier’s Gothy Gritting, a vivid reminder of her Goth Scouts comic strip creation, which, among other things, you can find at striporama.com.
And before we stray too far afield from the electoral violence of last month, here’s The New Yorker cover for November 17, a thing of pristine nocturnal beauty (somewhat defaced, here, by where the address label once was at the lower left). It’s symbolism in the wake of Obama’s election is nicely nuanced. The association of Obama with the Great Emancipator is scarcely accidental. But there’s more. Here’s Arthur Hochstein at time.com to elaborate: “The illustration by Bob Staake shows the moon cleverly hollowed out to form the O in the magazine’s name—and in the president-elect’s—casting its glow over the Lincoln Memorial. Why is the cover great? It doesn’t do a victory dance. Rather, it whispers to the reader: ‘Everything is okay now—we have our country back.’ It’s set at night, a time when creepy things happen, but also a time when people sleep, safe and sound. It is beautifully rendered. Simply spectacular.”
And, finally, in remembrance of those Lost Days of Yesteryear during which, at this time of year, we, the adolescent males at any rate, looked forward to the annual deluge of calendars with their calendar girls, here’s a page of Russell Patterson beauties, a rare find.
When at the HuffingtonPost, Diane Tucker talked to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s editooner Mike Luckovich about Obama, she began by asking him whether it was easy or difficult to draw a caricature of “No Drama Obama.”
this point it's hard because for eight years we've had George W.
Bush, a president who doesn't like dissension, who's sort of
arrogant, and who feels God is talking through him,” Luckovich
said. “Obama seems like a completely different personality.
That's good news for the country,
she wondered about the size of Bush’s ears, Luckovich said: “I
don't draw Bush as a human being any more. He's become a cartoon
character who also has a beak-like nose and circles for feet—just
two simple black circles. I draw Bush smaller and smaller as
his incompetence grows larger and larger. And as long as Obama does
well, he'll maintain his current height in cartoons. But this brings
up another problem. Obama moves in such a
“Whether you agree with a president or not,” he continued, “the longer they're out there, the more likely it is you'll have a cynical view of them. I'm worried about Obama, though, because the more I see him, the more I like him. For me, that's scary.”
If Obama becomes unpopular, Luckovich said he’d make his ears bigger and more rounded, “like the ears on a Mickey Mouse hat. I'd make his neck really skinny, so he has a lot of shirt collar left over to fill, and I'd furrow his eyebrows to make him look bewildered. Finally, I'd deepen the nasolabial folds on his face, so it looks like he's aging rapidly.”
But if Obama “comes up with a great economic stimulus package and everyone gets back to work, I promise to draw him with black hair even though his real hair is turning gray.”
The Brazen Beauty and the Monster Connoiseur
First, the Monster Man. Forrest J Ackerman, writer-editor who coined the term 'sci-fi’ died of heart failure at 92 on December 4. Forrey, who, said Dennis McLellan at the Los Angeles Times, “influenced a generation of young horror movie fans with his Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, spent a lifetime amassing what has been called the world's largest personal collection of science fiction and fantasy memorabilia.” The photo-laden magazine, printed on cheap newsprint and launched in 1958, was the first movie monster magazine. Targeted chiefly “to late pre-adolescents and young teenagers, Famous Monsters featured synopses of horror films, interviews with actors such as Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price, and articles on makeup and special effects.” As editor, Ackerman wrote most of the articles, which reflected his persistent penchant for puns with feature departments such as “The Printed Weird" and "Fang Mail." Ackerman referred to himself as Dr. Acula. Ackerman became a celebrity in his own right, once signing 10,000 autographs during a three-day monster movie convention in New York City.
years, Ackerman housed his enormous cache of some 300,000
items—books, movie stills, posters, paintings, movie props,
masks and assorted memorabilia—in his18-room home in Los Feliz.
Dubbed the Ackermansion, “the jam-packed repository included
everything from a Dracula cape worn by Lugosi to Mr. Spock's pointy
ears; and from Lon Chaney Sr.'s makeup kit to the paper plate flying
saucer used by director Ed Wood in ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space.’
The Dracula/Frankenstein room featured a casket as a ‘coffin
table’ and the cape Lugosi wore in the stage version of
‘Dracula.’ A case displayed one of the horror film
legend's bow ties, which, Ackerman
In 1954, the affable Ackerman coined the term that became part of the popular lexicon—a term said to make some science fiction fans cringe. "My wife and I were listening to the radio, and when someone said 'hi-fi' the word 'sci-fi' suddenly hit me," Ackerman explained to The Times in 1982. But the life-long punster wouldn’t stop with that simple anecdote: "If my interest had been soap operas,” he continued, “I guess it would have been 'cry-fi,' or James Bond, 'spy-fi.' " (Cringing fans preferred “sf” for “science fiction.”)
Ackerman wrote more than 2,000 articles and short stories for magazines and anthologies, sometimes under his pseudonyms Dr. Acula, Weaver Wright and Claire Voyant. He also wrote what has been reported to have been the first lesbian science-fiction story ever published, "World of Loneliness." And under the pen name Laurajean Ermayne, he wrote lesbian romances in the late 1940s for the lesbian magazine Vice Versa.
Monsters of Filmland ceased publication in
1983. It was revived briefly a decade later, but Ackerman lost
control of it. He made numerous appearances at the San Diego Comic
Con, due mostly to Con Founder Shel Dorf’s affectionate and
insistent invitations. Over the years, Ackerman slowly sold off
pieces of his massive collection, and in 2002, plagued by health
problems and legal fees, he put up “all but about 100 of his
favorite objects for sale,” McLellan reported. “The same
year, he moved out of the Ackermansion and into a bungalow in the
flats of Los Feliz.” He called it the Acker Mini-Mansion, and
“he continued to make what was left of his collection available
for viewing by fans on Saturday mornings.”
Brazen Beauty in a Bikini
Robert D. McFadden at the New York Times did the best all-around obit on Bettie Page, so I’m using it here, almost verbatim, with sections in italic either supplied by me or poached from other obits (as credited). Here we go:
Bettie Page, a legendary pinup girl whose photographs in the nude, in bondage and in naughty-but-nice poses appeared in men's magazines and private stashes across America in the 1950s ... died December 11 in Los Angeles. She was 85. Bettie, whose popularity underwent a cult-like revival in the last 20 years, had been hospitalized for three weeks with pneumonia and was about to be released December 2 when she suffered a heart attack, said her agent, Mark Roesler, of CMG Worldwide. She was transferred in a coma to Kindred Hospital, where she died.
In her trademark raven bangs, spike heels and killer curves, Bettie was the most famous pinup girl of the post-World War II era, a centerfold on a million locker doors and garage walls. Rivaling the popularity of blonde beauties Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, dark-tressed Bettie stood out among others of her breed for reasons other than hair color. What Bettie had that none of the others had was a radiant, shameless meta-watt smile—that, and, often, a lascivious albeit laughing wink. Or, if she wasn’t winking, she seemed just about to. I was always more of a votary of the more zaftig Diane Webber (aka Marguerite Empey), but Bettie’s sunny visage proclaimed the essential innocence of her attitude towards feminine nudity and sexuality. Her guileless grin announced that sexuality was fun, and if it was fun, it had to be altogether wholesome, an attitude she seemed beckoning us all to share, and I happily joined in the frolic. Here, from artist Jim Silke, one of the best interpreters of Bettie, is one of his best: she’s not winking here, but she’s about to.
In 1957, at the height of her fame, Bettie disappeared, and for three decades her private life — two failed marriages, a fight against poverty and mental illness, resurrection as a born-again Christian, years of seclusion in Southern California — was a mystery to all but a few close friends.
Then in the late 1980s and early '90s, she was rediscovered and a Bettie Page renaissance began, thanks to the late David Stevens, creator of the comic-book and later movie character the Rocketeer, who immortalized her as the Rocketeer's girlfriend. Fashion designers then revived her look. Uma Thurman, in bangs, reincarnated Bettie in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," and Demi Moore, Madonna and others appeared in Page-like photos. There were Bettie Page playing cards, lunch boxes, action figures, T-shirts and beach towels. Her saucy images went up in nightclubs. Bettie Page fan clubs sprang up. Look-alike contests, featuring leather-and-lace and kitten-with-a-whip Betties, were organized. Hundreds of Web sites appeared, including her own, which had 588 million hits in five years, CMG Worldwide said in 2006.
Biographies were published, including her authorized version, Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-Up Legend (General Publishing Group) which appeared in 1996. It was written by Karen Essex and James L. Swanson. A movie, "The Notorious Bettie Page," starring Gretchen Mol as Bettie and directed by Mary Harron for Picturehouse and HBO Films, was released in 2006, adapted from The Real Bettie Page, by Richard Foster.
Bettie May Page was born in Jackson, Tenn., the eldest girl of Roy and Edna Page's six children. The father, an auto mechanic, molested all three of his daughters, Bettie said years later, and was jailed for stealing cars and divorced by his wife when Bettie was 10. She and some of her siblings were placed for a time in an orphanage. She attended high school in Nashville, and was almost a straight-A student, graduating second in her class. She graduated from Peabody College, a part of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, but a teaching career was brief. "I couldn't control my students, especially the boys," she said. She tried secretarial work, married Billy Neal in 1943 and moved to San Francisco, where she modeled fur coats for a few years. She divorced Neal in 1947, moved to New York and enrolled in acting classes.
She had a few stage and television appearances, but it was a chance meeting that changed her life. On the beach at Coney Island in 1950, she met Jerry Tibbs, a police officer and photographer, who assembled her first pinup portfolio and introduced her to amateur camera clubs, whose members made her an underground sensation, according to Joe Holley and Matt Schudel at the Washington Post. By 1951, the brother-sister photographers Irving and Paula Klaw, who ran a mail-order business in fetish cheesecake, were promoting the Bettie Page image with spike heels and whips. Her pictures were ogled in Wink, Eyeful, Titter, Beauty Parade and other such cheap cheesecake magazines, and in leather-fetish 8- and 16-millimeter films. Her first name was often misspelled “Betty.” Her most famous photo shoot, according to Holley and Schudel, was taken by fashion photographer Bunny Yeager, who portrayed Bettie lounging with leopards and frolicking in the nude on a florida beach. Her big break came when one of Yeager’s photos was used for the Playboy centerfold in January 1955, where she winked in a Santa Claus cap as she put a bulb on a Christmas tree. Money and offers rolled in.
Then in 1955, she received a summons from a Senate committee headed by Senator Estes Kefauver, a Tennessee Democrat, that was investigating pornography. She was never compelled to testify, but the uproar and other pressures drove her to quit modeling two years later. She moved to Florida. Subsequent marriages to Armond Walterson and Harry Lear ended in divorce, and there were no children. She moved to California in 1978. For years Bettie lived on Social Security benefits. After a nervous breakdown, she was arrested for an attack on a landlady, but was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to a California mental institution. She emerged years later as a born-again Christian, immersing herself in Bible studies and serving as an adviser to the Billy Graham Crusade.
In recent years, she had lived in Southern California on the proceeds of her revival. Her signed photographs went for hundreds of dollars, reported Holley and Schudel. Occasionally, she gave interviews in her gentle Southern drawl, but largely stayed out of the public eye — and steadfastly refused to be photographed. "I want to be remembered as I was when I was young and in my golden times," she told the Los Angeles Times in 2006. "I want to be remembered as a woman who changed people's perspectives concerning nudity in its natural form."
Being photographed in the nude didn’t bother Bettie at first. But “when I turned my life over to the Lord Jesus, I was ashamed of having posed in the nude,” she told Playboy last year, according to Holley and Schudel. “But now, most of the money I’ve got is because I posed in the nude. So I’m not ashamed of it now. But I don’t understand it.” On other occasions, Bettie said of her barenekid self: “God approves of nudity. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden were as naked as jaybirds.”
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.
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
It’s a comfort in these parlous times to find that the world goes on, despite economic collapses and Presidential Elections, in exactly the absurd and baffling way that it has gone on for several decades now. To remind myself of this eternal verity, I occasionally buy a copy of the Sun Weekly World News or the Globe, each an example of the more deliberate of the investigative tabloids available in racks near the check-out counters of grocery stores throughout the known universe. The Sun caught my eye the first week of December: “Two-headed Bigfoot Shot by Iowa Cop” the headline explained. And there was a photograph of two shaggy, bearded humanoid faces. Inside, we find the story, with more fact-proclaiming photographs, including one showing a recumbent Bigfoot, dead no doubt, at the feet of a pistol-wielding cop in dark glasses. So the story must be true: photographs don’t lie.
The corpse’s feet didn’t seem to be particularly large even though, lying on its back with its feet towards us, foreshortening probably exaggerated their size. The creature was covered all over with hair, including where its genitals would be if it had any. The caption tells us that “victim was the second two-headed Bigfoot to be shot by cops in the past four years” near Jesup, Iowa. Jesup is a little town of 2,121 souls just east of Waterloo, Iowa, which I used to drive through a couple times a year on the way to my wife’s parents home, where we often spent Christmas. But I never saw a Bigfoot. And if there were ever any around, I’d have seen one: according to a side-bar in the story, “Scientists have determined that the average male Bigfoot stands 8 feet 2.25 inches tall and weighs 487 pounds; females tend to be 6 inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter.” You can’t miss seeing an 8-foot 500-pound creature even if its lurking surreptitiously. But, as I say, I never even so much as saw one in the distance during my many travels near Waterloo.
Across the top of the two-page spread, another photograph shows an Iowa corn field, and in the foreground is the Bigfoot, striding along. It’s somewhat blurred, as if the photographer moved the camera, so the two heads could actually be one that only appears to be two because the camera moved. But the policeman’s testimony cinches the deal. (His name is being withheld pending the results of an investigation into the incident.) He drew his weapon and ordered the Bigfoot to put his hands up, without much luck. “He must have heard me because he whipped around and started howling like he was a creature straight out of Hell,” the officer testified. “My first thought was he was a door-to-door campaigner for Barack Obama—that in itself is enough to get anyone shot in these parts. At the same time, I thought he could be a burglar, taking advantage of all those trick-or-treating kids out there to get into people’s homes.” It was Hallowe’en night, perhaps a hint about the authenticity of this episode. The cop continued: “I didn’t know whether to shoot or ask questions. I decided to let him have it, just in case. After all, I reasoned, what’s the worst that could happen? If I’m wrong, I shot a Democrat. What’s the big deal?” Okay: that’s it. We’ve been had, photographs or not.
So I don’t know whether to believe another story in the paper about the celebrations held on Election Night in Obama, Japan. Obama, it means “little beach,” is a seaside resort town, and the townspeople, we are assured, jammed the streets, celebrating and being entertained by “the Obama Girls, a troupe of hula dancers founded in honor of Barack Obama’s Hawaiian birthplace.” I was okay with this until I got to the Obama Girls. Does Michelle know about this?
BREAKING THE BANK AT 10622 KIMBERLY AVENUE
Here’s Ed Black’s photograph of Hattie and Jefferson Gray’s house on Kimberly Avenue in Glenville, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. The Grays have lived here for 20 years, but the house achieved historic significance because of an earlier resident who lived there a much shorter time. It was here one hot summer night in 1933 that Jerry Siegel, lying awake in his sweltering bedroom, conceived the notion of a strongman named Superman. The next morning, he ran down the block, around the corner, and up the next street to the house where his artist friend, Joe Shuster, lived, and the two of them concocted the appearance of the Man of Steel. The Grays have tolerated numerous unannounced visits over the years by Superman fans, and they even commemorated the history of the place by painting it the colors of Superman’s uniform: the colors don’t show too brightly here in the photo, but they’re blue and red and sometimes yellow.
Last winter, Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Michael Sangiacomo, contemplating the 70th anniversary of Superman’s first comic book appearance in Action Comics No. 1, July 1938, started asking some rude questions, among them: why hadn’t the city done anything to memorialize the birthplace of the first popular culture superhero? Somewhere either before or after or concurrent with Sangiacomo’s crusade, Brad Meltzer, author of the newly published The Book of Lies that touched on the death of Mitchell Siegel, Jerry's father, got into the act. Researching for the novel, Meltzer went to Cleveland.
"I wanted to see the exact spot where young Jerry Siegel sat in his bed on that rainy summer night, where a 17-year-old kid stared at his bedroom ceiling and gave birth to the idea of Superman," Meltzer wrote on his website. (Rainy? I thought it was sweltering.)
Meltzer was distressed to see the condition of the place, which was nearly falling down, and started beating a drum in the same band as Sangiacomo. By the spring of 2008, the Siegel and Shuster Society rose out of the ashes of the Summer of Superman Committee, which fell apart when DC Comics dragged its feet about approving the use of Superman’s likeness in anniversary events. (DC is now aboard for future summer celebrations.) And the Glenville Development Corporation got into the act when it learned that the Gray house was somewhat dilapidated and in need of repair. By September, various minions had mustered to launch a 4-week online auction of numerous Superman mementoes to raise $50,000 to fix the house’s leaky roof, replace rotting wooden siding, and repaint the place. By the time the fourth auction concluded at the end of September, $111,047 had been raised. The so-called surplus funds will go for repairs inside the house, with the leftover money making up a fund for future maintenance. The highest price ($14,100) paid was for a drawing by artist Jim Lee that would depict the bidder and Superman; second highest price was paid by the same individual for a walk-on role in the tv show “The Heroes.” Another big price, $7,877, went for artist Travis Charest’s drawing of Superman. An original drawing of Superman by the character’s long-time illuminator, Curt Swan, went for $7,600; Frank Cho’s drawing of Supergirl pulled in $7,500. The Grays, meanwhile, have agreed to give the Siegel and Shuster Society first rights to buy the house when they decide to sell.
The GDG and S&S Society plan to install commemorations in front of the Siegel house and at the site of Shuster’s home, once an apartment house but now a single-family dwelling at Armor and Parkwood avenues. The GDG also plans to clean up the Kimberly block, pulling up weeds and planting flowers and touching up the exteriors of some of the other houses. And the Cleveland City Council indicated it would give honorary names to the streets Siegel and Shuster lived on—Siegel Lane for Kimberly and Shuster Lane for Armor, “Lane” appropriated from the surname of the woman reporter who has plagued Clark Kent for so many years. (All of this information is taken from newspaper clippings from the Cleveland Plain Dealer sent to your faithful reporter by correspondent Ed Black, who was on-the-scene somewhat.)
BADINAGE AND BAGATELLES
The Election is barely over at Humor Times, James Israel’s formidable monthly newspaper of editorial cartoons: The December issue, No. 204, includes a raft of editoons commenting on the Obama win and, in addition, a slew of faux newsstories with these headlines:
Obama Begins Planning Transition to Socialism, Communism
McCain Disputes Election Results: ‘Electoral College Should be Based on Land Mass’
Bush Warns America: ‘I’ve Still Got 2 Months’
Bush Announces Film about Oliver Stone
Palin Hoping to be Named Ambassador to Africa
Subscriptions to this worthy enterprise are merely $18.95 for 12 issues and worth every cent. Send your check payable to Humor Times at P.O. Box, 162429, Sacramento, CA 95816. You can save a buck by subscribing via the website, humortimes.com.
Whoever reviewed “Punisher: War Zone” for thestar.com did such a delicious job of slicing it up that I include virtually the whole thing here, vebatim:
Wasn't the first time around punishment enough? Apparently not, because the long-delayed sequel to “The Punisher” (2004) is here, minus original lead actor Thomas Jane and high-priced villains like John Travolta. This sequel (or is it a "reboot," since there's no "2" in the title?) looks like it's been done on a budget after shooting delays, script changes, troubles landing a director and internecine squabbling, all faithfully chronicled online over the past four years by comic-book geeks living in their parents' basements. ... and it seems no expense has been spared on a TV ad campaign and website in an effort to boost box office.
Relative unknown Ray Stevenson takes on the role of Frank Castle, a.k.a. The Punisher, now living rent-free underground in a subway maintenance room and still wearing the same scowl following his family's brutal murder years earlier (shown in a brief, gauzy flashback, which is the only time a hint of a smile crosses his glowering mug). While watching the news, he learns an Italian mob boss has once again escaped justice. With a bit of time to kill, it seems, Frank decides to add the don and his family to his endless list of people who deserve to be brutally and artfully exterminated. In the process, he manages to create a comic book-style adversary in the form of Jigsaw by dumping his evil ass into a glass recycling contraption, and the inevitable showdown is set in motion.
It would be easy to say Stevenson shows all the emotional range of a cigar store aboriginal, or that he makes Charles Bronson look like Richard Simmons. But the fact is, he just doesn't inhabit the role with any conviction. A very hollow man, indeed. Dominic West is actually quite a howl as the former Billy the Beaut Russo, a.k.a. Jigsaw, wearing a badly stitched-together face that includes a section of horse hide. The other villains— Billy's brother, Loony Bin Jim, and Maginty, a meth-fuelled Rasta man with an Irish brogue—are all nicely set up to get their various grisly comeuppances, creating that cathartic rush of blood lust so integral to the enjoyment of these sorts of films. The carnage is super-grisly, with blown-off faces, shattered skulls and gaping wounds accompanied by smashing-pumpkins-and-cracking-bones sound effects and a throbbing, thundering score.
The dialogue – like the tag line, "Vengeance has a name" – is particularly lame. To wit: "Sometimes I'd like to get my hands on God," fumes the Punisher. There's also much to offend, including the portrayal of Italian-American gangsters, references to "rag-heads" and the portrayal of black, Chinese and Russian gangs that will doubtlessly result in injured feelings. One becomes so inured to the relentless gore and mayhem that the climax is kind of a letdown.
This film will surely get the critical drubbing it deserves. We'd go further: corporal punishment in a public place for the studio executive who okays the next instalment.
XMAS LIST: BOOKS FOR A MERRY YULE :: PART TWO
Here Are Some I Thought Highly Enough Of To Put in My Library
(Even, Sometimes, Without Having Actually Read Them All the Way Through. Yet.)
Romita’s Style. The 18th volume in TwoMorrows’ Modern Masters series is devoted to John Romita, Jr. (128 8.5x11-inch pages, b/w; paperback, $14.95), whose distinctive drawing style I’ve admired for some years. I’ve been at a loss about how to describe his way of rendering, so I was happy to see it called “bulky” in the interview herein conducted with him by series editor Eric Nolen-Weathington, accompanied this time by George Khoury. Romita, who has been drawing comic books since he was a teenager, the son of Marvel’s famed John Romita, Sr., insists, under persistent questioning, that his way of drawing simply evolved without his making any conscious decision about it. He denies being influenced by Frank Miller but says he was eager to work with Miller on the Daredevil book they did together, Man Without Fear, Miller writing. He also enjoyed collaborating with John Byrne, who put Romita’s name first in the credits for the Iron Man they did together. “That’s the kind of guy he is,” Romita said of Byrne. “He felt I was doing more work than he was. ... No one had ever acknowledged the artist the way he did because he is an artist first, and he felt that the artist deserved the majority of the credit.” Romita says that his father and Jack Kirby are the most influential in his development. Maybe the bulkiness came through Kirby, he speculated: “Maybe I got bulky as I attempted to be a little bit more powerful with the work” like Kirby. “Yeah, it was Kirby’s influence,” he finally concludes, “and my father’s influence, always telling me to make characters look three-dimensional and have weight to them.”
Based on his remarks during the interview, my guess (which must be a guess because I haven’t checked the books in question) is that Romita’s bulky style began to evolve during his stint on Thor, which, Romita says, got him assigned to the Hulk: “I guess they saw me doing the Thor stuff and the big, bulky, kick-ass huge characters, and they felt like the Hulk would be a great follow-up.” In addition to his father and Kirby, Romita admires the work of John Buscema, Joe Kurbert, and the illustrator J.C. Leyendecker.
I also admire Romita’s storytelling chops, which I first saw flowering in the Punisher books he did. He played around with page layouts to achieve pacing effects and dramatic emphasis. That sort of thing, he does consciously: “I’m always looking to do something different,” he said. “You’ve got to do whatever is fashionable at the time. If there’s a certain content or style that makes fans happy, I try to at least give a little bit of that flavor ... I don’t make great changes,” he said, but “I try to do something a little bit different. That’s the main thing is to do something different. I make an effort to do something different every time, as opposed to doing the same old fight scenes and the same old talk scenes. And I don’t cheat on backgrounds. ... Maybe I’ll sculpt a little bit more, maybe I’ll add a little bit more shading. If, in a couple of years, suddenly everything goes to film noir, maybe I’ll add more shadows. It depends.”
Like all the Modern Masters titles, this one is amply illustrated with the subject’s art: the volume concludes with a 39-page gallery of Romita’s drawings, some in pencil. Other recent titles that I’m looking forward to reading include Volume Fourteen’s Frank Cho, which offers plenty of pictures of the toothsome Cho femmes and some pages in color; and Volume Fifteen’s Mark Schultz, which is also furnished with numerous instances of Schultz’s interpretation of feminine embonpoint and some color pages. All the Modern Masters books follow the same format—long interview with a knowledgeable inquisitor, liberally sprinkled with art, and concluding with a portfolio of the artist’s work. The series is up to Volume 20, Kyle Baker, with Mike Ploog at Volume 19. All are available at the publisher’s website, twomorrows.com.
Where’s Willie? The best book about war, Up Front, was written by cartoonist Bill Mauldin as padding for a collection of his cartoons about life in the trenches during World War II in Europe. What few of us realized upon first opening that volume is that Mauldin’s oeuvre of army life cartoons is much larger than the contents of Up Front suggest. The book culls Mauldin’s cartoons about hook-nosed Willie and pudding-faced Joe from Stars and Stripes, the army newspaper, but Mauldin wasn’t on the staff of S&S until February 1944. Mauldin enlisted in September 1940, long before the U.S. joined the hostilities in Europe, and he cartooned for his unit’s newspaper, the 45th Division News, for three years, most of it while the 45th was bivouacking its way around the U.S. Fantagraphics’ two-volume 716-page slipcased Willie & Joe (hardcover, $65) sets the record straight: virtually all of Volume I's 325 8x11-inch pages are devoted to cartoons Mauldin produced before going overseas in July 1943. The eponymous Willie and Joe, as a familiar pair, don’t show up until Volume II’s September 26, 1943 cartoon.
Mauldin initially entitled his cartoon The Star Spangled Banter, and it carried that name as long as it appeared in the 45th Division News and in civilian newspapers like the Oklahoma City Times and the Daily Oklahoman, to which Mauldin occasionally contributed freelance; his cartoons acquired the title Up Front when they began appearing in S&S in late 1943.
The cartoon had no continuing characters for most of its run. Willie, hook-nose on vivid display, shows up in the very first cartoon, October 25, 1940, and while he returns every so often thereafter, he’s not a constant presence. At first, his name is Joe, and he’s an Indian and talks pidgin and is often the butt of the joke or the comedic springboard. To Mauldin, growing up in New Mexico, and to many of his comrades in arms, “Indian humor was irresistible,” we learn in the Introduction to the Volume I by its editor, Todd DePasinto, the author, not at all incidentally, of a fresh biography of the cartoonist, Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front (372 6x9-inch pages; hardcover, Norton, $27.95). The 45th Division, made up of National Guard units from New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma and Arizona, “had more Native American soldiers than any other division,” plenty of fodder for ethnic comedy.
Joe had an Indian last name, Bearfoot, and was inspired, somewhat, by a tentmate of Mauldin’s, a cultured and well-read athletic Choctaw named Rayson Billey; Joe also looked a good deal like Mauldin’s ne’er-do-well father. Joe was being called Willie by the time the 45th was invading Sicily in the summer of 1943. The original Willie, who would eventually take the name Joe, had a tiny moustache when he debuted as “Willie” in the summer of 1941 in a 32-page souvenir booklet, Star Spangled Banter, for which Mauldin drew 16 new cartoons and 16 pages of illustrations in a single 48-hour period.
This handsomely designed and presented brace of books is worthy of its subject, one of the nation’s greatest opinion mongers in cartoons. For the whole Mauldin story, visit Harv’s Hindsight for February 2003.
An Affair of Schulz. Fantagraphics’ ambitious reprinting of all of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts is, with the most recent volume, up to 1970, twenty years of a 49-year run. The cast and their quirks are well-established by this time, and the comedy seems as fresh as yesterday. The Foreword this time is by Mo Willems; the series is still using Seth’s supremely restrained but distinctive design. Apart from the usual Peanuts shenanigans, there’s a conspicuous scrap of autobiography in this volume. When we get to July 1970, we see the strips David Michaelis singled out in his biography of Schulz as being about the cartoonist’s extra-marital affair with Tracey Claudius. Snoppy takes the part of the infatuated Schulz, and Tracey’s part is played by a girl-beagle at the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, whom Snoopy keeps trying to reach by phone. “She has the softest paws,” he sighs, an echo of Sparky’s love-drenched comment about Tracey’s hands. What seemed funny when we first encountered this sequence now seems sadly self-indulgent, even maudlin, and pitifully saccharin in the extreme. Knowing all about Schulz’s secret love doesn’t, for me, enhance my appreciation of the comedy in Peanuts. But the rest of his masterpiece is still intact and worth re-visiting. If you haven’t started collecting this series, you ought to think about doing it while you’re still young and have all your teeth. (No, that doesn’t make any contextual sense; but it’s not supposed to.)
Eats and Shoots. I recently purchased, at my own expense (albeit at a reduced Internet price), my second copy of Lynne Truss’s paean to proper punctuation, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, solely because I learned that the 2008 edition was illustrated, as it says here, by "acclaimed New Yorker cartoonist Pat Byrnes." I don’t know how one gets to be "acclaimed," but Pat certainly deserves it, dubious distinction though it may be. The title of the tome refers to pandas, which eat shoots and leaves. But if, as in the title of the book, a comma is placed between the first and second words, the meaning changes entirely. Byrnes decorated the cover with a picture of a panda, and pandas appear frequently throughout, usually in full-page color drawings. After perusing the publication and its plethora of pandas, I recalled my earlier life as an English teacher, wherein I once did desperate battle with a professorial type who wanted to dispense forever with the apostrophe, which Bernard Shaw called,sarcastically, “that crooked mark.” But the apostrophe, like the comma, can determine meaning, and to unhorse my opponent’s argument, I employed a cartoon. And a scrap of that antique doggerel—Roses are red, violets are blue. To see how the apostrophe gives meaning on this shard of would-be poetry, I refer you to the accompanying artwork, which, though panda-less, speaks volumes for itself.And Truss’s book is a hoot, too, particularly now with Pat’s pandas swarming through it.
Up To Here. From 1957 until 1963, Al Jaffee, he of Mad’s superlative idiotic assemblage, the “fold-in,” produced a syndicated cartoon called Tall Tales. Six years, 2,200 cartoons, as he tells us in his Preface to the reprint volume at hand, inexplicably entitled Tall Tales (128 4x9-inch pages, b/w; hardcover, $14.95 from Abrams). As you might deduce from the book’s dimensions, the idea of the cartoon is vertical: after surveying the newspaper cartoon landscape, Jaffee decided that his chances of getting syndicated would be improved if he produced a feature that was different—something that would fit into spaces in the newspaper that other comic features couldn’t. And so he conceived of Tall Tales, seven inches tall instead of seven inches wide like a comic strip, and one column wide. As a one-column feature, “it could be put on any page of the newspaper: the classified section, the editorial page, or anywhere else the editor wished to attract special attention. Best of all,” Jaffee continues, “in this [elongated] format I could create many gag situations by employing a ‘double take.’ In a seven-inch vertical space our eyes can’t take in the entire area at once. As readers, we have a tendency to look at the strongest focal point first and then the secondary area. This dynamic allowed me to place the set-up for the joke in the first-glance area and pull the punchline with the second glance.” Here are some examples; and in the book, there are 120 more, culled from Jaffee’s six-year inventory of 2,200. As you ponder these, look for the tricks Jaffee uses to focus your attention to the area of the picture he wants you to see first—sometimes a solid black will draw your eye; sometimes, you are directed by perspective. An instructive book as well as a highly comical one.
Jaffee’s original concept had been to produce a wordless cartoon, which, by reason of the absence of language barriers, could be marketed overseas to the newspapers in other countries. Alas, when the syndicate management suddenly decided that because American readers liked words in their cartoons and urged Jaffee to accommodate this peculiarity, and he did, he lost his foreign markets and the will to continue the feature. It ended, and Jaffee folded-in.
High Visibility for Caricaturing. If you’ve been reading Entertainment Weekly lately, you’ll have encountered in every issue on the table of contents page caricatures of notable entertainers by Robert Risko. His work also shows up regularly in Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, and with some regularity in The New Yorker, New Republic, Time, and Newsweek—to name a few of his outlets. He may, in short, be the most visible caricaturist now working. He uses few lines: his pictures are not colored drawings, as, for instance, those of the great Al Hirschfeld are when in color. A typical Risko caricature is a conglomeration of colored geometric shapes arranged to portray the iconic visage of some notable—the shapes defined somewhat by differing colors rather than solely by outlines. Almost 200 of his “images” are collected in The Risko Book, where they are lavishly displayed on giant 9x12-inch pages, bleeding all four sides (paperback; $35 but much less, only a couple bucks sometimes, from Amazon). The contents are arranged in categories: Television, Style, Music, Thinkers, Film, Scandals, Media, Sports, Theater, and Politics without any text interruption after Graydon Carter’s Introduction and the concluding interview with Risko conducted by Kevin Sessums.
Risko came to New York in 1976 via Kent State, where he spent only a year, and a childhood in “rural Pennsylvania” just outside Pittsburgh. En route to the Big Apple, he spent some time in Provincetown where he drew caricatures for $5 each, attracting the attention of cartoonist Bobby London, who told him: “You should move to New York and do this. You could be the next Hirschfeld.” Risko moved to New York and convinced Andy Warhol to publish his caricatures in Interview. During five years or so of this exposure, Risko attracted the attention of the art director who was putting together a prototype for the revival of Vanity Fair, and before long, his work was appearing regularly therein. If we are to judge from Risko’s responses to Sessums’ questions, the caricaturist, who thinks of himself as an “artist,” is, at 52, a modest and relatively malleable contributor to magazine illustration, an editor’s dream: “I wasn’t making a living off my art,” he says. “I was doing photo retouching on the side. So I asked myself: if I can do this with a photo—feel that the work is better if it’s retouched—then why can’t I look at the editorial process as a bit of retouching? Or, another example: if I think that actors and singers and performers are better when they are able to take direction, then why can’t I take it too? Because of the constraints of a magazine deadline, it’s valuable to have an opinion that you trust, whether it’s the editor’s or the art director’s, in order to help you correct things that you’re maybe too close to see.” Writes Carter, the current editor of Vanity Fair: “In a Risko drawing, there are elements of all those greats of caricature who went before him. ... a bit of Pop, portions of Will Cotton and Paolo Garretto [both stalwarts in the old Vanity Fair], a heap of Miguel Covarrubias and a dash of Al Hirschfeld. ... Don’t be fooled by how easy it looks,” Carter continues. “Great artists or illustrators, like great poets, are all about economy. It takes years to develop a technique and decades more to simplify it.”
Risko’s simplifications sometimes miss their mark—more often than you’d suppose in so prolific and visible an artist. But for every miss, there are half-a-dozen brilliant hits, a few of which we’ve arrayed here. Each of the book’s “chapters,” or sections, is introduced by a caricature of a representative personage and a sentence describing that individual. Dunno who uttered these gems, perhaps Risko, but a few are worth quoting. On Joan Rivers: “Her comic timing is quicker than a paper cut. She’ll wreck your wardrobe with one facial expression.” Bette Midler: “She has the same effect as mustard on a hot dog. She takes a boring piece of meat and gives it a sense of humor.” Freud: “He figured out that everything boiled down to sex, but I don’t think he was the first to come to that conclusion.”
Let’s Take a Break for Another of
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOSTS
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
Elizabeth Royte, author of Garbage Land, has written a book about the bottled-water industry. Entitled Bottlemania, it makes the following observations (among others, we may be sure), according to the Quality Paperback Book Club brochure: right now, more than a billion people in the U.S. don’t have access to safe drinking water; in 2007, Americans bought 50 billion single-serve bottles of water; to make plastic water bottles just for the U.S. market requires 17 million barrels of oil a year; groundwater pumping has dried up rivers in Massachusetts, Florida and other states; in 2007, Poland Spring alone burned 928,226 gallons of diesel fuel for operations and transportation. QPBC’s senior editor hopes Bottlemania will, like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, wake us up and serve “as the catalyst for a new movement.” In New York City, he says, “You cannot escape plastic water bottles. They’re underfoot in the subway, clogging up drain grates on the street, and appearing everywhere you turn. It’s no wonder. One plant in Maine pumps out 5 million of the little buggers every single day.” (My emphasis.)
The ever-vigilant Time magazine revealed its Top Ten Editorial Cartoons of 2008 at its website. The array included work by Gary Varvel (2 cartoons), Bob Gorrell, Chip Bok, R.J. Matsonk Nate Beeler, Walt Handelsman, Rob Rogers, Heng Kim Song (of Singapore) and Chris Jurek, whom no one could identify. The work on display is, wouldn’t you know?, colossally insipid, prompting an epistle of outrage from the current president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, Ted Rall. I agree with everything he says and excerpt a couple paragraphs forthwith: “Your list of the Top 10 Editorial Cartoons of 2008 is an insult to editorial cartoonists, many of whom are losing their jobs to the economic downturn in the newspaper industry. In 2008 hundreds of brilliant political cartoonists produced thousands of hard-hitting, thought-provoking and hilarious cartoons about everything from the flash in the pan that was Sarah Palin to the rise of Barack Obama, and all you could come up with was this phoned-in crap? ... It's one thing for lousy cartoons to appear in print somewhere. It's downright appalling to anoint them the best work produced by a field in a given year. Heck, even among the artists you selected, they all did much better work than the pieces you picked. How would Time like it if someone published a list of the Top 10 Newsmagazines of 2008—and it was just a list of blogs by 16-year-olds typing in their parents' basements?”
From a friend via e-mail: Back in 1990, the Government seized the Mustang Ranch brothel in Nevada for tax evasion and, as required by law, tried to run it. They failed and it closed. Now, we are trusting the economy of our country and $750-plus billion to a pack of nit-wits who couldn't make money running a whore house and selling booze. Now if that don't make you nervous, what does???
A gem or two from Garrison Keillor: We are a modest people with much to be modest about, self-effacing, anxious to efface ourselves and not wait for others to do the job. ... [An ability to express personal preferences] was frowned out of us when we were children. ... What do you want? What would make you happy? I don’t know. Just give me some of what those people over there are having.
And Now, Some How-to Tomes
THE GRAND MASTER REVEALED
Like John Garvin, I’ve heard all my adult life of the “Landon School” and its famed correspondence course in cartooning, in which, it seems, nearly every cartoonist of a certain vintage had matriculated—from Carl Barks to Chic Young, with Milton Caniff, Jack Cole, Edwina Dumm, Floyd Gottfredson, V.T. Hamlin and Bill Holman, Edgar Martin and Bill Mauldin, and Gladys Parker and Allen Saunders scattered in between. With alumni like that, I thought, the Landon Course must be something extraordinary, and I yearned to know what it was like, exactly. Unlike me, Garvin was not content to merely yearn: he wanted to witness the entire Landon Course, and, when not teaching himself to paint funny fantasy animals in the manner of Carl Barks (which he now does with great skill, see johngarvin.com), he kept delving into obscure catalogues of auction-house offerings and scouring the Web until, at last, he found a complete copy of the course as it was issued in 1922. And then he published it in facsimile, The Landon School of Illustrating and Cartooning (246 8.5x11-inch pages in paperback; $21.95 from Garvin’s EnchantedImages.com). The book is not only an excellent antique peek into cartooning history: it’s also an excellent instructional tome, one of the best of its kind even today.
Born December 19, 1878, Landon the Legend grew up in Ohio and eventually went to work for the Cleveland Press from 1900 to 1912. In those years, a newspaper staff artist drew everything from borders around halftones to depictions of sensational on-going trials as well as cartoons and caricatures and representations of local natural disasters: like others of his ilk, Charles N. Landon was often a pictorial reporter. His last five years at the paper, he managed the art department. That’s how he learned how to develop talent, Garvin tells us, an insight that gave birth to an idea. Landon and another Cleveland newspaper artist, W.L. Evans (probably on staff at the Cleveland Leader), decided to put this specialized knowledge to work in a more ambitious way and planned to open a correspondence school together. But Evans fell ill on the eve of the project’s commencement, and by the time he recovered, Landon was off and running on his own, having launched his correspondence school in 1909. Evans then opened his own correspondence course, rivaling Landon and several other correspondence schools, including ones run by the likes of Eugene “Zim” Zimmerman and Billy DeBeck and, even, later, Russell Patterson. But of the rivals, the Federal School of Cartooning out of Minneapolis was the most competitive and enduring: Charles Schulz went to work for it when he got out of the Army.
Landon eventually became art director of the Newspaper Enterprise Association, one of the largest syndicates supplying comics and feature material to newspapers. He continued operating his correspondence course, which also functioned to screen talent for syndication: if Landon saw a good cartoonist among his students, he would wait until the student graduated, then sign him up with NEA. And if the new recruit was successful, the Landon School’s promotional material claimed the success was a direct result of taking the course. Which, strictly speaking, was almost true—even if the talent was inherent with the student rather than acquired through diligent course work. Landon continued running his correspondence school even after moving to New York as art director of Hearst’s Cosmopolitan.
“C.N.,”as he liked to be called, favored “selected sartorial elegance like celluloid cuffs and spats,” according to Roy Crane, whose Wash Tubbs Landon syndicated as soon as he learned Crane was one of his graduates. When he was a boy, Arlo “Tommy” Thompson, now a retired graphic designer and industrial cartoonist living in San Diego, visited Landon in his Cleveland lair and reported that he was “a portly man with iron-gray hair, pale complexion, and piercing blue eyes.” He spoke, Crane said, with a piping voice that whistled through his teeth. Near here is a portrait of Landon in his maturity by James Montgomery Flagg, a likeness of Thomas Nast drawn by Landon (just to prove his skill), and the picture Landon sketched for Tommy during his visit. “I asked for his autograph,” Tommy said, hardly expecting a drawing, too. “I was floored! A signed cartoon by C.N. himself!”
Landon was twice married: first, in Cleveland to Bertha, last name unknown, with whom by the 1910 census that records this information, he apparently had two children, Marie and Corwin; second, to Jean Victoria Stephens, a Norwalk, Connecticut writer, whom he wed June 13, 1925, and had one child, a daughter. My guess, based upon the slim evidence of an article in the Hartford Courant (April 15, 1935; thanks, Leonardo De Sa and D.D. Degg) that records the wife’s suing for divorce, is that Landon married her after he joined the Cosmopolitan staff: they lived part of the time in Silvermine, a section of Norwalk, it sez here, and the rest of the time in New York City. (Steven Rowe unearthed information that C.N. and Bertha divorced in about 1930-31, when Landon moved to New York, but that scarcely squares with a 1925 marriage to Stephens.) At the time Jean instituted divorce proceedings—for desertion, starting in April 1929!—Landon had been retired for a year from the Cosmopolitan and had returned to Cleveland, where he died May 17, 1937. The Landon Course survived its founder’s death until the mid-1940s or so. But that doesn’t matter for our present purpose. Garvin’s facsimile is ample demonstration of what I’ve always wanted to know: what was the course like?
The Landon Course was, beyond dispute, very good. Very nuts-and-boltsy. Practical. Just exactly what anyone seeking to become a newspaper cartoonist needs to know. Each of the 29 lessons of the 1922 Course includes several sheets (or “plates,” as Landon called them) of illustrative material and a several typewritten pages of discussion and instruction. Here, for instance, is Plate 3 from the “Action” lesson, which shows several figures in “action,” all developed from the preliminary device of a stick-figure “skeleton.” And here’s some of what Landon’s accompanying text says about the pictures: “At the top of Plate 3, I have drawn four skeletons of figures, front view and partially turned. Study the action of each of these carefully and note how the form of each figure is suggested. Group 2 on this Plate shows a figure in the act of making a speech. In E, you will note that I have tipped the skeleton, throwing the weight on one foot to get interesting action. F and G show how the details of this figure are developed with pencil lines. H shows the drawing completed with pen and ink lines and the pencil lines erased. I shows the same figure with coat and hat and with both arms outstretched. ... Study each group carefully to note how the skeletons are drawn and then how the figures are developed.”
At the end of the text lesson, Landon gives the student an assignment; here’s part of the assignment from “Action”: “Use Fig. C of Group 1 on Plate 3 as a guide and draw a fat policeman in uniform pointing a pistol. Bear in mind in drawing this figure that his position is between a front and a side view.” After completing several drawings according to Landon’s written specifications, the student sent them back to Landon. At the Landon School, the drawings were corrected and/or commented upon by an artist Landon had hired—or, if the student had paid the extra stipend, by Landon himself. As Rick Marschall observed when describing this process in Cartoonist PROfiles, No. 30 (June 1976), there are only so many ways to draw a fat policeman pointing a pistol from a three-quarters perspective in imitation of the pose of Figure C in Group 1; Landon would draw that picture as a template, and then one of his “instructors” would place the template on a light-box under the student’s rendering and trace the “Landon version” of the assignment right onto the student’s offering, showing, dramatically, “how it should be done.” Here’s a sample in which the template version of William Jennings Bryan on the stump making a speech was traced on to a student’s drawing. The student was often advised to do his drawing over to “correct” its faults.
Noel Sickles, Milton Caniff’s great friend, worked for Landon for six months soon after graduating from high school and nearly went nuts. Said he (quoted in the IDW Sickles book): “What a gold mine that school was. I still think of that thing. It was amazing. Every day C.N. would open envelopes ... anywhere from 20 to 30 a day, with a check [inside each of them]. ... I was the guy correcting the homework of the students mailed in from all over the country. That was boring as hell because all you did was trace Landon’s drawing down the side of the student’s drawing to show him how to do it. It was Landon’s way of how to do it but an excellent way.”
Here are a couple more Landon Plates; the advice offered thereon is excellent, as good today as it was in 1922.
Testimony from graduates, which Garvin quotes profusely, was universally enthusiastic about the Landon Course, how good it was, how professional, how valuable. But few actually completed the entire Course. “I never finished it,” Caniff said, “—nobody ever did—because I got a job as a artist. Then, who needed the thing?”
Stupidity Championed. Kyle Baker’s How to Draw Stupid and Other Essentials of Cartooning (112 7.5x10.5-inch pages, b/w with some color; paperback, $16.95) is more of an illustrated lecture than the customary how-to book. The harangue is instructive, amusing, often outright funny, but the illustrations, all Baker drawings culled from various places, almost none done expressly for the book, don’t include very many of the kind of art we’re accustomed to finding in such a book—drawings intended to foster practice, for instance. His two pages of “stick figures,” however, are classic: not so much sticks as gestures, and they sometimes have volume and weight. This is the way experienced artists begin drawing: almost none of them rely on the sort of rigid stick figure Landon espouses. Baker also offers several pages of “stupid” faces; good. His emphasis throughout the lecture is on simplifying and exaggeration. About the former, his most telling comments are these: “If your character is wearing a plaid shirt and you have to draw that plaid ten thousand times, you’ll wish you’d dressed him in a nice solid color instead. If you choose a plaid, that plaid had better be important to the story. ... In other words, every element of your cartoon should communicate. If it doesn’t aid communication, it’s a distraction and should be removed.” Sound advice, and the book is full of it. It’s an excellent illustrated lecture, more verbal than pictorial, but excellent withal. And there are numerous Baker renditions of cute animals and babies.
Eisner Redux. Will Eisner, Denis Kitchen tells us in the Editor’s Note to this book, long intended to produce a trilogy of instructional books. Beginning with Comics and Sequential Art and then Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, he wanted to conclude the series with this volume, Expressive Anatomy for Comics and Narrative (190 8x10-inch pages, b/w with occasional blue tints; paperback, Norton, $22.95). Eisner had roughed out a draft of the book’s text and selected much of the illustrative material before going into the hospital in late 2004 for heart surgery, from which he never emerged. Kitchen continues: “Eisner’s family and I determined that Expressive Anatomy was close enough to completion that it should be finished. Peter Poplaski, an artist Eisner had long worked with and trusted—formerly the longtime art director of Kitchen Sink Press [and now a freelancer, sojourning, often, in Europe]—was engaged to finish the posthumous work.”
I’ve run into Eisner’s basic contention, that body language and facial expression are vital elements of pictorial narrative, many times, but this book adds considerable flesh to the bare bones he’s hinted at before. The first several chapters, however, include much too much about body parts to be useful to a cartoonist. A skeleton supplies the only illustrations in the first chapter; and the next offers several pages that show how muscles are layered onto bones. There’s even a page devoted to illustrating the parts of the human brain. More detail here than is necessary (although the muscles passages are marginally useful). A knowledge of anatomy is essential to portraying body language, no question; but detailed knowledge of a skeleton is probably not vital. We all have them—skeletons—and we all have bodies, and observing ourselves and our acquaintances in action is probably more to the point than studying skeletons.
That quibble aside, by the book’s sixth chapter, we’re on solid Eisner ground: “The Language of Posture and Gesture,” followed by “Human Emotion,” “Aggressive Physical Action,” and so on in a similar vein. Eisner deploys a few pages of drawings by Charles Dana Gibson, but most of the illustrative material is taken from his own oeuvre, and while the pictures ably exemplify the principles Eisner urges on us, we must remember that even at his most realistic, Eisner bordered on bigfoot. His propensity was often to exaggerate, just a little—but enough to make the characters cartoony rather than realistic. I don’t mean to denigrate Eisner’s great skill as a comics storyteller, but whenever he slipped into bigfoot mannerisms—which, given his penchant for exaggeration, he did often—his stories teetered on the brink of melodrama and then fell in. The humor of bigfoot cartooning gave Eisner’s work—particularly the Spirit—its great and captivating charm. The Spirit would not be the Spirit without Ebony—or, more to the point, the comically exaggerated Commissioner Dolan, right out of central casting at Mac Sennett studios. Eisner, of course, knew all of this; I don’t think I’m saying anything he’d disagree with—because he capitalized on these tendencies through a long and successful career as a storytelling cartoonist. I am fascinated to speculate about how much of this aspect of Eisner’s work Frank Miller will capture in his forthcoming movie; I fear, alas, that we’ll see the Spirit in Sin City, not Eisner’s Central City. But that’s another subject. The subject at hand—how to use bodies and faces to tell better stories—is well presented in Eisner’s third of a trilogy on the ways of telling stories in comics.
Sketchbook Adventures of a Wandering Artist/Cartoonist. Denis Kitchen, somewhat like Alice of the rabbit hole fame, went down the drain at Kitchen Sink, his own company, a few years ago, and, like the itsy bitsy spider, exited by the water spout into another world, whereupon he promptly set up as a publisher again, under the modest unassuming monicker Denis Kitchen Publishing Company, which, to-date, has published several admirable and rare books, one of which is The Sketchbook Adventures of Peter Poplaski, who we just met in the previous paragraph (206 6x9-inch pages, b/w; hardcover, $25). Poplaski, who I’ve encountered only once to my knowledge, looks, as Robert Crumb says in the Introduction to this book, “like the man who reads meters for the utility company”—tall, short-haired, and clean-shaven except for a distinguished moustache. But appearances are forever deceptive, as we all know. Poplaski is scarcely a meter reader. He is, in fact, one of the last of a probably vanishing breed—a free-spirited freelancer, who, in my imagination after perusing this slender volume and perhaps even in fact, wanders the world, living on a pittance earned through occasional commercial illustration assignments, otherwise pursuing his passion—drawing and looking at every great masterpiece of art in the original, a task, Pete says, “I am near to completing” after thirty-four years on the road, much of it in Europe, where he goes frequently and for longer and longer periods, staying in Sauve, France, the little village where Crumb and his wife Aline live on nearly nothing if they so desire. To an old Beatnik like me, that is an idyllic life. And Pete is living it, and he has recorded the scenes he’s seen, and the people, in a series of sketchbooks, five of them, covering the years from 1994 to 2002. Many of these drawings are published in this little book, a rare treasure.
The book is an artist’s anecdotal archive. At first glance, the pictures look like Crumb’s, copiously cross-hatched. But that first impression evaporates as you linger over the pages. Cross-hatching, yes, but also cross-hookiing, stipling and diagonalling, chipping, clotting, and heavy bristly multi-linear outlines, recording anonymous faces Poplaski has seen in the local bistro, or in the street, old buildings staggering up ancient cobblestone inclines. Sometimes in France; sometimes everywhere else. Some, as an exercise, drawn in just three minutes each. Pictures of friends and dignitaries. Here’s ug cartoonist Jay Lynch, leaning forward, arms folded on the table in front of him, a cigarette in one hand, expounding, as Jay is wont to do, on the intellectual underpinnings of cartooning: “True humor is an exposure of truth or a revelation of hypocrisy, so,” he begins, “— these two pollacks are walking into a whorehouse, see ....” Some faces take a whole page; some appear in a grid of twelve or so panels, like a kind of comic strip of strangers’ faces. There are subtle differences in faces, even in profile (the easiest way to draw a face), and Pete’s caught them.
If you’ve never sketched, you may not like or appreciate Pete’s great skill. But even if that evades you, you might, as I did, think, as I thumb through the book, of Van Gogh and Gaugain in Ailes. I’ve always been fascinated by Van Gogh, the artist as hero, as the actor of his own life, albeit a failure in all others—the driven personality, living a “heroic act of will.”
Throughout the book, Poplaski has sprinkled quotations that turn a book of sketches into an artist’s credo, a manifesto of the artist and how he views his art and the world. “Art,” writes Henry Miller, “like religion, it now seems to me, is only a preparation, an initiation into the way of life.” For Miller, the idea is “to live creatively ... to live more and more unselfishly, to live more and more into the world, identifying oneself with it and thus influencing it at the core, so to speak.” Robert Hughes: “The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory.” Not exactly Miller’s formula for living fully, but still, memorable. N.C. Wyeth may be closer to Miller: “The vitality of artistic expression is essentially autobiographical.” But “art” is not the only lesson Poplaski finds in quoting others. Here’s G.K. Chesterton: “There are two ways to get enough. One is to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.” Thomas Carlyle in his best suit of clothes. And then this, near the end of the book, from Anatole France: “A work of art is never finished, only abandoned.”
And so, for the moment, we come to the end of Poplaski’s world. And a gratefully appreciated sojourn it has been: however brief, it nourishes the soul by making you think of what might be as well as what is, the world of the artist, abandoned unfinished.
Other Kitchen Accouterments. At least two other books clutter up Denis’ Kitchen. The first, which we reviewed when it came out in 2001, reprints Harvey Kurtzman’s Grasshopper and the Ant, Mad’s founder’s retelling of the fable for Esquire in 1960, when, as Kitchen put it, Kurtzman’s creativity was at its peak (80 8x8-inch pages, in elegant color; hardcover, $25). The other, another “how-to” tome: Drawing Comics Is Easy (Except When It’s Hard) (176 5x7-inch pages, some color; hardcover with fashionable round corners, $19.95) by the publisher’s 7-year-old daughter, Alexa. At first, I turned my nose up at the childish artwork, but once I began inspecting text as well as visuals, I quickly realized that Alexa has a firm grasp of the essentials of cartooning. The book’s pages picture the difference between “cartoon” drawing and “realistic” drawing, how to vary facial expressions, and various step-by-step demonstrations, plus tips a-plenty. As I turned the pages, I suspected, more and more, that her father had a hand in the mapping out of this course, but Kitchen, interviewed by Lauren Mechling at the New York Times, recounts the incident of Will Eisner’s first encounter with Alexa’s art. He asked if her father had helped, and, said her father, “She got very indignant and said, ‘I did it myself.’” A precocious artist, then, whose lessons in how to cartoon are likely to be helpful to any novice. Available, like the Kurtzman book, at deniskitchen.com.
An Excellent Book for Beginners. Jim Ivey, a retired (after 40 years) editorial cartoonist, founder of the Orlando Comic Con and the cARToon Museum (among other accomplishments in a long career), has finally arranged elementary exercises in cartooning in instructional order for Graphic Shorthand: A Cartoon Course (128 8.5x11-inch pages, b/w; coil bound, $19.95 plus shipping from Lulu.com or $25 postpaid from Ivey, 5840 Dahlia Drive, No. 17, Orlando, FL 32807). Based upon his experiences teaching cartooning “live” in classrooms, Ivey recommends simplicity in cartooning (and in this vicinity, by way of dramatizing how telling simplicity can be, is a page of his stunning caricatures, done for Sick magazine, June 1968), and his book incorporates that principle on every page with tips and techniques and step-by-step assignments that will take the attentive and diligent student from stick figures and circles to genuine cartooning artforms. Wish I’d had this book to recommend to students of mine when I sallied forth into teaching cartooning: Ivey’s book is better than anything I manufactured for weekly assignments. You can see more of Ivey’s work at Allan Holtz’s website, strippersguide.blogspot.com, where Ivey’s career retrospective, Cartoons I Liked, is also described and offered. If you order directly from Ivey, you get an original Ivey sketch with your book(s). Jim, by the way—if you can’t tell—is a friend of mine of long-standing, so everything I say about him and his work is steeped in affectionate admiration (albeit wholly justified as any witness to his work will tell you.) One of my favorite aphorisms I found in Graphic Shorthand: “Get a job that you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Jim said it’s an utterance by Confucius, but I wouldn’t swear to it.
Here at the New Yorker. Robert “Bob” Mankoff, the cartoon editor of this famed American humor magazine, is something of a showboat when on stage: he’s a master of one-liners and visibly revels in the laughter and applause he incites. I’ve even seen him hog the spotlight when accompanied by other New Yorker cartoonists. Despite this somewhat off-putting tendency of his, his comedic genius, despite a lame drawing style, cannot be denied. And he has done more for the advancement of cartooning, probably, than anyone else in the last half-century except Hugh Hefner. It started with the Cartoon Bank. Mankoff invented the Cartoon Bank as a way of marketing all those hundreds of cartoons New Yorker cartoonists produced that were rejected by the editors of the magazine. The cartoons were still good, he reasoned—even if they had failed to make the cut for publication. The Cartoon Bank offered interested parties the opportunity to buy, for whatever nefarious purpose, these worthy left-overs. And the Cartoon Bank took the rejects from other magazines, too. When Mankoff became cartoon editor at The New Yorker, he offered to sell the Cartoon Bank to the magazine, but apparently no one was interested. At first. Eventually, however, The New Yorker bought the Cartoon Bank and added to the inventory of rejects for sale prints of cartoons that had been published in magazine. The enterprise was so successful that it accounted for the magazine’s profit margin in the early years of its operation: sales at the Cartoon Bank put the magazine, often foundering in the red, into the black. Thanks for Mankoff.
Mankoff may not have concocted the idea of the magazine’s annual “Cartoon Issue,”and he may not have invented the “Cartoon Caption Contest” that started in the 1999 version of the “Cartoon Issue.” But I suspect that he gave birth to both. And the “Cartoon Caption Contest” inspired such reader response that it was installed as a weekly feature on the magazine’s last page in 2005. Since then, 350,000 persons have entered the Contest, submitting over a million captions. And now you can find 100 of the contests reprinted in The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest Book (216 8x10-inch pages, b/w with a color accent; hardcover, $24.99), without question the most entertaining, instructive and funniest book of single-panel gag cartoons in the bookstores this season. Each cartoon appears twice: on a right-hand page, the drawing without a caption; on the next page, overleaf to a left-hand page, the cartoon is captioned with the “winning” submission from some avid cartoon reader, plus the second- and third-place contenders and a couple runners-up. A pie-chart displays the percentage of the vote that the winning caption won in the final voting by readers.
And there are other amusements. Some of the contestants are interviewed and some statistics are occasionally broadcast. We learn, for instance, that “in general, five times more men than women enter the contest.” And the magazine suspected fairly early on that the language of the captions was not quite the same as ordinary, day-to-day English. So they checked with lexicographers at Oxford University Press. Sure enough: in Captionese (the argot of the captions), interjections such as “well,” “oh,” and “damn it” are five times as common as they are in ordinary usage. “Oddly,” the editors continue, “when comparing the ratio of ‘golly’ to ‘gosh,’ [ordinary] English has four goshes to the golly, but Captionese has eight.” Squibs of information of this sort elevate the volume above the usual compilation of gag cartoons, making this one more entertaining than almost all others.
The instructive part of the book, for anyone interested in becoming a caption-writer or, better, a cartoonist of single-panel cartoons, lies in the contest itself. The essence of the single-panel cartoon’s humor resides in the blending of visual and verbal content: the picture of any good panel cartoon is a puzzle; the caption, “explains” the puzzle. And we laugh at the ingenuity of the cartoonist’s invention in yoking picture and words to this purpose. The “Cartoon Caption Contest” invites every interested personage to engage in the work of a cartoonist. The pictures in the Contest invariably present an incongruous situation in which one of the pictured persons has his mouth open. Contestants are invited to put words into that mouth, words that “explain” the incongruity—or excuse it or make some sort of sense of it. So the contestant learns how to be a gag cartoonist.
Here, for example, is a picture of the interior of a bar. The bartender is on the telephone as three people enter the bar—a priest, a rabbi, and a black minister. What is the bartender saying into the phone that “explains” this classic joke setup. The winning caption is: “Stop me if you’re heard this one.” Second place went to: “I thought I told you to stop sending me jokes at work.” Third place: “It’s gonna be one of those long nights of playing devil’s advocate.”
One of my favorites shows a group of naked people seated on stage beneath the banner “Welcome Stockholders.” One of the naked people, a fat older man, stands behind a podium, addressing the audience, which is fully clothed. The winning caption: “First, I’d like to thank the podium.”
Another depicts an operating room in which a group of surgeons are gathered around the operating table upon which lies a giant rocket. The winning caption: “Damn it, I’m a brain surgeon, not a rocket scientist.”
Every captionless cartoon comes equipped with what the editor (none other than The Man Himself, Bob Mankoff) calls, irreverent tongue wedged in his cheek, “helper words”—“designed to assist you in connecting the various ideas in the cartoon and to get your caption juices flowing.” Clearly a phoney ploy. At the bottom of every captionless cartoon is an array of words culled from the captions submitted; the words that occur most frequently among the submissions are larger than other words. The largest word/phrase for the first cartoon described above is “Prince Albert.” Naturally, the words “Prince Albert” do not appear in any of the finalist captions: the object is to concoct an unusual caption, and if “Prince Albert” appears most often in the submissions, no caption with those words would be, by definition, “unusual.”
I laughed at more of the cartoons in this book than I ever have when turning pages in a panel cartoon reprint tome. Why? I suspect it’s because the cartoon appears twice. When it appears first without a caption, you pause and ponder the situation. You take in the details, however briefly, however perfunctorily. So when you turn the page and behold the cartoon again, this time with an array of captions, you are primed to more fully appreciate the ingenuity of the words’ applicability to the visual.
Entertaining, instructive, and funny—very very funny.
THE REST OF THE HISTORY
And here, as promised, the second of my two reviews of Brian Walker’s incomparable history of comic strips in the twentieth century, Comics: The Complete Collection (660 9x12-inch pages, in black-and-white and color; hardcover, $19.95, available only in Borders stores), a giant treasure that combines Walker’s two previous tomes, The Comics Since 1945 and The Comics Before 1945. I reviewed them separately when they first appeared in 2002 and 2004 in Nos. 253 and 274 of the Comics Journal. The second of those reviews, of The Comics Before 1945, appears forthwith. And after you peruse it, you’ll have no excuse but to buy the big combination, undeniably and without quibble the best buy of the season, an ideal Christmas present for your spouse to give you—or for you to give yourself.
Another History of Comics Book. This prequel to Brian Walker's previous history, The Comics Since 1945, is entitled, with a poetic fervor we must admire, The Comics Before 1945. And it has all of the wonderful parts in it that its predecessor had. Divided into chapters by decade, the book begins at the turn of the century (that is, 1890-1900) and concludes in 1945. Each chapter is introduced with an essay that succinctly rehearses the chief events of that period and the developments in newspaper comics, illustrated with rare bits of artwork, special drawings done for long-forgotten occasions or promotional purposes. Then come the pages printing representative samples of the comic strips launched during that decade; these are accompanied by tersely informative captions and, sometimes, a few paragraphs about genre or types. Scattered throughout are short one-page biographies of the major cartoonists of the period, followed by several pages of their strips. In the first, “Turn of the Century,” chapter, we get Richard F. Outcault, Rudolph Dirks, Frederick B. Opper, Jimmy Swinnerton, and Winsor McCay.
One of the incidental short essays in this chapter discusses “Racial Caricature,” with which comics of the day were rife. Says Walker: “A comprehensive overview of newspaper comics before 1945 would be incomplete without including many of these characters. The images of black people shown here, and in subsequent chapters, must be evaluated in the historical context of the era. Important lessons can be learned by studying the visual record of racial intolerance, and hopefully, these past transgressions can be avoided.”
Walker’s essays, as in the earlier tome, are packed with information: every sentence seems loaded with more facts than the usual subject-predicate configuration is intended to tolerate, and yet, thanks to Walker’s unadorned—almost deadpan—style, the text is eminently readable and supplies insights of the sort that have never been placed in the proper context before. And the bibliography and notes that come at the end of the book constitute a windfall of fugitive fact for the historian and researcher.
I cannot speak highly enough of the wealth of knowledge this book offers and the pleasure it affords. It is a signal achievement; but in the offing, such a book was, doubtless, a daunting prospect.
When Walker produced the previous volume, The Comics Since 1945, also at Abrams, he was traipsing over virgin territory. No one had done a general history of the medium that embraced the 1945-2000 period. My book, The Art of the Funnies, embraces the period, bringing the history from the humor magazines of the late nineteenth century up through Calvin and Hobbes just before Bill Watterson quit, but I focus on the trail-blazers and trend-setters (Bud Fisher, George McManus, Winsor McCay, Milton Caniff, Roy Crane, etc.) and a few inimitable exemplars (E.C. Segar, George Herriman, Walt Kelly) whose work, while inimitable, showed what the medium, stretched to its utmost, can do. It was left to Walker to explore thoroughly the history of the whole medium since World War II, which is the benchmark that 1945 sets up. And as I said here at the time, he covered it with great thoroughness.
With the success of that volume, Abrams begged for an encore to explore with Walker’s particular expertise the area until 1945, and that’s what this book does. With comparable thoroughness and success, I must add.
But in The Comics Before 1945, he’s trampling a well-trod field. The classic histories of the medium—by Thomas Craven, Coulton Waugh, Stephen Becker, Jerry Robinson, even Martin Sheridan—all cover this ground. But none of them cover it with Walker’s unique insight as the son of a syndicated cartoonist, Mort Walker, and as a member of the writing team of Hi and Lois and Beetle Bailey or bring to the task his experience as a curator as well as connoisseur of museum-class comics art. For Walker, however, the challenge was to do something that other histories hacking their way through the same thicket hadn’t done. Why reprint a lot of Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs, for instance, when the entire strip has been reproduced? Ditto Terry and the Pirates. And then, in terms of visual material alone, we have Bill Blackbeard and Dale Crain’s compendious two-volume The Comic Strip Century (Kitchen Sink).
Walker’s challenge, in short, was to make this book somehow different than the others. He decided to showcase the art, as he had done in Since 1945, using, wherever possible, original art instead of clips or photostats. He was a little less successful with this volume: original art for many of the earliest strips is very scarce, usually unattainable. (Astonishingly, though, he found an original Yellow Kid page, dated July 12, 1896.) But Walker’s experience in the catacombs of the International Museum of Comic Art yielded excellent and often seldom seen examples. Walker provided the illustrations as 4x5 transparencies shot from the original art or, sometimes, as scans of tearsheets; Abrams simply reproduced what Walker supplied. The result, in virtually every instance, is superb reproduction, and this is the period in the history of the medium when cartoonists were producing spectacular artwork—and newspapers were providing space ample enough to display it in all its glories.
And that brings me to the only criticism of any significance that I have of this book. It is the same size and dimensions as its predecessor, but the strips it reproduces were more elaborately drawn than comic strips since 1945, and when these giant 1900-1945 strips are reproduced herein, they often are too small to adequately display the intricacies of the art. That, alas, is a criticism that can be leveled at almost all histories of the medium. Here at least, both Walker and his publisher have taken extra pains to preserve the quality of the drawings, whatever the size, and the result, despite the reduced dimension, is, for the most part, exquisite. Among the hundreds of strips reprinted here, I found only one bad reproduction—a hand-colored Sunday of The Bungle Family, which seems to be reproduced from a slightly out-of-focus photograph.
The book brims with rare pieces: Charles Kahles’ Clarence the Cop, almost never on display, with the title character seeing himself in the funny papers; Mutt and Jeff throwing a Christmas dinner to which they’ve invited several of the other Journal American comic strip characters; one of McCay’s Dream of the Rarebit Fiend in which the cartoonist, as Silas (his pen name for the feature), appears, his head growing increasingly bigger as he absorbs the compliments of admirers; a self-caricature of Fontaine Fox; an elegant self-portrait by George McManus; the cast of The Gumps; Prince Valiant standing off a mob of warriors on the bridge, a famous page (which Al Williamson has the original of, obtained for a song long ago in the blissfully ignorant days when comic strip art was considered just so much trash to be tossed out), re-shot from either original art or photostat and then “re-colored,” one of the few strips presented in this manner herein; a second Prince Valiant page, this one’s individual panels offering an array of medieval scenes and vignettes, a virtual catalogue of the strip’s visual treasures; a tearsheet of Dick Tracy for September 8, 1932, wherein the cleaver-jawed detective meets Junior for the first time; a controversial Popeye Sunday in which Wimpy, ever on the hunt for a hamburger, slaughters a cow that he comes across, grinds up the carcass, and treats himself to a mountain of hamburgers; a half-dozen historic moments in Blondie; the Gasoline Alley portion of Frank King’s Rectangle page, showing the feature in strip format, which it occasionally assumed even when appearing within the Rectangle layout; a daily Gasoline Alley in which King exploits the horizontal layout of the strip; Crane’s Wash Tubbs shaded with crayon on pebbleboard, which we’ve seen before but never at a size that displays, as this does, the delicacy of the shading; a huge panorama of the entire cast and their relatives in Right Around Home—one of Dudley Fisher’s patented bird’s-eye views, but this one is jammed with people and their ballooned conversation; and an exquisite Ethel Hays’ femme, stunning in both feminine beauty and artistic treatment.
And here’s a rare political statement by Billy DeBeck—a crayon-shaded rendering of Snuffy Smith, vowing to bounce “a passel of rifle-balls” off’n the “punkin haids” of Hilter, Mussolini, and Hirohito “iff’n them varmints” don’t stay on their side of the ocean; it’s dated October 12, 1940, and Snuffy is already in uniform, long before the U.S. entered the European hostilities. Dow Walling’s Skeets has been largely forgotten, but the Sunday page Walker puts before us makes me wonder what great moments we must’ve missed. An August 1930 promotional picture of pretty perky Blondie that appeared in Editor & Publisher the week before the strip started reminds me of King Features’ legendary promotional campaign for Chic Young’s strip, an unusually extravagant endeavor in which newspaper editors were sent a suitcase of ladies’ lingerie with Blondie’s name tag attached. Follow-up telegrams apologized for the “mix-up.” Ahh, those were the days of real sport, my friend. And here’s Our Boarding House for January 27, 1922, when Major Hoople makes his debut, looking considerably less imposing than he eventually became.
One of my initial reactions to the book as I was reading it was that I wasn’t seeing many “firsts,” the sort of thing you’d expect to find in a history book—a result, no doubt, of Walker’s insistence upon using original art. But as I continued my desultory saunter through the book, the quality and rarity of so much of what Walker included more than made up for the missing inaugural appearances.
Walker begins his history with the obligatory references to cave drawings, and he puts Outcault’s Yellow Kid in its proper place, debunking as myth almost every aspect of Waugh’s classic yarn about the origin of comic strips. The feature wasn’t a “strip” when it began, didn’t use speech balloons, and the Kid’s shirt wasn’t yellow. Moreover, the antique tradition that his shirt became yellow as an experiment in fast-drying ink is, likewise, bunkum. The Yellow Kid’s importance in the history of the medium lies in the resounding success of the creation: Outcault’s cartoon stimulated newspaper sales, establishing the commercial importance of comics to newspapers, thus making comics a permanent newspaper fixture.
In the disquisition leading to this conclusion, Walker eventually bumps up against the perennial knotty exercise of defining “comic strips.” He quotes a couple candidates, including a portion of my extended definition (which appears near here, in Harv’s Hindsight for December 2005), but finishes with Thierry Smolderen’s “relativistic” definition in which different definitions are made by different persons, each selecting the defining terms to suit his or her purposes. It is therefore pointless to seek a single, all-purpose definition. Walker agrees, probably because, as he says, “cartoonists do not concern themselves with definitions.” True, but what cartoonists theorize about their medium doesn’t, really, matter in discussions of the kind Walker is conducting. The cartoonists produce the artifacts, obeying whatever creative impulse fires their engine and instinctively knowing, throughout, how the artform functions without having to define it before they can do their work. It’s the historian’s job, or the critic’s, to formulate criteria for either identifying the artform or evaluating it. Walker, by a rhetorical slight of hand, changes the argument without resolving the issue.
Some of us are no doubt too compulsive about this definition exercise, and Walker has the decency not to say so but to simply turn, politely, and walk away, leaving us to our petty disputations while he goes about his business, reciting and showing the history of the medium, however we, eventually, define it. Perhaps, in the long run, our preoccupation doesn’t matter much: like the Justice who pondered pornography, we know comics when we see them, and we surely see lots of them in Before 1945.
And Walker’s text usually tells us more about the history of the medium than the pictures, excellent though they be. He has researched his subject exhaustively, and his delvings and cullings have produced such verbal gems as this, Jimmy Swinnerton’s 1934 reminiscence about the transition from magazine to newspaper cartooning: “In those days [before newspaper cartooning], we swore by [cartoonist Eugene] Zimmerman and [cartoonist Frederick Burr] Opper, and the others of the grotesque school who illustrated printed jokes. It was not the fashion to have balloons showing what the characters were saying, as that was supposed to have been buried with the English [caricaturist George] Cruikshank, but along came the comic supplements, and with Dick Outcault’s Yellow Kid, the balloons came back and literally filled the sky.”
Swinnerton’s concluding imagery is memorable, and the quotation is jammed with insights into the distant past—they all knew they were just “illustrating jokes” in the closing years of 19th century magazine cartooning; speech balloons have a long history; Outcault is seen as the popularizer of the modern usage of speech balloons—all scraps of knowledge that it has taken modern scholarship years to unearth, but here it all is, in a single utterance by one of those who was there then.
Most of Walker’s own sentences are similarly crammed with information. (And he has the sophistication not to point out every jot and tittle of data as I too often do—and just did.)
As we loll along, we pick up buckets of informative nuggets—sometimes wholly new bits; sometimes just a novel way of stating accepted facts. As before in Since 1945, Walker brings an insider’s knowledge to his task: he lived with comic strip production all his life in his father’s workshop, and his view of comics history is therefore often laced with knowledge acquired through involvement with syndicate operations, a perspective most other historians of the medium lack.
He pauses to recognize what the increasingly homogenized news of the 1920s did for newspaper comics. The growth of wire services meant that all newspapers had substantially the same news content, and the comics “became one of the few unique features that a paper could offer to its readers,” Walker says, reflecting a view doubtless held by most syndicates, even today (and accurately so, too). Walker continues: “By the end of the [1920s], signing up one of the top strips, like Mutt and Jeff or The Gumps, [or failing to sign up an equivalent] could make or break a newspaper.”
In 1927, E&P reported, according to Walker, that there were 80 syndicates “distributing more than two thousand different features to newspapers around the world.” As I’ve said in my book, The Art of the Funnies, it was the competition among syndicates that fostered the creation of new strips: because Blondie was available to only one newspaper in a given circulation area, rival syndicates urged cartoonists to invent other “family” strips so that they would have something to offer to newspapers that couldn’t get Blondie.
Walker seems to have read every issue of Editor & Publisher from 1900 to 1945. In 1936, Popeye “was named the fastest selling comic” in E&P—and although Walker doesn’t mention it, the Popeye phenomena was doubtless due as much as anything to the Fleischer Studio’s flooding movie theaters with Popeye animated cartoons. The first was produced in 1933; within a year, Fleischer was producing one Popeye cartoon a month. Segar’s strip was popular enough on its own to attract the animators’ attention, no doubt; but once the animated Popeye started wafting across the landscape, the newspaper strip undoubtedly benefitted from the film version’s popularity, and circulation rose accordingly.
In his essay about the 1930s, Walker provides a lesson in syndicate economics for cartoonists. “A modestly successful strip that appeared in 150 papers and earned an average [fee] of $10 per paper could bring in $1,500 a week. After the standard fifty-fifty split with the syndicate, a cartoonist in this category could earn $39,000 a year, not counting additional revenue from secondary sources.” To suggest the actual wealth this represented, Walker adjusts for inflation, saying “$1,600 a week in 1933 would be almost $1 million a year in contemporary dollars.”
In any work sprawling across decades of the history of this medium there are bound to be errors or oversights. Walker gets his share, including the same faux starting date for Wash Tubbs that I’ve been promulgating for years until, a couple years ago, I found a better, more accurate, date while pawing through old newspaper clippings. It’s April 14, 1924, not April 21. This is among the errors in the first printing of the book that Walker fixed in this one-volume version. (Most of them are of a profoundly minor order compared to this one.) Alas, finding references in a work like this that doles out history in installments—first by Decade Chapters, then by cartoonist and/or comic strip—is like nailing quicksilver to the wall. And, alas and alack, Walker probably forgot that the starting date for Wash Tubbs appears twice in this tome; he fixed one but overlooked the other. I think I’ve fixed all of my April 21s, but, now that I’m faced with Walker’s plight here, I can’t be sure.
To be scrupulously fair about dates and similar factual errors herein, I must acknowledge that Walker sent me a copy of the typescript of the book long before it was published in 2004, asking me for reactions, general comments and/or factual amendments, if any. I offered a few suggestions, very few, and a couple corrections. I didn’t happen upon Wash Tubbs’ true debut date until some time after Walker’s typescript had gone into print, but for whatever other errors may lurk here, I must take at least part of the blame for their presence.
Although Walker tried to supply starting dates for every strip presented here, he overlooked a few (Auto Otto, for instance, and, on the same page, Harold Teen), and sometimes the dates surface in unexpected places, in the decade’s introductory essay, say, instead of in the caption underneath a representative strip.
Walker includes, perhaps for the first time in a general history of newspaper strips, Will Eisner’s The Spirit, which, as we all know, was invented as a newspaper supplement in the form of a comic book. Why other comic strip historians have overlooked this conspicuous fact and therefore neglected Eisner’s magnum opus I can’t imagine. Even Jerry Robinson, who ought to know better, mentions The Spirit only in connection with Jules Feiffer and implies that it was a comic book, which it was, of course, but it was produced for newspapers.
The last Spirit was dated October 5, 1952, by the way—not, as Walker has it, September 28. I missed it in typescript. But Walker has fixed it in this edition: he supplies crucial date information in his introductory essay not in the subsequent mini-biography of Eisner.
Errors other than dating slip in sometimes. Bert Christman, the artist who abandoned Scorchy Smith for real adventures in military aviation, flew with Clare Chennault’s Flying Tigers, the American Volunteer Group, not the Navy. The AVG was recruited sub rosa from branches of the regular military, so Christman may have enlisted first in the Navy, but that’s not the outfit he was flying with when he was shot down and killed over Burma.
In fairness, this sort of nuanced esoterica is probably too much to include in a caption under a sample strip.
And it’s doubtless extravagant to suppose that Walker, even after reading all of E&P for half-a-century, would know that Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon was bought, sight unseen, by a total of 162 newspapers, not just 63. Walker cites the latter number, given in King Features’ publicity in May 1945; but by the time the first picture of Caniff’s new hero appeared in print, in E&P for November 23, 1946, 99 more papers had signed on without having seen anything, according to the Time cover story, December 2. Walker’s fixed it in this edition.
This sort of detail is probably known only by someone writing a biography of Caniff (which, I rush to blurt out, is what I was doing when The Comics Before 1945 came out; I’ve since finished it, and Fantagraphics published it in the summer of 2007).
Steve Canyon debuted on Monday, January 13, 1947, in 234 papers, as Walker notes—another 72 signed up for it after seeing samples—and an additional 4 papers had bought the strip for Sundays only. I mention all this not to fault Walker: he can scarcely be expected to plunge this deeply into the history of a single strip in a general history of the medium. I bring it up here merely for the sake of giving this diatribe some informative and entertaining frills over and above the solid content of Walker’s work, which, for the most part, I am diligently repeating. (And to plug my book, I confess. But that’s obvious, eh?)
In another of the book’s built-in chronological incongruities, the sequence of Terry strips depicting the October 1941 death of Raven Sherman appears in the 1930s chapter, but the discussion of the outcry her death provoked among the strip’s fans transpires in the 1940s Introduction. In the same spirit of mining minutiae, let me mention that Raven was named by the cartoonist’s wife, who, Caniff said, never forgave him for killing off “her little girl.”
Other tidbits probably too minuscule for a general history include the odd coincidence that Frank Miller (not Batman Returns’ Miller) had his aviator comic strip hero, Barney Baxter, flying a bombing run over Tokyo in the spring of 1942 on exactly the day that Jimmy Doolittle led an aerial attack on the city in real life. Or virtually the same day, allowing for the shift of days at the International Dateline midway across the Pacific.
At the other end of World War II, Walker prints the Buz Sawyer strip in which Japan’s surrender is announced over the squawk box on board the aircraft carrier Buz was stationed on. But Walker makes nothing of the date of the strip—August 28, 1945, fourteen days after the Japanese surrendered. Wherein lies a tale. (Or, if you prefer, more extraneous historical information.) In the strip on the actual day the Japanese surrendered, August 14, 1945 (on this side of the International Dateline), Buz was being briefed for a dawn strike at Tokyo. For the next two weeks, Buz’s creator Roy Crane undoubtedly squirmed as his hero bombed “the sacred earth of Japan” and fought off the kamikazes that attacked his carrier—all of which happened after the war was over. Crane wasn’t able to bring his strip out of its embarrassing time warp until August 28, when the squawk box squawked.
Nor does Walker notice that the first four dailies of Crockett Johnson’s masterful Barnaby reproduced herein are not, actually, the first four dailies: Johnson re-drew the first few weeks of the strip for the reprint volume published by Holt’s Blue Ribbon Books in 1943, and these are the ones Walker uses. In the original strips, Barnaby’s fairy godfather, the cigar-smoking fraud Mr. O’Malley, isn’t as cuddly-looking as he is here—and everywhere else throughout Barnaby’s run.
But these quibbles are of a magnificently minor order of importance, particularly in the face of the hundreds of fascinating fragments we encounter in Walker’s book. Here, for instance, from Frank King, is a perfect description of how the writing of a comic strip must occur:
“It is really true that my people seem to act on their own; seem to want to do certain things, almost without my planning it. I think that is a sign that a character has come alive. He has emerged with a personality; the original creative act is over. Now, what the strip artist does is just to cook up situations, and let the strip people react to them in their own way.” I’ve heard the same from virtually any strip cartoonist I’ve talked with on the subject.
And here, for the sake of another fugitive factoid, is George McManus on the biography of his creation, Jiggs: “He was born in Ireland and came to this country, expecting to find the streets paved with gold,” said McManus to a reporter in 1926. “But they were paved with bricks and cobblestones instead. So he became a hod-carrier. Romance came into his life when he met Maggie slinging dishes in a beanery, and they were married. He threw away the hod and began to sell bricks on commission. Then he went into the brick making business and manufactured a brick especially designed for throwing purposes. It was much harder than the ordinary building brick and sold year around.” Presumably, Jiggs sold his bricks to Ignatz in George Herriman’s Krazy Kat; heaving them daily at the benighted Kat, Ignatz must’ve exhausted his inventory at a ferocious rate.
Nothing in McManus’ 1926 recitation about Jiggs’ winning the Irish sweepstakes as the source of his wealth. Just selling bricks.
On another occasion, talking with his assistant Zeke Zekley, McManus, as I’ve said elsewhere, explained Jiggs’ wealth by saying he had worked, in his youth, as a hod-carrier for a construction boss named Ryan, who liked him so much that he gave Jiggs a dime every time he, Ryan, made a thousand dollars. Ryan must’ve grown as wealthy as Croesus.
In a similar vein, there’s a possibly apocryphal story about why Stan Link, who had assisted Sidney Smith on The Gumps for years, didn’t inherit the strip when Smith died in an auto accident in October 1935, just after having renewed his contract with the Tribune-News syndicate for three more years at $150,000 a year. Notices about Smith’s death often said the strip would be continued by Link, but it was Gus Edson, finally, who took up The Gumps. Walker speculates that Link and the syndicate “were unable to agree on terms.”
Milton Caniff told me another story. According to him, Link was a little too full of himself in presuming he’d continue Smith’s popular strip. He went to see publisher Joseph Patterson, head of the syndicate, and when he discovered Patterson was out, he went into the publisher’s office to await his return. He stretched out on a couch therein and was smoking a big cigar, prone at full length with his feet on the cushions, when Patterson walked in. Patterson, evidently objecting to the affront to decorum of his sanctum sanctorum, ordered Link out. And soon thereafter, it was announced that Edson would get The Gumps.
Legend, doubtless. But amusing withal. Walker is probably wise to stick to ascertainable facts, which he does with an almost religious dedication.
In the chapter on the 1940s, he rehearses the causes for the evaporation of space allocated to comics. To conserve valuable newsprint during World War II, newspapers started cancelling strips to reduce the number of pages they had to devote to them instead of to news reports. Syndicates responded to the crisis by offering strips at smaller sizes. And so the perpetually shrinking comic strip was born. The American Society of Newspaper Editors got into the act, recommending that “the legibility of the comics could be maintained by shortening the balloons and eliminating complicated art detail.” By the end of the War, comic strips at the spacious dimensions of yore were decidedly a thing of the past.
Walker quotes Fred Ferguson, president of the Newspaper Enterprise Association syndicate, who, early in 1944, “looked forward to the end of the War but speculated that ‘even with more newsprint available, I don’t see why the newspapers would want to return to a six-column comic strip. The artists have got over the hump of adjusting their work, and they’ve succeeded admirably in fitting into smaller spaces. As a matter of fact, with more tightly written balloons, the material has improved.’ Comic strips,” Walker finishes, “would never be restored to their prewar dimensions.” It’s surpassing sad to read Ferguson’s comments—to suspect that he was already envisioning the likelihood that he’d be able to sell more comic strips if newspapers could run more comic strips by keeping them all smaller than they had been; to realize that cartoonists had been so complicit, so willing to give away their birthright, the space in which they plied their craft.
And the sadness is made even more intense by the samples of comic strip artistry that Walker parades before us through this book. Ahhh, but these guys could draw! Even when they were caricaturing humanity, they produced distinctive works of Art.
I can scarcely turn a page without encountering another long-lost treasure—early (1928) Etta Kett etched in Paul Robinson’s then frail almost minimalist line; Martin Branner making a cameo appearance in self-caricature in his own Winnie Winkle on April 1, 1928, seated at his drawingboard upon which are perched miniatures of the Rinkydinks, the ragtag kids who populated the Sunday strip; Fritzi Ritz by her creator, Larry Wittington; Billy DeBeck in sumptuous self-caricature from Circulation magazine; four strips from Bringing Up Father’s visit to Japan in 1927 in which McManus proves to be, already, a master of the elegant filagree line and form.
As I turn pages looking for a way to wind this up, I can do no better than to say, I stop at every page.
ONWARD, THE SPREADING PUNDITRY
The Thing Of It Is ...
George W. (“Whopper”) Bush is now busily doing what he said he never does—looking at how history might judge him. And he’s all over the networks with interviews in which he re-visits the incidents that characterize his disastrous regime, trying to put the best spin on each and every catastrophe. Good luck, GeeDubya. As an vivid indication of how successful he might be, we have that startling footage of an Iraqi newsperson flinging his shoes at the Prez of the U.S. (Being hit by one’s shoe displays the ultimate in contempt in Arab culture.) Naturally, no editoonist worth his sugar could let this one slip by without a shoe cartoon. Here are a few in which the cartoonists reveal their soles. But the high comedy of the cartoons scarcely reveals the most terrifying aspect of the incident. As a wag on a List I get said: “Anyone else astonished at the slow response of our Secret Service in that clip? Count the seconds, it takes a while. Not only do the Iraqi secret service guys appear to get to him first, but a door opens behind the President and finally our guys come out. What were they taking a smoke break back there or something?”
The post-election world is otherwise blessedly awash in happy happenstances. At news.lalate.com, we learn that conservative skank-talk artist Ann Coulter broke her jaw and it’s now wired shut. I won’t touch that with a pole of any length: it simply stands on its own, majestically.
Rod Blagojevich, erstwhile governor of Illinois, is but the latest manifestation in a long line of corrupt governors. If indicted and convicted, he’ll be the fourth in the last eight Illinois governors to do jail time. But the corruption scarcely stops (or starts) with Blagojevich. Since 1971, according to Amada Paulson at the Christian Science Monitor, 31 Chicago aldermen and some 1,000 public officials and businessmen have been convicted. But the classic case was Paul Powell. His was the instance of wholesale graft and corruption.
When I first moved to Illinois in the late 1960s, I drove into the state under one of the numerous welcoming archways than spanned the highways entering the state. “Welcome to Illinois,” it proclaimed. Then it gave the name of the governor at the time and, immediately below (but in somewhat larger letters), “Paul Powell, Secretary of State.” Unusual, I thought, that the secretary of state should participate in the welcome. But I thought no more about it until I went to get my Illinois driver’s license. The largest type over the door of the licensing station was not “Illinois Motor Vehicle Department” but “Paul Powell, Secretary of State.” And when I got ready to pay my fee, I was directed to make out my check to “Paul Powell.” Not, in this instance, “Paul Powell, Secretary of State”; just “Paul Powell.” And when I paid the annual registration fee for the auto, same thing: check was to be made out to “Paul Powell.” You see where this is going, no doubt.
Paul Powell was a veteran Illinois politician. He became Secretary of State in 1965, following a 30-year career in state politics, including 3 terms as speaker of the Illinois house and four terms as minority leader of the assembly. He always said: “There’s only one thing worse than a defeated politician, and that’s a broke one.” As nearly as I can tell, he was never broke. Shortly after he died in October 1970, those who came to collect and organize his effects in the hotel room he lived in found $80,000 in cash, stored in shoe boxes in the closets of his room. His death was kept secret for more than 24 hours, and I can see why. In addition to the money in his rooms, officials found 49 cases of whiskey, 14 transistor radios, and two cases of creamed corn. The whiskey probably eased the pain of his toothless gums. Powell, at his death, was a widower and childless.
The cache in Powell’s rooms was never explained. All those checks made out to “Paul Powell”? Probably something to do with it. But in Illionis, according to Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the University of Illinois, “We just assume politics is corrupt and a little bit of corruption is the cost of doing business.” Powell never earned more than $30,000 per year as a public servant, but the last year of his life, his federal income tax return showed an income of more than $200,000; at least, he didn’t cheat (as far as we know) on his income taxes. At his death his estate totaled $3.2 million; when settled eight years later, it was worth $4.6 million.
After his death, the state had the expense of removing his name from all the “Welcome to Illinois” archway signs and the walls of every Motor Vehicle Licensing station in the state. Thereafter, nobody who was secretary of state has had his name on the archways or the buildings.
Meanwhile, in Serbia, the country in which the Blagojevich family has its origins, the governor’s cousin is outraged. “He must have been framed,” said Dragan Blagovic, who also said his cousin owns some land in the village of Velike Kromare. “He can come to Sebia if he cannot take it any more in America,” said the cousin. “He can have a cow or a pig or two, a chicken perhaps—he is always welcome.”
But not, any longer, in Paul Powell’s state.
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