Opus 240 (April 8, 2009). Headlining this time, we have a long essay on the inner workings of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, both graphic novel and movie, a funeral dirge for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the latest daily newspaper to succumb to corporate greed— and how its edtioonist David Horsey avoided being buried alive—an update on the tally of editorial cartoonists being fired, and reviews of Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Joe Shuster, Fantagraphics’ Humbug reprint, and funnybooks Soul Kiss, some Batbooks, The Great Unknown, Frank Frazetta’s Moon Maid, Bang! Tango, and Patsy Walker Hellcat, plus the usual survey of newspaper funnies and other evidence of the passing scene, including a stunning photograph of Chuck Rozanski ripping his clothes off in a pumpkin patch. Here’s what’s here, in order, by department:
R US: Various economic fallouts, no comics at a comic-con, New
York Times makes
a mistake, Dave Astor’s HuffPost column sampled, Ziggy’s
depression, help for S. Clay Wilson please, Simpsons postage stamp,
Australia’s cartoonist of the year, 3-D animations galore,
Oliphant and the Anti-Defamation League
Closes; Horsey Goes On—How Is That Possible?
DEMOLITION DERBY CONTINUES: FIVE NEW EDITOONIST CASUAlTIES
Faring No Better
Girl and Frank Cho
Tracy Escapes Another Death Trap
AND THE MOVIE
NEWSPAPER COMICS PAGE VIGIL:Sherman’s Lagoon, The Knight Life, Mort Park’s death in Rudy Park, death and disease in Funky Winkerbean, some drawing skills, Family Circus repeating itself, new artists on Adam @ Home and Grand Avenue, and more
MARQUEE: Shuster’s book of kink, Fantagraphics’ Humbug reprint
FAN FARE: Reviews of Soul
assorted Batbooks, The
Great Unknown, Frank Frazetta’s Moon Maid, Bang! Tango, and Patsy Walker Hellcat
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
MAD magazine, which, for some inexplicable reason, doubtless Kurtzman-induced, always names itself in capital letters, has been reduced from monthly publication to quarterly. Another sign of the pervasiveness of the Great Recession. Henceforth, we assume MAD will be simply Mad. In passing along this intelligence, Jonathan Bresman, erstwhile senior editor at MAD, announced that March 27 was his last day in that position. The last monthly issue will be the benchmark No. 500, which will appear in April. The Madhouse may be slowly crumbling into the economic miasma, but its editor, John Ficarra, is scarcely wallowing in a slough of despond. Explaining the tectonic shift to George Gene Gustines at the New York Times, Ficarra was nearly jocular in tone (or is that jugular?): “The feedback we’ve gotten from readers is that only every third issue of MAD is funny. So we decided to just publish those.” Typical Madness, in other words. A grace note for the transition. Nicely done.
Maggie Thompson, honcho at the Comics Buyer’s Guide (CBG), received from following communique from the financially beleagueredSteve Geppi: "In the past few days, there have been a number of rumors circulating about Gemstone Publishing. As has been the case with many businesses across a wide array of industries, there has been a reduction in staff at Gemstone, and this included the departure of many valued employees. This, however, is not the end of Gemstone Publishing. Our flagship title, The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, remains a vital tool for comic book collectors throughout North America and around the world and it continues to be a highly profitable item for the retailers who carry it. I look forward to making announcements regarding new developments for the Guide’s 40th anniversary next year. At this time, no final decision has been made regarding The EC Archives or our comic books featuring Disney’s standard characters, but it seems certain that both lines will continue in some form. We all anticipate resolving the issues facing us and moving forward, and I will be happy to announce the specifics once things have been finalized." I’m not sure this answers all the questions that recent reports about Geppi’s fiscal plight have raised, but it does seem, in a backhanded sort of way, to confirm reports about Russ Cochran and various Gemstone employees being freshly unemployed.
Icv.2 reports that Viz Media, North America’s leading manga publisher, has announced a restructuring plan that includes layoffs. A statement from Viz Media CEO Hidemi Fukuhara: “Viz Media is in the process of refining its focus and is restructuring to adjust to changing industry and financial market realities. Viz feels confident that with these changes, the company will be more streamlined to face the current economic climate.”
Then there’s this from Ada Price at Publishers Weekly in mid-February: Despite the economic downturn and increasingly selective buying by consumers, many independent comics retailers around the country are cautiously optimistic after weathering a tough retail period at the end of the year. In an informal phone survey of comics shop retailers across the country (and one general bookstore), some said they had been forced to layoff staff or cutback staff hours in order to survive. Others said they were proceeding with caution, mirroring their customers by being more careful about what they stock. Despite the tough times, the economy seems to affect different parts of the country in different ways, and while some stores report drops in sales since the fall of last year, others claim they remain generally unaffected by the bad economy.
recently, in May’s CBG,Chuck
owner of the largest online comic book retail operation extant, Mile
reported that his “overall retail sales” increased 20%
over the last 90 days, but that, he admits, may be because other
comic book retail operations in Denver have failed, sending buyers to
him, and because comic book publishers have raised prices. His online
back-issue sales increased only 3 percent in January, but that’s
because he didn’t invest in inventory; having no great heap of
back issues to sell, he’s pleased he scored even 3 percent
increase. He admits to sending mixed messages with all this reportage
and goes on to warn that an “economic apocalypse” may yet
arrive. On the other hand, he inventively recalls that “the
modern comics industry was born during the Great Depression and
Japanese manga sales were immense during the ‘Lost Decade’”
in Japan. He may be talking out of both sides of his mouth at once,
but he also reports that he’s bought a 32-acre vegetable farm
and is now working to build up the topsoil. If that’s not an
omen, then I’ve never seen an omen. On the chance that you want
to know what it looks like to be a comic book store owner and a
farmer all at once, here’s a photograph of Rozanski at work in
his field of pumpkins.
Enough of economic grief. Here’s some good albeit ironic news: Editor & Publisher notes that United Media Syndicate profits jumped 36% in the fourth quarter last year, the same quarter that Scripps, United Media’s parent, offered the Rocky Mountain News for sale, closing it in February 2009 because it couldn’t afford to continue losing money in the newspaper division. United Media’s revenue for the last 2008 quarter increased 20% to $30.9 million, compared with $25.7 million in the year-ago period, Scripps said.“Scripps attributed the United Media profit increase to the decision by the ABC television network to air 13 ‘Peanuts’ specials in the quarter. United Media syndicates Peanuts, Dilbert, Marmaduke and about 150 other comics and features.” You’d think—wouldn’t you?—that an advantage to being part of a huge communications enterprise is that the profitable elements in the operation would support the unprofitable parts, seeing them through such hard times as ours. Not at Scripps.
Scripps, which owns 16 newspapers around the country and 10 tv stations, told its legions of employees that they can expect pay cuts soon and a suspension of retirement benefits, reported David Milstead of the Rocky Mountain News, the only Scripps property to escape the cuts (because it died soon after Milstead’s article was published; see Opus 239). Senior managers and corporate executives already took pay cuts of 5-15 percent in January. That’s a switch: in these belt-tightening times, the higher the rank, the less probable a belt.
And one more happy economic note: according to the Denver Post’s account, Action Comics No. 1 recently sold for $317,200 in an online auction. The previous owner, who bought it when he was 9 in 1950, paid 35 cents for it. Only 100 copies of this old funnybook are said to exist.
Hard Times in the Comics. The spate, lately, of layoffs at newspapers inspired events in at least two comic strips. In the venerable Brenda Starr, the fiesty and glamorous redhead reporter was “furloughed,” said Alan Gardner at his DailyCartoonist.com, quoting Mary Schmich, a columnist at the Chicago Tribune who writes the strip, who told Editor & Publisher: “The budget cuts inside Starr’s fictional newsroom reflect the bottom line at real-life newspapers, which are slashing staffs and freezing salaries in the face of steep declines in advertising and circulation.” She added: "As far-fetched as some of the plots in Brenda are, I do like to keep it topical." She notes Starr's life "is a fantasy with nuggets of reality tossed in. But even fantasies need some grounding in reality, and right now, economic crisis is the reality that colors everything else at pretty much every newspaper."
In Doonesbury,Garry Trudeau, likewise inspired by the current blight in newsrooms, arranged for Rick Redfern, his newspaper reporter character, to lose his job at the Washington Post, where he’d worked for 33 years. No one said much when the strip retailed Redfern’s fate in 2008, but when the sequence was recycled this year at the end of February, the Washington Post censored the strip, dropping it on a Wednesday; then, embarrassed by its own gaffe and realizing, as Tim Reid said at timesonline.com, “that it risked looking thin-skinned, the newspaper ran the final three segments and issued an apology. It blamed the initial decision on ‘an internal miscommunication of a sort Rick Redfern would no doubt appreciate.’” Probably, some supersensitive Post editor thought it best not to call attention to the industry’s current predicament, which is manifesting itself in the closing of newspapers, massive chain-wide layoffs, and other manifestations of dire financial ailments.
It’s exactly the sort of climate that Dilbert’sScott Adams thrives on, Gardner reported: “In a Q&A with Scott, he is asked why it is easier to write the strip in a bad economy to which, Scott replies: ‘Humor is the flip side of tragedy. So the worse things are, the easier it is to find humor. And I think there is naturally more absurdity. There was a time during the dot-com era that I literally couldn’t get anyone to complain about their jobs. But now, if something is wrong with your life, it’s always someone else’s fault. It’s either the bankers, the politicians or your own managers being greedy and sucking up all the money for their bonus. So you always have someone to blame. And that gives the comic teeth.’”
Laurel Maury at npr.org said he walked something like 200 feet into February’s New York Comic-Con without seeing a single comic book. He saw “booths for video games, regular books, Dungeons and Dragons, sure. Toys, everywhere. But this year,” he continued, “the four-year-old NY Comic-Con seemed to be about everything but comic books.” Instead, he saw premiers of tv shows, t-shirts, corsets, vinyl dolls, messenger bags “even doorbells.” Said Maury: “It is increasingly clear that big ‘cons,’ as comic book conventions are called, are no longer the comic book geek's natural habitat—they're places to see and be seen, where Hollywood and the gaming industry try to get products into the hands of early adopters.” The New York Times, which famously doesn't have a comics section, had a booth. "We're here because a lot of people are here," the man behind the table told Maury.
tried to analyze the situation: “Part of the problem is that
kids don't read comics anymore. It takes about 15 minutes to read a
comic book. At $2.95 to $3.95 a pop, that's a pricey quarter-hour for
a 10-year-old who can get his mom to spring for a video game that
will keep him occupied for two months. These days,” he went on,
“kids who read comics tend to buy graphic novel collections,
and the kids reading manga lean toward manga journals like Shojo
Beat. So selling comic books is now about video-game tie-ins, toys and
movies,” Maury concluded: “It's as if, just at the moment
the comic book is gaining appreciation as a real art form, it's
losing its vitality.”
isn’t often that we get to correct that glorious font of
journalistic accuracy, the New
York Times, so we take an understandable if perverse pleasure in the occasion.
The nation’s newspaper of record announced on Sunday, February
15, that “for the first time in its history, the Louvre is
having a comic strip exhibition. The showing, ‘Small Design:
The Louvre Invites Comics,’ features the words of five
authors,” which are then named—Nicholas de Crecy,
Marc-Antoine Mathieu, Eric Liberge, Hirohiko Araki, and Bernar
Yslaire, all of whom “have used or are using the Louvre as part
of their stories.” But this wasn’t the first time comic
strips have hung on the walls of the world’s mustiest art
museum. The first time may have been in 1967 when the National
Cartoonists Society was invited to assemble materials for a display
tracing the history of the art of the comic strip, and the French
mounted the show in six rooms of the Decorative Arts Gallery of the
museum and issued a 256-page illustrated catalogue. The show’s
main emphasis was on the American comic strip, but examples of
Egyptian and Chinese narrative art were included as well as American
pop artists. Milton
delighted. “It’s great to be hanging up there with Da
Vinci,” he told a reporter in London where he stopped en route
to the Paris exhibition. Later, he described the exhibit: “they
blew up individual panels. Giant size—three by four feet.
Really something.” The exhibit ran from April 7 to June 12 and
featured panel discussions and seminars, screenings of animated
films, and even a fashion show. After closing at the Louvre, the show
moved on to Brussels, Amsterdam, Lausanne, and Rome. All of this
impressive information has been ripped from the pages of an equally
impressive tome, Meanwhile:
A Biography of Milton Caniff, Creator of Terry and the Pirates and
Steve Canyon (my magnum opus, you might say, which is still offered for sale in
this vicinity—just click on the cover displayed at the left on
the opening page of this installment of Rancid Raves; merely $35,
Peanuts News. Susanne Cervenka at Florida Today reports that the family of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz donated a 5-foot-tall Snoopy statue to NASA, honoring the space program's 50th anniversary. For 40 years, Snoopy has been the mascot for NASA's Space Flight Awareness Program, an award that recognizes employees' contributions to the space flight success. Less than 1 percent of NASA employees are honored with the "Silver Snoopy," a pin that is flown in space and is awarded by an astronaut. Craig Schulz, the youngest son of the late cartoonist, said his father called the partnership with NASA one of the two most important things in his career. The other was his service in World War II. The 600-pound polyurethane statue depicts Schulz's well-known beagle standing on the moon, donning a spacesuit and holding a helmet.
Snoopy is making the rounds of museums and galleries in an exhibit entitled “Snoopy WWI Flying Ace.” Despite occasional claims in promotions, no original art is on the wall: all the strips are “digitally reproduced from original art.” Copies, in other words. Snoopy first took to the skies in his sopwith camel on October 10, 1965 (it sez here on the wall plaque) and subsequently appeared in 400 strips over 34 years, the last published on November 28, 1999. Although some readers saw an allusion to Vietnam in the Flying Ace strips, Schulz didn’t. At first. Later, though, when he saw the possible connection, he stopped sending Snoopy into the blue for a while. “We were suddenly realizing that this was such a monstrous war,” Schulz said once, “—it didn’t seem funny. So I stopped doing it.” Snoopy took flight again some years later, but not into combat. “I didn’t do him fighting the Red Baron,” Schulz said. “Mostly, it was sitting in a French café flirting with the waitress.”
latest Peanuts reprint from Fantagraphics takes the strip through 1972 (325
6.5x8-inch pages, b/w; hardcover, $28.99), the 11th volume, now at the brink of the half-way point in the publication
project. This volume’s Foreword is a short interview with
Kristin Chenoweth, the “pint-sized” actress who won a
Tony playing Charlie Brown’s sister Sally in the 1998-99
revival of the musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie
Brown.” She never met Schulz, but he sent her flowers when she
won the Tony “and told me I was born to play Sally.” The
only other comics character she aspires to play is Betty Boop. In
this volume, Snoopy maintains his membership in the Beagle Book Club
and betrays an admiration for Helen Sweetstory’s series of
books about the six Bunny-Wunnies, and he assumes various “Joe”
identities—Joe Cool, Joe Eskimo, Joe Family, Joe French, Joe
Rock, the “world famous swimmer” who, immediately upon
contact with the water, sinks. Like a rock.
Dave Astor, who, you’ll doubtless recall, was laid off at Editor & Publisher after a professional lifetime of writing and editing for journalism’s trade magazine, went home and started polishing an idea for a syndicated humor column like the one he’d been doing for the local paper for some years. He hasn’t found a syndicate deal yet, but his column now appears at HuffingtonPost.com; search under “Dave Astor.” Here’s an excerpt from a recent one (in italics):
So when an underpaid cashier looks up from my credit card and asks if I'm one of those Astors, I can honestly say no. I'm not a loathsome, materialistic hedge-fund bozo who tells his mistress "we'll always have Paris" as the bozo's financial victims say of him that "we'll always have parasite." I drive a five-year-old compact car, trim my weed-filled lawn with a manual push mower, and watch a small TV that has an antenna. (Yes, I'll switch my set from analog to dialog when I poke the corner of a $40 plastic converter coupon into my remote's stuck mute button.)
Maybe I should have taken my wife's last name when we married. She has a very nice last name (Cummins) that doesn't sound elitist -- though she and many of her family members are accomplished people. Actually, I did try to take her seven-letter last name, but it had dwindled to two letters after a bank bundled it with other last names and invested them in tricycles retrofitted with jet engines. (Corporations endanger our children's future in so many ways....) The bank got a $15-billion bailout last Christmas, but spent the federal money on three $5-billion fruitcakes.
I do go by "Dave" rather than "David" to slightly soften the aristocratic sound of my last name. But that's like being locked in a bank vault and trying to escape with a chisel made of cotton.
Remember the Titanicscene in which "Unsinkable" Molly Brown shouted "Hey, Astor!" to that John Jacob fellow? When I heard that back in 1997, I sank embarrassedly into my movie-theater seat. Twelve years later, I cringe even more at the recollection of actress Kathy Bates calling out such a highfalutin name. That's because the rotten economy has left me with less money to compensate for having a Gilded Age second name as the second Gilded Age ends.
End of excerpt.
Dave, who covered syndicated comics and cartoonists with compassion and insight, did some cartooning on his own not so long ago; here’s a sample:
Paul Clark at the Cincinnati Enquirer tells the tale of Ziggy cartoonist Tom Wilson II’s nearly incapacitating depression better than I can; here’s Clark (verbatim, almost; in italic): Tom Wilson understands better than anyone that Ziggy’s phenomenal appeal lies in an indomitable optimism and unshakable daily resilience. For Wilson himself, it hasn't always been so. Wilson, 51, fought severe depression after a series of debilitating sorrows in his personal life. A car accident crushed his leg during a business trip in the early '90s. Illnesses including lung cancer struck his father, Tom Sr., who created Ziggy 40 years ago and from whom Wilson inherited the cartoon franchise in 1987. Most horrifying of all: Wilson's wife, Susan, his soulmate since they met as young art students at Miami University, died of breast cancer in 2000 at age 44.
"I was a mess," Wilson recalls. "I was married 23 years. Susan was the love of my life. I had two young boys. I couldn't commit suicide. I couldn't go the denial route."
In what seemed a cruel irony at the time, Wilson struggled against demonic despair even as he labored to bring forth daily smiles with the epigrammatic Ziggy, the cheeriest character in the comics world. Then a wonder emerged. Wilson found himself increasingly identifying with Ziggy. The daily work of renewing Ziggy's optimism helped Wilson do so for himself.
Wilson tells his inspirational story in a newly released autobiography, Zig-zagging, A Memoir: Loving Madly, Losing Badly—How Ziggy Saved My Life. Much of the book derives from journals Wilson kept along the way, a practice he found therapeutic. Some were recorded on audiotape during his regular travels up Interstate 71 between his home in Loveland and his business in Cleveland, a cartoon-character licensing and branding company called Character Matters.
"The book is raw and unedited," Wilson says. "All of the passion is there from journaling, putting things down raw. I'm not acting like I'm an expert, like I'm smart, like I have a Ph.D. At times I thought 'If it's unedited, people are going to say you're nuts.' But I wasn't myself then, it was depression."
Wilson said his father is "doing well," now in his early 70s and living in Montgomery. Wilson's son Miles is a marketing student at the University of Cincinnati; younger son Sam is a student at Cincinnati Country Day School. Ziggy, of course, continues to prosper, appearing daily in more than 600 newspapers and still a fixture on coffee mugs, calendars and refrigerator magnets.
"I'll keep on
drawing Ziggy as long as I can and as long people want to see him,"
Wilson says. "What I came to realize with Ziggy was that I
became the character in the panel in a way. It got me in touch with
my inner child and I realized my inner child's name is Ziggy."
Give to the Checkered Demon. As frequenters of this intersection on the Information Superhighway know, S. Clay Wilson, creator of some of the most unsavory comics characters ever to be beloved by fans, has been in the hospital for months lately, trying to recover from having fallen on his head while staggering home drunk one night last November. His medical bills are too much for him to pay single-handedly even with his medical insurance, and some of his friends, led by cartoonist David Chelsea, have determined to raise funds to help dig Wilson and his family out of the resultant penury. Says Chelsea: “S. Clay Wilson is a major figure in American comics, a founder of the underground comix movement. Wilson is known for aggressively violent and sexually explicit panoramas of lowlife, often depicting the wild escapades of pirates and bikers. He was an early contributor to Zap Comix, and Wilson's artistic audacity has been cited by R. Crumb as a liberating source of inspiration for Crumb's own work, and I can say as much for myself. I’d like to give a little back to the bad boy of comics, so I am turning my next 24-hour comic into a benefit for Wilson. For those of you who may not have heard of it, the premise of the 24-Hour Comic Challenge is that an artist attempts to complete 24 pages of comics within 24 hours. I am soliciting pledges from friends and comics fans for each page I complete, the money to go towards Wilson’s medical expenses. Contributions are at levels named for S. Clay Wilson characters: Checkered Demon- $25 a page and over; Star-eyed Stella- $10 - $24.99 a page; Ruby the Dyke- $5- $9.99 a page; Captain Pissgums - Under $5 a page.”
are not tax deductible, Chelsea says, but contributors will receive
an autographed copy of his completed story. The 24 Hour Comic Event
will taken place at Cosmic Monkey in Portland, Oregon, on Saturday,
April 11th from 10 am to 10 am the next day, which is Easter Sunday.
Information about it can be found at cosmicmonkeycomics.com. Other
artists joining Chelsea in soliciting pledges for their own 24 Hour
Comics are: Joshua
Kemble, Kevin Cross, Neal Skorpen, Mike Getsiv, Tony Morgan, Josh
Fitz and Steven
Abrams. Anyone interested in pledging can reply by e-mail: email@example.com or write to: David Chelsea, 2814 NE 16th Avenue, Portland OR 97212.
Chelsea concludes: “I will contact all sponsors after the event
to let them know how many pages I completed and to send them their
copies.” Checks can be written to the S. Clay Wilson Special
Needs Trust and sent to PO Box 14854 San Francisco CA 94114. More
about all this can be found at sclaywilsontrust.com, the webpage
developed by the cartoonist’s long-time partner, Lorraine
Chamberlain, who says making the webpage was “a daunting task,
as well as subject, it being my first time,” adding: “He’s
doing well, and I hope to bring him home from the hospital soon”
(written March 29).
The New Yorker’s cartoon editor, Robert Mankoff, believes that 98 percent of the magazine's readers look at the cartoons first—“and the other 2 percent lie,” writes Joseph P. Kahn at the Boston Globe. Mankoff also runs the magazine's Cartoon Bank, wrote The Naked Cartoonist: A New Way to Enhance Your Creativity, and created the magazine's caption contest, a feature that draws thousands of submissions each week. Kahn asked Mankoff if he personally wades through the caption contest entries. Not exactly, said Mankoff: “A computer program sorts them out, then my assistant gives me 50 or 60, broken into categories. For example, we ran a cartoon of a car that had crashed into a room where two people are in bed. Categories might include Bad Sex and Kid Coming Home. I'll pick three entries and send them to [editor] David Remnick for approval. I try to pick from different ones, like, ‘I thought our sex life was a train wreck, not a car accident.’ And, ‘Well, at least he made curfew.’ But it's very subjective.”
New Yorker cartoons are highly topical, Mankoff said, reflective of the times, which precipitated this exchange between him and Kahn:
Kahn: What about poking fun at, say, economic Armageddon?
Mankoff: Well, we have a cartoon anthology coming out, On the Money, that looks at issues like the stock market and personal finance since 1925, year by year.
Kahn: If anyone has any money left, it should sell like hotcakes.
Mankoff: Yes, although the hotcakes industry is going down the tubes, too. The United States now outsources all its hotcakes.
Footnit: New Yorker editor David Remnick scoffed at rumors that the magazine is considering cutting back on its publication schedule due to financial trauma. In recent years, The New Yorker’s bottom line has been considerably enhanced by sales from the Cartoon Bank, which, when Mankoff, who invented it, first offered to sell to the magazine, it declined. Later, it thought better of that decision and reversed it.
On April 6, Scott Hilburn's daily panel cartoon, The Argyle Sweater, celebrated its first anniversary with Universal Press Syndicate (UPS). The cartoon first appeared in December 2006 at the UPS-sponsored website for unpublished cartoonists, Comics Sherpa, and then at GoComics, another UPS-inspired website (where fragments of Rancid Raves also appear some weeks after debuting here). Often compared to Gary Larson’s Far Side, Argyle Sweater is now published by more than 200 newspapers across the United States saith a news release from the syndicate. A situational cartoon involving dogs, cats, cops, bees, wolves, game shows, bears, telephones, sports, zebras, nursery-rhyme icons and cavemen not to mention the occasional evil scientist, The Argyle Sweater: A Cartoon Collection, Hilburn's first compilation, was released last month by Andrews McMeel Publishing, another of the many UPS entities.
Editoonist Brian Duffy, who, after 25 years at the Des Moines Register, was unceremoniously dumped by the paper in December 2008, might lose more than his job: the Register has refused to let him have the original art for his cartoons. The paper wants to donate them to the University of Iowa, which, according to a report at kcci.com, plans to preserve more than 100 years of editorial cartoons in the state of Iowa. The irony isn’t lost on Duffy: "The editor felt that I wasn't important enough, or my work wasn't important enough, to keep me at the newspaper, yet she wants to keep my legacy alive by donating all of my work to the University of Iowa.” Duffy, while maintaining that a cartoonist’s work has historically been regarded as the cartoonist’s property, cites a legal-sounding precedent in his case: a book of his cartoons published by the newspaper carries the notice “copyright Brian Duffy and the Des Moines Register, not just the Des Moines Register," said Duffy. "I have no problem donating a large body of work to the University of Iowa. In fact, I'd love to do that." But he wants to do it on his terms not on behalf of the newspaper that shooed him out the door.
A new postage stamp to be unveiled April 9 features Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie from “The Simpsons.” Designed by Simpsons creator, Matt Groening, the new stamp helps celebrate “the longest running primetime comedy’s 20th anniversary year this year” reports Georg Szalai at hollywoodreporter.com. ... One of the broadcast medium’s most venerable soap operas, “Guiding Light,” which began as a 15-minute serial on NBC Radio on January 25, 1937, moving to CBS tv in 1952, will end September 18, saith the Associated Press. ... When “ER” ended April 2, 1,250 trauma-patients had been treated in the fictitious County General in Chicago. The tv production used 180 gallons of fake blood, reported the Minneapolis Star Tribune. ... Dave Itzkoff at nytimes.com reports that Robert Crumb has completed his graphic novel adaptation of the first book in the Bible. Called Robert Crumb’s Book of Genesis, it was four years in the making. Scheduled for release October 19, the volume is “very visual,” said Crumb in The Guardian: “It's lurid. Full of all kinds of crazy, weird things that will really surprise people."
Moore’s books, Watchmen chief
among them, dominated the New York Times Graphic Books Best Seller
List on March 14—Watchmen in first place, The
Killing Joke in third among hardcover books; in paperbacks, Watchmen in first again, V
for Vendetta in fourth. Fantagraphics came in a close second: its fabulous reprint
Kurtzman’s satirical magazine, Humbug, ranked sixth in hardcover, and the 11th volume of the Fantagraphics Peanuts reprint series, 1971-72, stood at tenth.
Under the heading “At Home with the Joker,” the AARP Magazine for March-April ran a full-page article about Jerry Robinson, explaining how he invented the Joker and Batman’s juvenile sidekick, Robin, and going on to report that Robinson, at 87, is “going strong as an artist, writer, curator of exhibitions, and head of a syndicate, Cartoonists & Writers Syndicate/CartoonArts International, distributing more than 350 cartoonists.” Robinson has two books coming soon from Dark Horse: a revision of his 1974 history, The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art, and a compilation of the sf comic strip, Jett Scott (starting September 28, 1953; ending in 1955), that Robinson drew over Sheldon Stark’s scripts. Said Robinson: “To live, I have to create. I have to be involved.” He’s also writing a graphic novel for DC Comics about “an older Clown Price of Crime, who ‘has changed, as any person would,’ says Robinson, laughing, ‘and not necessarily for the better.’ ... when people read about heroes who conquer adversity—crime and evil and, from time to time, the Joker—it gives them some hope for the future,” he concluded. The article is illustrated with mug shots of the Joker (as inspired by Conrad Veidt in “The Man Who Laughs,” Cesar Romero in the 1960s camp tv series, Jack Nicholson in the first Batman movie, and Heath Ledger in the latest) and a photograph of Robinson sharing a coffee break with the grinning gargoyle, which picture we reproduce forthwith.
Of the Top Twenty Heroes listed in Entertainment Weekly’s April 3 issue, 3 were comic book characters: Superman (in third place), Spider-Man (10th) and Batman (18th). Those were editors’ picks. Readers listed Superman and Batman (nos. 1 and 2) in the Top Ten. The same issue also mustered the Top Twenty Villains, and of those, again, three were comics characters: the Joker (4th), Mr. Burns of “The Simpsons” (6th) and Snow White’s Queen (15th); readers, on the other hand, listed the Joker first, then Lex Luthor in 8th position in the Top Ten.
At last report (thanques, John), Sean Delonas is still drawing editorial cartoons at the New York Post so we may conclude that the Sharpton Faction has not, yet, forced Rupert Murdoch to fire his vitriolic penman. ... The latest Previews catalog offers a “Chocolate Booty Babe Vinyl Figure,” an African American femme, the booty of whom is ample in every department. ... The artistic styling of Mike Kunkel’s Captain Marvel ensemble reminds me of Hoppy the Marvel Bunny, another Fawcett creation of the 1940s. ... Marvel comic books have gorgeous covers. ... Following Fantagraphics’ reprinting of all of Harvey Kurtzman’s Humbug magazine, the premiere Kurtzman satire, here comes Dark Horse with a reprinting of the “complete” Trump magazine, Kurtzman’s aborted effort for Playboy that preceded Humbug: a gorgeous magazine production (compared to the shoe-string operation at Humbug), it ran only two issues, so “complete” is much shorter than Humbug’s 11 issues. ... My son, the great radio legend Paul Harvey, died February 28 at the age of 90. His voice resonated on the airwaves since 1951, a monumental achievement. His son quoted his father in his eulogy: “A great tree has fallen. An empty place has opened against the sky.” It was what Paul Harvey said at the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945. ... At newsarama.com, Michael Doan reports that Rob Liefeld's Image Comics series Youngblood has been optioned for a movie by Brett Ratner and the Indian production company Reliance Big Entertainment with a 1012 release date in mind. Ratner will direct.
Down Under, David Rowe, whose forte is topical comedy—caricatures and political cartoons—won the Stanley, the Australian “cartoonist of the year” trophy from the Australian Cartoonists Association, during the group’s annual get-together last November. The USA’s Jim Borgman, retired editoonist and still the rendering half of Zits, which he produces with Jerry Scott, was a special guest. The pertinent issue of the ACA’s magazine, Inkspot, also remembered the work of the late William Ellis Green (WEG), a cartooninginstitution in the country who made headlines in 2006 by caricaturing a robber who Green saw trying to pinch the cartoonist’s bicycle; the likeness amazed the local constabulary (“The sketch only took him three or four seconds,” perhaps a slight exaggeration) and led within 30 minutes to the arrest of the culprit. WEB’s drawing appears just about here in the $ubscriber/Associate section.
“Monsters vs. Aliens,” the harbringer of the forthcoming flood of 3-D animations this spring, ranked first in box office receipts, $58.2 million, on its opening weekend, compared to “Watchmen’s” mediocre opening at $55 million. According to the Associated Press, “the 2,080 3-D screens accounted for just 28 percent of the roughly 7,300 screens on which the movie played, but they made up 56 percent of its total box-office haul,” quoting DreamWorks Animation. DreamWorks honcho, Jeffrey Katzenberg, believes the future is in 3-D—in fact, the salvation of animated films if not motion pictures in general. And he’s putting his money where his belief resides: all of DreamWorks future animated films will be shot in 3-D—even Steven Spielberg is joining the club, shooting a 3-D version of his Tintin movie—and the race is on to provide movie theaters with 3-D capabilities at a cost of $25,000/screen. Katzenberg, quoted in Entertainment Weekly (March 27), said: “In order to bring people back to the movie theaters, we’ve got to do something exceptional—we have to raise the bar,” extolling the strategy behind the 3-D surge.
to the “People in the News” department of the online
feature InfoPlease, “In May 1922, Rudolph
creator of the comic strip The
Captain and the Kids (once, before World War I made anything Germanic verboten, called The
Katzenjammer Kids) was replaced as cartoonist for the strip by a young understudy, Bernard
after United Feature Syndicate acquired the syndicate contracts of
York World.” You can also find Comics Timeline in the vicinity; it lays out the
history of comics, year by year. This chronological history contains
at least one possible error, however: The
Katzenjammer Kids may not, at first, have been about two mischievous boys; it may have
been about three mischievous boys. You can see an acceptable but not
very clear reproduction of the very first Katzies strip, December 12, 1897, at
geocities.com/~jimlowe/katzies/1897.html, and it’s obvious that
the kids number three, not two. “Only two remain from the
second episode forward,” curator Jim
but he adds that he isn’t sold on the trio notion: “To
me, however, it is just as likely that the third ‘kid’ is
a playmate” not the third Katzie. Take a look and decide for
Here’s the Pat Oliphant March 25 cartoon that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) calls "hideously anti-Semitic" because of its use of Nazi-like imagery and evocation of the Jewish Star of David. Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director, issued the following statement: “Pat Oliphant's outlandish and offensive use of the Star of David in combination with Nazi-like imagery is hideously anti-Semitic. It employs Nazi imagery by portraying Israel as a jack-booted, goose-stepping headless apparition. The implication is of an Israeli policy without a head or a heart. Israel's defensive military operation to protect the lives of its men, women and children who are being continuously bombarded by Hamas rocket attacks has been turned on its head to show the victims as heartless, headless aggressors.”
We don’t want to support anti-Semitism here at Rancid Raves, but this cartoon, an obvious comment on Israel’s invasion of Gaza (represented by the tiny female figure at the lower right), is in the usual Oliphant no-holds-barred mode. An equal-opportunity offender, the cartoonist has also castigated the Catholic church by depicting priests as ravening pedophiles. Naturally, the Catholic church was offended, but that does not mean Oliphant should stop drawing cartoons that are sufficiently offensive to inspire discussion and, even—perhaps—thought. The Gaza-invasion cartoon is clearly in the same league as the pedophile cartoon. Whether Israel was justified in its assault on Gaza is not the issue in the cartoon, which, like all editoons, can memorably depict only one side of a controversy at a time. The purpose is not to explain or to weigh pros and cons: the purpose is to provoke viewers into pondering an issue. That Foxman objects to the cartoon is not surprising: he has been known to imply strenuously that any criticism of Israel is essentially anti-Semitic. That may be true some of the time, but to invoke the spectre of anti-Semitism any time Israeli policies are criticized is to shut down all thoughtful consideration of the issues. Not a good idea.
Often when the ADL launches one of its tirades, various elements of the populace start muttering about that supposedly sinister force, “the Israel lobby,” or “the Jewish lobby.” This issue came up again recently when President Obama’s poorly vetted choice to head the National Intelligence Council, Charles Freeman, withdrew from consideration, saying that he had been destroyed by the Israel lobby because he believes the chief obstacle to peace in the Middle East is “Israeli violence against Palestinians,” as reported in The Week for March 27. The magazine goes on to paraphrase and quote Andrew Sullivan’s piece at TheAtlantic.com: The charge by Freeman and his defenders of a “conspiracy” involving supporters of Israel is simply absurd as is any implication that the pro-Israel lobby is somehow “more nefarious than, say, the Cuba lobby, or many other lobbies.” At the same time, the notion that anyone who expresses sympathy for Palestinians or who wants a more evenhanded Mideast policy is anti-Semitic or “hostile to Israel” strikes me as equally wrongheaded. “The two paranoid generalizations, of course, feed on each other. That cycle needs to be broken. There is too much at stake for this debate to be about us.”
Fascinating Footnit. Much of the news retailed in the foregoing segment (and some of the material in the ensuing paragraphs) 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.
THE P-I TAKES THE PLUNGE: PRINT VERSION CRASHES
But Its Pulitzer-winning Editoonist Survives
Hearst’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer, one of the nation’s oldest continuously published newspapers, issued its last print edition on March 17 and and began focusing its new, low-budget resources on a website version, taking only about 20 of the paper’s 175 staffers with it. David Horsey, the P-I’s two-time Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist is not one of the lucky twenty. His is a different kind of luck: Horsey is employed by Hearst, not the P-I, and his cartoons will continue to appear online as a service to the 15 other newspapers in the chain.
Seattle is the second major American city this year to lose one of its two daily newspapers: Denver lost the Scripps-owned Rocky Mountain News last month just 55 days sort of the paper’s 150th birthday (see Opus 239). While the News may have considered continuing as a digital paper, it ultimately gave up any such notion. But not its staff: about 30 crazed Rocky staffers have announced their intention to continue the feisty journalism of the Rocky online if they can get 50,000 of the paper’s passionately loyal readers to pay a subscription fee, making a commitment by April 23 (the Rocky’s 150th anniversary date). The next major daily newspaper to go under is likely to be another Hearst paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, which Hearst has vowed to shutter if its costs can’t be drastically reduced. If the Chronicle goes, San Francisco will become the first American metropolitan area to be without a daily newspaper. The San Francisco Examiner on which young W.R. Hearst cut his journalistic teeth in the late 1890s still exists, but it is no longer a Hearst property; Hearst’s descendants sold it in order to avoid anti-trust regulations when they acquired the Chronicle, but the storied Examiner is now a free tabloid published just five days a week, a shabby remnant of itself, scarcely the sort of paper a big city deserves.
Mike Simonton, a senior director at Fitch Ratings which analyzes the industry, told Richard Perez-Pena at the New York Times that “in 2009 and 2010, all the two-newspaper markets [in the U.S.] will become one-newspaper markets, and you will start to see one-newspaper markets become no-newspaper markets.”
The next two-paper city to become a one-paper town is likely to be Tucson where the Gannett-owned Citizen is expected to fold momentarily. On March 9, Douglas A. McIntyre at Time.com reported that 24/7 Wall Street had created a list of ten additional major dailies, including the San Francisco Chronicle, that are likely to shut down within months due to soaring costs and evaporating revenues. Six are the weaker of two newspapers in town. The Philadelphia News, the smaller of the two papers owned by Philadelphia News LLC, will likely leave the market to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the other paper owned by PN. The Minneapolis Start Tribune, which has filed for Chapter 11, may become a digital publication “as supporting a daily circulation of more than 300,000 is too much of a burden” (an interesting observation; see below); the St. Paul Pioneer Press will survive. Gannett’s Free Press in Detroit will probably survive; the Detroit News will die off, despite the recent financial adjustments made by both papers to discontinue home delivery four days a week. In Chicago, the Sun-Times, founded in the early 1940s by millionaire playboy Marshall Field II to provide a truth-telling alternative to the Chicago Tribune, is likely on its last legs. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram will succumb soon, leaving the market to the Dallas Morning News (or becoming the Fort Worth edition of the News). And the Cleveland Plain Dealer will leave its market without a major daily by the end of the year.
In addition, the Boston Globe, owned by the financially strapped New York Times, will probably go digital by the end of the year, and the New York Daily News, America’s first successful tabloid newspaper, will probably exhaust its billionaire owner’s ability to support its loses, leaving the city to the Times, the Post, Newsday and, perhaps, if Advance Publications doesn’t fold the paper, Newark’s Star-Ledger. Finally, the Miami Herald, suffering a tremendous loss of revenue due to the decline in real estate advertising, will probably retreat to the electronic ether with two editions, one for English-language and in Spanish, leaving the city without a print newspaper.
At the risk of displaying my prevailing cynicism, I can’t help but notice the number of these doomed newspapers that are links in various chains. It would seem (no surprise) that corporations that own chains of newspapers are not much interested in journalism: their over-riding concern is with the publications as “profit centers,” and when a paper ceases to produce a profit, the corporation is fairly prompt these days in shutting it down. Or so it seems.
Despite all the bad news, Editor & Publisher, the industry’s trade journal (which has also suffered in the current economic climate, cutting back staff and going from weekly print publication to monthly, supplemented by “breaking news” reportage online), doesn’t think print journalism is finished. The editorial in the current issue (March) sees the financial woes of newspapers as essentially “self-inflicted wounds” rather than fundamental problems with the medium. “Bankruptcy filings ... are being seen as signs of the Apocalypse, but the newspaper industry needs to get a grip. One factor unites all these mendicants—crushing debt, taken on for ventures that now appear as ill-considered as doubling-down on subprime mortgage securitization.” In Denver, for instance, the Denver News Agency, which handled the business side of the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News operations, invested millions in modernizing a printing plant. That may have made a kind of sense: better production seemed likely to provide a way of competing with the Web. But it left the company with a debt that the revenues from operations could not handily make payments on. Ditto in numerous other newspaper venues where newspapers made the present hostage to the future.
Disappearing newspapers often means disappearing editorial cartoonists. The staff positions of 7 editoonists are threatened by the looming collapse of the papers listed above: Signe Wilkinson, a Pulitzer-winner at the Philadelphia News; Steve Sack in Minneapolis; Mike Thompson in Detroit; Jack Higgins at the Sun-Times in Chicago; Jeff Darcy in Cleveland; Dan Wasserman at the Boston Globe; Jim Morin in Miami. The collapse of newspapers in big cities also bodes ill for syndicated comics: the greater circulations of metropolitan dailies translate into higher fees for syndicated material, and with the collapse of a major daily newspaper carrying comic strips (and all these do except the New York Times), the incomes of syndicated cartoonists carried in those newspapers drops. Not disastrously—like the loss of employment—but significantly.
End of the P-I
The end of the print edition of the Post-Intelligencer does not, according to publisher Roger Olglesby, signal “the end of the bloodline” which began August 15, 1863, when an itinerant printer, James R. Watson, published the first issue of his weekly Seattle Gazette on a hand-cranked wooden press he brought with him from Olympia. Seattle at the time was a frontier town of only a few hundred souls, mostly lumberjacks who made a living chopping down tress on the hillsides overlooking Elliot Bay and then sliding the logs down the slope to the water’s edge, creating the street known there and elsewhere as “skid row.” Watson sold his paper to Samuel Maxwell, who renamed it the Weekly Intelligencer because, according to legend, his limited stock of type didn’t include enough of the letter Z (or some such mythology). The paper went daily in 1876 and five years later bought the Seattle Post, becoming the P-I.
Online the P-I will continue as what they’re calling a “community platform” that will feature breaking news (mostly local but also taken off national wire services), columns by prominent Seattle residents, community databases, photo galleries, 150 citizen bloggers (who have already debuted over the past months on the P-I’s website), and links to other journalistic outlets. “Our strategy moving forward is to experiment a lot and fail fast,” said executive producer Michelle Nicolosi. “That’s how we’ve been operating the website for years, and it’s been a very effective formula for growth.”
But with all those “citizen bloggers,” how professionally will the news be conveyed? “We don’t have reporters, editors or producers,” Nicolosi said, “—everyone will do and be everything ... write, edit, take photos and shoot video, produce multimedia and curate the home page.” She says they’ll focus “on what readers are telling us they want ... We know what we do best, and we are going to build on the things that we know our readers love and look to find new ways to inform and entertain them.” The online enterprise will also have Dave Horsey, Nicolosi made a point of saying, “—our two-time Pulitzer winning cartoonist who will continue to create his brilliant cartoons and blog for us at DavidHorsey.com,” that being Horsey’s Hearst URL.
“I'm in an unusual situation, unlike Ed Stein, whose job ended [when Denver's Rocky Mountain News closed],” Horsey told Mike Cavna at the latter’s Washington Post blog, ComicRiffs. “For the last few years, I've been employed directly by Hearst Newspapers instead of the Seattle P-I. It looks like I will be providing my work to all of the Hearst newspapers, though I'll be based here at the [P-I] Web site. Hearst has 15 daily newspapers [at present, counting the San Francisco Chronicle]. My work will primarily go to Web sites and will be available for print versions. ... One fortunate thing for me is that Hearst had this idea to create channels within the Web site, and that pulled me out of the editorial page and created DavidHorsey.com. And I've been doing a lot more writing as well as cartoons. That created me as a separate entity that can be plugged into any Web site. I'm not sure logistically how that will happen now—I think I'll be linked to [the Hearst newspapers in] Houston, Albany, Laredo, San Francisco. I think Hearst finally decided that it's time to [push] online newspapers. ... I've been quite fortunate and the timing has been right. Part of it goes back to my first job as a reporter— now it's the other way around. [Writing columns] has helped me expand online. They're looking at me as a ‘multimedia commentator’ rather than as ‘just’ a cartoonist.”
Horsey has been at the Post-Intelligencer almost since he graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle. “I feel like I've been very lucky,” Horsey said. “I didn't plan to be a cartoonist, and ... neither the [Seattle] Times [the other paper in town] nor the P-I had had an editorial cartoonist for decades. I graduated in journalism and went to work for a new suburban daily [Bellevue Journal-American] ... where I was doing a weekly column and illustrating it with cartoons. I ended up getting that syndicated around the state. Then through great chance—or the greater purpose of the universe—the man who was my professional adviser for my student newspaper ... became managing editor [of the P-I] and he didn't know anybody else in cartooning. Looking back, I realize how incredibly lucky I was. The Times had Brian Basset, and Mike Luckovich was at the University [of Washington] just a couple of years after I was [and couldn't get hired in the area]. It wasn't till later I realized that it all worked out pretty well for me.
“The other plus,” he continued, “was because I ended up being at the right paper. All my editors have been supportive. The Seattle Times has gone through three cartoonists [Basset, Chris Britt and Eric Devericks] in the time I've been here. I always figured that I was one new editor away from unemployment. Clay Bennett is a great example [of a talented cartoonist who was ousted]. KAL [Kevin Kallaugher] in Baltimore [at the Sun] is another prime example of that. I had that sense that things can go askew at any time. I've been attuned to the politics of the paper, and Hearst in general. I decided I needed to get to know the president of Hearst Newspapers. It helps. Two Pulitzers also helps. I recommend that to anyone.”
When Cavna supposed that concentrating on local politics and community issues works as a strategy to stay on staff, Horsey disagreed. “Look at Lee Judge [who was laid off in 2008 by the Kansas City Star]. He was the ultimate local cartoonist and he's out of a job. I'm skeptical of the ‘go local’ approach to cartooning to preserve your job. The biggest response I got [last year] was to Obama and McCain cartoons. ... [Local cartoons] are worth doing, but not because it'll save a job. Ultimately, if they want to fire you, they will. It's the economic reality.”
He feels Hearst handled the P-I situation as well as could be expected: “I don't know how you can handle laying off people and closing a paper well. By definition, it's a cruel thing. ... But they've been very straight. They've handled it in a very businesslike way. It's an understandable step. Invariably, it messes up a lot of people's lives.” Later, he added at an online List: “Calling what¹s happening to newspapers a ‘downsizing’ is like calling amputation a diet plan.” And the fate of his cartooning brethren is similarly disturbing: “The non-stop bad news about our cartooning colleagues is like being slapped in the back of the head by a baseball bat every time I open an e-mail.” Five blows from the bat landed in March: Bill Garner, Robert Ariail, Bill Day, Gary Brookins, and Tom Myer; see below, where the demolition of the profession continues, unabated.
Farewell to the P-I
The print P-I is ending, but the world still turns—the “world,” in this case, being the 18.5-ton, 30-foot neon globe atop the P-I building on Elliott Avenue overlooking the bay. An icon for the paper and a landmark for the city, the globe, straight out of the Daily Planet in Superman comics, was designed by a Washington University art student in 1948, the result of a contest the P-I conducted, asking readers to suggest a symbol for the paper. The globe revolves, repeatedly displaying the motto emblazoned around its equator in red letters five feet high—“It’s in the P-I”—floating against the glowing green continents and blue oceans, capped by a majestic eagle, its wings raised as if about to take flight. A color photograph of the icon filled the front page of the paper’s last print edition with the caption: “You’ve meant the world to us.” Inside, in Horsey’s fanciful cartoon for last P-I in print, the eagle has left its perch. But in reality, the spinning globe and its eagle remain in place, now symbolizing the new online enterprise.
Editorial cartoonist Steve Greenberg, who spent fourteen years at the P-I, doesn’t have high hopes for the paper’s digital fate. “I have seen the future of newspapers,” he said, “and it is to be understaffed, with diminishing salaries, financially iffy, and hoping that a hoard of ‘citizen journalists’ can make up for the lack of truly professional ones. Hard (and expensive) investigative reporting will yield to the endless chatter of opinionated blogging, and elected public officials will merely be annoyed instead of truly being held to the fire. Ultimately, the public will be the loser. And the Seattle public might not even have the Seattle Times, which is bleeding money, scarcely hanging on itself and might not even survive despite being handed a monopoly in town.”
The P-I was Greenberg’s second newspaper. He came to Seattle from the Los Angeles Daily News in August 1985 to sit in for Horsey, who was going to England on sabbatical for a year. Writing in his blog at blog.cagle.com, Greenberg recalled his time at the P-I: “The Seattle Times was richer, more elite, centrist-to-conservative, and smugly superior, selling far better in the well-to-do suburbs. The P-I was looser, more liberal, more blue collar, less-esteemed but generally a match for the Times in quality, and had the feel of being the more historic ‘voice of the Northwest.’ It was also a great place to be an editorial cartoonist, but vastly more so if your name was ‘David Horsey.’ Long before he won the first of his two Pulitzers, he was a local-boy-made-good, held in more esteem by the local population than virtually any other editorial cartoonist working, with perhaps the exception of Mike Luckovich (or, in an earlier generation, Hugh Haynie). He’d made his reputation at the University of Washington Daily, where his strong draftsmanship and frequent inclusion of sexy babes in his drawings won him a following that never left him. At the P-I, he was treated as one of their top few superstars, and was wooed by rival newspapers trying to lure him away.
“I arrived blissfully unaware of his local stature,” Greenberg continued. “I had a pretty good year, and started to make my own name in town—until he returned to reclaim his spotlight. I remained as a combination staff artist and secondary cartoonist—mostly to learn the more-employable graphics skills, and because of relationships—and did many of the best cartoons of my career, but from a point of remarkable relative obscurity from that point on.”
When I met Steve, interviewing him in 1998 for the fabled Cartoonist PROfiles, he and Horsey worked at opposite ends of the same room, the “art department.” Horsey, whom I also interviewed then, had not yet won his first Pulitzer; he seemed the younger of the two, a cheerful strawberry blonde with matching beard, his eyes always a-twinkle, the smile on his face often broadening to a wide grin. He seemed carefree and eager then—and every time I’ve seen him since. Steve, with thick dark curly hair and beard and sleepy eyes that seemed guarded and thoughtful, appeared the more serious cartoonist, somber and pensive. I didn’t know, then, that Horsey was the paper’s fair-haired boy, but I remember his work station was next to a window, and Steve worked in a corner away from the daylight. I sensed no particular rivalry between the two while I was there, and it doubtless existed in some fashion. Greenberg, writing about his time at the P-I, conveys some inkling of it but without a single blot of animosity:
“It was difficult working in the shadow of a coworker clearly favored by the management (and there were many components to that),” Greenberg said. “But at the same time, it was exciting working for a pretty good, scrappy, feisty metro newspaper, and I was given excellent editorial freedom in my cartooning—perhaps an advantage of being somewhat invisible to the editors hurriedly green-lighting my sketches as they pressed me not to take up any more of their precious time. I made a decent salary (thank you, Newspaper Guild), won several awards, and got to live in a beautiful, colorful, literate city, even if it rained half the days of the year and was overcast most of the rest. My situation was fairly secure (thank you again, Newspaper Guild) although I’m sure they would’ve preferred not having a second cartoonist, and I hung on for years for lack of another staff cartooning job to jump to, until I finally left for my native California in early 2000.
“But the awkwardness of my personal status there doesn’t diminish my appreciation for the P-I,” Steve continued, “and it’s nothing but tragic to see it closing its doors. It did some very good investigative reporting. It had a lot of local color. It had a full stable of arts reviewers and some sharp political commentators. It kept the Seattle Times from choking on its constant air of superiority. And it supported some damn good editorial cartooning.”
At his blog, Greenberg deploys a self-deprecating sense of humor in reviewing his checkered past—“checkered” meaning, not black and white, but jumping from one thing to another, in this case, a succession of newspapers. “I’m beginning to take this seriously,” he wrote, “I’ve been on six daily newspapers and on every one of them disaster has befallen or would soon fall upon their cartoonists and artists.” He runs through the series, beginning with the Daily News in Los Angeles, then the P-I, then the San Francisco Examiner (where he was the last cartoonist to draw editoons), San Francisco Chronicle (where the editorial cartoonist position deteriorated into news art), Marin Independent Journal (where he was the news artist with benefits to do an editorial cartoon; after he left for his native Southern California, the so-called “art department” evaporated), and the Ventura County Star (where he took the place of a three-person art department and also did editorial cartoons only to have the job eliminated last year in a cost-reduction purge). “I’m kind of feeling like the Joe Btfsplk character in Al Capp’s old Lil Abner strip,” Greenberg concluded, “—the guy who walked around with a perpetual dark raincloud over his head, bringing misfortune wherever he went. I’m not saying I’m bad luck. But perhaps if you have a grudge against some company in the greater Los Angeles area [where Steve now lives] and wish it ill—well, see if you can get me a job there.”
THE DEMOLITION DERBY CONTINUES. Five more full-time staff editorial cartoonists lost their positions in the past month. Bill Garner at the Washington Times in D.C., Robert Ariail at The State in Columbia, South Carolina, Bill Day at the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, and Gary Brookins at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and, just a few hours ago, Alan Gardner at the DailyCartoonist.com reported that Tom Meyer has taken a buy-out from the doomed San Francisco Chronicle, probably a good move on his part, assuming Hearst can make the payment despite shuttering two papers (if, as everyone predicts, the Chronicle will soon join the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in the newspaper graveyard). Editor & Publisher subsequently reported that in a column published April 6, editorial page editor John Diaz wrote: "Tom's departure will deprive me of one of my favorite moments of the day: When he would bring in three or four rough sketches of editorial cartoons. I'll also miss his insights—and, often, levity—at our weekly planning meetings. Tom is every bit as quick-witted in the office as his cartoons are on the page. However, I am happy to report that Tom does have plans to freelance or syndicate his work—and, once he does, we will be among his customers." Meyer had been with the paper since 1981, about 28 years.
Garner, who has been the staff editorial cartoonist at the Washington Times for 20 years, lost his job there in mid-February. Garner had little indication that his job was on the line. The management brought in "professional headhunters" to analyze the paper’s situation, Garner told fellow editoonist Rob Tornoe: they took note of existing systems and personnel, and figured out what they could do to improve the paper for the future. Back in August, for instance, the decision was made to outsource the Times printing to the Baltimore Sun, saving the millions of dollars it would have taken to maintain their outdated presses. The whole time the headhunters were lurking about, Garner said, “ I was being told, ‘Hey Bill, keep up the great work Bill, good stuff Bill,’" Garner said. “Then they told me that my job was being eliminated, and that I had a week before I got my walking papers."
Garner says the paper’s model now is the Wall Street Journal which doesn’t use editorial cartoons on their opinion pages. Garner hopes to find new outlets for his cartoons, and he sent samples to Creators Syndicate. Meanwhile, he’s devoting time to painting and just taking one step at a time. Said he: “I understand completely, and there are no bad feeling about the situation because it's a business, that's the way it goes. You've just got to roll with the punches." Still, we can detect a little resentment in his remarks about the way the paper treated him: "They were talking hot air up my ass for months when they knew all along they were going to be shoving me through the door.”
Ariail quit, effective Thursday, March 19, after turning down a part-time version of his job that he was offered in the midst of cost-cutting measures taken by the paper’s owner, the McClatchy Company, which cut wages 2.5 - 10 percent and, reported The State’s Chuck Crumbo, laid off 38 staff (including Ariail’s boss, editorial page editor Brad Warthen). Ariail has been at the paper for 24 years, and at 53, he hopes to find another job drawing editorial cartoons. He’s syndicated by United Media, but as Bill Day remarked, “Syndication pays a pittance.”
Day, who is 61, was devastated by his firing. Interviewed by Michael Cavna at ComicRiffs within hours of getting the bad news, Day said: “They dumped me with not even a farewell cartoon. I had to turn in my ID card. ... My last day is the 27th, but my real last day is now (March 19). ... It was a terrible shock. I don't know what I'm going to do. I've got a family to support and my 401(k) is shot and I might lose my house. I'm a total wreck right now. I'm at a total loss of even what to think. ... I've been in political cartooning my whole life. ... I don't know what I'm gonna do. The only thing that keeps running through my mind is how terrible this is, at this juncture in history. America just elected a black man as president and already the forces of reaction are trying to destroy [his administration]. I'm not going to be on board to fight the bigots—these forces of reaction that are trying to destroy him.”
A liberal-minded guy in “the Deep South,” Day said: “You wouldn't believe the stuff that I get through the transom—the bigotry. I'm a lightning rod. ... These people are just wicked when it comes to politics—you're talking about the ultimate Rush Limbaugh people. I won't be on staff to fight it.” And fighting is what he’s been allowed to do; Day had only praise for his editor, Otis Sanford: “He's given me total freedom. It's the only time in my career I've had this much [freedom]. He has not censored me, and he's taken the heat. He's an African American editor and he knows what I'm about in the South and he's let me do what I had to do in the South. I can't tell you how great that is.”
Like many editorial cartoonists, Day is baffled by the tsunami of firings of his brethren.
“I don't understand why, when you're going to a visual medium [online], why you want to get rid of cartoonists. It's made for cartoonists. ... We're like the Jimminy Cricket of the newspaper. We're the conscience."
Brookins is reportedly among the 59 employees terminated at the Times-Dispatch on April 2; in addition to his editooning gig at the paper, he produces the panel cartoon, Pluggers, and draws the comic strip Shoe, both jobs he inherited when Jeff MacNelly died in 2000.
Steve Greenberg, writing in his blog at blog.cagle.com, expressed a common criticism of newspaper management. Commenting on the firing of Bill Garner at the Washington Times, Greenberg said: “Cutting the best visual people as a strategy to survive in an increasingly visual age is already idiotic, but this situation [at the Washington Times] has a couple additional twists. First, the entire editorial page staff of a dozen people was forced to reapply for their own jobs. This loathsome practice has been used in places such as the Oakland Tribune and the Long Beach Press Telegram as a tool to bust unions, throw out seniority, and humiliate workers by rehiring them, often at drastically reduced salaries. But the real pretzel logic here is in the words of the Times’ associate publisher and general manager Richard Amberg, who stated the Times wanted to use less syndicated material and more of its own content: “We want fresh content, timely content, lively content,” he said. “Things (syndicates) offer appear on the Web before they are syndicated.
“So what does he do?” Greenberg asks sarcastically: “He cuts the cartoonist—some of that fresh content he says he values—meaning they’ll no doubt run syndicated cartoons instead —some of that not-fresh, not-unique content he seems to dislike—in direct contradiction of his supposed goals. Unbelievable. And to lose such an important voice [Garner’s], one that’s been there since 1983, in a paper that’s trying to offer the alternative view to the Washington Post, is sad … and stupid. Publishers across the country have whacked about 20 staff editorial cartoonist positions in the past year. These all provided fresh, unique content to their newspapers, and were pretty much all replaced by the not-unique content of syndicated cartoons. The less unique content a paper has to offer, the less grip they have on existing readers, who may migrate to reading news online—costing subscriptions, which cuts newspaper revenues, which accelerates the downward spiral. And on it goes.”
Ted Rall, the current president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) and a syndicated columnist as well as a editorial cartoonist and caustic gadfly, lately devoted an entire column to the idiocy of the current practice of firing editorial cartoonists; excerpts: “We Americans live in a golden age of editorial cartooning. Never has the profession been as ideologically, stylistically or demographically diverse. Never has the art been as daring or ambitious. Never have cartoons been as popular or, thanks to the Internet, as widely read. Yet American editorial cartooning is in danger of disappearing entirely—murdered by editors and publishers at the major magazines and newspapers. An editorial cartoon is like nothing else in a newspaper. Editorial cartoonists don't need any special degrees. Unlike reporters and editorial writers, they don't even have to pretend to be ‘fair.’ Moderation in what Jules Feiffer called "the art of ill will" is the ultimate vice: boring. A great political cartoon can do things no news article or editorial can. It can expose hypocrisies and ideological contradictions with the stroke of a pen and the flash of an eye. It can connect seemingly unrelated events to point out a theretofore unnoticed trend. At its best, an editorial cartoon can prompt readers to rethink society's basic assumptions. ... Editors of the big daily papers and the newsweekly magazines know what makes a good cartoon: they post them on their walls and in their cubicles. What they run in their publications, on the other hand, is what we cartoonists constantly refer to as the worst of the worst: dull clichés, hackneyed metaphors, idiotic gags about the news reminiscent of Jay Leno's middle of the road comedy style. They're safe. They don't anger readers. But they don't matter.”
Editors who opt for safety rather than disruption are signing death warrants, Rall insists. “Newspapers are under financial stress,” he acknowledges. “But they won't survive by selling a diet of bland and boring to consumers who have more information options than ever before. Refusing to embrace what was cool and relevant in the '70s set the stage for the death of music radio in the '80s and '90s—supplanted by news talk and satellite. Whether it's cartoons or music reviews or political analysis, playing it safe is suicide.” (Read the whole screed at uexpress.com/tedrall/?uc_full_date=20090304 ; or go to rall.com and look around.)
At the ComicsReporter, Tom Spurgeon takes exception to Rall’s effort. “I'll repeat what I said after the last one of these jeremiads: it isn't good enough. The decline of staffed editorial cartooning positions is beyond the point where a bunch of strong assertions cleverly made and presented with passion will convince newspapers that what they're doing isn't necessary. I don't see anything here that would convince me as a newspaper editor that I wouldn't be better off simply picking up a syndicated Ted Rall cartoon or taking my staff cartoonist investment and hiring a video blogger. Once again, I challenge Ted Rall and the AAEC to come up with five models of newspaper-cartoonist relationships that work for those newspapers, specific examples and detailed reasons why they work, and how newspapers can develop that within their own publications. Having not one but two skilled cartoonists sure didn't save the Rocky Mountain News. Fair or not, that's the tenor of the conversation right now.”
Spurgeon has a point, a good one. Unhappily, pronouncements like Rall’s produced as institutional statements are reluctant to single out individuals for the kind of praise inherent in proclaiming “newspaper-cartoonist relationships that work.” I’m not in deep enough to speak with broad authority, but I can think of a few such instances. The classic irrefutable instance was Herblock at the Washington Post—and today, his successor, Tom Toles. Both were/are powerful voices that lent stature to their newspaper. And Ann Telnaes with her animations on the Washington Post’s website is another instance of a cartoonist making a difference for a newspaper. At least, the Post thinks so: after trying her brand of cartooning online for a few months, they increased the number of animations to three a week, and Telnaes is now making a living wage. Spurgeon is right about Rall’s screed: the cry of anguish, however carefully couched in reasonable albeit forceful argument, will not, itself, save editorial cartooning. But Spurgeon’s expecting editorial cartoonists (like Ed Stein and Drew Litton at the Rocky Mountain News) to save their papers—to rescue them from the bad financial decisions made by management—is going too far. Spurgeon has lofted a faux weather balloon with this expectation.
The departures of Garner, Ariail, Day, Brookins and Meyer—plus the almost simultaneous death on February 13 of “Corky” Trinidad at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin (see “We’re All Brothers” below), who has not yet been replaced—the total number of full-time staff editoonists at the nation’s newspapers has been reduced to 78; it was 101 last May. The victims in two earlier firings this year, Lee Judge and Dwane Powell, have worked out freelance arrangements with their previous employers, the Kansas City Star and the Raleigh News and Observer, accepting remuneration that is considerably less than the salaries they once earned—circumstances similar, I’d guess, to that which was offered to Ariail.
Judge, incidentally, was just named as this year’s winner of the John Fischetti award for excellence in editorial cartooning. The winning cartoon shows a soldier’s helmet perched on a rifle with the caption “Price of Gas.” Said Judge: “The timing is wonderful. My job has recently become part-time and to win a prestigious, national award like this gives encouragement not only to me, but to the people who fought to keep my cartoons in the paper. Editorial cartooning is struggling to survive, not because it lacks popularity, but because it’s often not deemed absolutely crucial. I strongly disagree. If we’re in a battle for readers, why get rid of the one person on a staff best equipped to compete with television and internet?”
How about the Alternate Press?
Alt-weekly comics are faring even worse than their editoonery cousins in mainstream dailies. Village Voice Media, which owns 15 weeklies including the venerable Village Voice, stopped publishing syndicated comics in early February. Creative Loafing, which owns five weeklies, did the same. All for the sake of bottom lines.
Dan Perkins, aka Tom Tomorrow, who produces This Modern World, lost 11 outlets. “I wasn’t so naive as to imagine I was going to get through this economic mess without taking some hits,” Perkins wrote on his blog recently, “but it’s a serious chunk of major cities to lose in one fell swoop.” He encouraged his readers to complain to their local papers, adding: “Keep in mind: it’s not just my cartoon—it’s all of them.”
At his blog, Mike Cannon of Red Meat wrote: “It’s a sad state of affairs, and potentially the end of an industry—if you want to call it that—where a small handful of ragtag scribblers like me have slaved for many years (for very little money, if you ever wondered) to bring you a laugh or two every week. Times are tough,” he conceded, “but if the humble $10 to $20 that I generally get paid for a Red Meat strip is going to bring the whole operation tumbling down, then the alt-weekly industry is already dead on its feet.”
The Chicago Reader had been paying Lynda Barry $80/week for her Ernie Pook strip, and when the Reader’s owner, Creative Loafing, filed for bankruptcy protection last fall, she decided to quit altogether. She was in only 4 papers when Creative Loafing bought the Reader the year before.
Matt Groening’s Life in Hell is still in about 40-50 papers, mostly on college campuses, but that’s only a quarter of what its circulation once was, reported Michael Miner in the Chicago Reader February 12 (my source for most of this piece). Because of the success of Groening’s tv creation, “The Simpsons,” money isn’t an issue with him. “I like sitting down once a week and knocking something out all by myself,” he told Miner. “The rest of my life is full of collaborators. ... It’s very difficult,” he continued, “when you’re sitting there trying to come up with a punchline and you call up Lynda Barry and say, ‘Do you have any ideas?’ and she says, ‘Yes, quit.’”
Groening and Barry have been friends since college. “I know Matt’s conflicted about this and what he’s going to do,” Barry said to Miner. “Like everyone else, he’s in fewer and fewer papers. But he really does not want to give up his strip. He doesn’t want to quit. But quitting is lovely. I love to taunt him about how magical it is not to have a weekly deadline after 30 years.”
After the last paper kicks him out, Groening supposes that he’ll continue Life in Hell in books or online, but he’s in a unique situation: he doesn’t need the money from the strip. Most alt-weekly cartoonists have websites, but as Cannon said in his blog, “None of us make our living from our websites. Let me repeat that: We don’t make a living from our websites.”
MORE ABOUT THE JUNGLE
Last fall when Dynamite Entertainment’s Jungle Girl Season 2 was poised to hit the newsstands, my friend Frank Cho, who seems to have co-created (with Doug Murray) the scantily clad jungle princess, was interviewed about the book by Kiel Phegley at comicbook resources.com. We reviewed the first issue of the new series in Opus 237 a few weeks ago, and my guesswork therein about who did what would have been eliminated entirely had I unearthed this interview at the time I reviewed the book. The story, as you’ll doubtless vividly recall, takes place on an island “straight out of ‘King Kong’” where a misplaced band of astronauts crashed and was stranded, only to be rescued from the giant beasties of the jungle by Jana the statuesque and barely clad Jungle Girl. Cho said he was influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Arthur Conan Doyle, who concocted adventures that took place in “lost cities” or “lost worlds.” Said Cho: “ The original 'King Kong' movies by [animator Willis] O'Brian and Ray Harryhausen were a tremendous influence that inspired me to co-create 'Jungle Girl.' Doug and I have had fun in creating different tribes. We are just trying to make this island a complete civilization. We're trying to make it as—I'm not sure if realistic is the right word, but we're trying to make it as exciting as possible with different factions on different parts of the island."
Cho draws the book’s covers, and Adriano Batista does the interior pages. "In the first series, I did a lot of the design work,” Cho said. “Adriano sent me thumbnails of the first issue, and he tried to, I guess, draw what he thought I would like instead of following the story. So there was a lot of really beautiful pin-ups and stuff, but I did my own thumbnails of a large portion of the first issue and sent it to Adriano saying, 'No, no. Don't worry about the pin-ups and all the flashy stuff. We hired you because you're a really good storyteller. So just do pure storytelling. For the second series,” Cho continued, “Adriano had pretty much everything down. We're very confident in his abilities, so we've been pretty much letting him go. But I am designing the villains, the lost sea creature tribe for the second series, and I need to send that to Adriano."
Cho has long term plans for the franchise, including the origin of how a modern-talking gal like Jana made her way onto an island stuck strictly in a B.C. mindset. "I think we're probably going to save the origin of Jana for Season 3,” he said. “But we have the origin of Jana already written and why she's connected to the island, why she's so strong and indestructible and what makes her so different from the native tribes on the island." In between all the action, Cho himself will make his way past the covers of Jungle Girl and into the pages whenever his contract with Marvel Comics will allow it. "It really is a fun book. We've been putting everything we want to see into the Jungle Girl character. Because I believe in this character, I'm trying to find how to work in a separate, stand-alone story where I get to co-write it with Doug and draw it myself down the road. But right now Marvel takes precedence. But soon you will see a stand alone 'Jungle Girl' story by me."
LETTER OF THE WEEK: ANOTHER TRIUMPH OF LOGIC
Pat Bagley's Irreligiosity
Public Forum Letter, Salt Lake Tribune; March 24, 2009
As a Catholic, I was offended by the mockery of Pope Benedict XVI in Pat Bagley's cartoon about the pope's condemnation of condoms in Africa (Opinion, March 22). This is only one in a series of anti-Catholic and generally anti-religious cartoons by Bagley. One of them a few years ago was a mockery of the crucifixion. I realize that Bagley does satire, but surely there is more to poke fun at in Utah than religion. It shows a shallowness when he draws anti-Mormon, anti-Catholic and anti-Christian cartoons. I urge all offended readers to please stop subscribing to the Tribune . I did two years ago, and one of the reasons was Bagley's cartoons. [Signed] Rose Kury
Cute. You stopped subscribing to the Salt Lake Tribune in order to avoid seeing Bagley’s cartoons, and yet, somehow, you still see Bagley’s cartoons. How is that?
By the way (although not at all incidentally), Bagley has a fresh book of cartoons out—Fist Bump Heart Round the World: The 2008 Election in Cartoons; all soaked in full color. Stupendous. Find it where I found mine, on the ’Net; look in AddALL.com.
DICK TRACY ESCAPES ONCE AGAIN
You may remember that in December, I circulated a rumor that Dick Locher was going to retire from doing Dick Tracy, which he has been writing as well as drawing since the death a couple years ago of his writing partner, Mike Killian. Upon Locher’s retirement, my spies told me, the strip would end forthwith—the final death trap from which our cleaver-chinned protagonist could not escape. Syndicate spokesmen denied the rumor (which, I steadfastly aver, I did not actually start); ditto Dick, who phoned me to say he was staying on the job. So Tracy would, perforce, continue, unabated, perhaps forever but certainly for as long as thee and me are around to cheer it on. And judging from the signature on the strip, Dick hasn’t retired from Dick Tracy. Not yet. And when he told me in December that he wasn’t retiring, he probably meant “not right away.” Or “not at the end of the year” as I alleged the rumor had it. And so it is: it’s March, and he’s still signing the strip. He hasn’t retired.
But now we have a new signature, Jim Brozman’s, joining Locher's on the strip, a fairly clear indication that changes are coming. Locher may not retire from writing the strip, but he's surely stepping back a little from drawing it all. My guess is that Brozman is inking Locher and embellishing a little as he goes along. How long Brozman has been doing this is a question best answered by Brozman; or Locher. I interviewed Dick for Cartoonist PROfiles in the mid-1990s and asked him then if he had an assistant and, if so, who. He said he had an assistant but that "the time wasn't right" for divulging who it is/was. Maybe now is the time. "Now" being the present moment, the time that Locher is contemplating retirement more seriously.
At its website, Tribune Media Services (TMS) acknowledges the new collaboration, reporting that Brozman has been a published comic book artist since his days at Northern Illinois University where he earned his Bachelors of Fine Arts in Illustration. Before graduation, he published his first comic called Pablo Picasso: Police Artist. TMS continues (in italic): After graduation, Brozman established his reputation as a comic book artist when he worked on the Renegade Press comic book called Strata, a black-and-white comic with talking, sword-wielding otters, Lancelot and King Arthur. This series lasted two years until his next project at another Chicago-based comic book company, Now Comics. There, he drew full-color comics, including Rust, The Terminator, Speed Racer, Racer-X, The Real Ghostbusters, Slimer and The Green Hornet. Brozman has worked for many independent comic book companies from the 1980s through the 1990s. His latest comic book he created with the help of local color artist, Josh Warner: called Naperville’s Finest, it included contributions from local sports editors to depict all the local high school mascots as superheroes battling their rival local mascots. A free comic book, it was given away with the Naperville Sun at the local high schools. For the past decade, Brozman has worked on the retail side of the comic book industry managing stores for Graham Cracker Comics in the Chicagoland area.
So, to finish with a flourish from the store’s website, is Brozman an artist who runs a comic book store or a comic book store manager who draws? When asked, Brozman said succinctly: “Yes.”
In any event, my fearful speculation in December that Dick Tracy would be eased into obscurity with the retirement of Locher has been assuaged: TMS didn’t make Brozman’s participation public just to shut down the strip his name is now on.
Moreover, TMS has recently moved to secure its exclusive possession of Dick Tracy, the character. Actor Warren Beatty, who appeared as Tracy in a 1990 movie, has claimed the right to make a tv sequel, but TMS has maintained that the rights revert to the syndicate since Beatty didn’t make the sequel within the allotted time. In a filing related to the Tribune Company’s filing for Chapter Eleven bankruptcy protection, TMS has asked a Delaware bankruptcy judge to declare TMS owns the tv and movie rights to the character, saying that Beatty hasn’t proved that photography for the planned tv sequel has begun. .
WATCHMEN AND THE MOVIE
In the movie, Dr. Manhattan’s blue pecker is too big. It is, in fact, tumescent, on the brink of throbbing into full erection. I won’t say it spoils the whole movie, but Dr. Manhattan with a hard-on would be hilarious rather than awesome, and the comedy would spoil the character and, probably, the movie in which he plays so large a part. Billy Crudup, who plays Dr. Manhattan on the Big Screen, goes along with the giggle. He says he was not naked on the set during filming. Interviewed on parade.com, he explained: “I wore a pair of what were pretty elaborate pajamas and they were studded with about 1,200 blue LED's so that Dr. Manhattan would glow blue. There were also motion capture electrodes on my body and I had over a hundred on my face. They all sent data into a computer that really created the Dr. Manhattan you see on the screen. My performance was basically just laying the groundwork for the CGI.”
As for his peter’s size, Crudup, like all of the species afflicted with the American male psyche, abandoned candor to be, instead, coy enough to imply a significant endowment: “I’m not saying how much the computer helped,” he said.
The machinations of the human so-called mind being what they are, I am reminded of an ancient joke that takes place in the Garden of Eden. Adam has just met Eve and, dazzled by her naked glories, he gets an erection. It’s his first, so he doesn’t know quite what to do. “Stand back,” he shouts to Eve, “—I don’t know how big this thing gets!”
Well, maybe you had to be there.
Dr. Manhattan’s non-CGI creators, Alan Moore and his artist Dave Gibbons, had better sense than movie-maker Zack Snyder: their Dr. Manhattan’s appendage was at rest, flaccid. Everyday normal.
The dimension of Dr. Manhattan’s wang is about the only thing in the movie that deviates significantly from the graphic novel. The book, which Moore (and Gibbons) always claimed—and rightly, as we’ll see—could not, or should not, be made into a movie, turns out to be a perfect storyboard for Snyder’s celluloid adaptation: nearly every shot was taken from Gibbons’ pictures. Many of his panels and several subplots in the book—the Black Freighter, the lesbian cab driver, the old newsstand operator, Rorschach’s psychologist, the giant squid that eats New York—are left out altogether, but the main currents of the story with numerous of its inlets and eddies runs right through the movie theaters. And Snyder added one deliciously jokey image: when Dr. Manhattan atomizes Rorschach, all that’s left is a red Rorschach blot of blood on the snow.
Many of Gibbons’ tiny visual touches in the graphic novel are missing from the movie, but the movie includes a tiny visual touch that is missing from the graphic novel, Gibbons told Adam Roberts at wired.com: “When I got to see the set, there was all this graffiti, and I said, ‘You know, it would be great if I could write my name up somewhere.’ We ran out of time, but what they stenciled up in a lot of places—and they assured me that it will make the final cut of the film—is my little trademark signature, a little G in a tiny little box that I tend to draw in the corner of things. So, that has been sprayed up on many, many of the walls on the set. Not only are my fingerprints on the movie, but my signature's on it, too.” And here, by way of continuing graphic evidence of Gibbons’ involvement with the motion picture, is a rendering of some of the Watchmen characters as impersonated by the actors in the movie.
Many writers—and, indeed, much of the American public—believe that, as Steve Rose said in The Guardian, “a big-budget Hollywood adaptation of their work is a form of validation” as if, without a film version, no written work can claim to be art. Moore, however, has famously resisted the temptation and rejected the dogma. Comics, for him, are the art form. “There is something about the quality of comics that makes things possible that you couldn't do in any other medium," he told Rose. Talking to Adam Rogers at wired.com, Moore elaborated: “If a thing works well in one medium, in the medium that it has been designed to work in, then the only possible point for wanting to realize it on ‘multiple platforms,’ as they say these days, is to make a lot of money out of it. There is no consideration for the integrity of the work, which is rather the only thing as far as I'm concerned.” He continued with Rose: "Things that we did in Watchmen on paper could be frankly horrible or sensationalist or unpleasant if you were to interpret them literally through the medium of cinema. When it's just lines on paper, the reader is in control of the experience—it's a tableau vivant. And that gives it the necessary distance. ... With a movie you are being dragged through the scenario at a relentless 24 frames a second. With a comic book you can dart your eyes back to a previous panel, or you can flip back a couple of pages to check whether there is some reference in the dialog to a scene that happened earlier.”
I’m not so sure about the horrible or sensationalist or unpleasant contention, and if Moore thinks such assaults on viewer sensibilities are foreign to film, I wonder how many movies he’s seen lately, but I agree that the static storytelling of comics permits, and usually seduces, a reader to spend time on visual nuances that, even if present in a movie, flit by so rapidly that they cannot be seen or absorbed enough to embellish the experience. Moreover, as Gibbons so memorably observed in his interview with Adam Rogers, “The graphic novel is something that you can read and then go back and find all the Easter eggs.”
Gibbons continued: “The graphic novel is the graphic novel. But the whole thing about Watchmen is it is self-contained. It is a story. It's not a thing that's like a Batman movie or a Superman or Spider-Man or Iron Man movie, where there is this character, and he or she can have this infinite number of adventures, and you pull elements from one story and elements from another story and make a big deal of some particular aspect that you've chosen from a comic book. I mean, Watchmen is a story that has to hit all the beats of that particular story, that has to include the facts of that story. ... In the '90s, the vogue was very much for action movies, and I can imagine a version of Watchmen as an action movie that would have been disastrous.”
Gibbons’ point, and I agree with him, is that Watchmen in the comics medium is made up of many visual and verbal facets that comprise the work as a whole: they are the work. Apart from whatever storyline Snyder and his writers have extruded from the comics, most of those things that make Watchmen an aesthetic experience, a comic book, have been left out of the movie.
Watchmen Is a Comic Book/Graphic Novel and Not Movie
While the book offers many examples of the unique storytelling capacity of the comics medium, the fifth chapter, entitled “Fearful Symmetry,” is perhaps the most easily parsed. Symmetry pervades the chapter. The page layouts of the first half of the chapter are echoed in the last half, front to back, back to front: the layout of page 28 is an exact duplicate of the layout of page one; page 27, of page 2, and so on. The symmetry is scarcely noticeable until we get to the center spread, pages 14 and 15, where the echo is obvious. This kind of visual gimmickry is cute, but is it functional? Yes, but only upon minute inspection and then only marginally. Much of the chapter is devoted to Rorschach, and a Rorschach blot is a perfect instance of symmetry. And Rorschach’s uncompromising and often vicious pursuit of the truth is on display here, its “fearful” aspect recalling stanzas of William Blake’s poem that begins “Tyger, tyger, burning bright / In the forests of the night, / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame they fearful symmetry?” Moore’s hand, of course, which would suggest, perhaps, the “forests of the night” of the human soul.
This is also the chapter in which Laurie Juspeczyk (i.e., Silk Spectre II) and Dan Dreiberg (Nite Owl II) get together when he offers her a place to stay after she’s left Dr. Manhattan. We see them frequently reflected in mirrors, the images of their faces and their actual forms symmetrically identical but perversely in reverse, as is usual with mirror images. Mirrors also suggest detachment: because the images in them are not “real” despite the accuracy of the reflection, they are therefore removed from reality, distanced—detached. And Laurie and Dan are not yet intimate; they seem to be holding each other warily at arm’s length, separated from each other, detached. In this chapter, too, we first see the silhouette of a man and woman in profile embracing—like a Rorschach blot, an almost symmetrical image that is repeated throughout the book, reminding us of the budding romance with Laurie and Dan, the joining of man to woman in that well-worn Biblical phrase. Perversely, they do not achieve a successful sexual union until they’ve achieved a successful exploit as costumed heroes (a connection that Synder makes much more explicitly than his source does). No mirrors appear in the sequence celebrating their success.
And this chapter is the first in which considerable attention is devoted to the Black Freighter comic book, a horror tale of terrible trial and tribulation in which the protagonist, a pirate marooned after a storm at sea, endures horrendous exploits to survive in order to return to his wife and save her, and then he finds that he has been motivated throughout by an entirely mistaken idea. His wife, whom he supposed was in danger, was not, and in the grip of his raging alarm, he mistakenly bludgeons her to death. The symmetry in this instance is not apparent until the end of the book, when we can see in the sea story a cautionary tale with lessons for the protagonists in Watchmen, lessons they, unlike the crazed sailor, never learn.
But for all the allusions in Chapter Five of the graphic novel, the notion of symmetry is a side show, not the main event. None of the allusions are operative: none of them cause anything. To Moore and Gibbons, however, such allusions are integral to Watchmen, and most of them are impossible of translation into a motion picture. Indeed, most of those we’ve just looked at are not part of Snyder’s movie.
In layering allusions both visual and verbal, and usually obscure, into his work, Moore is much like Shakespeare. Not that Watchmen is “Hamlet”; it isn’t. But Moore is to comic book storytelling what Shakespeare is to poetry. In both cases, the artist’s passion for his medium threatens to carry him away from the story the medium is supposed to tell. In Shakespeare’s case, the threat turns real: his love of language often led him into verbal embellishments and gyrations that, while enriching his poetry, twisted the plot or obfuscated characterizations, resulting in altering or obscuring the story’s meaning, introducing ambiguity where clarity had once obtained—and leading, generations later in college Shakespeare courses everywhere, to professorial bafflement about what a given Shakespeare play “means.” The meaning they seek is usually derived in literary works from the relationship between cause and effect as revealed in the plot, but Shakespeare wasn’t much concerned with plot: he got his plots with the tales he appropriated from history and from other writers or from folklore, stories most of his audience knew. Shakespeare saw his task as making these old familiar stories somehow fresh, which he did with verse. Once he started off, writing the verses that brought an old scene to renewed life, the words—their sounds and coloration and nuances of meaning—ran away with him, and he ran after them, willy nilly, so in love with their rhythms and shaded connotations that he overlooked entirely what their meanings would do to in shaping personalities and events in the story. Beautiful poetry; bad playwrighting. Shakespeare destroyed his plays’ meanings with the beauties of his poetry: to him, poetry was all; the story, a trifle that he’d found in an old book somewhere—not his story. But the poetry was all his, and he saw himself as embellishing the stories he was re-telling.
Moore, too, is in love with his medium, with the visual/verbal character of comics, and he delights in festooning his tale with tinsel and trappings that exploit the visual/verbal blending. Unlike the Bard, Moore is not so fascinated by his medium that he strays far from the main course of his story. But like Shakespeare, he indulges his passion for the tics and tropes of which the medium is capable, endlessly embroidering his tale. Much of the embroidery is obtuse in its meaning or relevance to the story. The symmetrical page layouts of Chapter Five are wholly unnecessary and so obscure that they can scarcely inform the reader’s experience of the novel. And the theme of symmetry, as I’ve mentioned, is amplified throughout the chapter in many subtle ways, but none of those ways affect the direction of the story or the actions of the characters. They are all, however, imprints of Moore’s vision for the implications of the chapter, subtle restatements of prevailing ideas, pleasing to Moore and Gibbons and to any of us who bother to decipher them. Similarly, the Black Freighter is a major distraction and appears, at first blush, entirely superfluous. Moore seems to be simply indulging himself. The medium permits him to laminate this gruesome “comic book” episode into his Watchmen opus: the visual/verbal nature of the medium allows him to unveil two tales at once, often in a single panel, seemingly reinforcing the meaning of one with the meaning of the other. The pirate’s desperation and his subsequent error and his horrified discovery of his terrible mistake seem to have little to do with the main storyline. But this “distraction” in Watchmen gives shades of meaning to the “end of the world” scenario: How do we, or, more pertinently, Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandias, know that we (or they) are not making a similar mistake? With such seeming diversions, Moore adds layers of meaning to his tale, but some of those layers—like the silhouette of the embracing couple—can also lead us into supposing that they mean more than they mean, that they are more than a “poetic” indulgence by the author, a bit of trimming, a garnish on the main course, not the main course itself.
Meaning of Watchmen
But if Watchmen the graphic novel is all of its parts taken together, what are those parts and what is their collaborative meaning? By way of approaching the answer from an angle rather than directly, we have Tom Spurgeon’s insightful and canny essay at ComicsReporter.com, where he suggests ten ways of “entering” Watchmen, ways of approaching the work—each a hint about a part of Moore’s puzzle. Here they are: 1) as a murder mystery, which is how it begins; 2) as an adventure story; 3) as a symphony of meticulous applications of the craft of comics making; 4) as a love story; 5) as a commentary on the 1980s; 6) as a liminal experience, the coloration of the visual text, and the visual text itself; 7) as building a complete and self-contained world; 8) as commentary on personalities and their histories; 9) as commentary on superheroes [which is what most readers find in it, a limited interpretation]; and 10) as a tribute to the genre’s ability to hold several meanings at once. Spurgeon’s elaboration on each of these points rewards examining; you can find it at his website in his entry for February 22.
Many reviewers of the movie feel that “Watchmen” is a superhero movie, another in the long line of Superman Batman Iron Man special effects extravaganzas. And they were therefore disappointed. As Gibbons told Michael Moran at timesonline: “Most comics, most comic book movies are action interspersed with thoughtful moments whereas ‘Watchmen’ is thoughtful moments interspersed with action.” And while it’s true that Moore’s initial inspiration came from a vague plan to use Charltan’s old longjohn legions, once that scheme was abandoned and Moore had to invent his own superheroes, he realized he needed a story for them to act in, and the story he concocted is an sf tale about the possibility of mutual nuclear destruction by the U.S. and Russia. The costumed characters are merely actors in the larger drama—fascinating actors with engaging backstories (Dr. Manhattan in particular), but the larger drama is the story of how the destruction of the world is averted. And this story’s ending seems a trifle weak.
Along the way, Moore became fascinated by what he could do with the medium in telling his story, as he told Andrew Firestone at Salon.com: “We thought we were just doing an interesting twist upon the superhero story and it was only around about issue No. 3 [Chapter Three] when we suddenly realized that the way that we were telling the story was becoming very interesting and multilayered with a lot of new things that we had never done before.”
After all the glorious intricacies of Moore’s storytelling, the tale’s denouement is a little disappointing on two counts. The chief preoccupation of the narrative is the deconstruction of the myth of the invincibility of costumed crime fighters: Moore’s characters are deeply flawed and sometimes wholly ineffectual personalities. And yet at the end, it’s a superhero who saves the world. Admittedly, nuances blunt the impact of this conclusion: Ozymandias is a megalomaniac, and neither his personality nor his murderous resolution of the international crisis is admirable in the manner of most superheroics. Still, the impetus of the superhero story, which tends to show that superheroing doesn’t work, seems to be contradicted by Moore’s conclusion. Twenty years ago when I first read Watchmen, one issue of the comic book each month for twelve months, I thought Moore had copped out at the end: after seemingly setting us up to see something like the ultimate disgrace and discrediting of superheroes, he gives the series’ triumph to a supremely intelligent superhero whose irrefutable logic defuses the nuclear crisis. In Moore’s universe, it seems, superheroes, despite their flaws, still win, and all this time, we were led to believe that Moore would ultimately destroy them. Or, if he didn’t destroy them, he would overwhelm them with some intricacy inherent in his embellishments. While some of his principals are destroyed or rendered ineffectual or inoperative (Dr. Manhattan goes off to invent another world), the species, in the person of Ozymandias, triumphs and survives, despite the evil he does to engineer the salvation of the world.
The other disappointment at the end of the story is due to the emotional emptiness of the threat the hangs over the proceedings. Moore’s drama is inspired by what at one time we thought was a genuine possibility of the U.S. and Russia confronting each other in nuclear warfare that would blast the world to those oft-cited smithereens. (My fear a few years earlier was that the bomb wouldn’t kill us all, and for those who survived, the hazards of a daily life would be horrible, perhaps intolerable. But that’s beside the point.) The question facing humankind was simple: How do we avoid destroying the planet? It is a question that, by the 1980s, no longer packed the emotional punch that kept us all trembling once the Soviets had acquired The Bomb in the early 1950s. By the 1980s, we’d learned to live with the threat, partly because we no longer considered it as a disaster likely to happen. Somehow, we became convinced, The Bomb would never be dropped. And so we moved on.
In this context, Moore’s resolution of the conflict is but a cute trick, intellectually amusing but emotionally barren. Moore’s solution to this once towering threat turns on a simple conceit: terrify both potential combatants by introducing a third party, a monstrous extraterrestrial menace, that will induce the two superpowers poised on the brink of wholesale destruction to set aside their differences and join in a partnership to meet and defeat the new threat, thereby setting aside forever the likelihood of a nuclear confrontation between the U.S. and Russia. A neat piece of legerdemain akin to the cat trick Moore introduced in one of his “Jack B. Quick” stories in America’s Best Comics. Jonothon Beauregard Quick, a brilliant child always tinkering with scientific theories and inventing things that usually backfire, ponders the supposed fact that a sandwich, if dropped, always lands butter-side down; a cat, on the other hand, always lands on its feet. So he spreads butter on a cat’s back and drops the cat, creating the “buttered cat paradox”: the cat wants to land on its feet, its back wants to land on the butter, so the cat spins forever in the void and never lands at all. Similarly, Ozymandias’ flimflam will keep the world spinning—but only as long as both the superpowers believe in the threat they face. And it is precisely here that Moore backs away from the implications of the story he has constructed and seems to undercut his own conclusion.
Ozymandias’ triumph is not the actual ending of the story. Moore, the persistent artificer, complicates the tale and gives it a new ending—or, rather, no ending. “Nothing ever ends,” says Dr. Manhattan. Moore’s tidy conceit of an ending is not what he chooses to leave us with. He has not, after all, awakened from his nightmare vision of the world poised on the brink of mutually assured destruction. The book closes by focusing on Rorschach’s journal, which might reveal just enough of Ozymandias’ scheme to expose the monster from outer space as fraudulent, thereby re-opening hostilities between the nuclear powers. Moore told Firestone: “[At the end of Watchmen] you’ve got the whole fate of the world basically being left in the hands of a semi-literature copy boy [at the newspaper to which Rorschach sent his journal] ... I believe the ending quote is ‘I leave that entirely in your hands,’ which I think was me talking to the reader, because I don’t think that it is the purpose of fiction to actually dictate a political/moral reality. ... It’s not my job to tell people what to think. If I can actually in some way help the readers’ own creative thinking, then that’s got to be to everybody’s benefit.”
In naming his triumphant superhero “Ozymandias,” Moore has tipped his hand. The name appears at the conclusion of Shelley’s poem, inscribed on the pedestal of a ruined monument to “Ozymandias, King of Kings: ‘Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.” Thanks to Rorschach, the plan of Moore’s Ozymandias will likewise come to naught. Here, then, is the meaning of Watchmen, which Moore calls “a meditation on the nature of power,” a meditation that, in graphic novel form, shows off as never before the verbal/visual capacities of the medium for achieving literary stature. Power is corrupting and, ultimately, futile. Our adolescent worship of superheroes, however they are manifest—from Superman to Barack Obama—is vain and foolish. And most of this meaning is intact in the film. But that may be more—or not as much—as Moore intended.
After Spurgeon listed his ten ways of entering Watchmen, he invited readers to submit their ways of reading the work. Cole Moore Odell offered “Reading Watchmen as a Feminist Text,” to wit: As with Swamp Thing, From Hell, Promethea, Lost Girls and elements of many other Moore works, gender politics are close to the center of Watchmen. The book presents superheroes as a proxy for late 20th-century America's cartoonish attitudes toward gender. The men engage in routine, horrific violence against women (Sally's rape, the Comedian's murder of his own pregnant girlfriend, the pirate's eventual murder of his wife and family, the way real-life victim Kitty Genovese's death hangs over the story) as distractions from their overt interest— pointing giant phallic missiles at each other. The women are either crushed underfoot or convinced to embrace their own objectification as a source of "power." Finally, Ozymandias attempts to shock the boys out of their mutually assured destruction with The Giant Vagina That Killed New York [that squid missing from the movie]. Not only does this vagina dentata made real give all the men, from Nixon on down, something they can really fear together, but it serves as a sly commentary on the one thing with power enough to utterly defeat superheroes for young male readers—the discovery of girls.
Alert Rabiteers will note that I began this essay with a phallus and am ending it with a vagina, from prong to honey pot, so to speak. This conjunction (or congress) of sex organs is, I assure you, purely accidental. You should make absolutely nothing of what is for me the merest coincidence of metaphors. If, on the other hand, I were Alan Moore, master allusionist, well, then.......
QUOTES & MOTS
“George Bush is writing a book. No, that’s not a joke. It’s a book about the 12 toughest decisions he made as president. It’s called, ‘The Ten Toughest Decisions I Made As President.’”—Jimmy Fallon, “Late Night”
“You can fool some of the people some of the time—and that’s enough to make a decent living.” —W.C. Fields
And Here Are a Few Thoughts about Our Automotive Culture:
“Everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car.” —E.B. White
“Have you noticed? Anyone going slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a moron.” —George Carlin
“Why do they call it rush hour when nothing moves?”—Robin Williams
“What do you expect from a culture that drives on parkways and parks on driveways?”—Gallagher
“If all the cars in the United States were placed end to end, it would probably be Labor Day Weekend.”—Doug Larson
“Natives who beat drums to drive off evil spirits are objects of scorn to smart Americans who blow horns to break up traffic jams.” —Mary Ellen Kelly
THE FROTH ESTATE
The Alleged News Institution
Newspapers aren’t the only ilk of mass communication that seems balanced precariously on the cusp of extinction. Network television is also slouching out the door, according to Joanne Ostrow at the Denver Post. “The network audience continues to shrink,” she wrote on February 15, “down 9 percent year-to-year. On Friday and Saturday nights in particular, viewers are fleeing lackluster offerings. CBS ended 2008 in the best position, down 3 percent among adults between 18 and 49, while ABC, NBC and Fox dropped 10 to 12 percent.” Partly, the culprit is technology in the livingroom: “The percentage of homes using DVRs is up to nearly a third of U.S. homes—29 percent, compared with 22 percent a year ago.” Thus aided and abetted, “More people are skipping the ads.” And the advertisers are disappearing: “Automotive ads, long the cornerstone of stations’ profits, are off by nearly a third. Stations are pumping up their websites and seeing increased traffic. So far, however, nobody knows how to effectively ‘monetize the Internet’—the overworked media industry buzz phrase. Most shocking admission that the bloom is off the network rose,” Ostrow continued, “is NBC’s plan to turn over five hours a week of prime time to Jay Leno. Generally viewed as shortsighted, the move will limit the network’s ability to nurture new dramas.”
Some stations are now looking for “sponsored segments, or infomercials,” by which advertisers get to identify themselves with a particular “niche audience” by confining their ballyhoo to programs aimed at particular viewers. On “30 Rock,” Tina Fey jokes about “pioneering the 10-second Internet sitcom” and “celebrity stuff, reality content made exclusively for your mobile phone.” Given the popularity on cable tv of such shows as “Damages,” “Weeds,” and “Mad Men,” broadcast networks could switch to cable in the next few years to cash in on subscriber fees—“signaling the end of ‘free’ tv,” saith Ostrow.
When I watch tv’s evening news, I tune in Brian Williams on NBC. ABC’s Charlie Gibson is too fatuous for my taste; and a news anchor calling herself “Katie” doesn’t seem altogether serious so I don’t look in on CBS much. Brian Williams it is. He has the most lopsided face in television. His nose is bent slightly to his right, and his right eyebrow usually tilts more than his left. And his mouth runs a diagonal from his upper right to lower left. Encouraging, isn’t it? To know that a man with a lopsided face can make millions with it.
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
In the March issue of GQ (that’s Gentleman’s Quarterly, kimo sabe—in case you’ve forgotten), Justin Timberlake ranks first in the magazine’s list of the Ten Most Stylish Men in America because of his “knack for targeting trends” such as hats, three-piece suits, skinny ties and beards. Beards. A recent issue of another glossy magazine opened with a dozen full-page ads for men’s clothing in which a parade of models wearing fashionable duds were all, to a man, “bearded.” I beg to differ: none of these guys is “bearded.” They just need shaves. They don’t have beards: they have whiskers, a three-or-four-day growths, but not, yet, beards. We live in strange times when the male populace of the planet’s richest nation become fashion plates by looking scruffy, as if they can’t afford razors to shave with.
Starbucks coffee is now available, online, as an “instant coffee” called Starbucks Via Ready Brew saith the Associated Press. Starting in the fall, the new brew will also be available in Starbucks coffee houses in packets of three for $2.95 or 12 for $9.95, just Italian Roast or Columbia at first. “This is not your mother’s instant coffee,” said CEO Howard Schultz, but the AP’s Lauren Shepherd provides a reality check: they’ll have a deuce of a time dislodging the perception that instant coffee is more Maxwell House than coffee house.
Tom Szaky wants to be the Wal-Mart of garbage according to Al Lewis at Dow Jones Newswires. Several years ago, Szaky dropped out of Princeton and started milking worms that had been feasting on cafeteria scraps. He squeezed out worm poop at the rate of four tons a day and bottled it and sold it as plant food. Now he has his eye on turning common landfill waste into something useful. While used food wrappers are nonrecyclable, they can be processed and made into almost anything—kites, shower curtains, notebook covers, pencil cases, book bags, purses. Newsprint can be made into pencils. And so Szaky is meeting with various major players to get them to pay school kids two cents for every Oreo wrapper or Capri Sun juice pouch they collect and mail to Szaky’s company, TerraCycle (visit terracycle.net). “The kids raise money for their schools, learn a lesson about environmentalism and get re-exposed to the brands on the packages.” Everybody wins.
study committed at Colorado State University determined as a
scientific fact what every entrepreneur has known through experience
for generations. When we see the price $29.99, we don’t read
“thirty dollars”: we somehow focus on the first digits
and think “twenty bucks.”
Sound of Trumpets. In April’s Vanity
Fair during an interview with Rachel Maddow, we discovered that
“eproctophiliacs” are those among us who are turned on by
farts and farting. Apparently eproctophiliacs constitute a
considerable market in this digital age: InfoMedia Inc., an outfit
based in Loveland, Colorado, is selling an iPhone application called
iFart, which, when loaded, will make flatulence noises on your
iPhone. “The concept is simple,” writes Steve Raabe at
Post. “Purchase the application from Apple’s App Store for 99
cents, load it on your iPhone or iPod, then proceed to amuse or
embarrass friends by selecting from a variety of noises including
‘Jack the Ripper,’ ‘Brown Mosquito’ and
‘Burrito Maximo.’” For a brief but spectacular
period of 22 days, iFart was the No. 1 bestseller among iPhone apps.
Then came trouble. InfoMedia made the mistake of using the phrase
“pull my finger” in promoting its “high-tech
Whoopee cushion,” and the phrase is the name of a competing
iPhone app, which was the No. 2 seller for the Florida-based firm,
Air-O-Matic until it was, er, blown off the shelves by iFart.
Air-O-Matic sent a “cease and desist” letter, claiming
copyright infringement, but InfoMedia responded by saying “pull
my finger” is a common expression among the gaseous and does
not infringe upon a trademark. Both sides are talking in the hope of
reaching an amicable settlement, fearing, no doubt—and rightly
so—that a confrontation in court would be, er, a gas. How will
it all end? Who knows. After all, as InfoMedia’s CEO, Joel
Comm, says: “We’re a bunch of 12-year-olds disguised as
grown men,” who might be depended upon to carry on with the
joke indefinitely, perhaps setting their iFarts afire and laughing
In a March issue of The New Yorker, I learned from Ron Chernow that a Ponzi Scheme is “the fraudulent enterprise of paying off old investors with money collected from new ones.” Isn’t that how the Social Security system works?
NEWSPAPER COMICS PAGE VIGIL
The Bump and Grind of Daily Stripping
In Sherman’s Lagoon by J.P. Toomey, the fish, Sherman and his spectacled little buddy Ernie, were recently once again been transformed into humans in order to compete in the sand sculpture contest. The Great Kahuna, who looks a lot like an Easter Island sculpture, performs this miracle every so often, and the ensuing hilarity is always worth the transmorgriphying. This time, a couple of the installments include self-conscious comedy, references to the fact that all the action, indeed the entire lives of the characters, take place in a comic strip. You may want to print out the accompanying page so you have its visual glories before you as we proceed down the scroll. Incidentally, notice how each of the Lagoon strips begins with a reference to sand sculpture, thereby reminding us, from day-to-day, of the basis of the jokes in this sequence. This is the way serial comic strips should be accomplished. I’ve also included two of Keith Knight’s Knight Life strips. The first demonstrates Keef’s art chops: the last panel is an extravagance of perspective, executed with great, albeit simple, verve; the second, a gag that an African American cartoonist can get away with easier, I suspect, than a white guy, although these days, if we really are in post-racial America, maybe any of us can risk this kind of humor.
In our next display, we have the explanation for Mort Park’s return from the dead in Rudy Park by writer Theron Heir (not his real name) and drawer Darrin Bell (his real name; sorry) (and, yes, I’m going to follow this formula for naming the creators of this strip until Theron Heir comes out of the closet). The first of the three strips here, though—in which Mort applies for Social Security—is in the array because its concluding panel features a character from Bell’s other strip, Candorville, namely, Clyde the Thug, Lemont Brown’s best (male) friend. Clyde’s presence undeniably adds a few decibels to the joke, but I wonder if readers unaware of his role in Candorville see any comedy here at all. Probably they do—thanks to the off-camera pet owner. In the other two Rudy Park strips, notice how reference is made in both to Mort’s alleged death and to the explanation for this return, just keeping the reader aware of what’s gone before. (That’s the way it’s done, aristotle.) And in Funky Winkerbean, Funky gets an e-mail that may foreshadow prostate cancer in the offing. If so, we’ll all get an valuable lesson on the importance of getting our prostates checked regularly. Important, yes, but it begins to look as if Tom Batiuk, a cancer survivor himself, has taken up disease and death as regular props for storytelling. In his Crankshaft recently, an elderly character died, leaving her unrequited lover alone and her so-called best friend miserable for having short-circuited the incipient love affair. Batiuk has proved himself adept at dealing with such disturbing topics, but must he go on and on proving it again and again? Finally, we’ve included another of Scott Adams’ shameless demonstrations of how to produce a comic strip without drawing, i.e., Dilbert. In the second panel is his picture of a building, which—and until he started including this architectural rendering as another character in the strip, I’d thought it impossible to draw any simpler, any more gracelessly than he does—is only marginally less visually appealing than his way of drawing people (and dogs). And then Adams finishes the installment by giving up drawing altogether. For shame.
And, speaking of drawing, we have contrary examples of it in our next display. Scary Gary, an engaging novelty about a retired 300-year-old vampire, Gary, and his demon henchman, Leopold (the shorter of the two guys with the fangs, the naked one), is produced by Mark Buford, starting in June 2008. Buford says he began cartooning at the age of ten, “during his tenure in the public school system. As much of his work took place during class, early recognition came in the form of corporal punishment.” Scary Gary is Buford’s second foray into syndicated cartooning; his first commenced in 1997 with a strip called Meatloaf Night, which, we assume, didn’t last. My point in including Scary Gary here is that Buford occasionally draws the strip in two styles. The first, a sort of pointy-nosed caricature of human physiognomy and anatomy, is the prevailing manner because it is used to depict Gary and Leopold, who predominate over all other personages. Sometimes, however, other characters wander into the strip—here, for instance, Mr. Hyde—and they are drawn in a more conventional (that is, rounded) cartoonish manner. This tendency of Buford’s to mix drawing mannerisms is distracting enough to be annoying—particularly when I know he can do better at consistency. At various times, Buford manages the pointy-nosed style with walk-ons and other extras, as in our last example here. So we know his “Gary style” can be deployed for characters other than Gary without sabotaging the strip. Why, then, not use that style consistently? The same stylistic irregularity shows up in Pooch Café—with the same annoying effect. Launched on the Web on January 1, 2000 and subsequently syndicated in 2003, Paul Gilligan’s strip is about the humorous antics of “a self-serving, squirrel-fearing, food-obsessed, toilet-drinking mutt named Poncho.” Poncho is rendered in a highly stylized manner, looking somewhat like a Mexican pot for house plants; the other dogs in the strip, who gather occasionally at Pooch Café to talk about their masters and “such weighty issues as avoiding baths, zebra-flavored kibble, toilet breath, and the construction of a giant catapult with which to hurl all the Earth's cats into the sun,” are drawn in about the same way. Poncho’s master, Chazz, is drawn in a much more conventional way. Chazz’s new wife, Carmen, on the other hand, is a reversion to stylization in her face, although her body belongs to the Chazz school of cartooning. My guess is that it takes an unearthly concentration to draw in three different styles, sometimes in the same panel of the same strip. A signal achievement, no doubt, but annoying nonetheless.
To return to the bottom of our previous visual aid, we have two installments of Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac, in which style is consistent from day-to-day, panel to panel, character to character—charming, wispy penwork that sidles up to us gently and makes friends easily. But that’s not why I’ve included these two strips here. The first is an instance of a gag that can’t be done in any other medium. The second is an example of the sort of antic sense of humor that animates the strip. And its second panel, which gives visual substance to the kid’s fantasy about jungle gyms and thereby convinces us that the fantasy is true (we see the evidence, and our eyesight can’t lie, can it?), demonstrates how words and pictures blend to create comics. Here, the words explain the picture; and the picture bodies forth the world the words describe.
Next, thanks to the vigilant Comics Curmudgeon and his faithful readers, are two Family Circus panels that are identical, 2009's March 20 version on the right recycling a scene and a gag (on the left) from the early 1970s. We’re not certain of the date of the earlier incarnation, but Curm’s spy says it was found in a Family Circus paperback compilation of that period, Fawcett’s Hello, Grandma? You wonder what the sin is. Peanuts is entirely recycled strips; ditto For Better or For Worse. And every year, for long stretches, we watch blatant re-runs on tv. Are living syndicated cartoonists the only entertainers who aren’t supposed to re-use good stuff from the past? I suppose the taint of fraud is what makes Bil and Jeff Keane’s recycling so onerous. If they’d just attach a label, “Back By Popular Demand,” as J.R. Williams occasionally did in his folksy panel, Out Our Way, happiness would once again prevail at Family Circus, among its characters, creative kin, and thee and me, kimo sabe.
At Adam@Home, Brian Basset, who originated the strip, has relinquished drawing and production chores (and perhaps gag-writing) to Rob Harrell, who gave up his own strip, Big Top, a year or so ago in order to undergo surgery for a cancerous eye. He has survived, thanks be, and can draw just fine, perhaps even better, or at least more copiously, than Basset. Here are a few recent strips, the top one by Basset, the other two by Harrell. Harrell’s line is not as wispy, fragile even, as Basset’s (note the treatment of hands), and while his characters seem a little less elongated than Basset’s, Harrell often fills panels with figures drawn from head to knee, or thereabouts, which is more than Basset was doing: in recent years, talking heads predominated in Adam. Harrell’s Laura seems a bit sexier than Basset’s, too, but Harrell took a while to get Adam’s nose right, as we’ll see in a trice. Basset brought Harrell into the Adam operation so that he, Basset, would have more time to devote to his other strip, Red and Rover, about a small boy and his dog.
The other strips on this visual aid: Russell Myers’ Broom Hilda, which continues to display Myer’s notable penchant for antic artwork (Basset, for one, would never expend so much artistic energy on purely decorative visuals), and Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey for March 13. If you catch the next issue of The Comics Journal (No. 297), you’ll encounter a long interview I conducted with Walker, which begins with my description of his drawing a Beetle strip. The strip in question is the one I’ve reproduced here. And here’s another glimpse of Adam as drawn by Basset (top) and Harrell (bottom two, the daily displaying his emerging mastery at rendering Adam’s proboscis.
Another strip that has acquired a second hand on the tiller is Grand Avenue, a neighborhood saga about an avid sports fan grandmother who is raising rambunctious twins that Steve Breen launched in 1999. Breen, who just won the Headliner Award for his editorial cartoons at the San Diego Union Tribune, fell frequently into conversation with his counterpart at the Detroit Free Press, Mike Thompson, when the two were attending the annual meetings of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. Once, Breen told Alan Gardner at DailyCartoonist.com, Thompson followed him to his room to kibitz while Breen did some work on the strip. Thompson offered some gags, and Breen was impressed, he said, “with Mike’s understanding of the characters and his talent for brainstorming and idea generation. I was looking for help with the strip because I was starting to also do children’s books ( this was around 2005 or 2006) so it worked out nicely.” The two share writing and drawing chores, and Thompson began to get his name on the strip on January 1, 2009. A sample of Grand Avenue shows up at in this vicinity, and immediately below it, one of the more infirm of our infirmation services—two panel cartoons, one by Glenn McCoy, the other by his brother, Gary. This brace of hilarities appeared, cheek by jowl—just as they appear here—in the Parade Sunday supplement for March 29, 2009. And if you’ve ever wondered how the work of one brother differs from his sibling’s, now you have examples of both, side-by-side, for handy comparison purposes. Good luck.
PERSIFLAGE AND FURBELOWS
Garry Trudeau is usually not accorded sufficient credit for the creation of two daily syndicated newspaper comic strips: Doonesbury and Mallard Fillmore. Bruce Tinsley’s strip about a conservative duck exists solely to comfort newspaper editors who feel compelled to run something to “balance” the supposed liberal leaning in Trudeau’s strip. Without Doonesbury, there’d be no Mallard Fillmore, which, as a comic strip, is an abysmal failure and therefore owes its very existence to Doonesbury and the editorial compulsion to balance Trudeau with something—anything—that isn’t liberal. Trudeau, of course, has no control over such editorial decisions; if he did, he should be ashamed, or at least chagrined.
Short & Quick Reviews of New Books
Craig Yoe, who is a master of various kinds of cartooning and other idiotic behavior but who is also a passionate and caring student of the art forum, wrote, recently, on a List online: “I'd like to tell you about my brand spanking new book.” And then he explained: “I recently discovered incredible, previously unknown, fetish art by the creator of Superman, Joe Shuster. The artist and his writing partner, Jerry Siegel, had sold Superman for 130 dollars. When they sued to get the rights back they lost and got drummed out of the comic book industry and Shuster fell on hard times. It was unknown that to get by and/or because of a personal interest in the subject, Shuster then did S&M porn for under-the-counter booklets called Nights of Horror, sold in Times Square in the early fifties.”
As I mentioned lately in announcing a Hindsight installment about girlie cartooning, the art in the Shuster book is sensational: drawings of barenekidwimmin being spanked or spanking (hence the wonder of Yoe’s double entendre), being whipped or whipping, being tied up and otherwise abused, all produced during the last heyday of suppression of all things sexual, the mid-1950s in the U.S., just as Hugh Hefner was about to convert the national voyeurism into a personal fortune. But the scandalous part of the book erupted not so much from its drawings as from the name of their creator, whose identity as well as the fixation of the interior art was proclaimed in the book’s title: Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-creator, Joe Shuster. Craig Yoe, whose passion for the history of the comics medium led him to the discovery of this furtive art and then to the creation of the book itself.
Yoe goes on: “The back story I uncovered involves the Mob, showgirls, neo-Nazi Jewish juvenile delinquents, inspired by Shuster's art, known as the Brooklyn Thrill Killers, the famed anti-comic book crusader Dr. Frederic Wertham, Senate investigations, cops on payola, the books being banned by the Supreme Court, teenage girls being horse-whipped in the park, two murders...and dare I say more?”
Even this much, alas, was too much for some of the Pure of Heart among us, repressed brethren who would have preferred to keep this part of Shuster’s life a deep, dark secret forever as if it was something to be ashamed of. Yoe was promptly chastized for taking “the memory of the man who gave us so much who is now dead and trying to sensationalize him as a sleeze artist. I am sure,” this particular penman went on to say, “there are many here who have done things they regret, and to parade those things around gleefully for the sake of a few shekels and to get some perverted titillating pleasure of seeing a hero fall is shameful.”
As you have discovered from reading my Monumental Opus on the Subject, I strenuously disagree. And so does Warren Bernard, who wrote: “I had the pleasure of being the main historical researcher on the Shuster Book. This took me from the Library of Congress to The National Archives. Along the way we discovered that these cartoons had such an impact that they were featured in New York State hearings, Senate hearings chaired by Estes Kefauver and most important of all, a New York City obscenity case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. This was in addition to these cartoons being linked directly to some very heinous crimes that outraged New York City. I cannot think of another cartoon, comic, or comic strip that could say the same.”
He concluded (and rightly so): “It would be a great loss to the history of comics if we had just let these go and did not turn up this new chapter in the history of comics. Especially since this all occurred right at the time the Comics Code was being formed and, yes, in many articles of the day, both these Shuster cartoons and the Comics Code were written up in the same articles in the newspapers of the day, adding much fuel to the Comics Code fire. When you read the full story, it will become clear that this was no ordinary series of sleazoid cartoons. Keep in mind, of all the sleaze being published at the time in the porn world, New York City picked these cartoons, these magazines, to take to court in an attempt to clean up Times Square.” Yoe’s introductory essay accurately and thoughtfully rehearses the invention of Superman and many of Shuster and Siegel’s pertinent financial adventures (with a sly dig at DC mogul Harry Donenfeld, “the Man of Steal”), concluding with a similarly cogent account of all those other mysterious tangents he mentions. A genuinely fraught narrative.
The Introduction to the book, by the way, is written by Stan Lee, who, while (like almost everyone) bemoaning the kink, recognizes the historical value of the volume.
Probably Shuster himself, a product of his repressed times, would not have very eagerly claimed this work as his, but, without question, he did it—some of the best drawing he ever did, in fact, many of the characters looking startlingly like Clark Kent or Lois Lane (the latter somewhat more endowed than usual). By 1954 when the drawings were published as illustrations of a series of books about some odd sexual adventures, Shuster had lost his job with DC Comics (because he and Jerry Siegel sued for ownership of Superman and lost), and his latest co-creation, Funnyman, had failed. He was, we assume, broke and disheartened. But, Yoe asks in his introduction, did Shuster have to do this kind of illustration to survive? Was it an act of financial desperation? “Or was drawing characters who looked like their famous counterparts, only in compromising situations, an act of retribution? [A decidedly intriguing possibility.] Or is it possible that there was something in Joe that enjoyed this type of fantasy material?” We shouldn’t care, really, why he did it. But we hope he enjoyed it. That would be human of him. And humane of us. In case you missed it, a week or so ago, we posted an essay in Harv’s Hindsight that I wrote many years ago that borders on the subject of why men who draw often draw naked women. And after you’ve read and appreciated the stupendousness of that, you can sample some of Shuster’s kinky art, herewith.
And now, we arrive at last at that glorious Fantagraphics reprint of the entire run of Harvey Kurtzman’s satiric masterpiece, the little magazine entitled Humbug, that was published from August 1957 until its sad demise 11 issues later in October 1958. The glory of the project is first evident in the package: a slip-cased two-volume set, each glistening shiney-cover volume approximately 230 7x10-inch pages, most with a second color throughout (reproducing exactly, in other words, the pages of the original publication). In addition to including every page of the fabled magazine, these two volumes also include a long (35-pages plus) interview conducted by John Benson in December 2005 with Al Jaffee and Arnold Roth, the two surviving Humbug partners (Will Elder is gone; Jack Davis, who survives, was not a partner although he contributed voluminously), an introduction by Benson and Gary Groth that rehearses the magazine’s history (it was doomed at the start by its smaller size and low cover price, which combined to baffle retailers who didn’t know where to display it and weren’t realizing enough profit to make it worth their while to overcome the inherent limitations) and discusses the contributions of the partners and the founder, Kurtzman, a section of annotations that explain the now-forgotten cultural events of the 1950s that Humbug so copiously satirized, and illustrated notes about how the pages of this treasured antique were restored.
“Restoration” is the operative term. Humbug was printed on the cheapest, lumpiest newsprint of the day, and the quality of the artwork and typography was often degraded by the paper’s capacity for absorbing and then spreading the ink. The reprint pages do not just “copy” the original publication, page-by-page: the original pages have been computer-restored by “Fantagraphics’ Production Maestro” Paul Baresh, who removed blemishes and flaws—no easy task considering that some of the artwork and type overprinted a second color. No wonder it has taken so long to bring this project to fruition: its publication date was initially over a year ago, but Fantagraphics pursuit of perfection doubtless delayed the production until just now. But now it’s here, hoorah.
The entire production is an exquisite reminder of how well the technology of today can reproduce vintage materials, which, in this case, include the graphic delights of Elder, Jaffee, Davis, and Roth plus occasional interlopers. Sometimes it’s a little difficult to ascertain the “authors” of some of the satires in the magazine. The cartoonists sign their work, usually; and some of the text is bylined by writers who were not “staff” members. But not everything is attributed to some personage; we assume anything not signed must be chiefly Kurtzman’s work, a safe assumption, I ween, but not an entirely foolproof one.
Benson and Groth describe Humbug as “the strongest, most sustained run of satire in Kurtzman’s whole career ... [at first] unusually topical for him.” Created at the wake of the sumptuous but aborted Trump, a Playboy publication that collapsed when Hugh Hefner’s empire ran short of cash in 1957, Humbug was Kurtzman’s attempt to produce on a penurious budget what he might have achieved in the lap of Playboy’s luxuries. Thanks to the everlasting invention of the satirical artists who believed in the project and pooled their money to finance it, Humbug came awfully close and then surpassed the objective, “their artistry transcending the topicality of their satiric targets.” The topicality with which the magazine began—pointed political references, for instance, “mostly written by others ... became less frequent as the title progressed” despite Kurtzman’s initial intention. “His preference was skewering pop artifacts and cultural trends—his primary targets had been movies, tv, comics and advertising—in order to underscore the absurdity of American culture, and his tone was one of tolerant bemusement rather than moral censure. His satirical impulses were sly and subversive, not trenchant or hectoring; more [Stan] Freberg and [Ernie] Kovacs (both of whom wrote original material for Kurtzman’s magazines) or [Sid] Caesar (who appeared on a cover of Kurtzman’s later Help) than Mort Sahl (also on a Help cover) or Lenny Bruce.” Before long, Humbug looked very much like a low-budget Mad magazine—albeit one in which the instruments of satire were more varied.
In Humbug we find the predictable parodies of movies and tv—shorter now, and therefore more biting—and spoofs of advertising, but we also encounter the blithe spirit of controlled lunacy for the pure sake of antic comedy. In No. 9, for instance, we read, in large type on a right-hand page: “The following four pages are like nothing you have ever read in a magazine before.” This announcement is followed by two pages that are completely blank except for a line of italic type at the bottom of the second page that says, “Continued on page 31,” and when we get to page 31, we find it is also entirely blank except for a screaming headline: “April Fool!” This issue, oddly, is denominated the May issue on the cover, but the indicia say, reassuringly, that it’s the April 1958 issue. But “April Fool” would work, actually, at any time of year.
The Christmas issue that year offered an article on “Gift Wrapping.” After a demonstration of how to wrap a present by decorating the package (a description that quickly degenerates into a recipe—“trim, sprinkle, season well, and pop into the oven, bake until done”), the magazine also helpfully prints a tear-out page of “reversible Humbug wrapping paper,” depicted hereabouts. The advertised reverse depicts a series of oval Christmas tree ornaments which reflect the progress through the late afternoon and evening of a Christmas shopper who stops on his way home at every saloon and tavern he encounters. Eventually, as you might suppose, he is entirely overcome.
All of Kurtzman’s partners would go on to illustrious careers after Humbug ended, “but a project like Humbug comes only once in a lifetime, and, though each had a long and successful career, never again would they embark on such a singular, inspiring, and quixotic aesthetic adventure.”
A RETIRED PERSON'S RESPONSE TO A DUMB QUESTION:
We don’t want to inaugurate a practice of recycling here at R&R the comicalities of the ’Net, but this one is too good to let lie fallow: Yesterday, I was at PetsMart buying a large bag of Purina dog chow for my loyal pet, Angel the Wonder Dog. I was in the checkout line when the woman behind me asked if I had a dog. What did she think I had, an elephant? So, since I'm retired and have little to do, on impulse I told her, "No, I don't have a dog. I am starting the Purina Diet again." I added that I probably shouldn't, because I ended up in the hospital last time, but that I'd lost 50 pounds before I awakened in an intensive care ward with tubes coming out of most of my orifices and IVs in both arms. I told her that it was essentially a perfect diet, and that the way it works is to load your pockets with Purina nuggets. Then you simply eat one or two every time you feel hungry. The food is nutritionally complete so it works well, and I was going to try it again.
I have to mention here that practically everyone in line was now enthralled with my story. Horrified, she asked if I ended up in intensive care because the dog food poisoned me. I told her, "No, I stepped off a curb to sniff an Irish Setter's butt and a car hit us both.”
I thought the guy behind her was going to have a heart attack, he was laughing so hard. PetsMart won't let me shop there anymore.
watch what you ask retired people. They have all the time in the
world to think of crazy things to say.
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE
An admirable first issue must, above all else, contain such matter as will compel a reader to buy the second issue. At the same time, while provoking curiosity through mysteriousness, a good first issue must avoid being too mysterious or cryptic. And, thirdly, it should introduce the title’s principals, preferably in a way that makes us care about them. Fourth, a first issue should include a complete “episode”—that is, something should happen, a crisis of some kind, which is resolved by the end of the issue, without, at the same time, detracting from the cliffhanger aspect of the effort that will compel us to buy the next issue.
Repleat with “devils, deserts and deviants,” Steven T. Seagle’s Soul Kiss No. 1 is virtually an exemplar of a first issue. We meet Lili on the first pages, and she speaks to us directly: “There are three things you should know about me,” she says, then lists them. Her manner—blunt wise-ass tough talk—tells us that she’s nobody’s fool. Next, she’s on a stretch of deserted highway in Arizona with a stalled car. An old lecher shows up, offering to help but drooling as he does. Lili tells him to buzz off, but he doesn’t, and then when she mutters to herself that she’d give anything not to be there, the Devil himself appears, whispers something to Lili, and when she answers “Yes,” she next finds herself at home in bed with the taste of moths in her mouth. She remembers, then, that back in that desert, thousands of moths descended upon the old lecher and ate him alive. The moth taste in her mouth, she realizes, is the taste of ... death. But she thinks little about the implications of that until she kisses her boyfriend, Damon, and thousands of moths descend upon him and eat him up. She knows, then, that she’s made a bargain with the Devil. On the last page, she agonizes about how to get out of the deal. Given her personality—the tough-talking broad—we suspect she’ll figure out something, and to learn what it is, we’ll buy the next issue of the book. The cliffhanger is created: we want to know what will happen next. The first issue’s complete episode begins at the stalled car in the desert and is resolved with Lili’s discovery of the implications of her bargain with the Prince of Darkness.
In the second issue, we learn the precise dimensions of her hellish deal: in the desert, the Devil whispered to her: “Get raped or pledge a soul to me.” Confronting the Devil, Lili screams, “You never said it would be the soul of my boyfriend!” With perfect logic, the Devil responds: “I never said it would not.” He then offers her a second deal: if she’ll get ten more souls for him, he’ll arrange for Damon to come back to life. Lili agrees to this horrible bargain, but by the end of this issue, she’s discovered a way to fulfil her part that is much less morally reprehensible than the deal appears at first. Her first victim is her loathsome boss at the movie studio where she works. To punish him for his brutal treatment of underlings like her, she comes on to him, and when he takes the bait and kisses her, he is, naturally, consumed by a flock of moths. Lili has found her mission: “It dawned on me that instead of me being Satan’s little hand puppet and kissing guys dead—what if they kissed me instead? Their call, not mine?” The souls she sends to Satan would be those of people who deserved to die. In effect, she would become an avenging demon, ridding the world of nasty brutish men. Or, perhaps—even—women similarly disposed.
Marco Cinello renders all these devilish doings in stylish visual shorthand, sometimes deploying a bold line to limn starkly simple angular forms, sometimes resorting to a painterly manner, layering monochromatic hues over sketchy pencil-like drawings to evoke remembered episodes. He supplies backgrounds sparingly, relying, usually, on figures and faces etched against elaborate splashes of color instead of detailing furniture or landscapes. Layouts sometimes follow a patterned grid, and sometimes panels fall across a page against an expanse of unrelieved white. His drawing style and storytelling maneuvers give every page a visual intensity of dramatic impact even without the story; but then, there’s the story, expertly told.
We live and learn. I learned lately that it is now impossible to catch up to the Batman saga. It has passed me by. I neglected for years to buy any of the Batman titles. I like Batman (or used to), but I had only so many thousands of dollars to spend every month on funnybooks, and since my typing duties here at the Rancid Raves Intergalactic Wurlitzer demanded that I read at least a few of the newest titles that heave into view with relentless regularity, I elected to spend my allowance on inaugural issues and a few Old Favorites. Batbooks didn’t qualify. But all the atmospheric disturbance recently about Bruce Wayne retiring—or dying or being buried alive or being transported to another planetary system—soon overwhelmed my best intentions, and I bought a few Batbooks—namely, Batman Nos. 681, 683, and 686, Detective No. 851, and the Battle for the Cowl one-shot, plus No. 1—hoping to find out what Bruce was up to and what it all meant anyhow. Alas, a vain hope.
All of these books have at least one thing in common: they are almost entirely unintelligible to a person who has not been buying and reading these titles since the Dawn of Time or soon thereafter. In Batman No. 681, for instance, I don’t know who any of the characters are. Master Lo? Pierrot? Dark Ranger, Al-Khidr, Cardinal Maggi, Black Glove? The names keep coming, raining on the page like splinters in a typhoon. Jabari, Diallo, Jacob Nkele, John Mayhew, Squire, Musketeer, Mangrove Pierce? Jolly Swagman? Or is that last one just a joke? It’s impossible to tell; there are so many fanciful names without personalities or identities. And who’s the caped and costumed character with a silent full page all to himself at the end of the book? Batman? Bruce? Dick Grayson? Robin? Nightwing? The “new” Batman? Is Batman in his grave or in Tibet? Batman No. 683 is no better; ditto Detective No. 851, although it includes what appears to be a story about a woman/actress who has been disfigured by Two-Face. An act of revenge? Whose? Otherwise, no discernible plots or stories or very many familiar characters.
Part of the problem, the source of the confusion, is the current compulsion by Batman’s writers to keep building on the continuity established over the past several years. They make references to persons and events that took place several issues ago. Sometimes more than mere references: sometimes whole stories make sense only if you are aware of something that happened before. Batman in his grave in No. 681, for example. The continuity confusion is compounded by another tendency too often indulged by comic book writers these days: they aspire to be script writers for movies, I suspect, and so they write as if they are writing for the cinema, not comic books. Action movies these days are distinguished by non-stop action and very little plot. Everything is visual excitement. Action leaps from one battle to an explosion to another battle. Observing all this, we have only an impression of what’s going on—the impression that all is in motion, all is exploding. Action action action. Whatever plot or story lies buried in the wreckage emerges only piecemeal and occasionally, a fragment here, another fragment there. The so-called narrative moves back and forth in time, here and there in space. Fragments, impressions predominate—all adding to an overwhelming sense of excitement. In a movie theater where everything happens in a couple hours, all the fragments begin to add up eventually and make a kind of splattered sense; but when the same narrative technique is used in a static medium like the serialized comic book, none of the pieces come together in a single issue, so we stagger on, bewildered and angry, in complete ignorance of the significance of what we see exploding on every other page. Without a sense of closure, the action becomes meaningless. And frustrating to view, impossible to comprehend.
Here, employing the same cinematic impressionistic technique for criticism, is Battle for the Cowl No. 1: Robin and Squire foil robbery attempt by means not altogether clear ... gang of pigs? vs the Network? ... someone is crusading around as “Batman”; who? ... Damian—who? Wannabe Robin? Batman? He crashes Batcar (or Oracle does?) ... then Nightwing rescues him ... then faux Batman rescues Nightwing ... too many scene changes and characters.
And then there’s the actual writing, the verbiage itself, which, in the wake of Bruce Wayne/Batman’s disappearance, has become bloated and pretentious. In No. 1 of Battle for the Cowl, we read that “the citizens of Gotham are looking for a savior—someone to take back the streets. They’re looking for Batman—or a batman.” Because Batman “was much more than just a crime fighter. He was Gotham’s protector. Her guardian angel.” Savior? Guardian angel? Not even in a comic book can we stomach such misbegotten religiosity.
Often the drawings are as inferior as the stories are baffling. Too much laboriously applied shadow, copious wrinkles in clothing distort anatomy, shadows on faces disfigure and destroy recognizability, anatomy is sometimes off. Catwoman Kyle’s head in No. 686 is repeatedly drawn in a position that is an anatomical impossibility. Andy Kubert’s pencils, featured on three pages at the back of the book, are beautiful, but Scott Williams’ inks turn subtle shading into stark black splotches that add too much visual emphasis where less would be more. Perhaps Kubert’s pencils, beautiful as they stand, simply can’t be inked without destroying their visual appeal. And the coloring time after time destroys visual clarity by being too dark. As Jay Lynch observed years ago, the computer is the culprit: with light coming from behind the image being colored, the colors look on the screen much brighter than they’ll appear in print. The result in print, then, is muted color, and when the action takes place at night or in deep shadows, the shadowy blues and purples are too dark and obscure the drawings.
In the Batman titles, DC Comics is doubtless hoping to amp the popularity of the Batman movies into newsstand sales, but, if industry reports are to be believed, it isn’t working. Happy movie-goers ought to snap up copies of the comic book featuring their movie idol, but apparently they’re not doing it. Still, DC plunges ahead with its marketing schemes. The plan is that a hyped-up movie fan will buy a Batman comic book, then, when he/she discovers that the story is continued in another Batbook, he/she will happily buy that title, too, and so on, ad infinitum. Even if this scheme worked—if more titles were being purchased, willy nilly—it’s a short-sighted strategy because it creates a continuity that is impenetrable: no new reader can make sense of what happens in a single title, so why would he/she buy the next title in the continuity? Initially, the plan may yield greater sales from title to title (although, as I say, it doesn’t appear to be working that way), but it stunts the growth of a comic-book reading public. The continuity-clutched titles appeal only to die-hard fans, who, presumably, would buy any thing with “Bat” in the title. New readers—youngsters looking for places to spend their three bucks—are likely to be quickly turned off by such tactics. Where does that leave the funnybook factories? Twenty years from now when all the die-hard fans—who were nurtured on the characters before continuity was the be-all and end-all of comic book writing—have died off, comic book publishers will have no one to buy the books. Like newspapers, they’ll die off themselves.
I must admit, though, to there being one bright spot in all the titles I tried to read with comprehension. Neil Gaiman’s conceit in Batman No. 686 in which the compassionate butler Alfred, hoping to convince the insanely despondent Bruce Wayne that his hope to become a crime-fighter is not foolish, gets actor friends to don make-up and costumes and pose as criminals for Batman to fight—criminals like the Penguin, the Riddler, Catwoman, etc. A nicely convoluted notion, much like Bob Hall’s artful device in I, the Joker, years ago (1999, to be exact; see Opus Two). But I doubt I’ll be buying any more Batbooks: even such a delight as an occasional invention by Gaiman is not enough to convince me that wading through all that rough water is worth getting so wet.
In The Great Unknown No. 1, we have nice art by writer/artist Duncan Rouleau, but his protagonist, Zack, a slacker of the first order, is a writer, and so the book is by a writer writing about being a writer, one of the lamest devices landed on by too many writers who take as an article of faith that cannot be violated the admonition to “write about what you know.” If all they know is writing, then they can’t have much to say to most of us, many of whom are not writers. Zack, in addition to being a writer, thinks he’s an inventor, which only compounds his tendency to sit around doing nothing. Which he does for most of this book. Ayn Rand’s John Galt (from her philosophical monument, Atlas Shrugged) lurks in the background, though, promising that this title may actually get somewhere. The book is divided into three chapters, each of which constitutes a sort of complete episode. Zack, alas, is not at all likeable, but Rouleau’s drawings are.
Frank Frazetta’s Moon Maid, a one-shot, is another of those books, like Marvel’s adaptations of Stephen King’s oeuvre, that seek to capitalize upon the popularity of a celebrity artist without actually engaging the celebrity to do the work. (Okay, I guess King at least supervises the Marvel interpretations of his books.) Here, Frazetta supplies only the cover art, but it’s not new art: it is a reproduction of one of his famous paintings of a voluptuous naked princess, her fleshy derriere on conspicuous display, astride a fierce snaggle-toothed centaur with wild hair. Tim Vigil does some impressive drawing, aping Frazetta’s painted mannerisms with pen and ink, and Jay Fotos’ story offers a novel twist: the naked lady’s rescuer, the snaggle-toothed centaur, turns out to be the procurer for a god’s blood sacrifices. More books with stories inspired by Frazetta paintings (which will appear as the cover art) are in the offing; keep them for the artwork.
Bang! Tango No. 1 has cover art by Howard Chaykin, and that’s its highest recommendation. The book opens on a rainy New York streetscene with Vini running away—from what, we don’t exactly know except that his flight seems to leave a friend in the lurch. When next we meet him, three years later, he’s a dance king who avoids going to New York, where he’ll undoubtedly encounter a vengeful past. You have to be into “Dancing with the Stars” to engage with this book, I think: we’re introduced to Vini’s “new life” as a dancer with three pages of dancing and no verbiage. Joe Kelly who created the title with penciller Adrian Sibar ladles in plenty of sexual content: Vini sleeps with his dancing partner and, at the end of this issue, balls her on the roof (discretely, in silhouette) after ripping her clothes off in a notably passionate moment. This culminates the issue’s episode, a quarrel between the two over Vincent’s reluctance to go to New York where all the big dance competitions are. Another reason for his rageful rooftop ravishing, though, is the appearance halfway through the issue of Autumn, a woman from his New York past who wants him to help her escape being blackmailed. He finally agrees—provided she disappear and never come into his life again. We don’t know exactly their past relationship; nor what she’s being blackmailed about—hence, the cliffhanger. Sibar’s pencils, inked by Rodney Ramos, are thoroughly competent, his women leggy and busty without being overblown, but the attention given to Vini’s lips is a little fussy for me, as are various of the featherings and noodlings. But the storytelling is just fine, thank you.
I picked up three of the five Patsy Walker Hellcat title, mostly because I wanted to see how Patsy Walker could become a superheroine. She does it by prattling wittily throughout every combative encounter. The story not at all complicated, so vacuous, in fact, that I don’t want to re-visit it. Something about polar bears and giant wolves in the northern clime. Mostly it’s writer Kathryn Immonen’s excuse for Hellcat to cavort around, which she does in the most pleasing visuals in any costume caper comic hereabouts: David Lafuente gives us a heroine in her fighting togs, shapely without being “naked” under the spandex. Lovely. I’d buy the missing numbers in this sequence in a minute if I could find ’em. Another big plus for the title: the first page recaps what has gone before so that those with marginally retentive brains, like me, can find our way into the ensuing adventure without stumbling around in the dark for the first six pages. Batwriters should take note.
WE’RE ALL BROTHERS, AND WE’RE ONLY PASSIN’ THROUGH
Sometimes happy, sometimes blue,
But I’m so glad I ran into you---
We’re all brothers, and we’re only passin’ through.
From Editor & Publisher (verbatim): Honolulu Star-Bulletin editorial cartoonist Francisco Flores "Corky" Trinidad Jr., whose editorial cartoons for 40 years recorded life and lampooned politics in Hawaii and the world, died February 13, 2009 of complications from pancreatic cancer. He was 69. "Corky was a Star-Bulletin treasure," Editor Frank Bridgewater said in a Web report on Trinidad's death. "Many people, everywhere, started their day by checking out Corky. Even people without Hawaii connections who didn't understand some of his cartoons looked forward to them. When Corky went on leave, readers immediately began calling and e-mailing me from everywhere wanting to know, ‘Where's Corky?'" Trinidad had been on leave for several months, battling pancreatic cancer.
"Any Hawaii cartoonist works in Corky's shadow; he's the ultimate local cartoonist," former MidWeek cartoonist Daryl Cagle, who syndicated Corky's work, said in a story. "Most of us marvel at how Corky is so prolific, drawing a color cartoon for the front page and a black-and-white one for the editorial page—every day! It's the feat of a super-cartoonist. Even with that crazy output, Corky keeps his quality up and is one of the best cartoonists anywhere."
ONWARD, THE SPREADING PUNDITRY
The Thing of It Is ...
Number of minutes scheduled for working, plenary sessions at the recent G20 summit: 220. Minutes scheduled for logistics: arriving, departing, eating and photo sessions: 260. Minutes each of the 30 attendees would have to talk during the sessions if they’d had equal time: 7.
Darth Cheney has come out of hiding every once in a while these past couple months since being deprived of his Undisclosed Location, appearing on various tv talk shows and whining about how shutting down the Guantanamo prison camp and giving up torture is making the U.S. less safe. The Associated Press quoted him as saying: “I think those programs were absolutely essential to the success we enjoyed of being able to collect the intelligence that let us defeat all further attempts to launch attacks against the United States since 9/11. I think it’s a great success story. It was done legally. It was done in accordance with our constitutional practices and principles. President Obama campaigned against it all across the country. And now he is making some choices that, in my mind, will, in fact, raise the risk to the American people of another attack.” In his “mind,” he says. His mind is the same place where we found the Iraqi insurgency in its “last throes,” remember—three or more years ago. Some throes those were. Are. Naturally, he believes torturing helpless prisoners of war prevented “further” attacks. He believes that works. I have another belief: I keep a loaded slingshot under my pillow in the belief that the practice keeps away stampeding elephants. And it works. We haven’t had a stampede of elephants in my house yet. Cheney’s motive is different, however. He must maintain that torture and the unconstitutional habits of the Bush League worked: if they worked, they’re justified. And if they’re justified, then neither he nor Rumsfeld nor GeeDubya can be tried and convicted of war crimes.
Not that I think they should be tried and convicted of war crimes and breaking American laws. I am convinced they broke laws and committed war crimes, but I also believe, as does Obama, that any attempt to bring these criminals to trial would so divide the country that none of the Obama plans for a better country could ever be enacted. For the sake of the future good we must turn our backs on the evils of the past.
Ol’ Marble Mouth. If he keeps it up, Ohio’s John Boehner, minority leader in the House, is likely to kill off the Grand Old Pachyderm, the so-called Republican Party. His criticism of the Stimulus Bill finally signed into law by Baracko Bama on February 17 (less than a month after taking office), Boehner trumpeted every time he got in front of the cameras: the bill, he said— looking, as always, like he’s rolling a marble around in his mouth as he’s talking—started out being about “jobs, jobs, jobs” but wound up being about “spending, spending, spending.” Boehner is simply parroting that hoary GOP cheer—that Democrats are compulsive spenders—while ignoring the colossal Republican record spending of the last 8 years and hoping everyone else will overlook that record, too. Probably most of us for the next couple generations are not likely to forget who spent the country into the poorhouse, and Boehner, by bleating the threadbare GOP complaint, is only reminding us who to blame come Election Day. Besides, how do you create jobs without spending money to pay the people who take the jobs you’ve created? Creaky Republican logic. Boehner logic. Don’t trust it. Don’t trust anyone who looks, when he talks, like he’s rolling a marble around in his mouth: you can’t tell what he really has in there.
don’t care whether they call it “socialized medicine”
or something else: all I want is the same health care that members of
Congress enjoy. Which raises a question conveniently being ignored by
the opponents of socialized medicine: if private enterprise in the
health care realm is so good, why isn’t it good enough for
members of Congress?
to Anthony Shadid at the Washington
Post, Muntadar al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoes at
GeeDubya, supposedly yelled, as he threw: “This is your
farewell kiss, you dog! This is from the widows, the orphans and
those who were killed in Iraq!” I suspect he said no such
thing: these memorable phrases have doubtless been invented since the
event in the manner of most embroidery in folklore. Al-Zaidi is
undeniably a rising star in the Iraqi folklore firmament. He was
sentenced to three years in prison for “assaulting a foreign
leader,” and when the judge pronounced the sentence, tumult
ensued in the courtroom. “Long live Iraqi!” al-Zaidi
shouted. A great crowd had gathered outside the courthouse. Iraqi
women adore him: “Zaidi restored Iraqi women’s dignity,
which was stolen,” said one, quoted by Abeer Mohammed and
Alissa J. Rubin at the New
York Times. “No one dared to face Bush in the whole world,” she went
on, “only Muntader al-Zaidi.”
Hot Stuff. George Will, he of the rampant conservative mein, recently assembled considerable persuasive “evidence” that the globe isn’t warming all that much anyhow. In the 1970s, he reminded us, we were all a-twitter over the “major cooling of the planet,” a declining temperature that has been in descent since the 1950s; some even predicted the return of another ice age. Will quotes the Science Digest of February 1973: “The world’s climatologists are agreed” that we must “prepare for the next ice age.” Perhaps, it occurs to me, the planet is, at present, warming only by comparison to its cooling 35 years ago? In any event, Will says, perhaps the warming has stopped. A decline in levels of sea ice was cited a year ago as evidence of “man-made global warming.” But since September “the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began. According to the University of Illinois Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.” Moreover, “according to the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization, there has been on recorded global warming for more than a decade, or one-third of th span since the global cooling scare.”
And then just last night on “NBC Nightly News,” we had a report about how the ice cap up north is shrinking so rapidly that it’s no longer a question of “if the ice will disappear altogether” but “when.”
Oh—well, Will is talking about “sea ice,” which, we assume, is different than polar ice caps. Still ice, though. Until it melts. Then it’s water.
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