Opus 254 (January 13, 2010). Our annual Best of the Year roundup, beginning with a huge chunk of superb editorial cartoons and continuing with the best graphic novels of 2009, best reprints, best newspaper comic strips, best books about cartooning and/or cartoonists, and the like—plus screeds on the dereliction of the news media, a report on the latest Islamic hooliganism, lists of “words of the year,” how other observers are coming around to share the notion that newspapers aren’t, actually, dying, an examination of the deceptive messages at the Comics Buyer’s Guide and Playboy and an affectionate farewell to caricaturing genius David Levine. Here’s what’s here, in order, by department:
THE BEST OF 2009
The Best Book of the Year
Best Graphic Novels
Best Reprint Tomes
Best in the Funnies
Best News in Editooning
Best Books about Comics and Cartoonists
Best in Comic Books
Other Big News of the Year
DERELICTION OF AMERICAN NEWS MEDIA
The Under-reported News
NOUS R US
Cartooning on Commemorative Stamps
Deceptive Review of Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza
Disney Aims to Develop Marvel’s Second Stringers
Kurt Westergaard Attacked in His Home
Words of the Year
THE FROTH ESTATE
Newspapers Still Aren’t Dying
Garry Trudeau’s Take on the Future of Comic Strips
THROES OF ANOTHER SORT
Comics Buyer’s Guide and Playboy Mislead Their Readers
David Levine, RIP
Why Women Shouldn’t Take Men Shopping
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—
THE BEST OF 2009
Editorial Cartooning for the Ages
Trampling along, day by day, we have at last destroyed an entire year’s worth of calendar and can now participate in the annual act of the anal retentive, the Janus ritual. This is when we look backward and forward, like the old Roman, Janus, the god of gates and doors, who grew two faces the better to look in both directions at once. So pervasive is this double-edge duty among human (sic) sapiens that we’ve named the whole month of January in order to invoke the obligation. Here at the Rancid Raves Intergalactic Wurlitzer, we look back with greater enthusiasm than we look forward. We look back because what do we have to look forward to? Gasbag pundits and other political inebriates are already contaminating 2010 with campaign talk: the off-year election scheduled for next November (we just had a November, and now we’re obsessing over the next one?) will consume their energies and pollute the airwaves and pages of the so-called news media every day for the next ten months. We’re already worn out.
Because editorial cartooning wallows in current events, we are obliged to review the most impressive of those by way of preparing to contemplate the best of the editoonery effort in 2009. On December 20, David Crary at the Associated Press listed the AP’s top ten newsstories of the year, beginning with “the convoluted American economy—restoring windfalls to a lucky few while leaving millions jobless and distraught—followed closely by the inauguration of President Barack Obama, the nation's first black president. According to U.S. editors and news directors voting in the AP’s annual poll, the economy superseded other issues as Americans' No. 1 concern, receiving 61 first-place votes out of 117 ballots cast for the Top 10 stories. A related saga, the tribulations of the U.S. auto industry, was voted the No. 4 story.” The rest of the top ten continued with an overhaul of the health care system in third place, then swine flu, Afghanistan, the death of Michael Jackson, killing spree at Fort Hood, death of Ted Kennedy, and Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s “miracle on the Hudson” in tenth place. “The war and political turmoil in Iraq was voted the No. 16 story, the first time since 2001 that Iraq was not in the Top 10,” Crary said.
The AP engaged the general public in the polling this year, setting up a Facebook voting booth. “Those voters, 1,410 in all, reversed the order of the editors' and news directors' top two stories—placing Obama's inauguration first and the economy second, but the two Top 10 lists had eight stories in common.” Crary was quick to note that the Facebook poll, “conducted on a non-scientific basis, was for entertainment purposes only and shouldn't be considered an accurate reflection of public opinion.” Neither, I’m quick to note, were 117 votes by AP members “scientific”: the AP surveyed a selected and scarcely representative population. Still, the Facebook results “closely resembled the AP members' choices: each Top 10 list had only two stories not on the other list. Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation as the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court and Iran—the tensions related to its election and nuclear program—were in the Facebook Top 10 but not the members' Top 10. The Fort Hood rampage and Afghanistan did not make the Facebook Top 10.”
Both polls were evidently conducted with a multiple-choice ballot: Crary said in both cases, “several write-in votes were cast for a development that occurred too late to be included on the ballot”—the Tiger Woods scandal. For the same reason, the polling did not include the Christmas gift of the Underpants Bomber, the guy who wanted to blow his balls off and take a planeload of seemingly innocent passengers with him.
Tiger Woods may not be losing all his sponsors, but in the last couple of weeks, the stocks of some of those companies dropped 2.3 percent, worth about $12 billion to stock holders, saith a report from McClatchy Newspapers. Still, 2010 is the Year of the Tiger, so we may expect his dalliances to multiply and become more exotic or his winnings on the golf courses of the world to increase or, if his wife kicks him out preparatory to divorce, both. Presently hiding out in Arizona, Tiger is probably “hiking the Appalachian Trail” (as we say now to denote extramarital canoodling), and my guess, as well as the suppositions of others who know better, is that he’ll be teeing up for the Masters in the spring, his eagerness to surpass Jack Niklaus’ record (18 wins) elbowing contrition and good sense (which we already know he lacks) out of sight.
The AP Top Ten is no more encyclopedic of the year’s significant events than the poll is scientific. Missing, for instance, is Israel’s invasion of Gaza last January, North Korea’s test-firing of a three-stage ballistic missile capable of reaching targets in Hawaii and Alaska, Obama’s visit to China, and Joe Wilson’s giving “loud mouth” an new totem by shouting “You lie!” to the Prez as Obama addressed a joint session of Congress. Wilson’s performance was the signature event of a society grown absurdly, albeit dangerously, uncivil, as manifest nationally last August in “town hall” meetings distinguished by the rude behavior of many of those who attended, some of whom, alarmingly, showed up with guns in a pre-emptive protest against any attempt to infringe upon their precious Second Amendment rights. This is now our world, kimo sabe—a world seemingly made expressly to provide employment for cartoonists. Another significant development of the past year, one that editoonists have neglected because it isn’t nearly as comical as Mitch McConnell trying before tv cameras to find some Vast Socially Beneficial Philosophical Justification for opposing everything the Democrats and Obama propose, is the growth of a home-based economy: dependent upon the Internet, about 6.6 million home businesses generate at least 50% of the owner’s household income—35% creating incomes in excess of $125,000—employing more than 13 million people. And then there’s the number (1 in 50) of Americans living in households with incomes consisting of nothing but a food-stamp card. But there’s hope: sales of condoms are up an impressive 6% from last year, a phenomenon Charisse Jones at USA Today explains by saying that the imploding economy forces “millions of cash-strapped Americans to entertain themselves at home.”
The AP poll is seriously journalistic rather than tabloid journalistic, so much of the year’s excitement, titillating rather than genuinely important, doesn’t show up. Susan Boyle’s stunning performance, for example, the beer summit, the flap over Obama talking to school kids nationwide, Tea Party shit (which would be nothing without the publicity given it by fevered tabloid news media coverage, the tea baggers nonetheless signaling their significance by adopting Joe Wilson as their idol), the ACORN fuss, the “birther” nonsense (which has certified the transformation in this country of democracy into idiocracy), and Russell Wiseman, the Republican mayor of Arlington, Tennessee, who accused “our Muslim president” of deliberately timing his Afghanistan speech to supplant the annual broadcast of the religious tv program, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” You can’t make up stuff better than this. But the list of trivial distractions marches on: Glenn Beck (whatever he says and does), David Letterman’s numerous affairs (although his on-camera admission of guilt was precedent-shattering in this Puritanically suppressed society), the arrest of Roman Polanski, Farrah Fawcett’s death (and Ed McMahon’s, for that matter), Sarathan Livingston Palin’s desertion of the Alaskan governor’s mansion to write a book and go on a coast-to-coast autographing spree—to name a few more idiocies that leap immediately to mind. Someone should create another top ten list, the Top Ten Trivial Distractions in the News, at the top of which would be Paris Hilton (who updated “that’s hot” to “that’s huge,” thereby catching up to the rest of humanity), Ashley Dupre, Lady Gaga, Brad and Angelina, Jennifer, and Nevada Senator John Ensign, who conducted an affair with a woman on his staff who happened to be the wife of his top assistant and longtime best friend, and then fired them both when the satyriasis was discovered. Ensign, of course, is a family values Republican, a model for the breed. But these elements of popular culture are the coin of the realm for editorial cartoonists, whose work for the year we are presently gathered here to recognize. In a minute.
Progress, correspondent Jim Ivey reminds me, is the opposite of Congress, but with John Boehner appearing on tv every other day with yet another linguistic contortion to explain how saying “no” and doing nothing is in the best interest of the public weal, I hardly need reminding. If we need any more reminders of how out of touch congressmen are with their average American constituencies, we need to know only that 44 percent of congressmen are millionaires. None of that, however, is “news” or, even, peculiar to 2009. Or to the just concluded decade, which several news media outlets chose to celebrate rather than just the most recently concluded year.
The year saw the further burgeoning of the social network created by the Web, blogging, twittering, YouTubing and Facebooking our way to an unprecedented interconnectedness. Tweeting achieved international respectability in being the medium through which the violence of the Iranian presidential election—er, street riots—became known to the world. Other good news—Bernard Madoff goes to jail forever; Ford, the only one of the Big Three automakers to forego government bailout funding, turned a profit of $1.3 billion in the third quarter (even though the company is still saddled with $27 billion in debt); the Octomom’s tv special failed; Entertainment Weekly reports that of the top ten regularly scheduled tv series, half are so-called “reality shows” (“American Idol,” “Dancing with the Stars,” etc.) that aren’t any more “real” than, say, soap operas, another of which, “As the World Turns,” will fade into obscurity come September. (Soaps are the new endangered species: the 72-year-old “Guiding Light” died last fall, just three months before AWT’s demise was announced. Viewer averages for tv soaps have dropped 20 percent since 1999, Time notes, adding that the audience for this kind of tv is getting older and therefore less desirable for advertisers.) Notice that throughout this diatribe, I didn’t mention Joe Lieberman once. Until now.
And now, let’s take a look at some of the best editorial cartoons of the year. Surprisingly, in surveying various cartoonists’ work for the year at cagle.msnbc.com where Daryl Cagle advertises his Cagle Cartoons syndicate, and in pawing through my copious file of 2009 editoons, I found no cartoons in which zombies or vampires impersonated Darth Cheney, proving only that editoonists sometimes forego the obvious. Displayed forthwith, our harvest of the year is numbered in red, page by page, although we do not refer specifically to every page. In determining which editoons are among the best, my bias always veers off in favor of a telling image, a visual metaphor that can burn itself into the brain of the observer and shape forever after his/her perception and understanding of the depicted event.
Page Red 1 features the undisputed best editorial cartoon of the year—Jay Bevenour’s cover for the Stranger, a weekly altie in Seattle. Bevenour’s effort capped a week awash with obit cartoons commemorating the departures of Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Gale Storm (star of tv’s “My Little Margie,” a popular 1950s series), pitchman Billy Mays, and, the ultimate dead man with face to match, Michael Jackson. MJ’s surprise departure a few hours after Farrah left us on June 25 quickly eclipsed all the others. On cable tv, a 24/7 loop began that Thursday and didn’t stop for four days. Then it went on for another three with only intermittent breaks between eulogistic spasms. All the while, MJ remained dead. The news, in other words, stayed the same. Unchanging for a change. And therefore no longer “news.” The best editorial cartoon commentary on the grief-besotted week was the Bevenour’s cover drawing.
Layers of meaning can be peeled away from the picture. Stupendously, outrageously grotesque, the picture combines and compounds so many of the nauseating aspects of the extraordinary fortnight that began with Fawcett’s death. When I first saw it, I thought the face was Farrah’s, disease-wracked to the point of death—thus, a kind of death mask. Then I realized the mask was MJ’s face, still deathlike. Just as his death supplanted Farrah’s—coming only a day after she died, Jackson’s death shoved hers off the front pages of popular culture—so does his morbid likeness take over her body in the drawing. The silly pointlessness of his accidental demise thus consigns the heroic struggle of her last days to limbo. The satire cuts many ways. Combining the plastic mask of Michael’s visage with Fawcett’s famed poster image, the picture alludes to MJ’s dubious sexuality and makes Farrah’s celebrated toothy grin into death’s rictus, a frozen lifeless grimace rather than a bonding expression of human warmth. Moreover, Farrah’s MJ death mask on the classic nippled pin-up body mocks our preoccupation with so transient a thing as young female beauty. But Bevenour is also commenting upon our celebrity-obsessed culture. Michael’s face superimposed upon Farrah’s celebrated picture enacts the very evolution of the week’s events: the media’s excessive treatment of the singer’s death overshadowed the actress’s death, overwhelming one tragedy with another until Farrah’s death—and McMahon’s and Storm’s—receded into a dim and forgotten past, a merely momentary blip on the screen of our cable-tv culture. Bevenour’s picture is thus the ultimate emblem of our infantile irresponsibility and grotesque preoccupation with things that do not matter much.
Imagery prevails all over Red 1. At the upper right, Pat Oliphant indulges his penchant for hilarious exaggeration to make his point about the futility of O’Bama’s Afghan surge. Both the other cartoons are by John Sherffius, who has lately perfected the use of emblems borrowed from other corners of our culture to make his points. The cartoon on the lower left, which makes the word “talk” endlessly repeated into the very pollution it is supposed to remedy, is not as typical of his recent work as is his deployment of the title logo from tv’s “Mad Men.” Sherffius gives the logo the elephant head of the Grotty Old Pachyderm thereby imparting to the GOP the soullessness of the 1950s advertising industry, its overweening interest in selling the product regardless of the product’s quality, and, at the same time, branding Fox News as the advertising agency for the Republicans. Note also the slogan “where the truth lies,” a deft and revealing play on the last word. Fair and balanced, you betcha.
In Red 2, Nick Anderson’s celebration of Barack Obama’s assumption of the U.S. presidency is a marvelous shout-out, combining a single word with a picture to evoke our national (albeit left-leaning) pride. Tom Toles’ images likewise derive their power from a blend of the verbal and the visual. And Pat Bagley uses a cliched device, the “ship of state” (in this case, of “health care reform”), but gives it new significance by depicting a gang of Grumpy Old Pachyderms endeavoring to sink the vessel.
Visual metaphors dominate Red 3, too. Clay Bennett’s target-painter is the only cartoon in Time.com’s top ten of the year to achieve any power as political commentary; all the rest of Time’s selection were simply humorous, and the humor was not very sharply pointed. It’s as if the editors at Time have isolated the word “cartoon,” divorcing it from the genre’s controlling adjective—“political” or “editorial”—and because “cartoon” always denominates something funny, their misguided choices of the year’s best must perforce be funny cartoons without any particular potency as commentary. Too many editors make this mistake. Comedy has a role in an editorial cartoon, otherwise it wouldn’t be a cartoon. And we can see that role functioning superbly in Steve Breen’s picture of Harry Reid trying to stuff Santa’s bag down a chimney too narrow to accommodate the bulk: the comical makes the comment. Many cartoons this year commented on the hypocritical posturing of too many of the GOP’s leaders who espoused family values while cheating on their wives, but Signe Wilkinson’s nearly wordless “Big Tent” does the disapproving with stark simplicity.
You’ve seen many of the year’s best editorial cartoons before now: I regularly post my periodic selections here from time to time. In Red 4, Brian Duffy’s comment on the so-called “triumph” of the GOP in two state elections is an encore. The others are first-time postings. Jim Margulies’ obit for Robert McNamara is hauntingly weighty, I think. In Red 5, Chris Britt captures the idiotic frenzy that has infected the GOP as it opposes everything Obama proposes, and John Darkow does the same in his depiction of the health care reform debate last summer; Mark Streeter goes a step in another direction on the same subject, deploying a classic Norman Rockwell image. Oliphant returns with a tricky image that captures “no drama” Obama’s aplomb as his health care reform collapses behind him even as he marches ever onward, nonchalantly proclaiming its success.
The images in these cartoons (and those that follow) are particularly telling—which accounts for my picking them—so I’m sure I don’t need to explain them, picture by picture. They tell their stories without me. Henceforth, I’ll comment only on those that provoke me in some unusual way. Like Darkow’s elephant in Red 6. The pachyderm’s ass has served as the butt of many visual jokes over the last year (once it even appeared to be Rush Limbaugh’s face), but here, despite the hilarity of the visual metaphor (which is why I’ve included it in this crop), I’m not sure exactly how to take the thing as a , er, whole. The words in the speech balloon acquire a potent double entendre thanks to the positioning of the airplane, but why deploy an elephant’s asshole in the first place? Unless, as I suspect is the case, Darkow sees the GOP as the cause of the recession; that’s why he labels the elephant accordingly, and that gives the cartoon over-all its message.
In Red 7, we can see how two-panel cartoons manipulate images to make their points in Anderson’s portrait of the Iranian prez and in Taylor Jones’ comparison of two kinds of national leaders. Mike Keefe’s take on the Roman Polanski predicament is both apt and potent, suggesting that we’re on the brink of permitting celebrity (or, in Polanski’s case, artistic achievement) to override justice. Mike Lester’s comment on airport security in the wake of the Underpants Bomber is not quite as hysterically hilarious as other cartoons on the subject, many of which, like Mike Luckovich’s (not shown here), follow the so-called logic of the Homeland Security thinkers. Luckovich depicted three citizens going through airport security, one of whom says: “I miss the old days when we only had to remove our shoes”—as he and the other two watch their underpants go by them on the conveyor belt. With our unflagging but colossally misbegotten practice of slamming barn doors after the livestock have departed the premises, we’re undoubtedly on the verge of a new security policy that, based upon the success we’ve had in thwarting all Shoe Bombers by removing our shoes, will require us to remove our undergarments before boarding airplanes. Keefe offered another solution a few days later, showing passengers in their seats encased in body casts. I suppose this kind of absurdity will prevail as long as we let political panic (i.e., politicians’ desire to please a constituency enough to insure re-election) dictate our practices. Still, I’m thankful that the latest failed attempt involved underpants: the circumstance is comic enough on its face to fuel hours of late-night tv jokes, and perhaps the unrelenting din of derisive laughter will, at last, show our leaders the comical error of their ways.
In Red 8, I admire the rhetorical ingenuity of Bagley’s strategic placement of the speech balloon, a maneuver that emphasizes the visual message by attempting to obliterate it. That’s a condom that the Pope is pointing to—just in case it’s too small here to discern with the naked eye. In his comment on the temporary retirement of golf’s biggest money-maker, Oliphant resorts again to one of his most successful highly comedic devices, a panicky mob scene. In Red 9, Wilkinson pursues the inevitable outcome of increasing security at airports—the Depends addition is deftly achieved; and Chan Lowe does the obvious on the gays in the military issue—but if it’s so obvious, why hasn’t anyone else (that I’ve seen) done it so effectively? Comparison can reveal hypocrisy as Gary Varvel demonstrates with two piggies, one large, one small. Matt Wuerker achieves the same revelatory effect with his two-panel comparison.
And that brings us to multi-panel editoonery in Red 10. In these, generally speaking, visual metaphor doesn’t function as a punchline commentary. Single image isn’t the rhetorical device; piling on is. The rhetoric often takes some political utterance or posture to its logical extremity thereby revealing its inherent absurdity—as Matt Bors and Ted Rall do here. Both employ sarcasm in one degree or another, but Tom Tomorrow (aka Dan Perkins) wields sarcasm like a machete, as does Tim Eagan. I’m not a big fan of multi-panel political cartooning: sarcasm gets tiresome after a while, and it is much too dependent upon irony, which can be too readily misinterpreted. Does Tom Tomorrow really believe that irrigating the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots and tyrants makes one a “great American”?
On the regular funnies page in the newspaper, Garry Trudeau sometimes gets himself into the same box. Rarely but sometimes. Most commentators thought Baracko Bama’s Nobel acceptance speech a rhetorical wonder. And so, in fact, did I. But Mark Slackmeyer, the talk show host in Doonesbury, was having none of it. When on December 22 a caller asked him to comment, Mark didn’t hesitate: “It’s the Nobel PEACE Prize, right? So what does Obama do? He goes to Oslo and makes a full-throated case for war! It was an unmitigated embarrassment!”
Perhaps Trudeau agrees. If he didn’t—if he regards Slackmeyer’s statement as wrongheaded—he’d have done what he usually does in such a situation: he’d sprinkle into the last panel that day an allusion to Slackmeyer’s having escaped from a lunatic asylum, for example. But the December 22 strip includes no such pomposity-piercing puncture. And so we must conclude that Slackmeyer speaks for Trudeau. Still, it’s a ambiguous situation. It’s far more difficult to misinterpret Oliphant’s maw of Afghanistan into which he’s drawn an army marching in Red 7.
Ditto Lalo Alcaraz in La Cucaracha (The Cockroach), a strip that does for the Hispanic community what The Boondocks used to do for the African American community. Alcaraz is sometimes overtly political—attacking the bigotries of white America or, being an equal opportunity offender, the similarly misguided notions of Hispanic America—and sometimes less so, dwelling, for the moment, on the daily doings of his characters. But it’s difficult to misinterpret whatever he’s saying. The first week in December, f’instance, as we seen in Red 11, he went after Lou Dobbs, letting his protagonist in the strip, Cuco Rocha, use his blog (Bug Blog) to help Dobbs find employment after leaving CNN. Pretty unequivocal dislike for Dobbs, who made plenty of enemies with his anti-immigrant screeds (probably the reason CNN accepted, if it didn’t force, Dobbs’ retirement), particularly among Hispanics, Alcaraz’s population.
Political commentary in the funnies, which, until Pogo and then Doonesbury, was so rare as to be nonexistent, is, these days, more in evidence. Robust almost. Even in Nichole Hollander’s Sylvia, as we see here below the Lou Dobbs assault in Red 11. And below that, with Ruben Bolling’s Tom the Dancing Bug we’re back among the alties with political commentary in comic strip form—here, however, image functions as punchline, something not often achieved in political strips. Finally, as a tribute to Canada’s Roy Peterson, we repeat his last cartoon, which his newspaper, the Vancouver Sun, spiked even after asking him for a farewell visual to accompany the paper’s announcement of his pre-mature retirement (i.e., they laid him off for budgetary reasons; Ops 243, 244 and 245 for the complete story of this obscenity); below that is Peterson’s comment on the fate last winter of two U.S. newspaper stalwarts, the demises of which we covered here (Ops. 239 and 240).
By way of footnoting Peterson’s comment, we should celebrate the Good News, which had surfaced by the end of 2009: attrition in the ranks of U.S. political cartoonists appears to be on the wane. Beginning in May 2008 with Cullum Rogers’ list of 101 full-time staff editoonists, the number declined precipitously for months. Within a year, the number had dropped a debilitating 20% to 80. But there it seems to remain. The most recent firing for financial reasons was in August with Matt Davies at the Journal News in White Plains, New York; but that was shortly reversed. Protest against Davies’ departure was vociferous enough to bring on his reinstatement. And no other departures—except Dwane Powell’s more-or-less voluntary retirement at the News and Observer in Raleigh—have been recorded since.
Finally, I can’t run through the Best of the Year without mentioning the animated political cartooning Ann Telnaes is doing for the Washington Post online. She continues to be the best of the animating breed. Her cartoons do not simply move: their motions provide the punchlines that give the commentary its memorable impact. Her take on Darth Cheney’s perpetual kibitzing (January 1, 2010) is a beaut. Go to AnnTelnaes.com, then click on animation.
Incidently, the famed Herblock award competition this year will include, for the first time, animated editorial cartoons.
That’s my three-dozen-plus representing the “best editoons of 2009.” That’s scarcely all the best. Many more dozens lurk just over the ethereal horizon, and even if most of them have evaded my roving eye, we wouldn’t have had room to post all of them here had I seen them. So my picks are merely “representing” the rest of the best. But you can find many of those I’ve left out between the cover’s of this year’s two compendia, The Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year: 2010 Edition compiled by Charles Brooks (tilting a little conservative) for Pelican Publishing Company and The Best Political Cartoons of the Year: 2010 Edition selected by Daryl Cagle (liberal) and Brian Fairrington (conservative), Que Publishing for Cagle Cartoons. Both books are excellent in their own quirked ways. The Cagle/Fairrington volume has more cartoons, but they are printed smaller than Brooks prints his selection. Brooks usually displays just two or three cartoons on a page, and his page size is larger; Cagle/Fairrington, indulging perhaps an obsession to be encyclopedic, seldom display fewer than three cartoons on a page and often as many as five. Cagle/Fairrington follow the news as determined by the tabloid coverage of the year’s events so there are too many cartoons about Michael Jackson’s death, Rod Blagojevich’s disgrace, bankrupt GM (but nothing about Chrysler), Arlen Specter switching political parties, Al Franken’s arrival in the Senate (joining the rest of the comedians), Mark Sanford’s affair and so on; and not enough on Important Events like terror in India and violence in Mexico. Brooks focuses more consistently on significant political and social events, but he also includes many cartoonists not yet ready for prime time so the commentary on important events is weak, sometimes to the point of lame. I’ve said all this before in my annual reviews of these annual tomes. I buy them both, and I refer to both, although I confess that I enjoy Cagle/Fairrington more because there’s more in their book, and all of the cartoonists therein are long-surviving professionals, no amateur wannabees among them.
But I don’t want to leave this department without taking one last lingering look at Steve Brodner’s spectacularly rude pictorial exposition of the medical profession’s traditional position in the everlasting debate on a national health care plan—too wonderful to pass by without savoring once again. And at the bottom, a blunt instrument of an editoon by the Boston Globe’s Dan Wasserman that summarizes pictorially the predicament of newspaper journalism and the political cartoonist. A little amplification: the New York Times Company, which owns the Globe—a paper as financially exhausted as the Times itself—announced a plan to reduce expenses by cutting salaries 23%. Wasserman’s response we see here, a cartoon from which 23% has been cut, simultaneously cutting—and providing—its punchline.
And that brings us, willy nilly, to—
******THE REST OF THE BEST******
The Best Book of the Year was Kirk Anderson’s Banana Republic, which we reviewed at length in Opus 238 (go there, again, to see snippets of its glories). Observing Anderson’s bold and tapering line—a line supple as liquid sheen, not to mention the crispness of his stylistic mannerisms, the inherent drama of their composition and the superlative comedic timing of the breakdowns—his wit, his graphic genius, his satirical savagery, I laughed the silvery laughter of pure, unadulterated pleasure at beholding the symphonic beauty of his work, its visual distinction yoked to an intellectual assault on the issues of the day, a ramble engaging both eye and mind—cartooning at its most sublime.
A satire, a newspaper comic strip reprint, Banana Republic also qualifies as a graphic novel as surely as anything Marvel or DC produced serially before compiling the pages into a single volume: Anderson did the work first as a quarter-page newspaper comic strip for the Minneapolis Star Tribune from October 13, 2005 to November 17, 2007. For over two years, in nearly 100 comic strips, Anderson unflinchingly lambasted the Bush League and its demonstrably unAmerican policies. For that purpose, Anderson invented a “zany Third World dictatorship, Amnesia ... [where] the government engages in roughhousing practices we would consider unconstitutional in our own country—such as torture, warrantless surveillance, and imprisonment without charge! From the Amnesians’ overflowing prisons to their state propaganda, from their crippling foreign debt to their questionable elections, from their privately contracted paramilitaries to their millions without basic health care, you’ll be chuckling, ‘Thank God we don’t live in a banana republic!’” To give his fictional country a cohesive satiric focus, Anderson invented the dictator, Generalissimo Wally, who “may often represent the U.S. president, but on any given week, he may just as likely represent power more generally, or a corporate CEO, or the U.S. government, or Minnesota’s governor. Regardless of whether we think American torture is right or wrong, when it’s Genralissimo Wally melon-balling some poor bastard’s eyes, we know it’s appalling, unAmerican, and proof of his illegitimacy.”
Purely visual comedy often sharpens the satire by reason of its contrast to the grimness being depicted. Dangling by his arms and pestered with the idiotic preoccupations of his torturer, the political prisoner Diego Meza “lightens the mood for his fellow detainees” by trying to swing his eyeball back into its socket—an outright imitation of a child’s game, which might even be called “ball in the socket.” In another scene in the torture chamber, Anderson resorts to a simple albeit graphically effective visual pun—showing a victim vomiting blood, about which Wally says, “He even speaks in bloodbaths.”
The last strips in which Rita Meza finally secures the release of her tortured husband deploy breathtakingly inspired visuals. After years of relentless torture, the hapless Diego has been reduced to a liquid, as if his skeletal structure has been completely crushed, mulched. This symbol Anderson exploits for two pages as Rita tries to arouse public indignation—Diego drips from her arms as she carries his limp remains around—all to no avail. Unable to talk, Diego answers his wife’s question about what “they” have done to him with speech balloons the show images of melon-balling, brain removal, and simple beatings. Ugly stuff. But in Anderson’s hands, the ugliness is given an image so grim, so metaphorically accurate, that ugliness is transcended and becomes excruciatingly satirical. Diego, like any Tex Avery character, regains his human shape eventually, but inside, where his mind used to be, is nothing but vagaries. Last seen, he was wearing a tuxedo with a bomb belt as a cummerbund.
Anderson’s book—his comic strip—makes for vastly entertaining reading. Unabashedly irreverent on every note it strikes, it withholds nothing. There are no sacred cows; no wickedness committed in the name of making the world a better place is ignored, no justification accepted. The book is relentless as well as unflinching. It is also a supreme example of how the arts of cartooning can be assembled for telling satire, satire that is humorous as well as insightful, hilarious as well as inciteful.
NEXT BEST GRAPHIC NOVELS. In second place, but by no means inferior in any way, I’d put Logicomix (see Op. 253 for a review), Rick Geary’s The Adventures of Blanche (Op. 245), Dwayne Cooke’s The Hunter (Op. 248), and Mat Johnson’s Incognegro (see Op. 241). It’s a joy to see Geary doing something a little less serious (not to say grim) than his true-life Victorian murder stories, and Blanche supplies fantasy and funny in equal doses—all in Geary’s cunningly devised drawing style. Cooke’s adaptation of Richard Stark’s Parker novel is superlative example of how to cartoon a graphic novel: Cooke deploys all the resources of his art with panache and style. And in Incognegro, Johnson gives the story a marvelously twisting plot. Excellent as all of these are, Logicomix surpasses them by tackling a subject—intellectual adventuring—not well-suited to graphic novel treatment and doing it suspensefully and entertainingly as well as informatively by expertly exploiting the various visualizing capabilities of the medium. David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp made it to the sixth spot in Entertainment Weekly’s top ten fictions of the year; I haven’t read it yet, but I’m eager to see how Mazzucchelli manipulates the story with his latest drawing style. And until then, it’s worth noting that a graphic novel qualified in the year’s top ten fictions even in so undiscerning a pop cult medium as Entertainment Weekly.
BEST REPRINTS. Four-way tie here, each qualifying for a different reason: the complete Sam’s Strip (reviewed in Op. 241) because its spoof of comic strip cartooning is a joy to behold and because it has been so long awaited; Art Spiegelman’s Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics (Op. 249) because the reproduction is so deliciously achieved, scanning the printed pages of the original issue comic books and bringing back to life such four-color wonders as Walt Kelly’s fairy tales, Carl Barks’ ducks, John Stanley’s Little Lulu—but also some of the lesser touted, Milt Stein’s Supermouse, Sheldon Mayer’s J. Rufus Lion, Jim Davis’ Fox and Crow, George Carlson’s Pieface Prince and Dan Noonan’s animal stories; Pete Maresca’s The Upside-Down World of Gustave Verbeek (Op. 252) because, as usual with Maresca’s projects, the reproduction is a perfect reincarnation of the original appearance of the artifact; and Harvey Kurtzman’s post-Mad masterwork, Humbug (Op. 240), in two volumes, slipcased, because, like Sam’s Strip, we’ve waited so long for a reappearance and because of the exquisite care Fantagraphics took in making the copies of the magazine’s pages as exact as possible.
BEST IN THE FUNNIES. In the newspapers, Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury continues its long run as both a funny and sharply satirical comic strip; and this year, its expose of “the Family” (Op. 247) qualifies it as investigative journalism, too. But Brooke McEldowney’s 9 Chickweed Lane is the best comic strip (again this year) for its mastery of the medium and for its gentle humor and profound humanity—and for its daring: Edda’s losing her virginity “on camera” in October 2008; God getting an actual first name (Monty). Greg Evans’ Luann is also a rewarding pleasure to read, particularly when he dwells on the romance developing between Luann’s nerdy brother, Brad, and the beauteous Toni (who initiated Brad into the joys of carnal knowledge last fall, in one of the subtlest maneuvers in the comics). These are the must-see strips in my newspaper. But others I don’t feel right missing: Jef Mallett’s Frazz (for its occasional wisdom), Darrin Bell’s Candorville (for sharp satire), Keith Knight’s The Knight Life (with its uniquely autobiographical slant), Zits by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman (the artistry of comic strip cartooning), Jimmy Johnson’s Arlo and Janis, Betty (a rare and wonderful evocation of a vintage graphic style treating of contemporary matters, written by Gary Delainey and drawn by Gerry Rasmussen), Hilary Price’s Rhymes with Orange (I might miss something very clever if I don’t read it every day), and Brian Crane’s Pickles (ditto).
On the Web, there are too many thousands of comic strips and cartoons to contemplate in this round-up, particularly since so many of them are astonishingly inferior. But one is head-and-shoulders above the rest: superbly drawn, acutely comedic and often satisfyingly satirical—Tatsuya Ishida’s Sinfest. I never tire of reading it and beholding its beauties.
BEST NEWS IN EDITOONERY. Michael Ramirez, who is one of the nation’s few conservative voices in political cartooning, is no doubt enjoying himself enlarging Obama’s ears by way of getting even with his brethren for what they did to GeeDubya’s ears, but before Obama arrived with his ears, Ramirez finally got a collection of his editoons published (albeit in late 2008, not 2009): Everyone Has the Right to My Opinion. Ramirez shows how conservative political cartooning can be insightful and hard-hitting without being simply mean tempered and nasty and therefore pointless (as Bruce Tinsley is consistently in Mallard Fillmore and Glenn McCoy is whenever he wanders too far afield from gag cartooning or his comic strip, The Duplex, or The Flying McCoys strip he does with his brother, Gary). On the other side of the political spectrum, Pat Bagley, whose work I’ve extolled here with fanatic frequency, continues to be highly visible in the nation’s newspapers thanks to being syndicated (which he avoided for years) by Cagle Cartoons; ditto another bright and acerbic light, David Fitzsimmons, who draws in a similar manner and with just as prickly a point of view (re-visit Op. 239 to see again his uproarious assessment of Rush Limbaugh as “the face of the Republican Party”). Other relative newcomers getting greater visibility with unflinching editoons are Jeff Parker and Nate Beeler—again, due to Cagle syndication. We’ll see more of Beeler in our next opus when we take up the issue of caricaturing Baracko Bama.
BEST BOOKS ABOUT COMICS AND/OR CARTOONERS. Craig Yoe’s book of cartooning kink, Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster, is on numerous “best of” lists, and it deserves the accolades: it is without much competition the best book reporting (and revealing) original research in American comics. Helen McCarthy’s The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga, a lavish production from Abrams ComicArts, which we’ll review next time in depth, is the best researched and produced tome the manga master has yet received. The Art of Harvey Kurtzman by Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle is another volume at the top of the list with many instances of rare and previously unpublished art; we’ll review it here soon. Ditto Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon, wherein page after page assert Williamson’s stunning artistry, surpassing even his inspiration, Alex Raymond. Greg Sadowski’s Supermen, sampling four-color stories of the longjohn legions before the advent of Superman, is a long-needed historical corrective.
And another book reprinting pages from comic books, Craig Yoe’s The Art of Ditko, is, for me, a stunning revelation. I got back into comic books too late to see Steve Ditko on Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, and while I’ve witnessed a nearly endless parade of exuberant praise for Ditko, until I saw this book, I thought all that gushing was excessive. Scanning directly from the previously published comic book pages, Yoe collects herein a couple dozen stories Ditko did at Charlton before teaming up with Stan Lee, and with that evidence at hand, I now understand why Ditko is held in such reverence: he clearly reveled in the medium, exploring its visual storytelling capacities with dedication and imagination. And now I’m eager to get to the Fantagraphics volume, Blake Bell’s The World of Steve Ditko (published in 2008), where text and well as illustration will doubtless fill out the portrait (although, judging from a quick thumb-through, Bell does not seem to delve much, if at all, into Ditko’s work with fetish cartoonist Eric Stanton).
Another book published this year that I haven’t yet plunged into is A Drifting Life, the autobiographic graphic memoir of Japan’s Yoshihiro Tatsumi, whose storytelling I have admired in three collections of his short fictions.
The Discovery of the Year, for me, is Eureka Productions’ series of Graphic Classics, interpretations by cartoonists of vintage short stories by Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, and others of this caliber; reviewed in Op. 253. Get one, you’ll like it.
BEST IN COMIC BOOKS. Too many to choose from; too many to research, too. And too many new titles never get beyond the first issues. Herewith, however daunted, my picks from a finicky reading regimen. You doubtless expect me to mention Amanda Conner’s Power Girl, and so I will. And just did. But another visually pleasing series ended early in 2009, Patsy Walker: Hellcat, as drawn by David Lafuente—if not exactly a feast for the eye, at least a sumptuous repast and an enduring pleasure to revisit (Op. 240). But Michael Uslan’s six-parter rehearsing Archie’s bigamy with Veronica and then Betty was the comic book story of the year. No contest. The sloppy artwork, however, flaws the performance.
OTHER BIG NEWS OF THE YEAR. The Comics Journal, long my haven in the print medium, went digital after issue No. 300; it’ll lapse into print only twice-a-year, they say, and I’ll be there, both on the page and in the ether. The most insidious news of the year was Christopher Handley’s plea bargain in the child pornography case against him. He has yet to be sentenced, but as we fumed and fulminated in Op. 243, the aura around this case and its implications stinks.
BROTHERS PASSIN’ THROUGH. We mourned the deaths of several friends, colleagues and idols last year: Jim Lange, long-time editoonist and a founding member of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists; Frank Springer, consummate cartoonist in strips as well as comic books and, even, graphic novels; editooner Draper Hill, whose erudition raised the intellectual and emotional level of editorial cartooning; Bill Hume, a forgotten master (whose story will appear in a future print issue of The Comics Journal, probably No. 301 but can’t say for sure, before it re-appears in these premises); Irvin Tripp, Lulu artist extraordinaire; Shel Dorf and Ken Krueger, the founder of the San Diego Comic-Con and his grown-up cohort; and John Updike, a cartoonist who turned novelist but who never forsook his first love.
And that’s the year that was, all wrapped up, now, in a tidy package albeit without a bow. Oh—except for this:
THE BEST INSTANCE OF RAMPANT BAD TASTE AND GROTESQUE GAUCHERIE: Four of Michael Jackson’s surviving five brothers have capitalized their famous sibling’s demise into a reality tv show for A&E, “The Jacksons: A Family Dynasty,” in six parts. Come now: this would never have come about had their brother not spectacularly died, right?
THE DERELICTION OF AMERICAN NEWS MEDIA
Project Censored is a more-or-less academic exercise managed more-or-less through the Department of Sociology in the School of Social Sciences at Sonoma State University in cooperation with Media Freedom Foundation Inc., a 501-C3 nonprofit fund-raising organization. “We are an investigative research and media analysis project dedicated to journalistic integrity and the freedom of information throughout the United States,” it sez here. For over 30 years, it has studied major American news media to see what has been left out of its reportage. I’ve been aware of its annual reports for about ten years; they all go under the title of Censored, affixing the year to the title. “Censored” strikes me as being a little strong. The contention is that “corporate news media” do not report news that would have an adverse effect on its corporate welfare. That is probably true in some instances; just as true, however, is the likelihood that news media, driven by demands to increase circulation and viewership, tends to abandon stories that are hard to report and/or that don’t appeal to a consumer with an increasingly short attention span. It’s far easier to keep up with Paris Hilton’s latest fashion statements than it is to examine the extent of U.S. corporate involvement in arming war crimes in Gaza. I prefer to call the neglected news in the latter category “under-reported” rather than censored.
This year’s report, Censored 2010, lists and describes the “top 25 censored stories of 2008-2009.” The descriptions often take several pages in the book, but I’m simply listing here the topics with short annotations, and I’m not going beyond the first 20 of the top 25. Here are the top ten, by ranking:
1. U.S. Congress Sells Out to Wall Street. Wall Street firms have contributed millions of dollars to the campaign coffers of the very congressmen who voted to bail them out.
2. U.S. Schools Are More Segregated Today than in the 1950s. In Latino and African American populations, the most numerous of racial minority groups, two of every five students attend intensely segregated schools. (Time magazine flagged this as a grossly under-reported story.)
3. Poaching and Toxic Waste Inspires Somali Pirates. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fleets of ships poach millions of dollars of seafood from Somali waters every year, stealing a valuable protein source from some of the world’s poorest people and sabotaging the livelihoods of countless legitimate fisherman. Toxic waste has also been dumped in Somali seas since the early 1990s. Somali fisherman, driven out of their fishing boats, are driven to piracy in order to make a living.
4. Nuclear Waste Pools in North Carolina. The Shearon Harris nuclear plant in the backwoods of North Carolina is not just a power-generating station but also a repository for highly radioactive spent fuel rods from two other nuclear plants. The Department of Homeland Security has marked the facility as one of the most vulnerable terrorist targets in the nation.
5. Europe Blocks U.S. Toxic Products. Stringent new regulations in Europe require companies seeking access to their markets to eliminate toxic substances in their products. Hundreds of companies in the U.S. produce or import chemicals designated as dangerous by the European Union.
6. Business Booms for Lobbyists. According to a study by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), special interests paid Washington lobbyists $3.2 billion in 2008, more than any other year on record, a 13.7% increase over the previous year, which was a record-breaker.
7. Obama’s Military Appointments Have Corrupt Past. Obama’s appointees to the Department of Defense and National Intelligence embody many of the worst elements of U.S. national security policy over the past three decades, including responsibility for what Obama himself has fingered as chief concerns: “politicized intelligence” and “lack of transparency.” The valued “decades of experience” these leaders bring with them are filled with ethical breeches, lies to Congress, and deep conflicts of interest and revolving doors within the U.S. military-industrial complex.
8. Bailed-Out Banks and America’s Wealthiest Cheat IRS Out of Billions. In 2008, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that 83 of the top publicly held U.S. companies have operations in tax havens like the Cayman Islands; 14 of those companies received government bail-out money.
9. U.S. Arms Used in War Crimes in Gaza. Israel’s repeated firing of U.S.-made white phosphorous shells over densely populated areas of Gaza last January was indiscriminate and is evidence of war crimes according to the Human Rights Watch in a report released March 25, 2009.
10. Ecuador Declares Foreign Debt Illegitimate. In November 2008, Ecuador became the first country to examine the legitimacy and structure of its foreign debt, declaring that some of it violated domestic and international law, setting a major precedent for using legitimacy as a legal argument for defaulting on loans. Considering the extent to which American—er, multinational—corporations are snared in the net of financing governments in small countries, the Ecuador precedent could have shattering ramifications.
That’s the top ten. There are fifteen more in the report, including such headlines as: Private Corporations Profit from the Occupation of Palestine, Mysterious Death of Mike Connell—Karl Rove’s Election Thief, Katrina’s Hidden Race War, Congress Invested in Defense Contracts (more than 151 members of Congress have up to $195 Million invested in major defense contractors that are earning profits from U.S. Military occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan), World Bank’s Caron Trade Fiasco (a cap-and-trade deal that has the effect of fostering the exploitation of resources in the developing world while also removing incentives for industry to improve efficiency or to invest in renewable energy), U.S. Repression of Haiti Continues (to make room for a U.N. military base, a U.S. government contractor will demolish the homes of hundreds of poor Haitians), Recession Causes States to Cut Welfare, Obama Appointed Eleven Members of the Trilateral Commission to Top-Level and Key Positions (a dubious or at least debatable outcome given the Trilateral Commission’s agenda, which supersedes national interests), Water Rights Activists Blasted the World Water Forum (a corporate trade show promoting privatization of water supplies), Fast Track Oil Exploitation in Western Amazon—at lest 35 multinational oil and gas companies operate over 180 oil and gas “blocks,” areas zoned for exploration and development, which now cover the Amazon in Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and western Brazil.
You get the idea. Much important news is not being reported—for whatever reasons. As Neil Postman said years ago (and it’s still true): “We are the best entertained, least informed society in the world.” And the 24/7 cable news cycle has only increased our appetite for gossip and trivia. For more about Project Censored, try firstname.lastname@example.org .
Meanwhile, to return to the reason for our interest in news—its unmatched capacity for arousing the ire of editorial cartoonists—here are a few cartoons culled from the couple dozen that illustrate this year’s Censored, all by Khalil Bendib, an Arab American cartoonist with a gift for exposing the hypocrisies in our ethnocentric society and government. For more about Bendib, visit Opus 228. Now, here are a few of the cartoons with which he ornaments the profession.
For even more unflinching editorial cartooning, take a look at Fantagraphics’ The Great Anti-War Cartoons (192 9x12-inch pages, b/w paperback with a color section; $24.99) collected by Craig Yoe, who takes a sickening subject, man’s inhumanity to man and the warfare that proves it, and gives us enough views of it by the political cartoonists of the world to cure us forevermore. Alas, it won’t, but none of the cartoonists herein can be faulted for not trying.
NOUS R US
Some of All the News That Gives Us Fits
Lady Gaga, the “poker face singer,” is the latest famous female to get comic book treatment at Bluewater Productions, which is producing the Female Force biographical series, focusing on powerful women like Michelle Obama, Princess Diana, and Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling. The Gaga hairdo and wardrobe will be the first in a new series, dubbed “Fame,” hitting the stands in May. Says Bluewater prez Darren G. Davis, “Fame gives us the ability to tell more interesting stories about a wider variety of notable personalities”—like Robert Pattinson, Taylor Swift, David Beckham and 50 Cent, notes Amy Eisinger at the New York Daily News, quoting E! Online.
A cartoon by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Rob Rogers was featured in “Meet the Press” on Sunday, January 3, but, alas, no one mentioned Rogers by name—or his newspaper. Or his new book, No Cartoon Left Behind, a retrospective collection of the editoonist’s favorite cartoons in his 25 years at the drawing board. ... “Pinocchio: Platinum Edition” is out, celebrating the film’s 70th anniversary with two discs that include documentaries about the animators, commentary, games for kiddies, and, saith Entertainment Weekly, “a restoration that is pure eye candy.” ... In a classic legal turn-about, Marvel is suing Jack Kirby’s heirs, asking a judge to invalidate 45 notices the heirs sent to try to terminate Marvel’s copyrights on characters Kirby created between 1958 and 1963. Kirby’s relatives, said the Associated Press, “notified several companies last year that the rights to the characters would revert from Marvel to Kirby’s estate.” Marvel contends that Kirby’s work was done “for hire,” rendering the heirs’ claims invalid. ... Jacob Zuma, prez of South Africa and oft the target of editoonist Zapiro, announced ambitious plans for treating HIV-positive babies and pregnant women, a stunning turn-around for the man who once claimed a shower could prevent AIDS (for which statement, Zapiro usually portrayed Zuma with a shower faucet protruding from his head). A few days later, Zuma married for the fifth time, a woman who will be number three among his current spouses. Said the Los Angeles Times: “With another fiancee in the wings and rumors about a possible future engagement, the country may have five or more first ladies before Zuma’s presidency is over.”
Comics and cartoonists will show up in the Postal Service’s 2010 crop of commemorative stamps. Bill Mauldin, whom Pat Oliphant always refers to as “the great Bill Mauldin,” is in the line-up as is a set of stamps featuring Archie, Beetle Bailey, Dennis the Menace, Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes. February begins the Year of the Tiger, and a stamp in the lunar year series will be issued on January 14; the stamp will not apparently feature any of Tiger’s many mistresses mooning us. Others of the 2010 commemoratives reported by the Associated Press include Mother Teresa, Katharine Hepburn, Winslow Homer, a four-stamp set of celluloid cowboys (Gene Autry, William S. Hart, Roy Rogers, and the pace-setting Tom Mix, about whom you can read more in Harv’s Hindsight for October 2006, where we also log the deceptions of another fraudulent cowpoke, Will James), and stamps honoring Negro Leagues baseball, which operated from 1920 to about 1960, attracting some of the most remarkable athletes ever to play the sport. Another stamp will commemorate celebrated singer Kate Smith, whose signature song, "God Bless America," was composed for her by Irving Berlin, who said, after composing it, that he now had songs for two of the country’s big holidays—Fourth of July (“God Bless America”) and Easter (“Easter Parade”) and if he could only nail Christmas, his annual income would be assured forever. Then he wrote “White Christmas.” Scouting will be featured on a stamp to be released in July at the Boy Scout Jamboree at Fort A.P. Hill, Va. And the 2010 holiday stamps will feature the foliage of four different evergreens: ponderosa pine, eastern red cedar, blue spruce and balsam fir. I hope they print a lot of these: this year’s Winter Holidays series was apparently in short supply because the local Post Office had run out by the time I got around to buying my supply. The traditional Christmas stamp will feature a lute-playing angel from a fresco painted by 15th century artist Melozzo da Forli.
Now you can hear the voices of celebrated comics creators and others who attended the San Diego Comic-Con in 1975. Alan Light, who made his fortune publishing the early incarnation of the Comics Buyer’s Guide (called, then, just The Buyer’s Guide), produced an LP record of interviews he conducted with various personages among the attending throngs that year, and he has now made that recording available on the Comic-Convention Memories web site as streamable audio. Among those he interviewed are Ray Bradbury, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby with Jim Steranko, Jerry Siegel and his wife Joanne, Will Eisner with Stan Lee, and Robert Bloch, speaking on H.P. Lovecraft. Visit http://www.comicconmemories.com/2009/12/22/alan-lights-1975-san-diego-comic-con-lp-record-listen-to-it-here/ to play the clip. The original record album was Comic-Con founder Shel Dorf’s copy, coming to us through Shel’s brother, Michael Dorf, and Shel’s good friend Charlie Roberts.
New Sacco Book on the Middle East. Oddly—perversely perhaps—the New York Times picked Patrick Cockburn to review Joe Sacco’s latest book about Palestine and Israel, Footnotes in Gaza, which, like most of Sacco’s books of comics “reportage,” presents the Palestinian side so sympathetically that Sacco has been called anti-Israel. “If the two writers have one thing in common,” writes Gilead Ini at camera.org, “it is their outspoken antagonism toward Israel.” Sacco acknowledges his bias: “I'm not anti-Israeli,” he said, “—it’s just I very much believe in getting across the Palestinian point of view.” Not a bad posture for a reportorial cartoonist to assume, and Sacco makes his point even clearer in a scene in one of his previous books, Palestine, wherein an Israeli woman asks the Sacco character, “Shouldn’t you be seeing our side of the story?" Sacco's cartoon self replies: "I've heard nothing but the Israeli side most of my life.” And so have we all.
Cockburn, on the other hand, isn’t so forthcoming, and, Ini says, in his review he “deceptively attempts to portray Sacco as an objective investigative reporter.” Cockburn's journalistic career includes writing for the Independent, a fiercely anti-Israel British newspaper, and for Counterpunch, an online publication with even more radical views about the Jewish state. So it’s “not surprising” that “Cockburn gushes over Sacco's work ... [but] it is noteworthy that a review in the New York Times, regardless of who the reviewer is, would fail to inform readers of the important bias to which Sacco himself readily admits. ... The New York Times readers,” Ini concludes, “expect serious critique from that newspaper's book reviews, instead of Cockburn's piece, which was part echo chamber, and worse, part coverup.”
I dunno Ini’s biases on the issue, but readers of the book, which alleges massacres in Gaza by Israel at the time of the 1956 Suez crisis, should be “skeptical about some of the Palestinian sources mentioned by both Sacco and Cockburn,” Ini says, and cites some of them at http://www.camera.org/index.asp?x_context=2&x_outlet=35&x_article=1777
Stan Lee and Art and Movies and Disney. “Stan Lee applauds a tv show you may have missed,” says Jeffrey Ressner in USA Weekend for December 25-27. He’s touting the PBS documentary series “Art:21,” which focuses minutely on the creative processes of 14 artists from around the world. Says Lee: “When I started in the 1940s, an ‘artist’ had a paintbrush and stood in front of a canvas. But Jeff Koons, one of the artists featured here, is more like a movie director or a comic book editor: he has an entire team of craftsmen following his vision as he creates these huge, colorful figures and paintings. It’s not the usual conception of an artist, but the finished product is what he had imagined, not the other people. ... It’s fascinating to watch these artists, who are all so different, yet so creative. I’m more familiar with dramatic hyper-realism—artwork that tells a story with as much excitement as possible. ‘Art:21' is really about personal expression.” The legendary Lee turned 87 on Monday, December 28; his POW! Entertainment recently launched a digital comic book called Time Jumper.
The day after celebrating his birthday, Lee was interviewed at splashpage.mtv.com by Rick Marshall who wanted to know what the likelihood might be of seeing more and more movies based on characters he co-created for Marvel Comics. "The funny thing is,” Lee said, “I think all of them will come to the screen sooner or later because they're always looking for new properties, and Marvel has more than anybody." He dropped a few likely names: Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos. “Every one of the Marvel characters, there's somebody working on it. Somebody is trying to put together a story that will work. It's just a matter of time—they can only do so many a year," he explained. "You don't want to flood the market. I'm sure [they'll do] the Black Panther, eventually."
In fact, even as Lee spoke, Disney, which recently acquired Marvel, is exploring movie possibilities for Marvel’s “second string” characters, the first stringers—Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron-Man, the Hulk, and Fantastic Four—having already been locked up in long-term deals with rival studios before Disney took possession of the famed “house of ideas.” Ryan Nakashima at AP says the Mouse House is considering Ant-Man, Dr. Strange, and the Avengers line of characters, and such newcomers as the Runaways, a street-savvy pack of teenagers that have recently become popular. Marvel’s operations will stay in New York, Nakashima reports, adding that Marvel CEO Isaac "Ike" Perlmutter, who owns 37 percent of Marvel stock, has “the top job overseeing the Marvel business after the acquisition, including decisions on which characters are developed into movie stars.” But no one is saying, yet, which of the reputed 5,000 Marvel characters will be tapped. “Disney CEO Bob Iger said the company may initially develop new characters on television rather than in movies. Its boy- focused cable channel, Disney XD, already airs 25 hours of Marvel cartoons every week and recently launched in Japan, as well as in several European and Latin American countries.”
Television is where Disney launched such hits as "Hannah Montana" and "High School Musical," which, since their debut on cable tv’s Disney Channel, have spawned movies, concerts and a cascade of related merchandise. “Analysts note that when Disney does land a hit, it is quick to spread the success around to its other businesses. That's why ‘Hannah Montana’ and ‘High School Musical’ have combined to sell billions of dollars in merchandise, and why ‘Cars’—a product of Disney's purchase of Pixar—is getting its own section at Disney's California Adventure theme park.”
Fascinating Footnit. Much of the news retailed in the foregoing segment and some of those that follow 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.
TROPES AND TICS
A couple of my favorites:
“He who marches out of step hears a different drum.” Many ways to say this, but this one appeals to me because it has a rhythmic beat.
And here’s that insightful bit of wisdom I tried to recall some weeks ago: “The view changes only for the lead dog.” And where, pray, are the noses of all the others? Right.
A propos of nothing: is coexistist a word? Try saying it.
ISLAMIC HOOLIGANISM (ACT 2,356)
Danish police shot and arrested a 28-year-old Muslim would-be terrorist who broke into a 74-year-old cartoonist’s home with an axe and yelled that he wanted to kill him with the knife he was brandishing. Kurt Westergaard, one of the notorious Danish Dozen whose cartoons of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad inflamed the Muslim world three years ago, has been under police protection since Islamic hooligans put a $1 million price on his head for drawing the Prophet wearing a bomb-shaped turban. On Friday, January 1, a Somali man, later identified as Mohammed Muhideen Gelle, a legal resident of Denmark, smashed his way into Westergaard’s house through a window, shouting “Revenge!” and “Blood!” Westergaard, whose five-year-old granddaughter was also in the house on a sleepover, immobilized with her leg in a cast, judged he could draw the enraged intruder’s attention away from the child by running in another direction—to a specially designed “panic room,” where he pressed a button to alert the police. They arrived within three minutes and shot Gelle in the knee and shoulder after he threw his axe at one of the officers.
According to John F. Burns at the New York Times, quoting Jakob Scharf, head of the Danish intelligence service (known as PET), Gell, suspected of terrorist activities in East Africa, had been under surveillance since being involved in an immigration hearing about deportation. He evidently eluded PET long enough to mount his attack on the cartoonist.
Westergaard has become an icon for freedom of expression: "Maybe because I am the one who feels the best about standing forward and speaking about what I have done,” he explained. In an interview on Monday January 4 with BBC’s Malcolm Brabant, Westergaard said he believes he is being targeted by Muslim extremists because he stands by his cartoon and insists he has "not done anything wrong." He was remarkably calm after the failed assault, saying—wistfully, and probably a little mischievously—“I hope I make it to 80.”
Writing later about the incident, Brabant said: “This attack will force the Danish secret service to review whether their protection is adequate. Westergaard's house was supposed to have been turned into a fortress. The windows were supposed to be blast proof, and yet a determined individual came within a whisker of killing a man regarded by Islam as a pariah, but by his supporters, as one of the bravest defenders of free expression. ... Westergaard told Jyllands Posten [his newspaper that had published the Danish Dozen] he was shocked that his granddaughter had witnessed the attack. ... He has now been taken to a safe location, but said defiantly that he would be back, the newspaper reported.” [Compiled from reports by the BBC, the New York Times, and the Associated Press.]
Reactions. In the wake of the incident, timesonline.co.uk editorialized: “The attack ... is the latest act in a campaign of murderous intimidation against the exercise of artistic expression and the rights of newspapers to publish. ... More than 20 years ago, Ayatollah Khomeini called for the murder of Salman Rushdie, a British citizen, for writing a novel. Rushdie received protection and survived. His Japanese translator (whose name, let history record, was Hitoshi Igarashi) was murdered. Theo van Gogh, a Dutch film director of less artistic skill than Rushdie and of inflammatory political views, was horrifically murdered in 2004” because of the view of Islam he propounded in a film. Flemming Rose, the culture editor at Jyllands-Posten, was persuaded by these incidents and others to publish the Muhammad cartoons as a test of freedom of expression. He listed some of the other incidents: “The comedian Frank Hvam recently admitted that he is afraid of mocking the Qur’an on tv. An artist invited to illustrate a children’s book [about Islam] insists on anonymity. So do West European translators of a book of essays critical of Islam. A leading art museum removes an installation because of fear for Muslims’ reaction.” A play was shut down for the same reason.
Timesonline continued: “The initial decision by Jyllands-Posten to publish the caricatures has been much criticized but was part of a genuine exercise in critical inquiry. ... It was a reasonable question whether Jyllands-Posten was right to tackle the issue of free speech against Islamist intolerance this way. But it did. And once the cartoons had been put in the public domain, it was imperative that the freedom of the press be defended. Dispiritingly, the world of letters has tended to do the opposite: to hold the victims of violence responsible for their own plight, and to counsel caution and self-censorship for fear of provoking more of it.
“Jytte Klausen, a Danish academic in the U.S., wrote a scholarly study of the Danish cartoons controversy; her book appeared last year. The publisher, Yale University Press, extraordinarily prevented Professor Klausen from reproducing any of the cartoons or even representations of Muhammad from ancient art. No protests about the book had even been made. Yale was preemptively tailoring academic inquiry to avoid possible offence to the faithful.
“A free society cannot work like that. The advance of knowledge and culture rests on criticism and a clash of ideas. It is a hallmark of civilization that flawed ideas, and not the people who hold them, perish in public debate. If some ideas are declared to be beyond scrutiny, criticism and even mockery because of the offence that would be caused to their adherents, then it is not only freedom that is curtailed. The human spirit of critical inquiry dies.
“Religious liberty is an integral part of the Western inheritance. The Times strongly opposes populist campaigners who spread prejudice against Muslim populations in Europe. We condemned the Swiss referendum vote to ban the construction of minarets. It is part of the same spirit of liberty to insist on the right of artists, writers and newspapers to publish without fear — and to stand alongside the fearless Westergaard.”
Yet the Intimidation Continues. In another development, AP reported, “a Swedish artist who depicted the Prophet as a dog in a Swedish newspaper in 2007 said he received a telephone threat on Monday. Lars Vilks said an unidentified man with a Swedish accent claimed he was calling from Somalia to tell the artist ‘he was next in line’ after Westergaard.”
And the effort at suppression—or, as some prefer, exercising “political correctitude”—is spreading like an epidemic, infecting other aspects of life and culture around the world. Last week in Malaysia—a country, saith Vijay Joshi of the AP, that heretofore “has prided itself as a model Muslim nation because of its economic development, progressive society and generally peaceful coexistence between the Malay majority and the ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities who are mostly Christians, Buddhists and Hindus—three churches were attacked with firebombs as Islamic hooligans sought with this explosive rhetoric to prevent Christians (or anyone other than a Muslim) from using the word “Allah” in reference to “God.”
And so lunacy has become chronic, worldwide. Loons can be found everywhere, not just in the United States, posing as Republicans.
An Appropriate Response. The appropriate response to such imbecilities is to ignore them. And yet Yale University Press went so far in the opposite direction as to suppress portions of that scholarly book on the “cartoon controversy” that it published recently, expunging the very subject of the book, the Danish Dozen and all other representations of Muhammad that might have intruded into its text. “Without even putting up the mildest fight, Yale abandoned the ‘life of the mind’ to the barbarism of the mindless,” writes Gary Hull in his booklet Muhammad: The Banned Images (48 6x9-inch pages, color; paperback, Voltaire Press; $15 from Amazon), which publishes numerous pictures (paintings, drawings, engravings) that have depicted Muhammad from 1143 CE to 2005. Hull’s book is intended in part to refute the popularly cited notion that Muslims forbid pictures of Muhammad because they might lead to idolatry. In fact, as the book vividly demonstrates, Muslims have been making pictures of the Prophet for centuries, most of the time without causing ire or incident. Yale University, Hull says, “did not merely surrender; it preemptively surrendered. Its Press renounced the very principles it depends on for its survival–the Fist Amendment and reasoned discourse—to placate the riotous behavior of nihilists.” Hull intends his slender volume as the pictorial supplement to the Yale volume—the “errata to the bowdlererized version”—but, he goes on, “it is of course more than that. It is a statement of defiance against censors, terror-mongers, and their Western appeasers. It is a rallying cry for free speech, freedom of the press, and for open scholarship unfettered by fear.” Hull’s text briefly rehearses the history of Islam and of pictures of Muhammad, but most of the book is devoted to those pictures. Here are a couple of them.
In his Harper’s article (referred to in the previous illustration), Art Spiegelman, after annotating Westergaard’s drawing, says: “If the drawing had simply not appeared under the rubric of “Muhammad’s Face” [the headline surmounting all twelve of the cartoons in Jyllands-Posten], it would have been more immediately seen to specifically represent the murderous aspect of fundamentalism, the one that—through twisted public relations and the events that followed the cartoon’s publication—made this drawing a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Would that he were right. Alas, in this age of chronic contention, someone somewhere would have looked beyond the obvious visual metaphor and its message and found instead something to get all wee-weed up about. I’m very much afraid we cannot any longer find refuge in reason from the rampages of the moronic.
QUOTES AND MOTS
“We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.” —Kurt Vonnegut
“In a conversation, remember that yoku’re more interested in what you’re saying than anyone else is.”—Andy Rooney
“Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.” —John F. Kennedy
“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” —Peter F. Drucker, a financial pundit
THE ANNALS OF VERBIAGE
Among the year-end tokens that are usually ignored by political junkies and the rest of the so-called news establishment, intent, as ever, upon revealing their acumen about all things that happen, are the “words of the year” as determined by sundry others in the wordsmith racket. Every year at this time, the 121-year-old American Dialect Society holds an election during its annual meeting to pick the “word of the year.” This exercise can be handily dismissed as just another of the self-important but meaningless preoccupations of dusty-shouldered scholarly types, but being somewhat of a similar dust-encrusted persuasion myself, I seldom overlook either the exercise or its significance.
The significance of a “word of the year” lies in what it reveals about whatever has transpired during that year. ADS looks for new words that have elbowed their way into the national lexicon in order to denominate some new phenomena. “Unfriend,” for example—which the Oxford Dictionary gang picked as the word for 2009—carries with it all the freight of the emerging Facebook phenomenon, and, by the same token, the interfacing and communal life fostered by the Internet, surely the latest technological wonder of the age. But sometimes old words take on new meanings or greater import due to the events of the year. “Philanderer” became highly visible during Mark Sanford’s confessions—and acquired another jolt of currency when Tiger Woods also went hiking along the Appalachian Trail. Time magazine joins in the contest with its list of “top ten buzzwords”: sexting, public option, autotune, wise Latina, death panel, birther, opposite marriage, summer of death, beer summit, and green shoots—all terms in widespread usage because of some event in the past year.
The candidates for Word of the Year stand, in effect, for some major happening of the last twelve months: the Word of the Year therefore reveals something about us, our preoccupations or concerns. As Dan Zak said so memorably in the Washington Post: “There is no smaller time capsule than a single word.” ADS’s words of the years of the last decade, beginning in 2000, are: chad, 9-11, weapons of mass destruction, metrosexual, red-state-blue-state-purple-state (2004, of course), truthiness, plutoed (meaning “demoted” as was the erstwhile planet Pluto), subprime in 2007, and bailout last year. Said Zak: “Merriam-Webster adds 100 words to its database each year. ... Global Language Monitor calculates that a new Englisih-language word is born every 98 minutes and that 1.58 billion people are resculpting English as they use it as a universal linguistic currency. ‘We’re living in a time of wildfire word creation with no gatekeeper for slang and no way to settle on a term that will please everybody,’ says Jack Lynch, author of The Lexicographer’s Dilemma.”
In 2000, ADS picked “web” to represent the 1990s, “jazz” for the 20th century, and “she” for the millennium. This year, with another decade closing, ADS thinks it has encapsulated the decade with “google.” And 2009 will, it is hoped, be evoked forever after by the word “tweet.”
Now, let’s pick a word in comics and cartooning. Candidates? “Graphic novel” for the decade, surely. And for 2009?
“Tweet,” by the way, made its way onto another list, the 35th annual List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness. Compiled every year at Lake Superior State University and reported in Time’s January 18 issue, the list of banned words this year: shovel-ready, transparent/transparency, czar, tweet, app, sexting, friend/unfriend as a verb, teachable moment, “In these economic times ...,” stimulus, toxic assets, “too big to fail,” bromance, chillaxin’, and “Obama” as a prefix.
Does the list have its intended effect? Reporter Dan Fletcher says the results are mixed: “Some of last year’s banned words still pervade our collective conversation: bailout, Wall Street/Main Street and carbon footprint continue to be abused. But thankfully, first dude, maverick and game changer were relegated to the sidelines. It’s almost as if we had never heard them.”
THE FROTH ESTATE
The Alleged News Institution
In the print publishing industry, saith Gawker.com, 86,800 employees have lost their jobs in the last year. Time magazine reports that 139 newspapers died in 2009. But most of those were weeklies, according to the “Newspaper Death Watch” website. In Opus 252, I said I’d given up grieving for an expiring newspaper industry because it doesn’t seem to be expiring. And at the end of the year, Phil Gillin, who runs the NDW website, seems to agree with me. Mostly. Here’s what he said on December 31 (in italics):
This was unquestionably the worst year in the history of the business. Circulation plummeted to pre-World War II levels and advertising revenues hit regions not seen since the Johnson administration. The year opened on a dismal note with the closure of major dailies in Denver and Seattle and threatened shutdowns in San Francisco, Boston and Chicago. Many pundits predicted a bloodbath with dozens of dailies folding during the year.
But then the unexpected happened. Union concessions and deep cost cuts brought the Boston and San Francisco papers back from the brink. While smaller dailies did give up the ghost in Tucson and Ann Arbor – and more than 100 weeklies shut down – the doomsday scenario never occurred. Instead, publishers came to grips with the reality of their plight and made earnest attempts to stabilize their operations. In a January column on WallSt.com, former Financial World magazine and Switchboard.com president Douglas McIntyre listed “Twelve Major Media Brands Likely To Close In 2009.” In fact, only one–Gourmet magazine–did.
As the year wore on, signs emerged that sales declines are slowing and circulation revenue from the core of loyal readers is making up some of the advertising gap. A broad consensus has emerged that the ink-on-dead-trees model is mortally wounded, giving publishers permission to turn their attention from saving a dying industry to managing it profitably downward while investing in new ventures that have growth potential.
Creative revenue ideas ranging from pay walls to behavioral targeting sprung up this year. Enrollments in journalism schools hit all-time highs and undergrads said they are approaching their careers with the idea of building personal brand rather than working for a big metro daily. Many industry veterans applauded their spirit.
As the second decade of the new millennium begins, there is a palpable sense of optimism, not only about the economy but also the potential to reinvent journalism.
Gillin believes that the reprieve is only temporary, that newspapers are “mortally wounded.” But he’s been wrong before—most conspicuously in trumpeting the death of newspapers generally, an industry-wide fatality impending. So I’m saying, he’s wrong again: newspapers have found ways to survive, and they’ll go on surviving.
The big metropolitan dailies won’t be quite as robust as before: they won’t be turning 30 percent profits. But they’ll be there, and they’ll be profitable enough. And weeklies and small town newspapers will continue to thrive. In last September’s issue of Editor & Publisher, the Suburban Newspapers of America took an ad to proclaim that it, as the largest newspaper trade association in North America for “the suburban and community segment of the industry,” continues to thrive. “Despite the tough economy, the past year has been one of continued growth for SNA.” And it wouldn’t be growing as a trade association if it weren’t acquiring new members—more suburban and community newspapers.
But continued growth isn’t the same as robust health. The newspaper industry and all print media are hurting, and they’re struggling, no question. But they aren’t verging toward extinction.
And enrollment in journalism schools is up? What are these people thinking?
MORE ON THE SAME SUBJECT
Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau was interviewed last October by Tim Rickard, a staff writer at the News-Record in Greensboro, North Carolina. Rickard, citing declining newspaper readership, asked the cartoonist if he has a post-newspaper media plan for his strip. Said Trudeau:
“Doonesbury has been on the Web for 15 years, and the site actually makes a little money—unheard-of for media sites. But it’s not really a plan, just a presence. I don’t believe there’s anything I can do personally to prepare for a post-newspaper future, other than hope that the large media companies will come to their senses and form a gated Web collective along the lines of cable tv. They need to form a news utility, financed by subscription or micropayments because going it alone has been disastrous for all of them.
“The only other model that seems promising is the electronic reader. By the end of the year, Kindle will have lots of competition, and if e-readers become larger, flatter and more newspaperlike, people would conceivably move to them and pay for subscriptions that would cost far less than print subscriptions. We know the Web is probably a lost cause—a whole generation believes everything on it should be free—but we also know from the iPhone that a new platform can set new rules. Look how happily people pay for apps.
“Short-term, we’re probably okay. What’s not commonly known is that most print newspapers are getting by. It’s just the big, debt-loaded metros that are sinking fast. There will probably be enough paper clients to keep me going for the foreseeable future. I feel extraordinarily fortunate that I’ve been given the long run I have—if newspapers vanish tomorrow, I’ll have no grounds for complaint.”
Rickard also wondered whether political commentary in cartoons has lost its clout: “With all the new media outlets that are available, political discourse has degenerated into partisan yelling. Have you changed your approach as a cartoonist to avoid becoming part of the noise?”
To which Trudeau responded: “the impact has been diluted by the multitude of voices, not their shrillness. There’s still plenty of moderate, reasonable discourse, but it competes in an ever-expanding universe of commentary. There are over 120 million blogs now—and hundreds of cable stations. So it’s true that no one voice is going to be as influential as it once was. It’s important to remember that every day about 295 million Americans get up and fail to tune in to Rush Limbaugh,” he added, turning a statistic on its head.
But even right-side up, the viewer ratings of Fox News aren’t as overwhelming as Fox’s Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch want you to believe. Fox is the ratings champ among cable tv news/comment channels: last year, Fox News in prime time averaged 2.2 million viewers, a 7 percent rise over 2008, reported Matea Gold at the Los Angeles Times. “The best showing in its 13-year history,” Gold noted. “Every program on the network’s schedule expanded its audience in 2009.” But all of that is startlingly deceptive according to Steve Chapman, writing in the Chicago Tribune: “Watching Fox News, you get the impression that huge numbers of Americans regard Obama as a Stalinist. Switch on MSNBC, and you would assume that most people want Dick Cheney sent to Guantanamo. You would be mistaken. Fox News averages just 2.6 million viewers on a typical weeknight [more than Gold’s just-cited number but no matter; either way, it’s] less than 1 percent of Americans. MSNBC does even worse, with 831,000 per night. The three major network newscasts, which offer less overt bias, pull in a combined total of more than 20 million viewers each evening. The average American citizen, contrary to myth, is neither very angry nor very far to the left or the right. In a cluttered media environment, the most extreme voices tend to attract so much attention that it’s easy to forget something important: most people aren’t listening.”
THROES OF ANOTHER SORT. Everybody in the periodical publishing line these days is hurting, and one of the signs of hurt is hype that trumpets its opposite. And both Comics Buyer’s Guide and Playboy have lately perpetrated the deception. At CBG, the magazine has dropped pages and features by the bucket but added a few new columns in the hope that we won’t notice that we’re getting less for our money than before. In No. 1661, the first of the magazine’s new format, editor Brent Frankenhoff proclaims: “We’re striving to bring you more of what you want and to make it even more entertaining than before.” He then describes the five new columnar departments that have been instituted to that end: Unmasked (questions posed to and answered by “an industry professional”), Indie Insider (“a visit with an independent publisher,” one of the little guys as opposed to one of the giants like DC or Marvel), Destination: Comics! (“a monthly visit to a comics shop”), Fan Reviews (“a comics fan’s look at his favorite comics”), and Webcomics Review (digital comics). Oh—and, incidentally, “we’ve removed our monthly price listings” which, henceforth, will appear only yearly in Krause’s annual price guides.
The monthly price guide, which, Frankenhoff now acknowledges, readers apparently didn’t want in the first place, was the Big Improvement that marked CBG’s shift from a weekly newspaper on newsprint to a monthly magazine with some slick paper pages and a spectacular full-color cover. Although CBG has always been something of a shill for the industry, in its weekly newspaper incarnation it published some news, good news mostly: as a tout for comics publishers and comics retail outlets, CBG avoided publishing any “bad” news about those aspects of the industry. We didn’t mind because, salivating fans that we are, we were all pulling for more comics and better comics, and that meant cheering for publishers and comics stores.
The first magazine issue of CBG was a minor miracle: it went from newspaper to magazine format, a cosmic shift, seemingly without working up a sweat or losing an eyelash. The magazine seemed to rise fully formed, every new feature in place as if it had been publishing in that manner for decades.
The most noticeable change was the addition of some 20 pages of “price guide” data, which was introduced, I guess, to position the “new CBG” to compete directly with Wizard, a johnson-come-lately to the game. Wizard was (and is) a glitzy monthly magazine with slick paper and a jazzy layout; in comparison, the newspaper CBG on stodgy newsprint was frumpy in the extreme. The new format would change that image, enhance the competition with Wizard, and, presumably, rake in revenue. The assumption, I’d say, was that the news function of the old CBG had been taken over by the Web, so why bother? CBG imagined its core readership was composed of dedicated comics collectors—not readers, but collectors and their parasitic brethren, investors, people whose interest in comics was chiefly monetary. They were not fans: they were speculators. The price guide offered by Wizard every month was essential to speculators; presumably, with the aid of the price guide, speculators could follow the market with a beady-eyed dedication to see how their investments were increasing (or, horrors, decreasing) in value and sell or buy accordingly. So CBG sought to enter, or re-enter, the fray by competing with Wizard in both feature content (gushing stories about comic books and their creators, stunning art in full color) and price guide. The new CBG no longer did what the old CBG did: it no longer published ads from fans who were selling portions of their collections, the original albeit antique purpose of the publication—presumably now performed on the Web.
At just about this moment in the history of comics fandom, a particularly fiendish development took place. An outfit called Certified Guaranty Company (CGC) emerged. CGC’s self-imposed function was to grade the quality of comic books (for a fee, of course), implying a monetary value based upon the condition of the comics. And then—in an insidious spasm of nearly insane collector mania—after the comic book had been graded, CGC would seal it between plastic plates, thus guaranteeing that its condition, the basis of its monetary value, would be preserved forever like an insect in amber. Comics accorded this dubious treatment were said to be “slabbed”: they were turned into marketplace artifacts like bottles of vintage wine, destined never to be sampled because sampling would destroy the thing that gave the artifact its value. Touching the pages of a high-grade collectable comic would, over time, degrade the fragile newsprint and (horrors!) reduce its value.
Slabbed comics, CGC-graded comics, would never again be read by comics fans: they had been sealed away from readership, turned into museum pieces, preserved from the contamination of being read by fans and scholars alike. Inaugurating a fiendish program of self-perpetuation, CGC then produced self-serving statistics: unslabbed near mint comics, we learn in a footnote in CBG’s price guide, were worth less than slabbed near mint comics: they were worth only 5 sixths, or 83%, of the value of slabbed comics. In effect, CGC transformed CBG’s price guide from educated guesswork into high science (and a steady stream of evaluation fees for itself). I don’t know whether Wizard’s price guide was also built on CGC’s grading system—I seldom read the magazine and never look at price guides—but for our present purpose, it doesn’t matter. CBG had sold its pulsating fannish soul to cold-hearted investors. For a while.
I used to write an occasional column of comics reviews and lore for CBG, and probably if unseemly invective has infested the foregoing diatribe, it may be attributed to my having lost the gig when the publication went monthly. But the change in format and frequency may have had less to do with my disappearance from CBG’s pages than the publication’s being uncomfortable with the sometimes liberal tilt of my fulminations. One of the editors at the time (no longer there) confided, for instance, that I shouldn’t attack Bruce Tinsley’s Mallard Fillmore comic strip because CBG’s readers, being largely money-grubbing investors and therefore, ipso facto, conservative in political bent, would be offended. I should, in fact, find something conservative to write favorably about in order to deliberately appeal to the conservative reader. CBG undoubtedly had, and has, readers of that persuasion, but they are apparently not numerous enough to support the magazine, and so, in a bid for survival, CBG has scrapped that part of its content addressed almost exclusively to the investor crowd of inherently conservative personages. But that is not the only change that re-designing the magazine has wrought.
Most of the regular columnists continue, but several have lost pages: Tony’s Tips, for instance, went from 5 pages to 4; Bound for Glory, the trade paperback and graphic novel review department, went from 8-9 pages to 4. Overall, this maneuver reduced the magazine’s page-count by 14, almost exactly the number of pages that the new columns and features added. But CBG is still thinner. The magazine went from 114 pages (Nos. 1656 and 1657) to 90 and 82 (Nos. 1661 and 1662), a reduction in page count caused almost entirely by dropping the price guide. In its place, we find the 4-page Auction News and Market Trends column. Cutting the 20-page price guide also eliminated 20 reviews because each of the price guide pages carried, in addition to tedious lists of comic book titles and their values, reviews and other articles about comics.
But this new diminished version of the Comics Buyer’s Guide is touted by its editor as being “more of what you [the reader] want.” With the high flying entrepreneurial duplicity of the Marvel bullpen pages of yore, the new CBG is not less; it’s more. The same underhanded jockeying with fact is taking place over at Playboy.
We’ve been tracking Playboy’s deterioration for months. Initially, our focus was on the descending number of cartoons in each issue, but a true measure of that decline is expressed in the ratio of cartoons to total page count. In July 1969, for example, the magazine clocked 222 pages, 18 full-page cartoons (including two Varga pin-ups mouthing double entendres) and 32 small cartoons, plus a 4-page Annie Fanny comic strip and 3 pages of Jack Dempsey cartoons (10 of them)—60 single-panel gag cartoons in all. The ratio for full-page cartoons was 1/12, one full-pager for every 12 pages in the magazine; the ratio for smaller cartoons was 1/5. Those were the glory days for cartoonists at Playboy.
Forty years later, the page-count of the December 2009 issue of the magazine is just 176 with 15 cartoons; in its heyday, Playboy’s December issues were gargantuan, running well over 300 pages and 40-50 cartoons. In the current 202-page issue of Playboy, full-page cartoons, including an Olivia pin-up witticism, number only 9, a ratio of 1/22; smaller cartoons number 18, including a 2-page spread reprinting 8 vintage cartoons by B. Kliban, a ratio of 1/12, not bad. But this issue comes with an insult to readers in its cover claim to being a “Massive Double Issue,” January-February. At just 202 pages, a “massive double issue”? Not likely. For the last year, issues have hovered around 120-130 pages, so 202 pages is somewhat larger than the usual. But not double the size, not by any math presently in captivity. The only things “double” about this issue are (1) the cover illustration, a seductive photo of Tara Reid leaning forward, impressive cleavage formed by a pair (two, thus a double, right?) of her mammary assets and (2) two gatefolded, back-to-back (so to speak) Playmates. The previous “double issue,” last summer’s July-August, included only one Playmate for which the magazine probably was thoroughly derided, resulting, doubtless, in this issue’s corrective.
But if the cartoon content is declining steadily, the photos of barenakidwimmin are soaring as Playboy attempts to compete with the laddie mags. In addition to the 6-page plus fold-out Playmate feature, the December issue included a 6-page homage to a nude Lolita, 6 pages of sex in cinema, another 6 pages of the work of “erotic photographers,” and 8 pages of photos of the cover girl, Joanna, wearing next to nothing. That’s 32 pages of nekid ladies—or 19% of the 176 page count. In the big “double issue” of January-February, the Playmates take 8 pages together, plus the gatefold, then we have “the year in sex” (7 pages), 1960s nudes (8 pages), cover girl feature (5 pages), and an 11-page “Playmate Review” of 2009's unclad femmes. That’s 39 pages of female skin in a 202-page magazine, or 19% again. In the War of the T&A mags, Playboy is clearly trying to outdo with barenekidwimmin the laddie mags with their pictures of the curvaceous gender in skimpy attire but not nude. And when it comes to sexy wimmin, Playboy will always win with this policy: nudity trumps skimp every time in the Boobs and Buns marketplace of the raging hormone.
QUIPS AND QUOTES
“The reason worry kills more people than work is that more people worry than work.”—Robert Frost
“Many a man owes his success to his first wife and his second wife to his success.”—Jim Backus, an actor who also gave voice to Mister Magoo
“News is something somebody doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising.”—William Randolph Hearst, who ought to know
THE VIAGRA MONOLOGUES: WHAT THE OLD MAN HEARS
In outlining his plan for Afghanistan, Barack O’Bama pointedly said his goal was to reverse the Taliban’s “momentum” not to achieve “victory,” thus avoiding the fatal flaw in the Bush League’s policy. ... Baracko has been criticized for the three-day delay between the apprehension of the Underpants Bomber and his official response on the matter; GeeDubya waited 6 days before responding to the Shoe Bomber. ... In 1962, John F. Kennedy campaigned for passage of a health care bill, saying: “While this bill does not solve our problems in this area [of health care], I do not believe it is a valid argument to say, ‘This bill isn’t going to do the job.’ It will not, but it will do part of it.’” JFK’s bill was ultimately defeated in the Senate, noted Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker, continuing: “The health-care bill now being kicked and prodded and bribed toward passage will not ‘do the job,’ either—only part of it. Are Barack Obama and the Democrats in Congress doing enough? No. But they are doing what’s possible.”
And before our memory of the fabulous Farrah fades, who besides me remembers that one of her earliest tv roles was as the golden-maned next-door neighbor in the detective drama “Harry-O,” starring David Janssen (September 1974-August 1976)? Harry Orwell lived in a beachfront cottage near San Diego and famously took buses wherever his investigations led him because his car never worked. My favorite memory of Harry is of him squinting in that Janssen manner and asking whoever was handy if they could spare him change for bus fare. My other favorite memory is of Farrah and her sun-kissed tresses massed around a dazzling array of teeth. The classic California girl, Harry’s neighbor wasn’t in every episode and her on-camera time was very brief whenever she appeared. A romance with Harry never seemed in the offing: he’d just ask her to look after his place when he traipsed off on another case. A memorable tv series that I can’t find anywhere. “Charlie’s Angels” debuted just after “Harry-O” ended.
Uganda is contemplating the enactment of a law that would mandate life imprisonment for anyone convicted of having gay sex. The Week magazine quoted Xan Rice of the Mail & Guardian in South Africa: “This outrageous homophobia has been fueled by U.S. evangelists, who claim that gay men in Uganda are trying to ‘recruit’ schoolchildren. ... The impetus for the law came from a seminar in Kampala last spring in which three American evangelists spoke about ‘exposing the truth behind homosexuality.’ The Christian Right’s message resonated in Uganda where the taboo against homosexuality has deep roots.” The “truth” behind homosexuality? Whose truth? Why, the Christian Right’s truth. But the Christian Right’s truth originates in biblically inspired opinion, not fact. And as Patrick Monyhan once said: Everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion, but no one is entitled to his/her own truths.
WE’RE ALL BROTHERS, AND WE’RE ONLY PASSIN’ THROUGH
Sometimes happy, sometimes blue,
But I’m so glad I ran into you---
We’re all brothers, and we’re only passin’ through.
David Levine, Astringent Caricaturist, Dies at 83
By Bruce Weber, New York Times
David Levine, a painter and illustrator whose macro-headed, somberly expressive, astringently probing and hardly ever flattering caricatures of intellectuals and athletes, politicians and potentates were the visual trademark of The New York Review of Books for nearly half a century, died Tuesday morning, December 29, in Manhattan. He was 83 and lived in Brooklyn.
I did a long piece on Levine at Opus 233, but I think Weber does the famed caricaturist better, so I’m turning the rest of this scroll over to him.—RCH
Levine’s death, at New York Presbyterian Hospital, was caused by prostate cancer and a subsequent combination of illnesses, his wife, Kathy Hayes, said.
Levine's drawings never seemed whimsical, like those of Al Hirschfeld. They didn't celebrate neurotic self-consciousness, like Jules Feiffer's. He wasn't attracted to the macabre, the way Edward Gorey was. His work didn't possess the arch social consciousness of Edward Sorel's. Nor was he interested, as Roz Chast is, in the humorous absurdity of quotidian modern life. But in both style and mood, Levine was as distinct an artist and commentator as any of his well-known contemporaries. His work was not only witty but serious, not only biting but deeply informed, and artful in a painterly sense as well as a literate one. Those qualities led many to suggest that he was the heir of the 19th-century masters of the illustration, Honoré Daumier and Thomas Nast.
Especially in his political work, his portraits betrayed the mind of an artist concerned, worriedly concerned, about the world in which he lived. Among his most famous images were those of President Lyndon B. Johnson pulling up his shirt to reveal that the scar from his gallbladder operation was in the precise shape of the boundaries of Vietnam, and of Henry Kissinger having sex on the couch with a female body whose head was in the shape of a globe, depicting, Levine explained later, what Kissinger had done to the world. He drew Richard M. Nixon, his favorite subject, 66 times, depicting him as the Godfather, as Captain Queeg, as a fetus.
With those images and others—Yasir Arafat and Ariel Sharon in a David-and-Goliath parable; or Alan Greenspan, with scales of justice, balancing people and dollar bills, hanging from his downturned lips; or Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. carrying a gavel the size of a sledgehammer—Levine's drawings sent out angry distress signals that the world was too much a puppet in the hands of too few puppeteers. "I would say that political satire saved the nation from going to hell," he said in an interview in 2008, during an exhibit of his work called "American Presidents" at the New York Public Library.
Even when he wasn't out to make a political point, however, his portraits—often densely inked, heavy in shadows cast by outsize noses on enormous, eccentrically shaped heads, and replete with exaggeratedly bad haircuts, 5 o'clock shadows, ill-conceived mustaches and other grooming foibles—tended to make the famous seem peculiar-looking in order to take them down a peg.
"They were extraordinary drawings with extraordinary perception," Jules Feiffer said in a recent interview about the work of Levine, who was his friend. He added: "In the second half of the 20th century he was the most important political caricaturist. When he began, there was very little political caricature, very little literary caricature. He revived the art."
David Levine was born on December 20, 1926, in Brooklyn, where his father, Harry, ran a small garment shop and his mother, Lena, a nurse, was a political activist with Communist sympathies. A so-called red diaper baby, Levine leaned politically far to the left throughout his life. His family lived a few blocks from Ebbetts Field, where young David once shook the hand of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who became a hero, as did his wife, Eleanor. Years later, Levine's caricature of Mrs. Roosevelt depicted her as a swan.
"I thought of her as beautiful," he said. "Yet she was very homely."
As a boy he sketched the stuffed animals in the vitrines at the Brooklyn Museum. He served in the Army just after World War II, then graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia with a degree in education and another degree from Temple's Tyler School of Art. He also studied painting at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and with the Abstract Expressionist painter and renowned teacher Hans Hofmann.
Indeed, painting was Levine's first love; he was a realist, and in 1958 he and Aaron Shikler (whose portrait of John F. Kennedy hangs in the White House) founded the Painting Group, a regular salon of amateurs and professionals who, for half a century, got together for working sessions with a model. A documentary about the group, "Portraits of a Lady," focusing on their simultaneous portraits of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, was made in 2007; the portraits themselves were exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery.
Levine's paintings, mostly watercolors, take as their subjects garment workers—a tribute to his father's employees, who he said never believed that their lives could be seen as connected to beauty—or the bathers at his beloved Coney Island. In a story he liked to tell, he was painting on the boardwalk when he was approached by a homeless man who demanded to know how much he would charge for the painting. Levine, nonplussed, said $50.
"For that?" the man said.
The paintings are a sharply surprising contrast to his caricatures: sympathetic portraits of ordinary citizens, fond and respectful renderings of the distinctive seaside architecture, panoramas with people on the beach.
"None of Levine's hard-edged burlesques prepare you for the sensuous satisfactions of his paintwork: the matte charm of his oil handling and the virtuoso refinement of his watercolors," the critic Maureen Mullarkey wrote in 2004. "Caustic humor gives way to unexpected gentleness in the paintings."
Levine's successful career as a caricaturist and illustrator took root in the early 1960s, when he started working for Esquire. He began contributing cover portraits and interior illustrations to The New York Review of Books in 1963, its first year of publication, and within its signature blocky design his cerebral, brooding faces quickly became identifiable as, well, the cerebral, brooding face of the publication. He always worked from photographs, reading the accompanying article first to glean ideas.
"I try first to make the face believable, to give another dimension to a flat, linear drawing; then my distortions seem more acceptable," he said.
From 1963 until 2007, after Levine received a diagnosis of macular degeneration and his vision deteriorated enough to affect his drawing, he contributed more than 3,800 drawings to The New York Review. Over the years he did 1,000 or so more for Esquire; almost 100 for Time, including a number of covers (one of which, for the 1967 Man of the Year issue, depicted President Johnson as a raging and despairing King Lear); and dozens over all for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone and other publications.
Levine's first marriage ended in divorce. Besides Ms. Hayes, his partner for 32 years whom he married in 1996, he is survived by two children, Matthew, of Westport, Conn., and Eve, of Manhattan; two stepchildren, Nancy Rommelmann, of Portland, Ore., and Christopher Rommelmann, of Brooklyn; a grandson, and a stepgranddaughter.
"I might want to be critical, but I don't wish to be destructive," Levine once said, explaining his outlook on both art and life. "Caricature that goes too far simply lowers the viewer's response to a person as a human being."
One of Levine’s caricaturing colleagues, political cartoonist Matt Wuerker, said, when he learned of Levine’s death: “Levine had a gift and was a gift. [At the AAEC Convention in Minneapolis some years ago] the highlight for me was getting to go along with a bunch of us wretches and have lunch with Levine. He was in a class all by himself, erudite, witty and a true master of caricature. So many cross-hatchers were shaped by the power and charm of what he could do with ink on paper.”
I remember that convention, too. Charlton Heston, representing the NRA with
every tooth in his mightily dentined face, was the banquet speaker. Among the things
Heston was proudest of, he told us, was marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. The next
day, David Levine was one of the panelists at a session on caricature. And he said he'd
restrained himself the night before from asking Heston a question. The question was
something like: “And, er, Mr. Heston, whatever happened to that Martin Luther King
fellow?” Levine had a gift.
NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION
To go on a diet and reduce the bulk of this effort to about 20 pages (if you print them out) instead of 40, but to post twice a month, as of yore, instead of once a month. You’ll notice, if you print out this opus, that I’ve already lapsed. Drunk again no doubt.
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
The following communique arrived over my e-mail transom, unbidden but, as it turns out, most welcome. I don’t usually laugh out loud at stuff labeled “humor,” but I did here. Hope you do, too. Enjoy—and, have happy laugh all year long, at least.
Why Women Shouldn't Take Men Shopping
After I retired, my wife insisted that I accompany her on her trips to Target. Unfortunately, like most men, I found shopping boring and preferred to get in and get out. Equally unfortunate, my wife is like most women: she loves to browse. Yesterday my dear wife received the following letter from the local Target.
Dear Mrs. Samuel: Over the past six months, your husband has caused quite a
commotion in our store. We cannot tolerate this behavior and have been forced to ban
both of you from the store. Our complaints against your husband, Mr. Samuel, are listed
below and are documented by our video surveillance cameras.
2. July 2: Set all the alarm clocks in Housewares to go off at 5-minute intervals.
3. July 7: He made a trail of tomato juice on the floor leading to the women's restroom.
4. July 19: Walked up to an employee and told her in an official voice, ‘Code 3 in Housewares. Get on it right away!’ This caused the employee to leave her assigned station and receive a reprimand from her Supervisor that in turn resulted with a union grievance, causing management to lose time and costing the company money.
5. August 4: Went to the Service Desk and tried to put a bag of M&Ms on layaway.
6. August 14: Moved a 'CAUTION - WET FLOOR' sign to a carpeted area.
7. August 15: Set up a tent in the camping department and told the children shoppers he'd invite them in if they would bring pillows and blankets from the bedding department to which twenty children obliged.
8. August 23: When a clerk asked if they could help him he began crying and screamed, 'Why can't you people just leave me alone?' EMTs were called.
9. September 4: Looked right into the security camera and used it as a mirror while he picked his nose.
10. September 10: While handling guns in the hunting department, he asked the clerk where the antidepressants were.
11. October 3: Darted around the store suspiciously while loudly humming the 'Mission Impossible' theme.
12. October 6: In the auto department, he practiced his 'Madonna look' by using different sizes of funnels.
13. October 18: Hid in a clothing rack and when people browsed through, yelled 'PICK ME! PICK ME!'
14. October 21: When an announcement came over the loud speaker, he assumed a fetal position
and screamed 'OH NO! IT'S THOSE VOICES AGAIN!'
And last, but certainly not least:
15. October 23: Went into a fitting room, shut the door, waited awhile, then yelled very loudly, 'Hey! There's no toilet paper in here.' One of the clerks passed out.
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