Opus 247 (August 30, 2009). Headlining this time, our hare-raising report on the once-next-biggest-but-fading-fast Wizard World in Chicago. We also take a look at how the health care “debate” is so cartoon-like that it deprives editorial cartoonists of opportunities to ply their craft and review Unthinkable and Kid Colt, and we try to clear Bob Novak’s name while giving Don Hewitt credit for the destruction he wrought and the example he set. Here’s what’s here, in order, by department:
NOUS R US: Wizard’s lack-lustre Chicago Con, a book about the Danish Dozen with no cartoons in it, Playboy fading fast, new information about the birth of Superman, syndicates’ perpetual search for niche strips, Jeff MacNelly replaced at last, Pulitzer winner Matt Davies has a close call
EDITOONERY: How the buffoonery of the so-called health care debate is faring under the pens of the nation’s editorial cartooners with a glance at the birthers, Schorr back at the drawing board
RANCID RAVES GALLERY: Ethel Hays’ elegance and a rare unpublished Calvin and Hobbes
NEWSPAPER COMICS PAGE VIGIL: Grimm’s product placement (concluded), the mystifying Funky, “the Family” in Doonesbury explained, Rudy Park satirical jab at newspapers, Tank McNamara gets nixed
BOOK MARQUEE: New Bone book, Wimpy Dog Days
THE FROTH ESTATE: Novak dies with a bum rap over his head
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE: Reviews of Unthinkable and Kid Colt, and the CBG DVD dud
THE FROTH ESTATE: PART TWO: Don Hewitt’s example
The Lion of the Senate
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—
NOUS R US
All the News That Gives Us Fits
Apologia. This department’s motto (just above) is slightly pilfered from the New York Times, which adopted its motto, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” in 1897 to distinguish its serious, conservative and family friendly reportage from the lurid, tasteless and typically indecent yellow journalism of two of its more popular competitors, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. Despite this tenuous kinship, you may have noticed that we’re not the New York Times here at Rancid Raves Intergalactic Wurlitzer: we don’t post all the news; we post just whatever news strikes our fancy—whatever irks our ire, ruffles our feathers, soothes the savage beast, fosters silvery laughter, or tickles our fancy, plus the occasional odd item that reveals how comics work or how the human (sic) sapien is faring. For instance, the Associated Press’s report in May that Craigslist is dropping its “erotic services” category because law enforcement officials say the ads are a front for prostitution; in place of the old category name is the new one, “adult services,” and a fee will be charged to place one of these. In these times when “adult” has become the equivalent of “erotic” or “pornographic,” it’s hard to tell that the change marks an advance in civilization.
Or—a report in the Denver Post that a local methamphetamine ring that smuggled meth from Mexico via Phoenix and distributed the drugs hereabouts using women as mules (the drugs secreted in their body cavities) laundered their ill-gotten gains by buying and selling collectable comic books. Searching the ring’s headquarters, police found about 100 boxes of first-edition comic books in plastic wrappers. “It appeared they were working on a startup company for high-end comic books,” said the DA, adding that one first-edition comic book was worth about $3,500. Dunno which one that was though.
Or—the Los Angeles Times’ report that a market for removing of tattoos is growing. Jeff Keefe, founder and CEO of a California tattoo-removal company, believes that as tattoos become more common in society, the tattoo regret factor will only grow as people get older, guaranteeing a thriving future for his business. He added that about two-thirds of his customers are women between the ages of 25 and 35.
While we probably don’t need to explain this aspect of our idiosyncracy, I feel the time has come to acknowledge that we sometimes focus on “journalism,” print and broadcast, more than you might expect in a comics website. The reason for this unholy preoccupation is, perforce, simple: one of our chief concerns is the newspaper comic strip, and the future of this genre of cartooning is inextricably bound up with the future of newspapers, which seem somewhat in jeopardy these days. If newspapers die, can the comic strip be far behind? That’s how we started down this slippery slope. But our persistent criticism of the practices of 21st Century journalism, you may have noticed, goes beyond the funnies page and the financial page to the general practice of news reporting, how badly flawed it is. Here again, the connection to the fate of newspapers and of comics is evident although somewhat less so: the survival of print journalism depends to some extent upon trust—the trust engendered in the reading public by the journalistic practices of the newspaper that prove it to be reliable. And to the extent that cable tv news is influencing the practice or journalism in the print medium, tv news slips over the transom into our purview. So we nag journalists regardless of their venue because bad journalism generally will rebound specifically to newspapers, their fate, and the fate of comic strips. But our interest in journalism is admittedly excessive: admittedly, it goes beyond the web of relationships in which the funnies pages of the nation’s newspapers are ensnared. Case in point, this posting’s piece on Robert Novak, which, regardless of your opinion of Novak, has nothing to do with comics. It does, however, reflect an interest in journalism founded on my early training in the profession. I worked on the campus newspaper at my university as a reporter and columnist, and I eventually came to edit it. I realize, however, that you may not share my obsession about good and bad journalism; and we’ve departmentalized Rancid Raves precisely so you can skip over those obsessions if you so desire: just scroll down past The Froth Estate whenever you come to it.
Enough preamble; now, let’s amble.
Wizard Loses Its Magic in Chicago. Wizard World describes itself as “the country’s foremost touring event for pop culture and comic books,” “touring event” being the pivot upon which it turns to ignore the otherwise undisputed largest “non-touring” comic convention in the country, the Sandy Eggo Comic-Con, and, in a spasm of the same sort of fact-evasive logic, Wizard is now trying to make the best of a deteriorating situation in Chicago, where it concluded its tenth comic convention on August 15. Attendance, claimed at 58,000, “once again exceeded expectations” according to a press release by Michael McDaniel, “making this convention the largest Wizard World event to date.” Such company-originated “news” may make the this year’s con look good to readers, but those who actually attended had a different take, beginning with astonishment that none of the big comics publishing houses—DC, Marvel, Image, Dark Horse, Top Cow—had their usual colossal booths just inside the entry to the exhibit hall. This area was, instead, dedicated to a series of cubbyholes in which various wannabee celebrities sold autographs for $50, signing their names to photographs that their admirers had purchased for another fee. Rumor has it that the big companies cancelled when one of them learned that it was paying more for its exhibit space than a competitor was paying for similar space. Seeking, perhaps, to get out from under the cloud of bad press such shenanigans usually summon, Wizard changed the name of the Windy City event: instead of Wizard World Chicago, the con reverted to the name it invoked before it was purchased by Wizard Entertainment in 1997—Chicago Comic-Con—an invocation that was close enough to qualify as a near miss with legal ramifications that we’ll examine anon. The name change occurred earlier this year but was never explained. But Len Kody and Tony Maldonado at their website, webcomicsnation.com, took notice: “Did you ever think this day would come?” they ask. “‘Wizard,’ the name for the magazine that sculpted the 1990s comics industry landscape with only its arbitrary editorial whims to guide it, has, by 2009, become a name that’s a liability.”
This maneuver gave rise to much speculation over at ICv.2, where the legalisms cloaking the name change were pondered. San Diego, acting with its customary high-handedness, trademarked the word “Comic-Con” (a hyphenated compound) in 2005, seeking, doubtless, to deny “publicity value” to any other comic convention in the country that might, by using the hyphenated term, hitch-hike on the vastness of the San Diego event’s reputation. The Chicago con that Wizard bought had trademarked its name, Chicago Comicon (one word, no hyphen), some years before, in 1992. Only a lawyer would want to distinguish between the two usages, Comic-Con and Comicon; their aural impact is identical, and the presence or absence of a hyphen seems the kind of hair lawyers alone split and embrace with great affection. Sandy Eggo’s director of marketing, David Glanzer, hedged when asked whether the San Diego Comic-Con would sue: “Whenever an entity comes along and brands itself in a way that confuses people, whether intentional or otherwise, I don’t think anybody enjoys that,” he told ICv.2, adding: “I don’t think it benefits us. I don’t think it benefits the attendees.” But I doubt anyone is likely to confuse “San Diego” with “Chicago,” so what might the case be that Sandy Eggo could mount? A molehill of foolishness, if you ask me (not that anyone has, mind you). Moreover, since other comic conventions—notably, Baltimore’s—use the hyphenated term and Sandy Eggo didn’t sue, I think the California entity has probably lost legal standing. As I understand it, a trademark’s exclusivity must be defended against any encroachment in order to retain the right of its holder, and Sandy Eggo hasn’t defended its right to “Comic-Con.”
The celebrities signing their names for fifty bucks included such stellar personalities as TNA wrestlers Raven, Ron Killings, Sonjay Dutt, Gail Kim and AMW; Richard Kiel (“James Bond: The Spy Who Loved Me”); Dirk Benedict (“The A-Team”); wrestling superstar Virgil; Lou Ferrigno (tv's one-time Incredible Hulk); Noel Neill (tv’s original Lois Lane on “The Adventures of Superman”) and others. I’m sure each of these personages has legions of fans, but none of them strike me as being the equivalent of the least of the movie stars who lined up at the recent San Diego Con (see our report, Opus 246).
With no celestial publishers in evidence (not only did they not take exhibit booths, but they didn’t send representatives), the attention shifted to Artists Alley, which, though smaller this year than in previous years, enjoyed steady and enthusiastic traffic. Comfort Love and Adam Withers report at their blog, comfort-adam.livejournal.com, that “while the industry big-wigs were a total no-show, Artists Alley was the most impressive I’ve seen in recent memory.”
But Wizard’s troubles are only beginning. Last winter, The Comics Journal reports, Wizard shut down its monthly Anime Insider magazine after eight years, firing the staff. And the staffs of Wizard magazine, the company’s fountainhead, and the convention were reduced by seven employees, about 10 percent of its staff according to ICv.2. Wizard Entertainment’s CEO Gareb Shamus put the best face on the layoffs, saying the company did so in order to expand use of freelancers. Said he: “We have some really amazing writers out there that we wanted to be able to bring into the magazine.” Yeah, right. And the Seattle Post-Intelligencer shut down its print operation in order to invest in an online presence, using reports from bloggers around the city for which the P-I will pay nothing. Shamus said Wizard has an actual budget for compensating freelancers, but that’s still cranking up content on the cheap, sure sign of financial plight in this Great Recession.
Only a few weeks before the layoffs at Wizard, Reed Entertainment, the company that has built the New York Comic Con into a major event in record time, announced that it is launching a completely new comic convention in the Windy City by the lake: the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo, dubbed C2E2, will debut April 16-18, 2010 at McCormick Place in downtown Chicago. Saith ICv.2: “With the Chicago show set for the spring (and April dates secured for years to come), Reed is moving its New York Comic Con from winter to fall, starting in October of 2010. Lance Fensterman, V.P. and Show Manager for the NYCC, explained that balancing the convention calendar was a major impetus behind Reed’s decision to launch a Chicago show and move the NYCC to the fall, adding: ‘The major players in the various pop culture industries are behind us. We are pleased with the new timeline and see Chicago as anchoring the spring con calendar and New York Comic Con [in the fall] as ending the con calendar with a major exclamation point.’ The C2E2 will mark the return of a major comic-themed entertainment expo to downtown Chicago and Fensterman promises to provide
‘dynamic programming that boasts top talent from across the pop culture spectrum, including artists, creators and celebrities from Hollywood, tv, comics, books, video games, toys, Anime, manga and all other applicable aspects of the popular arts. But, most importantly, we will also seek to make adjustments so that our show reflects the essence of Chicago. This will be critically important. The city itself will form an important part of our identity.’” Sounds like Sandy Eggo in the midwest to me.
And Wizard? Perhaps in retaliation for Reed’s move into Chicago, Wizard bought Michael Carbonaro’s Big Apple Con, reports The Comics Journal, and plans to stage it at Pier 94 on Manhattan’s west side in October in direct competition with the Reed’s NYCC. But that looks to me like a last gasp. Wizard seems to be limping its way into the setting sun: the magazine is in reduced circumstances, and two of its conventions—Dallas and Los Angeles—have been cancelled. Attendance at the Chicago con this year was good because no one knew the big publishers were boycotting it: so the fans all came, expecting DC and Marvel and the rest to be there. And that taught them a lesson that will rebound to Wizard’s disadvantage: don’t believe what Wizard tells you about its Chicago Comic-Con. Next year’s attendance could well be the coup de gras.
Islamic Hooligans Strike Again Without Actually Striking. A scholarly book about the Danish Dozen doesn’t include any of the infamous cartoons some of which depicted Islam’s Prophet. The DailyCartoonist:tells us that the publisher, Yale University Press, squeamishly consulted with “two dozen authorities, including diplomats and experts on Islam and counterterrorism,” who all agreed that including the cartoons in The Cartoons That Shook the World would involve a risk of reviving the deadly violence that followed the publication of the cartoons in Denmark four years ago. So Yale Press decided not to include them. Religion scholar Reza Aslan, author of No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, calls the publisher a coward: “This is an academic book for an academic audience by an academic press,” he said. “There is no chance of this book having a global audience, let alone causing a global outcry,” adding, “It’s not just academic cowardice, it is just silly and unnecessary.”
The author of the book at issue, Jytte Klausen, a native of Denmark who has been at Brandeis University for 17 years and is a specialist on Muslim communities in Europe, argued against Yale's decision, but in the end grudgingly acquiesced, reported James F. Smith at the Boston Globe. Klausen recognized the predicament Yale faced, but she criticized the way Yale handled it. On July 23, Smith goes on, Yale Press director John Donatich asked Klausen to meet him and Linda Koch Lorimer, vice president and secretary of the Yale Corporation, at the Westin Hotel in Boston, where the decision to exclude the cartoons was explained to the author.
"We argued about it for two hours,'' Klausen said. "The people who gave advice to the university were not given the opportunity to read my book. They reacted based on e-mailed pictures of the illustrations.” Ironically, she pointed out, "what happened here is strikingly similar to when the Danish mullahs were traveling around the world e-mailing their pictures to make people angry. Yale University also, in a similar fashion, removed the cartoons from the context [by asking advice without providing the context of the entire book]. The issue was, should you really ask for that sort of advice [without] providing context? But once you got that advice, and coming from the sources it came from, I don't think [Yale] had much choice. If I was an administrator at the university, I would have pulled the cartoons.''
Yale’s decision is even more reprehensible—and Klausen’s anger less understandable—given her plan for the display of the cartoons. The book would not have reprinted the twelve cartoons as individual cartoons: her plan was to reproduce the whole page from the Jyllands-Posten newspaper where the offending cartoons initially appeared on September 30, 2005. Presuming that her book is of the usual bookish dimensions—say, 6x9 inches—the cartoons would appear in it too small to be readily perceived. But Klausen sidesteps this evasion, focusing on the subjects of the cartoons: "Many of the cartoons did not actually show Muhammed,'' she said. "Some of them made fun of the newspaper. And some, three, arguably four, were racialist depictions of a Semitic Muhammed, drawn in the tradition of European anti-Semitism.''
Although Klausen surrendered to Yale’s squeamishness about the Danish Dozen, she did not agree when Yale went further, editing out historical artworks depicting the seventh-century Prophet because, presumably, many Muslims object to any pictures of Muhammed. So the book will appear with an author's note from Klausen, who says Yale's decision is a violation of academic freedom and a case of "anticipatory fear on the part of the university of consequences that it only dimly perceives. The metaphor I use,” she continued, “is the monster in the woods: You can't see it at night but you know it's there, and if you provoke the monster, it's your responsibility,'' she told Smith in an interview this week in her Brandeis office.
Smith reports that some scholars and conservative bloggers are accusing Yale of cowardice, arguing that academic freedom should not be surrendered to a handful of extremists. But an Arab political website in Cairo is railing about the Danish professor from a Jewish university trying to publish cartoons to insult the Prophet. Perhaps Yale is right. If so, the disaster has already befallen Western civilization, and Donatich may be its exemplar:
"The turning point for me was when I was able to see it less as an issue of censorship because we are not suppressing original material,'' Donatich said. "We are just not reprinting what is available elsewhere. ... At that point, it became a security issue and not a censorship issue.''
In other words, fear rules. Nothing new here: it was ever thus. Even though we’ve pretended otherwise and sometimes acted in accordance with principle despite being fraught with fear. Islamic terrorists have won: Muslim hooligans have succeeded in changing our behavior, altering the principles that have shaped Western civilization for centuries. The rule of the Koran’s blood-thirsty militant Allah is not much different than that of the cranky megalomania of the Old Testament Yahweh, you’ll say, but either one tends to overwhelm with decibels the quieter humilities of the New Testament’s somewhat more permissive protagonist.
From Associated Press reports: Virginia Davis died in August at the age of 90. She was the first little girl to play “Alice” in the 56 1924-1927 Walt Disney films that combined live action footage of “Alice” with animated cartoonery for her locale and other characters in Wonderland. Davis played “Alice” in 13 films, including the never-released pilot that Disney made while still struggling in Kansas City, Missouri; when, after re-locating to California, Disney secured a distribution deal for a series of Alice Comedies, he persuaded the Davis family to move to Los Angeles so Virginia could continue her cinematic career. ... A Dallas comic bookstore owner is so outraged at Archie’s fickle abandonment of wholesome girl-next-door Betty Cooper in favor of the sloe-eyed vamp Veronica Lake that he sold his copy of Archie Comics No. 1. Banking $38,837 was small comfort though: Dave Luebke still thinks “Betty is it. Not Veronica. This is serious.” But Archie editor-in-chief Victor Gorelick told Jamie Stengle at the Associated Press that heartbroken fans should not give up hope: the “wedding” story has six issues to run (Nos. 600-605, presumably)—“You’ll see what happens,” he says, coyly. ... Reader’s Digest is filing for bankruptcy protection, but publication will continue, unabated. The pocket-sized magazine was launched in February 1922 by DeWitt Wallace and his bride of three months, Lila Bell Acheson, to provide a convenient way of skimming all the worthwhile magazine articles found in other publications. Wallace asked permission to publish condensations of such articles and usually got it. It was the age of condensation: Time magazine did much the same with news when it debuted in March 1923. Reader’s Digest was an immediate success. It’s circulation has dropped from a 1970s peak of 17 million to 8.2 million today, but eight million is nothing to sneeze at. The magazine used to publish reports from readers about finding copies of the Digest in odd places. A favorite is this one that came from the commander of a British Army motor transport company during World War II:
It was during the Abyssianian compaign. About four hundred miles from anywhere one of the trucks blew a gasket and we had no spares. Necessity is truly the mother of invention, and I suddenly remembered that, as always, I had a couple of Reader’s Digests in my kit. My company consisted of natives of the Jalua tribe, who make a kind of cloth by chewing the bark of a certain tree. I called about 30 of them up and, tearing up the Digests, got them to chewing the pages. After about half an hour of hard chewing, we were able to make a kind of papier-mache gasket that was good enough to take us the thousand-odd miles to Addis Ababa.
Playboy, one of the last two refuges of high quality magazine cartooning—The New Yorker is the other one— is steadily slipping off its pedestal. In the most recent issue, September’s, only 5 full-page color cartoons laminate the magazine’s pages. The previous issue, July-August’s slyly contrived “double issue,” had only 7 full-pagers in its 166 pages; that’s 1 cartoon every 24 pages. Last February, with 122 pages, the ratio of full-pagers to page count was 1/20. In the current issue with only 130 pages, that ratio is perversely climbing back up: 1/26. The desirable ratio is the lowest, indicating the frequency at which the reader encounters a cartoon. The ratios for the smaller cartoons (roughly quarter-pagers) are no better: February is best at 1/17; July-August, 1/24; September, 1/22. Playboy is desperately imitating the laddie magazines in layout and format, differing only in its insistence on photographs of barenekkidwimmin rather than movie and tv starlets whose epidermises are just nearly bare. But if the cartoon content is declining, the magazine is also jumping on the graphic novel roller coaster: last issue, it published 5 pages of the graphic novel version of Fahrenheit 451; this issue offers 6 pages of the graphic novel incarnation of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” with R.M. Guera’s visualizations of Brad Pitt and the rest. A noble try by a publisher who remains a frustrated cartoonist, but I’m afraid the Web’s porn has forever displaced Hugh Hefner’s once watershed publishing enterprise in the hearts and sweaty palms of the nation’s hormone-ravaged young men.
The September issue is somewhat redeemed by a candid interview featuring the copulating couple, Heidi Montag of “The Hills” and her panting hubby, Spencer Pratt, who talk about their sex life in such ecstatic terms that it elevates the candor to high comedy. Heidi realizes how important Hef’s magazine is in American life: “When guys reach a certain age, they get a Playboy magazine,” she said, going on to confess that Playboy “definitely changed my life—or maybe I should say it has shaped me.” Egged on by her husband, she explains: “When I was shopping for my boobs, I wanted the best, so I sat down and flipped through a bunch of Playboys.” She didn’t say, however, whose boobs she directed her surgeon to emulate.
Then, on the page of Raw Data, “Significa, Insignifica, Stats and Facts,” we learn that “since 9/11 and the arrest of shoe bomber Richard Reid, the U.S. government has used the Patriot Act to convict more than 200 airline passengers of terrorism, mostly for disruptive behavior such as using profanity or being intoxicated.” Feel safer?
But the best part of the magazine these days is Dean Yeager’s cartoon: his cuties are every issue.
The Denver Post runs 70 comic strips/cartoons, four nearly full pages every day, half of the lot appropriated last February when the rival newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News, expired. In a move trumpeting the value of comics to newspapers, the Post was quick to re-assure News readers—and to convert them to Post readers—telling them that “all their favorite comics” would, henceforth, be found in the Post. At the time, I estimated that the Post’s new comics roster would cost the paper at least $100,000 a year in subscription fees paid to syndicates; a better estimate might peg the amount closer to $300,000. And I speculated about how long it might be before the Post, seeking to reduce this extravagant expense, would start trimming the line-up, dropping first one strip and then the next. The process has just begun, less than six months after the trumpet blew. The Post is conducting a readership poll (with in-paper ballot, plus website, voting); with an August 24 deadline for responding, I expect the roster to shrink before the snow flies.
The Boston Globe will soon begin charging readers to use its Web site, Boston.com, quoth E&P. Ditto both Philadelphia papers, the Daily News and the Enquirer. And Rupert Murdoch announced that his company, News Corp., would begin charging for access to all its news sites, including the New York Post and the Times of London. Meanwhile, the New York Times confirmed that its New England Media Group, which includes the Globe and the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette was up for sale. The Globe's Beth Healy reported that Platinum Equity, a private equity firm which last year purchased the San Diego Union-Tribune, had offered $35 million for the group.
The current issue of Roy Thomas’ Alter Ego fanzine, No. 88, publishes several interviews with the surviving relatives of Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, the founder of the comic book company that eventually became DC Comics. Citing letters and other documentation, Douglas Wheeler-Nicholson, son of the Major, has corrected one of the myths about the debut of Superman in Action Comics No. 1, cover-dated June 1938. The myth is that Superman showed up at the last minute just as Action Comics was poised to go to the printer except for the lack of a lead feature. Shelly Mayer, working for Max Gaines at McClure newspaper syndicate, was enthralled with the submission from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and showed it to Action editor Vince Sullivan, who opined that the kids would love it and then published it in Action’s inaugural issue. Not so, said Douglas Wheeler-Nicholson. The fact, he says, is that his father, who had been publishing other stories by Siegel and Shuster (Slam Bradley, named by the Major, was one of them), saw the Superman creation in the spring or summer or early fall of 1937 and created Action Comics as the vehicle for showcasing the character. So Superman’s appearance in Action Comics No. 1 was no happy accident: it had been planned for months. Another revelation: Siegel and Shuster signed their Superman contract in December 1937 with Harry Donenfeld, not with Wheeler-Nicholson, because Donenfeld, who was already in mid-plot to take over Wheeler-Nicholson’s company, persuaded the two youths that Wheeler-Nicholson was on his way out. This issue of Alter Ego is brimming with new scraps of information about Wheeler-Nicholson and Superman, including nine never before published daily comic strips introducing Superman, written by Siegel but drawn by Russell Keaton, who, we lately learned, Siegel approached to draw the strip when Shuster began to lose heart in the project after so many failed attempts to sell it. Subscription info for AE
the forthcoming Broadway show, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,”
the rock version of the Webslinger will
not be the friendly neighborhood Wall-crawler we’ve grown
accustomed to in funnybooks and on the glossy Big Screen. Quoted by
Gina Salamone in the New York Daily News, U2's frontman, Bono, explained to a British radio station that "our
Peter Parker is much more ... not Kurt Cobain, but a kind of
slacker, a more kind of shy sort of guy.” And: “We've got
a new villain. It's a girl. It's a very extraordinary role. We've
taken it to a much more dizzy place than you'd expect. We've got big
tunes. We're very proud of it." Despite having encountered “an
unexpected cash-flow problem” that has halted progress on the
production, Hello Entertainment, the show’s producer, says the
musical will still begin previews in February as planned.
And speaking of newspaper syndicates, which we were, almost, we have Syndicate Think, the so-called mental processes by which syndicates select from thousands of comic strip submissions every year those stellar few that will be offered for sale to newspapers. At ToonTalk.com, a website network for cartoonists and other passionate parties, we find Lee Nordling, an erstwhile editor of both comic strips and comic books, packager, art director, sometime cartoonist, writer and author/compiler of the book Your Career in Comics, a definitive advisory on syndication, holding forth as follows:
When I started out [trying to become a syndicated strip cartoonist], I thought that I needed to find a historical period that hadn't been satirized. It seemed the newer strips were all about that, BC, Hagar the Horrible, The Wizard of Id, Tumbleweeds, etc. Thus was born strip submissions like Joel E. Roger, a pirate strip concept that was fun to do. Then there were the family strips—but I was young, didn't have a family, didn't relate to it at all. Then there were the kids strips— but I never wanted to go head-to-head with Peanuts; Tiger was pretty good, though, too. Wee Pals was way too soft for my taste. Then as time passed, I noticed the often-political strips (many of which had already been there), Feiffer, Li'l Abner, Pogo, Odd Bodkins, Doonesbury. And yes, many of these strips predated other strips, but I'm referring to how I discovered them. It was not until MANY years—decades, actually—later that I was able to step back and discern the genres more clearly. And there are VERY clear genres in comic strips (even though some folks—I'm looking at YOU, Wiley [Miller of Non Sequitur]—like to mix 'em up in their strips).
We can discuss the predominant genres—or ones that seemed to gel during their heyday—of decades past as we go, but what do you believe are the predominant genres that are commercial today? And, before I mention my choices, I think it's important to add that I believe the genre list has narrowed significantly, perhaps to such a point where THAT may be one of the reasons the industry is choking to death. Perhaps there are too many genres and strips that are designed for [specific groups of] "readers to relate to"? I think so. Popeye, Krazy Kat, Pogo, Li'l Abner— none of these sell today, and I think we're worse off for it. So here's my list of strip genres that I BELIEVE are perceived as commercial: Kid strips (Cul de Sac, Calvin & Hobbes, Peanuts, Barnaby, Skippy, Dennis the Menace), Teen strips (Zits, Emmy Lou, Pre-Teena), Family strips (For Better Or For Worse, Foxtrot, Blondie...eventually, Gasoline Alley, Hi & Lois), Women's strips (Cathy; Sally Forth), Pet strips (Garfield, Mutts), Workplace strips (Dilbert), Wacky One-panels (Far Side, etc.)
I NEVER heard folks at syndicates parse strips into categories that were perceived as commercial or not commercial, but a strong sense of editorial craft hasn't existed collectively at syndicates in decades; mostly syndicate folks simply know what they can and can't sell, and sometimes they know/can identify "why," so I'm not surprised that they don't look at strip genres this way. (If anybody knows whether they do, I'd love to read about it.) Back to the list, with the exception of "wacky one-panels," can you see the trend? It's all, one way or another, strips showing the consumer his/her life. Not a Pogo or Krazy Kat in the bunch. [Or, I might add, a Calvin and Hobbes.— RCH] So, beyond divine inspiration, does it make ANY kind of sense [for an aspiring strip cartoonist] to produce anything OTHER than something in one of these sandboxes for a syndicate? I'm not advocating this; I'm asking the question— to spark lively conversation and share perspectives, and I've plopped mine out there like a hundred-pound sack of Jell-O.
NEWS. The big cheerful news of the month is
that the Chicago Tribune finally
hired an editorial cartoonist to replace Jeff
MacNelly who died in 2000. Scott
Stantis, staff editoonist at the Birmingham
News for the last 13 years, is the lucky
pick. Stantis has done occasional local-interest cartoons for the Trib over the last
decade, repeatedly inquiring about the vacant chair; in addition to
his political cartoons, Stantis produces the daily comic strip, Prickly City, the
mildly conservative slant of which features a right-leaning little
girl and a left-leaning coyote. According to a news release from the
Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC), “The Tribune's hiring of
Stantis reflects the paper's renewed commitment to return to its
roots as a ‘crusading newspaper,’ which it believes
readers want and will lead to increased profitability.” The Trib, which has been
lolling in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for months, just sold the
Chicago Cubs for $900 million, which, speculated one wag on the AAEC
List, gave it enough discretionary cash to hire a staff editorial
cartoonist. Which, quoth another AAEC List wag, it didn’t think
it needed until the Blagojevich scandals exploded and the paper had
no one on staff who could focus on this big local story. (Not exactly
true: Dick Locher, who
was on the Trib’s staff until just a few years ago when he retired from active daily
editoonery into Tribune Media Services syndication, lives just down
the road in Naperville.) Another comment on the AAEC List observed
that the lead in the Trib’s story announcing Stantis’ hiring was smugly
self-congratulatory: “Bucking a trend in newspapers in which
editorial cartoonists have become something of an endangered
species....” Ha, saith the wag, “the Trib was leading the
trend it is now bucking.”
Stantis, a former president of AAEC, said: "The Chicago Tribune is bullish about the future of newspapers, and so am I. The Tribune believes that editorial cartooning is an integral part of that future, and I am therefore thrilled and humbled to be given this opportunity." Posting his last cartoon for the Birmingham News, Stantis blogged a farewell to his readers: “It is with a heavy heart that I have to tell you all that I have accepted the job of editorial cartoonist at the Chicago Tribune. While this is a great opportunity, it is tinged with sadness. Sadness at the thought of leaving Birmingham and Alabama, a place that has embraced me and my family and made us feel welcomed and valued. Painful also to leave a newspaper that has been both patient and generous. First, Ron Casey and later Bob Blalock have been wonderful editors. They took a lot more of my guff than I would have. I will really miss working beside some of the best in the business: Joey Kennedy, Robin DeMonia and Eddie Lard. Birmingham is lucky to have them and I am lucky to call them my friends. It has been a great 13 years. Everything from Tinker Fob to Jimmy Blake to Bettye Fine to LaLa and every crazy thing in between. It has been my great honor to cartoon for the people of Birmingham, Jefferson County and Alabama. I hope you have liked it as much as I have.”
Encouragingly, the AAEC noted that the Birmingham News has said that it intends to fill the position left by Stantis.
AND NOW THE NEARLY BAD NEWS AND THE BAD NEWS. For a week or so in early August, it looked as if the number of full-time staff editorial cartooners would drop to an all-time low of 79 (from 101 in May 2008, if you’re pegging these things). Matt Davies, the Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist at the Journal News in White Plains, NY, was, briefly, among the 50 employees of the paper whose staff positions were scheduled to be eliminated effective August 28. Then all of a sudden, the management had second thoughts—or realized what they were about to do—and said, Oh, no, not Matt Davies. And he was back among the living. Said Davies, interviewed by Alan Gardner at DailyCartoonist.com, said, somewhat jocularly: “My paper looked down the cold and terrible barrel of not having an editorial cartoonist on staff and just couldn’t do it.” Actually, it wasn’t quite that simple, Davies explained in a less jesting manner: “The paper’s readers owe a big thanks to my editor Henry Freeman who quietly worked to ensure that my position was revived and ultimately kept alive during a particularly bruising round of downsizing in our newsroom. The clear message is that no matter how small a newspaper payroll needs to be in order for a paper to turn a profit, a decent staff cartoonist who connects with the audience is a smart part of that profit strategy. While I am of course personally relieved, my thoughts are with my talented and venerated colleagues who didn’t survive the cuts this week.”
Meanwhile, Gary Markstein took a
buyout at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where he’d lost his editooning gig several years ago but
continued on staff doing illustration and page design. His editoons
will continue in syndication, as before, and he also has another job:
he draws the comic strip Daddy’s Home, written by Tony Rubino and
syndicated by Creators. So Markstein is, in a manner of speaking,
employed, even though he isn’t likely to get rich as a
syndicated editooner or by splitting the revenue of a third tier
circulation comic strip with a co-creator and the syndicate. Since
Marstein wasn’t on the May 2008 list of 101 full-time staff
editoonists that we’re using to keep score, his departure
doesn’t reduce the total; and since Davies is back among the
living, the total number of full-time staff editorial cartoonists
stands at 80.
Fascinating Footnit. Some 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 and Michael Cavna at voices.washingtonpost.com./comic-riffs . 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.
READ AND RELISH
“Ladies love outlaws like babies love stray dogs ... “ —Waylon Jennings’ song; the lilt of the lyric, it just plain sings.
“If ignorance is bliss, why aren’t there more happy people?”—title of a book of “Smart Quotes for Dumb Times” by John Lloyd and John Mitchison, who decorate the cover with two more beauts:
“Knowledge doesn’t keep any better than fish.” —Alfred North Whitehead
“Once you’re dead, you’re made for life.” —Jimi Hendrix
Afflicting the Comfortable and Comforting the Afflicted
August is, by time-honored custom, the month that ends in Dog Days, and this year, the usual lazying about like a half-asleep hound in the evaporating sun of a long afternoon has been disrupted by loud and irrepressible yapping in town halls from sea to shining sea as the nation tries to comprehend what a reform in the health care system would mean. We’ve actually become accustomed to this kind of summer: the hysterical noise matches in thunderous cacophony everything that the movie crowd has learned to expect in the season’s superhero action flicks with cascading explosions and other colossal din every ten minutes, accompanied by screaming and falling buildings. Disorderly town hall meetings, tumultuous action movies—it’s all the same thing in 21st Century American culture.
Although we may think that the frenzied free-for-alls with occasional fistfights, arrests and hospitalizations are foreign to democracy, they aren’t. If we believe the so-called news media (an ever dubious practice), the town halls are populated almost entirely by the “mob” that the Founding Fathers so feared—a roaring, uncomprehending beast that acts always without reason solely to fill its belly, copulate with the opposite sex, and defecate at will. It was to protect the infant nation from a take-over by just such a nearly inarticulate mass that the Founders built so many checks and balances into the Constitution. And as a body politic we have now progressed to the point that the very thing the Founders sought to prevent from happening is happening: the ravening mob seems (if we are to believe the so-called news media) to have pushed our feckless legislators to the brink of shoving health care reform over the cliff by yelling outright falsehoods and braying childish misconceptions wherever they can’t muster deliberate distortions. But what can we expect in an age when all thought must be condensed to 140 characters? In their erroneous half-baked misunderstanding of the pending health care legislation, the mob is egged on in its ignorance by such propaganda lobbies as Freedom Works, an instrument of former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey, which, quoth the New York Daily News, promulgates to concerned activists a flurry of memos and marching orders suggesting tactics to deploy in town hall meetings: “Be Disruptive Early and Often” and “Try to Rattle Him, Not Have an Intelligent Debate.” Armey and his minions says Joe Klein in Time, are the “nihilists and hypocrits more interested in destroying the opposition and gaining power than in the public weal.”
The most virulent of the lunatic notions about the a-borning legislation, the Big Four Fibs, are (1) that health care reform is a Trojan horse for a Marxist/fascist (or socialist?) takeover of both medical care and government, (2) that health care will be rationed and citizens encouraged to euthanize their grandparents, (3) that illegal aliens will be entitled to the same health care as legal residents of the country, and (4) that abortions will be funded by the government. All of these “facts” are consummate lies, flagrant whoppers, patent flimflam or rampant misunderstandings or nightmare fantasies. At pleasecutthecrap.com, some diligent keen-eyed soul has scoured the pertinent bills to discover what sentences are the sources of these moronic ideas and, in the process, has demonstrated beyond question that the foregoing Big Four Fibs are all wrong. A fib that is true, however, is the one about the Swine Flu being deliberately spewed into the population this fall in order to persuade people to get vaccinated, a procedure that will surreptitiously introduce into everyone’s system a liquid electronic implant that can be activated by a battery-operated remote, causing the “victim” to vote a straight Democrat ticket in the next election; the terrors of Swine Flu will also convince everyone that universal health care run by the government is the only way to survive the virus. A provision of the health care legislation that none of the Bedlamites has yet commented on is the one that will guarantee the sterilization of everyone who opposed the reform.
Luckily for the future of the republic, the news media, happily, is, as usual, about half-wrong in regaling the “news” of the town hall meetings. Ranting thugs whipping themselves into a froth of outrage makes better visuals—more action-packed and therefore much better for tv news in particular (“Television loves raucus,” saith Obama.) —than quiet, considerate folded-handed questioning and answering, so the obstreperous neanderthals get more exposure on tv and, even, in the print media than the quiet unspectacular folks with folded hands. But the hooligans nonetheless serve a purpose: in their threatening swinishness, they have so stigmatized their side of the debate that their opponents are scoring points under their very noses without doing a thing. (It’s not quite accurate to say they are managing a victory without raising a finger: I can think of a finger that I’ve repeatedly raised, figuratively, in these very paragraphs.) “How,” asks Klein, “can you sustain a democracy if one of the two major political parties has been overrun by nihilists? And another question: How can you maintain the illusion of journalistic impartiality when one of the political parties has jumped the shark?”
The news media are wrong: we aren’t, as a body politic, convinced of the authenticity of the falsehoods and misconceptions. Still, these Dog Days with their infernal yapping and strutting idiocies on parade ought to provide a field day for editorial cartoonists to flay about in, laying waste to lunacy in all its manifestations. So I rubbed my hands in gleeful anticipation when I scanned the Web, hoping for a juicy, swashbucklling, swords drawn, all-hands-on-deck-devil-take-the-hindmost melee in visual metaphor. Imagine my disappointment when I uncovered just a very few gory, hard-charging, excruciatingly revelatory cartoons. After a moment’s reflection, however, I realized why the cartoons on these subjects seemed so tepid: the critics of the health care reform plan already provide in their behavior and comments such high comedy that a cartoonist needs merely to draw a picture of actual activity/utterances to achieve his comedic and satiric purpose. Idiocy, after all, is self-satirical as we’ll soon see in the ensuing Gallery of Political Gagging (double entendre intended) with the memorable work of Chris Britt (whose cartoon is displayed in Exhibit 1 below) and Matt Davies (Ex. 2) and Adam Zyglis (Ex. 2) and John Darkow (Ex. 4).
As you will see, the same oafishness and stupidity that characterizes the rhetorical posture of the dolts who want the government to keep its hands off their Medicare has revived the canard that Baracko Bama can’t be Prez because he’s not a native-born American: he was born in Kenya, say these zealous blockheads. This contention has been disproved too often to take much of our time here. Simple logic dispenses with the charge: you can’t be President of the U.S. unless you’re a natural-born citizen; Obama is Prez, so he must be natural born. More pernicious, however, is the passport proposition.
The passport contention has the same final objective—to prove that O’bama is not a native-born American and, hence, not eligible to be President of the U.S. The syllogism unfolds thusly: Obama traveled to Pakistan in 1981, and since Pakistan was at that time on the U.S. State Department’s “no travel” list, a U.S. passport would not have provided access. What passport did he use then? His life story offers two other possibilities: a British passport or an Indonesian passport. Kenya was under British rule at the time, so he could have used a British passport if he’d been born in Kenya; if he used a British passport, then, it proves he was born in Kenya, not in Hawaii as he claims. Or—at the age of six, Obama acquired a stepfather when his mother re-married in 1967, and his stepfather was Indonesian, so presumably Barack could have used an Indonesian passport, assuming that he relinquished whatever previous citizenship he held, British or American. So if Obama went to Pakistan in 1981—and he says he did—he must’ve used a passport other than a U.S. passport, and the possibilities prove that either he was born in Kenya and wasn’t a U.S. citizen or that he had given up his U.S. citizenship.
Leaving aside the possibility of Obama’s having dual or multi-national citizenship (not unheard of), the convoluted reasoning of this proposition falls apart when confronted by a single fact: Pakistan was not, in the summer of 1981 when Obama went there, on a State Department “no travel” list. The State Department, according to Snopes.com, had issued an informative “Travel Advisory” for Pakistan in August 1981 “to make American citizens aware of updated visa requirements for entering that country”; and the very fact of the existence of that Advisory “demonstrates that U.S. passport holders could freely travel to and from Pakistan at the time of Barack Obama’s visit there.”
And so another tatter of nonsense is shredded. But the instance exemplifies the kind of alleged reasoning that is running rough-shod through the so-called minds of Obama’s opponents and the opponents of health care reform. They will do anything to defeat the plan. Says Klein: “They oppose health reform mostly because passage would help Obama’s political prospects.” There is no other viable reason. If there were, it would manifest itself in a counter proposal from the Republicans, who all agree that health care needs reforming; they just don’t want to do it Obama’s way. Yet they have presented no alternative. Klein continues his litany of ironies: “The same people who rail against a government takeover of health care tried to enforce a government takeover of Terri Schiavo’s end-of-life decisions.” Death panels? “We already have death panels,” writes Joel Stein in the same issue of Time (August 31), “—they just prefer to go by the name insurance companies. Some people get rejected by the death panels because of pre-existing conditions, lifetime spending caps or drug co-payments they can’t afford. Others die because they are freelancers and don’t have insurance, so they don’t go to doctors.”
We don’t make sense anymore—even to ourselves. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel for a cartoonist on the hunt for comedy. And now, by way of object lesson, here’s that Gallery of Gagging we mentioned. Each of our visual aids bears a number circled in red, 1 through 7, to permit me to refer to various cartoons as we saunter through an exhibition dripping with irony:
1) Jeff Danziger captures the tone of the town hall meeting crowds and the likelihood that the audiences are infiltrated with attack dogs from the Far Right (or, at least, the Loud Right). Similarly, Chris Britt gets the mood right. Clay Bennett, meanwhile, manages his statement with his usual understated elegance, and Mark Streeter evokes a more civilized age with an iconic illustrator’s image from days gone by.
2) Again, a visual of vicious apoplectic rage from Matt Davies (a sample of whose work I wanted to include here because he was recently rendered unemployed). Adam Zyglis makes a telling comparison, and Tom Toles demonstrates the dedication of Congress. Pat Bagley steers clear of health care but offers an insight into the nature of politics in the “most deliberative body” in government.
3) Here’s Bagley again as we segue into the “birther” blather, a revival attributable directly to the loons’ opposition to Obama. David Horsey and Nick Anderson chime in on the same theme, and Bill Day provides the perfect visual metaphor showing how the right-wing nuts have been able to pass themselves off as Grand Old Pachyderms lately.
4) And here we move to commentary on the nature of the opposition to health care reform. John Darkow gets the nutty mob mentality right, and Jim Margulies shows who’s really behind all the opposition. Signe Wilkinson points out a glaring inconsistency, and John Trever, a conservative, manages a hysterical but entirely workable mix-up.
5) More analysis of the nature of the opposition with Rob Rogers and Rex Babin both providing a visual metaphor for the nonsensical invention of an obstacle between sick people seeking care and their care-givers. Tony Auth’s image gets the gutting of the plan right, and Tom Tomorrow (aka Dan Perkins) carries on with the same theme, piling the lunacies on until no logic can any longer explain them.
6) Here, Auth mixes metaphors nicely—equating garbage and mendacity. John Sherffius employs an image from tv’s “Mad Men” to imply a multiplicity of PR evils loose at Fox News, “where the truth lies” and lies and lies. Glenn McCoy, a rampant conservative, usually gets his facts confused with his ire, but here he produces one cartoon with telling imagery I approve of: he nails the press’s mishandling of the town hall meetings; below that, however, he retreats into his usual misapprehension of the world, portraying Democrats as terrorist lovers who are deluded about Nazis. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that McCoy supports the freedom of those who come with weapons to town hall meetings, one of whom produced a YouTube video threatening to “forcefully resist people imposing their will on us through the strength of the majority.” Suddenly the “majority” is evil? And here I always thought the “majority” was the rule that made democracy work. Equating guns and freedom of expression is idiotic: guns brought to open forums are devices of intimidation, intended to silence the speech of anyone with a different opinion than the gun-toters.
7) Off the loudest subject onto something a little less noisy but still frightening—the economy. Jeff Parker gets the triviality of the touted improvement, “growing worse more slowly,” hilariously right, and Darkow concocts an outrageous and memorable visual metaphor. Ed Stein plays with perspective, activating a couple of complementary messages.
For even more cogent discussion of the issues and how they relate to some editorial cartoons, tune in to editoonist Ed Stein at edsteinink.com, where he posts his current crop of cartoons accompanied by exceedingly informative bloggery.
Three slices of health care reform have already been enacted as part of the stimulus bill: expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), funding for improving electronic record-keeping, and studies to discover which treatments are most effective. In Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria thinks the “likely scenario” for the rest of the reform “is that expanded coverage and new benefits will be enacted while the cuts and curbs [on spiraling and unsustainable costs] will be pushed off to be tackled another day.” Too bad: that’s the part that needs reformation the most.
Schorr had been the staff editoonist at the New York Daily News until 2001 when he left (or was laid off in an early instance of the current blight, I forget which), but his cartoons continued to appear, distributed by United Media. His March decision to leave United wasn’t “personal,” he told Editor & Publisher: "The editorial cartoons just weren't bringing in any income. My client list got cut back severely—probably they all went over to Cagle,” he joked, “—and it just wasn't generating any income. By the end, I was only making a couple hundred dollars a month.
At first, Schorr luxuriated in his self-imposed exile from the fray of politics: “I was relieved,” he said. “I don't think I read a newspaper or watched a political show for about three weeks [after leaving]. It was a nice breather.” But then he realized he missed politics.
And then during the annual convention of the National Cartoonists Society (NCS) in late May in Los Angeles, he ran into Daryl Cagle, the Cagle Cartoons mogul. "He told me he missed it," Cagle said to E&P, and Cagle then convinced Schorr that hooking with his syndicate could be more profitable. According to Cagle, Schorr will "get a lot more exposure. He'll be syndicated in close to 850 papers." That’s a trifle misleading: what Cagle means is that his syndicate has a mailing list of 850 papers to which Cagle sends the cartoons he’s syndicating. Not all 850 papers pick up all of the Cagle cartoons, but the exposure is undoubtedly greater than it was for Schorr with United Media.
"[Cagle] made me an offer I couldn't refuse," said Schorr with a laugh. "It's a chance to work at my pace, without the pressure of just starting out. We'll see how it goes."
Schorr is not only a political junkie: he’s a cartooning fool. He began his career drawing editorial cartoons for the campus newspaper at California State University at Long Beach, and after graduation in 1973, he joined the staff of the Kansas City Star. He left in 1978 to return to the land of his youth, joining the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, where he remained until 1987. While there, he concocted a daily comic strip about the frog in the fairy tale about the princess who kisses a frog and turns him into a handsome prince; Schorr’s frog was named Conrad (after the Los Angeles Times editoonist, 3-time Pulitzer-winner Paul Conrad), but no amount of osculation (the princess in the strip was pleasingly plump ugly) turned him into anything other than an amphibian reptile. The eponymous strip ran for almost four years, November 1982 - May 1986. Then Schorr pulled the plug. The strip was losing papers, and the comedy was wildly uneven.
“There was a six month period where the strip got unbelievably mean spirited,” he told me when I visited him in his studio in Kansas City in 1992. “Conrad was a great concept,” he said, “—very few concepts in strips that I’ve seen were as good as Conrad. Endlessly versatile. But the concept was beyond my ability at the time. Not that I am all that stable now, but then, I really wasn’t secure enough to take it on.”
Shortly after discontinuing Conrad, Schorr lost his job at the Herald in a major Hearst papers reorganization, and he returned to the Kansas City Star in 1988. His editoons were syndicated so he could have continued without a home newspaper, but he felt he needed an editor—for two reasons.
“Newspapers like their syndicated editorial cartoonists to be published in another newspaper so that paper can run interference for them and do the editing,” he told me. So he was more viable in syndication with a home newspaper. But that wasn’t all: “I found that working with an editor when you’re drawing editorial cartoons is good for your work,” he said. “When I have an editor, I don’t have to edit myself. So I can push it as far as I want to, and if anything is too far out, the editor will say, Whoa—you gotta pull back.”
Soon after re-joining the Kansas City Star, Schorr came up with another comic strip concept, returning, again, to fairy tales: this time, the Three Bears. It was a “family strip” about the Grizzwell family of bears. And then, not content with producing a daily comic strip and a daily editorial cartoon, he started a second daily comic strip, Phoebe’s Place, employing another fairy tale concept—the owl and the pussycat—which was politically aware and topically so up-to-the-minute that Schorr produced strips only ten days ahead of publication dates (as opposed to the usual six weeks of lead time for most syndicated comic strips). It deployed caricatures of celebrities and political figures, but it lasted only about a year.
“No money,” Schorr said, explaining his abandoning the feature. If you’re going to do a daily editoon and two daily comic strips, it better be worth your while: there better be money in it, and there wasn’t. “I had a great time doing it,” Schorr said, “but it just wasn’t hitting the right audience. The only problems I had with it were at the end when the syndicate tried to water it down: they thought it would sell better. But I didn’t want to do that.” So the owl and the pussycat went to sea and were never seen again.
In 1997, Schorr left the Starr and went to the New York Daily News where he stayed for four years. He has won two NCS Awards for Best Editorial Cartoon, once in 1993 and again in 2008, when his exposure was entirely through syndication.
And now he’s back.
here’s a place to go for advice on the visual metaphors useful
in editorial cartooning:
RANCID RAVES GALLERY
Pictures Without Too Many Words
Here’s one of Ethel Hays’ typically sweet line drawings of a wonderfully svelte young woman done in 1935 for Everyweek Magazine, a newspaper supplement produced by the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) feature syndicate; a tiny hand-lettered date reads “8-25-35.” Hays’ drawings were usually rendered with a clean, uncluttered line—the supple line itself, as here, performing all the work. In contrast, another great woman cartoonist of the period, Nell Brinkley, drew equally attractive young women but with a line that was endlessly fussy, encumbered with feathering and hachering of all sorts. We’ll meet Brinkley a few weeks hence when we review a new Trina Robbins’ book from Fantagraphics, The Brinkley Girls: The Best of Nell Brinkley’s Cartoons from 1913-1940 (136 9x13-inch pages, color; hardcover $29.99), so I’ll dwell here instead on Hays.
Not much has been written about Hays in the usual cartooning histories—the most I know of appeared in the 2005 edition of Hogan’s Alley, No. 13, in a piece by one of comics best historians, Allan Holtz. Hays was born in 1892 in Billings, Montana, a town that had been established only ten years before but grew miraculously due the Northern Pacific Railroad’s tracks through the place. (Among other cartoonists/artists who passed through the town, cowboy artist/author Will James and strip cartoonist and novelist Stan Lynde, Rick O’Shay and Latigo strips.) After graduating from high school, Hays persuaded her parents to send her to the Los Angeles School of Art and Design where she studied to become an illustrator, skillfully aping the drawing mannerisms of James Montgomery Flagg and others of the most popular illustrators of the day. She won a scholarship to the Art Students League in New York and, in due course, another scholarship to the Julian Academy in Paris. But World War I broke out all over Europe, so her Parisian plans fizzled. Instead, she began teaching art in army hospitals to amuse and engage the wounded during their convalescence. When one class of soldiers professed an interest in learning how to become cartoonists, Hays confessed she didn’t know the first thing about it, but she subsequently enrolled in the Charles N. Landon correspondence course in cartooning and, staying a lesson ahead of her students, taught them cartooning.
When Landon saw her work, he exulted and promptly touted her talent to the editor of the Cleveland Press, where Landon had worked as art director until about 1912. Suddenly, Hays was a staff illustrator and cartoonist at a daily newspaper. Her first assignment was illustrating the gossipy first-person narratives of a flapper’s adventures written by Victoria Benham; Vic and Ethel debuted December 5, 1923, and Hays was now drawing in the simpler style of John Held, Jr. When Benham left to get married, Hays continued solo, now just Ethel, and her drawings soon shed the Held influence, characters becoming sleek and spritely with solid blacks spotted as skillfully and as effectively as those by Gluyas Williams, another master of the unadorned line. Coincidence and happy happenstance continued to dog Hays’ steps: the Cleveland Press was one of the Scripps chain, and Scripps also ran the NEA syndicate. Editors at NEA noticed Hays’ work in the Press right away, and she was syndicated by early 1925, her thrice weekly Ethel supplemented by a one-column daily cartoon, Flapper Fanny. Hays married at the end of the year, and by 1930, she was the mother of two and reduced her workload by one feature; Fanny was picked up by another promising woman cartooner, Gladys Parker. Hays and Parker appeared together in tandem until Hays gave it up in 1934, only to come back the next year with a weekly comic strip, Marianne, for Everyweek. That lasted only until 1938, and soon thereafter, Hays devoted her time solely to illustrating children’s books, a vocation she assumed in the late 1930s. Hays died in 1989 at the age of 97. Holtz’s Hogan’s Alley article is nicely illustrated, and you might find even more samples at hoganmag.com or, at least, subscription and back-issue information.
Okay, I failed succintness and brevity and concision. More words than pictures despite the promise of the subhead. I’ll do better on Bill Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes. The strip at the top of the page, we’re told at platypuscomix.net, has never been published. It’s not in the compendious Complete Calvin and Hobbes; it was never distributed by Watterson’s syndicate, Universal Uclick (nee Universal Press). I can’t vouch for that claim, but if you’d like to try to prove platypuscomix wrong, you might try looking for “11/28”(the date that appears in the last panel) in the first years of the strip as reprinted in Complete. And let me know if you find it. Below the strip, one of Watterson’s charming self-caricatures, at which he was adept. He had to be because he rarely permitted himself to be photographed. Only two such accomplishments have ever been published (that I know of). Below Watterson’s self-caricature, my recollection of my favorite Watterson self-impression. The original from Watterson’s hand was hanging on a wall at the Universal Press offices when I visited there a dozen or more years ago: a self-satirical effort, it depicts Watterson evading a camera. Isn’t that exactly how you’d expect to see him? His drawing is better than mine, but mine is a pretty accurate recollection (wouldn’t you say, Lee?)
NEWSPAPER COMICS PAGE VIGIL
The Bump and Grind of Daily Stripping
Probably, you should print out the above visual aids so you’ll have ready-to-hand-and-eye the instances being belabored in the ensuing prose. And to make following the argument even more palatable, I’ve numbered the exhibits with a red circled number.
1) We begin with all of Mike Peters’ product-placement jokes early this month in Mother Goose and Grimm, admirable for the dexterity of Peters’ verbal manipulations. At the bottom of the page is a strip that leaves me both cold and baffled. Chip Durham’s drawings in Overboard are painful to watch at best, and in this case, they not only hurt my eyes but frustrate my understanding. It would seem that reversing in the last panel the composition of the drawing in the second panel is supposed to make this strip funny, but I don’t see how. I’d welcome any explanation. Anything. At all.
2) More comic strips that make you think to grasp the gag. In the first two, both Tundra strips by Chad Carpenter, we must understand the picture before the caption rises to risible. The rest of these examples are essentially verbal witticisms, and in Pickles, Brian Crane is simply playing word games in ways appropriate to the personalities of his characters.
3) In this release of Pearls before Swine, Stephan Pastis was accused of using the f-word, and it certainly seems so in at least two instances; but I put the second panel under a magnifying glass to examine it, kimo sabe, and the potentially offending word is “ruck.” Meaningless but inoffensive. Terri Libenson so often ladens her Pajama Diaries with so much verbiage that she leaves little room for pictures, but she recently devoted a couple weeks to re-visiting the years of her protagonist’s pregnancy, and many of the strips, like the two here, depended upon pictures for their laughs. Nicely done. Arlo and Janis offers another instance of cartoonist Jimmy Johnson’s practical wisdom for living in a world of two sexes; I’m saving this one. Finally, here’s another baffler: who is this guy who looms up at the door in Funky Winkerbean?
Funky wasn’t in a local paper in my previous home town, so I didn’t followed it until 2007, when I returned to live in the Land of My Youth, Denver. By then, Tom Batiuk, who masterminds the goings on and draws them, had already committed the first of his “time jumps”: in 1992, he catapulted his strip forward in time, skipping his characters’ graduation from the high school that had been the strip’s venue since it began March 27, 1972 and by-passing the college years that presumably followed for several of the cast. Batiuk began telling continuing stories, too, instead of ending each day with a punchline, the previously prevailing practice. And many of the stories pondered serious subjects—teen pregnancy, suicide, censorship (a comic book store owner being persecuted by the morally Righteous), dyslexia, capital punishment, alcoholism, and breast cancer, to name a few. Then in 2007, Lisa’s breast cancer returned and killed her; as her husband Les mourns, Batiuk jumps into the future again, taking his characters ten years beyond the time of Lisa’s death.
This time, I’m almost completely at sea: without the high school years experience, I had difficulty enough with the events between the 1992 and 2007 time warps; after October 2007, with the characters all middle-aged, mostly fat and bald and 46 years old, I couldn’t even recognize anyone. From context, I finally realized that the guy with the receding hairline and handsome van Dyke beard was Les; but he’s the only one I regularly recognized. Funky, fat and bald, looks too much like another fat bald guy in the strip. Then along comes this tall guy standing in uniform at the door of a person named Becky. I gave up and resorted to the “Funky Winkerbean” entry in Wikipedia.
There, thankfully, I found out that the tall guy is Funky’s cousin Wally who was married to Becky when, in 2005, they went to Afghanistan together. Wally is missing from the strip, however, after the 2007 time jump. By means of various comments by other cast members in July, we learn that Wally enlisted in the military and was sent to Iraq or Afghanistan where he was presumably killed when a roadside bomb went off as he drove by. Becky subsequently remarried, and now—July 2009—Wally shows up at her doorstep, not dead after all. The sequence contains much agonizing soul-searching, all of which is completely beyond my ken because I don’t know who any of the characters are: Wally’s military experience emerges over several days of dialogue among characters but only after he shows up, so when he first appears at Becky’s door, what should be the powerful emotion of the moment is, for me (and for any other Funky reader with a short memory), a complete fizzle. (That Batiuk wants it to be a powerful moment is evidenced by the sideways composition which presents Wally at his full astounding height.)
Batiuk has displayed an ability to handle sensitive subjects with great compassion and gentle humor, but he sometimes tells his story as elliptically as stories usually unfold in real life. It’s an admirable cinematic technique, but given his large cast and his time-jumping distortions of personal histories, many of the stories told in this manner become simply exercises in unintended mystification. While Batiuk can scarcely include a dance card with every daily orchestration, he could smooth out some of the janglier passages with a little preamble. The Becky-Wally encounter, for instance, would have imparted the intended emotional impact if Batiuk had devoted a few preliminary days to showing Becky and her present husband, say, talking about Wally’s military career and his presumed death. Batiuk hinted at all of this with a Memorial Day strip showing Becky driving home with a POW/MIA sticker on her car, and a week or so later on Flag Day, he shows her putting a small flag at a gravesite. But these signals, without our knowing anything about Wally’s fate, are cryptic to the point of incomprehensible.
4) Another strip that was lately incomprehensible was Doonesbury. For the first two weeks in August, Garry Trudeau focused on the deliberations of an assortment of unknown white males gathered at the clubhouse of “the Family” on C Street in Washington, D.C. What is “the Family” I wondered. And how does this fit into Trudeau’s typical political schtick? From the strips, I could conclude that members of the Family are religiously fanatic politicians who believe they are divinely chosen to lead and who are stunningly tolerant of the adulterous peccadilloes of their members. Surely, I thought, Trudeau is making this stuff up. Alas, not so. The Family is real. And its members are, as Trudeau alleges, religious fanatics, powerful men who believe that their being powerful means they have God’s favor.
Founded in 1935 by an itinerant immigrant preacher named Abraham Vereide, the Family has grown into a “veritable underground of Christ’s men all through government,” I learned from the helpful explanation published in The Week magazine, July 31, which reached me on the eve of the Family’s appearance in Doonesbury.(but I didn’t get around to reading it until after puzzling over Trudeau’s take on it). “The Washington-based group counts many prominent politicians, mostly conservative Republicans, among its flock, and several members of Congress pay $600 a month to rent rooms in the group’s townhouse. ... The Family tries to maintain a low profile, but was thrust into the headlines in recent weeks when it emerged that three politicians embroiled in sex scandals—South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, Nevada Senator John Ensign, and former Mississippi Representative Chip Pickering—are longtime members. Pickering, in fact, last week was accused in court papers of having trysts with his mistress in the C Street house.”
The existence of the Family, it seems, explains a lot. The tenets of the religion the members of this bizarre cabal appear to embrace are “vague, elastic, and focused on power.” While the Family doesn’t exactly “excuse” adultery and other sins, “it considers the powerful to be accountable only to God and their peers, not to their constituents or to the Constitution.” The presence of such a power-mad, self-delusional bunch of fanatics at the heart of American government is terrifying. Jeff Sharlet, who wrote a book about these crazies, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, considers their “disregard for conventional morality ‘potentially very dangerous’ because it ‘leads you away from accountability to the public.’” I’ve posted the entire horrifying article (5) from The Week just next to the Doonesbury strips, which leap from the Family’s condoning adultery to its sponsorship of birther legislation, a sure sign of the secret society’s dementia.
Speaking, as we were earlier, of newspapers finally beginning to see the economic fallacy of giving away their news content for free on the Web, at the bottom of the page of Doonesburys is August 15's Rudy Park (written by “Theron Heir,” not his real name, and drawn by Darrin Bell, his real name), which, on this date, appeared as four solid black panels. No speech balloons. In the last panel is lettered this message: “Economy Threatens the Existence of Rudy Park. See rudypark.com for details. We know, it’s not funny. Seriously. We know.”
And when we went to the aforementioned website, here’s what we found (in italics):
Friends of Rudy Park:
Rudy Park has hit tough times. We're in serious financial trouble. Seriously. We're not kidding. No, seriously.
Darn it, why does everyone always think we're joking?
Newspaper closings and bankruptcies have cut in half the already modest amount we make for writing and drawing Rudy Park. And people read the strip on the Internet essentially for free.
We know we're not alone in hitting tough times. Lots of Americans and American enterprises are hurting. And we feel blessed we've had nearly a decade-long run with Rudy Park.
We're trying to come up with some creative ways to support our efforts, perhaps by introducing a premium service for a small fee. (Look at us adeptly using the e-commerce vernacular!). In the meantime, we ask only this: please be aware of and appreciate the fact that artists cannot support themselves (ourselves) with an economic model in which everything is distributed on the Internet for free.
We're open to suggestions, and your input. Would you be willing to pay for a premium service—say, $9.99 a year—to keep Rudy Park in business and get some added benefit (like a framable, autographed Rudy Park comic strip)? Would you be willing to buy a Rudy Park t-shirt, coffee mug or other collectable?
The email lines are open. Please send us a note at Rudy@rudypark.com
Sorry that we're acting like a bunch of whiners. This sort of whining makes Sadie very upset.
Sincerely (seriously), Theron and Darrin.
RCH again: Who’s the target of the satire here, kimo sabe? Why, newspapers, I ween—their perceived helplessness in the face of an adversity they brought on themselves. And so Rudy Park is nibbling on the hand that feedith it. And a good thing, too: someone should. Or are Heir and Bell merely laying the ground work for the Next Thing that will happen in the newspapering realm? Paying for comics. Well, that already exists: we can (and we do) subscribe to syndicate websites for modest annual fees, and in return, we can read and ponder all the syndicate’s offerings for an entire year.
By the way (although not at all incidentally), Theron Heir’s real name is Matt Richtel, who adopts a pen name because, presumably, he doesn’t want anyone at the New York Times, where he holds a day job as a reporter, to know that he moonlights by writing funny sarcastic comedy for so trivial an enterprise as a comic strip. (The New York Times gives away only part of its compendious content on the Web but charges for archival material.) Wikipedia reveals that Richtel has also written a novel, Hooked, about a reporter whose life is turned upside down when he escapes a café explosion after a stranger hands him a note in his dead fiancee's handwriting warning him to leave—exactly the sort of thing we might expect from someone who’d write a comic strip with no pictures.
More Squeamishness in the Nation’s Capital. Tank McNamara, the comic strip whose title character is a former football player turned tv sportscaster, went into re-runs at the Washington Post for the week of August 10. That was the week that the strip’s creators, Jeff Millar and Bill Hinds, devoted to making fun of the dilemma the National Football League faced in deciding whether or not to reinstate ex-con dog-trainer Michael Vick. Inaugurating the week’s running head, “The Making of the Michael Vick Decision,” the first strip in the series depicts a telephone conversation between NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, seeking advice from a wide range of people, and the first person he consults, the former U.S. President of Vice, Darth bin Cheney.
Goodell says: “I have to make a move on Mike Vick.”
Cheney says: “Kill him.”
“Kill him?” says Goodell.
Says Cheney: “Well, not you personally.”
The Post pulled this strip and the rest of the series, saying the storyline was “inappropriate.” I doubt it: the rest of the week was spent mostly on speculating about racism in the NFL. Vick isn’t the only African American footballer facing disciplinary action, and if the NFL jumps on them all, will it be perceived as racist? That, saith the online Post’s ComicRiffs blogger Michael Cavna, “is more in the strip’s wheelhouse”: Millar and Hinds are often topical and aren’t afraid to name names, most notoriously in the strip’s “Sports Jerk of the Year” award that is given to a real person, usually an athlete. Nope, the rest of the week’s Tank wasn’t as “inappropriate” as the Monday strip, which, ridiculing the former Prez of Vice in the town he once ruled from an undisclosed location, risked offending Someone Powerful who hasn’t been above shooting even his friends in the face with a shotgun and who is also a champion of waterboarding as an “interrogation technique.” No, the Post was just afraid, and as Muslim hooligans worldwide have amply demonstrated, the American news media often act out of fear, calling it “good taste” instead.
Tank McNamara’s syndicate, formerly named Universal Press, supplied the Post with some bland substitute strips from Tank’s 35-year run (an anniversary celebrated earlier this month). Syndicate officials, questioned by Christian Boone at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said they weren't aware of any other cancellations, adding: "We at Universal Uclick absolutely respect the right of the Washington Post to pull the strips, but we also respect the rights of our creators to write sharp and humorous satire. For more than 35 years, Jeff [Millar] and Bill [Hinds] have been holding athletes, the sports industry and public figures up to the light. It wouldn't be Tank McNamara if they didn't."
Cavna, saying he was “one of the few sports editorial cartoonists to survive into the 21st century,” felt “particularly qualified to weigh in” on the issue. And he did: “I had several satiric topical cartoons ‘killed’ over the years,” he said. “On those occasions, it was because of the sensitivity of the editorial content; the clarity of the satiric point was not at issue. Which leads to this week's Tank. If [Monday’s] strip proves controversial, I believe it's because the satiric point wasn't sharp enough; in which case, some readers are left wondering why ‘Dick Cheney’ would order that ‘Mike Vick’ be iced. Without a clearly, commonly accepted truth to rest the satire on— no matter how exaggerated— readers are left to scratch heads or drop jaws. And editors are more likely to be the ones to decide that someone needs to be ‘killed’: Tank.”
almost. The problem with Tank’s overture
to the week isn’t that its satiric point was obscure: the
problem is that it delves into an arena that sports page readers
don’t expect to find covered in that section of the
newspaper—politics. To anyone who reads other sections of the
newspaper, Tank was
clearly taking a well-deserved poke at a powerful political figure
for his oft-expressed blood-thirsty ruthlessness, his reputation for
preferring violence to diplomacy and so forth. I thought it was funny
and apt satire. You can judge for yourself by consulting Tank
McNamara at gocomics.com .
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. is now “the most famous professor in America.” But very few people know why “Skip” is his nickname.
The tv networks—mostly the broadcast networks, ABC, NBC, and CBS, but cable networks are not immune either—are worried about the impact of the Internet and DVR on their advertising revenues. Before too long, the Internet will be merged with television in some way that will permit viewers to switch from one to the other while impersonating potatoes on their livingroom couches. What effect will that have? Even today, DVR has nearly eliminated the need for a viewer to sit through commercials to watch his/her favorite shows: just record and watch later, fast-forwarding through the sales pitches. For all the angst over these two developments, broadcast network tv “is still the advertisers’ top choice for volume,” writes Joanne Ostrow, the tv critic for the Denver Post. Quoting Showtime’s Matt Blank, Ostrow concludes: “If you’re an advertiser aiming to reach a lot of people, broadcast tv is still the place to be. It’s going to be hard to beat ‘CSI’ or the NFL this fall if you want to reach people.” So maybe the sky isn’t falling after all.
Previews and Proclamations of Coming Attractions
Boning Up. Jeff Smith will be producing new Bone stories, Bone Tall Tales, which Scholastic will bring out next summer according to a press release from the publishing house. Then that fall, Scholastic will begin publication of the highly anticipated expansion of the Bone World, the Quest for the Spark trilogy. Written by Tom Sniegoski (under Smith’s supervision) and illustrated by Smith, the trilogy represents the first time Smith has continued the adventures set in the “valley” since the publication of Rose, the prequel to the Bone series, which Scholastic is releasing under its Graphix imprint next month. Book Two of the new series will be out in the spring of 2011; Book Three, in summer that year. Scholastic reports that it has shipped 4.5 million copies of the Bone graphic novels since its Graphix imprint published the first in the series in 2005.
Those attending this year’s San Diego Comic Con could see a screening of a feature-length documentary about Smith’s life and work. From the press release about the film: “The Cartoonist: Jeff Smith, Bone and the Changing Face of Comics” tells the inspiring story of Jeff Smith’s creation of the epic comic book, Bone, hailed by critics as one of the greatest graphic novels of all time. The film follows Smith from his beginnings as a budding five-year-old artist drawing on his livingroom floor through his difficult start-up as a self-published cartoonist and the 13-year journey to complete the book that he describes as “Bugs Bunny meets the Lord of the Rings.” In addition to discussing Jeff’s early years, influences and philosophies, the film provides a rare inside look at both the art and the business of comics, a field that has gained new respect as a “gateway to literacy” for youngsters and adults who are “reluctant readers.” Other cartoonists— Scott McCloud, Colleen Doran, Paul Pope, Terry Moore and Harvey Pekar, as well as friends, associates, experts and Jeff himself—share their stories of the worldwide Bone phenomenon that began in small comics shops and is now found in bookstores, schools, libraries and the homes of millions of adults and children in 25 countries.
The fourth book in the Wimpy series, Dog Days, will be out October 12 with a first printing of 3 million copies. I haven’t read any of these phenomena at any length yet. I’ve read a few pages, though, enough to know they aren’t comic books or graphic novels: they’re illustrated text stories, and to call them graphic novels is to insult graphic novelists like, f’instance, Jeff Smith. His Bone: Crown of Horns, the final volume in the Bone saga, stands at thirteenth on PW Comics Week’s list last May.
And coming in October, Wolverine: Old Man Logan, a $34.99 208-page hardcover by Mark Millar and artist Steve McNiven above what happened 50 years after the heroes fell. Wolverine hasn’t been seen or heard of in all that time; all we have is an old man named Logan who’s looking after his family and that’s all. Until ...
In the August issue of Previews, you can find advertised a Charlie Brown nativity set with Charlie Brown as Joseph, Lucy as Mary, and “Baby Woodstock” in the manger. Who’d a-thought? Is it sublime or profane?
THE FROTH ESTATE
The Alleged News Institution and Other Allegations
Robert D. Novak, a conservative political commentator and Washington columnist/reporter, died Tuesday, August 18, of a brain cancer. He was 78. The headlines announcing his demise ran something like this:
Novak a Central Figure in Plame-CIA Scandal
The Veteran Columnist, Villified for Outing the Agency Employee, Dies at 78
Villified indeed. And villified (no one mentioned) by the very profession he practiced. The headlines said nothing about Novak’s thoroughness and tenacity as a reporter—and he was that as well as an unabashed opinion monger for the Right. In his column the day after Novak died, David Broder remembered the “passionate commitment to covering Congress and politics” that once prevailed in Washington. He remembered bumping into Novak “in Detroit at the end of a week in which we had both been reporting on the Michigan political landscape. It turned out that he had interviewed every single politician I had been able to reach and a good many more, and in addition, had done several dozen street corner interviews I never got around to.” Thorough. Tenacious. But at his death, the headlines, with a bitter sort of poetic justice, remembered Novak only as the guy who blew Valerie Plame’s CIA cover, thereby exemplifying Irresponsible Journalism. The irony here is that Novak completely exonerated himself from that charge, but none of his colleagues that I can readily recall ever made as much mention of the exoneration as they did of the accusations.
I used to watch Novak fulminate with noxious right-wing fumes on “The Capital Gang,” the weekly gas-bag show on CNN, and I grew to thoroughly dislike him, so when the journalistic fraternity turned on him in the wake of the Plame caper, I rubbed my hands in giddy vengeful delight. He was getting his comeuppance, I thought, and deserved all the hostile press he got. So I was chagrined to discover that Novak got a bad rap: he didn’t deserve the abusive coverage the press heaped on him for months. He was doubtless dumped on for the same reason I enjoyed disliking him: he is an entirely dislikable personality. My revelation came while dipping into Novak’s autobiography, The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years of Reporting in Washington. In the course of the book’s 638 pages, Novak exonerates himself. But no one apparently noticed. The vigil\ant news media, it seems to me, virtually ignored the book and Novak’s case for himself.
That he would use the occasion of his autobiography to clear his good name is entirely predictable. So why should I believe this self-serving tripe? Because anyone who entitles his autobiography The Prince of Darkness clearly has a good sense of humor, all other indications to the contrary notwithstanding: in the photograph of him on the cover of the book, Novak is glowering out at the world with his usual tight-lipped grimace, but the title tells us that he can laugh at himself. And we should take seriously anyone who can laugh at himself and his alleged self-importance. Novak laughs at himself on other occasions throughout the book, but there are no giggles in his recounting of the Valerie Plame affair.
In July 2003, you’ll recall, Novak wrote a column about former ambassador Joseph Wilson’s report on his 2002 fact-finding trip to Niger where he was sent by the CIA to discover whether Iraq had been purchasing uranium as GeeDubya would subsequently allege in his State of the Union address early in 2003. In an infamous op-ed piece in the New York Times, Wilson had claimed that his report on his trip to Niger—the gist of which was that an Iraqi purchase of “yellowcake” was unlikely—was ignored by the White House and all others in the Administration, who were bent on invading Iraq, using Saddam’s alleged program to develop weapons of mass destruction as an excuse. Novak’s column pooh-poohed Wilson’s op-ed piece, implying, among other things, that Wilson, who had no official connection to the CIA, had been recommended for the assignment by his wife, Valerie Plame, who was, Novak revealed, “an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction.” Said Novak: “Two senior Administration officials told me Wilson’s wife suggested sending him to Niger .... The CIA [on the other hand] says its counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and [then] asked his wife to contact him.”
Novak’s sin, as the subsequent firestorm repeatedly asserted, was that he’d revealed the identity of a covert CIA agent: not only was revealing covert agents’ identities illegal, but Novak was also guilty of various journalistic crimes and misdemeanors. Since Wilson was making a case against the Bush League claim about uranium and WMD in Iraq, Democrats leaped on the Novak column as providing evidence (those two Administration sources) that the White House deliberately outed Vallerie Plame as revenge on her husband. George WMD Bush famously said he’d investigate and fire anyone who leaked the information to Novak. His investigation yielded nothing, and so before long, Chicago U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald was dubbed a special prosecutor by the Justice Department, charged with investigating the affair; he soon subpoenaed various journalists, some of whom refused to testify, citing the confidentiality of their relationship with their sources, and a New York Times reporter went to jail rather than reveal her source. If it could be established that either of Novak’s sources was in the White House, it would buttress the Democrats’ contention that the Bush League played dirty politics, and if, as everyone hoped, one of those two Administration sources was Karl Rove, liberals would rejoice in seeing the acclaimed Republication operative being fired by his boss and then perp-walked in handcuffs out of the White House and into jail. But Fitzgerald was seemingly unable to discover the identities of the sources.
Abuse began piling up around Novak because he had not, as far as anyone knew, been subpoenaed, and since he knew the identity of the Administration officials who’d leaked the identity of Valerie Plame, he clearly should have been subpoenaed. Since he wasn’t—and since his silence condemned his erstwhile journalist colleague to jail time—journalists turned on him and savaged him for all sorts of journalistic malfeasances.
In the book, Novak identifies his sources, the people who told him that Valerie Plame was Wilson’s wife: Richard Armitage, Colin Powell’s no-neck deputy at the State Department, was Novak’s first source; and the CIA chief of public information, Bill Harlow, who verified Armitage’s information, was the other. Novak had asked Armitage why the CIA had sent Wilson, who had no intelligence experience, to Niger, and Armitage told him that Wilson’s wife worked at CIA and suggested that her husband be sent to Niger. According to Novak’ version of events, Armitage’s revelation was scarcely part of a White House plot to destroy Wilson’s wife’s career: Armitage divulged the information in response to Novak’s question.
When Novak subsequently checked with Harlow, he was told that Mrs. Wilson had been delegated to contact her husband; she hadn’t recommended him for the assignment. This was later proved to be false: Valerie Plame had, indeed, recommended her husband. Harlow also added that revealing Plame’s name might cause “unspecified difficulties” if she were ever sent abroad again, but it was unlikely, he told Novak, that she would ever again be given a foreign assignment. Novak explained: “He did not press the point and did not warn me that Mrs. Wilson’s or anybody else’s safety would be endangered if I used her name. I had had enough experience with CIA jargon to infer from what Harlow told me that Mrs. Wilson at one time had been engaged in covert activities abroad but was not now and never would be again.” And then comes the kicker: “I learned much later that Mrs. Wilson had been ‘outed’ years earlier by the traitor and Soviet [double] agent Aldrich Ames, which had ended her career as a covert agent long before I wrote about her.”
Karl Rove was the other of the two “senior Administration” sources, Novak reports, but Rove hardly forced the information about Valerie Plame on the columnist. Novak phoned Rove about the Wilson op-ed article and mentioned that he’d heard Wilson’s wife worked at CIA, to which Rove responded: “Oh, you know that, too.”
Wilson, who would orchestrate an assault on Novak for “endangering” his wife’s life, claimed that she never used her maiden name, Valerie Plame, except as a covert agent. So how did Novak learn her name? Presumably through the Administration sources, who were bent on revenge. Not so. Novak says that when he wrote his column, he consulted Who’s Who in America under Wilson’s name; there he found that Wilson’s wife’s name was Valerie Plame. In other words, the maiden name of Wilson’s wife was highly visible in the public domain.
So Novak had acquired his information about Valerie Plame and her role in getting her husband sent to Niger through means wholly unrelated to any Bush League plot to avenge itself on Wilson. Therefore, there was no Bush League plot. All of Novak’s sources, Armitage, Harlow and Rove, later went public, revealing their roles in Novak’s report, so Novak is committing no journalistic sin by giving their names in this book. Nor did he endanger any CIA operation or destroy Valerie Plame’s career as a covert agent: that had ended five years earlier when Aldrich Ames’ revealed her identity to his Soviet handlers.
Finally, the supposition that Novak dodged jail time by revealing his sources to Fitzgerald was also ill-founded. Novak confirms the rumor that he had been subpoenaed by Fitzgerald; presumably, he would not have revealed the names of his sources while testifying, but Fitzgerald already knew the identities of Novak’s sources and had obtained from them waivers that relieved Novak of the burden of maintaining confidentiality about them. After seeing the waivers, Novak testified, secretly, before a grand jury, naming names, but he did so with the express permission of the persons he named. He had, in short, committed no journalistic sin.
None of these details were ever, to my knowledge, revealed in the news media which had spent a certain amount of energy speculating about Novak’s sources and castigating him for his journalistic ethics, or the apparent absence thereof. Maybe these matters were mentioned somewhere, in passing, perhaps, but never with the sound and fury of the initial and continuing drum roll about his lack of ethics.
The nom d’guere “prince of darkness,” Novak reveals, was conferred upon him by a friend, John J. Lindsay of the Washington Post, “not because I was then a hard conservative but because of my unsmiling pessimism about the prospects for America and Western civilization.” Novak has obviously accepted the implied truth of Lindsay’s nickname: “I was not a table raconteur,” he says, admitting, further, that “I had a grim-visaged demeanor.” Novak may be many things, some of which I appall, but he knows himself, he’s more candid about his shortcomings than you might suppose from his behavior on tv, and he has a sense of humor about himself. Not a bad guy after all. And it would have been appropriate to acknowledge that in the obits that blossomed at his death.
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST: PART TWO
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
What’s left of the hippie generation and its legions of wannabees celebrated the 40th anniversary of Woodstock this month. This legendary “festival” took place over four days, August 15-19, on farm land near Bethel, New York, where a wholly unanticipated 400,000 of the nation’s youth converged, long-haired and tie-dyed, to listen to rock bands, toke, get naked, and fall down in acres of mud to fornicate at whim. The quantify of drugs ingested by young people who would otherwise be overwhelmed by the absence of lavatories was largely responsible for the joyousness that prevailed and, subsequently, clung to recollections of those distant August days. The “Woodstock Nation” of love and uninhibitedness the arrival of which was so vociferously proclaimed didn’t last long: it died less than four months later at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival, the so-called “Woodstock West,” staged in northern California on December 6. Attended by an estimated 300,000, the event, which began peacefully enough, escalated in violence and included four deaths, one a homicide: a teenager named Meredith Hunter, sky-high on whatever he was taking, approached the stage when the Rolling Stones were performing and pulled out a long-barreled pistol, whereupon he was attacked by a Hell’s Angel, the outfit reputedly “hired” to protect the equipment on stage, who stabbed the youth with a knife, killing him. The metaphor for the end of the hippie era—drug besotted youth turns mindlessly violent and is therefore murdered—is too obvious to overlook, but few of the nation’s pundits observing the Woodstock anniversary mentioned it. Four births were reported during Altamont, but nobody said anything about them either.
Comedienne Sundra Croonquist is being sued by her mother-in-law who says Croonquist has defamed her by telling too many mother-in-law jokes. Gary L. Bostwick, a First Amendment expert not connected with the case, was contacted by the Associated Press, and he said suing a comedian is difficult because courts tend to rule that it should be obvious they are joking. They’re comedians, right? And comedians do what?
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE
In Unthinkable, writer Mark Sable explores a provocative notion about the “next” terrorist assault on the civilized world. Each issue of the 5-issue series begins on the inside front cover with a device that ought to appear on the inside front covers of every funnybook being published these days— a brief prose synopsis of what has happened thus far in the story. Here, for instance, is the summary from No. 3, the most recent issue, enhanced, somewhat, by a few of my own well-chosen verbs, nouns and adjectives: “When best-selling novelist Alan Ripley’s brother, founder of a Blackwater-like mercenary army, was killed on 9/11 while visiting the Pentagon, Alan is recruited by a government think-tank to help protect the country from the next attack by imagining the kinds of worst-case scenarios that fueled his novels. Eight years later, the ‘unthinkable’ happened: someone started carrying out the terror attacks that Ripley imagined. The world’s largest oil refinery is attacked and destroyed, the U.S. capitol building is bombed, a bio-weapon akin to botox is released in malls (leaving corpses grinning like the Joker), and—the most devastating of all—a genetically engineered oil-eating microbe has ‘eaten’ much of the world’s oil supplies.” Ripley is recruited again to help head-off the next attacks by remembering the other scenarios he imagined at the think-tank sessions.
Before following this agenda, however, he and some fellow think-tankers blow up an off-shore oil rig because terrorists were using it to infest oil fields with the microbe. Then Ripley and his henchmen go to Israel to prevent the next attack; then it’s on to the French-Swiss border. Meanwhile, a menacing ex-FBI operative is hot on Ripley’s heels for some unspecified but certainly nefarious reason. The story is often laden with talk—explanation of the science or politics behind various maneuvers being essential—but nearly wordless action sequences help restore a verbal-visual balance. Julian Totino Tedesco draws in what might be described as a scrappy Caniffian manner, cloaking most of the artwork in deep shadow, but as the adventure progresses and its protagonists encounter more abuse, their faces disappear in a mass of scratchy wounds: realistic, maybe, but even without the scratches, Tedesco’s rendering of faces is cluttered with slash marks that distort rather than clarify features, so the ladling on of additional slashes adds confusion to the mix. He manages to draw bodies without such disfigurement, why not faces? Juan Manuel Tumburus colors with various shades of attractive monochromes, deftly fitting color to the locales presumably; but with Tedesco’s heavy shadowying and copious slashing nearly obscuring the visuals, more variety incolors might have helped clarify some otherwise pretty obscure passages.
Ripley’s invasion of the basement under the Dome in Jerusalem injects a “Raiders of the Lost Ark” element when he and his party are assaulted by a villainous vapor—momentarily disappointing, a cop-out to the pseudo-science of mysticism, I thought, jarringly out-of-place in the otherwise persuasive science of the tale—but the moment passed and the narrative quickly returned to a comprehensible reality with sufficient promise for a reality-based final two issues in the series. All five issues will soon be available in 128-page trade paperback for $19.99 (announced for October release in the August issue of Previews).
With the one-shot Kid Colt No. 1, Marvel is presumably attempting to revive one of its legendary Western titles, but if this is the best the House of Ideas can do, there’s no hope for this Kid or any of the others that once infested the famed Marvel Universe. Tom DeFalco’s story brims with threadbare cliches and assorted impossibilities. The governing cliche is that, as usual, the Kid is being hunted as an outlaw, and he’s trying to prove his innocence: his killing of Joshua McGreeley, the local sheriff’s older brother, was provoked by Josh’s murdering the Kid’s family in order to get possession of their ranch, and in the final encounter between the youth and Josh, the Kid was acting in self-defense. Hence, his innocence. But Josh’s sheriff brother swore out a warrant for the Kid’s arrest, making him an outlaw. To prove his innocence, the Kid must find a witness to the killing of Josh—namely, one of Josh’s gang that was with him when the Kid called him out, but they’ve all departed for other surroundings.
Laminated onto this motivating premise is the central episode of this book—an encounter between the Kid and a renowned bounty hunter named Sherman Wilks. Just as Wilks is about to either take the Kid prisoner or kill him, a passel of “scavengers” (an undefined term used here as if we all knew that it had a definite meaning in the lexicon of the Old West, denominating a particular breed of thug who robs and murders for a living but for no other reason) arrive, and the Kid and Wilks (and Wilks’ minions) must join forces to stand off the bad guys. Which they do, and then Wilks once again turns on the Kid, but, at the last minute, reconsiders, and, in appreciation for the Kid’s having saved his life, lets the youth go. And the Kid rides off into the sunset, looking for one of Joshua McGreeley’s gang in order to clear his name.
The prevailing impossibility is the Kid’s expertise with a gun, a skill that, at sixteen or seventeen years of age, he can scarcely be presumed to have developed no matter how many hours is father, a former lawman, spent tutoring him. The Kid might be presumed to be a good shot, even a fast draw, but when he kills Josh, he does so while performing an acrobatic evasive maneuver that, in combination with his marksmanship, makes the feat patently impossible. But the crowning impossibility is the Kid’s confrontation with a man-mountain among the scavengers during a “trial by combat” that the Kid must win in order to gain escape for himself and Wilks. The Kid wins this fist-fight with a couple of well-placed blows to the man-mountain’s solar plexus and a kick to his groin. Given the size of his opponent, this achievement is notable enough in itself, but the Kid beats the guy with one arm tied behind his back—or, to be more precise, with his right arm in a sling due to a bullet wound inflicted to his shoulder. The pain of this affliction would probably prevent a normal person from gyrating and tumbling around to avoid his opponent’s fists as the Kid does, but the Kid ignores whatever pain might stab him—both during the fight and for the rest of the adventure, which involves several other physically strenuous actions that would doubtless make his shoulder throb. A lot.
All of this blatant nonsensical storyline is made palatable only by Rick Burchett’s drawings, crisp and clean and reminiscent, vaguely, of John Romita, Jr.’s bulky rendering of the human form. And Burchett produces action sequences that are models of clarity and conviction while brimming with energy. Nicely done.
All of this tale is told by a narrator, a older gunny named Everett Hawkmore (“Hawk,” of course), who, enacting yet another of the book’s cliches, befriends the Kid in his hour of need on the third page of the story and sticks with him even after being wounded in one of the several gun battles that enliven the tale. Their relationship—a young blond kid and an older dark-haired experienced hand—reminds me of Milton Caniff’s Terry and Pat Ryan, but DeFalco probably doesn’t intend the comparison: his “Terry,” the Kid, is much more proficient at swashbuckling than Terry ever was. (Caniff was careful not to let his adolescent protagonist act older or more experienced than a teenager could be expected to be.)
My guess—and not a very wild one at that—is that this book was initially formulated and drawn as a four-issue mini-series then clumped together as a single issue after it was completed. The book has four “chapters,” each of which is introduced by a full-page cover-like drawing, followed by a full-page picture repeating the last scene of the preceding “chapter” and captioned with Hawk’s narrative drone, rehearsing the principal points of the action so far. Two pages that could have been dropped altogether without unhorsing the narrative in the slightest.
Cliche-ridden, repetitive, and laced with impossibilities—this book is not designed to win fans for Kid Colt, but it might increase Burchett’s following.
More Kid Stuff (to dispense Ron Goulart’s coinage). I was tempted to begin my review of the Kid Colt one-shot by saying the Kid was the oldest of Marvel’s cowboy characters, but before I blurted that out, I checked to see. Alas, Kid Colt is not the most venerable of the Marvel horse opera heroes: the Two-Gun Kid is—but only by four months. And then, seeing that Kid Colt’s title ran to 140 issues before reprinting them all through No. 229 and that the Two-Gun Kid stopped at No. 136, I thought maybe Kid Colt might be the longest running of the breed. Alas again, not so: Rawhide Kid piled up 155 issues in its initial run. Here’s Marvel’s Kid stuff, listed in the order of their debuts:
Two-Gun Kid, March 1948 - April 1977, 136 issues
Kid Colt, August 1948; switched to reprints after No. 140 in November 1969 and continued through No. 229, ending in April 1979
Arizona Kid, March 1951 - January 1952, 6 issues
Ringo Kid, August 1954 - September 1957, 21 issues
Outlaw Kid, September 1954 - September 1957, 19 issues; second series, August 1970 - October 1975, another 30 issues
Rawhide Kid, March 1955 - May 1979, 155 issues; another 4 issues in the 1980s, and 5 issues in 2003 with the Kid revealed as gay
Kid from Texas, only 2 issues, June and August 1957; Atlas
Kid from Dodge City, only 2 issues, Jul and September 1957
All of this data I dug out of the Third Edition of Krause/Comic Buyer’s Guide’s Standard Catalog of Comic Books, a handy print version of the compendium. It took me about ten minutes. Then, just to test, one more time, the functioning of the Fifth Edition, which is all on DVD, I checked for a couple of the titles, Arizona Kid and Kid Colt. I spent about a half-hour without luck. I never found the Arizona Kid at all, and when I plugged “Kid Colt” into the search machinery, it coughed up “one document, 150 instances,” the “document,” apparently—judging from the page on display—was Wild West Comics, an Atlas publication, that came out roughly quarterly from September 1948 until September 1957, reprinting stories from other titles, and Kid Colt stories were reprinted often, apparently—150 times, I suppose. Never found the entry for the Kid Colt comic book. Never. It might have been among the 150 “instances” listed, but I decided not to spend any more time staring at the screen to read 150 individual “instances” to see if one carried some kind of identification that would mark it as a comic book title rather than as a character in a story.
THE FROTH ESTATE: PART TWO
Don Hewitt, for most of the life of CBS’s “60 Minutes” its producer and driving spirit, died Wednesday, August 19, at 86 after a year’s struggle with pancreatic cancer. The praise was effusive on all networks. Don Hewitt created modern tv news, they said: he made telling the story a vital aspect of tv news broadcasting. The secret appeal of “60 Minutes,” Hewitt claimed, was well known by every kid who said: “Tell me a story.” To the extent that “story” permeates modern political life—Barack Obama had a compelling life story; ditto Sonia Sotomayer; ditto so many others—Hewitt did it. He brought about the permeation. And by doing it, he effectively destroyed tv as a medium for news: story telling became more important than news reporting, and so tv news fell more and more under the banner of “entertainment” of the sort that tv epitomizes. I love “60 Minutes.” I never miss a broadcast if I can help it. I do it because I have convinced myself that I’m being informed and educated by investigative reporters who are merciless in their questioning of miscreants and other kinds of politicians. And so I am informed and educated. I’m also being entertained by some of the best storytellers in tv news.
If Hewitt corrupted the purity of journalism, he also propagated a truism that is almost always, these days, overlooked or shoved aside by journalists too lazy to do their jobs. Hewitt’s career refutes the contention oft heard among journalists who, when criticized for attending too diligently to sex and scandal stories, claim they are helpless in the face of the demands of the market: they must give the reading/viewing pubic what it wants, say these apologists, and so they give us sex scandals and celebrities galore. With “60 Minutes,” Hewitt proved that you don’t have to give the public what it wants: you can give it what you think it needs—information, facts. Hewitt constructed a news program in a way that made it appealing to viewers—viewers who would probably never have otherwise sat down on Sunday evenings to watch “news.” He turned news into entertainment, but the news was still there: he slipped it in while creating a suspenseful “story” (what happens next?)—news, information, education. So anytime you hear journalists say they can’t report what they believe an informed public needs to know—the hard facts, the difficult explanations about health care reform, for instance—because they must, instead, give the public what it wants, pander to it—any time you witness that cop-out, remember Don Hewitt. Hewitt showed that journalism could make news interesting and appealing enough that the great unwashed would consume it, attend to it, be informed and educated by it, and be better citizens of a democracy because of it. “60 Minutes” wasn’t immediately successful, but Hewitt, abetted by complaisant network chieftains, kept plugging away, and eventually, the viewing public latched onto the program. And they stayed latched.
And if Don Hewitt and his success with “60 Minutes” won’t help you convince some blockheaded journalist that he could “sell” the public on news they need—if he insists that the public won’t “buy” it—then remind him that the public was persuaded to spend a dollar each for plastic bottles containing water that they could get for nothing out of the tap in the kitchen sink. We’re a nation of peddlers: we can sell ourselves anything.
ONWARD, THE SPREADING PUNDITRY
The Thing of It Is ...
had to get this one written down to preserve it in the amber of This
Colyum so whenever I want to remind myself of the Absolute Twaddle
that Sarah “No Longer Governor” Palin talks, I’ll
have her attack on the Democrats’ health care reform bill.
Saith Sarah: “The America I know and love is not one in which
my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front
of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can
decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of
productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health
care. Such a system is downright evil.” I agree; but “such
a system” is not the system envisioned by the health care
reform bill. It is, rather, entirely a figment of Sarah Palin’s
single active brain cell. Oh—and notice how she drags one of
her kids, who she has proclaimed off-limits for news media, into the
The Lion of the Senate
The Roar Is Stilled
Edward M. Kennedy, 1932-2009
Here are four editorial cartoon obits that managed to avoid the Pearly Gates cliche—well almost, and Henry Payne can be forgiven because he gave the heavenly prospect a humorous twist. Clockwise from the upper left: Pat Oliphant (notice that Punk the penquin is missing, as he often is in genuinely somber tableaux), Ed Stein, Bill Day, and the aforementioned Payne, a bent conservative perspective to the end.
For all the accomplishments of Ted Kennedy’s epic life, those I admire most were listed in a letter from his sister-in-law. After watching him give away her daughter Caroline in marriage in 1986, Jackie Kennedy wrote him a letter: “There have been 17 children besides your own—Bobby’s, Pat’s, Jack’s and mine, for whom you have always been there. Every graduation, every big decision, every trouble, every sad and even every happy day. On you, the carefree youngest brother, fell a burden a hero would beg to be spared. Sick parents, lost children, desolate wives. You are a hero. Everyone is going to make it because you are always there with your love. Jackie.”
Not long ago, CBS’s Leslie Stahl read the letter aloud to Kennedy on camera. After a long pause, he said, his voice cracking, “It’s about as nice as you can get.”
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