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CARTOONIST OF THE YEAR, ETC.

Amend6_2Bill Amend was named Cartoonist of the Year for selflessly creating hundreds opportunities for young cartoonists on the nation’s comics pages by retiring the daily edition of his comic strip, FoxTrot, last fall. No, I’m kidding: that’s not why Amend received the Reuben trophy for Cartoonist of the Year from the National Cartoonists Society at their 61st annual meeting, this year held at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Orlando, Florida, May 25-27. He earned the esteem of the inky-fingered fraternity with the consistently high quality of his comic strip over its 19-year run. That’s why he got the Reuben. We don’t want to overlook, however, Amend’s having created more than 500 openings on comics pages nationwide when he stopped doing the daily FoxTrot (continuing only the Sunday version) -- an action enthusiastically applauded by scores of aspiring cartoonists who can’t get their foot over the funnies pages threshold unless someone already therein leaves, creating a vacancy. (FoxTrot’s circulation is usually cited as better than 1,000 newspapers, but that is a tally of sales, not newspapers, and since the strip is sold as a daily and, separately, as a Sunday; a newspaper that buys both is recorded as two “sales” which are then, erroneously, by reason of ancient tradition, reported as circulation.)

During the ceremonial presentation banquet on Saturday, May 26, Beetle Bailey’s Mort Walker received the Gold Key Award,  the Society’s equivalent of a Hall of Fame. Others in the Hall of Fame are Hal Foster (Prince Valiant), Edwina Dumm (Capt Stubbs and Tippie), Raeburn Van Buren (Abbie ’n’ Slats), Herbert Block (Herblock, editorial cartoonist), Rube Goldberg (Boob McNutt and editorial cartoons), Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon), and Arnold Roth (freelance). Walker, a past president of NCS and previous winner (in 1953) of the Reuben, has won just about every award the Society bestows, except the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award; and he’ll doubtless get that ere long.Reuben

In accepting the Reuben, Amend, a slender wraith of a man with a prison pallor and an enviable mop of fluff-dried and therefore unruly hair, marveled at the trophy’s considerable weight, asking, midway through his acceptance remarks, if someone else could hold it for him. He said he was afraid he might fall and impale himself on it, alluding to the pointy stopper of the ink bottle that surmounts the statuette’s pile of goofy naked humanoids. In an online interview held earlier in the month, Amend remarked about his decision to discontinue the daily FoxTrot instead of turning it over to another cartoonist to perpetuate: “I’ve always viewed my strip as a personal form of expression/observation more than a business, and the thought of continuing it with others at the helm just seems wrong to me.” Commenting on so-called “legacy strips” and the occasional crusade to expunge them from the funnies, Amend said: “I won’t say older strips should be dumped, but I wish that when newspapers did surveys or otherwise gauged reader opinion, they gave younger readers more clout than they currently seem to. It does sometimes seem as though the comics section is aimed to please the over-60 crowd way more than the under-30 one. Which doesn’t help newer cartoonists get a toehold in papers, and it doesn’t encourage younger readers to develop the habit of reading the paper.”

Amend doesn’t think comics are a dying art form: “While newspaper cartooning is certainly feeling a squeeze these days,” he remarked, “the rising popularity of webcomics makes it pretty clear that people still like to draw cartoons and people still like to read them. The challenge is to figure out how to earn a living off of web content.” Answering a question about why he didn’t let his characters grow older, Amend said: “I created the FoxTrot characters such that they would play off of each other in interesting ways. Were I to age the kids even a couple of years, the changes in their interests/maturities would affect the whole structure of things, and I wasn’t interested in doing that in such an irreversible way.” More about Amend and his adventures creating FoxTrot can be found in the Hindsight department of my online magazine at www.RCHarvey.com.

Runners-up for the Reuben this year were both creators of single-panel cartoons: Dave Coverly, who does Speed Bump, and Dan Piraro with Bizarro. All three have been nominees in previous years. In March, members of NCS voted by mail on the slate of candidates. Earlier in the winter, NCS chapters juried submissions in twelve categories, or “divisions,” of cartooning, picking three finalists in each. Herewith, I list the finalists in all divisions (being a finalist, given the competition, is a distinction itself), prefixing the winner’s name with an asterisk (*):

Comic Strip -- Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead; *Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine; and Mark Tatulli’s Lio.  In accepting, Pastis paid tribute to the late King Features editor, Jay Kennedy, who responded to Pastis’ submission by personal letter, without which encouragement, Pastis said, he may not have continued to develop his strip. (Pastis was eventually syndicated by United Media, not King.)

Newspaper Single Panel Cartoon -- Tony Carrillo’s F-Minus; *Hilary Price’s Rhymes With Orange; and Kieran Meehan’s Meehan. (According to E&P's syndicate directories, Meehan formerly created Meehan Streak for Tribune Media Services and now does A Lawyer, A Doctor & A Cop for King.)

Newspaper Illustration -- Sean Kelly, Robert Sanchuk, and *Laurie Triefeldt.

Gag Cartooning -- *Drew Dernavich, Mick Stevens, P.C. Vey. All are New Yorker ’tooners, a circumstance that vividly reflects the shrunken state of today’s market for magazine cartooning, but it also makes me wonder why no Playboy cartoonists were among the finalists, Hefner’s magazine being the only other gold-standard outlet for gag cartooning.

Editorial Cartooning -- Mike Lester of the Rome (Ga.) News-Tribune; Glenn McCoy of the Belleville (Ill.) News-Democrat; and *Mike Ramirez of Investor's Business Daily. Interestingly, as E&P’s David Astor observed when the nominees’ names were first published, all three finalists are conservatives in a cartooning profession consisting mostly of liberal and centrist creators. (Makes me wonder which chapter did the editorial cartoonist selection this year.) Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau announced the winner in this category, and his tongue-in-cheek recitation of the names of the finalists acknowledged the oddity: Lester “on the right,” McCoy “on the far right,” and Ramirez “on the knuckle-dragging right.”

Comic Book -- This category once again reflects NCS’s historically abysmal appreciation of this genre. All three nominees are for the creators of graphic novels, not comic books: Acocella Marchetto (Cancer Vixen), *Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese) and Marjane Satrapi (Chicken with Plums). NCS will fix this gross ineptitude in future, I’m told, creating a new category for Graphic Novel.

Book Illustration -- *Mike Lester (93 in My Family); Wiley Miller (The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Basil); and Adrian Sinnott (Caveman Manners).

Greeting Card -- *Carla Ventresca, Pat Byrnes, and Kevin Ahern.

Feature Animation -- "Over the Hedge” (based on the comic strip of the same name by Michael Fry and T Lewis; directors Tim Johnson and Karey Kirkpatrick); *"Open Season" (character design, Carter Goodrich); and“Ice Age 2: the Meltdown” (character design, Peter De Seve).

Television Animation -- David Hulin (“Geico Gecko”), Steve Loter (“Kim Possible”), and *Craig McCracken (“Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends”).

Advertising Illustration -- Craig McCay, Jack Pittman, and *Tom Richmond.

Magazine Illustration -- *Steve Brodner, Tom Richmond, and Jean-Jacques Sempe.

The NCS Silver T-Square, given occasionally to “persons who have shown outstanding service or contributions to the Society or the profession,” was presented to the sons of NCS’s past president, Steve McGarry, Joe and Luke, whose contribution to the profession consists of orchestrating sound and computer imaging for several of the last annual meetings and conjuring up the NCS website. While it may seem unprecedented to add the names of these two youthful non-cartoonists to a roster that includes such luminaries as England’s David Low as well as James Thurber, Herblock, Walt Kelly, and Arnie Roth (not to mention Cliff Sterrett and Russell Patterson), the boys join several non-tooners -- Harry S. Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, King’s Joe D’Angelo, and Universal Press’s John McMeel among them.

Dan Piraro
again applied his acerbic wit to mastering the evening’s ceremonies, but he cast a pall of gloom over the proceedings almost at once by announcing that this year would be his last at the podium. Several of us speculated that Steve McGarry will be Piraro’s successor. This year’s pre-registered attendance stood at 145 cartoonists, plus their wives, children and miscellaneous hangers-on, a grand total of perhaps 300 souls, a somewhat smaller crowd that at other recent Reubens festivities, which usually attract over 400 people. This report, augmented by several more paragraphs, re-appears in Rants & Raves at www.RCHarvey.com.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

KILLED CARTOONS

For a steady look at nearly 100 cartoons that were so hard-hitting that editors refused to publish them we have David Wallis’ new book, Killed Cartoons: Casualties from the War on Free Expression (280 6x8-inch pages in paperback; W.W. Norton, $15.95). This compilation is a sequel to Wallis’ other tome on a related subject, Killed: Great Journalism Too Hot to Print, an anthology of quashed magazine and newspaper articles and reports. For those addicted to Rancid Raves, there’s probably little in Wallis’ introduction to Cartoons that you haven’t read here about the sad plight of editorial cartooning in this country, but Wallis summarizes the issues succinctly and engagingly. And he adds to the lore.

Attesting to the power of cartoons, he cites a July 5, 1968 memo from FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover that considers using cartoons to “ridicule the New Left.” Hoover elaborated: “Ridicule is one of the most potent weapons which we can use.” Editors clearly know that, and because they know it, they kill political cartoons that they believe are too incendiary for publication, for one reason or another. “Reasonable motives sometimes inspire editors to kill,” Wallis writes, “but too often...they suppress compelling illustrations, editorial cartoons, and political comics out of fear -- fear of angering advertisers, the publisher’s golf partners, the publisher’s wife, the local dogcatcher, or the President of the United States, blacks, Asians, Hispanics, homophobes, gays, pro-choice advocates and anti-abortion protesters alike, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and midwestern grannies -- especially midwestern grannies.”

Wallis finds particularly reprehensible “silencing editorial cartoonists -- historically a progressive voice in the press -- at a time when the mainstream media bends over backward -- or just bends over -- to appease conservatives,” a practice he sees as an abdication of journalistic responsibility. The current anxious impulse to present both sides of every issue yields some strange results, Wallis observes. In a section of the book on cartoons about abortion, he notes The New York Times, officially a pro-choice newspaper, works so hard at being “balanced” on the issue that it never runs pro-choice pieces on its Op-Ed page, reserving it as a platform exclusively for pro-life advocates. Moreover, according to the Progressive, which Wallis quotes, “83 percent of the [pro-life] pieces were written by men.” Editorial cartoons, which can’t say “on the other hand,” are the inevitable casualty in this battle for balance, which, sad to say, often turns into a struggle to avoid offending -- anyone, and everyone, thereby saying nothing.

Wallis quotes political cartooning giant Pat Oliphant: “The death of true controversy in this country, or the unwillingness of the cartoonist’s forum of expression, the newspaper, to be involved in anything that may cause controversy, has grievously devalued the currency of the cartoon as a vital, once-indispensable editorial weapon. The contents of this book give valuable illustration of this sad fact -- that freedom of speech is, little by little, being eroded away and nobody is either aware of it, or cares.”

The slow expiring of the political cartoon as a fixture on newspaper editorial pages may not, in and of itself, accelerate the nation’s slide away from democracy into oligarchy. The freedom of expression that is choked off by squelching editorial cartoons hasn’t the same dire consequences as suppressing reportage on public issues, the focus of Wallis’ earlier volume. But, as editioonist Doug Marlette so vividly has said (quoted by Wallis herein), “cartoonists are the canaries in the coal mine” of journalism. Appeasing vocal protesters by avoiding offending them will have repercussions. “It’s the reason we don’t negotiate with terrorists,” Marlette said. “You encourage the forces of aggression. [Extremists say], ‘Oh, we want to intimidate newspapers; we can just create a big ruckus. We shut down their servers'” with a flood of e-mail. Self-censorship is tantamount to acquiescing to mob rule, he believes. The press doesn’t need Constitutional protection to sell advertising or to confirm popular beliefs. “You need protection to express unpopular opinions. And our ability to engage in vigorous debate and to tolerate robust intellectual discourse and all the attendant controversies is a measure of the health of our society.” Timid editors’ gradual conversion of editorial cartoons into gag cartoons is a symptom of the growing malaise.

Wallis collected this exhibit of the rejected and the outrageous through dint of personal perusal, I assume, and by formal blanket solicitation of cartoonists. One, Wallis reports, declined to join the parade because he feared he would be fired: publication of one of his killed cartoons would effectively criticize his editor, who would retaliate in the most time-honored of ways.

In addition to the vivid imagery of the cartoons themselves, Wallis supplies anecdotes and assorted data about the cartoonists and how the exhibited cartoons got spiked, mostly gleaned through interviews. And this information is as insightful as the pictures. He quotes Dennis Renault, the now retired Sacramento Bee editoonist, about the primary objective of the political cartoon: “You are generally preaching to the choir. I don’t find that disconcerting or onerous at all. I don’t think anybody picks up an editorial cartoon and thinks ‘Yeah, I’m going to vote this way.’ What I think happens is the troops hear that mortar shell...landing on the enemy. It bucks up the troops more than anything else.”

Garry Trudeau, Wallis reports, once circulated among editors a questionnaire that the cartoonist hoped would give him some guidance about what would be permissible and what wouldn’t. One of the respondents said: “It has nothing to do with subjects; it’s how you execute it.” Wallis continues: “That advice, Trudeau later told Newsweek, ‘opened up a world to me, and I felt if you bring a certain amount of taste and judgment, there’s nothing that can’t be addressed in comic strips.’”

Here are a few of the cartoons Wallis presents; for the stories behind them, you’ll need the book, which I enthusiastically recommend as a lively and enlightening look into the profession of graphic agitation.Unpublished_toons

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

DARRIN BELL

Upset that both the Tribune company big guns, the L.A. Times and the Chicago Tribune, have dropped his Candorville strip, cartooner Darrin Bell, in an unguarded moment at BradBlog.com, wondered if the loss would lead other papers to cancel the strip, leading, inevitably, to its ultimate demise. But he quickly righted himself at E&P, saying: "While I'm disappointed with Chicago and L.A., and my disappointment was reflected in my initial comments to BradBlog, mine is an otherwise growing list [of subscribing papers], and I have no intention of quitting, not until I die or the newspaper industry goes under -- whichever comes first. Candorville attracts the same demographics as 'The Daily Show' and 'The Colbert Report' -- two extraordinarily popular tv shows that, not coincidentally, focus on socio-political humor. This is what my generation wants from their entertainment. We want hard-hitting, funny satire that takes issues on directly, not just mindless escapism. ... That Marmaduke and Blondie are safe in L.A. -- a city where the majority does NOT look or live like Blondie and Dagwood -- says more about the L.A. Times preferring blandness to excitement and wanting to disengage from readers rather than making them think and keeping them entertained with material that's relevant to their worlds. Thankfully, most papers we deal with recognize the value of using edgy, diverse features to attract a younger demographic. Those papers are looking out for their futures rather than catering to their past, and as long as those papers are out there, I'll be around drawing Candorville."

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

NATIONAL CARTOONISTS SOCIETY

The creators of FoxTrot, Speed Bump, and Bizarro are this year's nominees for the National Cartoonists Society's Reuben Award as cartoonist of the year. That’s Bill Amend, Dave Coverly and Dan Piraro, respectively -- one comic strip cartoonist and, in order, two panel cartoon ‘tooners, all syndicated. Universal Press, Creators, and King Features, respectively. No non-syndicated candidates this year. There seldom are. In the entire history of NCS, few unsyndicated cartoonists have been nominated for the Reuben. All three nominees have been nominees in previous years. None has ever won. In March, members of NCS voted by mail on this slate of candidates, and the winner will be disclosed on May 26th during the Memorial Day weekend convention in Orlando, Fla. At the Reuben Awards Banquet that night, winners will also be named in12 categories, or “divisions.” Finalists in each were selected by NCS chapters, who are assigned a different division every year. This year’s crop:

Nominees for best comic strip cartoonist are Bill Griffith (Zippy the Pinhead / King), Stephan Pastis (Pearls Before Swine / United Media),and Mark Tatulli (Lio / Universal). Best comic panel finalists are Tony Carrillo (F Minus / United), Hilary Price (Rhymes With Orange / King), and Kieran Meehan, who is listed on the nominee roster as doing Meehan; but E&P's syndicate directories indicate that Meehan formerly created Meehan Streak for Tribune Media Services and now does A Lawyer, A Doctor & A Cop for King.

Editorial cartoonist nominees are Mike Lester of the Rome (Ga.) News-Tribune and Cagle Cartoons, Glenn McCoy of the Belleville (Ill.) News-Democrat and Universal, and Mike Ramirez of Investor's Business Daily and Copley News Service. Interestingly, as E&P’s David Astor observed, all three finalists are conservatives in an editorial cartooning profession consisting mostly of liberal and centrist creators. (Makes me wonder which chapter did the editorial cartoonist selection this year.) Nominees for newspaper illustration are Sean Kelly, Robert Sanchuk, and Laurie Triefeldt.

Several nominees in non-newspaper categories have syndication connections. For instance, two of the book illustration finalists are the aforementioned Mike Lester (for 93 in My Family) and Non Sequitur cartoonist Wiley Miller of Universal (for The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Basil). The third nominee in this category is Adrian Sinnott. And one of the greeting card finalists is Carla Ventresca, who does the Creators-distributed On a Claire Day comic with Henry Beckett. The two other nominees in this category are Pat Byrnes and Kevin Ahern. Also, feature animation nominees include the "Over the Hedge" movie (based on the strip of the same name by Michael Fry and T Lewis of United) and "Open Season" (which In the Bleachers cartoonist Steve Moore of Universal helped create); the third nominee is “Ice Age 2.” Individuals nominated for their work in these films are, in order: Tim Johnson and Karey Kirkpatrick, directors; Carter Goodrich, character design; and Peter De Seve, character design.

Categories which include no syndication connection are: television animation -- David Hulin (Geico Gecko), Steve Loter (Kim Possible), and Craig McCracken (Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends); advertising illustration -- Craig McCay, Jack Pittman, and Tom Richmond; magazine illustration -- Steve Brodner, Tom Richmond, and Jean-Jacques Sempe; and gag cartoons -- Drew Dernavich, Mick Stevens, P.C. Vey (all New Yorker ’tooners).

The comic book category once again reflects NCS’s historically abysmal appreciation of this genre. All three nominees are for the creators of graphic novels, not comic books: Acocella Marchetto (Cancer Vixen), Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese) and Marjane Satrapi (Chicken with Plums). NCS will fix this gross ineptitude in future, I’m told, creating a new category for Graphic Novel.

During the Reuben ceremonies, Beetle Bailey’s Mort Walker, the undisputed “dean of American cartoonists,” will receive the Gold Key Award, the Society’s equivalent of a Hall of Fame. Others in the Hall of Fame are Hal Foster (Prince Valiant), Edwina Dumm (Capt Stubbs and Tippie), Raeburn Van Buren (Abbie ’n’ Slats), Herbert Block (Herblock, editorial cartoonist), Rube Goldberg (Boob McNutt and editorial cartoons), Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon), and Arnold Roth (freelance). Walker, a past president of NCS and previous winner (in 1953) of the Reuben, has won just about every award the Society bestows, except the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award; and he’ll doubtless get that before long. About the “dean” designation: John T. McCutcheon, the long-time editorial cartoonist at the Chicago Tribune, used to quip that this mantle fell on whoever was the oldest still-working cartooner; he said this when the mantle was draped on him. Congratulations, Mort.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

JAY KENNEDY

Fifty is too young to die. Jay Kennedy was vacationing in Costa Rica, got caught in a riptide, and drowned. Too young, too soon, a waste of a humane and persistent talent. The immediate outpouring of shock and sadness in blogs around the Web testified to the affection and regard in which he was held by cartoonists, ample testimony to his skill as an editor and as a nurturer of the medium. I encountered Kennedy for the first time 10-15 years ago at the Festival of Cartoon Art sponsored every three years by the Cartoon Research Library at Ohio State University in Columbus. A bunch of us went to dinner one night after the festivities, journeying south of the sprawling campus to German Town and a restaurant that served the repast of the neighborhood. I was sitting across from Steve Bentley, who does Herb and Jamaal, and somewhere at the table was Zippy’s Bill Griffith. Next to him sat Jay Kennedy, who, at the time, was merely comics editor at King, having ascended to that throne in 1989 after a year’s apprenticeship as deputy comics editor with Bill Yates. Kennedy, due to his position, was doubtless the most powerful person at the table, but you wouldn’t know it from his behavior. He mostly listened. But whenever he spoke, there was nothing tentative about his utterances. He spoke when he had something to say on the subject, and he was neither shy nor particularly conversational. He tended to be succinct, almost blunt, his opinions thoughtfully arrived at and clearly enunciated.

Kennedy was short with blue eyes and, back then, wore his blond hair almost shoulder length. Born in 1956, he was a teenager growing up in Ridgewood, NJ, when hippies replaced beatniks in the culture of the Youth, and he took in the hippie attitude, it seemed to me, and made it part of his vision, but he was also comfortable in a suit. A perfect combination, probably, for finding and fostering talent in the odd niches of an odd profession and then navigating it through the narrow entrepreneurial channels of a giant syndicate to the world of commerce where bottom lines matter more than lines on paper. He was always on the look-out for new and different cartooning, seeking to revive newspaper comics as an entertainment genre while also extending a helping editorial hand to aspiring cartooners. Kennedy recognized the shameful dearth of women cartoonists in the syndicated ranks and worked steadily to change the status quo. He recruited Rina Piccolo to do Tina’s Groove and found Sandra Bell-Lundy for Between Friends and Hilary Price for the utterly unconventional Rhymes with Orange and, more recently, Jill Kaplan’s uniquely voiced Pajama Diaries. He also created an unusual repertory strip, Six Chix, which presents the work of six female cartoonists in rotation, a different one each day. And he dipped into alternate comic books to find Terry LeBan, who, with his wife, produces Edge City.

My first direct knowledge of the agility of Kennedy’s mind and his canny reading of the market was with Bobo’s Progress, a strip about a bear and his woodland buddies who played together in a band called Bobo’s Progress. Drawn by Dan Wright and written by Tom Spurgeon, the strip occasionally ventured into realms of Christian spirituality. Kennedy, seeing the spiritual bent of the creators, realized that the strip could easily be re-focused slightly to appeal to a vast Christian readership. Shortly thereafter, the strip was re-titled Wildwood, and Bobo found himself the pastor in the forest. Alas, the strip was discontinued within a year or so. I think (but I don’t know for sure and don’t want to pry) that Wright wanted other outlets to express his vision; he’s now doing Rustle the Leaf weekly online with Dave Ponce -- creating “a world where a sagacious leaf, a trash-talking acorn, a persecuted dandelion seed and a know-it-all raindrop” ponder environmental principles. The point of this apostrophe to Wildwood is that Kennedy could so deftly serve two masters: the combined creative impulses of Spurgeon and Wright would be more fully engaged with the new focus, and the strip would presumably supply an emerging but as yet unmet need in the marketplace.

But Kennedy didn’t neglect the syndicate’s vintage works. He found new talent to continue Prince Valiant when John Cullen Murphy retired, and he launched King’s online subscription comics page, DailyInk.com, where current strips rub shoulders with such ageless  masterpieces as Bringing Up Father, The Phantom, Rip Kirby, and Krazy Kat. It is a canny collector-inspired combination, and charging a subscription fee protects King’s current client relationships: DailyInk doesn’t give away the store that subscribing newspapers are paying for.

Kennedy was the epitome of unobtrusiveness, but his mild manner should not be mistaken for diffidence or indecisiveness. In 1992, he famously fired Bobby London who had been doing Popeye since 1986. The incident is still clouded with unanswered questions. Ostensibly, London’s offense was alluding in the strip to the issue of abortion, but since questionable the strips had been distributed, presumably after being cleared through King’s editorial process, most of us wondered whether the abortion strips were the sole or even the actual cause for the dismissal.

As a youth, Kennedy studied sculpture and conceptual art at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, according to Steven Heller in The New York Times, but he spent his life in cartooning. His first cartooning love was underground comix, and he collected them with a passion for encyclopedic thoroughness. While studying sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he met another future figure in comics -- Milton Griepp, who was then working at Wisconsin Independent News Distributors; Kennedy checked with WIND to make sure he had all the underground comix available. In 1982, Kennedy self-published The Official Underground and Newave Comix Price Guide, a monumental reference work with which he hoped to consolidate all he had learned about the genre. By then, he had contributed to an earlier guide, the 1979 Illustrated Checklist to Underground Comix: Preliminary Edition, from Archival Press in Cambridge, an experience that doubtless convinced him something more substantial would better serve the medium. Kennedy kept learning more and piling up more and more information, aiming, his friends were convinced, at producing an up-dated edition. Alas, he didn’t get to that before he died.

In 1983, Kennedy began a five-year tour as cartoon editor of Esquire, leaving in 1988 to become deputy comics editor at King Features. He advanced to comics editor the next year, and in 1997, he was named editor in chief of the syndicate. While at Esquire, Kennedy convinced Matt Groening to branch out from drawing rabbits to drawing humans; “The Simpsons” was the result of Groening’s conversion. Still at Esquire, Kennedy met cartoonist Lynda Barry, working with her occasionally, she says, as her co-writer. But Kennedy’s imagination reached beyond the funnies. David Stanford (with whom I do some work at Andrews McMeel Universal’s online incarnation, GoComics.com) recalled “a long-ago conversation when Jay told me about his idea for an internet startup that would be ‘a world-wide flea market,’ and he was seeking backing for it. It was essentially eBay, before that had made any appearance in the world at all. He was a smart guy, very creative.”

Bringing his instincts and insights to King, Kennedy “had a profound impact on the transformation of King Features as a home for the best new and talented comic strip creators in the country,” according to the syndicate’s executive vice president, Bruce L. Paisner, in the company’s news release. King’s president, T.R. “Rocky” Shepard III agreed: “He strengthened King’s roster of talented commentators and writers and articulated his vision for the future of the art.” Kennedy believed in the “hippie vision,” according to Gary Panter, who collaborated with him on the Underground Guide, “ -- before it was destroyed by a number of things, like hangers-on and hard drugs. ... He had an idea of doing things with comics that weren’t being done. There was a missing component in culture, and he felt he could do something there. Not everyone can be a nutty artist,” Panter finished, “ -- artists need friends.” With Kennedy’s death, cartoonists lost one of their most stalwart.

Tom Spurgeon has a long and thoughtful and detailed remembrance and appreciation of Kennedy and his work at www.comicsreporter.com.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY / MEANWHILE

Recently, discussing the claims of the Brussels international center of comic strip art as “the world’s most important comic-strip museum,” I remembered that both the Library of Congress and Mort Walker’s National Cartoon Museum have larger holdings than the Brussels’ pile of 6,000 original drawings by 500 cartoonists. I forgot that another repository, not a museum admittedly but a vast holding nonetheless, surpasses all of these. This May, the Cartoon Research Library at Ohio State University celebrates its 30th anniversary and counts in its vaults 250,000 pieces of original art, plus 2.5 million comic strip clippings and tearsheets, 34,500 books, and 51,000 additional “serial” titles (comic books, newsletters of various cartoonist associations and the like). The CRL was created in 1977 when Milton Caniff donated some of his papers (15 file cabinets and 60 boxes worth) to his alma mater. That’s when Lucy S. Caswell got involved: a journalism professor, she was assigned to spend six months sorting and cataloguing the Caniff collection. According to E&P (March 2007), she “soon decided that she liked her new job too much to leave after six months.” Through her efforts and those of others, new acquisitions came in, including the papers of Will Eisner and Walt Kelly. After that, the deluge continued, producing, to-date, the numbers I just cited. I’ve known Lucy since 1982 when I first visited the CRL during the OSU weekend feting Caniff on his 75th birthday. Since then, we’ve worked together frequently on Caniff projects (many of the illustrations in the Caniff biography are taken from CRL holdings) and others. And I hope to continue in the same vein.

PROGRESS REPORT: The “definitive” Caniff biography is now at the printer, due out in May from Fantagraphics; entitled Meanwhile...A Biography of Milton Caniff, Creator of Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, it’s a 950-page hardcover tome selling for a mere $34.95; I’ll be selling autographed copies ON MY SITE. (My autograph, not Caniff’s.) When Caniff and I first met to discuss my doing his “definitive” (his term) biography, he said he wanted it to be entitled “Meanwhile” because, he explained, “if there is one word that sums up the trade of the continuing story cartoonist, it’s ‘meanwhile.’ He later elaborated: “You always end an adventure just one panel short of a full day’s strip so you can get the next story going in that last panel. And in that panel, you go to another part of the city and draw a villainous character, muttering imprecations about your hero. Dire threats. And up in the corner -- to introduce this new threat -- you letter that potent, scene-shifting word, ‘meanwhile.’”

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

MEN OF MYSTERY

Every so often, I pick out one of AC Comics recreations of Quality Comics stories, this time, Men of Mystery No. 64, chiefly for the Fighting Yank story by Jerry Robinson and Mort Meskin, who, Robinson once told me, alternated penciling and inking chores from one story to the next; stunning work, however achieved. I’d buy more AC Comics titles more often if I could afford to buy everything I want; alas, I can’t and must resort to an occasional fix, like this one. ...   

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

WALTER MOSELY

Newsweek regularly asks authors to name five books that are their favorites. In the April 2 issue, the editors queried Walter Mosley, creator of Easy Rawlins, a Los Angeles African American who frequently finds himself drafted into private investigator work in such novels as Devil in a Blue Dress. Mosley played the naming game but he started by disputing its premise: the most important books, he said, are read before the age of twelve, so any list of books read later must be wholly arbitrary. Mosley’s “five most important books” included The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud and The Stranger by Albert Camus, and he finished with Nos. 1-100 of the Fantastic Four, saying: “Jack Kirby’s work with Stan Lee creates an image of my childhood which carried me into fiction.” I don’t think Mosley read much Freud or Camus before the age of twelve, but I can believe him about the Fantastic Four. I can’t make sense of what he’s quoted as saying, though. An image of his childhood in blue spandex carried him into writing fiction? Or maybe he means he encountered the fiction Kirby and Lee created while in his childhood, and their fiction made him think he could write some of his own. That’s better.

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TERRY AND THE PIRATES

From IDW, just in time to help celebrate Milton Caniff’s 100th birthday anniversary this year, we are going to get the complete reprinting of the legendary Terry and the Pirates, edited and designed by Dean Mullaney -- all twelve years in six volumes, all to be published at the same time under Mullaney’s new Library of American Comics imprint, the purpose of which, he says, is “to present definitive editions of the great newspaper comic strips and make them accessible to a new audience.” And if you aren’t fully aware of how craven my self-interest is in flogging these books, Mullaney asked me to write some sort of prefatory matter for one of these volumes; I said “yes” but haven’t heard more. Mullaney’s next project is reportedly reprinting all of Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie

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THE FAQs OF DILBERT

On his blog recently, Scott Adams answered some frequently asked questions, among them:

Where do you get your ideas? In my case, I get most of my ideas from e-mailed suggestions to [email protected]. But I spent 16 years in corporate America and am often reminded of that experience by events in my daily life. I'm in business myself, in a fashion. So I'm dealing with conference calls and contracts and marketing and design all the time. Plus I co-own two restaurants, and those are fertile sources of human interaction too.

Do you do the writing or the drawing first? Most cartoonists do the writing first. Then they draw. I start with only a germ of the idea and start drawing first. I draw the first panel, add the words, draw the second, add the words, etc. I never know where a comic is going until it's done. It often takes a sharp left turn from where I expected it to go. One advantage of my method is that after I draw a character, its expression or body language often suggests the dialog. It helps them "talk" to me. For example, if I draw Wally looking more relaxed or rumpled than usual (accidentally—it can be very subtle), then I might use that to suggest different dialog than I originally imagined.

Do you write one comic a day or a bunch at a time? For years I did one per day, weekends and holidays included. Since marriage, I'm trying to do 2 per day on weekdays and keep more time open for weekends and travel. But I still end up working most weekends at least half days.

Do you still draw the comic on paper? Most cartoonists still use paper, at least for most of the work. They typically finish it off on Photoshop after scanning the inked work. Photoshop might be used for the lettering (using a font of your own handwriting) or adding shading and effects. About 2 years ago I had some hand problems (from overuse) and switched to drawing directly to the computer, which is easier on my hand. I have a computer monitor that allows me to draw directly to the screen (as opposed to a tablet on the desk). It's the 21SX by Wacom. It cut my production time in half. It's different from drawing on paper, and there's a learning curve of a few months to get it down. But once you do, it's amazing. I use Photoshop for the entire process now. Then I hit a few keys and e-mail it to United Media.

How did Dilbert get his name? I developed Dilbert as a doodle during my corporate years. He had no name, but my coworkers thought he needed one. So I had a "Name the Nerd" contest on my cubicle whiteboard. My boss at the time, Mike Goodwin, wrote down "Dilbert," and I closed the contest. We had a winner. After I submitted Dilbert for syndication, Mike sheepishly told me that he realized why Dilbert seemed such a good name for a comic. He was looking through his dad's old military artifacts and realized he had seen a Dilbert comic before. Since WWII, a comic called Dilbert had been used by military pilots in the context of telling them what not to do. A "Dilbert" was synonymous with a pilot who was being an idiot. It was too late for me to turn back at that point. I kept the name Dilbert, and I never heard from the family of the original artist. Obviously they are aware of my version of Dilbert. I appreciate that they evidently decided to not make it an issue.

Do you plan to retire like those quitters Watterson, Larsen, Breathed, and Amend? Not until the public doesn't want to see Dilbert anymore. I don't agonize over my work the way some artists do. Watterson, for example, did his art with a tiny paintbrush and ink. I can't imagine how tedious that was. And he made more money in his short career than I will make in my lifetime. Retiring made sense for him. I enjoy my work. And it's not that hard. Plus I like the attention and the pure joy of creating. I can't imagine not contributing to the GDP in some fashion. I tend to define myself by what I do. That means I need to be useful to feel good about myself. Leisure doesn't suit me except for an occasional change of pace.

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THE NOTORIOUS POOH CASE

The Slesingers have won the latest bout in the long-running fight with Disney over rights and royalties in the notorious Pooh Case. But this victory apparently has no bearing on the central issue between the two parties: in 1991, the Slesingers filed a suit, claiming that Disney was seriously (and fraudulently) in arears in paying royalties on Pooh products. That issue has yet to be resolved, as I understand it. Stephen Slesinger, the patriarch of family, a New York agent and merchandiser, had acquired rights in 1930 from Pooh creator A.A. Milne to merchandise the Pooh character. The Slesingers transferred those rights to Disney in 1961 in exchange for ongoing royalty payments. The Slesinger licensing agreement with Milne was renewed in 1983, by which time the Disney Pooh Empire had been launched with the first Pooh film in 1966.The burgeoning success of the ever-growing Pooh enterprise prompted the Slesingers to speculate about just how much money was being generated -- or, more precisely, how much of that money was being diverted from their pockets into the Disney coffers.

In a subsequent skirmish, the Slesingers lost a round because they apparently acquired documents illegally (or some such). Meanwhile, the descendants of Milne and E.H. Shepard, whose illustrations of the silly old bear and his woodland pals created the popular image of Milne’s stories and thus assured their success, were somehow inveigled into attempting to re-assert their rights to the characters under U.S. copyright law. Disney agreed to finance their suit in exchange for the relatives’ assigning merchandising rights to the Burbank entertainment giant. Had the Milne-Shepard combine won the case, the Slesingers would be left out in the cold, and Disney would then enjoy an undisputed right to keep on dipping without let or hindrance into the billion-dollar Pooh revenue stream.

Footnit: Slesinger also owns Red Ryder; Shirley, Stephen’s widow, subsequently married Fred Lasswell, who did Snuffy Smith for a record 57 years, from late 1942 until he died in March 2000.

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RICHARD SALA

Richard Sala’s latest work is The Grave Robber’s Daughter, which, at comicsreporter.com, Tom Spurgeon says “is as creepy a crystallization of the broken-town school of horror as you’re likely to see in comics form. It’s also funny, casual and confident. I enjoyed it quite a bit.” And then he interviews Sala, asking, among other things, whether his approach to designing characters has changed over the years. Sala said that when he started drawing novel-length stories, he had to “tighten up” the way he drew his characters: “It might be a good idea if a character looked consistent from panel to panel,” he quipped. Previously, he’d been fairly nonchalant in depicting characters, but lately, he’s created model sheets so he’d have “a guide to what my characters would look like from every angle.”

Spurgeon also noted that in Daughter, Sala made “significant use of some scattered-panel pages, where the panels are not rigidly placed on each page in the same place but are spread into different configurations.” What, he asked, is the purpose of that. Said Sala: “I was experimenting with pacing. It can be tough in comics to get the reader to follow the story at a certain pace. In Grave Robber’s Daughter, the intention was to build slowly from a somewhat eerie and foreboding beginning. I found that by putting fewer panels on the pages of Judy walking into town, it seemed to slow the reading down (although you would think the opposite would be true).” He realized, conversely, that the more panels to a page, the more rapid the reading seems. This phenomenon is a result, Sala says, of an illusion that there is less “time” between the panels because there are more of them. “The more panels to a page, the ‘time’ between the action in each panel is less, so hopefully the reader’s eye moves through them more rapidly. Anyway,” he joked, “these are the kinds of things one thinks about while working on a drawing for hours! Who knows if it amounts to anything. You try to control the reading experience as much as you can -- but I’ve learned to let go of these things once they go out into the world and try not to worry too much about them.”

Sala may not worry about such matters, but he’s certainly described a quirk in comics reading with more precision and insight than I’ve seen elsewhere. I think it might be true that the more panels on a page, the faster the reading is likely to be. But I’m not sure his explanation is altogether valid. The fewer panels on a page, the more picture there is to look at, so the reader goes slow, not wanting to miss some visual detail. The more panels on a page, the smaller the panels and the less visual detail there is in each of them. With less to look at, the reader reads more rapidly. Could be. Either way, the more panels on a page, the faster the reading pace.

The Grave Robber’s Daughter, Sala told Spurgeon, may have been more influenced by the political climate of the times than his other efforts. “It was done before the Democrats got back control of Congress,” he said. “I had kind of lost whatever faith I had that things were going to get better. It seemed like the entire country had become so deluded and hypnotized by the administration that there was no way out and that the country was doomed....I was thinking a lot about how hopeless a cycle of violence is. How cruelty and violence always lead to more cruelty and violence, and it never ends and can never be stopped -- that those who are victimized will victimize others. And it seemed like a pretty appropriate theme for a horror story.”

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THE TOPFFER TOMES

The big news in the Forthcoming Tomes Department (FTD) is that the University Press of Mississippi (one of my publishers) is poised to bring out a brace of books that will illuminate an erstwhile shadowy corner of comics history. One is the biography of the man whom many credit with inventing the comic strip form: Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Topffer takes a long look (224 8x11-inch pages) at the 19th century Swiss schoolmaster, university professor, polemical journalist, art critic, landscape draftsman and writer of fiction, travel tales and social criticism who devised the “picture story” narrative form, which now goes by the name “graphic novel.” Researched and written by one of the comics medium’s earliest serious scholars, David Kunzle, the book is available in hardcover ($55) or paperback ($25). Appearing at the same time, a companion volume, Rodolphe Topffer: The Complete Comic Strips (672 11x8-inch pages; hardcover, $65), compiled, translated (for the first time in English) and annotated by Kunzle, includes all eight of Topffer’s completed works plus previously unpublished fragments. Together, these two books will doubtless answer every question anyone may reasonably have about Topffer and the “curious genesis (with an initial imprimatur from Goethe, no less)” of his comic strips “and their controversial success.” Consult www.upress.state.ms.us for details. And once you’ve bookmarked that site, return occasionally to discover when next year Steve Thompson’s biography of Walt Kelly, now in its final revision stages, will appear.

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THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF THE DANISH DOZEN

Flemming Rose, the culture editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten who commissioned the Danish Dozen that set fire to the Muslim world last winter, was awarded the Danish Free Press Society’s inaugural Sappho Prize, which comes with $3,500. The Award recognizes the journalist’s “excellence in his work” and his “courage and refusal to compromise.” Said the Society’s Lars Hedegaard: “Decisive [in the final determination] was Rose’s courage to print the cartoons and to stand his ground under the worst storm any journalist has ever endured.” The award is named for Sappho, an ancient Greek poet from the island of Lesbos, who, the Society alleges, combined traits that make her the best symbol for an age in which freedom of the press is threatened: Sappho was a woman, a lesbian, and had a willingness to write her mind and a sense of political incorrectness. Rose had no immediate comment, but he was interviewed at some length by Alia Malek in the March/April issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.

Asked if his cartoons experience had changed his view of journalism, Rose laughed and said: “I have far more understanding for those complaining about the media every day that we are inaccurate and biased. It’s one thing to have a sense of this; it’s another to be the object of this kind of journalism yourself.” As a result, he continued, “I have become more conscious about what kind of authority you give to experts -- so-called experts -- in a news story,” adding that newspapers need to supply some background information on quoted experts so their remarks can be placed in the context of whatever bias the expert brings with him.

Since the cartoon project was initiated to test or reveal the extent of “self-censorship” and its inhibiting effect on journalism, Rose was asked if European media are in a “better place” now when it comes to Islam. “I would say there’s more restraint,” Rose said, alluding to the postponement last fall of a performance of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” because of a scene that depicts the severed heads of Mohammad, Jesus, Buddha, and Neptune—but “because of the uproar about it, the decision was reversed” and the opera was performed after all. “Our cartoons did not create a new reality,” he continued. “They revealed a reality that was already there.”

One of the outcomes of the Danish Dozen, Rose said, is that the Muslim community has emerged with a much more multifaceted visage. “The Muslim community is not one, and there are many different voices and the majority is moderate,” he said. “We are very careful [now] that we get different points of view from the Muslim community” instead of believing that any Muslim quoted represents the community’s view. One of the purposes of the cartoon project was to challenge moderate Muslims to speak out, and Rose believes that objective has been “strengthened.” And the debate about integrating Muslim immigrants has become more reality-based, he said. But the clash of values revealed by the cartoon controversy is persistent. An opinion poll conducted by his paper last May among Muslims found that 51 percent of the respondents felt religious feelings should always trump freedom of speech.

Speaking of the most incendiary of the cartoons, the one with Mohammad’s turban transformed into a bomb with its fuse alight, Rose said: “I don’t accept the point that the cartoons are demonizing or stereotyping or racist. [To say that the turban-bomb cartoon depicts every Muslim as a terrorist involves] a kind of illiteracy to see the cartoon that way. [That cartoon] makes the point that some people in the name of the Prophet are committing terrorist acts, and that is a fact of life.” About minorities -- whether immigrant or ethnic -- Rose believes “it’s humiliating and discriminating to treat any minority as a kind of odd, special group. It’s important to treat everybody equally....It is an act of love and inclusion to satirize people. There is some kind of recognition in that, to know you can laugh and make fun of one another.” He reminded his questioner that his instruction to cartoonists was not to draw cartoons that made fun of the Prophet; it was, “Draw Mohammad as you see him -- which,” Rose added, “is very neutral.”

About the decision by most U.S. newspapers not to publish any of the offending cartoons, Rose said he had discussed the issue with an editor at a “top American paper” who “told me privately that ‘we have correspondents in that part of the world and we don’t want to expose them more than necessary.’” Rose was sympathetic but unyielding: “Fine,” he said, “but you should say so publicly. I can also understand if someone disagrees with these cartoons or thinks it was wrong to do it. But by January 30, 2006, these cartoons were newsworthy. And it says at the top of The New York Times: all the news fit to print.” Clearly, American newspapers that didn’t publish the cartoons at the time they were newsworthy had forsaken their journalistic responsibility.

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NOUS R US

The Daily Item of Sunbury, Pennsylvania, according to Editor & Publisher, added ten comic strips March 20 without dropping any of its present line-up to make room. Unprecedented....Rob Harrell ended his Big Top strip’s five-year run on March 25 for “both professional and financial reasons”; the strip was in about 40 newspapers, not enough to make a living at, I fear, and Harrell had other career choices to make, no doubt....Prince Valiant, ComicsReporter.com reminded us, turned 70 on February 13. And come May 22, we’ll reach the 100th anniversary of the birth of Georges Remi, who, when he re-arranged his initials backwards and pronounced them aloud, became the world renowned Herge; we’ll be celebrating here, come May....Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts and so avid a skater that he built a skating rink near his studio in Santa Rosa, California, has been posthumously elected to the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame.

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SONG OF THE SOUTH

Chances are improving that Disney will release again, perhaps on DVD, its first big live-action film, the 1946 Song of the South, which introduced the Oscar-winning song, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” The film has been criticized as racist for its depiction of Southern plantation blacks, and in deference to that sensitivity, Disney has kept it locked away in its vaults. The live-action introduces a young white boy to a kindly old black man living in a shanty on the plantation, and Uncle Remus, for it is he, then tells the kid stories about Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear, which transpire in the liveliest animation sequences. But Uncle Remus presents a fraudulent portrait of Southern blacks, say the film’s critics. (Critics say approximately the same thing about Joel Chandler Harris’ stories in which Uncle Remus was created.) Disney’s Dumbo was kept on the shelf for decades because of the black crows sequence in which a feathered chorus marvels at Dumbo’s flying ability, all in stereotypical black dialect; but Dumbo was eventually released again, after winning applause in various selected screenings. According to Travis Reed at the Associated Press, “nearly 115,000 people have signed an online petition urging Disney to make Song of the South available.” And CEO Bob Iger recently said they’d take a look at it.

I chanced upon a bootleg copy of the movie years ago. A folksinger playing upstairs in Denver’s historic Buckhorn Exchange saloon and restaurant sang “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and asked if anyone knew where the song originated. I did and said so, and afterwards, I asked him if he knew if any videos were available. He did, and he gave me a name and phone number. Later, when I phoned the number, I reached a convivial fellow who told me that he’d run across a stash of Song of the South videos at a flea market years before, and, knowing the value of the trove, he bought them all. He took my name and address and said he’d send me a copy and a bill. “Don’t you want me to pay in advance by credit card?” I asked. “Nope,” he said: “my experience is that anyone who asks for this video is completely trustworthy.” And so wonders never cease.

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NAMING NAMES

From E&P, a concern was voiced by a reader of the Times Union in Albany, NY, that comic strips were mentioning brand name products for remuneration. Product placement is a fact in some media, but not, apparently, in the comics. Amy Lago, comics editor at the Washington Post Writers Group, said she knows of no cartoonists with contracts for touting products. The brand/company mentions, she says, are due to simple consumerism: we live in a consumer society, and “cartoonists are consumers, too.” At United Media syndicate, Mary Anne Grimes said much the same, adding that brand names are frequently mentioned in ordinary conversation. “A [comic strip character] would say, ‘I need a Band-Aid’ as opposed to ‘I need an adhesive bandage’ because that is the way a regular person would speak.” ... But Wiley Miller in his Non Sequitur for March 12 pursued the matter to another logical conclusion. Young Danae raises the issue with her father, who says he doubts that any cartoonists have any deals, but he wouldn’t be surprised if some cartoonists mention products, hoping to get free samples. “Even if they are getting payola,” he continues, “those lovable lunks deserve it, so don’t worry about it, Porsche.” His daughter responds: “Uh, Daddy? My name is Danae.” “Not anymore,” her father says, “ -- now where’s your sister, Courvoisier, and her dog, Rolex?”

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YOUR OWN EDITOON

At the website of one of my monthly fixes of political cartoonery, Funny Times, you can make your own editoon, “drawing” from an array of images of political personages as caricatured by Matt Wuerker, plus an assortment of props, bodies, backgrounds, word balloons and other visual accouterments. Go to www.funnytimes.com and click on Cartoon Playground. You can e-mail your constructions to friends and foes, as you choose. ...

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300

When Frank Miller was five years old, his brother took him to see a movie about 300 Spartans standing off the invading thousands of the Persian army. Haunted by the memory of that sacrificial stand in the pass at Thermopylae, Miller eventually gave the historic battle his own interpretation in a 5-issue mini-series published by Dark Horse in 1998. And then director Zack Snyder turned Miller’s graphic novel into a new motion picture, “300,” which, according to USAToday, “held on to the top spot at the box office” its second weekend, its revenues for the first two weeks topping $127 million. It grossed $70 million the first weekend, “the biggest March debut ever,” saith Evan Thomas in Time, adding that the movie “may be none too cerebral, but it is disturbingly beautiful,” looking and feeling “like a lavish slash-and-chop videogame.” Among the bad guys in the film, Thomas notes, are “corrupt Spartan politicians who refuse to send more troops to the battle,” an echo of right-wing accusations about liberal Democrats voting against the surge in Iraq. On the other hand, he continues, “the Spartan heroes seem to be in love with what one of them calls ‘a beautiful death’—just like, er, Islamic suicide bombers.” Snyder, a comics fan who stayed away from the medium until Alan Moore and Frank Miller revitalized it, used Miller’s graphic novel as a storyboard in filming the epic. Interviewed by Joseph McCabe in the Comics Buyer’s Guide, Snyder said he very early decided that the best way to bring Miller’s work to the screen was to follow Miller’s book. “I had it next to my director’s chair, and I would just open it every time, in every scene,” Snyder said. “Most of the time, I would just do whatever Frank had drawn in the book.”

And Miller, whose Sin City graphic novel had served similarly for its film version, was very pleased. “This is the movie I wanted to see when I was five, seeing ‘The 300 Spartans’ for the first time” he exclaimed. “I wanted to see this!”  Snyder’s movie, Miller told Stephen Garrett at Esquire.com, “really is my comic book come to life.” Garrett wanted to know why, after all the research for the graphic novel, Miller ultimately disregarded historical accuracy.

“The Spartans were dressed like beetles when they went into battle,” said Miller. “They wore half their body weight in armor. And I wanted them to be big, physical, and fast. As a cartoonist, I’m a caricaturist. First you find out what somebody really looks like, and then you find out what they really look like.”

Given Miller’s less than ecstatic experiences in Hollywood writing two RoboCop movies, Garrett was surprised to find the cartoonist so enthusiastic about motion pictures. “What I learned there,” said Miller, deploying a pungent metaphor, “is that your screenplay is a fire hydrant with an awful lot of dogs lined up behind it. And I wasn’t interested at all in directing: I just wanted to draw my comics. It took Robert Rodriguez to drag me, kicking and screaming, into movie-making again.”

Although he wasn’t on the “300”set as he was for the “Sin City” effort, Miller was a profound presence. Said Snyder: “I’m sure in some ways we were more careful [following his book] than we would have been [because we didn’t have] Frank with us every minute.” And Miller was quick to respond long-distance to any question Snyder posed, on one occasion sending the movie-maker a scale drawing of the Spartan sword, the details of which Snyder couldn’t quite make out in the graphic novel. But this film is likely to be the last time Miller turns his work over to others to film. With “Sin City” and “300" to his credit, Miller can probably write his own ticket in the near future, but, as I interpret his comments to CBG editor Maggie Thompson, his ticket will be on the drawing board a good part of the time. Said Miller: “I really most want to remain a vital force in the field [of comics, I assume he means] and be a part of the changes that are coming. I don’t know where it is going. I don’t know where my own work is going. I’ve got a lot of ideas and I’m pursuing them, of course; but most of all I want to stay engaged with it as an artist.”

Miller told Garrett that his next stories are likely to be graphic novels first, then, probably, movies. “That way, once it’s all drawn, people kind of have to agree with it,” he said. “It’s very time-consuming, but it means you can shoot fast [when translating the book into film], and everybody knows what it is. First and foremost, it’s a comic book; and then if people want to translate it, I’m willing. I’m a great believer in drawing twice from the same well.”

He professes complete infatuation with CGI. “It’s great for conveying a cartoonist’s sense of reality,” he said. “I’m like a kid in a candy store, getting to use sound, and working with real actors was probably the biggest dream come true for me. But it’s odd drawing Sin City again ... It’ll be funny drawing Nancy Callahan jumping across the stage with Jessica Alba stuck in my head.”

At CBG, Maggie Thompson finished by giving away Miller’s image secret. He’s almost always scowling at the camera when photographed, the epitome of an angry young man. “Don’t be confused by his glower, his lifted eyebrow,” said Thompson; “it’s a stance he has routinely adopted when posing for photos. When the camera is put away, he breaks into laughter.”

Miller’s work in progress is a graphic novel about Batman kicking Osama bin Laden’s butt, I understand. And then there’s the Spirit movie, the celluloid incarnation of Will Eisner’s iconic character. Michael Uslan has the rights to the motion picture version, and, as reported in CBG, he told Eisner before the cartoonist died that he wouldn’t let anyone touch the property unless they understood the character and the concept. And there the project languished until Uslan ran into Miller at the memorial service for Eisner in early 2005. They talked about the “Sin City” movie and how its technology might pave the way to the Spirit movie. Then Uslan read the Dark Horse interview tome, Eisner/Miller, and realized Miller was destined to write and direct the Spirit movie. “When we first offered the job to Frank,” Uslan said, “he refused, claiming there was no way he could attempt to bring the great work of Will Eisner to the screen. About three minutes later, he agreed [to do it], realizing that he couldn’t let anyone else touch it.”

But one other creative intelligence is touching it. Eisner. Said Uslan: “Frank later would take his story outline and photocopy all of Eisner’s Spirit tales, then cut them up into sequences and even individual panels, placing them up on his wall until they fit into the movie story he laid out.” Miller occasionally drew in connective scenes, but “the movie has been storyboarded by Will Eisner—with an assist from Frank Miller.”

Meanwhile, Zack Snyder is gearing up turn Alan Moore’s Watchmen into a motion picture. And the way he approaches the project will be shaped, he told Jamie Portman at CanWest News Service, by what he learned making “300,” some of which he learned from Miller’s graphic novel.

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