Opus 258 (March 16, 2010). Our irks and crotchets begin with a look at how the NCS Reuben falls short of its presumed purpose (with a list of the long overlooked masters of the medium) and how Ronald Searle was (or wasn’t) treated after he won the Reuben in 1960, plus a longish essay on the implications of Islamic hooliganism for artistic freedom and liberty in general and reports of the Denver Post’s long-expected purge of its comics line-up and the Glyph Awards nominees, and reviews of a new Herblock book and IDW’s Family Circus reprint, The Best of Punch, Garfield from the Trash Bin, King Aroo, Simon and Kirby’s Sandman. Here’s what’s here, in order, by department:
NOUS R US
Zapiro’s TV Show Airs
Dustin Hits 100
Sandy Eggo Con May Leave the Town of Its Birth
Islamic Hooligans Plot to Kill Swedish Artist
with Implications for U.S.
Denver Post Drops a Third of its Comics
Reuben Falls Short of Its Presumed Purpose
with A List of the Overlooked
Ronald Searle’s Reuben Misfire
Correcting the Comics Buyer’s Guide
Girls on Top
Best of Punch Cartoons
Garfield from the Trash Bin
The Sandman by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Herblock: The Life and Work of the Greatest Political Cartoonist
The Family Circus Reprint
GLYPH AWARDS NOMINEES
And our customary reminder: don’t forget to activate the “Bathroom Button” by clicking on the “print friendly version” so you can print off a copy of just this installment for reading later, at your leisure while enthroned. Without further adieu, then, here we go—
NOUS R US
Some of All the News That Gives Us Fits
The commemorative Bill Mauldin postage stamp, depicting Mauldin as a callow young WWII soldier next to his iconic Willie and Joe, went on sale March 10, they say, at your local Postal Service Station. ... The New Yorker for March 15 carries a two-page excerpt from Daniel Clowes’ forthcoming graphic novel, Wilson, due out in May, that introduces the title character, a thoroughly peevish a-social but satirical humanoid—clever enough but you wouldn’t want to invite him over for dinner. ... At DailyCartoonist, Alan Gardner cites a report from Mad ’tooner Tom Richmond that the magazine, which went quarterly last year, will vault into bi-monthly publication starting June 15. The change will permit the Mad men to resort, once again, to more topical material. “Mad has been hampered by being completely unable to riff on timely subjects due to its long time between issues. Bimonthly isn’t the same as monthly, but it beats quarterly by exactly 50%!” ... Greg Evans’ Luann passed the 25-year marker this month, and Greg celebrated the occasion with a commemorative Sunday strip in which Luann and her pals appear, fleetingly, as they looked when the strip started. ... From DailyCartoonist: Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder has announced that his television show based on his former comic strip will be returning to the small screen on May 2nd. His announcement was posted on his twitter account. ... The film adaptation of Diary of a Wimpy Kid came out last week, Walter Scott reports in Parade, and actress Rachael Harris, who plays the wimp’s mother, explained how fans might be shocked by the movie: “The obvious difference is that we don’t look like stick figures.”
A long-delayed satirical puppet show, the brainchild of South African editoonist Zapiro and producer Thierry Cassuto, hit the screens in South Africa on March 1. The show was yanked two years ago from the South African Broadcast Company’s line-up because of alleged viewer “sensitivities” and some similarly alleged financial setbacks. More likely, the cancellation was caused by fear of South Africa’s most powerful politician, Jacob Zuma, then a candidate for the country’s presidency—and now, the president. At the time the show was spiked, according to Lyndon Khan at tonight.co.za, cartoonist Zapiro, aka Jonathan Shapiro, said he was not surprised: "The producers of the program had made it clear ... that a large part of the show would be about the lawsuits faced by Zuma," Shapiro said. Shapiro is also facing law suits—all brought by Zuma in an obvious effort to get the cartoonist to stop drawing cartoons about him. We’ll have more about this gargantuan feud and threat to editorial freedom in our next opus.
Dustin, the new strip about a boomerang kid who returns home after college to
live with his parents while he tries unsuccessfully to find a job, has been signed on by
100 newspapers, a benchmark that will assure the strip’s continuation for the time
being. As we noted at length in Opus 256, the strip is produced by two cartoonists
whose day jobs are political cartooning—New Orleans Times-Picayune’s Steve Kelley, who writes Dustin, and Florida Today’s Jeff Parker, who draws it (and also assists on Mike Peters’ Mother Goose and Grimm). Quoted in Editor & Publisher, George
Haeberlein, King Features' vice president for worldwide syndication sales, called the
strip “the most successful new comic to be introduced into syndication in recent years,”
adding that signing up 100 papers was the syndicate’s first sales target.
Comic-Con International, the world-renowned geekfest for comic book collectors and sf movie buffs and computer gamers, might move from its 40-year home in San Diego to Anaheim, reports Eric Carpenter at the Orange County Register. The Con’s contract with San Diego expires with the 2012 extravaganza, and Anaheim is mounting a bid to attract the event, the continued growth of which is stalled at 126,000 because no more can safely fit into the 550,000 square-foot San Diego Convention Center. Anaheim’s Convention Center has 815,000 square feet of convention space, and the site offers other inducements, most persuasive among them, its proximity to Hollywood-based executives and talent, who, lately, have recognized the Comic-Con as “a required pit stop for film studios, television networks and comics publishers who are preparing geek-friendly projects,” said Dave Itzkoff at the New York Times.
Anaheim says it has more hotel rooms within walking distance of its Center than San Diego and the room rates are typically cheaper, but during the Con’s traditional meeting time, July, families flocking to Disneyland fill a huge hunk of the rooms; the hoteliers, understandably, want to fill the rest of their room blocks and see the Comic-Con as the means of doing so, but, given the occupancy by the Disneyland crowd, my guess is that the Anaheim hotels won’t offer much of a discount on room rates. (Not that San Diego does either.)
Meanwhile, in San Diego, three waterfront hotels hope to beat down the competition in Anaheim by offering 300,000 square feet of their meeting space to the Con free of charge for 2013 through 2015. Comic-Con officials have toured and inspected the Anaheim facilities; a decision by the Comic-Con board is expected in the coming weeks.
Jeff Trexler at blog.newsarama.com says that DC has replaced its local outside counsel in the copyright restoration dispute with the heirs of Jerry Siegel, hiring Los Angeles "Super Lawyer" Daniel Petrocelli. The move may signal that the company does not expect a settlement with the Siegel family in the foreseeable future, but, adds Trexler, “It's equally possible that the hire is itself a negotiation tactic, as it's not unusual for a party in a lawsuit to bring in big name counsel in an attempt to intimidate a seemingly intractable opponent.” Trexler then unravels an intriguing knot of tangled connections.
Petrocelli, although probably best known for his work for Enron CEO Jeff Skilling and for representing the Goodman family in their suit against O.J. Simpson, defended the Walt Disney Company in a long-running dispute over the royalties from Winnie the Pooh and was successful in aspects of the case (precluding payment of the alleged past-due royalties, I’d say). In addition to replacing local outside counsel Weissmann Wolff Bergman with Petrocelli, Time Warner also dismissed another firm, Fross Zelnick, as outside co-counsel.
“Interesting,” says Trexler, “especially given Fross Zelnick's prior dealing with the law of copyright termination, the very legal principle at the heart of the Siegel lawsuit. As the firm's website notes, Fross Zelnick was counsel in a case that marked ‘the first judicial treatment of Section 304(d) of the U.S. Copyright Act, which was enacted as part of the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998. Section 304(d) gives authors and their heirs the opportunity to recapture the authors' copyrights by permitting them to terminate pre-1978 copyright transfers in the authors' works.’ So why might Time Warner no longer want to be associated with a firm with experience in fighting a copyright termination claim?” Trexler then offers a clue in summarizing the Pooh case.
“After over three years of court challenges at every level, including before the U.S. Supreme Court, Fross Zelnick successfully represented Stephen Slesinger, Inc. in preserving royalty rights, estimated in the press as exceeding $50 million, related to the exploitation of Winnie-the-Pooh and related characters. These court victories thwarted an attempt by Disney and author A.A. Milne's granddaughter to terminate Slesinger's right to receive [future] royalties from merchandising rights that were granted by the author in 1930. In short, Fross Zelnick opposed Disney in the Winnie the Pooh litigation, and Disney's legal team in that case included none other than DC's new outside counsel, Daniel Petrocelli. This makes for a rather interesting game of legal connect-the-dots. Petrocelli has a direct line to Disney, which recently acquired Marvel, a company fighting a termination claim by the family of Jack Kirby. Now the same lawyer is representing Time Warner/Warner Bros./DC in its own fight against a termination claim by the family of Jerry Siegel, and the firm that crossed Disney is out. It's a small world after all,” Trexler concludes.
Fascinating Footnit. Much of the news retailed in the foregoing segment (and some of what follows this nitnote) 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.
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION ISSUES ABOUND, BOTH ABROAD AND HERE
In Ireland in early March, the Associated Press reported, police detained (and subsequently released most of) seven people, alleging that they’d hatched a plot to kill a Swedish artist because he’d drawn pictures of the Prophet Mohammad with the body of a dog. The culprits were Irish residents albeit foreign-born, mostly from Yemen and Morocco, who had been under surveillance since November and were identified based on intelligence intercepts of e-mails and telephone calls monitored with help from anti-terrorist officials in the United States, Interpol and Sweden.
The alleged target of the murder conspiracy, Lars Vilks (at first, mistakenly called a cartoonist), made the drawings over a year ago for an art exhibition, but the sponsoring gallery refused to show them, citing security concerns; Vilks’ drawings are particularly insulting to the Muslim mind because dogs, to Muslims, are filthy creatures. Several Swedish newspapers recently printed one or more of the dog-bodied drawings, citing their news value and running an adjacent editorial defending the freedom of expression. In response, the terror organization Al-Qaida in Iraq announced a $100,000 bounty for Vilks' assassination. (If they’d announced they were after him because he drew so badly, I’d be tempted to support the effort. No—just kidding. Still—it’s the quality of the artistry on display that ought to provoke violent reaction, not the subject depicted.) Vilks was placed under police protection and moved to a secret location in Sweden.
Vilks said he had no regrets about the drawings: "As an artist you have to take a stand for things. If you do something you have to take full responsibility for it," he said, adding his purpose was to demonstrate that no religious symbol was off-limits to artistic freedom. "I'm actually not interested in offending the Prophet. The point is actually to show that you can," he said. "There is nothing so holy you can't offend it."
Sounds like the Danish Dilemma all over again—even to the point of emulating Dane cartoonist Kurt Westegaard, whose house has been converted to a fortress. Vilks, who has received numerous death threats over the controversial drawings, told Associated Press reporter Louise Nordstrom in Sweden (assisted by Jill Lawless in London) that he has built in his home his own defense system, including a "homemade" safe room and a barbed-wire sculpture that could electrocute potential intruders. He said he also has an ax "to chop down" anyone trying to climb through the windows of his home in southern Sweden. "If something happens, I know exactly what to do," Vilks said.
Meanwhile, we read at pubphilosopher.com that the Swedish government has received formal diplomatic protests from Iran, Jordan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Egypt, all demanding “immediate punitive actions against the artist and the publishers of the drawings.” The Swedish government, while saying it regrets the offense caused by the art, says it cannot apologize because it was not responsible for the drawings and could not have prevented their publication. “The Organization of the Islamic Conference just doesn’t get it,” saith the pubphilosopher: the notion of a press free of government control is beyond their grasp. “Once again,” he goes on, “Muslim governments are demanding that a European country abandon free speech and the rule of law to introduce the repression of journalists. In other words, they want the Swedes to behave as they would. Do they have no respect for European traditions and beliefs? Clearly not—yet they want us to have respect for theirs.”
One of those who joined in the ensuing commentary at the blogsite pointed out another speed bump in the path of logic: “Considerably more vicious and hateful things about Jews are regularly published and broadcast in several Islamic countries, but that is apparently okay by everyone. The double standard that applies is nearly as nauseating as the attacks upon free speech.”
Another bloggovator wondered how anyone could tell that the turbaned head with a dog’s body was Mohammad since devout Muslims don’t produce any pictures of the Prophet. However delicious the incongruity may be, it is also somewhat misguided: Muslims and other artists have depicted Mohammad through the ages. But the essential fact remains: there are no portraits of Mohammad made from the Prophet himself. Just as there are none of Jesus. Another commentator asserted that among Vilks’ drawings exploring artistic freedom of expression was one depicting “a fat Jew as a pig,” which, given Jewish ideas about pork, is certainly as insulting to Jews as Mohammad the dog is to Muslims. While the pig drawing undoubtedly belongs in the same class of provocative art as the Mohammad dog drawing, I’m not sure I’d rely on an anonymous blog commentator for accurate reporting.
Yet another blogster quietly albeit lengthily asserted that Muslims shouldn’t care about how mere mortals portrayed the Prophet: “No one has to defend Mohammed. God has taken care of this himself. In the early days the companions of Mohammed took turns in guarding him. Then God revealed the verse: ‘and God protects you from people’; since then, Mohammed has no guards at all.”
But the issue is scarcely laid to rest.
JIHAD JANE. Among those who may have been in on the murder conspiracy is a 46-year-old American housewife, Colleen LaRose, of Pennsburg, Pennsylvania, who was arrested last October, accused of traveling to Europe with diabolic intentions on Vilks. LaRose was a regular on radical Islamic websites, expressing the desire to become a martyr for Islam. On the Web, reports Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, LaRose called herself Jihad Jane or Fatima LaRose and “boasted that her appearance and nationality would allow her to travel freely and without scrutiny as she went about her mission of killing Vilks. LaRose is a blond-haired, blue-eyed middle-aged woman.” LaRose is therefore problematic to those who, like Newt Gingrich, think the time has come “to profile for terrorists and to actively discriminate based upon suspicious terror information”—such as a traveler’s country of origin or his swarthy complexion or his garb, particularly if he’s bearded and wears a turban. For a time, I confess I was edging up to sharing this opinion, but Jihad Jane’s all-American blonde look changed my mind. As Robinson points out, she would waltz by security checkpoints if the guidelines were ethnic-or race-based. So could one other of the detained seven: another American woman, from Leadville, Colorado—blonde and blue-eyed, who also prowled the Internet under a nom de guerre, Jihad Jamie. Profiling won’t work even if, at first blush, it seems a sensible albeit not politically correct thing to do. Turns out p.c. is beside the point. So we’re back to removing our shoes (and, eventually, our underpants).
THE DEBATE ROILS ON. On the editoonists online list, the issues of freedom of expression and the press were, once again, aired and mulled over. I can’t quote anyone by name without permission, but getting permission seems beside the point: the point is that what I’m about to quote is something I largely agree with, so it could be my opinion. I’m quoting it, however, because I don’t want to take credit for the someone else’s words and syntax. Here it is:
“I have a real philosophical problem with letting fanatics who subscribe to archaic religious myths dictate the terms of debate for the rest of the world. We live in the 21st Century, yet we are expected to give deference to people who reject scientific fact in favor of centuries-old fairytales. We do it when we allow Creationists to skew school curricula and we do it when we let radical Muslims tell us what we can and cannot publish. I won’t draw a cartoon about Mohammed, but not because I think there is something wrong about drawing a historical figure who is exerting a profound influence in current world politics. I won¹t draw him because it’s not worth it. The cartoon won¹t change a thing, but it might attract some lunatic who has my home address. Still, as I censor myself, I admit to a degree of admiration for those ‘boneheads’ who are brave enough to draw exactly what they believe, regardless of the consequences.”
I don’t agree with every syllable. To many people, Christianity is a “centuries-old fairytale” as out-of-step with raging modernity as Islam with its veiled women and bellicose attitudes toward all “infidels.” But the general posture—that freedom of expression cannot survive if we allow fanatics with different ideas to silence all differing opinions—I applaud. Ditto the courage of those who draw what they believe regardless of consequences (even if, as in Vilks’ case, the rendering of dogs appears beyond his artistic capability).
Islamic hooligans ought to pause in their rampaging to ponder what impression they are giving the rest of the world about Muslim values.Conveniently, editoonist Signe Wilkinson makes the point herewith. Other cartoon versions of the same idea have appeared before, but the notion bears repeating. And repeating and repeating.
AND HERE AT HOME. But we should not be smug about our vaunted freedom of the press. Our response to the Danish Dozen—almost no American paper would publish any of the cartoons for fear their offices would be attacked or their foreign correspondents in the Mideast would be killed—suggests we don’t quite believe enough in our principles. And in the wake of that demonstration of timorousness, we have home-grown threats that are grounded in a sense of victimhood akin to that doubtless felt by Muslims when Mohammad is ridiculed.
Just a week or so ago in Philadelphia, as reported in the DailyCartoonist blog, an editorial cartoon in the Philadelphia Inquirer by veteran Tony Auth provoked objections and charges of racism. Here’s the cartoon. Auth says he drew the cartoon as a comment on recent news coverage portraying “confusion and strained communications and inept behaviors that were going on that day on the part of school administrators.” And so it would appear to an outside observer: school officials are asleep on the job, and that’s why the schools are deteriorating.
But if you live in Philadelphia and are keeping up with the news about schools, you’d know that the principal of South Philly High is an African American woman named LaGreta Brown. And if you know that, the cartoon can be seen as a racist-motivated attack (even if it wasn’t). J. Whyatt Mondesire, head of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, was inspired to call the cartoon “disgusting. It is a lie. It is offensive. The Inquirer should be ashamed of what it did to Mrs. Brown.”
But the cartoon isn’t just racist: it is also, like all political cartoons, unfair. Michael Lerner, the head of the city’s principals union, called the cartoon was “a cheap shot” at a “dedicated educator.” Said Lerner: “In his drawing, the cartoonist has suggested the most simplistic explanation of an unbelievably complex situation, a problem that has existed at South Philadelphia High School for years.” True, but simplisticism is the stock in trade of editorial cartooning.
The situation in Philadelphia echoes a similar occurrence in Cleveland not so long ago. I’ve lost the clipping, but the gist of the report was that a local government official, female and black, was depicted in a cartoon as an Aunt Jemima. I’ve forgotten why this characterization served the purpose of the cartoon, and I’m not sure I can excuse that portrayal under whatever circumstance prevailed—the insult seems far in excess of whatever malfeasance was being highlighted. My point, though, is that we seem in this country, the touted land of the free and home of the brace, to have reached an extremity at which no racial or ethnic minority can be depicted in a cartoon without incurring the charge that the cartoon is bigoted. That may, in fact, be the case—although in Auth’s case particularly, I strenuously doubt it. Even if the cartoons are bigoted, whether intentionally or accidentally, we seem to be living in an extremist Islamic-like culture in which protest by the populace is inspired by a sense of injury derived from an imagined (or, even, real) slight done to one’s religion or race.
This sense of injury and the resultant righteous rage coupled to a political atmosphere that embraces the rampaging tactics of the Tea Baggers makes me wonder how far we are from our own brand of Islamic hooliganism.
But just as I begin to fear for the future, I remember the past and the present. When my daughter graduated from college a dozen years or so ago, my wife and I joined her and some of her sorority sisters for dinner one night. I was sitting next to a young woman whose degree was in international business. I asked her if, during her years in higher education, anyone had ever told her she couldn’t specialize in international business because she was female. No, she said—no one had ever made any such remark.
That, dear hearts, is a sign of progress.
And there are other signs.
When I think of the insane justice visited upon Christopher Handley lately—and, years ago, upon Mike Diana in Florida—I dread the knock on the door in the middle of the night any time now, and I’m tempted to join the Tea Baggers. I, too, want my country back, but my country is not theirs, blustering with defiant gun-totin’ rights, military machismo, rude free speech, hamstrung public services of limited government, walled-up borders, jingoistic slogan shouting, creationism in the schools, and environmental rape in the name of energy development. In my country, we may not have overcome the Great Depression without the advent of war, but we tried with some success to take care of those who the collapsing economy rendered destitute. We defeated Hitler and Tojo. We ended polio and other plagues. We explored space, and we won the Cold War. In my country, gender doesn’t limit career choice, race doesn’t choose one’s schools or neighborhood or vocation, workers are not oppressed by employers’ greed, and individuals like you and me can do pretty much whatever we want to do so long as we don’t stomp on others’ rights to do the same. And when I think about it, we’ve come pretty far along the way to getting that country. And we still talk about it as a definite possibility. Take heart.
QUOTES & MOTS ABOUT OUR NATION’S CAPITAL
“Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.” —John F. Kennedy
“People come to Washington believing it’s the center of power. I know I did. It was only much later that I learned that Washington is a steering wheel that’s not connected to the engine.” —Richard Goodwin
“Washington is ... a city of cocker spaniels. It’s a city of people who are more interested in being petted and admired, loved, than rendering the exercise of power.”—Elliot Richardson
“After two years in Washington, I often long for the realism and sincerity of Hollywood.” —Fred Thompson
“Washington is the only place where sound travels faster than light.”—C.V.R. Thompson
“The voters think Washington is a whorehouse and every four years they get a chance to elect a new piano player.” —Peggy Noonan
“Washington is a very easy city for you to forget where you came from and why you got there in the first place.” —Harry S Truman
The foregoing, filched from Jon Winokur’s Curmudgeon.
AS EXPECTED, THE POST CUTS BACK ON COMICS
Unexpected, Some Telling Admissions and Contradictory Strategies
When, after a century of heated and freehand rivalry with the Denver Post, the Rocky Mountain News collapsed last year (the victim of Scripps corporate—as opposed to journalistic—ambitions), the Post ran a full-page ad announcing that it would take over all of the News’ comics section. There could have been no more muscular a validation of the power of newspaper comics to do what they’d historically done—attract readers. It was obvious that the Post hoped the News comics would attract News readers to the Post subscription list. And the ploy must’ve worked: the Post initially hoped to get 80% of the News readers; it actually collected about 86%, a stunning achievement. And the seduction of the News comics surely contributed to this success.
But the Post was then running 67 comic strips and panel cartoons—more than any other newspaper in the nation. I knew from the very start that it wouldn’t last: I estimated that the Post was paying in the neighborhood of $200,000/year in syndicate fees, a whopping figure in these pinched times for newspapers. Sure enough: soon after proclaiming its 86% triumph, the Post conducted a comics poll, a survey of readers, asking them which comics they read or didn’t read. Over 18,000 readers responded last fall, and on Monday, March 1, the Post “announced” the verdict by publishing, without advance notice or fanfare, its new comics section, now just 45 strips and panels. The paper had dropped a third of its comics roster overnight.
The readership poll was used as a guideline: while it informed the Post’s decisions, it did not replace the paper’s editorial judgment, managing editor Jeanette Chavez told Michael Cavna at ComicRiffs: “A survey isn't the answer to everything,” she said, “but it certainly will give you a few clues. It gave us some idea as to which comics were least popular. We used that as a guide for determining what we doing."
It guided the paper to a massive comics dump, 22 strips and panels: Agnes, The Argyle Sweater, Brewster Rockit: Space Guy!, Candorville, Cul de Sac, Cornered, DeFlocked, Doug Eat Doug, The Elderberries, The Flying McCoys, The Fusco Brothers, Lio, Little Dog Lost, Loose Parts, Monty, Pajama Diaries, Prickly City, Rip Haywire, Rudy Park, Speed Bump, Zippy.
Many of these loses, I can happily tolerate: the Post dropped only five that I always read— Zippy, Cornered, Speed Bump, Candorville, and Cul de Sac. I wrote the Post to complain that the last two, particularly, seem unhappy omissions. Cul de Sac is widely regarded elsewhere as "the next Calvin and Hobbes” (I doubt, however, that the Post knows the strip has been nominated for the Reuben; see my diatribe on this year’s competition below); and Candorville is insightful satire on issues all too often sidelined. “At the same time,” I ranted on, “you’ve chosen to perpetuate two genuinely execrable specimens: Overboard (so badly drawn that you can’t determine what the joke is) and Drabble (which has only one joke—how stupid one of the characters is, a role, admittedly, rotated among the cast but the punchline is always the same regardless of which stupid cast member is being singled-out today). And why continue Fred Basset? —a British strip in perpetual re-run (its creator, Alex Graham, died several years ago). C’mon,” I finished, “—nobody actually reads Overboard do they?”
I don’t expect my screed will have any effect. I’m too obviously a dedicated comics fan—not, in other words, an “average reader,” the sort newspapers are always courting. Moreover, Chavez told Cavna that reader response on the first day was gratifying. "We've had calls and e-mails, but I don't think it's out of line for the number of features we dropped," she said. "And so far, it's not all over one comic. It appears we didn’t totally screw up." No single comics feature has emerged as a primary lightning-rod of discontent.
"One lady called me Monday morning and started to complain," Chavez said, after noting that the comics pages had been reconfigured with the surviving strips and panels, “Then she said: 'Wait, you have my favorite comics still here. Never mind.' "
According to the Post's polling, the 15 most popular comics were (in order of popularity):
Zits, Dilbert, Pickles, Crankshaft, For Better or Worse, Luann, Baby Blues, Blondie, Beetle Bailey, Classic Peanuts. Garfield, Sherman's Lagoon, Adam, The Family Circus, and Mother Goose and Grimm. The Post added one new strip: Dustin, by Steve Kelley and Jeff Parker. (But, alas, the newcomer arrived wholly unencumbered with any introductory explanation: it will take several days for readers to grasp the central notion of the strip—namely, that Dustin is a boomerang kid; see Opus 256. Couldn’t the Post editors have spared an orientating sentence?)
Perhaps the second most shocking thing about the new comics section on Monday morning was the presence amid the survivors of huge “advertising” strips that deployed familiar comic characters to sell advertising space.
“Advertise in the daily comics,” bellowed the ads, “and reach 753,000 adult readers!” (On Sundays, 1.1 million!) My initial shock was tinged with a vague resentment: once the paper stopped plugging the advantages of advertising in the comics section, it would have plenty of room to run the five strips I missed most. And then I realized that with this new advertising campaign, the paper was speaking, suddenly, out of the other side of its mouth.
The Post dropped 22 comics features because they weren’t popular with readers. But, on the other hand, the comics section is so irresistible to “adult” readers that it is prime advertising space. If the reader appeal of the comics section is so great, why restrict the comics section to a mere three pages? Why not reinstate the strips I mentioned, add another half dozen real stunners (9 Chickweed Lane, Arlo and Janis, Betty, The Piranha Club), and then distribute this expanded comics section over 5 or 6 pages, thereby increasing the footage that is so advantageous to advertisers?
I realize that by dropping from 67 comics features (strips and panels) to 45 the paper saves money in syndicate fees, but since the Post is continuing to use the most expensive of the comics (Zits, Doonesbury, Beetle Bailey, Blondie, etc.), the savings realized by dropping the 22 it chose to discontinue can’t be substantial: most of those discarded are not high-priced features. By reinstating Zippy, Cornered, Speed Bump, Candorville, and Cul de Sac, the over-all cost can’t be increased by that much—compared to the total bill the paper is already committed to paying. Moreover, the Post could recoup the difference by collecting more advertising revenue once it spread the comics line-up over more pages.
All of which, I also realize, requires logical thinking, something newspapers in the throes of their own imminent demise seem incapable of. (But the Post is surviving this season of economic doldrums: it reduced its over-all debt from $930 million to $165 million by negotiating with its lenders, in effect exchanging stock in the company for $765 million. The Post’s parent company, MediaNews Group, is the nation’s second largest newspaper publisher by circulation; it owns 54 daily newspapers and more than 100 non-daily newspapers as well as websites and tv and radio broadcasters in 12 states. Surely, I thought, the Post is successful enough to avoid the tunnel vision caused by the threat of extinction. Guess not.)
The ads in the comics section reveal two somewhat less nefarious chinks in the Post’s alleged thinking. First, the ads repeatedly refer to the comics’ “adult” readers. Cartoonists have known from the very beginning that their readers were adults, but for a long time, adults wouldn’t admit it—and newspaper editors aided and abetted this delusion by ignoring it. It’s therefore gratifying to at last see a newspaper’s management confess to a fact that it has for so long kept locked away in the attic like an insane maiden aunt. Secondly, notice the pitch in the faux comic strip ad, Denny Post: it aggressively attacks a rival medium’s advertising value by pointing out a recently emerging shortcoming. Television is no longer as seductive an advertising venue as it once was because now viewers can record their favorite shows and then when playing them back, fast-forward through the advertising. Newspaper advertising, in startling contrast, offers no fast-forwarding feature.
So far, however—after two weeks—I haven’t seen any ads cropping up on the comics pages. If this fails, I’ll be bitterly disappointed: I’ve been touting the advertising potential of the comics section for years. Maybe, like the Post, I’m just a voice crying in the wilderness.
The whole revamping of the comics section episode revealed one other bright spot: managing editor Chavez said emphatically during an interview on tv: “I have heard no one at this newspaper or anywhere else in the industry say that newspapers should stop publishing comics altogether.” That’s a comfort—since economic “logic” would suggest otherwise.
HOW THE REUBEN FALLS SHORT OF ITS PRESUMED PURPOSE
The National Cartoonists Society was conjured up in 1946 by a bunch of cartoonists living in or near New York who had made occasional forays during World War II to military hospitals in the area where they entertained the convalescing wounded by drawing funny pictures. On these expeditions, the cartooners surprised themselves by enjoying each other’s company, and to perpetuate the feeling after the War, they started this club of inkslingers. As we point out in Harv’s Hindsights for March 2001, the club would never have coagulated itself into being without the reluctant sponsorship of Rube Goldberg, who, in addition to giving his name to an entry in the dictionary, was the master of ceremonies for the performances in hospitals and, as such, the unofficial but nonetheless anointed leader of the band.
Rube disparaged the idea of an organization of cartoonists because he disliked organizations, and he also felt cartoonists were inherently, by genetic default, disorganized and mutinous. But he also had a good time imbibing and wise-cracking with his professional cohorts whenever they convened for their humanitarian purposes, so he finally agreed to support the idea of a cartoonists club and was soon elected the first president of what became, almost at once, the National Cartoonists Society.
Prompted by the ghosts of organizations past, some of the group formulated a “constitution” for NCS, which document also laid claim to the club’s having a “purpose.” Over the years, NCS has acquired, in the manner of any vessel afloat, a certain quantity of barnacles, all of which profess a gamut of purposes, all sounding somewhat grand. To the original idea—to promote and foster good fellowship and solidarity among cartoonists—organization-minded members added public relations when they resolved to publicize the achievements of cartoonists in order to give the profession social and artistic status. And those purposes acquired numerous ancillary purposes of a mostly charitable if diffuse nature until the club drifted, on paper, further and further away from the purpose that had most appealed to Rube Goldberg.
In actuality, NCS remains today what it had been at the beginning—a drinking club. But on paper, it still has other, more high-fallutin’ ambitions. The club should have paid more attention to Rube. As he realized instinctively, cartoonists are not good organization people. They’re not only genetically disorganized: they embody anti-establishmentarianism. Confused and mutinous, you might say. And nowhere are cartoonists’ failures at organizational thinking more conspicuously on display than in NCS’s efforts to recognize achievement in the profession by conferring awards.
It started in 1947 with the presentation of a trophy to the “best cartoonist of the year.” “Best” is a debatable proposition under any circumstance; later, the designation was changed to “outstanding cartoonist of the year,” which admits of nuances of interpretation not necessarily evocative of professional skill alone. By the mid-1950s, the club had decided one award was not enough, and in an effort to widen its embrace of its ostensible constituency, NCS began presenting a flurry of awards to cartoonists for outstanding performances in advertising, animation, sports cartoons, comic books, comic strips, editorial cartoons and single-panel newspaper cartoons and single-panel magazine cartoons. In 1960, storytelling strips were siphoned off for a category of their own, leaving “humor” strips in their own category; then in 1989, perceiving that the number of candidates for “story strips” was steadily shrinking, the two categories were recombined into one. By that time, Gasoline Alley (under Dick Moores first then Jim Scancarelli) and Prince Valiant (John Cullen Murphy) had dominated the “story strip” division for most of the preceding decade. Just as Willard Mullin and Bill Gallo dominated the “sports cartoon” category (probably because sports cartoons were dying off).
Through the next decades, the categories multiplied like gophers—magazine and book illustration, then newspaper illustration, and “new media” (probably the Web). But confusion reigned throughout (although I concede that one person’s “confusion” can be someone else’s “unending valiant quest to adapt to changing times”). “Illustration” was originally part of the “advertising” category; then it was divorced in 1976 as simply Illustration, recombined with Advertising 1982-1985, set apart as Magazine and Book Illustration in 1989 (the year Sergio Aragones won it—magazine and book illustration? Sergio?), and finally, in 1999, it was divided into two categories, Magazine Illustration and Book Illustration.
Despite the lesson that might have been derived from the multiplicity of “illustration” categories, Comic Book remained mostly a redoubt of its own from its first year in 1956 until this very year, when Graphic Novel was spun off as an artistic enterprise different from making comic books. Not that there wasn’t some confusion over the years: the category was divided into Humor and Story from 1970 through 1981, and then in 1989 and 1990, the Comic Book category disappeared, merging briefly with Magazine and Book Illustration (hence Sergio’s triumph in this unlikely category in 1989).
NCS has never been entirely comfortable with comic books—probably because comic books are produced by creative teams rather than single individuals. The organization has always harbored a bias in favor of the syndicated comic strip as the exemplar of cartooning: comic strips have traditionally been produced by individual cartoonists, whose accomplishments, as cartoonists, are therefore indisputable. The bias was debatable from the start: most bylined syndicated comic strip artists were supported by industrious assistants (Al Capp, who won the second “cartoonist of the year” designation, had a staff of at least two who drew virtually everything in Li’l Abner), and in the last decade or so, more and more comic strips carry double bylines, making the bias inexplicable to the point of absurdity.
Still, the favoritism persisted, and so when NCS approached the comic book as a manifestation of cartooning artistry, it was lost. Initially, NCS made some sound choices about comic books, conferring the category award on Jerry Robinson the first year, then Wally Wood—considering, probably, only the actual drawing of the comic books they were associated with; then Carmine Infantino, who shared, that year, with Steve Douglas (most remembered, if at all, for his production of Famous Funnies, which he edited and for which he usually drew on the cover the comic character of one of the strips reprinted within).
After that, NCS seemed to abandon discernment on the topic, handing out the award repeatedly to Will Eisner (who won it a third of the time between 1959 and 1988, his three 1950s wins presumably for the “instructional comic books” he was then producing, his only comic book endeavor of the period) or Bob Oksner or Bob Gustafson.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that NCS brought itself to recognize the work of the current generation of comic book cartoonists—starting with Frank Miller, then Todd McFarlane and including, eventually, Jeff Smith, Alex Ross, Frank Cho, Chris Ware, Stan Saki, and Terry Moore. Glancing back over that list, we can see the emergence of the graphic novel. The recent winners in the Comic Book category were not producing comic books: they were doing graphic novels, but NCS was apparently unable to see the difference until this year. This year (that is, for work produced in 2009), the club created an award category for Graphic Novel that is distinct from the Comic Book category.
But in conferring its main award, the “cartoonist of the year” award—symbolized by a statuette of anonymous cartoon figures arranged in a pyramid and called the Reuben after its designer, the afore-mentioned Goldberg (who thought, when he sculpted the pyramid, he was making a lampstand)—NCS continues to manifest the kind of errant confusion that is common to saloon arguments but unwelcome in structured organizations.
For the first twenty years, NCS gave the Reuben to genuine giants in cartooning, persons whose accomplishments in wielding the tools of their craft were indisputable: Milton Caniff (who won again 25 years later), Al Capp, Chic Young, Alex Raymond, Roy Crane, Walt Kelly, Hank Ketcham, Mort Walker, Willard Mullin, Charles Schulz (who won a second time ten years later), Herbert Block (the first editorial cartoonist to win), Hal Foster, Frank King, Chester Gould, Ronald Searle, Bill Mauldin, Dik Browne, Fred Lasswell, Leonard Starr.
In this roster of the first 19 Reuben winners, only one cartooned outside of newspaper pages. Ronald Searle. All the rest were syndicated newspaper cartoonists. And all but three made their marks with comic strips. NCS’s bias in favor of syndicated comic strip cartoonists was blatant from the beginning, and it has persisted through the club’s 54 years. Then another, subsidiary, bias surfaced.
In 1966, Otto Soglow got the Reuben. Soglow’s achievement with The Little King, a weekly pantomime strip, was considerable, but by 1966, he was pretty much going through the motions. He’s passed his prime, I’d say, however honorable a laborer in the vineyard of cartooning he may have been. Ditto, I’d say, for Frank King and Chester Gould. Soglow got the Reuben less for cartooning than for his continued participation in the machinations of NCS; King and Gould, for lifetime achievement rather than anything they’d done in the years they won. So the meaning of “outstanding cartoonist of the year” began to blur somewhat.
In 1967, the Reuben went to Goldberg, ostensibly for “humor in sculpture,” which he’d taken up in his declining years, but probably because he was the club’s Grand Old Man and hadn’t won the Reuben yet. Similarly, Walter Berndt got the nod in 1969. But it was the next winner, Alfred Andriola, that finally destroyed the meaning of the Reuben. With Andriola’s win, NCS named as the “outstanding cartoonist of the year” a person who neither drew nor wrote the comic strip, Kerry Drake, for which he presumably won the award. Probably, he got the award because he edited the NCS newsletter for quite a spell, and he was, I suppose, a “clubbable” man, convivial company in the watering holes in NCS leadership frequented.
Other distinguished cartoonists won the Reuben after that, but there were a quantity of “institutional” awards akin to the Soglow and Andriola awards. Meanwhile, some of the profession’s stellar talents were not being recognized at all. Jack Kirby never won a Reuben; never won in a category award either. Ditto Harvey Kurtzman, Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel, Jack Cole, Peter Arno, Helen Hokinson, Charles Addams, George Price, the Berenstains (Stan and Janice), Robert Osborn, David Levine, Gluyas Williams, Rea Ivin, Gardner Rea, Edward Gorey, Virgil Partch (Vip). To name a few, too few. And NCS narrowly avoided missing the opportunity to recognize Al Hirschfeld’s pace-setting work in theatrical caricature, conferring on him the newly minted Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995, just 8 years before he died after a stunning, genre-defining performance for well over half-a-century; on the basis of his work, he should have won the Reuben in the 1950s. (Hirschfeld may have contributed to his own neglect by NCS: he refused to call himself a “cartoonist,” preferring, instead, the term “caricaturist.”)
In the last few years, NCS has conferred the Reuben on a few non-syndicated cartoonists. The club was trying, but old habits die hard: the majority of winners continue to be found almost exclusively in the pages of daily newspapers to which their syndicates distribute them. Looking at this year’s nominees for the Reuben, I’m saddened and frustrated to report that NCS persists in overlooking numerous worthy candidates for “outstanding cartoonist of the year.” Saddened and frustrated because I feel that fellowship and solidarity among cartoonists would be better fostered by an award that extended honorific recognition to all of the genre in which cartoonists labor, not just in newspaper syndication.
As determined by a vote of the membership, this year’s finalists for the 2009 Reuben are: Dan Piraro for his panel cartoon Bizarro; Stephen Pastis for his strip Pearls Before Swine; and Richard Thompson for his strip Cul de Sac. All three are syndicated newspaper cartoonists.
All three do credible commercial work—they produce funny features of unconventional comedy—although Piraro and Thompson are more admirable than Pastis, whose tooth-picked olive draftsmanship bespeaks of convenience rather than ineptitude and therefore can be seen, at least by some of us easily insulted multitudes, as insulting to cartooning even while being hilarious in its affront. (And why are the characters so often apparently seated at a lunch counter or kitchen table? Is Pastis too busy elsewhere to draw feet? Toothpick feet?) Thompson’s quirky stylistic mannerism is a good part of his strip’s charm, which is considerable. I like his work, both art and comedy, a great deal; some say his strip is the new Calvin and Hobbes, and while it embodies an active imagination as a vital part of childhood, I wouldn’t go so far as to say Thompson is the new Watterson. Thompson’s comedy is different; ditto his take on childhood.
Quite apart from issues of artistry is the matter of visibility. Both Thompson and Pastis are relative newcomers: they haven’t been around long enough to be in the nation’s public eye. So what’s longevity have to do with it? Not much maybe. But I remember congratulating Sergio Aragones soon after he got his Reuben in 1997 and his response was: “I thought it was too soon.” By then, Sergio had been doing cartoons in the margins of Mad (and elsewhere) for over thirty years. Pastis has been casting his pearls before us swine for only a little over 8 years; before that, he was a beginning lawyer.
Thompson, on the other hand, has been working as a humorous illustrator for considerably longer, and his brilliantly whimsical satire strip, Richard Poor’s Almanac, has been running weekly in the Washington Post for about twelve years. Cul de Sac has been in syndication only since the fall of 2007, but Thompson had honed his comedic pen to a pretty sharp point long before that.
While experience and fame are scarcely the only criteria for awarding the Reuben, such considerations ought to heap upon among the laurels in naming “cartoonist of the year.” In contrast, Piraro has been doing Bizarro for 24 years. And he’s been active in membership roles for NCS, too—evoking, should it be necessary, the unspoken “institutional” aspect of the club’s criteria. Through visibility, proven commercial and professional stamina, service to the organization and sheer cartooning talent, Piraro deserves the Reuben. (I’m not lobbying, by the way: most, if not all, NCS members have, by now, voted their choice among the finalists. I’m simply opinionating, not lobbying.)
And as a final qualification, there are the nefarious “recurring symbols” in Bizarro—the eyeball of observation, the crown of power, the flying saucer of possibility, the lost loafer, the bunny of exuberance, the arrow of vulnerability, the inverted bird, the fish of humility, and, as depicted in the accompanying visual aid, the pie of opportunity (probably gooseberry pie, I’d say, judging from the color) which crouches near here in front of Piraro’s automobile (for that is he at the door of the vehicle, the bizarro Piraro, who draws himself, and sometimes his vivacious wife Ashley—toast of the NCS—into the cartoon a couple times a year just to remind himself that all humor, like politics, is local. Three of the Bizarro symbols—the eye, the pie, and the saucer—lurk in the corners of the God and Santa cartoons a few paragraphs ago. All these symbols, intriguing fore and aft, we’ll explain if Piraro wins the Reuben come Memorial Day weekend in Jersey City, site this year of the Reuben festivities.
Despite Piraro’s deserving of the award, he’s still another in the long line of the syndicated cartoonists whose names festoon the roster of Reuben winners.
In naming this year’s finalists, drawn from the syndicated ranks, NCS once again slights a vast acreage of cartooning endeavor, arenas of cartooning in which superior efforts have been made by highly skilled professionals typically ignored by NCS. Even a cursory perusal of the medium’s history turns up names of cartoonists whose work is more deserving of Reuben recognition than, for instance, this year’s two newcomers, however worthy—however hysterically comical—their efforts. Here are some of those neglected acres and the thus-far Reuben bypassed cartoonists who’ve distinguished themselves plowing through them:
Magazine Gag Cartoons
Charles Barsotti* (asterisk explained below, far below)
Randy Glasbergen (who is already the Champion Cartoon Nose Drawrer of the Universe)
Comic Books/Graphic Novels
(I know: these two aren’t the same, and this year, for the first time, NCS has a graphic novel division award distinct from comic books—a long-deferred step into the 20th century; next, the 21st?—but for the sake of the argument I’m making, here we go:)
Joe Kubert* (who also did newspaper strips)
Dan Spiegle* (who also did newspaper strips)
Bob Lubbers* (who also did newspaper strips)
Alison Bechdel (who, for two decades, produced a weekly strip for altie papers: Dykes to Watch Out For)
Irwin Hasen* (also did newspaper strip)
Daryl Cagle (who has formed a syndicate based in his pioneering website for editorial cartoons)
Mark Fiore, pioneering in animation
Ann Telnaes, pioneering in animation
Kevin Kallaugher (Kal)
Sam Norkin* (caricature)
Roy Doty* (advertising, illustration, and the whole ball of waxiness)
Tatsuya Ishida (Sinfest, web comic)
Scott Kurtz (PVP, web comic)
(Even if, in its everlasting myopia, NCS is resolved to stick to syndicated newspaper comic strips as the only genre that is worthy of rewarding, there are numerous strips have been around much longer than Pearls Before Swine and Cul De Sac and are at least as good if not better and some are every bit as inventive and unconventional as these two nominees; to wit:)
Bill Holbrook, On the Fastrack, Safe Havens, Kevin and Kell (not one, but three daily strips! all skillfully drawn—the last-named, a pioneering online strip)
Brooke McEldowney, 9 Chickweed Lane
Jimmy Johnson, Arlo and Janis
Tom Batiuk, Funky Winkerbean and Crankshaft
Bud Grace, Piranha Club
Russell Myers, Broomhilda
Brian Crane, Pickles
Carol Lay (individually titled by topic, altie papers)
And two guys whose contributions to the profession and the artform are monumental:
Both have received the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award (and they deserve it), but the Reuben statuette is something else—something uniquely, quaintly, cartoonish—so why shouldn’t they be treated as Jack Davis was when NCS awarded him the Reuben even after he’d won the Caniff Award? Their stature in the profession is at least that of Davis’—more, I’d say. I gather that Joe Kubert and George Booth will receive the Caniff Award this year—well deserved in both cases, but it seems, since neither has won the Reuben, almost an afterthought rather than a distinction, a sort of consolation prize offered as an apology from the club that has for so long and so persistently ignored their soaring achievements (as it did with Dale Messick, to whom it finally gave the Caniff Award in 1997).
As a member of NCS, I can’t say I’m delighted with the club’s selection this year. But that, for me, is not unusual. Too often NCS betrays in its choices its essential insularity, and whenever it does, it proclaims its failure as a professional organization and invokes its Old Boys’ Club origins. Nothing wrong with that. But it puts the Reuben in perspective, and from that angle, the designation of “cartoonist of the year” lacks professional cachet.
And now, that asterisk:
* These cartoonists are verging on expiration, and if NCS doesn’t see its way clear to giving some of them Reubens, they’ll join Jack Kirby and Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood and Jack Cole as criminally overlooked geniuses. I’m tempted to inaugurate a special Rancid Raves Hall of Fame just for the overlooked geniuses like these. (H’mm: not a bad idea, that.)
Nitfat: An earlier, vastly shorter version of the preceding rant was posted on the Comics Journal website and was noticed and its text handily abridged by Alan Gardner at DailyCartoonist, and it got a number of the faithful all wee-weed up, chiefly because I seem to be dumping on Stephan Pastis, as, indeed, I am, but with my tongue firmly in at least one cheek. Unhappily, what I started doing a few years ago—constructing an elaborate argument satirizing his lame drawing style—has evolved, nearly unnoticed by me, from a mildly amusing diatribe into what seems to be a hardcase critique. Admittedly, the satirical posture was a little stooped and perhaps therefore nearly unrecognizable; I’d hoped that the convolutions of the argument would give me away and proclaim the satire. But, alas, it didn’t. I’ve attempted a quick fix at the appropriate place in the foregoing, but I acknowledge that the fix, like most of the known universe, isn’t perfect. But I’m not going to apologize to Steve because I think he gets it. And if he gets the Reuben, too, he’ll have the last laugh.
REUBEN WINNER AT NINETY
Ronald Searle, who won the Reuben in 1960, is still among us. He was 90 on March 2, and he attributes his longevity to drinking champagne regularly. Daily. Several times a day. His favorite is a rose, Billecart-Salmon, with which he stocks his house in quantity. He lives in a little town in the south of France (Tourtour, population 150) with his second wife, Monica, a theater designer and painter, whom he met in 1958 and, in 1961, ran off with, leaving behind in England his children and his first wife, Kaye Webb, a children’s book publisher who had been largely instrumental in getting Searle’s notorious cartoons about the ravenous girls of St. Trinian’s published. Searle, according to Valerie Grove, who visited him recently, is “resigned to the ineradicable association of his name with the malicious schoolgirls.” And he has no regrets about leaving his wife and two children, both of whom were over 14 at the time. “It was a brutal decision,” Searle said, “but at 14, I was practically working myself. At 14 you are big enough to make your own life.” He’d made up his mind to leave Webb some years before but bided his time until the children were big enough.
A new anthology of his work is out (called, I think, What! Already? Searle at 90, although I’m not sure about that: couldn’t find it on the Web) from Parrot Press; and an exhibition of his work has opened in London at Chris Beetles Gallery. Later this season, I’ll tell you more about Searle’s astonishing life and career (he survived four years as a prisoner in the Japanese camp on the infamous Railway of Death in Indochina)—and I’ll review the new book (if, in fact, there is one) when I get it. At present, my errand is to regale you with a story about Searle’s winning of the Reuben. The story, which used to be told in various taverns whenever NCS habitues gathered and was fomented again in the June 1974 issue of Cartoonist PROfiles, goes like this (in italics):
Ronald Searle, the English limner of fanciful frescoes, won the Reuben for 1960. He did not attend the dinner in New York as he was busy shooting grouse or furling his umbrella. Rube Goldberg was going to Europe that year [spring 1961] and offered to surprise Searle and present the statuette in person. Rube toted the heavy sculpture aboard ship, through customs in Southampton, thence to London and from there in hired chauffeured car to Searle’s palatial digs in Surrey.
Cradling the award in his non-drawing arm, America’s most famous cartoonist gave three polite down beats on the massive bronze knocker. After a respectable minute, a liveried butler opened the door. Rube announced himself: “Rube Goldberg from America. I’ve brought the National Cartoonists’ award to Mr. Searle.”
“One moment please,” saith the butler, closing the door and leaving Rube outside to ponder on British manners. The door was opened again by the flunky who cleared his throat, looked down his nose, and said, as he took the Reuben from Rube, “Mr. Searle said to thank for this award. He is sorry, but he is too busy to see you. Good day, sir.” And Rube, after standing on the otherwise deserted stoop for a minute, left.
This amusing fable, traceable to Rube himself (who else could claim such intimate knowledge of the front stoop confrontation?), was published in the NCS newsletter in April 1974 and ended with an invitation to Searle to respond, if he ever read the article, with his version of the presentation of the Reuben in 1961. And so he did, sending a letter to PROfiles editor/publisher Jud Hurd, who forthwith published it in the next available issue of the journal under the heading “The Facts.”
The first contradictory fact was that Searle had met Rube the year before the alleged encounter with the butler. “I was living in Paddington at the time, not Surrey. I don’t remember whether Rube Goldberg wrote or telephoned ahead, but he knew where to find me in Paddington, and he brought with him an NCS silver plaque,” the division award Searle had won for Advertising Illustration for the year 1959. “This was our first meeting and we spent a pleasant afternoon chatting until he left belatedly for his next appointment. ... These are the facts, admittedly not excessively picturesque, concerning the Goldberg visit.”
The next year, on April 25, 1961, Searle was named “cartoonist of the year” at the annual NCS shindig. Searle was in the Middle East, drawing pictures about the trial of Adolf Eichmann for Life magazine and so could not attend the festivities. But the NCS prez at the time, Bill Crawford, sent Searle a cable notifying him of his newest honor, reporting that the Reuben had been accepted for Searle by the British Consulate General of New York, Allen Meredith Williams, and that arrangements would be made later for its delivery.
“I’m sure I replied immediately,” Searle wrote, “with suitable expressions of surprise and pleasure.”
Soon thereafter, he was in the U.S. on assignment for Holiday magazine, for which he regularly indulged in cartoon reportage. “It was during these two months that my longtime friend and agent John Locke got in touch with the NCS to say that I had arrived in America and would be in and out of New York until mid-July and that I would be most happy to meet and thank whoever had to be thanked for the Reuben award, which, as a cartoonist (and foreigner to boot), I was absolutely delighted to receive from my American colleagues. As far as I know, there was no mention at that point of the statuette for the simple reason that, despite Bill Crawford’s cable, I had assumed that there had always been only one Reuben and that its presentation was symbolic.
“Only several phone calls later,” Searle continued, “when increasing embarrassment became apparent at the NCS and red faces lit the skies of Manhattan, did we understand that the statuette which was presented at the Awards Dinner had been intended for me to keep but that it had disappeared that evening and had not been seen since.”
At the time of writing this response, Searle’s Reuben was still missing. But Searle went on, revealing himself to be more than Rube’s equal in wielding an impressive vocabulary in comical satire (in italics again):
Perhaps it is a pity to spoil the now hoary saga of R. Goldberg and his heartbreaking journey from dear old, safe New York to the perilous wilds of Surrey, England. The heart bleeds at the thought of this pathetic old fellow at journey’s end, weighed down by his bronze brainchild (and a monster door-knocker), being refused entrance by a haughty English flunky.
“I am Rube Goldberg! From America!” he cried.
But ears remained deaf. No doubt a surly gamekeeper hurried that frail figure through the massive gates (bronze, what else?) of the grouse-covered drive, making a final brutish gesture with his umbrella to hasten the departing chauffeur-drive car and uttering uncouth oaths into the rapidly thickening fog until he could no longer be seen.
What a pity [the traditional NCS tale] is not a good story. It lacks wit, humor and inventiveness. One would have hoped for a higher standard from the cartoon profession. Alas, the ability to draw is not necessarily accompanied by intelligence and imagination. Anyway—does the story matter? Yes it does, for one reason. On this occasion the NCS chose to give their award to a non-American artist for the first time, and it is disagreeable to be accused unjustly and inaccurately of being churlish about it.
And may the [erroneous] story die here.
RCH again: It didn’t die there, of course. It’s too good a story—the combination, Rube’s and Searle’s triumphant refutation of it. And so it joins the lore of the club as a mildly scurrilous insight into the mind and heart of legendary raconteur Goldberg and those who congealed around him in those bygone days of yore, proving that a funny story in a saloon may not be so funny to the butt of the joke.
PERSIFLAGE AND BAGATELLES
Lucy Lawless, erstwhile leather-clad Xena, Warrior Princess, is now clad in mere wisps of fabric as Lucretia in the Starz series “Sparticus: Blood and Sand,” and the new wardrobe gives her pause: baring skin onscreen, reports USA Weekend, “does make you a little more inclined to put down the doughnut.”
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, on the other hand, once looked for people who picked up doughnuts. He wants to hire people with enough self-confidence to express their views without wilting, and once, during an all-day interviewing session, he placed in his reception area a dozen powdered sugar and Krispy Kremes and told his secretary to tell applicants to help themselves, reports Al Kamen at the Washington Post. Said Roberts: “I figured anybody who had enough self-confidence to pick up a doughnut that’s glazed or with powdered sugar would be the sort of person I was interested in. I even remember saying, ‘Anybody who has a doughnut, I’ll hire.’” At the end of the day, though, no one had picked up a doughnut. “I had to go back and look at resumes,” said Roberts.
A couple months ago, I wrote a letter to the Comics Buyer’s Guide. Most of my letter was published in an ensuing issue, but the part about Thomas Nast was left out. Too bad because CBG was otherwise perpetuating the myth that Nast invented the donkey as a symbol for the Democrat Party. He didn’t, as you’ll see in a trice. Here’s the whole enchilada, which I repeat here for those amongst us who don’t see CBG:
The February issue (No. 1662) incubated a few errors of fact that, for the sake of the ever vigilant record, we might want expunged. First, Bil Keane no longer draws The Family Circus as alleged by Ray Sidman in his review of the first volume of the IDW reprint series. Bil’s son Jeff does it— all by himself, he says; although his dad passes along ideas and suggestions from time to time.
The reproduction of Thomas Nast’s 1870 rendering of the “Democratic Donkey” also caught my eye. While it’s quite true that the cartoon pictured is Nast’s first use of the jackass to symbolize the Democratic Party, he wasn’t the first to use the donkey in this way. In 1828, Andrew Jackson ran for president, espousing populist views and the slogan, “Let the people rule,” which prompted his opponents to call him a jackass.
Jackson turned the ridicule on its head and adopted the donkey as a symbol on his campaign posters. The donkey was first used to symbolize the Democratic Party in 1837, again in reference to the retired Jackson, who still aspired to lead the Party. The cartoon was entitled “A Modern Baalim and His Ass” and showed Jackson trying to get the donkey to go where he wanted it to go. Nast is often credited with inventing the Democrat donkey symbol, but, as we see, he didn’t. He did, however, invent the Grouchy Old Pachyderm as a symbol of the Republicans.
And speaking of inventions, I’m surprised that editor emeritus Maggie Thompson didn’t give Richard Kyle credit outright for minting the term "graphic novel," which he coined in November 1964 in his Wonderworld contribution to K-A No. 2. He did it to correct what he felt was a deficiency in cartooning argot. Said Kyle: "I cannot help but feel that 'comic book' and 'comic strip book' are not only inappropriate and antiquated terms with which to describe ... genuinely creative efforts" at more serious endeavors in the field ... "but are also terms which may easily prevent the early acceptance of the medium by the literary world.”
Kyle continued: “Charles Biro coined the word illustories to describe his attempts at adult 'comic book strips'; EC coined picto-fiction for a somewhat similar effort. But I believe there is a good word, already in the dictionary, which does a far better job than either of these. My Merriam-Webster defines 'graphic' as 'of or pertaining to the arts (graphic arts) of painting, engraving, and any other arts which pertain to the expression of ideas by means of lines, marks, or characters impressed on a surface.' And so, in future issues of Wonderworld, when you find me using the terms graphic story and graphic novel to describe the artistically serious 'comic book strip,' you'll know what I mean. I may even use it on some that aren't so serious."
Kyle intended by the promulgation of his coinage to give the medium greater artistic status. It was, indeed, a public relations maneuver, pure and simple. "Graphic novel" is just a high-fallutin' way of saying "comic book." But considering the reputation that "comic book" has earned over the years as jejune trash, the artform can certainly benefit from this blatant application of linguistic cosmetics as it grows away from juvenile preoccupations in content and crude amateurism in execution of the visuals—in much the same way as motion pictures benefitted from such usages as "film" and "cinema" instead of "flicks" and "movies."
In a letter to me in the late 1990s, Kyle elaborated on the need he felt then, in 1964, for a new terminology instead of the terms already in circulation (albeit not very visibly by then): "Biro and the others apparently did not think about the fundamental nature of comics or understand some of the characteristics of our language. Comics are not 'illustories'—'illustrated stories.' In comics, ideation, pictures, sound (including speech and sound effects), and indicators (such as motion lines and impact bursts), are all portrayed graphically in a single unified whole. Graphics do not 'illustrate' the story; they are the story. . . . In the graphic story, all the universe and all the senses are portrayed graphically. And 'graphic story' and 'graphic novel' say it as clearly and directly as you can—which is what American English desires with all its heart and soul."
Back in the 1960s, Kyle graduated from Capa-Alpha to Bill Spicer's magazine, Fantasy Illustrated, where he did a column called "Graphic Story Review." The first of these appeared in No. 4 of the magazine dated Summer 1965. Then in the fall of 1967, Spicer changed the name of his magazine (with Kyle's express approval) to Graphic Story Magazine. Although Spicer did not invent the term "graphic novel," his widely circulated magazine surely promoted the use of the term.
Will Eisner is often credited with promoting the use of the term “graphic novel” for the long-form comic book, and his 1978 Contract with God is usually cited as the first more-or-less contemporary appearance of the term. But “graphic novel” did not appear anywhere in the first printing of the book: not in the front matter, and not on the cover, as CBG’s illustration depicts it. The first printing did not have a dust jacket: it was hardcover, no cover illustration, no “graphic novel” on the cover. CBG’s illustration comes from the second edition of the book, which followed the plain-cover first edition very quickly, and by then, Eisner had been reminded by someone that “graphic novel” was in use to describe the book he’d authored.
Finally, with respect to Shel Dorf’s storied career as founder of the San Diego Comic-Con, I was delighted to learn, thanks to Maggie, that Shel made Entertainment Weekly’s list of 2009's distinguished departed. The Comic-Con obit does, indeed, link to my biography of Shel, which I produced for the Con’s souvenir program last summer while he was still alive. My obit for Shel is much longer and covers other aspects of his life and career; it appears in The Comics Journal’s new website, tcj.com, and an even longer version (with greater detail about Shel’s attempts to produce a syndicated comic strip) appears at this very website, Opus 251.
Fitnoot: Last time in our grandiose survey of comics by and about African Americans, we opined that the Saturday Evening Post stories by Octavus Roy Cohen had been illustrated by J.J. Gold. And that may still be true. But I have since procured a copy of one of Cohen’s collections of such tales, entitled Polished Ebony, which includes four illustrations by H. Weston Taylor, who, you’ll recall, drew the comic strip Cohen wrote, Tempus Todd. The strip, it sez here, started in 1920, and the book is copyrighted 1919. The book illustrations apparently preceded the comic strip. Moreover, the pictures here look an awful lot like I remember the illustrations of the Post stories looking. So maybe Taylor did most of those and Gold just a few. Verdict pending.
Short Reviews and/or Proclamations of Coming Attractions
Ted Rall announced that he has completed his new political manifesto, “which argues that the United States government is headed toward economic and political collapse, and must, well, go. It is now being edited and will come out in the fall from Seven Stories Press. Editorial cartoonist and graphic illustrator Matt Bors is working on the cover. Title to be announced: it’s currently too hot to release!” Rall is trying to raise funding for another of his reportorial trips to the Afghanistan region; visit his site for particulars. ... The comic book works of legendary fantasy artist Frank Frazetta are about to surface again: Vanguard Productions announced that it is bringing out a line of Frazetta compilations, including a new edition of the 1988 Frazetta: The Definitive Reference, “a richly illustrated index of every Frazetta work ever published, plus a Frank Frazetta Sketchbook; and more—all in library-quality collections fully authorized by Frazetta.”
The SQP volume Girls on Top: The Pin-up Art of Matt Dixon (48 9x12-inch pages, full-blown ravenous color; $14.95) offers about 48 full-page, heavy-breasted examples of the pin-up art of Matt Dixon, including one page devoted to a step-by-step demonstration of how he colors and completes one of his masterpieces. Dixon’s pin-ups, like many of the genre, are distinguished by the bountiful dimensions of his maidens. But Dixon, a British illustrator working professionally since 1988, adds a psychological dimension: “Perhaps,” he writes in the book’s early pages, “my girls don’t look all that different from those defenseless fantasy babes [who lounge around in dishabille, waiting rescue by hairy-chested barbarians]. I’ve certainly drawn my fair share of tin bikinis and breasts that miraculously remain contained despite being restrained by no more than a scrap of fur and a prayer, but the difference isn’t in costume or the curves, it’s in the attitude. Attitude is something I try to give my pin-up girls plenty of. Generous scoops of hell-raising, fun-loving, ass-kicking, lip-curling, high volume heavy metal attitude. ... Painting these girls has been a lot of fun. I hope they’re fun to look at too.”
They are that, due largely to Dixon’s sense of humor. Most of his wimmin (none
of whom are entirely, nipple-baring nekid in this book) either display a fine comedic
sense themselves or are portrayed in circumstances that include a sly grin. In this
example, for instance, —if you aren’t too otherwise distracted—notice the expression
on the face of the enthroned demon.
A new omnibus compilation of 2,000 cartoons from Britain’s venerable Punch magazine, The Best of Punch Cartoons (608 9x11-inch pages, b/w; Prion hardcover, $60) came out in 2008: this is the Best of Punch Cartoons edited by Helen Walasek, not any of the numerous other collections with virtually the same title. Walasek divides the content into time periods and precedes the show with the briefest of introductions, which, despite the brevity, manages to explain how the word cartoon, meaning a humorous drawing, was derived from the Italian cartone, meaning preliminary drawing, through the inadvertent machinations of the magazine, which submitted several “cartoons” (mock preliminary drawings) in a contest held in 1843 to select mural decorations for the newly constructed Houses of Parliament. The first of the satirical sketches, by John Leech, was labeled, with startling prescience, “Cartoon No. 1.” It and its Punch successors in the mural contest were amusing enough to result in all humorous drawings in the magazine (previously termed “pencilings”) being called “cartoons” ever after.
It is a matter of supreme gratification to me to observe that the Leech drawing, the official “first cartoon” in the history of the medium, is one in which the verbal-visual blending is thoroughly interdependent: the meaning and import of the caption, “Substance and Shadow,” referring to the actual wretches in the cartoon and to the paintings, the shadows, they contemplate, is achieved through the picture, and the picture acquires greater significance by virtue of the caption. Neither words nor picture make the same sense alone without the other—a perfect exemplar of the best that cartooning can achieve.
At appropriate intervals through the visual history, Walasek collects a couple pages exemplifying the work of various Punch cartoonists, including several of my favorites—the incomparable Fougasse, and H.M. Bateman, E.H. Shepard, Rowland Emett, Norman Thelwell, Ronald Searle (who, at 90, is still alive and reveals that champagne is the secret to long life in an interview with Valerie Grove at entertainment.timesonline.co.uk)—and, in other short sections, features some of the magazine’s zanier efforts on such topics as Early Motoring, The Space Race, Holidays, and, finally, Lemmings.
Just received here at Rancid Raves Intergalactic Wurlitzer, IDW’s elegant reprinting of Jack Kent’s supremely fanciful King Aroo, which, up until now, has been available only in an antique Doubleday reprint of 1953. This brick-sized door-stopper re-issue (340 7x9-inch landscape-bound pages, b/w; $39.99) is another of the publisher’s deliciously packaged Library of American Comics—sparkling reproduction from the inaugural strip on November 13, 1950 through November 1, 1952, with delightful and informative introductory material, both text by Bruce Canwell and accompanying illustrations (photos, drawings, sketches, preliminary oeuvre). But it’s Kent’s strip, a whimsical feast of puns, sight gags, and fast-footwork slapstick, that will win you over. I hope to do more on Kent and his postage-stamp sized kingdom, Myopia, at some later, perhaps distant, time; for now, though, buy the book for the sake of your own salvation.
Another new arrival here along the majestic Front Range is Garfield from the Trash Bin (128 8.5x11-inch pages, b/w; Ballantine paperback, $14), a round-up of “rescued rejects and outrageous out takes” from Jim Davis’ comic strip factory near Muncie, Indiana. “The book contains gross gags, crass cartoons, sick sketches, and truly tasteless trash” produced by Davis and his collaborators, Brett Koth, Gary Barker, and Scott Nickel with additional artistic support from Linda Duell and Kenny Goetzinger, while ostensibly engaged in the business of generating gags for the Garfield comic strip. Not all gags generated are publishable—especially under the ground rules imposed by Davis, who convenes monthly gag-writing sessions during which he and Koth (and probably others) brainstorm without inhibition whatever seems funny, which, as time and participants wear on, becomes more and more hysterical and less and less suitable for family consumption. The drawing herein is all of the sketch variety—pencils and some quick inks—and is without doubt the liveliest Garfield art you’ll ever see. Koth, who is one of the chief pencilers in this compilation, is a fugitive from animation, and his frenetically moving targets decorate and enhance every page they appear on. But all the art is loose and happy, a treat of vast and hilarious dimensions. This is not a reprint tome: it is a collection of never-before-seen-or-published cartoon art, without, for now, peer.
With The Sandman by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (302 7x10-inch pages, color; DC hardcover, $39.99) historic comic book stories are finally being reproduced as they should be: these pages have been photographed (or, digitally scanned) directly from the original comic books—no bleaching out the color to create scabrous faux black-and-white “art” for clumsy retouching. And the paper they’re printed on is a breed of newsprint. Other reprint tomes have done the same, I ween, but it’s nice to have one in my very own hands at last; this volume presents the Simon and Kirby Sandman in as close to the state of the original issues as possible. The results are sometimes flawed: blemishes on the original comic book pages are reproduced here, exactly; where colors fade or black lines smudge, the same happens here. But that scarcely matters to those of us who buy old comic books in order to read the stories and luxuriate in contemplating the art of pioneering masters: we’re happy with the way the material appeared initially, so a book like this that reproduces that initial appearance exactly is just fine.
The book is introduced by John Morrow, whose TwoMorrows publishing house has produced since 1994 The Jack Kirby Collector, making Morrow one of the world’s experts on Kirby. (The other is Mark Evanier, who provides an insightful epilogue that includes a funny anecdote about Paul Norris, who preceded Simon and Kirby on Sandman and who imagined for over 50 years that he’d met Simon in 1942 but, as Evanier is able to relate, didn’t.) Morrow tells how Simon and Kirby, wanting to leave Timely, for which they had created Captain America, for more lucrative profit-sharing at DC Comics, made their deal with DC and then moonlighted trying to create new features while still doing Captain America during the day—until Martin Goodman found out and summarily canned them.
The reason for buying this book, however, is neither Morrow’s history or Evanier’s insights: it’s the Sandman stories as they first appeared, narrative and art, March 1942 to December 1945, in Adventure Comics, Nos. 72-101, with a couple from World’s Finest (Nos. 6 and 7). And the art is some of Kirby’s most exuberant and animated, ample evidence of the visual excitement that so inspired the rest of the four-color pulp artists in those days of yesteryear. Kirby always did the pencils, but Simon wasn’t always the inker. By Simon’s own testimony in his autobiography, The Comic Book Makers, Kirby was inked by a parade of freelancers and moonlighters. My guess is that Simon inked the first story or so here, then surrendered the brush to others; by the end of the book, the kind of feathering that Simon did has disappeared, and the modeling is done by chips of black shadow, a distinctive Kirby trait.
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
One of life’s great joys is in watching the human sapien (sic) at work and play. Here, for instance, is a report from the Associated Press about the Catholic Church getting its wattles in an uproar because a Rome high school decided to install condom vending machines in its ivied halls. The school maintains the presence of the machines will curb teen pregnancy and stop the spread of HIV. The Church says the installations will encourage young people to have sex. Well, sure: everyone knows that. There’s nothing like the sight of a condom dispensing machine to set hormones raging.
Wall Street villain Goldman Sachs Group Inc. “added something new to the laundry list of financial risks it faces: unflattering attention,” reported Joe Bel Bruno someplace on the Web. “In its annual report, the New York company said ‘adverse publicity’ could have ‘a negative impact on our reputation and on the morale and performance of our employees, which could adversely affect our businesses and results of operations.’ The unusual disclosure in a 12-page section of ‘risk factors’ ranging from rocky financial markets to natural disasters is the latest sign of Goldman's whipping-boy status among rivals, lawmakers and angry Americans because of the firm's giant profits.” If it isn’t one thing, it’s something else.
At the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus, zero-tolerance has gone just a tense too far, according to the Denver Post. “Signs around campus now warn students that Nerf gun sightings will be treated like real gun sightings. Seriously. ... Those zany college kids have started playing a game called ‘Humans vs. Zombies,’ similar to tag, in which humans shoot zombies with Nerf guns.” The article reporting this advance in campus security was illustrated with a picture of a Nerf gun, which doesn’t look at all like any real gun. No matter: they’re banned. But the resilience of the collegial crowd is, if not legendary, at least comically confrontational: students have begun responding to the ban by “pelting each other with rolled up tube socks.” Next, they’ll start throwing wadded-up underpants, I suppose.
Critiques & Crotchets
One for the Ages—Not Quite
Mike Peters’ caricature of one of political cartooning’s pantheon, the longtime Washington Post editoonist Herbert Block (Herblock), is hilarious almost beyond description. I don’t know when or why Peters drew this picture, but it speaks volumes. First, it clearly states Herblock’s opinion of Richard M. Nixon: Nixon is a prick. I hesitated, at first, going beyond that in interpreting the image. At first blush, it seems to portray Herblock as a flasher, taking great pride in his genitals—implying, thereby, that Herblock’s reputation is built on his relentless ridicule of Nixon. I think that may sell Herblock a little short: he was a great editorial cartoonist before Nixon took office—and long after Nixon left. But to see Herblock as a flasher applies the psychology of such perversions too literally. Herblock is not “flashing”: he’s “exposing” himself—or, more precisely, he’s exposing Nixon for what he really is, a prick. But the imagery here connects Herblock to his unfaltering assault on Nixon in a way that deftly characterizes Nixon and the relationship between the cartoonist and his target.
I’ve accompanied Peters’ prescient Herblock caricature with a cartoon by William O’Brien that I ran across in an aged issue of True magazine. The composition of the drawing puts the nose of the non-speaking “groom” in an genital position, and O’Brien’s way of drawing men’s noses exacerbates the unfortunate allusion, reminding me of Peters’ Herblock, so I stuck O’Brien in here. But, as it turns out, the inclusion adds nothing to this discourse except distraction.
Peters’ picture is canny enough that it could well serve as the cover of the new biography, Herblock: The Life and Work of the Greatest Political Cartoonist by Haymes Johnson and Harry Katz (304 9x11-inch pages, b/w; Norton hardcover, $35), which volume does, indeed, have on its cover a caricature of Nixon, one of Herblock’s. As Herblock’s nemesis, Nixon is now so frequently associated with the thrice-winning Pulitzer cartoonist that they have become, in the history of political cartooning, a pair, a set, neither half of which can appear as effectively without the other. But the book at hand, spanning Herblock’s 73-year career, happily reduces the part played by Nixon to a realistic proportion of the whole. The volume was produced in connection with an exhibition of 100 of Herblock’s cartoons at the Library of Congress last year. Intended, doubtless, as a tribute to the cartoonist, the book falls considerably short of being a suitable memorial. The reproduction of the cartoons, for instance, is uneven: some of the drawings look smudged and the linework is sometimes clogged and blotchy-looking—as if the scanner didn’t have enough pixels or, perhaps, the cartoon is reproduced from a version printed on newsprint rather than from original art. Herblock’s message, always powerful and succinct, survives, but no thanks to the editors or publishers of this tome.
Johnson, a Pulitzer winner himself, writes an introductory segment about Herblock, with whom he was a long-time colleague at the Washington Post. Considering the presumed length of their association, the essay is almost entirely devoid of the kind of insightful office anecdotes that would help us to know the cartoonist. Katz, curator of the Herb Block Foundation’s collection of Herblock cartoons and a former curator in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, writes about the cartoonist’s place in the history of American editorial cartooning; he does a somewhat better job at his assignment than Johnson does at his, but the brevity of his essay, necessarily cursory but adequate to its purpose, skimps the subject. Casting modesty aside with a single bound, I offer my own essay on Herblock, Harv’s Hindsight “Herbert L. Block” in the fall of 2001, as a better appreciation of the cartoonist and his place in the history of editorial cartooning—adding, hastily, that my essay’s insights are derived entirely from the work of others, those who wrote feelingly about Herblock in their obituary notices at his death that fall.
Given the book’s shortcomings, we might well ask why the volume was produced at all. Except for the invaluable DVD that accompanies this book—wherein over 18,000 of Herblock’s cartoons can be found, in chronological order, beginning with his earliest efforts in 1928 as “Bert Block” (the only reason to buy the book)—the book offers nothing that cannot be found better displayed or developed in one of Herblock’s own periodic collections of cartoons (ten volumes, starting with The Herblock Book in 1952, each fully annotated by the cartoonist’s narrative text) or in his autobiography, Herblock: A Cartoonist’s Life (from which we learn Herblock feels indebted for the advice once given by Blondie’s Chic Young: “(1) You can tell if the ink on a drawing is still wet by rubbing your hand over it; and (2) If you spill drawing ink on the carpet, it can be removed with a pair of scissors”).
In his autobiography, Herblock also reveals that the trick of his signature—combining first and last names by pivoting on the single common letter, B—was his father’s suggestion, which was offered when, as a teenager, young Herb was submitting “paragraphs” to a contributor’s column in a local Chicago paper. Contributors often hid behind pen names: Herb’s brother Richard, whose initials were R.M.B, signed his contributions “Rumba.”
I learned how to draw wrinkles in clothing by looking at Herblock cartoons (a few quick zig-zag lines at the elbow and knee serve perfectly as visual shorthand and eliminate entirely the tedious task of trying to copy the way wrinkles actually work) so my disappointment with the Johnson-Katz book is personal: I wish my “mentor” (however unbeknownst to him) had been better memorialized than this.
Still, we can glean an occasional gem from the book. From a section quoting Herblock, there’s this capsule on the function of the editoonist: “Cartooning is an irreverent form of expression, and one particularly suited to scoffing at the high and the mighty. If the prime role of a free press is to serve as critic of government, cartooning is often the cutting edge of that criticism.”
And here’s Johnson’s summary: “Herblock was far more than a mere chronicler of events; he had the rare talent of the great artist, the playwright, or the novelist that enables people to understand the significance of what was taking place as well as the stakes involved. Even more important he had an uncanny ability to anticipate, and to influence, the forces transforming national life: the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the feminist movement, the environmental movement, the consumer movement. In all this, he was the most prescient of national commentators.”
And that, perhaps, is enough—except for Herblock himself, and so we herewith post a few of his cartoons, including some of his own caricatures of himself (just to end this diatribe in somewhat the same vein as we started).
A RAFT OF REPRINTINGS. IDW, which got into reprinting classic comic strips for its Library of American Comics with such vintage works as Terry and the Pirates, Scorchy Smith, Dick Tracy, and Little Orphan Annie, has taken up more recent “classics”—namely, Alex Raymond’s Rip Kirby (which we reviewed in Opus 253), Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County and Bil Keane’s The Family Circus. The latter began in 19 papers on February 29, 1960, and is edging up to its 50th anniversary in over 1,500 papers. The Circus tome reprints in strict chronological order the first two years of Keane’s cartoons (many of which have never been reprinted), ending with the release for December 31, 1961, and beginning with a short biography that traces the cartoonist’s early career with the Philadelphia Bulletin and his first syndicated feature, Channel Chuckles. In 1954, Chuckles was the first newspaper cartoon about the medium newspapers at first feared would render them obsolete; by the mid-1950s, however, newspapers had reconciled themselves to living with their competition and had introduced tv program listings and gossip columns in special television sections, into which Channel Chuckles fit handily.
The biographical text, written by Keane’s fourth offspring, Christopher, is accompanied by samples of Keane’s other early works, including Family Circus’ immediate predecessor: called Spot News, it was a pantomime gag that highlighted some recently reported event. Unhappily, given the lead time that syndicated cartoons require, 4-5 weeks before publication date, Spot News couldn’t be very topical, and it soon faded. But an aspect of its design lingered: the cartoon appeared always in a smallish circle, which newspapers could insert as an “ear” above their front page masthead. Keane liked the circle—a visual novelty that almost guaranteed attracting a reader’s attention no matter where it appeared in a newspaper—and he next produced family jokes in a circle. Now, he had arrived at a subject he was intimately familiar with.
In 1948, Keane had married the girl he met while stationed in Australia during World War II, and he and Thelma (nee Carne) started a family, which, by 1960, included five children, four boys and their older sister—a circumstance fraught with gag material for a family-focused cartoon. (Bil’s brother Bob lived next door with his nine children. Those Keane boys, gluttons for punishment.) Keane had continued to do Spot News while preparing The Family Circus: the syndicate’s plan was to launch Family Circus by switching it for Spot News, slipping it into the syndicate pipeline while hoping client papers would continue the circular cartoon with its new focus. And it worked: “Newspaper editors hardly grumbled about the swapped feature. They liked the new material and found room for the new comic inside their papers.” The feature’s title, however, created a small surmountable problem.
Keane had christened the cartoon The Circle Family, but his editor at the syndicate thought The Family Circle would be better. Within six months of its launch, the cartoon attracted the attention of the legal department at Family Circle magazine, which threatened to sue. Keane had his editor pondered a host of other title possibilities before Keane opted for The Family Circus, which, he said, “better described his own life experience.” The new title debuted August 15, 1960.
The Family Circus cartoons in the book are all dated, a boon to historians. In the early years of the cartoon, as we can see from the samples I’ve collected near here, the pater familia has a somewhat different look—a much more bulbous nose being the most conspicuous. “He looked like a big fat clumsy guy,” said Keane’s son Jeff. In appearance, he evoked the star of another earlier Keane cartoon called The Master. “The title,” Christopher explained, “was an ironic take on a father being more of an indentured dupe than master of the house. The gags focused on a constantly bemused, bewildered, and often put-upon dad.” But the father of The Family Circus was no dupe: he was simply an ordinary dad, and over the ensuing years, he eventually looked more and more like Bil Keane. The nose got smaller, and “Father” started wearing horn-rimmed eye glasses. “Mother,” however, didn’t change much (although her hair-do achieved its stylized set after just a year or so). And in deference to her model, Thel, she always had a superb figure.
Jeff Keane began an apprenticeship on the panel some years ago and now does the cartoon solo. His father helps—“He’ll send me some roughs and some ideas and things,” Jeff told ICv2.com recently. “He’s not as involved as he used to be. My mom passed away on Memorial Day 2008. Since then he’s been less hands-on than he used to be. But he’s still there, he still reads, and he still tells me if I do anything wrong.”
The ICv2.com interviewer estimated that more than 18,000 Family Circus cartoons have been published and wondered how Jeff keeps the feature fresh.
“We don’t necessarily avoid repeating,” Jeff said. “I think a good thing with our cartoon is that families don’t change much as far as their feelings for each other and the love and all of that stuff. The environment certainly changes around them. I will redo cartoons that have been done before but have them seem more current—change the tv to a flat screen tv or have them talking about Facebook or change the dialogue. There are always new things. My dad has a whole file of gags and things that he had saved from when we were growing up. I’ve got a whole file from when my kids were growing up. So I use those and play off them.
“The main thing is to maintain the family feel,” he continued. “It’s not necessarily a ‘ha ha’ joke. My dad always said it’s a tug at the heart or a lump in the throat. Sometimes that’s a more effective cartoon, and that, I think, is the unique quality of Family Circus. With this book, you can see in those early years it was much more of a gag-a-day type of cartoon. As the years go by, all of a sudden you’ll see where there’s a sort of a sentimentality that’s there and a true love for each other that starts to get expressed. I think that really came through from my mom. My dad realized that sort of the unique quality of this particular cartoon was his ability not to be afraid to make something emotional as opposed to just a joke.”
Asked which cartoonists his father admired, Jeff said: “He idolized George Lichty [Grin and Bear It] and George Price [New Yorker] when he started cartooning. He says his favorite cartoonist working today is me.”
A mystery unexplained in the book is why Keane’s first name has only one “L.” Fellow cartoonist Mell Lazurus claims Bil used to have two L’s but he, Lazurus, stole one of them.
Of the lot of IDW’s “complete reprintings,” only Terry and Scorchy have been completed (the latter in a single volume), but that isn’t stopping IDW. Another classic, which I’ve just received and will review soon, is George McManus’ Bringing Up Father from 1939-40; subtitled “From Sea to Shining Sea,” the volume features Jiggs and Maggie and their daughter Nora on a tour of the U.S., which McManus and his long-time assistant Zeke Zekley reported by including in the strip recognizable landmarks from every city their cast visited. The second volume of Alex Raymond’s revered Rip Kirby is in the works, as ... And another collection of never-before-reprinted Krazy Kat daily strips by George Herriman is in the offing: Krazy and Ignatz in Tiger Tea revisits the daily sequence in which Krazy acts krazier than usual because he has imbibed a psychedelic brew. The first volume in IDW’s Bloom County series came out last fall, and I haven’t seen it; but it purports to contain ample annotation to explain the topical references that lace Breathed’s strip.
ONWARD, THE SPREADING PUNDITRY
The Thing of It Is ...
The Greedy Ogre Pachyderm is all in a hot swivet because O’Bama and the Dems seem poised to deploy a convoluted parliamentary procedure known as “reconciliation” in the Senate to get the health care reform bill passed with a simple majority of 51 votes instead of a super majority of 60 votes. This, the GOP whines, is “tyranny of the majority.” What? Here all this time I thought majority rule was one of your fundamental precepts of democracy. No matter.
While painting this operation as a grossly undemocratic one, the GOP pretends, all the while, that they (oh, heavens to betsy no!) have never used it themselves. But they have. According to the Associated Press, reconciliation has been used 22 times since 1980: 7 times by a Democrat majority Congress, and 15 times by a Republican-controlled Congress. In other words, the GOP committed this sin more than twice as often as the Dems. Oh, for shame!!!
But O’Bama has positioned himself to steer around the R-word, invoking the expression “majority vote.” In that spirit, he stumped for the health care reform bill on Wednesday, March 3, saying: “I believe the United States Congress owes the American people a final vote on health care reform ... the same kind of up-or-down vote that was cast on welfare reform, that was cast on the Children’s Health Insurance Program, that was used for COBRA health coverage for the unemployed and, by the way, for both Bush tax cuts—all of which had to pass Congress with nothing more than a simple majority.” By “reconciliation,” another word which dare not speak its name.
Finally, we have the antiquated Senate rule about fillibustering: you need 60 votes to shut up the long-distance bloviators. The Democrats describe this requirement for a “super majority” as a threat to the nation; but when they had the super majority, they used it to block various schemes of Newt Gingrich. All of which proves: you can’t trust anything those politicians, regardless of stripe, say.
Cartooner Rob Tornoe wrote at his blog that the Bush League years were “good for more than just oilfield-services companies and waterboard manufacturers. They were also a boon for liberal political magazines, whose circulation soared on the wings of the Bush hatred that swept much of the country. The paid circulation (subscriptions plus newsstand sales) of The Nation nearly doubled from 2001 to 2005, that of Mother Jones rose by 37 percent, and that of Harper’s by 7 percent.” A lurking wit added: “Don't forget private military companies. Half of our presence in Afghanistan has been outsourced. War is a lot more tolerable both on the right and on the left if we pay someone else to do it for us.”
GLYPH AWARDS NOMINEES FOR 2010
The 2010 Glyph Comics Awards nominees have been announced. The Glyph Comics Awards, it sez here, “recognize the best in comics made by, for, and about people of color from the preceding calendar year. While it is not exclusive to black creators, it does strive to honor those who have made the greatest contributions to the comics medium in terms of both critical and commercial impact.” The Glyph goal “is to encourage more diverse and high quality work across the board and to inspire new creators to add their voices to the field.”
The Glyph Awards are given each year at the East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention (www.ecbacc.com), a gathering of comic book creators and retailers who create and sell material that caters to black readers of all ages. In addition to selling their work, they also take part in panel discussions and self-publishing workshops for aspiring creators. The show is held in Philadelphia each May. ECBACC is an outgrowth of the original Black Age of Comics Convention in Chicago, founded by Turtel Onli.
Here are the nominees for work published in 2009:
Story of the Year
Luke Cage Noir; Mike Benson & Adam Glass, writers; Shawn Martinbrough, artist
The Original Johnson; Trevor von Eeden, writer and artist
Unknown Soldier #13-14; Joshua Dysart, writer, Pat Masioni, artist
War Machine: Iron Heart; Greg Pak, writer, Leonardo Manco, artist
World of Hurt, Jay Potts, writer and artist
Joshua Dysart, Unknown Soldier
Jeremy Love, Bayou
Greg Pak, War Machine
Jay Potts, World of Hurt
Alex Simmons, Archie & Friends
Chriscross, Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance
Jeremy Love, Bayou
Shawn Martinbrough, Luke Cage Noir
Jay Potts, World of Hurt
Trevor von Eeden, The Original Johnson
Best Male Character
Black Lightning, Black Lightning Year One; Jen van Meter, writer, Cully Hamner, artist; created by Tony Isabella & Trevor von Eeden
Isaiah Pastor, World of Hurt; created by Jay Potts, writer and artist
Jack Johnson; The Original Johnson; Trevor von Eeden, writer and artist; inspired by the life of Jack Johnson
Luke Cage, Luke Cage Noir; Mike Benson & Adam Glass, writers, Shawn Martinbrough, artist; created by Archie Goodwin & John Romita Sr.
Moses Lwanga, Unknown Soldier #13-14; Joshua Dysart, writer, Pat Masioni, artist; inspired by the character created by Robert Kanigher & Joe Kubert
Best Female Character
Aya, Aya: The Secrets Come Out; created by Marguerite Abouet, writer, Clement Oubrerie, artist
Lee Wagstaff, Bayou; created by Jeremy Love, writer and artist
Michonne, The Walking Dead; created by Robert Kirkman, writer, Charlie Adlard & Cliff Rathburn, artists
Misty Knight, Immortal Iron Fist; Duane Swierczynski, writer, Travel Foreman & Tom Palmer, artists; created by Tony Isabella & Arvell Jones
Nola Thomas, NOLA; created by Chris Gorak & Pierluigi Cothran, writers, Damian Couceiro, artist
Rising Star Award
Jiba Molei Anderson, The Horsemen
John Aston, Rachel Rage
Kerry & Tawanda Johnson, Harambee Hills
Julian Lytle, Ants
Jay Potts, World of Hurt
Best Reprint Collection
Aya: The Secrets Come Out; Drawn & Quarterly
Bayou Volume 1; DC/Zuda
Icon: A Hero’s Welcome; DC/Milestone
The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the 21st Century; Dark Horse
Static Shock: Rebirth of the Cool; DC/Milestone
Final Crisis Aftermath: Ink #1; Brian Stelfreeze, illustrator
Luke Cage Noir #1; Tim Bradstreet, illustrator
The Original Johnson; Trevor von Eeden, illustrator
Unknown Soldier #8; Dave Johnson, illustrator
Unknown Soldier #10; Dave Johnson, illustrator
Best Comic Strip
Bayou; Jeremy Love, writer and artist
Jump Start; Robb Armstrong, writer and artist
The K Chronicles; Keith Knight, writer and artist
The Knight Life; Keith Knight, writer and artist
World of Hurt; Jay Potts, writer and artist
Fan Award for Best Comic
Adam: Legend of the Blue Marvel; Kevin Grevioux, writer, Mat Broome, Sean Parson & Alvaro Lopez, artists
Black Lightning Year One; Jen Van Meter, writer, Cully Hamner, artist
Final Crisis Aftermath: Ink; Eric Wallace, writer, Fabrizio Fiorentino, artist
Luke Cage Noir; Mike Benson & Adam Glass, writers, Shawn Martinbrough, artist
War Machine: Iron Heart; Greg Pak, writer, Leonardo Manco, artist
The Judges for the 2010 Competition Are: David Brothers, comics blogger, 4th Letter!; Carol Burrell, editorial director, Graphic Universe/Lerner Publishing Group; Brian Cronin, writer, Comic Book Resources; and Katie & Dan Merritt, co-owners, Green Brain Comics.
The ballot for the Fan Award for Best Comic is now open at the website for the East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention (ECBACC), ecbacc.com/wordpress, and will remain open through March 31, 2010. Write-in selections can be e-mailed to GCA Committee Chair Rich Watson at email@example.com. Important: Write-in selections are ONLY for choices not on the online ballot. Any write-in selections for choices already on the online ballot will not be counted and will be discarded.
The 2010 GCA ceremony will be held May 15, 2010, in the Skyline Room of the Free Library of Philadelphia, Park Central branch, as part of ECBACC, which will take place at the Crown Plaza Philadelphia Center City, May 16, 2010.
The awards derive their name from the blog Glyphs: The Language of the Black Comics Community (http://glyphs.popcultureshock.com), started in 2005 by comics journalist Rich Watson as a means to provide news and commentary of comics with black themes, as well as tangential topics in the fields of black science-fiction/fantasy and animation.
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
Clipped from the Web: Just in case you weren't feeling too old today. The people who are starting college this fall were born in 1991.
They are too young to remember the space shuttle blowing up.
Their lifetime has always included AIDS.
The CD was introduced two years before they were born.
They have always had an answering machine.
They have always had cable.
Jay Leno has always been on the “Tonight Show.”
Popcorn has always been microwaved.
They never took a swim and thought about “Jaws.”
They don't know who Mork was or Mindy or where they were from.
They never heard: 'Where's the Beef?', 'I'd walk a mile for a Camel ', or 'de plane Boss, de plane'.
McDonald's never came in Styrofoam containers.
They don't have a clue how to use a typewriter.
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