Opus 243 (June 14, 2009). Headlining this time are stories about cartoonists being abused by their societies and of our society abusing a comics collector for having some loli manga in his possession—a purely horrifying instance of invasion of privacy and curtailing personal liberty virtually unprecedented in American life; plus the most spectacular and therefore shameful editoonist lay-off so far, and a lingering look at the career and art of Al Williamson. We also review a fortnight’s comic strip clippings and some recent comic books, including Waid’s Irredeemable, Power Girl, a couple of Marvel’s noirs, the end of 100 Bullets, and the Vigilante graphic novel. Here’s what’s here, by department, in order:
Launching Into Our Eleventh Year: Reintroducing the Rabbit
NOUS R US: Veronica gets the ring, Ed Stein gets an award, Playboy gets a new boss, NY Post gets diversity training
HOW THE HANDLEY SETTLEMENT THREATENS US ALL
Plus: Child Porn Laws in Manila and in England
DISPATCHES FROM OVER THERE: Cartoonists’ fates in Lebanon, Italy, Egypt, Iraq
Danes Still Being Punished for Their Cartoonists’ Temerity
Zapiro Turns Off the Spigot
CRYSTAL-BALLING THE FUNNIES WITH ART SPIEGELMAN
EDITOONERY: The Last Spectacular Lay-off, Is Editooning Dead or Not?
THE FROTH ESTATE: Newsweek Gives Up, Colbert Takes Over
NEWSPAPER COMICS PAGE VIGIL: Doonesbury, Luann, Beetle Bailey, Funky Winkerbean, Crankshaft, Agnes, Frazz, Adam@Home, Non Sequitur, Rhymes with Orange, Tundra, Pajama Diaries, and Garfield
BOOK MARQUEE: Asterios Polyp, new ones from U. Press of Mississippi, Usagi Yojimbo’s anniversary celebration, the Legendary Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon tome, CBG’s DVD doesn’t work
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE: Irredeemable, Incognito, 100 Bullets ends, Caped, Kyle Baker’s Special Forces, two of Marvel’s “noir” titles (Wolverine and Daredevil), Spirit No. 27, Ignition City, Vigilante: City Lights, Prairie Justice, Power Girl
And our customary reminder: don’t forget to activate the “Bathroom Button” by clicking on the “print friendly version” so you can print off a copy of just this installment for reading later, at your leisure while enthroned. Without further adieu, then, here we go—
PLUNGING INTO ELEVEN AND BEYOND
For reasons that are as perverse as they are egocentric, I pause here on the threshold of our eleventh year to disclose some recent discoveries I made about our rabbit mascot. You can read the history of this “dingbat” (as well as an offhand explanation of “dingbat”) in another corner of this website (scroll down to the end of this “page,” click on main page, then on Enter Here, then scroll down some more until you get to “Who, Exactly, Is the Happy Harv,” then click to read “the complete history,” where, eventually, you’ll come to the story of the rabbit). I divulge in that niche that I call my rabbit Cahoots. I call him that but that's not his name. He may not have a name. Or his name might be Harvey. I chose the rabbit, as revealed elsewhere, because the name Harvey had become associated with a rabbit thanks to Mary Chase's play, Harvey, the title of which was inspired by one of the central figures of the production, a six-foot rabbit, usually invisible, named "Harvey." My stratagem in adopting this dingbat was that readers would see the rabbit in my drawings and think—immediately, as a virtual knee-jerk or Pavlovian drool—"Harvey!" Clever, eh? Well, I'm only five-foot-eleven-inches tall, but I have some rabbit habits.
Mary Coyle Chase, I have discovered since returning here to Denver, the land of my youth, was once a reporter and then society editor of the late lamented Rocky Mountain News, where her husband, Robert L. Chase, was city editor. In the spring of 1945, she learned that she had won a Pulitzer Prize for her play. Her father, she divulged, had told her that “Harvey” would be a success. “He bet me a carton of cigarets against a box of cigars that it would win the Pulitzer Prize.” She bought the cigars.
Elwood P. Dowd, the play’s slightly tipsy leading man who has befriended (or been befriended by) the six-foot rabbit, may have been inspired by another character of Chase’s acquaintance, Lee Taylor Casey, a picturesque newspaperman who was, for two years, “acting editor” of the News. Reputedly a star reporter, Casey also wrote columns that were sometimes hard-hitting (defending the rights of Japanese American citizens who were interred during World War II) and sometimes beautiful paeans to classical literature. “He wrote,” it sez here, “with a power and direct simplicity that stemmed from a clear sense of right and wrong.” Casey was a regular at the Denver Press Club’s poker games and was depicted in the last issue of the News holding the first ostrich egg laid in the City Park Zoo on April 27, 1933. This juxtaposition alone seems to qualify him as Dowd’s alter ego. But his eccentricity is further attested to by his peculiar bequest to the paper: when he died in 1951, his ashes were interred in the marblework of the paper’s lobby. In 2006, when the News moved to a new building—destined to be its mausoleum—shared with its JOA partner the Denver Post, the ashes were removed and laid to rest in the Crown Hill Cemetery in west Denver.
Chase’s play, according to John Mason Brown who reviewed it in The Saturday Review of December 30, 1944 shortly after it opened, offers “a little sermon to the effect that a man nowadays must be either bright or good, [a theory] advanced in the goofy, giddy, happily cockeyed and boozy terms upon which Saroyan is generally considered to have take out a copyright. In the form of its unseen rabbit, too, it makes the same plea for a man’s need of his illusions that Mr. Saroyan made with his unseen mice in The Beautiful People.”
Several of Dowd’s utterances have stuck with me for years. Dowd’s sister takes him to see a psychiatrist, hoping to get him cured of his Harvey delusion. The psychiatrist advises Dowd that he must face reality, to which our lovable dipsomaniac responds: “Doctor, I wrestled with reality for forty years, and I am happy to state that I finally won out over it.”
Later, Dowd offers what may be a gloss on the previous pronouncement: “Doctor, my mother used to say to me, ‘In this world, Elwood’—she always called me Elwood—she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”
Later still, Dowd delivers one of his longest speeches on the subject of Harvey, when he explains what it is that he and Harvey do: “Harvey and I sit in the bars and we have a drink or two and play the jukebox. Soon the faces of the other people turn toward mine and smile. They are saying, ‘We don’t know your name, Mister, but you’re a lovely fellow.’ Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. We have entered as strangers—soon we have friends. They come over. They sit with us. They drink with us. They talk to us. They tell us about the big terrible things they have done. The big wonderful things they will do. Their hopes, their regrets, their loves, their hates. All very large because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. Then I introduce them to Harvey. And he is bigger and grander than anything they offer me. When they leave, they leave impressed. The same people seldom come back—but that’s envy, my dear. There’s a little bit of envy in the best of us—too bad, isn’t it?”
John Mason Brown (who, among his other accomplishments, spoke disparagingly of comic books) doesn’t think highly of Chase’s play because he sees too much of Saroyan in it, but he admires the performance of Frank Fay, who plays Dowd in the original Broadway production. The imponderable hovering over the play is, without quibble, whether Harvey is “there” or not. Frank Fay, says John Mason Brown, retires the question: “Harvey becomes for us as genuine a character as he is to Mr. Fay. In no time, Mr. Fay establishes Harvey’s size, indicates his whereabouts, and persuades us that he is truly occupying the vacant chair in which he is supposed to be sitting. Mr. Fay outdoes the usual magician because the rabbit he produces is pulled out of our hats no less than his. By the evening’s end, the only way we know that Harvey is not real is because there still remains only one of him.” Jimmy Steward accomplished comparable magic in the movie version.
The play was originally entitled “Pooka,” the generic name of a Celtic fairy spirit, one of which was Dowd’s companion. By the time the production tried out in Boston, however, that title had been discarded in favor of “Harvey.” But Brock Pemberton, the producer, wasn’t confident that the audience would comprehend what was going on, so he staged one performance in which Harvey was visible—played by an actor in a $600 rabbit costume. But it wasn’t as funny that way, so Pemberton pocketed his $600 loss and they all trooped off to New York, where Frank Fay performed his magic, convincing us that Harvey was there even though we couldn’t see him.
Here at Rancid Raves, we’ve given the rabbit a visual if ambiguous presence because, inspired by Dowd’s rabbit, we’d like to think that he is pleasant to be with, bigger and grander, figuratively speaking, than anything else around these parts—or so we hope (vainly, or is that vainfully?), our hope taking the form of the bespectacled cottontail we call Cahoots. Is he really “there” or not? That depends on you: joining us here, you’re “in cahoots” with us, and Cahoots is therefore in your head, as “here” as anything ever is. A little mysticism is, they tell me, good for the soul.
NOUS R US
All the News That Gives Us Fits
Someone at Archie Comics spilled the beans to Megan O’Toole at the National Post: it is apparently raven-tressed rich bitch Veronica Lake who will be the allegedly lucky lady to receive Archie Andrews proposal of marriage later this summer (starting in No. 600 of the title). Archie is “going for wealth over sweetness,” said O’Toole, alluding to the other member of the eternal Archie triangle, the proverbial pretty girl next door, blonde Betty Cooper. Most of those writing about this watershed event, including O’Toole, assume that hereafter, the Archie titles will be about a married man. But as we observed here in Opus 242, the forthcoming nuptials are likely one of those Elseworld events that never impinge upon the continuing titles. Apart from being a blatant promotional gimmick, this maneuver also satisfies the desire of the writer, Michael Uslan, a lifetime fan of the Archie gang, who, like all of us males, secretly wants to achieve romantic bliss with an exotic beauty like Veronica instead of the girl next door, Betty, however comely she may be. We all wind up with Bettys but we still dream, as does Uslan, of Veronicas. While the readership of the Archie comic books has probably expanded and, to some extent, grown older as comics fandom itself has grown over the last couple decades, my guess is that the usual reader of the Archie line is still, as before, a teenage girl. And my next guess is that the average teenage female reader would rather Archie marry Betty because, I suppose, the average reader sees herself more as the "girl next door" than as the exotic beauty. So in satisfying his primal urge, Uslan is probably frustrating the Archie comics most loyal readership. But that's mere guesswork.
Actor Zach Galifianakis, 39, who plays the deranged brother of the bride in “The Hangover,” will play a comic book illustrator in HBO’s fall comedy, “Bored to Death,” according to Entertainment Weekly (June 12). ... The Week magazine, one of my favorites, annually confers Opinion Awards; this year, Mike Luckovich won in the editorial cartooning department, David Brooks in columnist department, and Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com in the blogging department. ... The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman was at the top of the ten best sellers in children’s fiction, a list in Publishers Weekly in early May. ... In one of its regular periodic lists of best sellers, PW Comics Week for May 5 lists Jeff Kenney’s most recent Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Last Straw first in the week’s top ten; all the rest of the muster are manga. Jeff Smith’s Bone: Crown of Horns, the final volume in the Bone saga, stands at thirteenth. ... On May 22, the Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State University screened a documentary on the cartoonist, “The Cartoonist: Jeff Smith, Bone, and the Changing Face of Comics.”
Editorial cartoonist Ed Stein, formerly of the late Rocky Mountain News in Denver, is among the list of recipients for the 2009 Aronson Awards for Social Justice Journalism, Editor & Publisher reports. The Aronson Awards have been presented since 1990 to journalists "who measure business, government and social affairs against clear ideals of the common good," according to its Web site. They are named in honor of James Aronson, the distinguished Hunter College professor of journalism who was editor from 1949 to 1967 of The National Guardian. In designating Stein, the Awards committee said it was recognizing "the graphic sophistication and range of his work in 2008 on the economy, torture and other crucial issues." Stein, who has received numerous accolades throughout his career, is syndicated by United Media and is a former president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists.
E&P announced that Freedom Communications President and CEO Scott Flanders has been tapped to succeed Christie Hefner at the head of Playboy Enterprises. “The choice is not official, so the deal could still fall apart,” said the Wall Street Journal. "But after a couple of recent visits to the Playboy Mansion, Flanders, who is also publisher of the Orange County and a number of other newspapers, has emerged as the clear favorite. ... Playboy has been without a permanent CEO since Christie Hefner, daughter of the magazine's founder Hugh Hefner, resigned six months ago. Playboy reported a loss for its first quarter, and has been the object of sales speculation since interim CEO Jerome Kern said the company ‘was willing to listen’ to offers.”
New York Post cartoonist provocateur Sean Delonas is still on the payroll even though NAACP president and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous urged the paper’s owner to fire him after he drew a cartoon with cops shooting a chimpanzee by way of protesting Barack Obama’s stimulus legislation. Africans in America’s sordid past have often been depicted as monkeys, so it was possible to interpret the cartoon as “an invitation to assassination” of Obama, said Jealous. Joined by the Rev. Al Sharpton, who lead the charge, representatives of the National Urban League and 100 Black Men of America, and NAACP met with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. executives on May 19, urging that something be done to diminish if not eliminate the atmosphere of racism that these groups saw in the Post and elsewhere in Murdoch’s empire. In response, reported the Associated Press’ Jesse Washington, News Corp. agreed to form an external diversity council in New York City that will meet with senior company executives twice a year. It also will include a statement of commitment to diversity in its annual report. Jack Horner, a spokesman for News Corp., said similar diversity advisory boards already exist in Chicago and Los Angeles, where Murdoch has other interests. "This is an expansion of what we've had elsewhere," Horner said. "The key is we're always responding and learning from our communities." For Murdoch and his minions, issues of diversity are commercial matters, not moral ones: they sell more papers if they are seen to be listening.
When on his inaugural hosting of the “Tonight Show,” Conan O’Brien introduced his guest band, Pearl Jam, he held up an album cover of their latest recording, marking the tv debut of Dan Perkins, who drew the cover and who, under the name Tom Tomorrow, produces This Modern World, which he self-syndicates to alternate weeklies. On his website, Perkins, quoted in E & P, said: "One of the things I've been keeping busy with over the past few months, along with finishing up the children's book, has been working on some artwork for Pearl Jam. Had to stay quiet about it until now, and I still can't say too much about it, but I do want to note that the image that Conan held up tonight was only part of a greater whole: it wasn't the finished album cover. And apart from saying that working with the band has been an utterly fantastic experience, that's probably most of what I can share at this point."
YOU COULD BE HARBORING CHILD PORN IN YOUR MANGA COLLECTION
The 39-year-old Iowan charged with breaking the law against child pornography because he ordered (and wanted to possess) seven comic books from Japan pleaded guilty on Wednesday, May 20, to one count each of Possession of Obscene Visual Representations of the Sexual Abuse of Children, and of Mailing Obscene Matter. The two charges, as reported at icv2.com/articles/news/14993.html, carry a combined maximum penalty of 15 years in prison, $500,000 in fines, and three years of supervised release. There is no minimum sentence, and sentencing considerations provide for a three level decrease of offense level for acceptance of responsibility. No promises were made to the defendant as to the sentence to be imposed. The defendant, Christopher Handley, agreed to pay $100 per count to the court as special assessments and to forfeit his computer and manga with “obscene visual depictions” to the government. Handley’s guilty plea makes him the first to be convicted under the PROTECT Act for possessing cartoon art, without any evidence that he also collected or viewed genuine child pornography. He will be sentenced in August.
As we pointed out in Opus 239, Section 504 of the PROTECT Act, designed to stop trafficking in child pornography, prohibits distribution or possession of “a visual depiction of any kind, including a drawing, cartoon, sculpture, or painting” that “(1) shows a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct; (2) is obscene; (3) depicts an image that is, or appears to be, of a minor engaging in graphic bestiality, sadistic or masochistic abuse, or sexual intercourse, including genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital, or oral-anal, whether between persons of the same or opposite sex; and (4) lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” Attorney Eric Chase, acting on behalf of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), which is serving as a special consultant in the case, successfully petitioned a district judge to rule the last two clauses unconstitutional because they restrict free speech. I still fail to see how picturing a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct (1) is any less a restriction of free speech than picturing a minor engaged in graphic bestiality etc. (3); it seems to me that if the last two clauses restrict free speech, so do the first two. The dubious judicial determination here is an affront to common sense and probably indicative of the unconstitutionality of the entire law. But Handley’s guilty plea could establish the legality of the government entering your home and arresting you for having certain kinds of comic books in your possession.
Quoted by Icv2.com, CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein expressed the organization’s disappointment with the outcome. “Naturally, we are very disappointed by this result, but understand that in a criminal case, every defendant must make the decision that they believe serves their best interest," he said. “Because the set of facts specific to this case were so unique, we hope that its importance as precedent will be minimal. However, we must also continue to be prepared for the possibility that other cases could arise in the future as a result. Mr. Handley now faces the loss of his freedom and his property, all for owning a handful of comic books,” Brownstein added. “It’s chilling. The Fund remains unwavering in our commitment to be prepared to manage future threats of this nature wherever they arise. This is the unfortunate end of Mr. Handley’s case, but it is not the end of this sort of prosecution. For that reason, the Fund stands steadfast in our commitment to defending the First Amendment rights of the comics art form.”
“This art that this man possessed as part of a larger collection of manga,” Brownstein continued at wired.com/threatlevel/2009/05/manga-porn/. “The drawings are not obscene and are not tantamount to pornography. They are lines on paper.”
Congress passed the PROTECT Act after the Supreme Court struck down a broader law prohibiting any visual depictions of minors engaged in sexual activity, including computer-generated imagery and other fakes. The high court ruled that the ban was overbroad, and could cover legitimate speech, including Hollywood productions. In response, the PROTECT Act narrows the prohibition to cover only depictions that the defendant’s community would consider “obscene.” Said Chase: “It’s probably the only law I’m aware of, if a client shows me a book or magazine or movie, and asks me if this image is illegal, I can’t tell them.” Chase said he recommended the plea to his client because he didn’t think he could convince a jury to acquit him once they’d seen the images in question, but he declined to offer details. “If they can imagine it, they drew it,” he said. “Use your imagination. It was there.”
According to stipulations in the plea deal, the seven manga in question included depictions of bestiality as well as drawings of minors engaged in sexually explicit acts. Frenchy Lunning, a manga expert at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, was a consultant in the case. She says the books were from the widely available Lolicon variety — a Japanese word play on “Lolita.” “This stuff is huge in Japan, in all of Asia,” Lunning says. Handley, she adds, “is not a pedophile. He had no photographs of child pornography.”
Context counts for a lot in this case and, presumably, in any others that may come over the horizon. Perhaps manga readers will breathe a sigh of relief when they learn that the prosecution relied upon books that were entirely loli, rather than isolated images in a single book of some other type of manga, although it’s not clear legally that it should make a difference because the charges depend upon individual images. Handley didn’t have a lot of “dirty books,” which might make him more sympathetic—he’s a collector with a massive collection of all sorts of comics, not a creepy guy with a fixation, said one observer— but the central question remains: Can the state outlaw possession of a drawn image? And what if the image in question is a stick figure? Presumably, that qualifies as obscene under the PROTECT Act. And if a comics scholar wants to see, for purposes of research, what loli looks like and orders a few such manga in order to satisfy his scholarly curiosity, is he guilty of breaking the law?
More on the Legal Aspects of the Case. One legal expert (or so I assume he is; he talks like one), Jeff Trexler at blog.newsarama.com/2009/05/22/handley-comics-and-obscenity/ (where you can find his entire argument), thought the precedential value of the Handley case was dubious. Said Trexler: “In a nutshell, the law in this case prohibits obscene depictions of children engaged in sexually explicit conduct, regardless of whether the children are real. This means that a person could be convicted for possessing comic art deemed to be in violation of the relevant statute, which is why the CBLDF and others in the comics community have been so concerned about the outcome of this case. ... Contrary to what many fear, Handley is not what courts would typically consider to be controlling precedent. A plea bargain normally is not binding on other cases. Moreover, though the judge in Handley did issue a previous ruling on the constitutionality of the law at issue, opinions issued by a federal district court have at best weak precedential value. The more determinative rulings in federal obscenity law are those made the U.S. Courts of Appeals and, of course, the U.S. Supreme Court. Assuming there's not a problem at sentencing, Handley's guilty plea will prevent his case from going any further. However, the relatively weak precedential value of the Handley case does not give the law's critics strong reason to hope that a higher court will find the statute in question unconstitutional. As noted in my earlier analysis, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, in the Whorley case, has already determined that the law is constitutional. ... Given the agreement between circuits and the straightforward argument that the law merely prohibits obscene speech that is already illegal, the likelihood that the Supreme Court will take a future case challenging the law at issue in Handley is relatively small.”
Trexler finds Chase’s decision to enter a plea sensible: “The manga images in question did not appear to be the sort of thing that an Iowa jury would find to have socially redeeming value [one aspect of the Miller test for obscenity]. No matter how many manga experts or First Amendment scholars you bring into court, your average midwestern juror is not going to declare ‘graphic bestiality, including sexual intercourse, between human beings and animals such as pigs, monkeys, and others’ to be a reflection of community standards.” In other cases of this sort, Trexler says, “the key point to note is that the prosecution was able to overcome the CBLDF's experts by appealing to the stereotype of comics as a wholesome material suitable for children. Sure, that's a naive view of the comics medium, but it's equally naive to assume that we can easily counter the visceral power of such arguments with reasoned testimony from our most revered experts. To your average juror— especially jurors who don't live in large urban areas on the coasts—these people are part of the problem. Big city professors and industry professionals are seen as liberal outsiders who despise traditional values and corrupt innocent children. To agree that a picture of a kid having sex with animals makes some sort of rational statement about reality would be to betray everything the local community holds dear. That's not to say the CBLDF cannot succeed in this environment. However, the first step toward developing an effective counter-strategy is to formulate a brutally honest assessment of your situation. This will never happen so long as you insist that every battle is winnable or worth fighting.”
Laws on Child Porn Abound. In Manila, the Philippines, hentai, a sexually explicit or pornographic form of comics or animation, may, by now, be outlawed. According to an online gmanews.tv report on April 12, a bill to that effect was then pending in the House of Representatives. The bill would ban forms of visual depiction, audio representation and written text or materials that advocate explicit sexual activity with a child. It would penalize those who sell, offer, advertise, and promote child pornography, including those found to possess, download, purchase, reproduce, or make available child pornography materials with the intent of selling or distributing them. Under provisions of the bill, child pornography refers to any representation of a child below 18 years of age, engaged in real or simulated explicit sexual activities or any representation of the sexual parts of a child primarily for sexual purposes. The bill’s prohibitions include mere possession of drawings, cartoons, digital images, computer-generated images, even if they is distinguishable from that of real children engaging in an explicit sexual activity, a miscreant may be penalized with 6 to 12 years imprisonment and a hefty fine. More at gmanews.tv/story/156666/Bill-vs-Hentai-close-to-becoming-law-in-RPf up to P500,000. - GMANews.TV I’ve seen nothing since April to indicate the status of the legislation; I assume it’s still a-borning.
In England, meanwhile, Jerome Taylor at independent.co.uk/news/ reported in March that “a coalition of graphic artists, publishers and MPs have condemned Government plans to introduce a new set of laws policing cartoons of children, arguing that the current broad wording of the legislation could lead to the banning of hundreds of mainstream comic books. This week Parliament will discuss a new Bill which will make it a criminal offence to possess cartoons depicting certain forms of child abuse. If the Coroners and Justice Bill remains unaltered it will make it illegal to own any picture of children participating in sexual activities, or present whilst sexual activity took place. The Ministry of Justice claims that the Bill is needed to clamp down on the growing quantity of hardcore pedophilic cartoon porn available on the internet, particularly from Japan. But critics of the legislation say the current definitions are so sweeping that it risks stifling mainstream artistic expression as well as turning thousands of law abiding comic book fans into potential sex offenders. One of the books likely to fall foul of the new law is The Lost Girls by the graphic novelist Alan Moore. ... The Lost Girls was published in the UK in January to largely favorable reviews and is an erotic graphic novel that imagines the teenage sexual awakenings of three famous fictional characters. In Moore’s book, Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy Gale from the Wizard of Oz and Wendy Darling from Peter Pan meet as women in their 30s and discover that they all share equally high sex drives. Certain pages in the novels could fall foul of the new law because it currently defines a child as under 18 years of age. This is problematic because many of the women's sexual experiences in The Lost Girls occur in their late teens when they are above the age of consent but still under 18-years-old. ... The Bill currently going through Parliament is closely modeled on a similar piece of Australian legislation which has caused numerous controversies since it became law. Earlier this month an Australian man was convicted of possessing child pornography because he downloaded six images of characters from ‘The Simpsons’ performing sex acts on each other as a joke. ... Jenny Willott, the Liberal Democrat MP for Cardiff, is one of the few MPs who has spoken out against the Bill. ‘The problem I have is that the definition of what constitutes and image and a child is incredibly broad,’ she said. ‘The Government considers almost anything to be an image, from a painting to a private scribble on a piece of paper. At the same time they have defined a child as something that looks like a child even if it isn't.’” In short, the pending bill would produce a law very much like the one we have in this country. Those who produce stick figure porn, beware: they’re coming for you. The whole article is unveiled at independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/graphic-artists-condemn-plans-to-ban-erotic-comics-1652270.html
MORE DISPATCHES FROM FAR AWAY
The Fate of the Inky-fingered Fraternity in Foreign Climes
In Lebanon an exhibition of 100 banned cartoons opened April 2 for four days at the Samir Kassir foundation in Beirut. The cartoons, deemed “inappropriate for publication” by censors, came from Sudan, Syria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq and other Arab capitals and offer a satirical view of an Arab world infected with totalitarianism, corruption, rampant unemployment and chronic violence. The cartoonists joined in an exhibition to strike back at censors rather than issuing press releases. “We mulled ways of going around the censors and we decided to try to do it by publishing in another country a drawing censored in its country of origin,” said cartoonist Amr Slim of Egypt. Other cartoonists in the show include Saad Hajo of Syria, Khaled al-Hashemi of Bahrain and Abdel Rahman Yasser of Iraq. All have roused the ire of censors in their native lands. According to Slim, it is not only the politicians who are doing the censoring: “It is impossible to publish caricatures that touch on religion in Egypt because of the pressure exerted by the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said of the country's main Islamist opposition group. Deriding religion is taboo in Arab countries, even in Lebanon which usually stands as an oasis of press freedom in the region known for its ultra-conservatism. As a result, the Beirut exhibit displays no cartoons about religion; instead, the objects of satiric attack are the totalitarian regimes in the cartoons’ countries of origin. (More at watan.com/en/culture/442-arab-cartoonists-fight-censors-.html)
In Italy, one of the country’s most popular cartoonists was fired in mid-April by the state tv company for depicting the prime minister as Emperor Nero at the scene of the ruins of L'Aquila, the city devastated by the recent earthquake. Vauro Senese’s satirical drawing was broadcast in a current affairs program critical of the government’s handling of the relief effort. Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was reportedly incensed by the comparison to Nero, known for his tyranny and extravagance, who "fiddled while Rome burned" during the Great Fire that ravaged Rome for six days in July 64 AD. Gavin Jones at Reuters reported that “Berlusconi, who owns Italy's main private television network Mediaset and as prime minister has indirect control over the state tv, has displayed increasing annoyance with the press in recent weeks, saying he was tempted to take ‘direct and tough action’ against Italian media he accused of false coverage of alleged gaffes he had made at international summits.” (More at radionetherlands.nl/news/international/6260282/Berlusconi-behind-dismissal-of-RAI-cartoonist; and at reuters.com/article/autoNews/idUKTRE53E6FR20090415)
In Egypt , the country's first graphic novelist Magdi al-Shafei went on trial in April to face charges of "publication and distribution of publications contrary to public morals" over his Metro, which was featured at the Cairo International Book Fair in January 2008. All copies of the book were confiscated later in the spring, a year ago, by the so-called Vice Squad, or discipline police, who, reported Joseph Mayton at Middle East Times, have been more active recently in their attempts to rid society of "unnecessary material." Reputedly the first work of its kind in the Arab world, the novel, said Mayton, “deals with politically sensitive issues, but what may have sparked government interest is the limited sexual content of the book. Many surmise that the government may be using the sex as a scapegoat to keep the politics from reaching a wider audience.” Egypt’s culture minister, Farouk Hosni, says he does not condone censorship: “I am an artist, and as an artist I do not believe in trying to limit one's expression," he told Mayton.
Human Rights organizations quickly came to the defense of al-Shafei and his publisher: “Literary criticism is the only way to judge a creative literary work, and the prosecution of the author and publisher in the criminal court is considered a blatant attack on freedom of expression and freedom of creativity," said the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information in a statement. Ironically, in Egypt—as in many countries—books that are censored by the government become instant bestsellers. Said a street book seller: "I need to get a lot of copies of Metro now that it has been taken. People will want to buy it because the government has told them that they can't. Typical Egyptians—in private, we do the opposite of what the government tells us to do." If convicted, al-Shafei and his publisher could face up to two years in prison for violating the Egyptian Penal Code, which punish "publications contrary to public decency." These are the same laws that are used to prosecute pornography.
Matt Bradley at The National reported: “Ultimately it is the book's accessibility, not any moral indecency, that has sparked official concern about Metro according to its author. Anyone can read it, anyone can understand it and many, particularly Egypt's vast populace of unemployed and disenchanted youth, can identify with the struggles of the story's disillusioned protagonist. Said al-Shafei: "The announced reason is because it harms public morals, but, you know, that's not the whole truth. There are much more liberal books than mine. There are other factors, maybe because it is in the comic form, and the comics form is very easy to read."
Saleh al-Derbashy, an attorney who came across the novel last year and initiated its confiscation, disapproves of the book because he thinks it calls for “the disrespect of social decency. There is mention of homosexuality. It says the police don't respect people's rights. It just invites anarchy."
Bradley sees the novel as occupying “a space between Crime and Punishment and The Catcher in the Rye with an anti-hero for Egypt's youth. The story focuses on Shihab, a software engineer, who accrues an unmanageable debt thanks to underworld loan sharks. To pay it back, he convinces his friend Mustafa to rob a bank with him. The story unfolds across a gritty, modern Cairo beset by corruption, poverty and moral hypocrisy. Throughout the story, Shihab theorizes about his need to ‘get out of the trap’ that he says confines Egyptians to an economic rat race defined only by an endless pursuit for more money. Robbing the bank and its corrupt managers, Shihab decides, will allow him to repay his loan and to emerge from this dehumanizing existence.
Al-Shafei admits that his book contains curse words, Bradley continues, “—frank discussions of sex and violence as well as sexual imagery, namely a page in which a couple is shown having sex under a blanket. But it is the book's method of speaking truth to power, al-Shafei said, that has invited controversy.” Al-Derbashy, who is apparently something of a crusader for decency in Egypt, has brought charges against other publications in the past. In this case, he acknowledged that he was particularly offended by the emotional potency of comic books—an artistic medium with which he said he is not familiar. "It's the first time pictures have been used like this in Egypt," he said. "This would not attract any attention if it were written in the classical style and without pictures." (More at metimes.com/International/2009/04/02/egyptian_graphic_novelist_to_face_courtroom_saturday/3544/ and at thenational.ae/article/20090417/FOREIGN/199686025/1011/NEWS)
In Iraq in mid-April, police seized a cartoon on display in the Shiite holy city of Karbala because it depicted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with a long nose trying to repair a car labeled "sectarian distribution of jobs.” Lawmaker Mufid al-Jazairie, chairman of the parliamentary education committee, immediately protested, saying the raid was a violation of constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression, often cited as “a pillar of the new democracy that was established following the collapse of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship,” reported Sameer N. Yacoub at google.com. “Artist Salman Abid said he did not intend to ridicule al-Maliki, a Shiite who was born in Karbala province, but to draw attention to the political situation in Iraq, where government jobs are often handed out based on religious affiliation rather than abilities.” Abid gave al-Maliki a long nose because he believes “a cartoonist should always add funny features to the persons whom he is depicting.” (More at google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hvA6DrgMzRiBcdT2R5Bkt0wbFRJgD97H0P200)
THE DANISH DOZEN NEVER QUITS. YET.
In early April, Denmark’s former prime minister, Fogh Rasmussen, was chosen as NATO’s new secretary general despite Turkey’s vociferous threat to veto the appointment. The Turks were feeling vengeful because Rasmussen didn’t apologize in 2006 for the twelve cartoons that fomented the world-wide furor among Muslims over the cartoon depictions of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. Turkey, the newest member of NATO and the only predominantly Muslim member, was persuaded to back down by “the charm and intervention” of President Barack Obama, reported Paul Revoir in London’s Daily Mail online. Rasmussen wouldn’t apologize for the cartoons back then because as the nation’s prime minister he felt that an apology from him would constitute a government statement that would impinge upon the country’s long-standing principles of freedom of the press. But as NATO’s secretary general, he can apologize, and, at last report (Revoir’s summary of recent events on April 3), he was poised to do so—or, at least, to publicly acknowledge that the twelve cartoons could have caused offence to the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims.
Meanwhile, Kurt Westergaard, one of the twelve Danish cartoonists whose work sparked the globe-girdling protest from Muslims, including much destruction of property and many deaths (see Harv’s Hindsight, February 12, 2007, for details), has formally come out of hiding, where he has been for the last three years because of threats against his life by Islamic extremists. “I am 73 years old,” the cartoonist said, dressed in his favorite “anarchist” colors of red and black. “Most of my life is over,” he continued, “—I am too old to be afraid.” He went home, but he remains under protection of the Danish Secret Service, in which he announced he has “complete faith.” His eleven cohorts whose lives are also in jeopardy maintain low-profile life styles; some have round-the-clock protection, and one is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, according to Revoir.
Westergaard may be at home, but he is scarcely silent—or idle. In early April, Revoir continued, Westergaard accused the BBC of “appeasing Muslim fanatics” by deciding not to air a first-ever English interview with him. Westergaard said the BBC seemed petrified of upsetting Muslim extremists. “I am disappointed on behalf of freedom of speech,” he said. “Every time you are afraid, I think you make a step backwards. That is depressing me.” He compared the BBC's behavior with the way countries tried to appease Hitler before the Second World War and added: “If you have an appeasement policy towards the radical Muslims then you are on a very wrong way and you have to start marching backwards.” A BBC spokesman, however, said: “No decision has been made yet. As and when one is, it will be based, as always, on editorial merit.”
Westergaard, despite provocation, denies bearing any hostility towards Muslims—except, he added, “those who want to kill me.” He rejects charges that he is a hatemonger or racist. “I am really not a racist,” he told Emma Alberici at abc.net.au/am. “I am living in a happy, multi-cultural family with members with background in all the big religions—Catholicism, Protestantism, and also Islam. And we are living in peace and harmony, so it can be done.”
The cartoonist has repeatedly stated that he has no regrets about drawing the original caricature for Jyllands-Posten—a picture of Muhammad wearing a bomb-shaped turban. In an interview a year ago with Spiegel Online, Westergaard also said that he is not anti-Muslim: "I know a lot of Muslims living here in Denmark who accept democracy completely and who live their religion as a very private matter. I hope that all Muslims will adapt to secular society. There is currently friction between Muslim and Christian culture. But I am quite sure that our Western Democratic culture will prevail over the darker version of Islam. We must have Islam-light."
Responding to the protests and deadly riots that the caricatures inspired in the Muslim world, Westergaard said: "If it hadn't been the cartoon, it would have been a book or play or a film that would have provoked the protests. We have to get through this period of friction between the two cultures. I hope that our Muslim fellow citizens will understand what it means to live in a democracy. Even if you are against the democracy, you can still live there, but you must fight with peaceful means."
Active in promoting freedom of speech, Westergaard autographed prints of his infamous cartoon for sale as a fund-raiser for the International Free Press Society. They went on sale on April 9, but, reported the Copenhagen Post online, the website offering the prints was shut down the next day by cyber-hackers. Nevertheless, over 300 of the prints, selling for about $250 each, were purchased by phone, e-mail and fax during the 5-6 days the website was down.
Westergaard has also illustrated a recently published book that compiled the sardonic newspaper columns of Danish writer Lars Hedegaard. One of the 26 illustrations, reported Spiegel Online last fall, “features former Danish foreign minister Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, who spoke out against the original Muhammed cartoons, kneeling with an inkwell that reads ‘freedom of expression.’ A black-bearded man with a bomb in his turban is peering out of the inkwell. Writer Hedegaard said there was ‘no intention to depict the so-called prophet,’ but that people could always interpret drawings in different ways. He said he expected no backlash as a result of the publication.”
Westergaard believes the cartoons in the book are not as provocative as the Muhammad bomb cartoon but they satirize Islam and politicians who appease the mullahs. "It is the question of freedom of speech, freedom of expression," he says. "I think we are in a period in which this democratic value is under pressure, so it has to be defended."
TURNING OFF THE TELL-TALE SPIGOT
In the aftermath of the South African election of Jacob Zuma as the country’s president, editoonist Jonathan Shapiro, aka Zapiro, committed surgery on his caricature of the new prez, removing, for the time being, the infamous showerhead that he installed on Zuma’s cranium a three years ago. In the Zapiro cartoon published on Tuesday, May 12, in the Times, Zuma is depicted sitting at his presidential desk with a dripping shower faucet over, but not on, his head; the fixture bearing the punning notation “temporary suspension.”
Zapiro may know that America’s Herblock famously removed the five o’clock shadow that he usually gave his caricature of Richard Nixon when Nixon was elected president, saying, “Every new president deserves a shave.” But when Nixon misbehaved, which, for Herblock, was almost at once, the stubble returned. And so might the spigot once again sprout from Zuma’s head. "I thought I will take stock of where we are and give the presidency a chance to get going," Shapiro told the South African Press Association. "Despite my misgivings about Zuma and despite my belief that it was wrong for the ANC [African National Congress] to have him as its presidential candidate, we all have to take stock of the reality that he is president of the country.”
The shower-headed Zuma first appeared in Zapiro’s cartoons during a 2006 trial in which Zuma was charged with raping a woman, who, it developed, was HIV positive. Zuma famously said he’d protected himself against possible infection by taking a shower after having sex with her. Since then, the cranial fixture has come to represent all sorts of Zuma’s proclivities—his penchant for saying odd things and behaving strangely, for instance. Zapiro said he had often experienced intense political pressure to remove the faucet from Zuma's head, but added that he was not responding to that pressure in the present instance. He said he made up his mind to remove the showerhead after seeing the mood of optimism in the country on the morning of Zuma's inauguration. But he’d already drawn his cartoon for the next issue of the Times: it showed showed Zuma trying to forcibly remove the apparatus from his head. Said Zapiro: "The punch line of that was 'try being truly presidential and maybe the shower will fall off by itself.'" Zapiro said the fixture would return to the president’s head if he didn’t measure up.
Another development now in abeyance is Zuma’s suit against Zapiro for defamation because of a cartoon that depicted Zuma about to rape the female figure representing Justice. (For the details, consult Opus 230; and for even more of the feud between Zuma and Zapiro, see Opus 235 and Opus 241.)
Meanwhile, by the end of May, the South African Broadcast Company had reversed its earlier decision, cancelling the broadcast of a tv special about political satire in which Zapiro played a prominent role. The show finally aired May 25, featuring material from Zapiro’s cancelled tv series “Z-News,” which supporters of Zuma have deemed defamatory because it alludes, strenuously, to various legal actions that were brought against Zuma just before the election. SABC officials had postponed, or cancelled, the earlier airing of the program because showing it would have seemed politically motivated on the eve of the election. The version of the documentary that was aired last month included an interview with Zapiro about his decision to detach the showerhead from Zuma’s skull. In a press release, sponsors of the program promised that it would confront the issues that it had to contend with in getting such a satirical production on the air, asking: “Is a slow chilling effect taking hold of political humor in South Africa? Is political correctness leading to an erosion of free speech?”
Zapiro had his own answer: “People feel themselves politically beholden to ANC’s leadership,” he said. “I think they have no backbone.”
Fascinating Footnit. Much of the news retailed in the foregoing segment is culled from articles eventually indexed at rpi.edu/~bulloj/comxbib.html, the Comics Research Bibliography, maintained by Michael Rhode and John Bullough, which covers comic books, comic strips, animation, caricature, cartoons, bandes dessinees and related topics. It also provides links to numerous other sites that delve deeply into cartooning topics. Three other sites laden with cartooning news and lore are Mark Evanier’s povonline.com, Alan Gardner’s DailyCartoonist.com, and Tom Spurgeon’s comicsreporter.com. And then there’s Mike Rhode’s ComicsDC blog, comicsdc.blogspot.com For delving into the history of our beloved medium, you can’t go wrong by visiting Allan Holtz’s strippersguide.blogspot.com, where Allan regularly posts rare findings from his forays into the vast reaches of newspaper microfilm files hither and yon.
QUOTES AND MOTS
“Ex-Secretary of State Colin Powell went on CBS to reaffirm that he’s still a Republican. And just to prove it, he promised to lose an election right there on the show.”—Jimmy Fallon
“All experience is great provided you live through it. If it kills you, you’ve gone too far.”—Painter Alice Neel
And then we have Roger Ebert with a few thoughts about Bill O’Reilly and the Faux Newsman’s ego: “Bill, I am concerned that you have been losing touch with reality recently. Did you really say you are more powerful than any politician? That reminds me of the famous story about Squeaky the Chicago Mouse. It seems that Squeaky was floating on his back along the Chicago River one day. Approaching the Michigan Avenue lift bridge, he called out: ‘Raise the bridge—I have an erection!’”
CRYSTAL-BALLING THE FUNNIES
Even as newspapers are expiring on every hand, taking the newspaper comic strip with them, Art Spiegelman finds hope for the form: “I like Richard Thompson’s work [Cul de Sac],” he said to Michael Cavna at ComicRiff.com. “They’re good gags, and graphically it’s on a very high level. It really seems like the inheritor of the Calvin and Hobbes mantle. It’s amazing when any strip can electrify and bring life to a form [the comic strip] that is on life support.”
Some prestigious others have applauded Thompson’s strip: he was one of three finalists for the Best Comic Strip division award from the National Cartoonists Society in May. Mark Tatulli’s pantomimic horror-child Lio won in this category; the other candidate was Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine. I don’t think I’d go so far as to say Cul de Sac is the inheritor of the mantle of Calvin and Hobbes: Thompson’s strip is a unique creation, it’s very good, and I enjoy it immensely. But its humor is of a different sort than Bill Watterson’s in Calvin and Hobbes. In Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin behaves as a child would if he knew some of what adults know; in Cul de Sac, the kids behave as kids, seen from the inside without any contamination from the adult mind.
Despite his anointing of Thompson’s comic strip, Spiegelman’s hopeful assessment of the future for comics does not include newspapers. “Comics in general,” he said, “are doing great. They’ve moved into another cultural space successfully. It’s not really about the newspaper anymore.”
Like most observers of the medium, Spiegelman sees web comics as the future: “Online, pages get to crackle in a different way. It’s a different medium—it’s a real difference. As the medium evolves as something that’s on my screen, online comics will become as different from comic books as comic strips are to comic books. The rules are different online.”
Although he has entertained, briefly, offers from those who want to animate Maus, Spiegelman still concentrates on the print forms of cartooning, not the digital. He and his wife have been delving regularly into children’s book production lately. Spiegelman’s current project is to reprint between the covers of a single anthology various comic books of yore that were intended for children.
“Not all comic books were worthy of banning,” he said, alluding to the industry’s self-censorship that began in the mid-1950s. “There were comics that were wholesome, that were part of the innocence of the culture, which Norman Rockwell came out of. At their best, ‘Duckman’ [Barks?] and ‘Little Lulu’ were profoundly good—a personal vision on paper that can engage you—the pleasure that narrative gives at its best. It’s not as simple as: it should always be transgressive.”
Afflicting the Comfortable and Comforting the Afflicted
I don’t know who Douglas Todd is; he might be the editor of the Vancouver Sun. But I do know who Roy Peterson is; he’s been doing savagely hilarious cartoons for the Sun since 1962, or, as Todd put it recently: “His incisive pen has entertained Vancouver Sun readers with brilliance and honor through almost half a century of tumultuous history. There is a steely quality to Peterson and his work,” Todd went on. “That’s not only because he's considered a master craftsmen who can pull off impeccable cross-hatch ink drawings, unlike a lot of less technically gifted cartoonists. It's because his editorial cartoons have a certain wickedness. Peterson has sometimes called himself ‘the scourge’ of the powers that be. He even confesses he can be ‘mean-spirited.’ His cartoons often feel confrontive, challenging our own comfortable ideas. Whether or not one always agrees with his commentaries, they do not ever deal in BS.” Quoting another Canadian editoonist, Montreal Gazette’s Terry Mosher, aka Aislin, Todd reminds us that Peterson is “the dean of Canadian political cartoonists.”
The occasion for Todd’s heaping up praise was his announcement in the same article on May 30 that Peterson’s last cartoon for the paper appeared in that edition. Yes, the “dean of Canadian political cartoonists” was being laid off after 47 years at the paper.
Todd plunges on, seemingly oblivious to the bitter irony lurking in every sentence of his article: he notes that Peterson has won seven National Newspaper Awards for the Sun, the most of any Canadian journalist, and that, in 2004, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. “The honor,” Todd goes on, “came soon after the death of his beloved wife, Margaret, whom he said kept in order his life, as well as the office-studio he worked in mostly alone in the converted garage of his West Vancouver home.” At the website of the Association of Canadian Editorial Cartoonists, Peterson is called “western Canada’s pre-eminent editorial cartoonist.” Peterson was a founding member of the ACEC and was the only Canadian to be elected president (1983) of the Association’s southern counterpart, the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. Peterson is not just a political cartoonist: he is a national institution. The Vancouver Sun fired a national institution. For an apt comparison, think of the Washington Post firing Herblock.
As a freelancer, Peterson drew for MacLean's, Time, Punch, Spectator and for many books, including some in a long partnership with former Sun columnist Alan Fotheringham, another Canadian great, who wrote the text (“the gospel,” he called it) for a 1979 collection of Peterson’s cartoons, The World According to Roy Peterson, from which we’ve culled a few incisive examples to post near here. With former news broadcaster Stanley Burke, Peterson also did a series of satirical books of a decidedly allegorical hue: taking a page from Walt Kelly’s swamp, Frog Fables and Beaver Tales, Blood Sweat and Bears, and Swamp Song deployed animals with politicians’ faces to ridicule Canadian politics. Long-time prime minister Pierre Trudeau appears as a frog; Richard Nixon as an eagle, swooping out of the sky to attack a hapless bear who looks astonishingly like Russia’s Leonid Brezhnev.
As you’ll shortly see, Peterson captured likenesses with scalpel precision—Jimmy Carter, out of whose toothy grin Carter confidant Bert Lance peers hesitantly on the eve of his disgrace, Ronald Reagan as a puppet manipulated by the oil industry offering the same deal to Canada’s Trudeau, the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover as a doughy-faced high-tech peeping Tom. Peterson went after Canada’s leadership with similar gleeful guile. The caricatures were in themselves insightful and damning political comment. Peterson was outraged by Muslim fundamentalists bent on violence. He depicted them with images of the Grim Reaper, a Frankenstein monster symbolizing "Ignorance," and most recently, as Todd observes, “a dutiful Canadian soldier in the unfortunate position of appearing to support the Afghanistan leadership's attempt to bring in conservative laws that would allow rape. This March Peterson drew another decidedly unfunny cartoon—of a man peering at the tombstone of several North American newspapers, a vulture hovering above his head to signify the downside of the ‘digital age.’ Peterson has always had a way of facing death square in the face.” He, like those of his brethren this side of the border, could not survive the budget cuts that newspapers everywhere are inflicting on themselves in order to survive. Here’s a gallery of the Peterson execution block in which the copiousness of his meticulous crosshatching is matched only by the razor-edge of his wit, by the outrageously devastating images he laminated onto the leaders of his nation and others.
In the June issue of the print version of Editor & Publisher, Mark Fitzgerald, one of the few working journalists left on the magazine’s staff (and he’s the “at large editor”), devotes a page to the question: “Will the Editorial Cartoonist Vanish?” To which, he adds, there is “no punchline.” We’ve covered tirelessly here most of the issues raised in the piece, but Fitzgerald also takes a look at the crisis from a somewhat different perspective. Since most newspaper staff editoonists are syndicated, when their papers lay them off, they continue to cartoon, selling their work through their syndicates. So you’d expect, as the ranks of staff editoonists shrink, the use of syndicated editoons would increase, taking up the slack, so to speak. Not so. It’s just a “depressed market these days,” said Richard S. Newcombe, CEO of Creators Syndicate. “Another reason there’s been no bump for the syndicates,” Fitzgerald concludes, “is that newspapers with staff editorial cartoonists often were also substantial buyers of syndicated cartoons, according to King Features comic editor Brendan Burford. While the demand for that material hasn’t slackened, neither has it increased.” And freelance self-syndicated Steve Greenberg agrees: “I would have thought there would be more opportunity for freelance work because of the cuts [in staff payroll], but unfortunately, freelance budgets are being cut, too.”
DEAD OR NOT
In his blog at Cagle.MSNBC.com, Daryle Cagle, editoonist and entrepreneurial custodian of Cagle Cartoons, a syndicate peddling editorial cartoons online, questions the common assumption that editorial cartooning is dying. “Editorial cartoons have never been more popular,” Cagle says. “With the Web in addition to newspapers, political cartoonists now have the largest audience they have ever had. Political cartoons are featured on state mandated testing in high schools in every state and teachers teach to the tests, creating new fans of our art form every year. The work being done by editorial cartoonists now is better than ever before. We syndicate a package of editorial cartoons. We’re seeing a small decline in newspaper sales that is being offset by an increase in other kinds of sales that we get through being easy to find on the Web. Our syndication business is flat, which is disappointing, but it is fine. The audience for cartoons continues to grow.”
He estimates that the number of full-time staff editoonists is now about 80 (which is also my count); fifty years ago, the number may have been 200 (which is a more generous estimate than mine; I’d say maybe 150 and probably never more). Cagle acknowledges that the drop is a big percentage decline, but, he goes on, “it is not a big drop in the number as a percentage of the total number of newspapers.” I usually agree with Cagle on almost everything he says, but I don’t know where he gets his numbers in this piece. Today there are about 1,400 daily newspapers in the country; once, at its peak in 1910, according to Edwin Emery’s The Press and America (3rd Edition, 1972), the number nudged up against 2,200. The number of daily newspapers had declined 37% in the last 100 years; the number of staff editorial cartoonists has declined by roughly 47% in half that span of time. Cagle’s point, however, is that “the vast majority of newspapers have never employed a full time cartoonist. I scream and wail about the loss of full time cartoonist jobs and the decline in newspapers, but the truth is it has always been unusual for a newspaper to hire a cartoonist. Newspapers have been running inexpensive syndicated cartoons for many decades and those syndicated cartoonists are the stars whose work gets seen, while local cartoonists are obscure. Syndication pays poorly because of decades of competition between the syndicates with an oversupply of good cartoons and has little or nothing to do with the decline of newspapers.
“We are not seeing a decline in the number of active editorial cartoonists with the loss of full time jobs,” he concludes, “—just the opposite is happening: there are more now, plugging away as freelancers, scraping a living together from paying and non-paying clients.” Maybe, as he says, the “vast majority of newspapers never employed a full-time cartoonist” as an editorial cartoonist per se; but many of those 2,200 newspapers employed staff cartoonists, whose assignments ranged from decorating feature stories to drawing borders around halftones, and some of them occasionally drew editorial cartoons, too. And mostly, those editorial cartoons were on the front pages of the newspapers. At Cagle.MSNBC.com, you can find all of Cagle’s argument, including the latest outburst in his running assault on Huffington Post (for not paying) and its contributors (who give away their stuff). While there, peruse today’s selection of editorial cartoons from Cagle’s up-to-the-moment inventory, always a treat and often an education.
PERSIFLAGE AND FURBELOWS
Enki Bilal, a French citizen born in Belgrade and the legendary creator of the highly-regarded graphic novel series Nicopol Trilogy, had plenty to say about both art and politics on a recent visit to Istanbul, all reported at hurriyet.com. In the U.S., Bilal has worked only with Heavy Metal, disdaining, we gather, offers from Marvel and DC and the like. "Smart and interesting comics stay in the shadows there,” he said. “The main problem with America is they fit everything into confined frameworks and I am against that," he added. Many of his colleagues aspire to doing work in America, considering it the pinnacle of their careers, he said, but he doesn’t think the cultural level of the American consumer is high enough. "Of course, metropolises like New York do not fit in with what I have just said, but the majority of America is not New York either," he said. Bilal perceives differences between American, European and Japanese comics. "There are three important and different types of comics, but they complete each other," he said. In his opinion, the writer is more important in Europe, the construction of the story comes first for Americans and the Japanese focus on the manga style. "All three scenes produce determined and quality work," he said.
THE FROTH ESTATE
The Alleged News Institution
Print as the platform for the news media continues to be severely undermined by the digital vapors. Now Newsweek has joined U.S. News and World Report in giving up on their print versions as news magazines. The latter’s print version went monthly a while back, focusing almost entirely on “interpreting” the news. Physically, the new print U.S. News looks like The Economist, heavy on type, light on pictures. Actual news—that is, reports of events in the political, social, and cultural realms—is reported at the magazine’s website, USNews.com, with an emphasis on “news that you can use.” Newsweek is still weekly in print, but the magazine has traded reportage for pronouncement—opinion columns and long in-depth features. The premise, says editor Jon Meacham, is that “we know you already know what the news is” because you’ve been flitting about the Web or watching cable tv; so now the magazine aims to “make you think in new ways” with its “narratives and essays” about what’s happening.
Newsweek’s print appearance has also been dramatically revised, using lots of white space and pull-out quotes. And it deploys such idiot graphic devices as a box at the end of one article with an arrow that points to the right (to the next page, around the corner) with a typographic heading, “Next.” The table of contents is headed by another cute device, but this one more telling: the magazine’s name, in its traditional logotype, tops the page but the “s” has gone missing, leaving a gap where it used to be, so what we see is “New week.” With its present posture on the news, the print version approaches Harper’s and the Atlantic Monthly. At its website, Newsweek.com, the online version covers the news it used to report in print, with an emphasis on breaking news: you can click on tabs for the days of the week, and the newsstories on each day are different. Newsweek, apparently having learned nothing from observing the fate of other print news media on all sides, is giving away its content online; for U.S. News, however, you need to be a paid subscriber to the print version in order to gain access to the articles online. A little cannier approach. The only weekly newsmagazine left doing news articles is Time, the pioneering publication (concocted by Briton Hadden and his friend Henry Luce) that coined the expression “newsmagazine” while being the first of the breed. (Hadden was the writer; the coinage was probably his.) Dramatizing how different Time is, now, from its nearest competitor: Time’s cover story in the June 8 issue was Supreme Court justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor; Newsweek’s was Oprah.
Compounding the same journalistic venality, Newsweek’s June 15 issue is “guest edited” by Stephen Colbert although how he had time for this sort of deep thinking I don’t know: he was in Baghdad much of the preceding week, taping four episodes of “The Colbert Report”—which, the New York Times reported, is “the first time in the history of the USO that a full-length non-news show has been filmed, edited and broadcast from a combat zone.” And what, exactly, did Colbert do by way of editing Newsweek? Colbert explained: “Guest editing is more than just sitting around tanning myself by the gleam of Fareed Zakaria’s teeth. I set the editorial agenda, assigned stories and yelled at Peter Parker to get me more photos of that web-slinging vigilante, Spider-Man. He’s a menace!” Well, maybe. But the actual editor of Newsweek, Meacham, while taking the week off, said Colbert accepted the assignment because he wanted to revive American interest in Iraq, which has, for months now—ever since financial collapse assaulted the free world—evaded the attention of cable tv news. To this end, Colbert picked from a crop of Newsweek staff-written stories the nine that are published in the magazine’s “Features” section, most of which are about Iraq and/or the military. Colbert also designed his appearance on the magazine’s cover, which depicts him getting a buzz-cut with the letters I-R-A-Q outlined on his otherwise shaven skull. He also inserted his character’s voice at various places—his “character” being, as we all know, a fatuous “egomaniacal right-wing talk-show host.” Innocuous enough, you’d think, but the over-all effect is catastrophic.
Ever story—every lead paragraph—seems to have been written by Colbert. Here’s one: “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—Holocaust denier, nuclear aspirant and the West’s favorite bugbear—may soon become the ex-president of Iran.” Here’s another: “Early in the compelling, if biased, new PBS documentary ‘Ask Not,’ we meet ‘Perry,’ a young gay man from San Francisco who has enlisted in the Army and is bound for Iraq. His face is blurred to protect his identity, but his friends’ faces are clear.” If those sentences don’t sound as if “Colbert” on “The Colbert Report” isn’t reading them aloud to us, then I need to de-wax my ears. Newsweek has clearly shot itself in the foot with this Colbert publicity stunt: no one will ever be able to read the magazine again without believing that it is ironic satire from cover-to-cover.
“Talents are best nurtured in solitude; character is best formed in the stormy billows of the world.”—Goethe
“None are so blind as those who won’t see.”—Anonymous
“Hurry is only good for catching flies.” —Russian Proverb
“Reality is the crutch for people who can’t cope with drugs.” —Lily Tomlin
“I drink too much. Last time I gave a urine sample, there was an olive in it.” —Rodney Dangerfield
NEWSPAPER COMICS PAGE VIGIL
The Bump and Grind of Daily Stripping
Doonesbury spent the last week in May exposing us to Garry Trudeau’s patented views of White House architecture as speech balloons hovered. From the context, we are to deduce that Barack O’Bama is discussing that very Doonesbury device, trying to discern how he should behave and/or what he should say. By week’s end, we get to the underlying problem: Trudeau has yet to determine an “icon” to represent Obama. With George W. (“Warlord”) Bush, it was an asterisk under an antique Roman legionnaire’s helmet. With Clinton, it was a waffle. But for Obama? Nothing yet. Maybe, as “Obama’s” speech balloon partner opines, “it’s because you’re a change agent—too complex and dynamic to be reduced to an icon.” Maybe. Any ideas?
As you have doubtless noticed, I’m a compulsive clipper-outer of comic strips. Sometimes I clip strips that convincingly demonstrate the medium’s well-known proclivity for antics that require a blend of words and pictures; often, I clip strips that accomplish a visual feat that can be achieved only in the comic strip medium. And sometimes, I clip strips that simply make me laugh or smile, or that otherwise amuse or astonish. Herewith, without categorical distinction, an array of the strips I clipped the first couple weeks of May. You may want to hit the “print” button for these, so you’ll have them under your eye as I talk, briefly, about them.
At the top, two of Greg Evans’ Luann strips from one of the sequences in which her brother, firefighter Brad, hitherto a nerd of annoying dimension, pursues and seems to be conquering the beauteous Toni, another firefighter. To begin this sequence, Toni slipped off a ladder while climbing up into a house afire, and Brad caught her as she fell, acquiring several bruises, lacerations, and broken limbs in the process. As we see in the first strip, Toni gets in to Brad’s hospital room by claiming to be his wife—a claim that gets no notice in this strip; you’d think Brad would be soaring in ecstasy. But, no, apparently their relationship is now so firmly established in each participants’ mind that the wife-husband charade goes entirely unremarked. Instead, we have Brad uttering a clever witticism, another of the evidences of his increasing maturation. In the next strip, his mental agility gets another work-out, and the strip moves from comedy to romance.
While on the subject of romance, here’s Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey in which we are reminded that Beetle is dating Miss Buckley—another case, like that of Brad and Toni, of opposites attracting. When I interviewed Walker last winter, he told me that he doesn’t intend the relationship to proceed very rapidly—mostly, he admitted, because Beetle’s too lazy to do anything. He’s a little like Li’l Abner who managed to ignore Daisy Mae’s obvious physical attractions for 18 years before marrying her, and even then, he had to be tricked into marriage.
Next a sampling of Tom Batiuk’s two strips. In Funky Winkerbean, I cheered the phrase and concept “foyer of fame.” In Crankshaft, the notion of going to one’s graduation naked under the robe was such an appealing idea that I didn’t want to lose track of it; so here it is, captured in digital vapors forevermore.
On the next page, we start with a couple excerpts from Tim Rickard’s Brewster Rockit: Space Guy, a strip I often don’t read: the stiffness of Rickard’s drawing style puts me off a bit, and I’m not enough of an sf fan to appreciate some of the more outre comedy. (Having long ago read Alfred Bester’s Stars My Destination—at a single sitting, it was so engaging—I believe I’ve seen the very best in sf so why bother with any more of the genre?) On May 20, however, I let my eye pause over Brewster long enough to read the strip, which was offering a comment on such current political events as Darth Cheney’s tireless crusade to throw the entire country into a panicky dash for the nearest ballot box in order to withdraw votes for O’Bama and cast them instead for McCain. In the process of his satiric dig, Rickard offers a fresh interpretation of Franklin Roosevelt’s famous phrase, “All we have to fear is fear itself.” A couple days later, the fear theme is revisited, this time even more a pointed allusion to the world we live in.
Tony Cochran takes a rare detour into socio-political satire in Agnes, whose eponymous heroine and her girlfriend, Trout, are forever blattering, as they are here. The configuration of the argument Agnes is making about hats in the shape of monkey heads makes an allusion to arguments about child porn, in which even cartoons of badly represented children are deemed pornographic if the cartoon children are doing sexual things to one another, as they apparently were in the manga Michael Handlery had, which precipitated his arrest and subsequent conviction; go back and investigate Nous R Us if you missed this shameful display of justice taking leave of its senses.
Frazz is a deliberate appeal to our brains as well as our funnybones, Jef Mallett having decided that he’s going to do in his strip what amuses him and hope some of the rest of us have kindred senses of humor. Works with me. In this strip, Mallett handily equates the U. S. Senate’s time-honored custom of filibustering with flatulence, an equation I heartily applaud for both its accuracy and ingenuity. Finally, we have Rob Harrell’s evolution in depicting Adam’s proboscis, which, with creator Brian Basset, was larger than Harrell was making it when he first took over drawing Basset’s Adam@Home. I complained about the shrinking nose, you may recall; but now, as we see here, Harrell has gone to the opposite extreme: Adam’s nose here is much larger than Basset ever made it. Perhaps Harrell is aiming at the popularity enjoyed by Baby Blues, in which the father has a nose of elephantine proportions.
In our next visual aid, we have another in a growing number of instances of toilet humor: in Wiley Miller’s Non Sequitur, we have two urchins who speculate that a sewer drain is the refuge of a dragon, who is awakening from a millennium of hibernation; we learn in the last panel that the noise they think is the dragon awakening is something else entirely. In the accompanying Brewster Rockit, the pure nonsense of the gag appealed to me; I didn’t want to misplace and thereby forget this one. In Hilary Price’s Rhymes with Orange, it was the pure logic of the comedy that stuck me as worth preserving in ethereal amber. It was back to nonsense in Chad Carpenter’s Tundra. But in Terri Libenson’s Pajama Diaries, we’re back in the real world. Although it is common knowledge among human (sic) sapiens that female alimentary needs require more extensive plumbing furniture than males’, the people who build public restrooms persevere in their perversity, building lavatories for women with the same number of stalls as are in the men’s room. This creates long lines both inside and outside women’s rest rooms because women actually use the stalls, while men walk by them, zipping up as they go. When, in one of my previous lives, I worked as a convention manager, I sometimes attempted to remove this unconscionable inequality by hanging “Women” signs over the “Men” signs on men’s restrooms here and there. Once when I tried this, an officious factotum of the premises came by and told me my maneuver was prohibited by public health laws. But when pressed, he couldn’t cite chapter and verse, so my hand-lettered sign stayed on the door, and needy women paraded in and out, willy nilly. (And if “willy” in that expression is slang for the male sexual apparatus, which it often is, I apologize.)
Finally, another instance of pure, unadulterated nonsense from Jim Davis at Garfield. Makes me laugh.
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
Here’s one of our series of Wholly Unsolicited Helpful Hints, this one, for photographers. When photographing at full-length attractive women wearing short skirts, do not hold your camera at the subject’s eye-level because that effectively “shortens” their legs, which, because the subject is wearing a short skirt, are intended to be an asset the subject hopes to accentuate, not shrink. The subject’s plan is to appear lusciously long-legged. To help her achieve that objective, the photographer, when photographing the subject for a full-length picture, should crouch down and take the picture from a lower elevation, which will have the effect of lengthening the subject’s gams, a happier outcome for all concerned.
I don’t often sympathize with Carl Moore in his State of the Union strip, but on April 30 I did. He lists “Words and Phrases from the Queen’s English That Need a Rest,” which list includes such tired gems as: on the same page, at the end of the day, thinking outside the box, win-win, skill set, going forward, it is what it is, having said that, no-brainer, send a message and wake-up call. We’d all be happier if we never had to hear one of these again. Ever.
I’d also be happier if I never again encounter in a news report an “anonymous source” who “does not wish to be identified because (1) he’s not authorized to speak on the topic or (2) the topic is too sensitive for his pay grade or (3) he’s a sniveling asshole whose boss is eagerly waiting for an excuse to fire him, and this would be it.” Why, I wonder, should we believe anything such a cowardly weasel has to say? And why do news organizations think we are more likely to believe the quoted utterances of such spineless jello just because their reasons for not wanting to be identified are given?
On one of my trips to a nearby Borders (or maybe it was Barnes and Noble), I happened upon a tome by Balvis Rubess and Kees Moerbeek (perhaps not their real names) with the startling title The Pop-up Book of Sex. Well, I couldn’t help myself: I tried, but no avail was achieved. I surrendered: I picked up a copy and looked inside. Nope: nothing of the sort you might expect was popping up anywhere.
The former pretend governor of Illinois, Rod “Bad Hair” Blagojevich was thrown out of office by a unanimous vote of the Illinois Senate and has since been pursuing a career as a laughing stock. His latest attempt at this pinnacle of personal achievement was an appearance with Chicago’s famed Second City in the June 13 performance of “Rod Blagojevich Superstar,” a take-off on the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” which follows Blago’s rise and fall as the savior of Illinois.
Short & Quick Reviews of New Books
David Mazzucchelli is back with a graphic novel that opts to go on the shelf next to his acclaimed visualization of Paul Auster’s City of Glass. This one is Asterios Polyp, which stalks the life of “the brilliant and bullheaded professor Asterios.” At Entertainment Weekly, reviewer Sean Howe raves about the “sprawling, trippy, moving, and hell of a lot of fun” book. Mazzucchelli takes us inside Asterios’ head, “repeatedly, with perfect clarity; it’s as if John Updike had discovered a bag of art supplies and LSD. Elegant, deceptively simple line work and nearly subliminal color symbolism make everything go down like candy.” Why is “simple line work” by a cartoonist always “deceptively simple”?
The University Press of Mississippi (one of my publishers) is poised to bring forth a number of tantalizing titles in the realm of comics and cartooning; to wit (culling descriptions almost verbatim from the spring-summer catalogue): Alan Moore: Comics as Performance, Fiction as Scalpel (out in April) by Annalisa Di Liddo, who “considers Moore’s narrative strategies and pinpoints the main thematic threads in his works: the subversion of genre and pulp fiction, the interrogation of superhero tropes, the manipulation of space and time, the uses of magic and mythology, the instability of gender and ethnic identity, and the accumulation of imagery to create satire that comments on politics and art history; God of Comics: Osamu Tezuka and the Creation of Post-World War II Manga (out in June) by Natsu Onoda Power, who says when Tezuka established story comics as the mainstream genre in Japanese comic book industry, he created narratives with cinematic flow and complex characters, a style of storytelling that influenced all subsequent Japanese output; Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books (out in August) by Jean-Paul Gabilliet, who traces the rise and development of this American industry by intertwining aesthetic issues and critical biographies with the concerns of production, distribution and audience reception, thereby making the book one of the few interdisciplinary studies of the art form; and Life on the Press: The Popular Art and Illustrations of George Benjamin Luks (out in July) by Robert L. Gambone, who rehearses more about Luks than his brief stint drawing the Yellow Kid after Richard Outcault left the New York World, where he originated the character, to draw the Kid for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. You can order online at upress.state.ms.us.
Celebrating the 25th anniversary year of Stan Sakai's long-running series Usagi Yojimbo, here comes Usagi Yojimbo: The Special Edition, “a massive 1200-page, two-volume slipcase edition of all the early Usagi stories published by Fantagraphics,” reports Michael Lorah at newsarama.com, plus an original, hardcover, fully painted graphic novel this fall, titled Yokai and a new trade paperback collection, Bridge of Tears, collecting issues 94-102 of the comic book.
A BOOK BY A LEGEND ON A LEGENDARY CHARACTER
Al Williamson got to be a legend by working for EC Comics in its glorious heyday, often in collaboration with another legend, Frank Frazetta. Williamson got to be a living legend by doing that—living and being the last of the EC gang to be still working in comics. I met him sometime in the 1990s, and he was already legendary but he didn’t quite realize it: he was just beginning to attend comic-cons, where he was received with such unabashed adoration that he was nearly overwhelmed. I was introduced to Williamson by my good and able friend John Bennett, who had become acquainted with the legend when living in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, Williamson’s town, where he started hanging out at Al’s studio, drinking coffee and shooting the breeze of a morning. When I met Williamson in the entry level of the Hyatt Regency near O’Hare in Chicago, he was laughing almost uncontrollably at Batton Lash, who, attired in his customary tux jacket, jeans, and tennis shoes, had just plunged into a nearby potted palm because he wasn’t looking where he was going as he approached us. Al, head thrown back, roared with laughter as Batton was untangling himself from the clinging fronds of his nemesis. When Al laughed, he laughed loud; I never saw him chuckle. Smile, yes, and laugh out loud, but never chuckle. In ordinary social discourse, he also swore freely, deploying with determined relish the lexicon that George Carlin made famous—and then some. But when he swore, it was conversational cussing, not condemnatory. And he usually grinned broadly (if he didn’t laugh uproariously) to punctuate the profanities. We all went to dinner than evening (in addition to those already named, Jackie Estrada and maybe Mark Schultz, my memory is sometimes as weak as my eyesight—or maybe Tom Roberts), and everyone laughed a lot. The table talk was mostly about old movies, about which I knew then (and know now) nearly nothing; but it didn’t matter because Al was well-versed in the subject and could keep us all going.
The next morning, I found myself at breakfast with Al and Archie Goodwin. When Archie left, Al and I talked, and, at my request, he drew a floorplan of the old EC offices on Lafayette Street near the Puck building on Houston in Manhattan. Suddenly, without any preamble, Al expressed amazement at the high regard in which fans held him. Then, realizing that he was blowing his cover as a blustery bad boy too cool to care about such things, he quickly brushed the topic aside with whatever swear word was handy, blurted out some triviality, and once again assumed his brusque machismo persona.
Al Williamson’s idol is Alex Raymond, and Raymond’s Flash Gordon is Williamson’s all-time favorite character. Although Williamson was initially inspired to do comics by others, it was Raymond’s Flash Gordon that sealed the deal, sustaining the inspiration to become a professional cartoonist, and when Al became one, he seized every opportunity that presented itself to re-visit the Raymond creation with his own pencil and pen. And those two legends, Williamson and Flash, will be brought together in one place by Flesk Publications in Al Williamson's Flash Gordon: A Lifetime Vision of the Heroic. Due out in August, the book will publish virtually all of Williamson’s published (and several unpublished) Flash Gordon pages and strips—“Everything we can get into 250 pages,” said Mark Schultz, Williamson’s friend and occasional collaborator, interviewed by Michael Lorah at newsaramra.com. “It has all his comics pages and the covers that he did, and that includes the classic King Comics Flash Gordon from the mid-60s; the Flash Gordon adaptation for the 1980 film that starred Sam Jones as Flash Gordon, including a few pages that were rejected and redrawn; and the final comics story is the Marvel miniseries from 1995. Interspersed with all that are other Flash Gordon projects, like a series of advertisements he did for the chemical company Union Carbide. He produced five Flash Gordon strips for the ad campaign, full page advertisements featuring the characters in comic strip adventures shilling Union Carbide products. He also has the original artwork for a record album cover he drew that featured Flash Gordon. And the book has various pieces published in fanzines and a lot of work that he did just for his own enjoyment, a whole raft of that stuff. And Al did extensive preliminary drawings preparing for the panels that he eventually committed to the page. Unfortunately, there's just so much of that material that we couldn't fit everything in. There's a lot.” Most of the artwork in the book is reproduced from original art: “Al has retained at least 90% of his Flash Gordon material,” Schultz said.
Williamson’s oeuvre was much larger than the few stories he drew for Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein’s books. Born in New York in 1931, Williamson spent his pre-teen years in Bogata, Columbia, where his parents had moved when he was about a year old. “That’s where I got into comics,” he told James Van Hise during an interview for Van Hise’s The Art of Al Williamson (1983), “—around 1939. Not American comic books. I didn’t even know about them. I discovered Mexican comic books, which were reprints of American strips like Terry and the Pirates, Prince Valiant and Connie and so on. They also had some of the lesser-known strips, like Don Dixon. I didn’t know then about Flash Gordon. They had some European strips and a lot of the Argentine strips. One of those strips was called The Undersea Empire. It was drawn and written by an Argentine artist named Carlos Clemen, and that was the stuff that got me hooked into drawing. He was my first inspiration to do comics.”
Williamson discovered Alex Raymond in a roundabout way. One evening—it turned out to be the Saturday night before Pearl Harbor—his mother took him to see a movie she knew he’d like. It was about “rocketships and spaceships,” she said. “The first thing I saw,” Williamson remembered, “was the title, ‘Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe.’ I couldn’t believe they’d made a movie like that.” He knew about Flash Gordon by then: he’d seen a few of Raymond’s strips, but he hadn’t been impressed with the way the character was treated in the few strips he saw. The movie serial changed his mind. “I was hooked on that the way kids today are hooked on ‘Star Wars.’ It was the same thing. My jaw just fell and I loved it. I rushed home that evening and found some pages of Raymond’s Flash Gordon that I knew I had. I had about five pages that I dug out of my collection of comics—tabloid size and in Spanish, and, boy, that did it. I was hooked on Flash Gordon. It’s lucky that it was the Flash Gordon movie and not the Buck Rogers movie because I really got hooked on it and Raymond’s drawing, and I realized how beautiful it was.” His training in art commenced—copying Flash Gordon. And, he added, Buck Rogers (although I think he included Buck Rogers for its aura as the earliest sf comic strip; nothing about Williamson’s art reminds me of the clumsiness of the drawings in Buck Rogers).
Movies were next highest on Williamson’s list of favorite things. “Not only were comics of inspiration to me,” he said, “but people in the movies like Stewart Granger and Buster Crabbe, Dave Sharpe, Liz Taylor and people like that. Certain films—like ‘Prisoner of Zenda,’ the Granger version, ‘King Kong,’ ‘Gunga Din’ and the Flash Gordon serials, of course. I don’t know if it means anything, but that’s what got me going. I still enjoy the stuff, so I guess I’ll never grow up.”
Illustrator William Stout, writing the Introduction to van Hise’s book, saw the essential Williamson in the movies. “Raymond’s influence on Williamson’s work has been over-emphasized,” he wrote. “There are similarities and admitted influences, but there are also distinctive differences. Raymond’s visual worlds and themes (even Flash Gordon) draw essentially from an adult point of view and a constant striving for serious sophistication. But despite a sophistication that rivals Raymond’s, behind Williamson’s drawings and designs lurks the popcorn-eating kid in the movie-house balcony. Al Williamson’s worlds are more real because he lives there. Al will always be the boy in jeans drawing romantic fantasies for his friends’ and his own delicious escapes, no matter how elegant and sophisticated his work. This precious access to his adolescent sense of wonder frees Williamson to capture the rich, wistful romance of a story, be it modern, ancient or fantastic. Certain writers have had considerable influence on Williamson’s art. The heroic soul of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s great characters stirs in Al’s figures. ... John Carter breathes inside the skin of Williamson’s Flash Gordon. ... [But] more than most comic artists, Al Williamson was influenced by American movies. Movies—not films. He thrived (and thrives) on the shoot-’em-ups, the swashbucklers, the Flash Gordons and Buck Rogerses—all the great action pictures whose themes lace through Williamson’s work. Al’s dusty buckskin westerns for Atlas comics always bore the loving brand of the B’s. ... Al Williamson’s contribution to the history, art, and development of comics,” Stout concludes, “is in his subtle synthesis of elegance, design romance, cinema, grandeur, and sensuality, enthusiastically evocative of the golden age of illustration and the grandest of the old comics.”
Williamson and his mother returned to New York in 1943 when he was twelve. By the time he was fourteen, he was a fan of Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan, and when he heard about Hogarth teaching an art course, he promptly enrolled. Hogarth was a strong-willed instructor who, like the legendary George Bridgman, imposed his style and manner of working upon his students. “He would go over your drawings and show you how to do it,” Williamson said, “—show you how to ink it—and when you had the piece finished, it was at least half, if not all, Hogarth. You had a piece of work that wasn’t yours. As much as I admired Hogarth, I didn’t want to draw that way. So subconsciously, I guess I’d lose interest in the drawing. Hogarth would say, ‘The trouble with you, Al, is you don’t finish a picture. You start ’em, but you don’t finish ’em.’ To this day,” Williamson concluded, “I still have trouble finishing work. It’s like pulling teeth. I love to start it, I love to lay it out, but that finish is a stinker.”
Throughout his stint at EC (1952-56), Williamson was known for his collaborations with others—Roy Krenkel, Angelo Torres, Wally Wood, even Reed Crandall and Gray Morrow and, later, Ralph Mayo, and, most famously, Frank Frazetta. Williamson penciled and then got his friends to ink the work. Talking with Al after I’d met him at one of the pre-Wizard Chicago-Cons, I had the distinct impression that he sought someone else to ink his work in those days because he thought he might ruin his pencils if he inked them. Reading Van Hise’s book the other day, researching for this outing, I saw that Williamson confirmed, somewhat, my impression in his talk with Van Hise: “I just sort of blank out,” he said, “or I just don’t want to do it any more, or I bungle it.” He was in many ways a perfectionist: he might complete an entire story except for one drawing and then spend a week finishing that single picture. But art was not life, and life was important to Williamson. He and his friends—Torres and Krenkel and Frazetta particularly but also Nick Meglin and George Woodbridge and sometimes Wally Wood, the notorious “Fleagle Gang”—would drop everything to play a game of baseball. Said Williamson: “I have never, ever let my work interfere with my personal life. I’m a very lucky man: some things I thought I’d never end up doing, I did. I’m not a true artist in that respect; I do not forsake all for my art.”
“In those days,” said Bill Gaines, recalling for Van Hise the golden years of EC, “Al was an irresponsible, lovable scamp who was completely unorganized and very unsure of himself compared to today. He used to work in teams with other artists partly, I think, because of a lack of confidence in himself. He would have people like Roy Krenkel, Frank Frazetta and maybe Angelo Torres and other great artists of one degree or another helping him, not that he really needed them, but he did’t know that he didn’t need them. I think he just liked to draw as a social thing. You know most artists work alone, and I guess Al just didn’t like to. ... He was the youngest EC artist. He was like the baby of the family, tremendously talented. A delight. Thoroughly undependable and the absolute antithesis, I understand, of what he is now. Not that I mean he isn’t talented now, but rather that now he’s completely reliable and has good work habits.” Ironically, Williamson ended his active work in comics as an inker—an extremely skilled inker—on Marvel titles.
Notwithstanding his reputation as the last legendary EC survivor, Williamson spent at least half of his cartooning life outside of comic books. He made an aborted beginning in 1948 when he penciled a couple Tarzan pages for Hogarth, but then he wandered off to make his professional debut, at the tender age of 17, at Eastern Color, then Avon, Toby, Famous Funnies and ACG, drawing westerns and sf adventures. After EC collapsed under the pressure of the industry’s self-censorship, Williamson worked on Atlas and Harvey books, and he also drew stories for Dell, Classics Illustrated, Charlton and ACG. Then he returned to newspaper comics in 1961.
John Prentice, who, assisted by Al McWilliams, was drawing Rip Kirby, wanted to spend some time in Mexico, and McWilliams didn’t want to go along. Larry Ivie, who Prentice had met when giving a talk at the School of Visual Arts (the name into which Hogarth’s art classes morphed), suggested Williamson. “He showed me his stuff,” Prentice told Van Hise, “and it was very good, so I hired him. We worked in New York, where I shared a studio with Leonard Starr, and we got ahead about two weeks; then he and his wife and my wife and I moved to Mexico. We lived there about seventeen months. Then when we came back to New York, Al worked with me for a while longer.” Probably until about 1964.
“We were a little slow getting to work together at the beginning,” Prentice said, “but I think it was only two or three weeks or so before he began to get really going good. I know in the beginning he was a little concerned that he couldn’t help me that much. At first, we hadn’t really worked out how to work together, but what I thought was that he could lay the week out, and we’d both work on the pencils. Then he could ink the backgrounds, and I could ink the figures. But he was a little concerned about inking. He wasn’t sure he wanted to ink. So we finally worked out a system where he would do the layouts and the pencils. We’d work together on the layouts and discuss them. Then he would lay the thing out on tracing paper, and I would just tighten up the pencils and ink it. It takes a little time before you really fall into the right pattern, but he was terrific. He’s the best guy I ever had by far. I’ve had other people helping me, but nobody could top Al.”
“I learned a hell of lot from John,” Williamson told Steve Ringgenberg in an interview published in the Comics Journal No. 90. “I learned how to do a newspaper strip because I didn’t know how in the hell to do one. All I did was comics before. So he taught me a lot.”
Said Prentice: “It was funny, but at first he had trouble drawing anybody in suits. He had never drawn suits. He’d drawn Flash Gordon types with tights and dungarees and levis and that kind of thing. Rough clothing. I remember showing him how to draw the crease in pants and make a suit look smart and fashionable. And at first, he wasn’t that keen on drawing cars until I pointed out to him that you cold make a car just as exciting as you could a figure—with the way you handle the blacks and the angle you place it in—and he began enjoying cars, too.”
Soon after returning from Mexico, Williamson took on additional assistantships with John Cullen Murphy on the boxing strip, Big Ben Bolt, and Don Sherwood on his marine corps tale, Dan Flagg, shortly after it began in 1963. “I was doing a lot of ghosting,” Williamson recalled. “When I got back from Mexico, I was not only doing Rip Kirby, I was doing Ben Bolt and I was pencilling Dan Flagg. I don’t know how I did it,” he exclaimed (with a laugh, probably). “I wish I could do it again.”
In 1966, he drew the first issue of the Flash Gordon comic book published by King Features, receiving so much acclaim that the syndicate invited him to take over another Raymond legacy, Secret Agent X-9, and as he accepted the assignment, Williamson recruited Archie Goodwin to write the strip; he’d met Goodwin at Larry Ivie’s house a decade or so earlier, and they found that they both enjoyed many of the same things, chiefly movies, which they often went to see together. Soon re-titled Secret Agent Corrigan (first name, Phil), the Williamson-Goodwin effort debuted January 20, 1967. George Evans, whom Williamson met in 1946 doing work for Fiction House, took over Corrigan when Williamson left in 1980 to do some Star Wars work. In about 1981, he inherited the Star Wars newspaper strip when Russ Manning fell too ill to continue it. By the time Star Wars was cancelled in early 1984, Williamson had spent almost 25 of his 36-year (thus far) career doing newspaper strips, mostly on two of the three Alex Raymond creations he would be associated with. He returned to comic books, proving to be a dazzling inker of other cartoonists’ pencils, chiefly at Marvel, through the 1990s, evening out the balance of his professional life. And he did Flash Gordon again before folding his tent—a two-part mini-series written by Mark Schultz in 1995, and in 1999, he briefly helped on a Flash Gordon Sunday page for Jim Keefe.
For Van Hise, George Evans remembered with great affection his early sporadic collaborations with Williamson, beginning in about 1946 when Evans got out of the Army Air Corps. “Al became a sort of agent for me, eventually talking me up in places like Fawcett, Pines, and so on, and urging me to ‘go see them.’” Evans watched Rip Kirby admiringly when Williamson was helping Prentice with the strip. “At one point,” Evans said, “I mentioned that I thought they had become better artists all around than Alex Raymond, which I still say. What kind of guy gets offended at that kind of compliment? Al did! He really dug Raymond, and no one was going to be allowed to rate better!”
Williamson hasn’t written much about his career or his art. But for Dark Horse’s
2004 Al Williamson: Hidden Lands by Thomas Yeates, Mark Schultz, and Steve Ringgenberg , Al wrote the Introduction. It shows us that Gaines was right: Williamson drew pictures for the fellowship. Here’s some of what he said: “Looking back, I must say I was quite privileged to work with the most talented men in the field. Mostly, I’ve worked with other artists for the company. Secondly, for the fact that they were so damn good, and it was nice to turn out a beautiful job. I suppose in one way I liked to see something that I did and yet have something in it that I didn’t do. It added another dimension to my work that I wished I could have done myself. It was like saying, ‘Hey, this is great, and I had something to do with it.’ I still enjoy looking at jobs that Roy and Frank and Angelo and I worked on. I look at the stuff that the boys have done, and I’ll see a figure of mine in amongst it, and it’s like I’m here with my friends, and we turned out this nice job. The job was improved immediately because we all did what we loved to do.” Then he concludes: “Thanks guys—thanks for making me look good. I love you all.” So be it.
Williamson Gallery. Here are a few Williamson pictures, ones he also inked, I believe: if he’s not better than Raymond, he’s at least his equal in composition, anatomy, and the postures of the characters, aspects of his skill that come through regardless of who is inking. And there are a couple of pencils here that are superb. We begin, however, with Al’s self-portrait, surrounded by the characters he drew: that’s Flash Gordon almost off the page at the left, behind Doctor Zarkov, one of Flash’s Mongo cohorts; the naked lady is Dale Arden, naturally (au natural, in fact); the Star Wars characters appear around the bend at the left of this picture, which is the partly wrap-around cover for Van Hise’s book. Flash and Zarkov and Dale (this time, more modestly attired—or nearly so) show up again in our second offering. In the third, apart from the pencils delineating delicious cheesecake, we have the sketch of a vaulting swashbuckler, pure Williamson fantasy adventure. Then two pages of a Sunday strip that failed to sell to a syndicate. A lot of Williamson’s comic book art is collected in the aforementioned Dark Horse book ($22.95 still). In Wikipedia, you can find detailed chapter and verse on Williamson; but the most complete index to his work seems to be in Van Hise.
And before you get up—here’s a footnit about the 5th edition of the Standard Catalog of Comic Books, an exhaustive index from the Comics Buyer’s Guide. After four print editions, CBG gave up on print and went digital for the fifth. And I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t work as well—for me, at least—as good ol’ ink-on-paper. I use the publication as a research tool; I’m not buying or selling valuable comic books. In this case, I wanted to check the publication year of the Marvel Flash Gordon: one of my sources said 1994, the other said 1995. Picking up the 3rd edition of the Catalog, a print incarnation, I found what I wanted in a minute or two. Then I tried searching the DVD version. Alas, I almost never found the correct Flash Gordon entry. My computer, which is only about a year old, took several minutes to search the pdf Catalog pages, finally producing a list of all the Flash Gordons. Or so I thought. But I couldn’t find the Marvel Flash on the list. Now we’re approaching ten minutes that I’ve lavished on this comparative exercise. Finally, I typed in “Mark Schultz”; it was he who wrote the Marvel Flash Gordon. Ah—there it is, up on the screen in nearly no time. But how come the machinery never could arrive at that entry using “Flash Gordon” as the search term? Too many bugs and glitches for me, kimo sabe; I’m back with the old print version.
IRKS & CROTCHETS
These all just came through the Vapor via that digital thing in my study:
“It used to be only death and taxes that were certain. Now it’s shipping and handling, too.”
“My mind works like lightning. One brilliant flash and it’s gone.”
“I hate sex in the movies. Tried it once. The seat folded up, the drink spilled, and that ice—well, it really chilled the mood.” (You saw this one coming after the opening sentence, eh?)
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 so mysterious as to be cryptic or incomprehensible. 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.
Mark Waid’s latest endeavor, Irredeemable, is the third of his studied explorations of the nature of superheroism in comics. Says Waid in the book’s afterword: “Kingdom Come was about the ethical price of heroism. Empire was about a world where heroism just flat-out didn’t exist. Irredeemable is, in a way, my third and most complex chapter on the cost of superheroics.” In this one, a superhero simply goes bad; he changes from undiluted Good to rampant Evil and turns on his superheroic teammates. The book opens with one of the Plutonian’s rampages: he attacks one of his costumed cohorts in his home, boiling off his flesh and that of his wife and children, leaving only skeletons where once there were people. Two weeks later, the Plutonian is inexplicably saving the West Coast in an arena-like confrontation with a giant robot. When the Plutonian triumphs, the crowd cheers as if watching an athletic contest won by their favorite team. Then the scene shifts and we see some of the Plutonian’s teammates question one of their number, Samsara, who saw something go awry in the Plutonian’s eyes. We see it, too: in the midst of an adoring crowd, the Plutonian hears a smart-mouth teenager saying, “Show-off jerk—just a flippin’ underwear pervert.” Suddenly the Plutonian’s happy face dissolves into something vaguely piqued. But Samsara can remember no other clues about how their erstwhile leader went off the track. Samsara begs to be allowed to lie down, and they let him; as he lays back, we see that his bed is actually his grave. He’s been “killed” by his partner, the Plutonian. The team members resolve to try to find out as much about the Plutonian as they can, hoping in the details of his life to discover what went wrong with him. Suddenly he shows up and attacks; they disperse, and the Plutonian mutters, “Perfect.”
Waid’s afterword sheds some light on the these goings-on, which otherwise leave us as baffled as the Plutonian’s buddies are: “No one simply turns ‘evil’ one day,” Wait explains. “Villainy isn’t a light switch. The road to darkness is filled with moments of betrayal, of loss, of disappointment, and of superhuman weakness. In the case of the Plutonian, there were sidekicks who sold his secrets. There were friends who preyed too often on his selflessness and enemies who showed him unsettling truths about himself. Irredeemable takes us down that path of transformation in terrifying detail,” he goes on. The book will explain how the Plutonian came to this. “What makes a hero irredeemable?”
The first issue of Irredeemable meets all of the criteria I set forth above (the inquisition of Samsara and his laying back into his grave is the episode) except one: none of the characters we meet is likeable enough to make us want to know what happens to him. Or her. What, then, will bring us back for No. 2? Curiosity. And curiosity alone. The story itself prompts us to want to know why the Plutonian says “Perfect” at its conclusion. What is he up to? What is his “plan” that seeing his former teammates disperse in horror provides him with such a satisfying moment? And will they be successful in finding how what went wrong with him?
Waid’s afterword adds another dimension to our curiosity: now the Plutonian dilemma assumes metaphysical importance. Waid is exploring the nature of Good and Evil—“how the lessons we learn about right and wrong as children can become warped and twisted when challenged by the realities of the adult world,” he says. He’s talking about the nature of corruption. Or is it the nature of maturation, of becoming an adult? How did the armor that the Knight in Shining Armor puts on as a youth get rust spots as he grows older? This is an ambitious undertaking, kimo sabe: the last time I encountered something of similar aspiration it was the work of a blind British poet named John Milton who wanted to know how Paradise got lost. Good question. Now maybe we’ll find out whether Waid knows the answer.
The book includes another postscript, a long diatribe on the mysteries of celebrity and pigeon-holing by Waid’s friend Grant Morrison, who sees himself and Waid as famous writers tagged with a label that their work, time after time, denies. Waid, Morrison says, is saddled with the reputation of being the storyteller of the nostalgic “traditional and comfortable ... —some faithful owlish archivist, alphabetically arranging the four-color debris of his youth.” Morrison thinks his own reputation is as “the madcap purveyor of free-form gibberish.” To me, the provocative thing about his essay is his unfettered admiration for Waid as a storyteller when he expresses approval of Waid’s “massive turns and reveals in every single scene.” Morrison is talking about the mechanics of a page-turner: how does the storyteller get us to keep turning pages? With “turns” and “reveals”—plot twists and the steady divulging of detail. Every twist of the plot surprises us and makes us wonder where it will go next. But pure suspense, the skilled storyteller knows, is not enough to keep his readers captive; he must, from time to time, assuage the suspense by offering tiny dribbles of explanation. This maneuver keeps us turning the pages: we want to know what’s going to happen, and we feel confident from the experience so far that the storyteller will eventually tell us what we want to know.
All of which is true. But Morrison leaves out the purely human element. A storyteller’s skill as a mechanic is important, but he must also create characters about whom we care. So far in Irredeemable, Waid hasn’t done that. And his partner, artist Peter Krause, isn’t helping me. His fussy drawing style is a bit too meticulous for my taste. It turns prissy after a while. Too many negligible details—wrinkles in hands—knuckles even, for pete’s sake!—collar bones and facial details. And sometimes, he gets anatomy wrong. His staging is fine—panel composition, perspective, and the like. It’s simply his style that grates. It’s a personal thing.
In contrast, we have Sean Phillips in Ed Brubaker’s Incognito, another book with a protagonist who seems more villain than criminal, but in the case of Zack Overkill, the surviving brother of a twin crime rampage, now in the witness protection plan, he betrays occasional redeemable qualities. And Phillips’ relative simple rendering style—I think of Noel Sickles and Hugo Pratt, for instance—steeped in shadowy solid blacks, is attractive, engaging. The pictures don’t turn my stomach, in other words, and the characters are both vaguely likeable, at least somewhat sympathetic, as well as intriguing. I’ll come back to see more of Phillips, but Krause doesn’t appeal at all.
100 Bullets, having reached its 100th issue, does what logic in these numerically driven days demands: it ends. It ends, as the New York Daily News reports, with a bang. Not surprising: it’s been banging away for all 100 issues. The “bang” in this case denotes not only the fatal gunslinging events of the story by writer Brian Azzarello and artist Eduardo Risso but the issue itself, double the usual length and without interruption by pages of advertising—a measure of the esteem accorded the creators of this unprecedented title by their publisher, DC Comics in its Vertigo incarnation. It probably gives nothing away to say that by the last page of this last issue everyone in this gangster-ridden tale is dead or about to be. The last panel, which Azzarello told the News’ Ethan Sacks he had envisioned from the very beginning in 1999, is a full-page tombstone of a tableau depicting Agent Graves on his knees, affectionately cradling the voluptuous Dizzy with the tear-eyed tattoo, who, though fatally damaged, is holding a gun to his head.
The series, Sacks claims, “reinvigorated the crime genre in a medium dominated by superheroes in spandex.” It did indeed. It was a gutsy run for ten years, and I’ve been along for the entire ride. I stopped buying the title after about a dozen issues but couldn’t go through with it and resumed picking it up almost at once; and I think I found the missing issues eventually, so I must have all 100 of them here somewhere in the cavernous Book Grotto below. One commentator said 100 Bullets is not so much about gangsters as it is about power. And I agree—with some additional caveats: it is a classical saga about the corrosive effect of power, how power corrupts and, at last, turns unrelentingly brutal and inward, and destroys itself. From the start, each issue began with Agent Graves giving an untraceable gun and 100 bullets to some poor slob who had cause to seek vengeance for some past abuse; by the issue’s last page, the slob had achieved his heart’s bloody desire. Then the stories started taking more than one issue to unfold. Some of the characters other than Graves started turning up in nearly every issue. Then we learned in one confusing issue that many of these characters are members of the Trust or members of perhaps rival crime families who aspire to membership in the Trust. And/or they are Minutemen, enforcers for the Trust. At that point, I lost interest in the saga about power and its corrosive effects: it was too confusing to sort out all the shadowy connections and conspiracies. For me, 100 Bullets was not so much about power in the abstract as it was about the power of pictures, the masterful comics storytelling of Eduardo Risso. He deployed pictures, breakdowns, and page layouts in ways not often so adroitly demonstrated anywhere else by anyone else. His pictures were a pleasure to view, to enter into, however raw and gory they were.
“Azzarello is most proud,” Sacks says, “that his creation showed there is room in comics for heroes that don’t wear capes.” Azzarello has done longjohn legion stories, but he doesn’t like them. “In fact,” Sacks adds, “the graphic violence in 100 Bullets is a direct result of Azzarello’s feelings about men in tights”: “I wanted the violence to hurt,” he told Sacks, “—to actually have some consequence. I suppose that was just a reaction to comic books in general, superhero comic books. They beat the shit out of each other with no consequences at all.”
I savored Azzarello’s command of ghetto argot, which seemed to me, without doing any authentication at all, to ring truest when his characters were African American thugs, but it was Risso’s surpassing skill as a pictorial storyteller that kept bringing me back. Some of his tics and tropes he eventually used often enough to make them cliche—but only in this title. No one else could do it as well. Besides, every page had enough new visual quirks to engage and entertain, and the last issue was no exception. Afforded more pages, Risso and Azzarello use them to pace the unfolding brutalities, to stage and prolong the final fatal moments of the armageddon of self-destruction they are recording, the brace of concluding disasters taking place simultaneously on alternating pages, then in alternating panels, building to a blazing, exploding crescendo of conflagration—much of which takes place without any talk, no words. Only Risso’s telling pictures.
SHORTER SHRIFTS. Caped, a new title from Boom by writers Josh Lobis and Darin Moiselle and artist Yair Herrera, may be the freshest take on the longjohn lunacies since John Kovalick’s Blink. At first, the book seems to be about “Capital City’s Nocturnal Soldier,” a caped and cowled night-time prowler who bears an intentional resemblance to a certain Dark Knight. Named Edge, he arrives too late to save a supposedly innocent bystander in the first issue’s opening pages, a tardiness some observers believe indicates that the Nocturnal Knight is slipping in his old age. The focus, however, quickly shifts to a young would-be newspaper reporter named Jimmy Lohman, who, because he can’t find other journalistic employment, accepts a job as “assistant” to Grant Godfried, a super reporter who has gone through 27 assistants in the last four months. Turns out—surprise!—Godfried is secretly Edge, and so young Jimmy becomes “assistant” to a costumed crime fighter. Edge shows him his subterranean “EdgeCave” and then takes him to another catacomb underneath an abandoned football stadium, which Edge calls a “superhero precinct” because it is a shelter or workshop for a few dozen superheroes and their assistants, one of whom takes Jimmy under his wing to show him the ropes. “Stay away from the action,” the guy warns Jimmy, “—we don’t get health insurance, one of the many ways we assistants get ‘caped,’ superhero lingo for ‘screwed.’” With that, the issue’s episode is virtually completed: we know, now, that we’re in a tongue-in-cheek title, confirming an earlier suspicion fostered when Jimmy asks Edge if he acquired his powers by falling into a vat of chemicals and Edge says, “Why does everyone always assume it’s chemicals”—but doesn’t explain what did endow him with superpowers. Maybe later. The issue concludes with Edge, Jimmy in tow, pursuing of one of the Gemini twins, probably the one who killed the bystander in the early pages of the book. Promising. Herrera’s drawings are uncomplicated, almost simple compared to the usual pyrotechnics of most superhero rendering. Renato Faccini attempts to give the simplicity some depth by applying flat tonal variations to shade and model figures and faces, but the colors are so dark and Herrera’s use of solid black for shadowy shading so extensive that the sensation reading the book is that we’re reading it at night in bed under the covers like we used to when our parents forbade comic book reading, but this time, without a flashlight to illuminate the pages. In the dark, many crucial visual narrative details are obscured. And Herrera compounds the obscurity with sheer storytelling ineptitude: it’s not clear in the opening action sequence, for instance, who is doing what to whom; ditto in the issue’s closing action sequence. But the concept of superheroic action, sometimes fumbled, experienced from an assistant’s perspective is tantalizing enough to get me to buy the next issue. This is not a slapstick take on superheroing as is Sidekick; this is an attempt at seeing superheroing at the elbow of a superhero but somewhat more realistically than Sidekick. It’s not satire; it’s human interest.
Kyle Baker’s 4-issue Special Forces has reached its conclusion, vibrating on every page with his startling layouts and exploding action in out-of-the-way battles in Iraq. The protagonist, a woman named Felony, has an impressive rack despite her otherwise skinny physique, and she has taken the expression “strip for action” literally, divesting herself of all raiment except a tattered top and an ammo belt serving as a battlefield bikini. A letter from Trina Robbins concludes the fourth issue: an admirer of Baker’s, she read the first issue even though she couldn’t believe Baker did “this.” Says she: “I gave it a chance and read it, and I have to say that I don’t get it and I don’t like it. This is not the Kyle Baker I know. It’s not a statement against the war in Iraq: it’s a violent action war comic starring a sexy babe. What the hell?” To which Baker responds: “I thought you said you didn’t get it. You TOTALLY get it.” Together, the two sum up the title, leaving me to add only that the exuberance of Baker’s art makes the book worth the look—oh, that and the twist he gives his plots. The four issues will be reissued as a paperback tome this summer.
The artists producing Marvel’s “Noir” series have taken the series title to heart, uncorking their ink bottles and pouring the contents on the pages, drenching the pictures in so much black it’s hard to make out just what is being depicted thereon. The Noir notion takes some of Marvel’s most recognizable heroes back into the Depression-era 1930s where they are still Spider-Man, Wolverine and Daredevil but not the same characters as they are now. Somewhat. Or almost. Still, each character resonates with his usual trappings. Spider-Man is a teenager in the grip of angst, Wolverine has a nasty temper, and Daredevil is blind. The fun, supposedly, is in seeing how these familiar features are played out in a different time, different world. So far, Spider-Man Noir, which we visited here a while back (Opus 239), looks the most promising. But at least two of the others are provocative.
Wolverine is a private detective with a retarded “brother” (who’s not really his brother) for a partner. The central episode of the first issue rehearses their youth together, one as the son of a preacher; the other, as the adopted son. Known, now, as “Jim Logan,” our berserker bruiser mastered knives at an early age, taught by his preacher father’s gardener, and the blades are flashing by the end of the first issue of the four-issue series. C.P. Smith’s visuals on Wolverine are a good deal clearer than Tomm Coker’s on DD, but I still can’t quite tell whether those knife blades are growing out of Logan’s hands or if he’s just holding more than one in each fist. In the case being investigated, Logan’s partner, called “Dog,” has gone off to find out why a beautiful Japanese woman, their client, is being followed. By the end of this issue, written by Stuart Moore, Dog has apparently gone nuts and knifed a couple of characters to death with a toy knife.
Alexander Irvine’s Daredevil Noir is much more atmospheric than Wolverine Noir—that is, much more effort is devoted to creating and sustaining a mood than to advancing a story. Matt Murdock, the son of a boxer who is killed for not throwing a fight, is blinded in the same assault that kills the father, battlin’ Jack Murdock, and so he naturally does what every blind person does as soon as they are blinded: he throws himself off a tall building and becomes an acrobatic crime-fighter. He isn’t a lawyer in this incarnation: instead, he works for a private investigator named Foggy Nelson, who is hired by a beautiful woman whom Matt may have known in his youth (whether he did is one of the shrouded mysteries in this mini-series). As Daredevil, Matt’s face is always obscured by some of the black ink that Coker hasn’t lavished on street scenes in Hell’s Kitchen, a neighborhood in New York that Irvine is so enamored of that he makes it a character in the book. When Matt’s being just Matt, however, we see his face, and Coker has incorporated a telling touch: the lenses on Matt’s glasses occasionally flash red, blood red. Irvine is aiming mostly at mood here: the plot doesn’t advance much in two issues, and there’s a good deal of brooding and puzzling and general over-all angst of one sort or another even as DD swings through the city, attacking bad guys. Coker helps a great deal: his expert renderings of cityscapes and dimly-lit alleys are clogged with garbage cans and the gritty flotsam and jetsam of grubby cities, the solid blacks streaked with vertical lines representing the driving rain that forever infests “the Kitchen”—the perfect physical setting for the psychological mulings of Irvine’s tale. Eventually, it looks as if Matt will get to avenge his father’s murder because Foggy’s case brings them into the sphere of a neighborhood no-goodnik named Orville Halloran, who admits to killing Matt’s father because Halloran lost money betting that battlin’ Jack would lose a fight (but Jack refused to play along). Oh, and a sharp-shooting assassin named Bull’s Eye lurks herein, too. Irvine turns a phrase as neatly as Coker limns the action. Here is Matt’s description of the mysterious client: “Thin ice over deep, deep water. If I could get to the bottom, there I could rest.”
In Will Eisner’s The Spirit No. 27, Mike Uslan and F. J. DeSanto continue to inflict their version of the iconic character on unsuspecting readers everywhere, and Justiniano and Walden Wong persist in rendering the tale with a certain aplomb, sometimes yielding recognizable versions of the Spirit and Dolan but collapsing pretty short of the mark on Ellen Dolan and the female characters, not to mention Ebony Black, which is what most of the character’s contemporary interpreters do—that is, not mention him. This issue is the second in a three-issue arc, through all of which Eisner’s never-seen villain, the Octopus, lurks, and Silken Floss, here, a scientific genius, plays his pawn, determined to frustrate his world-domination schemes. But Lorelei Rox is the operative henchwoman for this issue: here, she is a singer whose siren songs separate men from their intelligence, leaving them babbling idiots. The Octopus plays Svengali to her Trilby in this tale: he doesn’t seem affected by her singing, but he is in her thrall nonetheless even as he enlists her to do his bidding. Lorelei presumably has helped him loot some transport trucks, the issue’s initiating event, which, the Spirit announces immediately upon arriving on the scene, looks like the work of Lorelei. How he knows, we never find out, and matters deteriorate forthwith, ending in an equally inexplicable (or undecipherable) underwater struggle between the Spirit and the Octopus, in which Lorelei, who has been shot by a police sharpshooter, is somehow involved, her extraordinarily long tresses perhaps strangling the Octopus. Hard to say. In fact, it’s hard to say much about the chaos that concludes this issue, trumpeting echoes of “Phantom of the Opera”: the opera house in which it all takes place seems to be falling in on itself, into the bay beneath, but Justiniano and Wong confuse events instead of clarifying them with their pictures. The Spirit is thrilled when he realizes that he’s about to barge into the climatic scene by swinging on a chandelier—“I’ve been waiting my whole life to make an entrance like this!” he bellows in giant-sized lettering—but it’s not entirely clear how he gets to the chandelier through a maze of ropes that suddenly dangle into the scene. And what are we to make of that can of Spirit Pork and Beans that blips out into the confusion? There’s some cute stuff in this issue, but not much. Uslan and DeSanto are playing Eisner’s Spirit for laughs, and while Eisner saw comedy in the shenanigans of his characters, they were never trivialized by the humor as they are here.
Warren Ellis does what he usually does with a new title: he concocts a palpable world and then throws out a stunningly original nobody-else-has-thought-of-it-before notion to knock us back breathless for a few moments. In Ignition City, the world, improbably, is Berlin in February 1956, but despite the blatant look backward, the place is incongruously littered with 25th century space travel trappings. Ellis might be imagining an alternative outcome to WWII, or—and I think, but I’m not sure, this is the case—he’s conjured up time travel notion in which the populace in this world is made up of people from five hundred years in “the future” who have been transported back in time to 1956, taking some of their technological advancements with them. We meet Mary Raven, daughter of a famed space explorer named Rock Raven; she has grown weary of sitting around the Explorer’s Club and wants to get back into space, but whatever her plans are, they are interrupted by news that her father is dead, so she goes to Ignition City to collect his effects. Ignition City is an artificial island built somewhere along the equator as the planet’s last remaining space port. It may be on this planet, but it looks like some off-world combination junkyard, prison compound, and raggedy-ass saloon. Mary meets a lady bartender, Gayle Ransom, who, when she learns that her visitor is Rock Raven’s daughter, pities her. We also meet some picturesque characters, among them, a man taking a shit and complaining that his diet of food pills results in feces of rabbit-pellet dimension. This is Ellis’ mind-warping novelty for the first issue of the title—establishing the equation that pellet-size food will produce only pellet-size turds. Says the complainer: “Haven’t had to wipe my ass in three fucking weeks. It’s not right.” Then he empties the pot of pellets out of the upper-story window of his castle-like dwelling, and the fecal fragments fall on a sleeping Russian spaceman named Yuri, who is, understandably, pissed: “How dare you deploy your shitpot on the greatest Russian ever in time,” he bellows upward, adding: “Yuri can shit out logs of men, not pebbles of mice.” What a gas—if you’ll pardon the expression.
Then comes the issue’s episode: a bruiser friend of Gayle’s, Piet Vanderkirk, goes to meet the shipment of food pills and water and, when the transport driver tries to extort more money for the goods, Piet goes all nutty, pulls a monster weapon, and blows away the transport guy and his buddy, leaving the latter a still smouldering pair of legs, kneeling on the ground while his innards ooze out of where his body used to be. At that moment, Mary Raven arrives at Gayle’s saloon, and Gayle proclaims her pity. Ignition City will end after the fifth issue, and the first, so far, seems promising, as most of the Ellis oeuvre is in both its early and latter stages.
Ellis’ illustrating co-hort is Gianluca Pagliarani, whose style echoes that of Ellis’ other recent detail-obsessed partners but a little less so. Pagliarani is good with buildings, rotting landscapes and rusting equipage but not so good with people. He’s reasonably competent with ugly male faces, but clothing seems beyond his skill: congaries of wrinkles don’t give the substance of shape to his figures, and his women, who he intends to be beautiful, have faces that seem stiff with botox, the mouths pursed around teeth that seem just about ready to drop out like boxers’ mouthpieces, and he tends to overwork bodices, drawing a hemisphere with single strokes but then mucking around with stress wrinkles that are impossible.
But for sheer visual inscrutability, nothing matches Tony Salmons on James Robinson’s graphic novel Vigilante: City Lights, Prairie Justice. I’m mentioning it here rather than in the Grapik Neuvou department because the book is about a Golden Age favorite of mine, namely the Vigilante, a cowboy-suit-wearing galoot, who was, in his actual fictional life, a movie-star singing cowboy named Greg Saunders, who, when moved by crime and the compulsion to stamp it out, donned a white broad-brimmed hat, a blue tight-fitting cavalry blouse (the kind with a fold-over front that can be removed after having protected the actual shirtfront from accumulating dust raised by the horse’s hoofs), and matching jeans and boots and then tied a red bandana across the lower half of his face to obliterate his identity. Then he’d jump on his motorcycle and roar off to damage the bad guys, followed, usually, by a kid sidekick named “Stuff.” My memory of this colorful character with his razor-sharp jaw as defined by the red bandana is determined by the way Mort Meskin drew the character. Meskin deployed a lively line and Caniff-like shadowing, producing memorable visuals. Salmons’ visuals are likewise memorable: his line is erratic, sometimes thin and fragile, sometimes clotted and lumpy, and he splashes blotches of black ink around, obscuring facial detail to such an extent that characters are impossible to identify in subsequent appearances, even on the same page. The artwork, in short, is all about technique: artsy has displaced storytelling as the operative principle. Robinson’s story, set in the 1940s, sends Vig after a historic figure, the gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, the man who created Las Vegas as a gambling hell by opening the Flamingo Hotel and Casino there in about 1942-43. Vigilante is on a mission of vengeance: Stuff has been killed by one of Bugsy’s goons because the kid fancied the goon’s girlfriend, so Vig spends most of the book laying waste to Bugsy’s henchmen as he relentlessly tracks Siegel down. When he finds him, he kills him—blasts him to hell with a shotgun. By then, we are ready to applaud this morally dubious action by a comic book hero because Robinson has convinced us that Siegel is subhuman, another morally dubious artistic achievement. Completing this appalling enterprise, Robinson introduces a DC villain, the Dummy, to no purpose whatsoever. The story, in short, is as much a mishmash as Salmons’ art is. Salmons manages two or three stunning pages of action and a couple of moody sequences, but otherwise, his rendering is artistic to the point of utter incomprehensibility.
Amanda Conner’s Power Girl, on the other hand, is a pure unalloyed joy to behold in the first issue of what promises to be an on-going monthly title. Conner can ladle in detail with the most copious of Ellis’ renderers, but she doesn’t clutter the scene with fragmentary modeling lines: Conner’s lines are clean and clear. And her heroine is beautiful in face and colossal in form. Particularly in the region of her chest. Power Girl has always been spectacularly endowed in that vicinity, and Conner is one of the champion illuminators of the curvaceous gender. Interviewed lately, by Matt Brady at newsarma.com, Conner was asked about how she deals with the “stigma” of cheesecake that clings to Power Girl. “I embrace it,” said Conner. “It’s one of the things that makes Power Girl Power Girl. It’s part of who she is as a character, and trying to deny it would be like deciding that you don’t like someone’s personality and telling them to change. I like how she seems to have a sense of humor about the whole cheesecake thing and doesn’t take it too seriously. I really love the character,” Conner continued. “She has so much potential, and there is so much personality that you can work with. And she’s bigger than life [an unintended play on words, no doubt] but not so iconic that she has to be perfect, so that makes her way more interesting. ... I try to imagine what most of us regular people would do and how we would behave in a world with actual superheroes and apply that to Power Girl’s environment.”
Apart from her sheer skill at drawing, Conner also, and this is one of her most appealing traits as an artist, has a sense of humor, inserting visual comedy and sight gags into the otherwise purely narrative drift of the art. In the first issue of her new title, the eponymous Power Girl is engaged in two simultaneously depicted storylines: in one, she is fighting off an alien invasion of robotic monsters while, in the other, she is supervising staffers at her Starrware Labs, a technology think tank that looks for “innovative twenty-first century solutions to the planet’s growing ecological and environmental problems.” The book appeals to Conner’s proclivities: she likes to do “big action,” she told Brady, as well as smaller moments. “Action is always a blast,” she said, “but I like the challenge of making the quieter moments incredibly interesting. I like the idea of letting the characters do the acting in a quieter scene.”
And Conner is surpassingly adroit at such scenes. In the quieter Starrware Labs thread of this issue, writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti give Conner an excuse for a sight gag by having one of Power Girl’s staff much too preoccupied with a collection of snow globes on Power Girl’s desk, leading to the anatomical punchline we see here, which concludes, for all practical purposes, the issue’s episode.
Power Girl’s costume was designed by some male chauvinist in the last generation of funnybook creators: while it seems more practical than many such superheroine raiment—body-hugging bathing suit design that permits maximum movement with the least wardrobe interference—the otherwise confining bodice also features a gaping hole of a neckline, intended, without question, to focus our attention on PG’s cleavage. Conner’s skill is such that she keeps the cleavage on display while simultaneously convincing us that PG’s uniform is made of the stoutest fabric, the sort that can actually—successfully—keep those bountiful boobs contained, restricting their movement so they aren’t jiggling distractingly. Nicely done. The issue ends with Manhattan about to be destroyed, but it’s Conner’s pictures of Power Girl—and her ever-lurking sense of visual comedy—that will keep us coming back to this title.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is going to revisit its decision that the wolverine is not entitled to protection as endangered species. When they reached that decision previously, they were all doubtless recent attendees at one of the X-Men movies. But they were brought back to reality as part of a settlement on a lawsuit brought in 2000 by wildlife groups that claimed the Service had disregarded scientific evidence that wolverines were in jeopardy.
ONWARD, THE SPREADING PUNDITRY
The Thing of It Is ...
In the April 30 issue of Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi spreads joy in a delightful diatribe about the so-called Grand Old Pachyderm: “Following the Republican Party of late has been a movingly depressing experience, sort of like watching Old Yeller die—if Old Yeller were a worm-infested feral bitch who spent the past eight years biting children at bus stops and shitting in the neighborhood swimming pools. ... [The GOP has taken on] an intriguing new role: providing much-needed comic relief during dark times, serving as the unofficial rodeo clowns of the Financial Crisis Era. If there were any doubts about the party’s hilarious new role in American society,” Taibbi continues, “they’ve vanished in recent weeks” as the party leaders undertook to deny that it was the “Party of No” by offering an 18-page alternative to the O’Bama budget—an alternative, Taibbi is quick to point out, that contained absolutely no numbers. How can you have a budget without numbers? Easy, if you’re John Boehner, fresh from your daily sojourn in the tanning bed and rolling a marble around in your mouth while attempting to look profound. (This is the same guy, by the way, whose reaction to Baracko Bama’s Cairo speech was: “He seemed to ... place equal blame on the Israelis and the Palestinians. I have concerns about this.” Once upon a time, if memory serves, when the U.S. aspired to be “an honest broker” for peace in the Middle East, impartiality was deemed a virtue. But not, evidently, in Boehner’s world. In his world, peace in the Middle East is not his objective: his concern is to be re-elected, and, judging from this remarks, he needs pro-Israeli votes from his constituents.)
“The Republicans,” Taibbi goes on, “seem determined to spend the next four years cutting class, shooting spitballs at Nancy Pelosi and telling reporters that the dog ate their budget.. They completely sat out the budget vote; the final plan passed without a single GOP vole in either chamber.” Why don’t they just go home, then—dismiss their expensive staffs and save the taxpayers some money that way? Oh, c’mon: no politician is interested in saving taxpayers money; they want, merely, to make noises as if they were interested in saving taxpayers money.
The real tragedy, though, said Taibbi, getting serious for the finale of his article, is that genuine conservatives have a “vital role to play” and they’re not playing at it. At all. “What the country needs from the opposition is an intellectually serious attempt to rein in unnecessary waste and spending. But the Republicans pissed away their credibility on fiscal conservatism over the past eight years and then monstrously compounded matters this year by leaning on their shovels and generally half-assing their way through the budget debate, saving a few bullets they had left for a fucking estate-tax exemption. Way to take your jobs seriously, you assholes. And you wonder why you lost the White House?”
The same article is accompanied by a “timeline” chart that, for reasons too involved to explain here, includes the only American published photo of Janet Jackson’s bared breast (which is capped, not with a nipple—that would be pornographic—but a diamond-studded pastie). There’s also a photo of Rod Blagojevich, who seems destined to become the poster boy of corrupt and self-serving politics for all time. Too bad he’s a Democrat.
David Brooks, a Republican tool so moderate as to vacate his appointment, is also concerned about the future of the GOP. In a column on or about May 10, he remembers that Republicans have always liked John Wayne and Westerns generally because “Westerns seem to celebrate their core themes—freedom, individualism, opportunity and moral clarity. But,” Brooks goes on, “the greatest of all Western directors, John Ford, actually used Westerns to tell a different story. Ford’s movies didn’t really celebrate the rugged individual: they celebrated civic order.” Thus, the problem with the Republicans is that “they talk more about the market than about society, more about income than quality of life. They celebrate capitalism, which is a means, and are inarticulate about the good life, which is the end. ... If the Republicans are going to rebound,” Brooks concludes, “they will have to re-establish themselves as the party of civic order. First, they will have to decontaminate their brand” by finding a leader “who is calm, prudent, reassuring and reasonable” not a sabre-rattling sneering fear-monger. “Then they will have to explain that there are two theories of civic order. There is the liberal theory, in which teams of experts draw up plans to engineer order wherever problems arise. And there is the more conservative vision in which government sets certain rules, but mostly empowers the complex web of institutions in which the market is embedded. Both of these visions are now contained within the Democratic Party.”
Mike Durcan, writing a letter to the Denver Post, observed that in the current excitement about the supposed empathy of the Latina candidate for the Supreme Court, neither side in the debate has made reference to the very symbol of our justice system—“Themis, the ancient goddess of justice and law. She, and I stress she, holds a scale and a sword, each with its own poignant symbolism. Often, however, a third symbol is overlooked—the blindfold. Although it was added to the ancient stature somewhat recently (16th century), it surely deserves proper attention and significance [equal to empathy]. Inattention to that blindfold can be dangerous. The symbolism assumes that a conscious ‘sympathy’ would be wrong, a conscious bias unfair. It clearly supports the need for judges to be ‘blind’ if they are to be impartial. Peeking is not allowed. Why return to the 1500s?”
David Broder, writing about Arlen Specter, called him “Specter the Defector.” And Lester the Molester? ... Elsewhere: I hesitate to enter very far into the so-called “debate” about torture—because there should be no debate: torture is wrong—but it seems to me that Andrew Sullivan at Atlantic.com (quoted in The Week) made the most telling remark when he asked: If waterboarding and torture were so effective, why was Zubaydah ultimately waterboarded 83 times? Right. Wouldn’t once or twice have been enough to elicit the sought after information and, incidentally, prove the value of waterboarding as an “enhanced” interrogation technique?
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