Opus 137 (May 1, 2004). Our celebration herein of Cartoon Appreciation Week concludes with a brief rehearsal of the history of this national holiday and the reasons for picking the first week in May for it and begins with a visit to the annual convention of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC), where we examine Doonesbury's battlefield casualty and Garry Trudeau's reasons for perpetrating it, including consideration of the contention that such tragedies do not belong on the comics page in the newspaper; we also note, in passing, other strips that have gone to war in America's bellicose past and pause with Hustler's publisher, Larry Flynt, who applauds the cartoonists whose freedom of expression he saved nearly twenty years ago. Before getting to the major festivities, massive reviews of the first volume of Fantagraphics' 25-volume reprinting of Peanuts and of Mutts: The Comic Art of Patrick McDonnell, we take note of an international political cartoonist who may (or may not) be a spy in his spare time, record Disney's acquisition of the Muppets, mark the transition in Jane's World, and disclose new depths to Aaron McGruder's machinations. We also rejoice that the advertising and media worlds are at last being brought to recognize the purchasing power of us elderly types. Without further adieu, here we go-
POLITICS, STRICTLY AND OTHERWISE. The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) convened in Lexington, Kentucky, the very week that two comic strips were attracting attention for their political commentary in a section of the paper, the comics page, usually out-of-bounds for politics. In Darby Conley's Get Fuzzy, Rob Wilco, the human protagonist, learns that his cousin Willie has lost a leg in Iraq and goes to visit him in the hospital. And in Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury, B.D., the erstwhile football player turned coach then warrior in Iraq, loses his leg. And for the first time in his 34 years in the strip, B.D. appears without a helmet or similar head-covering.
The funnies were certainly not being altogether funny the week that embraced AAEC's April 21-24 convention. Tragedy struck in the usually placid and good natured Gasoline Alley, too: cartoonist Jim Scancarelli spent the week building suspense about the impending demise of Walt Wallet, the paterfamilias who has been at the center of the strip for more than eight decades and who is, by the calculus of the first strip in which characters age, about 104 years old. At that altitude, Walt is long overdue, and Scancarelli is, it seems, about to let nature take its course in the strip where nature has been coursing for 85 years.
Meanwhile, with the consummate irony of which only real life is capable, on the front pages of the newspaper, pro football player Pat Tillman was in the headlines: he'd given up a $3.6 million-dollar contract with the Arizona Cardinals two years ago to join the Army Rangers and the fighting in Iraq, and he was killed in an ambush while on patrol on Thursday, April 22.
Doonesbury's Pulitzer winning creator Trudeau, fresh from another Pulitzer nomination for editorial cartooning this spring (the winner was Matt Davies of the Journal News in White Plains, NY), was on the speaker line-up at the AAEC gathering. Others included such editooning luminaries as Pat Oliphant and Tony Auth, as well as Hustler publisher Larry Flynt.
Referring to the hundreds of nearly unreported grievously wounded being returned from occupied Iraq, Trudeau explained the reasoning behind B.D.'s tragedy: "If I kill off B.D., that is shocking," he said (and he's killed five characters in the strip over the years), "but it seemed far more useful to look at these extreme sacrifices, short of death, that are being made by the troops in the field."
To recognize and make us more conscious of the sacrifices many returning soldiers are making, Trudeau plans to detail the months of painful and angry rehabilitation that B.D. will endure. "I want to show the process of recovery and rehabilitation ... and the impact on family and friends. It's profound: B.D.'s life will never be the same. That's why I took his helmet off after 34 years: he's moving into a different part of his life." Elaborating on ABCNews.com, Trudeau continued: "B.D. is now on an arduous journey of recovery and rehabilitation. What I'm hoping to describe are the coping strategies that get people through this. There is no culture of complaint among the wounded. Most feel grateful to be alive and respectful of those who have endured even worse fates. But for many, a kind of black humor is indispensable in fending off bitterness and despair, so that's what will animate the strips that follow. I'm sure I won't always get it right, and people will let me know when I don't."
Although many newspaper readers and editors assumed the sequence demonstrates Trudeau's opposition to the conflict in Iraq, that is not necessarily the case. "We are at war," the cartoonist told Elizabeth McKinley at the Associated Press, "and we can't lose sight of the hardships war inflicts on individual lives." Telling B.D.'s story, Trudeau acknowledged, "is a task any writer should approach with great humility, but I think it's worth doing." Nothing in these objectives bespeaks an anti-war attitude; pro-humanity, yes, but not necessarily anti-war. Said Trudeau on ABCNews.com: "This month alone, we've sustained nearly 600 wounded in action. Whether you think we should be in Iraq or not, we can't tune it out. We have to remain mindful of the terrible losses that individual soldiers are suffering in our name."
Based upon Brian Dowling, captain of the 1968 football team at Yale University when Trudeau was a student cartooning for the campus newspaper, B.D. was one of the trio of Doonesbury's original cast (with Michael Doonesbury and Zonker). His longevity in the strip gives his tragedy a special poignance. We have known him for a long time, and like all such comic strip characters, he is an old acquaintance, a friend, and while not many of us know any of the maimed soldiers returning from Iraq, many of us know B.D. His fate thereby personalizes the casualty rates in Iraq and becomes a profound statement about war and its inevitable consequences.
Some newspapers took offense at this turn of battlefield events in Trudeau's strip. In Sterling, Colorado, the Journal-Advocate refused to publish the strips: the community recently welcomed back a maimed veteran of its own, and, as the editor said, "We don't need a comic strip to be reminded of the sacrifice." Later in the week, B.D. regains consciousness in a field hospital and discovers his leg is missing. "Son of a bitch!" he says. Some papers declined to publish that day's strip because of the profanity-however understandable (and realistic) it may be. In Editor & Publisher's syndicate news section, David Astor reported that at Trudeau's syndicate, Universal Press, favorable reaction to the sequence outnumbers objections ninety-to-ten. Syndicate official David Stanford said that the kudos are coming even from "people who say upfront that they generally don't agree politically with the strip but appreciate what Garry is doing with this storyline." An e-mailer from Hawaii wrote that the B.D. sequence "puts a finger of reality into the cold news of today, and contrasts starkly with the blather from the White House. ... You have made up for a multitude of cheap shots at incumbent presidents and other dimwitted ideas. ... I salute you on behalf of those who know that war and empire are not the solutions to our problems." A partially disabled vet from Illinois wrote: "Regardless of your politics, this is a moving tribute to the service men and women who are daily receiving real, life-altering, and life-terminating battle wounds in Iraq. This is a damnable affair and the sooner it is finished, the better." Beetle Bailey's Mort Walker reacted as many readers did: "I got a pain in my stomach," he told Rick Montgomery at the Kansas City Star. "Any time I see a soldier hurt like that, it makes me queasy. But that's what happens in wartime. And that's Trudeau's bit-to shock you and make you think about some things."
And what does Trudeau think about what he's done to B.D.? "Writers can be amazingly dispassionate about steering their creations into harm's way," he told Montgomery. "That doesn't mean I make life-altering decisions about the characters thoughtlessly; it just means I have a stronger artistic stake than emotional."
During AAEC, I spent several cellphone minutes returning calls from newspaper reporters who wanted me to comment on the B.D. sequence. One of the persistent questions was whether comic strips had ever touched on the subject of war before. They have: Bud Fisher took Mutt and Jeff in uniform to Europe during World War I (and the cartoonist got himself into the British Army, where he could secure an assignment in an information office that permitted him to continue to draw the strip), but that was for laughs, much like Beetle Bailey's life in the Army. In WWII, though, comic strip characters enlisted in throngs-Terry, Captain Easy, Joe Palooka, Skeezix, Barney Baxter, even Barney Google and Snuffy Smith-and in the serious strips, war was serious, and characters died. Both Terry and Steve Canyon got involved in the Korean War a few years later; ditto the Vietnam War, but this time, patriotic enthusiasm for the conflict was scarcely universal.
Another question was about the appropriateness of the topic on the funnies page. Editors traditionally view the comics as part of the newspaper's entertainment section, and they are reluctant to let "opinion" intrude into entertainment. They are much behind the times in this view, however: edgy "opinion" has been infecting entertainment on tv for years, at least since "All in the Family" thirty years ago. And the comics are no longer stranger to controversy: even if Doonesbury hadn't introduced the attitude during Watergate, Lynn Johnston's For Better or For Worse did with the outing of a homosexual teenager several years ago (followed by the death of Ellie's mother and the family dog and other real life events). Authenticity with its accompanying controversy is now quite at home in the comics section. Wouldn't readers be shocked when they came upon B.D.'s absent leg in the comics? Not Doonesbury readers, I said: Doonesbury readers know they can expect Trudeau to deal with all kinds of difficult topics in the strip. No surprises there. Get Fuzzy's readers, on the other hand, must have been surprised although they were not, apparently, shocked.
Reader reaction to the leg-loss sequence in Get Fuzzy was "all positive," according to United Media promotion manager Linda Kuczwaj, quoted by Astor. But she doesn't know what kind of mail Conley is getting because he has declined interviews in order to "let the work speak for itself." But the very fact that Conley did strips on the subject speaks volumes: several months ago, the cartoonist was quoted as deliberately refraining from commentary on the issues of the day. He sees the mass media already clogged with opinion and doesn't want to get into that melee: "I get annoyed by other's views I don't agree with," he told Brad Stone at Newsweek online, "and I think that's how annoying my views would be to some people." But drawing attention to the sacrifices America's soldiers are making in Iraq is not quite the same as commenting on George W. ("Whopper") Bush's limited vocabulary or Veep Cheney's friendship with Justice Scalia.
In his presentation to the AAEC, Trudeau talked mostly about his professional past and the future of comics, not about B.D. Remembering his early years on the strip, he allowed that he was "the original not-ready-for-prime-time player" who made the comics safe for bad drawing. "Without me," he continued, "there would be no Cathy, no Dilbert." In reflecting on his success with Doonesbury, Trudeau decided, not surprisingly, that he'd reaped the benefit of being in the right place at the right time. His syndicate didn't take him on because of the brilliance of his artwork: instead, they saw him as the voice of his generation, and Doonesbury was "dispatches from the front line" of the sixties youth-sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Many newspapers, under the thumb of a more staid generation of publishers, cancelled Doonesbury in the early years. Trudeau worried about it, but he was reassured by the confidence of John McMeel, co-founder of the infant syndicate that Trudeau's comic strip would, pretty soon, put on the map. Said McMeel: "Sooner or later, these [old conservative publishers] die." Trudeau grinned: "Damn if he wasn't right. All across the country, publishers who said Doonesbury would appear in their newspapers over their dead bodies were getting their wish. My client list floated upward on the tears of widows and children."
Today, the strip is one of only a handful with a circulation of 1,000 or more newspapers (Doonesbury is in 1,400). And Trudeau juggles storylines among 30 major characters-"like a Russian novel," he quipped.
As for the future, Trudeau acknowledged that young people don't read newspapers-not even his children. Animation on the Web is the future of comics, he said. And he showed a 3-minute sequence with Duke undertaking to run for President, animated by motion-capture technology that "makes it possible to animate for low cost and in real time. ... But no matter what the platform or the delivery system," Trudeau concluded, "the fundamentals of the craft will remain the same."
Publisher Flynt's presentation took place near the AAEC convention hotel in a downtown Lexington movie theater where clips from the film "The People vs. Larry Flynt" highlighted the pornographer's confrontation with the Rev. Jerry Falwell in a 1988 struggle over First Amendment rights. While the AAEC held no brief for pornography, it had supported Flynt when the case was argued before the Supreme Court because of the freedom of speech implications of the case. At issue was a cartoon parody of Falwell, and the Court affirmed Hustler's right to publish it. "Had the Supreme Court gone in Falwell's favor," Flynt told his cartoonist audience, "you all would have been out of business because all somebody would have to prove, to sue you, is that you hurt their feelings."
Flynt began by expressing his admiration for cartoonists. "Believe me," he said, "no other group in the country could have gotten me out this week," alluding to an impending book promotion tour for his new book, Sex, Lies and Politics. "When I go looking for icons in publishing," Flynt continued, "I don't look for editors or publishers or photographers. I look for cartoonists. I've always been fascinated by how a small cartoon can say more than the entire editorial page of a newspaper. You guys are underpaid, you guys are underappreciated, and you get too much static from the powers that be." When he was invited to appear before AAEC, he readily adjusted an already tight schedule to make the trip possible.
Claiming that he has written more about George WMD Bush than anyone else, including Molly Ivins, Flynt said his new book contains "good stuff"-new, too-about Jessica Lynch and the Bush League. He believes the news industry is much too deferential to the current administration: "The media has totally sold out," he said. Asked about the often alleged connection between pornography and violence, Flynt said, "If there were any evidence connecting porn and violence, we'd have no porn."
Confined to a wheelchair since the assassination attempt that crippled him in 1978, Flynt was shapelessly fat and doughy-faced, and he seemed tired, speaking in a halting croak; but his mind wasn't handicapped at all. Hustler very early staked out offensiveness as its special province in cartooning, a stance for which Flynt is wholly unapologetic. Still, he regrets a cartoon he published shortly after First Lady Betty Ford had undergone a double mastectomy. The cartoon depicted a breastless woman seen in silhouette through a White House window, with the caption, "All I want for Christmas is my two front tits." That was over the line, he now admits, upon reflection. "It was insensitive," he said, "but everyone knows that tastelessness was part of our goal."
Mike Luckovich, editorial cartoonist for the Atlanta Constitution (where he maintains the messiest office in newspaperdom by dropping paper on the floor), told a reporter after the Flynt presentation that he cringed at Flynt's descriptions of the crude stereotypical ways Hustler cartoons depict African-Americans, but he also appreciated Flynt's unabashed comments. "Most celebrities are very guarded in what they say and speak in bland sound bites. Flynt doesn't hide his opinions."
About George WMD Bush and the Patriot Act, the publisher said: "Bush's warmongering aside, his assault on civil liberties and rights is probably the most damaging thing he did for the nation." And he quoted Benjamin Franklin: "Those who would trade their civil liberties for security deserve neither."
I was talking with Pulitzer winner Ann Telnaes later, and she said that she agreed with what Flynt had said about the First Amendment, but regretted that "a spokesman for freedom of the press and free speech is a pornographer." Writing later to Joel Pett, Pulitzer-winning editoonist for the Lexington Herald Leader and organizer of the convention, she said: "I want to thank you for Larry Flynt: between being inspired by his defense of the First Amendment to being unconvinced by his defense of pornography, at least now I know I really do believe in Free Speech. You certainly came up with the ultimate test." Trudeau also commented on Flynt: "Satire is still protected by the U.S. Constitution. For that we need to thank Mr. Flynt."
Pat Oliphant and Tony Auth showed slides of their non-political cartooning work: Oliphant, sculptures; Auth, book illustration. Auth said he tries to do one drawing a day that is not political; it keeps him from forming visual habits-"the Auth nose," "the Auth ear." Oliphant has returned to life drawing classes to keep his work fresh. One of only a few editorial cartoonists without a home-base newspaper (Telnaes is another), Oliphant said he misses the newsroom. "If I miss anything, it's that," he said-the immediate response his cartoon got from colleagues in the newspaper offices. Referring to a recent cartoon that depicted Mel Gibson being abused by the nuns of the school he attended as a child (thereby prompting the movie-maker's apparent passion for associating Christ with blood and gore) and the outcry the cartoon inspired in Boston (see Opus 134, click here), Oliphant said, "Readers get more irate about cartoons on religion than with those on politics," adding that "newspapers are becoming more of a bottom-line organization; they hate controversy because that affects the bottom line." Oliphant, however, seems to delight in producing cartoons that blatantly attack the sensibilities of his readers as well as his editors-a delight, by the way, I rejoice at. Auth said his paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, isn't hesitant about publishing provocative cartoons. "The only reason to be an editorial cartoonist," he said, "is to say what you think." Oliphant, who began his newspaper career at the age of 15 on the Adelaide News in Australia, the first newspaper Rupert Murdoch owned, was asked about Murdoch, about whom, as is well-known, he harbors no affection whatsoever. Said Oliphant: "There's a good reason why people only live so long."
Arab cartoonist Khalil Bendib showed samples of his cartoons, which pointed out the hypocrisy of U.S. policy in the Middle East. He also thanked Trudeau for replying to a letter he'd written the Doonesbury creator when he, Bendib, was a college student and for "never falling into the temptation of stereotyping Muslims and Arabs." Bendib's cartoons (www.bendib.com), which represented the Palestinian side of the tragedy in Israel in an attempt to balance perspective, emphasized the inherent biases in the U.S.-for Israel and against the Palestinians. The visual stereotypes of Arabs in this country are much more pervasive and derogatory than the stereotypes of Jews, who have been quick in recent years to voice objection to any imagery that seems anti-Semitic. Bendib's presentation provoked Hy Rosen, a long-time member of AAEC presently retired, who objected to Bendib's favorable portrayal of the Palestinian point of view, condemning all such portrayals because Palestinian children were being taught to hate Jews in Palestinian schools. Bendib listened but did not argue thereby embodying the good manners essential to all free speech: he'd made his point, now it was Rosen's turn.
And Chip Beck, an ex-Marine and one-time CIA operative before becoming a cartoonist, showed slides of his recent tour of Iraq, noting that "there is a lot more going on in Iraq than the news media reveal"-by which he meant, good things that tend to validate the Bush League vision. As for the missing WMD: "Saddam himself," Beck said, "was a weapon of mass destruction."
A panel of cartoonists extolled the power of cartoons on "local" (city and state) topics. Here, they avowed, a cartoonist has real impact. And everyone in the room agreed. But everyone also acknowledged that editors usually don't like cartoons on local topics because they outrage readers more and inspire a froth of irate phone calls. And some local topics are off-limits because they are too dear to the people the publisher plays golf with. So the staff editoonist steers clear of this mine field of potential objection by drawing cartoons on national issues, and once he starts down that path, he pretty soon gets himself syndicated and begins shooting himself in the professional foot three days out of every five (the usual quota of national topics syndicates require every week). Why should his paper employ him when it can get cartoons on national issues from syndicates-and a wider range of views, too-at much less expense? In this fashion, willy nilly, the editorial cartoonist prepares for his own demise at his newspaper, contributing his bit to the steadily diminishing ranks of full-time editorial cartoonists in the U.S. It is widely accepted among editoonists that there are only about 100 full-timers still working in a field where, a couple decades ago, nearly 200 labored. But this predicament is, as I say, due largely to the machinations of the editorial cartoonists themselves in concert, unwitting at first, with the preferences and timidities of their editors.
In the hallways between sessions, cartoonists griped about the bottom-line orientation of publishers and fearful editors. Herald-Leader reporter John Cheves noted that the younger cartoonists, of which there were many, complained that in a market with a dwindling number of staff positions, the chances of their finding full-time employment were virtually nil. Those occupying those positions are all baby boomers, said Eric Shansby, and they'll stay in their jobs "until they die." Agreed Mikhaela Reid: "They're like federal judges." By the time they retire, Shansby and Reid and their generation will likely no longer be in the business, having been forced to find livelihoods elsewhere. While attendance at this year's AAEC meeting (about 150 cartoonists) suggests a reasonably healthy organization, most of those now drawing editorial cartoons do it part time, squeezing one or two a week out of an art department production schedule that includes mostly illustrations and layouts for feature articles at their papers, not editorial cartoons. Or they freelance by self-syndication, often focussing on state-wide issues and distributing their work only to state newspapers, weeklies as well as dailies. The only cheerful prospect on this otherwise bleak horizon looms in the growing number of weekly newspapers, many of which are free, living entirely on advertising revenues and fostering an "alternative" agenda for their readers. A vast number of these periodicals beckon cartoonists who find the traditional perch at a daily newspaper increasingly precarious.
Dick Locher rose during the AAEC business meeting to express his sadness at the recent death of Chicago Defender cartoonist Chester Commodore, an African-American 'tooner who started at the Defender in 1948 and continued, even after retirement in 1981, sending cartoons in to the paper. Locher recalled the time Commodore had drawn a picture of a Chicago sheriff, indicating the biases of this champion of law and order by showing him wearing Ku Klux Klan regalia. The sheriff, irate, stormed into the Chicago Defender office and demanded to know which of the staffers there present was Chester Commodore. (Defender cartoonist Tim Jackson told me that, by turns, they all said, "I'm Chester Commodore.") The cop finally realized the guy behind the drawing board was Commodore and went over, waving the paper with the cartoon at him. "That," said the sheriff accusingly, pointing at the cartoon, "is yellow journalism." Commodore disagreed: "No," he said, "that's black journalism."
One afternoon, AAEC members celebrated the venue of its convention by going to the horse races at Keeneland Race Track. On another afternoon, they watched a documentary about the life and work of one of its most distinguished members, Etta Hulme, who, although partly retired, still contributes her typically hard-hitting cartoons a couple times a week at her former domicile, the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. Called, throughout the video production, AAEC's "den mother," Hulme's mild southern-fried manner and grandmotherly mein are deceptive. She's a tough-minded political commentator who, after training with Disney and a short career in comic books (Red Rabbit), started freelancing editorial cartoons at various destinations in the mid-1950s, took time off to have four children, serve as Girl Scout leader and Potato Lady for the Rotary Club lunch ("I have a good recipe but it serves 400"), and wound up in Fort Worth in the late 1960s. She started submitting editorial cartoons to the Star-Telegram, and Hulme, as she puts it, "made a nuisance of myself until they agreed to print a few on a freelance basis." By the late 1970s, she was a regular employee and by 1980, she was doing five cartoons a week, which makes Hulme one of the earliest full-time female editorial cartoonists in the history of the medium. She tends to pooh-pooh such distinctions, however, saying, "I've been called an iconoclast and a harmless housewife. I like to keep my options open, so I'm willing to agree to both descriptions." Working in her father's grocery store as a young girl, she got "a pretty good notion of the human condition," she said. "I learned that the customer always thinks he is right and how to cut a pound of cheese (within an ounce)."I
During the convention, a video production company announced it would be supplying PBS's News Hour with an editorial cartoon feature during the Presidential campaign and solicited permissions from the 'tooners present to use their cartoons at $25 per use. This year's convention was programmed by Joel Pett. Mike Ritter of the Tribune Newspapers in Arizona was president. In September, this year's Pulitzer winner, Matt Davies of the White Plains (NY) Journal News takes the gavel, and Clay Bennett of the Christian Science Monitor moves into the President Elect slot, heir apparent.
Former Beatle Paul McCartney has always wanted to get into animation, and his first tentative steps into that realm are evident in a new DVD, released April 13: "Paul McCartney: The Music and Animation Collection" includes three animated musical shorts with Rupert the Bear, Wirral the Squirrel, and an ensemble of frogs. McCartney, who has harbored this 'tooning desire for over 20 years, creating characters and conjuring up stories, favors the traditional hand-drawn animation process, but he'd probably use a computer for some aspects of whatever he produces. ... Disney has acquired the Muppets and the Bear in the Blue House properties from the Jim Henson Company; that includes the rights to Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo and Animal characters, the Muppet film and tv library, worldwide distribution and licensing rights and all associated copyrights and trademarks (ditto the Bear in the Blue House creations); but not the Sesame Street characters, such as Big Bird and Elmo, which remain the property of Sesame Workshop. ... 20th Century Fox has recruited an impressive line-up of promotional partners for its forthcoming Garfield live-action/ CGI feature; opening June 11, the flick will be escorted onto the big screen by Pepperidge Farm, Wendy's, Ashley Furniture, Valpak, and Dole. Ashley will launch a campaign based on the fat cat's favorite recliner; Dole will put special orange feline stickers on its bananas, thereby driving everyone-well, you know. This crescendo of merchandise makes perfect sense for the cat who has devoted so much of his life to licensing.
Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury contest to flush out anyone who might be a credible witness in support of Dubya's contention that he served in the Air National Guard in Alabama in the summer of 1972 brought forth 1,600 entries, none of which provided credible evidence. Some, however, supplied fascinating insights into the minds of Doonesbury readers. One, for instance, claimed he was with Bush during those months on "a mission so secret it's taken years of therapy for me to remember. We were on board an alien vessel ...." Another claimed to be "a dental professional" with (you should pardon the expression) "inside information" about Dubya's molars and bicuspidors. Another "honorable mention" wrote: "I am an employee of the Nigerian government Toastmaster's Club ... in hiding while rebels loot my country. ... I was Bush's wingman. I was with him for his dental exams. I warned him against medical physical exams. ..." For the full quotations on these, beam up to www.doonesbury.com .
Jane's World is being transformed. Paige Braddock's spritely online strip about the humorous ups and downs of a lesbian's life has gone into reruns at www.comics.com, where it has been appearing for the last several years. But Braddock continues to produce new material-for the Jane's World comic book. When the comic book started 12 issues ago, it reprinted strips from the online incarnation; then, after six issues, Braddock compiled the content into a trade paperback. The trades got picked up by a regular (i.e., non-comics) distributor and started doing well in mainstream bookstores in Canada, UK, Germany, Austria, Australia, and France. The cartoonist discovered she enjoys working in the more flexible artistic format of paginated comics than in the restricted horizontal cadences of the traditional strip format, and when the trade books proved commercially viable, she decided to put her original work directly into the comics-to-trades stream instead of dipping her toe first in the water on the Net. Starting with No. 13 of the comic book (now on a bi-monthly schedule) original Jane material will appear only in ink on paper, first in the funnybooks, then in the trades.
Lalo Alcaraz, who produces the Latino-emphatic La Cucuracha and editorial cartoons for Universal Press Syndicate, received the Speaking the Truth Award in February from the Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace. The Award recognizes Alcaraz's work in drawing cartoons on progressive themes, including anti-war sentiments and immigrants' rights. Last fall, Alcaraz received the Art As A Hammer Award from Los Angeles' Center for the Study of Political Graphics for his efforts to promote political poster art. And on January 6, Lalo was presented with a new baby girl by his wife Victoria.
Coming on the heels of the profile in The New Yorker, Greg Braxton's extensive April 24/25 piece in the Los Angeles Times on Aaron McGruder adds a few more layers to the young cartoonist's iconoclastic complexity. McGruder is working with filmmaker Reginald Hudlin preparing an animated Boondocks pilot for tv while, at the same time, they put the finishing touches on a graphic novel, Birth of a Nation (see Opus 136 by clicking here), drawn by Kyle Baker. A while ago, I marveled that McGruder didn't get the Pulitzer Prize for cartooning in 2001 with his clear-eyed post-9/11 attack on the Bush League in the strip, but now I discover it wasn't for lack of trying: his syndicate, Universal Press, nominated him. But the Pulitzer committee overlooked his achievement, cowed, doubtless, by the national angst over the terrorist atrocity and, like Democrats in Congress, submissive to the Bush League's every wish and patriotic impulse, neither of which would have countenanced a prestigious award to anyone of McGruder's unconventional views in those troubled months. "I wasn't even a finalist," McGruder told Braxton. "I care little about awards, but I felt I deserved it. Other political cartoonists were saying how good my work was. It was a remarkable point in history, and it was really frustrating. That was my window, and I don't know if I'll ever get another opportunity to shine like that." Then, he finished by contradicting his indifference to awards: "That's why getting the NAACP Image Award made up for it." (His reaction to that distinction at the time, "biting the hand that fed him" as Braxton put it, is detailed in Opus 81.) At the presentation ceremony, McGruder sat in the same row as another honoree, National Security Advisory Condoleezza Rice, who, by that time, was one of the cartoonist's main nemeses. Accepting the Chairman's Award, McGruder made one of his usual assaults on the Bush League. Afterwards, he was shocked when Rice came up to him and asked him to draw her into his strip. "It was an indication of how little I mean to her," McGruder said. They had a short hushed conversation, and when they parted, observers applauded, thinking they'd had a "nice little exchange." Not according to McGruder: "She couldn't have cared less about what I had said about her. She's not scared of me. I'm scared of her. I am not a threat to Condoleezza Rice. What I really wanted to do was call her 'murderer' to her face." Rice got her wish eventually when, in the strip, the juvenile protagonist Huey Freeman tries to find a date for her in the expectation that if she had an active love life she'd be less inclined to send Americans off to die in Iraqi deserts. And McGruder eventually decided, apparently, that he had, indeed, called her "a murderer to her face." Or so he said at a December banquet celebrating the 138th anniversary of The Nation magazine. About his outspokenness, he told Braxton: "I've always been aware that I have an opportunity to say things that nobody else is saying, or is afraid to say. And I don't want to waste a single opportunity." Still, McGruder is perfectly capable of tactical maneuvering. Having heard rumors about White House phone calls to tv networks that result in projects being killed, he has decided to lay back a bit and cool out until the tv Boondocks is picked up by a network. Said McGruder: "The gand experiment of The Boondocks was to take on radical politics and make it cute. I was able to package it as mainstream. At a certain point, when we live in a certain time where there are ramifications for saying things, I'm finding myself in a different position. Now I'm being judged. Until this show is picked up, it's time for me to take it down. I don't take back anything I've said, but strategically, it's time to stop-at least for now. Theoretically, it could hurt the show. And I can do more with the show on the air than if it is off the air. Right now," he continued, "I want to err on the side of caution. If it gets on the air, I'll re-evaluate things. And if it doesn't get on the air, I'll re-evaluate things." Welcome to mainstream America, Aaron.
Comics Watch. In Stephan Pastis' strip, Pearls before Swine, the obnoxious rat character has spent the last few days in "comics re-education camp" learning to be less obnoxious. At camp, he encounters Earl and Mooch from Patrick McDonnell's Mutts, the dad in Jerry Scott/Rick Kirkman's Baby Blues, and Ellie from Lynn Johnston's For Better or Worse. This sort of shtick is a great hoot for fanaddicts like me who are intimately familiar with much of the rank and file of the comic strip kinkdom. But does every reader of Pearls know Mutts? Or, more pertinently, does Mutts run in every paper that Pearls runs in thereby providing Pearls readers with the reference essential to the gags? Ditto Baby Blues. The comedy Pastis is foisting off on us is self-referential (invoking the realms of comic strips only) to a nearly incestuous degree: the jokes make no sense unless you are familiar with the strip Pastis alludes to visually and thematically in the last panel of each of his daily releases on this tack. Pastis is making a hit with the cartooning fraternity (judging, somewhat, from his NCS nomination for best comic strip of the year), but he seems disdainful of his ordinary, non-cartoonist readers. Pastis has wandered off into this never-never land of self-indulgence a couple of times before, when he used his off-camera self as a character in the strip. Here, references to the cartoonist as, simply, "Pastis" make the assumption that readers know who "Pastis" is, not a safe assumption: when Pastis signs his strips, his signature is minuscule and nearly indecipherable. So who is this character "Pastis"? Funny stuff, yes; but a trifle overweening, methinks.
Darrin Bell, who draws Rudy Parks for his writing partner Theron Heir, recently launched his own solo effort, Candorville, in which racial minority characters interact and comment on the passing scene. Both strips are sharply contemporary in their comedy, and Bell, pressed, perhaps, to meet two deadlines every day, has introduced a labor-saving maneuver in both endeavors: extremely tight close-ups of his characters in the second or third panels. Nothing new in that, I suppose: Graham Nolan in Rex Morgan occasionally does the same, giving us a close-up of Nurse June's eyelashes. But Bell's style is very simple, so a close-up of one of this characters consists, graphically, of portions of a couple of circles.
CIVILIZATION'S LAST OUTPOST. Justice Antonin Scalia, who declined to recuse himself from the Supreme Court's contemplation of Veep Cheney's secret energy cabal, has recused himself more 190 times in the past, so it's not as if he would have set a precedent. ... Porn star Jenna Jameson is having her autobiography done by former New York Times music critic Neil Strauss, who, before he agreed to do the book, told the actress "that her life had to be interesting enough that we could write the first 50 pages and not even mention sex and still have a book that people won't be able to put down." Since Strauss took the job, I guess Jameson's non-sexual adventures must be as stunning as her embonpoint. ... Thousands of Catholics are reported to be petitioning the Pope to make Mel Gibson a saint for bringing "The Passion" to the masses (so to speak). "Miracles have already been reported," saith the Rev. Ezio Lucianelli of the Vatican. For instance, there's the man in Texas that was so moved by the movie that he confessed to a murder. Well, of course: it had to be in Texas. Meanwhile, according to one of our favorite supermarket tabloids, the Pope has actually expressed a desire to have Gibson succeed him as Pontiff.
Perhaps, opines Bob Garfield in the AARP Bulletin, the Reign of Perpetual Youth is coming to a close. For several generations now, the entire civilized world as we know it (as consumers of mass media) has been founded on the assumption that advertising should aim for the most active consumers, those persons between the ages of 18 and 34. And since in capitalistic societies advertising shapes all content, the mass media have diligently pursued ages 18-34 with "youth-oriented" material. But no empirical evidence about the buying habits of the human sapien supports the assumption that 18-34-year-olds buy more than anyone else; the assumption is, Garfield discovered, merely "an old chestnut." Flying in the ointment of the chestnut is the steadily declining circulation of magazines and newspapers, which, these days, the consumers between 18 and 34 don't buy because they increasingly don't like to read. They can read; they just don't like to fill their leisure hours with such activities: they'd rather play video games and surf the Net. For similar reasons, broadcast media are also in a swivet: "some 750,000 men ages 18-34 simply disappeared from the Nielsen ratings between the end of last year and the beginning of this one," Garfield reported, ignoring, for the nonce, that he was reporting on what happened between midnight on December 31 and 12:01 a.m. on January 1. Advertisers are necessarily grieved by this wholesale loss of their traditional target audience. Meanwhile, most of the disposable income-the kind advertisers lust after-can be found in a somewhat different demographic. There are almost twice as many households in the 35-55 age bracket, and their aggregate income is twice that of the 18-34 group. In the next age bracket, over 55, are almost half again as many households as in the Youth group, and the aggregate income is about the same. Moreover, both categories of "seniors" (35-55, and 55-and-over) have paid off their mortgages and made the final payments on their children's college educations so they have more disposable income than the erstwhile "target audience" of the 18-34 age group. The older folks also continue to read newspapers and magazines and to watch tv. Perhaps, at last, the entire capitalistic mechanism will begin to court this older audience, injecting new revenues into the vintage print media. And newspapers and magazines, anxious to acquire the advertising dollar, may tailor content for an older target audience. Maybe comic strips in newspapers will be published in larger dimension in order to make them readable among the myopic elder citizenry. Wouldn't that be something.
Mattel has recalled 314,000 toy Batmobiles because the rear fender fins are so sharp and pointed that they constitute what the Consumer Product Safety Commission nannies call a "hazard" to young children. I suppose so. This is the same outfit that helpfully pointed a few years ago that children's jackets with drawstrings present a "strangulation danger." Surely, dangers lurk wherever we look. And it seems that, as a people, we are stupid enough to require a fully funded commission to keep us in a constant state of awareness. I must confess, though, that I'm glad I grew up a century ago when flying kites and playing marbles were not health hazards.
NATIONAL CARTOONIST APPRECIATION WEEK. Some years ago, feeling a bit neglected, those of the nation's cartoonists who are members of the National Cartoonists Society proclaimed a national holiday-Cartoonists Day. And then, doubtless feeling a little self-conscious about drawing all that attention to themselves, they tried to shift the spotlight from the artists to the art and declared that Cartoonists Day would be surrounded by Cartoon Appreciation Week. Whereupon, ever after, May 5 has been Cartoonists Day, and the week in which it falls has been Cartoon Appreciation Week. The precise dating of the week varies from year to year. It depends upon whether we think a week begins on Sunday or Monday. Most of us would say Monday is the first day of the week because Saturday and Sunday are coupled as "the weekend," and if a week ends on Sunday, the next one must begin on Monday. QED. This year, then, Cartoon Appreciation Week is just ahead, May 3-9.
Determining the date of Cartoonists Day is less problematic: May 5 in 1895 was the day Richard Outcault's celebrated Yellow Kid first appeared in color in the New York World. The Yellow Kid is, by tradition though not in actual fact, the "first" newspaper comic strip. In actual fact, the feature he appeared in was not a comic "strip," nor was it the first of its kind in newspaper publishing. And the Yellow Kid wasn't yellow then either. In fact, he didn't have a name at the time, and the feature was called Hogan's Alley, not The Yellow Kid. Outcault first drew his bald, jug-eared tenement urchin wearing a nightshirt for a magazine called Truth; the waif debuted June 2, 1894, in a single-panel cartoon. He appeared several times thereafter, and the cartoon from the February 9, 1895 issue was reprinted in the World on February 17. These cartoons were all published in black-and-white. But on May 5, 1895, Outcault's cartoon about slum kids, still a single-panel drawing not a "strip" of panels, was published in color. The Kid's nightshirt, however, still wasn't yellow: it was blue. Its color varied for the next dozen or so appearances until January 5, 1896, when, at last, it was yellow. Subsequently, it was always yellow, and the character, who by now had been named Mickey Dugan, was dubbed "the Yellow Kid." Eventually, the Yellow Kid, who never spoke a word, communicated his thoughts to us by means of lettering on his nightshirt. By this time, Joseph Pulitzer, the publisher of the World, was engaged in a circulation battle with the new press lord in town, William Randolph Hearst, who had acquired the New York Journal in November 1895. Within a year, Hearst persuaded cartoonist Outcault to bring his popular Yellow Kid to the Hearst works. Pulitzer, not to be outdone in the comics competition, hired another cartoonist to continue drawing the Yellow Kid. And the nightshirted Kid appeared in both newspapers. As the newspapers waged a war of sensational headlines aimed at seducing buyers on the street corners, their delivery wagons were emblazoned with posters depicting the Yellow Kid. The World wagons had the Kid; and so did the Journal wagons. Observers on the sidelines of the conflict sometimes referred to the two papers as "the Yellow Kid journals." Or just "the yellow journals." From which, we derive that expression customarily used to denigrate the newspapering practices of Hearst and Pulitzer-"yellow journalism." And so the Yellow Kid occupies his niche in the history of newspaper cartooning not because he was actually the first newspaper comic character but because he was the first newspaper comic character to prove he could sell newspapers. The Yellow Kid established, beyond doubt, the commercial power of newspaper comics. And for that, he surely deserves the honored place he has in the history of the medium. Newspaper comics have been "appreciated" ever since, every day, so Cartoon Appreciation Week scarcely fills a crying need. But then, we could claim the same for Mother's Day. We tend to take for granted our everyday blessings, even while appreciating them.
This year, we can celebrate Cartoon Appreciation Week in grand style with two delectable new books, each a persuasive testimony to the gentle, hypnotic power of the cartoonist's art. One of these commemorates the work of the pre-eminent cartoonist of the last fifty years-Charles Schulz, whose insightful and endearing Peanuts established new norms for comic strip humor. The first of Fantagraphics' 25-volume project to reprint the entire 50-year run of the strip has been released just in time for Cartoon Appreciation Week.
Schulz is undeniably the appropriate icon to invoke for such a festivity. He is one of only two cartoonists to be named among the 25 "most influential newspaper people of the 20th century" by Editor & Publisher, joining a roster that begins with Pulitzer and Hearst. (The other cartoonist was Herblock.) Apart from the merchandising empire that evolved from Charlie Brown and his friends, the strip demonstrated, at its start (in just seven papers) and throughout its long run, an unusual approach to humor. The loneliness of childhood, its disappointments and losses, its vulnerability, alienation and insecurity-its anger and, even, despair-were the foundation of Schulz's comedic sense. He presented us with the images of children, but they talked remarkably like adults, and in this seeming preoccupation with adult concerns, they were funny. At the same time, we could see our dilemmas in theirs, and, as a result, we found ourselves laughing at ourselves and achieving a therapeutic catharsis. Perhaps "unwittingly," as Lynn Johnston (For Better or For Worse) said, Schulz "helped to unlock a nation's inhibitions ... he made us look at and into ourselves." And we laughed at what we saw. And the next generation of cartoonists followed Schulz's lead, taking real life and authentic human feelings as the basis for their humor.
The Complete Peanuts: 1950-1952 is a fat 350 6x8-inch page hardback book ($28.95), elegantly designed by cartoonist Seth, deploying his patented second-color accents in the text sections (an Introduction by Garrison Keillor, a brief biographical overview by David Michaelis-who is writing the definitive Schulz biography-and a reprint of an interview with Schulz from 1987, published in 1992 in Nemo). The daily strips appear three to a page in the dimension of their original publication; one of the features of Peanuts in 1950 was that it was smaller ("peanut-sized"?) than other strips, a distinction that slowly evaporated over the years as the rest of the comics section shrank. The Sunday strips, which debuted January 6, 1952, are printed one to a page and in black-and-white, a concession to the economies of publication but also a nod to Schulz's own preference for black-and-white over color.
Although much of the Peanuts oeuvre has been recycled in a 50-year cascade of paperbacks, not every individual strip, surprisingly, has been reprinted. Of the approximately 680 daily strips of the first two years, this volume includes 384 that have not appeared anywhere since their initial publication in newspapers. That's a whole year's worth. Of 1952's 50-odd Sunday strips, 40 have never been collected before (although some of them were reprinted in comic book strip anthologies of the day). Of the 18,170 strips that Derrick Bang says (in his 50 Years of Happiness) that Schulz produced during the 49-plus years of the strip's run, an astonishing 2,367 will be reprinted for the first time in the Fantagraphics series. That's 13% of the lot, the equivalent of six-and-a-half years of Peanuts that we've seen only once! If that.
The series, a daunting undertaking even for the publisher of such archival projects as the complete E.C. Segar Popeye and the complete Harold Foster Prince Valiant, has great value for aficionados of the medium as well as fans of Peanuts. The strips in this first volume are not, quite, the Peanuts we recognize today, and perusing them now, a half-century after they first appeared, yields an instructive glimpse into Schulz's creative evolution. In the first year or so, Schulz was finding his footing, and we can watch him as his steps become surer. Even if Charlie Brown isn't quite the loser he eventually became and Snoopy isn't quite the symbolic playful incarnation of imagination, there are inklings aplenty of what lies ahead. "Good ol' Charlie Brown ... how I hate him" is the punchline of the first strip on October 2, 1950, and it sets a tone for the comedy to follow, something quite different from the hilarities being perpetrated in other strips of the day about kids. The very first week of strips provoke laughter by employing frustration, antagonism, violence, mysteriousness, unfairness, and a lack of self-awareness-emotions or attitudes that, although common enough among children, seldom undergird humor in kid strips. Females, at the onset, are inexplicably hostile to males: Patty, on the second day, recites the old axiom about little girls being made of sugar and spice and everything nice-and interrupts herself to sock a boy she passes as she declaims. This single strip enacts every young man's lurking anxiety about the opposing sex.
Charlie Brown probably emerged early in readers' minds as the strip's central character because he is the only one named at first-and always with both first and last names; Patty, the second character to be christened, isn't named until the end of October. Snoopy, who isn't named until the end of January 1951, was, like most household pets of the canine persuasion, almost human from the start, but his thoughts were not yet expressed in words. And Schulz had apparently not yet decided whose dog Snoopy was: despite Charlie Brown's assertion of ownership in early November, Snoopy is often apparently "at home" in Patty's house. And Charlie Brown's trademark shirt with its zig-zag design doesn't appear until December 21, 1950, after which, he always wears it. I suspect it was introduced at the insistence of Schulz's editors at the syndicate as a way of identifying Charlie Brown, who, without it, often looks much like other kids in the early strips. The book includes a number of debuts. Lucy first holds the football for Charlie Brown on November 16, 1952 (but she isn't the first of his playmates to play this trick on him). The reigning genius of the strip, Linus-Lucy's first baby brother-shows up on September 19, 1952, but he is little more than a rugrat, he doesn't talk, and his famous security blanket is, as yet, nowhere in evidence. We forget, I'm sure, that both Lucy and Schroeder began life in Peanuts at very early ages (Lucy on March 3, 1952; Schroder, May 30, 1951). Lucy can talk, but Schroeder is still an inarticulate infant. And he doesn't get his piano, the first schtick in the strip, until September 24; Beethoven's bust shows up November 26. Most of the humor for all three arises from their infant actions. The book's most intriguing accouterment is an index at the rear. Here we are referred by page number to the first time Charlie Brown says "Good grief!" and to the first time he's called "blockhead" and to countless other bits of the strip's mythos.
Very early, Schulz's unique contribution to comic strip humor surfaced-what he called "the slight incident," some trivial albeit everyday event that has a comic dimension. Charlie Brown's shoes being laced too tight; Snoopy tracking his owner by the scent of the ice cream cone he's eating; Charlie Brown's decision not to enter Patty's house on a snowy day because he doesn't want the bother of cleaning the snow off his boots and overcoat. One of the other benchmarks in the history of cartooning established by Peanuts is simplicity in drawing style, which set the fashion for successive generations of cartoonists. But in 1952 with the advent of the Sunday Peanuts, Schulz started adding all sorts of background details-in the Sundays particularly, but often in the daily strips, too. Outdoor scenes were festooned with trees in the distance, even neighborhood houses, fences and shrubbery; indoors, doorjambs multiplied, and bookshelves, patterned curtains at the windows and other elaborations. Eventually, the Sunday strips would lose such visual embellishments, but for awhile, Peanuts looked remarkably more cluttered than I'd remembered. I suspect that Schulz added background detail at the urging of his syndicate. The theory, if I'm guessing aright, would be that without the variety of colors that background details fostered, the strip would seem comparatively colorless, visually bland. So Schulz obliged. For a time. And for the sake of visual consistency, he added more background detail to some of the daily strips, too.
In the next volume of this prodigious publishing effort, Linus gets his security blanket, Schroeder proposes Beethoven's birthday as a school holiday, and we'll meet Pig Pen, the kid who just can't stay clean-all Peanuts institutions that fostered the strip's popularity until it soared beyond anyone's wildest expectations.
Schulz, when interviewed, often said that anyone could get to know him by reading the comic strip: it was he, and he was it. Everything he was-what he believed and loved and disliked and feared-was in Peanuts, reflected in the comings and goings, aspirations and disappointments, of Charlie Brown and the others in the cast. We could say the same about almost any work of art, but in Peanuts, the personality of the creator was closer to the surface than in many other endeavors. In a similar way, the personality of Patrick McDonnell, creator of the comic strip Mutts, invests his work. And in a sumptuous coffeetable book published by Abrams just a few months ago, the connection between cartoonist and his cartoon is rendered transparent. Moreover, in this volume we have ample evidence of not just McDonnell as a person but McDonnell as a cartoonist, as artificer. And for that reason, browsing through Mutts: The Comic Art of Patrick McDonnell (216 giant 11x12-inch pages in hardback, $45) is a perfect way to engage in a celebration of Cartoon Appreciation Week.
When Mutts was launched in 75 newspapers on September 5, 1994, McDonnell says, "I felt that I was finally doing what I was meant to do." Intended as an exploration of the life and adventures of the stray dog that had appeared in McDonnell's illustrations for years, the strip evolved into "a portrayal of the relationship between me, in the guise of my mustached character, [the dog's owner] Ozzie, and my real dog, Earl." At the strip's core is the "special bond" between people and their pets. Said McDonnell when the strip started: "I study my dog every day and if I can capture just an inkling of his free spirit, his joie de vivre, in my strip, I will be quite proud. And then," McDonnell continues, "a cat, yet to be named Mooch, wandered into the works and, as cats tend to do, immediately took over." Earl and Mooch talk to each other-and to other animals-but not when humans are in the picture. "I try to keep the animals as animals," the cartoonist explained. "I want readers to relate to them as they do their own beloved pets. When the people characters in the strip are engaging with the animal characters, the pets behave as such. But when the pets are alone together, they communicate verbally with each other. The secret world of pets. Who hasn't looked at their furry friend and thought, What is that little guy thinking? Here I will delve deep inside those peanut brains for some answers." His contemplations are not without philosophical reflections: "Cartoonists and dogs are similar," McDonnell writes,"-we spend our days at home in our favorite spot, are set in our ways, and love routine. The strips of Earl alone with his Ozzie tend to be autobiographical."
In the book's opening pages, McDonnell describes his life as a cartoonist and captures its solitary excitement: "I sit at the drawingboard and stare into white space. I dip a fountain pen into a bottle of India ink. I make marks on bristol paper. I watch them come alive. I've always wanted to be a cartoonist. I love comics. I love black and white, pen and ink, words and pictures. I love their code. I love the rhythm in a line, the rhythm of dialogue, the rhythm of a gag. I love their simplicity, immediacy, intimacy, and absurdity. I love their pie-eyed optimism. I love their potential."
Because McDonnell not only draws a strip about a dog and a cat but advocates for the welfare of pets and animals in general, he was interviewed in the winter issue of The Bark, a magazine of equivalent devotion. In prefacing his interview with the cartoonist, Bark's publisher, CameronWoo, urged us to think of the Abrams book as "liner notes," explaining that liner notes on a record album typically describe "the process" by which the musicians created a piece of music. "That's exactly what McDonnell has done with this beautiful book," Woo continued: the volume offers "an engaging array of creative artifacts that allow the reader a peek behind McDonnell's special genius." A scrapbook of keepsakes, the book includes many of McDonnell's favorite strips, but it is also generously sprinkled with insightful sketches and charming doodles and fragments of autobiography and snatches of philosophy and analysis. This compendium, as Woo says, "is like a perfect jazz set-something familiar, something revelatory, with just too many notes of pure joy to convey in words." Woo's choice of simile is not entirely happenstance. McDonnell's talents include those of a jazz musician, and he readily elaborates on the kinship of music to his art: "It is about timing and improvising, being in the moment. It's like jazz in the sense that in the comic strips, you have a theme-sort of how jazz musicians have a theme or a structure, and every day, like a saxophone soloist, you do a variation on that theme and a little solo."
The book is exactly what we've come to expect from Abrams, a handsome exacting production-color throughout, and touches of design that modulate the reading and enhance the viewing experience. Present in profusion are McDonnell's Sunday strips, noted for the large opening panel that varies week to week, each time mimicking in cartoon terms a different celebrated painting or some other visual detritus of popular culture that is then echoed in the rest of the strip. (McDonnell actually does the strip first and then scours his knowledge of fine art to find some visual image that will serve as introduction, but the effect is that the strip echoes the introductory picture.) The book's endpapers augment the interior pages by presenting a selection of the most recognizable of these artful openers. McDonnell calls these effusions "tributes" and says they came about partly "as a result of my having been a fan of Frank Zappa, [who] filled his compositions and his album liner notes with quotations from his musical influences. This was the start of my music education, opening up to me the worlds of classical and jazz. Frank's sharing of his favorites has inspired me to do the same with mine." And so McDonnell laminates every Sunday strip with homages to his favorite fine artists and to the imagery of popular culture-the covers of children's books, comic books, magazines.
Andrews McMeel has just brought out a new collection of the Sunday Mutts, all in color, Mutts Sunday Afternoons: A Mutts Treasury (144 8.5x11-inch pages in paperback; $12.95). Herein, the opening panels are often given a full page to themselves, facing the ensuing strip. Because of the relationship between these two elements, the Sunday strips seem more thoughtful than the dailies. It's a deceptive illusion, but one that adds to the pleasure of reading these strips. The coloring of the Sundays is exquisitely managed, and the gently frolicsome, ruminative aura of the Sunday strips hovers over these pages like the mist of a humid August afternoon in a meadow. Were I a doctor of the human heart, I'd prescribe this volume, fifteen minutes a day, to eradicate the blue funk of hopelessness into which we inevitably descend when "the world is too much with us, late and soon, getting and spending," piling up dire consequences on every hand. With Mutts on Sundays, we can find restorative joy in the simple complexities of life and art. I'm tempted to say that I wish McDonnell would supply, at the end of these Sunday Treasuries, a list of the sources of his splash panel homages so we'd know, exactly, to what they refer instead of having only vague cultural memories of them. But, no: if there were such a key, we'd spend our time finding "the answers" to the puzzles instead of simply letting the sensation wash over us.
McDonnell studied Al Hirschfeld and R.O. Blechman to learn about "the economy and beauty of the pen line"; and "A.A. Milne's insightful Winnie-the-Pooh stories and E.H. Shepard's charming illustrations for them have been a major influence on the general tone of Mutts." His strip, McDonnell says, "celebrates the simple. It remembers the familiar, friendly faces we see for maybe just a moment every day-the neighbor walking his dog, the bird on a branch, the shopkeeper behind the counter, the cat in the window." Due in part to this commemoration of the ordinary and in part to the disciplined simplicity inherent in the visual playfulness of his graphic treatment and, finally, to the intimate but laconic drift of McDonnell's prose, the book has about it the same air of quiet but joyful serenity that infuses the strip. Here, also, are the visual antics of a cartoonist at play-at play in his strip as well as in this book. And from the display of what the cartoonist does with his strip and from his description of his life with it, we arrive, by sidling up to it, at an insight into the artistry of the medium as well as the mind of a cartoonist. McDonnell's conclusion to the book is as poetic as his strip: "Comic strips are ephemeral. They come into being in our daily newspapers and then disappear into recycling bins. They are fleeting daydreams trying to capture simple moments of joy. I've always wanted to be a cartoonist."
Like many of today's younger cartoonists, McDonnell reveres Charles Schulz. There's poetry in that reverence: McDonnell, too, reveals himself in his strip, and in this book, we see the essence of both cartoonist and his cartooning. It's exactly the sort of book that devotees of the artform should keep handy and dip into, here and there, from time to time, as recreation mostly, but also as a gentle reminder of what the smiling spirit of cartooning is.
WHO'S ON FIRST. It sounded like a routine from an old Abbott and Costello movie. At the April 13 presidential press conference, George WMD Bush was asked why he and Veep Cheney would be testifying together before the Nine-Eleven Commission.
"The Commission wants to ask us questions," Dubya answered, "and we want to answer them."
"No, Mr. President," persisted the reporter, "-why are you going together?"
"Well," said Dubya, "they want to ask both of us questions."
He even had the puissance to grin.
All this time, I thought George W. ("War Lord") Bush was stupid. No way. It takes brilliance to manufacture a comedy routine on-the-spot, standing on your feet in front of a hostile crowd. Smart feller. A few minutes later, of course, his presence of mind deserted him completely when asked if he had ever made a mistake. He said, after flailing around for several minutes in vain, that he certainly has made mistakes. He just couldn't think of any.
I can sympathize. I thought I'd made a error once, and then I realized I was mistaken.
The arrangement for the joint appearance before the Nine-Eleven panel specifies that no official record of their testimony be kept-no recording, only informal individual note-taking. And neither witness will be under oath. Right. It's been established by the previous administration that a politician can be impeached for lying only if he lies under oath.
BOOK MARQUEE. Dan Piraro, award-winning syndicated cartoonist (Bizarro), vegan, animal rights activist, and one-man show ("The Bizarro Baloney Show," a two-hour "extravaganza of songs, puppets, art, music, cartoons, costumes, verbs and nouns") reveals, at last, his true political colors in a hardback book The Three Little Pigs Buy the White House (Thomas Dunne, $12.95). Posing as a children's book (big pictures on every page surrounded by large albeit brief text), it is, as you can doubtless tell from the title, a jeremiad on the Bush League swinishness, a tortured re-configuration of the age-old tale in which the pigs, instead of building three houses, one of brick, one of straw, and one of mud, deconstruct the brick White House they inherit, removing the bricks and replacing them first with mud, then with straw. To prevent anyone from noticing this transformation from solidity to fragility, they create a succession of distractions involving various Big Bad Wolves. The trio of pigs hogging all the wealth of their country are snout-nosed caricatures of three well-known public personages: Dubya, a witless shill for Dickey, the brains of the operation, who is assisted by the ruthlessly combative Rummy. The only one to penetrate this inner circle is Ari the Weasel, who bursts in every once in a while to announce in a hysterical shriek some new threat to their looting scheme-the Big Bad Wolf who blew down a couple of buildings, the discontent of the people when no WMD are found, and so on-each alarm initiating the launch of a new distraction and more looting. More audacious than clever, the book is nonetheless both-and a satisfying allegorical satire skewering of the reign of the Bush League. It ends with Ari's replacement, Scott the Armadillo, bursting in "all a-twitter" with a new alarm-the results of the Presidential Election. And with that, the start of a new narrative cycle, Piraro ends his tale; he doesn't tell us the results of the Election, but, in the book's concluding "information" page, he urges his readers to "vote against Republicans whenever and wherever you can."
Last week, Piraro was doing his standup act in San Francisco, where he was interviewed on the Doonesbury controversy by James Sullivan at the San Francisco Chronicle. Said Piraro, veering off in a slightly different, but related, direction: "I've often said I'd rather be a poor guy making a stand than a rich buy who never says a word. There is so much injustice in this administration, so much lying and really dangerous politics. It's impossible to be a thinking, creative person right now and not comment."
second volume of Winsor McCay:
Early Works is out from Checker Book Publishing Group, a matched
pair of 7x10-inch 200 page black-and-white volumes, each at $19.95.
These are marginally better than the same-format
Until next time, metaphors be with you.
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