Opus 153 (January 10, 2005). The Santa Season, as you can plainly tell, is followed, tout suite, by the Calendar Girl Season—at least, that's the succession of events here at Rancid Raves. In that spirit, then—and with an appreciative nod to last summer's Olympics which fostered untrammeled appreciation for women's beach volleyball and other overt manifestations of the athletic benefits of brevity in attire— we herewith perform our annual celebration of the zaftig gender as it is portrayed in comics and other visual arts by publishing a couple pin-up pictures. But that comes at the end of this Opus; between here and there, we conjure up a long review of the graphic novel, It's A Bird, with shorter reviews of some new Krazy Kat reprints from Tony Raiola, a reference tome of voice actors, a passel of reprints of J.R. Williams' classic cartoons, and Eric Vincent's new Ten Miles of Bad Road, a happy hodge-podge of the cartoonist's art and mental state. Under "Funnybook Fan Fare," we look quickly at Batman Strikes, the Wolverine mini-series "Enemy of State," Captain America No. 1 and "Out of Time, Part One," Geofrey Darrow's bloody Shaolin Cowboy, and Moonstone's Phantom. The News that Gives Us Fits this time includes the sad announcement of Will Eisner's death and a brief summary of his signal and unequaled achievements in comics, plus reports on McFarlane's protection against bankruptcy, Jane Russell's bosom, the threatened wall of cartoons in New York, the syndication of website comics, the death of Bernie Lansky, Berke Breathed's latest pronouncements, and Art Spiegelman's comments on his latest book and his status with The New Yorker, to name a few of the stories. But the Big Bonus of this Opus is our review of the year in comics and cartooning, which begins almost at once. (Friendly Reminder: Remember the useful "Bathroom Button," the "print friendly version" of this installment that can be pushed for a copy that can be read later, at your leisure; then you can come back on board later yet to look at the pretty pictures, which, this time, as I said, are plenty zaftig.)
And the Egg of the Nog that Bit Ye
And so as Historic 2004 joins its historic predecessors in fading fast from our consciousness, we are treated, as usual, to a parade of newspaper and magazine articles that remind us of what transpired during that now lost twelve-month. Some publications perform this service with lists of dubious discernment—the Ten Best/Worst This'n'thats of the Year, the Longest/Shortest, and, we may always hope, the News Media's Biggest Waste of Time and Energy. I've always longed to do a similar round-up of the cartooning and comics news events and other developments of the year, and this year, I'm a-gonna do it, knowing, full well, that much has ensued which I failed to pay sufficient attention to and which, in fact, I still don't know anything about. In the funnybook realm, for instance, I managed to keep up with some of my favorites (100 Bullets, anything by Mike Mignola, Kyle Baker's Plastic Man—and Baker's hilariously inventive contention that when Plas assumes different shapes, he squeeks like a balloon does when being twisted around) but fell far behind in recording the numerous comings and goings among writers and artists as they produced more and more wondrous four-color fables for an ever-diminishing number of readers. Long since, the heap of product being plowed into the Direct Market has exceeded my solitary ability to stay on top of developments as they, er, develop. Even the quantity of ancillary publications—biographies, concordances, retrospectives, collections and compendia—has grown to such a satisfying dimension that most of it slips out of print before I am even aware of it. When I started writing about comics in the early 1970s, one reasonably alert fan could stay abreast of virtually every development in the field—read every comic book, every 'tooner biography (easy: there were none). No longer. The sheer volume today is simply stupendous. Gratifying, but impossible to keep up with. In newspaper strippery and editoonery, on the other hand, I think I've managed to stay somewhat more up-to-date. Which means either that I've been more diligent or that less is happening of an earth-shattering significance; the latter, doubtless. In any event, with that apologia, I plunge headlong (you should pardon the expression) into what I have denominated The Annual Alimentary Exultation of Things Passed.
The Big Stories. The biggest event of the year here at Rancid Raves was undoubtedly the disastrous conversion of fandom's only weekly news publication, The Comics Buyer's Guide, into a monthly price guide catalogue dedicated to comics-inspired movies and the speculator collector market. After that, we have the continued manga invasion of bookstores from coast to coast, sending comic book publishers into paroxysms of merchantile joy at the prospect of the entire juvenile female population suddenly showing up to buy comics. The most ominous event of the year, however, was Scott Kurtz's undermining newspaper comics syndication by offering his online comic strip, PvP (Player vs. Player), for free to any regular, print newspaper that would publish it with his URL intact. At last report, two papers—the Kansas City Star and the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin —have taken him up on the offer, but that's without any promotion, and this month, Kurtz "goes live," he told me. If the maneuver proves successful, watch for a tsunami to wash across the syndicate landscape. And Kurtz is not alone: Keenspot.com has also started down the same road, supplying at least one newspaper in California with comic strips gratis in exchange for space touting their website.
Events Not Noticed Enuff. In March, Barbie and Ken broke up, announcing that they felt "it's time to spend some quality time apart." And Old No. 7, the flagship brew at Jack Daniels, dropped in potency from 86 proof to 80 proof. Neither, strictly speaking, an event in the realm of cartooning, but both fraught with Significance for the known world and future generations forever. Onward—
BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR. In historic significance, it was a tie, seems to me, between The Complete Peanuts, two volumes of which are now out, and The Complete New Yorker Cartoons, fully encumbered with CDs that made it an encyclopedic work of immense potential for cartooning historians. After that, Brian Walker's The Comics Before 1945 is a close second, with Playboy 50 Years: The Cartoons coming in a distant and disappointing (albeit better than nothing) fourth. Best Irresponsible Histories. The histories that played fastest and loosest with the facts are clearly Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones and Tales to Astonish by Ronin Ro (an examination of the creative roles of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby), both of which, each in its own idiosyncratic way, took speculation to new heights without bothering to distinguish, much, actual fact from conjectural factoid. Graphic Novel Sensations. Two, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis 2 and Art Spiegelman's In the Shadow of No Towers, continued expanding the form's serious cultural and literary status. And Craig Thompson's Blankets and the first Persepolis both made the American Library Journal's list of the Best Books of 2003. Most Satisfying Reads: Mutts: The Comic Art of Patrick McDonnell and Scan, a "graphic novel" unlike anything you've ever seen by Scott Bateman (okay, it was actually published in 2003, but I didn't get into it until 2004; Scott's sold out at his website, but apparently www.Powells.com still has copies for sale, and you gotta see and read this to believe it) and Maitena's Women on the Edge (1 and 2), with Li'l Beginnings (reprinting Charles Schulz's seminal pre-Peanuts creation Li'l Folks) and It's Only A Game (another extra-Peanuts Schulz work) coming in next, followed by Tony Raiola's Pacific Comics Club reprinting of Krazy Kat dailies from 1921 and 1922 (see "Book Marquee" below) and Fantagraphics' reprinting of George Herriman's lyric Krazy Kat full pagers, the third volume of which, Krazy and Ignatz: Necromancy by the Blue Bean Bush (Sunday strips from 1933 and 1934), arrived at the end of the year; consult www.pacificcomics.com and www.fantagraphics.com. The Most Satisfying Funnybook Read of the Year. Pro, an unpretentious tongue-in-cheek (pardon the expression) assault on civilized sensibilities by means of a tale (pardon) about a superpowered harlot, re-issued between hardcovers and in slightly larger format with a new short story ("The Ho," about multi-armed fellatio) and notes by Garth Ennis, as illuminated (in every sense) by Amanda Conner's delightful drawings inked by Jimmy Palmiotti. The Most Complex (and Therefore Satisfying) Graphic Novel Treatment of a Threadbare Topic. It's a Bird by Steven Seagle and Ted Kristiansen; see "Of Birds and Graphic Novels" below.
Conclusions and Retirements, Sad and Inevitable. John Cullen Murphy left Prince Valiant in March (having come within 20 installments of matching Hal Foster's record run on the feature) and then, sadly, died only four months into his retirement. Pat Brady gave up Rose Is Rose and Joan Crosby Tibbets came, at long last, after decades of sweating it out, to the end of her legal struggle to wrest from corporate food processors the just due her father (and his heirs) are owed for the kidnaping of his creation, Skippy, and using it as the name of a world famous peanut product; the Supreme Court denied her claim. And those who left us: Ray Gotto, Martin Sheridan, George Fisher, Julie Schwartz, Chester Commodore, Carrie Nodell, Jack Bradbury, Syd Hoff (Bronx correspondent for The New Yorker), Gil Fox, Phyllis "Auntie Blossom" Wallet, Janet Leigh, Christopher Reeve, Rodney Dangerfield, Jack Paar, Tony Randall, Bernie Lanksy (see below), George Breisacher, Steve Roper (after 68 years), and Harry Lambert (the first to draw the Flash).
Anniversaries. The 75th for Popeye; the 50th for Hi and Lois.
In Animation. Pixar left the protective wing of Disney and produced the stunning achievement of "The Invincibles," and Disney abandoned hand-wrought animation with the direct-to-DVD "The Three Musketeers" being, probably, the last to be worked on in this country.
Sensation and Alarums. Garry Trudeau garnered the most ink outside the comics sections of the nation's newspapers with a series of events in Doonesbury: offering a $10,000 reward to anyone who could creditably prove that George W. ("Whopper") Bush served in the National Guard during the mysterious months in 1972 for which all written documentation seems to have disappeared (no winner), getting nominated for a Pulitzer for editorial cartooning (didn't win), B.D. losing a leg in combat during the Iraq Attack, publishing with no malice aforethought a Sunday strip in which a head appears on a platter just a few days after one of the beheadings in Iraq, running on another Sunday the names of all the U.S. military who've lost their lives in Iraq, and, in an interview in Rolling Stone, recalling, with scathing insight, some of his undergraduate adventures with GeeDubya when they were both matriculating at Yale. Aaron McGruder is doubtless second in sensation incitation with his various scabrous remarks about racism and politics (among them, a reality show called "Nigga Get a Job" and a self-hating black Santa during Christmas Week) in The Boondocks, and Ted Rall probably ties with similarly heavy-handed satire (about the death of Pat Tillman, for one) in his syndicated panel that appears mostly in alternative weekly newspapers. So exotic is his satire that Rall was dropped from the online editions of both The New York Times and the Washington Post because, they said, his work lacks the right "tone." That's one word for it; the other one is "political correctness." (Okay: that's two words.) One That Got Away: Over at Gasoline Alley, Jim Scancarelli engineered the most artful deception of the year in passing off for over a week as Uncle Walt Wallet's demise the death of his spouse, Phyllis, but no one noticed this sensation because B.D. was losing his leg at the same time and getting all the reportage.
Only in the Funnies. Cathy got engaged, and Opus, having landed, again, in the comics at the end of 2003, proved, by the end of January 2004, that Breathed really doesn't need a half-page because his artwork isn't nearly as innovative in exploiting the medium as he promised by way of justifying his claim to half-page space. Scott Stantis' light-hearted Prickly City joined Bruce Tinsley's shrill Mallard Fillmore as the conservative "response" to Doonesbury, The Boondocks, and Ted Rall (but being very civilized, not to mention funny, about it). The Most Self-indulgent Riff in Comics: In Pearls before Swine, hilarious in its own right, cartooner Stephan Pastis's repeatedly gagged with the creations of other syndicated cartoonists as the butts of his jokes. When Jan Eliot did something similar in Stone Soup, it was gentler and not at all sneeringly in-groupy, seems to me. End of the Series Event of the Year: Luann's Greg Evans getting the National Cartoonists Society's Reuben as cartoonist of the year after making six annual appearances on the list of nominees.
COMEDIC ACHIEVEMENT. In the year in which Janet Jackson's bodice exploded and thrust her hardware-bedecked nipple in the face of Conservative America and Conservative America retaliated by electing George W. ("Whim-wham") Bush, it is a supreme test of discernment to find high comedy anywhere but in Washington and its associated chicaneries in state and local enclaves from sea to shining sea. So we won't even try. True, the cross-country journeys of a Past President's corpse was highly entertaining and very nearly qualifies as the sort of risibility we seek, but in the last analysis, for the devotee of humor in all its forms, the funniest material is to be found in the nation's capital. Perhaps the biggest joke of all is GeeDubya's convincing about 51 percent of those who bothered to vote that he could keep America safe—despite his almost willful failure to prevent the catastrophe of 9/11 and to plan adequately for the Iraq Attack, despite his having destroyed the U.S. domestic economy with debt and deficit as far as the eye can see, despite his inability to distinguish false intelligence from actual fact. (The latest rumor, by the way, is that Georgie believes additional flu vaccine "could be hidden somewhere in Iraq"—or so we are told by the ever vigilant Dave Barry.) This was the fourteenth time Pogo ran for the Presidentistry, but no one seemed to notice what with the hilarities of the Swifties for Truth and the antics of the Bush League in trying to draw everyone's attention away from the dubious military record of the Commander in Chief by assailing the documented heroism of his opponent in the race for the White House.
Only Newsweek, in its year-end "Perspectives," pays any attention to the achievements of the editooner fraternity. As usual, the magazine's selection of editorial cartoons emphasizes jokes at the expense of sharply focused political and social criticism, thereby contributing to the impression that political cartoonists are in the comedy business not in the commentary business. Of the sixteen cartoons in this year's annual round-up, none were memorable examples of the editoonist's art. As usual, Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal Constitution was conspicuous by reason of the high percentage of the batch that was his, but this year, unusual as it is, Walt Handelsman of Newsday tied Luckovich: each had four cartoons in the section, and together, their work constituted half the total sample that Newsweek made of the year's work in the profession. Matt Davies of the Journal News (White Plains, NY), winner of both the first Herblock award and the Pulitzer last spring, is nowhere in evidence.
In a foolishly inspired attempt to champion the genre, I've picked a couple dozen cartoons from the year's crop that I think represent the editorial cartoon at its best. At its best, the editorial cartoon makes a comment on a political or social issue by creating a visual metaphor that encapsulates the opinion in memorable and therefore powerful imagery, so indelibly burned on the brain pans of its observers that it affects the way they think (and subsequently act) on that issue. In this sampling, Jeff Danziger's image of war, a chariot beyond the control of GeeDubya or anyone else, is the sort of image I mean. Steve Sack's image of the "training wheels" of Iraq's security guard is an equally telling visual metaphor. As is Lalo Alcaraz's treatment of the torture scandal and David Horsey's vivid representation of GeeDubya's pronouncements as sufficient shield to protect U.S. troops in Iraq, Bruce Beattie's Iraq service ribbon, and Milt Priggee's depiction of the recovering economy. But political cartoons don't need to be just visual metaphors to bite hard. Mike Keefe's criticism of Homeland Security, Clay Bennett's report on victory in Fallujah, and Carol Lay's "Dissent into Hell" simply make powerful statements, the heart of which is verbal rather than visual; the power derives from the succinctness of the statement, coupled to imagery that helps make it memorable. Ditto Ted Rall's cartooning. I don't pretend that this gallery of editoons is exhaustive: it doesn't represent a thorough-going scrutiny of the entire year's output for all the political cartoonists everywhere. (Matt Davies is missing, for instance.) I don't see everyone's work regularly, for one thing; if I did, this exhibit would doubtless be nearly interminable. What I've attempted here is to show how the best of the genre works, albeit not all of the best of the genre. It's a representative best, not an encyclopedic best. In short, these are the sorts of editoons that Newsweek should be running.
NOUS R US
Not All the News That Fits; Just the News That Gives Us Fits
The last of the giants is no longer with us: Will Eisner died Monday evening, January 3, of complications that set in following the quadruple heart bypass surgery he'd undergone just before Christmas; he was 87. I had just sent to my Webmaster this installment of R&R, saying that, at last report (as recently as Sunday) from Eisner's friend and agent Denis Kitchen, Eisner was doing fine. Although he was still in intensive care, Kitchen said, "all signs are that he is recovering terrifically. He's already joking with the nurses and 'biting his lip' over delayed deadlines." Eisner hadn't wanted anyone to know about the surgery until he had come through it all right. And by all indications in the first weeks afterwards, he was pulling through "terrifically," Kitchen said. I had just started to be relieved when Tuesday morning's notice arrived via e-mail. I am reminded, on occasions such as this, of what John O'Hara said when he learned of the death of his friend George Gershwin: "George Gershwin died yesterday. But I don't have to believe it if I don't want to."
The Web will be awash, no doubt, with obituaries this week. How could it be otherwise? Eisner was a pioneer in comics who explored more of the medium's potential than any other cartoonist before or since. An innovator all his life, he was not only a formative influence in shaping the comic book as a storytelling medium during its infancy, he among the very first to explore the instructional potential of comics, and, for the last twenty-five or so years, he experimented extensively in the graphic novel, which he is often erroneously given credit for inventing. But if he didn't invent either the form or the term, he advanced its development more rigorously than any of his much younger compatriots. I have written a great deal about Eisner over the years and count myself lucky to have known him—not well, not intimately, but enough to be able to phone him and ask him questions without preamble or appointment. Much of what I've written about him appears in a book of mine, The Art of the Comic Book, where almost two chapters are devoted to his life and work in just that genre. Sometime in the next few days, I'll post an appreciation of Will Eisner here in the Hindsight Department. At the moment, however, I'm still a little too shocked by the unexpected news of his death. I still think I don't have to believe it if I don't want to.
In London, in a poll conducted by UCI cinemas among 5,000 moviegoers, Superman emerged as the most popular fictional superhero of all time. (Fictional superhero? Aren't all superheroes, ipso facto, fictional?) Spider-Man came in second, then Batman, the Hulk, and Mr. Incredible; others in the top ten—Daredevil, Wolverine, and the Ninja Turtles. ... The Library of Congress has added Popeye in the 1936 Fleischer animated cartoon, "Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor," to its National Film Registry where, so far, 400 films are preserved. ... The $15 million judgement against Todd McFarlane for giving hockey player Tony Twist's name to an unsavory mob boss in Spawn threatens the financial stability of McFarlane Productions, which filed on December 17 for Chapter Eleven protection from creditors. A couple weeks later, McFarlane Toys acquired licensing rights to "Bram Stoker's Dracula," a 1992 Francis Ford Coppola film. McFarlane, you'll remember, paid $3 million for Mark McGwire's 70th home-run baseball; last year, he paid $450,000 for Barry Bonds' record 73rd homer ball, and he owns Sammy Sosa's 66th homer ball, too. ... The ballyhoo about Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator" has brought forth the ever titillating topic of Jane Russell's breasts again. Legend has it that Howard Hughes engineered a special bra for the pneumatic Russell to wear in "The Outlaw," a movie about Billy the Kid. Russell, however, never wore Hughes' bra: it was too uncomfortable, so she stuffed tissue into her usual harness and wow'd everyone. I screened "The Outlaw" years ago (out of purely scholarly interest), and my memory is that Russell's rack, while impressive, did not figure as prominently in the movie as popular belief purports; Russell herself doesn't appear in the flick much. ... Robert Crumb and his wife Aline are represented in the January 3 issue of The New Yorker with a 3-page strip about Aline's giving up drinking, just another demonstration of her ineptitude at drawing, which speaks highly only of Crumb's affection for her: nothing else could justify this public display of amateur artistry. ... In the same issue of the magazine, we learn that New Yorker cartoonist Danny Shanahan appeared at a Manhattan boutique and jewelry store, Movado's, to shill for jewelry and New Yorker cartoon books. Every issue of The New Yorker includes several advertisements for its cartoon products—collections by topic (cats, dogs, golfing), the Cartoon Bank, and so on—all of which underscores the contribution cartoons are making to the financial well being of the magazine, which has been, until the exploitation by Cartoon Bank, shaky. ... Salon.com's year-end listing of best books includes NBM's Attitude 2, the publisher's second collection of off-beat cartoons and interviews conducted by Ted Rall with cartoonists whose work typically appears in alternate weekly newspapers (reviewed here in Opus 134). The collection is, says Salon.com, "Rall's love letter to the genre that has brought him to prominence," and Rall is quoted: "There are certain things these comics have in common. They tend to be drawn by a certain age group—Generation X is certainly the wellspring of the first or second wave of alt-weekly cartoonists. They feature stripped-down or abstracted drawing styles to convey complicated ideas. For that reason they tend to be wordy, text-based exercises, and since I work in that genre, I love it but am endlessly frustrated by the lack of exposure it gets."
Some time ago, we reported here that a landmark piece of cartooning in New York was going to disappear. This was the wall in the Turtle Bay Café that had been decorated by an assortment of cartooning greats (Dik Browne, Bill Gallo, Milton Caniff, Bill Keane, and the like). The wall was originally in Costello's, a bar and eatery on Third Avenue. James Thurber was among its habitues, and he decorated sections of the wall with his memorable scrawls in lieu of paying his bar tab. When Costello's moved around the corner to 225 East 44th Street, the Thurber decorations came along: the hunks of the wall with his drawings on them were cut out and framed and hung on the wall in the new joint. This inspired Daily News sports cartoonist Gallo, who recruited numerous others of the inky-fingered fraternity to embellish an entire wall in the back room. Costello's was eventually sold in 1992, acquiring the Turtle Bay moniker. And when the place changed hands again last spring, it was widely rumored that the famed wall would be a casualty of the transaction. "Of course we weren't going to tear it down," exclaimed Jeff Perzan, one of the new owners. "It was one of the selling points of the building," he told Benjamin Oderwald and Christine Gibson at American Heritage.com. When the new bistro opens as the Overlook Lounge sometime in May, the old wall will still be there, protected by a thick pane of glass but clearly visible. [Also at American Heritage.com, Hugh Rawson reports that originally the word jazz meant "to copulate." A slang expression, it attached itself to the syncopated music that flourished, initially, in New Orleans brothels.]
Just discovered a dandy source for editorial cartoons: The Santa Cruz Comic News (nice rhyme), which publishes, once a month, a round-up of over 24 pages in tabloid newspaper format. Subscriptions are regularly $25 for 12 issues, but a special $19 rate is presently available at SCCN Subs, P.O. Box 1335, Santa Cruz, CA 95061. Or you can send for a free sample issue. See also www.santacruzcomicnews.com.
Scott Kurtz's assault on the bastions of syndicated distribution has earned a frown here and there among some syndicated cartoonists, Arnold Wagner reports. Said Tom Batiuk (who produces Funky Winkerbean and Crankshaft): "I put a lot of thought and work into [my comic strips], and I'm not about to give it away for free. In a lot of ways, the Internet is the big vanity press of the modern world. Anyone who wants to put anything out there can do it. But just because you're blogging or you have a strip on a Website does not mean a whole lot. The quality has to be there or you can't give it away." Syndicates traditionally serve as quality control. Jay Kennedy, editor-in-chief at King Features, says he receives about 6,000 submissions a year and chooses only about three to distribute. The proportions alone tell the tale: the three that Kenney picks must be pretty good. And he says he has yet to find a comic strip on the Web that he would syndicate. "Newspapers are still a mass medium," he said; "online comics are not a mass medium at this point."
American pioneers in manga are Viz, which has been supplying manga to the masses since 1986, and Tokyopop, founded in 1996. Dark Horse was already in the manga business by then. The boom in sales (nearly doubling from $50-60 million in 2002 to $90-110 in the next year) prompted enthusiastic imitation: Del Rey, Hyperion Books, and Penguin Group USA soon joined in, followed by DC with its CMX line, launched in October. Said John Nee at DC: "The most appealing thing for DC with manga is that it's been decades since comics have been a meaningful medium for females. We're reaching readers that we're currently not reaching with our regular comics, and it's great."
Bernie Lansky, creator of the newspaper panel cartoon Seventeen, died December 12, 2004, in a San Diego Hospice, where he had been suffering through the last stages of Parkinson's for a year or more; he was 80. Born in Omaha, Nebraska, he moved to San Diego when his family did in 1937 and found himself drafted into the Army the day he graduated from San Diego High School in 1943. He served in field artillery and took part in the famous Battle of the Bulge during World War II, returning to San Diego in November 1945 after being discharged. Lansky freelanced for several years and then moved to New York in 1949 to join Al Capp's Li'l Abner staff. He returned to California in 1952 and launched Seventeen three years later. Drawn with a crisp line in a manner akin to Hank Ketcham's in Dennis the Menace, Lansky's feature was the first post-war comic to target and explore the burgeoning teenage readership. Only Hilda Terry's Teena and Marty Links' Emmy Lou (Bobby Sox), both born in 1944, preceded Seventeen into major syndication. A similar effort, Ponytail, came along in 1960, also in the Ketcham manner, by Lee Holley, once on Ketcham's staff. Seventeen ceased in 1976, and Lansky joined the staff of the San Diego Union as editorial cartoonist; he retired in 1992 when the Union merged with the San Diego Tribune. Lansky's Seventeen was collected in paperback in 1959 when Pocket Books were still a quarter; his languorous compositions neatly accented with solid blacks, a pleasure to behold.
Berke Breathed, interviewed by Jeff Baker for the Newhouse News Service, doesn't believe his Bloom County of the 1980s could survive in today's comics pages; political correctitude of one brand or another would suppress much of the humor that animated his classic strip. Adds Baker: "He thinks Calvin and Hobbes was the last great comic strip ... [and that] it's deplorable that Peanuts continued after Charles M. Schulz's death in 2000 and hates that so many comics grind on, year after year, long after their creators have retired or died." And he quotes Breathed: "I don't think we're entering a golden age of newspapers, let's put it that way. I don't think young people read the paper, and I think the comics reflect that. Newspapers are playing to their base, but their base is aging and dying, and I think the comics are on the front edge of that. I think comics are the canary in the coal mine of newspapers."
Interviewed by Nina Siegal in the January issue of The Progressive, Art Spiegelman talks about his latest work, In the Shadow of No Towers (reviewed here at Opus 148), and his relationship with The New Yorker. The book, produced over a couple of years after September 11, 2001, is, Spiegelman said, "a fragment of a diary": in producing the series of "Sunday comics pages" that comprise No Towers, he was trying to work his way out of what I'd call a somewhat despondent state of mind in the aftermath of 9/11. The "diary" notion is an apt and functional metaphor: Spiegelman took a long time to complete the work (if, in fact, it can be said to be "completed"), and over the period of his endeavors, he had to wrestle not only with his initial reaction to the catastrophe but with the political hay the Bush League made of the disaster. In his work, the former was soon contaminated by the latter. His first reaction, that "the sky was falling," evolved into a bitter indictment of the Bush Leaguers and the wreck they were making of the U.S. and its international relationships. No Towers thereby emerged as a somewhat flawed effort: Spiegelman's initial impulse, to find a way to record as a cartoonist the horror and terror he felt "in the shadow" of those falling towers, is compromised by his political instincts and his abhorrence at the machinations of GeeDubya and his henchmen. I remember clearly my own reactions on that terrible day, but I can find very little in No Towers that reminds me of the appalling awe, utter revulsion and terrible dread that I felt at watching the Towers pancake into gray dust and flying debris. Whatever I felt, Spiegelman, whose family was threatened by those events, must have felt the same way, intensified by the horrible proximity of the apocalypse. While there is some suggestion of his reaction in No Towers, nothing, it seems to me, approaches a representation of the depth of his feelings. There is simply too much intellectualizing— painstaking construction of a cartoonist's mode of response, embellished with Joycean metaphors, both verbal and visual. In short, it works too hard. It is still an astonishing cartooning achievement; but its Joycean dimension undercuts its emotional impact. Like Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Spiegelman's No Towers will doubtless be studied for years, and the study will reward those who participate in it with many nuggets of implication, fostering inferences pregnant with meaning.
In the wake of 9/11, Spiegelman decided not to renew his contract with The New Yorker. At the time, he explained, sort of, that The New Yorker, like the rest of the nation's media, was too uncritically supportive of GeeDubya's jihad. Spiegelman felt the sky was falling, and he couldn't see anyone else—including David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker —who shared his apocalyptic vision. He'd all along encountered a certain reluctance at the magazine to publish some of his cover ideas, and after 9/11, given his agitated state, this circumstance doubtless became much more pronounced. Spiegelman produced the magazine's spectacular black-on-black cover in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but after that, he probably couldn't get anything he wanted to draw accepted. When interviewer Siegal asks the cartoonist about the alleged "censorship" he encountered at the magazine, Spiegelman says: "I loved David Remnick's comment on this, which was, 'Spiegelman confuses editing with censorship.' And I have to confess that I think he's right. ..." Spiegelman's sense of censorship, he admits, is "not what the rest of the planet would call it." Spiegelman wanted to employ the highly visible cover of the magazine to make resounding statements about the fate of the nation and the civilized world, no doubt. But Remnick apparently didn't share Spiegelman's soul-shattering sense of alarm and would tinker with the cartoonist's concepts. "If what you want to say is limited and distorted by the time you get to the top of the [cover's] soapbox," Spiegelman said, "it's not quite worth speaking from. If I'd had a supportive editor, I probably would've found away to make No Towers work within the context of the magazine. It was not necessarily Remnick's fault because I was able to do things there as long as I could find the proper register or tone in which to speak." At the time that Spiegelman left the magazine, Remnick pointedly said he would welcome contributions from Spiegelman regardless of his non-contract status. But, as Spiegelman put it, "It's very hard to scream 'The sky is falling!' and keep your monocle in place." After completing No Towers, Spiegelman did a two-page comic strip for the magazine about the Republican convention in New York. But he's in no hurry to "go back as a full-time culture worker at The New Yorker," he said. "To the degree that the magazine can accommodate me, that's great. What I don't want to have to do is to go back to even unconsciously try to figure out what The New Yorker might want. That's what to me felt like censorship." If that's censorship to Spiegelman, then he belongs in that company of artists —cartoonists and commentators generally— who work solely from the gut, employing heart and mind and talent to express themselves, without regard for whether or not the work they do is commercially viable. It would be nice if someone wants to buy their product, but they don't do it in order to sell it.
As foretold, Steve Roper and Mike Nomad ended its 68-year run on December 26. The preceding week, Nomad, walking down a street alone at night, comes to an alley in which a gaggle of thugs are mugging an old guy; Nomad comes to the rescue, and we find out the old guy is—well, here's the last few strips, including the final Sunday wherein Roper, accompanied by his daughter (?), bids adieu by visiting the grave of his wife (I think it's his wife).
Department of Wonderful Stuff. An insect is responsible for the U.S. acquiring Louisiana back in 1803. Louisiana was only part of the French holdings in the New World at the time; Haiti and several other islands off the coast of Florida were among the rest. When Toussaint L'Ouverture led an uprising in Haiti in 1801, Napoleon responded by sending an army. But the army was defeated by L'Ouverture's brilliant generalship—and the humble mosquito, which spread malaria among the French, killing them by droves. Napoleon settled with L'Ouverture and decided that his holdings in the New World were likely more trouble than they were worth. Besides, he wanted to expand his European empire and needed cash, so he unloaded his North American properties, selling the Louisiana Territory (named for a French monarch) to the U.S. for the bargain price of $15 million.
Incidentally, Danny Glover has been lobbying for some time for funding for a motion picture about L'Ouverture's revolution. The object is to make more visible in popular culture this historic but oft neglected instance of a slave population rising up and overthrowing their masters. Last summer in New York City, Glover and some friends gave a reading of the script for the proposed film at an informal gathering of potential investors and other interested interlopers. The reading took place before about 60 persons seated around the livingroom of a brownstone near Gramercy Park. Oddly—because I knew somebody who knew somebody—I was among the modest throng. It was a hot evening and the place wasn't air-conditioned, but the thoughtful hostess had planned ahead: she passed around fans that we all fluttered in our faces most of the time. I recognized a couple of the actors Glover had recruited for the reading but can't recall their names. In the audience, however, were legendary figures— Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee and Harry Belafonte. After the reading, Glover, in a pre-arranged gambit, asked if Belafonte would say something about the importance of a film about L'Ouverture. Belafonte stood and spoke eloquently for about five minutes, then rambled on for another fifteen. I suspect he was enjoying the spotlight. But it doesn't matter: I'd have listened for any length of time just for the pure joy of hearing the husky rumble of his voice.
The wood frog in Washington state survives the winter by freezing solid, or nearly solid. Up to 65% of the water in the body turns to ice, the brain shuts off, and the heart stops. When the temperature rises in the spring, the frogs slowly reanimate and resume their carefree existence as if nothing had happened.
Department of Phantom Alarms. All the consternation about Social Security going broke is, as I've long thought, just political smoke and mirrors. As a minimum, the Social Security fund is good through 2042 or, just as likely, 2052. Everyone agrees about that, even those who want to drastically recast the operation. Next, simple math. By 2052, the Baby Boomers, who are supposed to drive the fund into insolvency, will be mostly dead. The earliest crop of Baby Boomers (born in 1946) will be 96 years old by 2042. If they haven't already expired. By 2052, in other words, the Crisis will be over in both directions: no more Baby Boomers to speak of, and there's still money left.
A Canadian magazine and "culture jammer" is about to complicate the over-the-border drug dilemma. It's going to sell an antidepressant with a long track record, minimal side effects, cost of mere pennies a dose, and name recognition par excellance. Its name? Placebo. Says Richard DeGrandpre, the magazine's editor: "Placebo performs comparably to and sometimes better than antidepressants in clinical trials." Ouch. In other words: "The psychiatric drug industry is a sham."
Under the Spreading Punditry
A Few More Last Thoughts on the Recent Electoral Disaster
"I'm worried," says an anonymous political wag on the Web, "about the state of education in America when 51% of the country fails a one-question multiple-choice test after having 4 years to study." The Nation is not so kind: "Why did so many voters embrace a President whose Iraq policy was paved with lies and deceptions, who has shown contempt for science, the rule of law and many of the principles of the Enlightenment, and whose economic policies favor the rich at the expense of the vast majority of Americans?" Eric Foner, writing in the same issue of The Nation (December 20), says: "By any objective standard, George W. Bush has been among the worst Presidents in American history. ... If Bush can be re-elected after having alienated virtually the entire world, brought the country into war on false pretenses and mortgaged the nation's future to provide economic benefits to the rich, what incentive will other Presidents have to act more reasonably?" Good questions, both. But Molly Ivins offers solace: "At least this way we can be sure Bush will get the blame for his own mistakes." A not inconsiderable benefit, the reaping of which I await with gleeful anticipation.
As for the much discussed reason for GeeDubya's election (he wasn't re-elected because his first term was not the result of being elected), the growing importance of "moral values" in America, I'm not so sure. We have much evidence in popular culture that immorality is as popular as it ever was. The most successful new tv show is "Desperate Housewives," a suburban saga of lies, deception, extra-marital fornication, sexual perversion, deep cleavage, drug addiction, murder, and infidelity. If this show is so successful, where is the red-state reverence for "moral values"? Probably watching "Monday Night Football" when Housewife Nicollette Sheridan disrobes before attentive wide receiver Terrell Owens. Maybe all that "moral values" mantra was more the stuff of dreams than of reality. It wasn't "moral values" that won George W. ("Whoop-whoop") Bush the Presidency: it was the American worship of machismo. It was his constant refrain: "I'm a-gonna whup yo' ass, Osama." That's the "moral value" that was being applauded by the American voter—even though Osama's ass hasn't been visible anywhere long enough to be photographed let alone whupped. Notwithstanding the election outcome, voting—the simple act of voting—is healthy. A recent study proves that even if your candidate loses, voting is beneficial to you because it makes you feel you have more control over your life, and that, in turn, reduces stress.
By way of celebrating the arrival of a new year, I've reviewed the Big Election Year with the object of putting GeeDubya's historic achievements into perspective. The Bush League is fond of claiming, correctly, that George W. ("Wunderkind") Bush ran up the largest popular vote in the history of the Republic. They don't like to take note of another, parallel, voting record: the second largest popular vote in the history of the Republic was for John Kerry. And, finally, one more record for Georgie: his margin of victory, 2.9 percentage points, was the smallest ever for a president's so-called "re-election." Well, it makes me feel better anyhow.
And while we're debunking matters Presidential, I resent GeeDubya's relentless self-proclamation as "your commander-in-chief." He's not my commander-in-chief. He's not your commander-in-chief either, unless you happen to be in the military. In another turn of phrase, he sometimes claims that he's the nation's commander-in-chief—probably because it gives him a monarchical aura, which he seems to relish. But he's not the nation's commander-in-chief any more than he's yours. The U.S. Constitution, the only real authority on the issue, reads (Article II, Section 2): "The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States and of the Militia of the several states when called into actual service of the United States." So he's commander-in-chief only of military bodies. Not of civic bodies, not of the body politic—not of you or me, unless, as I say, we happen to be in one of the military outfits described by Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution. George W. ("Warlord") Bush may be President of the U.S. and therefore "my President" and "yours," but as my President he doesn't necessarily command me. In fact, as Harry Truman knew full well, we command him: the President is a public servant, and he's in a servile not an autocratic position with respect to the population. Just thought we ought to get that straight.
Finally, here's John Hightower, who, in his newsletter The Hightower Lowdown, ran a contest to find suitable nicknames for GeeDubya. The top six are: George bin Lyin', George "Troubya" Bush, Dim Son, George "Frat Boy," Georgezilla, and, simply, That Awful Man.
Funnybook Fan Fare
In Batman Strikes, we have the so-called "animation style" being abused and perverted. Too much niggling detail, too many lines cluttering up faces, and too much attempt to model forms by using a secondary hue of the color being modeled. Not good. And Batman and Bruce Wayne have thin, pointed jaws instead of square ones. Bad move.
The Wolverine mini-series, "Enemy of State," is off to a brilliant artistic start with pencils by John Romita, Jr., inked by Klaus Janson. As I've said before, this pair does solid, good-looking drawing and dramatic storytelling. Romita and Janson produce pictures with an expertly stylized rigidity that lends the tale a becoming reticence and plants the feet of the characters firmly on the ground; and the faces they draw are almost classical art. Paul Mounts' colors set the artwork off with muted hues and modeling. Story? Who cares, kimo sabe: I'm hooked on the art. Still, not to give writer Mark Miller short shrift, Wolverine, the world's most deadly weapon, has fallen into the hands a coalition of legendary bad guys (the Hand, Hydra, and the Dawn of the White Light), who brainwashed him and now command his every action, aiming to kill the world's meta-humans and then re-animate them as members of their death cult, just as they did Wolverine.
Ed Brubaker lays out the story in Captain America No. 1, "Out of Time, Part One," with a sure hand, threading the narrative from the Red Skull to verbal jousting between Steve Rogers and Sharon to a spectacular action sequence with Captain America thwarting a terrorist plot involving an elevated train, then back to Rogers and Sharon and, finally, to the Red Skull and the ultimate frustration of his plan. This back-and-forth maneuvering keeps suspense alive in a storyline that is otherwise singularly talky, enlivened mostly by the special visual effects achieved by artist Steve Epting and colorist Frank D'Armata.
Keep an eye out for Cryptozoo Crew, a new comic book from Insight Studios Group's Allan Gross and Jerry Carr; their online preview suggests some fun in store.
The eponymous protagonist of Geofrey Darrow's The Shaolin Cowboy No. 1 is about as unprepossessing a hero as you're likely to find these days. Stocky and bald with a cherubic visage, he unsheathes his samurai sword and wipes out an entire army of bad guys in 11 pages of blood and guts—in quantity alone, a spectacular achievement, and Darrow's meticulous rendering gives us every globule of gore. Not much verbiage in this book (which purports to be "volume 54" —where are the other 53 volumes? a li'l joke, surely). It opens on a desert vista and a lizard, then, after a few unexplained examples of the Shaolin Cowboy's handiwork, we meet the cause of the disturbance, the Cowboy himself, astride a talking mule, in a full page drawing that, among other things, gives us an unimpeded view of the animal's genitals (which, unless I mistake my biology, are wholly nonfunctional, mules being the impotent offspring of horses and donkeys). Immediately thereafter, or as soon as possible, Darrow performs the book's most spectacular feat—a 10-page panorama depicting a mob of unsavory desert rats and hooligan owlhoots, all menacing our fugitive Shaolin monk and his mule. These horrendous hippies offer to avenge the deaths that opened the book, but our monkish marauder manages, as I say, to dismember or disembowel almost all of them in the next 11 pages, desisting only when one of the remaining horde calls a truce. Then a giant crab shows up, saying, "It's time to end this ..." And so Darrow does, forthwith. A purely pointless exercise in depicting mayhem of the bloodiest sort—"pointless" being what a plotless narrative is usually dubbed— the 10-page panorama as a visual setup for the ensuing blood-letting is a tour de force, and the whole exercise is provocative: naturally, we want to know more about the Shaolin escapee and his talking mount.
In Moonstone's third issue of The Phantom, writer Ben Raab and artist Nick Derington deftly preserve the taut coiled-spring character of Lee Falk's taciturn jungle fighter in both story and visuals while, at the same time, bringing the Phantom legend and its visualization into modern terms. Derington's drawings are boldly rendered and tellingly shadowed; and Raab's story promises, in the forthcoming Part Two, to add to the Phantom mystique with a new variation on the origin.
More Short, Quick "What's Innit" Reviews
The Pacific Comics Club, which is mostly, I believe, Tony Raiola, has a couple dandy Krazy Kat packages. A year or so ago, Raiola produced four tiny tomes entitled Krazy and Ignatz (80 3.5x4-inch pages in paperback; $9.50 plus $3 p&h), each reprinting three months of the daily strip from 1921. This happy harvest has been reincarnated with the same title as a 6x6-inch 312-page slick-paper paperback for $19.95; another volume does the same for the 1922 dailies. Reproduction is superb, and every strip is dated (with syndicate copyright line for the year and month-and-day inked alongside). Perfect companions for the Fantagraphics series of Sunday Krazies, which, themselves, are also superbly produced. Order at www.pacificcomics.com
From the University Press of Mississippi (one of "my" publishers) comes The Magic Behind the Voices (400 6x9-inch pages in paperback, $25; hardback, $60) by Tim Lawson and Lisa Persons, a collection of biographies (with a photo), anecdotes, and credit listings of 40 of the actors and actresses who voiced animated cartoon characters through the years. Not being expert in this vicinity, I recognized only a few of the folks herein—Jack Mercer, Mel Blanc, June Foray, Daws Butler, John Kricfalusi, Paul Winchell—but it certainly looks encyclopedic. If it's not comprehensive, it is surely a healthy start in that direction. But you don't have to be a student of the medium to know that until quite recently voice actors were not credited for their work. The Screen Actors Guild didn't even consider them to be actors. These days, Oscar-winning celebrities froth at the mouth to guest star as voices for animated cartoon characters; and at some animation studios, the characters are designed as mild caricatures of the actors who will give them voice. More at www.upress.state.ms.us
With his long-running daily newspaper panel cartoon, Out Our Way, J. R. Williams achieved a circulation of 1,000 papers in the late 1940s or early 1950s. This accomplishment, singular for its time, is diminished, slightly, by recognition that his syndicate, NEA, sold many of its comics features as part of a whole package: it's possible, then, that only a fragment of the 1,000 "subscribers" actually published Williams' cartoon, which they purchased in the NEA package with other comics they wanted. But that diminishes not a whit the rustic slice-of-life humor that distinguishes Williams' oeuvre. Sub-headings indicated a change of focus from day to day—The Thrill That Comes Once a Lifetime, Born Thirty Years Too Soon, Why Mothers Get Gray, Heroes Are Made Not Born, among them. Under these and other sub-headings, Williams visited daily life in yesteryear's America, which, for him, included recollections of his early careers as a cowboy and as a machinist in a machine shop. The latter visitations usually involved the foreman of the shop, a forceful personage Williams christened "the bull of the woods." As it turns out, many of Williams' cartoons about the Bull of the Woods and the cowboys have been collected and reissued in tidy paperbacks, 130-150 6x7-inch pages, by Algrove Publishing in Canada. There are at least three Bull of the Woods collections, two Classic Cowboy collections, and a collection of U.S. Cavalry 'toons—with more Bulls and Cowboys projected for the future (perhaps, even, by fall). Algrove doesn't retail the books, but they can all be purchased at the Lee Valley Service website, www.leevalley.com, where you can click on "Item Search" and then type in Williams in the box that comes up. Each book is a bargain $6.50, plus p&h.
Eric Vincent calls his book Ten Miles of Bad Road because his so-called mind was once so denominated by a girlfriend. Vincent describes the tome as a "fat cartoon collection showcasing the weird roadkill peeled from the imaginary highways crisscrossing" his alleged brain. And that's about as good, and expert, a description as we can find. At over 200 8x10-inch pages, it is certainly fat. And the drawings within surely showcase the sometimes feverish, sometimes outraged, sometimes mildly bemused, but always hilariously inventive mind of an artist and cartoonist (that's Vincent) working in the ad biz. On display are doodles and sketches Vincent made over five years at brainstorming sessions where advertising schemes were being doped out or, perhaps, in the solitary confines of his cell—er, office—in other, less noisy, moments. To call these effusions "doodles" and "sketches" is somewhat misleading: Vincent seems to have drawn them first in pencil, then finished them off (so to speak) with felt-tip pen, then added subtle shading with the pencil again. The result, nicely textured and loose, is pretty close to finished art. Even better: this method is more revealing of artistic method than technically finished art. Vincent's style is his own, vaguely Severin-ish but his own withal, crammed with skillfully rendered animals, fancifully cartooned, and odd-looking human sapiens, and the drawings are accompanied by blurts of advertising lingo, in the manner of mock advertisements. Every page is a free-standing product-oriented idea gone wacko. Here's a page toying with the idea of a pez dispenser in the shape of the movie star, the outer space "alien": detailed sketches show how it works, and one shows a kid missing his nose because the Alien Pez has snapped if off and consumed it, Alien-fashion. The accompanying copy reads: "Pez spokesperson Lily Brett announced today that the Alien figure would be dropped from the Popular Pez candy dispenser line. 'We had high hopes that initial problems experienced with this item could be resolved, but when an entire shipment of Elmer Fudds were discovered infested with face huggers, management decided to withdraw this notorious character.'" I don't know who Lily Brett is; it doesn't matter. Sometimes Vincent's lunatic mind wanders on for two or more pages. Here's a spread that seems to have originated from discussions of promotional plans to sell lots on a private island as summer vacation homes. Vincent invents for the purpose The Notorious Greater Vacation Bird (carpediem leisurii), "recognizable by plaid shorts and fatter tail." He pictures various manifestations of this species perching on camels' backs, where "they have been known to peck open humps to enjoy a swim." Vincent's on a roll now, depicting various vacation birds camping out on a camel's hump, lounging in a hammock strung between the humps and sipping cooling drinks from glasses equipped with tiny umbrellas, all drawn in loving purely competent detail. Throughout, wherever some explanation would heighten the comedy, Vincent supplies a side-bar. About the Vacation Bird, he notes: "Like sheep, tourists lose most of their appeal once shorn. Unlike sheep, they cannot be redeemed with a good mint sauce." Anyone capable of producing similes like these should be in the advertising game. Here are four pages of pictures of giant birds and huge animals wearing shoes (ostriches, elephants, rhinos, kangaroos, mooses—meese?); Vincent's introductory side-bar reads: "During a tedious product shoot for one of our industrial clients, I began describing my idea for developing an animal footwear market to my photographer. The corporate rep was baffled. His literal mind-set refused to process this bit of fantasy and he never got past 'Why would animals wear shoes?' He remained puzzled even after I bluntly informed him it was all a JOKE." A couple of short comic strip stories lurk at the end of the book, as do several political cartoons of the most raucous sort—the best kind, in other words. An absolutely delicious example depicts a hayseedy disheveled filthy farmy-sort of fella wearing a press card in his straw hat and holding a bucket that he's just emptied into the hog trough, and at the trough, an enormous fly-buzzed pig labeled "Public," looking at the Press guy and saying, "You disgust me!" The point is clear, but Vincent's side-bar makes it explicit: "... grousing about the Press and refusing to recognize the consumer's responsibility to the Market." Altogether, the book supplies a rare glimpse into the unfettered workings of a cartoon-warped mental process and unveiling the results—a maniac extravaganza, an infestation of visual invention seldom, if ever, seen outside a cartoonist's studio or similar asylum. Order at www.firetreepublishing.com. Or through Bud Plant (www.budplant.com), $20.99 in paperback or $27.95 in hardcover.
Ooops. There I go again: inflating my discussion beyond the announced dimension of this department. Oh, well. Better luck next time.
Of Birds and Graphic Novels
When the protagonist in a work of fiction is a writer, we may expect that the author of the piece is, like so many of his ilk, exploring one more time the validity of two propositions: first, that one writes best about what he knows best, namely, his own life; and second, that The Writer, essentially an introspective, contemplative tinkerer with vocabularies and syntax, can be transformed into Everyman—in short, that the preoccupations of this peculiar breed might have relevance to the lives of any appreciable number of average readers for whom linguistic tinkering is not only an effete but entirely foreign undertaking. The second of these propositions is, at best, dubious. Yet it comes up frequently, an irresistible itch demanding the ministrations of a fingernail. It's A Bird (136 6x10-inch full color pages; hardback, $24.95), a graphic novel by Steve T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen, is another of this self-indulgent genre.
Like most writers of fiction, Seagle needs to justify his vocation by finding for it a humanitarian social purpose. As a writer of comic book stories, Seagle's need is perhaps more urgent than most: comic books are too trivial a cultural effusion to be justification in themselves. And if Seagle is like most of his fraternity, he has spent much of his life browsing in the four-color fantasy worlds populated by too many do-gooders in brightly colored tights, worlds that the so-called adult sensibility, until recently, rejected as juvenile and therefore inconsequential.
The conclusion reached by Seagle's alter ego in this book was doubtless reached by Seagle long before he attempted this book. It is an existential conclusion: life, despite its ending in death, is worth living, and the function of stories (and therefore of storytellers) is to teach that there is always a "next"—something is always going to happen, signifying that, in the honored phrase, "life goes on"—so one's logical response to the vicissitudes of one's life is to keep on. Stories and storytellers are therefore life-affirming.
Stories with superheroes in them are even more life-affirming because they demand belief for validation. Only by believing in superheroes and the abstract justices they seek can one find affirmation of life in their stories. The book's title encapsulates this message: "It's a bird" is the first clause in a vintage radio litany that establishes the existence of a superhero and therefore the belief in him. "It's a bird," the old refrain begins, initiating a series of contradictory modifications that lead to the ultimate truth: "It's a plane! It's Superman!"
Seagle's graphic novel asserts a commonplace, but the fascination of the book lies in how skillfully (or clumsily) he and his illustrator arrive at this foregone conclusion. Seagle's protagonist (whose give-away name is Steven) writes comic book stories, and at the beginning of the book, he is offered the assignment of writing Superman comic books. Most comic book writers, we are persuaded, would willingly part with several fingers of their left hands to get such an assignment, but Steven balks: he has nothing in common with this super-powered being, he tells his editor, and therefore has no way of entering sufficiently into the character to devise stories. But the editor insists Steven try to come up with something, and Steven's attempts constitute one thread of the two-stranded narrative Seagle weaves. In this strand, Steven considers aspects of Superman's persona: his secret identity, his alien origins (he's the ultimate outsider), his invulnerability, the alternate realities he lives in as a dual personality.
Running parallel with Steven's cogitations are two situations in his own life. One involves his father and the Huntington's Disease that, presumably, is transmitted from one generation to another, beginning, in Steven's recollection, with his grandmother. The other situation is Steven's relationship with his girlfriend, who, it develops, wants children when they marry; Steven, given the menace of Huntington's in his genetic make-up, is reluctant to wish upon another generation the spectre he has been haunted by all his life. When he goes looking for his father and finds him, Steven also finds a reason to write Superman stories.
As Steven ponders his Huntington's inheritance and Superman's situation, we see various similarities that Steven, apparently, comes to realize somewhat slower than we do. The Huntington's gene gives its bearer a secret identity and makes him, compared to normal people, an outsider; he, like Superman, lives in an alternate reality, but he, unlike Superman, is vulnerable. Steven sees his kinship to Superman (and, hence, the material from which he can extract stories) when, at last, he encounters his missing father, who is visiting Aunt Sarah, dying of Huntington's. Steven's father rages at him, and they fight, engaging in a physical exchange of fisticuffs. ("What would a Superman story be without a fight scene?" Steven asks himself.) The father starts the fight, and Steven realizes why: the father is ashamed, just as Steven sees he himself is, of being the carrier of an incurable disease, the reality of which he cannot deny. "Most of all," he is ashamed of not wanting "to admit to himself that he might have doomed his own children simply by having them."
To comfort his distraught father, Steven tells him that even if he is to die by Huntington's, he is glad to have lived. "Something gets all of us," he realizes, "—in the end, something gets us all, maybe it's a cancer or a bus or a bullet, or maybe it's some crappy, indiscriminate disease." But since we all reach an end, we must enjoy what time we have together all the more determinedly. This is the belief that gives life its only meaning. We must believe. On the book's last page, Steven encounters two boys who are debating about something they see in the sky overhead. "It's a plane," says one. "Planes don't fly that low," says the other. "It's a bird." Steven interrupts: "It's Superman," he says, "—you can see him if you look close enough, but you really have to want it." The supremacy of belief is asserted.
Upon first reading the book, I thought it misfired somewhat. The lesson Steven learns does not grow directly out of his intellectual struggle to find something in himself akin to Superman. Even when he realizes that he is an "outsider" because of the lurking Huntington's, he does not make the connection as directly as the material would suggest he should. Instead, his realization grows out of his own life, coming as an epiphany when confronting his father and his father's shame about passing on to his children the Huntington's gene. At first, I thought this outcome was a flaw in Seagle's scheme: given the rhetorical weight of Steven's intellectual struggles with his Superman assignment, I thought his realization ought to come from that engagement. After reflection, however, I have decided that Seagle has it absolutely right: it is much better that Steven come to an understanding of himself in the context of his own life rather than in the abstractions of his mental explorations. The parallels that Seagle draws between Steven's own life under the shadow of Huntington's and Superman's life as an alien with a secret identity bring us closer to Steven's epiphany just as they do with Steven; that is their function.
Kristiansen's treatment of Seagle's story is quirky but wholly appropriate. Like many of those who these days illustrate graphic novels, Kristiansen deploys an arty affectation, creating images in delicate delineation and then adding soft water color hues and sometimes rendering scenes with color only, no lines at all. He employs at least three stylistic mannerisms: the gritty grays of Steven's actual life alternate with pastel reincarnations of his recollected youth and abstract imagery for many of his mental machinations. Over-all, these devices are, despite their affectation, successful, and Seagle's story is enhanced thereby. Together, Kristiansen's visuals and the parallel strands of Seagle's narrative achieve an integrated complexity that raises the writer's justification for his craft to the level of art, enriching the genre of the graphic novel.
And Now, the Ladies of the Year
This month will see the publication, at long last, of Frank Cho's version of Shanna. Cho's passion for feminine embonpoint and jungle critters made him a natural to rejuvenate Marvel's lightly clad jungle queen, and the earliest pages I've seen revealed Cho at his best and Shanna at the, er, top of her form. Marvel moguls, however, didn't share either my enthusiasm or Cho's: they evidently thought better of the license they'd granted Cho and asked him to drape the undraped in the book. Still, as you can see near here, the results are purely pin-uppery and reason enough to rejoice in the New Year.
But the champion of the curvaceous sex in the previous twelve-month is Jim Silke, who, with Dark Horse, conspired to bring us the joyous volume, Pin-up: The Illegitimate Art (96 9x12-inch colorful pages in paperback, merely $19.95), which is brimming with a fine broth of lovely ladies, pictured sometimes in scanty costume, sometimes in nothing at all. But as delicious a feast as the visuals are, Silke's accompanying prose is every bit as delightful. The book artfully avoids naming the author of the text, and Silke is "quoted" frequently therein, leading one to think he's being written about by someone else, but this artifice, to anyone who has read Silke's previous tome, Bettie Page: Queen of Hearts, is wholly transparent: the facile and witty syntax betrays its author as none other than Silke himself. The first paragraph sets the tone: "Anything goes! That's the credo of a musical revue and of this book. There's no narrative tension and no cliffhanging. No story. It's just a lineup of nubile, titillating lovelies cavorting from page to page as they're backed by bits of nonsense, self-deprecating humor, and pagan religion. It's a party. A frolic. A low-brow celebration of everything polite society considers false; flesh, color, bubble beads, bikinis, and impossibly beautiful women who have trouble keeping their clothes on." The text goes on to trace, ever so lyrically, Silke's infatuation with limning the tender gender, a worship, we learn, he did not begin with any dedication until late in life: he was, as best I can judge, in his sixties before producing Bettie Page and the tantalizing comic book series, Rascals in Paradise (both 1995), having already enjoyed several successful careers as an art director, glamour photographer, screen writer and other such roles in film and popular entertainment venues. In this book, while he touches on these careers, he focuses on pin-ups and on the artists whose achievements inspired him, devoting brief discussions to Coby Whitmore, George Petty, Milton Caniff, Al Parker, John LaGatta, Gil Elvgren, Robert McGinnis, Rolf Armstrong, and Enoch Bolles. Bolles, whose pertly smiling femmes clearly relish the appeal they know their bodies make in the male imagination, deserves a book of his own (and one may be in the making, even as I type), and he prompts one of Silke's many bon mots: "I suspect," Silke writes, "that, like the wayfaring minstrels, Bolles sang for his supper not only because he had to eat but because he had to sing." The book is laden with wisdom of this sort, all couched in the most joyful of phrasings, a paean to pulchritude that isn't bashful about admitting that unabashed admiration of the female form and face plays a large part in producing successfully seductive pin-up art. From his models—first Bettie Page, then, eventually, Madonna—Silke learned "that the right model will not only arouse and inspire you, but also inform and instruct you, and keep you real." In drawing Bettie page over and over, Silke "eventually came to see that her main attraction was her attitude, her animated joy, her personality and character" —her look-at-me-and-I'll-share-the-joke-and-joy-of-sexual-appeal with you. Silke identifies his models under each of the 100-plus pictures: his favorite is Claudia Cardinale, but the artist readily admits that Claudia and the rest never appeared in his studio. He resorted to stills of their movies. Silke's ideal woman, his pin-up, is a normally endowed specimen of the female of the species, not a top-heavy torso. And for that reason—and his surpassing skill in rendering his subjects—his pin-ups are the people we all fall in love with.
New Year's Resolutions
And what would the dawn of the New Year be without a resolution or so? My own Resolution this year is the same as last year's. And that was the same as the year before's, and so on, ad infinitum. It is ever thus: the idea is that I have to keep making that Resolution until I actually keep it. But I've decided that R.J., the raccoon in Over the Hedge, has the best idea; and here he is.
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