Opus 157 (March 14, 2005). We take a long look at a new annual collection of "the best" editorial cartoons and at a new compendium of Modesty Blaise at the end of this installment. Between here and there, in order, we have: Nous R Us -Various awards in cartooning, made and pending (including the Pulitzer and the Reuben) and Doonesbury's tribute to Hunter S. Thompson; Quips & Quotes -about Al Hirschfeld and a cartoonist who works alone (as do they all, mostly); Comic Strip Watch -Luann's 20th, Morrie Turner's new book, comic book store raid in Funky Winkerbean, McGruder's interpretation of GeeDubya's drug use; Funnybook Fan Fare -John Byrne back on Superman and Frank Cho on Shanna and the mores of our times; Editoonery -Daryl Cagle's Best Political Cartoons of the Year, Herblock Horrified, and that lingering look at Modesty. Finally, our usual Friendly Reminder: Remember, when you get to the Members' Section, the useful "Bathroom Button" (also called the "print friendly version") of this installment that can be pushed for a copy that can be read later, at your leisure, while enthroned. Without further adieu-
NOUS R US
Award Season. Tony Auth (Philadelphia Inquirer) won the second annual Herblock Award for political cartooning, and Tom Toles (Washington Post) won the Headliner Award; runners-up, Steve Sack (Minneapolis Star Tribune) and Chip Bok (Akron Beacon Journal, Ohio). According to rumor (it hasn't been officially divulged yet), nominees for the Pulitzer (for last year) appear to be Joel Pett (Lexington Herald-Leader), Don Wright (Palm Beach Post), and Garry Trudeau for Doonesbury (again; he was a finalist for it two years ago and didn't make it but won in 1975). Whenever Trudeau crops up in this competition, a few editoonists mutter in their beards because he isn't officially an editorial cartoonist. True, but he's been hitting political subjects harder and more effectively than many editoonists lately. I'd like to see Steve Sack in the finalist line-up sometime soon. Sack revamped his technique a couple years ago, using pencil shading exclusively; and his visual metaphors have been striking in the last couple years. At least, the Scripps Howard Foundation realizes his achievement: he won their award for editorial cartooning this year. Runners up are another two oft-overlooked 'tooners: Tim Menees (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) and Ed Stein (Rocky Mountain News).
The Week magazine, my favorite, is running an Editorial Cartoonist of the Year competition this year; nominees are Chip Bok, Steve Kelley (New Orleans Times-Picayune), Mike Luckovich (Atlanta Journal-Constitution), Gary Markstein (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel), and Tom Toles.
The National Cartoonists Society has nominated three cartoonists for the annual Reuben "cartoonist of the year" award: Pat Brady (Rose Is Rose), Dan Piraro (Bizarro), and Dave Coverly (Speed Bump). Both Brady and Piraro have been nominated before; Brady at least six times, and Piraro at least once. This is Coverly's first time up; in NCS, he chairs the awards committee, but the job is administrative and doesn't involve any acts of actual selection. The Reuben trophy will be presented at the annual Reuben Award Banquet, held during the Reuben Weekend at an undisclosed location at an undisclosed time. (Members, and I am one, are sworn to secrecy about the time and place of this event out of abject fear that the "private" party will be swamped-just swamped, I say-with adoring fans from the Body Politic, all clamoring for autographs and original art. Geez.)
Lynn Johnston (For Better or For Worse) received the Debwewin Citation for Excellence in Aboriginal-Issues Journalism from the Union of Ontario Indians in recognition of her realistic depiction of life in the fictional Mtigwaki (Land of Trees), where Elizabeth, the McPherson's older daughter, teaches.
And the Rest of the Noos. Having never read Hunter S. Thompson's magnum opus, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, until just a few days ago, I didn't realize that Thompson assumes a name other than his own in the book-Raoul Duke. So it's scarcely fortuitous that Garry Trudeau would name his Thompson simulacrum in Doonesbury "Uncle Duke." Makes perfect sense to me. (The other kindred choice might have been the name of Thompson's so-called lawyer, who accompanies him on that besotted jaunt-Doctor Gonzo.) Duke is better; much. That aside, Trudeau was not about to let the famed howitzer journalist slip the surly bonds of earth without a fond farewell. Regrettably, because of his skiing injury (see Opus 156, last time), the cartoonist was not able to crank out anything appropriate right away. His tribute to the departed gunslinging author didn't get into print until the week of March 7. Our first clue that something is awry in Doonesland is when the laconic narrative that day is interrupted for no apparent reason at the third panel with a visual re-interpretation of Duke and his attendant, the faithful Honey, expertly done in the blasted-consciousness manner of Ralph Steadman. Says Honey: "You see out of sorts today, Boss." Duke says: "I know. It's like some nasty karmic shift." The next day, Duke checks the Internet to see what's amiss with the karma, and when the computer announces Thompson's death, Duke's head explodes. Alarmed, he tries again, googling, and his head explodes again. More hijinks ensue for the rest of the week, but as Bob Thompson (no relation, we assume) observes at the Washington Post, the exploding head thing ought to have set off politically correctitude ding-a-lings all around the country. Gonzo Thompson, after all, had committed suicide by shooting himself in the head-i.e., his head exploded. The echo in the strip was a cartoon enactment of the grisly scene in Thompson's Colorado compound kitchen where he blew his brains out. But there was, astonishingly, no blowback, Thompson reports. Trudeau's syndicate, Universal Press, recorded only two measly complaints out of the 1,400 papers that run the strip; that's a virtual nothing. Nothing reported by the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, "a newspaper group that keeps an eye on such potential controversies," explained Thompson. Nothing. No concerned citizens marching in the streets; no one with his hair on fire. It's probably too much to hope that we've grown up and matured since the M-word incident ("masturbation") or any of the other crimes against humanity that Trudeau has been perpetrating regularly for the last couple years. No, as Thompson speculates, the exploding head provoked no outcry because neither Thompson nor Duke "stood much chance of surprising us anymore," and so, unsurprised, no one was outraged by the outrageous. Trudeau had treated Duke cavalierly before, he said: "I've been exploding Duke's head as far back as 1985. I also had a rocket burst out of his head, a flock of bats, and during Duke's run for president, Mini-D, a tiny self that conducted Duke's business, even gave speeches when the candidate was incapacitated." Trudeau hopes no one misunderstands his week's tribute. Trudeau's website, www.Doonesbury.com, "respectfully raises a hefty tumbler" to Thompson, " a powerful innovative and influential journalist and writer whose voice will be missed." And it also posts the July 1974 sequence in which Uncle Duke bowed onto the Doonesbury stage, first appearing "in person" on July 8.
Although Duke was inspired by Thompson, Trudeau didn't parody Thompson's actual adventures in the strip, partly because that would have limited Duke's function and partly because Thompson was "so aggrieved by the character." (Although in the last few years, the dope fiend reporter seems to have accepted his alter ego.) Trudeau's Duke, Thompson said, "is a character far more sinister than the self-created, self-destructive gonzo artist." Duke has a predatory nature, Trudeau said; he stands for "a certain kind of mad unconditionality. Duke is never ambivalent, never in personal conflict. His take is resolutely binary: Is this in my self-interest or not? It's a kind of weird state of grace." Reassuringly, Trudeau said he has no plans to let Duke follow Thompson's self-destructive example. Although Honey has a bad moment on Saturday at the conclusion of the week-long sequence when Duke suddenly disappears after commenting that "Doc was my inspiration-in a way I owe him everything!" It is a perfect conclusion to an inspired week. Terrific.
The February issue of the CAPS Newsletter, the monthly publication of the Comic Art Professional Society, is a tribute issue-to Will Eisner and Kelly Freas. Mort Walker begins his tribute to Eisner with these words: "Poor Will. If only someone had been at his bedside in the hospital when he started bleeding, he would still be alive today. The doctors made a mistake when they thought he was recovering after surgery." Eisner apparently died of internal bleeding. I mention this not to start a groundswell of outrage (Eisner's relatives are not likely to welcome such a display) but to seize the lesson in the moment. Hospitals, like any human institution, are fraught with weak links. A friend of mine went in after a heart attack some years ago, and when I visited him, I realized after talking to him for a few minutes that he didn't know how to summon nurses to his aid, should he need something. He didn't know where the emergency call button was. Why not? Well, he's quite hard of hearing, and when the nurse told him where the button was, he probably didn't hear her. And she didn't double-check. The call button was on the headboard of the bed, just behind his shoulder. But he didn't know it was there. Health care people, we must assume (because the alternative is horrifying), do their best; but they're busy, too. That doesn't excuse neglect; but it does help explain it. The most attentive care for a person in a hospital is a relative, sitting in the chair in the same room.
Quips & Quotes
In his book City Room, Arthur Gelb, long associated with the drama section of the New York Times, remembers the last hours of Al Hirschfeld: "He never stopped drawing. Just hours before he died, he was ill in bed and feverish. He lifted his arm and his hand drew lines in the air as though he were at work in his barber's chair. That's where he was the day before, working on a caricature of the Marx Brothers for a private commission. He hadn't quite finished it-and I like to think that Al, with his irrepressible zest for his art, was completing this work, in his head, during his final moments."
Mike Baldwin, who produces the panel cartoon Cornered for Universal Press Syndicate, was online with the Washington Post's cartoon editor Suzanne Tobin last spring, fielding questions from all around the country. When asked a double-barreled question-what is the best part of being a syndicated cartoonist and does he have an assistant-he said: "The best part? No meetings. No bosses. No yearly reviews. No commuting. No corporate Dilbert rah-rah BS that every office worker has to endure. Just me, a pad of paper, a felt-tip pen, and the cat breathing down my neck. I love the creative process and have been fortunate to have worked in the creative field all my life, but this is closer to art. Doing your own thing each day. Never knowing what's going to come up. Getting there is a real rush. And getting paid. I work alone as do most syndicated cartoonists. There are only a handful of syndicated cartoonists (out of over 200) who can afford assistants. It's just me and the cat. Nothing like hacking up a hairball on the good carpet to get the juices flowing. And then blaming the cat."
"The religion of America is America." Can't remember who said this, but I saw it recently in The Week. In any case, it seems a useful thing to remember in the midst of our various holy wars here at home.
Comic Strip Watch
Greg Evans' Luann celebrates its twentieth anniversary on March 17. Evans won the National Cartoonists Society's Reuben last year as "cartoonist of the year 2003"; the strip runs in about 350 newspapers and has been reprinted in 20 volumes. In 2003, Dick Clark Productions acquired tv rights to the strip for a half-hour, live-action show, still (as they say) "in development." Evans, intrigued by it all, isn't holding his breath; he's just havin' fun.
Morrie Turner of Wee Pals fame has a new book out. Called Super Sistahs, it retails the stories of more than 75 historic African-American women. Wee Pals, which at its peak appeared in about 110 newspapers, now runs in about 40, but Turner continues his campaign to bring the rainbow into everyone's life, appearing frequently before audiences of school kids in the Oakland area.
In Funky Winkerbean, Tom Batiuk turns to the persecution of comic book store operators when John Gordon's shop in the basement of Montoni's Pizza Parlor is raided and John hauled off by the police, charged with promoting obscenity by selling adult comics to an undercover policeman and a member of the city council. He sold two adult comic books to two adults. How can that be a crime? Sounds absurd-just the thing for a "comic" strip, eh? But this scenario comes right out of real life, kimo sabe; explore the absurdities at the website for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, www.cbldf.org, where we learn that in Florida two elementary school children, ages 9 and 10, were led from their school in handcuffs on January 24, 2005, because they had drawn a stick-figure cartoon that depicting them attacking a classmate, age 10. Zero tolerance sometimes equals zero intelligence.
Verging on the hilariously obscene is the current sequence in Bud Grace's outrageously uproarious Piranha Club in which Arnold has arranged through the Internet a date for himself with Arnolda (I think that's her name: she's a female version, so to speak, of Arnold); he puts on a corset and elevator boots and an Elvis wig, she enhances her figure by stuffing sauerkraut in her bra and wears a cabbage corsage as a recognition device. Saurerkraut in her bra?
Aaron McGruder continues to lay waste the journalistic landscape with his scorched-earth approach to GeeDubya. In The Boondocks strip for February 28, Huey speculates about George W. ("Whopper") Bush's admission, recently disclosed, that he'd smoked weed: "Maybe," Huey says, "he smoked it to take the edge off the coke." The Chicago Tribune yanked the strip because, said Geoff Brown, associate managing editor: "Even in cartoons, you cannot state as a real-life fact something that is not true in real life. This is not to say that cartoonists can't dream up conversations or situations to poke fun at a public figure-that's satire. But when they inaccurately attribute to a public figure a real-life fact, quote, or action that never happened, then lampoon him or her for a fictional fact, quote, or action, that's unfair. Reports from reputable news sources about the president's taped conversation are careful not to state outright that he admitted to drug use." The Trib recently pulled an installment of Prickly City, a conservatively bent strip by Scott Stantis, because it seemed to allege that Ted Kennedy said something he actually did not say. "We're trying to be consistent in maintaining a standard for satire," Brown said. "We have no political ideology on the comics pages." Maybe not, but the line between reality and fantasy grows increasingly dim in the Kingdom of the Bush League, which offers its share of fabrications as news releases. And what does the Tribune do about them? Two of the other 300 papers carrying The Boondocks pulled the strip on the offending day-the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Detroit News. The Tribune-Star said it dropped the strip that day because the tape of GeeDubya's conversation did not mention cocaine. Just pot. Said the paper's ombudsman, Kate Parry, "McGruder provides so much fodder for ombudsmen around the country that we should keep him on a retainer."
Funnybook Fan Fare
The guy who has most skillfully dabbled in more iconic comic book characters than almost anyone, John Byrne, is back at it again-this time, on Superman in Action Comics, starting this spring sometime, penciling stories by a new writer, Gail Simone. According to Dan Didio, DC's vp of editorial, Simone and Byrne have similar storytelling instincts, balancing "action, drama, rich casts of characters and some light-hearted moments. They're a perfect fit," he said, adding, "Byrne is extremely strong on hitting deadlines." Said Byrne about the assignment, one of the few in recent times that he is drawing for without also writing: "The best thing about being the 'art robot' is there's no homework." (Gleaned from a report by Brian Lockhart, Stamford Advocate.)
At www.silverbulletcomicbook.com, Tim O'Shea interviewed Frank Cho in January about the Shanna title he wrote and drew for Marvel. Asked about the bruted about editorial decision to go for PG-13 and the consequent adjustments in the pictorial content of the book, Cho said: "There weren't too many changes that needed to be made. Sure there were a few pages that had to be adjusted to fit the rating, but overall the story didn't suffer. I didn't put in any nudity for the sake of putting in nudity. If the story didn't call for a nude shot, I didn't put it in. So the transition from R to PG-13 was pretty smooth. To be honest, it wasn't the nudity that I was afraid of being censored. It was the violence. Much to my relief, Marvel didn't tone down any of the violence. I guess that says a lot about this country." Whew. Toning down violence would have required major overhaul in the story itself; covering up Shanna's better body parts was a lot simpler-just cluster some shampoo bubbles strategically when she's taking that shower in No. 2. (Say, Frank-did the plot absolutely require Shanna to take a shower at that juncture? And to depict her at full-height in a page-tall panel? Don't misunderstand: I'm glad-delighted!-that you did it; but it wasn't really, kimo sabe, a story requirement. You put that picture in there for guys like me, right? Doddering old men and leering young ones, the only healthy types left on the planet.)
As an additional comment on the mores of our times, Cho explained why his bad guys are Nazis: "Nazis are the only villains that we can still use without any or little prosecution in this politically correct world. Nazis are universally recognized as being evil." Cho says he's always had trouble accepting the Shanna concept-"a city woman with no powers leaping around in the jungle, beating up wild animals and men with guns just didn't fly with me." So he's arranged a new origin to "make her into this unstoppable force with questionable moral compass." And it's that last bit that makes this series a page-turner. (Well, that and Shanna's embonpoint.) A moral dilemma wrapped in a threat of violence. More than just gigantic gorillas and gazongas, gang.
Shanna is another in the line of Cho heroines who are brainy and strong and self-reliant as well zaftig. About that, Cho is sometimes a little puzzled: "It's funny," he says, "that the critics [who rant about his focus on the feminine form] fail to notice the strong noble personalities of my female characters and only focus on their physical body images." Makes me laugh, too, Frank; but your stories-and your storytelling-keep me comin' back for more. (That and the ever-present embonpoint.) And the suspense: when is the Shanna found in the jungle going to gain sufficient power of speech to express herself in some way other than her fists? How did she get that way? Which of her male mentors will she wind up with? If any? If you think Cho is just another drawer of pretty faces, take another look.
Now that Shanna is off his drawingboard, Cho is working up the fourth Liberty Meadows collection for Image-this one, reprinting in full color the Sunday strips. And he's also sweating over Zombie King for Image and a "secret project" for Marvel "that involves a certain female hero," and then there is a Brandy statue and some Liberty Meadows figurines through Clayburn Moore, a couple of oil paintings, and a new sketchbook for the Sandy Eggo Con. Lots to look forward to.
Among the consequences of our pinched economy, as I've said before in these parts, is the steady evaporation of editorial cartoonists on the staffs of the nation's newspapers. Only about 85-90 full-timers are left out of maybe 200 a decade ago. Or maybe it was only 150 or so then. These numbers fluctuate a good deal depending upon your sources of information. But there's little question that more editoonists these days are being laid off at newspapers than are being hired; and that means a net loss. Consolidation of corporate-owned papers means the attention at those papers shifts from the city room and journalism to the business office and the bottom line, from editors to stock-holders, and from news to profit. To enhance the latter, excess expenditures are being lopped off everywhere. And the most obvious superfluity in the judgement of a stock-holder is probably the staff editorial cartoonist. Still, even as they sink in the rising tide of corporate profit, editoonists are doing outstanding work. Whenever they are permitted freedom of expression. Take, for instance-
The Best Political Cartoons of the Year
2005 Edition (Cartoons from 2004)
Editorial cartoons are the badge of status for the cartooning profession. In performing their usual professional schtick, cartoonists cavort across the page, poking fun at their fellow human sapiens (sic)-they laugh and point and ridicule. And it all seems good natured and a little silly. But political cartoonists are something else. They stand fast and conduct serious political satire: relentlessly, they assault societal ills and governmental malignancy, and their attacks assert the social responsibility of the profession. They are not goofy clowns in floppy shoes and big noses: they are dedicated scrutineers of the parade of follies and foibles that passes before us daily. They are ransackers for Truth, Beauty, and the rest of the American Delusion. They are tirelessly zealous scolds, ever critical of malefactors and fools in public office, government policy gone awry, unfair labor practices, bullying union tactics, and so on. Their weapon is political satire which aims at getting us to act as well as to laugh. And when we laugh at an editorial cartoon, we are not laughing genially at ourselves as is the case with most other cartooning: we laugh derisively barely suppressing a scoffing rage. Political cartoonists are throughly grown up: they've left the comical scrawls of their childhood behind and now, as responsible adults, seek to put us on our best behavior, to reform us all. So whenever we cartooners seek to dignify our profession, we are likely to conjure up our editorial cartoonist brethren: they are respectable members of the community and must be attended to.
The terms "editorial cartoonist" and "political cartoonist" are nearly interchangeable. I prefer "editorial cartoonist" because it suggests that the cartoonist aims his editorial comment at a range of targets, not just political issues. On the other hand, Pat Oliphant, arguably the nation's foremost practitioner of the genre, prefers "political cartoonist" because he thinks "editorial cartoonist" suggests that his cartoons are dictated by the editorial board of a newspaper rather than being expressions of his own individually arrived at opinions.
The best editoons (to deploy a portmanteau coinage for the genre) are those that express opinions in visual metaphors. In the wake of the 9/11 atrocity, many editoonists pictured the Statue of Liberty with a tear running down her face. The device was so widely used that it was immediately a cliche, but the image was, nonetheless, an effective visual metaphor for national grief. A powerful image lodges in the back of our minds and from there exerts a subtle influence on how we think in the future. Herblock always drew Richard Nixon with a five-o'clock shadow, giving him the unsavory aura of a somewhat disreputable used car dealer. In the last years of his presidency, Bill Clinton was often depicted wearing heart-encrusted boxer shorts, reminding us of his sexual peccadilloes. GeeDubya Bush is given large ears, a vaguely simian visage and diminutive stature, implying that he is the performing chimpanzee for the GOP organ grinder, cranking away at the machinery of vested interests.
Editoons have been described as snapshots in the chronicle of our times: taken a day at a time, they give us a fleeting glimpse of our history as it is unfolding. Collected every so often in book form, editoons summarize the issues and attitudes of particular periods. Since 1972, Pelican Publishing in Louisiana has published an annual compendium of political cartoons entitled Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year. Edited by Charles Brooks, a veteran retired editoonist of the Birmingham News, the book sometimes betrays a Southerner gentleman's sense of decorum-or a conservative bias (depending upon the passion of one's political perspective). Whatever the case, the more aggressive of a year's editoonery seldom finds its way into the Brooks book: such ill-mannered outbursts are too rambunctious to invite into one's home. A month or so ago, another compilation of editoons entered the "Best of" sweepstakes. The Best Political Cartoons of the Year, 2005 Edition, is culled entirely from Daryl Cagle's Professional Cartoonists Index, http://www.cagle.slate.msn.com , the editoon website at Slate. This volume continues in the misnomer tradition established by Pelican, always giving in the title the year AFTER the year in which the contents were first published. So the Cagle tome embraces the events of 2004, among them, the cliffhanger Presidential election, the suspense-and-smear filled campaign, terrorists in Russia and the Middle East, Martha Stewart's incarceration, and so on. But the posture of this book is much more combative than the Brooks volume. More savagely assertive and more liberal. Said Cagle, an unabashed liberal himself: "As most cartoonists are liberal, this book may have a liberal slant, but we have no partisan bias in selecting the cartoons: the best cartoons are simply the best cartoons, whether from the right or from the left." As a gesture at inclusiveness, Cagle's co-editor, Brian Fairrington, is the book's designated conservative. Still, since only about 20 percent of the nation's editoonists are conservative, this collection leans to the left. Not quite: "lean" is too passive a verb: it veers off leftward, careening furiously.
It is a little off-putting to discover that Cagle has more cartoons (21) in this book than any other cartoonist except the Pultizer winner, but I suppose being an editor and compiler entitles one to certain benefits. His co-editor, however, has not taken similar advantage of his position: Fairrington has only 8 cartoons in the book. Other conservative voices are represented in more than token quantity: Steve Kelley has 16 cartoons, Robert Ariail 15, Mike Lester 14, Henry Payne 7 (including his perfect caricature of Ronald Reagan). (Incidentally, if your appetite is for the conservative persuasion, you can get a pretty steady albeit raw diet of it at www.Rightoons.com and in a new comic strip from Creators Syndicate, State of the Union by Carl Moore.) Other tooners in the Cagle tome (some from distant lands) with more than a half-dozen cartoons include Rex Babin, Bruce Beattie, Clay Bennett, Steve Breen, Chris Britt, Cameron Cardow, Patrick Chappatte (International Herald Tribune), John Cole, John Darkow, Bill Day, John Deering, Bob Englehart, Bob Gorrell, Cal Grondahl, Joe Heller, Sandy Huffaker, Taylor Jones, Mike Keefe, Steve Kelley, Mike Lane, Alen Lauzan (Chile), Jimmy Margulies, Gary Markstein, Doug Marlette, Jim Morin, Vince O'Farrell, Simanca Osmani (Brazil), Jeff Parker, Bruce Plante, Michael Ramirez, Marshall Ramsey, Steve Sack, Bill Schorr, John Sherffius, Jeff Stahler, Wayne Stayskal, Mark Streeter, Dana Summers, Mike Thompson, John Trever, Gary Varvel, Larry Wright, and Matt Davies-last year's Pulitzer Prize winner, whose 26 cartoons include his Pulitzer Portfolio of 19. It's a thoroughly respectable line-up of many of the nation's most visible editooners. Among the missing, however, are the only two women to win a Pulitzer, Signe Wilkinson and Ann Telnaes; plus a few other nationally notorious 'tooners, Pat Oliphant, Tony Auth, Ted Rall, and Herblock's successor, Tom Toles-most of whom are also usually missing from the Brooks book.
In short, Cagle's book is not the "best" of the year's output by the entire roster of the nation's editorial cartoonists. But, unlike the Brooks book, it doesn't claim to be: right up there on the cover, it says "from the most popular cartoon site on the Web-Daryl Cagle's Professional Cartoonists Index." In other words, to get into this book, an editorial cartoonist had to be among those featured at Cagle's website. And at least one of Cagle's roster who is also among the missing declined to participate in the book project, not believing in "best of" compilations, purely as a matter of principle. Cagle emphasized that all the cartoons in his site's compendium were selected by him and Fairrington from the year's content of the website (and from a few additional volunteer submissions); for the Pelican tome, cartoonists submit a maximum of five cartoons for Brooks' selection, which makes his pool shallower than the Cagle-Fairrington pool and, therefore, a little less representative. Neither book is a vast embrace of the entire American editooning universe, but the Cagle-Fairrington volume comes closer.
Given the editooning profession's nearly knee-jerk criticism of the Pelican book as presenting toothless and "lame" cartoons, comparisons with it are inevitable. But Cagle, asked in the Notebook newsletter of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists whether he was deliberately "taking on" the Brooks volume in hopes of blowing it out of the water, denied it, saying: "Our purpose isn't to supplant anything ... We wanted to make a book that is a print version of our web site. ... Both the cartoonists and fans [of our website] have been requesting that we do a book for a long time. The book gives us an opportunity to see if the popularity and branding of the website can carry through into print. ... Yes, I think our book will compete with the Pelican book. The 'Best of the Year' format is familiar to readers, from year end compilations, from our site [which does a yearly round-up every December] and from the Pelican book. It was logical to try a first publishing project that has a familiar, understandable format that requires no explanation."
In addition to running the website, Cagle also operates a syndicate, Cagle Cartoons, selling some of the cartoonists' work that appears on site. Mike Lester and Sandy Huffaker are syndicated in this way. Both are comparatively new signatures on editooning broadsides. And Lester, at least, has achieved some national visibility thanks to the Cagle connection. I occasionally see his work in The Week and in the Washington Post National Weekly. He has a fresh uncluttered purely linear style (in the same way as Jules Feiffer's drawings are uncluttered and linear; but Lester's don't look like Feiffer's)-no shading, no solid blacks. Lester draws for the Rome, Georgia, News-Tribune (circulation, 16,000-19,000), and while he's fairly new at that post, he's been cartooning and illustrating in other corners of the commercial art world for twenty years. He created several corporate mascots-Louie the Lightning Bug for Georgia Power, Red and Ted for Ameritech, and Reindeer for FedEx among others. He's also the "signature artist" for the Rivalry Series, popular three-dimensional college mascots posed with their rivals in Collegiate Collectibles. And he's done some children's books, Santa's New Suit and A is for Salad to name two among several. Although he is often identified as a "conservative," Lester finds the label "odd." Says he: "Somewhere in the Constitution it plainly states: all men should be made fun of. Equally." Huffaker, whose cartoons have a bristly cross-hatched fustian, has worked more steadily at editooning over the years; I just haven't seen his work much before he started showing up at Cagle's 'toonsite. Huffaker was the chief political cartoonist for the News and Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, 1968-1972, then freelanced illustration in New York until 1986, when he resumed editooning as well as illustration. He's done covers for Time (6), Business Week (12), Sports Illustrated (2), and others. He's been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize four times and three times for the National Cartoonists Society's division award in editooning. He's also written and/or illustrated eight books, including The Bald Book, about which People magazine quipped: "If laughter grew hair, this book would be a miracle cure." Sounds like my favorite book all over again.
Shortly after the January arrival of the Cagle compendium, some carping ensued, alleging that the book was just a marketing device for Cagle Cartoons. Unquestionably, the book introduces a sizeable number of editorial cartoonists to readers and newspaper editors everywhere, but so does publication of a political cartoon in any venue. Brooks' selection is widely criticized throughout various segments of the profession; but many editoonists, while critical of Brooks' choices, nonetheless submit their quota every year, precisely because the book exposes their work to a wider audience. And they sometimes sell reprints as a result. Cagle's website operates in somewhat the same fashion: contact information on the site next to cartoonists' work refers interested parties to the cartoonists or their syndicates or sales agents. But of the 155 editoonists in the book, Cagle syndicates only a dozen or so. The rest may sell reprints through the website referrals occasionally, but Cagle gets no percentage from the referrals.
Like the Brooks volume, the Cagle book is organized by topic-Economy, Iraq, Terrorism, Middle East, Bush Victory, and so on. Some of the topics reflect our national preoccupation with the trivial and the meaninglessly sensational, and as a purely rhetorical maneuver, the editors here have given undue emphasis to some of these idiocies by putting them first in the book-Janet Jackson's Boob, Michael Jackson's Trial, Howard Dean's Yell, and Martha Stewart's Conviction. I suppose the editors are justified in following the lead of the news media in this regard, but I still wonder if 21 cartoons about Dan Rather's misfortune aren't a few too many; likewise, 18 rejoicing in the Red Sox victory at the World Series while Cheney rates only 22 cartoons, Kerry but 25, and the 9/11 Commission just 24, the Environment 18, the Economy 25. The aftermath of the Iraq Attack rates 36 cartoons; the disgrace of Abu Ghraib, 39, equaled in number by cartoons about the Olympics, an event scarcely in the same league of seriousness as the other two. This lopsidedness is partly an unintended byproduct of the editoonery act itself: some topics lend themselves better than others to visual metaphors-and to comedic ridicule. And in the case of Janet Jackson's exploding bodice, doubtless some cartoonists surrendered to the temptation to indulge a delinquent delight in bandying the word "boob" around in public, something they normally wouldn't have the chance to do. The snapshot of history that the book should provide is somewhat distorted as a result of the disproportionate emphasis, but the notion that editoons deal with history is as outmoded as the idea that the news media retail the news: the news media provide reality-based entertainment, and editorial cartoons reflect not history but the news of the day, corrupted by ratings races as it is. This volume, then, despite its warp, is as good a reflection of our times as we're likely to get, corrupted by our news sources as we are.
The book includes such a vast quantity of work (over 800 cartoons) that this misplaced emphasis is nearly overwhelmed by the profusion. The layout varies the number of cartoons on a page, sometimes as few as one or two, sometimes as many as six, the latter arrangement sacrificing more in visual detail than seems appropriate in a book extolling a visual art. But the power of the medium is vividly displayed throughout. Here's Milt Priggee's Uncle Sam, crouching and armed with a rifle as he looks out into the darkness from which menacing eyes glare malevolently back at him, but Sam can't move: his leg is gripped by a trap labeled Iraq. Walt Handelsman's cartoon captioned "They'll be greeted with flowers" shows scores of coffins, each with a funeral bouquet on top of the flag draped over it. Australia's Vince O'Farrell gives us a three-panel cartoon: in the first panel, GeeDubya grasps a corner of the Saddam tablecloth on a table fully set for dinner (candelabra as well as dishes) and says, "The ol' pull the tablecloth out trick"; next, "swoosh," he pulls the table cloth; and in the last panel, which shows the table covered with broken crockery and spilled food, GeeDubya, shrouded with the tablecloth, says, "Mission accomplished." Etta Hulme, who retired into part-time 'tooning a couple years ago, continues to produce potent images. Here's a picture of an ostrich burying its head in the globe of the world upon which it stands, its tail feathers on fire; the caption, "White House Position on Global Warming." And here's a bird's-eye view of a bank of cubicles in an office captioned "U.S. Intelligence"; in each cubicle, an operative is staring at a computer monitor, and on four separate screens, left to right, appear the letters C - L - U - E, a persuasive and intricate picture analyzing the failure of our intelligence apparatus to "connect the dots" (or recognize a clue when it surfaces). Clay Bennett's visual metaphor describing the economy is even more ingenious. He shows the "Economy" as an arrow on a chart that he places on a wall. Looking at the chart are two people, a businessman and a working man. They are standing in the corner next to the wall, but Bennett has built a "funhouse" corner: the floor upon which one observer is standing is the "wall" at the elbow of the other. From the perspective of the businessman looking at the chart, the Economy arrow is soaring upwards; from the perspective of the working man, the arrow points down.
The gleeful savagery of the book's contents is perhaps best exemplified in the sections devoted to aggravated assault on George W. ("Whopper") Bush and John F. ("Fearless") Kerry. Under the heading "Bush Bashing," Our President is depicted as a puny, petty, bushy-browed simpleton more preoccupied with politics than policy. Jim Morin draws him in a T-shirt that says, "Make War, Not Love." Chris Britt shows GeeDubya in the World Trade Center ruins, rejoicing with Karl Rove, who says, "On the bright side, this will make a great campaign ad." Jeff Stahler has a kid playing with his Debate George Action Figure, pulling on the "talk" string while Bush keeps saying, over and over, "It's a tough job ... it's a tough job. ..." And Mike Keefe has Bush at a pulpit festooned with streamers labeled "Faith-based," "Marriage Amendment," "Ashcroft & Co.," and "Abortion," Bush saying, "Religious fundamentalist influences are a threat to democracy ... in Iraq." In "Ripping Kerry," the Democratic aspirant is portrayed throughout as a lantern-jawed, beetle-browed loquacious flip-flopper (although, oddly-and tellingly-that seems to be the only criticism of him). Dana Summers takes us into the dressing room for the Presidential Debates, where a make-up artist is laboring over two Kerrys and saying to the stage hand signaling only five minutes to air-time, "Hey! Don't you know how long it takes to put makeup on both of Kerry's faces?" Dan Wasserman depicts GeeDubya in the boxing ring with Kerry, who appears in multiple images all around the prone President, who, lying there, says, "Hey-he keeps changing his positions!" And Steve Sack, whose metaphorical imagery is vividly potent, shows Kerry as a lava lamp labeled "Kerry on the Issues"; a Dem donkey, watching the shape-changing, says, "There it is -it's firming up, coming together, coming together -awww! It's gone all squishy again. ..." while on the other side, a smirking Rep elephant says, "I could watch this for hours."
The book may not be a "snapshot" of history: because of its content being driven by popular cultural preoccupations and political sensationalism rather than by public affairs issues, the view of history it presents is somewhat jaundiced. And it may not be a comprehensive look at editooning in 2004: it doesn't cull from the entire national roster of cartoonists. But the book is a sinewy reflection of what political cartooning can be, and in many cases is-a no-holds barred, unflinching, uncompromising spotlighting of foolishness and malfeasance. This is the kind of heavy hitting political cartoonists can do. And it's gratifying to know that they are still doing it in lots of places around the country, corporate ownership of newspapers notwithstanding.
And Before We Leave the Subject---
The Newspaper Guild/Communications Workers of America announced a week or so ago that the New York Times would receive its Freedom Award for upholding the principle of news-source confidentiality. The award, ironically, is named after the editorial cartoonist Herbert Block and funded by his estate. The irony, as almost every political cartoonist in the country knows, is that the New York Times does not have a staff editorial cartoonist, does not publish editorial cartoons except in its weekly round-up section, and doesn't run comic strips either. So here's a major American newspaper which disdains cartooning and it's receiving an award named after one of the nation's greatest cartoonists. Daryl Cagle, who we met just a few paragraphs ago as the operator of the online political cartoon site (http://www.cagle.slate.msn.com), is also a political cartoonist and expostulates better than I on the subject, and I got his permission to run his entire diatribe; herewith:
HERBLOCK WOULD BE HORRIFIED
There is no institution that cartoonists despise more than the New York Times. The editorial cartooning profession is slowly dying as more and more newspapers decide that they can do without the expense and controversy of a local political cartoonist. The New York Times is the biggest newspaper to go without a staff editorial cartoonist. They don't even run comic strips.
The Times has not employed a political cartoonist for nearly 50 years, and editors at the Times have been quoted saying that they would never hire a cartoonist because "you can't edit a cartoonist like you can a writer," and, "We would never give so much power to one man." The arrogance with which the haughty Times dismisses our art form really sticks in the cartoonists' collective craw. So, imagine my surprise when I read that the New York Times was winning the "Herbert Block Freedom Award," a prize bearing the name of a great political cartoonist.
Herbert Block, better known as "Herblock," is a beloved figure among cartoonists. He worked as the cartoonist for the Washington Post for most of the past century, winning three Pulitzer Prizes and contributing to the downfall of President Nixon and Sen. Joe McCarthy.
During his lifetime, Herblock quietly amassed a fortune in Washington Post stock. When he died, Herblock left money to his favorite organizations, among them: the National Cartoonists Society, which is using a $50,000 Herblock bequest to fund a scholarship in his name. Herblock's estate established the Herblock Foundation, which, among other things, supports the art of editorial cartooning and bestows a yearly Herblock Award to a top cartoonist. Herblock left money to the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, which recently received a $150,000 grant from the Herblock Foundation to fund efforts to facilitate use of editorial cartoons in the classroom and promote our art form on the Web. Herblock also left $50,000 to his union, the Newspaper Guild/Communications Workers of America, which used the legacy to start an award called the "Herbert Block Freedom Award," which they decided to bestow upon the evil nemesis of cartoonists the New York Times. The award comes with a $5,000 prize, a drop that will be thrown into the Times' vast, private, corporate money bucket.
Cartoonists love irony, but some irony is too much to stomach. How could this happen? The answer is that the Newspaper Guild never thought about how giving the Times an award named after a beloved editorial cartoonist would look to Herblock's cartoonist colleagues. Guild President Linda Foley writes, "We did not consider the Times' history or relationship (or lack thereof) with editorial cartooning. It's not a controversy or history with which we are familiar."
The award will be presented to the Times at a banquet on March 30 to honor the Times' efforts in defending the confidentiality of their sources. In particular the award is intended to honor the Times' star reporter, Judith Miller, who is fighting court efforts to root out a confidential source.
The folks at Slate totter between liking and disliking Judith Miller, but I'm no Judith Miller fan. Miller is probably best-known for a series of articles in the Times that encouraged the run-up to war with Iraq, in which she gave credibility to false claims that Iraq was amassing huge, menacing, stocks of weapons of mass destruction. Miller is a superstar reporter; now she's fighting to stay out of jail and defend a slimy source. Protecting confidential sources is noble, I guess. So the New York Times gets an award ... but why call it the Herblock Award?
Guild President Foley writes: "We knew that Herb had generously willed money to many organizations, several of them related to cartooning. We PURPOSEFULLY set up this award around the 'other' aspects of Herb's work." She continues, "In addition to being an ardent cartoonist, Herb Block also was an ardent trade unionist. That's why Herb left us the $50,000. (He left you folks [cartoonists organizations] more.) Trade unions, like cartoonists, are also on the verge of extinction. Newspaper companies like Cox, Tribune, Gannett, etc., do their darnedest to eliminate the Guild. Do you folks ever give consideration to that legacy of Herb Block when you give your awards for cartooning? I doubt it; nor would I expect it (even though I might wish it). And we would never, ever presume that you or any other group (such as the Herblock Foundation) was somehow 'dishonoring' Herb Block because it gave an award to a cartoonist or publication that was anti-union. Again, we wouldn't like it, but it wouldn't be our award to bestow."
OK. I get it. They can do what they want to do in Herblock's name. But the irony of this award creates a great opportunity to make the point about how terrible the New York Times has been for cartoonists. Should the New York Times run cartoons and comic strips? Should they receive an award named to honor Herblock? You can sound off to the Newspaper Guild, the New York Times and our very own blog with an e-mail by clicking here We'd like to hear what you think,-and if we get enough e-mails, maybe it will make an impact on the evil, cartoon-loathing New York Times. We'll post the best e-mails in our blog.
England's Titan Books has published a new collection of Peter O'Donnell's cult British classic in Modesty Blaise: Top Traitor (120 9x12-inch pages in paperback, $16.95). Included are three of Modesty's newspaper strip adventures, all of which had titles- "Top Traitor," "The Vikings," and "The Head Girls." For the uninitiated, Modesty Blaise is one of the last newspaper adventure strips, arguably the most literate; it ended in April 2001, after a run of nearly four decades (for much more elaboration on the subject, visit Harv's Hindsight, here). Syndicated to 40 countries but regularly appearing in the U.S. only in the Detroit Free Press, Modesty Blaise was a stylish cloak and dagger intrigue, invented and written by O'Donnell. Drawn for the first 18 of its 95 stories by the artist O'Donnell forever referred to as "the great Jim Holdaway," most of the rest of the run was illustrated by Enrique Badia-Romero, a Spaniard. The strip followed the clandestine machinations of the voluptuous and superbly athletic Modesty, a retired and fabulously wealthy erstwhile leader of an international crime network who now devoted her considerable talents for lethal undercover work to helping the British secret service, which she did with the able assistance of her comrade in arms, Willie Garvin. The precise nature of the relationship between these two (they are not lovers) is not detailed in any of their comic strip adventures but is unequivocally explained in several of the 13 books (11 novels and 2 short story collections) that O'Donnell has written about them. And the novels are better than the strip. The books have an advantage over newspapers' serial mode: their emotional content is cumulative not diffused over intervening days and therefore builds toward greater impact.
Modesty started on May 13, 1963, in the London Evening Standard, but it was not the first collaboration between O'Donnell and Holdaway. They'd been working together for at least a half-dozen years. Their partnership began toward the end of 1956 when the London Daily Mirror lost the artist-writer of one of its most popular strips, Romeo Brown. In England, newspaper strips are produced for individual newspapers, not syndicates; popular strips may be circulated to "provincial papers" by the London papers that own them, but not always. Many strips appear only in their "home" newspapers where they were born. I don't know if Romeo Brown appeared anywhere except in the Daily Mirror, but when the Daily Sketch lured Alfred Mazure ("Maz") away, the Mirror needed someone to write Romeo Brown and someone to draw it. O'Donnell, who had created Tug Transom and was writing Garth, was invited to write it, and to draw it, the Mirror hired Holdaway, the artist who would, later, give Modesty Blaise her glamorous appearance.
Romeo Brown was a blundering comical detective out of P.G. Wodehouse, but the strip's "main idea," O'Donnell said, "was to get girls' clothes off in the nicest possible way." Later, O'Donnell learned that Holdaway was plunged into despair when he found out what Romeo Brown was about. "He went home and said to his wife, 'I can't do this-I can't draw girls.' He had been drawing westerns for a long time and thought that he could draw only cowboys and horses!" It soon developed, however, that Holdaway could draw pretty girls very well. Sexy, beautiful girls. Well enough that when O'Donnell invented Modesty Blaise-a beautiful, sexy heroine-he wanted Holdaway to draw her. Initially, the publishing newspaper tried another artist, but that individual "totally misunderstood" the character. "It was a disaster," O'Donnell said. He promptly recommended Holdaway, and Modesty was, forthwith, given glamorous visual life with Holdaway's wispy airy line anchored to sturdy solid blacks.
By 1973, Modesty Blaise was published in 76 newspapers in 35 countries. The strip appeared in the U.S. in 30-40 papers at the time the "Modesty Blaise" movie debuted. All but the Detroit Free Press soon dropped it, saying the stories ran too long, 16-17 weeks. U.S. papers wanted O'Donnell to cut back to 12 weeks, but he refused. To do so, he said, would cut the meat out. "You'll end up with no depth of character, no humor, none of the fleshing out and asides that, to my mind, are vital parts of the success of the Modesty Blaise/Willie Garvin setup."
O'Donnell and Holdaway met once a week when the artist delivered the week's worth of strips to the writer at his Fleet Street office. O'Donnell would look over the strips, and if "amendments" were needed, Holdaway would make them. And then they would deliver the completed batch across the street to the Standard offices. Writing later of these encounters, O'Donnell said he never knew quite what to expect on the day Holdaway was to appear. "Sometimes the door would open an inch, and a voice would order me to throw out my gun and come out with my hands up. Sometimes he was the gas-meter man with a falsetto voice. Sometimes his hat would be thrown in, and sometimes the first I knew of his arrival was when clouds of cigarette smoke would come wafting through my old-fashioned office letter-box." They worked well together, O'Donnell believed. "We enjoyed and respected each other's contribution and worked together in the greatest harmony." Then in 1970, in the midst of their 18th Modesty story together, the great Jim Holdaway died. Struck down by a wholly unexpected heart attack at the youthful age of 43. Fifteen years after Holdaway's death, O'Donnell would write: "Jim Holdaway was a small man with a gentle manner, an immense talent, and a lovely sense of humor. I still miss him."
The Standard editors held try-outs for a replacement, and they and O'Donnell finally settled on a Spaniard, Enrique Badia-Romero. Thereafter, the production of the strip was conducted mostly by mail, which made a detour at the Standard offices for O'Donnell's scripts to be translated into Spanish. All 95 of the Modesty Blaise stories (and the 12 back-story strips about Modesty's refugee life) have been reprinted in one place or another. Titan Books in England published 23 stories in eight 9x11" paperbacks which present the highest quality reprints, nearly pristine reproduction of every line no matter how fragile. Ken Pierce of Illinois published another 21 stories (only three of which duplicate Titan's) in eight 7x10" paperbacks. The quality here, too, is virtually perfect but the strips are smaller than in the Titan volumes. All of Holdaway's work can be found in either Titan or Pierce. The rest of the canon has been published by Comics Revue, sometimes in special Modesty Blaise issues that contain whole stories, sometimes serialized in the regular monthly magazine. (Subscriptions are $45 for 12 issues at Manuscript Press, P.O. 336, Mountain Home, TN 37684; your genial editor/publisher is Rick Norwood, who has been doing this for 227 issues, the most recent of which just arrived here last week.) The quality of reproduction in Comics Revue is very uneven-due, doubtless, to the source material, which, apparently, is not always printer's proofs. The volume at hand may be the ninth from Titan (or, perhaps, it's a reissue of one of the earlier volumes), and in one respect, it is the least successful. The second story, "The Vikings," is very badly reproduced, an extraordinary lapse in the Titan oeuvre-probably, as with some of the Comics Revue material, the result of having only poor quality reproduction proofs available. The other two stories, however-indeed, all of the content of the other Titan books (and at least four other titles are listed at the Titan website, www.titanbooks.com)-are reprinted with high fidelity to the artwork, reproducing Holdaway's filagree delineations as exactly as can be desired. Among the treasures in the tome is the try-out Sunday strip Al Williamson produced in the 1960s; alas, not large enough or well-reproduced enough to display Williamson's great skill, but a historical oddity withal. Modesty Blaise never appeared on Sundays. The book also includes chapter introductions by O'Donnell and begins with the third part of a long interview with him. (The interview was conducted after he retired from the strip, but the strips reprinted are from relatively early in the canon, which leads me to think this volume is a re-issue of an early production, up-dated with the O'Donnell interview; but I can't say for sure. And Titan website, alas, is no help.) In the interview, O'Donnell discusses the motion picture "Modesty Blaise," an annoying effort starring Monica Vitti, a blonde (Modesty is dark-haired) who didn't speak English (her dialogue was dubbed in the film). In his opening remarks, Mike Paterson says the movie was "too competent to be genuinely awful," but O'Donnell says, "It makes my nose bleed just to think of it." In the interview conducted by Nick Jones, O'Donnell says that much of the difficulty with the movie (and with subsequent attempts to spin-off the strip into other media) stems from the misconception that Modesty is "a female James Bond." She's not that, he says. Nor is she, her strength of character notwithstanding, a feminist: "She is not a bra-burning feminist or anything. She is above all an individual-'I'm me, I'm what I am.' She's not proud of it and she's not ashamed of it; she is just herself. She is what life has made her. She has a lot of compassion." The strip is still in international syndication, and O'Donnell is still working with various and sundry on plans to bring his heroine to the screen.
He's worked up at least one screenplay adapting his novel, A Taste for Death, but he also toyed briefly with the idea of doing Silver Mistress "because it's got one scene in it where Modesty is in a vast underground cave fighting the invincible Mr. Sexton, and she's starkers! [naked] I mean, it would be an iconic scene and, just thinking from a commercial point of view, it would fill the trade magazines for weeks before its release with this one scene. But it's a good story anyway. ..." In 2003, a sort of prequel Modesty movie appeared, "My Name Is Modesty," with Alexandra Staden in the title role. O'Donnell is listed as "creative consultant," but I can't think he had a terribly active role. I enjoyed the movie, but I'd say you must be a Modesty fan like I am to like it. And even then, you probably won't rave about it. Although billed as an action flick, it's scarcely that. It's more a psychological sparring match. It all takes place in the casino where Modesty found work soon after coming to maturity. There, in O'Donnell's mythology, she learned the crime business and, after leaving the casino, formed the Network, her own international crime ring. In the movie, the owner of the casino is killed by a vengeful thug, who then demands that Modesty open the casino safe. She declines on various pretexts, and the two wind up playing roulette with the hostage casino employees as the winnings. As she spins the wheel, Modesty amuses her captor with the story of her life-a orphan refugee after World War II, she survived by her wits until taken in hand by an itinerant professor, Lob, who teaches her all he knows, turning her into a cultivated lady. This is O'Donnell's origin story for Modesty, and it's done fairly faithfully. At the end of her story, Modesty fights the thug and, eventually, knocks him off a balcony onto the roulette wheel, where he dies. Staden has the face for the part but not the body: she's beautiful but quite thin, scarcely athletic-looking enough for the sorts of physical exertions Modesty performs with ease. Staden, as one viewer said, can look "dangerous, mysterious and intriguing"; but she's not convincing as a kick boxer. My choice for Modesty would be Seela Ward. She may not be quite lithe enough, but her face could certainly convey all the menace and charm of O'Donnell's heroine. Willie Garvin, who is, as O'Donnell has said, "half" of the concept that Modesty is the other half of, makes no appearance here; it's too early in Modesty's history for him. (Now there's a story that would make a good flick-Modesty's rescuing Willie from the prison where he was being held.) This movie was made, I gather, as a precursor for some other Modesty undertaking, and when that didn't materialize, this one went straight to video. I can't think the average action-flick fan would enjoy it: too little action, for one thing; and the entire production is quite obviously "the first in a series," this one laying the foundation for sequels galore. As foundation, it's fine; but as a stand-alone action movie, it leaves much to be desired. It's all "back story" and not enough front story to justify the time you spend watching it. Staden is easily the best thing in the film, but, good as she is, she's not quite enough for Modesty.
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