Opus 221 (April 13, 2008). The Big News this time: Superman becomes a free agent, Pulitzer winners announced, and Mark Evanier’s Jack Kirby book is out. We review the latter and also discuss the pros and cons of animated editorial cartoons being candidates for the Pulitzer. Here’s what’s here, in order, by department:
NOUS R US
Siegel heirs get half of Superman, NCS announces Reuben “division” finalists, Disney and Stan Lee, Flare goes into newspaper comics, top 20 bestseller graphic novels, Beetle gets Checkered, more Islamist Hooliganism
Pulitzer Winner Announced
Animated Editoons Discussed
MARK EVANIER’S JACK KIRBY
Long awaited tome and well worth the wait
COMIC STRIP WATCH
Brad gets kissed
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE
First issues reviewed: RASL, Echo, Kick-Ass, Logan, Comic Book Comics, & FX
John Byrne in Modern Masters from TwoMorrows
Only Passin’ Through
And our customary reminder: don’t forget to activate the “Bathroom Button” by clicking on the “print friendly version” so you can print off a copy of just this lengthy installment for reading later, at your leisure while enthroned. Without further adieu—
NOUS R US
All the News That Gives Us Fits
RULED “A FREE AGENT”
When I first read Okamoto’s report, I noticed that she said, erroneously it appears, that the ruling was made on April 1, and I hesitated to spring into a happy dance because the dubious date could may make fools of us all. Okamoto’s report (http://www.metnews.com/articles/2008/supe040208.htm) seems much too detailed to be a mere prank, but still I temporized in writing the first draft of this report. Subsequently, Beard’s article appeared online, and I read a similar announcement in Entertainment Weekly for April 11. Superman’s fate, in short, is not a fictitious stunt but a genuine liberation.
Abetting my initial confusion, however, was another report filed on the same day as Okamoto’s. This one, by Lore Sjoberg at wired.com, claimed that “after decades of legal wrangling among DC Comics and the estates of Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, a judge ruled that he would simply release the Man of Steel from any and all agreements, making him the first free agent in the high-stakes world of comic book superheroes.” Superman was quoted in the piece, saying he was "pleased" with the ruling. "Frankly, all this legal nonsense was just giving me headaches," said Superman, his deep, resonant voice rattling the shelves even over the speakerphone. "My supermind is as fast as a TRS-80 computer, but even I couldn't keep track of all the rights everyone was claiming.”
The wired.com article continued: “Reactions from other superheroes were mixed. Superman's fellow Justice League member Wonder Woman was nonplussed by the announcement. ‘Good for him,’ said the Amazon princess. ‘But nobody's going to fly in and rescue the rest of us from our contracts. Hell, the only reason DC even publishes my comic is that they don't want to lose my trademark. Girls these days are all reading Magic Sparkle Fighter
or whatever. They could care less about my comics. Would it kill DC
to just let me go?’ Over at DC's main competitor, Marvel
spokesman Stan Lee was
supportive of the decision, but deflected questions of whether Marvel
would consider making its roster of heroes into free agents.
Pretty obviously a spoof.
The Copyright Act of 1976 gives artists and their heirs the right to seek termination of any grants of copyrights executed before January 1, 1978, “regardless of the terms contained in such assignments, provided they meet complex requirements.” In rendering his decision, Larson reportedly wrote that “it is difficult to overstate the intricacies of these [termination] provisions,” and that overcoming the act's formalistic and complex requirements “is a feat accomplished ‘against all odds.’” But, said Larson, Siegel's heirs had accomplished the superimpossible.
Warner Communications retains the right to only the image of Superman that appeared in promotional pieces published prior to the debut of Action Comics No. 1, in which the character was formally introduced—an image, Larson noted, that reproduced a portion of the comic’s cover art depicting a well-muscled character lifting a car over his head but in black-and-white (not the distinctive blue costume) and at such a reduced scale that it was difficult to see. “What is depicted on the chest of the costume,” he wrote, “is so small and blurred as to not be readily recognizable, at best all that can be seen is some vague marking or symbol its precise contours hard to decipher." In effect, Larson went on, Warner has the right to use only “the image of a person with extraordinary strength who wears a black and white leotard and cape.”
Okamoto’s report doesn’t say much about Warner’s reaction to all this—except that they “maintained the rights to exploit the advertisements for Action Comics' first issue and anticipate that Siegel's heirs will seek reconsideration of that part of the ruling.” I suspect that means Warner hopes the upshot will be that the Siegel heirs will enter into an agreement with Warner that permits the communications giant to continue to publish Superman materials for a “consideration” to be paid to the heirs for the use of their “half” of the icon. Beard said: “Superman will continue to be published by DC Comics—though there will most likely be a hefty settlement” for the Siegel heirs. According to EW, “the court also said Superman stays at Warner until at least 2013—which means, says a studio insider, that neither a “Justice League” film nor a “Returns” Superman sequel should be affected.” Said Beard, in summary: “The character will become public domain in 2033 unless the federal government once again extends the copyright laws.” EW alludes to a “pending appeal,” but no one else does; my guess is that Warner will bit the bullet and forego an appeal.
Larson hasn’t, yet, ruled on the question of how much Warner owes the heirs for its use of the character since April 16, 1999, the effective “termination date” of all the previous agreements. The estate of Superman’s co-creator, Joe Shuster, has also filed termination notices. If successful, and there’s little reason to suppose it won’t be, given the Siegel success, Shuster’s estate will control the “other half” of Superman, beginning in 2013. Larson didn’t rule on which half might be allotted to which heirs—the top half, bottom half, or, in some variant dissection, the left half or the right half. Or the inside or the outside, or—. But, enough. The landmark has been reached, and repercussions may resonate throughout the cartooning kingdoms for generations. Seems a good way to celebrate Superman’s 70th birthday.
And in Cleveland, the city where Siegel and Shuster conceived the character, plans are, at last, afoot to commemorate the anniversary. Beard reports that ideas for a “Summer of Superman” include recognition during the city’s annual Ingenuity festival, a traveling Superman show, and sprucing up the old Siegel home where the two boys conjured up their hero. DC, meanwhile, has announced that a “weighty storyline” is in the offing for Superman, who will star in the publisher’s newest comic book, the weekly Trinity.
At its website, the National Cartoonists Society has posted the nominees for the so-called Reubens “division awards,” plaques given to practitioners of cartooning in various genre. Here they are, “divisions” in bold face: Comic Books—Nick Abadzis (Laika), Bryan Lee O’Malley (Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together), Shaun Tan (The Arrivals); Newspaper Comic Strips—Paul Gilligan (Pooch Café), Jim Meddick (Monty), Richard Thompson (Cul de Sac); Newspaper Panel Cartoons—Chad Carpenter (Tundra), Glenn and Gary McCoy (The Flying McCoys), Kieran Meehan (Meehan), a Scot who also does the comic strip A Laywer, A Doctor & A Cop;
Newspaper Illustraton—Drew Friedman, Sean Kelly, Ed Murawinksi; Magazine Gag Cartoons—Benita Epstein, Mort Gerberg, Glenn McCoy; Editorial Cartoons—Gary Brookins, Michael Ramirez, Bill Schorr; Greeting Cards—Gary McCoy, Glenn McCoy, Dave Mowder; Magazine Feature Illustration—Daryll Collins, John Klossner, Tom Richmond; Book Illustration—Nancy Beiman (Prepare to Board), Sandra Boyton (Blue Moo), Jay Stephens (Robots); Television Animation—Sandra Equiha and Jorge Gutierrez (“El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivers”), Stephen Silver (“Kim Possible”), Richard Webber (“Purple and Brown”); Feature Animation—Brad Bird (“Ratatouille”), Sylvain Deboissy (“Surf’s Up”), David Silverman (“The Simpsons Movie”). Nominees for Advertising Illustration haven’t yet been assembled. Nominees are ginned up by individual NCS chapters, each of which is assigned a “division,” usually a different one each year.
You may notice the prevalence of the name “McCoy” in all the foregoing. Nothing new about that: these brothers have become perennial nominees in almost every newspaper cartooning genre, plus magazine gag cartooning, for years. In addition to doing a syndicated panel cartoon together, they collaborate on a daily comic strip, and they each do editorial cartoons and magazine gag cartoons. Neither one sleeps, eats, or procreates; they just cartoon, 24/7. Other oddities: I don’t recognize the names of any of the nominees in the Comic Book division, which makes me think the titles for which they are nominated are those of graphic novels rather than simple comic books of the traditional serial sort—if so, that represents an insult to comic book creators and a slight to graphic novelists, but NCS has yet to figure out “comic books.” When the Society was founded in 1946, comic book creators were deliberately kept at arm’s length because comic books were produced by gangs of creators, not single intelligences (like most comic strips and gag cartoons, the presence of gag writers and drawing assistants notwithstanding). The present confusion about comic books has its origins in that antique prejudice. NCS seems glad that graphic novels have “rescued” the comic book genre from pulp trash limbo—thereby adding luster to “cartooning” in general—but in rejoicing over this advent, the Society persists in treating the comic book like a crazy uncle in the attic instead of recognizing it for the artform that it is, a status NCS has proclaimed for virtually all other cartooning endeavors. Missing this year, by the way, is a “division” for computer animation or web comics, neither of which, I suppose, is an “artform” by the Society’s peculiar definition.
Greeting card creator Sandra Boynton will receive the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Reubens Awards Weekend, May 23-25, which will materialize in New Orleans. As I mentioned last time, Opus 219, the finalists for the Reuben trophy are Dave Coverly (Speed Bump), Dan Piraro (Bizarro), and Al Jaffee (Mad et al). One of them will be named “cartoonist of the year.”
So far, Walt Disney Pictures and Stan Lee’s POW! Entertainment have started three joint projects according to Variety, all films: “Nick Ratchet,” which is being written and directed by Richard LaGravenese (“P.S. I Love You”), appears to be the farthest along with Gerard Butler (“300") set to star as the title character; “Blaze,” written by Gary Goldman (“Next”); and “Tigress,” which is not to be confused with a previously announced Stan Lee project of the same name about a female Conan the Barbarian, by Zoe Green. “Disney is keeping details of the plots of all three projects under wraps.” Although Lee is sometimes referred to as the “writer” of this trio, it is more likely that he just conjured up the character names and personalities and created a concept with the implicit suggestion of a storyline. All three were created expressly for movies, although Lee told Variety that “if they become successful movies, comic book adaptations would be part of a ‘natural progression.’” ... At the forthcoming April 18-20 New York Comic-Con (NYCC), where he will be a Special Guest, Stan Lee will receive the inaugural New York Comics Legend Award, created “to honor New York City’s greatest contributors to comic books and New York life,” saith libraryjournal.com. ... Editor & Publisher tells us that King Features has decided not to continue the newspaper panel cartoon They’ll Do It Every Time. The last one done by Al Scaduto, who died on December 8, 2007, ran February 2; see Comic Strip Watch below. Scaduto was the second cartoonist to continue the cartoon after the 1963 death of its originator, Jimmy Hatlo; Scaduto inherited TDIET in1983 at the death of man he was assisting on the feature, Bob Dunn. ... Entertainment Weekly on March 14 offered its candidates for starring roles in the forthcoming motion picture production of “Justice League”: Wonder Woman, Megan Gale; Superman, D.J. Cotrona; Batman, Armie Hammer; Green Lantern, Common. But the magazine also allows as how a “famous face” might take the parts, respectively: Anne Hathaway, Jim Sturgess, James McAvoy, and Wentworth Miller. Just guesses, I guess. ... The Australian Cartoonists’ Association held its annual convention last November and named David Rowe, a caricaturist, “cartoonist of the year”; this was his second time earning the designation, and he may be the only one of the 23 winners to have two of the historic trophy, the Stanley statuette. ... DC Comics has produced a special Justice League comic book to assist the Tobacco Free Florida Campaign in Tallahassee in convincing approximately 1.5 million youths, ages 11 to 17, to avoid smoking. At earthtimes.org, we learn that the League’s members “battle cigarette smoke-generating machines and empower youth to avoid the dangers of the deadly habit.”
The Northwest Florida Daily News is adding six strips to its line-up, making room for them by dropping some venerable titles: Cathy, Doonesbury, Non Sequitur, Hagar the Horrible, and Lola and Mallard Fillmore will disappear; Get Fuzzy, Mutts, Cul de Sac, Pickles, and Pearls before Swine will appear, saith Editor & Publisher. ... E&P also notes that Bill Amend’s FoxTrot comic strip turns 20 on April 10; Amend stopped doing the daily strips at the end of 2006 but continues to produce a Sunday strip, which runs in more than 700 papers. Reruns of the daily are published in about 50 papers internationally. ... The monthly newsletter of the Comic Art Professional Society (CAPS) in Los Angeles announced in its April issue, just out, that Flare, a comic book superheroine (who, in her first incarnation years ago, kept falling out of her costume), is making the transition to daily newspapers. Written by Dennis Mallonee and drawn by Tim Burgard and Gordon Purcell, the strip is set to debut May 4, distributed by Publishing Group of America, “a newspaper content provider that has previously specialized in such things as recipes and sudoku puzzles”; Flare is its first comic strip offering—a strip, we are told, “unlike anything else” currently in the funnies. Said Mallonee: “Don’t think Spider-Man. Flare’s emphatically not a ‘superhero’ strip. Rather, think Brenda Starr with superpowers and a sense of humor.”
case you hadn’t noticed, The Comics
Journal has perpetrated another of its
periodic morphs into something else. The last two issues, Nos. 288
and 289, have assumed the form of a paperback book with square spine,
measuring a book-like 7.5x8 inches. This maneuver is doubtless
undertaken to enhance retail bookstore sales of the “magazine,”
and I hope it works: the more income Fantagraphics achieves by this
means, the more money it will have to lavish on things like
publishing my biography of Milton Caniff (which you can read more
about here) and
reprinting all of Peanuts and Pogo, not to mention re-issuing my nefarious
3-volume Cartoons of the Roaring Twenties,
of which only the first two volumes were ever published, in one
massive, civilizing volume. Whatever the marketing advantages, the
aesthetic values of the Journal are now somewhat diminished: illustrative comics art appears, now, in
smaller dimension; ditto the special “comics reprint”
section of the magazine. Too bad, but economic necessities, being
what they are—i.e., necessities—we must bite our tongues
and open our arms in welcome. A playful feature of the new Journal is that its cover title (with accompanying blurbs about the interior
content) appears on a 4x4-inch sticker that you can peel off, leaving
the brilliant artwork beneath pristine in all its glory, in the case
of No. 289, a full-color rendering of a gaggle of superheroes leaping
out of Robert Kirkman’s mouth..
And just to prove such lists as the foregoing amount to nothing except fodder for statistics maniacs, at Entertainment Weekly, the list of the Top Ten graphic novels, as determined (it sez here) by sales at the Comix Experience comics shop in San Francisco (we mentioned this last time, Op. 220), included only one manga graphic novel, Golgo 13, No. 13, for the week February 25-March 3. All the rest, beginning with The Savage Sword of Conan No. 2 at the top of the list, and ending, at the bottom, with Scott Pilgrim No. 4: Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together, and including, in between, such sterling titles as The Fart Party and Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8, No. 1: The Long Way Home as well as Hellblazer: Joyride and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier—all these, as I say, were non-manga titles. EW’s Top Ten Comics for the same week had All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder No. 9 in first place and RASL No. 1 in tenth, with a couple DC Comics in between (Batman No. 674 and JSA No. 13) and most of the rest, Marvels (Captain America No. 35, Daredevil No. 105, Thor No. 6, and X-Men: Legacy, No. 208). So, Alfie—what’s it all about, eh?
Checker Book Publishing Group will release this summer the first in a new reprint series, Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey 1950-52, the first years of the celebrated strip, beginning with its debut in September 1950 and continuing through December 1952. Walker, interviewed last fall by Alan Gardner at his dailycartoonist.com site, listed the cartoonists whose work he admires or inspire him: George McManus (Bringing Up Father), about which Walker said: “The artwork was superb and the characters hilarious”; Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates), “Probably the best story strip ever. I drew a strip called The Limejuicers when I was 15 and used a lot of Caniff’s techniques”; Walter Berndt (Smitty), “I like the brevity and good humor in his gags”; Al Capp (Li’l Abner), “The characters were strong, and Capp’s imagination with the shmoos fascinated me”; Frank Willard (Moon Mullins), “The slapstick humor made my father laugh ’til he cried. I thought, ‘I want to do that.’”; E.C. Segar (Popeye), “I like his fight scenes and used them in my conflicts between Beetle and Sarge”; Frank King (Gasoline Alley), “The warm relationships appealed to me”; Chic Young (Blondie), “His gags and his recurring themes are gimmicks I use”; John Held, Jr. (famed for twenties flappers), “His brevity in drawing style is similar to mine”; and Walt Disney (Mickey Mouse), “I used to draw the Disney cards when I worked for Hallmark [Walker grew up in Kansas City, Hallmark’s hq] and still use the thick and thin ink line he used.”
Another campus newspaper joins the parade of college periodicals in which inflammatory cartoons have set fire to student protest. At issue, according to Genevieve Marshall at the Morning Call, was a St. Patrick's Day cartoon published in the March 18 edition of Lehigh University’s The Brown and White. Entitled ''Map for a Successful St. Patrick's Day,'' the cartoon contained references to drunkenness, brawling, a ''french fry famine,'' and a drawing of a leprechaun and a pot of coins under the words, ''Wake up Jewish and protect your pot of gold.'' The cartoon immediately drew complaints and expressions of outrage for using offensive stereotypes of Irish and Jewish people. In a letter to the student newspaper editor, the president of the university denounced the cartoon. Ironically, in January Lehigh had formed a Council for Equity and Community “after a three-year period in which students pushed hard for the university to develop a strategy to combat intolerance and promote diversity. Two years ago, students organized protests, including a rally and a walk-out on the Bethlehem campus, after which Lehigh brought in a consultant to study how to address problems of prejudice and racism, and help find ways to boost minority enrollment and hiring. The council is an outgrowth of that study. ‘We have work to do at Lehigh to make ours a community where everyone feels respected and valued,’ president Alice Gast wrote. ‘Prejudice and stereotyping should not be tolerated here or anywhere.’” The paper’s editorial board published an apology three days later: “Typically, an editorial cartoon will point out problems with stereotyping. This cartoon failed to do so; instead, it was just offensive.” Federal privacy statutes, a university spokesman said, prevented “revealing whether any disciplinary action was taken against the students.” Freedom of expression is not quite what its cracked up to be on college campuses where political correctitude seems to be the universal major course of study.
In Karachi, Pakistan, however, some 5,000 Islamist Hooligans were free to rampage in the streets, reported abc.net.au/news, protesting the recent reprinting of one of the Danish Dozen and the release, last month in Holland, of Geert Wilders’ film. Entitled “Fitna,” a Koranic term sometimes translated as “strife,” the movie alternates images of the 9/11 attack in the U.S. with quotations from the Koran, shows an image of the Prophet Mohammad primed to explode, and asserts that the increasing Muslim population in Europe threatens democratic values. At about the same time as the abc.net report, a calmly worded plea for intellectual detachment as a means to end the cycle of cartoon-inspired violence was posted on the Web by Noureddine Jebnoun, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. Saying we must “refuse to add fuel to the fire,” Jebnoun attempted to clarify the real issues. “What shocks the average Muslim [about the Danish cartoons] is not the depiction of the Prophet but the existence of the double standard” by which Western nations maintain it is permissible, in the name of freedom of the press, to publish derogatory pictures of Mohammad but it is bad taste to make fun of the blind, homosexuals, or Jews. “We find ourselves faced with a gross oversimplification: a supposed clash of civilizations in which the idea of the inalienable right of freedom of expression and the principle of the unassailable sphere of the sacred confront each other. ... We must recognize that this controversy does not symbolize a conflict between enlightenment and religious principles but that what is needed is for believers and atheists alike to engage in rational discussion.” The “division” is not between the West and Islam but “between those who know how to affirm who they are without blindly attaching themselves to faith or reason and those who let themselves get carried away by absolutes, stereotypes, and hasty conclusions.” Muslims must adopt an attitude of intellectual detachment and eschew “ill-advised radical fervor,” excuses, boycotts, and threats of physical and armed repression. “Muslim citizens are not asking for more censorship; they are simply asking for more respect. ... We should affirm freedom of expression but, at the same time, advocate a sense of restraint as far as its use is concerned.” While I agree in principle, I fear that in practice it would be difficult to be only partially free. But the issue is far from resolved; we’ll hear more. And, here at the Rancid Raves Intergalactic Wurlitzer, we’ll listen, too.
In the May Playboy, Stephen Rebello quotes director Jon Favreau, who says his “Iron Man” movie’s “tone and humor are as smart as its hero.” Due out this summer, the movie stars Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow as Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) and his leading lady. Downey took the whole enterprise very seriously, says Favreau, adding that he and Paltrow “are the strongest aspect of the film because they’re not a traditional love-interest duo. It’s a working relationship, yet there’s a lot of humor, chemistry and subtlety between them.” ... To promote the Golden Gladiator movie and its companion summer blockbuster, the Hulk flick, Marvel has produced a free (that’s right—free!) Iron Man/Hulk Sampler, a 32-page “preview” of the future of the two heroes with enough information about their pasts to enable those new to either, or both, to jump right into the movies and/or the comic books. Now if only someone could devise a way of providing the same sort of orientation in thumbnail for every issue of every Marvel title, we might begin to imagine comic books as a growth industry instead of being a collectors’ niche. ... Incidentally, the selfsame May issue of Hef’s mag spotlights “The Women of Putin’s Russia,” who are, judging from the evidence, all naked with chesticles of a somewhat smaller bore than the bazooka boobs Playboy usually prefers. These women are, in other words, quite normal except for their notable beauteousness. Assuming that Putin picked these ladies to represent his country, I don’t know quite what that means about his foreign policy, but we can tell he’s not a breast man.
Fascinating Footnit. Much of the news retailed in the foregoing segment is culled from articles eventually indexed at http://www.rpi.edu/~bulloj/comxbib.html, the Comics Research Bibliography, maintained by Michael Rhode and John Bullough, which covers comic books, comic strips, animation, caricature, cartoons, bandes dessinees and related topics. It also provides links to numerous other sites that delve deeply into cartooning topics. Three other sites laden with cartooning news and lore are Mark Evanier’s www.povonline.com, Alan Gardner’s www.DailyCartoonist.com, and Tom Spurgeon’s www.comicsreporter.com. And then there’s Mike Rhode’s ComicsDC blog, http://www.comicsdc.blogspot.com For delving into the history of our beloved medium, you can’t go wrong by visiting Allan Holtz’s http://www.strippersguide.blogspot.com, where Allan regularly posts rare findings from his forays into the vast reaches of newspaper microfilm files hither and yon.
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
In Athens, Georgia, earlier this month, Demetrius Robinson, seeking to avoid loitering around the Golden Pantry suspiciously, sat down and filled out a job application while he waited for the store to empty of customers so he could rob it without risk of interference. When everyone left the place, he robbed it. Later, the police called the phone number he’d given on the application form, ascertained his address, and subsequently arrested Robinson.
The latest thing in women’s fashion is apparently getting “fitted professionally for a bra.” Makes you wonder how a person qualifies to become a professional bra fitter.
Deplumbor fragor is Latin for “plumber’s butt,” a notorious condition that becomes apparent to anyone observing a plumber or some other tradesman who must bend over when they work.
And the Voice of the Turtle Is Heard Throughout the Land
April is National Poetry Month. It’s not a particularly poetic month otherwise, so it’s somewhat baffling that the year’s fourth month was chosen for this distinction by the Academy of American Poets. Queried on the matter, a spokesman averred that the choice seemed to follow a sort of lunar logic: “February is Black History Month, and March is Women’s History Month, so April seemed a logical choice.” Next, maybe, but scarcely logical.
But it does bring to mind snatches of poetry. Chaucer opened his Canterbury Tales with: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,” thereby heralding the arrival of spring showers to end the drought of the winter, at which point, everyone makes a pilgrimage to Canterbury. T.S. Elliot thought “April is the cruelest month.” And Robert Browning sighed: “Oh, to be in England, now that April’s there.” But Edna St. Vincent Millay put forward the best: “To what purpose, April, do you return again?”
To what purpose indeed.
Perhaps, although not likely, the answer may be found in the following Zen dialogue:
Dimitri: If Atlas holds up the world, what holds up Atlas?
Tasso: Atlas stands on the back of a turtle.
Dimitri: But what does the turtle stand on?
Tasso: Another turtle.
Dimitri: And what does that turtle stand on?
Tasso: My dear Dimitri, it’s turtles all the way down!
Afflicting the Comfortable and Comforting the Afflicted
—in This Case, Editorial Cartoonists Themselves
The Pulitzers did it again. Almost. They considered, as one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Cartooning, a comic strip—to wit, Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean, for its sequence last fall about the death of Lisa Moore from breast cancer (recounted here, in Opus 211). The Pulitzers came to their senses at the last minute, however, and awarded the $10,000 prize to one of the other two finalists, Michael Ramirez of Investor’s Business Daily, who had already, just a few weeks ago, collected the Fischetti prize of $3,000; and he came in third in the Headliner Awards from the Press Club of Atlantic City, a competition won by Mike Peters of the Dayton Daily News, seconded by Mike Luckovich at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Ramirez was also a runner-up in the Scripps Howard Foundation’s contest, which was won by Steve Kelley of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans; the other runner-up was Mike Lester of the Rome News-Tribune in Georgia. Conservatively bent editoonists, of which there are precious few, took heart at Ramirez’s winning the Pultizer, believing him to be one of their ilk. And, indeed, so he seems, to me, to be. But Ramirez would dispute it: “An editorial cartoon is neither conservative nor liberal,” he said in accepting the Fischetti. “Whether you agree with it philosophically or not, a good editorial cartoon engages the reader in debate.” Whether we agree with Ramirez or not, no political cartoonist with a conservative reputation has won a Pulitzer since 1994, the last time Ramirez won it.
Ramirez, you may remember, was dismissed from the Los Angeles Times in the fall of 2005 in what was described as a cost-cutting measure. He had been the Times’ staff editorial cartoonist since 1997, when his predecessor, Paul Conrad, a three-time Pulitzer winner, retired (more-or-less—although he still produces a few cartoons a week). Ramirez began his editooning career in 1982 at the Newport Ensign in Newport Beach, leaving there in 1989 for a position with the Daily Sun Post in San Clemente, then, a year later, for Memphis and the Commercial Appeal. Moving to L.A. from the Memphis, Ramirez has been one of the most effective and hard-hitting conservative political cartoonists in the country, producing powerful visual metaphors and telling images, all copiously cross-hatched. In what is undoubtedly the finest of ironies, considering the bottom-line basis for his dismissal from the L.A. Times, Ramirez was almost immediately hired by Investor’s Business Daily, an enterprise that presumably knows how to spend money—and it chose to invest in a staff political cartoonist. Now, two years later, Ramirez is reaping awards, proving that IBD knows whereof it invests.
speaking to Dave Astor at Editor &
Publisher, said he believes “editorial
cartooning is an extension of journalism, not just entertainment. ...
It’s great to be funny,” he added, “but the most
important element is the message—to have an impact and make
people think. My approach is to have a powerful image along with a
significant statement.” The portfolio of cartoons Ramirez
submitted this year “included ones that commented on the
vagueness of some of Barack Obama’s stands, on the troubled
U.S. economy, on the use of corn to make ethanol rather than as
food.” According to an Associated Press report, Ramirez’s
favorite of the lot was the Obama cartoon in which the candidate
appears as one of the mysterious monolithic statues of Easter Island.
A speech balloon floating above the head of a visiting tourist reads,
“I have no idea what it is but I feel strangely attracted to
it." Said Ramirez: “It was just the perfect metaphor for
him because here you have this mystical statue that's revered by all,
but nobody really knows much
Regardless of how political the impulse of a comic strip—as a storyline or as a single, stand-alone daily installment—its impact derives from a sequence blending pictures and words, accumulating, finally, in the expression of an opinion. Or a joke. A political cartoon, on the other hand, achieves its purpose with a single image, yoked, usually, to words, but not necessarily. The most powerful political cartoon is a visual metaphor, whose image burns an attitude into the brain of the beholder. Lately, editoonists have occasionally resorted to the strip format to convey their opinions—notably, Ted Rall, Tom Tomorrow (aka Dan Perkins), and Chuck Asay. They undeniably make political statements with words and pictures in sequence, and I appreciate, and applaud, the vigor of their statements and, very often, the sentiment, too. But making a political statement alone, by itself, is not political cartooning. If it were, as I’ve indicated over the past several months in Comic Strip Watch, numerous comic strips would qualify for a Pulitzer because, from time to time, they make comments that are essentially political. No, a political cartoon by design as well as tradition is a single image visual metaphor, not an accumulated effect achieved by a sequence of words blending with pictures. Here, by way of persuasive example, are a handful of editoons that achieve their purpose triumphantly through imagery—three of them, as it happens, deploying the same image.
Last year at about this time, the Pulitzers aroused ire among editoonists by awarding the prize to Walt Handelsman, noting that his online animated cartoons, which constituted half of the portfolio he submitted, were what convinced them to nod in his direction. The other two finalists last year, Nick Anderson and Mike Thompson, also submitted animated as well as print cartoons. (This year, none of the finalists had submitted animations.)
Last year was the first that animation in editooning had been recognized, a circumstance brought made possible by a slight change in the criteria for submissions. The rapid advent of Internet journalism as an adjunct of newspaper publishing doubtless prompted the Pulitzers to permit entries in Breaking News Reporting and in Breaking News Photography that “may contain online elements but [they] must also contain material published in the newspaper’s print edition.” The same applies to entries in the editorial cartoon category. “In other words,” as Mark Fiore, a pioneer in animated editorial cartooning, puts it, “they only will accept animation/online cartoons if you also have print material appearing somewhere on newsprint—animation as part of your print entry, not animation as a stand-alone entry.”
The animated submissions last year provoked an adverse response among some of the inky-fingered fraternity. The President of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, Clay Bennett, then at the Christian Science Monitor now at the Chattanooga Times, wrote to discourage the Pulitzers from including animated editorial cartooning: “Most cartoonists seem to think animated cartoons should have their own [separate] award category. The rationale is that comparing print and animated cartoons is like comparing apples and oranges. I agree. It would be like having still photography competing against video footage for the Pulitzer in photography. You won't see that happen, I'm sure. Whether you draw in black and white or color, use tones or only lines to create your drawing, print cartoonists all attempt the same task and face the same challenges and limitations. We all have to express our views in a confined space where any concepts of time, motion or sound have to be achieved visually. In an animated cartoon however, time, motion and sound are the very tools the artist employs, and the cartoon's space is only as limited as the cinematographer wants it to be. It's only fair to judge these two styles of cartooning separately.
he concluded, “should animated cartoons be included in the
Pulitzers at all? I say no. The Pulitzer Prize was established to
honor published journalism. In fact, this year's award in editorial
cartooning was the first Pulitzer ever awarded for anything audio/visual in nature. If you create a category for animated
cartoons, then what's the rationale for keeping television news from
entering the fray?”
Later, I asked Fiore to elaborate, and he did, explaining first that he’d participated in a discussion with other editorial cartoonists and officials of the Herblock Foundation at last year’s AAEC meeting in Washington, D.C. It was “a boisterous, lively exchange,” he said, and then continued: “Accepting animation entries in traditionally print political cartoon contests will not kill traditional print political cartoons. (The Robert F. Kennedy Award recognized my animation one year, amidst all the other print entries, and the world did not end.) My preference was to lump animation, single panel, multi-panel, humorous, somber, wordy, sparse and comic strip political cartoons all in the same category. If it's a cartoon and it's political, throw it in there.
“That said,” he went on, “I'm no longer opposed to a separate category for animation, if people are really worried that including animation will undermine traditional print cartoons. (Are these the same people that freak out when Berke Breathed or Gary Trudeau win the Pulitzer?) In the Herblock meeting I mentioned, one of the revelations I had (thanks in part to Clay's wonderfully spirited high-decibel analysis), is that a separate category for animation may in fact bring more animators to the world of political cartooning. My main objective is to include animated political cartoons in the various journalism and cartoon awards. If they're all in one pot, great. If they're separate categories, okay, that can be good as well. An example of how not to do things can be found in the Pulitzer Prizes' meanderings when it comes to animation and online material. They seem to have found an unhappy medium with no separate category for animation, no animation allowed to be submitted as a stand-alone entry in the cartooning category—yet they trumpet animation as a component of a print entry. Methinks they're confused.”
He concluded: “While Walt Handlesman has done great work and is a deserving winner,
the Pulitzers relegate animation to hobby status by only looking at animation if it accompanies a traditional print entry. They should either accept animation or not accept animation, period.”
Writing in the 2008 Edition of Daryl Cagle’s Best Political Cartoons of the Year, Scott Stantis at the Birmingham News took exception to the Pulitzers’ description of Handelsman’s winning entries—“his stark, sophisticated cartoons and his impressive use of zany animation.” “Zany?” snorted Stantis. “Is that a quality journalists should aspire to?” He continued: “Let’s put it this way: giving the Pulitzer Prize for an animated cartoon is like awarding it for best novel to Doctor Zhivago starring Omar Sharif. It’s just not the same thing. ... And what’s next? The Family Guy gets a Pulitzer? The Simpsons? American Dad? The Jib-Jab guys? They are animated, have political content, and are posted online. With the rules shifting and morphing without warning, they may all be eligible some day. So don’t be surprised some time if you see Scooby Doo accepting the highest honor in journalism. Now, that would be zany.”
Although animated editorial cartoons seem to be fresh faces on the tube, they’ve been around before. According to AAEC’s perennial secretary and passionate historian, V. Cullum Rogers, Canadian editoonist Duncan Macpherson in 1983 had devised a way of filming his cartoon as he drew it so it appeared on the screen as a drawing that drew itself, line by line. But it wasn’t, strictly speaking, animation. John Chase in New Orleans may have been the first editoonist to give his cartoons movement. In 1964, soon after the new medium of television threatened journalism, a local tv channel broadcast Chase’s editorial cartoons, but the animation was limited in the severest sense: a static rendering appeared first, then an overlay was added, changing the picture slightly to make Chase’s point. Cullum also cited “Hell-bent for Election,” a 1944 effort that provided traditional editorial cartoon commentary in full animation. In was, however, a one-shot enterprise.
Also in the 1940s, the Nazis produced animated propaganda cartoons, which, because they espoused an opinion, might be termed “political cartoons.” (One comment that this intelligence elicited on the AAEC-List was that the Nazi model might not be so far-fetched as an indication of a direction to pursue: if editorial cartoons are to continue, perhaps they need to be affiliated with commercial enterprise, as a sales tool posing as entertainment—like propaganda.) I piped up with a Rube Goldberg invention. He produced an animated feature called “The Boob Weekly,” a spoof of the news of the day (some of which, Rube doubtless concocted himself). The first one was screened May 7, 1916, and a new one appeared every week at the Strand Theater in New York, seven-and-a-half minutes each. Rube was also cartooning at the time for the Evening Mail, a daily newspaper, so he was doing lots of drawing. By 1917, he was exhausted (saith Peter Marzio in his 1973 biography Rube Goldberg: His Life and Times) and called it quits.
Goldberg has a competitor these days in Mike Thompson at the Detroit Free Press. In addition to producing 5-6 print cartoons every week, most of them in color, he also does animation—which he devises during evenings, at home. Much of the animation is very short “and pegged to breaking news,” writes Dave Astor in Editor & Publisher magazine for February 2008. He quotes Thompson: “I love creating longer animations, but if you’re working for a news organization, the value of any new technology is how it helps you cover timely events” on a timely basis.” Said Astor: “Roughly half of the approximately 25 animations Thompson created last year were short efforts done so quickly—within hours—that they appeared on Freep.com the following day.” Thompson admits that the short animations are not as polished as his longer efforts, explaining: “There’s a trade-off between timeliness and quality.” But animated cartoons that are timely suit the current trend of newspapers’ emphasizing their online editions. “Cartoonists need to remain relevant in today’s brave new world,” Thompson told Astor. “Five years from now, if there are any editorial cartooning jobs left, much of the way we’ll be judged is by the Web hits we get. Every day will be like sweeps week.”
A horrifying thought—sensation-grubbing 24/7 news media everywhere you look. But probably an accurate prediction of the future of daily journalism and editorial cartooning. All the more reason, then, that the Pulitzers should recognize animated editorial cartooning. But not in the same traditional category as print cartooning; the two are different media of the same genre, and they ought to be treated, and judged, as the independent artistically creative journalistic efforts that they are. Clay Bennett makes an additional key point: “By creating a separate category for animated cartoons, it would actually be best for all concerned. It would still honor the best in print, plus the best animated cartoon. In fact, it would do more to encourage others to get into animation than to judge both forms together. Currently, an editorial animator will win these awards only occasionally. By giving animation its own award, you assure that the best work being produced is regularly honored.”
The Pulitzers should follow its own model: news reporting is not one category of journalistic endeavor, so the Pulitzers are awarded for various kinds of reporting—breaking news, investigative, etc. By the same token, cartooning should be subdivided—print editorial cartoons, animated editorial cartoons, and comic strip cartoons in which political and social commentary is the chief focus, like Candorville and Doonesbury, for example. Even the non-comic strip Mallard Fillmore. And as newspaper comics sections become edgier and edgier with political humor, the comic strip category will recognize an emerging subgenre of the artform.
The National Cartoonists Society could also burnish up its categories to recognize new developments in cartooning. As I’ve mentioned, NCS still hasn’t the professional acumen to see that comic books are a separate but worthy artistic variety of cartooning. Seeking, as always, cultural status, NCS gives awards in its comic book division to graphic novels, not comic books, because graphic novels are the status symbols of paginated cartooning. The Society is disastrously slow in recognizing that comic books and graphic novels are different—just as it was shamefully slow in recognizing comic books at all. And NCS has less excuse for its dereliction than the Pulitzers: NCS membership consists entirely of specialists in the field, cartoonists, while the Pulitzers—the ones who create the entry categories—are not cartoonists but journalists, who cannot be expected to be very perceptive about such an alien life form as a cartoon, whatever its manifestation. The panel that picks the Pulitzer-winning cartoonist includes representation from the cartooning profession, but that representation does not, apparently, extend to the higher levels of the Columbian universe where the categories of journalistic enterprise and their entry criteria are devised. Maybe someday that’ll change, both at the Pulitzers and in NCS.
Editor & Publisher cites an article in Media Reports that lists the reasons newspapers are getting rid of staff editorial cartoonists: (1) fewer two-newspaper cities eliminates all competitive impulse, (2) availability of cartoons through syndicates at a much lower cost than staff salary, and (3) the timidity of some papers that want to avoid the kind of controversy that often arises after a cartoon on a local issue or personality is published.
“Newspapers are getting rid of cartoonists at an alarming rate. They’re trying to make themselves as irrelevant to readers as possible. The first thing a human being recognizes is visuals. Children can recognize images before they can read the written word. The very first person you should be hiring when you start a newspaper is a cartoonist.”—Milt Priggee
Editoonist Kevin (Kal) Kallaugher, who lost his staff position at the Baltimore Sun in 2005 about the same time Michael Ramirez was shoved out the door at the Los Angeles Times, has continued cartooning for the British Economist magazine, to which he has contributed regularly for thirty years as of the first week in April. To celebrate the achievement, Kal says the magazine is staging a variety of events throughout the year, the first, an audio slide show that’s posted on its website, http://audiovideo.economist.com//?fr_story=f0f1ab4be673b029468533790f13046178fb9a5
At his massive editorial cartoon website where he offers to rent the work of other political cartoonists in his syndicate, Daryl Cagle periodically paws through his records to see who is selling best. When he posted the Top Ten earlier this month, he found his own name at the top of the list. “My own name in the top spot is an aberration,” he explained, “because this is my own site and I'm [therefore] probably the most recognizable name on the list.” The rest of the list, in descending order: Eric Allie, Pat Bagley, Brian Fairrington, Monte Wolverton, Andy Singer, Matt Bors, Shannon Wheeler, Chuck Asay, and Kirk Anderson. “The most interesting change,” said Cagle, “is Kirk Anderson's climb to number 10 on the list—since Kirk hasn't submitted a new cartoon for four months! Maybe this just shows that Kirk has fans who are frustrated by his hiatus. I e-mailed Kirk and asked him what's happening with his 'toon drought,’ and he tells me he will be drawing more and wants to keep his stale slot on the site, so I share the frustration of our readers. That Kirk can gather hundreds of new subscribers while he draws no new cartoons is truly amazing.” (Well, not so amazing to those of us who admire his distinctive style and just like looking at it.) “The other newcomer to the newsletter Top Ten,” Cagle continued, “is Christian-conservative cartoonist Chuck Asay, who draws in a multi-panel format. I remain impressed with the popularity of altie cartoonists Matt Bors, Shannon Wheeler and Andy Singer. These are alternative cartoonists who don't get a lot of ink in mainstream, daily newspapers and it is instructive to me to see their popularity on our site over many of the stars of traditional editorial cartooning.”
FARRAGO OF PERSIFLAGE AND BADINAGE
“You can take a horse to water but a pencil must be lead.”—Stan Laurel
“Things are more like they are now then they ever were.”—Dwight David Eisenhower; and all this time, we thought George W. (“Warlord”) Bush was the champion White House mangler of the language.
“Opinion is that exercise of the human will which helps us to make a decision without information.”—John Erskine
MARK EVANIER’S JACK KIRBY
The long-promised book about Jack Kirby has, at last, arrived. My friend Mark Evanier has been promising this tome for years, and now, it’s here: Jack Kirby: King of Comics (224 9x12-inch pages, hardback; Abrams, $40), with an Introduction by Neil Gaiman and gatefold art by Alex Ross. It’s a big book. That’s the least you can say about it. And perhaps the most. And probably all that’s necessary when you contemplate all the variant meanings of “big.” The ample page dimensions permit reproduction of Kirby art at a size intimating that of the original art; and lots of the reproductions are from original art (or nearly)—including the famed 10-page autobiographical “Street Code” about life in the streets of New York’s Lower East Side where Kirby grew up, all rendered with Kirby’s memorably penciled raw power. The number of pages allow for lots of Kirby art, from his teenage pen portraits of celebrities of the day—Henry Ford, Joan Crawford, Joe Louis—to color collages made for his own amusement and storyboards and model drawings from his last years, spent in animation. And a generous helping from the thousands of pages of comic book art Kirby produced in the decades in between—Captain America for Timely (cum Atlas, cum Marvel) and the Newsboy Legion and the Boy Commandos for DC, and covers for Black Magic, Foxhole, Young Romance, Boys’ Ranch, Fighting American (an entire story, from original art), the Marvel Universe and the Fourth World. But it’s Evanier’s text that makes the book the biggest: the words give the book its essential content, its emotion. Its heart. And in a way, Mark’s book is all heart, and that’s why it’s a genuinely big book. And that is also why saying it’s a big book is saying the most you can say about it in the fewest words.
I wish there were more Boys’ Ranch art in the book. It’s always seemed to me that Kirby’s distinctive clotted line with trap-shadow shading achieved its apotheosis in Boys’ Ranch. The short-lived series was a favorite of my youth—and of my dotage, still. The only time I encountered Jack Kirby in person was at the San Diego Comic-Con in the early 1990s. I went up to him and introduced myself, saying: “You can probably tell from looking at me that I read Boys’ Ranch, issue by issue, as it came onto the newsstand back in the fifties.” Kirby grinned. “Yes,” he said, “I can tell.” I told him I loved Boys’ Ranch. And he said he did, too. Nothing definitive or epoch-making in what either of us said. And that’s the whole story of my in-person engagement with Kirby.
More than any other figure in comic book history except Superman, Kirby invigorated the medium in its infancy. And then, as the industry seemed about to expire twenty years later, he re-invigorated it. Kirby’s first cartooning was in animation as an in-betweener, after which, he produced a complete array of newspaper cartoons for a bush league syndicate and then worked in a comic book art “shop” before meeting Joe Simon in 1939. The two began working together—Kirby penciling, Simon inking. Thereafter, Kirby seldom inked his work: “If I ink it,” he said once, “I would be drawing that picture all over again for no reason at all.” Soon the partnership was operating as a stand-alone enterprise with Simon as the business manager and salesman and Kirby as the production department. Together, they concocted, produced, and sold some of the most celebrated comic book features—Captain America, Boy Commandos, Newsboy Legion, Boys’ Ranch, Fighting American, and Sandman (to name, again, a few). With Captain America in late 1940, Kirby set the pace for superhero comic books: to the action sequences, he applied the concept of continuity of movement that he’d absorbed as an in-betweener, and his figures moved with exaggerated realism—acting and reacting, often moving outside the panel borders—and the page layout varied to accommodate this ferocious activity. His technique widely imitated, Kirby went on (after a stint in the army during World War II) with Simon to invent romance comics. The duo separated in the 1950s, and Kirby created the Challengers of the Unknown at DC Comics and then went to work at Marvel Comics with Stan Lee. With Lee supplying plot ideas and scripting the action, Kirby produced in 1960 the Fantastic Four (another of his hero group inventions), the Hulk, and Thor. These characters and the Lee-Steve Ditko creations Spider-Man and Dr. Strange attracted an older readership, and with that, the comic book industry, flagging under the self-censorship regimen that had been introduced in 1954, revived, brought to life a second time by the enormous creative energy of Jack Kirby, who, by the end of his career, was aptly dubbed “King of Comics.”
Actually, as Evanier shows, Kirby was called King of Comics much earlier in his career. But it was a joke then. By the end of his career, it was no longer a joke: it was a fact. Still is.
Calling this volume a “book about Jack Kirby,” as I did a couple paragraphs ago, is not as casual a christening as you might suppose. There’s biography in the book, but it isn’t, strictly speaking, a biography: too much of Kirby’s life, his domestic hours, for instance, is left out, and there’s too little about the historic creation of Captain America. There’s history in the book, but it isn’t, strictly speaking, a history: Evanier is a little too off-hand about dates. Writing about Martin Goodman’s sale of Marvel Comics, Evanier reports, “Then one day, Goodman sold his company.” Probably around 1968, but Evanier doesn’t supply much specificity. (On the other hand, he gives us the exact date—December 20, 1940—that the first issue of Captain America hit the newsstands.) There’s analytical appreciation of Kirby’s artistry in the book, but it isn’t, strictly speaking, an analysis of Kirby’s creative enterprise or its product. The book is not so much a biography or history or analysis as it is some of each of those things, disguised as a story, with the story taking precedence over biography, history, and analysis. And Mark Evanier is a superb storyteller. What the book may lack in dating precision it makes up for with enthusiasm, affection, reverence, and good humor—the best ingredients of a good story.
Writing in that relaxed, headlong, familiar conversational manner of his, Evanier brings us in, sits us down at the nearest bierstube (more for the convenience of his guests than himself), and tells us the story of Jack Kirby, the man for whom, as a teenager, Evanier worked as a sort of office assistant, beginning in about 1970. “I felt about as useful as a RadioShack in Amish Country,” Evanier confesses. But he got to know Kirby pretty well. Being of a curious turn of mind, Evanier got Kirby to tell him about his career, his cohorts, his adventures with the great and the grating, with Joe Simon and Victor Fox. It was Fox who is responsible for the King of Comics tag, but in Fox’s mind, it was he, not Kirby, who was monarch of all he surveyed. These anecdotes and other fragments of comics history and Kirby lore, Evanier collected through thirty years of active engagement in the profession, and in this book, he has strung them together in more-or-less chronological order, his storytelling instincts giving every incident a beginning, a middle, and an end, often a punchline. The story rolls cheerily along—“and then and then and then”—passing familiar landmarks, giving them fresh nuances, and peeking into overlooked crannies, correcting errors or clarifying long-standing vagaries. It’s the story of a guy with a talent and a compulsion and how he became a legend. Jack Kirby’s talent was drawing; his compulsion was to make enough money at it to feed himself and his family—first, his mother and father and brother; then his wife and children.
Among the myths debunked herein is the one about Kirby’s arrival at DC Comics in early 1970, when he is reputed to have said, “Give me your worst-selling book and I’ll make it your best-selling book.” That’s not what he said; and Jimmy Olson, the book he took, was not, Evanier assures us, DC’s worst-selling title. Kirby was invited to pick any title he wanted and do what liked with it, but, says Evanier, “Jack was never comfortable taking over someone else’s characters, displacing another voice with his own. DC insisted, so he said, ‘Give me whatever book doesn’t currently have someone assigned to it.’ He hated the thought of kicking a fellow professional off an assignment, especially if the guy’s income might suffer for it.”
Evanier also gives us Kirby’s version of the invention of the Fantastic Four, Thor, Spider-Man, and the Silver Surfer. The latter began with one of Stan Lee’s apparently typical plot directions for the Fantastic Four: “Have them fight God.” With that for a starter, Kirby created Galactus and the Silver Surfer, perhaps the most potently symbolic of superheroes—herald of doom, savior of the human race. Lee has always seemed to me inordinately proud of “his” creation of the Surfer, but Evanier quotes him effectively acknowledging that Kirby was the creator: “The thing [the pencilled story] came back and I could hardly wait to start writing the copy. All of a sudden, as I’m looking through the drawings, I see this nut on a surfboard flying through the air. And I thought, ‘Jack, this time you’ve gone too far.’”
The great questions about Jack Kirby and his place in the history of comics all revolve around how much he created in the characters he is associated with and the ambiance they infused into the medium. The great characters of Kirby’s first thirty years were all created when he was working with someone else. Joe Simon, then Stan Lee. When I was a mere broth of a boy, hanging around the corner drugstore, picking my nose and waiting for the week’s shipment of comic books to arrive and be displayed, we could conjure up only a handful of names as the creators of the four-color extravaganzas we loved. Bob Kane. Will Eisner. And two teams: Severin and Elder, and Simon and Kirby. Oh, and Walter Lantz, Walt Disney, and Leon Schlesinger—the names on the covers (none of whom had anything to do with the interiors). But around Simon and Kirby a magical nimbus glowed. And, later, around Severin and Elder, but theirs was a few watts lower in brilliance and fewer decibels in resonance: they didn’t create any icons on the landscape of American comics. Simon and Kirby did.
How much of Captain America did Kirby create? Simon? How much of the Newsboy Legion, Boy Commandos, Sandman, Stuntman, and so on. As a matter of tradition as well as fact, we know Kirby’s forte, and his preference, was to pencil the art; he didn’t like to ink his own work. But Simon didn’t mind inking. So at first—until their workload increased so much that other artists were drafted to help, which happened fairly soon—Kirby penciled, and Simon inked. Simon also wrote their earliest collaborations, but before long, Kirby was adding to Simon’s plots some embellishments of his own. Acknowledging all of that has never been quite enough to satisfy me, but that’s about as close as we’re likely to get to knowing, for sure, who “created” the characters for which Simon and Kirby are renowned.
In recent years, Simon unearthed his sketch of Captain America, claiming it was the first to display the character in his full red, white and blue regalia. But Kirby told Evanier that he was involved in conceiving the character and his costume from the start. Evanier gives Kirby the final word: “We both did everything,” Kirby told him. Kirby liked and admired Simon; theirs was a amicable partnership brimming with mutual admiration. And Kirby’s version of how they divided up the work reflects both the facts of their relationship and his affection for his partner: he would say nothing that would diminish Simon’s reputation. But Kirby didn’t feel the same way about Stan Lee.
Part of Kirby’s unhappiness with Lee is rooted in Martin Goodman’s treatment of Simon and Kirby as creators of Captain America. Kirby always felt Goodman swindled them out of their financial due. And when Kirby returned, without Simon, to the Goodman empire in the late fifties, he worked with Lee, who was a nice enough fellow, but he was often in the position of implementing Goodman’s skinflint policies. Kirby didn’t like working there particularly, but at the time, it was the only place he could make a living drawing comics. Then when the Marvel Universe began to take flight, the public notice afforded the phenomenon in the mainstream press always trumpeted Lee and ignored Kirby. Partly, that was because Kirby worked at home, and Lee was in the office, conveniently accessible to reporters.
On paper and in theory, the creative partnership of Kirby and Lee was a fairly straight-forward matter. Concocting a story, the two discussed plot together, then Kirby went off and drew it; after he delivered the penciled art, Lee wrote the captions and speech balloons. Lately, Lee has been careful, when interviewed, to give ample credit for his creations to the artists he worked with. At some earlier time, though, as if he wanted a bigger share of the credit himself, he claimed that he wrote plot precis for his artists. A written script for the first Fantastic Four exists, but Kirby disavowed it, implying that it came along much after the fact. In other words, the simple theoretical explanation of their collaboration was complicated in practice until it is no longer entirely comprehensible. I go into their working relationship in tedious detail in “What Jack Kirby Did” (now available in our Hindsight department); here, for the time being, I’m going to stop after referring you to the recently published Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure.
The “lost adventure” is a 1970 story that Kirby turned in for FF No. 102 (cover-dated September), completely penciled with marginal notations indicating what the characters were saying. According to John Morrow, who reconstructed the original Kirby story for The Lost Adventure, Lee, looking over Kirby’s pages, felt the story wasn’t “dialogueable” and put the artwork aside, using instead the story Kirby had done for No. 103. Parts of Kirby’s art for No. 102 were subsequently used in FF No. 108, published in 1971 (cover-dated March), after Kirby had resigned from Marvel and had gone to work at DC. For the publication of The Lost Adventure, Lee tackled the task he had said, 38 years ago, was impossible: he scripted the story as Kirby had originally penciled it. Then Joe Sinnott, Kirby’s long-time inker at Marvel, inked it. That story is the first of three published in The Lost Adventure; the third in the book is the story as it appeared in FF No. 108. The second published story here is made up of Kirby’s penciled artwork (which was rescued from Marvel’s vaults some years ago by Mitch Itkowitz, an art dealer who returned the art to Kirby), which Morrow has pieced together with panels from the version of No. 108 inserted wherever Kirby’s penciled panels are missing. Morrow also had Kirby’s penciled dialogue in the margins set in type at the top of every page so you can read the complete story as Kirby intended it. The book with its three stories is an intriguing and unprecedented publication: you can see the story as Kirby created it and in both of its published manifestations. More to the point of our present digression, you can see in Kirby’s pencils what Lee saw in 1970 when Kirby turned in the tale. Assuming that Lee had supplied some sort of plot to Kirby to start with, he now (that is, in 1970 when he first saw Kirby’s interpretation of his plot) could no longer see his plot in what Kirby had produced. This circumstance reveals much about how the two worked together: it substantiates what Kirby always maintained—that even when he worked from plot ideas suggested by Lee, or from plots the two had drummed up together in conference, the stories as he developed them were more likely to be his than Lee’s. In this instance, Lee couldn’t even recognize the story he may have suggested; so he couldn’t dialogue it. Or maybe he didn’t supply a plot for this one at all; it may be entirely the figment of Kirby’s imagination.
Morrow, incidentally, has been working with Kirby pencils for years. His company, TwoMorrows, started with his publication of the magazine, The Jack Kirby Collector, which printed articles about Kirby and his art, often illustrated with excellent reproductions of Kirby’s pencils. Morrow is still publishing the Kirby Collector as well as a raft of other titles highly pertinent to the artistry of the comic book—Draw and Write Now! as well as Back Issues and Alter Ego, plus several series of books about individual comic book artists; for these, seen Funnybook Fan Fare below, or visit twomorrows.com.
In Jack Kirby, Evanier rolls through the thickets of contention and counter-claim with aplomb, taking Kirby’s side in all such disputations. Evanier allows that others may not agree, but he is pretty convinced: Kirby was the creative engine that imagined the Marvel Universe. It is a view I share, so I’m happy to see Mark concurring, particularly since he knows the ground better than I. (And if you want to know more about how I arrive at my conviction about Kirby’s role, you can find it elaborated in Hindsight in two places: in the latest addition to the department, the aforementioned “What Jack Kirby Did,” and in “The Making of the Marvel Universe,” dated July 2003. Jim Salicrup, by the way, who worked in the Marvel shop and saw Lee in action, doesn’t agree with me on this issue; we had a long conversation over dinner one time, and neither of us convinced the other.) But it’s the story in Evanier’s Jack Kirby that holds us, not Evanier’s resolutions of disputes—a story laced with happily resolved anecdotes. Like the following.
Evanier tells of a wine-and-cheese soiree to which Kirby and his wife Roz were invited when they lived in California. It was held at a library, and one of the librarians found herself next to Kirby and, making conversation, she asked him if he thought comics mirrored reality. Jack, Evanier reports, said, “No, comics transcend reality.” Evanier finishes the story in his own inimitable way:
The answer startled the librarian, and she said, “If you were to mirror reality, then perhaps others could begin to understand it.”
Jack popped a piece of cheddar into his mouth and fixed her with a stare he’d learned either on the streets of New York or on Omaha Beach during World War II. “Madam,” he said, “when you mirror reality, you see it all backward. When you start transcending it, that’s when you have a real good shot at figuring out what’s going on.” Then he went over to Roz and told her he was ready to leave.
[Your average storyteller would leave it there; but Evanier isn’t average. He finishes the story, giving it reverberations that echo throughout the book:]
Roz drove him home where the Once and Future King sat down in his throne: an old, straightback kitchen chair parked in front of the crummiest old drawing table you ever saw. Then he lit a cigar, sharpened a pencil, and went back to work. At three a.m., he was still in that chair, doing the two most important things in his life—transcending reality and earning a living.
End of quote.
This book has been a long time coming, but it’s worth the wait to get stories like this.
You can see Kirby’s battered drawing table in the book: the end paper in the front prints a large black-and-white photograph of Kirby at work; the end paper at the back is exactly the same scene, this time in color, the battered table front and center. But without Kirby.
For a Gallery of Kirby artwork, visit Hindsight.
GOODNIGHT, SWEET PRINCE
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, a French aviation pioneer and author of a famous book, The Little Prince, about the infallibility of love and the immortality of identity, was shot down in his P-38 Lightning airplane on July 31, 1944. In a new book, a former pilot in Germany’s World War II air force says he may have been the one who downed Saint-Exupery’s plane. “In our youth, at school, we had all read him,” says Horst Rippert. “We loved his books. If I had known, I would not have opened fire.”
If I had known. If only—. ...
Cartoonist Marjane Satrapi, author of the Persepolis books and the movie, raises essentially the same sort of question when she says: “If you understand that a guy [in a war] who is dying is exactly like you, likes to go to the movies, and eat ice cream and make love to his wife and has a mother and children and hopes, etc.—then it becomes much more difficult [to make war on him]. ... Hey! It’s just a matter of human beings, no matter where you come from, all of us, we are human, let’s think about that. Maybe that will be the right question.”
If only—. ...
On April 6 on his bizarrocomic.blogspot.com, Dan Piraro said, “Just heard that actor, racist, and violence advocate Charlton Heston died last night.” That’s a little extreme. Mark Evanier said, “Okay—let’s go pry the gun out of his fingers.” That’s a gag that’s been over a decade waiting to happen. Too easy. I’ve never been a big Charlton Heston fan. All that rampant ruggedness, ready to fall on me and crush me like a grape. (Now that I think of it, though, Heston’d have made a perfect Steve Canyon if a good movie had ever been contemplated for Milton Caniff’s creation.) I understand Heston’s appeal; it just didn’t appeal to me. I saw him in person once.
It was at the annual convention of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists to which Heston had been invited to give the closing banquet speech. The president of AAEC at the time was a conservative editoonist, and Heston, as president of the National Rifle Association, was a highly visible conservative. Most editorial cartoonists, however, are liberal, and in the question-and-answer portion of Heston’s presentation—after he’d self-deprecatingly showed some slides of cartoons of himself caricatured by editoonists as a rabid gunslinger—the liberals came at him, courteously but determinedly. Heston fared pretty well, answering the questions, or responding to them, with good humor but without yielding a single point. At my table, someone suddenly noticed that Heston was using a teleprompter: in front of the lectern at which he was standing was the familiar transparent rectangle on a stand that announces the presence of a teleprompter. Why was he using a teleprompter? He didn’t give a formal speech—just showed slides and then started answering questions.
Until then, none of us had made much of the curtained area just to the right of the podium. I’d noticed the curtains when I came into the banquet room—heavy black drapery enclosing a small area next to the head table—but I’d thought the curtains were there to shield from the audience a platter-prep area in which food was dished up for subsequent service to the tables. Or some such. But now, with our realization that Heston was speaking with the aid of a teleprompter, we immediately, playfully, supposed that there was “a man behind the curtain,” a wizard who was actually furnishing Heston with his facile answers to the more provocative of the questions from the floor. Around the table went the buzz from Oz: who’s the man behind the curtain? Heston, the actor, was clearly just a cardboard cutout, a front man for the real NRA brains who was hidden from sight behind the curtain.
As Heston was politely applauded at the end of his presentation, I got up and went to look behind the curtain. There was no “man behind the curtain”: only two women, each poised at a typewriter. Perhaps one of them—or both?—was the real brains of Charlton Heston.
Then some months later, I read somewhere that Heston was hard of hearing. Suddenly, the curtains and the typists made sense. They weren’t typing Heston’s answers to questions: they were typing the questions, most of which he probably couldn’t hear but they could. That made much better sense that the Wizard of Oz scenario. Heston, after all, was no dummy, the myths about actors notwithstanding. And he’d been a spokesman for NRA for several years by then: nothing we could throw at him would have been new. He was well practiced at the answers he lobbed at us. But he needed help hearing the questions.
In his propaganda film “Bowling for Columbine,” Michael Moore calls cold on Heston at his home in Beverly Hills. Heston let Moore into the house perhaps not knowing Moore’s penchant for turning his movies into polemic tirades; after all, Moore wasn’t notorious for this sort of thing until after “Bowling for Columbine.” The interview begins civilly enough, but Moore soon tips his hand: he’s anti-gun, and Heston just gave a pro-gun speech in Denver in the wake of the Columbine High School shooting. Heston, realizing that he was about to be Moore’s target, terminates the interview, and the cameraman keeps his camera focused on the old man has he rises and walks away. Heston moves slowly, stiff-legged with age but back unbowed.
I heard Heston interviewed on the radio years ago, long before he became President of the NRA, holding a flintlock rifle over his head in his cold hands and swearing everlasting allegiance to firearms. On the radio, he was talking about the Bill of Rights, as I recall; I don’t remember his saying anything about guns. He may have, but if he did, I don’t remember it. I don’t remember anything specific about what he said on the subject of American liberty and individual freedoms either. What I remember is that I applauded him. What he said about our cherished liberties and how to maintain them seemed to me to make eminent sense. And that’s how I’ll remember Charlton Heston—as an advocate for liberty, not as a spokesman against gun control.
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”—The Little Prince
COMIC STRIP WATCH
The Bump and Grind of Daily Stripping
In Brooke McEldowney’s 9 Chickweek Lane, Thorax, the extraterrestrial, defines Public Education as “the bureaucratic process of replacing an empty mind with a closed one.” ... And in Betty by Delainey and Rassmussen, Betty’s girlfriend complains about current slang denominating “sixty is the new fifty, square as the new round—this is the new that,” she goes on, “I’ve had it with that; the world is upside down...” To which Betty responds: “Yes, I know, topsy is the new turvy.” ... Here’s Tony Cochran’s eponymous Agnes, raving on in her usual fashion: “I never understood Superman. I mean, why would he waste all his time saving Lois? She was only one person. I mean, she must have fallen out of fifty windows! He could have been building homes for the poor! Irrigating deserts! Replanting rain forests! Superman should just have let her hit the concrete the first time.” To which her buddy says: “I’m sure Lois was grateful.” Says Agnes: “Love must make men stupid.” ... Back in the verbal wit department, in Hilary Price’s Rhymes with Orange, we have the following discussion of Syntax: “It’s amazing how anagrams of words unlock their secret meaning. ‘Debit Card’ turns into ‘Bad Credit.’ ‘Dormitory’ turns into ‘dirty room.’ ‘Couples’ Therapy’ turns into ‘Poking each other with shrimp forks.’” “No it doesn’t,” says the auditor. “Well, it should,” says the anagramist. ... And in Mark Tatulli’s pantomimic Lio, a thoroughly convincing-looking Dick Tracy wanders into the strip while Lio plays at private detective; but nothing in the strip acknowledges the swipe—er, homage. Professional courtesy seems on the wane.
As I mentioned before, Brad, Luann’s nerdy older brother, finally asks the beauteous Toni out on a date, ostensibly to attend the fire fighters’ dance. But en route, Toni wonders what they’ll do at the dance: “I’m not much of a dancer,” she says, “—are you?” Brad says: “No. I guess we’ll sit around, talk to other fire fighters about nozzles an’ stuff.” A strategically silent panel follows as they think this over. In the last panel, cartooner Greg Evans shows them buying tickets to drive go-karts at the local kart track. They have a great time. It’s the conclusion of another of Evans’ string of careful, compassionate and thoroughly humane story arcs. And he prepared for this punchline carefully: while contemplating what to bring Toni when he picks her up, Brad decides to appeal to Toni’s love of cars and brings her something appropriate. Evans shows similarly penetrating discernment when, as Brad leaves Toni at her door, wondering whether to kiss her goodnight, Toni solves the problem: “You should kiss me,” she says to Brad. And he does. “Well,” he exclaims afterwards, “—that was easy.” Says Toni: “You’re saying I’m easy?” Humor and humanity, all in one daily package. We can’t ask for more.
Now that I’ve started watching comic strips with a steady, unflinching eye, I discover that marital sex crops up with some regularity in several of the strips about couples. In Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott’s Baby Blues recently, the husband/father mentions to his wife that “maybe” they could have “a half hour to ourselves after the kids have gone to bed.” “Amen,” she says. ... And in Terri Libenson’s Pajama Diaries, the husband complains about his wife’s compulsion to plan everything—“including our time together.” To which she says, gesturing at one of their children: “And if I hadn’t scheduled that 5 ½ years ago, she wouldn’t be here.” This action is accompanied by the text overhead, which underscores the topic and the punchline: “Most moms I know have to plan every little detail. It’s not about being obsessive: it’s about survival”; and then, over the final panel with its allusion to conceiving the five-and-a-half year old, it concludes: “ ... for ourselves as well as for the next generation.” Nicely done, bringing narrative and action together for the finale. ... In Jimmy Johnson’s Arlo and Janis, the couple is having breakfast, and Arlo says to Janis, who is humming musically to herself, “Everybody’s cheerful this morning.” Janis says: “We should do that more often.” Arlo: “We say that every time.” Pause. Then he finishes: “We never use to say it.”
In another risque mode, in Jef Mallett’s Frazz, the title character explains the odor he and one of the pupils smell by saying it smells like someone spilled coffee on the burner. “No, it doesn’t,” says the kid; “it smells like Coach Hacker went to Burrito Buffet for lunch again.” Clearly, a fart joke. But then Frazz offers further explanation: “Then I didn’t pour enough coffee on the burner.” ... In Mike Peters’ Mother Goose and Grimm, the dog and the cat are discussing ancestry, discovering that they are both “sons of a girl dog.” And the word for “girl dog” is—? ... In Prickly City, Scott Stantis has the coyote, Winslow, running for President, and he spends the week of April 7 at a podium, where he is joined by a rabid preacher, yelling, “Death to humans” and other dire imprecations, which makes Winslow deny he knows the guy. Just before that, Winslow is caught fibbing about his experiences in a combat zone. Nicely even-handed satiric echoes of real life politics this season.
And here is our visual aid this time. Bill Griffith’s fictitious strip in Zippy turns out to have great appeal to Zippy fans; who could have guessed? Who wouldn’t? ... The verbal logic in Frazz is typical of Jef Mallet’s humor—convoluted but always straightened out in time for the punchline. ... Castro appears in Mother Goose and Grimm. ... Verbal dexterity in Dan Piraro’s Bizarro, wonderful irony in Bilpin and Blazek’s LooseParts, and Piraro’s self-portrait in Bizarro. (He shows up there quite often, actually, as does his stunning spouse, Ashley.)Finally, as promised, the last two They’ll Do It Every Time by Al Scaduto, February 1 and 2; and below them, two of Bud Grace’s outrageous Piranha Club—here, Grace enacts himself at the drawing board.
Being Ragged and Funny
From Ken Burns’ “World War II,” a soldier’s prayer from some forsaken atoll in the Pacific: “God—help us. You come yourself this time. Don’t send Jesus. This is no place for children.”
“People who say they sleep like a baby usually don’t have one.”—Leo J. Burke
“The three most important words in the English language: ‘Wait a minute.’” —Former Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn
FUNNYBOOK FAN FARE
We have fallen into reviewing first issues by default, more-or-less: the practice affords a way of perpetrating the illusion that we’re up-to-date and current here at Rancid Raves even though we can’t possibly review all the comic books that are being cast out every month. So we pick on the first issues. But not all first issues, you may have noticed. Just the ones the artwork of which is intriguing or those by cartoonists whose efforts we admire. Or those first issues whose reputations have proceeded them onto the newsstand. Having performed this ritual, now, for several months, perhaps even years, I wondered to myself the other night whether I now had enough experience of first issues to proclaim what might be the ideal ingredients for a first issue. With that in mind, we approach several Number Ones whose reputations have proceeded them; some drawn by cartoonists whose work I generally admire.
An admirable first issue must, above all else, contain such matter as will compel a reader to buy the second issue. At the same time, while provoking curiosity through mysteriousness, a good first issue must avoid being too mysterious or cryptic. And, thirdly, it should introduce the title’s principals, preferably in a way that makes us care about them. Fourth, a first issue should include a complete “episode”—that is, something should happen, a crisis of some kind, which is resolved by the end of the issue, without, at the same time, detracting from the cliffhanger aspect of the effort that will compel us to buy the next issue.
Jeff Smith’s new series, RASL, achieves all of these objectives in its 32 black-and-white pages. We meet the protagonist, whose name might be RASL (or maybe not), who apparently makes a living stealing works of art, leaving the letters “RASL” painted on the wall where the painting once was hanging. He is not, by profession, admirable although we might admire his daring and ingenuity: “I have learned,” he says to himself, poised on a window ledge, “that seven flights up, people have a false sense of security. I love it when I find the window unlocked.” Who, indeed, would lock the window of a room on the seventh floor? He swipes a painting, is discovered in the process, and, to escape, employs a kind of time-space navigation device that looks like a portable twin-engine jet, transporting himself to another time and place by a process he calls “the drift.” Thus far, we have the “complete episode” and the introduction of the title’s principal. We may not like this guy much, but, as I say, we admire his daring.
The time-space travel is, seemingly, painful, and our protagonist enters a bar to imbibe enough to ease the agonies. While there, he realizes that he’s in “the wrong place”—not the place he thought he’d wind up. With that realization comes menace: a lizard-faced guy in a black slouch hat and overcoat with the collar turned up comes into the bar, draws a handgun, and starts shooting at our “hero,” who escapes momentarily then turns on his pursuer and overpowers him, discovering a tiny device embedded in the guy’s wrist. “Sirens,” says our hero, thereby identifying what is possibly a breed of menaces that he’s run into before. He then finds a deserted shack by the railroad tracks and goes in to “meditate,” saying, “A few hours of meditation might be enough to get me home. ... You can fix this,” he tells himself: “It’s not too late.” He meditates, and we see him next wandering in a torn t-shirt under a blazing sun in a desert, just as we first saw him when the book opened.
Is the desert the mental construct of his meditation? Or is he actually in a desert? How does “the drift” work, actually, and how did he learn about it? Will he get back “home”? Or before he can do that, will he be discovered by other Sirens or lizard-faced creatures out to kill him? There are enough questions to compel me to buy the next issue in the hopes of finding answers.
There are, admittedly, too many mysteries here, a bit too much cryptic inexplicability. But the episode embedded in this issue is loaded with enough emotion (suspense, chiefly, but also some admiration and curiosity) and completed with enough storytelling skill to be a satisfying reading experience—that, after all, is the purpose of including a completed episode in a first issue, to give a reader a sense of satisfaction while not, at the same time, spilling all the beans in the title’s concept. Satisfying enough to keep me engaged and interested even though there is otherwise too much mystery in-and-of itself, too much bafflement: puzzles alone are not enough to hold my interest and bring me back for more of the story. Moreover, the admirable skill of the art thief is enough to make me want to know more about him and what will happen to him next. The satisfying episode and the personality of the protagonist constitute the emotional flywheel of the first issue, driving me to want to find answers to the questions that leave me dangling on the cliff.
Smith’s storytelling skills are, as usual, superb. Visually, he keeps his focus on the main thrusts of the incidents he narrates, varying camera distance and angle for dramatic effect. Several sequences are achieved entirely without words, displaying not only his pictorial storytelling skill but enhancing the mysteriousness: without words, a good bit of the action is somewhat inexplicable—in tone, at least—hence, mysterious and suspense inducing. I have to wonder, though, at this black-and-white beginning. Is Smith planning the same sequence of production that his famed Bone followed? After the publication of a certain number of the black-and-white Bone issues, they were combined in a single trade paperback and offered for sale; and once all the entire series had been re-packaged and sold in this manner, the whole ensemble was reproduced again in color. At boneville.com, we learn that the first seven color Bone books have sold 2,481,500 copies—that’s two-and-a-half million, kimo sabe—not counting black-and-whites and single volume editions. The first issue of RASL seems on its way to duplicating the Bone phenomenon: the initial press run was 24,000, and it’s sold out, and the book is going back on the press for more. Makes me smile in anticipation.
In Echo, Terry Moore again proposes a female protagonist. No. 1 opens with a picture of a character soaring straight up into the sky, attired in what reminds me of Dave Stevens’ Rocketeer—a backpack rocket and a flight helmet. The character appears to be in trouble, being pursued by sidewinders, and says: “I’m wearing a nuke.” Then comes a flashback to four minutes earlier, during which we discover that the would-be Rocketeer is a woman test pilot, testing a Beta Suit, a completely flexible “coating” of a mercury-like substance that covers her from head to toe. But the monitoring officials stationed on the ground have in mind other tests for which she was not briefed—including bombarding her with missiles. She attempts to deflect the first missile as it approaches by throwing her helmet at it. It explodes. Taking her with it? Probably. We don’t know for sure because the scene shifts to a desert where a young woman is photographing plant life. The issue’s episode is complete with the introduction of a special space suit and the destruction of its test pilot. The crisis—her being a doomed target—passes. It’s sinister and therefore provocative; and the pilot’s attempt to deflect the missile is heroic enough to inspire admiration—even if we suspect the pilot is no more after the explosion.
The photographer in the desert sees the missile explosion overhead; she’s then “sprinkled” with tiny globules that cling to her and to her vehicle as she drives off. Next, we meet a park ranger as he tries to find out what’s going on in the desert but is prevented by a bunch of soldiers, who deny him access. We also learn that the tiny globules are what is left of the Beta Suit: “The explosion turned the suit into silly putty; our one bomb is now many,” says the head scientist, Foster. This information is our final bit of intelligence about the Beta Suit. We now know it is virtually a weapon, and the knowledge completes the experience of the issue’s episode and also provides enough information that the otherwise total mystery of the Beta Suit is somewhat reduced. The 24-page issue is not a complete bafflement; still, there’s enough mystery and suspense to keep us motivated to find out more. Meanwhile, the photographer, whose name is Julie, gets home, and we learn that she’s in the midst of a divorce, penniless, and down to her last hot dog. She finds a larger scrap of the “silly putty” in the back of her truck, and, as she fiddles with it, it clings to her and attracts and absorbs the tiny globules that have been stuck to her since the explosion. All at once, she finds her shoulder and part of her chest “clothed” in the stuff, which has become larger as it absorbed the globules and is now fastened to her. “What have I done?” she murmurs, terrified. And the issue ends.
Moore’s drawings, as always, are clean and crisp. The black-and-white pictures are almost entirely linear, little solid black for accent. And they are expertly achieved: the visual narrative is pristine in clarity, and despite several scene shifts, his characters are rendered instantly recognizable at every re-appearance. And Moore, like Smith, conducts a significant amount of his storytelling without verbiage, enhancing thereby the inherent suspense of a sequence. As in RASL, the episode that is complete in this issue provides an emotionally engaging experience, satisfying enough that we feel we’re in the hands of an accomplished storyteller who knows where he’s going. By the end of the book, we have been introduced to the Beta Suit and understand enough about it to know a little more about the photographer’s predicament than she does. Moreover, she’s female, attractive and in trouble—sufficient, in our culture, to elicit our sympathy. Now—we want to know what will happen to her and the Beta Suit. So we are compelled, as much as a reader can be compelled, to buy the next issue. And we will.
In Kick-Ass No. 1 by Mark Millar, we encounter another of my favorite comic book artists, John Romita, Jr. And here, inked by Tom Palmer, he is every bit as engaging to watch as he is when inked by Klaus Janson, who, it seems to me, is his usual inker. Janson’s inks give Romita a somewhat sharper edge than Palmer’s, which seem smoother and rounder. But Romita’s distinctive shading persists, with contouring fine lines that model his figures and give them volume; both Janson and Palmer pick up this characteristic embellishment, revealing that it is part of the completed tightly rendered pencil drawing. Bold outlines compliment the textural shading, providing both clarity and contrast. Palmer’s inks are tight, no loose ends, but the compositions themselves are lively enough that a looser inking, by, say, Erik Larsen, wouldn’t enhance the feeling much and might sabotage the other distinctive aspect of Romita’s style—the prevailing aura of restraint. Romita’s renderings are cartoony in a minor key (consider the faces) with stolid anatomy, just a shade shy of being wholly realistic, and he portrays movement by freeze-framing, capturing it rather than enacting it. His characters seem coiled for action, wound tight and waiting to spring loose but never, quite, doing so, producing, as I say, an almost menacing sense of action about to take place. Millar lets Romita’s pictures carry their share of the narrative load: speeches and captions are cryptic with pictures revealing the significance of the words, and several nearly silent sequences emphasize, again, the role of pictures in this visual medium. The fight scene is carefully choreographed, and other, less dramatic moments, are given sufficient impact by varying camera distance and angle. Romita is a modern master and always worth attending to; he’s just fun to watch.
The book begins with a soaring moment of superheroic action and then descends into raw comedy: a costumed character launches himself off the top of a building—then crashes into a parked car on the ground, proving, spectacularly, his incompetence and his delusion. The scene then shifts as we turn the page and encounter another costumed character, a teenager, who, face contorted in agony, tells us in a narrative caption that he’s “the guy with the electrodes attached to his testicles.” The pairing of hilarious satire and horrifying torture is jolting—is this a comedy or a thriller?—but before we can learn how, or if, they are related, the tortured youth begins narrating a long flashback, saying he’s Dave Lizewski and he admires and dotes on comic book superheroes, aspiring to be one himself. He finally acquires a wet suit for a costume, makes himself a mask, and spends a certain amount of time “working out” in preparation for launching his career as a do-gooder. At this point, we may say the issue’s self-contained episode ends: the wannabe superhero has, at last, achieved, in outward appearance anyway, his objective. He’s moved out of his daydream into some sort of reality; however ill-advised, his action makes him a player not a dreamer.
But when Dave ventures out into the world and attempts to dissuade a trio of vandals from defacing a wall, they quickly unhorse his pretensions: he gets in a couple blows before the three of them pound him into the pavement and leave him bleeding and bend double in pain. He staggers into the street and is hit by a passing automobile. Lying on the pavement, the poor kid mutters: “Two broken legs, my spine crushed, and dressed like a fucking pervert—my dad was going to kill me.” We want to know how he’ll survive—and survive he must in order to get to the place where he’s tied to a chair with electrodes fastened to his testicles, the way he is when we first meet him. Compared to RASL and Echo, Kick-Ass perpetrates fewer mysteries. Mystery—exotic sf invention—is at the heart of both of the other titles, but in Kick-Ass, there is no such mystery. Just suspense of the common everyday cliffhanger variety. Nicely done, though. The book contains all the necessary ingredients for an inaugural issue—a completed episode, enough personality portrayal to make us like the protagonist, and enough unresolved incident to compel us to return for more. And there may be even more more: during a recent interview online, Millar said, “We just sold Kick-Ass as a movie.”
In Logan No. 1, we watch Eduardo Risso tackle the savage X-Man. His usual gig, 100 Bullets, is not Wolverine, but Risso deploys his frail but confident clear line style, enhanced with his customary dramatic page layouts, to excellent effect. His art is marred, I think, by Dean White’s colors: rather than lay in flat colors in the manner of 100 Bullets, White water-colors the line art, giving the tones a mottled appearance that takes the visual edge off Risso’s otherwise sharp renderings. Brian Vaughan’s story opens with Wolverine entering a ruin of an elegant Japanese pagoda where he is attacked from behind, bringing on the flashback that is probably going to be most of the narrative in this 3-issue series. A prisoner of the Japanese in World War II, Wolverine, now Logan, meets another prisoner, an American lieutenant named Warren. Using his wolverine skills, Logan makes a break-out, slicing up a few Japanese guards on the way out, completing the self-contained episode of this issue. He and Warren then wander the countryside and encounter what we assume is a geisha (because our culture has schooled us to think every Japanese woman dressed like this one is a geisha). When Warren threatens to kill her (she is, after all, a citizen of the enemy nation), Logan drives him off, and in gratitude, the geisha takes him into her home and they make love. Meanwhile, Warren lurks in the bushes, and Logan’s last words give the issue its cliffhanger. When he asks the geisha where they are, she tells him, “Hiroshima.” And Logan says: “It was just about the most beautiful word I’d ever heard.” Hiroshima is also where the first of the two atomic bombs that ended World War II was dropped. And with that, we are prepped to want to know what happens next—and who has attacked Wolverine in the opening pages of the book. Logan is scarcely a typical Number One, the character and his circumstance are well known, so an inaugural first issue’s usual tasks of introducing the milieu and personality of its concept and cast isn’t as necessary here, for X-Men readers in any case, but to a reader coming fresh to this book without a knowledge of the X-Men, the protagonist herein would be a complete puzzle. The opening pages carry a captioned first-person narration in which Wolverine alludes to his history, but we are told nothing about his built-in weaponry. Moreover, Wolverine seems, throughout, a thoroughly humane and compassionate personality without any of the traditional berzerker quirks.
Not to worry: the mad warrior shows up in Wolverine Annual No. 1, which, like Logan No. 1, is not a typical first issue: it’s made, like Logan, for Wolverine fans who already know the character and the concept well. Here, Marcelo Frusin draws Gregg Hurwitz’s hackneyed tale of a kid who grows up through an unhappy urban childhood, the son of a drunken brute and a drug addicted mother, commits petty crimes, joins a gang, and robs a bank. The stocking over the face of the gang leader rips during the robbery, showing his face; to protect his identity, he orders, “No witnesses,” and the gang slaughters everyone in the bank, employees and customers alike. During their escape, one of the gang incidentally kills a little old lady who is giving away flowers on the street outside the bank. As fate would have it, she’d just given a flower to Wolverine, saying, “There is still beauty all around us—all you have to do is look.” Wolverine promptly goes on one of his patented rampages, slices and dices the gang members, one by one, ending, at last, with the kid-gone-wrong. Afterwards, wandering the streets, Wolverine comes upon a single flower, blooming in the gutter. He picks it and murmurs the old lady’s mantra.
The story would be sentimental tripe except for Frusin’s dramatic drawing—staging events for forceful impact and visual variety—and his evocative coloring. Hurwitz also adds one new wrinkle to the well-worn plot: the kid’s father and mother go to church every Sunday and are cleansed of their sins the previous week. The kid learns that if he confesses, he will be subsequently forgiven. In his narrative, he says the church is the only place he ever felt safe: “I never wanted to leave. I wanted it to make me pure. But it never did.” Despite the offices of religion, he becomes a crook, believing, nonetheless, that he still “has time to clean up my act.” All he has to do is confess his sins, right? When, at last, he is confronted by Wolverine, he resorts to the ruse of his youth: “Forgive me, Father,” he says, “for I have sinned.” Just then, Wolverine’s claws slash through his body, and he dies, muttering, “There will be time.” No more. Confession is not enough.
In sharp contrast to the moody Wolverine Annual, we have John Byrne’s return, again, to four-color fiction with FX, a superhero comic book written and scripted by Wayne Osborne. Byrne has always been one of my favorites; he draws superbly and can write his own material. Born in England in 1950, he left with his parents for Canada when he was eight. By the mid-1970s, he was drawing for Charlton Comics and attracting notice. But he made his first big mark when, in late 1977, he started drawing Marvel’s X-Men written by Chris Claremont. He kept at it for 36 issues (Nos. 108-143) even though his relationship with Claremont, Byrne said, was like Gilbert’s to Sullivan. They were constantly quarreling “over who the characters were.” When he left the title in the winter of 1981, he started making an even bigger mark at Marvel with No. 232 of The Fantastic Four, which, for six years, he wrote and drew. During that period, he also launched, in August 1983, Alpha Flight, featuring a Canadian superhero team about which he was less than enthusiastic. Byrne abandoned the title with No. 28 but had made a little comic book history en route: one of the characters he introduced was Northstar, destined to be Marvel’s first openly gay superhero. Byrne intended him to be gay but his sexual preference was only hinted at until after Byrne left in November 1985. Byrne’s next gig was more propitious: in 1986, he was hired by DC Comics to revamp Superman, which Byrne did, taking the character “back to basics” in a six-issue mini-series entitled The Man of Steel. Byrne went back to Marvel characters in 1989, producing another memorably series in The Sensational She-Hulk, to which Byrne gave a tongue-in-cheek comedic patina. In the early 1990s, he created Next Men, a darker version of the Fantastic Four, for Dark Horse; it went on hiatus after 30 issues in 1994. And then at DC again, Byrne memorably re-designed Wonder Woman’s costume, producing, for the first time in the character’s long history, garb that was both classy and sexy; she’s still wearing it.
Those are the high spots in my recollection of Byrne’s history. You can find out much more in the Two Morrows’ Modern Masters series, Volume 7, which is devoted to Byrne. Like the other volumes in the series, this book prints a long interview with its subject garnished with a generous array of artwork, often sketchbook drawings or preliminary pencils, like some of those near here.
Responding to the interviewer’s questions, Byrne, like the others similarly queried, traces the events of his life and career and offers his opinion on matters associated with the work he has done. Byrne elaborates here on his working relationship with Claremont on Marvel’s X-Men: “It was frustrating ... Chris and I bounced off each other. Pardon my modesty, but one of the reasons the book was as great as it was, was that we were just outdoing each other all the time. ‘I’m going to do this!’ ‘Oh, yeah? I’m going to do this!’ And just bam, bam, bam, bam, and bigger and bigger. And Roger [Stern] was in there [as editor] when he and I figured out how to work Chris so that we could always get exactly the stuff that we wanted and then Roger would police it when the scripts came in. And it was just phenomenal. There was a synergy. Just amazing stuff. And I look back at it now and it’s really badly written and really badly drawn—but at the time, it really shined.” The appeal of the X-Men was clear to Byrne: “The X-Men really were very much like the fans themselves. They were outsiders who only hung out with people like themselves. And I thought, ‘Wow, yeah—mutants.’ Because most fans think of themselves as mutants. Most teenagers think of themselves as mutants, and fans used to be teenagers.”
The interview bubbles with anecdotes. Byrne loves team books, but the work can be hazardous. He customarily taped finished pages to the door of the closet in his room, and one time: “I was sitting there doing the next-to-last page [of an X-Men story], and I kind of looked up and literally did a double-take. ‘What the hell is that?’ I walked over and looked [at the page taped to the closet door] and there was the Scarlet Witch sitting in the back seat [of the quinjet] instead of Storm. ‘Whoops! I’ll have to erase that!’”
The infamous death of Phoenix that so bitterly disappointed fans was not the original ending to that story arc. But she’d killed off whole interplanetary civilizations: she had to be punished. So she died. Says Byrne: “Right at the end—even after the end [when the pages had been turned in]—Jim Shooter [then editor-in-chief at Marvel] had to come in and, as I so discreetly phrase it, piss on it and make it his. There we were, with this thing that had been worked out, plotted out, he knew about it, everything had been detailed. And then all of a sudden, it had to be a different ending. And, just to really frost me all that much more, what came out of all that was a better story. [He laughs.] Chris has never been able to accept that— that, yes, the death of Phoenix, that whole thing, was better than what we originally had planned. When the emotional thing settled and the book came out and I read it, I said, ‘Yeah—this is better.’”
Byrne takes the blame, as he might put it, for Wolverine. When Claremont wanted to write the character out of the X-Men, Byrne insisted that “you’re not going to write out the only Canadian.” So Wolverine stayed and turned into this ninja creature that Byrne scorns—“all this crap that has nothing to do with what he was when it first started.” When he started, Wolverine was “a simple homicidal maniac,” Byrne said, “who would go off if anybody looked at him wrong.” As for the X-Men movies—“The only thing that worked for me was Halle Berry as Storm,” Byrne said.
This is the sort of insight you glimpse in the Two Morrows’ Modern Masters books, all edited by Eric Nolen-Weathington (each 128 8x11-inch pages in paperback for $14.95, discounted 15% at www.twomorrows.com). The 16 volumes presently in print cover Alan Davis, George Perez, Bruce Timm, Kevin Nowlan, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Arthur Adams, Byrne, Walter Simonson, Mike Wieringo, Kevin Maguire, Chalares Vess, Michael Golden, Jerry Ordway, Frank Cho, Mark Schultz, and Mike Allred. But I divaricate; back to Byrne.
From even my short professional biography of Byrne, you may conclude that he belongs firmly in the superhero traditions of the late 1970s and 1980s, where he not only made his mark but shaped the genre, and in FX, he continues in the same vein—which, alas, means that the book and its concept are deeply mired in the funnybook fantasies of a past now distant and no longer pertinent or, even, novel. FX is like Kick-Ass but not as maturely conceived: it is not at all satirical. At least, not obviously. (And if a satire is not obvious, it has failed.) Its dated concept is betrayed by the cover, upon which a giant gorilla rampages, a nearly obvious invocation of the old DC ploy based upon its editors’ discovery in the 1960s that any book with a gorilla on the cover sold better than any other book. Inside, we find a parade of other popular culture cliches—a Charles Atlas bully kicking sand on our 97-pound weakling (who is really a super-powered youth), King Kong kidnapping the heroine, who is, we suspect, eventually rescued by the afore-mentioned youth, exercising his new-found powers.
In contrast to the satirical and therefore more mature Kick-Ass, in which a teenage aspirant to superheroism is a comic book-reading nerd, Osborne gives us a duo of “typical” lively Leave-it-to-Beaverish youths, cavorting in the woods, playing army with sticks for weapons, when one, Tom, is smitten by a mysterious light force that endows him with the ability to “wish” himself into any special effect he can imagine. When he points his finger as if it’s a weapon and says something about a bazooka, his hand is transformed for a moment into a bazooka, firing a round at the dumpster in the alley. Similarly, Tom turns himself into an airplane, a space rocket, and a tank, experimenting with his new capability. At this point, the book’s episode ends, and we enter the ordinary highschool life of Tom and his friend Jack. Tom, flirting with Raye, is shoved aside by Raye’s bullying boyfriend, but when they all go to the zoo to see the new giant gorilla and the gorilla escapes, Tom gets to put his superpowers to use in rescuing Raye. He does so by knocking the big beast out, but by then, the giant ape has tossed Raye aside; we never learn whether she survives the fall because the story leaps forward a few days so Tom can open a mysterious package in which he finds a new costume for his superhero self, now christened “FX.”
This first issue contains the requisite elements, but is so burdened with out-dated notions that it scarcely convinces me to buy the next number. It is so calcified in cliche that I thought, for a second or two, that it may be intended as parody. If so, it has seriously misfired. Byrne is still a master of the medium, but his performance herein seems perfunctory—the layouts conventional 1970s grids, markedly different, tamer, than, say, Frusin’s display in Wolverine Annual—the action sequences shaken out of his sleeve with the practiced skill of a stage magician who knows the tricks of his trade so well that he needn’t think about them to put them to use. Satisfying as it is to see Bryne at work again, the story is not likely to find an audience among today’s comics readers: they’ve grown beyond its tired gosh-wow fancies.
With Comic Book Comics No. 1, we must abandon our criteria altogether. This off-beat title, written and researched by Fred Van Lent and designed and drawn by Ryan Dunlavey, tries to do for the history of comics what Larry Gonick does for all of history in the Cartoon History of the Universe: it tells the history of comics in comics format. For the most part, it does very well. But the necessarily truncated verbal history often, inadvertently by abbreviation, leaves out details or glosses over them in a way that misrepresents the incident. On the sample page accompanying this review, for instance, Van Lent asserts that Bud Fisher owned the largest stable of race horses in the U.S.; Fisher owned horses, but I don’t think it was the largest stable of the animals in the country. The story Van Lent tells combines newspaper comic strips and comic books, with a few sidebars to animation—a complicated task that he accomplishes with more than ordinary competence, using as a unifying thread, Jack Kirby, who worked in all these genre early in his career.
PERSIFLAGE AND BADINAGE
Mike Wallace, he of CBS’s “60 Minutes” fame, earned his fame with a half-hour interview tv show in the fifties and sixties. Wallace interviewed people like Henry Kissinger (while Kissinger was still just a Harvard professor), Kirk Douglas, Frank Lloyd Wright, Eleanor Roosevelt, Reinhold Niebuhr, Margaret Sanger, and Lili St. Cyr, but it wasn’t their stellar status that established Wallace as an interviewer: it was his forthright, almost rude, questioning. The set for the broadcast was also distinctive. There was no set, just Wallace on a stool and his victim in a chair, surrounded by black but bathed in spotlights. In those days of black-and-white tv, it was a spectacular set. Throughout the half-hour, Wallace sat there, smoking his cigarette and occasionally flourishing it. Wallace’s sponsor was a cigarette manufacturer, and at the opening of the show, Wallace would say: “My name is Mike Wallace; the cigarette is Philip Morris.” That’s the quote I’ve been leading up to. You can see him deliver it yourself—and watch him skewer, interview, nearly 60 celebrities—online, free, by going to a University of Texas site where Wallace’s interviews are archived, hrc.utexas.edu/wallace.
“Don’t tax you and don’t tax me, / Tax that fellow behind the tree.” —Ditty composed by Louisiana’s long-serving U.S. Senator, Huey Long’s son Russell, immortalizing the response of special interests to public finance.
And here are a couple from Ashleigh Brilliant’s self-syndicated newspaper feature, Pot Shots, usually accompanied by a drawing: “Without me, there could be no everybody”; and, “To be perfectly honest, I sometimes find it very difficult to be perfectly honest.”
A little of the old Bushwah: “The brash Texan has personified the global zeitgeist of his time: one of audacity curdling into hubris. He was elected to pursue a powerful nation’s impulses and ambitions to be stronger and richer than any country in history, and he and his compatriots have pursued those dreams into the ditch.” —E.J. Dionne at the Washington Post
“The first panacea for a mismanaged nation is inflation of the currency; the second is war.”—Ernest Hemingway, quoted by E.J. Dionne; both war and inflation are happening to us now, thereby flagging the Bush League for what it is: an incompetent gaggle of grafting cronies.
WE’RE ALL BROTHERS, AND WE’RE ONLY PASSIN’ THROUGH
Sometimes happy, sometimes blue,
But I’m so glad I ran into you---
We’re all brothers, and we’re only passin’ through.
Old Folk Ballad Lustily Sung By Walt Conley in His Trademark Husky Rasp of a Voice at the Last Resort in Denver, Lo These Many Years Ago
The following combines, almost verbatim, two online reports:
One of the last of the old guard comic book artists, the prolific James Noel Mooney, who worked on memorable DC Comics features including Batman, Supergirl and Tommy Tomorrow, has died at age 89. "Jim Mooney's beautiful women and noble men graced the DC universe for decades, showing up (sadly uncredited for much of the time) from the adventures of Batman and Robin, to the far future of Tommy Tomorrow, to his legendary run on Supergirl," said Paul Levitz, DC Comics President & Publisher. "Few artists have made our characters look better."
Born in 1919, Mooney broke into comics in 1940 with early publishers Fox and Fiction House; his first assignment was the Moth in Mystery Men Comics. He soon moved to Timely Comics, where he specialized in funny animal features, then joined DC Comics in the late 1940s as penciller on Batman and Detective Comics, as well as solo Robin tales in Star Spangled Comics. In the 1950s, he contributed numerous stories to DC's mystery titles and illustrated Tommy Tomorrow in Action Comics and, later, World’s Finest Comics. In 1959, Mooney became the regular artist on Supergirl, one of his signature features, in Action Comics, beginning with the second installment of the series. He continued to illustrate Supergirl through the 1960s, while working on House of Mystery’s Dial H for Hero and several Legion of Super-Heroes tales for Adventure Comics. Mooney returned to Marvel Comics in the late 1960s, where he went on to draw Spider-Man, Man-Thing, Omega the Unknown, Marvel Team-Up, Thundercats and numerous other series. Mooney moved to Florida in 1975 but continued to draw, freelancing to Marvel and DC and Claypool Comics' Elvira and Soulsearchers and Company.
In a 2004 interview with Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers, Mooney said he started in the art business at an early age, bartering childhood drawings for bubble gum or goodies from others' lunch boxes. According to tcpalm.com, Mooney’s personal favorite was Man-Thing. "I liked it," Mooney said, "not because I liked his looks or that he was a pretty character or interesting super character, but the writer (Steve Gerber) made it so darned interesting."
Mooney wasn't so fond of drawing Supergirl or the 1984 movie with Helen Slater in the title role. "It just didn't have the flavor, the personality of the whole background that Supergirl had established," he said. He did like the 2002 Spider-Man movie. "I was quite impressed with how close they stuck to (the cartoon's story line)," he said. "I thought they did a very, very good job."
Joel Kilmer, owner of Big Dog Comics in Fort Pierce, said Mooney's health started declining about 10 years ago, but the veteran artist always took time for up-and-comers. "He was a swell guy," Kilmer said, "one of the nicest guys you'd ever meet. He was always helping out the young artists and the young inkers. That's what the old guard does: They pass on their knowledge."
Irks & Crotchets
is back. That is, back among ordinary, everyday women in the street
whose necklines have dropped discernibly lower in recent years. So
cleavage is back. Boobs are in. Or, rather, out, as the case may be.
ONWARD, THE SPREADING PUNDITRY
The Great Ebb and Flow of Things
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to the contrary notwithstanding, John McCain apparently never said that he expected the Iraq “war” to last 100 years. According to Charles Krauthammer at the Washington Post, here’s the source of that particular canard: “Asked at a New Hampshire campaign stop about possibly staying in Iraq 50 years, McCain interrupted—‘Make it 100'—then offered a precise analogy to what he envisioned: ‘We’ve been in Japan for 60 years. We’ve been in South Korea for 50 years or so.’ Lest anyone think he was talking about prolonged war-fighting rather than maintaining a presence in postwar Iraq, he explained: ‘That would be fine with me as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed.’” As I’ve mentioned before, we already have four massive military “bases” (make that minor municipalities) in Iraq and plenty of oil companies anxious that their employees should be protected while extracting oil from the desert, ample justification for staying on as a sort of monitor. And both Obama and Clinton know we’ll be a military presence in Iraq for at least a generation: both, when discussing their plans to withdraw troops soon, refer to “combat” troops—soldiers in the field, shooting and being shot at. Neither is very specific about any other military presence that might persist in Iraq after the “combat” troops are withdrawn.
And when, pray, might they be withdrawn? Apparently not in the known future—that is, not until the Iraqi troops are “ready” to stand up to whoever they think the enemy might be. They’ve been “training” for almost five years now. If we took that long in the early 1940s to train an army, World War II would have been over by the time we were “ready.”
Opus 220 (March 31, 2008). At the end of this episode, we take a long rambling look at the history of criticism in comics, and between here and there, we consider Hillary as an object lesson in sexism in editooning and review several new books. Here’s what’s here, in order, by department:
NOUS R US
Horton the movie, Trudeau’s sabbatical, recession hits comics, a syndicate goes out of business, and excerpts from interviews with Howard Chaykin (American Flagg!), John Rose (Snuffy Smith), and Steven Butler (Archie’s make-over)
The Danish Dozen and a Swastika
Sexism in caricaturing Hillary
Pat Oliphant on the joy of Election Year
Nights of Snowfall, Batman Illustrated by Neal Adams, Neal Adams: The
Sketchbook, The Best of Harveyville Fun Times, and Edward Sorel’s
Just When You Thought Things Couldn’t Get Worse
Ramble Through the History of Comics Criticis
And our customary reminder: don’t forget to activate the “Bathroom Button” by clicking on the “print friendly version” so you can print off a copy of just this lengthy installment for reading later, at your leisure while enthroned. Without further adieu—
NOUS R US
All the News That Gives Us Fits
“Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who” grossed $45 million on its opening weekend, the largest gross of that weekend and the year’s best debut financially, saith Entertainment Weekly, aided and abetted by Media by the Numbers. And the movie was still the top grossing flick of the next weekend, March 22-23, with $25.1 million. Seuss’s book of the same name has supplied sundry pro-life clubs with their mottoes: “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” said Horton, who carries around a flower full of Whos that are so tiny they can’t be seen with the naked eye. But according to EW, Japan was probably what Seuss had in mind with Who-ville: he wrote the book in 1953 after returning from a visit that nation, which was just emerging from post-war U.S. occupation. ... In the same issue (March 21) of EW, David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague, a comic book history up to the collapse of the industry in the wake of Fredric Wertham’s attack, is the week’s Book Pick, reviewed, enthusiastically (displaying a Jack Davis picture of the Crypt Keeper from the old EC comic book), but the reviewer—and perhaps even Hajdu—asserts that “by the mid-1940s, comics had become an industry, selling between 80 and 100 million pulpy copies a week, mostly to children” (my italics). I may be wrong, of course (I’ve been wrong twice—ooops, no, only once; I was mistaken about the other time), but I’ve always supposed that the quantity of comic books printed grew during the early 1940s due to the readership of soldiers and sailors, who avidly perused funnybooks in those tedious lulls between the battles of World War II; hence, “mostly to children” is probably wrong. ... EW has started, I don’t know how recently, “charting” sales of graphic novels and comic books, heralding beyond dispute the cultural arrival of the medium. The “top ten” sellers of the week February 25-March 3 was determined by consulting Comix Experience, a shop in San Francisco. Dunno about the wisdom of using a single comic book shop as an authoritative source of information quoted in a national magazine for the entire world to see and base opinions on.
Garry Trudeau started his three month sabbatical on March 23. Doonesbury will return on June 16, in plenty of time to disport in shredding the pretensions and hypocrisies of Presidential contenders over the next five months or so. It’s a puzzle, though, that Trudeau would abandon us all to our own political instincts while the race for the Democrat Party nomination is still running a fever. Several newspapers announced that they would use the Doonesbury hiatus to sample other strips, some of which will come from Trudeau’s syndicate, Universal Press. Other papers intend to offer re-runs of Doonesbury. ... In April, Trudeau will receive the annual Mental Health Research Advocacy Award from Yale School of Medicine “for his portrayal of the readjustment issues faced by soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan,” according to medindia.net/news. John Krystal, a professor of clinical pharmacology and research in psychiatry at Yale, said Trudeau’s fictional treatment of the physically and psychologically wounded “provides millions of Americans with a gut level appreciation of the impact of posttraumatic stress disorder on soldiers and their families ... helping to raise awareness about the importance of PTSD as a national challenge where investment in treatment and research could have an important and lasting impact.”
The comic book biz, like all U.S. businesses, may soon be limping in step with the Recession that everyone is talking about but few want to speak of by name. Publishers will feel the pinch—probably already have, as far as I know—and comic book shops, to the extent that they focus only on comics, may begin shutting their doors. Shops that also sell, say, sports cards or other collectible merchandise may do better. But the Recession will doubtless seep into corners of the comics biz in ways we scarcely anticipate as we go about our daily tumbies far from Wall Street. Take, for instance, this report from ICv2 about a national bookstore chain: “The financial markets are putting a major strain on companies that have to borrow money, and Borders, the nation's second-largest bookstore chain ... is the latest company to feel the pressure. Shares of the Borders Group fell 29% as the book retailer suspended its dividend and announced that it was investigating a wide range of alternatives including the ‘sale of the company.’ Borders CEO George Jones noted that the company has been searching for financial options but ‘the current credit environment has made many of these alternatives prohibitively expensive or entirely unavailable.’ Borders has lined up some $42.5 million in financing, but the source of the money is the aggressive hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management, and the funds come at very high price. The Pershing Square loan, which is due next January 15th, carries a hefty 12.5% interest rate and as part of the agreement Pershing Square will receive 14.7 million warrants that, if exercised, would give the hedge fund an additional 20% of Borders (it already owns 18%). According to analysts the onerous conditions of the Pershing Square loan will make it harder for Borders to find a buyer. Borders will have two weeks to find a better source of funding, but in today's financial market that is a tall order indeed.” Two weeks from when? Next January when the loan is due? Or from “now”? Dunno. But this hedgy circumstance demonstrates how even the lowly comics biz can become ensnared in the larger, grander devolutions of the financial world outside: Borders, the ICv2 report noted ominously, is “a major venue for manga sales.” I doubt that Borders will bite the dust as a result of the current financial crisis. It’s too big and usually profitable: someone will buy it and relieve its financial distress so it can once again yield profit. But Borders’ situation bodes ill for the comics biz: many comic book publishers, the small one- or two-title operations, are probably among those businesses that, like Borders, have to borrow money to do business. Not a happy outlook, kimo sabe. According to ICv2, “comic and graphic novel sales to comic stores slipped in February for the second time in four months.” An omen.
The March issue of Booklist, a publication of the American Library Association, is focused on graphic novels with a James Strum interview, a roster of influential women cartoonists, and lists of the “top ten best reviewed” graphic novels published in the last twelve months, one for adult graphic novels and a second for “youth.” According to booklistonline.com, the top ten best reviewed graphic novels for adults includes: Alias the Cat by Kim Deitch, Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot, The Fun Never Stops by Drew Friedman, Ghost Stories: Essex Country, Vol. 2 by Jeff Lemire, The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam by Ann Marie Fleming, My Life in a Jugular Vein: Three More Years of Snakepit Comics by Ben Snakepit, Super Spy by Matt Kindt, Superman: All Star No. 1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, Thunderhead Underground Falls by Joel Orff, and With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child by Keiko Tobe. I confess that I can no longer keep up with the graphic novels so prolific are the publishers thereof, but I am generally aware of what’s being published even if I can’t take the time to read them all, and I don’t recognize but two or three of the so-called “graphic novels” in this listing. But, I remind myself, this is a listing of the graphic novels that got the “best reviews” in ALA publications, not best sellers.
The winners of the National Cartoonists Society’s Reuben and of a dozen or so “division awards” (eg., newspaper comic strips, comic books, editorial cartoons, etc.) will be announced at NCS’ annual get-together, this year over Memorial Day weekend in New Orleans, where the cartooners will arrive a day early to help Habitat for Humanity build houses in the desolated neighborhoods. ... NCS members have resumed the practice of visiting the recuperating wounded at veterans hospitals around the country, a morale-building endeavor that began during World War II and resulted, eventually, in the founding of the Society (as recounted in “Rube Goldberg and the Founding of NCS” in Harv’s Hindsights, here). Typically, according to Jeff Bacon’s report in A Slice of Wry, the monthly newsletter of the Southern California Cartoonists Society, “the cartoonists are escorted from room to room as a group, and while visiting, they sketch cartoons or draw caricatures for the patients. When they leave, they thank the troops for their service and leave whatever artwork was generated. So far, NCS members have visited 17 different VA hospitals in such places as New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Florida, George, South Carolina, Kentucky, Texas and Idaho. Many of the hospitals have received multiple visits over the last couple of years. ... Cartoonists have also dropped in on several active duty military hospitals around the country.”
In accepting the Herblock Award on March 18, editoonist John Sherffius delivered himself of a short diatribe, saying: “I am angry” at the Bush administration for a litany of failures and malfeasance including “outright contempt for our Constitution ... This is not the America I want for my children; this is not the America I know.” He continued, Mike Rhode reports at comicsdc.blogspot.com, by noting journalism’s complicity: “It is grimly ironic that [while] we have one of the most abusive administrations in power, the press is withering within.” ... The third volume of short stories by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Good-Bye, is in the chute for May, according to the current issue of Previews. The stories in this volume were produced in 1971-72, and some of them focus on the effects on Japan of World War II. ... Also forthcoming, Get Lost: the Comic Designed to Send You, collecting all three issues of the Mad-imitation produced in 1953 by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito, plus an essay by Ron Goulart and “tons of documentary material” (it sez here). Get Lost got lost in the aftermath of a law suit brought against it by Mad’s Bill Gaines; Gaines lost the suit but the magazine never re-emerged. Until now.
DBR Media, a syndicate founded eight years ago to service weekly newspapers and small town dailies, ceased operations on March 17, reports Dave Astor at Editor & Publisher. An e-mail to DBR’s roster of over 50 cartoonists and columnists explained that the company has been “experiencing very hard times” and could no longer stay afloat, adding: “Please know that every effort is going to be made to compensate you. Money is still owed to us from clients. We are hoping to recover that.” DBR’s founders—Diane Eckert, Brad Elson, and Richard Wilson, whose first names supplied the company’s name initials—all worked for King Features Weekly Service, with which their new company would be in more-or-less direct competition. While acknowledging the common clientele both companies would pursue, Eckert, who was executive editor of DBR at its founding, felt there was room for both: with over 11,000 weekly papers in the U.S., she noted, there was “more than enough” clients to go around. Apparently not. KFWS, launched in 1986, is still running and, at last report (March 27), had picked up 17 of DBR’s client papers. At least two of the DBR creators are offering their features through georgetoon.com: Polly Keener’s strip Hamster Alley and her puzzle page, Mystery Magic; and Mark Szorady’s comic strip George and comic game panels Double Take, Word Pile, and George’s Word Ladder.
Jim Ivey, founder of the fondly recalled OrlandoCon, proprietor of the cARToon Museum of treasured memory, and a retired editorial cartoonist with a cross-country record (Washington Evening Star, St. Petersburg Times, San Francisco Examiner, and Orlando Sentinel) notes in a recent letter to me that there were 125 full-time staff political cartoonists when he started almost 60 years ago; now there are only 80. Jim also has some new nomenclature for the drawing styles of three “commercial successes” on the comics page. Dilbert belongs to “the circle-templet and straight-edge school of cartooning”; Drabble, “the crayon-on-the-wall school”; and Doonesbury, “the burned-match stick school” (in the early manifestation). “All three got by with the subject matter,” Jim adds. “I still believe Doonesbury was picked up initially because syndicates couldn’t get the 1960s underground comix artists to accept supervision from syndicates’ conservative standards: the early crudity of the art [in Doonesbury] seemed ‘underground’ to them.”
In Entertainment Weekly for February 15, Nisha Gopalan interviewed the Norwegian-born cartoonist Jason (aka John Arne Saeteroy, 42) whose graphic novel speciality is stories populated by people with animal or bird heads, ostensibly anthropomorphic, I guess you’d say. His latest production is a “droll sequel” to Alexander Dumas’ classic; Jason’s is entitled The Last Musketeer. In 2006, Gopalan reports, Jason left Norway for Montpellier in France “because the tradition of making comics is much bigger” in France; in Norway, “it’s for kids, mostly. Originally, I drew in a more realistic style, with people,” he continued. “But they were stiff and didn’t look that convincing.” (So he’s settled for stiff people with animal heads—how convincing is that? Sorry. Snide comment uncalled for. Perhaps.) He goes on: “I buy more DVDs than I buy comics. Musketeer is influenced by the film serials from the forties, like ‘Flash Gordon.’” As for his spare dialogue? “I’m a big fan of Buster Keaton.” And his stories end sadly because sad endings are more memorable. “If Ingrid Berman and Humphrey Bogart had gotten together in ‘Casablanca’—it would not have been the same thing.”
Can’t escape EW this time out, it seems. The magazine named “Popeye the Sailor 1933-38, Vol. 1" the Number Two DVD of 2007 in its year-end issue and ranked Well, Blow Me Down! Vol. 2, Fantagraphics’ reprint of E.C. Segar’s strip, as the Number Two “Best Comics of 2007.” Vol. 2 of the animated cartoon, covering 1938-1940, will be released in June, reports King Features, which syndicates the strip. ... Apparently Asterix is going into the movies, live-action, with “Asterix at the Olympic Games,” Gerard Depardieu playing—Asterix? ... In Japan, some 250 pieces of animation art from Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” were discovered in a storage closet where they’ve languished for 50 years. “Cels, backgrounds, preliminary paintings and sketches had been sent to Japan in 1960 for an exhibit to promote the film,” reports The Week. When the exhibition closed, the artwork was stored in a closet and forgotten. Now all of it is being sent back to Disney.
The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world: the “land of the free” currently holds one out of every 100 Americans in prison. “Per capita,” says Derrick Z. Jackson at the Boston Globe, “our rate of imprisonment easily exceeds that of Russia, is six times that of China, and seven times that of Germany and France”—thanks to “draconian” drug laws. “Most of those sentenced to long prison terms are black: one in 15 black men is in jail, compared to one in 106 white males.” And what has this factoid to do with cartooning? Nothing: it ain’t funny, McGee.
In his new book Maps and Legends, Michael Chabon reveals, according to EW (March 21), that he was passionately fond of Howard Chaykin’s 1980s sci-fi series American Flagg!, which is being reprinted, at last, after a delay of four years, by Dynamic Forces and Image. Hardcover will be out in July, with a two-volume paperback following in the fall. Chaykin left comic books for a few years in the late seventies to do "visual novels" for Byron Preiss. For Empire (1978) and The Stars My Destination (1979), he produced fully painted illustrations—several to a page in the fashion of comic book panels—that shared the narrative with the original author's accompanying text. When he returned to comic books in 1983 with American Flagg! for First Comics, Chaykin brought with him a heightened sense of design, and the pages of Flagg! are laid out like posters, panels alternating with full-figure renderings or lobby-card close-ups against a plain white ground. Typography also plays a dramatic role in the page designs and in the narrative itself, different type faces evoking a variety of emotional responses. The pronounced design quality of his pages gives sheer imagery a narrative role; there is little continuity of action in the usual manner of comics. The reader absorbs the story as a series of impressions, and Chaykin heightened the sense that the narrative progressed by imagistic fits and starts with a storyline that is extremely elliptical, jumping from one incident to the next and landing his readers, often, in the midst of the action with little or no preamble. And he employed the cinematic maneuver of the voice-over: in the last panel of a sequence, the speech balloons of the next sequence frequently appear, making the bridge between scenes. When more elaborate connective tissue was needed, he used television as his narrator: TV commentators supply explanatory background with their reports and analyses of the "news."
In subject, Chaykin's story is gritty and vulgar: it plunges through street gang violence in a futuristic multiplex with Reuben Flagg's sexual dalliances as a leitmotif. American Flagg! is sophisticated and intellectually intriguing, often in the manner of puzzle-solving. Emotionally, however, the tales are seldom engaging; none of Chaykin's characters are sympathetic enough to make us like them. Still, Chaykin's book is for adults: it is mature in theme and in manner of presentation. For its landmark innovative visual treatment alone, American Flagg! has deserved reprinting and handsome packaging ever since it first appeared. The project announced in January 2004, however, was apparently doomed from the start.
Interviewed by Matt Brady at newsarma.com, Chaykin explained the long lapse between that announcement and the projected publication this summer by saying that technological problems loomed almost at once. “The original art is long gone,” he said, so the reprint is being assembled by digitizing whatever images they can find, including the existing printed pages, and then re-coloring. Four years ago, the technology for achieving this result easily, inexpensively, had not yet been developed. And because the comic books of the 1980s were printed on plastic plates, the imagery to be digitized is often problematic even with today’s technology. But Chaykin is as convinced as he can be (until he holds the final hardcover reprint in his hands, he said) that the present effort will result in a “beautiful facsimile that still maintains the integrity of the original material but has a polish and sheen that supports it in a contemporary way.” The volume that will appear this summer includes the first 14 issues of American Flagg! plus a new 12-page “vignette that touches all the bases of the strip,” Chaykin said. Apparently, only the hardcover will include this new material. There is already talk of a second volume that would reprint the series up through No. 24.
John Rose is one of several editorial cartoonists who also does a syndicated comic strip. In addition to doing four or five editorial cartoons every week for a newspaper chain based in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where he lives, Rose also produces Kid’s Home Newspaper, a weekend activity page for children distributed by Copley News Service. And he does the legendary Snuffy Smith, a strip originated as Barney Google by Billy DeBeck in the late teens of the last century and continued, after DeBeck died in 1942, by another legend, Fred Lasswell. Rose was interviewed by John Read for the first issue of Stay ’Tooned, Read’s new quarterly magazine about cartooning. Here, I quote some from Rose’s part of that exchange.
Lasswell hired Rose as his inking assistant in 1988 because, Rose said, “he liked the way I drew big noses.” Rose worked in his Harrisonburg studio, connecting to Lasswell by fax, telephone, and e-mail and visiting Lasswell occasionally in his Florida studio. “He was the greatest cartoonist I’ve ever known,” Rose said, “and the biggest influence on my career. ‘Uncle Fred,’ as he liked to be called, was an extremely talented artist and writer, a wonderful teacher, and a great human being. His death in 2001 was a shock; I lost a mentor and a friend. And I didn’t know whether that chapter in my life was closing or if something new was going to happen. I heard nothing from King Features [about continuing the strip] for a few weeks after Fred passed away. He worked very far ahead, so Snuffy Smith was still running. Jay Kennedy, the editor-in-chief at King Features, knew that I had been assisting Fred, and called and invited me to audition, along with four other cartoonists, for the job. I was elated when Jay selected me! I never assumed the job was mine. I just felt very fortunate to be considered. It was the greatest opportunity to come my way, and I will always be very grateful to Fred, Jay Kennedy, and King Features. Working with Snuffy Smith each day is a lot of fun. I think the secret to its success, and the reason I really enjoy doing it, is the characters that Billy DeBeck and Fred created: they are just great characters to work with and fun characters to draw.”
In another article published several years ago, I read that Rose relies on gag writers for much of his comedy in the strip. And much of that comedy, in contrast to the Lasswell kind, is verbal rather than visual-verbal. Lasswell’s jokes invariably involved a picture in the punchline panel: the picture gave the words their humor. Maybe that’s one of the reasons that Uncle Fred is a legend.
For Stay ’Tooned information, visit staytoonedmagazine.com where subscriptions are offered: $40 for a 5-issue subscription.
At Archie Comics (wouldn’t you know?), they’re not finished experimenting with the new “realistic” look that was introduced with last year’s 4-part “Bad Boy Trouble” in the Betty & Veronica Digest. Now Jughead, the least humanoid-looking of the regular cast, gets the make-over treatment in Jughead’s Double Digest, starting with No. 139. Evidently the experiment with Betty and Veronica was a success, pulling in new readers who were on the lookout for manga-style books about young people. John Read interviewed Steven Butler, the cartoonist who did the girls’ make-over, in the first issue of Stay ’Tooned. Butler said he was very nearly overwhelmed by the response to the new look. “It’s been weird,” he said. “You go online and you see all this ‘I hate it! I hate it!’ and ‘The art is ugly!’ and all this stuff, and it’s like, man, you gotta have a thick skin. I never had to deal with stuff like that before with the Spider-Man or Badger books. ... I really didn’t know what to expect from the fans because I’d never done anything like this. One day—and this was before the first issue had even come out—my wife Christy was yelling my name, telling me to ‘Come here! Come here!’ and I jumped up and grabbed a T-square—ironically, I was working on a Betty & Veronica page right then— and ran into our den, where I was expecting to find a rat or a snake or something, which isn’t uncommon where we live [Lucedale, MS]. I’m going ‘What?! What is it?! Where is it?!’ And Christy’s pointing at the tv, saying, ‘Look! Look on the tv!’ and there’s Regis Philbin holding up artwork from the first issue, art that had appeared in The New York Times the day before. Regis is holding up this art, the same first page that’s been all over the Internet now, holding it up to the camera, and he’s saying, ‘Well, Kelly, what do you think about the new look of Betty and Veronica?’ So I’m standing there thinking, well, hey, and he holds the artwork up for a good long time, talking about it and all. He didn’t mention my name, but I’m thinking, ‘Good Lord—there’s my art!’
“Later,” Butler continued, “I heard it was a feature story on ‘The Today Show’ on NBC and it was mentioned on several other shows, too. And then, of course, it was spreading like wildfire all over the Internet. I went and Googled the ‘Betty & Veronica make-over’ and, when we saw all the stuff there, I though, ‘Man, this is definitely a polarizing thing.’ First of all, a lot of people thought Archie was making a wholesale change. But it was just a trial thing, an experiment with just the one storyline. Maybe they (Archie Comics) didn’t word it right in their announcements ... or maybe they did that on purpose, but either way, it got them a lot of publicity. Controversy or not, it put the ‘make-over’ on the map. Archie’s not known for taking chances, they’re more of a ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ company, so I’m sure they heard what the fans were saying. The trade book [that’s coming out about now], by the way, was what they wanted to do first originally, to put out something that could go on shelves next to all the manga books; they wanted to hit that niche market, to test the waters. Them deciding to run the story in serialized form was, like, not an afterthought but something that came secondary: ‘Hey, why don’t we serialize it first, then put it out in a collection?’ I understand they’re going to do another serious story, another four-parter, in another one of the digest comics, but the art will be more in the house style, the Dan DeCarlo look. They say it’s because of the overwhelming negative mail they’ve gotten. You know, I’ve never had anybody come up to me and say they hated the stuff—everybody I’ve met has told me how cool it looked, and how they wish it would continue on.”
Judging from the covers reproduced in Previews, the Jughead adventure will not be rendered in the DeCarlo manner—well, not much. It looks like a second installment of the “experiment” to me. This may be the thin edge of the wedge, kimo sabe: maybe the entire line of Archie books will, in a year or so, get a make-over. In another Jughead title, Jughead and Friends, Jug gets to play Riverdale Jones, an archeologist-adventurer in search of the Temple of Food. And in Betty & Veronica Double Digest, fans will get to decide the outcome of a romance Cheryl Blossom gets herself into, starting with No. 161.
As I said, just a moment ago, for Stay ’Tooned information, visit staytoonedmagazine.com where subscriptions are offered: $40 for a 5-issue subscription.
DANISH DOZEN SOME MORE AND A SWASTIKA
In an audio message posted in mid-March, the notorious international outlaw caveman Osama bin Laden expressed his displeasure at the recent re-printing in Denmark newspapers of the offensive Muhammad cartoons of 2006 (or 2005, depending upon where you put the benchmark). The Associated Press reported that Bin Laden described the cartoons as part of a “new Crusade” against Islam and, in lurching lingo that attempted to vault with religious fervor, warned of forthcoming retribution: “The response will be what you see and not what you hear and let our mothers bereave us if we do not make victorious our messenger of God.” The occasion for bin Laden’s rant may have been Muhammad’s birthday celebration throughout the Muslim world, but this isn’t the first time bin Laden has employed the Danish Dozen to whip up Islamic ire. He delivered a 50-minute harangue in April 2006, this time attacking Arab governments “for their inappropriate response to the publication of the cartoons,” said Flemming Rose, who, as culture editor of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper, commissioned the cartoon project that subsequently set the Muslim world aflame in 2006. “Obviously,” Rose continued in a recent article posted by pajamasmedia.com, “bin Laden would have preferred more killings and torchings of embassies. Bin Laden made clear that he saw the blasphemous Danish cartoons as a worse attack on Islam than the invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan.” The caveman cited what he called “the Prophet’s law” that “anyone who mocks him and belittles Islam and scorns it should be killed.” Bin Laden is apparently concerned about the rise in Europe of tough national leaders who reject jihadi intimidations as well as the Islamic call for Western countries to curtail traditional freedoms in deference to Muslim sensitivities. Said Rose: “What should be the response of Europe? More cartoons or less cartoons? What kind of civilization are we, after all, if we refrain from mocking and ridiculing bin Laden and his followers?”
Meanwhile, Kurt Westergaard, the cartoonist whose picture of Muhammad wearing a bomb-like turban is sometimes regarded as the most blasphemous of the lot, moved into another safe house, his sixth since the imbroglio began in 2006. “This will go on for the rest of my life, I am sure,” he said, quoted by Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times. “I will never get out of this. But I feel more anger than fear. I’m angry because my life is threatened, and I know I have done nothing wrong, just done my job. Anger,” he said, smiling, “is the best therapy.”
Under normal circumstances, Westergaard is apparently happy to be somewhat controversial. When he visited the Jyllands-Posten offices recently, he was attired, “as usual, in fire-engine red pants, a patterned red scarf and a Sgt. Pepper black coat—clearly an act of sartorial defiance,” wrote Kimmelman. “Now he’s accustomed to being (and maybe, who is to say, even slightly enjoys his status as) an accidental celebrity with a soapbox,” he continued, quoting Westergaard again: “Disagreement is an essential part of democracy. I want to explain my sense of this clash between two cultures because I have grandchildren who will grow up in this multicultural society. The Danes are tolerant people. They don’t deserve to be treated like racists.” He is probably not surprised that the cartoons aroused such anger in the Muslim world: “Cartoons always concentrate and simplify an idea and allow a quick impression that arouses some strong feeling,” he said. He did a cartoon recently in which Jesus, wearing a suit and tie, is depicted striding away from the cross on which hangs a sign: “Service hours, Sunday, 10-11, 2-3.” It is perhaps as sacrilegious to Christians as Muhammad in a tur-bomb is to Muslims. Islamic piety over the Danish Dozen, however, hasn’t altered Westergaard’s view of religion: “I’ve always been an atheist,” he said, “and I dare say these events have only intensified my atheism. But the same clash would eventually have occurred over some book or a play. It was waiting to happen.”
Flemming Rose, by the way, doesn’t live in safe houses, but he has removed his name from the local telephone directory, and he learned that a different Flemming Rose (“there are apparently several in Denmark,” adds Kimmelman) decided to change his name.
On this side of the Atlantic, cartoonist Sam Gross (The New Yorker, Esquire and a life-long raft of other magazines) carries on his fight against the power of the swastika as a symbol, and his collection of cartoons on the subject, We Have Ways of Making You Laugh: 120 funny Swastika Cartoons, is certain to provoke rage and hurt feelings. “Some people,” reports CBC News, “have accused the cartoonist of trivializing the Holocaust by using the swastika in cartoons.” Said Gross: “I’m not trivializing the Holocaust. I’m trivializing the swastika. The swastika is not the Holocaust. The swastika is a symbol.” The swastika has been around for thousands of years, explained CBC, “primarily in Hindu culture. Since Adolf Hitler adopted it as the emblem of the Nazi Party ... the sign has become associated with painful memories of the Holocaust.” Gross, who has been cartooning for over 40 years, said his goal was to take the power out of the symbol and also to be funny. “The symbol is held in such awe and terror,” he said. “I just got so angry that I decided to have fun with it.” In one of his cartoons, a vandal is shown painting a swastika on a wall, and a dog, watching him, says: “Try scent marking. It’s nicer.”
Fascinating Footnit. Much of the news retailed in this segment is culled from articles eventually indexed at http://www.rpi.edu/~bulloj/comxbib.html, the Comics Research Bibliography, maintained by Michael Rhode and John Bullough, which covers comic books, comic strips, animation, caricature, cartoons, bandes dessinees and related topics. It also provides links to numerous other sites that delve deeply into cartooning topics. Three other sites laden with cartooning news and lore are Mark Evanier’s www.povonline.com, Alan Gardner’s www.DailyCartoonist.com, and Tom Spurgeon’s www.comicsreporter.com. And then there’s Mike Rhode’s ComicsDC blog, http://www.comicsdc.blogspot.com For delving into the history of our beloved medium, you can’t go wrong by visiting Allan Holtz’s http://www.strippersguide.blogspot.com, where Allan regularly posts rare findings from his forays into the vast reaches of newspaper microfilm files hither and yon.
QUOTES AND MOTS
Here’s Chris Rock on some Election Year issues:
On George Bush: He’s made it hard for a white man to run for president. People are saying, “After Bush, I’m not sure we can take another chance on a white guy.”
On Barack Obama: Sometimes I feel like Barack forgets he’s the black candidate in the race: he’s running like he can win this shit fair and square.
These gems I found quoted in the March issue of Funny Times, about which I’ve written here before, entirely laudatory persiflage. And I’m about to do it again. They offer a complete line of T-shirts with so-called witticisms like this on them: What if the Hokey Pokey is what it’s all about? Or: Somewhere in Texas there’s a village missing an idiot. Or: Mall-Wart, Your Source for Cheap Plastic Crap. Or: Well-behaved women seldom make history.
You can find these, I’m told, at the Tunny Fimes website: funnytimes.com.
The monthly newspaper, Funny Times, publishes humor columns, gag cartoons, editorial cartoons, and a few comic strips. And at the Funny Times Cartoon Playground (which you can find your way to via the afore-mentioned website), you can find an assortment of caricatures of notorious persons by Matt Wuerker, various props, and a mechanism by which you can construct your very own political cartoon/strip. “It’s fun, it’s free, and if you come up with something special, we might even print your creation in an upcoming issue of Funny Times.” And whether printed in the newspaper or not, it’ll be visible at the Cartoon Playground gallery where anyone in the worldwide web can see it.
Subscriptions to this sterling publication are $25/year (12 monthly issues); visit the website or send your money to Funny Times, P.O. Box 18530, Dept. 7AJV, Cleveland Heights, OH 44118.
Afflicting the Comfortable and Comforting the Afflicted
Hillary Clinton doesn’t have the body of Paris Hilton or Angelina Jolie, and that may be a good thing: at least, we’re spared the sort of tabloid coverage of her campaign that would compete with the Swimsuit Issue of Sports Illustrated. But Hillary doesn’t have the body of Donna Reed or Barbara Billingsley (Beaver’s mom) either. Instead, she has the typical physique of a woman in her fifties whose figure has given way to middle-aged spread. She is, as we were wont to say in our sexist youth, “broad in the beam.” And that aspect of her appearance, which in most walks of American life would receive no more notice than an occasional gray hair or crow’s feet at the corner of the eyes, gives political cartoonists something to exaggerate in caricature. It is inevitable, then, that cartoons about Hillary depict her as a somewhat dumpy broad-in-the-beam broad, particularly since most political cartooners are male and given to ogling Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue with a connoisseur-like delection, a penchant that inclines them to make fun of anyone who must squeeze rather than slip into a bikini. Cartoonists have little choice in the matter: depicting Hillary as svelte would be not only dishonest, it might be inept. (Although Ann Telnaes has managed to achieve a caricature of Hillary that is both honest and ept without being unflattering.) Still, we ought to be able to achieve candor in caricature without the sort of sexist bias that is on display in Daryl Cagle’s drawing for the Caption Contest run recently at the Humor Times website. (That’s Humor Times, not Funny Times—both excellent weekly papers, though.) The drawing qualifies as sexist because Cagle has elected to depict Hillary at full length—permitting him the forgivable pleasure of drawing a picture of her funny figure—but has drawn only the faces of the two male candidates. Both the male candidates have bodies that can easily be caricatured—Barack Obama is tall and skinny and John McCain’s post-Vietnam disability makes his arms seem attached at his neck—but Cagle, being sexist and male (interchangeable personality traits), ignores the body comedy in Obama and in McCain while picking on Hillary. Being sexist and male, he evidently thinks it’s more fun to ridicule her middle-aged spread than the physical oddities of the male candidates. But I think we ought to take delight in all such irregularities, and so I have, for the nonce, assumed the temerity to produce an object lesson.Pretty funny, eh? What a Laurel and Hardy campaign we’ll have if Obama gets the Democrat nomination.
“A bad year for the nation is usually a good year for a political cartoonist” observed Joel Weickgenant at new.savannahnow.com, writing about an exibition of cartoons by Pat Oliphant. Oliphant agrees; in fact, Oliphant probably gave Weickgenant the idea. It’s been “extremely good” for editooning for the last seven years, Oliphant said. “We haven’t had such a good time since the Nixon years. In fact, those years now seem tame.” Sometimes Oliphant’s politics interfere with his instinct as a cartoonist: he claims to be “horrified at the idea of Hillary as president. Although as a cartoonist, I should be delighted.”
MORE QUOTES AND MOTS
“If I have anything to answer for, it’s making the comics page safe for bad drawing.” —Garry Trudeau
Sign in the window of Pete’s Café: “Eat at Pete’s or We’ll Both Starve.”
“If we’re going to talk about Star Wars, we might as well invite Darth Vader. I’m happy to accept.” —Darth Cheney, displaying what in anyone else might be called a sense of humor but with him, it’s a sense of menace.
COMIC STRIP WATCH
Darrin Bell persists. A few weeks ago, one of his Candorville sequences observed that security at Barack Obama rallies is somewhat lax. The Washington Post, as we reported here last time (Op. 219), dropped those strips without saying why. Maybe the moguls there thought that advertising the lapse in security would be tempting fate. Who knows? But Bell didn’t let it go at that. The week of March 24, Bell’s protagonist, would-be writer Lemont Brown, dreams himself back into mid-19th century America—during Lincoln’s presidency, to be precise—where he convinces Thomas Nast to draw cartoons that campaign for better security for the President. In a sly self-deprecating turn (in which is embedded a dig at the Washington Post), Bell makes Nast a pompous egotist who tells Lemont: “If, as you say, Lincoln is in danger, my powerful call to action will change everything.” Says Lemont: “You don’t have any self-esteem problems, do you?” Neatly done. By the end of the week, Bell had turned his satire full-bore on timid newspaper editors and publishers. Nast’s publisher refuses to print Nast’s cartoon about Lincoln’s danger, to which Nast says: “But my cartoons demanding better security for Abraham Lincoln may prevent a horrible tragedy and spare the nation 100 years of misery and hate.” Says his publisher: “Yes, yes—but on the other hand, a dozen or so readers may take offense.” The next day, Lemont reacts: “When we produce a society where editors and readers are afraid of discussing grave issues, we deserve the absolute hell that comes to us.” Not just kiddin’ around anymore, eh?
In Greg Evans’ Luann, her brother Brad goes on his date with Toni, and all of us incorrigible romantic nerds sigh with envy. ... In Darby Conley’s Get Fuzzy, easy-going and somewhat dim-witted Satchel says he learned how to swear by reading the comics in newspapers. “Dollar sign! Dollar sign! Asterisk! Ampersand! Squiggly!” he fulminates. “What else did you learn from the comics?” asks his owner, the hapless Rob. “Cats are evil,” says Satchel. “What else, what else? Oh, it’s 1954.” ... Barack Obama shows up, from the neck down, in Over the Hedge: RJ has recruited him to secure the release of a pit bull pup who has been arrested for stealing a semi. ...In other political comics content, in Scott Stantis’ Prickly City, where the coyote Winslow is running for Prez, he tells Carmen that he’s been imagining someone else, other than Carmen, as his running mate. Then, in a speech balloon emanating off-panel, we read: “Obama’s only ahead ’cause he’s a Negro!” To which Winslow says, hastily: “But Geraldine Ferraro means nothing to me.” From off-panel, we hear the last word: “Heck, I was only on the ticket in ’84 ’cause I have ovaries.” The next day Stantis’ aims his ridicule in a slightly different direction: Winslow, still at the lectern ostensibly holding a news conference, has Carmen at his side as he confesses that “I have been with another running mate outside of my ticket.” Carmen: “This is so degrading,” standing here, next to the miscreant. Winslow: “I am truly sorry if I caused pain to my campaign family.” “IF?!” says Carmen. ... In another department of the Risque, another bathroom joke in Hagar when the eponymous one says to one of his crew as they row out to sea, “You should have thought of that before we left! You’ll just have to wait!”
And maybe Stephan Pastis of Pearls before Swine is getting some long overdue comeuppance. In The Humble Stumble, Roy Schneider has the Rat from Pearls show up to announce, in his usual mean-spirited way, that he’s heard Humble Stumble is “closing up shop.” He’s there, he says, for “dibs on your stuff.” “Suddenly,” says Schneider’s character who professed great affection for Rat two panels ago, “I don’t love you so much.” Over at Pearls, where he belongs, Rat has been serving at the concierge desk, lobbing hostile greetings to a parade of characters from other strips—the big-nose father from Baby Blues, and Ted Forth from Sally Forth (asking for the services of a female escort, in a not-so-subtle allusion to a recent high profile scandal in the New York governor’s office). Coincidentally (or, maybe not), on the same day that Ted Forth shows up at Rat’s concierge desk in Pearls, in Sally Forth, Ted is telling Sally, “Well, I spoke to the hotel concierge....” Surely, this sort of thing doesn’t happen by accident, and Sally Forth’s writer, Francesco Marciuliano, confirmed my guess at his blogspot, saying Pastis and he had planned it all long ago. ... As for The Humble Stumble, it did, indeed, end last month. It wasn’t a joke. All the characters took a last bow on Sunday, March 9. It was the dramatic conclusion to an unprecedented two-week finale. In the last week of February, the characters learn their strip will end, and suddenly, characters from other strips (Jeremy from Zits, a fish from Sherman’s Lagoon, Cathy) show up, trying to claim Humble’s slot on the funnies pages of the nation. Cathy abandons the idea when she sees Humble’s client list, which, we assume from her sudden disinterest, is too short for her to be concerned. In the following week’s continuity, the characters discover that Schneider, who shows up at the drawing board, is going to keep the ending a secret from his cast. At the last minute, though, he tells them they’re going on a “road trip” back into the dimmer recesses of his brain for “reprocessing.” They all load onto their VW bus, and as they drive off, one of the characters plugs the CD Schneider made of the strip’s “fun songs,” available at www.royschneider.com Unprecedented, like I said.
Verbal witticisms abound. In Mike Peters’ Mother Goose and Grimm we find Grimm and his wall-eyed canine buddy in a diner where they ask the waiter, “What’s your special today?” “Stone crabs,” he says. “Do you have any crabs who aren’t stoned?” “I ... I’m afraid not.” “No wonder they always walk sideways.” I love this stuff. Pictures contribute almost nothing except to identify the speakers in this gag, but the dialogue proceeds with towering logic to its hilariously illogical conclusion. ... Randy Glasbergen’s panel cartoons are also highly verbal (although his pictures are always uproarious in themselves: Glasbergen is the champion cartoon-nose maker of the universe). Here, we see a fellow on the phone and we hear the recorded message he gets: “At this time, we’d like to remind you to eat and drink at regular intervals. Thank you for continuing to hold.” Nice smack-down for banal recorded telephone messages. ... And here are a couple by the redoubtable Dan Piraro in his Bizarro. First, two gorillas, one of whom asks: “We share 99% of our DNA with humans but there are 6 billion of them and we’re nearly extinct. What’s the difference?” The other gorilla says: “We’re pacifists.” In the other one, a shabby-looking homeless guy is saying to a briefcase-carrying businessman, “I’ve discovered that one very effective way to lower your taxes is to make no money.”
And here are a few where the joke does not exist without the picture—or without the words; in short, the best sort of comic strip artistry. Except for Bruce Tinsley’s Mallard Fillmore, which I’ve included here because Tinsley’s caricature of William F. Buckley is perfect.
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
Eric Effron, managing editor of The Week magazine, notes that “advertising is now claiming the final frontier.” Says he: “A science consortium called the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association runs a space center on an Arctic Ocean archipelago that transmits signals into outer space on the outside chance there are species out there who might be listening. For the first time, the scientists have teamed up with a sponsor, Doritos maker Frito-Lay, which has invited the British public to submit 30-second commercials about life on this Doritos-munching planet of ours. The winning entry will be transmitted via ultra-high-frequency radar to a solar system 42 light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major, which scientists say could be teeming with life forms.” So when the citizens of Ursa Major receive a message “brought to you by Doritos,” will they think “Doritos play a central role in our civilization?”
Those Short Lovable Reviews We All Know and Love
The concept of Bill Willingham’s Fables series is among the most intriguing in comics: Snow White, Prince Charming, Bigby “Big Bad” Wolf and other personages familiar from fairy tales told in nurseries around the world actually lived, and they’ve been forced by “the Adversary” to relocate, leaving their magical world for our “mundane” one, where they hide out, taking refuge in our cities but still, secretly, interacting with each other. So when I ran across 1001 Nights of Snowfall (142 7x10-inch pages in color; hardback, $19.99), I leaped at it. Herein, we find ten stories illustrated by the likes of Brian Bolland, John Bolton, Michael Wm. Kaluta, Derek Kirk Kim, Tara McPherson, Jill Thompson, Charles Vess, Mark Wheatley, Esao Andrews, Mark Buckingham, and James Jean, each purporting to relate some incident in the “pre-fairy tale” life of some popular character. We learn, for instance, that “the Runt,” who becomes Bigby, the “Big Bad” Wolf, is the son of the North Wind, hence, his huffing-and-puffing prowess. These prehistoric biographies are not warm and fuzzy like most eviscerated fairy tales these days. Here’s the occupant of the famed Gingerbread House, a witch, who tells her story: impregnated, she kills her newborn at birth, her lover having married the daughter of a rival tribe’s chieftain in order to guarantee peace between the groups. The old woman then assures her power gained by killing her baby by killing other babies, stolen for the purpose. Her exploits resonate with other tales—the Billy Goats Gruff, Rapunzel, the Frog Prince, and the like. Then Hansel and Gretel come along and push her into the oven. Providing the allusion of the book’s title, the frame story is a variation on the old Scherazade dodge: this time, it’s Snow White who is held captive by her just acquired husband, a sultan, who is in the habit of killing his wives on the day after a one-night honeymoon; to forestall the inevitable, Snow tells stories, one a night for 1001 nights. The original Scherazade postponed her wedding’s consummation devoutly to be missed by not finishing a story in a single night: each night, she stopped at an appropriately cliff-hanging moment, so her bloodthirsty spouse had to wait until the next night to kill her. And then, before he could achieve his ghoulish goal, she’d start another tale and stop when she reached an appropriate cliffhanger. Ingenious contrivances though Willingham’s “pre-origin” tales are, they are not, somehow, wholly satisfying. Most of them lack endings that make sense of the machinations that go before; the machinations are interesting—Bigby being the son of the North Wind is an engaging notion—but our interest fades with the lackluster conclusions. The pictures by the all-star ensemble, though, are worth a look.
Batman Illustrated by Neal Adams (340 7x10-inch pages, all in color; hardback, $49.95), is the third volume in a series reprinting Adams’ work on Deadman, Green Arrow/Green Lantern, and Batman, work that, he reluctantly admits in the Introduction here, revolutionized the way comic books were drawn—with dramatic perspectives, dynamic page layouts, and such intense feathering that clothing seemed to soften into gauze. Adams was the artist to imitate almost from his first DC appearance. But it took him a while to get there. DC declined to hire him just after he graduated from highschool in 1959. Adams worked at Archie Comics for a time, then did some commercial illustration, and then, at age 20, he started producing the syndicated comic strip Ben Casey, based upon a popular tv show. After four years of stunning artistic achievement on the strip, Adams gave it up, hoping to get into commercial illustration. But when the sample portfolio he’d spent six months preparing got “lost” at the first place he applied, he returned to cartooning, first at Warren and then, finally, at DC. This book’s ten stories and some covers (at which Adams excelled) starts with his first work for DC, World’s Finest Comics No. 174 (cover-dated April 1968) and showcases Dick Giordano’s deft inking as well as Adams’ pencilling.
An insightful companion to the Adams Batman book, Neal Adams: The Sketchbook (112 7x10-inch pages, b/w; $28) from Vanguard prints a goodly number of badly reproduced pencil drawings and a fair assortment of well-reproduced ones, but the big bonus is that all of them are accompanied by commentary from Adams, which turns the book into a veritable “how to draw” comic books manual. F’instance, under the thumbnail of a page layout, we find this: “One of the things I do now and then with a story is, while keeping the same elements, I try to make the story read faster or slower through design.” Then he shows us how he did it.
The Best of The Harveyville Fun Times (400 8.5x11-inch pages, b/w; paperback, $29.95 at lulu.com) is a sampling by Mark Arnold of his fanzine about the sundry wonders of Harvey Comics. The bulk of the content devolves around plot descriptions of stories about Richie Rich, Casper the Ghost, Little Audrey, Baby Huey, Wendy the Good Little Witch and other of the company’s confections (inspired, usually, from their animated incarnations at shops other than Harvey’s), plus a smattering of the Sad Sack—comic books, tv, movies for all the characters—but there is also a short history of Harvey Comics, probably the only aspect of this volume that is of general use as a reference tool, except, alas, that Arnold is remarkably stingy at citing precise dates. “In 1946,” he says, “Harvey Publications had its first bonafide hit with Black Cat Comics,” but couldn’t he have given the actual cover date (June) of that title’s first issue? Probably not: the book doesn’t deal much with the Black Cat or any of the newspaper strip reprint titles Harvey produced—apart from mentioning them (Terry and the Pirates, Kerry Drake, Li’l Abner, Steve Canyon, Dick Tracy and Blondie) in the Harvey history segment (which promulgates an erroneous newspaper debut date for Ham Fisher’s Joe Palooka comic strip); Arnold’s interest lies with the kiddie characters, not the material aimed at slightly older readers. Much of the book seems to be photocopied from Arnold’s fanzine, the reproduction quality of which, judging from these copied pages, was not high. Some of the photocopies are of newspaper and magazine articles, and a few of the artists are interviewed, with brevity, apparently, as the object. Nice pieces on Fred Rhoads (Sad Sack) but nothing on Lee Elias (Black Cat). The tome is a sampling of Arnold’s fanzine, not an encyclopedia: not all the stories of every character are described or, even, listed, but the book is all there is about the Harvey Empire, so until some researcher with better archival instincts comes along, we’re stuck with this. By the way, the Harvey family under the microscope here, Alfred and his brothers Robert and Leon, is no relation of mine or of my uncles, Fred and Paul.
If, like me, you have only a nodding but appreciative acquaintance with the work of Edward Sorel, you can get to know him much better in all his sardonic brilliance with Just When You Thought Things Couldn’t Get Worse (170 8x10-inch pages, some in color; paperback, $18.95 from Fantagraphics), a collection of Sorel’s cartoons and comic strips, culled from a his three decades of casting a jaundiced eye at American political and social life. I’ve see his cartoony paintings and penwrought illustrations on the covers of and inside such magazines as The New Yorker, Time, Rolling Stone, Esquire and The Atlantic, and while I admired his scribbly penmanship, I didn’t realize, until now, that the man is more cartoonist than illustrator: he dotes on the comic strip form because he can turn its capacity for comedic timing into a satirical weapon. Like Jules Feiffer who pioneered the method, Sorel dribbles out, panel by panel, self-revelatory bits of his monologuist’s hang-ups and preoccupations until, at last, having accumulated enough psychic evidence to condemn himself, his momentary protagonist stands psychologically naked before us, a screaming neurotic whose inability to live in the world is determined by a compulsion to analyze it. The intellectual is revealed as the incompetent. Here’s a man seated in a chair, mulling over his political experience as “The Voter,” saying: “In ’64, I voted for Johnson because he promised peace.” Next panel: “But he betrayed me. He escalated the war!” Then in successive panels, two per administration, he continues: “In ’68, I voted for Nixon because he promised an end to Big Government. But I was fooled again. He bugged phones, opened mail, and doubled the White House staff. In ’76, I voted for Carter because he promised to cut military expenditures. But instead, he kept raising the military budget year after year! Finally, I figured it out. I realized that politicians always do the opposite of what they promise. So I voted for Reagan. But he’s doing exactly what he said he’d do,” he concludes, now a quivering blob of desperate disillusionment. While much of Sorel’s cartooning oeuvre is like this—largely verbal, the medium deployed mostly to time the divulgences—he sometimes recruits pictures to his purpose, too.
In an admirably brusque introduction, Sorel traces his career, beginning in the mid-1950s with his associations with Monocle, Ramparts, and New Yorker Magazine, continuing in 1974 with the Village Voice, for which he produced a weekly cartoon “just a page away from the man who had inspired me to do political satire, Jules Feiffer,” then children’s books and Penthouse (“the only mass magazine that allowed me to do anti-clerical cartoons”) and, for long stretches in the 1980s, The Nation, ending, finally, in 1992, at The New Yorker again. The book is organized into chapters by the victims of Sorel’s savagery: Religion, Politics, Business, Life, and then, in one disconnected lump, Writers, Actors, Editors, Artists, Shrinks, Lawyers, and other Public Malignities. Here is a too short sampling.
ONWARD, THE SPREADING PUNDITRY
The Great Ebb and Flow of Things
The “surge,” we are told, is working. Iraq is becoming, day by day, more peaceful. But it isn’t military might or diplomatic acumen that has caused the great “Awakening,” as it is called when Iraqis suddenly stop shooting at each other and at Americans. Nope: it’s the Almighty Dollar. We’re now paying “salaries” to nearly 80,000 of the “militiamen” at a monthly cost of roughly $24 million. To qualify for a salary, a militiaman simply stops hostile violent behavior; he must also belong to a militia whose sheik has worked the deal with American commanders. It’s fairly easy to see how this came about: we’ve managed to utterly destroy Iraqi economy. The only way a man can earn a living to support his family is to work for Uncle Sam. Newsweek reports that Congress has already allocated $767 million for this purpose this year, “and the Pentagon plans to ask for $450 million more.”
A RAMBLE THROUGH THE HISTORY OF COMICS CRITICISM
The Comics Journal recently passed its 30th anniversary, and I intended to take note of it by reviewing the book I’m going to review here. Serious criticism of comics may have gone forward without the Journal, but it’s difficult to know where. The only other periodical devoted regularly to the comics was, back then—thirty years ago—the Comics Buyer’s Guide, but it was then and is now essentially a cheerleader for the industry, not a critic of any of it. And ivied-covered walls would likely not be much help in fostering a serious comics criticism for general consumption: academia has a penchant for drowning itself in self-indulgent obscurities in prose and thought. Like much theoretical scholarly endeavor, exploration of this sort is useful in its own peculiar, trickle-down way: some of it legitimizes the artform as it eventually filters through to popular criticism, and, hence, to the makers of comics, thereby influencing not only the cultural acceptance of comics but the ways comics are made. But academic criticism is not intended for a general readership. Or even a “fan readership.” No, it took Gary Groth and the Journal to kick-start serious popular culture critical writing about the comics. But we’d be mistaken if we believed there was no serious criticism before the Journal. There was. A good bit of it.
David Manning White and Robert H. Abel collected almost two dozen essays about cartooning and comics in 1963 for their The Funnies: An American Idiom, including pieces by actual practitioners of the art, Al Capp, Walt Kelly, and Allen Saunders. And there were also a few sprouts of theoretical writing about the comics in magazines and journals now too fugitive to be readily at hand for consultation. At last, though, someone has cobbled up an ingenious compilation of long lost scholarly and critical essays on the cartooning medium, Arguing the Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium (200 6x9-inch pages in paperback, $22, from the University Press of Mississippi). The ingenuity is that of the editors, Kent Worcester and Jeet Heer, who combed vast quantities of magazines and journals from 1895 to 1972 to unearth these gems of furtive admiration or thundering condemnation from the likes of Thomas Mann, Gilbert Seldes, E.E. Cummings, Dorothy Parker, Robert Warshow, Walter Ong, Marshall McLuhan, Gershon Legman, Leslie Fiedler, Umberto Eco, and a dozen more. This is a genuinely bright idea. Someone should have had this notion a long time ago. Maybe the two editors did, but it wasn’t until 2002 or so that the University Press of Mississippi (publisher of four of my books) recognized that the idea was a brilliant one, bringing out the book in 2004.
Worcester and Heer aim to “recover” the incidental critical writings about comics by “influential reviewers and critics—literary masters, if you will—who wrote on comics during the long epoch between the introduction of cheaply printed images and the consolidation of popular culture studies.” Interviewed by Tom Spurgeon, Heer said they looked for articles that “(1) appeared in general interest magazines or books rather than specialized academic tomes, (2) were written by writers of some accomplishment, and (3) appeared between 1890 and the 1960s.” He elaborated: “General interest writing is preferable because it’s engaged in a public debate rather than addressed to a particular field or discipline.” He acknowledged that discussion of comics existed before 1890, but “the intensity of the debate changed once comics became part of the fabric of daily life” as comic strips in daily newspapers. They ended their search for appropriate essays with the 1960s because after 1960, “the terms of the debate change and you start seeing critics who specialize in comics, in both fandom and the academy.”
The earliest published opinions about comics tended to be influenced by a literary bent that “objected to any effort to place commercial images on an equal footing with text.” In short, to the literary-minded, words were superior to pictures, and, in fact, pictures could pervert words. The earliest critic they quote is Sidney Fairfield, who wrote in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine for June 1895, taking the illustrator to task for “perverting” the “facts” (the text) by exaggerating. “He makes effects; he does not inform.” For Fairfield, the illustrator cannot add anything to “the well-developed characterizations of our successful novelists.” If the illustrator does not commit “a literary crime” by distorting the effects of a writer’s prose, then he is likely to take his cue “for a picture from some such inadequate and puerile suggestion as that conveyed in the familiar climax of love stories: ‘And she fell on his breast and wept tears of unutterable joy.’”
Through much of the serious thinking and writing about cartooning, this anti-image bias prevails. Talking with Spurgeon, Heer said: “I think especially in the Anglo-American culture, there is strong distrust of visual culture, particularly in its popular vulgar form. This goes back, I think, to the Reformation. Catholicism made its arguments through visual media like architecture (think of all those great cathedrals), painting (the Sistine chapel), and stained glass windows. Reacting against this, Protestants argued that truth resides in words alone: only reading the Bible can give you truth. To the Protestant mind, pictures are always suspect—babbles to confuse children and the weak-minded. This attitude, secularized in the 19th century, is the undercurrent of most hostility towards comics (and cognate art forms like film). Combined is a general suspicion of popular culture as debased and dehumanizing. Of course, if you read a lot of the crappy comics of the past, you realized that there was ample evidence to support this point of view.”
I’m not so sure about trundling in the Reformation to make the case, but Heer’s point is demonstratively valid from daily experience without invoking Papal authority: pictures in this culture aren’t serious; words are—the longer and the more of them, the better.
The essays in the book are divided into three sections more-or-less chronologically, beginning with “Early Twentieth-Century Voices” (roughly everything before the 1940s), then “The New York Intellectuals” (1940s) and “The Postwar Mavericks” (1950s and 1960s), the most recent by Don Phelps, whose writings yielded two for this compilation, both 1969. Each section is introduced by the editors, who provide some helpful orienting context for the essays to follow.
By the 1920s, comics had joined jazz as artistic phenomena worthy of serious critical attention, and Worcester and Heer reprint all of Gilbert Seldes’ celebrated essay, “The Krazy Kat That Walks by Himself” from his 1924 book, The Seven Lively Arts. From this once-provocative tome, we have been extracting Seldes' Krazy essay for years, claiming it is the first serious critical endorsement of cartooning as an art form. Oddly, another Seldes essay in the 1924 volume, "The 'Vulgar' Comic Strip," has, as far as I know, never been reprinted. And it isn't in the Worcester-Heer tome either.
In that essay, Seldes allows that the comic strip "is the most despised and with the exception of the movies it is the most popular ... of all the lively arts." He looks, briefly, at several of the 1920s crop— The Gumps, Bringing Up Father (known, usually, as "Jiggs and Maggie"), Mutt and Jeff, Jerry on the Job, The Hallroom Boys, Happy Hooligan, and a couple of other favorites of the day that have since sunk without a trace into the bog of forgetfulness. Says Seldes: "The comic strip has been from the start a satirist of manners; remembering that it arrived at the same time as the Chicago World's Fair (1893), recalling the clothes, table manners, and conversation of those days, it is easy to see how the murmured satiric commentary of the comic strip undermined our self-sufficiency, pricked our conceit, and corrected our gaucherie. ... I am convinced that none of our realists in fiction come so close to the facts of the average man, none of our satirists are so gentle and so effective."
The origin of Seldes' book reveals that its connection with comics is even more intimate than the two essays on the subject suggest. The 1957 edition modifies the original in two ways. First, Seldes has added comments to most of the chapters to reflect later developments; but the original text remains unaltered. Secondly, "for the historically minded," he has supplied an Introduction in which he explains that he first voiced the idea for the book in 1922 after witnessing "one of the last performances of one of Al Jolson's weakest stage shows." But he also reveals that another theatrical production in February of the same year was more a propos his book and its purpose. This was a ballet based upon George Herriman's strip. "The ballet was enchanting," Seldes writes. "The scenery, by Herriman, unrolled like a sideways roller-towel; the scenario was a distillation of a hundred strips." He continues: "In a way, the Krazy Kat ballet demonstrated both the essence and the eccentricity of what I was going to be doing for several years. My theme was to be that entertainment of a high order existed in places not usually associated with Art, that the place where an object was to be seen or heard had no bearing on its merits, that some of Jerome Kern's songs in the 'Princess' shows were lovelier than any number of operatic airs and that a comic strip printed on news pulp which would tatter and rumple in a day might be as worthy of a second look as a considerable number of canvasses at most of our museums."
Seldes wrote the book while in Paris, and the entire thing, all twenty-two chapters of it on the gamut of the "lively arts," was written "from memory"—except, he adds, for a folio of Krazy Kat strips and a few clippings. No other "notes, data or documentation."
Most of the Introduction Seldes devotes to explaining how, in seeking to champion the popular arts, he had inadvertently set up a rivalry between the arts—the "lively" ones and the rest, which might be termed "dull" or, even, "dead." In the ensuing confusion, which lasted for decades, it was supposed that Seldes was attacking the "great arts" or the "fine arts.” But, no, that was not his purpose. The "enemy" Seldes intended to attack, he says (at last), was the pretentious "high class trash" art that achieved its status by imitating the great styles. The Introduction attempts to eliminate the other great confusion of the book. The "seven" in the title alludes to the classical "seven arts," but the book itself doesn't clearly enumerate seven. "You could make seven," Seldes helpfully notes, if you counted feature movies and Keystone comedies as one of the arts; or "you could make ten if you counted all the forms of music separately. I never took a position on the matter,” he concludes, singularly unhelpful.
The chapter on the Keystone Comedies of Mack Sennett is perhaps more helpful in understanding Seldes’ critical stance. D.W. Griffith and Thomas Ince, Seldes writes, "were both developing the technique of the moving picture [by] exploiting their discoveries with materials equally or better suited to another medium—the stage or the dime novel or whatever. Whereas Mr. Sennett was already so enamoured of his craft that he was doing with the instruments of the moving picture precisely those things which were best suited to it—those things which could not be done with any instrument but the [motion picture] camera, and could appear nowhere if not on the screen. This does not mean that nothing but slap-stick comedy is proper to the cinema; it means only that everything in slap-stick is cinematographic; and since perceiving a delicate adjustment of means to end, or a proper relation between method and material, is a source of pleasure, Mr. Sennett's developments were more capable of pleasing the judicious than those of either of his two fellow workers." After describing the usual hilarities of a chase scene with "the immortal Keystone cops in their flivver, mowing down hundreds of telegraph poles without abating their speed, dashing through houses or losing their wheels and continuing" in the typical Keystone Comedy, Seldes goes on to observe that "everything capable of motion [is] set into motion; and at the height of the revel, the true catastrophe, the solution of the preposterous and forgotten drama, with the lovers united under the canopy of smashed motor cars or the gay feet of Mr. Chaplin gently twinkling down the irised street. And all of this is done with the camera, though action presented to the eye."
Seldes could be me, writing about the visual-verbal blend that is cartooning. Both of us take a medium’s essential characteristic as the basis for artistic achievement and critical assessment. Just as in motion pictures, motion is the medium, so in comics the blend of its basic ingredients, words and pictures, is the medium.
After Seldes, Worcester and Heer leap into the 1940s with Dorothy Parker’s “mash note to Crockett Johnson” (about the celebrated comic strip Barnaby), Clement Greenberg’s appreciations of William Steig and Britain’s David Low, and, into the 1950s, Robert Warshow’s notable essay about horror comics and Fredric Wertham, to mention a few. Manny Farber’s 1951 piece for The Nation seems a virtual echo of Seldes: “Top comic strip artists (funereal-faced craftsmen who draw with their hats on) like Al Capp, Chet Gould, and Milt Caniff are the last in the great tradition of linear composers that started with Giotto and continued unbroken through Ingres. Until the impressionists blurred the outlines of objects and diffused the near, middle, and far distance into a smog of light and dark, design had been realized in terms of outline and the weight of the enclosed shape. Today the only linear surgeons carrying on the practice—except for some rearguard opportunists like Shahn—are the pow-bam-sock cartoonists, whose masterful use of a dashing pen line goes virtually unnoticed in the art world.” He concludes: “Good or bad, uphill or down, comic strips are read by sixty or seventy million daily devotees. They satisfy a demand for inventiveness, energetic drawing, and a roughneck enthusiasm for life that other plastic arts cannot meet.”
By the late 1940s, Worcester-Heer says, “the bulk of comics-related commentary [was] alarmist,” concentrating on comic books that such critics as Sterling North called “a poisonous mushroom growth” foisted on the public by “completely immoral publishers guilty of a cultural slaughter of the innocents”—“a national disgrace.” Aside from such brief quotes as these in their introduction, Worcester and Heer don’t use any of what North wrote. But they include cullings from the nefariously over-the-top critic Gershon Legman and selections from the much more restrained (but sometimes alarmist) Walter Ong. “Legman read and adopted Ong’s critique of superhero comics as fascist genre” and in his Love and Death created “a thunderous, overloaded, angry juggernaut surmounted by a loudspeaker system which continuously blares Legman’s message: American censorship thwarts the imagery of normal sex and encourages images of brutality, perverted violence and blood-letting,” as Don Phelps puts it. Ong is represented by two essays, one of which, from 1941, castigates the use of Mickey Mouse-inspired “mascots” by military units during WWII because they mask the serious purposes of war; but in the other, from 1951, Ong finds redeeming virtue in Walt Kelly’s Pogo.
While an anti-picture prejudice runs through many of the essays collected here, by the 1950s or so, many of the critics find art where their predecessors have found only rubbish. Or, at least, they are willing to concede that cartoonists might be producing, some of the time, art as well as entertainment.
Mentioning the White-Abel volume a few paragraphs ago reminded me that I have often discovered in that 1963 book theoretical notions and scraps of history that I thought I’d brought out into the light for the first time myself much more recently after hours of painstaking digging and clawing around in ancient tomes and papyruses. Nothing new under the sun, as they say. But maybe we ought to be able to get at White-Abel more easily: maybe all of it should be reprinted by some ambitious publisher eager to do Good Works. And while we’re at it, let’s bring back for an encore William Murrell’s two volume History of American Graphic Humor (1933 and 1938); it, like the White-Abel book, contains much history and some theory that we seem to be re-inventing in a great huff these days. With these books at hand, easily accessible on every shelf, we could save ourselves a tubful of effort that we might devote erstwhile to unearthing genuinely undiscovered treasure.
Metaphors be with you.
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