Opus 145 (September 12, 2004). Featured this time are a review of the graphic novel, Birth of a Nation, and an essay examining the pros and cons surrounding the prolonged lives enjoyed by "legacy strips," those perpetuated after the death or retirement of the creator. Between here and there, though, we have some fun with Stan Lee's bunnies, Hugh Hefner's pronouncement, "Father of the Pride," announcing the fourth Presidential Candidate, and doing a little Bushwhacking and Outfoxing. Without further adieu-
Nous R Us
The kidnaped and then murdered Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni was only a part-time journalist, in Iraq to report for the news magazine Diario. His regular occupation was as an advertising copy writer. And he translated Doonesbury for the Italian market. ... Finishing up an off-Broadway run September 19 is "Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead," a palindromically-titled take-off by Bert V. Royal, inspired by (yup) Charles Schulz's Peanuts. This unauthorized parody, according to Ernio Hernandez in Playbill.com, reveals "what happens when America's favorite blockhead discovers that his beloved beagle has terminal rabies. A missing pen pal, an abused pianist, a pyromaniac ex-girlfriend, two drunk cheerleaders, a homophobic quarterback, a burnt-out Buddhist and a drama queen sister" also populate the stage. It was inevitable, of course. This is what happens to cultural icons: they get parodied and jeered at as much as they get cheered on. ... I neglected to report the outcome of the Winnie suit, an action brought against Disney by the Stephen Slesinger, Inc., the company that once had exclusive rights to Winnie the Pooh merchandise in this country but that, apparently, signed some of those rights over to the Mouse House. A judge threw out the Slesinger case last spring because the plaintiff, according to Disney, had stolen, withheld or possibly manufactured Disney documents, thus "tampering with the administration of justice" in a manner both "egregious and inexcusable." The SSI people had argued that Disney reneged on promises to pay certain royalties; Disney denied it. And now we'll never know. SSI is a family firm founded by Stephen Slesinger, whose widow, Shirley, eventually married Fred Lasswell, proprietor of Snuffy Smith, now deceased.
"Father of the Pride," the new animated tv show for adults, debuted a Tuesday or so ago, and I must agree with others that it's fairly lousy. Tom Shales at the Washington Post called it "the worst idea for a tv show-doubled." A "diseased cartoon," Shales said, invented by "vulgar Jeffrey Zucker, president of NBC Universal TV, as a result of studying the success of DreamWorks' theatrical film, 'Shrek.'" (Note, Shales says, Zucker didn't study the film: he studied the "success" of the film.) Mark Dawidziak at the Cleveland Plain Dealer called "Pride" an "amazingly crude prime-time parade of below-the-belt sex jokes." Yes, it was all of that, but it was even more. Or less. The characters didn't move. They lumbered. They all looked like they were trying hard to be realistic in motion. What's the point of that in an animated film? An animated film should defy gravity, exceed realism. It should be energetic beyond the ordinary, lively. Fun. None of that here.
In another animation effort likely to assault civilized sensibilities, MTV has ordered a pilot for "Hef's Superbunnies," which is about Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner's fight against crime as revealed by Stan Lee. Said Hef: "Stan and I go back a long ways, and he simply felt it was time for me to reveal my secret identity. You all know me as the editor-in-chief and publisher of Playboy. But late at night when everyone assumes I'm in the grotto living the good life, I'm out there with the Superbunnies fighting evil-doers." Lee tried to get into the Playboy universe soon after he arrived in Hollywood in 1975 with a soft-core porn comic strip called Thomas Swift, which, judging from the description of Lee's proposal in Stan Lee by Tom Spurgeon and Jordan Raphael, was pretty awful adolescent sexual so-called humor. The sample splash page for the first adventure depicts "a futuristic Ming the Merciless-style throne room adorned with a bevy of naked big-breasted women lounging in various states of sexual arousal. A brawny, evil-looking man with a head shaped like the tip of a penis sits on a throne that resembles two giant testicles." Well, that's enough, surely. Little Annie Fanny it wasn't. And if Lee's Stripperella effusion a year ago is any indication, "Hef's Superbunnies," in which a silk-pj clad superhero with Hef's voice sends buxom bunnies out to impersonate Charlie's Angels but in skimpier attire, won't be much fun either. Hef insists, though, that "it's going to be more than just an action show. It's going to be very satirical with a lot of cutting-edge aspects to it." Maybe if they avoid villains with penis-shaped heads....
NBM has sprouted a subdivision, Papercutz, headed by Jim Salicrup. Its first efforts will be to turn the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew into comics. The Hardy Boys, written by Scott Lobdell and drawn by Lea Hernandez, will assume the usual four-color pamphlet guise in November; Drew will take place in February in a pocket-sized graphic novel format, also in full color, written by Stefan Petrucha and drawn by Sho Murase. This endeavor will probably succeed. It has the magic ingredients: established teenage protagonists (all of whom also continue to appear in prose novels) rendered in a variation of manga style, which, we are assured, is all the rage among teenage girls and boys. How can it miss? I hope it goes. But I must also confess that manga's mannered visuals of refined gossamer usually turn me off, and what I've seen here is no exception. This is a quirk of mine-perhaps even a failing-not a critical evaluation. The artwork appears to be entirely competent and, for those tuned in to manga, probably appealing. Hence, the success I predict. The Hardy brothers and the Drew daughter are a perfect fit for the Papercutz plan. The idea, Salicrup explained to Newsarama, is "to create original graphic novels for the tween market featuring popular established characters. When the opportunity presented itself for Papercutz to obtain the graphic novel rights to the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, we jumped on it. We've got a few other properties in development and hope to announce them in the months ahead." The "tween market"? It's been around for a couple generations now, albeit under another name. I'm waiting for the "peevish geezer" market myself, something tailored precisely to the tastes of those in their dotage like me.
Robert Crumb, long lying fallow in the playgrounds of France, has signed up for a major work at W.W. Norton. The book, which no one is permitted to discuss in detail, may be a treatment of the Book of Genesis. Crumb's agent, Denis Kitchen, said he'd seen the idea before when Crumb brought it to him at the now defunct Kitchen Sink Press. "We couldn't do it because it was late in the day there," Kitchen said; the company was foundering around in those days, searching for a way out of its financial doldrums. "But it was an idea that I loved," Kitchen continued, "and I never forgot about it." The project will presumably keep Crumb at the drawingboard for at least two years. A major opus. But when the book is finally published, don't look to see Crumb on Letterman or Leno. "He's made it perfectly clear that he will not do things that are usually expected of authors," Kitchen said; "he will not do an author tour, and probably would never appear on a tv show, with the possible exception of Charlie Rose." Crumb will probably stay in France. Where his drawingboard is.
Michael Jantze wadded up the proverbial towel and tossed it on September 12. The Norm ceased its syndicated run on that date. Sad. It's a great little strip, well-drawn and uniquely comedic. No other comic strip achieves its humor like The Norm by breaking the fourth wall as a matter of routine. The strip is, in effect, Norm's diary or daily journal, and we, the readers, are witnesses to the daily doings as well as the reports of those doings themselves. Apart from engaging in this novelty, Jantze plays with the format of the comic strip, with its sequential nature and, on Sundays, with the layout. Few comic strips exploit the medium as deftly. For The Norm's demise, we may have to thank the so-called "legacy" strips- Dick Tracy, Mary Worth, Gasoline Alley, Snuffy Smith, Apartment 3-G, Judge Parker, Hagar the Horrible, Brenda Starr, Popeye, The Katzenjammer Kids, Rex Morgan, Blondie, Prince Valiant, Hi and Lois to name a few-all those comic strips whose originators have died or retired, leaving the continuation of their creations to others. In perpetuating, these strips occupy scarce space in newspapers, thereby closing off possibilities for newer strips because no newspaper in the country will add a new strip without making room for it by dropping an older one. That's the economy of the profession. Seldom does a newspaper expand its comics section in order to add new strips. And most newspaper editors know that dropping a strip courts protest from readers: every strip is someone's favorite, so every time a strip is dropped, some readers are outraged enough to pester editors about it. Nonetheless, editors, seeking to keep their comics sections "fresh," persist in irritating their readers by adding new strips and dropping old ones to make room for them. But editors do this with great trepidation. And they don't do it often. Or eagerly. And with legacy strips occupying so much of the turf-and these strips, the long-running ones, have the most loyal readers, the ones most likely to phone editors in a snit if their strips are dropped-the opportunity for a new strip to get into enough papers to earn a living for its creator is severely limited. Increasingly, it seems, most new strips can't even get into enough newspapers to get seen by readers; so whether readers like them or not is a moot question.
In the cartooning profession, there are just two sides on the issue: those who curse the continuation of legacy strips (generally, the cartoonists who've created new strips and can't get into enough papers to make a living) and those who make their livings doing legacy strips. The position taken by the latter is that if an eager audience exists for their work, then that work ought to be prolonged. For a long time, I've agreed with them. Moreover, I once said that if giving up Dick Tracy meant getting Cathybert or Spot the Frog into the paper, I'd rather have Dick Tracy. Dropping old strips just because they're old in order to make room for lousy new ones doesn't seem to me to mark an advancement in civilization. But now-now that I've "lost" two of my favorites, The Norm and Liberty Meadows, just because they couldn't find homes in more than 50-60 newspapers-now, I'm beginning to have second thoughts.
By way of emphasizing the dimensions of the problem, Jantze suggested, when we talked, that the difficulty resides in the medium-sized newspapers. He asked his folks, who live in Fargo, ND, to count the number of strips in the paper that are less than 20 years old. They found one. One! In Jantze's view, that's a big part of the trouble: the papers in medium-size towns seldom add anything new. Big city papers do; but not the smaller ones. In medium-size towns, the old strips hold onto their slots in the paper. Maybe. Maybe not. My hometown, Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, is populated by about 100,000 vs. 86,000 in Fargo. The local News-Gazette added 7 new strips last summer: Get Fuzzy, Between Friends, Tina's Groover, Rose Is Rose, Pickles, The Norm, The Boondocks. Almost no strips were dropped (Cathy was, though; I remember that); the paper added a quarter page of comics to its line-up. All but one of the newly added strips are less than 20 years old. Of the total of 30 strips, almost half-that is, 14-are less than 20 years old. The others, in addition to the newcomers: Heart of the City, FoxTrot, Baby Blues, Non-Sequitur, Zits, Dilbert, Sherman's Lagoon. But eight of the remaining strips (half of them) are legacy strips: Peanuts, Blondie, Born Loser, Rex Morgan, Judge Parker, Mary Worth, Hagar, Hi and Lois. Makes me feel pretty good about the local paper: it seems to embrace a healthy balance of old standbys and fresh young blood. But it undercuts Jantze's contention a little.
Another of the new crowd, Stephen Pastis (who draws, if you'll pardon the expression, the stick-figure strip, Pearls before Swine) reportedly said he once toted up over 5,000 possible openings that were occupied by "legacy" strips. Peanuts, for instance, is filling 2,600 "holes" -that is, if Peanuts were discontinued, there'd be 2,600 openings into which the newer strips could be fitted. Assuming, for the sake of this argument, that a strip needs 100 client papers to produce a reasonable living for its creator, Peanuts is preventing 26 new strips from emerging. With that as a measure, it's easy to see how 5,000 openings is not an outlandish number.
Complicating the situation is the stampede syndrome. Once feature editors hear that a particular new strip is popular, they all grab for it. No one wants to miss "the next Calvin and Hobbes," as one of those editors told me a few years ago. And syndicates, eager to hook onto any such phenomena, play into this situation. When Zits started, papers signed up by the droves. And King Features, the Zits syndicate, understandably emphasized the rush that the strip was getting. Most of the rest of the King line-up, particularly other strips that came along right about then, looking for client papers, suffered somewhat in consequence. (Even if the salesmen didn't make a conscious attempt to sell their hottest number-and it would be hard to imagine them doing otherwise-the market itself, the feature editors looking for "the next Calvin and Hobbes," jumped on Zits.) The Norm, by the way, came along right about the time the Zits stampede was in full feather. And so did Liberty Meadows.
I enjoy Zits. It's not just funny: it's also a superb example of the cartooning arts. I enjoy seeing Peanuts, too. And some of my friends are producing legacy strips. But there's no denying that legacy strips take up space, and by doing so, they foreclose on the futures of other, newer strips. But if I lean in the direction of discontinuing legacy strips, I run up against the mantra of those who produce them: if the reading public loves these strips, it's our obligation to continue to produce them. Well, fine. But on the other side of the aisle are those who say people will never get the chance to fall in love with The Norm. Or 9 Chickweed Lane. Or-...
The great difficulty for anyone opting to discontinue legacy strips is how to determine which of them to kiss off. The cleanest solution to this dilemma is the universal death knell: any comic strip whose originator has died or retired should be discontinued. Easy. Nope: 'fraid not. Blondie, for instance-which, today, may be but an anemic shadow of its former self-was still in its heyday in the 1950s. Its originator, Chic Young, hadn't died, but he had, for all practical purposes, retired except for, perhaps, occasional supervision or construction of gags. The strip was being drawn entirely by Jim Raymond (and, probably, his assistant). Raymond, in fact, had been doing most of the drawing on the strip since 1937-and much of the writing, too. So when, exactly, did Young "retire"? How can we tell? About death, there's no dispute. But about retirement-especially in a field in which the liberal use of assistants masks the slow withdrawal of the master's hand from the work-we can be less certain. If the universal death knell is operative, when would Blondie have disappeared off the comics pages of the world's newspapers? A similar question infects the fate of Bringing Up Father: its originator, George McManus, was ably assisted for 20 years by Zeke Zekley, who, by the time McManus died in 1954, had been drawing the strip solo for months. And for years before that, he and McManus so shared the drawing chores that even they couldn't tell who had drawn what. So when should Bringing Up Father be killed? The question rears its head about many stalwarts on the comics page-so many that the death knell approach, seemingly so easy to apply, wouldn't work. If it had been applied as rigorously as its formulation implies it should be, we'd never have had Dick Moores' unique treatment of Gasoline Alley; ditto Jim Scancarelli's. And Al Scaduto's They'll Do It Every Time.
If we can't, reasonably, apply the death knell criterion-death or retirement of the originator-what criterion works? Is it age? Once a strip is, say, 40 years old, should it be retired, more-or-less automatically? If so, The Phantom dies (the Ghost Who Walks takes a seat). And it is one of the most widely published comic strips in the world (although not, maybe, in the U.S.). Is the crucial factor the circulation of the strip? If a strip drops below, say, 50 papers, should it die? If so, we'd have lost some of the best years of Krazy Kat, which, for much of its last decade or so, ran in fewer than two dozen papers. If a strip is produced by a team of writers and artists taking the place of the single creative consciousness that originated the feature, does that qualify the strip for cancellation? If so, Rex Morgan would never have started. Ditto Mary Worth. Or does this criterion apply only if the team replaces a single creative consciousness? Then we're driven back to Blondie, whose production team eased into existence over the years; so how could we know when, exactly, the team took over from Young?
The best reason for banishing a comic strip is that it ceases to be as good as it once was. Legacy strips, according to this logic, are more prone to deteriorate than other kinds of strips. After all, the geniuses that devised them are gone, and with their departure, the special magic spark that inspired the strip disappears. Perhaps. Perhaps not. I don't think that the people who eventually continued Bringing Up Father were the genius that McManus was (or that Zekley, having apprenticed with the creator, was; and he wasn't given the chance to continue his boss's work). And the strip wasn't at all the same. The difference may have been an inferiority. Nobody, really, could follow E.C. Segar's act on Popeye (Thimble Theatre) either. But some successors, while not replicating the genius of the originator, devise a genius of their own and re-create the strip in their own image, so to speak. Yes, the strip is not the same; but the new strip is, in its own terms, its new guise, at least as good (and sometimes better) than its antecedent. To resort only to the deceased by way of example, Dick Moores' Gasoline Alley wasn't Frank King's; but it was distinctly Moores', and it was at least as satisfying a work as the original. (And sometimes, it was better-at least, more attuned to its times.) Ditto Leslie Turner's version of Roy Crane's Captain Easy. When Fred Lasswell took over Barney Google and Snuffy Smith after the death of Billy DeBeck, its originator, he completed the transformation of the strip from its race-track days with Barney to its hillbilly milieu with Snuffy; and the "new" strip was at least as good as its predecessor. In short, although we may be able to find more inferior legacy strips than legacy strips that equal or better their antecedents, there are enough exceptions to this rule to invalidate "legacy" as a signal of quality or the lack thereof. Just because it's a legacy strip doesn't mean it's an inferior one.
We are left, then, with the only valid criterion for retiring a strip. Is it any good? And that, as a starting place, is nowhere. Who is to be the ultimate judge of quality? The syndicate? Syndicates probably think all their strips are good ones-after all, they picked 'em over dozens, hundreds, of submissions. Newspaper editors? Newspaper editors have no particular expertise in the visual artform that the comic strip partakes of. Newspaper editors are verbal creatures, not visual ones, and their judgement about the visual arts is, perforce, deeply flawed. (How else to account for the emergence of such visual catastrophes is Cathybert if not to assume that newspaper editors can't tell the difference between Peanuts and Spot the Frog?) Historian/critics like me? That may be the best option yet, but it's not at all a practical one. I'd be happy to do it, but I'd have to admit that I can be bribed. In the last analysis, the only practical means of evaluating a strip is the one offered by those who defend their manufacture of legacy strips-the popularity of the feature. As Dennis LeBrun, currently drawing Blondie, says: "Blondie is carried in more than 2,000 newspapers, and it runs in about 55 countries. And it would be a bad move to walk away from 300 million readers throughout the world." Hard to argue with that.
But that leaves us precisely where we started, and I was hoping I could arrive at a somewhat different destination-at a place where new strips had a chance to make fans of readers, a chance they don't have with legacy strips taking virtually all the available space. Having "lost" two of my favorite new strips in the last few years, I'm loath to witness a repetition of this shut-out debacle. Still, Calvin and Hobbes made it. So did Zits. They made it over the hurdle, so to speak, despite the lack of "vacancies," despite the prevalence of legacy strips in newspaper comics sections. I suppose one could still maintain a posture in the middle of this road. That's about where I am, having leaned first one way and then the other. My present stance is-limited support for legacies. I support legacy strips as long as I get to pick the ones that get to stay; by the same token, I get to pick the new strips that replace discontinued legacies. Brenda Starr can go, but she won't be replaced by Cathybert.
Another solution would be for newspapers to expand their comics sections. LeBrun speaks for many in his situation when he said: "Instead of getting rid of strips that are still viable-as Blondie and Hagar are, according to readership surveys-I would like to see the newspapers expand the space they allot to comic strips because from what I've seen in readership polls, comics are the third-highest reason people buy the newspaper. Comic strips have always been a competition of the better strips surviving. So if a new strip comes out, it has equal opportunity to make it onto the comics page against all other strips, and if the readers are there, it will keep its space on the comics page-and grow, as some of the more popular comic strips have." No fan of comics would object to more comics in the newspaper. But expanding a given comics section would ultimately bring us back to the same predicament. Unless the comics sections were infinitely expandable, eventually, something would have to be dropped if anything new were to be added.
In the last analysis, we seem to have lurched back to Square One, having collected no two-hundred dollar bonus or anything even remotely similar for having run all around the board. Back at the beginning again, the best we can hope for is that newspaper editors will strive for a balance on their comics pages-something old, something new, a legacy here and a novelty there-just as they look for different strips to please different segments of their reading public-something for married couples, something for young people, something for working single mothers, and so on, in the perpetual quest for the perfect spread of demographic appeals. In other words, newspaper editors will continue to do what they're already doing.
And Michael Jantze? He says he'll continue The Norm magazine, a periodical that reprints the strip accompanied by the "journal entries" that appeared on the website. That'll go on for some time yet, a place for old friends to visit (and maybe generating a few new friends, too). And in the rest of his spare time, he'll return to the film industry from whence he came.
Before leaving the legacy subject for the nonce, here's a note that appears at the end of a syndicated column in most newspapers: "Dear Abby is written by Abigail Van Buren, also known as Jeanne Phillips, and was founded by her mother, Pauline Phillips." Who's that again? Where is the beginning of this legacy?
THE FOURTH CANDIDATE
Presidential Race Heats Up with the Emergence of a Fourth Candidate for the Office
The most experienced candidate for President of the U.S. was nominated in a little-heralded convention in Waycross, Georgia, last March, following what was described as "furious electioneering and ballot-box stuffing."
"The voting," our anonymous reporter reported, "was so heavy that the official poll-watcher had to clear the opening of the ballot box when it became so stuffed that new ballots couldn't be added."
As usual, Pogo, the comic strip "possum by trade," won handily. It will be Pogo's 14th
candidature" for the "presidensity," hence the validity of his claim to being the most experienced candidate. With the retirement (not to say death in 2001) of Harold Stassen, no other American has run more often for the office. (Stassen ran nine times, first in 1948; last, in 1992 at the age of 85.) Although unsuccessful in his quest for the White House, Pogo, for those of you with short memories, was hugely successful as the star of an eponymous comic strip created by Walt Kelly, about whom you can read at great length in our Hindsight department by clicking here.
In the meantime, for those disposed to cast their vote for the perennial possum, a visit to one of the Pogo websites might be instructive: www.pogopossum.com, his home town (so to speak), or www.pogo-fan-club.org, where you can learn about the Fort Mudge Most, the club's monthly newsletter, owned and operated by the perpetual prez of the Club, Steve Thompson.
Under the Spreading Pundtry
One of the chief objectives of the recently concluded Republican Coronation in New York was to affirm that Gee Dubya is a decisive leader, decisiveness being the main ingredient, apparently, in leadership. Bush is decisive all right. He decided while vacationing on his ranchero in Crawford, Texas, in August 2001 not to pay any real attention to the reports warning that Osma bin Laden was planning to hit something big in the U.S. If, by virtue of his occupying the White House at the time the Soviet Union collapsed, Dubya's father can get credit for winning the cold war, then whatever happens during a president's term is properly to be attributed to him (or her). So the 9/11 atrocity is Bush's fault-even more so because he, as he himself says, is charged with making Americans safe. So he blew it. And we're going to re-elect this bungler?
But what if-. What if the 9/11 attack, or perhaps some slightly less disastrous version of it, was actually hoped for by the Bush League? They were looking, after all, for an excuse to invade Iraq. When they decided (there's that word again) early on to ignore the terrorist threat brewing in the Middle East in favor of concentrating on tax cuts for the wealthy while they "studied" the terrorist threat, could they not have been hoping, secretly, that by turning their backs for a while, something could happen? Something that would give America the backbone to invade Iraq? FDR was accused of arranging for Pearl Harbor-largely by failing to do anything to stop it, not actually planning the event-so why not the Bush League, by willful neglect of a threat, "arranging" for the 9/11 tragedy? Stranger things have happened, kimo sabe.
Any bunch of hoorahs capable of coining such double-talk as "catastrophic success" to describe the ineptitude of the Iraq invasion can be imagined capable of just about any level of deception and misdirection. I spent a portion of the week watching parts of the Republican Coronation in New York and listening to numerous gasbags saying that Dubya must say in his acceptance speech what his plans are for the future of America. Right. But the real question here is not what he says he envisions for America but what he'll actually do. If we are to judge from his record, he won't be doing very many of the things he promises. George W. ("Warlord") Bush is great for saying one thing and doing something else-sometimes, the very opposite thing. He was opposed to nation-building; now, we're nation-building. He said we should as a nation act humbly; when it came time for him to act on the international stage, he acted arrogantly-"My way or the highway." He was opposed to forming a department of Homeland Security; now we have one (and the Bush League is behaving as if the whole scheme were its idea instead of the Democrats in Congress). He opposed the formation of the 9/11 Commission; then he was for it. He said he wouldn't store nuclear waste in Nevada's Yucca Mountain unless it was proved scientifically safe; then he announced he would go ahead with the Yucca Mountain project even though scientists said it was a bad idea. My point is: I don't care what George W. ("Whopper") Bush says his plans for the country are-you can't believe what he says. His acceptance speech is, therefore, an irrelevance.
Patrolling the Fair and Balanced
John Kerry addressed the American Legion convention on Wednesday, September 1, and I watched the coverage on Fox-TV (which I frequently watch in order to spy on the enemy). I missed the beginning of the broadcast, but it seems that his entire address was broadcast. At the end, the FoxNews guy came on and said, immediately, "Well, there you have it-John Kerry's speech to the American Legion where President Bush spoke two days ago. And if anyone was expecting Kerry to apologize for his post-Vietnam testimony before Congress about how U.S. troops behaved in Vietnam, they'd be disappointed. He made no reference to it and slithered by the accusations of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, too." On any news network worthy of the name, the post-speech remarks by the news guy usually begins with a summary of the major points made by the speaker, and the summary is usually fairly objective. This "summary," as anyone can plainly see, was so far from objective as to be slanted: the point was not to summarize what Kerry had said but to remind people of his critical comments before Congress thirty years ago and the difficulty those remarks were giving the candidate with groups of veterans. And that reminder, in turn, was intended to stoke the resentments that might be presumed to lurk in the bosoms of Fox-TViewers who hate Kerry for his anti-war sentiments in the 1970s. The reporter concluded his brief assessment of Kerry's speech with the usual Fox mantra-something like, "We broadcast President Bush's speech Monday, and now we're broadcasting Kerry's. Fair and balanced." Right after that, he interviewed two politicians about Kerry's speech-one Democrat, one Republican. Fair and balanced, right? The news guy asked the Democrat what he thought of the speech, and the Democrat said he thought it was pretty good, hard-hitting and specific (Kerry outlined, item by item, how the Bush League had gone wrong in Iraq and then said how he'd have done it differently-and then said what he'd do from now on). The reporter then turned to the Republican and asked: "And what do you think? Do you think anyone was disappointed not to hear an apology from Kerry about his testimony before Congress after his Vietnam service?" Or words to that effect. The Republican, picking up his cue, agreed that multitudes with that expectation were certain to be disappointed. In short, despite the appearance of "balance," the reporter was loading the coverage of the speaker to give it the political thrust that had, apparently, been decided on for the day: remind everyone that, regardless of what Kerry might say, he's never apologized for besmirching the reputation of American soldiers in Vietnam. The "news" as Fox manufactured it was designed to continue to paint Kerry as a long-haired war protester (not the fella you'd want running a war from the White House) and to remind the Bush Base of why they didn't like Kerry. The "news," in other words, was not what Kerry said but what Fox wanted to crucify him for. Fair and balanced? Sure-and it never gets dark when the sun goes down either.
Another Birth, Another Nation
"Birth of a Nation" was the title of D.W. Griffith's 1915 hour-and-a-half landmark movie (the first feature-length flick) about two families during the Civil War and Reconstruction. The Ku Klux Klan was a highly visible presence in the movie, often in an apparently heroic role, which made the production highly controversial even in its own time. (Some souls even credited the movie with the rebirth of the Klan in the ensuing years.) The new graphic novel Birth of a Nation (144 8x10-inch color pages, hardback; $25) has only the vaguest relationship to its Griffith namesake: the graphic novel began as an idea for a motion picture. Beyond that circumstance, any resemblance must be entirely satirical, a sort of sly wink at the Klan as the "new nation" being born in the novel precludes forever the re-emergence of the cowardly cloakmen of yore. But the graphic novel has another connection to movies in general: in its present incarnation, it reads like a storyboard for the film it might have been. It even looks like a storyboard-rows of pictures pinned on a display board to outline a narrative in visual terms. Drawn by Kyle Baker (currently producing Plastic Man Comics for DC and author of such graphic novels as You Are There, King David, and The Cowboy Wally Show), the narrative deploys his customary modification of the traditional comic strip format. Baker eschews speech balloons, the hallmark of the medium, because he thinks they're confusing to read and, besides, they blot out parts of the pictures. Instead of inflating speech balloons within his pictures, he confines all the verbal content to blocks of type below the pictures, clustering the words spoken by the characters under the characters who speak them. One of the incidental byproducts of this maneuver is an airier page layout: between rows of pictures, generous swatches of white space accommodate the typeset dialogue. The drawing style Baker adopts for this occasion continues to evoke a storyboard kinship: his comedic bigfoot caricatural linear renderings embellished with nuanced color look remarkably like the individual cells of an animated cartoon.
Birth had its genesis at the San Diego Comic Convention a couple years ago: movie producer-director Reginald Hudlin ("House Party," Boomerang") tells us in his Introduction that he and cartoonist Aaron McGruder (The Boondocks) were batting around ideas for a movie "that was funny and easy to sell." Their initial notion became an "obsession" that took a year to play out. "Aaron and I share many of the same interests," Hudlin says, "-the global realignment of black people, alternative fuel sources, late '80s hip-hop. Anyway, passions, dreams and personal experiences were poured into the draft. Aaron's gift for writing socio-political comedy haikus made full use of the large canvas of a movie script, but when we finished, we had a project that fans of our work would love, but no movie studio would make." It's easy to see why.
At its conception, the story was clearly a political satire of revenge and triumph springboarding from the Florida Fiasco that concluded the 2000 Presidential Election. Set in East St. Louis ("the inner city without an outer city" and Hudlin's hometown), the tale gets underway when hundreds of citizens, mostly African-American, are disenfranchised at the polls: when they go to vote, they discover their names have turned up on lists of convicted felons, an echo of 2000 too explicit to be missed. None of them are felons, but the error cannot be corrected in time to permit them to cast their ballots. The case goes to the Supreme Court, which agrees that a mistake has been made but rules that a re-vote would threaten national stability so the results are permitted to stand, putting into the White House a man who, had the East St. Louis voters been allowed to vote, would have lost the contest.
In protest, the citizens of East St. Louis follow the advice of their idealistic mayor, Fred Fredericks, who invokes that part of the Declaration of Independence that says "when the government no longer respects the freedoms of the people, the people have an obligation not to let it slide; it's not your choice or even your privilege-it's your duty to fight back." He then announces the secession of East St. Louis from the United States, and the city declares itself a separate nation, which its citizens eventually christen "Blackland." The response of the federal government, now led by a former governor of Texas named Caldwell who looks notably like another former governor of Texas, is a clumsy re-enactment of the Civil War: if East St. Louis is permitted to secede, other cities might do the same, so the federal government cannot allow it. The U.S. military is mustered at the border-er, the city limits-to invade.
Given the premise, this much is probably predictable. The satirical jab at the heart of this conceit doubtless took its authors about this far, and then they faced the hard choices-how to turn a joke into a story. They did it by facing up to certain inevitable circumstances that might surface if a city actually did secede. A nation needs a currency. It needs security. It needs jobs for its citizens. Hudlin and McGruder chose to overcome these dilemmas not by returning East St. Louis to a pastoral economy, a legitimate and possibly workable alternative, but by embracing and subverting the mechanisms of a modern high-tech society.
In the East St. Louis of this fable, providing a living to the citizenry is complicated by the extensive welfare rolls: 75 percent of the residents draw a government check. The funding, until secession, has been from the U.S. government. Where will the money come from now? Fredericks and his cohorts leap this hurdle by setting up an "off-shore" bank with numbered accounts like the storied Swiss banks. People who make millions but don't want their governments to know-arms dealers, drug lords, wealthy divorcees-deposit their dubious earnings in this bank, and from these piled up hundreds of billions, the bank earns a modest percentage that quickly multiplies into billions, sufficient to sustain the populace of East St. Louis. What may have started as a plot device thus becomes another satiric dart: the very plausibility of this maneuver strenuously implies that the governments of modern nation states are funded by questionable means if not ill-gotten gains.
In solving other plot problems, Hudlin and McGruder broaden the satire of their story. To provide security for his "country," Fredericks turns to a local gang lord named Roscoe. "We'll need someone to keep the peace," he says. "Do you know any men who would like to get paid to stand around a hold guns all day?" Baker's pen limns Roscoe's telltale smirk as the thug says, "I may know of such men ..." In syntax and diction, the language slyly conjures up the underworld, and, at the same time, the plot device supplies the story's satiric quiver with another shaft: from the perspective of many African-American communities, the police force is little more than a licensed band of thugs.
In somewhat the same fashion, Hudlin and McGruder bring their story to bear on other societal issues. When East St. Louis loses electrical power, Fredericks turns to a throng of militant idealists who produce a young genius who knows how to generate energy with solar fusion hybrid engines, a technology that already exists but is kept secret by the powerful oil industry in collusion with governments world-wide. This stratagem establishes a balance of power that eventually resolves the novel's central conflict-how to extract East St. Louis whole from the impending battlefield confrontation with the powerful U.S. military.
As the crisis builds, Fredericks emerges as a popular culture hero: all across the country, t-shirts immortalize his effort. The final resolution involves Arab assassins and Mideast oil barons and an audacious act of international blackmail, all bristling with satiric implications. What begins as condemnation of the racist usurpation of the 2000 Presidential Election evolves into a portrait of commerce-based government in a consumer-crazed society that runs according to dubious rules that idealists must learn to play by in order to survive-and to win.
The telling of this story reflects the movie-maker's sensibility, not the cartoonist's. The opening sequence with Mayor Fredericks collecting the city's garbage because trash workers are on strike is pure movie theater: we come upon the Mayor in medias res, and we learn about him as he goes about his errand, listening to his assistant's complaint about his, the assistant's, love life. Throughout, the pacing and storytelling devices are cinematic-scene shifts and moments of comic relief and romantic interludes and humorous scene punctuations, all betray the motion picture that this opus was intended to be. But in Baker's caricatural style, the cartoonist supplants the cinematographer, and the two kindred media blend to make a memorable graphic novel, freighted with social as well as political satire.
Metaphors be with you.
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