236 (January 13, 2009). Our usual summary of
the year’s news in comics and cartooning, including a selection
of some of the best editorial cartoons of 2008 (and why they’re
so good), lists of the “best” in comic books and graphic
novels, plus reviews of The Alcoholic and of the first volume of a complete reprinting of Beetle Bailey,
more on the continuing collapse of U.S. daily newspapers and the
disappearance of the staff editorial cartoonist, and one last
backward glance to Bettie and her bangs. Here’s what’s
here, in order, by department:
NOUS R US: Heath Ledger gets Golden Globe, Harvey Pekar’s opera, Hef’s favorite superhero, “Watchmen” in legal limbo, Christmas in Heart of the City; Galileo, now a zombie, is reinstated in the Church
MORE DISASTER NEWS: Seattle Post-Intelligencer on the block, Sacramento Bee cuts comics lineup, another editoonist laid off; New Yorker Stumbles and Falls, Dilbert News, Popeye in Britain’s Public Domain
EDITOONERY: Rogers and Babin on Bush and Obama, Editoons Inspire Readership, a wrathful Ted Rall writes Newsweek about its Yearly Foul-up, Gaza in Editorial Cartoons
FRANK MILLER’S SPIRIT
THE YEAR IN REVIEW
Harv Picks 28 of the Year’s Best Editorial Cartoons
Dave Astor Looks Back and Forward
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE: 2008's lists, plus reviews of Batman RIP and Last Rites
Best Editorial/Pollitical Cartoons of the Year, plus Prizewinners in 2007 and a collection of Michael Ramirez’s hard-headed cartoons
PASSIN’ THROUGH: those who earned obits last year
What Peeved and Pleased Me Last Year
The Best Stuff
HELPING YOU THROUGH THIS VALE OF TEARS
Subscriptions you should place in order to find comic relief
BEETLE’S BEGINNING: First Volume of a Complete Beetle Bailey
GRAFIC NOVIL: The Alcoholic
to Bettie One More Time Again
our customary reminder: don’t forget to activate the “Bathroom
Button” by clicking on the “print friendly version”
so you can print off a copy of just this installment for reading
later, at your leisure while enthroned. Without further adieu, then,
here we go—
NOUS R US
All the News That Gives Us Fits
As the new Congress grapples with the financial fate of the nation, we pause to remember that January every year is the month that all Senators and Representatives start receiving the automatic pay raise they established for themselves several years ago before anyone was watching. The raise had to be automatic because the citizenry would certainly never vote them an increase based upon their performance, which has never been particularly inspiring. ... Jimmy Hayward, director of “Horton Hears a Who,” will make his live-action directorial debut with "Jonah Hex," a western based on the DC Comics character, saith Hollywood Reporter. Josh Brolin ("Milk") is expected to star in the film, which Warner Bros hopes to put into production in March or April. ... Coming on the heels of the Pulitzer announcement that it will let Internet news operations compete for the Prize is a report released in December from the Committee to Protect Journalists claiming, according to Reuters, that of the 125 “media workers” presently in jail world-wide, most of them in China, more of them publish online than in any other medium. ... This year’s Free Comic Book Day will be Saturday, May 2, as usual, the day after a blockbuster superhero flick opens. ... Actor Pat Hingle, who played Commissioner Gordon in Tim Burton’s Batman movies died January 3 at the age of 84, of blood cancer. ... The Onion, pleading poor like all newspapers these days, killed its comics page with the January 8-14 issue, but David Malki’s clipartish Wondermark is still available online at wondermark.com and is offered in syndication through MCT Campus. Said Malki, expressing his disappointment at losing his print outlet: “It was always a kick to see my work in print, and knowing that people on the subway would be reading my comic helped give me perspective and kept me from making too many internet-nerd in-jokes.” ... The late Heath Ledger won a Golden Globe as best supporting actor for his try at criminal insanity as the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” improving his chances for similar recognition at the Oscars; only one actor has collected a posthumous Oscar, Peter Finch as best actor for 1976's “Network,” in which Finch played an insane tv newscaster. It was nice to see Mickey Rourke come back from the dead to get best drama actor for playing a has-been wrestler in “The Wrestler,” a role widely viewed as a mirror of Rourke’s life after he ran off the rails with bad boy behavior a few decades ago.
Harvey Pekar, celebrated for his autobiographical comic book and graphic novels and a movie based upon them, has collaborated on a new opera, reports the Lancaster Eagle-Gazette in Cleveland. Pekar wrote the libretto for the opera "Leave me Alone!" that will premier January 31 at Oberlin College. The music for the opera was written by former Cleveland Heights jazz saxophonist Dan Plonsey. “Pekar, a jazz enthusiast and prolific jazz critic, says he did his best to write a piece that expresses his feelings about society's disdain for experimental art, especially jazz.”
Pierce at the Los Angeles Times interviewed Playboy’s Hugh Hefner and some
of his hangers-on (there’s a rude double entendre buried there)
about superheroes and superpowers. Hef seemed to say his favorite was
Superman, “who started it all,” but he also talked about
Batman, too. Many of the girls, asked about what superpower they
might want, opted for the "superpower" to know what's in
the minds of men. Said Pierce: “Playmates need a superpower for
that?” The interviews are available only via videos, which you
can find here: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/herocomplex/2008/11/hugh-hefner-and.html ; and here: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/herocomplex/2008/11/playboy-playmat.html
The projected March release of “Watchmen” is, according to an Internet report, languishing in limbo. Warner Bros made the movie, but 20th Century Fox has claimed a prior right to the project and took the case to court, where Judge Gary A. Feess ruled that Fox “owns a copyright interest consisting of, at the very least, the right to distribute the Watchmen motion picture." In issuing his decision in favor of Fox the judge opined that “The parties may wish to turn their efforts from preparing for trial to negotiating a resolution of this dispute or positioning the case for review.” Fox could accept a payment (or a fee plus a percentage of the film’s gross) and allow Warner Bros to plunge onward, but Fox could also get an injunction preventing Warner Bros from distributing the film, if Fox so desires. Warners could eschew a settlement and appeal, but that route would be costly and time-consuming. The report continues: “In a previous case regarding the rights to the Dukes of Hazard movie, Judge Feess ruled against Warner Bros and the studio ended up paying millions of dollars in a settlement in order to release the film. The judge’s ruling puts Warner Bros in a very difficult position—if the studio decides to appeal the decision rather than to settle, it could be years before the film is finally released.”
of the producers of the film, Lloyd Levin, posted a passionate plea
for “justice” at hitfix.com January 8. The “Watchmen”
project, he said, was presented simultaneously to Fox and Warner
Bros, and Fox passed on it, saying “the script was one of the
most unintelligible pieces of shit they had read in years.”
Warner Bros, on the other hand, was intrigued enough to spend time
and money developing the project. Said Levin: “shouldn’t
Warner Bros be entitled to the spoils—if any—of the risk
they took in supporting and making ‘Watchmen’? Should Fox
have any claim on something they could have had but chose to neither
support nor show any interest in?” Levin admits that his notion
of “justice” is a moral rather than a legal issue, but
his questions are good ones. Fox, on the other hand, maintains that
it notified Warner Bros of its rights in the matter “months
before production of the film began” and “they chose to
ignore our rights on this occasion and several times after that and
proceeded at their own risk. Only after having our rights in the film
deliberately ignored by Warner Bros did we take the action of filing
litigation in order to have those rights recognized.” At last
report (Entertainment Weekly’s issue of January 1-6), Warner Bros “doesn’t seem willing
to compromise over its $100 million movie.”
Editor & Publisher extolled in early December a new From the Editors blog from Universal Press Syndicate, this time, with Mark Tatulli, who produces two daily strips, Heart of the City, about an exuberant little girl in an urban setting, and Lio, about an eerily weird kid in his perhaps imaginary (we hope) world. Asked how he responds to people who wonder how he can do such wildly different strips, Tatulli said: “They usually say that because they can't believe that newspapers still exist ... they haven't seen one in a long time. Truth be told, the only way I could do two comic strips was to make them completely different. Then there is no confusion or crossover, at least from a writing standpoint, when I switch between them. There is no clash. It makes it hard to repeat myself, which is a good thing. And the two sides of my personality are satisfied by the daily writing that goes into production. Writing is the key. Artwork is a mechanical process for me; I can schedule it. Writing is the great unknown and it is important for me to keep the two strips mentally separate.”
often tells a cockle-warming story in Heart during the week or so before Christmas, and in this year’s
tale, Heart finds a letter to Santa that has somehow escaped from its
envelope and winds up in a snowdrift instead of the mailbox. Heart
decides to address a fresh envelope to Santa and send the letter on,
but she can’t resist reading the letter, and when she does, she
learns that it’s author, a little girl named Kate, wants her
daddy, who’s in Iraq, home for Christmas. Desperate now to see
that Santa gets the letter, Heart dashes off with it to the nearest
department store where Santa is holding court. Alas, she’s too
late: he’s gone. But, no—not quite: Santa is just lifting
off in his hot-air balloon from the store parking lot. Heart runs
after the trailing mooring line and grabs it. On Christmas Day,
Tatulli turns the strip on its side, and we see Heart dangling below
the balloon and Santa peering down at her. The next day, Heart walks
into the distance, not knowing whether Santa granted Kate her wish;
but we know because we see the headlines on a newspaper in the stand:
“Soldier Returns Home to Surprise Daughter.”
The U.S. Secret Service, which has been guarding Barack Obama since 2007—earlier than they begin with most presidential candidates—was authorized by President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. That evening, he was shot by John Wilkes Booth. But the agency was not established to protect presidents: its assignment was combating counterfeit currency. It began providing full-time protection for the President in 1901, when two agents were posted at the White House. Presidential candidates got protection after Robert F. Kennedy was killed in 1968. —Parade Magazine, January 5, 2009.
while our gaze has strayed, momentarily, from the comics page, we
find that the Vatican is about to reverse its aged verdict about Galileo, who invented
the first completely functional astronomical telescope and then
famously incurred the Church’s wrath when he reported that his
device convinced him that the Earth traveled around the Sun and not,
as the Church had it, the other way around. At the Associated Press,
Nicole Winfield continues the tale: “The Church denounced
Galileo’s theory as dangerous to the faith, but Galileo defied
its warnings. Tried as a heretic in 1633 and forced to recant, he was
sentenced to life imprisonment, later changed to house arrest,”
which he endured until he died in 1642. This scrap of history has for
centuries branded Catholicism as hostile to science. But now “top
Vatican officials are saying Galileo should be named ‘the
patron’ of the dialogue between faith and reason.” Just
in time for the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s telescope and the UN-designated
International Year of Astronomy.
On December 31, two names arrived, unheralded, in the gutter between panels in Dick Tracy: Rubin and Whigham. Typeset. Vertical—in the usual format of the copyright notice. The same two names appear in exactly the same way—typeset, vertical, between panels—in another Tribune Media Services comic strip, Gil Thorp, which has been written, since 2004, by Neal Rubin and drawn, since April last year, by Rod Whigham. Dick Locher’s signature still appears in Dick Tracy in its usual configuration, so he hasn’t retired, like the man said.
Mike Peters is facing a multi-million dollar lawsuit filed by the Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers, who allege that a recent Mother Goose and Grimm strip insulted Colombia’s “national dignity.” Peters has apologized if he offended anyone, according to colombiareports.com, and he also explained that the strip in question was part of a week-long series that began December 29 in which the gags turn on the fact that the inventor of the potato crisp Pringles tube had his ashes buried in a Pringles can. Later in the week came the offending strip: Mother Goose sighs contentedly over “fresh Colombian coffee in the morning,” and her wall-eyed dog then says: “Y’know, there’s a big crime syndicate in Colombia, so when they say there’s a little bit of Juan Valdez in every can, maybe they’re not kidding.” Mother Goose then switches to tea. Here are a few strips from the series:
MORE DISASTER NEWS
Or, What Else Is News?
My most recent nightmare, which I aired in these parts a couple weeks ago, is that the beleaguered newspapers of America, seeking to cut costs, will reduce their comics sections. I speculated that even if the fees for daily and Sunday strips averaged only $30 a week ($15 for dailies plus another $15 for the Sunday), dropping ten strips would save a paper $300 a week or $1,200 a month or $14,400 a year. Fees vary wildly: they’re based on the subscribing paper’s circulation (the greater the circulation, the higher the fee) and on the popularity of the strip. My hypothetical “average” is much much lower than an actual average—perhaps only a third or a quarter of today’s average. I’m just guessing, but a big paper like the Chicago Tribune might pay as much as $500 a week for a strip that’s not particularly well-known. So the annual savings might amount to as much as $50-60,000. Real money, as Ev Dirkson used to say.
And a real temptation to newspaper editors and bean counters, I’d say. But I also hasten to add, as any syndicate executive would say, that numerous studies show that comics are some of the best-read (and most-liked) parts of the newspaper. If papers start to drop them, what’s left—and what’s next to go? Readers would revolt. Some years ago, one of the newspaper chains hinted that syndicates should supply features for free, or at half the current cost—or some such draconian discount. To which a syndicate official might well say, How can we? Cartoonists don’t get a salary—they depend on revenue from syndication for their livelihood. Besides, syndicates have already reacted to the sinking newspaper economy: rates that newspapers pay have declined over the years. When a newspaper weighs the readership benefits of comics (and other syndicated material) versus the costs, comics are a good value to newspapers. Do papers get the same value from staff-written columns and content? I know they are under many financial pressures, but syndicated content is a very valuable asset to newspapers, worth far more than the paltry fees newspapers pay.
And while we’re on the subject of dawning disasters, the Hearst Corporation announced January 9 that one of its newspapers, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer—home of two-time Pulitzer winner David Horsey—is up for sale. The Post-Intelligencer started in 1867 as the Weekly Intelligencer. It merged with the Post in 1881. Its present competitor, the Seattle Times, didn’t show up until 1896. Hearst acquired the P-I in 1921.The P-I has been losing money steadily in recent years despite a joint operating agreement with the Seattle Times. The paper was profitable for a decade after the JOA was adopted, roughly 1984-1994, but its luck changed in about 2000. The “For Sale” sign comes down after 60 days at which time Hearst will decide whether to continue the P-I exclusively online with a much smaller staff or to shutter the paper altogether. Said a Hearst spokesman: “In no event do we intend to continue to publish the P-I in print form.” That’s it then. Unless a buyer can be found, and in these tight-credit times, what are the chances? Not much. Ditto in Denver, where the Rocky Mountain News has been for sale since mid-December with a January 15 decision date. Editor & Publisher has already written the News’ obit in the January print edition. Bailout anyone?
Both the P-I and the Rocky Mountain News are owned by chains, Hearst and Scripps respectively, and the threat of shutting down the two papers is prompted by cost-accounting, whose bean-counter champions, aiming evermore at the bottom line, doubtless subscribe to the notion that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. By this reasoning, the financial health of the chain is improved if the weak links are eliminated. But the chain metaphor is applicable only when contemplating tugs of war or chain-gang labor where catastrophe occurs when the chain breaks. Chains are also used to make fast, to secure an errant something by binding it to something solid. A ship’s anchor chain keeps the vessel fastened to the anchor that prevents the ship from drifting away and wrecking itself on some nearby rocky shoal. In a chain of newspapers operating by this metaphor, the chain preserves a threatened paper by binding it to its stronger brethren. In such a chain, papers that are fiscally strong sustain the weaker ones, underwriting their losses for a time with the supposition that they’ll return to the robust financial health they enjoyed when, once upon a time, they were attractive acquisitions for the chain. But I’m supposing that these chains are run by journalists, not accountants or stock marketeers— journalists whose object in life is reporting the news and nurturing an informed body politic in a democratic society. A journalistic enterprise would therefore aim at preserving all the links in the chain, an attitude that would view the financial plight of less profitable newspapers as a temporary condition, brought on, in these penurious times, by the wholesale teetering of the entire economic system rather than by some endemic malfeasance within the stricken newspaper. To be a member of a chain is theoretically to enjoy a greater measure of stability and security than entities that are unchained. But that, alas, is only imaginable in a journalistic empire, not a financial one.
Incidentally, the Seattle paper’s unusual name, Intelligencer, has its origins in Britain, where, in the seventeenth century, an
“intelligencer” was a secret agent or a spy, a
formulation achieved by adding “-er” to the word denoting
“information” (intelligence), probably also in step with
the French word for “spy,” “intelligencier.”
In his Pocupine, Picayune & Post: How
Newspapers Get Their Names, Jim Bernhard goes
on: “During the period of political intrigue between Crown and
Parliament [roughly 1635-1650], the cloak-and-dagger connotations of intelligencer made it
an ideal word to describe a politically active newspaper’s
‘insider’ information.” Despite the oddness of the
name, several U.S. cities have newspapers with Intelligencer in their names: Doylestown and Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Stonington,
Connecticut; Wheeling, West Virginia; and, in Canada, Belleville,
At the Sacramento Bee, the comics section was reduced from six pages to four starting January 4. As reported in the paper’s online edition on December 28, when the paper polled its readers about two possible replacements for Berke Breathed’s Opus, the resulting votes revealed an overwhelming lack of interest in either of the candidates that the paper had been testing in recent weeks, Candorville and Secret Asian Man. So the paper, with inexorable logic, just decided not to replace Opus with anything, thereby enabling it to lop off two pages in its Sunday comics. “This reduction in newsprint will also help in our ongoing efforts to trim costs,” the paper explained. “To accommodate this change, we will drop Lio and The Pajama Diaries from the Sunday lineup and reduce the size of other comic strips.” Both Lio and PJ Diaries will continue as dailies. All of which makes a certain sense until we learn that the readership survey produced 10,000 responses. Even if the poll didn’t reveal consumer affection for the two strips that the Bee had tried out, it nonetheless shrieked reader engagement with the funnies. If readers like comics that much, smart editors would not have abandoned altogether their search for a replacement for Opus (which, because of its half-page dimension, opened up a hole for two additional strips). Instead, the Bee’s editors should have broadened their search, introducing other new strips for readers to compare to Candorville and Secret Asian Man. Or so it seems to me. But then, I’m not a newspaper editor, endowed, thereby, with the wisdom of the ages.
The paper’s poll, incidentally, ranked the top ten as follows: Zits, Pickles, Luann, Crankshaft, Baby Blues, Grand Avenue, Sally Forth, Drabble, Blondie and Classic Peanuts. Oddly, some of the nation’s most popular strips running in the Bee didn’t make the top ten; here they are, eleventh through fifteenth: For Better of For Worse, Beetle Bailey, Hi and Lois, Dilbert, and Garfield.
is another of those odd names for a newspaper. But Jim Bernhard makes
a convincing case for it as an eminently suitable name for a
journalistic endeavor. Bees “generate a lot of buzz,” he
observes, “—always busy, moving constantly from one place
to another just as the avid reporter is constantly on the move
covering a news beat.” As the bee goes from flower to flower,
it cross-pollinates, a function as vital to plant life as the
dissemination of news is to a self-governing people. And Bees make
honey, “which could be compared to a newspaper’s
entertainment sections or maybe to its advertising profits.”
Finally, “most telling of all, bees sting—and most
newspapers like to think they have the same needling ability when
hard-hitting editorials” or truth-seeking investigative
reporting is called for. So “bee” is a nearly perfect
name for a newspaper. The Sacramento Bee explained itself in an editorial in its first issue in 1857: “The
name of Bee has been
adopted as being different from that of any other paper in the state
and as also being emblematic of the industry which is to prevail in
its every department.” The paper, in short, would be as busy as
a bee in finding news and spreading it around and, if necessary,
stinging. In 1943, Disney was commissioned to create a logo for the
paper, “a perky black-and-gold bug named ‘Scoopy’
... [and] the paper also urges its readers to ‘Bee informed.’” Now we know.
cartoonist Patrick O’Connor lost
his staff job at the Los Angeles Daily News in early January; he was one of several cost-cutting layoffs. This
drops the official tally of full-time staff editorial cartoonists in
the country from 88 to 87.
THE NEW YORKER STUMBLES AND FALLS
The January 5 issue of The New Yorker carries a nicely elongated article by Louis Menand about how the Village Voice changed journalism. Founded in 1955 by two (or perhaps three, if we count Norman Mailer) non-journalists, Dan Wolf and Edwin Francher, who, not knowing what to tell contributors about how to be journalists, let writers write what they wanted to write without any guidance whatsoever, and among the first things the writers eschewed as interfering with their creative impulses was the shibboleth of objectivity. This eventually resulted in the so-called “New Journalism” with its emphasis on the writer as personal witness to the events being reported. Mailer was one of the stars of the Voice, his rants giving “personal journalism” a new cache. The other star was cartoonist Jules Feiffer, says Menand, echoing Kevin McAuliffe in his history of the Voice, The Great American Newspaper (1978). And that brings me to the two things that provoke me in the article.
The first is Menand’s assertion that the new Fantagraphics reprinting of Feiffer’s Voice cartoons, Explainers, “strangely” (suspiciously?) omits publication of a four-page “anti-nuke” strip that Feiffer, Menand alleges, produced in his second year of cartooning for the Voice, a period embraced by the content of Explainers. But Menand’s nonchalance in citing dates (he fails to mention the actual month and day of the Voice’s first issue, for instance—that’s October 26 in 1955) casts a fog of imprecision over anything having to do with time, so we can scarcely credit his assertion on face value here. Did Feiffer draw the four-pager in his second year with the Voice? Or could he have done it later? And The New Yorker, until now famed for its fact-checkers, evidently failed to notice the absence in the article of a launch date for the Voice so the existence of the four-pager may likewise never have been ascertained. And that’s not all.
Its second provocation lies (and I choose the word in full awareness of its various meanings, all appropriate here) in its publishing of an exemplary Feiffer cartoon, whereupon it slips in another factual error, posing as unblushing ambiguity. The cartoon is captioned: “Feiffer’s strip first appeared in the Voice in 1956. ...” The implication is that the cartoon above the caption is the first Feiffer cartoon. Or, at least, that it is one of Feiffer’s 1956 efforts. But it isn’t. The first Feiffer, then entitled Sick, Sick, Sick, appeared in the newspaper’s issue for October 24, 1956; the cartoon printed above the caption in The New Yorker appeared September 25, 1957, an entire year after Feiffer’s debut. So much for fact-checkers and journalistic integrity. (Well, sure: the strip the magazine chose to use here is more typical of Feiffer’s mature drawing style than any of his first year’s efforts, but still—.)
casual attitude toward dates is perhaps immaterial in his sly
accusation that Fantagraphics (or Feiffer himself) deliberately left
his anti-nuke extravaganza out of the retrospective of Explainers: the book embraces the first ten years of the strip (1956-1966), and
it should have included the anti-nuke strip regardless of when, in
1958 (or thereabouts), it was published. I asked Eric Reynolds at
Fantagraphics about the “missing” strip, and he talked to
Feiffer, who reminded him that the strip was entitled “BOOM,”
not Sick, Sick, Sick, so, strictly speaking, it doesn’t belong in a book reprinting Sick, Sick, Sick. Moreover, “BOOM” was reprinted in Volume 3 of an earlier
Fantagraphics reprint project, Feiffer: The
Collected Works, where the strip consumes 10
of the book’s 9x12-inch pages. In short, no one is trying to
suppress the strip, Menand’s insinuation to the contrary
“Dilbert readers tend to be far above average in intelligence,” said Dilbert creator Scott Adams in a telcon with Christine Galt at the Omaha World-Herald, and, he went on, the e-mail he receives from them—which inspires much of the strip’s humor—reflects that. “It’s rarely boring,” he said. The commemorative 20th anniversary tome from Andrews McMeel (576 pages, $85), Dilbert 2.0: 20 Years of Dilbert, includes a quantity of commentary, and Adams also tells, for the first time at length, how he became a cartoonist. “The short version is that my job was a dead-end so I bought a book on how to become a cartoonist, hoping I might make a few bucks on the side. The actual process [of getting syndicated] is as simple as drawing sample comics and mailing them to publishers listed in the book. When United Media saw my submission, they called and offered me a contract to become a syndicated cartoonist. That’s the short version. The longer version has the juicy stuff,” he finished with a peddler’s pander.
Dilbert appears in more than 2,000 newspapers in 70 countries in 23 languages; more than 20 million Dilbert books have been sold; Dilbert.com attracts 1.4 million visitors per month with 15 million page views each month. One of the features of the website is “True Tales of InDUHviduals,” the people “who put the duh in induhviduals. Here’s one, a dialogue between “Me” and “My Hairdresser”: Me—I’m surprised the kids get Columbus Day off from school. My Hairdresser—Yeh, I thought all of the presidents were celebrated on the same day. Me— [nothing].
This engaging and informative feature is usually followed with “True Quotes from InDUHviduals,” which includes such mutilations of common expressions as these: Please feel free to jump in if I’m right. That’s just a whole different ball of fish. We’re between a pickle and a hard spot. You better get on the boat, ’cause this train’s leavin’ the station. I’m just talking out loud here.
AND A POPEYED NEW YEAR TO YOU, TOO
At the London Times, Adam Sherwin reports that, starting January 1, Popeye is in the public domain in Britain under an European Union law that “restricts the rights of authors to 70 years after their death.” And Elzie Segar, the Illinois artist who created Popeye, died in 1938. Sherwin continues: “The Popeye industry stretches from books, toys and action figures to computer games, a fast-food chain and the inevitable canned spinach. The copyright expiry means that, from Thursday, anyone can print and sell Popeye posters, T-shirts and even create new comic strips, without the need for authorization or to make royalty payments. ... Popeye made his screen debut in 1933. According to a poll of cinema managers, he was more popular than Mickey Mouse by the end of the thirties.”
“If it weren’t for the Fleischers,” says Jesse Walker at reason.com/blog/show, “it would be easier to argue that no one but a character’s creator should be able to use him. The Fleischer Popeye shows the benefits of allowing artists to tinker with someone else’s invention.” I’m not sure I’d go quite that far—Segar’s treatment of the character was, in many ways, superior and certainly more subtle than the Fleischers’—but I’ve always thought, based upon the dates of the animated series, that the Fleischers made the character surpassingly popular, not Segar’s masterful comic strip, which, in due course, reaped the benefits of the screen version’s eclat.
White seems to contradict himself, however, when he points out that Popeye after Segar and the Fleishers was “much less impressive” until “underground comix veteran Bobby London took over the strip from 1986 to 1992.” It “got interesting again,” White opines, and then “the suits who ran King Features didn’t like the fact that its franchise was making jokes about abortion and other controversial issues, so London was fired.”
In the U.S., Popeye is still protected by copyright until 2024, saith Sherwin—that is, 95 years after the initial copyright. “The Popeye trademark, a separate entity to Segar's authorial copyright, is owned by King Features, which is expected to protect its brand aggressively.” In Britain, according to Mark Owen, an intellectual property specialist,“the Segar drawings are out of copyright, so anyone could put those on T-shirts, posters and cards and create a thriving business. If you sold a Popeye toy or Popeye spinach can, you could be infringing the trademark.” He added: “Popeye is one of the first of the famous 20th-century cartoon characters to fall out of copyright. Betty Boop and ultimately Mickey Mouse will follow.” In Britain. According to Sherwin, “the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoons will not fall into the U.S. public domain until at least 2023 after the Disney corporation successfully lobbied Congress for a copyright extension.” Sherwin goes on to note various of Popeye’s tics and tropes: Elzie Segar was told to tone down Popeye’s aggression as it was a bad influence on children; Popeye was the first cartoon character commemorated by a statue, in 1937 in Crystal City, Texas, the self-proclaimed Spinach Capital of the World; Popeye animations, cartoon strips and merchandising generated $150 million a year by the 1970s; the Popeye’s Chicken & Biscuits chain was named after Popeye Doyle from the movie, “The French Connection,” but the chain is now endorsed by the cartoon character; J. Wellington Wimpy, Popeye’s mooching sidekick, gave his name to the Wimpy restaurant chain in England. Sherwin finishes with this: “Though it is a myth that he was coopted to promote spinach by the U.S. government, spinach sales in America rose by a third in the decade after his appearance. A tie-in Popeye Spinach brand is one of the most popular in the U.S.”
Today’s Popeye strip is either
in re-runs (for dailies) or, for Sundays, produced by Hy
Eisman, who also does another vintage Sunday
comic strip, The Katzenjammer Kids.
Afflicting the Comfortable and Comforting the Afflicted
From editoonist Rob Rogers at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, summing up the year’s adventures:
In case you haven't guessed it, I am going to miss George W. Bush. He has been a gift to editorial cartoonists. We're not General Motors. What's good for editorial cartoonists is not good for the country. In 1999, before I really knew much about Dubya, I drew his ears a normal size. Then, as his outrageous policies and attitude became larger than life, so did his ears. It's odd that someone with such big ears, even if they were cartoon ears, could be so deaf to the concerns of average Americans. The historic 2008 election means 2009 will bring a changing of the ears. Obama already made the mistake of admitting that his ears stick out a little. I am nervous about the future. Not because the economy is in a death spiral or because we're fighting two wars or because the newspaper business is, um, challenged. No, I'm nervous because I'm afraid Obama will be a sensible, thoughtful and intelligent leader. Good for the country, not good for cartoonists.
Babin at the Sacramento Bee chimed
in with similar observations: In the weeks since the November
election, I have received many, mostly well-intentioned comments that
go something like this: "Aren't you going to miss George W.
Bush?" The premise being that despite the fact the Bush
administration has wreaked havoc with its policies both at home and
abroad, at least it provided good editorial cartoon cannon fodder.
"Do you hate President Bush?" readers would also frequently
ask. The answer, of course, is no. I do disagree, however, with just
about every decision ever made by this president. And while his
administration has long since become a caricature of itself, which
makes drawing editorial cartoons about the Bush gang the equivalent
of harvesting low-hanging fruit, my cartoons have always been in
response to their policies and their positions on the issues facing
the country. In other words, it's nothing personal. Cartoons, after
all, are more meaningful when they delve into the heart of issues
rather than dwelling on personalities. Rest assured, I will not
suffer for lack of characters and personalities. Heck, we've got a
bodybuilder-actor as governor and a basketball player as mayor, don't
we? And, believe me, I will have my differences with the incoming
presidential administration. So here's to a memorable 2008 and to an
entertaining and meaningful year to come.
EDITORIAL CARTOONS INSPIRE READERSHIP
No Matter What the Bean-counters in Accounting Say
Buttressing the commonplace notion that editorial cartoons are among the most popular features with newspaper readers is the experience at the Omaha World-Herald in December. The paper has been running a “Creative Captions” contest for a long time, printing a new photograph each week and posting it on the paper’s website. Then they posted a cartoon by their staff editoonist, Jeff Koterba, asking, as usual, for readers to submit captions. Koterba drew a space alien sitting in Santa's lap, with a child whispering to another as he waited in line. The word balloon was left blank for readers to fill in. Then came the avalanche of entries—more than twice the usual number of weekly submissions. The winning caption? Filling in the kid’s word balloon: "An Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator? He'll shoot his eye out." The reference is to a classic "Looney Tunes" cartoon in which Marvin the Martian, intent on destroying the Earth, needs the space modulator for his planet-smashing death ray to work. Bugs Bunny, of course, steals it.
the same vein, over at the Baltimore Sun, according to its former staff editorial cartoonist Kevin
“Kal” Kallaugher, who was laid
off over a year ago, the paper is now using his cartoons to promote
subscriptions. Said Kal: “It seems that a stash of one of my
earlier cartoon collections, Kal Draws the
Line, was discovered in the basement of the
newspaper building. Someone in circulation decided to put the books
to good use. When a subscriber contacts the paper to cancel their
subscription, the paper puts into motion a brilliant scheme. The Sun sends the former subscriber a package of goodies featuring a copy of
my book in the hope of enticing the readers back. I guess the paper
wanted to remind their ex-readers what they are missing.” In
case I haven’t made the irony clear, remember that the Sun sent
Kal packing more than a year ago.
Felltoons. Paul Fell, “Nebraska’s Cartoonist,” has launched a
free daily Internet cartoon service, partnering with his “trusty
web guru, Shawn ‘Smith’ Peirce.” That’s
right: free. Monday through Friday, subscribers receive by e-mail a
notice with a link to that day’s cartoon, which can be on any
topic that lights Fell’s fire, national, state or city.
Felltoons, Paul tells me, “are reaching a surprising number of
people who’ve missed seeing great content in their favorite
local newspaper. We kicked off the service to about 1500 e-mail
addresses,” he went on, “and the number or recipients is
already increasing, as word gets out that Nebraskans and others can
The Yearly Foul-up. In its annual round-up of toons and quotes from the year, Newsweek has once again performed with predictable lack of imagination and insight: of the mere ten editorial cartoons it published, seven are by Mike Luckovich, who is, beyond dispute, an excellent and often pull-no-punches editoonist (for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)—although not, particularly, with the cartoons Newsweek has selected— but aren’t there any other editorial cartoonists whose work the magazine deems worthy? The other three cartoons were by Mike Peters, Jim Morin, and Robert Ariail. Ted Rall, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC), could control his spleen no longer and let fly at Newsweek with a letter of outrage. Here it is, quoted in Editor & Publisher:
the Editor: There's a saying among political cartoonists: "I
thought my cartoon
In a universe of inspired and inspiring political cartoons, you managed to find the absolute bottom of the barrel. Are you afraid of actual opinions? Or do you just have bad taste? Either way, you ignored all the good stuff — including by the cartoonists whose work you included, all of whom have far more important, riskier and funnier work in their 2008 portfolio that you chose to pass up. A computer-generated randomizer would have picked smarter cartoons.
December, Rall launched a similarly fuming missive at Time magazine, criticizing its online choice of top 10 editorial cartoons
for 2008, a disastrously lame collection by people who usually do
much better work. While cheered on by many in the inky-fingered
fraternity for his forthright vituperation, Rall has also inspired
some AAEC members to counsel greater caution and diplomacy in
speaking in the name of the organization.
in the saga of collapsing newspaper journalism in the U.S., here
comes a report that the Omaha World-Herald has
given up delivering newspapers to the doors of subscribers in the
outlying reaches of Nebraska; instead, the paper will be mailed to
subscribers, arriving late in the afternoon. Sunday issues will
arrive on Monday.
The Gaza War in Editoons. Steve Greenberg, syndicated political cartoonist who also draws for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and the Jewish Chronicle (and formerly, as we reported a while back, with the Ventura County Star), has been watching how his colleagues are fighting the war in the Middle East. Interviewed in the Chronicle on January 7, he said that he was “surprised” to find that American editorial cartoons are mostly sympathetic to Israel, taking the position that “Hamas was committing terrorism and Israel has justifiably defended itself.” Greenberg puts cartoons that are “neutral—generally bemoaning the end of the peace efforts or the end of the cease-fire” in a second grouping, and in a third, “cartoons that are critical of Israel ... generally from Islamic countries. I would say,” he continued, “that the latter category is to be expected anyhow because that’s the daily stock in trade for the Islamic press” in which antipathy to Israel is regularly reflected in cartoons depicting Jews as “dark cynical characters with hooked noses”—a tactic akin to that adopted as a propaganda technique in Nazi Germany, remarked the Chronicle’s executive editor, Lee Chottiner, in reporting the story.
I don’t know why Greenberg should be surprised at the support Israel is getting in U.S. political cartoons: Americans have for decades been sympathetic to the Israeli cause. In the U.S. news media, Hamas is routinely portrayed as a blood-soaked terrorist organization. And it is that. But in places like The Economist, we find an occasional demurer: “Hamas says its rocket attacks were a response to Israell’s longstanding economic blockade of Gaza, which has left people impoverished and miserable. If Israel had ended the blockade, Hamas might have stopped its attacks” (as paraphrased in The Week, January 16). And in her column, Amy Goodman reports that “there is Israeli opposition to the military assault.” She quotes Israeli professor Neve Gordon of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev: “They forget the details,” said Gordon. “The detail is that Palestinians live in a cage. The detail is that they don’t get basic foodstuffs, that they don’t get electricity, that they don’t get water. And when you forget those kinds of details, all you say is, ‘Why are they still shooting at us?’ ... If you look at what’s been going on in the Gaza Strip in the past three years [since Israel withdrew but still maintains sovereignty] and you see what Israel has been doing to the Palestinians, you would think that the Palestinian resistance is rational. And that’s what’s missing in the mainstream media here.”
Goodman points out that “the assault strengthens right-wing Likud Party leader and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a leading candidate for prime minister” in the elections scheduled for next month. But Netanyahu’s nephew is a conscientious objector who has spent time in prison for his convictions. He told Goodman “to tell Americans you don’t have to support Israel blindly. Not everything that Israel does is holy ... sometimes you have to tell our government, stop doing this.”
It’s easier to speak on behalf of the Palestinian civilians, dying by the hundreds in the current street fighting and aerial bombardment, than it is to credit Hamas with anything but reckless ideology gone mad-dog. They have to have known that eventually Israel would respond to the rocket attacks, and they must have realized that the response would be fatal to many of their so-called compatriots, Palestinian noncombatants. They must know that there is no place to hide in Gaza, perhaps the most densely populated turf on the planet. They must know that when they store weapons in schoolyards and set up their war room in a bunker beneath Gaza’s largest hospital that innocent people, their shields, will die. What kind of people are so careless of human life? Thugs, criminals—scarcely patriots.
it’s an ugly war with plenty of ugliness on both sides.
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.
Brewski Brains, Cliff Clavin’s Theory of Intelligence as expounded to Norm Peterson one evening as they sat, as always, at the bar: “Well you see, Norm, it's like this ... A herd of buffalo can only move as fast as the slowest buffalo. And when the herd is hunted, it is the slowest and weakest ones at the back that are killed first. This natural selection is good for the herd as a whole, because the general speed and health of the whole group keeps improving by the regular killing of the weakest members. In much the same way, the human brain can only operate as fast as the slowest brain cells. Now, as we know, excessive intake of alcohol kills brain cells. But naturally, it attacks the slowest and weakest brain cells first. In this way, regular consumption of beer eliminates the weaker brain cells, making the brain a faster and more efficient machine. And that, Norm, is why you always feel smarter after a few beers.'
FRANK MILLER’S SPIRIT
One of the fun things to do while watching Frank Miller’s “The Spirit” is to pick out the silent homages made to other comic book creators—Jerry Iger, Will Eisner’s one-time partner in one of the two earliest comic art shops, shows up as a street name; Jules Feiffer, who misspent his youth as an assistant to Eisner, gets his name on the side of a warehouse; and Steve Ditko, who has had nothing to do with Eisner or the Spirit, gets his name on the side of a truck. The other fun thing to do while watching Frank Miller’s “The Spirit” is to pick out evidences of Will Eisner’s Spirit, a much more difficult sport.
have more to say about Frank Miller’s “The Spirit”
next time. In the meanwhile, you might like to see what Kyle
Bake has to say (and to show). At his
website, thebakeranimationcartoons.blogspot.com, he rants on in mock
outrage at the “disrespect” shown Eisner’s iconic
creation by Miller’s movie, mustering panels from Eisner’s Spirit strips that, in
ironic contrast, prove that Miller was walking in the master’s
footprints all the way. Alas, despite the persistence, Eisner’s
Spirit is missing in Miller’s movie.
SO WHAT BECAME OF 2008?
The Year In Review
The annual catalogue of the year’s sins and excesses is usually assembled by journalists and published between Christmas and New Year’s Day, “the week of making mountains out of molehills,” according to the Denver Post columnist Ed Quillen, who continues: “Because there’s seldom any real news [between the two holidays], minor events get amplified into major productions.” This year, Israel’s invasion of Gaza landed as a full-blown mountain, a veritable volcano spewing death and destruction all over, disrupting the otherwise traditionally tranquil time. Here at the Rancid Raves Intergalactic Wurlitzer, we are irate about this unaccustomed disturbance of the solstice, but, undaunted, we forge ahead, rounding up and reviewing the events of the year, which we’re able to do better than your hometown newspaper because we’ve waited until the year is actually over so that we can contemplate and sift through all the events of every one of the twelve months to find the most important of the lot. And so we begin.
Top Ten Newsstories of the Year UNRELATED to Comics or Cartooning
In order to properly adjudicate the merits of our anyule posting of some of the best editorial cartoons we’ve seen this year—which we’ll do again in a trice— we pause for a nonce to consider the news upon which those cartoons might be based. Here is my pick of the top ten newsstories of the year, starting with Number One: 1) Election of Barack Obama (and the concomitant defeat of Hillary Clinton); 2) Financial meltdown worldwide with bailouts ad infinitum; 3) Sarah Palin’s inspiration of Tina Fey; 4) Terrorist raid in Mumbai that killed 200 innocent civilians; 5) Israel’s invasion of Gaza; 6) Olympics, notably Michael Phelps, who is not the world’s greatest athlete (he’s the world’s greatest swimmer, there being other sports requiring more athleticism than swimming) but, as the New York Times noted, if Phelps were a country, he’d have finished fourth in the gold medal count behind only China, Germany, and the United States; 7) Automakers’ plea for money; 8) Russia’s invasion of Georgia, upsetting all of Atlanta; 9) Earthquake in China, cyclone in Myanmar (Burma), Hurricane Gustav in Louisiana that struck at the GOP convention in St. Paul; 10) Death toll of U.S. soldiers in Iraq passing 4,000.
My list conveniently ignores a distinction we might otherwise make about what constitutes a “big story” in the news biz. A big story might be big because it deals with important matters—like the election of Barack O’Bama; or it could be big because of the amount and duration of attention it gets in the tabloid media, print and electronics—like Elliott Spitzer and his bimbo, for instance. My list leans, I think, toward the former kind of “big” story, except for Palin and Phelps. We have to have a little fun at this game.
Comedian Will Durst has even more fun: he listed the “top ten comedic stories of 2008,” with Sarah Palin at the top; then came the economy (what’s funny about that? knowing the name of the Secretary of the Treasury—“that’s not good”), McCain running the worst campaign ever, Elliott Spitzer’s sex life, the primaries with Mike Huckabee, James Dodson’s calling for a storm of “biblical proportions” to disrupt Obama’s acceptance speech (which didn’t happen until the following week when Hurricane Gustav disrupted the Republican Convention even though it was thousands of miles away), outlawing gay marriage in California, Joe Biden, GeeDubya planning to spend the next couple years in his library and on a speaking tour (“You can’t make up stuff like this”), and Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. By the way, Tina Fey was named “entertainer of the year” by newspaper editors and broadcast producers in the Associated Press’s annual competition; I think Sarah Palin came in second, always a bridesmaid.
Other top stories based upon the avidity with which they were pursued by tabloid tv included Angelina Jolie’s twins, Miley Cyrus’ peek-a-boo shoulders, Madonna’s divorce, Hollywood writers’ strike, Heath Ledger’s death and stunning performance as the Joker, gay marriages of persons like Ellen DeGeneres, American Idol, William Peterson’s looming departure from “CSI,” and Jay Leno’s leaving the “Tonight” show for a similar program in prime time.
Search engines on the Internet took the pulse of Americans’ interests for the year. Via Yahoo, Britney Spears was the most frequently googled, followed by WWE, Barack Obama, Miley Cyrus, RuneScape, Jessica Alba, Naruto, Lindsay Lohan, Angelina Jolie, and American Idol. Via Google, the most frequently yahoo’d was Obama, followed by Facebook, ATT, iPhone, YouTube, Fox News, Palin, Beijing 2008, David Cook, and Surf the Channel.
With all that hanging over us, here are 28 editorial cartoons that exemplify the best the art is capable of. To facilitate connecting my dubious analyses to various of the cartoons, I’ve numbered in red each of seven pages. Generally speaking, what I look for in editorial cartoons is a compelling and therefore memorable image, something that will stick in the viewer’s memory forever like a bad albeit laughable dream. Other considerations also obtain, as I’ll point out as we go along. For convenience in following the brief discussions below, you might want to print out the illustrations first before reading about them.
1) The presidential election was the year’s biggest story by either measure: it was given the most coverage over the longest period. The images on this page seem to me to embody both comedy and telling commentary; further analysis seems superfluous except, perhaps, to emphasize the stark and revealing drama in Jeff Stahler’s map cartoon and the hilarity imparted to the portrait of the GOP First Responders by Pat Bagley’s loose-jointed and jocular drawing style.
2) More campaign coverage wherein I fail miserably at letting my own political biases overwhelm my analysis of the excellence of the cartoons. Both Glenn McCoy and Mike Lester are more conservative than liberal, but their images are not only funny but exceedingly apt. Khalil Bendib’s “clean sweep” image is more within the range my political philosophy. And Nate Beeler gives us a visual pun to make his sardonic point about Castro.
3) Many political cartoonists, mostly in alternative newspapers, make their statements with comic strips rather than single-panel cartoons. In a strip, the image is not the messenger: sequence is. Tom Tomorrow (aka Dan Perkins) uses sarcasm in This Modern World, piling up extreme absurdities until their weight alone makes his point. The irony inherent in sarcasm, however, probably makes Perkins’ work incomprehensible to the right-wingers he so often skewers. Matt Bors also accumulates comedic indictments, panel by panel, but here he arrives at a punchline more-or-less in the usual fashion of comic strips. Each of his panels is very nearly a single-panel cartoon in itself, but again, as with The Modern World, sarcasm is the operative weapon, and the irony, while delicious to all us rabid liberals, is likely lost on deDUHicated conservatives. Don Wright deploys two panels and vivid contrast to make his point. Henry Payne, another conservative editoonist, presents here a stunning image albeit without much humor.
4) The collapse of the financial so-called system is the other big story of 2008, and the visual metaphors on this page are memorable enough. Clay Bennett’s “Foreclosure” sign deploys a remarkably imaginative image as do many of his cartoons; the cartoon’s humor derives almost entirely from the ingenuity of the visual. Ed Hall and Steve Breen resort to telling images—as does Nate Beeler; but in Beeler’s cartoon, the comedy is enhanced with the double-edged remark by the Congressman: “ ... I didn’t do anything.”
5) The presidential election and its aftermath are, again, the subjects on this page. The statue of Lincoln in Washington was used to proclaim Obama’s election by so many editoonists that it may as well have been the universal symbol of the historic occasion. I picked David Fitzsimmons’ version here because his work, which I’ve only recently discovered (thanks Daryl Cagle’s syndicate), sports such a lively and thereby comedic line. In the rest of these, again image is virtually all of the message: the hilarious contrast between the Knight in shining armor and the wannabe cowboy on his hobbyhorse, the map showing how the U.S. stands now after eight years of the Bush League, and the snare Obama cannot escape as he tries to effect change.
6) The images of these cartoons acquire their power by being yoked to words. GeeDubya’s sinking ship is vivid enough on its own, but his comment completes Mike Luckovich’s portrait of the idiot Prez. The general folly of putting all your eggs in one basket is given specific meaning with the label on the basket in Tony Auth’s drawing, and the heading of Steve Sack’s cartoon lends a bitter irony to his visual metaphor. Tom Toles has turned Darth Cheney’s breath-taking and wholly unfeeling arrogance into a monument to the Bush-Cheney years: “So?” is what Cheney famously remarked when a reporter, probing for a response, noted that two-thirds of Americans don’t think the war in Iraq is worth it. “So?” said the Veep. GeeDubya resorted to much the same device after he dodged a shoe in Iraq: “So what if a guy threw his shoe at me?” he asked, evidently not able to perceive in the gesture the depth of Iraqi dislike and disdain—or what it signifies about America’s stature in the post-Iraq war era. GeeDubya and Cheney—they’re a pair all right.
7) Finally, some mementoes of the Bush League regime. Ed Hall’s empty suit is a perfect metaphor for the fitness of American military now that so many of its traditional functions have been farmed out to mercenaries. Robert Ariail’s gas-price-to-bicycle image is both inventive and apt, hence its comedy. And Luckovich’s Iwo Jima visual is a bitterly ironic comment on the Iraq war. But Matt Wuerker has provided perhaps the most ingenious image about the entire Iraq fiasco, an almost perfect picture of cause and effect and predicament. We got into it in order to control Iraq’s oil, and the Bush League wants to hold onto that oil even while leaving the country. But the Iraqis want to control their own natural resources, so the Bush League can’t leave without letting go of the oil. The big problem about divvying up the oil resources that stalled the Iraqi parliament for so long was that the Bushies wanted Iraq to cede control of the oil fields to American multi-national companies; I’m not sure that’s been resolved yet. But even if it has been, Wuerker’s image remains one of the most powerful and telling about the whole misadventure.
As I wondered through heaps of editoons that I’d clipped all year long, I was smitten by the fresh-looking work by so many cartoonists, whose styles are visually interesting, and sometimes stunning, but not at all alike. Gone forever, thank goodness, are the days when Herblock and Oliphant set the fashion that everyone slavishly imitated. Nate Beeler, Paul Combs, John Darkow, Eric Allie, Patrick Chappatte, Tom Eagan—all distinctive. John Cole’s artwork over the past few years seems to me to be getting better and better; not that it was ever substandard (it never was), but now it’s superb. Others whose work has lately attracted my attention and applause include Dave Fitzsimmons at the Arizona Daily Star, drawing in a manner akin to that deployed by Pat Bagley at the Salt Lake Tribune and Calvin Grondahl at the Standard Examiner in Ogden, Utah—all wield an attractive loose-limbed energetic style capable of great comedic exaggeration. Fitzsimmons has become more visible nationally now that he’s syndicated by Cagle Cartoons; ditto the other aforementioned.
With all the excellence on every hand as far as the eye can see, it’s surprising, even disconcerting, that good caricatures of Obama haven’t surfaced. On the one hand, he’s easy: just draw a long, thin face and apply gray tone (or brown ink). Oh, and don’t forget the big ears. It’s become a habit, a knee-jerk device, almost as if editorial cartoonists can’t caricature a president without giving him big ears. Here’s a sampling of some of the current attempts. Gary Varvel at the upper left is very adroit: all of his caricatures in this cartoon are well-done—except Obama, for which Varvel resorts to a formulaic long thin chin and big ears image. Pat Oliphant below is even worse: Obama’s upper lip is too fat. Toothy grins join big ears in other renderings. Mike Lane at the bottom is getting close, but Dick Locher next to him is better: he’s captured Obama’s thin upper lip (darker than the lower lip) and protruding, but not large, ears. A thinner chin and he’d have nailed it. Jack Ohman, one of the best caricaturists working, has done pretty well with his, lengthening the distance between nose and mouth more than in real life—but it helps make Ohman’s portrait work. I’ve taken a stab at Obama, too, and here are the results. Obama’s eyes are difficult: probably better to have them squint rather than be wide open. His close-cropped hair gives his head a perfectly round shape. His upper lip, as I mentioned, is thin, not wide, and darker than the lower lip, which protrudes slightly. As do his ears: they aren’t large, but the stick out noticeably. (GeeDubya’s ears weren’t all that large either, but nearly every editoonist picked on that feature to exaggerate; they should have avoided the ears and concentrated on the upper lip.) My feeling about caricature is that every expression of the victim warrants a different caricature: it’s not enough to create one image and then change its expression as if the image were simply a cartoon character. In the last analysis, of course, the Obama we see in political cartoons will soon become a cartoon character, with various distinctive features—perhaps no longer a caricature but, like GeeDubya, a glyph of the man that we will understand through sheer repetition rather than recognition.
THE LONG VIEW FROM ASTOR’S PINNACLE
Dave Astor, whose 25 years as an editor at Editor & Publisher was distinguished by his devotion to journalistic principles and to retailing syndicate news about columns, comic strips, and editorial cartoons in spare, no-frills prose, was among 20 employees fired by Nielsen, E&P’s owner, last fall in another of the industry’s scorched-earth plans to protect its bottom lines. Since 2003, Astor has moonlighted a weekly humor column, Montclairvoyant, for his hometown newspaper, the Montclair (NJ) Times, an endeavor he hopes to transform into a nationally syndicated feature. Dave showed me a couple of the columns, and I’m happy to say it’s a feature that deserves wide distribution. Tim O’Shea at comicbookresources.com thought interviewing Astor would be “a good way to put the 2008 editorial cartoonist/comics syndicate market in a proper perspective,” and I agree. Here’s some of what Astor said during the interview on January 5.
About the current trend of cutting costs by firing staff editorial cartoonists, Astor was unequivocal: “It's awful,” he said. “First of all, when a newspaper gets rid of its only cartoonist, that's a 100% staff reduction in that category (as opposed to, say, a 20% staff reduction when a paper lets go two of its 10 sportswriters). Secondly, cartoons are one of the most-read parts of a newspaper; human beings like visual stuff! Thirdly, even newspapers that replace staff cartoons with syndicated cartoons are losing important local commentary.
But they’re saving a salary, he continued. “Also, some papers don't want a strong local cartooning voice because local cartoons can anger local political and business bigwigs (some of whom the publisher might be playing golf with!). And some papers don't want to deal with reader complaints about a [local issue] cartoon—even if those calls and e-mails represent only a tiny percentage of their circulation. Unfortunately, the more than 90% of readers who might like or love a cartoon often don't contact the paper to say that.”
But newspapers are undeniably in trouble. “During the past 25 years, there has been a pretty steady decline in the number of daily U.S. papers. And the number of big syndicates has declined, too, because of mergers.”
O’Shea asked what adjustments syndicates might make to survive. Said Astor: “A number of syndicates are already making their content available on various non-print platforms, such as iPhones and other devices. Syndicates and their parent companies also continue to generate revenue in other ways not directly tied to newspapers. For instance, Universal Press Syndicate’s sister division Andrews McMeel Publishing does well with comic collections and other books, and entities such as United Media Licensing earn a lot of money with merchandising.”
Astor also sees a future in webcomics, particularly with the increasing availability of iPhones and other portable Internet gizmos.
editorial cartoonists will find a voice doing cartoons posted on
websites (including their own sites and sites featuring multiple
cartoonists), doing cartoons for alternative
The fate of the editorial cartooning as a profession reeks with irony, as Astor pointed out: “When it comes to content and the art, this might be a golden age for editorial cartooning. When it comes to jobs, this is a nightmare age for editorial cartooning. Meanwhile, a handful of less-than-10-year-old comics gained a lot of newspaper clients in 2008. They include Pearls Before Swine, Lio, Cul de Sac, The Argyle Sweater, and others. I'm sure I'm leaving some out, so sorry about that. The comics field has problems, such as shrinking newspaper space. But there are also positive developments, including more comics by women and cartoonists of color (though the field remains mostly white male). It's also good that newspaper comics have become a little less staid (somewhat more sociopolitical commentary, somewhat more candid language, etc.). But too many comics still have kind of a 1950s mentality. One reason for this is the presence of a number of long-running, past-their-prime comics—including ‘legacy’ strips no longer done by their original creators. These comics limit the newspaper space for more-contemporary comics by younger cartoonists.”
to look ahead, Astor said: “I guess you can take the bad and
good trends I’ve mentioned and say they will probably continue
in 2009. Actually, maybe the bad trends will be more of aa factor
because I think things will get worse before they possible get better
for the economy and newspapers. One piece of bad 2009 news could
unfortunately be more layoffs of editorial cartoonists.”
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE
Kai-Ming Cha at PW Comics Week for January 6 lists the “Top 10 Manga for 2008" at http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6626499.html ; and Russ Burlingame at Newsarama for January 4 nominates the “Ten Worst Comic Book Movies of All Time” at http://blog.newsarama.com/2009/01/04/the-ten-worst-comic-book-movies-of-all-time, beginning: “In the wake of the box office and critical disaster that was ‘The Spirit,’ I got to thinking about bad comic book movies. There are some films—‘Daredevil’ and ‘Fantastic Four’ spring to mind—that are widely perceived as terrible, but first of all I think they get a bad rap. Secondly, even if you want to take for granted that they're bad, they still don't hold a candle to some of the more daunting stinkers out there like, say, ‘Superman IV: The Quest For Peace.’ I wanted to take a look at some of my personal Hall of Shamers and then solicit opinions from you, my dear readers.” And so he does.
Entertainment Weekly (January 16) listed the top ten graphic novels: Joker by Brian Azzarello, Garfield Minus Garfield by Jim Davis (although it’s Dan Walsh’s manipulation of the strip that makes it bookable), Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (a continuing favorite), Fables Vol. 11: War and Pieces by Bill Willlingham et al, Aetheric Mechanics by Warren Ellis and Gianluca Pagliarini, Jack of Fables Vol. 4: Americana by Matthew Sturges and Bill Willingham et al, Wanted by Mark Millar et al, Ex Machina Vol. 7: Ex Cathedra by Brian K. Vaughan et al, Astonishing X-Men Vol. 2 by Joss Whedon et al, and Gumby Vol. 1 by Bob Burden, Rich Geary and Steve Oliff. It might be argued, as I have, that reprinting serial issues of a comic book, tagging them “Volume Number x,” does not make a graphic novel, assuming, as I do, that a “graphic novel” is produced as a single, unified entity. But more and more these days, serial issues of a comic book title are constructed as “story arcs” with the intention of reprinting them as a single publication, thereby justifying the use of the term “graphic novel.” EW also listed the ten top individual issues of comic books: Secret Invasion No. 8, New Avengers No. 48, Final Crisis No. 5, Thor No. 12, Ultimatum No. 2, Uncanny X-Men No. 505, X-Infernus No. 1, Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes No. 2, Batman No. 683, Daredevil No. 114. And the magazine also proclaimed Dash Shaw’s Bottomless Belly Button fifth in a list of the top ten books of the year.
Rahan at the Malaysia Star discusses 2008 as the year of “embracing change” on the
comics scene: “Every universe had their own set of challenges
to deal with. At Marvel, they had a Skrull invasion, while DC rolled
out the red carpet for an influx of Kryptonians and New Gods. Anyway,
it's that time of the year for the traditional recap in A-to-Z
fashion, so without further delay,” he starts off with “A”
for “Action Comics and All Star Superman,” after briefly
heralding the ultimate benchmark, Heath Ledger as the Joker: “Despite
being outshined at the box-office by the Dark Knight, the Man of
Steel reigns supreme on paper, courtesy of super-duper offerings in Action Comics and All Star Superman. Check out Action No. 570 and All
Provoked by an article I skimmed in USA Today reporting that Bruce Wayne had come upon a secret from his past so ghastly that he’s given up the cape and cowl of Batman, I bought a couple Bat-books, thinking I’d learn what the dastardly secret was. Alas, neither Batman No. 683 nor Detective No. 851 spills the beans. So I still don’t know. What I do know, however, is that I probably won’t be buying any more Bat-books. In No. 683, the Batman so-called story is a thorough-going baffler. Continuity has overwhelmed storytelling amongst the Bat-writers: to even begin comprehending any of the fragments of this piece-meal offering, we must have read several of the preceding issues of this title and others. They’re all part of the story; we can’t understand what’s going on in No. 683 without having read previous issues of numerous titles, all trending together in a canny marketer’s unscrupulous scheme to sell us books we otherwise wouldn’t buy. Not only are vital pieces of the “story” missing in this issue, but the storytelling mannerisms employed by Grant Morrison herein are themselves conducive to serious incomprehensibility. The book’s narrative shifts back and forth in time and here and there in place, deploying a cryptic cinematic jump-cutting style that works in movies only because we see the whole production at one sitting. But here, where we encounter characters we’ve never seen before doing inexplicable things, jump-cutting interrupts narrative flow and compounds the confusion bred by a narrative that’s missing certain of its pieces.
I’d thought that comic book makers had better sense than this. Yes, what’s at work here is that we’re being exposed, a shred at a time, issue by issue, to a work that will eventually be re-published as a single book, a graphic novel, devoted entirely to the “Last Rites” story arc. Then it will all make sense. But in the meantime, who will buy the serial chapters as they come out in inDUHvidual issues of a bunch of different titles? Only the deep-dyed Batman fan. Only the reader who’s collecting them all. The consequences of this enterprise may translate into more newsstand sales and then, on the second bounce, graphic novel sales. But that’s a short-term triumph. Over the long haul, comic books of this ilk will fail to win readers because new readers, unfamiliar with the “continuity,” won’t have a place to jump on the train; and they’ll reject the serial installments as so much gobbledegook, a smattering of meaningless plot fragments. Too bad for the future vitality of the medium.
The issue of Detective, No. 851, another in the “Last Rites” story arc, was a little better. A good deal of confusion lurks around the edges, but at least there’s a more-or-less central storyline about a beautiful actress who’s disfigured by a Two-Face imposter, all with revenge as a motive. Somehow. The other pieces evaded my grasp.
upon the evidence of these two titles, we could very well conclude
that the comic book as a medium is doomed because it isn’t
nurturing the next generation of readers.
Short Looks at Long Books
Both of the annual surveys of the “best editorial/political cartoons” of the year 2008 are now out, Editorial from Pelican, edited by Charles Brooks (206 8.5x11-inch pages in paperback; $14.95), and Political from Daryl Cagle, who is joined by Brian Fairrington, who plays the part of the conservative co-editor (286 8x10-inch pages in paperback, $16.99). Both carry “2009 Edition” in their titles—e.g., Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year 2009 Edition. I haven’t anything new to add to what I’ve said about these books in previous years. They’re both pretty much the same as they’ve always been. More cartoons in Cagle, but they’re reproduced too small; larger cartoons in Brooks, but many (although not all) are by second tier talent, scarcely the “best” of any year, however noble the perpetrators’ aspirations. Cagle’s choices follow the often trivial preoccupations of cartoonists who get their news from tabloid tv, but there are so many cartoons herein that the big issues are present, if not quite as emphasized as in Brooks. But if you want an overview of the year, you oughta get a copy of each. Cagle this year has restored a section missing from the last couple editions, a portfolio of cartoons submitted to the Pulitzer competition by the most recent winner. Probably in the years this section is missing, the cartoonist wouldn’t give Cagle permission to exhibit his cartoons. Last year’s winner, however, Michael Ramirez, a staunch conservative, has no such reservations: his submission portfolio is here entire.
Ramirez also has a book of his own, just out, Everyone Has The Right to My Opinion (282 8.5x11-inch pages, some in color; hardcover, $34.95). This is Ramirez’s first compilation of cartoons, and some of them come from his earliest stint at the Commercial Appeal in Memphis; most, however, are from the last few years, first at the Los Angeles Times and then at the Investor’s Business Daily, where he is a senior editor as well as the staff editoonist. His winning 2008 Pulitzer portfolio is here, and this volume displays it to much greater advantage because the cartoons are all in color. Moreover, the cartoons appear throughout one-to-a-page, a generous display that Ramirez deserves: his cartoons are copiously detailed, and he seems to like drawing huge pieces of equipment, festooning them with gadgets and gizmos—much of which would be lost at a smaller dimension (as it is in Cagle, for instance). We’ll have more to say about this tome next time.
A newcomer to these annual exercises is another volume from Pelican, Prizewinning Political Cartoons 2008 Edition (128 8.5x11-inch pages, some in color; paperback, $15.95). Edited by Dean P. Turnbloom, a former Navy man who’s loved cartooning all his life but didn’t seek publication until he retired from the fleet, the book features the prize winners and their work in many of the editooning competitions: Pulitzer Prize, National Headliner Award, Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Award, Overseas Press Club’s Thomas Nast Award, Scripps Howard National Journalillsm Award, Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, Fischetti Editorial Cartoon Competition Award, National Press Foundation’s Clifford K. And James T. Berryman Award, the Herblock Prize, and the Ranan Lurie Political Cartoon Award. This volume, the 2008 Edition, contains the winners in the 2007 contests and many of the runners-up—Nick Anderson, Clay Bennett, Steven Benson, Matt Davies, Walt Handelsman, Mike Keefe, Mike Lester, Mike Luckovich, Jim Morin, David Pope, Jean Planteureux, Alfredo Sabat, Steve Sack, Mike Thompson, Signe Wilkinson, and Adam Zyglis. It also features short biographies of all the winners, and this, from Joseph Pulitzer, writing about the Prize he endowed: “Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations.” And to foster their professional spirit and dedication, Pulitzer created the awards bearing his name. I’ve quoted Pulitzer at length for the sake of the inherent irony: read it again and think about tabloid tv journalism, the pace-setter for all news media in this hapless land.
Sometimes Happy, Sometimes Blue
Always Glad I Ran Into You
Here’s a short list of some of the cartooning fraternity who are no longer with us:
Ted Key, 1912
Will Elder, 1921
Jim Mooney, 1919
Dave Stevens, 1955
Steve Gerber, 1947
Gus Arriola, 1917
Frances Arriola, 1914
Thel Keane, 1926
Marty Links, 1918
Jack Kamen, 1920
Creig Flessel, 1912
Others who left us in the past twelve months and who are not cartoonists but who I will nevertheless miss include: William F. Buckley, Jr. (whose vocabulary made being a conservative seem fun), Charlton Heston (who made the Second Amendment seem central to American democracy, once, as I heard him, without mentioning guns), Studs Terkel (who made ordinary journalism into an artform), Michael Crichton (whose “ER” captivated this viewer for years), Hamilton Jordan (who was no more a Washington politician than his boss, Jimmy Carter, and who therefore was a refreshing zypher breezing through the political landscape for too short a time), George Carlin (who made us see just how absurdly silly civilization with all its discontents and hangups is and why we should therefore be laughing at ourselves—and he showed us how to do it), Paul Newman (who memorably played Fast Eddie Felsen and the Christlike Cool Hand Luke, who died of a failure to communicate, an allusion Bernard Shaw would have delighted in: he always thought our mistake was in choosing Barabbas over Jesus on that fateful day on Pilate’s balcony; “Why not give Christianity a try?” the Irish playwright would ask), Bettie Page (who, wearing little more than bangs, smiled a joyful albeit mischievous smile that correctly proclaimed that sex was fun and therefore wholly innocent and probably wholesome to boot; more about Bettie below), Ollie Johnson (the last of Disney’s Nine Old Men, that legendary gang that set the pace for animated film long long ago). From Entertainment Weekly: Eddy Arnold (who twanged country and made a convert of me in my lost youth), Steve Gerber (who, regardless of his other achievements in life, joins this line-up as the creator of Howard the Duck), Dick Martin (whose perpetual grin gave comedy a second bounce), Bill Melendez (who made Peanuts move), Jerry Reed (who, when he was hot, was hot), Tony Snow (who redeemed the role of presidential press secretary), Richard Widmark (who could’ve played more heroic parts in the movies), Suzanne Pleshette (whose unabashed profanity redeemed actressing), Cyd Charisse (whose legs redeemed dancing, which she did with both of filmdom’s champions, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, ostensibly never dubbing one better than the other but saying, once, that “if I was black and blue, [I’d been dancing with] Gene; and if it was Fred, I didn’t have a scratch”), Harvey Korman (who, for all his comedic gifts, impressed me by breaking up over Tim Conway), and Eartha Kitt, whose smokey voice set sexual fire to the lyrics in songs like “Santa Baby,” which she immortalized, and who obituary writers immortalized, regrettably, for her role as Catwoman in the 1960s camp-ridden “Batman” tv series, a triviality: she deserves to be remembered for her songs and persona and, as ICv2 did, for her opposition to the Vietnam War, voiced, like any American had a right to, while visiting Lady Bird Johnson’s White House, effectively—sadly, shamefully—destroying her career in this country (the Johnsons saw to it that she didn’t find work, driving her into exile in France and elsewhere for years); I saw her in person at a dinner party where she wasn’t performing—Carol Channing was. It must’ve been a bumper year for death: Newsweek’s year-end issue devoted six pages to listing and briefly profiling those who are no longer among us.
PICKING AT THE YEAR
The Notable and Sometimes Exasperating
A Few of the Things That Peeved or Pleased Me in 2008
Willie is free at last: the image of Mickey Mouse in “Steamboat Willie” is now in the public domain (as recounted in Opus 230)
Diesel Sweeties is no longer desecrating the funnies
Superman’s birthplace was saved from falling into ruin
Landmark Publications: Fantagraphics complete reprinting of Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe; Jackie Ormes biography, Garfield Minus Garfield, reprinting of Charles N. Landon’s cartoon correspondence course lessons,
Anniversaries: Garfield, 30th; and the two Alleys, Oop, 75; Gasoline, 90th
Number of full-time staff editorial cartoonists drops to 88, losing 13 in six months
Jules Feiffer returns to the Voice by invitation (Op. 230)
The New Yorker’s Obama cover reveals wannabe cartoonist Barry Blitt’s shortcomings as a satirist; ditto the editors of the magazine, who, apparently, didn’t understand how Blitt’s cover drawing could be misinterpreted; or did they?
Mystery of the year: who was the guy doing “Bad Cartoonist” and where is he now when we need him?
Stay Tooned, an excellent reincarnation of Cartoonist PROfiles-style magazine debuts
Peter Parker and Mary Jane split
Dick Tracy/Chester Gould Museum closes in Woodstock, Illinois (Op. 218)
Tenth of February Movement and How It Failed—or not; at least it asked the question: why is there only one comic strip by and/or about a racial minority in most newspaper comics lineups? (Op. 218)
Mort Walker’s International Museum of Cartoon Art holdings go to OSU’s CRL, which now has a new name: instead of Cartoon Research Library it is now the Cartoon Library and Museum, which, they say, better reflects the facility’s mission (particularly with its holdings of original art, the world’s largest (Op. 223)
Al Jaffee gets NCS’s Reuben
Spiegel heirs inherit half of Superman (Op 221)
Endings: Opus ends. Again.
Another five years, shot to hell (Op. 231). Loveless ends; ditto Y: The Last Man—I
couldn’t make much thematic sense of either series, but they
were fun to read. DC finished reprinting all of Will Eisner’s
Spirit, a treasure in 26 hardcover packages. For
Better or For Worse ends original stories and
goes into reruns, for better or for worse (Op. 231).
The Best Stuff
I did a longish piece on the “best of the year” for The Comics Journal, No. 296 (out soon), and I won’t repeat that here; I will, however, add a little to it:
Best comic strips of the year: 9 Chickweed Lane, Doonesbury, Zits, Frazz, The Knight Life (best new), Luann (particularly when the Brad and Toni romance is featured); others that are awfully good but usually overlooked: Betty, Arlo and Janis, Zippy (which, after reading daily for 18 months, I now believe I’m on the cusp of understanding),
Best new comic book titles: Rasl, Echo,
Best continuing comic book titles: 100 Bullets, Love @ War, Bomb Queen
Best continuing series of comics-related books: Two Morrows’ Modern Masters series
The Biggest Event of the Year was, undeniably, the election to the U.S. Presidency of the candidate with the shortest resume but the greatest charisma, who demonstrated his superior executive ability and leadership skills through the disciplined and principled management of his campaign. But Sarah Palin ran Baracko Bama a close second: from a cartoonist’s perspective, she rescued the final weeks of the too long campaign by turning what threatened to become an increasingly acrimonious contest into a raucous hilarity, which she then personified by doing a perfect imitation of Tina Fey doing a perfect imitation of a moose-dressing Alaskan governor and former beauty queen, you betcha. We deserved no better than the so-called news media gave us, but we got much more than we deserved—call it, the luck of Americans.
HELPING YOU THROUGH THIS VALE OF TEARS
We’d be remiss in these gloomy times if we didn’t remind you of three monthly newspapers full of comic relief. Funny Times publishes gag and political cartoons, alternative strips, and various humor columns, $25/year, 12 monthly issues; P.O. Box 18530, Cleveland Heights, OH 44118; or with credit card by phone, 1-888-386-6984, ext. 2348. Humor Times is mostly editoons with a few columns, $18.95/year, 12 monthly issues; P.O. Box 162429, Sacramento, CA 95816. And Cartoon News is all editoons from top cartooners, $25/year, 12 monthly issues, Santa Cruz Comic News, P.O. Box 1335, Santa Cruz, CA 95061; see also thecomicnews.com. Most of these offer a free sample issue.
And if you want to see classic comic strips, do your shopping at specproductions.com. SPEC Productions produces an impressive array of publications reprinting vintage works of comic strip artistry—Alley Oop, for instance, Moon Mullins, Dick Tracy, Smilin’ Jack, Joe Palooka, and on and on. And Missing Years magazine, which reprints such classics as Alex Raymond’s Rip Kirby, Captain Easy (Leslie Turner’s hard to find opus), Terry and the Pirates (George Wunder’s), and, in rotation, others of equal nostalgic and artistic merit. A just-launched project, a 3-issue series of Kerry Drake featuring the toothsome temptress Madam Adam.
MORE T-SHIRT WISDOM
I have multiple personalities and none of them like you.
Warning: I have gas and I know how to use it.
I started out with nothing and I still have most of it left.
Remember: as far as anykone knows, we are a normal family.
I tried being good but I got bored.
My Indian name is Runs with Beer.
Good morning—let the stress begin.
I used to care but I take a pill for that now.
Put on your big-girl panties and deal with it.
We have long been aware, albeit sometimes only dimly, that Beetle Bailey, Mort Walker’s comic strip saga about a supremely lazy private in the U.S. Army, began a lifetime ago as a playful exploration of the dubious joys of college life. Beginning in just twelve newspapers on September 4, 1950, the strip had added only thirteen to its client list after a seven-month struggle. Unbeknownst to Walker, King Features was thinking about dropping the strip from its roster. Then Beetle joined the army and the strip took flight, soaring into circulation stratosphere, where it has remained ever since.
Walker has explained the supposed failure of the college Beetle by recollecting that most young people weren’t going to college in those days: “Many started to work at an early age,” he once said, “and only about 5% pursued higher education,” implying that the strip’s lack-luster sales record was the result of its college setting being unfamiliar to newspaper readers. That may be true of the youth of America, but the college campuses in the post-WWII years were populated by millions of slightly older young men, fresh veterans of military service, all pursuing higher education with expenses paid for by the GI Bill, a watershed piece of legislation that, virtually by itself, created the middle-class America we’ve been living in for the last half century. Even if many young adults in the distant days of the fifties went into the work force immediately after graduating from high school, there were, by 1950, millions of readers who had matriculated their way through higher academe. But these young men, most of whom had spend several years prior to their college careers being shot at, came to campus full of serious adult purpose, dedicated to acquiring an education and then getting on with their lives, and until they could achieve those worthy goals, they consumed, as consolation, copious amounts of adult beverage between classes. Perhaps the typical college-kid shenanigans being depicted in the college-themed Beetle Bailey were wholly foreign to the vets’ somewhat unique experience of campus life.
Sociological speculation aside, we now have at hand evidence of a different sort about which to conjure up whys and wherefores—namely, the actual Beetle college strips themselves, marching in chronological order through first volume of Checker’s series reprinting the entire Beetle Bailey from 1950 until tomorrow, or whenever the multi-volume series is complete. The first volume (280 8x10-inch pages, b/w and color; glistening hardcover, $24.95) covers the first two years of the strip, ending December 31, 1952. The book is encumbered by several happy extras: in addition to a short biographical essay by series editor Alf Thorsjo, a Swede who has edited all of the Beetle Bailey books in Scandinavia where the strip is hugely popular, the front matter includes photographs and samples of the syndicate promotional materials and other tidbits and furbelows. The main attraction, however, is the strips themselves.
This volume represents the first time that all the college sequence has ever been reprinted, including some strips that were used in the promotional materials but never appeared in the subsequent newspaper run, plus a few that were ultimately rejected: a couple that poised on the brink of launching continuity, an idea abandoned almost at once; and some that were redrawn to simplify and clarify the visuals. Of the 168 or so strips rehearsing Beetle’s college career, 29 were published in 1984 in The Best of Beetle Bailey. It was the most we’d ever seen, before, of the college material, but the strips therein were sometimes not in strict chronological order. Beetle enlists on March 13, 1951, a Tuesday, and he spends the rest of the week saying good-bye to his girlfriend, his favorite professor, and his parents. On Monday, March 19, he’s in the Army, taking a physical, and his life is never the same again. Neither, of course, is the strip.
The insight we gain into Beetle Bailey by seeing the college and Army strips side-by-side, in sequence, may not fully explain why the collegiate Beetle failed to attract subscribing newspapers. It was, to the best of my knowledge, the only college-themed strip on the market and, given the emerging college graduate population of WWII vets, it should have been successful. But it wasn’t. I’m still not sure why, exactly, but the strip, with Beetle in uniform, was suddenly, overnight, different. Beetle is issued a uniform on Wednesday, March 21, and the supply clerk who throws shirts, pants, and shoes at the new recruit is dumbfounded when he beholds Beetle dressed in his new duds. “Something’s wrong,” he says. “What’s the matter?” says Beetle. The clerk: “It fits.” With this single instance, it becomes immediately apparent that Walker had found his metier: at once, Beetle fit right in, and the formula was set in motion on that very day. Suddenly, the strip acquired a mission, a comedic gravitas (so to speak), an underlying satiric ballast.
In the Army, the uniforms of new recruits never fit, a satiric jab at the cracks through which everything more-or-less human eventually falls in the miliary: a regimented life cannot accommodate individual personality. But Beetle, now on his mission, persists in being himself, an individual—lazy and, perhaps, on occasion, even incompetent, but an individual and unique human nonetheless, full of quirks and works that any military organization must, perforce, suppress or subvert. Beetle, at full snore, resists, as any of us would. Miraculously, Beetle doesn’t change an iota: he’s the same person in the Army that he was on campus, but instead of depicting the pointless horseplay of a layabout college kid the strip rejoices in the subversive inertia of the rebel.
At the college that Beetle attends, lower classmen are subservient to upper classmen, and Beetle, apparently one of the latter, gets a roommate who is a freshman—in appearance and behavior, a prototype of Zero— which establishes the initial conflict of the strip, albeit a patently trivial conflict. After that, the strip delves into such undergraduate preoccupations as cutting class, attending football games, dating, running out of money from home, shirking homework of any kind, and sleeping. Walker begins immediately to introduce Beetle’s friends, each with his own idiosyncracy: Bitter Bill, a card shark; Diamond Jim, the rich kid; the jock, Seatsock; and even an intellectual with the same name as Beetle’s future Army buddy, Plato. Beetle’s dorm has a house mother, a distinct peculiarity: house mothers, like subservient freshmen, are fixtures of fraternities, not dormitories. But Walker, who was a fraternity man in college, has cunningly avoided the elitism implied in the Greek aspect of campus life: with a dormitory ambiance, the campus life in the strip acquires an egalitarian patina, but, depending upon his own experience for inspiration, the cartoonist had to resort to something resembling fraternity life, hence the house mother and the servant class of freshmen. But a prevailing ingredient of campus life never appears: Beetle and his friends congregate at a soda shop, judging from the straws in their glasses, not at a bar. Booze never makes an appearance in the collegiate Beetle Bailey. And that may help explain why the strip didn’t appeal to readers, or, at least, to newspaper editors: without booze, the campus life in Beetle Bailey was clearly an adolescent fantasy, not to be taken seriously. It depicted the sort of jejune college life that most college grads want to deny existed. And so editors denied it by not buying the strip.
Beetle Bailey as an Army strip was quite another thing. The opposing forces displayed in the strip are real, as most American males, all subject to the draft in those days, well knew. Most men of my vintage went into military service at one time or another, and we all hated it and got out as soon as we served our time. We hated the often mindless regimentation, the routine institutional denial of the value of our individuality. And we recognized that Beetle was standing up for all of us in his continual confrontations with Sarge and the rest of the all-khaki regime. Beetle was a new breed of solider. He was not Dave Breger’s G.I. Joe, a puzzled cog in the military machinery; nor was he George Baker’s Sad Sack, a forever beaten-down loser. Beetle is not a loser: he is too crafty, too resilient. But in the Army, he can never be a winner either, and so he represents all of us, and we take him into our lives. Beetle’s collegiate laziness is transformed into unarmed insurgence, and we applaud his perpetual campaign, knowing that he will never triumph more than momentarily, but we live for the moments.
In this first volume of the reprint series, we meet the usual array of superior officers—Sarge, slimmer and taller than he is now; and General Halftrack, whose flamboyant moustache seems somehow more dignified in these early strips. But most of Beetle’s first band of buddies soon disappeared. His pal initially was Bammy (from Alabama; every bunch of soldiers, as anyone who’s ever been one knows, needs a Southerner who talks funny). And others in Beetle’s vicinity in the barracks included a fat guy, Canteen; a gambler, Snake-eyes; an unabashed enthusiast for army life, Fireball; and Dawg, an always unwashed slob (unhygenic soldiers were as ubiquitous as Southern accents), an echo of Peanuts’ Pigpen, you might think, except that Pigpen didn’t show up until July 13, 1954, three years after Dawg’s debut. The dapper moustached skirt-chaser Killer shows up in early May 1951, albeit without a name yet, and pretty soon he has displaced Bammy as Beetle’s usual companion. Jokes involving girls become more plentiful once Killer appears, and when his interest in the eternal feminine is dramatically visualized by the wiggling of the phallic protuberances of his garrison cap on July 12, Killer, still unnamed (until a week later), becomes a major player in the strip, contributing, as I remember it, to a flush of popularity for Beetle Bailey. Readers looked forward to his appearances, and Killer and his aroused and horny cap showed up regularly, once a week.
more about Beetle Bailey and
Mort Walker, re-visit Harv’s
Hindsight posted earlier this month. In
that posting, I neglected to mention that the photographer who
snapped me sitting next to a bronzed Beetle at the University of
Missouri was Frank Stack, retiring head of the university’s art department at the time
and creator, as Foolbert Sturgeon,
of one of the earliest, if not the earliest, underground comix, The
New Adventures of Jesus. The visual aids for
this Hindsight include several monthly pages torn from a Miss Buxley
calendar produced in Scandinavia, which I mistakenly said was
published in Sweden. Nope: just in Denmark and Norway, I’m told
by Germund von Wowern, who should know: he’s in charge, he told
me when he wrote to correct my errors, of the Swedish Beetle
Bailey comic book and turned down the
opportunity to publish the Buxley calendar (“for several
reasons” that he doesn’t mention). I also claimed that
“Billy,” the word that appears at the top of every Buxley
calendar page, is what she’s called in Scandinavia: instead,
“Billy” is the name of Beetle
Bailey in Norwegian. In Swedish, Miss Buxley
is called “Froken Frojd,” which means, Germund says,
“Miss Delight.” Beetle in Sweden is called “Knasen” (“word play on
‘knasig’ which means ‘corny’ or ‘silly’).
QUOTES AND MOTS
Asked what’s his best story about fans, Mutts’ Patrick McDonnell revealed in the monthly newsletter of the Comic Art Professional Society (CAPS) that Brooke Shields has a tattoo of Earl. His interlocutor, however, failed to ask the most important follow-up question: How does he know?
For The Week magazine, Neil Gaiman listed these six books as his favorites: Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison, The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton, Archer’s Goon by Diana Wynne Jones, Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees, Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny, and Peace by Gene Wolfe.
“Gossip is the art of saying nothing in a way that leaves practically nothing unsaid.” —Walter Winchell
is when you hear something you like about someone you don’t.”
Any book entitled The Alcoholic must have one of two endings: either the alcoholic gives up drink and finds happiness; or he doesn’t. In this one (136 7x9-inch pages, b/w; paperback, $19.99) by Jonathan Ames as drawn by Dean Haspiel with gray tones added by Lee Loughridge, he doesn’t. Probably. Like any self-respecting book about an alcoholic writer, the book wallows in the addict’s miseries, brought on, almost entirely, by his addiction and enhanced by his self-awareness as a writer. In this effort, we meet “Jonathan A,” who the dust jacket blurb calls, with uncanny acumen, “a boozed-up, coked-out, sexually confused, hopelessly romantic and, of course, entirely fictional novelist—who bears only a coincidental resemblance to real-life writer Jonathan Ames.” But we have to wonder, given another blurb’s comparison of “Jonathan A’s” crooked nose to Jonathan Ames’, just how fictional this tale is. The book opens as “Jonathan” wakes up from a drunken blackout: he’s being seduced by a tiny old woman in the front seat of the old car she lives in with two cats. He begins trying to reconstruct how he came to this sorry pass by recollecting his highschool best friend Sal—their drunken weekends that fostered his addiction and, incidentally, their homosexual experience together. After this, it’s pretty much downhill steadily for the rest of the book. “Jonathan” loses his parents in a fatal auto accident, has two or three love affairs that end unhappily, goes through rehab, relapses, has another homosexual experience, finds some psychological comfort with a favorite maiden aunt, writes marginally successful mystery novels, snorts coke, and, at the end of the book, vows to give up drinking—as he does almost every morning—but probably, given his history, doesn’t. This relentlessly depressing history is laced with various unsavory events—his continual vomiting as a young alcoholic and, later, his shitting himself with remarkable frequency, also induced, probably, by an above-average alcoholic intake.
Other authors, quoted on the dust jacket on the back, acclaim this performance: Bret Easton Ellis calls the novel a “hilarious, wrenching story gorgeously illustrated”; Brian K. Vaughan also thinks it “laugh-out-loud hilarious” as well as “emotionally devasting.” I didn’t think it was all that funny. Those who think it “hilarious” are telling us more about themselves than the book; they probably also laugh out loud at amputees and road-kill kittens. The hilarious parts for them are doubtless those that involve vomit and defecation and, in one starkly candid confessional scene, adolescent inexperience at sexual congress. Indulging in the loss of his virginity, “Jonathan” is momentarily frustrated: “Where the hell does it go?” he says, as he straddles his paramour, explaining, in the accompanying caption, “I couldn’t figure out where to put it.” Seconds later, having at last achieved penetration, he is suitably awe-stricken: “I’m doing it! This is the greatest thing ever!” Then, awash in sexual satisfaction, he ejaculates too soon. If candor is comedy, then Ames is the greatest comedian of the day. But sometimes, we laugh because the truth is too embarrassing to admit to without attempting to pass it off as a joke.
Ames is a talented wordsmith, and in this, his first attempt at a graphic novel, he too often lets his words run away with him, cluttering up the pages with massive caption blocks that sometimes do more of the narration than the pictures. The opening sequence, for instance, could have been amped by letting pictures do more of the storytelling. Ames deploys too many purely literary conventions: he quotes other authors frequently. But no cartoonists. (Among the quotations, this, a favorite of mine, from Al Gore: “Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose; and sometimes, something else happens.”) “Jonathan” comforts himself during one of his unrequited lover spells by repeatedly saying about the phone call from his beloved that never comes: “If it doesn’t ring, it’s me.” Nicely cryptic—a way of dogging emotion by baffling the brain—but wholly verbal. The Alcoholic is essentially what literary students used to be called a “short story,” which, here, has been expanded to book length with the addition of pictures that take more space on the pages and thereby add to their number.
Haspiel’s bold-lined angular style is sometimes a little too affected, resulting in awkward anatomy and limping compositions. But despite my impression that the book is more verbal than visual, Haspiel usually amplifies Ames’ words rather than merely illustrating them. He is inventive enough with images that I wish Ames had given him the freedom to do more than we see here.
My first reaction to the book as I was reading it was that it was much too much a verbal enterprise, but as I returned to the pages to write this review, I realized that Haspiel had a larger role than I’d given him credit for. And the story itself, depressing and not at all hilarious, now haunts me. I can’t erase certain scenes, certain events, from my mind. In short, in spite of certain shortfalls, Ames and Haspiel have achieved together a memorable and all-too-human tale of masculine frailty in a world too macho for its own good.
PERSIFLAGE & FURBELOWS
Editoonist Chip Bok, in a cartoon showing a husband and wife watching tv wherein a politician says: “I urge those who bought a seat in the U.S. Senate to reach across the aisle to those who inherited.”
In a panel cartoon signed simply ARF (perhaps Ann Farrell?), a man sitting in front of his computer is saying into a telephone: “I’m too old to date, now I have e-lationships.” Elation instead of relation. Adroit wordplay.
In Mother Goose and Grimm, the wall-eyed dog asks Grimm: “What’s that long German word that means ‘secretly taking pleasure at someone else’s misfortune’?” Grimm says: “Gesundheit.”
things fun is the only revenge you have against mortality.”
—Dustin Hoffman, interviewed in Parade, December 21, 2008
BACK TO BETTIE
Bettie Page’s death, which we paused to acknowledge last time, took me by surprise, and I didn’t have time to find what I wanted to use to appreciate and commemorate her unique contribution to the American Way of Life, namely, a book review I’d written for the Comics Buyer’s Guide years ago when they still accepted contributions from writers who weren’t just collectors and investors. While looking for something else, I found it. And I still like it. Here’s hoping you do, too:
I'm not a big fan of the Queen of Curves. Bettie Page did not preoccupy my adolescent fantasies as much as Diane Webber did. And Moonbeam McSwine. And anything by Dan DeCarlo but mostly Irma in My Friend Irma Comics. I was never much smitten by Marilyn Monroe, either, truth to tell. But that's a matter of personal preference, no doubt, not aesthetic judgement. I mention this quirk of my psyche because of what it can't explain. Given my indifference to the lady, why did I buy a copy of Bettie Page: Queen of Hearts, Jim Silke's book that came out from Dark Horse in the fall of 1995? Dunno why I sprang for this one. But I'm glad I did.
This is one nifty book, tovarich—all 98 9x12" pages, many in color (Dark Horse paperback, $19.95, and worth every cent; you can still find one on the Net, using Addall.com). I'm not cultivating the passions of puberty here. This is an adult book. It's written by a thoroughly adult artist and intended, I believe, for adult readers with adult interests. And by "adult," I mean "grown up" and somewhat "intellectual"—not pornographic.
Silke's book is a warmly nostalgic and often quietly humorous rumination in prose and pictures on pin-ups, sex, and the American culture.
The volume is elegantly designed and generously illustrated with both photos of Bettie and drawings of her by a long list of accomplished artists (including paperback cover champion Robert McGinnis, who, commissioned by Silke to make a sketch of Miss Page, became so enthralled he did a full color oil painting after doing the sketch). And cartoonists are represented, too— Al Capp, Alex Raymond, Milton Caniff, and Mark Schultz. And Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, and Dave Stevens.
And Silke himself. Artist, photographer, editor and publisher (of Cinema), art director, screen writer, costume designer—and cartoonist. Every one of the book's nine chapters begins with one of his interpretations of Bettie, rendered in the glowing vibrating color that gives such verve and visual energy to Silke's work. And the volume concludes with a portfolio of his Betties.
Wonderful as all this is, Silke's prose is what gives genuine distinction to the book. He unabashedly sets out to explain the Bettie Page phenomenon. And, I believe, he does it. And along the way, he issues a ringing affirmation of life. The book is a celebration of the living, breathing ribald nonsensical tragicomedy of life with its incorrigible zest for experience and indefatigable resilience. It is a clarion call for enjoyment and hope. It is a call issued by a cartoonist.
Central to Silke's understanding of the Bettie phenomenon is his narrative sense as a storyteller who thinks in images as well as in words. It is, in short, the cartoonist's sensibility that led Silke to his answer.
Silke's explanation of Bettie begins with his grasp of the idea that her modeling was "performance, the art of displaying herself without shame or guilt in extraordinarily beautiful poses." But Bettie partakes of a pin-up tradition beyond simply looking beautiful—the tradition of the "sugar candy school of glamour art," Silke calls it. These are paper dolls, the creations of painters and artists, not photographers. They are products of imagination. And they, like Bettie, are "healthy, joyous, girl-next-door beauties who unabashedly, directly confronted their viewers. They are sexy, but in an innocent, playful, unthreatening way." From this emerged the distinctly American pin-up girl—"a direct, frontal, come-and-get-me, take-no-prisoners" assault on the viewer, an attack "with every curve, dimple, crooked finger, foot, thigh and come-hither eyebrow in action."
From the paintings of girls that illustrated short stories in slick magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Colliers', Bettie instinctively borrowed another aspect of her on-camera personna—a sense of distinctive, individual personality. This was the narrative function, and it was the key, as Silke sees it, to understanding Bettie. She wasn't (isn't) just a pretty face and a full figure: she's also a personality, a person, with a history and a story. Bettie's role in that story was as the slightly immoral but fun-loving girl down the block.
Says Silke: "Bettie accepted the role and, unlike so many models, gave it all she had. In her fetish and bondage photos for Movie Star News, she overacted in cartoonish displays of terror, and in her flirty pin-up poses there is a naughty twinkle to her smile, as if she appreciated something comic-strip artists, screenwriters, playwrights and novelists had discovered much earlier: bad girls get to do all the interesting things—slink around in French lingerie, bathe in bubbles, dance wickedly in a handful of jewels, and flirt with their awestruck audience. In short, being bad was good, and by instinct or intellect, Bettie knew this."
In Bettie's whole-hearted acceptance of this role, she displays a wonderful and liberating sense of humor, which, in combination with her utter frankness, creates in viewers "an intense, powerful sense that confirms that force in human nature, that magical mysterious process which favors all that makes and celebrates life and opposes all that seek to inhibit it."
And so far, I've only skimmed off the top of what Silke has to say. This is a good book for artists, for lovers of art, for lovers of women and of Bettie, and for lovers of life.
You'll want to see more of Jim Silke's work after plunging into this book, so you might as well order his Rascals in Paradise while you're at it. Published first in the fall of 1994 as a three-issue series of comic books (at $3.95 each), it's still available from on the Net in one volume. (Consult Addall.com, as I said.) Dark Horse, the publisher, also produced a single limited hardcover edition of 104 pages in fully painted color for $99.95. It includes a signed plate designed for this edition. If you can find a copy of this version.
Set in a futuristic resort that re-creates the Malay jungle of 1932, the tale is Silke's exotic version of Terry and the Pirates with himself and his friend Sam Peckinpah as two over-the-hill soldiers of fortune who befriend Brigitte Bardot and take off into the jungle in search of a mysterious river and fall into the clutches of Claudia Cardinale, who, as priestess of a savage cult, has captured Silke's sometime girlfriend, Maureen O'Sullivan, who, once found, announces her preference for an ape-man who ravished her in his lair. All these players go by other names in the story, of course. But it enhances the fun Silke is having if you know, for instance, that Maureen O'Sullivan once played Jane in Tarzan movies.
It's a rollicking tale fondly told in the best Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy vein, all beautifully rendered in Silke's luminous colors, which do wonderful things for the three female figures who decorate and drive the storyline. Technically speaking, Silke's artwork is a vivid demonstration of how to do comics in the fully painted manner without losing the definition essential to visual storytelling. Alex Ross does this superbly, too, but in a wholly different way. If you missed Rascals when it came out, it’s worth looking around for a vintage copy. (And if the hardcover is priced too steeply for you—although I found at least one for a shockingly reasonable price— inquire about the three comic book issues; mayhap they're still around.)
ONWARD, THE SPREADING PUNDITRY
The Thing of It Is ...
Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi noticed that our leaders in Congress, who are so secure in their seats that they are re-elected routinely, are aging, some, perhaps, given the slow accumulation of infirmities with the passage of years, beyond their competence. The average age of a member of the House is relatively young, 57; but in the Senate, the average is 63. Robert Byrd, who is 91, gave up his chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee to permit the younger generation to assume power; Byrd’s chair is now occupied by Hawaii’s Daniel Inouye, who is 84. Big whoop. “Many older Americans will claim to be sharper and more physically active in their 80s than I am in my 30s,” Harsanyi said. “That’s not saying much,” he concludes. Ditto: speaking as one of the infirm, I am aware that I am not as fit today as I was when I was 40 years younger. Harsanyi continues: “Some of you will argue that as Washington begins negotiating a ‘New New Deal’ massive stimulus plan, it is advantageous to have on hand more than a third of sitting Senate members with first-hand experience of the Great Depression” and the Old New Deal, so we can profit from their experience. Well, maybe. Harsanyi, however, thinks that “since we already have a minimum, constitutionally mandated age limit to serve in place, why not a maximum age? How about at least placing it wherever the average life expectancy falls?” That is, at a “crusty 77.”
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