« March 2007 | Main | May 2007 »

FCBD, CARTOONISTS DAY, CARTOON APPRECIATION WEEK

Free Comic Book Day this year comes on Saturday, May 5. That’s the day that comic book specialty stores nationwide give away a considerable number of comic books to whoever comes in the store and asks. And this year, that’s also the day after “Spider-Man 3” opens in theaters from sea to shining sea. This maneuver repeats the early strategy of FCBD, which coincided for the first couple years with the opening of a brand new funnybook superhero movie in the fervent expectation that the enthusiasm for the motion picture would spill over into comic shops everywhere. And so it did. After the first few FCBDs, however, the event seemed strong enough on its own merits to take place without the support of a movie debut; and so it was. Whether this year’s return to the initial formula is mere happenstance, I can’t say. Nor can I say with any assurance that another congruence of that weekend is deliberate or accidental. May 5 is also Cartoonists Day, and Cartoonists Day is embedded in Cartoon Appreciation Week. The dates for the latter shift a little from year to year, but that doesn’t make cartoonists any more shifty than the rest of us. Cartoon Appreciation Week, as fomented by the National Cartoonists Society, used to be whatever Monday-through-Sunday includes May 5. So this year, it would be April 30 - May 6. But it isn’t. There seems to be an institutional prejudice against April; so the powers decided on May 3-9 as the official dates for Cartoon Appreciation Week, thereby destroying forevermore any structural logic for the determination of the week’s dates. Cartoonists aren’t logical, they say, so it all fits.

The date for Cartoonists Day, however, is firmly rooted in the history of the medium and not likely to change. NCS picked May 5 as Cartoonists Day because it was on that date in 1895 that the New York World published a cartoon called Hogan’s Alley by Richard Outcault, a freelance technical draftsman, who, when not diagraming electrical equipment, drew comical pictures and peddled them to weekly humor magazines. Hogan’s Alley, like others Outcault had sold to magazines, featured the juvenile antics of a swarm of slum urchins, and among the otherwise raggedy and bedraggled mob, Outcault drew one distinctive little kid: he was bald (his head having been shaved as a cure for lice), and he had big jug ears and a gap-tooth grin, and wore a nightshirt that reached to his ankles. His name was Mickey Dugan, but when, on subsequent appearances, his nightshirt was colored yellow, he became known as the Yellow Kid.

The Yellow Kid turned out to be a genuine crowd-pleaser: people bought the newspaper just to follow his shenanigans every week. The character was so popular that William Randolph Hearst hired Outcault away from the World to draw the cartoon for his New York Journal. But Joseph Pulitzer at the World hired another artist to draw the Yellow Kid, and for quite some time, the circulation battle between the two press lords had the Yellow Kid in the front lines as the most conspicuous combatant: delivery wagons taking newspapers around the city had posters on their flanks bearing the grinning visage of the Yellow Kid.

The Yellow Kid is often called the first newspaper comic strip (even though he wasn’t first, and he didn’t appear in a “strip” but in a single, large drawing) because he demonstrated the commercial appeal of cartoons. After his noisy debut, newspaper publishers knew they could attract readers if they published cartoons. And for that historic reason, Cartoon Appreciation Week always convenes around May 5, which is, itself, called Cartoonists Day. For more information about Free Comic Book Day, visit www.freecomicbookday.com ; for Cartoonists Day, www.cartoonistday.com .

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

ABOUT COLONEL BLIMP

In the mid-1930s, Britain’s most celebrated editoonist, David Low, created this fatuous character in order to typify “the current disposition to mixed-up thinking, to having it both ways, to dogmatic doubleness, to paradox and plain self-contradiction. This sort of thing: ‘We need better relations between Capital and Labor. If the trades unions won’t accept our terms, crush ’em.’ Or, ‘What the country wants is more economy. Our fellows should fight Russia and China and damn the expense.’” Low had been allotted an entire page in the Saturday issue of his newspaper, and he created Colonel Blimp as a single-panel cartoon to help fill up the space. Recalling the final moments in the gestation of the character in his autobiography (entitled, with admirable exactitude, Low’s Autobiography), Low said he was in a Turkish bath, “ruminating on a name” for his character, when he happened to overhear a couple “pink sweating chaps of military bearing” talking nearby. “They were telling one another that what Japan did in the Pacific was no business of Britain.” At the same time, Low was thinking about an article in the newspaper that morning in which “some colonel or other had written to protest against the mechanization of cavalry, insisting that even if horses had to go, the uniform and trappings must remain inviolate and troops must continue to wear their spurs in the tanks.” Low_5This was just the thing, Low realized: his character should be a military man, puffed up with his own sense of importance and certitude. And so the Colonel Blimp series began: Low put himself into the picture, so Colonel Blimp would have someone to pontificate to, and the cartoonist put them both in a Turkish bath “performing our ablutions or exercising, he uttering to me a blatantly self-contradictory aphorism.” The series continued every Saturday until the end of the decade, when, due to the onset of war in 1939-40, a shortage of newsprint eliminated Low’s page. Thereafter, he concentrated on his purely political cartoon, but Colonel Blimp showed up occasionally, and the character eventually starred in a movie, “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.” Some who saw the movie were scandalized, outraged because of “their simple belief that, in political or social fantasy, hateful ideas must always be represented by hateful characters,” so they thought Colonel Blimp was supposed to be hateful — even though he wasn’t. When the film arrived in the U.S., the character had assumed another dimension altogether in publicity materials. Apparently misapprehending the type that Blimp represented, American flacks depicted him as a near cousin of Esky, the leering roue mascot of Esquire magazine, bug-eyed in admiration of whatever female leg came into his field of vision. After World War II, Low retired Colonel Blimp: he had become too closely identified with the War to fit into the new age.

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

CHUCK ASAY

After 21 years with the Colorado Springs Gazette, staff editorial cartoonist Chuck Asay announced his retirement on Friday, March 2. His retirement was part of a general cutback on staff: the paper slashed 33 positions, Editor & Publisher reported, leaving 475 full-time staffers. Although the reduction seems a little drastic, 10 of the 33 positions being eliminated were “empty,” unfilled job descriptions. But not the editoon slot: it was more than filled. Asay drew charming and profusely elaborated albeit simple funny pictures that were both vintage and modern in style and appearance, and he specialized in multi-panel format -- comic strips -- for his cartoon commentary. He is such a staunch conservative that I very often couldn’t decipher his cartoons, but I have always admired Asay’s drawings. Whether I understood his point of view or not,  I’m sorry to think that we may see less of them. He’s still syndicated by Creators, but whether he’ll do as much work now without a daily deadline remains to be seen. It’s not clear whether Asay’s retirement was encouraged as part of the paper’s over-all staff reduction; but it’s not likely that the staff cartoonist position will be retained. The position was part of the budget; the cartoonist was part of the staff. Asay’s editor at the Gazette bid the cartoonist a fond and personally heartfelt adieu: “Saying Chuck will be missed is too trite. His departure leaves a hole in the heart of this page and this newspaper.” And it leaves editor Sean Paige sadder, clearly. You can read the whole thing, which I recommend, here

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

THE UNFORGETTABLE JANE

The British comic strip Jane was dubbed “the strip that teased,” and during World War II, the strip and its heroine, frequently flouncing through the panels in her frilly underthings, were the first thing soldiers turned to in London’s Daily Mirror, the newspaper for which Jane had been created. Jane teased but, according to legend, she never appeared naked -- until a particularly significant day in 1944.

Jane began cartoon life on December 5, 1932 in a feature entitled Jane’s Journal, subtitled “The Diary of a Bright Young Thing,” in which Jane and her pet dachshund Otto (also named Fritz) go about their daily business. Jane’s creator, Norman Pett, enjoyed showing off his character’s lithe figure but only insofar as an ordinary wardrobe displayed it; there was no outright nudity -- although, given the clinging female fashions of the day, it was apparent that Jane was naked under her clothing. She was sometimes depicted in shorts while engaged in some athletic endeavor, but that was about the only time any leg was bared. At first. For several years. Mildly exciting but still pretty tame, in perfect tune with the depressed times.

Then in 1938, Pett saw a petite young blonde woman modeling naked for an art class he was visiting, and he was smitten: “That’s Jane!” he is supposed to have exclaimed, and he hired her on the spot to model for him, chaperoned, always, by Pett’s wife, who had been the cartoonist’s first model for Jane. Pett’s new model, Chrystabel Drury (Chrystabel Leighton-Porter after marrying an RAF pilot), posed for Pett in the nude because that’s what female models did: that’s how they were able to assist artists to an understanding of female anatomy sufficient for depicting it even when it was fully clothed. The Jane Legend has it that every picture Pett drew of his oft dis-dressed heroine was drawn from life, from Chrystabel posing. About the time she arrived, Pett evidently decided that his strip needed a little more in the way of spice, and so he began depicting Jane either dressing or undressing, either way, in her scanties much of the time. When she wasn’t dressing or undressing, she was often experiencing some minor household disaster that resulted in an expanse of leg being exposed, usually up to the garter. Pett also began working with a writer, Don Freeman, who assisted him in concocting situations that required pictures of Jane “scantily clad, clothes askew, skirts ripped and legs akimbo.” Framed_jane2

According to the Jane Legend, Pett and Freeman held story conferences in the pubs around Fleet Street, most frequently in the White Swan, where many of the cartoonists of the day imbibed -- Lunt Roberts, Illingworth, Leo Dowd, Rowland Davies and Giles among them. Over flagons of stout, mild and bitter, or beakers of Scotch, the duo plotted Jane’s dis-dress. As Freeman later recalled: “We must have had the best jobs in Britain, Norman and I. Our whole purpose in life, our raison d’etre, was to think up ridiculous ways in which to get the clothes of a gorgeous woman; in fact, the woman who was probably desired by the majority of red-blooded males in the entire world! And, the best of it was that we were getting paid for it!”

Jane increased in popularity as her clothing decreased its coverage, and publicity about the strip began mentioning Chrystabel, albeit without mentioning that she posed naked: nude modeling was so scandalous an avocation in those days that it was a carefully guarded secret in the Chrystabel-Jane newsstories that ensued. By the time War broke out at the end of the decade, Jane was the sweetheart of the British armed forces, many of whom believed that the comic strip character was based wholly upon a real person, so persuasive had the publicity about Chrystabel been. But Jane in the strip was still, comparatively speaking, somewhat circumspect in the display of her epidermis. According to the Jane Legend, she didn’t appear naked until the Allies invaded France, the celebrated day when “Jane Gives All,” as reported in Round-Up, an American serviceman’s newspaper.Framed_jane_4_2

“After years of teasing and lingerie,” Paul Gravett reports in Great British Comics, “artist Norman Pett had finally caught his character in one panel in the altogether, drying herself with a towel the morning after June 6. That day was D-Day, when a great armed armada had swept across the Channel to take the Normandy beaches. What better way for Jane to congratulate the troops following that historic day and boost their morale further?” Jane’s “inspirational impact upon the British Tommy,” Gravett assures us, was no exaggeration. The Round-Up summed up: “Well, sirs, you can go home now. Right out of the blue and with no one even threatening her, Jane peeled a week ago. The British 36th Division immediately gained six miles, and the British attacked in the Arakan. Maybe we Americans ought to have Jane, too.” The Americans had Miss Lace, the central figure (so to speak) in Milton Caniff’s wartime strip for U.S. military newspapers, Male Call. Lace was enormously popular, but she never peeled.

Jane, however, peeled plenty, and on several occasions before June 7, the ecstasies of the Jane Legend to the contrary notwithstanding. True, on D-Day + 1 she was unabashed and full-frontal bare naked, and neither she nor Pett did anything to shield her charms or to frame their revelation in terms of accidental dishabille. Unprecedented. But she’d been bared before in the strip. One enterprising British journalist, Margot Bennett, did an exhaustive inventory of Jane’s happy happenstances of near and absolute undress in 260 issues of the Daily Mirror: Jane, she reported, “shows her legs to a distance of at least nine inches above the knee 83 times. She dresses, undresses or is undressed forcibly to reveal the brassiere 14 times, the panties 13 times and both brassiere and pants 51 times. She is also shown full-length behind some inadequate substance such as steam, a nightgown, bathing costume or towel in 24 picture. She has her clothes blown off by a bomb in 4, takes a bath in 5, falls by parachute in 9 and sits up in bed in 5. She has a double who is shown twice bathing, 6 times in brassiere and pants. There is also a girl called Gladys, who is shown wholly in underwear 13 times and sectionally 3 times. This makes an astonishing total of 232 exposures, partial or complete, in 260 issues of the Daily Mirror.”

So popular was Jane that she was briefly exported to U.S. newspapers. There, Gravett says, readers of “family-friendly funny pages would be far less tolerant than their supposedly reserved British counterparts of daring glimpses of nipples, breasts, bottoms, and states of undress,” and so Pett was persuaded to doctor his artwork to remove such affronts to America’s Puritan sensibilities. 6 These adjustments, given Jane’s proclivity for shedding raiment, consumed vast reaches of time. As a result, Pett fell behind in meeting his British deadlines and Jane once dropped out of the paper for several days, inspiring a desperate outcry among the populace. Finally, she reappeared in a single panel composed for the occasion, naked but clutching a couple of curtains for the sake of modesty and saying: “In reply to all your many inquiries as to what has happened to me—Give me a break. I can’t find my panties!

Andy Saunders in his book Jane: A Pin-up at War regales us with the inevitable sequel: “The effect was immediate, and literally quite overwhelming. If the staff at the Daily Mirror had been surprised by the response when Jane had initially been dropped, then nothing could have prepared them for what happened next. [The street in front of the newspaper office] was blocked with mail vans and delivery boys—all of them bringing hundreds upon hundreds of letters, most of them containing pairs of undies. The question, of course, was what to do with them?” The answer, during wartime, was comparatively simple, Saunders explained. His book, my source for much of what is transpiring here, is as much about the model who posed for cartoonist Pett as it is about the comic strip character. Always interested in the theater, Chrystabel had made a career being Jane’s alter ego: in addition to modeling for Pett, she appeared during the War in theatrical revues aimed at boosting soldiers’ morale. What with the wartime rationing of various kinds of fabrics, lacy feminine undergarments were in short supply. Chrystabel gathered up basket-loads of panties at the Daily Mirror office and distributed them to chorines-in-need at the revues where she worked. Framed_jane_5

Jane was easily the most famous British comic character in World War II, more celebrated, even, that political cartoonist David Low’s Colonel Blimp, a self-mocking blow-hard; (see next blog entry). But once the hostilities were over and the Tommys returned to the domesticity of home and hearth, Jane’s purpose in the world faded. Pett retired in 1948 to start another strip about a pretty young thing undressing, Susie; but lacking the fevered morale-building function of the wartime Jane, Susie foundered. Meanwhile, Jane was continued by Pett’s erstwhile assistant, Mike Hubbard, who prolonged it until October 10, 1959, when Jane finally married her beau, the patient Georgie, with whom she sailed off into the sunset—in a rowboat. Before long, the Page Three Girl invaded tabloid Britain, and female nudity from the navel up was all at once so amply displayed as to render Jane’s earlier antics nearly antiseptically quaint. Quaint but charming. And historic, very historic.

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

I YAM WHAT I YAM

At arflovers.com, a gleeful site maintained with a maniacal chortle by Craig Yoe with the help of the Yoe Studio minions, recent speculation holds that “Popeye is a stoner,” which Yoe says he first heard of on “the terrific animation blog CartoonBrew” and subsequently “turned up conclusive evidence that what Popeye had in his pipe was indeed wacky tobacky (i.e., marijuana).” The word spinach, it is averred, was, at the time of Popeye’s animated incarnation, “a popular euphemism for marijuana celebrated as such in jazz songs.” I’ve heard spinach used to refer to folding money -- even a beard -- but not, until now, mj; but I’ll take your word for it, Craig...

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

SIGNS OF THE ZODIAC

The first letter signed by the Zodiac, the serial killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area for several years, was sent July 31, 1969; the last, July 8, 1974. The Zodiac may have begun his spree earlier -- on October 30, 1966 -- with Cheri Jo Bates, who was found with her throat slit and nearly decapitated in the parking lot of Riverside City College’s library annex. A letter from someone claiming to be her murderer was mailed to the police and the local newspaper a month later, but the letter wasn’t signed. The Zodiac sent at least 18 letters and claimed 37 victims, but the police are sure of only seven. The Zodiac was never caught, although some associated with the case believe one of the 2,500 suspects interviewed, Arthur Leigh Allen, was the perpetrator; he died several years ago.

Two exhaustive books have been written about the case: Zodiac and Zodiac Unleashed. Both are still in print; the former in its 39th printing, the latter in its seventh edition. Both were written by the same man, Robert Graysmith, who was, at the time of the murders, working at the San Francisco Chronicle as the staff political cartoonist. In the movie “Zodiac,” released March 2 and based upon Graysmith’s books, Graysmith is one of the four men who become obsessed with finding the illusive killer, whose communiques were often coded in cryptic symbols. Another of the four was “supercop” Dave Toschi, who, Graysmith says, was the model for Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. The other two of the quartet were Toschi’s assistant, William Armstrong, and the Chronicle’s reporter on the case, Paul Avery.

Graysmith had graduated in 1960 from Yamato High School in Japan, where he’d worked as a sports cartoonist and illustrator on a local paper. He earned a B.A. in fine arts at California College in Oakland, worked as a sports cartoonist and staff artist at the Oakland Tribune for a year or so, then in somewhat the same capacity for the Stockton Record before landing at the Chronicle, where he remained for twenty years, nominated by the paper for a Pulitzer six times. According to Emanuel Levy at his website, Graysmith became a diligent investigative reporter in pursuing his interest in unsolved crimes. After the success of Zodiac, Graysmith left cartooning and devoted himself to a writing career, producing six true crime volumes, including The Murder of Bob Crane about the unresolved homicide of “Hogan’s Heroes” tv sitcom star.

Interviewed recently by Kim Voynar at cinematical.com, Graysmith acknowledged that he was scarcely an investigative journalist when he became involved with the Zodiac murders. “I wasn’t even a writer!” he exclaimed. “I was a political cartoonist. I wanted to have a career as a painter and a sculptor. All the really great American painters were also all newspaper artists. And the thing about a newspaper artist is you have to be fast and work on deadline and still be good. Back in those days, they’d send you out -- There’s a parade! Go draw it, quick! That’s how they did it in those days. But you could afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted [citing the creed of political cartoonists]: you could change the world -- get a bill overthrown, get a bad guy kicked out of office. You really could make a difference with a picture [cartoon].

“So then,” he continued, “Carol Fisher, who was our long-suffering letters-to-the-editor person, brings in these letters. She was just always in the midst of it. And I saw the Zodiac letter, and I was really drawn to the symbols. And he was very artistic. He did this one, a 320-character cipher that was perfectly aligned, with no ruler marks, and it was perfect. The guy who did that had a light table, a t-square, drafting materials. Basically, he’s doing cartoons and symbols. See, he’s trying to scare us with symbols, and I’m trying to fix things with symbols [as a political cartoonist]. And there were all these police jurisdictions and nobody was cooperating. And so I got the idea—I’ll make this book that has the effect of a political cartoon, organize all the material from all the jurisdictions in one place, lay it all out, and then maybe it will make a difference, help solve the case.”

Zodiac was published in 1976. It didn’t solve the case. But it changed Graysmith’s career. Here are some of Graysmith’s cartoons from the late 1970s, before he’d left the field.Framed_graysmith

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

B.D.

B.D. is going to make it back to some sort of normal life. “That’s the plan,” said Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau in an interview with Elizabeth Gettelman in Mother Jones (February). “I’d like to have him return to Walter Reed as a peer visitor, so I can get into the subject of traumatic brain injury, the signature wound of this war.” Asked how he is received by the troops, Trudeau said: “At both readings I’ve done at the Pentagon, I signed over 400 books, so I can hardly ask for a better reception. I got one drive-by dis from a soldier, but it was over strips that pissed her off during Gulf War I.” His two B.D. books have introductions by John McCain and General Richard Myers, neither of whom groused about the strip. If they had reservations, Trudeau said, “they went unvoiced. Both men knew where I stood on the war. But the B.D. story is politics-free; it just means to be a clear-eyed accounting of the sorts of sacrifices that thousands of our countrymen are making in our name.” The strip is rarely pulled from papers these days, and when it is, “its usually about language, not political content,” the cartoonist said. “I’ve gotten very little public push-back on the B.D. series. Politics is only a small part of what I do; the strip is mostly about the characters.” When Doonesbury went to Vietnam, the conflict was treated humorously, Gettelman observed, but now war is treated more seriously -- why? Said Trudeau: “When I was writing about Vietnam, I was 22. Now I’m 58. I know more.”

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

MANGA SHAKESPEARE

Last September, the Mainichi Daily News announced that, come January 2007, some of Shakespeare’s plays would assume manga form in Britain. “Published by Self Made Hero, a division of Metro Media Ltd., Manga Shakespeare is designed to revive the Bard’s lagging popularity among British teenagers, by giving the plays an injection of ‘cool Japan.’” The first two plays to attempt to capitalize on the manga fad in the UK are Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, whose protagonist, according to artist Emma Vieceli, is “the ultimate bishonen character”: bishonen heroes, or “beautiful boys,” are troubled, rather girlish characters, doted on by a mainly female readership. Said Vieceli: “They need to be angsty, broody, beautiful and have lots of trouble and strife going on in their life, and if possible die at the end. Hamlet is absolutely perfect for that.” Churn, stomach, churn. (Angsty?)

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

WATCHING OUR LANGUAGE FOR US

Amy Lago, comics editor for the Washington Post Writers Group, recently posted at www.postwritersgroup.com/groupblog a couple increments in what deserves to be an on-going argument about what’s permissible language in strips (“The Language Feint” and “Guilt Trips”). She discussed her editorial encounters with such outre expressions as “bite me,” “suck,” “blow,” and “ass.” Lago usually opts for outspokenness: “I think using staid language is a mistake for newspapers. I think that it’s important to recognize that language changes -- what once was unacceptable to one generation becomes acceptable to another.” I agree. But the annoying aspect of the terms I just mentioned is that many readers aren’t quite sure whether they are nasty or not. And if readers aren’t sure, neither are editors, who arrive at certainty, apparently, only when it has been heavily endorsed by reader reaction.

The terms themselves are somewhat ambiguous: “suck” and “blow” may refer to the ancient and honorable sexual exercise of fellatio; but maybe not. Or, at least, not any more. Something “blows” or “sucks” when it is boring or obnoxious, as Christopher Hitchens lately observed -- but is fellatio either “boring” or “obnoxious”? Confusion reigns amid the gradual mutation of meaning. And with this vocabulary, we are in midstream, halfway between verboten and common parlance -- and therefore at neither. No wonder editors are hesitant about letting comic strips get by with using words like these. “Geez” has finally escaped its original association with “Jesus,” but we still can’t publish “shit happens” with impunity. Not even “crap,” it seems. Lago applauded Scott Adams for feinting “carp” for “crap” some years ago. “‘Oh, carp’ never caught on,” she reports, “but it was brilliant. Everybody understood what Adams meant, but those who could choose to be offended -- 'If my child reads that word in the newspaper, he’s going to think it’s okay to say, and it’s not!’ -- couldn’t be [offended], because Adams hadn’t used it.” But Lago has been burned enough to grow cautious.

“Nowadays,” she writes, “I try to be frank with cartoonists. I try to analyze why a strip will be viewed as offensive to readers, how editors may react to reader complaints and whether or not I really feel the strip will suffer cancellations if the cartoonist chooses to go forward with a potentially problematic strip.” That’s about the best service an editor can supply to a cartoonist. Be another (friendly) consciousness, pointing out the various perverse misunderstandings likely to be prompted by the usage the cartoonist has employed: Do you realize how this term or situation can be misinterpreted by the bent and bruised psyches out there among newspaper readers? But, Lago goes on, “nothing could have prepared me for the reader -- with a medical degree no less -- who called the December 24 Pickles strip ‘sadistic.’”

When I asked about this, Lago explained: “Earl and Opal, the elder Pickles, tell Nelson, their grandson, that they hide the Pickle Xmas tree ornament on Xmas eve, and whoever finds it Xmas morning gets a surprise. After Nelson leaves the room, Opal says, ‘Should we tell him the surprise is washing the dinner dishes?’ So some idiot in Buffalo felt the December 24 Pickles was ‘sadistic.’ Honestly, some people can't take a joke.  And if you can't take a joke, why, pray tell, are you reading the comics pages?!”

I dare not leave this subject without a word or two about Hitchens’ essay, alluded to above. It appeared in the July 2006 issue of Vanity Fair, the one with Sandra Bullock in dishabille on the cover, and it, like many of Hitchens’ utterances, is a tour de farce, an extravagant flight of reason and an enviable display of linguistic pyrotechnics. His contention, which he advances and defends with relentless logic, is that fellatio is “as American as apple pie.” Fellatio, he observes, comes from the Latin verb “to suck,” which leads, with the relentless logic I mentioned, to the question: “Which is it -- blow or suck?” And that, in its turn, leads to Hitchens’ reciting an Old Joke: “No, darling. Suck it. ‘Blow’ is a mere figure of speech.” 

The origin of the operative expression, “blow job,” Hitchens reveals, is in Victorian London’s demimonde where the working women referred to one of their services as a “‘below-job’ (cognate, if you like, with the now archaic ‘going down’).” It is the “three-letter ‘job,’” Hitchens goes on, “with its can-do implications,” that makes the term “especially American.” He continues: “The idea of an oral swiftie was re-exported to Europe and far beyond by a massive arrival of American soldiers. For these hearty guys, as many a French and English and German and Italian madam has testified, the blowjob was the beau ideal. It was a good and simple idea in itself. ... It put the occupied and the allied population in their place. ‘You do some work for a change, sister. I’ve had a hard time getting here.’” But whether Hitchens is correct in his assessment of the activity as being essentially American, it is a treat to watch his verbal gyrations in propounding his contention. “The illusion of the tonsilized clitoris,” he concludes, “will probably never die ... but while the G-spot and other fantasies have dissipated, the iconic U.S. Prime blowjob is still on a throne. ... Who dares to say that true global leadership is not still within our grasp?”

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

MORE ART FOR ART'S SAKE

Richard Corliss, exercising his franchise as art critic at Time, committed a long disquisition on “comics as art” on February 4, ostensibly reviewing the Masters of American Comics exhibition. He begins by noting that aficionados of the medium have never felt comics enjoyed sufficient status in the art world, and then he offers a reason for the neglect: “To the arbiters of 20th century art, comics had plenty of handicaps. It was printed on disposable paper (hence not worth saving, owning or investing in). It was popular (the wrong people liked it), American (when high culture was a European near-monopoly) and, worst of all, funny.” He continues: “This snobbery still vexes Art Spiegelman. ‘I have all sorts of issues with the idea that a Lichtenstein painting of a comic book panel is art but the original comic panel it draws on is not considered art,’ he told Time’s Jeanne McDowell for a 2005 story we did on the exhibition. ‘I hate that whole attitude and way of looking at this stuff. Lichtenstein did for comics what Warhol did for Campbell’s Soup? It had nothing to do with comics. It had to do with exploiting the form without any of the content.”

Corliss eventually concludes that comics don’t belong on a museum wall but not because he dislikes comics; in fact, he loves comics. But the “museuming of comics,” he says, seems to glorify the wrong thing -- the pictures instead of the writing. Corliss, like too many critics, thinks the making of comics consists of two distinct creative acts, drawing and writing, when, as we all know, making comics consists of “writing” by “drawing.” To dramatize his point, Corliss asks whether we’d rather “see (read) Kurtzman’s Mad or Spiegelman’s Maus illustrated by other artists or have others write stories for which Kurtzman and Spiegelman provided the drawings. The first, obviously, because the genius is in the writing.” True. But, as I said, in making comics, drawing is writing. In any event, Corliss concludes: “The way to appreciate comic book art is by reading them, in book form” not on museum walls. ...You don’t need a museum to tell you that this stuff is great.” Can’t quarrel with that.

But Roy Lichtenstein continues to lurk, an annoying barb forever lodged in the side of cartooning, the emblem if not the progenitor of the “comics are art” magpies. He lurks behind a current exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). Entitled “Comic Abstraction: Image-Breaking, Image-Making,” the show displays about 30 works by 13 artists who, as Roberta Smith tells us in The New York Times, “borrow one way or another from comic strips, cartoons and animation.” The idea behind the show, she goes on, is that “the lively and essential contamination of abstract art by popular culture that began with Surrealists ... has greatly expanded during the last 30 years.” The works on display “use the conventions of comics ‘not to withdraw from reality but to address perplexing questions about war and global conflicts, the loss of innocence and racial stereotyping.’ But in the end, the works here are mostly cute,” Smith finishes, “neat and perfectly pleasant, implying a view of contemporary art as mildly titillating but basically toothless entertainment.”

I watched a slideshow of some of the pieces online, and I must say that I had to work hard to see any connection to comics in many of them. One looked like an imitation Jackson Pollock roil of paint, not a cartoon except, perhaps, in the same way that all of Pollock is a cartoon, a mockery of painting as an art form. Speech balloons float across the prospect in a couple samples. In one, they float like balloons over head. In another, the words have been deleted; ditto, the pictures, leaving panels of different flat monochromes, sprinkled with blank speech balloons. They say, in other words, nothing. Says Smith: “They provide some welcome if relatively pure visual intensity, regardless of what the label says about the cultural significance of the comics used.” She has little use for many of MOMA’s recent shows: “Beyond the big solo retrospectives that MOMA handles with expert aplomb, too many of the museum’s recent exhibitions have a veneer of political piousness that limits and shortchanges everything -- art, artists, the public and the institution itself.”

But Lichtenstein endures. Last month, UK cartoonist Eddie Campbell wrote online approvingly of the painter’s comics phase, that period during which Lichtenstein achieved immortality by painting enlargements of panels from comic books. “In theory,” said Campbell, “it was like painting a view of a building or a vase. He worked through a long series of the same kind of thing before applying the particular treatments he had devised, such as the mechanical dots, to other kinds of images, ultimately including abstract images as in the brushstrokes series. I find his whole project quite astonishing and invigorating. It was good for art. Hell, it was even good for the comic book medium, setting a precedent for it to be taken seriously.” I don’t know about that. I’m not sure Lichtenstein was taking comics seriously by making paintings of them. He seems, rather, to be mocking comics. But why do comics need to be taken any more seriously than they are? They are read in the nation’s newspapers every day by millions of people, for most of whom, Charlie Brown is an intimate friend. That is the ultimate achievement of art, the accolade of rendering the imaginary real. Like Corliss, I believe the way to best appreciate the form is to read comics in their native, newsprint habitat, not, necessarily, on museum walls, where they appear only fleetingly, breeding only backache as we stand there, reading what we would enjoy better were we sitting down and turning pages. Yes, it’s good for the cultural status of the medium. But the social status -- the power in status -- in this society stems from the money comics generate for those who do them or who deal in them.

The Lichtenstein folks, meanwhile, are a bit defensive about the artistic accomplishment of their idol. As Campbell reports, “On the opening page of their site, an excellent document on the artist and his life, it says: ‘The contents of this site are for personal and/or educational use only. Neither text nor photographs may be reproduced in any form without the permission of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation,’ and then you have to click on the ‘I agree’ button” to gain entrance.” It is, as Campbell says (“smiling at life’s daftness without a hint of indignation”) “one last irony.” The very stuff of cartoons.

If, by chance, you think Lichtenstein did much originating of imagery when copying panels from comic books, visit David Barsalou’s site, http://davidbarsalou.homestead.com/LICHTENSTEINPROJECT.html, where he has collected 85 of Lichtenstein’s masterpieces, pairing them with their four-color inspirations. “The [art] critics,” says Barsalou, “are of one mind that Lichtenstein made major changes, but if you look at the work, he copied them almost verbatim. Only a few were original.” Jack Cowart, the executive director of the Lichtenstein Foundation, is not impressed by this sort of reasoning. “Barsalou is boring to us,” he said, quoted by Alex Beam in the Boston Globe (October 18, 2006). “Roy’s work was a wonderment of the graphic formulae and the codification of sentiment that had been worked out by others. Barsalou’s thesis notwithstanding, the panels were changed in scale, color, treatment, and in their implications. There is no exact copy.” Well, yes -- there is some variation from one to the other, but the variations are not as consequential as the similarities. Clearly, Lichtenstein was a bitterly frustrated comic book artist, aspiring to the fame he was denied in the funnybooks. Which editor turned him away after pawing through his portfolio of samples? After which, the dejected Lichtenstein went back to whatever dank basement he was using as a studio, and, like any yearning young comic book artist, performed his apprenticeship, copying, as nearly as he could, his favorite comic book artists, panel by panel.

Most copyright attorneys contacted by Beam believe copyright law has been violated. Perhaps, one lawyer speculates, there was a private settlement between DC Comics, the source of most of the inspirational images, and the painter. But it no longer matters: the statute of limitations for copyright infringement is three years. Russ Heath, one of the DC artists whose work Lichtenstein appropriated, told Beam that DC was never interested in suing, probably because there wasn’t much money to be made. “He never even had me over for a cocktail,” sniffed Heath, “and then he died. So I guess I’m out of luck.”

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

THE ORMES SOCIETY

Because organizations are widely rumored to nurture the things they’re organized for, a graphic novelist who works at Publisher’s Weekly has just formed a new one dedicated to promoting black women cartoonists, the Ormes Society, named for the legendary pioneering cartoonist of color Zelda “Jackie” Ormes. Ormes created Torchy Brown in 1937 and syndicated her creation as Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem, a Sunday strip, to fifteen black newspapers around the country, home-basing it in the Pittsburgh Courier, where Ormes was working as a sports writer. Torchy went on a ten-year vacation in 1940, and Ormes produced single-panel cartoons (Candy about a black maid and Patty Jo ’n’ Ginger, about two girls) and moved to Chicago where she worked for the Chicago Defender, albeit not in any artistic capacity. In 1950, Torchy returned in Torchy in Heartbeats, which lasted for about five years.

In both her incarnations, Torchy flew in the face of the custom of the times: she was neither a maid nor a mammy but a beautiful black adventuress in the Brenda Starr tradition, complete with life-threatening dangers and romance hanging at every cliff. According to Trina Robbins in A Century of Women Cartoonists: “What kept the strip from being a black soap opera was Ormes’ treatment of segregation, bigotry and, in an age when ecology was a virtually unknown word, environmental pollution.” More information about pioneering African American cartoonists can be found at Tim Jackson’s www.clstoons.com; and the Ormes Society is at http://theormessociety.com .

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

OPEN MIKE

At the Dayton Daily News in Ohio, you can write a Mike Peters editorial cartoon. Sort of. (As I’ve said before, in cartooning “writing” is “drawing”; so this exercise, as you’ll see, is not quite either. But it sounds fun.) “Open Mike” is a blog feature here, for which staff editoonist Peters draws a picture (called a “cartoon” even though it makes no sense by itself without a caption or any other verbiage), and readers are invited to supply words for the speech balloon. Contenders’ submissions are published at the site, and a winner is declared every so often. The winner gets the original art for the cartoon.

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

EUSTACE TILLEY RETURNS

Cartoonist Rea Irvin’s supercilious anachronism, that 18th century boulevardier inspecting a passing butterfly, returned to the cover of The New Yorker to celebrate the magazine’s 82nd anniversary the last week in February -- a gratifying encore for the hide-bound geezers among us. Chris Ware’s Tilley last year was a triumph, but it’s nice to have Irvin’s classic back for the occasion. The magazine’s founder, Harold Ross, believed that the best thing about the first issue had been Irvin's cover drawing, so he ran the same cover every year to celebrate the magazine's birthday. Eventually, everyone at The New Yorker wanted something different, but no one could think of an appropriate substitute, so Eustace Tilley reigned on and on until, finally, during Tina Brown’s editorship, Robert Crumb was recruited to conjure up a more contemporary version of the Broadway dandy. His drawing, a Village slacker, broke the mold in 1994. Thereafter, a short flurry of variations, but Eustace soon returned again. And again.

Another flurry, this time of the magazine’s cartoonists themselves, occurred last month at Beaver Creek, a ski resort near Vail, Colorado. The occasion was a seminar called “Humor on the Slopes.” Ted Alvarez of the Vail Daily News interviewed several of the inky-fingered participants, including Drew Dernavich, who spoke for millions of aspiring gag cartoonists when he said The New Yorker is the pinnacle of magazine cartooning, the highest of the high. “The New Yorker is about cartoons,” he said; “you want to be in a magazine that sees it as a valid art form.” Most New Yorker cartoonists take years, and hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of submissions before they finally get one published. But Matthew Diffee won a contest. “I never intended to be a cartoonist,” he said; “I was regularly doing art and writing and performing comedy. I didn’t put the two together until I was 29.”

Like Diffee, Chad Darbyshire (aka C. Covert Darbyshire) honed his comedic skills through performance and writing for other performers. “I have this picture in my mind of my tombstone,” Darbyshire said, “'He died but at least he was in The New Yorker.'” Getting published in The New Yorker was, he said, “intellectual confirmation because it’s the best magazine in the world.” Dernavich and Harry Bliss have art education backgrounds, but Dernavich’s “second career” is carving gravestones. “If you can think of something that’s completely opposite, I guess that’s pretty much it.” Curiously, his cartoons look carved -- scraped out of linoleum blocks.

Describing his creative process, Bliss said: “It’s taken me years to figure out, but, basically, I just start drawing. Maybe I’ll draw a couple out to dinner; the guy will have a smirk on his face, and the woman will look sad. I think about what they’ve said before and what they’ll say after, and I create this narrative -- I think of the cartoon as a frame in a film -- and figure out what they’re saying at this particular moment.” The trick, he said, is to “finish the story.” The single panel cartoon is, for many cartoonists, “the ultimate expression of visual comedy,” Alvarez wrote, going on to quote Dernavich: “For the best cartoons, brevity is the soul of wit, and the shorter and sweeter, the better. If you can get it down to a single frame, it delivers the best bang for the buck. The premise, the visual -- the joke -- all have to happen at the same time, within that single frame.”

The cartoonists enjoy the interaction they have during the seminar with an audience. “My job is to sit at a desk and look at a blank piece of paper,” said Dernavich, “so it’s nice to get out and draw. We assume people laugh at our cartoons, but we never get to see it. It’s nice to see them laugh and react. Interactive drawing with an audience, like we do here at Beaver Creek, really brings cartooning out from behind the desk.”

Bliss agreed. “I enjoy the spontaneity of just going for it, which comes from improvisation. The older I get,” he continued, “the more I think about how important laughter is. I have yet to dissect it fully, but life is tough: it’s tough getting by, and if you can laugh along the way, it makes everything better.”

WeberSome people, however, just can’t laugh. In the predominantly Polish neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, for instance, some residents were shocked—shocked!—by a recent New Yorker cartoon by Bob Weber, according to Joe Babcock in the New York Daily News. Said Anna Doda, a music store owner who has been in the U.S. for 20 years: “I’m assuming the person who drew this hates Polish people.” Another witness testified that the cartoon merely demonstrates the double standard in Americans’ acceptance of ethnic jokes: “You make fun of blacks or Hispanics, and you’re racist. So, instead, people say, ‘Yeah, let’s make fun of the Polish.’” But no offense was intended. The New Yorker’s apologetic response to complaining readers claimed that the “tacit assumption ... is that the child is not of Polish origin.” Said David Remnick, the magazine’s editor: “The heart of the joke is the difficulty in saying the name; there’s no ethnic slur.” I doubt that Weber was even aware that the name was Polish. But in these days of resplendent victimhood, one can’t be too careful.

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