Opus 127 (November 16, 2003). Special features this time include a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of bubble gum's Bazooka Joe (whose mysterious origins have erotic connections) and a review of a reprint of Rick Stromoski's maniac Soup to Nutz (with an accompanying examination of the dubious danger to kids of pornography). Also this week we have Berke Breathed staking out Opus' half-page turf and managing, at the same time, to insult all other working cartoonists-which prompts Mort Walker to respond; the Rush-beau and Harv's conservative imperative; Pekar's talk show, Miss Liberty's bosom, Marlette's lament for the First Amendment, Herman's 30th, McGruder's truth, Eliopolous' return, and Raymond's Profili. Not to mention George W. ("Whopper") Bush.
BIRTHDAY BAZOOKA BOY. Bubble gum is seventy-five years old this year, sharing an anniversary year with Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse. Bubble gum is pink, saith its inventor, another Walt (Diemer), because "it's the only color I had at the time." Frank Henry Fleer had concocted a "wet" bubble gum in 1906, but it was Diemer who figured out how to produce it in "dry"-portable and package-able-form. Diemer worked for Fleer's, which sold the gum for a penny a packet as Double Bubble. Gum had been around a long time, thanks to the Aztecs who chewed chicle, dried sap from the sapodilla tree, but it didn't get popular in this country until Mexican warlord Santa Anna came to New York sometime after wiping out that band of Texans at the Alamo and made a deal with Thomas Adams, who subsequently mass-produced an unsweetened gum ball called Adams' New York Gum. In 1871, Adams patented a gum-making machine and added licorice to the formula, creating Adams' Black Jack gum, which is still around today (although not everywhere chewing gum is sold, alas). I don't know when Santa Anna came to New York because I'm relying entirely on Bhob Stewart for this data, gleaned from an article he wrote in Blab No. 3 in 1988, and he doesn't mention dates for this event.
He does mention a lot of other dates, however, and I'm indebted to him and his unrelenting research passion for all the information I'm retailing here. Stewart's chief interest in 1988 was not the history of chewing gum: it was, instead, the history of a comic character, Bazooka Joe. The comic strip in which the eponymous Bazooka Joe starred was wrapped around a chunk of pink bubble gum. That's the only place Bazooka Joe appeared with any regularity. Bazooka Gum had been conjured up by Topps just after World War II. For several years, Topps wrapped comics around its bubble gum, reprinting one-page fillers from Fawcett and DC comic books. Sometimes the wrappers were Bazooka Comics, which had been manufactured expressly to wrap the gum in. By the end of the forties, the star of Bazooka Comics was a kid named Bazooka and dubbed "the Atom Bubble Boy." He could levitate to the rescue of other kids and to solve crimes by blowing giant bubbles. He took off but he didn't catch on. In 1953, he was replaced by another kid, the afore-mentioned Bazooka Joe, whose 50th anniversary we now celebrate.
According to Stewart, people confuse Bazooka Joe with Fleer's Funnies, another comic strip wrapped around bubble gum. Stewart doesn't say which came first, and so I won't either. Fleer's Funnies starred a fat kid named Pud; Bazooka Joe starred Joe, who was undoubtedly the most distinctive-looking kid on the block. He wore a baseball cap and an eye patch. The eye patch was simply an attention-getting gimmick: Joe had two perfectly good eyes, but he was adorned with an eye patch in imitation of a successful advertising campaign of the 1950s. The ads sold Hathaway Shirts, and they featured a distinguished looking model named Baron Wrangell. At the instigation of ad man Donald Ogilvy, Wrangell wore an eye patch. It was an eye-catching ploy, and it worked. The "Hathaway Man" became one of the decade's most familiar figures.
Bazooka Joe was invented by Woody Gelman, who decided to mock the successful shirt salesman by putting an eye patch on the bubble gum kid. Gelman's co-conspirator in this enterprise was a seldom-employed cartoonist named Wesley Morse. Morse had contributed a single-page strip, Beau Gus, to the first issue of a 1938 comic book, Circus, which ended its run with No.3 but included work by a star-studded list of contributors- Basil Wolverton, Jack Cole, Will Eisner, and Bob Kane. In the 1920s, Morse'd produced three very short-lived comic strips: Kitty of the Chorus (March 20-April 14, 1925), Switchboard Sally (which debuted June 15, 1925, and ran, probably, for less than six months; written by H.C. Witwer), and Frolicky Fables (November 23, 1925-April 10, 1926)-all identified and rescued from complete obscurity by Allan Holtz in his compendium of comic strip names and dates. Then Morse drops completely out-of-sight. Until Stewart (and then Art Spiegelman, writing introductory material in 1997 for Bob Adelman's Tijuna Bibles) revealed his career producing the little pornographic eight-page comics of the thirties and forties.
In this genre's most compendious history, Donald H. Gilmore's four-volume Sex in Comics (Greenleaf, 1971), the eight-pagers Spiegelman attributes to Morse, Gilmore says were done by "three lesbians in New York," one of who did the drawing, another the printing, and the third, the marketing. Gilmore reports an interview he conducted with a traveling salesman who says he bought eight-pagers from the sales lady and, subsequently, met the rest of the trio. But Spiegelman knew and talked with Morse, and he says Morse is "Artist No. 8," the one Gilmore says is "three women." The renditions of wanton sexual adventuring attributed to Morse are unmistakably the work of a single artist, and this work is the best of the entire Tijuna Bible canon. Much of the cartooning for this genre is muddied with clumsy shading and modeling, but Morse's drawings are clean and expert, his line lively and clear. Of the so-called Tijuana Dozen, the twelve artistic styles Gilmore identifies as predominating in the genre, Morse's is without quibble the best, the most consistently amusing and well-executed cartoon drawing. Spiegelman says Morse also sold magazine gag cartoons in the thirties, and Stewart says Morse was living in Queens, nearly destitute, when Gelman apparently reached out to him and gave him the Bazooka Joe assignment. Morse drew Bazooka Joe comic strips for the last eight years of his life, and after he died, Topps simply recycled Morse's strips, knowing that bubble-gum buying was generational and that today's buyers were different from those of yesterday and wouldn't recognize the comics their parents had read when they started chewing and blowing.
In 1983, Topps decided to modernize Bazooka Joe and commissioned underground cartoonist Howard Cruse to do about forty, Stewart says. And then in the 1990s, the Craig Yoe! Studio produced another 75 or so new strips. Topps is reissuing some of the original Morse strips to celebrate the anniversary. I got one in the packet I just bought while researching this piece; it's in black-and-white but the others in the packet are in color. Tiny strips, just 2x1.25 inches. And terrible jokes. Awful. Awfully wonderful tired old chestnuts lifted, no doubt, from a dusty copy of Joe Miller's Joke Book, the laugh tome of a bygone generation.
The appropriateness of the name "bazooka" for bubble gum may evade the casual peruser of this picayune prose. Most of us remember that a bazooka was "a portable military weapon [of World War II vintage] consisting of a long, metal smoothbore tube for firing small, armor-piercing explosive rockets at short range." What few of us realize, however, is that the weapon was named for a crude musical wind instrument made of pipes, invented and named by the American comedian and sometime musician, Bob Burns. In his native Arkansas, Burns explained, "a windy guy who talks too much" was sometimes said to be blowing his "bazoo." And so, "inasmuch as the [instrument he invented] is played by the mouth, it's noisy and takes a lot of wind, it seemed like 'bazoo' fitted in pretty well as part of the name. The affix 'ka' rounded it out and made it sound like the name of a musical instrument-like balalaika and harmonica." And since operating bubble gum requires blowing through the mouth just like playing the musical instrument does, the name "bazooka" is perfectly appropriate. Burns' musical instrument was widely recognized at the time the American military invented its tubular rocket launcher, and since the weapon looked like Burns' bazooka, it was named accordingly. It also makes a sort of windy "whoosh" noise when fired.
And that, thanks to the diligent Bhob Stewart, is probably more than enough about Bazooka Joe. But it's not enough about Craig Yoe, who sent me a copy of Stewart's 1988 article as well as several dandy paperback tomes of outlandish comedy, liberally illuminated with odd photographs and cartoons in the best slapstick galoot Yoe manner. Each book (and there are five stacked up here) measures about 5x7 inches and is a half-an-inch thick; the cost varies, five or six bucks each. The titles tell almost all: The Mighty Big Book of Knock-knock Jokes, The Mighty Big Book of Optical Illusions, The Mighty Big Book of Jokes, The Mighty Big Book of Riddles, and Holiday Ha-ha's Halloween Jokes and Riddles and Christmas Jokes and Riddles. The riddles include such wonderfully awful puns as: Why did the doughnut maker go bankrupt? Because he couldn't get out of the hole. Or-What kind of a dog uses a cell phone? A wire-less terrier. The joke book is crammed (four or five to a page) with the same sort of outrageousness. How do you clean a tuba? With a tube-a-toothpaste. I love the knock-knock jokes. Knock-knock. Who's there? Yukon. Yukon who? Yukon lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink. Alastair also knocks. Alastair who? Alastair at you until you let me in. But particularly fascinating is the book of illusions-scores of visual tricks, upside-downs, and the like, from the famous (the lady admiring herself in a mirror, a composition that seems to be a skull) to the nearly unknown (a negative image of Abraham Lincoln, which, after you stare at it for 30 seconds, emerges as apositive image if you look at a blank piece of paper). All of these ingenious volumes are published by Price Stern Sloan, a division of Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, 345 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014; or consult the Yoe-man himself at www.riddles4kids.com.
And speaking, as we were (believe it or don't), of funny pictures, Jim Engel is still filling sketchbooks with visual hilarities-funny animals, caricatures, spoofs, lampoons, doggerel of distinction, and other shenanigans that will delight as well as amuse. Somewhere in the immediate vicinity, you can see a random sample of what I'm talking about. Jim sells photocopies of his sketchbooks for $30 each. For that mere pittance, you get about a hundred pages of his jollies, handsomely bound with a binder, plus-and this is the real bonus-an original sketch made expressly for your copy by Engel himself. The sketch is worth the money, kimo sabe. The book is all bonus. A cartoonist of rare comedic discernment and graphic skill, Jim has been doing this for years, filling sketchbooks with comedy. He's now up to the 15th collection. The pictures near here are from No. 13. (As an example of Jim's fine hand at spoofery, notice the speech balloon in the Winsor McCay caricature: it, just like McCay's speech balloons, is a triumph of inept artistry, crabbed lettering crammed into a space too small with the words broken at inconvenient intervals. Jim's mocking the master, and he does it with panache.) Try one of these and you'll laugh. Guaranteed. Send your $30 to Jim Engel, 218 South Craig Place, Lombard, IL 60148.
STRIPPING. Berkeley Breathed's fondly recalled penguin returns, flightless as always, to the funnies later this month in a Sunday-only strip entitled Opus. As we have observed here before, Breathed has imposed upon this happy event a somewhat less joyous condition: newspapers subscribing to the strip must agree to publish it at a half-page dimension rather than the usual one-quarter page or, even, one-fifth. Breathed has doubtless taken his lead from Bill Watterson, who, in the last few years of Calvin and Hobbes, required that the Sunday strip be published in the half-page format (although not, apparently-judging from the evidence that emerged subsequently in various papers-at an actual half-page size, a maneuver that preserved Watterson's layouts every Sunday if not the large size.) In his own reclusive way, Watterson was protesting the cannibalization of the Sunday funnies, all of which were then and are now produced in such a way as to permit client newspapers to discard one or two panels in order to run the strips at the smallest possible size. Intact, as drawn, a strip might need a quarter page; with the throwaway panels discarded, it could run at a fifth-page size. The throwaway panels in some strips are two-panel gags; in others, like Mutts or Zits or FoxTrot, the equivalent of the throwaway panels is achieved with a large splash panel at the beginning of each installment. With Mutts and Zits, the splash panel adds a small but delectable visual hilarity to that week's strip; with FoxTrot and Get Fuzzy and others (Dilbert, say), the splash panel is repeated every week exactly the same and adds nothing in particular. The Sunday Calvin and Hobbes in those last years was sometimes published smaller than the half-page size, but Watterson's arrangement of the visual elements of the strip that day was exactly as he'd designed the strip. Nothing was discarded.
Breathed may have agreed to a similar plan, but if not, then his demand for a half-page size has the effect on newspapers of forcing them to discard at least two other strips to make room for Opus. No paper likes to incur the wrath of its readers by dropping a comic strip, so some papers have protested the Breathed maneuver. Breathed wrote a response-or an explanation-either to counter such protests or to head them off before they could be made. His explanation raised a hackle here or there among the inky-fingered fraternity, and at least one of these- Beetle Bailey's Mort Walker -wrote to protest. Herewith, Breathed's explanation to newspaper editors followed by Walker's response.
Breathed: A long conversation could be had as to the reasons we have for this difficult limitation ... but suffice to say that it's my sincere conviction that as comics have shrunk, the very things that have made comic strips circulation boosters are being strangled: the visual humor and graphic excitement that they're capable of. These are the very things that the other visual media which siphon off your readers take full advantage of. Opus hopes to make very good use of the space papers agree to give it. I hope once you see it, you might agree. I want my color strips damn near worthy of framing. Our point, in short ... Is, you should too.
Cutting comic strips [dropping one or more to make room for Opus]? People complain. No matter how weak a feature. Loudly. I know. Let them. Will they stop reading your fine paper? No. Will they switch to CNN for any semblance of intelligent news analysis? No.
Some of these moldy comic features [that you might consider dropping] are 70 years old and drawn by corporations, distant relatives and retired, coasting, weary creators ... all of whom can look forward to their strips continuing long after they have gone to cartoon heaven. Or hell. If tv was run like this, we'd have "Gilligan's Island" to look forward to on prime time for the next 50 years. If these unkillable, authorless zombies don't get moved out to make room for a revolution of new artists waiting in the wings (and their young readers), the American comics page-one of the biggest draws for Sunday readers-will simply become irrelevant. Like buggy whips, typewriters, and the music business.
We'll lose some papers because of our size limitations. We hope not to lose yours. Let's start the revolution. Give your valuable space to cartoonists willing to roll up their sleeves and put their souls into it. Let's make the funnies fun again. And fun to look at.
Walker: I think Berke Breathed needs a check-up. His attitude needs adjusting, his ego could use some filing down, and his heart requires polishing. Can I play Mr. Goodwrench for a few minutes?
After quitting our business because he "had no more to say," I think he's coming back with too much to say. He wants older cartoonists to retire to make room for him. He wants the papers to drop strips to give his new strip more space because his work is "worthy of framing." He's going to "make the funnies funny again." Older comic artists are labeled "weary creators," "zombies," "moldy."
Having confidence is a good thing but arrogance is not attractive. Breathed wants to shoot me, B.B. King, Paul Newman, Arthur Miller and anyone over 60 who is still producing. We should make way for the young geniuses like himself. At last count, there were 274 comic strips on the market, all competing for the same spaces. Who's to say who should have those spaces? Breathed? No, I think it's up to the readers to say which strips they like. If you're not entertaining the readers, then you don't deserve the space. Period.
Take my case. Please. I love what I'm doing. It would kill me to be told to quit. I get up each morning eager to go to work. I still do all of my drawing and most of my ideas. I have some help but my purpose is to be sure to have an ample supply of ideas to please my readers. Beetle Bailey has been in the top ten performers in readership polls for the past 40 years. I feel a responsibility toward my readers. I created friends for them, and I don't want to abandon them. Breathed has no right to demand that.
On the other hand, I welcome Berke Breathed to the fray. I've always helped and encouraged young cartoonists. Let him join the competition.
Good luck, Berke!
Referee Rabbit (a model of circumspection and decorum): They're both right, of course. Breathed is right about the shrinkage of comic strips sabotaging the visual character of the medium. And since comic strips, a static visual artform, are unique to newspapers, the host vehicle, the newspaper, is busily engaged in shooting itself in the foot, destroying an aspect of its content which, by being unique to newspapers, might attract newspaper readers (buyers). His analogy to tv's "Gilligan's Island" seems accurate at first blush, but it doesn't stand examination: "Gilligan's Island" went off the air because it no longer appealed to a sufficient number of viewers. By the same token, as Walker suggests, declining reader interest would end the tenure of any comic strip. Breathed's contention that longevity is somehow synonymous with inferiority is, likewise, a specious argument-as the Walker's invocation of Paul Newman and B.B. King implies. Name-calling, as Walker says, is pointless. The point is: popularity dictates the content of the comics page, whether that popularity is of decades in duration or weeks. Still, comic strips would be more satisfying visually if they were allotted more space; and since most newspapers refuse to give their comics section more space than it presently enjoys (whether one page or two or more), the only way for new talent to emerge is for someone-some strip, old or new-to give way. Sad, but true. But we must acknowledge and applaud Breathed's audacity in daring to swim upstream against the current newspaper trend of making comics smaller and smaller: his effort is either courageous or foolhardy, but only time will reveal which.
NOUS R US. As a point of clarification: Is this, the recitation to follow, ALL the news about comics that has surfaced in the last few weeks? No. Our coverage here is not comprehensive. Like the New York Times, we print only the news that gives us fits-news that provokes a comment or reaction, news that indicates the general shape and direction of cartooning, or news that's just risible in itself. F'instance: Jeffrey Lindenblatt, who edits a dandy magazine called Missing Years that reprints such vintage gems as George Wunder's Terry and the Pirates, Alex Raymond's Rip Kirby, and Leslie Turner's Captain Easy, reminded me last spring that by the end of this year or early next, two of the medium's longest-running creations will be completely reprinted: Hal Foster's Prince Valiant (1937-1980, 43 years) and Chester Gould's Dick Tracy (1931-1977, 46 years), the former by Fantagraphics in its entirety, the latter by an assortment of publishers. Jeffrey says the next longest reprint run was NBM's ambitious Wash Tubbs by Roy Crane (1924-1943, 19 years); after which, Steve Canyon (1947-1988, but only the first 24 of its41 years and by at least three publishers). Probably Fantagraphics Popeye comes in here somewhere, albeit with only 11 years, 1928-1938. Missing Years is available from SPEC Productions (www.specproductions.com) six issues for $60. ... Marjane Satrapi, whose Persepolis graphic novel about her teenage years in Iran during the war with Iraq was reviewed here in Opus 121, had a full-page cartoon (in comic strip form) in The New Yorker's September 1 issue. The magazine often publishes the work of off-beat cartoonists who have suddenly risen in the horizon of public consciousness. ... Most newspapers drop strips in order to add new ones to their line-ups. Two that I know of didn't: St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times and the Champaign (Il.) News-Gazette, my hometown paper. The News-Gazette dropped a few strips (including Cathy) but added so many new strips that it has expanded from one page of comics to almost one-and-a-half pages.
The Statue of Liberty (aka "Miss Liberty") is once again a symbol of America-this time, of American womanhood, appropriately enough. On the cover of The Week (a dandy weekly newsmagazine), Fred Harper, one of the two staff artists who decorate each cover with full-color painted caricatures of the dignitaries of the week, has depicted Miss Liberty as the emblem of "the new battle over silicone breast implants." And, yes, Miss Liberty has noticeable breasts in this portrait-silicone breasts, translucent balloons filled with silicone that she's holding up to her chest as she gazes out at us with an ambiguous expression on her face, part pride, part anxiety-all perplexity. Cartoons have an honored (or at least, respected) place in The Week. On its interior pages, the magazine always publishes a selection of editorial cartoons from the previous week, at least a page of them; The Week in hand, dated October 31, has two pages of editoons, reprinting them at generous half-page dimension. And here, cartoonists' signatures are permitted instead of being excised as they are at Newsweek. In short, from cover to cartoon page, The Week treats cartoonists like valuable members of the journalistic enterprise, not as mere interior decorators. Oh, the other cover artist, alternating with Harper, is Michael Collins. They both do smashing work.
Harvey Pekar, who is looking for a few freelance writing gigs in order to sustain a certain level of economic viability (see Opus 125), was signed up by the News Record in White Plains, New York, where Pekar's column will focus on under-rated artists. Pekar is also holding down a slot about jazz at the Free Times in Cleveland. He's writing for the magazine, Comic Art, for which where he may do a piece on Allison Bechdel, who does a dyke strip, and he's getting invitations to speak at college campuses in the wake of the success of the movie "American Splendor." Pekar told me he doesn't think he'll be doing comic books anymore: instead, he'll produce material for Dark Horse trade paperbacks that will get into bookstores like Borders and Barnes and Noble. Other collections of his comic book work are available from Doubleday (American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar and More American Splendor) and Four Walls Four Windows (The New American Splendor). Frank Stack, one of Pekar's regular illuminators, told me Harvey had been offered a tv talk show at one point during his heyday with David Letterman. Harvey confirmed it, saying Fox approached him when Joan Rivers left. But he didn't feel up to the task at the time. ...
At the instigation of Westchester County (NY), Archie Comics is producing a special comic book in which Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica address an assortment of teenage problems. "Our goal," said county executive Andy Spano, "is not to preach to kids but to see that they get the right information so they can make good decisions. The Archie comic books are a wonderful vehicle to talk about drinking, bullying and stress in a way that hits home." The content of the book was prepared by various community social services groups; the art, by Archie staff. ... Garfield has invaded India. Wisdom Tree publishers obtained the rights to Jim Davis' orange tabby and is producing twenty Garfield books, each one reprinting about 120 strips. Seeking a sure-fire marketing plan, the publisher picked as the chief retail outlet a nation-wide chain of espresso coffee bars-banking that the cat's celebrated passion for coffee would make a connection with India's coffee consumers. ... Jim Carrey will be voicing RJ the cocksure racoon in the animated version of Over the Hedge, a comic strip written by Michael Fry and drawn with great comedic skill by T Lewis; RJ's buddy, Verne the box turtle, will be voiced by Gary Shandling. The film, which is a prequel to the strip, shows RJ as the charismatic con man who convinces other animals in the woods at the edge of suburbia that humans are their best friends, putting food into special cans [i.e., garbage cans] and leaving them outside for the woodland folk. Tim Johnson (Sinbad), who is overseeing the production, said it was "daunting" for animators to capture Carrey's rubber-faced persona: "We have to make an animated character that's as good as live-action Jim Carrey. It's a challenge." 'Scuse me? RJ is already a character with a personality of his own, so now he's going to be morphed into Jim Carrey? The voice is going to determine the character and not the other way around? I'm not so sure about this. ... The Postal Service will be issuing a special Theodor Seuss Geisel stamp in March 2004 as part of a year-long "seussentennial" celebration of the life and work of the creator of the Cat in the Hat and Horton and the rest. During the forthcoming holidays, mail cancelled by machine will carry a holiday greeting and an image of Dr. Seuss's famed feline. The movie about the disruptive grimalkin will open November 21, so it seems the Postal Service is now in bed with Universal Studios. ...
Editorial cartoonist Doug Marlette has a new book of cartoons and commentary out, What Would Marlette Drive? The title refers to a cartoon he produced last spring that depicted a man in Middle Eastern garb driving a Ryder truck loaded with a nuclear-tipped bomb and captioned: What Would Mohammed Drive? Said Marlette: "Besides referring to the vehicle that Timothy McVeigh rode into Oklahoma City, the drawing was a takeoff on the 'What Would Jesus Drive?' campaign created by Christian evangelicals to challenge the morality of owning gas-guzzling SUVs." Because of the reference to Mohammed and, indirectly, Islam and all Muslims, Marlette's cartoon inspired wide-spread protest in the Muslim community-20,000 e-mails demanding an apology, to be exact. Marlette discusses this adventure in the book, excerpted in the November-December issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. "In my thirty-year career," he writes, "I have regularly drawn cartoons that offended religious fundamentals and true believers of every stripe, a fact that I tend to list in the 'Accomplishments' column of my resume. I have outraged Christians by skewering Jerry Falwell, Catholics by needling the pope, and Jews by criticizing Israel. Those who rise up against the expression of ideas are strikingly similar. No one is less tolerant than those demanding tolerance. Despite the differences of culture and creed, they all seem to share the notion that there is only one way of looking at things-their way." Marlette's newspaper, the Tallahassee Democrat, pulled his Drive cartoon off its website, and it never ran in the paper's print edition. Protesters, Marlette says, have learned that the bottom line of the ledger of profit and loss is what motivates newspaper managers these days, and he laments the triumph of the accountancy. "Our sense of fair play," he says, "has been turned against us ... [and] tolerance has become a tool of coercion. ..." And he goes on: "In order to maintain our true, nationally defining diversity, it obligates journalists to be bold, writers to be full-throated and uninhibited, and those blunt instruments of the free press, cartoonists like me, not to self-censor. We must use it or lose it. Political cartoonists daily push the limits of free speech. They were once the embodiment of journalism's independent voice. Today they are as endangered a species as bald eagles The professional trouble-maker has become a luxury that offends the bottom-line sensibilities of corporate journalism. Twenty years ago, there were two hundred of us working on daily newspapers. Now there are only ninety. ... We know what happens to the bald eagle when it's not allowed to reproduce and its habitat is contaminated. As the species is thinned, the eco-balance is imperiled. Why should we care about the obsolescence of the editorial cartoonist? Because cartoons can't say 'on the other hand,' because they strain reason and logic, because they are hard to defend and thus are the acid test of the First Amendment, and that is why they must be preserved." The book, published by Plan Nine Publishing (www.plan9.org) is available through the website for $15.95 plus $5.95 shipping.
NEA's anyule holiday comic strip this year will be produced by Jef Mallet, creator of the comic strip Frazz about the genial janitor in an elementary school and the kids around him whom he inspires. Entitled "A Mall and the Right Visitor," the three-and-a-half week continuity follows a grumpy teacher who works as a department store Santa to earn enough money for a trip to Las Vegas. Fraz hovers throughout, a chorus of commentary in rhyme, as the grump and the children who visit "Santa" come to realize the true spirit of Christmas. NEA's Christmas strip has been around since 1936 or 1937. I had thought, based upon the testimony of a long-ago comics editor at the syndicate, that the tradition stretched back into the early 1920s. This editor joined the operation in 1924, and he said the Christmas strip had been going for years by that time. Allan Holtz, compiler supreme of comic strip stats, opines that perhaps this editor was thinking of the cartoon reminders, "X Shopping Days 'Til Christmas." Not the strip. I think Allan's right. He says the NEA Christmas strips started in 1936; NEA says 1937. Other syndicates, Bell and King, did holiday strips, too, beginning in 1936; and the Associated Press did one as early as 1934. NEA has the track record for longevity, though. ... And, segueing from one longevity to another, here's Herman's Classics, Volume One, celebrating the 30th anniversary of Jim Unger's syndicated cartoon panel. This volume, which will befollowed by four others, includes a mini-biography of Unger, 600 watercolored cartoons, some of which are newly minted, as well as "insight into the creator's work, creative process, influences and longtime battle with depression." Writes Unger's biographer, fellow cartoonist (Farcus) David Waisglass: "Herman changed everything when it first appeared. He's a legend. I doubt there is a cartoonist out there who hasn't studied Jim's unique illustrative style and wit." Unger, who was born in London and survived the German blitz in World War II, started as a bobby (a London cop) and driving instructor and then immigrated to Canada and became a newspaper graphic artist and, eventually, a cartoonist. His thoughts on Herman: "I think what happened with this Herman thing is it's so stupid that it makes you laugh. Herman is nobody, nothing. He's just a prop for my way of expressing life. I'm telling people-'Hey, you idiot, this is what you look like.' It's not sophisticated. I draw a tv set that comes crashing through a wall and behind it there's a guy shouting, 'Missed!' That's not a gag. It's life. I reach the vast unwashed, eh? The lowest common denominator. I understand my own kind." From ECW Press (www.ecwpress.com), 208 8.5x11-inch paperback pages, $19.95).
Aaron McGruder has jumped the Andrews McMeel ship for the giant reprinting of a selection the first years of The Boondocks entitled A Right To Be Hostile: The Boondocks Treasury; the book is from Three River Press, a division of Random House. I've merely thumbed a copy in the store so far, so I don't know where the selection begins, but it includes the famed Flagee and Ribbon sequence that McGruder produced immediately after September 11, 2001. The book also contains a Foreword by gadfly filmmaker Michael Moore, excerpts of which appeared in The Nation (November 17), including Moore's most telling remark: "How on earth can the most truthful thing in the newspaper be the comics?" My interview with McGruder, incidentally, appears in The Comics Journal, No. 255. The article includes a description of McGruder's stand-up act before a crowd of college students at the University of Illinois, fraught with numerous direct and inflammatory quotes. ... Vaughn Bode's notorious Cheech Wizard has been embodied anew as a 10-inch tall vinyl toy by Kidrobot. The Wizard, who may also be a lizard (but probably not), was born precisely at 2:30 p.m. on September 27, 1957, in Utica, New York, where Bode, then 16, was contemplating a jar of Italian chee-chee nuts on the kitchen table. He named the character after the nuts and was at once "fascinated by the mystery of my own creation," as he later said. According to Mark Bode, Vaughn's son, "Cheech was my father inside the hat." The needs of the Wizard were simple: sex, philosophy ("I come to lighten da load in yer spiritual pants"), and kicking impudent lizards in the groin whenever, which was often, the creatures said anything particularly stupid. Or anything at all. The lizards, says Mark, were inspired by him at age seven. "It was [my father's] way to get back at me for asking stupid questions," he explained. The Kidrobot figure is the Wizard's hat rotating on a red ball joint atop a pair of legs, a perfect representation of the cartoon character. Mark took a freshly minted figure out for a beer right after it arrived. "As usual," he said, "Cheech was quite popular with the ladies." ... And speaking of come-backs, Chris Eliopolous' Desperate Times, a comic book reprinting a comic strip that Eliopolous was trying to get syndicated, will re-emerge in January from Image Comics. It will appear in "landscape" format like Frank Cho's Liberty Meadows. Desperate Times retails the so-called adventures of two loser roommates, bachelors named Marty (a cynical realist) and Toad (a geek), who pursue their lot "as single guys in a coupled world." They are accompanied on this journey by Marty's self-centered sister Linda, Doofus (who never removes his theme-park costume as a giant dog-like creature), and, most importantly, Kennedy, a drunken three-toed sloth. The press release claims, accurately I think, that the strip is "appealing to women as much as men [and has been] described as 'Seinfeld' in comic strip form." The strip debuted in the back pages of Erik Larsen's Savage Dragon in 1997, graduated to its own title for four issues in 1998 and then a trade paperback reprint in 1999. In the reincarnation, one of the stalwart bachelors gets married, which ought to change everything. Eliopolous, seeing the success of Liberty Meadows and Scott Kurtz's landscape PvP, wanted to join in the fun. "Now people have a place to go to find humor strips that aren't homogenized for the newspapers," he said. And I agree and applaud.
FOOTNIT. Having mentioned, in Opus 126, the Profili tome on Alex Raymond (subtitled The Power and the Grace) by Alberto Becattini and Antonio Vianovi without having actually read the Becattini's text, I hasten this time to say, having now read it, that he navigates his way through the murky waters of Raymond's ghosting and those who ghosted for him with authoritative assurance. Raymond's early career is mostly shrouded in myth and rumor, it seems to me: When, exactly, did he start working on Lyman Young's Tim Tyler's Luck? And for how long did he do it? You get different answers depending upon which "authority" you consult. I've always figured that most of 1933's Tim was Raymond's, but Becattini claims Raymond was doing it more-or-less solo by August 1931. During some of the same period, Raymond was assisting Chic Young, Lyman's younger brother, on Blondie and doing the topper for Tim, The Kid Sister (with at least one female cast member who sports Blondie's hair style), as well as the topper for Blondie, called The Family Foursome. He was ghosting or assisting on four strips for the Young brothers! Becattini devotes several paragraphs to whatever Austin Briggs did while assisting Raymond on Flash Gordon, concluding that Briggs contributed only occasionally rather than regularly to the strip, a view with which I concur (although I must confess that my expertise on Raymond is limited and is probably dwarfed by Becattini's). Becattini carefully rehearses the circumstances of Raymond's tragic demise in an auto accident with a car he was himself driving, supplying many details new to me. He concludes with a section listing those comics artists who seem to have been most influenced by Raymond but doesn't mention Mac Raboy. Raboy may not have been directly in the lineage of Raymond descendants, but he inherited Flash Gordon in 1948 and drew it for 20 years, producing exquisite images with an almost feminine delicacy that are reminiscent of Raymond's late thirties tenure on the feature. And if you want to see Raboy's Flash Gordon in quantity, you can find it in Dark Horse's reprint project, already three volumes into Raboy's run on the strip (www.darkhorse.com).
REPRINT REVIEW. The drawings in Rick Stromoski's comic strip, Soup to Nutz, look as if they've been made by a child. Not just any child-no, a demented brat whose powers of observation are severely, tragically, impaired. The heads of these humanoids are oval, and that's acceptable enough. But the eyeballs are placed on opposite sides of the oval, and the nose is affixed under whichever eye is farthest from the viewer. All the kids have freckles (or are those things zits?)-just three of them, clustered under the near-side eyeball. In short, the people in this strip look like wall-eyed cubist rejects from Pablo Picasso's Guernica.
And that is probably just what Stromoski wants us to think.
He has chosen a drawing style that suits his subject. His subject is the Nutz family, brothers Roy-boy and Andrew, their sister Babs (each of whom has only one tooth), and their parents, Roy and Pat. A dog named Rosco completes the household. AP reporter Lizabeth Hall describes them best:
"The Nutz family has far more in common with the Simpsons than it does with Hi and Lois. The overwhelmed dad loves any sport as long as it can be watched from an armchair while tippling a beer. Mom is the referee, bargain hunter, and family cooking looking for innovative ways to prepare fish sticks. As for the kids, they swish Jello in their mouths, dig up dead animals, and once nailed a fallen [toy] Jesus back upon the crucifix."
The strip debuted in March 2000, and it now appears in a reprint paperback from Andrews McMeel , Soup to Nutz: The First Course (128 8.5x9-inch pages; $10.95). The first strip in the book sets the tone:
Roy-boy tells his younger brother that he, Andrew, is adopted, that "Mom and Dad found you in the woods when you were a baby."
Andrew, disbelieving his brother, consults his sister, Babs, who reassures him: "Don't be silly, Andrew. You weren't adopted-Dad made you out of wood, and a cricket turned you into a real boy."
Babs frequently counsels her younger brother. Once she tells Andrew that "brand new" babies have a soft spot on their heads "but ya can't touch it." Why not? Andrew wants to know. "You could squish its brains," she explains.
One day, the kids are talking about one of their teachers:
"Mr. Wiley was pickin' his nose during a filmstrip in class today," says Babs.
"And I saw him pullin' out a wedgie in the cafeteria," Andrew contributes.
Their father, overhearing all this, tells his wife: "Remind me not to shake hands with Mr. Wiley at open house."
The kids hunger for knowledge. Andrew asks his mother what "accomplishment" means.
"It means doing something great or special," she says.
"Been there, done that," says Roy-boy, overhearing.
But his mother won't buy it and says: "Belching the entire alphabet is not an accomplishment, Roy-boy."
"How 'bout if I did it in Spanish?" he says.
When Mom says she's serving casserole for dinner, Andrew wants to know what a casserole is. Roy-boy explains: "I think it's French for 'cruddy dinner'!"
In the first panel one day, the father finishes explaining the facts of life: "And that, boys, is what the birds and bees is all about. Any questions? No? Good." He leaves. Roy-boy and Andrew sit, motionless, speechless, for a panel. Then Andrew says, "I think I'm gonna puke." And Roy-boy says, "I'm never growing up."
Clearly, Stromoski, the seventh child in a family of twelve and the father of a nine-year-old, understands the minds of the very young. And he draws like one of them-one of the more maladjusted, probably, but a graphic maneuver of superior strategy still. If his drawings have a cutting edge, it's doubtless because sibling rivalry in his strip is guerilla warfare. And bodily functions frequently provide the comedy.
Babs, listening to the radio weather forecast calling for "slightly overcast skies," watches Roy-boy walk by while eating a can of beans and says, "-followed by strong tailwinds."
One of Stromoski's rejected strips celebrates the Yuletide Season by having Santa partake durng his visit of a bean and cheese burrito left him by a considerate but clueless Nutz kid after which Santa rides off in a "silent but deadly night."
The cartoonist's assault on the delicate sensibilities of a decorously inclined public inspires frequent protest from readers who are, obviously, childless. The strip runs in about 600 newspapers, so a wind-breaking episode can inspire a copious amount of correspondence.
Stromoski realizes that a family readership is easily offended, but he maintains that the alarm of these well-meaning parents is ill-founded: the children whose minds are supposedly at risk are not reading comics anymore-they're playing video games. So the strips should be seen as what they are-entertainment for adults, probably adults who know what bratty children do for laughs.
As a purely historical matter, newspaper comics were never designed for juvenile readership. The first successful daily comic strip, the 1907 effort that became Mutt and Jeff, began as a chronicle of the wagering adventures of a racetrack tout, definitely targeting adult readers. And ever since, cartoonists have aimed at family readership-kids, yes, but also fathers and mothers. Adults.
The medium's most successful comic strip, Peanuts, while depicting children, aimed at adult readers. The most recent compilation of the strip, It's Back to School, Charlie Brown (160 8.5x9-inch pages in paperback; Ballantine, $11.95), is a vivid demonstration of just how adult Charles Schulz's strip was. The collection, dealing in the characters' relationships with education, includes strips from the first years as well as the most recent.
In one of the earliest, when a friend asks Lucy if nursery school is fun, Lucy rants: "Is it fun? All we have to do every day is play play play play play ... I've never been so bored in all my life." It's adults, parents, who will find this amusing; kids probably wouldn't even understand what's funny about it.
And later, when Lucy quits nursery school, her reason, like her earlier rant, is likely to amuse only adult readers. Says Lucy: "I went there for over six weeks. Today, I found out it was just a racket. [In nursery school] they don't teach you how to be a nurse."
WHAT'S MORE: Amid the tomfoolery of Stromoski's Nutz kidz an uneasy insight lurks. The comedy arises from their assault on adult sensibilities, and that assault reminds us that kids can be pretty gross. They even seem to revel in grossness. A good thing to keep in mind when pondering what might offend or bend young minds. The reaction of Roy-boy and Andrew to their father's lecture on the birds and the bees reminds me of an exchange I either overhead or read about between two youths after one announced the consummation of his (or her) first experience of sexual intercourse. "How was it?" asked the still-virgin half of the pair. The new initiate reflected for a moment and then said, "Greasy."
We worry a lot about children and the supposed fragility of their young minds. Our worry is often focused on how we imagine they'll react to sexual matters. We therefore worry, too much I wont, about pornography. We want either to eliminate pornography entirely from the human experience-or, failing that, to remove it from the ken of "the children." I suspect that our anti-porn campaigns are inspired more by our own response to pornography than by how children actually react to it. I used to wonder why the Righteous among us object so strenuously to nudity-female nudity, mostly. They might acknowledge that the unencumbered human form is beautiful, but they still want to keep it covered up, head to toe. Why? These two ideas seem contradictory. But underlying the seeming contradiction is the actual objection to female nudity: naked women incite lustful thoughts. Leave aside for the nonce the male chauvinism that undergirds this notion and what that tells us about the history of morality in Western Civilization. It's lust that the Righteous hope to control by eliminating nudity and all other kinds of pornography. But lustful thoughts lurk in adult minds, not children's. Children of the prepubescent sort, when they think of sex, if they think of sex, are likely to react like Roy-boy and Andrew-until they get to adolescence whereupon the surge of hormones rapidly takes them beyond our reach. So what, exactly, are we afraid of in pornography? Our own lustful thoughts, probably.
This meandering line of thought was prompted by James Kilpatrick, who, a week or so ago in his syndicated newspaper column, reminded us that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the subject of pornography again this spring in two separate cases. (They attended to three porn cases last term; they just can't get enough of it, I reckon.) All of this excitement is a consequence of the Internet making pornography readily accessible in every home and hovel in the land. How to protect "the children" from its insidious influence? (I hope I've answered that one: they don't need the protection because they aren't interested in it.) How to control it? Should it be controlled? At the heart of the issue is the definition of obscenity. The current definition, beginning with a formulation devised by Jusice William Brennan in 1957, holds that something is obscene if "to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominate theme of the material, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interest." To this have been appended other considerations. Is the material "patently offensive"? Does it lack "serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value"? The Internet's international reach obliterates "community standards" as a criteria. I like Kilpatrick's conclusion: "The problem in finding a solution to the pornography problem-including the problem of protecting children-is that there is no solution to the pornography problem. At least there is no legislative or judicial solution. The best of all answers is for responsible parents to act responsibly. Being a parent in the Age of the Internet ain't no bed of roses."
UNDER THE SPREADING PUNDITRY. Politicians lie, we all know that. The degree of sin we attach to this regrettable occupational habit derives, if we are to judge from recent history, from the conditions that obtain while you're lying. If you're President and you lie under oath, you'll be impeached. That's a simple enough ethical lesson. But if you're President and are merely given to muttering baldfaced lies about this and that political embarrassment-lies that are immediately found out-you'll just be ignored, apparently. Here are a couple of recent whoppers: We found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (those truck trailers-the ones that were empty, remember?). That "Mission Accomplished" banner was put there by the sailors, not my staff (well, maybe-yes and no; the ship's company asked for the banner, and the White House staff supplied it to them). Maybe we can't impeach George W. ("Whopper") Bush, but we oughta replace him at the earliest opportunity.
He tells these whoppers because he has been getting away with it so regularly that he's convinced no one ever doubts what he says. Tell 'em anything; they'll believe it. He's been successful at it, so why change? This sort of so-called reasoning leads to the Orwellian logic in Dubya's assertion that the increase in terrorist attacks in Iraq is a good thing because it means the Coalition's nation-building efforts are succeeding. By the same twist of language, polluting the air will make the skies clearer, and chopping down trees will make forests healthier (or, at least, fire-proof). Don't Impeach: Replace.
LIBERAL AND CONSERVATIVE. The heroic Rush Limbaugh has spent much of the past decade or more giving "liberal" a bad pronunciation. And a couple weeks ago, as the Right's most vociferous icon, he managed to give "conservative" a bad reputation. Strangely, perhaps-considering the provocation-the Liberals, it seems to me, have been quite restrained in reacting to the news that the nation's biggest Dittohead was also a Drughead. And over at the conservative comic strip, Mallard Fillmore, the web-footed wonder is silent in huge volumes. He was quick to come to Rush's defense when ol' Rush-beau resigned after his snafu on ESPN the week before the drug story blew (see Opus 126), but on Rush's pain-killers, Mallard makes not a single quack. (So far-as of November 15; it'll be fascinating to see how Bruce Tinsley deals with the issue-if he ever does. Which I doubt he will. Ignore this humiliation to the Conservative Cause and it'll go away seems to be the tactic.)
I finally ran across a definition of Liberal that I like. Here's what Walter Cronkite said in an interview in Time: "I do not consider a liberal necessarily to be a leftist. A liberal to me is one who-and it suits some of the dictionary definitions-is unbeholden to any specific belief or party or group or person but makes up his or her mind on the basis of the facts and the presentation of those facts at the time. That defines what I am. I have never voted a party line. I vote on the individual and the issues." Suits me, too. But I also like the notion of a "conservative" be a "conservator"-someone committed to preserving the best of the past. The quandry comes in saying what's "best." I think a political tradition that seeks to achieve the goal of "one man, one vote" is worth saving; I think public office holders are obliged to be honest and to live decently and to conduct themselves with a measure of decorum. I think the mores of a nation must change to accommodate emerging knowledge; I think people should be allowed to have sex lives that they find interesting and engaging-as long as the sex is consensual and one of the participants isn't a pedophile or rapist.
The tradition of Western Civilization-its moral and intellectual impetus-is towards greater and greater personal, individual freedom. That's a tradition I'd like to conserve. But greater and greater personal, individual freedom usually means that we will increasingly leave moral questions to individuals and their consciences. Personal behavior will be less and less determined by the moral dictates of external forces. The abortion issue is a perfect example. Those who seek to outlaw abortion are imposing a particular brand of morality upon everyone. If they triumph, no one will be free to exercise their personal sense of right and wrong, and that's contrary the historic direction of Western Civilization. Those who seek to preserve the right of a woman to have an abortion would not dictate moral behavior to anyone: those who oppose abortion are still free to follow their consciences and not have one-just as those who support the right to abortion are free to follow their consciences in having one. Only one of these two positions continues, perhaps even extends, the tradition of Western Civilization. Only one of them, then, is a truly conservative position. But conservative or not, the success of the American experiment in self-government has always rested on the principle of tolerance. The majority is willing to tolerate the minority; and vice versa. In the spirit of tolerance, then, the pro-lifers ought to be willing to let the choice folks go to hell if that's what they choose to do.
Alas, that is not likely to happen in today's culture wars because the combatants are all bigots. I have thought for years that a bigot was a prejudiced person. Well, come to find out-yes and no. According to Webster's, a bigot is "a person of strong convictions or prejudice, especially in matters of religion, race, or politics, who is intolerant of those who differ with him." A racist is a bigot but a bigot may not be a racist; bigot is the larger category that includes racism and anti-Semitism and other kinds of prejudice. But a bigot may also be simply a person of strong convictions who is intolerant of the beliefs of others. Intolerance is the pivotal notion, apparently. And as the culture wars gathered momentum, winning became the paramount motive, and tolerance went out the window. Unless it can be reinstated, we will have lost much more than the battles over abortion, prayer in schools, God in the pledge, or pornography. We need to call a truce and return to the common ground from which we all set out at the beginning.
Speaking of intolerance brings us, as surely as night follows day, to John Ashcroft, of whom we are reminded by this letter in the September 8 issue of Editor & Publisher: "The powers President Bush claims when he declares someone to be an 'enemy combatant' and therefore to be detained indefinitely without any legal redress or judicial review have not been legal in our Anglo-American legal history since the Petition of Right in 1628 was presented to Charles I. This, along with the Magna Carta of 1215 and the subsequent Declaration of Rights of 1689, form the cornerstones of our judicial system," writes Daniel Cook of Alpine, NY. Let's get really conservative and bring back these historic documents and the rights they body forth.
To find out about Harv's books, click here.
send e-mail to R.C. Harvey
Art of the Comic Book - Art of the Funnies - Accidental Ambassador Gordo - reviews - order form - Harv's Hindsights - main page