239 (March 8, 2009). Two
outrageous events in comics prompted me to ship off one of our rare
Bunny Bulletins from the Rabid Rabbit Broken News Department, and
then, just as I was poised to transmit my diatribe to the Rancid
Raves Webmaster, one of the two newspapers in my hometown died,
perhaps the canary in the mine that will be followed by more dropping
shoes (to mangle the metaphor) that will menace the life of
syndicated comics. Grief-stricken, I had to write about it. And did.
But the major emphasis this time is on the legal misfortunes of an
Iowa comics fan whose manga collection resulted in his being charged
with child pornography—a threat to the privacy and personal
liberty of us all—and the allegedly racist cartoon about the
Stimulus Bill that raises questions about how to caricature our first
African American president. We’ve included a few other scandals
and alarms, and a long piece on editoonist Pat Bagley, whose work is
worth a lingering look. Here’s what’s here, in order:
New Stay Tooned: The Third Issue
Hangups on Sex: Crackdown on Manga Owner Outrages Privacy and Personal Liberty
RACISM: NEW YORK POST CHIMP CARTOON AND CARICATURING OBAMA
NOUS R US: Steve Geppi’s financial woes, Al Feldstein’s heart, Mike Peter’s law suit, new IDW tomes on the horizon, Watchmen flick, Art Spiegelman’s Maus in the Top 25
EDITOONERY: Fitzsimmons’ exemplary cartoon
Bagley Bags a Big One: The Herblock Prize
Death of a Newspaper Out West and a Short History of Scripps
New York Times Inaugurates Graphic Novel Best Seller List
Without further adieu, then, here we go—
THIRD ISSUE OF STAY TOONED IS OUT!
Yes, John Read’s successor to the fabled Cartoonist PROfiles has now reached its third outing (so to speak), and you can order your copy at staytoonedmagazine.com —just a mere $9, plus $2 p&h. This issue features profiles of magazine gag cartoonist Benita Epstein, freelance Nebraska cartoonist Paul Fell, character designer Cedric Hohnstadt, editorial cartoonist R.J. Matson, Jim Gasoline Alley Scancarelli, cover artist Richard Cul de Sac Thompson, and webcomic creator Mike Witmer; plus articles by Mark Lio Tatulli, Norm Retail Feuti, Tom Mad magazine Richmond, and freelancer Mike Edholm (who reports on Toonfest '08). Also, the art of John Kovaleski and Stephen Silver is spotlighted. While all of the articles and profiles are engrossing, Chad Carpenter’s story about cartooning in Alaska is highly unusual. He started his Tundra strip about wild life on the tundra in December 1991, self-syndicating it just to Alaska newspapers. Carpenter was perfectly happy with this arrangement, but fourteen years later, a salesman friend of his, Bill Kellogg, took the strip on the road to the Lower Forty-eight, and the strip’s circulation jumped from a half-dozen papers to hundreds—as of January, 260; and Allan Gardner at the DailyCartoonist says the total is 275 as of February 16. And that’s just the most cryptic sample of the sorts of things you can find in Stay Tooned. Here’s the dandy cover by Richard Thompson of Cul de Sac.
SEX AND RACISM RUNNING RAMPANT, AS USUAL
Sex, without much question, is responsible in this country for the propagation of more injustice per square foot than just about any other human knack with the possible exception of racism. And two weeks ago and, possibly, sometime during the presently accumulating month, we have scalding examples of both. First, as is our wont, sex.
Towards the end of March, according to the latest information to come across the rolltop here at the Rancid Raves Intergalactic Wurlitzer, Christopher Handley, a 38-year-old Iowa comics collector, goes to court, charged with possession of obscene manga. If convicted, Handley could face 20 years in prison. The law Handley is charged with breaking is a highly questionable matter itself. Section 504 of the PROTECT Act, designed to stop trafficking in child pornography, prohibits distribution or possession of “a visual depiction of any kind, including a drawing, cartoon, sculpture, or painting” that “(1) shows a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct; (2) is obscene; (3) depicts an image that is, or appears to be, of a minor engaging in graphic bestiality, sadistic or masochistic abuse, or sexual intercourse, including genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital, or oral-anal, whether between persons of the same or opposite sex; and (4) lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” Attorney Eric Chase, acting on behalf of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), which is serving as a special consultant in the case, successfully petitioned a district judge to rule the last two clauses unconstitutional because they restrict free speech. I fail to see how picturing a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct (1) is any less a restriction of free speech than picturing a minor engaged in graphic bestiality etc. (3); it seems to me that if the last two clauses restrict free speech, so do the first two. The dubious judicial determination here is an affront to common sense and probably indicative of the unconstitutionality of the entire law. But the judge let the first two charges stand, so Handley is going to trial, charged with possessing an obscenity and/or a visual depiction showing a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct.
The obscenity of a work is legally determined by the Supreme Court’s “Miller Test,” which says that material is obscene only if a jury determines that it meets all of the following three criteria: (1) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest; (2) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (3) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.
As a nation, we have a decidedly confused attitude about sex and obscenity. Our bewilderment is probably rooted in a misbegotten sense of morality fostered by our Puritanical religious heritage, which successfully proclaimed, without a basis in any fact about human nature, that sex is bad or nasty or wrong, somehow, which leads, inevitably, to the sort of confusion Butch Hancock, a songwriter, discovered as a boy growing up in Texas: “Sex is the most awful, filthy thing on earth, and you should save it for someone you love.” Our attitudes are decidedly contradictory, as Hustler publisher Larry Flynt memorably points out: “Murder is a crime; writing about it isn’t. Sex is not a crime, but writing about it is. Why?”
Despite our aversion to sex in any form, we exploit our relentless interest in it. Said sociologist Philip Stater: “If we define pornography as any message from any commercial medium that is intended to arouse sexual excitement, then it is clear that most advertisements are covertly pornographic.” Stephanie Black, head of marketing at the Playboy channel, adds: “On tv you can use sex to sell anything except sex.” In our attitudes about sex, we are unique in the world, as Marlene Dietrich, an undeniable expert, observed: “In America, sex is an obsession; in other parts of the world, it is a fact.”
Bristol Palin is nearly a poster girl for our bewildered preoccupation with sex. Bristol, Governor Sarah’s 18-year-old daughter who became famous last fall for being pregnant out of wedlock, is now, since December 27, famous for being an unwed mother. But, reports the Associated Press, she is also, lately, an advocate for abstinence among the young: she says teenagers should avoid having sex. She also says abstinence is “not realistic.” How, then, does one avoid having sex? Her answer is a jumble. “I think everyone should just wait ten years,” she said to Greta Van Susteren, who was interviewing her. But why, she was asked, is abstinence unrealistic? “Because sex is more and more accepted now,” she said.
It may be more accepted, but not in comics. The most notorious case of sex in comics resulted in the most egregious infringement of personal—not to say artistic—freedom until the detaining of alleged terrorists in a prison at Guantanamo, Cuba.
The Shameful Affair of Mike Diana
Here’s the story from Wikipedia (with some of my own modifications): In the early 1990s, Mike Diana began producing the adult comic book Boiled Angel, which contained graphic depictions of a variety of taboo and gory subjects. It was distributed to only a handful of retailers, but in 1991, while investigating a Florida murder case, a police officer discovered an issue of Boiled Angel and, desperate for clues leading to the murderer, contacted Diana, informed him he was a suspect, and requested a blood sample. The real killer was soon apprehended, and Diana was not pursued. The officer in question, however, collected additional issues of Boiled Angel and sent them to the State’s Attorney’s office where they went on file.
Two years later, the Assistant State's Attorney came across the books and sent Diana a certified letter that said he was being charged with three counts of obscenity pursuant to a Florida statute: one for publishing the material, one for distributing it, and one for advertising it. Diana was employed as an elementary school janitor at the time of his first notoriety. He had used the school's copier to reproduce some of his comic books representing crude, graphic drawings of sexual molestation and limb severing. Some of the material was supposedly left in the vicinity of the copier, and Diana was fired. Although the CBLDF provided Diana, free of cost, with the services of several prominent defense attorneys and expert witnesses, he was found guilty on all three counts after a brief trial.
And then his situation became even more an affront to the principles Americans say they hold dear. He was sentenced to a three-year probation, during which time his residence was subject to unannounced inspection to determine if he was in possession of or was creating obscene material. He was to avoid all contact with children under 18, undergo psychological testing, enroll in a journalistic ethics course, pay a $3,000 fine, and perform 1,248 hours of community service. He was not sentenced to any jail time, and in the end only spent four days in jail between the dates of the verdict and the sentencing. The United States Supreme Court denied Diana's petition for a writ of certiorari. To fulfill the requirement of undergoing a psychiatric evaluation, Diana was informed that the doctor whom he would see charged $100 an hour, which he would have to pay for himself, and that his evaluation would take two hours. After the evaluation, Diana was informed the session would cost $1,200 because the doctor claimed to have spent 10 hours reading Boiled Angel in preparation. Out of funds, Diana was unable to pay, and the doctor refused to give her evaluation to the court, effectively making him in violation of his probation.
I dunno what happened after that, but whatever happened, the crime against American values had already been committed. But other outrages lurked. In 2000, reported Jason Thompson in an essay at animenewsnetwork.com, “Jesus Castillo, a comic store manager in Texas, was prosecuted for and eventually convicted of obscenity for selling a manga—the legendarily 18+ Urotsukidoji, aka Legend of the Overfiend. The fact that the manga was labeled for adults, sold to an adult, and kept it in an adult only area, didn't matter to the jurors, who decided that Overfiend wasn't suitable reading material for anyone, adults included.”
Handley and the American Gestapo
If the PROTECT Act were not in itself a sufficient flouting of American ideals, the way Christopher Handley was brought to so-called justice adds insult to injury by mocking the rule of law. Here’s CBLDF’s account: “Mr. Handley's case began in May 2006 [other sources say 2007] when he received an express mail package from Japan that contained seven Japanese comic books. That package was intercepted by the Postal Inspector, who applied for a search warrant after determining that the package contained cartoon images of objectionable content. Unaware that his materials were searched, Handley drove away from the post office and was followed by various law enforcement officers, who pulled him over and followed him to his home. Once there, agents from the Postal Inspector's office, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, Special Agents from the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, and officers from the Glenwood Police Department seized Handley's collection of over 1,200 manga books or publications; and hundreds of DVDs, VHS tapes, laser disks; seven computers, and other documents. Though Handley's collection was comprised of hundreds of comics covering a wide spectrum of manga, the government is prosecuting images appearing in a small handful.”
I realize that the Postal Service can inspect letters and packages, but how, in this case, did the Postal Inspector determine, without, apparently, opening the package, that it needed to be opened and inspected? Just because it came from Japan? Or had the Postal Service been secretly stalking Handley for weeks, months—years?
Implications in the
"Handley's case is deeply troubling, because the government is prosecuting a private collector for possession of art," says CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein. "In the past, CBLDF has had to defend the First Amendment rights of retailers and artists, but never before have we experienced the Federal Government attempting to strip a citizen of his freedom because he owned comic books. We will bring our best resources to bear in aiding Mr. Handley's counsel as they defend his freedom and the First Amendment rights of every art-loving citizen in this country."
Putting the case into context, Burton Joseph, CBLDF's Legal Counsel said: "In the lengthy time in which I have represented CBLDF and its clients, I have never encountered a situation where criminal prosecution was brought against a private consumer for possession of material for personal use in his own home. This prosecution has profound implications in limiting the First Amendment for art and artists, and comics in particular, that are on the cutting edge of creativity. It misunderstands the nature of avant-garde art in its historical perspective and is a perversion of anti-obscenity laws."
In the context of the PROTECT Act, some of Handley’s manga present a particularly ticklish circumstance. I gather that the works in question are lolicon and yaoi manga. Lolicon focuses on the Lolita complex and yaoi features male homosexual romance aimed at a primarily female audience, according to Neil Gaiman at splashpage.mtv.com. "They found his manga, and found some objectionable panels," Gaiman said. "He's been arrested for having some drawings of rude things in manga. I'm sorry, but if you went through my comic collection, you could arrest me if you're going to start doing that. It's just wrong."
The problem in such manga is in the rendering mannerisms of the artists, as CBLDF’s Eric Chase explained: “There is explicit sex in yaoi comics. And the men are drawn in a very androgynous style, which has the effect of making them look really young. There's a real taboo in Japan about showing pubic hair, so they're all drawn without it, which also makes them look young.” To the authorities, the characters in these manga looked like children. Chase continued: “So what concerned the authorities were the depictions of children in explicit sexual situations that they believed to be obscene. But there are no actual children. It was all very crude images from a comic book."
Gaiman elaborated: "Do you remember there was a law passed prohibiting making things that simulated child pornography, even if the things actually weren't?"—as in situations where an of-age female is in a pornographic situation, but "where she's being presented as if she were 13." Said Gaiman: "They said, ‘For heaven's sake, we're not talking about art. We're only talking about stuff where you're leading people to believe they're looking at real child porn.’”
Sequential Tart, Katherine Keller, Editrix in Chief, added: “Let's
be clear. These are not photos of actual children. There is no
evidence that actual children were used as models for the content of
this manga. All of it is a work of fiction.” Despite the
argument that there was no actual children portrayed in the manga,
Handley faces felony obscenity charges, including the receipt and
possession of obscene visual representations
Jason Thompson, author of Manga: The Complete Guide and an editor at Otaku USA, writes: “But Christopher Handley's case is, in some ways, more frightening than any of these cases. Most of us are not manga retailers or manga artists (although we may want to be). We're manga readers, and Christopher Handley is facing an obscenity charge for simply possessing and reading manga, like most of us. The only difference is, Christopher Handley must justify his private manga-reading choices to the world at large. Like a single person randomly picked out of a list of 10,000 file-sharers and sued by a corporation, he could be any one of us; he just had the bad luck to have the Postal Inspector search his mail. And if he is convicted, he won't just be fined or made to do community service: under the federal PROTECT Act, designed for people who traffic in child pornography, he will be treated as a sex offender and a danger to his community.
The PROTECT Act is involved because some of Handley's manga allegedly contains images of underage-looking characters involved in sexual activity; but what does this mean in manga terms, where age is drawn so intentionally vaguely? When my parents look at manga, they can't tell the difference between a 13-year-old and a 28-year-old. Manga isn't a photorealistic form of art, it's a fantasy medium where things aren't always what they seem. And ‘sexual activity’ could mean a lot of different things, too—to my parents, a panty shot might count as ‘sexual activity.’ ... As long as comics and manga exist, they will spark ‘community standards’ arguments like these. Images create an immediate emotional response in the viewer, and obscenity is a subjective, emotional issue. Manga fans must stick together to defend the rights of other manga fans; to paraphrase Evelyn Beatrice Hall, I may disapprove of manga about maids and catgirls, but I'll defend to the death your right to read it. The outcome of this trial could affect public perception and set a good or bad precedent for future manga-related legal cases.”
The question, however, isn’t just whether the manga constitute “child pornography.” The government, Thompson continues, “claims that Christopher Handley's manga is ‘obscene.’ In legal terms, obscenity is the rock to free speech's scissors.” In our confused, intimidated and guilt-ridden society, “obscenity—which can apply to manga, video games, movies, magazines, digital images, just about anything—trumps free speech, and ‘obscenity’ is a fluid term which is basically defined on a case-by-case basis. However, one of the primary definitions of obscenity is whether ‘community standards’ would judge the work to be offensive, vulgar and without artistic value. For fans of Japanese comics in particular, this should be enough to cause alarm, since Japanese manga (and Korean manhwa, and all foreign comics) is by definition not created to suit American ‘community standards.’ As a manga fan, as a comics fan, what is your ‘community’? What is ‘obscene’? Who gets to judge? And this is just where things get tricky, as small communities (such as small towns, or small groups of fans) are forced face to face with unfamiliar standards.”
Keller adds: “It is not the purpose of art to show us nothing but the bright and shiny side of life. Nor is every work of art a work of Art. The First Amendment is not about protecting the "good" or the popular speech. It protects the repugnant and squick inducing stuff, too. What does matter is that the PROTECT Act is being wielded in such a way, that, should Handley be convicted, would open the door to further prosecutions and restrictions on what people can and cannot create and what works of illustrated fiction they can and cannot read. A conviction would have an impact on scholars of Japanese culture, especially those who research manga and anime. It would have an impact on scholars of erotica as well as manuscript and art collectors, including museums and academic institutions because some historical works depict people who are clearly below the age of 18 in a sexualized fashion. A conviction would impact what your Local Comic Shop, Large Chain Bookstore, or Local Library could safely stock. A conviction would impact what works publishers can or cannot translate and import. It would impact the adaptations of classic literature or mythology from around the world they might publish. It would restrict what new, original works they could publish. A conviction would mean that anybody who owns a first printing of DMP's excellent Desire, BLU's historically accurate Gerard & Jacques, or any edition of Top Shelf's Lost Girls is open to prosecution under the PROTECT Act. And these publishers would have to substantially revise any future editions of these works or cease reprints. And finally, for those of you who are active in fandoms such as Harry Potter, Twilight, Teen Titans, Young Avengers, or any other franchise for which there is a large volume of fan created art depicting fictional minors in an erotic fashion, a conviction means that Live Journal, Insane Journal, and Deviant Art will start cracking down on content and, of course, you are now open to criminal prosecution under the PROTECT Act, because the previous protections which more or less exempted illustrations not based on real persons will have been substantially eroded.”
Alarmist Hysteria? Maybe Not
Sound extreme? Maybe not. Wracked by dubious moral conviction and its abiding sense of guilt and shame, official America is poised to become ever more intrusive. The latest invasion of personal privacy might result in almost a quarter of the nation’s teenagers being registered as sex offenders because they’ve been “sexting,” a cute name now bestowed upon the practice of sending, receiving or forwarding via cell phone photos of yourself or your friends naked. Dahllia Lithwick in Newsweek for February 23 reports that a recent survey reveals that one in five teenagers have been sexting. “Last month, three girls (ages 14 or 15) in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, were charged with disseminating child pornography for sexting their boyfriends. The boys who received the images were charged with possession. ... If convicted, these young people may have to register as sex offenders, in some cases for a decade or two.”
Similar charges have been brought against teenagers in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin. “The argument for hammering every such case seems to be that sending naked pictures might have serious consequences—so let’s charge these kids with felonies, which will surely have serious consequences.”
See what I mean about “dubious moral conviction”? We wind up prosecuting kids for producing and purveying kiddie porn when all they are actually doing is behaving like kids, indulging typical volatile teenage narcissism in an exploration of the wonders of technology. Said Lithwick: “Child pornography laws intended to protect children should not be used to prosecute and then label children as sex offenders. ... One quick clue that the criminal-justice system is probably not the best venue for addressing sexting? ... Prosecutors have charged the senders of smutty photos, the recipients of smutty photos, those who save the smutty photos and the hapless forwarders of smutty photos with the same crime: child pornography. Who is the victim here? Everybody and nobody.”
There are ways to protest such idiocies. One of the ways in the comics community is to come to the aid of Handley and others being persecuted in this country’s misguided passion for rectitude by donating to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund either via its website, cbldf.org, or by sending a check to 271 Madison Avenue, Suite 1400, New York, NY 10016.
QUIPS & QUOTES
If a man has a right to find God in his own way, he has a right to go to the Devil in his own way also. —Hugh Hefner
There’s that old saying, ‘If God had meant for us to fly, he’d have given us wings.’ Well, look what he did give us.—Dolly Parton
Men in power always seem to get involved in sex scandals but women don’t even have a word for ‘male bimbo.’ Except maybe ‘senator.’ —Elayne Bossier
In expressing love, we belong among the undeveloped countries.—Saul Bellow
When authorities warn of the sinfulness of sex, there is an important lesson to be learned: do not have sex with the authorities.—Matt Groening
The difference between pornography and erotica is the lighting.—Gloria Leonard, porn star
We tried sex twice and it worked both times. —Robert Benchley
NEXT, RACISM AND CARICATURING OBAMA
This cartoon by staff editoonist Sean Delonas ran in the New York Post on Wednesday, February 18.
Visually, the cartoon references a newsstory on the previous Monday about a celebrity 200-pound chimpanzee named Travis who attacked and mauled a woman, mutilating her face and hands. Police, called to the scene, shot and killed the chimp. The speech balloon ties the image to another current event, the passage the previous week of the monster Stimulus Bill and Barack Obama’s signing the bill into law the day before, Tuesday, February 17. The opinion expressed here is pretty clearly disapproval of the Stimulus Bill and the Democrat-dominated Congress that brought it into being. The New York Post is part of conservative Rupert Murdoch’s communications empire, and Delonas is quite comfortable espousing the views Murdoch wants promulgated, and, judging from this example, the cartoonist promulgates with a sledge hammer, finding in any liberal idea a deserving nail.
Setting aside for the nonce the tastelessness of referring to real-life bloody violence to make a political pronouncement in a cartoon—and the insensitivity displayed in trivializing “a tragedy in which a woman was disfigured and a chimpanzee killed”—the cartoon’s point nearly evaporates upon close examination. Not every editorial cartoon can survive careful parsing, but the good ones do: their symbols are clear and their metaphorical messages unequivocal. Apart from giving vivid expression to a general all-consuming right-wing rage about whatever Democrats might do—a time-honored function of editorial cartoons, left or right—Delonas’ cartoon is not particularly precise about what’s wrong with the world as the cartoonist sees it. He doesn’t like the Stimulus Bill and those who wrote it, but who, exactly, does he imagine will “write the next Stimulus Bill”? The answer to that question must reside in the identity of the dead monkey.
If the chimp represents the writer(s) of the Stimulus Bill that Obama just signed—that is, the Democrats in the House—then the next writer, presumably, would be a Republican-controlled House. I think this is what Delonas intended. In shooting the Congressional chimp, he expressed his violent dislike of the liberal programs the Democrats incorporated into the Stimulus Bill; in the utterance of one of the cops, the cartoonist looks toward the future when, he hopes, some more conservative element will control the outcome. Travis the chimp is here to tie Delonas’ comment to a highly visible news event his readers would recognize. But is that all?
Does Delonas have another reason for using the chimp? Is Delonas’ chimp being killed because it mauled someone or something? If so, what? The Democrat majority in the House did some pretty serious damage to Obama’s intention when they wrote the Stimulus Bill—including in it funding for a host of liberal programs that had been languishing for years while the Republicans controlled Congress—so is this the “mauling” that is implied by using Travis as an actor in the cartoon? If so, Delonas has strayed somewhat off the conservative reservation: he is to some extent representing Obama’s view of the hodge-podge the House Democrats made of the job he’d given them. Probably, however, that’s reading too much into Delonas’ cartoon. Still, coupling the rampaging chimp to the Stimulus Bill makes the cartoon’s message a little ambiguous. And where ambiguity resides, outrage and indignant protestation can find a foothold. In this case, it was the Rev. Al Sharpton who gave voice to an alternative interpretation of the cartoon. The chimp, he charged, stood for Obama in the racist tradition of linking Africans to apes and monkeys by way of asserting black inferiority—they are only animals, after all, barely out of the jungle.
Said Sharpton: "The cartoon in today's New York Post is troubling at best, given the racist attacks throughout history that have made African-Americans synonymous with monkeys. One has to question whether the cartoonist is making a less than casual reference to this form of racism. ... Being that the Stimulus Bill has been the first legislative victory of President Barack Obama (the first African American president) and has become synonymous with him, it is not a reach to wonder are they [are implying] that a monkey wrote the bill?” He later added: "The Post should at least clarify what point they were trying to make in this cartoon, and reprimand their cartoonist for making inferences [implications] that are offensive and divisive at a time the nation struggles to come together to stabilize the economy if, in fact, this was yet another racially charged cartoon.”
Subsequently, a CNN reporter interviewing Sharpton quoted the following passage from the 1867 publication, The Negro: What Is His Ethnological Status? by Buckner H. Payne: "Again, we take up the monkey, and trace him likewise through his upward and advancing orders—baboon, ourang-outang and gorilla, up to the negro, another noble animal, the noblest of the beast creation. The difference between these higher orders of the monkey and the negro, is very slight, and consists mainly in this one thing: the negro can utter sounds that can be imitated; hence he could talk with Adam and Eve, for they could imitate his sounds."
Sharpton is clearly right about the history of the racist smear that likens Africans and monkeys. But he is in some other ways less than a reliable player. For Sharpton, said Gene Lyons at the Dickinson Press, the Delonas cartoon “was a CNN gig waiting to happen. Which is not necessarily to imply insincerity—merely the customary close fit between conscience and ambition.” The Guardian was not so kind: it observed online (February 18) that Sharpton “has a long history of stoking racial grievances”: he first emerged on the national stage in 1987 when he mounted a vituperative attack on the New York legal system for the racism he alleged it displayed in responding to the complaint of a teenage rape victim, Tawana Brawley, whose case, it was later proven, was a trumped-up fabrication by which she hoped to avoid a beating from her stepfather. Subsequently the prosecutor in the case sued Sharpton and Brawley’s lawyers for defamation of character and was awarded $345,000 in damages. (For the details, see Tawana Brawley at Wikipedia.org.) Although Sharpton’s behavior over the ensuing years has grown increasingly less strident, he still seems deserving criticism like that of a Denver Post columnist who, in connection with the cartoon case, averred that the good Rev is “a man who has set off more chaos, loathing and racism in New York than any cartoonist.” With a well-practiced hand, Sharpton managed in this case to inspire a rapid escalation of criticism and fevered protest, beginning with occasional accusations that the cartoon urged the assassination of President Obama and culminating in pickets outside the Post offices.
Cartoonist Delonas’ response: "Absolutely friggin ridiculous. Do you really think I'm saying Obama should be shot? I didn't see that in the cartoon. The chimpanzee was a major story in the Post. Every paper in New York, except the New York Times, covered the chimpanzee story. It's just ridiculous. [The cartoon is] about the economic Stimulus Bill. If you're going to make that about anybody, it would be [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi, which it's not."
Delonas’ incredulity is matched by that of his paper’s Editor-in-Chief, Col Allan, who issued a statement saying the cartoon was "a clear parody." Said he: "It broadly mocks Washington's efforts to revive the economy. Again, Al Sharpton reveals himself as nothing more than a publicity opportunist," Allan said.
Although the Stimulus Bill has become, as Sharpton said, “synonymous” with Obama thereby encouraging the inference that the chimp is the President, most political wonks and pundits, certainly including Delonas, recognize that the bill was not written by Obama or his staff but by Congress, mostly Democrats, who ladled pork into the basic recipe Obama gave them. It was the Democratic Congress that was Delonas’ target. The cartoonist’s mistake was in assuming that every potential viewer of the cartoon would see it from his perspective—that is, the perspective of a knowledgeable right-wing surveyor of the political landscape—rather than from the viewpoint of a casual citizen who, more than likely, would think the Stimulus Bill was wholly a White House production embodying just the President’s wishes.
Muddying the waters of perception even more is Delonas’s reputation as a slinger of offensive mud. He once drew a cartoon making fun of Paul McCartney’s ex-wife, Heather Mills, for having only one leg, according to Karen Matthews at the Associated Press. Delonas also compared gay people seeking marriage licenses to sheep lovers, deploying a vintage piece of sexual mythology. And he depicted an overweight Jessica Simpson dumping her boyfriend, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, for Ronald McDonald. Heavy-handed cartooning is Delonas’ metier, so it would not be too far-fetched for a viewer of his chimp cartoon to suppose that the cartoonist was, in fact, urging the assassination of America’s first African-American president.
Editorial Cartoonists Weigh In
Among other editorial cartoonists, reaction was, eventually, mixed. At first, some thought it required a “breathtaking leap” to see Delonas equating African Americans and chimpanzees. “He doesn’t label the monkey,” said one. Without a direct symbolic role being attached to the chimp, several said they could see no racial component in the cartoon at all. And I wasn’t alone in assuming that Delonas’s chimp alluded to that aged axiom that if you left monkeys in a room with typewriters long enough, they’d eventually write Shakespeare—an analogy that quickly breaks down in this case: the clumped up Stimulus Bill was pretty clearly not worthy of the Bard. Someone pointed out that, even if Delonas was calling Obama a monkey, it wasn’t the first time the nation’s chief executive had been seen as simian: if you visit a website called “The Smirking Monkey,” you’ll see pictures of GeeDubya. (Maybe he’s to blame for the whole brouhaha because he started us thinking of the president as being as incompetent as a chimp.) But even if the cartoon wasn’t racist, it was, most conceded, a pretty lame cartoon.
All cartoonists realized what Delonas was doing. As Wiley Miller said at toontalk.com: “He was obviously trying to utilize the old editorial cartoonist's trick of taking a high profile story or something from pop culture and using it as a metaphor, marrying it to some issue. Sometimes it works, and other times, it's too much of a stretch. This was a case of waaaaaay too much of a stretch, combined with abysmal racial tone-deafness when it came to the imagery. For this to have been actually penned, then approved by the editor, displays underlying racism, ineffectually trying to be masked as innocent cluelessness. A good cartoonist needs to have an inner-editor in their head. You can produce hard hitting work on controversial issues, but you need to do so in a manner where your intentions are clear and have a point. That's what was lacking in this cartoon, intentions and a point. He was so busy trying to be clever that he derailed his own motives, along with that of the paper, which only served to aid his intended target rather than skewer it.”
Delonas either went too far or not far enough in connecting the two elements of his cartoon. Interviewed by Katia Bachko for the Columbia Journalism Review’s “Behind the News,” Gary Varvel, editorial cartoonist at the Indianapolis Star, said: “I knew what the guy was trying to say, and I don't remember thinking ‘racist’ at all. He was taking a news event and tying the ludicrous Stimulus Bill to it, and he was making fun of Congress who drafted this bill. But, because most editorial cartoonists are white men, it's a difficult situation.”
Mike Luckovich at Atlanta Journal-Constitution, added this: “I think he really screwed up, but not for a racist reason. It's in bad taste to use an ape that injured a woman. The symbolism is too heavy; it's not funny. Also, African-Americans have been, in racist ways, compared to apes throughout our history. If that had occurred to them, they would've pulled it. It's happened to me before. About once every five years, according to my editor, I draw something and people react very negatively. In those cases, the symbolism that I've chosen overwhelms the message I'm trying to make. I'm not trying to let the guy off the hook, but he just didn't do a good enough job looking at the big picture, so that a small mistake turned into a big one.”
Bachko also talked to Richard Burr, associate editor for the editorial page at the Detroit News, who said: “This is so inside baseball that I didn't get it the minute I looked at it. It's a little bizarre. It's nice to give cartoonist editorial license, but I think this exceeds the taste boundary. It's not obvious to me that it's racist. One of the major critiques of the Stimulus Bill is that Obama let it get away from him, and let Pelosi and Reid take control. Whether our president is white or black, this cartoon would be beyond the pale. The violent image is what stops you first, before you start thinking about who wrote the Stimulus Bill.”
As the episode gathered momentum, many of the inky-fingered fraternity began to see the potential in the cartoon for a racial interpretation. Even Henry Payne, whose conservative cartoons decorate the pages of the Detroit News. When he was Interviewed by Bachko, Payne said: “I think the reaction was silly. I think the fact that Al Sharpton was leading the protest tells you a lot. Sean Delonas is a pretty provocative cartoonist. It's nice to have guys like who want to push the envelope a little. Still, I don't know if it's one of his best, but on the other hand, I didn't see anything offensive. Most cartoonists are very sensitive that chimps were used in the past as a derogatory symbol for blacks, just as Jews were drawn with big noses, and you try to avoid them at all costs. Any responsible journalist is sensitive to these stereotypes and we try to avoid them, not only because they're insensitive, but because they muddy any point we're trying to make.”
At the Houston Chronicle, editoonist Nick Anderson said: “I thought it was a pretty clumsy metaphor. Anyone with the slightest awareness of the history of race in this country should have realized that this is an inflammatory image. Cartoonists often make a reference to seemingly unrelated events to draw a parallel. ... It would help if everyone took a deep breath and tried to calm down. You can say it was insensitive or ignorant, but I think a lot of the outrage is manufactured. It would be better if we can get into a deeper conversation about race, and why we are sensitive about it. But as a cartoonist, I don't want to be sensitive when I draw. Instead, I think you should be aware of how images could be interpreted.”
And Emily Flake, a freelance cartoonist, chimed in with: “I thought it was a really bad cartoon on a lot of levels, because there's not really a joke there. Unless you really over-explain that you didn't think that Stimulus Bill was very good, and it just so happened that there was a monkey that attacked someone. The statement that the reference to the monkey was not supposed to be racist is really disingenuous. Everybody knows that there's a racist trope of referring to black people as monkeys, and if you're saying that you didn't know that, then you're so full of shit. It was insulting to their readers and to cartoonists. This is in a daily newspaper. This isn't HBO and it's not Sarah Silverman. Jokes that play with race and lampoon race don't really have a place in the daily family.”
When he was interviewed by Michael Cavna at Comic Riffs, Ted Rall, gadfly columnist, cartoonist, syndicate executive and president of the Association of American of Editorial Cartoonists, agreed that the cartoon simply fails: “No one is going to look at this cartoon and have a conversation about the topic at hand—the stimulus package—or even to a lesser degree, the dangerous chimp. So in that regard, the cartoonist failed." Great political cartoons are virile—not just viral, added Carvna. Rall characterizes Delonas’ cartoon as "toxic." (Rall also noted the Delonas/Sharpton backstory: the cartoonist has a history of depicting Sharpton in a particularly nasty light.) And Rall also recalled the most spectacular of recent outrages caused by cartoons: "The Danish Muhammad cartoons and this cartoon—they don't add anything to the conversation," he said. "Really great editorial cartoons are willing to stir up controversy and stimulate discussion." I disagree a little: the Danish Dozen raised hectic questions about freedom of the press and intimidation and the proper journalistic attitudes about religion, but Delonas’ cartoon scarcely rises to this level of seriousness.
up the criticism, Butch Berry,
a freelance cartoonist in Baltimore, thought the cartoon “poorly
thought out. It's not funny and it's just not clear what Delonas is
trying to say. Because of its fuzzy message, the cartoon is way too
open to multiple interpretations. This is where cultural ignorance
can really get you in trouble. The cartoonist may have just been
saying: ‘The people putting this Stimulus Bill together were
nothing but a bunch of chimps.’ Okay.
The Post Apologizes
The object of all this derision, the hapless New York Post, was driven, at last, to apologize. Sort of. On Thursday, February 19, it published this on its website: “Wednesday's Page Six cartoon—caricaturing Monday's police shooting of a chimpanzee in Connecticut—has created considerable controversy. It shows two police officers standing over the chimp's body: "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill," one officer says. It was meant to mock an ineptly written federal Stimulus Bill. Period. But it has been taken as something else—as a depiction of President Obama, as a thinly veiled expression of racism. This most certainly was not its intent; to those who were offended by the image, we apologize. However, there are some in the media and in public life who have had differences with the Post in the past—and they see the incident as an opportunity for payback. To them, no apology is due. Sometimes a cartoon is just a cartoon—even as the opportunists seek to make it something else.” The apology was then published in the Post on Friday, February 20.
But an apology was no longer enough. What started as a kerfuffle was now a full-blown cataclysm.
The Protest Gathers Momentum
Sharpton was no longer a lone protester, crying in the wildness of the New York media jungle. The National Association of Black Journalists chimed in, calling the cartoon "the lowest common denominator of taste and class.” Lyons at the Dickinson Press reported that New York governor David A. Patterson called for the Post, “a cheeky right-wing tabloid,” to explain its intentions. The protest was heating up.
Amiri Baraka, founder of the Black Arts Movement in Harlem in the 1960s, former poet laureate of New Jersey and author of over 40 books, writing on Friday in the San Francisco Bay View, called for the prosecution of Murdoch and everyone on the Post staff. The cartoon, Baraka said, was clearly calling for the assassination of the President of the United States. “This is punishable by prison!” he yelled. “We must begin to lock up these egregious racists. This should be a test case, and we should come together to push this.”
Friday, a mob of protesters stood outside the entrance to the Post offices, chanting “The Post must go!” and “Shut them down!” Demonstrators said
they were boycotting the newspaper and demanding that the cartoonist
and editor be punished, reported wcbstv.com. The NAACP has joined the
critics and plans to take action; quoting the NAACP website: "The New York Post's decision to publish a blatantly racist cartoon comparing our
commander in chief to a dead chimpanzee is absolutely unacceptable,
especially given the historic racist stereotypes of African-Americans
as being synonymous with monkeys.” NAACP said they've enlisted
several members to reach out to advertisers demanding they pull their
ads from the paper said wcbstv.com, adding: “NAACP officials
will discuss national action against the Post at its
The following Wednesday, Benjamin Todd Jealous, NAACP’S president and chief executive, wrote a letter to the New York Times: “The question is not whether the New York Post cartoon rises to the bar mandating federal criminal prosecution. It’s whether the long pattern of racially incendiary journalism practiced at the Post and Fox News should continue. Having a cartoon of a chimpanzee that has been shot after writing the Stimulus Bill immediately [following a page with] a photograph of President Obama signing the stimulus package is encouragement to those who would assassinate our 44th president. ... Media experts have documented the lack of diversity in the coverage and guests at Fox News. And the Post is one of the only newspapers to repeatedly refuse to submit diversity numbers to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.”
As we plunge on into the stygian depths of our sundry national disgraces, I urge you to remember that the NAACP is on record, in this instance, as objecting to the “long pattern of racially incendiary journalism” at the Post, not, exactly, to just the Delonas cartoon. The dead chimp was merely the flashpoint, the beacon around which the troops mustered their larger protest. If you forget, don’t fret: you aren’t alone. Almost all of the recorded excitement in the public prints focused on the cartoon. The cartoon is part of the problem, but only the tip of the iceberger, you might say.
On the sidewalk outside the Post offices on Friday, Sharpton was joined by Spike Lee in saying that apology was not enough. "Apology is a good gesture. It's a good first step," Sharpton said, calling the paper a racist rag sheet. "But it does not answer where we want it to go because unless you deal with policy, what safeguards this from not happening again?" Lee, speaking before the crowd of about 300 protesters, said: "New York City is the greatest city on this Earth. It's the most diverse city, and that cartoon was an insult to everybody. It's not just black folks. That cartoon was an insult to everybody and we're here to let them know about it." Lee suggested that athletes and entertainers shun the paper. “Shut it down,” he said.
Is Delonas’ cartoon racist or not? That’s the unanswerable question. Delonas says it isn’t. But a lot of people think it is. A lot of other people can see how it might be interpreted as a racist slur by some of those who are being slurred. As a white guy, I feel a little disadvantaged in this department: I not sure I can recognize every racist slur I encounter. When I first saw the cartoon, I thought that calling it racist was reaching: c’mon—it’s just a picture of a chimpanzee and a badly conceived cartoon. Pointlessly violent and inept maybe, but racist? I still don’t think it was intentional racism. But even if it wasn’t deliberately racist, it had the effect of an intentional racist statement. Consider all the people who were offended by its perceived racism.
Lee Nordling at toontalk.ning.com agrees, I think. Sometime cartoonist, art director, comic book editor and the author/editor of Your Career in Comics, Nordling damns both the cartoonist and his editor: “It was bad, unclear cartooning,” Nordling said. “Editorial cartoons shouldn’t be ambiguous, and this one was. I read the cop's line and felt—only felt—that it intended for the reader to think that the Stimulus Bill was written by nobody smarter than a chimp (a conceit that I heartily disagree with because I think Obama & Company were brilliant in using the stimulus to further several agendas that had been promised during the election and stimulating the economy: a two-fer, which was great ... but this is besides the point). The real problem with this cartoon was a complete insensitivity toward how it might/could/would be was interpreted. Worse, there really isn't a logical connection between a berserk chimp killed by police and the drafting of the Stimulus Bill. So, for example, under the same bad logic by the cartoonist and the editor, this cartoon could've shown two cops finding the body of the missing child, Kaylee, and they could've been saying the same thing, except in this case implying that the Stimulus Bill had been written by a child. Ugh. And just as not-funny as the chimp tragedy. Bad cartooning. Bad editing. Bad judgment.”
Murdoch’s biographer, however, thinks the cartoon was not just an example of bad cartooning: it was consciously racist. Michael Wolff, author of a recent biography of the publishing mogul, was quoted on Thursday of the on-going disturbance when Alex Koppelman at Salon.com unearthed Wolff’s take on the cartoon: “Writing for Newser, Wolff says he does think the cartoon was racist, and deliberately so, and he also drops one interesting tidbit: Murdoch himself is probably ‘livid’ over the decision to run it. With a hat-tip to Ben Smith, an excerpt from Wolff's post: ‘As a student of the Post and of Murdoch and his people, let me suggest the likelihood that [editor Col] Allan and the Post are well off the post-modern reservation. That Allan’s personal and tabloid anger, never so carefully in check, has burst into the open in an incredible spasm of tone deafness and—say it—racism. For one thing, there is, blatantly, jaw-droppingly, without disguise or camouflage or deniability, the conflation of the new president with the mad chimpanzee, who, the day before, mauled a woman. For another, no editorial cartoon at the Post can get into the paper without Allan approving it. He saw it; he got it; he bought it; he published it. Barack Obama has been a long-simmering issue at the Post. He offends both its tabloid conservatism (however cool and witty it may have become) and, too, its latent, unreconstructed Australian tabloid—again, say it—racism. He offends it even more because Rupert Murdoch, the Post’s owner and virtual Godhead, rather likes Obama. The more and more liberal Murdoch—indeed, he was in Australia earlier this month pressing for looser immigration rules—has stifled the Post’s reflexive contempt. So the dam burst. Repressed for most of the past year, the id suddenly broke free. Forget the post-modern crap. This is real, old-fashioned, tabloid hate. Murdoch, I can make an educated guess, is livid. And Col Allan is shortly on his way back to Australia.’”
Maybe Wolff is right. If not about the calculated racism—I still don’t think it was deliberate—at least about Murdoch’s state of mind. Dunno if Col Allan is back Down Under yet, but by Tuesday, February 24, Murdoch doubtless felt he’d been pilloried enough. He issued another apology, this time over his name: “As the Chairman of the New York Post, I am ultimately responsible for what is printed in its pages. The buck stops with me. Last week, we made a mistake. We ran a cartoon that offended many people. Today I want to personally apologize to any reader who felt offended, and even insulted. Over the past couple of days, I have spoken to a number of people and I now better understand the hurt this cartoon has caused. At the same time, I have had conversations with Post editors about the situation and I can assure you—without a doubt—that the only intent of that cartoon was to mock a badly written piece of legislation. It was not meant to be racist, but unfortunately, it was interpreted by many as such. We all hold the readers of the New York Post in high regard and I promise you that we will seek to be more attuned to the sensitivities of our community.”
At toontalk.com, Darrin Bell, an African American cartoonist who draws Rudy Park and writes and draws Candorville, both of which dabble playfully but pointedly in politics from time to time, is not impressed by the apologies: “Personally, I don't care whether they apologize. I think there's too much demanding-of-apologies going on in this country, too many fake ‘I'm sorry you were offended’ apologies being issued, and too much mealy-mouthed back-peddling by offenders. If you didn't mean to make a racist connection, then if you're apologizing for anything, it should be for creating and publishing a poorly thought-out cartoon, not for people taking offense to that cartoon. If you think people completely misinterpreted what you were saying, just say that and don't apologize because you didn't do anything wrong. And if you did mean some sort of racial comment, be a grown up and stand behind it. But that's just me.
“And that's the thing,” Bell continued: “I think people do have a choice. I went through something similar in 2001, when my cartoon depicting the 9-11 terrorists roasting in hell was condemned by Arab and Muslim groups across the country. It was on the network news, AP sent it out to hundreds of papers, there were near-riots on some college campuses, and MTV even held a roundtable discussion about the cartoon. Some people wildly misinterpreted it. I did a few interviews. I explained what I was trying to say, but I never apologized; and to their great credit, the papers that ran my cartoon also refused to apologize. Even in the face of threatened boycotts and demands for my dismissal. Neither they nor I insulted people by saying ‘I'm sorry you were offended.’ That kind of thing would've been patronizing.”
But even Murdoch’s mea culpa and his promise to do better by his readers in future was not, apparently, sufficient. NAACP’s Jealous welcomed Murdoch’s statement but said it didn’t go far enough: “The offenders are still on staff, and there are no measures being taken to increase diversity in its newsroom.” So the goal, now—as of February 24—is to get Allan and Delonas fired and to get more minority people on staff at the Post. And Sharpton is still fulminating—somewhat quieter now, but with a politically potent edge: as of this writing, he’s on his way to Washington, D.C. for a meeting with the Federal Communications Commission to urge review of the “waiver” that permits Murdoch to own more than one communications medium in the same market. In addition to the Post, Murdoch owns the Wall Street Journal and two tv outlets, local Fox 5 (WNEW) and My9 (WWOR).
Whatever we may think about Sharpton’s doggedness and his tactics—not to mention his real agenda (Is he simply pursuing ways to enhance his own power?)—he is without question one of the most effective propagandists presently prowling the landscape. I watched him being interviewed by the ever fatuous Lou Dobbs the other night, Tuesday, February 24, and it was an impressive performance. Dobbs, a champion opportunist and no slouch at demagoguery himself, was hopelessly out-matched by Sharpton. Every time Dobbs aimed a pointed question, Sharpton dodged, shifting his ground slightly, just enough to change the subject while avoiding an answer. Bested at every turn, Dobbs was crest-fallen and obviously flustered; Sharpton, cool and unruffled. You gotta admire how adroit he is at what he does. They seemed to agree on the necessity for guaranteeing freedom of the press, though, despite Sharpton’s plan to pressure the FCC into yanking Murdoch’s waiver in New York. Dobbs sees that as a threat to freedom of the press; Sharpton doesn’t. What he sees is Murdoch “dominating” the news media in New York. I doubt that he’ll get very far at the FCC: with the New York Times and the Daily News still publishing every day in New York, I don’t see Murdoch’s ownership of the Post and the WSJ and two tv channels as “dominating” the news media in the city. But whether Sharpton’s case has merit or not, his approaching the FCC has exerted pressure on Murdoch. And maybe that’s all Sharpton wanted to do—that, and get Allan and Delonas fired.
In Defense of Freedom to Offend
The day before, Dobbs was smirking knowingly about how the “liberal press” failed to come to Delonas’ defense because he was a conservative working at a conservative newspaper. Maybe, but I don’t remember any instances of the “liberal press” coming to the defense of liberal editoonists either. In this case, however, a conservative syndicated columnist, Kathleen Parker, leaped up on the barricade the day after Murdoch’s apology (as quoted at townhall.com):
“Cartoon outrage is becoming tedious,” she wrote, “as is the need to explain once more why being offended is not just cause for battle. This time it's not Muslims rioting in the streets, but the Rev. Al Sharpton leading protests against a New York Post cartoon that he and others consider racist. Drawing on two events in the news cycle—a violent chimpanzee felled by police, and the Stimulus Bill—cartoonist Sean Delonas sketched a dead chimpanzee lying in a pool of blood in front of two cops with a smoking gun. The balloon read: ‘They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.’ If you don't get it, there's a good reason. It was a bad cartoon. It didn't work. The connection between the two events simply wasn't organic enough to evoke the necessary ‘Aha!’ Moreover, the images carry too much free-associative freight. The mind's eye sees the word ‘stimulus’ and thinks President Barack Obama. The bill may have been written by congressional staff, but it's Obama's stimulus package. The mind's eye sees a dead chimpanzee and ... strays off course, away from the news of the animal attacking a woman to a history of dehumanizing blacks. It may be subliminal, but it's there. And dehumanization is never funny.”
Parker continued: “Cartoonists rely on readers' collective understanding of symbols and metaphor and on their unconscious connecting of images to ideas. Given that dependence, cartoonists have to be aware of the many ways those symbols might be linked within a given time and context. The Delonas cartoon was offensive for other reasons unrelated to race. No sane person enjoyed seeing or reading about police killing the chimpanzee. They may as well have killed Bonzo. Compounding the horror of this poor animal drawn dead and bleeding was the knowledge of its gruesome attack on a woman, who at the time was in critical condition. Not funny.
“Let's add even another layer of cultural understanding,” Parker said, “—the too-oft read headline: ‘White cop shoots unarmed black.’ One can parse the circumstances in each case, but the statistical evidence is that these shootings happen too often. Do I think Delonas meant to convey all these layers of meaning? Not at all, though cartoonists have unconscious motivations like everyone else. He may have considered the possible racist interpretation and justified his decision because he didn't mean it that way. Cartoonists make artistic and editorial judgments every day, though some cartoonists have better judgment than others. Even so, outrage [in this case] is out of proportion to the offense, and demands for retributive justice are more dangerous than a lousy cartoon.”
Parker then recalls conversations she had with the late political cartoonist Doug Marlette, “an equal opportunity offender,” she remembers, “but being offensive was never his objective. The goal was to be effective; offense was the occasional byproduct. Delonas was offensive without being effective because he had nothing to say. Cops-kill-chimp/Stimulus-Bill-bad is not the stuff of revelation. It is literal, blunt and unclever.” But, she goes on, “Marlette would have defended the cartoonist's right to fail and to offend others in pursuit of an ideal. He would have reminded all those upset by this cartoon that the freedom to offend is the very same freedom that allows them to protest when they have their feelings are hurt. Be careful, he might have said, lest we lose for winning.”
In somewhat the same vein, Gene Lyons at the Dickinson Press took off in about the same direction: “Should Post editors have rejected the cartoon? Definitely, but more for its sheer plodding witlessness than offensiveness. It's amazing how many on what's left of the Republican right these days appear to confuse an insult with an argument. That said, I remain unpersuaded that these rituals of fake outrage accomplish anything useful. Although politicians have been caricatured as virtually every creature in the bestiary since the time of Aesop (620-560 B.C.), there's no reason to believe the Post cartoon represented Obama. Of all the taunts and accusations aimed at him, nobody thinks he's stupid. Even his strongest detractors concede Obama's intellectual brilliance. ... Yes, blacks were often compared to monkeys in 19th and early-20th century America — particularly after Darwin's Origin of Species. So were the Irish, the Chinese and, for that matter, Abraham Lincoln. It's also true that hurtful stereotypes of Irish- and Asian-Americans have greatly changed over time, while racist images of African-Americans haven't evolved quite so far. Even so, it's better to keep things in proportion. The temptation to sanctify some person, group or institution, placing them above satire and beyond criticism, is best resisted. It doesn't show strength or maturity; it reveals lack of self-confidence and hidden doubts. The day Obama needs a committee of theatrically outraged publicity hounds to rescue his public image ... Well, that'll be the day.”
The Delonas chimp may be as close to the Danish Dozen as we’re going to get, so it’s heartening to realize that none among the protesters is suggesting that the cartoonist be killed. Fired, yes; but not executed. This sort of decorum doubtless represents an advance in civilization, but it’s scarcely the ringing endorsement of freedom of the press that we might hope for. And we may hope in vain. We are the nation, remember, in which only a few newspapers had the journalistic courage to publish any of the Danish Dozen; and now we have Murdoch groveling in order to forestall an FCC judgement. Maybe the Danish Muhammad cartoons were tasteless affronts to Muslim sensibility, just as Delonas’ chimp is to African American sensibilities, but if we are to support and defend freedom of the press and all it entails, we must run the risk, occasionally, of being tasteless. Intermittent tastelessness may be the sign of a healthy freedom. Meanwhile, somebody somewhere ought to be loudly pounding on a desk in support of the right to be wrong.
Whether Murdoch can weather the storm is, perhaps for the first time in the media mogul’s climb to power, questionable. Murdoch’s newspapers are not immune to the financial ills that are plaguing American newspapers. Perhaps his bank account is flush enough to ride out the bad times, but maybe not. At the end of February, the Post dropped Liz Smith’s syndicated gossip column after running it for 33 years. Smith, 86, said she’d received a letter declining to renew her $125,000 annual contract “due to economic circumstances.” Economic circumstances might put even Murdoch in the mood to knuckle under and fire his cartoonist and editor. Although I hope not. Someone has to stand up to the self-sanctified who proclaim themselves above satire and criticism.
While the New York Post’s hazardous ordeal trumpets the power of cartoons, it is also a cautionary tale, the veritable object lesson, for newspaper editors everywhere about the possible dire consequences of publishing pictorial opinion. And some of these otherwise worthy souls in this skittish age of fear and political correctitude may opt out of the predicament by forgoing a staff editoonist in favor of a syndicated cartoonist whose work, before it even arrives at the paper, has already been edited at least once to guarantee its absolute inoffensiveness. To everyone. Delonas’ chimp thus exacerbates the foreboding footing upon which the nation’s dwindling editorial cartooning fraternity presently finds itself. Newspaper publishers of yore—publishers like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer—gloried in the civic disturbances they could provoke with intemperate headlines and venomous editorial cartoons: a vituperative populace was evidence of journalism’s power. Alas, in today’s apocalyptic economy no journalist seems willing to risk his readers’ opprobrium even if it proves the power of the press.
by way of demonstrating that timorousness and mindless group think
reign on every side of an issue—at the Saturday meeting of the
NAACP on February 21, the chair of the meeting, Julian Bond, refused
to recognize a member who rose to speak in opposition to the
organization’s condemnation of the Post and the cartoon, the editor and the cartoonist. Michael Myers, born
in Harlem, a former assistant director of the NAACP, once personal
assistant to the late executive director, Roy Wilkins, and creator
and head of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, had earlier
commented on the brohaha: “All political pundits deserve a wide
berth for social criticism and for parodying and poking fun at and
criticizing our political leaders, no matter the skin color or race
of the public official.” When Meyers started to speak, Bond cut
him off, saying: “Your views are not welcomed here.” And
when Meyers persisted, Bond turned off his microphone and summoned
security to remove him from the assembly. It was just the sort of
outrage against free speech that gets Nat Hentoff all a-twitter, and
he rehearses the whole damnable episode at
Hentoff and Myers, it should be pointed out (as Hentoff himself
does), are old friends and allies, so Hentoff’s rage has
personal as well as principled origins. And why not?
Obama, Race, and the Need for Some Confabulation
In one of those wonderfully ironic happenstances that sometimes befall us, on the very day that Delonas’ cartoon was published, Eric Holder, the nation’s first African American attorney general, was calling for more candid discussion of race. Despite our “melting pot” heritage, he said, we have been “cowards” on the great questions of race in America: “We, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about things racial.” I think he’s right, but many disagreed, pointing to the racial issues of Obama’s candidacy that were often discussed during the recent Election. Those issues, however, were probably not the issues Holder had in mind. Probably what he hopes for is a dialogue in which blacks and whites alike confess their often suppressed prejudices and talk together about how they might overcome them. Where to begin? We might start with dispensing with the onus of slavery as the cross white people must bear alone. Slavery of Africans started in Africa when the victors in tribal warfare enslaved their prisoners of war. Arabs played a role, too, often enslaving captive blacks. Our history, fraught with instances of abuse of blacks by whites, usually ignores such awkwardnesses. And it ignores, too, any reference to the substantial numbers of African Americans in the South before the Civil War who were slave owners. Information like this scarcely exonerates whites from condemnation for perpetuating the “peculiar institution” and its tawdry brutalities, but acknowledging the actual, rather than the imaginary, history of slavery would enable us to give up the blame game and might take us all a few steps closer to mutual understanding. Another few steps were taken, here and there, in the palaver about the Delonas cartoon.
Norm Feuti, for instance—who produces the syndicated comic strip Retail—joined in a discussion on toontalk.com, saying: “I'm not familiar with Delonas' work, but the chimpanzee cartoon didn't come off as intentionally racist to me. My first thought when I saw it was, Oooh he really didn't think that one through. Of course, I didn't see the cartoon before the controversy, so it's difficult to say how it would have hit me if I had read it outside of that context. It honestly might not have struck me as racist. But how I took it is really beside the point I think. If you live on this planet, you know that black people have been compared to or called monkeys by racists, so you take care not to imply any such comparison—especially if you’re editorializing about a bill championed by an African-American president. ... This whole debacle brings to mind that group of Republicans who were passing out ‘Obama Food Stamps’ before the Election adorned with an image of Obama surrounded by a pitcher of Kool-Aid, watermelon slices, and a bucket of fried chicken. When questioned about it, they all said, ‘What? No, we didn't mean anything by it. It's just food. We had no idea those specific foods were stereotypically attributed to black people.’ Of course, that was no honest mistake, but the principal is the same. You can't be an adult in America and not know these things. It's impossible. Everybody makes mistakes, and I truly believe there was no racist intent in this cartoon, but the Post's back-handed apology doesn't make me feel too bad about the heat they're taking.”
Bell agrees: "How could a fully-grown American (and his editors)
not realize how this would be perceived? What’s next, a cartoon
combining a critique about Joe Lieberman with the latest
rat-infestation story? A critique about the GOP combined with the
latest story about crackers?
"These are issues cartoonists should talk about and learn from,” Bell continued, “—cartoons where the clumsy imagery and tone-deaf thinking of the cartoonists completely derailed the stated points of the cartoons. If we don’t point this out, it’ll keep happening. At best, Sean and his editors were naive; they should have known that people weren’t going to stop and say ‘but it was Congress that wrote the bill,’ since this has been universally described as Obama’s Stimulus Bill. Cartoonists are supposed to be aware how this sort of thing works because we don’t have the luxury of 700-1000 words to explain ourselves."
Well, yes, but still, it’s possible for a white American male, even a political cartoonist, to get so close to his work that he doesn’t see the implications of the monkey and the prez. That’s part of what the called-for dialogue should do—acknowledge simple human fallibility as well as nearly subconscious racism.
We should have seen the Delonas chimp coming. Michael Cavna at his Washington Post blog, Comic Riffs, saw it: “For political cartoonists, it was the powderkeg that was bound to blow,” he said, almost as soon as the Delonas chimp appeared. Cavna continued: “Sooner or later, an editorial cartoon published during the Obama administration was going to be viewed by many as incontrovertibly racist. As both cartoonist and critic, I'm half-surprised it took this long. Forget the chimp for a moment. The true social context for this cartoon is the 800-pound gorilla. ... When the dust finally clears, I hope one thing can come of it: a real conversation can be had about how President Obama—as both public figure and African American public figure—is depicted and drawn, criticized and caricatured, by artists the world over. Because if this woefully ill-conceived, seemingly hateful powderkeg of a cartoon can do one thing, perhaps it can inadvertently light the way. ... The central question for cartoonists was, and is: after centuries of caricaturing white presidents, are the rules of caricature and lampoon changing with Obama in office? ... And equally important: should they? ...As [various public officials and groups] denounce the cartoon—and as Delonas and his editor insist that no Obama reference was intended—can we finally, genuinely, have this deeper, more probing conversation? [Akin to what Obama asked of us during his ‘Jeremiah Wright speech’—specifically, let's aim to elevate the national discourse with unrelenting candor on both sides.] ... Countless factors go into the national conversation about political cartoons that depict Obama. They include not only the ugly history of racist caricatures in this country, but also the primal power of simple cartoons and, tangentially, historic criticism over the lack of diversity among the ranks of staff editorial cartoonists. (And yes, Bush was commonly caricatured as looking like a baboon, which is yet another reason why this conversation needs to be had—and not in simplistic, knee-jerk rhetoric.) ... In this case,” Cavna concluded, “perhaps such an ill-conceived political cartoon can—through absolutely no design of its own—illuminate the 800-pound truth in the room: namely, that given the power and primacy and sometimes checkered history of cartoons, this is one art form that is not yet post-racial.”
Even Lalo Alcaraz, a Latino cartoonist whose comic strip La Cucaracha tries to do for (and to) the Hispanic community what Aaron McGruder did for (and to) the African American community in The Boondocks, is not immune from criticism about his manner of portraying Obama. Recently, as reported by Jesse Washington at mercurynews.com, “Alcaraz was in front of a classroom full of black and Latino kids, drawing presidents. He sketched Bush, then Clinton. Next came his favorite, the man he voted for: Obama. ‘Hey, those lips are big,’ Alcaraz heard a black girl say from the back of the room. Alcaraz was disturbed. ‘I try to bend over backwards not to make him look like a cartoon stereotype,’ and certainly not a racial stereotype, he said.” But he evidently didn’t manage it this time.
Said Washington: “The problem is, cartoonists make their living by making fun of people—especially presidents—and exaggerating their features and foibles.” He quotes Amelia Rauser, an art history professor at Franklin and Marshall College and author of Caricature Unmasked, which examines the art form's historical role in political discourse. "The best political cartoons are like an X-ray machine," she said. “You have to deform someone facially in order to make a larger point about their character.” Washington went on: “The late Herblock often saddled Richard Nixon with an enormous cartoon nose. Liberals drew George W. Bush like a simpleton, or worse. There have been minor kerfuffles from the left about drawing Hillary Clinton as insufficiently feminine, and from the right about depicting Condoleezza Rice as servile to President Bush. Drawings of President Barack Obama, however, must contend with America's history of degrading racial imagery, from ape comparisons to enormous ‘Sambo’ lips. (Caricatures of the president's admittedly large ears have so far escaped scrutiny.) Michael Cavna ... wrote that ‘an unnerving number of North America's political cartoonists are bizarrely obsessed with President Obama's lips.’ He followed with a detailed analysis of several cartoons where Obama's lips were large, some shade of blue, or both.”
As I’ve mentioned here before, Obama’s physiognomy does not display the stereotypically generous lips of an African, those lips so often caricatured in “mush mouth” pictures of African Americans in cartoons for a hundred years until we became a little more self-conscious in the years after World War II. But self-consciousness, over the ensuing years, led to timidity: we’re afraid to depict African Americans in racial terms for fear of falling into the pit of stereotype. The cartoonist’s typical remedy: draw a regulation white guy but color him brown (or, if color is not available, apply gray tone). This hesitant solution has worked for a long time because there were so few prominent (in the mainstream) African Americans who might have required individualized caricature rather than generic portrayal. But Jesse Jackson fell outside this rubric: editorial cartoonists had to show Jackson, not some nondescript white guy in gray tones. Ditto the reverend Jeremiah Wright. And Barack Obama.
Obama is still somewhat of an undeclared visual personna among editoonists. He would be hard to caricature if he were white: handsome males usually are. And Obama is a handsome male. His handsomeness bears no “disfiguring” visual idiosyncracy that can be seized upon for easy caricature. Except his ears. In desperation, cartoonists have grabbed him by the ears, portraying them in elephantine dimension. But as I’ve pointed out before: Obama’s ears aren’t large; they stick out more from the sides of his head than many people’s ears do, but they aren’t large. Still, a desperate caricaturist will grasp at any straw, and most of them in these parts have seized the ears. The only other individualized physical characteristic is thinness: cartoonists draw a long thin face, often with a prominent jaw, stick big ears on the sides and add gray tint. And they think they’re done. But they aren’t: they’ve barely begun.
In their commendable desire to avoid racial stereotyping, too many editoonists have resorted to a thoroughly bland portrait of Obama—thin face, long jaw, big ears and nothing else. In avoiding the stereotype, they’ve also avoided the particular, the individual physical characteristics that identify Obama. Obama is African American, and his visage consists in part of physical characteristics that reveal his African roots. He doesn’t have big lips, but his upper lip, thin thought it is, is darker than his lower lip, an African characteristic in mixed-race persons. His hair might be kinky, but it’s so close cropped that we can’t tell: close-cropped, however, his haircut displays the shape of his head, as round as a knob. His nose is nondescript: it is a little broad in the African manner, but not much; a caricaturist would ignore the nose as a distinctive feature. Still, some editorial cartoonists produce caricatures of Obama with a big nose: African lips and nose dominate Pat Oliphant’s recent caricatures. Several editoonists give their Obama caricatures eyeballs, circles with dots in the middle for pupils. This maneuver has the effect of perpetuating a racial stereotype—white eyeballs in the midst of a dark-skinned face look popeyed in the racist tradition of rendering African Americans wide-eyed in terror or stupidity or naivety. Besides, Obama’s eyes are not a distinguishing visual characteristic. They’re usually narrow rather than bulging wide open.
We can hope the caricature of Obama will evolve into something better, something more individually distinctive and therefore recognizable. But not much in editoonery practices lately foster the hope: once cartoonists have developed their “cartoon character” to represent a politician, they usually trot out the same unchanging template every time they depict that personage. Once Mike Luckovich gave GeeDubya big, rabbit-like ears, the ears only got bigger: the other aspects of his Bush caricature remained the same. Ditto Oliphant (although he was more skillful in caricaturing Bush than Luckovich). Ann Telnaes, whose animated editorial cartoons appear three times a week at the Washington Post website, began with a good Obama caricature—simple, long jaw, thin face, but still effective. Lately, however, she’s shortened the jaw and sometimes the ears aren’t noticeable at all. It’s evolution, but it’s less distinctive. We sampled some other depictions at Opus 236. Gary Varvel, for instance, is excellent with almost every politician he draws except Obama: his Obama is pretty good but is always smiling a big toothy grin. A good caricaturist knows that people look different with every change in facial expression; each expression warrants a separate caricature. Indifferent caricaturists simply give their standard “cartoon character” whatever expression the cartoon needs: the character changes expressions but with each change, the character looks less and less like the personage being caricatured.
Dick Locher does a good Obama—thin dark upper lip, ears sticking out (but not particularly large), and a long jaw (which should be pointed, not square, as Locher renders it in his usual Dick Tracy manner). But the best I’ve seen is Jack Ohman’s, one of which appears near here. The Portland Oregonian’s Ohman is one of the profession’s best caricaturists, and his renderings are often quite unconventional: they don’t follow the factory model that soon emerges in the work of his colleagues. Ohman’s Obama, for example, has a longer distance between nose and upper lip than can be found in any other caricature of the prez. That distance is not an accurate portrayal of Obama’s features, but in Ohman’s caricatural arrangement, it works, it’s a vital aspect of the defining image. I’d like to see a smiling Ohman Obama, but maybe that’ll come along later. In the meantime, Ohman gives us a shining example of how to capture the visual essence of a person without exactly copying his face. In breath-taking contrast—proving Ohman’s excellence by pairing his work with a genuinely maladroit, even racist, endeavor from a raging conservative editoonist—here’s Gary McCoy’s Obama, big nose, big ears, and those racist liver lips of bygone times, right next to Ohman’s superlative interpretation. Ugh. By now, McCoy has doubtless been drummed out of the corps, but he gave us a jarringly strident instance of how bad caricature can be when it adheres to a racial (not to say racist) model and forfeits the individuality of the subject.
Death of Humor
If editorial cartoonists persist in being too timid about caricaturing Obama, we’ll lose a lot of the humor in editorial cartoons—the comedy that helps make the point of the cartoonist’s pictorial comment. And if that happens, we’ll wind up where columnist Daniel Kurtzman (who edits politicalhumor.about.com) says he and other comedy writers find themselves. “Now that Barack Obama has taken the oath of office,” Kurtzman writes in the March issue of Funny Times, “the era of easy presidential punchlines may be coming to a close. As it has been widely noted in humor circles, Obama remains a tough target. ... What’s in store for political humor in the age of Obama?” Kurtzman asks, and then consults several comedy writers.
Letterman’s Joe Grossman says: “My best guess is that the late-night hosts will have to reinvent their shows now that political humor will cease to exist. Most likely, you’ll see Letterman replace all of his comedy material with cooking segments, household safety demonstrations, poetry readings, and public service announcements. ... Either that, or the Obama administration will prove fallible, and mockery of government will continue as it has for most of recorded history. Could go either way.”
From Michael Colton and John Aboud, screenwriters, comes this: “Barack Obama is a transformational figure who represents the fulfillment of the American dream and the end of all humor. His wisdom and judgment will erase every single social and political discontent that fuels comedy, including marital strife, the incovneniences of air travel, and DMV wait times. He will cause humans to cease breaking wind. We forecast the last joke in America will be told on August 5, 2009—a tepidly received one-liner conflating Leon Panetta with the foodstuff “pancetta.’”
And Peter Gwinn, writer for “The Colbert Report,” adds: “We do face a serious problem because now that George Bush is no longer president, nothing is funny in the entire world. I expect that in 2009, most of my own comedy will consist of reading Laffy Taffy wrappers out loud: ‘Why are rhinos so wrinkly?’ ‘ Because they’re hard to iron.’ That joke right there will always be comedy gold, at least until America elects a rhino president.”
INSIDE ANOTHER CARTOONING SCANDAL
Last December, while the scandal was still simmering, Hogan’s Alley talked with “the ubiquitous Barry Blitt, uber-illustrator and the provocateur behind the New Yorker cover that lampooned how Barack and Michelle Obama would behave in the White House (as viewed from Crazytown).” Blitt said he generally comes up with his own ideas for covers and illustrations, and when he submitted the sketch for the controversial Obama Islamist cover, “Francoise Mouly, the art editor, got it right away,” Blitt said. “So did David Remnick, the editor. For me—and for the two of them, apparently—there was no mistaking the irony of the thing.” In the initial sketch, the Obamas were clad as Islamists. “This was after hearing one too many insinuations in the media. Francoise rightly suggested that Michelle Obama was being talked about more as a 1970s-era Black Panther—remember the rumors of a ‘kill whitey’ video? She also suggested a few of the outrageous accoutrements in the background of the Oval Office. The idea was to make the thing so outrageous no one could possibly take it at face value. ... When I handed in the finished art, Francoise said, ‘After this is out there, they won't be calling the Obamas terrorists, etc., any more.’ It felt like we were putting the lie to all that crap.” Then, of course, the feces hit the flabellum. Said Blitt: “Personally, I only saw it as satire of the right. But the ambiguity could only help get the issues discussed. Oh God, I just used the word ambiguity discussing my own work. I'm officially a jackass.” Has anything he’s ever done compared to the yelling and screaming over the Obama cover? “There's been nothing like this for me,” Blitt said. “I did two sailors kissing in Times Square—over ten years ago, before the Internet was as widespread and everyone had a blog. I think a lot of the hullabaloo over the Obama cover was Internet-fed; it spread like a virus. It's so easy to voice your outrage now.”
NOUS R US
All the News That Gives Us Fits and the Fits It Gives Us
In the aggregate of his numerous corporations, Steve Geppi has become a spectacular deadbeat: he may owe somewhat more than $17 million to sundry suppliers and other entities, saith pwbeat.publisherswekly.com. The mounting debt threatens one of his companies that is crucial to the health of the comics industry, Geppi’s Diamond Comic Distributors. Geppi, his Diamond company and his Gemstone Publishing are being sued by a collection agency on behalf of Global Interprint for printing bills of over $373,000. Geppi also owes PNC Bank over $16 million. And Geppi's Entertainment Museum in Baltimore owes more than $700,000 in unpaid rent, late fees and unpaid electric bills dating back to February 2007. Although most of the debt is piled up around Geppi businesses other than Diamond, pwbeat observed, “If Steve Geppi can't pay his bills, something has to give. It certainly puts all of Diamond's recent cost cutting measures— new trade terms, layoffs and so on —into a new light.” DC Comics, according to a rumor that drifted this way, may take over Diamond under the terms of its contract with the company. For details about Geppi's debt woes, visit
http://pwbeat. publishersweekly .com/blog/ 2009/02/18/ steve-geppis- debt-woes- growing/ You won’t find there any evidence of the latest rumor, though—namely, that Geppi has pulled the plug on Gemstone Publishing, leaving Russ Cochran and his Missourian minions high and dry.
Al Feldstein sent a letter on March 6 to his mailing list to explain why he wouldn’t be attending any comic cons in the foreseeable future: he had a heart attack and is now awaiting bi-pass open heart surgery. He reported that on February 24, he blacked out while driving out of his ranch in Montana: “Thank God I was still on my ranch road and not on the highway driving into town when the blackout occurred—so all that happened was I tore down some of our fencing!” He was rushed to the local hospital and then another hospital, where they told him he needed surgery but they refused to perform the procedure there because he was declared a “high risk open heart surgery candidate.” They recommended the Mayo Clinic, and Feldstein says he’s now at home, awaiting admission to Mayo. But he’s still the old Mad-man, concluding his letter to his friends: “I’ll keep you posted. I will continue to send my usual rabble-rousing garbage...and please!, continue to send me yours. MAD-ly yours (in Congestive Heart Failure).”
With a single bound, Mike Peters escaped: on January 13, Colombia's coffee growers federation dropped its $20 million law suit against him for making a joke about Juan Valdez coffee in Mother Goose and Grimm. The federation claimed Peters had insulted Colombia's national dignity and would seek "not just an economic compensation for something that damages the intellectual heritage. We also want moral compensation—a public manifestation," said the federation’s director. According to columbiareports.com, Peters subsequently made a public apology, saying he was sorry for having offended and adding that the coffeegrowers had misinterpreted the joke. (See Opus 236 for the offending strips.) Phooey on the coffee-makers: as Amy Lago has so memorably put it—if you can’t take a joke, why are you reading the comics?
I haven’t seen “Watchmen” yet. I plan to sometime this week if I can finish re-reading the tale in its original, comic book form, first. Most reviews I’ve seen, though, through Friday, March 6, are not enthusiastic. All of which would seem to bear out creator Alan Moore’s essential prejudice against movie versions of his works: he writes to plumb the fundamental capacities of the comics medium, and to the extent that he is roaringly successful at that, the work in question cannot be translated into another medium, like motion pictures. Lisa Kennedy, reviewer for the local paper, the Denver Post, opened her mostly approving tirade by quoting Oscar Wilde: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” All this time, I didn’t realize Wilde was a superhero fan. Compared to friendly Kennedy, Anthony Lane at The New Yorker was particularly vicious: “The bad news about ‘Watchmen’ is that it grinds and squelches on for two-and-a-half hours, like a major operation. The good news is that you don’t have to stay past the opening credit sequence—easily the highlight of the film.” He ends with this: “Incoherent, overblown, and grimy with misogyny, ‘Watchmen’ marks the final demolition of the comic strip, and it leaves you wondering: where did the comedy go?”
IDW has announced plans to publish a reprint tome of Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County in five volumes, two years each, starting in October. The books will include “context” pages that will explain topical references in the strips. IDW also plans to publish all of Bil Keane’s Family Circus and The Complete Rocketeer by Dave Stevens. ... Art Spiegelman’s Maus is ranked second in a list of the “25 most powerful books of the last 25 years” by Mental Floss, a bimonthly magazine specializing in fascinating trivia, like this: “The Maus Volume I book cover, which depicts two mice cowering beneath a swastika, has sparked some unexpected controversy. When the cover was used as the official poster for a major comics convention in Germany, police seized the artwork, citing a law that forbids the ‘glorification of Nazi propaganda.’” Maus is on the list because, as you must know, it “made the graphic novel a legitimate art form.” Among the tidbits in the March-April issue of the magazine is this about Arnold Schwarzenegger, who “was a millionaire by the age of 30—long before his movie career took off.” When, after arriving in this country in 1968 to train as a bodybuilder, Arnold found it was not a lucrative career, he partnered with another bodybuilder to launch a bricklaying business and then invested the profits in real estate and a company that sold bodybuilding equipment. He also earned a degree in business and economics from the University of Wisconsin—all before 1982, when ‘Conan the Barbarian’ made him a superstar.
Afflicting the Comfortable and Comforting the Afflicted
Here’s an absolute peach of an editorial cartoon, a veritable exemplar of what the genre ought to do—create an image so memorably and comically inventive that it is burned forever into the brain pans of its viewers. From the pen of David Fitzsimmons at the Arizona Star Daily, the cartoon presents Rush Limbaugh, lately proclaimed “the face of the Republican Party,” in all his sublime glory. It takes a minute, contemplating this picture, for the whole encyclopedia of its meaning to sink in. There’s Rush’s face—right in ours. But as our gaze wanders to take in the entire landscape, we discern the anatomy of the Grand Old Pachyderm, it is suddenly apparent that Rush’s face is actually the ass-end of the elephant and his mouth the asshole. The implications quickly heap up, leading us to deduce that whatever Rush-beau expounds is the equivalent of passing gas. Unforgettable.If every political cartoon were this good, we wouldn’t need newspapers.
Bagley Bags a Big One
Pat Bagley is this year’s winner of the Herblock Prize for "distinguished examples of editorial cartooning that exemplify the courageous standards” set by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Herb Block during his seven-decade career. The Prize, funded by the Herb Block Foundation, includes a $15,000 after-taxes cash award and a sterling silver trophy manufactured by Tiffany. Both will be presented to Bagley at the Library of Congress on April 2 by Ted Koppel, who will deliver the 2009 Herblock Lecture at the ceremony. "I'm pretty jazzed,” Bagley said. “This is one of the highlights of my life. Short of the Pulitzer, the Herblock Prize is the biggest one you can get.”
Bagley, 53, has been cartooning for the Salt Lake Tribune since 1979 but enjoyed no national visibility until he was syndicated a couple of years ago by Cagle Cartoons. Then we started seeing his cartoons everywhere, and I rejoiced: his work is always biting—and hilarious, an important distinction. Here are a few of his recent efforts.
Tribune Editor Nancy Conway, quoted in her paper, called Bagley, a "remarkable person" and a "wonderful artist" who holds Utah up to itself for self-reflection. "And he does that with affection, but with a critical eye as well. He can make us laugh at ourselves and understand our own humanity. That is a gift. Utah, without him, would be less than it is.”
In Utah, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints permeates state politics, so doing political cartoons often means taking a poke at the Church. Bagley grew up Mormon, but when I interviewed him in 1991 for Cartoonist PROfiles, he described himself as “semi-retired” from the Church. He is not at all hesitant about ridiculing the LDS when he thinks it deserves the attention. And when he flings a dart that way, he gets letters that both praise and damn him.
“I know that a cartoon has hit the nail on the head when I show it to a Mormon neighbor of mine,” he told me. “He’s fairly orthodox, fairly straight. His first reaction—if he laughs, you can see something registering in the back of his brain: ‘I really shouldn’t be laughing at this—.’ He’ll laugh first and then say, ‘Well, I don’t know—this may be going a bit too far.’ And that’s just what I want to do,” Pat finished with a grin. (Our entire 1991 conversation was reprised 14 months ago in Harv’s Hindsights; look for December 2007.)
Bagley estimated that the Tribune published only about one of every three of his Mormon-oriented cartoons. Many of the rejects were published by Signature Books of Salt Lake City in two collections of his cartoons, Treasures of Half-Truth (1986) and Oh My Heck (1988), both of which sold very well in Salt Lake City—better than Pat Oliphant’s books sold nationally, Bagley said. But to appreciate the cartoons in these books, you need special knowledge—of either Utah or the LDS Church. Another Utah editoonist, Cal Grondahl, once at the Deseret News, was the first to publish books of Mormon cartoons.
Bagley was the unanimous choice of Herblock judges Garry Trudeau, Doonesbury creator; sometime Village Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer; and John Sherffius, editorial cartoonist at the Boulder Daily Camera in Colorado. Said Trudeau, quoted in a Herb Block Foundation press release: "If The New Yorker published political cartoons, Bagley would he their main man. His drawings have the looseness of back-of-the-envelope dispatches, yet the speedy strokes belie a rigorous compositional discipline. These are good-looking cartoons," Trudeau said, adding that Bagley's "takes on the passing parade are uniformly deft and witty. With just the right balance of caricature, dialogue and labels, he puts the reader away, lickity split, no fuss."
Sherffius, the winner of last year's Herblock Prize, said: "There is no doubt where Pat Bagley stands on the issues—the opinions expressed in his impressive portfolio ring loud and clear. Combine that with Pat's political insight, biting humor and colorfully original drawing style, and you've got our 2009 winner. Herblock would be very proud." Feiffer praised Bagley's "fresh, direct and witty style in both his ideas and his art." He called Bagley's art a "relief, it's different than people have come to expect." Vern Anderson, editorial page editor of the Tribune, credits Bagley's work as "one of the reasons the paper has managed to remain relevant in a rapidly changing media environment."
Bagley grew up in a Republican family in Southern California where his father was mayor of Oceanside near the sprawling Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base. He remained a Republican, a moderate one, until the election of President George WMD Bush, who Bagley credits for turning him away from the Grand Old Pachyderm. "He radicalized me," said Bagley, who describes himself today as a “liberal independent.”
In addition to his cartoons, Bagley has produced several books: 101 Ways to Survive Four More Years of George W. Bush and two “Clueless George” volumes parodying the children's Curious George books. Chimp-faced GeeDubya stars in the Bagley versions. Twenty years of Bagley’s cartoons are surveyed in The Best of Bagley (1998), in which we can watch as he abandoned the mannerisms of Pat Oliphant and Ronald Searle and developed, his own distinctive style.
His most recent book is Bagley’s Utah Survival Guide, which we described briefly last time (Opus 238) as containing “more facts and near-facts” about Utah than any other publication in captivity. For instance, after noting that the population of the state is 70% Mormon, Bagley writes: “Far from being a refuge of radical religionists—as originally intended—Utah today is probably the most American place in the world. Think: apple pie (or, in this case, green Jell-O). Think: minivans full of kids unloading at a megaplex theatre in a strip mall. Think: gorgeous multi-hued sunsets that could only be the result of serious pollution. This place is about as American as you can get.” No one, Bagley tells us, has ever explained why green Jell-O is the most poplar snack in Utah. But it is, he assures us. The book brims with Bagley drawings and occasional photographs (like the one of Salt Like City’s LDS founder Brigham Young as a young man; startling). And we also come upon such intelligence as this, about the oft scorned jackalope: “Irrefutable proof that this member of the bunny family exists—and in large numbers—can be found on postcard racks throughout the West.” In other words, Bagley’s Utah Survival Guide is not just for visitors to Utah; you and I can enjoy it, too—Bagley’s verbal as well as his visual wit.
The Clueless George books were best-sellers in Salt Lake City. One local bookstore owner, Betsy Burton, sold 1,838 copies of the first book—a store record—in a fire-engine red state! Interviewed at the time by Jamie Gadette of the Salt Lake City Weekly, Burton credited the sales record not only to GeeDubya’s sinking approval ratings but also to Bagley’s infectious appeal. While he’ll never admit to rock-star status, Burton believes the cartoonist’s reputation far exceeds his own opinion of it. “He’s one of the single most important parts of the Tribune for everyone who reads it—no one misses his cartoons.”
Utah’s red state reputation might be somewhat exaggerated. The Tribune has been a fairly independent paper—neither rampant Republican nor solid Mormon—and for more than 30 years, it deliberately did not endorse candidates for office. But a new publisher, alien to Utah, decided in 2004 to revive the ancient custom. Taking into consideration the state’s red state reputation, MediaNews Group’s Dean Singleton opted to bless Bush. “Over 7,000 people cancelled their subscriptions,” Bagley said. “The cartoon that appeared next to the editorial endorsement,” Bagley told me, “was one of my best. It showed Bush at his goofiest with the line ‘The Choice is Simple.’ Most people got it; some still don’t.”
According to the Paul Beebe at the Tribune, Bagley began his editorial cartooning career during a finance class at Brigham Young University in 1977, when the LDS Church-owned school was being sued for refusing to let male and female students live in the same off-campus buildings. Trying to keep himself awake in class, Bagley doodled a political cartoon depicting feminist and former Congresswoman Bella Abzug escorted by two National Guardsmen. Abzug, carrying a suitcase, is greeted at an apartment door by a male student, who says, "Hey guys—our new roommate is here." The cartoon is reminiscent of nine black students being escorted by National Guard troops into an all-white Little Rock, Ark., high school in 1958. Bagley submitted it to BYU's student newspaper, the Daily Universe. Bagley told me he expected the editor to turn the idea over to the paper’s regular editorial cartoonist, Steve Benson (now a Pulitzer winner at the Arizona Republic in Phoenix), but the editor told Bagley to do a finished drawing, which was promptly published. A few weeks later, the cartoon, Bagley’s first, was reprinted in Time magazine. "And it's been downhill ever since, until the Prize," Bagley said.
During the remainder of his college years, Bagley cartooned for the campus paper, alternating with Benson. After graduation Bagley worked briefly as a caricaturist in a local mall before being hired as the editorial cartoonist at the Salt Lake Tribune where he has remained forthwith.
The cash award part of the Herblock Prize was increased from $10,000 to $15,000 this year in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Herb Block’s birth said Jean Rickard, executive director of the Herb Block Foundation. The Herblock Prize was created by the Foundation in 2003. Previous winners have been Matt Davies of the Journal News of Westchester County, N.Y., Tony Auth of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Jeff Danziger of the New York Times Syndicate, Jim Morin of the Miami Herald and Sherffius.
Death of a Newspaper
OUT WHERE THE WEST BEGINS
Journalistic Competition Just Ended
One of the most colorful newspaper circulation wars in the nation has ended after a epic century of underhanded skirmishes and bristling battles that began October 28, 1895, when the foundering Denver Post was purchased by a pair of bandits, a con man and a carnie, Fred G. Bonfils and Harry Tammen, and concluded February 27, 2009 with the last issue of its rival, the Rocky Mountain News, just 55 days short of the blow-out celebration being planned for its 150th anniversary. Apart from the survivor, the only victor is the comics. The Post, eager to attract the erstwhile subscribers to the News, announced even before the last issue of the News that it would pick up and publish all that paper’s comic strips in the obvious hope that their readers would follow them to the Post. Seldom do we have so unequivocal a demonstration of the popularity and power of the newspaper comics section.
The Rocky Mountain News is not just another of the endangered species: until February 27, it was the second oldest continuously operating business in Colorado (the oldest is a market in San Luis) and the oldest newspaper in the state. Its first issue dated April 23, 1859, the News is older than the state, which became the Centennial State in 1876, and almost older than the city it was born in: Denver was founded by some claim jumpers in the late fall of 1858. The News was also one of the oldest continously publishing daily newspapers in the nation; only a half-dozen or so major newspapers are older —among them, the Philadelphia Inquirer (1829), Hartford Courant (daily since 1836), Baltimore Sun (1837), Times-Picayune (1839), Plain Dealer (1845) and the Sacramento Bee (1857). The shuttering of the News is therefore a historic event akin to the sinking of Old Ironsides. Moreover, in Denver, its collapse undermines the Constitutional function of the press.
For a free press to best serve its essential purpose in a democracy, there must be competition: when two or more newspapers compete for readers, each paper vying to publish the news before its rival and more completely, more accurately, the body politic is more likely to consist of informed voters than in situations where only one journalism enterprise prevails. In the dog-eat-dog milieu of a capitalistic society, however, competition eventually reduces the number of combatants: winners in the contests invariably produce losers, and newspapers that cannot attract and sustain readership lose advertising revenue and eventually shut down. And that’s been going on for some time. In 1910, the peak year, there were 2,200 daily English-language newspapers in 1,207 cities; 689 cities had more than one daily paper. By 1930, there were 1,942 papers in 1,402 cities but only 288 of those cities had more than one paper. By 1971, that last number had fallen to 37, and only 15 of those had populations of more than 100,000. Since 1990, 53 major newspapers have died, 6 by merging with competitors.
Watching the slow disappearance of newspapers nationwide, Congress took steps in 1970 to preserve the journalistic competition essential to an informed public, passing the Newspaper Preservation Act, under which two newspapers in a town could enter into a joint operating agreement (JOA) the purpose of which was to reduce expenses by combining certain common business functions while preserving editorial independence in the two papers. Denver was such a city: since 2001, the News and the Post co-existed as independent news operations with a third entity, the Denver News Agency (DNA), running the presses, soliciting advertising and handling subscriptions. Unfortunately, best intentions are not enough: JOAs generally haven’t worked. Once there were 28 JOAs around the country; now there are only eight. The Denver JOA didn’t work either.
The collapse of the News reduces the number of big cities with two papers to about a dozen, including Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York, Washington D.C., Salt Lake City, and Philadelphia, plus three cities with quivering JOAs—Seattle, Detroit, and Tucson. And in five of these ten cities, one of the newspapers is on shaky ground. The Tribune Company, owner of the Chicago Tribune, has filed for bankruptcy protection; ditto the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and the two Philadelphia papers, the Daily News and the Inquirer. The New York Times lately accepted a financial infusion from a foreign investor in order to keep going. In Detroit, the JOA-bound News and Free Press, seeking to reduce operating costs, have cut back home delivery to just three days a week. In the other two JOA cities, Hearst’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Gannett’s Tuscon Citizen are both for sale: if buyers aren’t found, both papers could close. Ditto the San Francisco Chronicle. More than two dozen other newspapers around the country are for sale. And in Atlanta, the new publisher of the Journal-Constitution told staff members that the paper is losing $1 million a week. In Denver, E.W. Scripps Company, owner of the Rocky Mountain News, claimed it lost $16 million last year, precipitating the decision in December to offer the paper for sale, announcing at the same time that if a buyer couldn’t be found, the paper would stop publishing. No buyer appeared. And so the News has disappeared.
A Spectacular Transition and a Triumph for the Comics
Starting on Saturday, February 28, Rocky Mountain News subscribers started getting the Denver Post on their doorsteps. It was a propitious moment: under the JOA, both papers published separate editions Monday-Friday, the Post published the only Sunday paper, and the News, the Saturday edition. For the News, the Saturday paper was the equivalent of a “Sunday” paper—the big edition with more flourishes and furbelows than the daily editions. For 14,000 of the News’ 210,000 subscribers, the Post was not unfamiliar: they all got the Post’s Sunday edition as part of their subscription to the News. But for most News subscribers, the February 28 edition of the Post was their introduction to the only paper left in town. And the Post did a journeyman’s job of capturing the livelier essence of the News, introducing a new section of the paper and adopting, it said, a “breezier” writing style for the occasion.
Most significantly for our argument, the Post doubled its comics section, adding the News’ 29 comic strips and 8 panel cartoons to its own roster of 23 strips and 5 panels. (In contrast, as testimony to the appeal of comics over almost every other aspect of a newspaper, the Post picked upon only 10 of the News’ star reporters and columnists.) The new combined comics section was four pages long, and the Post, that day and for several days thereafter, ran full-page ads, each a sea of white space with 52-point type touting itself to the former News readers. “No matter which paper you got last week,” said Monday’s ad, “today’s is different. ... But you’ll see a lot of familiar faces.” The Post listed the former News stellar writers and concluded by trumpeting that in addition to these columnists, readers could find “all the Rocky’s comics and many of your favorite puzzles.” Then came the punchline that would conclude every such ad for the next week: “You’ll still get the News. Only in the Post.” (My favorite scrap of ad copy, which came later in the week, is: “The Post has Zits.”)
On Wednesday, the full-page ad was all about the comics. The Post’s comic section was a fairly anemic specimen: of the major comic strip hits, it ran only Dilbert, Beetle Bailey, Blondie, and Pearls Before Swine. The News, in contrast, had Doonesbury, Peanuts, Garfield, For Better or For Worse, Zits, Baby Blues, Get Fuzzy, Dennis the Menace, Family Circus, Mother Goose and Grimm, and such adventurous newcomers as The Knight Life, Frazz, Cul de Sac, Candorville and Rudy Park. Wednesday’s ad listed the most popular of the News strips, saying: “In times like these, sometimes you have to laugh. All the Rocky’s comics, and many of your favorite puzzles, are now in the Post every day.”
Noble sentiment, but I wonder. Reputedly, the Post has been losing money at a rate comparable to the News for the last few years, and with its new combined roster of 65 comics, 52 strips and 13 panels, the Post has more than doubled the syndicate fees it must pay. Figuring, conservatively, that each comic feature cost $30 a week, the News’ budget totaled roughly $58,000 a year; the Post’s, $44,000. Now the Post will pay the piper over $100,000 a year for comics. Clearly, the Post is convinced that the comics are popular enough that by importing the News’ roster, it could seduce many of the News readers. The Post is hoping to capture 80 percent of them, an ambitious goal: in other similar JOA dissolves, if the surviving paper manages to hold onto 30 percent of its erstwhile rival’s readership, it rejoices in triumph. My guess is that the Post will, before too long, cut back on its comics budget. But in the meantime, Post readers have a daily feast of comics, a line-up of strips and panels unparalleled anywhere in the nation. Even if the Post eventually cuts back the number of strips, the initial maneuver attests to the powerful appeal of newspaper comic strips.
How Did It Happen?
The fiercest years of the circulation contest between the News and the Post began in 1926 when Scripps-Howard bought the News, the 25th link in the company’s chain, then the longest in the nation. Bon and Tam, the ringmasters at the Post, were experts at promotional stunts and every sort of skullduggery. Whenever Bonfils got excited about some news scoop or other manifestation of his newspaper’s achievement, he pressed a button on his desk that activated a siren on the roof of the Post building, sending a piercing shriek through downtown Denver. Asked once why he did it, Bon replied: “It shows enterprise.”
The pugnacious newsman Roy Howard, in town for a while to supervise the News operation, joined in and “dived headlong and hooting into the wackiest slugging match since Punch and Judy,” said Robert Perkin in his history of newspapering in Denver, The First Hundred Years. Marching bands paraded through downtown streets, and airplanes flew overhead—all promoting one paper or the other. Newspapers were filched from the doorsteps of subscribers in the dark of the pre-dawn hours, the News had a spy in the Post’s composing room, and each paper offered premiums for subscribing and freebies galore. For a while, once a week, the News gave away copies of the paper to everyone on the streets, and once the Post offered gallons of gasoline to anyone taking out a classified ad. Contests multiplied like hamsters, and the headlines of both papers screamed bloody murder at every opportunity.
Oddly, until these tumultuous years, the News had been a sedate broadside newspaper; it was seduced into sensationalism by the Post’s Bon and Tam and their voracious schemes to best the competition. And Howard was a tenacious match for the two con-men. The “Battle of the Century” lost steam as the country’s economy tanked at the end of the decade, and the News slipped into second place. It almost died in the early 1940s, but a ferocious new editor, Jack Foster, revived the paper’s fortunes by converting it to a tabloid. Although the Post’s circulation was for most of the ensuing 60 years somewhat better than that of the News, the margin was narrow, and before the end of the century, the News was selling more papers than the Post. The Rocky Mountain News, emphasizing sports coverage (as well as crime and sex and photographs), shortened its name to “Rocky,” perhaps seeking to appropriate some of the popularity of the city’s baseball team, the doings of which, along with the gridiron’s Broncos, it covered lavishly. It was a lively, well-written and enterprising paper. Then came the JOA and with it, the slow realization that Denver could not support two big daily newspapers. That was the mantra being chanted in the executive suites of both owners of the newspapers. But I wonder. Something about the situation doesn’t seem quite copacetic.
In the deluge of stories accompanying the announcement that the News would shut down we learned that discussions about which of the two papers would be closed had been going on for several years. Judging solely on the basis of circulation, it should have been the Post. The News’ daily circulation was 210, 000, about 10,000 greater than the Post’s; and the “Sunday” (Saturday?), 457,000. But the Post was the better money-maker because its larger pages meant higher rates for advertising. And there were, I suspect, other factors, some of which are less obvious. Scripps is a publicly traded company with stockholders who want a return on their investment; the Post is owned by a private corporation, NewsMedia Group, owned and headed by William Dean Singleton, who makes his home as well as his headquarters in Denver. Singleton was in a better position to wait out the financial drought drying up all U.S. business in the current economic slow-down. Scripps, in contrast, had to make money. It has closed others of its papers in erstwhile two-paper towns: Cincinnati, Albuquerque and Birmingham. And the company claimed the News was the only unprofitable paper in the chain of 17 papers. (If so, why couldn’t the profitable links in the chain support the weak one until times got better? Scripps’ syndicate operations are making money; so, presumably is the Food Network that it inaugurated some years ago.)
But the reason Denver couldn’t support two newspapers—if, in fact, that was the reason the News shut down—can be found elsewhere, I think. John Temple, editor of the News, sidled up to a couple reasons in his final editorial. Judging by circulation, Denver was doing just fine in supporting both papers. The combined “reach” of the two papers showed “an exceptionally high household penetration—roughly 36 percent of households, the second-highest level for major newspapers in the country,” said Temple. “The Sunday penetration of 46 percent is also among the nation’s highest for metro papers.” Circulation, then, is not the principal villain. Despite the terrible economic climate for newspapers nationwide—slipping readership and circulation, declining advertising revenues, particularly in classified ads, which used to account for 30 percent of newspaper revenues—neither the News nor the Post reacted as authentic businesses do when faced with a balance sheet showing less income than revenue. Neither paper raised its subscription rates to make up for the shortfall in other revenue sources. And the subscription rate, Temple said, “is considerably below industry norms for newspapers in comparably sized markets.” In Denver, the average annual subscription rate is about $120; “in Chicago, it’s $234,” Temple noted, “—in Phoenix, $200. I could cite a long list of cities with prices far higher than Denver.”
On the traditional circulation battlefield, neither paper would raise subscription rates. The impulse, in fact, is the reverse: the paper with the lower price always has higher circulation. But Denver’s JOA nullified, or should have nullified, tradition. The papers competed journalistically, yes, but the business entity, the Denver News Agency, effectively leveled that playing field: the papers shared revenues 50-50; ditto expenses. The DNA tried to raise rates, and, to some extent, Temple says, it did. But not enough. Temple is too diplomatic to lay the blame for the failure of one or the other of the two papers at the doorstep of the DNA: he cites numerous other factors, saying, “there’s plenty of fault to go around.” I disagree (albeit, admittedly, with the confidence born of triumphant ignorance). The DNA was, after all, the “business arm” of the JOA: if the business fails, it’s the business operation that is the culprit. The business was unable—or unwilling—to adjust its operation to bring income into line with expenses. If the News had been privately owned—and not a party to a JOA—perhaps it would have survived. In my view, the inhibitions incumbent on the JOA, namely the DNA operation, condemned one of the two papers to failure—particularly in a collapsing economy and in a news environment that is shifting to the Internet. And Scripps’ customary tight-fisted policies—that is, greed—finished the job.
it’s a shame, a shame well on its way to being a crime. The Rocky Mountain News was
not just a historic newspaper in the state and the nation. It was
also an extremely professional operation. With the December 4
announcement that the News was for sale, everyone there knew it was the paper’s death
knell. In this economy, no buyer was likely to appear: any buyer, no
matter how wealthy, would seek a massive loan to underwrite his
acquisition, and credit, as we’ve all heard, is prohibitively
tight these days. Staff members were encouraged to take all their
unused vacation days before March. But the paper kept coming out,
every day. And the quality of the writing and the inventiveness of
the stories and the resourcefulness of the reporters continued
unabated. They expected the paper to expire, but no one slacked off.
The paper remained, through its last edition—with its
astonishingly comprehensive supplement about the paper’s
history and newspapering’s present predicament—lively,
inquisitive, informative, and wholly engaging daily journalism. These
guys gave “professional” an exemplary meaning. I’ll
miss them all.
How Scripps Came To Be, An Exemplar of Another Sort
—Strange Yet Wonderful
In shutting down the Rocky Mountain News, Scripps effectively enacted the ruthless practices of the company’s founder, E.W. Scripps, but flouted his philosophy. Edward Wyllis Scripps was born in 1854 on a farm near Rushville, Illinois, “and he died,” Charles McCabe wrote in Damned Old Crank: A Self-Portrait of E.W. Scripps, “of apoplexy aboard his yacht, the Ohio, in Monrovia Bay, Liberia, on a hot spring night in 1926, following a dinner which included energetic conversation with his guest, the American consul, and too many cigars. He was buried at sea.” In the 72 years between those two dates, Scripps established the United Press Association, United Feature Syndicate and the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA), now combined as United Media; Acme Newsphotos, and a chain of newspapers, including the Cleveland Press, Cincinnati Post, Toledo News-Bee and the Pittsburgh Press—as many as 44 altogether, although not all published at the same time. At the time of his death, only 13 were still in business, plus another 7 founded by his youngest son, Robert Paine Scripps. (Other sources put the number at 25 after the purchase of the News in 1926, the year of E.W.’s death.)
E.W. entered the newspaper business in 1875 by working for his half-brother, James E. Scripps, founder and owner of the Detroit News. In 1878, E.W. founded the first of his newspapers, the Cleveland Penny Press, establishing with it the distinctive operational style of the chain he would forge: in a day when most newspapers were organs of political parties, the Penny Press was entirely independent. Moreover, it was written and produced for the “working man,” the ordinary citizen, not the rich or powerful. E.W. believed that most newspapers were capitalistic and opposed to the working class or else were too intellectual. He demanded simplicity and brevity in newsstories. Most of the Scripps papers were founded by E.W. rather than purchased from others. He had three rules: champion the working man, obey the Ten Commandments, and make a profit. In founding a paper, he put up a few thousand dollars and sent a couple ambitious young journalists off to try their luck. After ten years, if the paper failed to make a profit, it was abandoned. If his young staffers succeeded, they would obtain as much as 49 percent ownership of the paper. Those employees who were not stockholders, however, were among the lowest paid journalists in the country.
E.W. retired from active participation in newspapering in 1890, rejecting human society at large (he distrusted it) and moving to a remote ranch he built near San Diego on an arid mesa overlooking the sea. He got along with almost nobody: he fell out with both his partners in succession, Milton McRae and Roy Howard, and he ran his empire as an absentee landlord even after he turned active management over to his eldest son, James G. in 1908. James increased the business tenfold over the next twelve years, but in 1920, his father effectively disowned him and gave the company to his younger brother, Robert.
At the lonely windswept perch of his seaside ranch, Miramar, E.W. pondered the ways of man and how men thought, writing what he called “disquisitions,” a kind of interior monologue in which he tried to find a new way of thinking. “He disliked the way other people figured things out—the neat and ordered marching of major premise into minor premise into conclusion—and thought he could do better,” wrote McCabe. E.W. was an unabashed skinflint but he espoused points of view diametrically opposed to his profit motivation, according to Lincoln Steffens, who, in his Autobiography, reports a Scripps soliloquy: “I’m a rich man, and that’s dangerous, you know. But it isn’t just the money that’s the risk: it’s the living around with other rich men. They get to thinking all alike, and their money not only talks, their money does their thinking too. I come off here on these wide acres at Miramar to get away from my sort; to get away from the rich. So I don’t think like a rich man. I think more like a left labor galoot.”
In shutting down the Rocky Mountain News, the modern, streamlined Scripps company let money do its thinking. But what it did was akin to the damned old crank’s firing his own son.
I grew up in Denver, but until my teenage years, I had little experience of the Rocky Mountain News. My father eschewed the News to subscribe to the Denver Post, probably in the belief that the broadsheet Post was more reliable than the tabloid News; he’d been born and raised in England, where, thanks to Lord Northcliffe and his London Mirror and its raucous imitators, tabloid papers had established their somewhat rowdy reputations with short articles and screaming headlines and startling photographs. By the time I was a teenager, the local Boy Scout troop, of which I was a member, was raising money for itself by conducting regular scrap paper drives. The scoutmaster hired a dump truck, and he’d drive down every street in town (it was a small town, barely attached to the western edge of Denver) while we went door-to-door, asking if the residents had any old newspapers to donate. The papers we heaved into the back of the truck. When the paper heap reached the top of the truck’s retaining sides, it was time to deliver the load to the pulping plant. I and another of the older boys often sat on top of the newspaper pile as the truck drove across town to the plant. And there I found the Rocky Mountain News.
I’d seen the News around before, of course, but never had a chance to peruse it much. The comics were easy to find: they were on the last two pages of the paper. The Post had an equivalent number of strips on one broadside page, and the strips were good ones: Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates, Blondie, Gordo, and, as we wound into the 1950s, some absorbing models for me to imitate by way of honing my cartooning skills—Willie Dee, Hopalong Cassidy, and the enchanting Elmo. But the News had some of the medium’s greats: Li’l Abner, Peanuts, Pogo, and Alley Oop and Captain Easy. I was enthralled. I pawed through the papers in the back of the truck, tearing out the back pages so I could take home and study these new specimens.
And that’s how I got to know the Rocky Mountain News—grubbing through waste paper in the back of a dump truck as it jolted its way through town on its way to a trash disposal plant. It seems to me like only yesterday. But now, surveying the half-empty journalistic landscape in Denver, it is today—the treasured comic strips, the waste paper, the jolting ride, the dump truck.
And Those Who Are Left Behind
With the expiration of the News, another editorial cartoonist position disappears over the horizon. Ed Stein’s blog on his last day marks his exit: “Well, folks, this is the last cartoon I'll draw for the Rocky Mountain News [see below]. I've had a wonderful run for the last 31 years, producing more than 8,000 drawings. It's the career I dreamed of having when I was a kid, and it's been more rewarding than I ever could have imagined. I've had the great good fortune over the years of toiling for editors who appreciated my skills and who believed in the editorial freedom a cartoonist needs to do the best work, even when they disagreed with my opinion. I've worked with more talented journalists than I can possibly name. I'm especially grateful to the many loyal readers of the Rocky for having given my long career meaning. Thank you for your comments, kind and critical, over the years. It is you who have kept the discussion, so vital for a vibrant democracy to flourish, alive all these years. I will miss hearing from you.”
Stein, about whom you can read more at Opus 224 (where we discussed the end of his exclusively local comic strip, Denver Square) will continue to cartoon for his syndicate, NEA, and his cartoons will be regularly posted at edsteinink.com. Interviewed by Alan Gardner at DailyCartoonist.com, Stein said the thing he’ll miss most in the coming years is “having a conversation with the readers everyday. Having the ability to say something new and having the readers respond—we had a conversation every day. I believe in journalism. That's the great sadness of watching newspapers dying. This country is strong because we have an argument built into the system and that takes place in the press. I've been blessed to have had a voice in that argument. That's what I'm really mourning.”
Stein hopes to continue to draw cartoons for a living, but syndication by itself scarcely yields what we might call “a living.” He said he might turn into a writing journalist, maybe doing corporate communications for a non-profit, he said. And in the back of his hopeful mind, maybe the Denver Post will ask him to revive Denver Square. “If they did,” he said, “I’d do it in a heartbeat.” But he hasn’t spoken to anyone there about it. Yet.
The News, as I’ve mentioned ere this, is unusual in having two staff cartoonists: Drew Litton, the other one, does sports cartoons for the paper’s ambitious (and award-winning) Sports Section. Litton is the next-to-the-last of a vanishing breed, the newspaper sports cartoonist. Once ubiquitous, newspaper sports cartoonists now number only one, Bill Gallo at the New York Daily News, where he’s been, he says, for over 50 years. Litton has been with the News for 26 years, and in his farewell blog, he thanked his readers “for the privilege of making my cartoons a part of your day. I hope in some way I have made you laugh or think. If I've made you a little steamed, I sincerely hope it didn't last long. So here is a Mile High salute to all of you,” referring to his last cartoon, which we post here with Stein’s.
Litton started as a copy boy and then staff illustrator at the El Paso Times, where he stayed for five-and-a-half years until he saw the Rocky Mountain News’ ad for a sports cartoonist in Editor & Publisher. He applied for the job but didn’t get it right away. “They actually hired someone else,” he told Gardner, “but two weeks before he was to start he told them he wasn't going to move. They called me up. They were intrigued by my work; I did some sample cartoons for them and they hired me. It was nice to finish second for once.” His cartoons were unique among sports cartoons: he treated sports as an editorial cartoonist treats politics and public affairs, expressing an opinion not just, in the Willard Mullin manner, doing short biographies of athletes and otherwise cheerleading or explaining some nuance in the game or an oddity on one of the teams. Said Litton: “My dream has always been to try to influence editors to see the value of an opinionated sports cartoon. I still believe it remains a valuable way to attract readers. I have been able to hold a piece of real estate on page two of the Rocky sports section, I think because local sports cartoons do impact a tremendous amount of readers in the community.”
Litton’s plans for the future include doing sports cartoons a few days a week online at drewlitton.com and freelancing through a new business website, LittoonzStudios.com. He also might do children’s books or continue in animation. “I’ve fallen in head over heels with animation,” he said.
More Fall-Out. About the same time as Ed Stein was cleaning off his drawing board at the News, the ever dapper Ben Sargent was signing off at the Austin American-Statesman where he’s cartooned for 35 years, winning the Pulitzer in 1982. Sargent is taking a buyout—what he calls “pretty generous,” quoted by Alan Gardner at DailyCartoonist.com. His last day is March 13. His wife, the paper’s tv critic, is also taking a buyout. Sargent told Gardner that the paper “has expressed interest in buying cartoons on a contractual basis, but nothing has been finalized.”
And as we wind up for this posting, we heard that John Branch, editorial cartoonist at the San Antonio Express News, will be leaving the paper March 20 after 28 years on the job. That reduces the number of full-time staff editorial cartoonists to 82, an 18 percent loss in less than a year.
A FEW MORE FROM BAGLEY’S SURVIVAL GUIDE TO UTAH
Pat Bagley surveys Utah’s gun laws and related matters under the happily double entendre’d heading “The Gun-lovingest State in the Whole Dern Shootin’ Match.” For fifty bucks, a driver’s license, and attendance at a two-hour gun safety course, you can carry a concealed weapon in Utah, he explains, then goes on to a vaguely related footnote: “The southern Utah town of Virgin (population 400) passed ordinances that mandated ownership of a loaded firearm. Just down the highway, La Verkin (population 3,500) forbade the United Nations from operating within city limits.” I didn’t know a municipality could do that. Think of the possibilities. Ordinances forbidding Muslim terrorists from operating within city limits. Ordinances prohibiting Darth Cheney from locating one of his undisclosed locations within city limits. Ordinances forbidding snow within city limits. The mind boggles at the thought of how much undiluted Good could be achieved through passage of a simple city ordinance..
In another section of the Guide, Bagley provides short biographies of “Notorious Utahns.” Like Butch Cassidy (the professional name of outlaw George Leroy Parker), Warren Jeffs (fundamentalist LDS polygamist and “prophet” who is presently serving time for being an accomplice to rape because he ordered a 14-year-old girl to marry her older cousin), Reed Smoot (Republican U.S. senator from the state whose proudest achievement in Washington was banning James Joyce’s Ulysses), comedienne Rosanne Barr (who grew up Jewish in Salt Lake City and once called Mormons “Nazi Amish”), and Karl Rove (about whom, the less said the better: we don’t want to encourage him).
See how much fun you can have in a book about Utah?
Introducing The New York Times Graphic Books Best Seller Lists
The New York Times, the nation’s August arbiter of art and merit, has just pronounced comics a legitimate form of publication—not yet an art form, maybe, but grown up and adult enough that books of comics (comic strip reprints, comic book compilations, graphic novels, and manga) warrant their own “best seller” lists. Here, from George Gene Gustines’ report, is the March 5 listing. Notice, by the way, that IDW’s Terry and the Pirates by Milton Caniff (Volume 6, the last, for which I supplied the Introduction) is on the list. I thought that was funny: how does a book get to be a “best seller” before it’s even in bookstores? I asked IDW editor Dean Mullaney about it, and he said: “Strange, indeed. In reading the fine print, though, part of the data is taken from retailers who ‘specialize’ in comics, so they're apparently using a mix of comics shops (non-returnable, so therefore actual sales), Amazon, and mainstream bookstores. I had a feeling they were going to start such a list because a friend of Bruce Canwell’s (Canwellis associate editor of IDW’s Library of American Comics) who manages one of the largest independent bookstores in Maine has seen graphic novels and strip collections on the weekly inquiries from the NYT on book sales. All good news in the growing respect our little corner of the world is getting.” Now here’s the March 5 list:
Graphic Books Best Seller List (Hardcover)
Starman Omnibus, Vol. 2 by James Robinson and
Tony Harris. (DC Comics, $49.99.) Jack Knight, the son of the 1940’s
Starman, meets his disco era namesake and his father’s
colleague, the golden age Sandman.
3. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. (DC Comics, $39.99, $75.) This epic tale from 1986 signaled a new maturity in comic books.
4. Batman: R.I.P. by Grant Morrison and Tony Daniel. (DC Comics, $24.99.) Thomas Wayne, the father of the caped crusader, is cast in a sinister light.
5. Walking Dead, Vol. 4 by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard. (Image Comics, $29.99.) The gripping story of the human survivors in a world overrun by zombies continues.
6. Beanworld, Book 1 by Larry Marder. (Dark Horse, $19.95.) The fantasy series, about a world of bean characters, gets the deluxe reprint treatment.
7. Mighty Avengers Assemble by Brian Michael Bendis and Frank Cho. (Marvel Comics, $34.99.) The first adventures of a new team of heroes gets an oversized collection.
8. Incredible Hercules: Love and War by Fred Van Lente and Clayton Henry. (Marvel Comics, $19.99.) The demigod finds himself in Atlantis – just in time for a war.
9. Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. (DC Comics, $17.99.) This critically acclaimed story from 1988 offers a possible origin for the Joker.
10. Complete Terry and the Pirates: Volume 6 by Milton Caniff. (IDW Publishing, $49.99.) The final volume of the series collects strips from 1945 and 1946.
Graphic Books Best Seller List (Softcover)
1. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. (DC Comics, $19.99.) This epic tale from 1986 signaled a new maturity in comic books.
2. Secret Invasion: Runaways/Young Avengers by Christopher Yost and Takeshi Miyazawa. (Marvel Comics, $12.99.) The two teams combat the shape-shifting Skrulls.
3. Secret Invasion: Black Panther by Jason Aaron and Jefte Palo. (Marvel Comics, $12.99.) The Skrulls attack the hero’s homeland of Wakanda and come to regret it.
4. Captain America, Vol. 3 by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting. (Marvel Comics, $14.99.) Bucky Barnes, former sidekick to the Captain, tries to fill his patriotic boots.
5. Tales of the Green Lantern Corps, Vol. 1 by various. (DC Comics, $19.99.) Get to know Green Lantern’s interstellar brotherhood in this collection of stories.
6. Showcase: Superman Family, Vol. 3 by various. (DC Comics, $16.99.) Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane cause a lot of mischief in this black and white collection of stories.
7. The Courtyard by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows. (Avatar Press, $7.99.) An F.B.I. agent investigates seemingly unconnected murders.
8. X-Men: Legacy – Sins of the Father by Mike Carey and Scot Eaton. (Marvel Comics, $14.99.) Charles Xavier, the founder of the X-Men, looks back at his past.
9. Uncanny X-Men: End of History, Vol. 1 by Chris Claremont and Alan Davis. (Marvel Comics, $12.99.) The mutant heroes fight the Fury, an enemy of Captain Britain.
10. Superman: Camelot Falls, Vol. 2 by Kurt Busiek and Carlos Pacheco. (DC Comics, $12.99.) Is the man of steel doing humanity more harm than good?
Graphic Books Best Seller List (Manga)
1. Naruto, Vol. 38 by Masashi Kishimoto. (VIZ Media, $7.95.) The continuing adventures of the Naruto Uzumaki, young ninja in training.
\2. Naruto, Vol. 40 by Masashi Kishimoto. (VIZ Media, $7.95.) Oh, Naruto, will you ever learn?
3. Naruto, Vol. 39 by Masashi Kishimoto. (VIZ Media, $7.95.) Oh, Naruto, will you ever learn?
4. Naruto, Vol. 41 by Masashi Kishimoto. (VIZ Media, $7.95.) Oh, Naruto, will you ever learn?
5. MPD-Psycho, Vol. 8 by Eiji Otsuka (Dark Horse, $12.95.) A police detective suffering from multiple personality disorder tracks down a serial killer.
6. Naruto, Vol. 37 by Masashi Kishimoto. (VIZ Media, $7.95.) Oh, Naruto, will you ever learn? 7. Naruto, Vol. 35 by Masashi Kishimoto. (VIZ Media, $7.95.) Oh, Naruto, will you ever learn?
8. Naruto, Vol. 36 by Masashi Kishimoto. (VIZ Media, $7.95.) Oh, Naruto, will you ever learn?
9. Naruto, Vol. 34 by Masashi Kishimoto. (VIZ Media, $7.95.) Oh, Naruto, will you ever learn?
10. Eden, Vol. 11 by Hiroki Endo. (Dark Horse, $12.95.) Elijah lives in a not too distant future where humanity is threatened by a virus.
Rankings (it sez here) reflect sales of graphic novels, for the week ending February 28, at many thousands of venues where a wide range of books are sold nationwide. These include hundreds of independent book retailers (statistically weighted to represent all such outlets); national, regional and local chains; online and multimedia entertainment retailers; university, gift, supermarket, discount department stores and newsstands. In addition, these rankings also include unit sales reported by retailers nationwide that specialize in graphic novels and comic books.
Looks like Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto series is the present champion in manga. Are there any other manga out there?
To find out about Harv's books, click here.
send e-mail to R.C. Harvey
Art of the Comic Book - Art of the Funnies - Accidental Ambassador Gordo - reviews - order form - Harv's Hindsights - main page